The Two Wings of the Soul’s Ascent

Many people recommend taking up either the path of knowledge, or the path of works, or the path of devotion. The Bhagavad Gita makes it clear that rather than being opposing paths, they are actually complementary and supportive to one another in terms of the soul’s evolutionary growth. The first reconciliation the Gita makes is that between knowledge and yoga, which is described as works done for the general welfare without attachment or desire.

Sri Aurobindo describes the mutual support these two methods provide to one another: “The two wings indeed assist each other’s flight; acting together, yet with a subtle alternation of mutual aid, …, they increase one another mutually by interchange of substance. As the works grow more and more desireless, equal-minded, sacrificial in spirit, the knowledge increases; with the increase of the knowledge the soul becomes firmer in the desireless sacrificial equality of its works.”

“The liberated man is able to do works as a sacrifice because he is freed from attachment through his mind, heart and spirit being firmly founded in self-knowledge….”

The increase in self-knowledge then further supports the development of the true work done as the instrument of the divine consciousness, which removes the sense of the ego as the doer and leads to the free action of a divine soul carrying out the manifestation of the divine purpose in the world of action.

The action of knowledge is said to be the ultimate purifier of action, and together, knowledge and yoga bring about the liberation of the individual from the bondage to works, desire and the action of the 3 gunas of Nature.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 20, Equality and Knowledge, pg. 191

Spiritual Equality

Sri Aurobindo makes it clear that even the sattwic form of equality is not the same as spiritual equality, as per the teaching of the Gita. Sattwic equality is still involved in the play of the gunas and thus, subject to being overthrown by any number of forces. It is an intellectual or mental control being exercised, and while this can be of enormous aid in the process of growth into the spiritual consciousness, in the end, it is uncertain, unstable and insufficient to provide the firm spiritual footing that the Gita has as its goal.

” ‘Even the mind of the wise man who labours for perfection is carried away by the vehement insistence of the senses.’ Perfect security can only be had by resorting to something higher than the sattwic quality, something higher than the discerning mind, to the Self,–not the philosopher’s intelligent self, but the divine sage’s spiritual self which is beyond the three Gunas.”

The characteristics of spiritual equality are founded in the sense of Oneness of the divine consciousness: “He has realised his unity with all and his equality is therefore full of sympathy and oneness. He sees all as himself and is not intent on his lonely salvation; he even takes upon himself the burden of their happiness and sorrow by which he is not himself affected or subjected. The perfect sage, the Gita more than once repeats, is ever engaged with a large equality in doing good to all creatures and makes that his occupation and delight…The perfect Yogin is no solitary musing on the Self in his ivory tower of spiritual isolation, but…a many-sided universal worker for the good of the world, for God in the world. For he is a bhakta, a lover and devotee of the Divine, as well as a sage and a Yogin, a lower who loves God wherever he finds Him and who finds Him everywhere; and what he loves, he does not disdain to serve, nor does action carry him away from the bliss of union, since all his acts proceed from the One in him and to the One in all they are directed. The equality of the Gita is a large synthetic equality in which all is lifted up into the integrality of the divine being and the divine nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 19, Equality, pp. 189-190

The Characteristics of a Sattwic Equality

The sattwic personality of the philosopher, sage or wise elder has its own unique type of equality. The sattwic equality recognizes the motive springs of both the tamasic equality, and its abandonment of the objects of the outer life as unobtainable, unsatisfying and painful; and the rajasic equality with its goal to attain self-mastery through force of will, once again, by suppressing the force of desire. The Taittiriya Upanishad in a remarkable passage compares the crowning levels of bliss achievable by any living being with the “bliss of the veda-wise, whose soul the blight of desire touches not.”

The sattwic approach does not get caught up in the emotional despair or defeat so characteristic of the abandonment of the outer life in the tamasic equality; nor does it get caught up in the rajasic reaction that can use pain and struggle to achieve its results; rather it maintains a calm, tranquil view of the issues involved, and deliberately steers a middle course that tries to maintain balance and harmony while nevertheless working to achieve the goal of liberation from desire.

