From the self to the Self: An exposition on personality based on the works of Sri Aurobindo1

Suneet Varma

The hidden plan

However long Night’s hour, I will not dream
That the small ego and the person’s mask
Are all that God reveals in our life-scheme,
The last result of Nature’s cosmic task
A greater Presence in her bosom works;
Long it prepares its far epiphany:
Even in the stone and beast the godhead lurks,
A bright Persona of eternity
It shall burst out from the limit traced by Mind
And make a witness of the prescient heart;
It shall reveal even in this inert blind
Nature, long veiled in each inconscient part,
Fulfilling the occult magnificent plan,
The world-wide and immortal spirit in man.

Sri Aurobindo (1972; p.143)


Having undergone many twists and turns in my life, many ups and downs, I have often wondered whether crucial events in my life which have been turning points, occurred merely by chance or there was and continues to be a deeper meaning, some sort of a design which existed from the time of my birth, and which the course of my life has been following. For many years, I held the view that significant life events occurred due to chance factors – what I perceived as a crisis, I attempted to account for on the basis of external considerations. But for some time now I have been getting more and more convinced that these turning points in my life were so because of the workings of an inner being within the core of my existence, self or personality. It is this entity located deep within myself which has always been guiding me, and making me react and experience in ways which eventually lead to my growth.

The more I ignore this inner voice, the greater the confusion and suffering which I experience. For many years I was not consciously aware about this inner aspect of my self, perhaps my real Self. More recently I have become somewhat conscious of this essential aspect of my existence at the core of my being, which I ignore at my peril.  On the other hand, the more I am in touch with this inner being and the more I fashion the outer aspects of my life based on the striving of the inner, the greater the harmony, joy and love that I experience. It thus became clear to me that there lies behind the surface personality, an entity which is the real me, and to be aware of it and to live in accordance with its strivings thus becomes the central aim of my life. It was during one of the early crises in life that I turned to academic psychology in search of answers to my questions and solutions for my problems, and enrolled as a full time B.A. student. Over the years I found partial answers to some of my questions in the exclusively western conceptualizations which permeate the discourse of academic psychology and realized at the same time that Indian formulations on the psyche and existence shed light on aspects which were crucial for self-understanding. My engagement with academic psychology, first as a student, later as a researcher, and finally as a teacher consists largely of my efforts to create space for Indian perspectives on psychology – the domain in which I have been able to find answers to many of my questions – in the academia.

More recently, I have been exposed to the writings of Sri Aurobindo which synthesize the best of what the western as well as the Indian traditions have to offer by depicting existence from a consciousness perspective within an evolutionary framework. It is in the works of Sri Aurobindo that I get satisfactory answers to some of the most profound questions, which have haunted me. I also realize that it is not by mere chance that I have discovered Sri Aurobindo. Here again, there is a deeper meaning and a pattern underlying my adventures in psychology, which has finally brought me to this point. In the following account I detail aspects of my tryst with academic psychology against the backdrop of the deeper search in life for clarity on long-standing issues. The focus in this account is conceptualizations of the person, i.e., personality in psychology, and I delineate those perspectives in the mainstream of the discipline which demonstrate clear links with the larger Indian perspective and to which I have personally been able to relate to. This includes Psychoanalysis, Behaviourism, Humanistic Psychology, and finally Transpersonal Psychology which is used as a stepping stone towards the higher reaches of the Indian perspective, which finds its most complete and perfected form within the framework outlined by Sri Aurobindo.

Western perspectives

In the western intellectual/philosophical tradition, the term person refers to human beings as entities who have certain rights and duties, whereas the term personality refers to individuality. Both meanings derive etymologically from the Latin persona denoting mask and thus refer to outer appearance and behaviour only. “Self” and “ego” are two other terms, more or less equivalent, referring to a particular person distinct from others. In the Indian context, the nature of the self, and the nature of reality as a whole are the two central topics of enquiry in the Upanishads. The Upanishadic sages conceived of an ultimate principle of reality, or existence itself, and called it Brahman. A major conclusion of their enquiry is that the Self is identical with Brahman.

As mentioned earlier, I came to academic psychology to understand aspects of my self as well as that of the larger reality, in relation to problems encountered in my life. Now this goal is closer to the Upanishadic approach but somewhat distant from the concerns of most of the conceptualizations available in the exclusively western viewpoints in psychology. But it was much later that I became aware of the Indian perspective. The first major viewpoint on psyche and the nature of the person that I was exposed to was Psychoanalysis, the framework of Sigmund Freud. Freud pointed out, based on his observations of mentally disturbed persons who came to him for help, that our normal waking consciousness, termed as “ego”, is only a small part of the larger psychic reality and was but a “tip of the iceberg” of the deeper aspects of consciousness which were hidden from our awareness. The hidden part he referred to as the unconscious which comprised of instinctual energies inherited from our evolutionary past, including our animal heritage. The two instincts which Freud largely focused on were those supporting sexuality and aggression, both of which had a survival function. The instincts resided in the domain called the id. As a human infant developed over time, she was socialized to channelize her instinctual impulses in socially accepted ways. The domain of the societal codes of conduct was the “super-ego.” Thus the major role of the personality or ego was to allow, under close supervision, the expression of the id impulses in ways which did not violate the rules of the super-ego. Growth and maturity in the Freudian system thus consisted in the emergence of a strong ego which worked towards striking a balance between the contrary demands of the id on the one hand, and the super-ego on the other; and going by Freud’s final analysis after he had witnessed the two world wars, it was a losing battle, for the dark forces residing in the unconscious ultimately succeeded in having their way. Freud was pessimistic about the future of humankind.

When I first encountered Psychoanalysis, I found it extremely difficult to locate my own existence, my experience, in this framework. Sexuality and aggression played a minimal role in my life; nor did social rules pose much of an obstacle for me. The experiences which I cherished such as happiness, harmony, peace, love – none of these were the goals of Psychoanalysis; nor did the quest for the ultimate meaning of existence have any place in Freud’s system. Michel Foucault (1988; p.18) referred to practices aiming at improving the human condition, resulting in growth as “technologies of the self” which “permits individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality”. I find the description given by Foucault a useful criteria for assessing the effectiveness of different systems of psychology, and I am unable to rate Psychoanalysis as effective in this regard.

The second major system of psychology that I was exposed to was Behaviourism. The behaviourists assumed that all aspects of human functioning can be accounted for via the mechanism of learning, based on an analysis of a person’s interactions with the external environment; and that the human organism to begin with is a tabula rasa – a blank slate upon which anything can be written, in the form of stimuli impinging from the outside. The behaviorists thus sought laws of learning valid for at least all mammals, and assumed the extension of animal findings to human psychology. J.B. Watson stood at the head of this tradition and his conception of psychology is clearly stated in his 1913 paper “Psychology as a behaviorist views it”:

Psychology as a behaviorist views it is a purely objective branch of natural science. It theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior… The behaviorist in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response recognizes no dividing line between man and brute.

(cf. Leahey, 1991; p.190)

It was Watson’s ambition to raise the status of psychology to that of an objective natural science. To do so, he adhered as closely as possible to the methodology and principles of Newtonian mechanics, the eminent example of scientific rigour and objectivity. To subject psychological experiments to the criteria used in physics required that psychologists focus exclusively on phenomena that can be registered and described objectively by independent observers. Thus in the behaviorist view, living organisms were complex machines reacting to external stimuli, and this stimulus-response (S-R) mechanism was of course modeled after Newtonian physics. It implied a rigorous causal relation that would enable psychologists to predict the response for a given stimulus, and conversely to specify the stimulus for a given response. A logical consequence of the S-R model was a tendency to look for the determinants of psychological phenomena in the external world rather than within the organism.

It appears to me that Behaviorism can account for many of my habits and other superficial characteristics of my personality which have obviously been learnt, but it tells me little about the nature of self, what it means to be a person, leave alone the complex issues of growth, fulfillment, happiness, love or the purpose of existence. The strength of Behaviourism lies in its description of the process of how the immediate external environment shapes certain bodily aspects of behaviour, but not much more than that. Of course, it was a system of knowledge generated by strict adherence to a rigorous “scientific” procedure which relied exclusively on tangible observables, which ended up ignoring significant aspects of human existence located in lived experience within conscious awareness – in fact, conscious awareness finds no place in the behaviourist scheme of things. In terms of “technologies of self”, the behaviourists have nothing to offer.

So far, in my journey on the pathways outlined in academic psychology, I found no clue as to who I really am, why I have come into existence and what I am to do with my life. The third major system I was exposed to, one which I found addressing some of my concerns and also optimistic in outlook, was that of Humanistic Psychology and the major proponents of this school of thought were Abhram Maslow and Carl Rogers. These psychologists were critical of the limited views of human nature offered by Psychoanalysis and Behaviourism where we are seen in the case of the former as victims of unconscious forces and in the latter as passive responders to external stimuli. While most humanists acknowledge the influence of external stimuli and instincts, they do not believe that human beings are unchangeable victims of these forces. We can and must rise above our past, our lower unconscious nature, the features of our environment, and develop and grow beyond these potentially inhibiting forces. The humanist psychologists’ image of human nature is optimistic and hopeful for they believe in our capacity for expanding enriching, developing, and fulfilling ourselves, to become all we are capable of becoming.

The humanists were thus the first within academic psychology to point to our capacity for growth which, as Rogers emphasized, is the urge which is evident in all organic and human life – to expand, extend, become autonomous, develop, mature – the tendency to express and activate all the capacities of the organism or the self. As a plant attempts to become a healthy plant, as a seed contains within it the drive to become a tree, so a person is impelled to become a whole, complete, and self-actualized person. Now this formulation of a person was helpful for me, personally, for it outlined a positive goal of existence – growth. But at the same time it was incomplete for it did not exactly tell me what the end point of growth was, nor did it outline any precise or systematic “technology of the self” to help me in transforming myself. In the humanist view, my existence was to be understood on my own terms, within my own narrow individual experience. There was no mention in this system of my connection with other aspects of the world and the cosmos at large, thus no way of addressing who or what I ultimately am, and for what purpose I have come into existence.

It was only in transpersonal psychology that I got a glimpse of what I was searching for. Transpersonal psychology is concerned with the study of humanity’s highest potential and with the recognition, understanding, and realization of unitive, spiritual, and transcendental experiences. Transpersonal experiences refer to experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche, and cosmos. The underlying concept of human nature in Transpersonal Psychology is not a new one. It has always existed in human culture, and includes the following four basic premises (Fadiman & Frager, 2002):

  1. There is a tanscendent reality or unity that binds together all (apparently separate) phenomena.
  2. The ego or individual self is but a reflection of a greater, transpersonal Self or oneness. We come from and are grounded in that Self. However, we have become estranged from our origins and we need to return to them in order to become fully healthy and whole human beings.
  3. The fact that individuals can directly experience this reality or greater Self is at the core of the spiritual dimension of life.
  4. The experience involves a qualitative shift in experiencing oneself and the larger world. It is a powerful, self-validating experience.

Transpersonal growth as the transformation of human consciousness has been described with the help of various metaphors such as the transforming of the caterpillar into a butterfly; awakening from a dream to reality; moving from captivity to liberation; going from darkness to light; being purified by inner fire; going from fragmentation to wholeness; journeying to a place of vision and power; returning to the source; and dying and being reborn.

In summary, whereas Humanistic Psychology focuses on personal growth and full development of the personality, the transpersonal approach focuses on expansion of the boundaries of the self, which, as we shall see shortly, is the central concern in the Indian traditions on psychological functioning and the nature of self. Angyal describes each of these viewpoints:

Viewed from one of these vantage points (the full development of personality) the human being seems to be striving basically to assert and to expand his self-determination. He is an autonomous being, a self growing entity that asserts itself actively instead of reacting passively like a physical body to the impacts of the surrounding world. This fundamental tendency expresses itself in striving of the person to consolidate and increase his self-government, in other words, to exercise his freedom and to organize the relevant items of his world out of the autonomous center of government that is his self. This tendency – which I have termed “the trend towards increased autonomy” – expresses itself in spontaneity, self-assertiveness, striving for freedom and mastery.

Seen from another vantage point, human life reveals a very different pattern from the one described above. From this point of view the person appears to seek a place for himself in a larger unit of which he strives to become a part. In the first tendency we see him struggling for centrality in his world, trying to mold, to organize, the objects and events of his world, to bring them under his own jurisdiction and government. In the second tendency he seems rather to surrender himself willingly to seek a home for himself and to become an organic part of something that he conceives as greater than himself. The super-individual unit of which one feels oneself a part, or wishes to become a part, may be variously formulated according to one’s cultural background and personal understanding.

[In Fadiman & Frager, 1984; p.481]

Now things began to get exciting for me from this point onwards. For the first time I became aware of a system within academic psychology, though a weak voice located at the fringe of the discipline, which addressed concerns very central and pertinent to questions for which I sought answers. It appeared that if I were to understand my essential nature, I would need to know more about the transcendental unity that binds together all, of which my individual self is a part. I also wished to know more about this for if I had really become separated from my origins, it was essential that I became acquainted with the different facets of this larger canvas of existence. Thus began my exploration of Indian perspectives on existence and psychic functioning.

Indian perspective

As noted earlier, the two major concerns in the ancient Upanishads were: the nature of the self, and the nature of reality as a whole. In a story narrated in the Katha Upanishads, the famous dialogue between Naciketas and Yama reveals certain essential aspects of the nature of Self in the Upanishadic perspective, which is, of course, transcendental in nature.The story goes as follows:

…a teenage boy, Naciketas, is described as engaged in a conversation with Yama, who was believed to be the gatekeeper of heaven and hell.
This Upanishadsoffers a very brief but interesting account of how the young lad lands in such a strange spot in the first place. The story goes that one day Naciketas realizes that his father was giving away all his belongings to the gods in a form of sacrificial worship. So he asks his father whether he was going to give his son away as well. Shocked by this preposterous question, the old man says yes in a fit of anger, and his words come true. As a result, Naciketas lands at the gate of heaven and hell, but cannot enter because Yama, the gatekeeper and himself the god of death, was away on earth on his regular round to pick ripe souls. Upon his return, Yama finds this unexpected guest stranded at the gate for three days. Embarrassed by having inadvertently failed to provide hospitality to this unexpected guest, Yama grants Naciketas three wishes. As per his first wish, the boy asks that all his father’s wishes be fulfilled and that he be united with a cheerful father.
This wish granted, Naciketas then asks for the secret knowledge of the heavenly fire, which grants him a place in the heaven. For his third and final wish, Naciketas asks for the secret of what lies beyond birth and death. Now Yama is not ready to grant him this wish; he offers Naciketas a lot of other things instead: innumerable cattle, horses, elephants, and gold, a great abode on earth, and sons and grandsons for as many years as he might desire. Naciketas rejects this offer, saying that all worldly pleasure and things are but ephemeral. Yama repeatedly cajoles the boy, pleading with him to ask for something else, and offers him an empire on earth, immense power to enjoy the wealth and pleasures, plus chariots, lyres, and beautiful heavenly maidens unavailable to mortals. Naciketas turns down this offer too, insisting that pleasure of earth and heaven would come to an end sometime or the other; he would rather know what lies ahead right now.
Pleased by the boy’s determination, Yama commends him for being able to distinguish between the pleasurable (preyas) and the Good (sreyas) in the first place, and then also for opting for the Good instead of pleasure. Yama decries persons blinded by the lure of wealth and pleasures and appreciates Naciketas’s rare aspiration to reach for something higher. Upon hearing this, Naciketas pleads with Yama to reveal to him the true knowledge (vidya) of what lies beyond what is right (dharma) and not right (adharma), beyond the past and the future, saying, in other words, that he wished to grapple with the absolute and eternal principles. Yama then proceeds to instruct him about the nature of the Self, the eternal principle in persons that never changes. This principle, Yama says, is tinier than the atom and larger than the largest of things, it is the one underlying the Many, the Permanent (nitya) behind the Ephemeral (anitya) in the entire universe. It can not be divided or destroyed; the Self is not killed by the destruction of the body. It is by knowing the changeless Self behind all the changes that one attains immortality. But the knowledge of the Self cannot be obtained by listening to a lot of lectures or by reasoning anymore than happiness can be gained by spending money. The Knowledge (vidya) of the eternal principle (aksara) is quite different from the knowledge of changeable (ksara) objects in the world. One cannot obtain the knowledge by reaching out to objects in the world; Knowledge of the Self is hidden deep within the innermost self, in the very “heart” of the person. It lies beyond the senses, the mind, and the intellect; its essence cannot be seen with the eyes or captured by the mind or by words, for the Self is not observable and locatable within physical bodies; it is disembodied, and hence everywhere like space. Toward the end of the text, the Katha Upanishads (6.10-11) explains that the Self is experienced when, through the practice of Yoga, the five senses are held back, the mind is undistracted, and the intellect is stabilized.

