The Eternal Ashwattha Tree and the Status of the Purushottama

The image of the Ashwattha tree is one which frequently recurs in the spiritual tradition of India, including the Bhagavad Gita. The physical Ashwattha, also known as the Banyan tree by some translators (or the Peepul Tree by others–both trees of the family Ficus), has a unique growing habit that makes it an excellent metaphor for the manifestation of the universe. The tree has deep roots, lush and ever-expanding branches and foliage, and sends down aerial roots from the branches as the tree expands its scope.

The expanding universe is pictured in this image as the eternal Ashwattha tree. Sri Aurobindo describes the eternal Ashwattha tree: “This tree of cosmic existence has no beginning and no end…, in space or in time; for it is eternal and imperishable…. The real form of it cannot be perceived by us in this material world of man’s embodiment, nor has it any apparent lasting foundation here; it is an infinite movement and its foundation is above in the supreme of the Infinite. Its principle is the ancient sempiternal urge to action, pravritti, which for ever proceeds without beginning or end from the original Soul of all existence…. Therefore its original source is above, beyond Time in the Eternal, but its branches stretch down below and it extends and plunges its other roots, well-fixed and clinging roots of attachment and desire with their consequences of more and more desire and an endlessly developing action, plunges them downward here into the world of men.” “The branches of this cosmic tree extend both below and above, below in the material, above in the supraphysical planes; they grow by the Gunas of Nature…. Man…so long as he enjoys the play of the Gunas and is attached to desire, is held in the coils of Pravritti, in the movement of birth and action, turns about constantly between the earth and the middle planes and the heavens and is unable to get back to his supreme spiritual infinitudes.”

The sages, the seekers of liberation, found a path to liberation by undertaking to break the rhythm of the urge to action, through cessation of the force of desire. “But for this purpose it is necessary to cut these long-fixed roots of desire by the strong sword of detachment and then to seek for that highest goal whence, once having reached it, there is no compulsion of return to mortal life. To be free from the bewilderment of this lower Maya, without egoism, the great fault of attachment conquered, all desires stilled, the duality of joy and grief cast away, always to be fixed in a pure spiritual consciousness, these are the steps of the way to that supreme Infinite.” “that is the highest status of the Purushottama, his supracosmic existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 429-430

The Single and Perfect Way To the Supreme Perfection

The Gita, in trying to deal with complex subjects and numerous questions raised by the mind of man when confronted with the meaning of life and the role of man in the world, has necessarily had to delve into a number of topics and look at things from a number of different angles. We can however, on the subject of how to achieve the perfect realisation and state of existence that the Gita sets as its goal, simplify matters quite a bit.

We all start from the human perspective and thus, with involvement in the standpoint of the Kshara Purusha dealing with the manifested world and the action of the Gunas of Nature. The Gita essentially tells us that we need to find a point of separation from our bondage or involvement in Nature so that we can gain some perspective and thereby move beyond subjection to the Gunas. Thus, the Gita proposes a methodology that should bring us to the realisation of the Akshara Purusha, uninvolved, silent and separate. The next step is to re-integrate the two standpoints in the higher synthesis provided by the Purushottama. This is done through the subsequent realisation that the manifestation is One with the Lord of the Creation, that there is also a personal aspect to balance the impersonal, and that devotion and the path of love therefore need to be combined with the equality and impersonality achieved in the first step to truly resolve the apparent conflict and bring about the supreme state of Oneness that can hold both the personal and the impersonal together at one time as one existence.

Sri Aurobindo describes the two steps: “To ascend into the divine nature…one must first fix oneself in a perfect spiritual equality and rise above the lower nature of the three Gunas. Thus transcending the lower Prakriti we fix ourselves in the impersonality, the imperturbable superiority to all action, the purity from all definition and limitation by quality which is one side of the manifested nature of the Purushottama.”

The Infinite has an eternal power, an unbeginning and unending action of his divine Nature, and in that action the miracle of soul personality emerges from a play of apparently impersonal forces…. This is possible because personality too is a character of the Divine and finds in the Infinite its highest spiritual truth and meaning. But the Person in the Infinite is not the egoistic, separative, oblivious personality of the lower Prakriti; it is something exalted, universal and transcendent, immortal and divine. That mystery of the supreme Person is the secret of love and devotion….The completeness of knowledge finds itself in this self-offering, this uplifting of our personal nature by love and adoration to the ineffable Master of our personality and its acts….”

“And having so stated this double requisite, equality in the one self , adoration of the one Lord, …the Gita proceeds now to unite the personal and the impersonal in the Purushottama and to define their relations. For the object of the Gita is to get rid of exclusions and separative exaggerations and fuse these two sides of knowledge and spiritual experience into a single and perfect way to the supreme perfection.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 427-429

The Purushottama Reconciles the Akshara and the Kshara Purusha Aspects

The Gita applies the paradigm of thesis–antithesis–synthesis in addressing the apparent contradictions between the status of the Akshara Purusha, silent, immobile, unaffected by life in the world, and that of the Kshara Purusha, involved in the activities of Nature, and apparently bound by desire and the action o the Gunas and suffering as a result. The Gita proposes another status, called the Purushottama, which incorporates both that of the Akshara and the Kshara, and finds in that new status the reconciling principle that allows them to be seen as complementary aspects, not contradictory and irreconcilable opposites.

As long as the soul is totally immersed in and involved in the actions of the Gunas of Nature, it cannot attain to the status of the Purushottama which would liberate it from its bondage to nature. Those who recognize this have tended in the past to focus on attainment of the status of the Akshara Purusha through abandonment of an active life and the fulfillment of desires. This method has the advantage of at least providing the soul some amount of distance from the day to day activities and thus, the potential to achieve a higher status. But attainment of the Akshara status does not address the other side of the manifestation, the world, the actions and forces and forms and the status of mastery within the world, which the Purushottama aspect adds to that of the Akshara.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the issue: “But yet is he more even than a highest unmanifest Akshara, more than any negative Absolute, neti, neti, because he is to be known also as the supreme Purusha who extends this whole universe in his own existence. He is a supreme mysterious All, an ineffable positive Absolute of all things here. He is the Lord in the Kshara, Purushottama not only there, but here in the heart of every creature, Ishwara….It is by knowing him at once in the Akshara and the Kshara, it is by knowing him as the Unborn who partially manifests himself in birth and even himself descends as the constant Avatar, it is by knowing him in his entirety…that the soul is easily released from the appearances of the lower Nature and returns by a vast sudden growth and broad immeasurable ascension into the divine being and supreme Nature. For the truth of the Kshara too is a truth of the Purushottama. The Purushottama is in the heart of every creature and is manifested in his countless Vibhutis; the Purushottama is the cosmic spirit in Time and it is he that gives the command to the divine action of the liberated human spirit. He is both Akshara and Kshara, and yet he is other because he is more and greater than either of these opposites.”

“But other than these two is the highest spirit called the supreme Self, who enters the three worlds and upbears them, the imperishable Lord.” “This verse is the keyword of the Gita’s reconciliation of these two apparently opposite aspects of our existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 426-427

The Gita’s Solution to the Apparent Contradictions Between Soul and Nature

The Gita does not attempt to cut the knot of the difficulty of the apparent irreconcilable nature of Spirit and the manifested world of Nature. It does not accept that the world is an illusion, maya, and that therefore the solution would be to abandon it to live in the eternal silence and stillness of the Spirit. Nor does it accept the idea that the abstract life of the uninvolved soul is better or higher than the life of participation in the world. The Gita’s stance rather is that when we achieve the integrative standpoint, the manifested life and the spirit are seen and experienced as one “omnipresent reality” as Sri Aurobindo has elsewhere named it.

It is interesting to note that some Buddhist commentaries hold that samsara and nirvana are both “here” and “present” at the same time; it is a matter of standpoint. These commentaries essentially recognize that the consciousness that integrates and unifies does not create a duality from which we need to escape.

The Isha Upanishad in verse 7 sums it up: “He in whom it is the Self-Being that has become all existences that are Becomings, for he has the perfect knowledge, how shall he be deluded, whence shall he have grief who sees everywhere oneness?” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, pg. 21, Isha Upanishad, v. 7)

Sri Aurobindo explains the Gita’s position thus: “When we transcend this Maya, the world does not disappear, it only changes its whole heart of meaning. In the spiritual vision we find not that all this does not really exist, but rather that all is, but with a sense quite other than its present mistaken significance: all is self and soul and nature of the Godhead, all is Vasudeva. The world for the Gita is real, a creation of the Lord, a power of the Eternal, a manifestation from the Parabrahman, and even this lower nature of the triple Maya is a derivation from the supreme divine Nature.”

“…the Gita insists that we can and should, while we live, be conscious in the self and its silence and yet act with power in the world of Nature. And it gives the example of the Divine himself who is not bound by necessity of birth, but free, superior to the cosmos, and yet abides eternally in action….”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 425-426

Practical and Logical Contradictions To Oneness

In all aspects of our daily life we are met with apparent contradictions. When we wake in the morning and see the sunrise, or watch a sunset in the evening, we are faced with one of the most obvious examples of a contradiction that opposes our visual experience to what our logical intellect, tutored by scientific observation, tells us is taking place. Similarly, for countless centuries human beings have considered the world to be flat, based on what they could observe, and until it was proven otherwise, they felt that we would simply fall off the edge if we went too far. It is a contradiction that bodies heavier than water can float, or that they can fly in the air, but somehow science tells us that our own logical inference and normal observation notwithstanding, these things are possible, and today we take them for granted as the basis of our ability to travel the world.

