Modern and Ancient Views of Evolution

The first thing we think about when the topic of evolution comes up is the modern scientific approach and viewpoint. Evolution in the scientific world is a process which describes a mechanism that brings about ever new and systematically developing forms of life. In and of itself, the Western viewpoint does not assign any particular ultimate meaning or significance to evolution and is content to describe the process and uncover facts that are essentially details of that process.

There is however another, a more ancient view of evolution, propounded by the ancient seers and sages of India. This view focuses more on the inner spiritual significance of the process rather than just the external details. The Sankhya thinker “…saw in it too not only the covering active evident Force, but the concealed sustaining spiritual entity….” Sri Aurobindo points out that the Sankhya thinker “…had no eye for the detail of the physical labour of Nature.” Additionally, he set up a gulf between Spirit and the Force of physical evolution.

On the other hand, Sri Aurobindo describes the modern view of evolution: “The modern scientist strives to make a complete scheme and institution of the physical method which he has detected in its minute workings, but is blind to the miracle each step involves or content to lose the sense of it in the satisfied observation of a vast ordered phenomenon.” The scientist misses the miracle, the “inexplicable wonder of all existence…”

Sri Aurobindo points out that each of these starting points provides us a relevant insight, but neither of them has the complete picture. “We know that an evolution there is, but not what evolution is; that remains still one of the initial mysteries of Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo,

An Ascending Unity As the Basis for Rebirth

Sri Aurobindo summarizes the discussion of this chapter to provide a straightforward and logical presentation of the development of consciousness through ever-ascending forms, providing a rationale and basis for the theory of rebirth. In this summary he has addressed the major facts of our existence and the primary issues that arise as to the significance of life and the reasons why rebirth is an essential element of this development.

“This is a way of seeing things, harmonious at least in its complexity, supple and capable of a certain all-embracing scope, which we can take as a basis for our ideas of rebirth,–an ascending unity, a spirit involved in material existence which scales wonderfully up many gradations through life to organised mind and beyond mind to the evolution of its own complete self-conscience, the individual following that gradation and the power for its self-crowning.”

There are various possibilities for this development which may include any of the major theories of existence that have come to the fore during mankind’s search for meaning. “If human mind is the last word of its possibility on earth, then rebirth must end in man and proceed by some abrupt ceasing either to an existence on other planes or to an annulment of its spiritual circle. But if there are higher powers of the spirit which are attainable by birth, then the ascent is not finished, greater assumptions may lie before the soul which has now reached and is lifted to a perfecting of the high scale of humanity.”

What higher opportunities or heights may reach beyond our human stage of manifestation, remains to be seen and discovered. There is always the “Eternal’s infinite potentiality.”

Sri Aurobindo,

Universal and Individual Are Two Poles of One Unified Existence

Just as the fragmentation of creation through the ego consciousness is artificial and unreal in the overarching unity of existence, so too the other extreme position of unity with no separateness of forms and purposes is artificial and denies a truth of the creation. Sri Aurobindo’s viewpoint is one that embraces unity and diversity without them being in contradiction to one another; rather, they are both aspects and important elements of the creation. The unity provides the foundation and the harmony of the larger whole, while the diversification of forms allows a unique creation to manifest and develop into innumerable relations.

Without this dynamic relationship of the One with the Many, we would be hard-pressed to find a rationale for the individual and the systematic evolutionary development of the individual and thus, the process of rebirth and the role of karma.

Sri Aurobindo expounds on this point: “Individuality is as important a thing to the ways of the Spirit of existence as universality. The individual is that potent secret of its being upon which the universal stresses and leans and makes the knot of power of all its workings: as the individual grows in consciousness and sight and knowledge and all divine power and quality, increasingly he becomes aware of the universal in himself, but aware of himself too in the universality, of his own past not begun and ended in the single transient body, but opening to future consummations. If the aim of the universal in our birth is to become self-conscient and possess and enjoy its being, still it is done through the individual’s flowering and perfection; if to escape from its own workings be the last end, still it is the individual that escapes while the universal seems content to continue its multitudinous births to all eternity. Therefore the individual would appear to be a real power of the Spirit and not a simple illusion or device, except in so far as the universal too may be, as some would have it, an immense illusion or a grand imposed device. On this line of thinking we arrive at the idea of some great spiritual existence of which universal and individual are two companion powers, pole and pole of its manifestation, indefinite circumference and multiple centre of the activised realities of its being.”

Sri Aurobindo,

Birth Of the Spirit Into Form

If the manifestation of the universal creation is one unbroken unity expressing a spiritual evolution of consciousness which is involved in Matter and progressively reveals itself in ever-increasing forms of consciousness, then there is no division or separation of “soul” or “spirit” apart from “matter” or “life”.

Sri Aurobindo refers to the Vedic word: “…out of all the ocean of inconscience…it is that one spiritual Existent who is born by the greatness of his own energy…”

The soul then must always be there, even in the most inconscient forms of Matter, involved, but present, waiting for the preparation of the form required to make itself known and be recognized.

Sri Aurobindo addresses the mystical reality this way: “We come to a fathomless conception of this all, sarvam idam, in which we see that there is an obscure omnipresent life in matter, activised by that life a secret sleeping mind, sheltered in that sleep of mind an involved all-knowing all-originating Spirit.”

