A New Humanity
Sri Aurobindo: Proposing an Integral Evolution
by Marcus Braybrooke
During times of violence and war, it can seem like humanity is on a downward slide. And yet there are those who look past the present state and envision something greater emerging. Such is the case with Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950). In 1940, in the midst of the Second World War and the struggle for Indian independence, Aurobindo published Life Divine with its optimistic vision of a new humanity beyond the present stage of evolution.
At first he hoped to achieve change by political activism. Soon after his return from England, where he was educated, he took part in the campaign against the partition of Bengal. He joined a group known as Extremists and in 1908 was imprisoned by the British on suspicion of planning an armed revolt.
It was in prison that he had the spiritual experience that shaped the rest of his life. While studying the Bhagavad Gita, he heard a Divine voice saying, “Something has been shown to you in this year of seclusion, something about which you had your doubts and it is the truth of the Hindu religion. It is this religion that I am raising up before the world, it is this that I have perfected … When you go forth, speak to your nation that it is for the Sanātana Dharma (‘Holy Teaching’) that they arise … I am giving them freedom for the service of the world … It is for the Dharma that India exists.”
On his release from prison, Sri Aubobindo settled in Pondicherry, a French colony in South India, where he was safe from the British. Philosophy and Hindu teaching now absorbed his energies. From his studies he produced his most important work, the lengthy The Life Divine (1940). Much shorter, The Mother (1928) is a guide to the practice of Integral Yoga. His greatest literary achievement, Savitiri (1950), is a blank verse spiritual poem of about 24,000 lines that he labored on for more than 20 years.
The concept of evolution is central to Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy. “The sum and substance of all he says,” writes K. N. Gupta, “is that man is growing and has to grow in consciousness till he reaches the complete and perfect consciousness, not only in his individual, but in his collective, that is to say, social life. In fact the growth of consciousness is the supreme secret of life, the master key to earthly evolution.”
Sri Aurobindo held that there is both a physical evolution and a spiritual evolution, and therefore a double process. The Divine descends from pure existence to cosmic being through the creative medium of Supermind, and we ascend from matter towards the Divine being through a developing life, soul, and mind in the illuminating medium of Supermind. The knot of the two, the higher and lower hemispheres, is where mind and Supermind meet, separated by a veil. As the veil rends, the mind recovers its divine light in the all-comprehending Supermind.
This development is the destiny of humanity as a whole, but it must be realized individually. Sri Aurobindo wrote,
Not individuals only, but in time the race also in a general rule of being and living, if not in all its members, can have hope, if it develops a sufficient will, to rise beyond the imperfections of our present very undivine nature and to ascend at least to a superior humanity, to rise nearer, even if it cannot absolutely reach a divine manhood or supermanhood.
He envisages the emergence of a new humanity beyond the present stage of evolution. At first only a few will attain the profound level of spiritual knowledge necessary for this emergence, gnosis in different parts of the world. Gradually small communities, like the one he established at Auroville, will exercise a powerful influence on the rest of humanity so that it too may enter into the destiny that awaits it from eternity.
There are interesting parallels between the thinking of Sri Aurobindo and the French Catholic priest and palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin, whose most famous work is Le Milieu Divin (1927). R. C. Zaehner, a Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions at Oxford, wrote that:
In their separate traditions, they represent something totally new in mystical religion. Both not only accepted the theory of evolution but enthusiastically acclaimed it, indeed were almost obsessed by it… Both were deeply dissatisfied with organised religion and both were vitally concerned not only with individual salvation or ‘liberation’ but also with the collective salvation of humankind.
“For both,” Zaehner says, “the final harmony of matter and spirit will be achieved through the law of love.”
Sri Aurobindo’s Integral philosophy was intended to enable the practitioner to attain conscious identity with the Divine and the True Self and to transform his or her body, mind, and life to become a fit instrument for a divine life on earth. Sri Aurobindo recognised that music, art, and poetry, sinking ‘deep into the soul,’ could be a powerful aid to this change of consciousness.
The physical body, matter, is also important. When I visited the Aurobindo Ashram more than 50 years ago I was surprised to meet two healthy American women who had just finished a game of tennis. The ashram’s website makes clear that it is not a quiet place of retreat but a vibrant center of life in a modern urban setting. The dynamic character of the community reflects the life-affirming aim of Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga work.
My most vivid memory, however, is of the spiritual power that I felt when I entered the house where Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual partner Mirra Alfassa (commonly known as ‘The Mother’) lived and worked. That spiritual power has inspired creative thinkers throughout the world “to hope for the kingdom of heaven within us and the city of God upon earth.”