A Synthesis of the Disciplines and Aims of the Yoga of Knowledge

The mental consciousness creates “black and white” distinctions that seem to be mutually exclusive to one another; the seeker, following one or another of these distinctions thus will wind up validating one aspect while denying others. This is the history of the various formations developed under the rubric of a Yoga of knowledge. In affirming the Absolute, the seeker denies the reality of the universal or the individual, or at least subordinates their importance in the overall hierarchy. For an integral Yoga, this process of selective focus and denial is not an option: the seeker embraces and accepts the truths presented by each line of development within the traditional Yoga of knowledge, but not in an exclusive or limiting manner; rather, all these aspects must be harmonized and integrated so that each one occupies its rightful place in our view of the entire truth of our existence.

Sri Aurobindo emphasizes this point: “Therefore our integral Yoga will take up these various disciplines and concentrations, but harmonise and if possible fuse them by a synthesis which removes their mutual exclusions. Not realising the Lord and the All, only to reject them for silent Self or unknowable Absolute as would an exclusively transcendental, nor living for the Lord alone or in the All alone as wound an exclusively theistic or an exclusively pantheistic Yoga, the seeker of integral knowledge will limit himself neither in his thought nor in his practice nor in his realisation by any religious creed or philosophical dogma. He will seek the Truth of existence in its completeness. The ancient disciplines he will not reject, for they rest upon eternal truths, but he will give them an orientation in conformity with his aim.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 6, The Synthesis of the Disciplines of Knowledge, pg. 326

Total Inward Renunciation Is the Key To Complete Realisation

It is relatively straightforward for the seeker to acknowledge that certain things must be renounced in order to progress in the spiritual quest. The teachings stress that the seeker should adopt a sattwic lifestyle, and give up sloth, ignorance, torpor, desire, greed, hatred, lust etc. and most will find this prescription to have little cause for argument. The same teachings tell us to adopt practices that lead to contentment, peace, truth, harmony and virtue in dealing with others, and again, most will find little cause for argument. There is no doubt that for a long way in our journey towards the absolute spiritual heights, these prescriptions stand us in good stead.

Sri Aurobindo reminds us however that in the seeking for the Absolute, we cannot rest on our laurels, and eventually all attachment must be renounced. “We must be prepared to leave behind on the path not only that which we stigmatise as evil, but that which seems to us to be good, yet is not the one good. There are things which were beneficial, helpful, which seemed perhaps at one time the one thing desirable, and yet once their work is done, once they are attained, they become obstacles and even hostile forces when we are called to advance beyond them. There are desirable states of the soul which it is dangerous to rest in after they have been mastered, because then we do not march on to the wider kingdoms of God beyond.”

The seeker must be prepared to always move on to higher realisations: “Even divine realisations must not be clung to, if they are not the divine realization in its utter essentiality and completeness. We must rest at nothing less than the All, nothing short of the utter transcendence. And if we can thus be free in the spirit, we shall find out all the wonder of God’s workings; we shall find that in inwardly renouncing everything we have lost nothing. ‘By all this abandoned thou shalt come to enjoy the All.’ For everything is kept for us and restored to us but with a wonderful change and transfiguration into the All-Good and the All-Beautiful, the All-Light and the All-Delight of Him who is for ever pure and infinite and the mystery and the miracle that ceases not through the ages.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 5, Renunciation, pp. 318-319

Purusha and Prakriti–Consciousness and Force

When the seeker recognizes that the ego-personality is neither the true self, nor itself the originator of action, the question naturally arises as to the source of action, and the consciousness that directs that action. We can, with careful examination, determine that Nature carries out the actions, through us as well as through all other forms, with a constant interplay of the modes of Nature, the three Gunas. The quasi-mechanical nature of the universal action makes it appear to some that the universe is some kind of vast machinery, and if one stops there, without asking the question of how, or why, or in what manner it arises and acts, one could well conclude that there is only some kind of chance or happenstance in the universe, and that there is no further significance beyond this mechanical play.

