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 &

[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, 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

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Good evening to all alumni members and their spouses assembled here today.

Mr. Biswas has been kind enough to have introduced me to you all. Before I begin, let me tell you how I came to be here today.

I know Dr Subramanian, the Jt Director of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan through his younger brother Mr. Gopal Krishnan. I have interacted with Mr. Krishnan for quite some time now. Shilpamandira has signed an MoU with Tata Motors regarding training and placement of our automobile technicians. It was Mr. Krishnan who made this happen. He had introduced me to Dr Subramanian. One day, about a fortnight ago, Dr Subramanian came to my office along with Mr. Biswas and asked me if I could address this gathering. Before I could say yes or no, Mr. Biswas said to me, “Maharaj, please choose a catchy topic, something that will be attractive to the alumni members and will be intellectually stimulating to them.” Well, there he actually caught me – with ‘intellectually stimulating’. I said yes, I would go to address the alumni gathering. But then, I pleaded for some time to choose the topic. I then told them about what had happened in our Vedanta Society of Northern California long ago. There was a monk there long ago called Swami Prabhavananda. He was supposed to give a lecture every Sunday in his Center. Over a period of time he found that the number of people attending his weekly lectures started dwindling. He wished to increase the attendance in his lectures. So he came up with an ingenuous plan. He gave an advertisement in the local papers saying “This Sunday, Swami Prabhavananda will speak on ‘How to make money’ at such and such address.” The hall was overflowing, with people having no place even to stand; so many had turned up. He slowly walked up to the rostrum and told them, “Well, I don’t know how to make money. But, if I hadn’t advertised like this, so many of you wouldn’t have come here. Now that you have all come here, I will tell you about Vedanta which I do know. Please listen.” We had a good laugh about it. Today’s evening also is something of the same sort, I am afraid! Anyway, I had asked for some time to decide on the topic. Then I went about my day’s work in Shilpamandira. I had a series of meetings with various departments that day. One of my lecturers came to me with a personal problem. And in the course of our discussion, he asked me this question – why do bad things happen to good people? That was when I immediately messaged both Dr Subramanian and Mr. Biswas that this would be my topic.

So much for the background; now I will inform you my plan for this evening. I will speak for so long as one of us – either you or I – gets bored. Then I will throw the house open for questions. Now, let me elaborate on today’s topic of my lecture.

While introducing me, Mr. Biswas said that I was an Engineer before I became a monk. I in fact studied in the same college in Bangalore as Mr. Biswas’s son studied in. Just as the introduction got over, Mr. Amitava Chakravarti here pointed out that my becoming a monk was indeed a good thing for me, but must have certainly been a bad thing for my parents! I will come to that point a little later in my lecture. That is the whole problem with this question. Good and bad certainly seem to be vague and naïve categorizations.

We will all agree that this is a question that we have all asked ourselves sometime or the other in our lives. I will point out to you some of the important points concerning this question. Then I will try to explain to you what Vedanta has to say on this question. You see, I am a monk of the Ramakrishna Mission. I represent Swami Vivekananda’s ideas and they are basically Vedanta ideas, with some important deviations.

I believe that all of us in this hall will agree that we all consider ourselves to be ‘good people’. There will be no one here who will claim to be a bad person. You know what most of us think about ourselves? ‘I am a good person. I do admit that I have some weaknesses, some short-comings, but then, I am not a bad person at all!’ This is what most of us feel about ourselves. Am I not right? And as a corollary of this self-concept, we ask ourselves, ‘I am a good person; how could such a bad thing happen to me?!’

This brings me to an important idea that seems to be pervasive among all human beings. That is the idea that if we are good, only good things ought to happen to us. Since I haven’t done anything wrong, how can something bad happen to me? This is the line of thinking that seems to be pervasive all over the world, irrespective of culture, race and religion.

I wish to point out one important fallacy with this line of thought. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who once said, ‘We are excellent advocates of our short-comings and the cruelest judges of the mistakes that others commit.’ We seem to be unable to make an unbiased judgment about our own actions. Hence we always judge ourselves to be correct and hence ‘good persons’. Others, on the other hand, seem to be committing a hell of a lot of mistakes and hence they ought to be receiving blows after blows for their ‘bad’ actions! How correct is this judgment?

Then there is the thing about the point of us being all good. What exactly is the basis on which we judge ourselves to be good? Since we never committed a ‘bad’ act, we claim to be good. Not being bad – is it necessary and sufficient condition to be categorized as ‘good’? Let me tell you a small story: A couple developed some trouble between themselves and their marriage was getting rocked. They approached a marriage counselor. The counsellor told the husband, ‘Go home and listen to what your wife says. She has something to say to you about many things. Just listen to what she says.’ So the husband went back home and went on listening attentively to all that his wife had to say. A month later he came to the marriage counsellor. The counsellor asked him, ‘Well, how is the situation now?’ The husband said, ‘A little better.’ Then the counsellor advised, ‘Now, go back home. This time, along with listening to all that she says, listen very carefully to all the things that she doesn’t say!’ Very similar is our condition too, I guess. We, of course, don’t commit crimes. But then, how many of us here can claim that we go out of our way and perform acts of real goodness? Most of us cannot claim that. And yet, we are quite hasty in classifying ourselves under the group ‘good people’!

Somehow we all seem to assume that life is quite logical in its unfoldment. We assume that there is a linear logic governing our lives. This feeling is pervasive in all of us. But, is it really linear? Listen to a story. A man was once walking along a road. He saw that two policemen were walking behind him, a little far away. He stole a look at both of them. He suddenly felt that their faces and their animated body language seemed to tell him that both of them were discussing about him and that they suspected him about something. A fear enveloped him and he bolted. As soon as the two policemen saw that the man before them was running, they gave chase. He came across a huge iron gate. He jumped over it and entered a graveyard. There was a freshly dug out grave. He jumped into it and hid there. But it wasn’t long before the law enforcement officers caught him there. They asked him why he was hiding there. When they asked him that question, he realized that he had acted in haste and that he was never a suspect in the first place. He gave an answer which I appreciate a lot. He said, “Officer, you have asked a simple question. But I assure you that I cannot give you an equally simple answer to that question. All I can safely tell you is this – I am here because of you both, and the both of you are here because of me!” So, within small circles of events, there does seem to be linear logic working in our lives, but when you consider the events of our lives in larger circles, in larger periods of time, linear logic doesn’t seem to be operative.

Anyway, be that as it may. This is a question that is asked by people all over the world, at all times and under every conceivable situation. I hold that if there is some tendency that is pervasive in human beings, then, it means that that tendency ought to serve some universal benefit. If it did not serve a universal purpose, it wouldn’t be present in such a pervasive manner. Vedanta claims that this tendency present in us – the tendency to seriously ask ourselves – ‘why do bad things happen to us?’ is meant to serve some purpose in our lives. In other words, Vedanta says that it cannot answer this question, but it can show you how you can put this tendency to ask this question, the capability to feel suffering, to good use.

This is one characteristic feature of Vedanta. It says that just because you ask a logical question, there is absolutely no guarantee that a logical answer can be given. That is Vedanta’s stand. This is a question that cannot be answered satisfactorily at all. It is impossible to give a logical answer to this question. However, that doesn’t mean Vedanta is not interested in the question. Vedanta is interested in this question because, it can show you a way to put the faculty that gave rise to this question to a wonderful use and enable us to achieve a marvelous objective for yourself.

Semitic Religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism have attempted to answer this question by a simplistic method. They posit two entities – God and the Devil. All that is good comes from God. All that is evil comes from the other side!

Vedanta doesn’t accept such an approach. There is no attempt to hook moral judgments onto God. Vedanta does posit a God, a creator-preserver-destroyer. And everything comes from Him. Good comes from Him. Bad too comes from Him. Why does Vedanta say such a thing? This is because, categorization of people or events into two water-tight compartments of good and bad is very naïve. Any person with sufficient maturity will understand that such compartmentalization is impossible. Let me explain this by telling you a story. I read this story long ago. I guess it was written by Leo Tolstoy. There was a man living in a Russian village. He had a strange habit of saying that everything that happened was for his good. His friends did not agree. They made fun of him saying that events were either good or bad and his outlook that everything that happened was good was stupid. One day, this man’s only young son went hunting with his friends. During that hunt, his son broke his leg. He came back home and his situation was so bad that there were doubts if he would be able to walk again at all. This man’s friends now approached him and asked him how he felt about this event. As usual, the man held that this had happened for his own good. They concluded that he was a fool and was incorrigible and went away. Some weeks later, Russia entered into a war and the Czar issued a decree that all able-bodied young men should join the army and fight on the battle field. Now the man ran to his friends and pointed out that while all of them had to send their sons to the army, he was exempted because his only son couldn’t walk yet! So, wasn’t he right in his claim that the accident that had occurred was actually good?

Thus, the very scheme of things in this world seems to be such that the border line between good and bad keeps shifting. What we considered good at one time, under one set of situations may turn out to be bad a little while later, under a different set of situations. When such is the actual situation, it is quite right that Vedanta chooses to ignore answering this question of ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ and instead focuses on putting the tendency to ask this question to some better use.

Vedanta focuses on discovering something inside us that is eternal. Vedanta claims that the core of our being, in each one of us, is perfect, is undying, and is pure. Vedanta says that although perfection is so close to us, rather closer than anything else, we don’t know it. And that makes us go towards it is suffering. Suffering opens our eyes. I agree that this statement appears harsh, cruel, even unsettling. But then, this whole business of dealing with the Truth is only for those with the stoutest hearts. In the Mahabharata, there is a prayer by Kunti, a marvelous prayer. She prays to the Lord as follows: ‘O Lord, give me more and more suffering, so that I can remember you so much more.

Look at this artifice. Suffering brings us in closer contact with the Lord. In other words, suffering brings us in closer contact with our inner core. Hence, it makes sense in asking for more and more suffering so that we can get closer to our inner core so much earlier and sooner! Western psychology speaks of a type of persons called ‘Masochists’. These persons also seek pain and suffering. I however hold that Vedanta is not masochism. The reason why a masochist seeks suffering is because he gets a perverse happiness in undergoing pain. A Vedantist seeks suffering so that he can move further inside himself towards his inner core.

How does Vedanta expect us to go deeper within ourselves using the experiences we get in our life? There is a great mental block regarding spiritual unfoldment. Most of us feel that we need to lead a dedicated life, a life consisting of only devotional practices and meditation for spiritual growth. In no other way can we grow spiritually; this seems to be the popular conception. Well, Vedanta does have some such practices too. There is a path called Raja Yoga. It prescribes that one should lead a secluded life. Not engaging in any activities other than meditation and pranayama, one is expected to lead a totally isolated existence. There are endless rules and regulations about how & what to eat, about what to think and what to speak, about how much to exercise and how much to sleep and what to wear and things like that. If one chooses to follow such a path, of course, one has to completely forget one’s social life, one’s family and friends and become a monk. You will immediately ask me – what will happen to my family? And my business?

Vedanta prescribes a wonderful path called Karma Yoga for the masses. Most of the other paths like Bhakti Yoga and Raja Yoga are for a very special type of people. Karma Yoga is for you and me. What is this Karma Yoga? How does one practice it? What developments occur in us as a result of practicing this Yoga? I will tell you a small story to indicate these things. I will elaborate on this topic some other day, if we meet again. For now, I will just give you some broad indications of the actual scope of Karma Yoga in our daily lives.



Most of us think that Karma Yoga means catching some poor beggars, destitute people and distributing some clothes and food to them; or, running a dispensary. Indeed, that is a type of Karma Yoga, where we do something to someone who can never repay us; something done selflessly. But the main form of Karma Yoga is something else. It is practiced in the context of our daily life itself. All of us have to work. There is a particular mode with which we can work and reap enormous benefit from it.


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

“A  young  Sannyasi  went  to  a  forest;  there  he  meditated,  worshipped,  and  practiced  Yoga  for  a long  time.  After  years  of  hard  work  and  practice,  he  was  one  day  sitting  under  a  tree,  when  some  dry leaves fell upon his head. He looked up and saw a crow and a crane fighting on the top of the tree, which made him very angry. He said, “What! Dare you throw these dry leaves upon my head?!” As  with these words he angrily glanced at them, a flash of fire went out of his head — such was the Yogi’s power — and burnt  the  birds  to  ashes.  He  was  very  glad,  almost  overjoyed  at  this  development  of  power  —  he  could burn the crow and the crane by a look. After a time he had to go to the town to beg his bread. He went, stood at a door, and said, “Mother, give me food.” A voice came from inside the house, “Wait a little, my son.” The young man thought, “You wretched woman, how dare you make me wait! You do not know my power yet.”  While  he  was  thinking  thus  the  voice  came  again:  “Boy,  don’t  be  thinking  too  much  of yourself. Here is neither crow nor crane.” He was astonished; still he had to wait. At last the woman came, and he fell at her feet and said, “Mother, how did you know that?” She said, “My boy, I do not know your Yoga or your practices. I am a common everyday woman. I made you wait because my husband is ill, and I was nursing him. All my life I have struggled to do my duty. When I was unmarried, I did my duty to my parents; now that I am married, I do my duty to my husband; that is all the Yoga I practice. But by doing my duty I have become illumined; thus I could read your thoughts and know what you had done in the forest. If you want to know something higher than this, go to the market of such and such a town where you will find a Vyadha (The lowest class of people in India who used to live as hunters and butchers.) who will tell you something that you will be very glad to learn.” The Sannyasi thought, “Why should I go to that town and to a Vyadha?” But after what he had seen, his mind opened a little, so he went. When he came near the town, he found the market and there saw, at a distance, a big fat Vyadha cutting meat with big knives, talking and bargaining with different people. The young man said, “Lord help me! Is this the man from whom I am going to learn? He is the incarnation of a demon, if he is anything.” In the meantime this man  looked  up  and  said,  “O  Swami,  did  that  lady  send  you  here?  Take a seat until I have done my business.” The Sannyasi thought, “What comes to me here?” He took his seat; the man went on with his work,  and  after  he  had  finished  he  took  his  money  and  said  to  the  Sannyasi,  “Come  sir,  come  to  my home.” On reaching home the Vyadha gave him a seat, saying, “Wait here,” and went into the house. He then washed his old father and mother, fed them, and did all he could to please them, after which he came to the Sannyasi and said, “Now, sir, you have come here to see me; what can I do for you?” The Sannyasi asked him a few questions about soul and about God, and the Vyadha gave him a lecture which forms a part of the Mahabharata, called the Vyâdha-Gitâ. It contains one of the highest flights of the Vedanta.

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

This is the path prescribed by Karma Yoga for all of us. The inner growth occurs as a result of intense self-introspection and self-correction when we face blows in the course of our daily life.

If you think Kunti’s prayer is strange, wait till you hear about the Bodhisattva. The Buddhists have something called the Bodhisattva Ideal. The Bodhisattva is a person, or rather, a state of mind, in which a person starts feeling that he should suffer all the pains of all beings in this world so that every being should be happy! Actually the Buddhists appropriated this ideal from Vedanta. The Vedanta speaks of an ancient King called Rantideva. This king too had his own prayer which was as follows:

Na tvaham kaamaye raajyam, na svargam, na punarbhavam;

Kaamaye duhkataptaanaam praaninaam aarthinaashanam.

“I do not desire for this kingdom, or for heaven, or even for another birth. What I desire is that I should suffer all the suffering of all beings that are in pain!”

Let us pause for a moment here. We began our deliberation today by asking ourselves as to why bad things happen to good people. In other words, why do good people suffer? Or again, in other words, how can good people [like ourselves] avoid suffering. And now, we find here some characters from the Vedanta who are apparently seeking for more and more suffering, in each case with an end in view. While Kunti sought more suffering so that she could remember the Lord more, King Rantideva sought suffering so that other beings could live happily. Just see how strange this mentality is from the mentality that we all possess right now.

When I was a young boy and read such stories in our holy books, I used to feel that they were all fiction and that in reality people like you and I could never raise ourselves to such a standard. Then I got introduced to Swami Vivekananda and I am afraid I have had to change my views about this. This transformation is very real, very possible and in fact, such a transformation seems to be our destiny! Let me highlight two incidents from the life of Swami Vivekananda to explain what I mean.

The first incident I speak about is when he was about 18 or 19 years old. His father was a rich man with a roaring legal practice. He hailed from a famous family right here in this city. He was very intelligent, highly talented and had an extremely bright future ahead of him. Exactly when everything seemed so right for him, his father died. His father had obviously not planned for his early death and hence overnight, Narendranath found himself in deep debt that he inherited from his father. He also inherited innumerable family legal suits and with all his talent, intellectual achievements and excellent family background, he was unable to get a decent job anywhere in this large town. Further, he was in such a bad shape that he couldn’t afford two square meals for himself and his mother and brothers and sisters. Yet, he continued to practice his daily devotions to the Lord. His mother observed this trait in him and one day chided him with this question that we began our discussion today. When his mother asked him that question, the young boy Narendranath was tongue-tied. He had no answer.

The second incident I refer to is to a letter that Swami Vivekananda wrote sometime in 1901. In that letter he writes, ‘I am ready to go to hell [i.e. undergo endless suffering] if I can bring even one man to the Light’. See what a transformation in a person in a matter of just 12 or 15 years! So I got the conviction that such a transformation is indeed possible in this very life.

Before I end my lecture, I will address just one more aspect of this topic. Some of you may think that the question would make more sense if I had asked ‘Why do good things happen to bad people?’ In other words, it seems really horrible that bad people seem to be having a very good time, while good people go on suffering. Why does that happen? Frankly speaking, I don’t know. But I will tell you a story.

You all know that Bhagawan Buddha, before he arrived at the Truth, was an earnest seeker by the name Siddhartha Gautama. One summer day he was walking in the forest and he came upon a beautiful lake. It had cool, clear water and he felt like taking a bath. He slowly entered the water, had a bath, felt refreshed and as he was about to come out of the lake, he saw some beautiful lotus flowers in bloom at the far end of the lake. He went near the flowers, bent down and smelled the heavenly fragrance of the flowers. Then he came out of the lake and started wearing clothes. At that moment, a Yaksha, a demigod materialized before him. The Yaksha said, “Say, young monk, how dare you enter my lake without obtaining my permission?” The Yaksha berated Gautama for quite some time. Gautama’s head was bent down in shame. He wanted to say that he had no idea that the lake had a caretaker, but he never got a chance to put in a word; the Yaksha was relentless in his scolding. In the meantime, a King’s nobleman rode up to the lake on horseback. He too saw the cool, clear waters on that hot summer day, tied his horse to a tree, tore his clothes apart and jumped into the lake. He splashed around for a long time, making the clear water all murky. When he had finished his sporting in water, as he was about to come out, he too eyed the beautiful lotus flowers in bloom. He went to the corner of the lake, roughly plucked a handful of flowers for his sweetheart at home, came out of the lake, wore his clothes and rode away. All this while, Gautama was thinking, ‘I did nothing in comparison to what this nobleman is doing and I was berated so badly; perhaps the Yaksha will strike this man down dead any minute now!’ But, when the nobleman went away safely, Gautama said to the Yaksha, “Well, Yaksha; I now understand you. I am a gentle person and hence you scolded me to your heart’s content. I saw that you did nothing to that nobleman. Of course, how could you? He is a big, powerful man.” The Yaksha’s reply is worthy of our meditation. The Yaksha said, “Gautama, I scolded you because you proclaim to follow a very high ideal in your life. That nobleman is an ordinary man, with simple goals in his life. The standards of behavior are different for you and for him.” so by claiming to be a good person, our responsibility increases greatly.

I have tried to give you some ideas about today’s topic. I have also tried to explain to you Vedanta’s stand on this subject. With this, I end my lecture. I now open the topic for a Q&A session. Thank you for a patient hearing.



Useful Message for Youth: A message to Garcia



Horse Sense

If you work for a man, then work for him with all your heart. If he pays wages that supply you your bread and butter, work for him, speak well of him, think well of him, stand by him, and stand by the institution he represents. I think if I worked for a man, I would work for him. I would not work for him a part of his time, but all of his time. I would give an undivided service or none. An ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness. If you must vilify, condemn, and eternally disparage, why don’t you resign your position? And when you are outside, speak ill of the man and his institution to your heart’s content. But, I pray you, so long as you are a part of an institution, do not condemn it. Not that you will injure the institution-not that-but when you disparage the institution of which you are a part, you disparage yourself. And don’t forget – “I forgot” won’t do in business.

This essay, ‘A Message to Garcia’, was written one evening after supper, in a single hour. It was on the 22nd February, 1899, Washington’s Birthday, and we were just going to press with the March issue of ‘Philistine’. The essay leaped hot from my heart, written after a really busy day, when I had been struggling to train some rather lazy villagers to come out of their sleepy, idle state and get active & productive. The immediate suggestion, though, came from a little argument while having tea, in my house. During the argument, my son Bert suggested that Rowan was the real hero of the Cuban War. Rowan had gone alone and done the thing – carried the message to Garcia.

It came to me like a flash! Yes, the boy is right. The hero is the man who does his work – who carries the message to Garcia. I got up from the table, and wrote the essay ‘A Message to Garcia’. I thought so little of it that we ran it in the Magazine without a heading. The edition went out, and soon orders began to come for extra copies of the March ‘Philistine’, a dozen, fifty, a hundred; and when the American News Company ordered a thousand, I asked one of my helpers which article it was that had stirred up the cosmic dust. “It’s the stuff about Garcia,” he said. The next day a telegram came from George H. Daniels, of the New York Central Railroad, thus: “Give price on one hundred thousand Rowan article in pamphlet form – Empire State Express advertisement on back – also how soon can ship.” I replied giving price, and stated we could supply the pamphlets in two years. Our facilities were small and a hundred thousand booklets looked like an awful undertaking.

The result was that I gave Mr. Daniels permission to reprint the article in his own way. He issued it in booklet form in editions of half a million. Two or three of these half-million lots were sent out by Mr. Daniels, and in addition the article was reprinted in over two hundred magazines and newspapers. It has been translated into all written languages.

At the time Mr. Daniels was distributing the ‘Message to Garcia’, Prince Hylakoff, Director of Russian Railways, was in this country. He was the guest of the New York Central, and made a tour of the country under the personal direction of Mr. Daniels. The Prince saw the little book and was interested in it, more because Mr. Daniels was putting it out in such big numbers, probably, than otherwise. In any event, when he got home he had the matter translated into Russian, and a copy of the booklet given to every railroad employee in Russia. Other countries then took it up, and from Russia it passed into Germany, France, Spain, Turkey, Hindustan and China. During the war between Russia and Japan, every Russian soldier who went to the front was given a copy of the ‘Message to Garcia’. The Japanese, finding the booklets in possession of the Russian prisoners, concluded that it must be a good thing, and accordingly translated it into Japanese. And on an order of the Mikado, a copy was given to every man in the employ of the Japanese Government, soldier or civilian. Over forty million copies of ‘A Message to Garcia’ have been printed.

This is said to be a larger circulation than any other literary venture has ever attained during the lifetime of the author, in all history – thanks to a series of lucky accidents!

Elbert Hubbard



The world bestows its big prizes, both in money and in honors, for only one thing. And that is Initiative.

What is Initiative? I’ll tell you: It is doing the right thing without being told.

But next to doing the thing without being told is to do it when you are told once. That is to say, carry the Message to Garcia: those who can carry a message get high honors, but their pay is not always in proportion.

Next, there are those who never do a thing until they are told twice; such get no honors and small pay.

Next, there are those who do the right thing only when necessity kicks them from behind, and these get indifference instead of honors and a pittance for pay. This kind spends most of its time complaining about hard-luck and injustice.

Then, still lower down in the scale than this, we have the fellow who will not do the right thing even when someone goes along to show him how and stays to see that he does it; he is always out of job, and receives the contempt he deserves

To which class do you belong?

By Elbert Hubbard



A Message to Garcia

By Elbert Hubbard

In all this Cuban business there is one man stands out in my memory. When war broke out between Spain & the United States, it was very necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the Insurgents. Garcia was somewhere in the mountain vastness of Cuba – no one knew where. Neither mail nor telegram could reach him. The President of USA must secure his cooperation, and quickly.

What to do!

Someone said to the President, “There’s a fellow by the name of Rowan in our Army. He will certainly find Garcia for you, if anybody can.”

Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How ‘the fellow by the name of Rowan’ took the letter, sealed it up in an oil-skin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, & in three weeks came out on the other side of the Island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and delivered his letter to Garcia, are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail.

The point I wish to make is this: President McKinley gave Col Andrew Summers Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he? Where can I find Garcia?” By God! There is a man whose form should be cast in pure bronze and the statue placed in every college of the land. It is not book-learning that young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the backbone which will make them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, to concentrate their energies: Do the thing – ‘Carry a message to Garcia!’ General Garcia is dead now, but there are other Garcias.

Every man, who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, would have certainly been shocked at the imbecility of the average man. What do I mean by imbecility? It is the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it. Slip-shod assistance, foolish inattention, indifference, & half-hearted work seem to be the rule. In the present circumstances, no man succeeds in getting work done by others, unless by hook or crook, or threat, he forces or bribes other men to assist him. Of course, in the rarest of the rare situations, God in His goodness performs a miracle, & sends him an Angel of Light as an assistant.

You, reader, put this matter to a test: You are sitting now in your office. Six clerks are working in your office and you are free to call any of them and assign them a task.

Call any one and make this request: “Please look in the encyclopedia and write a brief note for me concerning the life of Correggio.”

Will the clerk quietly say, “Yes, sir”, and go do the task?

I will bet you a thousand dollars, he will not. He will look at you out of the corner of his eye and ask one or more of the following questions:

Who was Correggio?

Which encyclopedia?

Where is the encyclopedia?

Was I hired for that?

Don’t you mean Bismarck?

What’s the matter with Charlie doing it?

Is he dead?

Is there any hurry?

Wouldn’t it be better if I bring you the book and let you look it up yourself?

What do you want to know for?

And I will bet you another thousand dollars that after you have answered the questions, and explained how to find the information, and why you want it, the clerk will go off and get one of the other clerks to help him try to find Garcia – and then come back and tell you there is no such man. Of course I may lose my bet, but according to the Law of Average, I will not.

Now if you are wise you will not bother to explain to your ‘assistant’ that Correggio is indexed under C, not under K, but you will smile sweetly and say, “Never mind”, and go look it up yourself.

This incapacity for independent action, this moral stupidity, this infirmity of the will, this unwillingness to cheerfully catch hold and lift, are the things that put pure Socialism so far into the future. If men will not act for their own good, what will they do when the benefit of their effort is for all? A first-mate with knotted club seems necessary; and the fear of getting ‘fired’ Saturday night, holds many a worker to his place.

Advertise for a stenographer, and nine out of ten who apply, can neither spell nor punctuate- and do not think it necessary to. Can such a one write a letter to Garcia?

“You see that Accountant”, said the foreman to me in a large factory.

“Yes. What about him?”

“Well he’s a fine accountant, but if I’d send him to town on an errand, he might accomplish the errand all right, but there is an equal chance that he might stop at four shops on the way for some personal matter of his own, and when he got to Main Street, would forget what he had been sent for!”

Can such a man be entrusted to carry a message to Garcia?

We have recently been hearing much sympathy expressed for the ‘downtrodden, poor people’ and the ‘homeless wanderer searching for honest employment’. Generally, along with such cries, we also hear many hard words spoken about the men in power, the people who employ.

Nothing is said about the employer who grows old before his time in a vain attempt to get these idiots to do intelligent work. No one ever speaks about the employer’s long & patient striving with ‘the assistant’ who does nothing but loaf when his back is turned. In every store and factory there is a constant weeding-out process going on. The employer is constantly sending away ‘assistants’ that have shown their incapacity to further the interests of the business, and others are being taken on. No matter how good times are, this sorting continues. The incompetent and unworthy worker goes out of work. It is the survival of the fittest. Self-interest prompts every employer to keep the best – those who can carry a message to Garcia.

I know one brilliant man, who cannot manage a business of his own, and yet who is absolutely worthless to anyone else. Why? Because, he carries with him constantly the insane suspicion that his employer is oppressing, or intending to oppress him! He cannot give orders; and he will not receive them. If we gave a message to him to take to Garcia, his answer would probably be, “Take it yourself”.

Today, this man walks the streets looking for job. He doesn’t even have a good coat to protect him from the cold wind. No one who knows him will dare to employ him, for he is a regular fire-brand of discontent. He is impervious to reason. And I believe that the only thing that can impress him is the toe of a thick-soled size-9 boot!

It may be argued that this man is morally deformed. And family conditions, school & college situations, and life in general is responsible for his moral deformity. As a result, he has to be pitied just as we pity a physically handicapped person. But in our pitying this imbecile, let us also drop a tear for the men who are striving to carry on a great enterprise, whose working hours are not limited by the siren, and whose hair is fast turning white through the struggle to hold in line the stupidly indifferent, the slip-shod imbecile, the heartless & ungrateful idiot. It is a fact that these imbeciles and idiots would be both hungry & homeless, if they were not painfully kept in employment by the very business that they curse day and night.

Have I put the matter too strongly? Possibly I have. But when the entire world has gone to sleep at night, I wish to speak a word of sympathy for the man who succeeds, the man who, against great obstructions, has directed the efforts of others, and having succeeded, finds there’s nothing in it: nothing but bare board and clothes. In my own life, there was a time when I have worked for daily wages. And I have also been an employer of labor. And I know there is something to be said on both sides. There is no excellence, per se, in poverty. Rags are no recommendation. And all employers are not rapacious and high-handed, any more than all poor men are virtuous.

My heart goes out to the man who does his work when the ‘boss’ is away, as well as when he is in office. And the man who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly take the letter, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no hidden intention of throwing it into the nearest sewer, never gets ‘fired’. Neither does he have to go on a strike for higher wages. Civilization is one long anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks shall be granted. Such a kind of person is so rare that no employer can afford to let him go. He is wanted in every city, town and village – in every office, shop, store and factory. The world cries out for such. He is needed, & needed very badly – the man who can carry a message to Garcia.



A note on Andrew Summers Rowan:

Colonel Andrews Summers ROWAN was born in Gap Mills, Virginia, in 1857. He was an American officer and graduated of West Point class of 1881. In the years before the Spanish American War, Rowan served several frontiers posts and with military intelligence in Latin America. He was interested in Cuba in particular and wrote a book about the island. With tensions between the United States and the Spanish (who then ruled Cuba) growing, President William McKinley saw value in establishing contact with the Cuban rebels who could prove a valuable ally in case of war with Spain. McKinley asked Colonel Arthur Wagner to suggest an officer to make contact with Garcia’s rebels. Wagner suggested Rowan who then traveled to Cuba via Jamaica. Rowan met Garcia in the Oriento Mountains and established a rapport. Rowan garnered information from Garcia who was eager to cooperate with Americans in fighting the Spanish. Rowan returned to the US and was given command of a force of ‘Immunes’, African-American troops assumed to be immune to tropical diseases found in Cuba. After his service in the Spanish-American War, he served in the Philippines and posts in the US Fort Riley (Kansas), West Point (Kentucky) and American Lake (Washington), retiring in 1909. More than twenty years later, Rowan was presented the ‘Distinguished Service Cross’ for his extraordinary heroism in action in connection with the operations in Cuba in May, 1898. Rowan died in San Francisco in 1943. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Chitta Shuddhi[①]

Chitta Shuddhi[②] is a clichéd term today. Every spiritual aspirant has heard it, and has heard it a lot. We may have to break through the crust of this cliché to correctly grasp its meaning. It is generally held that work done in the right attitude brings Chitta Shuddhi. What does this mean?

According to Vedanta, the human mind is conceived of as having four distinct functions. The mind can record. It has a memory storage system. This is called Manas. The mind can recall information, ideas, thoughts, feelings and emotions from memory. This function is called Chitta. The mind can decide firmly. This function is called Buddhi. The mind can manifest an agency, which feels responsible for all the activities done by the body and the mind. This functional aspect is called Ahamkara. Thus, the human mind, called Antahkarana, has four distinct functional aspects. We should remember that these are not physical compartments in the brain. These are functional distinctions.

Now, Chitta Shuddhi refers to purity of the Chitta. Does that imply that the Chitta is impure, or that it can be impure? And that it should be made pure? If that is so, then what is purity or impurity with reference to the Chitta?

As we have just now mentioned, Chitta is a sort of mental platform where the data is retrieved from the memory store-house. How can a platform become pure or impure? You see, when the right kind of memories is recalled, it results in the right kind of attitudes conducive to right actions. Even if one wrong memory is retrieved from the Manas into the Chitta, then, a series of wrong attitudes are manifested and that could lead to no end of troubles in our life. It is common knowledge that one negative comment made by someone gets lodged in our Manas and it keeps coming back into our Chitta again and again and keeps killing our enthusiasm and initiative, paralyzing us. We see this quite often in our lives. “No. You can’t ever do that. You simply can’t. You will never be able to do that!” Comments like this get lodged in our Manas. Especially if made by someone who matters in our life, like our parents, or teachers, or friends. And almost always we see that such negative, critical comments keep popping up into our Chitta involuntarily. We don’t seem to have much control over its popping up or not popping up. And then we get down, depressed. Each such activity of the Chitta adds one more link into the chain that inactivates us, makes us weak and gradually but surely renders us utterly helpless against its poisonous effect. Such involuntary activity of the Chitta is considered impure. Technically, it is called ‘Chitta Malinya’.

As against such involuntary activity of the Chitta, we can have greater and greater control over what exact thoughts and feelings arise from the Manas into the Chitta. We can manipulate our attitudes by choosing judiciously. Thus we can be the makers of our own destiny. We alone, among all living beings populating this planet, have this ability to make such choices. In order to understand how this can be done, we may have to understand how data is thrown into the Chitta from the depths of Manas. Once we understand that mechanism, we can then try to discover where exactly we can exercise our control over that mechanism and then bring the entire process under our will.

There is an active, dynamic connection between the senses and the Antahkarana. Senses bring in information into the mind. In response to those bits of information, related bits of information rise from the memory. Anything that rises from the memory enters the Chitta for further processing. Generally, thoughts rising from the memory and entering Chitta are neither harmful nor beneficial for our attitudes and actions. It is the feelings and emotions that come attached with thoughts that are dangerous. Generally, both thoughts and feelings arise together. They don’t arise separately. Nor is it easy to separate them in the Chitta. Associations between the thoughts and feelings are already made in the past by Buddhi and stored in the Manas. Manas doesn’t do anything new. It just sorts them systematically and stores them. And when the occasion arises, it just brings up the relevant thoughts and their associated feelings and presents them into the Chitta.

Take for example the case of cigarettes. Let us assume that the eye sees a pack of cigarette, or the nose picks up a whiff of cigarette smoke in the air. This data is passed onto the Manas. In the Manas, there is a rapid sifting and matching of this data with similar data stored in there. And the correct matches are thrown into the Chitta along with the incoming data. Then the Buddhi decides that they are indeed the same; it is indeed cigarette that was seen or smelt. Once this happens, the Ahamkara gives its stamp on the decision of the Buddhi and announces ‘I have seen a cigarette’ or ‘I have smelt a cigarette.’ This in itself is quite harmless. The entire trouble starts when along with the matching data, the Manas throws up associated feelings also into the Chitta. Feelings like ‘cigarette is likeable’ or ‘cigarette is enjoyable’, etc. When the pieces of information are being processed and it is determined as to what has been seen or smelt, parallel processing takes place in the Chitta and Buddhi with respect to the feelings that have risen from the Manas. Finally, the Buddhi decides ‘Yes, cigarettes are very enjoyable. Cigarettes can be smoked now.’ Immediately, the Ahamkara steps in and puts its all powerful stamp on this decision and says, “I shall smoke one now!”

This is how the entire process works. It takes a lot of time to say all these. But the actual process takes place in no time, almost instantaneously. Now, where exactly in this entire process can we break in and assume control over the process? Let us look at the process once more.

We have come to know that senses bring information into the mind. And mind responds with recalling similar thoughts and feelings. The feelings, especially, that rise in the mind, propel us to further action. Now, the resultant action could be beneficial or harmful depending on the quality of feelings that have arisen. Now, theoretically, we can have two situations wherein we can gain control over this process. We shall continue to use the above cigarette example for ease of explaining.

  1. Supposing we can ensure that along with the ideas of cigarettes, there arise the feeling ‘cigarettes are dangerous’ or ‘cigarettes are repulsive’, then, as a result of the rising up of the thoughts and feelings in the Chitta, there will be no impulse to smoke.
  1. Supposing we can ensure that only the thoughts arise and no feelings arise, then also, there will be no resultant impulse to smoke.

In order for the 1st situation to occur, we have to first of all ensure that there is a lot of record of the feeling ‘cigarettes are dangerous’ or ‘cigarettes are repulsive’, inside the Manas. If such records are plenty, and are very intense, then we may have the control we are looking for.

As we have already said above, the 2nd situation is very hard to achieve for most of us. It is almost impossible to separate thoughts and associated feelings. Not that it is totally impossible. But, for most of us, it is well nigh impossible. We shall however see the method of doing this later on. For now, we shall concentrate of the 1st option.

So, the question now is – how to make sure that there is a lot of feeling of a particular type inside our Manas. And how to ensure that there is an association of all those feelings with some particular kind of thoughts.

Generally, we see that life’s experiences give us the thoughts and feelings. These thoughts and feelings get associated, as a matter of course, and get stored in our Manas. Can we manipulate what thoughts and feelings enter our mind and get stored there? Yes, we can; by the process of imagination.[③]

Imagination is a great tool that human beings have. It is also, perhaps, the least understood tool too. If used with knowledge, it can work wonders for us. Every great achievement of man has come as a result of imagination. Man was a forest and cave dweller. By imagination, he started building houses. Man was a creature at the mercy of nature for food. By imagination, he started cultivation. Man was an animal, making erratic noises with his vocal chords, much as any other bird or animal. By imagination he developed language and communication. Man was just like any other animal with a herd instinct. By imagination, he has become a social being. Everything that distinguishes man from his original animal roots is a result of his imagination. And it is this very tool that can now help us to achieve what we are looking for – storing a fund of feelings and thoughts of the kind we choose, and thereby controlling the quality of our life.

Intense and prolonged imagination can make us store whatever kind of thoughts and associated feelings we want inside our Manas. The great problem before an aspirant is how to feel that he is divine, that he is not flesh and blood and thoughts and ideas and emotions alone, but also spiritual. This calls for an active spiritualization of all aspects of our life. This spiritualization is called Karma Yoga. We don’t stop our activities in our effort to lead a spiritual life. Instead, we try to transmute all our actions. How is this done?

This is done by a two-fold process. Firstly, a fixed time is identified when we sit down unencumbered and follow a set of imaginations. This is called Upasana. Secondly, we learn and practice a new way of working, assisted by our imagination, which helps us in reinforcing these imaginations, turning them into reality.

Upasana or meditation, in the beginner, leads to sleep. This is a general complaint among aspirants. Why? This is mainly because they do not have a fixed pattern of imagination during their Upasana. Swami Yatishwarananda says ‘Everything about a sadhaka must be definite.’ This definiteness is often lacking. So they doze in the name of Upasana. In most cases, what the aspirants do is a static, dry visualization of the Ishta’s face, or a monotone in-droning of the Ishta mantra. Invariably the mind slips into a stupor. Mind is active. It has to be given variety. Monotony dulls it into sleep. Monotony is the best lullaby. Imagination is seldom used in Upasana, whereas, ironically, the central aspect of Upasana is imagination. Aspirants seldom realize that great freedom is available for them for one’s inner activity. We rarely come across an aspirant who sets his Ishta mantra to a musical raga and does his japa. Rarer still is an aspirant who uses his Ishta mantra as a lead string to his faculty of imagination. Very rare indeed is the aspirant who uses all his 5 senses during his Upasana.[④]

As a result of performing the Upasana regularly and punctually for a long period of time, say for 10 to 12 years at a stretch, a huge set of thoughts and feelings are stored up in the Manas. This new set of thoughts and feelings bring about a change in our attitude towards ourselves. This change in our attitude towards ourselves is the first vital change required. This leads to a new self-image.[⑤] From this new self-image arise a series of related changes.

Firstly, our attitude of others changes. Next, there is a new view of how we see our actions. There comes a change in our motives. Our reactions change. We note that our world, however, has not changed objectively. It is the same world where we have always lived. But, subjectively, there has been a revolution. Every time we engage ourselves in any activity amidst people, these changes are further reinforced strongly.

Gradually, we start feeling more and more non-material, spiritual and less and less body and flesh and bones. When exactly does this change occur? It is difficult to say. But, as a cumulative effect of our relentless efforts at Upasana and Karma Yoga, this change does occur. And it is when we interact with other people through some kind of meaningful work that we are able to discern how much of this change has occurred. This change is what is called Chitta Shuddhi.

I hope I have sufficiently explained the fact that Chitta Shuddhi is to be effected by means of employing our imagination faculty wisely. I hope it is clear now that if we manipulate our imaginative faculty rightly, we can achieve Chitta Shuddhi as a result. We may now see some special techniques for employing our imaginative faculty.

Firstly, we have the Sadhana Pranali prescribed by the Guru. This is generally a structured set of imaginations, culminating in Japa and meditation of the Ishta at the core of our consciousness. There is a technique called ‘Visual Imagery’ that is particularly helpful in supplementing this Sadhana Pranali. We need to make a note of the different places associated with our Ishta, either by directly visiting those places or at least by seeing pictures and photographs of the same. Then, we need to visualize our Ishta and ourselves in those surroundings. This is how, gradually, the Ishta becomes living for us. Visual imagery also comprises of vividly imagining various locational settings in our mind where we have had feelings of great calmness, serenity and exaltedness.

Secondly, we may develop the auditory imaginative faculty but depending on rhythm, tune and feeling associated with both. Here the mantra comes in handy. Mind is a slave to tune and rhythm. A soulful tune and a catchy rhythm can make even the most restless mind recollected and concentrated quickly. We may learn to exploit this weakness of the mind in order to control and train it.

Thirdly, there is a technique called ‘Role-playing’. We all can imagine, no, fantasize. In fact, all of us do fantasize often. It is called Day-dreaming. We can learn to place ourselves in some imaginative relationship with our Ishta, say, as his servant, or his child, imagine that all our activities are in a definite way an outcome of this imagined relationship. Such long-drawn fantasizing can result in making tremendous changes in our Chitta and Ahamkara.

Fourthly, there is the age-old technique of Auto-Suggestion. We are what we suggest ourselves to be. And we are all constantly suggesting things to ourselves. If used with wisdom, this can bring a sea change in ourselves.

I remember a senior monk once telling me. He used to constantly imagine that the Omkara was playing in the background of his mind. Whenever any word issued from him, he would imagine that this Omkara was transforming itself into those words. He told me that for many years, this was just a playful imagination for him, but, later on he started feeling that this was really so, and that this experience used to fill him up with unspeakable joy![⑥] This very monk had the peculiar habit of rocking in his seat, at all places and times. Whenever he used to be sitting, say, waiting for someone, or on the programme stage, waiting for his turn to speak, etc, he would be found gently rocking. I later on found out from him that whenever he got any free time, without the external world impinging on his attention, he would feel the mantra slowly rising up within his consciousness and that its sound was similar to that of the chime of a grand church bell, which would sway his body ever so slightly, but most rhythmically and at such times, there was a palpable sweetness on his face, radiating all around him.

Another senior monk of our Order told me a very personal experience of his. He was in the Training Center, a sincerely struggling aspirant. One day in the Main Temple, he saw a German lady and lust flared up in his mind. Instead of getting overly troubled, he started imagining strongly that this lady was a colorful butterfly which had come hopping to the lotus flower of Sri Ramakrishna located in his heart. The butterfly would sit there for a few moments and then flutter away to another heart, while the lotus flower of Sri Ramakrishna would continue to abide in his heart forever. He said that this line of imagination helped him to gain control over himself very quickly!

There was another monk I knew whose duty was to be the chauffer of a senior monk. He was basically a monastic attendant who doubled up as a driver most of the times. He confided this to me. “Whenever I used to drive around the town, I would ask myself ‘what is this job I am doing? How will this ever lead to my goal of God-realization?’ and I used to become depressed at times. Then one day I suddenly felt that this car was my body, I the driver, was the intellect, and that the Swami sitting in the back seat was the Atman. I started feeling this quite intensely, based on that verse from the Katha Upanishad. And I was a driver for about four or five years. What unspeakable joy I used to feel after a couple of years of imagining like this!”

Once I met a monk who served in one of our Schools in Mysore. He used to ask himself often if anyone at all achieved God-realization by performing such a mundane job as working in a School. Then he started imagining that the school was actually Baranagore Math in disguise. He was able to clearly visualize that he was Swami Vivekananda and all his colleagues were other Direct Disciples and that he was trying to infuse all of them with his burning enthusiasm and things like that. He said that using this particular brand of imagery and role-playing, he was able to maintain his spiritual tenor during his trying tenure in that school. Later when he was leaving for America, having served as an Editor of one of our magazines, I happened to meet him in Belur Math. He told me that he was able to continue this habit even while he was in the Himalayas.

I once met a visiting monk of our Order while I was at Belgaum. While discussing with him, he showed me a small piece of paper on which he had scribbled his particular technique of Upasana. Now, this monk was not a very senior one when I met him, but all the same, I was struck by the innovativeness and ingenuity he exhibited in re-structuring the technique in order to make it more fruitful and meaningful. He did not allow me to write it down. But I quickly made a mental note of it and put it on paper as soon as I reached my room. I reproduce it [although not very exact] below:

  • Sit down comfortably. Breathe rhythmically. Attach forceful thoughts with your breath. Chant the verse ‘Tejosi, tejomayi dehi…’ with each breath.
  • Chant the Shanti Mantras. Imagine strongly that waves of peace, harmony and bliss are emanating from your heart and gushing forth in all directions and crashing themselves on people at other shores, inundating them in peace, harmony and bliss.
  • Suggest to yourself very strongly – this body is strong & healthy. This mind is pure and full of veerya. With the help of this body & mind, I shall realize God in this life itself with His grace.
  • Imagine that these imaginations have purified you. Now, imagine that you slowly enter your heart chamber. You are able to see a beautiful lotus flower with 8 petals, all opened out. The flower is made of the softest light.
  • Imagine that your Guru’s form materializes on that lotus flower. His body is made up of white light. He is smiling very graciously. He beckons you near him. You go up to him. You offer flowers at his feet. He is gracious on you. So, you spontaneously feel like worshipping him. He then utters the Ishta mantra in your ears many times. You repeat the mantra after him.
  • Slowly you find that as you go on repeating the mantra after your Guru, the Guru’s form is getting morphed into that of your Ishta! Again, the form is made up of light, and that light suffuses your entire heart chamber. You feel your heart chamber filled with that light, which is very joyful.
  • Offer pushpa, gandha, dhoopa, deepa and naivedya to the Ishta. He accepts all these with great joy, and caresses your chin many times. Now, call him to have his food. Serve him with great delight. Ask him many dishes again and again. Fan him gently while he enjoys the dishes. Each sense organ brings in many data, each of which is a dish for your Ishta. After His food, wash his hands. Allow Him to sleep & rest or sit down comfortably on your heart lotus.
  • He is watching every move your senses & mind make. He is controlling you in every way, and protecting you.
  • Sing some good bhajans to entertain Him. The timing, tune and your voice are perfect. He enjoys the best, and the very slightest disharmony puts Him off.
  • After sometime, take Him out into the garden of your heart for a walk. Engage in small talk with Him. Tell Him what all happened yesterday, what all you plan to do today. Listen to His advice. Imagine Him speaking to you. His conversations generally start with something related to your activities, but soon they become spiritual advices. Memorize some wonderful passages from the Gospel or Inspired Talks, and strongly imagine that He is now telling you those words. His words are powerful. You may imagine that voice as a fire burning into the recesses of your heart, those regions which store all your past Karma and which are as such inaccessible to you.
  • After sometime, very reluctantly, ask His permission to take leave of Him. He will continue there for the rest of the day. During the course of the day, visit Him sometimes there. Report the happenings of the day to Him.
  • Consider that all the people you interact with during the day are devotees coming to meet Him in your heart. Each interaction is therefore most pure.

There was another senior monk I knew who used to conduct Bhajan programmes called Satsangas for devotees in various towns and cities in Karnataka. He used to have his unique play list of bhajans. Every morning, he would sing a set of songs in the Prayer Hall. After an extended period of observation, I was able to discern that although the particular songs varied often, there was a trend in his play list. Generally, it would consist of the following:

  • Omkara (for about 5 minutes)
  • Shanti mantra (any one)
  • Medha Sukta
  • Durga Sukta
  • Guru stotra
  • Ramakrishna Dhyana mantra (Abhedananda’s)
  • A bhajan on Holy Mother
  • A couple of songs composed by either Tulasidas (Vinay patrika) or Surdas or Kabir or the Dasas of Karnataka, full of self-abnegation.
  • Meditation ( for about 5 minutes)
  • Purnahuti mantra.

I asked him many times why he would always sing the same things again and again and yet again for years on end. He was an acclaimed singer. He knew hundreds of songs and had a mellifluous voice and enthralled his audience. Yet in the morning, every day, year after year, this above play list he would invariably sing in the Prayer Hall. It took about an hour.

He never gave me a reply. Each time he used to smile and say ‘Try to find out’. Many years later, it suddenly flashed to me that his play list was following the structure of the mantra he had received from his Guru. I knew what mantra he had received because he had once confided in me. I was thrilled. I had never before imagined that one could replicate the meaning and structure of the mantra in the activities we do!


[①] This article will be relevant to a person who has taken Mantra Deeksha in the Ramakrishna Mission and is struggling to achieve spiritual transformations in the line of the Ramakrishna Mission tradition.

[②] In this article, we have tried to explain the technical terms of Hindu spirituality in an easy language, so as to be comprehensible to the layman. So, in many places, the exact technical translation of the Hindu jargon is not followed.

[③]The whole universe is imagination, but one set of imagination will cure another set…Some imaginations help to break the bondage of the rest…Imagination will lead you to the highest even more rapidly and easily than reasoning…” says Swami Vivekananda in the Inspired Talks.

[④]There is great scope for experiment in our spiritual practices” says Swami Yatishwarananda in the Meditation & Spiritual life.

[⑤] Abraham Maslow, the famous psychologist, used to say, “What is necessary to change a man is to change his awareness of himself.

[⑥] We may note here Swami Yatishwarananda’s words, “All our imaginations ought to be about the Real, so that these imaginations will one day become real for us.

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]



[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



Efficacy of Karma Yoga

Let me begin by presenting some statements regarding Karma Yoga:

  1. We are told that Karma Yoga includes efficiency in the work that we do. Also, Karma Yoga is primarily meant for a spiritual goal and not for any other sort of goal. If work-efficiency is indeed an indispensable part of Karma Yoga, although the goal is not optimum output from the work but spiritual transformation, will it not make sense to get requisite training in the particular line of working from experts in that field?


  1. Every path of spiritual Sadhana must have a Guru, who initiates the disciple into the secrets of the path. This initiation generally takes the form of the Guru imparting a mystic mantra or the Guru guiding the disciple through a series of vows and rituals. Doesn’t Karma Yoga too need a Guru? In what form does the Guru initiate the disciple along this path?

I mentioned these questions in order to paint a general tapestry of the ignorance and confusion surrounding Karma Yoga. I shall present you some more ideas which may help in understanding why these questions arose in the first place.

The present day society has achieved a peculiar level of complexity. All of us have to work. There is no escape from that. But, most of us attempt to work without any sort of formal training. You may ask, why is training needed at all? Hasn’t this world gone on fine with the inept kind of working that people have been doing? But I counter such arguments by pointing out: Wouldn’t the world be a better place had each worker plunged into the field of work after getting some sort of minimum training? You may further point out – we are talking of work in general, while you seem to be speaking of some Yoga. To this I counter – all of us have to work; wouldn’t it be nice if we could just tweak our working mode a little bit so as to gain a dual benefit?

With each passing day, we find that the idea of Karma Yoga is gaining greater and greater acceptance among the people all over the world. Certain aspects of the idea of Karma Yoga that is however gaining ground are not very healthy. Most votaries of Karma Yoga seem to hold that anybody and everybody can start practicing Karma Yoga. No qualifications are needed. No Guru is needed who will initiate the votary into the nuances of Karma Yoga. Frequent loss of tempers and generous use of profanities are justified given the pressure of performing Karma Yoga. As long as we frequently ejaculate ‘It’s all the will of the Lord’, we can just about do anything in the name of Karma Yoga; ends justify the means as soon as you start practicing Karma Yoga. Honesty need not be strictly adhered to; in fact, it is not at all possible to adhere to honesty in the work-field; expediency is totally justified as long as we are performing Karma Yoga. The steep increase of such ideas and persons calls for some clarification.

Karma Yoga has been quite a controversial concept in India. The origin of this Yoga is seen in one of the oldest Upanishads – Isha Upanishad. This Upanishad has a verse that says:

Kurvanneveha karmani jijeevishet shatam samaha;

Evam tvayi nanyatyetosti na karma lipyate narey.

This means: Man must aim to live a full life of a hundred years on this earth by continuously performing his duties allotted to him by his inherent tendencies and the society. Unless you design your life in such a way, you will never be able to free yourself from the tentacles of activity!

The term ‘Eva Iha Karmani’ was variously interpreted by different schools of philosophers in India and each school developed its own brand of Karma Yoga. When the Mimamsakas became popular in the Vedic period, they interpreted this term to mean the innumerable fire-sacrifices mentioned in the chapters of the Vedas preceding the Upanishads. This made sense. Why do I say this made sense? Based on this interpretation developed an entire paradigm of economy in the land. Every activity in this land revolved around the fire-sacrifice. Farming, hunting, agriculture, fishing, mining, manufacturing, governance, trading, games & sports, music & theatre, folk-arts, teaching and health care all revolved around the central activity of fire-sacrifice. In short, the entire national economy stood on the fire-sacrifice[1]. If any activity could not be integrated with the fire-sacrifice mentioned in the Vedas, that activity was rejected as non-productive.

The society got stratified into classes. The Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas & Shudras engaged in activities that were integrated with the fire-sacrifice. The Shudras however performed activities lay in the outer fringes, activities that basically amounted to cleaning up before and after the fire-sacrifice, but were still a part of the economy, more like a necessary evil, but necessary nonetheless. The rest of the people were classified under the classless class called ‘Mlecchas’. Now, the activities of these Mlecchas could not get integrated under the overall scheme of economy of the land. The ancient Rishis who evolved this marvelous system in this land had achieved the impossible! They had successfully integrated community religious activities, economy of the people and social customs & traditions into one compact package, revolving around the fire-sacrifice! This was the scene during the Vedic period here in the land that was later on called India.

Then Buddha appeared on the scene. He was an iconoclast in the sense that he undermined the entire scheme of economy of the land by banning the fire-sacrifice! He was of course justified in doing so. The scheme, according to the original planners, was that, by thus integrating daily activity with religion, each person would achieve life fulfilment in the natural course of executing his daily duties, and simultaneously, society as a whole would achieve social, economic and evolutionary progress. With the passage of time, however, this grand plan had got jeopardized because one class of people, the Brahmins, who controlled the fire-sacrifice, started tyrannizing the people, socially and economically. Thus, when Buddha saw that the scheme, which had started on a most exalted note, had now taken a devilish turn, he remedied the defect. However, his very act of benevolence destroyed the entire economy of the land. And further, he did not give an alternate viable economic model to supplant the old one. As a result, his deprecation of the fire-sacrifice did not gain popular consent in this land, which led to his entire doctrine being rejected from the land. That is the reason his ideas had to migrate to other lands like China and Japan, where they survive even to this day. And the Vedic genius swallowed him into its body-politic by considering him as an Incarnation of the Lord! Imagine the ingenuity of the Vedic Brahmin mind here. They apotheosized the Buddha; but his entire doctrine was rejected! Nowhere in the Hindu scriptures do you find any acceptance of his iconoclastic doctrines, but he himself is venerated as an Incarnation of the Lord and hence worshipped as a deity! The tremendous force he had unleashed on this society was converted to iconographic worship and his doctrine was asphyxiated! As a result, the fire-sacrifice again gained popularity in the post-buddhistic period. Quite often, it resurrected in abominable forms such as the Tantrik and Kapalika practices.

However, this transformation took some 700 years during which time, there were a couple of important developments which we shall note here. One of the important developments was that the people of this land had developed an alternate scheme of livelihood and therefore an alternate economic model which had done away with the fire-sacrifice. What was that model? It was almost the same as the one that the people of this land had picked up from the Greeks. The Greeks were basically the ‘Mlecchas[2]’. These were people who had tried to conquer this land and had failed, but had successfully rubbed off some of their life-style onto a people whose own society was in great turmoil of transition. Thus, by 700 AD, the land had the majority of people following the simplified Greek economic model and a fanatic minority that was doggedly holding onto the Vedic, Pre-Buddhistic economic model, revolving around the fire-sacrifice.

Into that social melee came Acharya Shankara. He saw a society that was struggling to reconcile its past with its present. The people were unable to decide whether they ought to stick to the simplified Greek economic model where work and commodity was measured in terms of currency, or revert to the old system, that is the fire-sacrifice model, where work and commodity was measured in terms of the value it contributed to the fire-sacrifice. The old system was indeed a very compact system, so long as the society was small and localized. As the human society started expanding, the Vedic model of economy became more and more complicated, since this model could not accommodate an enlarging society. So, when Acharya Shankara appeared on the scene, he found that society had some sections that still adhered to, and propagated the dated fire-sacrifice model of economy; alongside these sections, there were many who followed a simplistic currency based economy. While the old system of everything revolving around the fire-sacrifice could no longer be feasible [since the strict stratification of society had already been fractured in the post-buddhistic period[3]], Shankara realized one very important point: he realized the urgent need to bifurcate the economy from the religious practices of the people. This he successfully did by following a two-pronged approach. On the one hand he systematically decimated the old school of Vedic fire-sacrifice [and the various new forms it had taken such as the Tantrik schools], and on the other hand he established the supremacy of his brand of philosophical thought called Advaita Vedanta, which is built on the main premise that activity and true religion are antithetical to each other.

This achievement of Acharya Shankara produced one incredibly positive result and one extremely deleterious result for this land. Religion was preserved in its pure form. That was the incredibly positive result. The best brains of this land had dedicated their life’s energies to discovering the subtle truths of religion. The later geniuses of this land felt deeply that the common man too must have access to those emancipating truths of religion. With this impulse, they integrated religion into the daily economy of the common masses, as we described above. But the Greek influence that impacted this land led to an unhinging of the economy from the integrated package. Moreover, the grand scheme of life envisaged by the Rishis was jeopardized by the all-too-common tyranny of the Brahmins who actually controlled the fire-sacrifice. Buddha had been able to see that the scheme which was meant to be for the benefit of the common man was anything but that in its later form! But in his attempt to throw the bath water, Buddha threw out the baby too! Luckily, before permanent damage to the body-politic could be done, Acharya Shankara appeared on the scene. All those wonderful discoveries of religion would have been lost had Shankara not bifurcated religion from economy.

What about the deleterious consequence of Shankara’s decision to bifurcate religion from economy? Human activity, human endeavor, work, productive activity – these were looked down upon by the people ever since religion got divorced from the economic life of people. Religion climbed up to a pedestal so high that it was out of reach of the common masses. Added to this, the inevitable daily laboring was seen as serving no purpose, since no matter how much they labored or what kind of labor they engaged in, it would never lead them to spiritual felicity. It is important to note that the Vedic Rishis had so carefully integrated religion and economy as to confer spiritual felicity in those that labored in their station of life. That aspect was now absent. Fine; the people of this land could very well have rejected religion and taken purely to human activity, just as people in other lands like Europe or Middle Eastern Asia or South Eastern Asia had done. Well, that just didn’t happen. Why? The only plausible reason could be as Swami Vivekananda points out: To the other nations of the world, religion is one among the many occupations of life. There is politics, there are the enjoyments of social life, there is all that wealth can buy or power can bring, there is all that the senses can enjoy; and among all these various occupations of life and all this searching after something which can give yet a little more whetting to the cloyed senses — among all these, there is perhaps a little bit of religion. But here, in India, religion is the one and the only occupation of life. How many of you know that there has been a Sino-Japanese War? Very few of you, if any. That there are tremendous political movements and socialistic movements trying to transform Western society, how many of you know? Very few indeed, if any. But that there was a Parliament of Religions in America, and that there was a Hindu Sannyâsin sent over there, I am astonished to find that even the coolie knows of it. That shows the way the wind blows, where the national life is. I used to read books written by globe-trotting travelers, especially foreigners, who deplored the ignorance of the Eastern masses, but I found out that it was partly true and at the same time partly untrue. If you ask a ploughman in England, or America, or France, or Germany to what party he belongs, he can tell you whether he belongs to the Radicals or the Conservatives, and for whom he is going to vote. In America he will say whether he is Republican or Democrat, and he even knows something about the silver question. But if you ask him about his religion, he will tell you that he goes to church and belongs to a certain denomination. That is all he knows, and he thinks it is sufficient. Here is the only plausible reason why the common masses simply couldn’t reject religion even when their daily activities could not be integrated with their religious aspirations; religion was in their genes, so to speak!

Thus, for about a thousand years since Acharya Shankara, the people of this land lived a fractured life, laboring daily towards a seemingly meaningless goal, but aspiring all along for a spiritual goal that required them to renounce everything that they held dear and meaningful, a goal that simply couldn’t be integrated into their daily life at all. This deep dichotomy in the collective psyche of the people of this land made them weak, purposeless, lacking focus. As a result, any foreign ruler who chose to, could enter this land, over-run the local army and establish his hegemony over the land and its people. In fact, some of the rulers who did come here were actually failures in their own land of birth! For instance, Babur; or even Qutub-ud-din Aibak, who hailed from a slave family in Persia. This land, which was the most prosperous land in the entire civilized world, was reduced to abject poverty, what with the people lacking all initiative to work!

We must note an important point here. You will notice that I have been constantly using the word ‘people of this land’, ‘this land’, etc. instead of directly using the terms ‘country’ or ‘nation’. There is a reason for this. India did not exist until the British rule got stabilized, sometime around 1890. Right from the Vedic period up to 1890, this was a group of different kingdoms. The people living between the Himalayas in the North, the Hindu-Kush in the West, the Brahmaputra on the East and the Indian Ocean on the South, all had the same culture. That means to say, they had the same religion and social norms. But they were under different kings. The society was governed by the same laws, but the administrative control was various. The people certainly felt a social and therefore a cultural & religious kinship, but they never felt that they were one community. Language, for instance, was a great barrier. When the British Crown consolidated this entire region under its control, the people living in this region started getting the first inkling of the nationalistic sense. It was the perception of the British that we were a nation; it was never a perception of the people living here that we were a nation, to begin with. But, soon, the idea gained popularity, helped to a large extent by the insensitivity of the British in dealing with the religion of the people. But the genesis of the idea of nationalism wasn’t enough to rouse the people living in this land, unless the deep-rooted dichotomy between daily activity and their spiritual aspirations could not be reconciled.

We have painted quite a detailed picture of the history of this land and its people up until the 1850s. Let me now describe to you a development that has great bearing on the main topic of this essay.

Sometime around 1850, at Dakshineswar near Calcutta, a rich dowager named Rani Rashmoni built a magnificent temple for the Divine Mother. After some hitches, this new temple got a new priest called Ramakrishna. Actually, he and his elder brother managed the daily worship of the various temples in the huge Dakshineswar complex. The young man Ramakrishna did not have much academic learning, which is actually associated with priesthood in this land. We must remember that this priest class is the modern form of the Brahmin who was the tyrannical custodian of the fire-sacrifice during the Buddhistic Era. So, this young man, rustic in the sense he lacked the refinement that accompanies systematic academic education, however had a specialty in him. He had the exuberance of life, what is called joie de vivre, by the French writers. Like most youths, he too was extremely idealistic, with great spiritual aspirations. At the same time, the compulsions of daily life drove him to work in the Dakshineswar Temple, worshipping a Deity that was literally terrifying by any standards. Now, what I wish to point out here is this – this combination in this youth was nothing new. For centuries, such had been the fate of innumerable Brahmin youths in India. However, Sri Ramakrishna did not remain satisfied with living a lie. He achieved a tremendous integration in his personal life. He very successfully integrated his spiritual aspirations with his daily allotted work, work that he was compelled to do in order to feed himself, work that was considered as drudge for the last many centuries in this land, ever since Buddha and Shankara bifurcated religion from the economy of daily life! He achieved such an unprecedented self-integration that he started evolving as a sort of voice of the entire suffering mankind of this age. Circumstances conjured in such fortuitous ways that he got a disciple named Narendranath. This youth was an opposite of sorts to Sri Ramakrishna, in the sense that he had very high academic qualifications and hailed from a very highly cultured family from the metropolis of that time – Calcutta.

Sri Ramakrishna claimed that he was an Incarnation of God. This term ‘Avatara’ or ‘Incarnation’ is a technical term used in Hindu religious jargon to mean the flesh & blood manifestation of the Lord who created and sustains this entire universe. The term God means that – creator and sustainer of this world and also much more beyond that idea to the Hindus. The term also means the underlying principle of consciousness in everything that exists. That is also meant by the term God. So, Ramakrishna claimed that he was an Incarnation of that God. Apart from these ideas, there is one other idea that is encompassed under this term and that is the idea of power. God is power. What power? Although it includes all the various forms that power can be perceived as, it basically refers to the power that controls our lives. Ideas have power. Words have power. Actions have power. When a Hindu uses the term God, he means this power that is inherent in all ideas, words and actions, too. Ramakrishna claimed that he was an Incarnation of God in this sense too. Now, for the subject that we are dealing with here, the efficacy of Karma Yoga, this particular aspect of Sri Ramakrishna [where he claimed himself to be an Avatara of God] is a non-issue. the reason I brought it up here is – this sense of Avatarahood that he developed about himself led to a very wonderful development.

He did a very strange thing towards the end of his life. In Cossipore, which is in sub-urban Calcutta, while he was almost dying, he called Narendranath near him and exhorted him that he [i.e. Narendranath] should do something for the spiritual emancipation of the common masses. There was something inexplicable in that order. For, this exhortation drove the young man, who was strictly speaking a skeptic as regards Avatarahood and the need for spiritual emancipation of the masses, to great lengths in discovering a suitable means for spiritual emancipation of the masses.

Although there are not many details of the inner workings of the mind of this young man [who later became the renowned Swami Vivekananda], based on his letters to his disciples and colleagues, his own recorded lectures and his official biography, I have tried to roughly reconstruct the mentations that led him to design the path of Karma Yoga[4]. For, he held that Karma Yoga would be the path for the spiritual emancipation of the people now.

Swami Vivekananda clearly understood the historical developments of the Indians[5]. So, he arrived at the conclusion that the task before him was two-fold: One, to maintain the purity of the religion that took birth in India. Two, to find some means of integrating religion with the daily life of common man, so that he could once again have the wherewithal to achieve spiritual goals by means of executing his daily duties. Sister Nivedita, one of his biographers points out very forcefully that he arrived at this conclusion based on inputs from three different sources. She writes, and I quote in-extenso: The formative influence that went to the determining of his vision may perhaps be regarded as threefold. There was, first, his literary education, in Sanskrit and English. The contrast between the two worlds thus opened to him carried with it a strong impression of that particular experience which formed the theme of the Indian sacred books. It was evident that this, if true at all, had not been stumbled upon by Indian sages, as by some others, in a kind of accident. Rather was it the subject-matter of a science, the object of a logical analysis that shrank from no sacrifice which the pursuit of truth demanded.

In his Master, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, living and teaching in the temple-garden at Dakshineshwar, the Swami Vivekananda — “Naren” as he then was — found that verification of the ancient texts which his heart and his reason had demanded. Here was the reality which the books only brokenly described. Here was one to whom Samâdhi was a constant mode of knowledge. Every hour saw the swing of the mind from the many to the One. Every moment heard the utterance of wisdom gathered superconsciously. Everyone about him caught the vision of the divine. Upon the disciple came the desire for supreme knowledge “as if it had been a fever”. Yet he who was thus the living embodiment of the books was so unconsciously, for he had read none of them! In his Guru, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Vivekananda found the key to life.

 Even now, however, the preparation for his own task was not complete. He had yet to wander throughout the length and breadth of India, from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, mixing with saints and scholars and simple souls alike, learning from all, teaching to all, and living with all, seeing India as she was and is, and so grasping in its comprehensiveness that vast whole, of which his Master’s life and personality had been a brief and intense epitome.

 These, then — the Shâstras, the Guru, and the Mother-land — are the three notes that mingle themselves to form the music of the works of Vivekananda. These are the treasure which it is his to offer. These furnish him with the ingredients whereof he compounds the world’s heal-all of his spiritual bounty. These are the three lights burning within that single lamp which India by his hand lighted and set up, for the guidance of her own children and of the world in the few years of work between September 19, 1893 and July 4, 1902[6].

In his attempt to open up a path for everyone to participate in the life-fulfilling spiritual journey, Swami Vivekananda first attempted to introduce Raja Yoga [the science of religion] among the masses. This would have ensured the first objective mentioned above – that of maintaining the purity of religion[7]. It would have however left the second objective unaddressed.

So, finally, Swami Vivekananda came up with a marvelous plan of action: He established the Ramakrishna Math, an organization of monks, to achieve the first objective, of maintaining the purity of religion. Then he established the Ramakrishna Mission, an organization of monks and non-monastic members of the society, with the directive that this organization would engage in vigorous activity along the lines of Karma Yoga. For, in his later, matured point of view, it was Karma Yoga that would be the path meant for the common man, which would fulfil the needs of the modern man. Why would that be so? For, hadn’t his master Sri Ramakrishna achieved everything merely by the conscientious performance of his daily duties as a priest?

This latter organization is meant to be a torch-bearer to everyone in society who is desirous of practicing Karma Yoga. People can come to the various centers of this organization and study how the monks and the other members work. For, the work that is done in this organization is a special kind of work. All the work is done as Karma Yoga and not as a drudge, or even as duty. Swami Vivekananda specified very clearly that this organization would engage in all sorts of socially productive activity, and that every activity would serve a dual purpose – while the activities would enhance the collective welfare, it would also enhance the spiritual growth of the individuals who are engaged in those activities.

In this organization one finds two kinds of workers. One set of workers are visible; their activities are directly producing benefit to the people at large and to the target audience of those activities in particular. Even though there is great visibility and lot of fanfaronade in their activities, this category of workers maintain a clear sense of divinity within them in all that they do. They know with certainty that they are divine, the people they serve are divine and the act of service they render is actually a worship of the divine by the divine. The other set of workers are invisible, behind the screen, so to speak. This latter category of workers goes on performing their daily allotted duties with a sense of sacrilization. The common aspect in both these kinds of workers is the deep sense of divinization of the whole act. Years upon years of performing their duties in this sense leads to an incredible transformation in their consciousness that is not different from the transformation that would occur by practice of meditation or practice of devotion.

It is this particular way of working that Swami Vivekananda wanted to popularize among the masses. The exact type of work doesn’t matter. It is the way in which it is performed that matters. When done in the right way, every work that we do can become a valid path for our spiritual transformation. Hence, Swami Vivekananda gave a wonderful solution to the dilemma that has been tormenting the Indian psyche for the last two thousand years! So, welcome all sorts of activities. Welcome all means of wealth generation. For, activity and wealth generation are no longer antithetical to spiritual development. Rather, activity and wealth generation can themselves become the emancipating paths, if done as Karma Yoga.

So powerful has been this solution that within fifty years of Swami Vivekananda’s enunciation of this panacea, incredible results ensued. Mass acceptance of this message first of all took shape in the form of an upsurge in nationalistic feeling in India. For the first time, the masses felt that feeling for the entire country, feeling for his/her own fellow countryman, and working to free one’s own nation from foreign domination was at the same time bounden duty and also a valid path for one’s own spiritual development. After political independence, the same acceptance of this message by the masses took shape in the form of the birth and rise of a middle class in this country.

What concerns me, however, is that at present, everyone I come across claims to be performing Karma Yoga; but I have difficulty when I am unable to perceive the resultant transformation in his/her personality! Karma Yoga is a scheme of spiritual practices. While all other schemes of spiritual practices enjoin that only particular types of activities ought to be performed as a means to one’s spiritual development, Karma Yoga claims that the type of activity is immaterial. As opposed to the other traditional schools, although Karma Yoga claims that any activity can be a valid means of one’s spiritual development, it does enjoin that there is a limitation on the way in which any activity can be performed. Further, Karma Yoga very clearly specifies that one needs a certain qualification before one can embark on practicing Karma Yoga.

Swami Vivekananda has elaborated on both these points in his small book titled ‘Karma Yoga’. He has elaborated the qualifications one needs to possess before one can start practicing Karma Yoga. He has also explained the way, the method of performing any activity, by which that activity can get metamorphosed into Yoga[8]. What is of great importance is that there are clear milestones along the path that indicate we are on the right path. I note below a few of those milestones for reference of genuine aspirants of Karma Yoga[9]:

  • As soon as a particular activity is over and before another activity is taken up, in the interim period, the mind gets filled with divine thoughts.
  • The frequency of the spontaneous rising of divine thoughts will increase.
  • Anger and jealousy will reduce. One becomes more firm but compassionate too.
  • The center of one’s consciousness starts shifting to within our own personality.
  • A zone of silence is created inside our self and it keeps on growing, encompassing wider and wider circles of our personality.
  • The sense of compulsion associated with duty reduces. Every act is seen progressively as an opportunity for self-expression. Slowly this self-expression tends towards a sense of worshipful offering to the divinity within us.
  • Our ability to digest failure increases steadily. The effort we put into any activity doesn’t get affected by the success or failure of the activity anymore.
  • Our ability to digest criticism and negative comments increases steadily. It is not that our sensitivity reduces or that we become numb to words; on the contrary, our sensitivity towards the effects that words can produce gets enhanced considerably. What happens is that we will steadily develop an ability to sympathize with the troubled, unbalanced state of mind that produced those harsh, hurtful words. Hence, instead of resenting the speaker, we sympathize with him/her.
  • The senses become extremely vivid. This happens in the beginning for a certain period of time. Later on, this vividness shifts its focus from the perceptions of the senses to the ideas in the mind. Further on, all that we see and hear and do will be seen as a metaphor of our conception of divinity.
  • We become merciless to ourselves regarding our short-comings. At the same time, we become kind towards others regarding their short-comings. Certain cases may require that we specifically point out and correct short-comings of others; in such cases, we start feeling a clear at-one-ment with the persons whom we are called upon to correct. Each act of such correction emanates from a vivid picture of perfection in the other person’s personality.
  • A sense of spontaneous joy flows in the self. This tends to have a highly concentrating effect on the mind, and if not consciously controlled, could be highly distracting from the job at hand.

Thus, while I heartily recommend the widespread acceptance of Karma Yoga at all levels of society, I really wish that people who start practicing Karma Yoga would care to go about it in a systematic manner, and not drag down the high ideal.



[1] Of course, there was no nation then; India did not exist then. It was just that the majority of the people living between the Himalayas and the Euphrates-Tigris Basin and in the Peninsula followed this kind of livelihood. They had different kings ruling them, but their economy was governed by the fire-sacrifice

[2] The term Mleccha included the Huns, the Tartars, the Mongols, the Ioneans and the Greeks. They also included the various aborigines of the land who refused to conform to the common social customs & traditions revolving around the Vedic religion.

[3] The Hindu historians call this breaking down of the social stratification as Varna Sankarya.

[4] It would be worthwhile to mention here that Swami Ashokananda has written an editorial in Prabuddha Bharata with the title Origin of Swami Vivekananda’s doctrine of service. This article is available on the internet as also in the book Ascent to spiritual illumination. In this article, he has elaborated that Swami Vivekananda had to arrive at this doctrine of Service [which is a special form of Karma Yoga] in order to give a comprehensive shape to the spiritual discoveries of Sri Ramakrishna.

[5] In fact, the historical developments & background that I have mentioned above are all culled from his Complete Works, published by Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata.

[6] This is a part of the Introduction to the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda.

[7] Please refer, for a detailed article on this topic.

[8] Please refer for a detailed explanation of these & related issues.

[9] I collected these from various sources. Some are from Meditation & Spiritual Life by Swami Yatishwaranandaji. Some others are from my discussions with some senior monks of our Order.

Swami Vivekananda’s Karma Yoga – the scripture of modern mankind


 How to understand it and design a Sadhana based on the book

‘Karma Yoga’ written by Swami Vivekananda is an important book for all spiritual aspirants. While trying to read this book, the Sadhaka will certainly face some hardship since the topic itself is very subtle. One of the difficulties is the various terms Swamiji uses again and again in the book. It would help if these terms could be explained in detail. If the aspirant understands these terms, he will be in a better position to understand the book. Another difficulty is the strange misconceptions that many aspirants have regarding Karma Yoga, especially regarding its comparative efficacy as a spiritual path. ‘Oh! I shall practice some Karma Yoga, but then, real sadhana is Japa and Dhyana, you see!’ This is a common utterance. Again, ‘Oh! You don’t think I am qualified for the real sadhana, that’s why you say I’ve got to practice Karma Yoga. Wait, let me show you!’ This is another misconception. There is a need to clear these and similar other puerile misconceptions regarding Karma Yoga. This article is an attempt to fulfill some of these needs.

Swamiji uses the following terms again and again in this treatise: Work, Character, Motive, Self-Control, Duty, Service and Non-attachment. These terms will be explained so that the student of the treatise will be able to grasp the drift of arguments therein. Further, the relationship between Work & Duty, Duty & Service will also be studied.

Requirements for Karma Yoga practice will be enumerated and the dangers that lie in the practice of Karma Yoga will be explained. Then, there will be a discussion on the role of Guru and Ishta in Karma Yoga. Lastly there will be a short study of the ideal of a Karma Yogi.

Work: Its purpose

All of us work. And our actions bring either pleasure or pain. We generally consider pleasure to be the goal of our lives. So, most of our activities is aimed to get pleasure and avoid pain. The fact however is something totally different. Pleasure cannot be the goal of our lives. Why? Pleasure is not everlasting, and something that isn’t everlasting cannot be the goal of our lives. What then is the goal of our lives? What is it then that we all work for all our lives? It is knowledge. ‘Knowledge of what?’ you may ask. Knowledge of every kind; Work causes misery and happiness. And both misery and happiness bring out different kinds of knowledge that already exists inside us. So, the goal of all our actions is this uncovering of knowledge, although it is not so apparent.

Do we really have a choice with regard to activity? I mean, can we really choose whether to work or not to work? Actually, we don’t have a choice in this matter, although apparently it looks like we may choose either as we wish. Only that blessed person who is in the Nirvikalpa Samadhi state is free from work. All the rest of us have to work.

What does Swamiji mean by work in this book? Every activity of man is work. Man performs various kinds of actions using his senses, his motor organs and his mind. Each of them is termed work. Thoughts and feelings are also work by this definition; so are prayer, worship and meditation.


Each activity leaves an impression on our mind. These impressions are vectors. They either cancel one another, or add up. These impressions have the ability to accumulate. The final resultant of all mental impressions upon our personality is called ‘Character’. In common terms, this word ‘Character’ means the manifestation of the Will, its tendencies, its direction, its propensities. This Will is what directs our life. It is what impels us to further action. This ‘Character’ can be changed. If change our ‘Character’, the quality of our life changes. How can we change our ‘Character’?

If we learn to manipulate our activities suitably, we can change our character. In other words, by learning to manipulate our activities, we can change the direction in which our Will operates. Thus, we can change our entire life. So, if we wish to change our ‘Character’ and thus improve the quality of our lives, it is important to learn to manipulate our actions. This is a science called ‘Karma Yoga’.

Every person therefore has a character. What sort of a character it will have to be seen. There are certain stereotypes of character. We have various classifications such as moral character, immoral character, mature character, immature character, etc. History shows that in certain cases (E.g. Christ, Buddha, etc), the character was entirely designed for doing good to everyone around them. Such a character is called a ‘Moral Character’ or ‘Unselfish Character’. Such a bunch of accumulated impressions is a great boon to oneself and to society. The impulsion of such a character is a tremendous energy called ‘Moral Energy’.

Anyone of us can develop a Moral Character. How? As we said before, it can be done by working in a certain way.

Motive, Self Control & Non-attachment

Generally, the resultant of accumulated impressions impels our next action. The initiator of activity is the Will, produced by character. When an action is underway, a tentacle arises in the mind called ‘Motive’. During the course of action, this ‘motive’ takes possession of the performed action. This taking possession of the performed action by our mind through ‘motive’ creates the impressions associated with the act.

What we need to learn is therefore this – when an action is underway, and when ‘motive’ starts rising up in order to claim the action, we shall have to curb this claiming process. We have to learn to curb the motive from claiming the action. But, nonetheless, we have to allow the action to be performed by our body and mind. This technique of curbing the ‘motive’ and simultaneously allowing the act to be performed is called ‘Self-control’.

Work performed in this way, by ‘Self-control’, by totally restraining any claim over the action is called ‘Motiveless Action’ or ‘Work for work’s sake’. This kind of work is the highest ideal of Karma Yoga.

The mechanism of applying self control over ourselves, wherein, the act is allowed to flow through our body-mind apparatus, but the ego is curbed from claiming ownership of the act is called Non-attachment. A non-attached person is therefore not inactive. In fact, an inactive person is the opposite of a non-attached person. A non-attached man is extremely active, performing all actions that situations in life demand of him, yet, he claims no ownership for any of those actions. The perfection of this non-attachment in a person is the highest ideal of Karma Yoga.

Gradation in the ideals of Karma Yoga

Now, everyone cannot take up this highest ideal right from the beginning. So, we have to allow for many smaller ideals. The highest ideal of ‘Work for work’s sake’ has to be broken down into many smaller ideals, allowing men at different stages of development to identify with. Actually the Varna-Ashrama system of the olden days in Hindu society was designed to achieve this. We should not jump stages. We have to grow out of it naturally. Suppose we take up an ideal which is too high for us, what happens is that we fall into a vicious trap. We will not be able to achieve anything even remotely close to that ideal. Repeatedly failing to achieve the ideal, we shall start losing all confidence in ourselves. Then we generally start becoming hypocrites, knowing in the heart of our hearts that we cannot live up to the ideal, and at the same time, we continue to profess the ideal outwardly. This leads to self-hate. All further growth stops when we start to hate ourselves. Hence we have to follow the graded path of work laid out by Karma Yoga.

Suppose we consider the concept of work as a spectrum, on the one extreme lies ‘Unconscious work’. Most people perform this kind of work. They are unaware of why they act, and what they do. Animals also act in this way. Such actions are generally aimed at pure survival. And at the other end lies ‘Work for work’s sake’. Externally, the opposites look very alike. In between lie ‘Selfish work’ and ‘Unselfish work’. “Work for work’s sake’ refers to a unique kind of performing actions where there is no motive at all, neither selfish, nor unselfish. ‘Selfish work’ refers all those kinds of actions we perform for ourselves, for earning money, for earning name, fame and approbation from society, for gaining, maintaining and improving our status in the society. These actions are concerned with me even at the cost of all others. ‘Unselfish work’ refers to that kind of action which we perform for the benefit of others. We don’t have to gain anything from those actions. It is very important to note that all these are just different kinds of performing actions. They are not different actions, as such. The same action, when performed in a particular way can be unconscious work; same action performed in a different way can become selfish action, and so on.

There is one more aspect to be kept in mind. That is – no stage is intrinsically superior to any other. No kind of work is intrinsically superior to another kind of work. We should not judge the work of others at all, for judgments are traps that stop our further development.

Unconscious work does not create any impression on our mind. It does not affect our character. ‘Selfish work’ creates impressions. But again, a strong positive character need not be formed by means of this kind of work, because, as we saw before, it generally leads to formation of impressions of various kinds, due to which, the resultant is always weak and lacks force. Let us suppose we perform repeated ‘Selfish work’. What happens then? Impressions will then not cancel out. Instead they will reiterate themselves and become very strong. Then the resultant of those impressions will ne unidirectional and have great force. The character of such a man will be a tremendous energy, which will be palpably felt by oneself and by others. But, it may not be a positive energy; it may not be ‘Moral energy’. It will generally be highly selfish. Such a character need not be a blessing to others, even though it will certainly be extremely powerful.

The next higher ideal is ‘Unselfish work’. A man shall work, but he shall only perform such acts as will benefit others and not him. What is the benefit of this kind of work? The benefit is that as a result of repeatedly performing such a kind of work, a different type of character is formed, extremely powerful, and a positive, force called ‘Moral character’. Such a character exudes a great force on the man that possesses such a character, propelling him to actions which will benefit all those around him. Hence it is considered positive.

So, we notice that. Starting from ‘Unconscious work’, we have to rise to ‘Selfish work’. Then, we have to exercise ‘Self-control’ on ourselves while performing selfish works and convert it to ‘Unselfish work’. Then, upon further applying self-control over ourselves while performing unselfish work, we can reach the highest ideal of ‘Work for work’s sake’. Karma Yoga thus gives the highest ideal as well as a graded code of conduct and activity for spiritual development.

We started a study of human actions in order to discern if there was any way in which we could achieve spiritual development using our propensity for action. We have seen that there is such a way. Now, common sense tells us that spiritual development generally accompanies silence, solitude, quietness. But, all along we have been dealing with action. So, the question will arise as to how spiritual development can occur while we are engaged in intense activity. If we are always engaged in activity, where will we find rest to achieve spiritual development? Karma Yoga teaches the technique of achieving silence in the midst of intense activity.

Work & Duty

What sort of work must we take up? As we already saw before, Karma Yoga depends not on the particular act, but on the manner in which the work is performed. So any work may be taken up. Yet, there are certain rules governing the choice of work to be taken up. The work to be performed by us is given the term ‘Duty’. There doesn’t seem to be a universal definition of duty. One school of thought says that the voice of conscience determines our duty. Since conscience is not intrinsic in man, but a product of social training, we cannot have a standardization of duty based on this concept of conscience. Another school of thought says that is duty which takes us forward in our life. Again, there can be no standardization based on this view too, since too many factors are involved in deciding as what takes me forward in my life. It depends on what one considers as the goal of one’s life, on one’s social training about right and wrong, etc. Karma Yoga however says that some actions make us brutal; some others make us human, while some actions exalt us to divinity. Hence that is our duty which lifts us higher up this ladder, from brutality to humanity to divinity. Bhagavad Gita says your birth in the family and position in society determines your duty. This too cannot be totally accepted since occupation is no longer dependent on families now-a-days in India. Moreover, no foreign country neither followed nor follows family based occupations. However, position in the society even now decides our duty to a large extent.

Instead of worrying about how to define duty, we may profit by seeing how this concept of duty helps us in our spiritual growth. Performing an action haphazardly and performing it as duty has a great difference on our character. Performing our action based on the concept of duty helps us to develop the ability to restrain our senses and other selfish pulls, for duty calls for great personal sacrifice. When a person is on duty, he cannot take rest even though he feels sleepy; he cannot eat even though he is hungry. So, by grades, he learns to control and restrain himself by performing his actions as duty. Duty requires continual denial of low desires. You will notice that entire society is designed on these lines.

Under which category of work can we classify duty – is it selfish work or unselfish work? It is surely not unconscious work, since duty is that activity that you have consciously accepted to perform. Duty may be selfish or unselfish depending on the way we allow our ‘motive’ to behave.

Dangers regarding Duty

There are two dangers regarding this concept of duty. Firstly, since it is dictated on us, and not chosen by us, there is a greater chance that we shall tend to treat the activity as a drudge. ‘Oh! It is my misfortune that I have to do this damned job!’ This kind of feeling may develop. When this kind of feeling develops, all cheerfulness goes away from action. Karma Yoga can no longer be practiced. Secondly, every personal whim and fancy can be justified as duty. Since duty cannot be objectively defined, it can be extended to include anything that strikes our fancy. If this happens, we get into a trap in which we shall be forever involved only in performing selfish work and can never grow out of it.

How are we to avoid these two dangers regarding duty?

Firstly, we have to base all our duty on ‘Love’. We have to love the society in which we live. We have to love ourselves. We have to love our fellow beings. There must be love in our heart when we perform duty. Only then will there be cheerfulness. Karma Yoga gives a technique for developing love in our heart. That is called ‘Chastity’. A Karma yogi must necessarily be chaste. He must practice sexual purity and then perform his duties. Then he will always have love in his heart and be cheerful about his duty. Generally Chastity means sexual continence. Karma Yoga considers Chastity to mean looking upon the opposite sex as the representation of divine energy. For a Karma Yogi, Chastity means a lot more than mere physical continence. Even a thought of a feeling that is tinged with sexuality means he/she is unchaste. When we are chaste, there will be no competitive sense in our heart. There will be no grumbling about our work to be performed as duty.

In order to avoid the 2nd danger, we shall have to implicitly accept society’s allotment of duty for us. That saves us from this danger to some extent. Society is not perfect. But it has its own adjustments according to which it allots certain duties to us. We profit by accepting this adjustment by society.

But our effort has to be constantly towards transforming our duty from a selfish way to unselfish way. How is this to be achieved? As we saw before, by constantly exercising Self-control over ourselves, by curbing the motive from claiming the duty we perform. By devotedly performing our allotted duties in this fashion, we gather strength to perform the allotted duties in higher levels, i.e. we can experience a progression from selfish to unselfish to work for work’s sake. So, we have to accept the duty allotted to us by society. We have to perform it with cheerfulness and love, by practicing chastity. We have to thus constantly transform our duty into unselfish activity and then gradually into work for work’s sake.

Gradation in duties

Since we depend on society for our allotment of duty, it may so happen that time to time, society may allot various duties to us to perform. Since society has a hierarchy, there is a hierarchy in duties too. It may so happen that depending upon the efficiency with which we perform our presently allotted duty, there may be a progression in the hierarchy of duties allotted to us. Thus, it seems that there is a progress with respect to the duties allotted to us. But this progression in duties is not a necessary condition for Karma Yoga. In Karma Yoga, all that matters is that there is a steady progress in the method in which we perform our duties, not in the hierarchy of duties.

We saw above that ‘Moral character’ can be developed by performing our allotted duties as activities that will help others and do not necessarily benefit oneself. It is to be remembered that the particular act does not matter. It is the way in which the act is performed that determines whether we shall develop a selfish character or an unselfish character by means of our actions.

Aspects of Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga therefore deals with the training ourselves to manipulate our actions with a view of developing a desired type of character. But this aspect does not encompass the entirety of Karma Yoga. Karma Yoga also involves the use of ritualism, use of symbolism and the use of the written & spoken word. Symbolism is a part of rituals. So, knowledge of symbols is also Karma Yoga. So, according to Swamiji’s book, Karma Yoga includes the following:

  1. Performing duty for the sake of spiritual development.
  2. Doing good to the world without thought of any personal considerations.
  3. Manipulating our actions so as to develop a particular type of character.
  4. Use of ritualism and symbolism.
  5. Use of the spoken and written word.

Dangers regarding Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga presents its own set of obstacles to the practitioner. Fanaticism is a great obstacle in Karma Yoga. Expectation of rewards for our actions is another obstacle. How to avoid these?

We must clearly understand the nature of this world that we try sincerely to repair and help. This world is not our permanent habitat. It is just a passing stage. This world is a curly dog’s tail. No matter how much you help it, it will remain crooked and curled. This world is imperfect, full of inequality. Then why at all should we help this world? We need to work for the good of others because that is a very good way of helping ourselves to grow. If we work with this knowledge, then we can avoid fanaticism. Another way to avoid fanaticism is to have a faith in Ishwara. Ishwara is the Lord of this world. He has a responsibility for this world. He will take care of it finally. This shifts crushing pressure from your head and allows you to work freely. You may chip in your efforts, but your efforts are not at all indispensable. This also avoids fanaticism.

We have already seen the way to avoid expecting rewards for our actions. Self control is the way. We shall have to check our motive from claiming the rewards for our actions.

Requirements for Karma Yoga

  1. Not to hate ourselves

It must also be mentioned that Karma Yoga has its own specific requirements. Without those requirements, one cannot achieve any success in that path; no matter how long he tries. Swamiji says that our 1st requirement is not to hate ourselves. What does it mean to say ‘I hate myself’? Isn’t loving oneself something selfish and hence abhorrent? Our mind is a very strange thing. We are right now aware of just the superficial parts of our own mind. Beneath the superficial layer of our mind lie many layers of the mind which are not readily accessible to our consciousness. It is one of the strangest facts of life that our own mind works against us in most cases. A person reads a good book on spiritual life and wants to practice those precepts. When he tries to practice them, he finds that his mind militates against those practices. Now can he deny that those ideas appealed to him? Of course, the ideas were indeed appealing to him, which was why he started to practice them. But then, his own mind militates against practicing them. Why is this so? This fact of our own mind militating against our efforts is called ‘hating ourselves’. First of all, we need to recognize this great fact. And then, we need to take adequate steps to overcome this inner resistance to progress. Psychologists today even speak of a ‘Will to fail’ that is operative within us, which is responsible for our failures in life. A Karma Yogi needs to rise above this inner enemy. Else all his efforts in trying to control his actions and motives will come to naught.

  1. Be a witness

Another urgent sine-qua-non needed for Karma yoga is the ability to ‘be a witness’ of our actions and situations. We must practice working like the nurse in a rich man’s house. We must be completely involved in all our actions, in all that happens around us. We must be involved but we must remain unruffled by any of them. Deep down in our hearts we must know that we are the ever-perfect Atman that needs nothing further to perfect it. No act makes us perfect. We are perfection itself. Perfection in all its aspects is our true nature. Yet we must work hard. Our inner-most self is of a nature that needs nothing else to make it perfect. But our body and mind need activity to become more and more perfect.

Role of Guru in Karma Yoga

What is the role of Guru in Karma Yoga? Any spiritual path generally starts with a Guru. The aspirant is initiated into the path by a person who has achieved success by following that path in his own life. Guru is that person. It won’t do if the person merely has intellectual knowledge of the path. The Guru must have personal experience. No where in Swamiji’s book do we come across the need of a Guru with regard to practicing Karma Yoga. But, practice of Karma Yoga too needs a Guru, not for initiating us into the path, but more to present before us the actual form of the ideas of this grand path. It is possible to understand concepts like Chastity, Self-control, Moral character, Being a witness, non-attachment, etc merely by studying books and articles. But, unless we see these ideas manifested in a person, we may end up understanding the whole thing in a totally different way. It takes a living person to make it clear to us that chastity is something more than being an ox. Ox is continent, because it is emasculated. Emasculation is not chastity. A Karma Yogi lives and works amidst the opposite sex, yet does not allow even the least sexual thought to pass through his mind! Non-attachment is not callousness. It is possible for a person to be utterly involved in activity and yet be totally unaffected by it at heart. The subtleties of Karma Yoga become clear only when we see a living person manifest those concepts in his life. And such a person is nothing less than a Guru. Certain schools of religion in India speak of ‘Deeksha Guru’ and ‘Sheeksha Guru’. Karma Yoga seems to have done away with the need of a Deeksha Guru. But, a Sheeksha Guru is indispensable for Karma Yoga.

Ishta of a Karma Yogi

Every Yoga needs an Ishta, the chosen ideal. In Karma Yoga, our Ishta is our ‘Duty’ and it is pointed out to us by society. Generally, the Guru points out to us our Ishta. But, in Karma Yoga, we do not need a single person to point out our Ishta to us. Society has its mechanism for allotting our duty at any point of time. Thus society itself points out our Ishta to us.

Inter-relationship between Duty & Service

We have now seen the important aspects of Karma Yoga as presented by Swamiji in his book. We shall now try to highlight some points, by clarifying which, our study of Swamiji’s book will be more fruitful. We need to know the relationship between duty & service; then we shall have to see the inter-relationship between Karma Yoga and other Yogas.

Society is a gigantic being, involved in infinite activities. Those activities can be broken down into smaller parts. Each of those smaller parts is allotted to the various persons who are members of the society. Such allotted activities are called duties. Society has the tendency to create imbalances within itself from time to time, creating the haves and the have-nots among its members. A particular type of activity which mainly helps others is called Service. All duties allotted by society cannot be classified under Service. But all types of service activities are duties. Thus service is a special kind of activity devised by society to establish balance within itself. Service takes various forms. Helping others with food and clothing is one kind of service. Imparting secular education and knowledge is another. Giving health care to the sick is yet another form. Bringing peace of mind to the emotionally disturbed is a still higher kind of service. All forms of service are valuable. But helping others spiritually is the highest. So, there is an objective hierarchy in service. We have already noted that a hierarchy does exist with respect to duty.

Now, revolving around duty and service, two different kinds of Karma Yoga can be practiced. A Karma Yogi who is confined to his duty will seem like a most ordinary person, with nothing special about him, going about performing his allotted duties, living his seemingly humdrum life, but, within him, maybe burning a great flame of renunciation, taking him up and up and above the ordinary. Merely by performing his allotted duties in a purely household set-up, a person may become a Yogi. Outwardly, there will be no fanfare and show about such a Yogi, but, within, he is a totally different man.

Swamiji seems to be the first person who envisaged that service too can be taken up as Karma Yoga. And in this sense, Karma Yoga means helping others to the point of one’s death! He gives the example of the sacrifice of the Brahmin family in Mahabharata, where the mongoose rolled on the spilled floor and got half his body turned into gold.

Inter-relationship between Karma Yoga & other Yogas

Should Karma Yoga be practiced along with other Yogas or is it sufficient to bring emancipation all by itself? Swamiji says that Karma Yoga, by itself, is capable of making a man free from all bondages. But, depending on one’s disposition, a person may integrate Karma Yoga with Yoga of his choice too.

  1. With Bhakti Yoga

Supposing you are a devotee; then Karma Yoga can be integrated with Bhakti. How? Every act is considered as a flower, to be performed and offered to the feet of your Ishta. Thus, slowly, your actions get a transforming power over your personality. You go on working, but the overall effect is that your work does not directly affect you; instead your relationship with your Ishta gets strengthened as a result of working. This is the easiest way of performing Karma Yoga.

2. With Jnana Yoga

What is the relationship of Karma Yoga with Jnana Yoga? A Jnani negates this world. So how can he work? And if he doesn’t work, where does Karma Yoga arise? Jnana Yoga teaches you that Atman alone exists. You are not the body, nor the mind, but pure consciousness. And so is every being around you. Now, you may cry yourself hoarse that you not this and not that, but unless you actually perceive that you are pure consciousness in the state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, you will find yourself interacting with this world, with this society. Each interaction, emanating from your body and mind, can reinforce your vision of you being non-different from others. So, if you are a Jnana Yogi, then each of your interactions with others can also be called Karma Yoga, since, your work is uniting you with the whole.

But, is there anything called ‘Pure Karma Yoga’? Yes, there is. Such a Yogi does not believe in a Personal God and hence cannot entertain devotion to God. Such a Yogi does not posit the Atman, pure consciousness, negating the world and hence cannot bother about Jnana. But, he can work; he can use his faculties of body and mind and interact meaningfully with others in society. Such a unique person works not to achieve anything for himself. By force of will, he renounces his selfishness. His main job while discharging his allotted duties is to keep himself unattached from any kind of bindings that his ego may conjure. This very act will lead to a tremendous change in his consciousness and lead him to freedom.

Ideal of Freedom

Swamiji says in more than one place that the goal of Karma Yoga is ‘Freedom’. We must try to understand what this freedom means. Human existence is full of contradictions. We think we are free. But are we really free? How far does our freedom go? Even trifles like sleep and hunger keep us bound, not to speak of the greater bondages of prejudice or fanaticism or ignorance. A Karma Yogi’s goal is to slowly grow out of each of these bondages. A question may be asked here. As of now, we are not even aware of our bondages. So, can this ideal of freedom from bondage ever be a strong force in our lives? Yes. It is indeed a very sorry state of affairs that we seem to be quite happy with our present putrid state of bondage. Karma Yoga paves the way for our realizing that we are bound. Then, it takes us out of that bondage too.

Karma Yoga tells us ‘Work, enjoy, experience and let go’. Most of us do all these except ‘letting go’. That needs training ourselves. Experience is not our goal. Our goal is freedom. For that, we need to let go. ‘Letting go’ means Non-attachment. Absolute non-attachment is infinite expansion.

Karma yoga begins with duty. Then it rises till the idea of duty ceases. In the higher stages of Karma Yoga, there is no sense of ‘ought to’. There, actions are performed because it is good to perform those actions; good for the entire world. No more are any external impulses needed to act, inner impulses of love spur a Karma Yogi to act.