The Root and Origin of Divine Fear

An individual born into the world experiences innumerable forces which can harm or kill him. Some of them are awe-inspiring in their intensity. The tornado or the typhoon, the earthquake or the volcano are just a few of the powers of Nature that bring an inner recognition that there are things that are more powerful than can be comprehended, and which are impossible for the individual to control. The ocean, the mountains, the intensity of the sun also provide an overwhelming experience of smallness and weakness in the individual’s being. Other powers of Nature, including other beings in the world, as well as the changes brought about by weather and season, reinforce the sense that there are powers that are larger, stronger and dominating which act upon us and do their will with us.

The simple natural man could simply react in awe. As humanity developed, and codes of social and moral conduct were developed, a natural evolution took place to begin to attribute the actions of these forces to a capacity to judge and exact retribution on the individual. The ancient Greeks developed a keen sense of how certain attitudes would bring forth the powers that pulled the overly proud down from their heights and humbled them. Other cultures developed similar forms of understanding.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It was the perception of powers in the world greater than man, obscure in their nature and workings, which seemed always ready to strike him down in his prosperity and to smite him for any actions which displeased them.”

As mankind began to delve deeply into the operations of Nature, some began to assert that the actions that had elicited fear of divine justice or retribution were actually the natural operation of nature unconnected to any individual’s specific mode of conduct. Yet the basis of the sense of divine intervention remains at the core of a number of major religious traditions.

“Fear of the gods arose from man’s ignorance of God and his ignorance of the laws that govern the world. It attributed to the higher powers caprice and human passion; it made them in the image of the great ones of the earth, capable of whim, tyranny, personal enmity, jealous of any greatness in man which might raise him above the littleness of terrestrial nature and bring him too near to the divine nature.”

The idea that the gods required propitiation, adoration, and worship and that by undertaking such acts, they would support and uphold the individual and provide prosperity and beneficence and keep the individual from harm, corresponded to the ways human beings interacted in their societies and governmental management structures.

“With such notions no real devotion could arise, except that doubtful kind which the weaker may feel for the stronger whose protection he can buy by worship and gifts and propitiation and obedience to such laws as he may have laid upon those beneath him and may enforce by rewards and punishments, or else the submissive and prostrate reverence and adoration which one may feel for a greatness, glory, wisdom, sovereign power which is above the world and is the source or at any rate the regulator of all its laws and happenings.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Three: The Yoga of Divine Love, Chapter 3, The Godward Emotions, pg. 538


The Fear of God and the Yoga of Devotion

One of the earliest motives that lead to religious worship of the Divine is that of fear. The power and majesty of God are on display through the works of Nature and the human individual, small, weak, limited and subject to control by those larger forces, frequently approaches these powers of God with a sense of awe or fear. In a more developed religion there arises an institutional form of modulating this response through creation of sets of rules or principles of action; the failure to adhere to this codified series of rules of conduct leads to divine retribution or divine justice being meted out to the individual who has transgressed.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “In certain religions, in most perhaps, the idea of the fear of God plays a very large part, sometimes the largest, and the God-fearing man is the typical worshiper of these religions. The sentiment of fear is indeed perfectly consistent with devotion of a certain kind and up to a certain point; at its highest it rises into a worship of the divine Power, the divine Justice, divine Law, divine Righteousness, and ethical obedience, an awed reverence for the almighty Creator and Judge…. It regards God as the King and does not approach too near the glory of his throne unless justified by righteousness or led there by a mediator who will turn away the divine wrath for sin. Even when it draws nearest, it keeps an awed distance between itself and the high object of its worship. It cannot embrace the Divine with all the fearless confidence of the child in his mother or of the lover in his beloved or with that intimate sense of oneness which perfect love brings with it.”

