Books, people, objects, activities are all conduits and vessels of vibrations. Not all of these are conducive to the yogic life one has resolved to take. Especially books can cast a strong influence upon the mind. For example if one is walking the path that seeks to transform life is pulled in the contrary direction of, lets say illusionist philosophy, then it is bound to create a tussle within unless one is wide and supple enough to be able to put each in its own place and look behind the words and even the experience to the truth it is trying to communicate. But this capacity generally comes later. And until that happens one is more likely to land up in a state of mental confusion rather than gaining clarity.
It is perfectly fine and even good to read all kinds of different books and approaches to the mystery of life in the initial exploratory phase. It is when one is still not sure about the road one wants to take. In the next stage one starts the journey. it is then that one must be careful about not putting one’s feet in two boats going in different directions. The result is the obvious. Finally when the door of knowledge opens and rays of light begin to pour in then it hardly matters what one reads or does not read.
So it all depends upon the stage and context. However this is just a practical advice for those who have already embarked upon the journey. But even here it should not be turned into a rigid rule applicable for everyone at all times. What is helpful for one need not be for another. The spiritual life is too wide and plastic for any such absolute formulas of dos and don’ts. That is certainly what this practical advice meant.
Sri Aurobindo and The Mother generally preferred fidelity to the Path, though not in any rigid way, and certainly advised against all kinds of contrary influences that would only create hurdles in the sadhana. Of course is no question of stopping anyone from anything. Spiritual life blossoms in freedom and while there are suggestions and advices but it is left to each one to take them or leave them.
Below are some letters of the Mother. There are many more including from Sri Aurobindo where he cautions us from reading all kind of things which may well create a confusion in the half-baked mind through contrary ideas.
THE MOTHER’S WORDS ON READING BOOKS
It all depends on the effect this literature has on your imagination. If it fills your head with undesirable ideas and your vital with desires, it is certainly better to stop reading this kind of book. [2 November 1934]
Q: Is there any harm in my reading novels in French?
A: Reading novels is never beneficial. [24 April 1937]
In unformed minds what they read sinks in without any regard to its value and imprints itself as truth. It is advisable therefore to be careful about what one gives them to read and to see that only what is true and useful for their formation gets a place. [3 June 1939]
I do not approve of these literature classes in which, ostensibly for the sake of knowledge, they flounder in the mud of a state of mind which is out of place here and which cannot in any way help to build up the consciousness of tomorrow. I repeated this to X yesterday in connection with your letter, and I explained briefly to him how I saw the transition period between what was and what will be.
Q: What is the value of literature?
A: It depends on what you want to be or do. If you want to be a litt´erateur, you must read a lot of literature. Then you will know what has been written and you won’t repeat old things. You have to keep an alert mind and know how to say things in a striking manner. But if you want real knowledge, you can’t find it in literature.
To me, literature as such is on a pretty low level—it is mostly a work of the creative vital, and the highest it reaches is up to the throat centre, the external expressive mind. This mind puts one in relation with outside things. And, in its activity, literature is all a game of fitting ideas to ideas and words to ideas and words to one another. It can develop a certain skill in the mind, some capacity for discussion, description, amusement and wit.
I haven’t read much of English literature—I have gone through only a few hundred books. But I know French literature very well—I have read a whole library of it. And I can say that it has no great value in terms of Truth.
Real knowledge comes from above the mind. What literature gives is the play of a lot of common or petty ideas. Only on a rare occasion does some ray from above come in. If you look into thousands and thousands of books, you will find just one small intuition here and there.
The rest is nothing.
I can’t say that the reading of literature equips one better to understand Sri Aurobindo. On the contrary, it can be a hindrance. For, the same words are used and the purpose for which they are used is so different from the purpose for which Sri Aurobindo has made use of them, the manner in which they have been put together to express things is so different from Sri Aurobindo’s that these words tend to put one off from the light which Sri Aurobindo wants to convey to us through them.
To get to Sri Aurobindo’s light we must empty our minds of all that literature has said and done. We must go inward and stay in a receptive silence and turn it upward. Then alone we get something in the right way. At the worst, I have seen that the study of literature makes one silly and perverse enough to sit in judgment on Sri Aurobindo’s English and find fault with his grammar!
But, of course, I am not discouraging the teaching of literature altogether. Many of our children are in a crude state and literature can help to give their minds some shape, some suppleness. They need a good deal of carving in many places. They have to be enlarged, made active and agile. Literature can serve as a sort of gymnastics and stir up and awaken the young intelligence.
I may add that the whole controversy that has gone on among the teachers recently on the value of literature is a storm in a tea-cup. It is really part of a problem which concerns the whole basis of education. All that has been going on in every department of our School is to me one single problem at bottom.
When I look at the education everywhere, I feel like the Yogi who was told to sit and meditate in front of a wall. I find myself facing a wall. It is a greyish wall, with some streaks of blue running across it—these are the efforts of the teachers to do something worthwhile—but everything goes on superficially and behind it all is like this wall here on which I am striking my hand now. It is hard and impenetrable, it shuts out the true light. There is no door—one can’t enter through it and pass into that light.
The selection [of books] has to be carefully done. Some of the books contain ideas which are sure to lower the consciousness of our children. Only such books are to be recommended as have some bearing on our Ideal or contain historic tales, adventures or explorations.
One is never too careful with books which have the most pernicious effect.
Blessings. [17 April 1967]
Q: I have been laying great stress on the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata and on the songs of Kabir, Mira, etc. Is it against your way to continue these old things?
A: Not at all—it is the attitude that is important. The past must be a spring-board towards the future, not a chain preventing from advancing. As I said, all depends on the attitude towards the past. [CWM 12 On Education]