Integral Musings | Towards a Holistic Vision

An Integral Approach to management and human development based on the spiritual vision of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother with an emphasis on its application to various domains of knowledge and life.

What is Life? – II The Scientific Perspective and the Spiritual Vision – M S Srinivasan

In the first part of this article we have studied the nature of life in the light of modern scientific perspective.  In this part we will explore the spiritual insights of Indian seers and sages, ancient and modern, on this fundamental quest for life.

Prana : The Force of Life

The spiritual vision look at life from a different perspective than that of modern science.  The scientific view observes the material word, tries to understand the material foundations of life and how the living organism emerges from atoms and molecules, carbon and water, DNA and progresses further into cells and organs and the human body and the complex organisation of Nature, mainly through rational analysis, experimentation, speculation and hypothesis or synthesis.  But the spiritual view looks with a direct intuitive vision into the deep, invisible and universal forces behind the material world and when it tries to express itself, arrives at broad concepts and generalizations.  This spiritual vision of Indian seers saw behind the forms and phenomenon of the material world an all-pervading and universal life force or energy, pulsating everywhere, in the atom and the molecule, plant, animal and man, animating the material universe and also the body and mind in man.  The ancient Vedic seers called it as Vayu and later it was called as Prana, the life-force, which expresses in our body as the breath coursing through our nostrils.As the seer of Taittria Upanishad puts it with pregnant brevity. “Pranic energy is the life of creatures; for that is the universal principle of life.”

According to this ancient seer-vision, Life of Prana is the eternal and universal vital energy which creates, sustains and destroys forms in the material universe. It is present in Matter but involved not outwardly manifest, emerges in the plant as the vital response to the environment and the instinctive sensation in the animal. As Sri Aurobindo a modern seer, describes this conception of life:

“It could be affirmed as a consequence that there is one all pervading :

Life or dynamic energy—the material aspect being only its outermost movement—that creates all these forms of the physical universe, Life imperishable and eternal which, even if the whole figure of the universe were quite abolished, would itself still go on existing and be capable of producing a new universe in its place, must indeed, unless it be held back in a state of rest by some higher Power or hold itself back, inevitably go on creating. In that case Life is nothing else than the Force that builds and maintains and destroys forms in the world; it is Life that manifests itself in the form of the earth as much as in the plant that grows upon the earth and the animals that support their existence by devouring the life-force of the plant or of each other. All existence here is a universal Life that takes form of Matter. It might for that purpose hide life-process in physical process before it emerges as submental sensitivity andmentalised vitality, but still it would be throughout the same creative Life-principle.” (CWSA – 21, P- 189)

Life and Matter

According to Indian thought Life and Matter are the two principles which gives birth to the physical universe.  Life is Prana, the vital energy and Matter is not the outer forms of matter as we see with our eyes, but the primal or essential stuff of Matter.  In the Indian thought, this primal stuff of Matter of the physical universe is the Ether, called as Akasha, which is the subtle substance that constitutes the vast extension of space.  The space we see with our eyes is only the gross material expression of this inner space, Akasha. In the following passage Swami Vivekananda describes this Indian conception:

“The whole of this universe according to the Hindu philosophers can be resolved into one material which they call Akasha. Everything that we see around us, feel, touch, taste is simply a differentiated manifestation of this Akasha.  All that we call solids, liquids or gases, figures, forms or bodies, the earth, sun, moon and stars, everything is composed of this Akasha.  What force is it which acts upon this Akasha and manufactures this universe out of it?  Along with Akasha exists Universal Power, all that is power in this universe manifesting as force….is but a different manifestation of that one Power which the Hindus call as Prana.  This Prana acting on Akasha, is creating the whole universe.”

Prana, the vital energy vibrating in different configuration in space, Akasha creates the other four states of matter: gaseous, fiery, fluid and solid.

These four states of subtle matter represented symbolically as Ether, Water, Fire, Air and Earth, in their various combination build the stuff of whatever that is, animate or inanimate in our gross and visible physical universe.  This Indian conception of matter is not very different from the modern scientific perceptions.  According to modern science this “solid” world of matter is nothing but a dance of energy in empty space. In the Indian conception, Energy is Prana and empty Space is Akasha.

However, in this conception, the material entities like carbon or water or complex molecules do not generate life.  They provide only the material condition for the emergence of life which is already there involved in Matter.  As we have discussed earlier, it is the vibration of Prana in space which creates all material forms, which is present in the atom and the molecule. When the material form acquires a certain complexity or sensitivity to open itself to the environment, the Prana, the life-force, which remains closed within itself in the material organism, begins to respond to the outer environment and evolves into a living organism by drawing the inesehaustible energy from the universal Prana in the environment and the flowing light from the Sun which is a concentrated source of Pranic energy in our solar system.  This drawing of energy from the universal Prana or the Sun or the capacity for it is the distinct factor in the living organism which helps to counteract entropy and evolve towards a more complex order and organization.

The Consciousness – Force: The Origin of Life

The spiritual vision of Indian seers penetrated beyond Prana to the very source and origin of life.  Prana is only the vital energy which animates matter in the physical universe.  This pranic energy itself is only a lower expression – at the vital level – of a supreme conscious-force of the eternal Being.  This eternal and infinite conscious force is the primal creatrix of all worlds and all energies in man and the universe – physical, vital, mental and spiritual.  This eternal Conscious-Force of the supreme Being is the ultimate source of life.  As the seer of Prashna Upanishad describes this perception of life in a figurative language:

“The Eternal Father put forth his Energy and by the heat of his energy, prana, Life, and Rayi, Matter or born”.

The “Eternal Father” is the supreme Divine.  In the Indian spiritual conception this ultimate Reality is an eternal and infinite Being, Consciousness and Bliss with an eternal creative Energy inherent and intrinsic in its Consciousness – an eternal consciousness-force which is the creatrix of the world.  It is by this consciousness-force described in the Upanishadic verse as “his energy” the divine Being gives birth to the world. And this primal creative Energy is regarded as the source of all life in the universe – not only the physical universe but also the vital, mental and spiritual universes which are invisible to our senses but pervade our physical universe.  Prana, the vital energy, is only one aspect of this supreme consciousness-force.  The Indian seers perceived this consciousness-force involved in Matter.  A fundamental particle of matter is nothing but a point of consciousness-force lost in its own whirl.  The terrestrial evolution from Matter, Life and Mind is the progressive emergence of this consciousness-force in the plant, animal and man in various degrees and forms. In the following passage Sri Aurobindo masterfully sums up the spiritual vision of life:

“Life then reveals itself as essentially the same everywhere from the atom to man, the atom containing the subconscious stuff and movement of being which are released into consciousness in the animal, with plant life as a midway stage in the evolution. Life is really a universal operation of Conscious-Force acting subconsciously on and in Matter; it is the operation that creates, maintains, destroys and re-creates forms or bodies and attempts by play of nerve-force, that is to say, by currents of interchange of stimulating energy to awake conscious sensation in those bodies. In this operation there are three stages; the lowest is that in which the vibration is still in the sleep of Matter, entirely subconscious so as to seem wholly mechanical; the middle stage is that in which it becomes capable of a response still submental but on the verge of what we know as consciousness; the highest is that in which life develops conscious mentality in the form of a mentally perceptible sensation which in this transition becomes the basis for the development of sense-mind and intelligence. It is in the middle stage that we catch the idea of Life as distinguished from Matter and Mind, but in reality it is the same in all the stages and always a middle term between Mind and Matter, constituent of the latter and instinct with the former”. (CWSA – 21, P-198, 199)

Life and Death

We are now brought to another universal phenomena which is regarded as the opposite of Life – Death.  We can’t perhaps  know what is life without understanding what is death.  We are not talking about the death of our bodies but death as a universal principle of decay, disintegration or dissipation, which seems to be a universal part of life.

A well-known concept Indian mythology, can throw some luminous clues on the deeper truth of death.  In the Mythology of Hinduism, Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver or sustainer and Siva the destroyer are the great trinity of Godheads.  They are the personified symbols  of the triune functions of the divine Being as the Lord of the Universe.  When we strip off the mythological figures, the concept gives an indication of the three processes of universal Life which forms a cycle.  In Life and Nature everything goes through a cycle of birth, growth, decay and death.

Forms are created, maintained for some time and then destroyed.  But in life and nature, death and destruction is a part of the process of renewal and recycling.  Everything that dies or destroyed either becomes the food for other organism or returns into the energy and resource cycles of Nature.  The outer form or body of the individual organism may die or destroyed.  But there is no real death or destruction in the universal life of Nature.  At this universal level death is not the opposite of life but a part or process of life.

Take for example the death of the body.  Only the outer form dies. All the materials which makes the body are broken up and goes back to earth and the psychic and spiritual being which was in the body never dies and goes back to the corresponding subliminal and spiritual worlds from which it came and returns again in new forms in subsequent births.  “Death has no reality except as a process of life” says Sri Aurobindo and elaborates further:

“Disintegration of substance and renewal substance, maintenance of form and change of form are the constant process of life; death is merely a rapid disintegration subservient to life’s necessity of change and variation of formal experience.  Even in the death of the body there is no cessation of life, only the material of one form of life is broken up to serve as material for other forms of life.  Similarly, we may be sure, in the uniform law of Nature, that if there is in the bodily form a mental or psychic energy, that also is not destroyed but only breaks out from one form to assume others, by some process of metempsychosis on new ensouling of the body.  All renews itself, nothing perishes”.

This brings us to the question: is this principle death and destruction as a process of life, and a prelude to renewal of life, an eternal law?  The answer of almost all the great minds in religion, spiritually, philosophy is in the affirmative.  But according to Sri Aurobindo and Mother, Death is not an eternal law but only a millennial habit of Nature.  In Life there are two forces.  First is the force of decay, death and destruction, what modern science calls as entropy.  The other force is that of change, progress renewal and transformation.  The death sets in when the outer forms of life are not able to cope up with the force of renewal, which means they become rigid and unable to adapt itself flexibility to the forces of progress and renewal.

