Purity & Concentration

I will be placing before you five ideas today. These five ideas are very important for understanding the main ideas of today’s topic – Purity & Concentration. You see, I will not be speaking to you about Purity & Concentration per se, because, most of us assembled here already have a rough idea of these two concepts. I will try to fill in the gaps in our understanding regarding these concepts.

As I said, we all know sufficiently enough about Purity and Concentration. Yet we do not seem to grow in these two character traits. Why is that?

  • Principle of Gradation in Ideals:

Let us place a KG kid, a School boy, a College student, a Masters scholar, and a Research scientist, say for instance, Einstein, in a line, all standing one beside the other. We ask each one the same question, ‘What are you doing?’ The KG kid will say, ‘I am studying’. The School boy will say ‘I am studying’. The College student, let us hope, says ‘I am studying’, because, now-a-days, most students take admission in Colleges, not to study, but to “set right” the College and the University! Let us hope to get a good College student, in which case, he will certainly say ‘I am here for studying’. Next, we ask a Masters student the same question, and we will surely get the same answer. You see where this is going. Lastly, a true Research scholar like Einstein will also say, ‘I am studying this universe; I am learning how it works.’

Please notice that all of them are saying the same thing. But, what a world of difference lies between a KG kid saying ‘I am studying’ and an Einstein saying ‘I am studying’!

None of them is false. All of them are correct. We understand all of them are correct because we clearly understand that there is a gradation in the act of learning. Learning is not an absolute action. It has innumerable steps, innumerable gradations, and innumerable stages. And each of them is indeed called by the same name – learning. You may qualify it with words like lower learning and higher learning, but you will all agree that each one of them is indeed doing the same thing – learning. Thus, they are all doing same thing, although there is a difference in degree and not in kind.

We urgently need to understand this concept, especially with regard to ideals such as Purity. There is a clear gradation in ideals. Ideals are not absolute. To some extent we may consider that the lowest end and the highest end (as we understand them now[1]) are absolute, but there is a spectrum of ideals in-between. They are graded.

A School Inspector visited a school once. He went to Class-X and asked the students how many districts are there in West Bengal. He wanted to hear the correct answer which is 23. Since three new districts had been recently formed, he would also have been happy with the answer 20. But the students replied, ’75, 83, 64’ etc.! The answers were way off the mark. He was angry and asked the teacher to explain. The teacher said, “Sir, you should have seen them last year. They were in 250s and 300s. I have brought them down to the 60s and 70s. In a year or two, I will bring them to the correct number.”

So, do we understand that when a student is focusing entirely on his studies, a soldier is focusing entirely on fighting the enemy and defending his country, a doctor is focusing entirely on his surgery, saving the patient and healing the sick, a mason is focusing entirely on laying bricks and constructing a building – all of them are essentially as pure and as focused as a monk practicing unbroken Brahmacharya for the sake of God Realization? I do not mean that they are all equal, but, essentially the same. They are all like that string of KG kid, School student, etc. that we lined up.

There are grades in the level of purity and focus each one can achieve in one’s life. We must note that the action, per se, is not related to what level of purity or any other ideal is achieved. In fact, Vedanta holds that any action can assist us in manifesting the highest ideal in our personality. We shall deal with that concept some other time. Now we will try to understand this concept of gradation in ideals. Somehow we tend to think that these ideals such as Purity, Self-realization, God-vision, etc. are some absolute states of existence. They are not. They have infinite grades. You can imagine them as a continuum, or as a spectrum. On the one extreme, we exist. On the other, great souls like Buddha, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna. The in-between distance separating us from these great souls has infinite lower ideals of Purity, Self-realization and Visions of God, which we all will have to progressively conquer and move ahead. Each of these lower ideals can grow into the one next to it in the hierarchy till it culminates in the manifestation of the ideal we see in these great souls.

Sri Ramakrishna was a married man. He worshipped his own wife as the Divine Mother! We all understand this manifestation of the ideal in Sri Ramakrishna as ‘Purity’. Well, that is one extreme of the spectrum. Can you understand that raising a family, being loyal to one wife only, your entire life, is the same ideal manifested on a little lower level? Can you understand that when a student rejects a distraction of playing video games and immerses himself in single-minded study of his subjects, that is also a manifestation of the same ideal of purity, of course, on a much, much lower level? When we understand this connection, we will start making progress in manifesting these ideals in our own lives.

A man took his son to be admitted in Shantiniketan. He asked in the Office, “What all do you teach here?” The Officer was proud of his Institution and explained, “We have a school; then we have a multi-disciplinary College, where we teach the Arts, Science and Commerce; we have Masters in various disciplines; we also do Research in cutting-edge areas such as Microbiology, nano-technology, etc.” The man was impressed. He asked his son to be admitted into the Ph.D course in Microbiology. The Officer wanted to meet his son. He was a boy of 4 years! The boy’s father could not understand that he had to be admitted into the KG School, first of all. He would study diligently, year after year, passing each class, moving ahead into College, then Masters and then into Ph.D course! He could not be admitted directly into the Ph.D Course! This is the mistake we all make.

