Is fear and awe of God necessary?

Why do we live in fear or awe of God?  Sri Aurobindo says it is our primitive mentality, which creates a deformed conception of God based on our egoistic human standards, that is to blame.  We see God as a magnified Man and seek to influence him by bribing him with animal sacrifice, self-mortification  and more generally, with a crafty trading mentality(e.g. “I will do this if you give me that”).  Religion begins with an adoration of God but due to the crudity of human nature and lack of any practical method for abolishing the ego, ends up as the fear and awe of God.   The path of Yoga by virtue of  various spiritual practices aimed at abolishing the ego does not suffer from the same limitation and hence brings about Divine union.  The following is an excerpt from the Synthesis of Yoga on the rationale behind man’s fear and awe of God.

(Excerpt from the Synthesis of Yoga by Sri Aurobindo)

Faced with the sense of a Power or perhaps a number of Powers greater and higher than himself by whom his life in Nature is overshadowed, influenced, governed, man naturally applies to it or to them the first primitive feelings of the natural being among the difficulties, desires and dangers of that life, — fear and interest. The enormous part played by these motives in the evolution of the religious instinct is undeniable, and in fact, man being what he is, it could hardly have been less; and even when religion has advanced fairly far on its road, we see these motives still surviving, active, playing a sufficiently large part, justified and appealed to by Religion herself in support of her claims on man. The fear of God, it is said, — or, it may be added for the sake of historical truth, the fear of the Gods, — is the beginning of religion, a half-truth upon which scientific research, trying to trace the evolution of religion, ordinarily in a critical and often a hostile rather than in a sympathetic spirit, has laid undue emphasis.  But not the fear of God only, for man does not act, even most primitively, from fear alone, but from twin motives, fear and desire, fear of things unpleasant and maleficent and desire of things pleasant and beneficent, -therefore from fear and interest. Life to him is primarily and engrossingly, — until he learns to live more in his soul and only secondarily in the action and reaction of outward things, — a series of actions and results, things to be desired, pursued and gained by action and things to be dreaded and shunned, yet which may come upon him as a result of action.  And it is not only by his own action but by that also of others and of Nature around him that these things come to him. As soon, then, as he comes to sense a Power behind all this which can influence or determine action and result, he conceives of it as a dispenser of boons and sufferings, able and under certain conditions willing to help him or hurt, save and destroy.

In the most primitive parts of his being he conceives of it as a thing of natural egoistic impulses like himself, beneficent when pleased, maleficent when offended; worship is then a means of propitiation by gifts and a supplication by prayer. He gets God on his side by praying to him and flattering him. With a more advanced mentality, he conceives of the action of life as reposing on a certain principle of divine justice, which he reads always according to his own ideas and character, as a sort of enlarged copy of his human justice; he conceives the idea of moral good and evil and looks upon suffering and calamity and all things unpleasant as a punishment for his sins and upon happiness and good fortune and all things pleasant as a reward of his virtue. God appears to him as a king, judge, legislator, executor of justice. But still regarding him as a sort of magnified Man, he imagines that as his own justice can be deflected by prayers and propitiation, so the divine justice can also be deflected by the same means. Justice is to him reward and punishment, and the justice of punishment can be modified by mercy to the suppliant, while rewards can be supplemented by special favours and kindness such as Power when pleased can always bestow on its adherents arid worshippers. Moreover God like ourselves is capable of wrath and revenge, and wrath and revenge can be turned by gifts and supplication and atonement; he is capable too of partiality, and his partiality can be attracted by gifts, by prayer and by praise. Therefore instead of relying solely on the observation of the moral law, worship as prayer and propitiation is still continued.

Along with these motives there arises another development of personal feeling, first of the awe which one naturally feels for something vast, powerful and incalculable beyond our nature by a certain inscrutability in the springs and extent of its action, and of the veneration and adoration which one feels for that which is higher in its nature or its perfection than ourselves. For, even while preserving largely the idea of a God endowed with the qualities of human nature, there still grows up along with it, mixed up with it or superadded, the conception of an omniscience and omnipotence and a mysterious perfection quite other than our nature. A confused mixture of all these motives, variously developed, often modified, subtilised or glossed over, is what constitutes nine-tenths of popular religion; the other tenth is a suffusion of the rest by the percolation into it of nobler, more beautiful and profounder ideas of the Divine which minds of a greater spirituality have been able to bring into the more primitive religious concepts of mankind. The result is usually crude enough and a ready target for the shafts of scepticism and unbelief, — powers of the human mind which have their utility even for faith and religion, since they compel a religion to purify gradually what is crude or false in its conceptions. But what we have to see is how far in purifying and elevating the religious instinct of worship any of these earlier motives need to survive and enter into the Yoga of devotion which itself starts from worship. That depends on how far they correspond to any truth of the Divine Being and its relations with the human soul; for we seek by Bhakti union with the Divine and true relation with it, with its truth and not with any mirage of our lower nature and of its egoistic impulses and ignorant conceptions.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – II: The Motives of Devotion

19 thoughts on “Is fear and awe of God necessary?

