Four epistemic methods of consciousness

The human consciousness in its attempt to know something divides itself into two parts : the first is the movement of identity whereby one gets to know something by becoming that thing and the second is the movement of differentiation where one stands apart as the subject and analyzes the entity as an object.   Building on this observation, Sri Aurobindo  outlined four epistemic modes of consciousness which differ from each other in the relative intensity of these movements of identity and differentiation .

The four modes can be defined as

  1. Knowledge by identity: One knows something by completely identifying one’s consciousness with it.  There is no differentiation from the thing one wishes to know.
  2. Knowledge by intimate direct contact:  In this case, the sense of identification is greater than the sense of differentiation.
  3. Knowledge by separative direct contact:  In contrast to the previous mode, the sense of identification is now lesser than the sense of differentiation.
  4. Knowledge by indirect contact: In this situation, the sense of differentiation is complete.  One knows something only as it exists on the circumference of one’s consciousness.

The rest of this article will explain these modes using a few examples.

Four epistemic modes of consciousness

Four ways of cognizing an internal movement

In order to distinguish these four modes, one must observe how consciousness fluctuates between the region from the forehead and the stomach and, at times, detaches itself from the turmoil on the surface.  Let us take the emotion of ‘Anger’ as an example:

  1. I am Anger”.  This is the first phase of anger.  There is an uprush of wrath and the whole consciousness turns into a wave of anger.   You know what anger is because you have become Anger.  Sri Aurobindo called this Knowledge by Identity.
  2. I am angry”.   Now the initial wrath is subsiding.  The region around the heart still burns and the mind is unable to articulate any reason for getting angry.   This can be called Knowledge by intimate direct contact because as yet there is very little separation from the wave of anger.
  3. I am angry and it is for the following reason ”.   In this phase, the heart is a little agitated and the region around the throat is also stressed but the mind has firmer control of the overall movement of consciousness. As a result, one is able to clearly articulate the reason for being angry.   This is Knowledge by separative direct contact, in which the anger is still part of one’s consciousness but one has not completely succumbed to it.
  4. I see Anger arising in me but it has no anchor within me”.  This is the phase of detachment.   One senses a pulse of anger arising but one has the strength not to get caught up in it.  One is aware of the wave as it rises and ripples through the regions of the heart, throat and mind without growing into a storm in the consciousness.  This is Knowledge by indirect contact.

Similarly, one can take the example of  ‘grief‘ or ‘depression‘:

  1. Knowledge by Identity: In the first phase, you enter into a state of shock, seemingly unconscious of your surroundings, unable to speak or see anything beyond your grief.
  2. Knowledge by intimate direct contact: You feel weighed down by a big hole in the heart and you mumble incoherently about the loss.
  3. Knowledge by separative direct contact: The overwhelming depression has subsided but the heart still feels weak.  The mind has recovered to take charge and is able to clearly articulate the problem.
  4. Knowledge by indirect contact: You sense the wave of depression but do not succumb to it.  The consciousness has taken the stand in equanimity and remains unmoved by the troubles of life.

Four ways of cognizing an external object

These four modes are reversed when it comes to cognition of external objects.   Lets take the example of getting to know a stranger.  We begin with Knowledge by indirect contact which in this case is the cognition of the surface being.  In this purely subjective and superficial way of knowing, we talk to the person, retain some impression and then tell others, “I met him. I talked to him. He seems like a nice man.”      Our judgement is surreptitiously biased by our own prejudices and the effect is very subtle, as the Mother Mirra Alfassa points out.

