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.