The Desert Fathers

One of the finest expressions of Christian monasticism was in the deserts of Egypt in the 4th Century AD. Actually it encompassed the deserts of Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Arabia. Here, every form of monasticism, every kind of experiment, every kind of extreme asceticism was tried and documented. This document called Apothegmata Patrum or The Sayings of the Desert Fathers is a valuable handbook for spiritual life, not just for Christian monks, but for all genuine seekers of spirituality. Some of the lives of the Desert Fathers too were recorded as the Vitae Patrum or Lives of the Desert Fathers, important of them being the Life of Father Anthony.

By 400 AD, Egypt was a land of hermits & monks. There were three main types of monastic experiments there, corresponding roughly to three geographical locations.

  1. Lower Egypt – the Hermit Life: Anthony the Great is generally considered the founder of this monastic lifestyle. He was a Coptic Christian[1] and a layman. He was unlettered and the son of a well-to-do peasant. One day in Church, he heard the saying of Jesus Christ, “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor and come and follow me”, as a commandant addressed to himself. He withdrew himself from society and went further & further into the deserts of Egypt seeking solitude. It is said he lived up to a ripe age of 105 years. He started a tradition of eremitic monks that created a rich repertoire of sayings of the Apothegmata Patrum.

 

  1. Upper Egypt – Coenobitic monasticism: At Tabennisi in the Thebaid, Pachomius started an organized monasticism. These were not hermits. They were communities of brothers united to each other in work & prayer. Although Pachomius’ experiment was vital for the development of Christian monasticism, there are not many sayings available from this tradition.

 

  1. Nitrea & Scetis – groups of ascetics: A third form of monastic life evolved at Nitria & Scetis. Several monks lived together in a ‘Lavra’ or ‘Skete’, often as disciples of an Abba. This is something similar to the Akhada form of monastic life of the Hindu monks. Nitria was on the western side of the Nile delta, nearer to Alexandria and therefore formed a natural gateway to Scetis. It was place of confluence between the world and the desert, where visitors could meet the Fathers and benefit from their interactions. John Cassian, the most important historian whose work actually brought the marvelous lives of these wonderful monks to the light of the world, too met with the Desert Tradition here at Nitria. Since Nitria was nearer to Alexandria, there was perceptible Greek influence on the monks of this tradition, which resulted in these monks developing the culture of knowledge along with their regular monastic practices of work & prayer. A large number of the entries of the Apothegmata Patrum come from this tradition.

 

Apart from these three broad classifications, there was a fourth kind too. It comprised of a most extreme form of ascetic life, led by monks who were assiduously reclusive, not meeting with anyone at all. The monks maintained relentless prayer and hard labor, apart from some forbidding forms of physical austerities such as the famous Simeon Stylites. Father Simeon lived on top of a 50 foot pillar for forty years, outside Antioch! These monks lived naked and went about in chains; they lived unsettled lives, eating whatever they found in the woods.

Yet another important figure of this period was St. Basil of Cappadocia, Asia Minor. He and his followers were theologians and writers, who followed a more learned and liturgical monasticism compared to the simple ascetic life of the other Egyptian Desert Fathers.

The Sayings:

The essence of the spirituality of the desert is that it was not taught, but caught. It was a whole way of life. It was not a doctrine or a pre-determined plan of ascetic practice that could be learned and applied. The Father or ‘Abba’ was not the equivalent of the Diksha Guru of the Hindus. This distinction becomes important because, we have to realize that there was no systematic way in the teachings of these desert fathers. They worked hard and lived an entire life striving to re-direct every aspect of their body, mind and consciousness to God, and that is what they talked about.

In this sense, the Apothegmata Patrum is very similar to the Upanishads of the Hindus. While the Upanishads extant today note the important discoveries of the Hindu sages in the realm of consciousness, the exact paths they followed to achieve those discoveries are no longer available in the texts. Some argue that the Vidyas in the Upanishads are actually those paths, but the language is so archaic that the context is now all but lost. The Apothegmata Patrum, on the other hand, does not speak in much detail about the discoveries of the monks, as it does in great detail about the struggles and techniques to overcome those struggles in the lives of those pioneer monks. Therein lies its importance to the spiritual aspirant of the present day.

Yet another point of similarity between the Apothegmata & the Upanishad is that both are basically journals of the spiritual endeavor of genuine seekers of Truth. Both have no author to whom the extant works may be ascribed. While the Apothegmata consists solely of the sayings of monks & nuns, the Upanishads contain references to many Kings & married persons too, apart from monastic recluses.

The tradition of early desert monasticism reached the West chiefly through the writings of John Cassian[2]. The writings of Jerome, Rufinus and Palladius too contributed in no small way. These men knew the desert, and they knew, at first-hand, the oral tradition of the Apothegmata. They systematized it, interpreted it, and presented it as they understood it. The Apothegmata however is invaluable because it is the unabridged collection of the sayings, without any theological corrections or dialectical editing.

The Apothegmata Patrum comprises short sayings originally delivered to individuals on specific occasions and written down later. Groups of monks would preserve the sayings of their founder or of some monks especially remembered by them, and this nucleus would be enlarged and rearranged as time passed. The original form of the sayings was presumably Coptic or Greek. The extant records are in Coptic, Greek, Armenian, Latin and also the Slavonic languages.

These sayings preserve the unstructured wisdom of the desert in simple language. These are records of practical advice given out of a long life of experience in monastic discipline. For this reason, they are not always consistent with one another and they always need to be read within the context in which they are given.

A note of warning is needed here. These are not abstract ideas to be applied indiscriminately, but are instances of what was said in particular situations.

Before we begin a study of the Apothegmata, we must study some important terms that are repeatedly used in the Sayings. These terms have specific meaning, without grasping which, we may not understand the real import of the Sayings.

The Father:

Indians can truly appreciate the role of the Father as presented in the Apothegmata. The Father was vital, in the literal sense, ‘the Giver of Life’ to the young recluse novitiate-monks. However, there was no known tradition of the Diksha in the Desert. The Father, thus, presents himself more as a facilitator, a spiritual mentor, rather than as a Guru. The Father however was an acclaimed knower of God, and not just a learned person, well versed in the scriptures.

The Father is generally called ‘Abba’ in the Apothegmata. But there are many instances where he is also called ‘The Old Man’. There are even instances where he is referred to merely as ‘The Monk’ or as ‘Brother’. But in any case, he had to be a man of genuine spiritual achievements, and not just a man old in years. Moreover, the Father did not consider himself as someone hierarchically above the other monks in the Desert. He considered himself at least par with everyone else, if not inferior to others.

The key phrase in the Apothegmata is ‘Speak a word, Abba.’ This recurs again and again, and the ‘word’ that was sought was not a theological explanation, nor was it ‘counseling’, nor a mantra, nor even any kind of dialogue in which one argued the point. It was a statement from the Abba that was representative of a relationship, something that would give life to the disciple if it were received. The relationship between the Abba and his novice was that of a real father and his begotten son. Only, in the Desert, this Father would beget his son in spirit. A monk had only one Abba. And again, with his Abba, he would not go on discussing his spiritual state with him. There is a great economy of words about the Desert.

There was also visible a great discernment on the part of the Fathers. Many came to them for hearing the ‘word’. But they were very selective in speaking to those who approached them. The Fathers were shrewd enough to know that some of those who came to them were moved by curiosity rather than devotion, and they discerned the genuine ‘hearers’ of the word, whom they called ‘visitors from Jerusalem’, from the superficial and curious, whom they called ‘visitors from Babylon’. The latter were given a bowl of soup and sent away. The former were welcome to stay all night in conversation.

This record in the Apothegmata will clarify the extremely high level of integrity of the Father-monk relationship. A monk once came to Basil of Caesarea and said, ‘Speak a word, Father’. Basil replied, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.’ The monk went away at once. Twenty years later he came back and said, ‘Father, I have struggled to keep your word; now speak another word to me.’ Now the Father said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Again the monk returned in obedience to his cell to keep that also.

The Cell:

The cell was of central importance in their asceticism. They said, ‘Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.’ The point was that unless a man could find God here, in this one place, his cell, he would not find him by going somewhere else. But they had no illusions about what it meant to stay in the cell. It meant to stay there in mind as well as in body. To stay there in body, but to think about the outside world, was already to have left it! The cell was therefore the pivot around which the monk would come to terms with reality.

A cell was a hut or a cave. Generally a single monk occupied a cell, but there are instances when a cell was shared by two brothers too. These buildings were scattered about the desert out of ear-shot of each other. A group of such cells constituted a ‘Lavra’. Even in a monastery [or a coenobium, as it was then called], it was the cell that was the dwelling place of the monks and nuns.

Ascesis:

This is a technical term we often find in the Apothegmata. It means ‘the hard work of being a monk’. The Fathers had a deep understanding of the connection between man’s spiritual and natural life. This gave them a concern for the body which was part of their life of prayer. Much of their advice was concerned with what to eat, where to sleep, where to live, what to do with gifts, and what to do about the passions. The passions were personalized as the handiwork of demons, in their simplistic terms. This aspect of warfare with the passions was the major concern in the Desert. The desert itself was the place of final warfare with the passions. The monks were considered as ‘sentries who keep watch on the walls of the city’. The entries in the Apothegmata show that the monks were always meeting the demons face to face.

Once Abba Macarius asked the Devil as to why he looked so depressed. The Devil replied, ‘You have defeated me because of your humility.’ Macarius put his hands over his ears and fled.

But, most of the advice given was not about objective, personalized demons, nor was it about holy thoughts, or the patterns of the spiritual life, or the dark night of the soul. While the major portion of the sayings in the Apothegmata concern the ordinary Christian Charity [which is again a technical term, which will be explained below], an equally good amount of the sayings deal with the vices. The knowledge of how to deal with the passions was learnt slowly, by long, hard living, but it was the invaluable treasure for which men came to the Fathers in the Desert. This aspect of warfare with the demons was called ‘Ascesis’.


 

Work:

In the Apothegmata, it is used in two senses. It refers to the manual labor that all monks were engaged in. it more importantly also meant the spiritual exertion of the monks. The desert fathers saw both these aspects as one. There was actually no distinction between these two aspects in their mind. However, for a monk, the idea of ‘interior’ work predominates.

Charity:

This is a vital term in understanding the sayings of the Desert fathers. Charity is a term that includes innumerable ideas and therefore has innumerable colors. The goal of all the practices that the desert monks performed was realization of the spirit. The way to that realization was called ‘Charity’. In Hindu terms, this was something similar to ‘Sadhana’, although the Hindu term would encompass the concept of ascesis too. Charity implied wholeheartedness and personal integrity. Charity implied complete absorption in the job at hand. Charity implied complete self-abnegation and total involvement in the person before us at the moment. The present day equivalence between the word charity and helping a person in need actually derives from this aspect of self-abnegation and total involvement in the other person. We shall give four examples from the Apothegmata to elaborate this concept of Charity according to the Desert fathers:

The old men received guests as Christ would receive them. They might live austerely themselves, but when visitors came they hid their austerity and welcomed them. A brother said, ‘Forgive me, father, for I have made you break your rule.’ The old man said, ‘My rule is to receive you with hospitality and send you on your way in peace.’

One monk was moved to question the difference between the monk who received visitors and the one who did not. He was actually vexed with the totally differing behaviors of two fathers Arsenius and Moses. Arsenius had received him and sat down again to pray in silence, until the brother felt uncomfortable and left. Moses came out to greet him with open arms, and they talked all day with joy. That night the monk had a vision. He saw Arsenius in a boat with the Holy Spirit, sailing quietly along the river of life. He saw Moses in a similar boat with an Angel, and they were eating honey-cakes. So he knew that both ways were acceptable to God. [What we have to note here is that it was the inner sincerity that counted and not the superficial behavior of the monks.]

The monks said that Macarius was like God, ‘who shields the world and bears the sin of all’. So he shielded the brethren. When someone sinned he would not hear or see it.

Moses, the black man who had been a robber in his pre-monastic life, heard one day that a brother was to be brought before a council and judged. So he came also, carrying a basket full of sand. When his turn came, he said, ‘How shall I judge my brother when my sins run out behind me like the sand in this basket?’

Prayer:

When the term Prayer is used in the Apothegmata, we must not understand it to mean a particular prayer. It refers to a life geared towards God-realization[3]. Again, there was no fixed method of prayer either. Arsenius prayed on Saturday evening with his hands stretched out to the setting sun, and he stayed there until the sun shone on his face on Sunday.

Prayer, with the Desert Fathers, was not an activity undertaken for a few hours each day. It was a life continually turned towards God. Abba Agathon said, “Prayer is hard work and a great struggle to one’s last breath.” When he was dying, Abba Pambo said, “From the time that I came into this solitude and built my cell and dwelt in it, I cannot remember eating any food that I had not earned with my own hands, nor speaking any word that I have been sorry for until now. And so I go to the Lord, as one who has not yet begun to serve God.” For Abba Arsenius, this was a rule for the whole of life, “Be solitary, be silent, and be at peace.”

The usual pattern however was to say the Psalms, one after another, during the week, and to intersperse this with weaving ropes, sometimes saying ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.’ This was aimed at establishing a true relationship with God. This was aimed at standing before God in every situation. Such a state was considered ‘spiritual life’ or ‘monastic life’ by the Fathers. An entry in the Apothegmata puts it very clearly: Unless a man can say, ‘I alone & God are here’, he will not find the prayer of quiet.’ It is the other side of St. Anthony’s word, ‘My life is with my brother.’

Hesychia:

Hesychia literally means ‘Quiet’. It is the calm in the entire person that is like a still pool of water. It is the exact equivalent of the Sanskrit term ‘Shanti’. It was because the ancient Hindus too valued this quiet so greatly that the lake Mansarovar in Tibet came to be revered in its tradition as the abode of Lord Shiva. This lake is situated at such a high altitude in the Himalayas that there is absolutely no wind to disturb the waters and the surface of the lake is perfectly placid. Such a still, quiet body of water is capable of reflecting the sun very clearly.

Hesychia was the aim of prayer according to the Desert Fathers. It was the central consideration in the prayer of the desert monks. On the external level, it signifies an individual living as a solitary. On a deeper level, it is not merely separation from noise and speaking with other people, but the possession of interior peace and quiet. More specifically, it means guarding the mind, constant remembrance of God, and the possession of inner prayer.

Apatheia:

It is the state of being unmoved by passion. Hindu spiritual aspirants will understand this as similar to the state called ‘Shama-sukha’. Apatheia is the immediate goal of the spiritual practices of the Desert Fathers.

Apatheia involves control over the passions rather than their destruction. Thus, it is a state of sublimation rather than emasculation. Complete annihilation of temptations occurs only when one has the beatific vision of God. Until that blessed moment, the Sadhana of the monk is however capable of attenuate the temptations to such an extent that for all practical purposes, they are absent. This state of attenuation is what is meant by Apatheia.

The Desert way of Life:

Before we proceed with our study of the Apothegmata Patrum, we would do well to get briefly acquainted with the way of life of the Desert Monks.

Seeking solitude in the desert, by completely cutting themselves off from society was the first step in the monastic life of the Desert Monks. Then, they placed themselves under old, experienced fathers. After that, the daily life was their prayer, and it was a radically simple life. A stone hut with a roof of branches, a reed mat for a bed, a sheep-skin [it was the cloak of a desert monk; it also doubled up as a blanket for sleeping & could be used to bundle up the belongings of the monk!], a lamp, a vessel for oil, and some potable water. This was all.

Food was reduced to a minimum. So was sleep. They said, ‘One hour’s night sleep is sufficient for a monk if he is a fighter.’ They had a horror of extra possessions. Look at this entry from the Apothegmata: A disciple saw a few peas lying on the road and said to his Father, “Shall I pick them up?” The old man said in amazement, “Why? Did you put them there?” He replied, “No.” “Then why would you pick them up?”

They tried many experiments, especially with fasting. But their final conclusion was, ‘For a man of prayer, one meal a day is sufficient.’ When a young man boasted of fasting longer, they asked him searching questions about the rest of his life.

The ideal was indeed very high, but it was interpreted in the most practical and common-sensical way. There is the story of John the Dwarf who announced to his brother that he was going off into the desert to live as an Angel would. After several days, he was tormented by acute hunger. So he returned and knocked on his brother’s door. His brother asked who was there. He replied, “It is me, John and I am suffering from hunger.” The brother replied, “John is now an Angel and has no need for food and shelter.” But at last he took in the humbled John and set him to work again.

It was a life of continual striving, but not of taut effort the whole time! It was said of Anthony that one day he was relaxing with the brothers outside his cell when a hunter came by and rebuked him. Anthony said, “Bend your bow and shoot an arrow.” He did. Anthony asked him to do so again, and again, and yet again. The hunter said, “Father, if I keep my bow always stretched, it will break.” “So it is with the monk”, replied Anthony, “if we push ourselves beyond measure, we will break; it is right for us from time to time to relax our efforts.”

We will now begin a study of the sayings of the Desert Fathers. This study will be useful to all genuine spiritual aspirants, more so for those who follow the monastic path to spiritual unfoldment.

How can the monastic life be made vibrant? This was the one thought that dominated the minds of the Desert Fathers. The sincerity with which they lived their monastic vocation is astounding. Most of their sayings pertain to the subtle nuances of monastic life. They conceived of a life rooted in prayer and humility. “A monk ought not to trust in his own righteousness, nor worry about the past, but should control his tongue and his stomach” says Abba Pambo. Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, “This is the great work of a monk – always to take blame for his own sins before God, and to expect temptations to his last breath.” It was said of Abba Theodore of Pherme that the three things he held to be fundamental were: Poverty, asceticism, flight from men.

  • The scheme of monastic life:

They dealt with spiritual life in a very systematic way. Just as a blacksmith decides clearly what shape he wants to hammer out of a lump of iron before it is heated, even so a monk should decide what virtue he wants to forge before he embarks on his spiritual practise. If he doesn’t do this, he labours in vain. If he is able to, a monk ought to tell his elders confidently how many steps he takes and how many drops of water he drinks in his cell, in case he is in error about it. Although this seems a bit of an exaggeration, it does give us the idea of how seriously they took the monastic vocation. Nothing was to be left to instinct. Every moment was a conscious moment in a monk’s life. They depended heavily on the experiments done by their predecessors in the Desert so that they wouldn’t waste time re-inventing the wheel. Thus, great importance was attached to the Scripture. We must remember that for these great monks, Scripture didn’t mean just the Bible, much less the New Testament alone. The Scripture was a generic term used to denote any and all recording of the spiritual effort of the people. Therefore Abba Epiphanius said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss.” But, great premium was placed in those monks whose efforts had led to definite spiritual success and palpable spiritual attainments. Abba Poemen said, “The distinctive mark of the monk is made clear through temptations.”

It was an invaluable tradition of Guru-Shishya that was nurtured over the ages in the Desert that led to the unprecedented flourishing of the monastic achievements in the arid Deserts of Egypt. Abba Isaiah said to those who were making a good beginning by putting themselves under the direction of the holy Fathers, ‘As with purple dye, the first coloring is never lost.’ And ‘just as young shoots are easily trained back and bent, so it is with beginners who live in submission.

  • Glorification of Self-Effort:

Abba Isidore the Priest said, “If you desire salvation, do everything that leads you to it.”A brother said to Abba Anthony, “Pray for me.” The old man said to him, “I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.” A brother questioned Abba Arsenius to hear a word from him and the old man said to him, “Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God and you will overcome exterior passions.” This idea of interior activity and overcoming exterior passions is a constant motif with the Fathers. One father said, “If the spirit does not sing with the body, labor is in vain. Whoever loves tribulation will obtain joy and peace later on.” One of the fathers asked Abba John the Dwarf, “What is a monk?” He said, “He is toil. The monk toils at all he does. That is what a monk is.” Abba James said, “We do not need words only. At present there are many words among men, but we need works, for this is what is required. Not words, which do not bear fruit.” Abba Poemen said, “A monk who teaches without doing what he teaches is like a spring which cleanses and gives drink to everyone but is not able to purify itself.” Although the unmistakable emphasis was on manly effort, they had no confusion regarding the aims in view. All work was but a means to spiritual unfoldment. Abba John the Cilician said, “Let us imitate our fathers. They lived in this place with much austerity and peace. Let us not make this place dirty, for our fathers cleansed it from the demons. This is a place for asceticism, not for worldly business.” Abba Moses was very forceful when he said, “The monk must die to everything before leaving the body. A monk whose deeds are not in harmony with his prayer labors in vain. We should no longer do those things against which we pray. For when a man gives up his own will, then God is reconciled with him and accepts his prayers.” Abba Theodore said, “In these days, many monks take their rest before God gives it to them.”

  • Vision of God – The central goal:

They were so focused in the crux of monastic life that they were able to achieve scientific precision in their monastic practices. Abba John said to his disciple, “Let us honor one only, and everyone will honor us. For if we despise one, that is God, everyone will despise us, and we will be lost.”Again, look at the words Abba Arsenius said towards the end of his life: “If we seek God, he will show himself to us. And if we keep him, he will remain close to us.” God is thus no more a belief with them. God was a perception, clear as any of the other sense-perceptions that we are accustomed with.

Abba Amoun of Nitria came to see Abba Anthony and said to him, “Since my rule is stricter than yours, how is it that your name is better known amongst monks than mine is?” Abba Anthony answered, “It is because I love God more than you.” Although this reply by Abba Anthony seems to be haughty, we must understand that he was making this statement as a matter of fact. He was just being logical about it. Monks in the Desert were accustomed to discern who among them had perceived God. Rules of external life did not fool any of them. And the wave of actual realization of God was an unprecedented phenomenon. Many monks there were who had genuine spiritual vision. One day Abba Daniel and Abba Ammoes went on a journey together. Abba Ammoes said, “When shall we too, settle down in a cell, Father?” Abba Daniel replied, “Who shall separate us henceforth from God? God is in the cell, and, on the other hand, he is outside too.”

  • The Inner Life:

The hall mark of a monk was the quality and intensity of his inner life. For instance look at this entry: The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults. Seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, “You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers!” Abba Agathon said, “Under no circumstance should the monk let his conscience accuse him of anything.” Personal integrity is the crowning glory of a monk. He remains true to the ideals he has vowed to realize in his life. He doesn’t need any external supervision to judge and monitor his life. His own inner voice is strong enough to supervise and guide him along his monastic path.

One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, “Abba, how is it that you with such good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?” Abba Arsenius replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek. But I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.” The desert monks never confused academic learning and scholarship with real knowledge of oneself that arises from years of intense inner struggles.

Abba Isaac said that Abba Pambo used to say, “The monk’s garment should be such that he could throw it out of his cell for three days and no one would take it.” Since the real personality of a monk is his inner personality, the true monk will naturally pay all attention to his inner life and look upon his external personality merely from a utilitarian point of view. The body needs to be protected against the ravages of the climate, hence a wrapper is needed. And there ends the subject of the cloth to be worn. No further attention needs be given on the cloth. This is the drift of the thoughts of these wonderful Desert monks.

Food, sleep and work are important issues in a monk’s life. The Desert monks made extensive observations on these vital subjects. Abba Arsenius used to say that one hour’s sleep is enough for a monk if he is a good fighter. Someone asked Abba Biare, “What shall I do to be saved?” He replied, “Go, reduce your appetite and your manual work, dwell without care in your cell, and you will be saved.” Abba Gregory said, “The whole life of a monk is but one single day, if he is working hard with longing.” Abba Daniel said, “The body prospers in the measure in which the soul is weakened and the soul prospers in the measure in which the body is weakened.” Abba Doulas said, “If the enemy induces us to give up our inner peace, we must not listen to him, for nothing is equal to this peace and the privation of food. The one and the other join together to fight the enemy. For they make interior vision keen.”

Maintaining silence was highly appreciated in the lives of the Desert monks. It was said of Abba Arsenius and Abba Theodore of Pherme that more than any of the others, they hated the esteem of other men. Abba Arsenius would not readily meet people, while Abba Theodore was like steel when he met anyone. It was said of Abba Agathon that for three years he lived with a stone in his mouth, until he had learnt to keep silence. Whenever his thoughts urged him to pass judgment on something which he saw, he would say to himself, “Agathon, it is not your business to do that.” Thus his spirit was always recollected. Abba Andrew said, “These three things are appropriate for a monk: Exile, poverty and endurance in silence.” A brother who shared lodging with other brothers asked Abba Bessarion, “What should I do?” the old man replied, “Keep silence and do not compare yourself with others.” He also said, “Detach yourself from the love of the multitude lest your enemy question your spirit and trouble your inner peace.” It was said of Abba Helladius that he spent twenty years in the Cells, without ever raising his eyes to see the roof of the church. He also said, “Restrain yourself from affection towards many people, for fear your spirit be distracted, so that your interior peace may not be disturbed.” Abba Theodore said, “The man who has learnt the sweetness of the cell flees from his neighbor, but not as though he despised him.” Abba Theophilus, the Archbishop of Alexandria came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the Archbishop, so that he may be edified.” Abba Pambo said to them, “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.” Abba John gave this advice: “Watching means to sit in the cell and be always mindful of God. That is what is meant by, ‘I was on the watch and God came to me.’ (Matt. 25, 36).” The same Abba John was very fervent. Now someone who came to see him, praised his work. But he remained silent, for he was weaving a rope. Once again the visitor began to speak and once again he kept silence. The third time he said to the visitor, “Since you came here, you have driven away God from me.” It was said of Abba John that when he returned from the harvest or when he had been with some old men, he gave himself to prayer, meditation and psalmody until his thoughts were established in their previous order. Abba John said, “If a monk has in his soul the tools of God, he will be able to stay in his cell, even if he has none of the tools of this world. If a monk has the tools of this world, but lacks those of God, he can still use those tools to stay in his cell. But if a monk has neither the tools of God nor of this world, it is absolutely impossible for him to stay in his cell.” Abba Isidore said, “When I was younger and remained in my cell, I set no limit to prayer. The night was for me as much the time for prayer as the day.” A brother questioned Abba Hierax, “Give me a word.” The old man said to him, “Sit in your cell. If you are hungry, eat. If you are thirsty, drink. Only, do not speak evil of anyone, and you will be saved.” Abba Aio said to Abba Macarius, “Give me a word.” The old man said, “Flee from men, stay in your cell, weep for your sins, do not take pleasure in the conversation of men, and you will be saved.” A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” A brother said to Abba Matoes, “Give me a word.” He said, “Restrain the spirit of controversy in yourself in everything, and weep, have compunction, for the time is drawing near.” He also said, “Just as the king’s body-guard stands always on guard at his side, so the monk’s soul should always be on guard against the demon of fornication.

