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Sri Aurobindo’s Evolutionary Concept of Consciousness

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CHAPTER 2
Sri Aurobindo’s Evolutionary
Ontology of Consciousness
Matthijs Cornelissen
Abstract
Sri Aurobindo sees evolution primarily as an ongoing evolution of consciousness. He holds
that the human mind is much too imperfect a type of consciousness to be the final resting
point of nature, and that just as life developed out of matter, and mind out of life, a still
higher form of consciousness is bound to develop out of the mind. For his evolutionary ontology
of consciousness, Sri Aurobindo bases himself on the Vedântic view of consciousness, which
says that consciousness is pervasive throughout reality and that it manifests as a range of ever
higher gradations of consciousness and being. In matter, consciousness is fully engrossed in
its own existence and shows itself only as matter’s habit of form and its tendency to obey fixed
laws. In plant and animal life, consciousness begins to emancipate a little, there are the first
signs of exchange, of giving and taking, of feelings, drives and emotions. In the human mind
we see a further emancipation of consciousness in the first appearance of an ability to “play with
ideas in one’s mind” and to rise above the immediate situation. The mind is characteristically
the plane of objective, generalized statements, ideas, thoughts, intelligence, etc. But the mind is
also an inveterate divider, making distinctions between subject and object, I and thou, things
and other things.
Within the Vedic tradition, the ordinary human mentality is considered to be only the
most primitive form of mental consciousness, most ego-bound, most dependent on the physical
senses. Above it there is the unitary Higher Mind of self-revealed wisdom, the Illumined Mind
where truths are seen rather than thought, the plane of the Intuitive Mind where truth is inevi-
table and perfect, and finally the cosmic Overmind, the mind of the Gods, comprehensive, all-
encompassing. But in all these mental planes, however far beyond our ordinary mentality, there
is still a trace of division, the possibility of discord and disharmony. One has to rise beyond all
of them to find a truly Gnostic consciousness, intrinsically harmonious, perfect, one with the
divine consciousness that upholds the universe.
Many spiritual traditions have claimed that it is possible to connect or even merge with
an absolute consciousness beyond mind, but, according to Sri Aurobindo, it is at this moment
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Reprinted from: Joshi, Kireet & Cornelissen, Matthijs (2004). Consciousness, Indian Psychology and Yoga,
New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations. © Centre for Studies in Civilizations
12 Matthijs Cornelissen
Sri Aurobindo’s Evolutionary Ontology of Consciousness 13
for the first time becoming possible to let a supramental consciousness enter into one’s being and
transform it in every respect. The comprehensive, supramental transformation of all aspects of
human nature is the central theme of Sri Aurobindo’s work. While at present this can be done
only to a limited extent, and at the cost of a tremendous individual effort, he predicts that
eventually the supramental consciousness will become as much an intrinsic, “natural” part of
earthly life as our ordinary mentality is now.
In this chapter a comparison is drawn between Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary conceptu-
alization of consciousness and the concepts of consciousness more commonly encountered in
contemporary consciousness studies. A number of ontological and epistemological questions aris-
ing out of this comparison are discussed. A short indication is given of the “inner gestures” that
can help to put an individual on the path toward the ultimate transformation of consciousness
and being, which Sri Aurobindo proposes.
Introduction
A growing number of authors suggest that for an effective study of consciousness a
new, non-reductionistic understanding of the basic nature of reality might be essen-
tial (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, 1991; Baruss and Moore, 1998; Griffin, 1998;
Velmans, 2000). Some of these recently suggested approaches have their roots in
traditional methodologies of scientific inquiry, while others have been envisioned
in contemplative traditions and spiritual practice. This chapter will address relevant
aspects of consciousness research in Indian philosophy with special emphasis on the
work of Sri Aurobindo.
The term “Indian philosophy” evokes images of the hoary past, Vedas compiled
centuries before the birth of Homer, the lofty Ωlokas of the Upanishads and spiritual
teachings given in the midst of the romantic battle scenes of the Bhagavad Gîtâ. Those
who are more familiar with the subject may have different associations; they may
think of the six great schools of philosophy that flourished during the early centuries
of the Common Era, Vedânta, Mîmâµ, Sâµkhya, Yoga,1 Nyâya, and VaiΩeßika. Few are
aware that some of the most interesting work in Indian philosophy was done in much
more recent times. At the end of the nineteenth century, Ramakrishna Paramhansa
united in his own life the major realizations of all the spiritual traditions known in
the India of his time. In the first half of the twentieth century Sri Aurobindo built a
still wider synthesis, encompassing not only what he felt as the essence of the Indian
tradition but also what he considered the best that the Western civilization was in
the process of bringing forth.
Sri Aurobindo’s main philosophical work, The Life Divine, opens with a chapter
entitled “The Human Aspiration.” It addresses the urge for progress, the yearn-
ing for freedom, light, and perfection, which is so consistently contradicted by our
immediate experience, but which still seems to be one of our most typical and most
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Sri Aurobindo’s Evolutionary Ontology of Consciousness 13
persistent human traits. Sri Aurobindo sees this urge for progress as an expression
in the individual of a much vaster movement in nature, a movement that shows itself
most clearly in the, at first sight rather improbable, evolution of life and mind out
of matter.
While it is part of the current understanding of “evolution” that life evolved out
of matter and that mind evolved out of life, Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of these
phenomena is quite different from that of reductionist science. In keeping with the
Vedic and Vedantic traditions, Sri Aurobindo takes matter, life, and mind, all three
as limited forms of consciousness.2 He then argues that as life is a less limited form
of consciousness than matter, and mind is a less limited form of consciousness than
life, the next step in evolution could be a still less limited form of consciousness.
The general difficulty in appreciating this model might be that one equates con-
sciousness (in line with the Western tradition) with our ordinary human mentality,
while Sri Aurobindo (in line with the Vedic tradition) envisions it primarily as an
absolute, divine consciousness, of which matter, life, and mind are lower and limited
manifestations.
The oldest Indian texts, the Vedas, hold that a divine Truth-Consciousness is
the hidden essence of all that exists.3 In this view there are many different worlds.
In each world the divine Truth-Consciousness is manifested in a different manner.
Together they form a vast hierarchy of different levels of consciousness, a hierarchy
that ranges right from seemingly unconscious matter to the superconscious absolute
spirit. The world of our ordinary human experience is a mixed world somewhere
in the middle. Its basis is physical, but it is permeated and transformed by life and
mind.4 It is moreover, as Sri Aurobindo observed, not only a mixed world, but also an
evolutionary world. There appears to have taken place a gradual unfolding of these
higher (that is, less concealed) forms of consciousness.
Within this vast hierarchical framework, the human individual is seen as one
specific centre of consciousness that typically experiences itself, at least when awake,
as a mental being in a living body. But this is not its only possibility: its centre of self-
awareness can be located at different levels. I can not only have my centre of awareness
in my mind and say “I think”, but I can also be centred in the body and then say “I am
tired”, or in the emotions which are considered to be primarily5 part of the life world
– and say, “I am happy.” As we have seen, the ordinary human mind is considered as
not more than a middle term and authors throughout the history of Indian thought
confirm that with sufficient training it is possible to free oneself from one’s experi-
ence of embeddedness in the physical body, its sensations, emotions, and thoughts.
Freed from these limitations one can explore what appear as worlds of a higher con-
sciousness than the ordinary mind. Sri Aurobindo brought this ancient knowledge
together with what we now know about the biological evolution, and concluded that
just as there has been a time when life and mind were not yet embodied on earth, the
higher planes of consciousness may also be awaiting their time to become part of the
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Sri Aurobindo’s Evolutionary Ontology of Consciousness 15
ordinary, embodied reality. He felt that the ordinary human mind is far too imper-
fect a type of consciousness to be the ultimate achievement of evolution and saw the
persistent human drive toward absolute freedom, power, knowledge, and immortality
as the signs that this is what nature is striving for in us.
These, then, are three of the main elements that characterize Sri Aurobindo’s
writings: the urge for progress toward ever greater freedom and perfection, the
idea that the forces at work in the individual are concentrated reflections of similar
forces at work in the large and leisurely movements of Nature, and the notion of
consciousness as the fundamental reality. These three ideas come together in Sri
Aurobindo’s concept of an ongoing evolution of consciousness,6 which runs as a
central theme through all his work. It may be clear that Sri Aurobindo’s idea of an
ongoing evolution of consciousness can only be understood correctly in the context
of his, essentially Vedic, conceptualization of consciousness. As we have seen, he takes
consciousness not only as awareness, but also as supportive of individuation and as
the dynamic determination of form and movement on different levels of emancipa-
tion. I will work these characteristics out further in the rest of this paper and hope
to show that they not only provide for a logically coherent ontology, but also return
meaning and enchantment to the human enterprise. But before we take this up, it
may be good to have a short look, from an Indian perspective, at the more common
ways in which consciousness is presently understood in mainstream science, which
is as yet dominated by positivist influences arising from European history.
Consciousness in Contemporary Philosophy
Consciousness is notoriously difficult to define7 and the predominantly materialistic
outlook of modern times has not made it any easier. Nagel’s famous indicator of the
presence of consciousness in an organism, that “there is something it is like to be
that organism” (cf., Nagel 1979, p. 176) is attractive, if only for its charming simplic-
ity, but it does not really help to delineate what consciousness is and what it is not.
It strengthens moreover the existing tendency, especially among psychologists, to
equate consciousness with awareness, which is useful for many practical purposes but
leads to serious problems when dealing with states other than our ordinary waking
consciousness.
To illustrate this point, one might consider that it is only natural to hold that
we are conscious during daydreams or during those dreams that we remember on
waking. But if during the day something happens that makes us suddenly remem-
ber a dream that we were not aware of on waking up, we cannot in retrospect assign
consciousness to such a dream on the basis of something that happened long after
the dream ended (and that could very well not have happened). So we have to pre-
sume that we are conscious in all dreams, independent of the question whether we
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remember them in our waking condition or not. From here it is only one further step
to admit the possibility of the presence of consciousness even during deep sleep,8 a
state of coma, or in meditation.9
Once the simple identification of consciousness with our ordinary waking
awareness of our surrounding is broken, the road opens to a wider concept of con-
sciousness. The main objection against panpsychism,10 the notion that consciousness
is pervasive throughout the manifestation, is that it is hard to imagine that plants and
rocks have sensorial awareness because they lack the complicated architecture of our
brain and sense-organs. But once it is admitted that even we humans have at differ-
ent times essentially different types of consciousness, of which only some are directly
related to our senses, then the main argument against awarding animals, plants, or
even rocks with consciousness breaks down. They may simply have their own type of
consciousness, different from our ordinary mental, sense-based awareness. To para-
phrase Nagel, it might even be something like, to be a rock. This is important because
there is something deeply counterintuitive to the idea that something so specific and
non-material as our awareness of ourselves and the world would suddenly arise out
of insensitive matter at a certain level of complexity. As Griffin(1998, p. 10) points
out, the question of how experience could arise out of non-experiencing things is,
in principle, insoluble.
Of course, not everyone accepts the pervasiveness of consciousness. McGinn,
for example, agrees that the genesis of non-spatial consciousness out of an uncon-
scious physical brain is not understandable, but leaves the unsolved riddle right
there. About our inability to grasp the nature of non-spatial consciousness, he says
apologetically, “It must not be forgotten that knowledge is the product of a biologi-
cal organ whose architecture is fashioned by evolution for brutely pragmatic pur-
poses” and in a footnote: “we too are Flatlanders of a sort: we tend to take the space
of our experience as the only space there is or could be” (McGinn, 1995, p. 230).
In harmony with his pessimistic view of our human possibilities for understanding
reality, McGinn does not accept panpsychism. In the quoted article he still agrees
that some form of panpsychism is the only way out of the conundrum of Chalmers’
“hard problem,” but in his later The Mysterious Flame, he denies that it could do even
that (McGinn, 1999, pp. 95-104).
Chalmers (cf., 1998) is one of the most outspoken supporters of panpsychism
and has argued extensively against materialism. His writings are an interesting exam-
ple of how deeply the physicalist view of reality is engrained in contemporary West-
ern philosophy: the materialist bias shows even in those authors who are apparently
opposing it. Chalmers (1995, p. 210) formulates his “hard problem” as the question
of “how experience depends on physical features of the world.” His main argument
in this oft-quoted article is that we can only find a solution to his question if we “take
experience itself as a fundamental feature of the world, alongside mass, charge and
space-time” (ibid.), but the very wording he has used to formulate the question shows
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that for Chalmers experience is still not as fundamental as matter: he simply takes it
for granted that consciousness “depends” on the physical substrate. A little later in
the same passage he even asserts as self-evident that “physical processes give rise to
experience.” It is not fully clear what these phrases mean. They seem to indicate that
it is not only the form or content of experience but the very existence of experience
that depends on and arises from the physical features of the world. But this can hardly
be what Chalmers intends to express, as this would contradict his statement about
experience being a fundamental feature of the world. One can argue that a certain
functioning of the brain or a specific interaction between the brain and an external
stimulus is needed to give consciousness a certain perceptible form or intensity, but
that does not entail that the brain can create (or “give rise to”) consciousness where
there was no consciousness before. As Sri Aurobindo (1990, p. 86) points out:
Our physical organism no more causes or explains thought and consciousness
than the construction of an engine causes or explains the motive-power of
steam or electricity. The force is anterior, not the physical instrument.
