Pantheism and Beyond

It is common in theological or philosophical circles to discuss abstract concepts about God, the universe and the creation of the universe. We frequently find that various qualities are attributed to God by most religions, such as omnipotence, omniscience, infinity, omnipresence and eternity. In other words, God is all powerful, all-knowing and without limits.

At the same time, we have a mysterious “disconnect” between these abstract qualities and the question of the existence of the world and our own presence in the world. We find many of these religions and philosophical directions attributing lesser (or no) reality to the forms and forces in the world, and they call it an illusion, Maya, or some other terms that imply non-reality; or they speak of the creation of the worlds and the beings inhabiting them as if God were something of a divine sculptor, taking so much clay and shaping it into forms. The question of “where does the clay come from” and “what is the nature of the clay” is simply ignored in most cases, or else treated as some kind of hallucination or illusory creation, maybe a simulation or a hologram, but not ‘real’.

What is interesting about this is that the first definition would imply that the world, all its creations, and all its actions must be REAL and of the substance of God, not something separate or external.

There are those who do indeed acknowledge this and they are generally known as “pantheists” who see God everywhere. Most of these however, make God co-equal with the creation but do not go the step beyond to indicate that God is not only co-equal with the creation but also transcendent of the creation–exceeding and not limited by the specific forms that are manifested.

The Gita takes up this question and affirms both that God transcends the creation and constitutes the creation, thus providing a real and satisfying answer to the questions that have daunted humanity for ages. Sri Aurobindo explains: “He is the being, all are his becomings. He does not create out of a void, out of a Nihil or out of an unsubstantial matrix of dream. Out of himself he creates, in himself he becomes; all are in his being and all is of his being.”

“His being is in no way limited by his becoming; he is in no degree bound by this world of relations. Even in becoming all he is still a Transcendence; even in assuming finite forms he is always the Infinite.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 7, The Supreme Word of the Gita, pp. 333-334

The Absolute and the Creative Powers of Divine Wisdom

The Gita describes in symbolic terms the process by which the Absolute undertakes to manifest the world of forms, through the creation of, as Sri Aurobindo puts it, “…intelligence powers of that divine Wisdom which has evolved all things out of its own self-conscious infinitude…developed them down the range of the seven principles of its own essence.” These principles are called the seven great Rishis or seers, and they are supposed to be ancient beyond recorded history, progenitors of the world and all its creatures. “These Rishis embody the all-upholding, all-illumining, all-manifesting seven Thoughts of the Veda….” These seven principles are Sat-Chit-Ananda (Existence-Consciousness-Bliss) in the “upper hemisphere”, the Vijnana or Supramental principle which straddles the upper and the lower hemisphere and provides the organizing forms for the lower hemisphere, and the lower hemisphere of Mind-Life and Matter.

The next series of creative principles are called the 4 Manus, the “fathers” of men. They are “mental beings. Creators of all this life that depends on manifests or latent mind for its action, from them are all these living creatures in the world; all are their children and offspring….” They, as also the seven Rishis, are created by Brahma in the traditional lore.

These principles and forces originate in the Supreme Soul: “And these great Rishis and these Manus are themselves perpetual mental becomings of the supreme Soul and born out of his spiritual transcendence into cosmic Nature,–originators, but he the origin of all that originates in the universe. Spirit of all spirits, Soul of all souls, Mind of all mind, Life of all life, Substance of all form, this transcendent Absolute is no complete opposite of all we are, but, on the contrary, the originating and illuminating Absolute of all the principles and powers of our and the world’s being and nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 7, The Supreme Word of the Gita, pg. 333

The Transcendent, The Supreme and the Gods of Creation

When we consider the statements of the seers about the Transcendent, we find that they consistently use language to break us away from specific limiting association with any particular aspect or form in the manifested universe. “Not this, not that” is a formula for breaking our attachment to the idea that we can define the Supreme and understand within our framework of human language. This is not meant, however, to imply that the Absolute is disconnected from, separate or unrelated to the manifested universe.

