Life Divine

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* Book: The Life Divine.


Contextual Quote

"The first seven chapters of The Life Divine comprised a sort of extended introduction. Sri Aurobindo approached the basic problem of Being versus Becoming (and, consequently, of the meaning of human existence) from various perspectives and indicated how each could contribute to a synthetic solution.


The Life Divine shows Sri Aurobindo as a synthetic philosopher of spiritual experience for whom both Being and Becoming were real. This was his primary thesis; his first task, therefore, was to confront the claims of both Materialism and Illusionism.


Sri Aurobindo’s treatment of Vedanta was much more extensive; his goal, so to say, to “peel off” the metaphysical layer of Illusionism from the flexible Upanishadic core, then enlarge and transform it into a synthetic whole affirming both the Absolute and the Relative as real and valuable. Besides a dedicated introductory chapter (LD, pp. 20– 28), and a number of allusions throughout The Life Divine, he allotted to Illusionism two full chapters (LD, pp. 428–98).


“There can be no solution of our existence in the universe,” Sri Aurobindo summed up, “if that existence and the universe itself have no reality — even though the reality be only partial, restricted, derivative.” He then passed on to analyse two kinds of Illusionism that did not insist on the absolute unreality of the universe."

- Marcel Kvassay [1]


1. Robert Kleinman:

"The evolutionary cosmologies just considered are the speculative philosophical theories of individual thinkers who stretched their mental powers as far as they could. We now examine a different kind of evolutionary vision derived from spiritual resources ordinarily unavailable to philosophers. It originates with Sri Aurobindo, whose multifaceted genius makes it impossible to classify him in conventional scholarly terms. He was not a philosopher, yet in The Life Divine he wrote an elaborate philosophical treatise on evolution. Not a scientist, his approach to the yogic life was nonetheless scientific in spirit. He was, though, a poet of extraordinary ability who wrote a magnificent epic poem, Savitri. Cosmology was a fraction of his enormous output, but it provides a broad context for understanding his treatment of evolutionary transformation. Sri Aurobindo saw evolution as a spiritual process having as its goal the transformation of our present existence into a divine life. In his view, earth is a unique scene for the emergence of divinity from its encasement in matter.10 It is important to emphasize at the outset that this was not the result of mere speculation. It was rather the outcome of a lifetime devoted to an intensive investigation of the nature of consciousness. Although his vision of an evolving universe holds its own as a purely philosophical theory, to reduce him to a philosopher would miss Sri Aurobindo’s status as a great seer and fully accomplished yogi. His spiritual collaborator and compeer, the Mother, was instrumental in giving a practical focus to his vision. Following an earlier meeting in Pondicherry, she joined him there permanently in 1920. Subsequently, she organized the Sri Aurobindo Ashram to accommodate a growing number of aspirants from allover the world. Her collected works are a spiritual treasury and present pragmatic insights into the practice of transformative yoga.

Sri Aurobindo was born in India in 1872, but was sent to England as a child to be educated in English schools. He studied classical literature at Cambridge University, winning prizes in poetry and passing examinations with high honors. While in England, he familiarized himself with the cultural achievements of Western civilization. After leaving Cambridge, he returned to India and began a serious study of Indian culture. From the moment of his arrival there, a deep peace descended upon him; a great love for India blossomed. Later, Sri Aurobindo became a leader in the nationalist movement for independence from British rule.12 He took up yoga as a means of gaining inner strength for his political work. Under the direction of a teacher named Lele, he quickly realized Nirvana, the experience of the Silent Brahman of Vedanta. This established him in a transcendent consciousness that never left him thereafter. But it was only a beginning, leading ultimately to the working out of a new yoga of human and world transformation. During a year of imprisonment by the British for his revolutionary activities, he had a powerful realization of the Cosmic Divine. This convinced him that the achievement of Indian independence was only part of a larger work to be done. Released from prison, he eventually settled in the French colony of Pondicherry on the Bay of Bengal, where he remained for the rest of his life. In Pondicherry, he originated the unique form of yoga that led him to an understanding of spiritual evolution and the writing of his major works.

