The Rationale and Limitations of the Paths of Devotion and Works in the Quest for Realisation

In the review of the abstract intellect it was recognised that there are both serious positive benefits and serious limitations to the seeking carried out by that power of consciousness. One of the main limitations was the inability of the abstract mind to satisfy the legitimate seeking and goals of the other parts of our complex human nature. If we once accept both the reality and the necessity of these other parts of our being, it is no longer acceptable to “cut the knot” by simply suppressing or denying them in an austere abstract practice. This provides us then the rationale for accepting the aspiration of the heart and the will in the being and a need to find a way to harness them into the yogic practice.

Sri Aurobindo describes the issue: “Not only his abstracting contemplative intellect but his yearning heart, his active will, his positive mind in search of some Truth to which his existence and the existence of the world is a manifold key, have their straining towards the Eternal and Infinite and seek to find in it their divine Source and the justification of their being and their nature.”

“From this need arise the religions of love and works, whose strength is that they satisfy and lead Godwards the most active and developed powers of our humanity,–for only by starting from these can knowledge be effective.”

The limitations of these paths however is that they focus almost entirely on the outer life and the external world, and thereby do not provide real leverage to achieve the high and powerful seeking available to the abstract intellectual path. A balance is required that integrates both the quietistic contemplative intellect with the active devotional and will-directed actions to bring about a complete realisation.

“No God-knowledge can be integral, perfect or universally satisfying which leaves unfulfilled their absolute claim, no wisdom utterly wise which in its intolerant asceticism of search negates or in the pride of pure knowledge belittles the spiritual reality behind these ways of the Godhead.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 7, The Supreme Word of the Gita, pp. 324-326

The Methods and Limitations of the Abstract Intellect In the Process of Realisation

The abstract reason is perhaps the most uniquely human capability, relying on the intellect to analyze, discriminate and define things. When applied to the process of realisation, this power provides both its unique strengths and its limiting weaknesses. The strengths of the abstract intellectual reason is that it provides an actual opportunity to escape the bondage of everyday affairs and thus, provide an opportunity for a further development and a new standpoint. It does this through systematically reviewing each thing, whether a material form, or a force, or a thought, and determining if it is limited or unlimited, finite or infinite; and to the extent it determines the limitations, it excludes those forms, forces or ideas. Eventually, it is forced to eliminate everything in manifestation and develop a statement such as we find in the Upanishads at one point, “neti, neti” (“not this, not that”). What the intellect is then left with is an abandonment of action and an increasing stillness, to achieve unification with the Eternal in the form of the unmoving, infinite, and dispassionate stillness of Eternity.

Few are those who are capable of carrying out such an austere path of knowledge. For those, there is no doubt a realisation at the end which has been called Nirvana, or perhaps Nirvikalpa Samadhi (Samadhi without “seed”) from which there is no returning.

The limitation here, besides the fact that few actually can tread this path successfully, is that it does not address either the purpose or reality of the universe, nor the complex human being composed of capabilities and forces other than the pure abstract intellect. It convicts the Creation of being an illusion, a distraction or an irrelevancy. It essentially also forgets that by using a process of negation, it fails to solve the affirmative side. It essential forgets the other great Upanishadic dictum: “All this is the Brahman.”

Sri Aurobindo summarizes: “It negates life in order to return to its source, cuts away from us all that we seem to be in order to get from it to the nameless and impersonal reality of our being. The desires of the heart, the works of the will and the conceptions of the mind are rejected; even in the end knowledge itself is negated and abolished in the Identical and Unknowable.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 7, The Supreme Word of the Gita, pg. 324

Any Gate, However Narrow, Can Lead To Realisation

The Gita continually urges the seeker to not be satisfied with a first step of achievement of a wide, calm poise outside the active life of the world. While such a step is accepted as a goal by many, and itself represents a major achievement for most, in fact, one that has been the object of a lifetime of effort, the Gita sets forth the understanding that this is actually a first stage of a process that must continue and achieve the higher goal of Oneness with the immanent Divine both separate from the action of the world and within that action.

Sri Aurobindo describes the yoga and its various methods, as outlined by the Gita: “All Yoga is a seeking after the Divine, a turn towards union with the Eternal. According to the adequacy of our perception of the Divine and the Eternal will be the way of the seeking, the depth and fullness of the union and the integrality of the realisation. Man, the mental being, approaches the Infinite through his finite mind and has to open some near gate of this finite upon that Infinite. He seeks for some conception on which his mind is able to seize, selects some power of his nature which by force of an absolute self-heightening can reach out and lay its touch on the infinite Truth that in itself is beyond his mental comprehension.”

Each individual has a different starting point and different psychological strengths and limitations. Each one, then, works with the power within himself that has the best opportunity of self-exceeding, whether it is the mind of knowledge, the heart of devotion, the will in works, or one of the other paths found in the many different yogic practices that have developed through time.

“However narrow the gate may be, he is satisfied if it offers some prospect into the wideness which attracts him, if it sets him on the way to the fathomless profundity and unreachable heights of that which calls to his spirit. And as he approaches it, so it receives him….”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 7, The Supreme Word of the Gita, pp. 323-324

Liberation and Transmutation of the Being and the Life

The human life is anchored in the experience of the dualities and the struggles and suffering that bondage to the dualities entails. We see the world as consisting of separate beings and forces which oppose, hinder and limit our scope and bring in their trail, a struggle for survival, for growth, for enjoyment and for understanding. The issue we have then to resolve is how to free ourselves of the bondage of the dualities and the ego-personality.

As long as we seek for solutions within the framework of the outer world, we remain locked into the paradigm of the dualities and thus, cannot actually solve the riddle. Once we turn our vision inward, we have the opportunity to untie the knot of the ego-personality, free ourselves from the dualities and thereby open the door to experiencing and living from the standpoint of the divine consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo provides the key to the necessary change in perspective: “Love of the world, the mask, must change into the love of God, the Truth. Once this secret and inner Godhead is known and embraced, the whole being and the whole life will undergo a sovereign uplifting and a marvelous transmutation. In place of the ignorance of the lower nature absorbed in its outward works and appearances the eye will open to the vision of God everywhere, to the unity and universality of the spirit. The world’s sorrow and pain will disappear in the bliss of the All-blissful; our weakness and error and sin will be changed into the all-embracing and all-transforming strength, truth and purity of the Eternal. To make the mind one with the divine consciousness, to make the whole of our emotional nature one love of God everywhere, to make all our works one sacrifice to the Lord of the worlds and all our worship and aspiration one adoration of him and self-surrender, to direct the whole self Godwards into an entire union is the way to rise out of a mundane into a divine existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 6, Works, Devotion and Knowledge, pp. 321-322

All Are Equal Before God

Human beings are constantly making distinctions based on external factors, and then treating each other variably due to those distinctions. The oppression of various classes of people, whether they are due to being women or children, or due to differences of education or career, skin color, sexual preference, religion, “breeding”, or success in either terms of holding or exercising power or wealth, are the norm throughout the world in one way or the other. These distinctions define a person’s role in society and clearly help define a life that is either easier or more difficult for most people.

When we move into the realm, however, of spiritual evolution and development of our inner life, none of these distinctions actually matter. The rich person, or the powerful person is not granted the privileges of union with the Divine on the basis of those riches or that power. There are of course those who believe that their wealth or power gives them an advantage somehow in spiritual matters, but in fact, many find that it is a clear disadvantage! Jesus even pointedly stated that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven!

Sri Aurobindo expands upon this theme, taking up a thread presented in the Gita: “…our mundane distinctions disappear in the mansion of the All-lover. There the virtuous man is not preferred, nor the sinner shut out from the Presence; together by this road the Brahmin pure of life and exact in observance of the law and the outcaste born from a womb of sin and sorrow and rejected of men can travel and find an equal and open access to the supreme liberation and the highest dwelling in the Eternal. Man and woman find their equal right before God; for the divine Spirit is no respecter of persons or of social distinctions and restrictions: all can go straight to him without intermediary or shackling condition.”

He concludes: “In the spiritual life all the external distinctions of which men make so much because they appeal with an oppressive force to the outward mind, cease before the equality of the divine Light and the wide omnipotence of an impartial Power.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 6, Works, Devotion and Knowledge, pp. 319-321

The Straight and Swift Way to Divine Oneness

The culmination of the path of knowledge and the path of works comes about through the integration of the path of devotion. The Gita does not speak here of a limited devotion to a partial manifestation or force, but rather, an integral devotion that involves a complete and integral self-giving of all one is, and all one does, with adoration and devotion, to the Highest.

