Intellectual development is not the same as spiritual realisation. The essence of spiritual development lies in the living experience of the truths of the spirit, not in the mental understanding of concepts. Thus, preeminence is placed on experience, not reading. The sages of the Vedic and Upanishadic times provided spiritual guidance through creation of an environment, through example, and through guidance for the thoughts, emotions, vital energies and physical development of the body, with the focus on realisation of the spiritual truths in their lives. Reading was not a focus for the disciples living in those times.
As we advance into more recent times, we find that the development of the mental faculties and the general requirement for literacy, with education focused on processes that require reading, means that the conditions of spiritual development have also changed. The entire idea of abandoning life in the world to seek a spiritual guide in the forest, or to spend a life in meditation in the caves has also been discarded as a realisation has come about that spirituality is not about individual salvation solely, but also for transformation of one’s life in society and in the life of the world.
Some seekers hold that reading is neither necessary nor beneficial and in some cases, they actually look down upon those who invest time in reading. Other seekers hold that reading is an extremely valuable aid in achieving spiritual focus and they, in turn, may look down upon those who have not developed their intellectual capacities in this direction.
As with all things, there is a truth within each standpoint. Reading can be useful if it helps to tune the consciousness toward the spiritual realisations that are needed and focuses the effort. It can stand in the way of the seeker if it either distracts from the need to realise the spirit in one’s life, or if it creates an illusory form of spiritual development that is based on the mind’s ability to create ideas and forms and convince itself that these are the true experiences.
Similarly, those who deny the use of reading may be correct, in their own sadhana, to the extent they are actually experiencing the deeper truths of the spirit and that is guiding them completely; but it is also possible that these seekers may be caught up in an illusory world of their own and without guidance, may wander far away from the path by following after experiences, without in some cases understanding the source and intention behind those experiences. Reading may in such cases help to ground the individual and provide certain guidance.
The Mother writes: “Always the most interesting cases for me have been those of people who had read nothing but had a very ardent aspiration and came to me saying, ‘Something funny has happened to me. I had this extraordinary experience, what can it mean truly?’ And then they describe a movement, a vibration, a force, a light, whatever it might be, it depends on each one, and they describe this, that it happened like that and came like that, and then this happened and then that, and what does it all mean, all this? Then here one is on the right side. One knows that it is not an imagined experience, that it is a sincere, spontaneous one, and this always has a power of transformation much greater than the experience that was brought about by a mental knowledge.”
‘Then, Mother, this means that it is better not to read?’
“On condition that one truly has within himself the ardour of aspiration. If you are born for this, for the yoga, and this is the thing which dominates all your existence, that you feel, yes, before knowing anything, that you need to find something which is in you, then sometimes a word is enough, a conversation which simply orients you — it is enough. But for those who are seeking, who grope, who are not absolutely sure, who are pulled this way and that, have many interests in life, are not steady, stabilised in their will for realisation, it is very good to read, because it puts them in touch with the subject, it gives them some interest in the thing.”
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter III Growth of Consciousness Basic Requisites, pp. 49-50