Growing Beyond the World of Material Progress

Sri Aurobindo points out the vain futility of fixating all of our effort and intelligence on achieve mastery and knowledge on the plane of Matter or within the sphere of Life. “This preoccupation with life and matter is at the beginning right and necessary because the first step that man has to take is to know and possess this physical existence as well as he can by applying his thought and intelligence to such experience of it as his sense-mind can give to him; but this is only a preliminary step and, if we stop there, we have made no real progress: we are where we were and have gained only more physical elbow-room to move about in and more power for our mind to establish a relative knowledge and an insufficient and precarious mastery and for our life-desire to push things about and jostle and hustle around amid the throng of physical forces and existences.” He points out that “…the gospel of materialism, in spite of the dazzling triumphs of physical Science, proves itself always in the end a vain and helpless creed, and that too is why physical Science itself with all its achievements, though it may accomplish comfort, can never achieve happiness and fullness of being for the human race. Our true happiness lies in the true growth of our whole being, in a victory throughout the total range of our existence, in mastery of the inner as well as and more than the outer, the hidden as well as the overt nature; our true completeness comes not by describing wider circles on the plane where we began, but by transcendence. It is for this reason that, after the first necessary foundation in life and matter, we have to heighten our force of consciousness, deepen, widen, subtilise it; we must first liberate our mental selves and enter into a freer, finer and nobler play of our mental existence: for the mental is much more than the physical our true existence, because we are even in our instrumental or expressive nature predominantly mind and not matter, mental much rather than physical beings. That growth into the full mental being is the first transitional movement towards human perfection and freedom; it does not actually perfect, it does not liberate the soul, but it lifts us one step out of the material and vital absorption and prepares the loosening of the hold of the Ignorance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

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Understanding the Constitutional Ignorance That Limits Our Knowledge

“This evolution, this process of heightening and widening and integralisation, is in its nature a growth and an ascent out of the sevenfold ignorance into the integral knowledge. The crux of that ignorance is the constitutional; it resolves itself into a manifold ignorance of the true character of our becoming, an unawareness of our total self, of which the key is a limitation by the plane we inhabit and by the present predominant principle of our nature. The plane we inhabit is the plane of Matter; the present predominant principle in our nature is the mental intelligence with the sense-mind, which depends upon Matter, as its support and pedestal. As a consequence, the preoccupation of the mental intelligence and its powers with the material existence as it is shown to it through the senses, and with life as it has been formulated in a compromise between life and matter, is a special stamp of the constitutional Ignorance.”

Sri Aurobindo describes here the fundamental character of the constitutional Ignorance, the first of seven forms of Ignorance that limit our self-expression and our knowledge. “the attempt to grow out of this limitation of the wholeness, power and truth of the spirit by the materialised mental intelligence and out of this subjection of the soul to material Nature is the first step towards a real progress of our humanity.” This Ignorance is more of a limitation than a complete darkness. Thus it tends to provide a partial image, to falsify through these artificial limits, and to divide us from a comprehensive view of the reality of our existence. “out of that limitation and falsification we have to grow into the truth of our spiritual being.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

Integral Transformation of Our Entire Being Is the Aim of Nature

The goal of Nature, as Sri Aurobindo points out, is not to immobilise the dynamic parts of our being, to make the life quiescent so that we can live exclusively in some high, refined state of bliss consciousness. This “goal” is frequently placed in front of those who follow the ascetic path, but Sri Aurobindo confirms that the wider aims of Nature clearly involve uplifting and transforming Life itself, not abandoning it to establish consciousness solely in some other plane or state of awareness.

“what Nature herself attends from us is that the whole of what we are should rise into the spiritual consciousness and become a manifest and manifold power of the spirit. An integral transformation is the integral aim of the Being in Nature; this is the inherent sense of her universal urge of self-transcendence. It is for this reason that the process of Nature is not confined to a heightening of herself into a new principle; the new height is not a narrow intense pinnacle, it brings with it a widening and establishes a larger field of life in which the power of the new principle may have sufficient play and room for its emergence.”

Nature takes up not only the new emerging principle but also the earlier established principles and widens them, makes them more powerful in their action through the influence of the new force of consciousness at work, more subtle, more receptive. “Our mental, physical, vital existence need not be destroyed by our self-exceeding, nor are they lessened and impaired by being spiritualised; they can and do become much richer, greater, more powerful and more perfect: in their divine change they break into possibilities which in their unspiritualised condition could not be practicable or imaginable.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

Heightening the Force of Consciousness is the Trend of Evolution

“All evolution is in essence a heightening of the force of consciousness in the manifest being so that it may be raised into the greater intensity of what is still unmanifest, from matter into life, from life into mind, from the mind into the spirit. It is this that must be the method of our growth from a mental into a spiritual and supramental manifestation, out of a still half-animal humanity into a divine being and a divine living. There must be achieved a new spiritual height, wideness, depth, subtlety, intensity of our consciousness, of its substance, its force, its sensibility, an elevation, expansion, plasticity, integral capacity of our being, and an assumption of mind and all that is below mind into that larger existence.”

Thus Sri Aurobindo succinctly defines the consistent thread that runs through the increasing complexity and intensity of evolved beings in the manifested world. This evolutionary process takes place secretly and silently throughout all of Nature, and seems to provide the meaning and purpose of the natural evolution. Nature not only seeks to achieve perfection within the scope of each plane of existence, but to continually exceed itself and develop the next intensity beyond.

