Sri Aurobindo on the Nirvanic Experience

Among modern yogis, Sri Aurobindo has briefly described his own experiences of Nirvana in one of his letters to a disciple.  In his poetic epic Savitri, Sri Aurobindo gives a more detailed description of the nirvanic experience.  These experiences of Sri Aurobindo may not be exactly similar to that of Buddhist nirvana.  There are possibly many types of Nirvanic experiences.  Secondly, according to Sri Aurobindo Nirvana is not the highest experience, because his experiences did not stop at Nirvana but moved on to more positive and comprehensive experiences.  However, Sri Aurobindo’s description of Nirvana gives a contemporary experiential content to the concept of Nirvana.  Let us briefly examine Sri Aurobindo’s experiences and perspectives on Nirvana.  In a letter to a disciple Sri Aurobindo states:

Now to reach Nirvana was the first radical result of my own Yoga. It threw me suddenly into a condition above and without thought, unstained by any mental or vital movement; there was no ego, no real world—only when one looked through the immobile senses, something perceived or bore upon its sheer silence a world of empty forms, materialised shadows without true substance. There was no One or many even, only just absolutely That, featureless, relationless, sheer, indescribable, unthinkable, absolute, yet supremely real and solely real. This was no mental realisation nor something glimpsed somewhere above,—no abstraction—it was positive, the only positive reality—although not a spatial physical world, pervading, occupying or rather flooding and drowning this semblance of a physical world, leaving no room or space for any reality but itself, allowing nothing else to seem at all actual, positive or substantial. I cannot say there was anything exhilarating or rapturous in the experience, as it then came to me,—the ineffable Ananda I had years afterwards,—but what it brought was an inexpressible Peace, a stupendous silence, an infinity of release and freedom.”[CWSA, Vol. 35, p.  249]

However as we have indicated earlier Sri Aurobindo’s experiential journey did not stop at this Nirvanic experience but proceeded further on to more comprehensive experiences of the Divine.  As Sri Aurobindo explains further:

“I lived in that Nirvana day and night before it began to admit other things into itself or modify itself at all, and the inner heart of experience, a constant memory of it and its power to return remained until in the end it began to disappear into a greater Superconsciousness from above. But mean while realisation added itself to realisation and fused itself with this original experience. At an early stage the aspect of an illusionary world gave place to one in which illusion is only a small surface phenomenon with an immense Divine Reality behind it and a supreme Divine Reality above it and an intense Divine Reality in the heart of everything that had seemed at first only a cinematic shape or shadow. And this was no reimprisonment in the senses, no diminution or fall from supreme experience, it came rather as a constant heightening and widening of the Truth; it was the spirit that saw objects, not the senses, and the Peace, the Silence, the freedom in Infinity remained always with the world or all worlds only as a continuous incident in the timeless eternity of the Divine.” [CWSA, Vol. 35, p.  249-50]

In his epic, Savitri Sri Aurobindo describes nirvanic experience, and the other experiences which followed the Nirvanic, in greater detail.  As the heroine of the epic Savitri, enters into herself and plungers deep into her consciousness, she goes through various forms of psychic and spiritual experiences.  Nirvana is one of them.  Here is an excerpt from Savitri which perhaps sums up the essence the  nirvanic experience:

An eternal zero or untotalled Aught,

A spaceless and a placeless Infinite.

Yet eternity and infinity seemed but words

Vainly affixed by mind’s incompetence

To its stupendous lone reality.

The world is but a spark-burst from its light,

All moments flashes from its Timelessness,

All objects glimmerings of the Bodiless

That disappear from Mind when That is seen.

It held, as if a shield before its face,

A consciousness that saw without a seer,

The Truth where knowledge is not nor knower nor known [Savitri, Vol. 33-34, p. 547-48]

But Savitri’s soul doesn’t seem to accept fully or give final consent to the experience and dissolve into it:

She was a point in the unknowable.

Only some last annulment now remained,

Annihilation’s vague indefinable step:

A memory of being still was there

And kept her separate from nothingness:

She was in That but still became not That.

This shadow of herself so close to nought

Could be again self’s point d’appui to live,

Return out of the Inconceivable

And be what some mysterious vast might choose [Savitri, Vol. 33-34, p. 549]

At this stage Sri Aurobindo describes what are the various spiritual possibilities ahead for the soul of Savitri:

Even as the Unknowable decreed,

She might be nought or new-become the All,

Or if the omnipotent Nihil took a shape

Emerge as someone and redeem the world.

Even, she might learn what the mystic cipher held,

This seeming exit or closed end of all

Could be a blind tenebrous passage screened from sight,

Her state the eclipsing shell of a darkened sun

On its secret way to the Ineffable.

Even now her splendid being might flame back

Out of the silence and the nullity,

A gleaming portion of the All-Wonderful,

A power of some all-affirming Absolute,

A shining mirror of the eternal Truth

To show to the One-in-all its manifest face,

To the souls of men their deep identity.

Or she might wake into God’s quietude

Beyond the cosmic day and cosmic night

And rest appeased in his white eternity. [Savitri, Vol. 33-34, p. 549]

And after sometime, the Nirvanic emptiness is filled up with an absolutely positive experience:

But now she sat by sleeping Satyavan,

Awake within, and the enormous Night

Surrounded her with the Unknowable’s vast.

A voice began to speak from her own heart

That was not hers, yet mastered thought and sense.

As it spoke all changed within her and without;

All was, all lived; she felt all being one;

The world of unreality ceased to be:

There was no more a universe built by mind,

Convicted as a structure or a sign;

A spirit, a being saw created things

And cast itself into unnumbered forms

And was what it saw and made; all now became

An evidence of one stupendous truth,

A Truth in which negation had no place,

A being and a living consciousness,

A stark and absolute Reality.

There the unreal could not find a place,

The sense of unreality was slain:

There all was conscious, made of the Infinite,

All had a substance of Eternity. [Savitri, Vol. 33-34, p. 554-55]

Here Sri Aurobindo says that this more positive experience or reality is not something different from Nirvana.  It was the same Nirvana revealing its positive content:

Yet this was the same Indecipherable;

It seemed to cast from it universe like a dream

Vanishing for ever into an original Void.

But this was no more some vague ubiquitous point

Or a cipher of vastness in unreal Nought.

It was the same but now no more seemed far

To the living clasp of her recovered soul.

It was her self, it was the self of all,

It was the reality of existing things,

It was the consciousness of all that lived

And felt and saw; it was Timelessness and Time,

It was the Bliss of formlessness and form.

It was all Love and the one Beloved’s arms,

It was sight and thought in one all-seeing Mind,

It was joy of Being on the peaks of God.

She passed beyond Time into eternity,

Slipped out of space and became the Infinite;

Her being rose into unreachable heights

And found no end of its journey in the Self.

It plunged into the unfathomable deeps

And found no end to the silent mystery

That held all world within one lonely breast,

Yet harboured all creation’s multitudes.

She was all vastness and one measureless point,

She was a height beyond heights, a depth beyond depths,

She lived in the everlasting and was all

That harbours death and bears the wheeling hours. [Savitri, Vol. 33-34, p. 555-56]

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