“What is Spirituality?” – Prof. Mangesh V Nadkarni

With this paper, we commence a new series, the aim of which is to discuss some of the concepts important in understanding the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Although the term ‘yoga’ has gained recognition in many parts of the world today, it is still viewed by many as something mystic and abnormal which has no relation to our life in the world. It is believed that a Yogin tends to draw away from the common existence and lose his hold upon it. A Yogin is therefore looked upon as lost inevitably to the great stream of our collective existence and the secular effort of humanity. This misconception about yoga is so widespread that to escape from life is now commonly considered the general object of yoga. Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga is a corrective to all thinking of this kind because it seeks to reunite the Divine and Nature in a perfected human life and, in its method, it aims at the harmony of our inner and outer activities in the divine consummation of both. For Sri Aurobindo, all life is yoga and we are all yogins, conscious or unconscious.

To understand this yoga, it is important to have conceptual clarity about what spirituality is because yoga is methodised effort of realising the spirit that we are and whose perfection we are destined to manifest at all levels in our life. So the first concept we will examine in this series is spirituality.

Spirituality has often been confused with religion and morality in journalistic and even in academic discourse in recent times. The basic assumption of spirituality is that the normal human consciousness is the ignorant consciousness since it is separated from our true self, which is Divine in nature. This normal human consciousness is led by the common habits of the mind, life and body that follow the laws of the Ignorance. It is because of this ignorance that we feel that we are separate from everything else in this world. Although religion belongs to the higher mind of humanity, the religious life, however, is a movement of the same ignorant human consciousness; it is a movement away from the Ignorance towards the consciousness of unity with the Divine. It is a stage during which the human individual has not yet the experience of oneness with the Divine and is led by the dogmatic tenets and rules of some creed which claims to have found the way out of the limitations of the Ignorance into some beatific beyond. What characterises spirituality is a change of consciousness — out of the Ignorance of being a separate, autonomous consciousness into a consciousness of oneness with the Divine. The religious life may be the first approach to the spiritual but often it is restricted to no more than a turning about in a round of rites, rituals and set ideas and it is still dominated by the Ignorance.

The Mother once remarked that if Jesus came back, he would not be able to recognise what he taught in the forms that have been imposed on it. The same may be said of the Buddha; if he were to came back and see what has been made of his teaching, he would immediately run back discouraged to Nirvana. All religions have each the same story to tell. A great Teacher comes and reveals the Divine Truth he has experienced. But men seize upon a mental form of it, trade upon it, make an almost political organisation out of it. Very soon the religion gets wrapped up in a second falsehood, which is the belief that one’s own religion is the supreme, the only truth, all others are inferior or in falsehood. This brings dogmatism into credal religions. When this happens, religion becomes a hindrance to spiritual life instead of being a help. But religion does not have to be such an obstacle. If we focus our attention not on the doctrines and dogmas of religion which are man-made things but on the aspirations of man for unity with the Divine consciousness it represents, then it can be a help for us to approach the spiritual life.

The Mother has recognised that all religions have helped a certain number of people, particularly people who possess a great emotional capacity and are full of an ardent aspiration and have a simple and unquestioning mind. In every religion there are some who have evolved to a high spiritual life, but it is not the religion that gave them their spirituality; it is they who have put their spirituality into the religion. History is witness to the fact that religion has been the impulse to the worst things and the best. It is an impediment and a chain if you are a slave to its outer body; if you know how to use its inner substance, it can be your jumping board into the realm of the Spirit.[1]

Morality is an attempt to guide our conduct by certain mental rules or to live in conformity with the rules of a certain mental ideal, such as non-violence, or altruism or humanitarianism. Morality has to do with the regulation of man’s mind and vital (life-energies). A strict adherence to moral ideals may create in you an opening for the spiritual path. A moral life may prepare you for a spiritual life. But morality is not spirituality. Morality serves as a stop-gap which men are obliged to use until they can see things truly in the light of the spirit. The human ego is still the prism through which the light of truth is filtered in the moral realm.

It is well-known that the moral ideal differs in its constituents and composition from time to time and place to place. And yet morality proclaims itself as a unique type and does not tolerate any variation or departure from its ideal. It must be admitted that morality is not divine or of the divine; it is of man and human. It lifts one artificial standard contrary to the variety of life and the freedom of the spirit. The Mother has given a beautiful illustration to explain the difference between the moral and the spiritual view of things. Consider the distinction between a generous person and an avaricious one. Society heaps praise on the former as generous and unselfish and despises the latter as selfish and greedy. But to the spiritual vision, they both stand on the same level; the generosity of the one and the avarice of the other are both deformations of a higher truth. There is a power, a divine movement that spreads and diffuses, throws out freely forces and things, from the most material to the most spiritual plane. The man we praise as generous expresses this movement. There is another power, another divine movement, that collects and amasses forces and things from all planes. The man we call avaricious is an instrument of this movement. Both these movements are important, both are needed in the entire plan. When surrendered to the Divine, both can be utilised for the Divine work to the same degree and have an equal value. But when they are not so surrendered, both are moved by impulses of ignorance. The so-called generous man’s impulses of generosity and the avaricious person’s impulses for hoarding both come from their ego and desires.[2]

