last revision: 13 June 2023
This is the third in a series of eight sections.
If you haven't read the previous sections, you may like to read them first:
The vertical system is built around an ancient Vedic division in seven layers, which Sri Aurobindo calls The Sevenfold Chord of Being (LD, pp. 276–284). From top-down, the layers are:
There is a deep connection between psychology and cosmology in the Indian tradition, and Sri Aurobindo’s work is no exception. The individual and the cosmos are seen as two expressions of the same basic principles, and so it is not surprising that many of these terms apply with only minor modifications to:
The lowest three, Mind, Life, and Matter, are part of the complex evolving manifestation and, as such, these terms also apply to:
In other words, according to Sri Aurobindo, there exist, besides the hugely complex mixed mental, vital, physical manifestation of which we humans are partially aware in our ordinary waking state, also more or less independent typal worlds or planes of existence where the different types of consciousness are present in all their original strength and purity. In the chapter on the evolution of consciousness of Part One, we had a first look at the role these typal worlds may have played during the creation of the complex evolutionary world in which we now find ourselves. Later in the chapters on self-development and therapy we will have a closer looks at how these different types of conscious existence influence, penetrate and limit each other in our human lives (LD, pp. 276–284). But here, we will now first look some more detail at each of these different types of conscious existence separately — this time from the bottom upwards.
Sri Aurobindo writes about the physical plane:
Each plane of our being — mental, vital, physical — has its own consciousness, separate though interconnected and interacting; but to our outer mind and sense, in our waking experience, they are all confused together. The body, for instance, has its own consciousness and acts from it, even without any conscious mental will of our own or even against that will, and our surface mind knows very little about this body consciousness, feels it only in an imperfect way, sees only its results and has the greatest difficulty in finding out their causes. It is part of the Yoga to become aware of this separate consciousness of the body, to see and feel its movements and the forces that act upon it from inside or outside and to learn how to control and direct it even in its most hidden and (to us) subconscient processes. But the body consciousness itself is only part of the individualised physical consciousness in us which we gather and build out of the secretly conscious forces of universal physical Nature.
There is the universal physical consciousness of Nature and there is our own which is a part of it, moved by it, and used by the central being for the support of its expression in the physical world and for a direct dealing with all these external objects and movements and forces. This physical consciousness-plane receives from the other planes their powers and influences and makes formations of them in its own province. Therefore we have a physical mind as well as a vital mind and the mind proper; we have a vital physical part in us — the nervous being — as well as the vital proper; and both are largely conditioned by the gross material bodily part which is almost entirely subconscient to our experience. (LY – I, pp. 201–202)
Embodied life, in the details of its physical operations, has to follow the laws of physics and inorganic chemistry. But while it does that, it achieves something new that, at least in some aspects, seems to go against the basic spirit of the inorganic, physical reality. Plants and animals, for example, manage to reconstitute their immensely complex structures out of the utterly simple molecules of air, water, and soil in total disregard of physical nature's basic principles of inertia and entropy. As Sri Aurobindo remarked at several places, someone who knew only the purely physical world could never have predicted, or even imagined, the way life has developed on this planet (LD, pp. 881–883).
In terms of the Indian tradition, the origin of life on this planet is easier to understand. For example, in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (part ii) the life force is seen as a manifestation of the prāṇamaya kośa and, as such, it has a fundamentally different character than the material world, which belongs to the annamaya kośa (e.g., see KU, pp. 217–218). While the physical reality is dominated by tamas and its concomitant properties of inertia and entropy, the vital is characterized by rajas, energy, play, enjoyment, and self-assertion in ever more complex patterns of interchange. The way this is seen to operate in the process of evolution is beautifully explained in the Mundaka Upaniṣad (1.7-9) (KU, p. 132). Life, as a type of consciousness, first involves itself in the near inconscience of matter, and then begins to evolve, while remaining part of that material world. Life does this by transforming the stuff of matter until it begins to manifest a mixture of its own physical characteristics with those typical of life. The details of the process are seen to be worked out under the influence of formative energies descending directly from the pre-existing life plane.
Philosophically, the process may remind one of the ideas that Plato describes in his Republic (c. 380 BC /1992), but Sri Aurobindo has worked out the subtleties of the integration of descending and ascending forces in considerably more detail (see, for example, The Life Divine, Book II, Part 1, pp. 305–655). The end result could perhaps be seen as a form of realistic idealism (or idealistic realism) that bridges fashionable oversimplifications like the opposing views of evolutionism and intelligent design, or constructivism and essentialism.
