Human excellence through Yoga

I extend a warm welcome to you all at Ramakrishna Mission Shilpamandira. Before I start off with the subject, let me give you a brief introduction about our Institution.

Ramakrishna Mission is a monastic organization. Belur Math, which you visited today morning, is its headquarters. Swami Vivekananda established this organization over 100 years ago. Swamiji was a great visionary. He wanted that his organization would have to engage in the field of core education on a national basis for regeneration of India. Mind you, this was during the height of the British Empire! He specifically wanted technical education to be imparted to Indians. During the 1st World War, a technical training institute was established here in Belur Math with the help of the British Govt, mainly to aid them in training people for the war. That grew to be Shilpamandira, which today has three units. We run a diploma college in this campus. We have another campus where we run a skill development center and a computer training center for giving employable skills to unemployable youths. Belur Math also has two ITI Schools here which are looked after by Swami Gunindranandaji, with whom Mr. Arasan and Mr. Nath here are associated. Since he is busy with some pre-occupations, he requested me to handle today’s session. So much about our institution; I mentioned all this in order to make you feel ‘at-home’, since you all are engineers too.

What is human excellence?

Now, coming to our subject – human excellence; you all have just had your lunch; it is very difficult to concentrate on abstract topics after a hearty lunch, you know. So, let me start with a couple of stories that will set the mood for a more detailed discussion on this abstract subject.

Once upon a time, there was a wood-carving artist in China. He was extremely famous for his incense-stick holders, which were used in temples and monasteries and palaces. Those incense-stick holders had elaborate carvings and each of them was a piece of art. The King once placed an order for preparing the best incense-stick holder with this artist. The artist said he would get it ready in one month’s time. At the end of one month, the King met the artist in his workshop. On the table before the King lay an exquisitely carved incense-stick holder. The King was pleased. But the artist said that the piece was faulty and hence he would need one more month for creating a new one. The King looked minutely at the so-called ‘faulty’ piece and couldn’t discern any fault at all. But the artist said that there was one particular curve which had developed a hairline crack when he was chiseling it. Again, the King couldn’t locate that crack, so he announced that he was satisfied with the work and would take it with him. The artist went inside and returned with a hammer and smashed to pieces the incense-stick holder that lay before the King. The king was aghast! When he asked the cause for this unreasonable behavior, the artist replied, ‘Your Majesty, you may not have been able to locate the fault. But I know where it is. And I will never have peace of mind knowing that a faulty creation of mine has entered the world!’ This is human excellence.

A small boy once entered a shop and wanted to use the pay-phone. But it was too high for him. So he dragged a carton box and stood on it and started dialing a number. The owner of the shop, an elderly person was observing what was happening. The boy’s call got connected.

‘Hello, am I speaking to Mrs. Adams?’ The old shop owner couldn’t hear the other side of the telephonic conversation. ‘Listen, Mrs. Adams, I was wondering if you need a helping hand with your lawn.’…. ‘Oh! You already have a person coming over and doing your lawn. But I must tell you I am very good at mowing lawns. Moreover, I will also clean and wax your car for free.’…. ‘If you wish, I could also paint the fence for you during summer if you hire me for the lawn.’… ‘Are you sure you don’t need a new hand?’…. ‘Fine talking to you Mrs. Adams; you have a good day.’

With a smile the boy got down from the box. The old man called him near and said, ‘I am impressed, my boy. I could hire you.’ The boy said, ‘No sir. I am already employed. In fact, I am the one working for Mrs. Adams. I just wanted to find out if she was happy with my work.’ That is human excellence.

You all know that Bhagawan Buddha, before he arrived at the Truth, was an earnest seeker by the name Siddhartha Gautama. One summer day he was walking in the forest and he came upon a beautiful lake. It had cool, clear water and he felt like taking a bath. He slowly entered the water, had a bath, felt refreshed and as he was about to come out of the lake, he saw some beautiful lotus flowers in bloom at the far end of the lake. He went near the flowers, bent down and smelled the heavenly fragrance of the flowers. Then he came out of the lake and started wearing clothes. At that moment, a Yaksha, a demigod materialized before him. The Yaksha said, “Say, young monk, how dare you enter my lake without obtaining my permission?” The Yaksha berated Gautama for quite some time. Gautama’s head was bent down in shame. He wanted to say that he had no idea that the lake had a caretaker, but he never got a chance to put in a word; the Yaksha was relentless in his scolding. In the meantime, a King’s nobleman rode up to the lake on horseback. He too saw the cool, clear waters on that hot summer day, tied his horse to a tree, tore his clothes apart and jumped into the lake. He splashed around for a long time, making the clear water all murky. When he had finished his sporting in water, as he was about to come out, he too eyed the beautiful lotus flowers in bloom. He went to the corner of the lake, roughly plucked a handful of flowers for his sweetheart at home, came out of the lake, wore his clothes and rode away. All this while, Gautama was thinking, ‘I did nothing in comparison to what this nobleman is doing and I was berated so badly; perhaps the Yaksha will strike this man down dead any minute now!’ But, when the nobleman went away safely, Gautama said to the Yaksha, “Well, Yaksha; I now understand you. I am a gentle person and hence you scolded me to your heart’s content. I saw that you did nothing to that nobleman. Of course, how could you? He is a big, powerful man.” The Yaksha’s reply is worthy of our meditation. The Yaksha said, “Gautama, I scolded you because you proclaim to follow a very high ideal in your life. That nobleman is an ordinary man, with simple goals in his life. I am happy that he didn’t urinate in my lake. The standards of behavior are different for you and for him.” So, high ideals such as human excellence call for great commitment; it entails great responsibility. We will need to clean up our act thoroughly before we embark on journeys that lead to such high ideals. Such high ideals will be achievable only of we are really serious about those ideals.

In India, we have always encouraged discussions on human excellence from time immemorial. I will present before you some ideas of Swami Vivekananda in this connection. I will have to use some time to explain certain concepts that Swamiji speaks of before we attempt to understand his ideas regarding human excellence.

Swami Vivekananda’s conception of human excellence:

It can be said that man has four faculties in him. Every man can Feel. The love that binds a family together arises from this faculty of feeling. We all can feel a huge variety of emotions. Then there is the faculty of Reason. Every man can think logically; idea A leads to idea B and then to ideas C & D, and so on to its logical conclusion. All of us can exercise this faculty. We all also have the curious faculty of Intuition. Don’t we all recall instances when we just saw a person and we knew that he was good, or bad? We didn’t arrive at this conclusion through a series of logical reasoning based on information we knew about him. the conclusion just flashed in our minds. Similarly, many of us get premonitions about something that’s going to happen a little while later, again, as a flash in our minds. Then there is the all too common experience of deja-vu; we visit a new place and suddenly we feel that we have been here before. This is the faculty of Intuition. We all have it. It is not developed, but we all have it. That is the root of the terms we use in daily language such as ‘gut feeling’ or ‘sixth sense’. Lastly, we all feel the urge to Work. All of us have the irrepressible urge to create. Unless we create something all the time, we will simply go to pieces. All human beings therefore have to work. I don’t mean the salaried job here by ‘Work’. Even breathing is a work; even thinking & dreaming is work; there is simply no escape from Work.

Although we all have these four faculties in common, they are all not equally developed in all of us. In fact, we differ from one another with regard to the degree to which we have developed these four faculties in ourselves. The present day education that we all get in common develops only the faculty of Reason. Family serves to develop the faculty of Feeling to some extent, although that is also reducing with the formation of nuclear families with dysfunctional relations among its members. The faculty of Intuition is left completely uncared for and even neglected as something of a superstition in the present age! And the faculty to work? The less said the better. We all work, but nowhere are we giving any training about ‘how’ we ought to work. It is all by trial and error, a hit-or-miss procedure, largely!

The science of human excellence:

Anyway, the idea is – whenever anyone among us succeeds in developing any one of these faculties to a great extent, we end up with an example of ‘Human Excellence’. Look at Rabindranath Tagore. He saw the same world that we all see and used the same words that we all use. But his faculty of Feeling was highly refined. Who refined it for him? He did it himself. Did he do it consciously? Most probably not, and hence he couldn’t pass it on as a science for others to pick it up after him. Or, look at Albert Einstein. His faculty of Intuition and Reason were developed to an incredible extent. Hence he shines today as an instance of human excellence. How did he develop these faculties? Who helped him? Nobody can answer that. So, the long and short of my argument is – until recently, we believed that human beings can reach excellence only be chance. No one could develop it as a science, in a systematic way. I say until recently, because Swamiji explodes that myth! Swamiji was the first person, who said about a 100 years ago, that there is a science that can help us develop each of these faculties to the fullest. And along with that, he raised the benchmark of human excellence by adding that true human excellence lies in developing all these four faculties simultaneously in the same person! The four faculties of Feeling, Reason, Intuition and Creativity can be developed by following its corresponding science which are Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Raja Yoga and Karma Yoga.

It will seem obvious that whatever be the faculty that you wish to develop to its limits, the systematic procedure for doing so is called ‘Yoga’. What is the idea here? Let me explain Swamiji’s conception of man in order to explain this wonderful conception of Yoga. Man has a body. Body is visible to all of us. Man also has a mind. Mind is not visible but we can infer it. The four faculties that we mentioned earlier belong to the mind. Swamiji points out that apart from the body and the mind, man also has another aspect of his personality which is ‘Consciousness’. For our purpose, we may understand consciousness as awareness. All of us are aware. We are constantly channelizing this awareness. Say for instance, when we entered this room, we were aware of that irritating drone of the air-conditioner. Slowly, as the class progressed, we no longer directed our consciousness towards that noise but instead channelized our awareness towards the ideas that I have been raising here before you. Consequently, we did not hear that drone. But the sound waves from the air-conditioner have all along been impinging on our eardrums and yet we did not hear it at all! There is a science, a systematic set of procedures and processes that can help us gain a control over how to and where to and when to direct this consciousness, and thereby develop any faculty of our mind that we wish to. The present day education that we all get in schools and colleges and universities helps us to direct our consciousness only towards our faculty of Reason, as I mentioned earlier. That is why we keep hearing sentences such as ‘Pay attention to what I am saying’, ‘Where is your attention?’ in schools. That is what the teachers are mainly doing – trying to teach the students to consciously direct their attention.

Anyway, regarding our main topic of human excellence, Swamiji specifies four independent such sciences for developing the four main faculties of human beings. He further specifies that if a man can educate himself in a harmonious blend of these four sciences, then he will be able to develop all these faculties in himself, blossoming out to be a unique type of person, a truly universal man.

Practical Vedanta:

I am going to present before you such a blend, with an emphasis on Karma Yoga. Why the emphasis on Karma Yoga? You see, the other three Yogas require you to retire from your active life in the world and dedicate yourself especially to those sciences. Else, you won’t be able to exhibit the desired results that are the outcome of those paths. Take Bhakti Yoga for instance. You need to accept a particular form of God and get the mantra associated with that form from an authorized practitioner. You will then need to learn the elaborate procedure of ritualistic worship and engage in it sincerely. You may fill up the rest of your waking hours with activities that are centered on that deity such as singing Bhajans, doing Japa of that mantra, making preparations for the ritualistic puja, reading the life & exploits of your deity, etc. Or, take Jnana Yoga for instance. You will need to sit with an authorized practitioner and study the Upanishad-texts. Then you will need to meditate for long periods of time on the conclusions arrived at by the commentators of those texts. You will need to isolate yourself from all interactions that run counter to those conclusions until your will be able to experience those conclusions in your own life. I ask you, how many of you are ready for that kind of dedicated practice? And since you cannot do that, does that mean you must be deprived of any opportunity for self-improvement, leading you to higher levels of human excellence? Hence I present Karma Yoga to you, since it enables you to work out your own development towards human excellence in the context of your daily life. You do not need a new social setting for this Yoga. What you need is a new outlook towards work. You are Naval Engineers. You will design ships. You have been doing it and will continue to do it. From now on, you will continue to do it as an offering of love to God. That is the first condition this Yoga puts on you. The second condition it puts is – from now onwards, you will refrain from indulging in any sexual activity, diverting that energy into the design and repair job that you do.

Karma Yoga requires that you work selflessly. What does selflessness mean? Your activity is not for you. Let us say you were involved in designing some portion of the INS Vikrant. Does that ship belong to you? No, it doesn’t. But, supposing I were to make a comment such as ‘Do you know, INS Vikrant is the most horribly designed ship I’ve ever seen!’ What happens? You immediately get mad at me. Somehow, that association creeps in. You infer that you designed that ship and that any criticism I pass on that ship is somehow meant to be a dig at you! This has to stop. How do we stop it? The easiest way is to offer your work to God. Supposing you give someone a gift, you don’t take it back, do you? Similarly, when you offer your work to God, you don’t get affected by anything that comes associated with that work.

The greatest obstacle in achieving selflessness is a sense of ownership, a sense of ‘responsibility’, a sense of ‘Duty’ that we all seem to have naturally. Let me tell you a small story. There was once a very successful king. He had achieved great order and prosperity in his kingdom and people were all happy. But he wasn’t. The stress of having to deal with the innumerable problems of managing his huge and complex kingdom was wearing him down. Incidentally he had a childhood friend who was a monk. That monk lived in the forest outside his capital. So, the king went to meet him. He told the monk that he had decided to renounce his kingdom and become free from all cares. The monk was listening. He asked him if the king had made adequate arrangements for handing over charge of his wonderful kingdom that he had taken so much effort to bring to unprecedented heights of prosperity. The king hadn’t actually thought out all the details, but he would eventually come up with some solutions. He would give away his kingdom to one of his ministers, perhaps. The monk said, ‘Why don’t you give it away to me?’ The king was mighty pleased. The monk was a very good man, a very good friend. He would certainly take care of the fruits of his life’s efforts. So, right then and there, he gave away his royal ring and seal to the monk. Instantly he started feeling light, unburdened. The monk asked him, ‘What will you do now?’ The king replied, ‘I will go back ot my palace, change my dress to something more common, and live like a commoner in the city.’ The monk interjected, ‘Wait. Be careful with the choice of your words. What do you mean by my palace?’ The king slowly understood that he indeed had no palace now. He had given it away to the monk just a moment ago. Then the monk said, ‘Look here, I don’t want you living in my city or anywhere in my kingdom. You have ruled this place for so long. Now I will rule it. I don’t want you to criticize the decisions I will be taking. If you are around, you will naturally do it. So you will have to leave my kingdom.’ The king agreed and said that he knew many trades and he would go to some neighboring kingdom and eke out a living for the rest of his life. The monk observed, ‘So, you are ready to work, I see. Well, if you are ready to work, then I may be open to some arrangement that will be mutually beneficial. You see, I have a large kingdom to take care of. If you do it for me, I will pay you a handsome salary. I am a monk. I like to live my life taking the name of the Lord, immersed in his meditation. I don’t like all this kingdom business. What do you say? Will you work for me?’ The king agreed gladly. So he went back. No one else knew about this arrangement between the king and his friend, the monk. Some months later, the monk went to the palace and asked the king how things were. The king said that the kingdom was going on smoothly. The monk asked, ‘Are there no problems now?’ The king replied, ‘Oh, there are; innumerable of them. But, surprisingly, I don’t feel bogged down by them now!’

You see what happened here? The only thing that had changed was the agent-ship. And that instantly improved the quality of work. That is how we bring in selflessness. We bring in God and start offering all our activities to Him. That is selflessness.

Now we shall see why is Brahmacharya a necessary condition of this path? All great achievers in any walk of life, whether from India or from any part of the world, have had to conserve their personal energies before they could achieve excellence. Ordinary common sense, basic arithmetic of human energy, will tell you that if you spend too much energy on one channel, there will be that much less in the other channels. Suppose we were to start arc-welding in this room, won’t we find the lights getting dim? Did you know that Newton and Michelangelo and Beethoven were all sexually continent around the time when they made their momentous work? Human excellence has always been the outcome of strict sexual continence and it will continue to be so. That is not to say that everyone has to become monks. Conserve sexual energy till you get married. Then, spend that energy only to procreate a couple of kids. Thereafter, start conserving again, living with your spouse as brother & sister. There is only so much energy we all have. It will need to be conserved and then channelized along the paths of Feeling or Reason or Intuition or Creative work for any excellence to be achieved by man.

I will tell you a story that Swami Vivekananda recounted in his seminal book ‘Karma Yoga’. This story is taken from the Mahabharata. It concerns a Vyadha. Vyadha is a Sanskrit term for a butcher, one who kills animals and sells their meat for his living. The story is as follows:

“A young Sannyasi went to a forest; there he meditated, worshipped, and practiced Yoga for a long time. After years of hard work and practice, he was one day sitting under a tree, when some dry leaves fell upon his head. He looked up and saw a crow and a crane fighting on the top of the tree, which made him very angry. He said, “What! Dare you throw these dry leaves upon my head?!” As with these words he angrily glanced at them, a flash of fire went out of his head — such was the Yogi’s power — and burnt the birds to ashes. He was very glad, almost overjoyed at this development of power — he could burn the crow and the crane by a look. After a time he had to go to the town to beg his bread. He went, stood at a door, and said, “Mother, give me food.” A voice came from inside the house, “Wait a little, my son.” The young man thought, “You wretched woman, how dare you make me wait! You do not know my power yet.” While he was thinking thus the voice came again: “Boy, don’t be thinking too much of yourself. Here is neither crow nor crane.” He was astonished; still he had to wait. At last the woman came, and he fell at her feet and said, “Mother, how did you know that?” She said, “My boy, I do not know your Yoga or your practices. I am a common everyday woman. I made you wait because my husband is ill, and I was nursing him. All my life I have struggled to do my duty. When I was unmarried, I did my duty to my parents; now that I am married, I do my duty to my husband; that is all the Yoga I practice. But by doing my duty I have become illumined; thus I could read your thoughts and know what you had done in the forest. If you want to know something higher than this, go to the market of such and such a town where you will find a Vyadha (The lowest class of people in India who used to live as hunters and butchers.) who will tell you something that you will be very glad to learn.”

The Sannyasi thought, “Why should I go to that town and to a Vyadha?” But after what he had seen, his mind opened a little, so he went. When he came near the town, he found the market and there saw, at a distance, a big fat Vyadha cutting meat with big knives, talking and bargaining with different people. The young man said, “Lord help me! Is this the man from whom I am going to learn? He is the incarnation of a demon, if he is anything.” In the meantime this man looked up and said, “O Swami, did that lady send you here? Take a seat until I have done my business.” The Sannyasi thought, “What comes to me here?” He took his seat; the man went on with his work, and after he had finished he took his money and said to the Sannyasi, “Come sir, come to my home.” On reaching home the Vyadha gave him a seat, saying, “Wait here,” and went into the house. He then washed his old father and mother, fed them, and did all he could to please them, after which he came to the Sannyasi and said, “Now, sir, you have come here to see me; what can I do for you?” The Sannyasi asked him a few questions about soul and about God, and the Vyadha gave him a lecture which forms a part of the Mahabharata, called the Vyâdha-Gitâ. It contains one of the highest flights of the Vedanta.

When the Vyadha finished his teaching, the Sannyasi felt astonished. He said, “Why are you in that body? With such knowledge as yours why are you in a Vyadha’s body, and doing such filthy, ugly work?” “My son,” replied the Vyadha, “no duty is ugly, no duty is impure. My birth placed me in these circumstances and environments. In my boyhood I learnt the trade; I am unattached, and I try to do my duty well. I try to do my duty as a householder, and I try to do all I can to make my father and mother happy. I neither know your Yoga, nor have I become a Sannyasi, nor did I go out of the world into a forest; nevertheless, all that you have heard and seen has come to me through the unattached doing of the duty which belongs to my position.””

This is the path prescribed by Karma Yoga for all of us. You will notice that both the lady and the butcher said that they sincerely performed their ‘duty as a householder’. We must understand that this entails the two conditions we have mentioned above – selflessness and brahmacharya. The inner growth occurs as a result of intense self-introspection and self-correction when we face blows in the course of our daily life. Work to your heart’s content fulfilling these two conditions. In due course, you will find a transformation occurring in yourself. That is the path for human excellence for people like you and me.

I have given you some ideas. Please think over them. We shall have a Q&A session after a break of 10 mins. Thank you all for a patient hearing.

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Author: Swami Vedatitananda

Monk of the Ramakrishna Order

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