The Isha, Kena and Taittiriya Upanishads, each in their own way, take up this theme, and their respective statements are worth serious consideration. The Isha makes it clear that all that exists is a form or habitation of the Lord of Creation, and that one needs to embrace both the negative conception to break down limitations and the positive affirmation to embrace Reality. The Kena Upanishad shows that the gods of the creation, the powers that are responsible for the manifestation of all that exists, are delegates and subordinated powers to the Absolute, the Lord, the Eternal Brahman. The Taittiriya Upanishad points out that if we just focus on the negative aspect of “not this, not that”, we only understand the Eternal as negation, but that there is also a way to know the Eternal as all that exists, as well as transcending all that is, and then one achieves the status of a realised being one with the ultimate Reality.

The Gita sets forth these themes in its own way, as Sri Aurobindo points out: “But at the same time the divine Transcendence is not a negation, nor is it an Absolute empty of all relation to the universe. It is a supreme positive, it is an absolute of all absolutes. All cosmic relations derive from this Supreme; all cosmic existences return to it and find in it alone their true and immeasurable existence.”

With respect to the gods: “The gods are the great undying Powers and immortal Personalities who consciously inform, constitute, preside over the subjective and objective forces of the cosmos. The gods are spiritual forms of the eternal and original Deity who descend from him into the many processes of the world.”

In conclusion, everything depends on the Supreme for its existence: “Nothing in the universe has its real cause in the universe; all proceeds from this supernal Existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 7, The Supreme Word of the Gita, pg. 332

The Transcendent and the Manifest Divine

Sri Aurobindo describes the relation between the Transcendent and the Manifest as presented by the Gita: “The idea of the Divine on which the Gita insists as the secret of the whole mystery of existence, the knowledge that leads to liberation, is one that bridges the opposition between the cosmic procession in Time and a supracosmic eternity without denying either of them or taking anything from the reality of either.”

It is important to recognize that this is actually a unique position that sets the Gita quite apart from many spiritual traditions past and present. Generally the human mind wants to affirm one truth, while denying its opposite. The Gita asks us to find the standpoint where we can hold two apparently opposite concepts together and recognize the reality and necessity of each of them. The real issue here is the incapacity of the human mind and human language to grasp, rather than the Reality that it is asked to understand.

“It harmonises the pantheistic, the theistic and the highest transcendental terms of our spiritual conception and spiritual existence.”

The knowledge required to unify is necessarily not an ordinary intellectual understanding of things, but a spiritual experiential knowledge by identity. The experience of the unborn Eternal, unmoving and unmoved by the manifested forms, is one which has been at the heart of the ascetic paths that renounce the world to discover the Eternal. Similarly, the experience of the immanent Divine, in the heart of all beings, sum and substance of all that exists is one that underpins other traditions, such as those of devotional religion and those that focus on works in the world.

“The human soul that can dwell in the light of this supreme spiritual knowledge is lifted by it beyond the ideative or sensible formulations of the universe. It rises into the ineffable power of an all-exceeding, yet all-fulfilling identity, the same beyond and here. This spiritual experience of the transcendental Infinite breaks down the limitations of the pantheistic conception of existence.”

God cannot be bound by his creation, and all the galaxies, and universes together do not limit or constrict the Eternal. The Divine transcends, exceeds and yet constitutes all that is.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 7, The Supreme Word of the Gita, pp. 331-332

The Supreme Word of the Gita

It is significant, and to be noted, that the Gita does not end with its “supreme word”; rather, after setting it forth there remains around half of the text to follow. The Gita is oriented toward a practical application of its teaching in life, not the attainment of some high, abstract philosophical conception divorced from life. Once the seeker grasps the principle, it becomes necessary to work out the implications in all aspects of life and works, and this the Gita strives to achieve in the teachings that follow this supreme word.

The supreme teaching overcomes the limitations of various tendencies of the mind to over-simplify to the point of denying one aspect of Reality in order to affirm another. Sri Aurobindo describes the Gita’s ultimate statement: “…first the explicit and unmistakable declaration that the highest worship and highest knowledge of the Eternal are the knowledge and the adoration of him as the supreme and divine Origin of all that is in existence and the mighty Lord of the world and its peoples of whose being all things are the becomings. it is, secondly, the declaration of a unified knowledge and Bhakti as the supreme Yoga; that is the destined and natural way give to man to arrive at union with the eternal Godhead.”

