Sri Aurobindo’s description of occultism is clear and concise: “Occultism is in its essence man’s effort to arrive at a knowledge of secret truths and potentialities of Nature which will lift him out of slavery to his physical limits of being, an attempt in particular to possess and organise the mysterious, occult, outwardly still undeveloped direct power of Mind upon Life and of both Mind and Life over Matter. There is at the same time an endeavour to establish communication with worlds and entities belonging to the supraphysical heights, depths and intermediate levels of cosmic Being and to utilise this communion for the mastery of a higher Truth and for a help to man in his will to make himself sovereign over Nature’s powers and forces.”

“The occultist sought to know the secret of physical things also and in this effort he furthered astronomy, created chemistry, gave an impulse to other sciences, for he utilised geometry also and the science of numbers; but still more he sought to know the secrets of supernature. In this sense occultism might be described as the science of the supernatural; but it is in fact only the discovery of the supraphysical, the surpassing of the material limit,–the heart of occultism is not the impossible chimera which hopes to go beyond or outside all forces of Nature and make pure phantasy and arbitrary miracle omnipotently effective.”

“There are powers of the mind and the life-force which have not been included in Nature’s present systematisation of mind and life in matter, but are potential and can be brought to bear upon material things and happenings or even brought in and added to the present systematisation so as to enlarge the control of mind over our own life and body or to act on the minds, lives, bodies of others or on the movements of cosmic Forces.”

We shall continue our review of occultism in the next posts.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 24, “The Evolution of the Spiritual Man”

Fulfilling the Ultimate Function of Religion

The development of religion in India took a different tack than that in the West for the most part. The primary difference was that India refused to close off any possible avenue to the Divine realisation, and thus, wound up with an enormous diversity and complexity of religious activities which did not block off or restrict any avenue of life or intellectual development. By contrast in the West, the focus continued to narrow until eventually religion came into conflict with the development of the intellectual powers particularly the scientific revolution, a conflict which still obtains today in some places.

Sri Aurobindo provides us several ultimate goals that religion is to achieve, and looked at from that light, it is essential that a broad diversity of effort and embracing of all aspects of life and intellect be permitted within the framework of the spiritual impulse. “The individual demands from religion a door of opening into spiritual experience or a means of turning towards it, a communion with God or a definite light of guidance on the way, a promise of the hereafter or a means of a happier supraterrestrial future; these needs can be met on the narrower basis of credal belief and sectarian cult. But there is also the wider purpose of Nature to prepare and further the spiritual evolution in man and turn him into a spiritual being; religion serves her as a means for pointing his effort and his ideal in that direction and providing each one who is ready with the possibility of taking a step upon the way towards it.”

“Whatever errors Religion has committed, this is her function and her great and indispensable utility and service,–the holding up of this growing light of guidance on our way through the mind’s ignorance towards the Spirit’s complete consciousness and self-knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 24, “The Evolution of the Spiritual Man”

Evolutionary Process of Religion In India

When one first encounters the religious life of India, one is impressed by the diversity and extraordinary range of the different religions. One almost feels like there is a unique religious expression for almost every person! In fact, there is a broad scope of religious development which allows, accepts and encourages each unique relationship to the Divine to find a place and express itself. India appears to have widened its capability of acceptance to not block out any potential path to realisation and one sees all the major world religions as well as a rich tradition of occultism, one-pointed spiritual focus abandoning all things of the world, even to the extent of naked ascetics renouncing everything for their spiritual faith. A rich tradition of yoga, worship, devotion, spirituality and renunciation, as well as some of the deepest philosophical directions and a strong segment of effort on “The Yoga of Works” (Karma Yoga) which embraces action in life as a means of spiritual fulfilment, can be recognised in the various paths and practices one finds in India. Events such as the Maha Kumbha Mela draw many tens of millions of visitors and one finds there an extremely diverse group of religious and spiritual practitioners and teachings.

