Sri Aurobindo and the Mystery of Death by Shrimat Anirvan

Srimat Anirvan

Dear Friends,

Shrimat Anirvan (8 July 1896—31 May 1978) had mastered the Astādhyayi of Pānini at a very early age. After completing his formal education he renounced the world and became Nirvanananda Saraswati. But after a few years he dropped the ochre robes and changed his name to Anirvan by which name he became known to the world at large. He spent a number of years in Lohaghat (Almora) where Madame Lizelle Reymond, a Swiss spiritual seeker, joined him and literally took him to the West through her books. He later shifted to Shillong in Assam and finally to Kolkata where he spent his last years. His first book was a Bengali translation of Sri Aurobindo’s The Life Divine which was described as a “living translation” by Sri Aurobindo himself and was published in two volumes between 1948 and 1951. Another sister-publication, Yoga-Samanvaya-Prasanga, based on Sri Aurobindo’s The Synthesis of Yoga, was published in 1961. According to Ram Swarup: “In translating Sri Aurobindo’s works, he was paying his debt to an elder brother and old friend from another life, as Shri Anirvan once said.” But the centre of his studies was the Vedas on which he acquired a rare mastery over the years. His other published works include his magnum opus, Veda Mimāmsā, (published in three volumes), Upanisad-Prasanga (three volumes on Īsa, Aitareya and the Kena), Gitānuvacana (three volumes), Vedānta Jijñāsā, Pravacana (four volumes) and several others.

On the occasion of Shrimat Anirvan’s 120th Birth Anniversary, an article penned by him on Sri Aurobindo titled Sri Aurobindo and the Mystery of Death has been published in the online forum of Overman Foundation.

With warm regards,
Anurag Banerjee
Overman Foundation


Sri Aurobindo and the Mystery of Death

Shrimat Anirvan

The news of the passing away of Sri Aurobindo had put at first many of his disciples in an embarrassing position before the problem of death.

But his death can also be looked upon as the first sacrifice for a noble cause. Sri Aurobindo in one of his letters speaks of the conquest of death as a problem which can be solved by the Supermind alone, but in which way he does not say. His own death, which cannot be characterized as a normal phenomenon, will appear to many as a masterpiece of supreme art.

Death is natural; and so the grief for the departed. For one who has been born death is the inevitable end, points out the Gītā with philosophical unconcern. If birth and death are the two visible ends of the life-processes, the position of the Gītā is unassailable. If the body has been born, it must die.

And yet man has always hankered after immortality. The explicit ideal of the vedic spiritual realization has been the conquest of decay and death. The theme has recurred again and again throughout the whole of India’s spiritual history and ways and means have been sought to give it a practical shape.

The mind naturally asks: What lies at the root of this persistent idea? An animal has no prevision and hence no thought of death; it is simply overtaken by it and quietly submits. A man can feel death before it actually comes, and so tries to avoid it. This instinctive avoidance of death in its crudest form has been described by the Yogin as abhiniveśa which he explains as soul’s inertia, its fervent clinging to the status quo. It is the worst form of delusion, he says. And yet, it is this avoidance of death, pictured as its conquest by the spirit that has been the age-long quest of human spirituality. Does it not sound like a paradox?

We find a solution if we state the problem in other terms. Death is a form of quiescence. There is a striking parallelism between the three forms of natural quiescence: dreamless sleep (susuptī), death (mrtyu), and dissolution (pralaya). The first is an actual experience, and the other two conceptual, but nevertheless real. We are not afraid of the quiescence of sleep, because we believe it to be a rhythm in an incessant activity. Sleep might very well turn into death, but we feel it will not. There is a hope of resurrection. The experience of life which can be the only meaning of sentient existence, overflows the blank of the daily death.

Consciousness persists in life both through its periodical activity and quiescence. The process is physical; but it can be easily extended into a metaphysical concept by introversive thought. To the three forms of natural quiescence, can be added a fourth, the quiescence of samādhi. An indrawing and consequent intensification of consciousness which characterizes all forms of samādhi, can release its power of transcending all changes. The transcendence might become a living experience which would induce an indelible feeling of timelessness. In this feeling all experiences become homogenous and hence colourless. But this homogeneity can very well become the background of a manifold of heterogeneous experiences. All stimuli from the external world will then draw out from the depth of the being the mono-chromatic reaction of a pure Conscious-Existence—the sole manifestation of the Purusa absorbing and transmuting the shocks of Prakriti into his self-light. And the basis of the idea of the immortality of the Spirit will be in the experience of an abstract and colourless void. The realization of a living death will then be the guarantee for the deathlessness of the spirit. A paradox again!

