This text was written originally as a chapter for Infinity in a drop. It gives an overview of the terms Sri Aurobindo uses to describe the Self and the structure of the personality.
If you are not familiar with Sri Aurobindo’s thought, this text may be difficult to follow. In that case, it may be helpful to first read the Introduction to Infinity in a drop, 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 preceding chapter of Infinity in a drop.
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. (SY, pp. 74–75)
Sri Aurobindo’s portrayal is not particularly flattering, but it is one in which one can easily recognize oneself. In the following passage, Sri Aurobindo stresses 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:
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.
The concentric system is the term Sri Aurobindo uses to describe what one encounters when one ventures inward from the surface nature in the direction of one’s innermost self. In the concentric system, Sri Aurobindo distinguishes three major realms: an outer nature and an inner nature — both part of prakṛti, universal Nature — and an inmost, or true nature, which belongs to the puruṣa, the Self.
Outer nature is the term Sri Aurobindo uses for that part of being that a person is conscious of, at least to some extent, in his or her normal everyday life. In this outer nature, physical, emotional, cognitive, and conative elements are all mixed-up together. When a person gets angry, for instance, one’s body and mind tend to be as much involved as one’s feelings. On the surface, thoughts are rarely entirely free from emotional coloring. Bodily states — like tiredness and freshness, illness and health — affect the way an individual feels and thinks; the mind affects the way one feels both emotionally and physically.
The longer one studies oneself, the clearer it becomes that this outer nature is only a tiny part of one's existence as a whole. Freud considered (2010) that:
The unconscious is the true psychical reality; in its innermost nature it is as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is as incompletely presented by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the communications of our sense organs (p. 607).
Sri Aurobindo said more or less the same when he remarked (2005):
We are not only what we know of ourselves but an immense more which we do not know; our momentary personality is only a bubble on the ocean of our existence" (p. 576).
The situation gets more complicated because the outer nature is the end result of the “immense more” mentioned above, of which most are not at all aware. The main purpose behind the complex concepts and maps used in this article is to make it easier to find one's way through these inner realms and to see more clearly from where feelings, thoughts and actions arise. We will discuss how this can help if we want to change our nature in the chapter on self-development. [INTERNAL REFs]
Inner nature is the term Sri Aurobindo uses for that part of the being which is not fully accessible to an individual in his or her ordinary waking consciousness. The word inner might give the impression that one is dealing only with a small, dark, and purely private territory. According to Sri Aurobindo, the opposite is true: The inner nature (a) is vaster and more luminous than the outer nature; (b) has access to broader and higher ranges of experience and knowledge; and (c) is more, not less, connected to others and the rest of the world (LD, pp. 442, 554–564). Though Sri Aurobindo sometimes uses the word subconscious to describe this part of the human nature, he prefers the term subliminal,2 which indicates that it is that part of a person that is below the threshold of one’s ordinary outer awareness without implying that it is smaller or less conscious than the outer nature.
Most people are not aware of what the subliminal contributes to their lives except indirectly through unexplained feelings and changes of mood, through dreams and other special states, or through sudden thoughts and flashes of insight, which the subliminal throws up onto the surface. According to Sri Aurobindo all these contributions from the subliminal are possible because the person, in the subliminal, is connected vertically to layers above and below his or her ordinary awareness and horizontally to other people and to the myriad of forces and beings that surround the person (LD, p. 580, p. 605, p. 681, pp. 761–763). The part of the subliminal that deals with an individual’s own deeper and higher being, Sri Aurobindo calls here the intraconscient. It is through the intraconscient that a person can become aware of those aspects in his or her own nature which one has no access to in one’s ordinary waking state. The intraconscient includes the area that Freud calls the unconscious. But the intraconscient also includes ranges above the ordinary waking consciousness that Freud ignored but Jung explored at least to some extent (Coward, 1985).
The part that connects an individual to others and to the play of cosmic forces that exist all around, he calls the circumconscient. It is through the circumconscient part of the inner being that Sri Aurobindo sees most parapsychological perceptions taking place (p. 556–557).
Partial glimpses of the inner nature can be experienced through dreams. Dreams are, however, not really the "royal road" that Freud held them to be (2010, p. 604). They are more like incidental cracks in the wall that separates the inner from the outer nature. To explore the inner nature systematically, an expert level of inner observation and training is required that, as has been discussed in the introduction, involves a relocation of one’s center of perception inwards [INTERNAL REFs to knowledge chapters].
People who have not developed this deeper awareness of their inner states and processes will tend to call only their behaviour their outer nature. Whatever else they know of themselves, they will call their inner being. Sri Aurobindo's reference point is much further inside and the little that most people know of themselves is in his terminology all called outer nature (e.g., Sri Aurobindo, 2012, pp. 84-85). What in Sri Aurobindo's terminology is called the inner being is a part of human nature that most people are not aware of at all. For a more detailed discussion of outer and inner, please see the chapter on the borders of the Self in the Appendix.
True being and central being are terms Sri Aurobindo uses for what one can experience as a kind of vertical axis at the core of one’s individualized existence:
The true being may be realised in one or both of two aspects — the Self or Atman [above] and the soul or antaratman, psychic being or caitya puruṣa [within] (LY-I, p. 07).
While the outer and inner natures belong to prakṛti, one’s true being is the puruṣa. Above all planes and worlds, it is the jīvātman who eternally and immutably presides over the manifest nature. The jīvātman is one’s highest individualized essence. Still further above it is the paramātman, one’s true universal essence. Both can be experienced as the true Self — far above the ordinary earthly existence, transcendent, immutable, and eternal if not beyond time. Deep within one’s embodied being, behind the heart is the soul, the psychic entity, which represents the jīvātman in its incarnate existence (LY – I, p. 56 onwards). The discussion will return to these and other aspects of the Self and soul in more detail in a later section on the various centres of identity.
Figure 1-2-1a. The concentric system
A simplified diagram of the concentric system could then look like Figure 1-2-1a. In Figure 1-2-1a one can notice on the right the parts of the nature, and on the left the types of knowledge that give access to them. See Chapter 6 for more details on these four types of knowledge. Appendix 1.2.1 gives some more info on how defective assumptions and methods of enquiry have limited what mainstream psychology can see.
The vertical system is built around an ancient Vedic division in seven layers, which Sri Aurobindo calls The Sevenfold Chord of Being (LD, pp. 276–284). From top-down, the layers are:
There is a deep connection between psychology and cosmology in the Indian tradition, and Sri Aurobindo’s work is no exception. The individual and the cosmos are seen as two expressions of the same basic principles, and so it is not surprising that many of these terms apply with only minor modifications to:
The lowest three, Mind, Life, and Matter, are part of the complex evolving manifestation and, as such, these terms also apply to:
In other words, according to Sri Aurobindo (2005), there exist, besides the hugely complex mixed mental, vital, physical manifestation of which we humans are partially aware in our ordinary waking state, also more or less independent typal worlds or planes of existence where the different types of consciousness are present in all their original strength and purity.
We will see later in more detail how in his view the mixed manifestation evolves in a direction that is determined by the way these different types of conscious existence influence, penetrate and limit each other (pp.
But we will now first look at each of these different types of conscious existence in some more detail — this time from the bottom upwards.
Sri Aurobindo writes about the physical plane:
Each plane of our being — mental, vital, physical — has its own consciousness, separate though interconnected and interacting; but to our outer mind and sense, in our waking experience, they are all confused together. The body, for instance, has its own consciousness and acts from it, even without any conscious mental will of our own or even against that will, and our surface mind knows very little about this body consciousness, feels it only in an imperfect way, sees only its results and has the greatest difficulty in finding out their causes. It is part of the Yoga to become aware of this separate consciousness of the body, to see and feel its movements and the forces that act upon it from inside or outside and to learn how to control and direct it even in its most hidden and (to us) subconscient processes. But the body consciousness itself is only part of the individualised physical consciousness in us which we gather and build out of the secretly conscious forces of universal physical Nature.
There is the universal physical consciousness of Nature and there is our own which is a part of it, moved by it, and used by the central being for the support of its expression in the physical world and for a direct dealing with all these external objects and movements and forces. This physical consciousness-plane receives from the other planes their powers and influences and makes formations of them in its own province. Therefore we have a physical mind as well as a vital mind and the mind proper; we have a vital physical part in us — the nervous being — as well as the vital proper; and both are largely conditioned by the gross material bodily part which is almost entirely subconscient to our experience. (LY — I, pp. 201–202)
Embodied life, in the details of its physical operations, has to follow the laws of physics and inorganic chemistry. But while it does that, it achieves something new that, at least in some aspects, seems to go against the basic spirit of the inorganic, physical reality. Plants and animals, for example, manage to reconstitute their immensely complex structures out of the utterly simple molecules of air, water, and soil in total disregard of physical nature's basic principles of inertia and entropy, its consistent tendency towards the dissipation of energy. As Sri Aurobindo remarked at several places, someone who knew only the purely physical world could never have predicted, or even imagined, the way life has developed on this planet (LD, p. 874; 1999, p. 186).
In terms of the Indian tradition, the origin of life on this planet is easier to understand. For example, in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (part ii) the life force is seen as a manifestation of the prāṇamaya kośa and, as such, it has a fundamentally different character than the material world, which belongs to the annamaya kośa. While the physical reality is dominated by tamas and its concomitant properties of inertia and entropy, the vital is characterized by rajas, energy, play, enjoyment, and self-assertion in ever more complex patterns of interchange. The way this is seen to operate in the process of evolution is beautifully explained in the Mundaka Upaniṣad (1.7-9). Life, as a type of consciousness, first involves itself in the near inconscience of matter, and then begins to evolve in there, while remaining part of that material world. Life does this by transforming the stuff of matter until it begins to manifest a mixture of its own physical characteristics with those typical of life. The details of the process are seen to be worked out under the influence of formative energies descending directly from the pre-existing life plane.
Philosophically, the process may remind one of the ideas that Plato describes in his Republic (c. 380 BC /1992), but Sri Aurobindo has worked out the subtleties of the integration of descending and ascending forces in considerably more detail (see, for example, The Life Divine, Book II, Part 1, pp. 305–655). The end result could perhaps be seen as a form of realistic idealism (or idealistic realism) that bridges fashionable oversimplifications like the opposing views of evolutionism and intelligent design, or constructivism and essentialism.
For psychology, the most important point is that according to Sri Aurobindo, the self-existent joy and energy — which are typical of the life force in its own domain — undergo a specific degradation when life begins to manifest within the physical world (SY, p. 645). This degradation happens because of the way in which they are used there: In order to overcome the tamas of the physical reality, joy turns into need and desire, because only these can force physical organisms to wake up and become individually active as living creatures. At the human stage of evolution, this degradation becomes conscious and is then the source of much of human suffering. Especially when the life-force enlists the half-individualized human mind, the energy and enthusiasm of life turn into egoistic self-assertion with all the pain and suffering this brings with it. It is part of yoga to recover the joy that is inherent in life in its original state. About the vital energy as it appears within the human personality, Sri Aurobindo says the following:
The vital has to be carefully distinguished from mind, even though it has a mind element transfused into it; the vital is the Life nature made up of desires, sensations, feelings, passions, energies of action, will of desire, reactions of the desire soul in man and of all that play of possessive and other related instincts, anger, fear, greed, lust etc. that belong to this field of the nature. Mind and vital are mixed up on the surface of the consciousness, but they are quite separate forces in themselves and as soon as one gets behind the ordinary surface consciousness one sees them as separate, discovers their distinct action and can with the aid of this knowledge analyse their surface mixtures. (LY — I, p. 168)
The vital . . . is a thing of desires, impulses, force-pushes, emotions, sensations, seekings after life fulfilment, possession and enjoyment; these are its functions and its nature; — it is that part of us which seeks after life and its movements for their own sake and it does not want to leave hold of them even if they bring it suffering as well as or more than pleasure; it is even capable of luxuriating in tears and suffering as part of the drama of life. What then is there in common between the thinking intelligence and the vital and why should the latter obey the mind and not follow its own nature? The disobedience is perfectly normal instead of being, as Augustine suggests, unintelligible. Of course man can establish a mental control over his vital and in so far as he does it he is a man, — because the thinking mind is a nobler and more enlightened entity and consciousness than the vital and ought therefore, to rule and, if the mental will is strong, can rule. But this rule is precarious, incomplete and established and held only by much self-discipline. For if the mind is more enlightened, the vital is nearer to earth, more intense, vehement, more directly able to touch the body. There is too a vital mind which lives by imagination, thoughts of desire, will to act and enjoy from its own impulse and this is able to seize on the reason itself and make it its auxiliary and its justifying counsel and supplier of pleas and excuses. There is also the sheer force of Desire in man which is the vital’s principal support and strong enough to sweep off the reason, as the Gita says, “like a boat in stormy waters”, nāvam ivāmbhasi. (p. 175)
The vital plane is often divided into three sub-planes (LY — I, p. 86):
The discussion will return to these three sub-planes in the context of further descriptions of the cakras.
In the mind, one will find an entirely different type of consciousness than that of the vital. The mind, as such, is not interested in self-assertion, though the vital life force may enlist it for that purpose. It is the mind’s job to model reality, and then plan action on the basis of its model. The mind presents reality to itself, thinks about it, uses it to plan action, and expresses its mental constructions to itself and others. One can look at the nervous system — with which the mind tends to identify itself — as an incredibly complicated, multidimensional model-making machinery.
How completely different mind and vital are can be easily illustrated by the difference between the digestive system and the brain. For instance, when the stomach tackles an apple, the apple is destroyed. The apple, in the process of digestion, is taken apart into its constituting molecules, which are subsequently used to provide energy and the raw materials that the animal who eats it can use to build and maintain its body. At the end of the digestive process, there is no trace of the apple, but the apple-eating animal is strengthened. When, on the other hand, the eyes tackle an apple, the apple remains what it is. The mind creates an image: a complex, multidimensional mental model of the apple, which the thinking creature can subsequently use to guide further action.
Interestingly, the mind as it is found embodied in living creatures has undergone a disabling diminution that is quite similar to the degradation life underwent when it was first embodied in matter. Mind as it develops within living matter makes models of reality on the basis of the senses, memory, and whatever else it can press into service to this end. As constructed models, they can become better and better, but they will never reach absolute perfection. This is, according to Sri Aurobindo, a serious step down for mind, which at its best can function through intuitions it receives from planes of perfect, pre-existing knowledge (LD, p. 803). Why true intuition, in the sense of ready-made, perfect knowledge, can be expected to exist, and how people can develop access to it is discussed in the chapters on Knowledge [INTERNAL REFS].
Just as the fully developed manifestations of embodied life are many orders of magnitude more complex than those of inorganic matter, the brain, as a physical substrate for the mind’s activity in this evolving physical world, is many orders of magnitude more complex than any other biological structure. About the mind as it manifests in human beings, Sri Aurobindo writes in Letters on Yoga — I:
The “Mind” in the ordinary use of the word covers indiscriminately the whole consciousness, for man is a mental being and mentalises everything; but in the language of this Yoga the words mind and mental are used to connote specially the part of the nature which has to do with cognition and intelligence, with ideas, with mental or thought perceptions, the reactions of thought to things, with the truly mental movements and formations, mental vision and will etc. that are part of his intelligence. (p. 168)
The Mother (CWM–8, p. 189) says about the dynamic, action-supporting aspect of the mind:
For the true role of the mind is the formation and organisation of action. The mind has a formative and organising power, and it is that which puts the different elements of inspiration in order, for action, for organising action. And if it would only confine itself to that role, receiving inspirations — whether from above or from the mystic center of the soul — and simply formulating the plan of action — in broad outline or in minute detail, for the smallest things of life or the great terrestrial organisations — it would amply fulfil its function.
It is not an instrument of knowledge.
But it can use knowledge for action, to organise action. It is an instrument of organisation and formation, very powerful and very capable when it is well developed.
One can feel this very clearly when one wants to organise one's life, for instance — to put the different elements in their place in one's existence. There is a certain intellectual faculty which immediately puts each thing in its place and makes a plan and organises. And it is not a knowledge that comes from the mind, it is a knowledge which comes, as I said, from the mystic depths of the soul or from a higher consciousness; and the mind concentrates it in the physical world and organises it to give a basis of action to the higher consciousness. . . .
Then, there is another use. When one is in contact with one’s reason, with the rational center of the intellect, the pure reason, it is a powerful control over all vital impulses. All that comes from the vital world can be very firmly controlled by it and used in a disciplined and organised action. But it must be at the service of something else — not work for its own satisfaction.
These are the two uses of the mind: it is a controlling force, an instrument of control, and it is a power of organisation. That is its true place. (p. 189)
Manas, the Sanskrit word that probably comes closest to the English word mind, is in the older Sanskrit texts used for an entire plane or world of mind, the fifth from the top in the Sevenfold Chord of Being (SV, p. 45). In the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (2nd chapter, the “Ānanda valli”) (Radhakrishnan, 2007), it is used for what it calls the sheath of mind, the manomaya kośa. Patanjali seems to use manas in his Yoga Sutras4 rather like we use mind, that is for the individual mental faculty, but it is quite possible that it still has for him the connotation of something with a cosmic (rather than individual) existence (see verse i.35; ii.53, iii.48). In the later Darshanas (schools of philosophy), manas tends to be used in a more restricted way for the sense-mind whose job it is to coordinate the ten indriyas (the five senses and the five instruments of action) (see, for example, Surendranath Dasgupta 1922/2006, I, p. 213).
The mind intersects with the vital and the physical planes. On that basis, Sri Aurobindo (SY) distinguishes between:
The mind proper is subdivided by Sri Aurobindo into five clearly distinct sub-planes that represent different types of mental consciousness. The first is:
Sri Aurobindo further subdivides the ordinary mind on different occasions in different ways using slightly different categories. For example (LY — I, p. 177):
Another division is based on one’s degree of openness to intuition:
Above this, but still within the mental plane (the manomayakośa), one finds the Higher Mind, Illumined Mind, Intuition, and Overmind. Together, Sri Aurobindo sees them as belonging to what he calls the higher consciousness. Individually, he describes them as follows:
I mean by the Higher Mind a first plane of spiritual [consciousness] where one becomes constantly and closely aware of the Self, the One everywhere and knows and sees things habitually with that awareness; but it is still very much on the mind-level although highly spiritual in its essential substance; and its instrumentation is through an elevated thought-power and comprehensive mental sight — not illumined by any of the intenser upper lights but as if in a large strong and clear daylight. It acts as an intermediate state between the Truth-Light above and the human mind; communicating the higher knowledge in a form that the Mind intensified, broadened, made spiritually supple, can receive without being blinded or dazzled by a Truth beyond it. (LPA, p. 20)
…a Mind no longer of higher Thought, but of spiritual light. Here the clarity of the spiritual intelligence, its tranquil daylight, gives place or subordinates itself to an intense lustre, a splendour and illumination of the spirit: a play of lightnings of spiritual truth and power breaks from above into the consciousness and adds to the calm and wide enlightenment and the vast descent of peace which characterise or accompany the action of the larger conceptual-spiritual principle, a fiery ardour of realisation and a rapturous ecstasy of knowledge. (LD, pp. 978–979)
Intuition is a power of consciousness nearer and more intimate to the original knowledge by identity; for it is always something that leaps out direct from a concealed identity. It is when the consciousness of the subject meets with the consciousness in the object, penetrates it and sees, feels or vibrates with the truth of what it contacts, that the intuition leaps out like a spark or lightning-flash from the shock of the meeting; or when the consciousness, even without any such meeting, looks into itself and feels directly and intimately the truth or the truths that are there or so contacts the hidden forces behind appearances, then also there is the outbreak of an intuitive light; or, again, when the consciousness meets the Supreme Reality or the spiritual reality of things and beings and has a contactual union with it, then the spark, the flash, or the blaze of intimate truth-perception is lit in its depths. . . . Intuition has a fourfold power. A power of revelatory truth-seeing, a power of inspiration or truth-hearing, a power of truth-touch or immediate seizing of significance, which is akin to the ordinary nature of its intervention in our mental intelligence, a power of true and automatic discrimination of the orderly and exact relation of truth to truth, — these are the fourfold potencies of Intuition. Intuition can therefore perform all the action of reason — including the function of logical intelligence, which is to work out the right relation of things and the right relation of idea with idea, — but by its own superior process and with steps that do not fail or falter. (LD, pp. 981–984)
Intuition is the typal plane between the Illumined Mind and the Overmind. It is the highest typal plane that is still individualized. It is the source of the truth that can be found in the planes of the Illumined Mind and the Higher Mind. While in the ordinary mind, intuitions tend to come down like individual rays of lightning, in the typal plane that Sri Aurobindo calls Intuition: “Its rays are not separated but connected or massed together in a play of waves of what might almost be called in the Sanskrit poetic figure a sea or mass of ‘stable lightnings’” (LD, p. 983).
Sri Aurobindo uses the term Intuitive Mind in a few places for this same typal plane above the Illumined Mind, but he uses it more commonly for the embodied thinking mind when its substance and functionings are largely taken over by intuition. (1955/2005, pp. 799–810)
The next higher plane, the Overmind, is fully and intrinsically cosmic in nature.
…the Overmind knows the One as the support, essence, fundamental power of all things, but in the dynamic play proper to it it lays emphasis on its divisional power of multiplicity and seeks to give each Power or Aspect its full chance to manifest, relying on the underlying Oneness to prevent disharmony or conflict. Each Godhead, as it were, creates his own world, but without conflict with others; each Aspect, each Idea, each Force of things can be felt in its full separate energy or splendour and work out its values, but this does not create a disharmony, because the Overmind has the sense of the Infinite and in the true (not spatial) Infinite many concording infinities are possible. (LY — I, p. 139)
In its nature and law the Overmind is a delegate of the [next higher plane, the] Supermind Consciousness, its delegate to the Ignorance. Or we might speak of it as a protective double, a screen of dissimilar similarity through which Supermind can act indirectly on an Ignorance whose darkness could not bear or receive the direct impact of a supreme Light. Even, it is by the projection of this luminous Overmind corona that the diffusion of a diminished light in the Ignorance and the throwing of that contrary shadow which swallows up in itself all light, the Inconscience, became at all possible. For Supermind transmits to Overmind all its realities, but leaves it to formulate them in a movement and according to an awareness of things which is still a vision of Truth and yet at the same time a first parent of the Ignorance. (LD, p. 293)
The plane above the Overmind is the Supermind. It links the upper hemisphere to the lower hemisphere. Sri Aurobindo describes the Supermind as follows:
The Supermind is in its very essence a truth-consciousness, a consciousness always free from the Ignorance which is the foundation of our present natural or evolutionary existence and from which nature in us is trying to arrive at self-knowledge and world-knowledge and a right consciousness and the right use of our existence in the universe. The Supermind, because it is a truth-consciousness, has this knowledge inherent in it and this power of true existence; its course is straight and can go direct to its aim, its field is wide and can even be made illimitable. This is because its very nature is knowledge: it has not to acquire knowledge but possesses it in its own right; its steps are not from nescience or ignorance into some imperfect light, but from truth to greater truth, from right perception to deeper perception, from intuition to intuition, from illumination to utter and boundless luminousness, from growing widenesses to the utter vasts and to very infinitude. On its summits it possesses the divine omniscience and omnipotence, but even in an evolutionary movement of its own graded self-manifestation by which it would eventually reveal its own highest heights, it must be in its very nature essentially free from ignorance and error: it starts from truth and light and moves always in truth and light. As its knowledge is always true, so too its will is always true; it does not fumble in its handling of things or stumble in its paces. In the Supermind feeling and emotion do not depart from their truth, make no slips or mistakes, do not swerve from the right and the real, cannot misuse beauty and delight or twist away from a Divine rectitude. In the Supermind sense cannot mislead or deviate into the grossnesses which are here its natural imperfections and the cause of reproach, distrust and misuse by our ignorance. Even an incomplete statement made by the Supermind is a truth leading to a further truth, its incomplete action a step towards completeness. All the life and action and leading of the Supermind is guarded in its very nature from the falsehoods and uncertainties that are our lot; it moves in safety towards its perfection. (EPY, pp. 558–559)
The importance of the distinction Sri Aurobindo makes between Overmind and Supermind can best be understood from the perspective of the evolution of consciousness which we have already discussed. [INTERNAL REFs] To summarise: in Sri Aurobindo's view, major evolutionary changes take place under influence of pre-existing typal planes. And thus, if an overmental type of consciousness is the highest type of consciousness in which multiplicity and differentiation are still possible, then the manifest reality can never be more than a come-down from the absolute perfection that is the hallmark of the Transcendent. And if this is so, classical yoga systems like Patanjali's are correct in holding a content-free (nirbiīja) type of samādhi higher than any type of samādhi with content. But if there exists above the present manifestation a typal plane that is both differentiated and yet fully divine in the deep sense of the Vedic terms satyam, absolute truth, and ṛtam, dynamic truth of action, then a corresponding perfectly divine manifestation right here in the physical world should be possible or even, as Sri Aurobindo claims, inevitable. In that case, the ultimate aim of yoga should not only be sunya (emptiness) or kaivalya (purity), but following on those realisations, a supramental transformation of life in all its aspects.
One could well argue, that it is this long-term perspective on the future of humanity, and the great practical detail in which he has worked it out, for example in the last four chapters of The Life Divine (2005, pp. 922–1107), that make Sri Aurobindo's work so valuable.
Above the Supermind, there is finally the upper hemisphere of:
The upper, or divine hemisphere, and the Supermind, together, are the home of the Divine Consciousness. Sri Aurobindo describes this consciousness as follows:
By the Divine Consciousness we mean the spiritual consciousness to which the Divine alone exists . . . and by which one passes beyond the Ignorance and the lower nature into unity with the Divine and the Divine Nature” (LY — I, p. 5).
Sri Aurobindo stresses throughout his works that it is only through a descent of this Divine Consciousness that an entire perfection is possible. And so, as he says in one of his letters: “The more you surrender to the Divine, the more will there be the possibility of perfection in you” (LY — II, p. 285).
In the introductory chapters of this book we have already seen how useful the conceptualisation of saccidānanda is both for psychology and for our understanding of the world as a whole.
One aspect of that explanation may merit repetition here because it is so important for our day-to-day life. Sri Aurobindo stresses that cit, the original Consciousness of Brahman, implies cit-tapas, conscious energy. And 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., Sri Aurobindo, 2005, pp. 262–263).
Sri Aurobindo says in The Synthesis of Yoga(1999),
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… (p. 628).
The acceptance of power as part of saccidānanda and the power of the individual soul over its nature are necessary preconditions for the radical transformation Sri Aurobindo envisaged (e.g., Sri Aurobindo, 2012, pp. 174–175).
With this, we have come to the end of our description of the Sevenfold Chord of Being, the complex hierarchy of increasingly conscious planes of existence that forms the all-important backdrop for Sri Aurobindo’s understanding of human nature and its potential for further development. But before moving on to the next section, there are a few other issues remaining that have a vertical component and that, as such, will be discussed here.
The cakras are centers of consciousness that seem to be stacked up one above the other in the inner, subtle physical body, the sūkṣma śarīra. As centers of consciousness, the cakras seem to belong to the puruṣa, but they preside over corresponding layers of the inner nature, which are part of prakṛti. As the cakras are as much centers of force and action as of awareness, they do not go well with the strict separation of puruṣa and prakṛti that can be found in Sāṁkhya, and one sees them more often discussed in Tantric literature. Sri Aurobindo only rarely describes them in the traditional (and perhaps rather romantic) manner of lotuses with distinct colors, sounds, and numbers of petals. He writes, however, very often about the layers, or levels, of conscious existence over which they preside. In the following descriptions, the quoted phrases are from Letters on Yoga – I:
The cakras are interconnected through vertical energy channels within the subtle body. Some people spontaneously feel them as streams of force while others perceive them as streams of light. When subtle inner energies open a cakra, the inner powers, or siddhis that belong to that cakra awaken and become available. This awakening can be achieved intentionally, for example, as part of focused hatha and rajayoga practices, but it can also happen spontaneously or as a consequence of other forms of yoga (LY — II, pp. 237–238, 460–464).
The different types of consciousness that the main cakras represent tend to be easily recognizable by people as located in their traditional bodily locations. These locations are also commonly referred to in the English language. As mentioned above, it is part of common English usage to say that business people follow their gut feelings (the seat of the middle vital that houses ambition); charitable organizations ask people to open their heart (the seat of the higher emotions); and teachers admonish children to use their head (where the ājñā cakra houses the faculty of thought). The different layers are, in English, also used to indicate specific kinds of unease. There is a commonly understood difference between butterflies in one’s stomach, a heartache, a lump in one’s throat, and a headache. While they are clearly part of the common understanding of human nature and have quite a prominent place in literature, they have perhaps not been given as much attention in academics as they deserve. This is unfortunate because a good understanding of these different centers can help considerably with the development of insight and mastery over one’s drives and motives. The ability to locate the center of one’s consciousness in any of them at will should, in fact, be considered an important life-skill, which could quite well be taught in school.
Sri Aurobindo suggests that the awakening of the higher functionality of the cakras could play a major role in the transition to the next stage of our collective evolution (EPY–p.551). 13-551-chakras-supramental.phpthe role of the cakras in the supramental transformation
We'll come back to this in the capters on Self-development[INTERNAL REFs].
Besides the Sevenfold Chord of Being and the cakras, there is still one more set of terms that describe states that tend to be experienced subjectively as a vertically arranged hierarchy. They describe levels, or degrees, of awareness. From the bottom up, they are the inconscient, the subconscient, the ordinary waking consciousness, and the superconscient. The inconscient base of the creation Sri Aurobindo also calls the nescient.
The word subconscious Sri Aurobindo uses with two somewhat different meanings. He uses it sometimes simply to indicate all that is below the ordinary consciousness (in other words, as a synonym for the subliminal), but he uses it more typically for a specific plane situated below the physical consciousness. In that last sense, the subconscient contains the first crude beginnings of conscious movement when creation just arises out of the sleep of the inconscient. But into this nether region also sinks back whatever has been rejected from the higher levels of consciousness. And so come into being the murky waters that Freud describes as the unconscious. It is also the place from which rise up the active remnants of the past, or atavisms, that mar the individual’s progress. Sri Aurobindo explains:
In our yoga we mean by the subconscient that quite submerged part of our being in which there is no wakingly conscious and coherent thought, will or feeling or organised reaction, but which yet receives obscurely the impressions of all things and stores them up in itself and from it too all sorts of stimuli, of persistent habitual movements, crudely repeated or disguised in strange forms can surge up into dream or into the waking nature. For if these impressions rise up most in dream in an incoherent and disorganised manner, they can also and do rise up into our waking consciousness as a mechanical repetition of old thoughts, old mental, vital and physical habits or an obscure stimulus to sensations, actions, emotions which do not originate in or from our conscious thought or will and are even often opposed to its perceptions, choice or dictates. In the subconscient there is an obscure mind full of obstinate sanskaras, impressions, associations, fixed notions, habitual reactions formed by our past, an obscure vital full of the seeds of habitual desires, sensations and nervous reactions, a most obscure material which governs much that has to do with the condition of the body. It is largely responsible for our illnesses; chronic or repeated illnesses are indeed mainly due to the subconscient and its obstinate memory and habit of repetition of whatever has impressed itself upon the body consciousness. But this subconscient must be clearly distinguished from the subliminal parts of our being such as the inner or subtle physical consciousness, the inner vital or inner mental; for these are not at all obscure or incoherent or ill-organised, but only veiled from our surface consciousness. Our surface constantly receives something, inner touches, communications or influences, from these sources but does not know for the most part whence they come. (LY — I, pp. 216–217)
In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo similarly writes:
That part of us which we can strictly call subconscient because it is below the level of mind and conscious life, inferior and obscure, covers the purely physical and vital elements of our constitution of bodily being, unmentalised, unobserved by the mind, uncontrolled by it in their action. It can be held to include the dumb occult consciousness, dynamic but not sensed by us, which operates in the cells and nerves and all the corporeal stuff and adjusts their life process and automatic responses. It covers also those lowest functionings of submerged sense-mind which are more operative in the animal and in plant life; in our evolution we have overpassed the need of any large organised action of this element, but it remains submerged and obscurely at work below our conscious nature. This obscure activity extends to a hidden and hooded mental substratum into which past impressions and all that is rejected from the surface mind sink and remain there dormant and can surge up in sleep or in any absence of the mind, taking dream forms, forms of mechanical mind action or suggestion, forms of automatic vital reaction or impulse, forms of physical abnormality or nervous perturbance, forms of morbidity, disease, unbalance. Out of the subconscious we bring ordinarily so much to the surface as our waking sense-mind and intelligence need for their purpose; in so bringing them up we are not aware of their nature, origin, operation and do not apprehend them in their own values but by a translation into the values of our waking human sense and intelligence. But the risings of the subconscious, its effects upon the mind and body, are mostly automatic, uncalled for and involuntary; for we have no knowledge and therefore no control of the subconscient. It is only by an experience abnormal to us, most commonly in illness or some disturbance of balance, that we can become directly aware of something in the dumb world, dumb but very active, of our bodily being and vitality or grow conscious of the secret movements of the mechanical subhuman physical and vital mind which underlies our surface, — a consciousness which is ours but seems not ours because it is not part of our known mentality. This and much more lives concealed in the subconscience.
