…Yoga is nothing but practical psychology…
-Sri Aurobindo. Synthesis of Yoga, p39
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….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.
-Sri Aurobindo, Synthesis of Yoga
The need for a psychological division of consciousness
Yoga requires an understanding of the psychological division of Man based on gradations of consciousness, much like surgery requires a knowledge of anatomy. The elaborate division of the human consciousness is based on how a person’s consciousness can be divided within his/her body at any given point in Time. Note that there is no such thing as “unconsciousness” for what is commonly called unconsciousness is just a shift of consciousness into zones of which we remain unaware.
Question : What are “the different psychological divisions of the human being”?
Mother Mira Alfassa: These divisions are merely arbitrary. They have been established in order to facilitate the study of human nature and especially to constitute a definite basis for the various methods of self-development and self-discipline. That is why each philosophic, educational or Yogic system has, as it were, its own division based on the experience of its founder. Nevertheless, despite these divergences, there is a sort of tradition which, behind the different terms, makes for an essential analogy. This analogy can be expressed by a quaternary: the physical, the vital, the mental and the psychic or soul.
[Works of The Mother, Vol 16, Series 8, 30th May, 1960]
The Divinity in Man
There are two projections of the Divine (called Being or Purusha or in Greek psyche) in all human beings. During spiritual experiences, it is through these centers that we communicate with the Divine in the Universe.
- Central Being/Jivatman : whose presence is felt above the head during meditation.
- Psychic Being/Caitya Purusha: whose presence is felt behind the heart during meditation.
The Ontological division of human consciousness
A human being does not have just a physical body but actually five bodies of varying density much like the rings of an onion. Man is said to be the microcosm of the Universe because for every occult world-plane in the Universe, there is a corresponding sheath in the human being.
- Physical sheath/Annamaya Kosha: This consists of the sense organs (Jnanendriya – ears, eyes, skin, nose, tongue), organs of action (Karmendriya), the Sapta Dhatu (chyie, blood, flesh, fat, bone, marrow, semen). This is also classified as the nine gates(2 eyes, 2 ears, mouth, nose, navel, genital, anus).
- Vital sheath/Pranamaya Kosha: This consists of the five vital airs (Pranas – Udana, Prana, Apana, Samana, Vyana) and the five minor vital airs (upa-pranas: naga, kurma, krikar, devadutta, dhananjaya which are used for belching, vomit, hunger pangs, yawn, womb ejecting). For more information, see Vital Sheath.
- Mental sheath/Manomaya Kosha: This consists of the Chitta (passive memory and active reflexive mind) and sensory-mind (Manas) and Ahankara (self-awareness).
- Knowledge sheath/Vijnanamaya Kosha: This consists of Buddhi (cognitive power or intellect). See Mind Map. It is the sheath in Man corresponding to the Vijnana/Mahas/Knowledge plane shown under Cosmology.
- Bliss sheath/Anandamaya Kosha: The sheath corresponding to theplane of Bliss/Ananda.
- Consciousness sheath/Chaitanyamaya Kosha: The sheath corresponding to theplane of Chit/Consciousness. This does not exist in Man in the current race.
- Existence sheath/Sat Kosha : The sheath corresponding to theplane of Sat/Existence. This does not exist in Man in the current race.
These five sheaths (since the last two – Consciousness and Existence sheath – don’t exist) can also be classified into three bodies:
- Gross body/Sthula Sarira: the Physical sheath inhabiting the Virat or Vaishvanara world.
- Subtle body/Suksma Sarira: the Vital and the Mental sheaths inhabiting the Hiranyagarbha or Taijasa (luminous) world. This contains the Chakras.
- Causal body/Karana Sarira: the Knowledge and the Bliss sheath inhabiting the highest Prajna world.
References for this section
Sri Aurobindo: There is in fact no gap in man’s sheaths. It is a gamut or scale ascending from the lowest to the highest plane; and the principle of each is repeated in all. Thus all is in each. Otherwise the world cannot go on. There are four other bodies different from the material physical body which we have.
(Purani. Evening Talks, First Series, p 230)
There are five sheaths of our being, beginning with the material and culminating in the blissful. This was the main substance of the Taittiriya Upanishad’s section Brahmānandavalli, which was summarised in the last note. Corresponding to these five sheaths, there are five cosmic planes of the manifestation of the Eternal. This is the main substance of Bhṛguvalli, which is the last section of the Taittiriya Upanishad.