[Paranjpe, 1998; pp. 117-18]

From the above passage, it is quite clear that the Upanishadic view descibes the true Self as transcendental and this constitutes our essential nature underlying all forms. The true Self can be experienced only upon disengagement from the outer world, which includes our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. In other words, we have first to go beyond the boundaries of the narrow ego or the limited self before we can begin to move in the direction of realizing the true Self. Sankara’s Advaita Vedantic system, derived from the Upanishads, emphasizes that there is one single principle that accounts for the ultimate reality – Brahman – characterized by the triology of terms: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss (Sat, Chit, Anand). The nature of Brahman is described with the help of the following adjectives: eternal (nitya), pure (suddha), sentient (buddha), ever released or emancipated (mukta), existent (satya), subtle (suksma), all-pervasive or ubiquitous (vibhu) and “without a second” or nondual (advitya).

Bramha pervades the entire world and extends even beyond it, and is the transcendent and immanent principle of the entire universe. The true Self is identical with Brahman but in our mundane existence appears to be different because of the state of ignorance which we are normally trapped in. As long as we remain within the clutches of this distorted view of self and reality, we fail to see the world as it really is. Realization of our true and essential nature which is Self, thus amounts to a union or merging with our original and actual form, from which we find ourselves separated. All suffering arises because we identify and become attached with external transitory aspects of existence which are impermanent and fail to grasp and apprehend that which is permanent which is our true Self, one with the Cosmos. Thus all attempts to realize or merge with our true Self become a form of Yoga, in its most general sense. The Advaita Vedantic system is one amongst many paths – for example the formal schools of Yoga (Bhakti, Jnana, etc.), the Buddhist approach, to name the major ones – which aim at guiding us in the realization of our true nature and leading us to a greater Knowledge, bliss, love, and ultimately a state of Oneness with the entirety of existence.

These Indian approaches to Yoga (in the generic sense), all fall into the category of “technologies of the self” and are clearly systems which help us in generating insights about our psyche and its relation with existence in general, and through the adoption of various practices lead to a transformation in the experience of our very being. We would then find ourselves aware of higher states of consciousness, be able to elevate ourselves to these higher states at will and at the same time become more effective in those aspects of the out-worldly affairs we choose to engage with and be able to experience far greater levels of joy and love, to mention some of the positive effects attained in the process of Yoga. Here, I outline the essential aspects of the Advaita Vedantic perspective on personality. The Advaita system is generally considered to be the one most representative interpretation of the Indian view on reality and existence, and shares many elements in common with most other schools.

Advaita Vedantic model of personality

The Advaita Vedantic position on personhood or who we really are, as outlined above, is aligned with the principle of Brahman. The core of each individual’s being is one with Brahman which is the eternal principle characterized by Sat, Chit and Anand. As we are caught up in ignorance (avidya) we are oblivious of this greater truth. In Vedanta, the term jiva is used to designate a human being, though literally jiva refers to all living beings – the higher and the lower forms – where it is held that a jiva has to undergo a process of evolution through manifold life cycles before it takes birth in the form of a human being. The Vedantic jiva (referring to the human form) has been described as a five-layered entity, one enveloping the other similar to the sheaths of an onion.

The outermost layer refers to the body and is termed as annmayakosa which literally means “cereal or food sheath”. The second inner layer bears the name pranamayakosa or “sheath of vital breath” and refers to breathing as well as other processes of the body which ensure the functioning of the various organs. The manomayakosa is the third inner sheath and refers to the processes of the senses and is also considered to be the basis of the ego in terms of “me” or “mine” awareness. The fourth inner layer is called the vijnanamayakosa and refers to the functioning of the intellect – thinking, reasoning etc. or in general the higher cognitive functions. The anandmayakosa or “bliss sheath” is the fifth and the innermost layer of the jiva and is thus the seat of the true Self, the Atman, identical with Brahman. Since the true Self or Brahman is at the core of each and every human being, blissfulness is therefore our essential nature. This state is infinitely more joyful than all the pleasures attainable through wealth and power put together.

Ordinarily, most of us are trapped in a state of ignorance based on a distorted notion of who we are and thus tend to suffer. The goal of Vedanta is the removal of this ignorance through a systematic procedure and restoration of our self-awareness to its original state of the true Self, one with Brahman characterized by Sat, Chit and Anand. Vedanta thus promises liberation (moksa) via the process of attaining self-knowledge and delivers us to a state where we experience boundless joy devoid of any pain whatsoever. Commenting on the reason why we suffer and remain in ignorance, unaware of our pure and essential state of blissfulness, Paranjpe (1998; pp 170-71) notes:

The Atman, which is unchanging and always blissful, appears to be continually changing, now happy then sad, clear or confused and so on, due to the superimposition of the attributes of ego onto it. Reciprocally, the ever-changing ego derives its sense of selfsameness by misattributing the Atman’s permanence onto itself. Knowing, acting, and suffering are the properties of the ego, born of the mind or “inner instrument” (antahkarana); it is the ego that doubts and determines, feels clear or confused, agitated or arrested, exhilarated or morose. Yet, such states are attributed to the Atman, which transcends all such mutations. On the other hand, the fickle ego derives a sense of permanence and the inert body gains consciousness from the unchanging and conscious Atman. Seen from the Advaita Vedantic point of view, this is the most fundamental attributional error, whereby the true self is identified with the nonself and vice versa. Due to this error, the “I,” and unchanging self-as-subject, identifies itself with the ego and falsely sees itself as continually changing: now sad, then happy, sometimes confused, other times clear, and so on. The continually changing ego, on the other hand, perceives itself as having remained the same, falsely deriving its sense of selfsameness from the qualityless (nirguna) and unchanging Self. According to the Advaita Vedanta, such misconstrual constitutes the primeval illusion (adi maya) and is the prime cause of human suffering… As soon as one discards the erroneous identification with the ever-changing states of the ego, the true nature of the self as Being, Consciousness, and Bliss shines forth, and one sidesteps and thereby “escapes” the miserable chains of action and its consequences.

In essence, the Advaita Vedantic system aims at a total transformation of a person’s life by strict adherence to a highly demanding programme of study which begins with the recognition of one’s imperfections, moves through the process of the cultivation of dispassionateness aided by teachings and meditation, and culminates in self-realization. I have deliberately not detailed the “technology” offered by the Vedantists for realization of the true Self for that demands a lengthy explanation and discussion of the entire system. The objective in this paper is to use the transpersonal Advaita Vedantic notion of self and personhood as a means to introduce the Indian perspective and then move on to a more detailed coverage of Sri Aurobindo’s perspective on the same.

Sri Aurobindo’s perspective

The following account of Sri Aurobindo's perspective is based on a preliminary understanding of his works. I consider it tentative, subject to revision and expansion upon greater exposure and comprehension of his Integral view of human existence. As was the concern in the Upanishads, Sri Aurobindo, too, has dealt with the nature of Self and nature of reality in general. Some three thousand years have elapsed since the Upanishadic times and both the context of human enquiry as well as the enquirer - the human entity - have changed since that time. Sri Aurobindo was well versed with the Upanishadic writings and the different systems of Yoga. Based on his readings of the classical accounts, at the same time relying on his own personal insights, experiences and realizations, Sri Aurobindo outlined a new system of Yoga - Integral Yoga - appropriate for the present as well as the near future.

