The Integral Oneness of Brahman

The Upanishads make a statement to the sense of “This is the complete; That is the complete. Take the complete from the complete, and the complete remains.” Sri Aurobindo follows up on this sense in his discussion of the integrality of Brahman. “Brahman, as he exceeds the passivity and the activity, so too exceeds the unity and multiplicity. He is one in himself, but not with a self-limiting unity exclusive of the power of multiplicity, such as is the separated unity of the body and the mind; he is not the mathematical integer, one, which is incapable of containing the hundred and is therefore less than the hundred. One in himself, he is one in the many and the many are one in him. In other words, Brahman in his unity of spirit is aware of his multiplicity of souls and in the consciousness of his multiple souls is aware of the unity of all souls. In each soul he, the immanent Spirit, the Lord in each heart, is aware of his oneness. The Jivatman illumined by him, aware of its unity with the One, is also aware of its unity with the many. Our superficial consciousness, identified with body and with divided life and dividing mind, is ignorant; but that also can be illumined and made aware. Multiplicity, then is not the necessary cause of the ignorance.”

During his time in prison during the early years of the independence movement in India, Sri Aurobindo had the palpable experience of this Oneness, and he saw the tree sheltering him from the sun as Sri Krishna protecting him; he saw the judge and the prosecutor, as well as his defense attorney, as that One and he gave himself up to the protection and direction that the one Spirit in all was working out. As we know, he was eventually acquitted of all charges against him and partially as a result of the experience he had during that time, he gave up his political calling and turned to matters spiritual, which occupied the rest of his long life in Pondicherry, India.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 12, The Origin of the Ignorance


Moving From Division to Unity of Consciousness

Sri Aurobindo shows us the steps toward unification of consciousness starting from the material basis: “Body is the outward sign and lowest basis of the apparent division which Nature plunging into ignorance and self-nescience makes the starting-point for the recovery of unity by the individual soul, unity even in the midst of the most exaggerated forms of her multiple consciousness. Bodies cannot communicate with each other except by external means and through a gulf of externality; cannot benetrate each other except by division of the penetrated body or by taking advantage of some gap in it, some pre-existent division; cannot unite except by a breaking up and devouring, a swallowing and absorption and so an assimilation, or at most a fusion in which both forms disappear. Mind too, when identified with body, is hampered by its limitations; but in itself it is more subtle and two minds can penetrate each other without hurt or division, can interchange their substance without mutual injury, can in a way become parts of each other: still mind too has its own form which is separative of it from other minds and is apt to take its stand on this separateness. When we get back to soul-consciousness, the obstacles to unity lessen and finally cease to exist altogether. The soul can in its consciousness identify itself with other souls, can contain them and enter into and be contained by them, can realise its unity with them; and this can take place, not in a featureless and indistinguishable sleep, not in a Nirvana in which all distinctions and individualities of soul and mind and body are lost, but in a perfect waking which observes and takes account of all dinstinctions but exceeds them.”

We have here, then, an overview of the process of moving from total fragmentation to a state of unity of consciousness which clearly shows the increasing level of universality and integration possible as we move our standpoint to higher expressions of conscious Nature.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 12, The Origin of the Ignorance

Ignorance Is Not Absolute

Sri Aurobindo takes up the important question of the origin and status of the Ignorance, for if the Ignorance were founded in the original absolute Brahman, then it too would be Absolute and thus, impossible to overcome. “And if Ignorance is not an element or power proper to the absolute nature of the Brahman or to Its integrality, there can be no original or primal Ignorance.” Maya, the “illusory power of creation” then cannot be of the nature of Ignorance either, and thus, the question arises as to how and in what manner, at at what point in the process of manifestation the Ignorance actually comes about.

Sri Aurobindo systematically approaches this question: “ignorance can only intervene as a minor and subsequent movement, partial and relative. Is it then something inherent in the multiplicity of souls? Does it come into being immediately Brahman views himself in the multiplicity, and does that multiplicity consist of a sum of souls each in its very nature fractional and divided from all the others in consciousness, unable to become aware of them at all except as things external to it, linked at most by communication from body to body or mind to mind, but incapable of unity? But we have seen that this is only what we seem to be in our most superficial layer of consciousness, the external mind and the physical; when we get back into a subtler, deeper, larger action of our consciousness, we find the walls of division becoming thinner and in the end there is left no wall of division, no Ignorance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 12, The Origin of the Ignorance

Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

Once again, as the mind tries to construct a picture of Reality for itself, it starts from its own limited and inadequate methdology and tries to impose its framework on the Infinite. Therefore, as it tries to segment and separate the active and the passive aspects of Brahman, and look at them as separate “parts” it either, as we have previously discussed, treats one as real and the other as unreal; or else, if it acknowledges that both partake of reality, it tries to treat them as somehow separated so that they are added together to obtain the “whole”.