(Kireet Joshi. Taittiriya Upanishad)
The oldest Vedantic knowledge tells us of five degrees of our being, the material, the vital, the mental, the ideal, the spiritual or beatific and to each of these grades of our soul there corresponds a grade of our substance, a sheath as it was called in the ancient figurative language. A later psychology found that these five sheaths of our substance were the material of three bodies, gross physical, subtle and causal, in all of which the soul actually and simultaneously dwells, although here and now we are superficially conscious only of the material vehicle
(Sri Aurobindo. Life Divine, Ascending Series of Substance)
This gross body arises from the Panchîkrita gross elements. It is the receptacle of enjoying the fruits of its Karma and liable to disease and old age. This body is all Mâyâ; therefore it has certainly no real existence. O Lord of Mountains! Know this to be the gross Upâdhi (limitation) of My real Self. The five Jñanendriyas (organs of senses), five Karmendriyas (working organs), the Prâna Vâyus, mind and Buddhi (rational intellect), in all, these seventeen go to form the subtle body, Sûksma Deha. So the Pundits say. This body of the Supreme Self is caused by the Apanchîkrita five original elements. Through this body, pain and pleasure are felt in the heart. This is the second Upâdhi of the Âtman. The Ajñâna or Primeval Ignoranee, without beginning and indescribable, is the third body of the Âtman. Know this also to be my third Upâdhi. When all these Upâdhis subside, only the Supreme Self, the Brahman remains. Within these three gross and subtle bodies, the five sheaths, Annamaya, Prânamaya, Vijñânamaya, and Ânandamaya always exist.
(Devi Bhagavata Purana, Book 7, Chapter 34 online)
…this causal body is, as we say, little developed in the majority of men and to live in it or to ascend to the supramental planes, as distinguished from corresponding sub-planes in the mental being, or still more to dwell consciously upon them is the most difficult thing of all for the human being. It can be done in the trance of Samadhi, but otherwise only by a new evolution of the capacities of the individual Purusha of which few are even willing to conceive.
(Sri Aurobindo. Synthesis of Yoga , The Planes of our Existence)
None in ordinary times go beyond the ānanda in the waking state, for the cit and sat are only attainable in suṣupti, because only the first five sheaths or pañcakoṣas are yet sufficiently developed to be visible except to the men of the Satya Yuga and even by them the two others are not perfectly seen.
(Sri Aurobindo. Hymns to the Mystic Fire)
Man, being one in his true Self with the Lord who inhabits all forms, can live in any of these states of the Self in the world and partake of its experiences.He can be anything he wills from the material to the all-blissful being. Through the Anandamaya he can enter into the Chaitanya and Sat Purusha.
(Sri Aurobindo. Upanishads, Analysis Self-realisation)
Chart of human consciousness
The Phenomenological division of human consciousness
Phenomenologically, we experience consciousness in three states – waking, dream and deep sleep. During these states, the concentration of consciousness varies in distribution across the five sheaths. Based on this insight, it is possible to create a more accurate division of consciousness as we demonstrate below.
- Waking (Jagriti) : In this state, the consciousness in the mental, vital and physical sheaths is actively projected out into the physical world. Sri Aurobindo called this Outer being or Surface personality.
- Dreaming (Swapna) : When we fall asleep or during initial stages of meditation, our consciousness withdraws from the physical sheath into the subtle physical, vital and mental sheaths. Corresponding to this state, Sri Aurobindo defined the Subliminal and Subconscient parts of our being. The subliminal is divided into the inner mental, inner vital and inner physical which open into the cosmic mind, cosmic vital and cosmic physical respectively. As for the subconscient, see Subconscient.
- Deep Sleep (Sushupti) : This is where we are in brief moments of REM sleep or during deep meditation. Corresponding to this, Sri Aurobindo defined the Superconscient part of our being when our consciousness is concentrated in the higher Knowledge and Bliss sheaths.It is further divided into the Higher Mind, Illumined Mind, Intuitive Mind and Overmind as explained below.
- Fourth State (Turiya) : This is the state of Enlightened Beings, who traverse the ladder of consciousness unhindered by day and night.
Combining the two systems (concentric and vertical)
The Chakras form the vertical system while the five sheaths create the concentric system. Hence, we get a dual system – one horizontal/concentric and another vertical.
There are in fact two systems simultaneously active in the organisation of the being and its parts: one is concentric, a series of rings or sheaths with the psychic at the centre; another is vertical, an ascension and descent, like a flight of steps, a series of superimposed planes with the supermind-overmind as the crucial nodus of the transition beyond the human and the Divine.
(Sri Aurobindo. CWSA Vol 22. Letters on Yoga, Planes and Parts of the being, p 251)
By combining these, we can put forth the following model of consciousness.
- Surface Being: When man is awake in the physical world, his consciousness is directed outward from the physical sheath. This gives rise to the classification of the surface being. See “Classification of the Outer Being” below.
- Subliminal: Here, the subtle body is awake in some vital or mental world.
- Subconscient: Here, the subtle body plunges into the subconscient worlds.
- Superconscient: The subtle body is awake in some superconscient world.
- Circumconscient : This is a projection of the subliminal surrounding the physical sheath and projecting into the physical world. For more, see Circumconscient.
Classification of the Superconscient
Sri Aurobindo identified ascending gradations of the mind based on changes in the nature of the thought process. The mind of the Yogi scales this gradation by conscious effort through meditation.
- Higher Mind : This is the lowest level where the mind begins to touch the spiritual planes above. The mind’s characteristic movement is a mass ideation, a seeing of the inner relation between ideas. Truth is seen in wholeness. It is the mind found in philosophers and thinkers.
