Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Concept of ‘Non-Dualism’ and ‘Supermind’ in the Writings of Adi Shankracharya and Sri Aurobindo

Anupam R. Nagar & Ketki N. Pandya

The world abounds in evil, and suffering seems to be the lot of every individual. Everybody desires to attain happiness and avoid misery, but the root question is how do we attain a perfect state of happiness and avoid misery? And in order to root out suffering and misery it would be most appropriate to investigate its cause. Like many, Adi Shankracharya and Sri Aurobindo have successfully encoded the solution to the problem of sorrow and suffering by expounding the concept of Advaitavaad and Supra-consciousness respectively. An effort, is therefore, made to find out the similarities and differences in the two ideologies of Adi Shankracharya and Sri Aurobindo in this paper.
Jagadguru Shri Adi Shankracharya was the greatest exponent of the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, a savior of Vedic dharma and a great poet. Similarly Sri Aurobindo was a profound scholar, an ardent nationalist, a valiant freedom fighter, an inspiring teacher, a yogi and a proponent of the concept of Super-Mind. The analogy between these two masters is remarkable.  Both were influenced by the social, religious and political conditions of the age. Both had their roots in the heritage of past ages and great traditions, which they expanded and built up anew thereby adding a new dimension to Indian Ethos and Culture. Each was a philosopher, a revolutionary, a literary artist, an ideal teacher, an ideal son and an ideal patriot in his own right. Both were men of abstract, soaring, subtle yet scientific speculation. They expressed their concepts through their learning in prose-in-verse and their world-famous writings. They were ‘born poets’ and were divinely gifted. In fact, both Adi Shankracharya and Sri Aurobindo are in a very special sense contemporaries, although Adi Shankracharya lived and flourished about 800 A.D. and Sri Aurobindo lived from 1872 to 1950. For contemporaries in the deeper sense are not those who happen to be born in the same decade or century, but those who stand at corresponding points in the parallel development of their religious and spiritual ideology.
As such, Indian Poetry is incomplete without the names of Adi Shankracharya and Sri Aurobindo. The quintessence of Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism) is that Brahman (Divine Creator) is the Supreme Truth and the world (jagat) is unreal or an illusion (“Brahma satyam jaganmityaa jivo brhammaiva naparaha”). Individuals are manifold but they have the One Divine in them. The phenomenal world of beings and non-beings is not apart from Brahman but ultimately become one with Brahman. Adi Shankracharya opines that through intense practice of the concept of Advaita, ego and the ideas of duality can be removed from the mind of man. The comprehensive philosophy of Shankracharya is inimitable for the fact that the doctrine of Advaita includes both worldly and transcendental experience. Shankracharya, while stressing upon the sole reality of Brahman, did not undermine the phenomenal world or the multiplicity of Gods in the scriptures. His philosophy is based upon three levels of reality, viz., paramarthika satta (Brahman), vyavaharika satta (empirical world of beings and non-beings) and pratibhasika satta (illusions of an individual as long as they last).
Adi Shankracharya’s theology maintains that seeing the self where there is no self cause’s spiritual ignorance or avidya. One should learn to distinguish knowledge (jnana/vidya) from ignorance (avidya) to realize the True Self or Brahman. Shankracharya advocated ananayoga for a mumukshu and adds that complete liberation (moksh) is possible only for sanyasins. He taught the rules of bhakti, yoga and karma to enlighten the intellect and purify the heart as Advaita is the awareness of the Divine. Shankaracharya developed his philosophy through commentaries on the various scriptures. It is believed that the revered saint completed these works before the age of sixteen. His major works fall into three distinct categories – commentaries (Bhasyas) on the Upanishads, the Brahmasutras and the Bhagvad Gita. His other remarkable works are ‘Vivekachudamani’ (the crest-jewel of discrimination), ‘Maniratnamala’, ‘Shatsloki’ (Atmabodh), ‘Upadeshahastri’ (Advaitanubhuti) and ‘Stotrasangraha’ (aparokshanubhuti).
