On Atheism and Agnosticism

A blog reader asked in a comment what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother thought of atheism and agnosticism.  Since I couldn’t find a pithy conspectus by them on the topic, here is a synopsis based on whatever I have absorbed from their writings.  It is followed by a passage from Sri Aurobindo’s work on social philosophy, The Human Cycle.

At the outset, it is imperative to admit that there is no objective proof for the existence of anything supernatural or Divine.  Vivid dreams, out-of-body experiences, past-life memories, spiritual visions can all be dismissed as hallucinations created by the brain.  The sheer variety and intelligence of life seen on earth can be explained by Darwin’s theory, genes and other biological discoveries and theories. The benefits of pranayama can be easily attributed to hyperventilation.  The Chakras supposed to exist in the subtle body cannot be isolated with scientific instruments.  Mystical experiences can be superficially equated with mental disorders.  Finally, anything which sounds remotely like a miracle can be ascribed to a chance occurence.  Spirituality, then, is a largely subjective pursuit.

Since one cannot offer any repetitive and objective proof of a Divine other-worldly consciousness, there will always remain a category of people called atheists who will fiercely deny all supernatural claims.  The very personality of the atheist is so constructed that it veils any inadvertent glimpse of the soul within.  If you prematurely attempt to convert such people to the spiritual path, they will quickly become disillusioned and turn into your harshest critics.

If we take a panoramic view of life, we will observe that people are in distinctive stages of development, born with specific gifts and unique temperaments which orients them towards business, sports, science, arts, politics and other professions. Some of us have to be criminals as well in order to manifest every potentiality and balance everything out. These differences arise because of the way we have evolved through our past rebirths. There are natural limits circumscribed by Karma which determine how much a person can progress in a given lifetime.  When people without proper mental and emotional balance prematurely turn to the Divine, they tend to misinterpret spiritual verities, ask spurious questions, become overly emotional or volatile and create havoc for themselves and others.

Considering all these facts, we can see that atheism is an essential stage in human development.  Atheists play a useful role in countering the spread of religious superstition.  In ancient India, there existed atheists called Charvakas and their modern-day counterparts are groups like Nirmukta which play a valuable social role in debunking phony miracles perpetuated by charlatans. In the West, there is a similar tradition which centuries ago overturned the tyrannies of the Church and is today continued by stalwarts like Richard Dawkins.  Even in the atheist, “spiritual” qualities such as self-reflection, selfless love and psychological resilience are developing without any overt dependence or reference to the Divine.  As an Indian atheist Javed Akhtar eloquently stated, the activities which are denoted “spiritual” can be just as easily called humanism, civic responsibility, environmental consciousness, self-assessment and physical perfection [1].

In the light of the above discussion, we can see that the Divine, by refusing to provide an objective proof of its existence, has wisely and deliberately concealed itself so as to allow people to grow at their own pace.  Individuals naturally open up to the spiritual light when they have exhausted all other options the world has to offer them.  As Rabindranath Tagore once said, “The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost one.

Image by AlphaBetaUnlimited. Flickr Creative Commons. Click image for source

These are aphorisms by Sri Aurobindo on atheism:

  1. Atheism is a necessary protest against the wickedness of  the Churches and the narrowness of creeds. God uses it as a stone to smash these soiled card-houses.
  2. The Atheist is God playing at hide & seek with Himself; but is the Theist any other? Well, perhaps; for he has seen the shadow of God and clutched at it.
  3. There are two for whom there is hope, the man who has felt God’s touch & been drawn to it and the sceptical seeker & self-convinced atheist; but for the formularists of all the religions & the parrots of free thought, they are dead souls who follow a death that they call living.
  4. Dost thou hate the atheist because he does love not God? Then shouldst thou be disliked because thou dost not love God perfectly.
  5. Atheism is the shadow or dark side of the highest perception of God. Every formula we frame about God, though always true as a symbol, becomes false when we accept it as a sufficient formula. The Atheist & Agnostic come to remind us of our error [2].

Sri Aurobindo’s social philosophy can be read in his work The Human Cycle.  In this book, he expounds on the role that ethics, art, culture, reason, individualism and religion play in the convoluted evolution of society.  The following passage which traces the forward development of society even when it rejects any overt display of spirituality is taken from the chapter entitled “The Spiritual Aim of Life”:

The spiritual aim will recognise that man as he grows in his being must have as much free space as possible for all its members to grow in their own strength, to find out themselves and their potentialities. In their freedom they will err, because experience comes through many errors, but each has in itself a divine principle and they will find it out, disengage its presence, significance and law as their experience of themselves deepens and increases. Thus true spirituality will not lay a yoke upon science and philosophy or compel them to square their conclusions with any statement of dogmatic religious or even of assured spiritual truth, as some of the old religions attempted, vainly, ignorantly, with an unspiritual obstinacy and arrogance. Each part of man’s being has its own dharma which it must follow and will follow in the end, put on it what fetters you please. The dharma of science, thought and philosophy is to seek for truth by the intellect dispassionately, without prepossession and prejudgment, with no other first propositions than the law of thought and observation itself imposes. Science and philosophy are not bound to square their observations and conclusions with any current ideas of religious dogma or ethical rule or aesthetic prejudice. In the end, if left free in their action, they will find the unity of Truth with Good and Beauty and God and give these a greater meaning than any dogmatic religion or any formal ethics or any narrower aesthetic idea can give us. But meanwhile they must be left free even to deny God and good and beauty if they will, if their sincere observation of things so points them. For all these rejections must come round in the end of their circling and return to a larger truth of the things they refuse. Often we find atheism both in individual and society a necessary passage to deeper religious and spiritual truth: one has sometimes to deny God in order to find him; the finding is inevitable at the end of all earnest scepticism and denial.

The same law holds good in Art; the aesthetic being of man rises similarly on its own curve towards its diviner possibilities. The highest aim of the aesthetic being is to find the Divine through beauty; the highest Art is that which by an inspired use of significant and interpretative form unseals the doors of the spirit. But in order that it may come to do this greatest thing largely and sincerely, it must first endeavour to see and depict man and Nature and life for their own sake, in their own characteristic truth and beauty; for behind these first characters lies always the beauty of the Divine in life and man and Nature and it is through their just transformation that what was at first veiled by them has to be revealed. The dogma that Art must be religious or not be at all, is a false dogma, just as is the claim that it must be subservient to ethics or utility or scientific truth or philosophic ideas. Art may make use of these things as elements, but it has its own svadharma, essential law, and it will rise to the widest spirituality by following out its own natural lines with no other yoke than the intimate law of its own being.

Even with the lower nature of man, though here we are naturally led to suppose that compulsion is the only remedy, the spiritual aim will seek for a free self-rule and development from within rather than a repression of his dynamic and vital being from without. All experience shows that man must be given a certain freedom to stumble in action as well as to err in knowledge so long as he does not get from within himself his freedom from wrong movement and error; otherwise he cannot grow. Society for its own sake has to coerce the dynamic and vital man, but coercion only chains up the devil and alters at best his form of action into more mitigated and civilised movements; it does not and cannot eliminate him. The real virtue of the dynamic and vital being, the Life Purusha, can only come by his finding a higher law and spirit for his activity within himself; to give him that, to illuminate and transform and not to destroy his impulse is the true spiritual means of regeneration.

Thus spirituality will respect the freedom of the lower members, but it will not leave them to themselves; it will present to them the truth of the spirit in themselves, translated into their own fields of action, presented in a light which illumines all their activities and shows them the highest law of their own freedom.  It will not, for instance, escape from scientific materialism by a barren contempt for physical life or a denial of Matter, but pursue rather the sceptical mind into its own affirmations and denials and show it there the Divine. If it cannot do that, it is proved that it is itself unenlightened or deficient, because onesided, in its light. It will not try to slay the vitality in man by denying life, but will rather reveal to life the divine in itself as the principle of its own transformation. If it cannot do that, it is because it has itself not yet wholly fathomed the meaning of the creation and the secret of the Avatar [3].

References

  1. Javed Akhtar.  India Today Conclave.  Feb 26, 2005.  http://www.javedakhtar.com/inner/interview.html
  2. Sri Aurobindo.  Essays Human and Divine.  CWSA vol. 12.
  3. Sri Aurobindo.  The Human Cycle. CWSA vol. 25, pp 228-230

Related Posts

  1. A movie on Sri Kumaré, the Guru
  2. Study of science as an aid in Yoga
  3. Art as an aid in Yoga
  4. The role of intellectual development in the spiritual path
  5. Interplay of Faith and Doubt in Yoga
  6. Why one should not hate the sinner?
  7. Ethical, logical and aesthetic mind
  8. The Paradox of Life
  9. On Conservation and Progress
  10. Sri Aurobindo on lawyers
  11. Signs of readiness for the spiritual path
  12. Signs of spiritual apitude
  13. True intent of the caste system
  14. How to act in an unstable world
  15. Why the future is veiled from us
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23 thoughts on “On Atheism and Agnosticism

  1. nizken

    Let me say THANK YOU Sandeep for this blog and all the sincerer effort that you have put into it. This is the best blog and discussion forum I’ve ever found on the Internet. So let me just say thank you so much for your posts and all the comments in here. I’d have never been able to properly read or understand most of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother’s writings without this blog.

    Thank you again.
    /nishat

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Glad to know, Nishat. Sometimes I wonder if the blog has any impact at all 🙂

      There is immense amount of wisdom, both esoteric and practical, in the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother which needs to be unlocked. If you have any topics you’d like to see covered, let me know.

      Reply
  2. nizken

    OK, 2 topics which spring to mind…It would be great if you could answer these for me.

    1) Has anyone checked and verified the authenticity of the various manuscripts and words from Sri Aurobindo & the Mother? I guess all these MS are the property and copyright of the Ashram, and the disciples have transcribed/translated them into the various published books/bulletins (the ones that were published after their lifetimes on this physical plane.)

    I suppose most of SA’s books were indeed published with his approval and under his aegis by the Ashram indeed. But I’m focusing more on the Agenda, Collected Works of the Mother, and A.B. Purani’s evening talks, or the Letters of Sri Aurobindo etc.

    Maybe I’m stuck in my physical skeptical mind, but I somehow find it hard to believe that the Mother spoke such excellent English as in the Agenda or the various bulletins etc. Since I have not at all researched into these sources or how these publications came to be…..I’ll be grateful to know your comments on this. I heard the Agenda tapes somewhere in French, and also the bulletins issued have a very SA style of long sentences, similar words and grammar etc.

    2) I’m just hoping nobody has changed/altered any of these writings, letters, unpublished manuscripts etc? Especially because the main ashram website says that letters and some writings are being published for the first time. Please let me know your opinions, I will gladly accept all your viewpoints.

    3) Curious if there has been any independent scholarly analysis or verification of all Sri Aurobindo writings starting with the Arya (from other independent scholars or sources). Or have these always been private property & copyright of the Ashram inmates alone? I’m aware that there are some scholars like Peter etc among those inmates.

    Thank you again for this amazing blogsite and all your hard work & sadhana that must have gone into it. I will be glad to contribute more and suggest other topics in the future.

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Nizken: Maybe I’m stuck in my physical skeptical mind, but I somehow find it hard to believe that the Mother spoke such excellent English as in the Agenda

      I will get back to you on her prior English-language education. Around 1907, when she was still in France, she had translated the writings of Madame Theon from English to French.

      Nizken:I heard the Agenda tapes somewhere in French,

      Yes, the original recording of the Mother’s Agenda can be heard online in French at http://agenda.fromzel.com/

      Nizken: I’m just hoping nobody has changed/altered any of these writings, letters, unpublished manuscripts etc?

      I am in no position to speak authoritatively on this question. You should direct this question to Ashram. You could even visit Pondicherry and check for yourself.

      Nizken: Especially because the main ashram website says that letters and some writings are being published for the first time.

      My understanding is that the letters could not be published before because these were private diaries of various individuals which are now being given to the Ashram after their death.

      Reply
    2. Sandeep Post author

      Nishat: Maybe I’m stuck in my physical skeptical mind, but I somehow find it hard to believe that the Mother spoke such excellent English as in the Agenda or the various bulletins etc.

      After some research (thanks to google books!), it seems quite possible that the Mother did learn English during her schooling in Paris. She was born in 1878. In 1881, Jules Ferry, the minister for education passed a law requiring mandatory, secular and free schooling for girls. Ferry wanted to educate women so they could be free the hold of the Church. Before that, education for girls was private and neglected (see Jules Ferry laws)

      Various books on primary education in nineteenth century France clearly state that besides French, the students were also taught “modern languages” (any two of English, German, Italian and Spanish)

      According to Frederic Farrington, “in the girls schools the term modern languages signifies almost exclusively English and German” (Farrington, French secondary schools: an account of the origin, development and present organization of secondary education in France, p 326)

      See the daily schedule of studies (Farrington, p 338)

      From the same book, Chapter X titled “Modern Languages” also discusses the curriculum and prescribed English-language books (Shakespeare, Milton, Coleridge, etc)

      Reply
    3. Sandeep Post author

      Nishat: Maybe I’m stuck in my physical skeptical mind, but I somehow find it hard to believe that the Mother spoke such excellent English as in the Agenda or the various bulletins etc.

