There is no doubt that Ken Wilber appreciates and has been influenced and inspired by Sri Aurobindo. As I see it, Wilber is (like Jung before him) making a bridge between the exoteric and esoteric. The Wilber-Aurobindo connection is especially interesting, Wilber seems to be an important channel for the expression of the Aurobindo thought-form in America at the moment. Sri Aurobindo is too obscure for many people, because he uses too many words and it puts people off; to say nothing of the subtlety of his concepts, which fall outside the pop-guru paradigm. But Wilber has a knack of simplifying, and this then means that - through Wilbers own very widely printed works - Sri Aurobindo becomes better known and respected. Unfortunately, for all Ken's good intentions, he often misinterprets those teachings he writes about. Hence the current essay.
How well does Ken Wilber understand Sri Aurobindo? In most of his books, from The Atman Project onwards, Wilber refers to Sri Aurobindo as one of the sources of his ideas. Let us consider then, first, where Wilber faifthfully represents the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, second, where he critiques and disagrees with them, and third, where he uses Sri Aurobindo as an authority or refernec, but instead inserts his own interpretation
Wilber does adopt from Sri Aurobindo a certain premise that is common to both. It is this: that following an original involution, evolution proceeds through the successive stages of matter, life, and mind, and beyond the ordinary mental level to progressive stages of higher spiritual consciousness, and finally the Absolute. This is a simple yet distinctive teaching, that our current mental attianment is not the highest state of consciousness, and that moreover there are intermediate states of higher mental or higher spiritual consciousness between our current mental evolutionary level and the Absolute.
And as far as I know, and apart from them both using the term "integral" (albeit in completely different ways), and both accepting reincarnation (although Wilber has as yet not incorporated this into his AQAL philosophy), this seems to be the only thing they have in common, regarding their respective teachings. Which means that any Integral Theory that is built on the teachings of both Sri Aurobindo and Ken Wilber (i.e. Integral in the broad sense) has to be based only on or around this single (albeit important) theme. Even their definition of Realisation of the Absolute is totally different, as we will see.
Wilber's Critique of Sri Aurobindo is the same as his critique of the Perennial cosmology in general. The various metaphysical levels of being that make up the ontological gradation that Sri Aurobindo refers to (the levels or planes of matter, life, mind, overmind, supermind, and above - see e.g. The Life Divine, Book 1, Chapters 26-28), and can - in its broadest brush-strokes, be considered a common truth in most esoteric and certainly all emanationist cosmologies, according to Wilber actually refer to nothing but lower and higher nested holons within a single holarchy. There is no metaphysics, or metaphysical realities, only a four-fold (four quadrant) reality in which objective exteriors and subjective interiors are two aspects of the same reality (the question of how there can be involution and emanation from higher realities if there are no realities totally unconnected to the external/objective is left unexplained).
The above two sections show how Wilber has been both influenced by, and departs from, Sri Aurobindo. The question we should look at now is, how well does Ken actually understood what the great Indian sage is saying, and if so does he convey this faithfully, or if not does he instead insert his own meanings and ideas into Sri Aurobindo's words?
The problem, to begin with, is Wilber's lack of specialised scholarship. While he has a vast general knowledge and intellectual familiarity with more teachings and theories then most people could learn in several lifetimes, when we zero in on a particular tecahing or spiritual or philosophical tradition, he has very little to say regarding that, in isolation from other teachings or philosophies. Instead, he presents a vast overall amalgamation. As Rod Hemsell observes:
...in all those thousands of pages, there is hardly a page all together of direct quotes from Sri Aurobindo, very little that is direct commentary on his work, and the references are usually to a list of names, among which Sri Aurobindo is included. To give a typical example, from Integral Psychology (2000), "Like all truly great integral thinkers - from Aurobindo to Gebser to Whitehead to Baldwin to Habermas - he (Abraham Maslow) was a developmentalist." And so, one might well ask what actually remains of Sri Aurobindo after his ideas are incorporated, along with all of the other many sources that Wilber's genius has so skillfully worked into his voluminous synthesis...
