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Sri Aurobindo

Introduction

Sri Aurobindo (born Aurobindo Ghose; 15 August 1872 – 5 December 1950) was an Indian philosopher, yogi, guru, poet, and nationalist. He joined the Indian movement for independence from British rule, for a while was one of its influential leaders and then became a spiritual reformer, introducing his visions on human progress and spiritual evolution. He took up various civil service works under the maharaja of the princely state of Baroda and became increasingly involved in nationalist politics and the nascent revolutionary movement in Bengal. He was arrested in the aftermath of a number of bomb outrages linked to his organisation bit later released when no evidence could be provided, following the murder of a prosecution witness, Narendranath Goswami during the trial. During his stay in the jail, he had mystical and spiritual experiences, after which he moved to Pondicherry, leaving politics for spiritual work.

During his stay in Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo developed a method of spiritual practice he called Integral Yoga. The central theme of his vision was the evolution of human life into a life divine. He believed in a spiritual realisation that not only liberated man but transformed his nature, enabling a divine life on earth. In 1926, with the help of his spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfassa (referred to as "The Mother"), he founded the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

His main literary works are

  • The Life Divine, which deals with theoretical aspects of Integral Yoga;
  • Synthesis of Yoga, which deals with practical guidance to Integral Yoga;
  • Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol, an epic poem.
Sri Aurobindo examines various standards of morality, presents a standard at once integrating and transcending others, assesses the value of moral progress in social development, shows its limitations and finally indicates how religion and Yoga are an advance upon the ethical method.

The Basic Fallacy:

The basic fallacy underlying the different theories of ethics is the same as it is in the theories of psychology, metaphysics and religion all these are vitiated by the defect of abstraction. Theories of ethics, psychology and metaphysics have been generally built upon the truths of some one aspect of man’s being, on the truth of the individual, in isolation from society and vice versa, and on similar other abstractions. But as Sri Aurobindo points out, “The ethical being escapes from all these formulas; it is a law to itself and finds its principle in its own eternal nature which is not in its essential character a growth of evolving mind, even though it may seem to be that in its earthly history, but a light from the ideal, a reflection in man of the Divine.” Morality, religion, science, metaphysics, all should seek the development of the whole man, not isolated from but in and through society. This is the aim of all the efforts of man.

Need of a Dynamic Outlook:

Apart from this basic fallacy of abstraction, ethics has been generally conceived as the confirmation of some fixed moral principles. Man must subordinate himself to the moral law. “The moral law is a categorical imperative”, said Kant This imposition of the moral law upon man does not take account of the fact that man is a dynamic being whose laws of practical life should also change according to his growth.’

Law is for man’s development. Morality is a mere means to that end. As Sri Aurobindo points out, “Rising from its intraregional beginnings through its intermediate dependence on the reason to a supranational consummation, the ethical is like the aesthetic and the religious being of man a seeking after the Eternal.’ This view seeks to cut at the very root of all types of dualism and abstractions. In it, there is no gulf between selfishness and altruism, theoretical and practical, moral and non-moral, this world and the other world. It takes account of the whole man, as a progressing, developing being, seeking the fulfillment of his tendencies.

The Ultimate End:

Thus the ultimate end, according to the moral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, is God-Realization. This is the criterion of good and right “All takes new values not from itself but from die consciousness that uses it; for there is only one thing essential, needful, indispensable, to grow conscious of the Divine Reality and live it and live it always.’
This is a principle on which Indian sages have generally agreed. It is the real inner meaning of the ethics of self-realization as Sri Aurobindo points out, “The God is also, subjectively, the seeking for our highest, truest, fullest, and largest self.’ These concepts of good and evil hi Sri Aurobindo’s ethics are dynamic since their aim is progressive and evolving in time. Hence no rigid rules of conduct can be framed. The temporality of the forms of moral conduct is quite compatible with the eternity of moral ideals.

Ethics: A means to God Realization:

Kant preached “Duty for the sake of Duty.” Sri Aurobindo like the author of Gita, accepts Duty for the sake of God. He interprets the central teaching of the Gita in a way different from that of Samkara, Ramanuja and Tilak, etc. To him, “The Gita does not teach the disinterested performance of duties but the following of the divine life, the abandonment of all Dharmas, sarvadharman, to take refuge in the Supreme alone, and the divine activity of a Buddha, a Rama Krishna, a Vivekananda is perfectly in consonance with this teaching.

