Community Development through Polytechnics

Respected Prof. Saini, Chairman of the present Evaluation Committee, Govt of India, Prof U C Kumar, NITTTR, Kolkata, Dr Saibal Mukhopadyay, Director, Technical Education, Govt of West Bengal, other distinguished Professors and Directors, I represent Ramakrishna Mission Shilpamandira, Belur Math, an NGO running a premier Polytechnic since 1954.

Elaborating on the wonderful talks given by Prof Saini and Director, Technical Education Dr Saibal Mukhopadyay, I wish to point out a couple of issues that we at Ramakrishna Mission Shilpamandira have learnt in our long run with technical education. We were a Govt aided Polytechnic till 2007, during which time, we had the Community Polytechnic Scheme also. Our erstwhile Principal, Rev Swami Tattwajnanandaji, was of the opinion that Polytechnic College resources should not, and cannot, be used for running the CP scheme. The reason being – Diploma education is a separate job, while skill development in the community is also a separate, dedicated job. Each needs sufficient dedication and allocation of man power, time and resources. We cannot use the man power, time and resources meant for one to double up for the other. If we do that, both will suffer. Well, at least, one will certainly suffer. We cannot afford to lose focus in this way. Hence, what was done at Shilpamandira was that a separate unit was started as the Community Polytechnic. The machinery was completely different from the ones used for the Polytechnic. The rule is that a workshop cannot have two masters! The lecturers of the Polytechnic, however, helped when required in various respects like up-skilling of the CP instructors, setting the question papers and evaluating the answer sheets, setting up new equipment, etc. But, the Polytechnic and the CP were kept separate right from the beginning. And that is how it is running right now too. We have found this model to be really useful.

Regarding release of funds under the CP scheme, Director of Technical Education said that during the CP scheme days, fund-release was smooth. Now, we found even that scheme was troublesome! The problem we faced was the delay in releasing the funds from MHRD itself. We believe that money has to be paid to the instructor by the end of the month, failing which, we lose our moral power over them to demand efficiency. Whatever be the form the scheme takes, whatever be the form CDTP takes in the future, kindly ensure that funds are released in a phased manner at least twice or more times in a year. Then, timely payment to instructors can be done and the scheme will run smoothly.

We could further think of alternate methods of releasing funds. We could think of following the PMKVY method where the funds are released directly to the trainees and the Training Partners of NSDC. That way, we could entirely eliminate the cumbersome Governmental procedure of MHRD releasing the funds to NITTTR, which then releases it to the DTET, which then releases it to the Principals of CDTPs through the State Treasury. As explained by Director, Technical Education, this obviously has the bottleneck of parking the unutilized funds in the case of CDTPs too.

Regarding aligning the CDTP courses with NSQF, I wish to inform this august assembly that we at Shilpamandira Community Training Center have already done this successfully. It was quite an exercise, but it was worth the effort. All our existing courses were mapped to different trades under at least 7 different sector skill councils of NSDC. This enables the candidates to get a Pan-India certification upon completion of training. Moreover, this aligning with NSDC will allow for up-skilling and scaling up through their credit scheme for the candidates.

One other area where this Committee can give some thought is regarding gainful employment of the candidates who are trained under the CDTP scheme. The Committee can make a recommendation that the Govt of India should mandate all District & Panchayat authorities to allot development work only to CDTP certificate holders. All development activity at the rural and block level should be linked to CDTP scheme in some way. This will ensure that the trainees will get gainful employment and the effort spent in CDTP Training will be beneficial to the society. Unless some such step is taken, our efforts will seem to be shots in the dark.

Finally, regarding Prof Kumar’s query whether Ramakrishna Mission Shilpamandira will be interested in taking up the CDTP Scheme now, I wish to inform the honorable members of this Committee that we would feel honored to be associated with this Scheme, provided the Govt is ready to make us ‘Non-funded’ Training Partners. We do not want to avail funds from the Govt, while we would like to be allowed to avail certification for our Trainees under the CDTP Scheme.

I thank Prof Saini for giving us an opportunity to participate in this Review Session and express the views of Shilpamandira’s learnings in Community Development Training for the last four decades.

Swami Vedatitananda

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Voluntary work in Ramakrishna Math-Mission

Revered Swami Vashishthanandaji Maharaj, Adhyaksha, Ramakrishna Math, Antpur;  Revered Swami Pranaramanandaji Maharaj, Adhyaksha, Ramakrishna Math, Gaurhati; Revered Swami Arunatmanandaji Maharaj; and dear friends: It is a great privilege to be here today to speak to you all about volunteer work. All our Math and Mission Centers have a band of volunteers. So, apart from the monks, devotees and employees, our Centers have yet another category of people called ‘Volunteers’. Who are they and what are they supposed to do? The Revered Swamijis who spoke before me have covered all the important aspects of being a volunteer. So I will speak only about those aspects that I felt were left out. In doing so, I may have to speak a little about myself, for which, I may be pardoned.

Who is a volunteer?

I am today a monk of the most Holy Ramakrishna Order. But I began my journey as a volunteer in Bangalore Ashrama. I was a volunteer for 14 long years, continuously. When I joined the Vivekananda Balaka Sangha, I didn’t know anything about what it meant to be a volunteer. Slowly, as the years rolled by, the full meaning of that word opened up. As my understanding opened up, I got deeper and deeper meanings of this small word, and in the meantime, I found out that my personality itself had become transformed.

My mother took me to Bangalore Ashrama and got me enrolled as a volunteer there. I saw there were many more boys like me. I liked that place. There was even time allotted for games and sports. Then, there was work, and Vedic chanting, and Bhajans, and Library hour, and campus cleaning. You must understand that over time, I would often ask myself why I should spend time working in the Ashrama. The college I studied was just a couple of buildings away. Wouldn’t it be more useful for me if I spent my time in the College Library, instead of this volunteer work? Such questions would come up inside my head now and then.

We were very lucky in the sense that Bangalore Ashrama had a very strong tradition of volunteers, starting right from Revered Swami Yatishwaranandaji Maharaj’s time. He had started Vivekananda Balaka Sangha. He was a very revered Sangha Guru. There was one particular monk during my time who would spend lot of time with us, directing our activities in the Ashrama, discussing with us, clarifying our doubts, making us see clearly what it meant to be a volunteer, thereby silently molding our lives without our knowledge. Over time, unknown to myself, I started getting great clarity about my role as a volunteer. The most important question for all of us is ‘why should I work here in this Math?’ In other words, what will I get? Even a fool doesn’t work if he doesn’t get anything from that work.

We hear time and again that we must not expect anything from our voluntary work in the Math; that we must give and not take! I ask you, is that even possible? Of course, if we hear it again and again, we may stop expressing our desire for something from the Math, but it will remain inside our heart. It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes! And over a period of time, we will introspect and find that this work is taking us nowhere. And we will leave. We will stop coming here. That happens. I have seen dozens of volunteers who started with great enthusiasm and then they stopped. Why? That happened because it was never clear to them ‘why’ they came here, and ‘what’ they were supposed to do here.

Indeed, I ask you, why should you come here to Antpur Math to do volunteer work? And what work is exactly volunteer’s work?

One more question before I begin my deliberation for the day: How is a volunteer different from a devotee? I used to ask this to myself. You see, I used to go to the Ashrama. My mother also used to go there. But I was a volunteer, and she wasn’t. What exactly was the difference?

Karma & Karma Yoga:

I have raised some interesting questions related to our lives as volunteers of Ramakrishna Math – Mission. In order to answer them, we will have to look at Swami Vivekananda. The crux of the answer lies in our understanding of Swamiji’s idea of ‘work’. You see, since time immemorial, India has a rich history of the search for God. Over the centuries, the goal of God realization has been refined to an unparalleled degree here. The path to achieve that goal also has been spelt out in the greatest detail possible. You must have a Guru. You get a mantra and an initiation into the specific spiritual practice from him. Then you become a recluse, go away from society and dive into individualistic spiritual practice for a protracted period of time. That is how God has been realized in our country, all through its recorded history.

Swami Vivekananda came and changed all that. He said that the time-tested method of spiritual practice is not working now, for most of us. The kind of mind we all have, if we try to sit down and do spiritual practice for the whole day, what will happen is – we fall asleep. Try it and you will know. For some days, it seems possible. It even seems very agreeable, to sit without any care, and chant the mantra and dwell on the scriptures. But, it is just for a few days. If we persist for long, we become vegetables, our brain gets heated, and we get mentally deranged! That is what happens if we try to follow the age-old, beaten path of spiritual practice. Swamiji came along and said, ‘Look here, I have started two small organizations around the incarnation of God. Enter into these two organizations. There is a lot of work to be done here. I am leaving detailed instructions about what works to be done. Do them to please our Lord. Work incessantly here, always keeping your mind and heart on our Lord. This is so much better than trying in vain to sit down forcefully and meditate, which is simply not happening. Do this work, as an offering to our Lord. It no longer remains work, it becomes Yoga, and it will lead you to a truly meditative state of mind.

So, it is not work that a volunteer does here. It is a spiritual practice, which looks like work. So, this much is clear. Working in any Ramakrishna Math-Mission center is not volunteer work. Working in any Ramakrishna Math-Mission center in order to realize God is volunteer work. The goal must be clear. The clarity might not come immediately, but gradually, that clarity must come. Else, it is a waste of time and effort.

Now, wait a minute: working for the sake of realizing our divinity – isn’t that the goal of a monk? Is a volunteer a monk then? Is there no difference? Firstly, working for the sake of realizing our divinity is not the monopoly of monks. Monks of Ramakrishna Mission do that, yes. But it is not restricted to these monks alone. Anyone can do it, if he or she is interested in it. A monk can be considered as a special kind of volunteer. That’s all.

A devotee comes to the Math to pray for one’s own salvation. A volunteer comes to the Math to serve the devotees, and by thus serving the people who come to meet the Lord in the Math, the volunteer achieves his own salvation. Prayer and service – these are actually non-different.

In the Ramayana we come across a very interesting conversation between Vibhishana and Hanuman. The battle between Rama and Ravana is over, Vibhishana has been made the King of Lanka, and Sri Ramachandra’s coronation in Ayodhya is also over. That is when this conversation occurs. Vibhishana asks Hanuman ‘You have served Sri Rama all these years. I have observed how you served him. But I must point out that I have never seen you perform Japa. Do you know how powerful Sri Rama’s name is? You live with him day and night, as his shadow, you must certainly be aware of the potency of his name. I wonder why you don’t perform Japa of Sri Rama’s name.’ Hanuman listened and then replied after a while, ‘Look here, Vibhishana. You have done Japa of Sri Rama’s name and have obtained his Kripa, his grace. See how you have become the Lord of Lanka without having to do anything else apart from Japa for that! I, on the other hand, have constantly fixed my attention on the face of Sri Rama, waiting for any hint from him about any service he needed. I have thus served him all these years and I too have obtained something; I now have his Prema, his love.’ That is what a volunteer aims to achieve, obtain the love of his Ishta, by serving in his Ishta’s Ashrama. What does this mean? Ask anyone if they know Narendra Modi, and they will tell they know Modi. Of course, they will know Modi; anyone who can read the papers will know who Modi is; he is the Prime Minister of India. But, does Narendra Modi know you? Well, if Modi knows you, that is something, isn’t it? Similarly, by doing the Lord’s work, daily, week after week, year after year, the Lord will start recognizing you! That is the thing to be gained by doing volunteer work.

The ideal makes a volunteer:

Time and again, this ideal of a volunteer was drilled into our minds in Bangalore Ashrama. The highest ideal however calls for the highest integrity. The quality of work that we did was expected to be of a very high quality. The Swamiji who was in-charge of volunteers would scold us very sharply. So much scolding we got. It was not always love and affection, in the conventional sense of the term. He would correct us mercilessly. We would feel extremely insulted sometimes. But then, the ideal would flash before our mind’s eye and the hope of approximating to it would make us digest that pain of failure. I remember one time. There were about a 1000 devotees in the auditorium that day. The Swamiji in-charge of volunteers was conducting the Saturday evening lecture and I was sitting at the sound system, adjusting the sound. That particular day, I simply couldn’t get the right mix of bass, treble, echo & repeat, and the sound in the hall was very poor. Half way through the program, suddenly I found a small book come flying through the air towards me! The Swamiji had thrown that book at me! Then, on the microphone he called me to the center of the stage. Then he proceeded to inform the 1000+ audience that the sound system was invented by a vijnani (scientist), but that unfortunately, it was being handled by an ajnani (an idiot, i.e. me!). He said this in front of all, showing me to the entire audience. I was in a daze. I went back and sat at the sound system, completely broken inside. I was a studying to be an engineer myself, and I had to listen to this! Later on, after the lecture got over, he called me and said, ‘Look here. You were careless today. Those people have lot of trouble at home; they come here for getting some peace by listening to the words of God (the lecture was on the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna). You spoilt it for them today. That is why I scolded you. Now, try to correct yourself by remaining alert. Don’t stop coming from tomorrow. Again you will get a chance to adjust the sound system next week. Do it properly.’ That was it. No soothing words of love or anything. That is volunteer work!

I sometimes hear volunteers say that a little bit of love and affection from the monks will go a long way in getting a lot done by us. I don’t subscribe to that view. We don’t come here for any monk’s love or appreciation. We have a direct link with our Lord who sits in the Temple. We will please him by our work. If the others praise us and appreciate us, fine; if they scold and shout at us, that is welcome too. How else will we correct ourselves? Moreover, if this monk here couldn’t become happy with our work, there is remote chance that the Lord will be pleased by that work.

