The Preoccupation of the Human Soul With the Material Life

The review of the planes of existence, and the ability to actually experience these planes and see their characteristic action, tells us that the world is substantially more complex and has substantially more significance than the human soul, preoccupied with the material life in the world is able to fully grasp.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “But to our ordinary materialised consciousness all this does not exist because it is hidden from us by our preoccupation with our existence in a little corner of the material universe and with the petty experiences of the little hour of time which is represented by our life in a single body upon this earth. To that consciousness the world is a mass of material things and forces thrown into some kind of shape and harmonised into a system of regulated movements by a number of fixed self-existent laws which we have to obey, by which we are governed and circumscribed and of which we have to get the best knowledge we can so as to make the most of this one brief existence which begins with birth, ends with death and has no second recurrence.”

However it is that we have become aware and come into existence in this world, we tend to take this all at face value as our entire existence. “Somehow or other a soul or mind has come to exist in a body and it stumbles about among things and forces which it does not very well understand, at first preoccupied with the difficulty of managing to live in a dangerous and largely hostile world and then with the effort to understand its laws and use them so as to make life as tolerable or as happy as possible so long as it lasts.”

The development of our physical capacities, vital, moral and emotional concepts, and our intellectual faculties for the most part is directed towards achieving these limited ends within this limited life. Speculations arise, of course, about the meaning of it all, and this leads to the various possible answers provided by the religions and philosophies; yet these tend to either get codified into systems of living in the world, thereby reinforcing the preoccupation with the outer life, or else, for a very few individuals they provide a starting point for the arduous search for meaning that leads to the spiritual life.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 20, The Lower Triple Purusha, pp. 438-439


The Supramental Worlds and Their Relation to Mind-Life-Body

The spiritual transformation of life in the material world as envisioned by Sri Aurobindo is based on the full action of the planes of consciousness above the mind transforming mind, life and body. As described in the Upanishads, beyond the mental sheath there is a “knowledge” sheath and then a “bliss sheath”. These correspond to the gnostic power of the Supermind, and then to the highest spiritual planes of Sat-Chit-Ananda, existence-consciousness-bliss. Historically most paths of spiritual development took the position that the transition of the consciousness to these higher planes could only realistically occur through abandonment of the life of the outer world, in a trance of Samadhi. The Upanishads state that these higher planes are causal and are responsible for the creation of the mental, vital and physical worlds, albeit through a process that makes each one succeedingly less conscious of its source and inherent knowledge and power.

Sri Aurobindo reminds us that even when we are not directly conscious of it, these higher planes remain active in their influence on mind, life and body. “But these are also divided from us by no unbridgeable gulf; they affect us through what are called the knowledge-sheath and the bliss-sheath, through the causal or spiritual body, and less directly through the mental body, nor are their secret powers absent from the workings of the vital and material existence. Our conscious spiritual being and our intuitive mind awaken in us as a result of the pressure of these highest worlds on the mental being in life and body.”

For most of humanity, there is little access to the causal body as they have not directed their gaze there nor made efforts to open up the hidden capacities that are active there. “But this causal body is, as we say, little developed in the majority of men and to live in it or to ascend to the supramental planes, as distinguished from corresponding sub-planes in the mental being, or still more to dwell consciously upon them is the most difficult thing of all for the human being. It can be done in the trance of Samadhi, but otherwise only by a new evolution of the capacities of the individual Purusha of which few are even willing to conceive. Yet is that the condition of the perfect self-consciousness by which alone the Purusha can possess the full conscious control of Prakriti; for there not even the mind determines, but the Spirit freely uses the lower differentiating principles as minor terms of its existence governed by the higher and reaching by them their own perfect capacity. That alone would be the perfect evolution of the involved and development of the undeveloped for which the Purusha has sought in the material universe, as if in a wager with itself, the conditions of the greatest difficulty.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pp. 436-437

The Mental World and Its Relation to the Vital and Physical Worlds

The Taittiriya Upanishad relates the realization of Bhrigu when asked to concentrate: “Seek thou to know that from which these creatures are born, whereby being born they live and to which they go hence and enter again; for that is the Eternal.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Taittiriya Upanishad, Bhriguvalli, Chapter 1, pg. 275)

As a result of that concentration, the seeker first came upon Matter as the cause. With further concentration, he recognized the Vital Force. This too he overpassed eventually and came to know Mind as the source. The process continued thereafter. What is interesting however is the progression which mirrors the planes or sheaths that make up the life in the world, each one successively more subtle, larger, more flexible and more powerful as a creative force than the preceding one, and each one exercising its influence on the previous ones and their creation, existence and modifications.

