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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