As the Gita itself states it, as characterized by Sri Aurobindo: “Whatsoever thou doest, whatsoever thou enjoyest, whatever thou sacrificest, whatever thou givest, whatever energy of Tapasya, of the soul’s will or effort thou puttest forth, make it an offering unto Me.”

In so doing, we transform all action from “desire-based” to “sacrifice-oriented”, with the corresponding loosening of the bonds of the ego-consciousness. The result is that: “The finite nature thus surrendered becomes a free channel of the Infinite; the soul in its spiritual being, uplifted out of the ignorance and the limitation, returns to its oneness with the Eternal.”

When this occurs, all beings, all forms, all forces of manifestation are seen as aspects of the Being of the Divine. This brings about a sense of equality that honors the Divine in all without distinction. All lesser and earlier forms of devotion or dedication prepare the being for this highest and completest form of devotion.

“…it is only this perfect adoration that can make this indwelling of God in man and man in God a conscious thing and an engrossing and perfect union. Love of the Highest and a total self-surrender are the straight and swift way to this divine oneness.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 6, Works, Devotion and Knowledge, pp. 318-319

Transcending Limited Forms of Worship

The Upanishads, in describing the Supreme as “not this, not that” are attempting to remove from our minds the limitations of a fixed form or definition, because the Supreme transcends these forms. This is not to say that there is an opposition between the Divine and the creation, as many religious traditions have taught, but that the Supreme simply cannot be confined solely in that form or definition. It is a liberating statement that does not restrict the Divine from taking all forms, but ensures that we do not get caught up in a specific form to believe that we have understood the deepest and the highest truths and Reality.

At the same time, the Upanishads make the apparently opposite statement that “All this is the Brahman.” This statement is not meant to oppose the liberating statement but to complement it. While we need to recognize the transcendent character of the Divine, beyond limitation by any specific form or force, we should not forget that each and every form and force is a manifestation of and expression of the Divine.

Thus, when individuals worship a particular form, a particular God, a particular aspect, they are worshipping the Divine, and the fruits of that worship eventually come to them. To the extent that they worship one particular God, however, they limit the ultimate and complete realisation that extends far beyond any one God.

The seeker of the ultimate Reality, the absolute Truth, therefore, goes beyond the expressions of any one religion without at the same time, denying the truth implicit within that religion. As Sri Aurobindo points out: “All sincere religious belief and practice is really a seeking after the one supreme and universal Godhead; for he always is the sole master of man’s sacrifice and askesis and infinite enjoyer of his effort and aspiration.” The limitation is that “…the fruit of the adoration and offering is according to the knowledge, the faith and the work and cannot exceed their limitations, and therefore from the point of view of the greater God-knowledge, which alone gives the entire truth of being and becoming, this inferior offering is not given according to the true and highest law of the sacrifice.”

To achieve the highest one must therefore transcend the limited forms in one’s seeking and worship: “An entire seeing of the Divine is the condition of an entire conscious self-surrender…” “But to follow after the supreme and universal Godhead alone and utterly is to attain to all knowledge and result which other ways acquire while yet one is not limited by any aspect, though one finds the truth of him in all aspects.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 6, Works, Devotion and Knowledge, pp. 317-318

Seeking the Ultimate Meaning of Human Life

The Gita takes the approach that the seeker eventually can reach whatever the goal may be of his seeking. Those who follow any of the traditional paths of religion or spiritual development will tend to progress toward, and eventually achieve, the goal that their specific religious teaching sets before them. This approach validates each of the religions, and provides an opportunity for everyone to choose the path and focus suited to their current stage of evolutionary development.

Many religious traditions focus on achievement of certain ethical and moral perfections with the eventual goal of reaching a heaven of enjoyment in a future life that makes up for the suffering, struggles and setbacks experienced in the current human lifetime. The achievements however are temporary and eventually, until we work out the ultimate meaning of human existence, we are left with a return to the world eventually to take up the process once again.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “This firm belief in a Beyond and this seeking of a diviner world secures to the soul inits passing the strength to attain to the joys of heaven on which its faith and seeking were centred: but the return to mortal existence imposes itself because the true aim of the existence has not been found and realised.”

At some point there comes a recognition that the ultimate meaning of life is not to be found in an escape from it: “Here and not elsewhere the highest Godhead has to be found, the soul’s divine nature developed out of the imperfect physical human nature and through unity with God and man and universe the whole large truth of being discovered and lived and made visibly wonderful. That completes the long cycle of our becoming and admits us to a supreme result; that is the opportunity given to the soul by the human birth and, until that is accomplished, it cannot cease. The God-lover advances constantly towards this ultimate necessity of our birth in cosmos through a concentrated love and adoration by which he makes the supreme and universal Divine the whole object of his living–not either egoistic terrestrial satisfaction or the celestial worlds–and the whole object of his thought and his seeing.”

Such a seeker finds the fulfilment and perfection of life in all its aspects.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 6, Works, Devotion and Knowledge, pp. 316-317

Knowing God

The result of an integral process that engages all aspects of the being in the practice of the yoga is an integral realisation that eventually has us seeing, experiencing and acting from a foundation of God-knowledge. The soul that has this knowledge, “…knows God as the Father of this world who nourishes and cherishes and watches over his children. It knows God as the divine Mother who holds us in her bosom, lavishes upon us the sweetness of her love and fills the universe with her forms of beauty. It knows him as the first Creator from whom has originated all that originates and creates in space and time and relation. It knows him as the Master and ordainer of all universal and of every individual dispensation. The world and fate and uncertain eventuality cannot terrify, the aspect of suffering and evil cannot bewilder the man who has surrendered himself to the Eternal. God to the soul that sees is the path and God is the goal of his journey, a path in which there is no self-losing and a goal to which his wisely guided steps are surely arriving at every moment.”

“All birth and status and destruction of apparent existences is to his vision and experience the One who brings forward, maintains and withdraws his temporal self-manifestation in its system of perpetual recurrences. He alone is the imperishable seed and origin of all that seem to be born and perish and their eternal resting-place in their non-manifestation.”

“It is he that burns in the heat of the sun and the flame; it is he who is the plenty of the rain and its withholding; he is all this physical Nature and her workings. Death is his mask and immortality is his self-revelation. All that we call existent is he and all that we look upon as non-existent still is there secret in the Infinite and is part of the mysterious being of the Ineffable.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 6, Works, Devotion and Knowledge, pp. 315-316

OM–The Supreme Word of the Eternal Unity

The yoga of works relies on turning all action into a sacrifice. But the esoteric sense of the outward action is based in the Oneness of all existence, where it is the Divine himself that carries out the sacrifice. A famous sloka of the Gita, frequently recited before taking food, conveys the sense of the integration of knowledge, works and devotion through the mystic Unity: “Brahman is the giving, Brahman is the food-offering, by Brahman it is offered into the Brahman fire, Brahman is that which is to be attained by Samadhi in Brahman-action.”

In the yoga of knowledge, the Divine is the knower, the knowledge and the object of knowledge. Knowledge is not intellectual, but experiential. The sacred Mantra carries the sound-body of the Divine and is the essence of knowledge. Sri Aurobindo describes this relationship: “The Mantra of the divine Consciousness brings its light of revelation, the Mantra of the divine Power its will of effectuation, the Mantra of the divine Ananda its equal fulfillment of the spiritual delight of existence. All word and thought are an outflowering of the great OM,–OM, the Word, the Eternal. Manifest in the forms of sensible objects, manifest in that conscious play of creative self-conception of which forms and objects are the figures, manifest behind in the self-gathered superconscient power of the Infinite, OM is the sovereign source, seed, womb of thing and idea, form and name,–it is itself, integrally, the supreme Intangible, the original Unity, the timeless Mystery self-existent above all manifestation in supernal being.”

There is a unification of the yoga of works, the yoga of knowledge and the yoga of devotion in the mystic revelation of OM.

OM has been described and lauded in the Upanishads and there are those who hold that OM is the secret sound of all the collective sounds of the entire Universe.

The Mandukya Upanishad defines it thus: “AUM,–A the spirit of the gross and external, Virat, U the spirit of the subtle and internal, Taijasa, M the spirit of the secret superconscient omnipotence, Prajna, OM the Absolute, Turiya”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 6, Works, Devotion and Knowledge, pp. 314-315


Sri Aurobindo, Bhagavad Gita and Its Message, page 82, Chapter IV, Sloka 24