The Foundations of Eastern Spiritual Synthesis-I–M.S. Srinivasan

{Published in Rbhu, 21st Feb 2012]

In our modern age we have achieved great progress in the material and economic life steered by the scientific, technological and organisational genius of the west.  But at present we are on the threshold of a new cycle of future evolution in the psychological, moral and spiritual domain which requires another kind of genius.  Here comes the importance of the Eastern and Indian spiritual synthesis, ancient and modern.  In the spiritual traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Sufism, luminously interpreted and extended by modern spiritual masters of India, we have a treasure of wisdom which can provide the vision and the path for steering humanity towards its spiritual destiny.   But the spiritual lore of the East is a vast and varied ocean of knowledge.  From this vast ocean of knowledge, we may have to isolate the central insights and major discoveries.  Secondly, there is a widespread impression or tendency, in both East and West, to associate eastern spiritual wisdom with the ancient past.  But the wisdom of the East is not confined to the past alone.  In India, there has been an unbroken spiritual tradition which continues even upto this day in the spiritual realizations and teachings of modern Indian seers like Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharishi and many others who may not be known to the world. They have kept alive the true spirit and soul of East.   In this series of articles, I am presenting an integral view of the eastern wisdom, culled from the various schools of spiritual synthesis – ancient and modern – and coordinated into a whole.

The Spiritual Genius of the East

The popular conceptions of the East, especially of India, picture it as a land of religions or mysticism or yoga but without any clear understanding of these terms or the distinction between them. But most of the spiritual adepts of the East have consistently held that spirituality is the essential genius of the East. And some of the modern spiritual masters like Sri Aurobindo made a clear distinction between religion and spirituality.

So what is precisely the nature of the spiritual genius of the East?   In brief, spirituality is the path which leads to the discovery of a spiritual Reality beyond Mind.  In practical terms spirituality is Yoga, which is the systematic, scientific, psychological and spiritual discipline by which we can enter within our own self and come into direct contact, union or identity with this spiritual reality which is the deepest and innermost essence and self of our own being and the universe. The pragmatic result of this realisation is all that follows naturally and spontaneously from living in direct contact with the very source of our inner being and fountain of all knowledge like wisdom, creativity, freedom, unity, love, well-being, perfection and whatever other higher ideals we can thinks of. So in practical terms, the “core competency” of the East is the discovery — and the potential capacity for rediscovery and reformulation — of the inner psychological and spiritual discipline of Yoga which leads to the perfection and fulfillment of the inner being of man.

We can see here that there is a great difference between the way of organised and popular religion and the way of Yoga and spirituality. The difference is between seeing the photo or the picture of someone we love and coming into direct personal contact with him or her in flesh and blood. To put it in simple terms, while Religion stops short at worshipping the symbols of the divine Reality, Yoga or spirituality goes far beyond, toward a direct inner contact or union with the spiritual Reality. This is the reason why in some of the eastern mystical literature, the union of the individual soul with the universal spiritual Reality is imaged in the form of sexual union in order to bring out the sense of directness or concreteness of the experience.

But Indian spirituality does not deny or belittle the utility of Religion in the moral and spiritual development of the individual and the community. Religion can be a means and preparation for the higher spiritual life. And for most of us who are not yet ready for the spiritual discipline, religious forms and symbols are the windows through which we have approach the spirit. For religious symbols have an evocative power and when they are used with insight, they can help us towards coming into contact with the spiritual truths they represent.

The Inwardness

So, if the essential genius of the West may be described as a rational pragmatism turned towards the perfection of the outer life, the essence of the eastern genius may be described as an intuitive spirituality turned inward towards the perfection of the inner being of man. This brings us to the central core of the eastern spiritual genius: Inwardness. But here again there is much misunderstanding, especially among the secular, rational mind, regarding -the nature of this inwardness of the Indian or eastern spirituality.

One of the very common conception or rather misconception of Indian spirituality is that of a world-negating asceticism turned exclusively towards the inner realities of the spirit. A yogi sitting in Himalayas in a deep trance Samadhi oblivious of the world is the image which comes immediately to our mind when we think of Indian yoga or spirituality.  But the problem here is that a powerful technique of yoga is mistaken as the very essence and aim of Yoga.  Samadhi is a potent yogic technique by which a yogi can enter into the depth of his being and come into direct contact with the spiritual reality. But the Samadhi inwhich the yogi looses the consciousness of the outer word is only a method or a technique and not the aim of Indian Yoga. The aim is to establish the deeper, inner and higher consciousness in his whole being and life, especially in his waking life.

In Bhagavad Gita, a well-known Indian scripture, the divine Teacher asks his disciple in the thick of the battle field to be in a state of yoga and fight the battle. What does this rather enigmatic conception signify?  It means that we can be in a state of yoga or inwardness, in the deep spiritual consciousness, in a state of waking samadhi as it were, and fight a battle, or do business, politics or science or what every one is doing, perhaps with a much greater efficiency, creativity and dynanism than what is possible in our so-called “normal” consciousness.  For in the eastern spiritual conception, the universal, unconditioned and blissful consciousness of our spiritual self is our normal, natural and true self. The limited and conditioned consciousness of our ego-bound self with all its sorrow, strife, struggle and effort is an unnatural, abnormal condition, a state of perpetual neurosis. So the aim of Indian spirituality is so startlingly simple.  It is to be what we are in the deepest essence of our being and regain our true, natural and normal self.  So in some of the Indian Yogic schools the nature of the spiritual consciousness is described as Sahaja, which mean natural, spontaneous, inherent to the self.

But in the Indian spiritual synthesis, the inward inclination of the eastern spiritual temperament is not confined only to the individual or the spiritual field, it extends to the universal, collective and secular life of Man and Nature.  For in this synthesis, there is an inner dimension not only to the individual but also to the collective life of man and the universal life of the Nature or the cosmos.  This deepest and inner most essence of the individual is one with the deepest and the innermost essence of the Universe.

This brings us to some of the related intuitions of Indian seers, which can help us to arrive at a better understanding of the nature of inwardness we are discussing.  First is that the inner reality is the foundation of the outer facts of life.  Whatever we see, observe, or discover in the outer life –objects, beings, forces, events, phenomena, process-are symbolic expressions of corresponding inner truth and realities of the supraphysical, “occult”, psychological, cosmic and spiritual dimensions of life.  In other words there is an inner supraphysical, psychological and spiritual dimension to everything we see in the outer physical universe.  For example a river is a physical symbol or expression of a psychological and spiritual force of universal Nature.  The water or the element of water in the material plane is the physical expression of subtle supraphysical energy or substance and the physical qualities of water are the expression of corresponding psychological and spiritual qualities of Nature.   This spiritual insight expresses itself in the popular religion in the form of sacred rivers and river goddesses who can purify the sins of people.  In a similar way a human collectivity or human society and every major organ of the human society has an inner psychological, cosmic and spiritual dimension. For example the organ of Business or the economic and commercial life of the community is the outer expression of a corresponding cluster of psychological faculties and needs of the human beings.  This psychological need is in turn the expression of a universal vital-force in Nature which gives birth to these needs in man.  This universal vital force itself is the expression of a deeper and greater cosmic and spiritual force of the divine Reality.  This principle applies to every activity of human life.

So the inwardness of the eastern spiritual temperament is not a world oblivious navel-gazing.  Inwardness means to live from within outwards and to found the outer life on the basis of inner truth and values.  In the conception of ancient Indian sages, the outer social order has to be an expression of the inner psychological and spiritual organisation of the human being.  The Vedic social ideal is to make the entire Society a conscious expression of the cosmic godheads who rule the world acting through their conscious human representatives.  This means the outer social life has to become a conscious expression of the inner psychological, cosmic and spiritual truths, powers and laws which govern the life of man and the universe.  In this eastern spiritual perspective, every human problems has an inner cause.  Even the economic, social and political problems and the problems of physical health are in their essence spring from a moral, psychological and spiritual cause.

So doctoring the outer symptoms of the problem without a clear diagnosis of the deeper and inner causes cannot bring any permanent solution to the problem.  This brings us to some of the unique features of the spiritual synthesis which was forged in ancient India and remerging in modern spiritual thinking. Most of the ancient eastern spiritual tradition laid a predominant emphasis on the spiritual liberation and perfection of the individual. But the inner psychological progress and perfection of the collectivity is considered either as not possible or not given much importance. Ancient Indian thought recognised the inner dimensions of the collectivity.  Indian culture made an attempt to create a social order which aims at the moral and spiritual development of the individual and socio-moral well-being of the community. But ancient eastern thought in general did not give much importance to inner or outer progress of the collectivity. Eastern thought aimed at a stable rather than a progressive society. Here comes the importance of the spiritual synthesis arrived by modern Indian seers like Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda. For example in Sri Aurobindo’s synthesis we can find a clear perception and vision of the spiritual dimension of the collectivity and its spiritual destiny. These synthesising trends in eastern spiritual philosophy, ancient as well as modern, tend towards an integral vision of human evolution and destiny.

The Nature of Man: Spiritual Humanism

Any matured paradigm of thought has to provide a clear vision of the nature of Man and the World, the relation between them and the Reality, if any, behind them. Let us first look at what eastern thought has to say on the nature of Man.

Eastern thought viewed Man as essentially a soul, spirit and a self beyond Mind. The human being is in his true and essential self, a universal, eternal and unconditioned spirit bound within the limitation of the ego in his body, life and mind which are the instruments of the spirit. To rediscover his true spiritual self by self-knowledge is the aim of life and the object of all evolution, progress and development. As Sri Aurobindo explains the Indian spiritual conception “—the truth of our being ( is) a soul embodied in Nature which is seeking to know itself, to find itself, to enlarge its consciousness, to arrive at a greater way of existence, to progress in the spirit and grow into full light of self-knowledge and some divine inner perfection—- religion, philosophy, science, thought, art, society, all life, means only of this growth, instruments of the spirit to be used for its service with this spiritual aim as their dominant or atleast their ultimate preoccupation”(1) Hazrat Inayat Khan, a modern Sufi mystic, echoing a similar view writes, “In India life has always begun with the soul. Therefore science, art, philosophy and mysticism were all directed to the same goal.  Not only art and science, but even professions and commerce were not without a religious view” (2)

We may reformulate this Indian conception in an integral perspective in this way: The human being is a multi dimensional being with a Body, Life, Mind and Spirit as the four dimensions of his existence. But in the deepest and central core of his being he is a spirit.  Body, life, mind and the ego are the instruments of the spirit. They exist for the sake of the Spirit, for providing the experience needed for the growth of the Spirit and for the self-expression of the Spirit. Development of the body, life and mind is an integral part of the evolution of the Soul. But the development of this instrumental power is not the highest aim of human development. The aim of human development is the discovery of the spiritual self through progressive evolution. Development of the body, life and mind is a means or a process of this self-discovery, and in the integral view, to serve as perfect instruments for the self-expression and self­ manifestation of the Spirit in life.

So in this integral view, the aim of individual human development has two facets: first, the most fundamental, is the discovery of the spiritual self; second is the development of all the powers, faculties and potentialities of the instruments, of the spirit, that is the body, life and mind, and make them perfect instruments for the self-expression of the spirit.  In other words, and to put it briefly, complete and harmonious development of all the powers, faculties and potentialities of our four-fold being.

Whatever that is said regarding the individual applies to the collectivity. For in the integral eastern view both the individual and the collectivity are equal self-expression of the Spirit. There is an oft-repeated cliché or rhetoric which asks, “What is a collectivity but a sum of its individuals.”  But like all such clichés it gives only one side of the truth Modern systems theory has found that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. So a collectivity or a group is also a whole which is more than the sum of its parts; it is like the individual a living, organic tour-fold being with a physical, vital, mental and spiritual dimension.  Just like the individual, collectivity is also in its essential self is a soul or a spirit; it has a spiritual dimension which determines its deepest truth and law and its evolutionary destiny and mission. Again like the individual, a collectivity has a Mind or a mental dimension which determines its intellectual, ethical, religious and aesthetic temperament and expresses itself in the cultural life of the community; a vital dimension which determines the character and temperament of its life-force and expresses itself in the economic, social and political life of the community; a physical dimension made of its material and geographical structures. And finally the collectivity is also an evolving organism moving progressively towards self-realisation and the full development of all the powers and potentialities of his four-fold being. Sri Aurobindo in the fallowing passage gives a precise and comprehensive description of this Integral vision of the individual and the collectivity.

“The Primal law and purpose of the individual life is to seek its own self-development. Consciously or half-consciously or with an obscure unconscious groping it strives always and rightly, at self-formulation, – to find itself, to discover within itself the law and power its own being and to fulfill it. This aim in it is fundamental, right, inevitable because, even after all qualifications have been made and caveats entered, the individual is not merely the ephemeral physical creature, a form of mind and body that aggregates and dissolves, but a being, of the eternal Truth, a self-manifesting spirit.  In the same way the primal law and purpose of a society, community or nation is to seek its own self-fulfillment; it strives rightly to find itself, to become aware within itself of the law and power of its own being and to fulfill itself as perfectly as possible, to realise all its potentialities, to live its own self-revealing life. The reason is the same; for this too is a being, a living power of the eternal Truth, a self-manifestation of the cosmic Spirit, and it is there to express and fulfill in its own way and to the degree of its capacities the special truth and power and meaning of the cosmic Spirit that is within it.  The nation or society, like the individual, has a body, an organic life, a moral and aesthetic temperament, a developing mind and a soul behind all these signs and powers for the sake of which they exist.  One may see even that, like the individual, it essentially is a soul rather than has one; it is a group-soul that, once having attained to a separate distinctness, must become more and more self-conscious and find itself more and more fully as it develops its corporate action and mentality and its organic se1f­-expressive life.” (3)