“To heighten the force of consciousness until it passes from a mental, vital and physical instrumentation into the essence and power of the spirit is the indispensable thing, but that is not the sole object or all the thing to be done.” The first focus of Nature is to achieve the next capacity of consciousness, but then it is necessary to integrate it with the preceding stages and embed it as a fixed capacity within the framework of the preceding evolution.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

Vedic Seers Describe the Sevenfold Ignorance and the Sevenfold Knowledge

As we take up the next chapter in the Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo cites, in the headnotes, some revealing passages from the Rig Veda and the Upanishads to indicate the 7 types of Ignorance that needs to be overcome, and to point out the 7 forms of Knowledge required to achieve realisation. Before we begin the actual review of the chapter, therefore, it is useful to look at what the seers and sages of the Vedic scriptures had to say on this subject.

“Seven steps has the ground of the Ignorance, seven steps has the ground of the Knowledge.” (Mahopanishad, V.1.). Earlier in the Life Divine Sri Aurobindo described the seven forms of Ignorance. It is clear that the insightful, intuitive Vedantic sages had already discovered and codified this information in their cryptic utterances.

“The Master of Wisdom in his first coming to brith in the supreme ether of the great Light,–many his births, seven his mouths of the Word, seven his Rays,–scatters the darkness with his cry.” (Rig Veda, IV. 50. 4) In the Rig Veda, which utilized symbolic language to describe psychological states and the inner workings of Consciousness, we see a clear reference to the seven forms of Knowledge required to bring Light to the being.

We can see in the next passage an even clearer symbolic description of the levels of consciousness and the evolutionary path as described by Sri Aurobindo: “He found the vast Thought with seven heads that is born of the Truth; he created some fourth world and became universal….The Sons of Heaven, the Heroes of the Omnipotent, thinking the straight thought, giving voice to the Truth, founded the plane of illumination and conceived the first abode of the Sacrifice….The Master of Wisdom cast down the stone defences and called to the Herds of Light,…the Herds that stand in the secrecy on the bridge over the Falsehood between two worlds below and one above; desiring Light in the darkness, he brought upward the Ray-Herds and uncovered from the veil the three worlds; he shattered the city that lies hidden in ambush, and cut the three out of the Ocean, and discovered the Dawn and the Sun ahd the Light and the World of Light.”

Sri Aurobindo unravels the symbolic meanings of these statements in The Secret of the Veda, as well as step by step in the new chapter….

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

Transforming the Foundation of Consciousness from Matter to Spirit

Sri Aurobindo has systematically followed the evolution of consciousness from the foundation in Matter, through the development of Life, and eventually the manifestation of Mind. The further development of consciousness involves the action of the Spiritual levels beyond mind. Sri Aurobindo points out that this further evolution does not only represent a progression upon the original foundation, but actually represents a reversal or turning-point whereby the foundation of the evolutionary action moves to the spiritual level and impacts the lower levels from there. This reminds us of the image from the Upanishads of the universal Ashwattha Tree with its roots above and branches and leaves down below. It seems that once we move beyond the action of Body-Life-Mind as the controlling forces of the evolutionary movement, the entire process is transformed and thenceforward directed from the spiritual planes. “The principle of the process of evolution is a foundation, from that foundation an ascent, in that ascent a reversal of consciousness and, from the greater height and wideness gained, an action of change and new integration of the whole nature. The first foundation is Matter; the ascent is that of Nature; the integration is an at first unconscious or half-conscious automatic change of Nature by Nature. But as soon as a more completely conscious participation of the being has begun in these workings of Nature, a change in the functioning of the process is inevitable.”

“The whole concentration of the being will be shifted from below upwards and from without inwards; our higher and inner being now unknown to us will become ourselves, and the outer or surface being which we now take for ourselves will be only an open front or an annexe through which the true being meets the universe. The outer world itself will become inward to the spiritual awareness, a part of itself, intimately embraced in a knowledge and feeling of unity and identity, penetrated by an intuitive regard of the mind, responded to by the direct contact of consciousness with consciousness, taken into an achieved integrality. The old inconscient foundation itself will be made conscious in us by the inflow of light and awareness from above and its depths annexed to the heights of the spirit. An integral consciousness will become the basis of an entire harmonisation of life through the total transformation, unification, integration of the being and the nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 18, The Evolutionary Process — Ascent and Integration

Spiritual Progress Requires Overcoming the Inertia of the Physical World

Developing the new spiritual standpoint for humanity which Sri Aurobindo has been describing is made somewhat more difficult and slower because of the physical platform which continues to influence and hold back the flight of the Spirit. “But the human race is still weighted by a certain gravitation towards the physical, it obeys still the pull of our yet unconquered earth-matter; it is dominated by the brain-mind, the physical intelligence: thus held back by many ties, it hesitates before the indication or falls back before the too tense demand of the spiritual effort.” This not only results in indolence, and hesitation, but also scepticism and unwillingness to change even in the face of evidence. This results in the few progressing forward while the majority hold back and cling to their material basis. “But that is not enough if the step forward is to be for humanity; for it is only if the race advances that, for it, the victories of the Spirit can be secure.” Slowly however, as new capacities and insights take hold within the broader mass of humanity, they become inherent capabilities that, even if suppressed in some retrograde cycle, remain active in the subconscient Mind of Humanity, and are ready to provide the foundation for the next effort when the cycle turns once again toward progress. “It is not indeed necessary or possible that the whole race should transform itself from mental into spiritual beings, but a general admission of the ideal, a widespread endeavor, a conscious concentration are needed to carry the stream of tendency to its definitive achievement. Otherwise what will be ultimate accomplished is an achievement by the few initiating a new order of beings, while humanity will have passed sentence of unfitness on itself and may fall back into an evolutionary decline or a stationary immobility; for it is the constant upward effort that has kept humanity alive and maintained for it its place in the front of creation.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 18, The Evolutionary Process — Ascent and Integration