The Limits of Mental Knowledge and the Process of Knowing, Part 2: The Unknowable

“Not this, not that” proclaim the Rishis of old when they tried to describe the Absolute Brahman, beyond the reach of the mind and the senses.  The intention here is not to frame the Absolute as something “negative” but to ensure that we do not believe we know it in any true sense by the powers of the mind, which are limited to the frame of the manifested universe.  The vastness of the manifestation and the unity of the creation make it even impossible to know all of the universe through our limited mental powers.  How much more impossible, then, it will seem, if we try to encompass also the silent Absolute beyond all manifestation with a power that is limited, fragmented and distorted in its view and standpoint?

The Second Part, verse 2 adds to the review of the process of knowing:  “I think not that I know It well and yet I know that It is not unknown to me.  He of us who knows It, knows That; he knows that It is not unknown to him.”

Sri Aurobindo comments:  “[The Upanishad’s] answer to the problem is that That is precisely the Unknowable of which no relations can be affirmed and about which therefore our intellect must for ever be silent.  The injunction to know the utterly Unknowable would be without any sense or practical meaning.  Not that That is a Nihil, a pure Negative, but it cannot either be described by any of the positives of which our mind, speech or perception is capable, nor even can it be indicated by any of them.  It is only a little that we know; it is only in the terms of the little that we can put the mental forms of our knowledge.  Even when we go beyond to the real form of the Brahman which is not this universe, we can only indicate, we cannot really describe.  If then we think we have known it perfectly, we betray our ignorance; we show that we know very little indeed, not even the little that we can put into the forms of our knowledge.  For the universe seen as our mind sees it is the little, the divided, the parcelling out of existence and consciousness in which we know and express things by fragments, and we can never really cage in our intellectual and verbal fictions that infinite totality.  Yet is is through the principles manifested in the universe that we have to arrive at That, through the life, through the mind and through that highest mental knowledge which grasps at the fundamental Ideas that are like doors concealing behind them the Brahman and yet seeming to reveal Him.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pp. 103-104, 165-170

The Limits of Mental Knowledge and the Process of Knowing, Part 1: Can the Ultimate Reality Be Known?

The second part of the Kena Upanishad contains 5 verses that explore the possibilities of “knowing”, the process of knowing, and the limitations of the process of knowing.  It enunciates the limits of linear thinking of the mind, and sets the understanding of what must be done to acquire true knowledge and overcome the limits of the mental framework and capacities. Each one takes up a separate aspect of the process and limits of knowing.  At the same time, it explores the relation of the Absolute Brahman to the world of creation, making the point that the Absolute Brahman cannot be known through action of the mind.

Second part, verse 1:  “If thou thinkest that thou knowest It well, little indeed dost thou know the form of the Brahman.  That of It which is thou, that of It which is in the gods, this thou has to think out.  I think It known.”

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The Master-Consciousness of the Brahman is that for which we have to abandon this lesser status of the mere creature subject to the movement of Nature in the cosmos; but after all this Master-Consciousness, however high and great a thing it may be, has a relation to the universe  and the cosmic movement; it cannot be the utter Absolute, Brahman superior to all relativities.  This Conscious-Being who originates, supports and governs our mind, life, senses is the Lord; but where there is no  universe of relativities, there can be no Lord, for there is no movement to transcend and govern.  Is not then this Lord, as one might say in a later language, not so much the creator of Maya as himself a creation of Maya?  Do not both Lord and cosmos disappear when we go beyond all cosmos?  And is it not beyond all cosmos that the only true reality exists?  Is it not this only true reality and not the Mind of our mind, the Sense of our sense, the Life of our life, the Word behind our speech, which we have to know and possess?  As we must go behind all effects to the Cause, must we not equally go beyond the Cause to that in which neither cause nor effects exist?  Is not even the immortality spoken of in the Veda and Upanishads a petty thing to be overpassed and abandoned?:  and should we not reach towards the utter Ineffable where mortality and immortality cease to have any meaning?”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pp. 103-104, 165-170

The Worlds and Liberation from the Worlds

We reside in the material world and perceive things from that perspective.  The essential characteristic of this world, or of any other, is not, however, its material existence, but rather its relationship to the status of consciousness which we inhabit.  Those who have experienced out of body events report experiencing and interacting with other worlds where the principles of action are different than in the material world, where vital forces are at play and have a fluidity and power of motion not present in the world encumbered by materiality.  Spiritual seekers frequently have reported being met and taught by teachers while in the dream-state, and experiencing coherent, coordinated relationships not bound by meeting on the material plane.  If we understand the worlds from the psychological perspective, rather than from a limited material viewpoint, we find that they are representative of states of consciousness more than specific physical locations.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The worlds of which the Upanishad speaks are essentially soul-conditions and not geographical divisions of the cosmos.  This material universe is itself only existence as we see it when the soul dwells on the plane of material movement and experience in which the spirit involves itself in form, and therefore all the framework of things in which it moves by the life and which it embraces by the consciousness is determined by the principle of infinite division and aggregation proper to Matter, to substance of form.  This becomes then its world or vision of things.  And to whatever soul-condition it climbs, its vision of things will change from the material vision and correspond to that other condition, and in that other framework it will move in its living and embrace it in its consciousness.  These are the worlds of the ancient tradition.”

