Ancient Indian Wisdom and Contemporary Challenges
What are the critical problems of today? And what could be relevance of ancient Indian wisdom in resolving our predicaments when the modern knowledge appears to have been so advanced? Since the last two centuries, humanity has taken a serious turn, and in its worst manifestation, two devastating wars have stormed the entire earth, and in its best manifestation, global aspiration to unite the peoples of the world has taken a concrete form. On its worst side, the survival of humanity on the earth has come under severest attack; on its best side, it has come to be realised that a new consciousness must seize humanity and change human nature so radically that the spirit of oneness and unity not only reigns as an idea and an aspiration but becomes embodied in human life like its living breath.
A significant fact is that the age of the Reason, which began and flourished in the West since the Renaissance and which has spread all over the world in varying degrees of preponderance, is now going to close. The questions which it had raised but failed to answer are now looming large before humanity with imperative pressure. What is truth and whether comprehensive
truth can be known and known with certainty were the questions with which the Age of Reason began, and they have now come to be answered only in terms of probability and scepticism. The hope built up by the Reason that humanity can be so rationally governed that liberty, equality and fraternity can be actualised in the life of humanity has now been demonstrably proved to be unrealisable, since rationality is unable to provide equality, even at the minimum level, without strangulating freedom, and fraternity does not find even an elbow room when Reason goes on constructing mechanising and dehumanising edifices. And yet it is not possible to remain reconciled with the failures of the powers of Reason and to forget the dreams of freedom, unity and brotherhood. The soul of humanity cries out to look for the means by which the ideals of progress can be actualised as urgently as possible.
At the root of all this, it is becoming clearer that we are not only at the turning point of a century or a millennium but at the turning point of a mutation of the human species. Man is a product of evolution, — so has modern science declared; and having reached the acme of experimentation with the highest faculty of Reason, which distinguishes the human species from all other species, will not man press forward to a new step of evolution? Self-exceeding is the very nature of man, — so has modern science concluded; will then man give up his distinctiveness and succumb to the limitations of gospels that counsel contentment within our imprisoning deficiencies? Great philosophers of evolution that have flourished during the last two
centuries have declared that the elan vital will not cease to produce new varieties of human and superhuman species or the urge inherent in Space and Time is preparing the birth of Deity or God in the making or drive of ingression of higher powers of consciousness will continue to liberate corresponding powers imprisoned in man. Flying on the wings of speculation of leading philosophers like Bergson, Alexander and Whitehead, we also see scientists releasing tremendous packets of energies from the atom and grappling with the biological cell to release from it secrets of immortality; and we begin to wonder whether while striving to put our foot on the Moon and to fly to Jupiter, we are not being called upon to return to ourselves, — to something within our inmost being to find answers to the questions, which must be answered. The quest to find these answers has no more remained a pastime or a luxury of an idealist; asphyxiated by the narrow grooves in which we are required to be imprisoned, our call is a call of an imperative necessity.
There appear to be three alternatives before humanity today. The first possibility is to gravitate downwards towards the organisation of life that would keep humanity stagnant within the narrow circle of the satisfaction of animal wants, vital, desires and mental fashions supported by powerful means of communication and transmission and structures or super-structures built and sustained by ever-increasing processes of mechanisation. This possibility seems to be asserting itself more and more powerfully, since instruments like those of television and arts of music
and cinema are producing incalculable impact on vital desires of increasing segments of humanity.
The second possibility is for the humanity to arrive at a better but not ideal organisation of life sustained by increasing circling of the powers of the Reason, somehow adjusted with demands of ethics and religion, accommodated by various compromises, which can easily be bombarded by the greater inrush of the downward pull of the gravitational pull of the powers of Unreason. This is the possibility towards which enlightened but not illumined leaders of humanity are striving to actualise, hoping that such a possibility will not only be actualised but will also sustain itself over a long period of time to come.
The third possibility is contained in the increasing realisation that neither of these two possibilities is worthy of the higher destiny of humanity or any one of them would or should eventually succeed. It envisages the rise of a new aspiration and a new awakening; it perceives that a great psychological revolution will break out that will push humanity beyond its borders of limitations and open up the gates of spiritual and supramental future. This possibility is still not widely understood or shared, but the speed with which humanity is rushing forward or downward will create the power of necessity to be liberated from the imprisoning walls where life-giving oxygen will be found suddenly depleted. It is when this situation will begin to be felt that with increasing pressure humanity will turn to a new quest.
From this brief review of the whole situation, we can formulate the following questions:
When the best possibilities confront the worst possibilities, what are the means by which the triumph of the best possibilities can be secured?
If it is a part of the nature of the human being to continuously cross the limitations of nature, is there evidence that the limitations that confront us even at the borders of our highest possible achievements can be crossed? In other words, do we have any assured knowledge of those faculties and powers, which, when developed, give us a basis for the future evolution of the human being that would open up the path for a better world order?
Do we have any body of knowledge with the aids of which we can build a path leading us from the present critical condition of the world towards a better and smoother progress ensuring the needed perfectibility of the individual and collective life?
It will be seen that these questions are interrelated and demand a vast and strenuous effort of research. Fortunately, the supreme help that we can get in this task of research is the body of writings of Sri Aurobindo, who has left for us a synthetic body of knowledge that includes the best possible articulation of the sum total of humanity's quest from the most ancient times to the present day. With his vast mastery over some of the important Indian and international
languages as also over the vast range of the relevant disciplines of knowledge, he has presented comprehensively the result of his studies of Indian and Western culture, social and political development of humanity, scholarly exegesis of the Veda, Upanishads, and the Gita as also of the religious, scientific and other secular literature that has bearing on the problems of human evolution and its future; he has given us basic clues to be found in the ancient Indian wisdom and in the theistic religious traditions and in the recovered sense of Buddhism, as also in the revelations of the modern knowledge to those answers which we need so urgently and imperatively. In fact, his writings have opened up the lines on which we can fruitfully pursue our question.
Speaking of the ancient Indian wisdom, Sri Aurobindo has said that the recovery of the knowledge contained in the Veda, Upanishads and in the Bhagavadgita is of capital importance and that this recovery should aim at utmost fullness and amplitude. He has further underlined that this research should be accompanied by the development of new philosophical, scientific and critical knowledge in such a way that that ancient knowledge gets fully channelised and utilised for the building up of the new knowledge that is required for breaking the boundaries of the present evolutionary moulds, which are imprisoning humanity into stagnancy or downward gravitation or else into horizontal but vain efforts at amelioration. He also suggested that a supreme effort will be required, particularly on the part of India, to
build up a spiritualised society that would synthesise the best of the East and the West and which would undertake an original handling of our contemporary problems.
In a memorable passage, Sri Aurobindo has stated:
"India has the key to the knowledge and conscious application of the ideal; what was dark to her before in its application, she can now, with a new light, illumine; what was wrong and wry in her old methods she can now rectify; the fences which she created to protect the outer growth of the spiritual ideal and which afterwards became barriers to its expansion and farther application, she can now break down and give her spirit a freerer field and an ampler flight: she can, if she will, give a new and decisive turn to the problems over which all mankind is labouring and stumbling, for the clue to their solutions is there in her ancient knowledge."1
The Veda is, as Sri Aurobindo has explained, a book of knowledge, — not a collection of primitive aspirations and prayers of superstitious barbarians, as many modern commentators have attempted to portray it. It contains "truth of a science the modern world does not at all possess." Sri Aurobindo also discovered in the Vedic hymns the knowledge of the supermind, which he had arrived at independently in his own Yogic research and realisations, and in his great
' Sri Aurobindo: The Foundations of Indian Culture, Centenary Edition, Vol.14, p. 433.
book, "The Secret of the Veda", Sri Aurobindo has described in detail the victory that the Rishis had attained in breaking limitations of human consciousness so as to create a sound foundation for the surpassing of the limits, — a task which humanity needs today to undertake in order to solve its critical problems. When towards the end of the Rigveda, the future task of humanity is described, in brief but powerful words, "manurbhava janaya daivyam janam": (Be first the mental being in its perfection and then generate the divine being), it has behind it a vast body of experimentation with those faculties of inspiration, revelation, intuition and supramental discrimination that begin to operate when Reason is surpassed and faculties of true knowledge and comprehensive knowledge begin to operate. Crossing through the symbolism of Sarasvati, Ila, Sarama and Daksha, Sri Aurobindo has shown how Vedic Rishis had mastered the operations of suprarational faculties so that when we read of them now at a time when we are obliged to transcend the limitations of the Reason, we can move on the right path with an assured body of knowledge, and we may not fall into those irrational and exaggerated claims that often dilute and mislead those who, without necessary ripeness and without perfecting the powers of the Reason, try to enter into the untrodden paths that lie beyond the borders of the Reason.
