Appreciating the Ancient Indian Ideal of the Rishi

The ascetic denial of life for the purpose of achievement of some spiritual goal or realization may achieve a result for an individual, as any concentrated and highly focused effort will certainly do.  Yet it clearly does not solve the riddle of life and the needs of all the elements of our human constitution, nor does it address the questions of society and coexistence with others in the world.  It “cuts the knot” rather than unties it.  On the other extreme, those who deny any spiritual purpose to existence, who claim “God is dead” or who deny any ultimate first cause to the universe at all, who focus their entire activity and intellect on achieving results in the material world, are clearly not responding to the deeper aspiration and driving force of the spirit which pushes us to ever-further quests for meaning in life.  We find, therefore, total satisfaction in neither extreme.  This brings us to the ancient Indian ideal of the Rishi, the “knower of truth” who nevertheless participates fully in the life of the world, helping it to advance and achieve ever-higher realisations and harmony in life.   The story of King Janaka illustrates such an enlightened being who can maintain his spiritual poise at all times while grappling with the starkest and deepest concerns of life and society.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Only by the light and power of the highest can the lower be perfectly guided, uplifted and accomplished.  The lower life of man is in form undivine, thought in it there is the secret of the divine, and it can only be divinised by finding the higher law and the spiritual illumination.  On the other hand, the impatience which condemns or despairs of life or discourages its growth because it is at present undivine and is not in harmony with the spiritual life, is an equal ignorance, andham tamah.  The world-shunning monk, the mere ascetic may indeed well find by this turn his own individual and peculiar salvation, the spiritual recompense of his renunciation and Tapasya, as the materialist may find by his own exclusive method the appropriate rewards of his energy and concentrated seeking; but neither can be the true guide of mankind and its law-giver.  … The sheer ascetic spirit, if it directed life and human society, could only prepare it to be a means for denying itself and getting away from its own motives.  An ascetic guidance might tolerate the lower activities, but only with a view to persuade them in the end to minimise and finally cease from their own action.”

“…a spirituality which draws back from life to envelop it without being dominated by it does not labour under this disability.  The spiritual man who can guide human life towards its perfection is typified in the ancient Indian idea of the Rishi, one who has lived fully the life of man and found the word of the supra-intellectual, supramental, spiritual truth.  He has risen above these lower limitations and can view all things from above, but also he is in sympathy with their effort and can view them from within; he has the complete inner knowledge and the higher surpassing knowledge.  Therefore he can guide the world humanly as God guides it divinely, because like the Divine he is in the life of the world and yet above it.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 17, Religion as the Law of Life, pp. 179-181

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