An ongoing evolution of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: in process

If you haven't read Section 1, you may like to read that first:  

section 2
the involution preceding the evolution

The need for involution preceding evolution

If we see in the biological evolution a gradual emergence of consciousness, that consciousness must have been hiding somewhere before it emerged. To use a perhaps over-simplistic metaphor: a magician cannot produce a rabbit out of a hat if that rabbit is not hidden somewhere inside the hat before he starts. Similarly, consciousness cannot emerge out of matter if it is not already there in the first place. In other words, an involution of consciousness must have preceded the evolution, and this is exactly how the Indian tradition visualises the process that has produced our present world.

Within the Indian tradition, there are several references to a divine consciousness which manifests the seemingly unconscious physical world out of itself, after which, consciousness gradually re-emerges within that physical world. From a consciousness-centred perspective, this basic process of involution and evolution can then be depicted as in Figure 2.

Involution and evolution -- simple

Fig. 2. Involution and evolution


An ancient story

One can find passages asserting this idea of involution and evolution already in some of the oldest Indian scriptures. The most quoted text about the involution is probably the "Hymn of Creation" in the Ṛg Veda (X.129), but there is another one which includes the process of evolution in a hyper compact and rather charming manner. It occurs in several Upaniṣads and became famous for its unusual image of a spider as analogue for the Divine. Here is the way it is presented in the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad (1.7-9):

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

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

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

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

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

It is worth to look at these ślokas, and especially at the second one, in detail, as they are extremely succinct and precise. If we read them in a hurry, we may easily miss how much meaning has been packed inside its super-terse phrases. The first offers a few homely metaphors which seem to suggest that even though we may see all things and even ourselves as separate entities, every single thing in existence is still an inalienable part, an expression and a direct manifestation of the consciousness that manifests the world out of itself, Brahman.

In the second śloka, the Divine is said to "grow" when he manifests the world, and given how often growth is mentioned as an object of prayer, this can be taken as a reminder that his act of creation should be considered a good and desirable thing. Then it is said that four things spring forth: matter, life, mind, and truth. Could these be the three ordinary planes of consciousness that are already manifest — matter, life and mind — plus one that is still to come, the supramental maharloka which is defined as a plane of truth? And then also "the worlds" which may have been added to explain that the previous four outer worlds are all built on top of the complex, occult reality of the typal inner worlds that have been described by mystics in all major civilizations. And finally it says: "in works immortality". These are two words that play lead roles in Indian thought. "Works" is here the translation of karma and we will come back to the complex meanings and connotations of this concept in the chapters on the determinants of our character and in those on fate and free will[INTERNAL LINKs]. To the meaning of immortality we'll come back in the chapters on the Self and again, in more detail, in the chapter on self-development[INTERNAL LINKs]. If we spell out the central meaning as well as some of the connotations of these two words, the phrase could be interpreted as "whatever you do, especially if it is done in a spirit of aspiration and surrender to the highest and best you know, will ultimately lead to knowledge of the soul, and as the soul is immortal, this will make you realise your immortality.

The first of these three slokas asserts that everything in this world is a manifestation of the Divine, and it repeats this once more in the last one. This creates a problem that can perhaps be formulated most trenchantly in the language of those religions who attribute personhood to the Divine: If God is good, how could He have made this world which is (at least in human eyes) full of pain, suffering, cruelty, ignorance, falsehood, ugliness, imperfection and plain evil that are hard to associate with a benevolent and compassionate Divine. In the somewhat more abstract psychological language of Vedanta, the ultimate nature of reality is saccidānanda: an inalienable unity of absolute, true Existence, Consciousness and Delight, and this creates the same basic problem of the contradiction between the mess we see and the beauty we surmise. In the chapters on self-development, we will have a look at the processes that make it possible for us to have a direct, personal experience of the absolute perfection, beauty and delight that according to the tradition still exists behind the messy world we see on the surface. Here, we will have a look at the opposite process: how could saccidānanda give rise to the strangely imperfect and conflicted world we know. This may appear as a rather theoretical or even speculative exercise, but in the third and last section of this chapter I hope to show how a deeper understanding of our past can lead to a better understanding of our future. We will see then how the Indian understanding of involution and evolution creates a coherent theoretical framework that makes much of what is presently happening in the world understandable and that offers ideas on how we can climb out of the hole in which the society — and many individuals — presently find themselves. As said, the more practical aspects of that ascent we will take up later. Here we will now first have a look at how it all may have begun, at the very beginning of this great adventure of "consciousness and joy"[REF].

Exclusive concentration as the mechanism behind māyā

In the Indian tradition, right from Vedic times, the force that is held responsible for creation is called māyā, and much of the differences between the various schools of philosophy and yoga centre around the way māyā is understood. In essence, māyā is simply the power of manifestation, but how this power is appreciated changed considerably over time. In later philosophical texts, māyā obtained the meaning of illusion, a power which creates an imaginary world that looks real enough to the ignorant, but that has no true existence in itself. Yoga is then described as the process through which one wakes up out of that illusion into the Truth. In the māyāvādin traditions, this is taken to its extreme and the entire world is considered as māyā in its most derogatory sense, that is, as an illusion, a false veil of ignorance or an imposition, adhyāropa, on the complete purity and immutability of the silent Absolute. For those who are overwhelmed by the pain and suffering in the world, it remains difficult to explain how māyā gets the power to impose falsehood on the inherent truth of Brahman. Shankara leaves this simply as an unexplainable mystery[REF]. We'll come back to the origin of pain and suffering in the chapters on self-development.

It appears that this predominantly negative meaning of māyā was not there in the earliest texts of the Indian tradition. In the Ṛg Veda, māyā was still simply a creative power of the Divine which “measures out the worlds in front of itself”. The quality of the created world depended on the consciousness of origin and there were many different kinds of māyā. In some places the word was used for the true power of manifestation that belongs to the divine Mother herself. In others, it still belonged to the light, but was dark compared to the light of Surya (the Sun), and as such still an illusion to be slain (e.g. RV 5.40).

Sri Aurobindo compares the main process through which Brahman manifests the world out of itself with the “exclusive concentration” that is part of our mental consciousness.[REF] At our human level exclusive concentration expresses itself in our ability to concentrate on a limited sub-set of all that we can potentially experience at any given time. When you read this text, for example, your consciousness is guided along by what you read: things like your physical posture, the room in which you sit, your programme for tomorrow, and the house in which you grew up enter your consciousness only when this text brings them to your attention. At the cosmic level, where in Sri Aurobindo's conception consciousness includes the power of creation, Sri Aurobindo (2005, p. 281) describes exclusive concentration as

“a self-limitation by Idea proceeding from an infinite liberty within”.

Sri Aurobindo argues then that the manifestation of the world out of Brahman could have taken place through a simple combination of only two basic powers that we must assume to be present in the original Brahman: 1) the ability to split itself into many instances of itself, and then 2) the ability to apply, in each of these instances the power of exclusive concentration. In other words, while the Absolute Conscious Being of saccidānanda is anantaguṇa, of infinite quality, each instance of it crystallises by exclusive concentration into a different subset of its own infinity of qualities. In this way a large variety of different entities comes into being that slowly begins to populate a hierarchy of occult, typal worlds. Though different occult traditions have given different descriptions of these inner worlds, the impression one gets is that they observed the same reality but stressed different aspects of it. We'll give here a short and highly simplified description using Sri Aurobindo's terminology.

The typal planes created during the involution

According to Sri Aurobindo, the first and highest plane below sachchidananda, is the Supramental, where there is variety but no loss of Divinity. Here there are the beginnings of specialisation and differentiation but no ignorance and suffering: each portion is still, even in its difference, a fully self-aware manifestation of the Light, Truth, Beauty and Freedom of the Divine. In Vedic times this plane was known as the maharloka and seen as a link-plane between the divine upper hemisphere of sachchidananda and the ignorant lower hemisphere of the manifest world. The Taittiriya[REF] calls it the vijnanamayakosha, and takes it as a plane of an absolutely perfect, gnostic type of knowledge. Below this plane is the mind, or manomayakosha as it is called in the Taittiriya[REF].

In the mental plane there is a distinction between subject and object, thought and action, and all the other dualities that vex our understanding. The highest sub-plane of the mind is the overmental, where the oneness with the Divine is still so concretely felt that it is often mistaken for the supramental truth itself. This is the plane where the major religions originated which at their highest connect with the Divine, and yet at their lower end harbour an element of division which prevents them from a full harmony with other religions. We'll come back to the difference between these two layers in the third section of this chapter, as understanding that difference will help us to get a handle on two very different options humanity seems to have for the future.

The type of mind just below the overmind is still characterised by intrinsically true, non-dual, non-egoic, intuition. The main difference is that it is already individualised and not anymore, like the overmind, thoroughly cosmic. Below this plane of pure intuition, on the lower levels of the mental plane, the intrinsically true, intuitive, knowledge from within is increasingly lost, till in the end we have the sense-based, constructed, dualist knowledge which is all that humanity has ordinarily to manage with.

Below the mental plane is the plane of subtle life-forms and life-energies. In this "vital" plane, the mental awareness of the world and oneself is lost, and all we have left is the basic joy of life and the capacity to assert one's own life amidst that of "others".

Below that we get the subtle physical which has the shapes and beauty of the physical world, but not yet its substance. At the bottom, at the very end of the involution, we have what appears to be a complete nescience. We'll discuss these different worlds and types of consciousness in more detail in the chapters on the structure of the personality and those on different types of knowledge[INTERNAL LINKS].

Finally, from this apparent nescience, the material world, ever so slowly, begins to arise: partly pushed by the hidden divinity within; partly pulled up as it were by the higher types of consciousness that are already present in the typal worlds that have been created during the involution. And in this, it is the hidden omniscience of the Divine, deep within each seemingly unconscious particle, which creates the fabulous harmony and beauty one sees in the inanimate material universe. As Sri Aurobindo says (2005, p. 359),

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

One of the most fascinating aspects of the evolutionary process is that it is not just a re-ascent, back up the same ladder of consciousness that we came down from. There is an integration of the new with the old, of the higher with the lower: when life arises out of matter, there are no wafts of vital energy but flowers and tigers; when mind arises from life there are not just free floating ideas but intelligent people who hold those ideas. In short, there is not just an ascent but an ascent and integration[FN to REF]. In other words we live the freedom of the mind's creativity together with the energy and adventurous spirit of the vital and the sturdiness of our physical foundation.



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