The Illumined Poetic Method of Upanishadic Expression

Communication through language, whether oral or written, presents challenges as to not just the content of the communication, but the manner of the expression and the medium to be used.  The sociologist Marshall McLuhan famously stated that “the medium is the message”.  When it comes to expressing luminous intuitive spiritual experience, the linear, intellectual, organized linguistic approach clearly cannot carry the significance of the experience and the content of the insight effectively.  This is one reason that philosophy in many instances seems so dry and abstract.  The Upanishadic Rishis, living in a time that was naturally less inclined to fixate on linear expression, used an intuitive and inspired utterance, frequently couched in poetic metre, to communicate their experience.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “These supreme and all-embracing truths, these visions of oneness and self and a universal divine being are cast into brief and monumental phrases which bring them at once before the soul’s eye and make them real and imperative to its aspiration and experience or are couched in poetic sentences full of revealing power and suggestive thought-colour that discover a whole infinite through a finite image.  The One is there revealed, but also disclosed the many aspects, and each is given its whole significance by the amplitude of the expression and finds as if in a spontaneous self-discovery its place and its connection by the illumining justness of each word and all the phrase.  The largest metaphysical truths and the subtlest subtleties of psychological experience are taken up into the inspired movement and made at once precise to the seeing mind and loaded with unending suggestion to the discovering spirit. …  All  here is a packed and pregnant and yet perfectly lucid and luminous brevity and an immeasurable completeness.  A thought of this kind cannot follow the tardy, careful and diffuse development of the logical intelligence.  The passage, the sentence, the couplet, the line, even the half line follows the one that precedes it with a certain interval full of an unexpressed thought, an echoing silence between them, a thought which is carried in the total suggestion and implied in the step itself, but which the mind is left to work out for its own profit, and these intervals of pregnant silence are large, the steps of this thought are like the paces of a Titan striding from rock to distant rock across infinite waters.  There is a perfect totality, a comprehensive connection of harmonious parts in the structure of each Upanishad; but it is done in the way of a mind that sees masses of truth at a time and stops to bring only the needed word out of a filled silence.  The rhythm in verse or cadenced prose corresponds to the sculpture of the thought and the phrase.  The metrical forms of the Upanishads are made up of four half lines each clearly cut, the lines mostly complete in themselves and integral in sense, the half lines presenting two thoughts or distinct parts of a thought that are wedded to and complete each other, and the sound movement follows a corresponding principle, each step brief and marked off by the distinctness of its pause, full of echoing cadences that remain long vibrating in the inner hearing: each is as if a wave of the infinite that carries in it the whole voice and rumour of the ocean.  It is a kind of poetry — word of vision, rhythm of the spirit, — that has not been written before or after.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Introduction, pp. 4-6

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Conclusions from The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development

Anywhere we go in the world, and with whomever we speak, we hear that the state of humanity is difficult and there is a lot of suffering that results from various issues, imbalances or problems.  Some analyze these issues and determine that a new economic order, or a new political fix is required.  Some prescribe more adherence to the principles of their religion, and some want to convert everyone to their religion.  Others counsel more compassion and human kindness, and others bemoan the amount of greed, lust and anger that we manifest.  As we go deeper in our search, we find that some identify the problem with the human mind and its thought process itself.  We become fixated on limited views of problems and their solutions and close our eyes to the integrality and complexity of the issues involved.  We also fail to take an evolutionary standpoint, so we find some saying that we should simply go back to a life of animal simplicity and abandon too much thinking, planning or reasoning — just live for today.

What each of the approaches misses is the inner drive that creates the mind in the first place, and that is pushing us to both understand its powers and implement them, while also going further to find the ultimate sense and intention as a framework for finding the proper balanced and harmonious role of the mind.

