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

A first look

In the first chapter of his main philosophical work, The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo outlines the theoretical foundation for all his further work: the idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness. This idea is rooted in another more basic idea, the idea that consciousness exists in different degrees throughout the manifestation. In Western philosophy this idea is called "panpsychism", and though it is often lost sight of in contemporary consciousness studies, it was held by many great philosophers in the European tradition, right from Plato and Aristotle to Leibniz, William James and Whitehead. In the Indian tradition it is intrinsic to both Vedanta and Tantra, but it is in conflict with the dualist Sāṁkhya view in which nature (prakṛti) is conceptualised — in line with present-day Consciousness Studies — as non-conscious.

Sri Aurobindo takes it for his starting point that everything is conscious and then observes that the biological evolution of which Darwin had found his indications in nature, is not just a matter of increasing complexity, but a progressive manifestation of different types of consciousness: Nature begins with the deeply involved, seemingly unconscious state of inorganic matter; develops in that physical environment the half-consciousness of plant and animal life; and then gradually develops within certain animals the beginnings of the mental consciousness which we now see in humanity. Sri Aurobindo then argues that it appears prime facie unlikely that our present mental consciousness would be the final end product of this huge, aeonic process of biological evolution. For that, it has too many limitations, confusions and obvious defects. But what could the next step be? To fully understand how Sri Aurobindo visualised the next step in the ongoing evolution of consciousness, we must first try to understand how he visualised the way we arrived at our present state, because this differs considerably from the way mainstream science looks at reality, and in some interesting ways also from the way some of the more popular spiritual traditions of India look at it.

Evolution as far as it has reached till now

There can be no doubt that in its processes, evolution obeys the laws of physics, but at the same time, if we look carefully, it appears that there are some major transitions where something radically new seems to have been added, something that, as Sri Aurobindo points out , would have been hard, if not entirely impossible, to predict on the basis of what happened before.

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

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

With Life something radically new enters. The physical structures supporting life are many orders of magnitude more complex than anything in the inanimate world. In terms of structure a microscopic unicellular organism is more complex than the sun. Living beings are not only dynamic and playful in their interactions with the world around them, but they are capable of actively asserting and continuously rebuilding their own extremely complex form and function within and out of the much simpler physical world around them. Their information-rich genome allows them to build their own complex structures out of the utterly simple elements they encounter in their environment. Think of the incredibly complex way a mango tree continuously maintains, rebuilds and expands itself out of the utterly simple molecules it absorbs from soil, water and air. And then how it lets itself die, only to be reborn as a new tree, guided by the information stored in just one of the hundreds of thousands of mangos it has produced while alive — feeding in the process a mass of little creatures that happened to live in its neighbourhood. There is nothing remotely comparable to this in terms of complexity, love and playfulness in the inanimate world. While each living entity is still as fully embedded in its physical substrate as the much simpler inanimate objects are, life as a type of consciousness and principle of action introduces some basic freedom to interact and play. Linguistically, the living organism is a centre of interaction whose relations are expressed "horizontally" in terms of "I and Thou".

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

With the arrival of mind, we see again an entirely new functionality and another huge jump in level of complexity. The physical structure supporting the mind, the nervous system and especially the brain, is again many orders of magnitude more complex than anything else. But its form and function are essentially different from the structure of say a tree or a small animal. The tree is more complex and one could say more individualised than a rock: it is active, responsive, interactive, capable of expanding and rebuilding itself, and yet, in the end, it is still, like the rock, only itself. But with the brain something radically new happens: with the help of its complex physical structure, the mind does something essentially different from what life is about. While life is into physically recreating itself out of whatever is available in its surrounding, mind is into creating, inside itself, an extremely complex set of multidimensional models and maps of itself and the surrounding world in which it lives, forming as it were a whole new secondary reality for its own use.

To make this more clear, think of how different "your world" would be if you had a different set of senses: If, for example, your eyes would not be sensitive to radiation in the range of the visible light, but to infrared or to electromagnetic waves, the coloured surfaces you now see would not be there and almost all objects you now consider solid, would appear radiating and transparent.

The mental creature then lives within this hugely complex model, in this second-hand reality of its own making. It identifies with a small part of it which it calls "itself" and it takes colours, surfaces, etc. as part of the outside reality, while actually everything it knows is a construct of its own way of thinking and only indirectly related to the reality it presents. Linguistically the ordinary relationship between the mental self and the (represented) world is one of "I and it", and the relation is not any more direct or interactive: in our mind we can rise "subjectively" out of reality, and then, from above, look with our mental eye at our own constructed model of reality with ourselves in the midst of it. In other words, our consciousness, our self, our puruṣa, still identifies with one little portion of material reality, prakṛti, but this bit of prakṛti is not any more simply itself as in the pebble and the tree, but it is a nervous system modelling both itself and its surrounding. And with this arrives for the mental being a second possibility. While its first and natural inclination is to rise above and then bend back to the reality it models, it can also rise up further and escape from its connection to the physical world it came out of.

