Deepavali: How well do we know it?

Deepavali/Diwali is all about puja, festivities including light and sweets – and crackers. No, not the 1000-wala ladis that have become false status symbols, and vulgar displays of wealth giving a reason for clampdowns like #crackerban — but of light and sparkle. When we were children, Deepavali was heralded by a small cracker burst by Father in the wee hours of the morning, just as other elders in other households woke their families with similar cracker-bursts.

Today, it has become a ‘secularised’ festival at best and reduced to heated discussions of crackers and pollution, and other perceived ills it supposedly spawns, at worst. Thanks to rampant Hinduphobia in the media and among the intelligentsia, this beautiful festival has been shorn of its colourful puranic and itihaasic connections and spiritual connotations. There are preposterous claims that it is not a
religious festival at all ignorant as they are, of its pan-Indian nature and dharmic importance. Others are being sillier and saying that the diyas are more polluting than even crackers! What harm all this is doing in terms of its consumption and internalization by a whole generation can only be imagined.

With the decibels against Hindu festivals growing exponentially with every passing year, just as festival-shaming of Hindus has almost become normalised, I felt compelled to share the glorious traditions associated with it. Well, not all, because there are so many hidden cultural traditions connected to every festival in our vast land and we will have to spend a lifetime researching and unearthing them all.

The first thing I want to stress here about Hindu festivals is that they are all celebrations. Our festivals–every one of them–celebrates the victory of dharma over adharma or marks a joyous event in our dharmic calendar or celebrate the jayantis of our Deities and saints with feasting, singing and dancing. While they entail external cleaning and purification, they also encourage introspection for inner cleansing, aided by fasting and satsang.

Hindu festivals never mourn any event as the Abrahamic religions do. For instance, we don’t mourn the exile of Rama but celebrate His return to Ayodhya. Likewise, we celebrate Krishna’s birth and His various leelas, but don’t mark His departure from the world. Hindus consider these events as part of human life, which apply even to Avatars when they take human forms.

The bedrock of Sanatana Dharma is a healthy inquiring mind that seeks the Truth. Mere cynicism and rationalism without this spirit of inquiry speak of a closed mind that looks superficially at traditions and customs and mocks them. This is Hinduphobia, at its most elemental form. These cynics should at least try and understand what they are rejecting, instead of just rejecting for the sake of it or ‘standing’ with a certain viewpoint or person on social media to make their point.

This post is a small attempt to showcase the festival of Deepavali in all its cultural and religious grandeur. It is not exhaustive by any means, for reasons I have recounted above. I have also not covered the ‘secular’ topics of sweets, crackers and lamps, as enough has been written and continue to be written about them!

Deepavali is….
 the worship of Goddess Lakshmi. Trader communities start their new year by opening new account books on Deepavali.
 the celebration of the return of Sri Rama to Ayodhya from his exile after 14 years.
 the celebration of the killing of Naraskasura by Sri Krishna/Ma Kali.
 the day of liberation for Sikhs — Bandi Chor Divas — when Guru Gobind Singhji and the 52 princes with him were released from prison by Jahangir.
 the day Lord Mahavira attained nirvana. Jains celebrate it as Deva Diwali.

Deepavali is celebrated over five days in most parts of the country. In some places including Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the festivities go on till the full moon following Deepavali, with Bhishma Panchak , Chhat Puja and Tulsi Vivah among other festivals falling in between, culminating in Dev Diwali. It is also known as Dev uthani/PrabodhiniEkadashi/Devothhan Ekadashi or the day when the Gods wake up. Dev Diwali is celebrated grandly in Varanasi as Ganga Mahotsav.

In some parts of Gujarat and Maharashtra, the festival begins three days before Diwali, that is on Dwadashi, the 12th day of the waning moon. It is celebrated as Govatsa Dwadashi, with cows and calves being worshipped.

Dhanteras/Dhantrayodasi/ Asweyuja Bahula Thrayodasi comes next and is celebrated all over India under various names given above. It is believed that if one buys gold or some household item on this day, prosperity will follow all year round. Tamilians offer prayers and puja to Lakshmi and Kubera on this day. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and Kubera is her celestial treasurer.

Naraka Chaturdashi is variously known as Kali Chaudas, Choti Diwali, Roop Chaturdashi or Roop Chaudas. It is the main festival of Deepavali in the southern states including Maharashtra. Naraka Chaturdashi is the celebration of the killing of Narakasura by Sri Krishna and his consort Satyabhama. In Bengal it is a celebration Goddess Kali slaying Narakasura.

Puranas sometimes have different versions, but the followers of the dharma are perfectly comfortable with the multiculturalism and plurality of their Dharma. Take the killing of Narakasura, for instance, in the above para. The asura is the same, the deities slaying him are different. No matter, because ultimately is the victory of dharma over adharma. That is the beauty of Santana Dharma!

In the South, the celebrations are a little different. They get up well before dawn on Naraka Chaturdashi and apply sesame oil to their heads and bodies before having a bath. If there are elderly women in the family, it is they who apply the oil on the face, head and feet of each member of the family, singing the auspicious refrain sung during weddings, so auspicious the custom is considered!

Applying sesame oil is symbolic because Goddess Lakshmi is believed to be present in it. Likewise, Ganga is believed to be present in all waters on the day of Deepavali. This signifies the spiritual cleansing of the mind as well as physical cleansing of the body. Even today it is customary for Tamilians to greet each other on Deepavali morning by asking, ‘Ganga snanam aaccha?’ (Have you had Ganga snan (bath)?) Taking the blessings of elders, not just in the family, but also in the neighbourhood, is also part of the celebrations.

Maharashtrians celebrate the killing of Narakasura by symbolically crushing a small bitter vegetable called Kareet under their foot. This act also signifies the expunging of any bitterness from inside us to begin life anew.

Didn’t I say that our festivals are replete with symbolism? How beautiful they are if only we took the time and effort to learn about them!

The new moon day is when Lakshmi is worshipped in homes and businesses. For many, this is the biggest festival of them all, the Badi Diwali. Even those who don’t celebrate other festivals go the whole hog with Lakshmi Pujan, which begins days before, with the cleaning of the entire house. The puja ghar gets a special makeover and decoration and the entire family does the puja and arti of Lakshmi.

The day after Deepavali – the first day after the new moon – is celebrated as Govardhan Puja or Annakoot in the north – the day when Lord Krishna lifted the Govardhan mountain to save the people of Dwarka from the deluge that threatened to drown it and also fed everyone. (Annakoot, literally means a mountain of food). The day is also observed as Bali Pratipada or Bali Padyami in Karnataka. It is believed that Raja Bali comes to visit his subjects from Patal Lok, where he had been pushed by Sri Mahavishnu in his Vamana Avatar.

The second day after Deepavali is Bhai dooj or Bhaiyya dooj or Bhau Beej – as it is variously called. It is the day that sisters fete their brothers as they do during Rakshabandhan. And then there is the  Chhath Puja , which is celebrated on the sixth day from Deepavali. It is celebrated in Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Nepal in a grand manner, but in recent years it has become a pan-Indian celebration with devotees offering prayers to the Suryadev and his celestial wife Usha, on riverbanks or banks of other waterbodies.

Thus, all the days following have various dharmic significance till the full moon day when Dev Diwali is celebrated as the culmination to the festivities. In addition to being the day when the Devas wake up, it is also celebrated as Tripurari Purnima as Lord Shiva had killed Tripurasura on this day.

My niece Gayathri, who lives in Arizona had added a beautiful note on the economic and environmental impact of our festivals and how they are so inclusive and positive in nature.

Living far away from the homeland, we see our traditions being watered down to simplistic phrases in order to make it easier to understand for our children, neighbors and friends of other faiths and cultures.

The true way of celebrating many Hindu festivals include the following:
spiritual growth, the advancement of society and respect for nature. The festivals always include ceremonies that respect and honour a particular profession or trade like the farmers (Pongal/Baisakhi), the craftsmen (Dusshera/Golu), the tradesmen, machines and workers (Ayudha Puja) to name a few.

These festivals help the people practicing their trades by giving them a boost to their economic situation and they may depend on the income from these festivals for their sustenance throughout the year. By finding a balanced approach to the festivals – giving priority to spiritual growth while
understanding that these celebrations have a positive economic impact on the various strata of society and respect nature while adhering to these traditions, we will see the true intent shine through and help our children understand the complete sentiment of these festivals.  

