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Tantra and Transcendentalism

Tantra and Transcendentalism – The Philosophies of Emerson and Aurobindo
by Robert C. Gordon, PhD

A Presentation to the 13th International Congress of Vedanta, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, September 12-15, 2002

At roughly the time that Columbus set sail in search of a western passage to India, a newly awakened life force began to flow in humanity. That force was the Humanistic Revolution. Humanism celebrated the dignity of the human being and the essential value of life in the world. Basing itself on the classic literature of Greece and Rome rather than Biblical revelation, Humanism rejected Christianity’s doctrine of original sin, affirmed human nature, and praised the human condition. Its life-affirming attitudes and focus on individualism and individual achievement inspired the European Renaissance, the birth of modern science, the age of exploration, the rise of democracy, and rapid economic and social development. The three essential characteristics of the Humanistic Revolution are:

A. A spirit of questing individualism
B. World-Affirmation
C. Open-Ended Truth that is, the questioning of all given knowledge in the light of new ideas and new facts. As William James would say, “Truth is in the making.”

The heart of my presentation is that Emerson and Aurobindo were both deeply influenced by the spirit of Humanism, and sought to develop new approaches to the spiritual life that were in harmony with the Humanistic Revolution. They recognized that if we want to be both Humanist and spiritual, we must find a form of religion that is at once individualistic, world-affirmative, and open-ended. Thus American Transcendentalism arose in the West to meet this need, while in the East developed the Purnadvaita or integral non-dualism of Sri Aurobindo.

However, Emerson and Aurobindo were not the first to create a spirituality in harmony with these key Humanistic principles. That distinction goes to the ancient wisdom of Tantra. Tantra challenges the ascetic renunciation and world rejection of early Buddhism and the Upanishads, offering an entirely different approach to the spiritual life. Instead of rejecting the world, Tantrics seek to achieve moksha or Enlightenment through joyful enjoyment of the world.

Tantra uses bhoga or enjoyment as a yoga or spiritual path by means of sadhana: the process of physical, mental, and moral purification achieved through self-control, discipline, and worship. Sadhana transforms the aspirant’s consciousness from ignorance into Enlightenment. Thus the essence of Tantra is captured in this formula: sadhana (a new mindset which inspires new behavior) transforms bhoga (the enjoyments of earthly experience) into yoga (a path of Enlightenment), and the adept into a spiritual hero.

In their spirit of life affirmation, the Tantrics define the ultimate religious goal differently than do classical Hindu and Buddhist metaphysics. In Tantra, the goal of the spiritual life is not to achieve Liberation and transcend the world. Rather, it is to achieve Enlightenment while still embodied, generating a magical perfection of behavior in complete harmony with the world of everyday. The Tantric goal is not to ascend to Heaven or be liberated from earthly experience. Rather it is to achieve perfect harmonious action in the world of here and now through submission to divine will.

According to Tantra, all of creation is the lila or cosmic play of the Goddess Kali. Nature is Her effulgent shakti, not inconscient prakriti or illusory maya. As such, the manifest realm of name and form is pure divine shakti under the guidance of Kali’s cosmic will. Through submission to the Dark Mother’s cosmic will, the Tantric hero achieves perfect harmony with nature and mastery of the universe. When Her cosmic will reinforces the hero’s formerly contracted and ego-driven will, the hero achieves perfect harmony with all of creation, and simultaneously attains the Supreme Experience of the changeless Lord Shiva who underlies and yet remains unaffected by Kali’s realm of name and form. The hero experiences, resolves, and unifies the Cosmic Male and Female: changeless Shiva and creative Kali, generating perfect cosmic harmony and balance.

Although Emerson and Aurobindo started from very different beginning points in their respective traditions, both created metaphysical systems that are remarkably similar to ancient Tantra. Let us now explore the Tantric affinities between Aurobindo and Emerson by identifying what I take to be the eight basic metaphysical principles they hold in common.

1. Non-Duality:

Emerson and Aurobindo agree that all is finally resolvable into a single, unifying divine principle. Emerson referred to this ultimate reality as “that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other,”1 while Aurobindo used the term Brahman, which of course has a long and venerable history in Indian philosophy.

