The Action of the Gnostic Consciousness as the Third Element in the Development of Spiritual Self-Perfection

The inherent limitations of the physical-vital-mental instrument make it impossible for spiritual self-perfection to proceed beyond certain well-defined limits. The third element, therefore, in the development of spiritual self-perfection is the transition from the mental to the gnostic level of consciousness. Sri Aurobindo describes the process: “This evolution is effected by a breaking beyond the mental limitation, a stride upward into the next higher plane or region of our being hidden from us at present by the shining lid of the mental reflections and a conversion of all that we are into the terms of this greater consciousness.”

“The gnosis once effectively called into action will progressively take up all the terms of intelligence, will, sense-mind, heart, the vital and sensational being and translate them by a luminous and harmonising conversion into a unity of the truth, power and delight of a divine existence. it will lift into that light and force and convert into their own highest sense our whole intellectual, volitional, dynamic, ethical, aesthetic, sensational, vital and physical being. it has the power also of overcoming physical limitations and developing a more perfect and divinely instrumental body. Its light opens up the fields of the super-conscient and darts its rays and pours its luminous flood into the subconscient and enlightens its obscure hints and withheld secrets. it admits us to a greater light of the Infinite than is reflected in the paler luminosity even of the highest mentality. While it perfects the individual soul and nature in the sense of a diviner existence and makes a full harmony of the diversities of our being, it founds all its action upon the Unity from which it proceeds and takes up everything into that Unity. Personality and impersonality, the two eternal aspects of existence, are made one by its action in the spiritual being and Nature body of the Purushottama.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 10, The Elements of Perfection, pg. 667

God-Knowledge and World-Knowledge

The human individual acquires knowledge primarily by studying the external world, at least initially. This knowledge brings a wealth of perceptions, observations, correlations, inferences, and eventually principles that govern the way the world works. The knowledge may be broken up into various categories and forms, such as physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, psychology, sociology, engineering, mathematics, art and music, philosophy, etc. but in all cases it is focused on understanding and manipulating the facts of the external life. Sri Aurobindo observes: “There are two kinds of knowledge, that which seeks to understand the apparent phenomenon of existence externally, by an approach from outside, through the intellect,–this is the lower knowledge, the knowledge of the apparent world; secondly, the knowledge which seeks to know the truth of existence from within, in its source and reality, by spiritual realisation.” The world-knowledge uses the senses and the mind to process, organize, define and conclude. Extensions of the world-knowledge occur as we develop ever finer tools to expand our perceptions and test our conclusions, which would include the development of microscopes, telescopes, and all manner of equipment to test what is unseen by the unaided human senses.

Traditionally, those who awaken to the spiritual quest find that they no longer want to simply explore the externalities of life, and they turn their attention to the higher knowledge, the knowledge that comes outside the mental process through a process of identification, and the experience of oneness with a higher level of consciousness. Sri Aurobindo observes that neither form of knowledge can or should be dismissed outright.

“…but in reality they are two sides of one seeking. All knowledge is ultimately the knowledge of God, through himself, through Nature, through her works. Mankind has first to seek this knowledge through the external life; for until its mentality is sufficiently developed, spiritual knowledge is not really possible, and in proportion as it is developed, the possibilities of spiritual knowledge become richer and fuller.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 25, The Higher and the Lower Knowledge, pp. 491-492

The Three Poises of the Purusha

The Purusha adopts a different poise in relation to Nature (Prakriti), depending on whether it is operating on the planes of Matter-Life-Mind, Gnosis (Vijnana) or Sat-Chit-Ananda. The normal poise of the soul for human beings is a sense of separation, division and opposition to the nature. The human individual creates thereby a dichotomy between “soul” and “nature” and the seeking for liberation tends to take the form of escaping the bonds of nature and “liberating” the soul. At the level of Vijnana, which mediates between the lower hemisphere of Mind-Life-Matter and the upper hemisphere of Sat-Chit-Ananda, the relation to Prakriti is balanced due to the inherent knowledge and oneness, yet there is still a sense of subjection to the divine play. When based in the upper hemisphere of Sat-Chit-Ananda, the Purusha is one with the Supreme and thus, there is no longer any sense of separation or division between the Soul and its Nature.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The Purusha in mind, life and body is divided from Nature and in conflict with her. He labours to control and coerce what he can embody of her by his masculine force and is yet subject to her afflicting dualities and in fact her plaything from top to bottom, beginning to end.”

With respect to the gnostic consciousness: “In the gnosis he is biune with her, finds as master of his own nature their reconciliation and harmony by their essential oneness even while he accepts an infinite blissful subjection, the condition of his mastery and his liberties, to the Supreme in his sovereign divine Nature.”

The third, highest poise: “In the tops of the gnosis and in the Ananda he is one with the Prakriti and no longer solely biune with her. There is no longer the baffling play of Nature with the soul in the Ignorance; all is the conscious play of the soul with itself and all its selves and the Supreme and the divine Shakti in its own and the infinite bliss nature.”

“This is the supreme mystery, the highest secret, simple to our experience, however difficult and complex to our mental conceptions and the effort of our limited intelligence to understand what is beyond it. In the free infinity of the self-delight of Sachchidananda there is a play of the divine Child, a rasa lila of the infinite Lover, and its mystic soul-symbols repeat themselves in characters of beauty and movements and harmonies of delight in a timeless forever.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 24, Gnosis and Ananda, pp. 488-489

The Bliss-Nature and the Supramental Race

Each plane of existence has characteristic forms and beings that represent that plane and are based on the consciousness-force uniquely active on that plane. In the material world, of course, there are gross material forms, but as development there occurs, we see the rise of crystals, minerals and metals, which are more evolved forms of Matter. On the vital plane, there is first the evolution of plants and then later, the forms of animals as they begin to extend their reach and start the development of the mental consciousness on the vital plane. As the mental plane develops, there are first those forms which develop the mind, but the mind remains in service entirely to the physical and vital life. Later, more characteristic purer forms of mind evolve and we see the development of the rational, intellectual, creative, imaginative, emotional, and aesthetic powers, etc.. Further evolution begins to develop the higher mind functions such as intuition, inspiration, and insight. Still further evolution can bring about the development of planes beyond mind, such as the gnosis, which brings forward the sense and basis of unity and harmony that far exceeds the limited powers of the mental plane to forge a unified understanding and force of action.

When the gnostic plane is fully operative, it exceeds the mental plane and the characteristic action is one of unity, harmony, and all-encompassing bliss, while at the same time, it maintains the ability to transmit and diffuse that energy to the lower planes in ways that they can absorb and accept it. It is this plane that Sri Aurobindo characterizes as the supramental (“beyond the mind”) level and one can posit, based on the past evolutionary progression, that there will emerge beings who characteristically act from this plane of consciousness, and we may call them a “supramental race”.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The fully evolved soul will be one with all beings in the status and dynamic effects of experience of a bliss-consciousness intense and illimitable. And since love is the effective power and soul-symbol of bliss-oneness he will approach and enter into this oneness by the gate of universal love, the sublimation of human love at first, a divine love afterwards, at its summits a thing of beauty, sweetness and splendour now to us inconceivable. He will be one in bliss-consciousness with all the world-play and its powers and happenings and there will be banished for ever the sorrow and fear, the hunger and pain of our poor and darkened mental and vital and physical existence. He will get that power of the bliss-freedom in which all the conflicting principles of our being shall be unified in their absolute values. All evil shall perforce change itself into good; the universal beauty of the All-beautiful will take possession of its fallen kingdoms; every darkness will be converted into a pregnant glory of light and the discords which the mind creates between Truth and Good and Beauty, Power and Love and Knowledge will disappear on the eternal summit, in the infinite extensions where they are always one.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 24, Gnosis and Ananda, pg. 488

The Qualities of the Bliss-Soul and the Evolution of Consciousness

While it is impossible for the mental consciousness to truly understand the bliss consciousness, certain characteristics can nevertheless be defined conceptually. The divine standpoint, founded on oneness and unity, responds differently than the mental consciousness based on fragmentation and division. The mental consciousness feels that it must escape from the life of the world to embrace the life of the Spirit. The mental consciousness believes that names and forms are opposed to the unity, and to achieve oneness, the differentiation of names and forms must be erased.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The bliss-soul is not bound to birth or to non-birth; it is not driven by desireof the Knowledge or harassed by fear of the Ignorance. The supreme bliss-Soul has already the Knowledge and transcends all need of knowledge. Not limited in consciousness by the form and the act, it can play with the manifestation without being imbued with the Ignorance. Already it is taking its part above in the mystery of an eternal manifestation and here, when the time comes, will descend into birth without being the slave of Ignorance, chained to the revolutions of the wheel of Nature. For it knows that the purpose and law of the birth-series is for the soul in the body to rise from plane to plane and substitute always the rule of the higher for the rule of the lower play even down to the material field. The bliss-soul neither disdains to help that ascent from above nor fears to descend down the stairs of God into the material birth and there contribute the power of its own bliss nature to the upward pull of the divine forces.”

The ascent of the mental being is not directly into the bliss-consciousness. “Man, generally, cannot yet ascend to the bliss nature; he has first to secure himself on the higher mental altitudes, to ascend from them to the gnosis, still less can he bring down all the Bliss-Power into this terrestrial Nature; he must first cease to be mental man and become superhuman. All he can do now is to receive something of its power into his soul in greater or less degree, by a diminishing transmission through an inferior consciousness; but even that gives him the sense of an ecstasy and an unsurpassable beatitude.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 24, Gnosis and Ananda, pp. 487-488

Responding to the Attraction of the Divine Bliss

Those who are awakened to the seeking of the Divine are called in innumerable ways. Some may experience some kind of overwhelming sorrow or despair and turn to the Divine for understanding and solace. Others, again, may try to understand why they are alive, what the meaning of existence is, and they pursue a quest to find the answers. Still others may be swayed by the beauty of nature and the wonder of the inter-connections and the secret harmony of all existence. When they become conscious of the Divine, there is a tendency, based on the limitations of the mental consciousness, to treat one as the opposite of the present existence, and to define the seeking as an abandonment or denial of the reality of the outer life in order to focus all the attention and effort on the Absolute, the Infinite, the Divine Presence.

“We discover in the end that not only is that higher Reality the cause of all the rest, not only it embraces and exists in all the rest, but as more and more we possess it, all the rest is transformed in our soul-experience into a superior value and becomes the means of a richer expression of the Real, a more many-sided communion with the Infinite, a larger ascent to the Supreme. Finally, we get close to the absolute and its supreme values which are the absolutes of all things. We lose the passion for release,…, which till then actuated us, because we are now intimately near to that which is ever free, that which is neither attracted into attachment by what binds us now nor afraid of what to us seems to be bondage. It is only by the bound soul’s exclusive passion for its freedom that there can come an absolute liberation of our nature.”

The seeking of the Divine can take many intermediate forms: “First, in order comes the lure of an earthly reward, a prize of material, intellectual, ethical or other joy in the terrestrial mind and body. A second, remoter greater version of the same fruitful error is the hope of a heavenly bliss, far exceeding these earthly rewards; the conception of heaven rises in altitude and purity till it reaches the pure idea of the eternal presence of God or an unending union with the Eternal. And last we get the subtlest of all lures, an escape from these worldly or heavenly joys and from all pains and sorrows, effort and trouble and from all phenomenal things, a Nirvana, a self-dissolution in the Absolute, an Ananda of cessation and ineffable peace. In the end all these toys of the mind have to be transcended.”

When this occurs, the unity of all existence can be embraced by the seeker. “…the soul that has realised oneness has no sorrow or shrinking; the spirit that has entered into the bliss of the spirit has nought to fear from anyone or anything whatsoever. Fear, desire and sorrow are diseases of the mind; born of its sense of division and limitation, they cease with the falsehood that begot them. The Ananda is free from these maladies; it is not the monopoly of the ascetic, it is not born from the disgust of existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 24, Gnosis and Ananda, pp. 486-487

The Bliss of the Eternal From Which Words Turn Back Without Attaining

“The Bliss of the Eternal from which words turn back without attaining and mind also returneth baffled, who knoweth the Bliss of the Eternal?” Thus begins Chapter 9 of the Brahmanandavalli of the Taittiriya Upanishad. The mind is unable to grasp the freedom and unlimited nature of the Ananda, which is considered to be the original creative principle behind the manifestation of the universe. “The Divine on the Ananda plane is not incapable of a world-play or self-debarred from any expression of its glories. On the contrary, as the Upanishad insists, the Ananda is the true creative principle. For all takes brith from this divine Bliss; all is pre-existent in it as an absolute truth of existence which the Vijnana brings out and subjects to voluntary limitation by the Idea and the law of the Idea. In the Ananda all law ceases and ther eis an absolute freedom without binding term or limit. It is superior to all principles and in one and the same motion the enjoyer of all principles; it is free from all gunas and the enjoyer of its own infinite gunas; it is above all forms and the builder and enjoyer of all its self-forms and figures. This unimaginable completeness is what the spirit is, the spirit transcendent and universal, and to be one in bliss with the transcendent and universal spirit is for the soul too to be that and nothing less. Necessarily, since there is on this plane the absolute and the play of absolutes, it is ineffable by any of the conceptions of our mind or by signs of the phenomenal or ideal realities of which mind-conceptions are the figures in our intelligence.”

