The Rationale for the Existence of the Individual Soul

The status of the individual soul is one that has occupied, and perplexed, humanity for many millennia. Some have concluded that there is no individual soul; rather, that there are concatenations of energy and matter that create the form or the illusion of an individual soul-personality, which dissolves eventually, with the elements of that soul distributed into new forms and energies in the future. Others hold that the soul is created at some point by an omnipotent Creator God, but then survives eternally, although perhaps in some other place or circumstance, perhaps in some heaven beyond. Still others hold that the entire concept of the soul is an illusion that deceives humanity into a focus on the outer world, while the reality is the silent, infinite Brahman. The Sankhya philosophy holds that there are multiple Purushas, as otherwise when one is dissolved, the entire universe would dissolve with it, which obviously does not occur.

Sri Aurobindo observes that when we seek to find the underlying truth behind each of the observations of humanity, while reconciling all as One Brahman, we need to overcome the tendency toward mutually exclusive doctrines and find ways to understand the complexity. “…so complex is the Maya of the Infinite, there is a sense in which the view of all as parts of the whole, waves of the sea or even as in a sense separate entities becomes a necessary part of the integral Truth and the integral Knowledge. For if the Self is always one in all, yet we see that for the purposes at least of the cyclic manifestation it expresses itself in perpetual soul-forms which preside over the movements of our personality through the worlds and the aeons. This persistent soul-existence is the real Individuality which stands behind the constant mutations of the thing we call our personality. It is not a limited ego but a thing in itself infinite; it is in truth the Infinite itself consenting from one plane of its being to reflect itself in a perpetual soul-experience.”

“We are not a mere mass of changing mind-stuff, life-stuff, body-stuff taking different forms of mind and life and body from birth to birth, so that at no time is there any real self or conscious reason of existence behind all the flux or none except that Quiescent who cares for none of these things. There is a real and stable power of our being behind the constant mutation of our mental, vital and physical personality, and this we have to know and preserve in order that the Infinite may manifest Himself through it according to His will in whatever range and for whatever purpose of His eternal cosmic activity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 11, The Modes of the Self, pp. 359-360


The True Sense of the Self Based on Oneness of All Existence

Starting from the mental framework, the seeker is faced with the difficulty of how to actually embody the unity of the Self in its highest formulation and expression, transcendent, universal and individual. The mind, in its native status, acts to separate, divide, fragment and analyse. It creates irreconcilable opposition between forms, forces, ideas and manifestations which in reality are part of a greater whole of Oneness. The mind, therefore, is not the instrument of knowledge which can actually perceive or experience the higher forms of truth based on this Oneness.

Sri Aurobindo explains: But rightly to know and express the Highest is not easy for man the mental being because the highest Truth and therefore the highest modes of existence are supramental. They repose on the essential unity of what seem to the intellect and mind and are to our mental experience of the world opposite poles of existence and idea and therefore irreconcilable opposites and contradictions, but to the supramental experience are complementary aspects of the same Truth.”

The individual is that Divine, even as the collectivity of the beings within which the individual exists is also that Divine, and beyond all these manifested forms there is the Transcendent which exceeds, even while it contains and forms all that is.

True self knowledge can only come when we know ourselves as the Divine. Similarly true knowledge of the world only comes when we know the world as the Divine. “Until we have transformed the habits of our mentality so that it shall live entirely in this knowledge reconciling all differences in the One, we do not live in the real Truth, because we do not live in the real Unity. The accomplished sense of Unity is not that in which all are regarded as parts of one whole, waves of one sea, but that in which each as well as the All is regarded wholly as the Divine, wholly as our Self in a supreme identity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 11, The Modes of the Self, pg. 359

To Know and Express the Highest Truth of Existence

The Self, transcendent, universal and individual in its aspects, encompasses all the knowledge of existence. Sages throughout the world have counseled seekers to “know thyself”. This knowledge of the Self includes all forms, modes, actions and states of existence. Sri Aurobindo observes: “This was what was meant by the Upanishad (Shandilya Upanishad) when it spoke of the Brahman as that which being known all is known.”

“It has to be realised first as the pure principle of Existence, afterwards, says the Upanishad, its essential modes become clear to the soul which realises it.” This is not an intellectual knowledge or mental formation that is meant. This is not philosophy, metaphysics, religion or any of the sciences that dissect and analyze the world. “…we may have the realisation in knowledge and vision, but this is incomplete without realisation in the entire soul-experience and the unity of all our being with that which we realise.”