So, as I said earlier, the goal of a volunteer is very high. We have to be very, very careful. Sloppiness in work is simply not tolerated in volunteer work. I remember the Swamiji tell one of our friends one day, ‘Look here, the work you do is nothing big. I can pay 1000 rupees and get it done by a paid worker. If I pay a person that much amount, he will do it with great attention. You call yourself a volunteer. Imagine how much more attentive you must be when you work!’ Day after day, the ideal to be reached kept getting clearer and clearer. And the realization of our present state also became clearer and clearer. That was what made us digest all the scolding. Without that development, these things would have seemed like nagging!

Listen to a story. Then you will understand better what I am trying to explain here. This is the story about the time when Buddha had not yet become Buddha. He was then called Siddhartha Gautama. He went about in search of Truth. He would select nice places in the forest and sit for meditation. One day, it was during summer; he saw a beautiful lake. He thought, ‘The water is so clean; it looks so cool; I shall take a bath in these refreshing waters and then sit for meditation.’ Thinking thus, he removed his clothes, carefully kept it on the banks of the lake and entered the lake slowly. He had a very refreshing bath. Just as he was about to come out of the lake, he saw some beautiful lotuses in full bloom at the far end of the lake. He swam there, smelt the beautiful flowers, felt totally refreshed, and came out to dry himself. Just as he was wearing his clothes, all of a sudden, a Yaksha manifested before him. The Yaksha was very angry and started shouting at Gautama, ‘You fool! Who gave you permission to take bath in this lake? Don’t you know that I am the master of this lake? Did you ask my permission? And you also took the liberty of smelling the lotuses! They have all been wasted now, they can’t be offered to God now!’ In this manner he went on berating the hapless young monk. Gautama was stunned. He never expected anything like this. Just at that moment, Gautama heard some hoof sounds. Some King’s man came along on his horse. He too saw the lake. He stopped, tied the horse to a tree, tore his clothes and jumped into the lake. He started playing around in the cool waters. The lake got all dirty. That happens when you agitate the waters. The scum at the bottom of the lake rises to the top. Then, before coming out, the King’s man saw those beautiful lotuses in bloom. He simply plucked a handful of flowers, came out, took his horse and sped away. Gautama was seeing all this spellbound. He thought, ‘I didn’t do anything compared to what this fool is doing and I got such scolding. Perhaps the Yaksha will strike this poor fool dead for what he is doing!’ But, Gautama found that Yaksha didn’t do anything. He then said, ‘Wah, Yaksha! I am a soft guy and you took me to task. But that was a powerful man and you ignored his mistakes!’ The Yaksha said, ‘Ah, but that is not how it, Gautama. You proclaim that you are in search of the Truth. Since your goal is high, the standards against which your actions will be judged are also equally high. That King’s man was a normal person; he didn’t claim to any high goals in life; I am glad he didn’t pass urine in my lake! Given his goal in life, what he has done is quite normal. Not so with you!

Pitfalls to avoid:

During my long period of volunteer work in Bangalore Ashrama, I studied so many of my friends who were volunteers. I studied myself too. I was able to identify some very common problems we face as we continue doing volunteer work in the Math. I wish to highlight a few of them, so that you all can avoid them.

  • Evaluating & judging monks: This was a common problem. In the beginning, everything is fine and dandy. As time passes by, we start to evaluate the monks! Isn’t volunteer work really great? We become so great, having worked in the Ashrama that we can judge all-renouncing monks! Monks come and go. When a new monk comes to our center, we start comparing him to the previous one, and the previous one was always better! The present one is simply not up to the mark in our eyes! We start labelling one monk as a loving person, while another is always grumpy. Then, we start forming groups around the loving monk, and we join other volunteers and dissect every action of the grumpy monks, sometimes leading to character assassination even! Now, this is a terrible thing to do. It erodes the very essence of being a volunteer.
  • Comparing with other volunteers: Another common past-time of volunteers is to get together and keep on evaluating other volunteers. We say, ‘Look at that fellow! Does nothing here, simply does pranams to that monk while we slog here!’ Things like that. I remember I had introduced a boy to become a volunteer in VBS. After some days, I found he was not coming. I asked him. Do you know what he said? He told me, ‘Your Volunteer group is nothing but a wonderful system where the older guys exploit the new comers. I have to do all the donkey work, while you people stand around giving orders!’
  • Gossip: Then, there is the spicy things we get to hear in all Math and Mission centers. We huddle together and say to one another, ‘Hey, did you hear? So-&-so had a big fight with the Mohonto Maharaj, and I heard he is being sent away! Serves him right!’ I do not know how this kind of discussion becomes a part of volunteer work? Gossip takes many forms among volunteers. We sometimes start a smear campaign against some other volunteer. Human relations are complex. And the volunteer group is a very loose knit group where all the forces of complexity come into play. We need to be careful of that.
  • Loss of respect for monks: What happens if we are not careful is that slowly we will start losing respect for monks, for the saffron robe. In many cases, what happens is that volunteers are better than monks when it comes to execution of work. So, time and again, the volunteer starts denigrating the monk’s ‘quality’ in his mind. Over a period of time, he loses all respect for that monk. Then, over a further period of time, that disregard spread to cover all monks! I have seen volunteers like that, who have no regard to any monk! What need to do volunteer work of that sort? If you had remained a devotee, at least you would have retained respect for the institution of monasticism and the saffron robe!
  • Unexpressed expectations: This is another very subtle problem we face. It could range from gross expectations such as ‘I hope Swamiji helps me get a seat for my son in Deoghar Vidyapith’ to extremely subtle ones such as ‘I hope the grumpy Swamiji at least acknowledges the wonderful work I did today.’ I have heard many time people telling me, ‘You know, I really slogged today, and then, not even smile, not even a pat on my back! I tell you, that Swamiji is nuts!’ Then there is the subtle, unexpressed desire for privileges. A new book gets released by the Math and won’t I get a special rebate? I have been a volunteer for so many years? Can’t I get even this much? What sort of place is this? Or, I am going to Delhi for writing an exam. Can’t I and my friends be accommodated in that Delhi Mission? What?! After all these years of slogging for this Math, can’t I expect even this much courtesy? You see, stuff like that.
  • Over-sensitivity to prestige & insults: A very common problem. I have heard many volunteers tell me, ‘Can you imagine? I am an expert helping hand in Puja, and all that Swamiji thinks of is keeping me in the Donation counter!’ No work is demeaning for a volunteer.

I remember a very embarrassing incident from my volunteer life in Bangalore. You see, I always thought of Ashrama as a holy place, and associated it with only the Temple. I didn’t know about the various other activities that exist in an Ashrama such as the shoe-stand, or bookstall or donation counter, or kitchen, etc. So, when I joined the Balaka Sangha, I assumed I will be kept in the Temple, what with my mother being a long-time devotee and all! I think my mother spoke to the Swamiji in-charge and I remember distinctly that I started my volunteer work in the Temple. I joined sometime in December. During Shivaratri celebrations, the Pujari Maharaj & I spent a long time arranging the heavy Rudraksha Mala on the large Shiva photo in the prayer hall. Maharaj was standing behind the photo and I was standing in front of the photo. He was tying up the heavy garland and I was supplying the thread. After it was all over, the Pujari Maharaj came to the front of the photo, saw me and shrieked! What had happened was that I had wound the thread around my neck and was supplying it from there. I was under the impression that the thread shouldn’t touch the ground; I had no clue that we don’t offer things to God that we had used on our person! He simply freaked out and dragged me to the Swamiji in-charge of volunteers and complained loudly about the blunder I had done. Well, the long and short of it is – I was shifted from the Temple duty to Bookstall. I was heartbroken. I stopped going to the Ashrama after that for some time. Then, my mother was contacted and I was taken back. I said I considered working in the bookstall as a ‘demotion’! Yes, today, it all looks so silly, but then, I was in class six or seven and it was a big deal for me. The Swamiji in-charge then said something amazing. He said, ‘Do you know what bookstall work means? It is almost equal to giving mantra-diksha! The books you will be handling are the words of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. They have power to change lives. That is almost like mantra-diksha!’ He had sold me onto it! And I remained a bookstall volunteer till I joined as a monk!

  • Obnoxious behavior towards people coming to Ashrama: Let me tell you a very interesting incident. You see, I worked with Rev Adhyaksha Maharaj in Along, Arunachal Pradesh for over 6 years. He was the Secretary Maharaj there. Once, there was a big program and the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh visited us. All the top officers were there. When the Governor comes, everybody who is somebody comes along, you see. Maharaj was constantly with the Governor. After the program, Maharaj took him and some others inside the Monks Quarters for lunch. I was standing outside with a list that had names of who must be allowed inside. This was a list prepared by the Protocol Dept. of the State Govt. A Govt Doctor called Dr Kena came there. I saw the list and said he cannot be allowed inside. Arrangements were made for food for all others in a Lunch Shed a little distance away and I asked him to go there. I thought the matter ended there. But a few days later, Secretary Maharaj called me and said, ‘Do you know what you have done? Dr Kena was deeply hurt by the way you sent him away that day. He told me he hadn’t taken lunch that day!’ I was shocked. I thought I had done my duty, but that had hurt this man. He was a close friend of the Mission. You see, those days, I had a very sharp tongue. Repeated blows have mellowed me down now!

This is what happens. We think we are doing our duty as a volunteer. But people are sensitive. Was I supposed to allow Dr Kena inside then? Not at all. But I could have said ‘No’ in a better way. Perhaps I could have led him to the Lunch Shed myself and seated him with some other friends. Saying it curtly had damaged the image of the entire Ramakrishna Mission in his eyes. That is the responsibility we all carry as volunteers. The devotees and friends who come here will see us as the face of the entire Math and Mission! So, we need to be extremely cautious.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, I wish to tell you a small story that Rev Swami Yatishwaranandaji Maharaj used to tell the VBS boys in its beginning days, a story that has come down as tradition in our Bangalore Ashrama. This is a story about an incident that actually happened. Rev Swamiji was very fond of this story. You see, Tamil Nadu had many saints of the Shaiva Tradition called Nayanars. This story is about one of those Nayanar saints called Pusalar[1].

During the time of this saint, there was a Pallava King called Raja Narasimhavarman. He was a great devotee of Lord Shiva. He decided to build a grand temple for his Ishta Deva. In fact, it would be the grandest temple for Lord Shiva on earth; that was his plan. So he called hundreds of sculptors for the job. You must remember that temple construction in those days was done in stone, not brick & mortar, as is done today. Pusalar was one of those sculptors. Now, this Pusalar too was a staunch devotee of Lord Shiva, and he too had a great desire to build a grand temple for his Lord. But, he was an ordinary stone-cutter. He couldn’t build a temple for the Lord. So he decided that he would build one inside his heart! For, even though our freedom is highly curtailed in the outside world, inside our heart, in the Bhava-rajya, the sphere of our innermost feelings, we have infinite freedom. So, he decided that he would build a grand temple for his Ishta inside his heart. Look at his decision!

Every day he would work on the temple site of Raja Narasimhavarman. Now, being an ordinary stone-cutter, who would guide him in planning the Temple? So, every day, he would gather all the details of that grand temple that Raja was constructing, and incorporate it in the temple he was building inside his heart. Imagine the intensity of his meditation! It took some three & a half years for the temple to get completed.

Then came the time for consecration, the Prana-prathishta. The King consulted some Brahmins and fixed a holy day for consecration of the temple. Great arrangements were made. A few days before the day of consecration, the King had a strange dream. Lord Shiva appeared in his dream and told him to defer the date since he was going to another – greater – temple built by a greater devotee! The King was flabbergasted. Who could have built a greater temple than this one? He asked his ministers to find out the details. A sage with great powers of insight finally found out that Lord Shiva was going to the temple that Pusalar had built! What had happened was – Pusalar was mirroring inside his heart, everything that the King was doing outside in this world. So, when the King announced the date of consecration of the temple, Pusalar too fixed that date as the consecration day of ‘his’ temple, which was now complete inside his heart. Such was the intensity of thought that Pusalar developed as a result of this extended meditation connected with his work, that Shiva listened to his call! Finally, the sage advised Raja Narasimhavarman to request Pusalar to conduct the Prana-prathishta ceremony and thus the Temple was consecrated both outside in this world and inside Pusalar’s heart.

Such is the goal of a volunteer of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission.

With these words, I will now bring my lecture to a close. I once again thank Rev Swami Vashishthanandaji for having invited me to share these ideas with you all.

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[1] This story, which appears in Tamil literature, has many versions. In some, Pusalar is a stone-cutter. In some others, he is a Brahmin priest. I have chosen the stone-cutter version.

Personality of Holy Mother Sri Sharada Devi

Personally, I am uneasy writing about Holy Mother. It is difficult to verbalize about what is extremely dear to one’s heart. One feels like having committed a sacrilege by putting that into words. No matter what you write, you get a feeling in your gut that you have done gross injustice to the subject.

Another reason I find it hard to write about Holy Mother is that there is hardly anything dramatic or extraordinary in her life and personality, the kind of adventure and glory we see in Sri Ramakrishna or Swami Vivekananda. The best description of Holy Mother’s personality, I found, in a passage that Swamiji uttered in his First Public Lecture in the East in Colombo. He was speaking of the effect of Indian thought on the western mind. But, the words are absolutely true of Holy Mother’s life also. So, I will take the liberty of paraphrasing Swamiji’s words to make it sound like he is speaking of Holy Mother. “Those who keep their eyes open, those who understand the workings of the minds of different people of this world, those who are thinkers and study people, will find the immense change that has been produced in the tone, the procedure, the methods, and in the lives of the people of the world by this slow, never ceasing permeation of Holy Mother’s personality…If there is one word in the English language to represent the gift of Holy Mother’s life to the world, if there is one word in the English language to express the effect which her personality produces upon mankind; it is this one word, ‘fascination’. It is the opposite of anything that takes you suddenly; it throws on you, as it were, a charm imperceptibly. To many, the daily circumstances of Holy Mother’s life might be repulsive at first sight; but let them persevere, let them study her life, let them become familiar with the great principles underlying this amazing person, and it is ninety-nine to one that the charm will come over them, and fascination will be the result. Slow and silent, as the gentle dew that falls in the morning, unseen and unheard yet producing a most tremendous result, has been the work of the calm, patient, all-suffering Holy Mother upon the people who come in contact with her.[1]

At first sight, it is almost impossible to specifically locate Holy Mother in the genesis and evolution of this worldwide spiritual organization. But, every person, without an exception, once he enters this movement, is totally ‘fascinated’ by Holy Mother, and becomes intensely attached to her. When and how exactly she starts exerting her imperceptible influence on us is impossible to say. As Swamiji said, “If there is one word in the English language to express this effect…it is this one word, ‘fascination’. It is the opposite of anything that takes you suddenly; it throws on you, as it were, a charm imperceptibly.”

What exactly is the role of Holy Mother in the Ramakrishna Movement? More fundamentally, who exactly is this lady that we worship today as Holy Mother? Kasmai devaya havisha vidhema? [2] Many illustrious monks and thinkers have tried to answer these questions. All of them resort to poetry, giving up all positive language, in trying to describe Holy Mother. Ordinary language seems to fall short when we speak of her. Swamiji exhorts in one place, “You people always want action! You cannot yet perceive the poetry of everyday common little incidents in life![3] Swami Vireshwarananda makes a wonderful observation in one of his lectures: “When Holy Mother was at Madras on her way to Rameswaram, devotees used to come and inquire Shashi Maharaj whether she was going to deliver any lecture. That was the yardstick by which they measured greatness – intellectuality. They had heard Annie Besant, who could throw the audience into raptures by her oratory. So they expected Holy Mother also to give lectures![4] It is not possible to speak about her in asserting, positive language. Take for instance Swami Brahmananda. He says, “Who can understand our Holy Mother?…Is it possible for an ordinary person to have digested the worship of an incarnation like Sri Ramakrishna? From this, one has to understand what a great container of power she is!…Our Holy Mother is Mahamaya herself! But such is her Maya that none can understand her. Inside, she is the ocean of realization; outside, absolute calm. How ordinary and easy she appears! Even Avataras cannot keep under control such Bhava and Bhakti.[5]

Look at the words Swami Brahmananda uses, ‘How ordinary and easy she appears!’ She is very ordinary. She is very easy of approach. But, that is just how it appears. That is not the truth. Why not? Because, slow and silent, as the gentle dew that falls in the morning, unseen and unheard yet producing a most tremendous result, has been the work of the calm, patient, all-suffering Holy Mother upon the people who come in contact with her. Not only that, Swami Yatishwarananda mentions another amazing facet of Holy Mother. He says, “Which aspect of Holy Mother do you like? Only her love and affection? Remember that she is Kali too. If need be, she will tear open your heart.[6]

This is an amazing personality we are dealing with here. Swami Saradananda, after living with Holy Mother for eighteen long years, once mentioned about her, “What can we understand of the Holy Mother! However, this much I can say that I have never seen such a great mind, and I do not hope to see one either. It is beyond our capacity to comprehend the extent of Holy Mother’s glory and power. I have never seen such attachment, nor have I seen such detachment. She was so deeply attached to Radhu. But when her last day came she said, ‘Please send her away.’ I said, ‘Mother, you are now telling to send Radhu away. But what will happen when you will like to see her again?’ Holy Mother replied, ‘No, I have not the slightest attraction for her anymore.’ While saying these words, Swami Saradananda became absorbed within himself and started humming a song whose meaning was, ‘Amazed at your activities, I am wondering whether I should laugh or cry. In this strange world, you make and unmake things all day long, just as children do while playing. I have lived long by your side and followed you. Let me now acknowledge my defeat – I could not understand you.’[7]

There is one more reason why Holy Mother is not what she appears to be – ordinary and easy. One morning in Jayrambati, Holy Mother was husking paddy, which she did almost every day. Swami Arupananda asked her, “Mother, why should you work so hard?” She replied, “My child, to make my life a model, I have done much more than is necessary.[8]

Her life is more than a role model. For whom is her life a model? What is the model she is speaking of? Why did she have to make her life a model for others? Sister Nivedita said, “To me it has always appeared that Holy Mother is Sri Ramakrishna’s final word as to the ideal of Indian womanhood.[9] So, is Holy Mother a role model only for women? These are some questions that need to be answered, which I shall try presently.

An Avatara reveals a new spiritual ideal for humanity and propagates this new ideal in two distinct, yet deeply interconnected ways. One is the cult aspect of the teaching and the other is its philosophical aspect. The philosophical aspect of the Avatara’s teachings is centered on principles. The cult aspect is centered in personality; it consists of beliefs and devotional attitudes concerning the Avatara. The health and vitality of the religious movement depend on maintaining balance between these two aspects. While philosophy is the skeleton, muscles and skin, cult is the heart of the movement. It is the hidden source of vigor in a religious movement. Without philosophy, cult becomes sentimentalism or fanaticism. So also, without the devotional spirit generated by the cult, philosophy degenerates into intellectualism or cosmopolitanism, without a spirit of self-sacrifice so essential for making any religious movement vibrant.[10]

Holy Mother is the greatest representative of the cult aspect of the Ramakrishna Movement, while Swami Vivekananda is the most illustrious representative of its philosophical aspect. In fact, once when he was very young, Swami Saradananda confided in Swami Yogananda, “I do not always understand what Naren means. He talks about many things. Whenever he speaks about something, he does it with such emphasis that all his previous statements become practically meaningless.” Swami Yogananda advised him, “Let me tell you something. You stick to Holy Mother. Whatever she says is right.[11] Holy Mother was the first, and the foremost, person to embody the cult principles which has given to the Ramakrishna Movement whatever vitality it possesses. It is in this sense that Holy Mother is considered as the Shakti behind this movement.

Sri Ramakrishna revealed a new spiritual ideal called Vijnana. How do we reach that spiritual state starting from where we are at present? The Divine Mother gave him specific directions in this regard. It is interesting to note that the path followed by the Avatara himself to reach that new spiritual ideal may not be suitable for the masses. At least in Sri Ramakrishna’s case, that is so. The path he took for reaching the state of Vijnana is not meant for ordinary people like us. So, a separate path, a separate set of spiritual practices had to be laid out for us. The Divine Mother specifically revealed to him that ordinary people would reach the new state of Vijnana by following the path of Bhakti-mishrita-Karma-Yoga. Swami Saradananda elaborates this revelation in Sri Ramakrishna Lila Prasanga as follows: “An ordinary person must try to do his duties with detachment, depending on the Lord, like the maidservant who does everything for her master, knowing in her heart that her home is elsewhere. This is known as karma yoga. As far as possible one should take the name of the Lord and meditate on Him while discharging one’s everyday duties in an unattached way.[12]

Sri Ramakrishna needed someone who could demonstrate to the masses exactly how one should proceed along this new path to reach the new ideal. Sri Ramakrishna selected Holy Mother for this extremely vital job. In a way, each of his disciples – both monastic and householder – did this job to the limit possible by each one of them. But, Holy Mother was specifically meant to do this.

Holy Mother’s entire life is a glowing illustration of the three beliefs on which the cult aspect of the Ramakrishna Movement stands:[13]

  1. Sri Ramakrishna is an Avatara. He embodies in himself the spiritual consciousness of the past incarnations and is the expression of all forms of God.
  2. His life and personality have revealed a new spiritual ideal.
  3. By tyaga and seva, one can participate in the spiritual consciousness he has created.

We grow spiritually by dedicating all our actions to Sri Ramakrishna. This belief is the primary motive force behind the Ramakrishna Movement. Long before Swamiji institutionalized this idea, Holy Mother pioneered this new path leading to the new ideal. Holy Mother demonstrated how to become totally identified with Sri Ramakrishna by working for him. Swami Yogananda made a wonderful observation in this regard, which I quote: At Vrindavan, Holy Mother had many spiritual experiences. One day her companions found her in deep Samadhi. They uttered the name of the Lord Krishna in her ears and tried to bring her mind down. They could not. I then repeated the name of Sri Ramakrishna with all my might and strength of voice. Then Holy Mother seemed to come down to the ordinary sense-plane. During such periods of ecstasy, her manner of speech, her voice, her way of taking food, her mode of walking and her general behavior were exactly like those of the Master. The scriptures mention a spiritual state known as ‘Tadatmya Bhava’, being at one with God…Holy Mother forgot her own separate existence and became one with him. When I put to her some intricate questions about spiritual matters, shortly after her states of Samadhi, she replied in a God-intoxicated mood, very much like Sri Ramakrishna, that is, in the same manner characteristic of the Master, using even the same easy style of expression with metaphors and parables. We were amazed to see the spirit of Sri Ramakrishna unified with her. It was unique. We realized that the Master and Holy Mother were essentially one, though appearing in separate forms.[14] Once a disciple questioned Swami Saradananda why Holy Mother took only two or three minutes to initiate a disciple, while he took about half an hour. The Swami replied, “The very touch or will of Holy Mother is sufficient assurance that the disciple had surrendered to, and had been accepted by, Sri Ramakrishna. In my case, I need to spend some time in meditation before I receive that assurance.[15]

Holy Mother was the Vijnana ideal in flesh & blood. The most noted of Sri Ramakrishna’s disciples were monks. Though they were involved in preaching, philanthropy and administration, they all lived outside the family. Even Sri Ramakrishna himself, though married, had nothing to do with family. But in Holy Mother, we find the unique example of one who lived in the circle of her relatives and bore the worries of such a life to the fullest extent, but at the same time kept intact her Viveka and Vairagya.

She was wife, nun and mother at the same time.[16] These are mutually conflicting situations in life. But Holy Mother harmonized them in her life. She was married to Sri Ramakrishna at the age of five. Till the end of his life she was his companion, fully participating in his spiritual ideals. Being the wife of a spiritual teacher who remained a celibate for life and insisted on celibacy as an essential discipline of spiritual life, she remained a nun in spite of her married condition. As such she had no children of the body, but she had a large number of devotees and disciples, to whom she was a mother. In relation to them she displayed all the love and sweetness which a woman reveals when she receives fulfilment as a mother. In this respect, Holy Mother is a unique figure in world history. There have been great wives, great nuns and great mothers, but none who have been all of these at the same time. Holy Mother, therefore, reveals a new possibility in the field of womanly character. This is perhaps why Nivedita called her Sri Ramakrishna’s final word as to the ideal of womanhood. Holy Mother demonstrated that wifely devotion is possible without physical attraction, that maternal love can be manifested without oneself bearing children, and that the highest spirituality can be cultivated even in the midst of daily life in the world.

Although Swamiji & Holy Mother had totally different mechanisms for delivering the message of Sri Ramakrishna, both of them were essentially on the same page, at all times. This equivalence is not obvious always, but we find glimpses during moments of crises and dilemma in Swamiji’s life. In March 1898 there was an outbreak of plague in Calcutta. Swamiji immediately made plans for relief work, but there was no money. He told his brother disciples, “We shall sell the land we have purchased for the Math. We are monks. We must be ready to sleep under trees and live on alms as we did before. Must we care for monastery and possessions when by selling them, we could relieve thousands of helpless people suffering before our own eyes?” Swamiji had such a strong personality that his brother disciples could not dissuade him. Swami Shivananda however said, “Swamiji, you always consult Holy Mother about important matters. Will you not consult with her before selling the Math?” Swamiji immediately went to Holy Mother in Calcutta, accompanied by Swami Brahmananda, Shivananda and Saradananda. There Swamiji said, “Mother, there is no money to serve the plague-stricken people. I am planning to sell the Math property and use that money for relief work. We are monks. We can live under trees. We need your permission.” Holy Mother had always supported Swamiji’s projects. But on this matter, she did not agree. She said, “My son, you cannot sell the Math property. This is not your Math. It belongs to the Master. You are my heroic sons. You can indeed spend your lives under trees. But my children who will come in the future will not be able to live like that. This Math is for them…Will the purpose of Belur Math end after conducting only one relief work? The Master’s mission has many objectives. The infinite ideas of the Master will spread all over the world in the future. His mission will continue through ages.[17]

Although this looks like Holy Mother disagreed with Swamiji, what actually happened was something very deep. A lot of resentment had built up in some of the direct disciples regarding Swamiji’s modern methods of organization. So, in the course of this dilemma, when Holy Mother declared that the Math, and the organization associated with it, was actually the will of Sri Ramakrishna, everyone fell in line.

Who actually started this wonderful organization? It is interesting to study the dynamics of its genesis. It is popular knowledge that Swamiji hit upon the idea of organization while he was in the West. That is a fact. But that is not the whole truth. Holy Mother once said to a disciple: “How much I wept and prayed to the Master for my children! That is why you find Math and Mission centers everywhere today. After the Master’s demise his disciples renounced the world, found a temporary shelter and for a few days lived together. Then one by one they went out independently and began to wander. That made me very sad. I prayed to the Master, ‘O Lord, you incarnated as a man and spent your life with a few disciples. Now has everything ended with your passing away? In that case what need was there for your embodiment entailing so much suffering? I have seen in Vrindavan and Benares so many holy men living on alms and sleeping under trees. There is no lack of sadhus of that type. I cannot bear to see my children, who have renounced all for your sake, wandering about for a morsel of food. It is my prayer, O Lord that those who give up the world for your sake may not suffer for want of simple food and clothing. My children should live together, clinging to you and your teachings; people of the world should come to them and get peace of mind by hearing your words from them. That is why you incarnated yourself in a human form.’”[18] When a person like Holy Mother prays, it carries infinite power with it. The Ramakrishna movement and the monastic organization that is at the back of it sprang from the resolution she made in her pure and powerful mind. She is the bedrock on which Sri Ramakrishna’s spiritual edifice is built. That is the power of the Cult aspect. She is, in a very real sense, the mother who gave birth to the spiritual movement associated with Sri Ramakrishna’s name.

We saw that Sri Ramakrishna had a divine revelation that the spiritual path for mankind would be Bhakti-mishrita-Karma-Yoga. Later on, when Swamiji was formulating the new doctrine for the movement, in his famous Karma Yoga lectures, he narrates a beautiful story. A young monk went to a forest and practiced Yoga for a long time. One day, some birds disturbed him during his meditation. He looked at them with anger. The birds got burnt to ashes. He was overjoyed at this development of power. After sometime he had to go to the town to beg his food. He went, stood at a door, and said, ‘Mother, give me food.’ The lady of the house said, ‘Wait a little, my son.’ The sadhu thought, ‘You wretched woman, how dare you make me wait! You do not know my power yet.’ While he was thinking thus the lady said again: ‘My son, don’t think too much of yourself. I am not a bird you can burn.’ He was astonished. When the woman came with food, he fell at her feet and said, ‘Mother, how do you know about what happened deep in the forest?’ She said, ‘My son, I do not know your Yoga or your Sadhana. 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.’[19]

Through this story, Swamiji is essentially telling us that working for the love of God, coupled with Brahmacharya[20] is enough for our spiritual awakening. This was in fact a story from the Mahabharata. But, when Swamiji explained it, there was tremendous life force in his words. Where did that force come from? It came from what he directly saw in Dakshineswar and Cossipore, in the life and personality of Holy Mother. He knew that this was not just another fairy tale. This could happen. In fact, it had happened. By the way, did you notice how similar the personality of that woman in the story was with that of Holy Mother?

Recall the Shodashi Puja that Sri Ramakrishna performed on Phalaharini Kali Puja night. Sri Ramakrishna informed Holy Mother that she was to come to his room at around midnight. She went. He made her sit on a stool, which he had duly consecrated. Then he invoked the presence of the Divine Mother of the Universe in Sri Sharada Devi and worshipped her as one would ritually worship an idol. She went into Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Around day-break, she came back to normal consciousness, got up and went to her room in the Nahabat.[21] This information we find in her biographies.

We need to imagine a little bit here. Then we will understand what I am trying to say. Remember that Holy Mother was an ordinary household lady, for all practical purposes. She too had fixed duties to perform. So, when her husband asked her to come to his room by midnight, how did she come? She had a household to run. That night, she must have prepared food for quite a good number of people. She must have served them food. After that, she would have cleaned the eating place and the vessels. She must have done all these. Then she must have bathed. Only then would she have gone to her husband’s room. Similarly, next day morning, coming down from Samadhi, she goes back to her room, for what? For rest? Where is rest for a lady of the house?! Early morning she must have collected milk for preparing chana for her husband (he needed it as a staple diet). After that, she would have begun the innumerable daily duties such as preparing breakfast, washing clothes, drying them up, etc. She didn’t claim any privileges after her Nirvikalpa Samadhi!

Moreover, let us remember that one becomes fit to experience this kind of Samadhi only after the most rigorous Sadhana done for a long time. In this instance we find this lady doing all her daily duties, and then she is ready for the highest spiritual experience directly after that! It makes us wonder what must have been the attitude with which she had been working, if her preparation for Nirvikalpa Samadhi was the daily duties she performed! She herself used to say, “Sri Ramakrishna has left me behind to manifest the Motherhood of God to the world.[22] This is an important facet of her motherhood. She takes us by the hand and teaches us how to live and work so that we can participate in the spiritual consciousness of Sri Ramakrishna. This is the training a mother gives her child, making him aware of his paternal heritage.

Once while Swamiji embarked on his wanderings in North India, he prayed to Holy Mother that he might not return before attaining the highest realization. She blessed him profusely, but asked him whether he would not like to take leave of his mother Bhuvaneswari Devi. Swamiji addressed Holy Mother and replied, “You alone are my mother, and none else![23]

I end this essay by quoting Swamiji’s words about Holy Mother, “You have not yet understood the wonderful significance of Mother’s life, none of you. But gradually you will know. Without Shakti, there is no regeneration for the world.[24]

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

[1] Paraphrased from: Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-3: Lectures from Colombo to Almora: First Public Lecture In The East (Delivered in Colombo) on 15th Jan 1897

[2] “Who is the deity we shall worship with our offerings?”: Hiranyagarbha Suktam: Rg Veda: 10.121

[3] Complete Works of Sister Nivedita: Vol-1: Master as I saw him: Ch.-XVIII: Swami Vivekananda And His Attitude To Buddha: Pg: 178

[4] Sri Sharada Devi, the Great Wonder: Pg: 56 & 143

[5] Ibid: Pg: 34

[6]

[7] Sri Sharada Devi, the Great Wonder: Pg: 37

[8] Sri Sharada Devi & her Divine Play by Swami Chetanananda: Pg: 627

[9] Complete Works of Sister Nivedita: Vol-1: Master as I saw him: Ch.-X: Calcutta & Holy Women: Pg: 105-106

[10] Adapted-Cf: Sri Sharada Devi, the Holy Mother by Swami Tapasyananda; 1958; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai: Pg: 270-277

[11] Sri Sharada Devi & her Divine Play by Swami Chetanananda: Pg: 266

[12] Cf: Sri Ramakrishna & His Divine Play: Swami Saradananda; 2003; Vedanta Society of St. Louis: Page: 361

[13] Adapted-Cf: Sri Sharada Devi, the Holy Mother by Swami Tapasyananda; 1958; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai: Pg:270-277

[14] Sri Sharada Devi, the Great Wonder: a compilation; 1994; Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata: Pg: 43 & 44

[15] Ibid: Pg: 37

[16] Adapted-Cf: Sri Sharada Devi, the Holy Mother by Swami Tapasyananda; 1958; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai: Pg:275-276

[17] Sri Sharada Devi & her Divine Play by Swami Chetanananda: Pg: 202-203

[18] Sri Sharada Devi, the Great Wonder: Pg: 164-165

[19] Cf: Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-1; Karma Yoga: Chapter-IV: What is duty?

[20] Just before he narrated this story, Swamiji had elaborated on the necessity of Brahmacharya (chastity) for spiritual awakening. Hence, the story has to be understood against the background of ideas in the main lecture.

[21] Sri Sharada Devi & her Divine Play, by Swami Chetanananda: Pg: 61-66

[22]Sri Sharada Devi & her Divine Play, by Swami Chetanananda: Pg: 424

[23] Life of Swami Vivekananda by Eastern & Western Disciples: Vol-1: Pg: 243-244

[24] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-7: Epistles: No. XXV : From U. S.A in 1894 to Swami Shivananda

God experience: As joy to be shared in our multi-faith context

Revered Father Thomas D’Souza, Archbishop & Metropolitan of Calcutta, Revered Bishops of the six Dioceses of Bengal and Sikkim, Revered Provincials and Sisters, a very good morning to all of you. I thank Sr Anna Maria for introducing me in detail. I come from Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math. I run a Polytechnic College and two Skill Development Centers there.

I deal mainly with students and teachers. A couple of months ago, when Sr Anna Maria came to me in Belur Math and said that I would have to speak in a program in Asansol, I said ‘Yes’. I agreed because, Sister is Principal of a famous school in Chandan Nagar, and I conveniently assumed that it would be a program either for students or teachers. That is the only audience I am comfortable speaking to. Two days ago, I had some email correspondence with Sister where I asked her the composition of this audience, just to confirm my assumption. I was shocked when she wrote back that the audience would be Bishops, Provincials and Sisters of Bengal and Sikkim, and that there would be no students or teachers at all! I almost decided that I wouldn’t go. But then I thought, if I did that, Sister Anna Maria would be in a soup; where would she go for a speaker at the last minute! That is the only reason I am here today.

I do not presume I can teach anything here to an audience such as yours. Nor can I speak to you all about anything that you all don’t already know. While introducing me, Sr Anna Maria said that I had experienced God and that I would share the joy of my God experience with you all. I must tell you that I haven’t yet experienced God. I am on the path. I consider you all as my fellow travelers. I have learned some lessons along the path from my teachers. If I stand here today, it is only as a student, reporting back to his teachers all that he had learnt with their help.

Sister Anna Maria asked me to speak for two hours! I believe that will be a torture for both you and me, if I speak non-stop. So what I am going to do is something like this:

Scheme of today’s program:

08.30am – 9.15am              : Lecture on Comparative Religion

09.15am – 9.30am              : Break

09.30am – 10.30am           : Lecture on spirituality

10.30am – 11.00am           : Tea break

11.00am – 11.45am           : GD & reflection

11.45am – 12.30pm          : Feedback

Comparative Study of Religion

I will begin by speaking for about 45 minutes on an important topic ‘Comparative Study of Religion’. We shall begin by defining the term ‘God’. Of course, it is meaningless to define God. I cannot be so presumptuous. But, we ought to be clear about the meaning of this term ‘God’. All of us use this word. But do we mean the same thing?

Religion & God: Boon or bane?

Religion has a very interesting feature. Is religion a boon or a curse on us? The jury seems to be still out on that! The greatest good on humanity has come from religion. The worst experiences of humanity too have come from religion. Ask anyone to name 10 of the greatest persons to have walked on Earth and they will tell you the names of 10 Holy men. Ask them again to name the worst persons to walk on Earth and again, they will tell the names of the followers of these 10 greatest Holy men! Such is the bipolar nature of Religion.

The great radical thinker and stand-up comedian George Carlin put it very graphically. He says: Religion is the greatest blessing on mankind. It is also unfortunately the worst curse on mankind! More blood has been shed in the name of religion than for any other reason. History tells us that. More people have died because of giving the wrong answer to the God question in this world.

“Do you believe in God?”

“No.” Boom!

“Do you believe in God?”

“Yes.”

“Do you believe in my God?”

“No.” Boom!!

That is how it is, really! You and I can be very good friends. Then I realize you don’t subscribe to my version of God. And that revelation instantly awakens hatred in me for you! All the deep friendship I had for you vanishes into thin air. Now it is a question of imposing my version of God on you. Or the other way out. So, we need to fight it out. The survivor’s version of God reigns supreme! That is the general history of all religion, everywhere, for you. I know, some people will say that they have never hurt anyone in the name of religion. Hindus and Jews are famous for saying that. But let us face facts. The blood is on all of us. All of us are equally guilty. All religions have persecuted non-believers of their version of God. All of us are guilty of having tried overtly or covertly to undermine and destroy religions other than our own. All of us are guilty of having destroyed places of worship of other religions. All of us are guilty of maligning the religious traditions, religious beliefs, and religious leaders of other religions.

Two aspects of Religion

It is against this background that comparative study of religion becomes so important for all of us. It is a new field of study; it began some 200 years ago; we found out that we can apply the rules of logic to religions and study them. Comparative Study of Religions is an intellectual exercise. We shall try to understand religions that we don’t belong to. We shall try to understand the ‘others’. Some may argue – we don’t know ourselves well, and why would we want to understand ‘others’? It is urgently required. There is too much energy being wasted in hating the ‘others’. Supposing we don’t know something; that ignorance happens to be the root of much mischief in our lives. Knowledge is redeeming. The ‘others’ that we hate, that we denigrate, will then turn out to be just like us. No difference; same as us. Right now, it doesn’t look so. But with some understanding, we shall see that is so.

We had a revered monk called Swami Subodhananda in Ramakrishna Mission. He would tell a beautiful story from his childhood. He and his many brothers and sisters were playing at home one day. They were making a lot of noise. Suddenly, the door opened and in came a person with a tiger’s mask. That scene petrified the young boy Subodhananda. When the kids had all become silent, the mask came off and his own mother stood there smiling! The Swami would say later, ‘Ever since, I realized that we should unmask the source of our fear, and we shall see our very own standing there!’

A comparative study of religions reveals that all religions have two aspects to them. One is the cultural aspect. The other is the spiritual aspect. Masses always follow the cultural aspects of religion. This is the popular version of the religion. It consists of certain rituals peculiar to that religion. It consists of rules and regulations about food, clothing, festivals, language and mythology. In this aspect, every religion will differ from every other religion. In fact, the differentiating aspect of religions is the cultural aspect. Hatred is the outcome of comparing the cultural aspects of religions. No, not just comparing; hatred arises when one person tries to judge the cultural aspects of another person’s religion; hatred arises when one person attempts to impose the cultural aspects of his own religion on another person from some other religion.

The other aspect, the spiritual aspect, is common to all religions. The strange part, the unfortunate part is that this aspect of religion appeals only to a handful, at any given point of time, in any given geography. The masses do not even recognize this aspect of religion, much less aspire for it. But, every religion has a rare few who manifest, who follow, who realize, and who personify this spiritual aspect of religion. Without an exception, every religion has such rare persons. And they all speak the same language, irrespective of which religion they originally belonged to. Listening to them, it is difficult to say which religion they belong to.

