This paper was presented at
Psychology: The Indian Contribution
National Conference on
Indian Psychology, Yoga and Consciousness
organised by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research
at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education
Pondicherry, India, 10-13 December 2004
(click to enlarge)
Sri Aurobindo on cosmic consciousness—an integral view
By A.S. Dalal
In the beginning of the last Century cosmic consciousness emerged as an area of research in the wake of two classic publications—R.H. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness (1901) and William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)—and of the epoch-making works of Sigmund Freud which began appearing during the first decade of the century. Referring to this development Sri Aurobindo wrote (1972a, p. 21), “The possibility of a cosmic consciousness in humanity is coming slowly to be admitted in modern Psychology… although still classified… as a hallucination”. We do not know whether Sri Aurobindo had seen Bucke’s book, but he was certainly familiar with James and with Freudian thought, and his above-quoted statement most probably alludes to the divergent views of James and the Freudian school.
James (quoted in Acklom, 1991), the first notable psychologist to argue for the need of recognising and studying mystical experience, wrote to Bucke after reading his book: “I believe that you have brought this kind of consciousness ‘home’ to the attention of students of human nature in a way so definite and inescapable that it will be impossible henceforward to overlook it or ignore it.”
These words of James, whom Wilber regards as “America’s foremost psychologist”, have not been borne out even after a century, as evidenced by the fact that the term “cosmic consciousness” is still not to be found in the standard textbooks of psychology or psychological dictionaries. However, a few thinkers, notably Ken Wilber and Stanislav Grof, do speak of cosmic consciousness, and a book entitled Cosmic Consciousness Revisited has been written by Robert M. May (1993). One of the chief reasons for the meagre attention given in modern psychology to mystical experiences such as that of cosmic consciousness lies in the fact that modern psychology has been for the most part a study of the ordinary consciousness and experience. Consequently, mystical states, which are experienced only by rare individuals, have tended to be disregarded or even dismissed. As Freud (1961, p. 43) remarked: “If the truth of religious doctrines is dependent on an inner experience which bears witness to that truth, what is one to do about the many people who do not have this rare experience?”
Even someone like C.G. Jung (1958, p.484), who was greatly open to Eastern spiritual thought, stated that the experience of a universal or egoless consciousness spoken of in Indian spirituality is intellectually inconceivable.
To us, consciousness is inconceivable without an ego…. If there is no ego there is nobody to be conscious of anything. The ego is therefore indispensable to the conscious process….an ego-less mental condition can only be unconscious to us, for the simple reason that there would be nobody to witness it…. I cannot imagine a conscious mental state that does not relate to a subject, that is, to an ego.
Summing up Jung’s views on mystical experience and cosmic consciousness, Robert May (1993, p. 204) states:
He [Jung] denies the reality of “superconsciousness”; he calls mystic at-one-ment a “withdrawal from the world of consciousness”; he calls the Zen state, “satori”, “a state of unconsciousness”; he calls “cosmic consciousness” the “lowest level of consciousness”….
Meaning of cosmic consciousness
It should be noted that the term “cosmic consciousness” has been used with somewhat different meanings by different thinkers. Robert May (1993, p. 7) employs the term in a broad sense and applies it to all mystical experience. As he states:
Bucke’s experience of what he calls “Cosmic Consciousness” resembles that of the great mystics throughout history and in every culture; …the mystical experience is very much one and the same, although it is interpreted afterward differently through the filters of one’s cultural religious schemata.
James, (1958, p. 306) who speaks of “varieties” of mystical experience, states that what Bucke describes as cosmic consciousness denotes “the more distinctly characterized of these [mystical] phenomena”. According to Bucke (1901/1991, p.3), the distinct characteristics of cosmic consciousness are:
as its name implies, a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe…. Along with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment or illumination…. To this is added a state of moral exaltation, an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness…. With these come, what may be called a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life….
Grof (1988, p.43) classifies the experience of cosmic consciousness under a category of transpersonal experiences which are characterised by “experiential extension beyond consensus reality and space-time”. Besides cosmic consciousness, Grof includes under this category various other distinguishable experiences, some of which would be regarded as mystical, such as the experience of the Supracosmic and Metacosmic Void.
