Introduction to Sri Aurobindo’s The Synthesis of Yoga

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In The Synthesis of Yoga Sri Aurobindo unfolds his vision of an integral (also called “purna” or “complete”) yoga embracing all the powers and activities of man. He provides an overview of the main paths of yoga, their primary methodologies and the necessity for integrating them into a complete, all-embracing and all-encompassing activity. The motto “All Life Is Yoga” is the theme of this text.

Sri Aurobindo points out that this is not intended as a fixed methodology: “The Synthesis of Yoga was not meant to give a method for all to follow. Each side of the Yoga was dealt with separately with all its possibilities, and an indication as to how they meet so that one starting from knowledge could realise Karma and Bhakti also and so with each path.” (pg. 899)

The final section begins to flesh out an integrative method which Sri Aurobindo called the “yoga of self-perfection”. While all the details of this approach were not completed to the extent desired, Sri Aurobindo has provided ample guidelines for the seeker to understand the direction and the path.

It is our goal to take up the systematic review of The Synthesis of Yoga in the following pages. All page number citations in this review are based on the U.S. edition of The Synthesis of Yoga published by Lotus Press, EAN: 978-0-9415-2465-0 Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga

Chapter headings and organization of the material follow The Synthesis of Yoga.

Sri Aurobindo Studies

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Sri Aurobindo’s integral yoga has enormous implications for the time we find ourselves in.  As we systematically destroy the basis of life on the planet, and wall off one another through ultimate fragmentation, we are left with the stark contrast of choosing between survival and destruction, life and death, growth or decline.  Sri Aurobindo recognizes the necessity of the individual within the context of the collectivity, universality and the transcendent consciousness of Oneness.  The individual is the nexus or hub of the evolutionary urge, but not separate from nor at the expense of the life of the cosmic whole.

We also have a daily twitter feed on Sri Aurobindo’s studies at www.twitter.com/santoshk1

We have systematically worked our way through The Life Divine as well as The Mother , Essays on the Gita and Rebirth and Karma.  The newest posts appear near the top.  If you want to start at the beginning, go to the oldest post and roll forward until you reach the final posts in July 2012.

Another option is to “search” for the chapter you would like to study and see all posts relating to that chapter. You may have to ask for “older posts” once you have the search results if you are looking for one of the earlier chapters.

We have separated the posts relating to each book into their own folder as an additional organisational tool.

Similarly you can use the search box to find specific concepts, terms or issues you are interested in. The results will show all posts that address those concepts or terms. You may have to click on “older posts” to find all the references here as well.

The next book we are taking up is The Synthesis of Yoga by Sri Aurobindo, following a similar format to that we have utilised for The Life Divine , The Mother, Essays on the Gita and Rebirth and Karma.

You may also want to visit our information site for Sri Aurobindo at Sri-Aurobindo.Com

Sri Aurobindo’s major writings are published in the US by Lotus Press.

The systematic studies on this blog have also been published as self-standing books by Lotus Press and are available in both printed formats and as e-books. There are 3 volumes encompassing Readings in Sri Aurobindo’s The Life Divine, 2 volumes encompassing Readings in Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita, as well as 1 volume for Readings in The Mother by Sri Aurobindo, and Readings in Sri Aurobindo’s Rebirth and Karma., and 1 volume currently for the first section of The Synthesis of Yoga titled Readings In Sri Aurobindo’s The Synthesis of Yoga, Vol. 1 Introduction and Yoga of Divine Works

Many of the major writings of Sri Aurobindo are now also accessible on the Amazon Kindle Platform as well as Apple itunes, google play, kobo, and Barnes & Noble nook as well.  Kindle e-book reader program is also available for PC, Laptop, iPad, Blackberry, Android, iPhone and many other platforms from Amazon without charge. You can find the current list of titles available by going to http://www.amazon.com , go to the “kindle store” and type in “Aurobindo” New titles are being added as they can be made ready. Many of the major books are already accessible by the Kindle Reader.  You can follow a similar procedure for the other platforms we now support for Sri Aurobindo’s writings, I-tunes, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, and KOBO.

