Brief Overview of the Evolution of Consciousness

To appreciate Sri Aurobindo’s view that realization of the Supreme is the starting point, not the ending point of the practice of yoga, it is necessary to appreciate several concepts. The first is that, as the Upanishads hold, there is “one without a second”. This implies a unified consciousness that is not divided into separate beings as we tend to see things from our mental viewpoint. There is no “other”; rather, all that exists is that One Being. The second is “All this is the Brahman.” Rather than treat the world as purely a dream or an illusion to be escaped, this Upanishad dictum makes it clear that Brahman, the Supreme Divine, is not something to be discovered or experienced elsewhere, but rather, right here in life.

Sri Aurobindo then raises the question about the apparent disconnect between the human mental experience of fragmentation and separation and the consciousness of the divine unity. If all this is the One, why do we experience our existence as ostensibly separate beings in a seemingly hostile world?

By examining the process of evolution, Sri Aurobindo identified a series of stages or phases of development of Life out of Matter and Mind out of Life. Each one represented an extension of consciousness in its active manifestation in the world. In order for this to occur, the one consciousness must be present and involved in Matter. The sequential rolling out can be likened to the sequence in time of a motion picture revealing successive stages in a film as one observes. The entire film was there all the time, but is revealed in stages. Without pushing this analogy too far, one can at least get a glimpse of the concept of successive evolutionary stages revealing higher planes of consciousness over Time. Clearly the current mental level, with all its limitations and imperfections, cannot be the final stage of this process, and therefore, Sri Aurobindo points to a next phase which he calls the supramental manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “Sri Aurobindo’s teaching states that this One Being and Consciousness is involved here in Matter. Evolution is the method by which it liberates itself; consciousness appears in what seems to be inconscient, and once having appeared is self-impelled to grow higher and higher and at the same time to enlarge and develop towards a greater and greater perfection. Life is the first step of this release of consciousness; mind is the second; but the evolution does not finish with mind, it awaits a release into something greater, a consciousness which is spiritual and supramental. The next step of the evolution must be towards the development of Supermind and Spirit as the dominant power in the conscious being. For only then will the involved Divinity in things release itself entirely and it become possible for life to manifest perfection.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Introduction, pg. 3

The Foundation of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching

The long legacy of the Yogic tradition is founded on the recognition that there is a greater Reality that exists, that the human individual is a participant, in fact a part of that reality, and that it is possible through the practices of yoga, including various psychological and psycho-physical forms of discipline, to refocus the attention away from the day to day activities of the world and toward the greater reality. In essence, any yogic path has this as a primary aim, even if, as in Sri Aurobindo’s integral yoga, there are further realisations and actions that arise once such a shift in standpoint has been accomplished.

Albert Einstein stated: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” It is a basic premise of yoga that the seeker must move beyond the limitations of the physical, vital and mental personality and processes in order to achieve realisation. Every path and method of yoga latches onto one or another of the basic levers of human existence to concentrate and uplift the consciousness, eventually to transcend the human limitations. For Sri Aurobindo, this is not the end, but the beginning of a much more difficult and slow process of bringing the new standpoint into realisation in the active being and thereby transforming our relationship to each other, to society, and to our world-environment.

The Transcendent aspect, therefore, is a first foundation and pre-condition of anything further that will be accomplished in the evolutionary development of consciousness on earth.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The teaching of Sri Aurobindo starts from that of the ancient sages of India that behind the appearances of the universe there is the Reality of a Being and Consciousness, a Self of all things, one and eternal. All beings are united in that One Self and Spirit but divided by a certain separativity of consciousness, a ignorance of their true Self and Reality in the mind, life and body. It is possible by a certain psychological discipline to remove this veil of separative consciousness and become aware of the true Self, the Divinity within us and all.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Introduction, pg. 3

The Spiritual Revolution

Humanity is facing a crisis of existential proportions. Climate change, pollution, income inequality, access to fresh water and food, and the consequences that lead to mass migration, war, and increased risk of pandemic disease vectors all are forcing us to confront our entire way of looking at and thinking about life. We look for solutions through science and technology, through research into the material forces of the universe, through a moral revolution, through religious conversion, or through intellectual plans and ideas, ideologies and creeds for living. Yet we are locked in a nexus of increasingly difficult problems amid unprecedented gridlock as our opposing ideas clash and no one is prepared to give in or find a common ground direction.

A central issue becomes evident through all of this travail; namely, that we look at our lives and the world we live in from the standpoint of our individual egoistic desires and without a true sense of the oneness and interdependence that actually ties all of us together. From this standpoint we try to solve our problems through exercise of power and various attempts to control others to live according to our own preconceived ideas or direction. We treat the world as something external to us, to be seized and exploited for our own comfort or enjoyment, without concern for the needs and balance of Nature and the other beings who share the planet with us, beyond the very specific benefits we share with those who are considered family, friends, immediate community or who share an ideology or faith with us. We actively separate ourselves from others on the basis of various characteristics, skin color, gender identification, racial or ethnic backgrounds, economic systems or religious beliefs, etc. All of this is the function of our mental, vital and physical experience and background thus far in the evolution of consciousness on the planet.

We are surrounded today by crises of an ever-increasing magnitude and they are now overlapping one another as our limitations and standpoint create more disharmony and dislocations. The solution is not to be found in a new ideology, a new philosophy, a new religion, a new economic system, or a new technology. We have had our industrial revolution and our technology revolution and yet the imbalances have only become greater, as these are essentially attempts at solution by the mind acting from our normal vital standpoint. What is required is a radical change in our standpoint based on a new and different experience of our lives. Instead of focusing on the differences and the separation from one another, we need to see and experience our lives as elements of an essential oneness and interdependence. Such a transformation comes about through what Sri Aurobindo calls a spiritual revolution.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The changes we see in the world today are intellectual, moral, physical in their ideal and intention: the spiritual revolution waits for its hour and throws up meanwhile its waves here and there. Until it comes the sense of the others cannot be understood and till then all interpretations of present happenings and forecast of man’s future are vain things. For its nature, power, event are that which will determine the next cycle of our humanity.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Inspirational Quote, pg. 1

The Aim of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching

The evolution of consciousness is not tied to any specific philosophy, religion, creed, sect or teaching. It is a process of Nature and takes place over many millennia generally. The transition from a mental to a supramental level of consciousness is part of this larger movement, but has the opportunity to manifest over a shorter time-span due to the potential self-aware cooperation of individuals who recognise and seek this development.

Sri Aurobindo’s approach does not require anyone to take up or follow a specific doctrine; rather, he outlines the spiritual, mental, emotional, vital and physical changes that are part of this transition and describes various methods, both traditional and modern, that can aid this process. Any individual, regardless of background, can participate in the development of the spiritual foundation and the manifestation of this next phase of evolution. No membership, no doctrinal adherence, no religious affiliation is required, and, indeed, none of these things can actually accomplish the aim. The yoga of knowledge, the yoga of devotion and the yoga of works are three major streams of effort that involve application of various aspects of the human being to achieve certain objectives along the way. The practices contained within these paths are not limited to approaches that term them “yoga”. One can find corresponding practices throughout the world under a variety of names and forms. The important aspect is not the terminology, but the actual practice leading to its intended result.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “This is Sri Aurobindo’s teaching and method of practice. It is not his object to develop any one religion or to amalgamate the older religions or to found any new religion — for any of these things would lead away from his central purpose. The one aim of his yoga is an inner self-development by which each one who follows it can in time discover the One Self in all and evolve a higher consciousness than the mental, a spiritual and supramental consciousness which will transform and divinise human nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Mind of Light, The Teaching of Sri Aurobindo, pg.. 23

Introduction to the Yoga of Self-Perfection

Either explicitly or implicitly, the historical tendency of both yogic disciplines and many religious traditions has been focused on the concept of salvation or liberation, or a reward in some other world after death.  This focus has led to abandonment of any attempt to achieve some kind of perfection here in life, and has led to the split between the “materialist” who believes in the life of the world and its benefits, and the “renunciate” who focuses his attention on salvation at the expense of the life of the world.  It is true that many religious traditions have spoken of the eventual raising up and perfection of the outer life, yet their focus and methods have not found a way to accomplish this and thus, the reward for the religious has been deferred to some other place or circumstance, or, if attempted, it has been done through creation of a uniform religious community following strict guidelines and rules that truncate and suppress various aspects of the human being.

