UNDERSTANDING THOUGHTS OF SRI AUROBINDO – ED. INDRANI SANYAL AND KRISHNA ROY, CENTER FOR SRI AUROBINDO STUDIES, J.U. PUBLICATION, KOLKATA, 2007.
A Review by Debashish Banerji
It is not often that a collection of advanced and original writings of such consistent quality on various aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s teachings enters the mainstream of published texts and it is thus even more of a pity that the book should bear such a clumsy title as “Understanding Thoughts of Sri Aurobindo” or wear a jacket of such mediocre design merit. The term “thoughts” with respect to Sri Aurobindo’s oeuvre is obviously a problematic one, given his explicit repeated statements regarding the cessation of “thinking” in him, while at the same time affirming an impersonal “thought” function to a higher mental and even supramental consciousness. Moreover, a different characteristic of “thought” as an ascending occult mentality in the liberated human nature is also affirmed by him as in his poem “Thought the Paraclete.” So, conceivably, the ideas, whether belonging to the human intellect or not, present in Sri Aurobindo’s writings, could be called “thoughts” – “Those thoughts that wander through eternity” to draw on one of his own favored lines from Milton. There is also what could be called the discursive “author-function” that the postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault envisions as the legitimate impersonal designation of the author, a convenient spatial and historical marker in the ceaseless and unending flow of thought-text that maps out idea-space in human becoming. Here, the “thoughts of Sri Aurobindo” would not be considered entities originated and thus possessed as personal property by the author Sri Aurobindo, but rather a special configuration or constellation of ideas released into the dynamic flow of jostling mental-vital forces materially distributed as text, constantly reconfigured by time and influencing or shaping human reality. From all these special and rather esoteric considerations, one may try to justify the title, but even at best it remains ungracious in its impression. Even “Understanding the Thought of Sri Aurobindo” may have been better in spite of the problematic nature of the term “thought” – more in keeping with the miraculous global unity and integrality of the ideas expressed in his writings.
But for those who may chance to get past these surface infelicities, there is much of value and originality inside and the serious reader interested in approaching the world-wide teaching of Sri Aurobindo will find much new ground laying out the limbs and proportions of his teachings and relating his ideas to various contemporary thought-currents. We are told in the introduction that most of the essays featured in this text were contributed at two annual seminars held by the Jadavpur University Centre for Sri Aurobindo Studies in 2004-05. The main areas covered by the papers are divided into Philosophy, Evolution, Education, Poetry and Art, Man and Relation, State and Politics, Yoga and Psychology and a concluding section “Sri Aurobindo – A Century in Perspective.” The essays however, do not fit comfortably into these categories and several are poorly matched to these headings. Vladimir’s paper on “The Myth of Savitri and Satyavan” and Sarnath Basu’s reflections on Sri Aurobindo’s “Essays on the Gita”, for example, can hardly be classed under “On Poetry and Art,” and Kittu Reddy’s “Relevance of Sri Aurobindo in Modern India” is a fish out of water in the category “On Yoga and Psychology.” Given the range of Sri Aurobindo’s “thought,” a category “On Indian Tradition,” would have been helpful. But aside from these taxonomic concerns, the selections themselves, as mentioned before, are of a scarcely rivaled excellence in terms of their hermeneutic insight and their contemporary reach.
