An Intuitive Reason, Not an Intellectual Reason, Is Needed to Assist in Religious Reformation

When religion becomes calcified in ritual and traditions that no longer express the inner spirit of the religious impulse, there is a movement which rejects the form and seeks for a new and wider formulation that can recapture the spirit.  The intellectual reason has played an active role in these movements of reformation, and to that extent, it has been of some service; yet there is a tendency when the narrow logic of the reason gets involved, to dry up the roots of inspiration and leave just an empty shell behind.  Thus, Sri Aurobindo calls for an intuitive reason, rather than an intellectual reason, if there is to be a possibility of a new inspiration and growth to proceed from the exercise.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “… in its endeavour to get rid of the superstition and ignorance which have attached themselves to religious forms and symbols, intellectual reason unenlightened by spiritual knowledge tends to deny and, so far as it can, to destroy the truth and the experience which was contained in them.  Reformations which give too much to reason and are too negative and protestant, usually create religions which lack in wealth of spirituality and fullness of religious emotion; they are not opulent in their contents; their form and too often their spirit is impoverished, bare and cold.”

“The life of the instincts and impulses on its religious side cannot be satisfyingly purified by reason, but rather by being sublimated, by being lifted up into the illuminations of the spirit.  The natural line of religious development proceeds always by illumination; and religious reformation acts best when either it reillumines rather than destroys old forms or, where destruction is necessary, replaces them by richer and not by poorer forms, and in any case when it purifies by suprarational illumination, not by rational enlightenment.”

“If reason is to play any decisive part, it must be an intuitive rather than an intellectual reason, touched always by spiritual intensity and insight.  For it must be remembered that the infrarational also has behind it a secret Truth which does not fall within the domain of the Reason and is not wholly amenable to its judgments.  The heart has its knowledge, the life has its intuitive spirit within it, its intimations, divinations, outbreaks and upflamings of a Secret Energy, a divine or at least semi-divine aspiration and outreaching which the eye of intuition alone can fathom and only intuitive speech or symbol can shape or utter.  To root out these things from religion or to purge religion of any elements necessary for its completeness because the forms are defective or obscure, without having the power to illuminate them from within or the patience to wait for their illumination from above or without replacing them by more luminous symbols, is not to purify but to pauperise.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 13,  Reason and Religion, pp. 134-135


The Issue of the Admixture of Vital Instincts and Desires in the Religious Impulse and the Potential Role of Reason to Correct the Defects That Arise

When religion combines with the movements of the vital nature, it oftentimes can create horrific or, at least, very low vital forms of the religious impulse.  History has shown us the dangers of this with the examples of human sacrifice, stoning, holy inquisitions including torture and enforcement of controls under pain of excommunication, torture or death to adhere to established ways and rituals.   There is also the possibility of an admixture between religious impulses and the desires for power, wealth and sex.  There is thus a debate about whether there is a legitimate role for human reason to intervene in the religious expressions that are based on the lower nature rather than adhering to the highest spiritual aspirations.

The danger here is several-fold.  First, the reason cannot understand the religious impulse and thus, its intervention may do more harm than good in the long run, even if it is brought in to correct obvious weaknesses, limitations or abuses.  Second, the reason has a propensity to come under the sway of the vital nature and its desires, so its attempt to intervene may wind up providing new energy and power of effectuation to this vital admixture of religion and desire.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…as there is the suprarational life in which religious aspiration finds entirely what it seeks, so too there is also the infrarational life of the instincts, impulses, sensations, crude emotions, vital activities from which all human aspiration takes its beginning.  These too feel the touch of the religious sense in man, share its needs and experience, desire its satisfactions.  Religion includes this satisfaction also in its scope, and in what is usually called religion it seems even to be the greater part, sometimes to an external view almost the whole; for the supreme purity of spiritual experience does not appear or is glimpsed only through this mixed and turbid current.  Much impurity, ignorance, superstition, many doubtful elements must form as the result of this contact and union of our highest tendencies with our lower ignorant nature.  Here it would seem that reason has its legitimate part; here surely it can intervene to enlighten, purify, rationalise the play of the instincts and impulses.  It would seem that a religious reformation, a movement to substitute a ‘pure’ and rational religion for one that is largely infrarational and impure, would be a distinct advance in the religious development of humanity.  To a certain extent this may be, but, owing to the peculiar nature of the religious being, its entire urge towards the suprarational, not without serious qualifications, nor can the rational mind do anything here that is of a high positive value.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 13,  Reason and Religion, pp. 133-134

The Secondary Role and the Limitations of the Reasoning Intelligence in the Realm of Religion and Spiritual Seeking

It is not the function of the intellect to experience directly the truths of the spirit.  As the Taittiriya Upanishad proclaims “The mind turns back without attaining”.  Yet, the reason has a role in the scope of translating something of the experience back into a form that the intellect can grapple with and thereby help to guide the mind to a balanced approach that allows the spiritual inspiration to operate in the being, without too much distortion caused by the mental activity.  The language and organization of thought used by the mind cannot encompass the wideness or height of the spiritual experience or the higher truths, and it is a limitation that should be recognized so that the mind does not try to regulate the experience through creation of mental straitjackets.  Those who experience the spiritual realms and get an inspiration of spiritual truth find it difficult to communicate the experience through words.  Thus we see frequently a resort to ecstatic speech and poetic utterance to try to carry through some sense of what is behind the words.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  Reason “…cannot lay down the law for the religious life, it cannot determine in its own right the system of divine knowledge; it cannot school and lesson the divine love and delight; it cannot set bounds to spiritual experience or lay its yoke upon the action of the spiritual man.  Its sole legitimate sphere is to explain as best it can, in its own language and to the rational and intellectual parts of man, the truths, the experiences, the laws of our suprarational and spiritual existence.”

“Reason is safest when it is content to take the profound truths and experiences of the spiritual being and the spiritual life, just as they are given to it, and throw them into such form, order and language as will make them the most intelligible or the least unintelligible to the reasoning mind.  Even then it is not quite safe, for it is apt to harden the order into an intellectual system and to present the form as if it were the essence.  And, at best, it has to use a language which is not the very tongue of the suprarational truth but its inadequate translation and, since it is not the ordinary tongue either of the rational intelligence, it is open to non-understanding or misunderstanding by the ordinary reason of mankind.  It is well-known to the experience of the spiritual seeker that even the highest philosophising cannot give a true inner knowledge, is not the spiritual light, does not open the gates of experience.  All it can do is to address the consciousness of man through his intellect and, when it has done, to say, ‘I have tried to give you the truth in a form and system which will make it intelligible and possible to you; if you are intellectually convinced or attracted, you can now seek the real knowledge, but you must seek it by other means which are beyond my province.’ ”


Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 13,  Reason and Religion, pp. 132-133

The Essence of Religion Is Outside the Scope of Reason

Who are we?  How are we born?  Where did the universe come from?  Do we have a purpose in life, and if so, what is it?  These questions are among the eternal questions that religion focuses itself on answering.  Reason is baffled when it confronts the Infinite, the Absolute, the Beyond.  Since the intellectual apparatus is unsuited to answer the deeper questions of existence, religion takes up the quest with non-rational tools.  Thus we see the seeking for God in a vision quest, the opening to intuition, visions and direct experience of the divine reality of the world.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The deepest heart, the inmost essence of religion, apart from its outward machinery of creed, cult, ceremony and symbol, is the search for God and the finding of God.  Its aspiration is to discover the Infinite, the Absolute, the One, the Divine, who is all these things and yet no abstraction but a Being.  Its work is a sincere living out of the true and intimate relations between man and God, relations of unity, relations of difference, relations of an illuminated knowledge, an ecstatic love and delight, an absolute surrender and service, a casting of every part of our existence out of its normal status into an uprush of man towards the Divine and a descent of the Divine into man.  All this has nothing to do with the realm of reason or its normal activities; its aim, its sphere, its process is suprarational.  The knowledge of God is not to be gained by weighing the feeble arguments of reason for or against his existence:  it is to be gained only by a self-transcending and absolute consecration, aspiration and experience.  Nor does that experience proceed by anything like rational scientific experiment or rational philosophic thinking.  Even in those parts of religious discipline which seem most to resemble scientific experiment, the method is a verification of things which exceed the reason and its timid scope.  Even in those parts of religious knowledge which seem most to resemble intellectual operations, the illuminating faculties are not imagination, logic and rational judgment, but revelations, inspirations, intuitions, intuitive discernments that leap down to us from a plane of suprarational light.  The love of God is an infinite and absolute feeling which does not admit of any rational limitation and does not use a language of rational worship and adoration; the delight in God is that peace and bliss which passes all understanding.  The surrender to God is the surrender of the whole being to a suprarational light, will, power and love and his service takes no account of the compromises with life which the practical reason of man uses as the best part of its method in the ordinary conduct of mundane existence.  Wherever religion really finds itself, wherever it opens itself to its own spirit, — there is plenty of that sort of religious practice which is halting, imperfect, half-sincere, only half sure of itself and in which reason can get in a word, — its way is absolute and its fruits are ineffable.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 13,  Reason and Religion, pp. 131-132