For psychology, the most important point is that according to Sri Aurobindo, the self-existent joy and energy — which are typical of the life force in its own domain — undergo a specific degradation when life begins to manifest within the physical world (SY, p. 645). This degradation happens because of the way in which they are used there: in order to overcome the tamas of the physical reality, joy turns into need and desire, because only these can force physical organisms to wake up and become individually active as living creatures. At the human stage of evolution, this degradation becomes conscious and is then the source of much of human suffering. Especially when the life-force enlists the half-individualized human mind, the energy and enthusiasm of life turn into egoistic self-assertion with all the conflict and pain this brings with it. It is part of yoga to recover the joy that is inherent in life in its original state. About the vital energy as it appears within the human personality, Sri Aurobindo says the following:
The vital has to be carefully distinguished from mind, even though it has a mind element transfused into it; the vital is the Life nature made up of desires, sensations, feelings, passions, energies of action, will of desire, reactions of the desire soul in man and of all that play of possessive and other related instincts, anger, fear, greed, lust etc. that belong to this field of the nature. Mind and vital are mixed up on the surface of the consciousness, but they are quite separate forces in themselves and as soon as one gets behind the ordinary surface consciousness one sees them as separate, discovers their distinct action and can with the aid of this knowledge analyse their surface mixtures. (LY-1, p. 168)
The vital . . . is a thing of desires, impulses, force-pushes, emotions, sensations, seekings after life fulfilment, possession and enjoyment; these are its function and its nature; — it is that part of us which seeks after life and its movements for their own sake and it does not want to leave hold of them even if they bring it suffering as well as or more than pleasure; it is even capable of luxuriating in tears and suffering as part of the drama of life. What then is there in common between the thinking intelligence and the vital and why should the latter obey the mind and not follow its own nature? The disobedience is perfectly normal instead of being, as Augustine suggests, unintelligible. Of course man can establish a mental control over his vital and in so far as he does it he is a man, — because the thinking mind is a nobler and more enlightened entity and consciousness than the vital and ought therefore, to rule and, if the mental will is strong, can rule. But this rule is precarious, incomplete and established and held only by much self-discipline. For if the mind is more enlightened, the vital is nearer to earth, more intense, vehement, more directly able to touch the body. There is too a vital mind which lives by imagination, thoughts of desire, will to act and enjoy from its own impulse and this is able to seize on the reason itself and make it its auxiliary and its justifying counsel and supplier of pleas and excuses. There is also the sheer force of Desire in man which is the vital’s principal support and strong enough to sweep off the reason, as the Gita says, “like a boat in stormy waters”, nāvam ivāmbhasi. (p. 175)
The vital plane is often divided into three sub-planes (LY-1, p. 86):
I will return to these three sub-planes in the context of the cakras.
In the mind, one will find an entirely different type of consciousness than that of the vital. The mind, as such, is not interested in self-assertion, though the vital life force may enlist it for that purpose. It is the mind’s job to model reality, and then plan action on the basis of its model. The mind presents reality to itself, thinks about it, uses it to plan action, and expresses its mental constructions to itself and others. One can look at the nervous system—with which the mind tends to identify itself—as an incredibly complicated, multidimensional model-making machinery.
Interestingly, the mind as it is found embodied in living creatures has undergone a disabling diminution that is quite similar to the degradation life underwent when it was first embodied in matter. Mind as it develops within living matter makes models of reality on the basis of the senses, memory, and whatever else it can press into service to this end. As constructed models, they can become better and better, but they will never reach absolute perfection. This is, according to Sri Aurobindo, a serious step down for mind, which at its best can function through intuitions it receives from planes of perfect, pre-existing knowledge (LD, p. 803). Why true intuition, in the sense of ready-made, perfect knowledge, can be expected to exist, and how people can develop access to it is discussed in the chapters on Knowledge [INTERNAL REFS].
Just as the fully developed manifestations of embodied life are many orders of magnitude more complex than those of inorganic matter, the brain, as a physical substrate for the mind’s activity in this evolving physical world, is many orders of magnitude more complex than any other biological structure. About the mind as it manifests in human beings, Sri Aurobindo writes in his Letters on Yoga:
The “Mind” in the ordinary use of the word covers indiscriminately the whole consciousness, for man is a mental being and mentalises everything; but in the language of this Yoga the words mind and mental are used to connote specially the part of the nature which has to do with cognition and intelligence, with ideas, with mental or thought perceptions, the reactions of thought to things, with the truly mental movements and formations, mental vision and will etc. that are part of his intelligence. (LY-1, p. 168)
The Mother says about the dynamic, action-supporting aspect of the mind:
For the true role of the mind is the formation and organisation of action. The mind has a formative and organising power, and it is that which puts the different elements of inspiration in order, for action, for organising action. And if it would only confine itself to that role, receiving inspirations — whether from above or from the mystic center of the soul — and simply formulating the plan of action — in broad outline or in minute detail, for the smallest things of life or the great terrestrial organisations — it would amply fulfil its function.
