The Sevenfold Chord of Being
In Sri Aurobindo's, originally Vedantic, scheme the world is presented as a hierarchy of seven planes. The topmost three are the worlds of Sat, Cit and Ananda, which we have encountered earlier as constituting together the nature of the Ultimate Reality. Sat is the highest truth of being; Cit is the infinite, divine consciousness and will; Ananda, the creative delight of existence. The lower three planes are the worlds of matter, life, and mind with which we humans are more familiar. In between the two hemispheres is the link-plane of the supramental Truth-Consciousness, vijñāna or gnosis. There are certainly different schools of interpretation for these planes of reality, but rather than entering this oftentimes rivaling discourse, I will make ample use of Sri Aurobindo’s own words in the hope that this will bring a sense of the distinct flavour of these planes and of the richness that ensues from his multi-layered conceptualization of the manifestation in which we live.
Consider a hierarchical model at the bottom of which are the structural patterns of the ordinary, material world most familiar to science. On a macroscopic scale, the world is here well-defined, fixed in place and time, and obeys seemingly immutable laws with consciousness fully oblivious of its self-existence. Even if the dynamic properties of the physical world turn out to be an infinite energy ever in movement, the pattern on which the energy moves is largely static. In the Indian philosophy one would say that its basic property is tamas, inertia. The physical world is primarily known to us objectively as the object of our senses. But there is a special type of physical consciousness that is to some extent subjectively accessible: the consciousness present in our own body. Our access to our own body-consciousness is, however, limited. We can discern, for example, whether we are healthy or ill, full of energy or tired, but most of the processes that take place in our bodies are automatic and remain outside of our awareness. With specialized attention and training the body-consciousness can, however, be developed and refined, e.g., through dance, sport, hatha-yoga, martial arts, or other forms of practice. A developed body-consciousness cannot only lead to more grace, beauty, or performance, but is also closely related to health. Within the Indian tradition it is widely believed that with sufficient practice one can learn to bring many aspects of the body-consciousness under control, maintain a greater inner harmony, and so boost one’s resistance against disease. Within the Western tradition there are forms of psychotherapy that also make use of the body-consciousness, e.g., for the treatment of psychosomatic conditions. It has repeatedly been found that once traumatic experiences have led to restrictions in physical functioning or anatomical malformations (e.g., stress-ulcers, certain types of backaches, etc.), knowing “with one’s mind” that there is a psychological factor involved is not sufficient to bring about change. If one wants to restore normal functioning, it is necessary to enter into the body-consciousness itself to resolve the negative issue there. This is an area of therapy where cooperation between Western and Indian perspectives and “techniques” are extremely fruitful.
If the chief property of the physical plane is stability, the characteristic quality of the vital plane is dynamism, or rajas. It is the plane of the life energies, interactions, mutuality, attraction, and repulsion. Its laws are based on self-assertion, the will to increase one’s life. Where the vital plane penetrates and influences the physical plane, it manifests in nature as plant and animal life. In society it expresses itself in everything that has to do with human relations, most typically in theatre, movies, business, politics. In the individual the vital plane is the seat of basic life-instincts and energies, such as fear, anger, hatred, self-assertiveness, aggression, and ambition; but it also includes the realm of love, courage, compassion, joy, and a sense of aesthetics. In our ordinary waking consciousness we can know vital/emotional movements only subjectively inside ourselves. The emotions and vital energies of others we have to infer from observations of their physical correlates, or we have to assume them by proxy on the basis of self-referential reports. In the Indian system, as we have seen, the private character of emotions is attributed exclusively to the limitations of the observing consciousness and it is not accounted for by ascribing a lesser degree of objective reality to what happens in the vital plane. In other words, emotions like fear and love are not seen as purely subjective states but also as objectively existing forces. And because everything is in principle conscious, these forces are even treated as beings living “out there” in the vital plane.1.
The mental plane is the plane of ideas and thoughts. While in ordinary parlance mind is often equated with consciousness – or even taken as a wider concept than consciousness because it includes both the conscious and the (supposedly) unconscious – in Sri Aurobindo’s terminology “mind” is used only for one specific variety of consciousness. The mind is a more emancipated form of consciousness than the physical and vital forms of consciousness. In the physical plane, consciousness is fully engrossed in its own being. In the vital plane, consciousness is still centred in its own being, but already aware of “the other.” It is typically the plane of I/Thou relationships. On the mental plane, we see the first beginnings of a further ability of consciousness to rise above its own individuality: thoughts can be abstract and, at least to some limited extent, unrelated to any specific individual ego or situation. The mind is thus characteristically the plane of objective, generalized statements, ideas, thoughts, intelligence, etc. Though its characteristic property is sattva, harmony, the ordinary mind is in its essence more analytical than synthetic. It is a dividing principle that measures and delimits. As with the other gradations of consciousness, mind is seen to exist as an independent plane, without the encumbrances of matter and life, but also as an involved presence within these lower planes of consciousness. Within the physical world it manifests most typically as the embodied human mind. Within human society, it is most typically represented by philosophy, science and technology. Within the individual it contains everything related to cognition, perceptions, memory, different types of thought, intelligence, language and so on.
Within the mind, five subplanes are distinguished: the ordinary mind, the Higher Mind, the Illumined Mind, the Intuitive Mind, and finally, the Overmind. The ordinary mind we are all familiar with has no direct access to reality in its fullness. While striving for applied and theoretical knowledge, it starts at ignorance. It does not have the ability to move from “light to greater light,” as is possible in some of the higher planes, but it is perpetually struggling with difficulty to arise out of “darkness”. The ordinary mind is, in Sri Aurobindo’s terminology, primarily a physical mind in the sense that it is dependent on the physical senses for its basic “data” and that it functions best when dealing with mental models of the physical aspects of reality. It characteristically deals with reflections and symbolic representations of reality, rather than with reality itself. It cannot take cognizance of reality itself, because in order to function it has to delineate separate “objects” from their supporting background and from each other. Where it tries to see the whole, it actually conceives of an assembly constructed out of parts. It cannot arrive at absolute truth as what it reaches is never more than an aspect or a portion of it, defined in contrast to other concepts of the One who herself will forever remain beyond its grasp.
The ordinary mind is the most evolved type of consciousness available to most of human kind. Beyond lie territories that are less familiar if at all. It is probably true that short moments of access to a higher2. type of consciousness do occur quite regularly as spontaneous gifts. Surveys show that a large percentage of people report having had one or two experiences that can well be described as short visits to a higher plane of consciousness (Kennedy, Kanthamani, and Palmer 1994). Such experiences are typically valued as the highlights in a person’s life. But a comprehensive understanding of these higher planes of consciousness and a full mastery of the modes of access to them requires extensive spiritual training and is extremely rare.
A first contact with the plane immediately above the ordinary mind, the Higher Mind, as Sri Aurobindo calls it, is not too difficult. During meditation or even through an intense stress of concentrated thinking on a difficult subject, one can suddenly feel as if uplifted into a different mental space. It is a space of answers rather than questions: whatever issue one focuses on, answers immediately pop up, complete with relevant connections and implications. While in our ordinary state we build up new thoughts slowly and with difficulty out of old elements; in this mental space thoughts appear ready-made. It is a realm not of constructed thought, but of self-revealed wisdom. A major characteristic of the Higher Mind is that it allows one to conceive immediately the underlying unity between apparently opposite ideas. Thinkers who have occasional access to this level of consciousness typically produce brilliant overviews and integrations of wide subject areas with an afflatus and inner certainty that goes way beyond what can actually be derived from the supporting data. One should not expect, however, that all statements derived from the Higher Mind will be intrinsically true and perfect. One-sidedness or other distortions are difficult to avoid as long as the ideas from the Higher Mind are formulated, worked out, and elaborated while the thinker is back in the ordinary mind with all its inherent approximations and confusions. To avoid such deformations, a double purification is required: the vital consciousness must be taught not to interfere at all, and the ordinary mind needs to remain silent and needs to confine itself to reception and faithful transmission of the higher knowledge. In practice, perfection on this level is extremely difficult to achieve and requires the completeness of realization and purification of character that mark the transition from the thinker to the sage.
The higher types of consciousness are often experienced as realms of inner light that exhibit an ever-increasing brightness and clarity as one rises higher in the hierarchy. The use of words related to light for the description of these planes should thus not be considered as purely metaphorical but as renderings of how these planes are actually experienced. Those who have the habit of watching their thoughts moving about in their mind as visual entities, tend, for example, to see ordinary thoughts as somewhat opaque, sluggish, and darkish, while the thoughts in the realm of the Higher Mind are crystal clear, like the air in the high mountains. Sri Aurobindo describes the Higher Mind as follows:
[It is] a mind no longer of mingled light and obscurity or half-light, but a large clarity of the Spirit. Its basic substance is a unitarian sense of being with a powerful multiple dynamisation capable of the formation of a multitude of aspects of knowledge, ways of action, forms and significances of becoming, of all of which there is a spontaneous inherent knowledge.... its special character, its activity of consciousness are dominated by Thought; it is a luminous thought-mind, a mind of Spirit-born conceptual knowledge ... conceiving swiftly, victoriously, multitudinously, formulating and by self-power of the Idea effectually realising its conceptions.
— LD, p. 974
It is useful to remember that at every level of consciousness there are representations and reflections of the levels above it. From the Higher Mind onwards each new level looks so splendid, comprehensive, and perfect that the unwary traveller can easily conclude that he has reached the Ultimate Reality. At the level of the Higher Mind, its unitary character, its ability to conceptualize how seemingly opposite ideas complement and enrich each other, can easily give illusion of having reached the Gnostic or Supramental consciousness, while what one has seen is only the shadow, or at best the reflection of this non-dual consciousness on the, much lower, level of the (Higher) mind.
While the Higher Mind is the plane where the sage and thinker can find fulfilment, the Illumined Mind, which comes above the Higher Mind, is the world of the seer. Interestingly, Sri Aurobindo (LD, p. 980) holds that vision is a higher power of knowledge than mere thought:
Thought creates a representative image of Truth; it offers that to the mind as a means of holding Truth and making it an object of knowledge; but the body itself of Truth is caught and exactly held in the sunlight of a deeper spiritual sight to which the representative figure created by thought is secondary and derivative, powerful for communication of knowledge, but not indispensable for reception or possession of knowledge.
The Illumined Mind works primarily by vision and not anymore by thought:
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... a rapturous ecstasy of knowledge.
LD, pp. 978,79
According to Sri Aurobindo, there are different types of knowledge and the ultimate variety is what he calls “knowledge by identity,” a kind of unmediated, immediate, and “inevitable” knowledge that is possible because in their ultimate essence, existence and consciousness are one. In our ordinary mind we have this type of absolute knowledge only of our own self-existence. But this perfect, certain knowledge about our own existence is entirely point-like. It contains only the very fact that we exist. All further detail is added in the form of the same type of constructed knowledge that we have of the outer reality. The ordinary mind is dependent on unreliable perceptions of our own inner states (traits, emotions, thoughts, etc.) and on indirectly acquired data from our memory, senses, and the like.
On the level of the higher and Illumined Mind, knowledge is not constructed anymore like in the ordinary mind out of data indirectly acquired through the senses. This is one great step forward, but it is still not the unmediated, immediate, and “inevitable” knowledge, which Sri Aurobindo calls “knowledge by identity.” It still involves a separation between the knower and the known, the self as subject and nature as object. A true knowledge by identity begins to become possible only on the level of the Intuitive Mind. It is only there that it is in principle possible to know any aspect of reality with the same directness and absolute certainty with which one knows one’s own existence.
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... that the intuition leaps out like a spark or lightning-flash from the shock of the meeting.... This close perception is more than sight, more than conception: it is the result of a penetrating and revealing touch which carries in it sight and conception as part of itself or as its natural consequence. A concealed or slumbering identity, not yet recovering itself, still remembers or conveys by the intuition its own contents and the intimacy of its self-feeling and self-vision of things, its light of truth, its overwhelming and automatic certitude.
