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Sri Aurobindo's Psychology

As in Buddhism, Vedanta, Neoplatonism, Sufism, Kabbalah, and other traditional wisdom teachings, the psychological elements of Sri Aurobindo's teachings are embedded in his overall message, which is essentially the transcendence of the human condition (in this case through spiritual-divine evolution rather than the conventianla nirvana or moksha of eastern spirituality). Psychology as a discipline in itself did not appear until the late 19th century, whereas wisdom traditions go back much further, and in this respect Aurobindo, whilst of the 20th century, follows the perennial philosophy. However, elements of Sri Aurobindo's writings where he does discuss psychology (e.g. in Letters on Yoga and The Life Divine) are simply so far beyond what is generally considered psychology that they have no rivals anywhere in academia. In the modern world, only Jung and Psychosynthesis are comparable.

Interestingly, Sri Aurobindo's psychology has almost nothing in it from traditional Indian systems like Vedanta (five koshas, three or four states of consciousness), Samkhya (tattwas), Patanjali Yoga, etc. Although he does sometimes use some of their sanskrit terms, he interprets them in a very different way. Most of his psychology seems to employ instead Neoplatonic, Theonian, Theosophical, and generic Western Psycho-analytical (the concept of the subconscious) concepts, although he is very critical of the limitations of the latter.

Central to his psychology and yoga is the concept of a two-parameters series of levels of being - a "vertical" series consiting of Physical, Vital, and Mental, and a concentric or inner series that includes the subliminal and the psychic being (Divine Soul). This is a very profound arrangement (and indeed inspired me to develop my own "integral paradigm"), but it is not presented systematically.

The following table correlates the three "vertical" ontological strata in Sri Aurobindo's psycho-philosophy and Integral Yoga with comparable terms and concepts in other esoteric teachings.

The levels of self in Sri Aurobindo's teachings and in other esoteric systems
Sri Aurobindo
(Level of being or self - Integral psychology)
Neoplatonism Sufism Theon Blavatsky
(Original Theosophy)
Later Theosophical equivalent
(Adyar School & others influenced by)
Fourth Way
(Gurdjieff and Ouspensky)
Barbara Brennan
(subtle bodies)
Mental Rational Soul aql (intellect) Mental Lower Manas Mental Body and Plane Intellectual Center Mental and Ketheric
Vital Irrational Soul nafs (lower soul) Nervoux Kama Emotional/ Astral Emotional Center Emotional/ Astral/ Celestial
Physical body tabiat
Physical Linga Sharira
Sthula Sharira
Etheric body
Physical body
Moving, Instinctual, and Sexual Centers Etheric body
Physical body

In the 1940s Dr Indra Sen, a devotee of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, established the field of "Integral Psychology" (after "Wikipedia link Integral Yoga" - referring to Sri Aurobindo's teachings), although it was only in 1986 that his book on the subject - Integral Psychology: The Psychological System of Sri Aurobindo was published (by Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust.)

Currently the most detailed coverage of Aurobindonian Integral Psychology can be found at Growth Online (see especially The Makeup of the Individual Human and The Course of Human Evolution for detailed material on this)

To begin with we have the three levels or planes of individual consciousness, representing the vertical scale of physical, vital, and mental, with spiritual mind above (in addition, there is the subconscient and inconscient below). These can be represented as follows





Spiritual The consciousness beyond mind that connects to the underlying spiritual reality of the universe and the transcendent Divine.
Mental The thoughts, opinions, beliefs, ideas and values that guide our conscious thinking, conceptualizing and decision-making processes.
Definition: The semi-conscious sensations, urges, desires, feelings, emotions, and attitudes. The vital provides the energy for human action and expresses itself through attraction, liking, desire and enthusiasm.

Functioning: It (1) is where we experience the vital sensation of the central nervous system, our primal urges, desires, and fears; (2) where we experience our feelings, emotions, and passions of life; and (3) is is where the emotions are processed into emotional thought, i.e. into the emotions' perception of knowledge, and it is where our attitudes, our life intelligence, and higher emotions reside.

Definition: The subconscious awareness and impulses of the body expressed in animal instincts, basic drives of human nature, and inherited character traits. The primary drives of the physical are for self-preservation and reproduction. 

