An ongoing evolution of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 08 January 2017

A first look at Sri Aurobindo's idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness

In the first chapter of his main philosophical work, The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo outlines the theoretical foundation for all his further work: the idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness. This idea is rooted in another more basic idea, that consciousness exists, in different degrees, throughout the manifestation. In Western philosophy this idea is called "panpsychism", and though it is often lost sight of in contemporary consciousness studies, it was held by the vast majority of great philosophers in the European tradition, right from Plato and Aristotle to Leibniz, William James and Whitehead. In the Indian tradition it is intrinsic to both Vedanta and Tantra, but it is in conflict with the Samkhya view that nature (prakriti) is entirely non-conscious.panpsychism Sri Aurobindo takes it for his starting point and then points out that the biological evolution of which Darwin had found his proofs in nature, is not just a matter of increasing complexity, but a progressive manifestation of higher and higher types of consciousness. Nature begins with the deeply involved, seemingly unconscious state of inorganic matter; develops in that physical environment the half-consciousness of plant and animal life; and then gradually develops within certain animals, the beginnings of the mental consciousness which we now see in humanity. Sri Aurobindo then argues that it appears prime facie unlikely that our present mental consciousness, with all its limitations, confusions and obvious defects, would be the final end product of this huge, aeonic process of biological evolution. But what could the next step be? To find the answer to this question, Sri Aurobindo made use of how the Indian tradition conceptualises how we reached our present state.

Involution preceding evolution

If we see in the biological evolution a gradual emergence of consciousness, that consciousness should first have involved itself. To use a perhaps oversimplisitc metaphor: a magician cannot produce a rabbit out of a hat if he has not hidden that rabbit inside the hat beforehand. And this is exactly how, according to the Indian tradition the manifestation started. In other words, an involution must have preceded the evolutution. In line with the Vedic tradition, and the Vedantic interpretation of it, Sri Aurobindo assumes that the world is ultimately a manifestation of consciousness, though not of the ordinary human type: According to the Indian tradition, the world is a manifestation of the divine consciousness of Brahman. So, Sri Aurobindo argues that 2

The basic process of involution and evolution could then be depicted as in figure 1.

Involution and evolution -- simple    

Fig. 1 Involution and evolution


One can find passages asserting this idea of involution and evolution throughout the older Indian scriptures. They are all slightly different in the imagery used, but similar in essence. The perhaps most quoted text about the involution is from the Rig Veda:


The Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad (1.7-9) gives a very simple and I think rather charming description of the subsequent process of evolution. It became famous for its unusual image of a spider as analogue for the Divine:

“As the spider puts [his web] out and gathers [it] in, as herbs spring up upon the earth, as hair of head and body grow from a living man, so here all is born from the Immutable.”

In the next śloka it describes in more abstract terms the whole process of evolution, right from inanimate matter to the highest spiritual realisation:

“Brahman grows by his energy at work, and then from Him is Matter born, and out of Matter life, and mind, and truth, and the [inner] worlds, and in works [spiritual practice] immortality.”

Finally, in the last line of this section it confirms once more that all that exists is made out of the (self‑)knowledge of the Divine:

“He who is the Omniscient, the all-wise, He whose energy is all made of knowledge, from Him is born this that is Brahman here, this Name and Form and Matter.”
(translation by Sri Aurobindo, 2001, p. 132)

