Thus we have the specter of a ‘limited’ ego using ‘limited’ instruments of knowledge- the resultant being a ‘limited’ individual who is not aware of his limitations! Just as our senses mistakenly ‘perceive’ the sun moving around the earth, similarly, our mind also mistakenly thinks that the world revolves around the individual: ‘The truth is not that God moves round the ego as the centre of existence and can be judged by the ego and its view of the dualities, but that the Divine is itself the centre and that the experience of the individual only finds its own true truth when it is known in the terms of the universal and the
transcendent. (The Life Divine, pg61)
'True Truth' vs.
Sri Aurobindo (vide supra) uses the term ‘true truth’ to distinguish from what can be termed as ‘phenomenal truth’. The phenomenal truth has its value to some extent. Thus our ‘perception’ of the sun’s movement around the earth helps us to structure our daily activities. Even our awareness of biological rhythms in nature is tuned to that perception. However if we want to send a spacecraft to Mars, we have to go behind the ‘phenomenal truth’ to the ‘true truth’ of planetary movements. Similarly, the ego as a phenomenon has a truth in maintaining the uniqueness of individuals that
comprise the multiplicity. The ego needs to perform this duty until the individual is propelled by the necessity to universalize oneself or transcend the ego. It is only then that one realizes that the ego is a temporary device, intrinsically false and needs to be replaced by a more mature principle. Sri Aurobindo explains:’…..for the mental consciousness God moves round the personal ego and all His works and ways are brought to the judgment of our egoistic sensations, emotions and conceptions and are there given values and interpretations which, though a perversion and inversion of the truth of things, are yet useful and practically sufficient in a certain development of human life and progress. They are a rough practical systematization of our experience of things valid so long as we dwell in a certain order of ideas and activities. But they do not represent the last and highest state of human life and knowledge’. (Ibid, 60-61)
Dealing with the ego
In Sri Aurobindo’s scheme of things, a mere working on one’s ego is by itself an incomplete endeavor, whether in the field of personality development or in the field of spiritual practice. There are two basic movements that should proceed simultaneously.
The ego has to be replaced by a fourth-dimensional beyond-ego
principle (the Psychic Being);
The instruments of knowledge-viz. sensory perception and reason have to be surpassed by newer supra-rational instruments which have the capacity to unravel the knowledge of the unitary-principle of reality.
Unless the two movements proceed together, the ‘limited’ ego will continue to use ‘limited’ instruments of knowledge resulting in the perpetuation of our ‘limited’ vision of things. If the ego is replaced by a more harmonious and ‘true’ principle while the instruments of knowledge remain unchanged, our vision of the world and ourselves will still be restricted and our attempts at ‘universalization’ and ‘transcendence’ will not succeed. Once we have more developed supra-rational faculties of knowledge at the disposal of the beyond-ego principle, our vision of things will gradually become more holistic, global and integral. This is the approach in the next chapter of the Life Divine named ‘The Methods of Vedantic Knowledge’.
However, the process of replacing the ego is complex and requires a veritable Yoga. It necessitates many other processes, viz.
Activating an inner, ‘subliminal’ being that stands behind the outer being which we ordinarily call ‘personality’;
Having an experiential contact with the deepest core of our being (the beyond-ego principle or Psychic Being) which carries the essence of our most intensely lived experiences;
Cleansing the subconscient so as to minimize resistance to progress;
Having an experiential contact with the Impersonality-principle (the Central Being or Jivatman) above the manifestation that upholds the personality.
There can be two classical problems that need caution:
If the ego is replaced by a higher principle while the instruments of knowledge (viz. sensory perception and reason) are not adequately supplemented by higher supra-rational instruments, then this can lead to a ‘substitution of new but still false and arbitrary ideas for the old and bring about a violent instead of a settled disorder of right values. Such a disorder often marks the inception of new philosophies and religions and initiates useful revolutions. But the true goal is only reached when we can group round the right central conception a reasoned and effective knowledge in which the egoistic life shall rediscover all its values transformed and corrected. Then we shall possess that new order of truths which will make it possible for us to substitute a more divine life for the existence which we now lead and to effectualise a more divine and puissant use of our faculties on the life-material of the universe’.(Ibid. 61)
- There can also be a situation where sensory perception and reason have been surpassed by supra-rational faculties while the ego has been surpassed too, though not yet replaced by the Psychic Being. Instead, the ego has just exceeded its dualistic experience by entering into ‘an unregulated unity’ with some form of consciousness that exceeds the ‘ego’ but falls short of the ‘Psychic Being’. That consciousness may mistakenly be experientially perceived as ‘total’ in comparison to the ‘ego’ but actually lacks the harmony, perfection and holistic nature of the Psychic Being. Sri Aurobindo writes, ‘..an enlargement of our mental consciousness out of the experience of the egoistic dualities into an unregulated unity with some form of total consciousness might easily bring about a confusion and incapacity for the active life of humanity in the established order of the world’s relativities’(Ibid, pg 60).
Indeed, Sri Aurobindo warns: ‘This, no doubt, is the root of the injunction imposed in the Gita on the man who has the knowledge not to disturb the life-basis and thought-basis of the ignorant; for, impelled by his example but unable to comprehend the principle of his action, they would lose their own system of values without arriving at a higher foundation’ (Ibid).
What is the hall-mark of the true individuality that surpasses the ego?
‘That new life and power of the human integer must necessarily repose on a realization of the great verities which translate into our mode of conceiving things the nature of the divine existence. It must proceed through a renunciation by the ego of its false standpoint and false certainties, through its entry into a right relation and harmony with the totalities of which it forms a part and with the transcendences from which it is a descent, and through its perfect self-opening to a truth and a law that exceed its own conventions, -- a truth that shall be its fulfillment and a law that shall be its deliverance. Its goal must be the abolition of those values which are the creations of the egoistic view of things; its crown must be the transcendence of limitation, ignorance, death, suffering and evil’ (Ibid, 61-62).
N.B. Sri Aurobindo always speaks of ‘replacing’ the ego, as it is a false construct, In Chapter VII, He talks about ‘transformation of the limited ego into a conscious centre of the divine unity and freedom’(Ibid, pg 66). As ‘replacement’ does not imply ‘transformation’, this phrase sounds strange. But actually Sri Aurobindo means here a transformation of the values imparted by the ego that can come only by a replacement of the ego by a higher principle.
Beyond the limited ego
The Unitary Consciousness of Sachchidananda which the ancient Vedanta presents as the true nature of the Absolute or Brahman gets embodied ‘in a multiplicity of forms, a variation of tendencies, an interplay of energies’. (Ibid, pg 65). Multiplicity needs the interference of the individual ego which veils the unitary nature of the Brahman. This results in the variety and richness of the world of forms but also results in the inevitable fall-out of divisibility – the triumph of error, sorrow, pain, evil and death. Unfortunately, the later day Vedanta in India became obsessed with the idea ‘that the limited ego is not only the cause of the dualities, but the essential condition for the existence of the universe’ (Ibid). Sri Aurobindo points out the pitfall of this approach and suggests a synthetic solution – ‘Thus we return to the essentially evil and illusory nature of human existence and the vanity of all effort after perfection in the life of the world. A relative good linked always to its opposite is all that here we can seek. But if we adhere to the larger and profounder idea that the ego is only an intermediate representation of something beyond itself, we escape from this consequence and are able to apply Vedanta to fulfilment of life and not only to the escape from life. The essential cause and condition of universal existence is the Lord, Ishwara or Purusha, manifesting and occupying individual and universal forms. The limited ego is only an intermediate phenomenon of consciousness necessary for a certain line of development. Following this line the individual can arrive at that which is beyond himself, that which he represents, and can yet continue to represent it, no longer as an obscured and limited ego, but as a centre of the Divine and of the universal consciousness embracing, utilizing and transforming into harmony with the Divine all individual determinations’ (Ibid, pg 65-66). ‘Ego is the factor which determines the reactions of error, sorrow, pain, evil, death; for it gives these values to movements which would otherwise be represented in their right relation to the one Existence, Bliss, Truth and Good. By recovering the right relation we may eliminate the ego-determined reactions, reducing them eventually to their true values; and this recovery can be effected by the right participation of the individual in the consciousness of the totality and in the consciousness of the transcendent which the totality represents’(Ibid, pg 65).
This relation of the limited ego with its Divine source is symbolically represented in the imagery of the two birds in the famous verse of Swetaswatara Upanishad which Sri Aurobindo quotes at the beginning of Chapter VII:
‘The soul seated on the same tree of Nature is absorbed and deluded and has sorrow because it is not the Lord, but when it sees and is in union with that other self and greatness of it which is the Lord, then sorrow passes away from it’.
Sri Aurobindo elaborates this theme in poetic splendour:
There are two beings in my single self.
A Godhead watches Nature from behind
At play in front with a brilliant surface elf,
A time-born creature with a human mind.
Tranquil and boundless like a sea or sky,
The Godhead knows himself Eternity’s son.
Radiant his mind and vast, his heart as free;
His will is a scepter of dominion.
The smaller self by Nature’s passions driven,
Thoughtful and erring learns his human task;
All must be known and to that Greatness given
His mind and life, the mirror and the mask.
As with the figure of a symbol dance
The screened Omniscient plays at Ignorance.
(Sri Aurobindo, Collected Poems, pg 152)
Date of Update:
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu