Three Powers of Our Being: the Suprarational, the Rational and the Infrarational

The thinking human being functions in what we may call the rational consciousness, but is nevertheless affected, influenced and even controlled in many movements of his being by those powers of consciousness which are above the range of the reason, which he calls suprarational, as well as those which are below the range of the reason, which he calls infrarational.  Just as human eyesight operates within a certain range of frequencies, or human hearing operates within a fixed range of frequencies, which ranges do not define the entirety of the potentially visible or audible universe, so also the reasoning faculty does not entirely define the powers of knowledge in existence.

Sri Aurobindo observes the functioning of these three powers:  “The spiritual or suprarational is always turned at its heights towards the Absolute; in its extension, living in the luminous infinite, its special power is to realise the infinite in the finite, the eternal unity in all divisions and differences.  Our spiritual evolution ascends therefore through the relative to the absolute, through the finite to the infinite, through all divisions to oneness.  Man in his spiritual realisation begins to find and seize hold on the satisfying intensities of the absolute in the relative, feels the large and serene presence of the infinite in the finite, discovers the reconciling law of a perfect unity in all divisions and differences.  The spiritual will in his outer as in his inner life and formulation must be to effect a great reconciliation between the secret and eternal reality and the finite appearances of a world which seeks to express and in expressing seems to deny it.  Our highest faculties then will be those which make this possible because they have in them the intimate light and power and joy by which these things can be grasped in direct knowledge and experience, realised and made normally and permanently effective in will, communicated to our whole nature.”

“The infrarational, on the other hand, has its origin and basis in the obscure infinite of the Inconscient; it wells up in instincts and impulses, which are really the crude and more or less haphazard intuitions of a subconscient physical, vital, emotional and sensational mind and will in us.  Its struggle is towards definition, towards self-creation, towards finding some finite order of its obscure knowledge and tendencies.  But it has also the instinct and force of the infinite from which it proceeds; it contains obscure, limited and violent velleities that move it to grasp at the intensities of the absolute and pull them down or some touch of them into its finite action: but because it proceeds by ignorance and not by knowledge, it cannot truly succeed in this more vehement endeavour.”

“The life of reason and intelligent will stands between that upper and this nether power.  On one side it takes up and enlightens the life of the instincts and impulses and helps it to find on a higher plane the finite order for which it gropes.  On the other side it looks up towards the absolute, looks out towards the infinite, looks in towards the One, but without being able to grasp and hold their realities; for it is able only to consider them with a sort of derivative and remote understanding, because it moves in the relative and, itself limited and definite, it can act only by definition, division and limitation.”

“These three powers of being, the suprarational, rational and infrarational are present, but with an infinitely varying prominence in all our activities.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 13,  Reason and Religion, pp. 127-129


A Typal Organization of Society Is Unable to Express the Human Development of a Spiritual Age

Whether one looks at the caste system that attempts to codify humanity into specific types, and locks individuals into an inherited caste, or whether one tries to accomplish something similar using a class-based ranking of individuals based either on birth or on profession, it is clear that such an approach is unable to either support the spiritual evolutionary development of each individual or bring about the perfection of the society.  From the individual standpoint, as human evolution continues, there is a progressive development of the powers inherent in a spiritual being, which are not limited to one particular primary focus, but which span all the powers of human existence.  To the degree that an individual evolves, he becomes capable of growth of knowledge, power, harmony and service, and thus, eventually will find a balance and equipoise where the traditional caste or class roles are all embodied in a harmonious way within the individual.  Similarly, a society that restricts the growth and opportunity of an individual based on a class or caste system of birth eventually finds that it stagnates and loses the dynamic potentiality that individuals possess regardless of their birth class.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The type is not the integral man, it is the fixing and emphasising of the generally prominent part of his active nature.  But each man contains in himself the whole divine potentiality and therefore the Shudra cannot be rigidly confined within his Shudrahood, nor the Brahmin in his Brahminhood, but each contains within himself the potentialities and the need of perfection of his other elements of a divine manhood.  In the Kali age these potentialities may act in a state of crude disorder, the anarchy of our being which covers our confused attempt at a new order.  In the intermediate ages the principle of order may take refuge in a limited perfection, suppressing some elements to perfect others.  But the law of the Satya age is the large development of the whole truth of our being in the realisation of a spontaneous and self-supported spiritual harmony.  That can only be realised by the evolution, in the measure of which our human capacity in its enlarging cycles becomes capable of it, of the spiritual ranges of our being and the unmasking of their inherent light and power, their knowledge and their divine capacities.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 13,  Reason and Religion, pp. 126-127

A Higher Faculty of Knowledge Than the Reason Is Required If There is a Higher Purpose to Our Existence

Humanity has devised three basic lines of understanding regarding the meaning of life and existence.  One of these posits there is no significance, that life is essentially something that developed by some kind of cosmic chance and we live, make the best of our existence and then we die without a trace.  A second line holds that whether this is a testing ground for some further advancement or simply the entirety of existence, our purpose and goal is to develop and perfect our faculties of mind, life and body and then extend that to the perfection of the societal order.  The third line holds that there is in fact a consciousness that has created the universe and which is systematically unfolding and developing, and that the human reason is a fulcrum between inconscience and habitual, instinctual action of consciousness and a higher range that is able to experience and understand the further higher levels of evolution beyond our current stage.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “But if the soul is the true sovereign and if its spiritual self-finding, its progressive largest widest integral fulfilment by the power of the spirit are to be accepted as the ultimate secret of our evolution, then since certainly the instinctive being of man below reason is not the means of attaining that high end and since we find that reason also is an insufficient light and power, there must be a superior range of being with its own proper powers, — liberated soul-faculties, a spiritual will and knowledge higher than the reason and intelligent will, — by which alone an entire conscious self-fulfilment can become possible to the human being.  We must remember that our aim of self-fulfilment is an integral unfolding of the Divine within us, a complete evolution of the hidden divinity in the individual soul and the collective life.  Otherwise we may simply come back to an old idea of individual and social living which had its greatness, but did not provide all the conditions of our perfection.  That was the idea of a spiritualised typal society.  It proceeded upon the supposition that each man has his own peculiar nature which is born from and reflects one element of the divine nature.  The character of each individual, his ethical type, his training, his social occupation, his spiritual possibility must be formed or developed with the conditions of that peculiar element; the perfection he seeks in this life must be according to its law.  The theory of ancient Indian culture, — its practice, as is the way of human practice, did not always correspond to the theory — worked upon this supposition.  It divided man in society into the fourfold order — an at once spiritual, psychic, ethical and economic order — of the brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, — practially, the spiritual and intellectual man, the dynamic man of will, the vital, hedonistic and economic man, the material man; the whole society organised in these four constituent classes represented the complete image of the creative and active Godhead.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 13,  Reason and Religion, pp. 125-126

The Hellenic Ideal, the Modern Ideal and the Development of a Future Ideal of Human Life

We can review several different philosophical approaches to the meaning of life and what we, as human beings, are to do with it.  The ancient ideal of the Greeks focused on the harmonious, balanced and integrated development of the human capacities of mind and body.   The development was multi-faceted, and brought about the expression of aesthetic, moral, and philosophical ideals within the framework of a human physical body and life that was balanced, harmonious and prepared to carry out the needs of the entire range of human activities.  Modern life focuses more on the role of the human individual as an economic unit in the machinery of society and thus works to train the mind in directions that suit the societal requirements for technology, engineering and scientific development, while placing a lesser emphasis on the other aspects of human evolutionary growth and expression.  Both of these developments, however, are limited by their fixation on the outer life of man, without any deeper significance or calling.  Sri Aurobindo maintains that a future subjective age will call forth the true purpose of human life and evolution and these other developments will be seen as steps or stages of preparation along the way.

“The ancient Greek mind was philosophic, aesthetic and political; the modern mind has been scientific, economic and utilitarian.  The ancient ideal laid stress on soundness and beauty and sought to build up a fine and rational human life; the modern lays very little or no stress on beauty, prefers rational and practical soundness, useful adaptation, just mechanism and seeks to build up a well-ordered, well-informed and efficient human life.  Both take it that man is partly a mental, partly a physical being with the mentalised physical life for his field and reason for his highest attribute and his highest possibility.  But if we follow to the end the new vistas opened by the most advanced tendencies of a subjective age, we shall be led back to a still more ancient truth and ideal that overtops both the Hellenic and the modern levels.  For we shall then seize the truth that man is a developing spirit trying here to find and fulfil itself in the forms of mind, life and body; and we shall perceive luminously growing before us the greater ideal of a deeply conscious self-illumined, self-possessing, self-mastering soul in a pure and perfect mind and body.  The wider field it seeks will be, not the mentalised physical life with which man has started, but a new spiritualised life inward and outward, by which the perfected internal figures itself in a perfected external living.  Beyond man’s long intelligent effort towards a perfected culture and a rational society there opens the old religious and spiritual ideal, the hope of the kingdoms of heaven within us and the city of God upon earth.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 13,  Reason and Religion, pp. 124-125