Wilber, (1999, pp.4, 6) using the term “Mind” (with a capital “M”) in the sense of “the absolute and ultimate reality of the universe”, regards cosmic consciousness, which is identification with the universal Mind, as representing “our Supreme Identity”, “the only real state of consciousness, all others being essentially illusions”. In this sense of “unity consciousness”, cosmic consciousness, from Wilber’s viewpoint, would apply only to the highest mystical state.
Sri Aurobindo uses the term cosmic consciousness for a specific experience or state of consciousness. He speaks of various planes of inner consciousness (namely, the inner physical consciousness, the inner vital consciousness, the inner mind and the psychic) which lie behind the outer normal consciousness, and various planes of higher consciousness (namely, the Higher Mind, the Illumined Mind, Intuition, the Overmind and the Supermind) which lie above the ordinary consciousness. Corresponding to the inner consciousness and the higher consciousness, Sri Aurobindo speaks of two movements of consciousness in the process of growth: an inward movement by which one enters the planes of inner consciousness, and an upward movement by which one ascends to the planes of higher consciousness. All the planes of inner and higher consciousness are both individual and universal or cosmic. The inward and the upward movements of consciousness just mentioned give one access respectively to the inner and higher planes of consciousness in the individual. It is by a third type of movement of consciousness, namely, widening or horizontal extension so as to embrace the universe that one has the cosmic consciousness. Thus cosmic consciousness may be experienced on any of the inner or higher planes of consciousness mentioned above. Without the movement of widening, one can by the inward movement open oneself to the planes of inner consciousness within oneself, and similarly by an upward movement one can ascend to the higher planes of consciousness within oneself; the various types of experience that one would have through the inwardization or ascent could be called mystical, but they would not be regarded as experiences of the cosmic consciousness from the viewpoint of Sri Aurobindo’s thought.
One other point should be noted. According to Bucke, cosmic consciousness is a state which is present only for a short while, lasting from a few seconds to a few hours, after which one returns to the ordinary egoic state of consciousness. Such a transient phenomenon would generally be described by Sri Aurobindo as an experience, which he distinguishes from a realisation. Regarding the distinction between an experience and a realisation, Sri Aurobindo (1972d, p. 884-85) writes:
There are two classes of things that happen in yoga, realisations and experiences. Realisations are the reception in the consciousness and the establishment there of the fundamental truths of the Divine, of the Higher or Divine Nature, of the world-consciousness and the play of its forces, of one’s own self and real nature and the i(nner nature of things, the power of these things growing in one till they are a part of one’s inner life and existence,—as for instance, the realisation of the Divine Presence, the descent and settling of the higher Peace, Light, Force, Ananda in the consciousness, their workings there, the realisation of the divine or spiritual love, the perception of one’s own psychic being, the discovery of one’s true mental being, true vital being, true physical being, the realisation of the overmind or the supramental consciousness, the clear perception of the relation of all these things to our present inferior nature and their action on it to change that lower nature. The list, of course, might be infinitely longer. These things also are often called experiences when only come in flashes, snatches or rare visitations; they are spoken of as full realisations only when they become very positive or frequent or continuous or normal.
The unique value of Sri Aurobindo’s account of cosmic consciousness lies in the fact that it is based on abiding and integral realisations, and is given first-hand by someone whose approach to the exploration of consciousness is a rare combination of mystical experience and a scientific methodology.
Sri Aurobindo on the nature of cosmic consciousness
Sri Aurobindo states the meaning and nature of cosmic consciousness in the following passages:
Man is shut up at present in his surface individual consciousness and knows the world (or rather the surface of it) only through his outward mind and senses and by interpreting their contacts with the world. By yoga there can open in him a consciousness which becomes one with that of the world; he becomes directly aware of a universal Being, universal states, universal Force and Power, universal Mind, Life, Matter and lives in conscious relations with these things. He is then said to have cosmic consciousness (1972d, p. 1070).