Thus, like the Gita, Sri Aurobindo strongly emphasizes the value of Karma in life. There he agrees with Tilak, his closest associate in political activities. But he does not admit Kanna as an end in itself. The ideal man of Sri Aurobindo’s moral philosophy works neither for himself nor for society, nor event for Duty itself but for God, as an instrument hi His hand. It is a state higher than the ideal in Kantian ethics. ‘Duty for Duty’ is the highest principle and categorical imperative, so long as ethical being has not advanced from his mental level. But as the man transcends mental level, his performance of works becomes an outgrowing from the soul.

Transvaluation of Values:

Thus, in line with Nietzsche, Sri Aurobindo emphasizes the transvaluation of values. The superman, the Divine, not the demon of Nietzsche, transcends customary morality, according to the law of his nature. In the spiritual progress of man, as Sri Aurobindo points out, “there could begin a heightening of our force of conscious being so as to create a new principle of consciousness, a new range of activities, new values for all things, a widening of our consciousness and life, a taking up and transformation of the lower grades of our existence, in brief, the whole evolutionary process by which the Spirit in Nature creates a higher type of being.”

Self-Sacrifice:

This transvaluation of values, this realization of the real self, requires self-sacrifice as its necessary condition. So long as man identifies himself with the physical and vital needs, impulses and desires, he lives as an animal. Moral progress requires growth from this lower stage. This growth means a constant widening and deepening of the concept of self. This requires constant self sacrifice, which according to Sri Aurobindo, “is the flowering of mankind’s ethical growth, the evidence of our gradual rise from the self-regarding animal to the selfless divinity. This evolution, like all integral growth, is a gradual process. The notion of the self is gradually widened and deepened in spiritual growth.
  • First the egoistic individual self widens to include the welfare of the family as one’s own welfare.
  • In the second stage, it is realized that the community has a larger claim on man than his family.
This communal self is again enlarged to include the self in nature. This nationalism has been held in great reverence in the present age.

Positive Ethics:

This self-sacrifice does not mean the negation of the lower selves. Sri Aurobindo’s ethics, like his philosophy, is positive. It negates nothing, but includes, integrates and fulfil all. And it is here that it has its superiority over other theories. The really important thing in moral growth is sincerity and perpetual progress. Given this, man can safely indulge in the enjoyments and thus weaken the passions, before they drop down like a ripe fruit this is the surest way of progress, since coercion and repression only lead to frustration and pathological symptoms. The real thing is the positive growth towards the realization of the divine self, for, as the man advances in this path, the impediments automatically disappear in due course.

The Criterion of Morality:

Thus, the realization of the Divine self is the criterion of the morality of action. “By wrong is meant what departs from the truth, from the higher consciousness and higher self, from the way of Divine.” Morality, according to Sri Aurobindo, does not depend on consequences, as among the Hedonists and Marxists. Nor does it depend on the motive or intention, as among the rationalists. Morality depends on the growth of consciousness, the extent to which man’s conduct is a true instrument of self-expression. Sri Aurobindo agrees with Pringle Pattisan as against Kant, when he says, “But the truly ethical being does not need a system of rewards and punishments to follow the path of good and shun the path of evil; virtue to his is its own reward, sin brings with it its own punishment in the suffering of a fall from his own law of nature: this is the true ethical standard.”

Postulates of Ethics:

God, according to Sri Aurobindo, is not a moral postulate. Here he differs from Kant who demonstrates God as a moral necessity. Sri Aurobindo, like the author of Bhagwad Gita, takes morality as a divine necessity. Morality, according to Sri Aurobindo, is transitional and not ultimate. Nor does it depend upon reward and punishments. “Hence there is no need to bring in a God as a pay-master “Cosmic existence is not a vast administrative system of universal justice with a cosmic Law of recompense and retribution as its machinery or a divine Legislator and Judge at its centre.”

Freedom of will:

Nor is rebirth a moral necessity. Thus, of the three postulates of ethics, as laid down by Kant, Sri Aurobindo only admits freedom of the will. He says, “It is doubtful whether belief in Fate or free-will makes much difference to a man’s action, but it certainly matters a great deal to his temperament and inner being; for it puts its stamp on the cast of his soul.” Thus, freedom of the will is the foundation of ethics.

This idea of freedom of the will, hi Sri Aurobindo’s ethics, is the same as it is in the ethics of the Gita. Freedom of the will is not indeterminism but self-determinism and ultimately God- determinism, as self is God. This idea bridges the gulf between man and Nature, between freedom of the will and fate. It steers clear of the old controversy of freedom versus determinism. This is the secret of all conduct, all delight in work. Man is the instrument; his social self, the actor but his device self is the real master of the work. To be that is the consummation of all moral conduct.

Ethics of self-realization:

Sri Aurobindo presents an ethics of self realization. “To discover the spiritual being in him is the main business of the spiritual man and to help others towards the same evolution is his real service to the race.” This standard as self-realization synthesizes egoism with altruism, reason with sensibility and individual with society and even transcends this synthesis. Perfectionism or Eudemonism is definitely an advance upon other theories.

When it regards self-realization as the end and includes social and individual, rational and sensible, egoistic and altruistic aspects in the total self, but while taking die rational self to be the highest, it falls short of the complete ideal. The spiritual self as Sri Aurobindo points out, is not only individual and social but above all transcendental. This transcontinental aspect of self has been missed by almost all the moralists. This self is more than Truth, Beauty and goodness since it is Consciousness, Existence and Bliss in it neither social nor individual, neither rational nor infra-rational is subordinated to each other but integrated, transformed and spiritualized. Reason is not an end hi itself. With infra-rational, it also seeks its destiny.

Transcendence of ethics:

Ethics transcends into spirituality. Ethics by its very nature goes beyond itself “It is a moral duty not to be moral,” says Bradley, and this is “the duty to be religious.” This phrase, while wrongly calling the religious urge “the duty”, righty points out to man’s aspiration for something higher than ethics. Life seeks its absolutes. Morality is essentially a matter of mental level. Kant righdy pointed out die persistent element of conflict in moral life. “Virtue, in fact, lives in the life of its antagonist this is die paradox of morality.

To solve this paradox, one should transcend the moral level itself. It is then alone that the moral conflict is reconciled together with all other conflicts. Both Sri Aurobindo and Gandhi visualized self-realization of God realization as the ultimate end. Gandhi stopped at the moral level. Sri Aurobindo goes beyond, through religious and spiritual levels, to envisage a perpetual progress in sacramental gnosis. Thus morality, for him, is a passing phase. According to Aurbindo morality belongs to the level of ignorance. But its real foundation is the same as that of religion and spirituality. It is knife’s urge to grow, to be universal, to transcend his individuality which leads him towards morality, though only to transcend to a higher level. “Our inner nature is the progressive expression of the eternal spirit and too complex a power to be tied down by a single dominant mental or moral principle.

Indispensability of Ethics:

But transcendence, by no means, disproves the indispensability of ethics. In the evolution of man, every stage has its importance in the whole. The higher does not negate the tower but integrates it while transcending. “But, nonetheless, there is also this other middle truth of consciousness which awakens us to the values of stood and evil and the appreciation of their necessity and importance; this awakening, whatever may be the sanction or validity of its particular judgments, is one of the indispensable steps in the process of evolutionary

The progress of the Ethical being:

Morality is a middle stage between Nature and Super nature. Both Nature and Super nature are non-moral. Morality transcends Nature; Super nature transcends morality. Like other impulses and activities, ethical impulse and activity also arises from the intraregional and the sub-conceit. Morality is at first instinctive and accepted without questioning. Man obeys the moral law as the social law or the law of Nature. But gradually man’s reason asserts its supremacy to correct the crude ethical instinct, to separate and purify the ideas, to harmonize the clash or moral ideals and finally to arrange a system of ethical” action.

This is a necessary stage hi our advance but ultimately man cannot remain satisfied with ethical ideas and ethical will, for the ethical being seeks a persistent growth in the Absolute. It seeks and inner growth and not the moral conduct alone. The value of moral conduct is not in its outer result but hi its contribution to inner growth. Action, according to Sri Aurobindo, is always relative and justice, right, purity and selflessness of an action cannot be decided by outer consciousness. It is this which it seeks through purity, truth, right, sympathy and charity. This spiritual being, and not the Asura’ of Nietzsche, is the real Superman. Morality consummates in divine nature, when man spontaneously and naturally becomes divine. His will, at this stage, is neither infra-rational nor rational but divine. This is the process of the progress of ethical being.

The Spiral of Moral Evolution:

This analysis of the evolutionary progression of the ethical being in the moral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, finds an explanation for all the other theories of ethics. In the history of ethics, as in the history of any other field of man’s activity, one finds the same progression from infra-rational through rational to suprarational stage. These stages are psychological rather than chronological and in the social philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, it is the former which have always been held as the real meaning of the latter. Man’s progress to the mental is through the physical and the vital.

Ends and Means:

The relation of ends and means has been a matter of keen controversy in ethics. According to Karl Marx, the end justifies the means. According to Gandhi, the means justify the end. Here, Sri Aurobindo favours the latter view. He says “Our means must be as great as our ends and the strength to discover and use the means so as to attain the aid can only be found by seeking the eternal source of strength in ourselves.” Thus, according to Sri Aurobindo, if the ends are great, the means should also be great, In that he agrees with Gandhi. But while Gandhi confined his outlook to moral level alone, Sri Aurobindo has a wider, deeper and dynamic outlook.