Also, as Gayathri points out, traders and artisans’ lives are linked to our festivals which are seasonal. By taking all these away and reducing it to just a ‘festival of lights’ to curtail its significance and secularize it, is the greatest injustice to all the observers of the festival in its various facets.  

It is quite evident that our ancient culture and civilization are inextricably entwined with Deepavali, which is the biggest festival for Hindus. Far from not being a religiou festival, it is deeply rooted in it as I have detailed above.

Modify traditions by all means, to suit the times. But hold your peace at least till you understand their significance and symbolism in their entirety. Above all, don’t convert such a culturally rich festival with deep dharmic significance into a commercial and ‘secular’ festival of lights. For, while Deepavali signifies light, it certainly is not the only thing that marks this elaborate festival that lasts for several weeks.
A version of this post was originally published on www.cybernag.in

Zephyr a.k.a. Thangamani is an award-winning blogger and writer, who blogs on social issues, culture, spirituality and family at www.cybernag.in  

Selling Dharmic Renaissance to the Middle-class: Part I

It wouldn’t be grossly erroneous to say that the age of the Dharmic Renaissance in India started in 2014. The fact which adds credibility to the statement is the turning of the political tide in favor which prepared the ground for masses to re-look & rediscover their past from a multitude of angles under a complaisant government. As the rest of the world tries to decipher and decode the complex structure of Indic psychology, they have to remain contented with few who claimed or claim to master the subject but in reality, were very similar to blind men describing an elephant based on whichever part they could touch. The unilateral prism which the west employed and continues employing to discern the civilizational depth of India can be termed as a praiseworthy attempt but not a thorough realization. Hence, whenever the topic of the Dharmic Renaissance comes to the fore, a prudent approach would be to fathom the initiation and evolving stages conclusively before writing it’s summary.

The success or failure of any cultural churning has been dependent on how the not-so-elites and not-so-poor have responded to it. If they were able to digest the novel aspects, it was inculcated as values for generations to come. If not, the same have met a muffled death in the books of history. The same parameter, when applied to the Indic context, seems to produce dispiriting results and does not augur well for the future unless rattled by some benignant intervention. When looked upon as a keen observer, it seems the weight of the glorious past has perpetually bent the spinal cord and restricted the vision on one’s own feet. While individuals have been gloating about the clearer view of their standing, they stand unaware of the shrinking ground around them. Under the benevolent political tutelage, one could see the proliferation of discussions about the topics which connect it to its civilizational root in various forms. What was considered politically incorrect for 70 years has arisen to resist and seek clarification as to why it was subjected to impropriety. But what they fail to discuss or raise is the longevity of this favorable climate. Any ideological movement looking to suck the life from a favorable political condition dies a natural death with an adverse change in the power structure. Unless the thought process transcends the realm of political and personal objectives, it is bound to meet a dismal fate.

One of the potent problems which the Dharmic Renaissance in India faces today is its inability to visualize how the future would look like. Rarely one comes across a thought-leader who would propose where would everything fit in the whole scheme of things going ahead. No one knows or questions if all this brouhaha is about chasing a mirage. And this is the precise reason, while one would find numerous Dharmic intellectuals possessing great knowledge about the past and scriptures, very few have been able to come out of the individual shell to talk about something which resonates with masses who worry and plan their future in every aspect. The whole foundation of getting accepted within a fold concerned with the future lies in the basic understanding of their approach towards their daily-life. It would be easier for such Dharmic Intellectuals to shed the burden of blame by declaring that their views preach only the converted ones but looking at the collective level this is an impending colossal calamity no one is ready to address. Social Media has given wings to such thought-leaders to impress the audience with the veracity of their knowledge of the past but the bothering trend not being able to capitalize on the popularity to shape a narrative for the future speaks volumes about the extant latitude.

Sadly,the beautiful and glorious past has made the civilizational awakening anything but nimble. The masses in the recent past have given enough indications about their afflictions and attachment to their triumphant past but at the same time have shown their incapability to carry the legacy unless a conducive environment in agreement with present and future is given to them. Negating this realization without due diligence would be nothing less than being culturally suicidal. Debating and interpreting the past is optional but ignoring the future is unpardonable. Unless we don’t want to go down in history as the shortest-lived cultural rousing, the weight on the back needs to be loosened up to look in the direction of the rising sun.

Kumar Dipanshu is a techie by profession with keen interest in Human Psychology, Spiritual advancement and World Politics. He has co-founded couple of start-ups and loves mentoring budding entrepreneurs. In his spare time he can be found either cooking or enhancing his knowledge about Vedic Scriptures.

Temple Worship and Murti Puja: Part VI

“The image to the Hindu is a physical symbol and support of the supraphysical; it is a basis for the meeting between the embodied mind and sense of man and the supraphysical power, force or presence which he worships and with which he wishes to communicate.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 147)

It should be obvious to any casual observer that the murtis or vigrahas (the English word “idol” which is often used for ‘murti’ is not the most appropriate one) that we see in the Hindu, Buddhist or Jain temples are not mere statues. They have, in fact, been energized to vibrate in a certain way so as to impact everything around them.

The ancient Agama Shastras of the Tantric tradition have described the entire concept and the science behind the murtis, their making, handling and also the worship practices. The murti of the deity as well as the entire sanctum sanctorum (garbhagriha) are consecrated as per the shastras. This practice of energizing the murtis is known as “Prana Prathishta”, which literally means Establishment of the Life-force.

The Beginnings

The earliest Vedic religion seems to have excluded physical images in its worship and devotional practices. The yajña or fire sacrifice was the primary ceremony along with other related practices and rites including the construction of elaborate altars (vedi) for the fire ritual. Many believe that it was the movements of Jainism and Buddhism which either introduced or at least popularised and made general the worship of images in India.

As the Vedic-Upanishadic phase of Indian spiritual culture gave way to the PuranoTantric phase, gradually “the house of Fire was replaced by the temple; the karmic ritual of sacrifice was transformed into the devotional temple ritual” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 209). The highly symbolic images of Vedic deities which figured in Vedic mantras yielded to the more precise conceptual forms of the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and of their Shaktis and their offshoots.

“These new concepts stabilised in physical images which were made the basis both for internal adoration and for the external worship which replaced sacrifice. The psychic and spiritual mystic endeavour which was the inner sense of the Vedic hymns, disappeared into the less intensely luminous but more wide and rich and complex psycho-spiritual inner life of Puranic and Tantric religion and Yoga.” (ibid, p. 209)

But this should not be seen in any way as a base and ignorant degradation of an earlier and purer religion. As Sri Aurobindo explains, this phase represents rather an effort, successful in a great measure, to open the general mind of the Indian people to a higher and deeper range of inner truth and experience and feeling.

Calling this phase of the evolution of Indian religious culture as “an immensely audacious experimental widening of the basis of the culture,” he explains that while much of the profound psychic knowledge of the Vedic seers might have been lost, there was also a great development of new knowledge as “untrodden ways were opened and a hundred gates discovered into the Infinite.” (ibid, p. 209).

Sri Aurobindo explains that in its aims and the intrinsic value of its lines of development, means and forms this Purano-Tantric stage of Indian religious culture tried to:

• awaken a more inner mind even in the common man,
• lay hold on his inner vital and emotional nature,
• support all by an awakening of the soul and to lead him through these things towards a highest spiritual truth.

The Deeper Significance

“Indian image-worship is not the idolatry of a barbaric or undeveloped mind; for even the most ignorant know that the image is a symbol and support and can throw it away when its use is over.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 192)

The elaborate practices of temple worship and murti puja are important means to bring the masses into the real temple of the spirit, says Sri Aurobindo. He explains further:

• The outward physical sense is satisfied through its aesthetic turn by a picturesque temple worship, by numerous ceremonies, by the use of physical images.

• But these outer practices are given a psycho-emotional sense and direction which is open to the heart and imagination of the ordinary man.

