Sri Aurobindo grew up in England, where he came to know very little about India or things Indian. After his schooling, he took to the study of Classics at Cambridge University, where he encountered the Sanskrit literary tradition. He returned to India in 1893 and joined the services of the ruler of Baroda where he worked in administrative positions and as a teacher at the Baroda College. There he also consolidated his knowledge of Sanskrit, learnt a number of spoken Indian languages and plunged into the fledgling movement against British colonialism, becoming one of the first to declare complete political independence as India’s goal. In 1905, he left Baroda to come to the forefront of the struggle for freedom, becoming one of the initiators of what has been called the swadeshi movement in Calcutta, the then British capital in India. It is here that he came across an instance of the exercise of paranormal power that opened his mind to the potential of yoga to affect phenomena beyond normal means. He described this event thus: “I first knew about yogic cure from a Naga Sadhu or Naga Sannyasi. Barin had mountain fever when he was wandering in the Amarkantak hills. The Sannyasi took a cup of water, cut it into four by making two crosses with a knife and asked Barin to drink it, saying, ‘He won’t have fever tomorrow.’ And the fever left him”.
An Incalculabe Yoga
Barin was Sri Aurobindo’s younger brother and a collaborator in his anti-colonial efforts, as a leader of terrorist activities. He knew a yogi and when Sri Aurobindo expressed his interest in yoga as a means to acquire power to liberate the nation, he introduced Sri Aurobindo to this yogi, a Maharashtran by the name of Vishnu Bhaskar Lele. They met in Baroda in 1908 and Lele taught Sri Aurobindo meditation as a first step to quiet his mind. The result of this meditation was profound beyond the expectation of both Lele and Sri Aurobindo, as it brought him the realization of the unreality of the phenomenal world, complete cessation of thoughts, and the perception of an intangible Permanence backgrounding all things. This realization of Nirvana or what Sri Aurobindo would later call “the passive Brahman” became from then the basis of Sri Aurobindo’s life experience, a condition in which he received intuitions, perceptions, directives (adesha) and further experiences leading him through the steps of what he called “an incalculable yoga” and which he later formalized under the name “Integral Yoga.”
Sri Aurobindo’s political activity continued through all this, and later that year (1908) he was incarcerated along with Barin and other revolutionaries on grounds of “waging war against the king.” The imprisonment lasted for a year during which Sri Aurobindo’s yogic activities intensified and a number of other spiritual realizations came to him. These can be summarized as: (1) the realization of what he would call “the active Brahman,” a conscious energy formulating itself into all objects and entities in the universe and at work in them; (2) the realization of a Person aspect to indivisible Reality (Vasudeva, Sri Krishna), present as the essence of all things and in blissful relation with him (lila); (3) a hierarchy of impersonal planes or ranges of mind above the normal human mind, leading to a Cosmic Mind (Overmind) and a transcendental Origin of Knowledge (Supermind) of which our universe is a manifestation as a form of Idea (Real-Idea).
The Seven Quartets
After his release from the prison, he spent another year in Calcutta continuing his political activity but departed successively to the French colonies of Chandernagore and Pondicherry, following inner directives (adeshas). In April 1910, he settled in the South Indian seaside town of Pondicherry, never to leave this city for the rest of his embodied life. Sometime in the early years of his settlement in Pondicherry (perhaps between 1911-1912), Sri Aurobindo received a systematic program of yoga made up of seven disciplinary components, each with four goals or “perfections”(siddhis). He referred to this program as Sapta Chatusthaya (Seven Quartets) and began organizing his experience to himself in terms of this disciplinary structure from 1912, recording his practices and experiences along these lines in diaries or notebooks, which he titled “Record of Yoga.” In November 1913, he noted down this scheme of the seven quartets on some loose sheets and began elaborating on them, a process which remained incomplete.
He may have also lectured on these quartets to the small group of disciples who stayed with him in these early years. From a number of disciples’ notebooks, we find transcripts of “scribal notes” on these quartets, which are invaluable in filling the gaps and providing a closer view of what he may have meant by the distinctions he drew. From 1914 to 1920, while continuing with relative regularity his diary entries, he also wrote articles for the journal Arya, within which all his major writings were serialized. Among these articles was his series elaborating his teaching of yoga, which is now available as The Synthesis of Yoga. This text also amplifies the teachings of the quartets and often provides a clearer key for understanding some of its obscurities.