2. The World is the Real Manifestation of Spirit:

The Christian tradition in which Emerson was reared held that the world was inert matter, bereft of Spirit. God was distinctly separate from the world, a transcendent God who ruled creation from his abode in Heaven. Rejecting this view, Emerson adopted the principle of divine immanence. He held that the apparently material world was in fact pure divinity: “The knowledge that this spirit, which is essentially one, is in one’s own and in all other bodies, is the wisdom of one who knows the unity of things. As one diffusive air, passing through the perforations of a flute, is distinguished as the notes of a scale, so the nature of the Great Spirit is single, though its forms be manifold.”2As we have noted, Emerson’s adoption of this principle represented a radical break with Christian theology which traditionally separated God from the created order.

Whereas Emerson’s task was to reject materialism and separation of the divine from creation, Aurobindo repudiated that strain in his tradition which devalued the world as illusory. He took direct aim at Sankara’s mayavada which considered the world of name and form an illusion, which held that the transcendent experience of Brahman made clear to the seer the essential unreality of the phenomenal world. According to classical Advaita Vedanta, having realized the unreality of the world, the seer’s proper response was withdrawal from it. Breaking with Sankara, Aurobindo considered the whole of existence as a multiform unity. Matter and Spirit were an unbroken continuum of Being, an integral and undivided whole, a truth he sums up in the aphorism, “Nature is secret God.”3 True, Brahman was the formless transcendent Reality, but equally real was Brahman’s cosmic shakti, manifested as the concrete world and the processes of nature.

The interesting fact to note here is that although Emerson and Aurobindo were rejecting very different traditions, they both came to the same conclusion: the world is the very real manifestation of Spirit whose basic nature is ananda. For Emerson, manifest reality is a “work of ecstasy,”4 the tangible expression of “the heart at the centre of the universe” which “with every throb hurls the flood of happiness into . . . the whole system” inundating all “with tides of joy.”5 Similarly, Aurobindo affirms, unlike Sankara, that all of creation should be experienced and described not as illusion but as creative force (shakti), as the play of the divine (lila), and as joy or delight of existence (ananda). Both Emerson and Aurobindo agree that the final rationale for Nature is the ecstatic bliss of the process itself, and this agreement was an important reason that both have the same world affirmative spirit as Tantra. As the ancient Tantra Shastras say, “From Pure Joy springs all creation; by Joy it is sustained, towards Joy it proceeds and to Joy it returns.”6

3. Life’s Purpose Is To Surrender To Divine Power and Realize Non-Duality:

Aurobindo says, “the manifestation of the divine in himself and the realization of God within and without are the highest and most legitimate aims possible to man upon earth.”7 According to Emerson, at the heart of creation is a dynamic force, “perfect and beautiful, according to whose ordinations all beings advance to their beatitude.”8 Emerson further says, “The All is in Man. In Man the perpetual progress is from the Individual to the Universal, from that which is human, to that which is divine.”9

Agreeing that realization of non-duality is the purpose of life, both Emerson and Aurobindo also subscribed to what we might call a “submissional sadhana.” That is, to reach full realization, it was necessary to cultivate submission to the divine power manifesting the created order. Emerson holds that “There is a principle which is the basis of things. . . .a simple, quiet, undescribed, undescribable presence, dwelling very peacefully in us, our rightful lord: we are not to do, but to let do; not to work, but to be worked upon.”10 Aurobindo agreed, considering “Surrender to God’s Shakti” to be perhaps the most important key to spiritual development, and in a well known passage he describes himself as “no longer my own master;” as “a puppet” of the Divine.11

It is this aspect of submission in Emerson and Aurobindo that creates a metaphysics of individualism that complements Humanistic individualism. Both philosophers hold that each must follow their own divinely inspired inner-guidance. Both agree that each unique individual has a singular path to Realization which can only be found through inner Self-Reliance, or reliance on the divine Spirit in all of us. This Self-Reliance creates an open-ended attitude towards truth since it requires that seekers have neither preconceptions nor set expectations regarding the spiritual path. They must follow their divine inner guidance wherever it leads them. Aurobindo describes this inner voice as a “seed force” which he followed “till it led me through all the mazes of an incalculable yogic development bound by no single rule or style or dogma or shastra.”12

4. Spiritual Process:

Both Emerson and Aurobindo are what I call philosophers of spiritual process. Stephen Phillips refers to Aurobindo as a “mystic empiricist.”13 I term Emerson a “transcendental pragmatist.” The key to both mystic empiricism and transcendental pragmatism is the belief that the soul evolves spiritually through the process of life itself. Both Emerson and Aurobindo worship at the altar of everyday, and it is their common process philosophy that puts them in harmony with the world-affirmation of Tantra and Humanism.

