Three Primary Paths of Inner Growth and Spiritual Development

Each individual has a unique way of relating to and developing his spiritual aspiration. Those who are more intellectually inclined may find that they naturally incline towards what is known as the yoga of knowledge. Those who have a nature more inclined to devotion and emotional expression may take up the yoga of love and devotion. Those who have an active vital nature will probably find that the yoga of works is the best path.

Some believe that these choices are ‘fixed’ for an individual by their nature for an entire lifetime. Yet a close examination makes it clear that these paths are not necessarily entirely mutually exclusive, nor are they static in the life of an individual. There may indeed be a leading power of the nature that predominates, but that does not exclude the action of the other powers; indeed, the further one progresses, the more the elements of the other paths may become active. Further, as the nature develops, and old obstacles in the nature are removed or ameliorated, one may find an opening to another path as the spiritual development occurs. The example of Milarepa, the great Tibetan yogi, is obvious. He went to his guru Marpa with great devotion, but was put to work building, and then unbuilding, and building again various structures through heavy labour. He was not permitted to take part in any teachings or meditation practices. At a certain point in time, however, his devotion wavered and he began to doubt his spiritual destiny. It was just at that phase that Marpa intervened, and gave him the deeper teachings and set him on the path of meditation, which he then followed throughout the rest of his life. As evidenced in his compositions, the Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, he had a strong devotional nature that shone through and uplifted and carried him through all his tribulations. He experienced the fruits of all three paths, intertwining and acting forcefully, one or the other, at various stages in his development.

Dr. Dalal writes: “Numerous are the paths that have been discovered for achieving inner growth and realising the Truth. The various psychological paths may be classified into three broad types, corresponding to the three basic psychological aspects of the human make-up: the Path of Knowledge, corresponding to the cognitive or thinking aspect; the Path of Devotion, related to the affective or emotional side of human nature; and the Path of Works or Action, based on man’s conative aspect which has to do with striving and willing. Almost all paths contain elements of each of the three broad types just mentioned, though one particular type element — Knowledge, Devotion, or Works — may predominate. The seeker is drawn to one path or another depending on what predominates in one’s psychological make-up. Regarding the best path to follow, the rule is contained in the celebrated words of the Gita: ‘Better is Swadharma — the law of one’s own being — even though itself faulty, than an alien law well wrought out; death in one’s own law of being is better, perilous it is to follow a law foreign to one’s own nature.’ (III:35)”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Introduction, pp. xviii-xix


The Yogic Consciousness Is Not Simply an Expanded Mental Consciousness

The ability to exercise the powers of logic, reason, perception and memory, all core powers of the mental consciousness, is what generally is regarded as distinguishing between average capacities and extraordinary or genius level capabilities. In the outer world, in the social order, this view obviously has its relevance. We look up to those with noticeable expanded mental capacity generally and seek them out as researchers, pioneers, leaders and decision-makers. It is thus easy to understand why there may then be confusion about the spiritual consciousness and the yogic practices needed to achieve it.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “This greater consciousness, this higher existence are not an enlightened or illumined mentality supported by a greater dynamic energy or supporting a purer moral life and character. Their superiority to the ordinary human consciousness is not in degree but in kind and essence. Three is a change not merely of the surface or instrumental manner of our being but of its very foundation and dynamic principle.”

Those who take up the Yogic practice recognize that there is a state of awareness that transcends the normal mental-vital-physical awareness of our normal human existence. This state of awareness is characterized by a sense of something that is vast, silent, immobile, and yet creative of the entire manifested existence. “Yogic knowledge seeks to enter into a secret consciousness beyond mind which is only occultly here, concealed at the base of all existence. For it is that consciousness alone that truly knows and only by its possession can we possess God and rightly know the world and its real nature and secret forces.”

The Yogin sees the world, not as the real and sole existence, but as a manifestation of the Spirit. Thus, the mental understanding, the perceptions of the senses that focus on the outer world are not the true basis of knowledge. “The knowledge which the senses and intellectual reasoning from the data of the senses can bring us, is not true knowledge; it is a science of appearances. And even appearances cannot be properly known unless we know first the Reality of which they are images. This Reality is their self and there is one self of all; when that is seized, all other things can then be known in their truth and no longer as now only in their appearance.”

The Yogin seeks “that which being known, all is known.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 2, The Status of Knowledge, pg. 287

The Will Is the Determining Factor in Life

The term “tapas” or “tapasya” in Sanskrit represents an essential concept in the practice of Yoga. ordinarily translated as “austerity” or “askesis”, the term has a much more essential sense to it, akin to the concept of “will” or “concentration in thought”, the focused and one-pointed gathering of the faculties to allow a breakthrough in understanding beyond the limits of body, life and the normal actions of the mind.

In the Taittiriya Upanishad, when Bhrigu asked his father Varuna to teach him the Eternal, at each stage of his growth in understanding, Varuna replied “By askesis (tapas) do thou seek to know the Eternal, for askesis is the Eternal.” When we reflect on the significance of this, we find that this power focusing of the deeper will, not what we ordinarily call the exercise of will in the mental framework, acts as the unifying power between the individual and the Supreme. (Bhriguvalli)

In another section, the process of the creation of the universe is characterized as the Spirit concentrating “all Himself in thought, and by the force of His brooding He created all this universe, yea, all whatsoever existeth.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Taittiriya Upanishad, Brahmanandavalli, Chapter 6, pg. 270)

The human being generally is considered to be guided by his mental faculties, at the highest levels of human capacity. The formula in the ancient texts is on the order of “the mind, the leader of the life and body.” Sri Aurobindo observes, however, that this is only true for the outer personality. The mind is not the instrument that can associate itself with the Supreme directly. The mind “turns back without attaining” in the language of the Upanishad.

Sri Aurobindo explores the deeper meaning of “will” in this sense: “This Will is not the wish of the heart or the demand or preference of the mind to which we often give the name. It is that inmost, dominant and often veiled conscious force of our being and of all being, Tapas, Shakti, Shraddha, that sovereignly determines our orientation and of which the intellect and the heart are more or less blind and automatic servants and instruments.”

The manifestation of the universe is carried out through the Will of the Supreme. “In these activities is expressed the conscious Will of Shakti of the Spirit moved to manifest its being in infinite ways, a Will or Power not ignorant but at one with its own self-knowledge and its knowledge of all that it is put out to express. And of this Power a secret spiritual will and soul-faith in us, the dominant hidden force of our nature, is the individual instrument, more nearly in communication with the Supreme, a surer guide and enlightener, could we once get at it and hold it, because profounder and more intimately near to the Identical and Absolute than the surface activities of our thought powers. To know that will in ourselves and in the universe and follow it to its divine finalities, whatever these may be, must surely be the highest way and truest culmination for knowledge as for works, for the seeker in life and for the seeker in Yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 1, The Object of Knowledge, pp. 275-276

The Mental Framework Provides the Initial Leverage For the Yoga of Knowledge

The Yoga of knowledge begins with the basic capabilities of the mind in order to experience and eventually identify with the Supreme. The mind has the capacity to withdraw itself from the events and forms and experiences of the outer world, to become a quiescent witness or passive observer of things and events. This is the first essential characteristic required for the path of Jnana Yoga. This attitude of the mind corresponds to one of the aspects of the Supreme: “There is an Essence that is in its nature a quiescence, a supreme of Silence in the Being that is beyond its own development and mutations, immutable and therefore superior to all activities of which it is at most a Witness.”

Some liken this status to a type of substrate of existence, or to put it another way, like a “canvas” upon which the artist creates his painting. The mind, of all human core capacities, is the closest to being able to grasp, in some manner, this background or framework of creation. “For in its most characteristic movement it is itself apt to be a disinterested witness, judge, observer of things more than an eager participant and passionate labourer in the work and can arrive very readily at a spiritual or philosophic calm and detached aloofness.”

“Armed with its functions of gathering and reflection, meditation, fixed contemplation, the absorbed dwelling of the mind on its object,…, it stands at our tops as an indispensable aid to our realisation of that which we pursue, and it is not surprising that it should claim to be the leader of the journey and the only available guide or at least the direct and innermost door of the temple.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 1, The Object of Knowledge, pp. 274-275

Overview of the Traditional Yoga of Knowledge Paths

The traditional yoga of knowledge starts with several core principles. First, there is an intuition of a reality which is unchanging, eternal and absolute, that is other than the outer reality we experience in our normal human lives with our physical-vital-mental being and faculties. There are variations as to how this ultimate reality is conceived, such as an emptiness or void, or a transcendent existence beyond the transitory phenomena of our lives. Second, that knowledge of this reality can be experienced through identity with it, as it cannot be grasped by the mind and its limited capabilities; and third, that through a discipline that systematically abandons attachment to the activities, perceptions and forms of the outer world, the seeker can escape the limitations of the mental framework and thereby achieve this knowledge by identity of the Supreme, which is the highest knowledge, not subject to change, decay or dissolution.

Sri Aurobindo describes this further: “All that is individual, all that is cosmic has to be austerely renounced by the seeker of the absolute Truth. The supreme quiescent Self or else the absolute Nihil is the sole Truth, the only object of spiritual knowledge. The state of knowledge, the consciousness other than this temporal that we must attain is Nirvana, an extinction of ego, a cessation of all mental, vital and physical activities, of all activities whatsoever, a supreme illumined quiescence, the pure bliss of an impersonal tranquility self-absorbed and ineffable. The means are meditation, concentration excluding all things else, a total loss of the mind in its object.”

This implies eventually an abandonment of all action. “In the end, in any severe and pure Jnanayoga, all works must be abandoned for an entire quiescence. Action may prepare salvation, it cannot give it….The supreme state of quiescence is the very opposite of action and cannot be attained by those who persist in works. And even devotion, love, worship are disciplines for the unripe soul, are at best the best methods of the Ignorance….Even thought-activity must disappear in the sole consciousness of identity or of nothingness and by its own quiescence bring about the quiescence of the whole nature. The absolute Identical alone must remain or else the eternal Nihil.”

This understanding has led to the path of the ascetic or the renunciate who removes himself from society in order to systematically undertake the severe austerities required to bring about the unity and identity of this path of knowledge.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 1, The Object of Knowledge, pp. 273-274

Seeking For Knowledge of the Eternal

“Bhrigu, Varuna’s son, came unto his father Varuna and said, ‘Lord, teach me the Eternal.’ ” Varuna responded: ” Seek thou to know that from which these creatures are born, whereby being born they live and to which they go hence and enter again; for that is the Eternal.” Thus begins the Bhriguvalli of the Taittiriya Upanishads. (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Taittiriya Upanishad, Bhriguvalli, Chapter 1, pg 275)

Most people fixate their minds and attention on the outer world of forms, forces and beings. They are concerned with social relationships, and the various actions necessary to survive and succeed in the world. They focus on using their minds to acquire facts, to apply logic and reason to the realm of society’s activities, and they place little, if any, of their attention on the seeking for the Eternal. There are however, always those who try to understand why it is we are alive, what the world is all about, and how and why it functions. There are seekers, scientists, dreamers, poets, mystics, sages and seers, yogis, those who gaze at the stars at night and wonder, and those who go on various forms of vision quest.

The Upanishads taken as a whole focus on this eternal quest, and this is the reason they are revered as books of deep wisdom. They look beyond the surface phenomena and move the mind to ultimate causes and purposes.

The Yoga of Knowledge is a path that seeks out this deeper wisdom of the essence of life and existence. Sri Aurobindo describes the seeking thus: “All spiritual seeking moves towards an object of Knowledge to which men ordinarily do not turn the eye of the mind, to someone or something Eternal, Infinite, Absolute that is not the temporal things or forces of which we are sensible although he or it may be in them or behind them or their source or creator. It aims at a state of knowledge by which we can touch, enter or know by identity this Eternal, Infinite and Absolute, a consciousness other than our ordinary consciousness of ideas and forms and things, a knowledge that is not what we call knowledge but something self-existent, everlasting, infinite.”

This knowledge, since it addresses things beyond the reach of the mind, things which are invisible to the outer eye, and addresses levels of consciousness outside the framework that the mind can encompass, must necessarily identify, locate, associate with, and develop powers of knowing that are beyond the limited mental faculties that we use for outer facts and events. The mind can at best reflect, as a mirror reflect. The reality can be truly grasped only by other and greater powers of knowledge.

It is the province of the Yoga of Knowledge to both identify the real object of knowledge, and to develop those faculties and powers of knowing that permit the arising of true understanding.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 1, The Object of Knowledge, pg. 273