The self and the structure of the personality
An overview of Sri Aurobindo's terminology
For the integral transformation Sri Aurobindo envisages, one needs a deep, detailed and integral understanding of human nature in all its astounding complexity. And complex, human nature definitely is. In fact, in The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo describes human nature in its normal state as a "roughly constituted chaos":
The practice of Yoga brings us face to face with the extraordinary complexity of our own being, the stimulating but also embarrassing multiplicity of our personality, the rich endless confusion of Nature.
Sri Aurobindo proceeds with a rather abysmal depiction of what human nature ordinarily amounts to. He writes:
To the ordinary man who lives upon his own waking surface, ignorant of the self's depths and vastnesses behind the veil, his psychological existence is fairly simple. A small but clamourous company of desires, some imperative intellectual and aesthetic cravings, some tastes, a few ruling or prominent ideas amid a great current of unconnected or ill-connected and mostly trivial thoughts, a number of more or less imperative vital needs, alternations of physical health and disease, a scattered and inconsequent succession of joys and griefs, frequent minor disturbances and vicissitudes and rarer strong searchings and upheavals of mind or body, and through it all Nature, partly with the aid of his thought and will, partly without or in spite of it, arranging these things in some rough practical fashion, some tolerable disorderly order, — this is the material of his existence.
— Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, pp. 74-75
Not a particularly flattering picture, and there is certainly something more to us, but it is a description in which one can easily recognise oneself. It is hard to deny that on "our waking surface" this is more or less what it amounts to, and if we want to go beyond, considerable effort is needed. But before we can even start on that adventure, there is an additional complication that needs to be taken into account. Sri Aurobindo stresses that each part of our nature has its own character and that these different parts are not always in harmony with each other:
The most disconcerting discovery is to find that every part of us — intellect, will, sense-mind, nervous or desire self, the heart, the body — has each, as it were, its own complex individuality and natural formation independent of the rest; it neither agrees with itself nor with the others nor with the representative ego which is the shadow cast by some central and centralising self on our superficial ignorance. We find that we are composed not of one but many personalities and each has its own demands and differing nature. Our being is a roughly constituted chaos into which we have to introduce the principle of a divine order.
— Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 75
The complexity of human nature becomes perhaps most painfully clear when one tries to change it, and it is then that we need a good map most desperately. Fortunately there actually is a system to all the madness that happens inside us, and over the years Sri Aurobindo developed a model of the personality that is relatively simple and eminently practical.
Sri Aurobindo was well aware that all classifications and maps are to some extent arbitrary and he used slightly different mappings at different periods and for different purposes. He writes:
"... a classification can always be valid from the principle and viewpoint adopted by it while from other principles and viewpoints another classification of the same things can be equally valid."
— Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 815
The model we will describe here is the one Sri Aurobindo developed when he tried to help the disciples who had gathered around him with their sādhanā or yogic practice. Its basic structure and most of the terms are derived from the Ṛg Veda and the Upaniṣads, and should be familiar to students of Sāṁkhya and Vedānta. I've based my descriptions mainly on The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga and Letters on Yoga. The terms Sri Aurobindo uses in these writings can be grouped into three different sets:
- Terms that belong to a concentric system: outer nature, inner nature, and true nature.
- Terms that belong to a vertical system based on the Vedic "sevenfold chord of being": matter, life, mind, supermind, ānanda, cit-tapas, sat.
- Terms related to our centre of identification: ego, soul and self.
These three sets are like perspectives that look at the same psychological reality from three different directions. Each perspective has its own meaning and usability but, as we will see at the end, when we bring them together something more is added. We see not only how our nature is structured, but we also get new insights into the the meaning and direction of our lives. We see not only how all the different elements of our nature relate to each other, but we also discover the meaning and functionality of the structure as a whole. What makes this possible is Sri Aurobindo's vision of an ongoing evolution of consciousness(1), which shows us a certain inevitability of movement, something that says, "Yes, this must be where we came from, this is where we are struggling at present, and this must be the stunningly beautiful future towards which we are heading".
The following outline makes use of two other contributions Sri Aurobindo made to our understanding of human nature: the way he worked out the idea of an evolving soul or "psychic being", and the way he differentiated the higher layers of the mind, both from each other and from the vijñānamayakośa(2). Both issues may appear too metaphysical or even occult for science to deal with, but Sri Aurobindo has shown how these subtle realms can be studied with rigour and precision, and they seem worth exploring by psychology. More so as the results of his studies may have rather far-reaching consequences for the meaning of our individual and collective existence. All this can best be explained, however, after we have covered some more basic issues, so we will come back to them later. We will now look first at the concentric system.
The "concentric system" is the one we all use when we talk about our "surface nature", our "inner being", our "deepest Self", and "going within". It is what we encounter when we go inward from our surface nature in the direction of our innermost self. In the concentric system, Sri Aurobindo distinguishes three major realms: an outer nature and an inner nature, both part of prakṛti, and an inmost or true nature which belongs to the puruṣa.
"Outer nature" is the term Sri Aurobindo uses for that part of our nature of which we are conscious to some extent in our normal everyday life. The longer we study ourselves, the clearer it becomes that this is only a very tiny part of our being as a whole. Freud speaks about the tip of an iceberg; Sri Aurobindo about a bubble on the ocean of our existence:
We are not only what we know of ourselves but an immense more which we do not know; our momentary personality is only a bubble on the ocean of our existence.
— Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 576
In this outer nature, physical, emotional, cognitive, and conative elements are all mixed-up together. When we get angry, our body and mind tend to be as much involved as our feelings; on the surface, thoughts are rarely entirely free from emotional colouring; bodily states like tiredness and freshness, illness, and health affect the way we feel and think; our mind affects the way we feel both emotionally and physically. The situation gets more complicated because the outer nature is the end result of "an immense more" inside, of which most people are not aware at all. The main purpose behind the complex concepts and "maps" used in this article is to help us find our way in these inner realms, so that we can see more clearly where our feelings, thoughts, and actions come from.
"Inner nature" is the term Sri Aurobindo uses for that part of our nature which is not fully accessible to ourselves in our ordinary waking consciousness. The word "inner" might give the impression that we are dealing only with a small, dark and purely private territory. The opposite is true. Our inner nature is, according to the Indian tradition, vaster and more luminous than our outer nature; it has access to broader and higher ranges of experience and knowledge; and it is more, not less connected to others and the rest of the world. Though Sri Aurobindo sometimes used the word subconscious to describe this part of our nature, he preferred the term subliminal as the etymology of this word only indicates that it is a part of ourselves that is below the threshold of our ordinary outer awareness without implying that it is in itself smaller or less conscious than our outer nature.
Most of us are not aware of what the subliminal contributes to our lives except indirectly, through unexplained feelings and changes of mood, through dreams and other special states, or through sudden thoughts and flashes of insight, which are thrown up from there onto the surface. All these contributions from the subliminal are possible because in the subliminal we are connected vertically to layers above and below our ordinary awareness, and horizontally to other people and to the myriad of forces and beings that surround us.
The part of the subliminal, which deals with our own deeper and higher being, Sri Aurobindo calls the intraconscient, and the part which connects us to others and to the cosmic forces around us he calls the circumconscient. It is through the intraconscient that we can become aware of those aspects of our own nature that we have no access to in our ordinary waking state. It includes the nether regions, which Freud called the "unconscious", as well as ranges above our ordinary waking consciousness of which Jung explored some aspects. It is through the circumconscient part of our inner being that Sri Aurobindo sees most parapsychological perceptions taking place.
Though partial glimpses of the inner nature can be had through dreams, dreams are not really the "royal road" Freud held them to be. They are more like incidental cracks in the wall that separates the inner from the outer nature. To explore the inner nature systematically, one needs a trained, "expert" level of types of knowledge that in ordinary life are hardly developed and that in their basic principles and methods are quite different from those used by the rest of science.(3)
It is good to realise that people who have not developed such deeper, yoga-based awareness of their inner states and processes will tend to call only their behaviour their "outer nature" (since it is visible on the outside) and the rest of themselves their "inner being". But most of what they think of as their "inner being", appears to Sri Aurobindo as their "outer nature", as he looks from a viewpoint that is located much deeper within.
"True being" and "Central being" are terms Sri Aurobindo uses for what we can experience as a kind of vertical axis at the core of our individualised existence. While the outer and inner nature belong to prakṛti, our true being is the puruṣa. Above all the planes and worlds, it is the jīvātman, who eternally and immutably presides over our nature. The "jivātman" is our highest individualised essence. Still further above it is the "ātman", the universal essence of who we are. Both can be experienced as our true "Self", transcendent, immutable, eternal (or even beyond time), and far above our earthly existence. Deep within our embodied being, "behind the heart", is our "Soul", the psychic entity that represents the jīvātman in our incarnate existence. Without this spark of the Divine we could not exist as independent creatures.
We will get back to these and other aspects of the "Self" and "Soul" in our section on the various centres of identity.
A simplified diagram of the concentric system could then look like Figure 1.