There is a beautiful Sufi story. A Sufi saint was very hungry. He went to a road-side hotel and asked for Roti and Tarka. He ate the 1st roti. He was still hungry. He ate another one, and another one till he ate the 5th Roti and he was satisfied. He went to pay the bill. Each Roti cost Rs.5, so he was asked to pay Rs. 25. He started abusing the Hotel owner, “You cheat! I will pay only Rs.5! You should have given me the 5th Roti first. In order to make money, you gave the useless 4 Rotis and now you want Rs.25?” This is the mistake we all make. The extreme form of the ideal, we all understand. It alone appeals to us. What about the intermediate steps? Who will achieve those?

A young Engineer was attending a job interview. After the interview was over, the interviewer asked him, “Do you have any questions?” The young man asked, “Sir, what will be the salary?” The interviewer said, “You are a fresher. We will put you on two years’ probation, during which period, we will pay you Rs.10,000 per month. After your probationership is completed, we will put into the Rs.16,500 scale. Understood?” The young Engineer replied, “Yes Sir. I will join after two years.”

Let us do our allotted duty, sincerely, devotedly. We will continue to do this till the next higher stage opens out to us. This way, stage by stage, we will one day reach the highest.

Swami Vivekananda says[2], “When you are doing any work, do not think of anything beyond. Do it as worship, as the highest worship, and devote your whole life to it for the time being. Thus, in the story, the Vyadha and the woman did their duty with cheerfulness and whole-heartedness; and the result was that they became illuminated, clearly showing that the right performance of the duties of any station in life, without attachment to results, leads us to the highest realization of the perfection of the soul.

It is the worker who is attached to results that grumbles about the nature of the duty which has fallen to his lot; to the unattached worker all duties are equally good, and form efficient instruments with which selfishness and sensuality may be killed, and the freedom of the soul secured. We are all apt to think too highly of ourselves. Our duties are determined by our deserts to a much larger extent than we are willing to grant. Competition rouses envy, and it kills the kindliness of the heart. To the grumbler all duties are distasteful; nothing will ever satisfy him, and his whole life is doomed to prove a failure. Let us work on, doing as we go whatever happens to be our duty, and being ever ready to put our shoulders to the wheel. Then surely shall we see the Light!

Right now, if we desire to achieve the highest, it will end in frustration, which is what we see in most people around us. We tend to think in absolutist terms. We aim directly for the final stage. We don’t realize the value of the stages preceding the final stage. There is a reason we fail to do this.

Compared to the highest stage, the preceding stages look like errors. Take Purity for instance. We all understand the manifestation of this ideal in a monk’s personality. A monk looks upon all women as his own mother. He is thus able to eschew all sexuality in himself. That is the main reason why people look worshipfully at a monk. We all understand this ideal easily. This stage of the ideal of Purity is called ‘Akhanda Naishtika Brahmacharya’. Now, the step lower to this is – looking upon all women, except one, as your own mother. There will however be one woman, his lawfully wedded wife, with whom the person will have sexual relations. This is an ideal of Purity, recognized by our Scriptures, and called by the term ‘Eka-patni-vrata’. Now, compared to the stage of ‘Akhanda Naishtika Brahmacharya’, this stage of ‘Eka-patni-vrata’ appears like a compromise or an opposite state of existence, or degeneration, or even as hypocrisy or ‘adjustment’ as we call it today! Today’s child plays with dolls, and tomorrow he grows up to rule the entire nation as the Prime Minister, let us say. Do we hold the Prime Minister to be a lesser man because he played with dolls as a child? Of course, if the present day Prime Minister were to play with dolls and while away his time, that would indeed be pathetic. The ‘Eka-patni-vrata’ ideal of purity is indeed a compromise and hypocrisy, and a fall, if a monk were to adopt that ideal. But, if a married man were to realize the ‘Eka-patni-vrata’ ideal of purity and raise himself to the next higher ideal of ‘Akhanda Naishtika Brahmacharya’, wouldn’t that be progress?

Recall Sri Ramakrishna’s repeated exhortation as recorded in the Gospel[3]: “You should not renounce woman, completely. It is not harmful for a householder to live with his wife. But after the birth of one or two children, husband and wife should live as brother and sister.

What is most interesting to note is that our ancient scriptures speak of this kind of purity also as Akhanda Brahmacharya! In the Ramayana, there is an incident. Ravana’s son Indrajit had to be killed in battle. Indrajit had a boon that he could only be killed by one who was established in the ideal of Akhanda Brahmacharya. And do you know who killed him finally? It was Lakshmana! He was a married man, and yet he was established in this high ideal! Purity therefore has many subtle shades. We have Akhanda Naishtika Brahmacharya, which means the person will be pure in thought-word-deed all his life. Then we have the Urdhvaretas Akhanda Brahmacharya, which means the person has had a couple of kids and thereafter has been pure in thought-word-deed. This is the ideal that Sri Ramakrishna spells out so beautifully in the passage quoted above. The other name for this ideal is Eka-patni-vrata, or Pativrata Dharma. Then we have the Upakurvana Akhanda Brahmacharya, which means the person is pure in thought-word-deed for a certain period of his life, such as a student. This is the reason why every student was called a Brahmachari in ancient India and the word student and Brahmachari were synonyms. This person doesn’t follow Akhanda Brahmacharya all his life, which would have made him an Akhanda Naishtika Brahmachari. He follows Akhanda Brahmacharya for some time in his life. Then he marries and begets children. Thereafter, he again takes up the practice of the Akhanda Brahmacharya. And now he raises himself to the ideal of Urdhvaretas Akhanda Brahmacharya. Note however that in every case, the ideal has to be Akhanda, which means ‘unbroken’. How is it unbroken if he can get married and begets children? The Akhanda stands for alignment of thought and deed, a vital point which we shall see a little later. As and when we are practicing the ideal, our thoughts, words and deed must be in unison. You can’t have a fractured personality where thoughts are on one path and deeds are elsewhere.

Look at the following words of Sri Ramakrishna[4]: “To sit with a woman or talk to her a long time has also been described as a kind of sexual intercourse. There are eight kinds. To listen to a woman and enjoy her conversation is one kind; to speak about a woman is another kind; to whisper to her privately is a third kind; to keep something belonging to a woman and enjoy it is a fourth kind; to touch her is a fifth. Therefore a sannyasin should not salute his guru’s young wife, touching her feet. These are the rules for sannyasins. But the case is quite different with householders. After the birth of one or two children, the husband and wife should live as brother and sister. The other seven kinds of sexual intercourse do not injure them much. A householder has various debts: debts to the gods, to the fathers, and to the rishis. He also owes a debt to his wife. He should make her the mother of one or two children and support her if she is a chaste woman.

Many serious persons have asked me if Sri Ramakrishna is making a ‘concession’ here for the married man. Let us understand that there can be no concession in spiritual life. But there can certainly be more than one path to achieve the same ideal! So, no matter what the social status of a person is, the culmination of the ideal of purity remains the same. But the path to realizing that ideal various depending on the social status adopted by the person. Hence, if one is a monk, a particular path is prescribed. As Sri Ramakrishna specifies so beautifully, “To sit with a woman or talk to her a long time has also been described as a kind of sexual intercourse. There are eight kinds. To listen to a woman and enjoy her conversation is one kind; to speak about a woman is another kind; to whisper to her privately is a third kind; to keep something belonging to a woman and enjoy it is a fourth kind; to touch her is a fifth. Therefore a sannyasin should not salute his guru’s young wife, touching her feet. These are the rules for sannyasins.” If one is a married man, the path to realizing the very same ideal is a different one. Note that Sri Ramakrishna does not say that the highest ideal itself is different. But, the path for the latter is indeed very different. “But the case is quite different with householders. After the birth of one or two children, the husband and wife should live as brother and sister. The other seven kinds of sexual intercourse do not injure them much. A householder has various debts: debts to the gods, to the fathers, and to the rishis. He also owes a debt to his wife. He should make her the mother of one or two children and support her if she is a chaste woman.

Anyway, what is required urgently is this – people steadily progressing in manifesting higher and higher stages of a particular ideal. We shall have the maturity to understand that these people have struggled and succeeded and have not failed. It is progress in human evolution even on a personal level, and not retrogression and therefore personal failure.

We say this understanding is urgently required because, today’s education system and new means of accessing information have enabled millions of people to intellectually grasp the highest ideals. However, such is the irony of human existence that this heightened intellectual understanding does not enable these millions in understanding the principle of gradation in ideals! Regarding Purity, almost everyone here in this Hall today clearly recognizes the value of the Ideal manifested in Sri Ramakrishna or in Swami Vivekananda. But, most of us are unable to link up our present state of existence with that highest manifestation of the ideal. As a result, we spend our entire lives in frustration. We have witnessed the highest ideal, but we are unable to live up to it. So, our entire life is spent in hating ourselves for not being able to live up to the highest ideal. And that is the bane of Indian society. We have to recognize the validity of each stage of the ideal, and not get caught up in the blaze and glory of the highest ideal only. Swami Vivekananda very beautifully pointed this out repeatedly in his lectures, when he said:

If one studies the Vedas between the lines, one sees a religion of harmony; One point of difference between Hinduism and other religions is that in Hinduism we pass from truth to truth – from a lower truth to a higher truth – and never from error to truth. The Vedas should be studied through the eye-glass of evolution. They contain the whole history of the progress of religious consciousness, until religion has reached perfection in unity.[5]