There is a fair consensus in the Indian tradition that the world is ultimately a manifestation of Brahman. Widely accepted is also the idea that the nature of this Absolute, from which all this here is the manifestation, is saccidānanda: an inalienable unity of absolute Existence, Consciousness and Delight. In other words, it is held that in the ultimate reality nothing can exist that is not conscious, and that nothing can exist that does not have the infinite Delight of the Divine, ānanda, at the very core of its existence. The problem is that this does not tally very well with life as we experience it. Our consciousness is far from divine, our mental understanding is severely limited and more often than not plain wrong, and our existence is full of pain and suffering and rather often far from joyful. Accordingly one of the most important questions in the Indian tradition is, how out of the absolute perfection of saccidānanda, which is mentioned in the Vedas and attested to by the sages, the much less glorious relative reality came in which we ordinary mortals live: If the Divine is Delight, from where does suffering come? If the Divine is an absolute, all-knowing Consciousness, from where has ignorance arisen? If the Divine is eternal, why are we mortal? Many of the differences between the various Indian schools of philosophy and yoga are about these basic questions, that is, about the nature of the ordinary reality, the process through which it came into being, and the best way for the individual to deal with it.

Exclusive concentration as the mechanism behind Māyā

Right from Vedic times the intervening force that is held responsible for creation is called māyā, and much of the differences between the various schools of philosophy and yoga centre, in their turn, around the way māyā is understood. In essence, māyā is simply the power of manifestation, but how this power was appreciated changed considerably over time. In later philosophical texts, māyā obtained the meaning of illusion, the creation of an imaginary world that looks real enough to the ignorant, but that has no true existence in itself. Yoga is then described as the process through which one wakes up out of that illusion into the Truth. In the māyāvādin traditions, this is taken to its extreme and the entire world is considered as māyā in this derogatory sense, that is, as an illusion, a false veil of ignorance imposed on the complete purity and immutability of the silent Absolute. This is, however, not how the word māyā started. In the earlier language of the Ṛg Veda, māyā was still simply a creative power of the divine which “measures out the worlds in front of itself.” The quality of these worlds depended on the consciousness of origin. There were many different kinds of māyā. Some of them were a light in themselves, but a darkness compared to the light of Surya (the Sun), and as such indeed illusions to be slain (e.g. RV 5.40), but at other places the word is used for the true power of manifestation that belongs to the Divine mother herself. From where māyā gets the power to impose falsehood on the inherent truth of Brahman remains an open question and Shankara, for example, leaves it simply as an unexplainable mystery [REF]. The most convincing description may still come in the form of stories like this one about Narad and Shiva.

Sri Aurobindo looks at the process of manifestation in the older, more generous and integral sense, and he has an interesting explanation for the power of māyā. He compares the main process through which Brahman manifests the world out of himself, with the “exclusive concentration” that is part of our mental consciousness. At our human level it expresses itself in our ability to concentrate on a limited sub-set of all that we can potentially experience at a given time. When you read this article, for example, your consciousness is guided along by this text, and you are aware only of what you read: things like your physical posture, the room in which you sit, your programme for tomorrow, and the house in which you grew up enter your consciousness only when this text brings them to your attention. Sri Aurobindo sees exclusive concentration as one of the fundamental powers of consciousness. At the ordinary individual level, we all know how it works. At the cosmic level, Sri Aurobindo describes exclusive concentration as “a self-limitation by Idea proceeding from an infinite liberty within” (Aurobindo, 2005, p. 281).

Sri Aurobindo argues that the manifestation of the world out of Brahman may have taken place through a simple combination of only two basic powers that we must assume to be present in the original Brahman: 1) the ability to create many instances of itself, and then the ability to apply, in each of these instances 2) the power of exclusive concentration. While the Absolute Conscious Being of saccidānanda is anantaguṇa, of infinite quality, each instance of it can choose a tiny subset of all that it can potentially be. Through this process of exclusive concentration it can then manifest exclusively in the form and function of that subset. By going through successive stages of further concentration first the highest, divine worlds (or typal planes) are created where there is already specialisation and variety in qualities but not yet ignorance or suffering: each part is still, even in its difference, fully aware of its oneness with the whole. Subsequently, further down, ignorance comes in, and the lower typal worlds are created, in which each centre of conscious existence forgets its unity with the whole, and finally we have the most involved, most limited, ignorant, unfree, and seemingly unconscious layer of matter. And yet, even there, it is the hidden omniscience of the Divine deep within in each seemingly unconscious part of matter, which creates the fabulous harmony and beauty one sees in the inanimate material universe. As Sri Aurobindo says (2005, p. 359),

[T]he force acting automatically and with an apparent blindness as in a trance, but still with the inevitability and power of truth of the Infinite.