Sri Aurobindo unifies the two extremes in what he calls an omnipresent reality.  The solution lies not in abandonment of life, nor in the immersion in life without concern for spiritual development, but in a spiritual focus that, at the same time, embraces life and works on the perfection and enhancement of the human being and all his instruments of knowledge and action, and thereby the perfection of the society and life of man in the world.

The traditional paths of Yoga can help one attain the liberation and spiritual unity that is a necessary basis for any transformation of the life in the world.  Sri Aurobindo adds the Yoga of self-perfection as the next phase that takes up, for the spiritual being, his human instrument and works to enhance, perfect, and prepare it to receive, hold and express the higher spiritual energies of the next stage of evolution, the supramental force.

Sri Aurobindo writes:  “The divinizing of the normal material life of man and of his great secular attempt of mental and moral self-culture in the individual and the race by this integralization of a widely perfect spiritual existence would thus be the crown alike of our individual and of our common effort.  Such a consummation being no other than the kingdom of heaven without reproduced in the kingdom of heaven without, would be also the true fulfillment of the great dream cherished in different terms by the world’s religions.”

“The widest synthesis of perfection possible to thought is the sole effort worthy of those whose dedicated vision perceives that God dwells concealed in humanity.”

Robert McDermott concludes:  “The key to Sri Aurobindo’s integral vision, then, is the transformation of the lower by the higher reaches of consciousness.  According to Sri Aurobindo’s vision, this transformation, which is the cooperative work of man and the Supermind, is ‘as great as and greater than the change which we suppose evolutionary Nature to have made in its transition from the vital animal to the fully mentalized human consciousness.’  This great change celebrated by Sri Aurobindo and his followers is at once a visionary and a practical message: man can achieve a higher level of life by increased nonattachment, concentration, and liberation.  Further, this achievement is the ultimate goal and value of human and cosmic existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Mind of Light, Introduction by Robert McDermott, pp. 13-15

Overview Summary of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching, Part 1: an Evolution of Consciousness

The central meaning of evolution is not the development of forms but the expression of ever-higher levels of consciousness which in turn requires the forms to adapt and gain in complexity to handle the needs of that higher consciousness.  The evolution from Matter to incorporate Life, and from Life to incorporate Mind, represent stages that have already manifested on the earth.  The evolution however is not completed and there are future stages that can anticipated and to some degree, described.

Sri Aurobindo writes:  “A spiritual evolution, an evolution of consciousness in Matter in a constant developing self-formation till the form can reveal the indwelling spirit, is then the keynote, the central significant motive of the terrestrial existence.  This significance is concealed at the outset by the involution of the Spirit, the Divine Reality, in a dense material Inconscience; a veil of Inconscience, a veil of insensibility in Matter hides the universal Consciousness-Force that works within it, so that the Energy, which is the first form the Force of creation assumes in the physical universe, appears to be itself inconscient and yet does the works of a vast occult Intelligence. … At first she houses herself in forms of Matter which appear to be altogether unconscious, then struggles toward mentality in the guise of living Matter and attains to it imperfectly in the conscious animal.  This consciousness is at first rudimentary, mostly a half-subconscious or just conscious instinct; it develops slowly till in more organised forms of living Matter it reaches its climax of intelligence and exceeds itself in Man, the thinking animal who develops into the reasoning mental being but carries along with him even at his highest elevation the mold of original animality, the dead weight of subconscience of body, the downward pull of gravitation toward the original Inertia and Nescience, the control of an inconscient material Nature over his conscious evolution, its power for limitation, its law of difficult development, its immense force for retardation and frustration.  This control by the original Inconscience over the consciousness emerging from it takes the general shape of a mentality struggling toward knowledge but itself, in what seems to be its fundamental nature, an Ignorance.  Thus hampered and burdened, mental man has still to evolve out of himself the fully conscious being, a divine manhood or a spiritual and supramental supermanhood which shall be the next product of the evolution.  That transition will mark the passage from the evolution in the Ignorance to a greater evolution in the Knowledge, founded and proceeding in the light of the Superconscient and no longer int he darkness of the Ignorance and Inconscience.”

Nolini Kanta Gupta, a long-time disciple of Sri Aurobindo, summarized:  “Sri Aurobindo’s message is very simple, almost self-evident.  The sum and substance of all he says is that man is growing and has to grow in consciousness till he reaches the complete and perfect consciousness, not only in his individual but in his collective, that is to say, social life.  In fact, the growth of consciousness is the supreme secret of life, the master key to earthly existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Mind of Light, Introduction by Robert McDermott, pp. 9-10

Conclusions

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “Truth of philosophy is of a merely theoretical value unless it can be lived, and we have therefore tried in The Synthesis of Yoga to arrive at a synthetical view of the principles and methods of the various lines of spiritual self-discipline and the way in which they can lead to an integral divine life in the human existence.”

When most people take up a book about Yoga, they expect to have a specific line of practice outlined for them to follow.  Sri Aurobindo has, however, taken a radically different approach.  He appreciates that each form or practice of Yoga has its basis in some aspect of the being, and speaks to some part of the Nature.  Thus, while an individual may find a particular path to be useful for progress, it may turn out that at some point, another aspect of the nature needs to be taken up:  this may require a different approach.  Therefore, Sri Aurobindo prefers to set down the principles and major lines of action while providing an overview of the major paths of Yoga, their primary modes of action and the results that can be expected along each of those lines.

Sri Aurobindo also sets forth a different objective than the specific lines of Yoga would propose.   The goal of the Integral Yoga is not simply the liberation of the individual from the round of birth and death, nor the liberation from suffering, nor even the attainment of Oneness with the Absolute in an inactive, silent, formless existence.  He recognizes that all existence is the manifestation of the Divine, and therefore, there is nowhere to escape from and nowhere to escape to!  It is incumbent upon the seeker of the integral Yoga, therefore, to attain liberation from the bondage of the limitations of mind, life and body in order to effectuate the intention of the Divine in the world through the transformation of Nature with the evolutionary development of the supramental consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo recognizes that all life is a secret Yoga of Nature, evolving higher forms of conscious awareness from the inconscience of material existence, through the vital manifestation, the development of the mental awareness, and eventually the manifestation of the supermind in life.  This Yoga of Nature takes long aeons.  It is one of the objectives of the integral Yoga to bring about these transformations much more quickly through the conscious and focused participation of the individuals who awaken to this potentiality.

The effort required is all-embracing and must eventually grapple with all parts of the being, all habitual patterns developed over long millenia in the earth-nature, and all resistance caused by mental formations that have been accepted without question as they have taken shape over time.  This leads to the exposition of his own unique contribution to the science of Yoga in the “yoga of self-perfection”.

The Synthesis of Yoga is Sri Aurobindo’s major exposition of the practice of yoga.  With its wide perspective and all-embracing vision, it can aid the practice of any seeker of spiritual realisation.

“Intellectual, volitional, ethical, emotional, aesthetic and physical training and improvement are all so much to the good, but they are only in the end a constant movement in a circle without any last delivering and illumining aim, unless they arrive at a point when they can open themselves to the power and presence of the Spirit and admit its direct workings. This direct working effects a conversion of the whole being which is the indispensable condition of our real perfection. To grow into the truth and power of the Spirit and by the direct action of that power to be made a fit channel of its self-expression, — a living of man in the Divine and a divine living of the Spirit in humanity, — will therefore be the principle and the whole object of an integral Yoga of self-perfection.”  (pg. 592)

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga

 

The Ultimate Knowledge of the Three Times Comes With the Supramental Realisation

The development of the intuitive mind, with all its light and power, and its ability to see past, present and future to a far greater degree than the normal human mentality, is still only a transitional phase in the ultimate evolutionary objective towards development of the supramental consciousness in all its fullness.  It remains subject to strict limitations that can only be lifted by the shift in standpoint that accompanies the supramental transformation.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the transitional phase and steps involved, as the supramental action takes on a larger role in the human mentality:  “There is then a double action of the intuitive mind aware of, open to and referring its knowledge constantly to the light above it for support and confirmation and of that light itself creating a highest mind of knowledge, — really the supramental action itself in a more and more transformed stuff of mind and a less and less insistent subjection to mental conditions.  There is thus formed a lesser supramental action, a mind of knowledge tending always to change into the true supermind of knowledge.  The mind of ignorance is more and more definitely excluded, its place taken by the mind of self-forgetful knowledge, illumined by the intuition, and the intuition itself more perfectly organised becomes capable of answering to a larger and larger call upon it.  The increasing mind of knowledge acts as an intermediary power and, as it forms itself, it works upon the other, transforms or replaces it and compels the farther change which effects the transition from mind to supermind.  It is here that a change begins to take place in the time-consciousness and time-knowledge which finds its base and complete reality and significance only on the supramental levels.  It is therefore in relation to the truth of supermind that its workings can be more effectively elucidated: for the mind of knowledge is only a projection and a last step in the ascent towards the supramental nature.”