The cosmic consciousness is that of the universe, of the cosmic spirit and cosmic Nature with all the beings and forces within it. All that is as much conscious as a whole as the individual separately is, though in a different way. The consciousness of the individual is part of this, but a part feeling itself as a separate being. Yet all the time most of what he is comes into him from the cosmic consciousness. But there is a wall of separative ignorance between. Once it breaks down he becomes aware of the cosmic Self, of the consciousness of the cosmic Nature, of the forces playing in it, etc. He feels all that as he now feels physical things and impacts. He finds it all to be one with his larger or universal self.
There is the universal mental, the universal vital, the universal physical Nature and it is out of a selection of their forces and movements that the individual mind, vital and physical are made (1972c, p. 315).
The cosmic consciousness is that in which the limits of ego, personal mind and body disappear and one becomes aware of a cosmic vastness which is or filled by a cosmic spirit and aware also of the direct play of cosmic forces, universal mind forces, universal life forces, universal energies of Matter, universal overmind forces (explanations??). But one does not become aware of all these together; the opening of the cosmic consciousness is usually progressive. It is not that the ego, the body, the personal mind disappear, but one feels them as only a small part of oneself. One begins to feel others too as part of oneself or varied repetitions of oneself, the same self modified by Nature in other bodies. Or, at the least, as living in the larger universal self which is henceforth one's own greater reality. All things in fact begin to change their nature and appearance; one's whole experience of the world is radically different from that of those who are shut up in their personal selves. One begins to know things by a different kind of experience, more direct, not depending on the external mind and the senses (1972c, p. 316).
From the point of view of spiritual and occult Truth, what takes shape in the consciousness of man is a reflection and particular kind of formation, in a difficult medium, of things much greater in their light, power and beauty or in their force and range which came to it from the cosmic consciousness of which man is a limited and, in his present state of evolution, a still ignorant part (1972c, p. 423-24).
It is evident that by dwelling in this cosmic consciousness our whole experience and valuation of everything in the universe will be radically changed. As individual egos we dwell in the Ignorance and judge everything by a broken, partial and personal standard of knowledge; we experience everything according to the capacity of a limited consciousness and force and are therefore unable to give a divine response or set the true value upon any part of cosmic experience. We experience limitation, weakness, incapacity, grief, pain, struggle and its contradictory emotions and we accept these things and their opposites as opposites in an eternal duality and cannot reconcile them in the eternity of an absolute good and happiness. We live by fragments of experience and judge by our fragmentary values each thing and the whole. When we try to arrive at absolute values we only promote some partial view of things to do duty for a totality in the divine workings; we then make believe that our fractions are integers and try to thrust our one-sided view-points into the catholicity of the all-vision of the Divine.
But by entering into the cosmic consciousness we begin to participate in that all-vision and see everything in the values of the Infinite and the One. Limitation itself, ignorance itself change their meaning for us. Ignorance changes into a particularising action of divine knowledge; strength and weakness and incapacity change into a free putting forth and holding back various measures of divine Force; joy and grief, pleasure and pain change into a mastering and a suffering of divine delight; struggle, losing its discords, becomes a balancing of forces and values in the divine harmony. We do not then suffer by the limitations of our mind, life and body; for we no longer live in these, even when we record and accept them, but in the infinity of the Spirit, and these we view in their right value and place and purpose in the manifestation, as degrees of the supreme being, conscious-force and delight of Sachchidananda veiling and manifesting Himself in the cosmos. We cease also to judge other men and things by their outward appearances and are delivered from hostile and contradictory ideas and emotions; for it is the soul that we see, the Divine that we seek and find in every thing and creature, and the rest has only a secondary value to us in a scheme of relations which exist now for us only as self-expressions of the Divine and not as having any absolute value in themselves. So too no event can disturb us, since the distinction of happy and unhappy, beneficent and maleficent happenings loses its force, and all is seen in its divine value and its divine purpose. Thus we arrive at a perfect liberation and an infinite equality. It is this consummation of which the Upanishad speaks when it says “He in whom the self has become all existences, how shall he have delusion, whence shall he have grief who knows entirely and sees in all things oneness” (1972b, p. 395-97).
