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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
John White is an internationally known author, educator and lecturer in the fields of consciousness research and higher human development. He is author of America, Freedom and Enlightenment; The Meeting of Science and Spirit; Pole Shift; A Practical Guide to Death and Dying; The Gulf of Tonkin Events--Fifty Years Later; and two children's books, The Christmas Mice and Santa's Climate Change Problem. He has also edited the anthologies Frontiers of Consciousness; Psychic Exploration; and What Is Enlightenment?.
The Flowering of Humanity
There is a divine intention at the foundation of the universe. It operates through the cosmos and everything in it, including us.
Human history is a process of ascent to godhead. That process is best described, individually and collectively, as evolution. Humanity is proceeding from a prepersonal state of simple animal consciousness through the personalized state of self-reflective, egoic consciousness to the transpersonal state of self-transcendence or consciousness beyond ego.
However, as mystics, myths and mystery schools point out, ascent would not be possible unless there first was descent. We cannot spiritually lift ourselves by our own bootstraps. We cannot create higher consciousness from electrochemical reactions. Consciousness is immaterial; it cannot be squeezed from test tubes or neurons. Consciousness operates through them but cannot be reduced to them. Just as a plant grows toward the light, so does humanity yearn for God and greater awareness because, like a plant's inherent capacity to perceive and respond to light, there is a teleological design at work in us from the start. There is a divine intention at the foundation of the universe. It operates through the cosmos and everything in it, including us. As Evelyn Underhill, author of the classic Mysticism, put it, "We recognize the growth of conscious mind from the humblest animal origins as consistent with the divine creative will…" Underhill echoed what Shakespeare said through Hamlet: "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will."
That divinity is not simply external, transcendent, apart from the world. It is also immanent and omnipresent. It is immanent—within us—and omnipresent—all around us. We are concerned with God because God is first of all involved with us. Discovery of "God within" and the human capacity for cultivating that immanence is the principle theme of the current New Age movement. Underhill, quoting St. Augustine, observed, "He created us for Himself to continue His line of creation beyond nature to more."
I use the word "involve" in its metaphysical sense: the act of enfolding. Involution has two aspects: origination and preservation. The universe originated—exists—at all only because it is a form of God. God enfolds the universe; it inheres in God. A part of God descended from the transcendental domain and became the cosmos in its totality —physical, mental and spiritual. The involutionary process by which God manifested the cosmos billions of years ago continues even now, this very instant, from moment to moment, sustaining and preserving that which was originally wrought. Without involution, without God's presence as what Teilhard de Chardin called the "withinness" of things, the cosmos would be instantly annihilated. With it, the cosmos is unfolding and evolving, stellar sequence by stellar sequence, world by world.
Within that larger context, we humans have also been brought forth as a form of God. But we are not a static form. Like the cosmos, we are evolving. We have a purpose, a direction, a meaning, and that meaning is growth to godhood. Evolution is the natural fruition of God's plan for humanity.
As we've evolved, the idea of God has likewise evolved. Throughout history, as human consciousness has expanded, there has been a deepening apprehension of the nature of God and an ever-finer expression of that. Of course, the atheist or rationalist maintains that the idea of God is merely an invention of the human mind, and that any evolution of the idea simply reflects humanity's increased capacity for conceptual thought, which in this case was imaginatively projected onto the heavens.
That is not the case, of course. Rather, the case is that God is Ultimate Reality and our understanding of the nature of God is a function of our state of consciousness. As the ancient rishis of India put it, knowledge is structured in consciousness. The atheist and rationalist simply have not seen through the limitations of their position, which is not so much wrong as it is incomplete because it is simply an intermediate stage of understanding. As we evolve in consciousness, we apprehend reality ever more clearly. In the enlightened state, Ultimate Reality is apprehended directly, immediately, beyond all concepts, intellectual constructs and social conditioning. One aspect of that apprehension is the presence of God—here, now, everywhere, always. God descended into the world by the act of creating it and God remains in the world by the act of sustaining it. That's involution.
That knowledge has been intuited by humanity since it first acquired human status, although the realization was at first pale and distorted. But with each evolutionary advance came clearer, more illumined perception.
