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100 Years of Sri Aurobindo on Evolution: The Illusion of Human Progress and the Ideal of Human Unity (part 5 of 6)
100 Years of Sri Aurobindo on Evolution
V)The Illusion of Human Progress and the Ideal of Human Unity
Sri Aurobindo's view of history may
best be described as a hybrid of both Indian and European
perspectives. His central narrative marries a cyclic view of history
with a progressive evolution of society that culminates in a world
state governed by the ideal of human unity. To synthesize the
contradictory demands of recurring cycles of history with the
progressive advance of humanity he introduces the idea of ever
widening circles of history. “The
wheel of Brahma rotates forever but it does not turn in the same
place; its rotations carry it forward.”
To get a sense of how Sri Aurobindo develops his historical perspective it is important to allow him to speak in his own voice. Here is how he begins his first major thesis on yoga and human evolution (1909):
“The whole burden of our human progress has been an attempt to escape from the bondage to the body and the vital impulses. According to the scientific theory, the human being began as the animal, developed through the savage and consummated in the modern civilized man. The Indian theory is different. God created the world by developing the many out of the One and the material out of the spiritual. From the beginning, the objects which compose the physical world were arranged by Him in their causes, developed under the law of their being in the subtle or psychical world and then manifested in the gross or material world.
From karana to sukshma, from sukshma to sthula, and back again, that is the formula. Once manifested in matter the world proceeds by laws which do not change, from age to age, by a regular succession, until it is all withdrawn back again into the source from which it came. The material goes back into the psychical and the psychical is involved in its cause or seed. It is again put out when the period of expansion recurs and runs its course on similar lines but with different details till the period of contraction is due. (1909)
This piece was written in what has been called Sri Aurobindo's Hindu period (Heehs 2008) in which he strongly identified himself as a Hindu. During this time right after his release from prison on charges of sedition against the British Raj, Sri Aurobindo often expressed the desire for India's freedom and self-determination by giving voice to it through the subcontinent's Vedic traditions. It is therefore not surprising that he places the European scientific narrative of evolution within the context of an Indian conception of history. In doing this Sri Aurobindo's view of evolution furnishes what perhaps can be called a redemption narrative of the Kali Yuga, in which the last turn of the cycle of History -that in the traditional narrative represents its final degenerate stage- takes on new spiritual possibilities:
Hinduism regards the world as a recurrent series of phenomena of which the terms vary but the general formula abides the same. The theory is only acceptable if we recognize the truth of the conception formulated in the Vishnu Purana of the world as vijñana-vijrimbhitani, developments of ideas in the Universal Intelligence which lies at the root of all material phenomena and by its indwelling force shapes the growth of the tree and the evolution of the clod as well as the development of living creatures and the progress of mankind.
Whichever theory we take, the laws of the material world are not affected. From aeon to aeon, from kalpa to kalpa Narayan manifests himself in an ever-evolving humanity which grows in experience by a series of expansions and contractions towards its destined self-realization in God. That evolution is not denied by the Hindu theory of yugas.
Each age in the Hindu system has its own line of moral and spiritual evolution and the decline of the dharma or established law of conduct from the Satya to the Kaliyuga is not in reality a deterioration but a detrition of the outward forms and props of spirituality in order to prepare a deeper spiritual intensity within the heart.
In each Kaliyuga mankind gains something in essential spirituality. Whether we take the modern scientific or the ancient Hindu standpoint the progress of humanity is a fact. The wheel of Brahma rotates for ever but it does not turn in the same place; its rotations carry it forward.
The above passages demonstrate Sri Aurobindo's distinctive view of evolution as an attempt to synthesize an Indian conception of History with the scientific theory of evolution. This fact should be remembered when he is speaking in a voice that seems to extrapolate human evolution in terms borrowed from European social theorist such as Herbert Spencer. In this regard whenever Sri Aurobindo appears to be simply stating a premise it needs to be remembered that there is always something more complex going on. While at times he certainly appears to be voicing ideas of progressive evolution that derive from Spencer, he never discards the voice of the subaltern, the colonialist subject who understand all to well the implications of European imperialism and its associated racial superiority complex.
Before going further it is also important to understand the language issues one faces when comparing historical perspectives separated by almost a century in which social values have changed significantly enough to suggest an epistemic rupture. In this case we are comparing cross-cultural writing in the early twentieth century with contemporary discourse on society and science that has fully assimilated critical theory and the linguistic turn in philosophy. To be able to excavate appropriate meaning will require the ability to parse language and trace back concepts through epistemic changes in order to divine authorial intention. In short, given the passage of almost a century it is essential to understand changes in culture and language that make any one to one correspondence between certain concepts and words spoken long ago with identical meanings today problematic.
For example, in Synthesis of Yoga Sri Aurobindo writes: “that even the racial type considered by us the lowest, the Negro fresh from the Barbarism of Central Africa is capable , without admixture of blood, without waiting for future generations, of the intellectual culture, if not yet of the intellectual accomplishment of the dominant European”. (Aurobindo SOY 9/10 circa 1915)
One can not of course imagine any serious scholar let alone someone expanding on spiritual philosophy today to make a similar statement. Today one might encounter such speech in the voice of fascist media personalities, such as Rush Limbaugh on his reactionary talk radio show, expressing a racist view of American xenophobia. Indeed, this one statement has been taken by some academics writing from a left of center social orientation as proof that Sri Aurobindo was a racist.
Such interpretations however, stray far from the mark for on closer inspection of the text one finds that Sri Aurobindo means no gross disrespect for the African. His speech is certainly not on par with the reactionary talk radio show host. A closer reading of the text reveals that here as elsewhere the subaltern voice always backgrounds the European historical narratives told. Elsewhere he will speak of Africans not as comprising the lower rungs of an evolutionary ladder of cultural ascent but rather as the remnants of a historically distant civilization far advanced from the late Edwardian period in which he pens this text. Moreover, in expressing his ideas on historical development Sri Aurobindo goes beyond the prejudices of the day by even having the audacity to suggest that the Central African can eventually reach the level of the European. Most Europeans of that day never even considered the peoples of Southern Lands to be capable of reaching European stature at all except by virtue of becoming wholly colonized by European values and Christianized by its religion.
But even so his observations and word choice inevitably reflect the values of England where he was raised and the Victorian era in which he was educated. The conventions of language governing the day define the limitations of the concepts he is trying to express. Similarly, when he applies terms to evolution such a “progressive” he is using a concept whose genealogy can be traced back to Herbert Spencer, and that carries with it the overtones of race and class issues raised by Social Darwinism.
The following statement from Synthesis of Yoga is instructive regards the influences on Sri Aurobindo of early 20th century European thought that credits science with the advance of civilization that bestows its benefits to the “backward races” :
“the whole trend of modern thought and modern endeavor reveals itself with an observant eye to a large conscious effort of nature in man to effect a general level of intellectual equipment , capacity and further possibility by universalizing the opportunities modern civilization affords for the mental life Even the preoccupations of the European intellect the protagonist tendency, with material nature and externalities is a necessary part of the effort. It seeks to prepare a sufficient basis in mans physical being and vital energies in his material environment for his full mental possibilities By the spread of education to , by the advance of the backward races, by the elevation of the depressed classes, by the multiplication of labor saving devices (aka technology) , by the movement toward ideal social and economic conditions by the labor of Science toward improved health , longevity and sound physique in civilized humanity , the sense and drift of this vast movement translates itself into intelligible signs. ,,,'' (Aurobindo SOY p10 circa 1915)
The reference to backward races would
now seem racist if one did not understand the complexity of Sri
Aurobindo's voice. If one did not anticipate the reintroduction of
the subaltern perspective one would be tempted to simply pass off the
preceding statements off as Eurocentic, one that extols the benefits
of the European Enlightenment to the backward races, but as has been
noted, Sri Aurobindo's writing always resists any simple
interpretation. In fact, he begins the paragraph previous to the one
above with the conjecture that "We may perhaps, if we
consider all the circumstances, come to this conclusion that mental
life, far from being a recent appearance in man, is the swift
repetition in him of a previous appearance from which the Energy in
the race had undergone one of her deplorable recoils...."
and a few paragraphs later he will observe that Indian tradition
asserts that this which is to be manifested is not a new term in
human experience, but has been developed before and has even governed
humanity in certain periods of its development...And if since then
Nature has sunk back from her achievement, the reason must always be
found in some unrealized harmony, some insufficiency of the
intellectual and material basis.
In the above passage things become more complex if we pay attention to the embolden words above because he makes the claim that it is the effort of nature in man, responsible for the progression of the particular mental acumen that results in western science being perfected in Europe. We will come back to the meaning of this phrase shortly.
But even when we understand the complexity of Sri Aurobindo's text in reading his words today, the concept he employs that refers to progressive evolution in context of a hierarchy of intelligence still pose difficulty in entirely freeing itself from conjuring up ideas of European superiority over the backward races and by invoking the memory of those racist ideologies that have also appropriated this narrative.
The idea of progress coupled to phenomena of evolution has been throughly interrogation since the end of the First and Second World Wars that between them nearly destroyed civilization, as Europe marched progressively forward. The progress of society or civilization in the post-war era has been found to be problematic especially in the context of cross-cultural studies. For instance, the “fact” that Columbus brought progress to the New World has been taught to American school children for generations but it is only within the past several decades, that the narratives of indigenous people, who were here in pre-Columbian times, have been given a voice to tell their story of the genocide perpetrated by Europeans that destroyed any chance they may have had for the progressive development of their own cultures. Progress has been demonstrated to be a value judgment that when the referent is culture always couches the cultural values and aspirations of those making the reference.
The progress of science and industry spoken of in the early 20th century tragically gave us the weapons of mass destruction that threatened to put an end to human evolution once and for all. Progress rather than signaling the triumph of European civilization at the start of the 20th century has been exposed to be simply an ideology to justify colonial expansion and subjugation of indigenous populations.
From its European context the quote from Sri Aurobindo on the Central African reflects this image of progress. In this context progress can be seen as a social ideology that corresponds to other hijacked evolutionary ideologies reflected in the German Idealism of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, and Herbert Spencer's “progressive evolution”. All the above ideas at one time or another have been utilized by those with couched power agendas for their use value in aligning different races and cultures along a scale of graduated being in which the European was seen to be the most highly evolved. A close reading of Sri Aurobindo however, will show that he had no such agenda. This fact should be understood properly before moving on to consider Sri Aurobindo's view of human progress.
Although in many ways Sri Aurobindo was certainly a visionary in his view of history he did not claim to be a prophet. The impossible burden of proof placed on prophecy is not lost on him. Even the future of poetry it seems can not be anticipated twenty five years years hence:
“ The gods of life and still more the gods of mind are so incalculably self-creative that even when we can distinguish the main lines of which the working runs or has so far run, we are still unable to foresee with any certainty what turn they will take or of what new thing they are the labor. It is therefore impossible to predict what the future poetry will actually be like. We can see where we stand today but we cannot see where we shall stand a quarter century hence” (Sri Aurobindo FP p.1972)
If this be the case with the life gods of poetry how much more is this so with the gods governing human history. Indeed how could one expect him to anticipate the developments in subsequent years when he wrote this optimistic assessment of the future in his 1909 essay Process and Evolution:
"It is not likely that the immediate future of the democratic tendency will satisfy the utmost dreams of the lover of liberty who seeks an anarchist freedom, or of the lover of equality who tries to establish a socialistic dead level, or of the lover of fraternity who dreams of a world-embracing communism. But some harmonization of this great ideal is undoubtedly the immediate future of the human race. Once the old forces of despotism, inequality and unbridled competition, after they have been once more overthrown, a process of gradual samyama will be performed by which what has remained of them will be regarded as the disappearing vestiges of a dead reality and without any further violent coercion be transformed slowly and steadily out of existence.”
Of course what followed were the two great wars that almost destroyed civilizations and the partition of his beloved India. It seems like a harmonization in the immediate future was not to be in the cards dealt by history. The old forces of despotism, inequality, and unbridled competition have proven too entrenched in human nature to be easily discarded. But of course he realized this too and as such his ideas on human progress appear to have shifted over time.
Sri Aurobindo did not ever naively conceive of progress in human terms without acknowledging the reversals of history and the practice of power for domination. In his essay Processes of Evolution he states (1909):
“But the forces of the old world, the forces of despotism, the forces of traditional privilege and selfish exploitation, the forces of unfraternal strife and passionate self-regarding competition are always struggling to reseat themselves on the thrones of the earth. A determined movement of reaction is evident in many parts of the world and nowhere perhaps more than in England which was once one of the self-styled champions of progress and liberty. The attempt to go back to the old spirit is one of those necessary returns without which it cannot be so utterly exhausted as to be blotted out from the evolution. It rises only to be defeated and crushed again. On the other hand the force of the democratic tendency is not a force which is spent but one which has not yet arrived, not a force which has had the greater part of its enjoyment but one which is still vigorous, unsatisfied and eager for fulfillment. “
Sri Aurobindo also understood that danger of concepts which attempt to liberate one from history only to end in totalitarian ideologies, quipping here:
“Every attempt to coerce it in the past reacted eventually on the coercing force and brought back the democratic spirit fierce, hungry and unsatisfied, joining to its fair motto of "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity" the terrible addition "or Death".