It is my observation that, in areas where what Sri Aurobindo says is in accord with the Vedantic or mystical tradition in general, Wilber understands him very well, and incorporates his ideas faithfully. However, in those areas where Sri Aurobindo breaks from the consensus - which, as a very innovative thinker and modern day synthesiser , he often does - Wilber either ignores or grossly misinterprets what he says. On this page we will briefly look at several instances where Wilber has interpreted Sri Aurobindo's more original teachings, and see that it is consistently Wilber's own take, and that he has missed almost all of Aurobindo's central message. I have here for the most part followed and summarised Rod Hemsell, whose excellent if somewhat long-quoted critique is worth reading for any students who are interested in both Sri Aurobidno and Ken Wilber. At the end of the essay I give a few possible explanations as to why Wilber may have gone wrong in his failure to "grok" some of Aurobindo's more profound and revolutionary teachings.
The great cycle of Involution and Evolution of the spectrum of being defines Wilbers early work - Wilber II - as he and others have come to refer to the phase beginning with the 1980 book The Atman Project. Here, inspired by Tibetan Buddhism and Sri Aurobindo, makes a radical from his earlier spectrum of consciousness period to propose a developmental theory based on a Pre-Trans Cycle of Involution and Evolution of Being. As an authority for this position he cites Sri Aurobindo:
"Sri Aurobindo, India's greatest modern sage, has written on just this viewpoint -Brahman getting lost in involution and then evolving back - from matter to prana to mind to over-mind to super-mind and Atman, and he sees it occurring cosmologically as well as psychologically."
Yet already the above quote shows an error. small and harmless as it may seem, but it points to a large and common misunderstanding. Sri Aurobindo's teachings evolution is not about proceeding from the mental consciousness "to over-mind to super-mind and Atman". When reading Aurobindo one has to bear in mind that the dynamic aspect of the Divine that he calls Supermind (one word, capital S, just as it is Overmind, not over-mind with connotations of some modified form of ordinary mind) is not the same as the Atman of Vedanta that Wilber understands via Ramana Maharshi and Adidam. It is a dynamic and multi-modal aspect of the Supreme. Liberation in Paramatman with the subsequent loss of all identity is part of the old "Yoga of Ascent", whereas Aurobindo taught something very different - the "Yoga of Descent". He never taught the goal as the attainment of paramatman or nirvana. He certainly did not deny that that state can be attained, but it is not the aim of his own message. For Aurobindo the goal is Supermind. Rightly or wrongly, this is what Aurobindo taught. As he describes it, this is something that has never been attained before. Hence, it seems to me that this is a subject that is completely misunderstood by gurus like Rajneesh and Adidam who are stuck in the conventional acosmic-monistic way of thinking.
With all respect, I feel that Ken has (unintentionally) misunderstood this. According to him all the eastern sages are talking about the same thing; it can all be correlated it one big ecumenical map. But a more careful consideration of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother's teachings indicate that this is not what they taught
The following from the same essay is one of the few examples of a direct quote, and shows how Ken "wilberises" (my term, not Hemsell's :-)) Aurobindo, so that what remains is not really Aurobindo at all
Wilber writes: "The higher modes can emerge because, and only because, they were enfolded, as potential, in the lower modes to begin with, and they simply crystallize out and differentiate from the lower modes as evolution proceeds. This is exactly what Aurobindo means when he says: Since this Consciousness [ultimate Brahman-Atman] is creatrix of the world, it must be not only state of knowledge, but power of knowledge, and not only a will to light and vision, but a will to power and works. And since mind, too, is created out of it [Atman], mind must be a development by limitation out of this primal faculty and this...supreme consciousness [that development by limitation is precisely involution] and must therefore be capable of resolving itself back into it through a reverse development by expansion [and that is evolution]."
The highlights and brackets in this quote are all Wilbers, and the reference is to a selection from The Life Divine included in an anthology of Indian Philosophy edited by S. Radhakrishnan (1973, p.598). It is possible to trace it back to the original, which is in The Life Divine, Chapter XIV, The Supermind As Creator.
