Spirituality may often be confused with morality, idealism, and religion, which play significant roles in regulating, controlling, and directing the lives of most men. But spirituality, or yoga in its more general sense, is essentially different because it proceeds directly by a change of consciousness and presents a radical new approach to life. This approach, which goes beyond the ego and its exclusive focus on the common habits of the mind, life, and body, reveals to man how to find his true self and seek union with the Divine. The editor has selected passages from the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother that define and clarify these fundamental differences and, in the final section, that describe how to prepare for and take up the path of yoga.
People everywhere have aspired for a better world, but we are still far from the rosy visions of a utopian life. As the search for better systems and models continues, it is becoming clear that the lofty ideals rooted in religion, morality and ethics have been unsuccessful in the struggle to make the planet a better place. But what if it is not the systems and models themselves but something more fundamental that needs to be investigated? There is a growing awareness that the panacea to the problems ravaging our world is in a paradigm shift to spirituality. However, a fundamental confusion persists that equates spirituality with morality, idealism and religion. It is therefore of topical importance that Dr. A. S. Dalal has chosen this moment to bring out a compilation titled Morality, Idealism, Religion and Yoga: The Meaning of Spirituality.
After a short synoptic overview by the editor, the book is divided into four sections on the subjects indicated in the title, and thoughtfully subdivided into related topics with an excellent selection of mostly brief passages, impeccably arranged, from the works of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. At the back are the references as well as a basic glossary of names, Sanskrit terms and special terms.
The first chapter aims to point out the differences between morality and spirituality, but without altogether rejecting the usefulness of the former in day-to-day life. Morality is a complex structure of rules and regulations, dos and don'ts to maintain social cohesion, but it is relative and varies according to communities, geographic locations and time. This moral ideal has even been ineffective in bringing about peace and harmony within communities following the same set of regulations. As the Mother points out, "it [morality] proclaims itself as a unique type, a categoric absolute; it admits of none other outside itself; it does not even admit a variation within itself. All are to be moulded according to its single ideal pattern, everybody is to be made uniformly and faultlessly the same."
It is true that morality does help to control and regulate behavior. It creates norms by which the individual and society guide their mutual interactions and can therefore be considered indispensable, yet it is not a solution to the problem of what is right or wrong, of what is useful or harmful, of what is allowed or forbidden and of what is good or bad. The true solution lies in spiritual values that eschew all that is centered on the ego, the divisive sense of the individual separate from everybody and everything else. Spiritual life is founded on the principle of unity but "it works for diversity in oneness and for perfection in that diversity". The dissimilarity between the two, the moral and the spiritual, is that while the former advocates the rejection of base desires, the latter rejects desire altogether and insists that we grow out of the ordinary egocentric consciousness into another, higher consciousness, and live more and more under its influence. Even the voice of conscience that is meant to distinguish between good and evil, while useful in ordinary life, is an imperfect counsel in spiritual life because "there is only one true guide, that is the inner guide," which is free from the distortions of the mental consciousness.
Many of the passages in the second section, on idealism, help to clear the confusion that arises from the conflict between self-interest and altruism. Upheld as the highest putative goals in domestic and social life for the progress of humanity, the ideals of heroism, patriotism, altruism and philanthropy each remain "a mental and moral not a spiritual ideal". Even though these ideals necessitate the subordination of the individual ego to the larger good of the family, society and country, they nonetheless engender a larger ego, which is a "comprehensive edition or a sum of individual egos". Stated otherwise, service to others may not be a freedom from but rather an extension of the ego. Just as morality serves its purpose, the various forms of idealism are of considerable value as a purification and a preparation for the spiritual life, but they still "belong to the mental evolution". Sooner or later, however, the individual in pursuit of his own development is bound to clash with the larger interest of the community or the nation that demands his obedience and subordination. The conflicting standards between man's need to affirm his individuality and the call to serve the greater good, says Sri Aurobindo, "is a groping of the mental Ignorance of man seeking to find its way and grasping different sides of the truth but unable by its wants of integrality in knowledge to harmonise them together".
The important point of the third section, on religion – often confused with spirituality –, is the distinction made between religion and religionism or the esoteric and exoteric aspects of religion. The esoteric aspect is the crux of all religions, which are predicated on a revelation of a profound truth that has come down from a higher plane of consciousness, but is then distorted by its votaries with the passage of time. "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.…And yet the excuse or occasion for the formation [of Christianity] 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." At its core, then, religion, which has been an invaluable support to society, is an aspiration for something beyond the intellect and beyond the realm of our sensory perceptions, the search for the discovery of what some call God or Truth or Spirit.
Religion as it is commonly practiced – or its exoteric features such as codes of conduct, ceremonies, rituals and dogmas – can be a necessary scaffold for those who are naturally inclined to the path of devotion and need help to sustain their inner aspiration. Religion also acts as a helpful deterrent "for it serves as a corrective to collective egoism which, without this control, could take on excessive proportions". But religion can also become an obstacle to the spiritual seeker who, preoccupied with and imprisoned in rites and rituals, can forget its real essence. "It is an impediment and a chain if you are a slave to its outer body; if you know how to use its inner substance, it can be your jumping-board into the realm of the Spirit."
The fourth and final section of the book, among many other related topics, draws attention to the generic and specific meanings of yoga, lists its three classical approaches, distinguishes between prayer and meditation, and correlates the uniqueness of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo's synthetic and integral approach with the traditional paths of yoga.
Yoga is also a general term for spirituality, which Sri Aurobindo describes as an awakening to the inner reality of our being and the resulting transformation of our nature. This change is not progressive, but paradigmatic, a change in consciousness replacing the ordinary with a higher consciousness: "It is a radical conversion as great as and greater than the change which we suppose evolutionary Nature to have made in its transition from the vital animal to the fully mentalised human consciousness." One might say it is a quid pro quo of the self for the Self.
The term yoga is often restricted in its meaning to describe physical exercises and breathing techniques, or abstinence and asceticism. Neither is it only a theory, divorced from practice. Yoga is a generic name for a set of methodologies designed to accelerate the process that brings the individual in contact with the Supreme Reality and the concomitant freedom from the cycle of birth and death. While numerous approaches are possible, Indian tradition classifies them into three broad categories: the yoga of knowledge, the yoga of devotion and the yoga of works. There is no general rule for the order of importance of the approaches, rather "everyone must follow his path in accordance with his own nature, and there is always a preference for one way rather than another."
Prayer and aspiration are common to all three and help to establish a conscious and living relation between the worshipper and the worshipped. The difference between the two is that "prayer is a much more external thing, generally about a precise fact and always formulated for it is the formula that makes the prayer. One may have an aspiration and transcribe it as a prayer, but aspiration goes beyond prayer in every way. It is much closer and much more as it were self-forgetful, living only in the thing one wants to be or do and the offering of all that one wants to do to the Divine."
The ultimate goal that is the unique and distinctive feature of the Integral Yoga, the path that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have revealed to us, is not only a union with the transcendent Reality but the bringing down of that consciousness upon earth to divinize earthly life. It is a spiritual adventure, never attempted before, that exceeds the objectives of traditional paths of yoga.
For skeptics, hesitant beginners, or muddled seekers to whom these might sound as empty words devoid of real-world experience, Sri Aurobindo assures us that "yoga is not a matter of theory or dogma…but a matter of experience. Its experience is that of a conscient universal and supracosmic Being with whom it brings us into union, and this conscious experience of union with the Invisible, always renewable and verifiable, is as valid as our conscious experience of a physical world and of visible bodies with whose invisible minds we daily communicate."
Gautam, who studied at SAICE and earned a master's degree from the Institut Universitaire d'Études du Développement in Geneva, has worked as an interior designer, furniture maker and builder for the last twenty years. Interested in history, economics, sociology, metaphysics, and the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, he also teaches history at SAICE.