Functioning: It is (1) that which gives us material form, our raw physical existence, consisting of matter; (2) it is where our movements originate; (3) it is the seat of our physical urges and sensations, and (4) it is where the body learns how to act, i.e. where it learns the primary skills needed for existence.

table © from Growth Online - The Course of Human Evolution

Of these four grades, the Spiritual level, or Spiritual Mind, pertains to the path of transformation, which takes us away from psychology to a full-fledged noetics. So we will ignore this for now and concentrate on the other three principles. These can each be subdivided into three, rather like in Kabbalah, Theosophy, and Fourth Way, where each faculty is itself made up of three (Fourth Way), five (Lurianic Kabbalah), or seven (Theosophy) subdivisions. I would hazard a guess that the source of this approach in this case is Max Theon, who was the Mother's teacher in occultism in Algeria, and whose ideas and psycho-occult metaphysics therefore seem indirectly or directly to have influenced Sri Aurobindo's own. Certainly Theon developed an elaborate four-fold system of classification.

The 3-fold levels (nine in all) can be summarised as follows: (note - the terminology in this table is modified slightly from the original by Roy Posner (Growth online), in order to remain more faithful to the original version described by Sri Aurobindo in Letters on Yoga]


Name Description


Mental Proper This is where pure thinking, conceptual thinking takes place; where ideas are organized; concepts, ideas, possibilities are developed. There is no connection here to the senses of the body here as perceived in the sense mind below. It is pure thought. It is the center of our mental skills.
2 Vital Mental This is where we gain a knowledge of life's workings; where the practical organized knowledge and comprehension of facts of level 3 is imbued with the emotions and feelings that turn organized comprehension into our interests, sentiments, values, and ideals.
3 Physical Mental The processing, organizing, systemizing of physical, natural, practical facts of information from the senses into understanding, comprehension, and knowledge, used for decision-making, action, and accomplishment.
4 Mental Vital /
Emotional Vital
This is where emotions (of the next level) are processed into emotional thought, the emotions' perception of knowledge. It is where our attitudes, life intelligence, and higher emotions lie. It is the center of our vital skills.
5 Central Vital This is the Vital proper, where our feelings, primal emotions, passion, ambition, longings and enthusiasm reside.
6 Physical Vital This is where we experience petty everyday desires and feelings, desire for food, desire for sex, likes, dislikes and so on.
7 Mental Physical This is the consciousness of the body, where it learns how to act, where it learns the primary skills needed for existence and action from movement. It is the center of our physical skills.
On a lower level this becomes the Mechanical Mind, which endlessly repeats old habits of thought
8 Vital Physical
("Nervous Being")
This is the seat of our physical urges and sensations. It is where nervous sensation, pain, physical urge, hunger, lust, craving, physical possessiveness, and territoriality are rooted.
9 Material Physical This is the pure physical, the body itself, our raw physical existence, consisting of matter. It is also where our movements originate.

modified slightly from original at Growth Online - The Course of Human Evolution

Western thought generally is dualistic - there is body and there is mind. However classical Platonic, Aristotlean psychology, and from there Neoplatonic, Sufi, and Theosophical conceptions, were and are three-fold, or rather four-fold - body, irrational soul, rational soul, and spiritual soul (or in the Theoosphical tradition - Body/Physical - Emotional/Desire/Astral, and Mental).

Apart from a single illustration by Sri Aurobindo on the hierarchy of Minds there has never been a diagram on the various levels and sublevels. Therefore, adopting the above three-fold classification, I drew the following rough diagram:

The Three-fold levels of being
diagram by M.Alan Kazlev - Creative Commons Licence

In addition to this vertical scale there is a horizontal scale of consciousness ranging from the outer surface consciousness to the inner consciousness which is wider and deeper and is the foundation of the outer being. Unlike the vertical scale, this inner-outer series is not divided into sublevels; there seems to be less systematisation here. So if the vertical scale is based on the "Great Chain of Being" and esoteric-occult thought, the horizontal scale resembles more conventional psychology with its concept of the sub-/un-conscious.