In this paper, the focus is on self and personality which I now outline with reference to Sri Aurobindo's Integral view. Before doing that, I first refer to Sri Aurobindo's larger vision of the future of humanity within which we locate individual human existence. Sri Aurobindo held an evolutionary perspective but his focus was on the evolution of consciousness. Consciousness is the original, fundamental and essential stuff of the universe which has at some point manifested itself in such a way that material form comes into existence. Now this is not a vague or difficult idea to grasp, because when we look at the fundamental building block of matter, the atom, we find that it in turn is composed of more elementary particles, and as we go deeper in the analysis of the sub-parts we reach a point when the distinction between particle (matter) and energy (wave-form) breaks down. Finally we end up dealing with certain forces which are organized in a meaningful and lawful manner, a kind of Consciousness-Force. At this point we may once again refer to the origin - pure Consciousness which has the potential of acting out and manifesting in and as Form. Since the ancient times the term Purusa has been used to denote pure Consciousness which when acting out from its latency and manifesting in and as Form, is referred to as Prakriti or nature. Both are but two sides of the same coin, pure consciousness on one side and pure material form on the other. Thus Sri Aurobindo (1970a; pp. 236-37) notes:

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 microsm is nothing but consciousness arranging itself. For instance, when consciousness in its movement or rather a certain stress of movement 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.

The story of existence goes something like this: In the beginning there was One which at some point manifested as the Many in terms of material forms. "In the creating of the material world there was a plunge of this descending Consciousness into an apparent Inconscience and an emergence of it out of that Inconscience, degree by degree, until it recovers its highest spiritual and supramental summits and manifests their powers here in Matter" (Ibid; pp.1-2). Thus after involution, a process of evolution sets in and as the organization of material form evolves, life-forms emerge and their complexity increases over time. First plants, then the lower animals, then the higher and finally the human being comes into existence. Simultaneously consciousness, the inner dimension, is also evolving - in inanimate matter it is inconscient, not aware of itself, but is nevertheless present as Will or forces which sustain the existence of matter in its peculiar form. The electron revolves around the nucleus but is not aware of itself. Consciousness evolves further in plant and then animal form but remains hidden and not self-aware, as the driving force behind their acts for sustenance. It is only in humans that conscious awareness fully emerges. But humans are in the process of evolving further - consciousness grows to its higher forms and ultimately merges with the One or original state of Sachidananda. Again, Sri Aurobindo notes:

 ... the Many exist in the One and by the One, the differences are variations in manifestation of that which is fundamentally ever the same... The world is a manifestation of the Real and therefore is itself real. The reality is the infinite and eternal Divine, infinite and eternal Being, Consciousness-Force and Bliss. This Divine by his power has created the world or rather manifested it in his own infinite Being. But here in the material world or at its basis he has hidden himself in what seems to be his opposites, Non-Being, Inconscience and Insentience. This is what we nowadays call the Inconscient which seems to have created the material universe by its inconsistent energy, but this is only an appearance, for we find in the end that all the dispositions of the world can only have been arranged by the working of a supreme secret Intelligence. The Being which is hidden in what seems to be an inconscient void emerges in the world first in Matter, then in Life, then in Mind and finally as the Spirit. The apparently inconscient Energy which creates is in fact the Consciousness-Force of the Divine and its aspect of consciousness, secret in Matter, begins to emerge in Life, finds something more of itself in Mind and finds its true self in a spiritual consciousness and finally a supramental Consciousness through which we become aware of the Reality, enter into it and unite ourselves with it. This is what we call evolution which is an evolution of Consciousness and an evolution of the Spirit in things and only outwardly an evolution of species. Thus also, the delight of existence emerges from the original insentience, first in the contrary forms of pleasure and pain, and then has to find itself in the bliss of the Spirit or, as it is called in the Upanishads, the bliss of the Brahman.

[Ibid; p.43-4]

In the earlier stages of human evolution, withdrawing from the higher planes of consciousness and returning to the lower, worldly planes involved a separation from the higher states which could not be brought down into waking consciousness. But humanity has evolved further, and today, and more so in the near future it will be possible for a greater number of persons to ascend to higher levels and then upon descending retain something of the higher which would also transform individual functioning on the material plane. Disagreeing with the illusionist Advaitic perspective, Sri Aurobindo affirmed a realistic Advaita as noted in the preceding passage. He emphasized the equal importance and significance of the material worldly existence as of the spiritual, and noted that the time has come when the higher spiritual consciousness will inspire and guide our life in the earthly form and thus the possibility of "The Life Divine.” In his vast writings, numerous illustrations have been given which substantiate this view as well as evidences of all sorts have been provided which affirm the future vision of humankind. It is beyond the scope of the present writing to explore and outline this larger vision given by Sri Aurobindo, and this brief introduction has been provided as a backdrop for the portrayal of personality/self.

Sri Aurobindo's portrayal of the human entity, as of existence in general, retains the Vedantic flavour in his reference to the nature of the true Self, the demarcation of layers or sheaths that a person is made up of, and the possibility of liberation from ego-boundedness, i.e., the state of ignorance. Sri Aurobindo's system refers to these categories but in a somewhat different, more detailed and expanded form and the goal and endpoint of liberation and transformation via the process of Integral Yoga is radically different and more difficult to attain. In addition, new categories and finer distinctions have been added which make it possible to accommodate western conceptualizations of psychic functioning and personality in his comprehensive Integral view. In other words, Sri Aurobindo's perspective provides legitimate spaces for the insights gathered on human existence both from the West as well as the East, and allows us to integrate these and go beyond what any of the previous systems offer in terms of growth and expansion which are possible for the human being.

Sri Aurobindo's model of personality

Sri Aurobindo's description of human functioning begins with the basis of everyday existence as experienced through the mind, feelings/desires and the body. We have thoughts related to the outside world (mental consciousness or manomayapurusa), positive and negative affect associated with objects and people in the outer world (vital consciousness or pranamayapurusa) as well as experiences of the body (physical consciousness or annamayapurusa) in its exchanges with the surrounding environment. "The outer consciousness is that which usually expresses itself in ordinary life. It is the external mental, vital and physical" (Ibid; p.311). This aspect of personality is what western psychology has largely been preoccupied with. Identification with only the outer aspects of our existence keeps us trapped in a state of ignorance because we remain unaware of that which supports the outer. "The very first step in getting out of the ignorance is to accept the fact that this outer consciousness is not one's soul, not oneself, not the real person, but only a temporary formation on the surface for the purposes of the surface play. The soul, the person is within, not on the surface - the outer personality is the person only in the first sense of the Latin word persona which meant originally a mask" (Ibid; pp.304-5).

"There are always two different consciousnesses in the human being, one outward in which he ordinarily lives, the other inward and concealed of which he knows nothing. When one does sadhana, the inner consciousness begins to open and one is able to go inside and have all kind of experiences there. As the sadhana progresses, one begins to live more and more in the inner being and the outer is felt by many as a dream or delusion, or else as something superficial and external. The inner consciousness begins to be a place of deep peace, light, happiness, love, closeness to the Divine or the presence of the Divine, the Mother. One is then aware of two consciousnesses, the inner one and the outer which has to be changed into its counterpart and instrument - that also must become full of peace, light, union with the Divine" (Ibid; p.307). The inner being consists of the inner mind, inner vital, inner physical and serves as a connection between the psychic and outer being. The outer being is capable of experiencing only a narrow range of stimuli and events related to stimuli impinging from the external world. But this is only a fraction of the experiences possible to the person - it is like the dial of a radio restricted to move between a narrow range of frequencies. While we are asleep and dreaming, a different range of frequencies or realm of consciousness opens up - we have access to an inner world which is not dependent on stimuli from the external world. Dreams are but one example of the worlds existing apart from the external.

On each level - mental, vital, and physical - there is a wider range of experience possible and vaster energies which can be tapped. The inner being is in contact with the universal planes of consciousness. The opening of the chakras in the process of the awakening of the kundalini actually refers to the expansion of the boundaries of consciousness where a vast range of experience which could not hitherto be accessed becomes available to the outer being. Through the process of sadhana the inner being awakens and gets activated and with the opening of the chakras the outer being also has access to the universal bands of consciousness. Sri Aurobindo (2001; p.444-45) has used the general term subliminal for all parts of the being which are not on the waking surface, especially those referring to the workings of the inner being:

Our subliminal self is not, like our surface being, an outcome of the energy of the Inconscient; it is a meeting place of the consciousness that emerges from below by evolution and the consciousness that has descended from above for involution. There is an inner mind, an inner vital being of ourselves, an inner or subtle-physical being larger than our outer being and nature... There is here a consciousness which has the power of contact with the universal unlike the mostly indirect contacts which our surface being maintains with the universe through the sense-mind and the senses. There are here inner senses, a subliminal sight, touch, hearing; but these subtle senses are rather channels of the inner being's direct consciousness of things than its informants; the subliminal is not dependent on its senses for its knowledge, they only give a form to its direct experience of objects; they do not, so much as in waking mind, convey forms of objects for the mind's documentation or as the starting-point or basis for an indirect constructive experience. The subliminal has the right of entry into the mental and vital and subtle-physical planes of the universal consciousness, it is not confined to the material plane and the physical world; it possesses means of communication with the worlds of being which the descent towards evolution created in its passage with all the corresponding planes or worlds that may have arisen or been constructed to serve the purpose of the re-ascent from Inconscience to Superconscience. It is also into this large realm of interior existence that our mind and vital retire when they withdraw from the surface activities whether by sleep or inward-drawn concentration or by the inner plunge of trance... The subliminal is...the seer of inner things and of supraphysical experiences; the surface consciousness is only a transcriber. It is for this reason that the Upanishad describes the subliminal being as the dream self because it is normally in dreams, visions, absorbed states of inner experience that we enter into it and are part of its experiences, - just as it describes the superconscient as the Sleep Self because normally all mental or sensory experiences cease when we enter this superconscience.

