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 .
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.“
These are aphorisms by Sri Aurobindo on atheism:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Dost thou hate the atheist because he does love not God? Then shouldst thou be disliked because thou dost not love God perfectly.
- 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 .
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 .
- Javed Akhtar. India Today Conclave. Feb 26, 2005. http://www.javedakhtar.com/inner/interview.html
- Sri Aurobindo. Essays Human and Divine. CWSA vol. 12.
- Sri Aurobindo. The Human Cycle. CWSA vol. 25, pp 228-230
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