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

The Limitations of Religious Emotions For an Integral Yoga

When we look at the spiritual paths that focus on the heart, we find a somewhat common theme. They generally recommend that worldly emotions, passions and vital desires or emotional attachments be rejected and that only those emotions that are directly related to the divine worship be accepted. Eventually we then come to the result that the seeker of those paths must strive toward sainthood, and rearrange his action in the world in such a way that any kind of dynamic action in worldly affairs will be seen as a distraction or an obstruction; or else, they can hide underlying dynamics that obscure the purity of those emotions and potentially lead to fanaticism or narrow judgmentalism.

Sri Aurobindo comments on this issue in relation to the wider aim of the integral Yoga to transform all fields of life: “Thus a division can be made between religious emotions and mundane feelings and it can be laid down as a rule of spiritual life that the religious emotions alone should be cultivated and all worldly feelings and passions must be rejected and fall away from our existence. This in practice would mean the religious life of the saint or devotee, alone with the Divine or linked only to others in a common God-love or at the most pouring out the fountains of a sacred, religious or pietistic love on the world outside. But religious emotion itself is too constantly invaded by the turmoil and obscurity of the vital movements and it is often either crude or narrow or fanatical or mixed with movements that are not signs of the spirit’s perfection. It is evident besides that even at the best an intense figure of sainthood clamped in rigid hieratic lines is quite other than the wide ideal of an integral Yoga. A larger psychic and emotional relation with God and the world, more deep and plastic in its essence, more wide and embracing in its movements, more capable of taking up in its sweep the whole of life, is imperative.”

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. 141-142

The Desire-Soul and the True Soul in Man

There is virtually always a great deal of confusion, and struggle, associated with opening the “path of the heart” to the yogic process. This is caused by the distortions of the surface personality and the attachment to the normal and natural desires and emotions of the human being and the remnants of the animal nature still active in our humanity. Sri Aurobindo describes this as the “desire-soul”: “For there is in front in men a heart of vital emotions similar to the animal’s, if more variously developed; its emotions are governed by egoistic passion, blind instinctive affections and all the play of the life-impulses with their imperfections, perversions, often sordid degradations,–heart besieged and given over to the lusts, desires, wraths, intense or fierce demands or little greeds and mean pettinesses of an obscure and fallen life-force and debased by its slavery to any and every impulse. This mixture of the emotive heart and the sensational hungering vital creates in man a false soul of desire; it is this that is the crude and dangerous element which the reason rightly distrusts and feels a need to control, even though the actual control or rather coercion it succeeds in establishing over our raw and insistent vital nature remains always very uncertain and deceptive.”

Sri Aurobindo contrasts this with the true soul, the psychic being: “…a silent inmost being of which few are even aware; for if all have a soul, few are conscious of their true soul or feel its direct impulse. There dwells the little spark of the Divine which supports this obscure mass of our nature and around it grows the psychic being, the formed soul or the real Man within us. It is as this psychic being in him grows and the movements of the heart reflect its divinations and impulsions that man becomes more and more aware of his soul, ceases to be a superior animal, and, awakening to glimpses of the godhead within him, admits more and more its intimations of a deeper life and consciousness and an impulse towards things divine. It is one of the decisive moments of the integral Yoga when this psychic being liberated, brought out from the veil to the front, can pour the full flood of its divinations, seeings and impulsions on the mind, life and body of man and begin to prepare the upbuilding of divinity in the earthly nature.”

It is the role of the seeker to begin to understand the difference between this surface soul of desire and the deeper true soul of the psychic being, to differentiate the impulsions and promptings each of them sends, and to choose those that originate in the deeper true soul, the divine spark, in the “secret heart-cave” of the being.

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. 140-141

The Path of the Heart For Spiritual Realisation

The way of knowledge is not the only path for the seeker of the Divine. Another path is the way of the heart. The intellectual, the individual who operates primarily from the mental level, will not necessarily accept that the heart can know the Truth and respond to it; however, there is a long historical experience that ensures that the seeker who goes to the depth of the heart’s inner seat can also achieve the realisation.

Sri Aurobindo describes this debate: “The heart with its emotions and incalculable movements is to the eye of his intellect an obscure, uncertain and often a perilous and misleading power which needs to be kept in control by the reason and the mental will and intelligence. And yet there is in the heart or behind it a profounder mystic light which, if not what we call intuition–for that, though not of the mind, yet descends through the mind–has yet a direct touch upon Truth and is nearer to the Divine than the human intellect in its pride of knowledge.”

The Upanishads speak of the “heart-cave”. Behind the seat of human emotional response, there is a deeper sense, which Sri Aurobindo elsewhere calls the “psychic being” which immediately knows the truth and responds to it, even while the mind is unclear or uncertain.

Seekers have often experienced the secret soul-sense deep behind the heart. The Gita refers to the Divine seated in the heart. “According to the ancient teaching the seat of the immanent Divine, the hidden Purusha, is in the mystic heart,–the secret heart-cave, hrdaye guhayam, as the Upanishads put it,–and, according to the experience of many Yogins, it is from its depths that there comes the voice or the breath of the inner oracle.”

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, pg. 140

Achieving Liberation In Action By a Change of Consciousness

The primary methodology used in the past to achieve spiritual liberation was a more or less complete avoidance or separation from any focus on the outer world and its forces. Sri Aurobindo makes it clear that this is not the way of the integral Yoga: “It is not a separation of some activities, but a transformation of them all by the change of the informing consciousness that is the way of liberation, an ascent of the sacrifice of knowledge to a greater and ever greater light and force. All the works of mind and intellect must first be heightened and widened, then illumined, lifted into the domain of a higher Intelligence, afterwards translated into workings of a greater non-mental Intuition, then again transformed into the dynamic outpourings of the Overmind radiance, and these transfigured into the full light and sovereignty of the supramental Gnosis. It is this that the evolution of consciousness in the world carries prefigured but latent in its seed and in the straining tense intention of its process; nor can that process, that evolution cease till it has evolved the instruments of a perfect in place of its now imperfect manifestation of the Spirit.”

It is not the specific activity of the being that identifies it as being spiritual, or worldly. Rather, it is the standpoint of the conscious intelligence and the spirit of undertaking of that action that is the determining factor. The entire universal manifestation is a Divine action. When we have achieved a status beyond the limited and fragmented mental consciousness and see and act from the divine standpoint, we become co-participants and actors in that divine activity. “…for whatever is touched and thoroughly penetrated by the Divine Gnosis is transfigured and becomes a movement of its own Light and Power, free from the turbidity and limitations of the lower intelligence.”

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. 139-140

The Ascent Toward the Supramental Truth-Consciousness

The integral Yoga accepts the first two signs of a transformation of the mental consciousness as a foundational step, with the understanding that further development, taking the consciousness outside of the human mental standpoint and into the divine standpoint, is still before the seeker. The seeker recognises that the mental consciousness, even one that has been spiritualised, widened and heightened, is an intermediate phase between the seeming inconscience of Matter and the superconscience of the highest spiritual planes of Sat-Chit-Ananda, Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. There remain further steps between the mental realm and the spiritual divine consciousness, and these are stages of higher mind, overmind and supermind. Sri Aurobindo describes these steps:

“There is an ascension still to be made from this height, by which the spiritualised mind will exceed itself and transmute into a supramental power of knowledge. Already in the process of spiritualisation it will have begun to pass out of the brilliant poverty of the human intellect; it will mount successively into the pure broad reaches of a higher mind and next into the gleaming belts of a still greater free intelligence illumined with a Light from above.”

“Here too is not an end, for it must rise beyond into the very domain of that untruncated Intuition, the first direct light from the self-awareness of essential Being and, beyond it, attain that from which this light comes. For there is an Overmind behind Mind, a Power more original and dynamic which supports Mind, sees it as a diminished radiation from itself, uses it as a transmitting belt of passage downward or an instrument for the creations of the Ignorance. The last step of the ascension woudl be the surpassing of Overmind itself or its return into its own still greater origin, its conversion into the supramental light of the divine Gnosis. For there in the supramental Light is the seat of the divine Truth-Consciousness that has native in it, as no other consciousness below it can have, the power to organise the works of a Truth which is no longer tarnished by the shadow of the cosmic Inconscience and Ignorance.”

This higher supramental realm is founded, not on division, separation, and fragmentation, but on wholeness and unity. It does not try to piece together disparate elements to achieve some form of knowledge, but sees with that basis of unity the truth of things and is thus founded on the basis of knowledge rather than, as the mind, a basis of ignorance.