I have drawn on all these and a few other sources to present the description carried in this book. While such a presentation could be taken as a window into the life of an extraordinary individual practicing an exotic discipline about a hundred years ago, I believe the intent with which these practices were undertaken should not be lost sight of in reference to human subjectivity in its present hour of world civilization. Sri Aurobindo embarked upon the path of yoga as the revolutionary impulse of a modern subject at the cusp of 20th c. modernity, marked by colonialism. Colonialism is politically no more with us, but the imprisoning forces of modernity are all around us, colonialism continues to haunt developing and underdeveloped nations socially, economically and culturally, while neo-liberal globalization anonymizes humanity across the world, populating planetary cities with complacent quasi-androids in programmed eagerness to consume packaged lifestyles coded for degrees of happiness. The gift of fire with which humanity began its ascent into self-consciousness today burns no more in human hands, but fuels huge impersonal circulations of capital to which humanity remains imprisoned. What the seven quartets of Sri Aurobindo represents in this situation is no less than the second birth of fire, the fire of conscious evolution, the primal tool for the emergence of the infinite or plural Subject out of its subjection to the shredding and pulverizing of attention and quality that marks our times.
1910, when Sri Aurobindo moved to Pondicherry, can be thought of as a watershed year. The revolutionary breakthroughs in science, industry and culture which characterized the turn of the 19th/20th century in Europe, were poised to inundate the world with a new chapter of civilization, leading into our present times. What has been called the second Industrial Revolution, inaugurating the age of electricity, mass production and the world market was gathering to unleash its global regime, one whose material and psychological effects are fully manifest today. Invasive technologies would integrate the human individual into circuits of braided global information where subjectivity would be determined, fragmented and commodified, with little freedom of interiority, a behaviorism at the service of the nation state and the world market. At the still center of this preparing epistemic storm, or perhaps the lull before its inexorable world action, we find Sri Aurobindo in a remote sheltered town in South India, surrounded by a handful of disciples and freedom fighters, searching for a wholeness of subjectivity with which to measure himself against the cosmos. Detached from the forces of the world, a luxury hardly available to anyone in today’s surveilled and engineered psycho-sphere, he prepared the technologies of attention and mobilized consciousness which became the basis of his own transformation and his teaching. One may see the same revolutionary impulse that drove him to yoke his will to an anti-colonial struggle at work here to free humankind from dependence and subjection, not merely to an alien nation, but to the bondage, limitations and maladies of his own nature, a teleology of the Machine reversed and countered by a power of creative consciousness aiming at a perfected life. Sri Aurobindo’s experiments in introspection and applied psychology were conducted with the rigor of science, using a methodical framework which was synthetic and integral. This is what he called the Seven Quartets, which are being presented here. He left his conclusions for the future, that humankind may learn to utilize, even in the midst of his subjection to the ubiquitous forces of the world, its affirmative disciplines towards freedom, wholeness, universal Personhood, knowledge of oneness, creative power of a complex harmony and capacity to endure and enjoy all experiences as forms of bliss.
Psychology and its Alter-disciplines
Sri Aurobindo thought of these disciplines and experiments as a subjective science and a practical psychology. In the Synthesis of Yoga, he asserted, “All yoga is nothing but practical psychology.” The modern academic discipline of psychology can be said to have its beginnings in the 19th c., partly as the Enlightenment’s “pure” seeking for total knowledge and partly with the “applied” goal of finding a solution to human pathologies. As Michel Foucault has brought out, underlying both these aims were the modern goals of social ordering, a drive to classify and discipline human populations, establish bounds for productive use, and devise systems of containment, punishment and “cure” for those who fell outside rational and manageable bounds. The experimental and empirical structuralism of Wilhelm Wundt, the biologism of Ivan Pavlov, models of conscious-unconscious interchange as with Sigmund Freud and post-Freudian psychoanalysis, the behaviorism of John Watson and other American psychologists of the early 20th c, such as B. F. Skinner, could all be classed in these categories.
But an alternate genealogy can be traced which is more intimately related to philosophical inquiry into the nature of human transcendence. With its 19th c. roots in thinkers such as William James, who challenged the structuralism of Wundt and delved into the psychology of religious experience, this lineage re-emerged around the mid-20th c. in the USA through such movements as humanistic and existential psychology, based in European philosophical trends such as intersubjectivity, phenomenology and ontology. Instead of empirical foundations in conditioned or pathological behavior, Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, proposed a study of human role models, positing a hierarchy of needs as part of an ascending scale of human potential, guided by a drive for self-actualization. Probing phenomena of transcendence, Maslow theorized the category and properties of “peak experiences” and, in collaboration with others, opened up the new field of transpersonal psychology in the 1960s. Transpersonal psychology, as the name suggests, takes the human person as a site for transitional and fuzzy processes of consciousness between a recognizable socialized ego and an undefined and impersonal transcendental destination.
