• 22 Apr, 2024

Sankhya and Sri Aurobindo

Sankhya and Sri Aurobindo

Continuing our series on Sri Aurobindo and Integral Yoga

Involution and Evolution of Consciousness

The Sankhya system begins with consciousness and shows how it systematically fragments and becomes more dense until it is fully involved in Matter. Sri Aurobindo reminds us that there is an intense, concentrated involved intelligence which we can see even in the atom. The mathematical precision and obvious interface between forces of attraction and repulsion, organized energy and the ability to develop from the atom to any number of complex structures, eventually leading to the development of life and mental action, shows that this consciousness is there, if hidden, in an involved state. Modern science in fact is now confirming that where they originally thought Matter was the origin, they then moved on to state that “matter is energy” and more recently “energy is consciousness”. We see therefore close agreement between the leading edge of modern scientific thought and the ancient teachings of the Sankhya.

“In the evolution of the soul back from Prakriti towards Purusha, the reverse order has to be taken to the original Nature-evolution, and that is how the Upanishads and the Gita following and almost quoting the Upanishads state the ascending order of our subjective powers.”

‘Supreme,’ they say, ‘beyond their objects are the senses, supreme over the senses the mind, supreme over the mind the intelligent will: that which is supreme over the intelligent will, is he,’ — is the conscious self, the Purusha. Therefore, says the Gita, it is this Purusha, this supreme cause of our subjective life which we have to understand and become aware of by the intelligence; in that we have to fix our will. So holding our lower subjective self in Nature firmly poised and stilled by means of the greater rally conscient self, we can destroy the restless ever-active enemy of our peace and self-mastery, the mind’s desire.”

The evolution of consciousness we see expounded here tracks, in reverse order, the involution that brought consciousness into Matter. The process of the yoga the Gita prescribes is to turn the focus and attention on that highest consciousness and see and experience it as the ultimate and first cause of all we experience. ( Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita )

The Instruments of Our Subjective Experience

In the Sankhya analysis, which the Gita by and large adopts, our interaction with the objective world is carried out by the instruments of subjective experience, which themselves are elements of Nature, Prakriti. Because the subtler, higher and finer consciousness precedes the gross outer material world, these elements develop starting with the Buddhi, the discriminating intelligence and will. The ego-sense is an outgrowth of the development of the Buddhi. From there, the sense-mind, Manas is developed, which develops the senses of perception and action to interact with the material world and its objective reality based on the 5 elements.

Sri Aurobindo carries this analysis further by relating it to the role of the Purusha: “Reflected in the pure consciousness of Purusha these degrees and powers of Nature-force become the material of our impure subjectivity, impure because its action is dependent on the perceptions of the objective world and on their subjective reactions.”

“Buddhi…takes for us the form of intelligence and will. Manas, the inconscient force which seizes Nature’s discriminations by objective action and reaction and grasps at them by attraction, becomes sense-perception and desire, the two crude terms or degradations of intelligence and will, becomes the sense-mind sensational, emotive, volitional in the lower sense of wish, hope, longing, passion, vital impulsion, all the deformations…of will. The senses become the instruments of sense-mind, the perceptive five of our sense-knowledge, the active five of our impulsions and vital habits, mediators between the subjective and objective; the rest are the objects of our consciousness…”

We see here, then a mechanism whereby the 24 principles of Sankhya have undergone systematic transformations in order to create the conscious experience that we all have and take for granted. The forms of intelligence and will have undergone a step-down effect in order to interact with the elements, and the intervening steps of sense-reaction and desire, and the grasping after the objects of senses are the operative aspects of our subjective experience in the lower nature. ( Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita )

The Supreme Purusha Of the Gita

The Gita incorporates, in the first six chapters, most of the premises of the Vedantic concept of knowledge. Sri Aurobindo describes it: “The Gita takes it over at once and completely and throughout the six chapters quietly substitutes the still immutable Brahman of the Vedantins, the One without a second immanent in all cosmos, for the still immutable but multiple Purusha of the Sankhyas. It accepts throughout these chapters knowledge and realisation of the Brahman as the most important, the indispensable means of liberation, even while it insists on desireless works as an essential part of knowledge.”

The Gita weaves together the concepts of Sankhya and Vedanta in a way that takes up, expands and harmonises their positions. In the way of knowledge, however, it is clear that the Vedantic viewpoint is predominant.

At the same time, both Sankhya and Vedanta, in the sense that they were understood and practiced at the time, were unable to resolve the ultimate question that would be able to integrate action and inaction, the immobile and the mobile. The Gita addresses this by describing a supreme Purusha, Purushottama, which was able to hold within itself, without conflict or disharmony, both the unmoving and the moving concurrently.