Sri Aurobindo clarifies the standpoint of the sattwic personality in this regard: “The enjoyments born of the touches of things are causes of sorrow, they have a beginning and an end; therefore the sage, the man of awakened understanding, budhah, does not place his delight in these.” and “The self in him is unattached to the touches of external things; he finds his happiness in himself.”

“He becomes satisfied with knowledge, master of his senses, a Yogin by sattwic equality,–for equality is Yoga, samatvam yoga ucyate,–regarding alike clod and stone and gold, tranquil and self-poised in heat and cold, suffering and happiness, honour and disgrace. He is equal in soul to friend and enemy and to neutral and indifferent, because he sees that these are transitory relations born of the changing conditions of life.”

“He is equal-souled to all men, to the sinner and the saint, to the virtuous, learned and cultured Brahmin and the fallen outcaste.”

Sattwic equality prepares the soul for the yet greater equality beyond the control of the gunas, but it is not yet itself free of the gunas, and tends to remain attached and stuck in its learning, its progress, and its superiority, when left on its own, with a vision that is mental and intellectual fueling this form of equality.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 19, Equality, pp. 188-189

Rajasic Equality as an Entry Point To Spiritual Realisation

The rajasic equality is not an end in itself, but can provide a benefit in the seeker’s goal of overcoming the force of desire and the action of the dualities. On its own it cannot provide the ultimate identification with the divine consciousness. Sri Aurobindo describes the potential positive benefits associated with the rajasic equality: “The Stoic equality is justified as an element in the discipline of the Gita because it can be associated with and can help to the realisation of the free immutable Self in the mobile human being…and to status in that new self-consciousness….”

‘Awakening by the understanding to the Highest which is beyond even the discerning mind, put force on the self by the self to make it firm and still, and slay this enemy who is so hard to assail, Desire.’

Harnessing the motivation and power of rajas in action is potentially more effective than the surrender or recoil brought about through tamasic equality, and provides opportunities for bringing desire under some control. The next step must be, however, associating this action with the sattwic aspiration and development of the clarity, calm and peace needed to attain a new psychological standpoint and liberation from the play of the gunas entirely.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 19, Equality, pp. 187-188

The Characteristics of a Rajasic Equality

While Sri Krishna acknowledges the opportunity to achieve spiritual realisation starting from a tamasic form of equality, he recognises that he is speaking with Arjuna, a warrior and leader, who has a natural rajasic temperament. His brief fall into tamas and his recoil from the work assigned to him as a result, is countered firmly by the divine teacher. He wants to direct Arjuna to a path that embraces and overcomes the oppositions and difficulties of life rather than gives in and renounces the life action.

The Gita therefore expounds the characteristics of what may be called rajasic equality. Sri Aurobindo describes them: “All desires have to enter into the soul, as waters into the sea, and yet it has to remain immovable, filled but not disturbed: so in the end all desires can be abandoned. To be freed from wrath and passion and fear and attraction is repeatedly stressed as a necessary condition of the liberated status, and for this we must learn to bear their shocks, which cannot be done without exposing ourselves to their causes. ‘He who can bear here in the body the velocity of wrath and desire, is the Yogin, the happy man.’…the will and power to endure, is the means.”

“The equal-souled has to bear suffering and not hate, to receive pleasure and not rejoice. Even the physical affections are to be mastered by endurance and this too is part of the Stoic discipline. Age, death, suffering, pain are not fled from, but accepted and vanquished by a high indifference. Not to flee appalled from Nature in her lower masks, but to meet and conquer her is the true instinct of the strong nature…., the leonine soul among men. Thus compelled, she throws aside her mask and reveals to him his true nature as the free soul, not her subject but her king and lord, svarat, samrat.

The goal here, as with the tamasic equality, is to bring to bear the higher knowledge and thereby to achieve a true spiritual standpoint that can concurrently live in the divine truth, while carrying out the work to be done in the world without the taint of desire, attachment, or any need for rejection of the world.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 19, Equality, pp. 186-187

The Forms of Rajasic Equality

The Gita does not rest satisfied with a turn away from the world and its activities that results from a tamasic form of equality. The Gita goes further to recommend mastery rather than simple avoidance. Rajasic equality can arise from the first steps towards the soul’s conquest over desire in this world. Sri Aurobindo describes this possibility: “It is here that the possibility of a kind of rajasic equality comes in, which is at its lowest the strong nature’s pride in self-mastery, self-control, superiority to passion and weakness; but the Stoic ideal seizes upon this point of departure and makes it the key to an entire liberation of the soul from subjection to all weakness of its lower nature.”

“Instead of a struggle for scattered outward aims and transient successes, it proposes nothing less than the conquest of Nature and the world itself by a spiritual struggle and an inner victory.”

“The Stoic self-discipline…endures the shock of things painful and pleasurable, the causes of the physical and mental affections of the nature, and breaks their effects to pieces; it is complete when the soul can bear all touches without being pained or attracted, excited or troubled. It seeks to make man the conqueror and king of his nature.”

The discipline required to achieve this state of equality is considerable, and it remains insufficient without the acquisition of true knowledge based on the Oneness of the spiritual consciousness. Nevertheless, it is an important opening for the effort to move beyond the control of the three gunas and the play of desire and the dance of the dualities.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 19, Equality, pp. 185-186

Tamasic Equality As an Entry Point to Spiritual Realisation

A reaction to the vicissitudes of life through the action of any one of the gunas can become a starting point for a spiritual seeking and realisation. Tamasic equality results in many cases as a reaction to the difficulty and suffering entailed in the life of action, for instance, as a recoil from a rebuffed rajasic action. Generally a tamasic equality will lead to some form of renunciation of the effort and the striving of life, including sannyasa, monastic, hermit or anchorite paths. The Bhagavad Gita, in its broad acceptance of any gateway to the spiritual life, accepts this form of opening, although it clearly does not address the wider and more embracing direction that the Gita eventually espouses.

When the tamasic recoil is tempered by a sattwic tendency, it can bring a perception of a higher truth to which the soul can aspire, and thus, be a means of jump-starting the seeking, but not a place to get “stuck’.

The famous story of the Buddha, who recognized the truths of suffering caused by the attachment to the forms and forces of the world through the binding action of desire, the onset of illness, old age and death as the inevitable consequence of this attachment, and who then obtained enlightenment through a spiritual seeking that transcended the recoil to find a positive solution and way out of the suffering, is such an instance.

What is important is not to get stuck in the weakness and avoidance of the pure tamasic response. Arjuna’s first reaction “I shall not fight” was quickly addressed by Sri Krishna as not being a suitable mode of action for him, and did not represent his spiritual destiny.

The tamasic reaction may help to temper the aggressive desire-soul provoked by rajas, and thus, allow a new direction to result. Sri Aurobindo explains: “But in souls that are fit this tamasic recoil may serve a useful spiritual purpose by slaying their rajasic attraction, their eager preoccupation with the lower life which prevents the sattwic awakening to a higher possibility. Seeking then for a refuge in the void they have created, they are able to hear the divine call, ‘O soul that findest thyself in this transient and unhappy world, turn and put thy delight in Me,’…”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 19, Equality, pp. 184-185

The Forms of Tamasic Equality

The transition from the normal life of desire to a life based on the spiritual consciousness and not subject thereby to the gunas, is not one that occurs generally instantaneously, but is a process of transition as each of the strands of the body, life energy, emotions, and mind are taken up and modified.

During this process, there are, for different individuals, different starting points based on their particular manifested nature, as well as the ongoing play of the gunas as long as the individual is still involved in Nature. The development of equality, therefore, is also subject to the play of the gunas until such time as the liberation of the consciousness brings about the true and complete spiritual equality.

