Sunday, August 15, 2010

THE MASTER'S WORD AND OUR HOMEWORK

Sri Aurobindo’s mission was to speak ‘the word’, as he revealed in the Uttarpara speech delivered shortly after his release from Alipore Jail. And, he did speak the word, most visibly in the Arya, from 1914-1920. ‘The word’ was a flood of words, a tsunami that swept into the pages of the Arya Vedantic wisdom, as seen by one who had seen the Truth, could rationalize what was beyond reason, express in words what was beyond words, and put into poetic English prose ideas for which the right words did not exist in the English language. Born with an amazing intellect and tremendous spiritual capacity, the master had been schooled for fourteen years in the West, had taught himself Indian wisdom for fourteen years in Baroda, and had combined the East-West synthesis with years of intense personal sadhana. With this preparation and several yogic siddhis to top, Sri Aurobindo was an unprecedented personification of all that it takes to give the world ‘the word’ that it needed.

‘The word’ that Sri Aurobindo gave the world is difficult to encapsulate in one paragraph. It was nothing short of a prescription for ‘the remaking of man’, to borrow an expression from Alexis Carrel’s Man, the Unknown. In the Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo worked out a powerful synthesis of all the major traditional schools of yoga, retaining the central principles of each without the rigidities or superfluities of any. In the Essays on the Gita, he saw the Gita in one sweep, the way few others have. Instead of analyzing the Gita verse by verse, Sri Aurobindo synthesized the three paths of the Gita into one, and demonstrated how it is impossible not to walk all the three after walking on any one of the three long enough and sincerely enough. In The Life Divine, he solved the riddle of existence. Although based on Vedanta, his approach was universal and non-denominational. Although based on his personal experience of the Divine, he has spoken almost entirely in the third person. Although he has brought out the limitation of reason, he has used incisive reasoning to do so! Being an impartial and sympathetic explorer of all aspects of truth, he has looked at the Truth from all angles. He has discussed even points of view different from his own at length, and justified them better than the proponents of those points of view could have themselves done, before demolishing them systematically. The result is that he does not leave any question unanswered, or any doubt unresolved. Reading The Life Divine is a humbling experience, a transforming influence. In the Gita, Arjuna becomes a devotee after receiving the knowledge of the Supreme Secret from Krishna. The same thing happens to the reader of The Life Divine. As a corollary to the knowledge received, he becomes a devotee. In The Secret of the Veda, Sri Aurobindo uncovers the symbolism of the Vedas. Using scholarly analysis of the etymology of words, profound logic, and his exceptional spiritual capacity, he brings out the deeper meanings of the apparently meaningless Vedic expressions and rituals. In The Foundations of Indian Culture, he establishes the justification for India’s role as the spiritual guru to the world. He does not deny the backwardness of the country at the time of writing (the early twentieth century), but makes the important point that a culture cannot be judged on the basis of its most decadent phase. Whether it is discussion of art, literature, social life, or religion of India, the thread that runs all through is that the Indian culture emphasizes a rich life, a full life, a multi-faceted life, a balanced and harmonious life, but every aspect of life here has a spiritual orientation, and is linked to the ultimate goal of life, which is spiritual growth. Thus Indian spirituality is not an otherworldly spirituality; it does not place spirituality in a compartment clearly demarcated from worldly life. In India, spirituality has an all-pervasive overriding presence in everyday life. In The Human Cycle, Sri Aurobindo has traced the psychological basis of the cyclic process through which societies pass. We can see clearly today that the world is passing through a transition from the age of reason towards a subjective age striving to overcome the limitations of reason, as predicted by Sri Aurobindo a hundred years ago. In The Ideal of Human Unity, he went into the history of formation of large aggregates such as the nation state and empires, and the reasons for their repeated collapse. He has also discussed the future possibility of a world union, the obstacles that will be encountered in the realization of the possibility, and the unsuccessful experiments that are likely to be made before we realize that the only durable basis for such a union is a psychological unity based on the spiritual oneness of mankind. Sri Aurobindo’s integral philosophy that runs through all his works forms the basis of a complete and ideal system of psychology and a system of education. Integral education seeks not only the clich├ęd all-round development of the individual but also includes the development of that inner monitor in-built in each one of us that enables us to make the choices in life that make life fulfilling and meaningful. Ignoring the inner monitor (called the psychic being by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother) leads to uneasiness, and listening to it gives us immense joy and lasting mental peace. The citizens of tomorrow appreciating the value of this joy in life, in contrast with the so-called happiness dependent on external circumstances, is the surest basis of a sane society. That integral education can be translated into practice was shown by the Mother in the school that she started in the Ashram at Puducherrry, and the experiment has been repeated since in several integral schools. Finally, Sri Aurobindo’s integral philosophy is couched in terms of evolution. He had visualized a hundred years ago that we are on the threshold of an evolutionary crisis. In the next evolutionary leap, mental man must give way to a supramental being – a necessity, potentiality and inevitability that many other noted thinkers have also lately hinted at.

Such then is a glimpse of the word that the Master spoke to the world. There is hardly any subject under the sun that he did not touch, and he gave everything he touched a unique timeless orientation. Following the publication of the Arya were decades of sadhana by the Master and the Mother aimed at the descent of the supramental on earth. The call was answered on 29 February 1956. However, for the effects of the descent to be visible and significant, we have to be ready. Our getting ready means that we examine everything we do in terms of the effect it will have on the level of our consciousness. Raising the level of consciousness is no longer just an individual pursuit for individual fulfillment. It has implications for the level of consciousness of the human race, the consciousness of our planet. It needs a critical mass of people to be at a very high level of consciousness for the supramental descent to have a perceptible impact on human affairs. Making our contribution to this critical mass is our homework. It is for this homework that the Mother asked mankind: “Are you ready?”
(August 15 is Sri Aurobindo's Birthday, and also the Independence Day of India)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

AUSTERITY

Austerity is commonly used as the English equivalent of what has been called Tapas in the Indian tradition. Austerity bears a superficial resemblance to tapas, but the two are not the same; there is no word in English that conveys the exact meaning of tapas. A life characterized by austerities is an extremely simple life. The simplicity is the result of self-denial, which in turn may be based on a philosophy of life that believes in reducing desires. Austerities may also be a type of self-imposed suffering, which in turn may be penance for a sin, or a religious practice aimed at a life higher and nobler than the ordinary. Tapas, on the other hand, is concentration of energies on something important. If we consider something to be important, we would like to pay more attention to it. This would require finding more time for it. Time is something we cannot manufacture or buy from the market. Each of us has available exactly twenty-four hours in a day; in this respect at least, all of us have equal opportunities! Therefore, when we feel strongly that something needs more time, we cut down on the things that we do not consider really important. Taking away from our lives what is not important helps us concentrate on what is important. That is how the word is used also in chemistry. If we wish to concentrate a sugar solution, we heat it so that the water evaporates. Taking water away leaves behind a more concentrated solution, a sweeter solution of sugar. We are interested in sugar, not in water. By taking away water, we get a more concentrated solution of sugar. The more water we remove, the more concentrated the solution becomes. If we remove all the water, we will be left behind with only the sugar. In the same way, a stage may come when we cut down so much on the ‘unimportant’ in our lives that we are spending almost all the time on what is important to us. That would also be a life of self-denial, a life full of austerities, but it has been arrived at by a different route, and for different reasons. In the Indian spiritual tradition, and in all other mystic traditions, some occasional individuals have considered finding the deepest Truth of existence extremely important. Since this Truth is not easy to realize, those who have made it their mission in life have gradually lost interest in all those things such as food, sex, clothing, shelter, etc. which an ordinary person considers quite important. This voluntary change in lifestyle makes it possible to concentrate intensely on the one issue which is important to the person. That is why it is called tapas. A student, who has his board exam coming, may give up sports, TV, movies, gossip, etc. for a few months so that he can do his best in the exam. This is also a form of tapas!
What is important to realize is that austerities are not a virtue in themselves. They involve giving up the lower for the sake of a higher goal. The motive behind the austerities is at least as important as the austerities. If the austerities are treated as a virtue in themselves, they may lead not only to needless suffering but also arrogance. Greater the self-imposed torture, greater may be the arrogance. Further, total denial is sometimes easier than moderation. Based on these principles, the Mother has talked of austerities involving different parts of the being. Physical austerity includes appropriate exercise for the body; diet, which is healthy and just right in quantity; good quality sleep, which is also just adequate in duration; work, done with interest and dedication; and sexual continence. Emotional austerity involves purification and refinement of emotions to an extent that they translate into enthusiasm and dynamism of action. The emotion of love should be retained but the love should be universal, unconditional, and should not expect anything in return. Mental austerity should consist of speaking only as much as is necessary. Restraining speech throughout the day is more difficult but also more fruitful than observing total silence for twenty minutes a day. These austerities are based on treating the body and life on earth as manifestations of the Divine. In turn, austerities can make it easier to appreciate that the body and life on earth are manifestations of the Divine.
(From a work-in-progress: Timeless Wisdom in Small Doses)