However, if one asks the questions, the only possible solutions involve some vast conscious awareness which directs Nature to act according to the intention of that consciousness for its own creative purposes. We come then to the view of Sankhya which describes a witness and affirming consciousness, Purusha, and an executive Nature, Prakriti.

Sri Aurobindo describes them along with the relationship between them: “There is a Consciousness–or a Conscient–behind, that is the lord, witness, knower, enjoyer, upholder and source of sanction for her works; this consciousness is Soul or Purusha. Prakriti shapes the action in us; Purusha in her or behind her witnesses, assents, bears and upholds it. Prakriti forms the thought in our minds; Purusha in her or behind her knows the thought and the truth in it. Prakriti determines the result of the action; Purusha in her or behind her enjoys or suffers the consequences. Prakriti forms mind and body, labours over them, develops them; Purusha upholds the formation and evolution and sanctions each step of her works. Prakriti applies the Will-force which works in things and men; Purusha sets that Will-force to work by his vision of that which should be done. This Purusha is not the surface ego, but a silent Self, a source of Power, an originator and receiver of Knowledge behind the ego. Our mental “I” is only a false reflection of this Self, this Power, this Knowledge. This Purusha or supporting Consciousness is therefore the cause, recipient and support of all Nature’s works, but is not himself the doer. Prakriti, Nature-Force, in front and Shakti, Conscious-Force, Soul-Force behind her,–for these two are the inner and outer faces of the universal Mother,–account for all that is done in the universe. The universal Mother, Prakriti-Shakti, is the one and only worker.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 8, The Supreme Will, pp.203-204

The Essential Role of the Psychic Being in the Transformation of Life

The elimination of desire as a motive force of action is the first step, and the development of the equality of soul that it brings about is an important foundation; however, this does not, in and of itself, provide the kind of guidance and insight needed to re-orient action on the basis of the Divine Will. It is at this point that Sri Aurobindo sets forth the need for the emergence of the psychic being to lead the mind-life-body instrument and provide the right orientation, standpoint and spirit of aspiration and surrender to the higher will that brings about the correct response to situations and the resultant change in the outer life.

“…it indicates at each moment the method, the way, the steps that will lead to that fulfilled spiritual condition in which a supreme dynamic initiative will be always there directing the activities of a divinised Life-Force. The light it sheds illuminates the other parts of the nature which, for want of any better guidance than their own confused and groping powers, have been wandering in the rounds of the Ignorance; it gives to mind the intrinsic feeling of the thoughts and perceptions, to life the infallible sense of the movements that are misled or misleading and those that are well-inspired; something like a quiet oracle from within discloses the causes of our stumblings, warns in time against their repetition, extracts from experience and intuition the law, not rigid but plastic, of a just direction for our acts, a right step, an accurate impulse.”

There comes about something of a “sense of rightness” that, when we begin to follow its guidance, orient our actions towards the Divine life: “The works of Life right themselves, escape from confusion, substitute for the artificial or legal order imposed by the intellect and for the arbitrary rule of desire the guidance of the soul’s inner sight, enter into the profound paths of the Spirit. Above all, the psychic being imposes on life the law of the sacrifice of all its works as an offering to the Divine and Eternal. Life becomes a call to that which is beyond Life; its every smallest act enlarges with the sense of the Infinite.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 6, The Ascent of the Sacrifice-2, The Works of Love–The Works of Life, pp. 168-169

The Emergence of the True Life-Force Through the Elimination of Desire

The first of the three conditions required for the transformation of the Life-Force is the elimination of desire as the motive principle of action. Perhaps the greatest exposition which clarifies how this is to be done is the Bhagavad Gita. Sri Aurobindo describes the Gita’s method: “…a complete renouncement of desire for the fruits as the motive of action, a complete annulment of desire itself, the complete achievement of a spiritual equality are put forward as the normal status of a spiritual being. A perfect spiritual equality is the one true and infallible sign of the cessation of desire,–to be equal-souled to all things, unmoved by joy and sorrow, the pleasant and the unpleasant, success or failure, to look with an equal eye on high and low, friend and enemy, the virtuous and the sinner, to see in all beings the manifold manifestation of the One and in all things the multitudinous play or the slow masked evolution of the embodied Spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo distinguishes this status from those we may confuse with it: “It is not a mental quiet, aloofness, indifference, not an inert vital quiescence, not a passivity of the physical consciousness consenting to no movement or to any movement that is the condition aimed at…”