Sri Aurobindo describes the situation, starting with what he calls “tamasic equality”: “The beginning of equality may be sattwic, rajasic or tamasic; for there is a possibility in the human nature of a tamasic equality. It may be purely tamasic, the heavy equability of a vital temperament rendered inertly irresponsive to the shocks of existence by a sort of dull insensibility undesirous of the joy of life. Or it may result from a weariness of the emotions and desires accumulated by a surfeit and satiety of the pleasure or else, on the contrary, a disappointment and a disgust and shrinking from the pain of life, a lassitude, a fear and horror and dislike of the world: it is then in its nature a mixed movement, rajaso-tamasic, but the lower quality predominates. Or, approaching the sattwic principle, it may aid itself by the intellectual perception that the desires of life cannot be satisfied, that the soul is too weak to master life, that the whole thing is nothing but sorrow and transient effort and nowhere in it is there any real truth or sanity or light or happiness; this is the sattwo-tamasic principle of equality and is not so much equality, though it may lead to that, as indifference or equal refusal. Essentially, the movement of tamasic equality is a generalisation of Nature’s principle of …self-protecting recoil extended from the shunning of particular painful effects to a shunning of the whole life of Nature itself as in sum leading to pain and self-tormenting and not to the delight which the soul demands.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 19, Equality, pp. 183-184

The Normal Human Soul’s Delight in the Dualities of the Play of Nature

The normal human soul, immersed in the manifested world, its forms and actions, actually enjoys the play of the dualities. Even when confronted with suffering, defeat or difficulties, the soul embraces the life of desire, striving and the play of darkness and light, love and hate, achievement and loss. We frequently hear the refrain that this is what makes up the enjoyment of life and that there would not be any joy without sorrow, good times without bad, etc. etc.

This is actually an obstacle for the seeker to face and overcome, as he partakes of this same predilection for embracing the play of the Gunas of Nature (for that is what it is) and fears, in some vital part of his being, that giving up desire would mean giving up something essential and necessary to experiencing the reality of human existence.

Sri Aurobindo reminds us that this remains the soul’s choice: “The ordinary human soul takes a pleasure in the customary disturbances of its nature-life; it is because it has this pleasure and because, having it, it gives a sanction to the troubled play of the lower nature that the play continues perpetually; for the Prakriti does nothing except for the pleasure and with the sanction of its lover and enjoyer, the Purusha.”

This sanction by the Purusha is the key to finding a new stance and standpoint that can go beyond enslavement to the play of the Gunas and the world of duality that this play manifests. By withdrawing the sanction, and revising the basis for the permitted action, the soul can move to the calm, tranquil and peaceful space of the divine consciousness, and act from there without being troubled by joy or suffering, gain or loss, darkness or light.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 19, Equality, pp. 181-183

Spiritual Equality

Equality is not only a sign of the divine worker, but also represents, as Sri Aurobindo points out, a “test” for the spiritual seeker to be able to recognise the extent of work that still needs to be done. Spiritual aspirants throughout the world have used equality in one form or another as one of the key practices of their progress. Different forms of equality are based, as everything else in the manifested world, on the interplay of the Gunas of Nature. There can be an equality of resignation, through devotion or despair, founded in the principle of Tamas; there can be an equality of striving to control the response, a form of stoicism, founded in Rajas; and there can be an equality based on a philosophical acceptance or cultivated indifference, with its basis in Sattwa.

Equality is important because its absence indicates the action of desire and personal attachment. “By his equality the Karmayogin knows in the midst of his action that he is free.”

Each of these forms takes precedence at certain stages of the seeker’s development, but none of them represents the actual status of spiritual equality enjoined by the Gita. “The Gita takes them all in its large synthetic manner and weaves them into its upward soul-movement, but it gives to each a profounder root, a larger outlook, a more universal and transcendent significance. For to each it ives the values of the spirit, its power of spiritual being beyond the strain of character, beyond the difficult poise of the understanding, beyond the stress of the emotions.”

A spiritual equality goes beyond the limits of stoicism, resignation or indifference into a calm, clear, tranquil and positive acceptance and welcoming of the movements of Spirit in life, in all its forms, with a clear sense of the higher purpose and development, or at least a calm and joyful adherence to that purpose in principle.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 19, Equality, pp. 180-181