The Christian tradition that Emerson rejected accorded reality to the world, but devalued the world as but a vale of tears, important only insofar as it determined the soul’s disposition after death. Emerson exalted the world because he conceived of our earthly experience as a direct means of spiritual development. We grow in God through the transformative power of daily experience. Emerson says, “The noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it.”14 Rejecting the ministry of a priesthood, Emerson’s process philosophy embraced the ministry of Nature. The daily events of this world impel the soul to evolve spiritually because all of experience comes to us through this benevolent ministry. In Emerson’s words, “man is ever invited inward into shining realms of knowledge and power by the shows of the world, which interpret to him the infinitude of his own consciousness.”15

In the case of Aurobindo, he insists that daily action is itself the means of Realization. His agreement with Emerson comes out most clearly in his identification of the processes of Nature with the methods of yoga. Just as one practices yoga for the purpose of developing one’s inner spirituality, so participation in worldly experience performs the same office. Indeed, yoga may be understood as “in essence a special action or formulation of certain great powers of Nature.”16(SY 20:1) This is true because, as Aurobindo says, “All life is a secret yoga.”17 Thus both Emerson and Aurobindo exalt the value of earthly experience because daily life itself is, as Keats put it, “the vale of soul-making.” Their common roots in a philosophy of spiritual process inspired both Emerson and Aurobindo to ringing world-affirmation.

5. Necessitated Freedom:

When the evolving soul achieves Self-Realization, both Emerson and Aurobindo agree that the individual becomes a perfect instrument for Cosmic Will and in perfect harmony with all of creation. Such an individual would be neither capable of wrong action nor would they have to strive to be virtuous. They would have achieved what Kierkegaard calls the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” They would act spontaneously from the inner promptings of Spirit. Aurobindo explains that the activity of a divine man or woman would not only be free from subjection to wrong impulses which we call sin, but would also be unbound by the rule of prescribed moral formulas which we call virtue. The realized individual is governed in all its acts by the light and truth of the Spirit.

Emerson upholds a very similar philosophy. He tells us, “In proportion as a man comes into conformity with God, he asks right things, or things which God wills, & which therefore are done. And when he is wholly godly or the unfolding God within him has subdued all to himself, then he asks what God wills & nothing else & all his prayers are granted.”18 The important point with respect to Necessitated Freedom is that it is so perfectly in harmony with Emerson and Aurobindo’s world-affirmation. The goal of life is not Self-Realization and withdrawal from an illusory world. The goal of life is a Self-Realization that results in a life of perfect, divinely inspired action in harmony with all of creation.

6. Terrestrial Evolution:

Terrestrial evolution is for both of our process philosophers a fundamental construct, and is another aspect of their philosophies that puts them in harmony with Humanism’s open-ended attitude toward truth. Both of them interpret nature in terms of terrestrial evolution. In this they were pioneers the first in their respective countries to reassess philosophy in an evolutionary light.

The significant fact is that both Emerson and Aurobindo conceive of evolution as the progressive revelation of Spirit. In the case of Aurobindo, his focus on the descent and ascent of Consciousness-Force (Chit-Shakti) is the key to his general theory of terrestrial evolution and is described in terms of two complementary processes: involution and evolution. According to the principle of involution, the world evolves on its several levels of Being (Matter, Life, Mind) because Brahman or Sachidananda, has already involved itself at each of these levels. Involution is the process whereby Brahman seeks its own manifestation through the multileveled universe. Evolution is the reverse process or return of Spirit to itself. Through the rise of ever-higher biological forms, Spirit emerges progressively more self-conscient in Nature. Evolution, then, is the process of Brahman returning to Itself: Aurobindo explains, “God having entirely become Nature, Nature seeks to become progressively God.”19

With a little help from Hegel, Emerson came to hold a view decidedly similar to Aurobindo’s. Emerson initially had spiritual reservations about evolutionary theory because he identified it with atheistic materialism. He had difficulty accepting evolution because his classical and Christian education trapped him into thinking that spiritual people believe in the Adamic myth of the Fall, while atheistic materialists hold that we have evolved from lower forms of life. Emerson learned from Hegel that he could accept the teachings of evolution without committing himself to the skeptic’s atheistic materialism. Hegel helped Emerson understand that the process of evolution is itself a manifestation of Spirit. The influence of Hegel’s philosophy comes out clearly when Emerson says that consideration of the woeful condition of much of humanity argues for “the German thought of the Progressive God, who has got thus far with his experiment, but will get out yet a triumphant and faultless race.”20 With respect to terrestrial evolution, Emerson shared with Aurobindo the view that the ascending process is guided by a Progressive God whose purpose is to create a new race of beings “triumphant and faultless.”

7. Transmigratory Evolution:

Both Emerson and Aurobindo agree that all souls, by means of successive rebirths, are ascending through Nature’s spirals of form to Self-Realization. In the case of Emerson, while he appreciated Hegel’s “Progressive God,” and appropriated his idea of history as the unfolding revelation of Spirit, there is an aspect of Hegel’s philosophy that is anathema to Transcendentalism: it negates the importance of the individual. In the Hegelian view, individuals are nothing more than stepping stones in the Spirit’s progressive revelation. In order to accept the aspect of Hegel that he approved (history as the progressive revelation of divine power) while rejecting that which he did not (Hegel’s anti-individualism), Emerson made perhaps his greatest intellectual leap. He fused evolution and reincarnation, science and samsara, and brought forth one of the most important truths of Transcendentalism: the law of transmigratory evolution. While scientific evolution teaches us that higher species have evolved from lower ones, Emerson applied the concept of the evolution of the species to the individual. In this view, the individual is not merely a Hegelian stepping stone in some vast cosmic process; the individual is at the heart of that outworking process, and retains personal identity throughout this process because the individual continually returns as part of the march of history through successive reincarnating forms. According to the law of transmigratory evolution, the individual soul evolves upwards through all of the lower biological species, and continues to evolve spiritually in human form until it reaches Enlightenment.

Emerson explains that nature’s highest end is “ascension, or the passage of the soul into higher forms.”21 The soul makes this ascending passage through successively advanced reincarnations. As Emerson says, “We touch and go, and sip the foam of many lives,”22 and each soul continues to do so until reaching Enlightenment.

While Aurobindo shares with Emerson a theory of transmigratory evolution, his path to this common resolution was the easier one because Aurobindo was philosophizing in a tradition that: 1) already accepted the great age of the Earth (whereas Emerson’s Christian tradition saw the Earth as only 4,000 years old); 2) already accepted karma and reincarnation (whereas Emerson had to discover the former for himself and borrow the latter from Indian philosophy); and 3) already pictured individuals as ascending towards higher states of consciousness through successive rebirths (whereas Emerson’s tradition pictured individuals as fallen and in need of salvation). While Emerson had to overcome these formidable metaphysical obstacles, Aurobindo had only to marry ready-to-hand principles in his own tradition to the theory of terrestrial evolution to reach conclusions very similar to Emerson’s theory of transmigratory evolution.

In harmony with Emerson’s line of reasoning, Aurobindo’s reflections bring him to the conclusion that “human birth is a term at which the soul must arrive in a long succession of rebirths and that it has had for its previous and preparatory terms in the succession the lower forms of life upon earth.”23 Thus the soul expands its consciousness through existences in the lower orders of nature, and continues to evolve through subsequent human incarnations. This process of reincarnation is then, as Aurobindo says, “a progressive development of our conscious being towards a supreme recovery of unity with God and with all in God.”24 This is the law of transmigratory evolution shared by Emerson and Aurobindo: by means of successive rebirths, the soul ascends through all of Nature’s spires of form chemical, vegetable, animal, humanly intelligent and finally spiritual.