I fully agree with the educated classes in India that a thorough overhauling of society is necessary. But how to do it? The destructive plans of reformers have failed. My plan is this. We have not done badly in the past, certainly not. Our society is not bad but good, only I want it to be better still. Not from error to truth, nor from bad to good, but from truth to higher truth, from good to better, best. I tell my countrymen that so far they have done well – now is the time to do better.[6]

You must remember that humanity travels not from error to truth, but from truth to truth; it may be, if you like it better, from lower truth to higher truth, but never from error to truth. Suppose you start from here and travel towards the sun in a straight line. From here the sun looks only small in size. Suppose you go forward a million miles, the sun will be much bigger. At every stage the sun will become bigger and bigger. Suppose twenty thousand photographs had been taken of the same sun, from different standpoints; these twenty thousand photographs will all certainly differ from one another. But can you deny that each is a photograph of the same sun?[7]

Man never progresses from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lesser truth to higher truth – but it is never from error to truth. The child may develop more than the father, but was the father inane? The child is the father plus something else. If your present state of knowledge is much greater than it was when you were a child, would you look down upon that stage now? Will you look back and call it inanity? Why, your present stage is the knowledge of the child plus something more. Then, again, we also know that there may be almost contradictory points of view of the same thing, but they will all indicate the same thing. Suppose a man is journeying towards the sun, and as he advances he takes a photograph of the sun at every stage. When he comes back, he has many photographs of the sun, which he places before us. We see that not two are alike, and yet, who will deny that all these are photographs of the same sun, from different standpoints? Take four photographs of this church from different corners: how different they would look, and yet they would all represent this church. In the same way, we are all looking at truth from different standpoints, which vary according to our birth, education, surroundings, and so on. We are viewing truth, getting as much of it as these circumstances will permit, colouring the truth with our own heart, understanding it with our own intellect, and grasping it with our own mind. We can only know as much of truth as is related to us, as much of it as we are able to receive. This makes the difference between man and man, and occasions sometimes even contradictory ideas; yet we all belong to the same great universal truth.[8]

It is too often believed that a person in his progress towards perfection passes from error to truth; that when he passes on from one thought to another, he must necessarily reject the first. But no error can lead to truth. The soul passing through its different stages goes from truth to truth, and each stage is true; it goes from lower truth to higher truth.[9]

We do not progress from error to truth, but from truth to truth. Thus we must see that none can be blamed for what they are doing, because they are, at this time, doing the best they can. If a child has an open razor, don’t try to take it from him, but give him a red apple or a brilliant toy, and he will drop the razor. But he who puts his hand in the fire will be burned; we learn only from experience.[10]

Spiritual giants like the Avataras and Prophets reveal various stages of the spiritual ideals. The extreme ideal for the monks was revealed long ago in the Upanishads. There was however nothing similar for the married man, as such, until Sri Ramakrishna and Holy Mother Sri Sharada Devi revealed the extreme stage of the ideal of Purity for the married people. We must be very careful not to get confused here. The ideals for the monk cannot be the same as the ideals for the married man. No, that would lead to social chaos and personal degeneration. Depending on what lifestyle one wants to follow, different stages of same ideal are applicable. But, there is a clear connection in these stages of the ideals. One grows into the other and in the end, they will culminate in the monastic ideal, which is indeed the highest manifestation possible. Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sharada Devi remained married throughout their life; but they were able to manifest a level of purity that was totally monastic in nature. Not only did they manifest it, they were able to get some of their disciples such as Tarak Nath Ghoshal, Rakhal Chandra Ghosh, Jogendranath and Durga Charan Nag to manifest the same level of the ideal of Purity.

Recall that in the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna had declared, “Dharma-aviruddho bhuteshu Kama asmi”. The Lord Himself had declared, “I am that desire in all human beings that is not opposed to Dharma[11].” Sri Krishna said it very plainly; he is himself manifesting as lust and desire, which are unopposed to Dharma; that means unopposed to a lifestyle which assists in personal evolution of man. In the scheme of evolution of human beings, personal tendencies matter. Some will be able to live without any of the major human emotions and urges playing any role in their entire life. Many there are who seek human emotional support. These people constitute human society everywhere. These people recognize and adopt rules and regulations to live by. Human beings everywhere, at all times, have exhibited this ability to conform to rules and regulations regarding personal and social life. This sort of existence leads to concrete personal growth over a period of time. That is the Dharma that Sri Krishna is speaking of here. So, basically what Sri Krishna is saying is this: there are well-defined means of experiencing all those urges in our life, which, ordinarily speaking, we would consider as ‘Impure’. Human beings have innumerable urges – hunger, sleep, recognition by peers, prestige and status in society, possessions, enjoying through various senses, procreation, etc. Strictly speaking, all these urges constitute Impurity. So, if we wish to achieve Purity, we need to eschew all of these. That is the ordinary understanding. What Sri Ramakrishna & Sri Sharada Devi showed in their lives, what Sri Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita is – we need not eschew all of these urges at once, because for most of us, it is impossible to do so at once. We shall enjoy all these urges, but strictly within the rules and regulations stipulated by every society. We must realize that these rules and regulations are ubiquitous and never universal.

So, we will be able to transcend the lower ideals and reach for the next higher ones by following this scheme of life. How do we transcend the lower ideals? We will deal with this idea in another article. Suffice it to say that deification is the central idea in this process.

  • Faith in the Law of Karma:

This brings us to the next idea I want to explain to you today. We must develop a faith in the Law of Karma. What do I mean by this? We must believe that we can put in effort and gain results commensurate with the efforts we put in. Every culture, every civilization, every society has some version or the other of this Law operative within its framework. As we sow, so shall we reap. No pain, no gain. Our efforts have a direct correlation with shaping our lives.

Do you know where the problem lies? Most of us are products are circumstances. Our Will has no role in shaping our lives. The reasons for this state of affairs in India are many. Centuries of political slavery, millennia of Caste restrictions on individual creativity and social upward mobility, millennia of social security from the Caste system independent of personal efficiency, and general weakness and laziness in individuals are some of the reasons that Swami Vivekananda identified and addressed.

It is interesting to note that Swamiji identified one more reason which has direct bearing on the topic we are discussing today. That is – the impact of Buddhist reformation of Hinduism. Swamiji opines that when Buddha said that the goal of life is Nirvana and the only path to Nirvana is through monasticism, he laid the seeds of the national degeneration that we see today! What this means is very interesting: Married life has no fundamental meaning. All the activities that people engage in – family, occupation, economic activity, political activity, wealth generation, nothing has any value, if you have to finally let go everything and embrace monastic vows! This idea has seeped deep down into the national mind. But then, not everyone can renounce everything, all at once. Desire for enjoyment is not so easily given up, no matter even if Buddha, Jesus or Sri Ramakrishna preaches it! Hence the urge to enjoy remains within, but simultaneously, the ultimate futility of all actions is also drummed into us through the ages.

As a result, we have today developed a defeatist mentality, a fatalist attitude towards life. We feel we can get a particular result only if that result is “given” to us. Our efforts do not matter. We have developed elaborate justifications for our wonderful attitude. Take the case of students. Why won’t the boys study hard? What is the use of studying! The seats/jobs are finally bagged by those who have ‘connections’; if your father is rich, you can settles properly in life, else, there is no hope. Or they talk of Fate and destiny. They bring in Astrology and similar hocus-pocus ideas! Ideas like these are the direct consequence of not having faith in the Law of Karma. Take up any situation and you will find our people giving you a dozen reasons why it can’t be solved; hardly does anyone come up with solutions. We have internalized the habit of expecting results in our lives without spending the requisite amount of energy or time for the same. Personal effort is considered meaningless. Everything in life, be it material prosperity or spiritual growth, has to come from somebody as a gift. That is the mindset right now. Naturally, the direct fallout of this national attitude is that we look down upon anyone doing well in this world. If there is a man who works hard, we make fun of him. Earning money is seen as unethical. Generating wealth by hard work is considered as immoral. When the ideal of monastic poverty is imposed upon everyone in society, when such an ideal is praised to the skies day and night, and everyone in society feels he has to either aim for that or he is a failure in life, this outcome is quite natural.

Many guardians come to me and say, “Maharaj, please place your hand on my son’s head and bless him.” I do not understand this. That boy won’t study. He had no faith in the fundamental law of cause and effect, but he has faith that my placing hand on his stupid head will lift his marks up! Amazing! Young boys come to me and say, “Maharaj, I can’t control my mind.” What the hell can I do about it? It is his mind. If he can’t control it, who can? They read some stupid thing about some holy man blessing some other yet-to-be-holy-man in some book and how that blessing led to complete control of his mind. They think we should do the same thing! What madness!

This mindset has to change urgently.

And the fun is – the opposites look alike! The fully developed man and the imbecile look very similar from outside. There is no way to distinguish superficially between a wise man and an idiot. And quite often, the wise one has to accept defeat at the hands of the fool!

Listen to a beautiful story in this connection: Many, many years ago, back in the Middle Ages, the Pope was urged by his advisors to banish the Jews from Rome. They said that it was unseemly that these people should be living unmolested in the very center of Catholicism. An edict of eviction was drawn up and promulgated much to the dismay of the Jews who knew that wherever else they went they could only expect worse treatment than was meted out to them in Rome. So they pleaded with the Pope to reconsider the edict.

The Pope, a fair-minded man, offered them a sporting proposition: Let the Jews appoint someone to debate with him in pantomime. If their spokesman won, the Jews might stay.

The Jews met to consider this proposal. To turn it down was to be evicted from Rome. To accept it was to court certain defeat, for who could win a debate in which the Pope was both participant and judge? Still, there was nothing for it but to accept. Only, it was impossible to find someone to volunteer for the task of debating with the Pope. The burden of having the fate of the Jews on his shoulders was more than anyone man could bear. Now when the synagogue janitor heard what was going on he came before the Chief Rabbi and volunteered to represent his people in the debate. “The janitor?” said the other rabbis when they heard of this. “Impossible!”  “Well,” said the chief Rabbi, “None of us is willing. It is either the janitor or no debate.” Thus for lack of anyone else the janitor was appointed to debate with the Pope.

When the great day arrived, the Pope sat on a throne in St Peter’s square surrounded by his cardinals, facing a large crowd of bishops, priests and faithful. Presently, the little Jewish delegation arrived, in their black robes and flowing beards, with the janitor in their midst. The Pope turned to face the janitor and the debate began.

The Pope solemnly raised one finger and traced it across the heavens. The janitor promptly pointed with emphasis towards the ground. The Pope seemed somewhat taken aback. Even more solemnly he raised one finger again and kept it firmly before the Janitor’s face. The janitor thereupon lifted three fingers and held them just as firmly before the Pope who seemed astonished by the gesture. Then the Pope thrust his hand into his robes and pulled out an apple. Whereupon the janitor thrust his hand into his paper bag and pulled out a flat piece of matzo-bread.

At this the Pope explained in a loud voice, “The Jewish representative has won the debate. The edict of eviction is hereby revoked.”

The Jewish leaders promptly surrounded the janitor and led him away.

The cardinals clustered around the Pope in astonishment. “What happened, your Holiness?” they asked. “It was impossible for us to follow the rapid thrust and parry of the debate.” The Pope wiped the sweat from his forehead and said, “That man is a brilliant theologian, a master in debate. I began by sweeping my hand across the sky to indicate that the whole universe belongs to God. He thrust his finger downward to remind me that there is a place called Hell where the devil reigns supreme. I then raised one finger to signify that God is one. Imagine my shock when he raised three fingers to indicate that this one God manifests Himself equally in three persons, thereby subscribing to our own doctrine of the Trinity! Knowing that it was impossible to get the better of this theological genius I finally shifted the debate to another area. I pulled out an apple to indicate that according to some new-fangled ideas the earth is round. He instantly produced a flat piece of unleavened bread to remind me that, according to the Bible, the earth is flat. So there was nothing to do but concede the victory to him.”

By now the Jews had arrived at their synagogue. “What happened?” they asked the janitor in bewilderment. The janitor was indignant. “It was all a lot of rubbish,” he said. “Look. First the Pope moves his hand like he is telling all the Jews to get out of Rome. So I pointed downwards to make it clear to him that we were not going to budge. So he points a finger to me threateningly as if to say, ‘Don’t get fresh with me.’ So I point three fingers to tell him he was thrice as fresh with us when he arbitrarily ordered us out of Rome. The next thing, I see him taking out his lunch. So I took out mine.”

Like I said before, opposites look alike! The fully developed man and the imbecile look very similar from outside. But what an ocean of difference exists between them, really!

You have heard of Henry Ford. He was a great Engineer and invented the Assembly Line Manufacturing system and revolutionized manufacturing of Cars. The General Motors Company that he founded is one of the most successful industries of the world. He had the habit of walking along the beaches of New York every morning. One day, while he was on his morning walk, he saw a young man sleeping in a boat on the shore. Ford was deeply disturbed seeing this young man snoring in the morning. He kicked him awake and shouted, “Aren’t you ashamed, sleeping into the morning?” “Well, Sir, what should I rather be doing?” asked the hapless young fellow, rubbing his eyes. “Get to work.” “And…?” “Earn money, save some money for your old age, make a name of yourself.” “And…?” “Then you can enjoy your life!” The young man said, “I was actually doing that, until you woke me up!” This is the terrible tendency I am trying to explain. We wish to achieve the final stage, bypassing all intermediate stages and that too, without any effort on our part!

Anyway, we were speaking of the importance of self-effort in shaping our own lives. If we work hard, using our brains, we can achieve what we desire. We don’t need gifts from others. The entire universe is ready to give us our results, if only we exert ourselves. Nobody has special claim or monopoly on any achievement. If we strive hard, anyone of us can achieve what any other man has already achieved. This belief in one’s own capacity to raise oneself has to be awakened within each one of us urgently in India. This belief is vital for making any progress towards the ideals of Purity or Concentration in our lives. In the ancient Indian society, this belief was called ‘Dharma’. A person who so believed was called ‘Dharmika’, a righteous man. It is in this sense we must understand Sri Krishna’s words to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “Svalpamapyasya Dharmasya, trayate mahato bhayat”.