The Yoga of devotion aims to bridge the gap between the Divine and the human through establishing the unity or Oneness between them; thus, eventually the sense of distinction or separation that underlies the fear of God must be overcome for the perfection of this yogic path.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Three: The Yoga of Divine Love, Chapter 3, The Godward Emotions, pp. 537-538

The Main Principle of the Yoga of Love and Devotion

Each path of Yoga focuses on an aspect or power of the being, which it then works to transform and refocus on the Divine. While the path of works, focuses on the power of the will in action, and the path of knowledge focuses on the intelligent reasoning power of the mind, the path of devotion aims to turn the focus and intensify the action of the emotional powers of the being.

Just as each path utilizes a different capability of the human being, so each one focuses its effort on attainment of a different aspect of the Divine. The Yoga of knowledge will seek the stillness, peace and infinite awareness of the Divine consciousness; the Yoga of works will seek the transformation of all action into an expression of the Divine Will; and the Yoga of devotion seeks to bring about the joy or bliss of union with the Divine Presence.

Sri Aurobindo describes the Yoga of devotion thus: “Its main principle is to adopt some human relation between man and the Divine Being by which through the ever intenser flowing of the heart’s emotions towards him the human soul may at last be wedded to and grow one with him in a passion of divine Love.”

The emotional nature is fully engaged: “Every feeling that can make the heart ready for this ecstasy the Yoga admits; everything that detracts from it must increasingly drop away as the strong union of love becomes closer and more perfect.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Three: The Yoga of Divine Love, Chapter 3, The Godward Emotions, pg. 537

Love Is the Ultimate Motive of Devotion

The mind of man looks at the devotional nature and is able to raise numerous questions which are unable to be precisely answered to the satisfaction of the intellect. The Yoga of love and devotion is a matter for the heart, not the mind, and the truth that is understood by the seeker in this path is one that satisfies the deeper sense that transcends the mental formulations. The mind is necessarily limited by its framework based in division, separation and exclusion, and its need to analyze; while the heart is able to heal division, breach separation, include all and join things together. It is this difference in capacity and way of knowledge that precludes the intellect standing in judgment over the heart’s seeking and finding.

This implies, as Sri Aurobindo relates: “The truth of the motives of the heart’s devotion and their final arrival and in some sort their disappearance into the supreme and unique self-existent motive of love is therefore all that initially and essentially concerns us.” He indicates that all the questions about specific forms that the Divine may take, and specific ways that the individual can interface and relate to the Divine are not essential for the heart that takes up this path and devotes itself to the way of love.

“…all we need at present say is that the Divine does at least accept the various forms which the devotee gives to him and through them meets him in love, while the mixing of our spirits with his spirit is essential to the fruition of Bhakti.”

There are those who argue that there must be an eternal difference between God and the devotee for devotion to be able to take place; while there are those who argue that all such differences are part of the illusion presented by the lesser reality of the outer world. Neither of these positions need interfere with the truth experienced by the devotee through the heart’s devotion. “We may hold, however, the truth of the one existence in this sense that all in Nature is the Divine even though God may be more than all in Nature, and love becomes then a movement by which the Divine in Nature and man takes possession of and enjoys the delight of the universal and the supreme Divine. In any case, love has necessarily a twofold fulfilment by its very nature, that by which the lover and the beloved enjoy their union in difference and all too that enhances the joy of various union, and that by which they throw themselves into each other and become one Self. That truth is quite sufficient to start with, for it is the very nature of love, and since love is the essential motive of this Yoga, as is the whole nature of love, so will be too the crown and fulfilment of the movement of the Yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Three: The Yoga of Divine Love, Chapter 2, The Motives of Devotion, pp. 535-536

Love Is the Key to Achievement of the Self-Existent Delight of Existence

The evolutionary unfolding of consciousness in Nature develops from a state of unconsciousness to an ever-increasing focus and attempt to achieve union with the Divine. At the stage of development represented by humanity, this seeking can become conscious, as the individual begins to understand the drive towards unity, and from that point forward, focused efforts can be made to turn the being more and more towards the Divine through worship, adoration, devotion and love. The development of religion is an early attempt to harness this drive and focus it.

