Integrality as used in Infinity in a Drop
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 18 March 2022

Integrality and the Pūrṇa Stotra

Integrality, in the sense of the Sanskrit pūrṇa, is an amazingly powerful concept and the word pūrṇa has a very beautiful and long history in India. Whenever the Upaniṣads are recited, especially the Isha Upaniṣad, it is a tradition to also recite the Pūrṇa Stotra:

oṁ pūrṇam adaḥ pūrṇam idaṁ
pūrṇāt pūrṇam udacyate
pūrṇasya pūrṇam ādāya
pūrṇam evāvaśiṣyate 
oṁ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ
That is infinite. This is infinite.
Infinite comes from infinite.
Take infinite from infinite,
still infinite remains.
Aum. Peace! Peace! Peace!

Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (5.1)

It is a very short text in which the word pūrṇa occurs seven times. To translate pūrṇa is somewhat complex. In the context of the Pūrṇa Stotra you cannot really translate it as "integrality". In this context it is often translated as "the complete", or "the infinite", but it is the infinite in a very special, all-inclusive sense. The stotra starts with, "That is infinite", meaning, "The Divine is infinite." Then it says, "All This is infinite. This infinite comes from that infinite." And then it ends with a kind of mighty mathematics of the infinite. It says, "If you take away the infinite from the infinite, you still have the infinite."

It is rather significant that whenever the Upaniṣads are recited, this Pūrṇa Stotra is used almost like a refrain. It realigns the listener to the infinite, and to effect that realignment is the very reason why the Upaniṣads are recited. It is as if the Pūrṇa Stotra was put in between other texts to remind us that the real thing that matters is that completeness, that integrality, that totality that contains everything and that is also the inmost essence of everything. This ineffable totality exists in the aspect of That, which is totally beyond everything, and also in the aspect of This, the nitty-gritty of daily life. One cannot be without the other, for if you try, if you remove one from the other, still That One Infinite remains.

It is good to stand still for a moment and realise that this ancient, Vedic concept of integrality (as translation of pūrṇa) can be understood fully only from a consciousness in which one knows the Divine, and that not only as the Transcendent, not only as the Cosmic whole, but also, and equally, in every detail of the manifestation, or, to use a phrase from Sri Aurobindo's Savitri, from a consciousness that feels "love and oneness" in their full depth, completeness, and all-sided perfection. (p. 724)

As may be clear, that type of consciousness is radically different from the one most of us presently have. But fortunately, because the basic pattern of integrality is the same everywhere, it is possible to arrive at a more limited, mental understanding of integrality which we can subsequently use to move from a lower, narrower consciousness and understanding, to a higher, more "integral" one.

Integrality in human constructions

One can illustrate the basic principle of integrality perhaps most simply with how it operates in human constructions, like buildings and man-made products in general. If a car, for example, is made out of parts, the construction of the car seems to be a completely technical matter, it entirely happens by physical processes. The parts are put together through processes that you can fully understand physically, whether they are executed by machines or by men. So it appears that you can explain a car completely in terms of physical parts and physical processes. But after you’ve done that, and you’ve convinced yourself that the physical reality is a causally closed system, you find that somewhere there is something seriously amiss. The reason is that most of these parts would never have existed if the concept of the car had not been there. You cannot have a steering wheel if you don’t have the concept of a car, you cannot have a brake if you don’t have a car — even parts that have an existence independent of the car, like the lights, have changed beyond recognition when incorporated in this particular whole. So obviously this physical, reductionist explanation from down up is somewhere incomplete. There remains something that can only be explained from the top down.

The secret is that if you look at reality only in physical terms, you will never find what it is in the whole that goes beyond the sum of the parts, because that extra ingredient is not physical. The mysterious extra that is there in a car besides the parts, is the concept of the car, the design of the car as a whole, and this design has a kind of double existence: it exists in its own domain, as an idea within a world of ideas, but also as an integral part of one or more physical things and as such, as part of the physical world. And these two worlds, one largely mental, one primarily physical but with mental elements embedded in it, are not the same; as we will see later in more detail, they differ in some pretty fundamental ways.

The whole and the parts; the One and the many

Integrality as a basic concept, always involves a higher order reality that encompasses, enriches, combines, inhabits and shapes things from a lower level of reality. In mathematics, when one integrates a two-dimensional circle, one arrives at a three-dimensional sphere of which the circle is a section. In spirituality, the ultimate, the Supreme encompasses, and inhabits, all that is below it. In the realm of technology, a car is a higher order unity than the parts that it contains. It does not only combine independent, pre-existing parts, but it influences the exact form and structure of each part according to the specific place and function that part will have in the whole. In other words, to quite an extent, it is the whole that makes the part what it is. And so, to appreciate why each part is the way it is, what its special qualities, form and structure are, you need to know the whole to which it belongs. And this goes much further than one might realise at the beginning. To understand the details of say the steering wheel or the lights of a car, you need to understand not only the rest of the car, but also the human body, human psychology, and the environment in which the car will operate. To understand the materials that are used, you need not only understand chemistry and material sciences but also the economy, and so you have to take even politics into account. For the lights, you need to understand the weather and the legal structures in the different countries where the car will be sold. In fact, to fully understand anything, you need to understand everything. And if you tie the whole and the parts together in the right manner, you'll find that understanding the whole enriches and deepens your understanding of the parts. One could even say that the parts find their fulfilment in the way their unique qualities contribute to the whole of which they are a part.

A hierarchy of oneness containing many

Figure 1. A hierarchy of oneness containing many

Moving around in the hierarchy of being

For a more complete understanding of the role integrality plays in our lives, there are several further points to consider. The first is that the world does not consist of a single set of wholes with parts. Within the human range, every whole has parts, and every whole is itself part of one or more larger wholes. While the car has lights, these lights, in their turn, have their own parts, and these theirs. Similarly in the opposite direction: the car is still part of our planet's stuff, and up it goes all the way to "the universe". We humans appear to live somewhere in the midst of a hugely complex hierarchy of being.

The second point is that our mind has an amazing ability to race up, down, and sideways within the complex hierarchy of being. So while reading this text, you can concentrate on something as small as the downward and backward curved, pointed extension of the comma after this phrase, or widen, as-if-backwards, to this text as a whole, or the place where you sit, the house, the country, the planet, right upto that same universe.

The third is that our moving around in the hierarchy of being is to quite an extent outside our direct conscious control: as long as you continue reading, for example, you can hardly escape thinking of whatever is described in this text, even if it is as completely out of place as a zebra or as non-existing as a green elephant. And yet, it does not appear to be true that we are entirely the helpless victims of our senses. We seem to have some degree of conscious control over the focus of our attention, both individually and collectively.

The fourth, and perhaps most interesting aspect of integrality is, that while the range within the total hierarchy of being which we humans can access biologically, is extremely limited, we appear to have reached a stage in our "post-biological evolution"1 where there seems to be no limit to the extent that we can go beyond that biological range. In the physical domain our natural capacity to perceive and influence physical things are rather precisely and narrowly limited. But with the help of increasingly complex and sophisticated physical instruments, we can now access ranges of light, energy, space and time, way beyond those which our biological eyes and ears can perceive. We have manufactured planet-scale networks for trade and information, we can watch the borders of the universe and the beginning of time, and we can manufacture new molecules at our pleasure. We have become miniature (and rather irresponsible) co-creators of the world. But this is not all. While science has been bravely exploring the upper and lower limits of the physical domain, the Indian civilisation has found ways to pursue the psychological domain, turning human nature into a reliable instrument for the study of consciousness, discovering ways to change our human nature and reach the ineffable beyond the top of the hierarchy of being.

After liberation transformation

Figure 2. Moving up and out

Integrality in psychology

When one thinks of integrality in the context of psychology, one realises that for psychology one needs an integrality that is absolute: it needs to encompass not only all the physical stuff but also every other aspect of human existence and this can only be done if one integrates all these aspects into something that is beyond absolutely everything, in other words, the One without a second. If one wants to find a truly integral view of reality, one needs a worldview that is not just a combination, let alone an amalgamation2 of a hundred similar or dissimilar scientific and spiritual approaches. One needs something that first of all rises above all of them, something that is capable of holding them all up within a comprehensive, higher order vision, and second, something that clarifies the entire ladder from the top to the bottom and back. The foundations for such a higher order view can be found, according to Sri Aurobindo, in what he calls the "original Vedānta", the most ancient Vedic view of reality which transcends and encompasses the many different, and often contradictory spiritual and materialist conceptualisations of reality that India developed later.

To arrive at a more comprehensive picture of the role it plays in ourselves and in the reality in which we live, we need a good understanding of consciousness and the way our human consciousness has evolved during the evolution. Once we have a clearer understanding of this — still ongoing — evolution of consciousness, we will be in a position to formulate clearly and simply the basic understanding of reality that is needed to turn psychology into the effective and quickly cumulative science we try to introduce in Infinity in a Drop.

But before we get to that, it is useful to have a quick look at three very different ways in which people have till now conceptualised consciousness.


1These evolutionary stages have been discussed in more detail in the chapter on the evolution of consciousness
2Integrality is sometimes confused with amalgamation, but they are not remotely the same. Both describe ways in which different entities are combined into something new that has qualities that go beyond the qualities of the constituent elements, but the manner in which this is achieved is entirely different. In amalgamation the end product is a homogeneous mass in which the elements lose their original qualities and identities. A typical example is how the combination of copper and zinc produces brass which is more hard and rustproof than either of its constituents. In integration the constituant parts retain their individuality, and in fact find a higher fulfilment, a better fit for their distinct qualities and capacities. Typical technical examples are how a car or a cellphone is made out of parts that have hardly any use outside the compositie for which they are meant.