The Yoga of Self-Perfection and the Triple Transformation
A remarkable result of the meeting of the “timeless” East with the progressive West is the idea of Yoga as a process related to evolution. The origins of this idea can be traced back at least to Swami Vivekananda. But it was left to Sri Aurobindo to arrive at a synthesis of the principles and methods of Yoga that is profoundly evolutionary in its spirit.
As early as 1909, Sri Aurobindo declared: “Yoga must be revealed to mankind because without it mankind cannot take the next step in the human evolution.” It was soon after his release from Alipore jail that he wrote this sentence in an essay entitled “Man—Slave or Free?” A year’s enforced withdrawal from the Indian freedom struggle had given him an unexpected opportunity for concentration and spiritual realisation. The sentence in his essay foreshadowed the view of the evolutionary significance of Yoga on which his future work would be based.
But “Yoga” has meant many things in India’s long history. In all its forms, it has aimed at some kind of surpassing of the ordinary human condition through the development of supernormal capacities or states of consciousness. In the Indian tradition, however, the recognition of the limitless inner potential of the individual human being was not accompanied by an equally dynamic ideal of outward, collective progress. Nor was there an explicit idea of evolution in anything like the modern sense, in spite of some tantalising hints. It was only at the end of the nineteenth century that, under the stimulus of Western thought, a Vedantic conception of evolution arose and provided a framework for reinterpreting Yoga in an evolutionary context.
The theory of evolution provoked heated controversy in the West due to its perceived conflict with Christian doctrines. But it was readily assimilated by Indian thinkers, who adapted it to their philosophy by seeing it as a kind of cosmic Yoga. In both evolution and Yoga, there is an unfolding of higher and higher grades of consciousness. Consciousness is a puzzling anomaly to Western science. In contrast, it is central to the neo-Vedantic theory which posits a prior involution of Spirit in Matter as a precondition for evolution. A major problem of materialistic reductionism is thus avoided. Moreover, the involution hypothesis suggests the possibility that mind is only an intermediate outcome of the evolutionary process. Yoga, which attempts to go beyond the rational mind, can therefore be redefined as a deliberate means of accelerating our further evolution. As Swami Vivekananda put it:
No culture has had a monopoly on these forerunners, among whom Vivekananda included all the great incarnations and prophets. But he went on to speak of methods by which even those not born with extraordinary gifts can hasten their progress. The Indian subcontinent has long been the scene of particularly intensive, systematic and many-sided efforts to work out such methods. These are the various forms of Yoga as it has been transmitted and elaborated from ancient times. Yoga in this sense remains largely unknown to the world in spite of the popularity of the postures and breathing exercises of Hathayoga, which recently have all but usurped the name “yoga”.
Yoga means literally “joining”. Its basic aim is, as Sri Aurobindo phrased it, “the union of that which has become separated in the play of the universe with its own true self, origin and universality.” But there are two possible views of the results of this union. The choice between them is crucial for the connection between Yoga and evolution.
One view holds that the soul’s return to its origin brings its participation in the life of this transient world to an end. For centuries this is what most systems of Yoga and related spiritual traditions have assumed in one way or another. Whatever positive life-values they affirm are means of loosening the knot of the ego that is the cause of ignorance and bondage. But the untying of that knot leads, we are told, to a permanent exit from this world of separative existence once the momentum of life in the present body is exhausted.
Conceivably, this is the nature of the final “perfection” towards which we are moving: an exclusive liberation of each soul, not only from its egoistic limitations, but from cosmic existence itself, seen as a prison of divided being from which all must try to escape sooner or later. If so, many disciplines for accomplishing this end have long been known. There would seem to be no need for any fundamentally new developments in spirituality and little reason to talk about evolution when speaking of Yoga. Even so, much progress could surely be made by the revival and restatement of ancient spiritual knowledge, its harmonisation with modern discoveries and the creation of a more enlightened global civilisation on that basis. This by itself, if it happens, might seem momentous enough to call it an evolutionary advance for the human race. It is evidently what Vivekananda meant by “the evolution of spiritual humanity”. It is perhaps what Sri Aurobindo had in mind in 1909 when he wrote of “the next step in the human evolution”. But he would soon go on to conceive of a more radical leap forward in evolution and explore the means to achieve it.
Swami Vivekananda, as we have seen, seemed to suggest that the end-point of evolution has already been reached by a few, however distant it may be for most of humankind. But he added: “Continuously, we are growing as a race…. Where do you fix the limit?” The intrepid spirit of Vivekananda was an inspiration for Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary audacity. Speaking of the past “messengers of God”, the Swami once exclaimed:
One unintended result of the modernising of the Indian mind by British education was that the newly imported idea of collective progress became spiritualised. Certain movements in Indian spirituality became as progressive as any form of rationalism—if not more so, since rationalism by definition restricts its notion of progress to what can be done without exceeding our normal mental consciousness. This forward-looking spirituality is seen in Sri Aurobindo, who saw the material world as “a progressive manifestation of the Divine” and maintained:
This affirmation, published by Sri Aurobindo in 1914 in his Introduction to The Synthesis of Yoga, challenges traditional views regarding the aim of spiritual life and departs from age-old assumptions about the purpose of Yoga. Yet Sri Aurobindo held that Indian spirituality in its “total movement” has all along, without fully acknowledging it, been trying to find the way to “transmute all the instruments of the human into instruments of a divine living”. More broadly, throughout history the Spirit has pressed for manifestation and has not merely called world-weary souls to flee from the afflictions of mortal life:
Despite the tremendous resistance they have encountered, these indomitable spirits have shaped whole civilisations and their influence has persisted through millenniums:
History presents us, then, with mixed evidence to support or refute the hypothesis that spirituality is the key to the next step in evolution. On the one hand, past spiritual outbursts have shown the Spirit to be the most powerful force that can act upon human life. The effects of its intervention have spread over continents and outlasted empires. In most cultures, extraordinary faculties of various kinds have been attested in individuals with a high degree of spiritual development. And all this can be said to have happened although humanity is spiritually still in its infancy. If the spiritual consciousness is that which is beyond the rational intelligence, it would seem natural and inevitable that evolution, unless cut short by a catastrophe, will proceed onward to this higher level whose possibilities we have barely begun to glimpse.
