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

Occult Knowledge and the Planes of Existence

In the West, the concept of various planes of existence, and their varying principles of action and interaction, has been primarily the subject of what is known as “occultism”. Unfortunately, this term has been riddled with mis-information and misuse in the Western world, and thus, has been degraded in its significance. On the other hand, in the Mediterranean world and in the East, and in India particularly, knowledge of the esoteric principles upon which life is founded has been widely researched, experienced, organized, codified and validated. The information so developed has been found to be practical and verifiable. Different societies have of course chosen to focus on one or another aspect and thus, the field of esoteric knowledge seems to be extremely diverse. Sri Aurobindo observes, however, that the underlying facts agree: “We find that in the various systems the facts dealt with are always the same, but there are considerable differences of theoretic and practical arrangement, as is natural and inevitable in dealing with a subject so large and difficult.”

In order to examine the necessary aspects, Sri Aurobindo has chosen to use the well-defined and organized Vedic conceptualisation. He states his rationale: “But I shall follow here consistently the Vedic and Vedantic arrangement of which we find the great lines in the Upanishads, first because it seems to me at once the simplest and most philosophical and more especially because it was from the beginning envisaged from the point of view of the utility of these various planes to the supreme object of our liberation.”

The Upanishads, particularly the Taittiriya Upanishads, defines a series of ever subtler and more powerful planes of existence, starting with Matter, then Prana, the vital force, Mind, the Knowledge-Plane (Vijnana or as Sri Aurobindo refers to it, Supermind), and then the upper tier of Sat, Chit, Ananda, which are sometimes separated out in the review as separate planes of existence, and sometimes, because of their ultimate unity, as one level called Sachchidananda. These planes define the poises of consciousness available to the human individual, and successively moving the standpoint from one to the other brings forth the development of consciousness and its evolution to the higher and more powerful forms that lie in our future through the unfolding of the universal manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pp. 428-429

Embracing, Not Abandoning, All the Planes of Existence

In his lectures on Raja Yoga, Swami Vivekananda discusses various phenomenal powers that can arise through the practice of the Yoga, and he makes it clear to the reader that these powers are distracting, and can lead the seeker away from the goal of attaining Samadhi, and abandoning the life in the world. Sri Aurobindo acknowledges this, and points out that for someone whose goal is to unite with the Absolute and disregard the world, such a position is both understandable and reasonable. At the same time, in the integral Yoga, where the world is embraced as the intended manifestation of the Divine, such a solution, which is, in effect, “cutting the knot” of the problem of life, is not acceptable.

“But since we accept world-existence, and for us all world-existence is Brahman and full of the presence of God, these things can have no terrors for us; whatever dangers of distraction there may be, we have to face and overcome them. If the world and our own existence are so complex, we must know and embrace their complexities in order that our self-knowledge and our knowledge of the dealings of Purusha with its Prakriti may be complete. If there are many planes, we have to possess them all for the Divine, even as we seek to possess spiritually and transform our ordinary poise of mind, life and body.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pp. 427-428

The Need To Understand the Planes of Existence

Briefly stated, if we accept that the world of Matter is all there is, then there is no way for the seeker to transcend it within the framework of this world. That leaves salvation either as an illusory and transitory sense of the mind, still bound within the framework of nature; or else, it puts off salvation for some other world after we depart this one. The soul’s intuition, and the experience of those who have achieved liberation, however, tells us that Matter is not the only formation which exists in the universe, and thus, other poises and statuses of consciousness become possible, and thus, the evolution of consciousness can become a reality.

In the Taittiriya Upanishad, the young seeker Bhrigu undertakes a course of intense tapasya, and explores the various potential bases of existence, first determining that Matter was the true reality and basis, but eventually recognizing additional principles or poises of consciousness including the vital plane in the form of Prana, the mental plane, the knowledge plane, and the bliss plane. These planes represent specific principles and relations of interaction and powers that vary from one to the other. Elsewhere they are referred to as “sheaths” (“koshas”) as they can be found all active within the human being in every more subtle energetic bodies.

Sri Aurobindo states the case for the requirement of understanding these planes of existence: “If the Purusha in us has thus to become by union with its highest self, the Divine Purusha, the knower, lord, free enjoyer of its Prakriti, it cannot be done, evidently by dwelling on the present plane of our being; for that is the material plane in which the reign of Prakriti is complete; there the divine Purusha is entirely hidden in the blinding surge of her activities, in the gross pomp of her workings, and the individual soul emerging from her involution of spirit in matter, subject in all its activities to its entangling in the material and vital instruments is unable to experience the divine freedom.”

The sense of freedom that we experience in the mind, as Sri Aurobindo concludes, is still a subtle form of bondage to the working of Nature. “Therefore we have had to speak of different planes of our consciousness and of the spiritual planes of the mental being; for if these did not exist, the liberation of the embodied being would have been impossible here on earth. He would have had to wait and at most to prepare himself for seeking it in other worlds and in a different kind of physical or spiritual embodiment less obstinately sealed in its shell of material experience.”

The shift from the “human standpoint” to the “divine standpoint” is essentially the shift of the conscious awareness from the material plane to the spiritual plane, and this is the leverage that is required to effect the transformation in the Nature called for in the integral Yoga.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pg. 427

Integral Liberation, Fulfilment, Realisation and Action

Starting from the unity of all creation, the integral Yoga requires the seeker to accept, balance and integrate the transcendent, the universal manifestation, and the individual role in that manifestation. This prevents the artificial solutions of “cutting the knot” of the world’s distractions by avoidance; and equally it prevents the artificial solution of pretending that there is no Transcendent and only the world and its forms and beings are of any importance. “Reality omnipresent” implies that the liberated soul takes on the standpoint of the Divine, has one foot in the Transcendent, so to speak, and the other in the rolling out of the manifestation as the will and expression of the Divine.

Sri Aurobindo elaborates: “The state of the liberated soul is that of the Purusha who is for ever free. Its consciousness is a transcendence and an all-comprehending unity. Its self-knowledge does not get rid of all the terms of self-knowledge, but unifies and harmonises all things in God and in the divine nature….On the other hand, any absorption in the relations between self and others and the world to the exclusion of God and the Beyond is still more impossible, and therefore it cannot be limited by the earth or even by the highest and most altruistic relations of man with man. Its activity or its culmination is not to efface and utterly deny itself for the sake of others, but to fulfil itself in God-possession, freedom and divine bliss that in and by its fulfilment in others too may be fulfilled. For it is in God alone, by the possession of the Divine only that all the discords of life can be resolved, and therefore the raising of men towards the Divine is in the end the one effective way of helping mankind. All the other activities and realisations of our self-experience have their use and power, but in the end these crowded side-tracks or these lonely paths must circle round to converge into the wideness of the integral way by which the liberated soul transcends all, embraces all and becomes the promise and the power of the fulfilment of all in their manifested being of the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 18, The Soul and Its Liberation, pp. 425-426