The philosophy of Sri Aurobindo is known as Integral Yoga. His major writings are: ‘The Essays of the Gita’, ‘Synthesis of Yoga’, ‘The Human Cycle’, ‘The Ideal of Human Unity’, ‘Two Volumes of Collected Poems and Savitri’. A harmonious and integral culture of physical, vital and mental potentialities of man leads him to super-human levels to realize the sublime truth (sat-chit-ananda). However, ‘The Life Divine’ is the monumental work of Sri Aurobindo. According to him the principle of evolution towards Spirit, Light and Knowledge loses all its significance unless it is assumed that the Spirit itself is involved in matter, darkness and ignorance. In other words, evolution necessarily involves involution. This is what is known as ascent and descent. Sri Aurobindo advocates evolution in terms of spiritualistic and humanistic principles. He points out that the ascent to the divine Life is the human journey, the Work of works, the acceptable Sacrifice. This alone is man’s real business in the world and the justification of his existence, without which he would be only an insect crawling among other ephemeral insects on a speck of surface mud and water which has managed to form itself amid the appalling immensities of the physical universe. (The Life Divine’42-43). The most popular of Upanishadic sentences also state (i) Sarvam khalu idam Brahma (Dayananda15) (ii) Hari eva jagat jagdeva harihi (Dayananda15) (iii) Aham Brahmasmi (Dayananda16).
The descent starts from Truth and reaches matter through Conscious-Force, bliss, super-mind, mind, psyche and life. The order of ascent would be just the reverse. The order is as follows: matter to life, life to psyche, psyche to mind, mind to higher mind, higher mind to illumined mind, illumined mind to intuitive mind, intuitive mind to over mind and over mind to Super-mind. According to Aurobindo, this is a process of involution and evolution. He calls it a game or Lila of God. But the game has an object to be achieved. What is achieved in the process of evolution is a triple process of heightening, widening and integration. This is the most original contribution of Sri Aurobindo. The process of heightening takes us from lower levels of existence to the higher and highest levels. In the process of widening a new quality is acquired. Thus something new emerges. In the process of integration the lower forms get integrated with the higher forms. The triple process of evolution leads to cosmic salvation. Here the role of the individual in the process of cosmic evolution cannot be ignored.  In fact, the evolution can be hastened by individual effort; the transformation by spiritual awakening. This is the essence of spiritual evolution. Sri Aurobindo’s evolution can be called purposive for it goes back to the level of matter. This is unavoidable. At the same time it is treated as emergent for the supra-mental consciousness is a sudden and uncertain occurrence. Thus he subscribes to satkaryavada.
Sri Aurobindo advocated the theory of Karmayoga (philosophy of action) as illustrated in the Bhagvadgita.  As humans we cannot remain idle for all life. The human birth is precious. We must work in accordance with dharma. Therefore one should not shirk one’s responsibilities as a citizen of the society. In fact, it is a mistake to think that spiritual philosophy has no relevance to society. To be spiritual does not mean to be religious. Both Shankaracharya and Aurobindo try to analyze basic human nature and the place, status and role of man in society. Their experience and understanding are one and the same so far as the concepts of Brahman and Atman are concerned.
Both Shankaracharya and Aurobindo believe that Man’s being has inner and outer dimensions. The inner being is represented by the spiritual element and the outer by the materialistic. They are integrated into one single being. Both these components have to be given equal importance for a total development of human personality. The control over inner being is to prepare oneself for the new society or social order. Aurobindo observes: The erring race of human beings dream always of perfecting their environment by the machinery of government and society; but it is only by the perfection of the soul within that the outer environment can be perfected.