On the other hand, skeptics might reject the high claims made for spirituality and point to the dubious history of the world’s religions. They would say it is the revolt of reason against the irrationality of religion that has brought about progress. Even if spirituality aspires to the suprarational, it has lent its authority to religions which are bastions of obscurantism. In short, religion and spirituality have worked at cross-purposes with progress and evolution. They have looked backward instead of forward and have promised escape from earthly life, not its transformation—except perhaps by an improbable apocalypse abruptly and unaccountably ushering in the millennium.
The element of truth in this cannot be denied. But we are not concerned here with the record of ordinary religion, but with the evolutionary potential of spirituality, specifically in its Indian form called Yoga. That potential need not be undermined by the world-negating tendency that Yoga contracted under past conditions and the influence of an archaic worldview. The value of Yoga for the future depends on what it can become under new circumstances, especially if spirituality becomes allied with the progressive mind at its highest and begins to see itself as a means of conscious evolution and the transformation of life.
Since the premodern world had no clear concept of evolution, Yoga could not have been knowingly developed for an evolutionary purpose. But let us remember that, according to scientists, the wings of birds cannot have originally evolved for the purpose of flying. Partial wings would have been useless for flight during the hundreds of thousands of years it would have taken for wings to evolve. Therefore it is supposed that during that long period they must have had some other function. It is speculated that the precursors of wings were used for gliding or as aids to running, making them advantageous for survival even in a rudimentary form.
Human evolution obeys its own laws which are not those of natural selection. But if spirituality acquires a radically new meaning, its previous cultivation for purposes relevant to the concerns of former ages could be compared to the evolution of wings for uses other than flying. In that case, if humanity is going to take flight into a luminous future, it will have to learn to use in a new way the wings of spirituality or Yoga—of union with a higher reality—which it has been evolving for centuries without realising their full potential. Sri Aurobindo poetically envisioned our collective destiny as such a flight:
Earth’s consciousness may marry with the Sun,
Our mortal life ride on the spirit’s wings,
Our finite thoughts commune with the Infinite.
The distinctive ideas of Indian culture, Sri Aurobindo observed, were such as to “exalt the life of man and make something like godhead its logical outcome.” Yoga was the means by which this godhead was to be realised. But it was an inner divinity that was realised, leaving the life of this world untransformed. India’s initially disastrous contact with the West exposed the weakening effects of a one-sided emphasis on the inner life to the neglect of outer progress. At the same time, there has been a danger that India could swing to the other extreme, discarding her spiritual heritage just when the knowledge it contains is most necessary for the future. Conservative efforts to revive the tradition as it was are unlikely to succeed in halting the forward surge of the time-spirit. A creative synthesis such as Sri Aurobindo undertook in his integral Yoga offers a more promising way of revitalising Indian spirituality to meet today’s challenges.
During his last forty years on earth, Sri Aurobindo explored possibilities of the further evolution of consciousness that had rarely, if ever, been contemplated. But his starting-point was to renew in himself spiritual experiences that had been cultivated in India from ancient times. His first major breakthrough came in January 1908. Meditating with a Yogi who instructed him on silencing the mind, within three days he reached a state of consciousness he would later describe as one of Nirvana or extinction of the sense of separate self. In the months that followed, he continued his outward life as before, giving speeches and playing his part as a national leader. But inwardly he now lived in the awareness of a spaceless and timeless Reality, featureless, relationless, sheer, indescribable, unthinkable, absolute, yet supremely real and solely real… pervading, occupying or rather flooding and drowning this semblance of a physical world, leaving no room or space for any reality but itself, allowing nothing else to seem at all actual, positive or substantial.
To our ordinary consciousness, the material world is solid and tangible, while the spirit is a tenuous abstraction. Plunged into Nirvana, Sri Aurobindo experienced an extreme reversal of this relation between matter and spirit. Such an experience had led others before him to reject the world as an illusion. But Sri Aurobindo did not succumb to that temptation. Soon his spiritual experience itself began to develop in a manner that no longer seemed in any way to support a negation of life. As “realisation added itself to realisation and fused itself with this original experience”, the sense of the unreality of things disappeared. It was replaced by the perception of a world in which illusion was only a small surface phenomenon with an immense Divine Reality behind it and a supreme Divine Reality above it and an intense Divine Reality in the heart of everything that had seemed at first only a cinematic shape or shadow.
All the subsequent developments of Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga and the philosophy founded on it would follow from this more integral realisation. He emphasised that this was no reimprisonment in the senses, no diminution or fall from supreme experience, it came rather as a constant heightening and widening of the Truth; it was the spirit that saw objects, not the senses, and the Peace, the Silence, the freedom in Infinity remained always with the world or all worlds only as a continuous incident in the timeless eternity of the Divine.
One who has attained spiritual liberation and continues to participate in the life of this world is known in India as a Jivanmukta. Maintaining his “freedom in Infinity” as he led a revolutionary movement, Sri Aurobindo was a Jivanmukta with a difference. Traditionally it is assumed that the Jivanmukta has achieved the highest realisation and only has to keep it intact while living with complete detachment as long as he remains in the body. But for Sri Aurobindo, the liberation of Nirvana was a stepping-stone to further realisations. His work in the world also took on a deeper significance as part of the terrestrial unfolding of the Divine and was not just a prolongation of his former activity. A “constant heightening and widening”, with no end in sight, became the character of the Yoga he practised and taught during the remainder of his life on earth.
Sri Aurobindo was an explorer of the realms of consciousness. Like Aswapati in his epic Savitri, he was a “voyager upon uncharted routes”, an untiring and undaunted discoverer and experimenter. The vision of this pioneer of a higher evolution was continually evolving. In his writings, he was capable of building massive structures of thought. But as he was more intent on forging ahead than on consolidating and publicising what he had already done, he left many of his works unfinished or incompletely revised. Not only did his terminology vary from one book to another and change in the course of time, but even within a single book he sometimes left us with layers of writing and revision belonging to different stages of his development.