In 1914, Sri Aurobindo began a monthly journal, Arya, in which the substance of his later books first appeared. Some of this work was concerned with the civilization of ancient India. In Foundations of Indian Culture, he reviewed the whole range of traditional Indian religion, art, literature, and politics from a spiritual point of view. Besides this, he wrote a brilliant exposition of the Bhagavad Gītā (Essays on the Gita), as well as translations and commentaries on several Upanishads. He made a careful study of the Ṛg Veda, the fountainhead of Indian culture, translating many of its hymns into English and offering an illuminative interpretation of their mystical content.14 In addition, he achieved a masterful integration of the traditional yogic disciplines of India in The Synthesis of Yoga.

Yoga was for him the practical basis for integrating spirit and matter on earth, rather than only a means for liberating the soul. Other books, such as The Human Cycle and The Ideal of Human Unity, were devoted to an examination of the development of human society and its progress toward world unity. In The Future Poetry, he considered the role of poetry as an effective instrument for the evolution of the soul. Noteworthy among his shorter works are The Mother, describing the four powers and personalities of the Divine Mother, and The Supramental Manifestation upon Earth (published in America as The Mind of Light), a series of articles exploring the possibility of a perfected humanity evolving prior to the manifestation of a supramental being.

The two books that best express his comprehensive approach to the universe are The Life Divine and his epic poem Savitri.

In The Life Divine, he presents a synthesis of the philosophical systems of East and West based upon the idea of spiritual evolution. This he founded on an inspired vision of the divine nature of existence. The culmination of his enormous literary output was Savitri, which infused a sustained intensity and profound spirituality into the traditional form of the epic. The poem runs into nearly 24,000 lines of blank verse. After 1926, Sri Aurobindo gave increasing attention to its composition, revising it over and over whenever possible to match his deepening realizations. He also answered innumerable letters daily, for hours at a stretch, regarding all aspects of spiritual life. Our concern in this chapter is with the vision of evolution that he developed in The Life Divine.

Sri Aurobindo’s magnum opus, The Life Divine, is an involved and complex work with a clear methodology. He presents a series of topics in the context of a developing argument, examines several viewpoints relating to each topic, and always concludes with his own position. Since he summarizes each perspective fairly and convincingly, we must distinguish his view from the others. A favorite ploy of philosophers for solving difficult problems is to offer a solution that logically eliminates possible alternatives. But rather than cut the Gordian Knot in this way, Sri Aurobindo carefully unravels its various strands. He then integrates the partial truths they represent into a more comprehensive synthesis. His purpose was not to add one more theory to those already available but to deepen our understanding of the destiny of the soul (psychic being) and explain how we can continue to evolve. A final statement of his thought comes in the last six chapters, after a long winding development like the course of evolution he describes. In these chapters, Sri Aurobindo emphasizes that a divine life is a life lived in and for the Divine and that spiritual evolution must take place in this world.

The first chapter of The Life Divine sounds the keynote for everything that follows. It merits our careful attention because the general principles introduced are developed more fully later in the book.

Chapter I, “The Human Aspiration,” begins with a reference to the age-old longing of the human spirit for a more perfect life on earth:

- The earliest preoccupation of man in his awakened thoughts and, as it seems, his inevitable and ultimate preoccupation,— for it survives the longest periods of scepticism and returns after every banishment,— is also the highest which his thought can envisage. It manifests itself in the divination of Godhead, the impulse towards perfection, the search after pure Truth and unmixed Bliss, the sense of a secret immortality.

Sri Aurobindo points out that, even though these ideals seem to contradict our normal experience, they can be realized by an evolutionary manifestation of Spirit in Matter. Nature’s method is to seek harmony among opposing forces: the greater the apparent discords, the more they act as a spur toward more subtle and powerful harmonies.

But if evolution is the means for achieving this, there must be something deeper that lies behind it:

- We speak of the evolution of Life in Matter, the evolution of Mind in Matter; but evolution is a word which merely states the phenomenon without explaining it. For there seems to be no reason why Life should evolve out of material elements or Mind out of living form, unless we accept the Vedantic solution that Life is already involved in Matter and Mind in Life because in essence Matter is a form of veiled Life, Life a form of veiled Consciousness. And then there seems to be little objection to a farther step in the series and the admission that mental consciousness may itself be only a form and a veil of higher states which are beyond Mind."

The reference to higher states beyond Mind is significant, since evolution proceeds in this direction.