“But the soul that has entirely realised immortality passes beyond all worlds and is free from frameworks.  It enters into the being of the Lord; like this supreme superconscient Self and Brahman, it is not subdued to life and death.  It is no longer subject to the necessity of entering into the cycle of rebirth, of travelling continually between the imprisoning dualities of death and birth, affirmation and negation; for it has transcended name and form.  This victory, this supreme immortality it must achieve here as an embodied soul in the mortal framework of things.  Afterwards, like the Brahman, it transcends and yet embraces the cosmic existence without being subject to it.  Personal freedom, personal fulfilment is then achieved by the liberation of the soul from imprisonment in the form of this changing personality and by its ascent to the One that is the All.  If afterwards there is any assumption of the figure of mortality, it is an assumption and not a subjection, a help brought to the world and not a help to be derived from it, a descent of the ensouled superconscient existence not from any personal necessity, but from the universal need of the cosmic labour for those yet unfree and unfulfilled to be helped and strengthened by the force that has already described the path up to the goal in its experience and achieved under the same conditions the Work and the Sacrifice.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pg. 102, 161-164

Mortal Life and the Pursuit of Immortality, Part 2

Spiritual practitioners through the ages have recognized that the world of dualities within which we live and act is not the entire existence, and the process of birth, growth, decline and death does not encompass the entire universal process.  This has led many to attempt to distance themselves entirely from the world and focus exclusively on achieving oneness with the Absolute.  Sri Aurobindo notes that the Upanishad insists on a fulfillment “here itself” within the world.  This leads to the examination of what constitutes such a fulfillment “here itself” and how to go about achieving it.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The wise, therefore, the souls seated and accomplished in luminous thought-power put away from them the dualities of our mind, life and senses and go forward from this world; they go beyond to the unity and the immortality.  The word used for going forward is that which expresses the passage of death; it is also that which the Upanishad uses for the forward movement of the Life-force yoked to the car of embodied mind and sense on the paths of life.  And in this coincidence we can find a double and most pregnant suggestion.”

“It is not by abandoning life on earth in order to pursue immortality on other more favourable planes of existence that the great achievement becomes possible.  It is here, ihaiva, in this mortal life and body that immortality must be won, here in this lower Brahman and by this embodied soul that the Higher must be known and possessed.  ‘If here one finds it not, great is the perdition.’  This Life-force in us is led forward by the attraction of the supreme Life on its path of constant acquisition through types of the Brahman until it reaches a point where it has to go entirely forward, to go across out of the mortal life, the mortal vision of things to some Beyond.  So long as death is not entirely conquered, this going beyond is represented in the terms of death and by a passing into other worlds where death is not present, where a type of immortality is tasted corresponding to that which we have found here in our soul-experience; but the attraction of death and limitation is not overpassed because they still conceal something of immortality and infinity which we have not yet achieved; therefore there is a necessity of return, an insistent utility of farther life in the mortal body which we do not overcome until we have passed beyond all types to the very being of the Infinite, One and Immortal.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pg. 102, 161-164

Mortal Life and the Pursuit of Immortality, Part 1

The fundamental experience and existential question faced by every human being is that we are mortal and we are born, live and struggle through our lives, and then we die.  We strive to understand why we are alive, whether we have some purpose that goes beyond the mere process of living and dying, and how we are to live our lives in pursuit of that purpose.  The sages who have delved deeply into these questions raise the concept of immortality, which represents the opposite of what we experience today.  Is immortality in our future?  Can it be attained?  If so, what form does it take, and how do we go about achieving that status?  These are the questions that the Upanishads, and in particular the Kena Upanishad, raise through the expression of their understanding of the meaning and direction of human life.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The mortal life is a dual representation of That (n.b. the Brahman) with two conflicting elements in it, negative and positive.  Its negative elements of death, suffering, incapacity, strife, division, limitation are a dark figure which conceal and serve the development of that which its positive elements cannot yet achieve, — immortality hiding itself from life in the figure of death, delight hiding itself from pleasure in the figure of suffering, infinite force hiding itself from finite effort in the figure of incapacity, fusion of love hiding itself from desire in the figure of strife, unity hiding itself from acquisition in the figure of division, infinity hiding itself from growth in the figure of limitation.  The positive elements suggest what the Brahman is, but never are what the Brahman is, although their victory, the victory of the gods, is always the victory of the Brahman over its own self-negations, always the self-affirmation of His vastness against the denials of the dark and limiting figure of things.  Still, it is not this vastness merely, but the absolute infinity which is Brahman itself.  And therefore within this dual figure of things we cannot attain to our self, our Highest; we have to transcend in order to attain.  Our pursuit of the positive elements of this existence, our worship of the gods of the mind, life, sense is only a preparatory to the real travail of the soul, and we must leave this lower Brahman and know that Higher if we are to fulfil ourselves.  We pursue, for instance, our mental growth, we become mental beings full of an accomplished thought-power and thought-acquisition … in order that we may by thought of mind go beyond mind itself to the Eternal.  For always the life of mind and senses is the jurisdiction of death and limitation; beyond is the immortality.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pg. 102, 161-164

The Relation Between the Absolute Brahman and the World of Existence

Through the extensive exploration of the Mind behind the mind, Sense behind the senses and Life behind the life, the Kena Upanishad has made it clear that there are two types of knowledge, one that is range-bound within the world of forms and forces in the creation, and one that exists beyond the limits of all these forms, forces and changing circumstances through Time.  This has led some to decide that the manifestation is an illusion and it is our goal to abandon that “lower” form of knowledge and seek only the Absolute.  Knowledge for those seekers is knowledge of the Absolute Brahman.  Yet there is a manifested universe, and the Upanishad does not deny the reality of this universe, but implies simply that it is not other than the Brahman.  This leaves room for gaining both types of knowledge, and unifying the Absolute with the created universe in some manner.  The issue is the standpoint and focus that is placed on the knowledge of the unity, the Absolute, versus the dispersed and limited understanding provided by the fragmented process of the mind, life and body struggling for existence, knowledge and growth in the world of forms.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The Upanishad does not assert the unreality, but only the incompleteness and inferiority of our present existence.  All that we follow after here is an imperfect representation, a broken and divided functioning of what is eternally in an absolute perfection on that higher plane of existence.  This mind of ours unpossessed of its object, groping, purblind, besieged by error and incapacity, its action founded on an external vision of things, is only the shadow thrown by a superconscient Knowledge which possesses, creates and securely uses the truth of things because nothing is external to it, nothing is other than itself, nothing is divided or at war within its all-comprehensive self-awareness.”

“Our life, a breath of force and movement and possession attached to a form of mind and body and restricted by the form, limited in its force, hampered in its movement, besieged in its possession and therefore a thing of discords at war with itself and its environment, hungering and unsatisfied, moving inconstantly from object to object and unable to embrace and retain their multiplicity, devouring its objects of enjoyment and therefore transient in its enjoyments, is only a broken movement of the one, undivided, infinite Life which is all-possessing and ever satisfied because in all it enjoys its eternal self unimprisoned by the divisions of Space, unoccupied by the moments of Time, undeluded by the successions of Cause and Circumstance.”

“This superconscient Existence, one, conscious of itself, conscious both of its eternal peace and its omniscient and omnipotent force, is also conscious of our cosmic existence which it holds in itself, inspires secretly and omnipotently governs. … It is our self and that of which and by which we are constituted in all our being and activities, the Brahman.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pg. 102, 161-164

Supreme Life of Our Life, Part 6: True Existence and Immortality

When we reflect on human life, the focus is almost entirely on the period between birth and death of an individual and the wants, needs and actions undertaken in that intervening period.  Our mortality turns into a major concern and driving issue in our beliefs and actions.  This limited focus is both a distortion and a cause of untold suffering.  From the divine standpoint, life is not limited to one individual existence as if it is separated from the rest of creation.  There is an interconnection and interdependence of these fragmented forms.  Life does not end with the death of the individual.  Life does not begin with the birth of the individual.  The individual does not exist in a vacuum separated from the rest of existence.  It is from this standpoint that we can begin to appreciate what the greater “Life of our life” is and what the meaning of immortality actually turns out to be.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “What then is this Life of our life?  It is the supreme Energy which is nothing but the infinite force in action of the supreme conscious Being in His own illlumined self.  The Self-existent is luminously aware of Himself and full of His own delight; and that self-awareness is a timeless self-possession which in action reveals itself as a force of infinite consciousness omnipotent as well as omniscient; for it exists between two poles, one of eternal stillness and pure identity, the other of eternal energy and identity of All with itself, the stillness eternally supporting the energy.  That is the true existence, the Life from which our life proceeds; that is the immortality, while what we cling to as life is ‘hunger that is death’.  Therefore the object of the wise must be to pass in their illumined consciousness beyond the false and phenomenal terms of life and death to this immortality.”

“Yet is this Life-force, however inferior in its workings, instinct with the being, will, light of that which it represents, of that which transcends it; by That it is ‘led forward’ on its paths to a goal which its own existence implies by the very imperfection of its movements and renderings.  This death called life is not only a dark figure of that light, but it is a passage by which we pass through transmutation of our being from the death-sleep of Matter into the spirit’s infinite immortality.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pg. 102, 156-160