Searching for the Deeper Purpose and Meaning of Our Life on Earth

People throughout the ages have wrestled with the question of our purpose in life, why do we exist, what are we here to do, why are we self-aware in the first place?  Numerous answers have been given, including simply enhancing one’s enjoyment of physical and vital pleasures with no thought for the future or some other deeper significance, as well as the idea that this is a testing ground for advancement to some better other existence, whether this is in a heaven beyond, or in some higher form of existence, here or elsewhere.  The use of the faculty of reasoning has always met a dead end where it cannot see what lies beyond its own limited scope.  Much of the debate between religion and science which we have seen in the last several hundred years is due to the idea that science can only deal with the physical world within which we live and the powers active here, while religion provides a window, based on faith, into a higher meaning of life.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “It would seem then that reason is an insufficient, often an inefficient, even a stumbling and at its best a very partially enlightened guide for humanity in that great endeavour which is the real heart of human progress and the inner justification of our existence as souls, minds and bodies upon the earth.  For that endeavour is not only the effort to survive and make a place for ourselves on the earth as the animals do, not only having made to keep it and develop its best vital and egoistic or communal use for the efficiency and enjoyment of the individual, the family or the collective ego, substantially as is done by the animal families and colonies, in bee-hive or ant-hill for example, tough in the larger, many-sided way of reasoning animals; it is also, and much more characteristically of our human as distinguished from our animal element, the endeavour to arrive at a harmonised inner and outer perfection, and, as we find in the end, at its highest height, to culminate in the discovery of the divine Reality behind our existence and the complete and ideal Person within us and the shaping of human life in that image.  But if that is the truth, then neither the Hellenic ideal of an all-round philosophic, aesthetic, moral and physical culture governed by the enlightened reason of man and led by the wisest minds of a free society, nor the modern ideal of an efficient culture and successful economic civilisation governed by the collective reason and organised knowledge of mankind can be either the highest or the widest goal of social development.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 13,  Reason and Religion, pg. 124

The End Goal of the Action of the Reason in Mankind and Society

The limitations of the reason to the finite, and the impossibility of it grasping the entire sense and purpose of the Infinite, makes it clear that the reason is not the vehicle to achieve a complete understanding either of an individual’s life and purpose, nor that of the collective action of humanity in the society we formulate.  There are a number of issues surrounding the application of reason to life, and it is essential to appreciate the areas where the action of the reason is to be supported, and those areas where the reason must abdicate its action so that other powers, more appropriate to the larger need and situation, can take over.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The reason cannot arrive at any final truth because it can neither get to the root of things nor embrace the totality of their secrets; it deals with the finite, the separate, the limited aggregate, and has no measure for the all and the infinite.  Nor can reason found a perfect life for man or a perfect society.  A purely rational human life would be a life baulked and deprived of its most powerful dynamic sources; it would be a substitution of the minister for the sovereign.  A purely rational society could not come into being and, if it could be born, either could not live or would sterilise and petrify human existence.  The root powers of human life, its intimate causes are below, irrational, and they are above, suprarational.  But this is true that by constant enlargement, purification, openness the reason of man is bound to arrive at an intelligent sense even of that which is hidden from it, a power of passive, yet sympathetic reflection of the Light that surpasses it.  Its limit is reached, its function is finished when it can say to man, ‘There is a Soul, a Self, a God in the world and in man who works concealed and all is his self-concealing and gradual self-unfolding.  His minister I have been, slowly to unseal your eyes, remove the thick integuments of your vision until there is only my own luminous veil between you and him.  Remove that and make the soul of man one in fact and nature with this Divine; then you will know yourself, discover the highest and widest law of your being, become the possessors or at least the receivers and instruments of a higher will and knowledge than mine and lay hold at last on the true secret and the whole sense of a human and yet divine living.’ ”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 12,  The Office and Limitations of the Reason, pp. 122-123

The Role and Benefit of the Reason for Human Progress

One might well think, when one considers all of the fallibility of the human reason, its ability to justify anything for anyone and to even justify conflicting views, that the reason is such a flawed instrument that it has no real or ultimate value in the quest for a greater truth of life.  Yet, it is this very quality of the reason that makes it valuable and even essential in the growth and development of humanity in its evolution.  It is not the role of the reasoning faculty to grasp ultimate, absolute Truth, but to fasten onto so much of the truth as is necessary for the immediate action before one.  The very narrow limitations of the power of the reason allows it to use its power of exclusive concentration to make progress in any specific field to which its attention has been turned, while not being distracted by the complexity and infinity of the full truth of existence.  It is this power that has led to the advancements we see in human life with the advent of the reasoning intellect, and, while it must eventually be surpassed, it has a serious and meritorious role to play at this stage of human progress.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “… it is the legitimate function of the reason to justify to man his action and his hope and the faith that is in him and to give him that idea and knowledge, however restricted, and that dynamic conviction, however narrow and intolerant, which he needs in order that he may live, act and grow in the highest light available to him.  The reason cannot grasp all truth in its embrace because truth is too infinite for it; but still it does grasp the something of it which we immediately need, and its insufficiency does not detract from the value of its work, but is rather the measure of its value.  For man is not intended to grasp the whole truth of his being at once, but to move towards it through a succession of experiences and a constant, though not by any means a perfectly continuous self-enlargement.  The first business of reason then is to justify and enlighten to him his various experiences and to give him faith and conviction in holding on to his self-enlargings.  It justifies to him now this, now that, the experience of the moment, the receding light of the past, the half-seen vision of the future.  Its inconstancy, its divisibility against itself, its power of sustaining opposite views are the whole secret of its value.  It would not do indeed for it to support too conflicting views in the same individual, except at moments of awakening and transition, but in the collective body of men and in the successions of Time that is its whole business.  For so man moves towards the infinity of the Truth by the experience of its variety; so his reason helps him to build, change, destroy what he has built and prepare a new construction, in a word, to progress, grow, enlarge himself in his self-knowledge and world-knowledge and their works.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 12,  The Office and Limitations of the Reason, pp. 121-122