The text continues:

- “For if evolution is the progressive manifestation by Nature of that which slept or worked in her, involved, it is also the overt realisation of that which she secretly is.”

To seek the greater manifestation of divinity in this world is what Sri Aurobindo considers to be our highest and most legitimate end. Since “the secret will of the Great Mother” will not allow us as a race to reject the evolutionary struggle, it is better to accept our destiny in the clear light of reason than to be driven by blind instinct. The chapter ends with a reference to a supramental status of being, which is identified as the goal toward which we should aspire.

The rest of The Life Divine works out the details of this vision."


2. Marcel Kvassay

"Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy in its mature form first appeared in the monthly review Arya between 1914 and 1921. During this period, he occasionally referred to it as a “universal Realism” or a “comprehensive Adwaita.” Drawing on his major philosophical work, this article contrasts his views with those of spiritual Illusionism as exemplified by Buddhism and the Mayavada of Shankara.

Sri Aurobindo’s comprehensive spiritual synthesis lends itself to multiple approaches. These could be broadly classified as biographical, presented in the context of his life, and theoretical, focusing on his writings. Expanding on a review article of the first type (Kvassay, 2009), I will now delve deeper into his philosophy following the online edition of The Life Divine (LD), his major philosophical work. Wherever helpful, I shall incorporate extracts from the other volumes of The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo.

The opening chapter of The Life Divine illustrates the drift of the exposition as well as the difficulties confronting its present-day readers:

- The earliest preoccupation of man in his awakened thoughts and, as it seems, his inevitable and ultimate preoccupation,— for it survives the longest periods of scepticism and returns after every banishment,— is also the highest which his thought can envisage. It manifests itself in the divination of Godhead, the impulse towards perfection, the search after pure Truth and unmixed Bliss, the sense of a secret immortality. (LD, p. 3)

“These persistent ideals of the race,” Sri Aurobindo admitted, are at once the contradiction of its normal experience and the affirmation of higher and deeper experiences which are abnormal to humanity. . . . To the ordinary material intellect which takes its present organisation of consciousness for the limit of its possibilities, the direct contradiction of the unrealised ideals with the realised fact is a final argument against their validity. But if we take a more deliberate view of the world’s workings, that direct opposition appears rather as part of Nature’s profoundest method and the seal of her completest sanction. (LD, p. 4)

Sri Aurobindo’s allusions to materialism in the opening chapters might give the impression that he was trying to convert materialists into spiritual aspirants, but his way of handling the subject disproves it. His editorials and other clues from the Arya (a monthly review in which The Life Divine first appeared) make it clear: his writings were meant for those who were already willing to consider — at least in theory — spiritual experiences as valid pointers to the orders of Reality exceeding the material formula (Essays in Philosophy and Yoga, henceforth EPY, pp. 98–108).

“We have been obliged in our first year,” he wrote in July 1915, “to devote the Review almost entirely to high philosophy and severe and difficult thinking.” He felt in the next year there would be less need to subject the Arya’s readers “to the severe strain . . . of such strenuous intellectual labour.”

The Arya had been conceived as a vehicle of open-ended philosophical and spiritual inquiry:

- We had not in view at any time a review or magazine in the ordinary sense of the word. . . . Nor was it, as in some philosophical and religious magazines in India, the restatement of an existing school or position of philosophical thought. . . . Our idea was the thinking out of a synthetic philosophy which might be a contribution to the thought of the new age that is coming upon us. . . . The spiritual experience and the general truths on which such an attempt could be based, were already present to us, otherwise we should have had no right to make the endeavour at all; but the complete intellectual statement of them and their results and issues had to be found. . . .