It may be noted that the hard question could have been formulated quite easily in
a neutral way as “how experience co-varies with physical features of the world” and
it is worth pondering why this was not done. The materialistic tilt in Chalmers’ ver-
sion does not seem to have been a question of an incidental oversight or imprecise
wording. In a later article Chalmers (1999, section 4) defines a neural correlate of
consciousness as,
. . . a minimal neural system N such that there is a mapping from states of N to
states of consciousness, where a given state of N is sufficient, under conditions
C, for the corresponding state of consciousness.
Here again, the correlation is defined as an asymmetrical relationship, a one-way
determination from matter to consciousness. It is quite remarkable that the oppo-
site idea, that it might be consciousness that gives rise to material reality, is not even
considered as a theoretical possibility though this is the predominant view in the
philosophical systems of Hinduism and Buddhism. The most interesting point is,
however, that Chalmers seems to be unaware of the materialist tilt in his writings: at
the end of the article he incorrectly calls his approach “theoretically neutral.”
Chalmers’ formulation of the hard problem and of the correlation between
the brain and consciousness are typical examples of our unwarranted, and often
unconscious collective tendency to think that even if consciousness is irreducible, it
is somehow still “less fundamental” than matter. The recent philosophical debate on
the nature of consciousness is to a considerable degree dominated by such material-
ist presuppositions. Though there are actually not that many authors who defend a
strong materialist standpoint,11 even other authors present their arguments generally,
as if some form of materialist realism is the given view of reality from which they have
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to start by defining their own system. The dualist Beloff,12 for example, takes the exist-
ence of the physical half of reality for granted, dismisses idealism in a footnote, and
gives extensive argumentation for the inclusion of consciousness as if consciousness
is some kind of afterthought.13 Those who advocate some form of panpsychism tend
to formulate their heretic position with still more caution.14
This unquestioned assumption of the reality of the physical world is rather
remarkable in that it is not as self-evident as contemporary Western philosophers may
like to believe. For almost every statement that arises out of an exclusively materialist
world-view, in the Indian philosophical tradition one can find a similar but opposite
statement claiming the exclusive existence of consciousness. Two examples will illus-
trate how closely the two exclusive world-views mirror each other.
The Denial of Reality to the Other Side of the Coin. Scientific materialism regards spirit
and consciousness as insubstantial chimera, or at best as epiphenomena of material
processes. In a perfect mirror image of this denial of spirit and consciousness by the
materialists, the influential mâyâvâdin schools of Indian philosophy regard matter
and sense-impressions as illusions imposed on the absolute silence of the spirit.
The Persistence of “Hard Problems”. A central focus in current philosophical debates is
the dilemma of how first-person awareness could arise out of the multitude of objec-
tive, material processes in the brain. In India, there have been centuries of debate on
the equally tough question of how the seeming multiplicity of material appearances
could arise out of the silent immobility of pure Consciousness.
There is thus a remarkable symmetry in these two extreme positions and their one-
track simplicity gives them a certain strength, which dualistic philosophies cannot
easily achieve. Sri Aurobindo (1990, p. 9) acknowledges that both exclusive forms of
monism can be defended philosophically, but he does not accept either as the final
solution, because both are, in opposite ways, incomplete, and thus lead to a social
or psychological imbalance if embraced on large scale:
In Europe and in India, respectively, the negation of the materialist and the
refusal of the ascetic have sought to assert themselves as the sole truth and to
dominate the conception of Life. In India, if the result has been a great heap-
ing up of the treasures of the Spirit, – or of some of them, – it has also been a
great bankruptcy of Life; in Europe, the fullness of riches and the triumphant
mastery of this world’s powers and possessions have progressed towards an
equal bankruptcy in the things of the Spirit.
Sri Aurobindo did recognize the value of rational materialism, but he saw its
importance more in its historical utility for cleaning up the excesses and encrusta-
tions of established religion, than in its independent ability to assess the truth. He
acknowledged that rational materialism helps to train and purify the intellect and
even conceded that “the wider we extend and the surer we make our knowledge
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Sri Aurobindo’s Evolutionary Ontology of Consciousness 19
of the physical world, the wider and surer becomes our foundation for the higher
knowledge” (op. cit., p. 11). But he also felt that materialism excluded too much
of what really matters: “if pushed to its extreme, it would give to a stone or a plum-
pudding a greater reality [than] to thought, love, courage, genius, greatness, the
human soul and mind facing an obscure and dangerous world” (op. cit., p. 647).
He considered restricting reality to what is directly or indirectly accessible through
the physical senses too arbitrary a constraint to form a sound basis for any serious
philosophical system, and he predicted that as a “theory of everything” materialism
would be too limited in scope to satisfy humanity for long.
The opposite extreme, the mâyâvâdin idea that the world in which we live is
an illusion out of which we should escape by the shortest possible route, seems to be
losing ground and is perhaps no longer a major force in the world of thought. But
in the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century during which
Sri Aurobindo produced his major writings, it still had a considerable influence, espe-
cially in India, and he wrote extensively about its strengths and deficiencies. For our
present exploration the details of these arguments may not be so relevant and I will
refer to them only as far as they are essential to the understanding of Sri Aurobindo’s
own ontology. The main point is that Sri Aurobindo sees a spiritual transformation
of material existence on earth as the meaning of life and that he considers the world-
negating spirituality espoused, for example, by Theravâda Buddhism and mâyâvâdin
Vedânta, as a deformation of the more integral vision of the earlier Indian texts.
For his own world-view he bases himself on what he calls the “original Vedanta,” the
psychological and philosophical system of the Vedas and older Upanishads to which
he gives a strong, world-affirming interpretation.15
The Indian Concept of Consciousness
In the Vedic ontology, from which Sri Aurobindo derived his concept of conscious-
ness, consciousness is not only seen as individualized awareness. It is the very essence
of everything in existence and as such not only the source of individuation and the
sense of self, but also a formative energy:
Consciousness is not only power of awareness of self and things, it is or has also
a dynamic and creative energy. It can determine its own reactions or abstain
from reactions; it can not only answer to forces, but create or put out from itself
forces. Consciousness is Chit but also Chit Shakti, awareness but also conscious
force. — Sri Aurobindo 1991, p. 234
Consciousness is moreover not considered as a simple yes/no phenomenon that
is either there or not, but as manifesting in a hierarchy ranging from the seeming
obliviousness of matter below, to the seemingly superconscient Spirit above. All
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three aspects of consciousness – its cosmic nature, its energy aspect, and its ability to
differentiate itself into varying forms and degrees – combine to produce the proc-
esses of involution and evolution of consciousness that have given to our world its
particular character:
Consciousness is a fundamental thing, the fundamental thing in existence
– it is the energy, the motion, the movement of consciousness that creates the
universe and all that is in it – not only the macrocosm but the microcosm is
nothing but consciousness arranging itself. For instance, when consciousness
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. When it wants to liberate itself, slowly, evolutionarily, out
of Matter, but still in the form, it emerges as life, as animal, as man and it can
go on evolving itself still farther out of its involution and become something
more than mere man. op. cit., pp. 236-7
This passage contains, in a very simple form, the essence of Sri Aurobindo’s concept
of consciousness and evolution. The main point of it is that consciousness is not seen
as something produced by the brain, or limited to humans, but rather as a fundamen-
tal aspect of reality, if not the very essence of it. As one of the oldest Upanishads, the
B®hadâra√yaka, says about the Ultimate Reality: “This great being, infinite, without
bounds, is just a mass of consciousness” (translated by Phillips 1997, p. 9 fn.).
In the Vedantic system the fundamental reality is described as a unity (Sac-
cidânanda) consisting of existence (Sat), consciousness (Cit) and delight (Ånanda).
Because the indivisible unity of Saccidânanda is considered the essential nature of
everything in existence, it follows that in this ontology nothing can exist that is not
conscious or that misses delight in its own existence. Neither is consciousness possible
without delight in its own existence, nor can there be delight that is not conscious.
This does not seem to tally with the ordinary human experience. It looks to us
as if life is not always joyful and that many things are unconscious, but this is attrib-
uted to a, typically human, egocentric assessment of reality. We consider everything
that happens outside the narrow range of our ordinary waking (or dreaming) state as
“unconscious,” and experience any input that is for us too little, too much, or of the
wrong kind as “suffering,” but that doesn’t mean that consciousness and delight are
completely absent in those events. Cit and Ånanda are postulated as the very essence
of everything in existence, and their presence or absence can thus not be dependent
on the ability or inability of our biological instrumentation to detect them.
We may make a comparison with the commonly used measurement of tempera-
ture in Fahrenheit or Celsius. These two scales have negative values below some in
itself quite arbitrary threshold that happens to be convenient to us. But the scientific
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scale to measure temperature is Kelvin, which has an absolute zero and only posi-
tive values. It seems reasonable to suggest that when we try to develop a scientifically
useful concept of consciousness and delight, we should also use scales that can, in
the very nature of things, have no negative values, and this is exactly what the Indian
system has done. Interestingly, this is not only a conceptual convenience, but matches
with (and is in all likelihood derived from) an experiential reality. Through contem-
plative practices or otherwise one can experience consciousness in situations that
formerly appeared sub- or super-conscious, and experience delight even in situations
that used to feel painful or indifferent.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Indian authors are blind to the limita-
tions of individual centres of consciousness and delight that are part of ordinary life.
In the ancient texts it is stressed again and again that normal human life is a state of
ignorance and suffering. But ignorance and suffering are seen as characteristic of
our limited view of the world, not of the world as it is in itself (that is, as it is seen by
the original creative consciousness). They claim that we can learn how to participate
in the perfection of consciousness and delight as long as we fulfill the psychological
conditions.
The intimate relation between existence and consciousness, which at the
summit amounts to an absolute identity, explains a number of things that remain
very problematic in philosophies that are dualistic or exclusively physicalist. In pure
physicalist philosophies there is no intrinsic reason why we should be conscious at
all, why “the light should ever be on,” as it has been said. In dualist philosophies
there always remains the “hard,” if not insoluble, problem of how the subjective
and the objective communicate. In a theory that presumes a deep identity between
existence and consciousness the nature of the problem shifts and becomes easier to
tackle. If we presume an absolute consciousness as the original reality, the difficult
question then becomes how different centres of consciousness can arise and how in
these centres “the light can ever be off.” According to Sri Aurobindo, individuality
and agency can be understood as having come into existence by an ability of the uni-
versal consciousness to form different centres of itself, each having a limited ability
of self-awareness and formative energy. Sri Aurobindo describes this as a process of
exclusive concentration, comparable to the manner in which a man can concentrate
fully on a certain task and completely forget everything else. I will discuss this issue
in greater detail in the section on involution and evolution.
One Reality, Different Worlds
As we have seen, consciousness in the Indian tradition is not equated with ordi-
nary human mentality. The authors of the ancient Indian scriptures practiced and
achieved phenomenological access to an exceptionally wide range of conscious
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experiences. They speak, for example, not only of what we now call lucid dreams,
but also of a clear consciousness maintained in deep sleep and in a fourth state
(turîya) beyond waking, dream, and sleep. So it is hardly surprising that the Indian
concept of consciousness is rarely, if ever, limited to the type of sensory awareness
we have in the ordinary waking state. Sri Aurobindo (1991, p. 234) uses an analogy
in which he compares different states of consciousness with the different frequency
ranges available in sensory experience:
Consciousness is usually identified with mind, but mental consciousness is only
the human range which no more exhausts all the possible ranges of conscious-
ness than human sight exhausts all the gradations of colour or human hearing
all the gradations of sound — for there is much above or below that is to man
invisible and inaudible. So there are ranges of consciousness above and below
the human range, with which the normal human [consciousness] has no con-
tact and they seem to it unconscious...
Technological advancement enables us to detect and interact with such frequen-
cies of light and sound that are not within the range of human sensory perception,
however, without providing any assistance to alter or increase the immediate human
experience. Similarly, it is through psycho-spiritual technologies that one can gain
access to higher and lower forms of consciousness.
Earlier we have seen that in the Indian conceptualization, consciousness is
not only an activity or a quality of individuals, but an essential aspect of all reality.