Figure 1. The concentric system
In Figure 1, we see on the right the parts of our nature and on the left the types of knowledge that give access to them. The outermost crust of our outer nature is all that we can legitimately call our "behaviour", as this is the only part of ourselves which is directly, objectively visible to others. Accordingly, this is also the only part of ourselves that mainstream, third-person psychology can study with any degree of precision and confidence. Present-day psychology can access the rest of our outer nature only indirectly by inference or through reliance on the self-reports of its subjects, who for their knowledge have to rely on the notoriously inaccurate method of introspection. The rest of our nature is entirely outside the purview of mainstream science, as it can only be known systematically through a yoga-based inner discipline.
- Existence (sat)
- Consciousness-Force (cit-tapas)
- Bliss (ānanda)
- Supermind (vijñāna, mahas)
- Mind (manas)
- Life, or Vital (prāṇa)
- Matter (annam)(4)
There is a deep connection between psychology and cosmology in the Indian tradition and Sri Aurobindo's work is no exception. The individual and the cosmos are seen as two expressions of the same basic principles, and so it is not surprising that many of these terms apply with only minor modifications to:
- Levels and types of consciousness
- Independently existing planes or worlds
- Forces and beings in these worlds
The lowest three, Mind, Life and Matter, are part of the complex evolving manifestation and as such these terms also apply to:
- Parts and planes in our own personal nature
- Stages of collective and individual evolution
Sri Aurobindo would not be Sri Aurobindo if he would take this system too seriously. In the chapter of The Life Divine specifically called "The Sevenfold Chord of Being", he is hardly on his way, when he adds an eighth element and folds his neat ladder up with the footnote: "The Vedic Seers speak of the seven rays, but also of eight, nine, ten or twelve." The more usual representation remains however, this simple ladder of seven steps.
Although in our hugely complex evolutionary world these seven powers or principles overlap and intermingle, each of them also forms a more or less independent "typal world", a plane of existence with a corresponding quality of consciousness. In our evolutionary world, the different planes influence and penetrate each other and there can be concrete formations from one plane in the other planes.
We will now look at them in some more detail, this time from the bottom upwards.
Introducing the physical plane, Sri Aurobindo writes:
Each plane of our being — mental, vital, physical — has its own consciousness, separate though interconnected and interacting; but to our outer mind and sense, in our waking experience, they are all confused together. The body, for instance, has its own consciousness and acts from it, even without any mental will of our own or even against that will, and our surface mind knows very little about this body-consciousness, feels it only in an imperfect way, sees only its results and has the greatest difficulty in finding out their causes. It is part of the yoga to become aware of this separate consciousness of the body, to see and feel its movements and the forces that act upon it from inside or outside and to learn how to control and direct it even in its most hidden and (to us) subconscient processes. But the body-consciousness itself is only part of the individualized physical consciousness in us, which we gather and build out of the secretly conscious forces of universal physical nature.
There is the universal physical consciousness of nature and there is our own which is a part of it, moved by it, and used by the central being for the support of its expression in the physical world and for a direct dealing with all these external objects and movements and forces. This physical consciousness-plane receives from the other planes their powers and influences and makes formations of them in its own province. Therefore we have a physical mind as well as a vital mind and the mind proper; we have a vital-physical part in us—the nervous being—as well as the vital proper; and both are largely conditioned by the gross material bodily part which is almost entirely subconscient to our experience.
— Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – I, pp. 201-2
Embodied life in the details of its physical operations has to follow the laws of physics and inorganic chemistry, but while it does that, it yet achieves something new that at least in some aspects seems to go against the basic spirit of the inorganic physical reality. Plants and animals manage to reconstitute their immensely complex structures out of the utterly simple molecules of air, water and soil in total disregard of the basic principles of inertia and entropy, physical nature's consistent tendency towards the dissipation of energy. As Sri Aurobindo notes, someone who knew only the purely physical world could never have predicted, or even imagined, the way life would develop on our planet.
In terms of the Indian tradition the origin of life on our planet is easier to understand. The life-force is a manifestation of the prāṇamaya kośa and as such has a fundamentally different character than the material world which belongs to the annamaya kośa. While the physical reality is dominated by tamas, and its concomitant properties of inertia and entropy, the vital is characterised by rajas, energy, play, enjoyment and self-assertion in ever more complex patterns of interchange. The way this is seen to operate in the process of evolution is that life — as a type of consciousness — first involves itself in the near inconscience of matter, and then begins to evolve from there, while remaining part of that material world. Life does this by transforming the stuff of matter till it begins to manifest a mixture of matter's characteristics with those typical of life. The details of the process are worked out under the influence of formative energies descending directly from the pre-existing life plane.
Philosophically the process may remind one of Plato's ideas, but it is all integrated in a far more organic and embodied manner. Sri Aurobindo has, moreover, worked out the subtleties of the integration of descending and ascending forces in far more detail. The end result could perhaps be seen as a form of realistic idealism (or idealistic realism) that bridges fashionable oversimplifications like the opposing views of evolutionism and intelligent design, or constructivism and essentialism.
For psychology the most important point is that the self-existent joy and energy which are typical for the life-force in its own domain, undergo a specific degradation when life begins to manifest within the physical world. This happens because of the way they are used there. In order to overcome the tamas of the physical reality, joy turns into need and desire, because only these can force physical organisms to wake up and behave like living creatures. At our stage of evolution this degradation becomes conscious and is the source of much of our suffering. When the life-force enlists the half-individualised human mind, the basic energy and enthusiasm of life turn into egoistic self-assertion with all the pain and suffering this brings with it. It is part of yoga to recover the joy that is inherent in life in its original state.
About "the vital" as it appears within the human personality, Sri Aurobindo says the following:
The vital has to be carefully distinguished from mind, even though it has a mind element transfused into it; the vital is the Life-nature made up of desires, sensations, feelings, passions, energies of action, will of desire, reactions of the desire-soul in man and of all that play of possessive and other related instincts, anger, fear, greed, lust, etc., that belong to this field of the nature. Mind and vital are mixed up on the surface of the consciousness, but they are quite separate forces in themselves and as soon as one gets behind the ordinary surface consciousness one sees them as separate, discovers their distinction and can with the aid of this knowledge analyse their surface mixtures.
— Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – I, p. 168
The vital ... is a thing of desires, impulses, force-pushes, emotions, sensations, seekings after life-fulfilment, possession and enjoyment; these are its functions and its nature; — it is that part of us which seeks after life and its movements for their own sake and it does not want to leave hold of them if they bring it suffering as well as or more than pleasure; it is even capable of luxuriating in tears and suffering as part of the drama of life. What then is there in common between the thinking intelligence and the vital and why should the latter obey the mind and not follow its own nature? The disobedience is perfectly normal instead of being, as Augustine suggests, unintelligible. Of course, man can establish a mental control over his vital and in so far as he does it he is a man, — because the thinking mind is a nobler and more enlightened entity and consciousness than the vital and ought, therefore, to rule and, if the mental will is strong, can rule. But this rule is precarious, incomplete and held only by much self-discipline. For if the mind is more enlightened, the vital is nearer to earth, more intense, vehement, more directly able to touch the body. There is too a vital mind which lives by imagination, thoughts of desire, will to act and enjoy from its own impulse and this is able to seize on the reason itself and make it its auxiliary and its justifying counsel and supplier of pleas and excuses. There is also the sheer force of Desire in man which is the vital's principal support and strong enough to sweep off the reason, as the Gita says, "like a boat on stormy waters", nāvamivāmbhasi.
— Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – I, p. 175
The vital plane is often divided into three sub-planes:
- the lower vital, which consists of our basic life instincts, fear, anger, small enjoyments etc.;
- the middle vital (or vital proper), which contains the larger life energies of power, ambition and self-assertion; and
- the higher vital, which deals with the more sophisticated emotions in the social realm.
We will come back to these in the context of our discussion of the cakras.
In the mind we meet again an entirely different type of consciousness. The mind as such is not interested in self-assertion, though the vital life-force may enlist it for that purpose. It is the mind's job to model reality: it (re)presents reality to itself, thinks about it, uses it to plan action, and expresses its mental constructions to itself and others. One can look at the nervous system, with which our mind tends to identify itself, as an incredibly complicated, multi-dimensional model-making machinery.
How completely different mind and vital are can be easily illustrated with the difference between the digestive system and the brain: when the stomach tackles an apple, the apple is destroyed: It is taken apart into its constituting molecules that are subsequently used to provide the energy and stuff which the animal who eats the apple needs to live and reconstruct itself. At the end of the digestive process there is no trace of the apple, but the apple-eating animal is strengthened. When, on the other hand, the eyes tackle an apple, the apple remains what it is, and the animal creates an image, a hugely complex, multidimensional mental model of the apple, which the thinking creature can subsequently use for further action.
Interestingly, the mind as we find it, embodied in living creatures has undergone a disabling diminution that is quite similar to the degradation life underwent when it got embodied in matter. While mind at its best expresses intuitive ideas that come to it, ready-made, from above, mind as it develops within living matter makes "bottom-up" constructions, half-baked models of reality on the basis of the senses, memory and whatever else it can press into service to this end. Again, it is part of yoga to still this endless labour of construction and recover the mind's ability to open up to the knowledge that comes ready-made from above and within.
Just as the fully developed manifestations of embodied life are many orders of magnitude more complex than those of inorganic matter, the brain, as physical substrate for the mind's activity in this evolving physical world, is many orders of magnitude more complex than any other biological structure.
About the mind as it manifests in us, human beings, Sri Aurobindo writes:
The "Mind" in the ordinary use of the word covers indiscriminately the whole consciousness, for man is a mental being and mentalises everything; but in the language of this yoga the words "mind" and "mental" are used to connote specially the part of the nature which has to do with cognition and intelligence, with ideas, with mental or thought perceptions, the reactions of thought to things, with the truly mental movements and formations, mental vision and will, etc., that are part of his intelligence.
— Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – I, p. 168
The Mother says about the dynamic, action-supporting aspect of the mind:
For the true role of the mind is the formation and organisation of action. The mind has a formative and organising power, and it is that which puts the different elements of inspiration in order, for action, for organising action. And if it would only confine itself to that role, receiving inspirations — whether from above or from the mystic centre of the soul — and simply formulating the plan of action — in broad outline or in minute detail, for the smallest things of life or the great terrestrial organisations — it would amply fulfil its function.
It is not an instrument of knowledge. But it can use knowledge for action, to organise action. It is an instrument of organisation and formation, very powerful and very capable when it is well developed.
One can feel this very clearly when one wants to organise one's life, for instance — to put the different elements in their place in one's existence. There is a certain intellectual faculty which immediately puts each thing in its place and makes a plan and organises. And it is not a knowledge that comes from the mind, it is a knowledge which comes, as I said, from the mystic depths of the soul or from a higher consciousness; and the mind concentrates it in the physical world and organises it to give a basis of action to the higher consciousness. One has this experience very clearly when one wants to organise one's life.
Then, there is another use. When one is in contact with one's reason, with the rational centre of the intellect, the pure reason, it is a powerful control over all vital impulses. All that comes from the vital world can be very firmly controlled by it and used in a disciplined and organised action. But it must be at the service of something else—not work for its own satisfaction.
These are the two uses of the mind: it is a controlling force, an instrument of control, and it is a power of organisation. That is its true place.
— the Mother, Questions and Answers 1956, p. 189
In the oldest Sanskrit texts, manas is used for the entire plane of mind. In later texts, manas tends to be used in a much more restricted way for the sense-mind whose job it is to coordinate the ten indriyas (the five senses and the five instruments of action). This is, for example, how Patañjali uses the word manas in his Yogasūtras when he makes his distinction between manas and buddhi. Manas indicates here the sense-mind, while buddhi is the "enlightened intellect", the mental function that covers everything from the ordinary thinking mind or intellect up to the highest levels of conscious existence.
The mind intersects with the vital and the physical plane. On that basis Sri Aurobindo distinguishes between the:
- Sense mind (the intersection of the mind with the physical)
- Emotional mind (the intersection of the mind with the vital)
- Thinking mind (the mind proper)
The mind proper is subdivided by Sri Aurobindo into five clearly distinct sub-planes that represent essentially different types of mental consciousness. The first is:
- Ordinary mind
- Expressive mind. As this part of the mind mainly deals with externalizing of mental stuff into the physical world, there is a considerable overlap with the physical mind discussed earlier.
- Dynamic mind. This is the aspect of the mind discussed in the quote from the Mother given earlier. It deals with planning and the will.
- Thinking mind, which as we saw above is also called the mind proper.
- Habitual or mechanical mind, repeating itself endlessly, obstinately resisting change; in short, the mind under the reign of tamas.
- Pragmatic mind, dealing with action and practical things.
- Pure ideative mind, consisting of thoughts and ideas, more or less for their own sake.
Sri Aurobindo has further subdivided the ordinary mind on different occasions in different ways using slightly different categories. For example:
Another division is based on degree of openness to intuition:
Still within the mental plane (the manomaya kośa) we find the Higher mind, Illumined mind, Intuition and Overmind. Together Sri Aurobindo sees them as belonging to the higher consciousness. Individually he describes them as follows:
- Higher mind
- Illumined mind
I mean by the Higher Mind a first plane of spiritual consciousness where one becomes constantly and closely aware of the Self, the One everywhere and knows and sees things habitually with that awareness; but it is still very much on the mind level although highly spiritual in its essential substance; and its instrumentation is through an elevated thought-power and comprehensive mental sight — not illumined by any of the intenser upper lights but as if in a large strong and clear daylight. It acts as an intermediate state between the Truth-Light above and the human mind; communicating the higher knowledge in a form that the Mind intensified, broadened, made spiritually supple, can receive without being blinded or dazzled by a Truth beyond it.
— Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Poetry and Art, p. 20
… a Mind no longer of higher Thought, but of spiritual light. Here the clarity of the spiritual intelligence, its tranquil daylight, gives place or subordinates itself to an intense lustre, a splendour and illumination of the spirit: a play of lightnings of spiritual truth and power breaks from above into the consciousness and adds to the calm and wide enlightenment and the vast descent of peace which characterise or accompany the action of the larger conceptual-spiritual principle, a fiery ardour of realisation and a rapturous ecstasy of knowledge.
— Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 978-9
Intuition is a power of consciousness nearer and more intimate to the original knowledge by identity; for it is always something that leaps out direct from a concealed identity. It is when the consciousness of the subject meets with the consciousness in the object, penetrates it and sees, feels or vibrates with the truth of what it contacts, that the intuition leaps out like a spark or lightning-flash from the shock of the meeting; or when the consciousness, even without any such meeting, looks into itself and feels directly and intimately the truth or the truths that are there or so contacts the hidden forces behind appearances, then also there is the outbreak of an intuitive light; or, again, when the consciousness meets the Supreme Reality or the spiritual reality of things and beings and has a contactual union with it, then the spark, the flash or the blaze of intimate truth-perception is lit in its depths.
Intuition has a fourfold power. A power of revelatory truth-seeing, a power of inspiration or truth-hearing, a power of truth-touch or immediate seizing of significance, which is akin to the ordinary nature of its intervention in our mental intelligence, a power of true and automatic discrimination of the orderly and exact relation of truth to truth,—these are the fourfold potencies of Intuition. Intuition can therefore perform all the action of reason—including the function of logical intelligence, which is to work out the right relation of things and the right relation of idea with idea,—but by its own superior process and with steps that do not fail or falter.
— Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 981-84
Intuition is the typal plane between the Illumined Mind and the Overmind. It is the highest typal plane that is still individualised. It is the source of the truth that can be found in the planes of the Illumined Mind and the Higher Mind. While in our ordinary mind, intuitions tend to come down like individual rays of lightning, in the typal plane that Sri Aurobindo called "Intuition", "its rays are not separated but connected or massed together in a play of waves of what might almost be called in the Sanskrit poetic figure a sea or mass of 'stable lightnings'".
Sri Aurobindo uses the term "Intuitive Mind" in a few places for this same typal plane above the Illumined Mind, but he uses it more commonly for the embodied thinking mind, when its substance and functionings are largely taken over by the Intuition.
The next higher plane, the Overmind is fully and intrinsically cosmic in nature.
It may be noted that the term overmind for the topmost layer of the lower hemisphere was introduced by Sri Aurobindo only after the Arya period (1914-1920). In the unrevised parts of The Synthesis of Yoga (part of "The Yoga of Divine Knowledge", "The Yoga of Devotion" and "The Yoga of Self-Perfection") the words "supermind" and "supramental" are not yet used in the specific sense he later gave to them. In these texts, they are often used to denote what he later called the overmind, and sometimes even simply to denote anything above the ordinary mind. For a clear exposition of the difference, see his Letters on Yoga (Part I, p. 149 onwards).
… the overmind knows the One as the support, essence, fundamental power of all things, but in the dynamic play proper to it it lays emphasis on its divisional power of multiplicity and seeks to give each power or Aspect its full chance to manifest, relying on the underlying Oneness to prevent disharmony or conflict. Each Godhead, as it were, creates his own world, but without conflict with others; each Aspect, each Idea, each Force of things can be felt in its full separate energy or splendour and work out its values, but this does not create a disharmony, because the overmind has the sense of the Infinite and in the true (not spatial) Infinite many concording infinities are possible.
— Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – I, p. 139
In its nature and law the Overmind is a delegate of the Supermind Consciousness, its delegate to the Ignorance. Or we might speak of it as a protective double, a screen of dissimilar similarity through which Supermind can act indirectly on an Ignorance whose darkness could not bear or receive the direct impact of a supreme Light. Even, it is by the projection of this luminous Overmind corona that the diffusion of a diminished light in the Ignorance and the throwing of that contrary shadow which swallows up in itself all light, the Inconscience, became at all possible. For Supermind transmits to Overmind all its realities, but leaves it to formulate them in a movement and according to an awareness of things which is still a vision of Truth and yet at the same time a first parent of the Ignorance.
— Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 293
The plane above the Overmind is the Supermind. It links the upper hemisphere to the lower hemisphere.