LD, pp. 981,82
Even in our ordinary mind there are sometimes short flashes of insight that come from the intuitive plane. But most of what passes as intuition is of much lower provenance. On the ordinary mental plane thoughts are constructed on the basis of memories and sense-perceptions and the word intuition is often used for such ordinary, “constructed” thoughts that have simply come faster than expected. Pseudo-intuitions may also arrive from lower intermediate layers and even if an idea comes as a genuine intuition from the heights it may get clad immediately in thoughts and words from lower planes so that the end result may still be of a very mixed and inferior character. It is only when we raise our consciousness completely into the Intuitive plane itself, that we can, in principle, receive intuitions with their original and intrinsic reliability.
The Intuitive Mind is the highest plane of consciousness in which one can dwell with some sense, however diminished, of a separate individuality. Beyond that one can only go when one has reached a cosmic consciousness.
[The Overmind is] a power of cosmic consciousness, a principle of global knowledge which carries in it a delegated light from the supramental Gnosis. It is, therefore, only by an opening into the cosmic consciousness that the overmind ascent and descent can be made wholly possible: a high and intense individual opening upwards is not sufficient, — to that vertical ascent towards summit Light there must be added a vast horizontal expansion of the consciousness into some totality of the Spirit.... When the Overmind descends, the predominance of the centralising ego-sense is entirely subordinated, lost in largeness of being and finally abolished; a wide cosmic perception and feeling of a boundless universal self and movement replaces it... not only the separate ego but all sense of individuality, even of a subordinated or instrumental individuality, may entirely disappear... [I]f the delight or the centre of Force is felt in what was the personal mind, life or body, it is not with a sense of personality but as a field of manifestation, and this sense of the delight or of the action of Force is not confined to the person or the body but can be felt at all points in an unlimited consciousness of unity which pervades everywhere.
LD, pp. 984,985
And yet, the Overmind consciousness is not a full Truth-Consciousness. This is found only on the next higher, the supramental plane. In the Overmind the element of division is still there:
although [the Overmind] draws from the Truth, it is here that begins the separation of aspects of the Truth, the forces and their working out as if they were independent truths and this is a process that ends, as one descends to ordinary Mind, Life and Matter, in a complete division, fragmentation, separation from the indivisible Truth above. There is no longer the essential, total, perfectly harmonising and unifying knowledge, or rather knowledge for ever harmonious because for ever one, which is the character of supermind. In the supermind, mental divisions and oppositions cease, the problems created by our dividing and fragmenting mind disappear and Truth is seen as a luminous whole. In the Overmind there is not yet the actual fall into Ignorance, but the first step is taken which will make the fall inevitable.
LY—I, p. 147
In the Upanishads, the Overmind plane is often described as a Golden Lid that covers the face of the Truth: the Overmind contains a million reflections of the truth, and they are all so close to the source that each of them can easily be taken as the One Truth itself. It might well be this living sense of an absolute truth – which actually, in spite of its absoluteness, is yet limited to only one aspect of the Truth – that forms the psychological basis of the frequent conflicts between sects and religions.
Many great mystics were aware of this difficulty and accepted nothing as true except the Absolute beyond manifestation. Spiritual literature from all over the world testifies to the fact that it is indeed possible to jump, as it were, straight from a fairly ordinary mind to an experience, if we may call it so, of the ineffable Absolute. It is often described as a passage through a narrow crack or hole in a thick lid that separates our ordinary mind from the Divine. For the purpose of individual liberation or salvation this is enough. One experience of the absolute consciousness is sufficient to change one’s outlook on life permanently. But the stress on mokṣa (liberation) as the only true aim of the spiritual endeavor increases the divide between spiritual life and life in the world. For all the good this may do to the liberated individual, the world remains as it is. As the Indian experience shows, collective life may even deteriorate, for one could say that as the Indian civilization got increasingly focused on the non-worldly pursuit of the Divine, it began to neglect the dynamic development of life in the world.