But the essence of human personality is not to be found even in the inner being. Behind the inner being is the inmost or psychic being which is the true center of the person. The psychic is a portion of the Divine Self or Jivatman which manifests in the human being, but is in itself differentiated from the Divine Self. The soul or psychic evolves from birth to birth and survives bodily death. Its evolution over the lifetimes (in human form) in which it manifests is toward the original Oneness or Brahman, in other words, a merging with the Jivatman. The psychic is a drop of the ocean of cosmic consciousness which has got separated from its source and longs once again to return to it. This is possible only through evolution via manifestation in human form over the course of numerous lifetimes. The true purpose of human existence is a union with the Divine and this is what the psychic always directs us toward. The psychic is that entity within us that awakens us toward the Good, the True, the Beautiful, and Love. The existence of the psychic remains latent (outside of conscious awareness) within most of us but is responsible for the experience of all that is sublime.

Over lifetimes the psychic evolves. At first we are not aware of its existence but it is the psychic which is secretly guiding the course of our lives and seeks to grow towards the Light. The situations which seem the biggest obstacles in our lives which we repeatedly confront provide us with the lessons we most need to learn. A point comes when the psychic evolves sufficiently to make its presence felt in outward consciousness. This is accompanied by a change in the very 'stuff' of consciousness as experienced by the person. There is a sense of lightness, greater freedom from the external as reflected in the ease with which one is able to withdraw from the "noise" in the outer world. This is accompanied by an experience of silence, peace, bliss, love - all spontaneous and not a response to anything outside of the person; though at first one may have difficulty in distinguishing between the true psychic response and distractions from the external. From this point onward, as the presence of the psychic is increasingly felt in waking consciousness, it is possible and necessary through sadhana to progress rapidly, aided by conscious and deliberate effort, towards spiritual awakening entailing an ascent to the higher planes of consciousness (to be described in the next section). Thus Sri Aurobindo (1970a; pp.301-2) notes:

The being of man is composed of these elements - the psychic behind supporting all, the inner mental, vital and physical, and the outer, quite external nature of mind, life and body which is their instrument of expression. But above all this is the central being (Jivatman) which uses them all for its manifestation: it is a portion of the Divine Self; but this reality of himself is hidden from the external man who replaces this inmost self and soul of him by the mental and vital ego. It is only those who have begun to know themselves that become aware of their true central being; but still it is always there standing behind the action of mind, life and body and is most directly represented by the psychic which is itself a spark of the Divine. It is by the growth of the psychic element in one's nature that one begins to come into conscious touch with one's central being above. When that happens and the central being uses a conscious will to control and organise the movements of the nature, it is then that one has a real, a spiritual as opposed to a partial and merely mental or moral self-mastery.

In another place Sri Aurobindo (2001; p.240) remarks:

The psychic being can at first exercise only a concealed and partial and indirect action through the mind, the life and the body, since it is these parts of Nature that have to be developed as its instruments of self-expression, and it is long confined by their evolution. Missioned to lead man in the ignorance towards the light of the Divine Consciousness, it takes the essence of all the experience in the ignorance to form a nucleus of soul-growth in the nature; the rest it turns into material for the future growth of the instruments which it has to use until they are ready to be a luminous instrumentation of the Divine. It is this secret psychic entity which is the true original Conscience in us deeper than the constructed and conventional conscience of the moralist, for it is this which always points toward Truth and Right and Beauty, towards Love and Harmony and all that is a divine possibility in us, and persists till these things become the major need of our nature. It is the psychic personality in us that flowers as the saint, the sage, the seer; when it reaches its full strength, it turns the being towards the Knowledge of Self and the Divine, towards the supreme Truth, the supreme Good, the supreme Beauty, Love and Bliss, the divine heights and largeness, and opens us to the touch of spiritual sympathy, universality, oneness.

The gradients of consciousness: The lower and the higher spiritual planes

As noted above, the story of existence began with the involution of the supreme superconscience in and as gross matter. The lowest form of consciousness is that found in inanimate matter as involved in the workings of the atom with the electrons revolving around the nucleus, and is referred to as the inconscience. "The inconscience is an inverse reproduction of the supreme superconscience: it has the same absoluteness of being and automatic action, but in a vast involved trance; it is being lost in itself, plunged in its own abyss of infinity" (Ibid; p.572). The next higher level of consciousness is the subconscient, “…that quite submerged part of our being in which there is no wakingly conscious and coherent thought , will or feeling or organised reaction, which yet receives obscurely the impressions of all things and stores them up in itself and from it too all sorts of stimuli, of persistent habitual movements, crudely repeated or disguised in strange forms can surge up into dream or into the waking nature” (Sri Aurobindo, 1970a; p.353). Further in the gradient of consciousness is the physical or the body consciousness which is present in animals as well. “The body…is a creation of the Inconscient and itself inconscient or at least subconscient in parts of itself and much of its hidden action…”(Sri Aurobindo, 1989; p.10).

Next in the ladder of consciousness is the vital “…a thing of desires, impulses , force-pushes, emotions, sensations, seekings after life-fulfillment and enjoyment; these are its functions and its nature; - it is that part of us which seeks after life and its movements for their own sake and it does not want to leave hold of them if they bring it suffering as well as or more than pleasure; it is even capable of luxuriating in tears and suffering as part of the drama of life”(Sri Aurobindo,1970a; p.323). The highest that is most commonly found in humans is the level of the mind. “The ‘mind’ in the ordinary use of the word covers indiscriminately the whole consciousness, for man is a mental being and mentalises everything; but in the language of this yoga the words ‘mind’ and ‘mental’ are used to connote specially the part of the nature which has to do with cognition and intelligence, with ideas, with mental or thought perceptions, the reaction of thought to things, with the truly mental movements and formations, mental vision and will, etc., that are part of his intelligence” (Ibid; p.320). For those human beings who have not gone deeper within themselves, mind and consciousness are synonymous. It is only when one becomes aware of oneself by a growth in consciousness, then one can see different degrees, kinds and powers of consciousness - mental, physical, psychic and spiritual.

With the surfacing of the psychic being, the higher ranges of consciousness above mind become accessible through sadhana. These include – Higher Mind, Illumined Mind, Intuitive Mind, Overmind, and Supermind. Sri Aurobindo’s depiction of psychic functioning and development thus refers to a 2-tiered system – one horizontal, moving from the outer being to the inner and finally the inmost with the psychic at the center; and the other vertical, involving ascension beyond mind to the higher reaches of consciousness and a subsequent descent of the higher consciousness which transforms the lower parts:

There are in fact two systems simultaneously active in the organisation of the being and its parts: one is concentric, a series of rings and sheaths with the psychic at the centre; another is vertical, an ascension and descent, like a flight of steps, a series of superimposed planes with the supermind–overmind as the crucial nodus of the transition beyond the human into the Divine. For this transition, if it is to be at the same time a transformation, there is only one way, one path. First, there must be a conversion inwards, a going within to find the inmost psychic being and to bring it out to the front, disclosing at the same time the inner mind, inner vital, inner physical parts of the nature. Next, there must be an ascension, a series of conversions upwards and a turning down to convert the lower parts. When one has made the inward conversion, one psychicises the whole lower nature so as to make it ready for the divine change. Going upwards, one passes beyond the human mind and at each stage of the ascent, there is a conversion into a new consciousness and an infusion of this new consciousness into the whole of the nature. Thus rising beyond intellect through illumined higher mind to the intuitive consciousness, we begin to look at everything not from the intellect range or through intellect as an instrument, but from a greater intuitive height and through an intuitivised will, feeling, emotion, sensation and physical contact. So, proceeding from Intuition to a greater overmind height, there is a new conversion and we look at and experience everything from the overmind consciousness and through a mind, heart, vital and body surcharged with the overmind thought, sight, will, feeling, sensation, play of force and contact. But the last conversion is the supramental, for once there – once the nature is supramentalised, we are beyond the Ignorance and conversion of consciousness is no longer needed, though a farther divine progression, even an infinite development is still possible.