The famous Sufi saint Rabia was once asked by some people if she loved the Lord. She replied, “Yes; I love our Lord with all my heart and all my soul.” Then they asked her if she hated the Devil. Her famous reply signifies this spiritual aspect of religion, “My love for the Lord leaves me no time to hate the Devil.” Just look at this answer Rabia gave! How often do we base our self-identity on what we hate rather than on what we love!

Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian writer and philosopher wrote a beautiful book called ‘Twenty-three tales”. That book has an amazing story called ‘The Three Hermits’. All of you must have surely read that amazing story. A bishop and several pilgrims are travelling on a fishing boat from Archangel to the Solovetsk Monastery. During the voyage, the bishop engages the fishermen in conversation after overhearing them discuss a remote island nearby their course where three old hermits lived a Spartan existence focused on seeking ‘salvation for their souls.’ Several of the fisherman claim to have seen them once. The bishop then informs the captain that he wishes to visit the island. The captain attempts to dissuade him by saying “the old men are not worth your pains. I have heard say that they are foolish old fellows, who understand nothing, and never speak a word.” But the bishop insists, and the Captain steers the ship toward the island and subsequently sets off in a rowboat to visit where he is met ashore by the three hermits. The bishop informs the hermits that he has heard of them and of their seeking salvation. He inquires how they are seeking salvation and serving God, but the hermits say they do not know how, only that they pray, simply: “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.” Subsequently, the bishop acknowledges that they have a little knowledge but are ignorant of the true meaning of the doctrine and how properly to pray. He tells them that he will teach them “not a way of my own, but the way in which God in the Holy Scriptures has commanded all men to pray to Him” and proceeds to explain the doctrines of the incarnation and the Trinity. He attempts to teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father”, but the simple hermits blunder and cannot remember the words – which compels the bishop to repeat the lesson late into the night. After he became satisfied that they had memorized the prayer, the bishop departed from the island leaving the hermits with the firm instruction to pray as he had taught them. The bishop then returned by the rowboat to the fisherman’s vessel anchored offshore to continue the voyage. While on board, the bishop notices that their vessel is being followed – at first thinking a boat was behind them but soon realizing that the three hermits had been running across the surface of the water “as though it were dry land.” The hermits catch up to the vessel as the captain stops the boat, and inform the bishop: “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.” The bishop was humbled and replied to the hermits: “Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.” After which the hermits turned around and walked back to their island.

This is the spiritual aspect of religion. It is common to all religions of the world.

Cultural aspect of religion – a necessary evil

Why can’t we just stick to the spiritual aspect of religion? Since it is common to all religions, we all can agree to follow that aspect of religion only. It is so easy to ask questions. Answering them is next to impossible, sometimes!

When we engage in comparative study of religions, this is one question that comes up very quickly in most of us. But, the fun is – we simply cannot jump out of our own skin! It is impossible to renounce the cultural aspects of our religion. There seems to be personal preferences at play here. We all have common spiritual goals. We all also have our own preferences in how to reach that common goal. That ‘reaching’ is the cultural aspect. Goal can be common; in fact, goal is common. But is there a common path to that goal? That is the main question here. The innumerable nuances of the path, the infinite variety in the practices, the minute things of food, clothes, buildings, books, language, idols, articles of faith, mythology – these are what defines our religion. How can we renounce it? I like it this way. I like it this way. Why should I renounce it?

But the question arises, which is the correct path? Is mine the correct path? Or is yours the correct one? Ah! A million dollar question! There is no universal correct path in religion. It is personal preference that defines which path is meant for you, and which is meant for me. It is not even hereditary. My father’s path need not appeal to me at all!

As long as we all follow our own preferred paths sincerely, things are fine. There is a great job being performed by the cultural aspect of religion. It is the life, the heart, the engine, the motive power of religion. Beginners in any religion cannot afford to leave these cultural aspects. They are like the fences around the small plant. They protect the plant. Later on, when the plant grows into a huge tree, the fences have no meaning. Premature catholicity in religion is dangerous. Growth gets stunted, even stopped. In the beginning, we have to doggedly, fanatically, stick to our peculiarities of religion. Very soon, we are expected to grow out of these cultural aspects. The sad part is – all our lives we stick to the basic portions of religion. All cultural aspects of religion are supposed to catapult us to the common ground of spirituality. It is not happening. That is the crux of the problem. Anyway, we will deal with this idea later.

The problem arises when I try to impose my practices on you. What problem arises? You have perhaps not yet matured enough to let go of your ‘fences’. Before you have matured, I might try to transplant you! Your very existence seems threatened! You fight back.

I ask myself often, when one person imposes his religious practices on another, what are the possible scenarios? I can think of only two possible scenarios: Acceptance or Resistance. I am not dealing with indifference here, the atheists. They don’t have any problem. With the believers, there arise these problems, I have been explaining, upon imposing my view of God and religion on them. Suppose, the other guy accepts my view, no problem; all of us can live happily ever after. Problem comes when he resists my imposition. Then, we might have to fight; and the winner’s view prevails on everyone. (I assume we didn’t fight to death!)

A much more basic question: why do I feel the need to impose my version of religion on you? I think it is a very natural human tendency. Suppose I discover this wonderful restaurant which serves divine coffee. Won’t I drag all my friends there, one by one, and get them also to enjoy the wonderful taste of that coffee? Isn’t it natural to wish to share my joy with others?  But, am I concerned that my friend likes tea and not coffee? Further, if I do take a friend to the restaurant, get him the coffee, and he passes a light-hearted or derogatory comment on the coffee, and subsequently on my taste; what would be my reaction? What would be the future course of our friendship? I will start feeling that basic assumptions in my life are being questioned. Isn’t my liking correct? Isn’t there a universal standard of taste? If my taste is correct, how can an opposite taste be also correct?

Yet another fundamental question: which version of God and religion is the correct one? Where indeed do we get our version of God and religion? From the Book; every religion has one. The Christians have their Bible. The Muslims have their Koran. The Jews have their Talmud. The Hindus are yet to come to a consensus on which is their ‘The Book’, but the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads are hot contenders! And so on and so forth, the list goes. Every religion uses the definite article ‘The’ while talking about their holy scripture. All these books have their own copyrighted, patented, peculiar versions of God, creation, man, and the goal of human life. In every case, these ‘The Book’ are accompanied by many auxiliary books which prescribe the path that leads to the goal mentioned in those ‘The Book’. As long as you stick to one religion, there is a wonderful consistency in all of these. Trouble arises when you compare the ideas of one with the ideas of others.

So, associated with the comparative study of religions is another very interesting field called ‘Hermeneutics’, which deals with translation. It is not language translation. It is holistic. It is no use translating terms or words. Ideas have to be translated. There is the word, there is the meaning of that word, and there is the actual thing that the word tries to depict. Translations are required with respect to all three.

The great Sufi saint Jamaluddin Rumi mentions an amazing story in his book ‘Masnavi’. A merchant was walking on a road. He came across four gentlemen quarrelling. They were furiously arguing about something. He inquired what it was about. The situation was indeed very interesting. They were four businessmen, each from a different country – Persia, Arabia, Turkey and Greece. They had all partnered in a successful business deal and had made some profit. Now, they were arguing about how that money ought to be spent. The Persian wanted to buy some Angur with that money. The Arab insisted that unless some Inab was purchased with that money, he would be getting very angry. The Turk would kill anyone who didn’t want to buy some Uzum with that money. And the Greek petulantly insisted that some ripe Stafil be purchased with that money. They had reached a stalemate! That was when the merchant came across them. He was intrigued by the situation that had developed. You see, all these four persons, from different nations, from different cultural backgrounds, had sufficient translation powers to deal with one another and make some business profit. But, their translation powers were indeed very shallow. For, this merchant knew all four languages. And he understood that all of them were indicating the same thing, using four different words! All the words – Angur, Inab, Uzum and Stafil – mean Grapes![1]

Please observe one more interesting fact. We have now given the valuable information to the Persian, the Arab, the Turk and the Greek that grapes is what they want, no matter what word they use for it. Fine; but, when the Greek eats, he will still eat only Stafil, and not grapes or Angur or Inab or Uzum. Personal preferences are hard-wired into us. Suppose we insist on the Greek that he has to eat grapes and not Stafil, we will be robbing him of the joy of enjoying Stafil!

History tells us that many nations have en-masse adopted various religions at various times. For instance, take Europe. Before St. Peter went to Rome and preached Christianity, Europe did have religion. Where is it today? We don’t even know all the details of the Greek and Roman religion that preceded St. Peter in Europe. But the cultural aspects of Christianity took deep roots in Europe. We must always remember that Christianity was an oriental religion. It is easier for an Asian to adopt the cultural aspects of Christianity than it is for a European to do so. Yet, it struck deep, very deep roots in Europe. Later on, Islam spread to Europe. At one time, except for small pockets in Central Europe, the major portion of Europe had become Islamic. But, Islam did not strike roots there. Hence it was dislodged, again, later on by Christianity.

Take again the case of South-East Asia. At one point of time, a large portion of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Laos were Hindu. Then, they renounced Hinduism and adopted Buddhism, Islam or Christianity.

In all such cases, we find remnants of the deposed religion’s rituals, festivals, and social customs prevailing in the communities of that region. For instance, the concept of the Patron Saint in European Christianity is a remnant of the Roman religion prevalent in that region prior to the adoption of Christianity. The rituals associated with monarchy in Thailand are even today Hindu rituals.

A region may adopt a particular religion for any number of reasons. One such compelling reason is brute force, the power of the military. Another equally compelling reason is social and economic prestige. It is seen that the masses in a region decide that following a particular religion confers upon them social prestige and economic advantage. En-masse conversion occurs. Such conversions lead to important political outcomes only. However, in many such cases, the imposition of the cultural aspects of a religion did not lead to a flowering of the spiritual aspect of that religion in that region. We do not find holy men coming out of such communities. The cultural aspect of religion did not mature into blossoming of the spiritual aspect of that religion in that region. Can you name even one Islamic saint from Europe? Islam reigned supreme in Europe for several centuries! Can you name even one Hindu saint from South-east Asia? Not one!

The present usage of the word ‘God’ invariably leads to contradictions and confusion among us, as we have seen. I mean by that word, perhaps Mahadev Shiva, and you mean by that same word Jehovah. Now, these comparative religion guys seem to hint that my Mahadev Shiva and your Jehovah are the same! Somehow, that doesn’t satisfy me. I don’t know about you. It’s the same grapes and Stafil case all over again! How can Shiva and Jehovah be the same? Going further, even Allah and Ahura Mazda and the Buddha are the same as my Shiva and your Jehovah! What exactly do these guys mean when they say these are all the same? Somehow, this concept of divine equality seems to be counterintuitive.

The different meanings attached to the word ‘God’ fall under a continuum. There is a gradation in the meaning of that word. Let us collect all the different meanings of the word ‘God’ and study them. We then discover a pattern, a hierarchy, a gradation in the evolution of the meanings. One of the very first usages of this term referred to the incredible forces of Nature. We were awed by the sheer power of those forces. We called them ‘God’. Soon, we started asking ourselves, ‘if these forces exist, surely there must be someone who wields these powers.’ This gave rise to the concept of an owner of these incredible forces of Nature. First we had the zoomorphic God, which quickly graduated into an anthropomorphic God. Once we had the anthropomorphic God, we started considering him as the protector of our tribe or community. Higher than this, comes the conception of a Creator God. Once we had the Creator God, we soon climbed onto a Creator-Preserver-Destroyer God. Logic started entering into our conception in a big way now. We started asking how God can create this world out of nothing. Thus we came up with a conception of God as the efficient and material cause of this world. Up to this stage, the evolution of the conception of God seems to be logical. Suddenly we had a paradigm altering conception of God full of Love! This is paradigm altering because it is a revelation and not a logical outgrowth of the ideas we have been dealing with. The God Love is a Presence. And this revelation was given by a human being, just like us, and he was called variously as an Incarnation, Avatara, Prophet, Messenger or Messiah. Once we had this quantum jump in ideas, very soon we started conceiving of the Divine Presence in the heart of man. The final word in this wonderful framework of ideas was the conception of Unity of God and Man.

Take any religion. You will find this gradation of ideas concerning God. Even the pinnacle of this gradation is present in all religions. ‘I and my Father are one’; ‘Aham Brahmasmi’; ‘An – al – haq’; ‘I am the Buddha’.

Lateral thinking

You may have heard of a thinker called Edward De Bono. He has written some very good books on how man thinks. He identifies a technique called ‘lateral thinking’. Suppose you have four dots and you need to connect them with three lines. If you are allowed to use four lines, anyone can connect the dots. But, if we are to use only three lines, how do we connect the four dots? If we can extend ourselves beyond the four dots, not confining ourselves to only the four dots, then, using only three lines, we can indeed connect the four dots.

With regard to religion too, we need to use this technique. All of us have our four dots. We need to connect them in such a way that our four dots remain connected, but we restrict ourselves to preserving other peoples’ freedom too. We need to stretch our ideas a bit for this accommodation to take place. You must live. I too must live. We need not kill each other; neither at the idea level, nor at the physical level.

Respect diversity, but recognize the underlying unity

Let me come back to a question I raised sometime back in our deliberations: Why can’t we just stick to the spiritual aspect of religion? Why not divest our religions of all the cultural aspects all together? After all, these aspects divide us. Why not do away with them?

You know, we may not exactly divest ourselves of all the cultural aspects, but, most religions have a strange habit of ‘adapting’ to other cultures. We have seen that in history. Take the example of the Second Vatican Council. Right from Pope Pius X, followed by Pope Pius XII to Pope Paul VI, there has been a steady transition from the Latin liturgy to liturgy in vernaculars. The motive behind this idea is indeed grand. The common man in different countries must feel identified with the Christian rites. But, at what cost? Just look at the experiment conducted by Father Monchanin and Father Henri Le Seux. The latter even went up to the ridiculous stage of taking monastic vows as per Hindu tradition and assumed the name Swami Abhishiktananda. And he didn’t set up an Abbey; he set up an Ashrama! In that Ashrama, he instituted Arati for Jesus Christ, just as you have in Hindu Temples. Now, it is not that people don’t come to his Ashrama. They do come. But, what about their self-identity? Are they Christians or Hindus? No psalms or Gregorian chants in the Ashirvanam Ashrama; instead they have Bhajans, typical South Indian style! The dividing line between Christianity and Hinduism has worn so thin in that Ashrama, the followers associated there will certainly experience an identity crisis! We may have to avoid these experiments. We will be dealing with forces we do not fully understand, which may end up destroying us. I tell you this because, that is exactly what happened with Buddhism in India. India is the land of birth of this religion. In an effort to adapt itself to Hinduism, Buddhism made so many changes that in the end it lost all individuality and was finally absorbed into Hinduism! The Hindus made Buddha into one of their innumerable incarnations of God and that was the end of Buddhism! Later on, the Buddhists realized what had happened. Many attempts were made to revive that religion in India. But, Buddhism never really regained its life force in India.

Hence, it is most essential that we hold on firmly to the cultural aspects of our own religion. Else, in a few generations, we will end up losing our religion. But, we need not impose our views of religion on others. Please appreciate the dynamics at play here. When we try to impose our views on others, there will be resistance. So, we try to interpret our views as but a minor, but important variation of others’ religions. Thus starts a dangerous process of adaptation, of acculturation; a process described by the Buddha as ‘Upaya Kaushala’. Where does it lead to? Did the Buddha want that his religion should become extinct in the very land of its birth?

In a lighter vein, please read the following comic piece regarding ‘cultural adaptation’ and how it leads to loss of identity:

The European Commission has announced (of course, this was before Brexit!) an agreement that English will be the official language of the EU – rather than German. As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty’s Government conceded that English Spelling had some room for improvement, and has accepted a 5-year phase-in of new rules which would apply to the language and reclassify it as Euro-English.

The agreed plan is as follows:

In year 1, the soft ‘c’ would replaced by the ‘s’.

Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard ‘c’ will be replaced by ‘k’. This should klear up konfusion and keyboards kan now have one less letter.

There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome ‘ph’ is replaced by ‘f’. This will reduse ‘fotograf’ by 20%.

In the 3d year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible.

Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of the silent ‘e’s in the language is disgrasful and they should eliminat them.

By year 4, peopl wil be reseptiv to lingwistik korektions such as replasing ‘th’ with ‘z’ and ‘w’ with ‘v’ (saving mor keyboard spas).

During ze fifz year, ze unesesary ‘o’ kan be dropd from vords kontaining ‘ou’ and similar changes vud of kors be applied to ozer kombinations of leters.

After zis fifz year, ve vil have a reli sensibil riten styl. Zer vil be no more trubls or difikultis and evrirum vil find it ezi to understand ech ozer.

Actually, never mind: that would be German after all!!!

Stay away from politics

Just as important as this issue of cultural adaptation, is another issue – stay away from politics. Do not mix religion and politics. If we mix the two, the resultant is too powerful a force, and none of us are capable of handling it. Please pardon me for saying this, but I believe that Jesus Christ died on the Cross, not just for redeeming man from his original sin as you all believe, but also to educate his children not to mix religion and politics. If Jesus Christ had continued his spiritual ministrations without giving an idea that he was King in the political sense of the term, I believe the Romans would have left him free. I believe, somehow the language Jesus Christ used, the complex political situation of that region during that period, the public perception of his message, all added up to give the idea that he was out to overthrow the Roman political power. And the end result was that the Romans ended up crucifying him. The Lord suffered this gruesome punishment to show us that even the Lord Incarnate cannot manage to mix politics and religion!

Man-centric conception of God

So, by stretching our own ideas of God and religion, we all need to evolve a Man-centric conception of God and religion. This is urgently needed. Else, we will destroy ourselves. Especially, we, the custodians of religion will have to do it as quickly as possible. If we continue the way we live and work and feel, we will end up frustrated with ourselves. We have given up our entire life to a search for God; but we are stuck with fighting others on trivial issues. If we do this for long, we will become hypocrites. Outwardly, we will have the strappings of a religious person, but inwardly we will start doubting the efficacy of God and religion. Imagine the validity of a God or a religion that cannot defend itself! Imagine the strength of a God or religion that requires me to survive!

So, a Man-centric conception of God is urgently required. It is already available in all religions. We need to popularize it, that’s all. What is this conception?

Religion expounds powerful ideas of God, creation, the world, its future, and about man. The focus is generally the conception of God. We need to focus on the conception of Man. You see, we can neither be sure of God, nor religion, nor philosophy. But we are all sure of our own existence. Why don’t we start with this wonderful fact? ‘We ourselves’ – that is the starting point of our religion. I shall attempt to know myself. This leads to an amazing development within me. The more I know who I am, the more I am able to understand you, my fellow human being, my neighbor, my brother. No, not just these, I gradually start to see that there was no ‘you’; it was all along ‘me’ that I saw out there as ‘you’. This is the outcome of divesting religion of its temporal aspects, and emphasizing the human-centric aspects.

Implications of this view

‘Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.’ This is Jesus Christ’s promise to mankind.[2] We come across this incredible statement in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. Please note the use of the word ‘see’. Jesus doesn’t say that the pure of heart will believe in God; no; they will ‘see’ God. It is a most palpable experience, visceral. Our effort must therefore be, not just to believe in God, but to see God. It won’t do to say that I believe in the existence of God, or that I believe so-&-so is God. I must see God. That is the goal. If I haven’t seen God, nothing else is of any value, none of my theories, none of my thoughts, none of my beliefs, none of my actions. Let us not complicate things by trying to interpret this ‘seeing’ using our sophistry. That was the word Jesus Christ used. He came for simplifying religion. Let us not complicate it.

For as long as we haven’t yet seen God, let us be peaceful amongst others in this world. That is the reason Jesus Christ adds the following beatitude ‘Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called the children of God.’ You see, Mother Teresa used to ask, “Do you know why we fight so much?” Then she would herself give the answer, “It is because we do not recognize that we belong to one another.” These are terrific words, really. Take for instance our hand. Would anyone here want to cut-off one’s own hand? No. Why not?  Because my hand belongs to me. Why would I damage something that belongs to me? Whereas that fellow over there, he doesn’t belong to me. I don’t see why I shouldn’t kill him!

So many flowering plants are there in this world, which is God’s garden. Why would we want to kill any of those plants? Each plant gives a different flower. But all of them are beautiful and serve one purpose of the other. Let us learn to enjoy this variety.

Spirituality

Like I said before, religion is ‘seeing’ God. Religion is realization. Unless we ‘see’ God, there is no question of experiencing God. Thoughts, beliefs, doctrines, dogmas, theories and feelings are not experience when it comes to God and religion!

I wish to explain the prevalent conceptions of Man in the world religions today before we go further on with our main subject of sharing God experience. There are mainly two different conceptions of Man in this world. One is the oriental view; the other is the occidental view. The occidental view is called the Dichotomous view of man, while the oriental view is called the Trichotomous view of man. The European and American view of man says man is composed of two components – the body and the mind. The Asian view of man says man is composed of three components – the body, the mind, and consciousness, that illumines both body and mind. The former view holds that consciousness is an outcome of the activities of the mind. These two views are not compatible. The philosophy of the New Testament is purely oriental. Jesus Christ was from Asia. Naturally he subscribed to the trichotomous view of man. It is present in his utterances. He deals with pure consciousness in many places. The word used is ‘Spirit’. The reason I raised this issue now is because our conception of God is closely connected to our conception of man. If we can conceive of man as Spirit, we can then conceive of God also as Spirit. Recall how Jesus Christ exhorts us to worship the Spirit by the Spirit in John 4:24.

Without meddling with unnecessary things, if we are sincere in our spiritual practices, as prescribed by our religion, we can indeed reach the supra-cultural realm of true spirituality. Sister Nivedita used to speak of an old lady who would pray in the Chapel every day, year after year. Then one day, when she was praying, the Verger of the Church awoke her from her prayer and said that it was time to go home. When she looked at that Verger, suddenly she saw that it was Jesus Christ himself that had spoken to her! That is ‘seeing’. Ever since she saw that every person was none other than Jesus Christ. All these years, she had mistaken people for people; from now on, she saw that there was only one person and that was Jesus Christ.

Monopoly on the Spirit

Which religion has a monopoly on spirituality? Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Muslims – who? All of them have produced people who have ‘seen’ God. Even if one such person has come out of a religion, that religion is true and has a valid reason to exist. Innumerable are the types of minds in this world. There is no meaning in saying my religion alone is true. Religion has only one reason for existing – can it produce a saint? If it does, it is valid.

Sometime back I raised the question of universality of spiritual practices. I said that there can be no universal spiritual practice. Each path to God will have its peculiarity, distinguishing it from all other paths. Each such path becomes a religion. There is however one component of spiritual practice that is common to all religions. That component is ‘renunciation of the senses’. The soul has to beat a retreat from the senses, no matter what religion it follows. Recall Jesus Christ’s clarion call: He who follows me can never walk in darkness (John 8:21) I personally love this statement of Jesus Christ. I remember this statement so well because it forms the opening sentence of that great book ‘The imitation of Christ’ by Thomas Kempis.

All religions prescribe this renunciation as a sine-qua-non for spiritual life. Hence, we need to go back to the roots of our spiritual practices. Poverty, Chastity and Obedience; no sooner do we become lax on this front do we start facing problems in our lives. Please listen to a story:

The Pope wanted a good monk to train his novices, a genuine, devout and learned monk who could look after his Pontifical Seminary in the Vatican. He wrote to the Grand Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. When the Papal Bull arrived, the Grand Patriarch called all his sagely Cardinals and showed them the letter. “Do you see? The Pope wants someone to train his monks. We shall send him what he wants, won’t we, Holy Fathers?” “As you decree, and as our Dear God the Lord wishes, Your Holiness” said the Cardinals in unison. The Grand Patriarch selected four young, promising, devout and learned monks and sent them to the Vatican, instructing them that they would report to the Pope, telling him that Mar Thoma, the Grand Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church had sent them. The other Cardinals all felt that when the Pope had asked for just one monk, why was their Grand Patriarch sending four? They couldn’t understand it and finally decided that old age was catching up finally on him and that he had missed that detail and by mistake he had sent four while only one would have sufficed. Meanwhile, the party of the four monks trudged along the long and arduous path from Constantinople to Vatican. On the way lay a thick forest. They saw some Bushmen hiding among the trees, peering intently at them. “Holy Brothers, look at them. They are men like us, but, not having heard about our Savior, they have sold themselves to the Devil. Let me stay among them and bring back their lost souls back to Christ” said one of them and urged all the others to move on. After some days, the party of three monks reached a village and took shelter in the house of the Chieftain. After dinner, the Chieftain wailed, “Holy Fathers, our Pastor passed away a few days ago and we are all sheep without a shepherd. Can’t one of you stay with us and guide our souls?” this speech touched the heart of one of the three monks and he stayed on tending that village church, urging the others to carry on. After some more days, the two monks reached the Tiber River. Beyond the bridge lay the Vatican. Just as they both crossed the Tiber Bridge, perhaps overcome by the cumulative exhaustion of the long journey, one of the monks collapsed and died. The monk who reached the Vatican was welcomed by the Pope and very soon endeared himself to the Pope due to his piety and wisdom. The Pope wrote a fine letter thanking the Grand Patriarch for sparing such a fine monk. When that thanks letter arrived, all the Cardinals were called and the Grand Patriarch announced, “Do you see? The Pope speaks of only one monk! Do you see now why I sent four when the Pope had asked for only one? Many of us embark on life’s journey, only to be sidetracked here and there, losing sight of our goal, getting shunted before reaching our destiny.”[3]

Help thyself first

One of the main reasons for religious bigotry and religious unrest is the extreme urge that immature people in religion have for spreading their faith. Does faith need to be spread? Indeed, it must. But who should do it? Do we have the requisite understanding for performing this greatest of all jobs? Just because we have a few fine feelings for God and have studied a couple of religious books, are we qualified to lead other souls on the Godward journey?

I quote an illuminating passage that I read some time ago. I am not sure of the author, but I think it was W Somerset Maugham: I was once going down the riverside, looking for a place to sit down for fishing. Fishing, you know, is really relaxing. Apart from listening to music, and taking long walks, it is fishing that I recommend for relaxation, although not necessarily in that order. So, here I was taking a long walk along the river side, looking for a suitable place to sit down and throw my bait, when I saw a man lifting a fish from the waters and placing it on a tree. I asked him, “What are you doing? Why place it on a tree? Why don’t you carry a basket with you to collect your catches?” His reply, still ringing in my ears, was, “Catch? What do you mean? This stupid fish was drowning in the rapid currents of the river. I was passing by when I saw it. I just saved that fish from drowning!” I hope our uncontrollable urge to serve others doesn’t end up like this idiot’s efforts!

