Education · Satyam Shivam Sundaram · Words of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo

Inner Light for the Intellect


Last month, my young nephew who is now in the last year of his high school came to visit me for a few days. And in one of our conversations about his studies and his future academic plans the topic swerved over to more serious stuff. We discussed questions such as: why compulsory schooling, why study certain subjects, and finally, who is an intellectual. 

This post is about the last question, though the others are equally interesting. But given some of the current context in the country, it makes sense to ponder upon this question. Once again.

During my conversation with my nephew, we discussed a few general things to analyse what is intellect and how intellect can be developed etc. But I still needed to give him a more concise explanation. I still needed one for myself. 

So I looked up. And here is what I discovered. 

Intellect, Intellectual and Intelligence

All depends on the meaning you attach to words used—it is a matter of nomenclature. Ordinarily one says a man has intellect if he can think well—the nature and process and field of the thought do not matter. If you take intellect in that sense, then you can say that intellect has different strata and Ford belongs to one stratum of intellect, Einstein to another—Ford has a practical and executive business intellect, Einstein a scientific discovering and theorising intellect.

But Ford too in his own field theorises, invents, discovers. Yet would you call Ford an intellectual or a man of intellect?

I would prefer to use for the general faculty of mind the word intelligence. Ford has a great and forceful practical intelligence, keen, quick, successful, dynamic. He has a brain that can deal with thoughts also, but even there his drive is towards practicality…Einstein has on the other hand a great discovering scientific intellect, not like Marconi a powerful practical inventive intelligence for the application of scientific discovery.

All men have of course an “intellect” of a kind, all for instance can discuss and debate (for which you say rightly intellect is needed); but it is only when one rises to the realm of ideas and moves freely in it that you say, “This man has an intellect.” Address an assembly of peasants, you will find if you give them scope that they can put to you points and questions which may often leave the parliamentary debater panting. But we are content to say that these peasants have much practical intelligence.

The power to discuss and debate is, as I say, a common human faculty—and habit. Perhaps it is here that man begins to diverge from the animal; for animals have much intelligence—many animals and even insects—even some rudimentary power of practical reasoning, but so far as we know, they don’t meet and put their ideas about things side by side or sling them at each other in a debate,[1] as even the most ignorant human can do and very animatedly does. There too is the beginning of intellect…

Also for the reason that it is a common faculty of the race, it can be specialised, so much so that a man whom it is dangerous to cross in debate in the field of literature or of science or of philosophy may yet make a fool of himself and wallow contentedly in a quagmire of blunders and fallacies if he discusses politics or economy or, let us say, spirituality or Yoga. His only salvation is the blissful depth of his ignorance which prevents him from seeing what a mess he has made.

Again a man may be a keen legal or political debater,—the two very commonly go together,—yet no intellectual. I admit that a man must have some logical intellect to debate well. But after all the object of debate is to win, to make your point and you may do that even if your point is false; success, not truth, is the aim of debate. 

 * * *
People in ordinary speech do not make any distinction between intellect and intelligence, though of course it is quite true that a man may have a good or even a fine intelligence without being an intellectual. But ordinarily all thinking is attributed to the “intellect”; an intellectual therefore is a man whose main business or activity it is to think about things —a philosopher, a poet, a scientist, a critic of art and literature or of life, are all classed together as intellectuals. A theorist on economy and politics is an intellectual, a politician or a financier is not, unless he theorises on his own subject or is a thinker on another. (Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga)

As I read further and reflected more, I understood that Sri Aurobindo also points to a deeper way to explore this question – who is an intellectual. He invites us to look beyond the ordinary sense of the word. But in order to do that we must first accept that reason is not the only way to know or to create knowledge.

