The Ascent of the Spirit
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 1: The Progressive Evolution of Man

The human individual may be said to be in a state of psychological retardation, in the process in which he is involved at present. It needs no mention that history has ever been a process of change, encompassing within itself not only the human species but everything in creation, not exempting even the physical elements which constitute the astronomical universe. Though the analytical reason is able to observe the process of change in all Nature, a peculiar structural pattern of the psychological organs of man prevents him from being conscious of this fact and makes him feel a sense of complacency in the notion that there is something permanent even among things that change, though, often, the idea of change never occurs to the mind at all. It may be said that man’s mind is in a state of illusion when it is unable to adjust itself with the requirements of the changes taking place in the universe, which we usually call evolution, and concentrates itself on a particular feature of changelessness which it regards as permanency, and due to which it attaches itself to persons and things in a bond of love or hatred, as the case may be—a situation the ancients have termed Samsara, or the entanglement of earthly existence.

Scientific opinion of a philosophical nature holds that the reason behind the inability of the mind to perceive change and transformation and its weddedness to the concept of permanency of the objects of the world—which is the cause of emotion, attachment, aversion, etc., in one’s life—is the compromise that the mind makes with a set or collocation of frequencies of Vibration and Force in an act of perception which selects for its purposes only certain aspects of the features of Force and rejects others which are not suited to its personal aims; and the fact that this act of perception is made possible only by the agreement between the frequency in the movement of the mind and in the Force constituting the objects outside presents the illusion of permanency in the midst of the transience of objects. This sort of agreement and compromise between the mind and the object of perception is seen, for instance, though in a different way altogether, in the perception of a moving cinematograph film, where the structure of the optical organs through which the mind operates at that time is under the illusion of a permanency in the moving pictures projected on the screen, though it is well known that the moving film projects at least 16 pictures every second, a fact which the mind cannot catch up due to its affiliation to the organs of the eyes and its dependence on them. Though our reason knows that no picture of the moving film is static, the eyes delude it into the belief that there is a staticity there;and though there is a contradiction between the reason and sensory perception obvious in this phenomenon, the reason allows itself to be duped by the perception of the eyes and charges one with this duped belief, so that a person’s life itself can be changed into another pattern by this unwarranted acceptance on the part of the reason. A similar circumstance would be the explanation of our perception of permanent objects in this world. The truth that the Buddha proclaimed centuries ago, that everything is impermanent (kshanika), is now corroborated by the observation of the modern physical apparatus of the laboratory which sees particles and forces dancing within an apparently static object, forming its very constituents. The personality of man is not excluded from the operation of this law, and every cell of his body may be said to be changing every moment of time.

This condition of life, which comes to relief on a study, of the involvements of human nature, awakens the mind to the need for a proper appraisal of the position or station which one occupies in the complex of the universe and the character of the function that one is required to perform in this set-up of things. However, this appraisal is not without the difficulty of it not being possible for man to know the nature of Reality behind phenomena, inasmuch as the understanding faculty of man is inextricably woven into the fabric of phenomena. For instance, the conditions of space, time and gravitation, which have far deeper implications than what appears on the surface, and which control the very fiber of the make-up of man’s personality, as also that mysterious something which we usually call causation or causal necessity in the framework of things, restrict the freedom of the understanding. This difficulty does not merely end with itself, with no hopes beyond it, for while it indeed presents an apparently insoluble problem, it also, at the same time, directs the mind to a more fundamental presupposition, namely, that phenomena cannot be, if there is no Reality behind them as their support.

This analysis and finding results in two discoveries: (1) that there ought to be something of a permanent nature behind the vicissitudes of the surface-existence of things, and (2) that the very fact of it having been possible for the mind to come to the conclusion of there being a Reality behind phenomena is enough proof that the mind, though it is involved in phenomena, is also rooted in Reality; else, it could not have come to any conclusion at all even as to the very existence of such a thing as Reality. Man is, thus, both phenomenal and noumenal. He is at once mortal and immortal. As a philosopher humorously put it, man is God and brute crossed at one point.