Sri Aurobindo describes the Supermind as follows:
The Supermind is in its very essence a truth-consciousness, a consciousness always free from the Ignorance which is the foundation of our present natural or evolutionary existence and from which nature in us is trying to arrive at self-knowledge and world-knowledge and a right consciousness and the right use of our existence in the universe. The Supermind, because it is a truth-consciousness, has this knowledge inherent in it and this power of true existence; its course is straight and can go direct to its aim, its field is wide and can even be made illimitable. This is because its very nature is knowledge: it has not to acquire knowledge but possesses it in its own right; its steps are not from nescience or ignorance into some imperfect light, but from truth to greater truth, from right perception to deeper perception, from intuition to intuition, from illumination to utter and boundless luminousness, from growing widenesses to the utter vasts and to very infinitude. On its summits it possesses the divine omniscience and omnipotence, but even in an evolutionary movement of its own graded self-manifestation by which it would eventually reveal its own highest heights, it must be in its very nature essentially free from ignorance and error: it starts from truth and light and moves always in truth and light. As its knowledge is always true, so too its will is always true; it does not fumble in its handling of things or stumble in its paces. In the Supermind feeling and emotion do not depart from their truth, make no slips or mistakes, do not swerve from the right and the real, cannot misuse beauty and delight or twist away from a divine rectitude. In the Supermind sense cannot mislead or deviate into the grossnesses which are here its natural imperfections and the cause of reproach, distrust and misuse by our ignorance. Even an incomplete statement made by the Supermind is a truth leading to a further truth, its incomplete action a step towards completeness. All the life and action and leading of the Supermind is guarded in its very nature from the falsehoods and uncertainties that are our lot; it moves in safety towards its perfection.
— Sri Aurobindo, Essays in Philosophy and Yoga, p. 559
The crucial importance of the distinction Sri Aurobindo makes between Overmind and Supermind will be discussed in the last section.
Above the Supermind there is finally the upper hemisphere of:
- Ānanda, pure, absolute Delight
- Cit-Tapas, pure, absolute Consciousness-Force
- Sat, pure, absolute Existence
The upper or divine hemisphere and the Supermind together are the home of the divine consciousness. Sri Aurobindo describes this divine consciousness as follows:
By the Divine Consciousness we mean the spiritual consciousness to which the Divine alone exists ... and by which one passes beyond the Ignorance and the lower nature into unity with the Divine and the Divine Nature.
— Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga—I, p. 5
Sri Aurobindo stresses throughout his works that it is only through a descent of this divine consciousness that an entire perfection is possible. As he says in one of his letters: "The more you surrender to the Divine, the more will there be the possibility of perfection in you" (Letters on Yoga—II, p. 285).
With this we have come to the end of our description of the sevenfold chord of being, the complex hierarchy of increasingly conscious planes of existence that forms the all-important backdrop for Sri Aurobindo's understanding of human nature and its potential for further development. But before we can move on to the next section, there are a few smaller issues left that have a vertical component and that as such can best be discussed here. The first of these is a word of caution.
A word of caution.
Sri Aurobindo warns at several places that there are formations and deformed shadows of the higher planes within the lower planes. This can give the unwary, hasty or over-ambitious visitor to these lower planes, the illusion of having "realised" the higher planes. The only effective antidote against this error is sincerity and humility, but, as we all know, these are qualities that are not as common as they should be.
The cakras are centres of consciousness that seem to be stacked up one above the other in our inner, subtle physical body, the sūkṣma śarīra. As centres of consciousness, the cakras clearly belong to the puruṣa, but they preside over corresponding layers of the inner nature which are part of prakṛti. As the cakras are as much centres of force and action as of awareness, they do not go well with the strict separation of puruṣa and prakṛti that we find in Sāṁkhya, and one sees them more often discussed in Tantric literature. Sri Aurobindo only rarely describes them in the traditional (and perhaps rather romantic) manner of lotuses with distinct colours, sounds and numbers of petals. He writes, however, very often about the layers or levels of conscious existence they represent and preside over.
In the following descriptions, the phrases in between quotation marks are from Letters on Yoga – I, p. 230 onwards.
The Power that from her being's summit reigned,
The Presence chambered in lotus secrecy,
Came down and held the centre in her brow
Where the mind's Lord in his control-room sits;
There throned on concentration's native seat
He opens that third mysterious eye in man,
The Unseen's eye that looks at the unseen,
When Light with a golden ecstasy fills his brain
And the Eternal's wisdom drives his choice
And eternal Will seizes the mortal's will.
It stirred in the lotus of her throat of song,
And in her speech throbbed the immortal Word,
Her life sounded with the steps of the world-soul
Moving in harmony with the cosmic Thought.
As glides God's sun into the mystic cave
Where hides his light from the pursuing gods,
It glided into the lotus of her heart
And woke in it the Force that alters Fate.
It poured into her navel's lotus depth,
Lodged in the little life-nature's narrow home,
On the body's longings grew heaven-rapture's flower
And made desire a pure celestial flame,
Broke into the cave where coiled World-Energy sleeps
And smote the thousand-hooded serpent Force
That blazing towered and clasped the World-Self above,
Joined Matter's dumbness to the Spirit's hush
— Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p. 665
(from "The Book of the Double Twilight")
- The highest cakra, the sahasrāra is located at the crown of the head. It "commands the higher thinking mind, houses the still higher illumined mind and at its highest opens to the intuition through which ... the overmind can have ... an immediate contact". It is for obvious reasons not much mentioned in the English language, though there may be a vague reference to it in the fact that highfalutin ideas are said to go “over one's head”. It is through here that inspirations are most often felt to enter.
- Just below it, the ājñā cakra, "governs the dynamic mind, will, vision, mental formation". It is located behind the forehead. This is the location where philosophers and academics feel that their consciousness resides. Again, a child who needs to think more clearly is asked to use his head, not his heart, let alone his guts.
- Below the ājñā cakra, at the level of the throat, comes the viśuddha in the lowest mental layer, the expressive and externalising mind. Its character depends on what it expresses: it can express vital feelings coming from below as well as thoughts and inspirations from above. It is not only concerned with verbal and vocal expressions, it is also active in other forms of creative work.
- The anāhata at the level of the heart "governs the emotional centre" and lodges the higher vital consciousness. It carries the more sophisticated human emotions of love, compassion etc. If you want to encourage someone to be more generous or compassionate you don't say: “open your head”, you say, “open your heart”.
- Below it, we find the maṇipūra, housing the middle vital with our larger ambitions for power and possession. This is the Hara of Japanese martial arts, and also the source of what businessmen call “gut-feelings”. Significantly, “having guts” means being courageous and daring, qualities that occur when one's consciousness is powerfully present at this level.
- Below it, is the svādhiṣṭhāna, the cakra of the lower vital consciousness where we find sexuality and the search for minor, personal comforts.
- The last cakra, at the bottom of the spine, is the mūlādhāra, the seat of the kuṇḍalinī energy, and the physical consciousness down to the subconscious.
The cakras are connected through vertical energy channels, within the subtle body. Some people spontaneously feel them as streams of force while others perceive them as streams of light. When such subtle inner energies "open" a cakra, the inner powers or siddhis that belong to that cakra also awaken and become available. This can be achieved intentionally, for example as part of focused hatha and rajayoga practices, but it can also happen spontaneously or as a consequence of other forms of yoga. As a whole, one can say that aspiring for higher forces to descend and clean the cakras top-down is safer than forcing the cakras to awaken from down up. Serious "spiritual emergencies" can follow when one tries the latter without proper guidance.
To end this discussion of the cakras, it may be noted that the different types of consciousness that the main cakras represent, are easily recognisable by most people and are commonly referred to in the English language. We all know that businessmen follow their gut-feelings, that charitable organisations ask us to open our heart, and that teachers admonish children to use their head. The different layers are in English also used to indicate specific kinds of unease: there is a commonly understood difference between butterflies in one's stomach, a heartache, a lump in one's throat, and a headache. While they are clearly part of our common understanding of human nature, and have quite a prominent place in literature, they have not been given much attention in academics. This is unfortunate, because a good understanding of these different centres can help considerably with the development of insight and mastery over one's drives and motives. The ability to locate the centre of one's consciousness in any of them at will should in fact be considered an important life-skill, which could quite well be taught in school. It appears that the conceptual mix-up of thinking and consciousness has led to the idea that not only thinking but also every other type of consciousness is generated in the brain, and that this has stood in the way of psychologists paying any attention to this otherwise interesting phenomenon.
Besides the sevenfold chord of being and the cakras, there is still another set of terms that describe states which subjectively are experienced as a vertically arranged hierarchy. They describe levels or degrees of awareness; from the bottom up they are: the inconscient, the subconscient, the ordinary waking consciousness and the superconscient.
The inconscient base of the creation Sri Aurobindo also calls the nescient.
The word subconscious Sri Aurobindo uses with two somewhat different meanings. He uses it sometimes simply to indicate all that is below our ordinary consciousness (in other words, as a synonym for the subliminal), but he uses it more typically for a specific plane situated "below the physical consciousness". In that last sense, the subconscient contains the first crude beginning of conscious movement when creation just arises out of the sleep of the inconscient. But into this nether region also sinks back whatever has been rejected from the higher levels of consciousness, and so come into being the murky waters that Freud describes as the "unconscious". This is the place from which rise up the thousands of atavisms that mar our progress.