The ordinary consciousness of man is confined to his own individuality—he can enter into the consciousness of others and of the universe only by indirect means or a superficial and incomplete apprehension, by sense experience, contacts of emotional sympathy, mental concepts, analogy with his own movements, inference. In yoga at a certain point this limitation breaks down, the consciousness enlarges itself, becomes directly aware of the Cosmic Self and knows the individual self to be one with it; of the Cosmic Energy and meets directly the action of the cosmic forces; of the cosmic mind, life, matter and feels first a contact of its individual mind, life, body with them, then a unity in which one's own individual mentality, vitality, physicality is felt as only a part of the universal, a wave of the ocean, a dynamo receiving and formulating the universal forces. Finally, the individual melts into the cosmic Consciousness, the whole world is felt in oneself and oneself suffused through the world—it is the cosmic Consciousness, Mind, Life, material Energy that works through the individual function. The separate ego either does not exist or is only a convenience for the universal Spirit and its action. This is the complete consummation of the cosmic Consciousness, but in its fullness it is not common, belonging properly to what we may call the overmind realisation; but a constant partial and growing experience of it or an increasing contact with the cosmic Consciousness is a normal part of yoga (1972e, p. 1604-05).
The ordinary man lives in his own personal consciousness knowing things through his mind and senses as they are touched by a world which is outside him, outside his consciousness. When the consciousness subtilises, it begins to come into contact with things in a much more direct way, not only with their forms and outer impacts but with what is inside them, but still the range may be small. But the consciousness can also widen and begin to be first in direct contact with a universe of range of things in the world, then to contain them as it were,—as it is said to see the world in oneself,—and to be in a way identified with it. To see all things in the self and the self in all things—to be aware of one being everywhere, aware directly of the different planes, their forces, their beings—that is universalisation (1972c, p. 317).
The subliminal is separated from the cosmic through a limitation by the subtler sheaths of our being, its mental, vital, subtle-physical sheaths, just as the surface nature is separated from universal Nature by the gross physical sheath, the body; but the circumscribing wall around it is more transparent, is indeed less a wall than a fence. The subliminal has besides a formation of consciousness which projects itself beyond all these sheaths and forms a circumconscient, an environing part of itself, through which it receives the contacts of the world and can become aware of them and deal with them before they enter. The subliminal is able to widen indefinitely this circumconscient envelope and more and more enlarge its self-projection into the cosmic existence around it. A point comes where it can break through the separation altogether, unite, identify itself with cosmic being, feel itself universal, one with all existence. In this freedom of entry into cosmic self and cosmic nature there is a great liberation of the individual being; it puts on a cosmic consciousness, becomes the universal individual. Its first result, when it is complete, is the realisation of the cosmic spirit, the one self inhabiting the universe, and this union may even bring about a disappearance of the sense of individuality, a merger of the ego into the world-being. Another common result is an entire openness to the universal Energy so that it is felt acting through the mind and life and body and the sense of individual action ceases. But more usually there are results of less amplitude; there is a direct awareness of universal being and nature, there is a greater openness of the mind to the cosmic Mind and its energies, to the cosmic Life and its energies, to cosmic Matter and its energies. A certain sense of unity of the individual with the cosmic, a perception of the world held within one's consciousness as well as of one's own intimate inclusion in the world consciousness can become frequent or constant in this opening; a greater feeling of unity with other beings is its natural consequence. It is then that the existence of the cosmic Being becomes a certitude and a reality and is no longer an ideative perception (1972a, p. 541-42).
The following ideas contained in the above-quoted extracts may be particularly noted.