Our original intention was to approach the synthesis from the starting-point of the two lines of culture which divide human thought and are now meeting at its apex, the knowledge of the West and the knowledge of the East; but owing to the exigencies of the war this could not be fulfilled. The “Arya” except for one unfinished series has been an approach to the highest reconciling truth from the point of view of the Indian mentality and Indian spiritual experience, and Western knowledge has been viewed from that standpoint. (EPY, pp. 105–6)

The allusion to “the exigencies of the war” referred to the departure of Paul and Mirra Richard, Sri Aurobindo’s collaborators, from India in February 1915. The Western approach to the synthesis was never completed, but it could be argued that Sri Aurobindo’s major revision of The Life Divine in 1939–40 largely restored the balance. Among the Arya writings, The Life Divine enjoyed a privileged position: In philosophy metaphysical truth is the nucleus of the rest, it is the statement of the last and most general truths on which all the others depend or in which they are gathered up. Therefore we gave the first place to the “Life Divine.” Here we start from the Vedantic position, its ideas of the Self and mind and life, of Sachchidananda and the world, of Knowledge and Ignorance, of rebirth and the Spirit. But Vedanta is popularly supposed to be a denial of life, and this is no doubt a dominant trend it has taken. Though starting from the original truth that all is the Brahman, the Self, it has insisted in the end that the world is simply not-Brahman, not-Self; it has ended in a paradox. We have attempted on the contrary to establish from its data a comprehensive Adwaita. (EPY, p. 107) The first seven chapters of The Life Divine comprised a sort of extended introduction. Sri Aurobindo approached the basic problem of Being versus Becoming (and, consequently, of the meaning of human existence) from various perspectives and indicated how each could contribute to a synthetic solution. In later chapters he elaborated these hints more rigorously. I will therefore skip the introductory chapters and start with his overview of “the most ancient Vedanta” represented by the Upanishads: Sad Brahman, Existence pure, indefinable, infinite, absolute, is the last concept at which Vedantic analysis arrives in its view of the universe, the fundamental Reality which Vedantic experience discovers behind all the movement and formation which constitute the apparent reality. It is obvious that when we posit this conception, we go entirely beyond what our ordinary consciousness, our normal experience contains or warrants.

The senses and sense-mind know nothing whatever about any pure or absolute existence. All that our sense-experience tells us of, is form and movement. Forms exist, but with an existence that is not pure, rather always mixed, combined, aggregated, relative.

When we go within ourselves, we may get rid of precise form, but we cannot get rid of movement, of change. Motion of Matter in Space, motion of change in Time seem to be the condition of existence. We may say indeed, if we like, that this is existence and that the idea of existence in itself corresponds to no discoverable reality. (LD, p. 73) It is true that when we look around “with dispassionate and curious eyes that search only for the Truth,” Sri Aurobindo conceded, “our first result is the perception of a boundless energy of infinite existence, infinite movement, infinite activity pouring itself out in limitless Space, in eternal Time”:

- Those who see only this world-energy can declare indeed that there is no such thing: our idea of an eternal stability, an immutable pure existence is a fiction of our intellectual conceptions starting from a false idea of the stable: for there is nothing that is stable; all is movement and our conception of the stable is only an artifice of our mental consciousness by which we secure a standpoint for dealing practically with the movement. It is easy to show that this is true in the movement itself. There is nothing there that is stable. All that appears to be stationary is only a block of movement, a formulation of energy at work which so affects our consciousness that it seems to be still, somewhat as the earth seems to us to be still, somewhat as a train in which we are travelling seems to be still in the midst of a rushing landscape. But is it equally true that underlying this movement, supporting it, there is nothing that is moveless and immutable? Is it true that existence consists only in the action of energy? Or is it not rather that energy is an output of Existence? . . .

- The very conception of movement carries with it the potentiality of repose and betrays itself as an activity of some existence; the very idea of energy in action carries with it the idea of energy abstaining from action; and an absolute energy not in action is simply and purely absolute existence. (LD, pp. 80–2)

“But all this,” he admitted, is valid only so long as we accept the concepts of pure reason and remain subject to them. But the concepts of reason have no obligatory force. We must judge of existence not by what we mentally conceive, but by what we see to exist. And the purest, freest form of insight into existence as it is shows us nothing but movement. Two things alone exist, movement in Space, movement in Time, the former objective, the latter subjective. Extension is real, duration is real, Space and Time are real. Even if we can go behind extension in Space and perceive it as a psychological phenomenon, as an attempt of the mind to make existence manageable by distributing the indivisible whole in a conceptual Space, yet we cannot go behind the movement of succession and change in Time. For that is the very stuff of our consciousness. . . . Duration then, eternally successive movement and change in Time, is the sole absolute. Becoming is the only being. (LD, pp. 83–4)