“All assumption of form is a constant and yet progressive birth or becoming of the soul, sambhava, sambhuti,–the dumb and blind and brute is that and not only the finely, mentally conscious human or the animal existence. All this infinite becoming is a birth of the Spirit into form. This is the truth, obscure at first or vague to the intelligence, but very luminous to an inner experience, on which the ancient Indian idea of rebirth took its station.”

Sri Aurobindo,

The Soul and Subhuman Existence

In ancient times, the world was invested with spirit everywhere, in all things. Sri Aurobindo describes it thus: “Ancient belief…saw a soul, a living godhead everywhere in the animate and in the inanimate and nothing was to its view void of a spiritual existence.”

The development of the logical mind and its focus on dividing, classifying and simplifying through trenchant separation rejected this view of life. It does not mean, however, that this is the final answer to the question.

Sri Aurobindo describes a process of development that is one unified continuum, and this implies that soul exists, in some form, not only in the human and the animal existence, but even in the earlier, more primitive forms of life. “…it is now clear that the nervous life which is the basis of that physical mentality in man and animal, exists also in the plant with a fundamental identity; not only so, but it is akin to us by a sort of nervous psychology which amounts to the existence of a suppressed mind. A subconscient mind in the plant, it is now not unreasonable to suggest,–but is it not at the summits of plant experience only half subconscious?–becomes conscient in the animal body. When we go lower down, we find hints that there are involved in the subvital most brute material forms the rudiments of precisely the same energy of life and its responses.”

The work of Dr. Bose on the consciousness of plants, and those who have followed in his footsteps, has documented “The Secret Life of Plants” and there can be now little doubt of the scientific support for the existence of consciousness and responsiveness in animals and plants. Further work with crystals and minerals has even begun to uncover the responsiveness that Sri Aurobindo has posited in the world of material forms.

One consciousness, one existence, in a unity that spans from the most inconscient Matter to the heights of Spirit, implies that there is a continuum and our attempt to divide and classify and separate is an artificial mental construct but not an essential underlying Reality of the manifested universe.

We find that the ancient view of inclusion has more ultimate truth in it that the modern view of fragmentation.

Sri Aurobindo,

The Soul, Karma and the Evolutionary Progression

The law of karma as part of a process of soul evolution and development can only have meaning if it is continuous and follows the line of development. This implies that it is active in the pre-human evolutionary stages as well as in the human and beyond. This then implies that the soul exists, not only as a unique “creation” dropped into human life, but in the pre-human evolutionary stages as well. It appears that the soul develops and evolves in sync with the external evolutionary development.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the issue: “Because soul or spirit works in the animal on a lower scale, we are not warranted in thinking that there is no soul in him, any more than a divine or superhuman being would be justified in regarding us as soulless bodies or soulless minds because of the grovelling downward drawn inferiority of our half-animal nature.”

“The spiritual law of Karma is that the nature of each being can be only the result of his past energies; to suppose a soul which assumes and continues a past karma that is not its own, is to cut a line of dissociation across this law and bring in an unknown and unverified factor. But if we admit it, we must account for that factor, we must explain or discover by what law, by what connection, by what necessity, by what strange impulsion of choice a spirit pure of all animal nature assumes a body and nature of animality prepared for it by a lower order of being. If there is no affinity and no consequence of past identity or connection, this becomes an unnatural and impossible assumption. Then it is the most reasonable and concordant conclusion that man has the animal nature…because the developing self in him like the developed body has had a past subhuman evolution. This conclusion preserves the unity of Nature and its developing order; and it concurs with the persistent evidence of an interaction and parallelism which we perceive between the inward and the outward, the physical and the mental phenomenon….”

“…it makes soul or spirit, no longer a miraculous accident or intervention in a material universe, but a constant presence in it and the secret of its order and its existence.”

Sri Aurobindo,

Does the Soul Exist in Subhuman Nature?

Admitting the unity and integrated oneness of the physical creation, there remain those who attempt nevertheless to assert that the soul or spiritual nature is something separate and distinct and thereby unique in mankind. This however goes against the entire picture we see of a systematic outflowering and evolution of consciousness out of Matter, through Life and Mind (and beyond). The soul should follow a similar evolutionary curve and process of development. Otherwise, what is the sense and meaning of the material evolution?

Sri Aurobindo indicates: “…it is reasonable to suppose that whatever has been the past history of the individual soul, it must have followed the course of the universal nature and evolution.”

“The physical history of humankind is the growth out of the subvital and the animal life into the greater power of manhood; our inner history as indicated by our present nature, which is the animal plus something that exceeds it, must have been a simultaneous and companion growing on the same curve into the soul of humanity. The ancient Indian idea which refused to separate nature of man from the universal Nature or self of man from the one common self, accepted this consequence of its seeing. Thus the Tantra assigns eighty millions of plant and animal lives as the sum of the preparation for a human birth and, without binding ourselves to the figure, we can appreciate the force of its idea of the difficult soul evolution by which humanity has come or perhaps constantly comes into being. We can only get away from this necessity of an animal past by denying all soul to subhuman nature.”

Sri Aurobindo,