Of the Philosophical essays, Kireet Joshi’s comparative review of the theories of evolution stands out by its comprehensiveness and clarity. The idea of evolution has been introduced into the modern mainstream by Charles Darwin and Kireet Joshi makes this the starting point of his consideration. He points to the two main characteristics of Darwinian evolutionary biology as: (1) gradualism; and (2) natural instead of supernatural selection – that is, mutations are statistically random and express equal probability but the survival of consciousness in living things selects for the persistence of certain mutations as the building blocks of more complex and better adapted living organisms. To Joshi’s characteristics, one may add that Darwinism reduces evolution to a scale of physical forms and has no place in its logic for any change of consciousness. Joshi goes on to point to a number of problems with Darwinian evolutionism, some of which have been acknowledged by and responded to by biologists and some of which surpass the scope of biology as a physical science and can only be addressed by philosophers or experimental psychologists/yogis. He points, for example, to the lack of evidence for gradualism and the solutions offered by modern “saltationists,” such as that of the punctuated equilibrium of Stephen Jay Gould. He also points to the problems of explaining complex mutations as against accidents and variations in the emergence of significant functional properties and their similarities and repetitions across different genealogies. He then goes on to consider philosophical solutions to the question of evolution, which mostly add a teleological element to the reductive assumptions of chance held by biology as also a consideration of an evolution of consciousness. The philosophers he take sup in turn include Henri Bergson, Herbert Spencer, Samuel Alexander, Lloyd Morgan, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Whitehead, before arriving at Sri Aurobindo and explicating his evolutionary philosophy based on a prior involution of consciousness. An essay of this kind of incisive comprehensiveness leaves one with a sense of the total field of evolution and how completely Sri Aurobindo answers all its issues and problems. Comparative perspectives like this are sorely needed today in Sri Aurobindo studies. Arabinda Basu’s succinct and concentrated essay on Sri Aurobindo’s Doctrine of Evolution and Dilip Kumar Roy’s elaboration of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Approach to the Concept of Evolution are both fit companions to Kireet Joshi’s essay in this philosophic vein.
Another essay in the section on Evolution which stands out as a work of cross-cultural hermeneutics is Krishna Roy’s article “Sri Aurobindo on Heraclitus.” Though Roy’s contention that Sri Aurobindo was influenced by Heraclitus in the fashioning of his own theory of evolution is debatable – Sri Aurobindo may have sought comparative historical precedents after the fact – the attention bestowed on this pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and his mystic closeness to Upanishadic and Aurobindonian ideas is very helpful. Heraclitus’ pronouncements on the co-existence of Unity and Multiplicity, of Being and Becoming in terms of the dynamic fiery principle and of the relation between involution and evolution do set a radiant pointer in the direction of Sri Aurobindo’s darshana, though the transcendental and transformative power of Being beyond the boundaries of present Becoming and the possibility of union in consciousness of the human with this transformative power are not envisaged by Heraclitus. In considering Heraclitus, Sri Aurobindo also draws attention to Nietzsche as a modern philosopher with similarities in his thinking, but the lacuna of positing a Becoming without Being. Sri Aurobindo considers Nietzsche to be an initiator of modern philosophical thought and lauds him for the fertility and dynamic practicality of his thinking. Indeed, a whole train of modern and contemporary western philosophers have traced their heritage to Nietzsche, and perhaps the most creative of these, Martin Heidegger, has also drawn attention to the pre-Socratic mode of intuitive and practical philosophy practiced by thinkers like Heraclitus and the revival of this trend in Nietzsche.
A sibling to Roy’s cross-cultural consideration bridging Sri Aurobindo to a genealogy of ancient and postmodern western philosophy is Sushmita Bhattacharya’s “Towards a Theory of True Human Relation: Jean Paul-Sartre vis-à-vis Sri Aurobindo.” Sartre, an existentialist, also follows in the shadow of Nietzsche. As is clear in his magnum opus Being and Nothingness (from which Bhattacharya quotes) the Nietzschean Becoming without Being also informs the ontology of Sartre. However, Bhattacharya peers into the cracks of Sartre’s complexity when she tries to draw out from his later lectures and interviews a substantiality to human relationship – what she refers to as a “secret solidarity” of brotherhood founded in the primordiality of the earth-mother. Bhattacharya’s discussion of Sartre’s “humanism” is also noteworthy in that postmodernism has found this term problematic due to its bounded connotations. Heidegger explicitly declared himself an anti-humanist and several postmodern philosophers (eg. Michel Foucault) have followed in his wake. But with Sartre, we find a revisionary impulse reclaiming humanism into the urge for self-exceeding which for him characterizes human existence. Of course, one could split hairs with Satre on the scope and extent of human subjectivity or the anticipation of rupture from beyond, Derrida’s l’avenir, but in any case, with Bhattacharya’s characterization, we find the hazy boundaries of the post-human beginning to loom from the writings of Sartre. In this it may be pointed out that Sri Aurobindo also undertakes his own revision of the