This clash of “actual insight into being” with “the conceptual fictions of the pure Reason,” Sri Aurobindo maintained, is fallacious. If indeed intuition in this matter were really opposed to intelligence, we could not confidently support a merely conceptual reasoning against fundamental insight. But this appeal to intuitive experience is incomplete. . . . [T]here is a supreme experience and supreme intuition by which we go back behind our surface self and find that . . . there is that in us which is not involved at all in the becoming. Not only can we have the intuition of this . . . but we can draw back into it and live in it entirely. . . . And this stability in which we can so live is precisely that which the pure Reason has already given us, although it can be arrived at without reasoning at all, without knowing previously what it is,— it is pure existence, eternal, infinite, indefinable, not affected by the succession of Time, not involved in the extension of Space, beyond form, quantity, quality,— Self only and absolute.

The pure existent is then a fact and no mere concept; it is the fundamental reality. But, let us hasten to add, the movement, the energy, the becoming are also a fact, also a reality. The supreme intuition and its corresponding experience may correct the other, may go beyond, may suspend, but do not abolish it. We have therefore two fundamental facts of pure existence and of world existence, a fact of Being, a fact of Becoming. To deny one or the other is easy; to recognise the facts of consciousness and find out their relation is the true and fruitful wisdom. (LD, pp. 84–5)

The Life Divine shows Sri Aurobindo as a synthetic philosopher of spiritual experience for whom both Being and Becoming were real.

This was his primary thesis; his first task, therefore, was to confront the claims of both Materialism and Illusionism:

- If we assert only pure Spirit and a mechanical unintelligent substance or energy, calling one God or Soul and the other Nature, the inevitable end will be that we shall either deny God or else turn from Nature. . . . Purusha and Prakriti, the passively luminous Soul of the Sankhyas and their mechanically active Energy, have nothing in common, not even their opposite modes of inertia; their antinomies can only be resolved by the cessation of the inertly driven Activity into the immutable Repose. . . . Shankara’s wordless, inactive Self and his Maya of many names and forms are equally disparate and irreconcilable entities; their rigid antagonism can terminate only by the dissolution of the multitudinous illusion into the sole Truth of an eternal Silence.

The materialist has an easier field; it is possible for him by denying Spirit to arrive at a more readily convincing simplicity of statement, a real Monism, the Monism of Matter or else of Force. But in this rigidity of statement it is impossible for him to persist permanently. He too ends by positing an unknowable as inert, as remote from the known universe as the passive Purusha or the silent Atman. It serves no purpose but to put off by a vague concession the inexorable demands of Thought or to stand as an excuse for refusing to extend the limits of inquiry. (LD, p. 9)

“If modern Materialism were simply an unintelligent acquiescence in the material life,” Sri Aurobindo wrote, the advance might be indefinitely delayed. But since its very soul is the search for Knowledge, it will be unable to cry a halt; as it reaches the barriers of sense knowledge and of the reasoning from sense-knowledge, its very rush will carry it beyond. . . .

The increasing evidences, of which only the most obvious and outward are established under the name of telepathy with its cognate phenomena, cannot long be resisted except by minds shut up in the brilliant shell of the past. . . . It is true that the glimpse of supraphysical realities acquired by methodical research has been imperfect and is yet ill-affirmed; for the methods used are still crude and defective.

But these rediscovered subtle senses have at least been found to be true witnesses to physical facts beyond the range of the corporeal organs. There is no justification, then, for scouting them as false witnesses when they testify to supraphysical facts beyond the domain of the material organisation of consciousness. Like all evidence, like the evidence of the physical senses themselves, their testimony has to be controlled, scruti- nised and arranged by the reason, rightly translated and rightly related, and their field, laws and processes determined. (LD, pp. 16–22)

The scope of this article does not allow me to go into details of Sri Aurobindo’s treatment of Materialism; interested readers may find a concise overview in Evolution (EPY, pp. 169–95)."


More information

More of this text above via

Kvassay, M (2009). A Discerning Tribute (Review of Heehs: The Lives of Sri Aurobindo). AntiMatters 3 (1), pp. 117–136; 3 (2), pp. 99–128.

(EPY) Essays in Philosophy and Yoga (The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 13).

(LD) The Life Divine (The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volumes 21–22).

The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo can be downloaded in PDF format via this URL: