Spiritual evolution is the philosophical, theological, esoteric or spiritual idea that nature and human beings and/or human culture evolve, extending from the established cosmological pattern or ascent, or in accordance with certain pre-established potentials. It is synonymous with "higher evolution", a term used to differentiate psychological, mental, or spiritual evolution from the "lower" or biological evolution of physical form.
The concept of spiritual evolution is also complemented by the idea of a creative impulse in human beings, known as epigenesis.
Within this broad definition, theories of spiritual evolution are very diverse. They may be cosmological (describing existence at large), personal (describing the development of the individual), or both. They can be holistic (holding that higher realities emerge from and are not reducible to the lower), idealist (holding that reality is primarily mental or spiritual) or nondual (holding that there is no ultimate distinction between mental and physical reality). All of them can be considered to be teleological to a greater or lesser degree.
Philosophers, scientists, and educators that have proposed theories of spiritual evolution include Schelling, Hegel, Max Théon, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Henri Bergson, Rudolf Steiner, Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Owen Barfield, Arthur M. Young, Edward Haskell, E. F. Schumacher, Erich Jantsch, Clare W. Graves, Alfred North Whitehead, Terence McKenna, P.R. Sarkar and contemporaries William Irwin Thompson, Brian Swimme, and Ken Wilber.
Precursors to the idea 
The cyclic cosmos 
Mircea Eliade has suggested that in many pre-modern cultures one finds the concept of the Fall and a "nostalgia for paradise". However for those cultures that have a cyclic cosmology, the concept of a progressive deterioration of the universe (as in the Hesiodic, Hindu, and Lurianic cosmologies of a degradation from a Golden Age to an Iron Age or Kali Yuga) might be balanced by a corresponding ascent to more spiritual stages and a return to paradisical conditions. This is what one finds in Buddhist and especially Jain cosmologies.
Many premodern cosmologies and esoteric systems of thought are based on an emanationist view of reality. If the Cyclic view is temporal, then emanation is a non-temporal precursor to the theory of spiritual evolution.
According to this paradigm, Creation proceeds as an outpouring or even a transformation in the original Absolute or Godhead. The Supreme Light or Consciousness descends through a series of stages, gradations, worlds or hypostases, becoming progressively more material and embodied, before finally turning around to return to the One, retracing its steps through spiritual knowledge, contemplation and ascent.
A supreme example of this form of thinking is the Neoplatonism of Plotinus and his successors. Other examples and interpretations might be found in Kashmir Shaivism and Tantra in general, Gnosticism, Sufism, and Kabbalah. The Hindu idea of the Chakras might also considered here as the "microcosmic" counterpart of macrocosmic involution and evolution. The Yogi raises the Kundalini or life force through and thus transcends each chakra in turn, until he reaches the crown chakra and liberation.
An early example of the doctrine of spiritual evolution is found in Samkhya, a teaching that goes back more than two and a half thousand years (although its present form dates to around the 4th or 5th century c.e.). Unlike classic Hinduism, the traditional Samkhyan philosophy is atheistic and dualistic. Pure spirit (called purusha) comes into proximity with prakriti (psychophysical nature), disturbing its equilibrium. As a result the original root-prakriti (mulaprakriti) undergoes a series of progressive transformations or unfoldings, in the form of successive essences called tattvas. The most subtle tattwas emerge first, then progressively grosser ones, each in a particular order, and finally the elements and the organs of sense. The goal of evolution however is, paradoxically, the release of prurusha and the return to the unmanifest condition. Hence everything is tending towards a goal of spiritual quiescence.
The great chain of being 
The concept of the great chain of being developed by Plato and Aristotle whose ideas were taken up and synthesised by Plotinus. Plotinus in turn heavily influenced Augustine's theology, and from there Aquinas and the Scholastics. The Great Chain of Being was an important theme in Renaissance and Elizabethan thought, had an under-acknowledged influence on the shaping of the ideas of the Enlightenment and played a large part in the worldview of 18th century Europe. And while essentially a static worldview, by the 18th and early 19th century it had been "temporalized" by the concept of the soul ascending or progressing spiritually through the successive rungs or stages, and thus growing or evolving closer to God. It also had at this time an impact on theories of biological evolution.
