Materialism – Spiritualism: Prepare for Synthesis

Sri Aurobindo was one of the sages of the last century whose philosophy will provide increasingly useful in the world we live in. His approach was marked by synthesis. As we enter the 21st century, we see dualism everywhere around us. It nearly seems that dualism has been stretched to the max, especially when one considers political or socio-economic factors. Synthesis is desperately needed.
Nearly all philosophies are either materialistic or spiritualistic. Either they embrace life and the ego/body, or they deny it. Neither is particularly satisfactory explanation for life.
Following is a paper I wrote recently on Materialism and Spritiualism, and on how Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy provides an approach to overcoming the two.

A new Aeon has begun. According to several esoteric traditions, a new age for mankind and our universe saw its dawn last century, and as we are entering the 21st century more and more rapid developments point to a climax of the current paradigm in the near future. In all areas of life dualism has been stretched to a maximum and both materialism and spiritualism are failing to provide sufficient answers to questions about life that appear to become more and more pressing in light of ecological devastation, global warfare, dead-end intellectualism, and psychosociocultural alienation.


Dualism and the tendency toward extremes both appear to be human traits. In many ways, dualism is at the core of the human experience: “I” vs. “otherness” is the primal perception of the ego. “I” as body and “I” as thought/mind/soul is the next apparent dualism. Male and female and the strength of the electromagnetic force between the two, one of the strongest energies we can produce as humans, further enforce dualism in human life.

The dualism between male and female appears to be close to a new synthesis: At the dawn of human existence, when the relationship and dynamics of sexual intercourse and conception were still occult, the female was worshipped as the bringer of life, mother, Gaia, Goddess ruled. When man realized his role in procreation, a shift occurred toward patriarchy: man holding his own seed holier than the womb that would incubate it, while dropping it like Onan. The results we find in the current ecological and socio-economic/political situation, which is obviously not a sustainable solution for a continuation of humanity on this planet. A new paradigm is beginning to break through. The last decades of feminist movements have slowly but surely washed away the differences between man and woman, and although in the majority of life sexism is still the rule, new paradigms have already been created about collaboration between genders as equal partners in the process of creation. It is curious to note that this is happening at the onset of genetic engineering and cloning, which will eventually obsolete the requirement of male/female intercourse and pregnancy. Maybe the future of humanity is again some form of hermaphrodite, as Adam before Eve was taken out of him, but obviously this is merely speculative at this point.

The dualism between body and soul runs deeper even. When Descartes liberated scientific inquiry into the human body separating body and soul in order to evade the church’s wrath, he also opened the doors for the development of a materialism that would deny any form of spiritual content. Soul was taken out of the equation of science and has been ignored as an irrelevant factor ever since. Consciousness and the problem of emergence have not been solved, and can never be solved in a pure materialist system of thought. Spiritualism, on the other hand, contradicts the basic human experience. As desirable as the idea of an illusionary universe, of maya, might be (especially as our ego’s world is by definition an experience of suffering and separation), and as much as many peddlers of faith have abused this human desire, our day to day sensory experience of life seems to point us to a rather “real” world around us: a world of here and now.

Seemingly, the two systems are irreconcilable. Seemingly, the two are contradictory and mutually exclusive. At the same time, either provides us with benefits, while each has drawbacks.

Materialism, the extrovert orientation toward this physical reality has been the predominant Weltanschauung of the last centuries culminating to some extent in the rebirth of Hedonism since the 1980’s. “Eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow you shall die”, based on Epicurian philosophy, materialism focuses on this life. It is Mephistopheles’ plea to enjoy the earthly delights as the only meaning to life: “Verweile doch, Du bist so schoen”, the quest for sensual pleasure so delightful that one wishes the moment would last forever as the highest climax of human existence.

At the same time, materialism has done much for human development – and ultimately the evolution of the universe – especially once one sees past good and evil as necessary categories and purely observes the long term evolution. It has helped to cultivate the human intellect in its attempt to demystify reality, debunk superstition and end blind ritual. It’s affirmation of the material universe has further been an incentive for development: focus on the material universe developed into physics that allowed humans to build bridges, travel the globe, communicate instantaneously, but also to factory farm animals, broadcast psychoactive programming to millions of people simultaneously for mass hypnosis, and build bombs powerful enough to destroy this planet many times.

Materialism has created free enterprise, one of the major driving factors of the last centuries. Inherent in materialism is the desire for accumulation: remnant thoughts of oneness expressed on the material level result in imperialism and in monopolism. Both are present today if we consider the current political activities and international corporations. In spite of Popper’s rightful criticism of historicism, Karl Marx fairly accurately predicted our current situation in his work “Das Kapital”. His approach, though, was also a materialist one, and as the paradigm cannot be changed from within the paradigm, his ideas, though valid, ended up being perverted just as many other philosophical works were turned into religious dogma.

