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


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