We must learn how to deal with our mind. You know, Swamiji once said, “Men are taught from childhood that they are weak and sinners. Teach them that they are all glorious children of immortality, even those who are the weakest in manifestation. Let positive, strong, helpful thought enter into their brains from very childhood. Lay yourselves open to these thoughts, and not to weakening and paralyzing ones. Say to your own minds, ‘I am He, I am He.’ Let it ring day and night in your minds like a song, and at the point of death declare ‘I am He.’ That is the Truth; the infinite strength of the world is yours. Drive out the superstition that has covered your minds. Let us be brave. Know the Truth and practice the Truth. The goal may be distant, but awake, arise, and stop not till the goal is reached.[12]

Each statement in this passage is a powerful mantra. I draw your attention specifically to the words, “Let positive, strong, helpful thought enter into their brains from very childhood.” Do you want to understand the meaning of these words? Listen to a story:

Once there was a king, who was losing his hair and was getting bald. He announced that a doctor who would cure him of his baldness would be rewarded handsomely and if a doctor tried and failed, he would be killed. Many doctors lost their lives. The situation became ridiculous. The Prime Minister then stepped in. He gave the King a bottle of oil and said, “Your Majesty, this is magical oil. It cures baldness. Use it for one month in the morning and luxurious hair will grow again on your head. There is, however, one small condition you need to manage. Never think about mangoes when you apply this oil on your head.” The King was very happy. Next morning he was about to apply the oil on his head and then remembered the advice of his Prime Minister. He must not think about mangoes. Ah! But the pictures of ripe, big mangoes came to his mind. He felt angry with himself and threw away the oil he had taken in his hand. He would try the next morning. Again the same situation! One month passed like this and he was unable to apply the oil at all!

Do you understand what happened here? The mind has a very strange characteristic. It simply cannot understand the words ‘Don’t’. It doesn’t understand negative language. Our mind responds only to positive ideas! The king went on telling his mind ‘don’t think of mangoes’ and all his mind did was to first think of mangoes and then remove the pictures of mangoes from the mind! The king could have translated that condition to ‘let me think of apples before applying this oil’, and he would have succeeded!

We must train ourselves to deal with our minds properly. Merely wishing about a particular state won’t do. We must know how to get our mind to actually work on that idea. Some boys here in the hall asked me yesterday about distractions that accompany adolescence and how to get rid of them. Look at the technique I showed you here. You can’t tell yourself ‘I will not be impure’ and become pure. That is impossible. You must not give your mind any opportunity to recognize any impurity at all. Immerse yourself in your duty, in what you are supposed to be doing in your station of life. That is the way to Purity. You must know the tricks of the trade and then you must apply yourself industriously to it. That is how growth happens. Merely wishing for growth leads only to frustration.

  • Have a clear Goal:

Many students ask me how to develop Will-power. You see, they are serious students. It is not a time-pass question they are asking me. Distractions can be overcome and one can get immersed on the job at hand only if one has sufficient Will-power. Only a clear goal can give us Will-power. Please note the words I have used: A Clear Goal. What do I mean by this? Supposing you have a vague goal such ‘I will be a good boy’, it won’t work. Nobody has an idea as to what constitutes a ‘good boy’. I enjoy reading Calvin & Hobbes cartoons. You should see the dilemma he faces during Christmas time! His parents have told him that if he isn’t a good boy, Santa Claus won’t bring him gifts on Christmas Day. And he faces dozens of temptations for mischief each day! How does he deal with them? He keeps on shifting his definition of ‘good boy’ and appoints a lawyer to plead his version of ‘good boy’ to Santa Claus!

So the goal has to be concrete. There must be clear deliverables and not vague terms in our conception of our goal. Again, the goal cannot be the highest goal we have set our eyes on. We will never be able to reach that from where we are. We will have to break down that high goal into a series of smaller, achievable goals. These smaller goals must be achievable by us on a daily basis. Daily personal victories are important. Each such victory strengthens us in our struggle. Otherwise, we will be like the Absent-minded Professor taking a taxi ride. An absent minded professor once entered into a taxi in a great hurry and told the driver, “Go as fast as you can.” After some time, the professor realized that he hadn’t told the driver the destination. He asked him, “Did I tell you where to go?” “No Sir. But I am going as fast as I can!”

  • Focus:

From the deliberations we have had till now, we understand the following points: We need ideals. Ideals are the magnets that draw our soul and consequently shape our personality. It is easy to understand the highest manifestation of any Ideal. But our drawback is that we are very often unable to connect the highest Ideal with our present state of existence. In other words, there is a clear distance, insurmountable, between the highest ideal and where we are now. So, we need to identify a dozen smaller ideals which together accumulate and build up into the highest ideal. When we do identify such smaller ideals, we are often foxed by how contradictory they all appear, and we are unable to understand how such self-contradictory ideals ever sum up to the highest ideal, which has no blemish at all! Yet, that is the only way forward for all of us. We do not have any other way forward. So we need to understand how to talk to our own mind so that we can coax out the result we want from it.