[Ibid; p.251]

Sri Aurobindo has provided detailed descriptions of the characteristics of each of the higher stages of consciousness beyond mind. The first and most important point to note is that individuals are located at different levels and points in the gradient of consciousness. Some are totally caught up in the interchange with the external world and in that too there are differences. There are those who are more preoccupied with sensual needs and comforts of the body. Others may be caught up in the play of vital forces and concentrate more on gratifying their cravings and passions. Yet others may derive a sense of realness from the constructions of the mind – speculations and theorizations alike. All are still confined to the narrow range of the outer existence. A vaster universe unfolds when we become tuned to the wider range of energies and forces, which are now accessible, when we turn inward.

The first step in accessing the inner mind is silencing of the outer – we have to get out of the feverish mental activity that we are used to. “As a matter of fact, step by step we discover that that there is no necessity to think: something behind, or above, does all the work, with a precision and infallibility that grow as we get into the habit of referring to it; there is no necessity to remember, since the exact indication comes forth just when it is needed; no necessity to plan our action , since a secret spring sets it in motion without our willing it or thinking about it , and makes us do exactly what we have to do, with a wisdom and a foresight of which our [outer] mind, forever shortsighted, is quite incapable” (Satprem, 2000; p.54). In the realm of the inner vital, a vast calmness exists and abundant energy is available to us. “We enter a state of tranquil, spontaneous concentration, like the sea below the waves. …Depending on the degree of our development, all kinds of new capacities can emerge out of the vital stillness, but first of all, an inexhaustible source of energy [becomes accessible]... Then, in this stillness, another sign will be established permanently: the absence of suffering and a sort of unchanging joy” (Ibid; p.92). Further, as we access the realm of the inner physical we discover powers of the body which we were earlier not aware of. In fact we are now in a position to experience a new kind of freedom in the body – even freedom from the narrow confines of the body. “Once it has discovered the inexhaustable reservoir of the great Life-Force, the consciousness can now be independent of illness, independent of food and sleep… When the current of consciousness-force in us has become sufficiently individualized, we notice that we can detach it not only from our senses and the objects of the senses, but also from the body” (Ibid; p.122). As we move further inwards we have our first encounter with the psychic which is that entity within us that guides us toward what is right and good for us, contributes to our growth, and allows us to experience greater love and harmony in our lives.

Higher mind

With the flowering of the psychic, we become aware of purpose of our existence - what we have to do with our lives. This simply means that we now have conscious awareness of the kind of activities and relationships we have to engage in and these are those which take us in the direction of the Divine consciousness, the true Self. Ascension in consciousness now becomes possible and the higher planes gradually become more accessible. The experience of the higher mind includes the capacity to deal with a large number of ideas simultaneously. This is the mind of the philosopher and thinker. Such individuals find it easy to disengage from the specifics of a situation and can step back in mental awareness to generate a larger picture of the reality they are dealing with. For example, a scholar in the field of psychology, from the vantage point of the higher mind, may observe that in terms of conflicting viewpoints contained in different theoretical positions (e.g., behaviourism, psychoanalysis, etc.), it is simply a case of the blind men and the elephant. Each model has focussed on one major aspect of psychological functioning but proponents of the view mistake this for the whole reality.

Illumined mind

When the higher mind learns to accept silence, it gains access to the domain of the illumined mind. In this realm of consciousness there is no longer a need to communicate with words. Instead, one comes in direct contact with the body/essence of truth and for this reason Sri Aurobindo has used the term “revelatory ideograph” for this stage. Simultaneously there is a descent of peace, i.e., one experiences in consciousness a feeling of great calmness and tranquility. This is the mind of the mystic and the poet capable of directing a force swifter in action and which can shrug of the inertia of the physical mind. It is common at this stage to experience a spontaneous flowering of creative capacities. “The consciousness fills with our inner state; there is a luminous invasion. And at the same time, a state of ‘enthusiasm’ in the Greek sense of the word, a sudden awakening, as if the whole being were on the alert, plunged all at once into a very rapid rhythm, into a brand-new world with new values, new reliefs, and unexpected connections. The smokescreen of the world is lifted, everything is linked together in a great joyous vibration. Life becomes larger, truer, more living. Little truths light up everywhere, wordlessly, as if each thing held a secret, a special meaning, a special life. We are in an inexpressible state of truth, without understanding anything about it – it simply is. And marvelously so. It is light, living and loving” (Ibid p. 203).

Intuitive Mind

With the settling in of the illumined mind we can move further up in the gradient of consciousness and experience the intuitive mind. Here we encounter the truth touch – knowledge leaps out at us in front of our eyes and waits for them to be clear enough to register it. “Intuition reproduces, on our scale, the primordial mystery of a great Gaze, an awesome glance that has seen all, known all, and plays at seeing bit by bit, slowly, successfully, temporally, from myriad viewpoints, what It had embraced alone in a fraction of eternity” (Ibid, p. 207). Sri Aurobindo referred to intuition as “truth-remembrance” – the realization “that knowledge is not a discovery of the unknown – we can only discover ourselves, there is nothing else to discover – it is a slow recognition in time of that second of Light we have all seen. Who has not seen, even once? Who does not have the Memory in his life? Whatever our beliefs or disbeliefs, our capacities or incapacities, our low or not so low altitudes, there is always a moment that is our moment. Some lives last but a second, all the rest is oblivion” (Ibid, p. 208).


Beyond the intuitive mind we begin to become aware of a greater unity, a oneness, a higher and more complete Truth. The overmind is a global cognitive field in which there is no chaos – all is linked together. We now know that all religions are the faces of the same one Divine. Thus Satprem (Ibid; pp.209-11) notes:

The overmind is the rarely attained summit of human consciousness. It is a cosmic consciousness, but without the loss of the individual. Instead of rejecting everything to explore high in the heavens, the seeker has patiently climbed every step of his being, so that the bottom remains linked to the top without any break in continuity. The overmind is the world of the gods, the inspired source of the great founders of religion. This is where all the religions we know were born, deriving from one overmental experience in one of its myriad facets. For a religion, revelation or a spiritual experience belongs to a certain plane, it does not burst forth from god’s thunders or from nowhere; those who incarnate it have not conceived it out of nothing: the overmind is their sourceplane. It is also the source of the highest artistic creations. …It is a unitary, not a separative consciousness. The capacity of oneness gives an exact measure of the overmental perfection. Moreover, with the vision of this oneness, which is necessarily divine (the Divine is no longer a thing supposed or conceived of, but a thing seen, touched, which has naturally become ourselves, just as our consciousness has become the light), the overmental being perceives the same light everywhere, in all things and all beings, as he perceives it in his own self: there are no more separating voids, no more fissures of alienness, everything is bathed in a single continuous substance. He knows universal love, universal understanding, universal compassion for all those other ‘himselves’ who are also moving towards their divinity, or rather becoming slowly the light that they are. Thus we can reach this overmental consciousness through all sorts of ways, through religious intensity or poetic, intellectual, artistic, heroic intensity – through anything that helps man surpass himself.


