Opening remarks by Lynda Lester for a panel discussion at AUM 2007 on fundamentalist tendencies in the Integral Yoga community.
Today I’d like to focus on the difference between yoga, religion, and fundamentalism in the Integral Yoga community. And because in a discussion like this we’re all coming from different cultures and orientations, my yoga might be your religion and someone else’s fundamentalism. So I thought I’d start out with some definitions.
Yoga means union with the Divine, an opening to the higher consciousness … it’s the awakening to an inner reality, to a Self, a Spirit, or soul that’s other than our normal surface awareness.
Religion belongs to the human mind. It develops when spiritual experience is translated into mental forms which then become doctrines, standard beliefs, and outer observances that everyone on that path is supposed to follow.
Fundamentalism simplifies the religion and limits itself to a narrow core of beliefs, asserting that other perspectives are misguided, wrong, or evil. It paints issues in stark black and white and favors literal over symbolic interpretations. It sees its followers as the chosen few and often demonizes others as sinners, subhumans, or asuras.
Now: Sri Aurobindo and Mother did not want to found a new religion.
The Mother is clear on this. She says, “A new religion would not only be useless but very harmful. It’s a new life which must be created, a new consciousness which must be expressed.” And that, she says, is something beyond intellectual limits and mental formulas.
When she founded Auroville, she said, “No religion, no religion, no religious forms ... we don’t want religion. ...we want research through experience of the Supreme Truth; a life divine; but no religions.”
Sri Aurobindo says, “I may say that it’s far from my purpose to propagate any religion, new or old … A movement in the case of a work like mine means the founding of a school or a sect or some other damned nonsense. It means that hundreds or thousands of useless people join in, corrupt the work, or reduce it to a pompous farce from which the Truth that was coming down recedes into secrecy and silence.” This, he says, is what happened to the religions and is the reason they’ve failed to transform human nature.
So Sri Aurobindo and Mother did not want to found a new religion ... and the yoga they developed to help people evolve into a new, post-human consciousness is so supple, wide, and non-formulistic that you’d think it would be hard to make a religion out of it. In fact, Integral Yoga confounds people all the time who are looking for a basic how-to manual — there isn’t a set of external procedures, there are no prescribed forms of meditation. The methods are general psychological processes, such as aspiration and surrender — but you have to find your own way and conditions in which to aspire and surrender. Indeed, Sri Aurobindo and Mother recommended different yogic approaches to different disciples depending on their individual natures.
Also, as Sri Aurobindo and Mother worked in different planes and parts of being from decade to decade, the way they talked about their yoga shifted. The personal yogic practice described in Sri Aurobindo’s Record of Yoga, which started around 1911, was extremely advanced and complex but didn’t mention the psychic being, which became so important in the writings after 1920. Mother’s spiritual advice to seekers in the 1950s seemed to her irrelevant when she was working on the yoga of the cells ten years later.
So again, you might think it would be hard to make a one-size-fits-all doctrine out of the yoga, or to create a religion out of what Mother and Sri Aurobindo represented. But I think there actually is a spectrum of religious behaviors in the Integral Yoga community.These range from a loose and amorphous religiosity on one end to fundamentalism on the other.
So, amorphous first. At this end of the spectrum is an attitude that says all truths and forms are equal; anything goes — your famous postmodern relatavism. This is where you find Integral Yoga equated to other paths; you hear statements like, “The supramental body that Sri Aurobindo talks about is the diamond body of Tibetan Buddhism; it’s been known about for thousands of years,” or “Jesus, Sri Aurobindo, Adi-Da, whatever — they’re all saying basically the same thing.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the fundamentalist end, we don’t have the kind of extremists that carry signs saying, “Behead those who insult Sri Aurobindo” — but we do see a few examples of fundamentalism:
Satprem is one, in my opinion: his later writings reduce the complexity of Integral Yoga to a simplistic formula, and are full of angry rants against nearly everyone — the Ashram, Auroville, traditional spiritual seekers, scientists, bureaucrats, and basically all of Western civilization.