The animism of paleolithic Man was apparently the earliest form of the human apprehension of God. Nature was thought to be animated by spiritual powers which took individuality—but not personality—as trees, rivers, mountains, lightning, clouds, the sun and so forth. Humans could interact with those powers via ceremony and sacrifice. Homo sapiens at that time was still without a well-formed sense of egoic identity; the self was still sensed as collective, tribal, immersed in nature. The Cro-Magnon cave paintings at Font de Gaume and Lascaux depict this.
As human consciousness enlarged and the sense of self operating in the race became more solidified, the religion of the Great Mother or Earth Mother arose. Matriarchy dominated human culture. This is the time, as Merlin Stone entitled her book, when God was a woman.
The next major change in the human understanding of God was polytheism. The transcendent realm was conceived as populated with divine forms, some human-like, some animal-like, but all with personality and distinctly human qualities, including gender. The emergence of polytheism in neolithic times was coincident with the emergence of a well-formed sense of ego in the most advanced members of humanity and a clear sense of being disengaged from nature, though still attuned to it. The "gods"—quote, unquote—emerged to human understanding about 5,000 B.C., and with it a male-oriented urge to dominate nature. The feminine qualities present in culture were subdued by masculine aggression and the quest for power. Those, of course, are hallmarks of ego.
As the pace of human evolution accelerated, it began producing individuals who were capable of sustaining self-identity via a state of consciousness beyond ego. The enhanced awareness and perception of these individuals showed still more clearly the nature of God. And thus emerged the next major phase of humanity's religio-spiritual understanding, namely, monotheism. The "gods" were now understood as lesser beings —the divinities of the midheavens—who were subservient to the transcendent Godabove- all-gods. Monotheism arose with the pharoah Akhnaton in Egypt about 2,000 B.C. The One God, although depicted as male, was actually understood to be genderless—neither male nor female. The Transcendent god, the One god was beyond or above or prior to the division into the sexes.
Akhnaton was clearly, for his time, an evolved member of the race. In fact, as I explain more fully in "The Sparkle of Spirit" in The Meeting of Science and Spirit, the pharoanic rulers were themselves perceived as semidivine. They were regarded as clearly and qualitatively above the mass of humanity. Likewise, around the world, leaders and rulers of the tribe or collectivity were seen as god-men and god-women, having both human and divine qualities.
That view still holds forth in the consciousness of many people today, indicating their own level of development to be short of even self-actualization or fully-functioning ego. Think of various recent world events in which charismatic leaders have commanded millions to do their bidding, no matter how absurd or brutal the command might be. Think of the childish adulation given by the masses to glamourous film stars and singers. The adoring followers of such people have not yet developed a sense of self strong enough to support personal autonomy and to see the superficiality of their world view. Their identity still resides largely outside themselves, in the collectivity and its leader. It is the leader—the chieftain, king or emperor—who thinks for them and provides in his or her person an external symbol of higher consciousness and a conduit to the god-realm or, if a celebrity in a secular society, who gives a vicarious and false sense of transcendence of the human condition.
But as Ken Wilber points out in Up from Eden, his brilliant study of human evolution, by the sixth century B.C., a few members of the human race had attained to the ultimate state of consciousness, enlightenment. Buddha, Lao Tse, Rama, and, shortly after, Socrates, Plato, Zoroaster, Pythagoras, Jesus and others demonstrated self-transcendence to the point where they could say, as Jesus did, that "I and the Father are one," meaning their sense of self-identity was totally divested of ego and totally invested in the Divine Domain, the transcendental realm from which all creation arises.
Such evolutionarily advanced people were so far beyond the understanding of the masses that they were perceived as incarnations of God. The term most commonly used to describe that condition is avatar, a Sanskrit word meaning literally "he descends." An avatar is said to be a deity who voluntarily assumes a physical body to participate in creation. An avatar is the divine in human form—God walking the Earth among men and women. More specifically, according to Hindu tradition, an avatar is an incarnation of Vishnu and there have been nine such incarnations, with a tenth still to come. The avatar concept itself originated about the sixth century B.C., according to Dr. Daniel Bassuk in his 1987 book entitled Incarnation in Hinduism and Christianity. Avatars, Bassuk tells us, are traditionally regarded as perfect beings, not perfected beings. Ichor flows through their veins, not blood. They are believed to have been born in a supernatural way. They have no karma to expiate. They remember all their previous lives. They are conscious of their mission from birth. From the traditional point of view, avatars originate in heaven, not on Earth. They are different from the spiritually liberated human who ascends the spiritual path and becomes enlightened, freed from the wheel of death-and-rebirth. Ancient thought holds that while it is humanly possible to become a man-god, it is impossible for a human to become a god-man. Bassuk points out that "when matter is spiritualized it is through the will and actions of man, but when spirit materializes as in the case of the Avatar, it is by the will of God alone."
That is the traditional view. A new age, however, would end certain views and traditions. That is precisely the case here. Planet Earth and humanity are transiting to a new aeon, and the traditional notion of avatars must be revised because the ongoing evolution of consciousness makes clear to us that the received view originated in the minds of people who were to one degree or another still in the prepersonal, pre-egoic condition. If knowledge is structured in consciousness, then the portrait of avatars which emerged from such consciousness clearly can be improved upon by those who have ascended above the masses in their perception of reality. The concept of avatar is no longer tenable in its traditional sense. If Jesus was a god-man, how can we explain the fact that blood, not ichor, flowed from him on the cross? Likewise, if Buddha was a godman, how can we explain the fact that he died of food poisoning? Moreover, we have the testimony of avatars themselves—notably Jesus and Buddha—that their condition of consciousness is attainable by others.
Jiddu Krishnamurti endorsed this perspective. In a wonderful book by Aryel Sanat entitled The Occult Life of J. Krishnamurti, he is quoted from one of his talks. He says:
One of the questions is about the masters, as they are explained not only in Theosophy but in the Hindu tradition and in the Tibetan tradition, which maintains that there is a Bodhisattva; and that he manifests himself rarely and that is called in Sanskrit Avatar, which means manifestation… There is a very ancient tradition about that Bodhisattva that there is a state of consciousness, let me put it that way, which is the essence of compassion. And when the world is in chaos that essence of compassion manifests itself. That is the whole idea behind the Avatar and the Bodhisattva.
Note that the Bodhisattva is a state of consciousness. In short, the traditional, exoteric understanding of avatars is a distorted understanding which needs to be demythologized and divested of its superstition, romance and ignorance. Human evolution has reached a state where avatarhood is becoming comprehensible and frequent. Unfortunately for undiscerning spiritual seekers, it is also being claimed by some people who have a degree of transpersonal understanding but are still egoically enough driven to seek self-aggrandizement through assertions of avatarhood. As the spiritual teacher Adi Da (1939-2008) remarked some years ago, we've got avatars all over the front yard.
It is time to see Spirit through the light of science. Not by the light of science, of course, because that would be reductionism. But science has given us a powerful understanding of the evolutionary process. With that understanding, the workings of Spirit become ever more illumined. Our understanding of the avatar concept—the descent of the divine—is deepened by humanity's collective effort to ascend into higher realms of reality via science.
With that meeting of science and Spirit, it becomes clear that the jivanmukti, the liberated mortal who ascends in consciousness to the Divine Domain, is not qualitatively different from those beings who are presumed to descend from the eternal to the temporal, from the unconditional to the conditioned, from the infinite to finitude. You see, deity is not simply incarnate in Man—it is incarnate in all life. So if humanity is the flowering of life, then avatars are the flowering of humanity. That has now become obvious; it has also become obvious as a possibility for the human race. That is what any movement toward a New Age must be all about. The Great Ones, Masters, Mahatmas, Adepts and Avatars of history are, in simplest terms, the elder brothers and sisters of the human race. Here's how Theosophist G. de Purucker describes them in his book Masters of the Occult Path:
They are men who have evolved through self-devised efforts in individual evolution, always advancing forwards and upwards until they attained the lofty supremacy that now they hold. They were not so created by any extra-cosmic Deity, but they are men who have become what they are by means of inward spiritual striving, by spiritual and intellectual yearning, by aspiration to be greater and better, nobler and higher. They are not what they are by any favoritism either of a god or of Fate, but have merely run ahead of the great multitude of men.
These elders brothers and sisters, such as Jesus, Buddha, Rama and Krishna, point the way for us to become deified. Sri Aurobindo, the sage of Pondicherry, India, who was sometimes described by naive devotees as an avatar, explicitly denied that such was the case. He declared that anyone who thought he was just another avatar come to start another religion or to enlarge the number of gods by one had sadly misunderstood him. Avatar-worship and sectarianism had no place in his teaching, except to be recognized as holdovers of an earlier time which need to be discarded in the name of consciousness expansion and higher evolution. The descent of what he called the Supermind is intended for all humanity. In The Mind of Light he writes,
"The full emergence of supermind may be accomplished by a sovereign manifestation, a descent into earth-consciousness and a rapid assumption of its powers and disclosing of its forms and the creation of a supramental race and a supramental life: this must be the full result of its action in Nature."
The divine has indeed descended and has been, without question, beautifully represented in certain noble specimens of humanity who were forerunners of a higher race. But the descent is not sporadic and momentary; it is ongoing in a lawful manner. In the realm of physics, it operates as the forces which sustain the cosmos. In the biological realm, it operates, as Pandit Gopi Krishna put it in his elucidation of the kundalini experience, as a biological process applying to all of the human family. In fact, this can be discerned in the very myth of the avatar.
Tradition maintains there have been nine incarnations of Vishnu. According to the founder of the Philosophical Research Foundation, Manly Palmer Hall, in his 1932 book Man—The Grand Symbol of the Mysteries, Vishnu "in his most abstract form, signifies the Divine Spirit either of the universe or of man" moving from form to form and is "the true explanation of the transitions constantly taking place in Nature." Vishnu is the second god of the Hindu trinity, being regarded as the supreme god, the preserver and sustainer, encompassing Brahma the creator and Shiva the destroyer. The first incarnation of Vishnu was Matsya the Fish, the divinity of the primal age. The second was Kurma the Tortoise. Next came Varaha the Boar, followed by Narasimha the Lion- Man. Fifth was Vamana the Dwarf. Parasurama, "the man with the axe," was the sixth incarnation of Vishnu. Ramachandra, the hero of the great Indian epic, the Ramayana, was the seventh. Krishna (and, in some versions, Balarama the Plowman) was the eighth avatar. Buddha was the ninth. (Incidentally, Buddhists do not attribute avatar status to the Enlightened One as Hindus do.) The tenth avatar of Vishnu is Kalki, who, it is believed, has yet to appear on Earth, but will do so when it is time for a righteous age to begin.
These strange-sounding and unlikely-appearing divinities, taken literally, are simply another form of religious superstition and have no significance for evolving humanity's present condition. But consider them mythologically. Bassuk calls myth "a rich, meaningful and significant interpretation of reality." Regarded that way—regarded symbolically—the avatar concept becomes an insightful parable of evolution.
Here is how the history of evolution is presented in the myth of Vishnu's incarnations. Eons ago, the first forms of life emerged on Earth; the fish avatar symbolizes that. That was the Age of Fishes, three billion years ago. Then amphibians gained ascendence and the Age of Reptiles began; Kurma the tortoise represents that stage of Earth's life. The next avatar is a boar—a mammal which figuratively indicates the succession of higher life forms. Then comes Narasimha, who is half man and half lion; Narasimha is suggestive of the stage when humanity began to develop from the apes. Yet although it was hominid, and no longer anthropoid, it was still far from being the genus Homo. It was perhaps Australopithecus, the ape-men of Africa who lived some five million years ago. Vamana the Dwarf is better understood as Vamana the short man or not-yet-completely-man, the early successors to Australopithecus. Parasurama, or the man with the axe, can be thought of as the beginnings of true humanity, when the Neanderthal people's stone and bone technology distinguished them from their non-toolmaking or, at best, extremely crude toolmaking predecessors. The next avatar, Rama, was a hunter who used a bow and arrow. The bow and arrow are inventions of the Cro-Magnon people. Balarama the Plowman is emblematic of the emergence of agricultural society as human evolution surpassed the hunter-gatherer stage. Krishna, whose flute delights all who hear it, is the artist, the deepening esthetic and spiritual dimension of human consciousness. Buddha's significance as the most recent avatar should be obvious: he represents the full expression of the human potential in the individual. Kalki, then, symbolizes the full appearance of that potential throughout the race as a higher form of humanity.
