What is Life?

What is this thing we so vaguely refer to as life? To the scientist, it is the physiological functions of respiration, metabolism and reproduction in all living things. To the common man, it refers to the span of his existence and all the events and experiences during the time. But does that explain all that life is? Or does it, like a map of the earth with continents, oceans, mountains and forests marked, that leaves out the people and claims to cover all that there is, miss out on something? All that we call luck, chance, fate, opportunity, misfortune, destiny - where do they fit in?

Scientific conception of Life

Modern science conceives of all life forms as mechanical assemblies of physical parts that operate in such a manner as to sustain the integrity of their structure, nurture growth, reproduction and adaptation. Science has been so successful in delving into the mysteries of the atom and the gene that it might be apt to accept its pronouncements on life with equal confidence, were it not for the fact that the scientific conception is so directly at odds with our own personal experience as human beings. Rationally, we are forced to acknowledge that our progress in unraveling the secrets of matter has been accompanied by only modest gains in the fields of life and consciousness. Even after we have completely mapped the human genetic code and are able to manipulate it to correct physical defects in the body, we would understand nothing fundamentally more about the wider field of Life. Life science is also about the studies of living things like plants,animals and other living organisms!

Life as a field of action

Life as presently defined and pursued by science is confined to the physiological mechanism in matter. But Life as lived by human beings is a much vaster field of vital existence. It is a field of form and force like the material plane – a field of energy, action, reaction and result. The military commander who strives to anticipate the actions of enemy forces and the impact of unpredictable weather conditions on a battle; the entrepreneur and manager who strives to anticipate the actions of competitors and unexpressed needs of customers; the politician who tries to glimpse the unsatisfied aspirations and unaddressed anxieties of the electorate; the statesman striving to prevent war and promote peace; the householder trying to support a family and maintain harmony between the generations—all these people, all of us, confront in our daily ‘lives’ aspects of life that are very far removed and only distantly related to the physiological functions of the body. But these too are central aspects of Life.

As lay readers struggle with the physicist’s conception of fields, wave-particles and the like, those unfamiliar with Sri Aurobindo’s thought may initially find it difficult to grasp what he means by the term ‘life’; for, indeed, our science has no term to describe an equivalent field of existence. To the biologist, life is associated with a group of physiological functions, reproduction, respiration, and metabolism. The presence or absence of these functions in biological forms denotes the presence or absence of life. To each of us as individual living beings, the term is commonly applied to a much broader field than the physiological. We apply it with reference to the entire span of our existence, to all the actions and experiences that occur and all the people and objects it involves. We also commonly speak of the life of organizations, social movements, communities and societies, in which we include all the activities and institutions associated with them. Beyond these, all cultures recognize that life is a plane of existence and experience subject to its own characteristic laws or ways of functioning, no matter how enigmatic they may often appear, as connoted in phrases such as “Life is like that.” What do all these varied definitions have in common? They all denote a field of existence in which energy and action are primary, while form of substance (body) and form of thought (mind) are secondary. What does the materialist hypothesis tell us about this field? If we apply the materialist’s determinants to Life, we must conclude that results in this plane too are a product of chance (also referred to as luck or misfortune) and necessity (also referred to as destiny or fate); yet as with respect to the material plane, we are unable to determine what it is that determines that necessity, or governs its interplay with chance. There is no room in the materialist formulation of Life for notions such as choice and free will, no matter how real these principles may be to our personal experience. The conscious formulation of new individual and collective actions, the conscious evolutionary development of complexity within individuals and social groupings would have to be regarded, according to the materialist hypothesis, as mere action of material energy. While some biologists and neurophysiologists may feel comfortable explaining their own existence on the basis of this mechanistic formula, most of us will feel that it leaves a wide and unsatisfying gap in our knowledge and our power for mastery in life. Their principles may be valid for life science, but not for a science of life. Moreover, they cast serious doubt on the claim of scientists to be anywhere near a final theory that unites and reconciles all the forces of nature, except in the very narrowest and most material definition of nature.