“The Brahman is its supreme and not in any lower aspect has to be presented as the Purusha with the lower Prakriti for its Maya, so to synthesize thoroughly Vedanta and Sankhya, and as Ishwara, so to synthesize thoroughly both with Yoga; but the Gita is going to represent the Ishwara, the Purushottama, as higher even than the still and immutable Brahman, and the loss of ego in the impersonal comes in at the beginning as only a great initial and necessary step towards union with the Purushottama. For the Purushottama is the supreme Brahman.”

The concept is alluded to in the Upanishads, but it is the Gita which clearly sets it forth and positions it in such a way as to allow all the major schools of understanding to fit within it. ( Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita )

The Challenges Facing the Gita’s Synthesis

The Vedas, Upanishads and other texts of the ancient seers were vast storehouses of observation, information and analysis, along with practical guidelines for gaining an understanding through personal experience. They, in fact, started from the experience, observation and standpoint of a specific seer in many cases. While they focused on and moved toward the central unifying experience, they did so from multiple unique and individual views, and thus, came to the observation and the solution in multiple different ways. They were, therefore, a fragmented view of the unity, and more or less represented the attempt of the blind men to describe the elephant by each one touching a different part of it, and thereby coming up with vastly different descriptions.

The Gita, on the other hand, is attempting to unify these different descriptions into a unified whole. The standpoint can be compared to the concept of the first time humans observed the planet earth from outer space, and began to recognise that the world is one unified eco-sphere and bio-sphere and that all human beings are one species and just one part of this unified biological and ecological whole.

The Gita therefore does not outright dismiss any particular path or philosophical direction that was current at the time, but works to integrate it into a more complete web of understanding, eliminating thereby the most exclusive and rigid aspects of each one, and looking to find where it fits into the larger picture and thereby harmonises with the others.

During this process, the Gita adds its own contributions which provide some of the unifying factors. Sri Aurobindo describes the process of the Gita: “The Gita has to synthesize the Yoga doctrine of liberation by works and the Sankhya doctrine of liberation by knowledge; it has to fuse karma with jnana. It has at the same time to synthesize the Purusha and Prakriti idea common to Sankhya and Yoga with the Brahmavada of the current Vedanta in which the Purusha, Deva, Ishwara,–supreme Soul, God, Lord,–of the Upanishads all became merged in the one all-swallowing concept of the immutable Brahman; and it has to bring out again from its overshadowing by that concept but not with any denial of it the Yoga idea of the Lord or Ishwara. It has too its own luminous thought to add, the crown of its synthetic system, the doctrine of the Purushottama and of the triple Purusha for which, though the idea is there, no precise and indisputable authority can be easily found in the Upanishads and which seems indeed at first sight to be in contradiction with that text of the Shruti where only two Purushas are recognised.”

Other views are also harmonised along the way as the Gita addresses the main lines of Sankhya, Yoga and Vedanta in its integrating view. ( Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita )

The Synthesis of the Gita

If we look past the philosophical details to the underlying focus and action, we can see a lot of similarity between the Vedantic yoga of knowledge and the philosophy of the Sankhya. They both use the power of the intelligence, and the discriminating intellect to determine the underlying truth of existence, regardless of whether they consider that truth to be an illusory Maya or Prakriti consisting of the action of the 3 gunas.

Each of them sees liberation as the result of a process of abstraction from involvement in the works of the world, leading to a quiescent opening to a vast, unmoving, silent Reality, however it is actually described or defined. This provides us a basis for the Gita taking up the Sankhya and integrating it with the Vedantic path that is at its core.

The Gita adds to this path of knowledge, an emphasis on the value and importance of the Yoga of Works. Sri Aurobindo describes it this way: “But for the Yoga of the Gita, as for the Vedantic Yoga of works, action is not only a preparation but itself the means of liberation; and it is the justice of this view which the Gita seeks to bring out with such an unceasing force and insistence….”

The Gita brings about the integration of these diverse paths through a re-defining of the meaning of renunciation: “Renunciation is indispensable, but the true renunciation is the inner rejection of desire and egoism; without that the outer physical abandoning of works is a thing unreal and ineffective, with it it ceases even to be necessary, although it is not forbidden.”

Sri Aurobindo summarizes the integrated path of the Gita: “Knowledge is essential, there is no higher force for liberation, but works with knowledge are also needed; by the union of knowledge and works the soul dwells entirely in the Brahmic status not only in repose and inactive calm, but in the very midst and stress and violence of action. Devotion is all-important, but works with devotion are also important; by the union of knowledge, devotion and works the soul is taken up into the highest status of the Ishwara to dwell there in the Purushottama who is master at once of the eternal spiritual calm and the eternal cosmic activity.” ( Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita )


Our gratitude to Sri Aurobindo Studies   

Originally published here    
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