The Yoga of devotion begins when the seeker goes beyond the limitations that tie themselves to specific forms, rituals or methodologies, and begins to grasp the larger goal. Sri Aurobindo describes it thus: “But it does not become what we specifically call Yoga until the motive becomes in a certain degree clairvoyant, until it sees that union is its object and that love is the principle of union, and until therefore it tries to realise love and lose its separative character in love.”

“Thus the motives of devotion have first to direct themselves engrossingly and predominantly towards the Divine, then to transform themselves so that they are rid of their more earthy elements and finally to take their stand in pure and perfect love. All those that cannot coexist with the perfect union of love, must eventually fall away, while only those that can form themselves into expressions of divine love and into means of enjoying divine love, can remain. For love is the one emotion in us which can be entirely motiveless and self-existent; love need have no other motive than love. For all our emotions arise either from the seeking after delight and the possession of it, or from the baffling of the search, or from the failure of the delight we have possessed or had thought to grasp; but love is that by which we can enter directly into possession of the self-existent delight of the divine Being. Divine love is indeed itself that possession and, as it were, the body of the Ananda.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Three: The Yoga of Divine Love, Chapter 2, The Motives of Devotion, pp. 534-535

The Divine Accepts and Responds to the Seeker Commensurate to the Seeking

Since the seeker of the Divine necessarily begins with the foundation of his human consciousness, the initial forms and methods of the seeking, whether through knowledge, works or devotion, will necessarily be limited and distorted from the reality. As the relationship grows and the seeker thereby refines his understanding, the mode of the seeking and the understand get refined and approach closer to the truth. The Bhagavad Gita advises us that in whatever way a seeker worships the Divine, the Divine acknowledges.

Sri Aurobindo summarizes: “Even as men approach him, so he accepts them and responds too by the divine Love to their Bhakti…. Whatever form of being, whatever qualities they lend him, through that form and those qualities he helps them to develop, encourages or governs their advance and in their straight way or their crooked draws them towards him. What they see of him is a truth, but a truth represented to them in the terms of their own being and consciousness, partially, distortedly, not in the terms of its own higher reality, not in the aspect which it assumes when we become aware of the complete Divinity.”

The various religious forms of worship are an entrance gate, and thus, have their own rationale. “They are justified because there is a truth of the Divine behind them and only so could that truth of the Divine be approached in that stage of the developing human consciousness and be helped forward; they are condemned, because to persist always in these crude conceptions and relations with the Divine is to miss that closer union towards which these crude beginnings are the first steps, however faltering.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Three: The Yoga of Divine Love, Chapter 2, The Motives of Devotion, pg. 534

The Yoga of Devotion Needs for Four Basic Principles to Be True

For those who hold that the universe is some mechanism without a creator, or a machinery that does not have any direct relationship with the creator who “abandoned” it after creation, there can be no justification for a Yoga based on devotion. For those who believe the only reality is the Absolute, unmoving, silent and uninvolved in the play of the outer life, which they term illusion or Maya, again, there can be no Yoga of devotion.

In order to have a Yoga of devotion that can actually achieve a true realization of the Divine, Sri Aurobindo has identified four basic principles: “Therefore, that there may be at all any possibility of a Yoga of devotion, we must admit first that the supreme Existence is not an abstraction or a state of existence, but a conscious Being; secondly, that he meets us in the universe and is in some way immanent in it as well as its source,–otherwise, we should have to go out of cosmic life to meet him; thirdly, that he is capable of personal relations with us and must therefore not be incapable of personality; finally, that when we approach him by our human emotions, we receive a response in kind.”

Sri Aurobindo goes on to clarify these points: “This does not mean that the nature of the Divine is precisely the same as our human nature though upon a larger scale, or that it is that nature pure of certain perversions and God a magnified or else an ideal Man. God is not and cannot be an ego limited by his qualities as we are in our normal consciousness.”