But ‘the essential immortality of the Spirit’ is confronted by the phenomenon of the eternal change in Nature. The metaphysical idea underlying this is very simple. Viewed conceptually, there is the eternal void of ākāśa with the eternal play of prāna on its bosom. The two ideas do not clash, because it is the basic structure of our consciousness also: we can calmly look at the dance of our own thoughts. The vedic seer has added a rider to the formula: the Void transcends (atitisthati) life. In other words, to be eternally in death will mean giving a free scope to the eternal play of life.

The idea in its setting of universal timelessness is no doubt true. But a problem and a travail of the Spirit ensue when we connect it with the process of time. The universal Spirit endures with universal Nature, let us concede, as a realizable idea. But the realization comes at one pole,— the pole of Spirit, and not at the pole of Nature. Of the three quiescences of Nature, individual consciousness can overflow the first—the quiescence of sleep. But can it overflow the other two? Can eternality be a real experience in time? Rationality based on normal consciousness will very naturally doubt it. Consciousness appears to it to be a by-product of material processes. The living body emits consciousness; when the body disintegrates, consciousness is extinguished. The survival of the soul cannot be scientifically proved. The concept of immortality is an unjustifiable hypothesis born of our power of projecting the consciousness into the future. So argues the materialist.

But the validity of this argument is not absolute. Consciousness does not simply flow out; it can gather itself in, withdraw from its phenomenal play and yet retain a sense of value in intensity. The intensity reveals another form of time—a concentration of duration without losing the potentiality of projection. A moment may contain eternity not in an infinitely drawn out chain of process, but in an extreme consolidation of an ultimate and homogenous meaning. The Upanishads admirably describe this by the term vijñāna-ghana. There the two concepts apparently involve a contradiction. Universality inheres in idea, and consolidation in sensation; there is a juxtaposition between the two, but no fusion. But in yogic consciousness the formless universality of the Real Idea can absolutely contain the whole gamut of consolidation in a uniquely realizable potentiality. In simple words, the One, the Many and the Power (śakti) vibrating between them may form a unitary and comprehensive experience. The concept nearest to this in normal life is that of personality, which when intensified and universalized becomes the metaphysical concept of Ātman.

The Ātman like a spider spins out the web of experience and gathers it in. The first drawing-in we see in sleep, where the mental function is withdrawn, but not the vital or the material. The experience is of a quiescence—a kind of normal seed-consciousness as the Upanishads describe it so often. A deeper quiescence would come when both the mental and the vital functions are withdrawn. This will be what is known as death. But to the normal consciousness, death is not the same kind of experience as sleep; it is rather the end of all experience. This might be true if we associate experience always with activity and heterogeneity, but not with passivity and homogeneity. If, however, quiescence becomes a habitual mode of experience, or in other words, if consciousness becomes a yogic consciousness of natural samādhi (sahaj-samādhi of Kabir), the negative value that we attach to sleep and death might turn into some supernormally experienced positive value. Nidrā samādhi-sthitih—sleep as a poise of samādhi is not a very uncommon experience with the Yogin.

A plunge into the inner depths in a wakeful sleep may open a vista of eternality which can be projected both backwards and forwards. The experience will apparently belong to a measurable duration of normal time, but its meaning will be immeasurable in extension and infinite in formulation. A single experience of this kind will convince the mind of the immortality of the soul. Normally such an experience will come at the point of liberation from the terrestrial chain of existence. If the witnessing Self looks backwards, the theory of rebirth as taught by Indian spiritual science will be the logical outcome. If it is a vision of the future, it will correspond to the idea of eternal life in Heaven. A confusion has been created in some religious beliefs by an attempt to make a universal application of this vision to the after-death existence of souls of different grades of maturity. The Indian idea of rebirth explaining the backward projection, and the idea of liberation by stages (Krama-mukti) describing the forward projection, give a complete logical picture of the whole movement of spiritual evolution.

This vision of eternality when translated in terms of temporal movement, gives the idea of ‘the psychic survival of death’ which is the second of the triple immortality envisaged by Sri Aurobindo. To the unillumined it is a dogma, which up to a certain stage has not much influence on a man’s spiritual evolution. But if spiritual consciousness is essentially an indrawing of the conscious force liberating an awareness of growing intensity whose impact unfolds new worlds of experience, the vision of eternality becomes a power and an instrument in the hands of the Yogin. At the initial stage, the awareness of immortality which sunders ‘the veil of temporal ignorance’ makes death a conscious event in life. At a higher level, it becomes a willed event; and the phenomenon is not wholly rare in spiritual history. A more complete mastery over Nature will be a conscious and willed birth—the idea underlying the theory of incarnation. All this will mean an effective realization of immortality in a process of time, which in a liberated soul will give, at any given point, a total vision of Reality, not necessarily in an omniscience of events, but of truths.

The third form of quiescence, the quiescence of dissolution, need not be considered here, because in Sri Aurobindo’s vision the emphasis has always been on life and creation, though an integral vision cannot draw an artificial line of separation between being and non-being.

The crux of the problem of immortality lies in the third type of immortality which rose in the spiritual vision of Sri Aurobindo and which has been called physical immortality—‘the conquest of the material Inconscience and Ignorance even in the very foundation of the reign of Matter’. This idea supported by the very clear and logical thinking of Sri Aurobindo centres round the idea of transformation.

Human mind has divided the unity of Existence into a duality of Spirit and Matter. The relation between the two can be most clearly and directly seen in one’s own being where a lump of matter has become endowed with life and consciousness. Consciousness as simple awareness and even as active but unmentalized consciousness does not reach a crucial point until it has become the witness consciousness. In this form, an ideal division is made in the body of consciousness itself and the possibility of a consciousness independently centred within its own being is created. Just as a multiplication of impacts from without clarifies and consolidates an objective idea, so inward impacts can build a solid structure of soul-consciousness, which might appear to transcend and remain aloof from its peripheral phenomena. This detachment of the Spirit in its self-formative period is reflected in the mind as duality of Spirit and Matter. But in reality, it is one Substance which can be interpreted in various terms in accordance with the graded experiences of different densities. Viewed from the bottom, consciousness has emerged from evolving Matter. If we maintain the notion of duality, we may say there is an interaction between the two. A better way of putting things would be to advance the Upanishadic theory of the transparency of the substratum (dhātu-prasāda) leading to the luminous expansiveness of the soul-structure. The Upanishadic seer will say, ‘The elements composing the material structure of the body have a gradation of densities, and each has an absolute property which can be released by yogic consciousness. If these yogic properties emerge, the physical body becomes permeated with yogic fire and no longer knows disease, decay or death.’

From the sensuous view of things, in which the Idea appears as a half-real appendage, this might seem improbable. But if the view-point is reversed, if the Idea that is evoked by the sense-contact is looked upon as real reality and if the Will seeks to manipulate these realities on this new basis, a novel order of things might be born. Disease, decay and death might be attacked, as perhaps had been done by the Buddha, with the spiritual forces. One cures the diseased mind and thus cures the diseased body: modern therapeutics knows something of the trick. The conquest of decay and death on the same lines might be looked upon as a case of extension of what has already been achieved. At least the adventure is worthwhile.

But the conquest of death is a problem that can be solved on a cosmic level alone. There must be a complete reversal of the present plan of live-evolution on earth before this can be achieved. Sri Aurobindo saw this and launched into the bold adventure of tackling the cosmic forces. He has been ridiculed and abused for this and often branded as a heretic. ‘It is against God’s plan’ they said. ‘No it is just making way for the inevitable and fulfilling His plan’, was his reply to the charge.

There is no denying the fact that Sri Aurobindo is the first sacrifice in a noble cause. His death very forcefully reminds one of the saying of the rishi of the Purusasūktam: ‘The gods, as they spread the web of sacrifice, tied the Purusa Himself to the post as the victim.’ And if death, as the Upanishadic seer speaks of it, is the concentration of a final illumination of the Heart, Sri Aurobindo’s death has been like an explosion illuminating the horizon of the distant future and its impact on the living has been and will be far-reaching in its results.


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