From another direction, the researches of Carl Gustav Jung in memories, dreams and paranormal experiences helped to open up the field of parapsychology, as well as studies in archetypal symbolism based on the possibilities of existence of extra-personal or impersonal ranges of consciousness, that Jung defined as the “collective unconscious.” Jung’s work on the transformative processes of “individuation” also prepared and converged with that of humanistic and transpersonal psychology. The opening made by approaches such as Jungian psychology, transpersonal psychology and parapsychology, have allowed a number of newer sub-domains of theory and research to find their niches within the academic edifice. Some of these, of relevance in trying to contextualize the present work based on Sri Aurobindo’s experiments, are transformational psychology, spiritual psychology, yoga psychology and integral psychology.
Yoga Psychology and the Integral Movement
Most of these fledgling and specialized fields have not gathered sufficient cultural capital to claim universal acceptance in the modern academy and are construed with differing scopes and boundaries by their followers. The terms spiritual psychology and transformational psychology, for example, are often used as synonyms for transpersonal psychology. More properly, spiritual psychology is often concerned with the exploration of experiences and transformations in existing world traditions of spiritual practice, whereas transpersonal psychology usually aims at a “pure” or “neutral” vocabulary of classifications and distinctions, distancing itself from specific religious traditions. Transformational psychology is often seen as a sub-field of developmental, humanistic, transpersonal or Jungian psychology, dealing with the transformative processes of self-actualization, individuation or altered functioning of the nature following upon ontological changes. Yogic psychology may also be seen as a subset of transpersonal or spiritual psychology, in this case, as the name suggests, specifically developed around the language of the psycho-physical anatomy of yoga, along with the practices and experiences connected with it.
The term integral psychology has a varied provenance. It seems to have been coined by Indra Sen, a disciple of Sri Aurobindo, who thereby attempted to open a field of specialized and comparative study into the psychological theory and process of the integral yoga, as taught by Sri Aurobindo. In more modern times, “integralism” has seen some dubious appropriations, for example, through the copyrighting of the term “integral yoga” by the guru Swami Satchidananda. Haridas Chaudhuri, also a follower of Sri Aurobindo, and the founder of the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco used the terms “integralism” and “integral philosophy” in ways that may be seen as derived from Sri Aurobindo. In more recent times, the self-styled psychologist Ken Wilber has given prominence to the term “integral” and “integral psychology” to describe his theoretical “integration” of the mind-brain paradigm of consciousness. One needs to be careful to distinguish the differing genealogies and uses of the term “integral” in all these cases, if one is to position Sri Aurobindo properly as the proponent of an “integral psychology.”
Swami Satchidananda’s “integral yoga,” for example, is little more than an “addition” of a few different approaches of yoga, claiming to address the entire human personality and engage it in the practices of prescribed and traditional yoga disciplines. In contrast, Sri Aurobino’s “integral yoga” is the seeking for a consciousness that is integral, an ontology of wholeness which overcomes the alienated discontinuity of human existence. Moreover, it is a creative and experimental phenomenology of attention and aspiration, leading to a transformation in one’s sources of knowledge, power and order; it is not a set of prescriptions. In this regard, it may be interesting to contrast the post-1960 wave of interest in yoga with that represented by such figures as Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and others following in their wake in the first half of the 20th c. A transcontinental discourse of resistance to the objectification, fragmentation and functional exploitation of consciousness under the oncoming rush of modern capital converged on this term as a locus for creative technologies of the self subjectively related and identified with the cosmos. But by the 1960s, the regime of modernity whose nomos is seduction had infiltrated the subjective world to the extent that yoga found itself no longer a discourse of freedom and wholeness, but was compelled to speak with a forked tongue, either to the concerns of escape (the hippies) or to the eminently marketable interests of stress management (meditation), the body beautiful (hatha yoga) or the art of sexual ecstasy (tantra). The guru industry proliferated and continues to expand with a plethora of techniques each patented to guarantee “success” in accumulating cultural capital in the monocultural world of neo-liberal globalization.
From the 1980s, in addition to (and somewhat against) these transcodings within modernity, Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) has increasingly tried to claim yoga as its badge of identity in national ownership and antiquity projects. Though Sri Aurobindo participated in an anti-colonial struggle for the independence of the nation, his activism was undertaken for cultural freedom not cultural fascism. He expected that the liberated individual within the free nation would be able to draw creatively on the accumulated intersubjectivity of a national history and engage dialogically with modernity and indigeneity from this vantage; not be imprisoned by a new collective subjection in the name of the nation. At a time nearer to Sri Aurobindo’s, Aldous Huxley in works such as Brave New World and Island and in our present times, thinkers like Slavoj Zizek, have spelt out this inevitable assimilation of “eastern” subjective technologies by fascist states or by the desiring machine of world capital. “Yoga psychology” in this context, is often little other than a legitimization of one or other of these packaged commodities. While sharing certain assumptions and a general psycho-physical vocabulary pertaining to subjective experience and the operations and relations of consciousness, the “yoga psychology” implied by the Seven Quartets does not privilege any techniques, formulae or rituals and steers clear of the lures of cultural capital and identity politics. What it offers instead is a field of creative practice based on forms of attention, volition and affect.