There is one faculty according to the Vedic knowledge, which can be singled out as the best aid that can facilitate our entrance into the higher realms of true and comprehensive knowledge. That faculty,
intelligent mind, is described in various aspects of its operation,— dhi, medha, mati, smriti, buddhi, manas, chitta, hrit, prajna.
As Sri Aurobindo points out:
"In man as he is at present developed, the intelligent mind is the most important psychological faculty and it is with a view to the development of the intelligent mind to its highest purity and capacity that the hymns of the Veda are written."2
From this point of view, it can be said that the Veda is a science of the mind and the supermind, which lays down effective technologies by which man can carefully be trained, perfected and transported into the operations of the supermind.
The entire discipline of the Veda is an elaborate methodised effort in which various human powers can be intertwined, purified and developed, and they are symbolised under specific and discernible symbols of Agni, Indra, Usha, Pushan, Surya, Savitri, Varuna, Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, Soma, Brihaspati, and many others in a systematic manner. And in the hymns relating to the Rihbus, we have a summary of the entire process of perfection, which can be repeated in human beings. It is fortunate that humanity has this great treasure available to it precisely at the moment when the knowledge contained in it is needed.
There are, according to the Vedas, Upanishads, and
2 Sri Aurobindo: Hymns to Mystic Fire, Centenary Edition, Vol. 11, p. 443.
the Gita, three important powers by the combined application of which, humanity can bring about the triumph of the favourable possibilities in their battle against the unfavourable. The first of them is the power of what may be called a king-idea or the seven-headed Thought or the power of the seven-rayed Thinker, saptaguh. Is it merely a legend when we are told that one can rise into higher plane of swar and rise also into the highest plane of Truth, symbolised by the Sun? A famous hymn of the Rigveda declares the passage from darkness to the supreme light, when it states: "ud vayam tamasas pari swar pashyanta uttaram; devam devatra suryam aganma jyotir uttamam." (We, in our ascent, crossed over darkness and perceived the superior light of the realm of intermediate knowledge; and then the aspirants of the cosmic powers ascended still upwards and arrived at the abode of the sunlight, which is the light of the supreme knowledge.) Again, is it a mere legend when the Chhandogya Upanishad refers to this verse when it is said that Krishna, son of Devaki, attained to supreme knowledge, when Ghora, his teacher, pronounced to him that one Word, contained in that verse. In one sentence, the Veda declares that mere crossing the darkness is not enough, mere attainment of the intermediate light is not enough, but one must rise to the source of the supreme knowledge, the rays of which are multiple and constitute a vast complex multiplicity.
And when Vishwamitra, the great Rishi speaks of the necessity of uniting our intellect with that sunlight up to such a degree that the intellect not only
contemplates the supreme knowledge but is also directed by it, — we have only a summary statement of the methodised effort that is needed for the discipline of the intellect before it can act in the light of true knowledge and in the light of comprehensive knowledge. King-ideas are born of that comprehensive knowledge.
The second power, which is celebrated in the Veda is the power of the master-act, which is inspired by the highest knowledge and executed by the highest will. A master-act is an expression of inextinguishable fire of aspiration, Agni, and as it is described in the very first hymn of the Rigveda, that fire of aspiration is kavi kratu,— Seer-will, the substance of which is satyascitrasravastamah, the collectivity of the highest inspirations that express multiple aspects of the Truth. Action that is inspired by the fire of aspiration has still to pass through mental consciousness, and that consciousness, even when not confined to the surface and even when enlarged into greater widenesses needs to be disciplined by the power of Will, and this disciplined will can be made truth-bearing only when it becomes Goodwill. We find, therefore, in Yajurveda, which can be looked upon as the science of the knowledge of action and its right methodology, the famous hymn where mental consciousness is described in detail, and each of its powers is proposed to be united with Goodwill, shivasankalpa.
