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

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 13 June 2023

section 3b
the vertical system, part two

This is part two of a description of the vertical dimension of the personality.
If you haven't read part one, you may like to read that first


The Cakras

The cakras are centers of consciousness that seem to be stacked up one above the other in the inner, subtle physical body, the sūkṣma śarīra. As centers of consciousness, the cakras seem to belong to the puruṣa, but they preside over corresponding layers of the inner nature, which are part of prakṛti. As the cakras are as much centers of force and action as of awareness, they do not go well with the strict separation of puruṣa and prakṛti that can be found in Sāṁkhya, and one sees them more often discussed in Tantric literature. Sri Aurobindo only rarely describes them in the traditional (and perhaps rather romantic) manner of lotuses with distinct colors, sounds, and numbers of petals. He writes, however, very often about the layers, or levels, of conscious existence over which they preside. In the following descriptions, the quoted phrases are from Letters on Yoga – I, pp.230-37:

  • The sahasrāra cakra is located at the crown of the head. It “commands the higher thinking mind, houses the still higher illumined mind, and at its highest opens to the intuition through which . . . the overmind can have . . . an immediate contact”. This center is not often mentioned in the English language, though there may be a vague reference to it in the fact that difficult or highly abstract ideas are said to “go over one’s head”. It is through here that inspirations are most often felt to enter.
  • The ājñā cakra, just below it, “governs the dynamic mind, will, vision, mental formation”. It is located behind the forehead. According to an informal survey in one of the earlier issues of the Journal of Consciousness Studies [REF] this is the location where philosophers and academics feel that their consciousness resides. A child who needs to think more is asked to use his head, not his heart, let alone his guts.
  • The viśuddha cakra, below the ājñā at the level of the throat, represents the lowest mental layer, the expressive and externalizing mind. Its character depends on what it expresses. It can express vital feelings coming from below as well as thoughts and inspirations from above. It is not only concerned with verbal and vocal expressions, but it is also active in other forms of creative work.
  • The anāhata cakra at the level of the heart “governs the emotional being” and lodges the higher vital consciousness. It carries the more sophisticated human emotions of love, compassion, etc. If you want to encourage someone to be more generous or compassionate you don't say: “Open your head.” You say, “Open your heart.”
  • The maṇipūra cakra carries the middle vital with one’s larger ambitions for power and possession. This middle vital is the Hara of Japanese martial arts (see J. C. Markert, 1998). It is also the source of what business people call gut feelings. Significantly, “having guts” means being courageous and daring — qualities that occur when one’s consciousness is powerfully present at this level.
  • The svādhiṣṭhāna cakra, still further down, houses the lower vital consciousness. Here one finds vital play and the search for minor, personal comforts.
  • The mūlādhāra cakra is the last, at the bottom of the spine. It is the seat of the kuṇḍalinī energy, sexuality and the physical consciousness down to the subconscious.

The cakras are interconnected through vertical energy channels within the subtle body. Some people spontaneously feel them as streams of force while others perceive them as streams of light. When subtle inner energies open a cakra, the inner powers, or siddhis that belong to that cakra awaken and become available. This awakening can be achieved intentionally, for example, as part of focused hatha and rajayoga practices, but it can also happen spontaneously or as a consequence of other forms of yoga (LY-2, pp. 460–464).

The different types of consciousness that the main cakras represent tend to be easily recognizable by people as located in their traditional bodily locations. These locations are also commonly referred to in the English language. As mentioned above, it is part of common English usage to say that business people follow their gut feelings (the seat of the middle vital that houses ambition); charitable organizations ask people to open their heart (the seat of the higher emotions); and teachers admonish children to use their head (where the ājñā cakra houses the faculty of thought). The different layers are, in English, also used to indicate specific kinds of unease. There is a commonly understood difference between butterflies in one’s stomach, a heartache, a lump in one’s throat, and a headache. While they are clearly part of the common understanding of human nature and have quite a prominent place in literature, they have perhaps not been given as much attention in academics as they deserve. This is unfortunate because a good understanding of these different centers can help considerably with the development of insight and mastery over one’s drives and motives. The ability to locate the center of one’s consciousness in any of them at will should, in fact, be considered an important life-skill, which could quite well be taught in school, and be taken up at a higher level in university.1 We'll come back to this in the capters on Self-development.


Levels of Awareness

Besides the Sevenfold Chord of Being and the cakras, there is still one more set of terms that describe states that tend to be experienced subjectively as a vertically arranged hierarchy. They describe levels, or degrees, of awareness. From the bottom up, they are the inconscient, the subconscient, the ordinary waking consciousness, and the superconscient.

The inconscient base of the creation Sri Aurobindo also calls the nescient.

The word subconscious Sri Aurobindo uses with two somewhat different meanings. He uses it sometimes simply to indicate all that is below the ordinary consciousness (in other words, as a synonym for the subliminal), but he uses it more typically for a specific plane situated below the physical consciousness. In that last sense, the subconscient contains the first crude beginnings of conscious movement when creation just arises out of the sleep of the inconscient. But into this nether region also sinks back whatever has been rejected from the higher levels of consciousness. And so come into being the murky waters that Freud describes as the unconscious. It is also the place from which rise up the active remnants of the past, or atavisms, that mar the individual’s progress. Sri Aurobindo explains:

In our yoga we mean by the subconscient that quite submerged part of our being in which there is no wakingly conscious and coherent thought, will or feeling or organised reaction, but which yet receives obscurely the impressions of all things and stores them up in itself and from it too all sorts of stimuli, of persistent habitual movements, crudely repeated or disguised in strange forms can surge up into dream or into the waking nature. For if these impressions rise up most in dream in an incoherent and disorganised manner, they can also and do rise up into our waking consciousness as a mechanical repetition of old thoughts, old mental, vital and physical habits or an obscure stimulus to sensations, actions, emotions which do not originate in or from our conscious thought or will and are even often opposed to its perceptions, choice or dictates. In the subconscient there is an obscure mind full of obstinate sanskaras, impressions, associations, fixed notions, habitual reactions formed by our past, an obscure vital full of the seeds of habitual desires, sensations and nervous reactions, a most obscure material which governs much that has to do with the condition of the body. It is largely responsible for our illnesses; chronic or repeated illnesses are indeed mainly due to the subconscient and its obstinate memory and habit of repetition of whatever has impressed itself upon the body consciousness. But this subconscient must be clearly distinguished from the subliminal parts of our being such as the inner or subtle physical consciousness, the inner vital or inner mental; for these are not at all obscure or incoherent or ill-organised, but only veiled from our surface consciousness. Our surface constantly receives something, inner touches, communications or influences, from these sources but does not know for the most part whence they come. (LY-1, pp. 216–217)

In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo similarly writes:

That part of us which we can strictly call subconscient because it is below the level of mind and conscious life, inferior and obscure, covers the purely physical and vital elements of our constitution of bodily being, unmentalised, unobserved by the mind, uncontrolled by it in their action. It can be held to include the dumb occult consciousness, dynamic but not sensed by us, which operates in the cells and nerves and all the corporeal stuff and adjusts their life process and automatic responses. It covers also those lowest functionings of submerged sense-mind which are more operative in the animal and in plant life; in our evolution we have overpassed the need of any large organised action of this element, but it remains submerged and obscurely at work below our conscious nature. This obscure activity extends to a hidden and hooded mental substratum into which past impressions and all that is rejected from the surface mind sink and remain there dormant and can surge up in sleep or in any absence of the mind, taking dream forms, forms of mechanical mind action or suggestion, forms of automatic vital reaction or impulse, forms of physical abnormality or nervous perturbance, forms of morbidity, disease, unbalance. Out of the subconscious we bring ordinarily so much to the surface as our waking sense-mind and intelligence need for their purpose; in so bringing them up we are not aware of their nature, origin, operation and do not apprehend them in their own values but by a translation into the values of our waking human sense and intelligence. But the risings of the subconscious, its effects upon the mind and body, are mostly automatic, uncalled for and involuntary; for we have no knowledge and therefore no control of the subconscient. It is only by an experience abnormal to us, most commonly in illness or some disturbance of balance, that we can become directly aware of something in the dumb world, dumb but very active, of our bodily being and vitality or grow conscious of the secret movements of the mechanical subhuman physical and vital mind which underlies our surface, — a consciousness which is ours but seems not ours because it is not part of our known mentality. This and much more lives concealed in the subconscience.
A descent into the subconscient would not help us to explore this region, for it would plunge us into incoherence or into sleep or a dull trance or a comatose torpor. A mental scrutiny or insight can give us some indirect and constructive idea of these hidden activities; but it is only by drawing back into the subliminal or by ascending into the superconscient and from there looking down or extending ourselves into these obscure depths that we can become directly and totally aware and in control of the secrets of our subconscient physical, vital and mental nature. This awareness, this control are of the utmost importance. For the subconscient is the Inconscient in the process of becoming conscious; it is a support and even a root of our inferior parts of being and their movements. It sustains and reinforces all in us that clings most and refuses to change, our mechanical recurrences of unintelligent thought, our persistent obstinacies of feeling, sensation, impulse, propensity, our uncontrolled fixities of character. The animal in us, — the infernal also, — has its lair of retreat in the dense jungle of the subconscience. To penetrate there, to bring in light and establish a control, is indispensable for the completeness of any higher life, for any integral transformation of the nature. (LD, pp. 762–763)

Our ordinary waking consciousness is limited to a small portion of the physical, vital, and lower mental planes. Most of what happens even on these planes remains below its threshold of awareness. The higher ranges of the mental plane, the supramental, and saccidānanda are entirely superconscient to the ordinary waking consciousness. The words superconscious and superconscient are both used by Sri Aurobindo again with two different meanings, simply for any consciousness which is above our ordinary waking consciousness and, more specifically, for that type of consciousness which is divine, that is, beyond dualities. Sri Aurobindo does not use the term the unconscious. Freud’s unconscious covers, more or less, what Sri Aurobindo describes above as “a hidden and hooded mental substratum into which past impressions and all that is rejected from the surface mind sink” (LD, p. 762). Jung’s unconscious contained more positive formations, like, for example, his archetypes. In that sense it has some overlap with Sri Aurobindo’s subliminal.

Intermediate stages of development

And then finally there are two terms that do not denote independently existing realms or parts of human nature with a specialized function, but the human mind during a distinct stage of development.

Intuitive Mind is the first of them. Sri Aurobindo used this term most typically for the ordinary, embodied mind when its substance and functioning begins to be taken over by a form of intuition which originates in any of the layers between the Higher Mind and the Overmind (e.g. SY, pp. 799–810). It is then "a level of consciousness which is touched by the light of higher truths and receives them vividly and conveys them to the consciousness below" (LY-I, p. 162). He used the term Intuitive Mind mainly in the Record of Yoga, The Synthesis of Yoga, The Future Poetry and subsequently in some of the Letters.

Mind of Light is the second one. Sri Aurobindo introduced it as a technical term with a precise meaning only in his very last prose writing, The Supramental Manifestation upon Earth (pp. 578–592). It stands for the first stage of the Supramental transformation when the mind becomes

capable of living in the truth, capable of being truth-conscious and manifesting in its life a direct in place of an indirect knowledge. Its mentality would be an instrument of the Light and no longer of the Ignorance. At its highest it would be … an instrumentality of the supermind.

The Mother adds to this, that the Mind of Light will be needed to express oneself in a not yet fully supramental world even after one lives oneself already in a supramental consciousness (Questions and answers 1956, p. 194).


Overview of terms used for the vertical system in one table

We can now put the most important terms used for the vertical system together in a table.

hemisphere sevenfold chord of being cakra consciousness knowledge/
upper hemisphere Existence (sat) Superconscience
Spiritual Consciousness
Divine Consciousness/
the Knowledge
Consciousness-Force (cit-tapas)
Bliss (ānanda)
link plane Supermind (mahas or vijñāna)
lower hemisphere Mind (manas) Overmind first beginnings of separation, though not yet of real Ignorance
Illumined mind Knowledge-Ignorance
Higher mind sahasrāra
Ordinary mind thinking ājñā Ordinary Waking Consciousness Ignorance
expressive viśuddha
Vital (prāṇa) higher anāhata
middle maṇipūra
lower svādhiṣṭhāna
Physical (annam) mūlādhāra
Subconscient Subconscience
Inconscient Nescience

Table 1-2-2. An overview of terms used for the vertical system

It may be noted that, in terms of the concentric system, everything in this table belongs to the subliminal. The only exception might be the ordinary waking consciousness and its share of the ignorance. But, one could argue that in the ordinary waking consciousness even the ordinary waking consciousness itself belongs to the subliminal. The reason is that most people, most of the time, are so fully identified with the part of the surface mind, where their consciousness happens to be centered, that they are only aware of the content with which that mind is busy. So even when they engage, for example, in introspection, they may become aware of the mental and vital processes that are happening inside their consciousness, but they will still not be aware of the consciousness itself, let alone of its ignorance.

To end this section, a word of caution. The terms that occupy the cells of this table do not denote things. They point at concepts that have meanings and connotations whose borders tend to be far more vague than the neat lines that this diagram suggests. Though I hope this table is useful for those who enjoy such things, it has to be treated with utmost caution and humility. Even the simplest flower surpasses whatever our minds can possibly create.


1Sri Aurobindo suggests that the awakening of the higher functionality of the cakras could play a major role in the transition to the next stage of our collective evolution (EPY–p.551).