The ordinary human consciousness is confined to one’s own individual consciousness. That is, we are directly aware of only our own thoughts, feelings and sensations. What lie outside our personal consciousness—the consciousness of other beings and things in the world—are apprehended by us only indirectly, through external sense contacts, emotional empathy or mental inference. However, the personal consciousness of our separate individual self is part of and one with the consciousness of the Cosmic Self. Our individual physical, vital and mental consciousness is derived from and is a part of a universal physical, vital and mental consciousness. But there is a wall of Ignorance between the individual consciousness and the universal consciousness. Consequently, the individual self feels itself to be separate from the universe. By means of a spiritual discipline our ordinary consciousness, which is more or less gross and dense, becomes more subtle and is able to perceive what lies outside our individual consciousness more directly through an inner perception. It becomes a direct perception of consciousness all around us through our own consciousness. Further, by a widening of the individual consciousness, it extends itself progressively so as finally to be identified with the consciousness of the universe, seeing oneself in everything in the cosmos and everything in the cosmos in oneself. One is then said to have cosmic consciousness. Thus, “When one has the cosmic consciousness, one can feel the cosmic Self as one's own self, one can feel one with other beings in the cosmos, one can feel all the forces of Nature as moving in oneself, all selves as one's own self” (1972d, p. 1071).
Two sides of the cosmic consciousness: (a) Cosmic Self and Cosmic Energy
The last statement just quoted speaks of two sides of the experience of the cosmic consciousness—cosmic Self and cosmic forces of Nature. An extract quoted earlier refers to these two sides as Cosmic Self and Cosmic Energy, for what we ordinarily call Nature, says Sri Aurobindo, is Force, “a movement of energy that assumes more or less material, more or less gross or subtle forms” (1972a, p. 80) of mind, life and matter. Therefore, in the experience of cosmic consciousness one becomes directly aware not only of Cosmic Self or Spirit but also of Cosmic Energy which manifests itself as cosmic Mind, cosmic Life and cosmic Matter. Regarding the relationship between the Cosmic Spirit and Cosmic Energy, Sri Aurobindo states: “The Cosmic Spirit or Self contains everything in the cosmos—it upholds cosmic Mind, universal Life, universal Matter as well as the overmind. The Self is more than all these things which are its formulations in Nature” (1972d, p. 1084).
The following extract speaks of the experience of cosmic consciousness in relation to its two sides:
Cosmic consciousness is a complex matter. To begin with, there are two sides to it, the experience of the Self free, infinite, silent, inactive, one in all and beyond all, and the direct experience of the cosmic Energy and its forces, workings and formations, this latter experience not being complete till one has the sense of being commensurate with the universe or pervading, exceeding and containing it. Till then there may be direct contacts, communications, interchanges with cosmic forces, beings, movements, but not the full unity of mind with the cosmic Mind, of life with the cosmic Life, of body and physical consciousness with the cosmic material Energy and its substance. Again, there may be a realisation of the Cosmic Self which is not followed by the realisation of the dynamic universal oneness. Or, on the contrary, there may be some dynamic universalising of consciousness without the experience of the free static Self omnipresent everywhere,—the preoccupation with and pleasure of the greater energies that one would thus experience would stop the way to that liberation. Also the identification or universalisation may be more on one plane or level than on another, predominantly mental or predominantly emotional (through universal sympathy or love) or vital of another kind (experience of the universal life forces) or physical (1972c, p. 246-47).
In an understanding of the two sides of cosmic consciousness lies a reconciliation of the opposition of Spirit and Matter.
[We find] in the cosmic consciousness a meeting-place where Matter becomes real to Spirit, Spirit becomes real to Matter. For in the cosmic consciousness Mind and Life are intermediaries and no longer, as they seem in the ordinary egoistic mentality, agents of separation, fomenters of an artificial quarrel between the positive and negative principles of the same unknowable Reality. Attaining to the cosmic consciousness Mind, illuminated by a knowledge that perceives at once the truth of Unity and the truth of Multiplicity and seizes on the formulae of their interaction, finds its own discords at once explained and reconciled by the divine Harmony; satisfied, it consents to become the agent of that supreme union between God and Life towards which we tend. Matter reveals itself to the realising thought and to the subtilised senses as the figure and body of Spirit—Spirit in its self-formative extension. Spirit reveals itself through the same consenting agents as the soul, the truth, the essence of Matter. Both admit and confess each other as divine, real and essentially one. Mind and Life are disclosed in that illumination as at once figures and instruments of the supreme Conscious Being by which It extends and houses Itself in material form and in that form unveils Itself to Its multiple centres of consciousness. Mind attains its self-fulfilment when it becomes a pure mirror of the Truth of Being which expresses itself in the symbols of the universe; Life, when it consciously lends its energies to the perfect self-figuration of the Divine in ever-new forms and activities of the universal existence (1972a, p. 25-26).