Abba Bessarion, at the point of death, said, “The monk ought to be as the Cherubim and the Seraphim; all eye!” What does this mean? A monk must be eternally vigilant. He must be always awake to the workings of his own mind. He must observe himself at every step, every moment of his life. Abba Evagrius said, “Always keep your death in mind and do not forget the eternal judgment. Then there will be no fault in your soul.” Going to Egypt one day, Abba Poemen saw a woman who was sitting on a tomb and weeping bitterly. He said, “If all the delights of the world were to come, they could not drive sorrow away from the soul of this woman. Even so the monk would always have compunction in himself.”

It would be wrong to conclude however that these Desert monks were long-faced, killjoys. True monastic profession is always attended by intense joy. It is a joy that is un-caused, and hence spontaneous. And it finds expression in the daily life of a monk established in his monastic practices. As he was dying, Abba Benjamin said to his sons, “If you observe the following, you can be saved: Be joyful at all times, pray without ceasing, and give thanks for all things.

  • Humility – the crowning glory:

They placed the highest premium on humility. They held that humility was the crowning glory of a monk. Humility alone it was that was a monk’s greatest safeguard against any sort of fall. Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility’.” The same Abba said, “A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.” Anger is the soul’s violent reaction to the annihilation of its existence before it is ready to abdicate the throne it has usurped. Abba Ammonas said, “I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.” Abba Euprepius said, “May fear, humility, lack of food and compunction be with you.” And how was one to conquer anger, and thereby his arrogant individuality? The Desert monks found that Jesus had shown the way. Abba Zeno said, “If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action God will hear everything that he asks.

Another expedient in taming the arrogant self was forbearance of insults from others. Abba Isaiah said, “Nothing is so useful to the beginner as insults. The beginner who bears insults is like a tree that is watered every day.” We have already quoted Abba Isaiah’s words above; he said to those who were making a good beginning by putting themselves under the direction of the holy Fathers, ‘As with purple dye, the first coloring is never lost.’ And ‘just as young shoots are easily trained back and bent, so it is with beginners who live in submission.’ The same Abba Isaiah, when someone asked him what avarice was, replied, “Not to believe that God cares for you, to despair of the promises of God and to love boasting.” He was also asked what anger is and he replied, “Quarrelling, lying and ignorance.” Abba Theodore said, “There is no other virtue than that of not being scornful.” A brother said to Abba Theodore, “Speak a word to me, for I am perishing.” Sorrowfully, he said to him, “I am myself in danger, so what can I say to you?” This may sound like a bit trite, serving no purpose. But we must understand that the wise Fathers addressed the mind that asked the question rather than just answer the question as it was worded. The question came out of a subtle sense of self-worth! That illusive sense of self-worth was detrimental to the monk. So, Abba Theodore answered that he, even he, the acclaimed Abba Theodore, was in danger! She also said, “Neither asceticism nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save. Only true humility can do that. There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons. He asked them, “What makes you go away? Is it fasting?’ They replied, ‘We do not eat or drink.’ ‘Is it vigils?’ they replied, ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘Is it separation from the world?’ ‘We live in the deserts.’ ‘What power sends you away then?’ They said, ‘Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.’ Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?” Abba John also said, “We have put the light burden on one side, that is to say, self-accusation, and we have loaded ourselves with a heavy one, that is to say, self-justification.” He also said, “Humility and the fear of God are above all virtues.” Abba John was sitting in church one day and he gave a sigh, unaware that there was someone behind him. When he noticed it, he lay prostrate before him, saying, “Forgive me, Abba, for I have not yet made a beginning.” A monk has to be considerate to those around him. Abba John felt compunction that he did not maintain silence in the Church, as a result of which his brother’s contemplation might have been disturbed! That is the reason why he prostrated before him and asked his forgiveness. A brother asked Abba Isidore the Priest, “Why are the demons so frightened of you?” The old man said, “Because I have done my practices since the day I became a monk, and not allowed anger to reach my lips.” Note the subtlety of the expression here. Abba Isidore says, ‘I have not allowed anger to reach my lips.’ He doesn’t say he did not allow anger to rise in him at all. Why was that? External manifestation has to be avoided at all costs. Temptations do arise in the mind for a long, long time, until the full blast of divine light burns bright in the inner consciousness. It is only the beatific vision that can annihilate the demons once and for all. For a long time until that beatific vision occurs, the monk has to be extremely careful, eternally vigilant to avoid external manifestations of the inner struggles.

Abba John of the Thebaid said, “First of all the monk must gain humility, for it is the first commandment of the Lord who said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’” Abba Nilus said, “Happy is the monk who thinks he is the outcast of all. The monk who loves interior peace will remain invulnerable to the shafts of the enemy, but he who mixes with crowds constantly receives blows. The servant who neglects his master’s work should expect a beating.” Abba Xanthias said, “A dog is better than I am, for he has love and he does not judge.

  • Abstinence & Obedience:

Next to humility, they valued abstinence and obedience to their Abba. Abba Joseph said to Abba Lot, “You cannot become a monk unless you become like a consuming fire.” The monks of the Ramakrishna Order were directed by Swami Vivekananda thus: ‘Brahmacharya must be like a burning fire tingling in your veins!’ Abba Anthony said, “Obedience with abstinence gives a monk power over wild beasts.” Compare this with the words of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi who once said, “It is sufficient if you stay in this Order. You will gain everything. Of course, stay in this Order and practice strict Brahmacharya, and you will gain everything.” Abba Anthony also said, “He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech and sight. There is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication.” He also said, “Unless he keeps the commandments of God, a man cannot make progress, not even in a single virtue.” A brother asked Abba Agathon about fornication. He answered, “Go, cast your weakness before God and you shall find rest.” Abba Anoub said, “Since the day when the name of Christ was invoked upon me, no lie has come out of my mouth.” The same Abba said, “For fourteen years I have never lain down, but have slept sitting or standing.” Imagine the sense of purpose these ancient monks for self-development! We must further remember that they were solitary dwellers; that means they had no one to keep a watch over what they did! Abba Gerontius of Petra said that many, tempted by the pleasures of the body, commit fornication, not in their body, but in their spirit, and while preserving their bodily virginity, commit prostitution in their soul. Abba Epiphanius said, “Reading the Scriptures is a great safeguard against sin.

While these monks were very serious of conquering concupiscence, they were quite aware of the various perversions that a struggling soul has to face! Take for instance the stiff fight against homosexuality. Abba Eudemon said this about Abba Paphnutius, the Father of Scetis, “I went down there while I was still young. He would not let me stay, saying to me, ‘I do not allow the face of a woman to dwell in Scetis, because of the conflict with the enemy.’” Abba Isaac said, “Do not bring young boys here. Four churches in Scetis are deserted because of boys.” Abba Carion said, “A monk who lives with a boy, falls, if he is not stable. But even if he is stable and does not fall, he still does not make progress.” Abba John the Dwarf said, “He who gorges himself and talks to a boy has already in his thoughts committed fornication with him.” These might seem like too inflexible a rule for monastic life, but considering the innumerable falls that are being reported now-a-days, we cannot but appreciate the wisdom behind these strictures of the ancient Desert monks.

It was an established fact among the monks that one who wished to rein in his senses had to stay in one place for a protracted period of time. Inability to settle in one place was recognized for its true cause – mind’s violent reaction to the attempts of controlling it! Abba Eudemon said, “A beginner who goes from one monastery to another is like an animal that jumps this way and that, for fear of the halter.” Amma Theodora said, “There was a monk, who, because of the great number of his temptations said, ‘I will go away from here.’ As he was putting on his sandals, he saw another man who was also putting on his sandals and this other monk said to him, ‘Is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going.’” Abba Eudemon also said, “When God wishes to take pity on a soul and it rebels, not bearing anything and doing its own will, he then allows it to suffer that which it does not want, in order that it may seek him again.” The wise monks realized that there was an urgent need to sublimate the urge to flee constantly from a place in search of a new place. Abba John the Cilician said to the brethren, “My sons, in the same way that we have fled from the world, let us equally flee from the desires of the flesh.” Wanderlust had to be internalized and a region had to be reached in the inner realms of one’s own consciousness where there was no more trouble from the inner demons.

Abba Theodore said, “If I do not cut myself off from these feelings of compassion, they will not let me be a monk.” Compare this with the training that Swami Vivekananda gave to his monastic disciples, as recorded by Sister Nivedita – the monastic training [or Brahmacharya] entails complete emotional solitude. Abba Theodore said, “Do not sleep in a place where there is a woman.” Notice that the advice is not to meet her, nor is it not to see her. A monk is asked not to sleep in a place where a woman resides! If we think deeply over this strange advice, we will appreciate the wisdom that uttered this invaluable advice. The mind of a struggling monk is extremely sharp, extremely volatile, extremely impressionable. The mind would have clearly noted the presence of a woman in the vicinity. While awake, the mind may seem subdued. But when the mind sleeps, the monk will certainly have a fall. It is against such an eventuality that the saying already quoted above has to be understood: One of the fathers asked Abba John the Dwarf, “What is a monk?” He said, “He is toil. The monk toils at all he does. That is what a monk is.

Abba Theodore of Eleutheropolis said, “Privation of food mortifies the body of the monk.” Another old man said, “Vigils mortify it still more.” Although physical privations have their sure advantages in the general scheme of monastic life, the wonderful Desert monks never lost sight of the central theme of prayer and love of God that gave their life real meaning! Abba Theonas said, “When we turn our spirit from the contemplation of God, we become the slaves of carnal passions.” Abba John also said, “Who is as strong as the lion? And yet, because of his greed he falls into the net, and all his strength is brought low.” Abba John also said, “The Fathers of Scetis ate bread and salt and said, ‘We do not regard bread and salt as indispensable.’ So they were strong for the work of God.” Abba Isidore said that for forty years he had been tempted to sin in thought but that he had never consented either to covetousness or to anger.

Abba Isidore the Priest said, “It is impossible for you to live according to God if you love pleasures and money. If you truly desire the kingdom of heaven, despise riches and respond to divine favors.” What was the justification for leading a disciplined life? It was quite simple. Common sense provided the answer! Abba Mius of Belos said, “Obedience responds to obedience. When someone obeys God, God obeys his request.” Abba Nilus said, “Do not always want everything to turn out as you think it should, but rather as God pleases. Then you will be undisturbed and thank full in your prayer.

  • Brotherly Love:

The virtue next in order of value to monastic life was brotherly love. Abba Anthony said, “Our life and our death are with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God. But if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” He also said, “I have never gone to sleep with a grievance against anyone, and, as far as I could, I have never let anyone go to sleep with a grievance against me.” A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest. Abba Bessarion got up and went with him saying, “I too am a sinner.” Abba Isaac said, “I have never allowed a thought against my brother who has grieved me to enter my cell. I have seen to it that no brother should return to his cell with a thought against me.” Abba Poemen said about Abba Isidore that wherever he addressed the brothers in church he said only one thing, “Forgive your brother so that you may also be forgiven.”

  • Common Sense:

But the overarching feature of the Desert Monks was their common sense! Abba Mark asked Abba Arsenius “Is it good to have nothing extra in the cell? I know a brother who had some vegetables and he has pulled them up.” Abba Arsenius replied, “Undoubtedly that is good. But it must be done according to a man’s capacity. For, if he does not have the strength for such a practice, he will soon plant new ones.” Abba Arsenius used to say that a monk travelling abroad should not get involved in anything. Thus he will remain in peace. This is a wonderful advice that can be appreciated only if one has sufficient experience in life. Abba Epiphanius said, “The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.” He also said that one of the Fathers used to say, ‘Eat a little without irregularity; if charity is joined to this, it leads the monk rapidly to the threshold of Apatheia.’ A brother came to Abba Theodore and began to converse with him about things which he had never yet put into practice. So the old man said to him, “You have not yet found a ship nor put your cargo aboard it and before you have sailed, you have already arrived at the city. Do the work first; then you will have the speed you are making now.” Abba Theodore also said, “If you are temperate, do not judge the fornicator, for you would then transgress the law just as much. And he who said, ‘Do not commit fornication’ also said, “Do not judge.’” Abba Isidore the Priest said, “If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride, but if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and to glorify himself.” Abba Isidore the Priest said, “Disciples must love as their fathers those who are truly their masters and fear them as their leaders. They should not lose their fear because of love, nor because of fear should love be obscured.” Abba Cassian said, “There was a monk living in a cave in the desert. His relations according to the flesh let him know, ‘Your father is very ill, at the point of death. Come and receive his inheritance.’ He replied to them, ‘I died to the world before he did and the dead do not inherit from the living.’” Abba Matoes said, “I prefer a light and steady activity, to one that is painful at the beginning but is soon broken off.

The greatest outcome of nurturing common sense as a trait in the Desert monks was the broadening of the vision. Fanaticism can be overcome mainly by common sense. It is quite well known that even genuine spiritual realization does not remove fanaticism. That is the reason why we find even great saints with genuine spiritual unfoldment still entertaining stifling ideas of fanaticism. Since the Desert monks nurtured ‘discernment’ as a requisite virtue, we find the cool breeze of expansiveness in these ancient monks. Take for instance this saying of Abba John. He said, “The saints are like a group of trees, each bearing different fruits, but watered from the same source. The practices of one saint differ from those of another, but it is the same spirit that works in all of them.

Although they were all monks in the Desert, keyed to the highest ideals of monastic life, they however knew very well that excellence could be achieved as a secular too. This revelation too was a direct outcome of cultivation of ‘discernment’ or common sense among the monks. It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his Desert that there was one who was his equal in the City. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the Angels. However, the ideals of one were not to be confused with the ideals of the other. It was said of Abba Arsenius that, just as none in the palace had worn more splendid garments than he when he lived there, so no one in the Church wore such poor clothing as he did. Two father asked God to reveal to them how far they had advanced. A voice came which said, “In a certain village in Egypt, there is a man called Eucharistus and his wife who is called Mary. You have not yet reached their degree of virtue.” The two old men set out and went to the village. Having enquired, they found his house and his wife. They said to her, “Where is your husband?” She replied, “He is a shepherd and is feeding the sheep.” Then she made them come into the house. When evening came, Eucharistus returned with the sheep. Seeing the old men, he set the table and brought water to wash their feet. The old men said to him, “We shall eat nothing until you have told us about your way of life.” Eucharistus replied with humility, “I am a shepherd, and this is my wife.” The old men insisted but he did not want to say more. Then they said, “God has sent us to you.” At these words, Eucharistus was afraid and said, “Here are these sheep. We received them from our parents and if, by God’s help we make a little profit, we divide it into three parts: one for the poor, the second for hospitality and the third for our personal needs. Since I married my wife, we have not had intercourse with one another, for she is a virgin; we each live alone. At night we wear hair-shirts and our ordinary clothes by day. No one has known of this till now.” At these words, they were filled with admiration and went away giving glory to God.

  • Conclusion:

It is the belief of the Eastern Orthodox monks even today that these ancient Fathers are not just historical persons, but living powers. Their sayings have sufficient power to shape our lives if only we open ourselves to their benign influence. May the spirit that guided these Desert Fathers shape our lives too.

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

[1] Coptic Christianity is the oldest Christian community in the Middle East. They are even today a distinct ethno-religious community. They pride themselves on the apostolicity of the Egyptian Church whose founder was the first in an unbroken chain of Patriarchs. The main body of the Coptic Church [or the Egyptian Christianity] has been out of communion with both the Roman Catholic Church in Rome and the various Eastern Orthodox Church.

[2] One of the chief exponents of the tradition of Desert Monasticism was John Cassian [c. 360 – 435]. He was a native of Scythia. As a young man he joined a monastery in Bethlehem, but soon left it and went to study monasticism in Egypt. Here he was greatly influenced by Evagrius Ponticus. Later on Cassian became Deacon of the church in Constantinople. From there he was sent by St. John Chrysostom on a mission to Pope Innocent I at Rome. He seems to have remained in the West thereafter and by 415 AD he had established two monasteries near Marseilles. He authored two books, the Institutes and the Conferences, in which he presented what he learned from the great old men of the desert in a series of sermons. Though they crystallised much that he heard in the desert, he presents it in his own style, and with a consistency which is his rather than theirs. His writings are the work of a sophisticated writer, reflecting on his experiences and interpreting them in the light of other influences. These two books became classics in the West. Quotations from them abound in Rule of St. Benedict. Conferences was compulsory reading before Compline each night in Benedictine monasteries. The Rule of St. Benedict recommends his works as ‘tools of virtue for good-living and obedient monks’, thus ensuring that the tradition passed on by Cassian would become one of the most potent and formative influences in western monasticism.

[3] In Christian spiritual literature, this emphasis on actual realization of God can be seen mainly in the Orthodox tradition. The mainstream traditions of Roman Catholicism & Protestantism do not emphasize this actual realization. With these mainstream traditions, a spiritual life means arranging to live according to the advices mentioned in the Bible, while the actual spiritual achievements were to be had post-mortem. The Orthodox Church claims its direct descent from the traditions of the Desert Fathers.

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The New Ideal, the New Doctrine, the New Life

In a letter[1] written to Kidi, one of his Madras disciples on 3rd March 1894 from Chicago, Swami Vivekananda writes with apostolic clarity: “Preach the new ideal, the new doctrine, the new life….

This clarity in Swamiji’s vision did not come about all of a sudden. There has been a distinct growth in his vision[2]. This article will try to understand how this happened. In doing so, we will have to re-construct the transformation of Narendranath into Swami Vivekananda. In effect we will be arriving at a much needed elaboration of these terms that Swamiji has used above.

Swami Vivekananda was a spiritual person of a rare caliber. He had innumerable spiritual visions and experiences throughout his life. Although each of those visions and experiences was important, there were a few distinct spiritual experiences that seemed to have an immediate bearing on this momentous transformation. They were:

  1. Nirvikalpa Samadhi at Cossipore Garden House in Jan 1886[3].
  2. The vision of Sri Ramakrishna for a whole month at Ghazipur in March 1890[4].
  3. The experience of the microcosm and the macrocosm at Almora in Aug 1890.[5]
  4. The experience while meditating at Cape Comorin in Dec 1892.[6]
  5. The experience of ‘Organization’ in America in 1893-94.[7]
  6. The vision of Divine Mother at Kshir-bhavani in Oct 1898.[8]

We will analyze these incidents one by one and try to re-construct how each of them helped Narendranath form a concrete picture of his mission in life, thereby transforming him into Swami Vivekananda, the great Prophet of this modern age.

The Beginning:

A university student Narendranath came in contact with Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa sometime in Nov 1881. This meeting set in motion a series of transformations in the boy’s life. Sri Ramakrishna had performed unprecedented spiritual practices for 12 years at a stretch and had received some specific instructions. This was about 10 years before Naren came to him. He received a specific command from the Divine Mother saying, ‘Remain in Bhavamukha[9].’ His biographer Swami Saradananda mentions the following as the summing up of his extraordinary spiritual experiences[10]: The Master realized that as an instrument of the Divine Mother, he would have to establish a new religious order based on the universal truths revealed in his life. This was the mission that Sri Ramakrishna entrusted Naren with during his last days at Cossipore.

Sri Ramakrishna found in Naren a fit instrument through whom he could fulfil this divine mandate that he had received. So, in Cossipore, during his last days, he instructed Naren that he would hold the young men together. He would also need to do something of a permanent nature that would help the common masses to get spiritual benefit. He also infused into Naren all the spiritual powers that he had obtained through his unprecedented Sadhana.

After Sri Ramakrishna attained Mahasamadhi, Naren and the group of young sadhakas took the vows of renunciation and became monks. During his stay at Cossipore with Sri Ramakrishna, Naren had experienced Nirvikalpa Samadhi. This experience convinced Naren once and for all that Reality was Impersonal and that he was non-distinct from the Impersonal Reality. He was in essence all that existed. In fact, apart from what he experienced during that Samadhi, nothing else existed. An unspeakable calm descended upon him. When he met his Guru after returning from the Samadhi at Cossipore, there was genuine gratitude to his Guru, just as it has been described in innumerable Hindu scriptures. However, there was still one nagging problem that Naren faced. When he returned back to perceiving duality, post Nirvikalpa Samadhi, he considered the return as a ‘fall’[11] from the blessed state of Samadhi!

Not just that, he was also restless! This is something unheard of! Nirvikalpa Samadhi itself means that state which is devoid of all restlessness. A person who has attained Nirvikalpa Samadhi cannot become restless, ever. The memory of the experience is so overwhelming that never again does he lose his equanimity of mind. It has been traditionally believed that he who experiences Nirvikalpa Samadhi does not regain normal consciousness. He stays in that Samadhi for about three weeks and then leaves the body. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that only those rare few who had some Divine mission to fulfill would regain normal consciousness. But it was believed that under no circumstance does such a one experience restlessness! Why then was this happening? Swami Vivekananda himself stated that his mind was burning. It is quite natural that a Sadhaka who has attained to Nirvikalpa Samadhi feels he has ‘fallen’ from the blessed state when he returns to multiplicity, just as Tota Puri used to feel or any number of sadhakas in the Hindu lore have felt and recorded. But what is noteworthy here is the fact that Naren mentions specifically that his mind was agitated[12]! That is a new occurrence in the recorded spiritual history of mankind.

Raja Yoga as the Panacea:

The only reason we can adduce to this peculiar state of things is – the responsibility that Sri Ramakrishna, his Guru, had burdened his young shoulders with, was weighing too heavily on him. That was the cause of his restlessness. Added to that, he was not physically very well, either. He was suffering from diabetes and lumbago and indigestion. Swamiji’s mind was unique. That mind sought for integral solutions to problems. At the very least, he had three distinct problems at hand. [He was also trying to manage some issues related to his ancestral house, which we can discount at the moment.] Firstly, he had a weak physical constitution; second, he had to redeem his promise to his Guru of taking care of his brother disciples; third, he had to redeem his promise to his Guru about working out a scheme for spiritual development of the masses. He sought one solution that would take care of all these three problems simultaneously. What was that solution? He would learn Raja Yoga from Pavhari Baba. Using Hatha Yoga, a part of Raja Yoga, he would cure his ailments. Then, he would teach Raja Yoga to his brother disciples and form an Ashrama where they would all live together and make disciples and preach Raja Yoga. His experience of the spiritual degradation of the region where he lived, Bengal, was that the people were too sentimental[13]. They attached too much importance to the external manifestations of Bhava rather than focus on the essential characteristic of spiritual development which is formation of a strong moral character, culminating in realization of one’s true nature as Pure Consciousness. This he concluded was due to the inability of the Bengali people to see religion as a science. Thus, the masses would be benefitted as Raja Yoga is the most scientific method of spiritual development. He had almost decided to follow this path when the following incident occurred[14].

One day I reflected that I had not learnt any art for making this weak body strong, even though I had lived with Sri Ramakrishna for so many years. I had heard that Pavhari Baba knew the science of Hatha Yoga; so I thought that I would learn the practices of Hatha Yoga from him, and through them strengthen the body. You know, I have a dogged resolution, and whatever I set my heart on, I always carry out. On the eve of the day on which I was to take initiation, I was lying on a cot thinking; and just then I saw the form of Sri Ramakrishna standing on my right, looking steadfastly at me, as if very much grieved. I had dedicated myself to him, and at the thought that I was taking another Guru 1 felt much ashamed and kept looking at him. Thus perhaps two or three hours passed, but no words escaped my mouth: then he disappeared all on a sudden. Seeing Sri Ramakrishna that night my mind became upset, so I postponed the idea of initiation from Pavhari Baba for the day. After a day or two, again the idea of initiation from Pavhari Baba arose in the mind-and again at night Sri Ramakrishna appeared, as on the previous occasion. So when, for several nights in succession, I had the vision of Sri Ramakrishna, I gave up the idea of initiation altogether, thinking that since every time I resolved on it, I was having such a vision, no good, but only harm, would come of it.”

Thus it was Sri Ramakrishna who in the end triumphed. Long afterwards, the Swami composed a song in Bengali entitled “A Song I Sing to Thee” in which one finds a glimpse of this experience.

As a result of this nerve-shattering experience, Naren concluded that his decision about Raja Yoga being the solution for all his problems was wrong. He must have somehow decided that Bengal was a prototype of mankind[15], which unfortunately wasn’t the case. He needed more inputs before he could arrive at an informed decision. So now, he knew that Raja Yoga was not the solution, but again, Sri Ramakrishna did not specify what that solution would be in this vision, just as he hadn’t specified it when he had ordered Naren with the onerous responsibility of working out a path for the new ideal that Sri Ramakrishna had revealed to mankind. He now needed to observe first-hand the condition of the masses elsewhere in India. So he started wandering around the whole country, all the while trying to grasp the root of the problem that ailed this wonderful nation, with a view to finding a suitable solution thereof.

Naren establishes himself in Vijnana, the ‘New Ideal’:

During this wandering, he came to Almora, where he had yet another very intense spiritual experience. Let us see the description of this incident from ‘Vivekananda-a biography’[16]:

After visiting one or two places, Naren and Akhandananda arrived at Nainital, their destination being the sacred Badrikashrama, in the heart of the Himalayas. They decided to travel the whole way on foot, and also not to touch money. Near Almora under an old peepal tree by the side of a stream, they spent many hours in meditation.

Naren had a deep spiritual experience, which he thus jotted down in his note-book:

In the beginning was the Word, etc. The microcosm and the macrocosm are built on the same plan. Just as the individual soul is encased in a living body, so is the Universal Soul, in the living Prakriti (nature), the objective universe. Kali is embracing Siva. This is not a fancy. This covering of the one (Soul) by the other (nature) is analogous to the relation between an idea and the word expressing it. They are one and the same, and it is only by a mental abstraction that one can distinguish them. Thought is impossible without words. Therefore in the beginning was the Word, etc.

This dual aspect of the Universal Soul is eternal. So what we perceive or feel is the combination of the Eternally Formed and the Eternally Formless.

Thus Naren realized, in the depths of meditation, the oneness of the universe and man, who is a universe in miniature. He realized that, all that exists in the universe also exists in the body, and further, that the whole universe exists in the atom.

This experience was supremely vital to the transformation that we are trying to analyze here in this article. Sri Ramakrishna had revealed a new spiritual ideal for mankind. He had a name for that ideal. He called it Vijnana. It is a post-Nirvikalpa state of existence[17]. While in the rich spiritual heritage of India, every previous case of post-Nirvikalpa perception of multiplicity was considered as a ‘fall’ from beatitude, Sri Ramakrishna said for the first time that there are valid states of existence beyond Nirvikalpa Samadhi, when multiplicity is perceived, although in a totally transformed way. It was possible for a sadhakas to return from Nirvikalpa Samadhi when the Divine Mother ordains that some special work of Her’s needs to be done through that blessed soul. And this post-Nirvikalpa state was termed as Vijnana by him[18]. The particular point where the consciousness rests in such a person was termed as ‘Bhavamukha’ by him. It was this state of spiritual consciousness that he revealed to mankind as the ‘new ideal’.

The important point to note here is that post-Nirvikalpa states of consciousness can be integrated into the Sadhaka’s personality only when the sadhakas accepts the role of an active Divine Power as running this world. Reality will have to be conceptualized as Being-Will or the Personal-Impersonal. Traditional schools of thought in India had posited Reality to be either entirely Personal or entirely Impersonal. Traditionally, it has been considered that Nirvikalpa Samadhi requires that the Sadhaka mercilessly reject every object of perception. It was Sri Ramakrishna’s discovery that if the Sadhaka takes the path of negating every perception in order to attain Nirvikalpa Samadhi, then, he will be constitutionally incapable of experiencing the Vijnana state. For, he will feel that his perception of multiplicity post-Nirvikalpa Samadhi is a ‘fall’ and he will exhibit a constant urge to regain that state of monistic experience. However, if the Sadhaka attains Nirvikalpa Samadhi through the path of devotion to a personal God, as a gift from his Ishta, in other words, when the Personal God reveals the Impersonal Reality as but another aspect of Oneself, then that Sadhaka will be able to experience his post-Nirvikalpa perception of multiplicity as an extremely rich spiritual experience which has been termed as Vijnana. We can recall the incident of Tota Puri and the young Sri Ramakrishna[19] here as an apt illustration of the point we are trying to make. It is in this light that we can make sense of the fact that Sri Ramakrishna was overjoyed when Naren had come to accept the Divine Mother while the latter lived at Dakshineswar. This incident is recorded in the Divine Play as follows[20]:

This acceptance of God with form was of course a most significant event in Narendra’s life…This made the Master jubilant…The Master was seated alone in his room and Narendra was sleeping on the veranda outside. The Master was beaming with joy…he pointed to Narendra and said, ‘Look at that boy – that boy is very good. His name is Narendra. He wouldn’t accept the Divine Mother before, but last night he did. He was in need of money, so I advised him to ask Mother for it. But he couldn’t; he said he felt ashamed. When he came back from the temple, he asked me to teach him a song in praise of Mother. So I taught him, “Mother, Thou are our sole Redeemer,” and he sang it all night long. That’s why he’s sleeping now.’ And then the Master smiled with joy and said, ‘Narendra has accepted Mother Kali. That’s very good, isn’t it?’ seeing that he was as happy as a child about this, I answered, ‘Yes, sir, it is very good.’ A little later he smiled and said again, ‘Narendra has accepted the Mother. It’s very good. What do you say?’ And he kept smiling and saying that, over and over.

This experience at Almora helped Naren to completely integrate his Nirvikalpa Samadhi experience with the post-Nirvikalpa Samadhi perception of multiplicity as the blessed experience of Vijnana. Therefore this experience is by far the most important one when we consider the transformation of Naren into Swami Vivekananda. After this experience at Almora, the great responsibility that his Guru had kept on his shoulders no longer seemed to be a burden to be done with at the earliest, but as a divine play that he was participating in with great joy. No longer was there any conflict between monistic experience and the perception of multiplicity in him; it was rather a constant divine game of the One Real Existence appearing as the multiple, separate existences out of Its own sweet will. Armed with this unique vision of Unity behind multiplicity, Swamiji was able to clearly grasp the problem of India’s decadence in its entirety during his subsequent wandering over the length & breadth of this vast country. No longer did there exist any distinction such as spiritual and mundane in Swamiji’s eyes. It was all divine now. The problems were divine and the solution too would be a spiritual one. To deal with this world heroically was indeed as stern as a stance as the vow of renunciation & negation for him.

Condensed India’:

With this unique set of eyes, he now sat at the last tip of Indian rock in Cape Comorin and had yet another nerve-shattering spiritual experience. Again, the ‘Vivekananda-a biography’ records[21]:

At Cape Comorin the Swami became as excited as a child. He rushed to the temple to worship the Divine Mother. He prostrated himself before the Virgin Goddess. As he came out and looked at the sea his eyes fell on a rock. Swimming to the islet through shark-infested waters, he sat on a stone. His heart thumped with emotion. His great journey from the snow-capped Himalayas to the ‘Land’s End’ was completed. He had travelled the whole length of the Indian subcontinent, his beloved motherland, which, together with his earthly mother, was ‘superior to heaven itself.’

Sitting on the stone, he recalled what he had seen with his own eyes: the pitiable condition of the Indian masses, victims of the unscrupulous whims of their rulers, landlords, and priests. The tyranny of caste had sapped their last drop of blood. In most of the so-called leaders who shouted from the housetops for the liberation of the people, he had seen selfishness personified. And now he asked himself what his duty was in this situation. Should he regard the world as a dream and go into solitude to commune with God? He had tried this several times, but without success. He remembered that, as a sannyasin, he had taken the vow to dedicate himself to the service of God; but this God, he was convinced, was revealed through humanity. And his own service to this God must begin, therefore, with the humanity of India. ‘May I be born again and again,’ he exclaimed, ‘and suffer a thousand miseries, if only I may worship the only God in whom I believe, the sum total of all souls, and above all, my God the wicked, my God the afflicted, my God the poor of all races!’Through austerity and self-control the Swami had conserved great spiritual power. His mind had been filled with the wisdom of the East and the West. He had received in abundance Sri Ramakrishna’s blessings. He also had had many spiritual experiences of his own. He must use all of these assets, he concluded, for the service of God in man.

But what was to be the way?

The clear-eyed prophet saw that religion was the backbone of the Indian nation. India would rise through a renewal and restoration of that highest spiritual consciousness which had made her, at all times, the cradle of nations and the cradle of faith. He totally disagreed with foreign critics and their Indian disciples who held that religion was the cause of India’s downfall. The Swami blamed, rather, the falsehood, superstition, and hypocrisy that were practiced in the name of religion. He himself had discovered that the knowledge of God’s presence in man was the source of man’s strength and wisdom. He was determined to awaken this sleeping divinity. He knew that the Indian culture had been created and sustained by the twin ideals of renunciation and service, which formed the core of Hinduism. And he believed that if the national life could be intensified through these channels, everything else would take care of itself. The workers for India’s regeneration must renounce selfishness, jealousy, greed, and lust for power, and they must dedicate themselves to the service of the poor, the illiterate, the hungry, and the sick, seeing in them the tangible manifestations of the Godhead. People required education, food, health, and the knowledge of science and technology to raise their standard of living. The attempt to teach metaphysics to empty stomachs was sheer madness. The masses everywhere were leading the life of animals on account of ignorance and poverty; therefore these conditions should be removed. But where would the Swami find the fellow workers to help him in this gigantic task?

He wanted whole-time servants of God; workers without worldly ties or vested interests. And he wanted them by thousands. His eyes fell upon the numerous monks who had renounced the world in search of God. But alas, in present-day India most of these led unproductive lives. He would have to infuse a new spirit into them, and they in their turn would have to dedicate themselves to the service of the people. He hit upon a plan, which he revealed later in a letter to a friend. ‘Suppose,’ the Swami wrote, ‘some disinterested sannyasins, bent on doing good to others, went from village to village, disseminating education and seeking in various ways to better the condition of all, down to the untouchable, through oral teaching and by means of maps, magic lanterns, globes, and other accessories — would that not bring forth good in time? All these plans I cannot write out in this brief letter. The long and short of it is that if the mountain does not come to Mahomet, Mahomet must go to the mountain. The poor are too poor to go to schools; they will gain nothing by reading poetry and all that sort of thing. We, as a nation, have lost our individuality. We have to give back to the nation its lost individuality and raise the masses.’ Verily, the Swami, at Kanyakumari, was the patriot and prophet in one. There he became, as he declared later to a Western disciple, ‘a condensed India.’

But where were the resources to come from, to help him realize his great vision?

He himself was a sannyasin, a penniless beggar. The rich of the country talked big and did nothing. His admirers were poor. Suddenly a heroic thought entered his mind: he must approach the outside world and appeal to its conscience. But he was too proud to act like a beggar. He wanted to tell the West that the health of India and the sickness of India were the concern of the whole world. If India sank, the whole world would sink with her. For the outside world, in turn, needed India, her knowledge of the Soul and of God, her spiritual heritage, her ideal of genuine freedom through detachment and renunciation; it needed these in order to extricate itself from the sharp claws of the monster of materialism.

Then to the Swami, brooding alone and in silence on that point of rock off the tip of India, the vision came; there flashed before his mind the new continent of America, a land of optimism, great wealth, and unstinted generosity. He saw America as a country of unlimited opportunities, where people’s minds were free from the encumbrance of castes or classes. He would give the receptive Americans the ancient wisdom of India and bring back to his motherland, in exchange, the knowledge of science and technology. If he succeeded in his mission to America, he would not only enhance India’s prestige in the Occident, but create a new confidence among his own people. He recalled the earnest requests of his friends to represent India in the forthcoming Parliament of Religions in Chicago. And in particular, he remembered the words of the friends in Kathiawar who had been the first to encourage him to go to the West: ‘Go and take it by storm, and then return!’

He swam back to the continent of India and started northwards again, by the eastern coast.

Thus, the nascent Vivekananda was now born! Naren had finally transformed into Vivekananda! But this Vivekananda was yet to bloom completely, for, he was to bring man everywhere to the ‘new ideal’, not just in Bengal or in India. He was yet to observe at first-hand the living condition of the man in the West. Moreover, there was one more vital experience that he lacked for giving his mission its full and final form. And that experience he got during his visit to the West.

A self-adjusting organization:

Although the recorded biographies of Swamiji do not categorize the following experience as a spiritual experience, this experience was no less vital than the Nirvikalpa Samadhi he experienced at Cossipore or the experience he had at Almora or again the experience he had at Cape Comorin. We understand this from the impact this experience had on giving a final shape to his plans.

While in the West, he was wonderstruck at the achievements that man had accomplished in this life. There was no known force of nature that the man in the West hadn’t tamed. Every aspect of human life was studied as an end in itself and truths were discovered. These truths were then put into practical use by designing processes and gadgets and principles that enriched the experience of living in this world. His vision of Vijnana through which he now perceived all these enabled him to see each of these achievements as manifestations of the Divine Power that is lodged in man. He delved deeper into those wonderful achievements and then came face to face with the grandest achievement of them all – the one achievement that had made possible all other achievements that made the world modern – the ‘Organization’. Individuals can conceive of infinite power. But groups of men can harness infinite power to do their bidding. It was this revelation that gave the final touch to the sculpture of the ‘new doctrine’ that was taking shape in his magnificent brain.

He was now able to integrate all the experiences that he had had till then and found that forming an organization would redeem him of all his responsibilities. He would form an organization of monks. The nucleus would be formed by the jewels that his own Guru had hand-crafted over a period of 6 years. This organization would engage in every sort of activity that society needed to further its own journey to manifesting the truth that Man is divine. As he expressed it so clearly[22], “A self-adjusting organization is the great need of our time.”

It was by an equally compelling series of incidents that one of his brother disciples, Swami Brahmananda, was being prepared by the Divine Mother to complement Swamiji when he would arrive at this incredible solution of forming an organization; [although I will go into that here.]

Thus, while he was still shuttling between America and Europe, he started giving a concrete shape to the unique organization that was to become Ramakrishna Math in India. What was this organization meant to achieve[23]? His Master had discovered some universal truths regarding spiritual life. His Master had commanded Swamiji to form a group of dedicated monks who would ‘live’ the life and not just philosophize or ratiocinate about it. In fact, during his Cossipore days, Sri Ramakrishna himself had laid the foundation for this group, although it was on a purely informal basis. Swamiji was now giving it a formal shape and legal status as an organization. This group was meant to safeguard the living traditions of the spiritual fire that had been kindled by Sri Ramakrishna. At any given time, this organization would testify that the ‘new ideal’ was indeed realizable by means of practicing the ‘new doctrine’, which would result in the ‘new life’. Apart from serving this vital need, this organization would also be creating a much needed space wherein the age-old, time-tested spiritual modes of life would be practiced and preserved in this modern age. Once this organization was set up, a big load was off Swamiji’s chest. However, that would not be all.

The ‘New Doctrine’:

There was one more dimension of his Master’s command that Swamiji was yet to fulfil, as we have mentioned before. And for that, he felt that his presence in India was necessary. But before he could do that, there was still the important work of giving shape to the ‘new doctrine’ that would lead man to manifesting the ‘new life’ by realizing the ‘new ideal’.

By now, he had now studied the modern man in depth. He was now in a position to configure praxis, a ‘doctrine’, which could be as vast and all-inclusive as the ideal it was meant to achieve. His unprecedented personal experience of man enabled him to generalize that man, anywhere, could be categorized under one of four types – the emotional, the rational, the mystic and the practical. What this means is this – the entire personality of man is generally seen to be dominated by one or more of these faculties in him. There are people who are predominantly governed by their emotions. There are again those who are predominantly governed by reason, and so on. Swamiji now started giving a series of lectures that delineated one path for each of these faculties, namely Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Raja Yoga and Karma Yoga. Further, he specified that the modern man would have to practice all these four yogas together, ‘crowd all sail, put on all head of steam[24], to use his own words, since one of the chief characteristics of the modern man was his multi-sided-ness. He gave a new name to this doctrine – ‘Practical Vedanta’.

One interesting point may be highlighted here, though. While he delineated the four major paths of spiritual practice, his original contribution has been in delineating Karma Yoga[25]. He had learnt from his Master that sincere practice of one’s allotted duties, with a selfless attitude, as an offering to God, was a safe and sure way of spiritual growth. The duties may involve activities as mundane as running a household as well as extend to large-scale socially beneficial activities such as disaster relief and national education. In short, spiritual growth does not need any new kind of activity. Any activity that you are already involved in is sufficiently potent to lead you to the ‘new ideal’, provided you are selfless. To put it in more concrete terms, one would need to practice brahmacharya and perform one’s duties. The root of all selfishness is sex-consciousness. So, a person, irrespective of his being a monk or a married man, will have to practice complete continence, and then go on performing all duties that devolve upon him in his station of life. That was more than sufficient to lead him to a complete realization of Vijnana, the ‘new ideal’ in this very life. The practice of continence involved elements of the other three yogas, thus ensuring that a synthesis of all the four yogas was put into play.

This was indeed a stroke of genius on the part of Swamiji. A ‘new ideal’ called for a new set of rituals; else, the masses wouldn’t get a hold of the doctrine that would lead to the realization of the ‘new ideal’. Instead of creating yet another set of rituals in a world already riddled with innumerable rituals that were lifeless, [for all rituals lose their potency after a certain period of time, getting disconnected from the underlying thought that should accompany them] he apotheosized the entire life of man into a ritual that would lead him to the ‘new ideal’! Thus, he was able to hew out a path from multiplicity to Vijnana directly, without negating this world in Nirvikalpa Samadhi!

‘Rejuvenation of the Motherland’:

Swamiji then returned to India and created one more organization named Ramakrishna Mission apart from Ramakrishna Math. Through this organization, he opened up avenues for monks and married people to work out the ‘new doctrine’ and achieve the ‘new ideal’. The aim and objective of this organization were to achieve the fullest manifestation of divinity everywhere on earth. This organization would enable the newbie to put the ‘new doctrine’ into practice and achieve the ‘new ideal’ while at the same time allowing the person who had already realized the ‘new ideal’ to live the ‘new life’! But the immediate objective of this organization was ‘nothing short of a rejuvenation of my motherland’!

Having set this mammoth machinery in motion, he was to move away from the scene, because the growth of the organization needed steady, soft and silent work, the kind of work his other brother-disciples could perform. While Swamiji was like the rock-cutter who places dynamite sticks and blasts huge chunks of marble from the hills at the quarry, his brother-disciples, especially Swami Brahmananda, Swami Saradananda, Swami Premananda & Swami Ramakrishnananda were like the sculptors who chisel out delicate figurines from those blocks of marble.

Divine Mother validates his decisions:

His work was to end with yet another nerve-shattering spiritual experience that he was to have at Kshir-Bhavani, which is recorded in the ‘Life of Swami Vivekananda’ as follows[26]:

…The Swami retired abruptly on September 30th to the Colored Springs of Kshir- Bhavani (or Kheer Bhavani), leaving strict instructions that no one was to follow him. It was not until October 6th that he returned. Before this famous shrine of the Mother he daily performed Homa, and worshipped Her with offerings of Kshira or Kheer (thickened milk) made from one maund of milk, rice, and almonds. He told his beads like any humble pilgrim; and, as a special Sadhana, every morning he worshipped a Brahmin pundit’s little daughter as Uma Kumari, the Divine Virgin. He began to practise the sternest austerities. It seemed as though he would tear off all the veils that had come upon his soul through years of work and thought, and again be a child before the Divine Mother. Even though Her caresses might give pain to the body they would give illumination and freedom to the soul. All thought of Leader, Worker, or Teacher was gone. He was now only the monk, in all the nakedness of pure Sannyasa.

When he returned to Srinagar, he appeared before his disciples a transfigured presence, writes Nivedita. He entered their houseboat, his hands raised in benediction; then he placed some marigolds that he had offered to the Mother, on the head of each of them. “No more ‘Hari Om!’ It is all ‘Mother’ now!” he said, sitting down. “All my patriotism is gone. Everything is gone. Now it is only ‘Mother! Mother!’ I have been very wrong. Mother said to me: ‘What, even if unbelievers should enter my temples, and defile My images! What is that to you? Do you protect Me? Or do I protect you?’ So there is no more patriotism. I am only a little child!”

One day at Kshir-Bhavani he had been pondering over the ruination and desecration of the temple wrought by the Muslim invaders. Distressed at heart he thought: “How could the people have permitted such sacrilege without offering strenuous resistance! If I were here then, I would never have allowed such things. I would have laid down my life to protect the Mother.” It was then that he had heard the Mother speaking as above. The disciples sat silent, awe-inspired. They could not speak, “so tense was the spot with something that stilled thought”. “I may not tell you more now; it is not in order”, he said gently, adding, before he left, ” — but spiritually, spiritually, I was not bound down!” In his meditation on the Terrible, in the dark hours of the nights at Kshir-Bhavani, there were other visions that he confided only to one or two of his brother-disciples. They were too sacred to make known to anyone else.

At this same shrine, in the course of worship one day, the Swami was brooding with pain on the dilapidated condition of the temple. He wished in his heart that he were able to build a new one there in its place, just as he wished to build monasteries and temples elsewhere, especially a temple to Sri Ramakrishna in the new Math at Belur. He was startled in his ruminations by the voice of the Mother Herself, saying to him, “My child! If I so wish I can have innumerable temples and magnificent monastic centres. I can even this moment raise a seven-storied golden temple on this very spot.” “Since I heard that Divine Voice,” said the Swami to a disciple in Calcutta much later, “I have ceased making any more plans. Let these things be as Mother wills!”

Sister Nivedita writes[27]: He spoke of the future. There was nothing to be desired, but the life of the wanderer, in silence and nudity, on the banks of the Ganges. He would have nothing. ‘Swamiji’ was dead and gone. Who was he, that he should feel responsible for teaching the world? It was all fuss and vanity. The Mother had no need of him, but only he of Her. Even work, when one had seen this, was nothing but illusion.

Swamiji was wracked by conflicts about the correctness of the measures he had taken for fulfilling the command of his Master. Almost every decision he had taken was unprecedented – organizing Hindu monks, asking all-renouncing monks to take up responsibility for socially productive activities on a national scale, re-introducing Karma Yoga back into Hinduism a thousand years after it was completely rooted out by Shankara [although the two versions were very different]. This experience he had at Kshir-Bhavani set at rest all those inner conflicts. Although, once in a while, these conflicts were to raise their head again in his super-sensitive mind as recorded by Sister Nivedita[28], he was able to conclude that the decisions he had taken in each case was indeed the handiwork of the Great Power that runs this world and holds itself responsible for its sustenance, the same Power that had incarnated as his Master Sri Ramakrishna.

Thus, we have seen how Naren became transformed into Swami Vivekananda. That transformation was the personal aspect of the impersonal manifestation of the ‘new ideal and the new doctrine’ that we mentioned in the beginning of this article.

‘The New Life’:

Regarding the ‘new life’ that Swamiji mentions in the letter to Kidi, well, it is the unprecedented life of Sri Ramakrishna that he alludes to. It is also true that he envisaged a time when multitudes would become prophets as a consequence of their following this new doctrine and realizing this new ideal in their lives. He said[29], ‘The time is to come when prophets will walk through every street in every city in the world…The time is coming when we shall understand that to become religious means to become a prophet, that none can become religious until he or she becomes a prophet. We shall come to understand that the secret of religion is not being able to think and say all these thoughts; but, as the Vedas teach, to realize them, to realize newer and higher one than have ever been realized, to discover them, bring them to society; and the study of religion should be the training to make prophets. The schools and colleges should be training grounds for prophets. The whole universe must become prophets; and until a man becomes a prophet, religion is a mockery and a byword unto him. We must see religion, feel it, realize it in a thousand times more intense a sense than that in which we see the wall. … We have to work now so that everyone will become a prophet. There is a great work before us.

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

[1] Cf: Letters of Swami Vivekananda; pg: 71;

[2] Cf: Complete Works of Sister Nivedita-I; Master as I saw him; pg: 39: “But wherein lay the struggle? Whence came the frequent sense of being baffled and thwarted? Was it a growing consciousness of bodily weakness, conflicting with the growing clearness of a great purpose?”

[3] Cf: Life of Swami Vivekananda by Eastern & Western Disciples-I; pp: 177-179: Ch-Cossipore & the Master.

[4] Cf: ibid; pp: 233-234: Ch-Itinerant days in Northern India.

[5] Cf: ibid; pg: 250.

[6] Cf: ibid; pp: 341-44;

[7] Cf: Swami Vivekananda in the West-New Discoveries-I by Sister Gargi; pp: 155-56; Ch-In & Around Chicago.

[8] Cf: Life of Swami Vivekananda by Eastern & Western Disciples-II; pp: 382-83

[9] Cf: Sri Ramakrishna & His Divine Play by Swami Saradananda; Tr-Swami Chetanananda; pg: 447

[10] Cf: ibid; pg: 362.

[11] This fall is termed as ‘Anavastitattva’; inability to hold on to a blessed state of spiritual experience. The urge then comes to constantly regain that blessed state and remain in that state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi.

[12] Cf: Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: pg: 988; Entry on 7th May 1887: Narendra says, ‘…but I still have no peace.’ See also: Letters of Swami Vivekananda; pg-24; 26th May 1890 to Pramadadas Mitra :“I write this…in great agitation of mind”; See also: Life of Swami Vivekananda by Eastern & Western Disciples-I; pg 236; “What shall I say to you about the condition of my mind! Oh, it is as if hell-fire were burning there day & night!”

[13] Cf: Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: pg: 982; Entry on 25th Mar 1887: Narendra says, ‘Does mere emotion make a man spiritually great?’ See also: Letters of Swami Vivekananda: pg: 26; 26th May 1890 to Pramadadas Mitra; “The condition of Bengal is pitiable. The people here cannot even dream what renunciation truly means…”; See also: Life of Swami Vivekananda by Eastern & Western Disciples-I; pg: 236; “Our Bengal is the land of Bhakti & Jnana. Yoga is scarcely mentioned there. What little there is, is but the queer breathing exercise of the Hatha Yoga – which is nothing but a kind of gymnastics. Therefore I am staying with this wonderful Raja Yogi…”

[14] Cf: Life of Swami Vivekananda by Eastern & Western Disciples-I; pp: 233-34.

[15] We say ‘prototype’ because right from the beginning, Naren had the clarity that his Master’s mission was nothing short of the spiritual regeneration of the entire country. See for instance: Life of Swami Vivekananda-I; pg: 221; “My son, I have a great mission to fulfil and I am in despair at the smallness of my capacity. I have an injunction from my Guru to carry out this mission. It is nothing less than the regeneration of my motherland. Spirituality has fallen to a ebb and starvation stalks the land. India must become dynamic and effect the conquest of the world through her spirituality.” Swamiji said this to Swami Sadananda as early as 1888.

[16] Cf: Vivekananda, a biography by Swami Nikhilananda; pg: 98.

[17] For details, please refer to Meditation & Spiritual Life: pp: 542-551; Explanation of chart on Spiritual Unfoldment.

[18] For details of this term & the term Bhavamukha, please see: Sri Ramakrishna’s thoughts on Man, World & God by Swami Tapasyananda; pp: 26-30; 159-163; See also: Sri Ramakrishna-Life & Teachings (an interpretative study) by Swami Tapasyananda; pp: 57-71

[19] Cf: Sri Ramakrishna & His Divine Play: pg: 538;

[20] Cf: ibid; pg: 843-44.

[21] Cf: Vivekananda-a biography; pp: 110-114

[22] Cf: Inspired Talks: Entry on July 1st, 1895.

[23] Sister Nivedita says ‘Long ago, he had defined the mission of the Order of Ramakrishna as that of realizing and exchanging the highest ideals of the East and of the West.’: Complete Works of Sister Nivedita-I; Master as I saw him; pg: 42.

[24] Cf: Inspired Talks: Entry on 27th July 1895: “The ignorant will leads to bondage, the knowing will can free us. The will can be made strong in thousands of ways; every way is a kind of Yoga, but the systematized Yoga accomplishes the work more quickly. Bhakti, Karma, Raja, and Jnana-Yoga get over the ground more effectively. Put on all powers, philosophy, work, prayer, meditation — crowd all sail, put on all head of steam — reach the goal. The sooner, the better

[25] Some say that his ‘Raja Yoga’ too was quite original. But it will be seen that he just combined the existing schools of Patanjala Yoga with Tantra and Advaita Vedanta. This trend of seamlessly combining two or more schools of thought to produce a new path has been always present in India. For instance, one of the later Shankaracharyas combined Patanjala Yoga with Advaita Vedanta in the treatise ‘Aparokshanubhutihi’.

[26] Cf: Life of Swami Vivekananda-II; pp: 381-83;

[27] Cf: Complete works of Sister Nivedita-I; Master as I saw him; pp: 99-100.

[28] Cf: ibid: Ch-Conflict of Ideals.

[29] Please see Complete works of Swami Vivekananda-VI; Lecture on ‘Methods & purpose of Religion’.

Swami Vivekananda: His new monastic Order

Swami Nirvanananda Memorial Lecture

at

Ramakrishna Math, Bhubaneswar

on 25th July 2015

 Om sthapakaya cha dharmasya sarva dharma svarupine

Avatara varishtaya Ramakrishnaya te namaha.

Revered Secretary Maharaj, dear Mihir Maharaj and dear devotees and friends, generally, in our Order, we do not speak after our Revered Secretary Maharaj has spoken. Today I am making an exception because Revered Maharaj has himself asked me to speak after him.

I have come from Ramakrishna Mission Shilpamandira, Belur Math. It is a Polytechnic College where we give training to Diploma students. Belur Math, as you all know, is the headquarters of the worldwide Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, two organizations started by Swami Vivekananda.

Today’s topic for deliberation is ‘Swami Vivekananda: His new monastic Order’. The topic has the words ‘New monastic Order’. This suggests that there are at least two types of monastic orders – the old one and the new one. I will tell you some things about the old monastic order so that you will be able to appreciate the new one founded by Swamiji.

Who is a monk? Or, what is monasticism? And what is a monastic order? A monk is person who has dedicated his life for God realization. That is the single aim of his life. Monasticism is therefore a way of life, distinct from that of the majority of the people in the world. What do I mean? The majority of the people in the world are born, go to schools and colleges, learn some skills, engage in some profitable activity, earn money, get married, have children, grow old and die. The Hindu way of life has designed that all these activities be sanctified by certain rituals called ‘Samskaras’, so that by participating in these activities, he or she may also further one’s spiritual evolution. A person is born. There is a samskara to be done. Then the child is named and that has another samskara or ritual. Then the first food, weaning away from the mother’s breast and that has another ritual. Then marriage, another ritual. And so on until death, which is the final rite or ‘Antima Samskara’. Thus, society has prescribed specific rules and regulations on every person born into society.

Thousands of years ago, there arose a rebellion against being bound like this by social rituals. They claimed that they be allowed to lead a life unfettered by social bindings and their claim was based on the fact that right from childhood or youth, that is, after their formal education, they would like to delve into the method and means of God realization directly. They did not want to go through the circuitous route of the society. They would stay away from society and achieve the same goal. Society also prescribes the same goal for those who stay inside its confines. Their goal is also God realization. However, there are too many rules, regulations, duties, and responsibilities associated with life in society. Some people wanted to be freed from all those bindings and be allowed to engage in self-discovery directly, by the path known as Yoga. These were actually social outlaws. They are the monks. They perform a grand ritual known as Viraja Homa and sever all connections with society. They will not produce anything. They will not produce wealth or children. They are out of all competition. If you analyze the innumerable activities that people do in this world, you will find that all of them will fall into these two categories – production of wealth and production of progeny. A monk declares that he is out of both of these. What else is there to do? Does he not eat and wear clothes? Where does he get them?

The only activity of the monk is to realize God. His only activity is meditation. When he does not meditate, he may spend some time talking to people about his spiritual practices, his own realizations and discussing the practices and realizations of other monks of the past, which are enshrined in our holy books. That is all he is allowed to do. Society in India, even thousands of years ago, acknowledged this mode of living and said that it would support such people with bare food and clothing. That is how monks came into existence. When their numbers grew, there came about classifications among them too. There were rules worked out for them too, but these rules were mainly codes of conduct for the monks. This led to the formation of ‘Monastic Orders’. Monks who followed a certain set of rules of conduct claimed to belong to a certain monastic order. Over the centuries, [and I am speaking of a time much before the Buddha here], these monks got classified into two types – the wanderer and the settler. They were called ‘Bahudaka’ and ‘Kutichaka’.

The Hindu society did one more grand thing. When they recognized the validity of this claim of some people to be let free from the social bindings, they tried to incorporate this urge for freedom into their social structure itself. The leaders of society declared that every person would be accorded this freedom in the last stage of his life on earth. A person would study, set up a house, rear up his kids and get them settled in life and then, he and his wife could take monastic vows. This decision was a stroke of genius, for, it ensured that there wouldn’t be an exodus of people away from society into monasticism. If such an exodus occurred, society would crumble down. In due course of time, certain other conditions too got added on concerning caste. Slowly, all learning got accumulated among these forest recluses, and hence their power grew to a great extent. These subtle oppressions necessitated a transformation in monasticism that the Buddha brought about.

Buddha himself was a Bahudaka monk. He was a Vedantic monk. Later on, he brought about some vital changes into monasticism. These changes were so drastic that those monks had a tough time integrating with the mainstream Hindu monks and hence they developed as a separate type of monks called Buddhist monks.

These Buddhist monks spread all over the known world and from some of those monks, Jesus Christ was deeply influenced. And from him grew yet another category of monks called the Christian monks. We must understand that the Christian monks lived in a society that was totally different from the Indian society that had given birth to the monastic lifestyle. Hence, the Christian monks lived by working and producing things of value for the society. Of all the known religions of the world, only Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity have monastic orders. [Jainism recognizes monasticism, but then, Jains are generally considered as a part of Hinduism.]

Hindu monasticism underwent three major transformations before Swamiji. The Buddhist transformation was the first. Centuries before the Buddha, Hindu monasticism had started and had thrived in India. But, there were some criteria for allowing a person to leave the society and take up monkhood. Also, more often than not, monkhood was considered as the last stage of life. A person was directed to live a full life in society, following all its rules and regulations, contribute in terms of wealth and progeny to society and when he reached an age of retirement, he was allowed to accept monastic vows. Therefore, we find even today that the purificatory mantras one chants before becoming a monk expiates him from all sorts of sins, even the sins of killing Brahmins, warriors and fetuses! But, people were not allowed to become monks without first having lived in society and served the society by contributing wealth and progeny. So, typically, a person was supposed to have picked up some skills in life during his youth; then he was supposed to have engaged in some gainful activity and produced wealth. Then he was supposed to have married and set up house. Then he was supposed to have produced a couple of children and reared them up. When the children had married and had set up their own houses, he was given permission from society to leave his own house and all that he had created in society and retire to the forest. In the forest, he generally set up a small hut, lived with his wife, and engaged in spiritual pursuits. Often, young boys and girls would also come from society and live with him. He would teach them the various skills he knew. Sometimes, the monk would remain a wanderer, without any fixed hermitage, especially if he was a widower. This was the scene until Buddha came.

Buddha brought about a great change in Hindu monasticism by relaxing many of these norms. He allowed anyone, at any stage of life, to become a monk. This transformation was so drastic that finally Hinduism had to dissociate itself from Buddha’s ideas. But the one change that remained in Hindu monasticism was the concept of the Akhada. Before Buddha, Hindu monks either lived in small hermitages or were free wanderers. Buddha’s influence remained in Hindu monasticism in the form of Akhadas. These were very large hermitages with an Abbot. The daily activities of the Akhada were managed by the Abbot and a team of monks. Apart from this Abbot & his team, innumerable monks lived in the Akhadas, without any fixed duties, engaged in spiritual pursuits, free to come and go as they fancied. There were general rules of conduct to be followed.

Later on, Acharya Shankara brought about tremendous systematization into Hindu monasticism. He classified Hindu monks into ten different orders of monks. All the extant Vedas and Upanishads were allotted to the various orders of monks for safekeeping and cultivation of the spiritual culture. He further established four monasteries in India and gave charge to the Abbots of these monasteries for these ten orders of monks. He felt the need to start these four monasteries because in the wake of the Buddha’s revolutionary transformations, the forest hermitages had lost their relevance, and they needed to be revived.

Gradually, Islam entered into India and started persecuting the Hindu monks. Innumerable monks died in the onslaughts of Islamic rulers. Another monk called Madhusudhana Saraswati brought about another transformation at this time. He started a new wing in each of the ten orders of Vedanta monks called the Naga wing. These monks were warriors and monks at the same time. If any attack occurred on the monasteries or on wandering monks, these Naga monks would fight back for self-protection. They carried all sorts of arms but followed a policy of ‘not-attacking-first’.

Now, the traditional Hindu monasticism is as I have described until now.

As I said, the old monastic orders prescribed that the only goal of a monk was to realize God. And the path for realizing God also was prescribed. It was a complete negation of everything of this world. For, it is the things of this world that held us back from God. Hence, the monk renounced everything of this world, that is, of this society. The motto of the traditional monk was ‘Atmano mokshartha sanyasahrama grahanam’ – that is, ‘Embracing monasticism for the sake of self-liberation (i.e. God realization)’. The conception of the goal was also a very interesting thing. I told you about the three reformations in Hindu monasticism that happened before Swami Vivekananda. One of the important things that Acharya Shankara introduced into monasticism was a particular conception of the goal. He specified that the goal was Nirvikalpa Samadhi and nothing else. Until that time, the goal was quite flexible. There used to be monks who strove to obtain a vision of a particular deity; that was the proclaimed goal for which they had renounced society. But Acharya Shankara changed that. He directed that nothing less than Nirvikalpa Samadhi would the goal of monks and that all monks who wished to adopt monasticism under the Vedanta tradition would have to compulsorily accept Nirvikalpa Samadhi as the goal.

This had a strange fallout on the monastic society as well as the Indian society. Acharya Shankara, apart from proclaiming the goal of monks, also prescribed the particular path along which the monks had to tread in order to realize that goal. That path was the ‘path of negation’ in accordance with the Advaita Vedanta School of philosophy that he had rigorously established through his treatises and commentaries on the Upanishads, Gita and Brahma Sutras. As a result, everything belonging to this world had to be renounced as useless. Every pursuit or activity pertaining to this world was condemned as a distraction and hence had to be rejected. The goal was one of perfect inactivity; it was a state of pure Being; doing was a fall from that supreme state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Hence, a gradual devaluation of all kinds of activity occurred in the monastic society. This slowly rubbed itself onto the larger Indian society as a whole, since, it was these monks who taught religious pursuits to the people in the society.

The first two transformations wrought by Buddha and then by Acharya Shankara had another very detrimental repercussion on the Indian society. Before Buddha, Hindu monasticism was open mainly to persons who had lived a full life in society. By a full life, I mean, they had worked hard in some gainful activity, produced wealth, got married, begot children, strove to get their children educated and married and only then were they eligible for monastic life. In this scheme of things, the presence of these social outlaws did not affect the efficacy of the society. Buddha changed this delicate structure and declared that anyone, in any stage of life, could take monastic vows. This change had on the one hand completely disturbed the delicate balance of the economy and on the other hand had brought in unspeakable degradation into monastic society. Of course, we must understand that these detrimental changes occurred over a period of a few centuries and they were simply fallouts of Buddha’s policy and were not intended specifically by the Buddha at all! So Acharya Shankara made it a norm that only those people could become monks who decided to do so right from their childhood and not later on. Married people couldn’t become monks. Further, women were deprived of the right to become nuns, since much of the post Buddhist degradation could be traced to the free intermixing of monks and nuns.

Both these developments led to a very strange outcome in the Indian society. Firstly, the man in the society started developing an inferiority complex with respect to oneself. Secondly, marriage was considered as a compromise to one’s inability to lead a celibate’s life and hence the married man was always lower in spiritual stature compared to a monk. Thirdly, any activity, especially wealth creation was considered as unholy since all spiritual pursuits called for complete renunciation of all activity. Fourthly, women became liabilities since they were barred from all higher spiritual pursuits.

I must clarify one thing here. When I say that these problems were the fallouts of Buddha’s and Shankara’s attempts at transformation, I do not mean that these two great prophets meant it to be like that. That would be an absurd conclusion. The great ones proclaim the truth, as they perceive it. Society then starts working it out and ends up muddling it up.

This is the ‘old monastic order’ that I wanted to describe to you before starting on today’s topic. Against the background of these ideas, you will be able to appreciate what exactly Swami Vivekananda achieved by establishing the ‘new monastic order’.

Sometime in 1886, the young boy Naren lived in Cossipore Garden House with Sri Ramakrishna, where the latter was being treated for his throat cancer. Along with nursing their Guru, the young boys led by Naren engaged in spiritual practices too. One day, Naren experienced Nirvikalpa Samadhi. When he regained normal consciousness, he went to Sri Ramakrishna and told him that he wished to remain immersed in that blessed state of consciousness. But Sri Ramakrishna chided him, ‘Is that all! I thought you were different, but I see that you are very small minded. Let me tell you, there is a state of consciousness that lies beyond Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Aim for that.’ This state of consciousness that lies beyond Nirvikalpa Samadhi is called ‘Bhavamukha’.

Let us consider the above-mentioned event in detail. Naren had already achieved the goal of traditional monasticism. All that was left for him to do was to accept the formal vows of Sannyasa. Such monks, who accept monastic vows after achieving the goal, are called ‘Vidwat Sanyasis’. Generally, monks accept formal monastic vows and then attempt to achieve the goal throughout their lives. These monks are called ‘Vividisha Sanyasis’. Naren was a traditional vidwat sannyasin. He had already achieved his goal of personal liberation, having experienced Nirvikalpa Samadhi. And in such a circumstance, his Guru is exhorting him to go beyond! What indeed can be there beyond the grand goal of Nirvikalpa Samadhi?

Sri Ramakrishna too had accepted formal monastic vows from his Guru Tota Puri. Under Tota Puri’s guidance, he too had experienced Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Having experienced that supreme state of consciousness, he remained in that blessed state for six months. His Nirvikalpa Samadhi rendered him utterly useless even to safeguard his own body! He couldn’t even eat. By a strange coincidence of events, a young man had come to Dakshineshwar at that time that recognized the supreme state in which Sri Ramakrishna lived. He realized that if this man did not eat, his body would simply fall down like a dried leaf falls from a tree. So, every day, he would take a long stick, beat Sri Ramakrishna’s body repeatedly, and bring him down to normal consciousness for a little while, during which time he would force a few morsels of food down his throat. And immediately after that, Sri Ramakrishna would merge himself in Nirvikalpa Samadhi again. This went on for about six months. Then, Sri Ramakrishna slowly started to accustom himself to coming down to a state of consciousness a bit below Nirvikalpa Samadhi.

Nirvikalpa Samadhi is a state of consciousness that occurs when there is only one thought-wave in the mind. That thought-wave is the wave of self-consciousness. It is a state where one is completely identified with consciousness per-sé, there being no predicate for that consciousness. It is a state where one is merely “aware”, not aware of one, two, or more things; there is awareness; there is not even the awareness that I am aware. It is said to be the state where one has become awareness itself. One reaches this state only after one has rigorously renounced every thought about others and about oneself and has, for a protracted period, concentrated purely on the awareness burning within oneself. Sri Ramakrishna attained this state and lived in that state for six long months. Then, Sri Ramakrishna slowly started to accustom himself to coming down to a state of consciousness a bit below Nirvikalpa Samadhi. He wasn’t the first person to have done this. Innumerable people before him had done this. However, in this case there was a vital difference.

In all the previous cases, this coming down to normal consciousness from Nirvikalpa Samadhi was considered as a “fall” from the supreme state. This was therefore followed by an attempt to regain that state of bliss. Moreover, the exact state of consciousness in which one would remain after coming down from Nirvikalpa Samadhi was left to chance, more or less. Sri Ramakrishna made a great deviation here. On the one hand, he did not consider his coming down from Nirvikalpa Samadhi as a “fall” because he had his ‘Divine Mother” to fall back upon. He interpreted his coming down as the will of the Divine Mother. He could do this because of the unique path he had followed on the way up to Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Unlike the others before him, he hadn’t followed the path of total negation up to the top. He held on to his Divine Mother until the end. He was able to use his conception of the Divine Mother and merge everything that he perceived into Her form. Having done that, there were only two left – he and his Divine Mother. In the final step, he took the sword of knowledge that was in his Divine Mother’s hand and cleaved Her divine form into bits. With that final act, he passed on to the supreme state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi. In other words, he had effectively perceived that his Divine Mother showed Herself to him in Her popular form as Kali sometimes and some other times, if it fancied Her, She would reveal Herself to him as pure awareness, without any form. After spending those six months in undifferentiated consciousness, Sri Ramakrishna learned to slowly accustom himself with states of consciousness that occur when he came down from there. He could come down all the way to the state of perceiving multiplicity like we all do. He could also come down to the state where he was aware of only himself and his Divine Mother. There was however a distinct state of consciousness just below Nirvikalpa Samadhi, but above the state where he perceived his Divine Mother alone. In this state, he was able to perceive that there was an underlying sea of consciousness that took the forms of everything that we see as individual things in our normal state of consciousness. He slowly started to dwell in this state of consciousness. He named this state as “Bhavamukha”, as I mentioned a little while ago.

While chiding Naren about his proclivity towards Nirvikalpa Samadhi, Sri Ramakrishna told Naren that “Bhavamukha” was the ideal for which people have to strive for. And he trained his young disciples like Naren, Rakhal, Baburam, Shashi, Hari and others to attain to this state and live after his demise. Further, he exhorted Naren to find out a new path for leading the masses to this ideal.

Even while he was alive, he informally conferred monasticism on these young boys. Later on, after his demise, these boys took monastic vows formally and became monks belonging to the Puri Order of Vedanta monks, in keeping with the monastic tradition of their Guru Sri Ramakrishna. Although these monks belonged to the old tradition, during their lifetime, they instituted some amazing changes in their monasteries and next generation monks.

There were two of these young monks who spearheaded this transition from the old to new state of affairs. One was Swami Vivekananda and the other was Swami Brahmananda. Swami Vivekananda realized in due course the greater implication of the chiding that Sri Ramakrishna had given him long ago when he had innocently and sincerely asked to remain immersed in Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Having understood that, he set himself to work. He carefully placed before humanity the new ideal that his Guru had revealed, the state of Bhavamukha. Did he undo Acharya Shankara’s work by this? No. One may still aim for achieving Nirvikalpa Samadhi. But Swamiji said that it would be wrong to stay immersed in it. For, that would mean that Nirvikalpa Samadhi alone was the Reality. But, multiplicity is the same Reality too! One has to aim for achieving that supreme state and then further aim to come down to the state of Bhavamukha and interact with everyone in this world in myriad ways. Simultaneously, Swamiji also specified the path to be followed for achieving this new goal. The new ideal called for action. What action? Every action that springs up from society trying to sustain itself. For, the new goal is to see that society itself but another form of the Reality that reveals itself as the Divine Mother and as undifferentiated consciousness in Nirvikalpa Samadhi.

Sister Nivedita explains this most wonderfully as follows: “…as Sri Ramakrishna expressed (it), ‘God is both with form and without form. And He is that which includes both form and formlessness.’ It is this that adds its crowning significance to our Master’s (Swami Vivekananda’s) life, for here he becomes the meeting-point, not only of East and West, but also of past and future. If the many and the One be indeed the same Reality, then it is not all modes of worship alone, but equally all modes of work, all modes of struggle, all modes of creation, which are paths of realization. No distinction, henceforth, between sacred and secular. To labour is to pray. To conquer is to renounce. Life is itself religion. To have and to hold is as stern a trust as to quit and to avoid. This is the realization that makes Vivekananda the great preacher of Karma, not as divorced from, but as expressing Jnâna and Bhakti. To him, the workshop, the study, the farmyard, and the field are as true and fit scenes for the meeting of God with man as the cell of the monk or the door of the temple. To him, there is no difference between service of man and worship of God, between manliness and faith, between true righteousness and spirituality. All his words, from one point of view, read as a commentary upon this central conviction. ‘Art, science, and religion’, he said once, ‘are but three different ways of expressing a single truth. But in order to understand this we must have the theory of Advaita (Vedanta).

Swamiji wanted the masses in India and the world to espouse this new ideal of Bhavamukha. The present day world is ripe for adopting it. This ideal answers the spiritual needs of the modern man. How would he do that? He understood that unless he had a pilot team who could exhibit its efficacy, the masses would have trouble grasping it. So, he established a monastery in Belur in Howrah. Many young men had joined the fledgling Ramakrishna Math in Baranagore and Alambazar when Swamiji was in the West. Now he rallied all of them at Belur and started training them in a new way. He gave them a rallying motto ‘Atmano mokshartham jagaddhitaya cha sannyasashrama grahanam’. I quote from a lecture that is recorded in the book ‘Lectures from Colombo to Almora’:

A parting Address was given to Swamiji by the junior Sannyâsins of the Math (Belur), on the eve of his leaving for the West for the second time. The following is the substance of Swamiji’s reply as entered in the Math Diary on 19th June 1899:

This is not the time for a long lecture. But I shall speak to you in brief about a few things which I should like you to carry into practice. First, we have to understand the ideal, and then the methods by which we can make it practical. Those of you who are Sannyasins must try to do good to others, for Sannyasa means that. There is no time to deliver a long discourse on “Renunciation”, but I shall very briefly characterize it as “the love of death”. Worldly people love life. The Sannyasin is to love death. Are we to commit suicide then? Far from it. For suicides are not lovers of death, as it is often seen that when a man trying to commit suicide fails, he never attempts it for a second time. What is the love of death then? We must die, that is certain; let us die then for a good cause. Let all our actions — eating, drinking, and everything that we do — tend towards the sacrifice of our self. You nourish your body by eating. What good is there in doing that if you do not hold it as a sacrifice to the well-being of others? You nourish your minds by reading books. There is no good in doing that unless you hold it also as a sacrifice to the whole world. For the whole world is one; you are rated a very insignificant part of it, and therefore it is right for you that you should serve your millions of brothers rather than aggrandize this little self. 

“With hands and feet everywhere, with eyes, heads, and mouths everywhere, with ears everywhere in the universe, That exists pervading all.” (Gita, XIII. 13)

Thus you must die a gradual death. In such a death is heaven, all good is stored therein — and in its opposite is all that is diabolical and evil.

Then as to the methods of carrying the ideals into practical life. First, we have to understand that we must not have any impossible ideal. An ideal, which is too high, makes a nation weak and degraded. This happened after the Buddhist and the Jain reforms. On the other hand, too much practicality is also wrong. If you have not even a little imagination, if you have no ideal let guide you, you are simply a brute. So we must not lower our ideal, neither are we to lose sight of practicality. We must avoid the two extremes. In our country, the old idea is to sit in a cave and meditate and die. To go ahead of others in salvation is wrong. One must learn sooner or later that one cannot get salvation if one does not try to seek the salvation of his brothers. You must try to combine in your life immense idealism with immense practicality. You must be prepared to go into deep meditation now, and the next moment you must be ready to go and cultivate these fields (Swamiji said, pointing to the meadows of the Math). You must be prepared to explain the difficult intricacies of the Shâstras now, and the next moment to go and sell the produce of the fields in the market. You must be prepared for all menial services, not only here, but elsewhere also.

The next thing to remember is that the aim of this institution is to make men. You must not merely learn what the Rishis taught. Those Rishis are gone, and their opinions are also gone with them. You must be Rishis yourselves. You are also men as much as the greatest men that were ever born — even our Incarnations. What can mere book-learning do? What can meditation do even? What can the Mantras and Tantras do? You must stand on your own feet. You must have this new method — the method of man-making. The true man is he who is strong as strength itself and yet possesses a woman’s heart. You must feel for the millions of beings around you, and yet you must be strong and inflexible and you must also possess Obedience; though it may seem a little paradoxical — you must possess these apparently conflicting virtues. If your superior order you to throw yourself into a river and catch a crocodile, you must first obey and then reason with him. Even if the order be wrong, first obey and then contradict it. The bane of sects, especially in Bengal, is that if any one happens to have a different opinion, he immediately starts a new sect, he has no patience to wait. So you must have a deep regard for your Sangha. There is no place for disobedience here. Crush it out without mercy. No disobedient members here, you must turn them out. There must not be any traitors in the camp. You must be as free as the air, and as obedient as this plant and the dog.

Here Swamiji very clearly states that as compared to the old order of monastic life, he was initiating a new order of monasticism. And that these young monks would be the torchbearers of this new kind of monastic life. He placed a new ideal before the young monks. Then he prescribed a new method of achieving that new ideal. Is that ideal different from the old ideal of Nirvikalpa Samadhi? Yes, it is different. But it is not an ideal that rejects the old ideal. The new ideal of Bhavamukha subsumes the old ideal and develops on it. I am to realize that I am undifferentiated consciousness and then I am to realize that everyone else and everything else in this world around me is the same undifferentiated consciousness. Having realized that, I am to work as per my position in society. The method I am to follow is the method of ‘Man-making’ as he explains in this lecture. Elsewhere, he calls it the method of ‘Practical Vedanta’. It is a synthesis of all the spiritual practices that have been discovered till date. All of them will have to be practiced in a harmonious manner in my own life, for Reality is indeed of that nature; it is All things to All men. Thus, it is no longer the norm that only meditation and ritualistic worship of the deity are spiritual practices. Scavenging too is an act equally holy and so is every activity that society sanctions me to do. This society itself is the visible Deity for me and I will follow its dictates on me. I will discharge my duties as dictated by society in the spirit of worship, knowing that it is undifferentiated consciousness that is revealing Itself to me as everything I see and conceive.

The traditional ideal of Nirvikalpa Samadhi completely negates this world. Since it negates everything, the path towards achieving it must necessarily be world negating. The new ideal of Bhavamukha reveals that undifferentiated consciousness reveals itself as me and the world around me. Everything that exists is nothing but undifferentiated consciousness. Hence, the path towards achieving it can be world-affirming.

I wish to draw your attention to three ideas in the lecture quoted above. Firstly, Those of you who are Sannyasins must try to do good to others, for Sannyasa means that. Traditionally, Sannyasa did not mean that. How and why should a monk help others? If a monk were to help others, why didn’t he stay within the confines of society? A monk was supposed to refuse to recognize the world around him and realize the blessed state of undifferentiated consciousness and hold on to that state for as long as his body lasted. A monk was called upon to seclude himself from contact with society and meditate in silence. Here, specifically, Swamiji calls upon his young monks to “help” others, and further states that this “helping others is the raison d’être of Sannyasa”! This is something new for Hindu monasticism.