In other words, consciousness exists not only within individuals, but also independ-
ently, on a cosmic scale, and the individual consciousnesses can be seen as instances,
portions, or representatives of these different types of cosmic consciousness. These
two aspects taken together, the gradedness and the cosmicity, make it possible to
conceive of reality as a complex scheme involving interpenetrating but ontologically
distinct worlds, each consisting of a different type of consciousness and being.16 In
the Vedas these different worlds, or births as they are sometimes called, are thus
not considered to exist only subjectively in our mind, but are seen as having also an
objective existence, in the same, limited sense in which it is generally presumed that
the physical world exists independently of whether there are human beings around
to observe it or not. These different worlds are, in fact, seen as different relations
between conscious existence as observer and the same conscious existence as the
observed. The so-called physical reality has in this view no privileged position. The
physical reality as seen by the ordinary human mind is just one world amongst many
others. Some of these other worlds are easily accessible in dreams for example,
many people visit the vital worlds – but there are other worlds that are more difficult
to reach. Every relation between a grade of conscious existence as “observing self”
and a grade of conscious existence as “observed becoming” makes another world.
Strictly speaking, there exists thus neither a purely objective world “out there,” nor a
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purely subjective experience “in here.” Reality consists out of the different relation-
ships between the two.
We mean [by planes of consciousness, planes of existence] a general settled
poise or world of relations between Purusha and Prakriti, between the Soul and
Nature. For anything that we can call world is and can be nothing else than
the working out of a general relation which a universal existence has created
or established between itself, or let us say its eternal fact or potentiality and
the powers of its becoming. That existence in its relations with and its experi-
ence of the becoming is what we call soul or Purusha,17 individual soul in the
individual, universal soul in the cosmos; the principle and the powers of the
becoming are what we call Nature or Prakriti. — Sri Aurobindo 1996a, p. 429
Sri Aurobindo does not perceive these different worlds as closed systems that are
completely sufficient within their own parameters. But he doesn’t consider it correct
to speak of interactions between essentially different types of substances or forces
either. He sees the different worlds as interwoven in a different manner, based on
an underlying oneness. In terms of the observing self, Vedânta holds that there is
actually only one observing Self (the paramâtman). As I will discuss in more detail in
the description of the process of involution, the many selves only appear separate
and different from each other by a process of “exclusive concentration” that takes
place in portions of the original Self that in essence remains one. Similarly, as the
Sâµkhya acknowledges, there is only one objective reality, which is ineffable, or, in
the more descriptive Sanskrit phrase, anantagu√a, “of infinite quality.” The only thing
we can know about the reality is the interaction between the centre of consciousness
we identify with and this ineffable nature, but in essence there is all the time only one
conscious existence that separates itself, for the joy of manifestation, into an infinite
number of relations between itself as observing consciousness and itself as nature.
One major difficulty in accepting the objective existence of non-physical reali-
ties, is the extent to which our perception is tied to our physical embodiment. Our
ordinary waking consciousness is deeply embedded in the physical workings of our
body. Of what surrounds us, we are primarily aware by means of our physical senses
and we experience our feelings as embodied in our physical constitution and even
our own thoughts we understand only after they have been clad in words. The Indian
tradition holds, however, that such limiting dispositions are not more than deeply
engrained and culturally reinforced habits, and that it is possible, at least with suf-
ficient psychological training, to open oneself beyond the restrictions of sensory
perception. One can then move freely in those additional aspects of reality that are
often called the “inner worlds.”
In the ordinary waking states we are moreover not aware of such inner worlds as
they are in themselves. We are aware only of their subordinate manifestations within
the physical world. However, in other states of consciousness it is possible to enter
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into contact with the inner worlds themselves through what is known in Vedânta
as our inner senses. With increasing experience and knowledge, one can learn to
identify their typical aspects and regularities and one can even act upon other per-
sons and events in these inner worlds in a manner that supports the claim for their
shared objective existence. Access to inner worlds is mediated in a psychological and
phenomenological sense through a movement of consciousness that is experienced
in its first steps as a form of “going inside.” The inner worlds are, however, not sup-
posed to be limited to one’s own being or one’s subjective consciousness; instead,
Indian psychology considers them equally objectively real when compared with the
physical world.
An interesting aspect of the planes of consciousness is that they are seen as
corresponding to centres of consciousness in the (subtle) body, called chakras in
Sanskrit. That different locations in the body would be related to different types of
consciousness is not an idea that has arisen only in the Indian tradition. It is very
much part of the English language, for example, to say that we feel fear in the pit
of our stomach (the centre of our lower life energies), that we feel love in our heart
(the centre of the higher vital consciousness) and that we need to “use our head”
to come to good mental conclusions. Even though science tells us that we both feel
and think with our brain, many people actually experience it in the way our pre-sci-
entific language suggests: if we really have to think hard, we frown and concentrate
our energies somewhere behind the forehead, but if we feel a strong compassion or
love for someone, we “open our heart” and experience the centre of our awareness
in the (subtle physical) heart centre, which is in the middle of the chest. With some
training one can increase this ability to centre one’s consciousness at will at different
levels in one’s (subtle) body and experience the different types of consciousness that
correspond to them. One can also train the ability to observe from which centre dif-
ferent emotions and impulses arise. These two skills taken together can contribute
considerably to one’s control over one’s psychological reactions and thus to one’s
social competence.
With these general considerations in place we are now in a better position to
understand the Vedic concept of major “planes of consciousness and being.” Vari-
ous planes have over the ages been distinguished and they have been classified in
different ways. The description most commonly used by Sri Aurobindo is that of a
“sevenfold chord of being.”
The Sevenfold Chord of Being
In this ancient, originally Vedantic, scheme the world is presented as a hierarchy of
seven planes. The topmost three are the worlds of Sat, Cit and Ånanda, which we have
encountered earlier as constituting together the nature of the Ultimate Reality. Sat is
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the highest truth of being; Cit is the infinite, divine consciousness and will; Ånanda,
the creative delight of existence. The lower three planes are the worlds of matter,
life, and mind with which we humans are more familiar. In between the two hemi-
spheres is the link-plane of the supramental Truth-Consciousness, vijñâna or gnosis.
There are certainly different schools of interpretation for these planes of reality, but
rather than entering this oftentimes rivaling discourse, I will make ample use of Sri
Aurobindo’s own words in the hope that this will bring a sense of the distinct flavour
of these planes and of the richness that ensues from his multi-layered conceptualiza-
tion of the manifestation in which we live.
Consider a hierarchical model at the bottom of which are the structural pat-
terns of the ordinary, material world most familiar to science. On a macroscopic
scale, the world is here well-defined, fixed in place and time, and obeys seemingly
immutable laws with consciousness fully oblivious of its self-existence. Even if the
dynamic properties of the physical world turn out to be an infinite energy ever in
movement, the pattern on which the energy moves is largely static. In the Indian
philosophy one would say that its basic property is tamas, inertia. The physical world is
primarily known to us objectively as the object of our senses. But there is a special type
of physical consciousness that is to some extent subjectively accessible: the conscious-
ness present in our own body. Our access to our own body-consciousness is, however,
limited. We can discern, for example, whether we are healthy or ill, full of energy
or tired, but most of the processes that take place in our bodies are automatic and
remain outside of our awareness. With specialized attention and training the body-
consciousness can, however, be developed and refined, e.g., through dance, sport,
hatha-yoga, martial arts, or other forms of practice. A developed body-consciousness
cannot only lead to more grace, beauty, or performance, but is also closely related
to health. Within the Indian tradition it is widely believed that with sufficient prac-
tice one can learn to bring many aspects of the body-consciousness under control,
maintain a greater inner harmony, and so boost one’s resistance against disease.
Within the Western tradition there are forms of psychotherapy that also make use
of the body-consciousness, e.g., for the treatment of psychosomatic conditions. It has
repeatedly been found that once traumatic experiences have led to restrictions in
physical functioning or anatomical malformations (e.g., stress-ulcers, certain types
of backaches, etc.), knowing “with one’s mind” that there is a psychological factor
involved is not sufficient to bring about change. If one wants to restore normal
functioning, it is necessary to enter into the body-consciousness itself to resolve the
negative issue there. This is an area of therapy where cooperation between Western
and Indian perspectives and “techniques” are extremely fruitful.
If the chief property of the physical plane is stability, the characteristic quality
of the vital plane is dynamism, or rajas. It is the plane of the life energies, interac-
tions, mutuality, attraction, and repulsion. Its laws are based on self-assertion, the will
to increase one’s life. Where the vital plane penetrates and influences the physical
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plane, it manifests in nature as plant and animal life. In society it expresses itself in
everything that has to do with human relations, most typically in theatre, movies,
business, politics. In the individual the vital plane is the seat of basic life-instincts and
energies, such as fear, anger, hatred, self-assertiveness, aggression, and ambition; but
it also includes the realm of love, courage, compassion, joy, and a sense of aesthetics.
In our ordinary waking consciousness we can know vital/emotional movements only
subjectively inside ourselves. The emotions and vital energies of others we have to
infer from observations of their physical correlates, or we have to assume them by
proxy on the basis of self-referential reports. In the Indian system, as we have seen,
the private character of emotions is attributed exclusively to the limitations of the
observing consciousness and it is not accounted for by ascribing a lesser degree of
objective reality to what happens in the vital plane. In other words, emotions like
fear and love are not seen as purely subjective states but also as objectively existing
forces. And because everything is in principle conscious, these forces are even treated
as beings living “out there” in the vital plane.18
The mental plane is the plane of ideas and thoughts. While in ordinary par-
lance mind is often equated with consciousness – or even taken as a wider concept
than consciousness because it includes both the conscious and the (supposedly)
unconscious – in Sri Aurobindo’s terminology “mind” is used only for one specific
variety of consciousness. The mind is a more emancipated form of consciousness
than the physical and vital forms of consciousness. In the physical plane, conscious-
ness is fully engrossed in its own being. In the vital plane, consciousness is still centred
in its own being, but already aware of “the other.” It is typically the plane of I/Thou
relationships. On the mental plane, we see the first beginnings of a further ability
of consciousness to rise above its own individuality: thoughts can be abstract and, at
least to some limited extent, unrelated to any specific individual ego or situation. The
mind is thus characteristically the plane of objective, generalized statements, ideas,
thoughts, intelligence, etc. Though its characteristic property is sattva, harmony, the
ordinary mind is in its essence more analytical than synthetic. It is a dividing principle
that measures and delimits. As with the other gradations of consciousness, mind is
seen to exist as an independent plane, without the encumbrances of matter and life,
but also as an involved presence within these lower planes of consciousness. Within
the physical world it manifests most typically as the embodied human mind. Within
human society, it is most typically represented by philosophy, science and technol-
ogy. Within the individual it contains everything related to cognition, perceptions,
memory, different types of thought, intelligence, language and so on.
Within the mind, five subplanes are distinguished: the ordinary mind, the
Higher Mind, the Illumined Mind, the Intuitive Mind, and finally, the Overmind.
The ordinary mind we are all familiar with has no direct access to reality in its fullness.
While striving for applied and theoretical knowledge, it starts at ignorance. It does
not have the ability to move from “light to greater light,” as is possible in some of the
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higher planes, but it is perpetually struggling with difficulty to arise out of “darkness”.
The ordinary mind is, in Sri Aurobindo’s terminology, primarily a physical mind in
the sense that it is dependent on the physical senses for its basic “data” and that it
functions best when dealing with mental models of the physical aspects of reality. It
characteristically deals with reflections and symbolic representations of reality, rather
than with reality itself. It cannot take cognizance of reality itself, because in order to
function it has to delineate separate “objects” from their supporting background and
from each other. Where it tries to see the whole, it actually conceives of an assembly
constructed out of parts. It cannot arrive at absolute truth as what it reaches is never
more than an aspect or a portion of it, defined in contrast to other concepts of the
One who herself will forever remain beyond its grasp.
The ordinary mind is the most evolved type of consciousness available to
most of human kind. Beyond lie territories that are less familiar if at all. It is prob-
ably true that short moments of access to a higher19 type of consciousness do occur
quite regularly as spontaneous gifts. Surveys show that a large percentage of people
report having had one or two experiences that can well be described as short visits
to a higher plane of consciousness (Kennedy, Kanthamani, and Palmer 1994). Such
experiences are typically valued as the highlights in a person’s life. But a comprehen-
sive understanding of these higher planes of consciousness and a full mastery of the
modes of access to them requires extensive spiritual training and is extremely rare.
A first contact with the plane immediately above the ordinary mind, the
Higher Mind, as Sri Aurobindo calls it, is not too difficult. During meditation or
even through an intense stress of concentrated thinking on a difficult subject, one
can suddenly feel as if uplifted into a different mental space. It is a space of answers
rather than questions: whatever issue one focuses on, answers immediately pop up,
complete with relevant connections and implications. While in our ordinary state we
build up new thoughts slowly and with difficulty out of old elements; in this mental
space thoughts appear ready-made. It is a realm not of constructed thought, but of
self-revealed wisdom. A major characteristic of the Higher Mind is that it allows one
to conceive immediately the underlying unity between apparently opposite ideas.
Thinkers who have occasional access to this level of consciousness typically produce
brilliant overviews and integrations of wide subject areas with an afflatus and inner
certainty that goes way beyond what can actually be derived from the supporting data.