Sri Aurobindo makes it clear, however, that neither of these two can obtain: “The Supreme, it has been declared in the Gita, exceeds both the immobile self and the mobile being; even put together they do not represent all he is. For obviously we do not mean, when we speak of his possessing them simultaneously, that he is the sum of a passivity and an activity, an integer made of those two fractions, passive with three fourths of himself, active with one fourth of his existence. In that case, Brahman might be a sum of nesciences, the pasive three fourths not only indifferent to but quite ignorant of all that the activity is doing, the active one fourth quite unaware of the passivity and unable to possess it except by ceasing from action….But it is clear that Brahman the Supreme Being must be aware both of the passivity and the activity and regard them not as his absolute being, but as opposite, yet, mutually satisfying terms of his universalities. It cannot be true that Brahman, by an eternal passivity, is unaware, entirely separated from his own activities; free, he contains them in himself, supports them with his eternal power of calm, initiates them from his eternal poise of energy. It must be equallay untrue that Brahman in his activity is unaware of or separated from his passivity; omnipresent, he is there supporting the action, possesses it always in the heart of the movement and is eternally calm and still and free and blissful in all the whirl of its energies. Nor in either silence or action can he be at all unaware of his absolute being, but knows that all he exprseses through them draws its value and power from the power of that absolute existence. If it seems otherwise to our experience, it is because we identify with one aspect and by that exclusiveness fail to open ourselves to the integral Reality.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 12, The Origin of the Ignorance

Integral Brahman

A number of spiritual philosophies either overtly or tacitly imply that there is a duality in the Omnipresent Reality, such that when someone enters into the consciousness of the passive Brahman, the active status is dissolved or eliminated; and on the other side, anyone involved in the active status has no relationship to the passive, silent Brahman.

Sri Aurobindo makes it clear that the consciousness of Brahman is not like a light switch with one status being “on” and the other being “off”. Rather, the Brahman is one Integral Consciousness which includes, concurrently and simultaneously, both the active and the passive modes. He explains further the implications if such an “on/off” status would obtain: “If that were really true of the integral Reality, then, while the universe continued, there would be no passive Brahman in existence, all would be action, and, if our universe were dissolved, there would be no active Brahman, all would become cessation and immobile stillness. But this is not so, for we can become aware of an eternal passivity and self-concentrated calm penetrating and upholding all the cosmic activity and all its multiple concentrated movement,–and this could not be if, so long as any activity continued, the concentrated passivity did not exist supporting it and within it. Integral Brahman possesses both the passivity and the activity simultaneously and does not pass alternately from one to the other as from a sleep to a waking: it is only some partial activity in us which seems to do that, and we by identifying ourselves with that partial activity have the appearance of this alternation from one nescience to another nescience; but our true, our integral being is not subject to these opposites and it does not need to become unaware of its dynamic self in order to possess its self of silence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 12, The Origin of the Ignorance

Passive & Active States of Consciousness of the Individual

Sri Aurobindo takes up the individual experience of the alternative states of consciousness already defined as the “passive Brahman” and the “active Brahman”. Numerous spiritual seekers, and the paths they follow, have defined the experiences as being separate and distinct, and one being more or less the ultimate Reality and the other more or less of an illusion. Sri Aurobindo explains: “In the ordinary view of the soul’s evolution into the action, pravritti, and its involution into the passivity, nivritti, it is supposed that in the action the individual soul becomes ignorant, nescient of its passive which is supposed to be its true being, and in the passivity it becomes finally nescient of its active which is supposed to be its false or only apparent being. But this is because these two movements take place alternately for us, as in our sleep and waking; we pass in waking into nescience of our sleeping condition, in sleep into nescience of our waking being. But this happens because only part of our being performs this alternative movement and we falsely think of ourselves as only that partial existence: but we can discover by a deeper psychological experience that the larger being in us is perfectly aware of all that happens even in what is to our partial and superficial being a state of unconsciousness; it is limited neither by sleep nor by waking. So it is in our relations with Brahman who is our real and integral being. In the ignorance we identify ourselves with only a partial consciousness, mental or spiritual-mental in its nature, which becomes nescient of its self of status by movement; in this part of us, when we lose the movement, we lose at the same time our hold on our self of action by entering into passivity. By an entire passivity the mind falls asleep or enters into trance or else is liberated into a spiritual silence; but though it is a liberation from the ignorance of the partial being in its flux of action, it is earned by putting on a luminous nescience of the dynamic Reality or a luminous separation from it: the spiritual-mental being remains self-absorbed in a silent essential status of existence and becomes either incapable of active consciousness or repugnant to all activity; this release of silence is a status through which the soul passes in its journey towards the Absolute. But there is a greater fulfillment of our true and integral being in which both the static and the dynamic sides of the self are liberated and fulfilled in That which upholds both and is limited neither by action nor by silence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 12, The Origin of the Ignorance

One Reality Of Brahman Encompasses Passive & Active Statuses

Sri Aurobindo continues his integration of the passive and active modes of Brahman. Rather than treating them as two separate and mutually exclusive states of consciousness, one “real” the other “illusory”; and rather than treating them as alternating in terms of Time, he points out that there is one Reality with two modes which interpenetrate one another, support one another, and coexist together.

“The Reality then is neither an eternal passivity of immobile Being nor an eternal activity of Being in movement, nor is It an alternation in Time between these two things. Neither in fact is the sole absolute truth of Brahman’s reality; their opposition is only true of It in relation to the activities of Its consciousness. When we perceive Its deployment of the conscious energy of Its being in the universal action, we speak of It as the mobile active Brahman; when we perceive Its simultaneous reservation of the conscious energy of Its being kept back from the action, we speak of It as the immobile passive Brahman,–Saguna and Nirguna, Kshara and Akshara: otherwise the terms would have no meaning; for there is one reality and not two independent realities, one immobile, the other mobile.” It is thus a matter of our observation and focus, rather than any real limitation of the Reality itself, that leads to these two opposites. When “with qualities” or “without qualities”, “manifest” or “unmanifest” all this is the Brahman, one and indivisible.

In the next post we shall take up the soul’s experience that both creates these artificial distinctions, and review how we can bridge this apparent gap to experience the integrated Wholeness of the Reality.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 12, The Origin of the Ignorance