Adding also the higher or spiritual super consciousness (or "superconscient" as Aurobindo calls it, using the French - compare this with the higher unconscious or superconscious of Psychosynthesis and Transpersonal Psychology) gives the following diagram

The Superconscient
(The cosmic spirit)

-The universal consciousness
-The transcendent consciousness
The Inner Consciousness
(The depths within)
The Outer Consciousness
(Surface existence)

The Psychic Being
The Personal Evolving Soul)

The Subliminal
-Inner Physical
-Inner Vital
-Inner Mental

The Subconscient

The Inconscient

-Outer Physical
-Outer Vital
-Outer Mental

-Everydau consciousness
the outer consciousness that most people function from.

modified from original at Growth Online - The Course of Human Evolution

Each of these parts and planes of the psyche opens up a whole field of study, although as yet these finer details of Sri Aurobindo's extraordinary system have had little impact on western alternative thinking - neither on transpersonal psychology or the New Age movement. However I have been inspired to develop these ideas in my own metaphysical grand synthesis (see my own take on integral psychology)

The following pages from the Sri Aurobindo's The Synthesis of Yoga, Part I, The Yoga Of Divine Works (Ch.2 Self-Consecration) presents a nice description of how these variouis faculties interact (or don't), and gives us a glimpse into teh astonishing microcosm that is our being:

The practice of Yoga brings us face to face with the extraordinary complexity of our own being, the stimulating but also embarrassing multiplicity of our personality, the rich endless confusion of Nature. To the ordinary man who lives upon his own waking surface, ignorant of the self's depths and vastnesses behind the veil, his psychological existence is fairly simple. A small but clamorous company of desires, some imperative intellectual and aesthetic cravings, some tastes, a few ruling or prominent ideas amid a great current of unconnected or ill-connected and mostly trivial thoughts, a number of more or less imperative vital needs, alternations of physical health and disease, a scattered and inconsequent succession of joys and griefs, frequent minor disturbances and vicissitudes and rarer strong searchings and upheavals of mind or body, and through it all Nature, partly with the aid of his thought and will, partly without or in spite of it, arranging these things in some rough practical fashion, some tolerable disorderly order, -- this is the material of his existence. The average human being even now is in his inward existence as crude and undeveloped as was the bygone primitive man in his outward life. But as soon as we go deep within ourselves, -- and Yoga means a plunge into all the multiple profundities of' the soul, -- we find ourselves subjectively, as man in his growth has found himself objectively, surrounded by a whole complex world which we have to know and to conquer.

The most disconcerting discovery is to find that every part of us -- intellect, will, sense-mind, nervous or desire self, the heart, the body-has each, as it were, its own complex individuality and natural formation independent of the rest; it neither agrees with itself nor with the others nor with the representative ego which is the shadow cast by some central and centralising self on our superficial ignorance. We find that we are composed not of one but many personalities and each has its own demands and differing nature. Our being is a roughly constituted chaos into which we have to introduce the principle of a divine order. Moreover, we find that inwardly too, no less than outwardly, we are not alone in the world; the sharp separateness of our ego was no more than a strong imposition and delusion; we do not exist in ourselves, we do not really live apart in an inner privacy or solitude. Our mind is a receiving, developing and modifying machine into which there is being constantly passed from moment to moment a ceaseless foreign flux, a streaming mass of disparate materials from above, from below, from outside. Much more than half our thoughts and feelings are not our own in the sense that they take form out of ourselves; of hardly anything can it be said that it is truly original to our nature. A large part comes to us from others or from the environment, whether as raw material or as manufactured imports; but still more largely they come from universal Nature here or from other worlds and planes and their beings and powers and influences; for we are overtopped and environed by other planes of consciousness, mind planes, life planes, subtle matter planes, from which our life and action here are fed, or fed on, pressed, dominated, made use offer the manifestation of their forms and forces. The difficulty of our separate salvation is immensely increased by this complexity and manifold openness and subjection to tile in-streaming energies of the universe. Of all this we have to take account, to deal with it, to know what is the secret stuff of our nature and its constituent and resultant motions and to create in it all a divine centre and a true harmony and luminous order.
The Synthesis of Yoga, pp.74-76 (5th ed. 1999)

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original content by M.Alan Kazlev and (integral psychology tables) Roy Posner (Growth Online); Sri Aurobindo quote copyright © Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust 1948, 1999
page uploaded 8 August 2004, last modified 19 August 2005