Sankrant Sanu, in an article, provocatively titled “Why Murti-puja is an antidote to fundamentalism” has clearly explained the deeper significance of the murti-puja, especially for the beginners on a spiritual journey. He explains that just like a musical composition can affect the mind through the listening, certain visual compositions or forms are chosen for their effect on the mind. These forms are meant to embody positive qualities like love, compassion, wisdom, knowledge, courage, and strength, and thus help orient the mind to these qualities. A murti, literally, is an embodiment of such divine qualities, it is in essence a divine form.

Sanu further adds:

“But is a murti simply a beautiful sculpture like a musical composition? What makes it sacred? The qualities it invokes in the mind makes it sacred. And we make it sacred. We make it sacred with our attention, by sanctifying it. We install it in a proper manner, we chant mantras to imbue it with our power, the power of our attention, of our āstha. We have chosen to elevate it, to put that form on a pedestal. And then we connect to it through the ritual of puja.

“When we do puja, we use the five elements in a conscious way. All five—space, air, fire, water, earth are present in the puja. This connects us with the manifest. Rather than getting the mind stuck in a concept, puja brings that attention to the present moment. We worship the divine with those elements and that allows us to be human and connected to the entire universe….

“When we see the entire universe as part of one consciousness we start to be free of fundamentalism that divides the world into us and them, into believers and non-believers, into profane and sacred. Sacred is what we have chosen to be sacred and when we choose wisely that which we have chosen brings us back to our self, to the self where we are all connected. So, the act of going out with our attention to the elements brings us back as we worship a divine form. The mind is always choosing idols, whether a movie star, or money, clothes, cars. All this has an effect on our consciousness. Not all these idols elevate our consciousness. Whatever form we choose, we imbue the qualities of that form. Worship is attention. So, when we are paying attention to divine forms we become elevated. The sages cognized these forms aware of what would help the mind. A concept can come in the way of that experience.

“Indic traditions accepted the fact that the mind clings to idols. The first step towards any freedom is accepting the reality of bondage. Rejection of idols is an ignorant denial of the tendency of the mind.

“When the mind is truly free it would not need idols to hold on to. But who is at that stage?”

Indeed, who is at that stage where no outer form is required to hold one’s attention, where one can easily concentrate on that One Formless, Unmanifest, Indivisible, Transcendental Supreme? Human mind needs a form upon which to focus itself, to concentrate itself. That form, that divine form is the murti or image of our chosen deity that we see and worship in our temples, that we install most lovingly and adoringly in our homes, in our places of work, all places we wish to sanctify and where we want to bring the divine presence. Because indeed the murti is a divine presence. The Mother (spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindo) once explained this in simple and clear terms:

“Whatever the image—what we disdainfully call an idol—whatever the external form of the deity, even if to our physical eye it appears ugly or commonplace or horrible, a caricature, there is always within it the presence of the thing it represents. And there is always someone, a priest or an initiate, or a sadhu, a sannyasin, who has the power and who draws—this is usually the work of the priests—who draws the force, the presence within. And it is real: it is quite true that the force, the presence is there; and it is that, not the form of wood or stone or metal, which people worship—it is the presence.

“But people in Europe do not have this inner sense, not at all. For them everything is like a surface—not even that, just a thin outer film with nothing behind—so they cannot feel it. And yet it is a fact that the presence is there; it is an absolutely real fact, I guarantee it.” (The Mother, CWM, Vol. 10, p. 95)

To begin to feel that Presence in the murti, to begin to develop that vision which sees the Form as a manifestation of the Spirit within – this is the aspiration of a devoted heart. But until the heart and mind is ready to transition from the Form to the Formless, let us not reject the Form, because in the Form dwells the Spirit.

Let us conclude this section with the following poem of Sri Aurobindo, where he speaks of the divinity of form. This, we believe, is a perfect response to the human ignorance which questions and/or fails to understand the deep wisdom behind the outer worship practice of murti puja.

FORM
O worshipper of the formless Infinite, 
Reject not form, what dwells in it is He.
Each finite is that deep Infinity
Enshrining His veiled soul of pure delight.
Form in its heart of silence recondite
Hides the significance of His mystery,
Form is the wonder-house of eternity,
A cavern of the deathless Eremite.

There is a beauty in the depths of God,
There is a miracle of the Marvellous
That builds the universe for its abode.
Bursting into shape and colour like a rose,
The One, in His glory multitudinous,
Compels the great world-petals to unclose.


(CWSA, Vol. 2, p. 625)

The End

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

The Fundamentals of Sanatana Dharma: Part V

In this section we deepen our understanding of Sanatana Dharma by looking at some of its fundamental ideas and distinctive characteristics. Let us begin with an important excerpt from Sri Aurobindo’s famous Uttarpara speech, delivered on May 30, 1909. This was his first speech after acquittal from Alipore jail, when for the first time spoke publicly of his Yoga and his spiritual experiences. He reminded his fellow countrymen of the work that India must do for humanity.

“When…it is said that India shall rise, it is the Sanatana Dharma that shall rise. When it is said that India shall be great, it is the Sanatana Dharma that shall be great. When it is said that India shall expand and extend herself, it is the Sanatana Dharma that shall expand and extend itself over the world. It is for the dharma and by the dharma that India exists.” (CWSA, Vol. 8, p. 10, emphasis added)

In this speech he also clearly explained what is meant by the Sanatana Dharma, the eternal dharma. He emphasised that only that religion which embraces all others, which embraces in its compass all the possible means by which one can approach the Divine, can be truly universal, truly eternal.

“But what is the Hindu religion? What is this religion which we call Sanatana, eternal? It is the Hindu religion only because the Hindu nation has kept it, because in this peninsula it grew up in the seclusion of the sea and the Himalayas, because in this sacred and ancient land it was given as a charge to the Aryan race to preserve through the ages. But it is not circumscribed by the confines of a single country, it does not belong peculiarly and for ever to a bounded part of the world. That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion, because it is the universal religion which embraces all others. If a religion is not universal, it cannot be eternal. A narrow religion, a sectarian religion, an exclusive religion can live only for a limited time and a limited purpose. This is the one religion that can triumph over materialism by including and anticipating the discoveries of science and the speculations of philosophy. It is the one religion which impresses on mankind the closeness of God to us and embraces in its compass all the possible means by which man can approach God. It is the one religion which insists every moment on the truth which all religions acknowledge, that He is in all men and all things and that in Him we move and have our being. It is the one religion which enables us not only to understand and believe this truth but to realise it with every part of our being. It is the one religion which shows the world what the world is, that it is the lila of Vasudeva. It is the one religion which shows us how we can best play our part in that lila, its subtlest laws and its noblest rules. It is the one religion which does not separate life in any smallest detail from religion, which knows what immortality is and has utterly removed from us the reality of death.” (ibid, pp. 11-12)

The Foundation

The religio-spiritual culture which presently goes by the name of Hinduism is essentially an immense, many-sided and many-staged open framework for a spiritual selfbuilding and self-finding by the individual. Sri Aurobindo lists three fundamental or basic ideas which form the foundation of Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism.

1. The idea of the One Existence of the Veda to whom sages give different names, the One without a second of the Upanishads who is all that is and beyond all that is, the Permanent of the Buddhists, the Absolute of the Illusionists, the supreme God or Purusha of the Theists who holds in his power the soul and Nature,— in a word the Eternal, the Infinite.

• This first common foundation can be and is expressed in an endless variety of formulas by the human intelligence. A spiritual seeker’s effort is to discover and closely approach and enter into whatever kind or degree of unity with this Permanent, this Infinite, this Eternal.

2. Its second basic idea is the manifold way of man’s approach to the Eternal and Infinite. In each finite we can discover and through all things as his forms and symbols we can approach the Infinite; all cosmic powers are manifestations, all forces are forces of the One. The gods behind the workings of Nature are to be seen and adored as powers, names and personalities of the one Godhead.

• Indian religious mind understood that man approaches God at first according to his psychological nature and his capacity for deeper experience, svabhava, adhikāra. The level of Truth, the plane of consciousness he can reach is determined by his inner evolutionary stage. This is why there is a need for a variety of religious forms, symbols and outer structures. But these are not imaginary structures, inventions of priests or poets, but truths of a supraphysical existence intermediate between the consciousness of the physical world and the ineffable super conscience of the Absolute.

3. The third idea at the base of Indian religion is the most dynamic for the inner spiritual life. “While the Supreme or the Divine can be approached through a universal consciousness and by piercing through all inner and outer Nature, That or He can be met by each individual soul in itself, in its own spiritual part, because there is something in it that is intimately one or at least intimately related with the one divine Existence. The essence of Indian religion is to aim at so growing and so living that we can grow out of the Ignorance which veils this self-knowledge from our mind and life and become aware of the Divinity within us.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 195)

The Need for Outer Forms and Ceremonies

An objective and thorough study of the nature of religion demands that we must ask the question if the diverse outer forms – rituals, ceremonies, creeds and systems etc. fulfill any psychological need of human beings. In our ‘Reason-inspired’ zeal to get to the spiritual essence of a religion we must not consider these outer forms altogether negligible or unworthy or unnecessary.

Sri Aurobindo helps us understand deeply as to why these are in fact important aids on the journey to an inner spiritual seeking. The outer forms, systems, ceremonies and rituals are needed because a human being is a complex being with many parts – physical, emotional, mental, and their various interactive ranges of being. All these various parts have to be exalted and raised to their highest potential before they can feel the touch of the deeper spirit, before they can directly feel the spirit and obey its law.

The various outer forms of religion help meet the needs of these various parts of the human being:

1. An intellectual formula is often needed by the thinking and reasoning mind of our being.

2. A form or ceremony is needed by the aesthetic temperament or other parts of the infrarational parts of our being.

3. A set moral code is necessary for man’s vital nature in their turn towards the inner life.

But, as Sri Aurobindo, cautions, these things are aids and supports, not the essence of a religion. They are necessary and therefore must be offered to and used by the seekers, but they must not be imposed on anyone by a forced and inflexible domination. Tolerance and free permission of variation is the first rule which must be observed.

A true seeker of spirit must also remember that these outer forms including ceremonies, rituals, intellectual systems etc. belong to the rational and infrarational parts of the religion, and that is why they can be nothing more. And, if we blindly insist upon these outer forms too much, these may even hamper our inner seeking for that which is beyond rationality, the suprarational light of truth.

For a true seeker, the spiritual essence of religion is the one, true, real thing supremely needful, the thing to which he must always hold on to and subordinate to it every other element or motive. “The deepest heart, the inmost essence of religion, apart from its outward machinery of creed, cult, ceremony and symbol, is the search for God and the finding of God.” (CWSA, Vol. 25, p. 131)

Scaffolding of the Externals

Why do we see such a strong emphasis on the external forms of religious practices in Hinduism and other Indian religions such as Jainism and Buddhism? Let us explore this question some more.

Indian spiritual thought recognizes that the highest spiritual seeking indeed moves in a free and wide air far above that lower stage of seeking which is governed by religious form and dogma. The highest and deepest aspiration for the Divine does not easily bear the limitations imposed by any outer religious form. And, even when it admits, it transcends them; it lives in an experience which to the formal religious mind is unintelligible.

But, as Sri Aurobindo explains, the vast majority of human beings do not arrive immediately at that highest inner elevation. And if it were demanded from them at once, they would never arrive there.

At first [an individual] needs lower supports and stages of ascent; he asks for some scaffolding of dogma, worship, image, sign, form, symbol, some indulgence and permission of mixed half-natural motive on which he can stand while he builds up in him the temple of the spirit. Only when the temple is completed, can the supports be removed, the scaffolding disappear. The religious culture which now goes by the name of Hinduism not only fulfilled this purpose, but, unlike certain credal religions, it knew its purpose.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 179)

This image of the external forms of a religion being the scaffolding necessary for a certain period of time while a temple of the spirit is being slowly built within the individual’s heart and soul is a very powerful one. It also brings greatest clarity to the sceptic mind which questions the relevance of the outer religious forms, rituals, ceremonies and practices.

At the same time, it is a common failing of the human nature that it often tends to put too much stress on externals and only the externals. This has been the case in periods of Indian religious history as well. But then again, as Sri Aurobindo reminds us, India has also seen a constant stream of saints and religious thinkers and the teachings of illuminated sannyasins (“messengers of the spirit” as he calls them), who have kept the religious life a living reality and resisted the deadening weight of form and ceremony and ritual.

And the still more significant fact remains that there has never been wanting either a happy readiness in the common mind to listen to the message. The ordinary materialised souls, the external minds are the majority in India as everywhere. …But at least the people of India, even the “ignorant masses” have this distinction that they are by centuries of training nearer to the inner realities, are divided from them by a less thick veil of the universal ignorance and are more easily led back to a vital glimpse of God and Spirit, self and eternity than the mass of men or even the cultured elite anywhere else. Where else could the lofty, austere and difficult teaching of a Buddha have seized so rapidly on the popular mind? Where else could the songs of a Tukaram, a Ramprasad, a Kabir, the Sikh gurus and the chants of the Tamil saints with their fervid devotion but also their profound spiritual thinking have found so speedy an echo and formed a popular religious literature? This strong permeation or close nearness of the spiritual turn, this readiness of the mind of a whole nation to turn to the highest realities is the sign and fruit of an age-long, a real and a still living and supremely spiritual culture.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 186)

Thus, we see that what may seem to an overly rational-modernised mind as a merely “religious” culture is in reality an outer expression of a deep spiritual basis that forms the essential foundation of the culture and expresses itself externally through religious forms, ceremonies, rituals and other means.

Of One and Many

Indian landscape is filled with temples and images of numerous gods and goddesses, millions of devotees worship them, recite mantras and prayers and seek their blessings. The number of devatas in India may range from 33 to 33 crores, and the Indian mind has no objection to adding, if need be, to this mighty multitude. Like all other religious forms that outwardly express the inner spiritual truth, there is much profound truth or meaning behind such worship of gods. As Sri Aurobindo explains:

The gods of this worship are, as every Indian knows, potent names, divine forms, dynamic personalities, living aspects of the one Infinite. Each Godhead is a form or derivation or dependent power of the supreme Trinity, each Goddess a form of the universal Energy, Conscious-Force or Shakti.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, pp. 146-147)

Hinduism founded itself on the conception of a timeless, nameless and formless Supreme, but unlike the Abrahamic monotheisms, it did not feel the need to deny or abolish all intermediary forms and names and powers and personalities of the Eternal and Infinite.

Sri Aurobindo explains that Indian polytheism is not the popular polytheism of ancient Europe, “for here the worshipper of many gods still knows that all his divinities are forms, names, personalities and powers of the One; his gods proceed from the one Purusha, his goddesses are energies of the one divine Force.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 192). And because the one Godhead is worshipped as the All, for all in the universe is He or made out of His Being or His nature, it does not mean that Indian religion is pantheism, because the Indian religious mind recognises that beyond this universality exists the supracosmic Eternal.

It is important to note that even the later religious forms which most felt the impress of the Islamic idea, such as Sikhism which emphasizes the worship of the timeless One, Akala, still draws away from the limitations of the Western or Semitic monotheism, and base themselves on the fathomless truth of Vedanta. Furthermore, the divine Personality of God and his human relations with man which are strongly stressed by the religious systems of Vaishnavism and Shaivism as part of their worship practices are not built on the notion of a limited magnified-human personal God of the Semitic religions.

“For in each finite we can discover and through all things as his forms and symbols we can approach the Infinite; all cosmic powers are manifestations, all forces are forces of the One. The gods behind the workings of Nature are to be seen and adored as powers, names and personalities of the one Godhead. An infinite Conscious-Force, executive Energy, Will or Law, Maya, Prakriti, Shakti or Karma, is behind all happenings, whether to us they seem good or bad, acceptable or inacceptable, fortunate or adverse. The Infinite creates and is Brahma; it preserves and is Vishnu; it destroys or takes to itself and is Rudra or Shiva. The supreme Energy beneficent in upholding and protection is or else formulates itself as the Mother of the worlds, Luxmi or Durga. Or beneficent even in the mask of destruction, it is Chandi or it is Kali, the dark Mother. The One Godhead manifests himself in the form of his qualities in various names and godheads. The God of divine love of the Vaishnava, the God of divine power of the Shakta appear as two different godheads; but in truth they are the one infinite Deity in different figures. One may approach the Supreme through any of these names and forms, with knowledge or in ignorance; for through them and beyond them we can proceed at last to the supreme experience.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol 20, pp. 194-195)

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

Dharma or Religion? : Part IV

Having understood the Indian outlook on Religion and the fundamental characteristics of Indian religio-spiritual culture, let us now explore an important question – does the word “religion” as understood in the most ordinary sense of organised religion really make sense in the Indian cultural context, or should we invoke the uniquely Indian word “dharma” to speak of the spiritual nature of Indian culture? Let us understand what is dharma.