One should not expect, however, that all statements derived from the Higher Mind
will be intrinsically true and perfect. One-sidedness or other distortions are difficult
to avoid as long as the ideas from the Higher Mind are formulated, worked out,
and elaborated while the thinker is back in the ordinary mind with all its inherent
approximations and confusions. To avoid such deformations, a double purification
is required: the vital consciousness must be taught not to interfere at all, and the
ordinary mind needs to remain silent and needs to confine itself to reception and
faithful transmission of the higher knowledge. In practice, perfection on this level
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is extremely difficult to achieve and requires the completeness of realization and
purification of character that mark the transition from the thinker to the sage.
The higher types of consciousness are often experienced as realms of inner
light that exhibit an ever-increasing brightness and clarity as one rises higher in
the hierarchy. The use of words related to light for the description of these planes
should thus not be considered as purely metaphorical but as renderings of how
these planes are actually experienced. Those who have the habit of watching their
thoughts moving about in their mind as visual entities, tend, for example, to see
ordinary thoughts as somewhat opaque, sluggish, and darkish, while the thoughts
in the realm of the Higher Mind are crystal clear, like the air in the high mountains.
Sri Aurobindo describes the Higher Mind as follows:
[It is] a mind no longer of mingled light and obscurity or half-light, but a large
clarity of the Spirit. Its basic substance is a unitarian sense of being with a pow-
erful multiple dynamisation capable of the formation of a multitude of aspects
of knowledge, ways of action, forms and significances of becoming, of all of
which there is a spontaneous inherent knowledge.... its special character, its
activity of consciousness are dominated by Thought; it is a luminous thought-
mind, a mind of Spirit-born conceptual knowledge … conceiving swiftly, victo-
riously, multitudinously, formulating and by self-power of the Idea effectually
realising its conceptions. — Sri Aurobindo 1990, pp. 939-40
It is useful to remember that at every level of consciousness there are representa-
tions and reflections of the levels above it. From the Higher Mind onwards each new
level looks so splendid, comprehensive, and perfect that the unwary traveller can
easily conclude that he has reached the Ultimate Reality. At the level of the Higher
Mind, its unitary character, its ability to conceptualize how seemingly opposite ideas
complement and enrich each other, can easily give illusion of having reached the
Gnostic or Supramental consciousness, while what one has seen is only the shadow,
or at best the reflection of this non-dual consciousness on the, much lower, level of
the (Higher) mind.
While the Higher Mind is the plane where the sage and thinker can find fulfil-
ment, the Illumined Mind, which comes above the Higher Mind, is the world of the
seer. Interestingly, Sri Aurobindo (1990, p. 945) holds that vision is a higher power
of knowledge than mere thought:
Thought creates a representative image of Truth; it offers that to the mind as
a means of holding Truth and making it an object of knowledge; but the body
itself of Truth is caught and exactly held in the sunlight of a deeper spiritual
sight to which the representative figure created by thought is secondary and
derivative, powerful for communication of knowledge, but not indispensable
for reception or possession of knowledge.
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The Illumined Mind works primarily by vision and not anymore by thought:
Here the clarity of the spiritual intelligence, its tranquil daylight, gives place
or subordinates itself to an intense lustre, a splendour and illumination of the
Spirit: a play of lightnings of spiritual truth and power breaks from above into
the consciousness and adds... a rapturous ecstasy of knowledge.
op. cit., p. 944
According to Sri Aurobindo, there are different types of knowledge and the ultimate
variety is what he calls “knowledge by identity,” a kind of unmediated, immediate,
and “inevitable” knowledge that is possible because in their ultimate essence, exist-
ence and consciousness are one. In our ordinary mind we have this type of absolute
knowledge only of our own self-existence. But this perfect, certain knowledge about
our own existence is entirely point-like. It contains only the very fact that we exist. All
further detail is added in the form of the same type of constructed knowledge that we
have of the outer reality. The ordinary mind is dependent on unreliable perceptions
of our own inner states (traits, emotions, thoughts, etc.) and on indirectly acquired
data from our memory, senses, and the like.
On the level of the higher and Illumined Mind, knowledge is not constructed
anymore like in the ordinary mind out of data indirectly acquired through the
senses. This is one great step forward, but it is still not the unmediated, immediate,
and “inevitable” knowledge, which Sri Aurobindo calls “knowledge by identity.” It
still involves a separation between the knower and the known, the self as subject and
nature as object. A true knowledge by identity begins to become possible only on
the level of the Intuitive Mind. It is only there that it is in principle possible to know
any aspect of reality with the same directness and absolute certainty with which one
knows one’s own existence.
Intuition is a power of consciousness nearer and more intimate to the original
knowledge by identity; for it is always something that leaps out direct from
a concealed identity. It is when the consciousness of the subject meets with
the consciousness in the object... that the intuition leaps out like a spark or
lightning-flash from the shock of the meeting.... This close perception is more
than sight, more than conception: it is the result of a penetrating and revealing
touch which carries in it sight and conception as part of itself or as its natural
consequence. A concealed or slumbering identity, not yet recovering itself, still
remembers or conveys by the intuition its own contents and the intimacy of
its self-feeling and self-vision of things, its light of truth, its overwhelming and
automatic certitude. — Sri Aurobindo 1996, pp. 946-7
Even in our ordinary mind there are sometimes short flashes of insight that come
from the intuitive plane. But most of what passes as intuition is of much lower prov-
enance. On the ordinary mental plane thoughts are constructed on the basis of
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memories and sense-perceptions and the word intuition is often used for such ordi-
nary, “constructed” thoughts that have simply come faster than expected. Pseudo-
intuitions may also arrive from lower intermediate layers and even if an idea comes
as a genuine intuition from the heights it may get clad immediately in thoughts
and words from lower planes so that the end result may still be of a very mixed and
inferior character. It is only when we raise our consciousness completely into the
Intuitive plane itself, that we can, in principle, receive intuitions with their original
and intrinsic reliability.
The Intuitive Mind is the highest plane of consciousness in which one can dwell
with some sense, however diminished, of a separate individuality. Beyond that one
can only go when one has reached a cosmic consciousness.
[T]he Overmind [is] a power of cosmic consciousness, a principle of global
knowledge which carries in it a delegated light from the supramental Gnosis.
It is, therefore, only by an opening into the cosmic consciousness that the
overmind ascent and descent can be made wholly possible: a high and intense
individual opening upwards is not sufficient, — to that vertical ascent towards
summit Light there must be added a vast horizontal expansion of the con-
sciousness into some totality of the Spirit.... When the Overmind descends, the
predominance of the centralising ego-sense is entirely subordinated, lost in
largeness of being and finally abolished; a wide cosmic perception and feeling
of a boundless universal self and movement replaces it... not only the separate
ego but all sense of individuality, even of a subordinated or instrumental indi-
viduality, may entirely disappear... [I]f the delight or the centre of Force is felt
in what was the personal mind, life or body, it is not with a sense of personality
but as a field of manifestation, and this sense of the delight or of the action of
Force is not confined to the person or the body but can be felt at all points in
an unlimited consciousness of unity which pervades everywhere.
op. cit., p. 950
And yet, the Overmind consciousness is not a full Truth-Consciousness. This is found
only on the next higher, the supramental plane. In the Overmind the element of divi-
sion is still there:
. . . although [the Overmind] draws from the Truth, it is here that begins the
separation of aspects of the Truth, the forces and their working out as if they
were independent truths and this is a process that ends, as one descends to
ordinary Mind, Life and Matter, in a complete division, fragmentation, separa-
tion from the indivisible Truth above. There is no longer the essential, total,
perfectly harmonising and unifying knowledge, or rather knowledge for ever
harmonious because for ever one, which is the character of supermind. In the
supermind, mental divisions and oppositions cease, the problems created by
our dividing and fragmenting mind disappear and Truth is seen as a luminous
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whole. In the Overmind there is not yet the actual fall into Ignorance, but the
first step is taken which will make the fall inevitable.
— Sri Aurobindo 1991, p. 257
In the Upanishads, the Overmind plane is often described as a Golden Lid that covers
the face of the Truth: the Overmind contains a million reflections of the truth, and
they are all so close to the source that each of them can easily be taken as the One
Truth itself. It might well be this living sense of an absolute truth – which actually,
in spite of its absoluteness, is yet limited to only one aspect of the Truth – that forms
the psychological basis of the frequent conflicts between sects and religions.
Many great mystics were aware of this difficulty and accepted nothing as true
except the Absolute beyond manifestation. Spiritual literature from all over the world
testifies to the fact that it is indeed possible to jump, as it were, straight from a fairly
ordinary mind to an experience, if we may call it so, of the ineffable Absolute. It is
often described as a passage through a narrow crack or hole in a thick lid that sepa-
rates our ordinary mind from the Divine. For the purpose of individual liberation or
salvation this is enough. One experience of the absolute consciousness is sufficient
to change one’s outlook on life permanently. But the stress on mokßa (liberation)
as the only true aim of the spiritual endeavor increases the divide between spiritual
life and life in the world. For all the good this may do to the liberated individual,
the world remains as it is. As the Indian experience shows, collective life may even
deteriorate, for one could say that as the Indian civilization got increasingly focused
on the non-worldly pursuit of the Divine, it began to neglect the dynamic develop-
ment of life in the world.
Interestingly, it seems that the ancient Vedic Rishis were less in a hurry for
liberation than their more recent descendants. They carefully lifted their conscious-
ness up from plane to plane, describing in their rich and symbolic language the
worlds and forces they encountered on the way. Following in their footsteps Sri
Aurobindo made the detailed map of all the intervening worlds of which this is a
short summary. On the basis of these explorations, Sri Aurobindo made a sharp
distinction between the Overmind, as the highest sub-plane of the mind, and the
supramental plane.
The supramental plane is the plane of the Truth-Consciousness, ta-Cit. It is in
many ways the most interesting, but also the most difficult to conceptualize, because
our highest faculty for understanding and expressing reality is the mind, which is
an instrument of division belonging to the lower hemisphere. In the Supermind
there is differentiation, but no real division. Each entity is still fully conscious of the
whole of which it is a part and of the Divine which it is, and knows to be, not only in
essence but in every aspect of its being. There is an intrinsic and potentially complete
knowledge of the Divine essence as well as of the myriad details of the manifestation.
Because consciousness is here perfect in will as well as in knowledge, it operates in
an intrinsic and complete harmony. On the side of action there is in a supramental
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consciousness no gap between intention and result, and all action takes place in a
perfect harmony with everything else.
It is the One Truth deploying and determining the manifestation of its Powers
— all these powers working as a multiple Oneness in harmony, without opposi-
tion or collision, according to the One Will inherent in all.
— Sri Aurobindo 1991, pp. 257-8
At its summits it is the divine Gnosis “by which the Divine knows and upholds and gov-
erns and enjoys the Universe” (Aurobindo 1997, p. 366). It is clear that this is a type
of consciousness that is not only difficult to describe but even difficult to conceive
and our mind can at best reflect its “luminous shadow” (Aurobindo 1996, p. 417).
Above the supramental plane we find the triple plane of Saccidânanda, which
is still more difficult to describe, if not entirely ineffable. There has been in recent
years an extensive philosophical debate on whether the experience of the Ultimate
Reality that the different mystical traditions refer to is actually one and the same
experience. For example, Aldous Huxley (1946) popularized the ancient idea that
there is one perennial philosophy that is the same in all cultures, though expressed
variously. Steven Katz (1978, pp. 62-3) and other constructionists stressed that all
human experiences are culturally mediated and that the differences in description
are too substantial to be ignored. Robert Forman (1990, e.g. p. 42) countenanced
this assertion by saying that there is a long mystical tradition whose exact purpose is
to rise above all cultural determinations into a realm of “pure consciousness.” Within
Sri Aurobindo’s conceptual framework it is not difficult to see the truth in all three
standpoints. If one restricts oneself exclusively to the perspective of the physical
mind, the lowest mental plane, which is limited to what is manifest in the physical
reality, then one can only see that different religions make different statements
and one cannot know if they refer to the same experience or not. If one rises to the
Higher Mind, one gets a strong inner sense of the underlying unity and one becomes
inclined to unifying schemes like the philosophia perennis, but at the cost of precision
and detail. When one arrives, far above all such attempts at conceptualization, at the
pure, unmediated reality, one is still forced to use the limited terms of the mind when
one expresses oneself, not only to others but even in one’s subsequent self-experi-
ence. Once one becomes aware of this, once can see that oneness and difference are
two aspects of the truth, that complement rather than contradict each other.
