The last part of Book I of the Life Divine introduces some further refinements in the layered ontology that Sri Aurobindo sketched so far. One of the main additions is provided in Chapter 23, which focuses on the ‘soul’ or the ‘psychic being’. This entity can be seen from two different points of view.
(1) From an experiential point of view, the psychic being or the soul is different from mind, life and body but “holds in itself the opening and flowering of the essence of all these to their own peculiar delight of self, to light, to love, to joy and beauty and to a refined purity of being” (Ch 23, 233). Sri Aurobindo distinguishes in fact two layers or manifestations of the psychic being: one is a surface personality, a desiring-self, which is what is ordinarily understood when one thinks of their own character and person. But this is only the superficial and skewed projection of the actual ‘being’ that lies beneath. What distinguishes the two layers is the egoistic construction of the surface personality. Once again, it is the undermining of the egoistic tendencies within a person that provides the key to unlock what otherwise would not be visible at the surface level.
(2) From an ontological point of view, the psychic being is the finite expression, embodiment or incarnation of the experience of Ananda, or the delight of being. In the same way in which the universal Consciousness expresses itself in a finite form as Mind, and the universal Force expresses itself as a form of Life, so too the universal Delight expresses itself as a finite soul. As Sri Aurobindo remarks: “it is possible by bringing the real soul to the surface to replace the egoistic standards of pleasure and pain by an equal, an all-embracing personal-impersonal delight” (Ch 23, 237). At the same time, the soul or psychic being is also the embodied self that, in an eschatological perspective, travels from life to life, collecting experiences, growing, maturing, until the time is ripe for further realizations. This makes also the ‘uncovering’ of the psychic being a crucial (albeit insufficient) step in the ‘integral yoga’ articulated by Sri Aurobindo. The psychic being, naturally in touch with the Delight towards which everything strives, is the inner ‘guru’, the secret guide that can propel one’s personal development. Once it surfaces and takes the rudder, it becomes the driving agent of spiritual practice.
However, the integral yoga does not aim at a dissolution of what is individual into the universal principle, but rather to the fullest embodiment of the universal into the material and particular. For this reason, the discussion so far would remain utterly incomplete if it lacked a discussion of the very basis for any kind of embodiment, namely, matter. Chapter 24 takes up this topic. What is the nature of Matter? Saying that Matter is some form of energy would not do, since the question of ‘why did energy take this particular form?’ would remain unanswered. Sri Aurobindo resorts thus to a form of ‘moderate idealism’ (if I may call it this way). On the one hand, the nature of matter is deduced from the process of division that takes place within the Absolute, and in particular is connected with the functioning of Mind:
Thus not any eternal and original law of eternal and original Matter, but the nature of the action of cosmic Mind is the cause of atomic existence. Matter is a creation, and for its creation the infinitesimal, an extreme fragmentation of the Infinite, was needed as the starting-point or basis. […] Therefore we arrive at this truth of Matter that there is a conceptive self-extension of being which works itself out in the universe as substance or object of consciousness and which cosmic Mind and Life in their creative action represent through atomic division and aggregation as the thing we call Matter. But this Matter, like Mind and Life, is still Being or Brahman in its self-creative action. (Ch 24, 252-253)
This is a form of ‘idealism’ in the sense that it takes the reality of Matter to consist in a particular content of consciousness (Matter is the way in which conscious experience appears when it manifests as complete divisibility and articulation of parts). But I would qualify this as a ‘moderate idealism’ because it thus grants to Matter some form of irreducible existence. Matter is not a sheer epiphenomenon, nor its presence can be reduced or dismissed. When Sri Aurobindo says that matter ‘is Brahman’ he does not mean to suggest that seeing a material world is an illusion, but rather wants to emphasize that the material world is, like anything else, an expression of the same absolute principle.
Chapter 25 continues this discussion by reflecting on the way in which Matter seems to posit an apparent problem, if not a contradiction, with respect to the nature and evolution of consciousness. Sri Aurobindo identifies three main qualities of Matter that seem to hinder the development of consciousness. First, Matter “is the culmination of the principle of Ignorance” (Ch 25, 257). This is so both because sheer Matter appears as totally unconscious, and because the ‘principle of Ignorance’ is division and fragmentation, hence Matter (which is fragmentation at its peak) is the fullest expression of that principle.
Second, Matter “is the culmination of bondage to mechanic Law and opposes to all that seeks to liberate itself a colossal Inertia” (Ch 25, 258). While the material world is in constant action and change, Matter itself seems capable only of obeying laws that determine it, but which it has not determined or freely established. And when Matter provides a substratum for the operations of Life, it seems to resist against it, by opposing a force of Inertia by which it tends to return to its inanimate state (using another terminology, we might connect this inertia with the second law of thermodynamics).
Third, Matter “is the culmination of the principle of division and struggle” (Ch 25, 259). This means that matter can create ‘unity’ only by aggregation or assimilation, but in neither case real unity is achieved. Aggregation merely puts different things together, while assimilation creates unity only by suppressing diversity. The real unity used here as a reference point is the sort of unity-within-difference proper of the Supermind, and Matter can provide the example of something completely opposite to it. This ultimately yields Death in its various forms.
