Sri Aurobindo's - 'The Life Divine' - The Human Aspiration - Chapter I (2000, Super School Auroville) - Session i (7 July 2000)

I was very pleased last time when we had a dialogue on what is science, what is philosophy, what is religion, what is yoga. Everyone has a copy of the results our dialogue. Then I had asked that every one read the first chapter of 'The Life Divine'. I want to concentrate on that chapter today. You have a good but not sufficient background for this chapter. Therefore, we need to go a little farther.

"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. The ancient dawns of human knowledge have left us their witness to this constant aspiration; today we see a humanity satiated but not satisfied by victorious analysis of the externalities of Nature preparing to return to its primeval longings. The earliest formula of Wisdom promises to be its last, – God, Light, Freedom, Immortality."

The first paragraph of The Life Divine is a summary of the whole book. So if you just understand the first paragraph, you have the key to the whole book. And, that is why I always take a long time to expound the first paragraph of the first chapter. Basically, it consists only of three sentences. From the point of view of English, it is a rather difficult sentence because it contains one parenthesis. And every sentence that contains a parenthesis is somewhat difficult to understand because you have to connect the main clause with the subordinate clause minusing the parenthesis and yet taking advantage of the parenthesis. But the first paragraph is a summary of the whole, the entire history of the world. And it opens out to the future as well. It is something which Mother has asked us to do in the third article of the Auroville's charter. I don't know if you remember the third article of the Charter of Auroville.

"Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realizations."

This is exactly the idea of the first paragraph. All that mankind has done in the past, even what mankind is doing today and therefore what can be foreseen so that we can spring towards the future is given in the first paragraph. Now let us see. "Its earliest preoccupation..." So it starts with the past right from the time when man began to think consciously; because it says "in his awakened thoughts". This is a very important qualification. When man began to think consciously, that thought reflected a preoccupation. That preoccupation, says Sri Aurobindo, – now you need to concentrate on the parenthesis, what does it say? "For it survives the longest period of scepticism and returns after every banishment". This preoccupation survives the longest periods of scepticism. Now the word, scepticism is a philosophical term for an attitude, for a theory, for a principle which raises doubts regarding every belief, every proposition, or every claim of truth. The history of the world can be seen as punctuated by periods of doubts. As is the present period. For the last two hundred years, mankind has been passing through a great period of scepticism, a great period of doubt. This is only the most recent one, but there have been many other periods of scepticism in the history of mankind.

Sri Aurobindo summarises, in a few words: "The earliest preoccupation of man in his awakened thought which survives", that occupation does not lie down. Every period of scepticism is followed again by the return to the same preoccupation. This is a very great reading of the history of mankind. I have spoken to you the tradition of India at length. I have not spoken sufficiently of the tradition of the West. That remains to be done. And in due course I shall come to that aspect also, because you should have both – the tradition of the East and the tradition of the West. And then you can appreciate this sentence very much. You have seen the tradition of India starting with the Veda and the constant terms in the Veda are the last four words which are written in the paragraph. God, Light, Bliss, Freedom, Immortality. The entire Veda is nothing but filled with these four or five words. God, Light, Freedom, Immortality. It is a repeated refrain. So, it is a proof, that right from the beginning man has been preoccupied with these four things. God, Light, Freedom, Immortality. If you read the Western tradition, we shall come to it in due course; you will find the same preoccupation.

Yesterday we had a very good discussion on The Odyssey and The Iliad. We were reading the story of Odysseus, the story of Iliad. And the one theme that was common was the interest of Gods in the world, the participation and intervention of Gods in the world. The whole preoccupation of these two great epics of Greece, written by Homer, is with Godhead. All Gods are recognised as immortal. In these two epics, the theme of immortality is present. There is intervention all the time of Light. There is a theme of bondage of man and freedom of man. So once again you find in these two great epics the same preoccupation: God, Light, Freedom, Immortality. This is in the earliest times.

One of the earliest thinkers in the West was Plato. And the most important element in Plato is his theory of The Good the highest according to Plato is the Good. When we study Plato we shall find out what is the meaning of The Good. According to him The Good is what you normally mean by God. There is a difference between God and Good, but in broad terms, in rough terms, by Good he means what we mean by God – the Supreme – that which is comprehensive of everything, beyond which there is nothing else. So the quest for The Good is the summation of the entire philosophy of Plato. His emphasis on immortality is so great, that Bertrand Russell – you have heard the name of Bertrand Russell perhaps, I have brought a book by him here. It is called The History of Western Philosophy. Bertrand Russell is one of the thinkers of our own times. He passed away only a few years ago at a very ripe old age, and to my mind he represents a culmination of one line of thought; not every line of thought, but one line of thought. If you run on one line which he has chalked out, he marks a culmination. He himself can be called a sceptic of a kind. He does not believe in God, Immortality, and all such things. So he marks that line of thought in which God, Immortality is banished. And yet, when writing on Plato, he has given one full chapter to Plato's Theory of Immortality. This is one of the proofs, that one of the most ancient thinkers of the world was actually occupied with the theme of immortality.

I am showing you this because as young students, you should have in your mind a real concrete understanding, that this sentence that Sri Aurobindo has written is an authentic statement. Word for word it is accurate. And this is Sri Aurobindo's specialty; every word of Sri Aurobindo is authentic, and I am saying this not because I am his disciple, but rather that I am his disciple because he is so authentic! It is the other way round! Every word of Sri Aurobindo is measured, accurate, authentic, illuminating. Sri Aurobindo said one time, in 1912 or 1914, "I want to show mankind Truth in his entirety, without any error". This was his promise to the world, before he started writing The Life Divine and other works that we are familiar with. "I want to show to people the truth without any error", and when you read Sri Aurobindo you can always keep this in mind, and try critically to examine whether this great promise is fulfilled or not, and always you will find yourself rewarded. You will find not even a single comma out of place. It is so authentic. And therefore, when he speaks of the earliest preoccupation – the Veda you know sufficiently well, of the West I am showing you one of the earliest thinkers, Plato, and his main preoccupation was his theory of immortality, a fact acknowledged by a philosopher of present times, who was himself a sceptic. He did not believe in immortality, so he does not bring it out of any partiality towards Plato. Actually he is a great critic of Plato. But Plato's emphasis on immortality is so great that he cannot escape it and so he has to give a full chapter to that aspect. Both in the Eastern tradition and in the Western tradition there is this emphasis upon immortality.

Then you examine the whole history of mankind. This is the reason why I have said that we should have one full session, or at least six sessions on world history; because I would like you to study world history in this context. If you study the whole history of mankind, it is nothing but a perpetual song of God. If you really see from above, stand above the time, the stream of time which has been running on; and if you stand like a bird, above the time, you will see the whole murmur of the river of time singing the song of God. It is nothing but a song of God. You read history, the whole occupation of man, is God. Even when you doubt, and doubt so strongly – whom? Your preoccupation is still with God! You doubt God! You cannot escape Him, even when you want to escape from Him, you doubt whom? For doubting you should be occupied with Him. The whole history of mankind is connected with God. I spoke of the ancient times – but take the Middle Ages. What are the Middle Ages? One of the main events of the Middle Ages was the Crusades. Crusades were the wars between Muslims and Christians. And both of them believe in God, but the way in which they believed, they wanted that the whole world should accept that belief. They were so concerned with their own belief of God, that they wanted all others to accept that belief and therefore the wars; terrible wars between two groups of religious people, in which, not only the religious people but kings and soldiers and men and women, all were involved in these wars. Thus the Middle Ages were nothing but a great preoccupation with God.

You come to the present time. As I said, we are passing through a period of scepticism. And therefore you may find – you may ask where is God in the present world. It is there that Sri Aurobindo writes a very significant sentence for the present times.