Speaking more specifically about Cosmic Energy, Sri Aurobindo writes:
Entering into that Consciousness, we may continue to dwell, like It, upon universal existence. Then we become aware—for all our terms of consciousness and even our sensational experience begin to change,—of Matter as one existence and of bodies as its formations in which the one existence separates itself physically in the single body from itself in all others and again by physical means establishes communication between these multitudinous points of its being. Mind we experience similarly, and Life also, as the same existence one in its multiplicity, separating and reuniting itself in each domain by means appropriate to that movement. And, if we choose, we can proceed farther and, after passing through many linking stages, become aware of a supermind whose universal operation is the key to all lesser activities. Nor do we become merely conscious of this cosmic existence, but likewise conscious in it, receiving it in sensation, but also entering into it in awareness. In it we live as we lived before in the ego-sense, active, more and more in contact, even unified more and more with other minds, other lives, other bodies than the organism we call ourselves, producing effects not only on our own moral and mental being and on the subjective being of others, but even on the physical world and its events by means nearer to the divine than those possible to our egoistic capacity (1972a, p. 21-22).
…on the side of action, of the cosmic energies, it is seen that they move in masses, waves, currents constantly constituting and reconstituting beings and objects, movements and happenings, entering into them, passing through them, forming themselves in them, throwing themselves out from them on other beings and objects. Each natural individual is a receptacle of these cosmic forces and a dynamo for their propagation; there passes from each to each a constant stream of mental and vital energies, and these run too in cosmic waves and currents no less than the forces of physical Nature. All this action is veiled from our surface mind's direct sense and knowledge, but it is known and felt by the inner being, though only through a direct contact; when the being enters into the cosmic consciousness, it is still more widely, inclusively, intimately aware of this play of cosmic forces (1972a, p. 543).
As stated in an earlier extract, one may have the realisation of the Cosmic Self without the realisation of the dynamic side of cosmic consciousness, the Cosmic Energy. This is what has usually happened in Indian spirituality which has generally aimed at the realisation of the free Self leading to liberation from cosmic existence. Therefore, whereas the concept of the Universal Self—the ātman—looms large in ancient Indian thought, not much has been said about the Universal Energy side of cosmic consciousness. Stating the need for an integral knowledge of the two sides of the cosmic consciousness, Sri Aurobindo writes:
But since we must embrace all this in the double term of the Being and the Becoming, the knowledge that we shall possess must be complete and integral. It must not stop with the realisation of the pure Self and Spirit, but include also all those modes of the Spirit by which it supports, develops and throws itself out into its cosmic manifestation. Self-knowledge and world-knowledge must be made one in the all-ensphering knowledge of the Brahman (1972b, p. 357).
Two sides of the cosmic consciousness: (b) cosmic Truth and cosmic Ignorance
Cosmic consciousness has been generally regarded, after Bucke, as a state of “illumination”. From the viewpoint of Sri Aurobindo’s integral experience, however, cosmic consciousness has two sides—cosmic Truth and cosmic Ignorance.
There are in the cosmic consciousness two sides—one the contact with and perception of the ordinary cosmic forces and the beings behind these forces, that is what I call the cosmic Ignorance—the other is the perception of the cosmic Truths, the realisation of the one universal, the one universal Force, all the Vedantic truths of the One in all and all in one, all the various aspects of the Divine in the cosmic and a host of other things can come which do help to realisation and knowledge…. (1972d, p. 1070-71).