The modern mind may not be very religious but it understands religion. Its own highest ideals, the ideals it admires, are, however, moral, although most often it finds them too impracticable to follow. At its best, the modern mind is practical, ethical, social, altruistic and humanitarian. But it does not understand spirituality, which is about God and God-state, the Eternal and the Infinite. Even in a country like India, which has a long and still-living tradition of spirituality, if we asked a group of academics, journalists and professionals, to name the greatest Indian of the 20th century, we are likely to get from an overwhelming majority of them the names of Mahatma Gandhi, or Babasaheb Ambedkar, and not of Sri Ramakrishna, or Sri Ramana Maharshi or Sri Aurobindo. The reason for this is that those named in the former group represent in various degrees ethical and humanitarian excellence while those in the latter group are exemplars of the highest spiritual achievement. For the modern mind is essentially the Western mind, and spirituality for it is a vague term which it does not fully understand.

Now let us look at a brief passage from Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri (p. 23); it succinctly states what spirituality quintessentially is, how it is basic to human nature, and how it is the underlying truth of all our existence.

This bodily appearance is not all;             42
The form deceives, the person is a mask;
Hid deep in man celestial powers can dwell.
His fragile ship conveys through the sea of years    45
An incognito of the Imperishable.
A spirit that is a flame of God abides,      47
A fiery portion of the Wonderful,
Artist of his own beauty and delight,
Immortal in our mortal poverty[3].        50

Most people regard their body as their real being. They are most of the time preoccupied with the problems of feeding it, keeping it healthy and efficient, keeping it comfortable and trying to preserve its youth and looks as long as possible. The poet does not deny the physical being its due. He says that it “is not all”, there is much more to us besides our body. The outer form of man is deceptive because it hides everything else about him. Even the so-called ‘personality’ he acquires as he lives through his life is no more than a mask. It is not the real person in him. What we call our ‘personality’ is primarily our surface personality. It is the product of the various influences which have affected us and shaped us – our upbringing, our education, the influence of our peer group, the temper of the times in which we live, etc. This is what we identify with our “I” and according to certain theories this is the most valuable thing about us and we should try to preserve it at all costs. But our poet regards this as no more than a veil covering the real person. This surface personality of ours is oblivious of the various powers and capacities, tendencies and traits that are latent in us. At deeper levels there exist in us the powers of our inner being, (the inner physical, vital and mental) and deeper down is the soul or the psychic in us. There are also layers of consciousness which are above our normal consciousness and which represent in various degrees our divine heights. Then there are our so-called inconscient and subconscient parts that harbour forces of darkness and inertia. Thus, in fact, our surface being with which we identify ourselves is no more than the tip of an iceberg. (Lines 42 – 44)

Lines 45 and 46 capture through a beautiful image the very quintessence of what constitutes spirituality. Here the human being is compared to a ship, and a fragile ship at that, since our physical life is lived under precarious conditions, threatened by diseases and forces of disintegration all the time. This fragile ship is engaged in ‘conveying’, in transporting through the sea of years, the sea of Time, “an incognito of the imperishable”. “Incognito” means with identity concealed under a disguise or assumed character. What is this Imperishable? This is “the immortal, eternal and imperishable Spirit” so eloquently described in many scriptures as “the imperishable which pervades this entire creation” (The Gita). This is the Imperishable, the embodied soul or spirit which, the Gita declares, the weapons cannot split, nor the fire burn, nor the waters drench, nor the winds dry . The Gita also describes it as that which is not born, which does not die, which is eternal and infinite.

Thus the central idea of lines 45 and 46 is that our body is a ship that transports an individualised form of the Imperishable, of the Spirit which no body recognises including we ourselves because it is travelling under a disguise. This disguise is what controls our surface being; it is our ego, or our desire soul. This surface being dominates our lives and forces us to live for its satisfaction. But there is a traveller which the ship is transporting, and he is our soul — a concealed form of the Divine.

Thus the thing most central to spirituality is the recognition of the inner reality of this spirit that we really are. This is how Sri Aurobindo defines spirituality in The Life Divine [CWSA 21-22:889-890]:

Spirituality is in its essence 

(i) an awakening to the inner reality of our being, to a spirit, self, soul which is other than our mind, life and body, 

(ii) an inner aspiration to know, to feel, to be that,

(iii) to enter into contact with the greater Reality beyond and pervading the universe which inhabits also in our own being,

(iv) to be in communion with it and union with it,  and

(v) a turning, a conversion, a transformation of our whole being as a result of    the aspiration, the contact, the union, a growth or waking into a new becoming or new being, a new self, a new nature.

(To bring into prominence its various constituents I have reformatted the long sentence above but not altered it in any way.)

