Can reading of spiritual books become counter-productive ?

People who read too many spiritual books can go off-track. They waste their time intellectually resolving some messy conundrums. For example, Sri Aurobindo says A, Ramana Maharshi says B, Paramahansa Yogananda says C : lets intellectually figure out who is correct. The purpose of the spiritual text is to elevate the consciousness; its hidden meaning is unlocked through spiritual experiences.

The other error which can occur is that the detailed reading can bias or suppress the spiritual experience, because one might exaggerate one’s spiritual experience and equate it with something described in a book. In the following passages, the Mother discusses how much reading of spiritual books is enough.

Reading can bias the spiritual experience

Mother : If one knows it beforehand, one makes a mental construction and risks greatly living in his mental construction, which is an illusion; because when the mind builds certain conditions and then they are realised, there are many chances of there being mostly pure mental construction which is not the experience itself but its image. So for all these truly spiritual experiences I think it is wiser to have them before knowing them. If one knows them, one imitates them, one doesn’t have them, one imagines oneself having them; whereas if one knows nothing—how things are and how they ought to happen, what should happen and how it will come about—if one knows nothing about all this, then by keeping very still and making a kind of inner sorting out within one’s being, one can suddenly have the experience, and then later knows what one has had. It is over, and one knows how it has to be done when one has done it—afterwards. Like that it is sure.

One may obviously make use of his imagination, imagine the Kundalini and try to pull it upwards. But one can also tell himself tales like this. I have had so many instances of people who described their experiences to me exactly as they are described in books, knowing all the words and putting down all the details, and then I asked them just a little question like that, casually: that if they had had the experience they should have known or felt a certain thing, and as this was not in the books, they could not answer

The Mother, Questions and Answers (1955): 22 June 1955

In the same talk, she further adds:

Mother : ….when he has read and studied, and his brain is full of all that is written in books; then automatically what he has read gives a form to his experience, and this takes away from it something of the spontaneity which gives such an impression of being sincere and truthful; it becomes a mental construction. If you have read and read much that it is like a serpent which is coiled up, well, quite naturally when you concentrate and try to awaken it, you see a serpent which is coiled, because you think about it like that. If you are told about a thousand-petalled lotus, you see a thousand-petalled lotus. But it is a mental superimposition upon the fact of the experience itself. But the feeling of something that’s innumerable, that’s one and innumerable at the same time, and that kind of impression of something opening, awakening, beginning to vibrate, responding to the forces and giving you an intensity of light, of understanding, of opening to higher regions, this is… the substance of the experience. Yet when you begin to describe it with images which you have found in books, it is as though suddenly you were making it either superficial—fossilised, so to say—or artificial or even insincere.

The Mother, Questions and Answers (1955): 22 June 1955

How much reading is helpful

Question : Then, Mother, this means that it is better not to read?

Mother : On condition that one truly has within himself the ardour of aspiration. If you are born for this, for the yoga, and this is the thing which dominates all your existence, that you feel, yes, before knowing anything, that you need to find something which is in you, then sometimes a word is enough, a conversation which simply orients you—it is enough. But for those who are seeking, who grope, who are not absolutely sure, who are pulled this way and that, have many interests in life, are not steady, stabilised in their will for realisation, it is very good to read, because it puts them in touch with the subject, it gives them some interest in the thing.

What I mean is that every definite mental formation always gives a particular colouring to the experience. As for example, with all people brought up in a certain religion their experiences will always be coloured by this religion; and in fact, to reach the very source of the thing one must free oneself from the external formation.

But there is a kind of reading which awakens in you an interest in the thing and can help you in the first seekings. Usually, even if one has had experiences one needs a contact of thought or idea with the thing so that the effort may be crystallized more consciously. But the more one knows, the more one must be absolutely sincere in his experience, that is, he must not use the formative power of his mind to imagine and so create the experience in himself. From the point of view of orientation it can be useful; but from the point of view of the experience, it takes away from it its dynamic value, it has not the intensity of an experience which comes because the moral and spiritual conditions necessary for it to occur have been fulfilled. There is the whole mental conditioning which is added and which takes away something of the spontaneity. All this is a matter of proportion. Each one must find the exact amount he needs, how much of reading, how much meditation, how much concentration, how much… It is different for each one.

The Mother, Questions and Answers (1955): 22 June 1955

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17 thoughts on “Can reading of spiritual books become counter-productive ?

  1. Samnessofself

    Good point. Indeed, the mind can be like a thief, and if you give him the code for the safe prehand he will most certainly be well equiped to try to crack it open when it comes to crunch time. In this – the imagination is like a thief too.

  2. Harshvardhan Singh

    Sri-Vaishnavas and Madhwas believe in the concept of ‘ Nitya-samsarins’.

    The only difference between them is that for Madhwas ‘ Nitya-samsarins’ eventually become subject to eternal rebirth or eternal transmigration because such souls are inherently ‘rajasic’, whereas for Sri-vasihnavas ‘ Nitya-samsarins’ become subject to eternal rebirth or eternal transmigration because Lord Vishnu condemns them to in state of ‘ eternal rebirth or eternal transmigration ‘.
    Madhwas go a step further, they also specify a certain class of souls who are tamoyogis- they are inherantly tamsic and will eventually attain ‘eternal hell’.

    Madhva divides souls into three classes: one class which qualifies for liberation Mukti-yogyas; another subject to eternal rebirth or eternally transmigration due to samsara, Nitya-samsarins; and finally, a class that is eventually condemned to eternal hell or Andhatamas, known as Tamo-yogyas. With this concept of eternal damnation, Madhvacharya differs significantly from traditional Hindu beliefs concerning the fate of the soul; by contrast, most Hindus believe that all souls will eventually obtain moksha, though it may take millions of rebirths.​

    What is your opinion ?

    1. Harshvardhan Singh

      To substantiate above views usually two Verses of Bhagwad Gita viz – 16.19 and 16.20 are given as proof.How can one prove that these verses neither imply ‘eternal transmigration’ nor ‘Eternal hell’.

    2. Sandeep Post author

      I dont like to spend time on dry intellectual debates about who said what.

      It is better to experience Reality via meditation.

  3. Peter

    What I would like to find is an Integral Yoga workbook. Something with daily practices or assignments to make it all more practical. That main theme seems to be “surrender to the Divine”. That theme alone could entail some practical reflection and and application.

  4. Peter

    On the subject of Books: Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching & Method of Practice. This would seem to be some kind of compilation of his other writings. I am not sure the value of it if I already have Life Divine and Synthesis of Yoga.

      1. Peter

        Good to know about A.D Dalal. Thanks. I think I had it at one tome and loaned it.

        BTW: I think I invented my own workbook. A few years ago I extracted all my highlights passages from Synthesis and Life Divine. Now I take them one at a time and journal on their relevance to my life. So it is a daily review and reflection.

      2. Sandeep Post author

        I think I invented my own workbook.

        That’s the best approach. Every person’s path is unique and can change based on future developments.

        The path has to be defined by introspection and Swadharma

        That is why Sri Aurobindo and the Mother would give different guidelines to every individual based on what was required.

        Some were asked to work, others were asked to meditate or develop their mind.

        Some were asked to get married, others were asked to remain single.

  5. Peter

    It sounds also like the Sapta Chatushtya can provide and organized approach. I am eager to explore all we have on it here. It will take the rest of mu life but a low methodical process is what I like and as I approach retirement I will be looking for a daily practice.


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