The sense organs are under the influence of the psychological state of the individual because something comes in between the eye’s perception and the brain’s reception. It is very subtle; the brain receives the eye’s perceptions through the nerves; there is no reasoning, it is so to say instantaneous, but there is a short passage between the eye’s perception and the cell which is to respond and evaluate it in the brain. And it is this evaluation of the brain which is under the influence of feelings. It is the small vibration between what the eye sees and what the brain estimates which often falsifies the response. And it is not a question of good faith, for even the most sincere persons do not know what is happening, even very calm people, without any violent emotion, who do not even feel an emotion, are influenced in this way without being aware of the intervention of this little falsifying vibration.    At times moral notions also intermix and falsify the judgment but we must throw far away from us all moral notions; for morality and Truth are very far from each other (if I am shocking anybody by saying this, I am sorry, but it is like that). It is only when you have conquered all attraction and all repulsion that you can have a correct judgment. As long as there are things that attract you and things that repel you, it is not possible for you to have an absolutely sure functioning of the senses. Questions and Answers (1950 – 1951): 28 December 1950

The second stage is Knowledge by separative direct contact and this occurs when Yoga has advanced to a stage where the inner being(subliminal) has awakened, bringing forth some supernormal powers such as telepathy, clairvoyance and second sight.  The sense of differentiation still exceeds the sense of identity which one feels with the external object – the stranger.   Our earlier observation of the stranger might be enhanced by a sudden inward perception – “He may be drunk!”   These perceptions arise because the subliminal is connected to the Universal Nature on the inner planes of the mind, vital and the physical and this gives it a power of contact, but this power is still deficient and imperfect for it has not been purified by the touch of the psychic being within us. As Sri Aurobindo states “For the subliminal is still a movement of Knowledge-Ignorance; it has in it a greater knowledge, but the possibility also of a greater because more self-affirming ignorance.The Life Divine – I: Knowledge by Identity and Separative Knowledge

The third stage is Knowledge by intimate direct contact and this comes about when the psychic being within the heart has awakened.  The involvement of the psychic  bestows a soul connection (a sense of identity) with the stranger since all are part of the Divine. Under the circumstances, one might correctly intuit on the true nature of the stranger. Since the  sense of identity is now greater than the sense of differentiation, this knowledge is more intimate and therefore aptly referred to as Knowledge by intimate direct contact.

The last or fourth stage is Knowledge by Identity which occurs when the inner being opens itself to the action of the Superconscient by the action of the Sahasrara Chakra.  The superconscient sees all and knows all beings as parts of itself.  A person in this state gains the triple knowledge as formulated in the Upanishad:

  1. Inclusion – One sees all existences in the Self.
  2. Indwelling – One sees the Self in all existences.
  3. Identity – One sees that the Self has become all existences.

To recap, the following observations about the stranger could be used to illustrate the four methods of cognition:

  1. Knowledge by indirect contact: “I met him. I talked to him. He seems like a nice man”. This is a pure superficial statement made in the general excitement of the prevailing social atmosphere.
  2. Knowledge by separative direct contact: “He may be a drunkard”. Something in the subliminal senses a problem with the other person’s vital but the result is mixed because of lack of purity.
  3. Knowledge by intimate direct contact: “He has a weak nervous system”. The psychic being corrects the action of the subliminal with a more accurate perception.
  4. Knowledge by identity: In this state, his past lives may flash before your eyes and you would glimpse his Karma – the strengths and weaknesses of his soul.


As one establishes oneself in the state of witness-consciousness, all the emotional turmoils of consciousness are increasingly experienced through Knowledge by indirect contact. In contrast, as one reaches closer to Enlightenment, all the external objects are increasingly cognized through Knowledge by identity.


21 thoughts on “Four epistemic methods of consciousness

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  11. hari

    I stand back to observe but usually after some time I get caught up in the ‘drama’ of thoughts and imagination. Then I try again. It is like playing hide and seek. Is there another way?

  12. S

    Very nice article …. very well explained … so I will take this up as an assignment for my lifetime … trying to cultivate “witness consciousness”. I even attempted to observe or witness various states of emotions in different circumstances (its been only 2 days) … as in tried to perceive them as separate from me. But maybe in the process of doing this, can one become emotionally numb? Like practically devoid of emotion or apathetic or something? I wish I could get a “demo” on how exactly this is done. Hopefully I am doing it correctly.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      You are feeling emotionally numb because in order to watch yourself, you are stopping reactions. Thats because there is as yet no separation between the Witness(Purusha) and Prakriti within you. Its like people who forcibly stop thinking in order to meditate.