"Today we see a humanity satiated but not satisfied by victorious analysis of the externalities of Nature preparing to return to its primeval longings." This sentence gives you the study of the present times. Today's humanity has spent centuries in science. One of the greatest gifts of the modern times is science. And what is science? Science is the analysis of Nature: What is Matter, what is Life, what is Mind? – These are the three terms of nature. Matter, Life and Mind. The last four, five centuries, mankind has spent in analyzing Matter, Life and Mind. But science analyses at a certain level. There can be deeper analyses, deepest analyses, but there can also be superficial analyses. There can be external examinations; there can be internal examination.

Now, if you study the science of today, or at least of the last four hundred years, we shall find that humanity has studied or analysed externalities not the depths, the profundities of Nature, only externalities of Nature. It has seen matter from outside; it has not found ways of examining matter from inside. It is only recently that even through that outside analysis, it has gone deeper, deeper, and deeper. Today we speak of quantum physics, physics at the deepest, narrowest atomic level. Even below atomic, sub-atomic level. And when scientists come to that point they find very surprising things, and they feel baffled. The modern physicists are baffled by what they see at the quantum level. It is unundstandable. Modern physics started with this statement: "You should believe only what you can see". Then as they began to go deeper and deeper and they found that these quanta cannot be seen at all. They themselves have agreed now that quanta exist, but they cannot be seen. So, it is a sign that we have now come to a very bottom point as it were, you have reached a bottom point from which you are returning, you cannot sustain yourself there. You are baffled by the mystery. On this subject, we shall return again and again – it is a very important subject – and I think that we should have, at least, six sessions on the subject of the frontiers of knowledge today. We should cover this analysis of the knowledge we have of the modern world, so that we can know quite confidently where we have reached in our analysis of matter. The very concepts which were challenged in the beginning by physics are being adopted such as only that which you see has to be believed in. Now what you don't see, even that has to be accepted.

I had once spoken of the Law of Contradiction according to which two contradictory attributes cannot be attributed to one thing, in the same place, at the same time, in the same sense. And this is the law that physicists had put forward very strongly. Wherever you find self-contradiction it was not acceptable. Today they find that after going deeper and deeper, the deepest thing is at once a wave and a particle. You can see that particle and wave are opposed to each other, are contradictory of each other. If it is a particle it cannot be a wave, if it is a wave it cannot be a particle. And yet they are obliged to admit, that the bottommost point of matter is at once a particle and a wave. It is also another sign that you have reached the bottom point from where you have to return.

That is why Sri Aurobindo says: "Preparing to return to the primeval longings". Science has been trying to analyse the externalities of nature and having analysed, here is a very beautiful phrase: "humanity is satiated but not satisfied". There is a difference between satiation and satisfaction. Satiated means that you cannot take any more. If you are served with sweets – more and more and more – you may have space to eat more, but yet you say "I am satiated, I cannot take any more". You may not be satisfied, but you are satiated. You cannot take any more. This phrase is so important; it describes exactly, accurately, the state of humanity today. We are satiated, so that we can say – now no more on this line. This doesn't mean we are satisfied to such an extent that we do not want to make further inquiry at all. We want to make further inquiry because we are not satisfied. But on this line we are satiated, because it is enough; we have reached the bottom point. We want to move forward. Move forward to what? ?To the primeval longings. Once again, God is standing there before you and is inviting you to knock at his door. We are now preparing ourselves to return to that. This is our modern mood. This is an accurate statement of whatever is happening today, either people are in the state of satiation but not satisfaction, or having seen this for a long period, they are now trying to wonder where shall we move forward. What will be the field of our enquiry now? And some others have already found the new field of enquiry, and that is why you find mankind today running away from the field of reason, from the field of mind. Even in the field of philosophy, which is the field of the mind proper, there is today the rise of Existentialism. There is emergence of Phenomenalism. There is emergence of Pragmatism. All these movements criticize the role of reason, all of them. They all describe a new call. If you read some of the latest writings from the late Ninetieth and Twentieth Century, some of the most preeminent thinkers have deviated from this quest of the reason. They find Will, not reason, but Will, emphasis is on Will. The emphasis is upon Unreason – discovery of the Unconscious. If you see even the art of the modern times, Picasso and others, you will find the objects seen in the unconscious – you find a half body, crossed by a human head, with violin lying at the back, or a knife being plunged into a part of the body, which seems to be irrelevant. There is no rational exposition. It is reality seen in the unconscious, in which reality is all topsy-turvy. And these are supposed to be some of the miracles of modern art.

