Room with a View|Aug 12, 2013 4:00 AM| by:

Sri Aurobindo: The Poet, Yogi and Philosopher

Book: Sri Aurobindo: The Poet, Yogi and Philosopher

Essays by Arabinda Basu

(Publisher: Centre for Sri Aurobindo Studies, Kolkata, in collaboration with Maha Bodhi Book Agency. 322 pp, ISBN 978-93-80336-19-0, Rs 650)

We are fortunate indeed to have in print the collection of these essays on Sri Aurobindo by nonagenarian philosopher Arabinda Basu, for which we have the editor, Dr. Indrani Sanyal, and the Centre for Sri Aurobindo Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, to thank. A professor at the Benares Hindu University from the 1940s, Basu belongs to the great first wave of modern Indian philosophy, when the discipline was in its formative phase in the academy. He was also a disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and had the privilege of corresponding directly with the Master on matters of his philosophy. Through the decades, Basu has introduced numerous students to the spiritual philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and is considered one of its foremost exponents. Given this fact, a volume such as this, containing twenty-four essays on Sri Aurobindo and his teaching, particularly his philosophy, is a rare legacy for posterity. These essays span an undisclosed period of time, and are, in some cases, records of talks. Dating these essays would have been very helpful, since their historicity would have given the reader a sense of change or development in ideas or nuances, and a sense of the era in which they were written. As such, this lack of location and temporality makes the essays lose some concreteness, though their content is no less valuable for that.

Sri Aurobindo repeated on occasion that he was not a philosopher by birth or training, but rather a poet and politician. But he attributed his “becoming” a philosopher to yoga: (1) to yogic experience and expression “in terms of the intellect” of the “relations and sequences” of this experience “so that all unites logically together”; and (2) to his conviction that “a yogi ought to be able to turn his hand to anything.” Basu is careful to point this out, as is Sanyal in her editorial essay. According to Basu, the derivation of philosophy from yogic experience is the hallmark of Indian philosophy, and distinguishes it from its occidental counterpart. It thus characterizes Sri Aurobindo as a philosopher in the Indian sense of darshana and makes him a darshanika. In the book’s first essay, the only one dated (2005), “Sri Aurobindo and Philosophy,” Basu locates Sri Aurobindo squarely and exclusively in the tradition of Indian philosophy and takes issue with those who think of him as having consciously effected a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought. This does not mean that his philosophy excludes the standpoints introduced by Western philosophers. According to Basu, its amazing comprehensiveness is no less Indian, since “Indian philosophy is basically synthetic in nature.” Of course, Sri Aurobindo himself, expressing his intent in writing the Arya, wrote that it was “an approach to the highest reconciling truth from the point of view of the Indian mentality and Indian spiritual experience, and Western knowledge has been viewed from that standpoint.”

One may be justified in distinguishing the tradition of Indian darshana from Western philosophy through its basis in spiritual experience, but a trenchant divide between the two traditions in an era of planetary integration has its own problems. The development of the discipline of Indian philosophy, in entering the modern knowledge academy, and in addressing international language speakers, finds itself needing, even imperceptibly, to engage dialogically with the framework, methodologies, concerns and content of an existing international discourse, a process which inevitably draws the discipline out of its traditional enclosure into a global becoming. Such a “translation” may be read into Sri Aurobindo’s own writing. Though Basu addresses Sri Aurobindo’s readings into and comments on Western philosophers in this first essay, an eye towards convergent lines or homologous orientations might have helped in the furtherance of such understanding. For example, though Basu acknowledges Sri Aurobindo’s commentary on Heraclitus, he omits Nietzsche from the Western thinkers addressed by Sri Aurobindo. In his essay on the Superman, Sri Aurobindo acknowledges Nietzsche as the originator of this idea in our times. In the commentary on Heraclitus, Sri Aurobindo praises Nietzsche for bringing back into modern philosophy some of the “old dynamism and practical force” of ancient Greek thinkers and sees his kinship with Heraclitus. Several lineages of modern and contemporary philosophy have acknowledged these contributions of Nietzsche and envision him at the head of new philosophies of human becoming and experience. I am thinking of existentialism, phenomenology, ontology and post-structuralism. Most of these lineages also recognize the kinship Nietzsche bore to Heraclitus and the pre-Socratic Greek thinkers, who spoke in an enigmatic intuitive tongue on the profundities of existence and experience.