Haridas Chaudhuri can be thought of as a founder of a theoretical philosophy of integralism. There are certain other important thinkers of Chaudhuri’s era of 1950-70 such as the Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin and the Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser, who can be thought of as “integral thinkers” in the phenomenological tradition of Chaudhuri, one which belongs more closely to the scope and intent of Sri Aurobindo. The reductive developmental and systems thinking of Wilber, responsible for the contemporary popularity of the “integral” paradigm, whether in philosophy, psychology, health, culture, business management or the environment, calls itself “post-metaphysical,” but is little other than a structuralist typology, with its problematic hierarchy of states and stages of human achievement, and subject to the error of all mental attempts to grasp totality, which cannot but suffer reification if represented . The use of the term “integral’ in Sri Aurobindo’s own texts pertains instead to an ontology of experience contingent on the silence of the mind, not a theoretical construct, and encompasses a complex oneness of being omnipresent in each of its elements. As such, it is better compared to the idea of the “plane of consistency” (or plane of immanence) theorized by the post-structuralist thinker Gilles Deleuze, as a latency of infinite possibility of experience.
The Seven Quartets as a “practical psychology,” partakes of a number of these disciplinary formations. Backgrounded by the psycho-physical assumptions of yoga, it is undoubtedly a yoga psychology. However, whereas the field of yoga psychology is mostly concerned with an epistemology of psycho-physical consciousness and their processes and experiences contingent on practice, the Seven Quartets is a transformational yoga psychology, dealing with progressive and permanent changes in the operations of human nature through experimental practice. The relation between system and experiment in the seven quartets and the record of yoga is particularly significant. Whereas all science could be said to establish or verify its systemic assumptions through experiment, and all yogas, as “practical psychologies” may be thought of as systemic blueprints related to prescriptive and introspective practice by the subject, a process involving some degree of experiment, the integral yoga implied by the seven quartets can be thought of as experimental in a more radical sense. Free of specific prescribed objective practices, the system of the seven quartets depends on the relationship between human agency expressing through attention, perception, volition, affect and skill and the unpredictable circumstances of life, seen as the movements of a transcendental field of conscious Immanence in which one’s own subjectivity is inextricably involved (or “folded” to use a term from phenomenology). Such a relationship is dependent from the start (and throughout) on the progressive development of a dynamic intuition of the system manifesting itself through processes of creative experimentation.
The Seven Quartets, in their goals of a transformation of consciousness, implying cosmic potency, encompasses several functions which may be called paranormal and hence, can be said to overlap with parapsychology. At least from the mid-19th c., the progress of science in Europe was accompanied by a burgeoning underworld of occult sects and cults, the resurfacing of a plethora of modern versions of medieval mystery schools. Perhaps the most influential of these, with varied traces continuing into the present, was the Theosophical Society, an organization for the study of occultism founded in 1875 by H. P. Blavatsky and her followers. Theosophy attempted to bestow a semblance of scientific authenticity to the study of paranormal phenomena, though an aura of magic and a rumor of charlatanism plagued its existence. In the thick of such activities, an organization calling itself The Society for Psychical Research, with the goal of serious scientific investigations of such phenomena, was founded in 1882 by Frederic William Henry Myers and others. This research organization (which continues to operate), counted among its members such eminent names as Henry Sidgwick, Frederick Myers, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Alfred Russel Wallace, W. B. Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle, C. G. Jung and William James. More recent members include Archie Roy, Rupert Sheldrake, Richard Wiseman, Susan Blackmore, Dean Radin and Charles Tart. Partly due to the influence of this society and its members, parapsychology as an academic discipline gained some acceptance in the western knowledge academy, most prominently in the 1970s. It concerned itself with psychic abilities (extra sensory perception, remote sensing, telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis), near-death experiences, out-of-body experience, crisis apparitions, retro-cognitions, reincarnation memories, regression memories, prophecy, channeling and mediumistic activities, apparitional experiences, life after death and such phenomena. The academic respectability of this field was short lived and much fewer institutions of higher learning continue to actively promote study and research in this area today.
The parapsychological experiences dealt with in the Seven Quartets have to do mainly with extra sensory perception, remote influence and paranormal capacities of the body. In his diary notes, Sri Aurobindo has a long passage discussing the legitimacy of these powers in a spiritual pursuit, concluding by justifying them as natural capacities to an enhanced human (or trans-human) consciousness.