E. F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, has recently proposed a sort of simplified Great Chain of Being, based on the idea of four "kingdoms" (mineral, vegetable, animal, human). Schumacher rejects modernist and scientific themes, his approach recalling the universalist orientation of writers like Huston Smith, and quite likely contributing to (unless the latter developed his ideas completely independently) Ken Wilber's "holonomic" hierarchy or "Great Nest of Being".
The concept of spiritual evolution has been taught in Buddhism. William Sturgis Bigelow a physician and Buddhist attempted to merge biology with spirituality, he accepted the existence of both material and spiritual realms, many of his ideas were discussed in his book Buddhism and Immortality (1908). Bigelow used the concept of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution. According to Bigelow spiritual evolution is when an individual emerges from "unconditioned consciousness" and "moves up the scale of evolution guided by natural selection". Next the individual moves to a level of celestial experience, and finally is able to "return to the unconditioned consciousness from which all things emerge." Bigelow accepted both material and spiritual evolution, he believed Buddhism and science were compatible.
Albert Low a Zen master and author of The Origin of Human Nature: A Zen Buddhist Looks at Evolution (2008) opposes neo-Darwinism and the selfish gene as he claims they are materialistic, he also opposes creationism for being dogmatic, instead he advocates spiritual evolution.
Occult concepts 
Theories of spiritual evolution are important in many Occult and Esoteric teachings, which emphasise the progression and development of the individual either after death (spiritualism) or through successive reincarnations (Theosophy, Hermeticism).
Spiritualists reacted with an uncertainy to the theories of evolution in the late 19th and early 20th century. Broadly speaking the concept of evolution fitted the spiritualist thought of the progressive development of humanity. At the same time however, the belief in the animal origins of man threatened the foundation of the immortality of the spirit, for if man had not been created, it was scarely plausible that he would be specially endowed with a spirit. This led to spiritualists embracing spiritual evolution.
The spiritualists view of evolution did not stop at death. Spiritualism taught that after death spirits progressed to spiritual states in new spheres of existence. According to spiritualists evolution occurred in the spirit world “at a rate more rapid and under conditions more favourable to growth” than encountered on earth.
The biologist and spiritualist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) believed that qualitative novelties could arise through the process of spiritual evolution, in particular the phenomena of life and mind, Wallace attributed these novelties to a supernatural agency. Later in his life, Wallace was advocate of spiritualism and believed in an immaterial origin for the higher mental faculties of humans, he believed that evolution suggested that the universe had a purpose, and that certain aspects of living organisms are not be explainable in terms of purely materialistic processes, in a 1909 magazine article entitled The World of Life, which he later expanded into a book of the same name. Wallace argued in his 1911 book World of life for a spiritual approach to evolution and described evolution as “creative power, directive mind and ultimate purpose”. Wallace believed natural selection could not explain intelligence or morality in the human being so suggested that non-material spiritual forces accounted for these. Wallace believed the spiritual nature of man could not of come about by natural selection alone, the origins of the spiritual nature must originate “in the unseen universe of spirit”.
Robert Broom in his book The Coming of Man: Was it Accident or Design? (1933) claimed that "spiritual agencies" had guided evolution as animals and plants were too complex to of arisen by chance. According to Broom there were at least two different kinds of spiritual forces, and psychics are capable of seeing them. Broom claimed there was a plan and purpose in evolution and that the origin of Homo sapiens is the ultimate purpose behind evolution. According to Broom "Much of evolution looks as if it had been planned to result in man, and in other animals and plants to make the world a suitable place for him to dwell in.
The Anglo-American position recalls (and is presumably inspired by) 18th century concepts regarding the temporalization of The Great Chain of Being. Spiritual evolution, rather than being a physical (or physico-spiritual) process is based on the idea of realms or stages through which the soul or spirit passes in a non-temporal, qualitative way. This is still an important part of some spiritualist ideas today, and is similar to some mainline (as opposed to fundamentalist) Protestant Christian beliefs, according to which after death the person goes to "summerland" (see Spirit world)
Theosophical conceptions 
Theosophy presents a more sophisticated and complex cosmology than Spiritualism, although coming out of the same general milieu. H. P. Blavatsky developed a highly original cosmology, according to which the human race (both collectively and through the succession of individual reincarnation and spiritual evolution) passes through a number of Root Races, beginning with the huge ethereal and mindless Polarian or First Root Race, through the Lemurian (3rd), Atlantean (4th) and our present "Aryan" 5th Race. This will give rise to a future, Post-Aryan 6th Root Race of highly spiritual and enlightened beings that will arise in Baja California in the 28th century, and an even more sublime 7th Root Race, before ascending to totally superhuman and cosmic states of existence.
Blavatsky's ideas were further developed by her successors, such as C.W. Leadbeater, Rudolf Steiner, Alice Bailey, and Benjamin Creme, each of whom went into huge detail in constructing baroque cycles of rounds, races, and sub-races.
Although including elements of the science of her day as well as both eastern and western esoteric thought, Blavatsky rejected the Darwinian idea that man evolved from apes, and most subsequent esotericists followed this lead. Darwinism, with its explanation of evolution through material factors like natural selection and random mutation, does not sit well with many spiritual evolutionists, for whom evolution is initiated or guided by metaphysical principles or is tending towards a final spiritual or divine state. It is believed by Theosophists that humans are evolving spiritually through a series of esoteric initiations and in the future humans will become esoteric masters themselves as their souls gradually rise upward through the spiritual hierarchy over the course of eons as they reincarnate.
Despite this, recent Theosophists and Anthroposophists have tried to incorporate the facts of geology and paleontology into their cosmology and spiritual evolution (in Anthroposophy Hermann Poppelbaum is a particularly creative thinker in this regard). Some have attempted to equate Lemuria with Gondwanaland, for example. Today all these ideas have little influence outside their specialised followings, but for a time Theosophical concepts were immensely influential. Theosophy-like teachings also continue today in a group of religions based on Theosophy called the Ascended Master Teachings.
Theurgy has a clear relationship to Neoplatonism and Kabbalah and contains the concept of spiritual evolution and ultimately unification with God or the Godhead at its core. Theurgy is considered by many to be another term for high magic and is known to have influenced the members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn many of whom considered the order to be Theurgic in nature. Aleister Crowley also considered his Thelemic system of magical philosophy to be a Theurgic tradition as it emphasized the Great Work, which is essentially another form of spiritual evolution. The Great Work is believed to result in communication with one's personal angel or higher self.
Epigenesis is the philosophical/theological/esoteric idea that since the mind was given to the human being, it is the original creative impulse, epigenesis, which has been the cause of all of mankind's development.
According to spiritual evolution, humans build upon that which has already been created, but add new elements because of the activity of the spirit. Humans have the capacity, therefore, to become creative intelligences—creators. For a human to fulfill this promise, his training should allow for the exercise of originality, which distinguishes creation from imitation. When epigenesis becomes inactive, in the individual or even in a race, evolution ceases and degeneration commences.
This concept is based on the Rosicrucian view of the world as a training school, which posits that while mistakes are made in life, humans often learn more from mistakes than successes. Suffering is considered as merely the result of error, and the impact of suffering on the consciousness causes humans to be active along other lines which are found to be good, in harmony with nature. Humans are seen as spirits attending the school of life for the purpose of unfolding latent spiritual power, developing themselves from impotence to omnipotence (related also to development from innocence into virtue), reaching the stage of creative gods at the end of mankind's present evolution: Great Day of Manifestation.
Evolution towards Godhead 
A common vision 
Sri Aurobindo and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin both describe a progression from inanimate matter to a future state of Divine consciousness. Teilhard de Chardin refers to this as the Omega Point, and Sri Aurobindo as the Supermind.
Teilhard de Chardin 
Teilhard, who was a Jesuit Paleontologist who played an important role in the discovery of Peking Man, presented a teleological view of planetary and cosmic evolution, according to which the formation of atoms, molecules and inanimate matter is followed by the development of the biosphere and organic evolution, then the appearance of man and the noosphere as the total envelope of human thought. According to Teilhard evolution does not cease here but continues on to its culmination and unification in the Omega Point, which he identifies with Christ.
Meher Baba's "involution" 
Meher Baba has used the term involution to describe the inner journey of consciousness after transcending the physical or gross state up to the attainment of Self-consciousness, or merging with God. According to Meher Baba, the consciousness of the soul in duality first goes through the long process of evolution of form, then, upon reaching the human form, consciousness enters the process of reincarnation, and finally reaches the process of involution, which culminates in God-realization.