His moral principles do not contradict the psychological principles, as in Gandhi’s ethics. His political morality is more realistic and practical than that of Gandhi. Ethics, if it has really to serve any purpose in the evolution of man, individual as well as collective, should be based on scientific facts. It is the dualism between facts and values which has made the facts non-moral and values impotent. Ideal certainly cannot be derived from the actual but ultimately both of them cannot be contradictory, as the essence of both is the same. Sri Aurobindo always lays his stand on the firm foundation of spirit, the metaphysical truth of Reality. And this is the secret of the Real-idealism of his moral philosophy.

Political Morality:

This Real-idealism is the foundation of Sri Aurobindo’s political morality. Like Gandhi, he harmonized ethics and politics. Machiavelli and his followers held that politics has no connection with ethics. Hobbes, Bain and others subordinated ethics to politics. Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Hegel and Gandhi subordinated politics to ethics. Sri Aurobido subordinated both politics and ethics to spiritual metaphysics which regulates the principles of both as also of the whole web of man’s activities.

The Doctrine of Passive Resistance:

According to Sri Aurobindo, “It is the nature of the pressure which determines the nature of resistance.’ Thus in the emergency of the national freedom, in the question of life and death of the nation, revolt against the Government is quite justified. Sri Aurobindo has not distinguished between passive resistance and satyagraha, as Gandhi has done. His passive resistance is almost the sad as Satyagraha in the Gandhian technique. According to Sri Aurobindo the method of peaceful resistance “while less bold and less aggressive than other methods, calls for perhaps as much heroism of a kind and certainly more universal endurance and suffering.’

Non-Violence as a Means:

With Gandhi Sri Aurobindo admits the importance of the methodof non-violence in politics and individual life. But while for Gandhi non-violence was not mere means but an end-in-itself, for Sri Aurobindo non-violence was only a means which may be dropped wherever it is found unsuitable. His stand here is just the same as that of the Gita. He says “Aggression is unjust, only when unprovoked, violence, unrighteous when used wantonly or for unrighteous ends. It is a barren philosophy which applies a mechanical rule to all actions, or takes a word and tries to fit all human life into it.”There are no panaceas in politics and ethics. However high may be the principles, whether Ahimsa, or Panch-Shila, they should be applied with realistic caution at least so long as mass and psychology remains what it is.

The doctrine of non-violence and Satyagraha, as advocated by Gandhi, was based on his own personal experience. Gandhi had the genius to apply his own personal experiences to the masses. Unless human psychology is changed, the moral ideals as advanced by Gandhi and Christ cannot be practised. Sri Aurobindo says, “Politics is concerned with masses of mankind and not with individuals. To ask masses of making to act as saints, to rise to the heights of divine love and practice it in relation to their adversaries or oppressors is to ignore human nature. It is to set a premium on injustice and violence by paralyzing the hand of the deliverer when raised to strike.

Love in Politics:

Sri Aurobindo does not look to violence and war as a moralist but as a psychologist and philosopher of history. His insight is deeper than that of those confined to moral or social phenomena. His ethics is based on an integral Weltanschauung an integral experience of the spiral evolutionary process of Reality. Gandhi applied the individual virtue of love in the relation between Nations. Sri Aurobindo corrects this idealistic psychology and says, “Between nation and nation there is justice, partiality, chivarly, duty but not love. All love is either individual or for the self in the race or for the self in mankind. It may exist between individuals of different races, but the love of one race for another is a thing foreign to Nature.

Gospel of Nationalism:

Nationalism is the greatest God in Sri Aurobindo’s political philosophy though his nationalism extends to internationalism and ultimately to divinity. The gospel of Nationalism does not mean that Sri Aurobindo favours the politics of power, the present day diplomacy, which uses individuals and countries as mere tools to serve the purpose of a particular nation and sometimes of a particular political party. His political philosophy is realistic. But his realism is always based on an integral and spiritual idealism, his experience of God in him and in others.

Morality of Swadeshi:

Long before Gandhi appeared on the Indian political scene, Sri Aurobindo led the national movement and advocated Swadeshi. Swadeshi, he pleaded is fully justified politically and morally. According to him politics, law and government is an interference with personal liberty necessary in the larger interest of the collectivity. Society has a right to interfere in the personal liberty of men when it tends to injure the interests of the race. Thus, the imposition of the law of the Swadeshi on the individuals is fully justified. Boycott is the negative aspect of the rule of which the Swadeshi is the positive aspect Just as a nation has a right to complete its members to use the Swadeshi, so also it can boycott the foreign goods.