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 Interplay of the Gunas in the Seeking for Liberation

All actions that start from the fundamental human nature and psychology are grounded in the three Gunas. Thus, as the human individual develops his mental capacities and awareness, and begins his attempt to gain liberation from the bondage of Nature in order to achieve spiritual realisation, it remains the activity of the Gunas that bring about the incremental changes. There is a path for development, but at a certain stage the limitations of the Gunas prevent further progress. It is at this stage that the seeker must find a way to move “beyond the Gunas” for the ultimate freedom of the Self and the Nature.

Sri Aurobindo describes the process: “Sattwa, when it wishes to intensify itself, seeks to get rid of Rajas and calls in the aid of the tamasic principle of inaction; that is the reason why a certain type of highly sattwic men live intensely in the inward being, but hardly at all in the outward life of action, or else are there incompetent and ineffective. The seeker of liberation goes farther in this direction, strives by imposing an enlightened Tamas on his natural being, a Tamas which by this saving enlightenment is more of a quiescence than an incapacity, to give the sattwic Guna freedom to lose itself in the light of the spirit. A quietude and stillness is imposed on the body, on the active life-soul of desire and ego, on the external mind, while the sattwic nature by stress of meditation, by an exclusive concentration of adoration, by a will turned inward to the Supreme, strives to merge itself in the spirit. But if this is sufficient for a quietistic release, it is not sufficient for the freedom of an integral perfection. This liberation depends upon inaction and is not entirely self-existent and absolute; the moment the soul turns to action, it finds that the activity of the nature is still the old imperfect motion. There is a liberation of the soul from the nature which is gained by inaction, but not a liberation of the soul in nature perfect and self-existent whether in action or in inaction.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 9, The Liberation of the Nature, pp. 660-661

Spiritual Perfection Requires Transcendence of the Three Gunas

The highest degree of refinement of which the human individual is capable within the framework of the normal life in the world is a life in which Sattwa and its qualities are predominant. This however does not constitute spiritual perfection, which implies a shift of the consciousness and standpoint of awareness from the mental to the spiritual plane of existence. Sri Aurobindo notes: “But richness of life, even a sattwic harmony of mind and nature does not constitute spiritual perfection. There is a relative possible perfection, but it is a perfection of incompleteness, some partial height, force, beauty, some measure of nobility and greatness, some imposed and precariously sustained balance. There is a relative mastery, but it is a mastery of the body by life or of the life by mind, not a free possession of the instruments by the liberated and self-possessing spirit.”

As long as the individual remains within the realm of nature and the action of the Gunas, the most refined harmonious action predominating in Sattwa is subject to dilution by the intrusion of Rajas and Tamas, as well as to constant change and loss of that balance through the interplay of the Gunas in the life in the world. Each of the Gunas, even Sattwa, have their limitations and make up the action of the ego-sense. There is a tamasic ego, a rajasic ego and also a sattwic ego. All of these forms prevent the liberation from occurring and the action of the divine force remains weak and limited by the obstacles provided by the ego-personality.

“The gunas have to be transcended if we would arrive at spiritual perfection. Tamas evidently has to be overcome, inertia and ignorance and incapacity cannot be elements of a true perfection; but it can only be overcome in Nature by the force of Rajas aided by an increasing force of Sattwa. Rajas has to be overcome, egoism, personal desire and self-seeking passion are not elements of the true perfection; but it can only be overcome by force of Sattwa enlightening the being and force of Tamas limiting the action. Sattwa itself does not give the highest or the integral perfection; Sattwa is always a quality of the limited nature; sattwic knowledge is the light of a limited mentality; sattwic will is the government of a limited intelligent force. Moreover, Sattwa cannot act by itself in Nature, but has to rely for all action on the aid of Rajas, so that even sattwic action is always liable to the imperfections of Rajas; egoism, perplexity, inconsistency, a one-sided turn, a limited and exaggerated will, exaggerating itself in the intensity of its limitations, pursue the mind and action even of the saint, philosopher and sage. There is a sattwic as well as a rajasic or tamasic egoism, at the highest an egoism of knowledge or virtue; but the mind’s egoism of whatever type is incompatible with liberation. All the three gunas have to be transcended. Sattway may bring us near to the Light, but is limited clarity falls away from us when we enter into the luminous body of the divine Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 9, The Liberation of the Nature, pg. 660

The Three Gunas in Human Psychology

The three Gunas are always active, even when one particular Guna may provide a predominant characteristic to an individual. Each one brings to play its characteristics, which then become modified or vitiated by the action of the other Gunas. The individual personality and capabilities are heavily colored by the primary Guna, but due to the ever-changing nature of the balance, there is no fixed personality type that invariably carries out the character of even a heavily prominent Guna.