The Failures of the Rationalist World-View in Respect of Religion

The extreme rationalist view of religion is that it must be able to prove itself within the framework of the scientific and rational fact-based understanding of the world and how it operates.  This view tries to force religion to justify itself on the terms set by the intellectual reason, even though religion purports to interface with a segment of reality that is not external or palpable in the same sense as the rational mind prefers.  A less extreme position, which tries to find ways to justify the positions taken by religion with explanations that fit within the four walls of the rational external world and its perceptible workings.  Of course, science has begun to make accommodations as it found that its world-view cannot explain even the external world that it prided itself on being able to describe.  It cannot describe the electro-magnetic spectrum, the existence of black holes or dark matter, or quantum effects at the atomic level without going far beyond what can be easily perceived, logically understood and organized, and systematically explained.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…its (reason) intolerant negations are an arrogant falsity, as the human mind has now sufficiently begun to perceive.  Its mistake is like that of a foreigner who thinks everything in an alien country absurd and inferior because these things are not his own ways of acting and thinking and cannot be cut out by his own measures or suited to his own standards.  So the thoroughgoing rationalist asks the religious spirit, if it is to stand, to satisfy the material reason and even to give physical proof of its truths, while the very essence of religion is the discovery of the immaterial Spirit and the play of a supraphysical consciousness.  So too he tries to judge religion by his idea of its externalities, just as an ignorant and obstreperous foreigner might try to judge a civilisation by the dress, outward colour of life and some of the most external peculiarities in the social manners of the inhabitants.”

“The more moderate attitude of the rational mind has also played its part in the history of human thought.  Its attempt to explain religion have resulted in the compilation of an immense mass of amazingly ingenious perversions, such as certain pseudo-scientific attempts to form a comparative Science of Religion.  It has built up in the approved modern style immense facades of theory with stray bricks of misunderstood facts for their material.  Its mild condonations of religion have led to superficial phases of thought which have passed quickly away and left no trace behind them.  Its efforts at the creation of a rational religion, perfectly well-intentioned, but helpless and unconvincing, have had no appreciable effect and have failed like a dispersing cloud….”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 13,  Reason and Religion, pp. 130-131

The General Attitude of the Intellectual Reason Towards Religion

The intellectual reason has had something of a condescending attitude towards religion, looking on it as a mass of superstitions not grounded in verifiable facts, or springing out of the ancient ignorance about the way the world works, through attribution of a divine agency or spiritual action in the workings of the material world.   At certain times, science and religion have been at odds with one another because science held that religion was illogical and religion held that science was misguided and heretical.  When religion held sway, such as during the Dark Ages of Europe, and the Holy Inquisition, scientific inquiry was frowned upon, even banned, or treated as cause for torture, excommunication or death.  At times when reason took the lead, religion began to take a back seat and a secular viewpoint gained ascendancy.  There were those who even disposed of religion by simply terming it “the opium of the masses” with the implication that it was simply a way to intoxicate and sedate the vast number of people who needed to be ruled by those who had the intellectual vigour and force to manage societal issues.

Sri Aurobindo comments:  “The unaided intellectual reason faced with the phenomena of the religious life is naturally apt to adopt one of two attitudes, both of them shallow in the extreme, hastily presumptuous and erroneous.  Either it views the whole thing as a mass of superstition, a mystical nonsense, a farrago of ignorant barbaric survivals, — that was the extreme spirit of the rationalist now happily, though not dead, yet much weakened and almost moribund, — or it patronizes religion, tries to explain its origins, to get rid of it by the process of explaining it away; or it labours gently or forcefully to reject or correct its superstitions, crudities, absurdities, to purify it into an abstract nothingness or persuade it to purify itself in the light of the reasoning intelligence; or it allows it a role, leaves it perhaps for the edification of the ignorant, admits its value as a moralising influence or its utility to the State for keeping the lower classes in order, even perhaps tries to invent that strange chimera, a rational religion.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 13,  Reason and Religion, pp. 129-130

The Inability of the Reason to Comprehend the Religious and Spiritual Experience

The human faculty of reason relies on a limited and linear development of ideas based on an underlying basis of the perceptions of the senses in the external world.  Reason, the great power of the scientific temperament, has helped humanity transform the outer life and has led to discoveries of the working of the external world which remain marvels even today.  One field of endeavour, however, has remained outside the scope within which Reason can perform, and that is the field of the Spirit, the domain of religion and spirituality.  Spiritual truth is understood, not be the action of the Reason, but by an inner intuition of Truth through the experience of Oneness.  The validity of this method of knowing, knowledge by identity of oneness, is so powerfully experienced by those who open to the religious or spiritual experience, that there can be no doubt or questioning of the reality.  The power of reason simply cannot function outside its limited range of activity, and becomes befuddled by experiences that are not subject to its logical, mental approach.  Reason functions best when it is analytical, dividing and classifying what it experiences.  The spiritual experience is unifying and synthetical, joining together diverse elements into their inherent Oneness.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The attempts of the positive critical reason to dissect the phenomena of the religious life sound to men of spiritual experience like the prattle of a child who is trying to shape into the mould of his own habitual notions the life of adults or the blunders of an ignorant mind which thinks fit to criticise patronisingly or adversely the labours of a profound thinker or a great scientist.  At the best even this futile labour can extract, can account for only the externals of the things it attempts to explain; the spirit is missed, the inner matter is left out, and as a result of that capital omission even the account of the externals is left without real truth and has only an apparent correctness.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 13,  Reason and Religion, pg. 129