In our yoga we mean by the subconscient that quite submerged part of our being in which there is no wakingly conscious and coherent thought, will or feeling or organized reaction, but which yet receives obscurely the impressions of all things and stores them up in itself and from it too all sorts of stimuli, of persistent habitual movements, crudely repeated or disguised in strange forms can surge up into dream or into the waking nature. For if these impressions rise up most in dream in an incoherent and disorganized manner, they can also and do rise up into our waking consciousness as a mechanical repetition of old thoughts, old mental, vital and physical habits or an obscure stimulus to sensations, actions, emotions which do not originate in or from our conscious thought or will and are even often opposed to its perceptions, choice or dictates. In the subconscient there is an obscure mind full of obstinate Sanskaras, impressions, associations, fixed notions, habitual reactions formed by our past, an obscure vital full of the seeds of habitual desires, sensations and nervous reactions, a most obscure material which governs much that has to do with the condition of the body. It is largely responsible for our illnesses; chronic or repeated illnesses are indeed mainly due to the subconscient and its obstinate memory and habit of repetition of whatever has impressed itself upon the body-consciousness. But this subconscient must be clearly distinguished from the subliminal parts of our being such as the inner or subtle physical consciousness, the inner vital or inner mental; for these are not at all obscure or incoherent or ill-organized, but only veiled from our surface consciousness. Our surface constantly receives something, inner touches, communications or influences, from these sources but does not know for the most part whence they come.
— Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – I, pp. 216-17
That part of us which we can strictly call subconscient because it is below the level of mind and conscious life, inferior and obscure, covers the purely physical and vital elements of our constitution of bodily being, unmentalised, unobserved by the mind, uncontrolled by it in their action. It can be held to include the dumb occult consciousness, dynamic but not sensed by us, which operates in the cells and nerves and all the corporeal stuff and adjusts their life process and automatic responses. It covers also those lowest functionings of submerged sense-mind which are more operative in the animal and in plant life; in our evolution we have overpassed the need of any large organised action of this element, but it remains submerged and obscurely at work below our conscious nature. This obscure activity extends to a hidden and hooded mental substratum into which past impressions and all that is rejected from the surface mind sink and remain there dormant and can surge up in sleep or in any absence of the mind, taking dream forms, forms of mechanical mind action or suggestion, forms of automatic vital reaction or impulse, forms of physical abnormality or nervous perturbance, forms of morbidity, disease, unbalance. Out of the subconscious we bring ordinarily so much to the surface as our waking sense-mind and intelligence need for their purpose; in so bringing them up we are not aware of their nature, origin, operation and do not apprehend them in their own values but by a translation into the values of our waking human sense and intelligence. But the risings of the subconscious, its effects upon the mind and body, are mostly automatic, uncalled for and involuntary; for we have no knowledge and therefore no control of the subconscient. It is only by an experience abnormal to us, most commonly in illness or some disturbance of balance, that we can become aware of something in the dumb world, dumb but very active, of our bodily being and vitality or grow conscious of the secret movements of the mechanical subhuman physical and vital mind which underlies our surface, — a consciousness which is ours but seems not ours because it is not part of our known mentality. This and much more lives concealed in the subconscience.
A descent into the subconscient would not help us to explore this region, for it would plunge us into incoherence or into sleep or a dull trance or a comatose torpor. A mental scrutiny or insight can give us some indirect and constructive idea of these hidden activities; but it is only by drawing back into the subliminal or by ascending into the superconscient and from there looking down or extending ourselves into these obscure depths that we can become directly and totally aware and in control of the secrets of our subconscient physical, vital and mental nature. This awareness, this control are of the utmost importance. For the subconscient is the Inconscient in the process of becoming conscious; it is a support and even a root of our inferior parts of being and their movements. It sustains and reinforces all in us that clings most and refuses to change, our mechanical recurrences of unintelligent thought, our persistent obstinacies of feeling, sensation, impulse, propensity, our uncontrolled fixities of character. The animal in us, — the infernal also, — has its lair of retreat in the dense jungle of the subconscience. To penetrate there, to bring in light and establish a control, is indispensable for the completeness of any higher life, for any integral transformation of the nature.
— Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, pp. 762-3
Our ordinary waking consciousness is limited to a small portion of the physical, vital and lower mental planes. Most of what happens even on these planes remains below its threshold of awareness.
The higher ranges of the mental plane, the supramental and saccidānanda are entirely superconscient to the ordinary waking consciousness. The words "superconscious" and "superconscient" are both used by Sri Aurobindo again with two different meanings: more broadly when they are used for any consciousness which is above our ordinary waking consciousness (in other words including the higher consciousness) or more specifically for that type of consciousness which is divine, that is, entirely beyond dualities.
Sri Aurobindo does not use the term "the unconscious". Freud's "unconscious" covers more or less what Sri Aurobindo described above as "a hidden and hooded mental substratum into which past impressions and all that is rejected from the surface mind sink". Jung's "unconscious" has some overlap with Sri Aurobindo's "subliminal".
We can now put the most important terms used for the vertical system together as in Table 1.
|hemisphere||sevenfold chord of being||cakra||consciousness||knowledge/
|upper hemisphere||Existence (sat)||
|link plane||Supermind (mahas or vijñāna)|
|first beginnings of separation,
though not yet of real Ignorance
|Ordinary mind||Thinking mind||ājñā||Ordinary Waking Consciousness||Ignorance|
It may be noted that in terms of the concentric system, everything in this Table 1 belongs to the subliminal. The only exception might be the ordinary waking consciousness and its share of the ignorance, but one could argue that in the ordinary waking consciousness even the ordinary waking consciousness itself belongs to the subliminal! The reason is that most people most of the time are so fully identified with the part of the surface mind where their consciousness happens to be centred, that they are only aware of the content with which that mind is busy. So even when they engage, for example, in introspection, they may become aware of the mental and vital processes that are happening inside their consciousness, but they will still not be aware of the consciousness itself, let alone of its ignorance.
A word of caution.
The terms that occupy the cells of this table do not denote things. They point at concepts which have meanings and connotations whose borders tend to be far more vague than the neat lines in this diagram suggest. Though I hope this table is useful for those who enjoy such things, it has to be treated with utmost caution and humility. Even the simplest flower surpasses whatever our minds can possibly create.
As we have seen, our nature is immensely complex. It consists of many different parts and they all have their own history, character and priorities for action. In order to present "one face" both to the outside world and to ourselves, we need something to coordinate all these different tendencies, and as long as we have not found our real Self, it is the ego that fulfils this role.
At one place in The Life Divine Sri Aurobindo describes the ego as follows:
But what is this strongly separative self-experience that we call ego? It is nothing fundamentally real in itself but only a practical constitution of our consciousness devised to centralise the activities of Nature in us. We perceive a formation of mental, physical, vital experience which distinguishes itself from the rest of being, and that is what we think of as ourselves in nature — this individualisation of being in becoming. We then proceed to conceive of ourselves as something which has thus individualised itself and only exists so long as it is individualised, — a temporary or at least a temporal becoming; or else we conceive of ourselves as someone who supports or causes the individualisation, an immortal being perhaps but limited by its individuality. This perception and this conception constitute our ego-sense. Normally, we go no farther in our knowledge of our individual existence.
— Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 382-383
In other words, Sri Aurobindo sees the ego as a temporary, makeshift arrangement nature makes to centralise our action and provide a focus-point for our sense of identity. Interestingly, neither the character nor the centre nor the borders of our ego are fixed. When we talk to one of our siblings, we become a sister or brother; when we are with our parents we function as their child; with our children as parent; and when we talk with our neighbours we suddenly represent our family as a whole. When we watch a football match we identify with our city or country; when we talk about feminism we grow aware of our gender; in our concern for "the environment" we can identify with the planet; and when we have hurt a toe, we retire to the central command of our little, individual, bodily existence. In other words, the borders of our ego and the centre of our identity shift continuously, from second to second.
According to the Indian tradition, the ego is a formation of the mind, but since its energy is provided by the vital, its functioning tends to be guided by the vital's need for self-assertion. As its right to exist is far from intrinsic and in many ways precarious, the ego tends to be in constant need of "moral support" and it engages in a lot of defensive action, not all of which is appropriate or helpful. A common way for the ego to defend itself is to stress the superior quality of its achievements, character, possessions and social contacts. But the opposite also happens. One can defend oneself against social pressure not only by asserting oneself strongly, but also by getting out of the way of others, by dissimulating one's very existence.
Modern society is ambivalent about the ego. Egoism, egotism, and ego-centricity are considered undesirable, if only because they clash with the same traits in others, but lack of ego-strength leads to difficulties in keeping oneself together and to an inability to withstand the pressure of others. It is thus not surprising that a "healthy ego" is widely considered essential for psychological health and well-being, especially amongst professional psychologists (who often meet people who do not have a sufficiently strong ego). Amongst those who "do yoga", however, one does not often hear praise for the ego and its often misplaced attempts at heroic action. Here, the ego is more often derided as the villain of the piece. The reason is that once one is "on the path", one tends to realise sooner or later that in a most concrete sense all suffering is due to ego.
Though, as we have seen, the exact border of what we identify with as our "self" is perpetually shifting, this border is in our ordinary waking consciousness almost always outside our body, mind, and personality. In the Indian tradition the border of the self is much further inside: the puruṣa, the Self, contains only our pure consciousness, while our personality and all mental processes belong to universal Nature, prakṛti. Accordingly, an essential element of doing yoga is to shift one's centre of identification from the temporary formation of the ego, which is part of the outer nature, to the true Self in the central being.
