The Self and the structure of the personality
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: May, 2017

section 5

Much of what we have described in this chapter can be found in one form or another in virtually all approaches to psychology that have their origin in the Indian civilisation. There are, however, also some issues that are specific to Sri Aurobindo, and in this epilogue I want to focus a little further on those. The first is the idea of Transformation as the ultimate aim of yoga.


In the opening paragraph of this chapter, I mentioned that Sri Aurobindo’s integral understanding of human nature is needed for the integral transformation he envisages. What I did not explain there is what Sri Aurobindo means by integral transformation. This is what he writes in one of his letters:

…by transformation I do not mean some change of the nature—I do not mean for instance sainthood or ethical perfection or Yogic siddhis (like the Tantrik’s). I use transformation in a special sense, a change of consciousness radical and complete and of a certain specific kind which is so conceived as to bring about a strong and assured step forward in the spiritual evolution of the consciousness such as and greater than what took place when a mentalised being first appeared in a vital and material animal world. If anything short of that takes place or at least if a real beginning is not made on that basis, a fundamental progress towards it, then my object is not accomplished. A partial realisation does not meet the demand I make on life and Yoga. (LY — I, pp. 174–175)

As may be clear, the transformation Sri Aurobindo describes here is extremely radical. It involves a shift greater than the one from animal to man, and what is more, he asserts that we humans can play a conscious role in bringing it about. We will come back to the psychological processes involved in this transformation later in Infinity in a Drop [INTERNAL REFS]. All I would like to do here is to ask attention for a few major conceptual issues that play a role in the structure of the personality as Sri Aurobindo sees it.

Consciousness as Power

The first issue to be considered is that of consciousness as power. The various Indian traditions are not united about this, but Sri Aurobindo’s position is completely clear. Throughout his metaphysical works, Sri Aurobindo stresses that cit, the original Consciousness of Brahman, implies cit-tapas, conscious energy. Seen from the perspective of Indian philosophy, this is the core condition needed to allow action to be lifted from the corrupting determinations of unconscious Nature, prakṛti, into the free and perfect agency on the side of the Self as Lord, īśvara (e.g. LD, pp. 262–263). In the perhaps more personal and practical language of The Synthesis of Yoga, he says,

This power of the soul over its nature is of the utmost importance in the Yoga of self-perfection; if it did not exist, we could never get by conscious endeavour and aspiration out of the fixed groove of our present imperfect human being… (SY, p. 628).

As discussed in more detail in the chapter on the three main concepts of consciousness, the acceptance of power as part of saccidānanda and the acceptance of the power of the individual soul over its nature are necessary preconditions for the radical transformation Sri Aurobindo envisages, but by themselves they are not sufficient. Two more things are needed. On the individual level, the soul should be able to retain some kind of individual spiritual identity even after reaching mokṣa (liberation), nirvāṇa (extinction) or whatever else the entire loss of the egoic or ignorant self may be called. The second condition is that there should be at least the beginning of a genuinely divine collective life.

The evolving Self

This is an area where Sri Aurobindo’s views differ again in a subtle but crucial manner from many others in the traditional schools of Advaita Vedānta. The difference centers around two well-known distinctions: the first is the distinction between paramātman, ātman and jīvātman, and the second is between jīvātman and antarātman. As we have already seen, Sri Ramana Maharshi considers all such distinctions irrelevant for the one aim worth pursuing, which is to find one’s ultimate self, the paramātman. Swami Sivananda accepts the differences, but holds that once Ignorance is overcome, the individual jīvātman merges with the cosmic paramātman. Many in the tradition of Advaita Vedānta would agree, but for Sri Aurobindo this is just one of two possibilities. He sees deep inside the jīvātman not only the unchanging universal Divine that is the same in everyone, but also a true individuality that will continue to exist even after the ignorance has been overcome.   

As for the difference between the jīvātman and the antarātman, 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 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, for many philosophers of yoga anathema. The reason is that the existence of an evolving soul-personality is only possible if the pure consciousness of the Self can have individual-specific qualities as well as the power to impose them. If the pure consciousness of the Self cannot have qualities or power at all, as in classical Sāṁkhya, then all the individual qualities, as well as one’s individual development, must by necessity belong to one of the subtle worlds that are part of prakṛti, universal Nature.

As we have already seen at the end of the section on the various centers of identity, it makes then no sense to pay too much attention to the personality. All that is needed is the basic purification required to shift the center 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 center of pure consciousness: it is found inside, but otherwise it is, just as Swami Sivananda says of the jīvātman, one with the paramātman, identical for everyone, and essentially static, un-evolving.

As already described in the section on the different centers of identity, Sri Aurobindo’s view is quite different. He sees every jīvātman as having its own spiritual individuality, and he holds that the jīvātman sends as its representative a spark of the Divine, the psychic entity, down into the incarnate life. Its role there is to bring, gradually, over many lifetimes more and more of the inner and outer life under its influence, slowly becoming the center of an “evolving soul” or “psychic being”. From the perspective of yoga, this involves handing over the control of one’s life from the ego to the higher principle; a process that is, as Sri Aurobindo says (SY), “not too difficult to initiate, but very difficult to make absolutely sincere and all-pervasive” (p. 246). Yet even when that has been accomplished it is still only the first of three stages in “The Triple Transformation” that Sri Aurobindo envisages (LD, pp. 921–952). For the remaining two, and especially for the third, which Sri Aurobindo calls the supramental transformation, there has to be at least the beginning of a change in the outer, manifest reality of our collective human existence. We will come back to this in the later chapters of the section on self-development [INTERNAL REFs]. [COMPARE AND ADD REFS TO CHAPTER IN THE INTRODUCTION: "The Evolution of Consciousness"]

A perfect linkplane between the lower and higher hemispheres

Since the rise of the śramaṇa (renouncer) traditions in India (800–400 BCE), many Indian schools of spiritual endeavor have stressed duḥkha and avidyā (Gavin Flood, 1998, pp. 76, 81–82), and it is not unusual to see vairāgya encouraged not just in the sense of detachment, but in the sense of disgust.10 This is clearly not  Sri Aurobindo’s attitude towards the world, and for him the manifestation, however it may appear at present, cannot be intrinsically doomed to avidyā and duḥkha, ignorance and pain. Absolute perfection and bliss can in his view not be limited to the Transcendent, and he takes a perfectly divine manifestation right here in the physical world as the inevitable next stage in our collective evolution. From an Indian realist-idealist perspective this can only be, if there is already somewhere a typal plane that is both manifold and yet fully divine in the deep sense of satyam, absolute truth, and ṛtam, dynamic truth of action. Only if there is somewhere an inner world, which is perfectly divine as well as fully differentiated and individualized, can human consciousness evolve in that direction and can there be hope that this slowly evolving manifest world will in due time reach that same level of perfection.

There may be little in the outer world to indicate such a potential, and it appears that even in their highest inner realization few, if any in the Indian tradition, acknowledge even the possibility. 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 the manifest creation. As indicated during our discussion of the vertical dimension of Sri Aurobindo’s topography of consciousness, it is the almost forgotten Vedic mahas, which Sri Aurobindo calls Supermind, or vijñāna (in its profound older sense of gnostic, perfect Knowledge). If Sri Aurobindo is right about the Supermind, and if it exhibits indeed variety but no trace of ignorance, then the Vedic, idealist-realist perspective of involution and evolution of consciousness can give the assurance that, sooner or later, humanity — or its evolutionary successor — will reach such a state. In Sri Aurobindo’s vision, this is the future that in a most profound and complete way will finally “justify the light on Nature's face” (SAV, p. 344) To this also we'll come back at the end of the section on Self-development [INTERNAL REF]. [HERE ALSO COMPARE AND ADD REFS TO CHAPTERS IN THE INTRODUCTION]


10. Swami Sivananda, for example, quotes in the opening section of a book on vairāgya, and clearly in agreement with it, a recommendation by Adi Shankara to look at everything, good and bad, as no better than “the excrement of a crow” (Adi Shankara, as quoted by Swami Sivananda, 1983/1998, opening section).

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