It is an evident demonstration that you are satiated but not satisfied, and you want to do something else. A new domain is opening up. So in this way Sri Aurobindo describes: "The earliest preoccupation of man", the constant preoccupation of man, and today's preoccupation of man. And everywhere you find these four words ringing in you. Again and again: God, Light, Freedom, Immortality.

This is all that the first paragraph says. Mankind has always been looking for God, Light, Freedom, Immortality. Even today we are preparing ourselves in the same way and Sri Aurobindo says that "the earliest formula of Wisdom also promises to be the last".

There is one sentence, however, which from the philosophical point of view is perhaps the most important. Now you find a sentence which I have not referred to so far. I have referred to practically all the sentences excepting one which is the most important sentence: "It is also the highest which the thought can envisage". This is a very important phrase. You will find a peculiarity in this phrase. In other phrases you will see the words "seems", "promises". But this is the only sentence in regard to which Sri Aurobindo says, "Is also the highest". You examine the whole paragraph; with regard to other sentences you find "seems", "promises". What is the difference between "seems", "promises" and "is"? Yes?

Answer: Seems and promises denotes a certain doubt and…

Correct. We cannot make an affirmative statement absolutely. While when you say "is", it is a confident statement. The other statements are historical in character. This statement is philosophical in character. This is the value of this sentence. When you speak historically, what will happen tomorrow nobody can say is bound to happen. You can only say it seems it might rain! Nobody can say it is bound to rain. Even if you say so, scientifically it is not correct.

Therefore in regard to all historical statements Sri Aurobindo says "seems" or "promises", but there is one domain where you can be sure. That is the philosophical domain. If you think philosophically, you can be sure. If your statement is philosophically valid you can say, "it is". In other words what Sri Aurobindo says is that mankind has been pursuing God, Light, Freedom, Immortality. These four terms are from the point of view of Truth inevitable, and definitively inevitable. As far as thought is concerned, for thought the highest – whether ultimately man will get God or not, that will be a different matter, he may he may not, but for thought, God is inescapable. You cannot but think of God when you reach in your thought the highest. It is a metaphysical statement, a philosophical statement. Now this is a subject on which I have to tell you a lot. This sentence is a very important sentence; today I will only give an introduction.

I will give an introduction from Western Philosophy: There was one philosopher in ancient Greece, even before Plato, called Parmenides. You should write down his name, because he is one of the philosophers whose thought has played a great role in framing Western Philosophy. I shall give you a sentence which he wrote, which is extremely important in the history of western philosophy, and which is connected with this sentence which you are reading now.

I shall dictate to you the whole sentence, please write it down because you should have it before your eyes. This is a sentence on which you need to contemplate. It is not very easy to understand at first sight. It is a very interesting statement.

"Thou canst not know what is not – that is impossible – nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be."

It is a very simple sentence. In philosophy this is one habit that one should cultivate, to write accurately and thoroughly. No haziness, no ambiguity.

Every word is captured? Now be quiet for three-four minutes and try to understand it. We shall read it twice together. Since it is very important sentence, I am dwelling upon it. And since it is coming from the West, nobody can say it is a biased statement from East.

"Thou canst not know what is not – that is impossible…" Can you ever know what is not? That is the question that is asked. You can know only what exists! You cannot know what does not exist. So, "Thou canst not know what is not – that is impossible – nor utter it…" What is not existent, how can you speak of it? "… for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be." You can think only of that which exists – that which can exist. I think it has a meaning now.

