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August 2004

Sri Aurobindo’s vision of
spiritual universalism

- by Bindu

If India is to seek a resurgence of its spiritual values and play a leading role in manifesting a divine life on earth, it must preserve the plurality of its spiritual traditions that by and large have thrived in harmony

India , as a geographical country and as an ideological concept, has been defined and redefined over millennia by its inhabitants, by foreigners, and by shifting political borders. Home to one of the most ancient civilizations of the world, India is characterized by the antiquity, the continuity and the diversity of her cultures. Hinduism, which is etymologically identified with the country, is its dominant religion, and has its roots in the ancient Vedic civilization, is often evoked to give Indians a national identity. However, the task of satisfactorily establishing a common Indian identity, acceptable to all, has always proved to be Herculean given the bewildering profusion of India 's regional groups with their differing languages, religions, spiritual traditions, cultural practices and economic levels. The interior of the Moti Masjid or Pearl Mosque at Agra

I study Sri Aurobindo's thought in the context of his own spiritual development from an active political writer to a yogi who both envisioned and embodied a profound transformation for humankind. Writing as he did, in the wake of the Bengal nationalist and religious revival movements of the late 19the century, Sri Aurobindo, more than any other modern thinker, has passionately defined India in spiritual terms and eloquently described the conditions of its resurgence. Unfortunately, in contemporary times, Sri Aurobindo's writings on the resurgence of India have been compartmentalized and appropriated by religious fundamentalists. This in turn has elicited even greater criticism by secular and Marxist writers. Sri Aurobindo's singular definition of sanatana dharma and his privileging of India as “the spiritual leader of humanity” are not ethnocentric, as assumed by many. Such concepts need to be studied in the complete context of Sri Aurobindo's vision for a supramentalized world. Sri Aurobin-do's work, I believe, cannot be fully grasped by the divisive consciousness of the mind but can only be understood and progressively embodied in the light of a higher and more integral consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo's visionary legacy to India and the world is in danger of being jeopardized by opposing groups who emphasize only sections of his work to serve their own ends. This can only be remedied by putting into practice, the discipline of Integral Yoga and recognizing how in a supramental vision of the world, the spiritual greatness of India can blossom in a pluralist and intercultural framework where all individuals, cultures and races can freely evolve at their own pace and in accordance with their nature.

The need for religions

Before we can speak of going beyond creeds and religions, we need to understand the crucial role religion has played and still plays in the evolution of the human consciousness. Documenting the eternal search of the human being for the Divine, Sri Aurobindo points out that “while it is difficult for man to believe in something unseen within himself, it is easy for him to believe in something which he can image as extraneous to himself. The spiritual progress of most human beings demands an extraneous support, an object of faith outside us”(1). All religions and creeds of the world are born form this intense inner need of the human being in her precipitous climb toward the Godhead. They are then collectively shaped into rites, rituals and creeds by the needs of time and of the society. Consequently, all religions are marked by an eternal aspect and a temporal aspect. The eternal aspect of a religion embodies the aspiration of the individual and represents a living universal Truth of the Divine, while the temporal aspect formalizes the collective aspiration of a society by formulating codes and conducts, and rites and rituals of worship. The eternal or universal aspect of a religion comprises the mystical or psycho-spiritual experiences of the individual seeker. The temporal aspect of a religion results in a social organization – a practical, ethical, and legal framework – for its practitioners.

Adhyatma-vidya (innerscience) in Indic religions

The proportion between the eternal aspect and the temporal aspect of a religion varies in different religions and within creeds of the same religion. In a classification I find useful in the study of religion, Rajiv Malhotra, a student of Indology, points out that certain religions, namely the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, have “historicized divine intervention and viewed it as the primary mode of knowing about spiritual truth”(2). Thus, in these religions, the religious text and the utterances of the prophet or the founder of the religions have sole and absolute spiritual authority. The mystical aspects of these religions that value experience over historical narratives survive, but are often marginalized and persecuted. On the other hand, certain other religions, namely the various diverse creeds and spiritual traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, privileges adhyatma-vidya (inner science or esoteric processes) for arriving at universal spiritual truths. These religions, says Malhotra, are ahistorical for, while they acknowledge the authority of certain religious texts or the utterances of certain historical figures, they do not proclaim that a historic text or a historic prophet is the sole way of arriving at spiritual truth. The religious texts themselves are open to multiple interpretations. Historic religions give more value to “insight received through esoteric methodologies of transformation of consciousness”(3). Upholding this, Peter Heehs, in his anthology of Indian religions, says that most indigenous spiritual traditions of India see the “ultimate goal of spiritual practice as a subjective or experiential state, to be obtained through individual effort or devotion”(4). Thus when we speak of going beyond creedal religions, we essentially speak of breaking free from the temporal norms and holds of religion and to be subjectively guided by the eternal and universal Spirit within the individual. And in this context, I see Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga, validating as it does individual experience, as the consummating glory of a long, unbroken spiritual tradition of adhyatma-vidya in India .

The plurality of India

India deserves special attention in our study for it is the only country that has emphasized on adhyatma-vidya as a means to arrive at spiritual truth. Perhaps because it has kept alive in a continuous tradition the subjective psycho-spiritual aspect of religion, India has been regarded by both native and foreign scholars as being pre-eminently spiritual.

Because Sri Aurobindo and The Mother believed India to be guided by a national-soul that was “the living energy of a great spiritual conception,” they chose it as the ground for their work in manifesting the new, evolutionary principle of Supermind on earth(5). I also believe that the unique social and religious characteristics of India hold a clue to the Supramental manifestation that Sri Aurobindo speaks about.

The trend of adhyatma-vidya dates back, estimating conservatively, to the Vedic civilization of 3,000 BCE. Says Sri Aurobindo, “the sages of the Veda and Vedantata relied entirely upon intuition and spiritual experience”(6). Later, “the age of intuitive knowledge, represented by the early Vedantic thinking of the Upanishads, had to give place to the age of rational knowledge; inspired Scripture made room for metaphysical philosophy, even as afterwards metaphysical philosophy had to give place to experimental Science”(7). Also over the years, Vedic-Vedantic spirituality got codified into religious edicts. But even so, in most spiritual traditions derived from the Vedas, a form of adhyatma-vidya remained. It is this reliance on experience that has made the Indian mind extremely catholic and receptive to foreign ideas. The affirmation of a spiritual truth is based not on an outer religious construct or reasoning of the mind, but on insights and the inner experience. It is necessary to emphasize on this point for what India exhibits in terms of receptivity and acceptance of other forms of worship goes beyond religious tolerance. Tolerance of other religions is a mental concept, where the mind, rationally and ethically accepts the validity of other concepts. But in India , particularly in Hinduism(8), the concept of a single Divine Power expressed in innumerable forms was an intuitive insight and not a mental construct. Generally speaking, Hinduism believes that while the Godhead can be experienced in many different ways, it cannot be rigidly defined in verbal terms. Thus, Hinduism encompasses a bewildering array of opposing doctrines, cults, rites and rituals, and Hindus distinguish themselves from other religions (or even from other cults within Hinduism) on the basis of ritualistic practices rather than on the basis of doctrinal beliefs.

This plurality of spiritual traditions is also matched by the diversity of India , geographically (by its varied climatic zones), demographically (by the mix of the races of its peoples), and historically (by its acceptance of different cultures). India is characterized by a diversity that is perhaps unsurpassed by any other country.

Later, India was influenced by the Mogul culture for several centuries following the stages spelled out by Toynbee of recoil, acceptance and synthesis. The British colonization brought rational, scientific approach of the West to modernize India , a process that is still continuing.

In short, because of all these conquests, trade and transmission of ideas, today, there is “hardly a major school of thought in the world with which Indian thought has not entered into a dialogue at one time or the other, directly or indirectly”(9). It is a sad fact that many glorify their Vedic heritage and believe that the purity of their ancient values has been sullied by successive invasions of their civilization, first by the Muslims and later by the Europeans. Such a view of India is simplistic. It ignores the facts that Buddhism was a tour de force in the subcontinent for 1,600 years and that Islam spread primarily not by the power of the sword, but by the greater spiritual power of the Sufi saints. A study of India 's religious history shows that India 's philosophy has always been enriched through dialogue and assimilation of the major religions and spiritual traditions of the world. Jainism and Buddhism, which share certain similar philosophical concepts, arose partly in revolt to the Vedic orthodoxy. At the beginning of the common era, the philosophical schools of Vedic Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all had a contemporaneous origin. Consequently, metaphysical formulations of the Hindu schools of Sankhya and Yoga are found in Jaina and Buddhist texts, and, Jainism particularly bears a striking resemblance to Sankhya. In a later period, Mahayana Buddhism in India is believed to have come into being due to the religious influence of Persia . And, from circa 500 CE, the devotional aspect in Mahayana Buddhism and the devotional Hindu cult of the Puranas (Bhagavatas) seem to have mutually influenced each other. Similarly Vajrayana Buddhism or Tantric Buddhism shows remarkable similarities with the Hindu tantric traditions. In its heydays from 800-1300 CE, Tantrism also shaped Jain rituals to a certain extent. Advaita Vedanta that arose in 700 CE owes a great deal to the Madyamika and Vijnanavada Buddhism. Later, in circa 850 CE, non-dual Shaivism arose in Kashmir due to the influence of Mahayana Buddhism and the Advaita Vedanta of Shankaracharya in that region. With the Muslim conquests leading to the establishment of a Muslim kingdom in the thirteenth century, Islam came to India , primarily in the form of Sufism – a mystical Islamic tradition that was influenced by the monistic disciplines of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta.

In the period from 10th to the 17th century, there developed and flourished along with Sufism, important mystic regional tantric traditions, namely the Shaiva siddhas of Tamil Nadu, the Nath yogis of Maharashtra, the Vaishnava sahajiyas and the bauls of Bengal. As all these traditions, including other contemporaneous traditions such as Vajrayana Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, gave primary importance to psycho-spiritual experiences and to union with the godhead within, they were open to exchanging knowledge and learning from one another. In the same token, the Bhakti movement from the sixth century onwards, regardless of religious or regional variances, shows certain universal aspects that span different traditions. Sikhism has its roots in the Bhakti movement and its holy book, the Adi Granth contains songs from many Sufi saints. Evaluating India's social and religious history, somewhat hyperbolically, E.P. Thompson writes, “All the convergent influences of the world run through this (Indian) society…there is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind”(10). The deeper reason for this social and religious pluralism of India perhaps lies in the fact that the Divine, as described by Sri Aurobindo, has infinite potentiality and thus manifests itself in infinite forms, each of which, through the process of evolution, try to express their essential Divine character. Says Sri Aurobindo, “This mutuality founded in unity is the whole secret of the divine existence in its perfect manifestation; it must be the basis of anything to which we can give the name of a divine life”(11). Also, I believe that India 's rich and diverse spiritual traditions each show a path to the Godhead and as Sri Aurobindo says, in Integral Yoga, we must, in essence, take up all these paths, to know the Divine integrally. Thus if India is to seek a resurgence of its spiritual values and play a leading role in manifesting a divine life on earth, it must preserve the plurality of its spiritual traditions that by and large have thrived in harmony.



1.) The Synthesis of Yoga. 1972: pg.64; 2.) Untitled essay on religions received over e-mail; 3.) Ibid; 4.) Indian Religions: The spiritual Traditions of South Asia. 2002: pg.4; 5.) Social scientists would undoubtedly see Sri Aurobindo's and the Mother's statements as “truth-claims.” But I accept their statements to be facts; 6.) Life Divine (LD). 1972: pg.69; 7.) Ibid. pg.68; 8.) The term “Hinduism” is controversial. It has been deconstructed by social scientists as being a term imposed by orientalists. The term however has wide acceptance in referring to a group of beliefs and practices that originated and are widely practiced in India . The Vedas are generally claimed as the fount of Hinduism though in reality most Hindu practices and beliefs evolved centuries after the Vedic era; 9.) Singhal, D.: India and World Civilization. 1972: pg.xvi;10.) qtd. In India : pg.8; 11.) LD: pg. 372


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