Dharma is often mistranslated as religion. But dharma is not same as religion, unless we really understand the word religion in the sense as described in earlier parts of this series – that is, as per the Indian integral outlook on life and human development. This is important to understand because much of the socio-political-cultural conflicts that we see in present-day India arise from this wrong understanding and false interpretation.

If the Infinite or seeking for the Infinite is the major chord of the Indian culture, the idea of the dharma, says Sri Aurobindo, is only second to it. Dharma essentially is the foundation of life, says Sri Aurobindo, only next to the spirit.

Dharma, as Sri Aurobindo summarises perfectly, is that which we hold to and also that which holds together our inner and outer activities. (The word Dharma is derived from the root ‘dhr’ which means ‘to hold’.) Let us read a bit more how Sri Aurobindo explains dharma:

In its primary sense it [dharma] means a fundamental law of our nature which secretly conditions all our activities, and in this sense each being, type, species, individual, group has its own dharma. Secondly, there is the divine nature which has to develop and manifest in us, and in this sense dharma is the law of the inner workings by which that grows in our being. Thirdly, there is the law by which we govern our outgoing thought and action and our relations with each other so as to help best both our own growth and that of the human race towards the divine ideal….
Dharma is generally spoken of as something eternal and unchanging, and so it is in the fundamental principle, in the ideal, but in its forms it is continually changing and evolving, because man does not already possess the ideal or live in it, but aspires more or less perfectly towards it, is growing towards its knowledge and practice. And in this growth Dharma is all that helps us to grow into the divine purity, largeness, light, freedom, power, strength, joy, love, good, unity, beauty, and against it stands its shadow and denial, all that resists its growth and has not undergone its law, all that has not yielded up and does not will to yield up its secret of divine values, but presents a front of perversion and contradiction, of impurity, narrowness, bondage, darkness, weakness, vileness, discord and suffering and division, and the hideous and the crude, all that man has to leave behind in his progress. This is the adharma, not-dharma, which strives with and seeks to overcome the dharma, to draw backward and downward, the reactionary force which makes for evil, ignorance and darkness.” (CWSA, Vol. 19, p. 171173)

Dharma, a Seeking for Right Living

The ancient Indian seers and sages knew very well about the infinitely diverse and complex human nature which comes into play as human beings pursue the different goals of life through different stages or phases of life. So, they came up with the ideal of dharma which would sustain and hold together all this diversity and complexity. The concept of dharma covered basically all natures, all aspects of life, all situations and stages of life, and even allowed for maximum freedom, continuity and greatest possibility of contextualization, adaptation and adjustment.

We find that there is an individual dharma (it varies from role to role – dharma of a son/daughter, wife/husband, mother/father, etc.), group-dharma (dharma of an organization like a guild of craftsmen or a regiment of soldiers or a gurukulam/educational institution or a guru’s ashram, etc.) the kula-dharma (dharma of an extended family lineage), jati-dharma (dharma of a collective of lineages), yuga dharma (dharma appropriate for a yuga or time – which means dharma changes from time to time — what is appropriate today may not be relevant tomorrow), dharma of a king, a leader, dharma of a soldier, an educator, a craftsman, a student, etc. Then we also find dharma varying for different communities, dharma depending upon the stage of life one is going through (dharma of a householder is different from dharma of a social recluse/ascetic or from dharma of a student).

The society was meant to be organized around this ideal of Dharma. The idea was that if people truly acted and lived according to the truth of their dharma they would be able to live harmoniously with others and eventually work towards their own self-fulfillment in life which eventually takes them closer and closer to discovering their true nature – swabhava and discovering their swadharma – the deeper purpose of their life (discovering and living in one’s true self/soul). This gradual progress in one’s life and living by the dharma appropriate to age, station, and place in life and society, helped one grow inwardly and spiritually.

The idea of dharma and the important way in which it is different from the more rigid and mechanical “Law” or imposed by an external authority are deeply ingrained in Indian cultural psyche. Of course, there has also been misapplication of this ideal. Dharma has been used as a way to ensure stability and continuity of the society and at the same time in some cases dharma has also been responsible for stagnation of the society by restricting individual freedom and free expression and by pushing people ‘back in their place’ if they tried to transcend their so-called dharma.

In the Indian view not only every individual but every human activity, even something grossly physical as sex, has its own dharma, its right and natural way of fulfilment according to the truth and law of Nature in that activity. When the activity is performed in a disciplined way according to the canons of its unique dharma then it leads to right enjoyment, success and evolutionary progress for the individual.

To discover the dharma of each activity, and to evolve a system of values, and the art and science for regulating each human activity according to its dharma is one of the major aims of culture. Indian culture insists that even while building a sound socioeconomic and political system to fulfil the artha-kāma needs of the community, the ideals and values of dharma and the cultural life of the community must not be neglected but have to be actively encouraged and promoted so that they cast a refining and restraining influence on the socio-economic life of the community.

In the Indian scheme of purusharthas, the word dharma is generally used in the sense of “duty” or, to be more specific, fulfilment of the social responsibility of the individual through an occupation, which is in consonance with his/her swadharma, true purpose. But the word can be interpreted in a broader sense to include the mental, moral and cultural development of the individual and collective. To put it succinctly, dharma is all that lifts man beyond the essentially animal impulses of his physical and vital being towards his true manhood.

Since man in the present status of his evolution is essentially a mental being, his first major accomplishment must be to fulfil his mental dharma which means to develop fully all the powers, faculties and potentialities of his mind – intellectual, moral and aesthetic – and impose a harmonised control of the higher mental will over his lower physical and vital impulses. This is the true meaning and ideal of culture – to realise our highest Manhood. This is the ideal of dharma in the Indian scheme of the fourfold purusharthas; fulfilment of social responsibility and the realisation of a cultured humanity is the dual aspect of this purushartha.

Once the artha-kāma needs of the community are reasonably assured through a sound socio-economic and political organisation, the governing organ of the community must turn its attention, creative energies and resources more and more to the cultural development of the community.

Dharma in the Bhagavad Gita

Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita asks Arjuna to follow his Kshatriya Dharma and later on he also tells him to abandon all dharmas and go into Lord’s refuge. It is a concept difficult to describe. But Sri Aurobindo has surely given a very comprehensive description of it, as we see in the following excerpts from his work, Essays on the Gita:

1. “Dharma is a word which has an ethical and practical, a natural and philosophical and a religious and spiritual significance, and it may be used in any of these senses exclusive of the others, in a purely ethical, a purely philosophical or a purely religious sense. Ethically it means the law of righteousness, the moral rule of conduct, or in a still more outward and practical significance social and political justice, or even simply the observation of the social law.” (CWSA, Vol. 19, p. 169)

2. “Man is not like the tiger or the fire or the storm; he cannot kill and say as a sufficient justification, “I am acting according to my nature”, and he cannot do it, because he has not the nature and not, therefore, the law of action, svadharma, of the tiger, storm or fire. He has a conscious intelligent will, a buddhi, and to that he must refer his actions. If he does not do so, if he acts blindly according to his impulses and passions, then the law of his being is not rightly worked out, …, he has not acted according to the full measure of his humanity, but even as might the animal.” (p. 221)

3. “Dharma in the spiritual sense is not morality or ethics. Dharma, says the Gita elsewhere, is action governed by the swabhava, the essential law of one’s nature. And this swabhava is at its core the pure quality of the spirit in its inherent power of conscious will and in its characteristic force of action. The desire meant here is therefore the purposeful will of the Divine in us searching for and discovering not the pleasure of the lower Prakriti (Nature), but the Ananda of its own play and selffulfilling; it is the desire of the divine Delight of existence unrolling its own conscious force of action in accordance with the law of the swabhava.” (p. 275)

4. “Dharma in the language of the Gita means the innate law of the being and its works and an action proceeding from and determined by the inner nature, svabhavaniyatam karma. In the lower ignorant consciousness of mind, life and body there are many dharmas, many rules, many standards and laws because there are many varying determinations and types of the mental, vital and physical nature. The immortal Dharma is one; it is that of the highest spiritual divine consciousness and its powers, para prakrtih. It is beyond the three gunas (tamas, rajas, sattwa), and to reach it all these lower dharmas have to be abandoned, sarva-dharman parityajya. Alone in their place the one liberating unifying consciousness and power of the Eternal has to become the infinite source of our action, its mould, determinant and exemplar.” (pp. 405-406)

Once we begin to intellectually grasp the multi-layered meanings of this concept of dharma, we begin to recognize that the English word ‘religion’ does not do justice to any of these meanings.

The word ‘religion’ is perhaps not suitable at all when we speak of the Indian spiritual culture and traditions. Dharma, as we have seen above, is a uniquely Indian idea
which can’t be merely translated as duty, religion, code of conduct, ethical rule, moral law, or other such English language words. It is none of these and yet may have something of these. It transcends all these limiting and limited terms and yet includes some things from each of these. It is individual and universal at the same time. It is fixed and evolving at the same time, it is eternal and yet gradually progressive. It is of a person, and cosmic at the same time. It is an inner guide, which must be discovered individually, and yet must be a part of the larger dharma of the group, the nation, humanity to which one belongs.

It may, therefore, be more accurate to say that the essence of Indian social-cultural ideal is to strive toward being a dharmic society, not a religious society

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

Sadhguru & the curse of Dharmic Intellectuals

Mahabharata, one of the greatest epics of Hindus, mentions an incident where King Yuddhisthir curses the female-folk to never be able to keep a secret. While curses and boons form an inseparable part of Indic civilization, I have tried my best to find historical reference of a curse which plagues Indic Dharmic intellectuals. The curse is that the destination gets fuzzy as they progress on the path of self-learning & development. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there exists an inversely proportional relationship between a Dharmic intellectual’s intellect and harsh realities which are changing at a fighter-jet’s speed. By the time such thought-leaders put an idea to test and validation as per their knowledge, the geography & civics on ground undergoes monumental transformation. So in essence, the only good result which comes out of this deliberation is worthy of getting added to the prestigious library of ‘thought-processes.’

Sadhguru is not new to facing flak and criticism. Infact, in the present era, very few would stand parallel to him when it comes to ‘receiving it’ from his fierce opponents and Dharmic intellectuals alike who would probably incline towards him if asked to pick a side. What makes the criticism and scrutiny of Dharmic intellectuals interesting is that while each one of them has been fighting the common enemy in their personal capacity, instead of taking an inspiration from Sadhguru’s path to success on a global level, they end up marketing their thought-process; directly or indirectly. The dichotomy in this whole process of scoring a point among the brethren is amusing. The sheer ignorance and incapability to gauge the difference between preaching the converted and charting into a new territory is questionable. Probably, this explains to a large extent why multiple initiatives by such Dharmic intellectuals end up finding support from selected few enthusiasts and fails to make an inroad into the psyche of masses who are the ultimate winning trophy for any ideology.

It is very interesting to watch how Dharmic intellectuals are propagating a refined and refreshing approach to ‘Shoot-&-scoot’ strategy. They don’t shy away from putting forth their interpretations of Sadhguru’s statement which usually comes with a solid dose of scripture reference or socio-political understanding and finally they fortify it with a disclaimer of not knowing much about him and hence are not interested in pursuing the debate with those who disagree with them. The plot seems familiar; isn’t it? Amidst all this charade, who loses the plot and who eventually benefits? It is definitely not a very tricky question to answer for those who claim to be working for the upliftment of Dharma.

Coming back to the question of possessing global perspective, a greater debate is required as why we turned out to be terrible marketers when it came to taking control of our narrative? Was it because we were so high on perfecting ourselves and each-other that the imperfect ones slowly and steadily won the ground? Have we conceptualized and validated an alternative which would help us gain newer territories? Whether Dharmic intellectuals like it or not, the responsibilities lie with them to find answers to these larger questions instead of seeking a validation from their personal fan-base. Hence, the discussion about finding that curse which plagues our Dharmic intellectuals assumes significance, if we as a society are serious about changing our appearance from a stagnant, stinking pond to a lively, flowing river.

Kumar Dipanshu is a techie by profession with keen interest in Human Psychology, Spiritual advancement and World Politics. He has co-founded couple of start-ups and loves mentoring budding entrepreneurs. In his spare time he can be found either cooking or enhancing his knowledge about Vedic Scriptures.

Distinctive Characteristics of Indian Religion: Part III

“Indian religion cannot be described by any of the definitions known to the occidental intelligence. In its totality it has been a free and tolerant synthesis of all spiritual worship and experience. Observing the one Truth from all its many sides, it shut out none. It gave itself no specific name and bound itself by no limiting distinction. Allowing separative designations for its constituting cults and divisions, it remained itself nameless, formless, universal, infinite, like the Brahman of its agelong seeking. Although strikingly distinguished from other creeds by its traditional scriptures, cults and symbols, it is not in its essential character a credal religion at all but a vast and many-sided, an always unifying and always progressive and self-enlarging system of spiritual culture.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 193)

Based on the discussion so far, here are some distinctive characteristics of Indian Religion, or rather Indian outlook on Religion, as discussed in various writings of Sri Aurobindo, particularly his essays on Indian Culture.

1. All beings are to the Indian mind portions of the Divine, evolving souls, and sure of an eventual release into the spirit.

2. The ancient idea of the adhikāra must be taken into account in order to understand the peculiar character of Indian religion. (adhikāra may be understood as capacity, something in the immediate power of a man’s nature that determines by its characteristics his right to this or that way of spiritual practice).

3. In most other religious systems, we find a high-pitched spiritual call and a difficult and rigid ethical standard far beyond the possibilities of man’s half-evolved, defective and imperfect nature.

4. These religious systems present a sharp division of two extremes as a picture of our life: the saint and the worldling; the religious and the irreligious; the good and the bad; the pious and the impious; souls accepted and souls rejected; the sheep and the goats; the saved and the damned; the believer and the infidel. These are the two categories set constantly before us. All between is a confusion, a tug of war, an uncertain balance.

5. Indian religion, on the other hand, emphasizes that it is only through a gradual self-preparation throughout life that an individual progresses on the path of inner evolution, and becomes ready for a more direct spiritual call for pursuing the highest aim of life, that of seeking the Divine.

6. Indian religio-spiritual culture recognizes man’s highest and inmost aspiration for seeking the Divine and accepts spiritual pursuit as the highest aim of human life. This is indeed something quite unique to Indian religion, in the sense that religions that emerged in places other than India accepted spiritual pursuit as an optional aim one may have in one’s life but not necessarily as the goal which becomes the basis for how everything else is organized in life.

7. All must feel, as the good in them grows or, more truly, the divine element in them finds itself and becomes conscious, the ultimate touch and call of their highest self and through that call the attraction to the Eternal and Divine. But actually, in life there are infinite differences between man and man; some are more inwardly evolved, others are less mature, many if not most are infant souls, incapable of great steps and difficult efforts. The Indian outlook on religion firmly holds that each individual needs to be dealt with according to his nature and his soul stature.

8. It is because Indian religion places spiritual goal at the highest pedestal and as the one thing essential in terms of the aims of life, everything else in life is organized with this aim and its pursuit in vision. Thus, we get the social organization of individual and collective life – the triple quartette of four purusharthatas, four ashramas, and four varnas.

9. A wide open-mindedness for and acceptance of diversity of religious and spiritual paths are also fundamental ideas of Indian religion.

10. An alert readiness to acknowledge new light capable of enlarging the old tradition has always been characteristic of the religious mind in India.