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. 138-139

Two Signs of the Transformation From the Mind of Ignorance to the Mind of Knowledge

As the process of the Yoga develops, Sri Aurobindo has identified two signs that indicate the transition of the standpoint of consciousness. One of these represents the change from the human mental standpoint to the Divine standpoint; the other represents the power of knowledge that implements and acts in the world.

“There is first a central change of the consciousness and a growing direct experience, vision, feeling of the Supreme and the cosmic existence, the Divine in itself and the Divine in all things; the mind will be taken up into a growing preoccupation with this first and foremost and will feel itself heightening, widening into a more and more illumined means of expression of the one fundamental knowledge.”

“But also the central Consciousness in its turn will take up more and more the outer mental activities of knowledge and turn them into a parcel of itself or an annexed province; it will infuse into them its more authentic movement and make a more and more spiritualised and illumined mind its instrument in these surface fields, its new conquests, as well as in its own deeper spiritual empire.”

The second sign then: “…the sign of a certain completion and perfection, that the Divine himself has become the Knower and all the inner movements, including the activities of what was once a purely human mental action, have become his field of knowledge. There will be less and less individual choice, opinion, preference, less and less of intellectualisation, mental weaving, cerebral galley-slave labour; a Light within will see all that has to be seen, know all that has to be known, develop, create, organise. It will be the inner Knower who will do in the liberated and universalised mind of the individual the works of an all-comprehending knowledge.”

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. 137-138

The Free and Flexible Process of Transformation In the Integral Yoga

We feel most comfortable with specific directions, guidelines or steps, to be undertaken in a specific manner, in order to reach a precise goal. This is a characteristic of our human mental consciousness and it carries through even in our spiritual seeking. We thus appreciate it when the path is laid out clearly, neatly and directly for us, and this gives us a certain amount of security and reduces our concerns about whether we are doing things right, or whether we can actually reach the goal.

It is thus something of a shock for most individuals to come to grips with the path and method of the integral Yoga, which, while having certain broad framework stages, nevertheless does not prescribe a fixed regimen for everyone to follow mechanically, but rather varies from individual to individual based on their own nature, their starting point, their strengths and weaknesses and the nature of the call, as well as the Divine intention for that individual.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “In the spiritual domain the essence is always one, but there is yet an infinite variety and, at any rate in the integral Yoga, the rigidity of a strict and precise mental rule is seldom applicable; for, even when they walk in the same direction, no two natures proceed on exactly the same lines, in the same series of steps or with quite identical stages of their progress.”

The broad framework still applies and provides some general guidance about what the seeker can expect in terms of progress along this path: “First, there is a large turning in which all the natural mental activities proper to the individual nature are taken up or referred to a higher standpoint and dedicated by the soul in us, the psychic being, the priest of the sacrifice, to the divine service; next, there is an attempt at an ascent of the being and a bringing down of the Light and Power proper to some new height of consciousness gained by its upward effort into the whole action of the knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo advises that this stage may involve some complete or relative withdrawal from attachment to and involvement in the things of the outer world, while the concentration is focused on this process. At various stages, outer activities may be once again brought forward, either to test the new standpoint or to implement it. The result of this stage is that the impulsion no longer comes from the ordinary motives of desire and worldly success, but from the Divine and the focus on the Divine as the one essential reality, the one thing that matters. When the outer forces are once again taken up, the Divine impulsion may lead, not to a withdrawal from life and action, but to an even more intense and effective outpouring of energy into shaping the Divine intention in the world. “…there may be an opening of new capacities of mental creation and new provinces of knowledge by the miraculous touch of the Yoga-Shakti.”

“…whatever may be the method or the course of development chosen by the hidden Master of the Yoga, the common culmination of this stage is the growing consciousness of him above as the mover, decider, shaper of all the movements of the mind and all the activities of knowledge.”

