Seven Types of Ignorance

Sri Aurobindo’s systematic approach has us first examining the extent and nature of the Ignorance as a prelude to our search for Knowledge. The first ignorance is a self-ignorance. “We are ignorant of the Absolute which is the source of all being and becoming; we take partial facts of being, temporal relations of the becoming for the whole truth of existence,–that is the first, the original ignorance.”

The cosmic ignorance is next: “We are ignorant of the spaceless, timeless, immobile and immutable Self; we take the constant mobility and mutation of the cosmic becoming in Time and Space for the whole truth of existence…”

The third ignorance is the egoistic ignorance: “We are ignorant of our universal self, the cosmic existence, the cosmic consciousness, our infinite unity with all being and becoming; we take our limited egoistic mentality, vitality, corporeality for our true self and regard everything other than that as not-self…”

The temporal ignorance is fourth: “We are ignorant of our eternal becoming in Time; we take this little life in a small span of Time, in a petty field of Space, for our beginning, our middle and our end…”

The fifth ignorance is our psychological ignorance: “Even within this brief temporal becoming we are ignorant of our large and complex being, of that in us which is superconscient, subconscient, intraconscient, circumconscient to our surface becoming; we take that surface becoming with its small selection of overtly mentalised experiences for our whole existence…”

The constitutional ignorance is sixth: “We are ignorant of the true constitution of our becoming; we take the mind or life or body or any two of these or all three for our true principle or the whole account of what we are, losing sight of that which constitutes them and determines by its occult presence and is meant to determine sovereignly by its emergence their operations…”

Finally, there is the practical ignorance: “As a result of all these ignorances, we miss the true knowledge, government and enjoyment of our life in the world; we are ignorant in our thought, will, sensations, actions, return wrong or imperfect responses at every point to the questionings of the world, wander in a maze of errors and desires, strivings and failures, pain and pleasure, sin and stumbling, follow a crooked road, grope blindly for a changing goal…”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 15, Reality and the Integral Knowledge

Integral Knowledge

Sri Aurobindo avoids the temptation to define knowledge as a specific limited formulation based on one aspect or tendency which we can recognise in our conscious awareness. He accepts that each major line of development, each major philosophical statement of truth is in fact speaking to one part or focus of our being, but needs to be reconciled, balanced, harmonised and related to the others. Truth is not opposed to truth; rather truth expands to include all aspects of truth. His goal is not to achieve a victory in a battle of ideas, but to find how to reconcile seemingly opposite formulations of truth in an all-encompassing, all-embracing view.

“An integral knowledge then must be a knowledge of the truth of all sides of existence both separately and in the relation of each to all and the relation of all to the truth of the Spirit. Our present state is an Ignorance and a many-sided seeking; it seeks for the truth of all things but,– as is evident from the insistence and the variety of the human mind’s speculations as to the fundamental Truth which explains all others, the Reality at the basis of all things,– the fundamental truth of things, their basic reality must be found in some at once fundamental and universal Real; it is that which, once discovered, must embrace and expalin all,–for “That being known all will be known”: the fundamental Real must necessarily be and contain the truth of all existence, the truth of the individual, the truth of the universe, the truth of all that is beyond the universe.”

The mind’s seeking in each individual direction has its value and becomes a basis for a more comprehensive knowledge when we can finally fit together each of these “truths” into that one all-comprehending Truth that forms the Integral Knowledge.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 15, Reality and the Integral Knowledge

The Limitations of Exclusive Concentration for an Integral Knowledge

Sri Aurobindo has anticipated the findings of modern physics in his view that, not only is Matter a form of Energy, but that Energy is a form of Mind or Consciousness. While the understanding that Matter is Energy was gaining its footing in the early 20th Century, the idea that Energy is actually a form of Consciousness is a much more modern concept in science, which arose more or less with the development of quantum physics, string theory and other views of the universe which overturn the “old fashioned” idea that Matter is solid, substantial, fundamental and something upon which we can base our understanding of things.

Sri Aurobindo points out that it is because of an exclusive concentration on Matter that we have, by simply applying blinders to our vision of the other planes & powers of existence, enthroned Matter as the only Reality and tried to refer all knowledge to some basis in Matter.

Sri Aurobindo discuss es this limitation: “But a solution of the whole problem of existence cannot be based on an exclusive one-sided knowledge; we must know not only what Matter is and what are its processes, but what mind and life are and what are their processes, and one must know also spirit and soul and all that is behind the material surface: only then can we have a knowledge sufficiently integral for a solution of the problem. For the same reason those views of existence which arise from an exclusive or predominant preoccupation with Mind or with Life and regard Mind or Life as the sole fundamental reality, have not a sufficiently wide basis for acceptance.”

Even if we move our exclusive concentration to the pure spiritual realms, Sri Aurobindo finds that this is not sufficient: “In our view the Spirit, the Self is the fundamental reality of existence; but an exclusive concentration on this fundamental reality to the exclusion of all reality of Mind, Life or Matter except as an imposition on the Self or unsubstantial shadows cast by the Spirit might help to an independent and radical spiritual realisation but not to an integral and valid solution of the truth of cosmic and individual existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 15, Reality and the Integral Knowledge

Validation of Occultism As a Mode of Knowledge

Sri Aurobindo makes it clear that the kind of all-embracing, integral knowledge he is seeking must necessarily involve “an exploration, an unveiling of all the possible domains of consciousness and experience.” We must be prepared to go beyond what we deem to be external, objective domains of knowledge, to explore the occult realms inside as well as beyond our individual selves. “An inner range of spiritual experience is one very great domain of human consciousness; it has to be entered into up to its deepest depths and its vastest reaches. The supraphysical is as real as the physical; to know it is part of a complete knowledge.”

“The knowledge of the supraphysical has been associated with mysticism and occultism, and occultism has been banned as a superstition and a fantastic error. But the occult is a part of existence; a true occultism means no more than a research into supraphysical realities and an unveiling of the hidden laws of being and Nature, of all that is not obvious on the surface. It attempts the discovery of the secret laws of mind and mental energy, the secret laws of life and life-energy, the secret laws of the subtle-physical and its energies,–all that Nature has not put into visible operation on the surface; it pursues also the application of these hidden truths and powers of Nature so as to extend the mastery of the human spirit beyond the ordinary operations of our physical existence. In the spiritual domain which is occult to the surface mind in so far as it passes beyond normal and enters into supernormal experience, there is possible not only the discovery of the self and spirit, but the discovery of the uplifting, informing and guiding light of spiritual consciousness and the power of the spirit, the spiritual way of knowledge, the spiritual way of action. To know these things and to bring their truths and forces into the life of humanity is a necessary part of its evolution. Science itself is in its own way an occultism; for it brings to light the formulas which Nature has hidden and it uses its knowledge to set free operations of her energies which she has not included in her ordinary operations and to organise and place at the service of man her occult powers and processes, a vast system of physical magic,–for there is and can be no other magic than the utilisation of secret truths of being, secret powers and processes of Nature. It may even be found that a supraphysical knowledge is necessary for the completion of physical knowledge, because the processes of physical Nature have behind them a supraphysical factor, a power and action mental, vital or spiritual which is not tangible to any outer means of knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 15, Reality and the Integral Knowledge

Freedom To Explore The Depths of Consciousness

Sri Aurobindo takes issue with the standpoint that arises sometimes in the scientific community that refuses to investigate or explore the subjective realms out of hand, purely on the basis of its subjective nature. In earlier posts we have discussed the fact that even “objective” reality has its reference in our awareness on a subjective basis; and it must be admitted that the development of the field of quantum physics has begun to demolish the arbitrary walls between objective and subjective, about which Sri Aurobindo was commenting at the time. Just as science takes issue with religious dogma that interferes with the investigation of physical nature and facts of the material and energetic planes, so also, psychic science must take issue with any material science that refuses to admit this area of research.

Sri Aurobindo discusses these issues in more depth: “The greatest inner discoveries, the experience of self-being, the cosmic consciousness, the inner calm of the liberated spirit, the direct effect of mind upon mind, the knowledge of things by consciousness in direct contact with other consciousness or with its objects, most spiritual experiences of any value, cannot be brought before the tribunal of the common mentality which has no experience of these things and takes its own absence or incapacity of experience as a proof of their invalidity or their non-existence. Physical truth of formulas, generalisations, discoveries founded upon physical observation can be so referred, but even there a training of capacity is needed before one can truly understand and judge; it is not every untrained mind that can follow the mathematics of relativity or other difficult scientific truths or judge of the validity either of their result or their process. All reality, all experience must indeed, to be held as true, be capable of verification by a same or similar experience; so, in fact, all men can have a spiritual experience and can follow it out and verify it in themselves, but only when they have acquired the capacity or can follow the inner methods by which that experience and verification are made possible.”

Sri Aurobindo concludes: “It is of supreme importance for the human spirit to be free to sound the depths of inner or subliminal reality, of spiritual and of what is still superconscient reality, and not to immure itself in the physical mind and its narrow domain of objective external solidities; for in that way alone can there come liberation from the Ignorance in which our mentality dwells and a release into a complete consciousness, a true and integral self-realisation and self-knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 15, Reality and the Integral Knowledge

Addressing the Limitations of the Ego-Centric Standard of Knowledge

Sri Aurobindo describes our modern prediliction to try to evaluate everything by what he calls an “ego-centric” standard. We want to refer everything to our individual mind for evaluation and determination of its validity; or else, we want to evaluate everything based on some universal standard that we can all look at and agree upon. The facts of the physical world are evaluated in this way, and, despite the limitations of this approach, provides at least some level of consistency to the process. Of course, it is easy to prove that such an approach is not necessarily factual. For instance, the ideas that the earth is flat, or that the sun revolves around the earth creating day and night, represent interpretations of fact that were determined by referral to the ego-centric experience of individuals for most of humanity’s history. Today we correct these incorrect assessments through the universal validation process, but there are clearly other such “facts” which are based on inadequate understanding or insufficient wideness of understanding.

Similarly, one of the failings of any attempt at understanding the validity of subjective experience is just this tendency to look for physical factual confirmation. Subjective experience cannot be measured on an external physical yardstick. While there can be admixtures of inaccurate interpretation or fantasy in relation to conclusions drawn from subjective experience, this is in fact no different than the type of inaccuracies and false conclusions that occur in our external world-view as well.

Sri Aurobindo guides us toward a more balanced approach to the standard of knowledge: “The truth behind it is that each man has to think for himself, know for himself according to his capacity, but his judgment can be valid only on condition that he is ready to learn and open always to a larger knowledge. It is reasoned that to depart from the physical standard and the principle of personal or universal verification will lead to gross delusions and the admission of unverified truth and subjective phantasy into the realm of knowledge. But error and delusion and the introduction of personality and one’s own subjectivity into the pursuit of knowledge are always present, and the physical or objective standards and methods do not exclude them. The probability of error is no reason for refusing to attempt discovery, and subjective discovery must be pursued by a subjective method of enquiry, observation and verification; research into the supraphysical must evolve, accept and test an appropriate means and methods other than those by which one examines the constituents of physical objects and the processes of Energy in material Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 15, Reality and the Integral Knowledge

Objective and Subjective Knowledge

Sri Aurobindo’s discussion of objective and subjective reality leads immediately to a review of objective and subjective knowledge. “In fact, subjectivity and objectivity are not independent realities, they depend upon each other; they are the Being, through consciousness, looking at itself as subject on the object and the same Being offering itself to its own consciousness as object to the subject.”

Those who are wedded to physical “reality” tend to dismiss subjective knowledge as being fanciful or unreal, and they attribute only to what they experience as “external, objective reality” the only real substance. However, it has been abundantly demonstrated that “we have no means of knowing the objective universe except by our subjective consciousness of which the physical senses themselves are instruments; as the world appears not only to that but in that, so it is to us. If we deny reality to the evidence of this universal witness for subjective or for supraphysical objectivities, there is no sufficient reason to concede reality to its evidence for physical objectivities; if the inner or the supraphysical objects of consciousness are unreal, the objective physical universe has also every chance of being unreal.”

In the end, since both objective knowledge and subjective knowledge rely upon an inner awareness and discriminative function, and since our only knowledge of the external world is through senses interpreted by this inner awareness, it is clear that both objective and subjective knowledge have an equal basis of reality, and come down to the same thing, namely, an inner cognisance.

It is important to note, however that this does not mean that every whim or fancy that arises to the subjective witness awareness has to be validated as real and substantial. Just as the experience of the senses and the outer world can be distorted or misinterpreted, leading to false conclusions about physical reality, so also similar things can occur with purely subjective experiences. In each case, a process of review, weighing, and determination must take place to sort out the “wheat” from the “chaff” in our conscious experience. And the standards of judgment we must apply to purely subjective phenomena cannot be, by their very nature, identical to those we apply to objective physical experience and phenomena.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 15, Reality and the Integral Knowledge

