The Religio-Ethical Approach To Spiritual Action and Its Limitations

There have been, of course, other strategies for spiritual development which did not require total abandonment of any activities other than those specifically related to the devotional or religious practices of the path. One of these is what Sri Aurobindo defines as the “ethical” or the “religio-ethical” approach. In this approach, the seeker is provided a wider latitude of action than in the purely religious/devotional approach, because the definition of action is broadened to take into account any number of paths of action that school the ego and place the individual at the service of a wider ideal or community than just trying to satisfy the ego’s vital impulses, emotions and desires. The difference between the two is primarily that the “ethical” takes on a more secular character, while the “religio-ethical” incorporates the religious tenets and ideals into the application of the ethical sense.

Sri Aurobindo defines the ethical sense: “It is the works of altruism, philanthropy, compassion, benevolence, humanitarianism, service, labour for the well-being of man and all creatures that are to be our ideal; to shuffle off the coil of egoism and grow into a soul of self-abnegation that lives only or mainly for others or for humanity as a whole is the way of man’s inner evolution according to this doctrine.”

The religio-ethical brings in another aspect with the devotional side, including worship, love of God, and expressions of these emotions in concrete ways in action: “To the inner worship of the Divine or the Supreme by the devotion of the heart or to the pursuit of the Ineffable by the seeking of a highest knowledge can be added a worship through altruistic works or a preparation through acts of love, of benevolence, of service to mankind or to those around us. It is indeed by the religio-ethical sense that the law of universal goodwill or universal compassion or of love and service to the neighbor, the Vedantic, the Buddhistic, the Christian ideal, was created…”

The limitations of both of these types of approach are similar. They are a means to an end, the liberation of the soul from the world, and thus, cease when the goal is attained; or else, become satisfied with partial changes stemming from the mental framework without the total transformation of life and existence sought by the integral Yoga: “For in the religious system this law of works is a means that ceases when its object is accomplished or a side issue; it is a part of the cult by which one adores and seeks the Divinity or it is a penultimate step of the excision of self in the passage to Nirvana. In the secular ideal it is promoted into an object in itself; it becomes a sign of the moral perfection of the human being, or else it is a condition for a happier state of man upon earth, a better society, a more united life of the race. But none of these things satisfy the demand of the soul that is placed before us by the integral Yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 5, The Ascent of the Sacrifice-1, The Works of Knowledge–The Psychic Being, pp. 142-143

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