The primary focus of this study is to show how closely Sri Aurobindo's thought is related to European philosophy. The author maintains that Sri Aurobindo's own inner experience and spiritual perception presented a deeper understanding and a larger vision of the basic thought of some Western philosophers: Heraclitus, Plato, Plotinus, Schelling, Hegel, Nietzsche, Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin, Gebser, and Whitehead. The final two chapters comprise Sri Aurobindo's 1915 essay Evolution and a look at how the philosophers discussed in the book are represented in an analysis of modern theories of evolution.
Comparing Sri Aurobindo with other writers is a precarious enterprise. To a devotee or sadhak
of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga, it might in fact seem an activity that is best avoided. For them, comparing involves, by necessity, some degree of objectification of one’s guru, and this may well come in the way of one’s surrender, which is so central to the sadhana
. Writing about one’s guru moreover can all too easily lead to a sense that one can judge him, while one evidently cannot. And most seriously perhaps, the guru is – amongst many other things – a path to the Divine, and the Divine simply does not lend itself to objectification and comparison. But whatever the reason is, comparing Sri Aurobindo to others tends to leave behind a bit of a bad taste, a feeling that injustice is done both to him and to those he is compared with. Before one knows it, somewhere along the road, something goes wrong and the essence goes missing. While the mind might find it interesting to discover which thinkers have said things similar to what Sri Aurobindo says – how they agree, how they differ and who has managed to argue the opposite – in the end such things matter little. In the last instance, it is the infinity of consciousness which shines through Sri Aurobindo’s writings that really matters.
In this context, Wilfried Huchzermeyer’s Sri Aurobindo and European Philosophy
comes as a pleasant surprise. First of all, he writes with a refreshing humility, not only towards Sri Aurobindo, but also towards all the great thinkers he compares him with. What is especially uplifting is that while the depth of his respect for Sri Aurobindo is palpable throughout this compact book, nowhere does one feel that he is too negative or judgemental about the other writers who populate its pages. Secondly, he tackles the complexities of philosophy with such utter simplicity and mental clarity that even those with a limited interest in the intricacies of philosophical argument may find themselves reading on with a happy mind.
The overall landscape he draws with his light and unassuming pen is beautiful and inspiring. On the one hand, we have Sri Aurobindo, whose ideas he reveals almost entirely in Sri Aurobindo’s own words. He offers Sri Aurobindo’s ideas only gradually, whenever he needs them to support, refine or occasionally rebut the ideas of the European thinkers he introduces. On the other hand, we have an impressive line of European philosophers whose thought resonates with different aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s work. Readers who have no background in the rather interesting history of European thought may be surprised how many parallels there are in it to Indian philosophy. Those more familiar with this field may still enjoy the clear and simple overview that is presented here. The most interesting commonality is perhaps to be found in philosophical idealism, the belief that the world originated out of spirit through a mediating, form-giving world of ideas. This basic understanding of the nature of reality was not only held by Indian thinkers, but also by Plato and by such a long list of leading European philosophers that it can certainly be considered part of mainstream Western thought. Popular modern philosophers like John Searle who proudly proclaim that idealism is dead are not only wrong, but they cannot claim to be representative of European or Western thought as a whole. The only place where philosophical idealism is entirely missing is in the simplified, physicalist philosophy that underlies much of the hard sciences, most of modern education and even the constructionist social sciences. Given the important role of science and universal education in the modern world, this is of course a rather serious tragedy.The global civilization we see around us appears increasingly engulfed in a crass and essentially barbaric, desire-driven materialism. In its present form, this primitive derailment of the human enterprise originated in the USA, but its psychological roots are unfortunately common to all of humanity. Fortunately, the opposite tendencies and higher aspirations are also panhuman, and, as this book testifies, so are the philosophies supporting them. Humanity is more “one” than many people think. Another fascinating area where a few European thinkers have followed similar lines as Sri Aurobindo is the field of evolution. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is probably the most famous of them, but more interesting is perhaps the somewhat lesser known German philosopher Friedrich Schelling, who in the beginning of the nineteenth century had ideas that come surprisingly close to Sri Aurobindo’s.
Wilfried Huchzermeyer’s book shows in a quiet but clear manner that in the wide landscape of global thought, Sri Aurobindo’s work did not arise in isolation, but still stands out in a number of major areas. In contrast to European thinkers with similar thoughts, he could build on the enormous wealth of inner knowledge, experience and psychological know-how available in the Indian tradition. In contrast to virtually all earlier mystics, in the East or the West, his knowledge of the highest heights of the spirit did not make him shun the world. While he was acutely aware of humanity’s past and present shortcomings, he took the splendours on the heights as the Divine’s promise for our future.
Dr Matthijs Cornelissen teaches Psychological Aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s Work at the SAICE and is the founder-director of the Indian Psychology Institute.