Hemsell notes that in the original, the words Will and Mind are capitalized, and the "it" and "consciousness" that is being spoken of is Supermind, not Atman. The last sentence then reads
"And since Mind too is created out of it, Mind must be a development by limitation out of this primal faculty and this mediatory act of the supreme Consciousness."
And instead of a preference for the Advaitan Two Truths model of acosmism, which is world-negating (seeing phenomena as ultimately maya or false), Sri Aurobindo then goes on to affirm the positive status of Mind as an aspect of Supermind, and a very different understanding of involution and evolution. Sri Aurobindo says:
"For always Mind must be identical with Supermind in essence and conceal in itself the potentiality of Supermind, however different or even contrary it may have become in its actual forms and settled modes of operation. It may not then be an irrational or unprofitable attempt to strive by the method of comparison and contrast towards some idea of the Supermind from the standpoint and in the terms of our intellectual knowledge. …Supermind is the vast self-extension of the Brahman that contains and develops. …It possesses the power of development, of evolution, of making explicit, and that power carries with it the other power of involution, of envelopment, of making implicit. In a sense, the whole of creation may be said to be a movement between two involutions, Spirit in which all is involved and out of which all evolves downward to the other pole of Matter, Matter in which all is involved and out of which all evolves upwards to the other pole of Spirit."
I have followed out this quotation at some length in order to show the depth and scope of the ideas of involution and evolution in Sri Aurobindo's thought, from which Wilber seems to have drawn only a portion of his understanding. What he has left out...is the idea of Supermind as the Creatrix, the Mediatrix, or creative Consciousness-Force of the Brahman responsible for each moment of the involutionary/evolutionary cycle. And the stress here is on Conscious Being, and on Existence, which is all inclusive. In Sri Aurobindo's conception, this process of involution and evolution is conscious, harmonious, divine, at every level...
For Wilber then, the realisation of Godhead (or Atman - impersonal absolute) occurs only in transcendence of embodied existence following the final stage of the involution-evolution cycle, while for Sri Aurobindo that traditional state of enlightenment/liberation is a sort of dead-end state, and the Divine embrace is in the involution and evolution process itself, which is nothing but the activity of the Supermind or Truth-Idea.
In Up From Eden, Wilber offers an account of the Great Mother/Great Goddess transformation, in terms of Wilber-II theory of human society and culture evolving through stages that mimic the development of the ego-personality from the pseudo-mystical, state of magical-mythic uroboric union, through to the mythic-membership stage. He argues that there was a historical transition from the primitive practice in neolithic societies of physical sacrifice made to the Great Mother, to symbolic sacrifice made to the Great Goddess, which is finally superseded by the more rational consciousness in the classical and modern world, which is all part of the upward march of evolution of consciousness. Quite apart from this being a very poor reading of archeology and ethnology (patriarchal cultures made and make sacrifices as well) this interpretation of the Supreme Mother stands in marked contrast - in fact direct opposition to - to Sri Aurobindo's teachings
"...this particular example is important to include here especially because of the central importance of the Divine Mother as Mahashakti or Supermind in Sri Aurobindo's cosmology, and as Tranformative Force in Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga. It is curious, however, that Wilber never mentions this aspect of Sri Aurobindo's work, that I am aware of. And I find this omission significant in particular because Savitri is not only Sri Aurobindo's most important written work, but in it the goddess both symbolizes and concretely illustrates the spiritual level of the myth that Wilber interpreted at the ritual and symbolic levels in an early, pre-modern society. But the "spiritual" level of interpretation, which would show the Great Goddess also to be a "real force" for transformation at the post-egoic, and post-modern stage of development seems to have been missed..."
Of course, Sri Aurobindo isn't the only one to speak of the transformative power of the Gods. Jung did as well. Just because Jung was a sort of reductionist who reduced everything to a collective unconscious does not make his phenomenological descriptions of these forces and their effects on the human psyche incorrect; in fact some of his writings in this regard are amongst the most profound written anywhere.
