The following article is based on a presentation made during the
Second International Conference on Integral Psychology,
held at Pondicherry (India), 4-7 January 2001.
The text has been published in:
Cornelissen, Matthijs (Ed.) (2001) Consciousness and Its Transformation. Pondicherry: SAICE.

Sri Aurobindo's metaphysical psychology
A brief introduction


Arabinda Basu

Sri Aurobindo was a yogi and a mystic. He has said that the materials of his spiritual philosophy were provided by experiences obtained by practice of yoga. This is equally, if not more, true of the system of his metaphysical psychology. Some people who have no or little idea of yoga may wonder what yoga has to do with psychology or at the most they may think that breath control, sitting or lying in particular ways or trying to make the mind quiet by meditation or other means is yoga. In fact these are specialised methods of yoga but not its essence.

According to Sri Aurobindo, yoga has the same relation with the inner being and nature of man as science has with the forces of external nature like steam or electricity. Yoga, he says, is scientific in that its methods are observation of and experiment with the states, forces, functions of our subjective, that is, inner being and nature. Yoga is both science and art. It is a science because it knows by experience what man is inwardly and it is an art because it can apply that knowledge to change man's inner being and nature. Yoga is known as a means of attaining spiritual liberation, mukti or moksha . While that is true, it must be clearly understood that by the practice of yoga, it is possible to know the essential nature of our being, our true self. And yoga discovers the nature of our real self as consciousness. And this is where yoga and psychology meet. Indeed yoga is according to Sri Aurobindo practical psychology.

In expounding his experience-concept of Consciousness, Sri Aurobindo in a letter first states what it is not. On this fundamental point of his psychological system, I would like to quote his own words because they are precise and yet carry a wealth of suggestions and their nuances are difficult to convey in other terms. “Consciousness”, he writes, is not to my experience, a phenomenon dependent on the reactions of personality to the forces of Nature and amounting to no more than a seeing or interpretation of these reactions. If that were so, then when the personality becomes silent and immobile and gives no reactions, as there would be no seeing or interpretative action, there would therefore be no consciousness. That contradicts some of the fundamental experiences of yoga, e.g. a silent and immobile consciousness infinitely spread out, not dependent on the personality but impersonal and universal, not seeing and interpreting contacts but motionlessly self-aware, not dependent on the reactions, but persistent in itself even when no reactions take place. The subjective personality itself is only a formation of consciousness which is a power inherent, not in the activity of the temporary manifested personality, but in the being, the Self or Purusha. (Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga , pp. 233-34)

Several things stand out in this passage which need to be understood clearly. There is no time to give any elaborate explanation of them. But I would like to mention a few salient points which it is essential to grasp for the understanding of Sri Aurobindo's metaphysical psychology. First, consciousness is not a phenomenon; it does not depend on the reactions of the personality to stimulus from outside or on mental activities. When the mind falls silent and ceases to function, consciousness abides. It is true that ordinary people cannot silence their minds. On the other hand, its experience is not very uncommon. Many people have the experience of a still mind though they do not fall into the state of unconsciousness. Secondly, consciousness is immobile, i.e., not in its essence activity. In the same letter from which a paragraph has been quoted above, Sri Aurobindo says that consciousness is not only a power of knowledge of self and things, it is or has a dynamic and creative energy. It is free to act or not to act and free in action and inaction. Thirdly, it is universal, spread throughout the cosmos. It is difficult for ordinary people to conceive or imagine the nature of consciousness because it is mistakenly identified with the individual, which is only a formation of consciousness. Fourthly, consciousness is the Self, Atman, the Purusha, the cosmic Soul. Those who are familiar with Vedantic thought may wonder that the Self and the Soul are being mentioned in terms of consciousness. Sri Aurobindo has even said that God is a manifestation of Consciousness. To elaborate on this aspect of Sri Aurobindo's spiritual philosophy will take us into deep metaphysics. Suffice it to say now that consciousness, though indeterminable, has the power of self-determination, and its primary self-determinations are the Self, the Soul, God or the Lord. Thus consciousness is the ultimate Reality, it is inherent in existence, it is Existence or sat. Finally, consciousness is self-luminous, sva-prakasa . It is not revealed by anything other than itself; indeed it is in the Light of Consciousness that everything is revealed and known. Consciousness is Consciousness-Force. The Conscious Force hierarchically arranges itself on many levels, on each of which it appears progressively less conscious and less forceful. According to Sri Aurobindo, there are seven principal levels of which Matter is the lowest. He speaks of the Inconscient from which Matter is formed by the completely involved and hidden and to all intents and purposes lost conscious force in it. In Matter consciousness is physical which is the base of the vital and mental consciousness. Mind itself has more than one layer of which the subconscious is now recognised in psychology. The subliminal mind is another level of mind (of consciousness also). The difference between the subconscious and the subliminal is this that the former while conscious in essence is not actually so and hovers between the unconscious and the physical consciousness, the latter is conscious though not fully so. Though the subliminal has a good deal of knowledge in it, it is capable of errors and mistakes.

Sri Aurobindo cites a most remarkable example of the “subconscious consciousness”. I use this paradoxical phrase advisedly for the subconscious is also a formation of consciousness though below our surface mind. An uneducated maidservant was employed in the household of a professor of Hebrew of which language she knew not a word. But as she went on doing her daily chores, she used to hear willy-nilly the ringing tones of the professor's recitation of Hebrew poetry. And the servant could repeat the verses verbatim. How could she do it? Her conscious mind did not understand or remember a word of what she used to hear, besides, she was using her conscious mind to do her job as best as she could.

The purpose of writing about the subconscious and the subliminal is to show that they are levels of consciousness. The fact that consciousness is not apparently present in the former and though the latter is conscious in itself, our mind does not know it is so, owing to one of the fundamental principles of the metaphysical psychology, viz., consciousness has the power to self-limit itself and appear as less conscious than it is in its essence.

What is metaphysics and what is psychology? “Metaphysics”, writes Sri Aurobindo, “deals with the ultimate cause of things and all that is behind the world of phenomena. As regards mind and consciousness, it asks what they are and how they come into existence, what is their relation to Matter, Life etc. Psychology deals with mind and consciousness and tries to find out not so much their ultimate nature and relations as their actual workings and the rule and law of these workings.” (Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, p. 1281) Further he says, “Psychology is the science of consciousness and its status and operations in Nature and, if that can be glimpsed or experienced, its status and operations beyond what we know as Nature.” (Sri Aurobindo, Essays Divine and Human, p. 316) This latter idea of psychology will push it to the borders of metaphysical or Vedantic or Yogic psychology. Sri Aurobindo quite clearly reserves the term psychology to the levels of mind and vital in contrast with what pertains to the spiritual soul for which he employs the term psychic. In The Human Cycle he has written that there is the beginning of a perception that there are behind the economic motives and causes of social and historical development profound psychological, even perhaps soul factors, where also he distinguishes the psychological from the psychic. (Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle, p. 5)

It will be a mistake to think that because Sri Aurobindo has such a metaphysical experience-concept of consciousness, he has neglected to deal with the phenomenal aspect of consciousness. He has dealt with human psychology in great detail. Not only that, the material theory of consciousness has engaged his close attention and he has given an objective, dispassionate critique of it. He has described that theory accurately, accepted what is true in it, but also shown where it falls short of accounting for the appearance of intelligence from non-intelligent matter. Needless to say, he rejects the identification of mind and brain which is the thesis of “physiological psychology”, a phrase he has employed in his writings on psychology. Incidentally, it is both interesting and instructive to note that he acknowledges that if the brain is damaged, the operations of consciousness are hampered which uses the brain as an instrument. He says consciousness is involved in the brain and that is why conscious activities are accompanied by activities of the brain cells.

The materialist hypothesis as regards consciousness, says Sri Aurobindo, is it must be a result of energy in Matter; Matter's reaction or reflex to itself in itself, consciousness is only a response of organised chemical substance which is itself inconscient. There is some sensitiveness of cell and nerve which becomes aware. But this awareness, according to Sri Aurobindo is inexplicable. “But such an explanation”, he says, may account,—if we admit this impossible magic, of the conscious response of an inconscient to the inconscient,—for sense and reflex action become absurd if we try to explain by it thought and will, the imagination of the poet, the attention of the scientist, the reasoning of the philosopher. Call it mechanical cerebration, if you will, but no mere mechanism of grey stuff of brain can explain these things; a gland cannot write Hamlet or pulp of brain work out a system of metaphysics. There is no parity, kinship or visible equation between the alleged cause or agent on the one side and on the other the effect and its observable process. There is a gulf here that cannot be bridged by any stress of forcible affirmation or crossed by any stride of inference or violent leap or argumentative reason. (Sri Aurobindo, Essays Divine and Human , p. 275)

Sri Aurobindo further says that there may be connection of consciousness and an inconscient substance, there may be mutual interpretation, they may act on each other, “but they are and remain things opposite, incommensurate with each other, fundamentally diverse.” ( ibid. ) To say that an observing and active consciousness emerges as a character of an eternal Inconscience is to indulge in a self-contradictory affirmation.

As far as I know, Sri Aurobindo has not described his system of psychology as “integral psychology”. He has employed the very suggestive phrase “complete psychology”, which he says “must be a complex of the science of mind, its operations and its relations to life and body with intuitive and experimental knowledge of the nature of mind and its relations to supermind and spirit.” (Sri Aurobindo, Essays Divine and Human , p. 305) We have said before that “consciousness is itself found to be not essentially a process,—although in mind it appears as a process, but the very nature of the self-existent being. Being or the Self of things can only be known by metaphysical—not necessarily intellectual—knowledge. This self-knowledge has two inseparable aspects, a psychological knowledge of the process of Being, a metaphysical knowledge of its principles and essentiality.” (Sri Aurobindo, Essays Divine and Human , p. 306)

“Vedantic psychology explores the idea and intuition of a higher reality than mind.” (Sri Aurobindo, Essays Divine and Human , p. 311) “Yogic psychology”, he says, is “an examination of the nature and movements of consciousness as they are revealed to us by the processes and results of Yoga”. (Sri Aurobindo, Essays Divine and Human , p. 322)

The metaphysical reality is not the subject matter of psychology. Let us be very clear that yoga is practised by something in our nature as human beings. It may discover in us unknown means of knowledge, action and enjoyment and instrument of the direct knowledge of the Self. Thus Vedantic psychology and yogic psychology are significant descriptions of Sri Aurobindo's psychological system in one aspect. But it is not clear what integral psychology is meant to integrate.

Sri Aurobindo has said as pointed out above, that metaphysics deals with the fundamental principles of existence and life and in the final analysis it aims at knowing the ultimate Reality. Since yoga is applied psychology aiming at connecting psychological truths with metaphysical principles, its final goal is the Divine. Sri Aurobindo never tires of pointing out that the Divine is the object of the yoga. It is not to be a superman or a great yogi. These aims may be realised in the course of yoga's progress towards the Divine. But what is to be noted especially is that Sri Aurobindo's view, shall we say vision, of the Divine is much more complex than is found in the earlier yogas. The reason why is that these other visions are partial and the consequent realisations of God according to them are of one or more than one aspects of God but they do not have the integral experience of the Supreme. Sri Aurobindo is definitely of the view that the realisations of the Divine obtained by the partial yogas are not integral owing to the fact that they are achieved by levels of consciousness which do not harbour the integral knowledge. This is why he insists that the seeker must arise to the level of vijnana, the Supermind in his English terminology because it is that level of consciousness which has inherent in it the integral knowledge.

A brief review of the different yogas current in India for thousands of years can demonstrate the truth of Sri Aurobindo's contention regarding the partial character of those spiritual disciplines. Without trying to trace the history of yoga right from the time of the Veda, I will only refer to the five disciplines still current in India and widely practised. It is also noted that these yogas select one or the other of the principles of Nature instead of taking the whole of life which is the instrument of the integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo.

Hatha yoga for example takes the principle of life in the nervous system as its means. It may arrive at the knowledge of God but, in point of fact, its practices are so complicated and take such a long time and at the same time have to be disconnected with life in general, that it cannot be of any use directly to the goal of the yoga of Sri Aurobindo which is the radical transformation of all Nature down to the physical as a means of integral union with the Divine on all planes of existence.

Raja yoga takes mind as the instrument of its discipline. It is a very effective practice and is consummated by the separation of unconscious Prakriti which evolves as the world and all that is in it from Purusha, the pure conscious Soul. Raja yoga does not know of an overall reality like Brahman of the Vedanta.

Karma yoga takes the Will as its chief instrument of spiritual discipline. It starts with giving up the desire of fruits of action followed by the perception that the egoistic self is not the doer at all, combined with the perception that universal Nature is the real actor. It ends with surrender of fruits, actions, the ego, all of this to the Supreme Master of Will which brings about the closest possible union with the Divine, the Purushottama, visate tadanantaram .

Jnana yoga utilises the purified intelligence as the chief means for realisation of identity with Brahman which results in reducing the world into an utter unreality. This again is another great yoga the fruit of which, identity with Brahman, is one of the results that can be achieved by the integral yoga. Though Sri Aurobindo believes in the world as a self-manifestation of the dynamic Absolute, it is to be noted that he emphatically says that it is necessary for an integral yogin to have knowledge at a certain stage of the progress of yoga that the world is unreal. Otherwise, he says, there is great possibility that there would be some attachment to something in the world.

Bhakti yoga's chief instrument is the heart, the emotional being, and it aims at turning all human emotions towards the Divine who is most prominently looked upon and experienced as the Beloved to whom complete adoration is due.

There is another great spiritual tradition in India, namely the Tantra. Though it has monistic and dualistic schools, and is also practically divided into Shaiva and Shakta ways of sadhana, all these schools and disciplines within its fold stress Shakti, Conscious Force. Like Sri Aurobindo's philosophy Tantric schools believe in the descent and ascent of consciousness. The former is the process of Shiva or Shakti manifesting Himself or Herself as the world through thirty six tattvas or levels of consciousness down to the physical, and the latter is the process of the return of consciousness involved in matter back to its original self-existent, free status. Both Shaiva and Shakta Tantra hold that the ultimate experience is Shiva's or Shakti's self-knowledge as identical with everything including the physical body. However it abandons the body as untransformed and does not envisage the transformation of Nature in all its levels including the physical. Kshenaraja is the author of an introductory monograph on Pratyabhijna philosophy which is Shaiva Tantrik and has many features in common with Sri Aurobindo's doctrine of the integral Brahman. Kshenaraja concludes his book by saying that one who knows the true essence of the universal categories which is Shiva is liberated-while-alive but “truly becomes Parama-Shiva the supreme Reality only on the fall of the body.”

The integral yoga is integral because it has seen the possibility of a new self-discovery of the Divine in and as completely spiritualised Matter by the supramental Knowledge-Will. And Sri Aurobindo is emphatic that the actualisation of this possibility is inevitable. It is the express purpose “to make Matter aware of God” and to enable it “to remember God.”