Is there a purpose or significance to life and the evolution of consciousness? Who is responsible for this process, and how does it take place within the complexity of a unified whole that has innumerable constituent elements interacting with one another to create the world we live in and the events we experience? How does this significance, if it does exist, get communicated to the individual beings and elements of the creation? Can man become a conscious participant in the evolutionary process and if so, what mechanisms make this possible? Is it possible to carry out this conscious participation in one lifetime, or is there a need and mechanism for rebirth of some entity in successive forms in order to carry out this process?
Humanity has struggled with these and many more questions for aeons, and there are a number of different answers. Sri Aurobindo recognises that there is a process of involution of consciousness into Matter and the subsequent evolution in stages out of Matter to Life, Mind and eventually beyond mind. In order to make this process function, since it is one which would clearly require more than one lifetime, there is a need for rebirth. This is not, as many people indicate, some ego-personality that reincarnates in new bodies but keeps its psychological identity; rather, there is both an independent central being or spirit, the Jivatman that carries the essential development and growth from birth to birth, without maintaining the specific ego-sense or personality that occurs in any specific lifetime. The psychic being within is in contact with the Jivatman and carries out its directives once it comes forward to take charge of the direction of the individual life.
There is also the transcendent, universal and individual aspects of the Divine, which are independent of each of the individual forms and beings, and which guide and develop the universal manifestation. These remain outside the evolutionary process but guide and direct it and keep it moving along the chosen path. The Jivatman is the individual aspect of the Divine in this sense. It is not identical to the soul or psychic being, and stands outside the ego, the individual personality and the psychic being that aspires and thereby creates the direction for the growth of the consciousness in the individual and thereby in the universal manifestation.
Sri Aurobindo notes: “The being of man is composed of these elements, the psychic behind supporting all, the inner mental, vital and physical, and the outer external nature of mind, life and body which is their instrument of expression. But above all is the central being (Jivatman) which uses them all for its manifestation, it is a portion of the divine Self and is hidden from the external man who replaces it by the mental and vital ego. It is only those who have begun to know themselves that become aware of their true central being; but it is there standing behind the action of mind, life and body and is most directly represented by the psychic which is itself a spark of the Divine. It is by the growth of the psychic element in one’s nature that one begins to come into conscious touch with one’s own central being. When that happens and the central being uses a conscious will to control and organise the movements of the nature it is then that one has a real, a spiritual self-mastery.”
“The phrase ‘central being’ in our yoga is usually applied to the portion of the Divine in us which supports all the rest and survives through death and birth. This central being has two forms — above, it is Jivatman, our true being, of which we become aware when the higher self-knowledge comes, — below, it is the psychic being which stands behind mind, body and life. The Jivatman is above the manifestation in life and presides over it; the psychic being stands behind the manifestation in life and supports it.”
Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Planes of Consciousness and Parts of the Being, pp. 56-61