The need for involution preceding evolution

If we see in the biological evolution a gradual emergence of consciousness, that consciousness should first have involved itself. To use a perhaps over simplistic metaphor: a magician cannot produce a rabbit out of a hat if he has not hidden that rabbit inside the hat beforehand. Similarly, consciousness cannot emerge out of matter if it has not involved itself into matter first. In other words, an involution of consciousness must have preceded the evolution, and this is how the Indian tradition visualises the process of manifestation as a whole. According to the Indian tradition, there is not so much a personal God who has created the world in one go, "ready-made", exactly the way it is at present, but there is rather a divine conscious existence which first manifests or projects the physical world out of itself and then, within it, begins to re-emergence, very gradually, producing in the process what we can now look back on and describe as Darwin's evolution .

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

Involution and evolution -- simple    

Fig. 1. Involution and evolution


One can find passages asserting this idea of involution and evolution already in some of the oldest Indian scriptures. The most quoted text about the involution is perhaps the "Hymn of Creation" in the Ṛg Veda (X.129), but there is another one that is rather charming. 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. Brahman 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 we all know — 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 all build occult typal worlds that have been described by mystics in all major civilizations. And finally "in works immortality". Both "works" and "immortality" cover worlds of meaning. "Works" is here the translation of karma but it is a translation that is as likely to confuse as to enlighten. For modern man, "work" is what you do to earn a living and perhaps respect as a productive member of society. But that is a very recent meaning with connotations that are unlikely to have arisen in the minds of the rishis. The priests of the various Indian religions take karma as ritual: the things you do to earn the (largely rather worldly) favours of the gods. But that interpretation is, if possible, even less likely, because these texts would not have been treated with the respect they have been given in the highly sophisticated, clearly philosophical Upaniṣads, if rituals was all they were about. Fortunately, there is a third, much older and more profound meaning which is the one that explains why works produce immortality: "work" is there any activity which is done "as a sacrifice to the Divine", or to say the same thing differently, "any activity that is done in a state of inner surrender to the Divine". It is in that inner sense that action arises from — and leads to — knowledge of the soul, and as the soul is that what is immortal in us, it is this knowledge that makes us immortal. Interestingly, at all these levels of interpretation, karma is still simply the sum of all we have done in the past which determines our fate in the present.

To come back to our collective evolution, the world according to Vedanta is a manifestation of Brahman and the ultimate nature of Brahman is saccidānanda: an inalienable unity of absolute, true Existence, Consciousness and Delight. From an integral Vedantic viewpoint this implies that nothing can exist that is not conscious or that does not have the infinite delight of the Divine, ānanda, at the very core of its existence. The problem is that this does not tally very well with life as we experience it. Our consciousness is far from divine, our mental understanding is severely limited and rather often plain wrong, and our existence is full of pain and suffering. Accordingly one of the most important questions in the Indian tradition is, how out of the absolute perfection of saccidānanda the much less glorious relative reality came in which we ordinary mortals live: If the Divine is Delight, from where does suffering come? If the Divine is an absolute, all-knowing Consciousness, from where has ignorance arisen? If the Divine is eternal, why are we mortal? Similar questions have been raised in all major religions and we'll come back to the psychological and soteriological aspects of these questions at several places throughout this text and especially in the chapters on self-development and healing. Here we'll focus on the basic processes through which the world we know must have come into being, as the technicalities of that process sheds a fascinating light on the origin of some of our most vexing human problems and what we can do about them.

Exclusive concentration as the mechanism behind māyā

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 changes considerably over time. In later philosophical texts, māyā obtained the meaning of illusion, the creation of an imaginary world that looks real enough to the ignorant, but that has no true existence in itself. Yoga is then described as the process through which one wakes up out of that illusion into the Truth. In the māyāvādin traditions, this is taken to its extreme and the entire world is considered as māyā in this derogatory sense, that is, as an illusion, a false veil of ignorance imposed on the complete purity and immutability of the silent Absolute. This is, however, not how the word māyā started. In the earlier language of the Ṛg Veda, māyā was still simply a creative power of the Divine which “measures out the worlds in front of itself”. The quality of these worlds depends then on the consciousness of origin. Conceptually there were many different kinds of māyā. Some of them were a light in themselves, but a darkness compared to the light of Surya (the Sun), and as such indeed illusions to be slain (e.g. RV 5.40), but at other places the word is used for the true power of manifestation that belongs to the divine Mother herself. 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, and Shankara, for example, leaves it simply as an unexplainable mystery. And yet, little stories can give us a kind of intuitive sense of how it works. Here is a rather sweet and romantic classic about Narad and Shiva:

