Comparing the Methodology of the Gnosis With the Reasoning Intellect

The reasoning intellect begins its process by a process of observation of external facts through the sense-organs. From these facts, it applies the faculties of organization, classification, memory and logic. It then comes to conclusions built up as a result of this process, and the longer it goes on, and the more facts it receives and analysis it undertakes, the more complete picture is assembled.

An example is the rising and setting of the sun. The facts of observation lead to a first conclusion that the earth is at the center and the sun revolves around it. For many millenia this conclusion was considered to be truth by the mind. Over time, however, with more facts and more detailed observations, including the development of various astronomical instruments,and the correlation of observations such as phases of the moon, eclipses and the cycle of the seasons, it became clear to the intellect that there must be something more involved, and eventually, it was determined, through application of reason, potentially with flashes of intuition, that actually the earth both rotates on its own axis and revolves around the sun, with the sun being at the center; in other words, the opposite of the first conclusion drawn on the basis of observable “facts”.

The gnosis, based on a different plane of consciousness, follows a different methodology. Sri Aurobindo observes: “The gnosis starts from the truth and shows the appearances in the light of the truth, it is itself the body of the truth and its spirit. The reason proceeds by inference, it concludes; but the gnosis proceeds by identity or vision,–it is, sees and knows. As directly as the physical vision sees and grasps the appearances of objects, so and far more directly the gnosis sees and grasps the truth of things. But where the physical sense gets into relation with objects by a veiled contact, the gnosis gets into identity with things by an unveiled oneness. Thus it is able to know all things as a man knows his own existence, simply, convincingly, directly.”

“Fundamentally, this is the difference between these two powers that the mental reason proceeds with labour from ignorance to truth, but the gnosis has in itself the direct contact, the immediate vision, the easy and constant possession of the truth and has no need of seeking or any kind of procedure.”

“Therefore the truth gained by the intellect is an acquisition over which there hangs always a certain shadow of doubt, an incompleteness, a surrounding penumbra of night and ignorance or half-knowledge, a possibility of alteration or annullation by farther knowledge. The truth of the gnosis is free from doubt, self-evident, self-existent, irrefragable, absolute.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 22, Vijnana or Gnosis, pp. 462-463

Appreciating the Difference Between the Gnosis and the Intuitive Mind

The human individual who is able to experience or even develop the power of the intuitive mind on a consistent basis, will believe that this more powerful action represents the Vijnana or Gnosis consciousness. It is virtually impossible for anyone rooted in the standpoint of the mind to understand the qualitative differences that separate even the highest mental development from the true gnostic consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo observes that even formulating language to describe the differences is virtually impossible and he chooses to use the imagery developed by the ancient Vedic sages to try to give us a sense of the vast gulf between the intuitive mind and the true gnostic level of consciousness:

“The difference, not easy to define except by symbols, may be expressed if we take the Vedic image in which the Sun represents the gnosis and the sky, mid-air and earth, the mentality, vitality, physicality of man and of the universe. Living on the earth, climbing into the mid-air or even winging in the sky, the mental being, the manomayapurusha, would still live in the rays of the sun and not in its bodily light. And in those rays he would see things not as they are but as reflected in his organ of vision, deformed by its faults or limited in their truth by its restrictions. But the vijnanamayapurusha lives in the Sun itself, in the very body and blaze of the true light; he knows this light to be his own self-luminous being and he sees the whole truth of the lower triplicity and each thing that is in it. He sees it not by reflection in a mental organ of vision, but with the Sun of gnosis itself as his eye,–for the Sun, says the Veda, is the eye of the gods. The mental being, even in the intuitive mind, can perceive the truth only by a brilliant reflection or limited communication and subject to the restrictions and the inferior capacity of the mental vision; but the supramental being sees it by the gnosis itself, from the very centre and outwelling fount of the truth, in its very form and by its own spontaneous and self-illumining process. For the Vijnana is a direct and divine as opposed to an indirect and human knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 22, Vijnana or Gnosis, pg. 462

Developing Intuition As a Power of Knowledge

Sri Aurobindo recognizes that despite the limitations inherent in the action of intuition in our normal human intelligence, it is indeed possible to establish the action of intuition in a much purer and more powerful form if it can be purified and separated from the binding force of our physical, vital and mental nature. True intuition comes from a higher source and, in order to be truly and fully effective, it must not be distorted or diluted by the processes of the lower mentality.

“It is possible to cultivate and extend the use of the intuitive mind in proportion as we rely less predominantly upon the reasoning intelligence. We may train our mentality not to seize, as it does now, upon every separate flash of intuitive illumination for its own inferior purposes, not to precipitate our thought at once into a crystallising intellectual action around it; we can train it to think in a stream of successive and connected intuitions, to pour light upon light in a brilliant and triumphant series.”