If this problem of mismatch between the forces of death and forces of progressive transformation can be solved, then there is no need of death.  If the outer forms of life or able to change adopt and respond flexibility and adequately to the forces of progress and transformation, then death is no longer needed as a process of life.  As the Mother explains the significance of death and the other possibility which annuls the need of death:

“The individual form persisted as a too binding mould; it cannot follow the movements of the forces; it cannot change in harmony with the progressive change in the universal dynamism; it cannot meet continually Nature’s demand or keep pace with her; it gets out of the current. At a certain point of this growing disparity and disharmony between the form and the force that presses upon it, a complete dissolution of the form is unavoidable. A new form must be created; a new harmony and parity made possible. This is the true significance of death and this is its use in Nature. But if the form can become more quick and pliant and the cells of the body can be awakened to change with the changing consciousness, there would be no need of a drastic dissolution, death would be no longer inevitable.” (CWM, vol.3, p-37).

This possibility of transcending death at a material earthly or collective level is not even conceived by the spiritual or philosophical traditions of the world. The Immorality of the soul or the possibility of immortal life in some heavenly world are accepted by most of the religions and spiritual traditions of the world.  But the possibility of an immortal body or a deathless state on earth is mostly denied as an impossibility except by a few spiritual masters like Sri Aurobindo and Mother and Swami Ramalingam.  Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were the pioneer, in conceiving this possibility in clear and rational terms and the Mother made the attempt in her body to bring the immortal divine consciousness into the cells of her body and infuse the power of progressive transformation into Matter.  But the difficulties involved the effort are immense and formidable.  The millennial habits and beliefs and conception ingrained in earthly matter and in the mind of humanity have to be dissolved and uprooted by patiently infusing the faith and possibility of the deathless state into the very cells of the body.  Such a supreme effort towards transformation can’t be judged by our petty human conceptions of success and failure. What is important is that someone has made the attempt which has its terrestrial consequences and the attempt will be continued by future  generation of seer, sages and Yogis until what is regarded as impossible today becomes possible.  As Sri Aurobindo states:

“Earth’s winged chimeras are truth’s steeds in heaven.  The Impossible God’s thing’s to be”.

The Spiritual Significance of Life on Earth

There is one more important factor which we may discuss briefly before concluding our enquiry into the nature of life.  In the first part of this article we have discussed some modern scientific perceptions which indicate that our solar system and the universe are fine tuned to support life on our planet.  This shows that though earth is physically a tiny, insignificant planet in the universe, it occupies a unique and special position in the universe in nurturing or mothering Life.  Does it have a deeper spiritual significance?  The Mother says in one of her conversations: “The idea could be that the earth is a special experiment of the Supreme in His universe”.  What could be this special experiment?  It is probably the evolutionary experiment from Matter, Life and Mind and in the further march towards Supermind or a higher consciousness beyond the Mind which will culminate in a spiritual transformation of earthly life, bringing down a divine life on earth, which will lead to a perfect fulfilment of all the higher aspiration of human beings for truth, beauty, harmony, love, unity, universality.

According to the Mother, our planet earth is a symbolic point in the universe destined not only to realise this spiritual transformation but also to radiate it into the entire universe.  As the Mother explains this spiritual significance of earth in the universe.

“The formation of the earth as we know it, this infinitesimal point in the immense universe, was made precisely in order to concentrate the effort of transformation upon one point; it is like a symbolic point created in the universe to make it possible, while working directly upon one point, to radiate it over the entire universe.

If we want to make the problem a little more comprehensible, it is enough to limit ourselves to the creation and the history of the earth, for it is a good symbol of universal history.

From the astronomical point of view the earth is nothing, it is a very small accident. From the spiritual point of view, it is a symbolic willed formation”. (CWM, vol.4, p-242).

Summary and Conclusion

The spiritual perspective which we have discussed so far is based on the intuitive vision of seer who can see behind outer appearance to the deeper and inner realities which the senses or the scientific mind cannot perceive.  This spiritual vision perceived a universal vital energy Prana as the source of life which animates all material and living forms in the universe. But this Prana is only one aspect of the supreme Conscious-force Chit-Sakti of the Divine Being, which is the ultimate source of all life in the cosmos.

In our present evolutionary condition, Life and Death are inseparable.  Death is not something opposed to life but a process of life.  It is a means of renewal and recycling of life.  But according to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Death is not an eternal law but only a millennial habit of Nature.  If the outer forms of life can adopt itself flexibly to the inner forces of change, renewal and transformation,  death is no longer needed as a process of life.  This is a future possibility in the womb of Nature.

Physically, our planet earth may be a tiny, insignificant planet.  But our planet has a deeper spiritual significance.  The modern scientific perception that our solar system and our universe is fine tuned to support life on earth is perhaps a reflection of this spiritual significance of earth.  According to the Mother, our planet earth is chosen by the Divine for a unique evolutionary experiment for the spiritual transformation of the planet and radiate this transformation into the entire universe.

Looking at our discussion as a whole, this spiritual vision doesn’t contradict the scientific perspective but complements it, throwing light on deeper and higher dimensions which remain untouched in the scientific view.