If we put aside for the moment religious or philosophical dogma and simply look at the world around us and our position within it, we can see that humanity did not simply “appear” without “context”. Sri Aurobindo describes the relationship to the rest of creation thus: “The animal prepares and imperfectly prefigures man and is itself prepared in the plant, as that too is foreseen obscurely by all that precedes it in the terrestrial expansion. Man himself takes up the miraculous play of the electron and atom, draws up through the complex development of the protoplasm the chemical life of subvital beings, perfects the original nervous system of the plant in the physiology of the completed animal being, consummates and repeats rapidly in his embryonic growth the past evolution of the animal form into the human perfection and, once born, rears himself from the earthward and downward animal proneness to the erect figure of the spirit who is already looking up to his farther heavenward evolution. All the terrestrial past of the world is there summarised in man, and not only has Nature given as it were the physical sign that she has formed in him an epitome of her universal forces, but psychologically also he is one in his subconscient being with her obscurer animal life, contains in his mind and nature the animal and rises out of all this substratum into his conscious manhood.”
Not only is there an obvious continuum here which places the human being squarely in the midst of the evolutionary process of the world, but there is also a clearly symbiotic relationship that makes it impossible for the human being to live without the environment and the other beings in the environment to support, nurture and create the conditions needed for our existence. We require oxygen to breathe, and plants create oxygen. We have beneficial bacteria in our intestines that are important to our digestive process. Our skin creates an essential vitamin from sun rays. The entire creation is One and unified and depends on each part to manifest the whole.
The mind loves to make distinctions and separate things into categories. This tendency starts with our own individuality as we distinguish between the human being and the world around us. The planet, plants, animals are all treated as something else, something other and we then objectify them and look upon them as if they are created for our individual use and enjoyment. Similarly we extend this view to put our world at the center of universal creation. The suns, planets, stars are thus created just for us. Even if we do not exactly comprehend the purpose behind this massive machinery, we nevertheless tend to treat it as a background or a stage for our lives to unfold.
Even when we recognize the universal existence, it is generally in contra-distinction to the individual life and we then attribute reality to either the one side or the other, and focus our attention either on the universal or the individual.
The result here is that we tend to over-simplify things by focusing on the distinctions rather than the unity that embraces and contains all the diversity and separations. Sri Aurobindo concludes: “Our classifications set up too rigid walls; all borders are borders only and not impassable gulfs. The one infinitely variable Spirit in things carries over all of himself into each form of his omnipresence; the self, the Being is at once unique in each, common in our collectivities and one in all beings. God moves in many ways at once in his own indivisible unity.”
The Reality of existence is comprehensive, encompassing both the individual forms and their inter-relations, as well as the universal and Transcendent that make them all part of one larger Oneness. The truth of the individual cannot truly be understood without taking into account the universal creation. And neither can be fully appreciated without integrating the Transcendent.
There is a concept in philosophy known as Occam’s Razor which holds, essentially, that if all other things are equal, the simplest explanation is likely to be the correct one. This concept helps cut through the layers of complexity that confront us when we try to understand the world around us and the role we play in it. There are benefits to this concept when it helps us avoid complexity that is simply developed by the human mind for the sake of apparent profundity, or for the purpose of baffling and misleading others.
At the same time, if we gaze with a clear vision at the world around us, we find that the “simplest” is frequently not fully able to address the reality of the universe.
Humans prefer simple explanations and thus, favor responses that are “black and white” rather than those that have subtlety and complexity of interactive and inter-related parts.
Nevertheless, the real world is not as simple as we may choose to view it. Whether we view the structure of the material universe and the action of subatomic particles, the inter-relationships of the innumerable forms of living beings in a symbiotic living web, or we view the human body with its numerous interactive organ systems and physiological functions that involve very finely tuned biochemical reactions, we find complexity everywhere. To truly understand the world and our lives, we therefore must be prepared to develop our understanding to both encompass simplicity to cut through verbal convoluted structures, and complexity when viewing the refined intelligence of the organisation of the universe.
Sri Aurobindo prefaces the new chapter with some thoughts on this issue: “But after all perhaps when we come to think more at large about the matter, we may find that Nature and Existence are not of the same mind as man in this respect, that there is here a great complexity which we must follow with patience and that those ways of thinking have most chance of a fruitful truth-yielding, which like the inspired thinking of the Upanishads take in many sides at once and reconcile many conflicting conclusions.”
As we move from a world-view that is both anthropocentric and earth-centric, to one that recognizes the much larger eco-sphere, bio-sphere and universe, we find that a global or even a universal view vastly expands our vision and understanding as we recognise and embrace more aspects of the universal creation.
The necessity of rebirth hinges on the ultimate meaning of the manifestation of the universe. If it is random chance, or purely mechanical machinery, there is no necessity of rebirth. If, on the other hand, there is a conscious Will and Purpose to the universe, and the human being is part of that purpose and carrying out an evolutionary role, then rebirth becomes a centerpiece of the process.
Sri Aurobindo discusses these issues: “Once we find that there is a conscious Spirit of which this movement is one expression, or even admit that as our working hypothesis, we are bound to go on and ask whether this developing order ceases with what man now is or is laden with something more towards which it and he have to grow, an unfinished expression, a greater unfound term, and in that case it is evidently towards that greater thing that man must be growing; to prepare it and to realise it must be the stage beyond in his destiny. Towards that new step in the evolution his history as a race must be subconsciously tending and the powers of the highest individuals half consciently striving to be delivered of this greater birth; and since the ascending order of rebirth follows always the degrees of the evolution, that too cannot be meant to stop short or shoot off abruptly into the superconscient without any regard to the intended step.”
If we find that man is therefore a “transitional being”, as Sri Aurobindo has described elsewhere, then we can explore the “ladder of evolution” both with respect to the prior steps of the ascent of consciousness out of involvement in Matter, through the progressive development of Life, and the subsequent stages of expression of Mind, as well as the future stages beyond our current mental development into what Sri Aurobindo describes as the “supramental” ranges of consciousness.
“The whole processional significance of rebirth may be wrapped up in that one yet unattempted discovery.”
To the mind limited by the scope of our daily existence and understanding, rebirth is one among any number of theories, but not something settled. Sri Aurobindo points out that even from the viewpoint of the mental perspective, which weighs possibilities and probabilities, but cannot come to any certain conclusions, the theory of rebirth explains the facts of our existence at least as well as the other theories being entertained: “…it is a better hypothesis than the naive and childlike religious solutions which make the world an arbitrary caprice and man the breathing clay puppet of an almighty human-minded Creator, and at least as good a hypothesis as the idea of a material inconscient Force somehow stumbling into a precarious, ephemeral, yet always continued phenomenon of consciousness, or a creative Life labouring in the Bergsonian formula oppressed but constant in the midst of a universal death, as good too as the idea of a mechanical working of Prakriti, Maya, Shakti into which or in which a real or unreal individual stumbles and wanders,… until he can get out of it by a spiritual liberation.”
The crux of the issue is whether the human being is a static creation fixed forever in its place, or an evolutionary being with dynamic potential to develop beyond the level of consciousness we currently are able to manifest. Rebirth provides a mechanism for dynamic development, which is not required in a static universe.
“Its truth will depend on spiritual experience and effectuation; but chiefly on this momentous issue, whether there is anything in the soul-powers of man which promises a greater term of being than his present mentality and whether that greater term can be made effective for his embodied existence? That is the question which remains over to be tested by psychological inquiry and the problem to be resolved in the course of the spiritual evolution of man.”
In a brief compass, Sri Aurobindo integrates the soul and the universe into a coherent and significant process of Reality: “What we are is a soul of the transcendent Spirit and Self unfolding itself in the cosmos in a constant evolutionary embodiment of which the physical side is only a pedestal of form corresponding in its evolution to the ascending degrees of the spirit, but the spiritual growth is the real sense and motive.”
The past represents the prior stages of this evolution of consciousness in form. The present represents a stage in that evolution which has not yet been completed. The future holds the next stages and opens up the evolutionary development to new and greater manifestations of consciousness.
Our purpose in existence then is to act as a nexus of this increasing development of the spiritual evolution: “Why we are here is to be this means of the spirit’s upward self-unfolding. What we have to do with ourselves and our significances is to grow and open them to greater significances of divine being, divine consciousness, divine power, divine delight and multiplied unity, and what we have to do with our environment is to use it consciously for increasing spiritual purposes and make it more and more a mould for the ideal unfolding of the perfect nature and self-conception of the Divine in the cosmos.”
Sri Aurobindo has encapsulated here the essence of our striving and search for meaning. This provides not only a sense of the Reality of the material universal manifestation, but also a real purpose and meaning to the struggles for growth and aspiration for consciousness that we see within ourselves, and provides a significance to the process of rebirth as an essential mechanism for the successive growth of the soul and its ability to more and more effectively manifest the consciousness of the Spirit in matter, life and mind.
Sri Aurobindo’s guiding principle in his review of rebirth is to ensure that he answers the major issues and questions that revolve around both the process and the significance. This implies that we recognize the reality and purpose of the material universe and not simply try to dismiss it as an illusion or something that must be escaped from.
One of the greatest obstacles to finding a suitable solution is our tendency to remain fixated on the world as we see it today and to extrapolate both backwards and forwards in a static, rather than a dynamic, manner. Thus, we believe the current status of life and conscious awareness will continue as it is into the future and we have a hard time recognizing or visualizing a future that is greater than and significantly different than what we see as our opportunities and limits today.
Sri Aurobindo’s vision moves us out of these restrictions: “But what if rebirth were in truth no long dragging chain, but rather at first a ladder of the soul’s ascension and at last a succession of mighty spiritual opportunities? It will be so if the infinite existence is not what it seems to the logical intellect, an abstract entity, but what it is to intuition and in deeper soul experience, a conscious spiritual Reality, and that Reality as real here as in any far off absolute Superconscience. For then universal Nature would be no longer a mechanism with no secret but its own inconscient mechanics and no intention but the mere recurrent working; it would be the conscient energy of the universal Spirit hidden in the greatness of its processes, mahimanam asya.” And the soul ascending from the sleep of matter through plant and animal life to the human degree of the power of life and there battling with ignorance and limit to take possession of its royal and infinite kingdom would be the mediator appointed to unfold in Nature the spirit who is hidden in her subtleties and her vastnesses. That is the significance of life and the world which the idea of evolutionary rebirth opens to us; life becomes at once a progressive ascending series for the unfolding of the Spirit. It acquires a supreme significance: the way of the Spirit in its power is justified, no longer a foolish and empty dream, an eternal delirium, great mechanical toil or termless futility, but the sum of works of a large spiritual Will and Wisdom: the human soul and the cosmic spirit look into each other’s eyes with a noble and divine meaning.”