Dynamic Life-Force Is Necessary for Individual and Societal Development and Transformation

The opposition that arises between the vital life-energy and the higher influences and aspirations traditionally has led to the attempt to subjugate or suppress the life-energy for the sake of those higher goals.  Renunciation, Sannyasa, withdrawal from the active life for a life of prayer, meditation, contemplation or spiritual quest has been the major accepted pathway for higher development.  This came about because seekers of wisdom or spiritual realisation in the past recognised how difficult (if not virtually impossible it was) it would be to transform the life energy, purify it and guide it into appropriate channels for the higher development.   Short term, the suppression can create an enhanced dynamism, as when a spring is compressed and acquires substantial potential energy thereby to release when it is no longer being held back.  However, long-term, when the vital roots are stunted or suppressed, the individual and the society that has undertaken that route find they do not have the force necessary for ultimate accomplishment and they begin to wither and die.  This does not imply however, that the vital life force is simply to be permitted to enforce its desires as it likes.  A new paradigm for relation of the vital power to the higher aspirations must be created

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “… beyond a certain point it tends, not really to kill, for that is impossible, but to discourage along with the vital instincts the indispensable life-energy of which they are the play and renders them in the end inert, feeble, narrow, unelastic, incapable of energetic reaction to force and circumstance.  That was the final result in India of the agelong pressure of Buddhism and its supplanter and successor, Illusionism.  No society wholly or too persistently and pervadingly dominated by this denial of the life dynamism can flourish and put forth its possibilities of growth and perfection.  For from dynamic it becomes static and from the static position it proceeds to stagnation and degeneration.  Even the higher being of man, which finds its account in a vigorous life dynamism, both as a fund of force to be transmuted into its own loftier energies and as a potent channel of connection with the outer life, suffers in the end by this failure and contraction.  The ancient Indian ideal recognised this truth and divided life into four essential and indispenable divisions, artha, kama, dharma, moksha, vital interests, satisfaction of desires of all kinds, ethics and religion, and liberation or spirituality, and it insisted on the practice and development of all.  Still it tended not only to put the last forward as the goal of all the rest, which it is, but to put it at the end of life and its habitat in another world of our being, rather than here in life as a supreme status and formative power on the physical plane.  But this rules out the idea of the kingdom of God on earth, the perfectibility of society and of man in society, the evolution of a new and diviner race, and without one or other of these no universal ideal can be complete.  It provides a temporary and occasional, but not an inherent justification for life; it holds out no illumining fulfilment either for its individual or its collective impulse.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 16,  The Suprarational Ultimate of Life, pp. 163-164


The Attempt at Subjugation of the Life-Power

The spiritual, the religious, the intellectual, the aesthetic ideals are confronted with the issues of what to do about the unenlightened life-power.  Where they would focus on seeking for God, or for a high and pure intellectual attainment, or some form of idealized beauty, they find that the demands, drives and needs of the life-energy pull them away and work to debase the higher motives with egoistic self-satisfaction in the action.  When these higher powers determine they cannot transform the life energy easily and turn it to their proposed fulfillment, they try to suppress or subjugate it, which has led to the numerous attempts to treat the life of the world as an illusion, as something to be avoided or suppressed, and has raised the ideal of the renunciate, the anchorite, the monk in seclusion, the sannyasin or the yogin meditating in the Himalayan cave.  Some sects even go so far as to treat the life force as arising from the devil and they work to mortify the flesh that is subject to the life-energy.  Sri Aurobindo discusses this issue at length in the opening chapters of The Life Divine, when he describes the ‘materialist denial’ and the ‘refusal of the ascetic’.

Sri Aurobindo observes here:  “We often find that ethics and religion especially, when they find themselves in a constant conflict with the vital instincts, the dynamic life-power in man, proceed to an attitude of almost complete hostility and seek to damn them in idea and repress them in fact.  To the vital instinct for wealth and well-being they oppose the ideal of a chill and austere poverty; to the vital instinct for pleasure the ideal not only of self-denial, but of absolute mortification; to the vital instinct for health and ease the ascetic’s contempt, disgust and neglect of the body; to the vital instinct for incessant action and creation the ideal of calm and inaction, passivity, contemplation; to the vital instinct for power, expansion, domination, rule, conquest the ideal of humility, self-abasement, submission, meek harmlessness, docility in suffering; to the vital instinct of sex on which depends the continuance of the species, the ideal of an unreproductive chastity and celibacy; to the social and family instinct the anti-social idea of the ascetic, the monk, the solitary, the world-shunning saint.  Commencing with discipline and subordination they proceed to complete mortification, which means when translated the putting to death of the vital instincts, and declare that life itself is an illusion to be shed from the soul or a kingdom of the flesh, the world and the devil, — accepting thus the claim of the unenlightened and undisciplined life itself that it is not, was never meant to be, can never become the kingdom of God, a high manifestation of the Spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 16,  The Suprarational Ultimate of Life, pp. 162-163

The Cooperative Aspect of Vital Life Is Generally an Expansion of Individual Self-Aggrandisement

The first egoistic impulses of life for the individual are for his survival, growth, development and self-aggrandisement in various ways.   These impulses are tempered to the degree that an individual chooses to subordinate his own self-interest for the needs of others.   The question then arises as to the source of this impulse of subordination and the cooperation with others that occurs as a result.  We can trace the development of this impulse through the rise of the family unit, to the community, to the society and to the nation-state.  In each case, we see that the expansion takes in a larger segment of humanity, and is based on some relationship that has developed between the individual and that societal unit.  The individual cooperates primarily because he accepts the wider definition of his self-interest that the larger unit provides.  Because this cooperation and its basis is largely physical and vital, we see that these larger units tend to emphasize the economic, social and political aspects of man’s existence rather than the higher terms that individuals may take up in their quest for self-development and higher purpose in life than pure existence and enjoyment.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “… always the family is an essentially practical, vitalistic and economic creation.  It is simply a larger vital ego, a more complex vital organism that takes up the individual and englobes him in a more effective competitive and cooperative life unit.  The family like the individual accepts and uses society for its field and means of continuance, of vital satisfaction and well-being, of aggrandisement and enjoyment.  But this life unit also, this multiple ego can be induced by the cooperative instinct in life to subordinate its egoism to the claims of the society and trained even to sacrifice itself at need on the communal altar.  For the society is only a still larger vital competitive and cooperative ego that takes up both the individual and the family into a more complex organism and uses them for the collective satisfaction of its vital needs, claims, interests, aggrandisement, well-being, enjoyment.  The individual and family consent to this exploitation for the same reason that induced the individual to take on himself the yoke o the family, because they find their account in this wider vital life and have the instinct in it of their own larger growth, security and satisfaction.  The society, still more than the family, is essentially economic in its aims and in its very nature.  That accounts for the predominantly economic and materialistic character of modern ideas of Socialism; for these ideas are the full rationalistic flowering of this instinct of collective life.”

The issue of various competing societal groupings leads to the perceived need to develop a political structure as well as an economic one.  “If we give their due value to these fundamental characteristics and motives of collective existence, it will seem natural enough that the development of the collective and cooperative idea of society should have culminated in a huge, often a monstrous overgrowth of the vitalistic, economic and political ideals of life, society and civilisation.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 16,  The Suprarational Ultimate of Life, pp. 161-162

The First and Primary Action of the Life-Energy in the Individual

We can identify both an individualistic, competitive side to the action of the life-energy and a collective, cooperative side.  The first and primary impulse, however, is the competitive, and even when an individual participates in family, community or society, there is a major component of the individualistic enmeshed in that participation.

Sri Aurobindo observes:   “In the family the individual seeks for the satisfaction of his vital instinct of possession, as well as for the joy of companionship, and for the fulfilment of his other vital instinct of self-reproduction.  His gains are the possession of wife, servants, house, wealth, estates, the reproduction of much of himself in the body and mind of his progeny and the prolongation of his activities, gains and possessions in the life of his children; incidentally he enjoys the vital and physical pleasures and the more mental pleasures of emotion and affection to which the domestic life gives scope.  In society he finds a less intimate but a larger expansion of himself and his instincts.  A wider field of companionship, interchange, associated effort and production, errant or gregarious pleasure, satisfied emotion, stirred sensation and regular amusement are the advantages which attach him to social existence.  In the nation and its constituent parts he finds a means for the play of a remoter but still larger sense of power and expansion.”

Thus, individuals are striving to ‘get ahead’ in society, to achieve specific results to satisfy their vital drives for domination, control, or for financial accumulation, ease and comfort of life and the physical well-being and enjoyment that wealth brings, or to obtain fame and acclamation for the other members of society.

Even those who abandon life in the world and seek solitude may do so from a sense of restriction of the individual rather than from a higher motive of spiritual seeking of some sort.  In these cases, the individual egoism is active even in the rejection of the societal framework, as the individual seeks to aggrandise himself without the borders or limits imposed by the society.

There can, of course, be motives and actions not based on the egoistic drive for self-expansion, and thus, we may find that the other balancing forces that act upon the vital nature may come eventually into play; yet the first and foremost action is the one dominated by ego and self-control.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 16,  The Suprarational Ultimate of Life, pp. 159-161

A Picture of the Fulfillment of Vital and Physical Existence As the Goal of Life in the Modern Age

We may ask ourselves if the modern attitude that accepts the fulfillment of physical and vital life as the focus and goal of existence is the true answer to the meaning of our existence.  This, at least, is what the modern mind would have us believe.  In such a case, the idea of seeking for God, the search for a deeper significance to life, would be an illusion, a chimerical pursuit.  As we explore this issue, it is useful to first understand the vital and physical fulfillment that constitutes the goal of the present time.

Sri Aurobindo describes it thus:  “Modern society, at any rate in its self-conscious aim, is far enough from any such endeavour; whatever may be the splendour of its achievement, it acknowledges only two gods, life and practical reason organised under the name of science.  Therefore on this great primary thing, this life-power and its manifestations, we must look with especial care to see what it is in its reality as well as what it is in its appearance  Its appearance is familiar enough; for of that is made the very stuff and present form of our everyday life.  Its main ideals are the physical good and vitalistic well-being of the individual and the community, the entire satisfaction of the desire for bodily health, long life, comfort, luxury, wealth, amusement, recreation, a constant and tireless expenditure of the mind and the dynamic life-force in remunerative work and production and, as the higher flame-spires of this restless and devouring energy, creations and conquests of various kinds, wars, invasions, colonisation, discovery, commercial victory, travel, adventure, the full possession and utilisation of the earth.  All this life still takes as its cadre the old existing forms, the family, the society, the nation and it has two impulses, individualistic and collective.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 16,  The Suprarational Ultimate of Life, pg. 159

Ancient Versus Modern Emphasis of the Central Purposes of Life

Modern man is highly fixated on the development and perfection of the outer life of the physical and vital existence.  The basic necessities of living, together with the development of a societal framework for the success in acquiring those basic necessities of living, represent the first and the primary activity and goal of humanity in modern times.  Questions of higher development, spiritual realisation, or aesthetic development are treated as secondary and of lower importance, to be pursued only when and if the primary functions leave time and resources available to do so.  This represents something of a major change from the way ancient humanity looked at life.  It is true that they recognised the necessity of caring for the needs of the body and the development of the societal framework; yet they still placed these lower in the scale of ultimate importance as goals or purposes of living compared to the development of the aesthetic, religious, spiritual or knowledge aspects of life.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The ancients regarded this life as an occasion for the development of the rational, the ethical, the aesthetic, the spiritual being.  Greece and Rome laid stress on the three first alone, Asia went farther, made these also subordinate and looked upon them as stepping-stones to a spiritual consummation.  Greece and Rome were proudest of their art, poetry and philosophy and cherished these things as much as or even more than their political liberty or greatness.  Asia too exalted these three powers and valued inordinately her social organisation, but valued much more highly, exalted with a much greater intensity of worship her saints, her religious founders and thinkers, her spiritual heroes.  The modern world has been proudest of its economic organisation, its political liberty, order and progress, the mechanism, comfort and ease of its social and domestic life, its science, but science most in its application to practical life, most for its instruments and conveniences, its railways, telegraphs, steamships and its other thousand and one discoveries, countless inventions and engines which help man to master the physical world.  That marks the whole difference in the attitude.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 16,  The Suprarational Ultimate of Life, pp. 158-159

For the Vital Temperament Life Itself Is the Object of Living

The industrial revolution in Europe represented a period in human development that was focused on the fulfillment and satisfaction of the motives and desires of the vital being of man.  Other aspects of human life, the artistic, philosophical, religious, spiritual, all were treated as accessories, luxuries or secondary frills while the main action of life was the practical, vital organization and the achievement of vital and dynamic goals.  This issue was clearly set forth by Charles Dickens in his novel Hard Times, in which he showed the shallowness and emptiness of a life that measured everything based on economic or material factors, and failed to value the other aspects of living that have been important parts of human evolution throughout the world.

“for the European, ever since the Teutonic mind and temperament took possession of western Europe, has been fundamentally the practical, dynamic and kinetic man, vitalistic in the very marrow of his thought and being.  All else has been the fine flower of his life and culture, this has been its root and stalk, and in modern times this truth of his temperament, always there, has come aggressively to the surface and triumphed over the traditions of Christian piety and Latinistic culture.  This triumphant emergence and lead of the vital man and his motives has been the whole significance of the great economic and political civilisation of the nineteenth century.  Life in society consists, for the practical human instincts, in three activities, the domestic and social life of man, — social in the sense of his customary relations with others in the community both as an individual and as a member of one family among many, — his economic activities as a producer, wealth-getter and consumer and his political status and action.  Society is the organisation of these three things and, fundamentally, it is for the practical human being nothing more.  Learning and science, culture, ethics, aesthetics, religion are assigned their place as aids to life, for its guidance and betterment, for its embellishment, for the consolation of its labours, difficulties and sorrows, but they are no part of its very substance, do not figure among its essential objects.  Life itself is the only object of living.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 16,  The Suprarational Ultimate of Life, pp. 157-158