Appreciating the Ancient Indian Ideal of the Rishi

The ascetic denial of life for the purpose of achievement of some spiritual goal or realization may achieve a result for an individual, as any concentrated and highly focused effort will certainly do.  Yet it clearly does not solve the riddle of life and the needs of all the elements of our human constitution, nor does it address the questions of society and coexistence with others in the world.  It “cuts the knot” rather than unties it.  On the other extreme, those who deny any spiritual purpose to existence, who claim “God is dead” or who deny any ultimate first cause to the universe at all, who focus their entire activity and intellect on achieving results in the material world, are clearly not responding to the deeper aspiration and driving force of the spirit which pushes us to ever-further quests for meaning in life.  We find, therefore, total satisfaction in neither extreme.  This brings us to the ancient Indian ideal of the Rishi, the “knower of truth” who nevertheless participates fully in the life of the world, helping it to advance and achieve ever-higher realisations and harmony in life.   The story of King Janaka illustrates such an enlightened being who can maintain his spiritual poise at all times while grappling with the starkest and deepest concerns of life and society.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Only by the light and power of the highest can the lower be perfectly guided, uplifted and accomplished.  The lower life of man is in form undivine, thought in it there is the secret of the divine, and it can only be divinised by finding the higher law and the spiritual illumination.  On the other hand, the impatience which condemns or despairs of life or discourages its growth because it is at present undivine and is not in harmony with the spiritual life, is an equal ignorance, andham tamah.  The world-shunning monk, the mere ascetic may indeed well find by this turn his own individual and peculiar salvation, the spiritual recompense of his renunciation and Tapasya, as the materialist may find by his own exclusive method the appropriate rewards of his energy and concentrated seeking; but neither can be the true guide of mankind and its law-giver.  … The sheer ascetic spirit, if it directed life and human society, could only prepare it to be a means for denying itself and getting away from its own motives.  An ascetic guidance might tolerate the lower activities, but only with a view to persuade them in the end to minimise and finally cease from their own action.”

“…a spirituality which draws back from life to envelop it without being dominated by it does not labour under this disability.  The spiritual man who can guide human life towards its perfection is typified in the ancient Indian idea of the Rishi, one who has lived fully the life of man and found the word of the supra-intellectual, supramental, spiritual truth.  He has risen above these lower limitations and can view all things from above, but also he is in sympathy with their effort and can view them from within; he has the complete inner knowledge and the higher surpassing knowledge.  Therefore he can guide the world humanly as God guides it divinely, because like the Divine he is in the life of the world and yet above it.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 17, Religion as the Law of Life, pp. 179-181


The Need to Overcome the Refusal of the Ascetic As the Final Law of Life

Not only has religion frequently been at odds with the intellect, but it has also consistently been at odds with the vital life energy.  Religious traditions generally look to a salvation or liberation that comes at the expense of participation in the affairs of life.  Religions honor the anchorite, the ascetic, the sannyasin, the renunciate, the celibate monk, as people who have put their spiritual seeking first and who have renounced family, fame, comfort and wealth in order to pursue spiritual truth.  Seekers have been regularly counseled to avoid entanglement in social relationships or matters of life as requirements for their spiritual realization.  This raises the questions as to the importance and relevancy of the vital life of humanity, societal progress and perfection of the various capacities of the human being.  Can it be true that all these powers and drives of life were created simply to be suppressed, obliterated and overcome in order to achieve the true purpose of life?

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “If that be the true sense of religion, then obviously religion has no positive message for human society in the proper field of social effort, hope and aspiration or for the individual in any of the lower members of his being.  For each principle of our nature seeks naturally for perfection in its own sphere and, if it is to obey a higher power, it must be because that power gives it a greater perfection and a fuller satisfaction even in its own field.  But if perfectibility is denied to it and therefore the aspiration to perfection taken away by the spiritual urge, then it must either lose faith in itself and the power to pursue the natural expansion of its energies and activities or it must reject the call of the spirit in order to follow its own bend and law, dharma.  This quarrel between earth and heaven, between spirit and its members becomes still more sterilising if spirituality takes the form of a religion of sorrow and suffering and austere mortification and the gospel of the vanity of things; in its exaggeration it leads to such nightmares of the soul as that terrible gloom and hopelessness of the Middle Ages in their worst moment when the one hope of mankind seemed to be in the approaching and expected end of the world, an inevitable and desirable Pralaya.  But even in less pronounced and intolerant forms of this pessimistic attitude with regard to the world, it becomes a force for the discouragement of life and cannot, therefore, be a true law an guide for life.  All pessimism is to that extent a denial of the Spirit, of its fullness and power, an impatience with the ways of God in the world, an insufficient faith in the divine Wisdom and Will that created the world and for ever guide it.  It admits a wrong notion about that supreme Wisdom and Power and therefore cannot itself be the supreme wisdom and power of the spirit to which the world can look for guidance and for the uplifting of its whole life towards the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 17, Religion as the Law of Life, pp. 178-179

True Religion and Religionism

Sri Aurobindo distinguishes the eternal aspect of religion from the temporal form, which he identifies as religionism.  Religion, when it is true to its deepest intent and purpose, is not bound to a specific creed, format or practice, but puts the individual in touch with the spiritual basis of all life.  Religionism, on the other hand, focuses on the outer forms and practices of a particular method or format, and thereby loses its focus on the real and essential need.  Religion represents unity regardless of creed; religionism sets one creed against another.  It is religionism that the intellectual Reason has taken issue with, based on a long history of misdeeds and misunderstandings caused by the divisions fomented by religionism.  True religion helps human beings find their deeper purpose and truth in life, and thus, should be treated as the leader of life.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “It is true in a sense that religion should be the dominant thing in life, its light and law, but religion as it should be and is in its inner nature, its fundamental law of being, a seeking after God, the cult of spirituality, the opening of the deepest life of the soul to the indwelling Godhead, the eternal Omnipresence.  On the other hand, it is true that religion when it identifies itself only with a creed, a cult, a Church, a system of ceremonial forms, may well become a retarding force and there may therefore arise a necessity for the human spirit to reject its control over the varied activities of life.  There are two aspects of religion, true religion and religionism.  True religion is spiritual religion, that which seeks to live in the spirit, in what is beyond the intellect, beyond the aesthetic and ethical and practical being of man, and to inform and govern these members of our being by the higher light and law of the spirit.  Religionism, on the contrary, entrenches itself in some narrow pietistic exaltation of the lower members or lays exclusive stress on intellectual dogmas, forms and ceremonies, on some fixed and rigid moral code, on some religio-political or religio-social system.”

“… these things are aids and supports, not the essence; precisely because they belong to the rational and infrarational parts, they can be nothing more and, if too blindly insisted on, may even hamper the suprarational light.  Such as they are, they have to be offered to man and used by him, but not to be imposed on him as his sole law by a forced and inflexible domination.  In the use of them toleration and free permission of variation is the first rule which should be observed.  The spiritual essence of religion is alone the one thing supremely needful, the thing to which we have always to hold and subordinate to it every other element or motive.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 17, Religion as the Law of Life, pp. 177-178

The Justification of the Revolt of Reason Against Religion as Practiced in the Past

The confusion of the temporal aspects of religion with the eternal aspects has led to serious issues as religion has been used to stifle intellectual pursuits, suppress the expression of beauty and the joy of life, and club people into submission to a narrow set of ideas of a specific creed or sect.  None of these outcomes is a necessary aspect of religious expression, and, if anything, they have set back the cause of religion in modern life by giving justification to the revolt of reason and science against the limitations and missteps of religion in the past.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “Churches and creeds have, for example, stood violently in the way of philosophy and science, burned a Giordano Bruno, imprisoned a Galileo, and so generally misconducted themselves in this matter that philosophy and science had in self-defence to turn upon Religion and rend her to pieces in order to get a free field for their legitimate development; and this because men in the passion and darkness of their vital nature had chosen to think that religion was bound up with certain fixed intellectual conceptions about God and the world which could not stand scrutiny, and therefore scrutiny had to be put down by fire and sword; scientific and philosophical truth had to be denied in order that religious error might survive.  We see too that a narrow religious spirit often oppresses and impoverishes the joy and beauty of life, either from an intolerant asceticism or, as the Puritans attempted it, because they could not see that religious austerity is not the whole of religion, though it may be an important side of it, is not the sole ethico-religious approach to God, since love, charity, gentleness, tolerance, kindliness are also and even more divine, and they forgot or never knew that God is love and beauty as well as purity.  In politics religion has often thrown itself on the side of power and resisted the coming of larger political ideals, because it was itself, in the form of a Church, supported by power and because it confused religion with the Church, or because it stood for a false theocracy, forgetting that true theocracy is the kingdom of God in man and not the kingdom of a Pope, a priesthood or a sacerdotal class.  So too it has often supported a rigid and outworn social system, because it thought its own life bound up with social forms with which it happened to have been associated during a long portion of its own history and erroneously concluded that even a necessary change there would be a violation of religion and a danger to its existence.  As if so mighty and inward a power as the religious spirit in man could be destroyed by anything so small as the change of a social form or so outward as a social readjustment!  This error in its many shapes has been the great weakness of religion as practiced in the past and the opportunity and justification for the revolt of the intelligence, t, the aesthetic sense, the social and political idealism, even the ethical spirit of the human being against what should have been its own highest tendency and law.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 17, Religion as the Law of Life, pp. 176-177

Separating the Eternal from the Temporal Aspects of Religion

We may view any major aspect of human life by its principle and primary significance for humanity, which we may call its “eternal” aspect, or we may view the specific manifestations in the life of humanity, with all its limitations, weaknesses and errors caused by the state of human evolution or local factors, therefore the “temporal” aspects of religion.  We can observe numerous horrendous acts and tragic events through history that have been blamed on religion, including discrimination, crusades, the “holy inquisition”, witch-burnings, and even genocidal warfare, not to mention the restrictions and suppression of the intellect and the truths of existence under the pretext of religious dogma asserted as the ultimate truth.  These errors of religion however can be understood as temporal manifestations that are distortions of the true eternal role of religion.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…But we must observe the root of this evil, which is not in true religion itself, but in its infrarational parts, not in spiritual faith and aspiration, but in our ignorant human confusion of religion with a particular creed, sect, cult, religious society or Church.  So strong is the human tendency to this error that even the old tolerant Paganism slew Socrates in the name of religion and morality, feebly persecuted non-national faiths like the cult of Isis or the cult of Mithra and more vigorously what it conceived to be the subversive and anti-social religion of the early Christians; and even in still more fundamentally tolerant Hinduism with all its spiritual broadness and enlightenment it led at one time to the milder mutual hatred and occasional although brief-lived persecution of Buddhist, Jain, Shaiva, Vaishnava.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 17,  Religion as the Law of Life, pp. 175-176

The Rationale for the Reason’s Denial of Religion

The rational intellect’s rise over the last several hundred years has coincided with a fierce debate over the primacy of the intellect or the primacy of the religious sentiment in life.  Modern society has very much attempted to sideline religion and reduce its role, influence and central place in human life, and has in fact succeeded in this attempt to a great degree.  There are some legitimate criticisms related to the way religion has, in many cases, acted to deny the development of the intellect or the vital powers of life.  The role of religion, in principle, cannot be denied.  The attempt by Reason to suppress or destroy religion’s role is an extreme reaction to the mistakes made by Religion along the way, and can be seen as “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, as the proverb goes.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The religionist may say that this accusation was an error and an atheistic perversity, or he may say that a religious retardation, a pious ignorance, a contented static condition or even an orderly stagnation full of holy thoughts of the Beyond is much better than a continuous endeavour after greater knowledge, greater mastery, more happiness, joy, light upon this transient earth.  But the catholic thinker cannot accept such a plea; he is obliged to see that so long as man has not realised the divine and the ideal in his life, — and it may well be even when he has realised it, since the divine is the infinite, — progress and not unmoving status is the necessary and desirable law of his life, — not indeed any breathless rush after novelties, but a constant motion towards a greater and greater truth of the spirit, the thought and the life not only in the individual, but in the collectivity, in the communal endeavour, in the turn, ideals, temperament, make of the society, in its strivings towards perfection.  And he is obliged too to see that the indictment against religion, not in its conclusion, but in its premiss had something, had even much to justify it, — not that religion in itself must be, but that historically and as a matter of fact the accredited religions and their hierarchs and exponents have too often been a force for retardation, have too often thrown their weight on the side of darkness, oppression and ignorance, and that it has needed a denial, a revolt of the oppressed human mind and heart to correct these errors and set religion right.  And why should this have been if religion is the true and sufficient guide and regulator of all human activities and the whole of human life?”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 17,  Religion as the Law of Life, pp. 174-175

The Importance of the Historical Role of Religion in Human Development and the Situation Today

Through the history of humanity, across the entire globe, religion has played an important, if not the central, role in the development of the various societies.  There have been times and seasons when it has been subordinated, such as during the “Age of Reason” in the West, when the development of the force of the intellectual reason showed clearly the ability to aid the progress of humanity.  The antagonism between the Reason and Religion even during this period, was primarily due to the attempt by religion to hold back or restrict the growth of the various powers of the human being, and the use of doctrine and dogma to enforce superstition, long-held myths or religious story-telling devoid of factual basis.  At some point, when religion recognises the essential role of the other powers of life, and supports their development, it is able to regain its preeminent position by virtue of it, too, answering to essential drives and needs present within the human being.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “A certain preeminence of religion … has always been more or less the normal state of the human mind and of human societies, or if not quite that, yet a notable and prominent part of their complex tendencies, except in certain comparatively brief periods of their history, in one of which we find ourselves today and are half turning indeed to emerge from it but have not yet emerged.  We must suppose then that in this leading, this predominant part assigned to religion by the normal human collectivity there is some great need and truth of our natural being to which we must always after however long an infidelity return.  On the other hand, we must recognise the fact that in a time of great activity, of high aspiration, of deep sowing, of rich fruit-bearing, such as the modern age with all its faults and errors has been, a time especially when humanity got rid of much that was cruel, evil, ignorant, dark, odious, not by the power of religion, but by the power of the awakened intelligence and of human idealism and sympathy, this predominance of religion has been violently attacked and rejected by that portion of humanity which was for that time the standard-bearer of thought and progress, Europe after the Renascence, modern Europe.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 17,  Religion as the Law of Life, pp. 173-174

The Potential Central Role of Religion in the Development of Mankind

Modern society places a premium on either the intelligent will, the reasoning capability, or else, on the vital power as holding a central position in human development.  We can understand why this is so, when we see the almost miraculous development of life in the modern age, with the technological progress we have witnessed, and the widened understanding that reason and science have made possible.  Yet we have also seen the limitations of reason and vital force in terms of any ultimate resolution of the issues we face, either as individuals or as a developing society.  The question then arises whether there is any possible solution, and if so, what it may be.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “Since the infinite, the absolute and transcendent, the universal, the One is the secret summit of existence and to reach the spiritual consciousness and the Divine the ultimate goal and aim of our being and therefore of the whole development of the individual and the collectivity in all its parts and all its activities, reason cannot be the last and highest guide; culture, as it is understood ordinarily, cannot be the directing light or find out the regulating and harmonising principle of all our life and action.  For reason stops short of the Divine and only compromises with the problems of life, and culture in order to attain the Transcendent and Infinite must become spiritual culture, something much more than an intellectual, aesthetic, ethical and practical training.  Where then are we to find the directing light and the regulating and harmonising principle?  The first answer which will suggest itself, the answer constantly given by the Asiatic mind, is that we shall find it directly and immediately in religion.  And this seems a reasonable and at first sight a satisfying solution; for religion is that instinct, idea, activity, discipline in man which aims directly at the Divine, while all the rest seem to aim at it only indirectly and reach it with difficulty after much wandering and stumbling in the pursuit of the outward and imperfect appearances of things.  To make all life religion and to govern all activities by the religious idea would seem to be the right way to the development of the ideal individual and ideal society and the lifting of the whole life of man into the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 17,  Religion as the Law of Life, pg. 173

A Spiritual Consciousness Holds the Suprarational Meaning of Struggling Life

As we grow and develop in our lives, we seek for fulfillment, first in the material field, later in the attempt to satisfy life’s desires and drives, then in various forms of emotional, aesthetic or mental fulfillment.  In each instance, we eventually recognize that we have not achieved any ultimate fulfillment.  The “gold” we were seeking turns out to be tarnished metal, not the real thing.  Eventually we begin to recognize that there is a spiritual consciousness that provides us certitude, truth and the fulfillment of all our striving, so that we experience the ultimate of peace, love and knowledge.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The ultimates of life are spiritual and only in the full light of the liberated self and spirit can it achieve them.  That full light is not intellect or reason, but a knowledge by inner unity and identity which is the native self-light of the fully developed spiritual consciousness and, preparing that, on the way to it, a knowledge by intimate inner contact with the truth of things and beings which is intuitive and born of a secret oneness.  Life seeks for self-knowledge; it is only by the light of the spirit that it can find it.    …  Life seeks the fulfilment of its instincts of love and sympathy, its yearnings after accord and union; but these are crossed by opposing instincts and it is only the spiritual consciousness with its realised abiding oneness that can abolish these oppositions.  Life seeks for full growth of being, but it can attain to it only when the limited being has found in itself its own inmost soul of existence and around it its own widest self of cosmic consciousness by which it can feel the world and all being in itself and as itself.  Life seeks for power; it is only the power of the spirit and the power of this conscious oneness that can give it mastery of its self and its world.  It seeks for pleasure, happiness, bliss; but the infrarational forms of these things are stricken with imperfection, fragmentariness, impermanence and the impact of their opposites.  Moreover infrarational life still bears some stamp of the Inconscient in an underlying insensitiveness, a dullness of fibre, a weakness of vibratory response, — it cannot attain to true happiness or bliss and what it can obtain of pleasure it cannot support for long or bear or keep any extreme intensity of these things.  Only the spirit has the secret of an unmixed and abiding happiness or ecstasy, is capable of a firm tenseness of vibrant response to it, can achieve and justify a spiritual pleasure or joy of life as one form of the infinite and universal delight of being.  Life seeks harmonious fulfilment of all its powers, now divided and in conflict, all its possibilities, parts, members; it is only in the consciousness of the one self and spirit that that is found, for there they arrive at their full truth and their perfect agreement in the light of the integral Self-existence.”

“There is then a suprational ultimate of Life no less than a suprarational Truth, Good and Beauty.  The endeavour to reach it is the spiritual meaning of this seeking and striving Life-nature.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 16,  The Suprarational Ultimate of Life, pp. 171-172

The Wellsprings of Human Aspiration for Growth, Expansion and Consciousness

When a tree grows from a seed, it is not a random action of matter, but a coordinated, highly detailed event of information involved and stored in the physical seed.  Without that encoded specification, the seed could not produce a specific type of tree with specific characteristics.  Similarly, when we look at the development of human life, we see specific characteristics manifest themselves that could not be the result of random chance, but were clearly encoded within the nature of the human being.  This involution of consciousness, which evolves, step by step in the progressions of Nature, is the key to understanding the meaning of our lives and the aspirations that drive us towards ever-greater awareness.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…we see what through it all it is obscurely seeking, trying to grasp and form, feeling out for in its own higher impulses and deepest motives, and why these are in it — useless, perturbing and chimerical if it were only an animal product of inconscient Nature, — these urgings towards self-discovery, mastery, unity, freedom from its lower self, spiritual release.  Evolving out of its first involved condition in Matter and in plant life, effecting a first imperfect organised consciousness in the animal it arrives in man, the mental being, at the possibility of a new, a conscious evolution which will bring it to its goal and at a certain stage of his development it wakes in him the overmastering impulse to pass on from mental to spiritual being.  Life cannot arrive at its secret ultimates by following its first infrarational motive forces of instinct and desire; for all here is a groping and seeking without finding, a field of brief satisfactions stamped with the Inconscient’s seal of insufficiency and impermanence.  But neither can human reason give it what it searches after; for reason can only establish half-lights and a provisional order.  There with man as he is the upward urge in life cannot rest satisfied always; its evolutionary impulse cannot stop short at this transitional term, this half-achievement.  It has to aim at a higher scale of consciousness, deliver out of life and mind something that is still latent and inchoate.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 16,  The Suprarational Ultimate of Life, pp. 170-171