Groomed in a modern academic tradition and post-Enlightenment ideals of creative freedom and social critique, Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) turned his attention to yoga and the limits of consciousness in its ability to relate to and transform nature. In the process, he documented scrupulously his experiments and experiences based on a synergistic existential framework of practice.
Debashish Banerji correlates the approach to yoga Sri Aurobindo took in his diaries with his later writings, to derive a description of human subjectivity and its powers. Banerji constellates Sri Aurobindo’s approach with transpersonal psychology and contemporary lineages of phenomenology and ontology, to develop a transformative yoga psychology redefining the boundaries and possibilities of the human and opening up lines of self- practice towards a wholeness of being and becoming.
Both scholar and Yogi, Aurobindo (1872-1950) carefully documented the unfolding of spiritual consciousness starting shortly after his deep revelatory experiences white in prison in 1908. His observations were recently published in a two volume set, The Record of Yoga. Debashish Banerji has analyzed this work and offers a detailed, clear, systematic and inspirational interpretation of how the Yoga of Sri Aurobindo may be understood and practiced.
Debashish Banerji is a professor of Indian Studies and Dean of Academic Affairs at the University of Philosophical Research, Los Angeles. He is also an adjunct faculty in Art History at the Pasadena City College; and a Research Fellow in Asian and Comparative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco. Banerji is the author of the book The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore (Sage,2010).
Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) not only wrote voluminously about world philosophy, but he also practised philosophy, in the age-old Indian tradition of the sadhu (sage or seer). Both a scholar and a yogi, Aurobindo carefully documented the unfolding of spiritual consciousness starting shortly after his deep revelatory experiences while in prison, in 1908. His meticulous personal observations, about his spiritual path, were recently published in a two-volume set, Record of Yoga. Debashish Banerji has scrupulously analysed this work and offers a detailed, clear, systematic and inspirational interpretation of how the yoga of Sri Aurobindo may be understood and practised.
True to Aurobindo’s own grounding in the Western philosophical tradition, Banerji provides bridges between the language and outlook of Asia and Europe. Heraclitus, Plato and Nietzsche helped shape Sri Aurobindo’s thought, as much as the Vedas, Upanisads and Gita. Banerji employs the insights of Nietzsche, Bergson, Heidegger, and Husserl to explain the yogic principles of will, spontaneity, and intentionality and the thinking of Deleuze and Irigaray to explore yoga’s emphasis on relationality and transformation. The scientific research of Barbara McClintock and Evelyn Fox Keller similarly, provide apt metaphors employed by Banerji for understanding the complex yoga as articulated in Record of Yoga.
Aurobindo fashioned an architectonic for entering into the experience of yoga, similar to the yantra or mandala constructed by some advanced practitioners of tantric or Buddhist meditation. Aurobindo’s architecture of spiritual experience has seven pillars, each containing four major components. Within this edifice, the spiritual aspirant or sadhaka establishes a habitus, a way of being in the world, a prism through which all action and thought can be reflected and understood and made spiritual. The seven aspects emphasise one’s mental outlook, advocating equanimity and strength amidst all change, the importance of knowledge, the centrality of bodily health and experience, the need for the purification of one’s comportment and demeanour, and the transformation of all experience to spiritual bliss. By conveying this system in its complexity, Banerji captures both the joy to be found in laughter, beauty, and delight, and the hard work to be accomplished through spiritual austerity (tapas).
In addition to providing accessible explanations and charts for some of the more esoteric aspects of Indian thought, such as the cakras and the five breaths, Banerji elucidates philosophical subtleties, exploring the relationships among equality, power, and knowledge. So many stellar themes abound: intuition, observing, austerity, bliss, the nature of surrender, and the vaunted state of desirelessness, to name a few. By carefully engaging and reflecting on this book, the reader will catch a glimpse of what the Bhagavad-Gita celebrates as selfless action. By performing action, not for the sake of oneself or to feel the pleasure experienced by others, one does honour to the divine force, the Oversoul or Purusottama, through which one can know the eternality and delight of existence.
In the summer of 2007, Richard Hartz of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives visited the Gnostic Centre in Delhi and gave a series of lectures relating Sri Aurobindo’s Record of Yoga to certain passages in Savitri. Though the Record of Yoga had been published in book form a few years earlier, I had found it inaccessible, but Richard’s talks and my conversations with him, fired my interest and provided the key for a renewed attempt to approach the text. Further, Richard pointed me to the glossary of Sanskrit terms in the Record of Yoga, available at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram website, and armed with these new resources, I turned to my own studies of this text. Hence, I dedicate this book to Richard Hartz and his many years of patient work at the archives.
In 2008, I gave a set of 10 lectures on the seven quartets of the Record of Yoga at the University of Philosophical Research in Los Angeles, which were turned into a course titled the “Yoga of Integral Transformation”. These lectures form the basis for this text. For this opportunity, I offer my deep thanks to Dr. Obadiah Harris, president of the University of Philosophical Research and to my students at the university, who took the course for two winter quartets, helping me, thereby, to fine-tune the material. My special thanks to Jeffrey Snider, who sponsored the transcription of these lectures, which I used to create this text.
For the initial work of transcribing, proofreading and helping with the editing of the text my thanks go to Subash Mutsuddi, Rakesh Gade and Sundeep Pattem. For reading through the text and offering valuable suggestions, I thank Keka Chakraborty, Vincent Massa, Rich Carlson, Richard Hartz and Christopher Chapple. Others, too many to name, have read through parts of the text and have offered their suggestions, and for this my thanks go out to them. For preparing the charts to go with the text, Amrita Banerji and for the cover design, Zach Penman receive my sincere gratitude.
Last, but not the least, my thanks to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, with whose kind permission, I have included source materials from the collected works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
Sri Aurobindo grew up in England, where he came to know very little about India or things Indian. After his schooling, he took to the study of Classics at Cambridge University, where t encountered the Sanskrit literary tradition. He returned to India in 1893 and joined the services of the ruler of Baroda, where he worked in several administrative positions and as a teacher at the Baroda College. There, he also consolidated his knowledge of Sanskrit, learnt a number of spoken Indian languages and plunged into the fledgling movement against British colonialism, becoming one of the first to declare complete political independence as India’s goal. In 1905, he left Baroda to come to the forefront of the struggle for freedom, becoming n of the initiators of what has been called the svadesi movement r Calcutta, the then British capital in India. It is here that he came across an instance of the exercise of paranormal power that opened his mind to the potential of yoga to affect phenomena beyond normal means. He described this event thus:
I first knew about yogic cure from a Naga sadhu or Naga samnyasi. Barin had mountain fever when he was wandering in the Amarkantak hills. The samnyasi took a cup of water, cut it into four by making two crosses with a knife and asked Barin to drink it, saying, “He won’t have fever tomorrow.” And the fever left him.
An Incalculabe Yoga
Barin was Sri Aurobindo’s younger brother and a collaborator r his anti-colonial efforts, as a leader of terrorist activities. He knew a yogi and when Sri Aurobindo expressed his interest in yoga as a means to acquire power to liberate the nation, he introduced Sri Aurobindo to this yogi, a Maharashtrian by the name of Vishnu Bhaskar Lele. They met in Baroda in 1908 and Lele taught Sri Aurobindo meditation as a first step to quiet his mind. The result of this meditation was profound and beyond the expectation of both Lele and Sri Aurobindo, as it brought him the realisation of the unreality of the phenomenal world, complete cessation of thoughts, and the perception of an intangible Permanence backgrounding all things. This realisation of nirvana, or what Sri Aurobindo would later call “the passive Brahman” became from then the basis of Sri Aurobindo’s life experience, a condition in which he received intuitions, perceptions, directives (ade4a) and further experiences leading him through the steps of what he called “an incalculable yoga” and which he later formalised under the name “Integral Yoga”.
Sri Aurobindo’s political activity continued through all this, and later that year (1908) he was incarcerated along with Barin and other revolutionaries on grounds of “waging war against the king”. The imprisonment lasted for a year during which Sri Aurobindo’s yogic activities intensified and a number of other spiritual realisations came to him. These can be summarised as:
(1) the realisation of what he would call “the active Brahman”, a conscious energy formulating itself into all objects and entities in the universe and at work in them;
(2) the realisation of a person aspect to indivisible Reality (Vasudeva, Sri Krsna), present as the essence of all things and in blissful relation with him (lila);
(3) a hierarchy of impersonal planes or ranges of mind above the normal human mind, leading to a Cosmic Mind (Overmind) and a transcendental Origin of Knowledge (Supermind) of which our universe is a manifestation as a form of Idea (Real Idea).
The Seven Quartets
After his release from the prison, he spent another year in Calcutta continuing his political activity, but departed successively to the French colonies of Chandernagore and Pondicherry, following inner directives (adesas). In April 1910, he settled in the south Indian seaside town of Pondicherry, never to leave this city for the rest of his embodied life. Sometime in the early years of his settlement in Pondicherry (perhaps between 1911-12), Sri Aurobindo received a systematic programme of yoga made up of seven disciplinary components, each with four goals or “perfections”(siddhis). He referred to this programme as sapta catutaya (seven quartets) and began organising his experience to himself in terms of this disciplinary structure from 1912, recording his practices and experiences along these lines in diaries or notebooks, which he titled “Record of Yoga”. In November 1913, he noted down this scheme of the seven quartets on some loose sheets and began elaborating on them, a process which remained incomplete.
He may have also lectured on these quartets to the small group of disciples who stayed with him in these early years. From a number of disciples’ notebooks, we find transcripts of “scribal notes” on these quartets, which are invaluable in filling the gaps and providing a closer view of what he may have meant by the distinctions he drew. From 1914 to 1920, while continuing with relative regularity his diary entries, he also wrote articles for the journal Arya, within which all his major writings were serialised. Among these articles, was his series elaborating his teaching of yoga, which is now available as The Synthesis of Yoga. This text also amplifies the teachings of the quartets and often provides a clearer key for understanding some of its obscurities.
I have drawn on all these and a few other sources, to present the description carried in this book. While such a presentation could be taken as a window into the life of an extraordinary individual practising an exotic discipline about 100 years ago, I believe the intent with which these practices were undertaken, should not be lost sight of in reference to human subjectivity in its present hour of world civilisation. Sri Aurobindo embarked upon the path of yoga as the revolutionary impulse of a modern subject at the cusp of twentieth-century modernity, marked by colonialism. Colonialism is politically no more with us, but the imprisoning forces of modernity are all around us, colonialism continues to haunt developing and underdeveloped nations socially, economically and culturally, while neo-liberal globalisation anonymises humanity across the world, populating planetary cities with complacent quasi-androids in programmed eagerness to consume packaged lifestyles coded for degrees of happiness. The gift of fire with which humanity began its ascent into self-consciousness, today bums no more in human hands, but fuels huge impersonal circulations of capital to which humanity remains imprisoned. What the seven quartets of Sri Aurobindo represents in this situation is no less than the second birth of fire, the fire of conscious evolution, the primal tool for the emergence of the infinite or plural subject out of its subjection to the shredding and pulverising of attention and quality that marks our times.
1910, when Sri Aurobindo moved to Pondicherry, can be thought of as a watershed year. The revolutionary breakthroughs in science, industry and culture which characterised the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth century in Europe, were poised to inundate the world with a new chapter of civilisation, leading into our present times. What has been called the second Industrial Revolution, inaugurating the age of electricity, mass production and the world market was zathering to unleash its global regime, one whose material and psychological effects are fully manifest today. Invasive echnologies would integrate the human individual into circuits of braided global information where subjectivity would be determined, fragmented and commodified, with little freedom of interiority, a behaviourism at the service of the nation state and the world market. At the still centre of this preparing epistemic storm, or perhaps the lull before its inexorable world action, we find Sri Aurobindo in a remote sheltered town in south India, surrounded by a handful of disciples and freedom fighters, searching for a wholeness of subjectivity with which to measure himself against the cosmos. Detached from the forces of the world, a luxury hardly available to anyone in today’s surveilled and engineered psycho-sphere, he prepared the technologies of attention and mobilised consciousness, which became the basis of his own transformation and his teaching. One may see the same revolutionary impulse that drove him to yoke his will to an anti-colonial struggle at work here, to free humankind from dependence and subjection, not merely to an alien nation, but to the bondage, limitations and maladies of his own nature, a teleology of the Machine reversed and countered by a power of creative consciousness aiming at a perfected life. Sri Aurobindo’s experiments in introspection and applied psychology were conducted with the rigour of science, using a methodical framework which was synthetic and integral. This is what he called the Seven Quartets, which are being presented here. He left his conclusions for the future, that humankind may learn to utilise, even in the midst of its subjection to the ubiquitous forces of the world, its affirmative disciplines towards freedom, wholeness, universal personhood, knowledge of oneness, creative power of a complex harmony and capacity to endure and enjoy all experiences as forms of bliss.
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