Secondly, In our country, the old idea is to sit in a cave and meditate and die. To go ahead of others in salvation is wrong. One must learn sooner or later that one cannot get salvation if one does not try to seek the salvation of his brothers. You must try to combine in your life immense idealism with immense practicality. You must be prepared to go into deep meditation now, and the next moment you must be ready to go and cultivate these fields (Swamiji said, pointing to the meadows of the Math). You must be prepared to explain the difficult intricacies of the Shâstras now, and the next moment to go and sell the produce of the fields in the market. You must be prepared for all menial services, not only here, but elsewhere also. From time immemorial, the idea of personal liberation, Moksha, has been the driving force behind Hindu monasticism. This idea translates into the Nirvikalpa Samadhi when we speak in terms of mystical language. The traditional idea of monasticism has centered on individual liberation. Swamiji makes a tremendous deviation here by asserting that seeking personal salvation alone is wrong. This is a powerful statement. We can seek our own Mukti, provided we simultaneously strive for the salvation of others too. Seeking one’s own salvation has been the immense idealism that Swamiji speaks of here. Ignoring completely anything else that pertains to spiritual life and considering that this world is all we have got and all we can hope for, and therefore to make the best of this life here is the immense practicality that Swamiji speaks of in the next breath. In other words, it is materialism, as we know it today. He says we ought to combine both. Actually, this almost seems like saying ‘mix darkness and light’ or ‘mix truth and falsehood’. If Nirvikalpa Samadhi is indeed the goal before us, if pure idealism is the goal before us, wont it make better sense to completely renounce everything pertaining to this world and immerse oneself purely meditation as the monks of old times did? Surely, the goal has shifted; else, there was nothing wrong with the traditional practices of Hindu monks. The traditional practices of the Hindu monks were completely in line with the traditional goal they aimed for. Has it not produced a steady line of saints until the present day? Those methods have proven to be efficacious beyond any shadow of doubt. It is because the goal itself has changed that Swamiji is exhorting for a new method here.

We may ask then, is Swamiji hinting that we become humanitarians? Helping our fellow beings and not bothering about the ideal state of existence? Certainly not. The goal he presents before us is not a rejection of the Nirvikalpa Samadhi, neither is it a state short of it, but something “beyond” that. It is very important to clarify this point here. Else, it will look as if he is asking us to stay contented with the lives we lead and not dream about anything ideal. Living in this world, as we already do, will seem to be the method, if we miss this point. No. The point is – we need to renounce and we need to serve. It will not do to serve without renouncing. It is not a comfortable religion that Swamiji is giving here. Elsewhere he says “Our method is very easily described. It simply consists in reasserting the national life. Buddha preached renunciation. India heard, and yet in six centuries she reached her greatest height. The secret lies there. The national ideals of India are renunciation AND service. Intensify her in those channels, and the rest will take care of itself. The banner of the spiritual cannot be raised too high in this country. In it alone is salvation (of the Indian masses).” Then, are we to understand that Swamiji wants all of us to formally renounce and then come back to society to serve? Again, no. but perfect control over all our senses, emotions, thoughts and faculties are a sine qua non for service. Any interaction with others without backed up by practice of perfect Brahmacharya is falling short of the new ideal.

Lastly, “The next thing to remember is that the aim of this institution is to make men.” When did the objective of a monastery become the making of men? The objective of a monastery has always been the making of saints, persons who can demonstrate the attainment of the state of pure consciousness. What indeed does this ‘making men’ mean? This is a topic I will discuss on a later occasion. Suffice it to say that a person who achieves the state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi is a saint, while a person who achieves the state of Bhavamukha is a ‘man’.

Swamiji started this new monastic order with the view that these monks would demonstrate to the world how this new path has to be followed and how the new ideal translates into experience. The masses were the target group that needed this ideal most of all. Once the masses caught on to this new ideal and the new path, the aim with which Swamiji started this new monastic order would stand fulfilled.

Om shantih, shantih, shantih. Sri Ramakrishnarpanamastu.

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Swami Vivekananda & Education

There was an article that was doing the round in the Worldwide Web recently. Its headline was “How to destroy a nation without firing a single bullet!” The main idea of the article was that education can either make or break a nation. Of course, we all know this truth. Education is vital for a nation’s health. What is however a matter of great concern for everyone in the country is – no one seems to have a clear conception of what exactly is education. No one seems to have a clear idea of what sort of education will take our nation forward, and what sort will ruin our nation. This is not just the case with India. Even so-called advanced nations like USA and the UK are at their wit’s end to formulate a viable process of education that will sustain their countries. In fact, quite recently, the President of USA gave a public statement declaring that the system of evaluation-based education being followed in their country was a failure of effort!

So what is education? And what is the kind of education needed in India? Fortunately for us, Swami Vivekananda has spelt out quite clearly and dealt with elaborately on what we should do and what direction we ought to take. Some of his more popular sayings pertain to education. We shall deal with some of them here. In one place, Swamiji says:

The very essence of education is concentration of mind, not the collecting of facts. If I had to do my education over again, and had any voice in the matter, I would not study facts at all. I would develop the power of concentration and detachment, and then with a perfect instrument I could collect facts at will. – CW: 6.38

Elsewhere, he says clearly:

What is education? Is it book-learning? No. is it diverse knowledge? Not even that. The training by which the current and expression of will are brought under control and become fruitful is called education. – CW: 4.490

Let us try to understand these statements of Swami Vivekananda. We know what education is. Education is what we get in our schools, colleges & universities. What do we get there? Let us make a list of what we generally get from our Schools:

  • We are taught to read and write. We are taught to express ourselves using the skills of language.
  • We are taught history. The history we learn is the western concept of history, the linear history. We learn the important events that happened in the past, the important people who were involved in those events, the various social and political and economic forces that led to those events. More importantly, we study how events are bound in a cause-effect relationship, each event itself being the effect of many previous events, are in turn the cause of many more important events later on.
  • We are taught mathematics. We are taught numbers and the relationship they have between themselves. Those of us who study science in college get to use mathematics in greater detail.
  • We are taught about our environment. We are taught geography where we study about land, water and air. We learn about the minerals and crops and food. We learn about people and society and cultures.
  • We are taught the sciences where we learn about the stuff that constitute the world we live in. we are taught about the forces that work on these things. We learn about living beings and about our own bodies.
  • In most schools, we are taught moral sciences or value education too, where we get to hear some interesting stories that usually end up teaching us some important virtue.
  • We also get sufficient exposure to games & sports, singing & acting, group work [as in NCC/NSS] & hobbies [as in philately/gardening, etc.].

This is the general fare that is given to us in the average and above-average schools of the present day.

Then we have the colleges. Let us make a list of what we get from them:

  • Today’s colleges offer us courses in Science, Commerce and Humanities.
  • There are some institutes that offer some skill development programmes such as Computer skills, workshop skills, communication skills, etc.
  • Apart from Basic sciences, we also have Medical and Engineering colleges.

Then again, we have the universities in India that offer a slew of Masters and Doctorate programmes.

This is a rough estimate of the education that is present in India today. Is it not sufficient to lift our country to great heights? Is something else required? Did Swamiji mean these programmes when he used the term education? Why does he say that concentration of the mind is the essence of education? This is disturbing to us because nowhere in our present system of education do we impart any sort of training for concentrating the mind of the students! Does that mean then that we are nowhere near the conception of education that Swamiji envisaged?

It is essential that we clearly understand the meaning of this term ‘Education’ before we attempt to understand Swamiji’s thoughts on education. This is essential because, unless we are on the same page, we will end up misinterpreting the Great Saint’s thoughts. Many educational institutions today carry his name. Do they all impart the education in the way he had envisaged? In fact, is there even one educational institution anywhere in the country that is imparting the kind of education he envisaged? We contend that the kind of education he envisaged is not yet being imparted anywhere, at least not on a systematic basis.

There is a very strong reason for this. He himself specified very clearly, “We must have a hold on the spiritual and secular education of the nation.” All the educational institutions that bear his name today, or even the Ramakrishna Mission’s name, are all bound by the norms dictated to them by various Governmental bodies such as the State Education Boards, the CBSE, the NIOS, the various Universities, the UGC, the IMC, the AICTE, etc. to which each of our Institutions is affiliated. It is but natural that none of these statutory bodies are framed on the lines of Swami Vivekananda’s conception of education. And why would they be?

In order to understand the ocean & earth difference between the points-of-view of Swami Vivekananda and the present national education policy makers, we may need to grasp a historical perspective of education.

Education is never the end in view of any Government or society. Education is always a means to an end. The present education system has evolved as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution of the 17th century. Since then, there has been absolutely no systemic change in education. As a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, there was a need of large numbers of people who knew how to read and write. Those people also needed a lot of general knowledge for working at various levels of the complex society that resulted from the industrial growth. To constantly further the frontiers of knowledge, again large numbers of people were required who would specialize in certain fields of human endeavor like the Arts, Commerce and Sciences. And that is what the entire education system is today geared for achieving.

This is the history of how the present system of education evolved in the world. Its genesis was basically in Europe and from there it spread to all the parts of the world that they colonized. Within a century their system of education had spread all over the world because every part of the world was somehow or the other connected to Europe; some parts were their colonies, and the remaining parts were in commerce with them.

We in India got exposed to their education system from the 1850s when India came under the British Crown. And it is essentially that system that is going on even now.

What about the education system before that? Every society had its own system of education and so had our country. The society in India before the country came under the British Crown was organized in such a fashion that India had a multi-tier education system. Society consisted of the four castes. Each caste specialized in a particular field of human endeavor. The Brahmins specialized in religion & culture. The Kshatriyas specialized in governance and warfare. The Vaishyas specialized in Commerce and Industry. The Shudras specialized in all sorts of menial labor. There was a very well defined education system in place that ensured the transference of knowledge and skills from one generation to another within each caste. Apart from the fact that there was a well-defined education system in India since time-immemorial, what is really important for us is the method of imparting education that prevailed in India in the past. Swamiji mentions in one of his lectures: “The old system of education in India is very different from the modern system. The students had not to pay. It was thought that knowledge is so sacred that no man ought to sell it. Knowledge must be given freely and without any price. The teachers used to take students without charge, and not only so, most of them gave their students food and clothes. To support these teachers, the wealthy families made gifts to them, and they in turn had to maintain their students.

What is noteworthy in the old Indian system, apart from its economical novelty, is that the students had to stay with the teacher. Education was synonymous with living with the teacher. Secondly, education was highly decentralized. While there were guilds in each caste that ensured that there was uniformity of knowledge distribution among the learned and skilled members of a particular caste, the curricula and evaluation system were completely at the discretion of each individual teacher.

Of course, we do not expect, like some do, that we ought to revert to the old system. Neither is such a reversion desirable in the present age.

We must nevertheless recognize that the world is changing rapidly. We are no longer in the age of the Industrial Revolution. Ever since the advent of the Worldwide Web, a new age has dawned. The advent of the internet is a watershed event in human history. The advent of the interconnection brought about by Internet, the revolution in the telecommunication sphere has changed our world in a way that is nothing short of incredible! We all continue to live in our different nations, but there seem to be no borders anymore. Knowledge and information are becoming free, day by day. Sharing is the watchword now. Men are more interdependent now than ever before. Wars and battles are reducing at an incredible rate. Problems are no longer local. When Greece faces an economic crisis, every nation in the world felt the aftershocks. This was never the case before in human history.

This new world needs a different kind of education which will equip the children to deal with the world meaningfully. The society that arose as a result of the Industrial Revolution was a structured, hierarchical society. Roles of each member of the society were more or less well defined. Hence the education that is at present being given in the schools and colleges around the world was quite efficient in equipping the students to learn skills that enabled them to engage meaningfully with the world. Now, the society that is resulting as a consequence of the present changes in the world is a flatter society. Anyone from anywhere can access any information he/she wants. Similarly, anyone from anywhere can contribute to the fund of human knowledge whenever he/she wishes to do so. This means that today’s children will be unable to face the world when they grow up, for they are being trained to fit into a hierarchical society, while the world they will be entering into will be effectively a flat world!

Does this mean that schools and curricula and colleges and degrees will no longer be relevant? Well, it is difficult to predict right now. But, this much we can safely say; even if the external forms of these social tools remain, their content would have become entirely transformed. While up to now, we had to gather information and store it well in our mind and recall them at will, in the future, we may not need to do that. Just as it has already started becoming clear now, information will be more and more accessible to everyone, with no one claiming monopoly over information of any sort. The skill that will therefore become vital is the ability to ask the right questions! By asking the right questions, we will be able to sift through the endless information that stares us in the face, and get meaningful answers to the problems at hand. So, what students need to be taught for the future, then, is how to think with a purpose, to be able to discern the essentials from the non-essentials in any given situation. In other words, the students need to be taught how to concentrate their minds. They need to be taught how to think. While the requirement till now has been to teach students what to think, from now onwards, the requirement will be to teach them how to think.

Concomitant with such a development will be the pervasive spreading of political democracy. Of this too, we have already started getting more than just inklings and intimations in the form of the social uprising in the Middle-East and Africa. This kind of unfolding of human history is unprecedented and is already a subject of serious study, as for instance, documented to some extent in the recent thesis ‘The Great Convergence’ by South East Asian Diplomat Kishore Mahbubani. You could also refer to ‘The Great Experiment: The story of Ancient Empires, Modern States & the Quest for a Global Nation’ by Strobe Talbott, or ‘Global Challenges’ a public address at the Yale University by Bill Clinton, available on YouTube.  The tendency in the world will be towards greater and greater convergence or integration. Sovereign nations of the world will start considering themselves more as states of one consolidated World-Nation. This is the tendency that is being predicted by political and sociological pundits.

In such an integrated world, the requirements of education will be to produce men and women who will be able to play their part in the grand global harmony. It will be the man and woman of high moral fiber than can survive in that environment. While regional & national considerations mattered up to now, from now onwards, every deliberation will have a global component. Our national education policy will have to incorporate this global component into itself. Only then will meaningful education happen in the coming days.

These are big words – global component in the national education policy, and stuff like that! But, what does this actually mean, in simple terms? Proponents of the One-Nation theory have articulated it well enough. It means that the aim of education will be produce better men and women. We do not need to produce good engineers and doctors alone. What we need is a better person. For in the future, we will need persons who are an amalgamation of many trades. Fields of human interest are integrating at a rapid pace. The natural outcome of this is necessity of people who can be many things at the same time, as the situation demands. This again means we will have to impart skills to our younger generation on how they can attach their minds to any subject and detach themselves from it, and move right along to the next subject. We will certainly continue to need specialists in all the fields of human interest. What we are trying to highlight is that a new breed of people will be required in the near future that will be many things at the same time. Although at present this seems to be a fantasy, those who can discern the ways in which the world is moving will agree that this state of affairs we have described here is quite real.

It is against this background that we will have to understand Swami Vivekananda’s thoughts on Education. I have had many discussions with deep thinkers on Swamiji and Education. Many lament that although all of us feel that his thoughts on education are very deep and make sense at a very subliminal level, somehow it seems impossible to frame a viable system of education based on his thoughts! Indeed, that is true. Why? Because, the type of society that will require the kind of education that Swamiji envisaged has not yet taken a concrete shape! It is still in a nebulous state. But, we have already got an inkling of it and are eagerly awaiting its formation. Very soon, the society in which we live will have undergone such drastic changes that the present system of education will become completely out of sync with the society. It is then that Swamiji’s education thoughts will gain currency in the world! This is our decided opinion.

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Swami Vivekananda & Organization

“Why is it that organization is so powerful? Do not say organization is material. Why is it, to take a case in point, that forty millions of Englishmen rule three hundred millions of people here? What is the psychological explanation? These forty millions put their wills together and that means infinite power, and you three hundred millions have a will each separate from the other. Therefore to make a great future India, the whole secret lies in organization, accumulation of power, co-ordination of wills.”

 I begin by quoting this passage from the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. This passage appears in his lecture ‘Future of India’ delivered by the great Swami in Chennai on 14th Feb 1897.

We see a few interesting points in the above passage:

The first thing to note is that here we have a spiritual giant of the stature of Swami Vivekananda discussing such a mundane idea as making a nation great! Isn’t that the job of politicians and diplomats? Isn’t that the job of the leaders of political parties? Isn’t that the job of leaders who have legislative power? Should a monk speak or think on these issues?

The second thing to note is – Swamiji says that the forty millions of Englishmen put their wills together. Did they, really? If so, how and why? Does history mention any such development where the forty million Englishmen of the 19th century came together and decided that they would put their wills together? None of the history books mentions such a development. Why is Swamiji mentioning this here?

The third thing to note is – Swamiji says here ‘Do not say organization is material’. Who said organization is material? Most of us don’t even know what organization means! Some of us perhaps think that organization means corporations, consisting of profit-minded executives; some perhaps even think that it refers to groups of people who come together for a particular cause, such as the organization for blacks’ rights, or organization for the economically deprived. Even if we do understand this word to mean something like that, who amongst us ever felt that organization is ‘material’?

The fourth thing to note is – in order to become a great nation, India needs to do only one thing! There is no need to do many things. Only one thing is necessary, says Swamiji. And that is – ‘Coordinate the wills of the Indians’.

Let us deal with each of these points one by one.

Why is a spiritual man, a monk, and that too, one of the stature of Swami Vivekananda, talking about the future of a nation, about making India great, about organization? Shouldn’t a monk confine himself to spiritual practices, to scriptural study, to rituals and spiritual ministration? Isn’t it wrong for a monk to deal with ideas such as those mentioned in this passage?

Well, traditionally, monks have dealt with such issues. Our country has had a marvelous history.[1] The social power structure has always been managed by the two upper castes – the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas. Between them, they ruled the people of this country. When the Kshatriyas lost touch with the ground reality and became too dictatorial, the Brahmins overthrew the Kshatriyas and took power into their hands. Same thing happened when the Brahmins lost touch with the ground reality and became arrogantly powerful and oppressed the people whom they ruled. It is because of this dipole power structure in India from ancient times that class struggle (so fondly studied by the Communist historians) never arose here.

Over and above the four castes of this unique social structure, there was one more group of people who outlawed themselves from this four-caste structure and stayed outside the society. They were the monks. This group of people were quite objective in their perceptions of society and were sensitive to the tilts in the power balance of the ancient Indian society. Since the monks were self-declared outlaws, they did not need patronage from anyone, neither the Brahmins nor the Kshatriyas. They would boldly point out the flaws in their functioning and warn them to correct themselves or get ready for an upheaval and overthrowing from power. Moreover, since monks themselves were not beneficiaries in the resulting social change, their observations and advices carried a great moral value. Repeatedly, this happened in Indian history. However, the unwritten norm of the Hindu monks has been that the monk could at most point out the flaw and then hands off! The monk would not engage in actually re-structuring the power equations in society. From time immemorial, it was considered one of the activities assigned to monks to point out the corrective measures that society needed to get back on track; and it was simultaneously considered anathema for monks to directly get involved in engaging in the political activities required for bringing about the prescribed social changes.

This is what we see Swamiji do here. He was able to see why Indians lived as slaves to a foreign power. He was able to see why a foreign power was able to enslave the Indians and rule over them. He was able to see how Indians could break themselves from the shackles of such foreign domination. But, he wouldn’t involve himself directly in any political activity required for breaking India free from foreign rule. He however delineated what was required for Indians to become a great nation, which included obtaining political freedom, educational self-reliance and economic superiority in the comity of nations. If we were concerned about our country’s future, we would heed these words of Swamiji and work as directed by him.

Swamiji says that the forty millions of Englishmen put their wills together. Did they, really?

The rise of the Joint Stock Companies in Europe, especially in Britain was a watershed event in the history of mankind. This event fueled the Industrial Revolution as much as the scientific discoveries did, if not more. Man knew a particular type of production until then. Production activity was largely localized. And it was confined to a small group of people who held the technical knowhow as a safely guarded secret. All of a sudden, the British were engaged in a new type of production that required enormous coordination of the activities of an enormous number of people across enormous physical distances. For instance, a large number of people were engaged in one part of the world in growing cotton. Once they had grown the cotton, it was all collected by another large group of people and transported across oceans to huge mills situated in some other part of the globe. Yet another large group of people ran these huge mills. They worked day and night to manufacture standardized cotton threads. These threads were then collected by yet another large group of people who were engaged in manufacturing clothes out of those yarns. One more large group of people then transported those clothes all over the world and handed them over to a different large of people who then sold them to end-users.

This was the main reason behind the rise of the organization in Britain. The cause was economic in nature. More and more number of people joined together in a particular enterprise. Large amounts of money and resources were pooled in. Huge amounts of things were manufactured in a short time. And the things thus manufactured were more often than not, very complex. As long as man confined himself to the old style of manufacturing, all he could produce was a bullock cart, or a horse drawn carriage. Once large number of people came together, as they did in Britain, man was able to produce a motor car. It is impossible to produce a modern motor car in the old style of production.

Whatever be the reason, the British had found out a way to get a large number of people to come together, pool in their money, resources and effort, and consequently multiply their individual strengths while cancelling out their individual weaknesses. This strange form of community activity was later on given the term organization. Thus, the root of the modern organization, as we know it today, is purely economic, purely material.

The point that Swamiji is trying to make here is – granted that the western world’s organization has purely materialistic roots, but, once an organization has been formed, it no longer remains a purely materialistic entity. Why is that so? The objectives of forming an organization may be to earn money, to wage wars and kill people and to conquer new regions. But what exactly is an organization? Is any motley group of people called an organization? If a group of people is to be considered an organization, there are certain important criteria. First, there has to be a group of people, who, amongst them have a wide variety of skills, talents, experiences and abilities. This allows for division of labor amongst them. Secondly, they have jointly agreed upon a common goal, or a common set of goals to be achieved. Thirdly, all of them pool in their resources, energies and time to work together in order to achieve those commonly set goals. Fourthly, their attitudes and behaviors are conditioned by commonly accepted norms. And lastly, all of them recognize that the group has an existence of its own, just as all of the individual members have an existence independent of one another. In other words, the group is considered as a living entity, just as the individual members are. And this existence is recognized in all the individual and collective activities and decisions of the group. These criteria show one very important characteristic: the existence of the organization, therefore, is not temporal. The existence of organization is in the minds of the members. The more the individuals get identified with this mental construct, the stronger that organization becomes. The individual members pour in their life-force into the sustenance and growth of this organization. That organization now develops a life of its own, as it were. It develops individuality, as it were. Long story short, it comes into existence. All that exists has Spirit as its basis. Hence, Swamiji says that we shouldn’t write off organizations as inconsequential by thinking it is a mere material entity.

These ideas that we have explored till now in this article lead to a wonderful theory, which have enormous ramifications on our actions and on our lives. Let us try to analyze that briefly:

Swamiji said to Sister Nivedita once[2], “That is precisely my position about Brahman and the gods! I believe in Brahman and the gods, and not in anything else!”…. You see, I cannot but believe that there is somewhere a great Power that thinks of Herself as feminine, and called Kali, and Mother. And I believe in Brahman too …But is it not always like that? Is it not the multitude of cells in the body that make up the personality, the many brain-centers, not the one, that produce consciousness?… Unity in complexity! Just so! And why should it be different with Brahman? It is Brahman. It is the One. And yet and yet it is the gods too!” Elsewhere he makes a significant statement about God: “….the only God that exists, the only God I believe in, the sum total of all souls[3]” It seems fairly clear to us now that Swamiji saw God as the sum-total of souls, apart from subscribing to the Impersonal aspect. When we extend this idea to an organization, we find that when a group of people come together, putting in their wills together for a common goal, no matter how trivial or mundane that goal be, in effect, there is a spiritual entity, a god, that is created!

This is a very powerful idea.

Our actions here have a repercussion on the spiritual realm! It has always been believed to be the other way around. It has always been held that some entities somewhere in an unapproachable spiritual realm decides that something should occur on earth, in our lives, and then we human beings act out that decision of the gods. This has been the commonly held belief. When we combine these three ideas of Swamiji – first, that organization is a spiritual entity; second, Reality is Personal as well as Impersonal; third, Personal God is the sum total of souls; – we arrive at a totally different conception of human actions. Gods may or may not influence our actions. But it is of much greater importance for us that our actions here influence the spiritual realm! By our actions, we can create new spiritual entities. If we decide to get together and combine our wills, we give rise to a new god! And that god needs to be worshipped. How? By our actions, again. Take an organization such as a factory. The moment you consider yourself a part of that organization, you are in the presence of a new god, the spiritual entity associated with that organization. You will need to worship that new god. Since this new god has a strange form, unlike a stone image, consisting of buildings and machinery and people and processes, your worship will have to be in consonance with this new form. Your so-called ‘work’ in that factory will be nothing but worship that the new god demands.

Some readers may object to the line of thought presented here, saying, I am blowing a simple idea of Swamiji out of all proportions. To answer such objections, let me quote one amazing statement of Swamiji: “Now we have a new India, with its new God, new religion, and new Vedas.[4]

This brings us to the fourth point: What India needs for a bright and strong future is just this – organization. People living in the geographical confines of India should feel identified with India. That is one organization Swamiji definitely wanted to take shape. All through history, people have populated this particular geographical region but have seldom felt identified with it as a Nation. Our identity has all along been to the religious and cultural mores of the sub-regions rather than to the abstract concept of a Nation.

The historic struggle for freedom from the British Rule in the early 20th century saw the development of national sense in us. The post-independence period in India however has done little to ensure that this national sense grows in the coming generations. The national sense grows along various lines in different cultures. The Civic sense is the basis in most western countries. In India, we do not see much hope along that line. A poor nation, habituated to hunger and squalor cannot be expected to appreciate the civic sense to any decent degree. Our hope lies in spiritualizing the abstract concept of the Nation. Swamiji makes a significant observation in a letter as follows: “But, excuse me if I say that it is sheer ignorance and want of proper understanding to think like that, namely, that our national ideal has been a mistake. First go to other countries and study carefully their manners and conditions with your own eyes – not with others’ – and reflect on them with a thoughtful brain, if you have it: then read your own scriptures, your ancient literature, travel throughout India, and mark the people of her different parts and their ways and habits with the wide-awake eye of an intelligent and keen observer – not with a fool’s eye – and you will see as clear as noonday that the nation is still living intact and its life is surely pulsating. You will find there also that, hidden under the ashes of apparent death, the fire of our national life is yet smoldering and that the life of this nation is religion, its language religion, and its idea religion; and your politics, society, municipality, plague-prevention work, and famine-relief work – all these things will be done as they have been done all along here, viz. only through religion; otherwise all your frantic yelling and bewailing will end in nothing, my friend![5]

India is a living goddess and She demands our worship. Won’t we respond? Extrapolating this idea further, every sub-structure within the nation is also a goddess (or a god, if you will). Every organization constituting the national economy is a living goddess. Let us worship these goddesses with the appropriate form of rituals. While a stone or marble image of a goddess called for the ritualistic dashopachara or shodashopachara puja, these new goddesses call for meaningful, systematic labor of our hands, heads and hearts. Let us please these modern goddesses, which are organizations, and allow our Nation to reach great heights of economic and social development simultaneously achieving our own spiritual unfoldment, ‘Atmano moksha jagaddhitashcha’.