8. The Life Divine:

Both Emerson and Aurobindo agreed that the process of evolution had a purpose it was advancing ineluctably toward the realization of the Life Divine here on Earth. Emerson insists that “No statement of the Universe can have any soundness which does not admit its ascending effort.”25 And, as Emerson suggests in his comments on Hegel previously cited, the process of evolution is guided by a Progressive God whose goal is the creation of a “triumphant and faultless race.” The evolution of this faultless race will bring about Heaven on Earth because all of its members would be living directly from the guidance of Spirit. This follows directly from a premise shared by Aurobindo and Emerson that the character of collective life improves as the individuals that make up the collective evolve spiritually. When a critical mass of individuals have reached Enlightenment, the Life Divine would begin and Earth become its own Heaven. Thus there is a purpose both for each individual and for terrestrial evolution as well, and Emerson and Aurobindo agree that we are now at a critical state in evolutionary history when more who have the potential to realize the individual purpose of Enlightenment are being born, and whose more spiritually evolved presence is helping to usher in the fulfillment of terrestrial purpose the life divine here on Earth.

In summation, both Emerson and Aurobindo agree on eight basic metaphysical principles, all of which are compatible with the individualism, world-affirmation, and open-endedness of the Humanistic Revolution, and all of which, except for terrestrial evolution and its goal, are in harmony with ancient Tantra:

  1. Non-duality is the highest metaphysical truth.
  2. The world is the real manifestation of Spirit.
  3. Life’s purpose is to surrender to divine power and realize non-duality.
  4. The soul evolves spiritually through the divine process of life itself.
  5. Through Self-Realization the individual becomes a perfect instrument for Cosmic Will and in perfect harmony with all of creation.
  6. Terrestrial evolution is the progressive revelation of Spirit.
  7. Through successive rebirths, all souls will ascend through Nature’s spirals of form to Self-Realization.
  8. Evolution is advancing ineluctably toward the realization of the Life Divine here on Earth.

Let me conclude with Aurobindo’s poetic expression of the cosmic optimism he shared with Emerson his American counterpart. It succinctly sums up the hopeful vision shared by the sages of Pondicherry and Concord.

Thus shall the earth open to divinity
And common nature feel the wide uplift
Illumine common acts with the Spirit’s ray
And meet the deity in common things.
Nature shall live to manifest secret God,
The Spirit shall take up the human play,
The earthly life become the life divine.26


1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, (Concord Edition. 12 Volumes. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1903), Volume 2, p. 268.

2. Ibid., Volume 4, p. 50.

3. Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library. 30 Volumes. (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1970-1973). Volume 18, pp. 3-4.

4. Op. cit., Emerson’s Works, Volume 1, p. 201.

5. Ibid., Volume 7, pp. 306-307.

6. Ajit Mookerjee, Tantra Asana: A Way To Self-Realization, (Basel, Switzerland: Basilius Presse, 1971), Unumbered introductory page.

7. Op.cit., Aurobindo Library, Volume 18, pp. 3-4.

8. Op.cit., Emerson’s Works, Volume 2, pp. 353-4.

9. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman, Alfred R. Ferguson, George P. Clark, Merrell R. Davis, Merton M. Sealts, Harrison Hayford, Ralph H. Orth, J.E. Parson, A.W. Plumstead, Linda Allardt, and Susan Sutton Smith. 14 Volumes. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960 ), Volume 5, p. 229.

10. Op. cit., Emerson’s Works, Volume 6, p. 213.

11. Quoted in Robert A. McDermott (ed.), Six Pillars: Introductions to the Major Works of Sri Aurobindo, (Chambersburg, Pennsylvania: Wilson Books, 1974). p. 26.

12. Ibid., pp. 26-7.

13. Stephen H. Phillips, Aurobindo’s Philosophy of Brahman, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986.) p. 2.

14. Op. cit., Emerson’s Works, Volume 1, p. 62.

15. Ibid., Volume 10, p. 132.

16. Op.cit., Aurobindo Library, Volume 20, p. 1.

17. Op.cit., Six Pillars, p. 98.

18. Op.cit., Emerson’s Journals, Volume 3, p. 308.

19. Op.cit., Aurobindo Library, Volume 18, p. 45.

20. Op.cit., Emerson’s Journals, Volume 11, p. 263.

21. Op. cit., Emerson’s Works, Volume 3, p. 24.

22. Ibid., Volume 4, p. 19.

23. Sri Aurobindo Ghose, The Life Divine, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1951), p. 678.

24. Ibid., pp. 674-675.

25. Op. cit., Emerson’s Works, Volume 6, p. 35.

26. Op.cit., Aurobindo Library, Volume 29, pp. 710-711.