The Various Poises of the Soul in the Higher Planes of Consciousness

In order to facilitate our review and understanding of the poises or standpoints available to the Purusha in existence, the ancient sages have outlined 7 of them consisting of a lower hemisphere of Matter, Life and Mind, a transitional higher stage called Gnosis or Knowledge, and an upper hemisphere consisting of Existence, Consciousness and Bliss which are in act always unified; thus, some consider there to be only 5 planes of distinction rather than 7. Yet each of the 3 in the upper hemisphere still have their own unique emphasis and characteristics so looking at them as separate poises can be helpful. The soul, the Purusha, may take its basic standpoint founded in any of these seven poises.

Sri Aurobindo summarizes the essential characteristic of each of the poises of higher consciousness as follows: “The soul may dwell in the principle of infinite unity of self-existence and be aware of all consciousness, energy, delight, knowledge, will, activity as conscious form of this essential truth, Sat or Satya. It may dwell in the principle of infinite conscious energy, Tapas, and be aware of it unrolling out of self-existence the works of knowledge, will and dynamic soul-action for the enjoyment of an infinite delight of being. It may dwell in the principle of infinite self-existent delight and be aware of the divine Ananda creating out of its self-existence by its energy whatever harmony of being. In these three poises the consciousness of unity dominates; the soul lives in its awareness of eternity, universality, unity, and whatever diversity there is, is not separative, but only a multitudinous aspect of oneness. It may dwell too in the principle of supermind, in a luminous self-determining knowledge, will and action which develops some coordination of perfect delight of conscious being. In the higher gnosis unity is the basis, but it takes its joy in diversity; in lower fact of supermind diversity is the basis, but it refers back always to a conscious unity and it takes joy in unity. These ranges of consciousness are beyond our present level; they are superconscious to our normal mentality. That belongs to a lower hemisphere of being.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 3, The Psychology of Self-Perfection, pp. 602-603

The Sovereign Control of the Soul Over Its Nature

The Shwetashwatara Upanishad declares: “For He who is the Womb of the World bringeth each nature to its perfection and He matureth all those that are yet to be perfected. He indwelleth and presideth over all this His world and setteth all the modes of Nature to their workings.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Shwetashwatara Upanishad, Ch. 5, v. 5, pg. 375)

For most people, it seems that in their lives they are always subject to Nature. The idea of mastery over Nature is the province of imagination, dream or hallucination. When we observe the workings of instinct and rote behavior in the animal kingdom we see little evidence there of any free will, much less any sign of mastery of nature. With the advent of the higher reason in human beings, there comes the ability to begin to detach oneself from the mechanical workings of nature, to apply will-power and to bring about change, to some degree. This power can grow over time with the growth of the consciousness and the development of a purposive action, such as is contemplated in the science of Yoga. Sri Aurobindo observes: “This power of the soul over its nature is of the utmost importance in the Yoga of self-perfection; if it did not exist, we could never get by conscious endeavour and aspiration out of the fixed groove of our present imperfect human being; if any greater perfection were intended, we should have to wait for Nature to effect it in her own slow or swift process of evolution.”

The soul “…awakes to a sense of something in itself which can command Nature; but it is only when it arrives at self-knowledge that this free will and control becomes a complete reality. The change effects itself through process of nature, not therefore by any capricious magic, but an ordered development and intelligible process. When complete mastery is gained, then the process by its self-effective rapidity may seem a miracle to the intelligence, but it still proceeds by law of the truth of Spirit,–when the Divine within us by close union of our will and being with him takes up the Yoga and acts as the omnipotent master of the nature. For the Divine is our highest Self and the self of all Nature, the eternal and universal Purusha.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 3, The Psychology of Self-Perfection, pg. 602

The Purusha–Transcendent, Universal and Individual

When people reflect on the nature of the soul, they are generally caught in the dividing and limiting power of the mental intellect and try to distinguish it from Nature or from God, and thus, they create a “construct” that represents the essence of the individual soul in existence. The Purusha however represents not just an individual principle, but also has universal and transcendent aspects in its deeper and wider essential nature as an eternal principle.

It is the Purusha who is expressing himself in names and forms and ultimately, even if he seems to be uninvolved or distinctly separated from the forms of nature, he is still there secretly involved and developing the forms and actions out of his will.

Sri Aurobindo describes the role and action of the Purusha: “It is eternal soul and spirit in its own power of self-existence superior to and governing its manifestations; it is universal soul and spirit developed in power of becoming of its existences, infinite in the finite; it is individual soul and spirit absorbed in development of some particular course of its becoming, in appearance mutably finite in the infinite.” These are not successive forms that can be taken, but simultaneous expressions of various aspects of the completeness of being of the Purusha.

For purposes of its play it can take on an abstract poise, a universal poise or an individual poise, and based on the specific limitations it accepts to carry out a specific role or poise, it acts as if it is that and nothing more, even though it is always all these forms, forces, beings and poises at the same time. “Whatever the formulation of its nature, soul can seem to become that and view itself as that only in the frontal active part of its consciousness; but it is never only what it seems to be; it is too the so much else that it can be; secretly, it is the all of itself that is yet hidden.”

The Purusha can be or become whatever it sees and it controls the action of Nature, Prakriti, through its will of manifestation: “What it believes itself to be by the whole active will of its consciousness in its instruments, that it is or tends to become….; what it believes it can be and has full faith in becoming, that it changes to in nature, evolves or discovers.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 3, The Psychology of Self-Perfection, pp. 601-602

Nature Is Power of the Spirit

As a practical matter, Sri Aurobindo notes: “…we have to perceive that the Spirit has based all its workings upon two twin aspects of its being, Soul and Nature, Purusha and Prakriti. We have to treat them as different and diverse in power,–for in practice of consciousness this difference is valid,–although they are only two sides of the same reality, pole and pole of the one conscious being.”

Nature is the aspect which puts Existence, Consciousness and Bliss into forms and acts. “Nature is power of the spirit, and she is too working and process of its power formulating name and form of being, developing action of consciousness and knowledge, throwing itself up in will and impulsion, force and energy, fulfilling itself in enjoyment. Nature is Prakriti, Maya, Shakti.”

To gain a deeper understanding of the action and power of Nature, Sri Aurobindo reviews both the external and the internal forms and experience of Nature: “If we look at her on her most external side where she seems the opposite of Purusha, she is Prakriti, an inert and mechanical self-driven operation, inconscient or conscient only by the light of Purusha, elevated by various degrees, vital, mental, supramental, of his soul-illumination of her workings. If we look at her on her other internal side where she moves nearer to unity with Purusha, she is Maya, will of being and becoming or of cessation from being and becoming with all their results, apparent to the consciousness, of involution and evolution, existing and non-existing, self-concealment of spirit and self-discovery of spirit. Both are sides of one and the same thing, Shakti, power of being of the spirit which operates, whether superconsciously or consciously or subconsciously in a seeming inconscience,–in fact all these motions co-exist at the same time and in the same soul,–as the spirit’s power of knowledge, power of will, power of process and action…. By this power the spirit creates all things in itself, hides and discovers all itself in the form and behind the veil of its manifestation.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 3, The Psychology of Self-Perfection, pp. 600-601

Body, Life and Mind Manifest the Spiritual Principles of Existence, Consciousness and Bliss

To understand things from the spiritual viewpoint involves a complete “reversal of consciousness”. There is a proverb in the yogic community that day for the Yogi is night for the ordinary man; and day for the ordinary man is night for the Yogi. This sums up the differences in viewpoint between the spiritual standpoint and the human standpoint.

We look upon ourselves generally as human beings who are “created out of dust”, implying that our basis is the body, Matter. The life-energy somehow vivifies the material body and we are alive. When the life energy departs, we die. Somehow, through a process of successive experience and learning and chances of genetics, we develop a thinking mind. All through, however, we are tied to the basis fro which we started and for many, the whole idea of a spiritual truth of existence seems like an unreal or imaginative flight of fancy.

It therefore takes some effort to adjust to the spiritual standpoint which holds that the reality of our existence starts with Sat-Chit-Ananda, Existence-Consciousness-Bliss and that this spiritual reality creates and is embodied in the universal manifestation including our individual existence in Mind-Life-Body. The spirit works through the forms and takes on the unique characteristics of each plane of action, whether embodied or in the worlds that are pure manifestations of Matter, Life or Mind.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “What we call vitality is for the purposes of our normal human existence power of conscious being emerging in matter, liberating from it and in it mind and the higher powers and supporting their limited action in the physical life,–just as what we call mentality is power of conscious being awaking in body to light of its own consciousness and to consciousness of all the rest of being immediately around it and working at first in the limited action set for it by life and body, but at certain points and at a certain height escaping from it to a partial action beyond this circle.”