He then describes what it is: “…a wide comprehensive unmoved universality such as that of the Witness Spirit behind Nature….This presence behind is equal-souled to all things: the energy it holds in it can be unloosed for any action, but no action will be chosen by any desire in the Witness Spirit; a Truth acts which is beyond and greater than the action itself or its apparent forms and impulses, beyond and greater than mind or life-force or body, although it may take for the immediate purpose a mental, a vital or a physical appearance.”

The result is the emergence of the true vital being, which “reveals its own calm, intense and potent presence….it is a projection of the Divine Purusha into life,–tranquil, strong, luminous, many-energied, obedient to the Divine Will, egoless, yet or rather therefore capable of all action, achievement, highest or largest enterprise. The true Life-Force too reveals itself as no longer this troubled harassed divided striving surface energy, but a great and radiant Divine Power, full of peace and strength and bliss, a wide-wayed Angel of Life with its wings of Might enfolding the universe.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 6, The Ascent of the Sacrifice-2, The Works of Love–The Works of Life, pp. 166-168

A Spiritual Essential Change of Consciousness

The idea of developing a perfected society and uplifting the state of mankind has been, in one form or another, a driving force in human civilisation. Many attempts have been made. Some have been utopian in appearance, the development of an egalitarian society that shares everything and lives in peace and harmony. Others have tried through regimentation or even through what we now know to be forms of “ethnic cleansing”, “holocaust actions” or even attempts at genetic engineering. Still others have preached various “-isms” whether capitalism, communism, socialism as leading to an ideal world. There have been democracies, feudal kingdoms, and despotic command societies. Plato, in The Republic preached a dictatorship of the enlightened spiritually advanced and educated class. Some have taught that the power of goodwill and love will change the world. And others have tried to bring about change and progress through fear and submission. In modern times, we believe we can use various psychological tools, such as counseling, psycho-analysis, etc. to change basic aspects of human personality and reactions.

Yet, with all of these ideas and methodologies, and the attempts made throughout the world, humanity has yet to solve the problem of life and its interactions. Sri Aurobindo makes it clear, in his analysis, that this is due to the fact that heretofore humanity has focused on the external factors of life and tried to modify them with plans, forces or ideas that stem from the normal mental and emotional basis of the life of the Ignorance. And no matter how hard we try, if the basics of human nature remain unchanged, then we are doomed to eventually reproduce the same problems, time and again. We change governments, but the corruption remains. We change economic systems, but the inequality remains. We change religions, but human reactions remain the same.

This brings us to a central tenet of the integral Yoga and its aim in life: “It is not a rationalisation but a supramentalisation, not a moralising but a spiritualising of Life that is the object of the Yoga. It is not a handling of externals or superficial psychological motives that is its main purpose, but a refounding of Life and its action on their hidden divine element; for only such a refounding of life can bring about its direct government by the secret Divine Power above us and its transfiguration into a manifest expression of the Divinity, not as now a disguise and a disfiguring mask of the eternal Actor. It is a spiritual essential change of consciousness, not the surface manipulation which is the method of Mind and Reason, that can alone make Life other than it now is and rescue it out of its present distressed and ambiguous figure.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 6, The Ascent of the Sacrifice-2, The Works of Love–The Works of Life, pp. 165-166

The Transformation and Affirmation of the Life-Force in the Integral Yoga

The Life-Force seeks to grow, survive, enjoy and exercise dominion. In the ordinary human nature, limited by the ego-consciousness and the fragmentation that arises in the planes of Mind-Life-Body, these principles of the Life-Force are exercised for the benefit of the ego, through the action of what Sri Aurobindo terms “the desire-soul”. “This soul of desire is a separative soul of ego and all its instincts are for a separative self-affirmation; it pushes always, openly or under more or less shining masks, for its own growth, for possession, for enjoyment, for conquest and empire.”

