Enlightened Masters such as Sri Aurobindo who have reached a high level of consciousness are able to state Truths with great clarity by virtue of the illumination they have attained. Every statement becomes a revelation and every paragraph an epiphany. Those who aspire for spiritual progress have to desist from reading books which lower the consciousness precisely because words have power. This is a collection of passages by the Mother of the Aurobindo Ashram, Mirra Alfassa, on the effect of reading ordinary books versus reading Sri Aurobindo’s books. At the end of this post, I have appended an Amazon review by someone who initially found it difficult to read Sri Aurobindo.
Reading ordinary books hinders the spiritual seeker
Question: “In the initial stages of Yoga, is it well for the Sadhaka (practitioner) to read ordinary books?”
It is a question I have been asked many times. If someone can tell me the effect on him of the reading of ordinary books, it will interest me very much.
Ordinary books tire me.
It is a good sign.
They give rest to the mind and have no effect on me.
No! The subconscient records everything, and if you have the impression that an ordinary book leaves no effect, it means that you are not conscious of what goes on within you. Each time you read a book in which the consciousness is very low, it strengthens your subconscient and inconscient – it prevents your consciousness from rising upward. It is as if you threw buckets of dirty water on the efforts you had made to purify your subconscient.
General advice on concentration and the reading of books
How to increase concentration (single-mindedness) and will-force they are so necessary for doing anything.
Through regular, persevering, obstinate, unflagging exercise I mean exercise of concentration and will.
The Mother, On Education: Answers to a Monitor
Are mental indifference and lack of curiosity a sort of mental inertia?
Usually they are due to mental inertia, unless one has obtained calm and indifference through a very intense sadhana resulting in a perfect equality for which the good and bad, the pleasant and unpleasant no longer exist. But in that case, mental activity is replaced by an intuitive activity of a much higher kind.
The Mother, On Education: Answers to a Monitor
How can one get out of this mental laziness and inertia?
By wanting to, with persistence and obstinacy. By doing daily a mental exercise of reading, organisation and development.
This must alternate in the course of the day with exercises of mental silence in concentration.
The Mother, On Education: Answers to a Monitor
Sweet Mother, I have too much “grey” matter in my head, which prevents me from thinking clearly and grasping new ideas quickly. How can I free myself from this?
By studying much, by reflecting much, by doing intellectual exercises. For instance, state a general idea clearly, then state the opposite idea, then look for the synthesis of both that is, find a third idea which harmonises the other two.
The Mother, On Education: Answers to a Monitor
What is the use of discussions? What is the best way to make other people understand what one feels to be true?¹
In general, those who like to discuss things are those who need the stimulant of contradiction to clarify their ideas.
It is obviously the sign of an elementary intellectual stage.
But if you can attend a discussion as an impartial spectator – even while you are taking part in it and while the other person is talking with you – you can always benefit from this opportunity to consider a question or a problem from several points of view; and by attempting to reconcile opposite views, you can widen your ideas and rise to a more comprehensive synthesis.
As for the best way of proving to others what one feels to be true, one must live it – there is no other way.
How is it that we lose a chance to widen our knowledge by prevailing in a debate?
A debate is never anything but a conflict of opinions; and opinions are nothing but very fragmentary aspects of the truth. Even if you were able to put together and synthesise all opinions on a given subject, you still would not achieve anything but a very imperfect expression of the truth.
If you prevail in a debate, it means that your opinion has prevailed over the opinion of another, not necessarily because yours was truer than his, but because you were better at wielding the arguments or because you were a more stubborn debater. And you come out of the discussion convinced that you are right in what you assert; and so you lose a chance to see a view of the question other than your own and to add an aspect of the truth to the one or the ones you already possess. You remain imprisoned in your own thought and refuse to widen it.
The Mother, On Thoughts and Aphorisms: Aphorism – 56
Why read Sri Aurobindo’s books
Sweet Mother, how should one read your books and the books of Sri Aurobindo so that they might enter into our consciousness instead of being understood only by the mind?
To read my books is not difficult because they are written in the simplest language, almost the spoken language. To draw profit from them, it is enough to read with attention and concentration and an attitude of inner goodwill with the desire to receive and to live what is taught.
To read what Sri Aurobindo writes is more difficult because the expression is highly intellectual and the language is much more literary and philosophic. The brain needs a preparation to be able truly to understand and generally a preparation takes time, unless one is specially gifted with an innate intuitive faculty.
In any case, I advise always to read a little at a time, keeping the mind as tranquil as one can, without making an effort to understand, but keeping the head as silent as possible, and letting the force contained in what one reads enter deep within. This force received in the calm and the silence will do its work of light and, if needed, will create in the brain the necessary cells for the understanding. Thus, when one re-reads the same thing some months later, one perceives that the thought expressed has become much more clear and close, and even sometimes altogether familiar.
It is preferable to read regularly, a little every day, and at a fixed hour if possible; this facilitates the brain-receptivity.
Sweet Mother, with what attitude should I read Sri Aurobindo’s books when they are difficult and when I do not understand? Savitri, The Life Divine, for example.
Read a little at a time, read again and again until you have understood.
How to read Sri Aurobindo’s works
In fact, you should do a little preparatory work and note down the new idea in each new paragraph, adding it to the preceding ideas so that at the end of the chapter you have the complete picture; for if you ask me a question now about what I have just read, this question may require an answer that is sometimes almost contradictory to what we have seen in the previous paragraph. That comes from his way of going about the proof. It is as though Sri Aurobindo were putting himself at the centre of a kind of sphere, at the centre of a wheel the spokes of which end in a circumference. And he always goes back to his starting-point and goes all the way out to the surface, and so on, which gives the impression that he repeats the same thing several times, but it is simply the exposition of the thought so that one can follow it. One must have a very clear memory for ideas to really understand what he says.
I am emphasising this because, unless you proceed systematically, you won’t derive much benefit from this reading; it will appear to you like a maze where it is very difficult to find one’s way.…All the ideas are joined at the centre, and at the circumference they go in altogether different directions.
Have you any questions this time?…No.
It is difficult, isn’t it? I read and I see quite well that it is difficult to ask a question, for until one has come to the end of the proof, one doesn’t know what he is leading up to or what he wants to teach; and at the same time, if one were to read the whole exposition, it would be impossible – unless one has a specially faithful memory – to recall all the points. Before reaching the end one would have forgotten what is written at the beginning! It would be rather interesting to take notes, brief notes, to try to summarise each paragraph in one or two key-ideas so as to be able to compare them.
What I call ‘studying‘ is to take Sri Aurobindo’s books, where he quotes or speaks of one thing or another, then have the corresponding books – when he quotes something, you must take the book it corresponds to; when he speaks of something, you must study the writings on that subject. This is what I call ‘studying.’ Then, after having read the corresponding works, you compare them with what Sri Aurobindo has said, and in this way there may be a beginning of understanding. If someone is very studious, he can ‘review’ all that has ever been written or taught by going through Sri Aurobindo’s books. I mean this for someone who loves working.
The Mother, Mother’s Agenda: August 10, 1960
To be able to offer my mind to Sri Aurobindo in all sincerity, is it not very necessary to develop a great power of concentration? Will you tell me by what method I could cultivate this precious faculty?
Fix a time when you can be quiet every day.
Take one of Sri Aurobindo’s books. Read a sentence or two. Then remain silent and concentrated to understand the deeper meaning. Try to concentrate deeply enough to obtain mental silence and begin again daily until you obtain a result.
Naturally you should not fall asleep.
What is the true method for studying Sri Aurobindo’s works?
The true method is to read a little at a time, with concentration, keeping the mind as silent as possible, without actively trying to understand, but turned upwards, in silence, and aspiring for the light. Understanding will come little by little.
And later, in one or two years, you will read the same thing again and then you will know that the first contact had been vague and incomplete, and that true understanding comes later, after having tried to put it into practice.
Nolini Kanta Gupta (a disciple) on how to read Sri Aurobindo’s books
Once I told you, I think, how to study or approach Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in order to read them or understand their writings. There are two things: studying and reading; I made a distinction between the two. To study Sri Aurobindo is ― I won’t say fruitless, that is too strong a word, but it can only be an aid or a supplementary way. Study means: you take the text, you understand mentally each word and phrase; if you don’t understand, you take a dictionary and try to catch the external meaning expressed by the words. That may be necessary but it is not the way to approach their works.
Simply to read them in the right way is sufficient. Read, it does not matter what you understand and what you do not, simply read and wait in an expectant silence. In studying you approach them with your external mind, your external intelligence. But what is there in the text is beyond your mind, beyond your intelligence. And to understand mentally means you drive your intellect forward into the thing. It is an effort and takes you only to the outside of the thing. It is an exercise of your brain, developed in that way, but it doesn’t take you very far.
Instead of that, suppose you could keep quiet, silence your mind, and only read, without unduly trying to understand, and wait for what is there in the text to enter into you. Instead of your intelligence driving forward, pushing forward and trying to catch the thing, let the thing come into you; for what is there in their writings is not words and phrases, dead material, it is something very living, something conscious, that they have expressed in the words, phrases and the sound and rhythm. And I may tell you that each sentence anywhere, not to speak of Savitri, is a living being with whom you have to make acquaintance ― not that you understand or are able to explain, but it is a living being, an entity, a friend, even a Lover whom you have to know. And your attempt in that way will be rewarded. You will enjoy much more. You may ask: “Just because I open a book and read, how can what are in the lines come to me?” But I say they are living entities ― if you approach in the right spirit, they come into you. The consciousness, the being in each line comes to you. And you find how beautiful it is. This is an approach of love, not of the intellect to understand and explain. Take for example, the very first verse of Savitri:
It was the hour before the Gods awake.
It is a Mantra, a living person, how beautiful it is, you needn’t understand much ― and a whole world is there.
Or, take the opening sentence of The Life Divine ― the rolling cadence of the vast ocean is there. It brings you a sense of vastness, a sense of Infinity and takes you there. And, as I said, it is a very living entity and personality.
Here is the whole passage:
The earliest preoccupation of man in his awakened thoughts and, as it seems, his inevitable and ultimate preoccupation, ― for it survives the longest periods of scepticism and returns after every banishment, ― is also the highest which his thought can envisage: It manifests itself in the divination of Godhead, the impulse towards perfection, the search after pure Truth and unmixed Bliss, the sense of a secret immortality. The ancient dawns of human knowledge have left us their witness to this constant aspiration; today we see a humanity satiated but not satisfied by victorious analysis of the externalities of Nature preparing to return to its primeval longings. The earliest formula of Wisdom promises to be its last, ― God, Light, Freedom, Immortality.¹
Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine – I: The Human Aspiration
There is indeed a personality behind it and you have to make acquaintance with that personality. That is what I meant when I said: become it, by an approach through love, an approach through your soul. Even in studies you shouldn’t approach with the mere intellect, mere mental understanding; however fine an understanding or intellect you may have, it won’t lead you very far. Only through your soul you can go far. Even intellectual things can be approached through your soul ― because the soul is the very essence of all your faculties and being. The soul is not mere consciousness, mere being, it gathers in all the elements of your personality. The seeds of your mind, your vital, even of the physical personality, the true physical personality, are there in your soul, and you can establish a true relation with things and persons through that part of your being ― your soul. And remember the soul is not very far from you because you are that-rather your mind, your vital, your physical are away from you; they are not your true personality. It is your soul that is nearest to you.
[Nolini Kanta Gupta, Volume 5, Eight Talks, To Read Sri Aurobindo]
Excerpt from an Amazon review
Initially, some people find Sri Aurobindo’s writing repetitious and his arguments tedious to follow. It requires some spiritual opening to enter into the spirit behind the words. This is an excerpt from an Amazon review of A.S. Dalal’s anthology “A Greater Psychology : an introduction to the psychological thought of Sri Aurobindo” which illustrates how the reading ability changes.
Several weeks ago, I bought “A Greater Psychology”. Upon settling into the sofa for a good, long read, I felt that I was looking at an opaque mirror. The sentences flowed on and on endlessly, but I could not comprehend any meaning. I put aside the book, thinking at it was surely pure gobble-de-gook. However, I was nevertheless chomping at the bit to learn about Eastern thought, beyond Buddhism.
I picked up an amazing book by Dhruv S. Kaji, “Common Sense About Uncommon Wisdom: Ancient Teachings of Vedanta”. Kaji’s book seemed to start a little slow, but quite soon I became enthralled, as if I was approaching the last chapters of a great mystery novel. I had never heard of nondualism, and the unfolding concept answered some profound question I had never thought to ask.
Thereafter, I immersed myself in other Vedanta readings and similar material — Easwaran’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads; Torwesten’s “Vedanta: Heart of Hinduism”; “The Spiritual Teaching of Ramana Maharshi”; Wilber’s “No Boundary”; Zimmer’s “Philosophies of India”.
So, last week, I pulled “A Greater Psychology” from my bookshelf, and started afresh. To my amazement, Aurobindo’s writing metamorphosed from opacity and pompous wordiness to subtle, sublime profundity. Never have I encountered such an insightful description of the human condition — a supremely lucid and all-encompassing treatise shedding light on every layer of consciousness from our lower animal selves to highest reaches of spiritual realization. As each new jeweled concept flowed from the book, I found myself nodding over and over, “Yes, that rings true in my experience” or “Yes, that idea fits seamlessly with my own understanding of what it means to be human”.
I have often complained that someone took the “psyche” out of psychology. Our worship of the scientific method has tended to restrict our burgeoning knowledge to what is observable and what is measurable, even despite Einstein’s legacy. So psychologists get steeped in statistics and experimental design, virtually ignoring the unseen motivations, emotions, passions, and cravings of the human — and spiritual aspect of healthy psychological development is simply a taboo topic. Except for those trudging after Freud’s tradition, even the unconscious is unmentionable.
To have available Aurobindo’s comprehensive, experiential psychospiritual teachings is priceless. It puts conventional Western psychology to shame. The book will not be easy reading, even for those with a background in psychology and a strong familiarity with Vedanta and Eastern philosophy. But if you have the backbone for a fearless and arduous education in the human condition, all-inclusive, with guideposts to your own place in the cosmos, then I could not recommend this book more highly.