 

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 25, Towards the Supramental Time Vision , pp. 871-872

Limitations of the Time-Knowledge of the Intuitive Mind

The time knowledge acquired by the intuitive mind is not the complete supramental knowledge of the “three times” *trikaladrishti”, but rather a limited functioning that still relies on focus either backwards, forwards or horizontally in a sequential manner.  There is no immediate and complete “knowledge by identity” but rather, this takes the form of a knowledge that is latent and restored to the seeker through attention when this capacity has been developed.

Sri Aurobindo therefore describes the limitations and concerns related to the use of this faculty: “It will always lean chiefly on the succession of present moments as a foundation for its steps and successions of knowledge, however far it may range backward or forward,– it will move in the stream of Time even in its higher revelatory action and not see the movement from above or in the stabilities of eternal time with their large ranges of vision, and therefore it will always be bound to a secondary and limited action and to a certain dilution, qualification and relativity in its activities.  Moreover, its knowing will be not a possession in itself but a reception of knowledge.  It will at most create in the place of the mind of ignorance a mind of self-forgetful knowledge constantly reminded and illumined from a latent self-awareness and all-awareness.  The range, the extent, the normal lines of action of the knowledge will vary according to the development, but it can never be free from very strong limitations.  And this limitation will give a tendency to the still environing or subconsciously subsisting mind of ignorance to reassert itself, to rush in or up, acting where the intuitive knowledge refuses or is unable to act and bringing in with it again its confusion and mixture and error.”

Avoidance of the development and exercise of this power can protect from the dilution and error that may occur, but for a yoga of self-perfection, the absolute limitation of these developments represents a restriction of the growth.  The seeker must therefore be cognizant of these issues and recognize the potentially mixed and relative action that will occur in this obviously transitional stage of conscious evolution between the human mental functioning and the supramental action.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 25, Towards the Supramental Time Vision , pp. 870-871

Developing a Remarkable Power of Time-Knowledge

Modern physics talks about innumerable possible lines of development into the future, which narrow down to an actual choice made to determine the direction and next steps.  The development of the understanding of concepts such as quantum mechanics and string theory, the idea of multiple universes each representing a different “choice” from the latent possibilities as they are turned into actualities, all are various ways of seeing and understanding the nature of Time and Causality in our existence.

Sri Aurobindo anticipated and described this process in the Synthesis of Yoga’s final chapter, long before science and modern philosophy took up this thread and began to seriously consider the meaning of our existence from the starting point of the laws of space, time and causality.  His view however, was not intended to be one of dry philosophy or scientific examination, but was based on the development of capacities and powers within the human individual through a process of a change of standpoint of consciousness from the human mentality to the higher plane of causal knowledge, which he called the supramental, from which an wholistic view of existence becomes accessible.

“It is possible, however, to develop a mind of luminous inspiration which will be more at home among the greater potentialities of the time movement, see more easily distant things and at the same time take up into itself, into its more brilliant, wide and powerful light, the intuitive knowledge of actualities.  This inspired mind will see things in the light of the world’s larger potentialities and note the stream of actuality as a selection and result from the mass of forceful possibles.  It will be liable, however, if it is not attended with a sufficient revelatory knowledge of imperatives, to a hesitation or suspension of determining view as between various potential lines of the movement or even to a movement away from the line of eventual actuality and following another not yet applicable sequence.  The aid of imperative revelations from above will help to diminish this limitation, but here again there will be the difficulty of an inferior power dealing with the materials given to it from the treasury of a higher light and force.  But it is possible to develop too a mind of luminous revelation which taking into itself the two inferior movements sees what is determined behind the play of potentialities and actualities and observes these latter as its means of deploying its imperative decisions.  An intuitive mind thus constituted and aided by an active psychic consciousness may be in command of a very remarkable power of time knowledge.”

 

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 25, Towards the Supramental Time Vision , pp. 869-870