The role of intellectual development in the spiritual path

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. [1]

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.” [2].   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. [2]

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. [2]

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)


  1. Mother.  Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 10, p 69.
  2. Sri Aurobindo.  Letters on Yoga SABCL vol. 24, pp 1243-1247.

See also

  1. How to develop intuition.
  2. Study of science as an aid in Yoga.
  3. Effort is the helper, Effort is the bar.
  4. Four Powers of Intuition
  5. Why read Sri Aurobindo’s books?
  6. How to read holy books?
  7. How does the mind change with Yoga?
  8. All thoughts come from outside
  9. Art as an aid in Yoga
  10. Vedic Vak: illustration of Para Vak
  11. Vedic Vak: four levels of sound



17 thoughts on “The role of intellectual development in the spiritual path

  1. ipsa

    Nirodbaran: I can quite understand that the inner knowledge comes with the growth and heightening of consciousness. But what about the outer knowledge – what we ordinarily call knowledge?

    Sri Aurobindo: The capacity for it can come with the inner knowledge, E.g. I understood nothing about painting before I did Yoga. A moment’s illumination in Alipore jail opened my vision and since then I have understood with the intuitive perception and vision. I do not know the technique, of course, but I can catch it at once if anybody with knowledge speaks of it. That would have been impossible to me before.

    Nirodbaran: Suppose you had not studied English literature: would it be still possible for you to say something about it by Yogic experience?

    Sri Aurobindo: Only by cultivating a special siddhi, which would be much too bothersome to go after. But I suppose if I had got the Yogic knowledge (in your hypothetical case) it would be quite easy to add the outer one.

    Nirodbaran: I hope you won’t say like Ramakrishna that these things – outer knowledge, beauty of expression, thought-power, etc., don’t matter since they don’t lead us to the Divine. But you have said we are children of an intellectual age. Should we not follow in the footsteps of the Master?

    Sri Aurobindo: Essentially Ramakrishna was right. The literature etc. belongs to the instrumentation of the Divine Life – It is of importance only if one accepts that aim and even so, not of importance to everybody. It is not necessary for instance for everybody to have a mastery of English literature or to be a poet or a scientist or acquainted with all science (an encyclopaedia in knowledge). What is more important is to have an instrument of knowledge that will apply itself accurately, calmly, perfectly to all that it has to handle.

    (Nirodbaran, Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo)

  2. Sandeep Post author

    Two Kinds of Intelligence by Rumi

    There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
    as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
    from books and from what the teacher says,
    collecting information from the traditional sciences
    as well as from the new sciences.

    With such intelligence you rise in the world.
    You get ranked ahead or behind others
    in regard to your competence in retaining
    information. You stroll with this intelligence
    in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
    marks on your preserving tablets.

    There is another kind of tablet, one
    already completed and preserved inside you.
    A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
    in the center of the chest. This other intelligence
    does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,
    and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
    through conduits of plumbing-learning.

    This second knowing is a fountainhead
    from within you, moving out.

    From Essential Rumi By Coleman Barks

    See :

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  4. ipi

    Swami Vivekananda on the role of the intellect:

    It is not at all necessary to be educated or learned to get to God. A sage once told me. “To kill others one must be equipped with swords and shields, but to commit suicide a needle is sufficient;so to teach others, much intellect and learning are necessary,but not so for your own self-illumination.”

    Are you pure? If you are pure, you will reach God.”Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” If you are not pure, and you know all the sciences in the world, that will not help you at all;you may be buried in all the books you read, but that will not be of much use. It is the heart that reaches the goal. Follow the heart. A pure heart sees beyond the intellect; it gets inspired;it knows things that reason can never know,and whenever there is conflict between the pure heart and the intellect,always side with the pure heart, even if you think what your heart is doing is unreasonable. When it is desirous of doing good to others, your brain may tell you that it is not politic to do so, but follow your heart, and you will find that you make less mistakes than by following your intellect. The pure heart is the best mirror for the reflection of truth,so all these disciplines are for the purification of the heart.And so soon as it is pure, all truths flash upon it in a minute;all truth in the universe will manifest in your heart, if you are sufficiently pure.

    Intellect has been cultured with the result that hundreds of sciences have been discovered,and their effect has been that the few have made slaves of the many – that is all the good that has been done. Artificial wants have been created; and every poor man, whether he has money or not,desires to have those wants satisfied, and when he cannot, he struggles, and dies in the struggle. This is the result. Through the intellect is not the way to solve the problem of misery, but through the heart. If all this vast amount of effort had been spent in making men purer, gentler, more forbearing, this world would have a thousandfold more happiness than it has today. Always cultivate the heart; through the heart the Lord speaks, and through the intellect you yourself speak.

    (Swami Vivekananda. Sadhanas OR Preparation for Higher Life, P.24 )

    1. Sandeep Post author

      A sage once told me, “To kill others one must be equipped with swords and shields, but to commit suicide a needle is sufficient;so to teach others, much intellect and learning are necessary,but not so for your own self-illumination.”

