There has been a long-standing debate between those who believe in the power of mental development, under the rubric of ‘science’ and those who believe in the power of faith and spiritual aspiration, under the general terminology of ‘religion’. A similar debate rages between the position of academia and the paths of spiritual yoga. We prize high mental intelligence, particularly when it is focused on making our life in the material world more comfortable or rewarding. When it comes to spiritual practice, however, an insight, and a balance must be achieved to avoid mistaking mental development and intellectual development as somehow being spiritual in nature. Even those who can recite all the scriptures and describe all the various parables, stories and insights of the spiritual traditions may be acting from a purely intellectual basis, with no real foundation in spiritual development.
This is not to imply that going to the other extreme and devaluing the intellect will ensure spiritual progress. Much of this confusion is due to what Sri Aurobindo describes as ‘the refusal of the ascetic’ in The Life Divine. Spiritual pursuits that focus on the complete devaluation of the external life of the world have little interest in developing the intellect.
For a yogic practice that believes in both realisation of the spiritual truths, and the transformation of the external life based on those truths, a working relationship between spiritual experience and growth on the one hand, and the power of the mind on the other, is basically essential.
It is also true that certain types of study, reading and reflection in the mind can be aids in the spiritual quest by focusing the mind and controlling the vital nature, such that there can be a receptivity to spiritual insight and experience. This requires the mind, however, to maintain a poise of humility and not arrogantly assume that it ‘knows’, when in fact, its ‘knowledge’ is always partial and colored by preconceived notions and cultural training.
Sri Aurobindo observes: “It does not help for spiritual knowledge to be ignorant of things of this world.”
“Knowledge is always better than ignorance. It makes things possible hereafter if not at the moment, while ignorance actively obstructs and misleads.”
“The development of the mind is a useful preliminary for the Sadhak; it can also be pursued along with the Sadhana on condition that it is not given too big a place and does not interfere with the one important thing, the Sadhana itself.”
“Mental development may or may not help sadhana — if the mind is too intellectually developed on certain rationalistic lines, it may hinder.”
“Sadhana is the aim of a sadhak, not mental development. But if he has spare time, those who have the mental turn will naturally spend it in reading or study of some kind.”
Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 12, Other Aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Mental Development, Reading and Study, pp. 361-365