The Self and the structure of the personality
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 16/03/18

an overview of Sri Aurobindo's terminology


In this chapter, you will find an overview of the terms Sri Aurobindo uses to describe the Self and the structure of the personality.

If you are not at least to some extent familiar with Sri Aurobindo’s thought, this chapter may be difficult to follow. In that case, it may be helpful to first read the Introduction, especially the "Preface" and the chapter on the "ongoing evolution of consciousness".

A much more simple, experiential and student-friendly text can be found in the previous chapter.

In the Appendix, you can find a much shorter outline of Sri Aurobindo's terminology.

For the integral transformation Sri Aurobindo envisages, one needs an integral understanding of human nature in all its astounding complexity. And complex human nature definitely is. In fact, the more one studies human nature, the more complex it turns out to be. 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.

The model to be described here is one that Sri Aurobindo developed to guide the disciples who had gathered around him, with their sādhanā, or yogic practice. Most of the terms, and its basic structure, are derived from the Ṛg Veda and the Upaniṣads. 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, and Sat;
  • terms related to a person’s center 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 purpose; however, as will be shown, when they are brought together, something more is added. For instance, one can see not only how human nature is structured, but one can also gather new insights into the meaning and direction of life. One can see not only how all the different elements of human nature relate to each other, but one can also discover the meaning and functionality of the structure as a whole. What makes this possible is Sri Aurobindo’s vision of an on-going evolution of consciousness (see chapter 0-4-2). It shows a certain inevitability of movement — something that makes it understandable where we came from, why we are struggling at present, and why there must be a stunningly beautiful future towards which we are heading.

The following outline centers around two other contributions Sri Aurobindo makes to the understanding of human nature. They are the way he works out the idea of an evolving soul, or psychic being, and the way he differentiates the higher layers of the mind — both from each other and from the vijñānamayakośa.1. Both issues can, however, be understood more easily after some more basic issues have been covered. Thus, the discussion will now first focus on the three sets of terms mentioned above, starting with the concentric system. Most of the detailed descriptions in the rest of this chapter are based on The Life Divine (LD), The Synthesis of Yoga (SY), and Letters on Yoga (LY), especially Letters on Yoga – I, II, and IV.


1. The vijñānamayakośa is the plane of conscious existence that according to Vedānta 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. As we know from his yogic diary, posthumously published as Record of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo explored this region with meticulous care and methodological rigor in his own experience and he used the word in this much more elevated sense throughout his major works.

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