Sri Aurobindo says that there is no historical evidence to show that there is man without society. Man and society are interdependent. They are the self-expressions of the Supreme Reality. The entire universe, humankind and society are all manifestations of that single Reality. Every individual born in a society needs the support of society for developing his/her physical, mental and vital being. There should be perfect equilibrium among these three aspects that are responsible for healthy human development. The concept of Unity is very important in showing the relationship between man and society. The question of unity arises only when there is diversity. The rich diversity that we see in society certainly allows unity. Of course, men are often driven by intellectual urges and impulses that make them act selfishly. This is the starting point of all social evils. To contain these social evils government and states use their discretion in framing laws and rules. But do they really work? Thus the government machinery is used as an external force. In fact, genuine unity lies in the very nature of Spirit. The social cohesion achieved through external means is only temporary. It becomes permanent only when it is achieved through spiritual means. The primary objective of all social, political and other human organizations is to help each other to evolve supramental consciousness. As Shankracharya sings Bhaja Govindam in charpatpanjarikastotram, even he himself has been regarded to be the form of Shiva by his mother. Similarly, Aurobindo also experiences the vision of Krishna and writes a poem on Krishna.
Let us now observe the similarities and dissimilarities in the thought and experience of both Adi Shankracharya and Sri Aurobindo:
(i) Brahman or Sat-Chit-Ananda:
According to Shankaracharya Brahman is present everywhere. Brahman, the cause of the world is satyam. In his Bhasya on Taittiriya Upanishad, he says: ;rks ok bekfu Hkwrkfu tk;UrsA ;su tkrkfu thofUrA ;Rizs;aR;fHklaefo'karhA rn~ foftKklLo~A rn~ czãsfrAA rS0 3-1-1-
Yato va imani bhutani jayante. Yen jatani jivanti. Yatprayantyabhisanvishanti. Tad vigigyasasva. Tad brahmeti. (T.U. III. 1.1)
(From which all these elements have come, by which all these are sustained and unto which all these go back, understand that to be Brahman).
The same thought is expressed in VedsaarshivastotramRoesdks txn~O;kidks fo'o:i% ¼4½
The Taittiriya Upanishad similarly states satyam gyanamanantam brahma (II. 1. 83) (Brahman, the truth, the knowledge, the Infinite).
According to Sri Aurobindo: “There is then a supreme Reality eternal, absolute and infinite. Because it is absolute and infinite it is in its essence indeterminable. It is indefinable and inconceivable by finite and defining Mind; it is ineffable by a mind – created speech; it is describable neither by our negations, neti, neti – for we cannot limit it by saying it is not this, it is not that, - nor by our affirmations, for we cannot fix it by saying it is this, it is that iti, iti.” (The Life Divine 292-293)
Again, Aurobindo says: “The Indian terms are more satisfactory, - Brahman the Reality is Atman, Purusha, Ishwara. Brahman is the Absolute, the Transcendent and incommunicable, the Supra-cosmic Existence that sustains the cosmos, the Cosmic Self that upholds all beings, but it is too the self of each individual. The soul or psychic entity is an eternal portion of the Ishwara; it is his supreme Nature or consciousness-Force that has become the living being in a world of living beings.” (The Life Divine 293-294)
Sri Aurobindo believes that Brahman is a higher Truth – Consciousness or Divine supramental consciousness in which action and creation are the expression not of ignorance and imperfection, but of the Truth, the Light, the Divine Bliss. The Absolute – Brahman is self-existent, eternal and infinite. It is the nature of Sat (Reality – Truth - Existence), Chit (Consciousness Force), Ananda (Bliss – Joy Abounding). He says,
                                    “Around me was a formless solitude:
                                                All had become one strange unnamable,
                … Topless and fathomless, forever still.” (Sonnet on Advaita 22)
(II) Jiva or Atman
Adi Shankracharya believes that one can find out an equation of the identity between the Atman (Jiva) and Brahman. The Atman or Jiva is essentially the same as Brahman and is therefore self-illumined, unlimited and everfree. In Nirvanstotram, he says ^^fpnkuUn:iks f'koksge f'koksge---** ¼Lojkatfy 146½ Its limitedness and all its consequent effects are due to upadhis or conditions, which, again, appear through avidya (nescience or maya) and as such are unreal. Eliminate the upadhis and the apparent duality at once ceases, and the Jiva no longer retains separate identity. The Atman is immutable and indestructible. It is self-evident, self-existent and self-revealing. It is neither the body nor the senses nor the mind because they are variable. The Shruti says, “Thou art that” (Tat twam Asi). The individual (JIva) is to be regarded as perfectly identical with the absolute Brahman. He says, ^u tk;rs uks fez;rs u o/kZrs u f{k;rs uks foØksfr fuR;% foyh;ekus·fi* (Vivekachudamani 48).
