Who am I?
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: March, 2017

section 1
a first look inside

Introduction: Psychology as knowledge of the self

In the Indian tradition, knowledge of the Self was considered the one true knowledge, vidyā. The ancient Indian seers described it as the knowledge "that makes everything known". They also found that it goes together with a special type of unconditonal and inexhaustible joy and sense of immortality. Without it, all other knowledge was said to be partial knowledge or ignorance, avidyā.1 The ancient Greeks had basically come to the same conclusion. “Gnooti Seauton”, know thyself, is said to have been inscribed above their most sacred institution, the oracle of Delphi, and above the entry to the Academy of Plato, their most famous philosopher. The knowledge of our own self has thus a rather distinguished history: It has always been considered the most important knowledge, the type of knowledge that is linked to wisdom.

Even if we don't have such lofty aspirations, the priority of knowledge of oneself also holds in a much more simple and pragmatic sense. Everything we know, we know in our own consciousness and through our own "inner instruments of knowledge", antaḥkaraṇa, so, as long as we don't know ourselves, we can never know how reliable our other knowledge is, or for what we should use it.

In modern times the need to know ourselves seems almost forgotten, but given the tremendous technical powers modernity has put at our disposal and the increasing fluidity of social norms, knowledge of the self may now be needed more than ever before.

There are many questions that go together with the question about the nature of our self: What has made me the way I am? Can I change myself, and if so, how do I do it? How do I know what I know? Is what I see really there the way I see it? What is the origin and meaning of my emotions and feelings? Why do I act, feel and think the way I do? What is the purpose of the world and what is my role within it? Why have I come into being? What is “right action”? What is right action for me? How am I related to others, to the world and to God (if there is anything like that)? Why is there suffering? Can I do anything about it? Can I help others, and if so, how?

An intriguing aspect of psychology is how closely all these questions are related: one cannot fully answer any of them without having at least some elementary idea about the others.

We saw in the introduction that according to the Indian tradition there is an essential oneness between our individual consciousness and the consciousness that manifests the universe out of itself. We will now look from this Indian consciousness-centred perspective at some of the core-issues in psychology and see whether there are to them only the relative, pragmatic answers that mainstream science has focussed on, or whether there might be, as the Indian tradition asserts, also a possibility of taking them further, towards a greater truth, towards perfection, towards genuine beauty, towards unconditional love and delight.

In our modern times we're sceptical about such "big words", probably because we have seen too much religious hypocrisy and false promises, but there can be little doubt that these ideas have their foundation in concrete experiences, and such experiences are not out of reach even now. We'll come back to the experiential side later in the chapters on self-development [INTERNAL LINKS]. But before we get to that, we need first to create a sound theoretical foundation. As we have seen in the introduction, mainstream science has adopted yoga, meditation and mindfulness on a fairly large scale, but till now it has used and tested them only as decontextualised "techniques". Feasting on the fish, while it could have learnt how to fish, science has let what is most valuable in these practices slip through its fingers. It is the underlying ontology, the epistemology and the "technology of consciousness" that have created these techniques which have the potential to lift psychology into the effective and quickly progressive science humanity needs. [XXX] All this amounts to a rather steep climb for an introductory textbook on Psychology, but we do need to go to the very top if we want to develop the right perspective to look at all the other, more common questions of psychology. The reason for this is that in Integral Indian Psychology, the parts are always understood in relation to the whole to which they belong.


Sri Aurobindo writes:

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.

After this, Sri Aurobindo proceeds with a rather abysmal depiction of the prevailing human condition:

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 clamorous 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. (pp. 74–75)

Sri Aurobindo’s portrayal (SY, pp. 74–75) is not particularly flattering, but it is one in which one can easily recognize oneself. Sri Aurobindo stresses subsequently that each part of one’s 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 centralizing 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. (p. 75)

The complexity of human nature becomes perhaps most painfully clear when one tries to change it, and it is then that one needs a good map most desperately. Fortunately, there is a system to all the madness that happens inside a person, and over the years Sri Aurobindo has developed a model of the personality that is relatively simple and eminently practical.

We will discuss this model in four stages:

  • The center of identification: ego, soul, and Self.
  • The concentric system: outer nature, inner nature, and true nature;
  • The vertical system based on the Vedic Sevenfold Chord of Being: Matter, Life, Mind, Supermind, Ānanda, Cit-Tapas, and Sat;
  • Bringing it all together


1.   We'll discuss why such knowledge should exist and what role it could play in taking psychology further, in the next section on knowledge[INTERNAL REF]. Why it gives such inalienable joy, we have already touched upon in the introduction[INTERNAL REF], but we'll discuss it in more detail in the chapter on emotions[INTERNAL REF]. How to "realise" this knowledge of the Self, we'll take up in the chapters on self-development[INTERNAL REF].

2.   As these shifting borders of the self are such an intriguing issue there is a small chapter devoted to them in the appendix.

3.   Looking after the cows and collecting firewood may have been amongst the actual jobs a student was asked to do, but they were of course also symbolical: collecting insights and increasing one’s aspiration.

4.   To find out what happens deeper inside, we need more sophisticated techniques of self-observation than simple introspection. We'll discuss these in the chapters on knowledge. [INTERNAL REF] Here, for our first round, a bit of self-critical common sense will have to do.

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