Sri Aurobindo The Philosopher


August 15th will be celebrated the world over as Sri Aurobindo’s 150th birth anniversary 

Sri Aurobindo is perhaps the greatest philosopher that India has produced since Ramanujacharya. And when I use the term philosopher, I mean by that term a seer, thinker, or metaphysician who has a systemic view of the world and is able to organize his perceptions and give us a coherent, consistent, comprehensive paradigm of the world. Or at least an approach to resolving the questions of human existence, the mystery of the world, and how a man may approach the challenges of life and existence. 

He is a genius at the same level as Sri Krishna since he too integrated the various and often seemingly contradictory darshanas extant at their times into a unified metaphysics and vision in a manner that revitalized each darshana and contextualized them within a larger Vedantic understanding. Just like Sri Krishna integrated Vaishnava Bhakti traditions with Sankhya, Yoga, and Vedanta in an overarching vision, Sri Aurobindo too synthesized Tantra, Sankhya, Bhakti, Jnana, and Karma Yoga in a wider understanding of Vedanta. In addition, Sri Aurobindo also unified the Western philosophies in the Eastern darshana, including those of Nietzsche and Evolution, pre-Socratic thinkers, and Plato. He took the latest developments in Western thought and put them in perspective in a larger Indic frame of reference. 

He also created a program for national revitalization and brought India’s darshana back to its own people that they had forgotten under the centuries of foreign rule and subjugation. A true understanding of Vedas and Upanishads based on his own spiritual experiences and investigations, linguistic research, and insights was brought to a people who had forgotten their own svadharma and had become slaves not only outwardly but also inwardly. This intellectual, cultural, and spiritual freedom that he aspired for his people created the svarajya movement in the early 20th century in India at a time when it was considered an impossibility and a delusion. 

He gave an integral interpretation and expostulation of Vedanta as a synoptic vision for all humankind, rejecting Mayavada as an aberrant understanding of Vedanta and returned to the life-affirming worldview of the Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita. One may say that he brought Adi Sankaracharya and Ramanujacharya, the Buddha, and Sri Krishna, together in what may be considered a purna Vedanta. He integrated spirituality with philosophy, arts, and literature, culture and education, nationalism, and politics in a consistent approach that was not parochial or chauvinistic. 

He articulated Indian darshana to the West in the tradition of Swami Vivekananda with an even greater dialectic and rigor and helped trigger the Indian renaissance that was already in the making with the advent of great writers and poets such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, and Rabindranath Tagore. He made philosophy alive and dynamic, resonant with the rhythms of classical prose, and was able to bring elements of his philosophy into his poetic oeuvre, an effort as vast and overwhelming as his voluminous prose. 

Sri Aurobindo redefined philosophy by bringing in elements of seerhood and darshana of the Indian civilization. And he redefined Indian darshana by bringing in elements of Western thought that gave it additional vigor and suppleness. It is my submission that Sri Aurobindo wrote not just for his age but for the future generations and quite aptly may be considered a philosopher of the future and human teleology. 

He is one of the unique philosophers in Eastern or Western traditions. While being a darshanik in the traditional Indic mold, one who is a beholder and a revealer of truth, he is also an anti-philosopher. While creating one of the most elaborate and comprehensive philosophies of all time, he is also able to constantly step out of it, as it were, and transcend it at each consideration. This gives him unique freedom to integrate diverse and even seemingly contradictory visions into a harmonious coherent whole that is bolder, truer, and wider than traditional reductionistic metaphysics. 

The Indian approach to philosophy is darshana, which means to see. At a very fundamental level, darshana is not philosophy at all, at least the way it is understood in the Western tradition. Philosophy means love of knowledge and usually implies an analytical approach to problems and is mental. Darshana, on the other hand, requires a radical psychological and cognitive refinement and personal evolution from the seeker of truth that is a lifetime journey of exploration and liberation. Thus, philosophy remains abstract, speculative, and always apart from real-life experience while darshana is transformative and eternally free of thought. 

All Indian philosophies are, in essence, transcendental, in the sense that the philosophy constantly transcends the framework or paradigm it uses to elaborate and structure its contents. The Sankhya philosophy describes the Purusha principle as pure consciousness that is eternally free of any movement, identification, or features. And this arrival to the concept of Purusha was not mental speculation but a verifiable universal experience as discovered by the ancient Indian rishis and darshaniks. Even as Sankhya was modified variously by the later developments of Indic ‘thought,’ the foundation upon which it was based, the direct experience of pure consciousness, remained as the basis of all future excursions and philosophies. Thus, awareness that is growing more and more untrammeled of all names and forms is a requisite, and the true darshanik constantly returns and eventually establishes himself in its sthanu or stability. 

We see this principle of consciousness as the bedrock of Vedanta, Buddhistic metaphysics, Jainism, Yoga and even the fundamental understanding of Vaishnavism or Shaivism, Karma Yoga, or Bhakti Yoga, and no true approach to Indic philosophy is possible without this key insight. Great as Greek philosophies are, they never base themselves entirely on Chitta or consciousness, and this difference continues through the long history of developments in Western and Eastern philosophies. 

