Consciousness: some further philosophical considerations
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: August 2019

The intimate relation between existence and consciousness, which at the summit amounts to an absolute identity, explains a number of things that remain very problematic in philosophies that are dualistic or exclusively physicalist. In pure physicalist philosophies there is no intrinsic reason why we should be conscious at all, why “the light should ever be on,” as it has been said. In dualist philosophies there always remains the “hard,” if not insoluble, problem of how the subjective and the objective communicate. In a theory that presumes a deep identity between existence and consciousness the nature of the problem shifts and becomes easier to tackle. If we presume an absolute consciousness as the original reality, the only question is how different centres of consciousness can arise and how in these centres “the light can be dimmed.” According to Sri Aurobindo, individuality and agency can be understood as having come into existence by an ability of the universal consciousness to form different centres of itself, each having a limited ability of self-awareness and formative energy. Sri Aurobindo describes this as a process of exclusive concentration, comparable to the manner in which a man can concentrate fully on a certain task and completely forget everything else. I will discuss this issue in greater detail in the section on involution and evolution. [LINK]

One reality, different worlds

As we have seen, consciousness in the Indian tradition is not equated with ordinary human mentality. The authors of the ancient Indian scriptures practiced and achieved phenomenological access to an exceptionally wide range of conscious experiences. They speak, for example, not only of what we now call lucid dreams, but also of a clear consciousness maintained in deep sleep and in a fourth state (turya) beyond waking, dream, and sleep. So it is hardly surprising that the Indian concept of consciousness is rarely, if ever, limited to the type of sensory awareness we have in the ordinary waking state. Sri Aurobindo (1991, p. 234) uses an analogy in which he compares different states of consciousness with the different frequency ranges available in sensory experience:

Consciousness is usually identified with mind, but mental consciousness is only the human range which no more exhausts all the possible ranges of consciousness than human sight exhausts all the gradations of colour or human hearing all the gradations of sound — for there is much above or below that is to man invisible and inaudible. So there are ranges of consciousness above and below the human range, with which the normal human [consciousness] has no contact and they seem to it unconscious...

Technological advancement enables us to detect and interact with such frequencies of light and sound that are not within the range of human sensory perception. Similarly, it is through psycho-spiritual technologies that one can gain access to higher and lower forms of consciousness.

Earlier we have seen that in the Indian conceptualization, consciousness is not only an activity or a quality of individuals, but an essential aspect of all reality. In other words, consciousness exists not only within individuals, but also independently, on a cosmic scale, and the individual consciousnesses can be seen as instances, portions, or representatives of these different types of cosmic consciousness. These two aspects taken together, the gradedness and the cosmicity, make it possible to conceive of reality as a complex scheme involving interpenetrating but ontologically distinct worlds, each consisting of a different type of consciousness and being. 16 In the Vedas these different worlds, or births as they are sometimes called, are thus not considered to exist only subjectively in our mind, but are seen as having also an objective existence, in the same, limited sense in which it is generally presumed that the physical world exists independently of whether there are human beings around to observe it or not. These different worlds are, in fact, seen as different relations between conscious existence as observer and the same conscious existence as the observed. The so-called physical reality has in this view no privileged position. The physical reality as seen by the ordinary human mind is just one world amongst many others. Some of these other worlds are easily accessible – in dreams for example, many people visit the vital worlds – but there are other worlds that are more difficult to reach. Every relation between a grade of conscious existence as “observing self” and a grade of conscious existence as “observed becoming” makes another world. Strictly speaking, there exists thus neither a purely objective world “out there,” nor a purely subjective experience “in here.” Reality consists out of the different relationships between the two.

We mean [by planes of consciousness, planes of existence] a general settled poise or world of relations between Purusha and Prakriti, between the Soul and Nature. For anything that we can call world is and can be nothing else than the working out of a general relation which a universal existence has created or established between itself, or let us say its eternal fact or potentiality and the powers of its becoming. That existence in its relations with and its experience of the becoming is what we call soul or Purusha,17 individual soul in the individual, universal soul in the cosmos; the principle and the powers of the becoming are what we call Nature or Prakriti.
— Sri Aurobindo 1996a, p. 429

Sri Aurobindo does not perceive these different worlds as closed systems that are completely sufficient within their own parameters. But he doesn’t consider it correct to speak of interactions between essentially different types of substances or forces either. He sees the different worlds as interwoven in a different manner, based on an underlying oneness. In terms of the observing self, Vedānta holds that there is actually only one observing Self (the paramātman). As I will discuss in more detail in the description of the process of involution, the many selves only appear separate and different from each other by a process of “exclusive concentration” that takes place in portions of the original Self that in essence remains one. Similarly, as the Sāṁkhya acknowledges, there is only one objective reality, which is ineffable, or, in the more descriptive Sanskrit phrase, anantaguṅa, “of infinite quality.” The only thing we can know about the reality is the interaction between the centre of consciousness we identify with and this ineffable nature, but in essence there is all the time only one conscious existence that separates itself, for the joy of manifestation, into an infinite number of relations between itself as observing consciousness and itself as nature.