A descent into the subconscient would not help us to explore this region, for it would plunge us into incoherence or into sleep or a dull trance or a comatose torpor. A mental scrutiny or insight can give us some indirect and constructive idea of these hidden activities; but it is only by drawing back into the subliminal or by ascending into the superconscient and from there looking down or extending ourselves into these obscure depths that we can become directly and totally aware and in control of the secrets of our subconscient physical, vital and mental nature. This awareness, this control are of the utmost importance. For the subconscient is the Inconscient in the process of becoming conscious; it is a support and even a root of our inferior parts of being and their movements. It sustains and reinforces all in us that clings most and refuses to change, our mechanical recurrences of unintelligent thought, our persistent obstinacies of feeling, sensation, impulse, propensity, our uncontrolled fixities of character. The animal in us, — the infernal also, — has its lair of retreat in the dense jungle of the subconscience. To penetrate there, to bring in light and establish a control, is indispensable for the completeness of any higher life, for any integral transformation of the nature. (LD, pp. 762–763)
Our ordinary waking consciousness is limited to a small portion of the physical, vital, and lower mental planes. Most of what happens even on these planes remains below its threshold of awareness. The higher ranges of the mental plane, the supramental, and saccidānanda are entirely superconscient to the ordinary waking consciousness. The words superconscious and superconscient are both used by Sri Aurobindo again with two different meanings. More broadly, they are used for any consciousness that is above the ordinary waking consciousness — in other words, including the higher consciousness or, more specifically, for that type of consciousness that is divine, entirely beyond dualities. Sri Aurobindo does not use the term the unconscious. Freud’s unconscious covers, more or less, what Sri Aurobindo describes above as “a hidden and hooded mental substratum into which past impressions and all that is rejected from the surface mind sink” (LD, p. 762). Jung’s unconscious contained more positive formations, like, for example, his archetypes. In that sense it has some overlap with Sri Aurobindo’s subliminal.
We can now put the most important terms used for the vertical system together in one table as depicted in table 1-2-2.
It may be noted that, in terms of the concentric system, everything in this table belongs to the subliminal. The only exception might be the ordinary waking consciousness and its share of the ignorance. But, one could argue that in the ordinary waking consciousness even the ordinary waking consciousness itself belongs to the subliminal. The reason is that most people, most of the time, are so fully identified with the part of the surface mind, where their consciousness happens to be centered, that they are only aware of the content with which that mind is busy. So even when they engage, for example, in introspection, they may become aware of the mental and vital processes that are happening inside their consciousness, but they will still not be aware of the consciousness itself, let alone of its ignorance.
|hemisphere||sevenfold chord of being||cakra||consciousness||knowledge/
|upper hemisphere||Existence (sat)||
spirit / spiritual
|link plane||Supermind (mahas or vijñāna)|
|lower hemisphere||Mind (manas)||Overmind||first beginnings of separation, though not yet of real Ignorance|
|Ordinary mind||thinking||ājñā||Ordinary Waking Consciousness||Ignorance|
To end this section, a word of caution: The terms that occupy the cells of this table do not denote things. They point at concepts that have meanings and connotations whose borders tend to be far more vague than the neat lines that this diagram suggests. Though I hope this table is useful for those who enjoy such things, it has to be treated with utmost caution and humility. Even the simplest flower surpasses whatever our minds can possibly create.
As may be clear, human nature is a rather complex affair. There are many different parts that all have their own history, character, and priorities for action.In order to present one face both to the outside world and to oneself, one needs something to coordinate all these different parts and tendencies, and as long as the person has not found his or her real Self, it is the ego that fulfills this role.
At one place in The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo describes the ego as follows:
But what is this strongly separative self-experience that we call ego? It is nothing fundamentally real in itself but only a practical construction of our consciousness devised to centralise the activities of Nature in us. We perceive a formation of mental, physical, vital experience which distinguishes itself from the rest of being, and that is what we think of as ourselves in nature — this individualisation of being in becoming. We then proceed to conceive of ourselves as something which has thus individualised itself and only exists so long as it is individualised, — a temporary or at least a temporal becoming; or else we conceive of ourselves as someone who supports or causes the individualisation, an immortal being perhaps but limited by its individuality. This perception and this conception constitute our ego-sense. Normally, we go no farther in our knowledge of our individual existence. (pp. 382–383)
In other words, Sri Aurobindo sees the ego as a temporary, makeshift arrangement that nature makes to centralize the action and provide a focal point for one’s sense of identity. Interestingly, neither the character, nor the center, nor the borders of the ego are fixed. When one speaks to a sibling, for instance, one becomes a sister or brother; when one is with one’s parents one functions as their child; with one’s children, as parent; and when one speaks with neighbours, one suddenly represents one’s family as a whole. When one watches a football match, one identifies with one’s city or country; when an individual talks about feminism, he or she grows aware of his or her gender; in one’s concern for the environment, one can identify with the planet; and when one hurts one’s toe, one retires to the central command of one’s little, individual, bodily existence. In other words, both the borders of the ego and the center of one’s identity shift continuously from one second to the next. As its right to exist is far from intrinsic and in many ways precarious, the ego tends to be in constant need of support and it engages in various forms of defensive action, not all of which are appropriate or helpful. Common ways for the ego to defend itself are, for example, to stress the superior quality of its achievements, character, possessions, and social contacts, or to do its opposite: get out of the way of others by dissimulating its own existence.
Modern society is ambivalent about the ego. In English, egoism, egotism, and ego-centricity have all negative connotations, if only because they clash with the same traits in others, but psychology professionals tend to stress that a lack of ego-strength leads to difficulties in keeping oneself together and to an inability to withstand the pressure of others. It is not surprising then that amongst professional psychologists a healthy ego is widely considered essential for psychological well-being as they often meet people who do not have a sufficiently strong ego. Amongst those who do yoga, however, one does not often hear praise for the ego and its often-misplaced attempts at heroic action. Here, the ego is more often derided as the villain of the piece. As a young Buddhist monk once told the author, “All suffering is due to ego”. We'll come back to this in later sections on individual development, therapy, and the role of pain and suffering. [INTERNAL REFS]
As was mentioned earlier, the location of the border of the self is perpetually shifting and in a person's ordinary waking consciousness it can include not only the individual's body, mind, and personality, but even possessions, roles, group-memberships and whatever else one identifies with at a given moment. What is more, both the average and the ideal location for the border of the self differ, not only between individuals but also between (sub)cultures — think for example about the degree to which one's sense of self can include one's small family, extended family, caste, company, class or country. Some spiritual traditions in India recommend to place the borders of the self radically further inside. For example, in Sāṁkhya, the philosophy supporting hatha and raja yoga, the true Self or puruṣa contains only pure consciousness, while the personality and all mental processes are considered to belong to universal Nature, prakṛti (Hiriyanna, pp, 270-280).
For Sri Aurobindo too, it is an essential element of the practice of yoga to shift one’s center of identification from the temporary formation of the ego to the true Self in the central being. As Sri Aurobindo says,
The “I” or the little ego is constituted by Nature and is at once a mental, vital and physical formation meant to aid in centralising and individualising the outer consciousness and action. When the true being is discovered, the utility of the ego is over and this formation has to disappear — the true being is felt in its place. (LY — I, p. 97)
Sri Aurobindo uses the word Self (with a capital S) mostly for the transcendent, immutable essence, both in its universal form (ātman) and in its individual form (jīvātman). While in his scheme of things, the ātman is truly universal and one for everybody, the jīvātman is aware of that oneness but it also has the essence of a spiritual individuality: it is an eternal portion of the Divine (LD, p. 493; EG, pp. 549–550; LY — I, p. 57). One could say that the jīvātman is not any longer anantaguṇa, of infinite quality, but, as the carrier of one’s spiritual individuality, it manifests only the particular subset of all possible qualities that determines one’s individual svabhāva and svadharma, one’s essential individual nature and truth of action.
