Positive and Negative Affirmations of the Absolute

Sri Aurobindo cautions us that “Our mistake is that in trying to define the indefinable we think we have succeeded when we have described by an all-exclusive negation this Absolute which we are yet compelled to conceive of as a supreme positive and the cause of all positives.” The ancient sages used the language of negation to take us beyond all the specific forms and manifestations, when they said “neti, neti” (not this, not that). In doing so, they wanted to make sure we did not get caught up in the trees and thereby fail to experience the forest, if you will. “not this form” and “not that form” was intended to ensure that we did not stop at any specific manifested form and say “this is it” in an exclusive and final way. For the Absolute, while it constitutes each form, and contains each form, is nevertheless more than each individual form, and more than the sum of the individual forms we can enumerate.

The sages balanced the negative affirmation with other positive affirmations to ensure that we kept the balance between them. Upanishads tell us that Brahman is the this old man, this young girl, that flower or that elephant, and we are cautioned to not look down upon one form or person because they are all manifestations of Brahman. Many stories are told about seekers along the path gaining lessons about being able to embrace “all this is the Brahman.”

The Taittiriya Upanishad in fact takes us through a series of steps to realize first that Brahman is matter, then life energy, then mind, then knowledge, and then the “bliss of the Eternal”. Eventually we are led to the realisation of the supreme Positive just as we were cautioned not to get stuck or caught up in any specific form through the negative affirmations.

Sri Aurobindo sums it up: “For the positive and the negative exist not only side by side, but in relation to each other and by each other; they complete and would to the all-view, which a limited mind cannot reach, explain one another. Each by itself is not really known; we only begin to it in its deeper truth when we can read into it the suggestions of its apparent opposite. It is through such a profounder catholic intuition and not by exclusive logical oppositions that our intelligence ought to approach the Absolute.”

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 3, The Eternal and the Individual, pg. 378

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