The top four planes of the Vedic Sevenfold Chord of Being denote different
aspects of the Absolute. So it is tempting to group the major religious and spiritual
traditions according to the aspect they use most typically to describe the nature of
the Ultimate Reality. These major traditions are, of course, extremely complex socio-
cultural entities that cover millions of individuals spread over vast territories and long
stretches of time, and such a simple classification can thus do no more than indicate
a centre of gravity. One can expect that within each tradition there are individual
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mystics who use descriptions of their experience that, as such, are more typical for
one of the other traditions. Yet, as long as one remains aware of these constraints,
the classification on the basis of the Vedic Sevenfold Chord of Being does shed an
interesting light on the question of how a single reality can give rise to such widely
divergent phenomenologies and conceptualizations as we see in this field. Sri Aurob-
indo (1996a, p. 382) gives the following description:
But in arriving to these planes [of Saccidânanda] or deriving from them, the
limitations of our mentality pursue us.... [T]he mind is an inveterate divider
of the indivisible and its whole nature is to dwell on one thing at a time to
the exclusion of others or to stress it to the subordination of others. Thus in
approaching Sachchidananda it will dwell on its aspect of the pure existence,
Sat, and consciousness and bliss are compelled then to lose themselves or
remain quiescent in the experience of pure, infinite being which leads to the
realisation of the quietistic Monist. Or it will dwell on the aspect of conscious-
ness, Chit, and existence and bliss become then dependent on the experience
of an infinite transcendent Power and Conscious-Force, which leads to the
realisation of the Tantric worshipper of Energy. Or it will dwell on the aspect
of delight, Ananda, and existence and consciousness then seem to disappear
into a bliss without basis of self-possessing awareness or constituent being,
which leads to the realisation of the Buddhistic seeker of Nirvana. Or it will
dwell on some aspect of Sachchidananda which comes to the mind from the
supramental Knowledge, Will or Love, and then the infinite impersonal aspect
of Sachchidananda is almost or quite lost in the experience of the Deity which
leads to the realisations of the various religions and to the possession of some
supernal world or divine status of the human soul in relation to God.
Seen from the ordinary mind such a broad unification of the major religious and
spiritual realizations may in first instance appear presumptuous or even illogical,
but perhaps there is a different “logic of the infinite” that is more tolerant of such
apparently contradictory descriptions of a single Ultimate Reality. On the level of
the Higher Mind one can, in fact, apprehend the unity underlying this apparent
diversity with a direct perception. At levels beyond the mind, in what Sri Aurobindo
calls the supramental consciousness, one can, according to Sri Aurobindo, even have
a direct experience of all four ultimate states at the same time. At this highest level
these oppositions are no longer experienced as exclusive of each other and, to use
the famous phrase from the Upanishads, the all in the One, the One in the all, and
the One as the all are lived in one continuous experience. It may be clear that such
a direct experience is something entirely different from the logical conclusions one
can arrive at on the level of the ordinary mind, or even from the direct conceptual
perception that one can have on the level of the Higher Mind.
Sri Aurobindo’s map of the main planes of consciousness was not just developed
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Sri Aurobindo’s Evolutionary Ontology of Consciousness 33
for the sake of cartography. Instead, he was interested in the dynamics of conscious-
ness, in evolution, in collective and individual progress. So the next issue we will
take up is how Sri Aurobindo visualized the large-scale evolution of consciousness
he discerned behind the facts of biology. After that we will have a look at individual
consciousness and its transformation.
Involution and Evolution
As we have already seen, Sri Aurobindo takes consciousness as “the primary thing”
and not as just one out of several fundamental elements of reality. In any philosophy
that posits an absolute consciousness as the basic “stuff” out of which the universe is
made, the crucial question is how out of this single, indeterminate absolute of being
and consciousness, could arise the multiplicity, the variation of forms, and the limita-
tions of power, joy, and consciousness that constitute our experience of the universe.
The process by which the infinite, absolute consciousness, being, and joy turns into
existence as we know it, Sri Aurobindo generally calls “involution,” which he presumes
to have preceded evolution if not in time, at least in logical sequence. At one
place he portrays this involution as a two-step process. He describes the first step as
the manifestation of multiple instances of the one Self out of Itself — multiple, but
still identical. He gives the second step as a gradually increasing self-differentiation
through a process that he compares with our human form of exclusive concentra-
tion. On the level of the individual human being, exclusive concentration is a mental
activity in which we forget ourselves and all but a small part of the reality on which
we are focused. At the level on which the cosmic Infinite differentiates itself into the
multitudinous universe, Sri Aurobindo sees exclusive concentration as “a self-limita-
tion by idea proceeding from an infinite liberty within” (Aurobindo 1990, p. 267).
Elsewhere, Sri Aurobindo gives a slightly different description. He says there
that to understand the origin of inconscient matter and the individual centres of
limited consciousness we take ourselves to be, we need to presume three powers of
the Infinite consciousness: self-variation, self-limitation, and self-oblivion. The first of
these three is a free power of self-variation in which “a manifold status of conscious-
ness” (op. cit., p. 342) is created in which still “the One is aware of itself simultaneously
in all of them” (ibid.). The second power, the power of self-limitation, is needed to
initiate the possibility of an individualized but still fully spiritual consciousness. At this
level there is variation and individuality, but not yet what in Sanskrit is called avidyâ
(ignorance).20 Avidyâ is the knowledge that arises from a half-obscure consciousness,
which is not anymore aware of the One but only of the multiplicity. For avidyâ to
arise, Sri Aurobindo suggests that one needs to consider a third power, the power
of self-oblivion.
As consciousness diminishes in this manner during the involution, the hierarchy
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of archetypal planes of consciousness and being comes into existence until in the
end the supramental Truth-Consciousness is hidden completely in the nescience
of matter. Thus the descending ladder of the different planes of consciousness and
being, which I have described in the previous section – the Overmind, Intuitive Mind,
Illumined Mind, Higher Mind, ordinary mind, life, and finally the subtle, physical
planes – comes into being as a series of intermediate worlds between the supramen-
tal Truth-Consciousness above and the nescient below. According to Sri Aurobindo
all these planes of consciousness still exist as static, interwoven, and interacting but
basically independent, archetypal worlds. When self-oblivion is complete, we get the
elemental particles of physics moving about in the seemingly inconscient, but still
lawful, organization of matter:
. . . the force acting automatically and with an apparent blindness as in a trance,
but still with the inevitability and power of truth of the Infinite.
op. cit., p. 344
To describe how in matter consciousness is totally lost to itself except in the form and
in what one could call the fixed habitual ways in which its forces act, Sri Aurobindo
uses the metaphor of a man who is totally concentrated on his work and who forgets
himself and his surroundings.
Scientific theory does not ascribe sentience or consciousness to the physical
world, yet different models of dynamic interaction are recognized. Sri Aurobindo
agrees that matter lacks sentience in the human sense, yet he reasons that out of this
apparently insentient material basis, gradually higher and higher forms of conscious-
ness evolve through a process in which the material substrate is being transformed
and continues to express the evolving consciousness. At each transition the new
power not only evolves out of the old, but also transforms whatever preceded it in a
creative interaction. In this way, first matter evolves under influence from the already
existing subtle physical world. In the next stage, when matter has become sufficiently
complex and plastic, within matter life-forms evolve. Still later, when material life has
become sufficiently subtle and complex, within these physical life-forms the mind
begins to evolve, and this takes place again under the guidance from the already
existing mind-planes above it.21
Many contemporary philosophers object to such cosmology. For example,
Daniel Dennett (1994, pp. 73-80) discredits any cosmology that includes a higher sen-
tience or conscious presence by introducing the analogy of construction cranes that
stand solidly on the ground and erect themselves without any need for “sky-hooks” to
pull themselves up. However, Dennett’s premise is masked as an observation. If one
looks only for physical things, then all one sees is that physically the crane and the
building are built from the bottom up. Double-aspect theories like Sri Aurobindo’s
do not deny this. What they add is that neither the building nor the crane would have
appeared on the site at all if someone did not have the idea of a high-rise building in
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the first place. The real second aspect is not a physical hook hanging from a physical
sky but a mental force in a mental sky, and it need not surprise anyone that a com-
mitted materialist like Dennett does not detect it.
The Next Step in the Evolution of Consciousness
In the current stage of the evolution of consciousness, nature is mainly busy perfect-
ing the mind, guiding human mental development to become increasingly subtle and
flexible, more detailed and analytic, as well as more comprehensive and synthetic.
According to Sri Aurobindo (1990, pp. 3-4), the next major step is in the meantime
preparing itself, and we are on the way to the manifestation of the next higher plane
of consciousness, what Sri Aurobindo calls the “supramental Truth-Consciousness,”
as part of ordinary biological life.
To those who object that a minor improvement in our functioning might still
be possible but that the chances are rather remote for the arrival of a divine Truth-
Consciousness within our physical tenement, Sri Aurobindo answers that if anybody
would have looked at the universe in its first, inorganic, stages, the spontaneous
appearance of plant life would not have looked very plausible either, and that nobody
seeing the first plants covering the globe would ever have guessed that some day small
bipeds would calculate the age of the universe, write poetry, or enjoy books about
the Tao. So, if Nature would surpass her apparent limits again, she would simply
continue an old habit.
The change Sri Aurobindo envisions as the next step in evolution is not a
minor one. It might begin with a limited number of individuals or small groups
evolving through great personal effort to higher levels of awareness. But if this
were all, it would leave unchanged the basic principle on which life in the world is
based. What Sri Aurobindo envisages is a whole new stage of evolution, in which a
true Gnostic consciousness becomes an organic, incarnate aspect of physical life,
in the same natural manner as, at present, life and mind are a normal part of the
physical universe.
The difference between the mental and the supramental life would in a way
be bigger than the difference between plant-life and mental life as we now know it.
As we have seen in the description of the levels of mind, our ordinary mind is based
on ignorance and tries from there to arrive at knowledge, and its knowledge is thus
inherently approximate and fallible. The supramental knowledge, as Sri Aurobindo
describes it, is based on a fully conscious identity with the whole. It knows the universe
as if from inside. Perhaps one could say that it knows the world in the way the Divine
knows the world, and if there is limitation of knowledge or power it is a willed and
conscious diminution for the sake of the harmony and development of the whole.
If such a consciousness could indeed manifest on earth, it would mean a
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continuation, but also a radical reversal of the development that has taken place so
far. Evolution until now has taken place primarily within matter. As we have seen,
our human consciousness is strongly embedded in the workings of the physical brain
and as such is limited by this physical apparatus. The supramental consciousness, on
the other hand, is primarily based in the Spirit, and from there, in that freedom, it
engages matter, expresses itself in it and, while doing so, transforms it.
Though the idea of a Golden Age (Satya Yuga) to some extent implies it, there
doesn’t seem to be any reference in the Indian literature of the possibility that the
original Truth-Consciousness could become an integral, inherent part of biological
life on earth. In fact the entire manifested reality is often held to be the result of a
distorting, illusion-creating Mâyâ. Sri Aurobindo claims that it is because the later
Indian systems did not distinguish clearly enough between the overmental and supra-
mental planes that they presumed that the world was the creation of the Overmind
Mâyâ, and thus intrinsically a world of ignorance out of which it is best to escape into
some nirvâ√a beyond (Aurobindo 1991, p. 250). He argues that if they had made a
clear distinction between Overmind and Supermind, they would have realized that
the Overmind Mâyâ can not be the original creator of the world but that it must be
a secondary force that introduces the first elements of Ignorance and division in a
manifestation that has its real origin in the divine Truth-Consciousness itself and
that is thus, intrinsically, capable of evolving into a true manifestation of the divine
perfection.
To the limited inner vision of the later Indian traditions, the world has the
appearance of an overmental creation rooted irretrievably in ignorance and suffer-
ing. To the physical senses on which science bases itself, life appears as gradually
emerging out of unconscious matter through a purely mechanical process. In Sri
Aurobindo’s synthesis both theories appear as partial truths. The former describes
the manifestation of the material universe out of consciousness but misses out on
the dynamic link between the divine consciousness and the manifestation. The latter
describes the outer mechanism of the evolution, but misses out on its inner meaning
and the role of consciousness in the whole process. The two views cover a different
aspect of the picture. As such they don’t contradict but enrich and complement each
other. Sri Aurobindo adds to this synthesis of these two theories the suggestion that
if we superimpose the understanding of the different planes of consciousness that
Vedânta developed on the Western idea of evolution, there should be the possibility
of the manifestation of the highest forms of supramental consciousness right here
in matter, as part of the biological evolution.
His explanation of creation as a form of “exclusive concentration” is as inter-
esting for what it contains and implies, as for what it does not contain. Suffering, for
example, is not, as in the Bible, the result of something done by man against the will
of God. The world is also not, as often held in India, a bad dream or a lie imposed,
as from outside, on an unconcerned Divine. It is also not a series of chance events,
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nor a mechanical process. None of these explanations is commensurate with the
definition of God as the summum bonum, the absolute of consciousness, existence
and bliss. If there is a Divine, omniscient and omnipotent, then whatever happens in
this world must be her will.22 It is She who involves her absolute consciousness into
its very opposite, into the depth of inconscience, and it is she who evolves out of it as
matter, life, mind, and Supermind. It is none-else than the Divine herself who is the
stage, the act and the actor with us for his roles (Aurobindo 1994, p. 61).
This is then, in short, the process by which Sri Aurobindo visualizes first the
involution of the divine consciousness into matter matter that seems in every
respect the exact opposite of its luminous origin – and subsequently the evolution,
within the material world, of life, mind and ultimately the Supermind.
