Monday, August 27, 2018

More than a lifetime

“Founding the Life Divine” is an introduction to Aurobindo's form of yoga, Integral Yoga. Or perhaps the book is better described as an introduction to Aurobindo's approach to yoga or view of yoga, since it only contains general descriptions of the actual techniques used. I found the book somewhat hard to read. You probably need to know more than a few things about different yogic techniques and various interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita before you start reading it.

What makes Aurobindo's Integral Yoga unusual is that its goal isn't to liberate the soul from a material world identified with suffering. Aurobindo doesn't deny that the soul can be liberated in this way by using the traditional forms of yoga. However, his goal is different. After achieving liberation through a process of ascent to the Divine, the yogi descends again, back to the material world, and uses the newly acquired divine energy to spiritualize matter, eventually turning the material world into a kind of paradise. The ultimate goal of Integral Yoga is to call down the Supermind on Earth!

The author, Morwenna Donnelly, calls this perspective unique. Personally, I suspect Aurobindo got the idea from “occult” Western sources, perhaps the Lurianic Kabbala with its concept of tikkun. What the Indian sage was after is also similar to “the resurrection of the body” in Christianity, not the crudely materialist interpretation in Watchtower magazine, but the original conceptions found in the Gospels or Paul. The difference is that Aurobindo didn't believe in a once-and-for-all miraculous intervention from the outside. Rather than awaiting the Second Coming of Christ, Aurobindo called on people to begin the transformation into “Gnostic Man” themselves through Integral Yoga, always warning that the process was evolutionary and could take many life-times (Aurobindo accepted reincarnation).

But what exactly *is* Integral Yoga? It seems to be a combination of the three paths described in the Bhagavad-Gita: karma yoga, jnana yoga, bhakti yoga. The goal is to make “the psychic being” (roughly equivalent to what we would call the soul) control the mental, vital and physical aspects of our bodies. This can only be accomplished through a process of complete surrender to the Divine. The process is difficult and involves many pitfalls. Even highly accomplished spiritual people can really be victims of a kind of astral glamour. They might be excellent philanthropists or otherwise morally enlightened, but take extreme pride in these achievements, become obsessively beholden to certain dogmas, attempt to convert everyone to their particular religion, etc. To Aurobindo, this isn't the highest possible attainment. More common pitfalls on the path include attempts to misuse spiritual power, to “take the heavens by storm”, or to drop out due to excessive “dark night of the soul”. Donnelly doesn't mention megalomania, another common fault in these dangerous waters…

The easiest way, relatively speaking, to enlightenment is to achieve a merger with the divine in the “heart”, presumably the heart chakra. If this is accomplished, the rest follows easily. A more difficult method is to attempt immediate unification with the Self (the Brahman-Atman, present above the head in occult anatomy), or to change the human being without a merger with the divine in the heart. Aurobindo believes that the yogi can't accomplish anything without Grace. In that sense, there is a miraculous downpour of divine energy from above. However, he also believes that the human must prepare a suitable vessel for the workings of the Grace. Thus, in Christian terms, Aurobindo's path to salvation combines grace and works.

According to Donnelly, Aurobindo sought to develop a yogic practice characterized by balance. It should be possible to do yoga even while you're working or are engaged in other “worldly” pursuits. Nor should absolute asceticism be necessary. However, few details are given concerning how this should be accomplished, and Donnelly points out that Aurobindo's discussions on yoga are voluminous. Overall, the author emphasizes the difficulties involved. It's also important (although not absolutely necessary) to have a guru, a person who have tread the path before and can give instructions about how to avoid pitfalls. The guru should be treated as a manifestation of the Divine.

When reading “Founding the Life Divine”, I was struck by two contradictions. One is Aurobindo's metaphysics, which sound impersonalist and is beset with the same problem as all other metaphysical systems of the same kind: if the Divine is fundamentally a unity, where does diversity come from? How can even the *illusion* of diversity emerge if the Divine is perfect in its unity? And why should we call down the Supermind on Earth and divinize matter, if the Divine is really a purely spiritual unity? Logically, we should simply go back and merge with the Divine, the perspective criticized by Aurobindo! Apparently, Aurobindo did believe that the Divine had a personal aspect, too, suggesting personalist panentheism, but at least in Donnelly's introduction these aspects are never integrated. The other contradiction concerns Aurobindo's own personality, and that of his spiritual co-worker, Mirra Alfassa (known as The Mother). According to George van Vrekhem's book “Beyond the Human Race”, Aurobindo and Alfassa claimed to be avatars. Aurobindo was an incarnation of Krishna, while Alfassa was Shakti, the Creatrix and Logos of the universe?! If so, why didn't they accomplish complete mastery of their physical bodies? Aurobindo fell rather badly and broke his leg at one point during his yogic practices, and both “avatars” are dead. None of them resurrected as a Gnostic Man. (Vrekhem believes that The Mother was resurrected, but in an invisible body! The body of an invisible pink unicorn, perhaps?) Add to this all the weird stories about how Sri Aurobindo and The Mother saved the world during World War I and World War II. Astral glamour?

Perhaps Aurobindo's Integral Yoga really does work, but if so, its developer was right when he said that it would take more than one lifetime…

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