Sri Ramakrishna and Prayer

What is the way?

Let me start by asking a question: Sri Ramakrishna has said so many things in the Gospel pertaining to spiritual life. If we ask, what is the one spiritual practice that he has emphasized again and again for all of us, what would be your answer?

Let us take a look at the Gospel to get the answer. By far the most common question asked of Sri Ramakrishna was ‘Sir, what is the way?’ I give below a sample list of Sri Ramakrishna’s answer to this question. Let us look at the following 12 instances recorded in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna and analyze the answers that Sri Ramakrishna gave to different people who asked him this momentous question:

  1. A Devotee: “Then what is the way, sir?”

Master : “Prayer and the company of holy men.[1]

  1. A Marwari Devotee: “Sir, what is the way?”

 Master: “There are two ways. One is the path of discrimination; the other is that of love. Discrimination means to know the distinction between the Real and the unreal. God alone is the real and permanent Substance; all else is illusory and impermanent. The magician alone is real; his magic is illusory. This is discrimination.

Marwari Devotee: “Revered sir, you just mentioned two paths. What is the other path?”

Master: “The path of bhakti, or zealous love of God. Weep for God in solitude, with a restless soul, and ask Him to reveal Himself to you. Cry to your Mother Syama with a real cry, O mind! And how can She hold Herself from you? “[2]

  1. A Vaishnava goswami was seated in the room. The Master said to him: “Well, what do you say? What is the way?”

Goswami: “Sir, the chanting of God’s name is enough. The scriptures emphasize the sanctity of God’s name for the Kaliyuga.”

Master: “Yes, there is no doubt about the sanctity of God’s name. But can a mere name achieve anything, without the yearning love of the devotee behind it? One should feel great restlessness of soul for the vision of God. Suppose a man repeats the name of God mechanically, while his mind is absorbed in ‘woman and gold’. Can he achieve anything? Mere muttering of magic words doesn’t cure one of the pain of a spider or scorpion sting. One must also apply the smoke of burning cow-dung.”[3]

  1. A Brahmo Devotee: “Sir, what is the way?”

Master: “Attachment to God, or, in other words, love for Him. And secondly, prayer.”

Brahmo Devotee: “Which one is the way— love or prayer?”

Master: “First love, and then prayer.”[4]

  1. Devotee: “Now, sir, what is the way?”

Master: “It is extremely difficult to practise spiritual discipline and at the same time lead a householder’s life. There are many handicaps: disease, grief, poverty, misunderstanding with one’s wife, and disobedient, stupid, and stubborn children. I don’t have to give you a list of them. But still there is a way out. One should pray to God, going now and then into solitude, and make efforts to realize Him.” [5]

  1. A Devotee: “Then what is the way for those who have not seen God? Must they give up all the duties of the world?”

Master: “The best path for this age is bhaktiyoga, the path of bhakti prescribed by Narada : to sing the name and glories of God and pray to Him with a longing heart, ‘O God, give me knowledge, give me devotion, and reveal Thyself to me!’ The path of karma is extremely difficult. Therefore one should pray: ‘O God, make my duties fewer and fewer; and may I, through Thy grace, do the few duties that Thou givest me without any attachment to their results! May I have no desire to be involved in many activities!’ It is not possible to give up work altogether. Even to think or to meditate is a kind of work. As you develop love for God, your worldly activities become fewer and fewer of themselves. And you lose all interest in them. Can one who has tasted a drink made of sugar candy enjoy a drink made of ordinary molasses?”[6]

  1. A Devotee: “Sir, what is the way?”

Master: “Discrimination between the Real and the unreal. One should always discriminate to the effect that God alone is real and the world unreal. And one should pray with sincere longing[7]

  1. Mahendra: “Then what is the way?”

Master: “No salvation is possible for a man as long as he has desire, as long as he hankers for worldly things. Therefore fulfil all your desires regarding food, clothes, and sex. (Smiling) What do you say about the last one? Legitimate or illegitimate? (M. and Mahendra laugh.)

        Prior to this conversation, Sri Ramakrishna had answered Mahendra’s question, “Why does one slip from the path of Yoga?” as follows: While thinking of God the aspirant may feel a craving for material enjoyment. It is this craving that makes him slip from the path…”[8]

While Sri Ramakrishna goes on to tell Mahendra and M that the smaller, harmless desires for enjoyment can be fulfilled by the devotee, elsewhere, in other conversations, he instructs that the bigger ones, the really fundamental desires should be eliminated by prayer to God. For instance: Say to God with a guileless heart, ‘O God, reveal thyself to me.’ And weep. Pray to God, ‘O God, keep my mind away from “woman and gold”.’ And dive deep.[9] The obstacle to Yoga is “woman and gold”. Yoga is possible when the mind becomes pure…what are the spiritual disciplines that give the mind its upward direction? One learns all this by constantly living in holy company…In order to renounce, one must pray to God for the will-power to do so.[10]

  1. Trailokya: “What is the way to dry up the craving for worldly pleasure?”

Master: “Pray to the Divine Mother with a longing heart. Her vision dries up all craving for the world and completely destroys all attachment to ‘woman and gold’. It happens instantly if you think of Her as your own mother. She is by no means a godmother. She is your own mother. With a yearning heart persist in your demands on Her. The child holds to the skirt of its mother and begs a penny of her to buy a kite. Perhaps the mother is gossiping with her friends. At first she refuses to give the penny and says to the child: ‘No, you can’t have it. Your daddy has asked me not to give you money. When he comes home I’ll ask him about it. You will get into trouble if you play with a kite now.’ The child begins to cry and will not give up his demand. Then the mother says to her friends: ‘Excuse me a moment. Let me pacify this child.’ Immediately she unlocks the cash-box with a click and throws the child a penny.  “You too must force your demand on the Divine Mother. She will come to you without fail.[11]

  1. Host: “Revered sir, what is the way for us?”

Master: “Chanting the name and glories of God, living in the company of holy men, and earnestly praying to God.”[12]

  1. Musician: “Sir, what is the way to realize God?”

Master: ” Bhakti is the one essential thing…It is enough to have yearning for God. It is enough to love Him and feel attracted to Him: Don’t you know that God is the Inner Guide? He sees the longing of our heart and the yearning of our soul. Suppose a man has several sons. The older boys address him distinctly as ‘Baba’ or ‘Papa’, but the babies can at best call him ‘Ba’ or ‘Pa’. Now, will the father be angry with those who address him in this indistinct way? The father knows that they too are calling him, only they cannot pronounce his name well. All children are the same to the father. Likewise, the devotees call on God alone, though by different names. They call on one Person only. God is one, but His names are many.”[13]

  1. Girish: “What is the way for people like us?”

Master: “Bhakti is the only essential thing. Bhakti has different aspects: the sattvic, the rajasic, and the tamasic. One who has sattvic bhakti is very modest and humble. But a man with tamasic bhakti is like a highwayman in his attitude toward God. He says: ‘O God, I am chanting. Your name; how can I be a sinner? O God, You are my own Mother; You must reveal your-self to me.'”[14]

Notice how, in each case, Sri Ramakrishna adds that prayer is essential for us to achieve our spiritual goal.

There is a very interesting conversation recorded on 15th June 1884. There was a major celebration in Surendra’s house and many devotees had gathered. Sri Ramakrishna stayed there for the whole day. Around 2pm, Pratap Chandra Mazumdar, a co-worker of Keshab Chandra Sen in the Brahmo Samaj arrived and joined the celebrations. He asks Sri Ramakrishna a most interesting question: “Revered Sir, are those living with you making progress in spiritual life?” Sri Ramakrishna gives a wonderful reply, words which form the credo of all devotees of Ramakrishna Mission, so to say. He says, “I tell people that there is nothing wrong in the life of the world. But they must live in the world as a maidservant lives in her master’s house.  Referring to her master’s house, she says, ‘That is our house.’ But her real home is perhaps in a far-away village. Pointing out her master’s house to others, she says, no doubt, ‘This is our house’, but in her heart she knows very well that it doesn’t belong to her and that her own house is in a faraway village. She brings up her master’s son and says, ‘My Hari has grown very naughty’, or ‘My Hari doesn’t like sweets.’ Though she repeats, ‘My Hari’ with her lips, yet she knows in her heart that Hari doesn’t belong to her, that he is her master’s son.  Thus I say to those who visit me: ‘Why don’t you live in the world? There is no harm in that. But always keep your mind on God. Know for certain that house, family and property are not yours. They are God’s. Your real home is in God.’ Also I ask them to pray always with a longing heart for love of God’s Lotus Feet.[15]

We must refer to the authoritative book by Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play to understand the value of this most interesting conversation. Swami Saradananda writes:[16]

After he had attained perfection in various Sadhanas, the Master had many unique intuitive perceptions. Some of them were related to himself and others to spirituality in general:

  1. He is an incarnation of God.
  2. There is no liberation for him.
  3. He knew the time of his death.
  4. All religions are true: as many faiths, so many paths.
  5. Human beings adopt dualism, qualified non-dualism and non-dualism according to their temperaments.
  6. Ordinary people will progress through karma yoga
  7. A religious organization based on this catholic attitude should be founded.

Regarding the 6th perception, Swami Saradananda elaborates: The Master indicated the limits of action when he said, “The action of a sattvic person drops off automatically. He cannot work even if he tries to; the Lord does not allow him to work. It is just as when a young wife advances in pregnancy. She is given less and less work to do; and when the child is born, she gives up household work altogether and is busied exclusively with the infant. But an ordinary person must try to do his duties with detachment, depending on the Lord, like the maidservant who does everything for her master, knowing in her heart that her home is elsewhere. This is known as karma yoga. As far as possible one should take the name of the Lord and meditate on Him while discharging one’s everyday duties in an unattached way.”[17]

Prayer is thus an integral part of karma yoga, the path for the present age, as revealed by the Divine Mother of the Universe to Sri Ramakrishna. Prayer is therefore an integral part of Sri Ramakrishna’s Mission on earth. Everyone works in this world. What distinguishes work from karma yoga is prayer.

Further, there are instances in the Gospel where Sri Ramakrishna most emphatically states that prayer alone is enough for achieving one’s spiritual goal. He also very forcefully states that prayer done under certain conditions will certainly be heard by God. For instance: “Let me assure you that a man can realize his Inner Self through sincere prayer.”[18] “One should pray to God with a longing heart. God certainly listens to prayer if it is sincere. There is no doubt about it.”[19] “You will attain God if you sing His name and glories and pray to Him with a longing heart. There is not the least doubt about it.”[20]

Is this prescription of prayer only for married people? For, all the instances mentioned above seem to pertain only to householders. Well, look at what Sri Ramakrishna himself said while speaking with Pandit Shashadhar Tarkachudamani, “A devotee who can call on God while living a householder’s life is a hero indeed. God thinks: ‘He who has renounced the world for My sake will surely pray to Me. He must serve Me. Is there anything very remarkable about it? People will cry shame on him if he fails to do so. But he is blessed indeed who prays to Me in the midst of his worldly duties. He is trying to find Me, overcoming a great obstacle – pushing away, as it were, a huge block of stone weighing a ton. Such a man is a real hero.’”[21] Again while speaking with Nanda Bose, Sri Ramakrishna said, “Though you are a householder, still you have kept your mind on God. Is that a small thing? The man who has renounced the world will pray to Him as a matter of course. Is there any credit in that? But blessed indeed is he who, while leading a householder’s life, prays to God. He is like a man who finds an object after removing a stone weighing twenty maunds.”[22] So, prayer is meant for all spiritual aspirants, monastic or married.

In fact, the tremendous feeling Sri Ramakrishna had for the married devotees is simply amazing! Just look at this particular prayer he once offered to the Divine Mother on behalf of the married devotees. It is unparalleled in all religious history! I quote from the Gospel entry for 5th Jan 1884:

The Master was weeping and praying to the Mother in a voice choked with emotion. He prayed to Her with tearful eyes for the welfare of the devotees: “Mother, may those who come to You have all their desires fulfilled! But please don’t make them give up everything at once, Mother. Well, You may do whatever You like in the end. If You keep them in the world, Mother, then please reveal Yourself to them now and then. Otherwise, how will they live? How will they be encouraged if they don’t see You once in a while? But You may do whatever You like in the end.”[23]

It seems logical to conclude that prayer is indeed the universal spiritual practice that Sri Ramakrishna prescribed for all of us. Of course, he also prescribes many other spiritual practices – meditation, discrimination, chanting the names of God, Japa, singing His glories, holy company, austerity, even purascharana, etc. But the common feature in all his prescriptions is ‘Prayer’. Sri Ramakrishna seems to hold that prayer is alone necessary and sufficient means for achieving one’s goal in spiritual life. Of course, ‘conditions apply’! But let us first of all convince ourselves of the fact that prayer has been given utmost importance by Sri Ramakrishna as a spiritual practice.

He says, “It is enough to know that everything depends on the grace of God. But one must pray to God; it will not do to remain inactive. The lawyer gives all the arguments and finishes his pleading by saying to the judge: ‘I have said all I have to say. Now the decision rests with Your Honor.’”[24]

We need not complicate this simple advice of Sri Ramakrishna by analyzing further what prayer is and how to perform it. That is what scholars and philosophers do.[25] They take a simple statement or idea and complicate it so badly that people lose interest in it. Everyone knows how to pray. Everyone knows what prayer is. Sri Ramakrishna however describes some of his own prayers, which are unique in their content.[26] It is surprising to learn that he prayed for all sorts of things. We find him praying for bodily strength even! Every now and then, he would discover some habit of thought or behavior in himself, which he wanted to get rid of. What would he do? Pray to the Divine Mother! That was his method. Again, he would develop a fancy for a particular spiritual state. His method would be to pray to the Divine Mother. For anything and everything, we find Sri Ramakrishna praying to the Divine Mother. I point this out because, in most places in the Gospel, we find Sri Ramakrishna exhorting that we must pray for knowledge, devotion and Love. But he himself had prayed for anything that he wanted, not just for knowledge, devotion and Love. So, basically, prayer is the default state of mind of a spiritual aspirant; that is what we learn from Sri Ramakrishna.

How to pray?

Everyone prays. In fact, anyone who has passed through the modern education system will automatically learn how to pray! But prayer is an art that can be developed to great heights. It is a skill in which we can become better and better. Sri Ramakrishna shows the way how this can be done. He lists out a whole set of qualities of mind and heart that embellish prayer. With each of these qualities, the efficacy of our prayer increases.

  1. Spontaneous, earnest and sincere: Prayer has to be from the heart, spontaneous. Prayer cannot be tutored. You cannot copy prayer. It has to be earnest. Earnest prayer is real prayer. Sri Ramakrishna says, “There is another way: earnestly praying to God. God is our very own. We should say to Him: ‘O God, what is Thy nature? Reveal Thyself to me. Thou must show Thyself to me; for why else hast Thou created me?’[27] “One must pray earnestly. It is said that one can realize God by directing to Him the combined intensity of three attractions, namely, the child’s attraction for the mother, the husband’s attraction for the chaste wife, and the attraction of worldly possessions for the worldly man.”[28] “(The way is) chanting the names & glories of God, living in the company of holy men, and earnestly praying to God…Pray to Rama. Meditate on Him. He will certainly provide you with everything.”[29] “He who is a real devotee of God seeks nothing but God. If he finds himself entangled in too much work, he earnestly prays, ‘Lord, be gracious and reduce my work; my mind, which should think of Thee day and night, has been wasting its power; it thinks of worldly things alone.’”[30]

Prayer has to be sincere. There has to be longing in the heart that prays. That is when prayer becomes efficacious. Sri Ramakrishna says, “A man may call on God by any name; if he is sincere in his prayer he will certainly reach Him. He will succeed if he has longing.”[31] “Let me assure you that a man can realize his Inner Self through sincere prayer.”[32] “One should pray to God with a longing heart. God certainly listens to prayer if it is sincere. There is no doubt about it.”[33] “A man can realize God by following his own path if his prayer is sincere.”[34] “One should pray to God with sincere longing. God cannot but listen to prayer if it is sincere.”[35] “What will you gain by merely repeating ‘Siddhi’[36]? You will not be intoxicated even by gargling with a solution of siddhi. It must go into your stomach; not until then will you be intoxicated. One cannot comprehend what I am saying unless one prays to God in solitude, all by oneself, with a longing heart.”[37] “You will attain God if you sing His name and glories and pray to Him with a longing heart. There is not the least doubt about it.”[38] “(The way is) one should pray with sincere longing.”[39] “The best path for this age is bhakti yoga, the path of Bhakti prescribed by Narada. To sing the name and glories of God and pray to Him with a longing heart, ‘O God, give me knowledge, give me devotion, and reveal Thyself to me!’”[40] “…with love and longing in your heart pray to God, ‘O God, grant me devotion at Thy lotus feet and reduce my worldly duties. Please grant me the boon that the few duties I must do may be done in a detached spirit.’”[41]

“One must pray to God without any selfish desire. But selfish worship, if practiced with perseverance, is gradually turned into selfless worship. Dhruva practiced tapasya to obtain his kingdom, but at last he realized God. He said, ‘Why should a man give up gold if he gets it while searching for glass beads?’”[42] “You are no doubt in the world. What if you are? You must surrender the fruit of your action to God. You must not seek any result for yourself. But mark one thing. The desire for bhakti cannot be called a desire. You may desire bhakti and pray for it.”[43] “Pray to Him with a yearning heart, and weep. That will purify your heart…Pray to Brahman with attributes, who listens to your prayers, and He Himself will give you full Knowledge of Brahman; for that which is Brahman with attributes is verily Brahman without attributes, that which is Brahman is verily Sakti. One realizes this non-duality after the attainment of Perfect Knowledge. The Divine Mother gives Her devotee Brahmajnana too…God is our Inner Controller. Pray to Him with a pure and guileless heart. He will explain everything to you. Give up egotism and take refuge in Him. You will realize everything.”[44] “Whatever path you may follow, you must pray to God with a restless heart. He is the Ruler of the soul within. He will surely listen to your prayer if it is sincere. Whether you follow the ideal of the Personal God or that of the Impersonal Truth, you will realize God alone, provided you are restless for Him. A cake with icing tastes sweet whether you eat it straight or sidewise.”[45] “Why shouldn’t one realize God while living in the world? But…one must live in holy company, pray to God, weeping for His grace, and now and then go into solitude. Unless the plants on a foot-path are protected at first by fences, they are destroyed by cattle.”[46] “Can one know God through reasoning? Be His servant, surrender yourself to Him, and then pray to Him.”[47]

Once when Sri Ramakrishna had visited the house of a devotee called Devendra, the following conversation occurred: Sri Ramakrishna said, “The mother of a certain Mallick, who belonged to a very noble family, asked me if prostitutes would ever be saved. She herself had led that kind of life; that is why she asked the question. I said: ‘Yes, they too will be saved, if only they cry to God with a yearning heart and promise not to repeat their sins.’ What will the mere chanting of Hari’s name accomplish? One must weep sincerely.”[48]

Notice three things in the series of quotations made here: first, how emphatically Sri Ramakrishna insists that God does listen to prayer, if it is sincere, direct from the heart. Second, repeatedly Sri Ramakrishna points out that God can be realized while leading a married life; well, he goes much further and includes even the morally depraved! Third, he hints at a certain order regarding prayer – first of all become the Lord’s servant, then surrender to Him, and only then pray to Him. This gradation in the practice of prayer is important to note. This takes us to the next set of instructions that Sri Ramakrishna gave on prayer.

 

  1. A definite relationship with God: Sri Ramakrishna reveals a great secret regarding prayer. We need to develop a definite relationship with God for our prayers to become efficacious. There is a wonderful conversation between Pandit Shashadhar Tarkachudamani and Sri Ramakrishna recorded in the Gospel, from which I quote:

Pandit: Does God listen to our prayers?

Master: God is the Kalpataru, the Wish-fulfilling Tree. You will certainly get whatever you ask of Him. But you must pray standing near the Kalpataru. Only then will your prayer be fulfilled. (The conversation continues and then again, Sri Ramakrishna reiterates) God is the Kalpataru. One should pray standing near It. Then one will get whatever one desires.[49]

Again, during his meeting with the aristocrat of Baghbazar Nanda Bose, Sri Ramakrishna made the same statement:

Nanda: Is there no after-life? What about punishment for our sins?

Master: Why not enjoy your mangoes? What need have you to calculate about the after-life and what happens then, and things like that? Eat your mangoes. You need mangoes. You need devotion to God.

Nanda: But where is the mango-tree? Where do I get mangoes?

Master: Tree? God is the eternal and infinite Brahman. He does exist; there is no doubt about it. He is eternal. But you must remember this, that He is the Kalpataru. ‘Come, let us go for a walk, O mind, to Kali, the Wish-fulfilling Tree, and there beneath It gather the four fruits of life.’ You must go to the Kalpataru and pray. Only then will you obtain the fruits. Only then will the fruits fall from the tree. Only then will you be able to gather them.[50]

Look at this condition that Sri Ramakrishna puts for efficacy of our prayers; we need to stand near the Kalpataru; which means we need to place ourselves near God and then pray. What does this ‘standing near’ mean? Elsewhere, Sri Ramakrishna explains to M:

One should assume a particular attitude toward God while praying to Him – the attitude of friend or servant or son or hero. I assume the attitude of a child. To me every woman is my mother. The divine Maya, seeing this attitude in an aspirant, moves away from his path out of sheer shame. The attitude of hero is extremely difficult. The Saktas and the Bauls among the Vaishnavas follow it, but it is very hard to keep one’s spiritual life pure in that attitude. One can assume other attitudes toward God as well the attitude in which the devotee serenely contemplates God as the Creator, the attitude of service to Him, the attitude of friendship, the attitude of motherly affection, or the attitude of conjugal love. The conjugal relationship, the attitude of a woman to her husband or sweetheart, contains all the rest – serenity, service, friendship, and motherly affection. (Then he asks M) Which one of these appeals to your mind?[51]

This assuming a particular attitude towards God is what is meant by ‘standing near the Kalpataru’.

  1. Unceasing, and in secret: Sri Ramakrishna now ups the ante regarding prayer and goes one step further and exhorts that prayer ought to become continuous. Sporadic praying is but the beginning[52]. Gradually, the prayerful attitude ought to become constant in us. He uses words such as ‘always’ and ‘unceasing’ with regard to prayer. I quoted a conversation between a Brahmo devotee and Sri Ramakrishna in the beginning of this article. Let us look at that particular conversation in detail now.

A Brahmo Devotee: Sir, what is the way?

Master: Attachment to God, or, in other words, love for Him. And secondly, prayer.

Brahmo Devotee: Which one is the way – love or prayer?

Master: First love, and then prayer.

The Master sang:  Cry to your Mother Syama with a real cry, O mind! And how can She hold Herself from you? How can Syama stay away?

Continuing, the Master said: And one must always chant the name and glories of God and pray to Him. An old metal pot must be scrubbed every day. What is the use of cleaning it only once? Further, one must practice discrimination and renunciation; one must be conscious of the unreality of the world.

Brahmo: Is it good to renounce the world?

Master: Not for all. Those who have not yet come to the end of their enjoyments should not renounce the world. Can one get drunk on two annas’ worth of wine?

Brahmo: Then should they lead a worldly life?

Master: Yes, they should try to perform their duties in a detached way. Before you break the jack-fruit open, rub your hands with oil, so that the sticky milk will not smear them. The maidservant in a rich man’s house performs all her duties, but her mind dwells on her home in the country. This is an example of doing duty in a detached way. You should renounce the world only in mind. But a Sanyasi should renounce the world both inwardly and outwardly.[53]

When Sri Ramakrishna was returning to Dakshineswar after what was to be his last visit to Keshab Sen, he stopped at Jaygopal Sen’s house. Many people had gathered there. There was one neighbor of Jaygopal Sen who had an interesting conversation with Sri Ramakrishna, from which I quote:

Neighbor: You ask us, sir, to live in the world after knowing God. Can God really be known?

Master: God cannot be known by the sense-organs or by this mind, but He can be known by the pure mind, the mind that is free from worldly desires.

Neighbor: Who can know God?

Master: Right. Who can really know Him? But as for us, it is enough to know as much of Him as we need. What need have I of a whole well of water? One jar is more than enough for me. An ant went to a sugar hill. Did it need the entire hill? A grain or two of sugar was more than enough.

Neighbor: Sir, we are like typhoid patients. How can we be satisfied with one jar of water? We feel like knowing, the whole of God.

Master: That’s true. But there is also medicine for typhoid.

Neighbor: What is that medicine, sir?

Master: The company of holy men, repeating the name of God and singing His glories, and unceasing prayer. I prayed to the Divine Mother: ‘Mother, I don’t seek knowledge. Here, take Thy knowledge, take Thy ignorance. Give me only pure love for Thy Lotus Feet.’ I didn’t ask for anything else. As is the disease, so must the remedy be. The Lord says in the Gita: ‘O Arjuna, take refuge in Me. I shall deliver you from all sins.’ Take shelter at His feet: He will give you right understanding. He will take entire responsibility for you. Then you will get rid of the typhoid. Can one ever know God with such a mind as this? Can one pour four seers of milk into a one-seer pot? Can we ever know God unless He lets us know Him? Therefore I say, take shelter in God. Let Him do whatever He likes. He is self-willed. What power is there in a man?[54]

There is a marvelous conversation between some Marwari devotees and Sri Ramakrishna from which I quote:

You are merchants. You know how to improve your business gradually. Some of you start with a castor-oil factory. After making some money at that, you open a cloth shop. In the same way, one makes progress toward God. It may be that you go into solitude, now and then, and devote more time to prayer…One should always chant His name. Even while one is performing one’s duties, the mind should be left with God. Suppose I have a carbuncle on my back. I perform my duties, but the mind is drawn to the carbuncle.[55]

A closely related, but equally interesting quality Sri Ramakrishna specifies regarding prayer is secrecy! He says, “Pray to God in secret and with yearning, that you may have that passionate attachment and devotion to Him. Shed tears for Him. A man sheds a jugful of tears because his wife is sick or because he is losing money or because he is worrying about getting a job. But tell me, whoever weeps for God?’[56]

Notice how Sri Ramakrishna advices going into solitude every now and then, so that we could devote more time to prayer. This is apart from developing the habit of continuous, unceasing prayer even in the midst of our daily activities.

The reason Sri Ramakrishna exhorts us for praying unceasingly is this: If a man practices spiritual discipline before his death and if he gives up his body praying to God and meditating on Him, when will sin touch him? It is no doubt the elephant’s nature to smear his body with dust and mud, even after his bath. But he cannot do so if the mahout takes him into the stable immediately after his bath.[57] Death can catch up on us at any time. We need to face death with the Lord’s name on the top of our conscious mind. That is possible only if we have made a habit of praying ceaselessly.

What to pray for:

Again, we all know what to pray for; this knowledge is inherent in us. Or is it? There is no end to our desires. For all kinds of things, we pray. When we study the Gospel, we find that Sri Ramakrishna also has prayed for all kinds of things. But what is noteworthy is how Sri Ramakrishna emphasized that prayer is a powerful tool that should not be wasted on obtaining sundry things for ourselves. It is like using a powerful computer for only typing letters! The computer can do so much more. It can, in fact, manage the working of the entire company; while we end up only typing letters on it!

The question that comes up is this: Often we feel helpless and completely pressurized by the turn of events in our life. For instance, we have an illness, or one of our loved ones has a serious illness. We feel like praying for a cure. Or, we need a job; or need to pass an exam. Under such situations we automatically feel like praying. It might come as a surprise to you that Sri Ramakrishna endorses each of these cases!

When Sri Ramakrishna had visited Keshab Sen during his illness, Keshab’s mother had asked Sri Ramakrishna to pray for Keshab’s improvement of health. Sri Ramakrishna’s answer was quite uncharacteristic of his usual replies to such requests. He had said to Keshab’s mother, “Please pray to the Divine Mother, who is the Bestower of all bliss. She will take away your troubles.”[58] It is noteworthy that he asked Keshab’s mother to pray to God for such a mundane thing as her son’s health. There is a lesson in this for all of us. Quite often, the pressures of existence press down upon us and we feel lost. In such circumstances, it is perfectly alright to pray to God for even mundane things. Once during a conversation with Dr Mahendralal Sarkar, Sri Ramakrishna made the following observation: “Ah, what a splendid thing you said the other day! ‘We lie in the lap of God. To whom shall we speak about our illness if not to Him?’ If I must pray, I shall certainly pray to Him.” The Gospel mentions that as Sri Ramakrishna said these words, his eyes filled with tears.[59] We do not find Sri Ramakrishna castigating Dr Sarkar for making such a statement as ‘To whom shall we speak about our illness if not to Him?’ In fact, Sri Ramakrishna himself supports Dr Sarkar’s sentiment by adding “If I must pray (about curing my illness), I shall certainly pray to Him.”

A few days before shifting to Shyampukur, Dr Rakhal had come to treat Sri Ramakrishna. A conversation started in Sri Ramakrishna’s Dakshineswar room and M makes the following entry in the Gospel:

A Devotee: You will soon be cured if only you say to the Divine Mother, ‘Mother, please make me well.’

Master: I cannot ask God to cure my disease. The attitude of the servant-master relationship is nowadays less strong in me. Once in a while, I say, ‘O Mother, please mend the sheath of the sword a little.’ But such prayers are also becoming less frequent. Nowadays I do not find my ‘I’; I see that it is God alone who resides in this sheath.[60]

Most of us pray for personal things such as a job. What is Sri Ramakrishna’s instruction regarding such prayers? Although, in general, Sri Ramakrishna discouraged us from praying for jobs and such things, it is not that he was totally against such prayers. If the prayer were sincere, even if it was for such a mundane thing as a job, Sri Ramakrishna approved of it! Yes, this may sound a little off-color, but there is a reference to exactly such a thing in the Gospel.

One day, Sri Ramakrishna asks Adhar Sen, “Didn’t you get the job?” Adhar held the post of deputy magistrate, a government post that carried with it great prestige. He earned three hundred rupees a month. He had applied for the office of Vice-Chairman of the Calcutta Municipality. The salary attached to this office was one thousand rupees. In order to secure it, Adhar had interviewed many influential people in Calcutta.

Master (to M. and Niranjan ): Hazra said to me, ‘Please pray to the Divine Mother for Adhar, that he may secure the job.’ Adhar made the same request to me. I said to the Mother: ‘O Mother, Adhar has been visiting You. May he get the job if it pleases You.’ But at the same time I said to Her, ‘How small-minded he is! He is praying to You for things like that and not for Knowledge and Devotion.’ [61]

What a wonderful incident this is! Just observe the details and try to read between the lines here. How sympathetic to human weakness, Sri Ramakrishna is! Sri Ramakrishna says Hazra asked me to pray to the Divine Mother for Adhar’s promotion; later on, Adhar Sen himself asked for Sri Ramakrishna’s intervention; in both these cases, Sri Ramakrishna didn’t scold them away. He did pray to the Divine Mother for Adhar’s job! What an amazing thing! And then, an even more wonderful thing is – Sri Ramakrishna asks Adhar, “Didn’t you get the job?” You see, Sri Ramakrishna had prayed to the Mother for Adhar’s job; that prayer is certain to bear fruit; that is why he is inquiring!

But, the power of prayer would be wasted if these were all we prayed for. It is common knowledge that this world doesn’t change. We may pray for these things – good health, end of our present troubles – but soon, something new will crop up. It is an endless cycle. Hence, Sri Ramakrishna repeatedly exhorted us to pray for more lasting things. Thus we find Sri Ramakrishna generally discouraging us from praying for cure of illnesses, for a job, or for money.

So, we come back to our main question: What should we pray for? Sri Ramakrishna held prayer to be a powerful tool meant to assist us in our spiritual journey. Rest everything was important only insofar as they helped in this main objective. Look at this conversation from the Gospel:

Mahimacharan: By what kind of work can one realize God?

Master: It is not that God can be realized by this work and not by that. The vision of God depends on His grace. Still a man must work a little with longing for God in his heart. If he has longing he will receive the grace of God. To attain God a man must have certain favorable conditions: the company of holy men, discrimination, and the blessings of a real teacher. Perhaps his elder brother takes the responsibility for the family; perhaps his wife has spiritual qualities and is very virtuous; perhaps he is not married at all or entangled in worldly life. He succeeds when conditions like these are fulfilled.[62]

A study of the statements made by Sri Ramakrishna as recorded in the Gospel show us that there are two categories of things for which we should pray to God. One set of things is what we need removed from our personality. God’s intervention is needed there. The other set of things is what we need to develop in our personality. Again, God’s intervention is needed there. Both these negative and positive achievements lead to establishing the ‘favorable’ conditions that Sri Ramakrishna mentions.[63] Let us look at these two categories for which we need to pray.

Pratap Chandra Hazra is a strange character in the Gospel. He and Sri Ramakrishna had many differences of opinion. There is an interesting record in the Gospel in this regard, which clarifies our question, as to what is the aim of prayer:

Hazra entered the room and sat with the devotees on the floor. Hazra repeated now and then, “Soham! Soham!” (I am He! I am He!) To Latu and other devotees he often said, “What does one gain by worshipping God with offerings? That is merely giving Him things that are His already.” He had said this once to Narendra. The Master spoke to him about this.

Master: I explained to Latu, who the object of the devotee’s worship is.

Hazra: The devotee really prays to his own Self.

Master: What you say is a very lofty thought. The aim of spiritual discipline, of chanting God’s name and glories, is to realize just that. A man attains everything when he discovers his true Self in himself. The object of Sadhana is to realize that. That also is the purpose of assuming a human body. One needs the clay mould as long as the gold image has not been cast; but when the image is made, the mould is thrown away. The body may be given up after the realization of God. God is not only inside us; He is both inside and outside. The Divine Mother showed me in the Kali temple that everything is Chinmaya, the Embodiment of Spirit; that it is She who has become all this the image, myself, the utensils of worship, the door-sill, the marble floor. Everything is indeed Chinmaya. The aim of prayer, of spiritual discipline, of chanting the name and glories of God, is to realize just that.[64]

Thus, the one aim of prayer is to realize the divine inside and outside us.

While the overarching aim of prayer is realization of Self, Sri Ramakrishna instructs us to pray for getting rid of animal feelings and worldly attachments, for not being born again in this world, and for reducing our duties in our life so that our prayers become really efficacious.

Addressing Bankim Chandra, Sri Ramakrishna said, “…Like the swan are those who think of God, who pray day and night to get rid of their attachment to worldly things and their love for ‘woman and gold’, who do not enjoy anything except the nectar of the Lotus Feet of the Lord, and to whom worldly pleasures taste bitter…After the birth of one or two children, husband and wife should live as brother and sister and talk only of God. Then both their minds will be drawn to God, and the wife will be a help to the husband on the path of spirituality. None can taste divine bliss without giving up his animal feeling. A devotee should pray to God to help him get rid of this feeling.”[65] Elsewhere, Sri Ramakrishna says, “Do you know the significance of the Siva emblem? It is the worship of the symbols of fatherhood and motherhood. The devotee worshipping the image prays, ‘O Lord, please grant that I may not be born into this world again; that I may not have to pass again through a mother’s womb.’”[66] Another unique theme Sri Ramakrishna introduced is prayer for reducing our duties. For instance, “Now you should pray to God that your worldly duties may be reduced.”[67]

Now, this sense of duty is a bugbear with all of us; we can’t live with it, nor can we live without it. For most of us, a sense of duty is indispensable for our personal growth. Society prescribes two kinds of duty for all of us: duty that arises from our innate tendencies, and duty that entails upon us from our social obligations. Both of these have to be reduced so that more and more time can be devoted to spiritual practices prescribed by the Guru. To Shambhu Charan Mallik, Sri Ramakrishna famously said, “When you realize God, will you pray to Him, ‘O God, please grant that I may dig reservoirs, build roads, and found hospitals and dispensaries’? …Then mustn’t one perform acts of compassion, such as charity to the poor? I do not forbid it. If a man has money, he should give it to remove the sorrows and sufferings that come to his notice. In such an event the wise man says, ‘Give the poor something.’ But inwardly he feels, ‘What can I do? God alone is the Doer. I am nothing.’” [68]

Just observe the nuance here! The attitude we entertain towards the social obligations we have is most important. This prayer for reducing our worldly duties is meant to awaken this attitude in us.

Closely associated with this sense of worldly duties is the bond of marriage. Sri Ramakrishna’s advice in this regard is extremely valuable, and it is something that the present society stands direly in need of. Listen to Sri Ramakrishna’s words addressed to Dr Mahendralal Sarkar:

Master (To the doctor): The renunciation of ‘woman and gold’ is meant for the Sannyasin. He must not look even at the picture of a woman. Do you know what a woman is to a man? She is like spiced pickle. The very thought of pickle brings water to the tongue; it doesn’t have to be brought near the tongue. But this renunciation is not meant for householders like you. It is meant only for Sannyasins. You may live among women, as far as possible in a spirit of detachment. Now and then you must retire into solitude and think of God. Women must not be allowed there. You can lead an unattached life to a great extent if you have faith in God and love for Him. After the birth of one or two children a married couple should live as brother and sister. They should then constantly pray to God that their minds may not run after sense pleasures anymore and that they may not have any more children.[69]

Simultaneously with praying for removing these negatives traits from our personality, we ought to pray for bhakti, devotion, faith, pure love and discrimination. The references in the Gospel for such prayers or instructions for such prayers are really numerous.[70] In fact, the main strain of Sri Ramakrishna’s instructions on prayer is to obtain these things – Bhakti, devotion, faith, pure love and Discrimination.

Whom to pray to?

The last portion of our discussion concerns whom we have to address our prayers to. The obvious answer is – God. But, we who are devotees of the Ramakrishna Mission have a much more specific mandate. We can pray to Sri Ramakrishna. When Swami Vivekananda dictated the ‘Math Rules’ to Swami Shuddhananda, he included the following observation there: The Lord has not yet given up the Ramakrishna form…this Form will last until He comes again in another gross Body. Though He is not visible to all – that He is in this Sangha and is guiding it is a fact of everybody’s experience. Otherwise such a world-wide movement could never have been set on foot in so short a time by this handful of insignificant, helpless and persecuted boys. This truth forms the basis of our assertion that as devotees of Ramakrishna Sangha, we can pray to Sri Ramakrishna. Furthermore, there are recorded instances in Sri Ramakrishna’s life which lend credence to this assertion of ours. Let us look at the following three instances to understand this:

1st incident: I quote from the Gospel:

Evening worship was over in the temples…It was now late in the evening and time for M.’s departure; but he felt reluctant to go and instead went in search of Sri Ramakrishna. He had been fascinated by the Master’s singing and wanted to hear more. At last he found the Master pacing alone in the natmandir in front of the Kali temple. A lamp was burning in the temple on either side of the image of the Divine Mother. The single lamp in the spacious natmandir blended light and darkness into a kind of mystic twilight, in which the figure of the Master could be dimly seen. M. had been enchanted by the Master’s sweet music. With some hesitation he asked him whether there would be any more singing that evening. “No, not tonight”, said Sri Ramakrishna after a little reflection. Then, as if remembering something, he added: “But I’m going soon to Balaram Bose’s house in Calcutta. Come there and you’ll hear me sing.” M. agreed to go.

Master: Do you know Balaram Bose?

M: No, sir. I don’t.

Master : He lives in Bosepara.

M: Well, sir, I shall find him.

As Sri Ramakrishna walked up and down the hall with M., he said to him: “Let me ask you something. What do you think of me?” M. remained silent. Again Sri Ramakrishna asked: “What do you think of me? How many annas of knowledge of God have I?”  M: “I don’t understand what you mean by ‘annas’. But of this I am sure: I have never before seen such knowledge, ecstatic love, faith in God, renunciation, and catholicity anywhere.”  The Master laughed. M. bowed low before him and took his leave. He had gone as far as the main gate of the temple garden when he suddenly remembered something and came back to Sri Ramakrishna, who was still in the natmandir. In the dim light the Master, all alone, was pacing the hall, rejoicing in the Self — as the lion lives and roams alone in the forest.  In silent wonder M. surveyed that great soul.

Master (to M.): What makes you come back?

M: Perhaps the house you asked me to go to belongs to a rich man. They may not let me in. I think I had better not go. I would rather meet you here.

Master : Oh, no! Why should you think that? Just mention my name. Say that you want to see me; then someone will take you to me.[71]

Although this is a simple statement made by Sri Ramakrishna to M, in the context of a very particular situation, we can indeed read a whole lot of meaning into it. In fact, Swami Chetanananda makes the following observation in this regard:

‘Just mention my name – then someone will take you to me,’ is a significant, hopeful statement. He is telling not only M, but all lost and confused people of the world how to reach him. Doors will open in all directions for anyone who repeats his name – whether it is a wealthy man’s mansion, or a poor man’s cottage, or the labyrinth of the world. As a prince has free access to any room in the palace and the gatekeepers open the door for him with a salute, so Mahamaya opens the door of liberation for the disciples and devotees of an Avatar. The Avatar is the ruler of Maya.[72]

2nd incident:

On 1st January 1886 Sri Ramakrishna became the Kalpataru and blessed his devotees saying “Be illumined”. Navagopal Ghosh was not there at that time. When he came to Cossipore later on that day, Ram Chandra Dutta told him, “Hello, Sir, what are you doing? The Master has become a Kalpataru today. Please go to him right now. If you have anything to ask for, this is the right time.” Navagopal rushed to the Master and, bowing down to him, asked, “Master, what will happen to me?”

After a little pause, the Master asked, “Will you be able to practice a little Japa and Meditation?”

Navagopal replied, “I am a family man with several children. Moreover, I am very busy with my various household duties and taking care of my family members. Where is the time to practice spiritual disciplines?”

The Master kept quiet for a while and then said, “Can’t you even repeat the Lord’s name a few times regularly?”

“I don’t have time, Master.”

“All right! Will you be able to repeat my name a few times?”

“Yes, that I can do.”

Then the Master said, “That will do. You will not have to do anything else.”[73]

3rd incident:

In the life of Mathurnath Biswas, we find yet another totally unexpected aspect regarding prayer and Sri Ramakrishna. I quote from Swami Chetanananda’s book ‘They lived with God’:

Whenever Mathur was in trouble, he would go straight to Sri Ramakrishna in Dakshineswar for help. Once he ordered his guards to take part in a brutal gang fight with the guards of a rival landlord. When the news reached him that a man had been killed, Mathur came to his senses and realized that he would be prosecuted. He pleaded with the Master to save him. Sri Ramakrishna rebuked him, saying, “Rascal, you will create a row every day and come and cry, ‘Save me!’ What can I do? Go and suffer the consequences.” But at last, seeing Mathur’s deep anguish, the Master said, “Well, it will be as Mother wills.” Mathur escaped arrest.[74]

This is an amazing incident, indeed! Sri Ramakrishna is almost telling us, as it were, ‘Why don’t you inform me? Why don’t you just drop in a word? I can set things right for you!’

In this connection, we find the following observation of Swami Saradananda in Sri Ramakrishna and his Divine Play: (Mathur) also noticed that when faced with the Master’s keen insight, insincerity could not remain hidden behind its façade. If a person, after committing any sinful act – even murder – frankly and sincerely took refuge in the Master, he lovingly accepted that person and forgave all misdeeds. He endowed that person with the power to recognize and realize the higher ideal. The impossible became possible by virtue of the mysterious power that worked though the Master.[75]

We see a vivid example of this observation by Swami Saradananda in the following extract from the Gospel:

Gradually he came down to the consciousness of the outer world. Still in a spiritual mood, he began to talk, sometimes addressing the devotees, sometimes the Divine Mother.

Master: Mother, please attract him to Thee. I can’t worry about him anymore.

(To M) My mind is inclined a little to your brother-in-law.

(To Girish) You utter many abusive and vulgar words; but that doesn’t matter. It is better for these things to come out. There are some people who fall ill on account of blood-poisoning; the more the poisoned blood finds an outlet, the better it is for them. At the time when the upadhi of a man is being destroyed, it makes a loud noise, as it were. Wood crackles when it burns; there is no more noise when the burning is over.  You will be purer day by day. You will improve very much day by day. People will marvel at you. I may not come many more times; but that doesn’t matter. You will succeed by yourself.

The Master’s spiritual mood became very intense. Again he talked to the Divine Mother.

Master: Mother, what credit is there in making a man good who is already good? O Mother, what wilt Thou accomplish by killing one who is already dead? Only if Thou canst kill a person who is still standing erect wilt Thou show Thy glory.[76]

Just look at these words of Sri Ramakrishna! This is the power that he has unleashed amongst us by his unique life. He has unleashed the infinite power of God to work wonders in our lives! Let us have faith in this fact. Swami Vivekananda asks us pointedly to have faith in this unique achievement of Sri Ramakrishna. In an undated letter to his brother disciples written from USA in 1894, he writes: It won’t do merely to call Shri Ramakrishna an Incarnation, you must manifest power. This is also what Swami Shivanandaji meant when he said that Sri Ramakrishna had awakened the Brahma-Kundalini by his Sadhana.

Although Sri Ramakrishna has indeed unleashed this unprecedented power, there is one little thing we ought to do. And that is pray. I end this discussion by quoting a poignant extract from the Gospel, which reveals the innermost feelings of Sri Ramakrishna in this regard:

Master: That is why I say that work is necessary. It will not do to say that God exists and then idle away your time. You must reach God somehow or other. Call on Him in solitude and pray to Him, ‘O Lord! reveal Thyself to me.’ Weep for Him with a longing heart. You roam about in search of ‘woman and gold’ like a madman; now be a little mad for God. Let people say, ‘This man has lost his head for God.’ Why not renounce everything for a few days and call on God in solitude? What will you achieve by simply saying that God exists and doing nothing about it? There are big fish in the Haldarpukur; but can you catch them by merely sitting idly on the bank? Prepare some spiced bait and throw it into the lake. Then the fish will come from the deep water and you will see ripples. That will make you happy. Perhaps a fish will jump with a splash and you will get a glimpse of it. Then you will be so glad!  Milk must be turned to curd and the curd must be churned. Only then will you get butter. (To Mahima) What a nuisance! Someone must show God to a man, while he himself sits idly by all the while! Someone must extract the butter and hold it in front of his mouth! (All laugh.) What a bother! Someone else must catch the fish and give it to him! A man wanted to see the king. The king lived in the inner court of the palace, beyond seven gates. No sooner did the man pass the first gate than he exclaimed, ‘Oh, where is the king?’ But there were seven gates, and he must pass them one after another before he could see the king.[77]

 

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

[1] Cf: The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Tr. Swami Nikhilananda: 2002: Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras: Pg.: 96

[2] Ibid: Pg.: 179

[3] Ibid: Pg.: 190

[4] Ibid: Pg.: 215

[5] Ibid: Pg.: 326

[6] Ibid: Pg.: 452-53

[7] Ibid: Pg.: 385

[8] Ibid: Pg.: 534

[9] Ibid: Pg.: 291-292

[10] Ibid: Pg.: 401

[11] Ibid: Pg.: 629

[12] Ibid: Pg.: 640

[13] Ibid: Pg.: 111

[14] Ibid: Pg.: 702

[15] Ibid: Pg.: 456-57

[16] Cf: Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play; Swami Saradananda; 2003; Vedanta Society of St. Louis: Pg.:361

[17] Ibid: Pg.: 362

[18] Cf: The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Tr. Swami Nikhilananda: 2002: Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras: Pg.: 256

[19] Ibid: Pg.: 257

[20] Ibid: Pg.: 171

[21] Ibid: Pg.: 471

[22] Ibid: Pg.: 821

[23] Ibid: Pg.: 381

[24] Ibid: Pg.: 599

[25] Sri Ramakrishna tells M: You have no need of many opinions and discussions. You have come to the orchard to eat mangoes. Enjoy them to your heart’s content. You don’t need to count the branches and leaves on the trees. Ibid: Pg.: 506

[26] There are innumerable instances in the Gospel where Sri Ramakrishna mentions how he used to pray. These prayers are unique in their content. A separate article dealing with them will be published shortly on http://www.scribd.com & https://wordpress.com/posts/vedatitananda.wordpress.com

[27] Ibid: Pg.: 96

[28] Ibid: Pg.: 244

[29] Ibid: Pg.: 640

[30] Ibid: Pg.: 671

[31] Ibid: Pg.: 306

[32] Ibid: Pg.: 256

[33] Ibid: Pg.: 257

[34] Ibid: Pg.: 596

[35] Ibid: Pg.: 703

[36] Siddhi: It is the colloquial name for Marijuana or Hemp, an intoxicant used liberally by Tantric spiritual aspirants.

[37] Ibid: Pg.:844

[38] Ibid: Pg.:171

[39] Ibid: Pg.:385

[40] Ibid: Pg.:452

[41] Ibid: Pg.:454

[42] Ibid: Pg.:379

[43] Ibid: Pg.:612

[44] Ibid: Pg.:636

[45] Ibid: Pg.:867

[46] Ibid: Pg.:98

[47] Ibid: Pg.:106: This was Sri Ramakrishna’s advice to Vidyasagar.

[48] Ibid: Pg.:740

[49] Ibid: Pg.:481

[50] Ibid: Pg.:820

[51] Ibid: Pg.:377

[52] Cf for instance Sri Ramakrishna’s advice: At dusk put aside all duties and pray to God. One is reminded of Him by darkness. At the approach of darkness one thinks: ‘I could see everything a moment ago. Who has brought about this change?’ The Mussalmans put aside all activities and say their prayers at the appointed times. Ibid: Pg.:588

[53] Ibid: Pg.:215

[54] Ibid: Pg.:328-29

[55] Ibid: Pg.:162

[56] Ibid: Pg.:627-28

[57] Ibid: Pg.:912

[58] Ibid: Pg.:323

[59] Ibid: Pg.:923

[60] Ibid: Pg.:846

[61] Ibid: Pg.:518

[62] Ibid: Pg.:646

[63] In this connection, please see the article A Devotee’s Contract on http://www.scribd.com, which is a translation of a Saturday evening Kannada lecture (sometime in the 1980s) at Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore by Rev Swami Purushottamanandaji Maharaj, titled ‘Yenagu Aane, ninagu aane’ on a wonderful song by Purandara Dasa.

[64] Ibid: Pg.:521

[65] Ibid: Pg.:670

[66] Ibid: Pg.:603

[67] Ibid: Pg.:506

[68] Ibid: Pg.:379

[69] Ibid: Pg.: 866

[70] Ibid: Pp: 612; 186; 542; 670; 190; 453; 454; 902; 299; 682; 138; 308; 324; 329; 371; 614; 547; 87; & 748

[71] Ibid: Pg.: 92

[72] How to live with God; Swami Chetanananda; 2008; Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata: Pg.: 110

[73] They lived with God; Swami Chetanananda; 2006; Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata: Pg.: 245-46

[74] Ibid: Pg.: 44; Also Cf: Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play; Swami Saradananda; 2003; Vedanta Society of St. Louis: Pg.: 518

[75] Cf: Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play; Swami Saradananda; 2003; Vedanta Society of St. Louis: Pg.: 508

[76] Cf: The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Tr. Swami Nikhilananda: 2002: Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras: Pg.: 741

[77] Ibid: Pg.: 646

Indian History – an alternate perspective

We Indians today are in the habit of looking at our Independence Day from the perspective of the year 1947. We have trained ourselves to look at this day as the day on which we became politically free from the British Rule over us. This is true in a limited sense only. There is a larger perspective from which we ought to look at this day. Those of us who are the followers of Swami Vivekananda however look at this day from the perspective of the entire history of this glorious land. Swamiji articulated his alternative reading of our history, as opposed to the popular version instituted by the European historians, in his various writings such as Modern India, Evolution of Indian History, etc. In the following dissertation, we shall try to elaborate this alternate version, not as a comprehensive theory of Indian history, but rather as a starting point for a new discourse on our history – an Indian view of Indian history, if one may call it so.[1]

Indian history, as we know it today, from various recorded sources, can be divided into four distinct periods. Each of these periods was dominated by one major religion of the world.

The 1st period was the Vedic period of Indian history. This period led to the flowering of the Vedas & the Upanishads. Some even say this was the period when the major population actually lived between modern-day Syria and the Indus-Sarasvati Valley.

The 2nd period was the Buddhist period. By this time, the population had shifted base to the Indo-Gangetic plains. Buddha’s principles and his version of the Vedic religion formed the central vein of Indian history during this period.

This was followed by the 1000 year-long Muslim period.

And the latest period was the Christian period; the most despicable 500 years in all our history. As a nation, we touched rock-bottom during this period.

As Swami Vivekananda pointed out, religion has always been the back-bone of India. It has not always been the same religion, but it was always religion, understood as a marked path to reach the Infinite. What happened on 15th August 1947 was that we shook ourselves free of the shackles of Christian domination on our nation. We entered into a new era in our history. Extrapolating our past,[2] we can imagine that this new era will be again dominated by some other religion, perhaps one that hasn’t been tried in the past. Is it like that? Is that how Indian history will take shape? Well, let us see.

If we imagine India as a living person, with a mind of its own, we can ask the question – why did India choose a different religion for a certain period in the past? It seems India wanted to see, to what heights of perfection, man could reach with each of the established religions.

During the Vedic period, man perfected the individualistic spiritual quest. He grappled with the question of how a man could reach the Truth. He perfected the method of the Ashrama-dharma, where man enters society as a student, graduates into a social being, and then becomes a recluse, finally realizing the Truth within his own consciousness. Having perfected this method, what need was there for any other experimentation? Well, such is the Indian soul that it’s hunger for variety in the sphere of the Spirit in insatiable.

When the above mentioned path was worked out practically, it had a very strange fallout. Society got stratified into four Varnas, or castes. And the whole problem arose here, with this stratification. The distribution of population was such that a miniscule occupied the first two castes – Brahmana & Kshatriya; a little more number of people belonged to the third caste – Vaishya. The majority of the population belonged to the last caste – Shudra. The entire national drama was stage-managed by the first two castes, the upper minuscule of the national population. The Vaishya and Shudra didn’t matter at all. Although the people who mattered did not contribute to the national economy, and the people who essentially contributed to the national life did not figure anywhere in the entire national discourse! This was the main problem India had to address. Concomitant to this was the problem of mobility between the castes. Any foreigner could enter into the national life at the lowest caste only. Moving up from that caste was indeed nerve-wracking. The upper castes maintained a strict strangle-hold on the entry into their folds. [3]

Economy of India in this period was agriculture based. There was also many other activities like construction, manufacture of articles of daily use from metals, stone & wood, leisure activities, services, etc. This was similar to what was present in various parts of the world at that time. There was only one special activity in India, which was unique. That was Yajna. In due course of time, Yajna occupied the prime position in Indian economy. Any activity in Indian society had meaning only if it was linked to Yajna. How do we make sense of this strange thing? Why did the Yajna become so important in the national economy? Because, the economy was mainly agrarian. It generated enormous surplus in due course of time. Incentive for agriculture was going down since surplus started building up. The surplus had to be consumed. What better way to do that than to burn it all up in a grand fire sacrifice? Religious and social sanction was accorded by the Brahmana for this act.

One of the major problems all societies have had to deal with is the accumulation of political power. Geographies help people to settles down into colonies. Gradually, duties get distributed among the denizens of the colonies. There is always a group of people in those colonies who either take upon themselves, or is authorized by the society, the duty of protecting the rest of the people. Very soon, this group gathers power over other people. This group then starts losing touch with the multitudes that it has to govern. Benevolence gives way to tyranny. This has been the case in every human society. Take the case of the ancient civilizations of the world. The Egyptian, Babylonian, Ionian, Greek, Roman, in fact any number of them. All of them rose to great eminence for some time and then the society imploded. It imploded because the masses that actually formed that society were oppressed in due course of time. This phenomenon of one miniscule part of the society losing connect with the other major portion of itself, leading to oppression of the majority by the minority has always been the bane of human societies all over the world, all through time. India however, seems to have avoided this problem by means of a power struggle between the Brahmana and the Kshatriya castes. Whenever the King became too powerful, and his rise to power took on the shape of oppressing the Vaishya and the Shudra, the Brahmana came in and overthrew the King. Similarly, when the Brahmana’s insistence of religious observations by the masses took on the shape of social oppression over the other three castes, the Kshatriya came in and cut the Brahmana to size. This interplay between the Brahmana and the Kshatriya has kept the Indian society alive through ages, while the absence of this power balance ruined the greatest of civilizations the world over. This self-preservation mechanism of the caste system of the ancient Hindu society is something that is often not recognized by modern historians. This vital aspect of the Varna-system was pointed out by Swami Vivekananda.

The ancient literature records the historic struggle of Vishwamitra to be recognized as a Brahma-Rishi by Vashishtha. This is an example of the struggle entrenched in Indian society for upward mobility. It was possible, but required superhuman effort. The resistance to accept new comers into the Brahmana fold was phenomenal. However, it was not originally intended to be so tough. For instance, in the Chandogya Upanishad, we have the instance of a prostitute’s son Satyakama being inducted into the Brahmana fold, purely on the basis of the qualities of truthfulness that he exhibited. In course of time, this flexibility was lost and people got stuck in the caste into which they were born. Upper mobility was absent. [4]

That was when the national soul opted for a major experiment. It created a Buddha, who dissolved the problem instead of solving it. The main weapon in the hands of the Brahmana was his monopoly over the sacred literature, over the main economic activity called Yajna, and over the entire national education. Buddha proclaimed that spiritual growth was independent of any literature; it was also independent of any procedure. He opened up a new path and invited everyone into it, especially the Kshatriya, Vaishya & the Shudra. He further demolished the central economic activity of the Hindu nation – Yajna. This was aimed at destroying the monopoly of the Brahmana over the national life. Five hundred years later came a period of growth which was unprecedented in Indian history till then. This should have been the end of this civilization, for it had achieved everything and had solved all its problems. Or had it?

Within a thousand years of the Buddha’s arrival, the lower two castes, who had rejected the Varna-system and had adopted the egalitarian Buddhist monolithic system of society, started to degenerate. People require culture in order to hold on to and maintain any high spiritual impulse that they receive. The Indian society of this period consisted of a miniscule Brahmana & a very tiny Kshatriya population, with almost the entire Vaishya & Shudra population adopting the Buddhist scheme of social life. The major portion of the Kshatriya caste too had shifted base to the Buddhist scheme. So what actually happened was this – the Hindu scheme of Varna-system was totally rejected; social, economic & political power concentrated in the people who rejected the Hindu Varna system and proclaimed to follow an alternate scheme propounded by the Buddha. The Brahmana caste became the ‘outcaste’ or the ‘lower caste’ in this new dispensation. This did work for some time. This should have worked forever, but for a small aberration. Culture did not percolate to the masses. Human life consists of activity. They are of two types – activity that gives the daily food; activity that fills up leisure time. Both need to have an overarching goal. This aligning of all human activity toward the same goal is culture. Although national education was along Buddhist lines, it failed to culturally uplift the masses, who had implicitly accepted the Buddhist way of life. The Buddhist way of life was essentially the monastic life. The insistence on monastic life as the central essence of the Buddhist way of life was, in no small measure, a reason for this failure.

But most importantly, the one vital idea missing in the Buddhist scheme of life was the absence of an overarching goal in life.[5] Of course, the learned ones among the audience will at once jump up at me for this statement. Let us understand that philosophy is not powerful enough to inspire the daily life of the common man. Ritual is needed. The ritual has to be so designed as to gradually raise the brute unto civilized man and the civilized man unto a god. This aspect was missing in Buddhism. Bhagawan Buddha avoided all references to God and Spirit. As a result, the common man who had no recourse to disciplined philosophical thinking, ended up making a god of Buddha himself, and working up hideous rituals which exist now as the Left-handed Tantric practices. Buddhism became everything that the Buddha had fought against all his life! If we carefully analyze the reason for the failure of this great experiment on Indian society, the answer lies in the absence of emphasizing a comprehensible goal of human life. It is essential to spell out that goal of human life in comprehensible terms; in other words, the masses must be able to imagine the goal. An unimaginable goal of human life essentially renders society aimless and rudderless. Again, the goal must not be too easy to specify either, as we have with modern Christianity and Islam, in which case, it degenerates into an effete theology, a set of dogmas. This too is ineffective in leading society to anything higher, and man doesn’t grow. All it is effective in achieving is fights and quarrels. Buddha’s experiment and the subsequent religious experiments in India taught this valuable lesson to the Indian soul, the delicate balance while prescribing a goal for mankind.

Since Buddha categorically prohibited Yajna, the backbone of Indian economy got destroyed. Buddha did not give anything new in its place. So, gradually, Indians started engaging in new economic activities. Well, actually the activities were not new, per se. It was only that, the ways in which the activities were handled were new. People now started working for catering to non-local markets. The Yajna had the advantage of confining all economic activity to the local market. With the Yajna gone, people started trading in a big way. New economy set in. Intercourse with other nations became active.

All along its history, India was rich, created enormous amounts of wealth, and its goods and produce were in tremendous demand all over the world. Goods were transported across sea and land to all the lands in the world. The people who gave protection during this economic activity were the Kshatriyas. While the Shudra worked for producing the goods, the Vaishya arranged for their production and transportation, and the Kshatriya arranged for their safety. India was the greatest maritime power for a very long period. We have records of Indian ships sailing to Egypt and Babylon during the Harappa period too. Slowly, the maritime activities stopped. That happens when you have monopoly over the goods you produce. People from other lands could very well come down here and take what they wanted. We wouldn’t go out to sell our products there. Thus the importance of the Kshatriya reduced. [6]

If Buddhism had made a place for the Brahmana in its scheme, perhaps, we would have yet had the perfect civilization.

Social order was totally in chaos. Value of manly qualities was undermined at a national level. Military prowess reduced. Varna system was no longer in vogue. People didn’t know what they were supposed to do. A Brahmana revival was attempted during the Gupta period. Sister Nivedita proposes the theory that the Gupta Kings commissioned the writing of the Vishnu Purana around 400 AD, which marks this part of Indian history. Revolving around the Vishnu Purana, a renewed attempt was made to consolidate the peoples living south of the Indus and the Himalayas up to the Ceylon into one Nation again. Such a consolidation had occurred under King Ashoka during the Buddhist reformation period. But this time, the consolidation would be under the revived Vedic lines. The absorption of the Buddhist reformation had given rise to a highly changed religion in the land, which although called the Vedic religion or Sanatana Dharma still, had very little in common with the pre-Buddhist religion of the land.

In the wake of this development came the hordes of Muslims from Arabia and Persia, bringing with them a fresh spiritual impulse. When they stayed back in India after their initial victories, they tried to establish a new social order, based on equality. Everyone who converted to Islam was equal to every other Muslim in society. This impulse translated as unprecedented growth in literature, architecture, economy and political stability. Against the background of this new stability, the old Hindu scheme of life was once again tried out. Lead by spiritual leaders such as Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhva, Buddhism was completely reabsorbed into the main Hindu body politick. The entire 1000 years of Buddhist reformation turned out to be a mere cul-de-sac in Indian history. What was the Indian society like during the Islam period? Again, a handful of the Brahmana caste held onto the ancient scheme of life. The Vaishya & the Shudra thrived well under the Islamic dispensation, better than ever before in Indian history. The Kshatriya caste almost vanished. A new caste – a cross between the Kshatriya & the Vaishya arose, called Zemindar. This new caste again started monopolizing social and economic power in their own hands and the Shudra was none the better even under the Islamic dispensation in India.

The only drawback seemed to be the displeasure of the masses who were forced to convert to Islam in order to enjoy the benefits of Islamic egalitarianism. But, given a face-off between greater social freedom and adherence to his native religion, man would any day opt for social freedom. The Brahmana, the new Kshatriya-Vaishya Zemindar and the Vaishya did not yet learn that affording social freedom, social dignity and equal opportunity to one another and the Shudra was vital for national life to sustain. The Islamic rulers were actually Kshatriyas in their function.[7] If the Indian society had been flexible enough to have recognized this and if the Muslim invaders too had been flexible enough to have realized this, and had they entered into the Indian body politick, the resulting civilization would again have been the best possible. But that was not to be so. For the first time, we came across a people who insisted on living in our society and who rigidly resisted the caste system. Before the Islamic invasion, the Huns, Shakas and Kushans had come in too. But they were all absorbed into the caste system mostly at the Shudra level, but some at the higher levels, even as Kshatriya kings.[8]

Around this time came the influence of Europe, first with the Portuguese, then the Danes, followed by the French and lastly the British. The last to arrive from Europe, the British, consolidated their foothold in India and event after event led to their annexing the entire land as a colony of the larger British Empire.

This was the worst part of Indian history. No one in the entire Indian society had any freedom. The clash now was between the Indian religious weltanschauung and the European economic world-view. They simply didn’t match, apparently. But the opening out of the entire European world of thought was a new blessing on the Indians. And the oppressive missionary activities of the Christians were the greatest drawback of this period. Education was controlled by the Christian missionaries, who lacked any understanding of sociology, anthropology, psychology and history. They dogmatically drilled the morbid theology of Christianity and totally undermined the entire historical background of the Indians.

It is interesting to note the unique war tactics developed by the Muslims of Arabia. Indians never knew that before Islamic invasion. In India, war was always fought in the city outskirts. Muslims, however, entered living areas inside cities and towns and villages. Common man was attacked and killed. Surprise attacks on the common man were something that the Muslims brought. We don’t find historical evidence of Prophet Mohammed having taught this type of warfare to his followers. In all probabilities, this was a Mongol trait among the Muslims. If we study the history of Islamic Arabia, we find that the Islamic invaders into India were all actually from the Mongol stock. Genghis Khan and his descendants had exterminated the entire male Muslim population during their successive attacks on Arabia & Persia and what we now know as Muslims are actually the Mongols who lived on in that region. What exists as Islam today is the contribution of the Arabian women to the Mongol stock. The fearless Turks that had conquered half of the civilized world and ruled over it are actually from Mongol stock.

The Vaishya produced wealth with the help of the Shudra. Goods were produced that needed to be transported. The Vaishya arranged for the transportation too. However, since the means for transportation was very slow, there was great chance of being waylaid. Goods needed protection. The Kshatriya provided it. Mohammed and his followers, the Muslims, were basically Kshatriyas in this sense. They gave protection to the businessmen and their goods.

In Indian history, the Kshatriyas faced mass annihilation twice; first, by Parashurama, when he vowed to destroy Kartivirya Arjuna; and a second time in the Kurukshetra war of the Mahabharata. That brings up the question, if all the Kshatriyas had been exterminated by Parashurama, who were the Kshatriyas during the Mahabharata War? In all probabilities, what would have happened was that many Kshatriya women must have escaped the wrath of Parashurama. Some of them must have borne children in exile. Again, many weak-bodied Kshatriyas, who did not participate in the battle also must have escaped and must have propagated their clans. We however do not find any instance of the Brahmin caste being mass annihilated in Indian history. This could perhaps explain the steady weakening of the Kshatriya caste in India, which laid the grounds for the subsequent invasions by Islamic and European races on India.

The effort of the Indian mind has always been the following: Human life has the ultimate goal of Self-realization. The way to achieve this is what the Indian mind has been experimenting with, all through its history. In the Vedic period, it tried to do so by formulating a caste system, which dictated what a man should do for living, earning a livelihood, and then how he should spend his leisure time. This ran foul with the inherent principles of natural justice in the sense that one caste always tried to monopolize the entire national life and mobility among the castes was rigidly obstructed. It was like missing the forest and getting lost among the trees. The main aim of instituting the caste system was lost in the social complexities that arose from maintaining the system! Then came the Buddha’s reformation. He was an iconoclast. He broke down the entire caste system and gave nothing in its place. He did not specify what man had to do for achieving the ultimate goal. Therefore the original caste system got revived, albeit in a totally changed form. While the original system was meant to guide man from where he stood up to the ultimate realization of his true nature, the resurrected caste system was devilish in its new form. The Muslim period gave rise to a new caste – the Zemindar. But the masses, who were always included in the Vaishya and Shudra caste were still oppressed. The British period brought a new impetus. The religion they brought, as did the Muslims, was easily included in the Bhakti cults that already existed in India. But the social modes that they brought were all new to India. Having lived in India for quite some time, the Muslims had come to understand that caste was the mode of social functioning for the Indian. The British did not, or rather could not, understand this unique Indian institution. They opened up education to every one under their rule. Thus we had B R Ambedkar (a Shudra by birth) studying to be a barrister alongside Mohandas Gandhi (a Vaishya by birth) and Subhas Chandra Bose (a Kshatriya by birth) and Umesh Chandra Banerjee (a Brahmana by birth)! The universal education system, evolved by Thomas Macaulay with clear selfish aims for the British Empire, broke down the impossibly ossified caste barriers and created a level playing field. This single act has unleashed a power of unimaginable proportions, as the present condition of our country reveals very well.[9] The British rule allowed for all sorts of mobility – upwards & downwards – within the Indian society, based on meritocracy and not by birth.

The greatest contribution of the British to India however was, in our opinion, the concept of “organization”.[10] Why do we say so? Let us re-state our understanding of Indian history. Then we will be able to see the supreme importance of this British contribution.

India, as it were, has fixed the goal of complete self-realization for its citizens. This has been the main strain in its history as we have seen till now. The soul of India wants, as it were, that all Indians should realize their real nature. How are they to do this? India formulated a scheme of life such that all their activities would be wound up so as to converge towards this one goal, which is complete self-realization. Her first attempt to do so, that is, formulate a viable scheme of life for all living in India, ran afoul due to the complications arising out of the caste system. She tried to set it right through one of her most brilliant sons, the Buddha. His attempts, though seemingly very effective, backfired. The final outcome of the Buddhist experiment was that the Kshatriya caste all but disappeared from India, the Vaishya and the Shudra got a taste of social freedom which they could not sustain, and the Brahmana came back with a vengeance. But, the Brahmana who now raised his head again this time was but a caricature of the original Brahmana of the Vedic period. The original Brahmana was a God-realized soul, one who had seen God face to face, even while living in the society as one of us. Whereas, the resurrected Brahmana, in post Buddhist India was a scheming Brahmana, who cooked up an elaborate theosophy of the ten incarnations of the Godhead, the Dasha Avatara, and silently absorbed the Buddha into the Hindu pantheon of gods! The Buddha was accepted and everything he said and did was completely forgotten from the national mind. It was one of the greatest coup-de-etat staged in human history! But, a nation is unsustainable without a strong group of people who specialize in protection and governance. The Brahmana never allowed that group to rise and in due course of time, the situation was back to square one – a weak nation, which was waiting to be overrun by anyone who would care to do so. Indeed, that is what happened. The Islamic hordes came and this grandest nation among all the nations in the known world at that time was conquered, not by the glorious Arabs, but by a slave of the Arabs. He set up his empire here and that was the time the Nation decided it would run another experiment by factoring in Islam in its scheme of things. Again, the ancient Vedic religion immediately saw that Islam could easily be absorbed within the body politick, provided two things were ensured – the invading Muslim had to be absorbed into the Kshatriya caste, and in exchange, there must be a greater social freedom given to the Vaishya and the Shudra in India. The second condition was partially fulfilled by religious conversion of the lower caste people into Islam. We say partially fulfilled because unless the people converted to Islam, if they remained within the Hindu caste structure, they would not enjoy the social freedom! The first condition was not, however, fulfilled. Not only was it not fulfilled, the Islamic invaders stayed back to rule India, but never fully integrated themselves with the Vedic scheme of things that was in vogue here. The rampant dogmatism that the Muslim exhibited was something alien to the Hindu. Just as the Muslim could not learn to integrate with the idolatrous Hindu, the Hindu too could not make sense of this foreigner who resisted any intercourse with his caste system. For, we must realize one thing, and this is vital; the only way a Hindu could make sense of any human being was if he could accommodate himself in one of the four castes. Thus the Greeks and the Huns entered into the Kshatriya caste. Many Mongols were accommodated into the Shudra caste. So also were many who had rejected the Vedic religion and had opted for the Buddha’s version of religion, and had now again opted to be back with the Brahmana’s national resurgence. But this Muslim refused to enter into the caste system. If a person resists entering into any one of the castes, the Hindu is clueless about how to deal with him! That is what happened with the Islamic people. So, we had a situation where we again had a miniscule Brahmana population, no Kshatriya caste worth the name, a sizeable Vaishya population and a huge Shudra mass, alongside a sizeable population of a new type of people – the Muslims (most of whom, were converts from the Shudra caste, with only a handful of Muslims from the original Arabian & Persian stock) – who were not a part of this Varna system.

The same Indian genius that came up with the Dasha Avatara to digest Buddha within itself, now came up with the Sufi religion and the Bhakti movement, as a means of incorporating the Muslim into its body politick. But the invaders’ religion lacked the philosophical flexibility to recognize the utility of such a development and as a result, at some local levels, the integration of the Muslim into the Hindu society was indeed successfully effected by the Sufi and Bhakti attempts. But there remained a virulent strain of Islam that refused to integrate with Hinduism. This was the first time that India had faced such a situation, where it failed to integrate the invaders into its own society and align them to its religious orientation.

When the country was in this stage, there came along a fresh invader, who came in through business and commerce, not like the Muslims had come in, with a sword on a horse (the famous imagery of the incarnation after Buddha, called Kalki, as per the Brahmana!). Having entered the land for the express intent of setting up business, the European stayed back. He even started taking over administrative functions regarding this strange land, but never with the idea of ruling it per se. Every decision of the European rose from the perspective of business. While the Muslim who had entered this land exhibited clear Kshatriya qualities, this European was but a Vaishya at best!

Caste system was completely demolished by the British rule in India. We needed to re-organize Indian society immediately or we were in danger of losing our identity. That is where Swami Vivekananda comes in. He realized that the western concept of organization could fulfil the vacuum created by the demolition of caste system in India. This re-adjustment is what we are still seeing in our society today. We are still in the transition from caste to corporate organization.

One concept that we need to explore is the intimate relation between caste and religion, especially in the Indian context. Time and time again, it has seemed as though caste is a religious institution. It is however not so. Religion has nothing to do with caste, per se.[11] Then, why is it that all the religious leaders in India have worked specifically to breakdown caste system, favoring the upliftment and education of the lower castes and attempting to soften the heart of the upper castes? This is because each of our great religious leaders has tried to remain true to the vision of the founding fathers of the Indian society, the great rishis, so lost in antiquity that today, we do not even know their names for sure. But the power of their vision has driven this nation for over five thousand years, through an unbroken continuity of the institution of Caste. Ask anybody in India and you will be told that caste system is heinous and a blot on Indian society and that it must go. Most of them will even assert vociferously that the institution is now good as dead and exists mainly due to its benefits on the political parties. Caste identities make it very easy to group together and monopolize over large swathes of people, as we have seen time and again since 1947. But the greatest advantage of this institution was to be had only if every citizen had an overarching goal to achieve in his or her life. We must remember that the origin of this institution was in this idea of providing means for realization of the goal of God-realization for every member of society. If we lose that idea of God realization as the goal of our social life, then the institution of caste becomes a terrible bondage. Let me explain this a bit.

Supposing the patent aim of my life is to realize my real nature. How am I go about it? Either by renouncing social life and embracing monastic vows; or by living in society and contributing to the national economy; if I choose to live in society, participate in the national economy, how do I realize Atman? I can do that by working in such a way that my daily work becomes a worshipful offering to God. What will be the work that I will have to do? Who will decide what work I will be doing? Suppose we have a body of authoritative persons in society whose duty it is to allot work to every member of the society. Can anyone ensure impartiality in that allotment? Will such allotments of duty be wholeheartedly accepted and not be challenged? Ah! Therein lay the genius of the institution of caste! My own birth determines what work I will do in my life. The argument is simple: I can realize God by offering whatever work I do as an offering to God; what work I will do is determined by my birth; caste system prescribes and ensures the relation between birth and the work to be done; as long as I haven’t yet attained the state of inner freedom, I belong in a hierarchy in society; there are castes above me and below me; once I achieve the blessed state of real freedom, I break free from the social hierarchy. So, this is how the caste system was envisaged to function in society. This is how it did function for a long time. You will appreciate that this system will function flawlessly, so long as the aim of our life, of our work, of our living in society, is to realize our true nature as the Atman. If that is the aim of our life, then caste system is the best social arrangement imaginable. Now, the whole trouble starts if we lose our grip on that pivotal idea of self- realization. If enjoyment is the aim of life, then this institution stands as a barrier to achieving that aim to our heart’s content.

Against this simple argument, we will be better able to appreciate the reformatory steps adopted by Buddha. He found that the rigid social structure was standing as a barrier to man’s development. He wanted to allow everyone to develop fully and freely. He knew that by pulling down the super-structure, he could unfetter the human soul on its journey to its destiny. At the same time, he was aware that man needed a goal in life. No social system can give that to man. It is only a spiritual impulse that can give an overarching goal to man. He therefore did the sane thing possible; he pulled down the caste system; he prescribed that monasticism was the path to be followed; he further specified that knowledge of one’s real nature was the goal of human life. Similarly did all the other religious reformers in India do the same thing; reiterate that God realization is the goal of human life. If that is fixed, then social life automatically falls into a system that is self-regulatory. Caste system was one such self-regulatory mechanism in human society. The British domination over India opened our eyes to another such wonderful system – the corporate organization.

So, effectively, by the end of 1800 AD, India had learnt that, if God Realization were to be the goal of human life, then human society could indeed be organized into a rigid caste system, which helped everyone to achieve that supreme goal of life. India had also learnt that there will always be a great number of people in its society who will not be able to adopt God realization as the supreme goal of life. Hence India leant that, in such a case, the caste system would be an aberration, an obstacle, a detriment, instead of being a tool to further man’s development. India also learnt in the meanwhile that there were many more societies in the world which did not prescribe to its weltanschauung and that it needed to interact with those societies as well. India had tried to successively experiment with Sanatana Dharma, a variant of itself called Buddhism, then Islam and finally Christianity, with a view to finding the best fit religion for its citizens; when it would find that ideal religion, it would then work out the best means of organizing society and thereby enable all its citizens to live their lives and achieve tangible progress in their evolution. As a result, India found out that none of these religions could be imposed as the only religion on all its citizens. Human nature was too diverse for straitjacketing the human soul in such simplistic terms. India had learnt that its hoary method of caste system for integrating foreigners into its body politick was not efficient, since the Muslims and the Christians refused to enter into the Caste structure, thereby remaining as un-integrated foreign bodies within the living being of Indian society. India awoke to the fact that it needed a readjustment at the very core of its being. This readjustment would begin by redefining its goal in spiritual terms, as it has always done in its long history.

That was the time when the Soul of India worked up an instrument through which it would try to make sense of the mess that its society had ended up in; that was the time when the Soul of India worked up an instrument through which it would try to discover which religion, or what mix of the religions available, would be ideal for its citizens; That was the time when the Soul of India worked up an instrument through which it would try to articulate an overarching goal for its citizens in the modern idiom; That was the time when the Soul of India worked up an instrument through which it would try to hew out a path for multitudes to achieve that goal in their lives. That unique instrument was Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa of Dakshineswar. The biographer of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Saradananda writes that Sri Ramakrishna performed unprecedented spiritual practices, which make no sense unless seen from this historical perspective. There is no need for any human being to undergo such a variety of spiritual practices for one’s own liberation. Swami Vivekananda, Sri Ramakrishna’s chief disciple, mentions that in Sri Ramakrishna, the soul of India, as it were, was finding its moorings again; the soul of India was working up an essential readjustment whereby it could find a rationale for continuing its existence. What was the self-discovery that the soul of India made through Sri Ramakrishna?

All religions are true. No one religion can claim to appeal to every human being on earth. Each soul approached life in its own unique way and thereby qualifies to its own brand of religion. All the same, each of these religions, or paths of human evolution, is harmonious in their goal. The goal of every religion is perception of the consciousness that is in every human being. In fact, each soul is potentially divine. The goal of human life is to manifest that divinity. Human life itself, therefore, can be envisaged as the Universal Religion, with all the known ‘isms’ being just geographical & cultural variants of the Mother Religion.

Further, religion is realization; religion is perception; religion is not a set of beliefs or customs or traditions; religion is not thoughts, ideas or feelings, no matter how sophisticated or refined. If you don’t know your own true nature, you are not spiritual, no matter what. You are not a Hindu because you are born to a Hindu; you are not a Hindu because you believe in the Vedas and Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita; you are not a Muslim because you believe in Allah, the Prophet Mohamad and the Quran; you are not a Christian because you believe in Bible and the Immaculate Conception. If you have perceived directly the Hindu conception of God, you are a Hindu. If you have perceived directly the Islamic conception of God, you are a Muslim. If you have perceived directly the Christian conception of God, you are a Christian. Not otherwise. A Hindu who has directly perceived the Hindu conception of God will totally and completely understand and accept a Muslim who has directly perceived the Muslim conception of God or a Christian who has directly perceived the Christian conception of God.

In the light of this self-discovery, the Soul of India will now work out a new society wherein every kind of religious thought will be accorded full freedom to unleash the potential divinity within its adherents. In the light of this self-discovery, the Soul of India will work out the necessary corrections in Hinduism, Islam,[12] Christianity,[13] Buddhism and every other religious path known to man till date.[14] In the light of this self-discovery by the Soul of India, we can foresee that the future of India will be dominated by no single religion, but equal opportunity will be accorded to every religion that its citizens would like to follow; the only conditions will be mutual respect to everyone else and a dogged commitment to take one’s avowed religion to its logical conclusion which is a direct perception of one’s true nature. Thus the future of India will be dominated by a ‘Harmony of Religions’ in place of any one religion holding forth on Indian society. [15]

We would beg for a little patience at this juncture since a survey of the present situation doesn’t show anything of this kind happening in our country. The country is right now undergoing a series of vital transformations. A period of transition cannot be read correctly except by hindsight. But, our reading of Indian history, as detailed above, forces us to conclude that a society based on the harmonious existence of all religions will certainly dawn very soon. In the beginning of this article, we had said that perhaps “It seems India wanted to see, to what heights of perfection, man could reach with each of the established religions.” It is but logical to conclude that man will reached unprecedented heights of personal and collective growth under this new regime of ‘harmony of religion’.[16] You will certainly appreciate that we have started our new epoch by adopting a “Constitution”, which is unique in its scope and content. It is a blue-print which will guide how exactly the Indian society will re-organize itself in the centuries to come. The Fundamental Rights, Directive principles of State Policy, and Fundamental Duties comprise the corner stone of our Constitution. You will note how these drive our society towards a caste-free, organization-based structure enabling every citizen to enjoy the fruits of opportunity for life-fulfilment, unhindered by one’s religious affiliation. Moreover, the Constitution ensures, for the first time in India, that the State will not impose any one religion on its citizens, awarding full freedom for each citizen to choose for oneself.[17]

Moreover, Sri Ramakrishna revealed a new goal for mankind. He gave it a name called ‘Bhavamukha’.[18] The Soul of India realized through Sri Ramakrishna that the common man would reach this goal of human life by following the path of ‘Practical Vedanta’ or more specifically known as ‘Karma Yoga’,[19] the details of which were worked out by Swami Vivekananda. Karma Yoga will be the key through which will be unlocked an unprecedented spurt of human growth, such as history has never witnessed till date – such was the prophesy of Swami Vivekananda.

In fact, the present restructuring of the Indian society along the lines of corporate organization in the place of caste system presents an ideal ground for realizing the new ideal revealed by Sri Ramakrishna. Elsewhere we have shown how the civic structure of corporate organization lends itself to the mass spiritual practice of Karma Yoga by everyone in society.[20] We would do well to realize as soon as possible that the European form of organization is indeed a viable alternative to the caste system[21]; it retains the positive points of the ancient caste system in that it allows the interested people in practicing Karma Yoga and moving towards personal life fulfilment; more importantly it has the added advantage[22] of providing an avenue for those people not interested in immediate salvation, to contribute towards collective growth in such a way as to eventually lead them towards the inner life.[23]

It is important to note the course correction[24] that Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda have effected in the history of India. At the risk of appearing repetitive, let me explain this point here. India began its grand journey by specifying that individual freedom is achievable in this very life, even while living. The goal of human life was to be spiritually free while living. If that indeed were the goal, what sort of social arrangement should we have? Caste system was the answer given by our ancient sages. We tried to make it a workable arrangement. Something went wrong along the way. We sort of lost sight of the goal to be achieved and made a big issue of the social arrangement! As a result, life in India became a curse. Buddha tried to sort it out. Buddha said that the goal of human life, the raison deter of our existence was indeed to become the ‘Living Free’, the ‘Awakened One’. However, we need not enroll ourselves into any formal social arrangement for that. Renounce, become a monk and get free. That was the iconoclastic approach of the Buddha. Thus, in effect, Buddha reiterated the goal of human life prescribed by the ancient Rishis, but tore down the social structure they had erected for assisting the common man to achieve the same. He, instead, invited all and sundry into the highest path, directly. Although Buddha’s motive was the finest, such egalitarian approach is impractical, unfortunately. Very soon, the Indian society started crumbling. India tried to bring about reformations within itself from time to time, all of them ensuring only one result – each attempt merely reiterated and strengthened the original idea that the goal of human life was indeed Moksha or individual spiritual freedom. The social mess that the botched caste system experiment had resulted in was not touched in any serious measure.[25] All of the reformers ended up certifying the utility and validity of the caste system, in so far as it threw up perfected individuals from time to time in the Indian society. None seemed to bother that there could be a possibility of masses reaching up to perfection too, and that society need not be designed to effect random individual perfection here & there, now & then, alone.[26] None seemed to be bothered about the possibility, or impossibility, of designing or redesigning society into a mass manufactory of perfected individuals. For, the origin of the caste system was indeed that – to ensure that each member of the society moved forward towards spiritual perfection. In the midst of all this confusion came the Islamic invasion. India saw an opportunity to draw in some new blood into its body and see if a new way could thereby be opened up for achieving its goal – a method of living to bring about mass perfection among its members. The Islamic invasion turned out to be a disaster since the invaders could not integrate into the society they had conquered. As a result, the already confused Indian society now had to contend with an added element of confusion, a significant portion of society that refused to blend into the culture and religion of the major portion of society.[27] Even while India was coming to terms with the peculiar situation of its society consisting of two apparently irreconcilable groups of people, there came a new impulse in the form of the European invasion. The invading European stood as a mirror to the hypocrisy underlying the Indian society. The invading European, although professing to be religious, quoting the Lord Jesus Christ on and off, was patently materialistic. He believed in enjoying this life here on earth. But there is always the fear of death. He had overcome that by cooking up a very clever theology of the original sin and the son-hood of Jesus and universal emancipation by merely believing in Jesus’s status as the Son of God. It was a stroke of genius of a much higher level than the devious Brahmin could imagine! In one shot, you had it all. You could now enjoy as much as you wanted here in this life, and have a cozy passage to heaven, post-mortem! This resonated with the pleasure-seeking urges of many individuals in the Indian society. India understood that not all her children can really seek to know their true nature. Many of her children really wished to enjoy this life, this world. The means provided by the caste system did not encourage enjoyment in this life. Life was one long self-sacrifice under the older scheme of things. But then, Moksha need not be imposed as the goal of life on every member of society. Controlled enjoyment (or Dharma, as it is called in Indian terms) could indeed be prescribed as the goal of many interested individuals. “Dharma aviruddha bhuteshu kamosmi Bhatarshaba” says the Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Can we have a social arrangement for such people too in India?

The combination of the European corporate organization and Karma yoga achieves just that![28] Karma Yoga is a versatile tool for achieving both the ends of human life – personal Moksha and collective development (Atmano Mokshartham, Jagadhitaya cha, as Swami Vivekananda termed it). Karma Yoga is the ritual for the modern age. Sri Ramakrishna reminds us again and again in the pages of his recorded conversations “The Gospel of Ramakrishna” that the goal of human life is God-realization. But everyone need not renounce the pleasures of the senses and dedicate oneself to God-realization. A select few, who voluntarily opt to do so may, indeed do so. The rest of us should hold onto to God with one hand and enjoy the world with the other. This ‘holding onto God with hand and enjoying life with the other’ is called Karma Yoga.

Swami Vivekananda prophesied that this formidable combination would lead to a situation in India which he described as follows: “There were times in olden days when prophets were many in every society. The time is to come when prophets will walk through every street in every city in the world. In olden times, particular, peculiar persons were, so to speak, selected by the operations of the laws of society to become prophets. 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.”

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[1]We must create a history of India in living terms. Up to the present, that history, as written by the English, practically begins with Warren Hastings, and crams in certain unavoidable preliminaries, which cover a few thousand years…The history of India has yet to be written for the first time. It has to be humanized, emotionalized, made the trumpet-voice and evangel of the race that inhabit India.” Sister Nivedita.

[2] Nowadays everybody blames those who constantly look back to their past. It is said that so much looking back to the past is the cause of all India’s woes. To me, on the contrary, it seems that the opposite is true. So long as they forgot the past, the Hindu nation remained in a state of stupor; and as soon as they have begun to look into their past, there is on every side a fresh manifestation of life. It is out of this past that the future has to be molded; this past will become the future. The more, therefore, the Hindus study the past, the more glorious will be their future, and whoever tries to bring the past to the door of everyone, is a great benefactor to his nation. The degeneration of India came not because the laws and customs of the ancients were bad, but because they were not allowed to be carried to their legitimate conclusions. Reply to the Address of the Maharaja of Khetri.

[3] There seem to be no written records of the history of this period available today. However, Swami Vivekananda reconstructs the main strain of the history of this period from the hints available in the Vedas, Upanishads and the Epics. His insights in this regard are available in his masterly writing ‘Modern India’, and elsewhere too. For instance, cf: Reply to the address of the Maharaja of Khetri.

[4]  Vasishtha, Narada, Satyakama Jabala, Vyasa, Kripa, Drona, Karna, and others of questionable parentage were raised to the position of a Brahmin or a Kshatriya, in virtue of their superior learning or valor; but it remains to be seen how the prostitute, maidservant, fisherman, or the charioteer class was benefited by these upliftings. Again, on the other hand, the fallen from the Brahmin, the Kshatriya, or the Vaishya class were always brought down to fill the ranks of the Shudras.: Modern India

[5] The aims of the Buddhistic and the Vedic religions are the same, but the means adopted by the Buddhistic are not right. If the Buddhistic means were correct, then why have we been thus hopelessly lost and ruined? It will not do to say that the efflux of time has naturally wrought this. Can time work, transgressing the laws of cause and effect? Therefore, though the aims are the same, the Bauddhas for want of right means have degraded India. Perhaps my Bauddha brothers will be offended at this remark, and fret and fume; but there’s no help for it; the truth ought to be told, and I do not care for the result.: East & the West

[6] The Portuguese, in the meantime, discovered a new route to India, doubling Africa. The fortune of India smiled on Portugal — then came the turn of the French, the Dutch, the Danes, and the English. Indian commerce, Indian revenue and all are now in the possession of the English; it is therefore that they are the foremost of all nations now. But now, Indian products are being grown in countries like America and elsewhere, even better than in India, and she has therefore lost something of her prestige. This the Europeans are unwilling to admit. That India, the India of ‘natives’, is the chief means and resources of their wealth and civilization, is a fact which they refuse to admit, or even understand. We too, on our part, must not cease to bring it home to them.: Memoirs of European Travels

[7] Crushing the Brahminical supremacy under his feet the Mussulman king was able to restore to a considerable extent the lost glories of such dynasties of emperors as the Maurya, the Gupta, the Andhra, and the Kshatrapa. (The Persian governors of Aryavarta and Gujarat.) : Modern India

[8] Kanishka, the famous Kushana King is an instance; he belonged to a tribe that had come in from Central Asia, and the entire tribe was absorbed into the Caste system.

[9] This power is so new, its nature and workings are so foreign to the Indian mind, its rise so inconceivable, and its vigor so insuperable that though it wields the suzerain power up till now, only a handful of Indians understand what this power is. We are talking of the occupation of India by England: Modern India.

[10] For a detailed study of Organization according to Swami Vivekananda, please see: ‘Swami Vivekananda & Organization’: http://wp.me/p8xvki-H

[11] Was anybody persecuted in India for choosing his Ishta Devata, or becoming an atheist or agnostic even, so long as he obeyed the social regulations? Society may punish anybody by its disapprobation for breaking any of its regulations, but no man, the lowest Patita (fallen), is ever shut out from Moksha. You must not mix up the two together. Reply to the Madras Address.

[12] “Whether we call it Vedantism or any ism, the truth is that Advaitism is the last word of religion and thought, and the only position from which one can look upon all religions and sects with love. I believe it is the religion of the future enlightened humanity. The Hindus may get the credit of arriving at it earlier than other races, they being an older race than either the Hebrew or the Arab; yet practical Advaitism, which looks upon and behaves to all mankind as one’s own soul, was never developed among the Hindus universally. On the other hand, my experience is that if ever any religion approached to this equality in an appreciable manner, it is Islam and Islam alone. Therefore I am firmly persuaded that without the help of practical Islam, theories of Vedantism, however fine and wonderful they may be, are entirely valueless to the vast mass of mankind.” Letters of Swami Vivekananda: Here, we find the genius of Swami Vivekananda working out a course-correction for Islam, which may seem anathema right now, but, will certainly come to be accepted as the norm in the future. We say this because, man’s innate urge for survival will make him seek out paths and means for peaceful co-existence, in the long run!

[13]In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Hindu calls this Maya, the manifestation of God, because it is the power of God. The Absolute reflecting through the universe is what we call nature. The Word has two manifestations — the general one of nature, and the special one of the great Incarnations of God — Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and Ramakrishna. Christ, the special manifestation of the Absolute, is known and knowable. The Absolute cannot be known: we cannot know the Father, only the Son. We can only see the Absolute through the ‘tint of humanity’, through Christ. In the first five verses of John is the whole essence of Christianity: each verse is full of the profoundest philosophy.: Inspired talks. Just observe how Swamiji says that the whole essence of Christianity is in these five verses. However, the present day version of Christianity doesn’t revolve around these ideas. It stands on the ideas of Immaculate Conception, Original Sin, Emancipation through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Bringing it back to these five verses will be the course correction needed. Realization of Christ in our own consciousness will then define a Christian, and not adherence to dogmas.

[14] And as the Vedas are the only scriptures which teach this real absolute God, of which all other ideas of God are but minimized and limited visions; as the ‘The well-wisher to all the world.’ Shruti takes the devotee gently by the hand, and leads him from one stage to another, through all the stages that are necessary for him to travel to reach the Absolute; and as all other religions represent one or other of these stages in an unprogressive and crystallized form, all the other religions of the world are included in the nameless, limitless, eternal Vedic religion. Reply to the Madras Address.

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

[16]  What new revolution will be effected in India by her clash with the new giant power, and as the result of that revolution what new transformation is in store for future India, cannot be inferred from her past history.: Modern India

[17] The Fundamental RightsDirective Principles of State Policy and Fundamental Duties are sections of the Constitution of India that prescribe the fundamental obligations of the State to its citizens and the duties of the citizens to the State. These sections comprise a constitutional bill of rights for government policy-making and the behavior and conduct of citizens. These sections are considered vital elements of the constitution, which was developed between 1947 and 1949 by the Constituent Assembly of India. The Fundamental Rights is defined as the basic human rights of all citizens. These rights, defined in Part III of the Constitution, apply irrespective of race, place of birth, religion, caste, creed, or gender. They are enforceable by the courts, subject to specific restrictions. The Directive Principles of State Policy are guidelines for the framing of laws by the government. These provisions, set out in Part IV of the Constitution, are not enforceable by the courts, but the principles on which they are based are fundamental guidelines for governance that the State is expected to apply in framing and passing laws. The Fundamental Duties are defined as the moral obligations of all citizens to help promote a spirit of patriotism and to uphold the unity of India. These duties, set out in Part IV–A of the Constitution, concern individuals and the nation. (From Wikipedia)

[18] For a detailed discussion on this new ideal, please refer “The new ideal, the new doctrine, the new life” at: http://wp.me/p8xvki-Z

[19] For a detailed discussion on Karma Yoga, please refer “The efficacy of Karma Yoga” at: http://wp.me/p8xvki-2l and “Swami Vivekananda’s Karma Yoga – the scripture of modern mankind” at http://wp.me/p8xvki-2c

[20] Please see: ‘Swami Vivekananda & Organization’: http://wp.me/p8xvki-H

[21] With us, the prominent idea is Mukti; with the Westerners, it is Dharma. What we desire is Mukti; what they want is Dharma. Here the word ‘Dharma’ is used in the sense of the Mimamsakas. What is Dharma? Dharma is that which makes man seek for happiness in this world or the next. Dharma is established on work, Dharma is impelling man day and night to run after and work for happiness….The object of the peoples of Europe is to exterminate all in order to live themselves. The aim of the Aryans is to raise all up to their own level, nay, even to a higher level than themselves. The means of European civilization is the sword; of the Aryans, the division into different Varnas. This system of division into different Varnas is the stepping-stone to civilization, making one rise higher and higher in proportion to one’s learning and culture. In Europe, it is everywhere victory to the strong and death to the weak. In the land of Bharata, every social rule is for the protection of the weak.: East & the West

[22]  On the advent of Buddhism, Dharma was entirely neglected, and the path of Moksha alone became predominant. Hence, we read in the Agni Purana, in the language of similes, that the demon Gayasura — that is, Buddha tried to destroy the world by showing the path of Moksha to all; and therefore the Devas held a council and by stratagem set him at rest for ever. However, the central fact is that the fall of our country, of which we hear so much spoken, is due to the utter want of this Dharma. If the whole nation practices and follows the path of Moksha, that is well and good; but is that possible? Without enjoyment, renunciation can never come; first enjoy and then you can renounce. Otherwise, if the whole nation, all of a sudden, takes up Sannyasa, it does not gain what it desires, but it loses what it had into the bargain — the bird in the hand is fled, nor is that in the bush caught. When, in the heyday of Buddhist supremacy, thousands of Sannyasins lived in every monastery, then it was that the country was just on the verge of its ruin! The Bauddhas, the Christians, the Mussulmans, and the Jains prescribe, in their folly, the same law and the same rule for all. That is a great mistake; education, habits, customs, laws, and rules should be different for different men and nations, in conformity with their difference of temperament. What will it avail, if one tries to make them all uniform by compulsion? The Bauddhas declared, “Nothing is more desirable in life than Moksha; whoever you are, come one and all to take it.” I ask, “Is that ever possible?” “You are a householder; you must not concern yourself much with things of that sort: you do your Svadharma (natural duty)” — thus say the Hindu scriptures. Exactly so! He who cannot leap one foot, is going to jump across the ocean to Lanka in one bound! Is it reason? You cannot feed your own family or dole out food to two of your fellow-men, you cannot do even an ordinary piece of work for the common good, in harmony with others — and you are running after Mukti! The Hindu scriptures say, “No doubt, Moksha is far superior to Dharma; but Dharma should be finished first of all”. The Bauddhas were confounded just there and brought about all sorts of mischief. Non-injury is right; “Resist not evil” is a great thing — these are indeed grand principles; but the scriptures say, “Thou art a householder; if anyone smites thee on thy cheek, and thou dost not return him an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, thou wilt verily be a sinner.” Manu says, “When one has come to kill you, there is no sin in killing him, even though he be a Brahmin” (Manu, VIII. 350). This is very true, and this is a thing which should not be forgotten. Heroes only enjoy the world. Show your heroism; apply, according to circumstances, the fourfold political maxims of conciliation, bribery, sowing dissensions, and open war, to win over your adversary and enjoy the world — then you will be Dharmika (righteous). Otherwise, you live a disgraceful life if you pocket your insults when you are kicked and trodden down by anyone who takes it into his head to do so; your life is a veritable hell here, and so is the life hereafter. This is what the Shastras say. Do your Svadharma — this is truth, the truth of truths. This is my advice to you, my beloved co-religionists. Of course, do not do any wrong, do not injure or tyrannize over anyone, but try to do good to others as much as you can. But passively to submit to wrong done by others is a sin — with the householder. He must try to pay them back in their own coin then and there. The householder must earn money with great effort and enthusiasm, and by that must support and bring comforts to his own family and to others, and perform good works as far as possible. If you cannot do that, how do you profess to be a man? You are not a householder even — what to talk of Moksha for you!!: East and the West

[23] Now, this Jati Dharma, this Svadharma, is the path of welfare of all societies in every land, the ladder to ultimate freedom. With the decay of this Jati Dharma, this Svadharma, has come the downfall of our land. But the Jati Dharma or Svadharma as commonly understood at present by the higher castes is rather a new evil, which has to be guarded against. They think they know everything of Jati Dharma, but really they know nothing of it. Regarding their own village customs as the eternal customs laid down by the Vedas, and appropriating to themselves all privileges, they are going to their doom! I am not talking of caste as determined by qualitative distinction, but of the hereditary caste system. I admit that the qualitative caste system is the primary one; but the pity is qualities yield to birth in two or three generations. Thus the vital point of our national life has been touched; otherwise, why should we sink to this degraded state? Read in the Gita, “I should then be the cause of the admixture of races, and I should thus ruin these beings.” How came this terrible Varna-Samkarya — this confounding mixture of all castes — and disappearance of all qualitative distinctions? Why has the white complexion of our forefathers now become black? Why did the Sattvaguna give place to the prevailing Tamas with a sprinkling, as it were, of Rajas in it? That is a long story to tell, and I reserve my answer for some future occasion. For the present, try to understand this, that if the Jati Dharma be rightly and truly preserved, the nation shall never fall. If this is true, then what was it that brought our downfall? That we have fallen is the sure sign that the basis of the Jati Dharma has been tampered with. Therefore, what you call the Jati Dharma is quite contrary to what we have in fact. First, read your own Shastras through and through, and you will easily see that what the Shastras define as caste-Dharma has disappeared almost everywhere from the land. Now try to bring back the true Jati Dharma, and then it will be a real and sure boon to the country. What I have learnt and understood, I am telling you plainly. I have not been imported from some foreign land to come and save you, that I should countenance all your foolish customs and give scientific explanations for them; it does not cost our foreign friends anything, they can well afford to do so. You cheer them up and heap applause upon them, and that is the acme of their ambition. But if dirt and dust be flung at your faces, it falls on mine too! Don’t you see that?: East and the West

[24] Now you understand clearly where the soul of this ogress is — it is in religion. Because no one was able to destroy that, therefore the Hindu nation is still living, having survived so many troubles and tribulations. Well, One Indian scholar asks, “What is the use of keeping the soul of the nation in religion? Why not keep it in social or political independence, as is the case with other nations?” It is very easy to talk like that. If it be granted, for the sake of argument, that religion and spiritual independence, and soul, God, and Mukti are all false, even then see how the matter stands. As the same fire is manifesting itself in different forms, so the same one great Force is manifesting itself as political independence with the French, as mercantile genius and expansion of the sphere of equity with the English, and as the desire for Mukti or spiritual independence with the Hindu. Be it noted that by the impelling of this great Force, has been molded the French and the English character, through several centuries of vicissitudes of fortune; and also by the inspiration of that great Force, with the rolling of thousands of centuries, has been the present evolution of the Hindu national character. I ask in all seriousness — which is easier, to give up our national character evolved out of thousands of centuries, or your grafted foreign character of a few hundred years? Why do not the English forget their warlike habits and give up fighting and bloodshed, and sit calm and quiet concentrating their whole energy on making religion the sole aim of their life?: East and the West

[25] And, oh, how my heart ached to think of what we think of the poor, the low, in India. They have no chance, no escape, no way to climb up. The poor, the low, the sinner in India have no friends, no help — they cannot rise, try however they may. They sink lower and lower every day, they feel the blows showered upon them by a cruel society, and they do not know whence the blow comes. They have forgotten that they too are men. And the result is slavery. Thoughtful people within the last few years have seen it, but unfortunately laid it at the door of the Hindu religion, and to them, the only way of bettering is by crushing this grandest religion of the world. Hear me, my friend, I have discovered the secret through the grace of the Lord. Religion is not in fault. On the other hand, your religion teaches you that every being is only your own self multiplied. But it was the want of practical application, the want of sympathy — the want of heart. The Lord once more came to you as Buddha and taught you how to feel, how to sympathize with the poor, the miserable, the sinner, but you heard Him not. Your priests invented the horrible story that the Lord was here for deluding demons with false doctrines! True indeed, but we are the demons, not those that believed. And just as the Jews denied the Lord Jesus and are since that day wandering over the world as homeless beggars, tyrannized over by everybody, so you are bond-slaves to any nation that thinks it worthwhile to rule over you. Ah, tyrants! You do not know that the obverse is tyranny, and the reverse slavery. The slave and the tyrant are synonymous. Balaji and G. G. may remember one evening at Pondicherry — we were discussing the matter of sea-voyage with a Pandit, and I shall always remember his brutal gestures and his Kadapi Na (never)! They do not know that India is a very small part of the world, and the whole world looks down with contempt upon the three hundred millions of earthworms crawling upon the fair soil of India and trying to oppress each other. This state of things must be removed, not by destroying religion but by following the great teachings of the Hindu faith, and joining with it the wonderful sympathy of that logical development of Hinduism — Buddhism. A hundred thousand men and women, fired with the zeal of holiness, fortified with eternal faith in the Lord, and nerved to lion’s courage by their sympathy for the poor and the fallen and the downtrodden, will go over the length and breadth of the land, preaching the gospel of salvation, the gospel of help, the gospel of social raising-up — the gospel of equality. No religion on earth preaches the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism, and no religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and the low in such a fashion as Hinduism. The Lord has shown me that religion is not in fault, but it is the Pharisees and Sadducees in Hinduism, hypocrites, who invent all sorts of engines of tyranny in the shape of doctrines of Paramarthika and Vyavaharika. Letter to Alasinga on 20th Aug 1893 from USA

[26] But you may ask—what is the place of Ramakrishna in this scheme? He is the method, that wonderful unconscious method! He did not understand himself. He knew nothing of England or the English, save that they were queer folk from over the sea. But he lived that great life, and I read the meaning. Never a word of condemnation for any! Once I had been attacking one of our sects of Diabolists. I had been raving on for three hours, and he had listened quietly. ‘Well, well !’ said the old man as I finished, ‘perhaps every house may have a back door. Who knows?’ Hitherto, the great fault of our Indian religion has lain in its knowing only two words – renunciation and Mukti. Only Mukti here! Nothing for the householder! But these are the very people whom I want to help. For are not all souls of the same quality? Is not the goal of all the same? And so strength must come to the nation through education. Master as I saw him;

Cf also: The wicked pay the price of the great soul’s holiness. Think of that when you see a wicked man. Just as the poor man’s labor pays for the rich man’s luxury, so is it in the spiritual world. The terrible degradation of the masses in India is the price nature pays for the production of great souls like Mira-bai, Buddha, etc. Inspired Talks

[27] What I mean to say is this – India learnt that Buddhism and Jainism, two new variants of Hinduism that sprang forth with great vitality, could be absorbed back into Hinduism, India’s avowed religion. So also with the occasional invaders such as the Greeks (both Macedonians & Ionians), the Mongols, the Huns, the Tartars, the Shakas (also known as Scythians), the Kushans, the Pahlavas (also known as Parthians), etc, all of whom were successfully absorbed into Hinduism and no trace was left of the invaders’ religion in the Indian society. With the advent of Islam in its midst, it found that it could not absorb it as it had always done in the past.

[28] The faithful householder was as essential to the Sanatana Dharma as the faithful monk. The inviolability of marriage and the inviolability of the monastic vow were obverse and reverse of a single medal. Without noble citizenship, there could be no mighty apostolate. Without the secular, no sacerdotal, without temporal, no spiritual; thus all was one, yet no detail might be willfully neglected, for through each atom shone the whole. It was in fact his own old message in a new form. Integrity of character, as he and his Master before him, had insisted, was a finer offering than religious ecstasy. Without strength to hold, there was no achievement in surrender. Master as I saw him

 

Morality & Ethics [According to Swami Vivekananda]

 

Prefatory NoteThis tract was the result of an attempt I made in the 1990s. I wanted to use Swami Vivekananda’s own words to bring out a complete system of Morality & Ethics. Every word used in this tract was uttered by Swami Vivekananda himself! I have given the exact references from the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda for every passage included here. It is to be noted that Swami Vivekananda is one of the few persons in history who has done this momentous task – work out a viable moral system that is at once rational and universal.

What is Ethics?

One idea stands out as the centre of all ethical systems, expressed in various forms, namely, doing good to others. The guiding motive of mankind should be charity towards men, charity towards all animals.[1]

Doing good to others is virtue (Dharma); injuring others is sin. Strength and manliness are virtue; weakness and cowardice are sin. Independence is virtue; dependence is sin. Loving others is virtue; hating others is sin. Faith in God and in one’s own Self is virtue; doubt is sin. Knowledge of oneness is virtue; seeing diversity is sin. The different scriptures only show the means of attaining virtue.[2]

But the basis of all systems, social or political, rests upon the goodness of men. No nation is great or good because Parliament enacts this or that, but because its men are great and good.[3]

Ethics always says, “Not I, but thou.” Its motto is, “Not self, but non-self.” The vain ideas of individualism, to which man clings when he is trying to find that Infinite Power or that Infinite Pleasure through the senses, have to be given up — say the laws of ethics. You have to put yourself last and others before you. The senses say, “Myself first.” Ethics says, “I must hold myself last.” Thus, all codes of ethics are based upon this renunciation; destruction, not construction, of the individual on the material plane. That Infinite will never find expression upon the material plane, nor is it possible or thinkable.[4]

We have been degraded down to the animal, and are now going up, to emerge out of this bondage. But we shall never be able entirely to manifest the Infinite here. We shall struggle hard, but there will come a time when we shall find that it is impossible to be perfect here, while we are bound by the senses. And then the march back to our original state of Infinity will be sounded…This is renunciation. We shall have to get out of the difficulty by reversing the process by which we got in, and then morality and charity will begin. What is the watchword of all ethical codes? “Not I, but thou”, and this “I” is the outcome of the Infinite behind, trying to manifest Itself on the outside world. This little “I” is the result, and it will have to go back and join the Infinite, its own nature. Every time you say, “Not I, my brother, but thou”, you are trying to go back, and every time you say “I, and not thou”, you take the false step of trying to manifest the Infinite through the sense-world. That brings struggles and evils into the world, but after a time renunciation must come, eternal renunciation. The little “I” is dead and gone. Why care so much for this little life? All these vain desires of living and enjoying this life, here or in some other place, bring death.[5]

Perfect self – annihilation is the ideal of ethics.[6]

Everything that we perceive around us is struggling towards freedom, from the atom to the man, from the insentient, lifeless particle of matter to the highest existence on earth, the human soul. The whole universe is in fact the result of this struggle for freedom. In all combinations every particle is trying to go on its own way, to fly from the other particles; but the others are holding it in check. Our earth is trying to fly away from the sun, and the moon from the earth…Everything has a tendency to infinite dispersion. All that we see in the universe has for its basis this one struggle towards freedom; it is under the impulse of this tendency that the saint prays and the robber robs. When the line of action taken is not a proper one, we call it evil; and when the manifestation of it is proper and high, we call it good. But the impulse is the same, the struggle towards freedom. The saint is oppressed with the knowledge of his condition of bondage, and he wants to get rid of it; so he worships God. The thief is oppressed with the idea that he does not possess certain things, and he tries to get rid of that want, to obtain freedom from it; so he steals. Freedom is the one goal of all nature, sentient or insentient; and consciously or unconsciously, everything is struggling towards that goal. The freedom which the saint seeks is very different from that which the robber seeks; the freedom loved by the saint leads him to the enjoyment of infinite, unspeakable bliss, while that on which the robber has set his heart only forges other bonds for his soul…There is to be found in every religion the manifestation of this struggle towards freedom. It is the groundwork of all morality, of unselfishness, which means getting rid of the idea that men are the same as their little body.[7]

Morality of course is not the goal of man, but the means through which this freedom is attained. The Vedanta says that Yoga is one way that makes men realise this divinity. The Vedanta says this is done by the realisation of the freedom within and that everything will give way to that. Morality and ethics will all range themselves in their proper places.[8]

Utility & Ethics: Why should we be ethical?

Utilitarian standards cannot explain the ethical relations of men, for, in the first place, we cannot derive any ethical laws from considerations of utility. Without the supernatural sanction as it is called, or the perception of the superconscious as I prefer to term it, there can be no ethics. Without the struggle towards the Infinite there can be no ideal. Any system that wants to bind men down to the limits of their own societies is not able to find an explanation for the ethical laws of mankind. The Utilitarian wants us to give up the struggle after the Infinite, the reaching-out for the Supersensuous, as impracticable and absurd, and, in the same breath, asks us to take up ethics and do good to society. Why should we do good? Doing good is a secondary consideration. We must have an ideal. Ethics itself is not the end, but the means to the end. If the end is not there, why should we be ethical? Why should I do good to other men, and not injure them? If happiness is the goal of mankind, why should I not make myself happy and others unhappy? What prevents me? In the second place, the basis of utility is too narrow. All the current social forms and methods are derived from society as it exists, but what right has the Utilitarian to assume that society is eternal? Society did not exist ages ago, possibly will not exist ages hence. Most probably it is one of the passing stages through which we are going towards a higher evolution, and any law that is derived from society alone cannot be eternal, cannot cover the whole ground of man’s nature. At best, therefore, Utilitarian theories can only work under present social conditions. Beyond that they have no value. But a morality an ethical code, derived from religion and spirituality, has the whole of infinite man for its scope. It takes up the individual, but its relations are to the Infinite, and it takes up society also — because society is nothing but numbers of these individuals grouped together; and as it applies to the individual and his eternal relations, it must necessarily apply to the whole of society, in whatever condition it may be at any given time. Thus we see that there is always the necessity of spiritual religion for mankind. Man cannot always think of matter, however pleasurable it may be.

Man is man so long as he is struggling to rise above nature, and this nature is both internal and external. Not only does it comprise the laws that govern the particles of matter outside us and in our bodies, but also the more subtle nature within, which is, in fact, the motive power governing the external. It is good and very grand to conquer external nature, but grander still to conquer our internal nature. It is grand and good to know the laws that govern the stars and planets; it is infinitely grander and better to know the laws that govern the passions, the feelings, the will, of mankind. This conquering of the inner man, understanding the secrets of the subtle workings that are within the human mind, and knowing its wonderful secrets, belong entirely to religion. Human nature — the ordinary human nature, I mean — wants to see big material facts. The ordinary man cannot understand anything that is subtle. Well has it been said that the masses admire the lion that kills a thousand lambs, never for a moment thinking that it is death to the lambs. Although a momentary triumph for the lion; because they find pleasure only in manifestations of physical strength. Thus it is with the ordinary run of mankind. They understand and find pleasure in everything that is external.

But in every society there is a section whose pleasures are not in the senses, but beyond, and who now and then catch glimpses of something higher than matter and struggle to reach it. And if we read the history of nations between the lines, we shall always find that the rise of a nation comes with an increase in the number of such men; and the fall begins when this pursuit after the Infinite, however vain Utilitarians may call it, has ceased. That is to say, the mainspring of the strength of every race lies in its spirituality, and the death of that race begins the day that spirituality wanes and materialism gains ground.[9]

What is the source of Ethics?

The field of reason, or of the conscious workings of the mind, is narrow and limited. There is a little circle within which human reason must move. It cannot go beyond. Every attempt to go beyond is impossible, yet it is beyond this circle of reason that there lies all that humanity holds most dear. All these questions, whether there is an immortal soul, whether there is a God, whether there is any supreme intelligence guiding this universe or not, are beyond the field of reason. Reason can never answer these questions. What does reason say? It says, “I am agnostic; I do not know either yea or nay.” Yet these questions are so important to us. Without a proper answer to them, human life will be purposeless. All our ethical theories, all our moral attitudes, all that is good and great in human nature, have been moulded upon answers that have come from beyond the circle. It is very important, therefore, that we should have answers to these questions. If life is only a short play, if the universe is only a “fortuitous combination of atoms,” then why should I do good to another? Why should there be mercy, justice, or fellow-feeling? The best thing for this world would be to make hay while the sun shines, each man for himself. If there is no hope, why should I love my brother, and not cut his throat? If there is nothing beyond, if there is no freedom, but only rigorous dead laws, I should only try to make myself happy here. You will find people saying nowadays that they have utilitarian grounds as the basis of morality. What is this basis? Procuring the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number. Why should I do this? Why should I not produce the greatest unhappiness to the greatest number, if that serves my purpose? How will utilitarians answer this question? How do you know what is right, or what is wrong? I am impelled by my desire for happiness, and I fulfil it, and it is in my nature; I know nothing beyond. I have these desires, and must fulfil them; why should you complain? Whence come all these truths about human life, about morality, about the immortal soul, about God, about love and sympathy, about being good, and, above all, about being unselfish?

All ethics, all human action and all human thought, hang upon this one idea of unselfishness. The whole idea of human life can be put into that one word, unselfishness. Why should we be unselfish? Where is the necessity, the force, the power, of my being unselfish? You call yourself a rational man, a utilitarian; but if you do not show me a reason for utility, I say you are irrational. Show me the reason why I should not be selfish. To ask one to be unselfish may be good as poetry, but poetry is not reason. Show me a reason. Why shall I be unselfish, and why be good? Because Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so say so does not weigh with me. Where is the utility of my being unselfish? My utility is to be selfish if utility means the greatest amount of happiness. What is the answer? The utilitarian can never give it. The answer is that this world is only one drop in an infinite ocean, one link in an infinite chain. Where did those that preached unselfishness, and taught it to the human race, get this idea? We know it is not instinctive; the animals, which have instinct, do not know it. Neither is it reason; reason does not know anything about these ideas. Whence then did they come? [10]

Unity is knowledge, diversity is ignorance. This knowledge is your birthright. I have not to teach it to you. There never were different religions in the world. We are all destined to have salvation, whether we will it or not. You have to attain it in the long run and become free, because it is your nature to be free. We are already free, only we do not know it, and we do not know what we have been doing. Throughout all religious systems and ideals is the same morality; one thing only is preached: “Be unselfish, love others.” One says, “Because Jehovah commanded.” “Allah,” shouted Mohammed. Another cries, “Jesus”. If it was only the command of Jehovah, how could it come to those who never knew Jehovah? If it was Jesus alone who gave this command, how could any one who never knew Jesus get it? If only Vishnu, how could the Jews get it, who never were acquainted with that gentleman? There is another source, greater than all of them. Where is it? In the eternal temple of God, in the souls of all beings from the lowest to the highest. It is there — that infinite unselfishness, infinite sacrifice, infinite compulsion to go back to unity.

We have seemingly been divided, limited, because of our ignorance; and we have become as it were the little Mrs. So-and-so and Mr. So-and-so. But all nature is giving this delusion the lie every moment. I am not that little man or little woman cut off from all else; I am the one universal existence. The soul in its own majesty is rising up every moment and declaring its own intrinsic Divinity.

This Vedanta is everywhere, only you must become conscious of it. These masses of foolish beliefs and superstitions hinder us in our progress. If we can, let us throw them off and understand that God is spirit to be worshipped in spirit and in truth. Try to be materialists no more! Throw away all matter! The conception of God must be truly spiritual. All the different ideas of God, which are more or less materialistic, must go. As man becomes more and more spiritual, he has to throw off all these ideas and leave them behind. As a matter of fact, in every country there have always been a few who have been strong enough to throw away all matter and stand out in the shining light, worshipping the spirit by the spirit.[11]

Advaita and Ethics: Vedantic morality

Advaita and Advaita alone explains morality. Every religion preaches that the essence of all morality is to do good to others. And why? Be unselfish. And why should I? Some God has said it? He is not for me. Some texts have declared it? Let them; that is nothing to me; let them all tell it. And if they do, what is it to me? Each one for himself, and somebody take the hindermost — that is all the morality in the world, at least with many. What is the reason that I should be moral? You cannot explain it except when you come to know the truth as given in the Gita: “He who sees everyone in himself, and himself in everyone, thus seeing the same God living in all, he, the sage, no more kills the Self by the self.” Know through Advaita that whomsoever you hurt, you hurt yourself; they are all you. Whether you know it or not, through all hands you work, through all feet you move, you are the king enjoying in the palace, you are the beggar leading that miserable existence in the street; you are in the ignorant as well as in the learned, you are in the man who is weak, and you are in the strong; know this and be sympathetic. And that is why we must not hurt others. That is why I do not even care whether I have to starve, because there will be millions of mouths eating at the same time, and they are all mine. Therefore I should not care what becomes of me and mine, for the whole universe is mine, I am enjoying all the bliss at the same time; and who can kill me or the universe? Herein is morality. Here, in Advaita alone, is morality explained. The others teach item but cannot give you its reason.[12]

Those of you who have studied the Gita will remember the memorable passages: “He who looks upon the learned Brahmin, upon the cow, the elephant, the dog, or the outcast with the same eye, he indeed is the sage, and the wise man”; “Even in this life he has conquered relative existence whose mind is firmly fixed on this sameness, for the Lord is one and the same to all, and the Lord is pure; therefore those who have this sameness for all, and are pure, are said to be living in God.” This is the gist of Vedantic morality — this sameness for all.[13]

Oneness: What are its practical implications?

There will be various questions in connection with this, and I shall try to answer them as we go on. Many difficulties will arise, but first let us clearly understand the position of monism. As manifested beings we appear to be separate, but our reality is one, and the less we think of ourselves as separate from that One, the better for us. The more we think of ourselves as separate from the Whole, the more miserable we become. From this monistic principle we get at the basis of ethics, and I venture to say that we cannot get any ethics from anywhere else. We know that the oldest idea of ethics was the will of some particular being or beings, but few are ready to accept that now, because it would be only a partial generalization. The Hindus say we must not do this or that because the Vedas say so, but the Christian is not going to obey the authority of the Vedas. The Christian says you must do this and not do that because the Bible says so. That will not be binding on those who do not believe in the Bible. But we must have a theory which is large enough to take in all these various grounds. Just as there are millions of people who are ready to believe in a Personal Creator, there have also been thousands of the brightest minds in this world who felt that such ideas were not sufficient for them, and wanted something higher, and wherever religion was not broad enough to include all these minds, the result was that the brightest minds in society were always outside of religion; and never was this so marked as at the present time, especially in Europe.[14]

(But) this is a fact that variation exists, and so it must, if life is to be…A state of things, where all variation has died down, giving place to a uniform, dead homogeneity, is impossible so long as life lasts. Nor is it desirable. At the same time, there is the other side of the fact, viz that this unity already exists. That is the peculiar claim — not that this unity has to be made, but that it already exists, and that you could not perceive the variety at all, without it. God is not to be made, but He already exists. This has been the claim of all religions. Whenever one has perceived the finite, he has also perceived the Infinite. Some laid stress on the finite side, and declared that they perceived the finite without; others laid stress on the Infinite side, and declared they perceived the Infinite only. But we know that it is a logical necessity that we cannot perceive the one without the other. So the claim is that this sameness, this unity, this perfection — as we may call it — is not to be made, it already exists, and is here. We have only to recognise it, to understand it. Whether we know it or not, whether we can express it in clear language or not, whether this perception assumes the force and clearness of a sense-perception or not, it is there. For we are bound by the logical necessity of our minds to confess that it is there, else, the perception of the finite would not be…Therefore the absolute sameness of conditions, if that be the aim of ethics, appears to be impossible. That all men should be the same, could never be, however we might try…At the same time ring in our ears the wonderful words of morality proclaimed by various teachers: “Thus, seeing the same God equally present in all, the sage does not injure Self by the Self, and thus reaches the highest goal. Even in this life they have conquered relative existence whose minds are firmly fixed on this sameness; for God is pure, and God is the same to all…Therefore such are said to be living in God.” We cannot deny that this is the real idea; yet at the same time comes the difficulty that the sameness as regards external forms and position can never be attained.

The work of ethics has been, and will be in the future, not the destruction of variation and the establishment of sameness in the external world — which is impossible for it would bring death and annihilation — but to recognise the unity in spite of all these variations, to recognise the God within, in spite of everything that frightens us, to recognise that infinite strength as the property of everyone in spite of all apparent weakness, and to recognise the eternal, infinite, essential purity of the soul in spite of everything to the contrary that appears on the surface.[15]

The diabolical man is a part of my body as a wound or a burn is. We have to nurse it and get it better; so continually nurse and help the diabolical man, until he “heals” and is once happy and healthy.[16]

Conception of God & its relation to Morality:

The Impersonal God is a living God, a principle. The difference between personal and impersonal is this, that the personal is only a man, and the impersonal idea is that He is the angel, the man, the animal, and yet something more which we cannot see, because impersonality includes all personalities, is the sum total of everything in the universe, and infinitely more besides. “As the one fire coming into the world is manifesting itself in so many forms, and yet is infinitely more besides,” so is the Impersonal.[17]

Those who have understood and worshipped a Personal God, and those who have understood and worshipped an Impersonal God, on which side have been the great workers of the world — gigantic workers, gigantic moral powers? Certainly on the Impersonal. How can you expect morality to be developed through fear? It can never be. “Where one sees another, where one hears another, that is Maya. When one does not see another, when one does not hear another, when everything has become the Atman, who sees whom, who perceives whom?” It is all He, and all I, at the same time. The soul has become pure. Then, and then alone we understand what love is. Love cannot come through fear, its basis is freedom. When we really begin to love the world, then we understand what is meant by brotherhood or mankind, and not before.[18]

The more selfish a man, the more immoral he is. And so also with the race. That race which is bound down to itself has been the most cruel and the most wicked in the whole world. There has not been a religion that has clung to this dualism more than that founded by the Prophet of Arabia, and there has not been a religion which has shed so much blood and been so cruel to other men. In the Koran there is the doctrine that a man who does not believe these teachings should be killed; it is a mercy to kill him! And the surest way to get to heaven, where there are beautiful houris and all sorts of sense-enjoyments, is by killing these unbelievers. Think of the bloodshed there has been in consequence of such beliefs!

In the religion of Christ there was little of crudeness; there is very little difference between the pure religion of Christ and that of the Vedanta. You find there the idea of oneness; but Christ also preached dualistic ideas to the people in order to give them something tangible to take hold of, to lead them up to the highest ideal. The same Prophet who preached, “Our Father which art in heaven”, also preached, “I and my Father are one”, and the same Prophet knew that through the “Father in heaven” lies the way to the “I and my Father are one”. There was only blessing and love in the religion of Christ; but as soon as crudeness crept in, it was degraded into something not much better than the religion of the Prophet of Arabia. It was crudeness indeed — this fight for the little self, this clinging on to the “I”, not only in this life, but also in the desire for its continuance even after death. This they declare to be unselfishness; this the foundation of morality! Lord help us, if this be the foundation of morality! And strangely enough, men and women who ought to know better think all morality will be destroyed if these little selves go and stand aghast at the idea that morality can only stand upon their destruction. The watchword of all well-being, of all moral good is not “I” but “thou”. Who cares whether there is a heaven or a hell, who cares if there is a soul or not, who cares if there is an unchangeable or not? Here is the world, and it is full of misery. Go out into it as Buddha did, and struggle to lessen it or die in the attempt. Forget yourselves; this is the first lesson to be learnt, whether you are a theist or an atheist, whether you are an agnostic or a Vedantist, a Christian or a Mohammedan. The one lesson obvious to all is the destruction of the little self and the building up of the Real Self.[19]

Morality for Atheists & Agnostics: Karma Yoga:

Karma-Yoga is the attaining through unselfish work of that freedom which is the goal of all human nature. Every selfish action, therefore, retards our reaching the goal, and every unselfish action takes us towards the goal; that is why the only definition that can be given of morality is this: That which is selfish is immoral, and that which is unselfish is moral.

The same action under one set of circumstances may be unselfish, and under another set quite selfish. So we can give only a general definition, and leave the details to be worked out by taking into consideration the differences in time, place, and circumstances. In one country one kind of conduct is considered moral, and in another the very same is immoral, because the circumstances differ. The goal of all nature is freedom, and freedom is to be attained only by perfect unselfishness; every thought, word, or deed that is unselfish takes us towards the goal, and, as such, is called moral. That definition, you will find, holds good in every religion and every system of ethics. In some systems of thought morality is derived from a Superior Being — God. If you ask why a man ought to do this and not that, their answer is: “Because such is the command of God.” But whatever be the source from which it is derived, their code of ethics also has the same central idea — not to think of self but to give up self. And yet some persons, in spite of this high ethical idea, are frightened at the thought of having to give up their little personalities.[20]

Karma-Yoga, therefore, is a system of ethics and religion intended to attain freedom through unselfishness, and by good works. The Karma-Yogi need not believe in any doctrine whatever. He may not believe even in God, may not ask what his soul is, nor think of any metaphysical speculation. He has got his own special aim of realising selflessness; and he has to work it out himself. Every moment of his life must be realisation, because he has to solve by mere work, without the help of doctrine or theory, the very same problem to which the Jnani applies his reason and inspiration and the Bhakta his love.[21]

I would like to see moral men like Gautama Buddha, who did not believe in a Personal God or a personal soul, never asked about them, but was a perfect agnostic, and yet was ready to lay down his life for anyone, and worked all his life for the good of all, and thought only of the good of all. Well has it been said by his biographer, in describing his birth, that he was born for the good of the many, as a blessing to the many. He did not go to the forest to meditate for his own salvation; he felt that the world was burning, and that he must find a way out. “Why is there so much misery in the world?” — was the one question that dominated his whole life. Do you think we are so moral as the Buddha?[22]

Advaita Vedanta: The only true philosophical basis for Morality:

My idea is to show that the highest ideal of morality and unselfishness goes hand in hand with the highest metaphysical conception, and that you need not lower your conception to get ethics and morality, but, on the other hand, to reach a real basis of morality and ethics you must have the highest philosophical and scientific conceptions. Human knowledge is not antagonistic to human well-being. On the contrary, it is knowledge alone that will save us in every department of life — in knowledge is worship. The more we know the better for us.[23]

The monistic Vedanta is the simplest form in which you can put truth. To teach dualism was a tremendous mistake made in India and elsewhere, because people did not look at the ultimate principles, but only thought of the process which is very intricate indeed. To many, these tremendous philosophical and logical propositions were alarming. They thought these things could not be made universal, could not be followed in everyday practical life, and that under the guise of such a philosophy much laxity of living would arise.

But I do not believe at all that monistic ideas preached to the world would produce immorality and weakness. On the contrary, I have reason to believe that it is the only remedy there is. If this be the truth, why let people drink ditch water when the stream of life is flowing by? If this be the truth, that they are all pure, why not at this moment teach it to the whole world? Why not teach it with the voice of thunder to every man that is born, to saints and sinners, men, women, and children, to the man on the throne and to the man sweeping the streets?[24]

Two forces have been working side by side in parallel lines. The one says “I”, the other says “not I”. Their manifestation is not only in man but in animals, not only in animals but in the smallest worms. The tigress that plunges her fangs into the warm blood of a human being would give up her own life to protect her young. The most depraved man who thinks nothing of taking the lives of his brother men will, perhaps, sacrifice himself without any hesitation to save his starving wife and children. Thus throughout creation these two forces are working side by side; where you find the one, you find the other too. The one is selfishness, the other is unselfishness. The one is acquisition, the other is renunciation. The one takes, the other gives. From the lowest to the highest, the whole universe is the playground of these two forces. It does not require any demonstration; it is obvious to all.

What right has any section of the community to base the whole work and evolution of the universe upon one of these two factors alone, upon competition and struggle? What right has it to base the whole working of the universe upon passion and fight, upon competition and struggle? That these exist we do not deny; but what right has anyone to deny the working of the other force? Can any man deny that love, this “not I”, this renunciation is the only positive power in the universe? That other is only the misguided employment of the power of love; the power of love brings competition, the real genesis of competition is in love. The real genesis of evil is in unselfishness. The creator of evil is good, and the end is also good. It is only misdirection of the power of good. A man who murders another is, perhaps, moved to do so by the love of his own child. His love has become limited to that one little baby, to the exclusion of the millions of other human beings in the universe. Yet, limited or unlimited, it is the same love.

Thus the motive power of the whole universe, in what ever way it manifests itself, is that one wonderful thing, unselfishness, renunciation, love, the real, the only living force in existence. Therefore the Vedantist insists upon that oneness. We insist upon this explanation because we cannot admit two causes of the universe. If we simply hold that by limitation the same beautiful, wonderful love appears to be evil or vile, we find the whole universe explained by the one force of love. If not, two causes of the universe have to be taken for granted, one good and the other evil, one love and the other hatred. Which is more logical? Certainly the one-force theory.[25]

Ethics is unity; its basis is love. It will not look at this variation. The one aim of ethics is this unity, this sameness. The highest ethical codes that mankind has discovered up to the present time know no variation; they have no time to stop to look into it; their one end is to make for that sameness.[26]

Urgent necessity of Vedantic Morality:

What is the utility, the effect, the result, of this knowledge? In these days, we have to measure everything by utility — by how many pounds shillings and pence it represents. What right has a person to ask that truth should be judged by the standard of utility or money? Suppose there is no utility, will it be less true? Utility is not the test of truth. Nevertheless, there is the highest utility in this. Happiness, we see is what everyone is seeking for, but the majority seek it in things which are evanescent and not real. No happiness was ever found in the senses. There never was a person who found happiness in the senses or in enjoyment of the senses.

Happiness is only found in the Spirit. Therefore the highest utility for mankind is to find this happiness in the Spirit. The next point is that ignorance is the great mother of all misery, and the fundamental ignorance is to think that the Infinite weeps and cries, that He is finite. This is the basis of all ignorance that we, the immortal, the ever pure, the perfect Spirit, think that we are little minds, that we are little bodies; it is the mother of all selfishness. As soon as I think that I am a little body, I want to preserve it, to protect it, to keep it nice, at the expense of other bodies; then you and I become separate. As soon as this idea of separation comes, it opens the door to all mischief and leads to all misery. This is the utility that if a very small fractional part of human beings living today can put aside the idea of selfishness, narrowness, and littleness, this earth will become a paradise tomorrow; but with machines and improvements of material knowledge only, it will never be. These only increase misery, as oil poured on fire increases the flame all the more. Without the knowledge of the Spirit, all material knowledge is only adding fuel to fire, only giving into the hands of selfish man one more instrument to take what belongs to others, to live upon the life of others, instead of giving up his life for them.[27]

Vedantic Morality – How practical is it?

Is it practical? — is another question. Can it be practised in modern society? Truth does not pay homage to any society, ancient or modern. Society has to pay homage to Truth or die. Societies should be moulded upon truth, and truth has not to adjust itself to society. If such a noble truth as unselfishness cannot be practiced in society, it is better for man to give up society and go into the forest.[28]

The whole idea of ethics is that it does not depend on anything unknowable, it does not teach anything unknown, but in the language of the Upanishad, “The God whom you worship as an unknown God, the same I preach unto thee.” It is through the Self that you know anything. I see the chair; but to see the chair, I have first to perceive myself and then the chair. It is in and through the Self that the chair is perceived. It is in and through the Self that you are known to me, that the whole world is known to me; and therefore to say this Self is unknown is sheer nonsense. Take off the Self and the whole universe vanishes. In and through the Self all knowledge comes…These ideas of the ethics of Vedanta have to be worked out in detail, and, therefore, you must have patience…Do you feel for others? If you do, you are growing in oneness. If you do not feel for others, you may be the most intellectual giant ever born, but you will be nothing; you are but dry intellect, and you will remain so. And if you feel, even if you cannot read any book and do not know any language, you are in the right way…Feel like Christ and you will be a Christ; feel like Buddha and you will be a Buddha. It is feeling that is the life, the strength, the vitality…It is one of the most practical things in Vedantic morality.[29]

A last word:

A word for you. Remember always, I may not see you again. Be moral. Be brave. Be a heart-whole man. Strictly moral, brave unto desperation. Don’t bother your head with religious theories. Cowards only sin, brave men never, no, not even in mind. Try to love anybody and everybody.[30]

Renounce the lower so that you may get the higher. What is the foundation of society? Morality, ethics, laws. Renounce. Renounce all temptation to take your neighbour’s property, to put hands upon your neighbour, all the pleasure of tyrannising over the weak, all the pleasure of cheating others by telling lies. Is not morality the foundation of society? What is marriage but the renunciation of unchastity? The savage does not marry. Man marries because he renounces. So on and on. Renounce! Renounce! Sacrifice! Give up! Not for zero. Not for nothing. But to get the higher.[31]

 ***********************

Reference:

[1] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1964), Vol-2, page-82

[2] ibid, Vol-5, page-419

[3] ibid, Vol-5, page-192

[4] ibid, Vol-2, page-63

[5] ibid, Vol-2, page-173

[6] ibid, Vol-2, page-63

[7] ibid, Vol-1, page-108

[8] ibid, Vol-5, page-282

[9] ibid, Vol-2, pp: 63-65

[10] ibid, Vol-1, pp: 181-182

[11] ibid, Vol-8, pp: 138-139

[12] ibid, Vol-3, page-425

[13] ibid, Vol-1, pp: 425-426

[14] ibid, Vol-2, pp: 334-335

[15] ibid, Vol-1, pp: 430-436

[16] ibid, Vol-7, page-103

[17] ibid, Vol-2, pp: 319-320

[18] ibid, Vol-2, page-322

[19] ibid, Vol-2, pp: 353-353

[20] ibid, Vol-1, page-110

[21] ibid, Vol-1, page-111

[22] ibid, Vol-2, page-352

[23] ibid, Vol-2, page-355

[24] ibid, Vol-2, page-199

[25] ibid, Vol-2, pp: 353-355

[26] ibid, Vol-1, page-432

[27] ibid, Vol-2, pp: 83-84

[28] ibid, Vol-2, page-84

[29] ibid, Vol-2, pp: 305-307

[30] ibid, Vol-5, page-3

[31] ibid, Vol-4, page-243

 

 

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.

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[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.