The heart of the book is a clear exposition of Sri Aurobindo’s own philosophy, with its complex relationship of terms. This is approached in a number of essays but most comprehensively in the book’s longest essay, titled “The Integral Brahman.” The Vedantic basis of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy is brought out here along with important additions from later traditions. Distinctions such as that between Vidya (Knowledge) and Avidya (Ignorance); Brahman, Atman, Purusha and Ishwara and their respective executive counterparts, Maya, Prakriti and Shakti; Sacchidananda (Existence-Consciousness-Bliss), Vijnana (Supermind) and the Vidya-Avidya plane of consciousness (Overmind); the psychic entity and the psychic being, involution and evolution are drawn with sure unambiguity, and the relationships of all these under various circumstances spelled out.

Aside from this, a number of essays constellate Sri Aurobindo’s philosophical concepts (or “experience-concepts” as Basu calls them, adopting Sri Aurobindo’s terminology from The Life Divine) with those belonging to different traditions of India. In this area of comparative Indian philosophy, too, the book excels. What is the relationship of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy to the Vedas and the Upanishads, the Gita, Sankhya, Buddhism, the later schools of Vedantic interpretation such as  Advaita, Visishtadvaita, Dwaita of various persuasions, Tantra or Saiva Siddhanta, particularly that of the Kashmir Pratyabhijna school? If you would like answers to any of these or similar questions, these essays will provide clear distinctions and pointers for further research.

From these essays one also gets a sense of the vast and teeming forest of Indian philosophy and its development through the ages. One sees, for example, how the concept of Purusha changes, extends itself and evolves through the millennia, and how Sri Aurobindo acknowledges the relative truth of each of these states of consciousness, developing them further, as with the chaitya purusha or psychic being, and relating them to each other in an integral cosmology and teleology. In a most interesting essay titled “The Infinite Zero,” Basu draws out the primordial relationship between Sat and Asat in the Upanishads, loosely translated as Being and Non-Being, and shows that this relationship was affirmed by Sri Aurobindo, who equated the Buddhist Shunya with the transcendence of Sat. In a hermeneutic act of constructive theology, Basu uses these grounds to see Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual realization as including Madhyamika Buddhism, with its equation of Nirvana and Samsara, and on this basis as well as his will for world transformation, considers Sri Aurobindo a Bodhisattva, in the highest sense of that term.

Another high point in this comparative philosophy is Basu’s relating of the three poises of Supermind to the three later Vedantic philosophies, Advaita, Visishtadvaita and Dwaita. Though Sri Aurobindo writes of this in The Life Divine, Basu’s treatment elaborates Sri Aurobindo’s ideas and we are led to see why the integral consciousness of Supermind is necessary for humanity to rise into Truth, beyond dissenting pluralities. So long as we dwell within Mind, the Truth can express itself variously in our experience, depending on the status of Supermind reflected in the mind. Such experiences will seem to possess the self-evidence of Truth, yet will be varied and yield exclusive descriptions of noumenon and phenomema and their mutual relationship. This is the foundation of our religious strife, from which we cannot have release except by entry into an integral consciousness, in which all these experiences are seen as simultaneous self-descriptions of Reality, related in specific ways to form possibilities of cosmos.

Developing Sri Aurobindo’s affinities, Basu shows the closeness of his philosophy to the Gita and the Tantric Shaivism of the Kashmir Trika or Pratyabhijna school. Yet he also shows how Sri Aurobindo surpasses their conceptions—mainly through the ideas of the cosmic evolution of consciousness, and the descent of Supermind, leading to the divine transformation of mind, life and body in the individual and the manifestation of a new supramental species and a divine life on earth.

Though Basu is not given to flights of poetic fancy in his writing, it cannot be called dry. At its best, there is a high beauty of intuitive economy that aids the concentration of the mind on the world of spiritual ideas. In keeping with Sri Aurobindo’s self-understanding as a poet, the essays are richly illustrated with lines of Sri Aurobindo’s poetry, most frequently from Savitri. All in all, this is a rich harvest of experience-concepts, inviting us to meditate on the transcendent, cosmic and personal psychologies of the Integral Yoga in their highest, deepest and broadest interrelations.

— Debashish Banerji

(Debashish Banerji is the Dean of Academic Affairs at the University of Philosophical Research, Los Angeles. He has a doctorate in Indian Art History and teaches courses in South Asian, East Asian, and Islamic Art History at several institutions. He is the author of The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore.)

(Sri Aurobindo: The Poet, Yogi and Philosopher is available at SABDA which also holds the copyright for this review.)