“Matter or body itself is a limiting form of substance of spirit in which life and mind and spirit are involved, self-hidden, self-forgetful by absorption in their own externalising action, but bound to emerge from it by a self-compelling evolution.”

“Man himself has, besides this gross material body, an encasing vital sheath, a mental body, a body of bliss and gnosis. But all matter, all body contains within it the secret powers of these higher principles; matter is a formation of life that has no real existence apart from the informing universal spirit which gives it its energy and substance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 3, The Psychology of Self-Perfection, pp. 599-600

The Nature and Action of the Supermind in Mind, Life and Body

The change of standpoint from the human standpoint to the divine standpoint necessarily brings in the question of how the divine standpoint relates to the universal and individual forms in the manifestation, and this in terms brings up the question of the gnosis or vijnana, as it is called in the Upanishads, and referred to by Sri Aurobindo as the supramental consciousness.

The supramental consciousness is a direct action of the spiritual reality in its unrolling of its manifestation in forms. Sri Aurobindo describes its nature and compares it, for our reference, to the limited actions of the mental consciousness: “Supermind is spiritual consciousness acting as a self-luminous knowledge, will, sense, aesthesis, energy, self-creative and unveiling power of its own delight and being. Mind is the action of the same powers, but limited and only very indirectly and partially illumined. Supermind lives in unity though it plays with diversity; mind lives in a separative action of diversity, though it may open to unity. Mind is not only capable of ignorance, but, because it acts always partially and by limitation, it works characteristically as a power of ignorance: it may even and it does forget itself in a complete inconscience, or nescience, awaken from it to the ignorance of a partial knowledge and move from the ignorance towards a complete knowledge,–that is its natural action in the human being,–but it can never have by itself a complete knowledge. Supermind is incapable of real ignorance; even if it puts full knowledge behind it in the limitation of a particular working, yet all its working refers back to what it has put behind it and all is instinct with self-illumination; even if it involves itself in material nescience, it yet does there accurately the works of a perfect will and knowledge.”

Supermind is the actual power behind the incredible organization of material nature, the precision and complexity of which we are discovering as science explores and uncovers the secrets of atomic structure and the universe and all its interactive and inter-dependent elements. It is the actual power behind instinct that guides animals to undertake specific precise actions without formal training or education of any sort; and it acts at the mental level in the higher forms of illumination such as intuition or inspiration. Supermind acts as something of a ‘step-down transformer” so that the native force of the spiritual reality can express itself precisely within the limitations set for each plane of existence, Matter, Life, and Mind.

“Supermind or gnosis is the characteristic, illumined, significant action of spirit in its own native reality.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 3, The Psychology of Self-Perfection, pg. 599

Shifting the Standpoint of Consciousness from the Limited Individual to the Infinite Spirit

The experience of most people starts from the standpoint of the individual confronted by a separate universe of diverse forms and forces, over which the individual has virtually no control. We perceive ourselves as an assemblage of “mind-life-body” with one or the other of these aspects predominating in our view, at one time or another. The principle of the integral Yoga treats the spirit as the essential basis, and the mind-life-body acting as instruments, tools or occasions of manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo describes this “reversal” of viewpoint: “…a spirit using the mind, life and body for an individual and a communal experience and self-manifestation in the universe. This spirit is an infinite existence limiting itself in apparent being for individual experience. It is an infinite consciousness which defines itself in finite forms of consciousness for joy of various knowledge and various power of being. It is an infinite delight of being expanding and contracting itself and its powers, concealing and discovering, formulating many terms of its joy of existence, even to an apparent obscuration and denial of its own nature. In itself it is eternal Sachchidananda, but this complexity, this knotting up and unravelling of the infinite in the finite is the aspect we see it assume in universal and in individual nature.”

In order to effectuate the self-perfection envisioned in the integral Yoga, the transfer of the standpoint must be accomplished and act as the foundation for all action: “To discover the eternal Sachchidananda, this essential self of our being within us, and live in it as the stable basis, to make its true nature evident and creative of a divine way of living in our instruments, supermind, mind, life and body, the active principle of a spiritual perfection.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 3, The Psychology of Self-Perfection, pg. 598