Again, the system presented by the Seven Quartets is undoubtedly an integral psychology, following on the definition of Indra Sen and contingent on the distinctions introduced in the previous paragraph, the scope of integrality here arising from the ontological attainment of an “integral consciousness” in being and the transformation of the nature in the becoming based on it. As to whether it is a transpersonal psychology, certainly the status of the egoic person is seen as transitional within it, but this does not necessarily imply the disappearance of the person in an impersonality. Perhaps the term trans-egoic would serve it better than transpersonal. Finally, though Sri Aurobindo did not use the term “collective consciousness,” the Seven Quartets assume the existence of extra-personal “planes” of cosmic consciousness, with which the individual can identify in being and consciousness. I would say, this too is an aspect of yoga psychology, which Jungian theory has helped to normalize in the modern academy, though here again, ideas such as that of Deleuze’s “fold” or “plane of consistency,” may be more appropriate, because related to experience, beyond the finite boundaries of mental representation.
In thinking about alternate psychologies, it is important to constellate these with a post-metaphysical tradition of philosophy which may be said to begin with Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) in the late 19th c. At the outset of an approaching global era of contested ideologies of belief, Nietzsche concerned himself with the relative question of truth and its political establishment in human history. Acknowledging the Kantian inaccessibility of transcendentals such as truth or god to human reason, Nietzsche showed how arbitrary genealogical histories led through operations of power to the privileging of certain ideologies. He brought the entire metaphysical tradition of post-Aristotelian philosophy under scrutiny on these grounds, seeing its attempt at establishing rational epistemologies as a surreptitious operation of the will to power in its bid to order the inchoate and indefinable infinity of existence. Though ironically, Nietzsche was appropriated by the ultra-irrational racist ideology of the Nazis, it is the fascist implications of idealist metaphysics which Nietzsche radically critiqued, its totalitarian drive to subjugate experience and will under a transcendentally determined regime. He saw scientism, the product of the European Enlightenment, among the most dangerous of these historical and cultural regimes, an equating of human and cosmos through the defining bo(u)nds of reason, and the ideological yoking of humanity to the global enterprise of ordering all experience and all reality by an omniscient epistemology. Nietzsche identified the quintessential (late) philosopher of the Enlightenment as G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), who saw the impending modern reign of Reason (Logos) arising from Europe as the fulfillment of cosmic purpose and the end of history; and accordingly posited a philosophy of History which left no stone unturned in its subsumption of the past, present and future of the world. As against this vision of the inexorable predetermined progress of the Zeitgeist, Nietzsche looked to non-western outlooks and presented the prophet Zarathustra, with his doctrine of the incalculable creative power of Will over every determining cosmic regime. Rather than define man and cosmos in terms of the Reason, Nietzsche displaced this power onto the Will, and posited the Will to Power as the most fundamental principle of Life, one which attempted to assert itself everywhere and in every way through political dominance but whose highest potency was creative self-transcendence, the vision of the cosmic human or Ubermensch.
The two most important modern streams of psychological philosophy which followed in the wake of Nietzsche and established themselves in the academy through the first half of the 20th c. are phenomenology and existentialism. Phenomenology was given its present form by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). It proposed a method in which independent objectivity was “bracketed” in favor of grounding attention on the analysis of experience. Thus the world that is given to us in experience was unraveled in its constitution, so as to reveal the conventions which structure the collective life-world, binding consciousness to it through intention. This unraveling enabled a purity and freedom of experience which Husserl referred to variously as a transcendental subjectivism or a transcendental ego. A landmark and controversial figure who stood historically between Husserl and Nietzsche on one side (the past) and the gamut of postmodern philosophy on the other (the present) is Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Heidegger provided an ontological turn to the psychologism of Husserl, and concerned himself more centrally with the relation between Being and beings (or the ontological and the ontic), thus hazing the Husserlian boundaries of the “transcendental ego,” while holding fast to phenomenology in its refusal of idealist metaphysics. Opening further the approach initiated by phenomenology, Heidegger may also be considered one of the modern founders of existentialism, in his development of the conditions for authenticity of existence and self-transcendence through the radically receptive orientation of attention, will and affect.
A furthering engagement with Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger were in evidence in the more contemporary Francophone line of postmodern philosophy, particularly the thinking of Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Both these philosophers refused metaphysics and ontology, thinking instead of the ways by which human experience is constructed at any time by historicist ideologies. While Derrida may be thought to cleave more closely to Husserl and Heidegger in his attention to unraveling the constructed nature of experience (deconstruction), he was less interested in arriving at the purity of a transcendental ego than in the creative play of signification and the openness to singularity and transcendental possibility (l’avenir, the democracy to come). Foucault’s approach to a similar problematic can be traced more directly to Nietzsche and secondarily to Heidegger. Applying Nietzsche, Foucault sought to ground epistemology historically in the operations and mechanisms of power by which a temporal horizon becomes ontologically settled. By using the Nietzschean methods of archeology and genealogy, he sought out the synchronic and diachronic bases for the political construction of truth for a culture at any given time. Towards the end of his life, Foucault turned his attention from the technologies of power or the will to power as technology to the technologies of the self. These subjective technologies or technologies of subject-formation or subjectivation, in Foucault’s account taken from ancient Greece, included practices for the care or discovery of the soul, an ethics and aesthetics of the self through truth telling and self-disciplines of attention (askesis). The exteriorization of these practices into socially monitored forms through confessional methods, initiated through rituals such as Christian confession in 4th c. Rome, but mutating through history into the interrogations of modern disciplinary institutions such as schools, clinics, government offices, police stations and prisons, have increasingly offered the nexus for technologies of power to discipline and order subjects ideologically.
Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault all turned a good part of their attention to the unprecedented nature of modernity, the post-Enlightenment epoch in which we find ourselves. All three of them identified the epistemic regime of our times as the turn towards technology or in Nietzschean terms, the will to power as technology. Heidegger noted the systemic and totalistic nature of modernity, setting out to claim all knowledge, all time and all space for its domain in the name of science, in what he called “the age of the world picture.” This setting forth of the ongoing activity of research, the disappearance of the individual into the anonymity of the subjectum and the conversion of the world into “picture,” a single representational image, marks the modern disclosure of Being, its qualitative reduction to numerical magnitude and relation. Foucault further developed the discursive and institutional mechanisms and procedures through which modern individuals are anonymized into subjects, the role of the human sciences as a cornerstone of the universal modern academy and of the pan-optical state technologies of surveillance and discipline to set in place the replicable image of “humanity.” As against this ubiquitous construction of world and subject, Foucault called for the reclamation of subjectivation in individuals, an ethics and aesthetics of the self, through counter-technologies such as truth-telling and “care of the soul.”
The Deleuzian Century
Apart from these thinkers, there are a number of others who have followed this train of thinking, continuing to elaborate the consequences of our age in its varied and ongoing aspects in a phenomenological vein. Among the contemporaries of Derrida and Foucault and part of the same Francophone tradition of postmodern philosophy, one may enumerate Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-1998), Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) and Michel de Certeau (1925-1986). Belonging to a later generation and continuing to elaborate on the chapter of global modernity belonging to our present times, particularly its sense of historic rupture, its mnemo-technical and virtual ontology, and its alternative possibilities, some of the most prominent thinkers are the theorist of feminine subjectivity Luce Irigaray (1932-), Paul Virilio (1932-) and Bernard Stiegler (1952-). Of these thinkers, in the context of our study, special mention needs to be made of Gilles Deleuze, who also counted Nietzsche among his forbears, but constellated his lineage of thinking with two other philosophers of the past, Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and the philosopher of intuition and creative evolution, Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Deleuze, a friend of Foucault, of whom the latter said, “One day, perhaps, this century will be called Deleuzian,” did not, like Foucault or Derrida, reject metaphysics or ontology, but inverted them, subordinating them to experience.
Following Spinoza, Deleuze rooted ontology in an absolute Immanence, which was knowable only as process, an univocity expressing as the radical difference and plurality of the cosmos. This field of Immanence (sometimes called field of Consistency) was conceived by Deleuze as the infinite substratum of all existence and experience, marked by the infinitely varying intensities of unpredictable flows and energies, each a sensation, idea and/or feeling existing as virtual becoming or problematic, actualizing itself repeatedly in different forms. It is important to note that Deleuzian ideas differ from Platonic ideas in their immanence and Deleuzian virtuality is no less real than actuality. Of his concepts, Deleuze says, “The concept they [the conditions of experience] form is identical to its object.” The task of the philosopher, for Deleuze, is to intuit these fields of virtual problematics from experience and express them in the form of concepts; just as the task of the artist is to express the being of sensations, which are a compound of percepts and affects; and the task of the scientist is to express through generative functions based on fixed points of reference.
Deleuze engages himself with the problematic of how one can live one’s life and proposes an extension of experiencing capacity so as to become aware of the virtual field of intensities, ideas and feelings which constitute the extensive or discrete differences of the actual world. This extension in body sensation, emotion and intuition so as to experience the virtual domain consists of an overcoming of the categories of identity, resemblance, analogy and opposition that characterize our experience of actuality and arrive through this abstraction at the experience of a scale of intensities. Deleuze and his collaborator Guattari, refer to this transformation as “making a Body without Organs” (BwO). It is only through such a transformation that the body’s independent agency may be recovered and the question “Of what is a body capable?” posed by Spinoza, find its dynamic answer through experience and action. The Body without Organs can then be thought of as a gate of entry to yet greater extensions of experience approximating progressively to the infinite plane of Immanence, marked by a simultaneity of univocity and difference, in which neither is reduced to the other. One may see in this account, a resemblance of Deleuze and Guattari’s method with that of Husserl’s phenomenological reduction, but whereas Husserl’s phenomenology deals with concepts and percepts and is grounded in mental perception, the Deleuzian construction of the Body without Organs deals with sensations, percepts, affects and concepts and is grounded in physical experience. While it is true that Husserl’s phenomenology has been extended to include the embodied component of perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the grounding of experience in intensities of sensation grants to Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism a much greater integrality and an experimental method akin to yoga.
Deleuze’s ontology also bears comparison with Sri Aurobindo’s in terms of the way in which he conceptualizes the individual and its fractal “folding” into the cosmos. Deleuze introduced the idea of the fold to theorize the integral relationship between the “inside” and the “outside” of living beings. Instead of seeing beings as autonomous, he views the collective reality of each type of being as a life on a fold of pure immanence. Such an “enfolded” existence implies an internalization by each “monad” of the cosmic entirety following specific principles which characterize the ontology of its type of experience. Subject and cosmos thus integrally exist in each other and the nexus of internal and external forces determines the universal reality of cosmos for the subject. The conscious awareness of this relationship between internal and external forces is the “unfold,” something which also makes possible an “unfolding” and “refolding.” Existing unquestionably on a fold marks the existence of non-human beings, but humans are characterized by critical and creative subjectivity which allows them to “deterritorialize” the fixity of the relation between subject and fold. Deleuze and Guattari refer to this variously as “nomadology,” “lines of flight,” “becoming-other” and “making a body without organs.”
In the appendix of his book on Foucault, Deleuze relates Foucault’s prediction of the erasure of the human with Nietzsche’s supeman-making project and his own thinking about the fold. Making it an occasion to think of the future of human subjectivity, he develops here the idea of the superfold, as the fractal ground natural to superman. The superfold is neither a fold nor an unfolding in the sense in which Deleuze conceptualized internal-external relations in the human case. It is instead an ontology of immanence with a protean creativity capable of an “unlimited finite.” Superman represents the forces of subjective interiority which internalize the capacities of the superfold and give it monadic expression. Deleuze’s intuition of the superfold as the ontological future towards which the human moves is also related to the emergence of the technologies of molecular biology, silicon based information theory and new capacities of language use. All these technologies portend possibilities of deconstruction and creative reassemblage which approach the most basic building blocks of life (genetics), matter (information), and mind (signification/language).
An “unlimited finite” is a capacity characteristic of the fulfilled potency of what Deleuze calls transcendental empiricism, which could also be nominated as a divine materialism. It implies that every fine point in space and “moment” of time is a creative actualization of infinity. Superfold is the cosmic medium potent with such a possibility and superman is the individualized subjectivity which can express this capacity as its native mode of existence. Superfold contains the triple folds of genetic handling (life capacity), silicon and nanotechnological handling (material capacity) and language handling (mental capacity). Superman for Deleuze, then, is the master of the triple folds of gene, silicon and language, the creative consciousness which can manipulate these forms of nature at its most basic level, manifesting infinity through their finite conditions of space-time expression. There is no habitual fixity to such a form of creative consciousness, or even if there is persistence of forms or logical development of forms, the ontology is one of pure freedom and the deployed will of omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience at play in the finite conditions of the cosmos.
Though expressed in material terms and related to contemporary technologies of unprecedented fundamental ubiquity, Deleuze’s superfold can well be thought of as close or analogous to an immanent version of Sri Aurobindo’s supermind, the medium which holds unity and infinity as its conscious properties everywhere and is the nexus between the infinite and the finite in its absolute immanence. So too, the relation between superfold and superman in Deleuze is analogous to the relation between supermind and superman in Sri Aurobindo, in that the latter term in each doublet represents the subject with interiority proper to the being and full creative expression of the capacities of the first term.
Sri Aurobindo was roughly a contemporary of Heidegger and his generation of thinkers. He was familiar with Nietzsche and referred to him in a number of his writings, praising him for his existential turn as a philosopher of thought-in-life rather than of detached thought. He also, for this reason, turned his attention to the Pre-Socratic thinkers of Greece, much as Heidegger and Nietzsche before him, had done. Most significantly, like Nietzsche, he proposed a self-exceeding for the human, a re-creation through askesis and surrender, and gave to this destining the Nietzschean name of superman. One may see the derivation of superman from the transcendental consciousness of supermind, yet the Nietzschean parallel is not fortuitous. Writing within the discursive academic culture of Indian Philosophy of the early 20th c., Sri Aurobindo had to voice his philosophical ideas in terms of idealist metaphysics. As cross-cultural expression one needs to read this as darshan, an epistemology arising from and necessarily coupled with a theory of practice, yoga. But entering the language community of modern specialized disciplines, it undergoes a discursive rupture and is perceived independently. In his major philosophical work, The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo tried to safeguard against this conversion, pointing to the Vedantic methodology of intuition and experience as its basis (Vedantic Methods of Knowledge) and attempting to reformulate the boundaries of Idealism:
The idealistic interpretation supposes a relation between the Truth behind and the conceptive phenomenon in front, a relation which is not merely that of an antinomy and opposition. The view I am presenting goes farther in idealism; it sees the creative Idea as Real-Idea, that is to say, a power of Conscious Force expressive of real being, born out of real being and partaking of its nature and neither a child of the Void nor a weaver of fictions.