The Individual Consciousness and Its Transformation
The next question that arises is how this cosmic consciousness in its vast and mag-
nificent splendour relates to our individual centres of consciousness, for they seem
to be so different as to look almost unrelated. Within the individual consciousness
Sri Aurobindo makes a clear distinction between a person’s ego and his or her indi-
vidual essence. The ego is, according to Sri Aurobindo, no more than a temporary
construction, made out of memories, habits, emotions, vital and mental preferences,
and necessary to give form to individualization:
But what is this strongly separative self-experience that we call ego? It is nothing
fundamentally real in itself but only a practical constitution of our conscious-
ness devised to centralise the activities of Nature in us. We perceive a formation
of mental, physical, vital experience which distinguishes itself from the rest
of being, and that is what we think of as ourselves in nature — this individu-
alisation of being in becoming. We then proceed to conceive of ourselves as
something which has thus individualised itself and only exists so long as it is
individualised, — a temporary or at least a temporal becoming; or else we con-
ceive of ourselves as someone who supports or causes the individualisation, an
immortal being perhaps but limited by its individuality. This perception and
this conception constitute our ego-sense. Normally, we go no farther in our
knowledge of our individual existence. — Sri Aurobindo 1990, p. 367
This ego-sense does not suffice, however, for understanding human individuality.
The Vedic tradition holds that, besides the ego, there is also a greater Self that sup-
ports and determines the individual, but that exceeds the temporal personality.
Within this “true” Self, Sri Aurobindo distinguishes two aspects. The first is what
in the Indian tradition is called the Jivâtman, who presides, as from above, over
our individual existence. It is a containing consciousness, eternal and unchanging,
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which is forever one with all other Selves and one with the cosmic and transcendent
Divine. The second aspect Sri Aurobindo calls the psychic being, caitya purußa,
which one could consider the delegate or representative of the vâtman within the
temporal world in which we live. In experience we reach the Jîvâtman through an
upward movement of our consciousness: it is experienced as if above the head. The
psychic being, on the other hand, is contacted by going deep inside, its presence is
felt behind the heart. In its essence it is the divine spark, the soul spoken of in some
form or another in almost all religious and spiritual traditions. Sri Aurobindo holds
that this divine spark exists from before the beginning of time and slowly grows into
a “being” that evolves over time. The idea of an evolving psychic being takes a very
central place in Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary ontology of consciousness. We have
seen that he sees the evolution primarily as an evolution of consciousness that is
slowly moving toward the manifestation of a supramental consciousness on earth.
Psychologically, the interesting point here is that he sees this evolution not only as a
process on a cosmic scale, but also as something that takes place in each individual,
with the psychic being as the carrier of this evolutionary process. In its earliest stages
there is only a psychic entity, an individualized centre of consciousness that carries
in itself, as in a seed, the entire potential of its individuality. Sri Aurobindo sees this
psychic entity as created even before time and as developing slowly, over time, into
a true “psychic being.” He does not consider this a process that could possibly take
place within one lifetime. The psychic element is supposed to move through a proc-
ess of reincarnation from life to life, gathering varied experience and slowly bringing
a larger and larger part of the inner and outer nature under its influence. It shows
itself at first as not more than an occasional influence, which gives a certain psychic
touch to human life: an appreciation of beauty, a gesture of unselfish love, a noble
impulse. But gradually this influence becomes more permanent, until finally the
whole nature becomes a faithful expression of the unique qualities of one’s soul. It
is through the psychic being that we have direct contact with the Divine and the psy-
chic transformation is thus the beginning of the gradual divinisation of our nature.
When this process is completed and the whole nature is an expression of the psychic
being, Sri Aurobindo speaks of a psychic transformation.
The different philosophical systems of India have quarrelled extensively over
the nature of the Self as distinct from the ego. For example, the Sâµkhyas say that
while nature is one, the individual Selves are many. In contrast, Advaita Vedânta
stresses that there is only one Self because our individual Self, or Åtman, is ultimately
one with the cosmic Self or Brahman. Most schools of Buddhism go one step further
and claim that there is no Self at all. Although these different statements seem to
contradict each other if one looks at them from within the framework of semantic
rationality, Sri Aurobindo holds that they do not contradict each other in what he
calls the logic of the infinite. Within such logic, the dualities of active and passive,
personal and impersonal, individual and cosmic, transcendent and individual, are
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no longer mutually exclusive. They are seen, rather, as different aspects of a single
reality that enrich and complement each other. From an experiential viewpoint
each of these three seemingly irreconcilable theories about the Self is rooted in a
distinct spiritual experience, but it is possible for a single individual to have each of
these experiences, consecutively or even, to some extent, simultaneously. One can
have at the same time a sense of egolessness as well as a sense of one’s own eternal
individuality and its oneness with a cosmic or even transcendent Divine.
Ordinarily, humans tend to identify with their ego and more specifically with
their bodies, needs, drives, and feelings, with certain habitual ideas, personal ways
of thinking, psychological qualities, political boundaries, cultural norms, etc. If any
of these grounding norms are threatened, which all of them are at some time or
another, one can easily feel threatened in one’s very existence. If one recognizes and
annihilates the sense of a limited ego-based identity, there would in principle be no
reason for sorrow of any kind. Of course it does not follow that bliss would take the
place of sorrow, since it is conceivable that this liberation could result in nothing
more than a dull indifference. In actual practice, however, it is a blissful presence
that replaces regular emotions of joy and sorrow, as those who have had experiences
of this type testify in a pretty unanimous fashion. In scientific literature there is no
unanimity on whether such a state of egolessness can actually be achieved. Carl Jung,
for example, denies this possibility on the ground that all consciousness inherently
implies the existence of an ego that is aware (quoted in Dalal 1991, p. 19). It can be
conceded that the ordinary waking consciousness is not conceivable without ego,
and that all our conscious mental processes are in some manner or another related
to the ego-sense. It is even plausible that the ego-sense is an unavoidable stage in the
gradual emancipation of individualized consciousness out of the amorphous general-
ity of biological nature. But this does not preclude the occurrence of other forms of
consciousness that do transcend ego. The various schools of Yoga all claim to have
specific techniques that can lead to the liberation from the ego.
Sri Aurobindo accepts that in the early stages of individual development it is
necessary to develop a well-functioning ego, but he holds that this is not where per-
sonal development has to end. In harmony with the Vedic tradition, he contends
that through Yoga or otherwise one can actually rise above the limitations that the
individual ego entails. The inner process that leads to this begins with a progressive
disidentification from every aspect of one’s ego-identity: one detaches oneself from
one’s body, one’s impulses, and one’s emotions; one detaches oneself from one’s
thoughts and ideas, and eventually one detaches oneself even from the very sense
of having, or rather being, a separate ego. In the process one attains an increasing
equanimity and peace, and one arrives gradually at a sublime inner silence. Together
with this, in a sense, negative movement of disidentification, there are basically two
positive directions that one can pursue in Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga, separately,
consecutively, or even simultaneously. The first is to nurture one’s psychic being,
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Sri Aurobindo’s Evolutionary Ontology of Consciousness 41
the individual centre of divine beauty, truth, and love that one can find behind the
heart. This brings an inner change that leads to an increasing ability to act directly
from this inmost centre of one’s being. The other is to identify oneself increasingly
with one’s eternal, and immutable Self, watching one’s life as an unmoved, blissful
witness from above. Either way one begins to see the personality and its adventures
in time as comparatively minor events, that happen somewhere inside one’s own
infinitude, which is felt more and more as stretching out over the entire manifesta-
tion and eternal time:
. . . in the end this Purusha, this cause and self of our individuality, comes to
embrace the whole world and all other beings in a sort of conscious extension
of itself and to perceive itself as one with the world-being.
— Sri Aurobindo 1990, p. 368
I have already mentioned that for Sri Aurobindo liberation from the limitations of
the ego is not the final aim of life, as this “escape” leaves the world as it is and as
such deprives the creation (and thus our sojourn in it) of its meaning and purpose.
He takes liberation as not more than a first, and very necessary, step on a further
road to transformation. With transformation he means nothing less than a complete
change of every part of human nature under the influence of the next higher plane
of consciousness, which he calls the gnostic or supramental plane:
By transformation I do not mean some change of the nature — I do not mean,
for instance, sainthood or ethical perfection or yogic siddhis (like the Tantrik’s)
or a transcendental (cinmaya) body. I use transformation in a special sense, a
change of consciousness radical and complete and of a certain specific kind
which is so conceived as to bring about a strong and assured step forward in
the spiritual evolution of the being of a greater and higher kind and of a larger
sweep and completeness than what took place when a mentalised being first
appeared in a vital and material animal world. If anything short of that takes
place or at least if a real beginning is not made on that basis, a fundamental
progress towards this fulfillment, then my object is not accomplished. A partial
realisation, something mixed and inconclusive, does not meet the demand I
make on life and yoga. — Sri Aurobindo 1991, p. 98
Though he considers this “radical and complete change of consciousness” as the
inevitable next step in the evolution of consciousness, he does see a major role for
the individual in the process of transition because in man the evolution of conscious-
ness has reached a peculiar phase. In the earlier stages the evolution has taken place
by an automatic and not overtly conscious operation of nature. But in the human
being nature has become self-conscious. We are aware both of our present limita-
tions and of our latent possibilities. One could well see in our persistent aspiration
for change and progress a sign that nature is attempting to move forward in us and
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through us. While in previous phases the physical change, at least on the surface,
always preceded the change of consciousness, in the present stage, through our
conscious cooperation, Sri Aurobindo expects that a change of consciousness will
precede the physical change.
Sri Aurobindo visualizes this change of consciousness as a “triple transforma-
tion.” The first step of this is the psychic transformation mentioned earlier. Following
the psychic transformation, or sometimes simultaneous with it, there is the possibility
of a spiritual transformation. This spiritual transformation comes about by a series of
ascents and descents, by a raising of our consciousness into the higher planes of the
mind, which have been described earlier, and by a bringing down of the powers of
these higher planes into our nature. It is a slow and highly complex process. Every
time one tries to reach a higher plane of consciousness, the lower nature has to be
sufficiently purified and prepared, while on the other hand, to prepare the lower
nature fully is only possible under influence of the higher plane. In spite of these
difficulties it is considered quite possible to achieve a considerable spiritualisation of
selected parts of the mental and vital nature. Though this is striven after by almost
all spiritual traditions, concrete results remain extremely rare. A complete spiritual
transformation of the entire nature, inclusive its physical body, is generally consid-
ered impossible. According to Sri Aurobindo this is due to the limitations inherent
in even the highest of the mental planes. He considers that a complete transforma-
tion, which includes even the physical body, is only possible under influence of the
Supramental Consciousness.
This supramental transformation can really begin only after the psychic and
spiritual transformations have prepared the ground. The process remains the same
in principle, but different in stress. While in the earlier stages personal effort played
a major role, in the later stages this is less and less so. As the vanity of one’s personal
ego-sense becomes more and more clear and one’s sense of identity with the Divine
increases, the sense of personal effort loses its meaning and the only tools left are
sincerity and a “vast surrender” (Aurobindo 1994, p. 315). The result the transforma-
tion aims at is a taking up of the entire nature into the supramental consciousness, a
rising out of the ignorance into the perfect, manifold truth, power, beauty, and joy
of the divine existence. Sri Aurobindo sees this as a process that in first instance will
take place on a small scale only, but he predicts that gradually it will have a greater
and greater effect on society as a whole.
Some Epistemological Considerations
In the Vedantic worldview, truth is considered to be a quality of consciousness
rather than a property of sentences, and Vedantic knowledge is primarily concerned
with experience or “truth-events.”23 Descriptions of the relations between things
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Sri Aurobindo’s Evolutionary Ontology of Consciousness 43
and processes are, at least in works dealing with consciousness and metaphysics,
considered not more than means toward this end. The objective of the Vedantic
pursuit of knowledge consists of the very act of seeing, realizing, or even becoming
ever higher levels of consciousness. Sri Aurobindo describes Vedantic knowledge
as follows:
. . . the knowledge we have to arrive at is not truth of the intellect; it is not
right belief, right opinions, right information about oneself and things, that is
only the surface mind’s idea of knowledge. To arrive at some mental concep-
tion about God and ourselves and the world is an object good for the intellect
but not large enough for the Spirit; it will not make us the conscious sons of
Infinity. Ancient Indian thought meant by knowledge a consciousness which
possesses the highest Truth in a direct perception and in self-experience; to
become, to be the Highest that we know is the sign that we really have the
knowledge... For the individual to arrive at the divine universality and supreme
infinity, live in it, possess it, to be, know, feel and express that one in all his
being, consciousness, energy, delight of being is what the ancient seers of the
Veda meant by the Knowledge. — Sri Aurobindo 1990, pp. 685-6
Vedic knowledge is thus something quite different from scientific knowledge. The
knowledge of ordinary science can be rendered exhaustively in explicit sentences or
mathematical formulas, but the statements of Vedantic knowledge are never more
than hints or aids, meant to arrive at a direct perception of a deeper truth, which
itself remains concealed behind the outer formula. As Forman (1990, p. 41) describes
it rather neatly with respect to “Pure Consciousness Events,” “linguistic systems are
afloat, not pinned down to the terms in which the mystic undergoes the event.” In
Vedic theory, thinking itself is not seen as a means to arrive at truth, but rather as a
means to express as faithfully as possible a truth already seen or lived on a “higher”
level of consciousness. The verbal expression is seen as a means, or even as a force
that, by the quality of the consciousness inherent in it, can help others to experience
that truth directly for themselves.