The "I" or the little ego is constituted by Nature and is at once a mental, vital and physical formation meant to aid in centralizing and individualising the outer consciousness and action. When the true being is discovered, the utility of the ego is over and this formation has to disappear—the true being is felt in its place.
— Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga—I, p. 97
Not everyone in the Indian tradition agrees with this description of our svabhāva and svadharma. While the jīvātman is widely recognised as the highest centre of individualised pure consciousness, for those who hold that pure consciousness is only awareness, and that all power and all differentiation of qualities belong to the realm of prakṛti, the idea that the jīvātman could have qualities is out of the question. In other words, in their way of seeing things, the svabhāva cannot be a property of the puruṣa but has to apply to the prakṛti, and svadharma is seen as determined by the caste in which you are born. As a consequence both will differ from life to life. In Sri Aurobindo's view the core-qualities that differentiate our spiritual individuality belong to the jīvātman itself and as such they remain the same for all time. (Which is not to say that in a particular life, a different aspect of that eternal svabhāva cannot manifest.)
Sri Aurobindo uses the word "Self" (with a capital "S") mostly for our transcendent, immutable essence, both in its universal form (ātman), and in its individual form (jīvātman). While the ātman is truly universal and one for everybody, the jīvātman is aware of that oneness but also has the beginning of individuality. One could say that it is a portion of the Divine. Another way of looking at this is that the jīvātman is not any longer anantaguna, of infinite quality: as the carrier of our spiritual individuality, it has the particular subset of all possible qualities that determines our individual svabhāva and svadharma, our essential individual nature and truth of action.
There is however not only a Self above the manifest reality, but there is also a distinct Self or puruṣa on each plane or level of consciousness. These "plane specific" Selves function as the true centre of our conscious existence on that level. So we have an annamaya puruṣa, a prāṇamaya puruṣa, and a manomaya puruṣa.
On each of the three manifest lower planes (physical, vital and mental) we have besides this plane-specific Self, also plane-specific aspects of our inner and outer nature. The combination of a self (in the most generic sense of a centre of consciousness and identity) with a corresponding part of nature, Sri Aurobindo calls a being. So we can speak of an inner and an outer physical being, an inner and an outer vital being, an inner and an outer mental being.
In our outer nature we are generally not aware of our true Self and as a result we tend to operate under command of some ego-based centre instead. Our inner nature comes more easily under control of our true Self. For example, the outer mental being is likely to be guided mainly by a mental ego, while the inner mental being is more likely to have the mental Self as its centre.
Sri Aurobindo speaks about a true being when on one of the planes, one's nature is fully under the conscious control of the true Self of that plane. The true mental being for example describes the (part of the) mental nature that is fully under conscious control of the mental puruṣa.
A word of caution.
Those who by some fluke of nature or occult ambition have an opening to the inner nature and the powers this gives, while their main centre of identity is still in the ego, run the risk of getting into serious difficulties. One sees this for example relatively often amongst professional psychics and in those who have taken up yogic practices with too much ego and too little humility and surrender.
The psychic centre stands behind all the complexities of our outer and inner nature, and even behind the plane-specific Selves we find on the different planes of our manifest existence. It has descended, as the delegate of our jīvātman, our individual Self beyond space and time, into the "world of becoming" and supports our whole nature through the plane-specific Selves. Initially this psychic centre (antarātman, chaitya puruṣa) is only a small, almost point-like psychic entity. It is the tiny kernel of truth that hides below the otherwise false sense which the ego has of its own reality and importance. Initially it can be felt in the surface nature at best as a psychic influence. Gradually, however, as it grows, or to put it differently, as it brings (over many lifetimes) more and more of one's inner and outer nature under its influence, it becomes a full-fledged psychic being, which one can experience as a psychic presence. When this presence is strong and sensed even by other people, they may say of such a person that he or she is "an old soul". In a still later stage there can be a complete reversal, through which the psychic being becomes one's one and only identity, and the ego is no longer needed.
The word "soul" Sri Aurobindo uses quite often in the common English sense for anything our "I" can identify with. In this more common sense, he can speak for example about the "desire soul". More typically he uses it, however, for this evolving, psychic centre.
The true being may be realized in one or both of two aspects — the Self or ātman and the soul or antaratman, psychic being, chaitya puruṣa. The difference is that one is felt as universal, the other as individual supporting the mind, life, and body. When one first realizes the atman one feels it separate from all things, existing in itself and detached. When one realizes the psychic being, it is not like that; for this brings the sense of union with the Divine and dependence upon It and sole consecration to the Divine alone and the power to change the nature and discover the true mental, the true vital, the true physical being in oneself. Both realisations are necessary for this yoga.
— Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga—I, p. 97
While the outer layers of our being remain for a long time determined by the forces working in the surrounding outer nature, the inner layers generally come more easily under influence of the psychic element.
One must first acquire an inner yogic consciousness and replace by it our ordinary view of things, natural movements, motives of life; one must revolutionise the whole present build of our being. Next, we have to go still deeper, discover our veiled psychic entity and in its light and under its government psychicise our inner and outer parts, turn mind-nature, life-nature, body-nature and all our mental, vital, physical action and states and movements into a conscious instrumentation of the soul. Afterwards or concurrently, we have to spiritualize the being in its entirety by a descent of a divine Light, Force, Purity, Knowledge, freedom, and wideness. It is necessary to break down the limits of the personal mind, life and physicality, dissolve the ego, enter into the cosmic consciousness, realize the self, acquire a spiritualized and universalized mind and heart, life-force, physical consciousness. Then only the passage into supramental consciousness begins to become possible, and even then, there is a difficult ascent to make each stage of which is a separate arduous achievement.
— Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 281–82
It may be noted that the distinction Sri Aurobindo makes between the eternal, immutable nature of the Self above, and the evolving nature of the soul deep within, is not commonly made within the Indian tradition, at least not in the same manner. The antarātman is recognised as the self-within, but it is not seen as evolving. The reason is that the existence of an evolving soul-personality is only interesting in the context of an ongoing evolution of consciousness where the ultimate aim is the manifestation of various aspects of the Divine in an ever-evolving material world. If the ultimate aim is dissolution, merger with the transcendent Divine, mokṣa or nirvāṇa, then the personality, however well-developed it may become on the way, has to be shed in the end. It is no more than a carrier of one's karma and saṁskāras while the journey is on, and has to be left behind at the end. The easiest way to do this is to pay no attention to it beyond the simple fact that it should become so pure and sattvic that it does not create any attachment. This gets conceptualised most conveniently when one looks at the soul only as a centre of pure consciousness, found inside, but otherwise identical to the jīvātman above. Ramana Maharshi for example speaks of the antarātman, but acknowledges only its pure, immutable presence, not its evolving nature. In Sri Aurobindo's terminology one could say the psychic entity is acknowledged, but not the psychic being. We will discuss some other aspects of this issue in the last section.
It is now time to see how the horizontal and vertical systems and the various centres of identity all "hang together".
Before we can put all the elements we have discussed together, we must realize that the divisions made as part of the concentric system, apply equally to each of the three lowest layers of the vertical system. So there is an outer, inner and true mental; an outer, inner and true vital; and even an outer, inner and true physical. Or to list them the other way around: we can distinguish mental, vital and physical aspects in our outer nature, our inner nature, and even in our true Self. One reason why this is important is that people can have quite different characteristics and levels of development in the various areas that constitute their personality.
Within the outer nature, for example, a person can be strong in body but weak in mind; flexible in his ideas but unforgiving in his feelings; possessive about his ideas, but generous in physical things; and of course the opposites are equally possible.
Similarly, within the inner realm, we are according to virtually all occult traditions in direct contact with each other, but our capacity to bring that inner knowledge to our surface nature differs from person to person and plane to plane. Thus someone may be very open to other people's thoughts and know what people think even at a distance when there is no outer contact, but the same person may be quite insensitive to their feelings. And again, the opposite may also exist: someone may sense directly, without any outer clue or contact what someone else feels, but he may not have any idea about what the other thinks. In the inner physical, some people can feel concretely, as if in their own body, the physical sensations of other people, and yet they may not be particularly sensitive to their feelings or thoughts. In short: virtually all combinations are possible.
The situation is slightly different regarding the "Selves" on the different planes. The Self differs considerably from one plane to the other, but tends to be similar in its basic characteristics from one person to the next. The mental Self, the manomaya puruṣa, is for example most typically the witness: it watches with perfect equanimity what happens in oneself and one's surroundings; there are no comments, no judgements. In the vital Self, the prāṇamaya puruṣa, there is also equanimity, but here it is an equanimity of feeling: there is a steady, self-existing joy and energy that streams freely, unencumbered. The physical Self, annamaya puruṣa, has most typically a strong, unperturbed peace and calm. All three tend to be impersonal, vast, blissful and universal, but each has these qualities in a different way.
Another reason why these distinctions are useful is that it is so important where one places the centre of one's consciousness. A typical example may make this clear. An academic hears that a colleague has a better idea than the one she herself has come up with.
