Chapter Two–Doctrine Of The Subtle Worlds and the Cosmology of Sri Aurobindo


A decisive move towards the rehabilitation of the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds in Western civilization was taken at the end of the Nineteenth Century by Helena Blavatsky and the Theosophical movement. While the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds had fallen on hard times in the West, it had remained a significant part of the Vedic understanding of reality. The Theosophists were exposed to Vedic cosmology with its Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds by teachers in the East, and made a heroic effort to translate that Vedic cosmology into the terms of a scientific metaphysics23. The original Theosophical writings were supplemented in the early part of the Twentieth Century, notably in the works of Alice Bailey and Rudolph Steiner. The ideas they introduced have been influential, though they have yet to reach mainstream academic discourse.

Sri Aurobindo, the great Twentieth Century philosopher-mystic, took the work of the Theosophists to an entirely new level. Sri Aurobindo brought to his cosmological work three major assets: he was an accomplished yogi who seems to have had personal experience of the subtle worlds; he was well versed in both the Vedic and the Western philosophical and scientific traditions; and he wrote in English. The works of Sri Aurobindo are the only primary Vedic sources that have ever been written in English, and thus have not suffered the diminishment of translation.

Sri Aurobindo’s opus is a masterful synthesis which weaves together Vedic cosmology and Western evolutionary cosmology. In creating a framework for this synthesis, he developed a new version of Vedic metaphysics – a system which he called “Purna Vedanta,” or Integral Nondualism – which provides a context within which he can reconcile these apparently differing cosmological views. Sri Aurobindo has given us the most philosophically coherent presentation of the main outlines of Vedic cosmology that we have in the English language.

Our concern in this essay is the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds. Therefore, in the following pages, I shall present just so much of Sri Aurobindo’s ideas as are necessary to illuminate his version of that Doctrine.

The Metaphysical Background of the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds in Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo, in common with philosophers of many other mystical traditions, holds that the ultimate reality transcends comprehension by Mind. He holds, however, that the highest conception that we can form of that reality is the notion of a unity within which three aspects can be discriminated. Those three aspects are Existence, Consciousness/Force, and Bliss. This particular characterization of the ground of being is a traditional Vedic one. Existence, in Sanskrit, is Sat. Consciousness is Chit. Bliss is Ananda. Thus the ultimate ground is termed Sat-Chit-Ananda, or Sachchidananda. Force, or Shakti is held to be inherent in Chit.

Let us pause to wrap our imaginations around what it is that Aurobindo is here suggesting. Sachchidananda is the ground of all manifested existence. It is infinite Existence, infinite Being. Whatever substance or form comes to arise in any possible universe has it source here. Materialists also, at least implicitly, imagine an ultimate ground of Being, but the ground that they imagine is a dark, unconscious, and automatic play of blind potentialities. Sachchidananda is, by contrast, entirely transparent to its own knowing self-regard. It is not just Existence, but it is Existence that is conscious of itself – utterly self-illuminated. And the Consciousness which the Existence has of itself is inseparable from a Force, or Will that supports and upholds the being of the Existence. Finally, the Consciousness that the Being has of itself is inseparable from a profound self-enjoyment. Thus, for Sri Aurobindo, the ground of all manifestation is an absolute Existence that is absolute knowledge of itself, that is the absolute intention to be itself, that is absolute enjoyment of itself. It is conscious, intentional self-enjoyment of self-existence.

This notion of the absolute has immense philosophical and theological consequences, which Sri Aurobindo works out in some detail in his master philosophical treatise, The Life Divine.24 The question that concerns us here is this: how does this infinite, absolute Sachchidananda bring out of itself the kind of determinate universe in which we find ourselves?