Sri Aurobindo describes this state of affairs in the light of the two-fold evolutionary movement that has been discussed in recent posts: “In India, we have seen, there has been a persistence of the original intuition and total movement of evolutionary Nature. For religion in India limited itself by no one creed or dogma; it not only admitted a vast number of different formulations, but contained successfully within itself all the elements that have grown up in the course of the evolution of religion and refused to ban or excise any: it developed occultism to its utmost limits, accepted spiritual philosophies of all kinds, followed to its highest, deepest or largest outcome every possible line of spiritual realisation, spiritual experience, spiritual self-discipline. Its method has been the method of evolutionary Nature herself, to allow all developments, all means of communication and action of the spirit upon the members, all ways of communion between man and the Supreme or Divine, to follow every possible way of advance to the goal and test it even to its extreme. All stages of spiritual evolution are there in man and each has to be allowed or provided with its means of approach to the spirit, an approach suited to its capacity, adhikara .Even the primitive forms that survived were not banned but were lifted to a deeper significance, while still there was the pressure to the highest spiritual pinnacles in the rarest supreme ether. Even the exclusive credal type of religion was not itself excluded; provided its affinity to the general aim and principle was clear, it was admitted into the infinite variety of the general order.”

The foundation of this diversity was a fixed social order which limited to some degree the ability of such a broad diversity to evolve effectively in certain directions. But in the main, the principle of this widest possible line of development found its home in India, which provided the basis for the richness of the endeavor.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 24, “The Evolution of the Spiritual Man”

The Persistent Major Religions

Religions arose as a result of the dual movement of concentrated development of spiritual experience and then the broadening movement through development of an outer form suitable for the needs of the generality of humanity, as discussed in the prior post. Those that were able to incorporate both movements effectively gained a power of persistence and ongoing impact that continues today. These have become what are known as the “world religions”. Each of them, in its own way, has addressed the dual requirements of a renewable spiritual seed or core, and the ability to speak to large masses of individuals through a body of knowledge, faith and ritual. Individuals are able, through these religions, to find their way toward spiritual realisation.

Sri Aurobindo points out that there tends to be a division in these religions, broadly related to the two driving impulses, which in many cases leads to a split between what can be called the “catholic” direction and the “protestant” direction. (These terms are not specifically related to Christianity in this sense, although Christianity provides an example of the concept.) The first tendency tends to root itself in the underlying energy that spawned the particular religion, with a more all-embracing view and support from the spiritual experience that was at the heart of that religion. As the intellect developed and people became less willing to rely on the aspect of intuition & experience, the second tendency developed to rationalise, and codify the religion into a set of principles, beliefs and outer worship.

Unfortunately, without the well-spring of spiritual experience, religions become dry and “can only pile up external knowledge and machinery and efficiency and ends in a drying up of the secret springs of vitality and a decadence without any inner power to save the life or create a new life or any other way out than death and disintegration and a new beginning out of the old Ignorance.”

We thus see that following a period of intellectualisation of religion that there is a movement of seeking and inner exploration that tends to abandon the old religious traditions and strikes out in new directions. This process has taken place throughout the world and throughout history and has led to the rise and decline of major religions as they went through a similar process over time.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 24, “The Evolution of the Spiritual Man”

The Mystic and the Religious Man

In the ancient religions and mystical traditions the experience of the spiritual truths of existence was carefully preserved and transmitted as a secret knowledge held by the few, the initiates, who were carefully prepared for the experience and who were qualified for the conditions required by the quest. This developed an esoteric side to the religions understood and experienced by the mystics of each respective religious tradition. This represents the second stage of development described in the previous post.

“Out of this second stage there emerged a third which tried to liberate the secret spiritual experience and knowledge and put it at the disposal of all as a truth that could have a common appeal and must be made universally available. A tendency prevailed, not only to make the spiritual element the very kernel of the religion, but to render it attainable to all the worshippers by an exoteric teaching; as each esoteric school had had its system of knowledge and discipline, so now each religion was to have its system of knowledge, its creed and its spiritual discipline.”

Sri Aurobindo points out that these two sides, the esoteric side of the mystic, and the exoteric side of the religious man, actually represent a dual principle of Nature, “the principle of intensive and concentrated evolution in a small space and the principle of expansion and extension so that the new creation may be generalised in as large a field as possible.”

“The mystics founded their endeavor on a power of supra-rational knowledge, intuitive, inspired, revelatory and on the force of the inner being to enter into occult truth and experience: but these powers are not possessed by men int he mass or possessed only in a crude, undeveloped and fragmentary initial form on which nothing could be safely founded; so for them in this new development the spiritual truth had to be clothed in intellectual forms of creed and doctrine, in emotional forms of worship and in a simple but significant ritual.”