Though the scientific and the Vedic ways of knowing seem so different as to
be incompatible, they may actually be complementary and equally needed to arrive
at a complete picture of ourselves and of the world in which we live. While scientific
knowledge has been most effective in its dealings with physical nature, Vedic knowl-
edge has focused mainly on changing our inner nature and our subjective experi-
ence. Sri Aurobindo distinguishes four different types of knowledge occurring in our
ordinary waking state that together form a gradient between the inner knowledge
that the Vedic tradition concentrates on and the external knowledge that Science
works with. In the rest of this section I will discuss these four types of knowledge
and some of the ways the scientific and the spiritual approaches to knowledge could
complement and enrich each other.
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Knowledge by Identity. The first is knowledge by identity. It is the knowledge we have
of our own existence. For this type of knowledge the senses are not required as it is
a knowledge that arises “from inside out.” It is the knowledge we have of ourselves
simply because we are. There is no difference here between subject and object and,
in a way, not even a process: knowing and being are one. As we have already seen in
the context of the Intuitive Mind, knowledge by identity is in our ordinary waking
consciousness hardly developed and almost point-like in character: it is undifferenti-
ated and has no other content than the bare fact of its own existence. But according
to the Vedic tradition, it is possible, through extensive spiritual practice, to develop
this type of knowing further and then there is no theoretical limit to its scope.
Within the system of the Sevenfold Chord of Consciousness and Being, knowledge
by identity belongs to the planes of the Intuitive Mind and above, and it is through
this type of knowledge that the individual is considered to realize his or her identity
with the Cosmic or the Transcendent Divine. It is also this type of knowledge the
Upanishad speaks about when it says: “When That is known, all is known.” The logic
behind this amazingly bold statement is that knowledge by identity is in essence
supposed to be the knowledge of the Self, and as all individual Selves are ultimately
one, it is considered possible to have an intimate self-knowledge of other selves.
This claim is in principle open for experimental testing, but it may be clear that it
requires a rather radical change in many aspects of one’s cognitive functioning to
make knowledge by identity operational to a substantial degree. It should not be
surprising, however, if smaller manifestations of the basic principle would be found
to be fairly common, for example in occurrences of telepathic communication.24
As interest in consciousness studies increases and our insight in the processes and
techniques of change in consciousness deepens, one can expect interesting work
in this direction.
Knowledge by Intimate Direct Contact. In this second type of knowledge one identifies
with some inner psychological state or process. One is conscious, but one does not
“objectively” observe what is going on inside, because one is fully involved in what
one is doing. When one is completely engrossed in one’s own thoughts, for example,
the expression of what one is thinking will not involve a reflexive reference to the
fact that one is doing the thinking. One could say, then, for example, “you are right.”
There is in this case an awareness of the content of one’s thought not by looking
at one’s own thinking process from the outside, but from within the thinking itself,
or perhaps one should say, by being the thought. The same identification is experi-
enced when one is fully engulfed in a feeling, for example, a feeling of happiness.
If one expresses what one feels in such a state of engrossing happiness, one does
not say anymore explicitly and self-referentially, “today I’m feeling happy,” which
would imply a certain distance, but one’s happiness shows implicitly in the manner in
which one expresses oneself, e.g., “what a beautiful day it is today!” This second type
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is thus called knowledge by intimate direct contact, intimate because the observer
is united with the observed, and direct because there are no intermediary sense
organs involved. Knowledge by intimate direct contact is hardly used in the develop-
ment of science but, under the name of “experiential knowledge,” it is an essential
element of all forms of “learning by doing” and the training of skills. It is also used
extensively in psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural, humanistic, and transpersonal
psychotherapy. It can be trained to extraordinary levels of intensity and refinement
by means of spiritual practice and this type of knowledge plays an important role in
most mystical traditions.
Knowledge by Separative Direct Contact. The third type is knowledge about internal,
psychological and physiological states and processes obtained by looking “objec-
tively” at what is happening inside oneself. If one focuses on one’s physical state,
one could say for example, “my hands feel cold.” The cold sensation is then felt as
pertaining to a part of myself, while one is neither fully identified with the cold sen-
sation nor with the hands. The same separation between the inner observer and the
inner observed can be experienced with feelings or thoughts. I can say for example,
“I like this approach to Epistemology,” or “I think that he is right.” In this type of
knowledge there is a small gap between the observer and the inner process that is
being observed. This type of knowledge is thus called knowledge by separative direct
contact, separative because there is this sense of distance between the knower and the
known, direct because the outer senses are not required. This type of knowledge was,
under the name of introspection, used extensively in psychology until the second
decade of the twentieth century when it was discarded in favour of a purely external
study of behaviour. The reasons to distrust introspection were reasonable enough.
All human perception is prone to error, but perceptions of inner states were found
particularly inconsistent and unreliable. There are many reasons for this. One of
them is that human beings are aware of only a tiny fraction of what is going on inside.
We have access only to the surface and miss out on the forces and processes that take
place below the surface, and these surface appearances can be misleading. A second
distorting factor is that we have an interest in the outcomes. It is extremely difficult to
watch oneself objectively without any bias, fear, or expectation. Inner states change
easily under influence of the observing process. So it is quite understandable that
introspection often leads to contradictory results and was discarded as too unreliable
a source of information for scientific use. But doing so proved to be impracticable,
as it became gradually clear that in human beings outer circumstances and behav-
iour have only a limited reliability as predictors of future behaviour: the intervening
psychological variables are too complex.
Since the nineteen-sixties self-reports based on simple introspection have
gradually found their way back into psychological research. This time the subjec-
tive data are treated with more caution, however, and embedded in sophisticated
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Sri Aurobindo’s Evolutionary Ontology of Consciousness 45
experimental set-ups and statistical analysis. In the study of the physical correlates
of consciousness especially, there is often a considerable gap between the highly
sophisticated nature of the objective measurements and the comparative crudity of
the subjective observations (e.g., of pain, visual stimuli, etc.) The editors of the Journal
of Consciousness Studies have on several occasions (cf., 1994, Vol. 1, No. 1, p.8; 1999,
Vol. 6, Nos 2-3, p. 6) argued that it should be possible to make use of the techniques
developed in the various spiritual traditions to create more sophisticated forms of
introspection so that a more reliable and effective study of the subjective aspects of
consciousness could be achieved. This is an area in which there is scope for fruitful
cooperation between specialists from the relevant spiritual and scientific disciplines.
Many standard techniques used for spiritual liberation and for the transformation
of the individual consciousness, e.g., disidentification with surface structures, reduc-
ing emotional involvement, silencing the mind, etc., are, for example, within their
cultural background considered effective countermeasures for the three sources of
unreliability mentioned above.
Knowledge by Separative Indirect Contact. This last type of knowledge consists of explicit,
objective information about the external world. Sri Aurobindo describes it as knowl-
edge by indirect separative contact: indirect because it is mediated by the external
sense organs, and separative because it goes together with a sense of clear separation
between the self, who is the knower, and the object, which is the known. This type
of knowledge has been developed and expanded impressively by the physical sci-
ences over the last couple of centuries and is perhaps too well-known to need much
further comment. There are two things, however, that may deserve to be pointed
out. The first point is the crucial role technology has played in the expansion of sci-
entific knowledge. Technology has not only provided the obvious means for further
exploration in the form of more and more powerful tools and instruments, but it
has also served as the spur for further discovery and as a permanent, ever-expanding
test bench to confirm and fine tune the details of new scientific knowledge. I am
mentioning the role of technology in the development of science because this is a
factor that until now has been ignored almost completely in the field of conscious-
ness studies. If we can learn any lesson from the history of the physical sciences,
then we must conclude that in order to be able to study consciousness effectively,
we must be able to modify it. It is in this area that the Indian tradition can perhaps
make its greatest contribution as it has developed techniques to do just that for
thousands of years. The second point I want to mention is the role of mathemat-
ics. The progress of the physical sciences would have been unthinkable without
mathematics, but mathematics itself belongs, in Sri Aurobindo’s description of the
manifold reality, not to the physical plane but to the pure mental plane. Within
the Vedic worldview, as presented here, it is held that the basic insights of logic
and mathematics are derived from intuition rather than from sensorial perception,
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and as such they belong thus to knowledge by identity rather than to knowledge by
separative indirect contact.
The role of mathematics in science is an interesting example of the fact that in all
types of knowledge, knowledge by identity does play a decisive role. This is quite
clear in types of knowledge that deal with inner realities, in which we immediately
apprehend that what we know is our own self (“I am happy”) or a part of our own self
(“my hand is cold”), but it is even so in the indirect separative knowledge we have
of the world around us. Here it expresses itself in two forms. The first, and perhaps
most fundamental, is the fact that we experience whatever we perceive as existing and
as being part of “our world.” This may seem a trivial level of identification because
in ordinary healthy individuals it is always present and is thus taken for granted.
But in certain serious psychiatric disorders this most basic sense of belonging is
missing, misplaced, or distorted and the existential terror and impairment of social
functioning this defect causes is a clear indication of the crucial role this aspect of
our cognition plays in mental health and well-being. The second place where knowl-
edge by identity presents itself in our knowledge of the outer world is in all we know
intuitively or instinctively. There are many things that we know and that are required
to make sense of the raw data our senses provide, but that themselves do not seem
to have been derived from those sense data. The way the rules of mathematics are
derived from each other offer one interesting example of this, but there are other,
very basic constructs about the nature of reality, that fall in the same category. The
necessity or otherwise of this type of pre-experiential knowledge has been discussed
for centuries, but it appears the tide is slowly turning again in its favour. For exam-
ple, Sir Karl Popper (1994, p.15) has given some of the most convincing arguments
against a tabula rasa image of the newborn child and recent psychological research
seems to provide experimental evidence corroborating the idea that we do have
extensive innate knowledge about the structure of the world. Sri Aurobindo holds
that a considerable amount of this “built-in,” instinctive knowledge is required to
make anything out of the extremely incomplete and imperfect information that our
sense-organs provide. How such innate knowledge relates to intuitive knowledge
remains, however, a complex issue.
We saw in the beginning of this chapter that even Chalmers, who is one of the
most enthusiastic proponents of panpsychism in the present debate on the nature of
consciousness, still takes matter as more basic than consciousness. I took this as a sign
of a pervasive tilt in favour of a materialistic worldview, and argued that the necessity
for such an acceptance of matter as the fundamental basis of reality is not self-evident,
as there are well-worked out and sophisticated Indian systems of thought that hold
that it is not matter but consciousness that forms the basis of all manifestation. There
is a similar physicalist tilt regarding the relative value of objective and subjective
knowledge. Objectivity has presently the connotation of being real, reliable, and fair.
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Subjectivity is equated with being arbitrary, imaginary, and influenced by personal
feelings. According to the Indian tradition there is no intrinsic reason for objec-
tive knowledge to be more reliable than subjective knowledge, rather the contrary.
Objective knowledge is, after all, indirect, as it requires mediation through our clearly
imperfect physical sense organs, while subjective knowledge arises, according to this
worldview, directly out of consciousness itself. That in practice, objective knowledge
appears to be more reliable than subjective knowledge is, however, not difficult to
understand. There can be no doubt that the ordinary mind is much more capable
in its dealings with the physical world than in its dealings with the much more fluid
and subtle inner realities. This is, however, not an irremediable difficulty. Just as
science has put effort in fine-tuning and perfecting objective knowledge, so the
spiritual traditions have developed the methodologies required for refining and
honing subjective knowledge. It seems to me obvious that in order to develop a truly
integral epistemology and methodology for the effective and comprehensive study of
consciousness, we should make full use of the best that the Western and the Eastern
thought systems have brought forth. This must include an extensive use of what the
Indian tradition has to tell on the purification of the inner instrument of knowledge,
the anta˙kara√a, through the methods of yoga.