Sri Aurobindo looks at the process of manifestation in the older, more generous and integral sense, and he has an interesting explanation for the power of māyā. He compares the main process through which Brahman manifests the world out of itself, with the “exclusive concentration” that is part of our mental consciousness. At our human level it expresses itself in our ability to concentrate on a limited sub-set of all that we can potentially experience at a given time. When you read this 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, or of course when some sound or other sense-input distracts you. Sri Aurobindo sees rather amazing power of exclusive concentration as one of the fundamental powers of consciousness. At the ordinary individual level it means that at any given time we can be aware of only a tiny fraction of what we can be aware of potentially; this much we all know from experience. At the cosmic level, Sri Aurobindo describes exclusive concentration as “a self-limitation by Idea proceeding from an infinite liberty within” (Aurobindo, 2005, p. 281).

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

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

At the end of the involution,1 we have then this material world in which the evolution slowly, ever so slowly begins to take place: partly pushed by the hidden divinity within the physical world; partly pulled up as it were by the higher type of consciousness that is already present and worked out in the next higher typal plane that was created during the involution.

Ascent and integration

Regarding the process through which these new levels of consciousness manifest, we must realise that this is an evolution that at least till now has been within matter rather than out of matter. In a chapter of The Life Divine called "The Evolutionary Process, Ascent and Integration" Sri Aurobindo explains (around 1920). how he visualises it as a process partially pushed by the consciousness hidden within matter, and partially pulled and modified under the influence of the consciousness of the corresponding typal plane above. But the end-result is not the manifestation of pure forms of the higher level of consciousness: the end-result is a form of matter that expresses that higher consciousness. Life energy does not manifest in the form of wafts of vital energy but in the form of flowers, deer, tigers and butterflies. When the mind manifests, we do not have only free-floating mental ideas, but the active minds of scientists alive in physical bodies.

Involution and evolution ~~ simple

Fig. 2. Ascent and integration: the lower three planes of conscious existence

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

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

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

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

In Sri Aurobindo's conception, the consciousness of the link-plane is unique in that it is on the one hand fully divine and in possession of genuine Truth, and on the other hand manifold and as such capable of manifestation. In other words, it is here that the differentiation started which is such a crucial aspect of the wondrously complex physical world. Combining the Western concept of evolution with the older, Vedic understanding of the layers of conscious existence, Sri Aurobindo argues that the logical next step in the evolution should be the biological embodiment of this preceding step during the involution, the supramental, vijñāna, or gnostic consciousness. And as differentiation here still goes together with a perfect divine harmony, we can expect that in the next phase of the evolution too, there will be the potential of a truly divine manifestation in a perfect harmony: When this truly gnostic type of consciousness begins to manifest here in our evolutionary world, we can then have individual existences that are at the same time fully individualised, as well as fully conscious of their identity with our common Source.

After liberation transformation  
 Fig. 3. The sevenfold chord of being: descent and ascent

Overmind and Supermind

To fully understand how Sri Aurobindo saw the future, and with that, how his yoga and thus his psychology differ from those of other Indian writers, it is good to have a look at what he saw as the reason why the later tradition lost its faith in a radical divinisation of life. Sri Aurobindo attributes the lack of faith in the possibility of an embodied, yet truly divine life right here on earth, to a failure amongst India’s later sages and commentators to distinguish two layers of consciousness, which he calls the overmind and the supermind. Sri Aurobindo uses the word “overmind” for the highest gradation of mind, and, as we saw above, he uses “supermind” for a fundamentally different layer of gnostic consciousness, mahas or vijñāna, a plane which comes entirely above the mind plane and which serves as a link between the divine hemisphere of saccidānanda and the lower hemisphere of mind, life and matter.