- If the academic lives predominantly in her surface mind, she will be excited and happy, since the idea from the colleague will enable her to construct a better model of reality than the one she had managed on her own.
- If, on the other hand, she receives the news while residing in her surface vital, she may feel threatened, because the human vital is not at all bothered about truth: it is a life-force and as such its primary concern is the need to assert itself, and so she may fear that her colleague's prowess may endanger her own position in the power hierarchy of her office.
- If she has access to what is called the higher mind, she may immediately "see" how the new idea hangs together with a whole range of other ideas.
- If there is a psychic influence on the vital, her egoïc need for self-assertion will be tempered by sympathy, and she may be happy for her colleague, especially if the latter needs a little boost in life.
- If she lives deep within her true being, she will not have any automatic reactivity:
- In the mental Self, she will just continue watching events unfold on the physical, vital and mental planes;
- in the vital Self, she will remain energetically, enthusiastically "present" in the midst of the play of forces.
- In the true physical Self, she will again be nonreactive, but peacefully, eternally, impersonally present amidst the physical circumstances.
- If we look in more detail we realize, as we already saw in our discussion of the cakras, that there are actually three clearly distinct vital selves.
- In the anāhata she will be aware mainly of higher emotional feelings like sympathy and love at play during the discussion;
- in the maṇipūra she will be aware primarily of the power play between the ambitions of the protagonists in the debate;
- in the svādhiṣṭhāna she will be aware of the smaller, individual life-sensations.
- And finally, there are notorious as well as beneficial combinations:
- If her centre of identity is divided between the two outer, lower vital levels, she may not have much interest in the content of the debate, but she might try to use sex-appeal to gain the upper hand in the department's power-struggle, or, reversely, use a position of power to sollicit sexual or social favours.
- On the positive side, a combination of well-tuned vital and mental powers might enable her to use the new ideas to implement some much-needed positive change, whether inside the office or in the world outside.
Keeping in mind once more that reality is always much more complex than the models we can make of it, we are now in a position to put some of the things we have discussed together into three diagrams that may help those with a more "visual" type of intelligence. These diagrams are intended only to depict in graphic form how the different parts of the personality conceptually relate to each other. They are not intended to depict reality in any other way!
Figure 2. The concentric system applies to the lowest three levels of the vertical system
Figure 2 indicates how the concentric system depicted in figure 1 intersects with the three planes of the lower hemisphere, the physical, vital and mental. The grey sheet labeled "Section" on the right side of figure 2 serves as the backdrop for the conceptual relationships indicated in Figure 3 and Figure 4.
Figure 3. A highly simplified overview of the structure of the personality
Figure 3 indicates the most prominent elements of human nature together in a simple, two-dimensional diagram. The ego and the outer nature are on the right. It may be noted that in our outer nature the distinction between mental, vital and physical is not as clear as the separate circles indicate. In the inner nature they are clearly distinct, but the outer nature they are always mixed up together. An important issue that is visible even in this highly simplified diagram is that the inner nature, which in mainstream psychology would be counted under the self, is in the Indian systems unambiguously part of Prakriti, the non-self.
Figure 4. A slightly more detailed depiction of the same
Figure 4 shows a somewhat more detailed rendering of the same model. Along the vertical axis we have listed the various planes belonging to the "Sevenfold Chord of Being"; we have added the cakras and the corresponding parts of the inner nature; and below the diagram we have added a few additional terms indicating the concentric system.
In Figure 3 and Figure 4 on the left of line "A" is our Self, our puruṣa, our consciousness. On the right of line "B" is our outer nature, which is all most people are aware of. In between the two vertical lines are the inner worlds. The brown lines under "inner being" indicate that the centre of identity of the inner being can be in the inner realm itself, in the corresponding cakra, or in the plane-specific Self. The brown lines under "inmost, psychic being" indicate that the psychic being evolves over time. It gradually brings more and more of the true, inner, and ultimately even the outer being under its control. If the latter happens, the ego is not needed anymore and the subconscient should have become conscient.
The most dark corner of the inner realm, the subconscient, has been explored to some extent by psychoanalysis. The rest can be explored only by an inner, yoga-based science.
The various elements that appear in these overviews have all been discussed in the previous sections of this chapter, but there are a few things that may still deserve some special attention: the mainstream dualism of body and mind, and the three closely related issues of consciousness as power, the nature of the link-plane between the lower and higher hemispheres, and the concept of the evolving soul.
In mainstream scientific thought, "life" ("the vital") is nowadays not recognised as a separate category. In a way, this is understandable as the division in three — matter, life and mind — may not be immediately clear in the surface realm that mainstream psychology deals with. On the surface of our personality, almost everything we do and are is mixed. The presence of life as a separate power becomes fully clear only in the subliminal inner realm where one can feel emotions, for example, as they are by themselves before they are rendered in words and before they affect the body. What is more problematic is that the remaining duality of mind/body is seen by many in the science community as all there is to the world. It may appear at first sight that we should not complain about this over-simplification. After all, the mind/body division seems to have worked rather well. Unfortunately, it has worked well for only one of the two halves: The hard sciences have made tremendous progress since this division freed them from the confusing pressure of values and religious dogma. The study of physical reality as if it consisted of a causally closed system of purely physical things and forces that obey laws that can be described exhaustively in the language of mathematics, has been stunningly effective and it provides us with an endless stream of addictive goodies. There is a problem, however, with the other half of the equation, the mind. Everything in these diagrams, except for the hard outer physical reality, is put together under "mind": not only thinking and sensing, feelings and attitudes, but also, as far as these are acknowledged to exist at all, even consciousness, the soul, the self, the inner and higher worlds, and for all we know, even our sense of "the Divine". Things get worse when it is assumed that all these are generated in the brain, and even more so when the mind-body dualism is equated with the distinction between software and hardware. Consciousness is then put aside as an emergent, epiphenomenal side-effect of chemical processes, and with that, virtually everything that makes us human and life worth living, including love, meaning, beauty, courage, gratitude and all the rest of what we humans are subjectively, is reduced to intrinsically meaningless brain-produced chemical processes.
Figure 5. The dualism of mind and body
In our rather imbalanced civilization, the outer physical reality, which is such a small part of all that we humans are and care about, is the only area that standard science knows how to research. Within this limited area, science has made such phenomenal progress—and provides such addictive gadgets—that we have started to believe that the outer, physical world contains not only all that can be known, but also all that is worth knowing. Within mainstream science only three serious attempts have been made to go beyond: psychoanalysis, parapsychology, and transpersonal psychology. All three are beset by difficulties and are far from universally accepted, and so our knowledge of the area Sri Aurobindo calls the inner nature has hardly developed. In fact, its very existence is continuously under doubt, and its importance is accepted only in a wide variety of relatively small subcultures that continue to exist in the shadow of the main society (5).
Interestingly, even within the Indian tradition, this domain has been dealt with somewhat stepmotherly as the siddhis and other occult phenomena of the middle realm are traditionally viewed as dangerous distractions from the noble pursuit of liberation and enlightenment. The reason that studying the inner domain is considered dangerous is that knowledge in the inner realms gives power, and power can be used for good as well as for evil. To avoid abuse of these powers, the tradition passed this knowledge on orally from generation to generation, and limited its spread to narrowly defined lines of initiation. Even now, it is more difficult to get access to than to the knowledge of Vedanta and other "purely spiritual" paths, which is now widely and freely available.
The innermost realm of the Self seems to have received, at least in India, a better deal culturally than the in-between inner realm. The Indian tradition has excelled in this area and pursued the study of the Self right into its highest and most magnificent ranges. But if we look a little closer, we meet here the same problem of the apparent antagonism between power and purity. For the authors of the oldest text, the Ṛg Veda, this does not appear to have been a problem. The ṛṣis of the Ṛg Veda occasionally mention themselves in their verses, and they come across as strong individuals, proud of their power as well as their knowledge. But over time India has increasingly chosen for purity over power, and it is this disbalance that, according to Sri Aurobindo, led to its gradual decline.
To end this article we will look now in some more detail at the question of consciousness as power and the scope of real perfection within the manifest reality.
While popular religion takes the Divine as both personal and powerful, high-brow philosophy tends to look at ultimate reality as impersonal and inactive. In Transpersonal psychology too, the dominant position is to take the consciousness of the innermost realm as uncontaminated by power and personality. Regarding personality, the Indian tradition cherishes both viewpoints and whether "the Divine" should be considered to be ultimately personal or impersonal appears to be seen almost as a matter of taste. There is a widespread willingness to embrace both aspects, and it is not that hard to recognise them as complimentary rather than as exclusive of each other. However, in Indian philosophy and in "high-brow" spirituality there is a strong tendency to favour impersonality. We will come back to this at the very end of this article.
Only the everlasting No has neared
And stared into thy eyes and killed thy heart:
But where is the Lover's everlasting Yes,
And immortality in the secret heart,
The smile that saves, the golden peak of things?
This too is Truth at the mystic fount of Life.
A black veil has been lifted; we have seen
The mighty shadow of the omniscient Lord;
But who has lifted up the veil of light
And who has seen the body of the King?