"Thou canst not know what is not – that is impossible – nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be." Thought can only be about that which exists. If you examine the nature of thought, thought cannot escape that which exists. Thought can never speak of that which does not exist. 

Question: Is imagination not a thought?

All imagination, you examine imaginations – you can imagine only that which exists. Not here, it may exist somewhere. "Your face is like a moon" Your face exists, the moon exists. It is an imagination but only because thought can capture only what exists!

Question: One can imagine that immortality does not exist. This is a thought. Yet it actually exists!

These are just words. Thought that has no meaning in it. Every thought to be a thought has a meaning. Otherwise it is not a thought. They are only words. Like abracadabra. Thought, to be a thought, we must really think it. It must have a meaning and the meaning can be derived only from that which exists. In any case Parmenides says that you can be sure of only one thing. Existence. That which is not you cannot know, it is impossible. There he does not say it may be impossible or probably impossible. That is impossible. He makes a categorical statement. It is certain and that is a metaphysical point. When you arrive at a metaphysical thinking, there is no may be or may not be. Historically you may have statements that are may be – may not be. Metaphysically the proposition must end in pure categorical statement. And this is what is here. Parmenides is absolutely certain.

Now if you define God as that which exists thoroughly, then you can say that the highest that the thought can envisage is God. So Sri Aurobindo says, that which thought can envisage is the highest. And it is marked by a categorical statement. Not may be or may not be. Not "probable", not "promises". "It is also the highest that the thought can envisage". It is regarding the Godhead. God, Immortality, these are all the words that basically mean the same. God is immortal, God is Light, God is Freedom – God, Light, Freedom, Immortality. These four terms mean that which exists thoroughly. Without any compromise whatsoever. It is perfect in existence. Therefore for thought, it is the highest that the thought can envisage.

And I am giving you a statement from Parmenides. This is a statement that until today has been a puzzle for philosophers. As with what you said, such arguments have been put forward again and again, and again and again. They have been answered; people feel dissatisfied even when answered, some new propositions are made… In this very book, Russell has given an argument to disprove Parmenides. But when you read it, again you feel, no, no, Bertrand Russell has not been able to answer. I shall read out his last paragraph, Bertrand Russell's own argument.

After discussing Parmenides he says "Parmenides may refute me in the following manner". Then he gives in what manner. Then he adds "I will not attempt to meet this argument now". That means the proposition is so solid. This was written by Parmenides in which year? He lived in 450 BC. Now see how many years have passed since then and how many people have tried to understand it, dispute it, answer it and answer again and answer again, and now this is the last sentence written in the twentieth century by Bertrand Russell: "I will not attempt to meet this argument now". Why? He says, "Because it requires a discussion of memory". He says that unless you discuss what memory is, you cannot discuss this question. He says, "It requires a discussion of memory which is a difficult subject. I have put the argument here to remind the reader, that philosophical theories, if they are important, can generally be revived in a new form, after being refuted as originally stated. Refutations are seldom final. In the most cases they are a prelude to further refinements." This is the final conclusion of the chapter.

This is a very powerful argument. An argument you can arrive at only when you have gone into the depth of thought, again and again and again and again, and this Sri Aurobindo puts in the very first sentence here. "It is the highest which the thought can envisage". God is the highest which the thought can envisage, you cannot escape it.

Now I shall give you one more sentence. It is an elucidation of this very sentence from Parmenides:

"How could it come into being? If it came into being, it is not; nor is it if it is going to be in the future. Thus is becoming extinguished and passing away not to be heard of The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is as to which it is uttered."

Now you think about it for today. I will not discuss this today. It is the same thing that is written in the first two lines. It is the elucidation of the same thing. It only says that that which exists is the highest that thought can envisage. That which exists thoroughly, that which does not come into being now or tomorrow is that which is the highest which the thought can envisage.

I had given you earlier a sentence from the Rig Veda. I shall repeat it "nanunam asti noshwaha" It is not today nor is it tomorrow. "Kastadveda yad adbhutam". Who knows it which is wonderful? That which comes now or which is tomorrow is not the wonderful one. That which is not now is that which is wonderful, that which is – it is that which is wonderful. This is a Vedic statement, which Parmenides has put in his intellectual terms. It is the same proposition. That which is wonderful, when you think and when you admire all the time in thinking and contemplation, which you cannot escape, that is God. That is why Sri Aurobindo says, "It is also the highest that thought can envisage". Although in the previous sentences he says it "seems" historically. It seems it may be the highest, historically. But philosophically, it is the highest. This book is basically a philosophical book. Therefore you now have here a definition of philosophy.

Philosophy is the implication of the nature of thought. All philosophical thought is the implication of the nature of thought. What is thought? If you think about what is thought, then from thought itself, the statement which can come out is philosophy. And the only implication of thought is God. Therefore I call it the first and the last lesson of philosophy. It is a very short study. Philosophy is a very short study. It is only one line. "The highest that thought can envisage is God" Full stop! The first lesson and the last lesson, philosophy is over. This is all that philosophy is ultimately to tell us. And this is the very first sentence that Sri Aurobindo writes in The Life Divine.

"The earliest preoccupation of the man in his awakened thought", and as it "seems" and then he gives the reasons, why it seems. And after giving the reason he says: "Is also the highest that thought can envisage". So where it is an historical statement, Sri Aurobindo puts the word "seems" but where it is absolutely certain in the terms of thought, he uses the word "is". This is the accuracy of Sri Aurobindo. Perfect!

[In answer to a question on scepticism…]

The present state of mankind in the West, particularly, is sceptical. Sri Aurobindo says we are passing through a period of scepticism. But scepticism can survives only if you don't think sufficiently. This point is very important! You can be sceptical only so long as you don't take the trouble to think up to the end. As Sri Aurobindo says, scepticism claims to inquire but refuses to inquire. This is a special self-contradiction of scepticism. It claims to inquire, but at a certain stage he says it refuses to inquire. Then only scepticism can survives. Otherwise it cannot survive. Scepticism is not a resting place. Nobody can ultimately rest in scepticism that is certain. As philosophy can tell you, it is certain nobody can rest in scepticism. It can be a station on the way of your journey, for some time you can stay and amuse yourself with scepticism, but when you come to the crunch, both psychologically and logically, you are obliged to arrive at God. There is no other resting place. You can do whatever you like. You can doubt – it doesn't matter. It is an amusement. Go on doubting. Certainly you can doubt in many hundred ways but your thought, really, when you examine thought, it will say only one thing – God. And that is all. The highest. After doing everything that you want to do, you can somersault on the same point if you want. Or on other points if you want, but ultimately, you come to this conclusion. And that Sri Aurobindo states in his very first sentence.

If you want to play with scepticism, we shall find three–four sessions and I shall run with you in all sceptical propositions one can make. In my life I have spent five years in scepticism. But this statement is the one that remains after all that. So I can certainly say that all scepticism is an amusement. You can play. You can say I am very rationalistic, I am agnostic, I accept only what can be seen, what can be experienced; I don't accept anything else. Fine! Wonderful! Please keep up the whole enquiry, I will say don't refuse enquiry at the end. The difficulty arises when a sceptic at a given point gives up and says: "I don't want to enquire now. It may be. I don't want it. How do you know?" And that is the end of the matter. He does not enquire. He says you prove to me. You can see that the argument of the sceptic is ultimately: you prove to me. He does not want to make the enquiry himself. Tell him: Make the enquiry, go till the end! His proposition is: No, no you prove to me. Until that time I have nothing to do. When you come with your proof, then I shall see whether you are right or not. This is his majesty! So you can play the game of scepticism for ten years, fifteen years and sit in your chair and say like a judge: You come with a proof. The onus of proof is on you. But ultimately you must say, "Look my dear friend, do you want to enquire yourself? Do you want to take the trouble? Are you really keen on knowledge? If he really takes it in his hands and says: "Yes I want to enquire", then he will come to this conclusion.