Death and Suicide

We are all terrified by death. A large portion of this terror arises from ignorance regarding death. The terror is also partly due to the irrational attachment we have for this life in its present state. In normal circumstances, no living being would welcome death. It is in the nature of living beings to resist death. The ancient Hindu psychologists recognized this fundamental characteristic of living beings, especially humans, and gave it a name ‘Abhinivesha’. Yet, we regularly come across people who voluntarily die!

We all know of people who ‘had it all’ in life, had become famous, had been high performers, had made a lot of money, had been ‘successful’ in life; and then, one day, we get the news that they had committed suicide! That is what stumps us. We cannot seem to make sense of this series of events. We would think it makes sense if a person who had ‘failed’ in life to commit suicide. They do too. But that is a separate story. What really confuses us about human beings, and about life itself, is when ‘successful’ persons commit suicide.

Recently, we have had a series of such cases; noted fashion designer Kate Spade, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, noted socialite Sunanda Pushkar, Oscar-winning actor Robin Williams, famous rock singers Chris Cornell & Kurt Cobain. In the recent past too, we have had the cases of noted modernist author Virginia Woolf, Adolf Hitler, Noble winning author Ernest Hemingway, Artist Vincent Van Gogh, etc. who committed suicide.

Even an acclaimed Spiritual Guru Bhaiyyu Maharaj committed suicide some time back. Thousands of people looked upon Bhaiyyu Maharaj as a savior, as a guide in their spiritual lives. And what does such a person do? He commits suicide! Imagine the turmoil that must have ensued in the minds and hearts of those innocent followers!

On June 13th 2018, The Times of India carried a news report about Deep Singh Vishwakarma, an M.Tech graduate from MP, who hanged himself in his house. The same report also mentioned the suicide by anesthesia overdose of Smriti Kumari, a Medical PG student in Bhopal. Deep Singh left a suicide note mentioning that he felt he wasn’t doing well in life and that his parents or friends weren’t to be blamed. He was to get married in Dec 2018. His father had just retired from Ordnance Factory Board and the family had recently shifted to a new house in Indus Town Phase-I in Bhopal. Again, the narrative of the young man doesn’t make sense, does it? What was it that drove him to such an extreme step? Was it too high expectation for himself? He was so highly educated; eventually, he would land a good job. His life was certainly turning out very well. What went wrong?

In some of the cases of celebrity suicides, we know that they have had troubles with serious allegations about their character or finances, leading to their extreme act. But in many cases, there was absolutely no such build up. For all practical purposes, their suicide was an abrupt act.

WHO[1] announces on its website that about 800,000 people commit suicide every year (2017 statistics). That means, every 40 seconds, one person kills himself/herself. And statistics again show that more number of guys kill themselves than the ladies; roughly four times more. Now, the interesting part that is mentioned in the website is that 50% of these suicides were caused by Depression. This brings in another interesting question: Can people who are not depressed also commit suicide? Depression is the primary occupational disease of the 21st century says WHO. Around 49% of people under stress suffer from nausea or stomach upset. 71% people cry regularly because of stress. And over 50% of the world’s children are brought up in stressful conditions says UNESCO. 72% of students in India are unaware of how to deal with stress and its ill effect. In 2015, the number of students’ suicides stood at 8934. In the 5 years leading to 2015, 39775 students killed themselves. India has one of the world’s highest suicide rates for youth aged 15 to 29, according to a 2012 Lancet report.[2]

Is suicide a recent aberration on our modern society, an outcome of globalization and such social changes, or have there been records of suicides in the prehistoric and medieval ages too?

The Bible has many references to suicides. There is a record in the Old Testament that God gave immense strength to Samson, who brought down a Temple and killed himself as well as 3000 Philistines. King Saul was fatally injured by some Philistines. He asked his armor bearer to kill him. But when the servant refused, he took the sword and fell on it. The servant, distraught at his King’s death, killed himself too. King David’s son Absalom had a servant Ahithophel. Absalom didn’t heed to an advice given by the Ahithophel. Deeply insulted by this, the servant committed suicide. Judas’ case is by far the most popular record of suicides in the Bible.

Ancient Greece too had many recorded cases. We find many ancient philosophers debating on the pros and cons of suicide, since it was a morally sensitive act. Records are found in Ancient Chinese civilization as well as in the Arabic Kingdom of suicides. But one thing stands out in most of these ancient records: the suicides were done to protect one’s honor among men, or as a part of one’s military duty.

Émile Durkheim, the famous French Sociologist, published a monograph called ‘Suicides’ in 1897. Durkheim talks about people belonging to different types and categories, from a sociological point of view. Determining what category they are in, interestingly, could help us to predict the reason they would commit suicide! Although this claim seems too simplistic, even today, social scientists believe in this categorization. And the efficacy of this categorization is seen in the fact that psychologists have adopted it too. Durkheim’s categories are: Egoistic; Altruistic; Anomic; and Fatalistic.[3]

Durkheim explains that egoistic people over think and reflect on everything. They tend to have high knowledge, and don’t integrate into society well. The altruistic person devalues oneself and treats the opinion of the group very highly. They generally lead a very strict life-style or follow a religion that is very strict on obedience (such as Catholicism and Judaism). Self-sacrifice is considered part of altruistic suicide. Anomic suicide can result from someone who does not control or limit their desires. They satisfy every desire, and have no regulation. On the other hand, Fatalistic suicide will usually occur in someone who has high regulation and does not satisfy many of their desires.

In medieval India, two forms of altruistic suicide were practiced. One was Jauhar, which was a kind of mass suicide by women of a community when their menfolk suffered defeat in battle. Since the women were afraid of getting raped by winning side soldiers, they would en-masse jump into a fire and self-immolate. The other was Sati. A widow would self-immolate on the funeral pyre of her husband. Social norms prescribed it for some period in certain Kshatriya communities. Although it was given a sort of religious sanction, it had nothing to do with religion. Some historians say that it was actually a conspiracy of the patriarchal society to get the inherited property of the widow.

Do animals commit suicide? Scientists have been unable to establish whether animals can consciously end their lives. Anecdotal records are however there of animals willfully approaching death after the death of their mate or of their owners (in case of domesticated animals). There are also records of some animals killing themselves to avoid being hunted by other animals. But, it is not an established fact that animals commit suicide. Human beings seem to be the only living beings that do so.

Today the reasons for suicide are many, and the ways to achieve it are broad. With the growth of the science of psychology, much clarity has come regarding the problems underlying this tendency in human beings. Depression is the name given to all these causes clubbed together. What is depression? We may classify depression into two categories: One is chronic; the other is sudden. Chronic depression patients suffer from various symptoms for quite a long time in their lives before they decide to end it all. Sudden depression cases are normal people, without any signs or symptoms of chronic depression, but, certain cathartic events in life push them to the brink, and they end their lives.

This is what a renowned psychiatrist says about Depression:[4]

“Depression is not just sadness that requires treatment but sadness that becomes severe and often tearful, usually accompanied with poor appetite or overeating, sleep difficulties, low energy, low self-esteem, poor concentration, difficulty making decisions and feelings of hopelessness. Sometimes, due to the early experiences of life, person starts formulating dysfunctional assumptions (rigid, resistant to change and extreme). Problem arises when these assumptions gets activated by critical incidents which further leads to automatic negative thoughts and triggered symptoms of Depression, which include the following:

  • Negative Thoughts:Person has a negative view about self. Person perceives oneself as inadequate and deprived. Person also depicts ongoing experiences in a negative way. Person thinks negatively about one’s future.
  • Arbitrary Thoughts:Person draws conclusions without considering alternatives or on the basis of inadequate evidence.
  • Selective Abstraction:Person pays attention selectively to the wrong clues. Person pays attention to some particular cues and ignores others.
  • Overgeneralization:When a person fails in one particular task, and then generalizes that failure on to other tasks too.
  • Magnification:Trivial things become blown totally out of proportion i.e. making a mountain out of molehill.
  • Rules or Assumptions:Person thinks of some rules as part of their cognitive structure and considers them to be true in all situations. Some judge themselves inadequately, as compared to their own high standards.
  • Helplessness:Person expects that bad events will occur and nothing can be done to intercept them. After meeting failure, when person formulates internal clarification, passivity increases and self-esteem drops whereas when person formulate external clarification for failure, passivity ensues but self-esteem stays high.
  • Blaming:When situations are beyond control, person often blames oneself when something goes wrong. Basic reason behind this is expectation.
  • Suicidal or Self Injury:Person shows such behavior as an impulsive act to attract some attention from the surroundings. The purpose is to alter their life situation, not to die.”

What all these mean in ordinary language is as follows:

Depression is by far the only true mental disease. The rest of the so-called mental illnesses have all been found to have some root in the body. Most of the psychiatric disorders are due to hormonal imbalances, or nervous problems, or legions in the brain, etc. Depression, however, is a purely mental problem. It occurs because of wrong habits of thinking. It happens because of improper digestion of life’s experiences. It happens because of wrong self-identity.

Everyone develops his or her own narrative for the experiences that life brings them. This narrative is built up by means of a relentless internal conversation that occurs within our mind, right from the age of around 3 years. The importance of this internal conversation on the quality of our lives is one of the least understood things about human beings. And, in that knowledge lies the secret of depression, and consequently of suicide.

For an external observer, everything about a person may seem hunky-dory. We are able to see that the person is doing well in school and college, getting settled well in life, making loads of money, in good health, etc. But, the narrative that person has built within his own head about all his life’s events could be a totally different story. The marks he obtained in school and college were way below his own expectation; he felt cheated by his teachers and the system. He could have settled much better in life; life has always short-changed him. No doubt he has had much success in life, but if only so-&-so could publicly acknowledge his achievements, it would be a different case. Something like this could be the voice inside his or her own head. And that is dangerous! Something similar, with obvious variations is what happened in most of the cases mentioned above.

If the quality of this internal conversation is so important in our lives, why is no attention given to it? This training is involved in Family traditions. A large portion of that internal voice is copied from the conversations we have had with our parents in our childhood. The things that our mother and father say are recorded, as it were, deep within our mind. We are not even aware of it, in most cases. Then, throughout our lives, the other voice against which we argue inside our head is those recordings. Suppose we take up a new assignment. The conversation inside our head could be something like this:

“Oh, oh! A new assignment!”

“Yes. Finally you got a break. Now, don’t screw this up! You have always screwed up the opportunities you’ve got in your life. Don’t screw this up!”

“Yes, I’ve got to be careful this time. Perhaps I can plan it well and achieve success.”

“Oh! Don’t dream so far ahead. When was the last time you planned something and executed it well? You know that you can’t do it!”

The internal conversation could go on something like this. This is why we need to train our children on how to handle this tremendous force within each one of us. While certain families have strong traditional values, where the negative words and tones of parents are restricted to only a few really bad behaviors or issues, in some families, which are rootless, nuclear families, the parents unload their own general frustration on their children in the form of regular tirades, and harsh, critical language, often accompanied with physical abuse. Parents of the present age, generally, have no clue what they say to their kids and what impact that could have on them!

Can one commit suicide without experiencing clinical depression, either chronic or sudden? History does have some instances where suicides, especially mass suicides were institutionalized. We saw that the Sati and the Jauhar system in medieval India are examples of this kind of suicides. So also we have social-protest suicides like self-immolation by Buddhist monks in Ceylon, Burma and Thailand. We had such cases during the Mandal Commission agitation some years ago. Then there have been military suicides, where soldiers do not want to be captured alive by enemy soldiers. ‘Death before dishonor’ is an idea taught to most soldiers all over the world.

What about suicides among spiritual aspirants and realized souls? Surely we couldn’t find something more anomalous and ironic than spiritual people committing suicide! People kill themselves mainly because they lack peace, love and stability in their lives. Spirituality is ‘supposed’ to confer all these and much more on us. So, logically speaking, people who are spiritually inclined should not be committing suicide at all. But, that is not the case. Quite a few spiritual people do commit suicide.

The reason, however, for raising this topic now, and indeed, for writing this entire essay, is this: We sometimes hear some of our devotees claim that Sri Ramakrishna had endorsed suicide for a God-realized soul if he wishes it. Is that true?

Sri Ramakrishna’s following words, regarding suicide in the case of a God-realized soul, are recorded in the Gospel[5]:

A Devotee: I am frightened to hear of the suicide.

Master: Suicide is a heinous sin, undoubtedly. A man who kills himself must return again and again to this world and suffer its agony. But I don’t call it suicide if a person leaves his body after having the vision of God. There is no harm in giving up one’s body that way. After attaining Knowledge some people give up their bodies. After the gold image has been cast in the clay mold, you may either preserve the mold or break it. Many years ago a young man of about twenty used to come to the temple garden from Baranagore; his name was Gopal Sen. In my presence he used to experience such intense ecstasy that Hriday had to support him for fear he might fall to the ground and break his limbs. That young man touched my feet one day and said: ‘Sir, I shall not be able to see you anymore. Let me bid you good-bye.’ A few days later I learnt that he had given up his body.

This is the statement of Sri Ramakrishna that is the cause of lot of confusion in the minds of devotees and novices. Let us therefore study the highlighted words in the above passage.

But I don’t call it suicide if a person leaves his body after having the vision of God. So, after having the vision of God, one may opt to leave this body. Where is the legal provision for this? Can we accept these words of Sri Ramakrishna as the requisite legal provision? If we do so, where is the harm? The Supreme Court of India has ruled in a recent case that ‘Right to life’ does not include ‘Right to die’ as life and death are inconsistent with each other. Any aspect which dignifies the life may be included under Article 21 of the Constitution, and section 309 if IPC, but not that which extinguishes it.

Sri Ramakrishna further says that if one leaves the body after having the vision of God, it is not to be considered as suicide. In this case too, one would have left the body on one’s own will; nevertheless, that death would be different from suicide. Why? Sri Ramakrishna explains it in the passage: After the gold image has been cast in the clay mold, you may either preserve the mold or break it. The purpose of this human body is to obtain the vision of God. Once that is obtained, for all practical purposes, we may consider that this human body has served its purpose. Hence it may indeed be discarded. The one idea on which stands our correct understanding of this issue is: What is meant by ‘Vision of God’? We will take up this question a little later. Let us study the next statement that Sri Ramakrishna makes:

There is no harm in giving up one’s body that way. There is, by implication, a great harm in committing suicide, otherwise. Sri Ramakrishna himself said, “Suicide is a heinous sin, undoubtedly. A man who kills himself must return again and again to this world and suffer its agony.

There are two issues to be understood in this connection:

One is that of terrible weakness. A weak person alone commits suicide. We have just seen that persons, who have developed a life-affirming thinking pattern from their childhood, become capable of receiving and digesting blows in life. Such people exhibit tremendous mental resilience. When faced with failure, allegations, troubles, losses in life, such people start seeing things in a perspective that allows them to live and fight on. Such people do not commit suicide. This is a kind of strength that is urgently required to be taught in our schools and colleges to our children. While physical exercise develops strength in the muscles, and scientific thinking develops strength in logical analysis, there is another strength that can be developed in all of us. This strength is associated with character. When a strong, positive character is developed in us, by repeated habits of a certain kind, then this kind of extreme resilience in the face of adversities develops in us. This is what Swami Vivekananda meant when he said, “I have preached only the Upanishads, and from the Upanishads, only one idea – Strength.” What strength was he speaking of? Physical strength only? No. We need all kinds of strength to live. But the most important strength we need is that of resilience; the ‘Courage to be’, as coined by Paul Tillich; the capacity to rightly digest life’s various experiences and turn them into building blocks of a rock-solid personality.

The other issue is that of a skewed view of life. We will all face troubles in our lives. What should be our response to those problems? Should we struggle and fight and rise above them? Or should we kill ourselves? Is killing oneself a solution at all? The idea of Karma and Reincarnation might be just conjecture, for all we know. But faith in these ideas gives us a perspective that running away from troubles now doesn’t solve the problem. We will have to repeatedly face the same problems, by taking birth again and again, until we solve them for ourselves. When Anthony Bourdain killed himself, his close friend Rose McGowan, a famous Actress and Author, wrote, “He chose a permanent solution for a temporary problem.”[6]

So, when a God-realized soul kills himself, these two issues do not arise. He doesn’t kill himself because he is afraid of facing the daily challenges of life. Rather, he has arrived at the root of all challenges and extinguished the source of the fire. He therefore has nothing else to do in life. He may live, or he may throw the body away. Either way, it does not make any difference. In either case, he is not driven by weakness, and hence there is no harm in his case. Similarly, since he has achieved the goal of human life, he won’t have to take birth again to accomplish any unfinished business. Hence there is no harm in his case.

Lastly, Sri Ramakrishna makes an amazing statement: After attaining Knowledge some people give up their bodies. All those who attain Knowledge do not give up their body. So, among those who attain Knowledge, who will continue to live and who will give up the body? Can this be predicted?

Yes, it can indeed be predicted. The details of how this can be predicted is however quite complicated. If we patiently follow the line of argument presented below, sufficient clarity does come.

The path that the aspirant takes for achieving the vision of God determines largely whether he will be able to integrate the post-Nirvikalpa Samadhi experiences with his personality. If one follows the path of ‘neti, neti’, the Jnana Marga, with the goal of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the post-Nirvikalpa state seems like an aberration. There is nothing in his philosophy or his Sadhana that will help him integrate his post-Nirvikalpa experiences into his personality. When the aspirant experiences multiplicity after achieving Nirvikalpa Samadhi, he will have no mental tools to help him make sense of those experiences. He will constantly feel that he has fallen from the state of beatitude and will constantly exert himself to regain that state. This does not necessarily mean that everyone who follows the ‘neti, neti’ path will merge forever in Samadhi and his body will fall off, with the person not regaining the normal consciousness of multiplicity at all. We must acknowledge the fact that achieving Nirvikalpa Samadhi itself is not a common occurrence. Extremely few persons ever achieve that state of consciousness. Among those who do achieve that state of unitive consciousness, most persons do not come back to normal consciousness. But some do. There have been records of that occurrence. Regarding those who do not regain normal consciousness after Nirvikalpa Samadhi, we have no problem. The explanation is quite simple, which we shall presently see. It is regarding those rarest of the rare cases – they have achieved Nirvikalpa Samadhi, but then, they do regain normal consciousness – that we need to offer a reasonable explanation of why and how they do so.

Meanwhile, it is important for us to know that if one follows the path of ‘iti, iti’, the path of Bhakti-Karma Yoga, the post-Nirvikalpa Samadhi state will be seen as a rich experience, full of meaning. This is an incredible discovery of Sri Ramakrishna which is pivotal in his role as Avatara for the present age. We introduce this idea here because we can achieve clarity on our dilemma, and arrive at a satisfactory answer to the question we have raised, only against the background of this discovery of Sri Ramakrishna.[7]

We may recall the case of Tota Puri here.[8] Tota Puri, one of the Gurus of Sri Ramakrishna, was a God-realized soul. He had achieved the goal of Nirvikalpa Samadhi by following the path of Jnana, also known as the ‘neti, neti’ path; the path of negation. In this path, every experience, every perception is negated as unreal. We do not bother to answer how we get those unreal experiences, or from where they arise. We only refuse to allot any value to them. When this practice is sustained for many years doggedly, a marvelous transformation occurs in the aspirant. He perceives only the Self and nothing else. It is the utter sublation of multiplicity, and consequently, a unitive experience. Generally, the aspirant does not regain consciousness of multiplicity after this experience. So, he cannot eat, drink, metabolize, urinate or defecate to sustain his body. Hence, the body withers away and he dies. In some cases, it has been noted in religious history that the aspirant does regain normal consciousness. The followers of the ‘neti, neti’ path have been greatly troubled by this phenomenon of regaining of normal consciousness, for how can they explain it? Everything has been rejected as unreal; nothing exists that can be assigned any value; how can we now explain why the aspirant regains consciousness of multiplicity? They came up with a weak theory of Prarabda Karma; they said that some karmas remain that had already starting fructifying when the aspirant went into Nirvikalpa Samadhi. The Samadhi was powerful enough to blast away the other two types of Karmas – Agami and Sanchita; but somehow, the supreme state of consciousness achievable by man is, in some cases only, incapable of destroying Prarabda Karma! Why do some others just pass away after Nirvikalpa Samadhi? In their cases, there were no Prarabda Karmas! So, you see, this theory is just sophistry.

It is the Divine Will which decides whether the aspirant will regain normal consciousness and his body will continue to live or not. There can be no other tenable position. We see this assertion of ours justified in the life of Sri Ramakrishna. After Tota Puri left Dakshineswar, Sri Ramakrishna plunged into Nirvikalpa Samadhi and lived in that state for six long months! Yet his body did not fall off. Why? It was the Divine Will that his body would be preserved and some work of that Divine Will would be done through him. Hence, circumstances conjured to bring a monk to Dakshineswar at that period. He saw the condition that Sri Ramakrishna was in and understood the situation. He knew that if that body did not eat, drink, etc, it would fall off. He would, therefore, beat that body with a stick repeatedly and bring Sri Ramakrishna to normal consciousness. In the few minutes that normal consciousness would appear in him, he would be fed something. Then again, he would merge in Samadhi. This went on till Sri Ramakrishna developed severe diarrhea, which brought him back to normal consciousness for good. Whatever contribution he made to humanity’s progress came after that period. Hence the assumption that reality is only Pure Being is untenable. Reality is Being-Will, or as Sister Nivedita would put it, Impersonal-Personal.

Anyway, Tota Puri had experienced Nirvikalpa Samadhi. And then, he had regained normal consciousness too. He couldn’t make sense of it, but he learned to live with it. With no specific purpose in life, (since every conceivable purpose of life had been negated away during his Sadhana), he just roamed around, visiting various holy places. During one such tour, he met Sri Ramakrishna and found in him a fit candidate for Vedanta Sadhana. He invested his disciple into formal Sannyasa and trained him in ‘neti, neti’ Sadhana. Wonder of wonders, the supreme state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, which he himself had struggled for forty years to achieve, his young disciple achieved it in just three days! He was fascinated. He couldn’t explain it, but nonetheless, he marveled at this amazing turn of events. He, who had made a resolve, never to stay in one place for more than three nights, stayed at Dakshineswar for nine months! We must appreciate what a tremendous thing this is! God-realized souls of the Jnana Path, like Tota Puri, have iron will. Once they decide something, no power on earth can make them change it. It was this kind of single-minded will that made them achieve their goal. Yet, he stayed back, enamored, we could say, by the unprecedented sweetness of his young disciple. Bengal is a dangerous place, health wise; malaria and gastro-intestinal problems are rampant here, have always been, perhaps, will always be. The strong physique of Tota Puri broke down due to stomach ailments. He was not the kind that would take medicines to cure ailments. We must try to understand the mind of such persons. He had convinced himself beyond a shadow of doubt that there was no value in anything, not in the things of this world, nor in the relations of this world, nor even in one’s own body. So, where is the point of remedying something? The body is getting sick? Well, the body can be thrown away. How do we throw away the body? Of course, get merged in Nirvikalpa Samadhi again. If ‘Prarabda Karma’ is over, the body will fall off. He tried it. But wonder of wonders, he just couldn’t achieve Nirvikalpa Samadhi! This is something to ponder about. Recall the strength of will of such persons. He himself was shocked. He was disgusted with this ‘unreal’ world and its devious ways. What if he couldn’t merge in Samadhi? He would drown himself in the Ganga. He walked into the mighty river. It is recorded by eye-witnesses that he walked right through the river and reached the other bank! He couldn’t even drown himself. Flabbergasted, he sat down on the other bank and suddenly saw that what his young disciple always said was indeed true. There is indeed a Divine Will that holds complete sway over this world. He was now able to make sense of it all. All that he had rejected did indeed have an intrinsic value in that it is nothing but God. He experienced the wonderful state in which his young disciple had remained ever since he himself had regained normal consciousness.

This state of consciousness is, in fact, a revelation of Sri Ramakrishna. It is meant to be the ideal for the present age. He called it Vijnana. Look at the following passage from the Gospel in this connection:[9]

Master (to M): I learnt Vedanta from Nangta: “Brahman alone is real; the world is illusory.’ The magician performs his magic. He produces a mango-tree which even bears mangoes. But this is all sleight of hand. The magician alone is real.

M: It seems that the whole of life is a long sleep. This much I understand, that we are not seeing things rightly. We perceive the world with a mind by which we cannot comprehend even the nature of the sky. So how can our perceptions be correct?

Master: There is another way of looking at it. We do not see the sky rightly. It looks as if the sky were touching the ground at the horizon. How can a man see correctly? His mind is delirious, like the mind of a typhoid patient.

The Master sang in his sweet voice:  What a delirious fever is this that I suffer from!  O Mother, Thy grace is my only cure….

Continuing, the Master said: Truly it is a state of delirium. Just see how worldly men quarrel among themselves. No one knows what they quarrel about. Oh, how they quarrel! ‘May such and such a thing befall you!’ How much shouting! How much abuse!

M: I said to Kishori, ‘The box is empty; there is nothing inside. But two men pull at it from either side, thinking the box contains money.’ Well, the body alone is the cause of all this mischief, isn’t it? The Jnanis see all this and say to themselves, ‘What a relief one feels when this pillow-case of the body drops off.

The Master and M. went toward the Kali temple.

Master: Why should you say such things? This world may be a ‘frame work of illusion’, but it is also said that it is a ‘mansion of mirth’. Let the body remain. One can also turn this world into a mansion of mirth.

M: But where is unbroken bliss in this world?

Master: Yes, where is it?

Sri Ramakrishna stood in front of the shrine of Kali and prostrated himself before the Divine Mother. M. followed him. Then the Master sat on the lower floor in front of the shrine room, facing the blissful image, and leaned against a pillar of the natmandir. He wore a red-bordered cloth, part of which was on his shoulder and back. M. sat by his side.

M: Since there is no unbroken happiness in the world, why should one assume a body at all? I know that the body is meant only to reap the results of past action. But who knows what sort of action it is performing now? The unfortunate part is that we are being crushed.

Master: If a pea falls into filth, it grows into a pea-plant none the less.

M: But still there are the eight bonds.

Master: They are not eight bonds, but eight fetters. But what if they are? These fetters fall off in a moment, by the grace of God. Do you know what it is like? Suppose a room has been kept dark a thousand years. The moment a man brings a light into it, the darkness vanishes. Not little by little. Haven’t you seen the magician’s feat? He takes a string with many knots, and ties one end to something, keeping the other in his hand. Then he shakes the string once or twice, and immediately all the knots come undone. But another man cannot untie the knots however he may try. All the knots of ignorance come undone in the twinkling of an eye, through the guru’s grace.

So, whether a person is an ordinary ignorant soul, a sincerely struggling soul, or a God-realized soul, one will commit suicide only if one believes in one or more of the following things:

  1. My life has become an unresolvable tangle. I am unable to do anything to become free. Continuing to live is a pain, which is worse than the pain of death. Hence it is better to die voluntarily. This situation is applicable in the case of an ordinary ignorant soul, or a sincerely struggling soul.
  2. We get this human body after passing through innumerable types of living bodies. Human birth is indeed rare. Having got this human body, we need to achieve something that is imperishable. God is imperishable. If God has become real in this life for us, then, there is nothing further that can be achieved by this body. What is the meaning of continuing to live in this dirty, disease-prone or disease-ridden body, which demands enormous attention just to live from day-to-day? Hence I can give up this body. This situation is applicable in the case of a God-realized soul.

However, if one accepts the Vijnana ideal revealed by Sri Ramakrishna to be the goal of one’s life, such a situation doesn’t arise at all, as we saw in the above passage. As regards an ordinary, ignorant soul or a sincerely struggling soul, this ideal promises that no problem is impossible to surmount. The grace of the Guru is always working on us. That grace can lift us above any problem that comes our way. As regards a God-realized soul, this ideal paves the way for experiencing God in infinite ways. This aspect of this ideal was highlighted by Swami Brahmananda when he said that actual spiritual life begins after Nirvikalpa Samadhi.

A much more startling illustration of this implication of the Vijnana ideal is seen in Sri Ramakrishna’s life. The Gospel has the following record:[10]

Master (To M.): You see, I am very much depressed today. Hriday has written me that he is very ill. Why should I feel dejected about it? Is it because of Maya or Daya?

  1. could not find suitable words for a reply, and remained silent.

Master: Do you know what Maya is? It is attachment to relatives – parents, brother and sister, wife and children, nephew and niece. Daya means love for all created beings. Now what is this, my feeling about Hriday? Is it Maya or Daya? But Hriday did so much for me; he served me whole-heartedly and nursed me when I was ill. But later he tormented me also. The torment became so unbearable that once I was about to commit suicide by jumping into the Ganges from the top of the embankment. But he did much to serve me. Now my mind will be at rest if he gets some money. But whom shall I ask for it? Who likes to speak about such things to our rich visitors?

This is an amazing record in the life of Sri Ramakrishna. When exactly was this, that he contemplated killing himself? It was after all his spiritual practices had completed and he was established in Bhavamukha, which is the name given to the state of spiritual consciousness when a person has realized the ideal of Vijnana. He was thus a God-realized soul when he contemplated suicide. So, as we saw before, he could very well have gone ahead and ended his earthly life, for what else would he have to achieve by continuing to live? Why indeed would he have to endure suffering the tortures of Hriday? Yet, he did not jump. Why? The exact reason is not mentioned in the Gospel. We can safely infer from his other utterances that the ideal of Vijnana goaded him to live on, as long as this body lasted, to experience God in myriad forms. That is why Sri Ramakrishna said, “Let the body remain. One can also turn this world into a mansion of mirth.” This impulse, which this new ideal for the new age gives, is extremely powerful, extremely life-affirming. It goes in the face of the sanction given by ancient Hindu tradition for spiritually advanced souls to end their lives, if they so wished.

One last point in this connection: Sri Ramakrishna speaks of vision of God in one place and Knowledge in another place. But I don’t call it suicide if a person leaves his body after having the vision of God. There is no harm in giving up one’s body that way. After attaining Knowledge some people give up their bodies. Which is it? Are they the same? Swami Saradananda makes a clear distinction between Divine mood, Vision of God, and Samadhi. An aspirant cultivates a particular attitude towards his Ishta. Based on this attitude, spiritual practice proceeds for a long time. After the attitude gets established in the aspirant, a divine mood awakens within his consciousness. This event coincides with a permanent transformation in his personality. His soul races from now onwards towards the goal of Samadhi. It is only when Nirvikalpa Samadhi occurs that Knowledge dawns, and not before. After the awakening of the divine mood, and before Samadhi, depending on the tendency of the aspirant, some may see some divine visions. Not all will see visions of the forms of God. Some may.

Seen in the light of this clarification, we understand that what Sri Ramakrishna means in the above passage is Knowledge only, and not vision of a form of God. For, the purpose of the human body is not fulfilled with just a vision of God. Of course, we must admit that a vision of God is no small thing. A person who has had such a vision is indeed a very advanced spiritual soul. But, we must also admit that it is not the last word in spiritual progress that a soul makes. When Samadhi occurs, and Knowledge dawns, one gets a perpetual vision of God. So, we need to understand the passage correctly, or it will result in great confusion.

Many aspirants, especially those capable of intense visualization, may confuse their own visualizations, accompanied by some quieting of the mind, with a genuine vision of God, or even with the final goal. When such naiveté is backed with an immature philosophy and inherent weakness of character, there is high chance of an aspirant committing suicide under duress, the entire thing masquerading as spiritual license from Sri Ramakrishna! When Sri Ramakrishna says ‘Vision of God’, these peculiar cases of self-delusion are not even considered!

Are we justified in interpreting Sri Ramakrishna’s words as we have done in the above passage? We believe we are justified. Look at the following record from the Gospel:[11]

It was a week-day. Generally devotees came to the Master in large numbers on Sundays; hence those who wanted to have intimate talks with him visited him on week-days. A boy named Vishnu, living in Ariadaha, had recently committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor. The talk turned to him.

Master: I felt very badly when I heard of the boy’s passing away. He was a pupil in a school and he used to come here. He would often say to me that he couldn’t enjoy worldly life. He had lived with some relatives in the western provinces and at that time used to meditate in solitude, in the meadows, hills, and forests. He told me he had visions of many divine forms. Perhaps this was his last birth. He must have finished most of his duties in his previous birth. The little that had been left undone was perhaps finished in this one. One must admit the existence of tendencies inherited from previous births. There is a story about a man who practiced the sava-sadhana. He worshipped the Divine Mother in a deep forest. First he saw many terrible visions. Finally a tiger attacked and killed him. Another man, happening to pass and seeing the approach of the tiger, had climbed a tree. Afterwards he got down and found all the arrangements for worship at hand. He performed some purifying ceremonies and seated himself on the corpse. No sooner had he done a little Japa than the Divine Mother appeared before him and said: ‘My child, I am very much pleased with you. Accept a boon from Me.’ He bowed low at the Lotus Feet of the Goddess and said: ‘May I ask You one question, Mother? I am speechless with amazement at Your action. The other man worked so hard to get the ingredients for Your worship and tried to propitiate You for such a long time, but You didn’t condescend to show him Your favour. And I, who don’t know anything of worship, who have done nothing, who have neither devotion nor knowledge nor love, and who haven’t practised any austerities, am receiving so much of Your grace.’ The Divine Mother said with a laugh: ‘My child, you don’t remember your previous births. For many births you tried to propitiate Me through austerities. As a result of those austerities all these things have come to hand, and you have been blessed with My Vision. Now ask Me your boon.

In the above passage, Sri Ramakrishna says that Vishnu had himself said he had visions of God. Yet, Sri Ramakrishna felt sad that he ended his life. Why was he sad? Vishnu still had a long way to go before becoming fulfilled, before his soul had reached its destiny, which is a perpetual vision of God. Then there are the following words that Sri Ramakrishna says, “Perhaps this was his last birth. He must have finished most of his duties in his previous birth. The little that had been left undone was perhaps finished in this one. One must admit the existence of tendencies inherited from previous births.” How are we to understand these words? Did Sri Ramakrishna by any chance give his approval to this kind of death? Some people believe this to be the case. We believe this was not the case. If this was indeed approval, then why did he feel sad? If Vishnu had indeed cast the gold image, where is the question of Sri Ramakrishna feeling sad? Wouldn’t Sri Ramakrishna have known if Vishnu had cast the gold image?

Anyway, let us now give some thought to the words Sri Ramakrishna uses: ‘Gives up the body’ and ‘leaves the body’. We need to know the Hindu idea of death to understand these words. Swami Ashokananda says:[12]

In  regard  to  the  subjective  phase  of  death,  that  is,  death  as  it  is experienced by the dying rather than as observed by the living, we are told that when a spiritually undeveloped soul separates from the body, it feels all the shock and agony such separation implies, whereas when  a  spiritually  developed  soul  departs,  its  passing  is  easy  and smooth, and there is no attendant agony.

Even when the dying man appears outwardly unconscious, he is inwardly conscious and experiences the transition from life to after-life. At the dying moment his whole past life is said to pass before him as a quickly moving panorama, and certain tendencies and characteristics of his life begin to assume prepotency. Colored and influenced by them, he departs, and the nature of the departure is determined by these predominant tendencies and characteristics. If they are good, the passing is pleasant; if not, it is unpleasant.

When  a  soul  struggles  hard  and  suffers  great  agony  because  it resists separation from the body and the world, on passing it appears stunned by the blow of death, and it requires some time to recover alertness. Even when full consciousness returns, it is not immediately able to determine its course. It drifts for a while, and only later is it able to find its way to a suitable plane of existence.

What do you think makes the soul resist separation from the body and the world, with the result that death means agony and struggle? Suppose I have lived in a certain place for fifteen or twenty years, that I have developed countless interests there, and that I have become fond of my neighbors. Suppose I am forced to leave that place at a moment’s notice – what a stunning blow it will be to me! Finding myself torn away from all I knew and loved. I shall suffer greatly. Death is that kind of separation, and to those who have been much attached to life, it is certainly painful.

We need to understand what happens in an aspirant as he progresses through Divine Mood, Visions and achieves Samadhi. Each of these developments is accompanied by tyaga and vairagya in the aspirant. It can be seen as a circle; renunciation & dispassion make the soul qualified for spiritual progress, and each step in the spiritual path strengthens the soul’s renunciation & dispassion. When Samadhi occurs, which is the true state of God-realization, the soul has become completely free from any association with multiplicity. It is a state of unity. This utter dissociation of consciousness from matter has a physiological counterpart, as per our traditions. In this human body, there is a wonderful, seamless association of consciousness, life-force and nerves. When Samadhi occurs, these three get dissociated from one another. Sri Ramakrishna gives the example of a dried coconut. When one shakes a completely dried coconut, one can feel the inner portion completely dissociated from the kernel. As and when a God-realized person wishes he can easily dissociate himself from his body. In fact, the association and dissociation of consciousness with matter depends on the will of the God-realized soul. How? In a God-realized soul, there will always be two wills; one is the will of the ordinary person; the other is the Divine Will, in its entirety. A God-realized soul does not always have his own will merged in the Divine Will. Quite often he will operate his own individual will. In that case, he is subject to the forces of human emotions and Karma. When his individual will is merged with the Divine will, he can still act and use his senses. In all cases except that of a God-realized person, consciousness is very deeply associated with matter. Death is a forcible dissociation of the two; hence the pain associated with death in general cases.

Even before death, even while living, a God-realized person can withdraw his consciousness from any association with matter and merge in Samadhi, at will. Swami Turiyananda had to be operated upon for a carbuncle. The doctor warned him that it would be extremely painful. Swami Turiyananda asked for a few minutes before the doctor began the procedure. He then withdrew his consciousness from that portion of his body and then the doctor operated on him. Swami Turiyananda felt no pain! We have a similar incident in the life of Sri Ramakrishna too. The cancerous sore in his throat had to be cleaned by a doctor. It would pain him immensely when the cleaning was done. So, he would take a couple of minutes, withdraw his mind from that portion of his body; and then the doctor would do the cleaning. It was as if the doctor was touching a plastic model and not a living body. That kind of dissociation of the life-forces from the body becomes possible when the Vijnana ideal is realized in our lives.

Anyway, the main point of contention here is: Giving up the body, or leaving the body seem to be similar to voluntarily dying by suicide. But the important point to note is that in one case, the person, by an act of will, releases the life-forces and the body falls dead, while in the other case, the person has to destroy or mutilate the body and enforce the life-forces to leave the body. This may seem like a trivial difference, but the entire moral argument of this essay lies in this distinction.

Take the case of Swami Vivekananda’s death. The following is recorded in the authoritative Life of Swami Vivekananda. There are many versions of the last moments of Swamiji, but this one was published in Udbodhan Magazine by a brother monk:[13]

After meditating and telling his beads for about an hour, he laid himself down on his bed on the floor, and calling the disciple, who was waiting outside, asked him to fan his head a little. He had the rosary still in his hand. The disciple thought the Swami was perhaps having a light sleep. About an hour later, his hand shook a little. Then came two deep breaths. The disciple thought he fell into Samadhi. He then went downstairs and called a sannyasin, who came and found on examination that there was neither respiration nor pulse. Meanwhile, another sannyasin came and, thinking him to be in Samadhi, began to chant aloud the Master’s name continually, but in no way was the Samadhi broken! That night an eminent physician was called in. He examined the body for a long time and afterwards said that life was extinct.  The next morning it was found that the eyes were bloodshot and that there was a little bleeding through the mouth and nostrils. Other doctors remarked that it was due to the rupture of a blood-vessel in the brain. This clearly leads to the conclusion that, in the process of Japa and meditation, his Brahmarandhra [aperture in the. crown of the head] must have been pierced when he left the body! After his Mahasamadhi several doctors came and examined his body minutely and tried to bring him back to consciousness. They exhausted all the means and methods that they knew of rousing him, but to no avail. They could not, in point of fact, make out the real cause of his death. He died, in truth, of his own accord. He was born a yogi, and he died a yogi! 

Although this looks like a normal death, in retrospect, all his companions were able to read that he planned his end, by an act of will. He had displayed a marked change in his life-style for about a month before the end. He had even consulted the almanac and had decided on an auspicious moment. The piece-de-resistance was in his organizing an all-night Kali Puja on the day following his end. What better way to look upon his death as a final offering to Mother Kali, who had used him to get Her work done! Some of these things, we see in Sri Ramakrishna’s case too. He had left sufficient hints that he would depart on a particular day, although they were all understood only in retrospect.

Do all God-realized souls pass away like this? No. Most God-realized souls prefer to exit in an undramatic, apparently normal way. We may refer to the final moments of Holy Mother Sri Sharada Devi, or Swami Brahmananda, or a host of other genuine spiritual souls to understand this. Take for instance the case of Swami Trigunatitananda. He got hurt very badly in a bomb attack. He suffered for a few days and thereafter, passed away silently. But, on close observation, all of them exit in a way that does have some extraordinary features. For instance, look at the following record of Swami Saradeshananda’s death, as noted by his full-time attendant:[14]

I called for the other attendant and sent him to fetch the doctor. The doctor came at once and examined him. Initially his blood pressure was alright, but the doctor instructed us to keep an eye on it as his blood pressure and pulse could go up anytime. A few moments later, I noticed that his blood pressure was extremely high and the pulse-rate also was very fast. The doctor administered injections. Half an hour later, his left side, which was quite fine till then, started paralyzing. He lost all outward consciousness. The whole of 10th December went like this. At night, we heard him groan a little. Possibly, it was because of stomach pain due to an accumulation of urine in the bladder. On the eleventh, the doctor asked us to bring a catheter. Before we could bring it, we heard some rattling noise coming out of his throat. Immediately, we tried to clear it up with a suction machine, but the doctor arrived by then. Suddenly, his breathing stopped but he breathed again after some time. When again after a long time he breathed, the doctor was astonished. The doctor closely watched the intervals between two breaths. Suddenly, all the hairs on his head and beard—it was shaved only five-seven days ago—stood on their ends. When he was not seen breathing for almost three-four minutes, the doctor examined him and told: ‘He is gone. What a peaceful death! I have not seen anything like this before!’ His eyes were filled with tears and he left the room. On 11 December 1988 at 9:07 a.m., Saradeshananda finally took shelter in the Mother’s lap.

That is what the ideal of Vijnana actually means. Life’s struggles will be welcomed and faced. There is no place for weakness, or helplessness, in the entire scheme of life, according to this ideal. There is a Great Power driving this world. Birth, life and death are governed by that Great Power. Established in the firm knowledge that one is Pure Consciousness, one can whole-heartedly cooperate with this Divine Power and participate in Her Lila. Life can be lived in such a way that jioi de vivre is experienced right here and now. Life can be lived in such a way, according to this new ideal of Vijnana that death can be welcomed as and when it approaches us, and not obsessed over as a compulsion. If such is the implication, surely suicide is redundant in the scheme of life as proposed by this ideal!

There are a couple of issues we need to raise now.

Tradition holds that Sri Ramachandra had Jala-samadhi (which means he walked into the Sarayu River and he left his body.) Since Sri Ramachandra was an Avatara and he died in that manner, what is wrong in a God-realized soul of the present age dying that way? This is a valid argument. It is however wrong through and through in our view. Tradition has innumerable stories, some perhaps true, most being certainly apocryphal, of exalted souls leaving their bodies in all sorts of ways. One could walk into a River and die. One could jump from the Himalayas and leave his body. One could walk into a grave-like area and have his disciples build a stone-masonry structure over him. This kind of structure was also called ‘Samadhi’. One could walk into the wilderness and offer himself to a wild animal without resistance, or starve himself to death. All these kinds of deaths, voluntary in each case, have been passed down in Indian tradition regarding Avataras, Prophets and God-realized souls.

We need to understand the implications of God-realization before we understand why these stories have done more harm than good to us, and hence, are considered wrong ways of dying, god-realized or not. Concomitant with God-realization is the awakening of a deep kinship, a deep at-one-ment, a deep unification with all life. A God-realized soul can never take a step that would, if imitated by common people, create chaos in the world. He cannot take such a step because he feels one with all people.

Such an exalted soul can indeed leave his body, if he so wishes, just as an ordinary clinically depressed person also can. But the means of leaving the body in the former case will certainly be accompanied by a dignity that will be absent in the latter’s case. It is this aspect of these God-realized souls that lends their lives immeasurable value for this world. They are the standards of human behavior. What aspects of a God-realized soul’s life are worthy of emulation by us? Only his Sadhana? Only his devotion and dedication? Why not his death? If his death is not commensurate with his spiritual dignity and exalted status, why, his very status as God-realized soul may have to be doubted!

Some may raise another objection here: You cannot subject a God-realized soul to such an examination. His actions are beyond any rule or regulation of this world. The moral considerations of right or wrong do not apply to him! Very well; but, consider for a moment the case of a person who is worshipped as a God-realized soul engaging in adultery. Is that allowed, then? Since he is beyond all moral considerations, can he get away with such an act? No. He can’t. More importantly, he won’t do such a thing, if he is a man of genuine realization of the spiritual ideal. Agreed that he may have gone beyond the pale of right and wrong; but he will never do anything that is wrong; wrong in our eyes. Since he has gone beyond the sphere of morality, he can certainly die voluntarily. But, would he die in a way that could be imitated by a regular depressed nut-case? We say depressed nut-case because, he must be a nut-case to decide that he is a God-realized soul, when he clearly isn’t one; and he must be depressed because, unless one is depressed, he won’t end his life. If the God-realized soul did indeed do such a thing, that would be most irresponsible of him; and hence his spiritual status becomes suspect!

From the elaborate discussion we have had till now, what can we conclude about death and suicide?

Death is a certainty for all of us. Life can be lived in such a way that we can be prepared to welcome death as and when it comes. Throughout life, if we have developed a technique of correctly digesting the experiences that come to us, we develop a perspective of facing death as one more experience. Techniques of rejecting the various experiences of life may have their utility in a constricted way, but, in a comprehensive way they fall short.

There is a spiritual ideal revealed to us by Sri Ramakrishna which enables us to merge our will with the Divine Will. Any action that emerges from that conjoint Will (which is actually the Divine Will itself) alone is the right action. Any other source of action, no matter how exalted the person be, is suspect. This holds good with respect to voluntary death too.

*******************

 

[1] http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/

[2] https://blog.ipleaders.in/attempted-suicide-law/#_ftnref2

[3] https://www.thoughtco.com/study-of-suicide-by-emile-durkheim-3026758

[4] http://www.drnishakhanna.com/tag/cognitive-behavior-therapy-in-depression/

[5] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on Dec 14th 1882; Pg: 164

[6] https://www.firstpost.com/entertainment/rose-mcgowan-on-anthony-bourdain-suicide-he-put-down-his-armour-was-very-much-his-choice-4508123.html

[7] Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master : Chapter – Sadhaka & Sadhana: Pp: 88-92

[8] Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master : Chapter – Master’s relation with his teachers: Pp: 485-488

[9] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on Sept 26th 1883: Pp: 297-298

[10] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on Aug 19th 1883: Pp: 274-275

[11] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on Dec 14th 1882: Pp: 163-164

[12] Vedanta: Vedanta Society of UK: Issue 393; Jan-Feb 2017; Pp: 5-21

[13] Life of Swami Vivekananda by Eastern & Western Disciples: Part-II: Pg: 657

[14] Prabuddha Bharata: Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati: Dec 2017: Issue-122: Vol-12: Pg: 49

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Harmony of Religions – How & Why

Swami Vivekananda attended the World Parliament on Religions in Chicago from 11th September 1893 to 27th September 1893. This year we are celebrating the 125th anniversary of this event all over the world.

By far the greatest contribution of Swami Vivekananda through his participation in the Chicago World Parliament was his introduction of the life-giving concept of ‘Harmony of Religions’ to the thought-current of the world.

It is the nature of human beings to segregate themselves into groups based on identities. We have language, religion, race, geography, nationality, caste, class, and many more identities around which we consider ourselves one with some people and different from others. Of all these identities, the strongest seems to be the identity based on religion. History has shown us that religion is a terrific binding force. Religion also works as an insurmountable dividing force! The great thinker George Carlin once said that more people have been killed by wrongly answering the ‘God question’ than for any other reason in human history!

Religion is the vehicle by which the human soul evolves. Every religion will have a sacred book, which contains the wisdom that God revealed to His Chosen Messenger. God reveals a particular form of Himself to the Messenger. The Messenger then works out a set of activities called ‘Ritual’ by following which any ordinary person can also evolve spiritually. This Chosen Messenger will be considered the founder of that religion. This is the general scheme through which religions operate in our world.

A person becomes a part of a religion when he or she accepts that particular Book, that particular Messenger and that particular form of God revealed through that Book and Messenger. Since this scheme has indeed come down from God directly in each case, if one participates sincerely in it, one undoubtedly makes spiritual progress. This is seen in every religion. Where does the problem arise from, then?

Swami Vivekananda explains this through a beautiful story. [1]

A frog lived in a well. It had lived there for a long time. It was born there and brought up there, and yet was a little, small frog. Of course the evolutionists were not there then to tell us whether the frog lost its eyes or not, but, for our story’s sake, we must take it for granted that it had its eyes, and that it every day cleansed the water of all the worms and bacilli that lived in it with an energy that would do credit to our modern bacteriologists. In this way it went on and became a little sleek and fat. Well, one day another frog that lived in the sea came and fell into the well.

“Where are you from?”

“I am from the sea.”

“The sea! How big is that? Is it as big as my well?” and he took a leap from one side of the well to the other.

“My friend,” said the frog of the sea, “how do you compare the sea with your little well?” Then the frog took another leap and asked, “Is your sea so big?”

“What nonsense you speak, to compare the sea with your well!”

“Well, then,” said the frog of the well, “nothing can be bigger than my well; there can be nothing bigger than this; this fellow is a liar, so turn him out.”

That has been the difficulty all the while.

I am a Hindu. I am sitting in my own little well and thinking that the whole world is my little well. The Christian sits in his little well and thinks the whole world is his well. The Mohammedan sits in his little well and thinks that is the whole world. I have to thank you of America for the great attempt you are making to break down the barriers of this little world of ours, and hope that, in the future, the Lord will help you to accomplish your purpose.

This is a famous, old story in India. The Sanskrit term used for that frog in the well is ‘Kupa-manduka’. This mentality of the frog in the well is something that is fundamental to all human thinking. This kind of thinking is natural to us. Unless we are given special education, we are unable to correct this anomaly in our mental make-up. In fact the ancient Indian logicians termed this fundamental anomaly in human thinking as ‘Kupa-manduka-nyaya’.

How can this inherent fault in our thinking be corrected? Let us answer this question a little later.

First of all, we must understand that this kind of myopic thinking is actually a necessity for all of us. The reason why all of us have this kind of short-sightedness is because it has helped us in our evolution. It is an evolutionary necessity. In the beginning of our spiritual life, we need this kind of unquestioning faith in our beliefs. Others may say we are wrong. But, we should believe that what we believe is the final Truth. This concept is called ‘Nishta’. Unless we have Nishta, we can never grow. If we develop catholicity too early in our lives, our own spiritual life will never develop. One particular idea of God, religion, Self, Guru and Scripture protects us from confusion in the beginning of our spiritual life. But, when we have used this Nishta and achieved some amount of inner development, we should accommodate other views of God and paths to God too. That is why Swamiji said, ‘It is good to be born in a church, but it is bad to die in a church.’ We need to outgrow the bindings of religion, as we mature.

What happens if we do not correct this fault? Sri Ramakrishna paints an artless picture in one conversation as follows:

Some people indulge in quarrels, saying, ‘One cannot attain anything unless one worships our Krishna’, or, ‘Nothing can be gained without the worship of Kali, our Divine Mother’, or, ‘One cannot be saved without accepting the Christian religion.’ This is pure dogmatism. The dogmatist says, ‘My religion alone is true, and the religions of others are false.’ This is a bad attitude. God can be reached by different paths. Further, some say that God has form and is not formless. Thus they start quarrelling. A Vaishnava quarrels with a Vedantist. [2]

Intense hatred develops between two well-meaning people because of this fault. While forced inter-religious conversions and religious fundamentalism have always been the outcome of this dogmatic view, the problem has taken a whole new dimension in the present age.

In the general scheme of the spiritual development of human beings, there is actually no need for this concept of harmony of religions. That is why for thousands of years of human history, this concept never came up. The previous Avataras and Prophets did not preach this concept with the force that Sri Ramakrishna imparted to it.

Of course, serious students of religion will know that even in the past, whenever and wherever people of different religions met and interacted on a daily basis, attempts at harmonizing the religions have occurred. Take for example, the Bhagavad Gita,[3] or the Sufi school of Islam.

But the scale and speed of the present development is phenomenal. The present developments in the world, such as industrialization and globalization have brought huge swathes of people of different religions in close contact with one another. Till recently, people were confined to their geographies and did not interact much with people of another religion or country. Hence the clash of identities was never a serious issue. But, in the present age, the clash of identities has become a very serious issue. When we interact closely with people of other religions, regions, races, etc, a dilution of our identities occurs. These international interactions on an unprecedented scale have started bringing out deep insecurities in us. Hence, even the common man needs to be educated in this concept of harmony of religions, for his own survival, and for peace in the world.

For a long time in our world’s history, religion served an individual’s spiritual needs. Hence deep knowledge of the philosophy of one’s own religion or of other religions, or deep knowledge of the psychology of spiritual development of man was not necessary. Sri Ramakrishna says in a conversation: “Who can fully know the infinite God? And what need is there of knowing the Infinite? Having attained this rare human birth, my supreme need is to develop love for the Lotus Feet of God. If a jug of water is enough to remove my thirst, why should I measure the quantity of water in a lake? I become drunk on even half a bottle of wine – what is the use of my calculating the quantity of liquor in the tavern? What need is there of knowing the Infinite? [4] This attitude sufficed for a long time, when countries were not connected well, and the majority of people in the world lived their entire lives confined to their place of birth. Modern developments have brought enormous populations in contact with one another. Obviously, their identities clash and create a potentially dangerous situation. It was to address this urgent need of the present age that the compassionate Lord incarnated as Sri Ramakrishna and delivered this message of the harmony of religions.

Let us now try to answer the question we raised: How can we correct this inherent fault in our thinking? There are two ways in which this fault can be corrected, according to Sri Ramakrishna.

Let us look at the first method that Sri Ramakrishna prescribes for us to correct this inherent fault in us.

Genuine spiritual growth is required. Intellectual understanding is not religion. Experience alone is religion. In religion, experience comes by doggedly holding onto one particular aspect of God that appeals to us, and making that aspect real in our lives. Once we see God face-to-face, in that particular aspect, God will Himself clarify this issue for us. This is Sri Ramakrishna’s confirmed opinion. Let me read out a small passage from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna to you:[5]

With sincerity and earnestness one can realize God through all religions. The Vaishnavas will realize God, and so will the Saktas, the Vedantists, and the Brahmos. The Mussalmans and Christians will realize Him too. All will certainly realize God if they are earnest and sincere.

One can rightly speak of God only after one has seen Him. He who has seen God knows really and truly that God has form and that He is formless as well. He has many other aspects that cannot be described.

Once some blind men chanced to come near an animal that someone told them was an elephant. They were asked what the elephant was like. The blind men began to feel its body. One of them said the elephant was like a pillar; he had touched only its leg. Another said it was like a winnowing-fan; he had touched only its ear. In this way the others, having touched its tail or belly, gave their different versions of the elephant. Just so, a man who has seen only one aspect of God limits God to that alone. It is his conviction that God cannot be anything else.”

 (To the Goswami) “How can you say that the only truth about God is that He has form? It is undoubtedly true that God comes down to earth in a human form, as in the case of Krishna. And it is true as well that God reveals Himself to His devotees in various forms. But it is also true that God is formless; He is the Indivisible Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. He has been described in the Vedas both as formless and as endowed with form. He is also described there both as attributeless and as endowed with attributes.

Do you know what I mean? Satchidananda is like an infinite ocean. Intense cold freezes the water into ice, which floats on the ocean in blocks of various forms. Likewise, through the cooling influence of bhakti, one sees forms of God in the Ocean of the Absolute. These forms are meant for the bhaktas, the lovers of God. But when the Sun of Knowledge rises, the ice melts; it becomes the same water it was before. Water above and water below, everywhere nothing but water. Therefore a prayer in the Bhagavata says: ‘O Lord, Thou hast form, and Thou art also formless. Thou walkest before us, O Lord, in the shape of a man; again, Thou hast been described in the Vedas as beyond words and thought.’

But you may say that for certain devotees God assumes eternal forms. There are places in the ocean where the ice doesn’t melt at all. It assumes the form of quartz.

What a wonderful explanation this is! So simple and clear! We know so little and yet we make generalizations; and then we impose our faulty generalizations on others, who again are making the same mistake! So, there is no end of confusion. That is why Swamiji once said in a lecture,[6]When next you hear a man delivering great intellectual lectures against this worship of God, get hold of him and ask him what is his idea of God, what he means by ‘omnipotence’, and ‘omniscience’, and ‘omnipresent love’, and so forth, beyond the spelling of the words. He means nothing, he cannot formulate an idea, he is no better than the man in the street who has not read a single book. That man in the street, however, is quiet and does not disturb the world, while the other man’s arguments cause disturbance. He has no actual perception, and both are on the same Religion is realization, and you must make the sharpest distinction between talk and realization. What you perceive in your soul is realization.

In another lecture, Swamiji said,[7]Curiously enough the vast majority of mankind thinks, especially at the present time, that no such perception is possible in religion, that religion can only be apprehended by vain arguments. Therefore we are told not to disturb the mind by vain arguments. Religion is a question of fact, not of talk. We have to analyze our own souls and to find what is there. We have to understand it and to realize what is understood. That is religion. No amount of talk will make religion.

So, the first method of correcting the fault of religious disharmony in ourselves is to speak of only what we see, and not of what we know from reading, hearing, or thinking. How rightly Sri Ramakrishna points out, “One can rightly speak of God only after one has seen Him. He who has seen God knows really and truly that God has form and that He is formless as well. He has many other aspects that cannot be described.

Why does Sri Ramakrishna say that one can rightly speak of God only after one has seen Him? That is because, after seeing Him, we can, if we wish, ask Him what this confusion is all about, and He Himself will explain it to us! It is that simple. Unless God Himself explains the reason for this confusion among various religions, we will never be able to solve it among ourselves effectively. Elsewhere, Sri Ramakrishna highlights this point much more clearly:[8]

Devotee: Sir, why are there so many different opinions about the nature of God? Some say that God has form, while others say that He is formless. Again, those who speak of God with form tell us about His different forms. Why all this controversy?

Master: A devotee thinks of God as he sees Him. In reality there is no confusion about God. God explains all this to the devotee if the devotee only realizes Him somehow. You haven’t set your foot in that direction. How can you expect to know all about God?

Listen to a story. Once a man entered a wood and saw a small animal on a tree. He came back and told another man that he had seen a creature of a beautiful red color on a certain tree. The second man replied: ‘When I went into the wood, I also saw that animal. But why do you call it red? It is green.’ Another man who was present contradicted them both and insisted that it was yellow. Presently others arrived and contended that it was grey, violet, blue, and so forth and so on. At last they started quarrelling among themselves. To settle the dispute they all went to the tree. They saw a man sitting under it. On being asked, he replied: ‘Yes, I live under this tree and I know the animal very well. All your descriptions are true. Sometimes it appears red, sometimes yellow, and at other times blue, violet, grey, and so forth. It is a chameleon. And sometimes it has no color at all. Now it has a color, and now it has none.’ In like manner, one who constantly thinks of God can know His real nature; he alone knows that God reveals Himself to seekers in various forms and aspects. God has attributes; then again He has none. Only the man who lives under the tree knows that the chameleon can appear in various colors, and he knows, further, that the animal at times has no color at all. It is the others who suffer from the agony of futile argument. Kabir used to say, ‘The formless Absolute is my Father, and God with form is my Mother.’ God reveals Himself in the form which His devotee loves most. His love for the devotee knows no bounds. It is written in the Purana that God assumed the form of Rama for His heroic devotee, Hanuman.

 Elsewhere Sri Ramakrishna makes the same point in another context. The great Indian Freedom fighter Ashwini Kumar Sen wrote a letter to M, the chronicler of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, describing his interaction with Sri Ramakrishna, wherein he asks the Master:[9]

Myself: What is the difference between a Hindu and a Brahmo ?

Master: There is not much difference. In the serenade we have here, one flutist plays a single note right along, while another plays various melodies. The Brahmos play one note, as it were; they hold to the formless aspect of God. But the Hindus bring out different melodies; that is to say they enjoy God in His various aspects.

The formless Deity and God with form may be likened to water and ice. The water freezes into ice. The ice melts into water through the heat of jnana. Water takes the form of ice through the cooling influence of bhakti. The Reality is one. People give It various names. Take the case of a lake with four landing-ghats on its four banks. People who draw water at one ghat call it ‘jal’, and those who draw it at the second ghat call it ‘pani’. At the third ghat they call it ‘water’, and at the fourth, ‘aqua’. But it is one and the same thing water.

So the first method that Sri Ramakrishna gives us is to establish an intimate relation with the Living God. From God Himself we will learn that all religions are true.

There is another method. We can accept the discoveries of Sri Ramakrishna regarding the different religions, we can try to understand the variety in terms of the language developed by Vedanta and mould our lives according to those ideas. It is something similar to understanding the discoveries of the laws of motion by Isaac Newton; let us believe his discoveries; let us accept his discoveries; then we can put his discoveries to good use in our lives.

It will be a long time before we can ourselves achieve genuine spiritual experiences and assimilate those experiences. If we wait for that time, there is a danger that we will kill ourselves in the meantime over our differences! An intellectual knowledge of the discoveries of Sri Ramakrishna could easily avoid that terrible outcome.

It is impossible for us not to interact with people of different religions till we ourselves achieve genuine spiritual growth and learn directly from our experience that all religions are true. Hence we need to accept the conclusions of Sri Ramakrishna in this respect. The enormous documentation and universal access to information of the present age easily allow us to educate ourselves regarding the different religions, intellectually. Armed with that knowledge, against the background of Sri Ramakrishna’s discoveries, we can protect our Nishta, while avoiding fanaticism in our interactions with people all over the world.

The way the world is moving is alright. Religions and matters of this world have been effectively separated all over the world today. This separation will increase in the days to come. Secularism in the true sense will take hold over all people of this world. Democracy will take hold over all peoples of the world. Religion then will become a truly personal matter. Religion will help man to grow spiritually. And that inner growth he will be able to pour out in service to others.

The greatest help we get in this intellectual exercise is from Vedanta, according to Swami Vivekananda. He points out: In Vedanta the chief advantage is that it was not the work of one single man; and therefore, naturally, unlike Buddhism, or Christianity, or Mohammedanism, the prophet or teacher did not entirely swallow up or overshadow the principles. The principles live, and the prophets, as it were, form a secondary group, unknown to Vedanta. The Upanishads speak of no particular prophet, but they speak of various prophets and prophetesses. The old Hebrews had something of that idea; yet we find Moses occupying most of the space of the Hebrew literature. Of course I do not mean that it is bad that these prophets should take religious hold of a nation; but it certainly is very injurious if the whole field of principles is lost sight of. We can very much agree as to principles, but not very much as to persons. The persons appeal to our emotions; and the principles, to something higher, to our calm judgement. Principles must conquer in the long run, for that is the manhood of man. Emotions many times drag us down to the level of animals. Emotions have more connection with the senses than with the faculty of reason; and, therefore, when principles are entirely lost sight of and emotions prevail, religions degenerate into fanaticism and sectarianism. They are no better than party politics and such things. The most horribly ignorant notions will be taken up, and for these ideas thousands will be ready to cut the throats of their brethren. This is the reason that, though these great personalities and prophets are tremendous motive powers for good, at the same time their lives are altogether dangerous when they lead to the disregard of the principles they represent. That has always led to fanaticism, and has deluged the world in blood. Vedanta can avoid this difficulty, because it has not one special prophet. It has many Seers, who are called Rishis or sages; Seers — that is the literal translation — those who see these truths, the Mantras.[10]

 The intellectual exercise of practicing harmony of religions will start by separating the principles of spirituality from the personalities who preached them in each religion. Once we do this exercise, we immediately come face to face with a fact, which Swami Vivekananda calls ‘The Religion’, also known as ‘Universal Religion’. This Universal Religion is composed of only the most generalized principles corresponding to the fundamental nature of man, God, and the world. It is wholly impersonal. When seen intellectually, we find that there is only one Religion all over the world. When that One Religion is applied to different geographies, different communities, different races, different periods of time, we get the variety in the world religions. Hence Swami Vivekananda declared:

We want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas, nor the Bible, nor the Koran; yet this has to be done by harmonizing the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran. Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but the varied expressions of THE RELIGION, which is Oneness, so that each may choose that path that suits him best.[11]

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[1] Why we disagree: Address at Parliament of Religions on 15th September, 1893

[2] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on March 11, 1883

[3] Cf: Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-4: Thoughts on Gita: “It was the author of the Gita who for the first time tried to harmonize these. He took the best from what all the sects then existing had to offer and threaded them in the Gita. But even where Krishna failed to show a complete reconciliation (Samanvaya) among these warring sects, it was fully accomplished by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in this nineteenth century”

[4] Ibid: Entry on October 28, 1882

[5] Ibid: Entry on March 11, 1883

[6] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-4: The Teacher Of Spirituality

[7] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-2: Realization: (Delivered in London, 29th October 1896)

[8] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on October 28, 1882

[9] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Appendix-B: A Letter

[10] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-6: The Methods And Purpose Of Religion

[11] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-6: Epistles – Second Series: Written to Mohammed Sarfaraz Husain of Naini Tal from Almora on 10th June, 1898.

Power of imagination in Sādhana

This article deals with an important preparatory step for real meditation.

Sri Rāmakrishna continually conversed with the Divine Mother. To him, she was a living entity. He saw her, spoke to her just as a child speaks with its mother, had childish fights with her even! The Gospel of Sri Rāmakrishna is an unparalleled book mainly because it faithfully records innumerable incidents from the daily life of this ‘Greatest of Avatāras’.

One of the purposes of an incarnation of God is to provide spiritual aspirants with mental and emotional props for their spiritual practices. Sādhana involves imagination. Purely fictitious imagination lacks power to engage us for long. Hence, an Avatāra provides us with situations, which we can use in our imagination. It is something similar to role-playing employed by teachers of history and literature. Avatāra energizes the spiritual environment of an epoch by providing situations for role-playing. In fact, this is the reason art, literature, poetry and music gets immense inspiration from the life of an Avatara.

The Gospel of Sri Rāmakrishna is a very rich source of material for such imageries. Pure Consciousness assumed the form and personality of Sri Rāmakrishna and enacted innumerable human situations with his devotees. Some of these have been recorded in this book. We need to read those incidents. Then we need to put ourselves in the role of one of those devotees with whom Sri Rāmakrishna interacts, as described in this book. This creates a mood in us. We need to dwell in that mood for some time. This will form the content of our meditation. This kind of meditation is called ‘Līla Dhyāna’. This is one of the most powerful tools available for a spiritual aspirant. In fact, Swami Vivekānanda points out[1] that real meditation comes only by a sustained process of systematic imagination.

We cannot start our spiritual practice with meditation. It is not possible. This is because, meditation is the 7th step in a graded process of spiritual practice. It is preceded by a process called Dhārana. When the mind is limited and confined within a certain set of ideas, imageries, feelings and physical settings, it is called Dhārana. Try it out. Try to keep the mind confined to a certain set of ideas! It is almost impossible to do so beyond a few seconds in the beginning. Practice however enables us to do this for a few minutes. The greatest help in establishing Dhārana is imagination, says Swami Vivekānanda.[2]

The Vedāntic conception of the world is that it is nothing but imagination. There is a wonderful line of logical arguments to establish this conception. We need not go into that argument here. But, what follows from that conception is that our conception of our bondage is but imagination; and that our conception of spiritual practices to break free from that bondage is also imagination! So, one set of imagination will cure another set of imagination. Among the imaginations that cure us of our delusion, the greatest imagination is that of the Personal God, proclaims Swāmi Vivekānanda.[3] By Personal God is meant God with a name, form and a personality. With such God, we can interact, as persons. With the Impersonal God, how can we, as persons, interact?

Here, we may ask: If God is but imagination, then, where is truth in God, or efficacy in thinking about and meditating on God? Swāmi Yatīshwarananda points out that imagination can be of both the Real and the fictitious or Unreal; and imagination of God is actually imagination about the Real.[4] Therefore, thinking about God is really beneficial for our spiritual growth. Persons who are experts in this field have discovered that God, although an imagination in the final analysis, serves a great purpose in the evolution of the human soul. In fact, Swāmi Vivekānanda says categorically, that the Personal God can indeed be molded according to the imagination of each person.[5]

Meditation occurs only when the object of meditation is clearly visualized. When we say clearly visualized, what we mean is that the object has to be visualized as living. In order to achieve this state of visualization, we need to hone the skill of imagination. Swāmi Vivekānanda says, “The same faculty that we employ in dreams and thoughts, namely, imagination, will also be the means by which we arrive at Truth. When the imagination is very powerful, the object becomes visualized.” [6]

One important milestone in our spiritual practices is to bring alive the personality of Sri Rāmakrishna alive in our mind. The photograph of Sri Rāmakrishna is just a starting point. None of us have seen him when he lived. Hence, the photograph might be just a two dimensional picture for most of us to begin with. Gradually, we need to attach our feelings with that picture. The person, whose picture we see in the photograph, has to become living in our mind. That is why we need to weld that picture with the graphic instances recorded in the Gospel of Sri Rāmakrishna, and invest them with our feelings. And we need to do this repeatedly, for a few minutes every day, for many years. The result will be truly amazing. For, our mind is indeed a most wonderful instrument.

As we noted earlier, the life of an Avatāra provides us with innumerable situations which can serve as effective imageries for sharpening our faculty of imagination. As a sample, we give below some incidents recorded in the Gospel of Sri Rāmakrishna, which can be used in our daily practices by devotees of the Rāmakrishna Order.

  • Make him stainless: When it was dusk he returned to his room and sat down on the small couch. Soon he went into Samādhi and in that state began to talk to the Divine Mother. He said: “Mother, what is all this row about? Shall I go there? I shall go if You take me.” The Master was to go to a devotee’s house. Was it for this that he was asking the Divine Mother’s permission? Again he spoke to her, perhaps praying about an intimate disciple: “Mother, please make him stainless.[7]

I put myself in the role of a devotee present in that room. (It would be helpful if we have visited that room in the Dakshineswar Temple complex. Else, we can at least look at the Pictorial Biography of Sri Rāmakrishna where a good photograph of that room is given. This helps our imagination greatly.)

I can further imagine that I am that blessed devotee about whom Sri Rāmakrishna is praying to the Divine Mother. Sri Rāmakrishna himself is praying to the Mother of the Universe that I be made stainless! Can you imagine the efficacy of that prayer?

What happens when I become stainless? Elsewhere, Sri Rāmakrishna himself explains what this means: Weeping, I said to Her: “O Mother, protect me! Please make me stainless. Please see that my mind is not diverted from the Real to the unreal.”[8]

So, as a result of imagining that I am that devotee, regarding whom Sri Rāmakrishna supplicates to the Divine Mother that I be made stainless, my mind will get focused on the Real. This quality, my mind will start developing, as I progress with this imagination for an extended period of time.

  • Draw him to Thee: The evening worship began in the temples. The Master was seated on the small couch in his room, absorbed in meditation. He went into an ecstatic mood and said a little later: “Mother, please draw him to Thee. He is so modest and humble! He has been visiting Thee.” [9]

Sri Rāmakrishna went into Samādhi. His body was motionless. He remained in that state a long time. Gradually he came down to the consciousness of the outer world. Still in a spiritual mood, he began to talk, sometimes addressing the devotees, sometimes the Divine Mother. “Mother, please attract him to Thee.[10]

Just observe how Sri Rāmakrishna identifies some simple qualities in someone and recommends him to the Divine Mother! I need to put myself in the place of that devotee for whom Sri Rāmakrishna is putting in a strong recommendation! What are the qualities of that devotee? He is modest, humble and visits Sri Rāmakrishna often.

I imagine that I have these qualities in me; I sit before Sri Rāmakrishna as he sits on the small couch in an ecstatic mood. Then I imagine that he makes the request to the Divine Mother regarding me.

He doesn’t stop with just that one prayer. He knows that I really do not have those qualities such as modesty, humility, regularity and punctuality. Hence he further prays to the Divine Mother on my behalf, Mother, please attract him to Thee.

Who knew that the Divine Mother could attract people to herself, and that she actually did such a thing! Anyway, I am fortunate that Sri Rāmakrishna is himself praying on my behalf! I stay in that mood of feeling fortunate for some time.

  • Now and then: The evening worship was over in the temples. The Master returned to his room and sat on the couch, absorbed in meditation on the Divine Mother. M. sat on the floor. There was no one else in the room. The Master was in Samādhi. He began to come gradually down to the normal plane. His mind was still filled with the consciousness of the Divine Mother. In that state he was speaking to Her like a small child making importunate demands on his mother…The Master was weeping and praying to the Mother in a voice choked with emotion. He prayed to Her with tearful eyes for the welfare of the devotees: “Mother, may those who come to You have all their desires fulfilled! But please don’t make them give up everything at once, Mother. Well, You may do whatever You like in the end. If You keep them in the world, Mother, then please reveal Yourself to them now and then. Otherwise, how will they live? How will they be encouraged if they don’t see You once in a while? But You may do whatever You like in the end.” [11]

I imagine the ambience in the room when Sri Rāmakrishna is in Samādhi. There is a palpable pressure on my entire being. My own breathing has slowed down perceptibly. I look intensely at him. He is not breathing. His face has an unbelievable glow, eyes half-opened and transfixed, focused on nothing in particular. I remain in this incredible atmosphere for some time.

Then he starts coming down to the normal plane. The return to normalcy is not fast. It is haltering. Clear changes are visible in his personality with each step he takes towards becoming normal.

Then I imagine him making an amazing prayer to the Divine Mother. I imagine I too am one of the devotees for whom that unprecedented prayer was made!

  • Human relations: Sri Rāmakrishna was sitting on the small couch in his room. Rākhāl, M., and, several other devotees were present. The Master, in a happy mood, became engaged in conversation with a fair complexioned young man: “Be on friendly terms with your brothers. It looks well. You must have noticed in your theatrical performance that if four singers sing each in a different way, the play is spoiled.” [12]

I am the young man to whom Sri Rāmakrishna is speaking. Rākhāl, M and some others too are in the room and looking on. I am the center of attention of the Greatest of Avatāras! Those eyes are riveting; extreme concern for my well-being is oozing out of those eyes. That voice is the sweetest I can ever imagine.

And what is he saying to me? “Be on friendly terms with your brothers. It looks well. You must have noticed in your theatrical performance that if four singers sing each in a different way, the play is spoiled.”

Whatever be the situation we are in, we live among other people. A large number of our problems in life arise due to lack of proper understanding among ourselves. A sweet relation between us creates a social homeostasis, allowing us to concentrate our time and energies on our spiritual practices.

Recall the words of Jesus in the Bible: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”[13] “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”[14] “How can you say to your brother, ‘let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye.”[15]

  • The divine touch-1: Sri Rāmakrishna then went to Adhar’s house. M., Rākhāl, and other devotees were present. He sat down, still in an ecstatic mood. The Master said to Adhar, “My son, meditate on the Deity whose name you chanted.” With these words he touched Adhar’s tongue with his finger and wrote something on it.[16]

I put myself in the place of Adhar. Sri Rāmakrishna has come to my room. I see that he is still in a semi-conscious state. A beautiful smile is playing on his lips. he sits down on a chair in my room.

Once I am able to imagine this scene clearly, I then imagine him telling me, “My son, meditate on the Deity whose name you chanted.” I had been chanting his name. I have just finished doing Japa of my Ishta mantra. He now tells me that he is not a human being like me, but a divine being. He is a deity. I, however, see him to be just like me, a human being, but, he himself tells me this. I recall Swāmi Vivekānanda mentioning in the Math Rules, “The Lord has not yet given up the Ramakrishna form.” This is what Swamiji meant. Even as I hear Sri Rāmakrishna tell me these words, I immediately become aware that I do not understand what he means. What does he mean he is a divine being? I do not understand anything other than a human being.

That is when he suddenly gets up, comes towards me, presses my cheeks whereby my mouth opens and I instinctively throw out my tongue. He writes something on my tongue with his finger (I can’t make out which finger he uses). I am in a haze. But that touch was magical! I feel a tremendous joy welling up within me. I remain in that state for some time.

  • The divine touch-2: It was evening and the worship in the temples was over. Mahimācharan, Rākhāl, and M. were in the room. Adhar sat on the floor with the devotees. The Master said to him, “Please stroke here gently.” Adhar sat on the end of the couch and gently stroked Sri Rāmakrishna’s feet.[17]

I again put myself in Adhar’s place. I am sitting on the floor in Sri Rāmakrishna’s room.

He is reclining on his small couch, with his head and upper back resting on a cylindrical bolster. His feet are pointed towards me, while his head is slightly turned to his right side, and hence he is able to see me. There is the sweet scent of incense in the room.

All of a sudden, he asks me to stroke his feet gently.

I get up, go to his couch, sit down on the edge of his couch, and start pressing his feet. I first press his right foot, from the knee-cap down to his ankle. Then I switch to his left foot. I notice that he has very little hair on his legs. The color of the skin on his legs is uniform. There is very little flesh in his calves. The bones are easily felt. When I go on pressing like this, I hear his breathing, which is even; he seems to be drifting into a light sleep. I continue pressing his feet for some time.

  • Our real identity: Master (To M., pointing to Baburām): “You see, my own people have become strangers; Rāmlal and my other relatives seem to be foreigners. And strangers have become my own. Don’t you notice how I tell Baburām to go and wash his face? The devotees have become relatives.[18]

 

  • Complete your studies: Again for a few moments all sat in silence. Master (to Narendra, smiling): “Won’t you continue your studies? [19]

It was dusk. Sri Rāmakrishna was sitting in his room, absorbed in contemplation of the Divine Mother. Now and then he was chanting her name. Rākhāl, Adhar, M., and several other devotees were with him. Master to M: “Tell me, does Baburām intend to continue his studies? I said to him, ‘Continue your studies to set an example to others.’ After Sitā had been set free, Bibhīshana refused to become king of Ceylon. Rāma said to him: ‘You should become king to open the eyes of the ignorant. Otherwise they will ask you what you have gained as a result of serving me. They will be pleased to see you acquire the kingdom.’” [20]

Students can very nicely identify with this imagery.

A Swāmi of our Order used to tell us when we were young, that the first thing a boy does when he comes in contact with Rāmakrishna Mission is lose interest in his academic studies! A strong tradition seems to have been set by the direct disciples themselves, it seems.

Young boys however do face a real conflict within, between engaging themselves in spiritual practices such as Japa, dhyāna, adhyayana, etc. and completing their school and college studies. This conflict can be resolved by using this powerful visual and auditory imagery.

  • Brahmacharya in married life: Master: “Bhavanāth is married; but he spends the whole night in spiritual conversation with his wife. The couple passes their time talking of God alone: I said to him, ‘Have a little fun with your wife now and then.’ ‘What?’ he retorted angrily. ‘Shall we too indulge in frivolity?’” [21]

This is an essential imagery for married persons, who have a strong urge to practice Sādhana. All these words are uttered by Sri Rāmakrishna. We need to dwell on the sense of approval in his tone when he is telling these words. Sri Rāmakrishna is very happy, it is apparent in his voice, when he reproduces Bhavanāth’s angry retort, “Shall we too indulge in frivolity?

Elsewhere, Sri Rāmakrishna had told us that husband and wife should live like brother and sister after the birth of a couple of children. Here we have Bhavanāth demonstrating that teaching in reality. What was Bhavanāth’s state of mind when Sri Rāmakrishna teased him about having a little fun with his wife? We need to dwell on that incredible state of Bhavanāth’s mind. How did he get to develop such a state of mind?

We find the hint in another scene in the Gospel:

In the afternoon Bhavanāth arrived. Rākhāl, M., Harish, and other devotees were in the room. Master (to Bhavanāth): “To love an Incarnation of God – that is enough.”[22]

            We should imagine Sri Rāmakrishna telling us these words. “To love and Incarnation of God – that is enough.” Enough for what? And enough for whom? Loving an Avatāra is enough for all of us, married or monastic; for our spiritual growth.

Sri Rāmakrishna is revealing a great secret here. When he spoke such secrets, the entire atmosphere in that room would become intense! Our entire soul recognizes the value of those words. We must love Sri Rāmakrishna. That is enough for us.

 

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[1]Meditation, you know, comes by a process of imagination.” Complete Works: Vol-4: Lectures and Discourses: Meditation

[2]When the Chitta, or mind-stuff, is confined and limited to a certain place it is Dharana. This Dharana is of various sorts, and along with it, it is better to have a little play of the imagination.”: Complete Works: Vol-1: Raja-Yoga: Ch-VI: Pratyahara and Dharana

[3] “Some imaginations help to break the bondage of the rest. The whole universe is imagination, but one set of imaginations will cure another set. Those that tell us that there is sin and sorrow and death in the world are terrible. But the other set — thou art holy, there is God, there is no pain —these are good, and help to break the bondage of the others. The highest imagination that can break all the links of the chain is that of the Personal God.”: Complete Works: Vol-5: Notes from Lectures and Discourses: On Bhakti-Yoga

[4] What is the immediate goal? To get in touch with the Reality. Whatever we call real draws our whole being. So it is most essential for us to have a clear conception of what Reality is. The goal and the path must be real. Even our imaginations must be about the Real. Meditation & Spiritual Life: Pg: 644

[5] In the same man the mother sees a son, while the wife at the same time sees differently with different results. The wicked see in God wickedness. The virtuous see in Him virtue. He admits of all forms. He can be moulded according to the imagination of each person. Water assumes various shapes in various vessels. But water is in all of them. Hence all religions are true.: Complete Works: Vol-6: Notes of Class Talks and Lectures: Notes Taken Down In Madras, 1892-93

[6] Complete Works: Vol-6: Notes of Class Talks and Lectures: Lessons On Raja-Yoga

[7] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Pg: 283

[8] Ibid: Pg: 895

[9] Ibid: Pg: 160

[10] Ibid: Pg: 741

[11] Ibid: Pg: 381

[12] Ibid: Pg: 428

[13] New Testament: John 4:20

[14] Ibid: John 4:21

[15] Ibid: Matthew 7:4

[16] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Pg: 273

[17] Ibid: Pg: 387

[18] Ibid: Pg: 380

[19] Ibid: Pg: 935

[20] Ibid: Pg: 458

[21] Ibid: Pp: 715-716

[22] Ibid: Pg: 356

Rewriting Indian history

Honorable Minister for Culture, Government of India, Sri Mahesh Sharma, recently announced[1] that a committee had been formed comprising of 14 bureaucrats and academic scholars, headed by Sri K N Dikshit, that aimed at rewriting ‘certain portions’ of Indian history. This announcement has stirred a hornet’s nest and reactions have been really sharp and divided in the academic circles.

We believe that the effort is indeed laudable and most urgently needed. However, the agenda for such a momentous task needs to be as broad and comprehensive as this nation itself, if the efforts should not run into a cul-de-sac like the previous myopic attempts at writing Indian history by the various schools of communist, sub-altern, imperialist or nationalist historians.

Isn’t it a happy coincidence that this decision of writing an ‘Indian version’ of Indian history should gain momentum in the very period when we are celebrating Sister Nivedita’s 150th birth anniversary? We cannot fail to point this out to our readers because it was Nivedita who was the first person in recent times to recognize the urgent necessity for such an attempt. Swami Vivekananda had taught her, “…whoever tries to bring the past to the door of everyone, is a great benefactor to his nation.[2] If a person has a true, undiluted, unbiased, unprejudiced version of one’s national past, it is easier to develop a solid self-image of oneself along national lines.

But let us remind ourselves here that the collection and collation of facts, discerning of the cause and the effect from a study of those facts, and uncovering the historical forces acting on the people of India, must be true, uncolored by biases, uncolored by a hidden agenda of conforming to a pet theory of history, be it the left-wing theory or the right-wing one! That is indeed a mighty task, and calls for great refinement of our faculties.

Anyway, following in Swamiji’s footsteps, Sister Nivedita pointed out that “India herself is the master document[3] which we have to read in order to know Indian history. She wrote, “The country is her own record. She is the history that we must learn to read.[4] This clearly means that learning how to read India is an exercise that involves a specific method. Nivedita wanted aspiring historians to decipher “the Indian idea of India[5]. It is impossible to understand an Indian idea in terms of non-Indian concepts.[6]

 “In all that lies around us…, we may, if our eyes are open, read the story of the past.[7] The proper way of understanding Indian history, according to Nivedita, is through travel: “If India itself be the book of Indian history, it follows that travel is the true means of reading that history.[8] An important component of Nivedita’s historical thinking was the intimate connection she saw between geography and the history of place, especially the layered histories of ancient cities. She said that “History must be viewed geographically, and geography historically”.[9] Once we invoke geography to serve the cause of history, (something which has not been done till now by any school of history), it immediately becomes clear that a notion of territorial and civilizational identity was already present in pre-colonial India. It was a result of stable geographical boundaries, busy pilgrimage routes and destinations spread across the length and breadth of the country, vibrant ancient cities that acted as centers of culture, and great political empires. In other words, the unity of India was not a gift of British rule as many British imperialist historians liked to claim.

One of the key features of Indian nationhood is diversity. A true historian will have to get initiated into the unique dynamics that exist between diversity and unity in the Indian context. Sister Nivedita writes: “…India is and always has been a synthesis. No amount of analysis – racial, lingual, or territorial – will ever amount in the sum to the study of India…all the parts of a whole are not equal to the whole.[10] In other words, India as a nation is not merely the sum of different regions professing separate identities; the whole has a life of its own. There has been a national cohesion—a synthesis—as a result of historical processes. According to Nivedita, the task before the historian is precisely this, “… apart from and above, all the fragments which must be added together to make India, we have to recognize India herself, all-containing, all-dominating, moulding and shaping the destinies and the very nature of the elements out of which she is composed…No Indian province has lived unto itself, pursuing its own development, following its own path, going its way unchallenged and alone.[11]

Nivedita held European treatises on Western History in high regard because of their method — ‘the connectedness of the treatment of each life with others’ is what she appreciated most in these works. But she lamented about the history of India written during her times, “In Indian History, such a point of view is conspicuous by its absence. Some writers are interested in Buddhist India (if indeed we have any right to employ such a term) and some in various stages of Mahratta or Sikh or Indo-Islamic History or what not. But who has caught the palpitation of the Indian heart-beat through one and all of these? It is ‘India’ that makes Indian History glorious.[12]

We hope and pray that this commendable attempt by the present Government of India fulfils these heartfelt expectations of the great Sister Nivedita.

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[1] NDTV Newsdesk (with inputs from Reuters) on 6th March 2018: (web edition)

[2] Cf: Complete works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-4: Reply to the address of Maharaja of Khetri

[3] Cf: Complete Works of Sister Nivedita: Vol-4: Footfalls of Indian History: ‘The History of India and Its Study’.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cf: Complete Works of Sister Nivedita: Vol-4: Footfalls of Indian History: Some problems on Indian research:

[6] Recall how Swamiji famously said “I would not translate this word Shraddha to you; it would be a mistake.” : Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda:Vol-3: Lectures from Colombo to Almora: Reply to address of welcome at Calcutta:

[7] Complete Works of Sister Nivedita: Vol-4: Footfalls of Indian History: ‘The History of India and Its Study’

[8] Ibid.

[9] Complete Works of Sister Nivedita: Vol-4: Hints on National Education in India: ‘The Future Education of the Indian Women’.

[10] Complete Works of Sister Nivedita: Vol-4: Footfalls of Indian History: ‘The History of India and Its Study’

[11] Ibid.

[12] Complete Works of Sister Nivedita: Vol-4: Hints on National Education in India: ‘A note on historical research’.

Addictive power of digital technology

Have you noticed how our children are getting addicted to smartphones recently? Parents and teachers are at their wits’ end dealing with this growing specter.

Psychologists are conducting researches on the impact of smartphones on teenage brains. Studies have found that a Class-8 student’s risk for depression spikes 27% when he or she frequently uses social media. Kids who use their phones for at least three hours a day are much more likely to be suicidal. And recent research has found the teen suicide rate in the US now eclipses the homicide rate, with smartphones as the driving force.[1]

Educators Joe Clement and Matt Miles, co-authors of the recent book ‘Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse is Making Our Kids Dumber’ observe that, strangely, the two biggest tech figures in recent history – Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – seldom let their kids play with the very products they helped create. What is it these wealthy tech executives know about their own products that their consumers don’t? According to a growing body of evidence, it is the addictive power of digital technology.

In 2007, Gates, the former CEO of Microsoft, implemented a cap on screen time when his daughter started developing an unhealthy attachment to a video game. Steve Jobs, who was the CEO of Apple, revealed in a 2011 New York Times interview that he prohibited his kids from using the newly-released iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” Jobs had told reporter Nick Bilton.[2]

Clement and Miles make the case that wealthy Silicon Valley parents seem to grasp the addictive powers of smartphones, tablets, and computers more than the general public does – despite the fact that these parents often make a living by creating and investing in that technology. More interestingly, the authors point out that some of the best schools in USA (Waldorf School & Brightworks School) still teach using chalk and pencil, without the deleterious impact of digital technology on their students!

Technology is always disruptive. Training is needed to employ any new technology beneficially.

Consider, for instance, Nuclear Technology. It developed during World War II. USA, UK & Canada formed the Manhattan Project to research nuclear fission. This Project had two outcomes. The 1st outcome was the atomic bomb which destroyed Hiroshima & Nagasaki and ended the 2nd World War. The 2nd outcome was a controlled nuclear reactor. The bomb came in 1945 and the reactor in 1951. The damaging aspect of the technology came 1st and then, slowly mankind learned how to put the technology to beneficial use. Today we have nuclear power generating stations, nuclear powered ships and submarines, and nuclear medicines that can fight Cancer. The same technology that gave us the devastating atomic bombs also helps us fight cancer today! Who is to decide whether nuclear technology is harmful or beneficial, per se?

Unless a new technology is accompanied by sufficient training, it can indeed be harmful. But, with the right kind of training, any new technology can be a great boon. Same holds good for digital technology too.

The marriage of personal computers, mobile telephony and blogging has unleashed unprecedented power into our hands today. Where is the requisite training to go along with it?

In this context, what indeed is the content of training to be imparted to students? Bradley Busch[3], noted psychologist, explains it is ‘Self-control’.

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[1] https://www.businessinsider.in/Bill Gates and Steve Jobs shared a surprising philosophy about tech and it should have been a big red flag/articleshow/61192216.cms

[2] Cf: British online newspaper: ‘The Independent’ on 24th Feb 2016.

[3] Bradley Busch is a Registered Psychologist, Director at Inner-Drive and Author of ‘Release Your Inner Drive’. You can follow Busch @Inner_Drive on Twitter. See his masterly article on ‘Lessons from Research’ in the Feb 2018 issue of The Guardian for more details.

Self-Control & Student Success

Education may be the most important thing in a young person’s life, but, when faced with yet another lecture or homework assignment, nearly all students in one survey said they wished they were doing something else. This, according to a new article in the December issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, suggests that succeeding at “studenting” may require as much self-control as intelligence, student-freedom and joyful learning.

This study is extremely important since it flies in the face of the ideas of Education we have adopted in India for over a decade now – the idea of making the entire learning process ‘stress-free’ for the child!

Everyone’s been in this situation, where you’ve got this piece of chocolate cake in front of you and you don’t really want to eat it but you’re so compelled to, and I think students feel this way all the time with their work,” said co-author Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania known for her research on “grit” as a pathway to achievement.

In a pair of longitudinal studies following 304 eighth-graders, Duckworth and her colleagues measured students’ self-control through self-reports, questionnaires completed by parents and teachers, and a set of behavioral delay-of-gratification tasks. Based on these scores, they found that, similar to IQ, students who were rated highly for self-control also earned higher grades and standardized test scores. Unlike IQ, however, higher self-control was also predictive of fewer school absences, less procrastination, more time spent studying, and less time spent watching television.

Duckworth, who taught middle school math before becoming a university professor, said these findings aligned with her own time in the classroom.

Kids actually want to do well,” Duckworth said. “I’ve never met a kid who wants to do worse, but not all of them were able to align their behavior with studying, with homework, with paying attention in class.”

On a larger scale, a study of 1,000 students in New Zealand found that ratings of self-control in childhood were just as predictive of a person’s financial security, income, physical and mental health, substance use, and criminal convictions later in life as intelligence or socioeconomic status were.

While self-control can be grouped with conscientiousness, a Big Five personality trait, it also stands as a unique behavioral measure that may contribute to a person’s overall success.

Self-control exists on the timescale of minutes, Duckworth explained, allowing someone to resist the everyday temptations of texting in class or hitting the snooze button in the morning, whereas grit may provide the persevering passion required to accomplish long-term goals such as winning a National Contest or attending your college of choice.

Encouraging conscientious behaviors isn’t as simple as telling students to “just use some self-control,” however. Duckworth said she is most excited about the use of situational modifications that make the temptation to neglect schoolwork less powerful – for example turning off your cellphone, or even leaving it in another room, to avoid distracting texts.

Thinking about ways to avoid these conflicts strategically seems much more efficient and less torturous over time,” she said.

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References

  1. Duckworth, A. L., and M. E. P. Seligman. “Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents.” Psychological Science, vol. 16, no. 12, Jan. 2005, pp. 939–944.
  1. Duckworth, Angela L., and Martin E. P. Seligman. “The Science and Practice of Self-Control.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 12, no. 5, 1 Sept. 2017, pp. 715–718.
  1. Galla B. M., Rikoon S. H., Haimm C. A., Duckworth A. (2016). Explaining the phenomenology of self-control conflict. Manuscript in preparation.
  1. Moffitt T. E., Arseneault L., Belsky D., Dickson N., Hancox R. J., Harrington H. L., Caspi A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 108, 2693–2698.

 

Pocket Ventilator

We have…to gain a little in material knowledge …in bringing the best results out of the smallest of causes…some sort of materialism, toned down to our own requirements, would be a blessing to many of our brothers who are not yet ripe for the highest truths.”[1]The Western people will…be your Guru regarding practical sciences …for the improvement of material conditions, and the people of our country will be their Guru in everything pertaining to religion.[2]If we are to live at all, we must be a scientific nation.[3] Such was the prophetic vision of Swami Vivekananda.

Recently, a 25-year old Robotic Engineer from Delhi Sri Diwakar Vaish, has developed a ventilator, in collaboration with Dr Deepak Agarwal, Professor of Neuroscience at AIIMS, New Delhi. This ventilator is the smallest, as well as the cheapest one in the world! It is almost 450 times smaller than the conventional ones. It is as small as a cellphone and can slip into one’s pocket. When this pocket device hits the market after clinical trials and approval from Drug Controller General of India, it is estimated to cost between Rs. 15,000 to 20,000.

A traditional ventilator costs Rs. 5 lakhs to Rs. 15 lakhs. The cheapest portable one available in the market today costs between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 2.5 lakh. An FDA-approved disposable ventilator costs between Rs 10,000 and 15,000, but it has a maximum life of four weeks. Most of these presently available ventilators require oxygen cylinders which cost about Rs. 4,000 per day.

This pocket ventilator will run on room air, and not oxygen. Hence the operational costs are close to zero. Traditional ventilators use oxygen cylinders. Disposable ventilators however use room air, but they push it into the lungs at a fixed frequency that does not necessarily match the patient’s breathing pattern, which may cause oxygen saturation. Controlled with an Android App, this device uses an Artificial Intelligence algorithm to adjust and synchronize air supply to normal breathing pattern of a patient.

Thousands of critically-ill patients live in hospitals today in our country, because the family cannot afford to buy a portable ventilator. Presently, India faces a huge shortage of ventilator beds needed to support critically-ill patients who cannot breathe on their own. According to norms, at least 10% of all hospital should have ventilators, but we are way too short of the demand. Nine out of ten patients, barring the ones with severe lung problems, can breathe in the normal atmospheric air because the problem is in their diaphragm, not lungs. For the 10% who need more oxygen, the pocket ventilator can also be hooked to an oxygen-supply system. This device can work on the normal power connection and comes with an additional battery backup for a couple of hours. For remote areas, it will come with additional battery for 12 hours.

It is cheap and affordable for hospitals and individuals. This will reduce shortage of ventilators in hospitals. It can reach the remotest areas for healthcare. People with paralysis can be wheeled with the ventilator. Shortage of oxygen or disruption of oxygen supply will no longer be an issue.

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[1] CW: Vol-3: Lectures from Colombo to Almora: Reply To The Address Of Welcome At Ramnad

[2] CW: Vol-5: Conversations and Dialogues: VI: Shri Priya Nath Sinha

[3] CW: Vol-6: Notes of Class Talks and Lectures: Notes Taken Down In Madras: 1892-93