Saturday, March 3, 2007

The 'hands' of Sri Aurobindo's metaphor correspond to the hemispheres of the brain

'Right-Brained' Politics by Dr Aidan Rankin This article was originally published in the December 2003 issue of Next Future, the magazine of the Sri Aurobindo Society available at
The qualities of rationalism and abstraction have come to be associated widely with the left hemisphere of the brain. This association, part scientific, part poetic, has filtered into popular consciousness along with an awareness that Western thought patterns, in particular, have over-emphasised the left side of the brain and dangerously neglected the right. 'Left brained' therefore describes the one-sided nature of political discourse, which results in dogma and conflict because it is detached from the intuitive side of human consciousness. In Western neuroscience, this side is associated with the right hemisphere of the brain. It is this side that is contemplative and eternal, which provides balance to the dynamic and the creative, and holds up a critical mirror to certainty. And so 'right brained politics' describes the attempt to rebalance our thinking about politics and society towards a more holistic and less conflict-based approach.
In other words, the left and right hemispheres of the brain are modern expressions of principles that underlie all forms of life. Complementary rather than opposed, they find their ancient expression in the Taoist Yin and Yang, or the Shiva and Shakti of Vedic philosophy. Yang energy is creative, dynamic and forward-looking: it is 'progressive', left brained energy that leads us to invent, adapt and change. It makes sense only when it is complemented by Yin, which is nurturing, receptive and constant. Shakti and Shiva of Vedic tradition can similarly be viewed as archetypes of the right and left brained principles respectively. Yang cannot work without Yin, Shakti needs Shiva, just as without the right brain, the left brain becomes chaotic and destructive instead of rational. This creative balancing of complementary principles is at the heart of Sri Aurobindo's philosophy of Integral Yoga. The word 'integral' implies a wholeness made up of component parts, which together constitute a unity. Such unity is achieved by a balance that is based not on compromise, or the abandonment of principles, but on a synthesis of complementary parts, through which they become aspects of something larger.
Writing in 1910, and anticipating late twentieth century studies of the brain and its functions, Sri Aurobindo spoke of the left and right spheres of awareness in terms of the characteristics of the two hands:
'The intellect is an organ composed of several groups of functions, divisible into two important classes, the functions and faculties of the left hand and the functions and faculties of the right hand. The faculties of the right hand are comprehensive, creative and synthetic, the faculties of the left hand critical and analytic...The left limits itself to ascertained truth, the right grasps that which is still elusive or unascertained. Both are essential to the completeness of the human reason.'
The 'hands' of Sri Aurobindo's metaphor correspond to the hemispheres of the brain. However they also represent those complementary pairs that exist within nature and consciousness. Heat and cold, light and darkness, spirit and matter are not opposite poles, as they are too often presented in Western thought, but need each other, indeed only make sense in relation to each other. The problem with politics has been that the ideas associated with 'left' and 'right' have been so polarised that they no reflect ordinary human reality, let alone any higher purpose. For this reason, the programmes of 'left' and 'right' wing movements lose their momentum or become monstrous. Ultimately, the politics of opposition is at once dangerous and sterile. Right brained politics will be a politics of synthesis, of transcendence, in place of polarisation and conflict.
Sri Aurobindo recognised that the problems of humanity were caused largely by the habit of adopting partial, one-sided views and then imposing them on others. He realised that the part could not be understood without reference to the whole, that the specific cannot be addressed without placing it in a much larger context. It was this insight that led him to abandon militant nationalism and armed struggle, in favour of spiritual contemplation and non-violent social reform. Instead of projecting anger outwards, as in left-brained politics, he learned to cultivate inner peace. Sri Aurobindo taught that material gain and prosperity lose their value if a spiritual awareness is absent. Significantly, he also argued the converse. 'Pure' spirituality loses its positive features when it becomes abstracted and remote from human experience. Thus the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo was based on finding a continuity between right and left brained thinking, about a synthesis of the two principles, not a polarisation, as in left-right politics. Thus he describes the system of Integral Yoga in these terms:
'Yoga means union with the Divine - a union either transcendental (above the universe) or cosmic (universal) or individual or, as in our Yoga, all three together.'
In a similar vein, the Theosophist Rohit Mehta began his career as a socialist campaigner, before rebalancing left and right brained principles within himself as well as outwards. He realised that it was not enough to try to transform society without transforming oneself as an individual. 'A transformed individual alone,' he wrote, 'can become a nucleus for fundamental social change'. Mehta believed that the best psychological and spiritual equilibrium could be achieved by a synthesis of the two ancient systems of Yoga and Tantra. These should be seen less as rivals than as complementary parts of a whole:
'Yoga without Tantra becomes powerless, just as Tantra without Yoga becomes visionless.'
Tantra is based on visualisation and the formative power of thought (kriyashakti) and so corresponds to the right brain, which responds to images more than words. Yoga, based on the rigorously directed power of consciousness (icchasakti), corresponds to the left brain, which concerns itself with consciousness and abstraction. Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga contained many Tantric elements and so is compatible with Mehta's synthesis. Crucially, both thinkers recognised that self-transformation and social reform were intimately linked and could not exist without each other. Aurobindo was influenced by the Mother in his rebalancing of left and right brained thinking, and in his fusion of the active and the contemplative life. There is a sense in which their relationship embodied the balance of the hemispheres, the union of spiritual and practical endeavours.
Right brained politics implies a shift of consciousness, a form of mental evolution. In that sense, it is the political wing of Integral Yoga.
Aidan Rankin has a PhD in Political Science from the London School of Economics. He is Research and Publications Officer for the Economic Research Council in London. His email is
Aidan Rankin is also co-Editor of New European. His book, The Politics of the Forked Tongue: Authoritarian Liberalism was published in 2002 and is available from New European Publications, 14-16 Carroun Road, London SW8 1JT, price £9.

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