This is particularly true of The Synthesis of Yoga, which cannot be accurately understood without knowing something about the history of the text. The incompleteness of this book reflects the exigencies of the attempt to refashion Yoga into a means of further evolution. A transition of the magnitude Sri Aurobindo envisaged could not be accomplished in one lifetime. By leaving The Synthesis unfinished he emphasised, as it were, the point made in the book itself that one who sets out on the adventure of this Yoga “is not the sadhaka of a book or of many books; he is a sadhaka of the Infinite.”
Of the works Sri Aurobindo published in monthly instalments in the Arya, there was only one that continued from beginning to end of the six and a half years of the journal’s existence—from August 1914 to January 1921. This was The Synthesis of Yoga. Years later, after he had substantially reformulated some aspects of his Yoga, Sri Aurobindo returned to this book. In the 1930s and 1940s, he thoroughly revised Part One, “The Yoga of Divine Works”, which was published as a separate volume in 1948. He partially revised Part Two, “The Yoga of Integral Knowledge”, but did not publish the revised version. The Introduction remained almost untouched. Part Three, “The Yoga of Divine Love”, was left as it was written in 1918. The half-finished Part Four, “The Yoga of Self-Perfection”, also remained unrevised. Thus its terminology is that of the Arya period, unlike Part One and some chapters of Part Two which reflect later developments.
Part Four of The Synthesis contained, when it was first published, Sri Aurobindo’s most original contribution to the theory and practice of Yoga. This is not said with the intent of minimising the significance of the other parts of the book. The Introduction placed Yoga in an evolutionary context and gave a new meaning to the word “integral”. Today more than ever, these chapters deserve the attention of all who are concerned with the future of spirituality, even if they read no further. “The Yoga of Divine Works”, in the form in which Sri Aurobindo eventually expanded it, was to become his definitive account of the most dynamic aspect of his teaching. As for “The Yoga of Integral Knowledge”, it is a monumental treatment of a subject on which he could write with unrivalled depth and insight. The beautiful part that follows, “The Yoga of Divine Love”, has an importance out of proportion to its comparative brevity.
But the paths of selfless action, transcendent knowledge and ecstatic love—Karmayoga, Jnanayoga and Bhaktiyoga—are ancient disciplines, however new the light Sri Aurobindo shed on them. The idea of harmonising them in a single synthesis also had the support of no less a scripture than the Gita. Most of the experiential knowledge needed to speak with authority on the “triple path” of Indian spirituality came to Sri Aurobindo with astonishing ease in the first few years of his practice of Yoga. It was after this that he began to break new ground and faced challenges for which the knowledge received from the past provided relatively little guidance.
The real difficulty, he explained, “was to apply the spiritual knowledge utterly to the world and to the surface psychological and outer life and to effect its transformation”. It was this that “took decades of spiritual effort to work out towards completeness”. This effort proceeded for many years along certain lines that were revealed to Sri Aurobindo from within. When he wrote The Synthesis of Yoga and needed a name for this discipline of life-transformation, he called it the Yoga of self-perfection.
His exposition of the triple path in Parts One to Three of The Synthesis anticipates several elements of the Yoga of self-perfection. But the latter as a whole is presented as belonging to a more advanced stage of spiritual practice. It begins in its own right only when there has been a “growth out of the separative human ego into the unity of the spirit”. For only then can the “liberated individual being, united with the Divine in self and spirit,” begin to become “in his natural being a self-perfecting instrument for the perfect outflowering of the Divine in humanity.” Until that time, the first need is for the mental being “to enlarge itself into the oneness of the Divine”. As Sri Aurobindo pointed out, explaining the large place given in The Synthesis of Yoga to his restatement of the main spiritual approaches of the Indian tradition:
The idea behind Yoga is that any human faculty can be turned from its ordinary functions to a higher purpose by purifying and concentrating its action. Even apart from spirituality, all intellectual, ethical and aesthetic culture does this to some degree. Reason, will and emotion are freed from the confusions of their haphazard workings in the undisciplined nature and trained to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of truth, good or beauty. The primary task of culture has always been to lift these most conscious powers of our normal being out of subjection to the obscure and disorderly movements of the lower nature into the clear light of self-awareness. But throughout history, as Sri Aurobindo shows in The Human Cycle, the supreme expressions of thought, art and moral idealism have tended to go further than this. Not content with raising humanity from the infrarational to the rational level, culture at its highest has been in effect a preparation for Yoga, where the same psychological powers are directed deliberately towards a superhuman and suprarational object.
The great dreamers and doers rise above our ordinary limits by sheer force of genius and character despite the resistance of human nature and society. But these are exceptional cases which seem to have no rational explanation. In Yoga, on the other hand, a principle is recognised by which the surpassing of the current stage of general development becomes a natural and intelligible possibility. Three factors have to be taken into account: the individual, the universal and the transcendent. Referring to the second of these as “Nature”, Sri Aurobindo reveals how the link between the individual and the transcendent that is the secret of Yoga can change the rules of the cosmic game:
So far, human evolution as a whole has proceeded at the pace of Nature’s “lingering march”, however much it may have speeded up in comparison with the staggering expanses of time involved in biological evolution. If the individual’s evolution is quickened by introducing another factor with a freer law, this should have an effect on the general movement.
But if individual liberation is seen as an end in itself, drawing souls away from the world, its potential impact on the collective evolution will be neutralised. That is what tended to happen in India in the past. Sri Aurobindo, on the other hand, refused to regard a quietistic liberation as the ultimate goal of Yoga. According to his experience, a one-pointed concentration of thought, will or feeling that brings us into contact with something beyond ourselves canand should have more dynamic consequences. It may even set in motion the “magic leverage” whose effect he evokes in Savitri:
Can link man’s strength to a transcendent Force.
Then miracle is made the common rule,
One mighty deed can change the course of things;
A lonely thought becomes omnipotent.
This suggests the possibility of not only a union of the human soul with a transcendent Existence—the traditional conception of the aim of Yoga—but a linking of all human powers with the Force or Shakti of that Transcendence.
This linkage can be brought about by a heightened working of the same emotional, volitional and cognitive faculties as are directed to more exclusively spiritual purposes in the paths of Bhakti, Karma and Jnana as usually conceived. “Prayer” in these lines from Savitri represents the emotional relation with the Divine—though prayer is not the only way of establishing that relation. It can create “the contact of man’s life with God, the conscious interchange” that “is a much greater power than our own entirely self-reliant struggle and effort”, with results that could well seem miraculous. The disinterested work of the Karmayogi is done with calm detachment, unmoved by success or failure. Yet by serving as the instrument of a greater Will, his “master act” may change things far more effectively than a vehement activism could do. The “lonely thought” of the Jnani or man of knowledge turns from the mutable appearances of life to the unchanging Truth that underlies them. But if it discovers behind these appearances the secrets of the manifestation of the Eternal in Time, it might return with the “king idea” that can transform the world.
When divested of otherworldly tendencies, therefore, any one of these three approaches could provide a starting-point for a dynamic spirituality. A convergence of all three would lead naturally to “the wideness of the integral way by which the liberated soul transcends all, embraces all”. Yet Sri Aurobindo found that something more was needed for a Yoga which, without lowering its aspiration or compromising its integrity, accepts life in order to uplift and transfigure it. It is not enough that a divine Force should act through us and override our limitations. Our nature itself must change from top to bottom:
This defines, as concisely as possible, the aim of the Yoga of self-perfection where it goes beyond what is attempted in the other paths. Anything less than this would fall short of the transformation Sri Aurobindo considered necessary to establish “a secure and settled new principle, a new creation, a permanent new order of being in the field of terrestrial Nature.” Such a thoroughgoing change of our complex nature may look forbiddingly difficult, even impossible. The difficulty must be admitted, but not the impossibility. It should be kept in mind that each manifestation of a new principle in the evolution—as when living creatures and, later, thinking beings first appeared—would, if there had been anyone to observe it, have seemed equally impossible until it actually happened.
A spiritual evolution beyond this reasoning animal who now regards himself as the summit of earthly possibility has been in preparation throughout most of the known history of the race. Diverse means have been found for taking the step from mind, the principle of separative consciousness, to a higher principle that is at home with oneness and infinity. What has still to be done is, first, to make the liberating, unifying and transformative knowledge of the Spirit the object of widespread seeking in place of the divisive and regressive beliefs that have so often travestied it; and, second, when that knowledge is attained, to apply it as integrally as possible to our inner and outer life. That application in its fullness is what Sri Aurobindo called the Yoga of self-perfection. The outline of his approach to it in Part Four of The Synthesis of Yoga, incomplete though it is, may yet play a role in shaping the spirituality of the future.
At the heart of the difficulty of spiritualising human existence and elevating it towards the suprarational is the resistance of the parts of our being that seem to belong intrinsically to the domain of the infrarational. Our physical nature offers an inert obstruction to any radical change. But before we can even hope to deal with it, we must master the life-force connecting mind and body—the vital being, as Sri Aurobindo called it—whose problematic character already raises serious doubts about the possibility of an integral transformation.
We have seen that the leading powers of human nature—the intellect, the ethical will and the aesthetic and higher emotional faculties—may be said to be pursuing, each in its own way, some ideal of truth, good or beauty that points beyond itself to the Divine and Infinite. The vital being, on the other hand, appears to have no motive except its own self-assertion and enjoyment. Ethics, religion and spirituality have generally responded to its waywardness with coercion and repression, frustrating or throttling its impulses instead of transmuting them. Yet its free and enthusiastic cooperation is needed for the fullness of living. The vital nature dominates much of our individual and social existence. If it cannot be converted, the idea of spiritually perfecting our embodied life would seem to be a chimera.
The viability of a Yoga of self-perfection depends, therefore, on the discovery that “this great mass of vital energism contains in itself the imprisoned suprarational”. It has, in other words, an “instinctive reaching out for something divine, absolute and infinite which is concealed in its blind strivings”. Sri Aurobindo makes this point in a chapter of The Human Cycle entitled “The Suprarational Ultimate of Life”—the longest chapter in the book, whose extensive revision indicates the importance he gave to it. He goes on to observe: “The first mark of the suprarational, when it intervenes to take up any portion of our being, is the growth of absolute ideals”. As instances of vital ideals of this kind, he continues, we need only note, however imperfect and dim the present shapes, the strivings of love at its own self-finding, its reachings towards its absolute—the absolute love of man and woman, the absolute maternal or paternal, filial or fraternal love, the love of friends, the love of comrades, love of country, love of humanity.
It is relevant to note that one of these ideals, “the absolute love of man and woman”, is the theme of the ancient story of Savitri and Satyavan. If Sri Aurobindo, instead of completing The Synthesis of Yoga and other works, devoted most of his literary energy in his later years to an epic based on this legend, it was evidently because through this tale of the victory of love over death he could symbolise a truth that was central to his message. That truth, we may say in the terminology of The Human Cycle, is the presence of “the imprisoned suprarational” in human life and the possibility of releasing it, with a consequent transformation extending even to the conquest of death.
It is the depiction of the Yoga of King Aswapati in Part One of Savitri, especially in the third canto, that resembles most closely in a number of places the Yoga of self-perfection as described in The Synthesis and in Sri Aurobindo’s diary, the Record of Yoga. But the poem as a whole, through the way the legend itself is told, conveys symbolically an essential aspect of the Yoga: the power of the Spirit over life and matter and the deliverance of our vital and physical being from subjection to the determinism of the present laws of Nature. Moreover, the debate between Savitri and Death provides an opportunity for bringing out the significance of the ideals which Sri Aurobindo saw as signs of a suprarational influence. In The Human Cycle, after mentioning the various expressions of love’s “reachings towards its absolute”, he goes on to say:
In Savitri, Sri Aurobindo joins his own voice to those of the poets who have chanted through the ages “the anthem of eternal love”. In Book Ten, Canto Two, “The Gospel of Death and Vanity of the Ideal”, and in “The Debate of Love and Death” which follows, he takes up precisely the question raised in The Human Cycle. Are such ideals mere self-delusion or do they point to a divine possibility? Death heaps scorn on them, harping on human selfishness and the mutability of this world. Savitri’s reply is reminiscent of The Human Cycle, where Sri Aurobindo maintains that human relations, however disfigured by our present egoism, can become “not the poor earthly things they are now, but deep and beautiful and wonderful movements of God in man fulfilling himself in life”. Savitri traces love to its source in a transcendent Bliss that is seeking to manifest in our lives:
A whisper of divinity still is heard,
A breath is felt from the eternal spheres.