One major difficulty in accepting the objective existence of non-physical realities, is the extent to which our perception is tied to our physical embodiment. Our ordinary waking consciousness is deeply embedded in the physical workings of our body. Of what surrounds us, we are primarily aware by means of our physical senses and we experience our feelings as embodied in our physical constitution and even our own thoughts we understand only after they have been clad in words. The Indian tradition holds, however, that such limiting dispositions are not more than deeply engrained and culturally reinforced habits, and that it is possible, at least with sufficient psychological training, to open oneself beyond the restrictions of sensory perception. One can then move freely in those additional aspects of reality that are often called the “inner worlds.”

In the ordinary waking states we are moreover not aware of such inner worlds as they are in themselves. We are aware only of their subordinate manifestations within the physical world. However, in other states of consciousness it is possible to enter into contact with the inner worlds themselves through what is known in Vedānta as our inner senses. With increasing experience and knowledge, one can learn to identify their typical aspects and regularities and one can even act upon other persons and events in these inner worlds in a manner that supports the claim for their shared objective existence. Access to inner worlds is mediated in a psychological and phenomenological sense through a movement of consciousness that is experienced in its first steps as a form of “going inside.” The inner worlds are, however, not supposed to be limited to one’s own being or one’s subjective consciousness; instead, Indian psychology considers them equally objectively real when compared with the physical world.

An interesting aspect of the planes of consciousness is that they are seen as corresponding to centres of consciousness in the (subtle) body, called chakras in Sanskrit. That different locations in the body would be related to different types of consciousness is not an idea that has arisen only in the Indian tradition. It is very much part of the English language, for example, to say that we feel fear in the pit of our stomach (the centre of our lower life energies), that we feel love in our heart (the centre of the higher vital consciousness) and that we need to “use our head” to come to good mental conclusions. Even though science tells us that we both feel and think with our brain, many people actually experience it in the way our pre-scientific language suggests: if we really have to think hard, we frown and concentrate our energies somewhere behind the forehead, but if we feel a strong compassion or love for someone, we “open our heart” and experience the centre of our awareness in the (subtle physical) heart centre, which is in the middle of the chest. With some training one can increase this ability to centre one’s consciousness at will at different levels in one’s (subtle) body and experience the different types of consciousness that correspond to them. One can also train the ability to observe from which centre different emotions and impulses arise. These two skills taken together can contribute considerably to one’s control over one’s psychological reactions and thus to one’s social competence.

Involution and evolution

As we have already seen, Sri Aurobindo takes consciousness as “the primary thing” and not as just one out of several fundamental elements of reality. In any philosophy that posits an absolute consciousness as the basic “stuff” out of which the universe is made, the crucial question is how out of this single, indeterminate absolute of being and consciousness, could arise the multiplicity, the variation of forms, and the limitations of power, joy, and consciousness that constitute our experience of the universe. The process by which the infinite, absolute consciousness, being, and joy turns into existence as we know it, Sri Aurobindo generally calls “involution,” which he presumes to have preceded evolution — if not in time, at least in logical sequence. At one place he portrays this involution as a two-step process. He describes the first step as the manifestation of multiple instances of the one Self out of Itself — multiple, but still identical. He gives the second step as a gradually increasing self-differentiation through a process that he compares with our human form of exclusive concentration. On the level of the individual human being, exclusive concentration is a mental activity in which we forget ourselves and all but a small part of the reality on which we are focused. At the level on which the cosmic Infinite differentiates itself into the multitudinous universe, Sri Aurobindo sees exclusive concentration as “a self-limitation by idea proceeding from an infinite liberty within” (Aurobindo 1990, p. 267).

Elsewhere, Sri Aurobindo gives a slightly different description. He says there that to understand the origin of inconscient matter and the individual centres of limited consciousness we take ourselves to be, we need to presume three powers of the Infinite consciousness: self-variation, self-limitation, and self-oblivion. The first of these three is a free power of self-variation in which “a manifold status of consciousness” (op. cit., p. 342) is created in which still “the One is aware of itself simultaneously in all of them” (ibid.). The second power, the power of self-limitation, is needed to initiate the possibility of an individualized but still fully spiritual consciousness. At this level there is variation and individuality, but not yet what in Sanskrit is called avidyā (ignorance). 18 Avidyā is the knowledge that arises from a half-obscure consciousness, which is not anymore aware of the One but only of the multiplicity. For avidyā to arise, Sri Aurobindo suggests that one needs to consider a third power, the power of self-oblivion.

As consciousness diminishes in this manner during the involution, the hierarchy of archetypal planes of consciousness and being comes into existence until in the end the supramental Truth-Consciousness is hidden completely in the nescience of matter. Thus the descending ladder of the different planes of consciousness and being, which I have described in the previous section — the Overmind, Intuition, Illumined Mind, Higher Mind, Ordinary Mind, Life, and finally the subtle, Physical planes — comes into being as a series of intermediate worlds between the supramental Truth-Consciousness above and the nescient below. According to Sri Aurobindo all these planes of consciousness still exist as static, interwoven, and interacting but basically independent, archetypal worlds. When self-oblivion is complete, we get the elemental particles of physics moving about in the seemingly inconscient, but still lawful, organization of matter:

. . . 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.
op. cit., p. 344

To describe how in matter consciousness is totally lost to itself except in the form and in what one could call the fixed habitual ways in which its forces act, Sri Aurobindo uses the metaphor of a man who is totally concentrated on his work and who forgets himself and his surroundings.

Scientific theory does not ascribe sentience or consciousness to the physical world, yet different models of dynamic interaction are recognized. Sri Aurobindo agrees that matter lacks sentience in the human sense, yet he reasons that out of this apparently insentient material basis, gradually higher and higher forms of consciousness evolve through a process in which the material substrate is being transformed and continues to express the evolving consciousness. At each transition the new power not only evolves out of the old, but also transforms whatever preceded it in a creative interaction. In this way, first matter evolves under influence from the already existing subtle physical world. In the next stage, when matter has become sufficiently complex and plastic, within matter life-forms evolve. Still later, when material life has become sufficiently subtle and complex, within these physical life-forms the mind begins to evolve, and this takes place again under the guidance from the already existing mind-planes above it. 19

Many contemporary philosophers object to such cosmology. For example, Daniel Dennett (1994, pp. 73-80) discredits any cosmology that includes a higher sentience or conscious presence by introducing the analogy of construction cranes that stand solidly on the ground and erect themselves without any need for “sky-hooks” to pull themselves up. However, Dennett’s premise is masked as an observation. If one looks only for physical things, then all one sees is that physically the crane and the building are built from the bottom up. Double-aspect theories like Sri Aurobindo’s do not deny this. What they add is that neither the building nor the crane would have appeared on the site at all if someone did not have the idea of a high-rise building in the first place. The real second aspect is not a physical hook hanging from a physical sky but a mental force in a mental sky, and it need not surprise anyone that a committed materialist like Dennett does not detect it.


16. The names and delineations of these worlds differ, but a typical series would include some nether regions, the physical world, the worlds of the life-forces, the mental worlds and, above these, the worlds of the spirit.


NEW (AS CORRECTED March 2011):
According to Sri Aurobindo the original Consciousness, which is one with Existence, splits itself in two: “the consciousness that sees and the consciousness that executes & formalizes what we see” [Aurobindo, 1997, p. 194]. Using Sāṁkhya terminology, he calls the first Puruṣa, or Self, the second Prakṛti, or Nature. Sri Aurobindo does not accept Sāṁkhya's dualistic philosophy, but he makes extensive use of its distinction between Puruṣa and Prakṛti as an important aid during the early stages of sadhana. It is interesting that in the system of the Sāṁkhyas, mental processes are considered part of nature and illumined by the self, but not part of the self. This comes quite close to the modern division between objective thought-processes and subjective experience. In this “standard” scientific view mental processes are seen as correlated with, or even identical to, objective processes in the brain while consciousness is seen as a subjective phenomenon of a different character. One may note that this is very different from the traditional dualism of Descartes, who placed thinking without the slightest hesitation on the side of the self. Technology has thus naturalized the information aspect of knowledge and has left, as in ancient India, only pure consciousness on the side of the self.

18 Avidyā, literally no-knowledge, is a technical term that is generally translated as “ignorance.” It denotes all knowledge that is not knowledge of the Absolute. It is specifically used for knowledge of the world, that is, for science. According to the Īśa Upaniṣad, both vidyā (knowledge of the One) and avidyā (knowledge of the multiplicity) are needed for a complete understanding of ourselves and the world:

Into a blind darkness they enter who follow after the Ignorance, they as if into a greater darkness who devote themselves to the Knowledge alone.… He who knows That as both in one, the Knowledge and the Ignorance, by the Ignorance crosses beyond death and by the Knowledge enjoys Immortality (trans. Sri Aurobindo 1996b, pp. 21-2).

19 Life and mind that have evolved within matter do not have the full freedom and splendour of life and mind in their own planes, as anyone who has access to those planes in dream or meditation can attest. The manifestation in matter imposes a compromise with the limitations matter can handle. Of course, matter also adds its own virtues of stability and refinement of detail.