A high and blank negation is not all,
A huge extinction is not God's last word,
In absolute silence sleeps an absolute Power.
Awaking, it can wake the trance-bound soul
And in the ray reveal the parent sun:
It can make the world a vessel of Spirit's force,
It can fashion in the clay God's perfect shape.
To free the self is but one radiant pace;
Here to fulfil himself was God's desire.
Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, pp. 310-12
We have first to tackle the issue of power. Sāṁkhya, the philosophical system behind hathayoga and rajagoga, is categorical with regards to the power aspect. It radically divides the world between puruṣa, the conscious Self which is seen as passive and unmoving, and prakṛti, unconscious Nature, which contains all the energy and the action. But even in Vedanta and Buddhism, there is a pervasive tendency to see consciousness exclusively as pure awareness. In modern times the idea of consciousness as power is almost forgotten, and it is definitely not the self-evident default it deserves to be. In other words, though consciousness is much more highly valued in the Indian tradition than it is in modern science, it is still widely regarded as "causally ineffective" and in this aspect of "powerlessness" it comes close to the "epiphenomenal" conceptualisation of consciousness of modern times.
Unfortunately, this robs what is best and most true in us, what we really are in the deepest depths of our being from agency. And this, to put it mildly, is problematic. If true, it would turn the manifest world — whether it is purely physical as science has it, or a mix of physical and occult elements as the older knowledge systems had it — into a causally closed system that we have to accept or reject as a whole. The possibility of a fully harmonious, participatory action is given up.
For some this might feel like a relief. Passive awareness is far more easy to keep pure and blissful than dynamic action. The sense of agency tends to trigger the sense of ego. All power corrupts. So it is tempting for the individual to burry his head in the sand, accept consciousness only as pure awareness, and escape into nirvāṇa or mokṣa. But even if we first work for the enlightenment of all sentient beings, as Mahayana Buddhism urges us to do, the pursuit of nirvāṇa and mokṣa remains an attempt at escape. Whether we escape individually or collectively, the world is left as it is. And is this what we have come for? What, as Sri Aurobindo says in his poem Savitri, happens then to "the labour of the stars"? Is there no scope for a further evolution that will finally create the perfection we dream of?
To put it simply, the real answer to the abuse of power is not its abrogation but its transformation. The real question is whether that can be done.
To understand Sri Aurobindo's positive take on this, we should not only look at his stress on consciousness as power, but also at two other areas where Sri Aurobindo's views are not shared by everyone in the tradition. The first of these is the distinction Sri Aurobindo makes between an eternal, immutable, transcendent Self above, and an evolving soul deep within.
The idea that the true self can be found high above as well as deep within is common enough. It derives directly from the two most common ways in which the Self is experienced. People typically talk about their highest self or about their deepest, innermost self without making much of a distinction between the two. The idea that the innermost Self, the delegate of the jīvātman in this manifest world, is an evolving soul is, however, not part of the traditional story and for many philosophers of yoga it is anathema. The reason is, that the existence of an evolving soul-personality is only possible if pure consciousness can have qualities as well as the power to impose them. If the pure consciousness of the Self cannot have qualities or power, as in classical Sāṁkhya, then all our individual qualities as well as our individual development must by necessity belong to the realm of māyā, prakṛti, universal Nature, the sorrowful cycle of karma and desire. The eternal Self, pure and silent, must then be conceived as picking up the whole mishmash whenever it descends into birth, only to leave it behind again at the time of death, without being in any manner effected by it. In that line of thinking, our svabhāva and svadharma can also not really be part of our eternal Self, but must be recreated for each individual life-time.
In other words, if the ultimate aim of life is dissolution, merger with the transcendent Divine, or nirvāṇa, then the personality, however well-developed it may become on the way, can be no more than a collection of karma and saṁskāras; it may have some relative, personal interest as long as the journey is going on, but it will have to be left behind at the end. In this view, it makes no sense to pay too much attention to it. All that is needed is the basic purification required to shift the centre of one's identity away from one's ego-personality to the pure consciousness of the Self. In such a view, the inner Divine, the soul, the antarātman, is nothing more than a centre of pure consciousness: it is found inside, but otherwise it is just like the jīvātman above. As it is qualityless, like the paramātman, it is identical for everyone. As conception this can probably be called mainstream in the Indian tradition, and even its experience, though not common, is not unheard of.
But what if there is a beyond? What if this world and our individual existence in it can reach a level of perfection in which they can actually stand face to face with the splendours of the absolute Transcendence? It is here that the second issue arises. Conceptually, the manifestation of such a genuine, divine perfection is conceivable only if there is a realistic possibility of the various aspects of the Divine manifesting down here in this evolving material world. And from an Indian "idealist" perspective this can only be, if there is already somewhere a typal plane that is manifold, and yet fully True, in the deep sense of satyam and ṛtam. Only if there is somewhere an inner world which is perfectly Divine as well as fully differentiated and individualised, can we evolve in that direction. Only if there is already somewhere a genuinely perfect typal world, can there be hope that this slowly evolving manifest world will ever reach that same level of perfection. There may be little in the outer world to indicate such a possibility, and it appears that even in their highest inner realisation few, if any, have seen such possibilities. But basing himself on his own experience and the textual support he found in the Ṛg Veda, Sri Aurobindo holds that there actually exists such a realm on the border between saccidānanda and our manifest creation, the almost forgotten Vedic mahas, which Sri Aurobindo called Supermind, or vijñāna (in its older, much more profound sense). If Sri Aurobindo is right, and the Supermind he found is indeed in its very essence different from the much better-known Overmind just below it, then the perspective of a gradual ongoing evolution of consciousness can give us the assurance that sooner or later humanity—or its evolutionary successor—will reach a state, which in a most profound and complete way, will finally "justify the light on Nature's face" (Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p. 344).
(1) See Cornelissen (2008)
(2) The vijñānamayakośa is the plane of conscious existence that according to Vedanta links the lower, manifest hemisphere of matter, life and mind, to the upper, divine hemisphere of saccidānanda. In modern Hindi, vijñāna means no more than a somewhat enlightened intellect and one finds the vijñānamayakośa sometimes described in similar terms. In the older texts from which Sri Aurobindo derives his terminology, the vijñānamayakośa is, however, the same as the Vedic mahas, a plane far above the mind, which is at the same time perfectly divine and differentiated, the one and the many. Sri Aurobindo explored this region with meticulous care and methodological rigour in his own experience and confirmed this much more elevated sense.
(3) For more details on these different types of knowledge see Cornelissen (2013), and Cornelissen (2011). A revised version of Part II of the latter article was published as Cornelissen (2015).
(4) In his writings for the general public, Sri Aurobindo tried to use English translations rather than the original Sanskrit terms whenever possible, capitalizing them to indicate that he used them with a specialist, and often elevated, meaning. "Mind" stands here for manas in its oldest and widest Vedic sense, which includes all the mental powers, intellect, intelligence, understanding, perception, sense, conscience, etc. (Elsewhere Sri Aurobindo uses manas more often with the much narrower Sāṁkhya meaning of sense-mind.)
(5) See Eugene Taylor (1999).
Aurobindo, Sri (1997), Savitri, volume 33 and 34 of The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
——— (1998), Essays in Philosophy and Yoga, volume 13 of The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
——— (1999), The Synthesis of Yoga, volume 23 and 24 of The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
——— (2004), Letters on Poetry and Art, volume 27 of The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
——— (2005), The Life Divine, volume 21 and 22 of The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
——— (2012), Letters on Yoga—I, volume 28 of The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
——— (2014), Letters on Yoga—IV, volume 31 of The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
NB. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo can be accessed online at: http://www.sriaurobindoashram.org/ashram/sriauro/writings.php.
Cornelissen, Matthijs (2008), “The Ongoing Evolution of Consciousness in Sri Aurobindo’s Cosmo-Psychology” in Helmut Wautischer (ed.), Ontology of Consciousness: Percipient Action. Boston: The MIT Press, 2008. This text can be accessed online at: http://ipi.org.in/texts/matthijs/mc-consciousness-mit.php.
———(2011). Types of knowledge and what they allow us to see: How our research methods affect the quality of our psychological understanding. This text can be accessed online at: http://ipi.org.in/texts/matthijs/mc-tok-ppb.php.
——— (2013), “What is knowledge? A reflection based on the work of Sri Aurobindo” in Matthijs Cornelissen, Girishwar Misra and Suneet Varma (eds.). Foundations and Applications of Indian Psychology. New Delhi: Pearson-Longman. This text can be accessed online at: http://ipi.org.in/texts/matthijs/mc-knowledge-sa.php.
——— (2015), “Types of Knowledge and Their Use in Psychology: Towards Rigorous Subjectivity” in Kumar Ravi Priya & Ajit K. Dalal, Qualitative Research on Illness, Well-Being and Self-Growth: Contemporary Indian Perspectives. New Delhi: Routledge.
Mother, The (2004) Questions and Answers 1956, volume 8 of Collected Works of the Mother. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
NB. The Collected Works of the Mother can be accessed online at: http://www.sriaurobindoashram.org/ashram/mother/writings.php.
Taylor, Eugene, (1999), Shadow Culture, Psychology and Spirituality in America, Washington, DC: Counterpoint.