The fifteenth of August commemorates Sri Aurobindo’s birthday, and the birth of independent India, a historical landmark where he played a significant role. Aurobindo, the founder of Purna, or Integral Yoga, is a renowned and controversial poet, educationist, and literary critic, a politician, sociologist, and mystic whose evolutionary worldview represents a breakthrough in history. Nevertheless, what is the relevance of Aurobindo nowadays? Is there any need to create an act of remembrance? The Indian Revolution considered him one of the fathers of the country, and centers of education and yoga were founded worldwide on the integral paradigm he outlined, but is that really enough?
In the academic arena, Aurobindo steadily calls the attention of scholars in different fields of knowledge. The key for this interest lies on the pertinence and relevance of his thought. The interdisciplinarity and cross-cultural outlook of his writings inspire today varied research in the fields of psychology, philosophy, spirituality, religion, and cultural anthropology. Even more, his suggestive philosophical proposals of intertwined ontological and social structures, contrasted occasionally with Teilhard de Chardin or Hegel, encourage new applied studies in leadership, integrative and community mental health, poetry, literature, and education.
Aurobindo outlines the evolution towards a new society, the social paradigm of the gnostic being. The human being is a being in transition, a living laboratory with complex stages of growth. His theory underpins the need for progress at a global level, and an increased awareness of the coexistence of diversity and oneness. To propitiate the development of this paradigm, the tools are yoga and education–the means to enhance a complex, inclusive, and synthetic thought, not detached from people and social reality. Aurobindo encourages the social and psychological aspects of education and highlights the process of integration of body and emotions, mind and spirit, to hasten the evolutionary process and the collective welfare of society. The key for advancement is an awareness-enhancing environment of self-learning, praised by UNESCO, and the evolution of consciousness as the ultimate revolution.
The present religious, political, and economic crisis meets a solution in Aurobindo’s belief on the human capacity to discover complementarity underlying apparent contradictions. A binary worldview without nuances leads to a breakdown of dialogue, and a revival of conflicts that curtail the expression of identities. His sociological works, The Human Cycle and The Ideal of Human Unity, provide clues for a deeper understanding of multiculturalism, and the conflicts arising out of the creation of international political institutions. One of the keys he proposes is inclusivism, the creation of a confederation of nations that enhances plurality within world unity. In times of extremisms and reductionisms, his Integral Yoga provides a transformational synthesis. All life is yoga, any activity may be developed as a way to be yourself, transform yourself, and transcend yourself–powerful mantras that go beyond the determinism of any particular religion, pointing towards a universal religion for humanity.
Aurobindo is a controversial figure that raises both admiration and criticism. His applied integrative synthesis of the material and spiritual realities of social and individual structures provokes adherence and rejection. He doesn’t seem to fit either traditional Eastern or Western evolutionary theories. What calls our attention is the resilience of his thought, despite probing and critical scrutiny. How can we explain his acknowledged contribution to knowledge and his simultaneous criticism? His mystical empiricism explains why his philosophical work resists the passing of time, while some of his social and international proposals, unthinkable at the time, seem to have a place in contemporary political affairs. Presently, the world is linked through global institutions, though they lack the spiritual, subjective connotations Aurobindo aimed for the development of the human being. His writings pose a reflection on the place of spirituality in education in a multicultural secular society, a place among twentieth century educational innovators, such as Paulus Geheeb, Rabindranath Tagore, Rudolf Steiner, or Innayat Khan. His political engagement with the framing of the Indian nation is still revised in comparative studies that claim why Gandhi is praised, and Aurobindo, at times, erased.
The first Indian leader to call for complete Independence from colonial rule was also a propounder of Indian spiritual values, and their role in a world union respectful of cultural individualities. His pluralistic, evolutionary nationalism transcends current Hindutva appropriations. Transpersonal psychology is recurring to his structure of consciousness, related to the core of Ken Wilber’s proposals and his spectrum of consciousness. A major exponent of Indian English literature, and the creator of Savitri, the longest poem in English, he epitomizes the representation of consciousness, tradition and modernity, a precursor of Mulk Raj Anand, Nissim Ezekiel, and Anita Desai, among others. Culturally speaking, he anticipates Homi Bhabha’s perspective of his multiple levels of hybridity. His translations of the Vedas and Upanishads approach Indian tradition to the contemporary reader, offering a view of religion that transcends superstition and ritual practices, a timely contribution to todays’s fanaticism and misinterpretation of ancient spiritual proposals.
Sri Aurobindo offers a profound reading of the human being. His works draw on Eastern and Western sources, and present an integral synthetic vision of reality–an invitation to travel a collective journey not restricted by geographical frontiers. His vision waits to be awaken in the layers of our consciousness, while his words inspire “The call that wakes the leap of human mind” (Savitri, Book I, Canto I, The Symbol Dawn).
Image credit: “Sri Aurobindo Ashram Rewa” by Siddharth807. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons