ConfuciusPrecepts of TaoismBuddhist No-SelfBuddhist EthicsIntegral ConsciousnessVedantaUniversal SpiritualityRobert Waxman

The Influence of Aurobindo and Existentialism on Chadhuri's Integral Consciousness Movement 

   by Robert Waxman 

                        

Abstract

In The Evolution of Integral Consciousness (1977), Haridas Chaudhuri offers a detailed account of Hinduism’s influence on The Integral Consciousness Movement. Throughout the book, he explains Hindu concepts and Sanskrit words that are the foundations of the Integral approach. Chaudhuri’s articles on Integral Consciousness began appearing in scholarly journals in the 1950’s. He founded The California Institute of Integral Studies in 1968. Chaudhuri had been a devoted student of Sri Aurobindo, who is considered one of the foremost religious philosophers of the 20th century. Aurobindo is known as a political activist, mystic, spiritual leader, poet, yogi, and teacher (2008). Chaudhuri includes many of Aurobindo’s teachings in his writings to serve as a bridge between Hinduism and The Integral Consciousness Movement. This paper examines Chaudhuri’s interpretation of Aurobindo’s teachings and many Hindu concepts affecting the formation of the Integral Consciousness Movement. The discussion includes the advantages and disadvantages of Hinduism’s and Existentialism’s influence on Integral Consciousness. A conclusion section summarizes the foundational beliefs of The Integral Consciousness Movement and its continuing assimilation of Hindu and existential thought.      

       Introduction

     The Integral Consciousness Movement begins in 1951 when Dr. Haridas Chaudhuri had been invited by Frederic Spiegelberg of Stanford University to join the staff of the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco. “He accepted the invitation, eager to implement in a Western educational institution the integral approach to education that he had developed as a student of Sri Aurobindo” (Chadhuri, 2008). Chaudhuri’s articles about Hinduism were published in Western journals during the 1950’s, but were not published until the early 1960’s.

Chaudhuri (1977) offers a definition of Integral Consciousness:

The truth, which is of paramount importance to us, is that consciousness is an emergent value that arises at the human level and lends a unique glory to man as the focus of Being. It reveals to him the realm of boundless possibilities and makes him the master of his destiny. It bestows upon him the creative ability to refashion life and society into an image of his inner vision of truth and beauty and righteousness. 

     Chaudhuri had a unique opportunity in the early 1960’s to start The Integral Consciousness Movement by westernizing Hindu teachings and sharing its universal wisdom with the world. He understood that Americans did not want to read the complex books of Hinduism (Vedas, Upanishads, etc.). He summarized the main teachings of Aurobindo’s Hinduism and offered a more appealing version of Hindu thought to the West. By combining Hinduism with various aspects of Existentialism, Chaudhuri created a new philosophy known as Integral Consciousness. This combination of Eastern and Western thought resonated with spiritual seekers, intellectuals, and the youth of a changing American culture. Chaudhuri’s Integral Consciousness system appealed to middle-class youth, and he became a popular teacher, writer and founder of a new University.  

     It is important to understand Aurobindo’s influence on Chaudhuri’s thinking. Aurobindo inspired Chaudhuri by introducing him to the idea of Integralism as “a self-coherent articulation of the integral experience of reality” (Chaudhuri, 1953). This vision of reality includes the experiencing of a connection with the essence of existence and integrating aspects of the human condition.  The goal is to bring “common sense, science, art, morality, religion” into an individual's everyday life (1953). Aurobindo describes the benefits of living in harmony with the Ultimate Reality and explains how to experience the highest form of spiritual intuition. Chaudhuri builds on Aurobindo’s teachings by developing a system “that provides the basis for a new orientation of our evolutionary advance” (1952).

     Chaudhuri (1953) understood Aurobindo’s concept of Integralism and its close relationship to mysticism. He explains the similarities and differences between these two systems:

There is no doubt that mysticism expresses a significant truth in its emphasis upon the essential ineffable character of the ultimate reality and in demonstrating the imperfection and inadequacy of the purely intellectual approach to reality.  But mysticism overshoots the mark when it proceeds to deny, on the basis of the ineffable mystery of existence, the reality of individuality and cosmic creativity and, also to deprecate the importance of thought or intellect as an instrument of objective self-expression of reality.        

     Chaudhuri finds similarities between Vedanta’s Brahman and Integralism’s Ultimate Reality, thus providing a foundation for the "Integral Consciousness-Vedanta" connection. However, Chaudhuri (1977) argues that Hindu mysticism (Advaita-Vedanta) is unlike Integralism because it deprives the individual of creative expression. In The Mystic Heart, Teasdale (1999) supports Chadhuri's position by affirming that a combination of Eastern and Western mysticism results in an individual's ability to express a unique creative identity.

     Chaudhuri criticizes the founder of Vedanta-Advaita, Shankara, for over-emphasizing the importance of meditating and achieving oneness with Brahman. Alternatively, he suggests that the student of Integralism connects and participates in all aspects of the human experience and still continue meditative practices. In Vedanta; Heart of Hinduism, Torweston (1991) agrees with Chaudhuri’s position on Shankara’s strict meditative system: “During the Middle Ages we find Shankara’s static absolute on the one side of the divide, and a series of theistic systems on the other.” Ramanuja (12th century Vedantin philosopher) modified Shankara’s Advaita into a more diverse religious practice known as Vishista-Advaita. Similarly, Chaudhuri modified traditional Vedanta into the philosophy of Integral Consciousness. Ramanuja emphasizes the importance of participation in nature; Chaudhuri encourages creative expression into the evolving nature of all things. According to Torweston (1991), Ramanuja’s Vishista-Advaita includes concepts such as experiencing oneness with nature and understanding the individuality of the soul: 

One could call it [Romanuja’s Vishishta-Advaita] a ‘pan-en-theism’, a view of God and the world which attempts to balance an extreme pantheism with a no less extreme monotheism (where the stress is separating creator from creature)…The individual soul is not altogether identical with Brahman. Rather, Ramanuja’s conception was that of an organic whole where the individual soul is part of Brahman.    

     Ramanuja and Chaudhuri offer similar solutions for satisfying the two essential needs of most spiritual seekers: 1) expressing the creativity of one’s self in the world and, 2) experiencing oneness with God. Torweston (1999) reinforces this point:

This idea of an organic whole in which all parts are oriented toward the one, toward god, in whose being they ‘partake’, is not only more accessible to the human heart than Shankara’s position was, but also one that makes more sense to the mind.

     Ramanuja’s Vishishta-Advaita in correspondence to Chaudhuri’s Integral Consciousness, emphasizes the importance of the individual. Additionally, Ramanuja and Chaudhuri philosophies stress the importance of feeling wholeness, balance, and love. Both men had similar desires to change the consciousness of their times. Accordingly, Ramanuja’s Vishishta-Advaita influenced the development of The Integral Consciousness Movement.  

     Chaudhuri is consistent on his views regarding Integralism. He interprets the Bhagavad Gita in a universal manner and not as a mystic. He writes about the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita without bias or secularization. According to Chaudhuri (1955):

Besides being the most systematic scriptural statement of the Perennial Philosophy, as Aldous Huxley has aptly described the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, it formulates the guiding principles of human conduct, shows us how we can resolve our spiritual crises and ethical conflicts with reference to the ultimate goal of human life, and thus transcends in its central message the boundaries of East and West.

     Chaudhuri interprets the Bhagavad Gita as a methodology for transforming the individual into a fully integrated human being. He does not concentrate on its metaphysical abstractions or theological significance. Instead, he views Krishna’s advice to Arjuna as a call to action. Additionally, he underlines the importance of balancing the yogas - bhakti, jnana and karma. Chaudhuri believes the Gita helps humanity to establish higher values by encouraging students to contribute goodness and love to the world. His in-depth discussion of the Bhagavad Gita provides another example of Hinduism’s influence on The Integral Consciousness Movement. Chaudhuri (1955) comments on the Bhagavad Gita its themes of Integralism:

We cannot blindly follow any pre-established general principle or set of principles. There is a constant need for independent thinking, intelligent reliance upon competent authorities, and critical self-examination. The refusal to follow the line of least resistance or of blind conformity to some generalized principles is, indeed, a hard way. 

     Chaudhuri (1977) believes the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita correspond to existentialist views of individualism and conformity. Therefore, it is important to understand Existentialism’s influence on the Integral Consciousness Movement: 

In my view there are profound elements of truth in both the classical Hindu view and the existentialist view . . . Such a synthesis would be the essence of the integral view of consciousness. . . . Integral consciousness enables man to grasp simultaneously the timeless mystery of Being and the meaning of time. 

Chaudhuri posits that Hinduism influenced the founding tenets of Existentialism which are able to synthesize into a form of Integralism. The claim finds support with the writing of a journal article by Chaudhuri (1962) entitled, Existentialism and Vedanta. In this article, Chaudhuri speaks about Hinduism’s influence on Existentialism, and how Vedanta and Existentialism grapple with many of the same perennial questions. He comments on controversial topics such as: 1) the nature of Being, 2) the relationship between mankind and the abstract mystery (mysterium tremendum), and 3) how to experience joy through self-realization.

     There are many interpretations of Existentialism and many well-known Existentialists contradict each other. However, Chaudhuri (1962) believes there is common ground among existential philosophers regarding the main issue of humankind's alienation from existence:

Uprooted from the matrix of existence, he is plunged into an age of anxiety, doubt, and despair…Man finds himself a stranger in an alien universe. He is faced with a world from which the old gods have disappeared, the all-too-familiar traditional values have been liquidated, and in consequence a terrifying metaphysical void has been created in the minds of those who think. 

Chaudhuri claims there is an important connection between Existentialism and Hinduism and believes the two philosophies complement one another. In Chadhuri's (1962) Existentialism and Vedanta, he claims that Existentialists seek to resolve humankind's search for meaning by adopting a core Vedantic teaching:

Vedanta has always stressed the need for man’s reintegration with pure Being or with the inmost center of his own existence. Pure Being has been regarded as the source of all values and the supreme fulfillment of all life. 

     Existentialist Ernest Becker (1973) in Denial of Death confirms the Eastern origins of the existential solution to man’s problem of finding meaning:

The whole thing seems very logical, factual, and true to nature: man peels away his armor and unfolds his inner self….and so it seems logical to say that we are being constantly ‘created and sustained’ out of the ‘invisible void’ - the ‘inner room’ of Taoism, the ‘realm of essence’,  ‘the source of all things’ or the ‘It’. 

The philosophical link between Existentialism and Vedanta is the systematic questioning about the true nature of existence. Vedanta and Existentialism both teach transcendence as a method of overcoming false ideas that are projected into a world of illusion (maya). However, their philosophical differences relate to the motivating factors for wanting to transcend a false reality. The Vedantin has an enthusiastic spiritual motivation by maintaining faith, hope, and a genuine desire to experience oneness through self-realization. Conversely, the Existentialist has a self-serving desire to escape from societal fictions, feelings of alienation, and fear of death.

Vedantins believe that by transcending the world of maya, they will experience a supernal, blissful state of Being. According to Chaudhuri (1962):

Whereas, according to Vedanta, consciousness in its inmost structure is of the essence of Being, Sartre affirms consciousness is a Nothingness, which is also a revelation of Being. In Vedanta, consciousness shines out in its complete purity and grandeur on the attainment of Samadhi, the fundamental ontological dimension of human experience.   

     In Existentialism, Sartre (1991) argues that an indifferent Nothingness is in opposition to the optimistic Nothingness of Vedanta. Chaudhuri (1991) underlines this point: “I personally believe in optimism. This very attitude of optimism is good because by being an optimist, by looking forward to the future with hope and self-confidence, we generate positive forces." While Vedanta offers spiritual optimism, Existentialism expresses intellectual agnosticism. Accordingly, Vedanta’s optimism is compatible with Chaudhuri's Integral Consciousness Movement. However, Existentialism is compatible with integralism’s goal of transcendence and its intellectual probing into the nature of existence. The incompatibility lies in Existentialism's lack of spiritual pursuits. While Vedanta's primary goal is to experience communion with Brahman, Existentialism is not concerned with hunaity's relationship to the Godhead.  

     Since Aurobindo’s philosophy had been such a major influence on Integral Consciousness, it is important to discuss additional details of Aurobindo’s teachings. Aurobindo’s vision of Vedanta reflected his outlook on life and desire to reconcile Vedantic metaphysical schools with its humanistic, intellectual and transcendental schools (Chaudhuri, 1962). Chaudhuri agrees with Aurobindo’s position and wanted to unite the various sects of Vedanta. His teachings include the notion that the intellect is not the sole vehicle for achieving self-realization. Along with the Advaitic concept of achieving oneness with Brahman, Aurobindo understood that the pursuit of truth is equally valuable (McDermott, 1972). Consequently, his vision of Vedanta includes the expression of one’s truth in the world and experiencing that truth in everyday life. Thus, life is a spiritual quest for the soul to seek to the experiences it needs in a person's inner and outer worlds. Aurobindo stresses that mind alone is incapable of satisfying the needs of the soul: 

It is not by ‘thinking out’ the entire reality, but by a change of consciousness that one can pass from ignorance to Knowledge – Knowledge by which we become what we know. To pass from the external to a direct and intimate inner consciousness; to widen consciousness out of the limits of the ego and body; to heighten it by an inner will and aspiration and opening to the Light till it passes in its ascent beyond Mind, to bring down a descent of the supra-mental Divine through self-giving and surrender with a consequent transformation of mind, life and body – this is the integral way to the Truth. (Sen, 1963)

     Chaudhuri (1972) builds on the foundational work of Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga by developing the Integral Consciousness system:

The secret of Aurobindo’s yoga lies in man’s conscious cooperation with the creative energy of Being toward the integral transformation of his total being, including the social and global dimension….The more there are men with the integral Being-awareness and the more men begin to assume responsibility and accept suffering with a view toward reshaping affairs of the world, the more the projected kingdom of truth, love, justice, peace, freedom is to be established on earth.     

These fundamental concepts of Integral Yoga are based on Aurobindo’s (1914) The Synthesis of Yoga. According to Chaudhuri (1972), “I have tried to express the same [fundamental principles of Aurobindo] in a brief compass in the context of contemporary thinking in my book." This statement by Chaudhuri underlines Aurobindo’s influence on The Integral Consciousness Movement. 

Conclusion

     In The Evolution of Integral Consciousness, Chaudhuri (1977) explains a unique spiritual philosophy based on universal Eastern thought. He discusses well-known religious leaders and philosophers who influenced his thinking over two decades. It is clear that Aurobindo’s innovative system of Intregal Yoga had been most inflential regarding Chadhuri's synthesis of Vedantin and Existential philosophies.

Chaudhuri recognized the value of his Hindu upbringing and his devotion to Hindu teachings. He expresses his ideas in a straightforward manner and explains Vedic concepts, Sanskrit words, and important Hindu principles. He played an important role in sharing Eastern philosophy with the West during the early 1960’s and wrote several books before becoming the founder of The California Institute of Integral Studies. Through his University, his philosophy has found widespread acceptance among students, spiritual seekers, and intellectuals. His books and journal articles contributed to raising world consciousness.

      With the introduction of Integral Consciousness, Chaudhuri offered a a specific method for acheiving transcendence. By the mid-1970’s, the Integral Consciousness Movement had brought like-minded people together who wanted to learn about connections between philosophy, history, psychology, education and science. Chaudhuri taught students to look within to find answers to life’s most difficult questions. He understood that the universe is a unified macrocosm and each person is a microcosmic aspect of an organic whole. Additionally, Chaudhuri recognized the importance of the individual and explained that each person is responsible for advancing world consciousness. He dedicated his to life to pursuing a vision of an interconnected world, where the highest values of love and compassion overcome hate and selfishness.

With his knowledge and experience, Chaudhuri understood the significance of: 1) developing the self,  2) tapping into unconscious wisdom, 3) connecting with the Divine source, and 3) finding one’s own truth. His teachings include having faith in cosmic goodness, maintaining health in spirit-body-mind, and believing in survival of consciousness after-death. His ultimate vision is for each person to experience self-realization and to express their creativity in ways that serve humanity.