• 20 Jul, 2024

Sri Aurobindo and Indian Philosophy

Sri Aurobindo and Indian Philosophy

A critical exploration of Sri Aurobindo's place in, and contribution to, Indian philosophy

We do not realize even today the upheaval Sri Aurobindo brought into Indian darshana although he based his philosophy only on the most integral Vedantic vision and in line with the scriptural discoveries of the Vedas and Upanishads.  

By the time he returned to India in 1892, Vedanta had come to mean the Mayavada of Adi Sankaracharya (most likely even Sankara was deeply misunderstood or misinterpreted) or the Vishisht Advaita of Ramanujacharya or the Dvaitavada of Madhvacharya. The ancient findings of the Vedic rishis, and their original spirit of fearless exploration into the nature of consciousness, had been forgotten in the oppression of a physical colonization, a torpor and inertia of vital energy and the lack of clarity and perception across the nation. Sri Krishna’s message of an Integral Vedanta was forgotten, and Indians had forgotten his exhortation not to reject the world of action but to embrace and be victorious through skill in works.  

India had become colonized not only in body but also in spirit. Swami Vivekananda had initiated the process of awakening the nation and making the world aware of India’s spiritual heritage. He worked hard towards a spiritual renaissance of the nation. Sri Aurobindo took it further by transforming Indian Darshana in many ways and completed the task that Swami Vivekananda had begun.  

What is Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to Indian Darshana? To my mind, these are his greatest achievements that re-energized Vedanta and Tantra, reconciled Indian darshana with Western philosophy and prepared for the advent of a new age of a true creative evolution.  