Now, if Matter (which this three characteristics) is indeed an expression of the absolute, and if the absolute in taking up this form is creating the basis for its own fullest expression, then it follows (1) that matter is not opposite to the ‘Spirit’ (i.e. the higher expressions of the absolute) but rather an expression of it; and (2) that the fullest expression of the ‘Spirit’ can only be a fully embodied expression, in which the material substratum reveals itself in its truest form. The chapter thus devote quite some space to advocate for the need of reactivate this aspiration within human beings towards something higher than their current condition:
when in man life becomes wholly self-conscious, this unavoidable struggle and effort and aspiration reach their acme and the pain and discord of the world become finally too keenly sensible to be borne with contentment. […] The finite cannot remain permanently satisfied so long as it is conscious either of a finite greater than itself or of an infinite beyond itself to which it can yet aspire. And if the finite could be so satisfied, yet the apparently finite being who feels himself to be really an infinite or feels merely the presence or the impulse and stirring of an infinite within, can never be satisfied till these two are reconciled, till That is possessed by him and he is possessed by it in whatever degree or manner. Man is such a finite-seeming infinity. (Ch 25, 261)
This leads Sri Aurobindo to restate what is perhaps his most radical thesis, namely, the fact that the fullest evolution of Nature (i.e. the process of self-expression and embodiment of the absolute) must eventually lead to a radical transformation of what currently appears as the standard material substratum of life, and ultimately to the emergence of a “divine body” (Ch 25, 265), free from the ordinary limitations of matter, free from death, physically immortal.
The next two chapters provides a sort of summary of several of the themes encountered so far. Chapter 26 presents the layered ontology that has been already sketched so far. Sri Aurobindo can now outline the basic ontological ‘scale of being’, which begins from Matter and ascends to the Absolute, via Life, Mind, and Supermind, in a progression marked by ascending levels of subtlety. Perhaps a more effective illustration of this ontology is provided in Savitri, where King Aswapati travels indeed through these various planes of reality, encountering in each case (and thus offering an occasion for describing them) their quintessential qualities.
Chapter 27 presents (despite the title) an eightfold articulation of principles, in which the superior ones (Existence, Consciousness, Bliss, Supermind) correspond (or give rise to) the inferior ones (respectively Matter, Life, Soul, and Mind). In this scheme, matter is the counterpart of the principle of existence in Sachchidananda. In the same way in which existence represents the universal ground of being, Matter offers the fundamental substance that upholds reality. The reason for stressing this correspondence is once again the idea that the lower principles are not only corrupted versions of their higher counterparts (something to abandon at some point), but its genuine manifestations. Even if their current expression is not yet fully formed, they are not to be dismissed, but rather to be perfected, until they will be able to fully manifest in finite form their infinite origin.
Chapter 28 concludes Book 1 by introducing yet another principle, the Overmind. The need for this addition comes again from Sri Aurobindo gradualist approach. He observes the existence of a gap between the ordinary mentality of human beings and the very different experience of Supermind. Although the ordinary Mind comes by descent from the Supermind, if there is a path that leads back from Mind to Supermind, it would seem to have to face a huge jump in simply transitioning from one to the other. Mind is fully ‘concentrated’ on fragmented and individualized bits of knowledge, while the Supermind is a fully unified and harmonized omniscience. But if transition there must be from one to the other (as in fact they are different points on the same spectrum of expressions of the absolute), then it must be possible to locate an intermediary form that can mediated between these two. Sri Aurobindo calls this intermediary form ‘Overmind’ to signal that it stands above ordinary Mind and yet is not identical to the Supermind.
First, Sri Aurobindo appeals to the experience of intuition (Ch 28, 289 ff.) to demonstrate that even in our ordinary state, we do come in contact with something that seem different and coming from another way of operating. These intuitive experiences are further supported and amplified by the surfacing of the ‘soul’ (discussed in Ch 23 above), and by various kinds of ‘mystical’ experiences, which shows that the actual scope of consciousness is way vaster than what the ordinary Mind would allow us to think.
While in the Supermind all distinctions are seen as unified, in the Overmind, all distinctions are played out in their own right, without yet losing the sense of their (now implicit) unity. Sri Aurobindo illustrates this relation with the case of the Vedic pantheon, in which all Gods are sometimes represented as being just the same, while at other times they are addressed as different forces, sometimes even at odds with one another. The first approach would be proper of the Supermind, while the second of the Overmind:
Overmind Consciousness is global in its cognition and can hold any number of seemingly fundamental differences together in a reconciling vision. Thus the mental reason sees Person and the Impersonal as opposites: it conceives an impersonal Existence in which person and personality are fictions of the Ignorance or temporary constructions; or, on the contrary, it can see Person as the primary reality and the impersonal as a mental abstraction or only stuff or means of manifestation. To the Overmind intelligence these are separable Powers of the one Existence which can pursue their independent self-affirmation and can also unite together their different modes of action, creating both in their independence and in their union different states of consciousness and being which can be all of them valid and all capable of coexistence. (Ch 28, 295-296)
The first step towards the evolution of Mind into Supermind would thus consist in the stable conquest by a finite being of an Overmental state, namely, a state in which all experience is understood and manifested from this point of this intuitive multiplicity that nonetheless does not undermine the underpinning unity from which it originates.
A few questions emerged during the reading group: