Seven Quartets of Becoming
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by Debashish Banerji
The Seven Quartets
After his release from the prison, he spent another year in Calcutta continuing his political activity but departed successively to the French colonies of Chandernagore and Pondicherry, following inner directives (adeshas). In April 1910, he settled in the South Indian seaside town of Pondicherry, never to leave this city for the rest of his embodied life. Sometime in the early years of his settlement in Pondicherry (perhaps between 1911-1912), Sri Aurobindo received a systematic program of yoga made up of seven disciplinary components, each with four goals or “perfections” (siddhis). He referred to this program as Sapta Chatusthaya (Seven Quartets) and began organizing his experience to himself in terms of this disciplinary structure from 1912, recording his practices and experiences along these lines in diaries or notebooks, which he titled “Record of Yoga.” In November 1913, he noted down this scheme of the seven quartets on some loose sheets and began elaborating on them, a process which remained incomplete.
He may have also lectured on these quartets to the small group of disciples who stayed with him in these early years. From a number of disciples’ notebooks, we find transcripts of “scribal notes” on these quartets, which are invaluable in filling the gaps and providing a closer view of what he may have meant by the distinctions he drew. From 1914 to 1920, while continuing with relative regularity his diary entries, he also wrote articles for the journal Arya, within which all his major writings were serialized. Among these articles was his series elaborating his teaching of yoga, which is now available as The Synthesis of Yoga. This text also amplifies the teachings of the quartets and often provides a clearer key for understanding some of its obscurities.
I have drawn on all these and a few other sources to present the description carried in this book. While such a presentation could be taken as a window into the life of an extraordinary individual practicing an exotic discipline about a hundred years ago, I believe the intent with which these practices were undertaken should not be lost sight of in reference to human subjectivity in its present hour of world civilization. Sri Aurobindo embarked upon the path of yoga as the revolutionary impulse of a modern subject at the cusp of 20th c. modernity, marked by colonialism. Colonialism is politically no more with us, but the imprisoning forces of modernity are all around us, colonialism continues to haunt developing and underdeveloped nations socially, economically and culturally, while neo-liberal globalization anonymizes humanity across the world, populating planetary cities with complacent quasi-androids in programmed eagerness to consume packaged lifestyles coded for degrees of happiness. The gift of fire with which humanity began its ascent into self-consciousness today burns no more in human hands, but fuels huge impersonal circulations of capital to which humanity remains imprisoned. What the seven quartets of Sri Aurobindo represents in this situation is no less than the second birth of fire, the fire of conscious evolution, the primal tool for the emergence of the infinite or plural Subject out of its subjection to the shredding and pulverizing of attention and quality that marks our times.
- from Seven Quartets of Becoming, by Debashish Banerji
This is a difficult book, but one well worth the effort of reading. It has three main aims, all complex and deep: the first is to present the aims and nature of Sri Aurobindo's yoga as described in his Record of Yoga, his yogic diary; the second is to examine his Integral Yoga in the wider context of Indian yogas and spiritual philosophies; and the third is to examine certain facets of Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga in relation to the concepts articulated by various Western philosophers. There is no doubt that the author has an excellent grasp of all three of these difficult subjects. Viewing the work from what I might claim to be a fairly strong grounding in Sri Aurobindo's thought, but not quite as strong in Western philosophy, I would say that the author was quite successful with the first and second aims, but less so with the third. I often had difficulty following the author's comparisons with Western philosophical and psychological concepts, in part because there were just so many different philosophers and philosophies discussed in relation to such a wide assortment of ideas that it was hard to get an overall perspective on all this material, and in part because the descriptions of Western philosophical concepts seemed highly abstract and condensed. In contrast, I found the parts describing the concepts in the Record of Yoga much more accessible, and though the language used to describe them may also be difficult for readers less acquainted with them, these concepts are presented more leisurely, with fuller explanations, and so they are easier to digest. In addition, the structure of the Integral Yoga described in the Record of Yoga is nicely organized into "seven quartets," and this structure helps in comprehending it overall and in relating the parts to each other. The author has capitalized on this guiding structure by including helpful tables that summarize and organize the ideas.
Let me elaborate a bit more on each of the three main aims of the book. The Record of Yoga was Sri Aurobindo's diary of his yoga that he wrote primarily between 1912 and 1920. The manuscripts that comprise the Record of Yoga were found relatively recently and first published as a book in 2001. These personal diary notes were presented in a difficult form with much Sanskrit terminology, brief notes on various experiences, and sometimes more systematic reviews of his ongoing progress in the various aspects of his sadhana. Some other writings which helped to describe the overall structure of his sadhana were included as an Introduction to the Record of Yoga. In the present book, the first aim has been to present the overall structure of this yoga, a concise yet accessible explanation of the 28 parts of the seven quartets, some of which are further elaborated into additional components. The seven quartets are the quartets of Perfection, Peace, Power, Knowledge, the Body, Being, and Action, which are well described in a chapter devoted to each. There follows an important chapter called "Attitudes of Self-Discipline," which discusses major threads running through many of the quartets and integrating them, attitudes such as aspiration, sincerity, purification, equality, constant remembrance and surrender. Another chapter enlarges upon the quartet of pure Being and its relation to Knowledge, discussing concepts such as Brahman, the one and the many, the personal and the impersonal, and the Master of the Yoga. The final chapter elaborates further on the quartets of action, power and enjoyment, all of which are connected to the life-affirming nature of the yoga.
The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo's main formal text on the Integral Yoga, is organized and formulated quite differently from the Record of Yoga. Though most of the components of the seven quartets appear there, they are presented in a different language and organizational structure. Some of these components are also elaborated in Sri Aurobindo's other works, and the author refers to these works as he discusses and explains the system of yogic practice found in these early diaries of Sri Aurobindo. In summary, this book successfully renders the main concepts of the Record of Yoga accessible and understandable, and thus gives a useful new perspective on the Integral Yoga.
The second stated aim was to place Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga in the wider context of Indian Yoga. This seemed to me a minor endeavor of the book, with relatively few pages devoted to it, and yet I was struck at times with new insights about the Integral Yoga's relation with the other Indian yogas and philosophies. For example, the first chapter describes Sri Aurobindo's yoga in relation to Vedanta, Samkhya, Tantra and Patanjali's Yoga and illuminates these relations with its twin goals of mukti (liberation) and bhukti (enjoyment). These two goals are found again and again in the structure of the seven quartets, and in several of the quartets two aspects are focused on mukti, and two aspects are focused on bhukti, the latter being associated with the acceptance and divinization of earthly life. The book also covers many of the central concepts of Sri Aurobindo's spiritual philosophy as described in The Life Divine; it is not focused exclusively on yoga or yogic practice. These philosophical concepts, which are not merely concepts but spiritual experiences or potentially verifiable experiential realities, are also illuminated in many of the comparisons with the Western philosophies. At some points in my reading I was struck more profoundly than ever with how new and radically different Sri Aurobindo's teaching is from the traditional yogas which tend to focus exclusively on mukti, or spiritual liberation.
The third aim of the book focuses on showing how Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga compares with and relates to various Western philosophies, especially those of Hegel, Nietzsche, Bergson, Husserl, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze, with a special emphasis on the last, who articulated many concepts similar to those of Sri Aurobindo. While it was obvious that the author has a close familiarity with these writings and is facile at extracting their primary ideas and comparing them and locating them in the development of philosophical thought, it seemed to me that he assumes too much from the reader in this respect. Although the introduction to the book provides a brief introduction to these philosophers and their related conceptions, I felt that there was a vast reservoir of knowledge hidden below and behind his various assertions about their philosophies which remained unarticulated and thus might often leave readers like myself scratching their heads. There is also a specific style of language and terminology used in these discourses in which the author is clearly expert, but which is a bit daunting to take in alongside the complexity of terms and conceptions articulated in the Record of Yoga. Still, I would not say that this material was completely intractable; I did learn useful things about these philosophies, and, even more importantly, was struck by their profundity and the similarities that many of them have to Sri Aurobindo's views on various matters. In addition, it is quite likely that many readers would have had a better preparation in Western philosophy than I, and with a good introductory background in these philosophies might find these comparisons more illuminating. I do believe that this third aim of the book is an important and necessary one, for it relates Sri Aurobindo's thought and yoga to present-day ideas and philosophies, and thus to modern humanity's self-conception and its conception of the world and its future. It is to be hoped that in future works the author might articulate these relations of Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga to Western philosophy in a more elaborated manner, more accessible to lay readers.
Larry was formerly a research psychologist in the U.S.A.; he now works at the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research in Pondicherry facilitating online courses on Sri Aurobindo's teachings.