Life as a universal force

In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo describes life as a universal force that expresses as the individual force maintaining each individual form and object in manifestation. It is the force that creates and preserves the form, defends its survival and energizes its growth. Although we view life in terms of many separate and individual lives, it is only one single, universal existence that we perceive as many. In its origin, life is the infinite, creative force that builds the worlds and inhabits them with forms of its own self-conception and creation. It is the conscious force of Sat, the Self-Conscious Being, the Pure Existence, the Divine Consciousness, the Omnipresent reality.

But here in the physical vital world we live and act in, Life does not appear to us either as consciousness or as force. We do not generally attribute conscious awareness or intention to life, even though we often find occasions that seem to indicate a secret will or fate or determinism governing our lives. We do not think of life as consciously or even unconsciously acting upon us in certain ways or subconsciously responding to what we think, feel or do. We do not generally think of life as a force either. We are aware only of many individual forms and forces acting in, around and upon us – the actions of our own desires, other individuals, the influence of public opinion, the restrictive and protective action of social conventions, laws and social institutions, as well as the action of the material forces of nature – rain, wind, lightning, the hurricane or earthquake or meteor from outer space. Each seems to us driven by its own inner determinism or its own natural laws, but we do not normally perceive any master script or director or set of rules or unifying principle governing the whole play of life.

Character of Life

Because science lacks an adequate and unambiguous term to refer to this wider field of life, Sri Aurobindo refers to it as the vital plane of existence. And his thought takes us further into realms heretofore unexplored by science. This vital plane of life exhibits characteristic patterns of functioning on a parallel to the characteristic patterns of functioning of the physical plane which science refers to by the term ‘universal laws’.

Life has a character. It has a capacity to respond, and the nature of that response is a direct function of the consciousness of the individuals or groups involved in the action. As physics observes and catalogs the characteristic properties of material substances and the interactions of material energies, seeks to understand their origin and to discover the laws that govern them, a true science of life must carefully observe and catalog the characteristic patterns of action and response in life.

This is the truth behind the much maligned and misunderstood concept of karma. Its essential meaning is that every action in life releases a particular vibration or quality of energy that evokes a response from the same vibratory quality of life in the world around. Violence begets violence, one good turn deserves another, and countless other commonplace phrases reflect shades of this profound truth. But the complexity of life energies and events is so great that simplistic formulas such as these will fail to satisfy empirically unless founded upon a deep and systematic study of life events and consequences. That is precisely what science can bring to the study of life, once it consents to impartially examine an alternative hypothesis.

Every successful farmer, business leader, politician and statesman—all those whose primary objective is accomplishment in social life, rather than being confined to work on material substances or mental formulations—intuitively discover these truths. Great writers of fiction, of whom Shakespeare is the preeminent example, intuitively reflect them in the words and actions of their characters and the consequences of those actions. The sudden attack by a pirate ship which enables Hamlet to escape the plot for his execution in England appears at first glance to be appropriately described by the materialists’ concept of chance or luck, until the underlying determinants and governing principles of life are better known. Critics have studied many such patterns of action and consequence in great literary works, usually without realizing that they were dealing with universal laws of action and reaction that are the basis of a fully rational and verifiable science of life. Not just literature, but also history and biography are replete with instances that point to a deeper level of causality in life. That an inexplicable order by Hitler on May 24, 1940 stopping the advance of Nazi troops to Dunkirk, coupled with the sudden onset of heavy fog along the coast, made possible the near miraculous evacuation of 350,000 allied troops with minimum casualties; mocks at simplistic notions of chance and necessity in life. Traditional wisdom in all cultures is rich with insights into truths of life, though it usually fails to organize and present the theoretical basis for its conclusions in a manner understandable or acceptable to the rational mind.

Who has not had less complex and dramatic, but nevertheless striking instances in their own life? You think or speak of a particular person and a moment later a letter or phone call arrives from that person or he arrives at your door. If there is a causal relationship between your action and the result, it is obviously not material. You become interested in a particular subject for the first time and suddenly find life inundating you with information about it that you have not even sought. You think of a word or passage and open a book spontaneously to just that topic. You notice that both good and bad news seem too often come in streams; one good thing following another or a crop of bad news all coming to harvest at the same time, even when the sources and causes of events appear causally unrelated.

Science of Life

Before turning to life experiences for validation, we must lay out the broad theoretical outlines of the science of life.

Life is a manifest form of pure consciousness or spirit existing as a plane of vital consciousness in the gradation of universal existence. On its own plane, the substance of life is Force.

This force is inherent in all forms of existence, but manifests in different degrees. The force of life expresses itself on the physical plane on earth as the animating principle of matter which gives life and movement to inert substances.

Out of this living matter, plants and animals have evolved, culminating in the appearance of mental human beings. In humanity, there is a meeting of the three planes of earthly life--material, vital and mental. Human life is a complex interaction of physical forces, vital forces, higher vital or emotional forces and mental forces as well as spiritual forces. The field in which mental and emotional forces grapple with life is the field of human consciousness, which is the concern of the present study.

Life, as we have said, is a vibration or group of vibrations more subtle and rarefied than matter, which expresses itself as seeking for enjoyment, possession and expansion. This force of life is constantly evolving into higher, more complex and more powerful forms. To understand the character of life in the field of human consciousness, we must discover the basic principles or laws that describe the way the life force expresses itself and the nature of its interaction with the other planes.

Laws of Life

An analogy can be made between the laws of life and the laws of physical science. By the laws of physics (statics and dynamics) science can explain and predict the movement of ocean tides with very great precision. But 1000 years ago no one would have believed this was possible nor would they have accepted the existence of these immutable laws. Today the same precision is not possible for the psychologist, because he does not know the laws governing human behavior and would deny their very existence, just as his great ancestors would have denied the laws of physics. The forces of life are more subtle and rarefied than physical forces and seemingly incapable of codification. But in actuality the laws of the gross physical plane are manifestations of laws on the more subtle planes.

To carry the analogy further: as a number of factors determine physical movements such as material force, gravitation and friction, so also for life movements the corresponding factors are force, strength and intensity. What we call force of character or moral force can be reduced to its component vectors of strength and direction.

Certain physical phenomena are best explained by the laws of chemical reactions involving changes in substances and energy levels. These changes are decided by the nature of the substances, the temperature, pressure and conditions of interaction. The field of life is parallel to this; only the significant determinants are more numerous and less easily measured.

The principles describing the character or psychology of life fall within the category of natural or universal laws. Yet, it is essential to bear in mind that by the term law we do not mean a fixed invariable rule without conditions or exceptions. Rather the term is used to indicate a general propensity of nature, a certain habit or behavior which repeats itself over and over in the greater and lesser movements of life, subject to a large number of variables and innumerable exceptions in the form of higher laws of the cosmos and interventions from other planes. Our attempt is to uncover the chain of causality concealed beneath the surface of chance, accident, fate and fortune in life without touching on the more profound depths and wider vistas of cosmic existence. These principles “belong to a middle region between the inmost or supreme Truth of things and the impartiality of material Nature” [1].With this qualification we may proceed to formulate some of the basic principles of the psychology of life.

Basic unit of life is the act

Life as human beings live it is a field in which forms and forces interact to produce results. However, in this case the forms are not forms of material substance; they are forms of action. As the basic building block of material forms is the atom, the basic building block of life forms is the individual act. In both instances, the real foundation for the form is energy in constant movement.

As atoms combine together to constitute larger inorganic forms ranging in size from the molecule to the planet, solar system and galaxy and more complex organic forms ranging in complexity from single cells, to organs, organisms and species; so too, individual acts combine to form larger, more complex and more enduring activities, systems, organizations, institutions, customs and cultures. Composing a letter, conceiving a child, establishing a business, and founding a country are acts. Farming, shopping, manufacturing and researching are complex recurring chains of activity. Social habits, customs, procedures, and laws are complex systems of acts. Like the atom, each of these acts and systems can be broken down into smaller constituent parts ad infinitum to discern the minutest sensations, impulses, thoughts and movements of which they are constituted. Each is itself part of a longer chain or larger system of actions. Like the expansive movements of stars and galaxies, each act can be traced back to its origins in the distant past and to its explicit or subtle consequences in the distant future. The key to this evolution of complexity in life is tersely explained by Sri Aurobindo. “It (life) evolves through growth of consciousness even as consciousness evolves through greater organization and perfection of life”[2]. A progressive emergence of a previously involved consciousness and a progressive organization of the consciousness that emerges are the twin principles of evolution in all planes of existence, material, social, psychological and even spiritual.

The forces that act in our lives include not only forces of material nature such as weather and gravity, but also social forces such as political power, social status and peer pressure; and psychological forces such as the power of ideas, ideals, opinions, beliefs, emotions, sensations, impulses, desires and aspirations. All these forces meet and interact in the cauldron of life to influence the course of the acts, activities, systems and organizations. When Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517 to launch the Reformation; when President Roosevelt halted the US banking crisis in 1932 by appealing to the American people over the radio; when Churchill single-handedly inspired the British people to resist Nazi aggression at a time when all of Europe had capitulated; when Mahatma Gandhi stirred the Indian masses to cast off two centuries of British imperial rule: when Gorbachev unilaterally dismantled the iron structure of communist authoritarianism that ended the Cold War – their acts expressed and mobilized forces of tremendous intensity to confront opposing forces and destroy or alter entrenched forms of social organization. The fields in which they acted, variously termed economic, religious, political, social and psychological, are fields for scientific inquiry – arguably far more central and important fields than any that absorbs the attention of astrophysicists or evolutionary biologists. The material, technological, organizational, social and psychological forces they wielded and unleashed are also proper subject for scientific study. The forms they created, altered or destroyed, be they forms of governance, law and social organization or forms of social attitude and mental understanding; are very much objects for scientific investigation.

Structure of acts

As science studies the structure and functioning of material substance to discover its composition, the processes through which it undergoes change, and the rules governing its interactions with other substances, so also, both for the purposes of pure and applied knowledge, science needs to study the structure of acts to discover their composition, motive power, sequence and interactions with other acts. Scientific knowledge of matter generates the power to create new and improved materials and to produce more efficient material processes with less expenditure of physical energy. Scientific knowledge of Life will generate the power to create new and more effective acts and organizations of acts, to accomplish far greater results with less expenditure of human energy. As the study of physics holds a key to understanding the process of material creation, the study of these life processes holds the key to the process of human accomplishment in all fields of life, which is creation of a higher, more complex order.

It should be evident that the relevance of the material hypothesis of physical science to these fields has been severely limited. The most useful of social scientific theories reveals little correlation to the material hypothesis. Most of what we know and practice in Life is drawn from other types of knowledge – the insights of great thinkers, the life experience of great achievers, even the intuitions of the mystic. We look to these sources and draw inspiration from them, because we find the revelations of science insufficient to explain and insufficient to ensure our success. With regard to life, the scientist is like a visitor from another planet who views the earth from high above and draws a map outlining all its contours and variations in color, pinpointing its settlements, tracking the movement of lights and objects below, but never placing foot on the earth, never hearing the sound of waves crashing, never experiencing the variety of its wildlife, never knowing of the joys, strivings and sufferings of its people. He mistakes the map, a symbolic representation of physical attributes, for the reality and thinks he knows all there is to know. But that is not Life.

Laws of Life

According to Sri Aurobindo, there are objective, universal laws that govern actions, reactions and results in life, but these laws are not the laws codified by material science, they are laws of consciousness. He goes even further to argue that the fundamental principles of consciousness governing these phenomena are in essence the same as those governing material fields, forces and forms, only the fields of action, the forms and the forces are subtle, not material. He, too, quests for an ultimate unifying theory. But it becomes evident that by ultimate unification he means something far more encompassing and also far more relevant to human existence than the unification of the four fundamental forces of material nature long sought after by physics. Both by the criterion of knowledge and the criterion of utility, we find science wanting in this domain that is so very central to our existence and so very much more relevant than the action of dark matter or the existence of parallel universes. This is not intended to disparage the pursuit for integrative theories in physics or any other field. It is only intended to place in relative perspective their overall contributions to knowledge and human existence and to offer an approach that achieves internal consistency and external efficacy in all the planes of our existence.

An objective and in-depth study of life will reveal that it does exhibit all the attributes of a universal force with a pronounced character of its own. So vast is the scope and so great is the complexity of life’s character that it cannot be fully grasped by mental comprehension. Full knowledge of life reveals itself only to spiritual vision. Nevertheless, we can identify many of the general laws and principles by which it functions.



  1. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 814.
  2. The Life Divine, p.1018