Sri Aurobindo's essentially Vedic concept of consciousness§
In the Vedic ontology, from which Sri Aurobindo derived his concept of consciousness, consciousness is not only seen as individualized awareness. It is the very essence of everything in existence and as such not only the source of individuation and the sense of self, but also a formative energy:
Consciousness is not only power of awareness of self and things, it is or has also a dynamic and creative energy. It can determine its own reactions or abstain from reactions; it can not only answer to forces, but create or put out from itself forces. Consciousness is Chit but also Chit Shakti, awareness but also conscious force.
— Sri Aurobindo 1991, p. 234
Consciousness is moreover not considered as a simple yes/no phenomenon that is either there or not, but as manifesting in a hierarchy ranging from the seeming obliviousness of matter below, to the seemingly superconscient Spirit above. All three aspects of consciousness – its cosmic nature, its energy aspect, and its ability to differentiate itself into varying forms and degrees – combine to produce the processes of involution and evolution of consciousness that have given to our world its particular character:
Consciousness is a fundamental thing, the fundamental thing in existence – it is the energy, the motion, the movement of consciousness that creates the universe and all that is in it – not only the macrocosm but the microcosm is nothing but consciousness arranging itself. For instance, when consciousness … forgets itself in the action it becomes an apparently "unconscious" energy; when it forgets itself in the form it becomes the electron, the atom, the material object. In reality, it is still consciousness that works in the energy and determines the form and the evolution of form. When it wants to liberate itself, slowly, evolutionarily, out of Matter, but still in the form, it emerges as life, as animal, as man and it can go on evolving itself still farther out of its involution and become something more than mere man.
— op. cit., pp. 236-7
This passage contains, in a very simple form, the essence of Sri Aurobindo's concept of consciousness and evolution. The main point of it is that consciousness is not seen as something produced by the brain, or limited to humans, but rather as a fundamental aspect of reality, if not the very essence of it. As one of the oldest Upanishads, the Bṛhadāraṅyaka, says about the Ultimate Reality: "This great being, infinite, without bounds, is just a mass of consciousness" (translated by Phillips 1997, p. 9 fn.).
In the Vedāntic system the fundamental reality is described as a unity (Saccidānanda) consisting of existence (Sat), consciousness (Cit) and delight (Ānanda). Because the indivisible unity of Saccidānanda is considered the essential nature of everything in existence, it follows that in this ontology nothing can exist that is not conscious or that misses delight in its own existence. Neither is consciousness possible without delight in its own existence, nor can there be delight that is not conscious.
This does not seem to tally with the ordinary human experience. It looks to us as if life is not always joyful and that many things are unconscious, but this is attributed to a, typically human, egocentric assessment of reality. We consider everything that happens outside the narrow range of our ordinary waking (or dreaming) state as "unconscious," and experience any input that is for us too little, too much, or of the wrong kind as "suffering," but that doesn't mean that consciousness and delight are completely absent in those events. Cit and Ānanda are postulated as the very essence of everything in existence, and their presence or absence can thus not be dependent on the ability or inability of our biological instrumentation to detect them.
We may make a comparison with the commonly used measurement of temperature in Fahrenheit or Celsius. These two scales have negative values below some in itself quite arbitrary threshold that happens to be convenient to us. But the scientific scale to measure temperature is Kelvin, which has an absolute zero and only positive values. It seems reasonable to suggest that when we try to develop a scientifically useful concept of consciousness and delight, we should also use scales that can, in the very nature of things, have no negative values, and this is exactly what the Indian system has done. Interestingly, this is not only a conceptual convenience, but matches with (and is in all likelihood derived from) an experiential reality. Through contemplative practices or otherwise one can experience consciousness in situations that formerly appeared sub- or super-conscious, and experience delight even in situations that used to feel painful or indifferent.
Of course, this doesn't mean that the Indian authors are blind to the limitations of individual centres of consciousness and delight that are part of ordinary life. In the ancient texts it is stressed again and again that normal human life is a state of ignorance and suffering. But ignorance and suffering are seen as characteristic of our limited view of the world, not of the world as it is in itself (that is, as it is seen by the original creative consciousness). They claim that we can learn how to participate in the perfection of consciousness and delight as long as we fulfill the psychological conditions.
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 difficult question then becomes 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.
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.
§. This passage is from a chapter titled ‘Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary ontology of consciousness’ in Helmut Wautischer (ed.). (2008) Ontology of Consciousness: Percipient Action, Boston: The MIT Press. In that chapter, a comparison is drawn between Sri Aurobindo's evolutionary conceptualization of consciousness and the concepts of consciousness more commonly encountered in contemporary consciousness studies.
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.
17. 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.