Hundred Years Ago, Hundreds Ahead
If then the world is a dream or an illusion or a mistake, it is a dream originated and willed by the Self in its totality and not only originated and willed, but supported and perpetually entertained. Moreover, it is a dream existing in a Reality and the stuff of which it is made is that Reality, for Brahman is the material of the world as well as its base and continent. If the gold of which the vessel is made is real, how can we suppose that the vessel itself is a mirage?
- SRI AUROBINDO
(Arya, Vol. 1, No.4, 15 November 1914)
Hundred years ago happened two events, both interrelated, which make 1914 a landmark year in the spiritual history of the world. On 29 March 1914, the Mother met Sri Aurobindo when she came to Pondicherry for the first time with her husband Paul Richard. This historic meeting triggered the publication of a monthly journal, the Arya. Although the Richards went back to France in February 1915, publication of the Arya continued till January 1921.
Why was the trigger important?
By 1914, Sri Aurobindo had become an unprecedented combination in human history. From age 7 through 21, he had spent 14 years in England. Being exceptionally intelligent, he had mastered the English language, learnt several modern European languages, and also the classical languages, Greek and Latin. He had also absorbed, assimilated, and evaluated critically the western culture. After returning to India in 1893 at age 21, during the 14 years that he spent in Baroda he taught himself Sanskrit, and studied the ancient Indian scriptures in their original. Thus, he became a perfect synthesis of the East and the West. He also gave evidence of his phenomenal spiritual capacity towards the end of his stay in Baroda when he went into Samadhi within three days, and again during his imprisonment in Alipore Jail from 1908-1909 where he saw the Divine in everything animate and inanimate. It was in the prison that he also discovered the true mission of his life, which was to give to the world the wisdom that it was going to need very soon. After going to Pondicherry in 1910, by 1914 he had spent another four years on intense spiritual exploration. Fourteen years in the West followed by fourteen years in the East, both spent going into the depths of two contrasting cultures and looking at them critically with a razor sharp intellect, and on top of that phenomenal spiritual capacity, is a combination unprecedented in human history, and unlikely to be repeated in the near future. Thus, in 1914 he was more than well-equipped to fulfill the mission of his life, which was to give the spiritually starved world of the twentieth century the ultimate wisdom that it needed very badly. But for him to take on the role of a communicator needed a trigger, and the trigger came when Sri Aurobindo, Paul Richard and his wife, Mirra Alfassa Richard (now called The Mother), decided in 1914 to publish a monthly journal, the Arya, which would bring together the religious and spiritual traditions of the world. Once the process had been triggered, the pages of the Arya were flooded with Sri Aurobindo's wisdom, an output that was nothing short of a tsunami of spiritual knowledge and experience based primarily on the ancient Indian tradition, but transformed by an unparalleled global futuristic insight.
Why was the journal named the Arya?
The word Arya (Sanskrit, noble) had not yet acquired in 1914 the connotation of racial superiority that Hitler gave it in the 1940s. While explaining the name of the journal, Sri Aurobindo said, "... the word Arya expressed a particular ethical and social ideal, an ideal of well-governed life, candour, courtesy, nobility, straight dealing, courage, gentleness, purity, humanity, compassion, protection of the weak, liberality, observance of social duty, eagerness for knowledge, respect for the wise and learned".1 Thus, Arya means a collection of commendable qualities worth cultivating.
Aims of the Arya
The Arya started with two principal aims: to study the highest problems of existence, and to synthesize and harmonize diverse religious and spiritual traditions of the world. It achieved these aims, but ended up doing much more. It provided not just knowledge, but also wisdom based on Sri Aurobindo's spiritual realizations. It provided guidance for living a spiritual life. It rationalized spiritual experiences, and thereby provided a rich philosophy, which can be the basis of education, psychology and medicine. It gave us a powerful exposition of the Indian culture. It looked at the history of the world from a psychological standpoint. It formulated Sri Aurobindo's vision of the future of the world, both from the evolutionary perspective and the sociopolitical perspective.
Soon after the publication of the Arya began in August 1914, the Richards left for France, Sri Aurobindo started writing for the journal all by himself, and the journal continued to be published regularly month after month till January 1921. He selected a few themes for the journal, and wrote one article on each theme. He prepared an issue in about a week, writing on an average more than one article a day, straight from the mind to the typewriter. What he wrote in six and a half years is more than what an average person can read in a lifetime, leave aside understand and act upon. Although the material was prepared with, what Prof. K.R.S. Iyenger calls "journalistic hurry", the language was not only flawless but also elegant; even prose reads like poetry. Later on what was done was that the issues of the Arya were dismantled, and articles were assembled, theme-wise, in the same sequence as they appeared in the Arya. For example all the 48 articles that Sri Aurobindo wrote on the Gita were put together, and the collection gave us the book titled Essays on the Gita. Most of the major works of Sri Aurobindo were originally serialized in the Arya. The remarkable thing is that although these works (except The Life Divine, which received the benefit of a complete revision by Sri Aurobindo) were published essentially as they appeared in the Arya, and there was a month's gap between two consecutive articles, there is perfect continuity from one chapter to the next, and the collection reads exactly like a book.
Themes in the Arya
The major themes chosen for the Arya may be divided into translation and/or commentaries on the scriptures, and original themes.
The scriptures chosen by Sri Aurobindo were the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Gita.
Vedas have the experiences of rishis couched in symbolic language, and rituals with deep symbolic significance. However, with passage of time, what the symbols denote has been forgotten, and even the Sanskrit language has changed over the 5,000 years since the Vedas were written. That is why, a literal translation of the Vedas, and attempts to understand them entirely at the mental level, are unfair to the Spirit of the Vedas and have been responsible for their gross misinterpretation. Sri Aurobindo, with his spiritual insight and intellectual genius, has unraveled the symbolism of the Vedas. His articles on the Vedas in the Arya are now available as The Secret of the Veda.
Sri Aurobindo's commentaries on the Isha and Kena Upanishads are much longer than the translations, and illustrate how the Upanishads never intended the dichotomy between worldly life and spiritual life that crept into the Indian psyche later. Thus the powerful life-affirming tilt that Sri Aurobindo gave to Vedanta is rooted not only in the Gita, but also in the Upanishads â€“ two of the major pillars of Vedanta.
Sri Aurobindo wrote forty-eight articles on the Gita in the Arya, and these are now available as Essays on the Gita. These essays stand out among the innumerable commentaries on the Gita in two important respects. First, they are not verse by verse translation of the Gita, with a commentary following the translation of each verse. Instead, in order to achieve lucidity and to make a point clearly, Sri Aurobindo has taken the liberty of going back and forth, if necessary, to give us forty-eight stand-alone essays embodying exceptional and unconventional insight. Secondly, and even more importantly, his commentary looks at the Gita as a whole, and drives home the important point that the three streams of the yoga of the Gita are three only for the convenience of the seeker to make a beginning somewhere. If the seeker continues on the path that he has chosen long enough and sincerely enough, he will eventually be walking a path incorporating action, knowledge as well as devotion.
Sri Aurobindo's essays on spiritual philosophy, based primarily on Vedanta but cosmopolitan in their approach, were published in the Arya under the title The Life Divine. Sri Auobindo was neither a philosopher nor liked to be called a philosopher, because, as he said, philosophers think whereas he 'saw'. He had seen with the inner eye the all-pervasive Spirit of the Divine in everything animate and inanimate, and also the transcendent Divine. Experience provides a far more reliable answer to the riddle of existence than the philosopher's method of rational analysis. But, in order to convince those who neither have the experience nor trust those who have, the mental, or philosophical approach is necessary. Thus, while The Life Divine is based on Sri Aurobindo's spiritual realization, he has used his razor-sharp intellect to rationalize the deeper truths of existence. Further, he has used the basic tenets of Vedanta to make a powerful case for the life-embracing version of spirituality. However, he has also presented the life-negating version, and given the rationale behind it. It is characteristic of Sri Aurobindo to present the point of view opposite his own, rationalize it better than his opponents could have done, and then to go about justifying why in spite of the justification, when the issue is considered in greater depth, there is a different view that seems more logical. Thus, he ends up considering an issue from every possible angle, is a sympathetic but invincible critic of his opponents, and leaves no questions unanswered.
Sri Aurobindo also worked out in the pages of the Arya a powerful synthesis of the traditional schools of yoga. His synthesis harmonizes the central principle of all yogas, and the particular principles of the major traditional schools of yoga into a single entity, now called integral yoga. The synthesis was necessary to revive the spirit underlying yoga, which had been overshadowed by the form. The essays on yoga were published under the title The Synthesis of Yoga, and are now available as a book with the same title.
An interesting series of essays started as a sharp response to the criticism of the Indian culture by a British journalist, William Archer. While some of the criticism might have been valid in view of the degeneration that prevailed in India then and has not disappeared even today, Sri Aurobindo made an important point that a culture cannot be judged from its most decadent phase. The essays ended up becoming an enlightened exposition of a variety of expressions of the Indian culture, such as religion, spirituality, art, literature and polity, and were later published in a single volume under the title The Foundations of Indian Culture. The central thesis of the book is that in India, spirituality is not a compartment of life, but pervades life and all expressions of culture. It is this deeply ingrained spiritual impulse that characterizes the Indian mind, and is responsible for survival of the Indian culture in spite of all the onslaughts of history.
Another set of very scholarly essays covering a very wide canvas in terms of time as well as space were published under the title The Psychology of Social Development. Now the essays are available as a book titled The Human Cycle. In these essays, Sri Aurobindo has looked at the history of the world from a psychological standpoint. Every society, he says, passes through a cyclic process. Starting with the age of symbolism, the society moves on to the age of convention. In the age of convention, the symbolism behind the conventions is forgotten, but the conventions continue. A few non-conforming rebels keep protesting against meaningless conventions, but it takes these rebels to reach a critical mass for the society to graduate from the age of convention to the age of reason. The age of reason is full of vigour and vitality. By the time the benefits of the age of reason have been harvested, the society also starts realizing the limitations of reason. Now the society is ready to move from the age of reason to a subjective supra-rational age. This makes it easy to understand why the receptivity for ancient Indian wisdom is today higher in the West than in its birthplace. India is today stuck in the age of conventions, and has yet to enter the age of reason. On the other hand, the West has just left behind the age of reason, and is ready to enter the supra-rational age. That is why there is great appetite in the West for the products of India's supra-rational age. India went through its supra-rational age in the Upanishadic period.
A related set of essays appeared in the Arya under the title The Ideal of Human Unity, and are available now as a book bearing the same title. In these esays, Sri Aurobindo has looked at the evolution of the nation state, and the evolution of still larger conglomerations. So far, the larger conglomerations, called empires, have been achieved through conquest and coercion, and have therefore risen and fallen. While the empire has lasted, there has been a tendency to impose on the subject nations the language, culture, religion, etc. of the masters, and thereby achieve uniformity. Sri Aurobindo has predicted that as the level of human consciousness goes up, there will be that critical mass of highly evolved people in the world who will dominate the planet. When that happens, the affairs of the world will be conducted from a higher plane of consciousness. As a result, conglomerations larger than the nation state will become the norm. But these conglomerations will be achieved because of a psychological unity, not through conquest. Further, in these large units, the diversity of cultures will be preserved; no attempt will be made to wipe out the diversity under the mistaken assumption that uniformity is essential for unity. The culmination of this process would be a world government.
These were the major themes that Sri Aurobindo picked up, on which he wrote in the Arya month after month, for six and a half years. Besides these themes, there were essays on war (because much of the Arya was published during the First World War), other essays, thoughts and aphorisms, poetry, and 'question of the month'. Why the Arya stopped in January 1921 was because by then Sri Aurobindo had already given nothing short of a prescription for 'the remaking of man', to borrow an expression from Alexis Carrel's Man, the Unknown. It was enough homework for the world for several centuries. Anything beyond that would have been completely redundant for man at the current stage of his evolution.
