An Integral Yoga involves Knowledge, Devotion, Works and Self-Perfection

The integral yoga takes as its goal something far different than most of the individual yogic paths. The goal here is not liberation from the world, dissolution of the individual, or renunciation of action. Rather, the integral yoga calls for the liberation of the nature and the transformation of the human instrument to become a ready and receptive instrument of the divine action in the world. The ego-personality must be surrendered in order to create the necessary openness and responsiveness to the divine implementation. Due to the complexity of the individual life and circumstances, there is no “one size fits all” approach to the yoga. Rather, at each stage, the practitioner finds himself confronted with new challenges, repetitive issues, and the need for flexibility in dealing with the issues of the mind, emotions, life-energy and physical body in the setting of the societal and environmental framework that exists at the time. The practitioner then finds that a particular practice that was helpful in the past may no longer be what is called for to meet today’s challenges. Thus, there has to be constant awareness which best comes about through the psychological separation of the witness consciousness from the active nature.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “As regards X’s question — this is not a yoga of bhakti alone; it is or at least it claims to be an integral yoga, that is, a turning of all the being in all its parts to the Divine. It follows that there must be knowledge and works as well as bhakti, and in addition, it includes a total change of the nature, a seeking for perfection, so that the nature also may become one with the nature of the Divine. It is not only the heart that has to turn to the Divine and change, but the mind also — so knowledge is necessary, and the will and power of action and creation also — so works too are necessary. In this yoga the methods of other yogas are taken up — like this of Purusha-Prakriti, but with a difference in the final object. Purusha separates from Prakriti, not in order to abandon her, but in order to know himself and her and to be no longer her plaything, but the knower, lord and upholder of the nature; but having become so or even in becoming so, one offers all that to the Divine. One may begin with knowledge or with works or with bhakti or with Tapasya of self-purification for perfection (change of nature) and develop the rest as a subsequent movement or one may combine all in one movement. There is no single rule for all, it depends on the personality and the nature. Surrender is the main power of the yoga, but the surrender is bound to be progressive; a complete surrender is not possible in the beginning, but only a will in the being for that completeness, — in fact it takes time; yet it is only when the surrender is complete that the full flood of the sadhana is possible. Till then there must be the personal effort with an increasing reality of surrender. One calls in the power of the Divine Shakti and once that begins to come into the being, it at first supports the personal endeavour, then progressively takes up the whole action, although the consent of the sadhak continues to be always necessary. As the Force works, it brings in the different processes that are necessary for the sadhak, processes of knowledge, of bhakti, of spiritualised action, of transformation of the nature. The idea that they cannot be combined is an error.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 6, Sadhana Through Love and Devotion, Bhakti and the Integral Yoga, pp. 168-169

External Forms of Worship and Spiritual Growth in the Integral Yoga

Practitioners of mainstream religions are very familiar with ritual worship. Much of the activity of religion is scripted around a set formula of external worship that has developed from perhaps an initial experience or, over time, as a result of habitual action. The intended purpose of this ritual is to bring together the believers in a common form of activity that will hopefully promote and develop the sense of oneness and devotion in the congregation.

There has also developed a form of habitual worship practiced by individuals following various religious or spiritual paths. Worship or divine service, puja, and specific forms of devotional activity take place in a prescribed manner.

If this worship is carried out by rote without active and motivated focus of the mind and heart, it has little actual benefit attached to it; but if it is part of a living conscious action, imbued with a real sense of devotion and aspiration, it can enhance the spiritual result and bring the vital nature and the body into a status of aspiration that supports the inner spiritual impulse.

There is an occult reality to physical forms of external worship, in that they act as a form of “mudra” or “asana”, a gesture or a seat, for the spiritual energy to develop and flow. This occurs when it is done consciously and as part of an inner expression. The worship service can also be an aid to concentration or meditation when it acts to quiet the mind, emotions and vital being and bring about a state of calm focus. In some cases, concentration on an image, presenting of flowers or fruit, lighting incense, or creating a ritual process that includes the flow of thought and emotion, the chanting of mantras, and the concentration of the entire being on the process can unlock spiritual experience as the mind-body complex responds to the habitual action by setting itself in tune with the energy that was to be set in motion.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “What is meant by bahyapuja (external worship)? If it is purely external, then of course it is the lowest form; but if done with the true consciousness, it can bring the greatest possible completeness to the adoration by allowing the body and the most external consciousness to share in the spirit and act of worship.”

“There is no restriction in this yoga to inward worship and meditation only. As it is a yoga for the whole being, not for the inner being only, no such restriction could be intended. Old forms of the different religions may fall away, but absence of all forms is not the rule of the sadhana.”

“These are exaggerations made by the mind taking one side of Truth and ignoring the other sides. The inner bhakti is the main thing and without it the external becomes a form and mere ritual, but the external has its place and use when it is straightforward and sincere.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 6, Sadhana Through Love and Devotion, Divine Love, Worship, pg. 164

Developing and Expressing the Flame of Divine Love While Avoiding the Misappropriation of the Energy for Lower Vital Gratification

Suppression of the vital being and the emotions is often prescribed by those following a spiritual or religious discipline, due to the mixed nature of the expression that occurs in an untransformed and unpurified vital being. It is also true that there have been a number of cases, including high profile leaders of spiritual programs, where the development of the emotional powers in the direction of devotion has been abused through misdirection, to provide gratification and even sexual exploitation for the leader in control of the practices, with excuses such as “deepening the spiritual connection”. This has occurred as widely publicised in the pedophilia scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church (although much of this was not based in creation of a devotional energy, but in pure expression of lower vital drives), but it is not limited to the Catholic Church nor to exploitation of children, but covers the entire gamut of religious or spiritual traditions for the most part, and includes all manner of indiscretions. Clearly the raising up of the emotional force of the being can have its dark aspects. Does this mean it should be avoided entirely?

Sri Aurobindo counsels that the devotional force should be cultivated and utilized to help raise up the rest of the being. This requires an understanding of the interplay of the emotions with other aspects of the being, and the influence that energy, when not yet fully purified, can have on the lower vital nature in particular. We see in human relationships of romantic love that the heart’s attraction and opening can lead quickly to a rising up of the sexual energies, for example. This occult linkage is one of the areas that requires work, so that as the heart opens towards the Divine Presence, the lower vital energy is not similarly activated, but in an unpurified state of expression. This linkage is how those leading various spiritual or religious communities can take an innocent and positive opening of devotion and turn it towards the lower, darker expressions that eventually snuff out the flame of the devotional energy and embroil the seeker in sometimes lurid expressions.

There is a responsibility on the part of the guides and leaders to work towards purification of their own energies, and to avoid exploiting the innocent movements of those who come within their sphere of influence. There is also a responsibility for the seekers to keep the aspiration and devotional energies pure and directed towards the Divine, and not transferred to a human intermediary in an uprush of a lower vital drive.

There may of course still be the desire active to experience human love and relationships. To the extent these are based on the higher nature and not exploitative in their intent or action, clearly there is a stage in the development where such actions may take place while the spiritual flame in the heart continues to grow and develop. Much of the problem lies in the confusion and mixing of the two as if they represent the same energy at work, when in fact, the psychic and the spiritual aspects of love develop a different energetic field than the human forms of emotional expressions of love (and all that tends to come with them). The secret lies in understanding the energy that is experienced. Is it rajasic, based on the force of desire and control? Is it dark and tamasic, leading into weakness, enslavement to vital or physical gratification, or even lower forms of expression? Is it a sattwic force that comes with light and a deep sense of peace and upliftment? As one experiences the opening of the heart of devotion, one can begin to understand and identify the quality of that force and work to purify and uplift it, not letting it stray into rajasic or tamasic forms, until such time as it can manifest without any admixture of desire, attachment, lust or greedy impulse.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “If one does not encourage the devotion of the emotional being merely because the lower vital is not yet under control and acts differently, then how is the devotion to grow and how is the lower vital to change? Until the final clarification and harmonising of the nature there are always contradictions in the being, but that is not a reason for in any way suppressing the play of the better movements — on the contrary it is these that should be cultivated and made to increase.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 6, Sadhana Through Love and Devotion, Divine Love, The Emotions, pp. 162-164

Characteristics of Human Love, Psychic Love and Spiritual Love

If we examine the nature of love as we see it in human society, there is a considerable amount of expectation, as well as ‘bargaining’, in our expressions of love. We tend to expect that the object of our love will reciprocate and return a measure of love, or some other concrete manifestation of response. If we do not get what we expect, our love tends to sour or decline and we move on to other potential objects of love to get our expectation and needs fulfilled. As human love turns towards the Divine, similar reactions and expectations take place initially and thus, we expect to be ‘compensated’ or ‘rewarded’ for our devotion in some form, either in this life or in a future status, such as acceptance into heaven, etc. We expect our prayers to be answered, our needs to be met, our desires to be fulfilled.

Psychic love is a purer manifestation, that focuses on adoration and self-giving without expectation of any specific return as a condition. The act of self-giving is unconditioned and unconditional towards the Divine. Spiritual love identifies the seeker in oneness with the rest of the creation and widens the being to embrace all.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “When the love goes towards the Divine, there is still this ordinary human element in it. There is the call for a return and if the return does not seem to come, the love may sink; there is the self-interest, the demand for the Divine as a giver of all that the human being wants and, if the demands are not acceded to, abhimana against the Divine, loss of faith, loss of fervour, etc. etc. But the true love for the Divine is in its fundamental nature not of this kind, but psychic and spiritual. The psychic element is the need of the inmost being for self-giving, love, adoration, union which can only be fully satisfied by the Divine. The spiritual element is the need of the being for contact, merging, union with its own highest and whole self and source of being and consciousness and bliss, the Divine. These two are two sides of the same thing. The mind, vital, physical can be the supports and recipients of this love, but they can be fully that only when they become remoulded in harmony with the psychic and spiritual elements of the being and no longer bring in the lower insistences of the ego.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 6, Sadhana Through Love and Devotion, Divine Love, The Emotions, pp. 162-164

The Role of the Emotions in the Practice of the Integral Yoga

Emotions tend to be hard to deal with. Spiritual seekers recognise that emotions can disrupt the focus and lead the seeker into undesirable vital entanglements. Many spiritual paths counsel cutting off the emotional outlets and renouncing the life in the world. They ask the seeker to abandon family, friends and career, abandon relationships in society, in order to create a calm, quiet, focused life within which the spiritual aspiration can thrive. Other spiritual paths may try to harness the emotions to provide the intensity they evoke, while redirecting the energy created to divine worship. Yet other paths, such as the tantric tradition, may try to tackle the emotions “head on” and turn them into a source of progress.

For the practitioner of the integral yoga, it is clear that the emotions cannot simply be artificially suppressed or cut off. Nor are they to be indulged with the idea of attaining some kind of mastery over the normal vital-emotional energies. Rather, the emotions need to be redirected and channeled in such a way as to provide the energy behind what could otherwise be a dry and hard path forward as one focuses on the divine fulfillment.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is no part of this yoga to dry up the heart; but the emotions must be turned towards the Divine. There may be short periods in which the heart is quiescent, turned away from the ordinary feelings and waiting for the inflow from above; but such states are not states of dryness but of silence and peace. The heart in this yoga should in fact be the main centre of concentration until the consciousness rises above.”

“Emotion is necessary in the yoga and it is only the excessive emotional sensitiveness which makes one enter into despondency over small things that has to be overcome. The very basis of this yoga is bhakti and if one kills one’s emotional being, there can be no bhakti. So there can be no possibility of emotion being excluded from the yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 6, Sadhana Through Love and Devotion, Divine Love, The Emotions, pp. 162-164

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

God’s Grace or God’s Duty

The devotee may begin the process of devotional surrender to the Divine with a form of bargaining, expecting a recompense from God for the efforts made to express the devotion. Thus, people pray and expect an answer to their prayers, or they carry out devotional exercises and expect God to respond with spiritual solace, vision or experience. Devotion, however, is not a business transaction but a whole-hearted giving of oneself to the object of devotion, without thought about any form of compensation.

