The Limitations of the Ascetic Answer To Life

In The Life Divine , Sri Aurobindo sets forth in the early chapters the two primary strains of endeavor that bracket the aspiration of humanity. The first is what he calls the “materialist denial” which essentially focuses on the perfection of man in society. The second is “the refusal of the ascetic” setting forth the opposite appeal to reject the vanity and transitory nature of the life of the world, and focus solely on the realisation of the Eternal. Eventually Sri Aurobindo proposed a reconciling position which acknowledged that both the materialistic goals and the ascetic’s yearnings are founded in and have a fundamental truth in what he names “reality omnipresent.”.

This debate was foreshadowed in the Bhagavad Gita and the Gita came to a similar conclusion that a reconciliation and integral approach to life and its meaning is the true solution to the issues of human existence. The ascetic position as Sri Aurobindo describes it is: “Not only desire, but action also must be flung away; seated in the silent self the soul will then pass away into the motionless, actionless, imperturbable, absolute Brahman.”

The Gita acknowledges the higher level of truth contained in this formulation than in that of the normal outwardly directed, desire-driven actions of humanity, as it acknowledges a higher reality and seeks to achieve a consciousness that is more consistent with that higher reality; however, the Gita also cannot accept this as the complete and final statement: “The error of the kinetic ideal can only prolong the ignorance and retard the human advance by setting it in search of perfection where perfection cannot be found; but the error of the quietistic ideal contains in itself the very principle of world-destruction. Were I to act upon it, says Krishna, I should destroy the peoples and be the author of confusion; and though the error of an individual human being, even though a nearly divine man, cannot destroy the whole race, it may produce a widespread confusion which may be in its nature destructive of the principle of human life and disturbing to the settled line of its advance.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 14, The Principle of Divine Works, pp. 134-135

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