Religion deals primarily with our own inner development. We miss the point when we make a social cause out of religion. Father Antony De Mello mentions a beautiful story in this regard: The hero had just returned from the deep Amazon forests. His lectures were all recorded and his journeys were mapped meticulously. All the flowers he saw were reproduced on paper, drawings made of the wild animals he encountered and the entire river was charted on a cartographer’s table. A group of young men approached him once to hear directly from him about the Amazon. He said, “Indeed I have tried my best to describe it all as clearly as I could. But how can I convey to you the intense joy, the exhilaration, the strange feelings that flooded my heart when I saw those exotic flowers & heard those night sounds in the forests & sensed the danger of being close to those wild animals & of paddling in those treacherous rapids! Go out and find out for yourselves, young men.” Those young fellows understood. They went out, found the master map, framed it, and using the pioneer’s lectures and drawings, became experts in interpreting the Amazon map.

Father De Mello mentions another amazing story: The discovery of fire. After many year of labor, an inventor discovered the art of making fire. He took his tool to the snow-clad northern regions and initiated a tribe into the art – and the advantages – of making fire. The people became so absorbed in this novelty that it did not occur to them to thank the inventor who one day quietly slipped away. Being one of those rare human beings endowed with greatness, he had no desire to be remembered or revered; all he sought was the satisfaction of knowing that someone had benefitted from his discovery. The next tribe he went to was just as eager to learn as the first. But the local priests, jealous of the stranger’s hold on the people, had him assassinated. To allay any suspicion of the crime, they had a portrait of the Great inventor enthroned upon the main altar of the temple; and a liturgy designed so that his name would be revered and his memory kept alive. The greatest care was taken that not a single rubric of the liturgy was altered or omitted. The tools for making fire were enshrined in a casket and were said to bring healing to all who laid their hands on them with faith. The High Priest himself undertook the task of compiling a life of the Inventor. This became the Holy Book in which his loving kindness was offered as an example for all to emulate. His glorious deeds were eulogized, his superhuman nature made an article of faith. The priests saw to it that the Book was handed down to future generations, while they authoritatively interpreted the meaning of his words and the significance of his holy life and death. And they ruthlessly punished with death or excommunication anyone who deviated from their doctrine. Caught up as they were in their religious tasks, the people completely forgot the art of making fire.[4]

Our spiritual life ought to be based on facts. The sooner it becomes so, the better for all of us. You know, a Professor once asked his class what was the length of the room in which the class was being held. One fellow said, ‘20 feet’. ‘Wrong.’ Another said, ‘19 feet’. ‘Wrong.’ Yet another said, ‘21 feet’. ‘Wrong again.’ You see, when we look at a room, we get a rough feel of its length. Then we start guessing. The number must be around 20 feet. When the Professor rejected all the answers, the students asked him what the actual length was. Do you know the Professor’s answer? He said, ‘I don’t know.’ Guess against guess creates the entire disturbance in the world. Speak of what you know from personal experience and everyone will listen and agree.[5]

It is a life of dedicated spiritual practice that is the need of the hour in religion. You know, when we joined as novices in Ramakrishna Mission, we were all made to study a small book compulsorily; ‘Practice of the presence of God’ by Br Lawrence. One of the most powerful books I have ever read. Br Lawrence says in that book, ‘I never found any difference between the work I did and praying in the chapel.’

I will end today’s long lecture by telling you four stories, which throw wonderful light on spiritual life.

A love-struck youth pressed his suit unsuccessfully, but relentlessly. He applied himself for months, but each time met with atrocious rejection. Finally, his sweetheart yielded. She said that she would meet him alone in such & such a place, on such & such a day, at such & such time. There, they sat, next to each other. The youth had brought all the letters he had written her. Burning words of love, he read them all aloud to her. The ludicrous youth was lost in his letters of longing love for the girl of his heart who now sat next to him! We need structure, we need formal procedures. But, these are only means to attain the goal. We must recognize them for what they are worth.[6]

A bald man was once crossing a river by boat. There was a prankster on the same boat. He saw the shining bald head too tempting and couldn’t resist giving it a resounding smack. The bald man got up to beat him into pulp. The prankster stopped him and asked him, “Wait! Answer my question first: Did your bald head produce the loud sound, or was it my hand?” The bald man growled, “You answer your stupid question yourself at leisure. You don’t feel the pain I feel now. I can’t theorize!”[7] This pain of having not yet ‘seen’ God is the only safeguard we have against getting lost in the thick of thin things in religion.

A question was once asked ‘How do you tell when the night has ended and the day has begun?’ Many answers were given. ‘When you see an animal from some distance and can tell whether it is a cow or a horse.’ ‘When you look at a tree from some distance and can tell if it is a neem tree or mango tree.’ Etc. All were rejected as wrong. When pressed for what was the right answer, they were told, ‘When you look into the face of any man and recognize your brother in him; when you look into the face of a woman and recognize in her your sister. If you cannot do this, no matter what time it is, it is still night!’[8] Kindly recall Mother Teresa’s statement I quoted a little while ago.

The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order. In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery. The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?” “No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.” When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving –it was something cryptic– was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.” In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I? As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.[9]

We need to urgently intensify our focus on our inner life. When we do that correctly, we will find that the quality of our community life too improves. If we don’t do that, the result of leading a so-called spiritual life is a sham. We would be going through the motions, but the end result would be zero!

A person was walking on a road and saw two people working. One of them was digging a hole in the ground. Another came behind him and put all the dug up mud back and closed the hole. Again and again these two people were doing this. This observer saw for a long time and tried to figure out what was happening. When he couldn’t understand it at all, he went up to them and asked what they were doing. One of them replied, “Sir, we are doing a Govt project here on afforestation. I dig a hole in the ground. Another person comes and puts in a sapling. A third person comes after that and fills up the hole with mud. Today, the second guy is absent!”

We all have our monasteries, churches, temples, mosques, monks, followers, God, rituals, and yet, we lack peace! Neither do we experience peace, nor are we capable of giving peace to others around us. So much is there, but the one essential thing is missing. Why? It is because ‘the second guy’ is absent from our lives. Renunciation actually means love of God. Do we love God? How can we be interested then in anything of this world? As Thomas Kempis famously said, ‘Ours is a jealous God!’ Either we give our whole attention to God or He won’t take it! There is no half-way house here.

I once again thank Archbishop Father Thomas D’Souza, Sr Anita Braganza and Sr Anna Maria for having invited me to this holy gathering.

Thank you once again.

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[1] This story is taken from ‘Caravan of Dreams’ by Idries Shah: Page 167

[2] Cf: New Testament: Matt 5:8

[3] This story is taken from https://www.scribd.com/document/82805747/Food-for-Thought

[4] This story is from “Prayer of the Frog – Part 1” by Antony De Mello

[5] This story is taken from https://www.scribd.com/document/82805747/Food-for-Thought

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] I have taken this story from ‘How shall I be?’, value-education textbook for Class-VIII by Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math

[9] Different versions of this story are available. I have taken this version from the book ‘Different Drum’ by M Scott Peck. It is also available in the book ‘The road less travelled’ by the same author.

Education & Discipline

Somehow or the other, the term discipline always comes riding piggy-back with Education.

Teachers contend that unless they are given well-behaved, discipline, rules & regulations-abiding students, they cannot teach effectively. It has always been a contentious issue as to who will break the child into this ‘well-behaved’ mould. Teachers hold that parents and school administration should take care of training the children in attitudes & behavior skills, while guardians hold that it is the teachers who should do this job. There are sufficient arguments to bolster both the lines of reasoning.

Some learned ones however say that what is more important is to identify and remedy the causes of behavior problems in our students. Let’s look at a small story.

A small boy was accompanying his mother on the beach. Given below is the conversation between them:

Boy: Mummy, may I play in the sand?

Mummy: No, darling. You will only soil your clean clothes.

Boy: May I wade in the water?

Mummy: No, don’t. You will get wet and catch a cold.

Boy: may I play with the other children?

Mummy: No. You will get lost in the crowd.

Boy: Mummy, please buy me an ice-cream.

Mummy: No. Ice-cream is bad for your throat.

The little boy started crying. The mother tells her friend who is also nearby, “For Heaven’s sake! Have you ever seen such a neurotic child? Always throwing a tantrum! Can’t keep still a minute.”

Now, isn’t the reason for the child’s strange and rebellious behavior, clear to us? A famous Jesuit Educationist once said, “Before punishing a child, ask yourself if you are not the cause of the offence.” We ourselves are the root cause of student-indiscipline in most cases. How? There is a gap between us and our children, mostly. We seem to be unable to grasp the feelings of our own kids. Added to that, we labor with the misconception that ‘Understanding’ actually means ‘Imposing’. We are adepts in imposing our views on our children. Rarely do we find a grown-up person, be he a parent or a teacher, who tries to see from the child’s point of view.

James Baldwin [1]once famously said, “Our children seldom listen to our advices, but they also seldom fail to imitate us!”

Communication is the crux of the teacher-student relationship. Alas! When we are unable to establish decent channels of communication with our students, we resort to the despicable means of ‘controlling the kids by fear’. In most cases, teachers equate ‘Communication’ with ‘instilling fear’.

There was once a couple who had trouble handling their son. There was no way they could convince him that paper should not be torn. He had developed a strange habit. Wherever and whenever he got a piece of paper or a book or a magazine, immediately he would tear it to bits. They had consulted educational experts, counselors, doctors and even psychiatrists, but to no avail. One day, a good friend of the boy’s father came to their house and stayed with them for a week. During that time, the boy became very close to this man. One night, after dinner, the parents explained their dilemma regarding the boy’s inexplicable behavior to this man. And from the next day, the parents found that the boy had stopped tearing paper! They were shell-shocked. Where experts in the field of education and medicine and psychology had failed, this ordinary man had succeeded. They asked him about it. His reply is note-worthy. He said, “I took him on my lap, looked him in his eye and told him, ‘Look here, son. Don’t tear paper. You should use paper to write.’ You see, what happened with him is, all of you tried to do so many things with him, except tell him directly not to tear paper. If only one of you had told him explicitly what to do, the problem would have stopped long ago.”

Years upon years in the teaching profession tends to make us teachers immune to the ‘life-component’, to the living aspect of the children. I feel that is one of the deleterious, desensitizing effects of this most noble profession. Even the best of us are not immune from it at some point of time in our careers. James Baldwin once said, “The first duty of a teacher is to consider that the student is a human being…A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him.” The student is a living being with whom we can connect, with whom we can talk and reason and interact. Hence some argue that there is need of more love than law while dealing with students.

Swami Vivekananda says that the best teacher is he who can come down to the level of his student and teach him. When this is done, the student feels comfortable with the learning process. What then is the scheme for evaluation of the teaching-learning process? The ideal scheme should be evaluating the quality of life that the student leads. A teacher may have taught his students all the English and Sanskrit and Physics and Chemistry, but if the quality of the student’s life has not improved, all that teaching has been but superficial.

Once a burglar had an apprentice, who was learning burglary from him. After some months of training, one night, both went into a house and started to rob the house. Suddenly the teacher-burglar dropped some vessel, creating a loud noise which woke up the entire household. As soon as they heard footsteps, the teacher-burglar ran out, locked the room in which the apprentice was hiding, from outside, and escaped. After some hours, the apprentice came back with a huge booty, full of enthusiasm and wanted to explain his adventure. The teacher-burglar simply said, “Son, what need is there to explain how you did it? You escaped from them and are here in front of me in flesh and blood. That is sufficient proof for me that you have graduated in the trade of burglary!”

Swami Vivekananda said that true Education is that which makes a man stand on his own feet.

Some of us argue that we are academic teachers. We are not duty-bound to train our students in the behavioral aspects of their life. That is the purview of their homes. But let us try to understand that the difference between home and school is non-existent in the young child. The entire phase of childhood is one continuous learning process. The child does not make much distinction about the source of his learning. All that matters is who has the stronger hold of love over him. It could be a parent, or a teacher at school, or any other mature person who has access to him. And we find that when all these elders become impersonal, distant from the child, unable to establish meaningful links with the child’s psyche, the child will fall back upon his/her peers. These peers, being as immature as the child itself, are ineffective in giving any shape to the life of the child. Then the child’s behavior starts being classified as problematic. He/she then starts having discipline problems in the eyes of the elders. Seldom do the elders realize that the root cause of those problems have been their own indifference to the child’s needs, especially emotional and social needs.

So, it has been seen in many societies all over the world, that while the parents and teachers have been busy arguing as to who was responsible for the child’s indiscipline, the child however has been deteriorating further at a very dangerous rate.

An African proverb says, ‘It takes an entire village to educate a child’. Every mature person in society has a role to play in the training and education of the children. Can’t we atleast learn something of value about this from our animal-friends who co-habit this planet with us? When a young one is born among animals, the responsibility of training it is shared by every elder member of the animal group! While, we, the most advanced species on Earth, are still busy trying to ascertain whose responsibility it is to train our young ones! Pathetic, indeed.

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[1] James Baldwin (1924-87) was a Civil Rights activist and literary figure in America. His essays contain wonderful insights on education.

The Superior Teacher

Revered Secretary Maharaj, Revered Maharajjis assembled here, distinguished speakers on the dais, and dear teachers, today is the 2nd day of the Annual Celebrations of this Ashrama. We are having a Teachers’ Convention today. Before I begin my lecture, I wish to ask you all a question. This question is for my benefit. How many of you have some teaching experience? Those of you, who have five years of teaching in a classroom, please raise your hand. (Around 70% of the audience raises their hands.) You see, the topic given to me us ‘The Superior Teacher’. Excellence in teaching requires fine-tuning of the teaching experience. You don’t start off your teaching career as a teacher-par-excellence. So, what I am going to tell you today will be addressed mainly to those of you who have already had some teaching experience. The rest of you, who are probably studying B.Ed now, may keep my ideas in mind and implement them as and when you get the opportunity in the future.

I think it was George Bernhard Shaw who was once asked which was the most dangerous profession. He had replied that the most dangerous profession was teaching. His argument was – if a doctor commits a mistake, it gets buried six feet underground; if a lawyer commits a mistake, it hangs six feet above the ground; but if a teacher commits a mistake, it destroys six hundred years of his country’s future! Our profession is that important!

I have been associated with the teaching – learning activities in Ramakrishna Mission for the last ten years. You all know that Ramakrishna Mission has pioneered nationalistic education in India and has gained enormous experience in the last 100 years. I am going to present before you the best practices of our Ramakrishna Mission teachers. We believe that the high quality of education for which Ramakrishna Mission has become synonymous today is because of the high quality of our teachers. Hence, if I explain to you the practices of our Ramakrishna Mission teachers, that would serve as pointers to you, as a benchmark, regarding how to become a superior teacher.

Analyzing the distinguishing characteristics of the superior teachers in our Institutions, I have been able to categorize them under three cardinal rules for teachers.

The first cardinal rule for being a superior teacher is ‘Patience & cheerfulness’. Enormous patience is required when dealing with students. I remember seeing a documentary once in which a very old man asks his son if it is a Sunday. The son answers that it is indeed Sunday. Sometime later, the old father again asks the same question. When the old man asks the same question for the third time, the son loses his patience and yells at him. Then the old man brings out an old diary. In it he had recorded something that had happened about 30 years ago when that son was a 5-year old boy. The old man had written: Today, my son asked me the questions ‘why is the crow black?’ a total of thirty-two times and each time I had lovingly replied that black is the natural color of the crow!

Children tend to forget very quickly. You can’t help it. They forget. We need to keep on repeating the same thing again and again, and put in processes to help them internalize the points we tell them. We need to keep this point in mind when we discipline the kids. It won’t do if we just mention the rules of behavior once and then expect the kids to remember them. They just won’t. And we shouldn’t end up concluding that the child is willfully ignoring our advice. There was a Sufi saint who was entertaining some friends one day. He had served them tea in some very costly china cups. After the tea, he called his son and asked him to carefully take the empty china cups and give them to his wife in the kitchen for cleaning. He told the boy to be careful about the china. Then he slapped him hard. His friends asked him, ‘Hey, the boy hasn’t done anything wrong. Maybe he will be careful with the china. Why did you beat him before he has committed a mistake?’ The Sufi saint replied, ‘What is the use of beating him after he drops the cups and breaks them?’ We have to take care to see that we don’t end up behaving like this.

Disciplining is a difficult job. It takes lot of patience. Lot of repetition is required. You need to clearly specify what rules you want to be followed in your class. In fact, when I was in our Along School, I had announced that the first few days of a new academic year, the teachers would concentrate on just explaining the behavior they expected out of their students in their class. The teachers would first of all have the rules clearly written down. Then they would dictate them to their students. Then they would explain those rules to their students and ensure that each student understood each rule. The underlying idea of disciplining is to train the child to enter into the complex system of processes and procedures that exist in our present day society. Just look around you. Everywhere, it is system, process & procedure that operate. Take this very convention for example. You all didn’t just walk in today. The whole thing must have started a month ago. From this office here, notices would have gone to your schools and colleges. Then your school or college would have announced appropriately for your information. Then you would have registered your name in the specified place and manner. That is how the present day world works. The child has to be trained to deal with this. The whole idea of disciplining is this training – how to adopt oneself to this ever expanding network of systems and procedures.

We teachers will have to constantly introspect whether we ourselves are the cause of indiscipline in our students. An ordinary teacher learns to correct and train his student. But a superior teacher learns to respect his student as an individual. Swami Vivekananda wrote to Swami Brahmananda once, ‘Take care of how you trample on the least rights of others.’ You all remember the famous drama written by George Bernhard Shaw called Pygmalion. In that drama, Professor Higgins undertakes to train a rustic flower-girl into a very sophisticated lady. After she becomes a lady accepted in the highest social circles in London, she explains what actually made her a lady from her humble beginnings. She says it wasn’t the meticulous training of Prof Higgins. She says she became a lady the moment Colonel Pickering called her ‘Miss Doolittle’!

We ourselves are not clear what we want the child to do. All that we know is what the child shouldn’t do. A superior teacher has a clear idea of what the student must do and not just what he shouldn’t be doing. Let me explain what I am trying to tell. A young mother was once walking on the road with her small child. She met her friend on the way. As happens when two ladies meet, they started talking. The child got bored. Children get bored very easily. So this child asked its mother, ‘Mother, can I play with that dog?’ ‘No.’ after a few minutes, ‘Mother, can I go over to that shop and see those toys?’ ‘No.’ Again, after a few minutes, ‘Mother, will you get me an ice-cream?’ ‘No, ice-cream causes sore throat.’ The child started crying. The mother tells her friend, ‘Have you seen a child like this? So difficult to control; starts crying anywhere and everywhere.’ We are always telling the child what not to do. If we specify what the child should do, maybe children will be disciplined better.

When I was in Along, I noticed something very interesting. I was on the corridor outside the classrooms and I was observing a particular class. A boy in that class was seeing outside the window. He was intrigued by a butterfly outside. You know, in the North-east, you have very large and colorful butterflies. The teacher was teaching something, perhaps mathematics. This boy got up and asked the teacher if he could go out of the class. The teacher asked why. He said he wanted to go near and see that wonderful butterfly. The teacher flew into a rage and shouted him down. After sometime, that very boy stood up and said he had to go pee. The teacher allowed him. I was observing. The boy went out, didn’t go anywhere near the toilet, went out to the garden, played around the butterfly and came back! Just see what happened here. That teacher had ‘taught’ the boy to tell a lie! So, we need to be very, very careful.

Our main problem is we forget that communicating with children is different from talking to adults. Suppose I am to address this audience here today regarding maintaining silence it is sufficient to say ‘It will be good if silence is maintained here in keeping with the decorum of the Ashrama’. Do you think this statement would mean anything to students? What idea do they have about an Ashrama’s decorum? If I were to address an audience of students I should have been much more direct. Then they would have understood. Listen to a story.

There was once a couple who had trouble handling their son. There was no way they could convince him that paper should not be torn. He had developed a strange habit. Wherever and whenever he got a piece of paper or a book or a magazine, immediately he would tear it to bits. They had consulted educational experts, counselors, doctors and even psychiatrists, but to no avail. One day, a good friend of the boy’s father came to their house and stayed with them for a week. During that time, the boy became very close to this man. One night, after dinner, the parents explained their dilemma regarding the boy’s inexplicable behavior to this man. And from the next day, the parents found that the boy had stopped tearing paper! They were shell-shocked. Where experts in the field of education and medicine and psychology had failed, this ordinary man had succeeded. They asked him about it. His reply is note-worthy. He said, “I took him on my lap, looked him in his eye and told him, ‘Look here, son. Don’t tear paper. You should use paper to write.’ You see, what happened with him is, all of you tried to do so many things with him, except tell him directly not to tear paper. If only one of you had told him explicitly what to do, the boy would have understood and the problem would have stopped long ago.”

So, the first cardinal rule is – We have to be patient and cheerful. The second cardinal rule is something that the Jesuits always say. You know the Jesuits; they have made some great contributions to education. Saint Ignatius Loyola used to say, ‘To teach Mathematics to John, you need to know two things. You need to know Mathematics. And you need to know John.’ Please try to understand this statement. You need to know your subject. You must be thorough in your understanding of your subject. You make only one statement. But, there are 40 minds in your class. All may not understand what you said. You will need to tailor your statement in as many different ways as possible so that every mind in that class understands. You must plan your class. You know, you must have your lesson plan, your evaluation schedule and all that stuff that you learn in your B.Ed class. That is a vital requisite. But the other part of the Jesuits’ saying is even more important. You must know John. You must know your student in as much detail as possible. You must know the child’s home background. You must make notes about each student in a journal. Every data, every bit of information and your observation about that child must be present in that journal. The Jesuits have another wonderful saying. They say, ‘A child that gets love at home comes to the school to learn; a child that is not loved at home comes to the school to get love & affection.’ Please remember this marvelous saying. Problems at home reflect in the behavior of the student in class. Dysfunctional family reflects as inability to concentrate or as general restlessness in the child. Then there are many other symptoms such as ADD or ADHD or Dyslexia that may also be contributing to the child’s lack of focus. Today, most school boards have mandated that schools must have a dedicated counselor who has psychological expertise. But I hold that each teacher has to be a counselor.

So the 1st Cardinal Rule is ‘Patience & Cheerfulness’. The 2nd Cardinal Rule for being a superior teacher is ‘To teach Mathematics to John, you must know Mathematics & you must know John’. Now we come to the third rule. You must love your job. You must have a sense of pride in your job as a teacher. Today, it is a matter of great pride to say that I am a space scientist in ISRO. Do we feel the same sense of pride when saying ‘I am a teacher’? That is needed. The child may not consciously understand all this pride stuff. But it will intuitively grasp whether we love our job or hate it. If we love our job, our students will start respecting us automatically.

You know, there is no such thing as a difficult subject. Some of us end up feeling – Oh! I teach history. Mathematics or Physics has prestige, but not history or civics. That is to be avoided. Listen to a story. A man once purchased a pet dog. He was greatly enamored with that pet. He purchased lots of good books on how to rear a pet dog, read all of them and patiently went about doing all those things mentioned in them. In all of them, it said that pet dogs love cod-liver-oil, and that it was absolutely essential for the pet to grow up fit and fine. Well, our man brings home a big bottle of cod-liver-oil. He pours some oil onto a large spoon, catches the dog, splices the dog between his legs, forces open its mouth and pours the oil into it. The dog pukes out the oil and runs away. The owner is flabbergasted. Something must be wrong with his pet. It simply doesn’t love cod-liver-oil. But every day, he did the same exercise. Then one day, while he was maneuvering the spoon into the dog’s mouth, the dog jerked strongly, and the bottle of cod-liver-oil fell down and broke. The owner was now livid with anger. But, he was surprised to see that the dog was greedily lapping up the oil that had spilled onto the floor, and in a few minutes, it had licked the whole floor clean!

So, the dog did not hate cod-liver-oil. It just rejected the method through which it was fed its favorite cod-liver-oil! Do we have a lesson here, as teachers aiming to be superior teachers? Let us all kindly think deeply over it.

Some of you may have a question – how to love our job? There is such a thing called Shared Vision. You need to key yourself to a larger vision in order to get pride in the small job that you do. A senior Swamiji in our Order used to say ‘You may be doing a clerk’s job; but why do you have to do it with a clerk’s mind? Do it with the mind of the President of India.’ Please think about this statement. Imagine the mind of the President of India. He may be living in a small room in Delhi. But every moment he is thinking about the whole country. Every decision he takes, he will pause and think how it will affect the remotest village of his country. So also, we may be teaching in a small class room to only 40 students. But we may be aware in our minds about the future of those students, of the 600 years of our country’s future; how my teaching will affect them.

When I was a student, I was a member of Vivekananda Balaka Sangha in our Bangalore Ramakrishna Ashrama. There was a senior Swamiji of Ramakrishna Order called Swami Ranganathanandaji who later became a President of Ramakrishna Mission. He used to visit Bangalore Ashrama once or twice every year. Once when he came, he spent some time with us. We were all school-college boys, volunteers in the Sangha. It was afternoon, after his lunch. We all sat on the ground in front of him. He asked us ‘Can you tell me which is the golden period of Indian history?’ We were all good students and we started giving our answers. One of us said it was the Ashoka’s reign. Another said it was the Gupta period, especially under Samudra Gupta & Chandragupta-II. Yet another said it was under King Harshavardhana. The Mughal period under Akbar-Shah Jehan was also said by some. Swamiji was just looking at all of us when we were giving our answers. Then one of us asked the Swamiji, ‘What is the correct answer, Swamiji?’ What he said was marvelous. He said, ‘You know, I was recently in Japan. There I met some students, just like this. I asked them the very same question – what is the golden period of Japanese history? And they all answered ‘Swami, the golden period of Japan is the future and we are going to make it.’ When I heard that, I immediately felt that those young boys couldn’t have hit upon that answer all by themselves. There must have been some teacher who must have put that amazing idea in their minds. That is what is called ‘Shared Vision’.

You have all heard of NASA, the American organization that deals with its space programmes. Sometime in the 1960s, J F Kennedy announced that NASA would put a man on the moon. That was the goal he gave. Once he was visiting NASA’s office. When he was walking down the corridor, he met a man. That man was the janitor, whose job was to clean the toilets and corridors of NASA. He shook hands with that janitor and asked him what he did in NASA. That janitor replied, ‘Mr. President, I am putting a man on the moon.’ He didn’t feel ‘I am an insignificant toilet cleaner in NASA’. Instead he was able to identify himself with the mission of the organization. A superior teacher will be able to do that with respect to his job of teaching.

Before I wrap up my lecture, I will summarize the main points I have placed before you.

A superior teacher is found to follow three cardinal rules:

  1. He/she is always patient and cheerful.
  2. He/she realizes that ‘to teach Mathematics to John, you should know Mathematics and you should know John’.
  3. He/she will love his/her job of teaching. He/she will have genuine pride in being a teacher.

I pray to Guru Maharaj that all of you may be inspired to raise yourselves from an ordinary teacher to a superior teacher. Thanks for your patient hearing.

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