We seem to have a ray of hope that we can achieve our ends, since, in spite of our frailties incumbent upon our involvement in phenomena, we have affinities with Reality and, perhaps, we can reach God, the Absolute, in as much a nearness to ourselves as it can be in relation to anything in this world, perhaps more intensely and definitely, since we seem to be rooted in Reality, fixed in its very bosom; otherwise, how can we entertain in our minds the concept of Reality?

This is the beginning of scientific adventure, philosophic enterprise and spiritual enlightenment. We proceed from science to philosophy and from philosophy to spirituality, which may be said to be broadly the stages of our ascent in the process of evolution. And this evolution is progressive, normally, though there can be occasional set-backs or retrogressions due to errors of notion and blindness of vision, which can, though rarely, confront and oppose man’s endeavour in his search for Reality.

The scientific approach, which is the first phase, takes into consideration man’s external relationships; first of all, over and above the other features of his personality, and studies the physical, chemical, biological, psychological, social, political and cultural connotations of life as the foundations of human progress and achievement. Physical science discovers that the universe is a material arrangement of inorganic substance, which is spread throughout the unending space, as the basis of the elements of earth, water, fire and air, as the substance of the whole solar system and the nebular dust—sun, moon, stars, the Milky Way. The Newtonian physics held that space acts as a kind of receptacle to material substances such as the sun, planets, etc., and there is a force operating mutually among these material objects, named gravitation, which holds the objects in position and in their orbits. Not only this; it also, to some extent, determined their character and perhaps their constitution. Subsequent to Newton, physical discoveries began to announce the operation of facts quite different from and transcending the Newtonian concepts, stating that space is not a receptacle of things unconnected with it but may be regarded as a kind of an infinite electromagnetic field which entered into the very structure and function of all material objects. This discovery further led itself to more complicated theories of quantum mechanics, wave mechanics, etc., and finally to the Theory of Relativity, whereby we are informed that not only are things interconnected among themselves as forces in an electromagnetic field but that even the concept of force or energy is inadequate to a proper comprehension of the real nature of the universe. We are told that there are no things but only events, no objects but only processes, so that we are in a fluid universe of a four-dimensional Space Time continuum wherein relativity reigns supreme. The principle of relativity reduces everything into an interdependence of all structural patterns and Space Time events, so that the universe is more of an organic living Whole, in which the idea of causality, as it is usually understood, is ruled out; because in an organic structure the parts are so related to one another in an internal affinity and connection that every part is as much a cause as an effect, for everything here determines everything else. We may even say that everything is everywhere. We need not go into further details of this great scientific doctrine, for we may suggest, with profit, to the students of philosophy and spiritual life an inquisitive reading of such texts as the yoga Vasishtha, to bring out the practical implications of what are called relativity phenomena.

Though science in its advanced physical observations brought out its conclusions in the form of such tremendous truths revealed by the Theory of Relativity, it could not shake itself free from the notion that the universe is physical, notwithstanding that a few of the later geniuses in science actually stumbled upon the acceptance of there being a Universal Mind or Consciousness as the Substratum or, what may be called the ‘Observer’, of all relativistic phenomena. The physical universe is regarded as the basis from which evolution begins. Indian philosophy, though it rose to the heights of recognising a conscious Creator of the universe, transcending phenomena, and its Vedanta system concluded that in the end the Creative Principle is non-different from the created universe, did not rule out the fact of evolution of life from the stage of inorganic matter. Evolution was taken as valid in the empirical realm of experience, though the purpose of evolution is the realisation of the Supreme Aim of life, namely, the unity of the Absolute, which is the Existence of the Intelligence of the Creative Principle in its inseparable relationship with the universe. Life is above Matter, Mind is above Life, and Intellect is above Mind. An interesting and absorbing exposition of the modern scientific notion of the process of evolution can be found in Samuel Alexander’s ‘Space, Time and Deity’, in which he argues out the theory of evolution on the basis of the physical Theory of Relativity, according to which Space-Time as a continuum is the matrix of all phenomena. Space-Time produces motion and matter which grossens itself into the physical elements that we see and feel with our senses. Physical substances thus evolved from Space-Time-Motion are endowed with what are known as Primary Qualities such as dimension, weight, etc. They are assumed to be characterised by secondary qualities later on, such as colour, sound, etc., which are the product of the perceptual process emanating from the subjective consciousness of individual observers or experiencers of them.

Above Matter is Life. The characteristic of Life is organisation of individuality, a seeking of self-completeness in the centre of one’s being and a tendency to what we may call ‘awareness’, which is not observable in inorganic matter. The vegetable kingdom is the standing example of mere life above matter but bereft of the thinking faculty which is the function of the mind. Mind is above Life. Animals exhibit the presence of mind in them in addition to life that has been inherited from the lower level. But animal thinking is ‘indeterminate’ and does not have the power of logical judgment; the capacity for decision and rational understanding. This latter feature is observable in the intellect which is the prerogative of man. The highest human faculty is the intellect, the reason, which makes him superior to the animal and the vegetable kingdom, not to speak of inorganic substances. Alexander’s analysis posits a Deity higher than the level of the human intellect, a stage which is yet to be. In fact, every succeeding stage is regarded as the deity of the preceding one. But Alexander’s concept of deity is inadequate to the deep aspirations of man, which are more satisfactorily provided in the Upanishads, wherein, in the context of the statement of the gradations of Bliss, the Upanishad hints at larger and more inclusive levels than the human. There seem to be several intermediate stages between the intellect and the Ultimate Reality. According to the Upanishad, higher than the level of man is that of the Gandharva; beyond the Gandharva are the levels of the Pitri, the Deva, Indra, Brihaspati, Prajapati and Brahman. It will be noticed that the higher one evolves beyond the human level, the more intense does become the consciousness possessed and the bliss experienced by the individual. Not only this; the individuality becomes more and more transparent as it rises higher and higher, more inclusive, capable of greater interpenetration, until evolution reaches the stage of Brahman, the Absolute, wherein individuality coalesces with universality. Alexander’s Deity is a future possibility, but, since it is an effect of evolution, its original cause, viz., Space-Time, must have already contained it in an inseparability of being.

According to Hegel, the renowned German philosopher, the lowest level is of brute consciousness, which is inseparable from sheer material existence. The second stage, above this, is nature-reactive self-preservative consciousness, observable is plant life. The third stage is of a crude seeking of oneself in others, expressed in the presence of a psychological want, a need and a love which specifically concentrates itself in the reproductive consciousness. The fourth is the stage of self-consciousness which is the special faculty of man, beyond the level of the mere animal satisfaction of self-preservation and self-reproduction in the form of reaction to external stimuli. Yet, human life here is incipient and not fully developed. Even among human beings we have various grades: there is the animal man, the selfish man, the good man, the saintly man and the God-man. The fourth stage mentioned here may be said to correspond to the lowest type of men. The fifth stage is where one becomes conscious of one’s being independent of objects outside and attributes all change to objects rather than to oneself. This is the stage where one finds fault only with others and not with oneself, so that the object becomes a hindrance to one’s comfortable life and one cannot tolerate the presence of objects non-conducive to one’s satisfaction. The hidden unity of things, however, asserts itself and cannot brook such a selfish attitude of an utter isolation of the subject and the object. Thus, the selfish sense of isolatedness manifest in the fifth stage recoils upon the sense of unity by distorting it in the form of love for others, a craving for exercising authority over others, etc. This is the sixth stage. In the seventh, there is a consciousness of this negative dependence of oneself upon others in the form of love and the need to exercise power, etc., and one seeks to obviate this sense of slavish dependence either by intense attachment or by intense hatred. In attachment there is desire to unite the object with oneself so that oneself may live alone, and in hatred there is a desire to destroy the object, so that, here again, there is a chance of oneself living alone. For, ‘aloneness’, which is the nature of Reality, asserts itself, somehow, by hook or crook, by fair or foul means. In the eighth stage one realises that it is impossible to live with this law of the fish and the law of the jungle, for each one here appears to be a threat to another’s existence, so that no one can be secure. The need for ‘living’, ‘somehow’, and the necessity for security in life compels man to live a life of cooperation and mutual sacrifice, without which he fears that his end would not be very far. This is the consciousness of cooperative living, of humanitarian ideals, of society as one harmonious organisation. This is the eighth stage.