Sri Aurobindo describes the contribution provided by each Guna to the total psychological makeup of man: “Tamas brings in all the ignorance, inertia, weakness, incapacity which afflicts our nature, a clouded reason, nescience, unintelligence, a clinging to habitual notions and mechanical ideas, the refusal to think and know, the small mind, the closed avenues, the trotting round of mental habit, the dark and the twilit places. Tamas brings in the impotent will, want of faith and self-confidence and initiative, the disinclination to act, the shrinking from endeavour and aspiration, the poor and little spirit, and in our moral and dynamic being the inertia, the cowardice, baseness, sloth, lax subjection to small and ignoble motives, the weak yielding to our lower nature.” Similarly, the basic qualities of Tamas can infect the emotional being, leading to “want of sympathy and openness…, the callous heart,…and “all that makes in man the course, heavy and vulgar spirit.”

“Rajas contributes our normal active nature with all its good and evil; … it turns to egoism, self-will and violence, the perverse, obstinate or exaggerating action of the reason, prejudice, attachment to opinion, clinging to error, the subservience of the intelligence to our desires and preferences and not to the truth, the fanatic or sectarian mind, self-will, pride, arrogance, selfishness, ambition, lust, greed, cruelty, hatred, jealousy, the egoisms of love, all the vices and passions, …, the morbidities and perversions of the sensational and vital being.”

“The gifts of Sattwa are the mind of reason and balance, clarity of the disinterested truth-seeking open intelligence, a will subordinated to the reason or guided by the ethical spirit, self-control, equality, calm, love, sympathy, refinement, measure, fineness of the aesthetic and emotional mind, in the sensational being delicacy, just acceptivity, moderation and poise, a vitality subdued and governed by the mastering intelligence.”

“The accomplished types of the sattwic man are the philosopher, saint and sage, of the rajasic man the statesman, warrior, forceful man of action. But in all men there is in greater or less proportions a mingling of the gunas, a multiple personality and in most a good deal of shifting and alternation from the predominance of one to the prevalence of another Guna; even in the governing form of their nature most human beings are of a mixed type. All the colour and variety of life is made of the intricate pattern of the weaving of the gunas.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 9, The Liberation of the Nature, pp. 658-660

The Pervasive Action of the Three Gunas

The three Gunas, or qualities, of Nature represent a powerful conceptual tool for the seeker to both understand the interplay of the elements of Nature in the world, and to begin to gain leverage on this action in the process of separating oneself from immersion in the action, and eventually gaining mastery over that action. The Gunas permeate the entire world, and through their constant interplay, constitute all forms and forces. The principle of Tamas being inertia, it is considered to be in opposition to Rajas with respect to force, and in opposition to Sattwa with respect to knowledge. The principle of Rajas being kinetic movement, it is considered to be in opposition to the inertial status of Tamas, and the calm and satisfied peaceful energy of Sattwa. The principle of Sattwa is equilibrium, knowledge, harmony and assimilation, and thus, it is in opposition in one respect to the inertia of Tamas and the dissatisfied and striving action of Rajas. We can see easily that Matter has a predominance of the quality of Tamas, Life-Energy of the quality of Rajas and the mind or reasoning intelligence, the quality of Sattwa. At the same time, none of these qualities is ever found in a “pure” state, so there is always both some amount of admixture in all things of the three qualities, despite the predominant mode, and there is always an ever-changing formulation as they mix and interplay with one another. Sri Aurobindo notes: “The whole nature of the embodied living mental being is determined by these three gunas.”

He goes on to describe them at length: “Whatever is predominantly governed by Tamas, tends in its force to a sluggish inaction and immobility or else to a mechanical action which it does not possess, but is possessed by obscure forces which drive it in a mechanical round of energy; equally in its consciousness it turns to an inconscience or enveloped subconscience or to a reluctant, sluggish or in some way mechanical conscious action which does not possess the idea of its own energy, but is guided by an idea which seems external to it or at least concealed from its active awareness.”

“The principle of Rajas has its strongest hold on the vital nature. It is the Life within us that is the strongest kinetic motive power, but the life-power in earthly beings is possessed by the force of desire, therefore Rajas turns always to action and desire; desire is the strongest human and animal initiator of most kinesis and action, predominant to such an extent that many consider it the father of all action and even the originator of our being.”

“The principle of Sattwa has its strongest hold in the mind; not so much in the lower parts of the mind which are dominated by the rajasic life-power, but mostly in the intelligence and the will of the reason. Intelligence, reason, rational will are moved by the nature of their predominant principle towards a constant effort of assimilation, assimilation by knowledge, assimilation by a power of understanding will, a constant effort towards equilibrium, some stability, rule, harmony of the conflicting elements of natural happening and experience.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 9, The Liberation of the Nature, pg. 657-658

The Central Role in the Instrumental Nature of the Three Gunas

For most people, there is no pattern or rational explanation for the manner that things take place in the world, nor one’s individual reactions to those events. Things seem to be random and subject to the whim of the moment. Upon a deeper examination however, the seeker can begin to recognize that the three Gunas, Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas, act as the controller of the mechanisms of Nature, and that by observing and understanding these Gunas and their interplay, we can begin to gain some understanding of the streams of energy that bring about the manifestation of the world and all the actions in it. Sri Aurobindo observes: “But in the inferior nature of thigns the play of infinite quality is subject to a limited measure, a divided and conflicting working, a system of opposites and discords between which some practical mobile system of concords has to be found and to be kept in action; this play of concorded discords, conflicting qualities, disparate powers and ways of experience compelled to some just manageable, partial, mostly precarious agreement, an unstable, mutable equilibrium, is managed by a fundamental working in three qualitative modes which conflict and combine together in all her creations.”