This is how the yogic science differs from the various intellectual exercises that humanity undertakes in diverse forms. Yogic science stresses realised experience and a state of consciousness that encompasses that which is to be known. “It is the science of Yoga to know and the art of Yoga to be unified with the Highest so that we may live in the Self and act fro that supreme poise, becoming one not only in the conscious essence but in the conscious law of our being with the transcendent Divine whom all things and creatures, whether ignorantly or with partial knowledge and experience, seek to express through the lower law of their members. To know the highest Truth and to be in harmony with it is the condition of right being, to express it in all that we are, experience and do is the condition of right living.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 11, The Modes of the Self, pg. 358

The Third Stage of the Realisation of the Universal Self

The first aspect of the realization of the universal Self is the sense of the “container” within which everything is manifested. The second aspect or stage is to recognize the divine reality of the “contained”, the forms and beings that are manifested within the universe. The third aspect is the integral and omnipresent encompassing both the “container” and the “contained” while still exceeding them, all without opposition or contradiction, but as one unified and complete experience.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “The individual mind, life and body which we recoiled from as not our true being, we shall recover as a true becoming of the Self, but no longer in a purely individual narrowness. We shall take up the mind not as a separate mentality imprisoned in a petty motion, but as a large movement of the universal mind, the life not as an egoistic activity of vitality and sensation and desire, but as a free movement of the universal life, the body not as a physical prison of the soul but as a subordinate instrument and detachable robe, realising that also as a movement of universal Matter, a cell of the cosmic Body. We shall come to feel all the consciousness of the physical world as one with our physical consciousness, feel all the energies of the cosmic life around as our own energies, feel all the heart-beats of the great cosmic impulse and seeking in our heart-beats set to the rhythm of the divine Ananda, feel all the action of the universal mind flowing into our mentality and our thought-action flowing out upon it as a wave into that wide sea. This unity embracing all mind, life and matter in the light of a supramental Truth and the pulse of a spiritual Bliss will be to us our internal fulfilment of the Divine in a complete cosmic consciousness.”

“Self-knowledge and world-knowledge must be made one in the all-ensphering knowledge of the Brahman.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 10, The Realisation of the Cosmic Self, pp. 356-357

The Second Stage of Realisation of the Universal Self

For the seeker immersed in the first stage of the realization, the infinite, vast, expanse of the universal space seen as ‘container’ of all existence, the world of forms and forces appears unreal, something like a motion picture of ever-changing images that in themselves have no substance.

The second stage works to overcome this one-side limitation and integrate the reality of the manifestation as consisting of, and inhabited by the Divine. The Isha Upanishad declares: “All this is for habitation by the Lord, whatsoever is individual universe of movement in the universal motion.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Isha Upanishad, v. 1, pg. 19) The Divine inhabits all forms in the universe and is both the “container” and the “contained”. The Isha Upanishad goes on to describe this reality even further. Sri Aurobindo himself declares that the concept of the illusion of the world is incorrect when he describes the “omnipresent Reality”.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “But these things are not empty, not mere unreal name and form imagined by a cosmic Mind; they are, as we have said, in their reality self-conscious becomings of the Self, that is to say, the Self dwells within all of them even as within us, conscious of them, governing their motion, blissful in his habitation as in his embrace of all that he becomes. As the ether both contains and is as it were contained in the jar, so this Self both contains and inhabits all existences, not in a physical but in a spiritual sense, and is their reality.”

This is not a matter of intellectual acceptance; rather, eventually there needs to be a realization in the being, such that the seeker sees and acts from the understanding of “…the Self in all existences and all existences in the Self…” as described by the Isha Upanishad (v. 6). He attains the realization: “He in whom it is the Self-Being that has become all existences that are Becomings, for he has the perfect knowledge…” (Isha Upanishad v. 7)

The seeker must embody this realization: “We have, putting aside all vain resistance of the intellect and the mental associations, to know that the Divine inhabits all these becomings and is their true Self and conscious Spirit, and not to know it only intellectually but to know by a self-experience that shall compel into its own diviner mould all the habits of the mental consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 10, The Realisation of the Cosmic Self, pp. 355-356

The First Stage of Realisation of the Universal Self

Sri Aurobindo has described the progressive realization of the Universal Self as occurring through three aspects and stages. The first of these is to realise the “containing” aspect of the Brahman. “First, there is the Self in whom all beings exist. The Spirit, the Divine has manifested itself as infinite self-extended being, self-existent, pure not subject to Time and Space, but supporting Time and Space as figures of its consciousness.”

While not entirely accurate, the idea of the universal Being spread out as a containing vessel for the manifestation is a useful object of meditation to help bring about this realisation. “In the image of the ether, not physical but an encompassing ether of vast being, consciousness and bliss, he may seek to see with the mind and to feel in his mental being this supreme existence and to identify it in oneness with the self within him. By such meditation the mind may be brought to a favourable state of predisposition in which, by the rending or withdrawing of the veil, the supramental vision may flood the mentality and change entirely all our seeing. And upon that change of seeing, as it becomes more and more potent and insistent and occupies all our consciousness, there will supervene eventually a change of becoming so that what we see we become. We shall be in our self-consciousness not so much cosmic as ultra-cosmic, infinite. Mind and life and body will then be only movements in that infinity which we have become, and we shall see that what exists is not worlds at all but simply this infinity of spirit in which move the mighty cosmic harmonies of its own images of self-conscious becoming.”

When we have the opportunity to experience the vastness of outer space and the immensity of the star-field, we may get, in our physical being, some sense of the psychological movement that Sri Aurobindo is here describing. We sense space as some kind of container and speak of a “universe” which acts as that container for the existence of innumerable galaxies, each of which consisting then of forms, forces, energies and motion in the universal play of creation and destruction. This physical experience, translated into the psychological sphere, helps us to appreciate the first aspect of the universal Being, the container, or holder, of all else.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 10, The Realisation of the Cosmic Self, pg. 355

Identifying With the Transcendent and the Universal Self

When we observe Nature we discover that many beings which we consider to be separate individuals actually can be discovered to be one, even in the physical world of forms. Researchers in Michigan, USA found that a grove of aspen trees were all one being with multiple trunks. What we thought were separate trees, are really one. Other discoveries are overturning our view of separateness. Then we look at the mutually supportive relations that have developed throughout Nature and we can see once again the signs of a larger Oneness that we heretofore have not accepted with our minds. For instance, there is a species of fish called a “cleaner wrasse” that enters the mouth of the shark to clean its teeth and lives totally unharmed among what is considered to be one of the world’s most unrelenting predator species!

The human mind habitually views each physical form and being as “separate” and “distinct” and fragmented, one from the other. We are coming to understand that the mind’s impressions do not see the creation correctly. It is, after all, this same human mind that believes the sun rotates around the earth, or that the earth is flat, until it has gone further and discovered the deeper reality.

Today, as the world is threatened by ever-increasing threats to our environment, we begin to see the deep and abiding oneness of the entire biological creation. An imbalance in one form or fashion impacts the entire eco-sphere and bio-sphere of the world.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The self behind the mind, life and body is the same as the self behind the mind, life and body of all our fellow-beings, and if we come to possess it, we shall naturally, when we turn to look out again upon them, tend to become one with them in the common basis of our consciousness. It is true that the mind opposes any such identification and if we allow it to persist in its old habits and activities, it will rather strive to bring again its veil of dissonances over our new realisation and possession of self than to shape and subject itself to this true and eternal vision of things.” The Taittiriya Upanishad states: “The Spirit who is here in a man and the Spirit who is there in the Sun, it is one Spirit and there is no other.” (Taittiriya Upanishad, Brahmanandavalli, Chapter 8)

It is essential that the seeker overcome the mind’s predisposition to its fragmented and isolated view of things to attain to the true perspective of Oneness. “…if we have proceeded rightly on the path of our Yoga, we shall have attained to Self through a purified mind and heart, and a purified mind is one that is necessarily passive and open to the knowledge. Secondly, even the mind in spite of its tendency to limit and divide can be taught to think in the rhythm of the unifying Truth instead of the broken terms of the limiting appearance. We must therefore accustom it by meditation and concentration to cease to think of things and beings as separately existent in themselves and rather to think always of the One everywhere and of all things as the One.”

The seeker of the integral Yoga must realise not only the transcendent, eternal, silent Self beyond all manifestation, but also the universal Self in the manifestation of the world and all its forms and beings. “By one he will find the self within, by the other he will find that self in all that seems to us at present to be outside us.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 10, The Realisation of the Cosmic Self, pp. 354-355

All Existences in the Self, and the Self in All Existences

The seeker of the integral Yoga has as an initial aim the attainment of Oneness with the Transcendent, Eternal, Infinite Brahman. Yet this aim is not disassociated from the life in the world; rather there must be a recognition that the world is real, and that all of the beings, forms and forces in the world are also that One. With the tendency to see things as “either/or”, the human mind wants to reject the world in order to achieve the Eternal. Sri Aurobindo points out that this “cutting of the knot” is not actually a complete understanding of the truth of our existence.

“When we have once got rid of our confinement to this lower status, we are apt to seize on the other side of the same erroneous relation between self and world; we tend to regard this eternity which we increasingly are in which we live as the sole reality and begin to look down from it upon the world and man as a remote illusion and unreality, because that is a status quite opposite to our new foundation in which we no longer place our roots of consciousness, from which we have been lifted up and transfigured and with which we seem to have no longer any binding link.”

“But the self and the world are in an eternal close relation and there is a connection between them, not a gulf that has to be overleaped. Spirit and material existence are highest and lowest rung of an orderly and progressive series. Therefore between the two there must be a real relation and principle of connection by which the eternal Brahman is able to be at once pure Spirit and Self and yet hold in himself the universe of himself; and it must be possible for the soul that is one with or in union with the Eternal to adopt the same poise of divine relation in place of our present ignorant immersion in the world.”

“For integral self-possession we must be one not only with the Self, with God, but with all existences.”

“This is the realization which the ancient Vedantins spoke of as seeing all existences in the self and the self in all existences; and in addition they speak of the crowning realization of the man in whom the original miracle of existence has been repeated, self-being has become all these existences that belong to the worlds of the becoming. (Isha Upanishad.) In these three terms is expressed, fundamentally, the whole of that real relation between the self and the world which we have to substitute for the false relation created by the limiting ego.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 10, The Realisation of the Cosmic Self, pp. 352-354

Acting in the World Without the Ego-Sense

Those who follow the path of the ascetic renunciation of life to attain the status of the Transcendent, the Brahman, treat the world and all forms, forces and actions in the world as an illusion or a lesser reality. The integral seeker, however, although he too must break free of the ego-sense and achieve the transcendent Silence, also needs to be able to integrate this state of consciousness with action in the world. He recognizes that the world is not an illusion, but a manifestation of the Divine and the express intention of the Lord. Prakriti is seen by the integral seeker not as a maya of illusion, but as the executive force of the Divine.

Sri Aurobindo describes this relation: “In reality, the Prakriti does not act for itself or by its own motion, but with the Self as lord; for out of that Silence wells all this action, that apparent Void looses out as if into movement all these infinite riches of experiences.”

The question arises as to how the Jiva or individual Soul can act without ego. “There will be no ego-sense even if there is a sort of individualisation for the purposes of the play of universal consciousness in an individual mind and frame; and for this reason that all will be unforgettably the One and every Person or Purusha will be to him the One in many forms or rather in many aspects and poises, Brahman acting upon Brahman, one Nara-Naryana (The Divine, Narayana, making itself one with humanity even as the human, Nara becomes one with the Divine.) everywhere. In that larger play of the Divine the joy of the relations of divine love also is possible without the lapse into the ego-sense,–just as the supreme state of human love likewise is described as the unity of one soul in two bodies. The ego-sense is not indispensable to the world-play in which it is so active and so falsifies the truth of things; the truth is always One at work on itself, at play with itself, infinite in unity, infinite in multiplicity. When the individualised consciousness rises to and lives in that truth of the cosmic play, then even in full action, even in possession of the lower being the Jiva remains still one with the Lord, and there is no bondage and no delusion. He is in possession of Self and released from the ego.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 9, The Release from the Ego, pg. 351

The Basis of the Sense of the Illusory Nature of Outer Existence

The refusal of the ascetic, as Sri Aurobindo has described it in The Life Divine, is based on an experience so all-encompassing and so all-powerful that it is understandable why that path has been accepted by so many throughout history as the true end and goal of their spiritual seeking. This refusal is one that denies reality to the outer world of names, forms and actions, or at least relegates it to a lesser reality. In the view of the ascetic, the only true aim or goal is to abandon the entire outer world, the universal manifestation and the individual ego-personality and become fully, totally absorbed in the Absolute, silent, unmoving, vast and void of all action.

Sri Aurobindo states: “Into that abyss of tranquility we must plunge and become that, if we are to annul the hold of this lower nature upon the soul. Therefore the universalized Jiva first ascends into the Silence; it becomes vast, tranquil, actionless. What action takes place, whether of body and these organs or any working whatever, the Jiva sees but does not take part in, authorise or in any way associate itself with it. There is action, but no personal actor, no bondage, no responsibility.”

Action may require the apparent action of the ego-personality, but the Jiva remains behind or above, unaffected, and wears the ego-personality as a convenient suit of clothes for that action. In a further experience, the Jiva may find that the action continues purely as the mechanical round of Nature through the three Gunas without any personality intervening at all.

“The soul may go even beyond this realisation; it may either rise to the Brahman on the other side of all idea of Self as a Void of everything that is here, a Void of unnameable peace and extinction of all, even of the Sat, even of that Existent which is the impersonal basis of individual or universal personality; or else it may unit with it as an ineffable “That” of which nothing can be said; for the universe and all that is does not even exist in That, but appears to the mind as a dream more unsubstantial than any dream ever seen or imagined, so that even the word dream seems too positive a thing to express its entire unreality. These experiences are the foundation of that lofty illusionism which takes such firm hold of the human mind in its highest overleapings of itself.”

Even a slight taste of these experiences can be overwhelming to the seeker, so it is easy to understand how many are captivated by it and dedicate their lives to establishing them on a constant basis.

Sri Aurobindo observes that the seeker of the integral Yoga must also go through the experience of the vast Silence in order to do away with the vestiges of the ego-personality, yet the integral seeker does not remain in this experience; rather he recognizes that the world manifestation also is the Brahman, and thus, he participates in this manifestation as an instrument or portion of the Transcendent.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 9, The Release from the Ego, pp. 350-351