The physical body has provided spiritual seekers with a riddle and a challenge throughout time and across the globe. For those focused on the external life there is no question. They enjoy, they develop the capacities of the body, they do not think twice about it, other than to the extent that their religious or moral training has provided them reasons to treat the normal functions of the body as sinful or immoral, and the expectations of society challenge the body image of the individual to raise up feelings of shame or pride.
Religious and spiritual seekers however have been asked to treat the body as something that creates obstacles for their realisations, and depending on the religion or path, various taboos or rules have been set down for seekers to deny the normal bodily functions or to even, in some cases, torture the body to extirpate the sinful or lustful feelings that arise therefrom. Some, such as the tantric tradition, embrace the body as an instrument of realisation, not for its own upliftment, but as part of a practice of transforming the way the seeker relates to the desires, fears and expectations that arise from the body’s energy and actions.
Sri Aurobindo has raised the issue that all of these responses essentially create a duality between matter and spirit, between body and soul, and that this duality is illusory, since all existence is one and unified. The solution then lies in understanding the reality of oneness that manifests the physical body and the significance and purpose behind it. Habits, trained responses, societal mores, and the consequences of the artificial division that treats the body as something “other” and “less than” have then to be addressed and the body integrated into a transformation that divinises life in the body. Spiritual realisation is thus not based on the “either/or” paradigm heretofore utilised, but on an integration, upliftment and transformation of the body and its activities.
Sri Aurobindo notes: “I put a value on the body first as an instrument, dharma-sadhana, or, more fully, as a centre of manifested personality in action, a basis of spiritual life and activity as of all life and activity upon the earth, but also because for me the body as well as the mind and life is a part of the Divine Whole, a form of the Spirit and therefore not to be disregarded or despised as something incurably gross and incapable of spiritual realisation or of spiritual use. Matter itself is secretly a form of the Spirit and has to reveal itself as that, can be made to wake to consciousness and evolve and realise the Spirit, the Divine within it. In my view the body as well as the mind and life has to be spiritualised or, one may say, divinised so as to be a fit instrument and receptacle for the realisation of the Divine. It has its part in the Divine Lila, even, according to the Vaishnava Sadhana, in the joy and beauty of Divine Love.”
Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Planes of Consciousness and Parts of the Being, pp. 51-56