The final stage in the ascent of consciousness is the supermind. In fact, this is a principle of existence or a kind of consciousness which has become accessible to human beings only at the current stage of evolution. This consciousness has descended and once we have made contact with it, it is capable of transforming our entire nature. This entails a radical and complete shift in awareness and psychological functioning which will bring about a change in humans as drastic as the one when mental, rational faculties first emerged in human consciousness. In this process the supramental consciousness descends into the lower mental, vital and physical being. In fact, the basic goal of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga is that by the conscious collaboration of humans the supramental principle will lead to an evolution of the species to a new stage of being. At the present stage of human evolution, it is the rational mind which is considered the most superior faculty, and this gives us an edge over all other species. But the early humans - hominids - did not have this capacity to the degree it is developed in us. They were, in Sri Aurobindo’s terminology, at an “infrarational stage” where instincts, immediate needs and desires ruled their behaviour. But humans continue to evolve further towards a “suprarational” stage marked by a higher gnostic consciousness:

Our evolution starts with an infrational stage in which men have not learned their life and action in its principles and its forms to the judgement of clarified intelligence; for they still act principally out of their instincts, impulses, spontaneous ideas, vital institutions, or else obey a customary response to desire, need and circumstance, - it is these things that are canalized and crystallized in their social institutions. Man proceeds by various stages, out of these beginnings toward a rational age in which his intelligence will more or less developed become the judge, arbiter and presiding motive of his thought, feeling and action, aims and institutions. Finally, if our analysis and forecast is correct, the human development must move through a subjective towards a suprarational or spiritual age in which he will develop progressively a greater spiritual, supra-intellectual and intuitive, perhaps in the end, more than intuitive, a gnostic consciousness.

[Sri Aurobindo, 1970b; p. 173]

It is difficult to describe the supramental consciousness. It is an integral cognition of the highest order consisting of a single creative essential idea. In this realm, there is no chaos. Satprem (2000; pp.255-7) describes this plane:

The supramental vision is a global vision. The mind cuts out little fragments and oppose one to another; the overmind connects everything in a single beam, but its beam ends in only one point, and it sees everything from its own particular viewpoint; it is unitary and universal by excluding all other viewpoints or by annexing them. The supermind sees not only the whole world of things and beings in a single vision, which connects all the beings together without opposing anything, but it also sees the viewpoint of each thing, each being, each force – it is a rounded vision that does not end in a central point, but in myriads of points. …The supramental consciousness captures not only all viewpoints, but also the deeper forces at work behind each thing and the truth in each thing – it is a Truth-Consciousness – and because it sees all, it has the Power; the one automatically flows from the other. If we are powerless, it is because we are sightless. To see and to see wholely is necessarily to have power. But the supramental power does not obey our logic or morality, it sees far into space and time. It does not seek to cut out the evil in order to save the good, nor does it work through miracles: it extricates the good that is in the evil, it applies its force and light to the dark half of things, so they may consent to the luminous half. Wherever it applies itself, its first immediate effect is to touch off a crisis, that is, to place the shadow in front of its own light. It is a prodigious evolutionary ferment.

Satprem (Ibid; 272-3) further notes:

The key to supramental power is the individual. The supramental being has not only a transcendent and a cosmic stand, but also an individual stand: the triple hiatus of experience that divided the monist, the pantheist, and the individualist is healed. His transcendent stand does not abolish the world and the individual, any more than his cosmic stand deprives him of the Transcendent and of the individual, or than his individual stand severs him from the Transcedent or from the universe. He has not kicked away the ladder to reach the top, but has consciously scaled all the evolutionary rungs from top to bottom – there is no gap anywhere, no missing link – and he has kept his individuality instead of bursting into a luminous no-man’s land, he can not only ascend but also descend the great Ladder of existence, and use his individual being as a bridge or a link in Matter between the highest and the lowest. His work on earth is to establish a direct contact between the supreme Force and the individual, between the supreme Consciousness and Matter – to join the two ends, as Mother says. He is a precipitator of the Real upon earth. That is why there is hope that the blind determinisms that rule the world at present – Death, Suffering, War – can be changed by this supreme Determinism and give way to a new evolution.

The most striking aspect of the supramental transformation is that it shows us the way out of the current state of being where we often act in ways which are destructive towards members of our own species, those of other species as well as towards nature in general. This is because our present way of being emanates from a narrow and restricted consciousness where the sense of separation is experienced to a greater extent than a sense of connectedness or oneness. The only way out of these violent and destructive ways is by working towards a new way of being and allowing a transformation in consciousness to take place. “All would change, all would become easy if man could once consent to being spiritualised. The higher perfection of the spiritual life will come by a spontaneous obedience of spiritualised man to the truth of his own realised being, when he has become himself, found his own real nature; but this spontaneity will not be instinctive and subconscient, but intuitive and fully, integrally conscient. Therefore, the individuals who will most help the future of humanity in the new age, will be those who will recognise a spiritual evolution as the destiny and therefore the great need of the human being, an evolution or conversion of the present type of humanity into a spiritualised humanity, even as the animal man has now been largely converted into a highly mentalised humanity” (The Mother, 1979; p.161).

In summary, Sri Aurobindo’s depiction of personality refers to a lesser self caught up in the demands of the outer being which can get transformed into the greater Self via a process of development entailing first an inward movement leading to the uncovering of the psychic, then an upward movement through the higher gradations of consciousness taking one towards the supramental level of awareness, and subsequently a descent of the higher Force into the lower parts leading to their transformation. This simply means that our whole nature gets converted and we are no longer caught up in the narrow egoistic confines of a delimited consciousness which identifies with experiences limited to the horizon of the outer being. We are part of something vaster and can get in touch with that transpersonal element which is the ground of our consciousness. “It all depends on where the consciousness places itself and concentrates itself. If the consciousness places or concentrates itself within the ego, you are identified with the ego… If the consciousness puts its stress outside, it is said to live in the external being and becomes oblivious of its inner mind and vital and inmost psychic; if it goes inside, puts its centralising stress there, then it knows itself as the inner being or, still deeper, as the psychic being; if it ascends out of the body to the self where self is naturally conscious of its wideness and freedom it knows itself as the Self and not the mind, life or body” (Sri Aurobindo, 1970a; pp.235-36). And it is not simply a matter of individual transformation. As noted above, it is the entire human species which is undergoing evolution and as more and more humans come in contact with the descending supramental force, the essential nature of existence on earth will undergo a radical transformation and hence the possibility of “The Life Divine”.

The issue of verifiability

At this point the reader and especially the more “scientifically” oriented one may be noting that all these ideas of higher consciousness and evolution appear to be interesting but where is the evidence that any of this is a reality. Sri Aurobindo himself has discussed the issue of validity of spiritual states but in this paper I shall resist the temptation to quote him further. Instead I offer arguments from my own understanding of the workings of science. I shall first address doubts about the tangibility of further evolution in the human species. Why should evolution come to an end with the emergence of human beings? It appears reasonable to hold the conviction that more advanced species would come into existence in the future, and the process may already have begun. If we extend the evolutionary perspective further, then the question comes up: What species emerges after humans? Well, Sri Aurobindo has suggested one possibility. After examining the evidence and arguments which I outline in the following discussion, the reader may be in a better position to decide whether Sri Aurobindo’s vision is a plausible one or not.

The layperson as well as most psychologists have a very limited understanding of the nature and workings of science. The analysis of the meaning and ways of science is offered by a group of philosophers who go by the name of “philosophers of science” and this sub-field of Philosophy is referred to as “Philosophy of Science”. After the overthrow of the tyranny of the Church in Europe by the late 19th century, science had emerged as the new voice of authority, one based on reason. Philosophers and scholars were eager to find out the secret behind the success of Physics which transformed through its applications, in the form of technology, the very way of living. The first view of science which emerged goes by the name of Logical Positivism – to know positively by following a logical procedure. In this view, science consists of merely following a fixed formula-like procedure which leads to sure knowledge. This is the view held by the majority of us, that science is simply a matter of following a time-tested method.

Later analyses of science revealed that no such single absolute procedure of obtaining certain knowledge exists. The only aspects which are common to all scientific endeavours are the principles of induction and deduction – to be able to generalize on the basis of specific observations and then apply the generalizations to make specific predictions. But there is nothing special about these two procedures – humans apply them in most walks of life. Thomas Kuhn (1970) demonstrated that when we compare scientific activity existing in different periods of history, it turns out that they have a different nature altogether - both in terms of the assumptions about the subject matter that is being dealt with as well as concomitant methods appropriate to uncover the workings of the reality under study. Thus Einstein’s conceptualizations of mass was radically different from that of Newton’s (assumptions about subject matter) and whereas Newton carried out specific experiments (concomitant method) to test his ideas, Einstein engaged in what he referred to as “thought experiments” which involved no empirical observations as such. Yet, both are considered highly scientific. Here, we must note that Kuhn strongly emphasized that for a scientific theory to be held as valid, we must be in a position to verify the claims being made therein.