At the end of the involution we have then this material world in which the evolution slowly, ever so slowly begins to take place. There can be no doubt that in its processes evolution obeys the laws of physics, but at the same time, if we look carefully, it appears that there are some major transitions where something new seems to be added, something that, As Sri Aurobindo points out [REF] would have been hard, if not entirely impossible, to predict on the basis of what happened before.

The three main stages of the evolution we distinguish are Matter, Life and Mind. The Vedic scholars made a similar division and called them annam, prana and manas. Though it is obvious that in terms of physical complexity these three stages lay on a continuum, it is good to realise how radically each plane differs from the previous one.

Material entities are relatively simple; they are just what they are, entirely ruled by the laws of physics, conservation of energy and momentum, and trending towards increasing entropy. In the Vedic terminology, we could say that matter is ruled by the guna (essential quality) of tamas. In the language of consciousness, we could say that material objects are engaged in the continuation of what they are and what they do. Knowledge and consciousness at the physical level manifest as the habit of form and function: the electron knows how to be an electron; the table how to be a table; river how to river; the ocean how to ocean. Linguistically, it expresses itself in terms of "I am what I am, and I do what I do".

With Life something new enters. The physical structures supporting life are many orders of magnitude more complex than anything in the inanimate world. Living beings are not only dynamic and playful in their interactions with the world around them, but they are capable of actively asserting and continuously rebuilding their own complex form and function within the much simpler physical world around them. Their information-rich genome allows them to build their own complex structures out of the utterly simple elements they encounter in their environment. There is nothing comparable to this in the inanimate world. While each living creature is still fully embedded in its immediate environment, life as a type of consciousness and principle of action introduces some basic freedom to interact and play. Linguistically, it is a centre of interaction whose relations are expressed "horizontally" in terms of "I and Thou".

If an animal eats an apple — digestion being a process of life — the end result is that there is no apple but a little more of the eating animal. After the mind has looked at an apple, the apple is still there, but something has been added to the mind's inner (re-)presentation of reality.

With the arrival of mind, we see again an entirely new functionality and another huge jump in level of complexity. The physical structure supporting the mind, the nervous system and especially the brain, is again many orders of magnitude more complex than anything else. But its form and function are essentially different from the structure of say a tree or a small animal. The tree is more complex and one could say more individualised than a rock: it is active, interactive, capable of expanding and rebuilding itself, and yet, in the end, it is still, like the rock, only itself. But with the brain something radically new happens: with the help of its complex physical structure, the mind does something essentially different from what life is about. While life is into asserting itself, mind is into modelling reality, and it does so most typically by creating, out of itself, inside itself, an extremely complex set of multidimensional maps and plans, forming a whole new secondary reality of its own. The consciousness of the mental creature then identifies with this hugely complex model, and lives inside it. As mental beings we live, subjectively, inside this second-hand reality of our own making. While we take colours, surfaces, etc. as part of the outside reality, they are to a very large extent constructs of our senses, and only indirectly related to the reality they present. We would experience reality very differently if we had a different set of senses. Linguistically the ordinary relationship between the mental self and the (represented) world is one of "I and it", and the relation is not any more direct or interactive: subjectively we rise out of reality, and then, from above, see with our mental eye our own constructed model of reality with ourselves in the midst of it. In other words, our consciousness, our self, our purusha, still identifies with our little bit of material reality, prakriti, but this bit of prakriti is not any more simply itself as in the pebble and the tree, but it is a nervous system modelling both itself and its surrounding.