The answer that Sri Aurobindo gives us is that Sachchidananda has the ability to manifest determinate universes through the operation of its Consciousness/Force, or Chit/Shakti. In particular, the Consciousness operates in various ‘poises.’ In one poise, the Consciousness knows and wills the Existence in its undifferentiated absoluteness. This is the poise of Consciousness in pure Sachchidananda, outside of manifestation. In the other poise, Consciousness picks out, discerns, or apprehends particular aspects of that Existence, particular truths of the One Truth. This is the ‘poise’ of Sachchidananda in manifestation. Now Sachchidananda, being ‘one without a second’, is entirely without any possibility of opposition. Those aspects of itself, or those truths of itself, which are discerned by Consciousness are, in the same movement, willed by its Force, and so they are manifested as determinate realities.

For finite beings such as ourselves, beings who live in a medium which appears to us as not-self, knowledge, will and manifestation are three different operations. But for a Being which is the absolute ground of all manifestation, these three operations are inseparable. What the Consciousness knows, the Will intends. What the will intends is invariably manifested. For Sri Aurobindo, then, manifested being arises when Consciousness discerns, and Force or Will intends, certain determinate aspects of the one truth of Existence.

This has, to Western ears, a rather mystical ring to it. But, as we shall see when we come to consider Alfred North Whitehead’s more thoroughly Western approach to the problem of manifestation, he comes to a rather similar position. In Whitehead’s mature metaphysical position, the two factors that logically precede the manifested universe are the Eternal Objects and Creativity. The Eternal Objects correspond rather well to that factor which Sri Aurobindo calls Existence. The Eternal Objects are like Existence in the unmanifested state of Sachchidananda — all possible forms of being are here latent, unmanifest in the One.25 Creativity is that ultimate principle by means of which those ultimate finite existents that Whitehead calls “actual occasions” come into being.26 Now actual occasions have two poles – a mental pole and a physical pole. These two poles correspond rather well to what Sri Aurobindo intends by Consciousness and Force. It is the mental pole of an actual occasions that discerns determinate truths of the one truth of being (as Whitehead would say, they “prehend” Eternal Objects), and it is the physical pole which enacts those determinate truths in the manifested universe. Thus what Sri Aurobindo describes as the process of manifestation has a rather strong resemblance to the process which Alfred North Whitehead calls ingression.

In any case, we have so far identified two major poises of Consciousness/Force – the poise which supports absolute Sachchidananda, outside of manifestation, and the poise which supports manifestation. This latter poise can be broken down into a number of other poises, and it is the analysis of these various poises of Consciousness/Force that supports Sri Aurobindo’s conception of the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds.

The Subtle Worlds As Various Poises of Consciousness/Force in Manifestation

Sri Aurobindo suggests that the relationship between Consciousness and its Force in manifestation is a variable one. Table of the Poises of Consciousness summarizes the four poises that are important for our purposes here.




Consciousness and its Force are differentiated, but perfectly balanced.

Mental World

Consciousness dominates Force

Vital or Life World

(Theosophists call this the Astral World)

Consciousness and Force contend for domination

Material World

Force dominates Consciousness

Table 1: Poises of Consciousness

Sri Aurobindo develops a cosmology in which there is a highest level or plane of manifestation which he calls the Supermind level. At this level, Consciousness and its Force, though playing at the realization of various possibilities of being, function in a perfect harmony. At this level of manifestation, as in Sachchidananda itself, consciousness, will, and force of realization are implicitly interconnected. Here Force, though realizing determinate possibilities, is a perfect expression of Consciousness, and there is no possibility of disharmony. The notion of a Supramental level of being is quite central to Sri Aurobindo’s metaphysical cosmology, but a full consideration of its properties and implications is beyond the scope of our current considerations.

The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds, as we are developing it here, concerns itself primarily with the three levels of manifestation ‘below’ the Supermind level. At these levels, Consciousness and its Force play out the possibility of a variable relationship between themselves in which one or the other may play the dominant role. At one end of this spectrum, Consciousness dominates, at the other Force dominates. Every possibility in between finds its realization in this cosmological scheme, but the spectrum can be conveniently divided in a threefold way.