Similarly Sri Aurobindo states, “The Soul of man, a traveller, wanders in this cycle of Brahman, huge, a totality of lives, a totality of states, thinking itself different from the Impeller of the journey. Accepted by him, it attains its goal of Immortality.” The Absolute, cosmic Nature and ourselves are linked in oneness. Atman is Brahman but avidya does not permit us to know its affinity and integrity. He further says, “I am the one Being’s sole immobile Bliss. No one I am, I who am all that is.” (Liberation 6) In Savitri, he says, “All life a song of meeting many lives; for worlds were many, but the Self was one.” (323).
(III) Maya and Jagat or Illusion and World:
            Apart from the above-mentioned parallels, both Shankaracharya and Aurobindo differ in their concept of Maya or illusion. In fact, they are poles apart even in their conception about Liberation (Mukti, moksha or Nirvana) or the final aim of life. Let us analyse in detail:
            Shankracharya says, “Brahman alone is real, the world is false. He explains it by what is known as maya (illusion) or adhyasa (superimposition), the principle of unifying contradictions–contradiction between the self and the non-self and the ego and the non-ego, the subject and the object, the cause and the effect, Brahman and the world. As we know contradictions can never be reconciled. Therefore maya is the principle that mysteriously unifies contradictions and is as such inexplicable and indefinable (anirvachaniya). Brahman simply appears as the world through maya or avidya. In Dwadashapanjarikastotram he states: ^ek;kef;fenef[kye fgRok czãine~ Roa izoh'k fofnRok* ¼4-150½ In Vivekachudamani, Shankracharya says,^cht laLd`fr*- Maya or avidya is the seed of this tree like world. (147, 53).
            On the other hand, Sri Aurobindo poetically describes the whole process of maya as follows: “World-existence is the ecstatic dance of Shiva (Absolute) which multiplies the body of God numberlessly to the view; it leaves that ‘white existence’ (Absolute) precisely where and what it was, ever is and ever will be; its sole object is the joy of dancing.” (The Life Divine 295)
To Aurobindo, Brahman, the Ishwara, is all this by his Yoga-Maya, by the power of His Consciousness-Force, put out in self-manifestation. He is the Conscious Being, Soul, Spirit, Purusha and it is by his Nature, the force of His conscious self-existence that He is all things; He is the Ishwara, the Omniscient and Omnipotent All ruler, and it by his Shakti, His conscious Power, that He manifests Himself in Time and governs the universe (The Life Divine 294).  It is the conscious Power of the Divine Being, Shakti, which is both conceptively creative and dynamically executive of all the divine workings. All the works of Maya look like the production of a supra-rational magical Power which arranges things according to its wisdom or fantasy, but a wisdom which is not ours and a fantasy that baffles our imagination. (The Life Divine 295)
            Thus Shankracharya believes that the world is an illusion, mithya. While Aurobindo does not agree with this view. He says in ‘Letters on Yoga Tome One’ (43) “it is hardly possible to suppose that the Divine Reality has no power or force or that its only power is to create a universal falsehood, a cosmic lie –mithya.” (‘On Yoga’ 43) The world is not unreal or illusionary (italics mine), but our present seeing or consciousness of it is ignorant, and therefore the world as seen by us can be described as an illusion. So far the Maya idea is true. But if we see the world as it really is, a partial and developing manifestation of Brahman, then it can no longer be described as an illusion, but rather as a Lila. He is still more than His Lila, but He is in it and it is in Him; it is not an illusion (45-46). Therefore along with Brahman, Jagat also is Satyam. Aurobindo says, “The philosophy of The Life Divine is such a realistic Advaita. The world is a manifestation of the Real and therefore is itself real. The reality is the eternal and infinite Divine, infinite and eternal Being, Consciousness-Force and Bliss. This Divine by his power has created the world