There must be a correspondence between the human and the divine consciousness, or else they could not communicate with one another. To be sure, the human consciousness may be limited in its range and capacities, but it still must adhere to essential principles that bring it into contact with and able to interact with the divine consciousness. “…still our human emotions and impulses must have behind them a Truth in him of which they are the limited and very often, therefore, the perverse or even the degraded forms. By approaching him through our emotional being we approach that Truth, it comes down to us to meet our emotions and lift them towards it; through it our emotional being is united with him.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Three: The Yoga of Divine Love, Chapter 2, The Motives of Devotion, pp. 533-534

The Yoga of Devotion Seeks a Divine Fulfillment Through Personal Relations with the Divine

The Yoga of devotion takes up the basic nature of the human being and both acknowledges and accepts the idea that the part of our being that is capable of emotion, relationship, love and devotion actually has its rationale and basis and that we can approach the Divine from this inherent aspect of our nature.

The path of devotion does not accept the finality or sole existence of the Impersonal Divine without a personal aspect. Sri Aurobindo explains: “We can obey it as a Law, lift our souls to it in aspiration towards its tranquil being, grow into it by shedding from us our emotional nature; the human being in us is not satisfied, but is quieted, balanced, stilled.”

This highlights the essential difference in approach between the Yoga of knowledge and the Yoga of devotion: “But the Yoga of devotion, agreeing in this with Religion, insists on a closer and warmer worship than this impersonal aspiration. It aims at a divine fulfilment of the humanity in us as well as of the impersonal part of our being; it aims at a divine satisfaction of the emotional being of man. It demands of the Supreme acceptance of our love and a response in kind; as we delight in Him and seek Him, so it believes that He too delights in us and seeks us.”

In response to the idea that it is irrational to assume that the Divine either can or does take notice in the human individual, the Yoga of devotion holds that it is this Divine notice that creates the possibility for the human turning towards the Divine in the first place: “…for if the supreme and universal Being did not take any delight in us, it is not easy to see how we could have come into being or could remain in being, and if He does not at all draw us towards him,–a divine seeking of us,–there would seem to be no reason in Nature why we should turn from the round of our normal existence to seek Him.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Three: The Yoga of Divine Love, Chapter 2, The Motives of Devotion, pp. 532-533

Considering the Underlying Question of the Personality of the Divine

The basis of the Yoga of knowledge is the Impersonality of the Divine. The basis of the Yoga of devotion, however, is the Personality of the Divine. Religion, as we have seen, creates a relationship between human and the Divine; through prayer, adoration and emotional submission the human elicits a response from this Divine Personality. The Yoga of devotion also focuses on the Divine Personality and develops an intimate and personal relationship to this Divine Being. For the practitioner following the path of devotion, the divine Impersonality is only one aspect, and not the sole aspect of creation. The reality and effectivity of the Yoga of devotion depends on the reality and existence of a Divine Being capable of relation with the individual in a personal way.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “In both [religion and the Yoga of Bhakti] the human being approaches the Divine by means of his humanity, with human emotions as he would approach a fellow being, but with more intense and exalted feelings; and not only so, but the Divine also responds in a manner answering to these emotions. In that possibility of response lies the whole question; for if the Divine is impersonal, featureless and relationless, no such response is possible and all human approach to it becomes an absurdity; we must rather dehumanise, depersonalise, annual ourselves in so far as we are human beings or any kind of beings; on no other conditions and by no other means can we approach it. Love, fear, prayer, praise, worship of an Impersonality which has no relation with us or with anything in the universe and no feature that our minds can lay hold of, are obviously an irrational foolishness. On such terms religion and devotion become out of the question.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Three: The Yoga of Divine Love, Chapter 2, The Motives of Devotion, pg. 532