The Real Spiritual Individual

Sri Aurobindo, on the basis of the foundation already established, that the manifestation is real, and that the role of the individual is to carry out the evolution of the involved consciousness to a self-discovery of Oneness with the Universal and the Transcendent, now takes up the reality of the individual, distinguishing his view from those that hold that the individual is simply an illusion or a temporary phenomenon.

“For it is no longer sufficient to suppose an illusory or temporary individual, created in each form by the play of consciousness; individuality can no longer be conceived as an accompaniment of play of consciousness in figure of body which may or may not survive the form, may or may not prolong its false continuity of self from form to form, from life to life, but which certainly need not do it. In this world what we seem at first to see is individual replacing individual without any continuity, the form dissolving, the false or transient individuality dissolving with it, while the universal Energy or some universal Being alone remains for ever; that might very well be the whole principle of cosmic manifestation. But if the individual is a persistent reality, an eternal portion or power of the Eternal, if his growth of consciousness is the means by which the Spirit in things discloses its being, the cosmos reveals itself as a conditioned manifestation of the play of the eternal One in the being of Sachchidananda with the eternal Many. Then, secure behind all the changings of our personality, upholding the stream of its mutations, there must be a true Person, a real spiritual Individual, a true Purusha. The One extended in universality exists in each being and affirms himself in this individuality of himself. In the individual he discloses his total existence by oneness with all in the universality. In the individual he discloses too his transcendence as the Eternal in whom all the universal unity is founded.”

Thus, the individual becomes a nexus by which the evolution of consciousness can take place out of the Inconscience, through the forms of Matter, Life and Mind; but ever an expression of the One and one with the Cosmic Manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 20, The Philosophy of Rebirth


The Reality of the Individual Soul

After an extensive review of many different viewpoints about the nature of existence, the reality of the individual, and the significance of rebirth, Sri Aurobindo finally sets forth his own considered viewpoint as to these issues: “Our explanation of the evolution in Matter is that the universe is a self-creative process of a supreme Reality whose presence makes spirit the substance of things,–all things are there as the spirit’s powers and means and forms of manifestation. An infinite existence, an infinite consciousness, an infinite force and will, an infinite delight of being is the Reality secret behind the appearances of the universe; its divine Supermind or Gnosis has arranged the cosmic order, but arranged it indirectly through the three subordinate and limiting terms of which we are conscious here, Mind, Life and Matter. The material universe is the lowest stage of a downward plunge of the manifestation, an involution of the manifested being of this triune Reality into an apprent nescience of itself, that which we now call the Inconscient; but out of this nescience the evolution of that manifested being into a recovered self-awareness was from the very first inevitable. It was inevitable because that which is involved must evolve; for it is not only there as an existence, a force hidden in its apparent opposite, and every such force must in its inmost nature be moved to find itself, to realise itself, to release itself into play, but it is the reality of that which conceals it, it is the self which the Nescience has lost and which therefore it must be the whole secret meaning, the constant drift of its action to seek for and recover. It is through the conscious individual being that this recovery is possible; it is in him that the evolving consciousness becomes organised and capable of awaking to its own Reality. The immense importance of the individual being, which increases as he rises in the scale, is the most remarkable and significant fact of a universe which started without consciousness and without individuality in an undifferentiated Nescience. This importance can only be justified if the Self as individual is no less real than the Self as cosmic Being or Spirit and both are powers of the Eternal. It is only so that can be explained the necessity for the growth of the individual and his discovery of himself as a condition for the discovery of the cosmic Self and Consciousness and of the supreme Reality. If we adopt this solution, this is the first result, the reality of the persistent individual; but from that first consequence the other result follows, that reibrth of some kind is no longer a possible machinery which may or may not be accepted, it becomes a necessity, an inevitable outcome of the root nature of our existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 20, The Philosophy of Rebirth

