This is only a very short overview of the most common terms Sri Aurobindo uses for the Self and the structure of the personality.
A more comprehensive overview of his terminology can be found here.
Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga aims not only at a liberation of the Self but also at a complete transformation of human nature under the influence of the higher levels of consciousness. For this transformation, a very detailed understanding of human nature is essential. Considering yoga “nothing but practical psychology”, he gives in his many writings a detailed model of human nature and the psychological processes that help and hinder this process of transformation. Sri Aurobindo was well aware that all classifications and maps are to some extent arbitrary and he did use slightly different mappings at different periods and for different purposes. He writes:
“...a classification can always be valid from the principle and viewpoint adopted by it while from other principles and viewpoints another classification of the same things can be equally valid.”
(Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 785)
The one I will present here is the one he developed during the later period in Pondicherry. In this period, he revised his major works, The Life Divine and parts of The Synthesis of Yoga, and wrote an astounding number of letters to his disciples, of which approximately 6000 have been published. Most of these letters deal with issues related to yoga and psychology.
The main terms Sri Aurobindo uses to describe the planes and parts of the being can be grouped in three different sets:
In the concentric system, Sri Aurobindo distinguishes an outer nature, an inner nature, and a true nature with the psychic at its center.
Our outer nature consists of that part of our nature of which we are conscious to some extent in our normal every day life. The longer we study ourselves, the clearer it becomes that this is only a very tiny part of our being as a whole.
We are not only what we know of ourselves but an immense more which we do not know; our momentary personality is only a bubble on the ocean of our existence.
(Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 555)
In the outer nature, things tend to be rather seriously mixed up. Emotions, for example, contain physical, emotional, cognitive, and conative elements all mixed together. The situation gets more complicated because the outer nature is the end result of “an immense more” inside, of which we are not aware. It is rare that we know exactly from where our feelings, thoughts, and actions come.
The term inner nature to indicate the part of ourselves which is not immediately visible “on the surface”, may give the wrong impression that we are dealing only with a small, dark and isolated piece. The opposite is true. Our inner nature is, according to the Indian tradition, vaster and more luminous than our outer nature; it has access to broader and higher ranges of experience and knowledge. Therefore, Sri Aurobindo often used the term ‘subliminal’ which indicates that we are dealing with a part of ourselves that is indeed below the threshold of our ordinary outer awareness but that is neither smaller nor less conscious than our outer nature. Most of us are not aware of what the subliminal contributes to our lives except indirectly, through unexplained feelings and changes of mood, or through sudden thoughts and flashes of insight, which are thrown up from there onto the surface. Dreams and other special states we occasionally remember are also part of the subliminal. It is an essential part of any discipline that aims at transformation of one’s nature, to become more aware of what occurs in the subliminal.
In the subliminal, we are connected vertically to layers above and below our ordinary awareness, and horizontally to other people and to the myriad of forces and beings that surround us. The part of the subliminal, which deals with our own deeper and higher being, Sri Aurobindo calls the ‘intraconscient’, and the part, which connects us to others and to the cosmic forces around us, he calls the ‘circumconscient’.
It is through the intraconscient that we can become aware of those aspects of our own nature that we have no access to in our ordinary waking state. It includes the nether regions, which Freud called the “unconscious” and ranges far above our ordinary waking consciousness.
It is through the circumconscient part of our inner being that Sri Aurobindo sees most parapsychological perceptions taking place.
The deepest layers of the inner nature, Sri Aurobindo calls the true nature. At the very center of each thing, of each creature, there is a psychic entity, a tiny spark of the Divine, without which it could not exist. In the human being, this psychic spark or soul, found at the heart of our true nature, slowly grows through many lifetimes into a more extensive, qualitied, psychic being. While progressing from life to life, this psychic being brings a larger and larger part of the inner nature, and finally, even the outer nature under its direct control.
At present, in most people this psychic being is, however, only a very small and hardly influential part of their nature. Generally, it is hidden deep below the surface and it shows its presence only in rare moments of real love, of gratitude, spiritual aspiration, in the appreciation of truth or beauty. Sri Aurobindo compares it to a constitutional ruler, who can at any time be overruled by his ministers (Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 900)
Before we can proceed to the details of the vertical system, it is necessary to digress a little to Sri Aurobindo's cosmology. There is a deep connection between psychology and cosmology in Sri Aurobindo's work: the individual exemplifies in himself the essence of the cosmic structure and the cosmic movement.
Sri Aurobindo's world-view is built around the concept of an evolution of consciousness: not just the evolution of more and more complex forms of matter and life, but the evolution of higher and higher levels of consciousness. According to Sri Aurobindo, consciousness is the original “stuff” out of which the universe is created. Consciousness (cit) first involved itself into the seeming unconsciousness of Matter, and evolution is its slow re-emergence. He says, moreover, that when Life evolved, it cannot have appeared just like that, by chance, out of non-life, it must have developed in matter under pressure from an already pre-existing plane of vital consciousness. Similarly, Mind cannot have evolved by chance out of non-mind; it must have evolved in material life under pressure from a pre-existing mental plane. In other words, life and mind must have existed already, independently, in their own planes or worlds before they became manifest in our material world. It is under pressure from these pre-existing worlds that the minor and constrained forms of earthly life emerged out of matter and that the human mind evolved out of earthly life. In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo works out in great detail how these pre-existing typal planes of vital and mental consciousness can have come into being through a process of “exclusive concentration” taking place within the original consciousness of Brahman.
The manifestation of a mental consciousness in a living body is what the evolution has achieved until now. But the evolution cannot end here: mental man is much too imperfect a creature to be the final stage of nature's effort. The human is only a transitional being. According to Sri Aurobindo, we are now at the beginning of the next, fourth, stage of evolution in which again a new type of consciousness is evolving. Sri Aurobindo called the next step the truth-consciousness or simply the “supermind”.
The human being is, in this long sequence, the first creature sufficiently evolved to collaborate actively in his own evolution. Integral yoga can thus be seen as the willed concentration in the individual of powers and processes that nature itself is using on a much vaster scale, but also much more slowly, for the collective transition to the next stage.
Against this backdrop of the evolution of consciousness we can understand how the terms Sri Aurobindo uses for the description of the vertical, hierarchical system apply with only minor modifications to:
The terms Sri Aurobindo uses for the vertical system, are derived from an ancient Vedic division in seven layers, from top down:
Of course Sri Aurobindo would not be Sri Aurobindo if he would take this system too seriously. In the chapter of The Life Divine specifically called “The Sevenfold Chord of Being” (p. 262 onwards), he is hardly on his way, when he adds an eighth element and folds his neat ladder up with the footnote: “The Vedic Seers speak of the seven rays, but also of eight, nine, ten or twelve.” The more usual representation remains however, this simple ladder of seven steps, with an added horizontal dimension in which the psychic sits “behind the heart.”
Each of these seven powers or principles forms a more or less independent world, a plane of existence with a corresponding type of consciousness. The different planes influence and penetrate each other and there can be concrete formations from one plane in the other planes.
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.
(Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga — I, pp. 201-202)
The mental plane, which is the most typically human, is subdivided by Sri Aurobindo into five clearly distinct sub-planes of different types of mental consciousness:
The ordinary mind itself is subdivided into three layers:
In the country of the lotus of the head
Which thinking mind has made its busy space,
In the castle of the lotus twixt the brows
Whence it shoots the arrows of its sight and will,
In the passage of the lotus of the throat
Where speech must rise and the expressing mind
And the heart's impulse run towards word and act
(Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p. 529)
The mind intersects with the vital and the physical plane. On that basis Sri Aurobindo distinguishes between the:
Within the vital plane a distinction is often made between the lower vital, which consists of our basic life instincts, fear, anger, small enjoyments etc.; the middle vital, which contains the larger life energies of power, ambition and self-assertion; and the higher vital, which deals with the more sophisticated emotions in the social realm.
A. S. Dalal, in his book A Greater Psychology, combines the different vertical systems into a series of eleven layers:
Sri Aurobindo groups the layers above the ordinary mind together as the higher consciousness.
The layers above the overmind he groups together as the divine consciousness or upper hemisphere.
It may be noted that the term overmind for the topmost layer of the lower hemisphere was introduced by Sri Aurobindo only after the Arya period (1914-1920). In the unrevised parts of The Synthesis of Yoga (a part of "The Yoga of Divine Knowledge", "The Yoga of Devotion" and "The Yoga of Self-Perfection") the words “supermind” and “supramental” are 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. For a clear exposition of the difference, see [ref]
The inconscient base of the creation Sri Aurobindo also calls the nescient. The words subconscious and subconscient Sri Aurobindo uses with two somewhat different meanings. He uses them sometimes simply to indicate all that is below our ordinary consciousness, but he uses them more typically for a specific plane situated “below the physical consciousness.” In that last sense, the subconscious contains the first crude beginning of conscious movement when creation just arises out of the sleep of the inconscient. But into this nether region 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”, from where rise up the thousands of atavisms that mar our progress.
Our ordinary waking consciousness is limited to a small portion of the physical, vital and lower mental planes. Most of what happens on the physical, vital, and mental planes remains below its threshold of awareness. The higher ranges of the mental plane, the supramental and saccidānanda are superconscient to it. 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 calls the lower vital regions of the subconscious. Jung's “collective unconscious” has some overlap with Sri Aurobindo's subliminal.
An essential element of the Integral Yoga is to shift one's center of identification from the temporary formation of the ego, which is part of the outer nature, to the true self in the central being.
The “I” or the little ego is constituted by Nature and is at once a mental, vital and physical formation meant to aid in centralising and individualising the outer consciousness and action. When the true being is discovered, the utility of the ego is over and this formation has to disappear — the true being is felt in its place.
(Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga — I, p. 97)
We can experience our central or true being as a kind of vertical axis at the core of our being. Above all the planes and worlds, it is the jivātman, who eternally and immutably presides over our nature. On the lower levels, it is our psychic being (antarātman, caitya puruṣa) who has descended, as the delegate of our eternal Self, into the “world of becoming.” Sri Aurobindo uses the word “Self” for our transcendent, immutable essence, both in its universal form (paramātman, atma), and in its individual form (jivātman). He uses “Self” also as the translation of “puruṣa”, the center of our conscious existence on any level.
Sri Aurobindo uses the word soul for our evolving, psychic center. Initially this psychic center is only a small, almost point-like psychic entity, of which one can feel at best a psychic influence. Gradually, as it brings more of the nature under its influence, it becomes a full-fledged psychic being, which one can feel as a psychic presence.
The true being may be realised in one or both of two aspects — the Self or Atman and the soul or antarātman, psychic being or caitya purusa. The difference is that one is felt as universal, the other as individual supporting the mind, life and body. When one first realises the Atman one feels it separate from all things, existing in itself and detached.... When one realises the psychic being, it is not like that; for this brings the sense of union with the Divine and dependence upon it and sole consecration to the Divine alone and the power to change the nature and discover the true mental, the true vital, the true physical being in oneself. Both realisations are necessary for this Yoga.
(Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga — I, p. 97)
On each of the three planes, physical, vital, and mental, we can distinguish a different aspect of our inner and outer nature. On each plane, we can also distinguish a distinct self or puruṣa: there is a physical, a vital, and a mental puruṣa. The combination of a self with a corresponding part of nature, Sri Aurobindo calls a being. So we can speak of an inner and an outer physical being, an inner and an outer vital being, an inner and an outer mental being.
The psychic being stands behind all this. It supports our whole nature through the individual selves of each plane. While the outer layers of our being remain for a long time determined by the forces working in the surrounding outer nature, the inner layers generally come more easily under influence of the psychic element.
One must first acquire an inner Yogic consciousness and replace by it our ordinary view of things, natural movements, motives of life; one must revolutionise the whole present build of our being. Next, we have to go still deeper, discover our veiled psychic entity and in its light and under its government psychicise our inner and outer parts, turn mind-nature, life-nature, body-nature and all our mental, vital, physical action and states and movements into a conscious instrumentation of the soul. Afterwards or concurrently we have to spiritualise the being in its entirety by a descent of a divine Light, Force, Purity, Knowledge, freedom and wideness. It is necessary to break down the limits of the per- sonal mind, life and physicality, dissolve the ego, enter into the cosmic consciousness, realise the self, acquire a spiritualised and universalised mind and heart, life-force, physical consciousness. Then only the passage into supramental consciousness begins to become possible, and even then there is a difficult ascent to make each stage of which is a separate arduous achievement.
(Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, pp. 281–82)
One can put some of the preceding terms describing human nature together in the following diagram:
A more comprehensive overview of his terminology can be found here.
Yoga consists first of a shift of one’s centre of identification away from the ego, which is a temporary construction within the surface physical, vital and mental outer nature. This is followed by a relocation (as far as that term still applies) of the consciousness either towards the cosmic and transcendent aspect of the true or central being, the ātman, or towards its personal aspect, the psychic being. In Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga, this liberation is followed by a process of transformation. In the first stage of the triple transformation which Sri Aurobindo envisages, the entire inner and outer nature is brought under the influence of the true being. A subsequent spiritual and supramental transformation can then lead to the manifestation of an embodied gnostic consciousness, and, thus enable a truly Divine life on earth.
1 With Special Thanks to Dr. A. S. Dalal
Sri Aurobindo (1939/1998), The Life Divine, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
Sri Aurobindo (1955/1999), The Synthesis of Yoga, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
Sri Aurobindo (2012), Letters on yoga — I, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
Sri Aurobindo (1954/1994), Savitri, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department