Still later Paul Feyerabend (1991) noted on the basis of his systematic analysis of the workings of science that:

  1. The events, procedures and results that constitute the sciences have no common structure.
  2. Scientific successes cannot be explained in a simple way.
  3. The success of ‘science’ cannot be used as an argument for treating as yet unsolved
  4. Problems in a standardized way.
  5. Non-scientific procedures cannot be pushed aside by argument.
  6. There can be many different kinds of sciences.

Feyerabend (1991; p.3-4) made a stronger a point thereafter – that what counts as valid knowledge is based more on political power structures, rather than actual validity of the offered viewpoint:

First-world science is one science among many; by claiming to be more it ceases to be an instrument of research and turns into a (political) pressure group…People all over the world have developed ways of surviving in partly dangerous, partly agreeable surroundings. The stories they told and the activities they engaged in enriched their lives, protected them and gave them meaning. The “progress of knowledge and civilization” - as the process of pushing Western ways and values into all corners of the globe is being called - destroy these wonderful products of human ingenuity and compassion without a single glance in their direction. ‘Progress of knowledge’ in many places meant killing of minds.

We have to be very clear about the basic issue at this point. The hallmark of scientific enquiry is that knowledge-claims are subject to verification. When a researcher asserts that a force called gravity exists, it can be apprehended or made available to experience. Any individual can drop objects from a height, measure the acceleration of the object as it approaches the ground and thus verify if it accelerates at the rate of 9.82 m/s². Thus all claims to knowledge must be subjected to this procedure – it must be available to experience and through a systematic procedure multiple observers can access the same experience and come to a consensus about its characteristics. Now, when a yogi states that the experience of samadhi is real we tend to scoff at him, but when the scientist says that the electron exists we accept it as a matter of faith. The fact of the matter is that if we actually wish to experience an electron, that is, become convinced of its existence we will have to study Physics for many years (perhaps 10 to 12) and carry out a large number of experiments ourselves. The same procedure has to be carried out by every person who wishes to encounter the electron. In fact, consensus on the nature of all scientific knowledge is arrived at in this manner. But the startling fact is that the basic approach of the yogi is no different. To experience samadhi (the knowledge-claim) one has to follow as systematic a procedure involving meditation as well as the observance of various austerities, and after a long period of time (possibly 10 to 12 years) one experiences the state characterized as samadhi in the concerned literature. Now this knowledge has found a place in the scriptures because a large number of individuals carried out the requisite procedures and eventually the experience of samadhi became accessible to their consciousness. Consensus was thus arrived at. In this way we can clearly see that the yogic methodology is essentially the same as what we call the scientific approach – the former attempts mapping of the outer world and the latter the inner world.

We may further note that modern science itself has informed us that we hear sounds in the frequency range of 20-20000 Hertz (approx.). Below and above that sound exists but we cannot hear it. But other species have access to frequencies which are inaccessible to us. Similar is the case with vision. Thus the range of the normal human senses is not a basis for generating a picture of what exists. The same argument can be extended to the realm of consciousness. We do not doubt that our range of awareness is qualitatively and quantitatively different from animals and there is a great deal of variation across species. In fact, there may be a great deal of variation in the very nature or “stuff” of consciousness within the human species itself. This would then explain why the mystic experiences the world in a different way as compared to others. Simultaneously this view would also be able to account for the difference in consciousness of the psychotic. On the basis of the arguments outlined above, the basic tenets of transpersonal psychology (new) assume a greater validity in contrast to the claims made about psychological reality in traditional mainstream psychology (old). These are as follows (based on Tart, 1975):

  1. Old: Physics is the ultimate science, the study of the real world. Dreams, emotions, and human experience in general are all derivatives.
    New: Psychological reality is just as real as physical reality. And modern theoretical physics indicates that the two are not so far apart.
  2. Old: The individual exists in relative isolation from the surrounding environment. We are essentially independent creatures. (And so we can seek to control the world as if we are not part of it.)
    New: There is a deep level of psychological/spiritual connection among all forms of life. Each individual is a cosmic creature, deeply embedded in the cosmos.
  3. Old: Our ordinary state of consciousness is the best, most rational, most adaptive way the mind can be recognized. All other states are inferior or pathological. Even “mystical states” are suspect, often seen as bordering on the pathological (e.g., “regression”).
    New: Higher orders of feeling, awareness, and even rationality are possible. What we call waking consciousness is really more like “waking sleep,” in which we use but a small fraction of our awareness or capacities.
  4. Old: Seeking altered states of consciousness is a sign of pathology or immaturity.
    New: Seeking to experience different states of consciousness is a natural aspect of healthy human growth.
  5. Old: The basic development of personality is complete by adulthood, except for neurotics, people with traumatic childhoods, and the like.
    New: Ordinary adults exhibit only a rudimentary level of maturity. The basic “healthy” adult personality is merely a foundation for spiritual work and the development of a far deeper level of wisdom and maturity.

The last point above makes it very clear that an individual’s experiences of spiritual states are an indication of a higher level of growth taking place which is not only desirable but also necessary if we are to attain full personhood, and this does not preclude Divine possibilities.


Before I address explicitly the applications of Integral psychology, though implicitly it must already be clear to the reader, I briefly touch on the potential of the Integral view in consolidating all endeavours in psychology both in the East as well as the West. In academic psychology, the major perspectives are those offered by psychoanalysis, behaviourism, cognitive psychology, humanistic psychology, and transpersonal psychology. With respect to the Integral view, psychoanalysis focuses on a narrow aspect of existence located within the subconscient – it offers glimpses of a few trees in a vast forest located on a still vaster earth. Behaviourism is concerned with outward behaviour – bodily acts in response to environmental stimuli. In relation to the Integral conception, Behaviourism only touches the outer physical existence. Cognitive psychology is largely concerned with the workings of the outer mind. Humanistic psychology is a step inward to the recesses of the psychic. Abraham Maslow, the major proponent of this view referred to lower and higher order needs. Lower needs aimed at sustenance whereas higher ones contributed towards growth. These included the concern for beauty, truth, love, oneness, etc. In other words, Maslow in some way addressed the issue of psychic awakening, without using the term. Whereas humanistic psychology takes us to the inner realms, Transpersonal Psychology focuses on the higher planes of consciousness – ascension. Indian perspectives have focused much more on the higher levels of consciousness as evidenced in the outline of the Advaita Vedantic perspective which was taken up earlier in this paper. Sri Aurobindo’s perspective does justice to all the above mentioned views but goes beyond by bringing in the issue of evolution and transformation of the human species, and thus also incorporates the aspect of “technologies of the self”.

In fact Integral psychology offers a more complete picture of the human personality and psychological functioning as compared to the other available perspectives, and goes much beyond a mere sum of the parts which would amount to a simple amalgamation of the above mentioned schools of psychology. Within this view it becomes possible to understand isolated experiences and occurrences in one’s life against a wider canvas. It helps us in getting in touch with the most essential and fundamental aspect of our existence. Further, the Integral view has potential applications in the area of psychotherapy, parenting, attitude towards work, human relationships and in the general sense of understanding Integral Yoga as applied psychology.

It is beyond the scope of the present writing to outline in detail specific applications of integral psychology, but the very fact that Sri Aurobindo’s conceptualization of personality includes all of what already exists in contemporary academic psychology and incorporates the concerns of the Indian approaches as well, makes it very clear that doing psychology form the Integral viewpoint entails expanding the horizon of current practices so that we may be able to account for the “individual trees in the forest” in their proper and complete perspective. In my next project I would be focusing attention on applications of Integral Psychology in certain specific sub-fields of psychology.

Concluding remarks

The preceding account, though only a glimpse of what Sri Aurobindo has outlined, provides the basic framework of the structure and functioning of personality as depicted in Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga, which in my opinion is the most comprehensive system of psychology available to us, to date. I began the paper on a personal note and I end on the same. This writing is a sequel to an earlier one (Varma, 2002) where I summed up my understanding of mainstream views in academic psychology and elucidated the potential of the Indian perspective rooted in the origins and nature of consciousness for providing a more complete psychology. As I noted at the outset, it is not by chance that I discovered Sri Aurobindo. No assertion, whether oral, in writing, or as exemplified through research conveys courage of conviction unless backed by direct personal experience. It is in this vein that this paper has been written. As for me, the journey continues – from the self to the Self.


1  This paper was prepared while the author was on a study visit to Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry.


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