      If you search this French book “Plan d’études et programmes d’enseignement” published in 1881 for the words “anglais”, you will find various references to the English curriculum. Modern languages German or English (Langues vivantes (allemand ou anglais) ) had to be taught for a few hours every week in every class.

      Reply
      1. Sandeep Post author

        The Mother’s English learning in school may not have been all that good after all, if we go by the following passage where she says she preferred a French translation of the Gita. She may have attained mastery of English later in life:

        Mother: I was perhaps twenty-one then, I think, either twenty or twenty-one. I met a man who was an Indian(Jnanendranath Chakravarti), who came from here, and he spoke to me about the Gita. There was a translation, which, by the way, was quite bad, and he advised me to read it and gave me the key—his key, it was his key—he told me: “Read the Gita, this translation of the Gita which is not up to much, but still that’s the only one in French.” At that time I wouldn’t have been able to understand anything in any other language. Besides, the English translations were as bad and I did not have… Sri Aurobindo had not yet written his. (Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 6, p 298)

        She had also read Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga around 1896-1898 but I don’t know if that was in English or French

  3. Sandeep Post author

    In this excerpt from the Essays on the Gita , Sri Aurobindo remarks on the curious phenomenon in the West whereby the ideals of Christianity are being practiced by those who rejected the religion !

    “…. It is indeed curious to note that the permanent, vital, universal effect of Buddhism and Christianity has been the force of their ethical, social and practical ideals and their influence even on the men and the ages which have rejected their religious and spiritual beliefs, forms and disciplines; later Hinduism which rejected Buddha, his sangha and his dharma, bears the ineffaceable imprint of the social and ethical influence of Buddhism and its effect on the ideas and the life of the race, while in modern Europe, Christian only in name, humanitarianism is the translation into the ethical and social sphere and the aspiration to liberty, equality and fraternity the translation into the social and political sphere of the spiritual truths of Christianity, the latter especially being effected by men who aggressively rejected the Christian religion and spiritual discipline and by an age which in its intellectual effort of emancipation tried to get rid of Christianity as a creed.”

    (Sri Aurobindo. Essays on the Gita, CWSA vol. 19, p 171)

    Reply
  4. Beliving atheist

    Thanks for this compilation.
    After being a Christopher Hitchens fan and appreciator of his logic and reasoning came across your post and was reminded of a Marathi poem by Sandep Khare

    And then Sri Aurobindo’s words of utter balance.
    “They proved to me by convincing reasons that God does not exist, and I believed them. Afterwards I saw God, for He came and embraced me. And now which am I to believe, the reasonings of others or my own experience?”

    Reply
  5. nizken

    I’ve tried to go through most of those French links that you have posted in this thread a long time ago. But I’m still forced to be skeptical about the Mother’s English language abilities (no offence to the Mother….)

    I haven’t received any reply from the SA&M ashram yet, so I’m guessing that most of the english language works of the Mother (like Agenda obviously) are translations and transcriptions?
    I think there are quite a lot of words and works in the CWMCE (found from the Ashram website posted below) which must have been spoken in French by the Mother and later translated?
    http://www.motherandsriaurobindo.org/Content.aspx?ContentURL=_StaticContent/SriAurobindoAshram/-09%20E-Library/-02%20Works%20of%20The%20Mother/-01%20English/-01_CWMCE/-03_Questions%20and%20Answers_Volume-03/-00_Contents.htm

    I’m only asking this because French is a pretty difficult language, has a lot of nuances etc., and I’d like to know who has translated it from French to English in the Ashram (if you know!) Notice also that the French section of CWMCE seems to have the exact same works as the English section of the CWMCE on the ashram’s website.

    Reply
    1. nizken

      I think that is the Agenda you refer to. I want to know about the rest of the sayings, dialogues and works of the Mother in the CWMCE. It is quite clear that the Agenda and the Conversations were translated from the original French.