Sri Aurobindo provides insight to this by pointing out that man is a transitional being, and the difficulties of integrating the mind into the vital and physical life that preceded its emergence are directly related to our not yet fully recognizing the transitional nature of this process and the evolutionary intention that drives us ever-upwards.  He also points to “the human aspiration” (as he calls it in the first chapter of The Life Divine) as an indicator of the deeper drives that point to our future destiny as spiritual beings.  Just as every tree grows from embedded coding in it seed, there is an embedded coding in the core of humanity that takes us through stages of growth and development until we become fully mature in our true role in Nature.

This leads to Sri Aurobindo’s examination in The Human Cycle of the various stages of human and societal development and his view that we are entering a subjective age of humanity.  In a subjective age, we loosen the hold that outer habit, creed and dogma hold on our minds and begin to experience and explore the profound and unplumbed depths of human potentiality.  We seek inner solutions which lead us inevitably to the “adventure of consciousness”.

We see around us an ever-deepening crisis for humanity.  We are out of balance with our own inner psychology, with others, with our society, with our environment and with the other beings who share the environment with us in a symbiotic manner.  Humanity literally faces a threat of extinction as hundreds of thousands of other species on the planet go extinct.  At the same time, we see more and more people who seek solutions through yoga, through inner contemplation and meditation, through conscious inner growth and development, through finding new ways to relate that flow from the new inner realisations.  It is a method employed by Nature to confront us with challenges and provide us with the opportunity and the tools to overcome those challenges.

The door of the subjective age stands open and this appear to be the way to find the harmony and balance between ourselves and our environment that humanity so desperately requires.  It is up to each one to decide to consciously walk through that door and take up those challenges.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Conclusions

The Evolutionary Destiny of Humanity

The human being represents the development of a new power of consciousness for the earth-nature.  This does not imply that at the present time all human individuals are able to fully manifest this power, but it is clear there is a continuum that puts all humanity on a level of its own, with the variances between individuals primarily one of intensity or magnitude of the manifestation of the power of the mind of reason.  This evolutionary leap took place within the framework of physical matter and vital powers that define the animal kingdom.  While animals are typal beings, tied to their habits and customs without enormous range of creativity or development, human beings have proven themselves capable of self-reflection and inner growth.  At the same time, the development of the mental powers has resulted in a considerable amount of imbalance, as if humanity had not yet found its solid footing with these new powers.  This is a sign that the evolutionary transition is not yet completed and that man is a transitional, not a final, typal being.  There is more room for growth and development in humanity’s future.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “If the light that is being born increases, if the number of individuals who seek to realise the possibility in themselves and in the world grows large and they get nearer the right way, then the Spirit who is here in man, now a concealed divinity, a developing light and power, will descend more fully as the Avatar of a yet unseen and unguessed Godhead from above into the soul of mankind and into the great individualities in whom the light and power are the strongest.  There will then be fulfilled the change that will prepare the transition of human life from its present limits into those larger and purer horizons; the earthly evolution will have taken its grand impetus upward and accomplished the revealing step in a divine progression of which the birth of thinking and aspiring man from the animal nature was only an obscure preparation and a far-off promise.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pp. 268-269

The Spiritual Transformation and Human Society

As we reflect on the implications of a spiritual transformation and its impact on individuals and the society, several questions arise.  What is the process by which such a transformation of society can actually take place, and in what steps, stages or time-frames can it occur?  Does all of humanity participate in the transformation, and if not, what is the relationship between those who have been part of the transformation and those who have not?  How does the society function in the case of a less than total transformation?  Is this the end-goal of human development, or does this represent another stage in an unending progression?

