Fear and Desire Act As Motive Springs of the Evolution of Religion

Sri Aurobindo provides an insightful overview of the development of the religious impulse in humanity. “Faced with the sense of a Power or perhaps a number of Powers greater and higher than himself by whom his life in Nature is overshadowed, influenced, governed, man naturally applies to it or to them the first primitive feelings of the natural being among difficulties, desires and dangers of that life,–fear and interest. The enormous part played by these motives in the evolution of the religious instinct is undeniable, and in fact, man being what he is, it could hardly have been less; and even when religion has advanced fairly far on its road, we see these motives still surviving, active, playing a sufficiently large part, justified and appealed to by Religion herself in support of her claims of man.”

When the human being is beset by and overwhelmed by forces of Nature and huge movements of energy both in the physical world and even in human society, the first impulse is to reach out to those forces, personify them and try to propitiate them to save, protect and support one in the face of impending disaster. But religious impulse does not subsist on the energy of fear alone. Desire also plays a part, and humanity then prays to God or Gods (in whatever form they may take depending on the various religious traditions) to provide for one’s well-being, satisfy one’s desires, or provide a path for salvation in some future heaven or in the next lifetime!

As the individual begins to reflect on how things happen, and begins to recognize that there are Powers at work that move the events that mark his life-experience, he tries to get into contact with those Powers: “As soon, then, as he comes to sense a Power behind all this which can influence or determine action and result, he conceives of it as a dispenser of boons and sufferings, able and under certain conditions willing to help him or hurt, save and destroy.”

For much of humanity, these represent the underlying motive springs behind the practice of religion. Some of this is done with direct appeals for specific results, but some is couched in broader terms and higher ideals, yet nevertheless still founded on the vital impulses of fear and desire that are the characteristic of the vital being of man.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Three: The Yoga of Divine Love, Chapter 2, The Motives of Devotion, pp. 529-530