Allowed by Heaven and wonderful to man
A sweet fire-rhythm of passion chants to love.
There is a hope in its wild infinite cry;
It rings with callings from forgotten heights,
And when its strains are hushed to high-winged souls
In their empyrean, its burning breath
Survives beyond, the rapturous core of suns
That flame for ever pure in skies unseen,
A voice of the eternal Ecstasy.
This passage is preceded by a more personal declaration on the part of Savitri. In response to Death’s contemptuous appraisal of love as nothing but a “hunger of the body and the heart”, she asserts:
My love is not a craving of the flesh;
It came to me from God, to God returns.
A close look at what this implies brings us back to the Yoga of self-perfection, whose first stage is one of purification, called in Sanskrit śuddhi.
The “heart”, or emotional being, is one of the parts of our nature whose perfection as an instrument for expressing an aspect of the Spirit is—like the ideal working of the mind, vital energies and body—an essential element of the integral Yoga. The characteristic function of the heart is love. But before its capacity for love (prema-sāmarthya) can be fully realised in a tranquil intensity of feeling not subject to fluctuations of mood, it must be freed from illegitimate interference by other parts of the being and from its own natural deformations in an egoistic consciousness. Love, in other words, must cease to be “a hunger of the heart” or “a craving of the flesh”, as it all too often is because of the intrusion of vital demands and physical desires. By this purification it becomes a movement of something deeper in us, “a soul of love and lucid joy and delight, a pure psyche”, capable of “receiving with an untroubled sweetness and clarity the various delight which God gives it in the world”. Love is then revealed in its true essence as a feeling that comes to us “from God, to God returns.”
As this example suggests, “purification” in this Yoga means unravelling the confused and self-defeating mutual interference of the various parts of our nature which normally prevents them from functioning at their highest potential. What this psychological operation brings about is not what is usually meant by purity in a moral, religious or even spiritual sense. Morality and religion ordinarily try to inculcate purity mainly by the negative method of prohibiting certain kinds of actions and, if possible, suppressing the thoughts, feelings and impulses that motivate them. Contemplative disciplines often go further and cultivate a quietistic, ascetic purity intended to prepare the being for a liberating immobility and passivity. “But here,” Sri Aurobindo notes, “we have the more difficult problem of a total, unabated, even an increased and more powerful action founded on perfect bliss of the being”. What is needed for this purpose “is not a negative, prohibitory, passive or quietistic, but a positive, affirmative, active purity”.
The difference between these two approaches will become clearer if we consider the case of the vital being, whose purification is a crucial step in the process of clearing away the obstacles to a higher perfection. For this part of our nature, with its desires and passions, is likely to present the most effective opposition to any attempt to transfer the basis of life and action from the separative ego to the unity of the Spirit. So antagonistic to inner peace and illumination are its normal impulses that for spiritual purposes there might seem to be no alternative to the negative, coercive method of dealing with it.
Yet according to Sri Aurobindo, desire and the disturbances it generates are not inherent in the very nature of the life-force. They belong to a particular stage in the evolutionary struggle of life to emerge out of matter and they may disappear at a higher stage. Behind the surface phenomena of the thirst for power and pleasure is something deeper:
Once this is discovered, it becomes possible to conceive of purifying the vital being, not negatively by repression, but positively by eliciting its true in place of its deformed working. All depends on learning to “distinguish between pure will and desire, between the inner will to delight and the outer lust and craving of the mind and body”. Subtle as this distinction may seem, the necessity of making it is inescapable. The inability to do so has been responsible for the failures of religion, spirituality and ethics in their dealings with life. “If we are unable to make this distinction practically in the experience of our being,” Sri Aurobindo observes, “we can only make a choice between a life-killing asceticism and the gross will to live or else try to effect an awkward, uncertain and precarious compromise between them.” These unsatisfactory alternatives account for almost the whole range of attitudes that human beings have adopted with respect to their own vital nature. To be more precise, a small minority trample down the life instinct and strain after an ascetic perfection; most obey the gross will to live with such modifications and restraints as society imposes or the normal social man has been trained to impose on his own mind and actions; others set up a balance between ethical austerity and temperate indulgence of the desiring mental and vital self and see in this balance the golden mean of a sane mind and healthy human living.
But if our aim is an integral spiritual perfection in which all the energies of the being will participate freely and fully, none of these solutions is adequate. Rigid suppression or uninhibited indulgence of the vital force, or any compromise between these extremes, implies in each case accepting desire as intrinsic to the life-principle and the motive of all its activity. Underlying the disagreements about the amount of control to which the vital impulses should be subjected is a widely shared assumption that their fundamental nature cannot be changed. But it was Sri Aurobindo’s experience that the vital being can be radically purified in a “positive, affirmative, active” sense and converted into a magnificent vehicle for the manifestation of the Spirit. This depends only on our ability to “get at the pure will undeformed by desire,—which we shall find to be a much more free, tranquil, steady and effective force than the leaping, smoke-stifled, soon fatigued and baffled flame of desire,—and at the calm inner will of delight not afflicted or limited by any trouble of craving”.
This “calm inner will of delight” is an attribute of a mysterious psychological entity for which Sri Aurobindo gradually adopted the name “psychic being”. This term occurs mainly in his later writings, especially in letters of the 1930s and 1940s and in portions of his major works that were added or revised during the same period, such as the last chapters of The Life Divine and Part One of The Synthesis of Yoga. But even in the original versions of these works as published in the Arya between 1914 and 1921, the word “psychic” was already used occasionally to refer to the innermost soul or “psyche” concealed deep within us. Later Sri Aurobindo abandoned other uses of “psychic” and placed more and more explicit emphasis on the psychic being as the key to the first of the transformations to be accomplished in the integral Yoga.
