He That Has Gone Abroad … The Seer, The Thinker
My first post on Immanence v. Transcendence almost entirely consisted of Eknath Easwaran’s beautiful translation of the Isha Upanishad. The second post was a little essay on Hermes and Hermeticism. Now I will return to the Ishopanishad, with special attention to Sri Aurobindo‘s commentary thereon.
Aurobindo was a man who truly walked between worlds. He received a classical, western education in England from the ages of 7-21, and then returned to India to fight against the British colonists. Arrested for his revolutionary activities, Aurobindo experienced a spiritual awakening while in prison. He never altered his commitment to the liberation of Bharat, but he now pursued that goal by other means. The British, in their imperial paranoia, remained convinced that even his religious teachings were coded messages to bomb-planters and insurrectionists, which, in a sense, they were.
Aurobindo wrote that the Isha Upanishad was “one of the more ancient of the Vedantic writings in style, substance and versification…. The principle it follows throughout is the uncompromising reconciliation of uncompromising extremes.” [p. 83] These extremes are enjoyment versus renunciation, spirit versus matter, immanence versus transcendence, ignorance versus knowledge, life versus death, etc. (Please note that all page numbers given in this post refer to the pdf version of Aurobindo’s Isha Upanishad, freely available for download at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram website here.)
According to Aurobindo, this principle of reconciliation was, unfortunately, at times forgotten and left behind in some strands of Hindu thought, which chose renunciation over enjoyment, spirit over matter, etc, culminating “in Illusionism and the idea of existence in the world as a snare and a meaningless burden imposed inexplicably on the soul by itself, which must be cast aside as soon as possible.” [p. 84]
The Isha Upanishad, on the other other hand, applies the principle of reconciliation and “tries, instead to get hold of the extreme ends of the knots, disengage and place them alongside each other…. It will not qualify or subordinate unduly any of the extremes, although it recognizes a dependence of one on the other. Renunciation is to go to the extreme, but also enjoyment is to be equally integral….” [pp. 84] This way of looking at things is highly reminiscent of the extremes of ascetic renunciation and passionate erotic love found in Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava.
Aurobindo’s analysis is detailed. In his Conclusion he lists nine pairs of opposites:
1. The Conscious Lord and phenomenal Nature.
2. Renunciation and Enjoyment.
3. Action in Nature and Freedom in the Soul.
4. The One stable Brahman and the multiple Movement.
5. Being and Becoming.
6. The Active Lord and the indifferent Akshara Brahman.
7. Vidya and Avidya.
8. Birth and Non-Birth.
9. Works and Knowledge.
And he then proceeds to show how the Isha Upanishad, in only 18 verses, resolves all these “discords”. It is instructive, and possibly disconcerting, to realize that Aurobindo does not list “immanence and transcendence” among these pairs of opposites! (Nor does “good versus evil” appear, or “capitalism versus socialism” or many other pairs one could think of.)
The pair that comes the closest to “immanence and transcendence” is number 4, “The One stable Brahman and the multiple Movement”. Aurobindo later on also refers to this same pair more succinctly as “The Quiescence and The Movement”, of which he writes that the notions of inside, outside, near and far all relate to an ego that, in turn, views itself as being inside a body (see pp. 86-7). He does not deny the truth of that point of view, but he calls into question the tendency to insist that this is all there is to it. In my opinion, a little reflection reveals that most (perhaps all) of the “immanence versus transcendence” dichotomy results from just such an insistence.
What Aurobindo calls “The One stable Brahman and the multiple Movement” appear in verse 5 of the Upanishad, which in Easwaran’s translation is
The Self seems to move, but is ever still.
He seems far away, but is ever near.
He is within all, and he transcends all.
Aurobindo’s translation is
That moves and that moves not;
That is far, and the same is near,
That is within all this and That is outside all this
Aurobindo’s “that” is (obviously) much closer to the Sanskrit “tat” (as in tat vam asi) than is Easwaran’s “Self” and “he”. But for the most part the translations are very close, and I still think Easwarans is prettier (and that counts for a lot in poetry). Aurobindo’s commentary on this section concludes as follows:
The Upanishad teaches us how to perceive Brahman in the universe and in our self-existence.
We have to perceive Brahman comprehensively as both the Stable and the Moving. We must see It in eternal and immutable Spirit and in all the changing manifestations of universe and relativity.
We have to perceive all things in Space and Time, the far and the near, the immemorial Past, the immediate Present, the infinite Future with all their contents and happenings as the One Brahman.
We have to perceive Brahman as that which exceeds, contains and supports all the individual things as well as all the universe, transcendentally of Time and Space and Causality. We have to perceive It also as that which lives in and possesses the universe and all it contains.
This is the transcendental, universal and individual Brahman, Lord, Continent and Indwelling Spirit, which is the object of all knowledge. Its realisation is the condition of perfection and the way of Immortality.
On the off chance that anyone thinks that this has cleared the matter up, lets proceed to look at verse 8, which Easwaran translates as
The Self is everywhere. Bright is the Self,
Indivisible, untouched by sin, wise,
Immanent and transcendent.
He it is who holds the cosmos together.
Which Aurobindo translates, more accurately, but less prettily, as
It is He that has gone abroad, That which is bright,
Bodiless, without scar of imperfection, without sinews, pure, unpierced by evil.
The Seer, the Thinker, The One who becomes everywhere, the Self-existent
Has ordered objects perfectly according to their nature from years semptiternal
The most imporant part is the third line, which in the original Sanskrit is
kavirmanîSî paribhûH svayambhû
A very literal translation of which is something like:
“The Seer (kavi), the Thinker (manîSî), the Greatest of All (paribhûH), the self-sufficient (svayambhūh)”.
Here is how Aurobindo explains it:
It is He that has extended Himself in the relative consciousness whose totality of finite and changeable circumstances dependent on an equal, immutable and eternal Infinity is what we call the Universe. Sa paryagat. [Here he is referring back to the part translated as “It is He that has gone abroad …”]
In this extension we have, therefore, two aspects, one of pure infinite relationless immutability, another of a totality of objects in Time and Space working out their relations through causality. Both are different and mutually complementary expressions of the same unknowable “He”.
To express the infinite Immutability the Upanishad uses a series of neuter adjectives, “Bright, bodiless, without scar, without sinews, pure, unpierced by evil.” To express the same Absolute as cause, continent and governing Inhabitant of the totality of objects and of each object in the totality (jagatyam jagat) it uses four masculine epithets, “The Seer, the Thinker, the One who becomes everywhere, the Self-existent” or “the Self-Becoming”.
The Immutable is the still and secret foundation of the play and the movement, extended equally, impartially in all things, samam brahma, lending its support to all without choice or active participation. Secure and free in His eternal immutability the Lord projects Himself into the play and the movement, becoming there in His self-existence all that the Seer in Him visualises and the Thinker in Him conceives. Kavir manisi paribhuh svayambhuh.
Aurobindo also wrote elsewhere, in a footnote to his translation of verse eight:
There is a clear distinction in Vedic thought between kavi, the seer and manîSî, the thinker. The former indicates the divine supra-intellectual Knowledge which by direct vision and illumination sees the reality, the principles and the forms of things in their true relations, the latter, the labouring mentality, which works from the divided consciousness through the possibilities of things downward to the actual manifestation in form and upward to their reality in the self-existent Brahman.