The Lives of Sri Aurobindo

As I am just finishing the reading of Peter Heehs’s The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, I find it hard to understand the negative reactions and controversies it has triggered. The book offers a balanced and nuanced (non-hagiographical) perspective on the life and work of Aurobindo. The most original aspect of the book is its treatment of Aurobindo’s role in the Indian struggle for independence. I always considered Neo-Hinduism as a by-product of British Colonialism, far inferior to what traditional Hinduism has ever produced. I also remained totally unmoved by a short visit ten years ago to Auroville. This book contributed to give me a much more positive image of Aurobindo and a better understanding of his importance in the intellectual history of modern India (a total enigma to me before reading this work).

The book raises a few important questions that nobody except Aurobindo’s most zealous devotees can afford to ignore: the authenticity of his spiritual experiences as he departs more and more from traditional Hinduism;  the nature of the influence of the Mother onto him; finally the (classical) problems related to the development of an ashram around him.  Peter Heehs confronts these questions without giving definitive answers. (I would add that in general, Peter Heehs always favors the most charitable explanations.)

My recent interest for Aurobindo is directly related to the research I am pursuing about Voegelin and Hinduism. By Voegelinian standards, Aurobindo (like Ibqal at the same period) was a kind of gnostic. His attempt at re-enchanting modernity amounts to a form of immanentisation of Hindu eschatology. Like the Tantra, Aurobindo rejects the doctrine of Mayavada (the characterization of a the world as an illusion). He went further however than the Tantra in teaching a form of “process theology” centered on a dynamic conception of the Absolute, influenced by modern evolutionism. The goal of Aurobindo’s sadhana was not individual Deliverance but a collective enlightenment unknown to traditional Hindu theology and the descent of the supramental consciousness onto earth.  Aurobindo’s community is an interesting chapter in the history of modern utopias.

Aurobindo’s parousianism influenced Western adepts of the New Age but also  played a key role in the development of the Hindu nationalist “political theology”. Originally a “blood and soil” ideology with no intellectual substance, Hindu Nationalism started to borrow from other sources (Gandhian socialism, eco-feminism but also Aurobindo’s mystical theology) by the late 1970s. (The process is well studied by Meera Nanda in her book  Prophets Facing backward). If Aurobindo distorted the Hindu eschaton, the Hindu Nationalists equally distorted Aurobindo’s teaching. The distortion of a distortion was unfortunately not a return to the original.

Voegelin and Whitehead’s Process Theology (preliminary remarks)

As I am moving forward into the study of the intellectual background of Voegelin’s philosophy, I am starting to realize the importance of Whitehead’s Process Philosophy in shaping Voegelin’s critique of traditional metaphysics and his reading of Plato. I came accross studies of Voegelin and William James or Voegelin and Bergson, but to my knowledge there is no systematic comparative study of Voegelin and Whitehead.

Process philosophy finds its starting point in the work of the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. The core intuition of Whitehead is that reality should not be conceived as constituted of individual entities or substances but of events within the process of reality. Reality is constituted of a stream, a stream of what Whitehead calls “actual occasions.” What we see as a “substance” is only a society of “actual occasions”, a series of coordinated processes. Whitehead saw himself as breaking radically with the metaphysics of Being originating from classical philosophy, although he also famously claimed that all of Western philosophy (himself included I guess) was only a series of footnotes to Plato.

Whitehead’s goal was originally philosophical, formulating a new vision of reality more consistent with modern physics (the theory of relativity and Quantum mechanics). Yet Whitehead could not avoid the problem of God. He proposed a radical alternative to Christian classical theology based on aristotelician metaphysics. According to the conception that has prevailed in Christianity, God is a being transcendent to the world, controlling all things and unaffected by anything. In Process and Reality, Whitehead makes a direct link between the classical conception of God and political authoritarianism.

For Whitehead, this conception is both politically problematic and intellectually deficient. God is not separated from the world. He is the flow of creativity in the world itself. God, being the supreme Reality, is not unchanging. On the contrary, he is affected by all the events of the world. Whitehead’s vision comes close to being a pantheism but he nevertheless makes the distinction between two aspects of God, the primordial and the consequential. Whitehead is a di-polar God (hopefully for us not a bipolar God).

The primordial aspect of God is quite similar the God of classical metaphysics. It is the ground of all possibilities in the platonic sense. But “there is another side to the nature of God”.  God is also

“the beginning and the end. He is not the beginning in the sense of being in the past of all members. He is the presupposed actuality of conceptual operation, in unison of becoming with every other creative act. Thus, by reason of the relativity of all things, there is a reaction of the world on God. The completion of God’s nature into a fullness of physical feeling is derived from the objectification of the world in God. He shares with every new creation its actual world; and the concrescent creature is objectified in God as a novel element in God’s objectification of that actual world.”

In this second sense, God is the consequence of all the events that happened in the world. Individuals in the world have a limited awareness of all the previous events or actual occasions that constitute the stream of reality. Only God remembers all the events in the world from beginningless time. He knows them a priori, in their eternal possibility through his primordial nature. But He also feels them through his consequential nature. Being affected by the world, God does not know however in advance the ultimate destination of reality.

“God’s conceptual nature is unchanged, by reason of its final completeness. But his derivative nature is consequent upon the creative advance of the world.” (p.345)

As bizarre as it may sound for a classical metaphysician, God is also a kind of work-in-progress for Whitehead. It is paradoxically the theological side of Whitehead’s work that has received most attention. Christian theologians, faced with the collapse of traditional intellectual landmarks, have seen in process theology a means to modernize their conception of God. What attracted them the most was the conception of a God not only immanent to the world, but also suffering with the world itself. The Christ on the cross becomes the symbol of the whole process of reality. Process theology was most notably developed by Charles Hartshorne.

In his Autobiographical reflections, Voegelin mentions only briefly Whitehead, whom he discovered as an international student in America:

“This year at Columbia was supplemented by the second year in which the strongest impression at Harvard was the newly arrived Alfred North Whitehead. Of course, I could understand only a very small portion of what Whitehead said in his lectures, and I had to work myself into the cultural and historical background of his book that came out at the time, The Adventures of Ideas. But it brought to my attention that there was such a background into which I had to work myself more intensely if I wanted to understand Anglo-Saxon civilization.” (Autobiographical Reflections, Revised Edition with Glossary, University of Missouri, p.58)

This brief mentions contrasts with the explicit statement found in his correspondence with Alfred Schmutz. In it, Voegelin expresses his deep attraction for process theology

“from the Pythagorean tetraktys to the process of Trinity and the kabbalistic mysticism to Schelling’s theory of potency. In process theology one deals with the development of a symbolic system that seeks to express the relations between consciousness, the consciousness-transcending innerworld category of being and the world-transcending ground of being, in the language of an immanently conceived process. I am inclined to believe that the process-theology attempt and its expansion, a metaphysics that interprets the transcendence system of the world as the immanent process of a divine substance, is the only meaningful systematic philosophy.” (Anamnesis, p.74)

Clearly for Voegelin, Process Theology is not limited to Whitehead but includes classical thinkers (Plato in particular) as well as more modern ones such as Schelling or Bergson. One may see the entire project of Order and history as an attempt to build such metaphysics that “interprets the transcendence system of the world as the immanent process of a divine substance.”

Like Whitehead, Voegelin insists on the notion of process. He describes the experience in the metaxy as a tension between two poles. Under no circumstances, these two poles should be reified into substances, otherwise we would lose the insights from the experience of consciousness in the metaxy.

We should not underestimate however the profound differences between Voegelin and Whitehead. The process of reality is the process by which reality becomes luminous to consciousness. The change is at the level of consciousness. Consciousness evolves from compactness to differentiation, not Reality itself. Reality attracts the soul and the soul may respond to Its call but in Itself, Reality (or the “It-Reality”) is beyond time. The dichotomy in Voegelin’s late “mystical theology” (In Search of an order) between the “Beyond” and the “Theophanies” reflects a stronger emphasis of Voegelin on the aspect of Transcendence of God.

As Voegelin explains it, a major defect of Hegelian philosophy, which is in a way a form of process theology, is to suggest that the Absolute is exhausted in the intramundane movement of the Spirit. It is not so obvious to me, at least with my still limited understanding of Whitehead, how Process Theology could respond to the objection that it also immanentizes God. Even the “primordial” nature of God is already an aspect of God oriented toward the possibility of a creation, the possibility of a world. There is no room for a Godhead in the Eckartian sense in Whitehead’s process theology. If, as Voegelin argues, immanentization played a crucial role in the derailment of modernity (the secularization catastrophe), it is hard to decide whether process theology is part of the solution … or part of the problem.