Surat Shabda Yoga 
Surat Shabda Yoga esoteric cosmology depicts the whole of creation (the macrocosm) as being emanated and arranged in a spiritually differentiated hierarchy, often referred to as eggs, regions, or planes. Typically, eight spiritual levels are described above the physical plane, although names and subdivisions within these levels will vary to some extent by mission and Master. (One version of the creation from a Surat Shabda Yoga perspective is depicted at the Sant Ajaib Singh Ji Memorial Site in “The Grand Scheme of All Creation”.)
The constitution of the individual (the microcosm) is an exact replica of the macrocosm. Consequently, the microcosm consists of a number of bodies, each one suited to interact with its corresponding plane or region in the macrocosm. These bodies developed over the yugas through involution (emanating from higher planes to lower planes) and evolution (returning from lower planes to higher planes), including by karma and reincarnation in various states of consciousness.
Dynamic evolution through successive kingdoms 
Arthur M. Young and Edward Haskell have each independently incorporated the findings of science into a larger theory of spiritual evolution, and extended the traditional human, animal, vegetable, and mineral categories with kingdoms representing photons, atoms and molecules. Arthur M. Young goes further in considering the human state as a subset of a larger kingdom of "Dominion", of which the sixth stage is represented for example by Christ and Buddha, and the seventh (final) stage an even higher level of Enlightenment or God-realisation. Moreover, both Haskell and Young present profound accounts of evolution through these kingdoms in terms of cybernetic principles. A more "mainstream" scientific presentation of this same idea is provided by Erich Jantsch in his consummate account of how self-organising systems evolve and develop as a series of "symmetry breaks" through the sequence of matter, life, and mind. Although abiding strictly by the understanding of science, Jantsch arranges the various elements of cosmic, planetary, biological, psychological, and human evolution in a single overall framework of emergent evolution that may or may not be considered teleological.
New Age ideas 
New Age thought is strongly syncretic and often based on a superficial but creative interpretation of previous spiritual and esoteric traditions, especially Eastern thought, Theosophy, and popular interpretations of science. A common theme is the evolution or the transcendence of the human or collective planetary consciousness in a higher state or higher "vibratory" (a metaphor taken from G. I. Gurdjieff) level.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull narrated the idea of evolution in a fascinating fashion. James Redfield in his novel The Celestine Prophecy suggested that through experiencing a series of personal spiritual insights, humanity is becoming aware of the connection between our evolution and the Divine. More recently in his book God and the Evolving Universe: The Next Step in Personal Evolution (2002) co-written with Michael Murphy, he claims that humanity is on the verge of undergoing a change in consciousness.
Integral theory and spiral dynamics 
More recently the concept of spiritual evolution has been given a sort of respectability it has not had since the early 19th century through the work of Ken Wilber, in whose writings both the cosmological and the personal dimensions are described. In this integral philosophy (inspired in part by the works of Plotinus, Hegel, Sri Aurobindo, Eric Jantsch, and many others) reality is said to consist of several realms or stages, including more than one of the following: the physical, the vital, the psychic, (after the Greek psyche, "soul"), the causal (referring to "that which causes, or gives rise to, the manifest world"), and the ultimate (or non-dual), through which the individual progressively evolves. Although this schema is derived in large part from Tibetan Buddhism, Wilber argues (and uses many tables of diagrams to show) that these same levels of being are common to all wisdom teachings. Described simplistically, Wilber sees humans developing through several stages, including magic, mythic, pluralistic, and holistic mentalities. But he also sees cultures as developing through these stages. And, much like Hegel, he sees this development of individuals and cultures as the evolution of existence itself. Wilber has also teamed up with Don Beck to integrate Spiral Dynamics into his own Integral philosophy, and vice versa. Spiral Dynamics posits a series of stages through which human's cultural development progresses - from a survival-based hunter-gatherer stage to a magical-tribal-agrarian stage to a city-building-invading stage to a mythic-religious-empire stage to a rational-scientific-capitalist stage to a green-holistic-inclusive stage and then ascending to a second tier where all the previous stages are contemplated and integrated and a third transpersonal tier where a spiritual unity or Omega point is eventually reached, which all the other stages are struggling to embody. He feels that individuals in each of the meme-plexes/stages can ascend to the peak of consciousness - these being the prophets, visionaries and leaders of any region/age.
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- Sri Aurobindo (1977) The Life Divine, (Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust), ISBN 0-941524-62-0 (hardcover), ISBN 0-941524-61-2 (paperback)
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