Thursday, November 01, 2007

The works of Sri Aurobindo are the only primary Vedic sources that have ever been written in English

Introduction My intention in this chapter is to introduce what I am calling the ‘Doctrine Of The Subtle Worlds.’ Let me begin by stating in a very bald way the essential points of this doctrine.
  • The physical world is part of a larger system of interlocking worlds.
  • These other worlds are not physical, and they operate according to laws different from those that govern the physical world. They are, nonetheless, objectively real.
  • Processes taking place in those other worlds directly impact what takes place in the physical world – whether or not human beings are aware of them.
  • Human beings can consciously experience those other worlds, and can operate in those other worlds in ways that significantly affect the unfolding of events here in the physical world.

The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds is by no means a new idea. In fact, modern Western civilization is probably the only civilization in history to construct a cosmology which excludes the subtle worlds. Anthropological research gives ample testimony to the fact that tribal people’s at the hunting-gathering stage of development are animistic and include in their cosmologies many disembodied, non-human intelligences and the worlds in which those intelligences have their abodes. Elements of this animistic belief remain prominent in all of the classical civilizations.1 Even as late as Dante, Western civilization operated in terms of a cosmological picture which was dominated by angelic and demonic divine and semi-divine agencies, and which was divided into a terrestrial, sub-lunar world subjected to physical laws and diverse sub-terrestrial and celestial spaces governed by entirely other principles...

By and large, during our waking lives, the sensations that we associate with the physical senses strongly dominate the perceptual field. During sleep, however, or in other altered states of consciousness, the balance between the physical senses and the subtle senses can change. In a dream, virtually all of the sensory experiences that we notice come to us through the subtle channels – the same channels that we use when we remember or imagine. And when we dream, it often seems as if we are awake to a world, a world as elaborate and as detailed as is the world of our waking lives. So, when we examine the field of sensory awareness, we discover that there is a kind of doubling going on. We have a set of five senses that opens on the outer, physical world, and then we have a set of five senses that presents us with a whole other set of interesting and informative experiences. It is quite clear, then, that our subtle senses do play an important part in our knowledge of the real world...

When I began my research for this essay, I was already deeply immersed in the thought of Sri Aurobindo. I have found in his work an approach to theology and to spiritual practice which is entirely satisfying to the deepest parts of my being. But Aurobindo is not only a theologian, a yogi, and a spiritual teacher, he is also a great cosmologist. In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo presents an extraordinary cosmological vision which places the evolutionary physical world revealed by modern science in the context of a vast system of subtle worlds, and places that larger cosmos, comprising both the physical and the subtle worlds, in a meaningful relation to a Divine Absolute...

Sri Aurobindo, the great Twentieth Century philosopher-mystic, took the work of the Theosophists to an entirely new level. Sri Aurobindo brought to his cosmological work three major assets:

  • he was an accomplished yogi who seems to have had personal experience of the subtle worlds;
  • he was well versed in both the Vedic and the Western philosophical and scientific traditions;
  • and he wrote in English. The works of Sri Aurobindo are the only primary Vedic sources that have ever been written in English, and thus have not suffered the diminishment of translation.

Sri Aurobindo’s opus is a masterful synthesis which weaves together Vedic cosmology and Western evolutionary cosmology. In creating a framework for this synthesis, he developed a new version of Vedic metaphysics – a system which he called “Purna Vedanta,” or Integral Nondualism – which provides a context within which he can reconcile these apparently differing cosmological views. Sri Aurobindo has given us the most philosophically coherent presentation of the main outlines of Vedic cosmology that we have in the English language...

Vedic cosmology in general, and Sri Aurobindo’s cosmology in particular, takes the notion of imaginal stuff and thought stuff quite literally. In fact Sri Aurobindo suggests that each of these poises of Consciousness/Force issues in an entire universe, a ‘plane’ or world of manifested existence. The world with which we are, on the surface at least, most familiar is the physical world. Sri Aurobindo, like Alfred North Whitehead, is a panpsychist. He holds that wherever there is Force (or energy) there, too is Consciousness. But in the physical world, consciousness is “shut up . . . in the violently working inconscient sleep of material force.”27 Our civilization has expended its greatest creative energies in exploring the mysteries of this inconscient physical world. We have a great understanding of how matter behaves when the consciousness within it places itself in the service of blind habit...

While human beings are, ultimately, working for the embodiment of a Supramental principle, the development of a fuller functioning of our vital and mental principles would, nonetheless, seem to be a necessary accompaniment to a further evolution.

Finally, as the crowning achievement of this developmental path, Aurobindo suggests that we will discover that the being that is expressing itself through these three bodies is an immortal soul, a being that somehow participates both in time and in a timeless and spaceless communion with the Divine on Supramental levels. This vastly empowering vision of human actuality and human potentiality arises in the context of Aurobindo’s cosmology with its Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds, which this essay attempts to articulate and to support.

Aurobindo offers us a compelling metaphysical system with which he justifies his cosmology, and the arguments presented here are a very vague sketch of that system. But Aurobindo’s arguments begin with a definition of the Absolute. It may be that Aurobindo’s definition of the Absolute is intellectually convincing. It may also be, as Aurobindo claims, that his definition of the Absolute is a description of a possible experience. But in any case this is not empirical evidence that most of us can access at this time. In the remainder of this essay, I will attempt to articulate a different argument that supports the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds – one which – starts not from a definition of the Absolute, but rather from a fresh examination of the structure of our everyday embodied existence that is inspired by the work of Alfred North Whitehead...

The issue of locating the subtle realms in relation to the physical world has occupied human beings for a long time. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is able to reach Hades – which is a region of the subtle worlds – by boat. Later, it became clear that the subtle worlds were nowhere on the surface of the Earth. Dante, therefore, located them both below the Earth and out beyond the orbit of the Moon. With the articulation of perspectival space, which extends its grid-like structure in every direction as far as the imagination can reach, the subtle worlds were entirely banished from the physical domain.159

The Theosophists tried to re-establish a connection between physical space and subtle spaces by invoking a fourth spatial dimension.160 But such a spatial dimension, should it be found to exist, would be just an extension of the measurable spacetime of the physical world, and could not do justice to the complex phenomenology of subtle worlds. Centuries of scientific work have demonstrated conclusively that the subtle worlds are nowhere in physical spacetime. What we are here suggesting is rather that the physical world is somewhere in subtle spacetime. It is a region of the subtle worlds dominated by a society of actual occasions operating according to the peculiarly restrictive extensive relations which we observe among inorganic occasions...

164 See, for example, Robert Monroe, Far Journeys, (New York: Doubleday, 1985)¸ and Bruce, Astral Dynamics. 165 Bruce, Astral Dynamics, 25-29. See also Powell, Astral Body (particularly Chapter 16) for a summary of Theosophical writings on this subject. Aurobindo, Savitri, Book Two, Cantos 3-9 is, in my opinion, the most profound evocation of the various levels of the vital plane which exists in the English language. 166 The Theosophical attempts to imagine these mental worlds are summarized in Powell, Mental Body and Powell, Causal Body. Sri Aurobindo evokes these worlds in Aurobindo, Savitri, Book Two, Cantos 10-11.

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