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Integral Health

The metaphysical basis of Integral Health — the asset of materialism

Dr. Soumitra Basu

Despite its limitations, the materialistic mindset of mankind has served humanity by the light of its rationality, the clarity of its intellect and the discriminatory power of its logic. If this mindset were not there, we would have been unable to rise above superstitions, unrealistic ideas, obscure habits and irresistible dogmas, camouflaging falsehood with an appearance of truth and an excuse of tradition. This rationalistic tendency of materialism has been most explicit in the area of health and well-being. It has reduced the rates of morbidity and mortality, raised standards of healthy living, improved the material quality of life, prevented scourges and epidemics, countered environmental hazards, corrected nutritional deficiencies and rehabilitated the physically and mentally challenged.

Sri Aurobindo dwells on certain characteristics of materialism in the 2nd chapter of The Life Divine. The very nature of the materialistic paradigm is such that it has to proceed on premises that are arbitrary (1). The scientist continuously finds that after a period of time, the materialistic formulas become insufficient leading to a perpetual reconstruction of newer and newer hypotheses. This phenomenon of insufficiency is not a limitation but leads to an ever-expanding horizon of knowledge, provided the scientist recognises these limitations and continues his pursuit in the true spirit of science. That is how the old laws of physics had to shift to realms whose subtlety border on the metaphysical.In the field of health, the shift is perpetually dynamic. The conditionality of circumstances, the shifts in eco-systems, the transitions in socio-cultural matrices, the mutations in both vector and host, the damage to the immune mechanism are a few of the accepted variables that collate and coalesce to change patterns of diseases, modify nature of drug resistance, induce styles of illness behaviour, influence choice of therapeutic modalities and alter concepts and standards of healthy living. In the end, it is this spirit of science presently engaged with the extensive study of matter that facilitates the movement to transcend the barriers of materialism. The progress of surgery did not necessarily mean ‘greater’ surgeries, but advocated the necessity of minimally invasive interventions. The growth of biological psychiatry did not annihilate psychotherapy but actually increased the use of psychotherapeutic techniques in conditions like anxiety where earlier drugs were the mainstay of treatment. It provided a rationale for the psychotherapeutic framework thus complementing it in ways consistent with the zeitgeist.

Sri Aurobindo explains that the greatest asset of materialism is that it is permeated by the spirit of agnosticism (2), which admits that we know nothing of Reality beyond material phenomena. In contemporary parlance, agnosticism prefers suspension of judgment on ultimate questions of existence due to insufficient evidence. Sri Aurobindo does not see anything wrong in this attitude of materialism as it usually attempts to understand Reality on the basis of arbitrary premises, partial truths, overvalued logic and idiosyncratic mindsets. The spirit of agnosticism, in leaving many questions unanswered, invests materialism with an open-ended attitude, an unfulfilled quest, and an unquenched thirst. That is why the very concept and definition of health underwent dynamic transitions after realising that the physical dimension was inadequate to construct a holistic vision of health. In this context it is interesting to note that the difference between the pro-psychiatry stand (of R. E. Kendell) and the anti-psychiatry stand (of Thomas Szaz) that resulted in opposite conclusions about mental illness was based on a disagreement that was not primarily about the meaning of mental illness but about the meaning of physical illness (3). However here we begin to see the limitations of a purely material paradigm of science. If materialism cannot be unequivocal about the physical dimension of health, how much more elusive it can be if it encroaches on the non-materialistic dimensions of health! It is from this standpoint and its inherent limitations that the WHO had to acknowledge the role of the spiritual dimension in its definition of health in addition to the physical, social and psychological dimensions.

Nevertheless, the spirit of agnosticism in permeating materialism does its greatest service by making the material mindset conducive for the synthesis of Matter and Spirit in a realistic way and not merely through a leap of imagination and fancy. It is interesting to study who would be more flexible for the Matter-Spirit synthesis, the ascetic spiritual seeker or the materialistic scientist. The ascetic, poised in an ego-transcending consciousness may be so overwhelmed by the ecstasy of realisation that ‘matter’ might appear secondary, impermanent, inconsequential and hence not worthy of consideration. In contrast, the materialistic scientist might be initially sceptical, but cannot steadfastly hold on to his conviction because science itself continually changes its stands and each time that happens, the foundation of scientific constructs collapses and needs to be reworked. Though the synthesis of Matter and Spirit is a spiritual prerogative and needs to be worked from both ends, it seems that the scientist, goaded by the limitations of materialism, might be more flexible and motivated to work for this synthesis than the world-shunning ascetic lost in the trance of an overwhelming experience.

Sri Aurobindo was aware that the ascetic recoil from matter was more powerful than the materialistic denial of the Spirit (4). To correct the imbalance, he was unabashedly vociferous from the time-zone of spirituality. The hope for the future lies in finding the common ground of Being, the matrix in which both asceticism and materialism can find their ultimate truth. In this context, the exploration of health and psychological growth from the consciousness perspective offers a unique space to work out the Matter-Spirit synthesis. It is here that the pursuit of Integral Health finds its consummation.


1. Sri Aurobindo. The Life Divine, SABCL, Volume 18. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970, p. 10.

2. Ibid, p. 9.

3. Fulford, K.W.M., Thornton, T., Graham, G. The Oxford Textbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry. India; Oxford University Press. 2007, p. 20.

4. Op. cit. The Life Divine, SABCL, Volume 18. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Asram Trust, 1970, p. 9.

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Materialistic mindset