It is not an instrument of knowledge.
But it can use knowledge for action, to organise action. It is an instrument of organisation and formation, very powerful and very capable when it is well developed.
One can feel this very clearly when one wants to organise one's life, for instance — to put the different elements in their place in one's existence. There is a certain intellectual faculty which immediately puts each thing in its place and makes a plan and organises. And it is not a knowledge that comes from the mind, it is a knowledge which comes, as I said, from the mystic depths of the soul or from a higher consciousness; and the mind concentrates it in the physical world and organises it to give a basis of action to the higher consciousness. . . .
Then, there is another use. When one is in contact with one’s reason, with the rational center of the intellect, the pure reason, it is a powerful control over all vital impulses. All that comes from the vital world can be very firmly controlled by it and used in a disciplined and organised action. But it must be at the service of something else — not work for its own satisfaction.
These are the two uses of the mind: it is a controlling force, an instrument of control, and it is a power of organisation. That is its true place. (CWM-8, p. 189)
Manas, the Sanskrit word that probably comes closest to the English word mind, has two or three quite different meanings. In the older Sanskrit texts it is used for an entire plane or world of mind, the fifth from the top in the Sevenfold Chord of Being (SV, p. 45). In the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (2nd chapter, the “Ānanda valli”), it is used in a similar sense when it mentions the sheath of mind, the manomaya kośa. Patanjali seems to use manas in his Yoga Sutras2 rather like we use mind, that is for the individual mental faculty, but it is quite possible that it still has for him the connotation of something with a cosmic (rather than individual) existence (see verse i.35; ii.53, iii.48). In the later Darshanas (schools of philosophy), manas tends to be used in a more restricted way for the sense-mind whose job it is to coordinate the ten indriyas (the five senses and the five instruments of action) (see, for example, Surendranath Dasgupta 1922/2006, I, p. 213).
The mind intersects with the vital and the physical planes. On that basis, Sri Aurobindo distinguishes between:
The mind proper is subdivided by Sri Aurobindo into five clearly distinct sub-planes that represent different types of mental consciousness. The first is:
Sri Aurobindo further subdivides the ordinary mind on different occasions in different ways using slightly different categories. For example (LY-1, p. 177):
Another division in three follows the gunas:
Above this, but still within the mental plane (the manomayakośa), one finds the Higher Mind, Illumined Mind, Intuition, and Overmind. Together, Sri Aurobindo sees them as belonging to what he calls the higher consciousness. Individually, he describes them as follows:
I mean by the Higher Mind a first plane of spiritual [consciousness] where one becomes constantly and closely aware of the Self, the One everywhere and knows and sees things habitually with that awareness; but it is still very much on the mind-level although highly spiritual in its essential substance; and its instrumentation is through an elevated thought-power and comprehensive mental sight — not illumined by any of the intenser upper lights but as if in a large strong and clear daylight. It acts as an intermediate state between the Truth-Light above and the human mind; communicating the higher knowledge in a form that the Mind intensified, broadened, made spiritually supple, can receive without being blinded or dazzled by a Truth beyond it. (LPA, p. 20)
…a Mind no longer of higher Thought, but of spiritual light. 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 to the calm and wide enlightenment and the vast descent of peace which characterise or accompany the action of the larger conceptual-spiritual principle, a fiery ardour of realisation and a rapturous ecstasy of knowledge. (LD, pp. 978–979)
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, penetrates it and sees, feels or vibrates with the truth of what it contacts, that the intuition leaps out like a spark or lightning-flash from the shock of the meeting; or when the consciousness, even without any such meeting, looks into itself and feels directly and intimately the truth or the truths that are there or so contacts the hidden forces behind appearances, then also there is the outbreak of an intuitive light; or, again, when the consciousness meets the Supreme Reality or the spiritual reality of things and beings and has a contactual union with it, then the spark, the flash, or the blaze of intimate truth-perception is lit in its depths.