Interestingly, it seems that the ancient Vedic Rishis were less in a hurry for liberation than their more recent descendants. They carefully lifted their consciousness up from plane to plane, describing in their rich and symbolic language the worlds and forces they encountered on the way. Following in their footsteps Sri Aurobindo made the detailed map of all the intervening worlds of which this is a short summary. On the basis of these explorations, Sri Aurobindo made a sharp distinction between the Overmind, as the highest sub-plane of the mind, and the supramental plane.
The supramental plane is the plane of the Truth-Consciousness, Ṛta-Cit. It is in many ways the most interesting, but also the most difficult to conceptualize, because our highest faculty for understanding and expressing reality is the mind, which is an instrument of division belonging to the lower hemisphere. In the Supermind there is differentiation, but no real division. Each entity is still fully conscious of the whole of which it is a part and of the Divine which it is, and knows to be, not only in essence but in every aspect of its being. There is an intrinsic and potentially complete knowledge of the Divine essence as well as of the myriad details of the manifestation. Because consciousness is here perfect in will as well as in knowledge, it operates in an intrinsic and complete harmony. On the side of action there is in a supramental consciousness no gap between intention and result, and all action takes place in a perfect harmony with everything else.
It is the One Truth deploying and determining the manifestation of its Powers — all these powers working as a multiple Oneness in harmony, without opposition or collision, according to the One Will inherent in all.
LY—I, p. 147
At its summits it is the divine Gnosis “by which the Divine knows and upholds and governs and enjoys the Universe” (EDH, p. 366). It is clear that this is a type of consciousness that is not only difficult to describe but even difficult to conceive and our mind can at best reflect its “luminous shadow” (SY, p. 418; LD, p. 174; LD, p. 692).
Above the supramental plane we find the triple plane of Sachchidananda, which is still more difficult to describe, if not entirely ineffable. There has been an extensive philosophical debate on whether the experience of the Ultimate Reality that the different mystical traditions refer to is actually one and the same experience. For example, Aldous Huxley (1946) popularized the ancient idea that there is one perennial philosophy that is the same in all cultures, though expressed variously. Steven Katz (1978, pp. 62-3) and other constructionists stressed that all human experiences are culturally mediated and that the differences in description are too substantial to be ignored. Robert Forman (1990, e.g. p. 42) countenanced this assertion by saying that there is a long mystical tradition whose exact purpose is to rise above all cultural determinations into a realm of “pure consciousness.” Within Sri Aurobindo’s conceptual framework it is not difficult to see the truth in all three standpoints. If one restricts oneself exclusively to the perspective of the physical mind, the lowest mental plane, which is limited to what is manifest in the physical reality, then one can only see that different religions make different statements and one cannot know if they refer to the same experience or not. If one rises to the Higher Mind, one gets a strong inner sense of the underlying unity and one becomes inclined to unifying schemes like the philosophia perennis, but at the cost of precision and detail. When one arrives, far above all such attempts at conceptualization, at the pure, unmediated reality, one is still forced to use the limited terms of the mind when one expresses oneself, not only to others but even in one’s subsequent self-experience. Once one becomes aware of this, once can see that oneness and difference are two aspects of the truth, that complement rather than contradict each other.
The top four planes of the Vedic Sevenfold Chord of Being denote different aspects of the Absolute. So it is tempting to group the major religious and spiritual traditions according to the aspect they use most typically to describe the nature of the Ultimate Reality. These major traditions are, of course, extremely complex socio-cultural entities that cover millions of individuals spread over vast territories and long stretches of time, and such a simple classification can thus do no more than indicate a centre of gravity. One can expect that within each tradition there are individual mystics who use descriptions of their experience that, as such, are more typical for one of the other traditions. Yet, as long as one remains aware of these constraints, the classification on the basis of the Vedic Sevenfold Chord of Being does shed an interesting light on the question of how a single reality can give rise to such widely divergent phenomenologies and conceptualizations as we see in this field. Sri Aurobindo (SY, p. 398) gives the following description:
But in arriving to these planes [of Saccidānanda] or deriving from them, the limitations of our mentality pursue us.... [T]he mind is an inveterate divider of the indivisible and its whole nature is to dwell on one thing at a time to the exclusion of others or to stress it to the subordination of others. Thus in approaching Sachchidananda it will dwell on its aspect of the pure existence, Sat, and consciousness and bliss are compelled then to lose themselves or remain quiescent in the experience of pure, infinite being which leads to the realisation of the quietistic Monist. Or it will dwell on the aspect of consciousness, Chit, and existence and bliss become then dependent on the experience of an infinite transcendent Power and Conscious-Force, which leads to the realisation of the Tantric worshipper of Energy. Or it will dwell on the aspect of delight, Ananda, and existence and consciousness then seem to disappear into a bliss without basis of self-possessing awareness or constituent being, which leads to the realisation of the Buddhistic seeker of Nirvana. Or it will dwell on some aspect of Sachchidananda which comes to the mind from the supramental Knowledge, Will or Love, and then the infinite impersonal aspect of Sachchidananda is almost or quite lost in the experience of the Deity which leads to the realisations of the various religions and to the possession of some supernal world or divine status of the human soul in relation to God.