      This is a difficult method. Try this method of Walking with eyes unfocussed when you go walking (without appearing insane to your family and friends!). This will build some free energy and awareness within you which might help in “witness consciousness”.

      I wish I could get a “demo” on how exactly this is done.

      I don’t get angry often these days so its hard to give a demo 🙂

  13. S

    Aah .. I think I am getting it …?!
    At AOL we were told … “The more you resist, the more it persists”. Say, for eg – you get angry about something and feel the anger surging up … let it come, don’t resist it … just accept it and do nothing about it … it will go away by itself. Coz if you resist, it will surge with greater intensity and make things worse for you. Would this be the same as ‘witness’?

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Somewhat… one must neither suppress nor give in to it, but try to separate oneself from it by observing the parts of the body which are affected by it

  14. S

    “Try this method of Walking with eyes unfocussed when you go walking”

    Okie, I tried this and I will try to explain this the best way I can, the way I experienced it … in this method, you are simply staring ahead of you … you are seeing people, vehicles, objects … you can even hear noises/sounds … you can smell things …. feel the air/breeze ….. even some thoughts cross your mind ….. but at the same time you can neither hear nor see not smell nor feel anything … its like your mind is sort of not really registering it? It causes gaze fixation. Makes any sense? Or am I back to square one 😦 ….

    1. Sandeep Post author

      It shouldn’t result in gaze fixation. The gaze should be unfocused – or rather the gaze should be focused on everything, you should be able to absorb all sounds and smells without judging them.

      Try again 🙂

  15. Kriti

    I really needed to address my problem here. What’s with the celebrity obsession of teenagers. Are these originating from my vital being, or some desires that’s being held there and I wasn’t aware of it. Being a teen myself i find it quiet hard to stop putting myself in the middle of the picture. Why are people so obsessed with the outside? What’s the reason and mentality behind people liking listening to fast beats and heavily pumped up music rather than the slow and serene ones? How to deal with such problems if I’m overly attached with sensual enjoyment?

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Teenagers do not have a balanced identity. They are looking to emulate someone who is cool in order to win respect or they want to rebel against something because the brains are not yet fully developed. They may latch onto one idea and ignore everything else, for example.

      You can also see how Indian teenagers these days tend to “ape” their American counterparts.

      As we grow more mature, we stabilize (or become exhausted!) and understand what works for you and what doesn’t.

      Another thing is that most souls are not mature from a reincarnation perspective. The souls who have engaged in contemplative pursuits in past lives tend to stay away from the chaos/noise even when they are teenagers. But such souls are few.

      Kriti : How to deal with such problems if I’m overly attached with sensual enjoyment?

      It might help to practice Pranayama at least. When the breath becomes regulated, the mind starts to regain control over the vital being. It is then easier to step back from the noisy and pulsating music.

  16. mike

    Yeah, l think your right. All pop music etc. is of a vital origin. SA and M have said as much in their letters and talks.
    lt’s all centred around over-identification with the body and it’s appearance. Hollywood is really obsessed with looks. Bollywood is even worse – the actors are ridiculously attractive.
    Excitement of the vital is behind most of the fast-paced music today imo. SA has said somewhere that ‘excitement’ is a disease. lt leads to all sorts of social problems and ironically, there seems to be a rise in ADHD in children – which could be related to fast music, video games, certain movies etc.
    Anyway, we can only get out of this cycle of illusion by realizing that we are not bodies, but consciousness temporarily using a physical form to experience this world and evolve through it.
    By coming in contact with the Soul (Psychic Being) these things drop away and actually become distasteful.


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