So it is no surprise that when we come to the question of the relation of the two aspects of the Purusha, the Akshara and the Kshara, we are faced with similar contradictions that treat them as if they are irreconcilable opposites, and the only solution to their relation is to accept either one, or the other, as real, and treat the opposite one as unreal, an illusion, a dream, or some kind of imaginary experience. Sri Aurobindo addresses this: “The Eternal is other than this mobile subjective and objective experience, there is a greater consciousness…:and yet at the same time all this is the Eternal, all this is the perennial self-seeing of the Self…. The Eternal has become all existences…; as the Swetaswatara puts it, ‘Thou art this boy and yonder girl and that old man walking supported on his staff,’–even as in the Gita the Divine says that he is Krishna and Arjuna and Vyasa and Ushanas, and the lion and the Ashwattha tree, and consciousness and intelligence and all qualities and the self of all creatures. But how are these two the same, when they seem not only so opposite in nature, but so difficult to unify in experience? For when we live in the mobility of the becoming, we may be aware of but hardly live in the immortality of timeless self-existence. And when we fix ourselves in timeless being, Time and Space and circumstance fall away from us and begin to appear as a troubled dream in the Infinite.”

The limited mental solution, which wants “either/or” answers, has most often decided that the world is an illusion, essentially unreal and transitory, and needs to be abandoned to attain the Eternal. This is not the solution that the Gita is willing to accept.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 424-425

Reconciling the Mobile and the Immobile

The Gita diverges from the Sankyha at this point, and it is an important distinction. The Sankhya holds that there is a duality between Purusha and Prakriti; one is either involved with Nature, or separated into a transcending consciousness of the pure silent witness. Thus, one is either fully involved in the manifested world and its beings, forces and actions, in the standpoint of the Kshara Purusha; or else, one abandons this whirl of existence to experience the silence, immutability, and eternity of the Akshara Purusha. This concept led eventually to what Sri Aurobindo calls ‘the refusal of the ascetic’, and the tendency among spiritually moved individuals throughout the world and throughout history to step back from the world, enter the cave, the desert or the monastery and concentrate on achieving the standpoint of the silent, immobile Self.

Sri Aurobindo reminds us that the Isha Upanishad (and others) provided a path to reconcile and harmonize the two statuses of consciousness. The Gita picks up on this unifying line of understanding and recognizes that a true understanding accepts the Oneness of both aspects. “But after all, the final experience is that of a unity of all beings which is not merely a community of experience, a common subjection to one force of Nature, but a oneness in the spirit, a vast identity of conscious being beyond all this endless variety of determination, behind all this apparent separativism of relative existence.”

“…it affirms with a strong insistence that the Akshara is the one self of all these many souls, and it is therefore evident that these two spirits are a dual status of one eternal and universal existence.”

“…the Isha tells us that Brahman is both the mobile and the immobile, is the One and the Many, is the Self and all existences…, is the Knowledge and the Ignorance, is the eternal unborn status and also the birth of existences, and that to dwell only on one of these things to the rejection of its eternal counterpart is a darkness of exclusive knowledge or a darkness of ignorance. It too insists like the Gita that man must know and must embrace both and learn of the Supreme in his entirety…, in order to enjoy immortality and live in the Eternal.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pp. 423-424

The Relation of the Kshara to the Akshara Purusha

The relation of the Kshara Purusha and the Akshara Purusha is described by Sri Aurobindo through a comparison with the elements of the natural world. The power of wind moves and pervades the element of ether. Similarly, the Kshara Purusha, manifest, mobile and active pervades the Akshara Purusha, unmanifest, unmoving and inactive. These are not two separate and independent beings, but two aspects of one being, with the motion taking place against the unmoving background that is always there but not always perceptible by us because our view is oriented outwards and distracted by the motion, action and forms of the manifested world.

“The Kshara spirit visible to us as all natural existence and the totality of all existences moves and acts pervadingly in the immobile and eternal Akshara. This mobile Power of Self acts in that fundamental stability of Self….”

The Akshara “…in its highest status… is an unmanifest beyond even the unmanifest principle of the original cosmic Prakriti, Avyakta, and, if the soul turns to this Immutable, the hold of cosmos and Nature falls away from it and it passes beyond birth to an unchanging eternal existence.”

“These two then are the two spirits we see in the world; one emerges in front in its action, the other remains behind it steadfast in that perpetual silence from which the action comes and in which all actions cease and disappear into timeless being, Nirvana.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 15, The Three Purushas, pg. 423