Sri Aurobindo observes that beyond the physical worlds and vital worlds there are also mental worlds, where the operative principle is that of Mind. “Mind there is not determined by material conditions or by the life-force, but itself determines and uses them for its own satisfaction. There mind, that is to say, the psychical and intellectual being, is free in a certain sense, free at least to satisfy and fulfil itself in a way hardly conceivable to our body-bound and life-bound mentality; for the Purusha there is the pure mental being and his relations with Prakriti are determined by that purer mentality, Nature there is mental rather than vital and physical. Both the life-world and indirectly the material are a projection from that, the result of certain tendencies of the mental Being which have sought a field, conditions, an arrangement of harmonies proper to themselves; and the phenomena of mind in this world may be said to be a result of the pressure of that plane first on the life-world and then on life in the material existence. By its modification in the life-world it creates in us the desire-mind; in its own right it awakes in us the purer powers of our psychical and intellectual existence. But our surface mentality is only a secondary result of a larger subliminal mentality whose proper seat is the mental plane. This world of mental existence also is constantly acting upon us and our world, has its powers and its beings, is related to us through our mental body. There we find the psychical and mental heavens to which the Purusha can ascend when it drops this physical body and can there sojourn till the impulse to terrestrial existence again draws it downward. Here too are many planes, the lowest converging upon and melting into the worlds below, the highest at the heights of the mind-power into the worlds of a more spiritual existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pp. 435-436

The Need to Expand the Limited Range of Normal Human Awareness

The ego-personality lives in a type of self-contained bubble, fragmented and separated from others and the larger forces in the world, but also, to a very great degree, from the action of the other powers and planes of existence that impinge upon the physical life, but act from other platforms of action. It is thus that most people try to dismiss the reality of these subtle or occult forces in their lives. For those who take up the practice of Yoga or any other form of inner growth, however, the greater reality soon becomes readily apparent.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “It is because we use, normally, only our corporeal senses and live almost wholly in the body and the physical vitality and the physical mind, and it is not directly through these that the life-world enters into relations with us. That is done through other sheaths of our being,–so they are termed in the Upanishads,–other bodies, as they are called in a later terminology, the mental sheath or subtle body in which our true mental being lives and the life sheath or vital body which is more closely connected with the physical or food-sheath and forms with it the gross body of our complex existence. These possess powers, senses, capacities which are always secretly acting in us, are connected with and impinge upon our physical organs and the plexuses of our physical life and mentality. By self-development we can become aware of them, possess our life in them, get through them into conscious relation with the life-world and other worlds and use them also for a more subtle experience and more intimate knowledge of the truths, facts and happenings of even the material world itself. We can by this self-development live more or less fully on planes of our existence other than the material which is now all in all to us.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pg. 435

The Desire-World and the Material World

When one takes up the practice of Yoga, one of the first issues to arise is how to deal with the force of desire. Desire for family, wealth, food, sex, power all are attractions with which the seeker must grapple. In order to truly solve this issue, the seeker needs to understand the actual relation between desire and his life in the physical body.

For most people, the arising of desires and the attempt to fulfill them does not lead to any self-reflection. It is just considered to be a natural process. This viewpoint actually has given impetus to the line of thought that believes the solution is to withdraw from active life in the world, thereby not giving any opportunity for the fulfillment of desires, as well as the more extreme paths which ask the seeker to “mortify” himself in order to provide a negative feedback loop whenever any kind of desire arises within him.

Sri Aurobindo takes a deeper view of the situation and points out that the vital world, or “desire-world” is actually the creator of the material world, infuses its energies and values into the physical world for its own purposes, and contains forces and beings who are constituted to work out and carry out various aspects of vital fulfillment. “In fact, the material world is really a sort of projection from the vital, a thing which it has thrown out and separated from itself in order to embody and fulfil some of its desires under conditions other than its own, which are yet the logical result of its own most material longings. Life on earth may be said to be the result of the pressure of this life-world on the material, inconscient existence of the physical universe.”

Most people when they think about other worlds or planes of existence, or “locations” such as heaven or hell, treat these as if they are physical locations outside or separate from the world within which we live and function. Sri Aurobindo observes that the vital worlds, and also the mental and other higher worlds are not geographically distant, but actually represent subtler sheathes which infuse and co-exist on a subtler level right here, and that there are interactions between these worlds and our world of physical existence. “The influences of the life-world are always pouring out on the material existence and producing there their powers and results which return again upon the life-world to modify it. From that the life-part in us, the desire-part is being always touched and influenced; there too are beneficent and malefic powers of good desire and evil desire which concern themselves with us even when we are ignorant of and unconcerned with them.”

Just as we have forms of conscious awareness in our physically-predominant world, so there are also conscious beings on each of the other planes, formed and acting from their predominant principle, in this case, the vital principle with its desire-fulfillment needs. “As we awaken to the higher planes of our existence, we become aware of them as friends or enemies, powers which seek to possess or which we can master, overcome, pass beyond and leave behind.”