At a higher level, master-action is manifested only when it begins to burn with self-giving, which in the
Vedic language, is called yajna.
In the Bhagavadgita, we have a most explicit statement of the assured knowledge that governs perfection of action, of yajna — the knowledge, which could deliver Arjuna, the greatest protagonist of action but gripped by a crisis in which dilemmas of action, inaction and wrong action confronted him and disabled him so completely that he was led to think of escaping from action altogether. We of the modern humanity are facing today a similar crisis, and each one of us is facing similar dilemmas in regard to action, and therefore, that ancient knowledge expounded with incomparable mastery is directly relevant. For each one of us is called upon to recognise what is favourable and what is unfavourable to the future of humanity, and moreover we need to make a difficult choice that can be arrived at by the certainty about the tightness of the needed action. In the ultimate analysis, the master-act that is needed needs to be based upon heroism of the fire of the will, guided by the certainty of knowledge and strengthened by goodwill that would denude us of all our self-conceit, selfishness, and egoism.
The third power is connected with the knowledge of our inmost being and its real origin and its adherence to the support on which our inmost being is rooted. At its highest, it manifests as utter self-giving, adoration and prayer. And here, too, the Veda, the Upanishads and the Gita give us the profoundest message "Know Thyself ", which has been perceived as the fundamental need, if we are to relate ourselves properly with the
world and with all that may be beyond ourselves and the world.
An important message of the ancient wisdom in regard to self-knowledge is that of bondage and liberation and immortality — a knowledge that is so secret and so precious that in order to be qualified even to enter into the portals of that knowledge, what is needed is, as the Kathopanishad clearly indicates, not only utter sincerity but such an earnestness that the seeker is prepared to surmount the highest possible temptations of pleasure, wealth, fame, and all that is normally considered by human beings as desirable, preyas. And yet, it is in the Veda, the Upanishads, the Gita and other records of ancient Indian wisdom that we find non-dogmatic accounts of explorations and a systematic body of repeatable and verifiable knowledge pertaining to this theme. The intricate knowledge of the concept of Purusha in its various poises at the levels of body, life, mind and beyond, both in its dynamic and static aspects, and its relationship with still more difficult concepts of the jiva, and atman or Brahman is considered to be useful if the individual is to be liberated and is to be prepared for perfection. It is on the basis of this knowledge that, according to the ancient Indian wisdom, the harmony between the individual and the collectivity can be created and perfected. Examples of great Rishis and personalities like Rama and Krishna, Mahavira and Buddha and a number of Siddhas illustrate what profundities of knowledge are required if we are not only to repeat what was achieved in the past but also if we are to
recreate, with new knowledge, the perfect relationship between the individual and the collectivity, — perfection in which the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity are reconciled with the perfections of the power of wisdom, heroism, harmony and skills in works, to which reference is made in the famous Purusha Sukta of the Rigveda. When the Rigveda closes with the call to join together, and to commune together in harmony, — samgacchadhvam samvadadhvam, the vision that has been placed before us is that of the perfectibility of the collective life.
In sum, it can be said that the ancient fund of knowledge that India possesses, which even Indians have largely lost or forgotten, needs to be explored with fresh eyes and with scientific rigour as also with unfailing powers of experimentation, so that the challenges that humanity faces today can be met effectively. It will be obvious that a mighty effort is required and we need to be awakened from the facile and soporific gospels that give us false assurances that humanity will somehow muddle through its difficulties and arrive at normal and happy routine of life. Considering the nature of challenges and the issues that have been raised by these challenges, we have to realise that our crisis is an unprecedented crisis and that even ordinary people like ourselves have to share some mightiest efforts in order to surmount our present predicaments and various threats that are directly relevant to the issues of our survival and fulfilment.
We may hasten to add that while the importance of
the ancient wisdom of India is to be underlined, we should not be blind to the need of exploring other systems of wisdom and even new knowledge. Ancient Indian wisdom has always counselled us to rise higher and higher and to be always more and more luminous, unfettered by the past and any dogmas or preconceived beliefs. In India, we speak of the Aryan spirit, and the Aryan spirit is not something narrow or communal or racial, but the spirit of the free man that wants to labour and work with wisdom and with one supreme motive of loka sangrah, the motive of preserving and creating solidarity and unity of the people.