The past solutions to the problem of the life-energy have focused on the basic principles or activities of the Life-Force, rather than on the nexus built up by the ego and the desire-soul. Thus, an attempt was made to deny to Life the very native objects for which it exists, and this led to a lot of confusion and failure.

Sri Aurobindo asks the seeker, rather, to recognize the inherent powers and aims of the Life-Force and to accept them through a process of transformation from a basis in the ego to a basis in the Divine consciousness. This occurs through bringing forward of the true soul, the psychic being to guide the process, and through an affirmation of the Life-Force with a new redirected purpose toward achieving its aims, but in fulfillment, not of the ego, but of the Divine action in the world.

“The Divine Life-Power too will be a will for growth, a force of self-affirmation, but affirmation of the Divine within us, not of the little temporary personality on the surface,–growth into the true divine Individual, the central being, the secret imperishable Person who can emerge only by the subordination and disappearance of the ego. This is life’s true object: growth, but a growth of the spirit in Nature, affirming and developing itself in mind, life and body; possession, but a possession by the Divine of the Divine in all things, and not of things for their own sake by the desire of the ego; enjoyment, but an enjoyment of the divine Ananda in the universe; battle and conquest and empire in the shape of a victorious conflict with the Powers of Darkness, an entire spiritual self-rule and mastery over inward and outward Nature, a conquest by Knowledge, Love and Divine Will over the domains of the Ignorance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 6, The Ascent of the Sacrifice-2, The Works of Love–The Works of Life, pp. 164-165

Shakti–Will–Power: The Driver of the Worlds

Spiritual aspirants, upon recognition of the perversions, weaknesses and distortions caused by the life-force in its unredeemed normal status, have generally tried to avoid the problem by avoidance. They have concluded that power is corrupt and corrupting and therefore inconsistent with spiritual growth and development. They seek for a salvation in some other plane of consciousness or some other world of existence. We see throughout history the story of the seeker who abandons a life of power and comfort in the world, goes to the forest or the desert, there to find God and live a holy and quiet life.

They hold that power corrupts. Money, as a form of power, corrupts. Action in the world is inherently corrupted. Transformation of the life-force, if there is to be one, is then thought to come about through the action of Knowledge or Love from a high plane of purity.

Sri Aurobindo points out the fallacy of this approach: “It is no solution either to postpone dealing with the works of life till Love and Knowledge have been evolved to a point at which they can sovereignly and with safety lay hold on the Life-Force to regenerate it; for we have seen that they have to rise to immense heights before they can be secure from the vital perversion which hampers or hamstrings their power to delivery.” It must be further noted that it is essentially impossible to reach the heights where such an influence could be wielded while the Life-Force remains unregenerated, as any uprising or descent of the forces of Knowledge or Love are sure to be appropriated and misused if it comes to that.

Sri Aurobindo reminds us that the will to power is also a divine aspect. “As the mind gropes for Knowledge, as the heart feels out for Love, so the life-force, however fumblingly or trepidantly, stumbles in search of Power and the control given by Power. It is a mistake of the ethical or religious mind to condemn Power as in itself a thing not to be accepted or sought after because naturally corrupting and evil…” “However corrupted and misused, as Love and Knowledge too are corrupted and misused, Power is divine and put here for a divine use.”

“Shakti, Will, Power is the driver of the worlds and, whether it be Knowledge-Force or Love-Force or Life-Force or Action-Force or Body-Force, is always spiritual in its origin and divine in its character.”

“The integral Yoga cannot reject the works of Life and be satisfied with an inward experience only; it has to go inward in order to change the outward, making the Life-Force a part and a working of a Yoga-Energy which is in touch with the Divine and divine in its guidance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 6, The Ascent of the Sacrifice-2, The Works of Love–The Works of Life, pp. 163-164

The Difficulties of the Path of the Integral Yoga

The integral Yoga has as one of its large goals the taking up and transformation of the entire life of the individual and the world. Sri Aurobindo points out that the seeker must have a clear sight as to what the implications of this are. There can be no “cutting of the knot” of the problem of life, the messy, difficult and obstructing energies and distractions that plague the seeker. The yogic disciplines based on knowledge may try to minimize the attention on the needs, desires and impulsions of the life-energy, to develop a one-pointed fix on the Eternal as the ultimate way and goal. Religions have also tended to place salvation in some “other” world or heaven after death, through preparation and devotion in this life, albeit coloured by compromises with the life-energy along the way.