The Individual Soul and the Necessity of the Mechanism of Rebirth

If the apparent individual we have been discussing is simply a formation of the Eternal, subject to a whim of creation and a whim of dissolution, there can be no real significance to the individual Soul in manifestation, and it would all turn out to be simply a gigantic play, or “Lila” in the Sanskrit terminology. Sri Aurobindo obviously has not accepted this formulation, however, as the ultimate conclusion: “But if it is once admitted that the Spirit has involved itself in the Inconscience and is manifesting itself in the individual being by an evolutionary gradation, then the whole process assumes meaning and consistence; the progressive ascent of the individual becomes a key-note of this cosmic significance, and the rebirth of the soul in the body becomes a natural and unavoidable consequence of the truth of the Becoming and its inherent law. Rebirth is an indispensable machinery for the working out of a spiritual evolution; it is the only possible effective condition, the obvious dynamic process of such a manifestation in the material universe.”

In the next post we shall take up this mechanism in much more close examination.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 20, The Philosophy of Rebirth

Rebirth Is Not Required To Address Principles of Adwaita

Sri Aurobindo distinguishes between the “necessity” of the concept of rebirth and the actual affirmation of it that we find in the Upanishads. There appears to be some conflict between fact and theory that still remains to be resolved. the conflict comes about because under Adwaita the Will of the Eternal is the cause of the manifestation of life and its persistence, and if the Will is withdrawn, the manifestation ceases. There is no ultimate “purpose” to the individual manifestation and thus, no strong necessity for a process of rebirth in what is more or less an ephemeral and (in Mayavada) illusory existence. The fact that rebirth occurs, and that the Upanishads affirm it, therefore implies that the theory of Adwaita is incomplete and misses the underlying significance and reality of the rebirth process. Sri Aurobindo discusses the issue as follows: “For the manifestation seems to have no purpose except the will of the Eternal towards world-creation and it can end only by that will’s withdrawal: this cosmic will could work itself out without any machinery of rebirth and the individual’s desire maintaining it; for his desire can be only a spring of the machinery, it could not be the cause or the necessary condition of cosmic existence, since he is himself in this view a result of the creation and not in existence prior to the Becoming. The will to creation could then accomplish itself through a temporary assumption of individuality in each name and form, a single life of many impermanent individuals. There would be a self-shaping of the one consciousness in correspondence with the type of each created being, but it could very well begin in each individual body with the appearance of the physical form and end with its cessation. Individual would follow individual as wave follows wave, the sea remaining always the same; each formation of conscious being would surge up from the universal, roll for its alloted time and then sink back into the Silence. The necessity for this purpose of an individualised consciousness persistently continuous, assuming name after name and form after form and moving between different planes backward and forward, is not apparent and, even as a possibility, does not strongly impose itself; still less is there any room for an evolutionary progress inevitably pursued from form to higher form such as must be supposed by a theory of rebirth that affirms the involution and evolution of the Spirit in Matter as the significant formula of our terrestrial existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 20, The Philosophy of Rebirth

Adwaita Mayavada and Adwaita Vedanta: Contrasting Views of the Meaning of the Individual

Sri Aurobindo makes it clear that the position taken by adherents of Mayavada can be considered to be extreme, as they do not recognise the ultimate reality of the Individual or of the world; and the entire bondage to the actions of life, and the subsequent liberation all take place in a more or less illusory or dream existence.

He points out however that the older Adwaita Vedanta of the Upanishads does not in fact get to such an extreme conclusion. “It admits an actual and temporal becoming of the Eternal and therefore a real universe; the individual too assumes a sufficient reality, for each individual is in himself the Eternal who has assumed name and form and supports through him the experiences of life turning on an ever-circling wheel of birth in the manifestation. The wheel is kept in motion by the desire of the individual, which becomes the effective cause of rebirth and by the mind’s turning away from the knowledge of the eternal self to the preoccupations of the temporal becoming. With the cessation of this desire and of this ignorance, the Eternal in the individual draws away from the mutations of individual personality and experience into his timeless, impersonal and immutable being.”

We shall explore this topic further in the next post.
Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 20, The Philosophy of Rebirth

Adwaita Mayavada Views of the Persistent Individual Consciousness Through Time

Sri Aurobindo next spends some time with a couple of major lines of thought regarding rebirth and the persistence and reality of the Individual Person. He begins with Adwaita: “Adwaita of the Mayavada, …, started with the already accepted belief,–part of the received stock of an antique knowledge,–of supraphysical planes and worlds and a commerce between them and ours which determined a passage from earth and, though this seems to have been a less primitive discovery, a return to earth of the human personality. At any rate their thought had behind it an ancient perception and even experience, or at least an age-long tradition, of a before and after for the personality which was not confined to the experience of the physical universe; for they based themselves on a view of self and world which already regarded a supraphysical consciousness as the primary phenomenon and physical being as only a secondary and dependent phenomenon. It was around these data that they had to determine the nature of the eternal Reality and the origin of the phenomenal becoming. Therefore they admitted the passage of the personality from this to other worlds and its return into form of life upon earth; … In the later Adwaita view the spiritual reality was there, but its apparent individuality and therefore its birth and rebirth were part of a cosmic illusion, a deceptive but effective construction of universal Maya.”

“In the Adwaitic Mayavada there was the admission of a Jivatman, an individual self, and even of a real self of the individual; but this concession to our normal language and ideas ends by being only apparent. For it turns out that there is no real and eternal individual, no “I” or “you”, and therefore there can be no real self of the individual, even no true universal self, but only a Self apart from the universe, ever unborn, ever unmodified, ever unaffected by the mutatinos of phenomena. Birth, life, death, the whole mass of individual and cosmic experience, become in the last resort no more than an illusion or a temporary phenomenon; even bondage and release can be only such an illusion, a part of temporal phenomena: they amount only to the conscious continuity of the illusory experiences of the ego, itself a creation of the great Illusion, and the cessation of the continuity and the consciousness into the superconsciousness of That which alone was, is and ever will be, or rather which has nothing to do with Time, is for ever unborn, timeless and ineffable.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 20, The Philosophy of Rebirth

Views Featuring Persistence Without Rebirth

Several views of existence, including Buddhism, do not accept the reality of an eternal Soul that is subject to rebirth. These views tend to hold that there may be a continuity or persistence of phenomenal characteristics, but these are essentially a stream of vital or mental force, rather than indications of a specific continuous individual Personality. Thus, one can accept a law of Karma, cause and effect, bringing about a continuous stream of motion that appears to be a setting forth of a previous effect of personality, but is in fact only the ongoing movement along a pre-set direction. The example of the river is frequently cited to show that while we name a particular river, the water in it is always changing, and the specific bed of the river also undergoes changes. There need not be, in these viewpoints, any eternal Soul at all to lead to this result.

Another viewpoint is described by Sri Aurobindo thus: “On the other hand, it might, obeying a turn of thought which is now beginning to gain a little in strength, admit a universal Self or cosmic Spirit as the primal reality and Life as its power or agent and so arrive at a form of spiritualised vital Monism. In this theory too a law of rebirth would be possible but not inevitable; it might be a phenomenal fact, an actual law of life, but it would not be a logical result of the theory of being and its inevitable consequence.”

In either of these views, we do not yet recognize any real need for the process of rebirth or the existence of individual Soul-Personalities moving through Time. There remain a number of additional concepts that need to be explored before we can exhaust the review of the ideas surrounding the philosophy of rebirth and come to some conclusions of our own.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 20, The Philosophy of Rebirth

Concepts of Rebirth for a Persistent Soul Existence

There are theories that hold no ultimate reality for the soul, and for which, therefore, the concept of rebirth is neither necessary nor useful. There are however additional ideas that have arisen over time which begin to open the door to the need for rebirth as a mechanism. Sri Aurobindo begins his description of these theories: “If, indeed, the soul is not such a constructed personality evolved by Life, but a persistent unevolving reality with a terrestrial life and body as its necessary field, the theory of rebirth in the sense of Pythagorean transmigration would have to be admitted.” In this theory, the essential element is that the soul is “unevolving” and thus, does not grow and carry new experience with it in some kind of evolutionary sense. “But if it is a persistent evolving entity capable of passing beyond the terrestrial stage, then the Indian idea of a passage to other worlds and a return to terrestrial birth would become possible and highly probable. But it would not be inevitable; for it might be supposed that the human personality, once capable of attaining to other planes, neede not return from them: it would naturally, in the absence of some greter compelling reason, pursue its existence upon the higher plane to which it had arisen; it would have finished with terrestrial life-evolution. Only if faced with actual evidence of a return to earth, would a larger supposition be compulsory and the admission of a repeated rebirth in human forms become inevitable.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 20, The Philosophy of Rebirth

Various Possible Viewpoints on Rebirth

Having now completed a review of the options that do not involve the concept of rebirth, and having found them wanting in various major criteria as to an explanation of the facts we find when reviewing human existence, Sri Aurobindo now turns his attention to an assortment of concepts that have come up in various parts of the world to explain the reality and the mechanisms of rebirth.

“An evolving universal Life may have developed on earth the growing personality that has now become ourselves, before it entered a human body at all; the soul in us may have evolved in lower life-shapes before man was created. In that case, our personality has previously inhabited animal forms, and the subtle body would be a plastic formation carried from birth to birth but adapting itself to whatever physical shape the soul inhabits. Or the evolving Life may be able to build a personality capable of survival, but only in the human form when that is created. This would happen by the force of a sudden growth of mental consciousness, and at the same time a sheath of subtle mind-substance might develop and help to individualise this mental consciousness and would then function as an inner body, just as the gross physical form by its organisation at once individualises and houses the animal mind and life. On the former supposition we must admit that the animal too survives the dissolution of the physical body and has some kind of soul formation which after death occupies other animal forms on earth and finally a human body. For there is little likelihood that the animal soul passes beyond earth and enters other planes of life than the physical and constantly returns here until it is ready for the human incarnation; the animal’s conscious individualisation does not seem sufficient to bear such a transfer or to adapt itself to an other-worldly existence. On the second supposition, the power thus to survive the death of the physical body in other states of existence would only arrive with the human stage of the evolution.”

These two theories are based on the concept that the universal Life forms these persistent entities. Clearly there are other theories that revolve around some kind of prior persistent reality for the soul, which we shall begin to review in the next post.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 20, The Philosophy of Rebirth

Beyond the Limitations of the Physical Theories of Existence

Once we begin to look more deeply at the actual physical conditions, it becomes quite clear that they do not and cannot explain away all the facts of our existence, and therefore, there must be something more and some other forces at work. Instances of “inborn” powers of music, cases such as Mozart or Beethoven for instance, already create stress on the purely physical rationale for life and existence. Where does the capability to create extraordinarily complex music come from in a young child? Cases of people who know languages they have never learned in this current lifetime, and who can recall specific circumstances and scenes in lands they have never visited in this lifetime, but which can be validated as having a real and historical basis, also create strains on the purely physical interpretations of existence.

Sri Aurobindo raises questions to move our thought process beyond this limitation: “But what if it were found with the increase of our knowledge, as certain researches and discoveries seem to presage, that the dependence of the mental being or the psychic entity in us on the body is not so complete as we at first naturally conclude it to be from the study of the data of physical existence and the physical universe alone? What if it were found that the human personality survives the death of the body and moves between other planes and this material universe? The prevalent modern idea of a temporary conscious existence would then have to broaden itself and admit a Life that has a wider range than the physical universe and admit too a personal individuality not dependent on the material body. It might have practically to readopt the ancient idea of a subtle form or body inhabited by a psychic entity. A psychic or soul entity, carrying with it the mental consciousness, or, if there be no such original soul, then the evolved and persistent mental individual would continue after death in this subtle persistent form, which must have been either created for it before this birth or by the birth itself or during the life. For either a psychic entity pre-exists in other worlds in a subtle form and comes from there with it to its brief earthly sojourn, or the soul develops here in the material world itself, and with it a psychic body is developed in the course of Nature and persists after death in other worlds or by reincarnation here. These would be the two possible alternatives.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 20, The Philosophy of Rebirth