This allowed the broadening of the base of spiritual focus to a much larger segment of humanity, but gave up thereby a considerable amount of the intensity and amplitude of effort that could be applied by the select group of mystics with their specialised capacities and training.

Early mystics, concerned about the watering down of the spiritual experience and the possibility of misuse of occult powers derived during the practices, traditionally kept the teachings secret and reserved for the initiated only. Another risk involved the loss of significant “life energy” of the spiritual impetus through rationalisation and turning into into creed and dogma. However, for humanity as a whole to progress, it became necessary for Nature to undertake the expansive movement even with the considerable amount of dilution and misuse that would occur. “But this risk had to be taken, for the expansive movement was an inherent necessity of the spiritual urge in evolutionary Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 24, “The Evolution of the Spiritual Man”

Mystical Basis of Religious Experience

As religion evolved from its earliest manifestations, it took on an outer form consisting of rituals, ceremonies, practices, and a system of ethics. Sri Aurobindo points out that what is missing from this picture is the support of a deeper spiritual significance. He indicates that “this gap was filled in in the greater more developed cultures by a strong background of occult knowledge and practices or else by carefully guarded mysteries with a first element of spiritual wisdom and discipline. Occultism occurs more often as an addition or superstructure, but is not always present; the worship of divine powers, sacrifice, a surface piety and social ethics are the main factors. A spiritual philosophy or idea of the meaning of life seems at first to be absent, but its beginnings are often contained in the myths and mysteries and in one or two instances fully emerge out of them so that it assumes a strong separate existence.”

Sri Aurobindo further speculates that it was the mystic or occultist in the social order who created or developed the religion, since it is the role of the individual to mediate the experience for the larger community. “…it is the occultist and mystic element in that mind which created it and it must have found individuals through whom it could emerge; for a mass experience or discovery or expression is not the first method of Nature; it is at some one point or a few points that the fire is lit and spreads from hearth to hearth, from altar to altar. But the spiritual aspiration and experience of the mystics was usually casketed in secret formulas and given only to a few initiates; it was conveyed to the rest or rather preserved for them in a mass of religious or traditional symbols. It is these symbols that were the heart’s core of religion in the mind of an early humanity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 24, “The Evolution of the Spiritual Man”

Foundations of Religion in Primitive Mankind

We may get some insight into the foundations of religion when we view the religious customs and beliefs of isolated tribes that have been located in the Amazon or remote islands such as Papua New Guinea. The view we obtained can be amplified by reviewing the historical record, particularly in those cultures that have a long history of an oral and written record. In addition to this, we can find physical traces that speak to the religious practices and beliefs of some cultures, and finally, there is the evolution of religion as made visible to us through the process of history. All of these provide us a certain amount of background and insight into the origins of religion and the beliefs held by primitive mankind.

“Primitive man lives much in a low and small province of his life-being, and this corresponds on the occult plane to an invisible Nature which is of a like character and whose occult powers can be called into activity by a knowledge and methods to which the lower vital intuitions and instincts may open a door of access. This might be formulated in a first stage of religious belief and practice which would be occult after a crude inchoate fashion in its character and interests, not yet spiritual; its main element would be a calling in of small life-powers and elemental beings to the aid of small life-desires and a rude physical welfare.”

Sri Aurobindo cautions that much of earlier stages is necessarily hidden from us, and that while we interpret what facts come to our awareness, there are some who hold the belief that, on the contrary, the earlier civilisation and development was a higher form of development from which we have experienced a fall.

Sri Aurobindo’s description is clearly tuned to the early tribal religious activities which centered in magic, nature worship, fetishism, totemism, superstition and taboo. Later developments tapped into the deep inner intuitive realms and brought about the type of understanding that even today sheds enormous light on the human situation, such as that found in the Vedas.

Sri Aurobindo discusses this point to help us understand the different psychological basis that informed religious belief before the rise and supremacy of the logical intellect superceded the action of instinct, intuition and occult relation of man to world and man to God that obtained in the primitive world view.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 24, “The Evolution of the Spiritual Man”