Someone asked the question in a comment on this blog, “If one is automatically going to obtain knowledge by following the spiritual path, why should we read books and create stress in the body? Why bother? Why not just sleep well and be relaxed?” People in spiritual communities sometimes tend to deprecate the intellect (and consequently, intellectuals) because the scriptures state that the intellect is a creator of illusions and has to be transcended in order to experience the Spirit which pervades the universe. The question raised above calls for a nuanced understanding of the felicitous role played by the intellect in the often-misunderstood “spiritual path”.
The basis for such questions springs from ancient Indian scriptures, which made a distinction between Para and Apara Vidya (Higher and Lower knowledge), and always stressed the importance of the former. In the Mundaka Upanishad, Angiras elucidates on the importance of transcendental knowledge, through which phenomenal knowledge of worldly affairs can be subsequently obtained. In the Chandogya Upanishad, Uddalaka asks his son Svetaketu if he has learnt the knowledge by which we “hear the unhearable, grasp the imperceptible, and know the unknowable”. (The relevant Sanskrit verse is : “yenAshrutam shrutam bhavti, amatam matam, avijnAtam vijnAtam iti; kathaM nu, bhagavaH, sa Adesho bhavatIti” – Chandogya 6.1.3)
In the face of verses like these, why bother to absorb ultimately useless trivia when the spiritual knowledge which is assuredly superior will eventually supersede it? Why bother to burden the intellect with unnecessary facts ? Why burn the midnight oil and create stress in the body?
The initial retort to this question would be that spiritual enlightenment is not always assured and therefore in the intermediate period, phenomenal knowledge is necessary to function in worldly affairs. Beyond such perfunctory arguments, there are indeed a few valid “spiritual” reasons to develop the intellect.
For people who are emotionally volatile, intellectual development is a sine qua non because even to understand so-called “spiritual concepts”, one must be first be able to disentangle and subdue the emotional effervescences which inevitably sway the clarity of the mind. One must first be able to reason correctly before one is willing to transcend reason. The Yogin must be able to command the dispassionate detachment of a scientist in order to separate the hallucinations from spiritual experiences.
Training the intellect also fortifies the will to overcome failure, frustration and depression. Just as physical culture is required until the body attains a new normal beyond which physical stress becomes imperceptible, similarly mental culture is required in order to reach a new mental normal after which one can fluidly play with mental concepts. It is only after working hard to overcome one’s defects that one experiences the true effortless relaxation, which is quite opposite from the conventional form of “do nothing” inertial relaxation.
Lastly, intellectual development can stimulate the awakening of intuition, and this is something often observed in the lives of scientists. One has to belabor over a problem and understand all its intricacies and patterns before one gets that glimpse of gleaming insight which reveals the eventual solution. For more on these aspects, see two previous posts: How to develop intuition and Study of science as an aid in Yoga.
In this context, an aphorism of Sri Aurobindo is particularly relevant. He wrote, “When I read a wearisome book through and with pleasure, yet perceived all the perfection of its wearisomeness, then I knew that my mind was conquered.” A young student at the Ashram school was perplexed by this remark and asked the Mother Mirra Alfassa.
Student: How is it possible to read a wearisome book with pleasure ?
Mother: It is possible when the pleasure does not depend upon what you do or what happens to you, when the pleasure is the spontaneous external expression of the unchanging joy which one carries within oneself with the Divine Presence; it is then a constant state of consciousness in all activities and in all circumstances. And as among wearisome things, one of the most wearisome is a wearisome book, Sri Aurobindo gives this as an example of an irrefutable proof of the conquest and transformation of the mind. 
As part of the spiritual path, one must first strengthen the mind by endeavoring to read and understand mental concepts which one cannot immediately grasp. Once the mind has been thus fortified, the intellectual effort can be scaled back, because as Sri Aurobindo pointed out, “the active mind in people with a very intellectual turn can be an obstacle to the deeper more silent spiritual movement.” . In letters to disciples, he explicated:
Its [the intellect’s] function is to reason from the perceptions of the mind and senses, to form conclusions and to put things in logical relation with each other. A well-trained intellect is a good preparation of the mind for greater knowledge, but it cannot itself give the yogic knowledge or know the Divine – it can only have ideas about the Divine, but having ideas is not knowledge. In the course of the sadhana(spiritual practice) intellect has to be transformed into the higher mind which is itself a passage towards the true knowledge. 
What you have said is perfectly right. To see the Truth does not depend on a big intellect or a small intellect. It depends on being in contact with the Truth and the mind silent and quiet to receive it. The biggest intellects can make errors of the worst kind and confuse Truth and Falsehood, if they have not the contact with the Truth or the direct experience. 
The working of Reason limned in Savitri
An inconclusive play is Reason’s toil.
Each strong idea can use her as its tool;
Accepting every brief she pleads her case.
Open to every thought, she cannot know.
The eternal Advocate seated as judge
Armours in logic’s invulnerable mail
A thousand combatants for Truth’s veiled throne
And sets on a high horse-back of argument
To tilt for ever with a wordy lance
In a mock tournament where none can win.
Assaying thought’s values with her rigid tests
Balanced she sits on wide and empty air,
Aloof and pure in her impartial poise.
Absolute her judgments seem but none is sure;
Time cancels all her verdicts in appeal.
(Sri Aurobindo. Savitri, Book II, Canto X)
- Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 10, p 69.
- Sri Aurobindo. Letters on Yoga SABCL vol. 24, pp 1243-1247.
- How to develop intuition.
- Study of science as an aid in Yoga.
- Effort is the helper, Effort is the bar.
- Four Powers of Intuition
- Why read Sri Aurobindo’s books?
- How to read holy books?
- How does the mind change with Yoga?
- All thoughts come from outside
- Art as an aid in Yoga
- Vedic Vak: illustration of Para Vak
- Vedic Vak: four levels of sound