The Indian outlook on religion and spirituality emerges from the Indian cultural view of existence and life itself. The Indian idea of the world, of nature and of existence is not physical, but psychological and spiritual. Sri Aurobindo explains that as per the Indian vision of Existence, everything that we see in this universe, in its essential nature, is a movement of the Spirit. Matter, Mind, Life, Reason, Form (including all life-forms) are only powers of the Spirit which is the true reality preceding everything. This idea is expressed in different ways in many of our ancient scriptures. For example, in the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 15, verse 7) we find:
mamaivāṁśo jīvaloke jīvabhūtaḥ sanātanaḥ,
manaḥṣaṣṭhānīndriyāṇi prakṛtisthāni karṣati
“It is an eternal portion of Me that becomes the Jiva in the world of living creatures and cultivates the subjective powers of Prakriti, mind and the five senses.”
Sri Aurobindo’s explanation of this verse: “This is…a statement of immense bearing and consequence. For it means that each soul, each being in its spiritual reality is the very Divine, however partial its actual manifestation of him in Nature. And it means too, … that each manifesting spirit, each of the many, is an eternal individual, an eternal unborn and undying power of the one Existence. We call this manifesting spirit the Jiva, because it appears here as if a living creature in a world of living creatures, and we speak of this spirit in man as the human soul and think of it in the terms of humanity only. But in truth it is something greater than its present appearance and not bound to its humanity: it was a lesser manifestation than the human in its past, it can become something much greater than mental man in its future. And when this soul rises above all ignorant limitation, then it puts on its divine nature of which its humanity is only a temporary veil, a thing of partial and incomplete significance.” (CWSA, Vol. 19, p. 445)
As per this Indian view, matter, life, and mind are valuable not for their own sake, but because of the Spirit within them. Thus, human life is not considered any vile or unworthy existence; rather it is the greatest thing known to us, desired even by the gods in heaven. A few salient aspects of the Indian view of human individual are:
• Though the man/woman, the individual human being, may for a while seem to be the natural half-animal creature, that is not at all his whole being and is not in any way his real being.
• An individual is first and foremost a spirit (the Indian term often used is ātman, which may be translated as Self) veiled in the works of energy, moving to self-discovery, capable of becoming one with the Supreme, Absolute Reality (the Indian term often used is Brahman).
• An individual in his or her uttermost reality is identical with the ineffable Transcendence from which he/she came and greater than the godheads whom he/she worships.
• An individual’s inmost reality is the divine Self or at least one dynamic eternal portion of it. And furthermore, he/she is capable to find that inmost reality and exceed his/her outward, apparent, natural ego-self – which is the triple complex of mind, vital and body.
A human being’s ultimate perfection, as per the Indian vision of Life and Existence, is not to be shut up for ever in his or her lower nature and limited ego. Indian culture recognises and assures that the individual soul has the potential to merge with and become a universal soul, become one with the supreme Unity, one with others, one with all beings.
Recognizing the spirit as the truth of our being, all our life and action becomes a means to grow in spirit. But the approach to the spirit cannot be sudden, simple and immediate for all individuals or for the masses. It must come ordinarily or at least at first through a gradual culture, training, progress. This requires that there must be a gradual enlarging of the natural life accompanied by an uplifting of all its motives. At the same time, there must be throughout and at every moment some kind of insistence on the spiritual motive. And for the masses of men and women, this always means some kind of religious influence.
Principle of Graduality and Harmony
Indian culture firmly believes in a gradual spiritual progress and evolution on this journey to the discovery of the Spirit; this is in fact the secret of the almost universal Indian acceptance of the truth of rebirth, says Sri Aurobindo (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 159). As he explains, only after experimenting with millions of lives in inferior forms the secret soul in the universe finally arrives at humanity. And further, it is only after hundreds or thousands, perhaps even millions of human lives, that an individual can grow into his/her divine selfexistence. However, in the meantime:
• Every life becomes a step which an individual can make backward or forward progress toward the ultimate goal of growing into his or her divine self-existence. One’s action in life, will in life, thought and knowledge by which one governs and directs one’s life, determine what one is yet to be from the earliest stages to the last transcendence.
• This belief in a gradual soul evolution with a final perfection, and human life as its first direct means and often repeated opportunity gives to our life the figure of an ascent in spirals or circles.
• The long period of the ascent has to be filled in with human knowledge and human action and human experience. There is room within such an ascent for all earthly aims, activities and aspirations; there is place in it for all types of human character and nature.
• Indian culture firmly believes that the spirit in the world assumes hundreds of forms and follows many tendencies, all of which are part of the total mass of our necessary experience. Each has its justification, each has its natural or true law and reason of being, each has its utility in the play and the process.
• Thus, all claims of life are given due importance in this journey to perfection and transcendence, with no mutilation of the activities of our nature.
– The claim of sense satisfaction is given its just importance.
– The soul’s need of labour and heroic action is urged to its fullest action and freest scope.
– The hundred forms of the pursuit of knowledge are given an absolute freedom of movement.
– The play of the emotions is allowed, refined, trained till they are fit for the divine levels
– The demand of the aesthetic faculties is encouraged in its highest rarest forms and in life’s commonest details.
• But all these claims of life are subject to a certain principle of harmony and government. This principle of harmony or the guiding law is meant to create an order for individual life, to encourage and guide the propensities of human nature and finally turn them all towards the realization of spiritual aim of life.
Indian culture thus evolved a scheme of integral human development, with an aim to realize in the individual and collective life the high ideal of the Indian conception of human existence and its ultimate goal. This scheme is based on the four aims of human life called in the Indian tradition as Purushārthas. These aims are:
Artha: Fulfillment of the material and economic needs and interests
Kāma: Satisfaction of vital desires and enjoyment
Dharma: The need of our higher mental and moral being for knowledge, values, ideals and right living
Moksha: Finally, the spiritual need for the ultimate freedom, fulfillment and perfection.
These aims correspond roughly to the physical, vital, mental and spiritual needs of the human being. They form a system of shared values and are accepted almost by all the cultural traditions emerging from within the Indian thought. These purusharthas are based on the idea that our being must pass through different stages in its growth, and the legitimate needs and desires of each level of the human being have to be fulfilled before he or she can rise to a higher level.
Indian culture denies none of the natural and legitimate needs, desires and interests of human beings; it denies only the unrestrained and licentious indulgence of these desires and counsels a regulated and disciplined satisfaction of them under the uplifting guidance of some higher moral, aesthetic and spiritual values. The architects of Indian socio-cultural system recognised that while on one hand a severe ascetic suppression of the individual’s natural needs and desires may lead to loss of vitality and vigor in society, on the other hand a free and unrestrained indulgence of these needs and desires may lead to a collapse of civilisation into barbarism and, in the long run, to an exhaustion of vital energy. Avoiding both these extremes, they evolved a balanced approach which tries to harness the creative energies of man and make them flow in constructive channels which will lead to both inner and outer progress.
Modern society is very much in need of such a balanced approach to human development. Indian culture gave a much higher importance to inner progress (which values the growth of eternal values of the human Soul and Spirit) than to outer progress (which values the development of Matter, Life and Mind for their own sake). While neither needs to be neglected to ensure an integral development of individual and collective life, a greater value on inner progress is perhaps the right emphasis needed for a true sustainable development. No progress can be secure, sound and sustainable on a long-term basis if it is not a spontaneous outer expression of the inner progress.
Working of the Religious Influence as per the Indian View
A spiritual aspiration was the governing force of ancient Indian culture, its core of thought, its ruling passion. According to Sri Aurobindo, it is important to recognize that not only did Indian culture make spirituality the highest aim of life, but it even tried, as far as that could be done in the past conditions of the human race, to turn the whole of life towards spirituality.
At the same time, Indian seers and sages recognized that in the human mind religion is the first native, if an imperfect form of the spiritual impulse. So, the predominance of the spiritual idea in the culture and its endeavour to take hold of life, necessitated a casting of thought and action into the religious mould and a persistent filling of every circumstance of life with the religious sense. It demanded a pervadingly religio-philosophic culture, which could provide the individual an opportunity for a gradual enlarging of the natural life accompanied by an uplifting of all its motives. Thus, every ordinary activity of human life was turned into some form of religious ceremony, and a religio-spiritual colouring was given to the rhythm of life and nature itself.
The Indian outlook on religion is derived from this religio-philosophic cultural view. According to Sri Aurobindo, religion, as per the Indian view, tries to facilitate an individual’s gradual inner evolution by placing before human life four necessary conditions:
1) The mind must believe in a highest consciousness or state of existence universal and transcendent of the universe. It is the state from which all comes, in which all lives and moves without knowing it. And it is the state of which all must one day become aware, returning towards that which is perfect, eternal and infinite.
2) It lays upon the individual life the need of self-preparation by development and experience till the individual is ready for an effort to grow consciously into the truth of this greater existence.
3) It provides it with a well-founded, well-explored, many-branching and always enlarging way of knowledge and of spiritual or religious discipline.