If there really is one continuum of reality (sometimes referred to as the "Great Chain of Being Home" ) it should be possible to make a chart of it by comparing different teachings. You draw up a set of tables and slot them all in, according to your own preconceived biases of where they should go. I used to do this a lot, focusing on a Neoplatonic-Kashmir Shaivite-Kabbalistic model of emanationism and a limited number of discrete worlds or planes, but lately I've been revising my own approach, and concentrating on a more dynamic, multidimensional picture. Ken never had much to say about emanation (although he understands and acknowledges it and mentions it in his Toward A Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies essay) and has instead preferred an evolutionary-developmental spectrum of being. This is in keeping with his own interest in psychology, which is still the area he know best and writes about with most persuasiveness and detail (his position on Aurobindo and even Mahayana Buddhism contain a number of errors).
Ken and I both tend to make lots of tables and diagrams. When doing this it is however important to be sure you accurately represent the teachings you are tabulating. And this is often much harder to do than it seems, because these teachings may be based on a totally different mind set or view of the world than one's own. It is all to easy to squeeze a radically different cosmology into one's own procrustean mindset.
The following are two cosmological tabulations of Ken Wilber's, one from his early (stage II) phase (here only the comparison with Sri Aurobindo is included, for sake of easy comparison with the more recent table), another from an on-line essay representing the later stage IV "AQAL" (Four Quadrant) development
From The Atman Project p.178
also in Rod Hemsell Ken Wilber and Sri Aurobindo: A Critical Perspective
Furthermore, Spiritualisation - which is yet another process again - by itself may culminate in the realisation of Atman-Brahman (Aurobindo calls this the Brahman stage), but, although conferring liberation and enabling transcendence of phenomenal existence, this is still inferior to the Overmind, let alone Supermind. I will return to this point again later in this essay.
Wilber's incorrect interpretation of Sri Aurobindo's version of the Great Chain of Being is also repeated in the following, where he refers to the Great Chain as outlined
"...by philosopher-sages from Plotinus to Aurobindo to Asanga to Chih-I to Lady Tsogyal. Figure 3 is a short summary of the Great Chain as given by perhaps its two most gifted exponents, Plotinus and Sri Aurobindo
From Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution Collected Works vol.6, p.244, and An integral theory of consciousness from Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4 (1),
February 1997, pp.71-92 Copyright, 1997
While applauding Ken's passion and enthusiasm in presenting and advocating traditional esoteric wisdom to a modern sceptical and secular world, and fully supporting his endeavours in this field, I do take exception to his misinterpretation of these teachings. For example he says elsewhere
"Indeed, Plotinus--arguably the greatest philosopher-mystic the world has ever known--usually gave the Great Chain twelve levels: matter, life, sensation, perception, impulse, images, concepts, logical faculty, creative reason, world soul, nous, and the One."
And again more recently in an on-line essay he says
"Based on various types of cross-cultural evidence, many scholars have suggested that we can divide this overall spectrum of consciousness into seven colors or bands or waves (as with the seven chakras); others suggest around twelve (as with Aurobindo and Plotinus); some suggest even more."
No disrespect to Ken Wilber intended, but this is a misreading of both Aurobindo and Plotinus. While the concept of seven rainbow chakras, seven energy bodies, and so on is common in current New Age thought, for Plotinus the Great Chain has only three levels, which he called Hypostases (literally - "underlying"). These are the World Soul (which has the human soul as its macrocosmic counterpart), Mind/Nous, and The One or Absolute. For Plotinus matter (hyle) was not a hypostasis (nor was life, sensation, etc). In his metaphysic matter and the world of the senses had a dubious status rather like the maya of advaita, a sort of non-being, neither real (because it was deprivation) nor unreal. It is only behind and apart from the everyday consciousness and surface phenomena that there are the three Divine Hypostases. The philosopher through contemplation returns to the One, rather like the ascending arc in Atman Project, and in this respect only can we see a similarity with Wilber's early work (but not with the later stuff. However I would be wary of attributing to Plotinus' free and intuitive formulation any sort of pigeonholing of levels of consciousness or stages of ascent. It was only with the middle and later Neoplatonists like Iamblichus and Proclus that this sort of thinking developed (and a multiplication of hypostases), and this was concerned mostly with the higher and transpersonal, transcendent states of being; the Nous and above, not the ten lower levels in Wilber's series.
Returning now to Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine and Letters on Yoga present a different formulation of realities to that of Plotinus, which is why a simplistic one-on-one equivalence o stages does not work. In Aurobindo's writings there are no Plotinian-style hypostases, although one might more easily make connections between the latter and both Kabbalah, and in the Trikaya of Mahayana Buddhism (albeit in very different ways). The Aurobindonian planes of Matter, Life, Mind don't really compare, although Sri Aurobindo does somewhere (I don't recall the reference) identify Supermind with Plotinus' Nous. As for Wilber's list of Aurobindo's graded levels of being, it is not clear at least to the present writer how Higher Mind (no hyphen) relates to Network-mind (or even what the latter is, it isn't on the four quadrant diagram). Despite his claim (in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality p.344) that "all the words are Aurobindo's, including those in parentheses but not brackets", the terms "Network-mind" and "Illumined World-Mind" cannot be found in any of Sri Aurobindo's writings, and these seem to be yet more "wilberisms"
Finally, it can again be emphasised how different Aurobindo's original account is from the correspondence Wilber gives of the higher spiritual states. To quote one passage by Sri Aurobindo of the attainment of the spiritual consciousness in The Life Divine (and note that these are all stages that precede Higher Mind, Illumined Mind, etc):
"The first most ordinary result [of the spiritual ascent] is a discovery of a vast static and silent Self which we feel to be our real or our basic existence, the foundation of all else that we are...(W)e can realise that this self is not only our own spiritual being but the true self of all others; it presents itself then as the underlying truth of cosmic existence. It is possible to remain in a Nirvana of all individuality, to stop at a static realisation or, regarding the cosmic movement as a superficial play or illusion imposed on the silent Self... (Or) there takes place a large dynamic descent of light, knowledge, power, bliss or other supernormal energies into our self of silence, and we can ascend too into higher regions of the Spirit where its immobile status is the foundation of those great and luminous energies.... "
Rather than a single line of development leading to liberation, there are several, and it is only that last option that constitutes the beginning of the "vertical" (as opposed to the "inward" or nirvanic or atmic) progression and ultimate transformation.
For this reason, it is not practical to compare Sri Aurobindo's evolutionary levels with Ken Wilber's Advaito-Buddhist-inspired "spiritualising" (tending to nirvana or nirguna) ones - the two follow very different tangents. Trying to match them - sincere as such an effort may be - nevertheless still results in a misleading correlation. And if one were to match them, squeezing everything into a single linear scale, then the "Psychic", "Subtle", "Causal", and "Ultimate"/Spirit (Level 10 in Wilber's scale) would have to go before or underneath the Higher Mind (since in Sri Aurobindo's map of the development of spiritual states of being these states of spiritualisation can be attained prior to the ascent and descent of higher spiritual mind levels.
In short, my understanding is that Sri Aurobindo presents a different formulation of spiritual realities to that of Wilber, although Wilber's stages, including the highest - Ultimate Spirit - are mentioned, but these are only as a side-line to the true transformation.
Wilber's spiritual guru Adidam, who advocates an Advaitan-Mahayana-inspired monistic worldview, slots Aurobindo in his fifth stage of life because he finds it inconceivable that anyone could strive after having attained limited (6th stage) or complete enlightenment (7th stage of life). In a somewhat similar manner (albeit differently argued), Wilber claims to have gone beyond Aurobindo's philosophical teachings. In Eye of Spirit, he refers to his earlier ideas as the Tibetan/Aurobindo/Wilber II model, or the Aurobindo/Wilber II model, or sometimes simply the Wilber II model. He claims that he is going beyond the understanding of previous thinkers on the evolution of consciousness, including Sri Aurobindo, who didn't have the benefit of modern psychological research. But in fact he is just revealing his own limitations, and adherence to Da-friendly monism.