This requires observation of the mental process and a systematic effort to separate oneself from the action of the normal sense-mind and thought-mind: “…if we can reduce in it the element of material thought enslaved to the external appearances of things, the element of vital thought enslaved to the wishes, desires, impulses of the lower nature, the element of intellectual thought enslaved to our preferred, already settled or congenial ideas, conceptions, opinions, fixed operations of intelligence, if, having reduced to a minimum those elements, we can replace them by an intuitive vision and sense of things, an intuitive insight into appearances, an intuitive will, and intuitive ideation. This is hard enough for our consciousness naturally bound by the triple tie of mentality, vitality, corporeality to its own imperfection and ignorance, the upper, middle and lower cord in the Vedic parable of the soul’s bondage, cords of the mixed truth and falsehood of appearances by which sunahsepa was bound to the post of sacrifice.”

This stage of enhanced and purified action of the intuition is a transitional stage, as it does not represent the action of the gnostic consciousness; yet it has begun the process of disentanglement required for the shift of consciousness to the next plane or standpoint of awareness.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 22, Vijnana or Gnosis, pg. 461

The Limitations of the Faculty of Intuitive Reason of the Mind

Sri Aurobindo has already made a distinction between the true Intuition of the gnostic level of consciousness, and what is frequently mistaken for it in the intuitive action of the mind. He proceeds to identify specific limitations and failures of the intuitive reason so that the seeker can understand the difference and avoid falling into the trap of mistaking a false gleam for the true illumination.

Even at the vital level we can see specific types of actions which we call “instinct” that speak to an instantaneous knowledge possessed by that animal for a very limited specific purpose. This highlights one of the primary weaknesses that the intuitive reason also suffers from, which is that it is narrowly focused and restricted to a specific circumstance. The true intuition provides a comprehensive and embracing understanding, not just a pinpoint of light.

“The very character of the intuitive mind sets a gulf of great difference between its action and the action of the self-contained gnosis. In the first place it acts by separate and limited illuminations and its truth is restricted to the often narrow reach or the one brief spot of knowledge lit up by that one lightning-flash with which its intervention begins and terminates.”

“The higher mental intuition of the human being is an inner visional, not a sense intuition; for it illumines the intelligence and not sense-mind, it is self-conscious and luminous, not a half subconscious blind light: it is freely self-acting, not mechanically automatic. But still, even when it is not marred by the imitative pseudo-intuition, it is restricted in man like the instinct in the animal, restricted to a particular purpose of will or knowledge–as is the instinct to a particular life utility or Nature purpose. And when the intelligence, as is its almost invariable habit, tries to make use of it, to apply it, to add to it, it builds round the intuitive nucleus in its own characteristic fashion a mass of mixed truth and error. More often than not, by foisting an element of sense-error and conceptual error into the very substance of the intuition or by coating it up in mental additions and deviations, it not merely deflects but deforms its truth and converts it into a falsehood.”

These limitations make it difficult to give much ultimate weight to the faculty of the intuitive mind: “At the best therefore the intuition gives us only a limited, though an intense light; at the worst, through our misuse of it or false imitations of it, it may lead us into perplexities and confusions which the less ambitious intellectual reason avoids by remaining satisfied with its own safe and plodding method,–safe for the inferior purposes of the rason, though never a satisfying guide to the inner truth of things.”

Sri Aurobindo is pointing us to a new standpoint of consciousness in the Vijnana, the Gnosis, which has the illumination, the breadth and the certainty that the reflected action in the mind is missing.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 22, Vijnana or Gnosis, pp. 460-461

The True Power of Intuition

It is a common idea, amplified by the developments in the field of computer technology, to believe that by speeding up the process or action of reasoning, one can achieve new levels of cognition that appear to avoid the normal step-by-step process undertaken by the logical intellect. This process, when it is fast enough and does not seem to get bogged down in detailed analysis, is considered by many to be “intuition”. Sri Aurobindo clearly distinguishes this mental process from the true power of intuition. First, the source of this “intuition” is through the mind and is thus subject to the errors and mis-perceptions that are inherent in the mental view of things. Second, it must rely on the sense-perceptions for the factual basis upon which it makes its judgments. “This lower light may indeed receive very readily a mixture of actual intuition into it and then a pseudo-intuitive or half intuitive mind is created, very misleading by its frequent luminous successes palliating a whirl of intensely self-assured false certitudes.”

