The Myth and Meaning of Originality – M.S Srinivasan

(Is there something like original thinking? This article examines the truth and illusion behind the concept and the belief)

The Meaning of Originality

What exactly do we mean by the term “original idea”. Mostly it means something which has not been thought by others in the past or present and pops up as a virgin idea in my small little brain!

Let us begin with the first part of the belief. An intelligent girl once told me that she thought that she had some very original ideas about education, but when she came across similar ideas in Sri Aurobindo’s works she understood that her ideas are not as original as she believed and many others might have similar ideas. This happens quite often in our ego-centric mentality, not only with ideas but also with inner experiences. When I have a new idea or an inner experience, my ego forgets that it is new only to its own small mind and not to the entire world. Many thousands or even millions of people in the past or present might have had or having the same idea or experience, but my ego thinks I am the only person who is thinking this “original” idea or having this extraordinary experience.

The Mental Influences

When we move from this kind of infantile illusions of originality to what we may call as truly original ideas, like for example the idea of great geniuses like Einstein, how many of them are really original? Even the thoughts of a great genius is shaped consciously or unconsciously by innumerable mental influences like for example the ideas of past thinkers or his mentors or teachers.

We don’t know what are the mental influences behind Einstein’s discovery of the theory of relativity. Many physicists and mathematicians like Minkowski, Lorentz, Poincare, Herbert had already formulated most of the theory of relativity, like the four dimensional space-time, before Einstein. Similarly, Heisenberg, a Nobel laureate and a well-known pioneer of quantum physics, says in his autobiography that some of the geometric ideas and figures of the ancient Greek thinkers led him to the insight which gave birth to the theory which won him the Nobel Prize.

The concept of subconscious by Freud is not entirely an original idea. Before Freud, American thinker William James had a very similar idea and Freud might have taken the idea from James. But what are the influences behind the ideas of William James? Swami Vivekananda used to have long discussions with William James when he was in America. It was reported that James admitted in one of his talks in Ramakrishna Mutt that he was very much influenced by Vivekananda’s thoughts.

This doesn’t mean that all similar ideas are the result of mental influences. When two persons have the same or similar ideas, they could have arrived at it independently through their own reasoning, intuition or experience. As Sri Aurobindo says in a conversation, when an idea-force or a spiritual force descends into the mental atmosphere of the earth, all those who are open and receptive to it may receive and express it in different thought-forms but with an essential similarity of ideas. But mental influences are also a major factor in shaping ideas.

The Universal Sources

However, there are great ideas which express some universal or fundamental truth or laws of Man, life or Nature, which can be called as original ideas, like for example the concept of God, or divine Law which governs the world or the Laws of Nature; inner discoveries of ancient Indian seers like the eternal and universal Self in Man, Oneness of all existence, unity and interdependence of all life, indwelling Divine.

Values like truth, beauty, goodness, liberty, equality, fraternity, harmony. Similarly, in the field of science, some of the fundamental discoveries like the Newton’s laws of motion or electromagnetic theory of Maxwell, are original ideas. The great thinkers or scientists who have conceived these ideas through a primal spiritual or mental intuition and expressed them for the first time in the world can be called as original thinkers. But even, these original conceptions are discoveries of something which already exists and not virginal creations coming out of the mind of the thinker. To comprehend this phenomenon of originality, we must understand how the ideas are formed in our mind.

In the Indian conception every universe and whatever exists in it, is a creative manifestation of some eternal and universal truths or principles in the divine consciousness of the Creator. These truths are conscious-force or creative vibration in the divine consciousness, which determines the deeper truth and law and purpose of each thing in the universe. They are the eternal Ideas which built the world.

At the next lower level, in the higher domains of the Universal Mind, these truth become idea-forces, which are perceived or reflected in the human mind as universal ideals like truth, beauty, goodness, harmony, unity. But in the human mind they are felt as mental abstractions, and not as forces. In the spiritual or divine consciousness they are concrete realities and forces vibrating in the very substance and consciousness of the creative Godhead. In the universal Mind, they are universal mental forces, less concrete than the spiritual, but much more living and tangible forces than the abstractions of the human mind. At a still lower level of the mind, they become thoughts; each idea can give birth to a multiplicity of thoughts.

The discoveries of ancient Indian seers are the result of a spiritual vision, which can see the original truths of the divine consciousness as concretely as we see the chair or wall in front of us, and going still further was able to identify with them in an inner experience or realization. Plato’s conception of truth, beauty and goodness and that of French thinkers seem to be the result of a higher mental intuition which was able to rise beyond the thought-mind to the higher level of pure ideas.

So, ideas do not originate in our human mind. They belong to universal mind or enter into or perceived by our human mind. Our mind is not the originator or creator of ideas or knowledge but only a receptacle or formatious of knowledge. The more we become conscious of this truth and make our minds a more and more transparent, silent, passive and receptive instrument of the universal Mind or the divine consciousness, more we become creative. Similarly our human energies of work and action- physical, vital, mental or spiritual- do not belong to us, but part of the universal energies of Nature or the Divine. When we become conscious of this truth and can make our human creative energies into an instrument of the divine Force, we become creative centers for transforming the world.

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