The Soul As the Upholder of the Action of Nature

The soul’s poise as “witness” of Nature, uninvolved, and observing, but not actively participating, is an important first step in the liberation of the soul from its apparent subjection to Nature. The next poise is that of the “upholder” of Nature. In this case, the soul does not look upon Nature purely as something separate and different, for which it need have no interaction or interest; rather, it recognizes that the soul is actually the consciousness that allows Nature to exist and manifest. This poise may be passive, whereby the soul still does not take an active interest or try to control Nature, or it may be active.

Sri Aurobindo elaborates: “the soul is the upholder also, it supports in its being the energy which unrolls the spectacle of the cosmos and which conducts its energies. When the Purusha accepts this upholding, it may do it still passively and without attachment, feeling that it contributes the energy but not that it controls and determines it. The control is another, God or Force or the very nature of Maya; the soul only upholds indifferently so long as it must, so long perhaps as the force of its past sanction and interest in the energy continues and refuses to be exhausted. But if the attitude of the upholder is fully accepted, an important step forward has been taken towards identification with the active Brahman and his joy of cosmic being. For the Purusha has become the active giver of the sanction.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 17, The Soul and Nature, pg. 414

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The Soul In the Poise of Pure Witness of Nature

Sri Aurobindo outlines the various poises that the Soul can take in relation to Nature as expounded by the Gita: “The distinction made in the Gita between the Purusha and the Prakriti gives us the clue to the various attitudes which the soul can adopt towards Nature in its movement towards perfect freedom and rule. The Purusha is, says the Gita, witness, upholder, source of the sanction, knower, lord; enjoyer; Prakriti executes, it is the active principle and must have an operation corresponding to the attitude of the Purusha.”

Sri Aurobindo then systematically begins his review of these various standpoints of the soul with the first, the role of Witness of Nature. “The soul may assume, if it wishes, the poise of the pure witness, sakshi; it may look on at the action of Nature as a thing from which it stands apart; it watches, but does not itself participate.”

This status implies a withdrawal from active involvement with Nature. Since everything in Nature is conditioned by the action of the three Gunas, this status as Witness may be founded on any one of the three Gunas: “This may, therefore, be an attitude of renunciation or at least of non-participation, tamasika, with a resigned and inert endurance of the natural action so long as it lasts, rajasika, with a disgust, aversion and recoil from it, sattvika, with a luminous intelligence of the soul’s separateness and the peace and joy of aloofness and repose; but also it may be attended by an equal and impersonal delight as of a spectator at a show, joyous but unattached and ready to rise up at any moment and as joyfully depart. The attitude of the Witness at its highest is the absolute of unattachment and freedom from affection by the phenomena of cosmic existence.”

This Witness consciousness is not the only, nor even the ultimate standpoint in the relation of Soul to Nature, but it is an important first step in the process of disentangling the Soul from its apparent subjection to Nature.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 17, The Soul and Nature, pp. 413-414

The Nature of the Spiritual Life and the Spiritual Existence

From the human standpoint, we conceive our options as being either subjection to the actions of Nature or liberation through rejection of Nature. Sri Aurobindo observes that the divine standpoint provides additional stances and options, including taking on the divine nature, identifying with the divine universal intention and purpose, and thereby attaining complete liberation from subjection to Nature and mastery over Nature.

It is one of the weaknesses of the human standpoint that it wants to aggrandize itself, thus treating the concept of mastery in some kind of egoistic sense; however, this mastery only arises when the seeker is totally immersed in and unified with the divine standpoint and thus, there is no sense of individual power or accomplishment that accompanies this mastery.