      The quote above is by Sri Ramakrishna. He advised Swami Vivekananda to cultivate his knowledge, as the following passage suggests:

      Frequently Sri Ramakrishna said, “I have other disciples far away, who speak a language I do not understand.” Some time before the incident above narrated happened, the Master had told Narendra, “My siddhis (Yoga powers) will be manifested through you in time “, meaning thereby that Narendra in his later years as teacher would miraculously turn many worldly-minded people to the spiritual life. It may be remembered in this connection that the Master had always encouraged him to increase his store of knowledge, both of para and apara vidya (spiritual as well as lay knowledge) as much as possible. He used frequently to tell him, “To kill oneself a nail-cutter is enough, but to kill others spears and swords are wanted “.

      (S.N.Dhar. A comprehensive biography of Swami Vivekananda, Madras: Vivekananda Prakashan Kendra:1975 , vol. 2, p 195)

  5. Sandeep Post author

    The Mother on the difference between the two paths – intellect and heart:

    PURE and disinterested love, Thy love in what we are able to perceive and manifest of it, is the sole key that can open all hearts that seek for Thee. Those who follow the path of the intellect may have a very high and true conception; they may have all the information about the true life, the life One with Thee, but they do not know it; they have no inner experience of that life and are ignorant of all contact with Thee. These men whose knowledge is intellectual and whose action is confined to a construction which they believe to be the best, are the most difficult of all to convert; it is harder to awaken the consciousness of the Divine in them than in any other person of goodwill. Love alone can work this miracle, for love opens all doors, penetrates every wall, clears every obstacle. And a little true love does more than the most beautiful speeches.

    Prayers and Meditations, December 16, 1913
    (Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 1, p 40)

  6. Sandeep Post author

    Question: If, finally, progress consists in unlearning all that one has learned, what is the use of learning?

    Mother: But it is as with gymnastics. You make all kinds of movements to form your body and make it strong, but that does not mean that you are going to spend all your life lifting weights and exercising on parallel bars ! You may continue to do that as a pastime, as a profession, but surely it is not the supreme goal. For the mind it is the same thing. To have a mind capable of progressing, of adapting itself to a new life, of opening itself to higher forces, it must be put through all kinds of gymnastics. That is why children are sent to school, it is not in order that they may remember all that they learn – who remembers what he has learnt ? When they are obliged to teach others, later on, they have to relearn it all, they have forgotten everything. It comes back quickly, but they have forgotten it. But if they had never gone to school, if they had never learned and had to begin everything… well, when you begin to do parallel bars at forty-five, it hurts, doesn’t it ? It is the same thing for the brain, it lacks plasticity. Do you know what the best gymnastics is ? It is to have a daily conversation with a metaphysician because there is nothing concrete there, you cannot concentrate on something that has a form, an objective reality; indeed, everything is carried on exclusively with words in a field of abstraction, it is purely mental gymnastics. And if you can enter into the mental formation of a metaphysician and are able to understand and answer him, it is perfect gymnastics !

    Question from (A mathematician disciple:) The same thing applies to mathematicians, I suppose?

    Mother: Yes.

    (Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 4, p 203)

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  13. mwb6119

    Quote from “The Study of Science as an Aide to Yoga”:

    “On the other hand, I have seen comparatively uneducated people expressing higher (spiritual) knowledge with an astonishing fullness and depth and accuracy which the stumbling movements of their brain could never have allowed one to suppose possible. [5]”

    Quote from The Mother:

    “There are people in whom the psychic movement, the emotional impulse is stronger than intellectual understanding. They feel an irresistible attraction for the Divine without knowing, without having the slightest idea of what it is, of what it can be, what it represents – nothing, no intellectual notion – but a kind of impulse, attraction, a need, an inevitable need.
    And these people who have that, if, I may say as a result of the Grace, they have a mind which does not trouble them, does not question, does not discuss, go very fast.
    And then, what is quite miraculous according to ordinary ideas is that as soon as they reach that degree of consecration which identifies them through their psychic being with the Divine Presence, suddenly they become endowed with capacities of expression absolutely unknown to their nature.. . .
    There are others who understand first, who are very intellectual, have studied, can play with words and ideas, who will give you brilliant lectures on all the philosophies, all the religions, all human conceptions and who, perhaps, will take years to advance one step. Because all that goes on in the head.
    Many things go on in the head. . . .the head is like a public square. Anything at all can enter there, come, cross over, go out, and create a lot of disorder. And people who are in the habit of playing with ideas are the ones most hampered from going farther. It is a game that’s pretty, attractive; it gives you the impression that you are not altogether ordinary, at the level of ordinary life, but it cuts the wings.
    It’s not the head which has wings: it’s the heart.” – The Mother [CWMCE, 7:399-401]

    This is an interesting comparison. How does this change occur for those who are intellectually challenged?

  14. Sandeep Post author

    Mark : This is an interesting comparison. How does this change occur for those who are intellectually challenged?

    You reach a plane of consciousness where you start “seeing” images even though you may not (mathematically) understand why it works.

    If you drop down to the ordinary plane of consciousness and forget the images you saw, the knowledge you displayed may disappear, because the intermediate intellectual rung has not been developed.


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