Intellectual Understanding and Understanding in the Consciousness

Those who find their basis primarily in the mind tend to believe that their intellectual understanding of something represents something real and definitive and that their “knowing” means they “know” something. This is however, not quite accurate. For instance, one can read books and “know” about a particular activity or process but nevertheless be unable to fully comprehend all the subtlety or complexity that only becomes clear through experience and inner review. There is also the famous statement that reading about swimming does not mean one can swim when one enters the water.

Yoga is not dependent on an intellectual understanding of the processes or steps along the way. It is a matter of inner experiential understanding that may not correspond to the mental formations that develop as one studies books or hears lectures on the subject. It is one of the great distinguishing factors between academic learning and real life experience.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “… There are two kinds of understanding — understanding by the intellect and understanding in the consciousness. It is good to have the former if it is accurate, but it is not indispensable. Understanding by the consciousness comes if there is faith and openness, though it may come only gradually and through steps of experience. But I have seen people without education or intellectuality understand in this way perfectly well the course of the yoga in themselves, while intellectual men make big mistakes, e.g. take a neutral mental quietude for the spiritual peace and refuse to come out of it in order to go farther.”

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

The Gita’s Definition of Knowledge

Particularly in the West we define knowledge by some form of intellectual achievement, whether through memorization, skills training or development of the logical or analytical intellect as a tool of understanding and action. These mental powers certainly have their use and benefit for action in the world, but it is important to recognize that when the Gita speaks of “knowledge” it is not implying any kind of intellectual feat, but something different and of a totally different order of experience.

Knowledge, from the Gita’s perspective is a change of the entire basis of consciousness, from logical, linear intellectual plodding, based on division, fragmentation and analysis, to a status where the consciousness “sees” and “knows” through self-awareness from a different non-mental standpoint that holds the understanding of the complete whole that both exceeds and consists of its fragmentary parts. It is a unifying, holistic view that recognizes the Oneness of the entire creation and takes its standpoint from beyond that creation’s frame.

To attain knowledge, one must go beyond books and schools and intellectual pursuits. This leads to the practice of the Yoga of Knowledge, which involves exploration of the process to quiet the intellectual function so that the consciousness can move to its new vision and standpoint.

Sri Aurobindo describes it: “This knowledge of which the Gita speaks, is not an intellectual activity of the mind; it is a luminous growth into the highest state of being by the outshining of the light of the divine sun of Truth….The immutable Brahman is there in the spirit’s skies above this troubled lower nature of the dualities, untouched either by its virtue or by its sin, accepting neither our sense of sin nor our self-righteousness, untouched by its joy and its sorrow, indifferent to our joy in success and our grief in failure, master of all, supreme, all-pervading, ….calm, strong, pure, equal in all things, the source of Nature, not the direct doer of our works, but the witness of Nature and her works, not imposing on us either the illusion of being the doer, for that illusion is the result of the ignorance of this lower Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 20, Equality and Knowledge, pp. 192-193