Nevertheless in 1909 his assessment of human progress is optimistic, he write: “ Whether we take the modern scientific or the ancient Hindu standpoint the progress of humanity is a fact.” But by 1949 however, after two world two world wars and partition, his views on human unity (harmonization) have taken on a distinctly anti-humanist flair. Perhaps in having witnessed the cataclysms of history he recognizes that it may only be through the further devastation of a Third World War that Nature will be able to propel humanity toward his ideal of human unity:
But the two wars that have come and gone have not prevented the formation of the first and second considerable efforts towards the beginning of an attempt at union and the practical formation of a concrete body, an organized instrument with that object: rather they have caused and hastened this new creation. The League of Nations came into being as a direct consequence of the first war, the U.N.O. similarly as a consequence of the second world-wide conflict. If the third war which is regarded by many if not by most as inevitable does come, it is likely to precipitate as inevitably a further step and perhaps the final outcome of this great world-endeavor Nature uses such means, apparently opposed and dangerous to her intended purpose, to bring about the fruition of that purpose. “
Whereas in 1909 Sri Aurobindo viewed the harmonization of the human race in terms of human progress and seemed to imply simply that the overturning of a few despotic regimes, the universal declaration of human rights, and the reform of hyper-capitalism, (all of which are still would be worthy goals today) would be enough to accomplish the task, by 1949 the advance of human unity follows rather, on the jagannath of Rudra, god of destruction. In the above passage Sri Aurobindo seems to say that human unity will be achieved in spite of and not, because of human intention. If human unity is to be achieved it will be by the will of Nature by the process “nature's yoga”. Before exploring “nature's yoga” further however, it would be best first to assess human progress in terms of the toll it has taken already on nature itself.
In his book a Short History of Progress anthropologist Ronald Wright describes how civilizations collapse due to what he calls “progress traps”. In his book Wright details how four civilizations, Easter Island, Sumer, the Maya and Rome self-destructed from a combination of lack of foresight and poor choices that eventually would lead to overpopulation and irreparable environmental damage. From his reading of the "flight recorders in the wreckage of crashed civilizations" (Wright 2004 p. 129) he follows the persistent concern that "each time history repeats itself, the price goes up". He finds this history instructive for our global civilization believing that we have much to learn to make our experiment with civilizations sustainable today especially in light of global climate change.
In analyzing these four instances, Wright notes that Easter Island and Sumer failed due to depletion of natural resources: "their ecologies were unable to regenerate". Whereas the Maya and Rome failed in their heartlands, "where ecological demand was highest," but left remnant populations that survived.
It is only by virtue of natural regeneration and human migration (Wright 2004 p. 102) that the overall experiment of civilization done so well.
“Wright labels cultural beliefs and interests that act against sustainability — and hence civilizational survivability as a whole — the very worst kind of "ideological pathology"
“Wright argues that progress, as an ideology is merely a myth. Humans see their own progress and advancement in the rapid transition from an industrial economy to information based one, while the reality is that – the food technology of the late Stone Age is the only one we cannot live without. The crops of about a dozen ancient people feed the 6 billion people of the world today. Despite more than two centuries of scientific crop breeding, the so-called green revolution of the 60’s and the genetic engineering of the 90’s, not one new staple has been added to our repertoire of crops since prehistoric times. However, the invention of agriculture is itself “a runaway train”, as it led to the expansion of populations, but which, seldom solved the food problem because of two inevitable consequences: One, biological, the population grows until it hits the bounds of the food supply. Two, social: all civilizations become hierarchical; the upward concentration of wealth ensures that there can never be enough to go around – another progress trap. “
Wright observes that since the Chinese invented gunpowder, there has been great progress in the making of “bangs”: from the firecracker to the cannon, to the petard to the high explosive shell. Just when high explosives were reaching a state of perfection, “progress” found the infinitely bigger “bang” in the atom. He muses, when the “bang” we make can blow up our world, we have made rather too much progress. (Mistry 2005) http://www.strategicforesight.com/bookreview_shorthistory.htm)
For Sri Aurobindo the question of human progress is, as almost everything he wrote about, complex. While he believes in 1909 that human progress is the agent of change and writes: “ Whether we take the modern scientific or the ancient Hindu standpoint the progress of humanity is a fact.”(Aurobindo 1909) by the early 1940s his view seems to have notably altered and he writes:
“the idea of human progress itself is very probably an illusion, for there is no sign that man, once emerged from the animal stage, has radically progressed during his race-history; at most he has advanced in knowledge of the physical world, in Science, in the handling of his surroundings, in his purely external and utilitarian use of the secret laws of Nature. But otherwise he is what he always was in the early beginnings of civilization: he continues to manifest the same capacities, the same qualities and defects, the same efforts, blunders, achievements, frustrations. If progress there has been, it is in a circle, at most perhaps in a widening circle. Man today is not wiser than the ancient seers and sages and thinkers, not more spiritual than the great seekers of old, the first mighty mystics, not superior in arts and crafts to the ancient artists and craftsmen; the old races that have disappeared showed as potent an intrinsic originality, invention, capacity of dealing with life and, if modern man in this respect has gone a little farther, not by any essential progress but in degree, scope, abundance, it is because he has inherited the achievements of his forerunners. Nothing warrants the idea that he will ever hew his way out of the half-knowledge half-ignorance which is the stamp of his land, or, even if he develops a higher knowledge, that he can break out of the utmost boundary of the mental circle.” (Aurobindo 1949 p832)
No longer optimistic about the inevitable triumph of human progress, the evolutionary transcendence of the human race he suggests will be facilitated only by a few special individuals.
“if a superior creation is intended, then, certainly, it is not out of man that the new grade, type or pattern can develop; for in that case there would be some race or kind or make of human beings that has already the material of the superman in it, just as the peculiar animal being that developed into humanity had the essential elements of human nature already potential or present in it: there is no such race, kind or type, at most there are only spiritualised mental beings who are seeking to escape out of the terrestrial creation. If by any occult law of Nature such a human development of the supramental being is intended, it could only be by a few in humanity detaching themselves from the race so as to become a first foundation for this new pattern of being. There is no reason to suppose that the whole race could develop this perfection; it cannot be a possibility generalized in the human creature.” “(831/832)
In the above passage what is notable is the use of the word “if”, as in “if a supramental creation is intended”. One finds in his text that even when his statements suggest an inevitability that “if “ is implicitly never far away. If his mature conclusions regarding human progress are no longer optimistic he does not discount some forms of human progress, if not in developing new skills and traits then marked by an increase in subtly, complexity, and variety of development:
“It cannot truly be said that there has been no such thing as human progress since man's appearance or even in his recent ascertainable history; for however great the ancients, however supreme some of their achievements and creations, however impressive their powers of spirituality, of intellect or of character, there has been in later developments an increasing subtlety, complexity, manifold development of knowledge and possibility in man's achievements, in his politics, society, life, science, metaphysics, knowledge of all kinds, art, literature; even in his spiritual endeavor, less surprisingly lofty and less massive in power of spirituality than that of the ancients, there has been this increasing subtlety, plasticity, sounding of depths, extension of seeking.” (841)
Although he even issues a caveat here, prefixing the above statement with the following:
“it may be conceded that what man has up till now principally done is to act within the circle of his nature, on a spiral of nature-movement, sometimes descending, sometimes ascending, -- there has been no straight line of progress, no indisputable, fundamental or radical exceeding of his past nature: “
Therefore, Sri Aurobindo concludes that the mere refining of skills by the Modern has done nothing to facilitate the transformation of humanity that is the aim of his yoga to accomplish:
“his progress has not indeed carried the race beyond itself, into a self-exceeding, a transformation of the mental being. But that was not to be expected; for the action of evolutionary Nature in a type of being and consciousness is first to develop the type to its utmost capacity by just such a subtilisation and increasing complexity till it is ready for her bursting of the shell, the ripened decisive emergence, reversal, turning over of consciousness on itself that constitutes a new stage in the evolution”(841)
When Sri Aurobindo says that human progress is probably an illusion he is stating that there is no unending linear human progress as was the type envisioned in the European Enlightenment. In the European post-Enlightenment view of progress, humanity follows a steady path of evolutionary advance. In contrast Sri Aurobindo views human progress as defined by advances and then by sudden reversals in fortune that result in it following a curved rather than a straight lines. In this respect Sri Aurobindo's view of human progress is fairly consistent with the views of Ronald Wright who states that human progress, as an ideology is merely a myth. The path of progress is beset by a myriad of traps and snares that ultimately lead human kind to circle back on itself.
But if there is nothing in collective human progress that is being perfected to prepare for an inevitable descent of what Sri Aurobindo calls the “supramental manifestation” then what is it that is preparing for the appearance of the superman? A careful reading of Sri Aurobindo reveals that the deliverance of the new race is not dependent on human progress but by the force he has already described in the Synthesis of Yoga “the effort of nature in man” or “nature's yoga”.
But what does this exactly mean that the evolution of human consciousness is not the result of human progress but is a product of nature? In the following passage Debashish Banerji elaborates:
“Mankind has not evolved as a
species, there is no such thing as "human progress."
In other words, Homo sapeins is a vehicle, the conduit in the dialectic between spirit and matter, that is under pressure from the Supermind (shakti) to create ever more complex orders of being. Human nature (prakriti) itself need not change, just facilitate the initial conditions in a few special individuals for the novel emergence of the superman. In other words, for what Sri Aurobindo calls the supramental manifestation to occur "nature's yoga" requires only its facilitation by a few special individuals as it perfects itself in them through the evolution of their psychic being (soul). The psychic being then facilitates the preparation in these individuals for the grace and descent of Supermind.
In contrast to Teilhard De Chardin's view of evolution in which it is the collectivization of human consciousness advancing toward a noosphere that facilitates the omega point of species, Sri Aurobindo invest his hope in the individual as the unit of evolutionary selection. In so doing the Aurobindian superman on closer inspection shares many similar traits with the Nietzschean overman. A brief comparison between the way the two construct their concept of the super/overman would be useful here.
Nietzsche's view of human evolution contrast with Sri Aurobindo in that he sees evolution as leading not to the creation of the overman but rather, to the triumph of the herd. He views natural selection as breding inferior forms of life; if humanity is evolving he believes that it is evolving toward a common mediocrity. The creative force facilitating the creation of the overman in Nietzsche's view is not collective human progress but rather, an expression of nature's life force manifesting in individual self-affirmation that he calls “will to power”. The meanings Nietzsche ascribes to this will are complex and stated a bit differently in his various texts, what follows is a brief synopsis of its fourfold variation:
“It is a dynamic vision of life that values life in its aspect of Becoming. It is the kind of home wherein the Overman can live. Here the world of Becoming gets interpreted as a dynamic unfolding of preservation and enhancement conditions which elicit the approval of the Overman. This, then, is the unity within the four major demarcations of the Will in Nietzsche's thought. (1) The Primal Will which equals Becoming. (2) The Will in the theory of Will to Power which equals the dynamic unfolding of quantities of power under the conditions of preservation and enhancement. (3) The Will in the notion of Will to Power which equals the power of positing values i.e., the creating of horizons through form-creating interpretations. And (4) the Will of the child which equals the ability to affirm life as it is, i.e., to see the self as ground for valuation. But this is to say that the self sees itself as Will to Power and in seeing itself as Will to Power it sees itself as an interpreting activity. The Will of the child as a self-propelling wheel will ultimately will its own most interpretation, for in that interpretation it wills itself. In this sense the theory is an interpretation of Becoming which requires a yes-saying.” (Cavalier) http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/cavalier/80254/Nietzsche/W_P_5.html
Both Nietzsche's overman and Sri Aurobindo's superman affirm life in the world, both also come into being through the aspirations of extraordinary individuals rather than the by the actions of the masses. Just as Nietzsche champions nature's underlying creative will as the vehicle of transformation that takes man to overman Sri Aurobindo affirm nature's underlying occult action that he calls “nature's yoga ” as that primal evolutionary force driving the transformation of man to superman.
Sri Aurobindo however, develops his ideas on the subject by tracing a genealogy that leads back to ancient India, and so contextualizes it within the tradition of Indian spirituality. By contrast Nietzsche's view of the overman can be traced back to ancient Greece and so he contextualizes the creation of a superior being within the European philosophical tradition. Among other things the move toward Indian spirituality results in Sri Aurobindo developing a concept that is not only of an immanent god in nature but also of a Godhead with a cosmic and transcendental poise. Although Nietzsche views the “will to power” as a metaphysical force underlying the primal forces of nature and claims the "world is the will to power -- and nothing besides" he would disdained the association of this will with a supernatural god. Moreover, Nietzsche views “will to power” purely in terms of its Becoming in the world whereas Sri Aurobindo views natures yoga not only in terms of Becoming but also in terms of Being.
But for these qualitative differences that result largely from their cross cultural encounter, Sri Aurobindo's view mirrors Nietzsche's in conceiving of a metaphysical will/force as driving creation of a new superior being and in suggesting that it is not collective human progress but the extraordinary individual who will facilitate the creation of the superman. Moreover, both Sri Aurobindo and Nietzsche agree that the morality of the superman (overman) will transcend conventional ideas of good and evil therefore, one should not be surprised in their rhetorical styles of affinity. For example, in the prologue to "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (1885) Nietzsche declares the following:
"I teach you the Superman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? - The superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the superman shall be the meaning of the earth! - Man is a rope, tied between beast and superman - a rope over an abyss - What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under...” -
The notion of humanity as a bridge between the animal and the Superman is in fact almost identical to Sri Aurobindo's view of man the transitional being. He says: “Man is a transitional being; he is not final. For in man and high beyond him ascend the radiant degrees that climb to a divine supermanhood. There lies our destiny and the liberating key to our aspiring but troubled and limited mundane existence”. In eschewing collective progress in favor of an occult force of nature operating in extrodinary individuals who act in a world according to standards that would defy conventional morality Sri Aurobindo's view like Nietzsche's is also categorized by an profoundly anti-humanist tone. This anti-humanist tone also characterizes his thoughts on the advance of human societies toward human unity, although this part of Sri Aurobindo's philosophy is more reminiscent of Georg Hegel than Friedrich Nietzsche.
As already mentioned, the premises that undergird what Sri Aurobindo calls the supramental manifestation are often qualified by “if” statements in his writing as in “if “ this manifestation is to occur it will not be due to human effort but rather by “the effort of nature in man”. Similarly, he believes that the advance toward human unity will also be driven by the occult action of nature's effort in man although he seems to view the success of this collective project as inevitable; at least that is
“if “ the human race survives! In other words, although human history can be viewed as a progressive advance toward unity it is not human progress per say that drives mankind toward unity but, it is “the effort of nature in man” that is responsible.
In conceiving of this effort of nature in man as an unfolding of Spirit within the dialectic processes of human history in which humanity progressively moves toward an idealized synthesis marked by a teleology that results in the triumph of the Spirit, Sri Aurobindo demonstrates a perspective on historical processes that can be called Hegelian. In Hegel's view of history he focuses on a dialectic interchange between the binary forces he calls thesis and antithesis that progressively move humanity toward a synthesis and historical omega point. Here is a synopsis of how Hegel sizes up human history:
“This model begins with an existing element, or thesis, with contradictions inherent to its structure. These contradictions unwittingly create the thesis' direct opposite, or antithesis, bringing about a period of conflict between the two. The new element, or synthesis, that emerges from this conflict then discovers its own internal contradictions, and starts the process anew. The reason the Hegelian dialectic is termed "progressive" is because each new thesis represents an advance over the previous thesis, continually until an endpoint (or final goal) is reached. To specifically apply this model Hegel's view of world history, it represents the manner in which the Spirit develops gradually into its purest form, ultimately recognizing its own essential freedom. To Hegel, "world history is thus the unfolding of Spirit in time, as nature is the unfolding of the Idea in space." The dialectical process thus virtually defines the meaning of history for Hegel.” http://www.historicalinsights.com/dave/hegel.html
Although the comparisons that are stated above between Sri Aurobindo and Hegel are striking and it is tempting simply to go no farther than in accepting their similarities of historical vision, a closer examination of their work reveals important differences as well. For example, Hegel derives his ideas of from the European Enlightenment and his conception of history therefore remains a rational one, whereas Sri Aurobindo expression of Real-Idea as that force evolving from ignorance to gnosis is defined by its supra-rational perspective. In the following passage Debashish Banerji elaborates on the constrating perspectives between Sri Aurobindo and Hegel:
“One may say Sri Aurobindo seems to rub shoulders with Hegel and other philosophers of evolution who see Consciousness involved in earth and evolving through history. But this resemblance again is partial. Whereas the Hegelian Idea works out its inexorable syntheses using nature and humanity deterministically as instruments, with no occult process of the aspiration of Ignorance from below and the response of a self-existent Knowledge above or of the resistance of a conscious denial in the Ignorance, what one may call Falsehood, rendering the emergence of consciousness precarious, Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of evolution uncovers the arduous agency of becoming in the Ignorance and particularly in the human individual. Moreover, the Hegelian Idea remains rational, a post-Enlightenment notion of consciousness reaching its full expression and its identity of being in collective human “understanding” and therein reaching the “end of history; while for Sri Aurobindo, the Idea involved in the processes of history is what he terms the “Real-Idea” of Supermind, a faculty and operation of consciousness from which Mind is derived and whose properties of infinite freedom and wholeness mind aspires to but can never experientially comprehend, except through its self-transcendence.” (Banerji 2008) http://www.sciy.org/blog/_archives/2008/8/8/3830554.html
is interesting to assess Sri Aurobindo's culminating vision of
history's progressive march toward Human Unity with these comparisons
and contrasts to Hegel in mind. In an earlier passage taken
from the text which we will now again reference, Sri Aurobindo has
conceded the anti-humanist point that it may even take the specter of
a final horrible war to achieve the inevitable ends of Human Unity.
In other words, human unity might be gained in spite of, and not
because of any humanist effort. In this concluding paragraph in his
postscript to the Ideal of Human Unity (1949), he sums up his final
word on the matter::
The final lines of this passage are staggering in their implications for human agency because even when Human Unity is achieved, the fate of mankind will ultimately still reside with the gods and whatever use they may have for humanity.
And perhaps these Gods may not look so benevolently on humanity if a fundamental shift in human consciousness does not follow the achievement of nature's drive toward world union. In the final chapter of the Life Divine Sri Aurobindo view on the future of the human race becomes at times most pessimistic when he considers what can happen if the evolutionary pressures of mind working upon life in humanity do not prove able to support it due to a lack of “inner” human progress:
In short, Sri Aurobindo conceives his ideal of human unity driven by the effort of nature in man as inevitable, but only if the human race survives to witness it!
I would like to conclude this section by offering up one possibility as to why Sri Aurobindo's perspective on human progress seems to have shifted during the course of his lifetime by referencing his original text on Yoga and Human Evolution from 1909, in which he writes:
“The progress of mankind has been placed by many predominately in the development of the human intellect, and intellectual development is no doubt essential to self-conquest. The animal and the savage are bound by the body because the ideas of the animal or the ideas of the savage are mostly limited to those sensations and associations which are connected with the body. The development of intellect enables a man to find the deeper self within and partially replace what our philosophy calls the dehatmaka-buddhi, the sum of ideas and sensations which make us think of the body as ourself, by another set of ideas which reach beyond the body, and, existing for their own delight and substituting intellectual and moral satisfaction as the chief objects of life, master, if they cannot entirely silence, the clamor of the lower sensual desires......
But it is not only through the intellect that man rises. If the clarified intellect is not supported by purified emotions, the intellect tends to be dominated once more by the body and to put itself at its service and the lordship of the body over the whole man becomes more dangerous than in the natural state because the innocence of the natural state is lost. The power of knowledge is placed at the disposal of the senses, sattva serves tamas, the god in us becomes the slave of the brute. The disservice which scientific Materialism is unintentionally doing the world is to encourage a return to this condition; the suddenly awakened masses of men, unaccustomed to deal intellectually with ideas, able to grasp the broad attractive innovations of free thought but unable to appreciate its delicate reservations, verge towards that reeling back into the beast, that relapse into barbarism which was the condition of the Roman Empire at a high stage of material civilization and intellectual culture and which a distinguished British statesman declared the other day to be the condition to which all Europe approached. The development of the emotions is therefore the first condition of a sound human evolution. Unless the feelings tend away from the body and the love of others takes increasingly the place of the brute love of self, there can be no progress upward....”
In reading the above passage it is clear that Sri Aurobindo insisted that the transformation of intellectual capabilities must be supported by the purification of the emotions that provides the platform for human progress.
Although his perspective on human progress may simply have changed because he further refined his ideas about it, in separating it out from “the effort of nature in man,” one can also imagine another contributing factor for his shift in perspective as well.
Over the course of his lifetime having witnessing the horrors of two world wars, the degradations of colonialism and the myriad of other travesties that took place during the period in which he lived, he certainly could have come to the conclusion that the advance of mankind's intellectual capabilities, of science, technology, and industrialism only exacerbated human cruelty and magnified mankind's propensity for evil. It was the hardening of the heart rather than the purification of emotions that supported the intellectual advance of the 20th century. Could this decoupling of mental from vital, of intellectual from emotional evolution led him to eschew the idea of human progress as he envisioned it in 1909?
If this suggestion can be
admitted then Sri Aurobindo would have come to the same conclusion as
most intellectuals of that era who early in the 20th
century believed in unending human progress, but by mid-century came
to despair at drawing any comparisons between human harmony with
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