Similarly, the materialistic worldview also turned academia, originating from the love of wisdom, into dogmatic competitive battle. The result of which, though, is that today we have more information available than ever before, and it is doubling in ever accelerating cycles. Unfortunately, much of academia is stuck in schizophrenic materialism and spirit is ignored as a dirty word. Logical positivism, the idea that only sensory experience is valid, pervades many learned works and much of science is put to use to enforce this material universe over everything (a recent article in the Los Angeles Times pointed out how brain MRI research was being used to determine responses to celebrity brands).

Art, too, in a purely materialist world, degenerates, looses its transcendental function, and becomes more marketing than alchemy. We see the results in television programming as such, and specifically in shows like “American Idol”, which lets audience members vote for their favorite golden calf pop flavor of the day. Art in its very meaning is about joining and bringing together the numinous and the phenomenal, spirit and matter. Art can not survive in a worldview that denies half of its very essence.

A similar debacle exists in the healing arts: Modern medicine, astonishing as it is in its capacities for life-extension, enhancement and repair, is missing the spiritual aspect. Our physical body is entangled with our emotional and mental bodies – to ignore the latter two removes essential knowledge for the diagnosis of any malady and the consequent treatment. The healer becomes a mechanic, oftentimes not even talking to the patient on which they perform surgery, never establishing rapport, one of the core elements of the healing process. And then, there are the modern alchemists, who use their knowledge of the elements not just to create medicine, but to create poisons that are added to our daily bread, or that are stored in cold metal shells to be used against a future enemy.

There are those, who consciously create this reality. There are those who focus on this material world, and who hold their greed, desire, lust for pleasure above all else. There is no need for the socio-economic imbalances in our world – no need for continued global warfare. At the same time, there are those who profit from both. They consciously create a reality that is rooted in materialism to benefit their present lives, willingly giving their souls to Mephistopheles.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find spiritualism, claiming the material universe to be maya, an illusion only. Introvert in its nature, spiritualism is not concerned with material accumulation, instead focuses on aesthetics, philosophy, psychology, mind rather than matter. It is the immature Faust striving ever more toward something higher, but at the same time discontent and depressing his material existence.

In socio-economic worlds, instead of expansion, spiritualism is about contraction, culminating in the ascetic hermit, who withdraws completely from this world to explore his inner realms. It is also at the base of idealistic socio-economic philosophies such as that of Rousseau. Its practical reality being a form of pseudo communism that claims the welfare of others on its banner, but wishes death only – Ayn Rand described it elegantly and with much contempt in “Atlas Shrugged.”

Any philosophy fails when turned into dogma. When intellectually formulated, any theory about everything must inherently be flawed. Thus, no one intellectual formulation of spiritual realities can ever be the whole truth. Unfortunately, though, oftentimes this is forgotten by devout followers of this or that religious system leading to religious wars and terrors such as the inquisition.

It has already been mentioned that spiritualism favors the hermit over material connection with other humans. It can further lead to a solipsistic outlook on life as if all is one and one is aware of that, one might easily mistake oneself for the only sentient being.

On the artistic level, pure spiritualism does not accomplish much either. If one fully despises the material level, what use would be in creating any material artifacts? A little less extreme, we find spiritualistic art in the perishable art of Zen gardens or sand Mandalas.

In the healing arts, the effects might be similarly fragile. If all material aspects are ignored, medicine becomes wonder healing. Rapport in that case is all that is established in the relationship between healer and patient. Although the effects of placebos have been shown again and again, if there is no material manifestation of the quantum information shift, it will soon return to the prior unhealthy state.

The sages of the East accomplished much in terms of their ability to find union with the divine. Unfortunately, many of the traditions still aimed at this union, at liberation from the material world, as the highest aim. Only the Bodhisattvas decided not to seek individual liberation, but remain in the material world or chose to remain as bodiless beings in the 5th bardo until others would also be liberated.

In the question of the final outcome or goal of existence we find that neither Materialism nor Spiritualism provides a truly satisfactory answer and here is were we need to find an integrative, synthetic approach that provides meaning at the root to trickle down through all other aspects of life. While Materialism has an affirmative attitude toward life and a goal would be to strive for material immorality and life extension, it is missing any content to fill this extended existence with outside of sensual pleasure. Spiritualism on the other hand is oriented toward death or at least non-existence in the material plane. This then begs the question as to why we are brought to Earth and have consciousness thereof in the first place. Again, no satisfactory goal if one wishes to give meaning to one’s life.

A new paradigm is required if one wishes to reconcile these apparent differences. No dualistic approach can solve this. The dynamics of thesis and anti-thesis that Hegel described, and which Marx used as an underlying theme for his outline of the development of history have served their purpose. In order to reconcile materialism and spiritualism, a new, non-dualistic paradigm is required.

One of the great sages of the last century provided just that: Sri Aurobindo, who at once was a philosopher of the Western rational mind as also a deep mystic honoring his Eastern heritage, united not only the different variations of Yoga, but also united Eastern and Western thought, and with that provided a philosophy of life that reconciled both material and spiritual focus. His philosophies are not just consistent with the wisdom traditions of both East and West, but even works in the context of modern Quantum physics.

Yoga means “union”. As such, yoga is an inherently dualistic philosophy. It acknowledges the ego/body of the material world and at the same time sets its goal on the All, the one life that transcends individuality and this material reality. Without a separation between the two, there would be no requirement for any union to occur. Aurobindo brings yoga back to this basic premise. He breaks with the Spiritualist idea of ego as bad and damnable, embraces the ego instead, and points out that in Vedanta “the limited ego is not only the cause of the dualities, but the essential condition for the existence of the universe” (Aurobindo, “The Life Divine”, 6th edition, 2001, p.65). In that, he curiously agrees with Heisenberg’s observer principle in Quantum Physics, where the observer, the individual focal point is required to collapse potentiality into actuality. This also reminds of modern interpretations of Quantum Physics that draw further parallels to the wisdom traditions of the East (see Goswami, “The Physics of the Soul”, 2001). The relationship between ego and the universe thus becomes one of partnership: “The universe and the individual are necessary to each other in their ascent. Always indeed they exist for each other and profit by each other. Universe is a diffusion of the divine All in infinite Space and Time, the individual its concentration within limits of Space and Time. Universe seeks in infinite extension the divine totality it feels itself to be but cannot entirely realize, for in extension existence drives at a pluralistic sum of itself which can neither be the primal nor the final unit, but only a recurring decimal without end of beginning [reminiscent of pi]. Therefore it creates in itself a self-conscious concentration of the All through which it can aspire. In the conscious individual Prakriti turns back to perceive Purusha, World seeks after Self; God having entirely become Nature, Nature seeks to become progressively God” (Aurobindo p.52).

The process Aurobindo describes here strongly reminds of Arthur Young’s theory of process, and the emerging paradigm in physics that Consciousness, not matter is the underlying principle of existence, but that in order for it to unfold into actuality, it requires the descent into matter and ultimately man as a self-referential, self-conditioning system to effect the collapse of wave into particle, possibility into actuality. Man is thus the tool the All created to fully explore the joy of its existence continuously striving to its highest forms of being: “In this view the essence of all life is the movement of a universal and immortal existence, the essence of all sensation and emotion is the play of a universal and self-existent delight in being, the essence of all thought and perception is the radiation of a universal and all-pervading truth, the essence of all activity is the progression of a universal and self-effecting good” (Aurobindo p.65)

The meaning of life, Aurobindo thus provides, integrates both material existence and spiritual teleology, in its full exploration of the material universe continuously striving toward the highest principles: “What is that work and result, if not a self-involution of Consciousness in form and a self-evolution out of form so as to actualize some mighty possibility in the universe which it has created? And what is its will in Man if not a will to unending Life, to unbounded Knowledge, to unfettered Power?” (Aurobindo p.19)

The first step on the path is to become aware: “Out of Life it struggles upward into Mind in which the unit becomes awake to itself and its world, and in that awakening the universe gains the leverage it required for its supreme work, it gains self-conscious individuality” (Aurobindo p.51). The second step is to connect with the All: “The practical affirmation of something essentially superior to his present self is the basis of the divine life in the human being” (Aurobindo p.54). Thus, one enters the path of becoming a conscious co-creator.

Once established on this path, in constant “synthetic reinterpretation” (Aurobindo p.60), man rises from man to superman. “It is the Son of Man who is supremely capable of incarnating God. This Man is the Manu, the thinker, the Manomaya Purusha, mental person or soul in mind of the ancient sages. No mere superior mammal is he, but a conceptive soul basing itself on the animal body in Matter. He is conscious Name or Numen accepting and utilizing form as a medium through which Person can deal with substance” (Aurobindo p. 53-54).

Aurobindo thus offers us an alternative to mindless pleasures in the material world and to life-denying striving for liberation. He offers us the idea of a conscious creative, a human connected with the All, conscious and willful in his activities, realizing divine Will on Earth, and aiding the evolution of the Universe toward true Heaven on Earth. In that, he reconciles Materialism and Spiritualism, gives new meaning to life on earth, and sets the stage for a new Aeon for mankind. A time in which man will no longer suffer from his existence, but delight joyfully in his role as creator created in the image of the Creator, the ultimate, the Brahman, pure Bliss.

All quotes are from “The Life Divine” Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 6th edition 2001

Life Divine – U.S. Edition

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