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

[1] Cf: Complete works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-4: Modern India: An essay written for Udbodhan magazine, wherein Swami Vivekananda delineates this history in a masterly fashion, giving ample evidences from Indian history.

[2] Cf: Complete works of Sister Nivedita: Vol-1: Master as I saw him: Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, Kolkata: 1967: pg-118

[3] We can recall here the fact that Sri Ramakrishna used to go into Bhava Samadhi whenever he saw a gathering of people assembled for singing the praises of the Lord. Could it be that he perceived a vision in those cases, the vision of the spiritual entity corresponding to that group? See for instance, Cf: Sri Ramakrishna & His divine play: Swami Saradananda: Vedanta Society of St. Louis: 2003: pg 235 & pg 858.

[4] Cf: Complete works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-7: Epistles: Letter No. XXXII, dated 27th April, 1896, written from Reading, USA to his brother disciples at Alambazar Math

[5] Cf: Complete works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-5: Writings: Prose and Poems: The East And The West (Translated from Bengali) Chapter-I: Introduction

 

Sri Sharada Devi – the embodiment of Purity

Translation of the Kannada booklet ‘Pavitrata svarupini Sharada Maate’ by Swami Purushottamananda

“O Lord! Even the moon has dark spots; make my mind spotless. O Lord! Make my mind as pure as those rays of light from the moon.”

This historic prayer welled up from the heart of Sri Sharada Devi. A prayer filled with a white-hot passion that she had to be absolutely pure in every possible way. When did she make this prayer? When she was at the prime of her youth! Those were the days when she lived in the Kali Temple at Dakshineshwar, where she used to serve and nurse her husband Sri Ramakrishna. Simultaneously she also performed Japa-Dhyana-Tapas and other spiritual practices under the direction of Sri Ramakrishna. That was the time an endless stream of people came every day to meet Sri Ramakrishna, to listen to his amazing words, and to enjoy his heavenly singing. All those devotees, especially those who came from afar, had to be fed. So, Sri Sharada Devi had to cook and serve food for all such people. Then, there were the intimate disciples, and the special guests. It was Sri Ramakrishna’s habit to treat them in a very special way. And that again meant that Sri Sharada Devi would have to take care of their feeding in a special way. So, over and above the regular menu, Sri Sharada Devi would have to prepare special delicacies on a daily basis! All this meant that Sri Sharada Devi had absolutely no leisure time at all. For instance, on an average, Sri Sharada Devi had to prepare chapattis out of 7-8 pounds of wheat flour daily! But Sri Sharada Devi would do all that phenomenal amount of work joyfully, with love, with an uncommon efficiency, and in the spirit of spiritual practice. In the midst of all that phenomenal amount of work, she would relentlessly pray to the Lord in her own mind. Japa and prayer would constantly flow from her heart like the perennial river Ganga, on whose banks stood her room. On full moon nights, she would pray with tears in her eyes, “O Lord! Make my mind as pure as those rays of light from the moon.

In this unique prayer of Sri Sharada Devi, we clearly see that Sri Sharada Devi’s conception of Purity has reached its very zenith. When we study her marvelous life, we can feel the divine fragrance of Purity wafting out of every fiber of her personality. Was not it because she was so immaculate that the Paragon of Incarnations, Sri Ramakrishna, chose her to be his better half?

A question may arise here: ‘Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sharada Devi were husband and wife; how can we then call her the embodiment of Purity? Or what do we mean when we still call her the embodiment of Purity?’

True. Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sharada Devi were a married couple. But we cannot forget the fact that there was absolutely no trace of physical intimacy between them. That means, their relation was something that had transcended the physical realm; their relation was something that was based on one looking upon the other as the spiritual Self in oneself; it was the divine relation that exists between a Guru and his disciple. By leading such a unique kind of married life, we can say that Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sharada Devi have revealed for humanity a whole new set of values within the institution of marriage. If we have to understand this phenomenon, we will have to study deeply the unique and unprecedented details of their married life.

First of all, Sri Ramakrishna was a perfected soul who had achieved the goal of all kinds of spiritual practices extant in the vast ocean called Hinduism. He had achieved Nirvikalpa Samadhi. He was established in the direct experience of Brahman. Tota Puri, his Guru who had helped him achieve that pinnacle of spiritual experiences had once told him, “He who has rooted himself in Renunciation, Dispassion, Discernment and knowledge – which arise from the direct experience of Brahman – even though living with and sleeping next to his wife, will still be established in Brahman. He who can still perceive the distinction between the two sexes, even though he be a very advanced spiritual aspirant, is still very far away from the direct experience of Brahman.”

When Sri Sharada Devi came to Dakshineshwar and started living there, Sri Ramakrishna looked upon the situation as an ideal situation for testing the depth of his own spiritual experiences. He saw that living in intimate contact with his young wife was the acid test of his purity of mind, of his knowledge and dispassion, which had resulted from his being established in the knowledge of Brahman. Fine. He now allowed his wife to serve him personally to her heart’s content. Not just that; he even allowed her to live in his own room and share his bed with him.

One day, looking at his youthful wife who was sleeping next to him, he told his own mind, ‘O mind, look at this; this is what is called a female body. The whole world is mad after this. The world considers this as the supreme object of sense enjoyment. But if you start enjoying this, you will forever get trapped in body consciousness; you will never be able to perceive God who is Truth-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. Now, you tell me, O mind, be not a hypocrite! Don’t desire one thing within you and utter something else outside. Tell me truly, do you want this sense pleasure or do you desire God? If you wish to enjoy a female body, then look here, it is right here next to you. You are free to enjoy it.’

Thinking in this way, he was just about to touch the body of his wife, when all of a sudden his mind retreated with such intensity from his senses that he entered into a very deep Samadhi! That entire night, his mind did not come down from that supernal state to his senses. The next day, his mind had to be brought back to his senses after chanting the name of God repeatedly in his ears.

Even in our wildest imagination, we cannot conceive of attempting such a trial by fire! Of course, Sri Ramakrishna tested his own dispassion and knowledge by means of this unprecedented exercise; and he came out in flying colors. But, what might have been the feelings in the mind of Sri Sharada Devi who lived in such close intimacy with her husband during those days? Could she have secretly hankered for becoming a mother, which would have been quite natural in a girl of her age? Well, it was nothing of the kind! There was not the least trace of such thoughts in her mind. Reminiscing about those wonderful days she spent with her husband, she later said, “It is impossible to describe the exalted state in which Sri Ramakrishna lived during those days. Overcome with divine bliss, he would sometimes laugh, and sometimes weep. And quite often he would remain immersed in Samadhi. Sometimes, his body would seem totally devoid of any sign of life! There were times when he would spend the entire night in such a seemingly lifeless state! …”

Human history has not heard of such a thing as this! Husband and wife, maintaining perfect sexual abstinence, even while living together, is something unique in the known history of humankind. On the one hand, it is incredible that Sri Ramakrishna lived in his own Self even while sleeping next to his lawfully wedded wife; and on the other, it is equally amazing that Sri Sharada Devi completely dissolved her own individuality and identified herself totally with her husband’s spiritual ideal. In fact, Sri Sharada Devi’s achievement seems to be the greater of the two because, if she had so wished, she had every right to drag her husband down to the level of normal human co-habitation; and she too could have become a biological mother like every other married woman in this world. But, such was not the mind of Sri Sharada Devi. There was no chance of her relating to her husband as other women do. She was pure enough to sympathize and participate equally in the highest ideals that her husband had espoused. There was not even a trace of sensuality in her own heart. So much so that even when once her husband himself raised this issue in discussion with her, her own ideal of personal purity did not quaver! Once Sri Ramakrishna asked his wife, ‘Look here; you are my lawfully wedded wife; you have a right over me, over my body. Now tell me, do you have any wish to drag me down to a sensual life that is concomitant with marriage?’ Immediately came back Sri Sharada Devi’s reply, ‘Why would I ever do that? I have come here to assist you in your spiritual endeavors.’

What an answer! Only from a person of Sri Sharada Devi’s stature could come such a reply! There was no un-natural-ness in that reply, no artifice. They weren’t words said in order to please someone either. It was the direct outpouring of the heart that was filled through and through with the purity of the Self! She was therefore not just the legally wedded wife of Sri Ramakrishna. She was also a full-fledged partner in her husband’s unprecedented spiritual endeavors! Hence she was capable of saying, “I have come here to assist you in your spiritual endeavors.” We notice an important feature here: Sri Sharada Devi didn’t arrive in Sri Ramakrishna’s life merely to participate in his spiritual life; she was going to assist him in his spiritual efforts! What does ‘assist’ mean in this context? It means nothing short of ‘Giving a shoulder to the Greatest among Incarnations in his mission’! What is that mission? Eradicating the sensuality, removing ignorance about one’s own true nature and overcoming indiscretion; for sensuality, ignorance and indiscretion are destroying mankind; leading mankind towards God – such is the scope of the mission of an Incarnation! Which ordinary woman indeed can ‘assist’ an Incarnation of God in His divine mission on Earth? None other than the Mother of the Universe, the Primal Energy embodied! Seen in this light, we understand that Sri Sharada Devi’s purity was not something that she had achieved by means of her efforts. Rather, Purity itself had embodied as Sri Sharada Devi. The more we meditate on this incredible fact, the more will our heart be purified and so much more will our personality become exalted.

We have seen that Sri Ramakrishna asked his wife ‘do you have any wish to drag me down to a sensual life that is concomitant with marriage?’ He did this in order to understand his wife’s mind. In a similar way, Sri Sharada Devi also had once questioned Sri Ramakrishna. It is an interesting incident. Sri Sharada Devi had come to Dakshineshwar and had started living with him. Sri Ramakrishna was lying down on his cot one afternoon. The youthful Sri Sharada Devi was massaging his legs. What a romantic situation, indeed! All of a sudden, Sri Ramakrishna was asked by his young wife, ‘How do I look to your eyes now?’

A beautiful and youthful wife is questioning her young husband, ‘How do I look to your eyes now?’ The answer that Sri Ramakrishna gave to this question is something that will remain un-paralleled in the spiritual history of humankind. He replied, ‘the Divine Mother who is worshipped in the Temple (Goddess Bhavatarini of Dakshineshwar), the lady who lives in the Nahabat (his own biological mother Chandramani Devi), and you who are now pressing my legs – all are the manifestations of the same Divine Mother of the Universe. Truly I tell you, whenever I see you, I see clearly that it is the Divine Mother of the Universe that has assumed your form to be with me.’

What an answer, indeed! These words will certainly stupefy the masses that are immersed in the mire of sensuality! Sri Ramakrishna is equating his lawfully wedded wife with the woman who gave birth to him, and the Deity worshipped in the Temple! These were not calculated words aimed at projecting a manufactured image of oneself. These are sincere words coming straight from the heart of Sri Ramakrishna. Sri Ramakrishna’s entire life is established in utter truthfulness. The spiritual ideals that manifested in his life can be understood only if we study his life and message with an unbiased mind, and if we are capable of understanding his life against the background of the truths revealed in our holy scriptures. Only then will we understand the true value of his extremely exalted life. Against the backdrop of this awareness of Sri Ramakrishna’s unique position in human history, we will realize that it is entirely Sri Sharada Devi’s credit that she assisted Sri Ramakrishna in manifesting an unprecedented ideal of marriage! Even though co-habiting with his wife, he was able to transcend the pull of the senses and remain established in his inner Self. This was a unique achievement of Sri Ramakrishna. And Sri Sharada Devi had an equal share in this achievement of his!

Sri Ramakrishna himself praised Sri Sharada Devi’s contribution towards his manifesting the ideal of marriage, ‘If she weren’t so pure, who knows, perhaps my own self-control might have succumbed to the natural temptation of a wife’s conjugal call. After my marriage, I had prayed sincerely to the Divine Mother, ‘Mother, remove the least trace of sensuality in my wife’s mind’. Later on, when I lived together with her, I realized that the Divine Mother had more than answered my prayer.’

What a marvelous phenomenon we see here! The prayer uttered by Sri Ramakrishna here in Dakshineshwar was bringing about changes in the personality of Sri Sharada Devi in far away Jayrambati. By the intense power of his mind, he was sharing the fruits of his severe spiritual practices with his better half! This is the only way we can infer these developments, discounting the possibility of a coincidence. We have to understand that by his intense prayer, Sri Sharada Devi was absorbing the results of his spiritual practices, although she was at that time, living quite far away from him.

Similarly, it was because Sri Sharada Devi was completely immersed in meditation on her husband, as it were, that she was able to meet him on his own exalted spiritual state of mind. Her own mind and heart – they were immaculate! Therefore Sri Ramakrishna was able to pour out the fruits of his spiritual practices into her even from afar. Quite often, we are unable to make the person sitting right in front of us grasp the subtle truths of spiritual life! If the mind is impure, it is impossible to grasp spiritual truths. And here we see that Sri Sharada Devi was able to grasp the finest strands of feelings arising from the mind and heart of Sri Ramakrishna, notwithstanding the enormous geographical distance separating them. What a wonder this is, indeed! If this isn’t a grand testimony to her great spiritual capability, what else is? It was for this reason that later on, while living with her husband, she was able to say, ‘I have come to assist you in your mission’.

One can’t help but raise a question here: We have seen how Sri Ramakrishna prayed to the Divine Mother, and how he wholeheartedly praised the purity of his wife. But, was there ever any real danger of his losing self-control in the face of a seduction from his youthful wife? Was he not a perfected person, who had quenched all his physical and psychological hungers, established in the bliss of his own Self? Moreover, should another person pray for the purity of a soul such as Sri Sharada Devi? Purity has itself incarnated as Sri Sharada Devi! Well, there was no way Sri Ramakrishna’s self-control could have broken down; and no one else need have prayed for Sri Sharada Devi’s purity. This divine couple had to manifest a unique ideal for humanity. That ideal had to be made intelligible for the common masses. Only the spouse can vouch for the character of the husband, or the purity of the wife. Therefore, Sri Sharada Devi elaborates the unprecedented renunciation of her husband, and Sri Ramakrishna sings praises of his wife’s immaculate purity.

Until now, we have seen the empyrean heights to which this divine couple raised the standards of their married life. This is just one aspect of purity. Sexual continence alone is not the measure of purity. Unchaste thoughts, possessive thoughts and feelings within one’s own mind, selfishness in one’s own heart – all these too degrade one’s personality. One may safely conclude that selfishness is indeed the supreme impurity. But, when we study how Sri Sharada Devi was able to remain pure in each of these aspects, we can’t but marvel at the wonderfully ideal life she led; we can’t help but feel our own minds and hearts imbuing a little of her immaculate purity.

Sri Sharada Devi’s external life was extremely simple, uneventful. To the superficial eye, it appears as the life of a simple, rustic village woman. This is because she did not stand out of the pale of a normal family life in order to manifest her spiritual radiance. Instead, she lived with all her innumerable relatives, engaged in the various household chores incumbent on such life, and seemingly experienced all the blows of the mundane world – but in a supremely unattached manner! Therefore, to the untrained eye, there is no way one could discern the least bit of spiritual grandeur in her life. More so, when we see the way she doted on the daughter of her youngest brother, Radhi, we feel as if Sri Sharada Devi too was just like any other normal woman – swayed by possessiveness and emotional attachment.

Radhi was Sri Sharada Devi’s ‘Yogamaya’. ‘Yogamaya’ is a term depicting a person who is used by a spiritually perfected soul to prevent one’s mind from getting merged in the Absolute. Sri Ramakrishna himself revealed this fact to Sri Sharada Devi once in a spiritual vision. After the passing away of her husband, Sri Sharada Devi had lost the will to continue living. Sri Ramakrishna appeared in a spiritual vision then. He showed her Radhi, with instructions to hold on to her as a prop. Thus she could keep her mind down from getting merged in the Absolute, for the welfare of mankind. Therefore she held on to Radhi with great force. But how will others know all this elaborate arrangement in Sri Sharada Devi’s life! On the one hand, people did perceive Light in all her actions and words. Not just that, they also witnessed her exalted state of mind – her unmatched devotion during her daily worship, her intense meditations followed by Samadhi, etc. But, they also saw that the same Sri Sharada Devi always kept the utterly mischievous and restless Radhi with her and wouldn’t let her go out of her sight. These two dimensions of Sri Sharada Devi’s personality were irreconcilable for the common mind. This is no doubt an enigma to most people. An illusion, however, is not the real picture. Nevertheless, people couldn’t penetrate beyond the obvious. The superficial observer had no other way but to believe that what they saw about Sri Sharada Devi was the only fact. She was just like any other normal woman, extremely possessive, overly involved with the mundane details of her family. Therefore, there were many who felt sorry for Sri Sharada Devi seeing the hopeless condition she was in because of her “attachment” to Radhi. Who indeed could imagine that she could do away with everything and everyone in a moment’s notice!

Why speak of the common people who misunderstood Sri Sharada Devi’s actual state of mind like this! Even Yogin Ma, herself an advanced spiritual aspirant, and a constant companion to Sri Sharada Devi, suffered from the same doubt! She felt, ‘Sri Ramakrishna was such a beacon of renunciation, a perfectly unattached person. But now, after his demise, Sri Sharada Devi, his wife, one who is supposed to uphold his ideals for all of us, is behaving exactly like a run-of-the-mill worldly woman! Day and night, she is immersed in her own brothers, her sisters-in-law, their children. I am unable to understand this strange phenomenon…’ A few days after Yogin Ma started getting this doubt, she was meditating on the banks of the River Ganges. She had a vision of Sri Ramakrishna. He pointed towards the Ganges and told her, “Look over there”. Yogin Ma saw; the corpse of a newborn baby was floating by on the waters of the Ganges. The umbilical cord was still attached to the baby’s belly button and it looked really horrifying. It was a sight to fill any person with disgust and nausea. Sri Ramakrishna said, “Did you see? However, does this make the River Ganges any less pure? Can anything, in fact, make the River Ganges impure? Look upon her [Sri Sharada Devi] too in the same light. Don’t ever entertain any doubt in this issue. Know for sure, she and this [pointing to himself] are identical.”

What an amazing vision indeed! Sri Ramakrishna himself is testifying that Sri Sharada Devi is eternally pure, capable of purifying everything in the world, never ever becoming impure herself in the process! It is therefore that Swami Abhedananda sang, “Pavitram charitam yasyaaha, pavitram jeevanam tathaa, pavitrata svarupinyai, tasyai kurmo namo namaha.”

Subsequent to this amazing vision, Yogin Ma never again had any doubt about Sri Sharada Devi’s dispassion and purity.

It is not that Sri Sharada Devi was unaware of her own purity. But, she was of an extremely shy nature. Humility and self-effacement were natural in her personality. She therefore seldom spoke about herself. Moreover, she always strove to suppress her divine brilliance and so that she could live amongst the common folk as one of them. However, there were some rare occasions when she would reveal her real nature in front of some very intimate disciples. Or, on much rarer occasions, in order to dispel the thick layer of ignorance and doubts, she would reticently talk about her real nature. Those rare utterances are priceless jewels for devotees!

Once, a devotee, being unable to see Sri Sharada Devi’s attachment to Radhi, and greatly troubled in his mind, asked her directly, “Mother, why are you so attached to her? Just like any other worldly woman, you too keep on chanting your niece’s name ‘Radhi, Radhi’! Your entire attention seems to be on that girl. You don’t give any attention towards many devotees who come to meet you. Is this kind of possessiveness healthy?”

Questions such as this were nothing new to Sri Sharada Devi. Generally, in such circumstances, she was wont to reply, “What can I do, my son? After all, am I not a woman? Is not it natural for us to have some kind of attachment towards children born in our families?” By replying like that, she would evade the issue. But on that day, she replied to that devotee quite animatedly, “Yes, but show me one more [person] who is an equal [to me]; can you? Show me just one more woman who is my equal, if not better, I challenge you! Look here, the truth is, when a person meditates on the Lord, the mind becomes extremely pure, and also extremely intense. Whatever such a mind deals with, it brings the same intensity that it brings to its meditation on the Lord! Then, it seems just like normal, worldly attachment. That’s all. You will see a reflection of a lightning streak on a glass pane but not on bamboo sleet.”

Just look at this answer! The more we meditate on these words, the more we learn the nuances of spirituality, its ramifications in everyday life, and the depth of Sri Sharada Devi’s personality. Is not it amazing how Sri Sharada Devi herself said, ‘Show me just one more woman who is my equal, if not better, I challenge you!’? She must have had a very clear conception about her real nature, about who she really was, in order to make such a statement. Truly, it is impossible to show one more woman like her; because she was not of this world! She was the Mother of the Universe Incarnate! Who indeed can be the equal of the Mother of the Universe! She is declaring in these words that she, the Mother of the Universe, has incarnated on Earth as a woman in order to show the way out to her children. Moreover, what indeed was the nature of Sri Sharada Devi’s mind? It was a mind that had identified itself with the Lord by constantly meditating on the Divine. By such meditation and subsequent identification, it had become a channel of the Lord’s infinite power! The level of concentration achievable by such a mind is beyond imagination for common folk like us; such a mind achieves identification with whatever it fancies to land upon. To a superficial observer, such identification will seem very similar to the ‘attachment’ that is the bane of common folk like us all. But, in reality, that mind does not get attached to anything at all. It can detach itself with the same force with which it attaches itself to any object. Such is the nature of a pure mind. It can renounce with the same ease with which it can accept, without the least impression being made on the mind itself in either case.

On another occasion, when a similar discussion came up with another devotee, she spoke about her real nature in these words: “Look, they all say – I am immersed in the thought of Radhi, that I am overly attached to her. But the truth is, if I had not got attached to this girl, how could I have brought my mind down? I would not have been able to live in this body after Sri Ramakrishna’s demise. It is Sri Ramakrishna himself who has preserved this body for fulfilling his mission on earth, don’t you see that? Is not it Sri Ramakrishna himself who has made my mind to get attached, as it were, to Radhi, for achieving his own ends? Mark my words, the moment I remove my mind away from Radhi, this body will fall off.” Later on she elaborated, “You see me constantly thinking about Radhi, even worrying about her; all this is but an illusion. This is a ruse I have worked up in order to continue living in this body, that’s all.”

True. She herself had woven an elaborate web of illusion centered on Radhi. This was necessary because, just as her spiritual practices were to be an object lesson to humanity, her daily work-a-day life too was supposed to be a similar object lesion for all of us. But, if one did not have a conception of her real personality, if one did not live in close contact with her, and if one went by just the superficial observation of her external actions, there was no way one could gauge her exalted spiritual stature. We may recall an interesting incident that occurred when she was in Kashi to support this argument.

One day, some ladies residing in Kashi came to see Sri Sharada Devi. Perhaps they must have imagined that they would be going to some kind of a forest hermitage and be seeing an old, emaciated saint like the popular depiction of the woman saint Shabari. But what they saw instead was Sri Sharada Devi, an old woman, just as innumerable other old grandmothers, engrossed in combing the hair of her brothers’ children, putting on clothes on the children and such other mundane household activities. As if that jarring scene weren’t enough, they found Sri Sharada Devi instructing Golap Ma to stitch her torn clothes so that she could use them again! The visiting women who saw all this, were terrible disappointed, if not shocked. They found that the much acclaimed Sri Sharada Devi was but another worldly woman, engrossed in her own little family. They had come with the desire to absorb something of the other world from Sri Sharada Devi, but they found that here too, it was the same world that they lived in! One of the women couldn’t take it and blurted out, “Mother, what is this we see here? You too are engrossed as deeply inside Maya as we are!” Sri Sharada Devi replied in her characteristic calmness, “How can I help it, my child? I myself am Maya!” She certainly had the gift of repartee. She was able to evade the issue by this kind of quick reply, which was characteristic of her. But none of those visiting women were able to grasp the depth of Sri Sharada Devi’s words.

“I myself am Mahamaya” said Sri Sharada Devi! Isn’t she hinting at her divine personality through this utterance? The reason the Lord incarnates as a human being is to show that even though one is born as a human being, it is possible to raise oneself to divinity in this very life. But, most people discount the divine incarnation as just a normal human being, just as one of themselves, seeing that the incarnation too eats, drinks and lives like all of us. Forget the issue of imitating the incarnation and raising oneself to divinity thereby, they fail to see anything beyond the human there! Such was the case with those women visitors in Kashi too. How indeed should they realize that in order to show householders the way to divinity, Sri Sharada Devi herself is living like one of them, performing all the activities that any other ordinary woman would normally do in the course of the day? It is possible to manifest divinity even while living as a householder. That was the reason Sri Sharada Devi immersed herself in household activities. But, how should those Kashi women know this truth?

It is indeed very difficult to realize that Sri Sharada Devi was totally different from an ordinary woman, because seemingly she too lived the life of an ordinary woman, experiencing all the joys and sorrows of an ordinary householder’s life. Moreover, in all probabilities, one may get a valid doubt regarding Sri Sharada Devi which is – if she was indeed Purity incarnate, how then could she suffer bodily diseases and experience mental sorrows? Although superficially, she seems to be no different from anyone of us, there is a hell and heaven difference between our own experiences and the experiences of Sri Sharada Devi. While we all suffer the consequences of our own actions, Sri Sharada Devi took on the results of others’ misdeeds. Hence she suffered. She was the Mantra Deeksha Guru of innumerable devotees. She had also blessed some with Brahmacharya Deeksha and Sannyasa Deeksha too. Not only that, devotees would pester her and obtain various kinds of assurances and blessings from her, which were all given even when they were undeserving of such divine grace. As a consequence of all this, her immaculate body had to suffer diseases. Even Sri Ramakrishna himself had to suffer so much! His was an ‘Apaapaviddha Sharira’. That means, it was a body which had not entertained even so much as one single wave of sensuality during its lifetime! Not just that, it was the body of a divine incarnation. It was composed of the elements of Pure Sattva alone! Yet, he had to undergo innumerable bodily sufferings. He would not give mantra Deeksha to anyone and everyone. He would accept a person as his disciple only after thorough testing. Even while accepting someone as a devotee, he was extremely cautious. Despite all such precautions, his supremely pure body had to undergo terrible suffering! If such is the case with Sri Ramakrishna, we can easily imagine Sri Sharada Devi’s condition. She positioned herself in the seat of ‘Mother of All’ and bestowed her unconditioned grace on anyone that approached her. The prince and the pauper, the learned scholar and the illiterate fool, the sinner and the debauched – she bestowed her unquestioning, unconditioned motherly love equally on everyone. Such was her personality. If she had to digest the sins of all and sundry like that, imagine the voracious power, the white heat of her purity! How incredible must have been her spiritual power!