Nature of the Reality: Unity of Consciousness and Wholeness of Life

This is the integral vision of our human existence which we get from the East. But we exist in the world and in relation to the world and according to eastern wisdom both, Man and the World exist or derive their existence from a transcendent Reality beyond them. There are some important discoveries of eastern science regarding the nature of this transcendent Reality and the relation between Man and the world and the Reality beyond them.

The discovery of a transcendent Absolute beyond space and time which is also the immanent within space and Time is the foundation of spiritual traditions all aver the world.  But the uniqueness of the Eastern spiritual tradition lies in the precise articularation or conceptualization of the nature of this supreme Reality.  The most important eastern insights on the nature of the Reality are the principles of “Consciousness” and “Unity” or “Unity Consciousness.”

The Indian seers perceived a supreme, universal and eternal consciousness beyond Mind as the source of the Individual and the Universe.  Consciousness and not Matter, is the essence of Man and the Cosmos. Even physical Matter of which our body and physical universe is made is an expression of the consciousness to be more precise, Matter is a form or configuration of the energy of consciousness. Modern science has discovered the equation between Matter and Energy. Matter, says modern science, is a form of Energy. But ancient Indian sages have discovered the equation between Consciousness and Energy.

The Energy itself according to Indian yogis is an expression of consciousness: it is an inherent and inseparable power of consciousness. So in Indian yogic terminology, the words for consciousness and energy are combined together into a single word “chit-‘shakti” which means consciousness-energy.  All that is in the individual and the universe, physical as well psychological, are the expressions of the Energy of Consciousness, Chit-Shakti.

And this Supreme Consciousness is an indivisible Unity. An immutable all-conscious Oneness is the foundation of all existence. All are linked together by this Oneness. This truth of the Unity of all existence is probably the greatest discovery of eastern wisdom. This Law of Unity is the most fundamental and eternal Law which pervades all creation in all levels – physical, psychological and spiritual. There is an essential spiritual Oneness which holds together all creation.  This spiritual unity is the basis of all other unities: it is the “One without a Second”: nothing else exists other that That.  All creation is made of the indivisible substance and energy of the consciousness of the spirit.  The Indian scriptures describe this spiritual unity as the “undivided One which exists as if divided in the creation.”

But this Law of Unity exists not only at the spiritual level but at all the levels of cosmic existence.  Not only the spirit is One but also the Mind is One, Life is One and the Matter is One.  Our individual Mind, Life and Body are part of the universal Mind.  Life and Body of the Spirit.  Thus the entire creation from the world of Matter to the world of Spirit is a single, unbroken and indivisible Unity.

The other important discovery of the eastern sages is that this spiritual Reality, Oneness, Unity or Wholeness is indivisibly present with all its light and might in each element of creation.  In otherwords the whole is potentially present in each part.  In fact each “part” is nothing but a limited and frontal expression of the infinite whole. Modern science has discovered a somewhat similar phenomenon in the hologram. A hologram is a three dimensional image of an object obtained through a technique using the laser beam. But the interesting part of the holographic image is that when the image is split into small bits, each bit still displays the whole image.

This eastern insight into the unity and wholeness of existence has important implications for developing a truly holistic thought and practice in every activity and life. A truly holistic science has to be based on three principles: first is the unity and wholeness of all life; second is the principle discovered by modern systems theory that a whole is more than the sum of its parts; third is that the whole is potentially present in each part. A holistic way of life must be able to make these principles fully conscious in the life of the individual and the collectivity and express it in every activity of the individual and communal life.

References:

  1. Sri Aurobindo, The Renaissance of India, CWSA, Vol.20, p. 67
  2. Hazrat Inayat Khan, Spiritual Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan, Shambhala Dragon Editions, Vol. II, The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word, p.1
  3. Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle, CWSA, Vol.25, p. 37

[to be continued————–]

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