According to Sri Aurobindo, in a finer distinction, “an intellectual or intellectual thinker will then be one who is a thinker by his reason or mainly by his reason.” He gives the examples of Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw in this category. And he distinguishes them with the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and C. R. Das, who he said would not qualify as intellectuals but rather as “thinkers and creators” in this finer distinction. In his words, 

Tagore thinks by vision, imagination, feeling or by intuition, not by the reason—at least that is true of his writings. C. R. Das himself would not be an intellectual; in politics, literature and everything else he was an “intuitive” and “emotive” man. But, as I say, these would be distinctions not ordinarily current. In ordinary parlance Tagore, Das and everybody else of the kind would all be called intellectuals. The general mind does not make these subtle distinctions: it takes things in the mass, roughly and it is right in doing so, for otherwise it would lose itself altogether. (ibid)

He continues further and explains that most of whom we classify as ‘professionals’ – such as lawyers, doctors, engineers, administrators, etc. – may or may not be intellectuals or even thinkers in their field, despite their rigorous academic training, experience and success in their line of work.

But there is more.

And this is where we begin to get real answers. Answers that caution us so that we don’t go on making “mistakes of the mind.” Answers that have deep implication for where we turn to when we really need to know. Just as merely having intelligence doesn’t make one an intellectual, so does merely having a highly developed intellect not necessarily lead one to right thinking, right conclusions or right choice of action. 

The point is that people take no trouble to see whether their intellect is giving them right thoughts, right conclusions, right views on things and persons, right indications about their conduct or course of action. They have their idea and accept it as truth or follow it simply because it is their idea. Even when they recognise that they have made mistakes of the mind, they do not consider it of any importance nor do they try to be more careful mentally than before.

In the vital field people know that they must not follow their desires or impulses without check or control, they know that they ought to have a conscience or a moral sense which discriminates what they can or should do and what they cannot or should not do; in the field of intellect no such care is taken.

Men are supposed to follow their intellect, to have and assert their own ideas right or wrong without any control; the intellect, it is said, is man’s highest instrument and he must think and act according to its ideas. But this is not true; the intellect needs an inner light to guide, check and control it quite as much as the vital. There is something above the intellect which one has to discover and the intellect should be only an intermediary for the action of that source of true Knowledge.

(Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – IV, CWSA, Vol. 31, pp. 13-17. Emphasis added.)

Also read, Who is a true thinker?

To read more in Satyam Shivam Sundaram, click HERE.

[1] Perhaps the crows do in the “Crow Parliament” sometimes?



27 thoughts on “Inner Light for the Intellect

  1. Thoughts need shape and direction. This is why a large body of knowledge, usually objective, with room for questions and judgement, is so important. We build with what we have and using the knowledge we own, create new tools and materials where necessary. Curiosity is the drive to continue filling in those blank spaces. An education should fuel our curiosity and allow us the freedom to try out new ideas in a safe space.

    1. That’s really important – this fueling of healthy curiosity. At the same time, a good education should also help us figure out how to develop a sense of humility that intellect and reason are not the only ways to know. The role of imagination, creativity, intuition should be equally emphasised.
      Thanks for adding an important perspective here, SB!

      1. I strive to have both aspects in balance. I feel that the latter set are of primary importance for making the world a better place. What’s the use of regurgitating data? Intuition and imagination tell us where to go next. The skills and training help us to forge the path. Thank you for sharing your wonderful conversation, Beloo.

  2. Brilliant post on exploring about intellect and intelligence. Glad to hear that your nephew is good at his thinking and visualization. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post. Now I put the question into my head ” What is Intelligence and Who is the real Intellect ?”

    1. Glad you liked the post. Indeed we have a lot to ponder upon if we want to grow in our intellect! Yes, this nephew of mine is at times an over-thinker 🙂 But always fun to have wonderful conversations with.

  3. Plenty of food for thought here. There are quite a few of those who consider themselves ‘intellectuals” and with them it’s either their way or the highway…forget about a conscience or moral sense.

    1. In my understanding, a real intellectual will never impose his or her view on others because he would know the limits of the intellect. Both his/her and the other listener. But then we live in imperfect world with imperfect everything. Including imperfect understanding of the role of intellect! And so darkness persists….

  4. A very thought provoking post. There are a few points though that I have a different view of. Rabindranath Tagore had a spiritual intellect far beyond general human comprehension. In my view he had the ultimate intellect as did Rumi.; Animals, plants, insects also have an intellect perhaps greater than ours though we do not comprehend their vibration.

  5. Wow such deep conversation with your nephew!! I can see he is going to be a great thinker too … I liked how the examples of Einstein and Ford are used to explain the difference … it made it easier for me to grasp the content and understand better.

    1. Thanks Raj, glad you enjoyed the post. I must clarify that the long quote is not from my conversation with my nephew, but from a letter Sri Aurobindo wrote to one of his disciples in mid 1930s or so. But yes, this quote did help me clarify my own thoughts quite a bit, especially after I read it a few times and reflected on the examples.

  6. I was a bit skeptical and had a couple of disagreements while I was reading it, but my doubts/differences of opinion fell away like dry leaves as I progressed through subsequent paragraphs, and couldn’t agree more with the conclusion..and why not? after all one of the finest masters of all times has got something which makes him a true master!
    I thank you Beloo, to make me understand and appreciate what he said and meant, through this wonderfully composed and wisely presented post of yours! Am happy and grateful..

    1. Thank you Amit for such a wonderful comment. Yes, often our minds start reacting to what we are reading even before the full essence has been absorbed. That is the nature of our minds, I suppose! Assimilation of ideas take time. But sadly, we live in this time of sound-bytes when everything has to be instant, instant, and short, short (140 characters to be precise). We seem to be forgetting the art of patient, long-drawn reflection and contemplation on ideas.

      I am so happy that this post spoke to you so well. Thanks again!

    1. I think Buddha wasn’t really an intellectual in the way we typically understand the term. He probably started with a very deep and sincere intellectual inquiry – what is the cause of suffering, how to end the suffering etc? But he soon realised that the truest way to know is not through intellect, but by silencing the intellect and looking deep within. In that way, he was a yogi, a seer who could transcend the limitations of reason and intellect. His way of knowing was inner contemplation with a silent mind. That way of knowing is often not accepted by our minds, that’s the problem!
      Thanks for your wonderful question.

  7. Very intelligent topic. Education, Intelligence, knowledge – I think what actually matters in life is wisdom. A wise person need not be intelligent or knowledgeable and still can lead a life of prosperity and be an asset to the society 🙂

    1. If only we can gain this elusive wisdom easily 😀 But jokes apart, yes beyond the book knowledge or the intellectual prowess, it is really the innate wisdom that helps us walk through the roller-coaster of life. Sadly, it seems to be in short supply these days!
      Thanks for reading and for sharing your perspective. Appreciate it.

  8. Superb article, my point here would be does our current system provide an opportunity for young minds to bloom…intelligence can be built and knowledge acquired if there is a medium provided for it to blossom, may be I am wrong but atleast in Mumbai I have seen this state.

    1. Thanks Shweta for bringing up this important point. I completely agree that our present mainstream educational approaches and systems (for the most part, at least) are not really set up to help develop clear thinking skills and intellectual abilities. There is way too much emphasis on rote learning, and passive mental faculties. Active mental faculties like critical analysis, questioning, analysis, and integration of diverse ideas are not really encouraged. But somehow we have to find ways – in our own contexts, starting with ourselves, to develop these faculties if we want to grow in our intellectual potential. I am sure you will agree with that.
      Thanks again for reading and for your important comment.

      1. There is always a dilemma when one reason out. We cannot be sure whether we could comprehend the all dimensions (both known and hidden) in dealing with a subject. Always there a temptation, nay even a demand for intellection to project the future. It is where one generally slips, yet one’s ego does not easily permit to recognise the limitations. So one can with tongue in cheek that for an intellectuals prognosis to come true, there must be an element of favourable luck.!!

      2. Oh I agree completely. There is only so much and only up to a certain point that intellect can help. And that’s why I thought this passage from Sri Aurobindo (selected for this post) is so fantastic, because it speaks of the need for having an “inner light” for the intellect. So that the illumined intellect can lead us to right understanding and right conclusion. Which in turn will point the way to the need for developing faculties beyond intellect, beyond reason. Thanks so much for stopping by and for sharing this important point via your comment.

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