What makes Sri Aurobindo truly unique even among Eastern philosophers is his avowed rejection of all mentalism and abstractions. His entire system is based upon what he saw and lived, was and became, and beheld in his awareness as the shining reality behind all creation. He is a true rishi who reveals what he sees or hears or sees-hears. And his means of beholding the truth are supra-intellectual, intuitive, synthetic, and experiential. In a famous letter to D.K. Roy, he protested that he was not a thinker or philosopher, ‘And philosophy! Let me tell you in confidence that I never, never, never was a philosopher – although I have written philosophy which is another story altogether. I knew precious little about philosophy before I did the Yoga and came to Pondicherry – I was a poet and a politician, not a philosopher! How I managed to do it? First, because Richard proposed to me to cooperate in a philosophical review – and as my theory was that a Yogi ought to be able to turn his hand to anything, I could not very well refuse: and then he had to go to the War and left me in the lurch with 64 pages a month of philosophy all to write by my lonely self. Secondly, I had only to write down in terms of the intellect all that I had observed and come to know in practicing Yoga daily and the philosophy was there, automatically. But that is not being a philosopher!’ 

What kind of a philosopher is this who translated the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Gita, discussed metaphysics over more than a thousand pages in The Life Divine, resolved the inconsistencies or difficulties of some of the greatest darshaniks of all time, such as Adi Sankaracharya and the Buddha even as he synthesized them into a larger framework, who created one of the greatest systems of metaphysics in the history of humankind, who insisted that he is not a philosopher at all! And this is what makes Sri Aurobindo stand out as a philosopher and a non-philosopher. 

As a philosopher, he always stands outside his philosophy. As a non-philosopher, he creates an elaborate systematic, methodical consistent edifice that is at once towering and breathtaking in scope and significance. And in this, as mentioned earlier, the only visionary genius that I can compare him with in the entire history of India is Sri Krishna, who brought about a grand synthesis of diverse streams of thought in the Gita. 

Sri Aurobindo took a similar approach of synthesis based on his vision and built on Sri Krishna’s darshana and brought in a Greek spirit of deep questioning and almost Socratic discourse in his discussion along with the radical breakthroughs of higher tantra in his elaborate all-embracing orchestral harmony. And this is his uniqueness. Even as one of the greatest integrators of philosophy, Sri Aurobindo is always free of philosophy, like Sri Krishna. 

Perhaps this is also because he was a poet and knew that reality can always be seen and described in other ways that are not restricted by intellectualism and logic. But as a poet, he was not a bard in the ordinary sense of the word, one who deals with emotions and rhythms of verse. He was a poet in the ancient Indic tradition of the kavi, one who can see through and beyond and can reveal and share in his sound- harmonies the weight of the realization and can transmit his experience to the listener or reader. 

To be inside the metaphysical system and yet be outside is a feat very few Western philosophers have been able to accomplish. Perhaps, Parmenides and Heraclitus, Plato and Plotinus were able to pull it off, but not with such an elaborate detailed system. Perhaps Wittgenstein, who demolished his earlier approach to philosophy as developed in The Tractatus, and moved on to the word-plays that philosophers indulge in but there is a crucial difference. Sri Aurobindo builds and constructs even as he liberates in a vast holistic vision. Wittgenstein bulldozes, decimates, and nuclearizes and leaves nothing in his wake. 

Sri Aurobindo is also not just philosophy. Following the ancient Indian ideal, he does not separate philosophy from psychology, literature from politics, individual salvation or mukti from the evolution of the society and the communities, and the secular from the religious. He connects them all in an effortless manner and does not exclude anything of significance or value in life from his consideration. He is the most catholic of philosophers, including even the rejections of the materialists and the realists, the agnostics, and the atheists, in his consideration of all human divagations. For he is a true Vedanti, who lives the ancient tenet of sarvam brahma, all this is the Brahman. And once you accept the truth of every manifestation, every aspect of life, how would you reject or exclude its essence or reality in your paradigm? Sri Aurobindo stayed consistent and allowed each aspect or order of life to find its place in his comprehensive vision. 

Thus, Sri Aurobindo is a true pragmatic philosopher in that he believed in applying his knowledge and accomplishments to practical purposes like liberating his country from the yoke of foreign rule or charting a course for future human evolution. And yet, he is also a transcendentalist and an idealist. He is the greatest interpreter of ancient systems and is thoroughly modern in his classical approach. He is a philosopher of linguistics, whose discoveries are only now being discovered, while also a philosopher of Literature and Languages who elaborated on the historical development of English verse from a spiritual evolutionary perspective. 

He is an aphorist in the tradition of Heraclitus and Bhartrihari, who reveals his philosophy in concise, sometimes playful, sometimes profound apothegms. Mind is always subservient to his vision, and his precepts can hold an entire universe in a few lines, like Vedantic Mahavakyas or sutras. He is a Vedantic evolutionist who transformed Charles Darwin and Henri Bergson into a deeper explanation of the course of earth’s history. He is a Vedantic Neoplatonist who makes Plato and Plotinus understandable and, dare I say, more profound in his elucidation. He is methodical like Patanjali, intuitive like Sri Ramakrishna, advaitic like Swami Vivekananda, and a Shakta in the highest lights of ancient tantra. He is able to hold polar opposites in a singular view and assimilate them in one sentence. He may be compared to the best philosophers in the East and the West, and instead of being contextualized by them, he contextualizes them since he is always higher, deeper, and wider. 

His insights can resolve the contradictions and dualisms in Abrahamic theology and the Western worldview. He is a futurist, and a systemic thinker whose message is sure to reverberate down the ages till the last man stands on earth or till humanity raises itself beyond its present imprisonment and discovers itself as the harbinger of a new leap in its evolution. 

Excerpted from Dr. Pariksith Singh’s new book Sri Aurobindo and Philosophy, published by Kali, an imprint of BluOne Ink, and released on August 6, 2022 at the Pondicherry Literature Festival.

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