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Four main lines of Spiritual-Evolutionary Development

Many esoteric systems incorporate the different aspects and paths of human spiritual evolution into a single grand picture. Often the number four seems to come up here. Perhaps because four is the number of manifestation, or maybe human brains simply think that way. In any case, Vivekananda unified the different spiritual approaches of the Indian traditions into his four yogas, Gurdjieff speaks of the four ways (Man no.1, Man no.2 etc), of which only the fourth integrates the other three, and Wilber sums up all of human endeavour in his "four quadrant" model. Similarily, Sri Aurobindo dedicates much of chapter 24, "The Evolution of the Spiritual Man" of his great opus The Life Divine to elucidating the four main evolutionary developments that represent the start of the road that leads ultimately to the Divine Life. (Note: While his wisdom is flawless and unsurpasssed, Sri Aurobindo is someone who's style, I feel can benefit from some editing. In this quotation I have broken up the single heavy paragraph into five smaller ones, with emphasis on each topic, for easier reading. Also, I have added links to various parts of my site, even where these are not specifically written by or referring to Sri Aurobindo; as Sri Aurobindo's writings are truly integral, they should and can include all fields). He writes

"There are four main lines which Nature has followed in her attempt to open up the inner being, -- religion, occultism, spiritual thought and an inner spiritual realisation and experience: the three first are approaches, the last is the decisive avenue of entry. All these four powers have worked by a simultaneous action, more or less connected, sometimes in a variable collaboration, sometimes in dispute with each other, sometimes in a separate independence.

Religion has admitted an occult element in its ritual, ceremony, sacraments; it has leaned upon spiritual thinking, deriving from it sometimes a creed or theology, sometimes its supporting spiritual philosophy,-the former, ordinarily, is the occidental method, the latter the oriental: but spiritual experience is the final aim and achievement of religion, its sky and summit. But also religion has sometimes banned occultism or reduced its own occult element to a minimum; it has pushed away the philosophic mind as a dry intellectual alien, leaned with all its weight on creed and dogma, pietistic emotion and fervour and moral conduct; it has reduced to a minimum or dispensed with spiritual realisation and experience.

Occultism has sometimes put forward a spiritual aim as its goal, and followed occult knowledge and experience as an approach to it, formulated some kind of mystic philosophy: but more often it has confined itself to occult knowledge and practice without any spiritual vistas; it has turned to thaumaturgy or mere magic or even deviated into diabolism.

Spiritual philosophy has very usually leaned on religion as its support or its way to experience; it has been the outcome of realisation and experience or built its structures as an approach to it: but it has also rejected all aid, -- or all impediment, -- of religion and proceeded in its own strength, either satisfied with mental knowledge or confident to discover its own path of experience and effective discipline.

Spiritual experience has used all the three means as a starting-point, but it has also dispensed with them all, relying on its own pure strength: discouraging occult knowledge and powers as dangerous lures and entangling obstacles, it has sought only the pure truth of the spirit; dispensing with philosophy, it has arrived instead through the heart's fervour or a mystic inward spiritualisation; putting behind it all religious creed, worship and practice and regarding them as an inferior stage or first approach, it has passed on, leaving behind it all these supports, nude of all these trappings, to the sheer contact of the spiritual Reality. All these variations were necessary; the evolutionary endeavour of Nature has experimented on all lines in order to find her true way and her whole way towards the supreme consciousness and the integral knowledge."
The Life Divine (10th ed.), pp.860-1

Sri Aurobindo follows this passage by saying a lot more about these four paths, but this is mainly reiterating the above clear summary at greater length. The interested reader is referred to the original text.

The above quaternity can be summarised somewhat simplistically - remeber each of these four principles interacts positively and negatively with each of the others - in the following diagram:


This is basically a spiritual-path version of the Compass of ways of knowing, but here expressed in a linear-evolutionary way. One could also explore numerous sub-divisions by dividing each of the above into four and placing there the appropriate examples. e.g: Theosophy, which is very intellectual and some might say dry, is an example of the Occult subset of Spiritual Philosophy. Judaic Kabbalah, which is based on religious observance and belief, an example of an example of the Spiritual Philosophy subset of Religion. Hermetic Kabbalah such as the theoretical side of the Golden Dawn, although still Kabbalah, is very different, as it systematises in great detail the various occult archetypes, and so could be considered an example of the Spiritual Philosophy subset of Occultism. It is also possible to have more than two together. Buddhism combines religion, philosophy, and practice, all in one. Tantra introduces the element of occultism (albeit (in respectable Tantra) religious occultism), and so on.

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page by M.Alan Kazlev
Text by Sri Aurobindo © Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust 1977
page uploaded 21 July 2004