11. Hinduism or Indian religion is inherently a non-dogmatic, inclusive and pluralistic religion.

12. A living and moving, not a rigid continuity, has been the characteristic turn of the inner religious mind of India. A lot of synthesis or integration of religious traditions takes place as part of the living nature of religion in India. Sikhism and Indian Sufism are two big examples of such synthesis of very different religious traditions. We have also seen several other smaller syntheses which served some temporary purposes and were somewhat limited in their scope (Brahmo Samaj and Kabir Panth might be examples of that). We have also seen religions emerging as a result of the religious revivalist tendency, Arya Samaj may be an example of that. In the words of Sri Aurobindo: “The inner principle of Hinduism, the most tolerant and receptive of religious systems, is not sharply exclusive like the religious spirit of Christianity or Islam; as far as that could be without loss of its own powerful idiosyncrasy and law of being, it has been synthetic, acquisitive, inclusive. Always it has taken in from every side and trusted to the power of assimilation that burns in its spiritual heart and in the white heat of its flaming centre to turn even the most unpromising material into forms for its spirit.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, pp. 133-134)

13. This naturally relates to another point about emergence of new religions. In the Indian context, we see that new religious traditions emerge not only because the old one is no longer valid or is not willing to change with the changing times, but a new religion emerges because a new spiritual realization has happened. India has been the cradle of a very wide range and diversity of spiritual realizations (and this may also be because of the deeper inherent value of complete spiritual freedom that Indian culture provides), and so we find all kinds of new religions, faith systems, folk religious traditions, etc. that start with these spiritual realizations. Modern Indian spiritual gurus are an expression of this very aspect of Indian spiritual culture. Because the modern times mostly represent the age of mind and reason, we find a greater tendency in these modern spiritual movements (some of which may be roughly equated to religions) to emphasize the mental ideals of harmony, peace and brotherhood in the world. But on a deeper level the core of most of these movements is about self-realization.

14. When speaking of Indian outlook on religion, we may also mention that over the last several centuries religions that came to India from elsewhere such as Islam and Christianity have also been impacted by some of the Indian religious-spiritual traditions, at least in many outer aspects. There has also been some softening of these Abrahamic religions’ more exclusive belief-claims. This is not to say that more literalist or fundamentalist or exclusive or aggressive versions don’t exist in these religions. It may also be mentioned that conservative or literalist or exclusive streaks exist also in some Hindu and Sikh traditions).

15. To an Indian religious mind, the least important part of religion is its dogma; the religious spirit matters, not the theological credo. On the contrary, to a mind touched
more by the Abrahamic religious outlook a fixed intellectual belief is the most important part of a religion; it is its core of meaning, it is the thing that distinguishes it from others.

16. Unlike Abrahamic religions, an Indian outlook on religion holds that there are no true and false religions, but rather all religions are true in their own way and degree. Each is one of the thousand paths to the One Eternal.

17. Liberty of religious practice and a complete freedom of thought in religion have always been fundamental to Indian religious-spiritual traditions.

18. In the Indian outlook on religion the simultaneous necessity of a firm spiritual order (sampradaya) as well as an unrestrained spiritual freedom was always perceived. This was provided for in various ways and not in any one formal, external or artificial manner.

a. It was founded in the first place on the recognition of an ever-enlarging number of authorised scriptures.

b. Another instrument of order was the power of family and communal tradition, kuladharma, persistent but not immutable.

c. A third was the religious authority of the highly learned Brahmins. As priests they officiated as the custodians of observance, but it must also be noted that not much consideration was given to the priesthood. It was more as Vedic scholars, as men of great learning that Brahmins performed a much more important and respected role than the officiating priesthood could claim. It was in this role that they stood as the exponents of religious tradition and were a strong power to conserve and preserve the tradition.

d. Finally, and most characteristically, most powerfully, a spiritual order was secured by the succession of Gurus or spiritual teachers, parampara, who preserved the continuity of each spiritual system and handed it down from generation to generation. At the same time, because of their sadhana and spiritual realisation these gurus also had the power, unlike the priest and the Pundit, to enrich freely the significance and develop the practice of a particular spiritual order/sampradaya.

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

Indian Perspective on Life, Human Development and Religion: Part II

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

Is India moving towards Digital Slavery?

While world has different thoughts, perceptions and ideologies behind terming India as a developing/third-world country, personally, I have my reasons for the same. I acknowledge my limitations to build up enough curiosity before sharing a piece of information and hence would put across my reason right way. The reason is, ‘Failure to create a Tech Unicorn‘ in this world which is being swept by ever increasing tides of digital revolution every single day.

Leading countries based on number of Facebook users as of January 2020(in millions)

Do you know as of January 2020, India boasts to have around 260 million Facebook users? While an optimist & opportunist would look at the numbers and term it as an ‘valuable & important market-place’, a borderline pessimist like me would rather look at it as being the largest ‘guinea-pig testing farm’ for all the major & not-so-major technical advancements taking place around the globe. Now before you accuse me of being too harsh, allow me to put forth my rationale behind the thought process. With Facebook owning up WhatsApp & Instagram, it nearly ‘owns’ every interactions & behavior you display as an individual round the clock. Think it like this,

Facebook – Your thought process, your liking, your interactions, etc.
WhatsApp – Your digital (congruent to real-life) conversations
Instagram – Your facial expressions, your mood (swings), your afflictions towards visual elements, etc.

Now what is left to know more about you unless you happen to be a soul-searcher, self-realization seeking soul who prefers taking the journey inwards? And who possesses this gold-mine of information? Allow me to add a dash of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to the mix and ask you who would eventually benefit from the derived intelligence from all this information which 260 million people are sharing about themselves? And I am too tempted to add to the list the countless search results you hit on Google everyday or exchange numerous emails, or enjoy your favorite shows and videos on a streaming platform.

Where is this barrage of data & information going? And who benefits from this?

So when I hear the glossy stories about India as an ‘IT hub’, all that I can envision is countless support centers and development farms extending support to a Tech unicorn based out of Bay-area. I cannot stop myself from differentiating between ‘world-leading product company’ and ‘world-leading IT-services organisation’. What does a country with population of 1.3 billion lack to create the next-big-thing in Tech space? The intention is not at the least to belittle the great work done so far but to raise pertinent questions which would decide the course of this great nation in the next decade and beyond. A quick look at the chart below depicts the 10 countries who filed the most international patent applications in 2018. Unless the report is grossly erroneous, India is nowhere to be seen in Top 10. The findings boils down to only one thing, ‘Are we turning a blind-eye towards the future of Intellectual Capital & Investment?

Ranking of the 10 countries who filed the most international patent applications in 2018

Bringing up the subject of filing patents might be slightly off-the-topic here but it does add it’s share of significance to the dire need of innovation. With the Covid-19 pandemic engulfing the world and every possible industry moving towards work-from-home culture, it is no less than surprising that not even a single video and collaboration tool is coming from India. Have we grown so immune to meritocracy and so cozy with mediocrity that this doesn’t affect us at all and is accepted as comfortable status-quo? Touching the oh-so-cliched subject of Brain Drain would definitely kill the curiosity of readers but to do justice with this foundational paradigm, one needs to ask the question that while Indians happen to be best of the leaders when it comes to leading global organisations, why have we failed to create one in India?

Looking above, so much has been said about so many things that by this time you must be wondering why are we not talking anything about Social Media? To be honest, even I think so! But being honest to a greater degree, the subject in itself has so many similar-looking branches that one takes a detour effortlessly. Every aspect is intertwined in a complex web of cause-&-effect and it seems nearly impossible to talk about one thing while ignoring the other.

So circling back to the subject of Social Media, it is disappointing to see India lagging behind in the race of technical advancements and gladly agreeing to play the role of a ‘free & convenient testing lab’ whereas it could have easily leveraged it’s huge market base to capture a commanding position in the global arena of technological developments. The pace with which Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are making strides, the day is not far when a clueless population of billion would end-up being a powerless, toothless consumer market. Unfortunately, there would be no scope for any ‘Revolution for Independence‘ once that stage is reached.

Kumar Dipanshu is a techie by profession with keen interest in Human Psychology, Spiritual advancement and World Politics. He has co-founded couple of start-ups and loves mentoring budding entrepreneurs. In his spare time he can be found either cooking or enhancing his knowledge about Vedic Scriptures.

INDIAN OUTLOOK ON RELIGION AND LIFE: PART I

We often hear from even some of the most casual observers of India that Indian culture in general is a deeply religious and spiritual one. It is often remarked that pretty much every week there is a religious festival in some part of India. Millions of Indians travel to faraway places on pilgrimages, to places of religious and cultural significances. Millions of Indians consider Indian landmass to be sacred geography, land where gods also yearn to be born as human beings.