There is, however, not only a Self above the manifest reality, but there is also a distinct Self, or puruṣa, on each plane or level of consciousness. These plane-specific Selves function as the true center of one’s conscious existence on that level. So, the central being contains an annamaya puruṣa, a prāṇamaya puruṣa, and a manomaya puruṣa. On each of the three manifest lower planes (physical, vital, and mental), one can find, besides this plane-specific Self, also plane-specific aspects of the inner and outer nature. The combination of a self, in the most generic sense of a center of consciousness and identity, with a corresponding part of nature, Sri Aurobindo calls a being. So, within the human individual, one can speak of an inner and an outer physical being, an inner and an outer vital being, as well as an inner and an outer mental being.6 In the outer nature, one is generally not aware of the true Self, and as a result, there is a tendency to operate under command of some more superficial, ego-based center instead. The inner nature comes more easily under control of one’s true Self. For example, the outer mental being is likely to be guided mainly by a mental ego, while the inner mental being is more likely to have the mental Self as its center. Sri Aurobindo speaks about a true being when on one of the planes, one’s nature is fully under the conscious control of the true Self of that plane. The true mental being, for example, describes the (part of the) mental nature that is fully under conscious control of the mental puruṣa.
In Sri Aurobindo's system, the psychic center is the delegate of the jīvātman, one’s individual Self beyond space and time, into this “world of becomings”.7 It stands behind all the complexities of one’s outer and inner nature, and from there it supports one’s whole nature through the plane-specific Selves. Initially, this psychic center (antarātman, caitya puruṣa) is only a small, almost point-like psychic entity. It is the tiny kernel of truth that hides below the otherwise false sense that the ego has of its own reality and importance. Initially, it can be felt in the surface nature at best as a psychic influence. Gradually, however, as it grows, or to put it differently, as it brings (over many lifetimes) more and more of one’s inner and outer nature under its influence, it becomes a full-fledged psychic being, which one can experience as a psychic presence. When this presence is strong and sensed even by other people, they may say of such a person that he or she is an "old soul". At a still later stage, there can be a complete reversal, through which the psychic being becomes one’s one-and-only identity, and the ego is no longer needed.
The word soul Sri Aurobindo uses quite often in the common English sense for anything with which one’s I can identify. In this more common sense, he speaks, for example, about the desire soul (LD, 234–240). More typically he uses it, however, for this evolving psychic center.
The true being may be realised in one or both of two aspects — the Self or Atman and the soul or antarātman, psychic being or caitya puruṣa. The difference is that one is felt as universal, the other as individual supporting the mind, life and body. When one first realises the Atman one feels it separate from all things, existing in itself and detached. … When one realises the psychic being, it is not like that; for this brings the sense of union with the Divine and dependence upon it and sole consecration to the Divine alone and the power to change the nature and discover the true mental, the true vital, the true physical being in oneself. Both realisations are necessary for this yoga. ( LY — I, p. 97)
While the outer layers of the being remain for a long time determined by the forces working in the surrounding outer nature, the inner layers generally come more easily under the influence of the psychic element. Sri Aurobindo (SY) elucidates:
One must first acquire an inner Yogic consciousness and replace by it our ordinary view of things, natural movements, motives of life; one must revolutionise the whole present build of our being. Next, we have to go still deeper, discover our veiled psychic entity and in its light and under its government psychicise our inner and outer parts, turn mind-nature, life-nature, body-nature and all our mental, vital, physical action and states and movements into a conscious instrumentation of the soul. Afterwards or concurrently we have to spiritualise the being in its entirety by a descent of a divine Light, Force, Purity, Knowledge, freedom and wideness. It is necessary to break down the limits of the personal mind, life and physicality, dissolve the ego, enter into the cosmic consciousness, realise the self, acquire a spiritualised and universalised mind and heart, life-force, physical consciousness. Then only the passage into supramental consciousness begins to become possible, and even then there is a difficult ascent to make each stage of which is a separate arduous achievement. (pp. 281–282)
It may be noted that the distinction Sri Aurobindo makes between the eternal, immutable nature of the Self above and the evolving nature of the soul deep within is not commonly made within the Indian tradition — at least not in the same manner. The antarātman is recognized as the self-within, but it is not seen as individualized or evolving. One reason for this is that the existence of an evolving soul-personality is only interesting in the context of an on-going evolution of consciousness where the ultimate aim is the manifestation of various aspects of the Divine in an ever-evolving material world. If the ultimate aim of life is liberation and merger with the transcendent Divine, mokṣa, then the personality, however well-developed it may become on the way, has no real meaning. The soul is then seen as a center of pure consciousness, found inside, but otherwise identical to the cosmic ātman above, unchanging and the same for everyone. Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879–1950), for example, speaks of the antarātman but acknowledges only its pure, immutable presence, neither its individuality, nor its evolving nature. For him, distinctions like those between ātman, jīvātman and antarātman are still part of māyā, and as such unreal and uninteresting (1923/2010, items 3–7). Swami Sivananda Saraswati (1887-1963),8 another contemporary of Sri Aurobindo, takes the jīvātman to be in essence identical to the paramātman, and as such only seemingly different from person to person as long as they are lost in the Ignorance. He writes:
Jivatman is the individual soul, a reflection of Brahman in Avidya or the mind. Paramatman is the Supreme Soul, Brahman or the Atman. From the empirical viewpoint, the Jivatman is a finite and conditioned being, while the Paramatman is the infinite, eternal, Sat-chitananda Brahman. In essence, the Jivatman is identical with Paramatman when Avidya is destroyed. (1997, p. 34)
Many in the tradition of Advaita Vedānta would agree, but for Sri Aurobindo this is just one of two possibilities. He wrote:
Some of us, it has been said by a great teacher,9 are jivakotis, human beings leaning so preeminently to the symbol-nature that, if they have lost it utterly for a while in the Reality, they lose themselves; once immersed, they cannot return; they are lost in God to humanity; others are ishwarakotis, human beings whose centre has already been shifted upwards or, elevated in the superior planes of our conscious-existence from the beginning, was established in God rather than in Nature.
Such men are already leaning down from God to Nature; they, therefore, even in losing themselves in Him yet keep themselves since in reaching God they do not depart from their centre but rather go towards it; arrived they are able to lean down again to humanity.
Those who can thus emerge from this bath of God are the final helpers of humanity & are chosen by God & Nature to prepare the type of supernatural man to which our humanity is rising (ED, pp. 340–341).