      Reply
  6. mike

    Yeah sorry, l missed that.
    Apparently SA and some disciples translated the ‘prayers and Meditation’ of the Mother at that time:

    “Prayers and Meditations (calligraphic)
    This calligraphic edition contains about one fifth of the complete collection of the prayers and meditations. Most of the prayers in this book were either translated by Sri Aurobindo, or by disciples and thoroughly revised by Sri Aurobindo.”

    So, it’s quite possible the same happened with ‘Questions and Answers’.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Energy but it is not my energy | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  8. Sandeep Post author

    Michael Shermer is a well-known skeptic who recently had a baffling incident in his life !

    From the Scientific American latest issue (vol 311, issue 4)

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/anomalous-events-that-can-shake-one-s-skepticism-to-the-core/

    Shermer : Often I am asked if I have ever encountered something that I could not explain. What my interlocutors have in mind are not bewildering enigmas such as consciousness or U.S. foreign policy but anomalous and mystifying events that suggest the existence of the paranormal or supernatural. My answer is: yes, now I have.

    The event took place on June 25, 2014. On that day I married Jennifer Graf, from Köln, Germany. She had been raised by her mom; her grandfather, Walter, was the closest father figure she had growing up, but he died when she was 16. In shipping her belongings to my home before the wedding, most of the boxes were damaged and several precious heirlooms lost, including her grandfather’s binoculars. His 1978 Philips 070 transistor radio arrived safely, so I set out to bring it back to life after decades of muteness. I put in new batteries and opened it up to see if there were any loose connections to solder. I even tried “percussive maintenance,” said to work on such devices—smacking it sharply against a hard surface. Silence. We gave up and put it at the back of a desk drawer in our bedroom.

    Three months later, after affixing the necessary signatures to our marriage license at the Beverly Hills courthouse, we returned home, and in the presence of my family said our vows and exchanged rings. Being 9,000 kilometers from family, friends and home, Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away. She whispered that she wanted to say something to me alone, so we excused ourselves to the back of the house where we could hear music playing in the bedroom. We don’t have a music system there, so we searched for laptops and iPhones and even opened the back door to check if the neighbors were playing music. We followed the sound to the printer on the desk, wondering—absurdly—if this combined printer/scanner/fax machine also included a radio. Nope.

    At that moment Jennifer shot me a look I haven’t seen since the supernatural thriller The Exorcist startled audiences. “That can’t be what I think it is, can it?” she said. She opened the desk drawer and pulled out her grandfather’s transistor radio, out of which a romantic love song wafted. We sat in stunned silence for minutes. “My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I’m not alone.”

    Shortly thereafter we returned to our guests with the radio playing as I recounted the backstory. My daughter, Devin, who came out of her bedroom just before the ceremony began, added, “I heard the music coming from your room just as you were about to start.” The odd thing is that we were there getting ready just minutes before that time, sans music.

    Later that night we fell asleep to the sound of classical music emanating from Walter’s radio. Fittingly, it stopped working the next day and has remained silent ever since.

    What does this mean? Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation—with billions of people having billions of experiences every day, there’s bound to be a handful of extremely unlikely events that stand out in their timing and meaning. In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.

    Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Yet the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave her the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/anomalous-events-that-can-shake-one-s-skepticism-to-the-core/

    Reply
    1. mwb6119

      Good read Sandeep…and here I had thought all my life that the so called technologically sound practice of “percussive maintenance” was an “American Made” device. 🙂

      Reply
  9. Sandeep Post author

    David Javerbaum at his best

    Reply
  10. Sandeep Post author

    Sam Harris discusses his experience with Advaita Vedanta (Ramana Maharshi) and Theravada Buddhism in this article “Atheist’s guide to spirituality”.

    http://nautil.us/issue/16/nothingness/an-atheists-guide-to-spirituality

    He writes

    “Given this change in my perception of the world, I understand the attractions of traditional spirituality. I also recognize the needless confusion and harm that inevitably arise from the doctrines of faith-based religion. I did not have to believe anything irrational about the universe, or about my place within it, to learn the practice of Dzogchen. I didn’t have to accept Tibetan Buddhist beliefs about karma and rebirth or imagine that Tulku Urgyen or the other meditation masters I met possessed magic powers. And whatever the traditional liabilities of the guru-devotee relationship, I know from direct experience that it is possible to meet a teacher who can deliver the goods.”

    Reply

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