In two chapters of The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga as published in the Arya in June and July 1916, respectively, we find the expressions “psychic being”, “psychic principle” and “psychic entity”. The twenty-third chapter of The Life Divine, entitled “The Double Soul in Man”, was originally preceded by an “Argument” where the chapter’s opening paragraphs were summed up as follows:
Most of the occurrences of “psychic being” in the final version of this chapter were not present in the original text, but were introduced in Sri Aurobindo’s later revision of the concluding paragraphs. But even the 1916 version included a sentence, only slightly revised in 1939, which defines the psychological entity through which the supreme Bliss or Ananda is manifested in our lives. This entity is described as something in us which we sometimes call in a special sense the soul,—that is to say, the psychic principle which is not the life or the mind, much less the body, but which holds in itself the opening and flowering of the essence of all these to their own peculiar delight of self, to light, to love, to joy and beauty and to a refined purity of being.
In July 1916, a month after he wrote about this psychic principle in The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo published a chapter in The Synthesis of Yoga called “The Release from the Heart and the Mind”. This chapter, which is now the seventh chapter of Part Two, “The Yoga of Integral Knowledge”, was never revised. Here he returned to the nature of the soul and the true meaning of “psychic”. He explained that the real soul, the real psychic entity which for the most part we see little of and only a small minority in mankind has developed, is an instrument of pure love, joy and the luminous reaching out to fusion and unity with God and our fellow-creatures.
He went on to comment on the normal relation of the psychic to the Prana or vital being:
In the Yoga of self-perfectionas described in The Synthesis and the Record of Yoga, a purification of the Prana enabling the emotional mind to “mirror the real soul in us, the Divine in our hearts”, would be regarded as part of śuddhi. In Sri Aurobindo’s later reformulation of the integral Yoga it would come under the heading of psychicisation or psychic transformation. It is clear that there has been a change in terminology reflecting other significant developments. At the same time, there was nothing entirely new in the use of the word “psychic” to designate “the divine element in the individual being”, as Sri Aurobindo put it in a letter, an element whose characteristic power is to turn everything towards the Divine, to bring a fire of purification, aspiration, devotion, true light of discernment, feeling, will, an action which transforms by degrees the whole nature.
Changes of terminology are also to be found in the more advanced stages of the Yoga. In the Yoga of self-perfection, śuddhi or purification is followed by mukti or liberation, then by bhukti, “a cosmic enjoyment of the power of the Spirit”, and siddhi or perfection. The order of the last two was sometimes reversed, with implications which we will see. But in the subsequent period, instead of four stages of self-perfection we hear of a triple transformation: psychic, spiritual and supramental. At first sight, the systems appear to be quite different. Yet there are correspondences between them which shed light on the continuity as well as the evolution of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual experience.
Purification is a preparation for liberation. It can even be said that it is itself a kind of liberation:
Śuddhi is the condition for mukti. All purification is a release, a delivery; for it is a throwing away of limiting, binding, obscuring imperfections and confusions…. But all this is an instrumental liberation. The freedom of the soul, mukti, is of a larger and more essential character; it is an opening out of mortal limitation into the illimitable immortality of the Spirit.
The concept of liberation, like that of purification, acquires a more dynamic sense in the integral Yoga than is conventionally associated with it—although this was amply foreshadowed in the Gita and elsewhere, where liberation does not imply cessation from action. Just as he makes a distinction between negative and positive purity, Sri Aurobindo also distinguishes negative from positive freedom, insisting in this case on the necessity of both. The “negative movement of freedom” is defined as “a liberation from the principal bonds, the master-knots of the lower soul-nature”, these bonds being “desire, ego, the dualities and the three gunas of Nature”. The “positive sense of freedom”, on the other hand, “is to be universal in soul, transcendently one in spirit with God, possessed of the highest divine nature”.
What concerns us here is how mukti or liberation, as a step towards self-perfection, relates to the spiritual transformation which follows the psychic transformation in Sri Aurobindo’s later accounts of the Yoga. We have seen that the purification of the nature, liberating as it is in itself, is insufficient unless it is completed by a larger freedom which universalises the soul and brings it into union with the transcendent. Likewise the psychic transformation is not all that is needed for the largest spiritual change. In the first place, since this is the individual soul in Nature, it can open to the hidden diviner ranges of our being and receive and reflect their light and power and experience, but another, a spiritual transformation from above is needed for us to possess our self in its universality and transcendence.
But even the freedom that the spiritual transformation brings was not enough for Sri Aurobindo. In almost all traditional systems of Yoga except Tantra, inner liberation was pursued as an end in itself. In the Yoga of self-perfection, on the other hand, not only is the meaning of mukti enlarged to include liberation of the nature as well as liberation of the spirit, but even this leads beyond itself to bhukti and siddhi. We meet a similar situation in the case of the triple transformation, as described by Sri Aurobindo near the end of the revised text of The Life Divine and in other writings of the 1930s and 1940s. In a letter of that period, he indicates the liberating and other effects of spiritualisation, the second transformation, but also points out why a still greater transformation is needed to complete it:
The process of spiritualisation occupied Sri Aurobindo for many years. It involved not one, but several transformations by the ever-increasing power of a series of ascending planes. On each of them “the static realisation of Infinity and Eternity and the Timeless One remains the same,” but “the vision of the workings of the One becomes ever wider and is attended with a greater instrumentality of Force”. From the point of view of knowledge, “what is thought-knowledge in the Higher Mind becomes illumination in the Illumined Mind and direct intimate vision in the Intuition”. Still higher is the overmind, which sees not “in flashes”, like the Intuition, but “calmly, steadily, in great masses and large extensions of space and time and relation, globally”. But even here there “is not the absolute supramental harmony and certitude”. Sri Aurobindo saw in the end that nothing short of what he called a supramental transformation could bring about the integral perfection or siddhi “which finishes the passage of the soul through the Ignorance and bases its consciousness, its life, its power and form of manifestation on a complete and completely effective self-knowledge”.
We find, then, that there is a broad correspondence between the “triple transformation” and three stages of the earlier Yoga of self-perfection termed śuddhi, mukti and siddhi, or purification, liberation and perfection—we will see in a moment why there is nothing in the later scheme that seems to correspond to bhukti. The system presented in the unfinished Part Four of The Synthesis of Yoga appears to be superseded by the three transformations—psychic, spiritual and supramental—as the definitive statement of Sri Aurobindo’s distinctive approach to an evolutionary spirituality. But just as the old triple way of Karma, Bhakti and Jnana was surpassed but kept in a new form, so Sri Aurobindo continued to speak of self-perfection as the consummation of the Yoga. In a passage in a letter summarising the Karmayoga as he had “developed it for the integral spiritual life”, he concluded:
There seems to be no good reason to regard the Yoga of self-perfection as out of date or irrelevant in the light of later developments, even though Sri Aurobindo’s account of it published in his major work on Yoga remained incomplete and unrevised. But because the last part of The Synthesis was never revised, its terminology has to be interpreted according to the period when it was written. When “supramental transformation” is mentioned in a chapter written in 1920, for example, it should not be assumed that it means exactly what Sri Aurobindo intended by these words after a decade or two. For his experience was constantly evolving. As a result, not only did he invent new terms such as “overmind”, but words he had used previously, including “psychic” and “supramental”, have to be understood in a different context.
A comparison of the main terms of Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga of self-perfection with his later terminology reveals parallels, as we have seen, which show more continuity in the development of his Yoga than is apparent at first glance. This does not mean that the “supramental transformation” of which he spoke in his latest period was the same as his earlier conception of siddhi, but that it evolved out of it. A similar evolution may explain what happened to bhukti in the transition from the Yoga of self-perfection to the triple transformation. For Sri Aurobindo does speak of a fourth transformation; but ultimately the fullness of this “beatific” transformation became such a distant prospect that he rarely alluded to it. However, the enjoyment of spiritual bliss (ānanda) which he had called bhukti did not disappear from the Yoga.
Bhukti is literally “enjoyment”. In the Yoga of self-perfection it refers, of course, to a more exalted type of enjoyment than what is usually meant by that word. Sri Aurobindo explains:
It may be objected that this kind of rarefied enjoyment would not satisfy the demand of the vital being for tangible pleasures. Sri Aurobindo maintained, on the contrary, that what we call pleasure is no more than a faint and evanescent shadow of the real thing. Our half-conscious nature cannot fulfil its own seeking for enjoyment unless it undergoes a spiritual transformation:
Life… seeks for pleasure, happiness, bliss; but the infrarational forms of these things are stricken with imperfection, fragmentariness, impermanence and the impact of their opposites. Moreover infrarational life still bears some stamp of the Inconscient in an underlying insensitiveness, a dullness of fibre, a weakness of vibratory response,—it cannot attain to true happiness or bliss and what it can obtain of pleasure it cannot support for long or bear or keep any extreme intensity of these things. Only the spirit has the secret of an unmixed and abiding happiness or ecstasy, is capable of a firm tenseness of vibrant response to it, can achieve and justify a spiritual pleasure or joy of life as one form of the infinite and universal delight of being.
Sri Aurobindo added this passage to the chapter entitled “The Suprarational Ultimate of Life” when he revised The Human Cycle around 1937. Almost two decades earlier he had dealt with the same question in expounding the Yoga of self-perfection. In The Synthesis of Yoga, he clarified what he meant by the “capacity for enjoyment”, bhoga-sāmarthya, that is to be developed by the Prana or vital force:
The vital being’s capacity for enjoyment depends on a power that has to be developed in the body “to hold whatever force is brought into it by the spirit and to contain its action without spilling and wasting it or itself getting cracked”. This general “faculty of holding”, termed dhārana-śakti or dhārana-sāmarthya, is considered “the most important siddhi or perfection of the body”,since it is required for a higher working of all the other parts of the being. It is especially necessary if the bhoga-sāmarthya of the life-force is to be imparted to the physical consciousness, creating there a “capacity for bliss” such as is attributed in Savitri to Aswapati at a certain stage in his ascension:
Harboured a power that needed now no more
To cross the closed customs-line of mind and flesh
And smuggle godhead into humanity.
It shrank no more from the supreme demand
Of an untired capacity for bliss….
Many entries in the Record of Yoga show that Sri Aurobindo was systematically perfecting the body’s ability to sustain a more and more intense and continuous physical Ananda. What he ascribed to Aswapati was evidently his own experience. In cultivating such experiences, his Yoga of self-perfection seems to part company with almost all spiritual disciplines in the Indian tradition except Tantra. But in its methods it also differs widely from Tantra of either the right-hand or the left-hand path. Sri Aurobindo made his relation to Tantra clear when he affirmed that this Yoga “starts from the method of Vedanta to arrive at the aim of the Tantra.” It attempts to achieve “a spiritualising and illumination of the whole physical consciousness and a divinising of the law of the body.” But “the reliance is on the power of the higher being to change the lower existence” and “a working is chosen mainly from above downward and not the opposite way”. Entries on the subject of physical Ananda in the Record of Yoga illustrate this distinction. For instance, Sri Aurobindo writes on 19 June 1920:
Later the same day, the Ananda which had thus descended from the vijñāna or “supramental” level—as Sri Aurobindo understood it at that time—into the sūkshma or subtle body is described as “insistent on possession of the sthula [physical] body”.
Twenty years later when he added several new chapters at the end of The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo wrote about the physical manifestation of the delight of the Infinite in terms reminiscent of the experiences he had once recorded in his diary:
This statement in the chapter entitled “The Gnostic Being” follows the observation that even “before the gnostic change there can be a beginning of this fundamental ecstasy of being translated into a manifold beauty and delight.” Sri Aurobindo then proceeds to enumerate a few of these “manifold” forms of Ananda as it is felt by different parts of the nature. They include the Ananda of the mind, heart and senses to which he had often referred in the Record of Yoga, where he designated them by the Sanskrit terms ahaituka ānanda, premānanda and vishayānanda:
Sri Aurobindo himself had begun to experience all these things at a comparatively early stage in his spiritual development. In the Record of Yoga he grouped them under the heading bhukti, enjoyment. Initially he placed this term after mukti, liberation, in the yogachatushtaya or siddhichatushtaya which summed up in four terms (chatushtaya) the steps to the siddhi of his Yoga. This sequence had an experiential basis which he recognised later when he wrote in his revision of The Life Divine:
In the liberation of the soul from the Ignorance the first foundation is peace, calm, the silence and quietude of the Eternal and Infinite; but a consummate power and greater formation of the spiritual ascension takes up this peace of liberation into the bliss of a perfect experience and realisation of the eternal beatitude, the bliss of the Eternal and Infinite.