Elsewhere, Sri Aurobindo seemed to wonder whether jivakotis actually exist, and whether it is not in the nature of things that in the end, all souls will turn out to be ishwarakotis (LY – I, pp.
The main point remains, however, that Sri Aurobindo held that the eternal, unchanging jīvātman above has a unique spiritual individuality and that it sends a representative of itself, the psychic entity, down into the incarnate life, where its role is to bring, gradually, over many lifetimes, more and more of the inner and outer life under its influence, slowly becoming the center of a unique "evolving soul" or "psychic being".
It is now time to see how the horizontal and vertical systems and the various centers of identity are related to each other.
Before all the elements that have been discussed thus far can be brought together, we should keep in mind that the divisions made as part of the concentric system, apply equally to each of the three lowest layers of the vertical system. So there is an outer, inner, and true mental; an outer, inner, and true vital; and even an outer, inner, and true physical. Or to list them the other way around, one can distinguish between mental, vital, and physical aspects in the outer nature, in the inner nature, and even in one’s true Self. One reason why this is important is that people can have quite different characteristics and levels of development in the various areas that constitute their personality.
Within the outer nature, for example, a person can be strong in body but weak in mind; flexible in his ideas but unforgiving in his feelings; possessive about his ideas, but generous in physical things; and, of course, the opposites are equally possible. Sri Aurobindo stresses that within the inner realm people tend to be in direct contact with each other, but the capacity to bring that inner knowledge to the surface nature differs from person to person (LD, pp. 549–567). Thus, someone may be very open to other people's thoughts and know what people think even at a distance when there is no outer contact, but the same person may be quite insensitive to their feelings. And again, the opposite may also exist: someone may sense directly, without any outer clue or contact what someone else feels, but may not have any idea about what the other thinks. In the inner physical, some people can feel concretely, as if in their own body, the physical sensations of other people, and yet they may not be particularly sensitive to their feelings or thoughts. In short, virtually all combinations are possible.
The situation is slightly different regarding the Selves on the different planes. The Self differs considerably from one plane to the other but tends to be similar in its basic characteristics from one person to the next. The mental Self, the manomaya puruṣa, is for example, most typically the witness, the sākṣī (SY, pp. 238, 345, 37). It watches with perfect equanimity what happens in oneself and in one’s surroundings. There are no comments, no judgments. In the vital Self, the prāṇamaya puruṣa, there is also equanimity, but here, it is an equanimity of feeling, energy and action: “tranquil, strong, luminous, many-energied, obedient to the Divine Will, egoless, yet or rather therefore capable of all action, achievement, highest or largest enterprise” (p. 178). There is a steady, self-existing joy and energy that streams freely, unencumbered. The physical Self, annamaya puruṣa, has most typically a strong, unperturbed peace and calm. All three tend to be impersonal, vast, blissful, and universal, but each has these qualities in a manner that depends on the plane of conscious existence they preside over.
A major reason for making these various distinctions is that it is so important where one places the center of consciousness. A typical example may make this clear.
Imagine a meeting in which an academic hears that a colleague has a better idea than the one she herself has just presented to the group.
If she lives deep within her true being, she will not have any automatic reactivity:
If one looks in more detail, one might realize, as has been seen in the earlier discussion of the cakras, that there are actually three clearly distinct vital selves.
And finally, there are notorious as well as beneficial combinations:
To make it easier to visualise the relationships between the various concepts discussed so far, I will now put some of them together into three diagrams. The reader may keep in mind that reality is always much more complex than the models that can be made of it, and these diagrams are intended only to depict in graphic form how the different parts of the personality conceptually relate to each other. They are not intended to depict reality in any other way.
Figure 1-2-4a. The three lowest levels in the concentric system
Figure 1-2-4a indicates how the concentric system (depicted in Figure 1-2-1a) intersects with the three planes of the lower hemisphere: the physical, vital, and mental. The vertical sheet labeled “Section” on the right side of Figure 1-2-4a serves as the backdrop for the conceptual relationships indicated in Figure 1-2-4b and Figure 1-2-4c.
Figure 1-2-4b. A simplified overview of the structure of the personality
Figure 1-2-4b indicates the most prominent elements of human nature together in a simple, two-dimensional diagram. The ego and the outer nature are on the right. To indicate that in the outer nature the distinction between mental, vital, and physical is not as clear as it is in the inner being, the borders have here been indicated in grey. The only thing that stands out in the outer nature tends to be the ego. Another important issue that has been made visible even in this highly simplified diagram is that the inner nature, which in mainstream psychology would be counted under the self, in Indian systems like Vedānta and Sāṁkhya is unambiguously part of prakṛti, the non-self. For a more detailed discussion of what is considered outer and inner in different contexts, please see the chapter on the borders of the Self in the Appendix.
Figure 1-2-4c. A more detailed depiction of the same
Figure 1-2-4c is a slightly more detailed rendering of the same model.
With this, we have completed our account of the main terms Sri Aurobindo uses to describe the structure of the personality and the topography of consciousness in human nature. What remains is to provide some more context.
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.
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 [INTERNAL REFS], 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.
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"]
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]
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.
2. Latin sub, below + Latin limen, threshold.
3. In his writings for the general public, Sri Aurobindo tried to use English translations rather than the original Sanskrit terms whenever possible. He then capitalized them to indicate that he used them with a specialist, and often elevated, meaning. Mind stands here for manas in its oldest and widest Vedic sense, which includes all the mental powers, intellect, intelligence, understanding, perception, sense, conscience, etc. (Elsewhere, Sri Aurobindo uses manas more often with the much narrower meaning of sense-mind.)
4. There is an extensive literature in English about Patanjali’s Yogasutras. A good place to start is B. K. Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1993). A more scholarly approach, inclusive an excellent glossary cum index of all Sanskrit words used in the text, see Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation and Commentary (1979/1989).
5. It may be noted that the term Overmind for the topmost layer of the lower hemisphere was introduced by Sri Aurobindo only after the Arya period (1914–1920). In the unrevised parts of The Synthesis of Yoga (part of “The Yoga of Divine Knowledge,” “The Yoga of Devotion,” and “The Yoga of Self-Perfection”) the words Supermind and supramental are not yet used in the specific sense he later gave to them. In these texts, they are often used to denote what he later called the Overmind, and sometimes even simply to denote anything above the ordinary mind. For a clear exposition of the difference, see his Letters on Yoga — I (p. 149 onwards).
6. Sri Aurobindo holds that there are also “beings” in the various typal planes: conscious formations and forces that have some degree of independent agency, though no individual Self in the human sense.
7. Ṛg Veda V.81.5 as translated by Sri Aurobindo (SV, p. 286)
8. In his time, Swami Sivananda was considered by many in India to be of similar spiritual accomplishment as Sri Aurobindo.
9. In a few letters about this distinction, Sri Aurobindo (LY – II, pp. 433, 441) identified this “great teacher” as Sri Ramakrishna.
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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