In attempting to measure some of the basic postulates of these two thinkers it is essential to bear in mind that the psychologies of Sri Aurobindo and Maslow are founded on two different kinds of knowledge. Both based their psychology on authentic experience, but Sri Aurobindo expressed his insights largely in the language of Indian metaphysics, while Maslow used the Western empirical approach, struggling with the language of science.
Maslow’s metaphysical assumptions do not go beyond the intellect; they are based on speculations about the ultimate reality and have only limited spiritual value. For Sri Aurobindo, it is only by going beyond mind that each of us can contact and know the ultimate reality; only spiritual intuition and experience can reveal the nature of truth. Intellectual thinking, as an instrument for expressing the nature of truth, comes in only secondarily, as a judge of generalised statements drawn from supra-intellectual experience.
Throughout this work we are dealing with two different but often overlapping philosophies, and a crucial element in this comparison is the language that each employs. It is not immediately evident at any given point whether an apparent similarity or opposition in their views is a matter of ideas or simply of terminology.
Sri Aurobindo, born in the 20th century and educated in the classical tradition of the occident as well as self-educated in the tradition of his native cultural heritage, employs the English of the intelligentsia of his time supplemented by the specific terminology of the Hindu tradition, sometimes in the original Sanskrit and sometimes in various translations.
Maslow, on the other hand, although he had read a great deal of eastern thinkers, was a citizen of the United States of America, where the development of language was diverging from the British mainstream. He thus employed a syntax and nomenclature which was far more idiomatic, colloquial and immediate in its impact than that of his predecessors in the field of psychology: his language had almost nothing in common with the language of Sri Aurobindo, classical scholar and mystic seer in the Hindu tradition.
It should be emphasised here that this thesis is not a comprehensive study of the complete works of the two thinkers, but rather a critical survey of some of their points of agreement and divergence; care has been taken not to lose sight at any point of what is essential in their respective visions.
Both thinkers are concerned with the development of the basic nature of man, and his essential goodness, though they differ radically in regard to their conceptions of what this basic nature consists of: Maslow’s biological organism stands poles apart from Sri Aurobindo’s view of the divine origin of man.
Both thinkers explore the inner being of the individual, and his potentials for growth; for both, the ordinary life is something the individual must surpass, not in any other world but in this life itself. In their methods, however, they differ widely: for Maslow the primary drive is towards the fulfilment of human potentials, whereas for Sri Aurobindo the primary motivation is transcendence of human limitations as a precondition for transformation and integration, and union with the Divine.
Both thinkers are also concerned with present-day humanity and the evolutionary crisis in which the human mind has achieved an enormous development in certain directions, while in others it can no longer find its way.
Maslow sees that almost all men devote the major part of their energies to physical needs, interests, and desires, rather than to the pursuit of high individual and large collective ideals. In his positive synthesis he demonstrates a trust in man as well as society.
For Sri Aurobindo, man’s highest potentialities lie beyond this present humanity, i.e., beyond Maslow’s humanism. Sri Aurobindo’s divine humanity is characterised by a movement towards an inner spiritual change and an outer transformation in which the ego may be replaced by the true Self; he sees the individual soul’s possession of true delight of being as the ultimate meaning of terrestrial existence. If humanity is to survive, this radical transformation of human nature is indispensable.
It is obvious that the two thinkers come very close regarding the inner realms of being, but ultimately it must be conceded that they are not on the same ‘wavelength’. Maslow, while moving towards the oriental heritage for inspiration and insight, did not lose his central focus on humanity; his ‘Transcendental Self’, the collective ego, remains human, whereas in Sri Aurobindo’s vision, the human is destined to transcend its limitations and become divine.
A major difficulty encountered when attempting a comparison between these two thinkers comes from the cultural distance between them, which has had to be taken into account throughout this study. In their efforts to explore the dynamism of life and the transcending of the being, the two thinkers started out from different backgrounds. Although both are integral thinkers, Sri Aurobindo’s vision is more coloured by inspiration from the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita, and presents a synthesis of many traditional Eastern spiritual disciplines (in which Jnana, Bhakti and Karma Yoga form a ‘triple way’); whereas Maslow’s synthesis takes as its starting point Western philosophies and psychologies such as Existentialism, Gestalt, and Freudian psychoanalysis, although he was familiar with various Eastern concepts. Moreover,the disciplines of their chosen methodologies are poles apart: Maslow is an empirical scientist and Sri Aurobindo is a yogic seer. However, when the two systems of thought are set side by side, some striking similarities as well as some fundamental differences and inherent contrasts between them can be analysed.
Another difficulty has been to arrange into a clear line of argument the rich material presented by these two thinkers; for both give us a various, complex and wide vision, which they each expound in an integral manner, interrelating each and every aspect of human personality. In this necessarily cursory study, some parts of their theories and visions have had to be left out; but the author has tried not to lose sight of the essence of Maslow’s and Sri Aurobindo’s views.
Confronted with the multitude of problems that humanity is facing in the 20th century, Maslow was of the opinion that ‘by improving human nature we improve all, for we remove the principle causes of world disorder’. The root cause of these problems lies in ourselves, and only through a deeper understanding of our fellows and ourselves shall we become able to cope with the problems of modern life.
Maslow’s life was filled with humanitarian concern. He brought to the forefront the highest possibilities of human nature, by studying the most moral, ethical, saintly and psychologically healthy individuals he could trace, rather than psychologically average or sick people. In studying self-actualising individuals Maslow moved from the normative towards the descriptive, and in his later works he replaced the concept of self-actualisation by the more descriptive and objective concept of ‘fully human’. The quality of ‘humanness’ thus becomes a kind of quantitative concept ready for research purposes.
Maslow enlarged the behaviouristic/psychological concept of reality, to include not only nature but also man. Through imagination, self-awareness, introspection, and the intuition an individual can transcend the conditioned realm of nature. This modification of the humanistic concept of reality is best reflected by Maslow’s views on self-actualisation, which are based on a holistic, harmonising and integral character. Aware of the limitations and shortcomings of an almost wholly mechanistic scientific psychology, Maslow turned towards the oriental heritage for inspiration and insight. He created an interest in non-Western perspectives in psychology, with the hope of bridging some gaps in our knowledge of personality. This interest led to a degree of integration of ancient Indian psychological wisdom with the insights of Humanistic and Transpersonal psychology.
Like Sri Aurobindo, Maslow did not simply criticise but also outlined his own vision of a new psychology, by introducing a positive force to supplement Freudian pessimism and the determinism of the neo-Behaviourists. He visualised human nature as typified by naturally self-transcending, psychologically healthy people who seek for wider horizons, for the remote rather than the near and easily-graspable.
By suggesting a natural basis for religious, mystical and supernatural impulses in human beings, and ‘the democratisation of the soul’, Maslow reasserted man’s ownership of all his human potentials, thereby providing a foundation for bridging the dichotomy between religion and science. What he called the higher metaneeds, related to Being-values and spirituality, are, he considered, indispensable for a balanced growth of human personality. A person deprived of metaneeds and spiritual faith suffers from metapathology, which may manifest as loneliness, insecurity and purposelessness.
Maslow’s message appears particularly relevant in the artificial environment which prevails today, especially in westernised technological societies where contemporary man is deprived of access to his inner being.
Where Maslow and Sri Aurobindo meet
Western psychology, although fully aware of the imperfect nature of man, has little to offer in helping humanity to evolve toward higher levels of being. As a modern social science, it approaches man from the outside and takes its stand on the periphery of existence. By itself it is not able to penetrate to the fundamental issues of man’s existence and the meaning of life, for it lacks the dimension of spiritual depth.
Maslow and Sri Aurobindo in their search for higher and deeper integration of human personality look at man in a different way, by studying the inner dimensions of human existence. For both thinkers, man is a never-finished product of evolution with endless potentialities for inner growth, and has the capacity to cultivate the psyche’s higher aspirations for a spiritual reality beyond the grasp of the pragmatic human intellect. Modern man, deprived of spiritual values, is suffering all the more from the suppression of spiritual urges which lie at the centre of the human psyche, for the spiritual dimension is as integral to the individual’s total personality as his bio-psychological nature.
Both thinkers discouraged a preoccupation with the individual’s imperfections, and gave greater importance to man’s possibilities and higher impulses. They share a clear-cut optimistic view of human destiny: man must learn to move to future realisations, and all that is good and helpful in the past must be integrated into the desired form for the future. Maslow’s theory of human motivation is based on belief in these human potentialities, and the need for self-actualisation is a logical consequence of these latent human potentials. He sees a natural tendency for growth in any individual, and like Sri Aurobindo, considers that the future of the self-actualising person is already prefigured in the form of ideals, hopes, aspirations and aims.
Maslow and Sri Aurobindo both brought the depths of inner reality out of the exclusive sphere of religion, and stressed the need for investigation of this internal reality.
At present we are in the midst of a transitional period in which the old and the new being are mingled; the old continues to dominate ordinary life, yet a new or higher consciousness is quietly and slowly developing. That it is growing and working is experienced by various people who have given descriptions of their experiences which vary according to their respective cultural backgrounds. Maslow, for example, described the experience of self-transcendence beyond self-actualisation, whereas Sri Aurobindo refers to an integral and transformative experience.
Some Fundamental Differences
Despite these agreements there are many fundamental differences which may seem to outweigh some striking similarities between the views of Abraham Maslow and Sri Aurobindo.
In exploring man’s inner being, his potentials and future growth, both thinkers agree that the ordinary life is something one must pass beyond—not to any remote Heaven but in this earthly life itself. But the methods they recommend for achieving this differ widely. According to Sri Aurobindo, man’s main drive is towards the transcendence of his humanity; for Maslow it is human fulfilment. What Maslow conceives of as the ‘farther reaches of human nature’ is founded only on humanistic empirical science, whereas the basis of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga is essential spiritual.
Although these two thinkers are both concerned with the development of man’s basic nature and share a conviction of his essential goodness, they differ radically in their descriptions of what this basic nature is. Maslow considers man primarily as a biological organism, whereas Sri Aurobindo assumes a divine essence for man, sees man as a slowly evolving manifestation of the Divine.
Maslow was a strong adherent of reason, and the spiritual leanings expressed in his various concepts of human nature are only partly based on his own transpersonal experiences and were mainly derived from observing endlessly the various facets of human behaviour in others. Maslow’s God or divinity is based on the best and most remarkable aspects of human beings.
Sri Aurobindo’s views are likewise based on a detailed observation of his own experiences and on those of the many disciples he guided in their development, but they are integrated into a synthetic comprehensive word-view. He sees a divine dynamism that is capable of transforming human nature and creating a new world order. Maslow might share this view, but his visions lack cohesiveness and are therefore relatively less integral. As a scientist his inner views needed the approval of a rational verification.
Though Sri Aurobindo has not propounded a psychological system as a separate body of knowledge, in the course of his writings he does give a very complete view of human mind and personality. For him, man is not merely a biological and psychological being, but a spiritual being too. His central message is based on the assertion of an evolutionary development of man as we know him into a higher divine man, with the consequent eventual emergence of a race of gnostic beings, representing the fulfilment of the potentialities of the human race. For him, growth does not mean only an improvement of the surface characteristics, but also implies development of the inner life. No true development of the individual is possible without an awakening of the inner being. It is this inner being which stands at the core of an integral personality. Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga is a disciplined, methodical effort towards the integral self-realisation of unity between the individual, the universal and transcendent selves. This dynamic truth would be expressed by the fullest actualisation of the potentialities of the individual human personality through the union of human and divine in life.
Maslow did not cultivate a full-blown new theory, but instead elaborated a universal framework of reference and a series of limited propositions and hypotheses from which a new theory could be developed later on. This in sharp contrast with Sri Aurobindo’s integral theory. His exposition of the nature of being is yet not widely used in transpersonal psychology and is often misinterpreted.
Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga does not aim only at the integration of the individual personality, but also at its transformation, a transformation which brings about a totally changed working of the whole being and nature. He does not stop short at the stage represented by Maslow’s term ‘self-actualisation’, but proceeds further until man reaches the divine personality. The turning of all powers of human existence into a means of reaching and then expressing the Divine is the main principle of Integral Yoga. Its first aim therefore is for the individual to grow into the divine being, through the central psychic being.
Sri Aurobindo’s conception of an evolving psychic being, essentially divine, which stands behind the manifestation of the individual personality, is too occult a notion for Maslow to accept, or to receive any verification from his experimental-empirical psychology.