Elsewhere in the same text, he uses the term experience-concept to differentiate his thought from abstract thinking. The similarity between this and Deleuze’s notion of the concept should be apparent. There are many other points of convergence between the thought of Deleuze and Sri Aurobindo’s theory of practice – Deleuze’s Plane of Consistency is defined in terms not far from Sri Aurobindo’s Supermind, an absolute consciousness characterized by irreducible and radical univocity and infinity, Deleuze’s building of the Body without Organs is analogous to processes of liberation from “given” internal formations, including the physical, in Sri Aurobindo; Deleuze’s call to experimentation is seconded by the personalization of practice based on the emergence of consciousness by Sri Aurobindo; Deleuze’s “scale of intensities” can be seen as synonymous with the conversion of all experience to forms of bliss in Sri Aurobindo.
Convergences of Sri Aurobindo’s thought with other postmodern thinkers are also significant. Sri Aurobindo’s political and cultural sensitivity to the forces of colonialism and modernity bring his practices in alignment with those of Michel Foucault. This establishes the contemporary relevance of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga in terms of affording technologies of the self for autonomy and subjectivation of the individual and the ability to exert a transformative influence on determining regimes of global discourse in the micropolitics of power. In this regard, it is noteworthy that where Martin Heidegger, in spite of his clarity regarding the omnipresent technological power of the age of the world picture and his warnings for the authenticity of individual life, was taken in by the subjective rhetoric of the Fuhrer of the Third Reich, Sri Aurobindo, in his distant corner of the world identified the civilizational menace of Hitler, as early as 1933, when he had just become Chancellor. He also used the enhanced powers of the self in opposing this menace. The Record of Yoga, as a form of truth-telling connected with personal askesis is a quintessential example of Foucauldian ethical and aesthetic self-fashioning on one’s own terms. As a strategic form of self-disclosure, it fashions its own parole, which requires a hermeneutics which is in itself the initiation to an experimental generative and transformative discourse. The Seven Quartets of the Record of Yoga has to be seen as the reception of a functive in the Deleuzian sense, a functional enunciation of the problematic arising in the consciousness at a certain stage in a process of self-fashioning. Today, and in texts such as the present, there lies the danger of its reduction to “received knowledge,” and turned into a new orthodoxy. To prevent this, it is important to ground the theory in personal interpretation and experimental practice, a postmodern imperative. For this reason, wherever applicable, thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze, Foucault, Irigaray and others have been used as interlocutors to our text.
To warp up, my primary objective in this text is to understand the processes and goals that relate to the integral transformation of being and nature in the seven quartets of Sri Aurobindo’s Record of Yoga. It is also to understand the place of this particular formulation in the wider field of Indian yoga. Thirdly, it is to provide us with an approach to a hermeneutic translation of this field of yoga, a process which Sri Aurobindo himself initiated, but which must be treated as an on-going project because of the progress of contemporary psychology and philosophy, and their interest in paranormal, trans-personal and trans-egoic processes as part of a dynamic understanding of the human being and its indeterminate boundaries. One of the objectives of the modern knowledge academy, as a post-Enlightenment global institution, has been the discursive articulation of an integral knowledge of the human, using the human sciences, and in keeping with this objective, one of our goals here is an approach to a new psychology of process aimed at the integral, beyond the normative bounds of modernity. Finally, part of our objective is to gain a key, an opening, to understanding the inner life of Sri Aurobindo through his Record of Yoga seen as a lived example, that we can learn from and derive inspiration from for success in experimental practice.
Prior to our entry into this study, it needs to be clearly understood that the Seven Quartets, as a “practical psychology,” is not therefore a psychotherapy. The practice of the Seven Quartets is an aid to a self-practice, for purposes of self-exceeding into an integral consciousness and for transformation of the nature and its operations into the natural dynamic vehicles of this integral consciousness. In its positioning in the knowledge-world of the modern academy, it is not an epistemology or theoretical system, a deep structure to order experience into hierarchic forms ripe for social ranking or exclusions and inclusions. It is rather, a system of creative practice, an archive of attention, a toolbox of engagement and experience. Similarly and perhaps most importantly, in the power-world of social life-activities, surreptitiously ordered in our times by global capital, it is not another (and even ultimate) technology at the service of social and economic advantage or of identity politics. If anything, it is the very reverse, the possibility of a subjective reversal, the freedom, richness and wholeness of conscious Being, known through identity as one and infinite.