In its search for understanding, our mind develops conceptions, symbols, figures to represent realities within the limitations of the mental framework. “The symbol, the expressive reality, may give an idea, a perception, sense, vision, contact even of the thing itself to us, but at last we get beyond it to the thing it symbolises, transcend idea, vision, contact, pierce through the ideal and pass to the real realities, the identical, the supreme, the timeless and eternal, the infinitely infinite.”

We thus pass from a mental understanding to the experience of knowledge by identity. In such a status the individual is then unified with the Absolute, both in its transcendent status and in its myriad manifested forms, which are not separate, different or divided from that reality. The universe is the real expression of the Ananda of the Infinite, and the mental awareness is a filtered and diffused version of the ultimate reality that is experienced on the plane of Sat-Chit-Ananda.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 24, Gnosis and Ananda, pp. 485-486

The Gnostic Consciousness and the Bliss of the Infinite

The gnostic consciousness has, metaphorically, one foot in the infinite consciousness of Sat-Chit-Ananda and the other foot in the consciousness of differentiation and the creation of distinctions that eventually, in the level consisting of mind-life-body, becomes division and fragmentation. The gnostic consciousness does not lose its awareness of and grounding in the infinite unity; yet it is charged with creating the vast number of forms and forces that appear to be different from one another for the purposes of the manifestation. Sri Aurobindo explains in detail: “In the gnosis the soul is aware of its infinity and lives in it, yet it lives also in a working centre for the individual play of the Infinite. It realises its identity with all existences, but it keeps a distinction without difference by which it can have also the contact with with them in a certain diverseness. This is that distinction for the joy of contact which in the mind becomes not only difference, but in its self-experience division from our other selves, in its spiritual being a sense of loss of self one with us in others and a reaching after the felicity it has forfeited, in life a compromise between egoistic self-absorption and a blind seeking out for the lost oneness. In its infinite consciousness, the gnostic soul creates a sort of voluntary limitation for its own wisdom-purposes; it has even its particular luminous aura of being in which it moves, although beyond that it enters into all things and identifies itself with all being and all existences.”

Sri Aurobindo observes that the Ananda, the next plane beyond the gnostic plane, has a different standpoint and modus of its awareness: “In the Ananda all is reversed, the centre disappears. In the bliss nature there is no centre, nor any voluntary or imposed circumference, but all is, all are one equal being, one identical spirit. The bliss soul finds and feels itself everywhere….” “All other selves are entirely its own selves, in action as well as in essence. The joy of contact in diverse oneness becomes altogether the joy of absolute identity in innumerable oneness. Existence is no longer formulated in the terms of the Knowledge, because the known and knowledge and the knower are wholly one self here and, since all possesses all in an intimate identity beyond the closest closeness, there is no need of what we call knowledge. All the consciousness is of the bliss of the Infinite, all pwoer is power of the bliss of the Infinite, all forms and activities are forms and activities of the bliss of the Infinite. In this absolute truth of tis being the eternal soul of Ananda lives, here deformed by contrary phenomena, there brought back and transfigured into their reality.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 24, Gnosis and Ananda, pp. 484-485

The Difference Between Gnostic Consciousness and Bliss Consciousness

Sri Aurobindo poses the question as to the need for yet higher planes or levels of consciousness once the gnostic level has been reached. The gnostic consciousness is intense and radiant and is based on its direct relation to the Sat-Chit-Ananda. It also communicates by creating the apparent divisions of the lower planes of Mind-Life-Matter and allows the diffusion of the intensity to accommodate the differing receptivity levels of the lower triad.

The Taittiriya Upanishad clarifies that the level of Bliss, Anandamaya, is beyond the gnostic or vijnanamaya level, and that it therefore is the underlying cause and basis of the gnostic as well as the other lower planes.

