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”

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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”