The Compromise Between the Spiritual and the Material Life

The ultimate aim of the spiritual impulse is to realize the Eternal. Historically in India particularly, this impulse has been very strong, and it led to a virtually exclusive concentration on spiritual matters and the development of a spiritual culture that stressed the realisation of the Absolute and the liberation of the individual from the material world. The ideal of the Sannyasin, who abandons the desires and goals of this world, to achieve the spiritual heights, has been raised up as the highest goal. In order to preserve the purity of this goal, and to create a social order that would accept it, the pure spiritual impulse found a way to coexist with the material life. A religious custom was established whereby individuals could lay aside the duties of the householder and take up a mendicant life, for instance. Ordinary people throughout this society supported those who made the sacrifice of the outer life through provision of food and honoring with respect. In return, they received blessings, prayers and fulfillment of the rites of passage laid down in the religious principles.

What was missing here was the active mind of progress which we have seen developed to a very high degree in the West in recent centuries. The outer life of the world in the traditional society of India was therefore doomed to relative stagnation. One lived and tried to satisfy one’s desires, enjoying and suffering, as long as one remained in the outer life. If the impulse arose to seek the spiritual salvation, a break was made with the ordinary life. They lived side by side, with the outer life one of relative stagnation, and the solution provided was abandonment rather than development and perfection of that life, which, after all, was looked upon as an illusion or an impediment to the spiritual aim.

Sri Aurobindo describes the status: “…it was a compromise, not an absolute victory. The material life lost the divine impulse to growth, the spiritual preserved by isolation its height and purity, but sacrificed its full power and serviceableness to the world.”

This exclusive concentration, while serving a real purpose temporarily, could not be the conclusion or final answer. Sri Aurobindo points out that this inevitably led to the society so constituted to be forced to face the imperatives of the progress in the mental realm, with the meeting of “east and west” and the enormous changes that were set in motion thereby. “Therefore, in the divine Providence the country of the Yogins and the Sannyasins has been forced into a strict and imperative contact with the very element it had rejected, the element of the progressive Mind, so that it might recover what was now wanting to it.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Introduction: The Conditions of the Synthesis, Chapter 3, The Threefold Life, pp. 22-23

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