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  2. stumblingmystic

    This is a really interesting post. For a while now, I’ve noticed that in Islamic mysticism (and I suspect Jewish mysticism might have the same problem), even major Islamic mystics like Ibn Arabi seem to think that fearing God is essential. I’ve never quite understood this — even the most basic experience of the psychic Ananda would immediately annul any fears one might have, so I find it hard to understand why a mystic having spiritual experiences would insist on fearing God.

    My sense though is that a lot of the Islamic mystics like Ibn Arabi and Ghazali had a more mental/intellectual and jnana-oriented approach to mysticism, and missed out some of these essential heart-level insights (by contrast Rumi, who is very heart-centered, doesn’t make the same mistakes). What SA says here makes so much sense: that fear of God is an egoism which when purified becomes sweet and ecstatic bhakti.

    Also I have always sensed an overall vital ego/vital immaturity in the Islamic tradition, which might be why fearing God is considered some sort of asset on the spiritual path in Islamic mysticism, rather than being recognized for the obstacle it is.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      I don’t know much about Jewish or Islamic mysticism but it is possible that fear of God was instilled to subjugate the populace to the priestly class.

      Another reason could be that people who turn Godward are generally ethical in nature and seek to impose order in the greater society and the best way to do that is by inculcating the feeling that God is something to be feared.

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    1. amsha

      I’m a slave to her, and fear of her delights me.
      My better half, who stands alone, delights me.
      They ask me, ‘Do you enjoy her loyalty?’
      I don’t know; even so, her cruelty delights me.

      #418, from Rumi’s Kolliyaat-e Shams-e Tabrizi

      But this is of course kind of top bhakti.

      1. Sandeep Post author

        You motivated me to add another poem on the same lines by Rumi!

        I said, ‘Thou art harsh, like such a one.’
        ‘Know,’ he replied,
        ‘That I am harsh for good, not from rancor and spite.
        Whoever enters saying, “This I,” I smite him on the brow;
        For this is the shrine of Love, o fool! it is not a sheep cote!
        Rub thine eyes, and behold the image of the heart.’

      2. ipi

        Disciple: Christian mysticism derives its idea of rejoicing in suffering from intense Bhakti – devotion. Everything is seen to come from the beloved and welcomed.

        Sri Aurobindo: What does not come from God? Even evil and sin come from God. Why not accept them? If God drives you towards your neighbour’s wife why not accept it? They – sin and evil – have their place in the universe to fulfil and in evolution also.
        But that is not the law of the human soul, the soul is not here for suffering. The Gita speaks of the Asuric Tapas and says that people who invite suffering torture the elements in the body and torture “Me”, Krishna, who am seated in the body.
        When you say everything comes from God, you have to accept it with some common sense. It is all right so long as you are in the Vedantic consciousness. Everything comes from God is another way of saying that the Infinite manifests itself in everything. But it is not necessary that the manifestation of the Infinite here should take the forms of suffering and evil.

        (A.B. Purani. Evening Talks With Sri Aurobindo, Second Series, p 202)

      3. Sandeep Post author

        During the early Roman times until about 300 A.D., Christians used to be thrown to lions before the Roman crowds. See Persecution of Christians. That may have motivated the Christians to embrace suffering in the name of Christ.

        Mahatma Gandhi had also been influenced by the Christian ideal of suffering. Sri Aurobindo pointed out why it is wrong.

        Disciple : The Mahatma believes that non-violence purifies the man who practises it.

        Sri Aurobindo : I believe Gandhi does not know what actually happens to the man’s nature when he takes to Satyagraha or non-violence. He thinks that men get purified by it. But when men suffer, or subject themselves to voluntarily suffering, what happens is that their vital being gets strengthened. These movements affect the vital being only and not any other part. Now, when you cannot oppose the force that oppresses, you say that you will suffer. That suffering is vital and it gives strength. When the man who has thus suffered gets power he becomes a worse oppressor. That is what I have written in the Essays on the Gita that when a nation gets freedom by the suffering of its leaders and other men, it oppresses other nations in its turn. It is almost always the case with those who suppress their vital being. It allows the pressure on itself, gets strong and then finds vent in some other direction. The same thing happened to the Puritans in England. Cromwell and his men came to power and became the worst oppressors. In Christianity the principle of non violence is there but it is meant to be practised for religious and spiritual development. It may be partial but it can certainly develop certain types of spiritual temperaments. What one can do is to transform the spirit of violence. But in this practice of Satyagraha it is not transformed. When you insist on such a one-sided principle what happens is that cant, hypocrisy and dishonesty get in and there is no purification at all. Purification can come by the transformation of the impulse of violence, as I said. In that respect the old system in India was much better. The man who had the fighting spirit became the Kshatriya and then the fighting spirit was raised above the ordinary vital influence. The attempt was to spiritualise it. It succeeded in doing what passive resistance cannot and will not achieve. The Kshatriya was the man who would not allow any oppression, who would fight it out and he was the man who would not oppress anybody. That was the ideal.

        (A.B. Purani. Evening Talks With Sri Aurobindo, Second Series, p 58)

  8. mike

    l’ve never understood this ‘fear of God’ nonsense either. Christianity has been full of it too, down through the ages, until Christ came along. But, if you look at the books of moses, and in general the old testament, it’s not surprising that ppl in the Judao-Christian religions are walking in fear and trepidation.
    The catholic church is a big culprit IMO. lf you don’t confess to God’s so-called internediary on earth, your on your way to hell. l think it’s definitely the Priests, through the ages, who have bred this fear into ppl in order to control those they indoctrinate. Just look at what The Mother went through to protect a priest who wanted to leave the church. [agenda].
    Only today, l read [a bit off tangent here] l read that the Chief Exorcist of the Catholic at the vatican said – Yoga is the Work of the Devil because it leads to Hinduism and oriental religions. lol.
    l couldn’t believe what l was reading at first. He also condemned Harry Potter as do a lot of Fundamentalist christians. Here are a few things he says:
    “Fr. Amorth, who is the Vatican exorcist, says “Yoga, Zen, and TM are unacceptable to Christians. Often these apparently innocent practices can bring about hallucinations and schizophrenic conditions.”
    This is what he said in the newspaper today:
    “YOGA has been branded the work of the Devil — by the Vatican’s chief exorcist.

    Father Gabriel Amorth, 85, also warned of Satanic influences in the Harry Potter books.

    The controversial priest, who has carried out more than 70,000 exorcisms in 25 years, declared: “Both seem innocuous but they deal with magic and that leads to evil.”

    Father Amorth said: “Yoga is the Devil’s work. You think you are doing it to stretch your mind and body.

    “But it leads to oriental religions based on the false belief of reincarnation.”

    The priest, whose favourite film is The Exorcist,told a conference in Terni, Italy: “In Harry Potter the Devil uses his powers of magic and evil.”

    The Italian Yoga Association called his claims “outrageous, adding: “Yoga is not a religion but a spiritual discipline.”
    His favourite film is ‘The Exorcist’ – enough said, l think. Just the usual Catholic claptrap.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      > Often these apparently innocent practices can bring about hallucinations
      > and schizophrenic conditions

      There are millions of people around the world who would testify otherwise. Brain imaging studies have also proven the benefits.

      > “But it leads to oriental religions based on the false belief of reincarnation.”

      We have proof of reincarnation thanks to the work of Dr Ian Stevenson and his colleagues, which has been covered in a couple of posts.
      Birthmarks due to reincarnation
      Cases of reincarnation across religions

      Swami Vivekananda expatiated on the possible reason behind the fear-of-God complex in one of his talks. Here it is :

      Swamiji went on to say that in three ways man perceives God. At first the undeveloped intellect of the uneducated man sees God as far away, up in the heavens somewhere, sitting on a throne as a great judge. As man advanced spiritually, he began to feel that God was omnipresent, that He must be in him, that He must be everywhere, that He was not a distant God, but clearly the Soul of all souls. Then a few individuals who had developed enough and were pure enough, went still further, and found that they and the Father were one. Swamiji said that humanity travelled not from error to truth but from truth to truth – it may be from lower truth to higher truth. He went on to say, ” Suppose you start from here and travel towards the sun in a straight line. From here the sun looks only small in size. Suppose you go forward a million miles, the Sun will be much bigger. At every stage the sun will become biggest and bigger. Suppose twenty thousand photographs had been taken of the same sun, from different standpoints : these twenty thousand photographs will certainly differ from one another. But can you deny that each is a photograph of the same sun? So all forms of religion, high or low, are just different stages toward that eternal state of Light, which is God Himself. Some embody a lower view, some a higher and that is all the difference.” Therefore, said he, the religion of the unthinking masses must be and has always been of an extra-cosmic God who lives in heaven and from there punishes the wicked and rewards the good and so on. As man advances spiritually, he reaches a higher stage at which he feels that God is everywhere. As he advances still further, he at last finds God, and realizes that, as stated in the New Testament, ” Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” He finds that he and the Father are one (tattvamasi, so’ham).

      These three stages, said Swamiji, were taught by the Great Teacher in the New Testament. “Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name” and so on – is the Common Prayer for the uneducated masses. To a higher circle, Jesus said, “I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.” And then, when the Jews asked him who he was, he declared that he and his Father were one. “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” Where goest thou to seek for the Kingdom of God? asks Jesus of Nazareth, when it is there, within you

      (S.N.Dhar, Comprehensive biography of Vivekananda, vol. 2, p 1222)

  9. amsha

    All is relative, religion is perhaps a step forward from some inferior poise of consciousness.
    And not every follower of Christ or Sri Krishna does what is dear to God. No use of explaining
    crocodiles benefits of vegetarian diet.

  10. Sandeep Post author

    The 16th century poet-saint Tulsidas had said : “Jaaki rahi bhavna jaisi, Prabhu moorat tin dekhi taisi” (The temperament and emotional bent of the devotee determines the attributes he/she gives to his/her chosen god)

    (from an article by Madhu Kishwar)

  11. mike

    l thought this was amusing. l’m not sure about the ISHA organisation (l think it’s been mentioned on here). A man called Sadguru runs it and here he is talking about God.


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