Spiritual Practicality: The Need of the Moment

Author: Beloo Mehra

Published in Collaboration, Vol. 41 (1), Spring 2016, pp. 9-10


Spiritual practicality


It seems pretty much every month there is some big international conference going on somewhere, discussing Climate Change, Solar Energy, Global Terrorism and all such important issues of the day. Political leaders, subject experts, public intellectuals, journalists, pretty much everyone who reads the newspaper and watches news on TV or follows it on social media has an opinion on these matters.

No, this essay isn’t about one more opinion on any of these topics. It is actually about something quite contrary. It is about the inadequacy and the insufficiency of the mental ideas and opinions.

Sri Aurobindo in his essay, The Conservative Mind and Eastern Progress uses a phrase “spiritual practicality” which is actually the focus of this article. This phrase could present a challenge to the general notion or understanding many people have of the term “spirituality.” Most people are somehow used to thinking that spirituality and practicality can’t go hand in hand. This perhaps comes from the faulty notion of seeing ‘spiritual-type’ people as ‘impractical, other-worldly or out-of-touch-with-the-real-big-bad-world-out-there types.’

But the truth is quite something else. One just has to give a quick look (without any preconceived notions) at the thousands of years of history of India and one will learn about the immense contributions of rishis, munis, yogis, sadhaks, gurus in practically all aspects of human life and activity. Philosophy, psychology, ethics, sociology, mathematics, astronomy, science, medicine, literature, arts, politics, warfare — every field of what we consider as ‘practical’ human activity has been the field of work of our rishis and yogis.

[Of course, one wouldn’t find this in the Marxist school of Indian history which is generally being taught in our Indian educational programmes. One will need to do one’s own un-learning of the old ideological view of history and then begin a process of re-learning of this deeper and inner history of India.]

But the other day as I reflected more on the term “spiritual practicality” as used by Sri Aurobindo in his essay, I wasn’t thinking of history. I was thinking of the present.

Global Poverty vs. Mindless Consumerism, Ecological Destruction vs. Economic Development, Terrorist Violence vs. World Peace, Religious Wars vs. Respectful Pluralism. Not a single day passes when we don’t hear or read something or the other about one or more of these harsh conflicts facing the humanity and the world. It seems that such conflicts represent the state of things right now in the world.

In their own ways peoples, societies, and nations have been trying to address these conflicts in different ways. By enacting reasonable laws, by formulating thoughtful policies, by creating organised institutions, and by promoting all the ‘right’ secular values such as equality, liberty, human rights, universal education and at the same time lending their weight to the nobler ideals such as compassion for all life and nature, peace, non-violence etc.

And yet nothing seems to be working.

What is missing?

“The present era of the world is a stage of immense transformations. Not one but many radical ideas are at work in the mind of humanity and agitate its life with a vehement seeking and effort at change….. No nation or community can any longer remain psychologically cloistered and apart in the unity of the modern world. It may even be said that the future of humanity depends most upon the answer that will be given to the modern riddle of the Sphinx by the East and especially by India, the hoary guardian of the Asiatic idea and its profound spiritual secrets. For the most vital issue of the age is whether the future progress of humanity is to be governed by the modern economic and materialistic mind of the West or by a nobler pragmatism guided, uplifted and enlightened by spiritual culture and knowledge. The West never really succeeded in spiritualising itself and latterly it has been habituated almost exclusively to an action in the external governed by political and economic ideals and necessities; in spite of the reawakening of the religious mind and the growth of a widespread but not yet profound or luminous spiritual and psychical curiosity and seeking, it has to act solely in the things of this world and to solve its problems by mechanical methods and as the thinking political and economic animal, simply because it knows no other standpoint and is accustomed to no other method. On the other hand the East, though it has allowed its spirituality to slumber too much in dead forms, has always been open to profound awakenings and preserves its spiritual capacity intact, even when it is actually inert and uncreative. Therefore the hope of the world lies in the re-arousing in the East of the old spiritual practicality and large and profound vision and power of organisation under the insistent contact of the West and in the flooding out of the light of Asia on the Occident, no longer in forms that are now static, effete, unadaptive, but in new forms stirred, dynamic and effective.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 13, pp. 137-138, emphasis added)

What is missing is “spiritual practicality,” which when combined with a “large and profound vision” and a “power of organisation” can help humanity come out of the conflicts it has created in its path to progress.

What kind of “large and profound vision” do we need as an ideal? Perhaps the ideal of a true human unity?

But it cannot be a mentalised ideal of unity which is unable to handle diversity without imposing a certain mental idea of uniformity. What is needed is a truer, an inner unity that doesn’t impose uniformity, but also doesn’t tolerate abuse and disrespect of all that is different and unknown. What is needed is a deeper unity that doesn’t eradicate diversity but also doesn’t allow inhumanity and mindless violence (not only physical) to trample over all that is good, beautiful, true and humane.

Such unity doesn’t come easily. Such unity doesn’t come simply by wishing. Or simply by being politically correct. It requires sincere honesty. Of intention, of action, of rising above the pettiness and the lowest tendencies of greed, power struggle and domination. Serious work, strategic work is required. On all fronts — national, international, political, economic, social, cultural, educational.

And most importantly, on spiritual.

What is needed is a sincere effort to recover that “spiritual practicality” of the olden times and make it relevant for today and tomorrow. A spiritual practicality that helps us — individuals and societies — become more conscious of all our movements, all our actions, decisions and choices.

On an individual level, it could be something as basic as making food choices that are least harmful for the environment or becoming conscious consumers in order to keep reducing our carbon foot-print. Or it could be at the level of socially-politically active individuals organising together to work toward a greater civilisational and cultural renaissance.

At all levels what is required is an inner approach to outward action. Only a deeper, inward turning to the higher truth (of the self, not of the ego) and a disinterested action (in the sense of unegoistic, unselfish, having no regard for the result, with no preference for any particular outcome) can become the basis of a true spiritual practicality. Mentalised ideals can only take us so far, because mental ideals are easily broken at the first attack from life’s complexities and circumstances.

What is really required is to rise in consciousness so that as individuals, societies and nations all our actions and decisions are more and more guided by unitarian, integrative and harmonizing tendencies instead of separative, divisive, egoistic tendencies.

Unfortunately, for many people being ‘open-minded’ and ‘modern’ has come to mean accepting pretty much every lifestyle choice as an equally valid choice, in the name of freedom. Being ‘liberal’ has come to mean defending or being apologetic of the worst kind of violence and terror against humanity. All in the name of becoming the voice for the “all beliefs are equal” type of post-modernistic relativism.

This supposed ‘value-neutrality’ is against the most essential tenet of any spiritual path which emphasises the development of a clear sense of discernment, viveka — defined by Sri Aurobindo as “intuitive and inspired judgment gained by a previous purification of the organs of thought and knowledge” (CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 501)It is an ability to sincerely and honestly distinguish between right and wrong, between good and not-good, between dharma and a-dharma. This applies equally to individuals in their individual sphere of life as well as to the societies and nations in collective life.

It is also equally important to recognise that spirituality doesn’t have to be religion-based, it can just as easily be a-religious quest. The most sincere seekers on any spiritual path are in fact most open-minded and accepting of the diversity of wisdom traditions emerging from within various civilizations and cultures. They recognize that while each religion has a spiritual component but practical spirituality or spiritual practicality doesn’t require or necessitate any fixed adherence to any outer forms of any religion. They recognize and respect the truth that for some seekers a religion’s outer forms such as rituals, ceremonies, etc. are important aids on the path. But equally so, this may not be the case for many others.

Such equal acceptance of difference is part of the inner make-up of sincere seekers on the path of truth. They recognize that what binds all these diverse seekers is a common search for the higher truth, an inner seeking whose practice is generally as individualised as something can be. Only such an experience has the potential to help one inwardly realize the deeper truth of values such as freedom, equality, and unity, beyond all intellectualising and rationalising of such ideals.

What is needed is a waking up to the life-affirming nature of Indian spirituality. Not religiosity, mind you. But a deep, personal seeking, an intense inner and outer search for the truth, the right, the good and the beautiful.

“It is more important that the thought of India should come out of the philosophical school and renew its contact with life, and the spiritual life of India issue out of the cave and the temple and, adapting itself to new forms, lay its hand upon the world. I believe also that humanity is about to enlarge its scope by new knowledge, new powers and capacities, which will create as great a revolution in human life as the physical science of the nineteenth century. Here, too, India holds in her past, a little rusted and put out of use, the key of humanity’s future.” (Extract from an interview given to a correspondent of The Hindu, quoted in Rishabhchand, Sri Aurobindo–His Life Unique, p. 410)

Are we ready for the challenge to re-discover that key to the future? Ours and our world’s?

6 thoughts on “Spiritual Practicality: The Need of the Moment

Add yours

  1. Very interesting thought – Spiritual Practicality and a wonderful post.

    More than 100 years ago Swami Vivekananda had also highlighted the need of something similar in his Practical Vedanta:
    Shankara left this Advaita philosophy in the hills and forests, while I have come to bring it out of those places and scatter it broadcast before the workaday world and society. The lion-roar of Advaita must resound in every hearth and home, in meadows and groves, over hills and plains … If the fisherman thinks that he is the Spirit, he will be a better fisherman; if the student thinks he is the Spirit, he will be a better student. If the lawyer thinks that he is the Spirit, he will be a better lawyer, and so on …

    Another related but not very intuitive idea I came across recently in an FB Post:
    Vedanta is not sociology. One cannot bring in societal problems and look for a solution for it in Vedanta. Looking for a solution in Vedanta for a societal problem is like asking a physics professor for solutions in physics for societal problems. Sometimes, teachers of Vedanta are asked societal questions. Sometimes they are answered too, based on the teacher’s experience in and about life. People mistake Vedanta to be a kind of religion; and since religion is considered as affecting society, they think Vedanta too is related to society.
    – Swami Tattvavidananda ji, in his classes on the introductory Bhashyam on the Gita.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Subhodeep for sharing these two wonderful insights – interesting how the two seemingly contradictory ideas are actually not that much in opposition. Or at least I don’t see them in opposition to each other. Yes, spirituality as understood conventionally – in a life-denying sort of way – has nothing to offer the society for its renewal or regeneration. But that life-denying spirituality of the renunciate isn’t really the final word on spiritual evolution of man or society. It could be a step on the way. For example, some sadhaks/seekers may have to remove themselves from the world of action for the time being to focus exclusively on sadhana. All our great masters did that, only to come back to the world to help humanity in their own way (and I don’t mean the usual charity, philanthropy sort of altruism, but a deeper spiritual way to help humanity rise in their consciousness).

      The second quote you share also reminded me of something Sri Aurobindo once wrote about vedanta and true communism. He said – “Vedanta realised is the only practicable basis for a communistic society.” Makes one marvel how in the integral vision of a rishi, even a philosophy like communism discovers its kernel of truth.


  2. First of all, the picture speaks volumes and holds personal value for me 🙂 Secondly, this post is a veritable ‘how to’ of embarking on the path of spiritual practicality. Indeed if one were to engage in “a purification of the organs of thought and knowledge”, one can begin the journey. I also loved your point about inner approach to outer action. That particular para condenses karma yoga in its entirety.

    The entire post needs to be bookmarked and read and re-read over and over for the wisdom to penetrate the mind and thus influence action. And yes, the ‘liberal’ ‘open-minded’ ‘intellectuals’ could do well to read and ruminate over this post for their own edification 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Zephyr. Of course, the picture is special!
      And I am sure you know how happy you make me when you say that this post “needs to be bookmarked and read and re-read over and over” 🙂


  3. I think the biggest difference between being spiritual and being religious is how spirituality is without a God/Image in mind and more on the experience. Being religious trends towards finding those customs and rituals that fit the norm. I may be wrong but that’s how I perceive in my mind.
    You have got a great perspective there Beloo..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Parul for reading and for sharing your perspective. I think much depends on how we confine any definition of god/God/gods/Gods through our mental ideas and ideals. That’s where all the trouble starts, in a way. Your comment has given me an idea of doing a possible post on this topic – difference between religion and spirituality. Let’s see 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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