The BJP party in India is part of a right-wing Hindu nationalist movement who are quoting a small subset of Sri Aurobindo’s writings to justify fundamentalist political agendas.
There’s a group suing the Archives department of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram for revising and updating Sri Aurobindo’s books which, they say, were perfect on first publication.
And finally, there’s a small but aggressive group of people following Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet who are into esoteric numerology and claim the Matrimandir is a temple of falsehood because the measurements are wrong.
Between the these two poles of “anything goes” on one side and fundamentalism on the other there are some conventional, traditional-type religious behaviors in the middle.
One of those is devotion, which we do see in the Integral Yoga community. On Darshan day, for instance, there are huge crowds filing through the samadhi at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Also, many of us do regard Mother and Sri Aurobindo as direct incarnations of the Divine, and we do have altars with photos of Mother and Sri Aurobindo in our homes.
So, quick digression — is it wrong to be religious in this way, that is to feel a devotion to Mother and Sri Aurobindo? I’d say no, for various reasons. For those who have a strong faith, this type of devotion may bring deep, first-hand spiritual experience beyond mentality which is not superficial. Not all people need to approach the Divine through the mind; bhakti is an effective way to open to the inner consciousness — and that’s not religion, that’s yoga. Our physiological nature has many different parts; the intellect or higher mind in us may love reading Life Divine, but the aesthetic and emotional mind in us may want ceremony, music, flowers, and incense. This is a complex, integral spiritual practice, not a stripped-down, economy version.
But there’s another form religiosity can take, which I do see in the Integral Yoga community, and that’s a certain mental smugness: a feeling of moral superiority that we in the yoga have the truth and others do not — or at best, have incomplete or lesser versions of the truth. This is the “my God is better than your God” behavior that we find in most religions. (And I want to emphasize that what I’m talking about here is the sense of moral superiority, not the ability to compare or discriminate between spiritual paths.)
Closely related to this is a mental fixity and complacency where we think that Mother and Sri Aurobindo revealed everything once and for all and nothing could be added to the knowledge they brought. If we feel like this, we may become insular and not interact with others outside the yoga; we may not keep up with important developments in the evolution of consciousness happening in the world around us.
So it’s good to remind ourselves that if all we do is hold on to the mental formations Mother and Sri Aurobindo left behind, we’re not doing yoga or evolving spiritually — we’re being religious.
You know, like saying “All life is yoga” over and over (which we do all the time, right? For those who may not know, that’s a famous statement by Sri Aurobindo) — saying “All life is yoga” doesn’t mean that all of our life is really yoga. Mentally knowing how Sri Aurobindo described the planes and parts of being is not the same as being able to navigate those planes and parts of being. And obviously, talking about the supermind is not the same as having the supramental consciousness.
But I’d also like to note that Integral Yoga is a multifaceted and subtle process; and we try, we really try. Even so, it make take a long time for us to realize that what we think is yoga may really be just having mental ideas and being religious.
Anyway, to summarize: religion is a matter of mental belief. Integral Yoga is not about belief, but about a change of consciousness.
This does not mean, of course, that we get rid of the mind or mental formations — the mind is an important tool in yoga, and mental formations can be stepping stones to the higher consciousness. It does mean that if we are serious about our practice, we need to know the difference between mental formations and spiritual experience, and the difference between religion and yoga. As Sri Aurobindo says, “Reason was the helper; Reason is the bar.”
In conclusion — there’s a famous line in Savitri that you may have heard. It goes, “God shall grow up while the wise men talk and sleep.” Those of us in Integral Yoga love to quote this phrase; we’re certain that we’re in the know and we’ll be the first to see God growing up while the wise men talk and sleep.
But sometimes I think that if we’ve gotten stuck in the mental forms of Integral Yoga, we’re actually the wise men talking and sleeping. And God growing up may actually be a scientist discovering the link between consciousness and the brain, an Olympic athlete drawing on a superhuman power ... or for that matter, someone who’s really practicing yoga, but calls it something else.
So what does that mean for us? If we’re going to truly do the Integral Yoga, we need to learn how to live in a consciousness that uses forms ... but is not bound by them.