But what exactly do we mean by religion? And how is it connected with spirituality?
Are the two similar or is there any difference? More importantly, is there something unique about an Indian outlook on religion and spirituality? Do the outward manifestations of the religious spirit of Indian culture, such as the various festivals, religious practices and ceremonies have any inner symbolic significance? What about the various gods and goddesses of the Indian religious traditions? What do they symbolize? Are there any deeper spiritual significance behind the various outer adoration and devotional practices that millions and millions of Indians do and participate in every day? These and other related questions will be explored briefly in this multi-part essay, in the light of the timeless wisdom we find in the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (his spiritual collaborator).

What is Religion? According to Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE–43 BCE), the highly influential Roman politician, lawyer and a master of Latin language and literature, the English word ‘religion’ is derived from a Latin word relegere which means “go through again” (in reading or in thought), “to return”. However, the later ancients (Servius, Lactantius, Augustine) and many modern writers gave a different etymological explanation by connecting the word religion with religare, which means “to bind fast” via notion of “place an obligation on,” or “bond between humans and gods.” It was around 13th century that the meaning “particular system of faith” for the English word ‘religion’ came into use. But if we go back to the original Latin word relegere, we get a precise understanding of the essence of the immortal religious aspiration in Man – “to return” to the source of our own being from which we somehow seem to have strayed, wandered or fallen. The highest intuition revealed in all the ancient religious traditions of the world indicate that there is a supreme Reality – one may call it God or whatever name one prefers — behind or beyond our physical body, life and mind. And that Supreme Reality is not only the source of our own individual being but also the source of the universe, and yet is transcendent of it all. This discovery is expressed in different ways in various religions. The Mother speaks perfectly about the origin of Religion in the following words:

Religion belongs to the higher mind of humanity. It is the effort of man’s higher mind to approach, as far as lies in its power, something beyond it, something to which humanity gives the name God or Spirit or Truth or Faith or Knowledge or the Infinite, some kind of Absolute, which the human mind cannot reach and yet tries to reach. Religion may be divine in its ultimate origin; in its actual nature it is not divine but human.” (CWM, Vol. 3, p. 76)

Man-made Nature of Religions

What does it mean that the actual nature of the religion or rather religions (because there are many religions) is not divine but human? Let us explore this further.
All religions, says the Mother, have a similar story to tell. The occasion for a religion’s birth is generally the coming of a great Teacher of the world who reveals a Divine Truth. “But men seize upon it, trade upon it, make an almost political organisation out of it. The religion is equipped by them with a government and policy and laws, with its creeds and dogmas, its rules and regulations, its rites and ceremonies, all binding upon its adherents, all absolute and inviolable. Like the State, it too administers rewards to the loyal and assigns punishments for those that revolt or go astray, for the heretic and the renegade.” (CWM, Vol. 3, p. 77)

The Mother explains further with the help of a few examples:

We know how the Christian religion came into existence. It was certainly not Jesus who made what is known as Christianity, but some learned and very clever men put their heads together and built it up into the thing we see. There was nothing divine in the way in which it was formed, and there is nothing divine either in the way in which it functions. And yet the excuse or occasion for the formation was undoubtedly some revelation from what one could call a Divine Being, a Being who came from elsewhere bringing down with him from a higher plane a certain Knowledge and Truth for the earth. He came and suffered for his Truth; but very few understood what he said, few cared to find and hold to the Truth for which he suffered. Buddha retired from the world, sat down in meditation and discovered a way out of earthly suffering and misery, out of all this illness and death and desire and sin and hunger. He saw a Truth which he endeavoured to express and communicate to the disciples and followers who gathered around him. But even before he was dead, his teaching had already begun to be twisted and distorted. It was only after his disappearance that Buddhism as a full-fledged religion reared its head founded upon what the Buddha is supposed to have said and on the supposed significance of these reported sayings. But soon too, because the disciples and the disciples’ disciples could not agree on what the Master had said or what he meant by his utterances, there grew up a host of sects and sub-sects in the body of the parent religion—a Southern Path, a Northern Path, a Far Eastern Path, each of them claiming to be the only, the original, the undefiled doctrine of the Buddha. The same fate overtook the teaching of the Christ; that too came to be made in the same way into a set and organised religion. It is often said that, if Jesus came back, he would not be able to recognise what he taught in the forms that have been imposed on it, and if Buddha were to come back and see what has been made of his teaching, he would immediately run back discouraged to Nirvana!” (CWM, Vol. 3, pp. 76-77)

Sri Aurobindo explains this man-made nature of religions through a distinction he makes between ‘true religion’ and ‘religionism’. He writes:

“There are two aspects of religion, true religion and religionism. True religion is spiritual religion, that which seeks to live in the spirit, in what is beyond the intellect, beyond the aesthetic and ethical and practical being of man, and to inform and govern these members of our being by the higher light and law of the spirit. Religionism, on the contrary, entrenches itself in some narrow pietistic exaltation of the lower members or lays exclusive stress on intellectual dogmas, forms and ceremonies, on some fixed and rigid moral code, on some religio-political or religio-social system.” (CWSA, Vol. 25, pp. 177-178)

Difference between Religion and Spirituality

Before we explore the uniqueness of the Indian outlook on Religion, it is important to spend some time understanding the relation between Religion and Spirituality. In his philosophical magnum opus, The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo gives a wonderful definition of spirituality. He first speaks of what it is not, and thus gradually leads us to understand what it is.

“…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.

Spirituality is in its essence an awakening to the inner reality of our being, to a spirit, self, soul which is other than our mind, life and body, an inner aspiration to know, to feel, to be that, to enter into contact with the greater Reality beyond and pervading the universe which inhabits also our own being, to be in communion with It and union with It, and 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.” (CWSA,Vol 22, pp. 889-890)

A few key points we note from the above are:

High intellectualism, idealism, ethical turn of mind, moral purity, religious fervour, emotional aspiration, mental belief or faith, well-regulated conduct in accordance with a religious formula – these can be preparatory and purifying movements which in turn can be helpful to a seeker in the stages of mental and emotional evolution.

Spiritual evolution is something beyond all these things. It is essentially an awakening to the inner reality of our being beyond mind, life and body.

Thus, according to Sri Aurobindo, a spiritual seeker can progress in initial preparatory stages through religion, but as noted earlier he also makes an important distinction between the spiritual essence of a religion and the outer religious forms (religionism, as he calls it, which has a tendency to become dogmatic, creedal and limiting).
As mentioned earlier, the essence of religion is connected with the highest aspiration in humanity, that of returning to the source, the origin of All and Everything, the source of Being and Existence. So how is religion different from spirituality? Are there some commonalities between them? The Mother helps us understand this in a very succinct response when she says:

“The spiritual spirit is not contrary to a religious feeling of adoration, devotion and consecration. But what is wrong in the religions is the fixity of the mind clinging to one formula as an exclusive truth. One must always remember that formulas are only a mental expression of the truth and that this truth can always be expressed in many other ways.” (CWM, Vol. 15, p, 27)
Let us explore these questions a bit more now with the help of a wonderful explanation given by Nolini Kanta Gupta, one of the earliest disciples and associates of Sri Aurobindo. In this passage, he clearly points out the difference between a religious approach and a spiritual approach to seeking the Divine.

“Religion starts from and usually ends with a mental and emotional approach to realities beyond the mind; Spirituality goes straight forward to direct vision and communion with the Beyond.

“Religion labors to experience and express the world of Spirit in and through a turn, often a twist, given by the mental being—manu—in man; it bases itself upon the demands of the mental, the vital and the physical complex – the triple nexus that forms the ordinary human personality and seeks to satisfy them under a holier garb. Spirituality knows the demands of the Spirit alone; it lives in a realm where the body, the life and the mind stand uplifted and transmuted into their utter realities.

Religion is the human way of approaching and enjoying the Divine; Spirituality is the divine way of meeting the Divine.

Religion, as it is usually practiced, is a special art, one – the highest it may be, still only one – among many other pursuits that man looks to for his enjoyment and fulfillment; but spirituality is nothing if it does not swallow up the entire man, take in his each and every preoccupation and new-create it into an inevitable expression of its own master truth.

“Religion gives a moral discipline for the internal consciousness, and for the external life, a code of conduct based upon a system of rules and rites and ceremonies; spirituality aims at a revolution in the consciousness and in the being.” (Nolini Kanta Gupta (1973/1996). Evolution and the Earthly Destiny, p.117)

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.