The Human Soul in the Material World

If we reflect on the perception that most human beings use as the basis of their understanding of their existence, they understand that they live in a material world, and that, for whatever reason, they are self-aware of their existence. Many believe that Matter is the first and ultimate reality and that consciousness developed out of some mixture of chemicals reacting together by chance. This viewpoint corresponds to the sequence in the Taittiriya Upanishad when Bhrigu undertakes his quest for understanding and comes back in the first instance with the idea that Matter (“food”) is 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.” (Taittiriya Upanishad, Bhriguvalli Chapter 2, translated by Sri Aurobindo) In the Bible it is proclaimed that God created Man out of dust. Thus it is that the Western world looks upon life as returning “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “His natural highest conception of himself is a vaguely conceived soul or spirit, a soul manifested only by the physical life’s experiences, bound up with physical phenomena and forced on its dissolution to return by an automatic necessity to the vast indeterminateness of the Infinite.”

On further reflection, the human soul, since in fact it does embody other principles than just the material principle, can gain insight into and rise into relationships that highlight the vital and the mental principles, and further, the spiritual principles, although for the most part, the attempts to do this pass through a phase of disassociation from the material world, and taking up of an ascetic path in order to loosen the hold of the earth on the consciousness. “In the end his spiritual life predominates, destroys his earthward tendency and breaks its ties and limitations. Spiritualised, he places his real existence beyond in other worlds, in the heavens of the vital or mental plane; he begins to regard life on earth as a painful or troublesome incident or passage in which he can never arrive at any full enjoyment of his inner ideal self, his spiritual essence. Moreover, his highest conception of the Self or Spirit is apt to be more or less quietistic; for, as we have seen, it is its static infinity alone that he can entirely experience, the still freedom of Purusha unlimited by Prakriti, the Soul standing back from Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo’s experience led him to see that the path of abandonment of Prakriti to achieve the freedom of the Purusha is neither the only solution, nor the preferred solution to the divine manifestation. Yet the human soul grows through stages over time, and it must grow naturally out of the material phase in order to take up the more difficult challenges of integrating the higher planes with the lower in a unified view without limitation.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 21, The Ladder of Self-Transcendence, pp. 447-449