4) For those not yet ready for these higher steps it provides an organisation of the individual and collective life, a framework of personal and social discipline and conduct, of mental and moral and vital development by which they could move each in his own limits and according to his own nature in such a way as to become eventually ready for the greater existence.
Important point to note here is that while the first three of these elements are the most essential to any religion, Indian view on religion has always attached to the last also a great importance. It has left out no part of life as a thing secular and foreign to the religious and spiritual life.
Equally and perhaps more important is to recognize that despite this emphasis on organisation of outer life, the Indian religious tradition is not merely the form of a religiosocial system; the core of Indian religion is a spiritual, not a social discipline. (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, vol 20, pp. 181-182).
Religion in India, a Way of Life?
First, let us be clear that when we speak of “Indian religion” we are not speaking of any particular religion here, but are using the phrase “Indian religion” to indicate the Indian outlook on Religion. In other words, the phrase implies a general view or understanding of religion that emerged or developed in India as a natural/organic outcome of the Indian spiritual culture as well as the Indian view of existence and life.
At the same time, it will not be wrong to say that this Indian outlook on religion is most visible – both in spirit and practice in that vast system of ancient, dateless and still vigorously living, growing, all-assimilating religious traditions we now know as Hinduism.
Though we may also include under the term the other two ancient religious traditions which evolved out of the Indian religio-spiritual culture and thought, namely Buddhism and Jainism, as well as Sikhism which is a more recent religious tradition.
“It [Indian religio-spiritual culture] gave itself no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no universal adhesion, asserted no sole infallible dogma, set up no single narrow path or gate of salvation; it was less a creed or cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of the Godward endeavour of the human spirit. An immense many-sided many-staged provision for a spiritual selfbuilding and self-finding, it had some right to speak of itself by the only name it knew, the eternal religion, sanātana dharma. It is only if we have a just and right appreciation of this sense and spirit of Indian religion that we can come to an understanding of the true sense and spirit of Indian culture.” (ibid, p. 179)
When we hear the common expression that in India, religion is essentially a way of life, what does it essentially mean? Before we go into this question, let us pose another – why is the organisation of individual and collective life such a concern for Indian religiospiritual culture or Hinduism? The short answer is that it is so because the ancient Indian spiritual thought clearly perceived and recognized two key aspects of human nature:
• Nothing is more difficult than to bring home the greatness and uplifting power of the spiritual consciousness to the vast majority of the humanity whose minds and senses are turned outward towards the external calls of life and its objects and never inwards to the Truth which lies behind them.
This external vision and attraction are the essence of the universal blinding force which is termed in Indian philosophy as the Ignorance (more appropriate word is Avidya).
• Our seers and sages recognised that man lives in the Avidya and has to be gradually led through its imperfect indications to a highest inmost knowledge.
In order to facilitate this gradual leading of the outward oriented mind of an individual, Indian seers and sages developed forms, rhythms and expressions of life which coloured all outer aspects of human life and living with religion or at least some type of religious influence. It is not only the Indian literature, arts, music, dance, etc. which were reflective of the spiritual view of life and existence. But all human pursuits, including all activities of ordinary life from the time a child is born to when he or she is ready to be enrolled in a school to getting married, having children, becoming a grandparent, and leaving the earthly world after death – all these and many other such life events became occasions to remember and recall the higher, the spiritual view of life and existence. These became steps for a gradual progress of the inner spirit through life and its forms and rhythms.
As a result, even the highest and deepest concepts of Indian spiritual thought such as maya, lila, divine immanence became as familiar to the man in the street and the worshipper in the temple as to the philosopher in his seclusion, the monk in his monastery and the saint in his hermitage. Ancient Indian seers and sages also recognized that for a vast majority of human beings, the deeper spiritual views of life, existence and reality are realized more readily through the fervour of devotion than by a strenuous effort of thinking. This is because the heart of man is nearer to the Truth than his intelligence. And this is why we see such an abundance of external forms, rituals, ceremonies, and practices that help individuals ‘feel’ the deeper truth in a more tangible manner, through direct participation in various symbolic acts of worship, adoration and devotion. We shall take up this aspect in a bit more detail in a later part.
To Be Continued…
Beloo Mehra is a student of Sri Aurobindo and writes on topics related to education, culture and society. Many years of experience in the field of education and research led her to the discovery that the central thing is to constantly un school oneself and become a freer and truer learner. She enjoys playing several roles Life offers a woman – with a hope to learn from all that happens and doesn’t happen, and with a wish to gradually become free of those roles because only then the possibility of the birth of true actor (or the non-actor) within exists