Which Comes First — Devotion or Spiritual Experience?

How does an individual come to devotion to the Divine? There are well-known instances that involve some kind of key experience of the Divine, such as the story of Saul on the road to Damascus, or even extreme cases such as Dannion Brinkley who was struck by lightning, declared clinically dead and returned devoted and with a mission as he wrote in his book Saved by the Light. Near death experiences clearly represent one way to shake the being out of an external focus of life and turn toward a life of devotion. There are however also cases, such as the legendary tale of Valmiki, author of the Ramayana, who was said to be a dacoit, and to avoid his pursuers, he took on the garb and habits of a holy man, and through repeated and daily copying of the way of the sages, became himself a sage and experienced devotion. There are also of course those who have devotion from an early age, such as Paramahansa Yogananda, but who wait long years for the concrete experience of the Divine Presence. The story of Prahlad, a devotee born into a family of demons, shows us another aspect, as there was clearly a pre-determined karmic path in that case, based on prior lifetimes of devotion. Many more however take up the life in society without any clear vision of the significance of their lives or their spiritual destiny, yet learn and practice devotional exercises as part of their training and education, and only later recognise the deeper inner meaning and awaken to the yearnings of the soul.

One has to consider that as the soul matures through numerous lifetimes, it brings with it the devotional predispositions and secret knowledge of the Divine. It may then manifest devotion without specific new revelatory experiences in a particular lifetime, or it may need some shock or wake-up call in order to remove the superficial obstacles that hide the truth as the life progresses, or even, it may slowly awaken as the process of growth takes place. Sometimes setbacks in life, or grief or a deep inner lack of meaning in one’s outer life can redirect the focus and devotion arises based on an indistinct sense of a deeper significance rather than a life-changing experience..

Sri Aurobindo writes: “it is not surely the Bhakta but the man of knowledge who demands experience first. He can say, ‘How can I know without experience?’ but he too goes on seeking like Tota Puri even though for thirty years, striving for the decisive realisation. It is really the man of intellect, the rationalist who says, ‘Let God, if he exists, prove himself to me first, then I will believe, then I will make some serious and prolonged effort to explore him and see what he is like.’ “

“All this does not mean that experience is irrelevant to sadhana — I certainly cannot have said such a stupid thing. What I have said is that the love and seeking of the Divine can be and ordinarily is there before the experience comes — it is an instinct, an inherent longing in the soul and it comes up as soon as certain coverings of the soul disappear or begin to disappear. The next thing I have said is that it is better to get the nature ready first (the purified heart and all that) before the ‘experiences’ begin rather than the other way round and I base that on the many cases there have been of the danger of experiences before the heart and vital are ready for the true experience. Of course, in many cases there is a true experience first, a touch of the Grace, but it is not something that lasts and is always there but rather something that touches and withdraws and waits for the nature to get ready. But this is not in every case, not even in the majority of cases, I believe. One has to begin with the soul’s inherent longing, then the struggle with the nature to get the temple ready, then the unveiling of the Image, the permanent Presence in the sanctuary.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 6, Sadhana Through Love and Devotion, Divine Love, Bhakti, pp. 158-162


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