or rather manifested it in his own infinite Being. But here in the material world or at its basis he has hidden himself in what seem to be his opposites, Non-Being, Inconscience and insentience. This is what we nowadays call the Inconscient which seems to have created the material universe by his inconscient energy, but this is only an appearance. For we find in the end that all the dispositions of the world can only have been arranged by the working of a supreme secret Intelligence. The Being which is hidden in what seems to be an inconscient void emerges in the world first in Matter, then in Life, then in Mind and finally as the Spirit. The apparent inconscient Energy which creates is in fact the Consciousness-Force of the Divine and its aspect of consciousness, secret in Matter, begins to emerge in life, finds something more of itself in Mind and finds its true self in a spiritual consciousness and finally a supramental consciousness through which we become aware of the Reality, enter into it and unite ourselves with it. This is what we call evolution which is an evolution of Consciousness and then the evolution of Spirit in things and only outwardly an evolution of species.” (Letters on Yoga – Tome One 41-42)     
            Both Shankracharya and Aurobindo, as poets wrote innumerable verses/poems which are matchless in sweetness, melody and thought. Shankracharya, as a poet, had wonderful mastery over language and meter. His well-known vedantastotras are – Pratah-smaranam, Advaitapanchak, Dakshinamurtistotra, Vigyanauka, Shatpalistotra, Harimidestotra etc. His bhakti stotras are Anandlahri, Devyaparadhkshamapanstotra, Gangashatakam, Yamunashatak, Narmadashatak, Krishnashatak, Vishnushatapadi etc. There is hardly any Stotrasangraha that has not included the emotional, touchy, sensible and melodious sweet stories of Shankracharya. His verses are unique in lucidity, directness and sweetness. His use of metres and figures of speech is marvellous. Sri Aurobindo also possessed the same features in his verses. Some of his significant poems are ‘Liberation’, ‘The Witness Spirit’, ‘The Incosncient’, ‘Cosmic Consciousness’, The Universal Incarnation’, ‘Krishna’, ‘Shiva’, ‘Lila’, ‘Omnipresence’, ‘Advaita’, ‘Evolution’ and many others.
As philosophers, both Shankracharya and Aurobindo, explain their ideology like scientists but one explains his ideology with the support of logic and reason, while the other explains it with the support of intuition and consciousness. For Shankracharya,
(i)                   Maya is tuccha (negligible) – therefore the question of its existence or non-existence does not arise.
(ii)                 From the standpoint of strict logic, maya is aneervacaniya (inexplicable) i.e., it logically fails to explain any relationship between Brahman and the objective world.
(iii)                From the standpoint of common experience, Maya is Vaastava (real), the very life of the world.
But for Aurobindo, Maya is the very Lila or Shakti of the Absolute – Brahman. Aurobindo says: “...So far the Maya idea is true. But if we see the world as it really is, a partial and developing manifestation of Brahman, then it can no longer be described as an illusion, but rather as a Lila.” (Letters on Yoga – Tome One 46). Brahman is still more than His Lila. He further says,     “Of course, it (maya) is there. But the question is, first, what is it? Is it really an illusionary power and nothing else, or is the Mayavadins idea of it a mistaken first view, a mental imperfect reading, even perhaps itself an illusion? And next, “is illusion the sole or the highest-Power which the Divine Consciousness or Super-Consciousness possesses?”
According to Sri Aurobindo, the Absolute is an absolute Truth free from Maya, otherwise liberation would not be possible. Has then the supreme or Absolute Truth or other active Power than a power of falsehood and with it no doubt for the two go together, a power of dissolving or disowning the falsehood, - which is yet there forever? Aurobindo suggests that this sounds a little queer. But queer or not, if it is so, it is so... – the Ineffable cannot be suggested to the laws of logic..