Sri Aurobindo takes up then the question he has himself posed: “There is no essential difference, but yet a difference, because there is a transfer to another consciousness and a certain reversal in position,–for each step of the ascent from Matter to the highest Existence there is a reversal of consciousness. The soul no longer looks up to something beyond it, but is in it and from it looks down on all that it was before.”

The diffused experience of bliss that can be found at each level, although attenuated and watered-down by the conditions of each respective plane. There is no real direct comparison between the intensity and compact experience of Ananda at its native level compared to what little bit of it leaks through to the vital or material planes. “But in the lower planes not only is it reached by a sort of dissolution into it of the pure mind or the life-sense or the physical awareness, but it is, as it were, itself diluted by the dissolved form of mind, life or matter held in the dilution and turned into a poor thinness wonderful to the lower consciousness but not comparable to its true intensities.”

At the gnostic level this experience of Ananda can be much more intense: “The gnosis has on the contrary a dense light of essential consciousness in which the intense fullness of the Ananda can be. And when the form of gnosis is dissolved into the Ananda, it is not annulled altogether, but undergoes a natural change by which the soul is carried up into its last and absolute freedom; for it casts itself into the absolute existence of the spirit and is enlarged into its own entirely self-existent bliss infinitudes.” The Sat-Chit-Ananda is the source and basis of the gnostic consciousness, but its role is to then disseminate this force into the appropriate forms and intensities for each of the lower levels, while holding all in its unity and harmony. “Gnosis is the divine Knowledge-Will of the divine Consciousness-Force; it is harmonic consciousness and action of Prakriti-Purusha–full of the delight of the divine existence. In the Ananda the knowledge goes back from these willed harmonies into pure self-consciousness, the will dissolves into pure transcendent force and both are taken up into the pure delight of the Infinite. The basis of the gnostic existence is the self-stuff and self-form of the Ananda.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 24, Gnosis and Ananda, pp. 483-484

The “Divine Madness” of the Gnostic Being Participating in the World

The seeker, starting from the mental consciousness, sees everything as pairs of opposites, one of which has to be accepted and the other rejected. Even in the matter of divine realisation, it has been commonly held that the seeker must abandon the manifested world in order to attain the life of the Spirit. The two states of consciousness appear to be irreconcilably opposite to one another and incompatible. Yet Sri Aurobindo observes that when the standpoint is shifted to the gnostic consciousness, this apparent division dissolves. The gnostic state of consciousness has no need to abandon the world–it accepts the world as the play of manifestation of the Divine and accepts its role within that play. It is not bound by the logical limits and oppositions of the mind. It expresses the characteristics of the divine Sat-Chit-Ananda. It unifies the transcendent, the universal and the individual aspects of the world-play. And yet, its action is unable to be judged by the mental consciousness, as it falls outside the parameters and limits of the mental framework.

“This biune being of Purusha-Prakriti is as if a flaming Sun and body of divine Light self-carried in its orbit by its own inner consciousness and power at one with the universal, at one with a supreme Transcendence. Its madness is a wise madness of Ananda, the incalculable ecstasy of a supreme consciousness and power vibrating with an infinite sense of freedom and intensity in its divine life-movements. Its action is supra-rational and therefore to the rational mind which has not the key it seems a colossal madness. And yet this that seems madness is a wisdom in action that only baffles the mind by the liberty and richness of its contents and the infinite complexity in fundamental simplicity of its motions, it is the very method of the Lord of the worlds, a thing no intellectual interpretation can fathom,–a dance this also, a whirl of mighty energies, but the Master of the dance holds the hands of His energies and keeps them to the rhythmic order, the self-traced harmonic circles of his Rasa-Lila. The gnostic soul is not bound any more than the divine demoniac by the petty conventions and proprieties of the normal human life or the narrow rules through which it makes some shift to accommodate itself with the perplexing dualities of the lower nature and tries to guide its steps among the seeming contradictions of the world, to avoid its numberless stumbling-blocks and to foot with gingerly care around its dangers and pitfalls.The gnostic supramental life is abnormal to us because it is free to all the hardihoods and audacious delights of a soul dealing fearlessly and even violently with Nature, but yet it is the very normality of the infinite and all governed by the law of the Truth in its exact unerring process. It obeys the law of a self-possessed Knowledge, Love, Delight in an innumerable Oneness. It seems abnormal only because its rhythm is not measurable by the faltering beats of the mind, but yet it steps in a wonderful and transcendent measure.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 24, Gnosis and Ananda, pp. 481-483