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Ken Wilber and Sri Aurobindo

There is no doubt that Ken Wilber has been influenced and inspired by Sri Aurobindo. The question is, how well does he understand the great Teacher who he praises? In most of his books, from The Atman Project onwards, Wilber refers to Sri Aurobindo as one of the sources of his ideas. Yet, as Rod Hemsell observes. all those thousands of pages, there is hardly a page all together of direct quotes from Sri Aurobindo, very little that is direct commentary on his work, and the references are usually to a list of names, among which Sri Aurobindo is included. To give a typical example, from Integral Psychology (2000), "Like all truly great integral thinkers – from Aurobindo to Gebser to Whitehead to Baldwin to Habermas – he (Abraham Maslow) was a developmentalist." And so, one might well ask what actually remains of Sri Aurobindo after his ideas are incorporated, along with all of the other many sources that Wilber's genius has so skillfully worked into his voluminous synthesis...
Rod Hemsell Ken Wilber and Sri Aurobindo: A Critical Perspective

On this page we will briefly look at how Wilber understands Aurobindo, and see that it is consistently Wilber's own take, and that he has missed almost all of Aurobindo's central message, so much so that one wonders if he has even read any of the original sources at all. Although to be fair I often read secondary sources and reviews - for who has time to read all the original writings of all the teachings it becomes a matter of how faithful the secondary source is.

Involution and Evolution

The great cycle of Involution and Evolution of the spectrum of being defines Wilbers early work - Wilber II - as he and others have come to refer to the phase beigining with the 1980 book The Atman Project. Here, inspired by Tibetan Buddhism and Sri Aurobindo, makes a radical from his earlier spectrum of consciousness period to propose a developmental theory based on a Pre-Trans Cycle of Involution and Evolution of Being. As an authority for this position he cites Sri Aurobindo:

"Sri Aurobindo, India's greatest modern sage, has written on just this viewpoint -Brahman getting lost in involution and then evolving back - from matter to prana to mind to over-mind to super-mind and Atman, and he sees it occurring cosmologically as well as psychologically."
The Atman Project p. 313

Yet already the above quote shows an error - for in Sri Aurobindo's teachings evolution is not about proceeding from the metal consciousness "to over-mind to super-mind and Atman". Supermind (one word, capital S, just as it is Overmind, not over-mind with connotations of some modified form of ordinary mind) is not the same as the Atman of Vedanta that Wilber understands via Ramana Maharshi and Adidam. It is a dynamic and mult-modal aspect of the Supreme. Liberation in Paramatman with the subsequent loss of all identity is part of the old "Yoga of Ascent", whereas Aurobindo taught something very different - the "Yoga of Descent". This has never been attained before, and is completely misunderstood by gurus like Rajneesh and Adidam who are stuck in the conventional acosmic-monistic way of thinking.

The following from the same essay is one of the few examples of a direct quote, and shows how Ken "wilberises" (my term, not Hemsell's :-)) Aurobindo, so that what remains is not really Aurobindo at all

Wilber writes: "The higher modes can emerge because, and only because, they were enfolded, as potential, in the lower modes to begin with, and they simply crystallize out and differentiate from the lower modes as evolution proceeds. This is exactly what Aurobindo means when he says: Since this Consciousness [ultimate Brahman-Atman] is creatrix of the world, it must be not only state of knowledge, but power of knowledge, and not only a will to light and vision, but a will to power and works. And since mind, too, is created out of it [Atman], mind must be a development by limitation out of this primal faculty and this...supreme consciousness [that development by limitation is precisely involution] and must therefore be capable of resolving itself back into it through a reverse development by expansion [and that is evolution]."

The highlights and brackets in this quote are all Wilbers, and the reference is to a selection from The Life Divine included in an anthology of Indian Philosophy edited by S. Radhakrishnan (1973, p.598). It is possible to trace it back to the original, which is in The Life Divine, Chapter XIV, The Supermind As Creator.
Rod Hemsell Ken Wilber and Sri Aurobindo: A Critical Perspective

Hemsell notes that in the original, the words Will and Mind are capitalized, and the "it" and "consciousness" that is being spoken of is Supermind, not Atman. The last sentence then reads

"And since Mind too is created out of it, Mind must be a development by limitation out of this primal faculty and this mediatory act of the supreme Consciousness."

And instead of a preference for the Advaitan Two Truths model of acosmsm, Sri Aurobindo then goes on to afirm the positive status of Mind as an aspect of Supermind,a nd a very different understanding of involution and evolution.

"For always Mind must be identical with Supermind in essence and conceal in itself the potentiality of Supermind, however different or even contrary it may have become in its actual forms and settled modes of operation. It may not then be an irrational or unprofitable attempt to strive by the method of comparison and contrast towards some idea of the Supermind from the standpoint and in the terms of our intellectual knowledge. …Supermind is the vast self-extension of the Brahman that contains and develops. …It possesses the power of development, of evolution, of making explicit, and that power carries with it the other power of involution, of envelopment, of making implicit. In a sense, the whole of creation may be said to be a movement between two involutions, Spirit in which all is involved and out of which all evolves downward to the other pole of Matter, Matter in which all is involved and out of which all evolves upwards to the other pole of Spirit."

Hemsell adds

I have followed out this quotation at some length in order to show the depth and scope of the ideas of involution and evolution in Sri Aurobindo's thought, from which Wilber seems to have drawn only a portion of his understanding. What he has left the idea of Supermind as the Creatrix, the Mediatrix, or creative Consciousness-Force of the Brahman responsible for each moment of the involutionary/evolutionary cycle. And the stress here is on Conscious Being, and on Existence, which is all inclusive. In Sri Aurobindo's conception, this process of involution and evolution is conscious, harmonious, divine, at every level...
Rod Hemsell Ken Wilber and Sri Aurobindo: A Critical Perspective

For Wilber then, the realisation of Godhead (or Atman - impersonal absolute) occurs only in transcendence of embodied existence following the final stage of the involution-evolution cycle, while for Sri Aurobindo this sort of enlightenment/liberation is a sort of dead-end state, and the Divine embrace is in the involution and evolution process itself, which is nothing but the activity of the Supermind or Truth-Mind.

On the Supreme Mother

In Up From Eden, Wilber offers an account of the Great Mother/Great Goddess transformation, in terms of Wilber-II theory of human society and culture evolving through stages taht mimic the development of the ego-personality from the pseudo-mystical, state of magical-mythic uroboric union, through to the mythic-membership stage. He argues that there was a historical transition from the primitive practice in neolithic societies of physical sacrifice made to the Great Mother, to symbolic sacrifice made to the Great Goddess, which is finally superseeded by the more rational consciousness in the classical and modern world, which is all part of the upward march of evolution of consciousness. Quite apart from this being a very poor reading of archeology and ethnology (patriarchal cultures made and make sacrifises as well) this interpreation of the Supreme Mother stands in marked contrast - in fact direct opposition to - to Sri Aurobindo's teachings

Hemsell again.

"...this particular example is important to include here especially because of the central importance of the Divine Mother as Mahashakti or Supermind in Sri Aurobindo's cosmology, and as Tranformative Force in Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga. It is curious, however, that Wilber never mentions this aspect of Sri Aurobindo's work, that I am aware of. And I find this omission significant in particular because Savitri is not only Sri Aurobindo's most important written work, but in it the goddess both symbolizes and concretely illustrates the spiritual level of the myth that Wilber interpreted at the ritual and symbolic levels in an early, pre-modern society. But the "spiritual" level of interpretation, which would show the Great Goddess also to be a "real force" for transformation at the post-egoic, and post-modern stage of development seems to have been missed..."
Rod Hemsell Ken Wilber and Sri Aurobindo: A Critical Perspective

Of course, Sri Aurobindo isn't the only one to speak of the transformative power of the Gods. Jung did as well. Just because Jung was a sort of reductionist who reduced everthing to a collective unconscious does not make his phenomenological descriptions of these forecs and their effects on the human psyche incorrect; in fact some of his writings in this regard are amongst the most profound written anywhere.

Going beyond Aurobindo?

Wilber's spiritual guru Adidam, who advocates an Advaitan-Mahayana-inspired monistic worldview, slots Aurobindo in his fifth stage of life because he finds it inconceivable that anyone could strive after having attained limited (6th stage) or complete enlightenment (7th stage of life). In a somewhat similar manner (albeit differently argued), Wilber claims to have gone beyond Aurobindo's philosophical teachings. In Eye of Spirit, he refers to his earlier ideas as the Tibetan/Aurobindo/Wilber II model, or the Aurobindo/Wilber II model, or sometimes simply the Wilber II model. He claims that he is going beyond the understanding of previous thinkers on the evolution of consciousness, including Sri Aurobindo, who didn't have the benefit of modern psychological research. But in fact he is just revealing his own limitations, and adherence to Da-friendly monism.

In any case, to assume that Wilber's psycho-developmental Multiple Lines Development period is superior to Aurobindo's linear model is incorrect, because Aurobindo himself never proposed a linear model of evolution. Aurobindo called his yoga "Integral" (a term adopted by Wilber to describe his own All Quadrants All Levels and current stages) precisely because it involves paralel lines of development. "Integral Education", as envisioned by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, states that is necessary to develop all five aspects of one's being - physical, vital (=emotional), mental, psychic (a concept with no analogies in Wilber's system) and spiritural (this is Wilber's and Da's "atman"). See external link Sri Aurobindo Education Society; also among external link essays of the Mother in Education: Part I, which includes "The Science of Living, Physical Education, Vital Education, Mental Education, Psychic Education and Spiritual Education" Sri Aurobindo also devotes a chapter of the Life Divine to The Triple Transformation of Psychic, Spiritual, Supramental; as Supermind cannot be attained by a single path or aspect of the being alone.

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page uploaded 15 June 2004, last modified 19 June.