(IV) Liberation or Brahmanhood:
            According to Shankracharya, realization of Brahman or Nirvana is the goal of Advaita Vedanta. He explains that Brahmanhood is realized by the knowledge of the absolute identity of the Jiva and Brahman. The dictum Tat twan Asi reveals this identity. Nirvana is quite possible in this body, that is, even while living (jivanmukti).
            In the case of Aurobindo too, realization of Brahman is the first radical result of his own Yoga. But it is not the goal of his ideology. He indicates: “Nirvana in my liberated consciousness turned out to be the beginning of my realization, a first step towards the complete thing, not the sole true attainment or even a culminating finale. It came unasked, unsought for, though quite welcome...” (Letters on Yoga – Tome One 48) He further says, “But there is a Truth-Consciousness, not static only and self-introspective – but also dynamic and creative and I prefer to get at that and see what it says about things and can do rather than take the shortcut away from things offered as its own end by the ignorance.” In addition, Aurobindo says, “Nirvana is a step towards it; the disappearance of the false separating individuality is a necessary condition for our realizing and living in our eternal being, living divinely in the Divine. But this we can do in the world and in life.” Letters on Yoga – Tome One 44)
Thus, quite apart from Advaitavaad’s defects as a mental theory of things, it serves a great spiritual end and as a path, can lead very high and far, whereas in the theory of Super-mind there is a Truth-Consciousness i.e., not static only and self-introspective, but also dynamic and creative. Aurobindo clarifies and proves that the static release is only a beginning, a first step in the Divine. If anyone is satisfied with the first step as all that is possible for him, he has no objection to his taking it like that.
On the other hand, although Shankracharya does not really explicate the types of truth, yet for the sake of convenience he speaks of paramarthika truth (attributable only to Brahman); vyavaharika truth (attributable to the objective world) and pratibhasika truth (attributable to the illusions of the individual so long as they last). Aurobindo too shows different levels of Mind, but not of Truth. He elucidates at length upon Higher mind, Illumined mind, Intuitive mind, Over mind and Super mind.
Conclusively, it would be most appropriate to state in terms of parallels and dissimilarities that Shankracharya was an expert in Sanskrit while Aurobindo was a genius in English. One travelled to all four corners of India and established four muths for the everlasting protection of vedic dharma, whereas Aurobindo was confined to the four walls of his own room for forty years and he established the Auroville ashram in Pondicherry for the realization of Ascent and Descent for the welfare of the total mankind and thus found a permanent solution to the problem of human sorrow and suffering. One believes in the theory of neti, neti, while the other talks about iti, iti.
1.     Aurobindo Sri. The Life Divine. The Greystone Press: New York, 1949.
2.     Aurobindo Sri. Last Poems. Sri Aurobindo Ashram: Pondicherry, 1952.
3.     Aurobindo Sri. On Yoga II, Letters on Yoga-Tome One. Sri Aurobindo Ashram: Pondicherry, 1969.
4.     Aurobindo Sri. Savitri. Sri Aurobindo Ashram: Pondicherry, 1952.
5.     Shankracharya Adi. Stavanaanjali (Mulmaatram). Swami Brahmasthananda (Ed.). Ramakrishna Math: Nagpur, 1997.
6.     Pandya Ketki. N. Tagore’s Chitra and Aurobindo’s Savitri. Atlantic Publishers & Distributors: New Delhi, 2004.
7.     Shankracharya Shreemad. Vivekachudamani. Ghanshyamdas Geetapress: Gorakhpur, vikram Samvat, 1688.
8.     Shankracharya Shreemad. Taittiriya Upanishad. Ghanshyamdas Geetapress: Gorakhpur, vikram Samvat, 1688.
9.     Dayananda Swami. The Teaching Tradition of Advaita Vedanta. Ashya Vidya Gurukulum: Coimbatore. (Year of Pub. - not mentioned)
Dr. Anupam R. Nagar
Dr. V.R.G. College, Porbandar.            
Dr. Ketki N. Pandya
Visiting Professor,
G. M. College, Porbandar.