“A way of pure Knowledge is comparatively straightforward and easy to the tread of the seeker in spite of our mortal limitations and the pitfalls of the Ignorance; a way of pure Love, although it has its stumbling-blocks and its sufferings and trials, can in comparison be easy as the winging of a bird through the free azure. For Knowledge and Love are pure in their essence and become mixed and embarrassed, corrupted and degraded only when they enter into the ambiguous movement of the life-forces and are seized by them for the outward life’s crude movements and obstinately inferior motives. Alone of these powers Life or at least a certain predominant Will-in-life has the appearance of something impure, accursed or fallen in its very essence.”

Whether we perceive the difficulty as a form of darkness or inertia, fixated solely on physical gratification or survival; or as a form of grasping for the stimulation and satisfaction of the desires of the life-force, the opportunities for distraction, flagging efforts or outright self-deception are enormous. Even when we align the life-force with higher aims set by the highest emotional and mental drives of the Nature, it is easily misled, diverted or obscured under the burden of the desire-mind and its gross or subtle insistence on its own satisfaction in opposition to the higher principles.

“All these forces the spiritual seeker grows aware of in himself and finds all around him and has to struggle and combat incessantly to be rid of their grip and dislodge the long-entrenched mastery they have exercised over his own being as over the environing human existence. The difficulty is great; for their hold is so strong, so apparently invincible that it justifies the disdainful dictum which compares human nature to a dog’s tail,–for, straighten it never so much by force of ethics, religion, reason or any other redemptive effort, it returns in the end always to the crooked curl of Nature.”

“All labour to straighten out this native crookedness strikes the struggling will as a futility; a flight, a withdrawal to happy Heaven or peaceful dissolution easily finds credit as the only wisdom and to find a way not to be born again gets established as the only remedy for the dull bondage or the poor shoddy delirium or the blinded and precarious happiness and achievement of earthly existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 6, The Ascent of the Sacrifice-2, The Works of Love–The Works of Life, pp. 159-162

Revealing the Divinity in the Manifested World of Forms

The central issue for a “yoga of works” is to transform the action in the outer world into a divine activity. The normal life we experience and see around us seems to be hostile to and antithetical to a Divine life. Many spiritual disciplines have therefore counseled a complete and radical break with the life of the world, so that the seeker may focus on his spiritual essential truth, on the Eternal, on the Absolute. For some, the world represents a provisional ground, filled with illusory objects of desire that distract and cloud the spiritual essence of life. While it may be accepted to some degree provisionally, eventually the seeker must abandon that life and focus on what is “real” and “eternal”.

Sri Aurobindo’s focus on what he terms “reality omnipresent” leads him to conclude that eventually, the yogic aspiration must grapple with and take up the field of life, unravel the mystery and riddle of its apparent opposition to the Truth, and bring about a Divine transformation of the actual life in the world, by revealing its true status as a Divine manifestation and as he states poetically in his epic work Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol “Matter shall reveal the Spirit’s face.”

“Yet it is precisely these activities that are claimed for a spiritual conquest and divine transformation by the integral Yoga. Abandoned altogether by the more ascetic disciplines, accepted by others only as a field of temporary ordeal or a momentary, superficial and ambiguous play of the concealed spirit, this existence is fully embraced and welcomed by the integral seeker as a field of fulfilment, a field for divine works, a field of the total self-discovery of the concealed and indwelling Spirit. A discovery of the Divinity in oneself is his first object, but a total discovery too of the Divinity in the world behind the apparent denial offered by its scheme and figures and, last, a total discovery of the dynamism of some transcendent Eternal; for by its descent this world and self will be empowered to break their disguising envelopes and become divine in revealing form and manifesting process as they now are secretly in their hidden essence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 6, The Ascent of the Sacrifice-2, The Works of Love–The Works of Life, pg. 159