Both terms describe worlds or types of conscious being way beyond the ordinary waking consciousness of man, and one could argue that discussing them makes not much sense unless one has their personal experience. But getting a deep, lived experience is not that simple, while even a purely conceptual understanding of the differences between these two worlds can help to give direction and meaning to life. So, as long as we know what we are doing, it may be useful to have at least a quick look at the theory. About the lower of the two, Sri Aurobindo says:

[T]he Overmind [is] a power of cosmic consciousness, a principle of global knowledge which carries in it a delegated light from the supramental Gnosis. It is, therefore, only by an opening into the cosmic consciousness that the overmind ascent and descent can be made wholly possible: a high and intense individual opening upwards is not sufficient, — to that vertical ascent towards summit Light there must be added a vast horizontal expansion of the consciousness into some totality of the Spirit.... When the overmind descends, the predominance of the centralising ego-sense is entirely subordinated, lost in largeness of being and finally abolished; a wide cosmic perception and feeling of a boundless universal self and movement replaces it... not only the separate ego but all sense of individuality, even of a subordinated or instrumental individuality, may entirely disappear... [I]f the delight or the centre of Force is felt in what was the personal mind, life or body, it is not with a sense of personality but as a field of manifestation, and this sense of the delight or of the action of Force is not confined to the person or the body but can be felt at all points in an unlimited consciousness of unity which pervades everywhere (LD, p. 984-86)

While one can, by extrapolation, still get some indirect feel of what the overmind might be like, it is not possible to explain fully to the mind what the supermind is like. One could compare the difficulty to the difficulty a monkey would have understanding the human mind. If — and I admit one needs quite a bit of poetic licence for this “thought-experiment” — one would ask a monkey to visualise the next step in the evolution, he would probably visualise a creature that could jump further, be more agile and more strong. In other words the monkey would think of superior powers within his own type, but there is no way a monkey could visualise faculties that are entirely beyond his monkey-scope. He would not be able to envisage the joys that are exclusive to the mental consciousness, like the joys of poetry, music, astronomy or mathematics. Similarly, with our minds, we cannot but see the future as consisting of a still more clever mind, but this is not the point at all.

Sri Aurobindo has tried at several places to give some indication of what the supramental planes are like on the basis of his own experience, and he has tried to work out in what direction things would need to change to make an embodied supramental life on earth possible. We will come back to this at the end of the chapters on self-development. All we want to clarify here are the philosophical and psychological implications of their existence and their functioning in terms of the still on-going evolution. In other words, what we are interested in here is their functionality now, especially with regard to their potential as support for a further evolution, and this is less hard to render in mental terms.

The overmind consciousness, however difficult to reach, is still not a full Truth-Consciousness. The full, capital Truth is found only on the next higher, the supramental, plane. In the Overmind, the element of division is still there:

although [the overmind] draws from the Truth, it is here that begins the separation of aspects of the Truth, the forces and their working out as if they were independent truths and this is a process that ends, as one descends to ordinary Mind, Life and Matter, in a complete division, fragmentation, separation from the indivisible Truth above. There is no longer the essential, total, perfectly harmonising and unifying knowledge, or rather knowledge for ever harmonious because for ever one, which is the character of supermind. In the supermind, mental divisions and oppositions cease, the problems created by our dividing and fragmenting mind disappear and Truth is seen as a luminous whole. In the Overmind there is not yet the actual fall into Ignorance, but the first step is taken which will make the fall inevitable.
— LY1, p.147

In the Upaniṣads, the overmind plane is often described as a Golden Lid, hiraṇmaya pātra (e.g. Īśā Upaniṣad 15, a lid that covers the face of the Truth: the overmind is so close to the source that each expression of an overmind power or insight can easily be taken as the One Truth itself. An overmental creation can be perfect within its limits, but there is not yet an inherent harmony with all other aspects of the Truth and all other parts of the manifestation.

The supramental plane does not have any of these limitations. It is the plane of a genuine, complete Truth-Consciousness, ṛta-cit. In the supermind there is differentiation, but no real division. Each entity is still fully conscious of the whole of which it is a part and of the Divine which it is, and knows to be, not only in essence but in every aspect of its being. There is an intrinsic and potentially complete knowledge of, and oneness with the Divine, both in its essence as well in its manifestation. Its knowledge is not any longer a partial and laboriously constructed knowledge, based on the reflected light of our sense-organs, not even a true but partial knowledge from within, but a knowledge intrinsically one with the knowledge of the Divine. Because consciousness is here perfect in will as well as in knowledge, it operates in an intrinsic and complete harmony. On the side of action there is in a supramental consciousness no gap between intention and result, and all action takes place in a perfect harmony with everything else. Its working is thus not based on adding one more force to the already complex play of forces in the ignorance we deal with: it works by adjusting the inner harmony of the whole, moving from light to greater light, from harmony to greater harmony.

It is the One Truth deploying and determining the manifestation of its Powers — all these powers working as a multiple Oneness in harmony, without opposition or collision, according to the One Will inherent in all
— LY1, p.147.