“humanist” idea in the last chapter of the “Ideal of Human Unity,” which he titles “The Religion of Humanity.” Here, one may say that he points to the essence of humanism as a dynamic progression aiming at the realization of human unity in consciousness through what he has elsewhere called “the psychic being.” To the Vedas, it is not only the dark mother of material unconsciousness but the twin Mothers of Night and Day, of pravritti and nivritti, becoming and latency, who suckle the human child and Sri Aurobindo’s vision of human “solidarity” bases itself on this. Bhattacharya brings out the need for the realization of these deeper sources of unity, psychic, cosmic and transcendental which found the substantial reality of human relationship in Sri Aurobindo – a much more securely developed foundation of theory and practice than the sincere gropings of Sartre. I may mention though, in passing, that Bhattacharya may have found more fruitful ground for comparison and a more richly developed theory of intersubjectivity in Sartre’s contemporary, Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Apart from these comparative considerations, there is much developed understanding and practical insight regarding Sri Aurobindo’s own writings in this book that can serve the function of introduction and/or application. Kireet Joshi’s and U.C. Dubey’s essays on the Integral Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, Supriyo Bhattacharya’s essay on Sri Aurobindo’s Understanding of Indian Art, Dasharathi Sengupta on statehood in Sri Aurobindo’s political thinking and Seshagiri Rao’s short commentary on Sri Aurobindo’s Conception of Integral Yoga are some outstanding examples of introductions to the varied facets of the omni-directional integrality of Sri Aurobindo’s “thought.” Essays such as Pabitrakumar Roy’s learned reflections on Sri Auorbindo’s poetics of the mantra, Vladimir’s interpolations of the Vedic dimensions of the traditional tale of Savitri and Sarnath Basu’s assessment of Sri Aurobindo’s “Essays on the Gita” – all in the light of Indian spiritual tradition, are more interpretative in nature and represent original insights into the works they address. Of these, Basu’s article is particularly noteworthy for its lucidity and subtlety in casting light on some of Sri Aurobindo’s major gleanings from the Gita – for example, its synthesis of sankhya and yoga, its emphasis on the supreme and integral Purusha, Purushottama, as the source, goal and leading of its yoga; or its affirmation of jivanmukti through its revision of otherwise world-negating terminology such as sannyasa (here, karma-sannyasa) or nirvana (here, brahma-nirvana).
Three essays on Sri Aurobindo’s educational philosophy bring out in summary form the lines along which he envisaged the future development of human consciousness though education and its practical implications in terms of contemporary implementation. Additionally, Soumitra Basu, Kittu Reddy, Kh. Gokulchandra, Sushmita Bhowmik and Goutam Ghosal all contribute thought-provoking essays of excellence on various aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s works. The book concludes with an article “Sri Aurobindo – A Century in Perspective” by Aster Patel. Sri Aurobindo became the first principal of National College, Calcutta, now known as the Jadavpur College, about a hundred years ago. In the century which has elapsed since then, humankind has experienced its most intense period of collective growth and crisis throughout the world. Human consciousness is poised on a brink where it is faced either with the specter of oblivion, the horror of the abyss or a leap into another modality of being, the integral consciousness of the overman. Mediating this critical choice is the life and work of Sri Aurobindo, throwing a powerful beacon ahead of us into the century to come. Aster Patel draws out some of the implications of this work ahead of us in following the light of Sri Aurobindo in the coming century. Can we equal in consciousness the integral vision of reality which contemporary Science is indicating to our minds and our technological practice? Are we even ready to engage with the fullness of the term “integral”? How can we draw together our past and our present, our fractured personalities, our fragmented disciplines, our physical matter and our mental, vital and spiritual substance into the Oneness of integral being which Sri Aurobindo lived and wrote about? His integral consciousness is still fully alive in his words and each word is an invitation and a fire to kindle in us his life and reality. This is the ever-living fire of Heraclitus, the living legacy of the “thoughts” of Sri Aurobindo.