Sri Aurobindo defines intuition as a power arising out of a higher plane of consciousness than the mind. “The true intuition on the contrary carries in itself its own guarantee of truth; it is sure and infallible within its limit. And so long as it is pure intuition and does not admit into itself any mixture of sense-error or intellectual ideation, it is never contradicted by experience. The intuition may be verified by the reason or the sense-perception afterwards, but its truth does not depend on that verification, it is assured by an automatic self-evidence. If the reason depending on its inferences contradicts the greater light, it will be found in the end on ampler knowledge that the intuitional conclusion was correct and that the more plausible rational and inferential conclusion was an error. For the true intuition proceeds from the self-existent truth of things and is secured by that self-existent truth and not by any indirect, derivatory or dependent method of arriving at knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 22, Vijnana or Gnosis, pp. 459-460

Reason, Intuitive Mind and the Gnosis

The gnostic consciousness functions from a different foundation than human reason, although sometimes the higher powers of the reasoning intellect are confused with the native powers of the gnosis. Sri Aurobindo distinguishes these:

“Reason or intellect is only the lower buddhi; it is dependent for its action on the percepts of the sense-mind and on the concepts of the mental intelligence. It is not like the gnosis, self-luminous, authentic, making the subject one with the object. There is, indeed, a higher form of the buddhi that can be called the intuitive mind or intuitive reason, and this by its intuitions, its inspirations, its swift revelatory vision, its luminous insight and discrimination can do the work of the reason with a higher power, a swifter action, a greater and spontaneous certitude. It acts in a self-light of the truth which does not depend upon the torch-flares of the sense-mind and its limited uncertain percepts; it proceeds not by intelligent but by visional concepts: it is a kind of truth-vision, truth-hearing, truth-memory, direct truth-discernment. This true and authentic intuition must be distinguished from a power of the ordinary mental reason which is too easily confused with it, that power of involved reasoning that reaches its conclusion by a bound and does not need the ordinary steps of the logical mind. The logical reason proceeds pace after pace and tries the sureness of each step like a man who is walking over unsafe ground and has to test by the hesitating touch of his foot each span of soil that he perceives with his eye. But this other supralogical process of the reason is a motion of rapid insight or swift discernment; it proceeds by a stride or leap, like a man who springs from one sure spot to another point of sure footing,–or at least held by him to be sure. He sees this space he covers in one compact and flashing view, but he does not distinguish or measure either by eye or touch its successions, features and circumstances. This movement has something of the sense of power of the intuition, something of its velocity, some appearance of its light and certainty, and we always are apt to take it for the intuition. But our assumption is an error and, if we trust to it, it may lead us into grievous blunders.”

The true intuitive consciousness is based on the vijnana, the “truth-consciousness”, not the mental process. The highest reaches of the mental consciousness, even in their most luminous actions, remain bound by the limitations of the separative and divided consciousness of mind, and thus, are subject to error and mistake.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 22, Vijnana or Gnosis, pp. 458-459

The Gnostic Consciousness

Sri Aurobindo has pinpointed several errors in the way that the gnostic consciousness, known in Sanskrit terminology as vijnana, is to be understood. On the one side, there are those who try to equate it with the higher reasoning faculties of the mind. On the other side, there are those who equate it with the infinite awareness of the unlimited divine consciousness. Both of these views, however, miss the core essential characteristics of the gnostic consciousness.

In the Taittiriya Upanishad, the vijnana consciousness occupies a position between the level of mind and the level of bliss. Reason is a power of mind, and even in its higher reaches, remains bound by the essential limitations of the mind, the fragmentation, separation and division that is inherent in the mental function. Bliss is one of the characteristics of the upper hemisphere of consciousness, the divine standpoint, of Sat-Chit-Ananda. Vijnana or gnosis is between these two and thus, takes on characteristics and meaning by its ability to translate the one form of consciousness into terms that suit the other form.

Sri Aurobindo describes it thus: “The gnosis, the Vijnana is not only this concentrated consciousness of the infinite Essence; it is also and at the same time an infinite knowledge of the myriad play of the Infinite. It contains all ideation (not mental but supramental), but it is not limited by ideation, for it far exceeds all ideative movement. Nor is the gnostic ideation in its character an intellectual thinking; it is not what we call the reason, not a concentrated intelligence. For the reason is mental in its methods, mental in its acquisitions, mental in its basis, but the ideative method of the gnosis is self-luminous, supramental, its yield of thought-light spontaneous, not proceeding by acquisition, its thought-basis a rendering of conscious identities, not a translation of the impressions born of indirect contacts. There is a relation and even a sort of broken identity between the two forms of thought; for one proceeds covertly from other. Mind is born from that which is beyond mind. But they act on different planes and reverse each other’s process.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 22, Vijnana or Gnosis, pp. 457-458