  1. Sri Aurobindo brought back to us an integral understanding of Vedanta along the line of Sri Krishna. If there is one work of his that would have the greatest impact on India’s spiritual rebirth, it would be Essays on the Gita, a bhashya, or commentary, that not only brings to light Sri Krishna’s great philosophic and metaphysical achievement but gives us a path forward in Sri Krishna’s light. Sri Aurobindo continued in the great tradition of Sri Krishna and harmonized and synthetized the various Indian darshanas into a coherent, comprehensive, methodical and systematic whole that was yet not dry and intellectual but arose from his own realizations and being.
  2. Sri Aurobindo brought Indian darshana, which is the karana sharira or causal body of India’s physical and psychological bodies, back to its people in its original purity and intensity. It was essential for Indians to realize their svadharma and realize India’s central place in the comity of nations and in mankind’s future. By bringing back India’s dharma to itself, so to speak, awakening it to its own higher purpose and the true reason for svarajya, he may be said to be the true Father of India’s Independence or svarajya. What was only a theoretical construct or an aspiration of a few leaders of the country at the dawn of the 20th century, he turned into direct action and crystallized certain critical events in the politics of India that precipitated the ideal into the nation’s consciousness and eventually made it a reality four decades or so later. The ability to bring a deeper principle into reality, what is called ritam in the ancient Vedas, is what distinguishes him from theoretical philosophers. His realizations were later brought into reality by Mirra Alfassa, the Mother of Pondicherry Ashram, once again showing that darshana is not just for abstract thinkers and idealists but may be brought into the practical dimensions and practice, vyavhara, exactly what Sri Krishna did when he exhorted Arjuna to fight in the war of Mahabharata to establish the rule of truth and righteousness. The Universal Illusionism of Sankara thus was restored to a Universal Realism that was all-embracing, life-affirming and truly rooted in the human condition on earth rather than being transcendental and other-worldly.
  3. Sri Aurobindo gave us an integral vision of Vedanta, or perhaps one should say, an integral reinterpretation of Vedanta. For Vedanta is already integral in each foundational great sayings or Mahavakyas. When a darshana can boldly utter that ‘All is Brahman’ ( sarvam brahma ), what aspect of life or existence may we leave out of the equation? And when it can say, with even greater boldness. that ‘I too am Brahman’ ( ayam atma brahma ) and ‘That Brahman is who I am’ ( tat tvam asi and so’ham ) then we are given the widest possible platform that any philosophy can give us in our consideration, scope and scale. And when can say that ‘This too is That’ ( etad vai tat ) then where are we allowed the opportunity to deduct out of our universality or be reductionistic? Perhaps one might say that Sri Aurobindo effectively restated, or explained, Vedanta in an integral manner. This contribution, in my opinion, has to possibility to reconcile the various lines of spirituality not only in the Indic domain but also in the Western spheres, giving us the opportunity to transform our religions, metaphysics and theologies.
  4. Sri Aurobindo absorbed the Darwinian theory of Evolution and Bergson’s concept of Creative Evolution into a Vedantic framework as a fitting and just completion of their theories. The contradictions and paradoxes of Darwin and Bergson were resolved in his concept of Involution of Brahman which is a restatement of the ancient Indian principle of Satkaryavada that the cause already contains the effect within it and that which is universal and eternal in the cause and effect continues to abide in their unfoldings. The chance element in Darwin’s theory was thus laid to rest and the duality in Bergson’s system was addressed. Sri Aurobindo, in his elaboration of the principle of the Avatar in the Hindu pantheon, also showed how each avatar successively traced the evolutionary line of development on earth and how further growth of consciousness, form and spirit might be envisaged. Vedanta was thus made dynamic, affirmative, and adaptable to the new theories coming out of the west as a crucial element in understanding the partial paradigms of modern sciences.
  5. The concept of the Chaitya Purusha of the Vedas, or the Psychic being, was brought to the fore by him and the Mother of Pondicherry Ashram to complete the fullest understanding of the theory of Evolution in a Vedantic paradigm. The Psychic principle also makes it easier to understand the various spiritual lines of development in the bhakti or devotional realm, thus encompassing all its various manifestations in various societies, religions, literatures, cultures, and mythologies of the human saga. It also gives a practical path of development for an integral growth and evolution of each human being. By showing that Jesus Christ was an avatar of the psychic principle, Sri Aurobindo created lines of connectedness between Christian and Vedantic  spirituality.  
  6. Sri Aurobindo synthesized Tantra with Advaita Vedanta in a practical approach towards an individual’s wholistic transformation and psychological askesis. The Vama Marga which reflects a great truth of human existence was thus elevated to an equally exalted status as that of Vedanta in Indian metaphysics with an integration of the two into one system of yoga called the Integral Yoga or Purna Yoga. Such an integration had been attempted earlier even by Adi Sankaracharya in the Saundarya Lahiri and Guru Gorakhnath, and later Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, but they did not create a philosophical and metaphysical basis for the synthesis per se. Sri Aurobindo in his own articulation brought in the elements of the Leftist and Rightist paths in one synoptic vision and practical yogic development.
  7. Sri Aurobindo clarified the question of Vishishta Advaita expounded by Ramanujacharya who insisted that while Brahman is one and unitary it is characterized by multiplicity, and it has elements with vishista or unique attributes. But Ramanuja insisted that Bhakti was the sole means of liberation. Sri Aurobindo with the larger and synthetic view of the Gita holds that jnana and karma are equally valid means of liberation and that Brahman is not only nirguna or without quality but also saguna, with qualities, and that the Oneness in Diversity is not a contradiction in terms. The qualified monism of Ramanuja and the pure monism of Sankara are reconciled and restated in Sri Aurobindo’s purna yoga as the principle of All in One and One in All being the secret of universal manifestation.
  8. Sri Aurobindo researched deep into the literary devices and etymological significances of the Vedas to understand their significance and how they related to the later developments of the Upanishads. He discovered in his own personal experience, and by interpreting Vedic symbolism and metaphors that the Vedas had indeed been the repository of advanced spiritual knowledge of ancient Indian rishis and not the babblings of a primitive humanity as had been claimed by some European scholars. In fact, through his study, Sri Aurobindo was able to validate his own spiritual realizations and show that the advancements in the Vedas needed to be understood with a sympathetic and truly scientific scholarship in the modern context. He showed us that India and the whole world share a great heritage in these srutis and an unbiased though not uncritical study was needed in interpretation and translation. Since most Indian darshanas derive their lineage from the Vedas, this was a critical step in understanding India’s early beginnings as a civilization that was fearless in its exploration and bold in its conclusions, open in its adventure and wide in its embrace of all possibilities.
  9. Sri Aurobindo made the intuitive rational and the rational intuitive. He did not believe in eschewing the mind with its myriad complications but refining it to higher levels of illumination and intuition. His elaboration of the Supramental consciousness, or what was called the RitChit by the Vedas, shows that he linked the various layers and sublayers of consciousness into one interconnected spectrum that was in essence too a manifestation of the same Truth or Sat. Sri Aurobindo used the mind and its methods to ascend above its own limitations and become subtler, capable of handling the finer perceptions and abstractions or realities. Nor did he reject matter or the body since he acclaimed like the Vedic rishi, ‘This too is Brahman’. This jada or inert Brahman is so only in appearance but holds within its dark inconscience too the Sun of Light or the Sadchidananda just as the highest levels of rarified consciousness do so. This finding too had been discovered by the Vedic rishis before him, and he brought it once again to the fore creating a vast consistent system that explained the various paradoxes of our existence.
  10. Sri Aurobindo not only built upon the great exposition of Sri Krishna, he also contextualized the Buddha and his realization of Nirvana and Shunya in the Vedantic understanding and explained that the Buddha only restated Vedanta in a new terminology and framework and made it available to the general populace in a simpler language. This is critical since the simple and practical truths of the Buddha are an integral part of his Purna Yoga, thereby reconciling the last two avatars in the Indian lineage.