“Tamas is the principle and power of inertia; Rajas is the principle of kinesis, passion, endeavour, struggle, initiation…; Sattwa the principle of assimilation, equilibrium and harmony.” “…in its psychological and spiritual bearing it is of immense practical importance, because these three principles enter into all things, combine to give them their turn of active nature, result, effectuation, and their unequal working in the soul-experience is the constituent force of our active personality, our temperament, type of nature and cast of psychological response to experience. All character of action and experience in us is determined by the predominance and by the proportional interaction of these three qualities or modes of Nature. The soul in its personality is obliged, as it were, to run into their moulds; mostly, too, it is controlled by them rather than has any free control of them. The soul can only be free by rising above and rejecting the tormented strife of their unequal action and their insufficient concords and combinations and precarious harmonies, whether in the sense of a complete quiescence from the half-regulated chaos of their action or in the sense of a superiority to this lower turn of nature and a higher control or transformation of their working. There must be either an emptiness of the Gunas or a superiority to the gunas.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 9, The Liberation of the Nature, pg. 656-657

The Conditions of Bondage of the Nature and Its Liberation

The Shwetashwatara Upanishad decribes two birds sitting on a common tree, one eating the sweet fruit and the other not eating but observing. This is an illustration of the relationship of the soul and the nature. The soul observes and sanctions the actions of the nature, while the nature carries out the actions through the interplay of the three Gunas and the “pairs of opposites” which give rise to the duality that we experience during action in the world. The Bhagavad Gita provides extensive and detailed analysis of the operation of the three Gunas, tamas, rajas and sattwa. Each of the Gunas has characteristics that represent one “pole” of one of the pair of opposites, and thus, they are constantly balancing against each other and bringing about the interplay of light and dark, action and inaction, calm and disturbance that we experience in our lives.

The soul in observing and thereby supporting the action of nature becomes enamoured of the action and gets involved in the changes provided by the constantly interacting Gunas. The focus becomes so all-encompassing that the soul forgets its true nature of divinity and believes itself to be bound within the natural play. Sri Aurobindo observes: “The acceptance of the instrumental ego-consciousness and the will-to-desire are the initial consent of the self to the lapse into the lower ranges of experience in which it forgets its divine nature of being; the rejection of these things, the return to free self and the will of the divine delight in being is the liberation of the spirit.”

This still leaves, however, the nature unreformed and bound. “A complete liberation from the ego and the will of desire must bring with it a superiority to the qualitative modes of the inferior Nature, traigunyatitya, a release from this mixed and discordant experience, a cessation or solution of the dual action of Nature. But on this side too there are two kinds of freedom. A liberation from Nature in a quiescent bliss of the spirit is the first form of release. A farther liberation of the Nature into a divine quality and spiritual power of world-experience fills the supreme calm with the supreme kinetic bliss of knowledge, power, joy and mastery. A divine unity of supreme spirit and its supreme nature is the integral liberation.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 9, The Liberation of the Nature, pg. 655-656

Bondage and Liberation

Sri Aurobindo has subtly redefined the classical concepts of “bondage” and “liberation”. The Indian spiritual tradition for the most part has held that bondage comes with the focus on life in the world and the attempt to find fulfillment in carrying out the desires that accompany that life. Liberation on the other hand is defined as non-attachment that leads to renunciation of the life of illusion. Many examples of given of those who have abandoned the opulence of their lives, and devoted themselves to austerities and the life of the renunciate. On the other hand, the Bhagavad Gita began the process of re-defining these terms by stressing, not the outward austerity or renunciation, but the inner renunciation with action done in a state of desireless devotion to the highest spiritual being. Sri Aurobindo continues to develop this line of approach.

“The will to the imperfect separative being, that wrong Tapas which makes the soul in Nature attempt to individualise itself, to individualise its being, consciousness, force of being, delight of existence in a separative sense, to have these things as its own, in its own right and not in the right of God and of the universal oneness, is that which brings about this wrong turn and creates the ego. To turn from this original desire is therefore essential, to get back to the will without desire whose whole enjoyment of being and whole will in being is that of a free universal and unifying Ananda. These two things are one, liberation from the will that is of the nature of desire and liberation from the ego, and the oneness which is brought about by the happy loss of the will of desire and the ego, is the essence of Mukti.”

The essential difference between bondage and liberation, then is not the abandonment of action in the world, but rather the shifting of the standpoing from the individual human ego as the central point around which all revolves to the divine standpoint which is unified with the transcendent and universal aspects of existence and carrying out in action the will of that divine Being. Bondage is an “inner” bondage of the egoistic nature. Liberation is an inner liberation in the spiritual nature.
Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 8, The Liberation of the Spirit, pg. 654