Secondly, living with her worldly minded relatives was itself a source of terrible suffering for her. Unlike Sri Ramakrishna, she did not confine herself to the company of spiritual aspirants and devotees alone. Hers was the burden of radiating the soothing rays of her innate spirituality even while living as a householder, and accepting the problems and sufferings of a family that was not even her own. It may not be easy to exactly understand her situation without a very strong imagination. In this regard, Sri Sharada Devi herself once told a lady devotee, “Know that this body of mine is the body of a Goddess. I wonder how much more suffering this delicate body can sustain. Is it possible for an ordinary human body to undergo so much suffering, ever?” Seen from this context, we will now be able to understand why Sri Ramakrishna had compared Sri Sharada Devi to the eternally purifying River Ganges. Indeed, how apt is that comparison! Elsewhere she once said, “I haven’t committed a single impure deed since my childhood. Moreover, when I was just five years old, I got married to Sri Ramakrishna. I came in contact with that supremely pure personality. If such is the case, can you tell me why I suffer so much? Yes, it is true that I was but a child then. But, what of it? His pure hands had touched me. Great sinners attained liberation by his mere touch! But, I continue to undergo all this suffering. Am I worse than all those great sinners then? Is my illusion about my own real nature so enduring that I still have to suffer like this?…No, that is not the case. Day and night, my mind desires to fly away to the highest realms of spirituality. But out of compassion for mankind, I have forcefully kept my mind on this bodily plane.”

The scriptures say that God incarnates as man in order to destroy the wicked, and protect the righteous people, and thereby establish righteousness in society. But what do we see in the life of Sri Sharada Devi? She no doubt protects the righteous people; but, she also removes the sins of the sinners by vicariously suffering on their behalf, and lifts them up too! Such seems to be her life’s goal. Here lies Sri Sharada Devi’s specialty! If she were just another devoted wife, and had lived a supremely pure life, there would have been nothing unique in her personality; for India has produced quite a good number of such pure women. And she would have been just one of that group, rare, but just one more of them. All such pure women are even today held before us as ideals. But, Sri Sharada Devi has brought down the highest ideal of personal purity to the reach of the common man! Here lies her uniqueness. Once a devotee asked her with great sincerity, “Mother, if touching us and accepting our salutations brings you so much physical suffering, wouldn’t it be wise to avoid it all together?” Sri Sharada Devi replied, “No, my son. Don’t say that. We have come for just that. If we do not accept the sins of others, if we do not digest the sins of others, tell me, who else will do that? Who else will bear the burden of sinners?”

History has not witnessed compassion of this order, we may safely conclude! From these words of Sri Sharada Devi, we can understand that she has bequeathed the fruits of her immaculate purity to the entire human race. We can also see here the supreme compassion of the Mother of the Universe breaking all bounds and embracing everyone in its motherly protection. Whenever we see the photograph of the embodiment of purity, Sri Sharada Devi, we have to recall statements such as these that she herself has made. We may then be able to have some conception of the grandeur of her divine personality. The way she has bestowed the fruits of her immaculate purity to humanity is unprecedented in human history. She herself once said, “When impure thoughts assail your mind, tell yourself, ‘I am her [i.e. Sri Sharada Devi’s] son; can I entertain such thoughts?’ You will yourself then see how strength and peace fill your mind.”

Sri Sharada Devi has taken great pains to raise the purity level of the entire mankind. Truly speaking, her whole life has been the greatest teaching towards that end. Studying her life is in itself a great spiritual practice on our part. Raja Yoga has a sutra ‘Veetaraga vishayam va chittam’. It means, if the mind gets too restless, then meditating on the mind of a person who has overcome all impurity, calms our mind. A person who has overcome all impurity means one who has transcended selfishness, likes and dislikes, and all sensuality. When we meditate on the supremely pure personality of Sri Sharada Devi, we will find that our own mind becomes calm and pure.

Sri Sharada Devi’s words go a long way in our efforts to keep our mind and heart pure. Seeing others’ faults makes our minds tainted and distracts our intellect and judgement. But it seems to be natural to human nature to see and point out others’ faults. Because of the enthusiasm we have for seeing others’ faults, we lose track of identifying and repairing what is amiss in our own personalities. How can an externalized mind that is habituated to see others’ fault, turn within and identify its own faults? Then, there is the other issue; supposing we do recognize our own faults; do they disappear by merely identifying and recognizing that they are there in us? You may or may not know that there is a snake in the room; in either case, the danger from the snake’s presence is imminent. Similarly, the mind that is impure because of the innumerable faults lying within it can never be at peace. Suppose there is some dirt on some part of our body. The moment you realize it is there, don’t you feel restless to remove it immediately? How much more so must it be when we realize that there is some dirt inside our mind? An impure mind can never be peaceful. A mind that has no peace, how can it be joyful? When there is no peace and joy, the human mind tends to become more and more externalized. Then that mind tries to gain some semblance of peace, some trickle of joy by pointing out the faults of others. But what happens consequently is that his own fund of faults keeps on increasing, and peace and joy keep on receding. He thus gets caught in a vicious circle. In order to lift us out of this vicious circle, Sri Sharada Devi teaches us to raise ourselves to a high level of purity. When the mind and heart are filled with purity, peace and happiness automatically arise within us. Sri Sharada Devi says, “Let me tell you something; if you want peace, do not find fault in others. If at all you want to find faults, find your own faults, faults that fill your own personality. Learn to make the whole world your own. There is no other person here. This whole world is but you yourself.”

Truly, this faultfinding nature is the bane of humanity. One can’t help but wonder how and why such a detrimental feature developed in man’s personality, for it certainly does not seem to be doing him any good, individually or collectively. Perhaps this is one of Mahamaya’s tools by which she confounds man with her illusion! Whatever it be, we may discern at least one plausible reason. Man always tries to hide his own faults and weaknesses. He feels that when he loudly points out others’ faults and drawbacks, the attention of the world will be drawn away from his own faults and drawbacks, and perhaps the world may even consider him free of those faults and weaknesses. Thus there seems to some evolutionary reason for this trait in man’s personality. However, over and above this natural instinct in us, if we further develop this habit of finding out only others’ faults and hone that ability, how can we ever become pure and perfect? Sri Sharada Devi says, “It is not possible for a man to find out someone else’s faults without first making his own mind impure with that fault. What indeed is the utility of meditating on others’ faults? That will merely destroy your own mind and will achieve nothing else.”

Once some lady-devotees approached Sri Sharada Devi and complained to her about one of her disciples. It was not a false accusation. There was substantial evidence for their complaint. But Sri Sharada Devi did not give much importance to the complaint and dismissed the women by saying a couple of platitudes, mainly to calm them down. How could she encourage such behavior? After the women left, she explained to one of her disciples, “My son, I am incapable of both seeing faults in others, and of listening to someone complain about such things. Seeing faults in others seems to be a natural trait in people. I too used to do the same once upon a time. Then, I beseeched Sri Ramakrishna with tears in my eyes, ‘O Lord, I am fed up with seeing faults in others. I can’t do it anymore.’ After praying like this, I overcame that habit. When I was in Vrindavan, I stood before the Lord Banke-Bihari Krishna and prayed to him with folded hands, ‘O Krishna, your body may be crooked in three places, but your mind is extremely flawless. Remove all crookedness from my mind and make it like yours.’”

It is not necessary to mention that the Lord answered her prayer literally. But then, we may have to accept the fact that she was naturally inclined to not seeing others’ faults, but was inherently inclined to observe only the positives in other people right from her childhood. We come across innumerable instances in her life to support our premise. She once said to Yogin Ma, “Don’t ever try to see faults in others; your own eyes will become impure thereby!”

What a world of advice is pregnant in these few words.

Spiritual aspirants in general and orthodox people in particular, who want to become pure face an obstacle with respect to ritualistic cleanliness and un-cleanliness. They tend to get too harsh on themselves. Every little thing seems to make them impure. They are never clean enough. That is how they feel. What is even more terrible is that this doubt of self-impurity gnaws deep within their heart. This whole issue of ritualistic cleanliness is indeed a deeply tangled web. It is very difficult to extricate oneself from it. Generally, this problem is more pervasive among the so-called higher castes in India. The lower castes do not seem to be bothered at all with such self-apprehensions. Nothing seems to be dirty enough for these people. The oversensitivity regarding cleanliness in the former and the extreme laxity of the same in the latter – both are two extremes. Having assumed a human body, Sri Sharada Devi is teaching humanity how it can direct its mind Godward by avoiding all such peculiarities. She does not do this purely pedantically; she herself lives like one of us, in our midst, experiencing all the highs and lows of our mundane lives and then she shows the way out. She herself was extremely pure even to her very marrow. Hence her words carry an authority. They sear their way into our heart and transforms us. She once said, “The desire for cleanliness can become an obsession in some cases. It is then nothing less than a mental disease. What started out as a desire for the higher life ends up becoming a mania. Such a mind never feels clean enough. Such a mind does not become pure easily. The more such a mind attempts to purify itself, the more the mania increases.”

One such devotee used to frequent Sri Sharada Devi. Addressing her, Sri Sharada Devi once said, “Look here. Don’t break your head over trivia. If you continue like this, obsessing over cleanliness, you will forget God.” What then is the way out? Sri Sharada Devi points that out too: “Remember God and do what you feel is right. Don’t listen to everything that others tell you regarding what is clean and what is un-clean.”

What a practical advice! Just see how apt this is for an obsessive person. To dedicate oneself wholly to God, and to remain immersed in His presence – isn’t that the end and aim of being and becoming clean? However, if one does not have a sense of proportion, then, this issue of cleanliness could easily become a dangerous obsession. It would drive us far away from the goal. Sri Sharada Devi advises us to be wary of such a deviation. Cleanliness is indeed necessary. Serious thought has to be certainly given in that direction. ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’, as the famous adage says. Sri Sharada Devi herself used to advise her devotees and disciples “While you perform the worship of God, you must be clean; you must be very cautious in this regard; you must not scratch your hands, legs or face.” The science of spiritual life, ‘Raja Yoga’ also specifies cleanliness as a sine-qua-non for making oneself fit for the higher life of meditation. So, no right-thinking person can underestimate the importance of cleanliness in spiritual life. Nevertheless we shouldn’t get stuck in the thick of thin things. We ought not to lose sight of the forest by obsessing with the trees. Similarly, neurotic obsession with cleanliness is something that right thinking people will certainly avoid!

The behavior of people pathologically obsessed with cleanliness is very strange. There are times when these ‘cleanliness freaks’ take their mania to such limits that those around them feel repulsed by them. There was one such in Sri Sharada Devi’s family. Her name was Nalini. She was Sri Sharada Devi’s brother Prasanna’s daughter. It is not that Sri Sharada Devi did not try to lift her above her helpless condition. But Nalini was obstinately ‘devoted’ to her habits! One day, at a very odd hour, she came in draped in a wet cloth. Sri Sharada Devi saw this as asked her, “Why did you take a bath at this odd hour?” She replied, “What can I do? A crow urinated on my saree. So I had to take a bath.” Sri Sharada Devi was both surprised and deeply pained listening to this helpless reply from Nalini. She said, “What nonsense is this! I am now an old woman. All these years, I have never heard of a crow passing urine! Perhaps, one needs to have committed unspeakable sins through many births in order to have a mind so completely obsessed with impurity and un-cleanliness! This is not just about ritualistic purity. This is sheer madness masquerading as ritualistic cleanliness, I tell you. That is the reason one does not feel clean even after bathing a dozen times a day. Look here; the intensity of this mania grows in direct proportion to the attention we give to it. There is no end to it if we keep on nurturing it like this.” On another occasion, Sri Sharada Devi said to Nalini, “Our own mind is the root cause of everything. All this cleanliness and un-cleanliness lie in our own mind.” There is one more statement she said on another occasion, “One whose mind is pure, finds cleanliness everywhere.”

There is an incredible incident in Sri Sharada Devi’s life related to this topic of manic ritualistic cleanliness. This is not just an interesting incident, but it also clearly shows us that Sri Sharada Devi was indeed Purity Incarnate. It was around 9.30pm one night. We must remember that 9.30pm is late night in eastern India. The sun sets earlier in eastern India. Around that time, a stray dog came in touch with the lady who used to cook for Sri Sharada Devi’s household. She was a typical Brahmin lady, extremely fastidious about ritualistic cleanliness. Since a dog touched her, shouldn’t she now take a bath in order to become clean again? But it was already late night. Moreover, it was winter. But, this lady had no other option but to go and take a dip in the lake nearby. Sri Sharada Devi came to know about this and said with concern, “Why take a bath in this cold winter night? Wash your hand and feet and wear a clean saree. That should suffice.” The cook asked, “Oh, if only that would suffice! How can I become clean by merely washing my hand and feet?” Sri Sharada Devi replied, “Alright; then take a sip of the holy Ganges water.” But that manic Brahmin lady did not feel that even the holy Ganges water was not pure enough to make her clean again after touching a dog. Then, Sri Sharada Devi said, “Fine; then touch me.”

These words worked like magic! Immediately she touched Sri Sharada Devi. Instantly she felt that she had indeed become clean again. At least for the moment, she was freed from the clutches of her cleanliness mania. Here was a Brahmin lady who believed that even the holy Ganges water was not pure enough to cleanse her, and she felt that touching Sri Sharada Devi made her clean! Is not this incredible! On the other hand Sri Sharada Devi said, ‘Fine, then touch me’ when she saw that none of the stock cleansing practices would suffice in this lady’s case. Is not this even more incredible! We understand here that Sri Sharada Devi had the clearest conception of her own purity. It is for this very reason that Swami Abhedananda sang about her, ‘Pavitram charitam yasyaaha, pavitram jeevanam tathaa, pavitrata svarupinyai, tasyai kurmo namo namaha ’ – ‘She whose personality is pure, she whose life is pure, to such a paragon of purity, we offer our repeated salutations.’

This is a most exquisite eulogy, which is today used a prayer; it also reveals a great truth. The veracity of this eulogy will be confirmed by anyone who studies the life and message of Sri Sharada Devi. Her divine bashfulness, uncommon wisdom, perfect self-control in her words and actions, incredible detachment, brilliant spiritual awareness, the terrible austerities such as ‘Pancha-tapa’ that she performed – if we study all these aspects of Sri Sharada Devi critically, we get a glimpse of her true personality.

Meditation on the Lord is the path shown to us by the ancient Rishis for purifying our mind and heart, thereby evolving ourselves spiritually. We have to meditate on the ever-pure Lord of the Universe and thereby cleanse ourselves of the dirt of ignorance that we smeared ourselves with, over innumerable lives. Taittiriya Upanishad has a wonderful prayer:

Tam tvaa bhaga pravishani svaha. Sa maa bhaga pravisha svaha. Tasmin sahasrashakhe. Ni bhagaham tvayi mrige svaha.

‘O adorable One, may I enter into you, such as you are. O venerable One, you, such as you are, enter into me. O adorable One, who are greatly diversified, may I purify my sins in you.’

The beginner in spiritual life may find it difficult to conceive of the ever-pure Lord; it will be difficult to conceive and meditate on the Lord, as the ever-pure One. But we need not worry. It is the inherent divine Power of the same ever-pure Lord that has incarnated as the Holy Mother Sri Sharada Devi. We have to sincerely study her life, and think about it repeatedly. By doing that, our mind will be able to enter into the personality that was Sri Sharada Devi. When we are thus able to dwell on her immaculate personality, we will cleanse ourselves of all impurities; our entire personality will become apotheosized.

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An essay on Purity

Pavitra [Pure], Parishuddha [Pristine], Chitta Shuddhi [Mental purity], Shuddha Antahkarana [Mental purity], Shuddha Hridaya [Pure heart], Manas Shuddhi [Mental purity] – these are Sanskrit terms common to most spiritual aspirants in India. These terms occupy pride of place in the vocabulary of spiritual aspirants. Merely by uttering these words, don’t we feel a certain sense of cleanliness in our minds? Or, these terms also have a reverse psychological effect too. That is, when we utter these words, we may start recalling all the depraved things that we have done in our lives, and we may start shriveling in fear! But this much is true – the purity that arises from an impeccable life is a rarity in this world today. It is a very rare quality and a priceless acquisition too. The purity that was in Emperor Ambarisha was capable of pacifying the terrible anger of the Sage Durvasa. The immaculate purity of Savitri was capable of wrenching her husband Satyavan from Lord Yama, the god of death! The incredibly powerful King Ravana couldn’t so much as even touch Mother Sita who was imprisoned in his own Palace Garden, could he? The power of immaculate Purity is infinite. Its glory is unbounded!

If this is so, then what is purity? We need to understand the concept of purity in all its various aspects and about all its different ramifications. The Sanskrit word for purity is ‘Pavitra’. Etymologically, this Sanskrit word is declined as follows: ‘Pavi’ means sin or impurity; ‘Tra’ means to go beyond. Therefore, the word purity means achieving inner cleanliness through performing good works by which you overcome old sins and don’t allow for committing fresh sins. When one cleanses one’s mind of all its sins, along with the mind, the entire personality becomes purified, becomes clear like a crystal. Crystal is a transparent material. Similarly, a pure mind becomes transparent. If an object is kept on one side of a crystal, it is clearly visible from the other side. This is because, there is no dirt in the medium. In a similar way, a mind that is free from lust, anger, deceit, hypocrisy, duplicity, etc. is able to project the divine spark that lies inside every living being. That is the reason all spiritual aspirants strive day and night for just one thing – purification of their mind and heart. Sri Sharada Devi is today worshipped and eulogized by not just innumerable devotees all over the world, but also by thousands of monks and celibates as ‘Pavitram charitam yasyaaha…’ When Sri Sharada Devi was in the prime of her youth, what was the prayer that welled up from the bottom of her heart? “O Lord! Even the moon has dark spots; make my mind spotless. O Lord! Make my mind as pure as those rays of light from the moon.”

What again were the words of praise that Sri Ramakrishna, her husband, said about her? “If she weren’t so pure, who knows, perhaps my own self-control might have succumbed to the natural temptation of a wife’s conjugal call.”

When we observe all these incidents, a question arises in our minds, ‘Well, then, is the married life also a path to achieving purity?’ The answer is simple: The life of righteous marriage is neither an obstacle to purity, nor is it a hindrance, as is commonly understood today. Sri Ramakrishna-Sri Sharada Devi came to reveal before humanity, the total picture of Purity, one of the great ideals sought after by man. Today, when we look at the rampant westernization of Indian society, because of which the common Indian is degrading himself into unimagined perversions and sensual depravities, don’t we see the necessity of holding up before the Indian society a burning example of Purity? If the utter disregard for law and order in society continues to grow amidst the burgeoning population, we ought to dispassionately see where this will all lead us to in the near future. What sort of a land indeed is our country? It is the veritable repository of all spiritual ideals ever known to mankind! Man has realized the highest spiritual ideals in this pure and blessed land. Hence, it is the duty of India to disseminate all over the world the ideal of Purity.

Bhagavad Gita says, ‘Na hi jnanena sadrisham pavitram iha vidyate’ There is nothing comparable to Knowledge that can purify us. What does that mean? Man sins because he is ignorant; he doesn’t know, hence he commits mistakes. Ignorance is thus the root cause of sin. Man is unaware of the fact that he is ever-pure, ever-awakened, ever-free. What does it mean when we say that man is unaware of this fact? Doesn’t it mean he is ignorant? Due to this pervasive ignorance, man tries to find happiness by resorting to all sorts of wrong and devious means. This further intensifies his ignorance! Again, due to his dense ignorance, he indulges in yet more sins. Not only does he himself commit sins, he actively drags others too into his sinful activities. What is sad in this state of affairs is that he himself is blissfully unaware that he is drowning into a great abyss. His own conscience would have become so feeble. Why would it have become so feeble? Ignorance! Hence Bhagavad Gita proclaimed, ‘If man ever wants to rid himself of all his sins and become pure, he has to resort to Knowledge; there is no other way.’ Who can bring knowledge to this ignorant man? It is the knowing ones alone that can do that. But, unfortunately, such knowing ones are very rare. Nevertheless, we will have to find out at least one such knowing one, approach him, meet him again and again. We will have to approach him till our dense ignorance melts away and knowledge of our own true nature dawns in us. Katha Up says: ‘Utthishtata jagrata prapya varaan nibodhata’ Arise, awake, approach the knowing ones and learn about your true nature from them.

The Upanishad may have certainly directed man to do this. But, ignorance does not allow man to approach the knowing ones and learn from them. The strangle hold of ignorance over man is enormous! The gravitational pull of ignorance over man is so much more powerful that the uplifting attraction of the Guru! Swami Vivekananda was able to discern this terrible fact regarding human nature and said, “If the mountain does not go to Mohammad, then Mohammad will have to go to the mountain. Similarly, the knowing ones will have to go the common people, live amidst them, move from town to town, village to village and bring them to the Light that they experience. This is because, the dense covering of ignorance in the minds and hearts of people is not something that will get dispelled easily! Hence the Pure ones, the Knowing ones, instead of merely enjoying their own Bliss, should decide to move among the common people.”

Swami Vivekananda himself did not have the mind to do so, in the beginning of his life. His desire was to go to the Himalayas and remain immersed in the Bliss of his Self. But Sri Ramakrishna’s directive brought him out to bring the life-giving Light of the Eternal Religion not only among his own countrymen, but also among the foreign ones. Today, the rays of that Light are lighting up the minds and hearts of thousands of people and making them pure and whole.

Swami Vivekananda preached religion to people of all mentalities and attitudes; he preached the Four major paths of spiritual growth, the Four Yogas; he preached the synthesis of the four yogas; he also preached Practical Vedanta to the common people of the present age. At last, he summarized all his preaching in the following few words: “Try to be pure and unselfish – that is the whole of Religion”. Christ had said something similar too: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for, they shall see God.”

Purifying the heart is the single important teaching that all incarnations of God and saints and sages have emphasized upon. When we read and hear all that, a question starts forming in our mind – what does it mean to be pure? Although this question has a simple answer, this is a topic that calls for a detailed deliberation. Anyway, briefly, the answer to this question will be as follows:

  1. Bhava Shuddhi: (Purification of feelings, thoughts and imagination): We have to be careful to ensure that all the feelings that arise in our heart, all the thoughts that come to our mind, all our imaginations are exalted, pure and beneficial to us. This is because, our words and our actions, which are the most important aspects of our personality, are directly based on the feelings, thoughts and imaginations we entertain. Hence, immediate and urgent attention needs to be drawn towards purification of feelings, thoughts and imagination. This brings forth another question: ‘Without our consent, without our volition, involuntarily, gross feelings and base thoughts arise in our restless mind. What can we do about it?’ The first answer is ‘Don’t be afraid about your helplessness’. ‘By constantly keeping the company of the right kind of people, constantly studying the right kind of literature, and sincerely praying to our Ishta who lives within us and constantly observes our mind, we can lift up our mind to whatever heights we wish’ is the final answer!

 

  1. Vak Shuddhi: (Purification of our speech): As we proceed in purifying our mind as mentioned above, our tendency to gossip and talk meaninglessly reduces. Only useful and necessary words come out of our mouth. And, those words will carry weight.

But we should note one thing here. If our words have to be pure and wholesome, purification of our feelings, thoughts and imagination alone will not suffice. We need to get trained by the right kind of people and we must have developed the habit of deep study of the right kind of literature. This effort bears a two-fold result: Firstly our language becomes beautiful, meaningful and clear. We will then be able to express our experiences and thoughts very clearly, without any ambiguity. Secondly, our thinking processes become enriched by the fund of language skills we come to possess. Wild feelings, diverse and erratic thinking are harmful to our mental health, nor do they help us in our efforts at inner purification. They only lead us to a state of impurity!

The inner workings of the mind and heart are projected out through our words. Hence special care has to be given to purification of the mind and heart. Our words reflect our feelings and thoughts. Hence special care has to be given to purification of the mind and heart.

We must always remember that purification of our speech, and purification of our feelings, thoughts and imagination lend the distinct fragrance of purity to our entire personality.

 

  1. Kriya Shuddhi: (Purification of our actions): Aren’t all the actions we perform day-in and day-out, but a reflection of our state of mind? The actions of a person derive directly from the power of knowledge a person possesses and the power of will that he has developed. Hence our actions, more specifically, the quality of our actions, depend entirely upon our brain-power and will-power. Every act of ours should be:
    1. Efficient
    2. Systematic
    3. Useful

The great secret is that if a person keeps on working like this, his personality becomes pure over a period of time. If one works efficiently, his personal capabilities increase. If one works systematically, the restlessness of mind gets calm. If one performs only useful work, his heart gets filled with a sense of satisfaction and contentment. His mind and heart gradually get transformed into a formidable instrument of power, raising one to the heights of purity.

Thus, purity in our personality can be achieved by gradually working towards Bhava-Shuddhi, Vak-Shuddhi and Kriya-Shuddhi. But that is not the end. There is a state that is the pinnacle of Purity. The direct perception of God requires that highest level of Purity in our personality. Swami Yatishwaranandaji used to say that the means of attaining to that highest level of purity is to pray intensely to God. God is the basis of Purity and the repository of Purity that we wish to achieve. True. We have to overcome every obstacle and temptation by praying to God who is the root of Purity. There is no other way, in fact! We have to embrace purity and make it our very nature. In this regard, the life of Sri Sharada Devi throws a new light on us. We just have to make up our mind to study very deeply her entire life, with this end in view; that’s all. Indeed, a price worth paying for the infinite returns in store for our efforts!

Purity – a deliberation

The utility and necessity of purity, in rising to the heights of spiritual unfoldemnt from the stage of worldliness, can never be over-emphasized. But this world is the realm of sensuality. In this realm of sensuality, there are very few people who even know that there is such a blessed state called ‘Purity’. When such is the case, how many indeed will know or appreciate the utility of purity? Moreover, the rare few that do get to hear about this blessed state of purity generally become afraid that purity will adversely affect their married life. Hence they avoid any further inquiry into this most wonderful state that any person could raise oneself to! But then, this is a gross misconception. If you think about it a little, you will yourself realize that this line of thinking – that purity will destroy marital life – is flawed. For instance, look at this popular sloka:

Ahalya Draupadi Sita Taara Mandodari tatha!

