The Illusion of the Materialist View of Existence

When Bhrigu, Varuna’s son, as described in the Taittiriya Upanishad, began his practice of concentration of conscious-force (tapas) for the purpose of knowing the Eternal, the first realisation he came to was that Matter (food) was the Eternal. “For from food alone, it appeareth, are these creatures born and being born they live by food, and into food they depart and enter again.” When he imparted this revelation to his father, however, he was asked to continue his efforts, with the result that he eventually recognized that this was an imperfect understanding and that there were additional levels, and eventually an ultimate level of knowledge, which, while not denying the reality of Matter, did not consign to it the ultimate and permanent value that he first posited.

This is the position we have when we adopt the materialist understanding of the primacy of Matter and the development of life and consciousness as some kind of inexplicable combination of chemicals and material forces under certain conditions. Sri Aurobindo describes this as the illusion that the seeker of the integral yoga, as also the followers of the traditional yoga of knowledge, must eventually see through and overcome:

“A spiritual knowledge…must discover that the body is not our self, our foundation of existence; it is a sensible form of the Infinite. The experience of Matter as the world’ sole foundation and the physical brain and nerves and cells and molecules as the one truth of all things in us, the ponderous inadequate basis of materialism, is a delusion, a half-view taken for the whole, the dark bottom or shadow of things misconceived as the luminous substance, the effective figure of zero for the Integer. The materialist idea mistakes the creation for the creative Power, a means of expression for That which is expressed and expresses. Matter and our physical brain and nerves and body are the field and foundation for one action of a vital force that serves to connect the Self with the form of its works and maintains them by its direct dynamis. The material movements are an exterior notation by which the soul represents its perceptions of certain truths of the Infinite and makes them effective in the terms of Substance. These things are a language, a notation, a hieroglyphic, a system of symbols, not themselves the deepest truest sense of the things they intimate.”

No one would confuse the pottery created with the potter who creates it. But we continually confuse the forms that arise out of Matter with the creative Power itself. In the case of the potter and the pottery, it is quite clear, but in the case of Matter and the Creator it is even more difficult because we have an inner sense or intuition of the truth of Oneness, that in fact, the Creator, the creation and the process of creation are all one “omnipresent reality” and thus, Matter itself is of the substance of Spirit, not having a “separate” existence. Nevertheless, the limitations of human thought bring us to the development of a strict dichotomy that denies the Spirit in Matter and forces us into the illusion of separation and material primacy. By dispelling these illusions the seeker comes to see the wider Truth of existence, and this is the goal of the practitioner of the yoga of knowledge and a step along the way for the integral yoga that does not abandon the reality of Matter while dispelling the illusory nature of our understanding of Matter.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 1, The Object of Knowledge, pg. 280

The All-Uniting Experience That Underpins Self-Knowledge and World-Knowledge

When the seeker following the path of the Yoga of knowledge considers the world, its forms, and the individual ego-personality to be false and illusory, he is responding to the overwhelming intensity of the spiritual truth he experiences. At the same time, the human propensity to take everything to extremes and to highlight the opposites as if they are irreconcilable also plays a role here in overstating the case. The world, the individual manifestation in the world, has also its underlying truth of existence. The falsehood and illusion that are perceived are not “ultimate” falsehood or total illusion, but simply an acknowledgement of the limitations of the mental consciousness and our inability to seize with the mind the all-embracing, all-unifying truth of the spirit which constitutes the individual, the universal and the transcendent in one “omnipresent reality”, as Sri Aurobindo has called it. Even in the realm of ordinary life, we can see that the process of learning, the growth of knowledge, is one that is progressive in nature. We therefore cannot call our first stages of knowledge totally false; rather, we can see them as first framings of what will later be a much larger structure of knowledge. Similarly, the Truth-Consciousness, the level that exists far beyond our mental limitations, can recognize the limits that gave rise to the concept of the illusion of the world, and see that all of these facts become the basis for the next perception, and thus are not entirely false.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “…we find that the ignorance of the mind and the senses and all the apparent futilities of human life were not an useless excursion of the conscious being, an otiose blunder. Here they were planned as a rough ground for the self-expression of the Soul that comes from the Infinite, a material foundation for its self-unfolding and self-possessing in the terms of the universe. It is true that in themselves they and all that is here have no significance, and to build separate significances for them is to live in an illusion, Maya; but they have a supreme significance in the Supreme, an absolute Power in the Absolute and it is that that assigns to them and refers to that Truth their present relative values. This is the all-uniting experience that is the foundation of the deepest integral and most intimate self-knowledge and world-knowledge.”

The world and the actions the individual undertakes in the world do not exist separate and for themselves; they are manifestations of the Divine for the Divine’s purpose and from the Divine standpoint, and it is from that standpoint that the true relevance can be seen; the apparent illusion we see while observing from the human standpoint gets resolved into the self-existent truth and reality from the divine standpoint.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 1, The Object of Knowledge, pp. 279-280

The Experience of the Mind’s Liberation

The practice of Yoga is not an exercise in religion, philosophy or development of a coherent belief system. Yogic practice is intended to change the consciousness of the seeker, the “standpoint” from which one views the world and acts within it. Along the way, there is a shift that occurs as the seeker moves between the ordinary outer consciousness of the human being and the spiritual consciousness that is trying to manifest in him. This leads to what are called “spiritual experiences” where the consciousness of the human individual is set aside or overwhelmed by one of these standpoint shifts.

The yoga of knowledge, as practiced traditionally, has gained a large number of adherents in large part because of the intense and overwhelming nature of the experience that accompanies its practice. For those who have had a taste of this experience, it is easy to understand their focus on this as the ultimate state of awareness. Sri Aurobindo makes it clear that it remains a stage, not the ultimate end result, of the practice of Yoga:

“Deep, intense, convincing, common to all who have overstepped a certain limit of the active mind-belt into the horizonless inner space, this is the great experience of liberation, the consciousness of something within us that is behind and outside of the universe and all its forms, interests, aims, events and happenings, calm, untouched, unconcerned, illimitable, immobile, free, the uplook to something above us indescribable and unseizable into which by abolition of our personality we can enter, the presence of an omnipresent eternal witness Purusha, the sense of an Infinity or a Timelessness that looks down on us from an august negation of all our existence and is alone the one thing Real. This experience is the highest sublimation of spiritualised mind looking resolutely beyond its own existence. No one who has not passed through this liberation can be entirely free from the mind and its meshes, but one is not compelled to linger in this experience for ever. Great as it is, it is only the Mind’s overwhelming experience of what is beyond itself and all it can conceive. It is a supreme negative experience, but beyond it is all the tremendous light of an infinite Consciousness, an illimitable Knowledge, an affirmative absolute Presence.”

As the Taittiriya Upanishad states: “One becometh as the unexisting, if he know the Eternal as negation; but if one knoweth of the Eternal that He is, then men know him for the saint and the one reality.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Taittiriya Upanishad, Brahmanandavalli, Chapter 6, pg. 270)

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 1, The Object of Knowledge, pp. 278-279

The Essential Characteristics of the Integral Path of Knowledge

While the traditional path of knowledge leads away from the life of the world, treating it as either an illusion or a lesser reality to be abandoned in order to achieve Oneness with the Supreme, the integral path of knowledge obviously cannot follow this route. The integral Yoga starts from the premise that the manifestation is real, an “omnipresent reality” and thus, the path of knowledge is not focused on abandonment, but on sifting out the truth of our existence from the falsity that parades as knowledge for the physical-vital-mental sphere of the outer life.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Eliminate the falsity of the being which figures as the ego; then our true being can manifest in us. Eliminate the falsity of the life which figures as mere vital craving and the mechanical round of our corporeal existence; our true life in the power of the Godhead and the joy of the Infinite will appear. Eliminate the falsity of the senses with their subjection to material shows and to dual sensations; there is a greater sense in us that can open through these to the Divine in things and divinely reply to it. Eliminate the falsity of the heart with its turbid passions and desires and its dual emotions; a deeper heart in us can open with its divine love for all creatures and its infinite passion and yearning for the responses of the Infinite. Eliminate the falsity of the thought with its imperfect mental constructions, its arrogant assertions and denials, its limited and exclusive concentrations; a greater faculty of Knowledge is behind that can open to the true Truth of God and the soul and Nature and the universe.”

This path leads to the integral development of all the powers of life in Oneness with the Supreme, rather than a denial and an abandonment of the creation. “…an absolute, a culmination for the experiences of the heart, for its instinct of love, joy, devotion and worship; an absolute, a culmination for the senses, for their pursuit of divine beauty and good and delight in the forms of things; an absolute, a culmination for the life, for its pursuit of works, of divine power, mastery and perfection; an absolute, a culmination beyond its own limits for the thought, for its hunger after truth and light and divine wisdom and knowledge. Not something quite other than themselves from which they are all cast away is the end of these things in our nature, but something supreme in which they at once transcend themselves and find their own absolutes and infinitudes, their harmonies beyond measure.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 1, The Object of Knowledge, pp. 277-278

The Mind Is Not the Sole Judge of Existence and Its Significance

Western philosophy in particular has been captured by the lure of the mental process as the touchstone of truth. Rene Descarte famously declared “I think, therefore I am.” For those who have a strongly developed mental capacity, the lure is very strong to declare the mind the arbiter of what is real and what is unreal, what is true and what is false. Taken to its extremes, this approach refuses to accept realities that cannot be measured by the mind. It also eventually tends, through the nature of mind as an analyzing tool and its predilection for black/white, either/or formulations and its reliance on abstract reasoning separated from the facts of the outer existence in some cases, to enhance its own central importance to the detriment of the fulfillment that could be expected of the other parts of the being, physical, vital, emotional, and spiritual.

It is a recognized truth of the logical intellect that it is limited by the frame within which it operates and can easily be caught up in a “closed loop” of its own making, while denying or simply failing to recognize the larger framework outside of its circle. This limitation leads to the denial of “supra-rational” truths that cannot be experienced or codified by the mental faculties.

Acknowledging these limitations, the seeker eventually must come to recognize that there are truths and realities that cannot be captured or understood by the mind, and there are levels of experience that are wider, deeper and higher than the mental framework can comprehend. Sri Aurobindo observes: “An exclusive path of abstract thought would be justified, only if the object of the Supreme Will in the universe has been nothing more than a descent into the activity of the ignorance operated by the mind as blinding instrument and jailor through false idea and sensation and an ascent into the quiescence of knowledge equally operated by the mind through correct thought as enlightening instrument and savior. But the chances are that there is an aim in the world less absurd and aimless, an impulse towards the Absolute less dry and abstract, a truth of the world more large and complex, a more richly infinite height of the Infinite.”

“The heart, the will, the life and even the body, no less than the thought, are forms of a divine Conscious-Being and indices of great significance. These too have powers by which the soul can return to its complete self-awareness or means by which it can enjoy it. The object of the Supreme Will may well be a culmination in which the whole being is intended to receive its divine satisfaction, the heights enlivening the depths, the material Inconscient revealed to itself as the Divine by the touch of the supreme Superconscience.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 1, The Object of Knowledge, pp. 276-277

The Will Is the Determining Factor in Life

The term “tapas” or “tapasya” in Sanskrit represents an essential concept in the practice of Yoga. ordinarily translated as “austerity” or “askesis”, the term has a much more essential sense to it, akin to the concept of “will” or “concentration in thought”, the focused and one-pointed gathering of the faculties to allow a breakthrough in understanding beyond the limits of body, life and the normal actions of the mind.

In the Taittiriya Upanishad, when Bhrigu asked his father Varuna to teach him the Eternal, at each stage of his growth in understanding, Varuna replied “By askesis (tapas) do thou seek to know the Eternal, for askesis is the Eternal.” When we reflect on the significance of this, we find that this power focusing of the deeper will, not what we ordinarily call the exercise of will in the mental framework, acts as the unifying power between the individual and the Supreme. (Bhriguvalli)

In another section, the process of the creation of the universe is characterized as the Spirit concentrating “all Himself in thought, and by the force of His brooding He created all this universe, yea, all whatsoever existeth.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Taittiriya Upanishad, Brahmanandavalli, Chapter 6, pg. 270)

The human being generally is considered to be guided by his mental faculties, at the highest levels of human capacity. The formula in the ancient texts is on the order of “the mind, the leader of the life and body.” Sri Aurobindo observes, however, that this is only true for the outer personality. The mind is not the instrument that can associate itself with the Supreme directly. The mind “turns back without attaining” in the language of the Upanishad.

Sri Aurobindo explores the deeper meaning of “will” in this sense: “This Will is not the wish of the heart or the demand or preference of the mind to which we often give the name. It is that inmost, dominant and often veiled conscious force of our being and of all being, Tapas, Shakti, Shraddha, that sovereignly determines our orientation and of which the intellect and the heart are more or less blind and automatic servants and instruments.”

The manifestation of the universe is carried out through the Will of the Supreme. “In these activities is expressed the conscious Will of Shakti of the Spirit moved to manifest its being in infinite ways, a Will or Power not ignorant but at one with its own self-knowledge and its knowledge of all that it is put out to express. And of this Power a secret spiritual will and soul-faith in us, the dominant hidden force of our nature, is the individual instrument, more nearly in communication with the Supreme, a surer guide and enlightener, could we once get at it and hold it, because profounder and more intimately near to the Identical and Absolute than the surface activities of our thought powers. To know that will in ourselves and in the universe and follow it to its divine finalities, whatever these may be, must surely be the highest way and truest culmination for knowledge as for works, for the seeker in life and for the seeker in Yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 1, The Object of Knowledge, pp. 275-276

The Mental Framework Provides the Initial Leverage For the Yoga of Knowledge

The Yoga of knowledge begins with the basic capabilities of the mind in order to experience and eventually identify with the Supreme. The mind has the capacity to withdraw itself from the events and forms and experiences of the outer world, to become a quiescent witness or passive observer of things and events. This is the first essential characteristic required for the path of Jnana Yoga. This attitude of the mind corresponds to one of the aspects of the Supreme: “There is an Essence that is in its nature a quiescence, a supreme of Silence in the Being that is beyond its own development and mutations, immutable and therefore superior to all activities of which it is at most a Witness.”

Some liken this status to a type of substrate of existence, or to put it another way, like a “canvas” upon which the artist creates his painting. The mind, of all human core capacities, is the closest to being able to grasp, in some manner, this background or framework of creation. “For in its most characteristic movement it is itself apt to be a disinterested witness, judge, observer of things more than an eager participant and passionate labourer in the work and can arrive very readily at a spiritual or philosophic calm and detached aloofness.”

“Armed with its functions of gathering and reflection, meditation, fixed contemplation, the absorbed dwelling of the mind on its object,…, it stands at our tops as an indispensable aid to our realisation of that which we pursue, and it is not surprising that it should claim to be the leader of the journey and the only available guide or at least the direct and innermost door of the temple.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 1, The Object of Knowledge, pp. 274-275