Seen from the ordinary mind such a broad unification of the major religious and spiritual realizations may in first instance appear presumptuous or even illogical, but perhaps there is a different “logic of the infinite” that is more tolerant of such apparently contradictory descriptions of a single Ultimate Reality. On the level of the Higher Mind one can, in fact, apprehend the unity underlying this apparent diversity with a direct perception. At levels beyond the mind, in what Sri Aurobindo calls the supramental consciousness, one can, according to Sri Aurobindo, even have a direct experience of all four ultimate states at the same time. At this highest level these oppositions are no longer experienced as exclusive of each other and, to use the famous phrase from the Upanishads, the all in the One, the One in the all, and the One as the all are lived in one continuous experience. It may be clear that such a direct experience is something entirely different from the logical conclusions one can arrive at on the level of the ordinary mind, or even from the direct conceptual perception that one can have on the level of the Higher Mind.
Sri Aurobindo’s map of the main planes of consciousness was not just developed for the sake of cartography. Instead, he was interested in the dynamics of consciousness, in evolution, in collective and individual progress. As such this description of the different planes and types of consciousness is best considered in the context of individual development and the evolution of consciousness.3
1. In the modern West, experiencing non-physical entities in visions or hallucinations is widely considered an indication of mental disease, but in the Indian tradition this is considered a neutral capacity that can occur together with mental disorder as well as with spiritual development. Whether a person with this capacity is considered mentally deranged or spiritually developed (or both at the same time) depends on the type of entities encountered and the manner in which the encounters are handled. If the person is overpowered by entities perceived as coming from the lower vital planes, the person is considered possessed and treated as such. If the entities are perceived as coming from higher mental or spiritual planes, or if she is in control of them and uses them wisely for socially acceptable ends, the person is venerated as a saint. As such, the capacity to perceive beings from planes other than the physical is considered a skill (siddhi) that can be trained, though doing so is generally considered risky and not advisable for spiritual development.
2. In this discussion I use the terms higher and lower for different types of consciousness, even though this may not be considered “politically correct” by some. One reason to do so is that these different types of consciousness are in inner experience actually sensed as located above and below each other: one has a sense of rising from one type of consciousness to the next. For an interesting discussion of such hierarchies one could consult Wilber (1997, pp. 74-5).
3. Sri Aurobindo's main book on individual spiritual development is The Synthesis of Yoga; his main work on the evolution of consciousness is The Life Divine. Both are available from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department. For an overview of his idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness and how it relates to the interdisciplinary field of Consciousness Studies, one could consult "Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary ontology of consciousness".
Forman, Robert K. C. ed. (1990). The Problem of Pure Consciousness, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Katz, Steven T. (1978). “Language, Epistemology and Mysticism,” in Steven T. Katz (Ed.), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, pp. 62-3.
Kennedy, J.E.; Kanthamani, H. and Palmer, John (1994). “Psychic and Spiritual Experiences, Health, Well-Being, and Meaning in Life,” The Journal of Parapsychology, 58, December: 353-83.
Wilber, K. (1997), The Eye of the Spirit: An integral vision for a world gone slightly mad, Boston: Shambala.