Sri Aurobindo – A Forerunner

The Beacon May / June 1999

”All life is Yoga”

AUROBINDO GHOSE, later known as Sri Aurobindo, was born in Calcutta on 15 August 1872. At the age of seven he was taken to England where he attended St. ’Paul’ s School in London. According to his father’ s instructions he received an entirely occidental education without any contact with Indian culture. In 1890 he moved to King’s College, Cambridge, where he obtained a senior classical scholarship. In 1893, at the age of twenty-one, Aurobindo returned to India and joined the Baroda State Service. He worked first in the Revenue Department and in secretarial work for the Maharaja, afterwards as a Professor of English, and finally as Vice Principal in the Baroda College. During this period he learned Sanskrit and other modem Indian languages and assimilated the spirit of Indian civilisation. When there was an outbreak of the protests against the British Government’s partition of Bengal in 1905, he gave up his job and openly joined the nationalist movement. In 1906 he left Baroda and went to Calcutta as Principal of the newly-founded Bengal National College.
The political phase of Sri Aurobindo’ s life covered eight years from 1902 to 1910. His impressive articles were published in several magazines like Induprakash, Bande Mataram and Karmayogin. He tried to inspire his countrymen with new political ideas and encourage them to fight for the sake of their motherland. He criticised the British commercial and industrial exploitation ofIndia. He declared openly that the goal of political action was complete independence, and he was the first politician in India who had the courage to do this. Gradually he become a prominent leader of the Nationalist party. The programme which Sri Aurobindo formulated inc1uded boycott of British trade, non cooperation, passive resistance, attainment of complete independence (Swaraj), national education, settlement of disputes in law by popular arbitration, etc. On suspicion of secret revolutionary activities he was arrested in 1908 and put in Alipore jail for a year. This became for him a turning point from politics to spirituality. In prison he devoted most of his time to reading the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and to intensive meditation and yoga.
In 1910 Sri Aurobindo sailed to the French colony Pondicherry. Because of his new calling he refused several requests to preside at sessions of the National Congress. Four years later he founded a philosophicaljoumal,Arya, which continued to come out every month unti11921. Most of his major works like The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, Essays on the Gita, The Secret of the Veda, The Isha Upanishad, The Ideal of Human Unity, and The Human Cycle appeared serially in Arya. .
At first he lived only with four or five disciples, but gradually their number increased. This became the foundation of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which grew quite spontaneously and unintentionally around its head. Other developments of the movement are Sri Aurobindo Intemational Centre of Education and Auroville, the city of dawn. In 1920 a French women, Mirra Richard, later called the Mother, became an integral member of the Ashram, and in 1926 Sri Aurobindo handed over the entire administration of the Ashram to her and retired himself into the background. From then onward his main effort was to bring down and anchor the supramental principle on earth. Sri Aurobindo passed away in 1950.
Sri Aurobindo was a prolific writer and his collected works comprise thirty volumes, which include his poetry, plays, letters and a huge metaphysical poem, Savitri. His method of writing was, as he says, from the silent mind. Sri Aurobindo believed that India had a special mission to present spiritual wisdom to the world, and his concem was to restore and revitalise the spiritual heritage of India and give to it a new and dynamic form. His philosophy has its roots firmly in the Hindu tradition (especially Vedantic tradition), and he based most of his ideas on scriptures like the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. He did not, however, think, like his predecessors Sankara and Ramanuja had thought, that the scriptures contained the absolute and ultimate truth. To him all the scriptures were only a partial expression of the eternal knowledge. In many cases he used scripture just as a testing ground for his own intuitions, experiences and findings. Sri Aurobindo was not just a Hindu theologian. He was a liberal and creative thinker who incorporated into his philosophy many elements outside the Hindu tradition, for example from modem science, Greek philosophy and even Christianity.
Yoga is a central concept in Indian culture and the very heart of its spirituality. In his monumental chief work The Life Divine he wanted to create a metaphysical foundation of yoga and point a way to a new mode of life. He is a father of a novel yogic discipline which is called integral yoga or purna yoga. Integral yoga is not an isolated effort but part of the vast cosmic yoga of nature and the collective yoga of the divine nature in the human race. Evolution is a progressive self-manifestation of the eternal and infinite spirit. It is a movement where finite beings express more and more the power and the beauty of the infinite, and where hidden divinity reveals itself gradually in all forms of life and in all kingdoms of nature. In this sense all life is yoga. In this view yoga ceases to appear as something mystic and abnormal, which has no relation to the evolution or the progress of humanity. In placing individual yoga in this larger context, Sri Aurobindo has greatly expanded the traditional concept of yoga. Yoga has long been seen only as a way to individual salvation without any relation to history or the evolutionary process. While yoga of nature is a slow and unconscious movement, integral yoga is a conscious and dynamic effort to take ”the kingdom of God by violence”. Etymologically the word yoga means union-union of our separated existence to our spiritual source, God or Brahman. It signifies both the union and the method by which that union is achieved. It can also be regarded as implying the yoking or binding together of the different parts of our nature, like the physical, the emotional, the mental and the spiritual. In other words it means integration of the personality by the power of the soul. Sri Aurobindo defines it also as a new birth-birth out of the ordinary mentalized material life of man into spiritual existence. He forecasts that the regenerated and rediscovered yoga will form one of the dynamic elements of the future life of humanity.

The Synthesis of Yogas

Sri Aurobindo thinks that any single form of yoga is insufficient to such a high aim as a total transformation and divinisation of a human being. Only the suitable synthesis of all known yogas can perform this task. He takes all the traditional forms of yoga, like hatha yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga, raja yoga, jnana yoga, and tantric yoga and fuses them into one supreme path called integral yoga. The synthesis does not, however, mean that these various yogas are just combined together and practised successively. Synthetic yoga is more than the sum total its parts. It is a new creation. Beause its goals are so high it is said to be the most difficult of all yogas (and paradoxically at the same time the easiest). Sri Aurobindo notes that the genuine synthesis is possible only if the outer forms and extemals of these various yogas are neglected. There must be found some central principle which is common to all and some central dynamic force which is the common secret of their divergent methods. This, he concludes, is a soul-force and it forms the foundation for integral yoga.
Sri Aurobindo reasons that if the objective is only to escape from the world to God, synthesis is unnecessary, since contact or union with the Divine is possible by any single power of the soul. Ali ordinary yogas use only some power or aspect of a human being. Consequently each of them taken separately isone sided and inadequate to the harmonious and balanced spiritual unfoldment. Sri Aurobindo crystallises the essence of integral yoga as follows:
The principle of Yoga is the turning of one or of all powers of our human existence into a means of reaching the divine Being. In an ordinary Yoga one main power of being or one group of its powers is made the means, vehicle, path. In a synthetic Yoga all powers will be combined and included in the transmuting instrumentation. (The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 583)
The basis of integral yoga is the triple path of knowledge, devotion and works, which originates from the Bhagavad Gita. Knowledge, love and will are the three main powers in human nature, and they point to the three paths by which the human soul rises to the Divine. They also correspond to the three psychological types of men and the three major rays. Unfortunately these paths are often practised exclusively, and the result is a one sided development. Harmonious development of the intellect, the heart and will is possible only if these three are combined and practised simultaneously. To this triple path Sri Aurobindo has furthermore added a special yoga of spiritual and gnostic self-perfection.
Some other creative thinkers in the fIrst half of the century have also noticed the need for a synthetic yoga. The agni yoga of Helena Roerich is an instance of this. In A Treatise on White Magic Master Djwhal Khul predicts that the yoga of synthesis will come into existence. He says that its main features will be ”conscious development of the intuitive faculty” and ”union through synthesis”, which means ”identification with the whole.” He says also that this new yoga will gradually supersede the bhakti yoga and raja yoga schools. As bhakti yoga means union through devotion and raja yoga union through the mind, the yoga of synthesis means union through synthesis, i.e., through all the powers and aspects of man, not just one single power. In the above quotation we can see that this is exactly what Sri Aurobindo is aiming at in his integral yoga. Development of the intuitive faculty is also a very central element in his yoga. We can now in good reason conclude that the yoga of synthesis has come (in some form) into existence through Sri Aurobindo. In 1934 (when A Treatise on White Magic was published) it was probably true that ”no book has yet made its appearance which gives in any form whatsoever ’the yoga of synthesis”’. Sri Aurobindo’s writings about integral yoga appeared serially in Arya between 1914 and 1921, but the whole book The Synthesis of Yoga was not published unti1948.