Additionally, our own determination of what we expect from the Divine as a return for our devotion may be flawed. The Divine may understand our need better than we ourselves can, and provide us the appropriate response that is in our actual best interest, not what we demand in the moment from our status of ignorance. Let us consider, for example, the case of a young child who has parents who have separated. In many cases, one parent becomes the primary caregiver and thus has to address the education, the intellectual, moral, emotional, vital and physical development of the child, with responsibility to prepare the child for life and living, while the other parent tries to “buy” the good will and love of the child by letting it do whatever it wants, giving in to demands and tantrums, and providing gifts that the primary caregiver cannot give, or which would, in the view of the primary caregiver be actually harmful to the development of the child. The child responds by returning love and devotion to the indulgent parent, and becoming resistant to the caregiving parent. Yet, in the long-term, it is the caregiving parent who has provided the true expression of love for the child, by giving it the tools and support needed to survive and thrive in the world, while the indulgent parent may actually have inculcated habits of response, reaction and ways of dealing with life-situations that can harm the child in its later life and activities.

God does not have a duty to respond as the devotee wishes; rather, it is a Grace that the Divine showers upon the devotee, sometimes in forms that the devotee does not necessarily recognise as a grace at the time it is experienced.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “Then again you may say, ‘Yes, but whether I love or not, I want, I have always wanted and now I want more and more, but I get nothing.’ Yes, but wanting is not all. As you now begin to see, there are conditions that have to be met — like the purification of the heart. Your thesis was, ‘Once I want God, God must manifest to me, the real, solid, concrete experience, not mere vague things which I can’t understand or value. God’s Grace must answer my call for it, whether I yet deserve it or not — or else there is no Grace.’ God’s grace may indeed do that in certain cases, but where does the ‘must’ come in? If God must do it, it is no longer God’s Grace, but God’s duty or an obligation or a contract or a treaty. The Divine looks into the heart and removes the veil at the moment which he knows to be the right moment to do it. You have laid stress on the Bhakti theory that one has only to call his name and he must reply, he must at once be there. Perhaps, but for whom is this true? For a certain kind of Bhakta surely who feels the power of the Name, who has the passion of the Name and puts it into his cry. If one is like that, then there may be the immediate reply — if not, one has to become like that, then there will be the reply. But some go on using the Name for years, before there is an answer. Ramakrishna himself got it after a few months, but what months! and what a condition he had to pass through before he got it! Still he succeeded quickly because he had a pure heart already — and that divine passion in it.”

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

The Devotee and the Yoga of Devotion

Which comes first, the experience of the Divine Presence or the aspiration to bask in the Presence? This question arose in a dialogue between a disciple and Sri Aurobindo and led to an extensive response from Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo describes the attitude, motive and dedication of a devotee who follows the devotional path of yoga. In this path, the devotion itself is the primary focus and interest of the devotee and remains unshaken, steady and persevering through long stretches of time, including periods when there is no noticeable response or validation from the Divine.

Many seekers have experienced what has been called the “dark night of the soul”. This is a time when all spiritual progress and illumination seems to be shut off, and everything seems to raise up obstacles and difficulties with nothing to redeem the effort. The devotee on the path of devotion is sustained solely by the devotion itself and keeps the attitude that God will be revealed in time, if only the devotee remembers and dedicates.

There is in fact a joy in the act of devotion and surrender to the greater Will of the Divine which arises and sustains the seeker. The solace and support provided through the actions of surrender of the ego to the larger divine purpose is something which has led to countless laments, poems, songs and inspired writings through the ages, regardless of the specific path, religion or belief system the devotee follows. There is a common thread that runs through all devotional practices, and that is the real and essential experience of the devotee.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Your whole-hearted acceptance of the Vaishnava idea and Bhakti becomes rather bewildering when it is coupled with an insistence that love cannot be given to the Divine until one has experience of the Divine. For what is more common in the Vaishnava attitude than the joy of Bhakti for its own sake? ‘Give me Bhakti,’ it cries, ‘whatever else you may keep from me. Even if it is long before i can meet you, even if you delay to manifest yourself, let my Bhakti, my seeking for you, my cry, my love, my adoration be always there.’ How constantly the Bhakta has sung, ‘All my life I have been seeking you and still you are not there, but still I seek and cannot cease to seek and love and adore.’ If it were really impossible to love God unless you first experience him, how could this be? In fact, your mind seems to be putting the cart before the horse. One seeks after God first with persistence or with passion, one finds him afterwards, some sooner than others, but most after a long seeking. One does not find him first, then seek after him. Even a glimpse often comes only after long or fervent seeking. One has the love of God or at any rate some heart’s desire for him and afterwards one becomes aware of God’s love, its reply to the heart’s desire, its response of the supreme joy and Ananda. One does not say to God, ‘Show your love from the first, shower on me the experience of yourself, satisfy my demand, then I will see whether I can love you so long as you deserve it.’ It is surely the seeker who must seek and love first, follow the quest, become impassioned for the Sought — then only does the veil move aside and the Light appear and the Face manifest that alone can satisfy the soul after its long sojourn in the desert.”