- Illumined Mind : In this mode, the mind begins to operate visually using subtle images rather than dry logic and reason. It is the kind of mind found in poets, musicians and painters.
- Intuitive Mind : At this level, knowledge is gained by intuition. The consciousness of the subject meets the consciousness of the object and vibrates with the knowledge of that which it contacts. This mode of working leads to a direct acquisition of knowledge, as opposed to the indirect acquisition of knowledge through the five senses. The four powers of Intuition are outlined here
- Overmind : This is the state where one begins to live in cosmic consciousness. Those who attain liberation/salvation are said to be in this state.
- Supermind : This is the highest plane where one gains an all-encompassing vision and is able to see the Truth from all sides.
Classification of the Outer Being
The planes of the outer mind, outer vital and outer physical are discussed in the remainder of this page.
Planes of the Outer Mind
Pure Mind (Buddhi in other Yogic terminology)
The thinking Mind is concerned with ideas and knowledge in their own right. It reasons and perceives with ideas of infinity, eternity, unity, identity and self-contradiction. It considers and finds out the value of things.
Chakra : Ajna.
The dynamic Mind is concerned with the putting out of mental forces for realisation of ideas.
Chakra : Throat or Visuddha
The externalising Mind is concerned with the expression of ideas and knowledge and mental forces in life, not only by speech, but by any form it can give.
Planes of the Outer Vital/Life-force/Prana
Mental-Vital or Vital Mind
Region: Throat to heart
The mental-vital or the vital mind is the result of the intersection of the mental and the vital planes. It expresses desires, passions, ambitions and throws them out into mental forms. It finds arguments in favor of the desires; it rationalizes and provides self-justification. It imagines and dreams of the future. In men of action, this faculty is prominent and a leader of their nature. At a lower stage of the mental-vital, the vital passions, impulses and desires rise up and get into the pure Thought and either cloud or distort it.
The mental-vital (the vital mind) should be distinguished from the dynamic mind. While the mental-vital is limited by the vital view and feelings of things, the dynamic Mind is not, for it acts by the idea and reason.
Chakra: Anahata at the heart
The emotional vital is the seat of various feelings, such as love, joy, sorrow, hatred and the rest.
Region: Heart to Navel, Manipura
The central vital is the seat of the ego. It expresses stronger vital longings and reactions such as ambition, pride, fear, love of fame, attractions and repulsions, desires and passions of various kinds and the field of many vital energies.
Lower Vital or Physical-Vital
Region: Below Navel, Svadhisthana
The lower vital is occupied with small desires and feelings such as food desire, sexual desire, small likings, dislikings, vanity, quarrels, love of praise, anger at blame, little wishes of all kinds — and a numberless host of other things. It realizes the vital impulses on the physical plane. It is concerned mainly with passing events and transitory movements. It is that which is irritated over trifles, easily upset. It gets exhilaration of joy very soon, is also very soon depressed. It is a restless part concerned with passing things and makes one restless.
Planes of the Outer Physical
Mental-Physical or Physical Mind
The mental-physical or the physical mind is the mind at the service of the physical. It is the mind conditioned by physical, and it is fixed on physical objects and happenings, sees and understands these only and deals with them according to their own nature, but can with difficulty respond to the higher forces. Left to itself, it is sceptical of the existence of the supra-physical things, of which it has no direct experience and to which it can find no clue. To enlighten the physical mind by the consciousness of the higher spiritual and supramental planes is one of the important objects of the integral Yoga, just as to enlighten it by the power of the higher vital and higher mental elements of the being is the greatest part of human self-development, civilisation and culture.
Vital-Physical or Circumconscient
The vital-physical is the nervous being, and it governs all the small daily reactions to outward things – reactions of the nerves and the body consciousness and the reflex emotions and sensations; it motives much of the ordinary actions of man and joins with the lower parts of the vital proper in producing lust, jealousy, anger, violence etc. In its lowest parts (vital-material) it is the agent of pain, physical illness etc.
Region: Navel to Muladhara
The subtle physical refers to the etheric equivalent of the gross material physical.
The gross material part has also a consciousness of its own, the consciousness proper to the limbs, cells, tissues, glands and organs. To make this consciousness luminous and directly instrumental to the higher planes and to the divine movement is what is meant in Integral Yoga making the body conscious, — that is to say, full of a true, awakened and responsive awareness instead of its own obscure limited half-subconscience.
- Sri Aurobindo. Letters on Yoga
- Satprem. Sri Aurobindo or the Adventures of Consciousness.
- Kireet Joshi. Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Appendix IV
- A.S. Dalal. Greater Psychology: An Introduction to the Psychological Thought of Sri Aurobindo (amazon)
- Illustrating Integral Psychology using the Gita
- The brain is not the mind as per Yoga psychology
- Man the Microcosm, Universe the macrocosm
- Blog posts on Integral Psychology
- Wikipedia page on Integral_psychology(Sri_Aurobindo)