Sri Aurobindo elucidates: “But the Spirit, the Divine is not only above Nature; it is master of Nature and cosmos; the soul rising into its spiritual poise must at least be capable of the same mastery by its unity with the Divine. It must be capable of controlling its own nature not only in calm or by forcing it to repose, but with a sovereign control of its play and activity. … But the Spirit is in possession of knowledge and will, of which it is the source and cause and not a subject; therefore in proportion as the soul assumes its divine or spiritual being, it assumes also control of the movements of its nature. It becomes, in the ancient language, svarat, free and a self-ruler over the kingdom of its own life and being. But also it increases in control over its environment, its world. This it can only do by universalising itself; for it is the divine and universal will that it must express in its action upon the world. It must first extend its consciousness and see the universe in itself instead of being like the mind limited by the physical, vital, sensational, emotional, intellectual outlook of the little divided personality; it must accept the world-truths, the world-energies, the world-tendencies, the world-purposes as its own instead of clinging to its own intellectual ideas, desires and endeavours, preferences, objects, intentions, impulses; these, so far as they remain, must be harmonised with the universal. It must then submit its knowledge and will at their very source to the divine Knowledge and the divine Will and so arrive through submission at immergence, losing its personal light in the divine Light and its personal initiative in the divine initiative. To be first in tune with the Infinite, in harmony with the Divine, and then to be unified with the Infinite, taken into the Divine is its condition of perfect strength and mastery, and this is precisely the very nature of the spiritual life and the spiritual existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 17, The Soul and Nature, pp. 412-413

The Apparent Subjection of the Soul to Nature

Modern man, looking at the world and his life with the eyes of a materialist influence, focuses his entire attention on how to deal with the world, and gain some measure of control and order in what otherwise seems to be either a totally mechanical universe or one that is somehow dangerous and hostile to his survival. The spiritual traditions of India frequently reference the machinery of Nature and go so far as to say that all actions of mind, life and body are caused by this machinery of Nature operating through the three Gunas, Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas which are always in flux. While the pure materialist may not acknowledge or recognize a separate entity such as a Soul, that is able to differentiate itself from this machinery, Vedantic thought has developed a number of explanations as to the relation between this mechanism of Nature and the freedom and independence of the Soul.

Sri Aurobindo observes: Involved in mind, possessed by the ordinary phenomenon of mental thought, sensation, emotion, reception of the vital and physical impacts of the world and mechanical reaction to them, the soul is subject to Nature. Even its will and intelligence are determined by its mental nature, determined even more largely by the mental nature of the environment which acts upon, subtly as well as overtly, and overcomes the individual mentality; thus its attempt to regulate, to control, to determine its own experience and action is pursued by an element of illusion, since when it thinks it is acting, it is really Nature that is acting and determining all it thinks, wills and does.”

What the materialist tends to overlook is what Sri Aurobindo elsewhere calls “the human aspiration”. There is within each individual, however well-concealed under layers of this element of confusion, an inner certainty, a deeper knowledge, if you will, that allows the individual to believe that there is a way to achieve freedom and mastery over his life–that he is not just a collection of thoughts, habits, and physical reactions, but that there is something more to his life, something that will give it meaning. “If there were not this constant knowledge in it that it is, that it exists in itself, is not the body or life but something other which at least receives and accepts the cosmic experience if it does not determine it, it would be compelled in the end to suppose that Nature is all and the soul an illusion.” There are of course those who adopt this proposed solution, and either go to the extremes of the materialist approach, or take up the extreme spiritual approach that denies reality to the world and treats the spiritual consciousness as the sole reality.

When the individual recognizes the deeper aspiration, however, eventually a solution must present itself that validates both the spiritual and the material reality as one omnipresent reality. Sri Aurobindo discusses these approaches and their limitation: “Though they do not satisfy humanity’s larger hope and deep-seated impulse and aspiration, these are valid solutions so far as they go; for they arrive at an Absolute in itself or at the separate absolute of the soul, even if they reject the many rapturous infinites of the Absolute which the true possession of Nature by the soul in its divine existence offers to the eternal seeker in man.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 17, The Soul and Nature, pp. 411-412

Our View of the Relation Between Soul and Nature Determines The Solution We Seek

Each individual seeker travels down the path of realization according to the idea he holds as to the meaning and possibilities of life and spiritual growth. Experience, also affirmed by religions and philosophical systems, shows us that there is a lower nature and life, as also a higher nature. Some take this experience to mean that the practitioner of spiritual growth must leave behind the lower nature and take on the higher, which represents an escape or growth out of the trouble and confusion of the lower nature and life. Others may recognize that the experience of a lower and higher nature does not imply a duality and a choice, but rather, a unity and an opportunity for transformation of the lower by the power of the higher nature.

Sri Aurobindo elaborates: “The hope of a complete escape from our present strife with and subjection to our lower and troubled nature and existence arises when we perceive what religion and philosophy affirm, but modern thought has tried to deny, that there are two poises of our soul-existence, a lower, troubled and subjected, a higher, supreme, untroubled and sovereign, one vibrant in Mind, the other tranquil in Spirit. The hope not only of an escape, but of a completely satisfying and victorious solution comes when we perceive what some religions and philosophies affirm, but others seem to deny, that there is also in the dual unity of soul and nature a lower, an ordinary human status and a higher, a divine in which the conditions of the duality are reversed and the soul becomes that which it now only struggles and aspires to be, master of its nature, free and by union with the Divine possessor also of the world-nature. According to our idea of these possibilities will be the solution we shall attempt to realise.”

The one branch finds its goal in transcendence and rejection of the outer life in the world; the other seeks to find the hidden unity and bring about the full manifestation of the Divine in all life and existence.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 17, The Soul and Nature, pg. 411

Understanding the Duality of Soul and Nature

Whether we come at the meaning of life from the side of the materialist and treat the soul as a chance by-product of material chemical interactions, or from the side of the spiritual seeker and treat it as the one real center and source of consciousness, we still can recognize that there is an awareness that we hold that can look at Nature and attempt to deal with it in some way, whether by consciously choosing to ignore or abandon it, or by choosing to manipulate it for our pleasure and benefit.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It does not matter at all how it came about; the fact is not only there, it determines our whole existence, it is the one fact which is really important to us as human beings with a will and an intelligence and a subjective existence which makes all our happiness and our suffering. The whole problem of life resolves itself into this one question,–‘What are we to do with this soul and nature set face to face with each other, this Nature, this personal and cosmic activity, which tries to impress itself upon the soul, to possess, control, determine it, and this soul which feels that in some mysterious way it has a freedom, a control over itself, a responsibility for what it is and does, and tries therefore to turn upon Nature, its own and the world’s, and to control, possess, enjoy, or even, it may be, reject and escape from her?’ In order to answer that question we have to know,–to know what the soul can do, to know what it can do with itself, to know too what it can do with Nature and the world. The whole of human philosophy, religion, science is really nothing but an attempt to get at the right data upon which it will be possible to answer the question and solve, as satisfactorily as our knowledge will allow, the problem of our existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 17, The Soul and Nature, pp. 410-411

A Dual Being–Nature and the Soul

The gulf between the traditional spiritual quest and the life in the world arises from an obvious and visible apparent duality in the world we experience. There is the experience of the soul, and for those who focus on this aspect, the world of nature becomes less relevant or real. And there is the experience of nature, and for those who focus on this aspect, the spiritual quest is seen as an illusory activity. There is an underlying basis that, while apparently dualistic in nature, actually is a unity when see from a yet more inclusive perspective. Before coming to the unifying perspective, Sri Aurobindo examines the various viewpoints regarding the apparent duality:

“It is given different names according to our view of the universe. The Vedantins spoke of the Self and Maya, meaning according to their predilections by the Self the Immutable and by Maya the power the Self has of imposing on itself the cosmic illusion, or by the Self the Divine Being and by Maya the nature of conscious-being and the conscious-force by which the Divine embodies himself in soul-forms and forms of things. Others spoke of Ishwara and Shakti, the Lord and His force, His cosmic power. The analytic philosophy of the Sankhyas affirmed their eternal duality without any possibility of oneness, accepting only relations of union and separation by which the cosmic action of Prakriti begins, proceeds or ceases for the Purusha; for the Purusha is an inactive conscious existence,–it is the Soul the same in itself and immutable forever,–Prakriti is the active force of Nature which by its motion creates and maintains and by its sinking into rest dissolves the phenomenon of the cosmos.”

“Leaving aside these philosophical distinctions, we come to the original psychological experience from which all really take their start, that there are two elements in the existence of living beings, of human beings at least if not of all cosmos,–a dual being, Nature and the soul.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 17, The Soul and Nature, pp. 409-410