In order, therefore to truly begin to address the action of desire upon the seeker through Yoga, these relations must be understood. “For the supra-material is as much a reality as the existence of mental beings in the material universe.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pp. 434-435

The Relation of Purusha and Prakriti in the Desire World of the Vital Principle

When we view the intensity of the relation between Purusha and Prakriti in the framework of Matter, we can easily succumb to the idea that this is the only possible relationship and that the Purusha either becomes immersed in the world of Matter under the control of Prakriti, or else has to abandon that life by complete detachment and separation. Sri Aurobindo observes, however, that each principle of existence, Matter, Life, Mind, Supermind, as well as Sat, Chit, Ananda in the upper range, is able to make its own unique set of conditions, principle of action and corresponding relationship between the soul and Nature. What one might imagine, therefore, to be a fixed and unvarying relation between the two is actually only operative in this material universe and manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo describes the principles and operative relations that arise when the vital principle, the Life principle is actually dominant: “In this world forms do not determine the conditions of the life, but it is the life which determines the form, and therefore forms are there much more free, fluid, largely and to our conceptions strangely variable than in the material world.” Where the world of Matter appears to be inconscient, the vital world is one of evident consciousness expressing itself. It seeks for fulfilment of desire and achievement of enjoyment. “Desire and the satisfaction of impulse are therefore the first law of this world of sheer vital existence, this poise of relations between the soul and its nature in which the life-power plays with so much greater a freedom and capacity than in our physical living; it may be called the desire-world, for that is its principle characteristic.”

Due to the fluidity of the principle of life, the actual forms such a world and life can take are extremely variable, and can therefore create a series of different manifestations depending on whether it is aligned more closely to the material principle, or the higher principle of Mind, or even other principles such as the Psychic Being, or the spiritual realms of Sat-Chit-Ananda.

The principle of desire represents a separation and experience of something lacking, and in attempting to achieve the objects of desire, the soul then takes on the experience of pleasure and of pain, enjoyment and suffering. “It is here therefore that there are situated the lowest heavens and all the hells with the tradition and imagination of which the human mind has lured and terrified itself since the earliest ages. All human imaginations indeed correspond to some reality or real possibility, though they may in themselves be a quite inaccurate representation or couched in too physical images and therefore inapt to express the truth of supraphysical realities.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pp. 432-433

Understanding and Addressing the Relation of Purusha and Prakriti in the Material World

When we observe the relationship between the soul and Nature in the material world, we can relatively quickly determine that Nature rules and the soul appears to be subordinated and under the domination of Nature. This is the reason that the self-aware individual feels like he is fragmented and separated from the whole and is the underlying impetus for the ascetic drive to abandon Nature in order to find and live in the true principle of the soul. Sri Aurobindo observes in this regard: “All this means that the natural relations of Purusha to Prakriti in the material universe are the complete absorption of conscious being in the force of its workings, therefore the complete self-oblivion and self-ignorance of the Purusha, the complete domination of Prakriti and subjection of the soul to Nature. The soul does not know itself, it only knows, if anything, the workings of Prakriti.”

When the self-aware individual arises, with the evolution of the mental consciousness, it remains stuck in the control of the material principle of existence, even though it begins to reflect on other possibilities of relation between Purusha and Prakriti than that which obtains here. “These limitations of his power, knowledge, life, delight of existence are the whole cause of man’s dissatisfaction with himself and the universe.”

We can, however, envision other relations between Purusha and Prakriti. “And if the material universe were all and the material plane the only plane of his being, then man the individual Purusha could never arrive at perfection and self-fulfilment or indeed to any other life than that of the animals. There must be either worlds in which he is liberated from these incomplete and unsatisfactory relations of Purusha with Prakriti, or planes of his own being by ascending to which he can transcend them, or at the very least planes, worlds and higher beings from which he can receive or be helped to knowledge, powers, joys, a growth of his being otherwise impossible. All these things, the ancient knowledge asserts, exist,–other worlds, higher planes, the possibility of communication, of ascension, of growth by contact with and influence from that which is above him in the present scale of his realised being.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pp. 431-432

Understanding the Limitations of the Soul in the Material Universe

The evolving human soul experiences a disconnect between his highest aspirations and inner sense of meaning, and the conditions of the material world within which he has to try to achieve these higher aims. He intuits unity and harmony, but experiences fragmentation, separation, division and disharmony. He intuits limitless consciousness yet experiences obstacles, conflicts and the unconsciousness that comes about through the influence of Matter. He intuits delight yet experiences pain and suffering.