vidyā and avidyā

With this, we have arrived at a cognitive science- and AI-informed way of understanding the ancient Indian distinction between vidyā and avidyā. Traditionally, vidyā is described as knowledge of The One, and avidyā as knowledge of the many, but it may be more appropriate to distinguish the two not on the basis of their content but on the basis of their mode of knowing. vidyā is then conceptualised as the unitary mode of knowing by which a fully realised yogi knows himself to be One with the Divine, while Avidyā is the dualist type of knowing by which we ordinary mortals know the world. While in vidyā, the knower and the known are one, in avidyā, the knower, the known, the intermediary knowledge event, and the resulting knowledge are all clearly separate. But there is a third way of describing the difference that may be still more significant. Vidyā is essentially the way the Divine knows himself. Secondarily it is the way a "realised soul" knows his essential oneness with the Divine. But there is a third meaning to it, at least if we identify vidyā with Sri Aurobindo's knowledge by identity. It is then the way physical things "know themselves by being themselves". This the kind of "knowledge" that allows physical things to be what they are. This deserves the name of vidyā or at least of knowledge by identity because, though it is limited, it is perfect, there is no scope for error: knowing and being are utterly one with each other. In our human, brain-based knowledge of the many, there is still a knowledge by identity at its core" we know our brain-state by being the brain-state. But as said, our brain is a model-making piece of matter. so what we are then in our superficial, ignorant way of being, is the model the brain makes, and that is our avidyā: the secondary, constructed knowledge of the world which the brain produces. So avidyā is not only knowledge of the many in terms of content, or knowledge that is separative in terms of its mode of knowing, but knowledge that is constructed and "second hand" in terms of its origin. And though modernity does not know yet in full detail how the brain does this constructing, it is definitely on the way to find out, and it has begun to learn how to imitate it in technology.[INTERNAL LINKS to knowledge chapters]

Matter Life and mind revisited

We will discuss how the differences between Life and Mind effect our psychology in more detail in the chapter on the structure of the personality and several other chapters [INTERNAL REFs].

Involution and evolution -- simple    

Fig. 2. The lower three planes of conscious existence

Though the self-knowledge of material objects can be considered vidyā because it is still perfect, all three layers are ignorant in the sense that they don't know or identify with the whole. For matter this is no issue, as it simply is what it is. For relatively simple living creatures like plants and most animals it is also not a big issue as they are still deeply embedded in their environment. It is only when the mind comes in, with its ego-based sense of a separate individuality, and its awareness of its vulnerability, that suffering starts. Interestingly, mystics in all cultures have shown to be capable of rising out of this secondary reality into a transcendence beyond. Much of the pain and suffering that is typical for our human existence is due to the fact that we are on the one hand already vaguely aware of who we are in the depths of our being, and yet, on the other hand, in our outer nature, still stuck in the ego-centric ignorance from where we are coming. We'll get back to the role of pain in the beginning of Part Two on self-development [INTERNAL REFs].

The Vedic sevenfold chord of being and what it may tell us about the future.

Understanding our evolutionary past in terms of an evolving consciousness helps to make our present understandable. As we will see later, it also leads to powerful methods for dealing with the difficulties and distortions that are typical for our human, half-way stage of development. We'll come back to this first in the context of the potential this has for the development of "rigorous subjectivity" as a core-method for psychological research [REFs], and later in the sections on self-development and applied psychology.

Of even greater interest might be the insights Sri Aurobindo's idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness can offer regarding the next step in our evolutionary journey. The main reason this is so crucial is that it might create the possibility of "naturalising" meaning and values. And given the cultural flux humanity is in at present, the importance of getting some grip on core values can hardly be overstated. To this too, we'll come back at many places in this text; here we will only indicate the basic idea.

One of Sri Aurobindo's greatest discoveries is that the nature of the next step in the ongoing evolution of consciousness powerfully suggests itself, if one superimposes the progress made by the biological evolution till now on an often-used Vedic conceptualisation of different types of conscious existence. In this Vedic map of consciousness there are seven layers: climbing up from the bottom, the first three, the annamaya, prāṇamaya and manomaya kośa, correspond roughly to what we would call matter, life and mind. Together these three layers, which nature has already manifested, are spoken of as the lower hemisphere. The top three levels are those of sat, cit and ānanda, the absolute Existence, Consciousness and Bliss, which, according to the Indian tradition, together make up the divine hemisphere. In between these two hemispheres, there is the link-layer of the vijñānamaya kośa5, or mahas as it was called in the older Vedic Sanskrit. Above this vijñānamaya layer, there is the divine Absolute, but no differentiation, no manifest world. Below the link-layer there is a manifestation, but it is a manifestation in what in the Indian tradition is called the ignorance: individual entities here have forgotten their oneness with the Source of all existences and as a consequence experience disharmony and suffering.

The consciousness of the link-plane is unique in that it is on the one hand fully divine and in possession of genuine Truth, and on the other manifold and as such capable of manifestation. In other words, it is here that the differentiation started which is such a crucial aspect of the wondrously complex physical world. And as differentiation here still goes together with a perfect divine harmony, we can expect that in the last phase of the evolution too, there will be the potential of a truly divine manifestation in a perfect harmony. As Sri Aurobindo has argued, when this truly gnostic6, “supramental” type of consciousness begins to manifest here in our evolutionary world, we can have individual existences that are at the same time fully individualised, as well as fully conscious of their identity with our common Source.

As discussed in chapter three [CHECK - INTERNAL REF], over time India seems to have lost its knowledge of the true nature of this link plane and with that, its faith in the manifest reality.

Combining the Western concept of evolution with the older, Vedic understanding of the layers of conscious existence, Sri Aurobindo argues that the logical next step in the evolution should be the biological embodiment of the preceding step during the involution, the supramental, vijñāna, or gnostic consciousness.

After liberation transformation    


The most interesting part of this is that humanity seems to have reached a point where individuals may have two very different options for their further spiritual development. The traditional schools of Indian spirituality recommended liberation from our suffering individual existence through nirvāṇa or a merger with the original unmanifest Divine. 2 [FN on IYENGAR's use of the term involution] But if Sri Aurobindo is right, we have now another option: to go forward to the next stage of the world's evolution. Schematically the two options would look as depicted in Figure 4.

After liberation transformation    

Fig. 4 Evolution's next step

Sri Aurobindo was, of course, not the only one to arrive at the idea that Darwin’s evolution was still awaiting completion — one need think only of Teilhard de Chardin and much before him, Shelling [REFs] — but Sri Aurobindo had one considerable advantage: he could build on the Indian tradition with its detailed descriptions and conceptual maps of the further reaches of consciousness, and its massive collection of practical methods to develop these higher types of consciousness in one’s own experience.

For some more detail on the supramental as a plane of conscious existence and as a part or aspect of human nature, see the relevant section of "The Self and the structure of the Personality".


panpsychism. The term "panpsychic" seems to apply to the Indian tradition, but it should be kept in mind that the Indian understanding of consciousness is very different from the European one. Even though individual philosophers may have thought differently, I don't think there can be much doubt that as a whole the European civilization takes the physical world for granted and then wonders about the place of consciousness in this physical world. The Indian civilization takes (or perhaps we should say took, as the American materialistic influence is strong) consciousness as the primary reality and then wonders what the role of the physical world is within that reality of consciousness. In other words, the primary locus of consciousness is the Transcendent, and its role in man and the physical world comes second. If there was any place for the Transcendent in Greek thought, it was a minor one. For more detail on the various concepts of consciousness, see Chapter 5-1. Concepts of Consciousness.

2. Unfortunately, not everybody uses the term involution in the same manner. B. K. S. Iyengar, for example, uses "involution" to denote the merger back into the oneness of the divine consciousness.


This file: 05-2-evolution.php
Next file: 06-00-intro2partone.php