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

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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

Supreme Life of Our Life, Part 5: Comparing Human and Supreme Life-Force Characteristics

Life-force in the human individual is characterized by the limitations under which it operates.  This turns into an action based on desire, thirst, hunger, greed, lust, seeking after fame, essentially all the terms we have developed for the life-force seeking its own sustenance, aggrandisement and success in a world of limitations and competition.  It is obvious that a universal force of life, a supreme “Life of our life” cannot possibly be subject to these limitations and thus, must operate on a totally different basis.  From the divine standpoint, all the human actions and interactions are merely a particular play of its universal force of creation based on the manifestation of Life in Matter in this particular time, place and circumstance.  The life-force so manifested is a minuscule portion of the divine energy of creation which has no need, therefore, to try to overcome the obstacles or acquire what is “missing”.

Sri Aurobindo explains:  “The characteristics of the Life-force as it manifests itself in us are desire, hunger, an enjoyment which devours the object enjoyed and a sensational movement and activity of response which gropes after possession and seeks to pervade, embrace, take into itself the object of its desire.  It is not in this breath of desire and mortal enjoyment that the true life can consist or the highest, divine energy act, any more than the supreme knowledge can think in the terms of ignorant, groping, limited and divided mind.  As the movements of mind are merely representations in the terms of the duality and the ignorance, reflections of a supreme consciousness and knowledge, so the movements of this life-force can only be similar representations of a supreme energy expressing a higher and truer existence possessed of that consciousness and knowledge and therefore free from desire, hunger, transient enjoyment and hampered activity.  What is desire here must there be self-existent Will or Love; what is enjoyment must there be self-existent delight; what is here a groping action and response, must be there self-possessing and all-possessing energy, — such must be the Life of our life by which this inferior action is sustained and led to its goal.  Brahman does not breathe with the breath, does not live by this Life-force and its dual terms of birth and death.”

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

Supreme Life of our Life, Part 4: Prana, the Universal Energy

We associate the term “Prana” with breath.  We understand it as the life-force within us.  It is this, and much more.  While the life-breath is the closest and easiest manifestation of Prana for us to relate to, Prana is not limited to the life-breath.  It is a universal force, active in all movement of energy in the universe.  The force that moves the galaxies, the force that is active in the atomic realm, are manifestations of the universal Prana.  Even our human life-breath is not an independent action, as we are co-dependent with the plant life of the planet.  Plants breathe in what humans breathe out.  Humans breathe in what plants breathe out.  This is one respiration process that is taking place.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “Thus the Prana is vital or nervous force which bears the operations of mind and body, is yoked by them as it were like a horse to a chariot and driven by the mind along the paths on which it wishes to travel to the goal of its desire.  … It is in fact that which does all the action of the world in obedience to conscious or subconscious mind and in the conditions of material force and material form.  While the mind is that movement of Nature in us which represents in the mould of our material and phenomenal existence and within the triple term of the Ignorance the knowledge aspect of the Brahman, the consciousness of the knower, and body is that which similarly represents the being of the existent in the mask of phenomenally divisible substance, so Prana or life-energy represents in the flux of phenomenal things the force, the active dynamis of the Lord who controls and enjoys the manifestation of His own being. (The three are the reverse aspects of Chit, Sat and Chit-Tapas.)  It is a universal energy present in every atom and particle of the universe, and active in every stirring and current of the constant flux and interchange which constitutes the world.”

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

Supreme Life of Our Life, Part 3: Prana Provides Energy for the Operations of Mind

Prana is not simply a physical energy in the body.  It is also the energy that operates in the mind.  Swami Vivekananda described this subtler form of Prana as psychic Prana and indicated that it is the clue that provides the practitioner of Yoga the ability to gain control over the mind.  By gaining mastery over the Prana, the mind comes automatically under control.  The breath, acting as the most visible and manageable form of Pranic action, is the key.  Thus arose the science of Pranayama as a stage in the systematic practices known as Patanjali’s Yoga or Raja Yoga.

Sri Aurobindo explains:  “…by control of the Pranic energy it is not only possible to control our physical and vital functionings and to transcend their ordinary operation, but to control also the workings of the mind and to transcend its ordinary operations.  The human mind in fact depends always on the Pranic force which links it with the body through which it manifests itself, and it is able to deploy its own force only in proportion as it can make that energy available for its own uses and subservient to its own purposes.  In proportion, therefore, as the Yogin gets back to the control of the Prana, and by the direction of its batteries opens up those nervous centres (cakras) in which it is now sluggish or only partially operative, he is able to manifest powers of mind, sense and consciousness which transcend our ordinary experience.  The so-called occult powers of Yoga are such faculties which thus open up of themselves as the Yogin advances in the control of the Pranic force and, purifying the channels of its movement, establishes an increasing communication between the consciousness of his subtle subliminal being and the consciousness of his gross physical and superficial existence.”

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

Supreme Life of Our Life, Part 2: Becoming Aware of the Existence of Prana

Is there a method of knowledge that allows us to separate what appears to us objective from our subjective experience?  To what extent can we rely on subjective experience?  Is it possible to achieve a state of awareness that allows us to separate truth from fantasy in the subjective realm?

In his famous lectures on Raja Yoga, Swami Vivekananda describes at length the methods of Yoga enunciated by Patanjali to obtain certainty about one’s inner experience.  The steps outlined bring the seeker to a state of consciousness where the seeds of each thought, motivation and action can be observed and recognised.  The process leads to the experience of Prana in its various forms and states.  The first levels of awareness naturally are of the working of Prana in the physical body, but later, one becomes aware of what Swami Vivekananda calls the “psychic Prana”, which opens up the operation of subtle energies, vital, mental and beyond to our understanding.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “How then do we become aware of its existence?  By that purification of our mind and body and that subtilisation of our means of sensation and knowledge which become possible through Yoga.  We become capable of analysis other than the resolution of forms into their gross physical elements and are able to distinguish the operations of the pure mental principle from those of the material and both of these from the vital or dynamic which forms a link between them and supports them both.  We are then able to distinguish the movements of the Pranic currents not only in the physical body which is all that we are normally aware of, but in that subtle frame of our being which Yoga detects underlying and sustaining the physical.  This is ordinarily done by Pranayama, the government and control of the respiration.  By Pranayama the Hathayogin is able to control, suspend and transcend the ordinary fixed operation of the Pranic energy which is all that Nature needs for the normal functioning of the body and of the physical life and mind, and he becomes aware of the channels in which that energy distributes itself in all its workings and is therefore able to do things with his body which seem miraculous to the ignorant, just as the physical scientist by his knowledge of the workings of material forces is able to do things with them which would seem to us magic if their law and process were not divulged.  For all the workings of life in the physical form are governed by the Prana and not only those which are normal and constant and those which, being always potential, can be easily brought forward and set in action, but those which are of a more remote potentiality and seem to our average experience difficult or impossible.”

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

Supreme Life of Our Life, Part 1: an Introduction to the Concept of Prana

When we begin to reflect on life and existence, we first observe that we are born of Matter and that at some point, life is infused into the physical form, and at some point, it departs and the form disintegrates.  Is this the entirety of what is taking place?  The Kena Upanishad implies that there is something greater and deeper that is the actual life that creates, permeates and controls the life we experience.

Verse 8:  “That which breathes not with the breath, that by which the life-breath is led forward in its paths, know That to be the Brahman and not this which men follow after here.”

Sri Aurobindo comments:  “But the Brahman-consciousness is not only Mind of our mind, Speech of our speech, Sense of our sense; it is also Life of our life.  In other words, it is a supreme and universal energy of which our own material life and its sustaining energy are only an inferior result, a physical symbol, an external and limited functioning.  That which governs our existence and its functionings, does not live and act by them, but is their superior cause and the supra-vital principle out of which they are formed and by which they are controlled.”

“The English word life does duty for many very different shades of meaning; but the word Prana familiar in the Upanishad and in the language of Yoga is restricted to the life-force whether viewed in itself or in its functionings.  The popular significance of Prana was indeed the breath drawn into and thrown out from the lungs and so, in its most material and common sense, the life or the life-breath; but this is not the philosophic significance of the word as it is used in the Upanishads.  The Prana of the Upanishads is the life-energy itself which was supposed to occupy and act in the body with a fivefold movement, each with its characteristic name and each quite as necessary to the functioning of the life of the body as the act of respiration.  Respiration in fact is only action of the chief movement of the life-energy, the first of the five, — the action which is most normally necessary and vital to the maintenance and distribution of the energy in the physical frame, but which can yet be suspended without the life being necessarily destroyed.”

“The existence of a vital force or life-energy has been doubted by western Science, because that Science concerns itself only with the most external operations of Nature and has as yet no true knowledge of anything except the physical and outward.  This Prana, this life-force is not physical in itself; it is not material energy, but rather a different principle supporting Matter and involved in it.  It supports and occupies all forms and without it no physical form could have come into being or could remain in being.  It acts in all material forces such as electricity and is nearest to self-manifestation in those that are nearest to pure force; material forces could not exist or act without it, for from it they derive their energy and movement and they are its vehicles.  But all material aspects are only field and form of the Prana which is in itself a pure energy, their cause and not their result.  It cannot therefore be detected by any physical analysis; physical analysis can only resolve for us the combinations of those material happenings which are its results and the external signs and symbols of its presence and operation.”

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