1 Jun 2014

Sri Aurobindo and Hegel (1) – Krish Patwardhan

Situating Sri Aurobindo – A Reader, edited by Peter Heehs and published by Oxford University Press in 2013, is one of those arid unreadable books, the heavy metaphysical content of which simply puts you off. The book is almost entirely a compilation of articles by professors in American Universities who evaluate, analyse, dissect, compare, and situate Sri Aurobindo within the framework of their disciplines. Though most of the essays are surprisingly favourable assessments of Sri Aurobindo, considering that they have been chosen by Peter Heehs, one still gets the impression (except in a few cases) that the professors are straying beyond their legitimate and natural boundaries. Understanding Sri Aurobindo certainly needs some spiritual empathy, and that comes from a little inward opening, even if it be only a drop of genuine spiritual experience. Otherwise one commits not only spiritual but intellectual errors such as some of these professors have made, despite the expertise in their own fields. I bring to the notice of our readers one such major misunderstanding by Professor Steve Odin of the University of Hawai’i, which should be set right before it spreads further in the academic world. I quote below his conclusion with regard to Sri Aurobindo and Hegel:

The twentieth-century Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo, who has framed his own full-scale metaphysical synthesis, appropriated Hegel's notion of an Absolute Spirit and employed it to radically restructure the architectonic framework of the ancient Hindu Vedanta system in contemporary terms. (p 182)

To conclude, then, whereas Hegel conceives of the Absolute as dialecti­cal intellection, Sri Aurobindo formulates it in terms of a radiant and ecstatic supramental awareness, Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. Yet, Sri Aurobindo has, in fact, incorporated the essential structure of Hegel's concept of the Absolute, which is precisely the Absolute as living "Spirit." (p 184)

(Sri Aurobindo and Hegel on the Involution-Evolution of Absolute Spirit – by Steve Odin, pp 181-196 in Situating Sri Aurobindo, edited by Peter Heehs)

I will not counter the above conclusion myself but quote one of the most eminent philosopher disciples of Sri Aurobindo, S.K. Maitra, whose book The Meeting of the East and the West in Sri Aurobindo’s Philosophy (1956) perhaps still remains the best comparative study of Sri Aurobindo and the Western philosophers. Ironically, the only book that Steve Odin himself refers to in his endnotes, apart from the original source material of Sri Aurobindo and Hegel, is this very book.  That is why his conclusions are practically the same as Maitra’s, though with a crucial difference. According to Steve Odin, Sri Aurobindo has incorporated the structure of Hegel’s concept of the Absolute Spirit in his spiritual philosophy, despite the fact that he had hardly read him! Therefore Sri Aurobindo owes to Hegel the structural foundation of his spiritual philosophy, in which case a study of Hegel would become a pre-requisite for the understanding of Sri Aurobindo. Steve Odin is obviously a Hegel enthusiast, who would like to see Hegel everywhere. But so was S.K. Maitra an admirer of Hegel before he turned to Sri Aurobindo! Yes, Maitra admits that there is a certain outer similarity between the notion of the Absolute Spirit as expressed by Sri Aurobindo and Hegel. But the difference between their respective notions can be likened to that between a genuine and an artificial flower. I quote below the concluding portion of Maitra’s brilliant essay on Sri Aurobindo and Hegel:

For Sri Aurobindo the whole conception of the Absolute, as we find it in Hegel, is artificial. It is, in fact, a man-made Absolute, and differs from the real Absolute as an artificial flower differs from a genuine one. Hegel has constructed the Absolute with the help of the principle of thought which is available to man in his present consciousness. But any principle which is accessible to man at present, is a hopelessly inadequate one, and therefore, any attempt to construct the Absolute with its help is bound to fail. The principle of continuity, in the light of which Hegel understands the Absolute, is itself an abstract principle, and naturally its shortcomings must affect the conception of the Absolute based upon it.

The Absolute is not merely the present world or the present human consciousness raised to the nth power, but it has in it features which have not yet manifested themselves anywhere in the universe. Only certain indications which we observe force us to the conclusion that the present state of the universe is not its final state, but that it is bound to rise to higher and higher levels and eventually reach the Absolute. The chief of such indications is the presence in man of an aspiration—an aspiration after a condition immeasurably higher than the present one. This takes the form of a sort of Divine discontent, which is the chief characteristic of man, his refusal to be satisfied with anything that he gets. But this Divine discontent does not give us any idea as to what will give ultimate satisfaction to man.

The Absolute, in Sri Aurobindo's view, cannot be identified with any type of human consciousness that has so far emerged, neither with thought, nor with will or feeling or intuition. It is an altogether different consciousness from any of which we have knowledge. So, again, its content cannot be identified with any of the logical categories known to us. It is neither Being nor Becoming, nor Cause nor Substance. It is also not possible to describe the Absolute through pairs of contradictories, and call it both sat and asat, Limited and Unlimited, Phenomenal and Noumenal. Sri Aurobindo indicates this very clearly. Thus he says1, "On the one hand to Sachchidananda transcendent of the forms of the universe the dual terms themselves, even if so understood, can no longer be applicable. Transcendence transfigures; it does not reconcile, but rather transmutes opposites into something surpassing them that effaces their oppositions".

The Absolute, moreover, cannot, in his opinion, be called a mere fulfilment of human consciousness. Fulfilment refers to the realization of an object which is distinctly apprehended. Thus we speak of the fulfilment of our desires, our wishes, our purposes. Here fulfilment has got a definite meaning; the object which we desire or wish or propose to realize we definitely know, and fulfilment means only the actual realization of this definitely conceived object. Here, in the case of the Absolute, however, it far transcends any object that we may desire or wish, or of which we have the faintest idea. How can it be said then to be a fulfilment of what we are or what we long to be? Sri Aurobindo is very explicit on this point. Thus he says,1 "At first, however, we must strive to relate the individual to the harmony of the totality. There it is necessary for us—otherwise there is no issue from the problem—to realize that the terms in which our present consciousness renders the values of the universe, though practically justified for the purposes of human experience and progress, are not the sole terms in which it is possible to render them and may not be the complete, the right, the ultimate formulas. Just as there may be sense-organs or formations of sense-capacity which see the physical world differently and it may well be better, because more completely, than our sense-organs and sense-capacity, so there may be other mental and supra-mental envisagings of the universe which surpass our own". To speak of the Absolute as only a fulfilment of what we are, would keep us more or less to our present level. It smacks too much of a block universe. Sri Aurobindo's idea of the Absolute is totally different from this. Not by any extension or expansion of our present nature, but by a radical transformation of it, can we reach the Absolute.

This brings in a new factor in the relation between ourselves and the Absolute. As Hegel views it, we can automatically reach the Absolute by ascending the steps of the ladder which he has placed between us and the Absolute. For Sri Aurobindo, however, no effort on our part can take us to the Absolute. It is for the Absolute to make a gesture; it is its Grace alone which can raise us to higher and higher levels, eventually placing us on its throne. Without such Divine Grace, there is no possibility of our getting anywhere near the Absolute. There is no trace of this conception of Grace in Hegel's philosophy.

(S.K. Maitra, The Meeting of the East and the West in Sri Aurobindo’s Philosophy, pp 268-271)

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