Sri Aurobindo raises these issues and comments on them briefly:  “This endeavour will be a supreme and difficult labour even for the individual, but much more for the race.  It may well be that, once started, it may not advance rapidly even to its first decisive stage; it may be that it will take long centuries of effort to come into some kind of permanent birth.  But that is not altogether inevitable, for the principle of such changes in Nature seems to be a long obscure preparation followed by a swift gathering up and precipitation of the elements into the new birth, a rapid conversion, a transformation that in its luminous moments figures like a miracle.  Even when the first decisive change is reached, it is certain that all humanity will not be able to rise to that level.  There cannot fail to be a division into those who are able to live on the spiritual level and those who are only able to live in the light that descends from it into the mental level.  And below these too there might still be a great mass influenced from above but not yet ready for the light.  But even that would be a transformation and a beginning far beyond anything yet attained.  This hierarchy would not mean as in our present vital living an egoistic domination of the underdeveloped by the more developed, but a guidance of the younger by the elder brothers of the race and a constant working to lift them up to a greater spiritual level and wider horizons.”

“And for the leaders too this ascent to the first spiritual levels would not be the end of the divine march, a culmination that left nothing more to be achieved on earth.  For there would be still yet higher levels within the supramental realm, as the old Vedic poets knew when they spoke of the spiritual life as a constant ascent … But once the foundation has been secured, the rest develops by a progressive self-unfolding and the soul is sure of its way…. ”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pp. 267-268

Taking Up the Task of Transforming All Human Life and Activities

The complexity of human life, with all the different levels, functions, drives and needs that interact and create the human being make the issue of transformation that life extraordinarily complex.  Human society, made up of all of the individuals, gains an even greater level of complexity with respect to accomplishing real tranformative change.  Anyone who has tried to actually live out the truths of their religious beliefs, practices or philosophy can testify to the difficulty.  In the Old Testament of the Bible the Ten Commandments set forth a specific set of guidelines for living, yet it may be virtually impossible to identify any individual who can live his life according to these great rules.  Christianity has brought forth the idea of the “Golden Rule” to treat others as one would like to be treated oneself, but even this ‘simple’ concept has failed to transform human life.  Past attempts have tried to “cut the knot” of the difficulty when it could not be easily ‘untied’, by abandoning the active side of life and retreating to a spiritual seclusion to practice and achieve the realisation.  Sri Aurobindo sets before us the challenge to actually solve these issues, meet the difficulties head on, and address every aspect of life without retreating from their reason, purpose and unique powers of action.

“For every part of human life has to be taken up by the spiritual, — not only the intellectual, the aesthetic, the ethical, but the dynamic, the vital, the physical; therefore for none of these things or the activities that spring from them will they have contempt or aversion, however they may insist on a change of the spirit and a transmutation of the form.  In each power of our nature they will seek for its own proper means of conversion; knowing that the Divine is concealed in all, they will hold that all can be made the spirit’s means of self-finding and all can be converted into its instruments of divine living.  And they will see that the great necessity is the conversion of the normal into the spiritual mind and the opening of that mind again into its own higher reaches and more and more integral movement.  For before the decisive change can be made, the stumbling intellectual reason has to be converted into the precise and luminous intuitive, until that again can rise into higher ranges to overmind and supermind or gnosis. … All our other members have to pass through a similar conversion under the compelling force and light from above.   The leaders of the spiritual march will start from and use the knowledge and the means that past effort has developed in this direction, but they will not take them as they are without any deep necessary change or limit themselves by what is now known or cleave only to fixed and stereotyped systems or given groupings of results, but will follow the method of the Spirit in Nature.  A constant rediscovery and a new formulation and larger synthesis in the mind, a mighty remoulding in its deeper parts because of a greater enlarging Truth not discovered or not well fixed before, is that Spirit’s way with our past achievement when he moves to the greatnesses of the future.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pp. 266-267

Characteristics of the Evolutionary Individual

In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Sri Krishna to describe the individual who is united in yoga with the Divine.  How does he sit, how does he speak, how does he walk, ask Arjuna.  Sri Krishna replies that there are not specific outer forms or signs, but rather, an inner consciousness that defines the yogi.  When we consider all of the imperfections of the life and the society around us in the world, there are several impulses which arise.  One is to try to change it, and this generally starts with the idea of a new political philosophy, a new religious direction, a new economic ordering of the world.  Another is to abandon it in favor of individual salvation, which leads to the ascetic renunciation and the cave, the desert or the monastery.  For a transformative spiritual change to take place in society, it soon becomes clear that neither of these approaches will succeed.  What is needed is a new, integral standpoint that recognises the need for inner transformation as the basis for outer change, and which recognises the need to apply this inner growth to the functioning of society and the relations of human beings with one another, with their environment and with the interactive life that participates in and shares that environment in a symbiotic, comprehensive manner with us.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “… the individuals who will most help the future of humanity in the new age will be those who will recognise a spiritual evolution as the destiny and therefore the great need of the human being. … They will be comparatively indifferent to particular belief and form and leave men to resort to the beliefs and forms to which they are naturally drawn.  They will only hold as essential the faith in this spiritual conversion, the attempt to live it out and whatever knowledge — the form of opinion into which it is thrown does not so much matter — can be converted into this living.  They will especially not make the mistake of thinking that this change can be effected by machinery and outward institutions; they will know and never forget that it has to be lived out by each man inwardly or it can never be made a reality for the kind.  They will adopt in its heart of meaning the inward view of the East which bids man seek the secret of his destiny and salvation within; but also they will accept, though with a different turn given to it, the importance which the West rightly attaches to life and to the making the best we know and can attain the general rule of all life.  … They will not accept the theory that the many must necessarily remain for ever on the lower ranges of life and only a few climb into the free air and the light, but will start from the standpoint of the great spirits who have striven to regenerate the life of the earth and held that faith in spite of all previous failure.  Failures must be originally numerous in everything great and difficult, but the time comes when the experience of past failures can be profitably used and the gate that so long resisted opens. … A true beginning has to be made; the rest is a work for Time in its sudden achievements or its long patient labour.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pp. 265-266

The Essential Progress Required for a Spiritual Transformation

Historically, as a spiritual vision leads to the development of a formalized religion, with its own dogmas, creeds, rituals and protocols, the focus has shifted from the transformation of the individual inwardly, and then the society through the pressure of this inward change,to an attempt to impose that particular religious viewpoint on others, through peer pressure, social benefits tied to religious adoption, or even, in various cases, through violent conversions or suppression of other ways.  While the watchword of spiritual growth is freedom, the impulse toward control and suppression seems to take the upper hand eventually.  Additionally, once a religion recognizes that changing basic human nature and the institutions that operate the society is difficult, if not virtually impossible, through the methods they are using, they shift their focus to achieving the goals of the religion in some other world or other life and defer the “benefits” of the religion for another time and place.  There is no doubt that transforming human nature through a slow, evolutionary process means that progress is in many cases very hard to see, and both patience and persistence in that process are put to the test.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The ambition of a particular religious belief and form to universalise and impose itself is contrary to the variety of human nature and to at least one essential character of the Spirit.  For the nature of the Spirit is a spacious inner freedom and a large unity into which each man must be allowed to grow according to his own nature.  Again — and this is yet another source of inevitable failure — the usual tendency of these credal religions is to turn towards an afterworld and to make the regeneration of the earthly life a secondary motive; this tendency grows in proportion as the original hope of a present universal regeneration of mankind becomes more and more feeble.  Therefore while many new spiritual waves with their strong special motives and disciplines must necessarily be the forerunners of a spiritual age, yet their claims must be subordinated in the general mind of the race and of its spiritual leaders to the recognition that all motives and disciplines are valid and yet none entirely valid since they are mans and not the one thing to be done.  The one thing essential must take precedence, the conversion of the whole life of the human being to the lead of the spirit.  The ascent of man into heaven is not the key, but rather his ascent here into the spirit and the descent also of the spirit into his normal humanity and the transformation of this earthly nature.  For that and not some post mortem salvation is the real new birth for which humanity waits as the crowning movement of its long obscure and painful course.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 24, The Advent and Progress of the Spiritual Age, pp. 264-265