The Self and the structure of the personality
An overview of Sri Aurobindo's terminology

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 25 August 2022

section 8

This is the last of a series of eight sections.
If you haven't read the previous sections, you may like to read them first

Much of what we have described in this chapter can be found in one form or another in virtually all approaches to psychology that have their origin in the Indian civilisation. There are, however, also some issues that are specific to Sri Aurobindo, and in this epilogue I want to focus a little further on those. The first is the idea of Transformation as the ultimate aim of yoga.


In the opening paragraph of this chapter, I mentioned that Sri Aurobindo’s integral understanding of human nature is needed for the integral transformation he envisages. What I did not explain there is what Sri Aurobindo means by integral transformation. This is what he writes in one of his letters:

…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). 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 consciousness such as and greater 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 it, then my object is not accomplished. A partial realisation does not meet the demand I make on life and Yoga. (LY-1, pp. 174–175)

As may be clear, the transformation Sri Aurobindo describes here is extremely radical. It involves a shift greater than the one from animal to man, and what is more, he asserts that we humans can play a conscious role in bringing it about. We will come back to the psychological processes involved in this transformation later in Infinity in a Drop [INTERNAL REFS]. All I would like to do here is to ask attention for a few other conceptual issues that play a role in the structure of the personality as Sri Aurobindo sees it.

Consciousness as Power

The first issue to be considered is that of consciousness as power. The various Indian traditions are not united about this, but Sri Aurobindo’s position is completely clear. Throughout his metaphysical works, Sri Aurobindo stresses that cit, the original Consciousness of Brahman, implies cit-tapas, conscious energy. Seen from the perspective of Indian philosophy, this is the core condition needed to allow action to be lifted from the corrupting determinations of unconscious Nature, prakṛti, into the free and perfect agency on the side of the Self as Lord, īśvara (e.g. LD, pp. 262–263). In the perhaps more personal and practical language of The Synthesis of Yoga, he says,

This power of the soul over its nature is of the utmost importance in the Yoga of self-perfection; if it did not exist, we could never get by conscious endeavour and aspiration out of the fixed groove of our present imperfect human being… (SY, p. 628).

As discussed in more detail in the chapter on the three main concepts of consciousness, the acceptance of power as part of saccidānanda and the acceptance of the power of the individual soul over its nature are necessary preconditions for the radical transformation Sri Aurobindo envisages, but by themselves they are not sufficient. Two more things are needed. On the individual level, the soul should be able to retain some kind of individual spiritual identity even after reaching mokṣa (liberation), nirvāṇa (extinction) or whatever else the entire loss of the egoïc or ignorant self may be called. The second condition is that there should be at least the beginning of a genuinely divine collective life.

The qualitied, evolving Self

This is another area where Sri Aurobindo’s views differ in a subtle but crucial manner from those of many others in the traditional schools of Advaita Vedānta. The difference centers around two well-known distinctions: the first is the distinction between jīvātman and paramātman, and the second is between jīvātman and antarātman. As we have already seen, Sri Ramana Maharshi considers all such distinctions irrelevant for the one aim worth pursuing, which is to find one’s ultimate Self, the paramātman. Swami Sivananda accepts the differences, but holds that once Ignorance is overcome, the individual jīvātman merges with the cosmic paramātman and in due time simply stops to exist. Many in the tradition of Advaita Vedānta would agree, but Sri Aurobindo holds that in our deepest essence we are not only the unchanging universal Divine, which is the same in everyone, but that we also have a true, spiritual individuality, which will continue to exist even after the ignorance has been overcome. In other words, he sees the jīvātman as a center of spiritual individuality that is as permanent, immutable and real as the paramātman. What is more, he holds that the jīvātman sends a spark of the Divine, the psychic entity, as its representative down into the incarnate life. This inner representative is the antaratman, and its role here is to bring, gradually, over many lifetimes more and more of the inner and outer life under its influence. So while the jīvātman is one's immutable Self, above, the antarātman is one's “evolving soul” or “psychic being”, within.

By itself, the idea that the true self can be found high above as well as deep within is common enough. It derives directly from the two most common ways in which the Self is experienced. People typically talk about their highest self or their deepest, innermost self without making much of a distinction between the two. In Sri Aurobindo's view they are quite different. The jīvātman is impersonal and immutable, while the psychic being evolves and brings us in contact with the personal aspect of the Divine.

It may be good to realise that the power issue and the individuality issues are related. It is only possible for the jīvātman to have a true, eternal and immutable soul-personality if the divine consciousness of the Self can have individual-specific qualities as well as the power to express them. If the consciousness of the Self cannot have qualities or power at all, as in classical Sāṁkhya, then all the individual qualities, as well as one’s individual development, must by necessity belong to one of the subtle worlds that are part of prakṛti, universal Nature. As we have already seen at the end of the section on the various centers of identity, it makes then no sense to pay too much attention to the personality. All that is needed is the basic purification required to shift the center of one’s identity away from one’s ego-personality to the pure consciousness of the Self. In such a view, the inner Divine, the soul, the antarātman, is nothing more than a center of pure consciousness: it is found inside, but otherwise it is, just as Swami Sivananda says of the jīvātman, one with the paramātman, identical for everyone, and essentially static, un-evolving.

A perfect linkplane between the lower and higher hemispheres

Since the rise of the śramaṇa (renouncer) traditions in India (800–400 BCE), many Indian schools of spiritual endeavor have stressed duḥkha and avidyā, ignorance and pain (Gavin Flood, 1998, pp. 76, 81–82), and it is not unusual to see vairāgya encouraged not just in the sense of detachment, but in the sense of disgust.12 This is clearly not Sri Aurobindo’s attitude towards the world, and for him the manifestation, however it may appear at present, cannot be intrinsically doomed to avidyā and duḥkha. Absolute perfection and bliss can in his view not be limited to the Transcendent, and he takes a perfectly divine manifestation right here in the physical world as the inevitable next stage in our collective evolution. From an Indian realist-idealist perspective this can only be, if there is already somewhere a typal plane that is both manifold and yet fully divine in the deep sense of satyam, absolute truth, and ṛtam, dynamic truth of action. Only if there is somewhere an inner world, which is perfectly divine as well as fully differentiated and individualized, can human consciousness evolve in that direction and can there be hope that this slowly evolving manifest world will in due time reach that same level of perfection.

There may be little in the outer world to indicate such a potential, and it appears that few, if any, modern authorities on the Indian tradition, acknowledge even the possibility. But basing himself on his own experience and the textual support he found in the Ṛg Veda, Sri Aurobindo holds that there actually exists such a realm on the border between saccidānanda and the manifest creation. As indicated during our discussion of the vertical dimension of Sri Aurobindo’s topography of consciousness, it is the almost forgotten Vedic mahas, which Sri Aurobindo calls Supermind, or vijñāna (in its profound older sense of gnostic, perfect Knowledge). If Sri Aurobindo is right about the Supermind, and if it exhibits indeed variety but no trace of ignorance, then the Vedic, idealist-realist perspective of involution and evolution of consciousness can give the assurance that, sooner or later, humanity — or its evolutionary successor — will reach such a state. In Sri Aurobindo’s vision, this is the future that in a most profound and complete way will finally “justify the light on Nature's face” (SAV, p. 344) To this also we'll come back at the end of the section on Self-development [INTERNAL REF].


12. Swami Sivananda, for example, quotes in the opening section of a book on vairāgya, and clearly in agreement with it, a recommendation by Adi Shankara to look at everything, good and bad, as no better than “the excrement of a crow” (Adi Shankara, as quoted by Swami Sivananda, 1983/1998, opening section).