But, this cooperation and mutual sacrifice is ultimately based on selfishness, a desire to maintain oneself, and, hence, even in cooperative life there are seen occasional disruptions and breaches of agreement, which is only a sign that the basis of this apparent humanitarian ideal is really not humanitarian but founded on a lower level of life. The studies in psychology and psychoanalysis will reveal that most of man’s efforts are not above his biological urges such as the pressure of hunger, sex, sleep and fear from external forces, all which get surcharged with a desire to dominate over others and exercise authority, to spread one’s name and fame, by affirmation of one’s superiority, and a greed for wealth, etc.

All this is the result of the empirical approach of human understanding to the problems of life. This is really no solution to the problems, and humanity finds itself today in the same complex and quandary and insecurity as it was centuries back, all because the human approach to things has not changed in its quality and character, though the passage of history has traversed thousands of years during the course of time. The ancient Masters have seen through this vexing situation of life in general and found out the only remedy for it, namely, to develop the Vision Integral, rather than confine oneself to mere perception empirical. This integral approach requires man to conceive life as one whole, inseparable in its parts, and the well-known classification of Human Values or Aims of Life into dharma, the pursuit of moral value; artha, the pursuit of economic value; kama, the pursuit of vital value; and moksha, the pursuit of infinite value, may be said to form the rock-foundation to base one’s right perspective of life. All these four values have to be blended in a proper proportion to constitute a single compound and not merely a mixture of a set of separable ingredients. This means to say that every function one might perform, every thought, word and deed of a person, should manifest this singleness of purpose, namely, a focused blend of dharma, artha, kamaand moksha, all at once. This is indeed a hard job for uninitiated and untrained minds. But spirituality is not a joke and calls for greater education and discipline than one would expect in an ordinary educational academy or institution of the world. It is this blend of the four Aims of Life in a single act that has necessitated the introduction of the cooperative social groups known usually under the name, varna;the classes wielding spiritual power, political power, economic power and man-power, which constitute a complete organisation of human aspiration and function. This view of life has also called for the recognition of four stages in one’s life known as ashrama;a life of continence and study, a life of restrained satisfaction and discharge of duties in accordance with one’s station in life, a life of non-attachment to all perishable, values, and, finally, a life of concentration on the only permanent value discoverable in the end, namely, the Ultimate Reality.

A life of yoga is the answer. And yoga is union with Reality, in the various stages of its graded intensity of manifestation, internally in one’s own personality and externally in one’s social relations and public life. The range of yoga is a little, complicated for the novice to understand. To obviate the difficulty of a sudden grasp of this truth, adepts in yoga have advised a more restrained approach to the Great Goal, by a recognition of the objective (adhibhuta), the subjective (adhyatma) and the supernormal Deity-aspect of Reality, superintending over both the objective and the subjective sides of experience (adhidaiva). This threefold resort to yoga would facilitate a still higher recourse to the larger realities, known in the language of the technical Vedanta, as Virat, Hiranyagarbha, Isvara and Brahman,connoting the fourfold aspect of the Absolute, conceived as helpful in one’s meditations.