In any case, to assume that Wilber's psycho-developmental Multiple Lines Development period is superior to Aurobindo's linear model is incorrect, because Aurobindo himself never proposed a linear model of evolution. Aurobindo called his yoga "Integral" (a term adopted by Wilber to describe his own All Quadrants All Levels and current stages) precisely because it involves parallel lines of development. "Integral Education", as envisioned by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, states that is necessary to develop all five aspects of one's being - physical, vital (=emotional), mental, psychic (a concept with no analogies in Wilber's system) and spiritual (this is Wilber's and Da's "atman"). See Sri Aurobindo Education Society; also among essays of the Mother in Education: Part I, which includes "The Science of Living, Physical Education, Vital Education, Mental Education, Psychic Education and Spiritual Education" Sri Aurobindo also devotes a chapter of the Life Divine to The Triple Transformation of Psychic, Spiritual, Supramental; as Supermind cannot be attained by a single path or aspect of the being alone.
We also find Wilber, in a footnote to his table on Plotinus and Sri Aurobindo, in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (Collected Works vol.6, p.659 n.16), saying
"This is not to imply that Plotinus and Aurobindo were necessarily ultimate Realizers in a permanent or perfected sense, but that they were superb representatives of a full-spectrum approach to human growth and development based on their own experiential disclosures of the higher domains."
I have given this quote in full, rather than the first part, to show that Wilber does genuinely respect these two great spiritual teachers, as indeed he never shies away from stating. And I admit I'm biased in my attraction to Sri Aurobindo's teachings so naturally would tend to strongly disagree with the first line of that quote. Yet even Wilber himself refers to Sri Aurobindo as "the world’s greatest philosopher-sage", "India’s greatest modern sage", and so on. Why then would he deny that the teacher he repeatedly lauds is an "ultimate Realizer". What is a spiritual adept supposed to do to qualify as being an "ultimate Realizer"? And who does Ken himself consider to deserve such a title? (I think we know ;-)
I would suggest that Wilber's misunderstanding of Sri Aurobindo comes from four directions.
The first is the result of him having only a very superficial understanding of the latter's teachings. This seems to be the case of how Ken approaches other spiritual teachings, certainly it is the problem with his take on Shabd Yoga, as David Lane points out. And we have already seen that for Sri Aurobindo in at least one instance he relied on an anthology
The second explanation is religious and emotional: even if Wilber were to read every word Sri Aurobindo wrote, he is still bound to adherence to the much more conservative monism of his Guru Adi Da, whom he apparently considers an avatar and world-teacher. According to Da, Aurobindo is only a mere fifth stage adept. And who is Wilber to question the Master?
The third is the fact that the intellectual structure of Aurobindo's thought falls outside Wilber's own spiritual understanding of reality. It is interesting here that Wilber's understanding of Alfred North Whitehead is a lot better, than his insight into Aurobindo or Plotinus. Not that I have studied Whitehead. But as he says (responding to criticism of his Integral Psychology by Christian de Quincey , that he misrepresented Whitehead), Wilber "sent the manuscript of Integral Psychology to David Ray Griffin--arguably the greatest living Whitehead scholar--and asked him to read it for mistakes.... Griffin replied [see Appendix A--My Criticism of Whitehead as True But Partial: The Move from an Incomplete Dialogical View to an Integral/Quadratic Formulation], that, with one exception..., he had no problem with my entire presentation of Whitehead." But Whitehead, as a secular philosopher, is easier to approach than Aurobindo, who is not only an esoteric philosopher, but one who taught something totally different to the entire Vedantic and Mahayanist tradition.
The fourth reason why Ken can't "grok" Aurobindo goes deeper. It is that some teachings simply cannot be fully appreciated by words alone. As one student of Sri Aurobindo put it (as part of a discussion regarding Wilber and Aurobindo)
"...sadhaks who read only other sadhaks are missing much of the truth of the yoga. You won't get the essential Sri Aurobindo or Mother by reading about them; you have to read their own words, thoughts, experience. The same is true of other writers, of course, but more important here, because Sri Aurobindo and the Mother's force comes through in their writings. These are not just ideas which can be presented as well when rephrased; the force of their consciousness is the point. As the Mother said, Sri Aurobindo doesn't represent a "teaching," he represents an action direct from the Supreme. As such I take it as my responsibility as a sadhak not to build a theology, but to manifest that force as best I can."