A critique of the book "The Lives of Sri Aurobindo" by Peter Heehs
committed to objective, academic, respectful and honest discussions
Jun 11, 2009
Are We Religious Fundamentalists? -- by Raman Reddy
The SCIY (Science, Culture and Integral Yoga) internet forum is so worried about religious fundamentalism gripping the Sri Aurobindo Ashram that it seems to have forgotten what religion means. Everyone in the forum shies away from this word as if it is the worst calamity that could ever happen to humanity in general and the Integral Yoga community in particular. One gets the impression that in their anxiety to avoid ritualism and fanaticism, they have thrown away the baby with the bathwater and replaced it with highfalutin intellectualism.
Let me therefore first define what religion means before going further with my critique of this forum, which has been so insensitive to the feelings of the majority of the disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. But, I suppose, we are committing a serious error by even calling ourselves “disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother”!
Religion, as I have understood from the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, is not something fundamentally wrong, but a diminution of spirituality into mere belief and a set of rituals and practices. It has played a beneficent role in the life of the common man, explains Sri Aurobindo in the Life Divine, his magnum opus, though it has often blocked the human soul from further progress. It is also not necessarily un-spiritual, as most intellectuals consider it to be. In fact, these intellectuals generally replace spirituality with intellectuality, so enamoured are they with their own abstract mental formulations. Every religion has produced great spiritual seekers, though not all spiritual seekers come from existing religions. In fact, new spiritual leaders find new paths to the divine realisation in man, which eventually become new religions after the demise of their founders.
In short, religion reflects man’s basic tendency to follow the form rather than the spirit of the new pathfinders. Man generally wants to clutch at existing formulations and that too in their outermost aspects, because of his sheer inability to find out for himself the corresponding truths in his own being. This does not mean that one should therefore flout all existing formulations as outdated truths in order to be free from them, but rather rise above them when one can, if one can, and when one is spiritually convinced of the necessity to do so. Otherwise, one can, as most of us lesser mortals do, use them, take help of the readily available wisdom and apply it successfully to our life, instead of trying to be over-smart and condemn past formulations on the mere basis of their belonging to the past!
One needs therefore sufficient spiritual maturity and inner growth in order to go beyond religions, which are basically past formulations of inner life and spirituality expressed at a certain point of time, and which will remain valid until they have been overpassed by the general spiritual progress of humanity. But how do we distinguish religion from spirituality?
Let us take the practise of bowing down or folding one’s hands in front of the figure that one adores and contemplates upon. When the action is sincere and reflective of the spiritual truth within, it should not be considered religious; otherwise one will end up condemning all external expression of the spirit. Sri Aurobindo never said that external manifestation is contrary to the spirit within.  On the other hand, he encouraged it in the form of Pranam and Darshan during his own lifetime. An action becomes religious only when it becomes routine and mechanical and does not correspond to any deeper psychological truth. In other words, the more the spirit withdraws from the external form, the more religious the form becomes.
Thus one has a whole range of truth, a spectrum of the spirit, so to say, starting from the free spontaneous expression of the spirit to the half mechanical routine which most disciples get into, to the totally senseless rituals that are followed out of sheer habit or fear of breaking the convention. The last should be broken by the enlightened intellect, the second and the various degrees of truth ending in the third, should be replaced either by a re-awakening to the half-lost spiritual truth within the existing form or by the discovery of a new truth. Most iconoclasts break the temple along with the spirit behind that built it. In rising above religion, one should therefore replace it by “a higher aspiration” as the Mother said, and not by mere intellectuality and disbelief in divinity. Spirituality is essentially a matter of experience and no amount of abstract thought can replace it.
I come now to the SCIY forum’s current accusation of religious fundamentalism overcoming the disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. First of all, has not this religious card been overplayed, and played at the wrong time for the wrong reasons? This kind of anti-religious rhetoric could draw applause in the context of the Middle Ages – in India, we never had anything comparable to the persecution and inquisitions of the Middle Ages in the West, because there were always so many religions that Truth never became a monolithic monster. Freedom was given even to the Carvakas, the God-denying, pleasure loving materialists of those times, and nobody bothered them as long as they did not bother the others. Each Ashram had its own tradition, its own Guru, its customs and obligations, and if an inmate did not follow them, he was quietly told by the Mathadhipati  to pack up, go to another Ashram if he felt that path more congenial, or have a stint of the ordinary life before renewing his spiritual pursuit. It was as plain and simple as that!
It is true that over a period of time each Ashram became more and more rigid in its formulation and prescription of the spiritual path, and that is why Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have decried religion. That is why, in their own Ashram, they made the minimum number of outer rules and left each disciple free to follow the Yoga in his or her own way. The Yoga itself was broadly explained, in principles rather than in practical programmes. Collective meditations were there in the Ashram but never compulsory, even when the Mother was presiding them. Spiritual discourses were limited to such an extent that newcomers were often puzzled as to what they were supposed to inwardly practise, apart from the standard prescription of “Do the Mother’s work and she will do your sadhana.” The only thing insisted upon was work for the community, and here too, every worthwhile activity, ranging from washing dishes in the Dining Room to painting and writing poetry, was considered work.
In fact, if anything has been followed with almost a religious fervour even though it was not imposed, I would say it is physical education, having myself grown up at the Ashram with an overdose of basketball, running and swimming, with the result that I suffer, like so many of my colleagues, from sports related injuries. Now which diehard secular fundamentalist would call these activities religious? But I can already hear the protests of these “intellectual fundamentalists” of the SCIY, who recoil with disgust at the very mention of feeling and emotion: “What about the daily bowing down at the Samadhi? What about the sacred and special occasions which have been institutionalised in the Ashram – the Darshans and the Puja decorations of the Mother’s chair, and, yes, the march-pasts and the salute in front of the Mother’s symbol? Finally, what about the deification of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother into Avatars? ”
Actually, most of what we do is replicated in secular institutions. Special days are also celebrated there to mark long-forgotten events, monuments are erected and collective gatherings take place in memory of the founders. In fact, our Ashram fares better than them, because there is total freedom here not to attend these special occasions, whereas you will be surely pulled up for non-attendance in the latter case for breaking protocol.
Secondly, this anti-religious diatribe would have been appreciated had Religion stood in the way of Science, as it did in the Middle Ages when the Inquisition persecuted Galileo. But this is no longer the case now. Sri Aurobindo has made spirituality as scientific as any secular science. Moreover, the limitations of science and rationality have become too obvious in modern times. We are no more trapped in “the science versus spirit” paradigm and are moving towards a greater synthesis of Spirit and Matter.
Sri Aurobindo has provided this vast framework where everything has its due place. Faith in the Divine can go hand in hand with science and intellectuality – he even recommends this until the higher faculties can replace the mind. Avatarhood and worship of the Guru can co-exist with the freedom of the human individual. There is no essential contradiction between the Personal and the Impersonal Divine: for example, when the Overmental Consciousness descended in Sri Aurobindo on the Siddhi Day, he termed it the descent of Krishna. He had no qualms about declaring the Mother as the Avatar and instructing his disciples to submit themselves to her for spiritual growth and guidance. At the same time, in his public statements he spoke of the Divine Shakti as if it were an impersonal force. Now, in such a context, I wonder how one can be overly anxious to condemn religion.