In the Introduction to The Synthesis of Yoga, written in 1914, “integral beatitude” follows directly after “integral purity” and “integral liberty” and precedes “integral perfection” in a paragraph giving a brief synopsis of the integrality of the Yoga. But when in March 1919 he came to the fourth chapter of “The Yoga of Self-Perfection”, Sri Aurobindo reversed the order of the last two items and listed them as “purification, liberation, perfection, delight of being… śuddhi, mukti, siddhi, bhukti.”
It could be argued that this reversal of bhukti and siddhi prepared the way for the omission of a distinct stage of transformation corresponding to bhukti when Sri Aurobindo reformulated his Yoga as three transformations, psychic, spiritual and supramental, corresponding to the former śuddhi, mukti and siddhi. However, the place of Ananda in the Yoga was not diminished, but greatened by regarding its consummation as a consequence of the supramental change. In a sense, Sri Aurobindo recognised a quadruple transformation as the complete aim of the integral Yoga. But he insisted that “one must pass through the supermind to arrive to the highest Ananda”. Supramentalisation, the transformation whose accomplishment would constitute the next decisive step in evolution, was his immediate concern. For most of us, the psychic transformation is already enough of a challenge. Yet it is of at least theoretical interest to note that Sri Aurobindo looked beyond even the supramental transformation to what would follow it. He wrote in 1940 in his expansion of The Life Divine:
A central feature of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and Yoga is the recognition that an “aspiration, a demand for the supreme and total delight of existence is there secretly in the whole make of our being”. This trend, moreover, is founded in the truth of the being; for Ananda is the very essence of the Brahman, it is the supreme nature of the omnipresent Reality. The supermind itself in the descending degrees of the manifestation emerges from the Ananda and in the evolutionary ascent merges into the Ananda.
Humankind, as it is now, has a limited capacity to experience Ananda. Even “a diminishing transmission through an inferior consciousness”, however, gives “the sense of an ecstasy and an unsurpassable beatitude.” Sri Aurobindo asks: “And what will be the bliss nature when it manifests in a new supramental race?” His answer gives a glimpse of what our future evolution may have in store for us:
. Sri Aurobindo, Essays in Philosophy and Yoga, vol. 13 of The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1998), p. 14.
. In some passages in the Upanishads and other Sanskrit texts one can find insights into the processes of Nature that seem to prefigure elements of evolutionary theory. Sri Aurobindo noted a few of these in The Karmayogin: A Commentary on the Isha Upanishad, written around 1905-6. (See The Upanishads – I: Isha Upanishad [Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2004], p. 228.) He also discerned “a parable of evolution” in the traditional series of Avatars beginning with Vishnu’s incarnations as a fish and a tortoise. (See Letters on Yoga: Part One [Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1971], p. 402.)
. See Richard Hartz, “India and Evolution”, Mother India, March 2005, pp. 249-55.
. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2002), vol. 2, p. 18.
. Sri Aurobindo uses the word “joining” to describe the culmination of the spiritual search in Savitri (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1993, p. 307):
Transcending every perishable support
And joining at last its mighty origin,
The separate self must melt or be reborn
Into a Truth beyond the mind’s appeal.
. Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2005), p. 32.
. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 4, p. 332.
. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 19.
. Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 483-84.
. The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 27.
. Sri Aurobindo, The Renaissance in India and Other Essays on Indian Culture (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2004), p. 198.
. The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 27.
. Ibid., p. 28.
. Savitri, p. 256.
. The Renaissance in India and Other Essays on Indian Culture, p. 156.
. Letters on Yoga: Part One, p. 49.
. Ibid., p. 50.
. Savitri, p. 91.
. The Synthesis of Yoga, pp. 55-56.
. Most of Sri Aurobindo’s revision of Part Two was incorporated in the first complete edition of The Synthesis of Yoga, published five years after his passing. Some minor revision of the Intro°©duction and more substantial alterations in Chapters 15-17 of Part Two were discovered later and first appeared in print in 1999.
. Sri Aurobindo, On Himself (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972), p. 86.
. The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 614.
. Ibid., p. 32.
. Savitri, p. 20.
. The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 567.
. Ibid., p. 445.
. Ibid., p. 805.
. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2006), p. 923.
. Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1998), p. 165.
. Ibid., pp. 165-66.
. Savitri, p. 462.
. The Human Cycle, p. 166. Sri Aurobindo began to publish The Psychology of Social Development (later renamed The Human Cycle) in the Arya in August 1916, the month of the first drafts of Savitri.
. Savitri, pp. 612-13.
. Ibid., pp. 611-12.
. See Sri Aurobindo, Record of Yoga (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2001), pp. 12, 686, 1471, and The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 737.
. The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 661.
. Ibid., p. 643.
. Ibid., p. 658.
. Ibid., pp. 658-59.
. Ibid., p. 659.
. Essays in Philosophy and Yoga, p. 478.
. The Life Divine, p. 233.
. The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 351.
. Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga: Part Four (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1971), p. 1197.
. The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 612.
. Ibid., p. 674.
. Ibid., pp. 674-75.
. The Life Divine, p. 240.
. Letters on Yoga: Part One, p. 106.
. Letters on Yoga: Part Four, p. 1154.
. The Life Divine, pp. 951-52.
. Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga: Part Two and Part Three (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1971), p. 529.
. The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 655.
. The Human Cycle, pp. 171-72.
. The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 735.
. Ibid., p. 731.
. Savitri, p. 236.
. The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 612.
. Ibid., p. 695.
. Record of Yoga, p. 1235.
. Ibid., p. 1236.
. The Life Divine, p. 1027.
. Record of Yoga, pp. 23, 1478.
. The Life Divine, p. 1026.
. The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 639.
. Letters on Yoga: Part One, p. 92.
. The Life Divine, p. 1025.
. The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 509.