The devotion described here is not any outward ritual or a purely emotional tension but something that arises naturally from the depths of the being with knowledge of the divine Transcendent, Universal and Personal. “For this delight of the heart in God is the whole constituent and essence of true Bhakti….”

The acknowledgement and acceptance of this supreme word marks a turning point in the Gita’s method and teaching. Arjuna is asked to accept this as the basis and standpoint for everything that will follow, which includes the vision that SEES the Divine everywhere, and the dedication to service that represents the ultimate motive for works in the world.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 7, The Supreme Word of the Gita, pp. 330-331

Spiritual Awakenings

The Gita’s comprehensive and unifying vision, which incorporates the aims of multiple spiritual paths, is not attained through a single spiritual awakening. While any of these paths may provide a door to further realisations, the complete and integral status comes through a series of awakenings. Sri Aurobindo describes these stages or steps:

“This supreme Godhead is the one unchanging imperishable Self in all that is; therefore to the spiritual sense of this unchanging imperishable Self man has to awake and to unify with it his inner impersonal being.”

“He is the Godhead in man who originates and directs all his workings; therefore man has to awake to the Godhead within himself, to know the divinity he houses, to rise out of all that veils and obscures it and to become united with this inmost Self of his self, this greater consciousness of his consciousness, this hidden Master of all his will and works, this Being within him who is the fount and object of all his various becoming.”

“He is the Godhead whose divine nature, origin of all that we are, is thickly veiled by these lower natural derivations; therefore man has to get back from his lower apparent existence, imperfect and mortal, to his essential divine nature of immortality and perfection.”

“This Godhead is one in all things that are, the self who lives in all and the self in whom all live and move; therefore man has to discover his spiritual unity with all creatures, to see all in the self and the self in all beings, even to see all things and creatures as himself…, and accordingly think, feel and act in all his mind, will and living.”

“This Godhead is the origin of all that is here or elsewhere and by his Nature he has become all these innumerable existences…; therefore man has to see and adore the One in all things animate and inanimate, to worship the manifestation in sun and star and flower, in man and every living creature, in the forms and forces, qualities and powers of Nature….”

“He has manifested the world in himself in all these ways by his divine Yoga: its multitudinous existences are one in him and he is one in them in many aspects. To awaken to the revelation of him in all these ways together is man’s side of the same divine Yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 7, The Supreme Word of the Gita, pp. 329-330

The One Godhead Beyond All the Gods

There are innumerable Gods that have been and are worshiped around the world and through time. Each of these represents a particular aspect of divinity. The form or aspect that is worshiped corresponds to the specific need or circumstance of the individual or community that undertakes such worship; and each one responds to the devotees in relation to the desired response. The Gita acknowledges and accepts this multitude of Gods, but is clear to point out that none of them represents a complete, full appreciation or understanding of the Eternal, which exceeds all, while pervading and including all. Each of these represents also a starting point, an opportunity to expand beyond the strict limits of the mental awareness, the vital response or the physical need of the being, and thus, serves a role in the evolutionary progression.

The Kena Upanishad takes up this theme when it indicates that the Gods in their pride believe they are the true power of action, and they fail to recognize the Eternal as the true source of their power. Eventually, when the Gods are humbled in their pride, they find out that they too are aspects or powers of the One Eternal, and they orient themselves toward their true role.

Sri Aurobindo summarizes the true relation of things as described by the Gita: “There is a supreme, a divine Nature which is the true creatrix of the universe. All creatures and all objects are becomings of the one divine Being; all life is a working of the power of the one Lord; all nature is a manifestation of the one Infinite. He is the Godhead in man; the Jiva is spirit of his Spirit. He is the Godhead in the universe; this world in Space and Time is his phenomenal self-extension.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 7, The Supreme Word of the Gita, pp. 328-329