Before we consider the details of the scheme, let us pause to look more deeply into the core of the idea. Common sense tells us that we live in a material world, and that our bodies are composed of material substance. There is an important sense in which we use the physical world in general, and our own bodies in particular, as a medium of expression for our desires, our volitions, and our thoughts. On the other hand, as we are well aware, the physical world is quite stubborn, and it lends itself as a medium of expression for our conscious intentions only reluctantly. To the extent that we are like inorganic entities, we are entirely subject to physical law – if, for example, in some unfortunate circumstance, we were to find ourselves falling from a great height, our momentum would be entirely determined by physical forces, and neither our fears nor our wishes would change it one iota.

However, it may be that it is not only physical matter that serves as a medium of expression for our conscious intentions. There is also the ‘matter’ of emotion and imagination. If we put aside our modern habits of thought, which see emotion and imagination as more or less epiphenomenal to material interactions, it is quite natural to understand feeling and imagination as a kind of ‘stuff.’ When we dream, we are in a world of this subtle stuff, and when we imagine, we are working to shape that stuff to our conscious will. Now the subtle stuff of the imagination is more supple and responsive to our conscious intentions then is the gross and stubborn stuff of physical matter – but not entirely so. While we can sometimes construct fantasies that are entirely delightful, we not infrequently find ourselves overwhelmed by our own fantasies, suffering them, and caught up in their momentum in spite of our best intentions. Thus while physical matter is almost entirely under the domination of Force, in the subtle matter of the imagination there is, as it were, a more even contest between Consciousness and Force.

Finally, by the same logic which sees emotion and imagination as a kind of stuff, we can also see meaning and thought as a kind of stuff. Even here, the domination of conscious intention is not absolute – thought does offer some resistance to our intentions and it can be difficult to work with – but, by and large, it is much more supple and responsive then is either the stuff of imagination or the stuff of the physical world.

The point is that we can see, played out in ourselves, three different creative poises of Consciousness/Force. When we are thinking, we are experiencing a situation in which Consciousness largely predominates over Force. When we are imagining, there is the experience of a more even contest between them. And when we are working with our physical bodies, Force generally has the upper hand.

Vedic cosmology in general, and Sri Aurobindo’s cosmology in particular, takes the notion of imaginal stuff and thought stuff quite literally. In fact Sri Aurobindo suggests that each of these poises of Consciousness/Force issues in an entire universe, a ‘plane’ or world of manifested existence. The world with which we are, on the surface at least, most familiar is the physical world. Sri Aurobindo, like Alfred North Whitehead, is a panpsychist. He holds that wherever there is Force (or energy) there, too is Consciousness. But in the physical world, consciousness is “shut up . . . in the violently working inconscient sleep of material force.”27 Our civilization has expended its greatest creative energies in exploring the mysteries of this inconscient physical world. We have a great understanding of how matter behaves when the consciousness within it places itself in the service of blind habit.

But Vedic cosmology holds that there is also, ‘above’ the physical, a life world. The clearest notion of this life world that most of us can form comes from our memories of dreams. Dreams by no means exhaust the life world, but they are the only portion of the life world of which most of us have memories. In dreams forms are highly mutable, they exhibit properties that would be impossible here in the physical world, and they are highly responsive to conscious intentions. Vedic cosmology refuses to consider the worlds of dreams as mere private images somehow incident on the functioning of a physical brain. Rather they consider dreams to be a cloudy window into the universe of the life world.

In this life world there is nothing that is inorganic. All of the matter there has the properties that, here in the physical world, we associate only with living matter. It is a world in which the Consciousness that is invariably associated with every movement of Force does not place itself in the service of blind habit, but rather actively pursues new and interesting possibilities of adaptation to the space in which it finds itself.

Sri Aurobindo says:

In this world forms do not determine the conditions of the life, but it is life which determines the form, and therefore forms there are much more free, fluid, largely and to our conceptions strangely variable than in the material world. This life-force is not inconscient material force, not even, except in its lowest movements, an elemental subconscient energy, but a conscious force of being which makes for formation, but much more essentially for enjoyment, possession, satisfaction of its own dynamic impulse. Desire and the satisfaction of impulse are therefore the first law of this world of sheer vital existence, this poise of relations between the soul and its nature in which the life-power plays, with so much greater a freedom and capacity than in our physical living . . . Moreover, it is not fixed in one hardly variable formula as physical life seems to be, but is capable of many variations of its poise, admits many sub-planes ranging from those which touch material existence and, as it were, melt into that, to those which touch at the height of the life-power the planes of pure mental . . . existence and melt into them.28

Sri Aurobindo is quite clear in stating that this life world is not just some subtle aspect of the physical world, but is rather an entire world, existing in its own right. He says:

…each plane, in spite of its connections with others above and below it, is yet a world in itself, with its own movements, forces, beings, types, forms existing as if for its and their own sake, under its own laws, for its own manifestation without apparent regard for the other members of the great series [of worlds]. Thus, if we regard the vital [or life] . . . plane, we see great ranges of it (most of it) existing in themselves, without any relation with the material world and with no movement to affect or influence it, still less to precipitate a corresponding manifestation in the physical formula.29

On the other hand, everything that does happen here in the physical world has, in some sense, been anticipated in the vital world.

…the material world is really a sort of projection from the vital, a thing which it has thrown out and separated from itself in order to embody and fulfill some of its desires under conditions other than its own, which are yet the logical result of its own material longings. . . . Moreover, the life-world is constantly acting upon us and behind everything in material existence there stand appropriate powers of the life-world; even the most crude and elemental have behind them elemental life-powers, elemental beings by which or by whom they are supported.30

In other words, the life world not only exists independently of the physical world, it is a world that is somehow freer, fuller and more concrete than the physical world, and the physical world exists as a kind of voluntary self-limitation of that larger world.

Beyond, or ‘above’ the life world, is the world of mind. What has been said of the life-world applies with the necessary differences to still higher planes of the cosmic existence. For beyond the life plane is a mental plane, a world of mental existence in which neither life, nor matter, but mind is the first determinant. Mind there is not determined by material conditions or by the life-force, but itself determines and uses them for its own satisfaction There mind, that is to say, the psychical and the intellectual being, is free in a certain sense, free at least to satisfy and fulfill itself in a way hardly conceivable to our body-bound and life-bound mentality . . .31

As the life world is independent of and, in fact, transcends the physical, so the mental world transcends the life world.

Both the life-world and indirectly the material are a projection from that, the result of certain tendencies of the mental Being which have sought a field, conditions , an arrangement of harmonies proper to themselves…32

Thus Sri Aurobindo envisions first a world of pure mentality. This is a world in which the very stuff is as supple and as responsive to conscious intention as is the ‘stuff’ of our thoughts. This world is inhabited by mental beings, beings who structure their bodies out of pure thought-stuff, and who enjoy a range of perception and an a scope of power which vastly transcends our own. Then, as a voluntary self-limitation of this world of pure mentality there arises a life-world, a world of pure imagination. This world includes, quite literally, any world that we can imagine. “. . . this world contains not only the possibility of large or intense or continuous enjoyments almost inconceivable to the limited physical mind, but also the possibility of equally enormous sufferings. It is here therefore that there are situated the lowest heavens33 and all the hells with the tradition and imagination of which the human mind has lured and terrified itself since the earliest ages.”34 This world is populated by beings who possess bodies of pure imaginal stuff, or dream-bodies. There are here found the various beings that our ancestors termed angels and devils, as well as disincarnate human beings, and a host of others. Finally, as a voluntary self-limitation of this world, there emerges a physical world, the world that we inhabit.