Note the five limbs of spirituality that are mentioned here. First, one awakens to the presence of the inner being, or the soul in us (that which as we have seen above is incognito); second, we begin to aspire to know this inner resident, the spirit in us, feel it and be it; third, we try to enter into contact with it; fourth, we become one with it; fifth, this union can be used to transform our entire becoming, that is to say, all the parts of our being, body, life and mind can be transformed, so that they can manifest the results of this union.

It must be noted that the inner resident or the Spirit that we have referred to here not only dwells in us but it also pervades the whole universe and even transcends it. This great realisation has been proclaimed by the two famous formulae of the Upanishads:so’ham (“He I am.”) and aham brahma:smi” (“I am the Brahman, the Eternal or Ultimate reality.”) Please also note that this notion of Brahman or “the ultimate Reality” or the Divine, which is so central to spirituality, is not an extra-cosmic God who created a universe entirely separate from himself over which he has complete control. God is a term which is used by religions to refer to a powerful being who is other than this creation and outside it. We use the term the “Divine” to refer to the Supreme consciousness of which this entire creation is at the moment an imperfect manifestation. Why such a consciousness decided to manifest as this creation at all and that too as such an imperfect manifestation – these are metaphysical questions we need not settle here.

There is no spirituality without an awakening to the spirit that dwells in us, which is other than the body, life and mind, and once we are awakened, without a conscious attempt to be one with it. Whatever helps us in this endeavour is spiritual or yogic sadhana (practice), and whatever does not help us is not spiritual sadhana, be it the study of sacred books, meditation, philanthropy, ritual worship, chanting, etc. What now hides from us the greater spiritual Reality we are is our ego. So whatever helps to push aside the veil of the ego is good spiritual practice and whatever strengthens the hold of the ego on us is a non-spiritual activity. Thus we see that it is not the nature of the outward activity that determines whether it is spiritual or not but the effect it has on us. Does the activity, (for example, meditation, or acquiring scholarship of sacred books, or even giving spiritual discourses, etc.) strengthen our ego?  Or does it weaken it and ultimately help us in dissolving our ego so that we can become aware of the presence of the spark of the Supreme reality within us? This is the one infallible measuring rod and, for this very reason, it cannot be used on others; at best it can be used on oneself if one is sincere to himself.

But in the popular mind, there are so many misconceptions about what spirituality is. Therefore Sri Aurobindo has taken care to point out to us what does not constitute spirituality:

… it must therefore be emphasised that spirituality is not a high intellectuality, not idealism, not an ethical turn of mind or moral purity and austerity, not religiosity or an ardent and exalted emotional fervour, not even a compound of all these excellent things; a mental belief, creed or faith, an emotional aspiration, a regulation of conduct according to a religious or ethical formula are not spiritual achievement and experience. These things are of considerable value to mind and life; they are of value to the spiritual evolution itself as preparatory movements disciplining, purifying or giving a suitable form to the nature; but they still belong to the mental evolution, — the beginning of a spiritual realisation, experience, change is not yet there. (The Life Divine p. 857)

Sri Aurobindo mentions here the various things which are often mistaken for spirituality, such as high intellectuality, or being very idealistic, or being guided by high ethical principles or leading a very austere life. An ardent mental faith, or devotion in the heart also is not the hallmark of spirituality. These are all noble and good things, and are of considerable value to mind and life; they can be an excellent preparation for spirituality. There is one important thing that is missing in all these, namely, the experience of one’s soul and oneness with it.

Lines 47 to 50 (in the above quoted Savitri) tell us who or what this ‘incognito of the imperishable’ referred to above is. It is a spirit that is a flame of God (the Supreme Consciousness) and that it “abides”, it continues to be. This spark of the flame of God never withers away or disappears because by its very nature it is imperishable. It is “a fiery portion of the wonderful’ adbhutam as the Rigveda describes the spark of the Divine in us. It is further described as the artist of his own beauty and delight, who lives immortal in our mortal poverty. The world we see around us is created by this artist, the Divine spirit, and what impels him to create it? He does it for his own delight. This is one way of explaining the origin of this world. We will not go here into this issue in any further detail because it brings up quite a few related metaphysical issues.

The spirit in us is what is immortal in our poverty. Everything about us is finite except the Divine spark that dwells in us. And that which is finite is poor; it is limited and it is transient. The Upanishads tell us na alpe sukham asti (There is no happiness in the finite) — whatever is finite fails to give us true happiness, the happiness which lasts. There is happiness only in the Infinite. When we begin to experience the inner Reality we are, the floodgates of infinite happiness open on us and also the conviction that we are deathless, because death comes only to what is finite.

To conclude then: Spirituality is the attempt to know and live in the highest self, the divine, the all-embracing unity and to raise life in all parts to the divinest possible values[4].

Mangesh V. Nadkarni


[1] Collected Works of the Mother, Vol. 3: pp. 77 – 79
[2] ibid. pp. 118 – 120
[3] The numbers given here to the lines in the excerpt are those found in Savitri (Fourth revised edition 1993, Tenth Impression 2000).
[4] Sri Aurobindo: The Foundations of Indian Culture (SABCL Vol. 14) : p. 433

 

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