Essays in Life and Eternity
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 6: The Evolution of Consciousness

The individualities of created beings vary according to the several species or genera into whose mould the individualities are cast. According to the traditional Indian concept, these created species of beings run to eighty-four lakhs (8,400,000) in number, in which series the human being is said to occupy the topmost position, almost completing the purpose of Nature in its scheme of evolution. The general arrangement of things in the evolutionary process is considered to be a gradual ascent from mineral to plant, from plant to animal, and from animal to man. This does not, however, mean that there are five categories separated as if in watertight compartments, for there is a countless variety even in this fivefold classification – varieties in the mineral constitution, varieties in the plant and vegetable kingdom, varieties in the animal kingdom and in the different kinds of subhuman species, and varieties even at the human level. The number, eighty-four lakhs, perhaps, would give a good picture of the tremendous specifications in almost unthinkable types of differentiation in the structure of individuality. From mineral to the Absolute is indeed a great sequential procedure of graduated ascent, involving millions of mutations, transformations, births and deaths through numberless ages, till the supreme Unity is reached in actual experience. It is believed that up to the level of the animal, penultimate to the human stage, the process of the ascending series of evolution is spontaneous, without the lower, species having to exert on its part or put forth any special effort to evolve into the higher level. The reason for this seems to be that Nature in its all-inclusiveness works automatically, of its own accord, in the case of the species in which the egoism of self-consciousness has not properly manifested itself. But, from man onwards a consciousness of effort on one's part appears to be inseparable from natural evolution though the universal working of Nature cannot be said to have ceased its functions even then – indeed Nature's work is not complete until the Absolute is realised in a state of Universal Selfhood.

Nevertheless, the factor of self-effort has to be explained adequately. Is there, really, such a thing as free will in the individual? The determinism of the purpose of Nature cannot easily be defied by any effort on the part of a segregated individual; else, individual effort standing on its own legs, may even work contrary to the intentions of Nature, because, if such a possibility is not to be associated with freedom of choice, it would be a limited freedom and not an absolute one, in which case, again, the pre-determinism of Nature would be restraining the freedom of the individual. Anyway, the egoism of man assumes a special prerogative of its own and does not care to pay any attention to there being a chance of any kind of restraint on its behaviour and operations. Man believes that his freedom of action is ultimate; that, verily, he can conquer Nature itself. An investigation into the subtle potentials of human nature and the underlying basis of human history would, however, reveal that human freedom is, after all, an ego's boast, and all activity is, in the end, a universal activity, and there is no such thing as an individual doing anything by itself. This is so also because of the interconnectedness of things in the universe, one thing depending on another thing even for its very existence, and there is no room whatsoever for the survival of an imagined total activity or total freedom of any individual. While all this is necessarily true, the consciousness of effort remains as a factor integral to the human ego, and the consciousness of effort follows as a natural corollary of there being such a thing as the ego at all. The assumed freedom of choice of the individual can have some meaning attributable to it only if the consciousness of effort is intelligently harmonised with the consciousness that the universal intention rules everything, even the individual ego, and commands the direction of its activity, in which case alone can effort lead to success and without which no effort can lead to the expected attainment. The epic illustration of Krishna being at the back of every action of Arjuna brings out the unavoidable situation of the Absolute being there at all times as the directing power behind every event in creation and every action appearing to proceed from the individual nature of the various species of living beings.

The evolution of consciousness does not end with man, really. Man may be described as the image of God only figuratively but not truly, for there has to be a further ascent in the process of evolution from man to superman, a stage which acts as a link between man and the ultimate Godhead. Indications of the higher category of levels of life, beyond the human state, are available in the positive statements recorded in the Upanishads to the effect that above even the best of human beings there are the levels of the realms of the Pitrs, Gandharvas, Devas, the higher gods of the heavens, the perfected ones almost converging in the stages of Virat, Hiranyagarbha, Ishvara and Brahman. That is to say, man has to evolve further on and he at present occupies a place somewhat midway between god and brute crossed at one point. The restlessness, the finitude, the consciousness of limitation from every side, the incessant and resistless longings for expansion of one's suzerainty in larger dimensions of space and endless life in time, nay, even the compulsions of being born and dying, announce in loud voice that man is far from the expected perfection to be reached in Nature's scheme of evolution, and there is a long way higher up, from man to Godman, and from Godman to God Himself.