The Aims of Integral Yoga

The objectives of integral yoga deviate in many ways from those of the traditional yogas. After the golden age of the Vedas and the Upanishads, the goal of spiritual practices was seen as emancipation from earthly existence and from the wheel of rebirth. Ancient yogas were ascetic in their nature and the renunciation of the world was the final and highest phase of life. The old yogas pointed directly from mind into the timeless absolute, and the world of time and becoming was regarded merely as ignorance or the cosmic dance of Maya. There was a deep gap between the transcendental state of freedom and the world of karma and ignorance. Because earthly life itself was associated with suffering and illusion, ancient yogis did not concern themselves with the transformation or divinisation of human nature or terrestrial existence. Things like service and improvement of the human condition were not emphasised.
Integral yoga aims at a radical change of existence, not a liberation from the earthly life or from the wheel of rebirth. Its goal is not heaven, nirvana or samadhi, but the fulfilment of life here on earth and in the physical bodies – an earthly immortality! Sri Aurobindo characterises in the following words the yoga which is practised in his ashram:
The way of Yoga followed here has a purpose different from others, – for its aim is not only to rise out of the ordinary ignorant world-consciousness into the divine consciousness, but to bring the supramental power of that divine consciousness down into the ignorance of rnind, life and body, to transform them, to manifest the Divine here and create a divine life in Matter. (Sri Aurobindo and His Ashram. p. 39)
In integral yoga the union with the Divine should include all the aspects of man. It must take place not only in the soul, but in the whole being of man-the mind, the life (vital principle) and the body. Besides self-realisation, integral yoga aims at self-manifestation and self-perfection, liberation and transfiguration of the whole of our embodied existence. Christian mystics and Indian yogis have generally had a very negative attitude towards the body and the world. Integral yoga does not consider the body as opposed to soul or matter as opposed to spirit. It stresses the need for harmonious development of the personality and the balancing of material and spiritual values. It encourages the mystic to turn to a creative personality and use his capacities in the service of humanity.
The specific features of integral yoga are integral liberation and integral perfection. Integral liberation means not only a liberation of the spirit, but also a liberation of the nature. The aim is to liberate the nature herself and not just gain a liberation from it. The objective of yoga is the passage from the lower to the higher plane. In integral yoga this is accomplished not by the rejection of the lower and withdrawing into the higher, but by the transformation of the lower and its elevation to the higher nature. In this way the lower personality becomes the centre of divine transfiguration and the higher principle can reveal itself in the body, the heart and the mind. Expressed technically the integral liberation consists of ”a divine unity of supreme Spirit and its supreme Nature”. It means the emergence not only of a gnostic spirit, but a gnostic nature or matter. In the last analysis matter is nothing else than Shakti or force of the spirit; matter is also Brahman. In the gnostic life the antinomy and imbalance between spirit and matter would be entirely removed. Matter then no longer veils and hinders the manifestation of spirit. We can see that in Sri Aurobindo’s yoga the objective is exactly the same as in modem esotericism: to redeem (and not just purify) the lower bodies so that their substance is heightened and transformed and the lower atoms are replaced by the higher ones.
The integral perfection refers to the divine perfection of the human being. It means much more than just a human completion. It surpasses both the mundane and religious ideals of perfection. It goes beyond the ethical, intellectual, practical and aesthetic ideals, but includes these in the larger spiritual aim. The gnostic and divine perfection contains not only complete spiritualisation of the human nature, but also a close unity with all beings by a sympathy and participation in the spiritual purpose manifesting in humanity. The liberated individual should identify himself to the collective consciousness of humanity and work for the liberation of others. In this respect Sri Aurobindo’ s gnostic being or superman resembles the Bodhisattva figure of Mahayana Buddhism. Union with the supreme Divine, unity with the universal Self and the supramental life action, these three, according to Sri Aurobindo, constitute the essence of the integral divine perfection of the human being.

The Method

Sri Aurobindo stresses that the methods of integral yoga must be mainly spiritual. Physical methods or fixed psychic or psycho-physical methods of hatha yoga and other yogas may be useful at times, but are not indispensable. Generally the emphasis is not laid on the phenomenal aspects of the human constitution. Integral yoga starts from that level where the spiritually oriented man normally functions-the soul in mind. Sri Aurobindo writes:
Our synthesis takes man as a spirit in mind much more than a spirit in body and assumes in him the capacity to begin on that level, to spiritualise his being by the power of the soul in mind opening itself directly to a higher spiritual force. (The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 586)
The ordinary (and dangerous) method to open up the chakras is by the physical processes of hatha yoga or by the methods of tantric discipline. In integral yoga these means are not usually used, because the reliance is on the power of the higher being to change the lower nature; the work proceeds from above downward and not the opposite way. In the tantric method Shakti is all-important and it becomes the key to the finding of spirit. In the synthetic method spirit/soul is all-important, and it becomes the secret of the taking up of Shakti. Tantricism concentrates upon the awakening of the sleeping kundalini. Integral yoga strives not so much upon the awakening of the kundalini as upon the corning to the front of the psychic being or the soul. The tantric method starts from the bottom, integral yoga starts at the top.
Integral yoga leaves a disciple free to a great extent. Each man has to find his own method of yoga. The apprentice of integral yoga must obey the dictates of his own soul and live by its power beyond any written truth or scriptures. One reason for this is found in the fact that the higher energy, when contacted, does not work ”according to a fixed system and succession as in the specialised methods of Yoga”. One of the main principles of integral yoga is absolute and unreserved self-surrender to the Divine, which Sri Aurobindo adopted from his guru, Lele, whom he met in 1908. In integral yoga there is no formal initiation. Channeling the great powers and potentialities of the causal body into the physical consciousness is the secret of gnostic life. The causal body is, however, still little developed in the majority of men. Consequently integral yoga, in its full scope, is suitable only for a relative few. In the path of integral yoga and in the spiritual development of man there are three great phases: the psychic, the spiritual and the supramental transformation.
The highest ideal behind the integral yoga is to establish the kingdom of God in the material world or to fulfill the will of God on earth. Sri Aurobindo has consciously used this Christian image as a symbol for gnostic community and the divine life that he expects to be realised on earth. An isolated individual transformation is not enough, and individual perfection and liberation are not the whole sense of God’ s intention in the world. The emergence of the gnostic race, the flowering of the Divine in collective humanity, the manifestation of the supramental consciousness on earth – such is the great vision behind integral yoga. It is a vision which greatly exceeds all the former ideals connected to yoga.
Sri Aurobindo was one of the first apostles of the New Age. His philosophy contains many relatively new ideas, which also resemble the conceptions of such great seers and messengers as H.P. Blavatsky, Teilhard de Chardin, Paul Brunton and Alice Bailey. Some of these new ideas are: synthesis of the eastern and western world-views, shifting of the emphasis away from individual salvation to the collective liberation, a new kind of yoga or approach to the spiritual realities, redemption of the lower nature, descent of the higher energies, arrival of the spiritual age, internationalism and human unity, evolution of a higher type of man. These are all ideas which the most progressive spiritual movements and pioneering thinkers have emphasised in this and the previous century. Many regard Sri Aurobindo as an avatar (divine incarnation). He has been called the avatar of supramental transforrnation or superrnanhood. He was certainly one of those pioneering spirits who has ushered in the New Age and who has laid a foundation for its spiritual culture and civilisation.


C.R. Goswami, Sri Aurobindo’s Concept of the Superman.
SABDA, Pondicherry, India, 1976.
H. Chaudhuri, Sri Aurobindo: The Prophet of Life Divine.
Pondicherry, 1951.
Sri Aurobindo and his Ashram, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1983.


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