H. P. Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, pointed out the evolutionary aspect of the avatar myth at the end of the 19th century. In Isis Unveiled, she said that in the myth of the avatar:
we see traced the gradual evolution and transformation of all species out of the ante-Silurian mud of Darwin… Beginning with the Azoic time, corresponding to the ilus in which Brahma implants the creative germ, we pass through the Paleozoic and Mesozoic times, covered by the first and second incarnations as the fish and tortoise; and the Cenozoic, which is embraced by the incarnations in the animal and semi-human forms of the boar and man-lion; and we come to the fifth and crowning geological period, designated as the 'era of mind, or age of man,' whose symbol in the Hindu mythology is the dwarf—the first attempt of nature at the creature of men…and then…Parasu Rama physically, a perfect, spiritually, an undeveloped entity, until [we see] mankind personified by one godlike man, to the apex of physical and spiritual perfection—a god on earth.
Manly Palmer Hall pointed to an additional aspect of the evolutionary import of avatars. He said: "…the analogies between the origin of life upon the planet and the development of the embryo in the womb are apparent." He pointed to similarities between the nine avatars and the characteristics of the prenatal human's nine months of intrauterine growth. Then he said:
The tenth avatara of Vishnu has no correspondence in the prenatal state of man, but rather corresponds to his whole life after birth… Vishnu, 'he who pervades,' comes forth for the last time not as a man but rather through man. He is the invisible god who rules in the chariot of the human heart. The world awaits the coming of its Redeemer—the perfect man. To the philosopher, this perfect man is rather the perfection in man. The immortality that lay asleep in the germ from which man sprang awakens and, in the course of countless ages, releases itself, tincturing all bodies and lifting all men into the perfection of its own state.
I think that a statement by Sri Aurobindo eloquently summarizes the perspective I offer here—a perspective which sees involution and evolution working in complementary fashion as aspects of Ultimate Wholeness, and matter and Spirit as complementary expressions of the One Reality. So I'll close with his words as collected in Messages of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother:
The process of evolution has been the development from and in inconscient Matter of a subconscient and then a conscious Life, a conscious mind first in animal life and then fully in conscious and thinking man, the highest present achievement of evolutionary Nature. The achievement of mental being is at present her highest and tends to be regarded as her final work; but it is possible to conceive a still further step of the evolution: Nature may have in view beyond the imperfect mind of man a consciousness that passes out of the mind's ignorance and possesses truth as its inherent right and nature. There is a truthconsciousness as it is called in the Veda, a supermind, as I have termed it, possessing Knowledge, not having to seek after it and constantly miss it. In one of the Upanishads a being of knowledge is stated to be the next step above the mental being; into that the soul has to rise and through it to attain the perfect bliss of spiritual existence. If that could be achieved as the next evolutionary step of Nature here, then she would be fulfilled and we could conceive of the perfection of life even here, its attainment of a full spiritual living even in this body or it may be in a perfected body. We could even speak of a divine life on earth; our human dream of perfectibility would be accomplished and at the same time the aspiration to a heaven on earth common to several religions and spiritual seers and thinkers.
The ascent of the human soul to the supreme Spirit is that soul's highest aim and necessity, for that is the supreme reality; but there can be too the descent of the Spirit and its powers into the world and that would justify the existence of the material world also, give a meaning, a divine purpose to the creation and solve its riddle. East and West could be reconciled in the pursuit of the highest and largest ideal, Spirit embrace Matter and Matter find its own truly reality and the hidden Reality in all things in the Spirit.