Conclusion and Evaluation
This, then, is, in some rough and simplified lines, Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary ontol-
ogy of consciousness: The origin, and essential nature of the world, is an absolute
consciousness and being that creates within itself a multitude of individual centres
of consciousness, forming by this division space and time. By a process of exclusive
concentration these centres of consciousness involve themselves subsequently into a
hierarchy of archetypal planes of ever diminishing levels of consciousness, until they
reach the state of complete self-oblivion, which we know as matter. Subsequently the
centres of material consciousness coalesce into increasingly complex units, in which
consciousness gradually re-emerges, manifesting itself in the form of plants, animals,
and eventually man. Our present, human state is a state of mental consciousness in
which it is possible to “play with ideas in the mind.” Science is the most typical and
well-established manifestation of this level of emancipation. But though the scien-
tific mind is the highest type of consciousness in which humanity has a fair degree
of mastery, a large percentage of humankind reports occasional experiences that
within Sri Aurobindo’s framework can best be described as contacts with higher levels
of consciousness. These experiences are often regarded as the highlights of life. At
the summit of this capacity, there are the mystics, numerically rare, but historically
influential, who are, to different degrees, capable of separating the essential core of
their consciousness from their individual physical and mental ego and merge it with
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the original Absolute consciousness. According to Sri Aurobindo, however, neither
the scientific nor the mystical mastery denotes the final stage in the evolution of
consciousness. The logical next step is for a non-dual, supra-mental consciousness
to manifest right here in a physical body and to transform human life in the same
way as mind has transformed animal life in the previous major step in the ongoing
evolution of consciousness.
A scheme like this obviously poses some difficult problems to traditional sci-
ence. If it is true that there are different levels of consciousness, then the higher
levels must, as Wilber (1997) has stressed, transcend and include the lower ones.
This implies that from any one level one can deal effectively with the levels below
but not with the levels above oneself. In other words, science, which is typically a
mental activity, can deal effectively with matter and life, gets into serious methodo-
logical difficulties while dealing with its own plane (in psychology and philosophy)
and flounders with the layers above the mental plane. The easiest way out of this
conundrum is to limit mental science to matter and the mechanical part of life with
which it is comfortable, manage as best as one can with the humanities, and leave
the higher planes to religion and spirituality. With a few significant exceptions, this
seems to have been the solution favored so far. But there are serious reasons, not
philosophical but social and political reasons, that this is not a desirable compromise.
The main one is that it leaves society in a state that can be described as akin to Multi-
ple Personality Disorder: in government, business, education, and mainstream media
people follow the premises of materialist science, and in their private life, after six
and on Sundays, they can if they like celebrate their religious and spiritual leanings.
This split has left both sides diminished.25 It has deprived religion and spirituality
of the best that the human intellect could have given it. It has deprived mainstream
public life of meaning and direction. Both are equally serious threats to our collective
existence. On the religious side, we see a welter of uncritically accepted beliefs. On
the side of science, we see an ever-increasing technical power without the wisdom to
use it. The result is bound to be an increasing frequency of alienation and depression
on the individual level and on the collective level an increasing disharmony between
human life and the life of the rest of the planet. That this is not a theoretical problem
is there for all to see.
In the Vedic tradition it is held that individuals and groups of individuals can
attune their consciousness to the harmony of a higher consciousness that exceeds
in every respect our present evolutionary status. Entering this Consciousness allows
one’s feelings, thoughts, will, and action to flow in an intuitive harmony, achieving
at every step the best possible in terms of the individual as well as the whole of which
he or she is a part. This is the reality Sri Aurobindo suggests in his ontology, a reality
very much worth striving for. “This is the supreme birth which maternal Nature holds
in herself; of this she strives to be delivered” (Aurobindo 1990, p. 59).
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Notes
I would like to express my deep gratitude for the valuable suggestions I received from A. S. Dalal,
David DeVall, Don Salmon, Lynn Crawford, Neeltje Huppes, Peter Heehs, and Ulrich Mohrhoff. I
am especially indebted to Helmut Wautischer, who invited me to write this paper for his Ontology of
Consciousness: The Matrix of Personhood.
1. The Sanskrit word yoga means union with the Divine or the conscious seeking for this union. It
is also used as a generic name for any discipline by which one attempts to pass out of the limits
of one’s ordinary mental consciousness into a greater spiritual consciousness. In this context, it
is used for a specific school of philosophical thought that supports such disciplines. In English
the word “Yoga” is often used as a shortcut for ha†hayoga, which is the Yogic discipline that uses
the physical body as its starting point.
2. In Indic studies the English word “consciousness” is used as the equivalent of different words in
Sanskrit. Sri Aurobindo uses it primarily for the Sanskrit Cit.” Other authors (e.g., K. Ramakrishna
Rao, 1998) use consciousness for “Purußa,” which Sri Aurobindo translates as “Self.” Obviously,
this leads in some respects, to quite different views of the Vedantic concept of consciousness.
3. This statement is touching upon a fundamental difference in outlook between language phi-
losophy that perceives truth as a variable of sentences and the Vedic ontology, where Truth-
Consciousness (‰ta-Cit) is taken as an absolute standing outside and comprehending the duality
of true and false statements. Compared to it, the world of philosophical language is part of the
“ignorance” (avidyâ), exactly because linguistic mentality is necessarily wrapped up in discrimina-
tory categories such as the duality of true and false. Even within the relative world of ignorance,
knowledge is not primarily seen as a collection of sentences but experientially as a collection of
“truth-hitting episodes” or pramâ˙ (Matilal 1986, p. 22).
4. It may be noted in passing that in such a scheme there is no absolute distinction between realities
that are subjective and objective, there is rather a fluid gradient between them. The “objective”,
material world is also not considered intrinsically more “real” than “subjective” experience.
5. Right from Descartes to many postmodern and contemporary writers (e.g., Maxine Sheets-
Johnstone 1999) the embodied nature of emotions has been stressed. In man emotions also have
an unmistakable mental element. Still, to the extent one accepts the existence of typal worlds, one
can agree that their “centre of gravity”, their typical characteristics, belong to the life world.
6. Sri Aurobindo’s use of the phrase “evolution of consciousness” should be distinguished from its
usage in evolutionary biology where it is increasingly being used to describe the appearance of
consciousness in amoebae, mollusks, and pre-human primates. In contrast to this, Sri Aurobindo
was mainly interested in the stages that would evolve after the ordinary human level of develop-
ment. Where it is needed to distinguish the two I will refer to Sri Aurobindo’s conception as
the “ongoing evolution of consciousness” even though Sri Aurobindo never used this phrase as
such.
7. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy for example doesn’t even try (Mautner 1997).
8. The necessity to posit the existence of consciousness in deep sleep becomes even more obvious
once one realizes that it is difficult but not impossible to retain alertness not only during dreams
(in so-called lucid dreams) but even during the states of pure consciousness in between.
9. The case of meditation is especially interesting because there are types of meditation in which
the level of consciousness achieved is experienced as inversely proportional to the complexity of
the contents and the awareness of the surroundings. In this type of meditation one experiences
oneself as most conscious when one is least aware of one’s surroundings.
10. There can be little doubt that “panpsychism” is the Western concept of consciousness that comes
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closest to Sri Aurobindo’s view. But the two are not equivalent. Panpsychism as commonly under-
stood doesn’t involve any transcendent consciousness, just like its sister term “pantheism” doesn’t
include the idea of a transcendent Divine. Vedânta, on the contrary, is emphatic that all manifes-
tations of consciousness are subservient to an encompassing transcendent consciousness. In the
Indian tradition, it is not matter but consciousness that is considered more fundamental.
11. Daniel Dennett, Valerie Hardcastle, and Patricia Churchland are amongst the most outspoken
proponents.
12. See Beloff’s opening article in the first volume of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, (1994, pp.
32-7).
13. Descartes seems to have been an exception as he postulated the reality of his thinking before
he admitted the reality of what his senses perceived. But the remarkable argument he gave for
accepting his sense-impressions – that God is good and thus could not have given man false wit-
nesses as sense-organs – and the confidence with which he subsequently embarked on the study
of the physical world, give the impression that he doubted the reliability of what his senses told
him, but not the existential reality of the perceived world. As far as he did express doubt about
the actual existence of the physical reality, it impresses as a rhetorical device but seems to miss
the experiential profundity of similar doubts expressed in the mystical traditions (see Descartes,
1931, p. 101 ff.).
14. For typical examples see David Ray Griffin’s (1997) presentation on panexperientialist physical-
ism and Chalmers’ introduction of panpsychism at the end of his original article on the hard
question (see Chalmers, 1995).
15. A concise description of Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the Vedas can be found in “The
Doctrine of the Mystics” (Aurobindo, 1995). For his interpretation of the Upanishads one can
read the last section of his commentary on the IΩa Upanißad (Aurobindo, 1996b).
16. The names and delineations of these worlds differ, but a typical series would include some nether
regions, the physical world, the worlds of the life-forces, the mental worlds and, above these, the
worlds of the spirit.
17. According to the Sâµkhyas the original Consciousness, which is one with Existence, splits itself
in two: “the consciousness that sees and the consciousness that executes & formalizes what we
see” [Aurobindo, 1997, p. 194]. The first is called Purußa, or Self, the second Prak®ti, or Nature.
Sri Aurobindo makes extensive use of the Sâµkhya philosophy, especially as a practical means
to rise above the ego-sense. It is interesting that in the system of the Sâµkhyas, mental processes
are considered part of nature and illumined by the self, but not part of the self. This comes quite
close to the modern division between objective thought-processes and subjective experience.
In this “standard” scientific view mental processes are seen as correlated with, or even identical
to, objective processes in the brain while consciousness is seen as a subjective phenomenon of
a different character. One may note that this is very different from the traditional dualism of
Descartes, who placed thinking without the slightest hesitation on the side of the self. Technology
has thus naturalized the information aspect of knowledge and has left, as in ancient India, only
pure consciousness on the side of the self.
18. In the modern West, experiencing non-physical entities in visions or hallucinations is widely consid-
ered an indication of mental disease, but in the Indian tradition this is considered a neutral capac-
ity that can occur together with mental disorder as well as with spiritual development. Whether a
person with this capacity is considered mentally deranged or spiritually developed (or both at the
same time) depends on the type of entities encountered and the manner in which the encounters
are handled. If the person is overpowered by entities perceived as coming from the lower vital
planes, the person is considered possessed and treated as such. If the entities are perceived as
coming from higher mental or spiritual planes, or if she is in control of them and uses them wisely
for socially acceptable ends, the person is venerated as a saint. As such, the capacity to perceive
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beings from planes other than the physical is considered a skill (siddhi) that can be trained, though
doing so is generally considered risky and not advisable for spiritual development.
19. In the following discussion I will freely use the terms higher and lower for different types of con-
sciousness, even though this may not be considered “politically correct” by some. One reason
to do so is that these different types of consciousness are in inner experience actually sensed as
located above and below each other: one has a sense of rising from one type of consciousness to
the next. For an interesting discussion of such hierarchies one could consult Wilber (1997, pp.
74-5).
20. Avidyâ, literally no-knowledge, is a technical term that is generally translated as “ignorance.” It
denotes all knowledge that is not knowledge of the Absolute. It is specifically used for knowledge
of the world, that is, for science. According to the ⁄Ωa Upanißad, both vidyâ (knowledge of the
One) and avidyâ (knowledge of the multiplicity) are needed for a complete understanding of
ourselves and the world:
Into a blind darkness they enter who follow after the Ignorance, they as if into a greater
darkness who devote themselves to the Knowledge alone.… He who knows That as both in
one, the Knowledge and the Ignorance, by the Ignorance crosses beyond death and by the
Knowledge enjoys Immortality (trans. Sri Aurobindo 1996b, pp. 21-2).
21. Life and mind that have evolved within matter do not have the full freedom and splendour of life
and mind in their own planes, as anyone who has access to those planes in dream or meditation
can attest. The manifestation in matter imposes a compromise with the limitations matter can
handle. Of course, matter also adds its own virtues of stability and refinement of detail.
22. Sri Aurobindo holds that the Divine is beyond the personal and impersonal and can appear to us
as either. There is a long tradition in the Indian civilization to describe the world as a manifesta-
tion of male-female dualities like Purußa-Prak®ti, ⁄Ωa-⁄shwarî, Shiva-Shakti, etc. The male principle
generally stands for the inner containing and supporting consciousness, and the female for the
outer active, manifesting force. The ultimate Godhead is sometimes depicted with a body, half
female, half male. There has been a tendency in Indian thought to hold that an impersonal,
abstract description of the Divine is superior to a description of the Divine as a Person, but Sri
Aurobindo does not subscribe to this view.
23. Skt: pramâ˙, see endnote 3.
24. Dean Radin (1997, p. 269) actually suggests a similar theory of “interconnectedness” to explain
the positive results in many “paranormal” cognitive phenomena.
25. It is commonly held that this split has been a major facilitating factor in the phenomenal growth
of science and technology since the European Enlightenment. It is extremely difficult to assess
what the exact factors have been, but it seems likely that it had less to do with a materialist stance
(which came much later), than with the shift from a highly centralized, doctrine based authority
in the field of knowledge, to the typical decentralized competitive-cooperative social structure of
the modern academic world. It is noteworthy that in terms of social structure and lines of author-
ity, the spiritual tradition in India has much more in common with the modern university system
than with the Roman Catholic Church.
References
Aurobindo, Sri (1940/1990). The Life Divine. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
——— (1958/1991). Letters on Yoga. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
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