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. 136-137

The True Relation Between Human and Divine Knowledge

For the most part, the science of consciousness, as incorporated in the spiritual traditions of the world, have made a distinction between the “sacred” and the “profane” focus of attention and therefore the accumulation of knowledge that results therefrom. Seeking of the Infinite, the Absolute was considered to be the higher and ultimate knowledge, as distinct from the knowledge that provides insight and power regarding the manifestation, the life in the world. Sri Aurobindo takes some exception to this distinction, however: “This then is the true relation between divine and human knowledge; it is not a separation into disparate fields, sacred and profane, that is the heart of the difference, but the character of the consciousness behind the working. All is human knowledge that proceeds from the ordinary mental consciousness interested in the outside or upper layers of things, in process, in phenomena for their own sake or for the sake of some surface utility or mental or vital satisfaction of Desire or of the Intelligence. But the same activity of knowledge can become part of the Yoga if it proceeds from the spiritual or spiritualising consciousness which seeks and finds in all that it surveys or penetrates the presence of the timeless Eternal and the ways of manifestation of Eternal in Time.”

When we recognise the divine standpoint as one that sees and experiences Oneness everywhere, the Infinite and the Finite, the One and the Many all take on the color of the Divine!

The question then arises as to how we can make the transition from the limited, fragmented and separative human mental consciousness to the divine consciousness that unifies and holds everything together as one “omnipresent Reality.” This may involve periods of concentration during which the focus must be directed solely to the attempt to exceed or surpass the human consciousness, and during these periods, there may be an advantage to the elimination of distractions in the form of the forces and activities of the outer world. “These activities then may have to be intermitted or put aside until secure in a higher consciousness he is able to turn its powers on all the mental fields; then, subjected to that light or taken up into it, they are turned, by the transformation of his consciousness, into a province of the spiritual and divine.”

Once this new consciousness has assumed direction of the focus and understanding, virtually any activity of the life can be adopted, if that is the call that the Spirit provides to the seeker. It is no longer a mental determination or judgment, nor is it based on some external code of rules, moral, ethical, or some other kind of mental framework. “There can be no fixed mental test or principle for these things; he will therefore follow no unalterable rule, but accept or repel an activity of the mind according to his feeling, insight or experience until the greater Power and Light are there to turn their unerring scrutiny on all that is below and choose or reject their material out of what the human evolution has prepared for the divine labour.”

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. 135-136

Action Done Without the Motive of Desire

When we act from the human standpoint, we seek a result based on achieving some object of desire, either in the positive sense of gaining something we covet, or in the negative sense of avoiding some kind of pain or suffering. The objects of desire may not be tangible objects; they may also be objects that attract the vital force, such as a seeking after power, or the emotions, or the mind. Traditional paths of Yoga have therefore counseled abandonment of all actions because they are tied up with the desires and bind the individual to the objects being sought. When the Yogin, who has understood this mechanism and gone beyond action based on desire, undertakes his own action, it is therefore not done under any kind of compulsion or necessity, but done desirelessly.

Sri Aurobindo explains: He is not attached, bound and limited by any nor has he any personal motive of fame, greatness or personal satisfaction in these works; he can leave or pursue them as the Divine in him wills, but he need not otherwise abandon them in his pursuit of the higher integral knowledge. He will do these things just as the supreme Power acts and creates, for a certain spiritual joy in creation and expression or to help in the holding together and right ordering or leading of this world of God’s workings.”

Sri Aurobindo reminds us that the Gita asks the enlightened seeker to continue to do works as a model of action for those who have not yet understood these things. “For the world must proceed in its great upward aspiring; men and nations must not be led to fall away from even an ignorant activity into a worse ignorance of inaction or to sink down into that miserable disintegration and tendency of dissolution which comes upon communities and peoples when there predominates the tamasic principle, the principle whether of obscure confusion and error or of weariness and inertia.”

It is essential to focus on the realisation of the Divine, but this does not mean that the Divine’s manifestation and creation in the world needs to be thrown away; on the contrary, the seer of Oneness sees the Divine in the world and in the manifestation and acts accordingly. “The spiritual life does not need, for its purity, to destroy interest in all things except the Inexpressible or to cut at the roots of the Sciences, the Arts and Life. It may well be one of the effects of an integral spiritual knowledge and activity to lift them out of their limitations, substitute for our mind’s ignorant, limited, tepid or trepidant pleasure in them a free, intense and uplifting urge of delight and supply a new source of creative spiritual power and illumination by which they can be carried more swiftly and profoundly towards their absolute light in knowledge and their yet undreamed possibilities and most dynamic energy of content and form and practice.”

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. 134-135