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

The Nature of Bhakti — the Yoga of Devotion

The path of devotion relies on the heart, not the mind. The seeker who is rooted in his mental process undergoes substantial efforts to achieve spiritual realisation, but may find that the ego-consciousness asserts itself as an arrogant pride of accomplishment, knowledge or understanding. As long as the ego-consciousness remains central to the being and its outlook, the spiritual consciousness of universal Oneness eludes the seeker. The practitioners of the yoga of devotion, bhakti yoga, have a different approach to the spiritual development. They focus their attention on the object of their seeking, the Personal aspect of the Divine and offer themselves and all they are with an overflowing heart to that Presence. Love and devotion are the sole considerations. They may express themselves in song or dance or poetry, pursuits which the intellectual seeker may find distracting or of lesser value, yet truly pursued, this can be, and is, a path of liberation through dissolution of the central sense of the ego in the immersion in the Divine.

To do this truly, eventually all of the deformations of love need to be addressed and resolved, including the forms that it takes in egoistic attachment, as well as the aspects experienced in human love interactions, which include jealousy, possessiveness, and all of the concomitant emotions that are both limiting and distorting to the true nature of love. Similarly forms of devotion that enhance the ego through attempts to force others to accept a particular deity or religious dogma, represent limitations and weaknesses that must eventually be cast aside in the path of devotion.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The nature of Bhakti is adoration, worship, self-offering to what is greater than oneself; the nature of love is a feeling or a seeking for closeness and union. Self-giving is the character of both; both are necessary in the yoga and each gets its full force when supported by the other.”

“Bhakti is not an experience, it is a state of the heart and soul. It is a state which comes when the psychic being is awake and prominent.”

“The ordinary Bhakta is not a lion heart. The lion hearts get experiences comparatively soon but the ordinary Bhakta has often to feed on his own love or yearning for years and years — and he does it.”

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

The Nature of Divine Love

There is an apocryphal tale in the Mahabharata which illustrates the nature of Divine Love and the devotion of the seeker. Narad, the divine sage, came across a yogi who was practicing austerities. The yogi took the opportunity to ask how long before he would achieve liberation. When Narada told him it would be several lifetimes, he was distressed that after so many years of hard austerities, the result was still long in the future. Narad later came across a bhakta who was singing and dancing in praise of the Divine under a large tree. This bhakta asked the same question of Narad who said that “as many leaves as there are on this tree, so many lifetimes before your liberation.” At which the bhakta cried for joy and thanked the Divine Grace that he would be liberated in so short a time! He obtained immediate liberation! This story illustrates the true attitude of the seeker, and the nature of Divine Love.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The Divine Love, unlike the human, is deep and vast and silent; one must become quiet and wide to be aware of it and reply to it. He must make it his whole object to be surrendered so that he may become a vessel and instrument — leaving it to the Divine Wisdom and Love to fill him with what is needed. Let him also fix this in the mind not to insist that in a given time he must progress, develop, get realisation; whatever time it takes, he must be prepared to wait and persevere and make his whole life an aspiration and an opening for the one thing only, the Divine. To give oneself is the secret of sadhana, not to demand and acquire. The more one gives oneself, the more the power to receive will grow. But for that all impatience and revolt must go; all suggestions of not getting, not being helped, not being loved, going away, of abandoning life or the spiritual endeavour must be rejected.”

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