At its summits it is the divine gnosis, “by which the Divine knows and upholds and governs and enjoys the Universe” (EDH, p. 366). It is clear that this is a type of consciousness that is not only difficult to describe but even difficult to conceive and our mind can at best reflect its “luminous shadow” (SY, p. 418).

It may be noted that the change Sri Aurobindo envisions as the next step in evolution is not a minor one. It might begin with a small number of individuals or small groups evolving through great personal effort to higher levels of awareness. But if this were all, it would leave unchanged the basic principle on which life in the world is based. What Sri Aurobindo envisages is a whole new stage of evolution, in which a true gnostic consciousness becomes an organic, incarnate aspect of physical life, in the same natural manner as, at present, life and mind are a normal part of the physical universe.

The difference between the mental and the supramental life would in a way be bigger than the difference between plant-life and mental life as we now know it. As we have seen in the description of the mind, our ordinary mind is based on ignorance and tries from there to arrive at knowledge, and its knowledge is thus an inherently approximate and fallible construction. The supramental knowledge, as Sri Aurobindo describes it, is based on a fully conscious identity with the whole. It knows the universe from inside-out. Perhaps one could say that it knows the world in the way the Divine knows the world, and if there is limitation of knowledge or power it is a willed and conscious diminution for the sake of the harmony and development of the whole.

If such a consciousness could indeed manifest on earth, it would mean a continuation, but also a radical reversal of the development that has taken place so far. Evolution until now has taken place primarily within matter. As we have seen, our human consciousness is strongly embedded in the workings of the physical brain and as such is limited by this physical apparatus. The supramental consciousness, on the other hand, is primarily based in the Spirit, and from there, in that freedom, it engages matter, expresses itself in it and, while doing so, transforms it.

Though the idea of a Golden Age (Satya Yuga) to some extent implies it, there doesn’t seem to be any reference in the Indian literature of the possibility that the original Truth-Consciousness could become an integral, inherent part of biological life on earth. According to Sri Aurobindo, the Vedic ṛṣis (sages) still knew the supramental as a typal plane in which they could enter — for example in the touching dialogue on how to reach there between Agasthya and Indra — but they did not even think of “bringing it down” into the physical reality. In a later period, possibly beginning in the time of the Buddha, even its existence was forgotten and the world was seen as the creation of an overmind māyā, and thus intrinsically a world of ignorance out of which it is best to escape into a nirvāṇa beyond. Sri Aurobindo holds, however, that an overmind māyā cannot be the original creator of the world but at most a secondary force that introduces the first elements of Ignorance and division in a manifestation that has its real origin in the divine Truth-Consciousness itself and that is thus, intrinsically, capable of evolving into a true manifestation of the divine perfection. To actually achieve the necessary transformation of one’s nature is, however, a far from trivial process, and Sri Aurobindo spent the last 24 years of his life on exploring pathways that might enable this process, both individually and collectively.

Going back or going forward

An interesting aspect of all this is that humanity seems to have reached a point where individuals may have two very different options for their further spiritual development. In terms of individual development we have here Sri Ramakrishna's ideas on jivakotis and ishwarakotis.

[XXX --- ADD MORE DETAIL (from chapter on Self and Personality, and his parable of the stairs and the sky)].

In terms of schools of thought, we see that most traditional schools of Indian spirituality recommended liberation from our suffering individual existence through moksha or nirvāṇa. While, if Sri Aurobindo is right, we have now another option: to go forward to the next stage of the world's evolution. Schematically the two options could be depicted as in Figure 4.

After liberation transformation

Fig. 4 Evolution's next step: beyond liberation, transformation

Sri Aurobindo was, of course, not the only one to arrive at the idea that Darwin’s evolution was still awaiting completion — one need think only of Teilhard de Chardin and much before him, Shelling — but Sri Aurobindo had one considerable advantage: he could build on the Indian tradition with its detailed descriptions and conceptual maps of the further reaches of consciousness, and its massive collection of practical methods to develop these higher types of consciousness in one’s own experience. We'll come back to this throughout this text. In fact, one could argue that the way Sri Aurobindo has understood the ongoing evolution of consciousness is the central theme of Infinity in a Drop and the raison d'être of the "integral Indian" approach to psychology.


1.   Somewhat unfortunately, B. K. S. Iyengar and many other writers on Indian spirituality use "involution" to denote this individual merger back into the oneness of the divine consciousness after what they sees as the completion of the evolution. As will be clear, we use involution with the entirely different meaning of the cosmic process preceding the evolution.


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