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”

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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”