In a letter to a disciple who reported an inner experience, Sri Aurobindo wrote:
You are taking the first steps towards the cosmic consciousness in which there are all things good and bad, true and false, the cosmic Truth and the cosmic Ignorance. I was not thinking so much of ego as of these thousand voices, possibilities, suggestions. If you avoid these, then there is no necessity of passing through the intermediate zone (1972d, p. 1053-54).
Explaining the nature of the “intermediate zone”, he states:
The intermediate zone means simply a confused condition or passage in which one is getting out of the personal consciousness and opening into the cosmic (cosmic Mind, cosmic vital, cosmic physical, something perhaps of the cosmic higher Mind) without having yet transcended the human mind levels. One is not in possession of or direct contact with the divine Truth on its own levels, but one can receive something from them, even from the overmind, indirectly. Only, as one is still immersed in the cosmic Ignorance, all that comes from above can be mixed, perverted, taken hold of for their purposes by lower, even by hostile Powers (1972d, p. 1052-53).
I mean by it [the intermediate zone] that when the sadhak gets beyond the barriers of his own embodied personal mind he enters into a wide range of experiences which are not the limited solid physical truth of things and not yet either the spiritual truth of things. It is a zone of formations, mental, vital, subtle physical, and whatever one forms or is formed by the forces of these worlds in us becomes for the sadhak for a time the truth—unless he is guided and listens to his guide. Afterwards if he gets through he discovers what it was and passes on into the subtle truth of things. It is a borderland where all the worlds meet, mental, vital, subtle physical, pseudo-spiritual—but there is no order or firm foothold—a passage between the physical and the true spiritual realms (1972d, p. 1053).
It is when one passes from the intermediate zone into the higher realms of cosmic consciousness—those of Higher Mind, Illumined Mind, Intuition and Overmind—that one comes in direct contact with the Divine Truth.
It is not that the possibility of error disappears, for that cannot be so long as mind of any kind is one's instrument for transcribing knowledge, but there is a new, vast and deep way of experiencing, seeing, knowing, contacting things; and the confines of knowledge can be rolled back to an almost unmeasurable degree (1972c, p. 316).
Even the Overmind—the highest level of Mind—is part of the Ignorance: “it [Overmind] is the highest knowledge to which the Ignorance can attain, but the knowledge is still divided and so can be a knowledge of parts and aspects of the Truth, not the integral knowldege” (1972e, p. 1161).
It is only when one rises into Supermind—the Truth-Consciousness which lies beyond Mind that one can rise altogether above Ignorance.
It is only the supramental (needs explanation) that is all-knowledge. All below that from overmind to Matter is Ignorance—an Ignorance growing from level to level towards the full knowledge. Below supermind there may be knowledge but it is not all-knowledge (1972c, p. 19).
The cosmic forces here whether good or bad are forces of the Ignorance. Above them is the Truth-Consciousness that can only manifest when ego and desire are overcome…. (1972d, p. 1082).
Because of the presence of Ignorance in the cosmic consciousness, one has to be on guard when one enters into it.
The thing one has to be on guard against in the cosmic consciousness is the play of a magnified ego, the vaster attacks of the hostile forces (what are these and why do they attack?) —for they too are part of the cosmic consciousness—and the attempt of the cosmic Illusion (Ignorance, Avidya) to prevent the growth of the soul into the cosmic Truth. These are things that one has to learn from experience; mental teaching or explanation is quite insufficient. To enter safely into the cosmic consciousness and to pass safely through it, it is necessary to have a strong central unegoistic sincerity and to have the psychic being, with its divination of truth and unfaltering orientation towards the Divine, already in front in the nature (1972c, p. 316-17).
Cosmic consciousness and liberation
Indian spirituality has always spoken of mukti or liberation from the Ignorance of the ordinary egoic consciousness through self-realisation as a spiritual goal—“a release into peace, happiness, the soul’s freedom not tied down by the thousand ties and cares of the outward ignorant existence” (1972d, p. 1001). With regard to cosmic consciousness in relation to liberation, Sri Aurobindo states:
Liberation is the first necessity, to live in the peace, silence, purity, freedom of the self. Along with that or afterwards if one wakens to the cosmic consciousness, then one can be free, yet one with all things.
To have the cosmic consciousness without liberation is possible, but then there is no freedom anywhere in the being from the lower nature and one may become in one's extended consciousness the playground of all kinds of forces without being able to be either free or master.
On the other hand, if there has been Self-realisation, there is one part of the being that remains untouched amid the play of the cosmic forces—while if the peace and purity of the self has been established in the whole inner consciousness, then the outer touches of the lower nature can't come in or overpower. This is the advantage of Self-realisation preceding the cosmic consciousness and supporting it (1972d, p. 1073-74).
Beyond cosmic consciousness
Bucke (1901/1991, p. 66) regards all those who have evolved beyond the ordinary state of consciousness—called by him Self Consciousness—as having attained Cosmic Consciousness, though he recognises that “all cases of Cosmic Consciousness are not on the same plane.” Eastern mysticism, however, speaks of the experience of a supracosmic state pertaining to the Transcendent Consciousness. As Sri Aurobindo states:
And still there is a beyond. For on the other side of the cosmic consciousness there is, attainable to us, a consciousness yet more transcendent,—transcendent not only of the ego, but of the Cosmos itself,—against which the universe seems to stand out like a petty picture against an immeasurable background. That supports the universal activity,—or perhaps only tolerates it; It embraces Life with Its vastness,—or else rejects it from Its infinitude (1972a, p. 17).
Distinguishing the experience of the Cosmic Self and that of the Transcendent Self, Sri Aurobindo writes:
This Self has two aspects and the results of realising it correspond to these two aspects. One is static, a condition of wide peace, freedom, silence: the silent Self is unaffected by any action or experience; it impartially supports them but does not seem to originate them at all, rather to stand back detached or unconcerned, udasīna. The other aspect is dynamic and that is experienced as a cosmic Self or Spirit which not only supports but originates and contains the whole cosmic action—not only that part of it which concerns our physical selves but also all that is beyond it—this world and all other worlds, the supraphysical as well as the physical ranges of the universe. Moreover, we feel the Self as one in all; but also we feel it as above all, transcendent, surpassing all individual birth or cosmic existence. To get into the universal Self—one in all—is to be liberated from ego; ego either becomes a small instrumental circumstance in the consciousness or even disappears from our consciousness altogether. That is the extinction or Nirvana of the ego. To get into the transcendent self above all makes us capable of transcending altogether even cosmic consciousness and action—it can be the way to that complete liberation from the world-existence which is called also extinction, laya, mokṣa, nirvana (1972e, p. 1165-66).
One school of Indian thought, Advaita Vedānta, basing itself on the supracosmic experience of nirvāṇa, declares that the transcendent Absolute is the sole Reality, the One besides whom there is nothing else existent, and that the cosmos is an illusion, māyā. It is precisely in pointing out the onesidedness of such an experience that Sri Aurobindo speaks of the cosmic consciousness which affirms the reality of the universe.
Real then to the man who has had contact with it or lives in it, is this cosmic consciousness, with a greater than the physical reality; real in itself, real in its effects and works. And as it is thus real to the world which is its own total expression, so is the world real to it; but not as an independent existence. For in that higher and less hampered experience we perceive that consciousness and being are not different from each other, but all being is a supreme consciousness, all consciousness is self-existence, eternal in itself, real in its works and neither a dream nor an evolution. The world is real precisely because it exists only in consciousness; for it is a Conscious Energy one with Being that creates it. It is the existence of material form in its own right apart from the self-illumined energy which assumes the form, that would be a contradiction of the truth of things, a phantasmagoria, a nightmare, an impossible falsehood.
But this conscious Being which is the truth of the infinite supermind, is more than the universe and lives independently in Its own inexpressible infinity as well as in the cosmic harmonies. World lives by That; That does not live by the world. And as we can enter into the cosmic consciousness and be one with all cosmic existence, so we can enter into the world-transcending consciousness and become superior to all cosmic existence (1972a, p. 22).
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