Hundreds of years ahead
When a hundred years ago Sri Aurobindo talked of the evolution of man beyond his present mental consciousness to a radically different Supramental Consciousness, it might have looked like fantasy. But today it looks within the realm of possibility. When he wrote it, hardly anybody really understood him; today many thinkers are talking in a similar language. Sri Aurobindo saw in an evolutionary leap the ultimate solution to the evil, injustice, pain and suffering that have characterized the world since times immemorial. He also anticipated, in The Ideal of Human Unity, the several failed attempts that man will make before finding the ultimate solution. After giving up the hope that science and technology would solve all our problems, the western world turned to the same tool that gave us modern science. The tool is: rationality. It was through reason that different forms of government, such as democracy, socialism and communism were conceived. It was through reason that the ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity were formulated. The last and most commendable attempt to improve the world through reason was humanism, which Sri Aurobindo has called The Religion of Humanity. But all these attempts were doomed for failure because although idealistic in their conception, when executed by man at his present level of consciousness, the egoistic selfish tendencies of man crept in and corrupted the ideal. Those who had the power, continued to exploit the weak. But these failed experiments were an important learning experience for mankind. They taught man the methods that will not work. The failures compelled man to look at solutions that go beyond rationality. That is why, the world, particularly the western world that has tried and exhausted rational instruments for more than a hundred years, is now looking at the supra-rational instruments available in ancient Indian wisdom. This wisdom is available to the West in cotemporary terms in the English language. It was because the current state of the world had been foreseen by the Divine that Sri Aurobindo came to the world, and he was sent away to England at age seven for a long spell of fourteen years. It was for the same reason that Sri Aurobindo received communications from the Divine in Alipore Jail (1908-1909) about the mission of his life. Now that the western world is ready for the supra-rational solutions, guidance is available to it in Sri Aurobindo's works in a language that it understands. All this is easy to see with hindsight, but the foresight of the divine design is truly amazing. That the world is gradually but surely getting there is clear from the writings of many of today's thinkers, who have perhaps not even read Sri Aurobindo, which makes it even more significant. What it means is that a new consciousness is in the earth atmosphere, which has now started making more and more persons see the future of the world the way Sri Aurobindo saw it a hundred years ago. I shall cite here only the two examples that I am familiar with; there may be many more. Gary Zukav, a physicist, says that evolution so far has favoured the selfish species that could control the environment better. Future evolution would favour the species that loves all life. The five-sensory mean and selfish man is going to give way to the multi-sensory magnanimous and altruistic man.2 David Hawkins, a psychiatrist, has quantified consciousness. His scale is logarithmic, and runs from 0 through 1000. Since the logarithmic scale is a condensed scale, a difference of 50 on the scale represents a huge difference in the level of consciousness. On Hawkins' scale, 200 is an important cut-off point. At a level below 200, man is arrogant because separative ego dominates his psyche. At a level above 200, people "put back into the world as much energy as they take". Further, he says that "The collective level of consciousness of mankind remained at 190 for many centuries and, curiously, only jumped to its current level of 204 within the last decade".3 The decade Hawkins is referring to is roughly 1980-1990. This is the most emphatic assertion of the phenomenal rise in consciousness within a very short recent period after centuries of stagnation that I have come across.
Sri Aurobindo created within an incredibly short period of six years and a half a body of literature based on ancient Indian wisdom in the English language, the quantity and quality of which remains unsurpassed to this day. In his works, he touched just about every subject under the sun, and whatever he touched acquired a unique timeless spiritual orientation. He transfigured with his magical touch history and politics, psychology and science, sociology and pedagogy, yoga and spirituality. What he was striving for was the ultimate solution that would wipe out all misery from human life. Rather, he attempted, and successfully prepared the background for transforming earth into heaven. As Sri Aurobindo wrote in a famous letter to the Mother on 20 May 1915, "Heaven we have possessed, but not the earth; but the fullness of the Yoga is to make, in the formula of the Veda, "Heaven and Earth equal and one"."4 Although Sri Aurobindo was a prolific writer, so often a single sentence has enough material for a book. About Sri Aurobindo's writings, Raymond Piper says, "I could pick a thousand sentences from his writings and say of any one of them: trace its implications, and you will be led into the deep wonderlands of philosophic wisdom. I have never read an author who can compact so much of truth into one sentence as this master."5
1. K.R. Srinivasa Iyenger. Sri Aurobindo: a biography and a history. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Fifth edition, 2006, p. 402.
2. Gary Zukav. The Seat of the Soul. New York: Simon & Schuster (A Fireside Book), 1989, pp. 13-21.
3. David Hawkins. Power Versus Force: An Anatomy of Consciousness. The Hidden Determinants of Human Behaviour. Sedona Arizona: Veritas Publishing, Second Edition, 1998, p.67.
4. K.R. Srinivasa Iyenger. Sri Aurobindo: a biography and a history. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Fifth edition, 2006, p. 408.
5. K.R. Srinivasa Iyenger. Sri Aurobindo: a biography and a history. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Fifth edition, 2006, p. 515.
Sri Aurobindo was born on 15 August 1872. The first issue of the Arya was published a hundred years ago on his forty-second birthday. India became free on his seventy-fifth birthday.
This article is also available on www.speakingtree.in/public/rameshbijlani