Intuition has a fourfold power. A power of revelatory truth-seeing, a power of inspiration or truth-hearing, a power of truth-touch or immediate seizing of significance, which is akin to the ordinary nature of its intervention in our mental intelligence, a power of true and automatic discrimination of the orderly and exact relation of truth to truth, — these are the fourfold potencies of Intuition. Intuition can therefore perform all the action of reason — including the function of logical intelligence, which is to work out the right relation of things and the right relation of idea with idea, — but by its own superior process and with steps that do not fail or falter. (LD, pp. 981–984)
Intuition is the typal plane between the Illumined Mind and the Overmind. As such it is the highest typal plane that is still individualized. It is the source of the truth that can be found in the planes of the Illumined Mind and the Higher Mind. While in the ordinary mind, intuitions tend to come down like individual rays of lightning, in the typal plane that Sri Aurobindo calls Intuition: “Its rays are not separated but connected or massed together in a play of waves of what might almost be called in the Sanskrit poetic figure a sea or mass of ‘stable lightnings’” (LD, p. 983).
The next higher plane, the Overmind, is fully and intrinsically cosmic in nature.
…the Overmind knows the One as the support, essence, fundamental power of all things, but in the dynamic play proper to it it lays emphasis on its divisional power of multiplicity and seeks to give each Power or Aspect its full chance to manifest, relying on the underlying Oneness to prevent disharmony or conflict. Each Godhead, as it were, creates his own world, but without conflict with others; each Aspect, each Idea, each Force of things can be felt in its full separate energy or splendour and work out its values, but this does not create a disharmony, because the Overmind has the sense of the Infinite and in the true (not spatial) Infinite many concording infinities are possible. (LY-1, p. 139)
In its nature and law the Overmind is a delegate of the [next higher plane, the] Supermind Consciousness, its delegate to the Ignorance. Or we might speak of it as a protective double, a screen of dissimilar similarity through which Supermind can act indirectly on an Ignorance whose darkness could not bear or receive the direct impact of a supreme Light. Even, it is by the projection of this luminous Overmind corona that the diffusion of a diminished light in the Ignorance and the throwing of that contrary shadow which swallows up in itself all light, the Inconscience, became at all possible. For Supermind transmits to Overmind all its realities, but leaves it to formulate them in a movement and according to an awareness of things which is still a vision of Truth and yet at the same time a first parent of the Ignorance. (LD, p. 293)
The Supermind is above the Overmind, and with that, above the entire mental plane. It links the upper hemisphere of sat, cit, and ānanda to the lower hemisphere of Mind, Vital, and Physical. Sri Aurobindo describes the Supermind as follows:
The Supermind is in its very essence a truth-consciousness, a consciousness always free from the Ignorance which is the foundation of our present natural or evolutionary existence and from which nature in us is trying to arrive at self-knowledge and world-knowledge and a right consciousness and the right use of our existence in the universe. The Supermind, because it is a truth-consciousness, has this knowledge inherent in it and this power of true existence; its course is straight and can go direct to its aim, its field is wide and can even be made illimitable. This is because its very nature is knowledge: it has not to acquire knowledge but possesses it in its own right; its steps are not from nescience or ignorance into some imperfect light, but from truth to greater truth, from right perception to deeper perception, from intuition to intuition, from illumination to utter and boundless luminousness, from growing widenesses to the utter vasts and to very infinitude. On its summits it possesses the divine omniscience and omnipotence, but even in an evolutionary movement of its own graded self-manifestation by which it would eventually reveal its own highest heights, it must be in its very nature essentially free from ignorance and error: it starts from truth and light and moves always in truth and light. As its knowledge is always true, so too its will is always true; it does not fumble in its handling of things or stumble in its paces. In the Supermind feeling and emotion do not depart from their truth, make no slips or mistakes, do not swerve from the right and the real, cannot misuse beauty and delight or twist away from a Divine rectitude. In the Supermind sense cannot mislead or deviate into the grossnesses which are here its natural imperfections and the cause of reproach, distrust and misuse by our ignorance. Even an incomplete statement made by the Supermind is a truth leading to a further truth, its incomplete action a step towards completeness. All the life and action and leading of the Supermind is guarded in its very nature from the falsehoods and uncertainties that are our lot; it moves in safety towards its perfection. (EPY, pp. 558–559)
The importance of the distinction Sri Aurobindo makes between Overmind and Supermind can best be understood from the perspective of the evolution of consciousness which we discussed in an earlier chapter. To summarise: in Sri Aurobindo's view, major evolutionary changes take place under influence of pre-existing typal planes. And thus, if an overmental type of consciousness is the highest type of consciousness in which multiplicity and differentiation are still possible, then the manifest reality can never be more than a come-down from the absolute perfection that is the hallmark of the Transcendent. And if this is so, classical yoga systems like Patanjali's are correct in holding a content-free (nirbīja) type of samādhi higher than any type of samādhi with content. But if there exists above the present manifestation a typal plane that is both differentiated and yet fully divine in the deep sense of the Vedic terms satyam, absolute truth, and ṛtam, dynamic truth of action, then a corresponding perfectly divine manifestation right here in the physical world should be possible or even, as Sri Aurobindo claims, inevitable. In that case, the ultimate aim of yoga should not only be sunya (emptiness) or kaivalya (purity), but following on those realisations, a supramental transformation of life in all its aspects.
One could well argue, that it is this long-term perspective on the future of humanity, and the great practical detail in which he has worked it out, for example in the last four chapters of The Life Divine (pp. 922–1107), that make Sri Aurobindo's work so valuable.
Above the Supermind, there is finally the upper hemisphere of:
Pure, absolute Delight
Pure, absolute Consciousness-Force
Pure, absolute Existence
These the three planes belong to the Transcendent, and since they are not part of our individual personality, we need not discuss them here. Though they are ineffable in the strong snese of being beyond verbal description, there is a humanly reachable type of consciousness in which their existence can be "realised". Sri Aurobindo call this is the Divine Consciousness.
The Divine Consciousness consists of the Supermind together with the upper or divine hemisphere of saccidānanda. Sri Aurobindo describes it as follows:
By the Divine Consciousness we mean the spiritual consciousness to which the Divine alone exists . . . and by which one passes beyond the Ignorance and the lower nature into unity with the Divine and the Divine Nature” (LY-1, p. 5).
Sri Aurobindo stresses throughout his works that it is only through a descent of this Divine Consciousness that an entire perfection is possible. And so, as he says in one of his letters: “The more you surrender to the Divine, the more will there be the possibility of perfection in you” (LY-2, p. 285).
In the introductory chapters of this text we have already seen how useful the conceptualisation of saccidānanda is both for psychology and for our understanding of the world as a whole. One aspect of that explanation may merit repetition here because it is so important for our day-to-day life. Sri Aurobindo stresses that, given the reality of the manifestation, cit, the original Consciousness of Brahman cannot only be a passive awareness, but must be a dynamic, conscious energy: cit-tapas. 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., Sri Aurobindo, LD, pp. 262–263). In the perhaps more personal and practical language of The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo 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… (p. 628).
The acceptance of power as part of saccidānanda and the power of the individual soul over its nature are necessary preconditions for the radical transformation Sri Aurobindo envisaged (e.g., Sri Aurobindo, LD, pp. 87–97).
With this, we have come to the end of our description of the Sevenfold Chord of Being5, the complex hierarchy of increasingly conscious planes of existence that forms the all-important backdrop for Sri Aurobindo’s understanding of human nature and its potential for further development. In the second half of this section, we will discuss a few remaining aspects of the human personality that have a vertical component. At the end of it is an overview of all the "vertical" terms in one table.
1In his writings for the general public, Sri Aurobindo tried to use English translations rather than the original Sanskrit terms whenever possible. He then capitalized them to indicate that he used them with a specialist, and often elevated, meaning. Mind stands here for manas in its oldest and widest Vedic sense, which includes all the mental powers, intellect, intelligence, understanding, perception, sense, conscience, etc. (Elsewhere, Sri Aurobindo uses manas more often with the much narrower meaning of sense-mind.)
2There is an extensive literature in English about Patanjali’s Yogasutras. A good place to start is B. K. Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1993). A more scholarly approach, inclusive an excellent glossary cum index of all Sanskrit words used in the text, see Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation and Commentary (1979/1989).
3Sri Aurobindo calls the plane between Illumined Mind and Overmind, "Intuition". The term "Intuitive Mind" he uses most typically for the embodied thinking mind when its substance and functionings are largely taken over by different types of intuition (e.g. SY, pp. 799–810, or LY-I, p. 162). We'll have a closer look at the Intuitive Mind in the section on Stages of Development.
4The term Overmind for the topmost layer of the lower hemisphere was introduced by Sri Aurobindo only after the Arya period (1914–1920). As a result, the words Supermind and supramental were in the unrevised parts of The Synthesis of Yoga (part of “The Yoga of Divine Knowledge,” “The Yoga of Devotion,” and “The Yoga of Self-Perfection”) not yet used in the specific sense he later gave to them. In these texts, they are often used to denote what he later called the Overmind, and sometimes even simply to denote anything above the ordinary mind. Sri Aurobindo explains why the term Overmind was introduced only later in these two letters.