Human Beings in the Threefold World

Aurobindo develops a model of the evolutionary process which explains it as the successive embodiment in material systems of intelligences belonging to higher and higher planes or worlds of being. The evolution begins with inorganic physical beings, almost utterly lost in the play of their own force of habit. These beings are not so lost that they do not have interaction, and by means of their interaction, they self-organize. To the extent that they self-organize, they create conditions under which intelligences from freer domains of being can become involved with them. To the extent that those ‘higher’ intelligences become involved with physical systems, the viability of those systems in the physical world is enhanced. Living beings are systems of inorganic matter that are involved with vital beings. Thinking beings are systems of vital beings that are involved with mental beings. And the evolutionary work of humans – of mental intelligences operating through vital and physical bodies — is to work towards the embodiment, in matter, of a principle that offers a still fuller participation in reality then we can ever reach by thought itself.

In any case, we human beings are understood to express ourselves through three bodies, a mental body on the mental plane, a vital body on the vital plane, and a physical body on the physical plane. When we are born, we come into the world with three newborn bodies, the mental, the vital, and the physical. During childhood development, all three bodies develop. The mental and vital intelligences inhabiting the physical body are not aware of their presence in higher worlds. But, just as we originally differentiate our own bodies from the rest of the physical world, so we can, through evolution or through yogic development, differentiate our vital and physical bodies on their own levels. We then discover ourselves to be beings of much higher order of complexity then we had hitherto believed.

Aurobindo says:

Man…has in himself behind his physical being, subliminal to it, unseen and unknown, but very close to it and forming with it the most naturally active part of his existence, this vital soul, this vital nature and this vital body; a whole vital plane connected with the life-world or desire-world is hidden in us, a secret consciousness in which life and desire find their untrammeled play and their easy self-expression and from there throw their influences and formations on our outer life.35

As we can begin to function consciously on the vital level, we come at last into conscious relationship with the vital agencies that energize and influence the individual and collective movements of living beings in the physical world. On the vital level, we experience a level of empathy and direct emotional interaction much greater than that which we experience through the medium of our less responsive physical bodies. Our senses on the vital level are keener, and reach farther, and reveal more than do our senses here. A human being with full consciousness on the vital level could bring down into the physical world, for good or for evil, a level of knowledge and power impossible to someone who confines his or her attention solely to the data of the physical senses.

Further, to the extent that we differentiate on the mental plane of reality, we discover ourselves to inhabit:

a mental or subtle body which enjoys capacities of knowledge, perception, sympathy and interpenetration with other beings hardly imaginable by us and a free, delicate and extensive mentalized sense-faculty not limited by the grosser conditions of the life nature or the physical nature.36

Again, it would represent a great evolutionary accomplishment to bring down into the physical world the knowledge and power available to a being able to operate consciously, and with continuity of memory, in a domain of pure thought. While human beings are, ultimately, working for the embodiment of a Supramental principle, the development of a fuller functioning of our vital and mental principles would, nonetheless, seem to be a necessary accompaniment to a further evolution.

Finally, as the crowning achievement of this developmental path, Aurobindo suggests that we will discover that the being that is expressing itself through these three bodies is an immortal soul, a being that somehow participates both in time and in a timeless and spaceless communion with the Divine on Supramental levels.

This vastly empowering vision of human actuality and human potentiality arises in the context of Aurobindo’s cosmology with its Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds, which this essay attempts to articulate and to support.

Aurobindo offers us a compelling metaphysical system with which he justifies his cosmology, and the arguments presented here are a very vague sketch of that system. But Aurobindo’s arguments begin with a definition of the Absolute. It may be that Aurobindo’s definition of the Absolute is intellectually convincing. It may also be, as Aurobindo claims, that his definition of the Absolute is a description of a possible experience. But in any case this is not empirical evidence that most of us can access at this time. In the remainder of this essay, I will attempt to articulate a different argument that supports the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds – one which – starts not from a definition of the Absolute, but rather from a fresh examination of the structure of our everyday embodied existence that is inspired by the work of Alfred North Whitehead.

© 2009 Eric Weiss. All rights reserved.