As the life force begins to manifest out of Matter, it acts within the framework and limitations of the organization and qualities of Matter. As the mind begins to manifest out of the living forms in Matter, it too is subject to the dense and fragmented nature of Matter.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “His consciousness is always falling back towards the inconscience in which a large part of it is always involved, his life towards death, his physical being towards disaggregation. His delight of being depends on the relations of this imperfect consciousness with its environment based upon physical sensations and the sense-mind, in other words on a limited mind trying to lay hold on a world external and foreign to it by means of a limited body, limited vital force, limited organs. Therefore its power for possession is limited, its force for delight is limited, and every touch of the world which exceeds its force, which that force cannot bear, cannot seize on, cannot assimilate and possess must turn to something else than delight, to pain, discomfort or grief. Or else it must be met by non-reception, insensibility, or, if received, put away by indifference. Moreover, such delight of being as it possesses, is not possessed naturally and eternally like the self-delight of Sachchidananda, but by experience and acquisition in Time, and can therefore only be maintained and prolonged by repetition of experience and is in its nature precarious and transient.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pp. 430-431

The Soul in the Material Universe

Most people do not reflect deeply on the nature and significance of the material world in which they find themselves. It is accepted for what it appears to be and their attention is focused on surviving and growing within the context of this material framework. Scientists who begin the search for understanding the nature of Matter, however, have found that it is not the solid, external, wholly unconscious “stuff” out of which the universe is made. They find that Matter is actually highly organized and active energy! They explore the atomic structure of Matter and find that it is an incredibly highly organized and balanced arrangement of energetic forces, with a clear sense of consciousness that pervades this organization. For those who take this concept further, they then declare that it is consciousness that constitutes the nature of Energy which then constitutes the nature of Matter. This progression mirrors that of the seeker Bhrigu in the Taittiriya Upanishad.

The consciousness thus discovered is deeply involved, veiled or hidden from the external consciousness, but it nevertheless exists. The material world, as the foundation of our life on earth, then must successively reveal its secrets of energy and consciousness and we see this in the evolution of plant life with the outflowering of vital force, and eventually the development of animal and then human life with the expansion of the vital principle and the outflowering of Mind. None of these further principles could manifest out of Matter if they were not secretly involved, as the oak tree is involved in the acorn, unseen, waiting for the appropriate conditions to sprout and grow and manifest its majesty out of that apparently insignificant beginning.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “But Matter means the involution of the conscious delight of existence in self-oblivious force and in self-dividing, infinitesimally disaggregated form of substance. Therefore the whole principle and effort of a material world must be the evolution of what is involved and the development of what is undeveloped. Here everything is shut up from the first in the violently working inconscient sleep of material force; therefore the whole aim of any material becoming must be the waking of consciousness out of the inconscient; the whole consummation of a material becoming must be the removal of the veil of Matter and the luminous revelation of the entire self-conscient Being to its own imprisoned soul in the becoming. Since Man is such an imprisoned soul, this luminous liberation and coming to self-knowledge must be his highest object and the condition of his perfection.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pg. 430

Sat-Chit-Ananda and the Relations of Purusha and Prakriti

Preliminary to the review of the details of the planes of existence, it is helpful to get an overview of where they fit into the self-knowledge and practical action of the seeker in Yoga. This comes down to a review of the relations between Purusha and Prakriti and their foundation in the principles of Existence, Consciousness-Force and Delight (Sat, Chit-Shakti, Ananda). Sri Aurobindo describes what he means by “planes of consciousness, planes of existence”. “We mean a general settled poise or world of relations between Purusha and Prakriti, between the Soul and Nature.”

By appreciating the “omnipresent reality” we can realize that the soul and nature represent One Reality that takes the potentiality of existence as “being” and manifests as a “becoming through Time, Space and Circumstance. “That existence in its relations with and its experience of the becoming is what we call soul or Purusha, individual soul in the individual, universal soul in the cosmos; the principle and the powers of the becoming are what we call Nature or Prakriti. But since being, conscious-force and delight of being are always the three constituent terms of existence, the nature of a world is really determined by the way in which Prakriti is set to deal with these three primary things and the forms which it is allowed to give to them. For existence itself is and must always be the stuff of its own becoming; it must be shaped into the substance with which Force has to deal. Force again must be the power which works out that substance and works with it to whatever ends; Force is that which we ordinarily call Nature. Again the end, the object with which the worlds are created must be worked out by the consciousness inherent in all existence and all force and all their workings, and the object must be the possession of itself and of its delight of existence in the world.”

“To that all the circumstances and aims of any world-existence must reduce themselves; it is existence developing its terms of being, its power of being, its conscious delight of being; if these are involved, their evolution; if they are veiled, their self-revelation.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pp. 429-430