Objective and Subjective Reality

Sri Aurobindo next takes up the basically opposite viewpoint that holds that the material, outer, objective world is the sole reality, and that subjective phenomena are either essentially unreal, or at least less real and dependent upon the proofs that the objective world can provide for their ultimate valuation. In this viewpoint, which more or less underpins much of the viewpoint of the modern world, even if unstated, anything that is not subject to concrete evidence and proof is dismissed, disbelieved or treated with a form of disdain or skepticism. While a certain amount of objective verification can help avoid extremes of fantasy, taken to its own extreme, this viewpoint is unsustainable when viewed closely. Sri Aurobindo points out “If pushed to its extreme, it would give to a stone or a plum-pudding a greater reality and to thought, love, courage, genius, greatness, the human soul and mind facing an obscure and dangerous world and getting mastery over it an inferior dependent reality or even an unsubstantial and evanescent reality. For in this view these things so great to our subjective vision are valid only as the reactions of an objective material being to an objective material existence; they are valid only in so far as they deal with objective realities and make themselves effective upon them: the soul, if it exists, is only a circumstance of an objectively real world-Nature.”

This viewpoint essential holds that “All that is not physical and objective has a lesser reality dependent on the physical and objective; it has to justify itself to the physical mind by objective evidence or a recognisable and verifiable relation to the truth of physical and external things before it can be given a passport of reality.”

Of course, one could view things from a different direction, and hold that the objective reality only exists by virtue of the subjective experience and “the objective is created as a ground of manifestation for the subjective. The objective world is only an outward form of becoming of the Spirit; it is here a first form, a basis, but is not the essential thing, the main truth of being. The subjective and objective are two necessary sides of the manifested Reality and of equal value, and in the range of the objective itself the supraphysical object of consciousness has as much right to acceptance as the physical objectivity; it cannot be a priori set aside as a subjective delusion or hallucination.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 15, Reality and the Integral Knowledge

Symbols and Reality

Sri Aurobindo describes the concept that all mental grasping of the world is in the form of symbols, as the mental consciousness does not experience the Reality directly but only as representations on the mental screen. He also describes the limitations of this model of awareness: “But this way of seeing things belongs to the action of the mind interpreting the relation between the Being and the external Becoming; it is valid as a dynamic mental representation corresponding to a certain truth of the manifestation, but subject to the proviso that these symbolic values of things do not make the things themselves mere significant counters, abstract symbols like mathematical formulae or other signs used by the mind for knowledge: for forms and happenings in the universe are realities significant of Reality; they are self-expressions of That, movements and powers of the Being. Each form is there because it is an expression of some power of That which inhabits it; each happening is a movement in the working out of some Truth of the Being in its dynamic process of manifestation.”

The actual Reality which is thus symbolised when it is taken up by the mental consciousness is what provides significance, meaning and purpose to the symbolic representations created in the mental sphere. “Mind, then, is not the original constructor of the universe: it is an intermediate power valid for certain actualities of being; an agent, an intermediary, it actualises possibilities and has its share in the creation, but the real creatrix is a Consciousness, an energy inherent in the transcendent and cosmic Spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 15, Reality and the Integral Knowledge

The Universe Has a Real Existence Independent of Mind

Sri Aurobindo continues his discussion of the concept that essentially says that the universe is a figment of our minds and that we know nothing else and can know nothing else than what our mind creates. He points out that the very nature of Mind and our experience of it makes it clear that it is not a primary creator but a derivative force that is ignorant and seeking for knowledge. Thus, mind cannot be the primary cause or creator of the universe; there must be some other and inclusive consciousness which is the creator.

Sri Aurobindo describes this further consciousness “A consciousness possessing the essential and integral knowledgge, proceeding from the essence to the whole and from the whole to the parts, would be no longer Mind, but a perfect Truth-Consciousness automatically possessed of inherent self-knowledge and world-knowledge. It is from this basis that we have to look at the subjective view of reality. It is true that there is no such thing as an objective reality independent of consciousness; but at the same time there is a truth in objectivity and it is this, that the reality of things resides in something that is within them and is independent of the interpretation our mind gives to them and of the structures it builds upon its observation. These structures constitute the mind’s subjective image or figure of the universe, but the universe and its objects are not a mere image or figure. They are in essence creations of consciousness, but of a consciousness that is one with being, whose substance is the substance of Being and whose creations too are of that substance, therefore real. In this view the world cannot be a purely subjective creation of Consciousness; the subjective and the objective truth of things are both real, they are two sides of the same reality.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 15, Reality and the Integral Knowledge