Panchakanya smarennityam mahapaataka naashanam!!

 

“Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Taara and Mandodari – if you remember these five maidens every day, all your sins will be atoned for.”

 

Please note that these five women have been called ‘Maidens’ [Kanya] here. And it is commonly known that these five were all married women. Moreover, the lives of all these five too were more than a deviation from what is generally considered the normal life of a married woman! Despite all these, it is said that if you remember them every day, you will overcome all your sins. What does ‘overcome all your sins’ mean? Does not it mean that you will become pure? Therefore it clearly means that living a life of unbroken chastity alone is not the meaning of purity!

If this is so, then what is purity? We need to understand the concept of purity in all its various aspects and about all its different ramifications. The Sanskrit word for purity is ‘Pavitra’. Etymologically, this Sanskrit word is declined as follows: ‘Pavi’ means sin or impurity; ‘Tra’ means to go beyond. Therefore, the word purity means achieving inner cleanliness through performing good works by which you overcome old sins and don’t allow for committing fresh sins.

We need to understand what constitutes sin in this context. Which acts are sinful, and which are not? No man who commits a sin has a sense that he is sinning. Since he does not have that sense, he commits sins after sins. Now, the trouble is, if you think properly, it is impossible to classify which acts are sinful and which are virtuous. Such a classification is indeed a moral dilemma. But that act, after doing which, your mind gets peace, balance and joy, is certainly a noble act, a virtuous act. Similarly, that act, after doing which, your mind gets disturbed and gets thrown into choppy waves, is undoubtedly a sinful act, an evil act! A sinful act, whether small or big, does not leave the doer’s mind in peace. Just utter a harmless lie, and see the reaction on yourself. Your mind will go on experiencing some sort of disturbance and won’t be in peace! Now, some may point out that habitual, serial liars exist, who go on with their lives happily! But, we ask such persons, are they really able to peep inside the minds of those inveterate liars?

Let alone fibbing; there are many who indulge in hundreds of other sinful acts such as cheating, hypocrisy, treachery, robbery, etc. Is not it clear to you that such people are far, far away from the supreme ideal, the exalting ideal of purity?

But, we need to think and analyze about one important issue in this context. Generally when we say ‘Purity’, the ideal of perfect chastity comes to mind. Or one thinks of ‘sexual’ purity. This is a pervasive tendency. In India, especially, this is so pervasive that even the learned persons who are legally wedded to each other and are good, cultured people in every respect, confess that sometimes they feel a sense of guilt when they hear the word ‘Purity’. They confess that often they feel that there is some sort of ‘impurity’ in them. In order to realize that a scripturally enjoined, legally married life is absolutely no obstacle to leading a pure life, we ought to see some of the pure couples that still exist in our society. Their behavior, attitudes, demeanor and dealings must be observed. Then we will experience the cool, soothing effect that their purity has on our hearts!

Yet another incredible fact is that purity is not the monopoly of only the elite of the society, or only the academically educated people of society. Here and there, even in the lower strata of society, we come across glowing examples that diffuse the sweet, enchanting fragrance of purity in the morass of this world! Perhaps we could quote some such instances. But, much better than reading about them will be the impact we feel if we approach them and seeing with our own eyes these ‘salt of the earth’. That would be more useful, more beneficial and much more meaningful. But, we may broach one serious issue for consideration here, that is worthy of our attention. Just recall the innumerable saints and sages and prophets, of various levels of spiritual achievements and contributions, who blessed this world with their purifying impact; did they all fall from the sky? Or did they just enter this world from another dimension, passing through a membrane? Didn’t they all take birth in some blessed household or the other? The couples that gave birth to these saints and seers and prophets, what were they if not pure?!

A subtler aspect of the same issue is there. If married people can indeed lead a life of the highest purity, what status are we to ascribe to the purity seen in the life of unbroken celibacy?

It is extremely difficult to answer this question. This is indeed a very tricky question. Even after practicing celibacy, if the personality is filled with egotism and arrogance; even after practicing celibacy, if the personality shows glaring weaknesses like infatuation and jealousy; even after practicing celibacy, if the personality entertains base desires like hankering for name and fame; who indeed would call such a celibate person as pure? Not only that. Sri Ramakrishna’s monastic disciple Swami Brahmananda says that there are many so-called pure people, who develop a peculiar arrogance by feeling ‘I am pure; I live a pure life; I am heads and shoulders above all these worldly, married people’! A strange ‘holier-than-thou’ complex is developed in such people. This egotism, this arrogance arising out of purity is very subtle and very intense. Hence removing it also is very, very difficult. The spiritual growth of such people gets arrested, says Swami Brahmananda. When you see all this, don’t you realize that in order to reach the pinnacle of purity, something more than the practice of Brahmacharya is needed? Even though Ashwattama practiced unbroken celibacy and was the only son of the greatest Guru of Archery Dronacharya, why is he not hailed as the ideal of purity? On the other hand, don’t we find millions worshipping in various ways and benefitting from it, even today, Hanuman, who was not even a full-fledged human being, but only a simian?

Truly speaking, purity is something that is associated with the inner personality. That means, unless we are able to see the inner person, we won’t be able to determine if the person is really pure or impure. However, society has evolved a certain arrangement, involving a dress code, mores and habits of social behavior, etc. that is generally associated with purity. As a result, we find many people today, without the least bit of true inner austerity, parading as saints and holy men! Similarly, don’t we see any number of monks today, donning the holy saffron robe without, but utterly lacking dispassion and renunciation within? There is any number of such tigers lurking around us today in sheep’s skin. Don’t we also see the ever-growing hordes of loyal, devoted followers of such charlatans? We may call those devotees as naïve or rank idiots, but one thing we have to admit. These hypocrites have been most successful in pulling it off as paragons of purity! Therefore the masses have to wake up and realize that purity is not associated with dress or a particular color of the dress or any kind of social mores. Purity does not come with any mask either. Once during a conversation, a ‘fallen’ monk’s reference came up and Holy Mother Sri Sharada Devi said, “When I see this entire charade, I feel that my white cloth is so much better!” You see, the ‘fallen’ monk used to wear saffron robes and still indulge in all sorts of immoral escapades. The saffron robe is to be worn by a person who has completely eschewed all immoral activities. Thus, if a person wears the saffron robe, it is assumed that he is incapable of any immorality whatsoever. The white robe is however not bound by any such limitation. People who wear it may be strictly moral, or may indulge in any kind of immorality. What Holy Mother meant by the above statement is that it is better to wear the ordinary white clothes and lead a pure life than wear the cloth symbolic of purity and simultaneously indulge in immoral acts! Truly, a child-like naturalness, bereft of any hypocrisy, bereft of any masks, ought to be the truest symbol of purity in society. All other masks and symbols run the risk of becoming poisonous in the hands of the hypocrites! The innocence arising out of naturalness alone is divine! What does it avail if a person wears the clothes symbolizing monasticism and saintliness if his arrogance and egotism does not reduce, if his hunger for name and fame is not quenched, and if he is secretly nourishing his petty jealousies! When people see such charades and complain as is happening right now in society, well, there is truth in their anger. But by the grace of the Lord, here and there, we still find monks of the highest caliber, truly exalted monks with pristine personalities. It is true that there are still men of the most genuine dispassion in this society. it is true that there are still men of the highest spiritual realizations in this very society. Let their blessings be upon us. May their blessings purify us and protect us.

Consolation to aspirants

It does not take long for a person to skid from the narrow path of perfection, slip from a position of purity and become a ‘fallen’ man. Jesus Christ said, “He that looks at another woman with lustful eyes has already committed adultery in his mind.” What a terrifying statement this is! The divine incarnation of the permissive west, the land filled to the brim with sensuality, to utter such words! Does not it simply chill your spine?!

But, all divine incarnations, prophets and saints have uttered statements of similar nature regarding character building and protecting one’s purity. They have all prescribed the strictest rules in this regard. Even though that is the case, spiritual aspirants of this present world find it very, very difficult to maintain such high, uncompromising standards of purity. This is mostly because of the influence of the times we live in today. Realizing this ground reality, Holy Mother Sri Sharada Devi gave the greatest consolation to struggling aspirants of today. She said, “In Kali Yuga [i.e. in today’s world], mental sins will be pardoned.” These words were uttered by one who is recognized and worshipped all over the world as the Divine Mother Incarnate! Out of her great mother-heart, unable to see the nerve-wracking struggle of her children to attain true purity, she gave this great assurance. She found that her children, even though living with the greatest care and following the strictest rules, would sometimes commit a small, inadvertent lapse in their minds. And as a consequence of that mental lapse, their own guilt [for no one else would even come to know of it, most of the times] would condemn them as ‘fallen’! In order to protect her children from such a despicable situation, she uttered these words. And what a consolation! She has saved so many genuine aspirants from such a precarious condition!

But a word of caution is necessary here. Thinking that the Holy Mother has given us such a blanket assurance, it will be our ruin if we go on indulging in all sorts of depravities inside our minds! We have to keep in mind the sense in which she has given this assurance. When we are progressing along the path prescribed by the Guru with great sincerity, and trying to lead a pure life, by chance, if the mind wavers once or twice from the ideal, we don’t have to lose heart. That lapse will be pardoned. Using this pardon, pick yourself up, hitch yourself to the ideal again and proceed ahead along your path with great sincerity. That is the sense in which this statement of the Holy Mother has to be understood.

Purity of vision

It was the year 1961. A year back I had joined the Ramakrishna Ashrama, Bangalore, as a Brahmacharin. Most Revered Swami Yatishwaranandaji Maharaj was the President of the Ashrama. He was my Guru. This background is necessary to set the incident I am going to narrate now.

One day, afternoon, around 1.30 pm. It is needless to mention that we had all finished our lunch by then. By that time, a couple arrived at the Ashrama. I recall they were a Bengali couple. They were initiated devotees of Swami Yatishwaranandaji Maharaj. So, I duly informed him of their arrival. When he came out of his room and spoke to them, he learnt that they hadn’t had their lunch yet. Swamiji asked me if any food was still left in the kitchen. I said “Yes”. I was able to readily answer in the affirmative because I was the Bhandari in the Ashrama then. [Bhandari means the inmate who looks after the cooking and serving in the Ashrama.] I led to guests to the dining hall. I laid their plates and served them the dishes. Revered Swamiji too had come along. He too sat on the floor in front of them and was speaking to them. It was summer. The dining hall used to have innumerable house-flies during summer. Revered Swamiji asked me to fetch him a hand fan. I did. He started fanning the couple with his own hands. While driving away the flies, once in a while, he would fan the couple too, since it was quite hot. I said, “Swamiji, kindly give me the fan. I will fan them.” But he didn’t give it to me. He himself went on fanning them. They finished their lunch. After speaking to him for some more time, the couple left, blessed by their Guru.

By this time, my mind was slowly going into turmoil. I couldn’t help but think in this way: ‘This is such a great monk. Moreover he is a Guru who initiates aspirants into the spiritual path. Why did he sit in front of that couple and fan them while they had lunch? Why did he have to drive away the flies himself? What could this mean?’ This question started tormenting me. Since I had grown up in a traditional household of South India, this doubt along with some other associated questions arose in my mind. But I still didn’t have the courage to openly ask them to him. But, there was in fact no need for me to ask them, after all! Revered Swamiji himself made a statement at that juncture. He merely uttered, ‘Veritable Lakshmi and Narayana!’ That was it. Not one more word came out of his mouth. Is not that enough? What more can words convey?

It’s been over 40 years since these words fell out of Revered Swamiji’s mouth. But, their impact has grown to gigantic proportions in my mind now, and is still growing! That couple was not just a man and woman! Not even a husband and wife, as the cultured people say! Veritable God and Goddess! Was not this the paradigm of the ancient Rishis?

What a pure vision, indeed!

The journey towards Purity

Let’s not speak of the millions of uncultured people of the world. But, today, in most parts of the world, especially in India, when a boy and a girl attain a certain age, there is a wonderful arrangement to legally wed them into a couple, making them a household, aiding them to sink their roots into the family life. This wonderful social arrangement of marriage is there mainly to maintain and nurture the purity of personality! Not only that, when they have children, in order to ensure that right from the beginning, these kids can enter into the life-long path of self-purification, the kids are taught to call the woman who bore them as ‘Mother’, and the man who sired them as ‘Father’. Gradually, an attempt is made to divinize this relationship by developing an outlook of ‘Maatridevobhava’ and ‘Pitridevobhava’. [These are injunctions to the kids that say: ‘Look upon your own mother as a divine being’, and ‘look upon your own father as a divine being’.]

In this way, when a young man and a lady get married, they are called husband and wife. When kids are born, they are called father and mother. Later on, for their kids, they become god and goddess! Now, let us pause for a moment and reflect. Where does impurity enter here? How can something so pure come to be seen as impure? The natural coupling of the male and female of the human species is elevated to the purity of marriage by legal sanction, and then apotheosized upon child-bearing! The foresight and clarity of thought of the Rishis that formulated such a technique for uplifting the entire society is not only uncommon, but is amazing and extraordinary!

These Rishis further taught us that the food we eat is Brahman, and called it ‘Prasada’ [sacrament]. Social get-togethers and parties were called ‘Santarpana’, ‘Samaaradhana’ and ‘Dasoha’. While get-togethers and parties serve social purposes only, looking upon them as Santarpana or Samaaradhana or Dasoha transmutes into a spiritual activity. Santarpana means ‘Worthy offering to society’; Samaaradhana means ‘Congregational worship’; Dasoha means ‘Congregation of devotees’. The ritual for coming of age, the social rite of passage into adulthood was called ‘Brahmopadesha’. They made arrangement for Gayatri Mantra Diksha [initiation into the Gayatri Mantra] for the child so that right from childhood, it could conserve its energy and develop a personality filled with purity and strength of character, and manifest incredible intellectual prowess. They taught us that marriage was to be called ‘Mangala’ [auspicious]. The traditional ornament that is to be worn by a married woman signifying her marital status was to be called ‘Maangalya’ [The symbol of that which is auspicious. In some parts of India, it is a gold medal; in some other parts, it is a silver toe-ring, etc]. The gross act of procreating offspring was purified and apotheosized into an act of repaying the debt to our forefathers. They enjoined that kids ought to be named after gods and goddesses, or divine qualities, or divine ideals, so that, when parents call out for their kids with inherent love and affection, there would be a parallel remembrance of higher ideas. Further, with a view to purify and spiritualize the conjugal life of husband and wife, they enjoined various religious activities, holy vows, fasts and vigils. To enable the blossoming of the highest purity within this precinct of a married life, they decreed that the husband ought to follow the ideal of ‘Ekapatnivrata’, and the wife ought to correspondingly stick to the ideal of ‘Pativratadharma’. Thus, by gradual means, the husband and wife were trained to see the divine in each other, realize their own greatness and achieve life fulfillment. These Rishis who envisioned such a graded path for uplifting every willing person in the society up to the empyrean heights of the highest purity, and thereby to life fulfillment, are worthy of our eternal gratitude! We offer our heartfelt salutations to these Rishis, these Seraphs, these Gurus, again and again!

Now, these same Rishis, these same Seraphs, these same Gurus also discovered the strait and narrow path of Absolute Brahmacharya, the most rigorous and austere spiritual Sadhana that leads to the realization of Brahman, the greatest achievement possible for humans. They opened it up, and then sat patiently for willing and capable aspirants to take up the challenge!

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

Translated by Swami Vedatitananda & Edited by Swami Gunottarananda

A Blue-print for Academic Improvement in Arunachal Pradesh (As sought for by the Director of School Education)

Based on the lessons learnt in the last four and a half decades in Ramakrishna Mission School, Aalo (Along), West Siang District, we present a dissertation on improving academic education in Arunachal Pradesh.

 

Aim of Education:

By imparting education to the Arunachali child, we wish to achieve the following:

  1. Integration of the child with the Indian Nation.
  2. Empowering the child with sufficient skills to participate meaningfully in the Governmental machinery & social set-up.
  3. Acclimatizing the child with the basic concepts of language (at least three), science, mathematics and history, required for making sense of the natural and social phenomena occurring around him/her.
  4. Developing in the child a faculty to express its thoughts, feelings and emotions in terms of words, both spoken & written.
  5. Awakening in the child a sense of wonder, a faculty for searching for truth and a faculty of aesthetics.
  6. Enabling the child to become a part of a team in a meaningful way.
  7. Spontaneously developing in the child a capacity for delayed gratification of various hungers – in other words, sublimation of the various natural urges in the child.
  8. Enabling the child to acquire a valid certificate from the Board by passing the prescribed examination procedures, thereby creating a sound base for its further education in a university.

 

The ideas associated with academic improvement can be classified under two headings – Academia & Discipline.

 

Academia:

  1. Syllabus & plan for its completion: Since the School will have to be affiliated to any one of the recognized Boards, such as CBSE, New Delhi or Arun Board, Itanagar, there is no flexibility or freedom in framing the syllabus, as such. But regarding completion of the syllabus, the School can plan in great detail, much to the greater benefit of the students. The completion of syllabus must be evenly phased out through out the working year so that the load on the student is even. Especially for the Board Exam classes such as Class VIII, Class X & Class XII, the entire syllabus must be completed by December, so that the student gets sufficient time for self-study and repeated revisions.

 

  1. Exams & tests: At least three exams must be conducted before deciding whether the child can be sent to the next higher class. The syllabus for the 1st Part Exam need not be repeated for the 2nd part exam and so also for the 3rd and final part exam. This will reduce the load on the child as well as give the child sufficient scope to dive deep into the syllabus meant for that particular semester. Monthly Tests must be held, especially in English, Math and Science. This will keep the child always in touch with the subjects. Else, the typical Arunachali child has the habit of studying only during the exam period, which could be academically detrimental for its intellectual growth.

 

 

  1. Hostel life versus Day scholarship: In the general situation prevailing in the Arunachali society now-a-days, the child may often not get a congenial study atmosphere at home. A strictly run hostel, however, provides wonderful opportunities for study culture in the child. By the time a child enters a hostel at the age of 5 years, he/she must have learnt to control its bowel movements. By the time it crosses the age of 10, it should have learnt to sit continuously at one place for at least 2 hours at a stretch. Without this training, study habit cannot be formed. By the age of 13, it should be introduced to the moral training of restraining its limbs and senses. A hostel environment is ideal for achieving these.

 

  1. Unisex schooling versus co-educational schooling: It is heartening to note that the Arunachali society has inbuilt systems for meaningful and healthy interaction between boys and girls, right from babyhood. Unisex schooling could upset this advantage. Thus, even where hostels are provided, it would be socially beneficial to have both boys and girls in the school.

 

  1. Role of games, sports & PT: The Arunachali child has an instinctual ability for team work. Hence these children excel in team sports like football, handball, volleyball and cricket. However, there is a need to popularize games that enhance mental abilities such as chess, sudoku, crossword and scrabble. A hostel environment is ideal for this. The natural litheness and suppleness of the Arunachali child’s body makes it ideal for acrobatic games such as gymnastics. Hence the school must have a gymnastics teacher. Every child must be given physical training instruction through drills and exercises in the morning. This helps the child to regulate its limb movements.

 

  1. Role of co-curricula: Children have tremendous energy. And the Arunachali child seems to be especially so endowed. Various opportunities must be provided by the school for canalizing this energy in meaningful ways. NCC, Social service, scouts & guides, and band training must be provided for the extroverted child. Depending on the child’s preference, it can opt for any one of these from Class VI. Painting, clay modeling, Crafts and origami training must be available for the aesthetically oriented child. Quiz groups, debate groups, study circles and philately clubs must be available in the school for the intellectual child.

 

  1. Role of art: Compulsory training in line drawing and color drawing must be given in the school right from KG up to at least Class VIII. After Class V, however, the specially endowed children must be identified and given further training in advanced forms of drawing and painting such as landscaping, perspective drawing and abstract art. Structured music must be taught to the child. Every Arunachali child today grows up being able to sing only contemporary songs of the cinema and music bands. This however does nothing to infuse culture in the child. Structured music, on the other hand, strengthens the personality of the child. The child that is unable to sing classical music must at least be taught to appreciate it. Avenues must be available for the child to learn to play some musical instruments like the harmonium, tabla, flute, guitar and the mouth organ. It is very strange that this land of bamboos does not have flautists. Girls must be taught structured dances of various cultures, apart from traditional tribal dance forms. This will result in infusion of cultures later on in the Arunachali society. The innate ability of the Arunachali child to draw, paint, sing and dance is something unparalleled in the world. This ability has not drawn the world’s attention purely because there is still no systematic training being imparted to the Arunachali child in these fields.

 

  1. Need of the Library & reading room: The child must be exposed to the world of books. By the time a child passes class VIII, he/she must have developed a habit of spending at least a solitary hour with a book, speaking to the author through its contents. Awakening a love of reading in the child is one of the great achievements of the school.

 

  1. Need of computer education: Compulsory computer education must be imparted to the child at least from class V onwards. By the time a child passes class VIII, he/she must be conversant with working on MS office and browsing the worldwide web.

 

  1. Instruments for developing National Consciousness: By the time a child passes class VIII, he/she must have a clear identification with the State and the Country. National pride in every child is the greatest security that the nation can have. Special assemblies on Martyrs’ Day, Sadbhavana Divas, etc must be conducted by the school. Processions and Prabhat Pheris must be organized by the School and the children must be encouraged to participate in them at least once a year. Children must be guided to prepare wall magazines on topics related to Indian Nationalist movement, Nationalist leaders and issues concerning the nation presently.

 

  1. Instruments for developing Time Consciousness: the primary instrument is the Morning Assembly. Every child must be encouraged to attend it. The Assembly must be meaningfully structured and must be short. Other instruments include a strict time keeper in the school and hostel. Every day, he shall ring the bell at the stipulated hours, and this must be adhered to at any cost. The child who learns to stick to the routine by the clock during its school days will develop healthy work habits later on in life.

 

Discipline:

  1. Discipline defined: As we have noted in Sl.No. 3 under ‘Academia’ supra, by the time a child enters a hostel at the age of 5 years, he/she must have learnt to control its bowel movements. Without this habit, the child won’t have a healthy psychological growth. By the time it crosses the age of 10, it should have learnt to sit continuously at one place for at least 2 hours at a stretch. Without this training, study habit cannot be formed. By the age of 13, it should be introduced to the moral training of restraining its limbs and senses. Thus discipline means training of the sensory and motor organs.

 

  1. Instruments for disciplining the child:
    1. Dressing: Uniform must be worn. And that too in a particular fashion only. Hairstyle and footwear must not be allowed to deviate beyond a permissible limit.
    2. Routine: every child must stick to the routine as maintained by the school and hostel time keeper.
    3. Attendance: the child cannot be allowed to be absent from school or hostel without notice.
    4. Punishments for deviations from the norm:
  1. The norms must be clearly spelt out for the child again and again, and from time to time.
  2. The punishment for deviation from the norm must be aimed at the conscience of the child and not at its ego or self-esteem. Quite often, we hurt the self-esteem of the child while punishing him/her and this is counter-productive in the long run. We only end up creating imbalanced individuals by doing so.
  • Corporal punishment must be avoided at every cost, even for small children of the KG and primary classes.
  1. While punishing adolescent children, special care must be taken to safeguard their self-esteem and image in the student-society.

 

  1. Counseling: Children everywhere need counseling. And the Arunachali child needs it all the more. We say this because the Arunachali child starts asserting its individuality much earlier than children in most other parts of India. So the teachers need to enter into quasi-parental relationships with the child and teach the child what right behavior is & what prohibited behavior is.

 

  1. Factors to be considered while disciplining the child:
    1. All too often, disciplining the child tends to be negative. The child is taught ‘Don’t tell lies’. But the child is not taught how not to tell a lie. More importantly, the child gets punished if it tells the truth in most cases. Whatever be the case, whatever be the actual event or situation, when the child speaks the truth, it must be rewarded. That is the only way of establishing discipline and reinforcing discipline in the child. In this regard, teachers need to be specially trained in handling Arunachali children.
    2. The present system of education depends largely on strict parental control over the child’s mind and its behavior. The Arunachali social set-up frees the child from parental control by the time the child reaches the age of 12, especially for boys, as we have seen. Unless this system is altered, and parental control remains until the child finishes its university education, there seems to be hardly any way in which the present system of education can benefit Arunachali society. In this regard, the school aught to form a Parent-Teachers Association and discuss this matter seriously between themselves.
    3. Since parental control relaxes itself too early in the child’s life, the Arunachali child forms very strong peer relationships. But peer relationships can never provide a moral standard for the child. At the same time, no peer relationship must be forcibly broken by either teachers or parents. Forcible isolation of the child from its peer circle is counter-productive. Again, counseling by the teachers, who have to double-up as quasi-parents, and strengthening of parental control over the child alone can remedy the situation and provide the child with a solid moral rudder for forming its personality.
    4. Children learn by imitation. Hence our behavior while children are around must be highly regulated. For instance, it won’t work if we are impulsive and blow our top for every small reason and then expect the child to be calm and composed. Children seldom listen to our words. Rather they study our actions and then follow suit. If a child does not show respect to elders, we can be sure that he/she has seen some of us behaving disrespectfully towards those persons. If a child does not show sympathy and consideration towards other children, we can be sure that we have not set examples of sympathy & fellow-consideration in the vicinity of the child. It is impossible to invoke moral behavior in the child while we exhibit corrupt practices ourselves.
    5. Consumption of intoxicants among adolescents in Arunachal Pradesh must be given serious thought by both teachers and parents. Children are too susceptible for addictions. The Arunachali society, which is undergoing a transition, must urgently bring in certain checks & measures to prevent sale of intoxicants to minors. Teachers must regularly explain to the child the terrible consequences of substance abuse on the tender organs of the growing child.

 

Sympathetic teachers-Arunachal’s need of the hour:

True education boils down to presenting persons of high character, in the form of teachers, before the child during its schooling period. Especially for the Arunachali child, we need teachers, who can truly sympathize with the child, because the Arunachali child is typically very sensitive and has a soul of great plasticity. It is easy to find teachers who are stentorian and strict disciplinarians, whose stickler attitudes stifle the child rather than allowing it to blossom. But persons who can empathize with the child are needed in large numbers, and they are needed urgently; and once we get such persons, they must be encouraged to stick around.

This is a land of great potential in terms of human resources. Great potential also means greater responsibility in nurturing it and harnessing it.

We pray to the Lord Almighty that this immense potential finds its fullest manifestation.

 

(Swami Vedatitananda)

Principal

Academic improvement dissertation for DSE