Sri Aurobindo made nationalism a spiritual enterprise and invocation in his famous Uttarpara speech. In his vast understanding of India not just as a geographical landmass but as a living Shakti, a civilization that was the bearer of the earth’s spiritual heart, he enjoined upon us to live Sanatana Dharma, what was called the Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley, for the true nationalism was to serve the Eternal and the Universal among us. In one stroke, he had widened the challenge of India’s self-existence and struggle for freedom as a universal movement with a vast significance for humanity. Perhaps no better understanding of his genius can be gained than by identifying that he articulated the issue at the heart of India’s, or any country’s, colonization and servitude. That freedom of the human spirit is at the core of our ultimate liberation and evolution into a new level of organization, whether locally or internationally. Thus, the most fervent nationalism is turned into a service of a larger philosophy and vision, the secular made sacred, the worldly made spiritual.  

He brought back ancient Indian principles of an Integral Education to replace the Macaulay system of creating babus and automatons and helots of the English empire. An approach to the total development of a child or any student in holistic manner that would be the true basis for any future creation of a greater race of humans. Not via eugenics or some such sense of racial superiority but by insisting on what is the truth in each human and what the significance of each component of our life and personality. His ashram, open to both men and women, boys and girls, was itself a revolution in the traditional and conservative Indian system of spiritual living; so was the insistence that his ashram was a lab that was not divorced from life and cut off from the world but was an instrument towards its eventual transformation towards greater harmony and ascent along the evolutionary ladder.  

Sri Aurobindo is the meeting point of spirituality and metaphysics, esoteric religion and universal and true humanitarianism, and dare I say, the coming together of the essence of Socialism and Communism and the most flagrant and independent individualism, of Marx and Nietzsche, of Hegel and Sartre, but in an Indic paradigm. He was also a social, cultural, and linguistic philosopher of the highest order, a nationalist as well as internationalist, a classicist as well as a thorough modernist, a revivalist as well as a futurist.  


Excerpted from Dr. Pariksith Singh’s new book, Sri Aurobindo and Philosophy, published by  Kali, an imprint of BluOneInk, and released on August 6, 2022 at the Pondicherry Literature Festival.  

Pariksith Singh MD

Author, poet, philosopher and medical practitioner based in Florida, USA. Pariksith Singh has been deeply engaged, spiritually and intellectually, with Sri Aurobindo and his Yoga for almost all his adult life, and is the author of 'Sri Aurobindo and the Literary Renaissance of India', 'Sri Aurobindo and Philosophy', and 'The Veda Made Simple'.

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