Anyway, the most important smaller ideal, the most important immediate ideal is to train ourselves to do the work that is nearest at hand. This brings us to the idea of Focus. I hold that Focus is more important than concentration in our lives at present. We need to concentrate on the smaller ideal, but never losing sight of the higher and next higher ideals at the same time.

Listen to a story: A Father went up to a mason who was doing some construction work and asked him what he was doing. He looked up with irritation and said, “Can’t you see, Father, I am laying bricks. I put one brick here, put some mortar on it, then lay another brick, and so on.” A little farther away on the same site, another mason was also working. The Father asked him the same thing. This man, however, said, “Father, I am building a wall.” Yet farther away, on the very same site, yet another mason was doing the same job. The Father asked him too, the very same question, “My man, what are you doing?” This mason replied, “Father, I am building a Cathedral.” Notice that all three masons were doing the exactly same job – put one brick in place, apply some mortar over it, check its straightness, then place another brick, and so on. But the third mason had a very clear focus on where his work was headed.

A lion was once training his young cub in the art of kingship. The lion said, “My son, we are the kings of the Jungle. We are the strongest.” The cub, with its little round eyes asked, “Is that so? Really? Are we stronger than a deer, with all its elaborate antlers and all?” The lion roared, “What! A deer? Uh! We eat that poor animal for our food!” A little distance away, in that same Jungle, there was indeed a deer grazing. The cub had seen it. The deer also had seen this father-son duo discussing something, and it was alert. The cub asked its father, “Can you show me that you are indeed stronger than that deer over there? Can you catch him?” The lion felt sorry for his little son and started running towards that deer. The deer immediately sensed the danger and started running away from the lion, and soon escaped to safety. The lion had to return to his cub, disappointed, but with its head held high. The cub could not understand the entire thing. The lion said, “Look, there is an important lesson here for you. I was running to show you that I am stronger than the deer. The deer was running for his life.”

Focus lets us connect the small actions we do right now to ‘running for our life”, to the highest ideal. If we lose sight of the end in view, we do not make sense of what we are doing right now. We feel that our present actions are meaningless. No, they are not meaningless. Each small act we do now adds up and leads us to the highest, if we are able to correctly align our present actions to the end in view. Supposing I keep my eyes on a point A, and start moving towards that point from where I am right now; my feet have to be perfectly aligned with my line of sight. Once that alignment is done, give it time, place one foot before the other, repeatedly, and I will be at point A. Now, consider the following scenario. My eyes are on point A. but my feet are slightly turned away from that line of sight, say by a couple of degrees only. At the starting point, none of us will be able to discern this deviation. But, give it time, place one foot before the other repeatedly, and in a few hours’ time, I would have ended up at point B, which is a few kilometers away from point A! Note that the angular distance of a mere two degrees at the beginning ends up with a few kilometers separation over time.

In English, we have two words, focus and concentration. In Sanskrit however, the one word Ekagrata is sufficient for both these English words. Eka means one; agra means pointed. Thus the word refers to a mind that is one pointed. It is a mind that doesn’t have many branches. The mind thinks, it feels, it remembers, it decides and it gives the command for action. Thus a one-pointed mind will have all these different functions aligned.

Focus is what helps us evaluate whether we are moving in the right direction or not. Focus helps us diagnose whether our thoughts and actions are aligned to each other. If that alignment is missing, we may have our eyes on the highest ideal all the while, but we will end up very far away from it after a couple of years! That is what happens with many of us on the spiritual path of self-improvement.

Many guardians come to me and say, “You know, Maharaj, my son studies all the time.” But I ask, if he really studies all the time, why are his grades so poor? What exactly does studying mean? Sitting before an opened book? What about the mind? What about his attention?

Attention gets distracted. Many of you sit for studying with your mobile phones nearby. Just when you have started entering the subject matter, there is a ‘ping’ sound from your phone. Some notification has arrived. You simply can’t control the urge to see what it is. Your intentions are really very good; you will just see what it is, and close the phone, and resume studying. But, that notification opens up another world and you end up spending 30 minutes on Facebook or Twitter! Is concentration the problem here or focus?

How do we overcome distractions? This is a question asked to me by many youngsters. Have you watched how lions hunt? I haven’t seen it in real life, but I saw it on a National Geographic video long ago. Let me explain what they do. The lion marks its prey, say a deer. The deer is grazing grass peacefully. The lion walks stealthily towards the deer, crouching so that the deer doesn’t see any movement. Generally the lion walks from behind the deer. Remember, it is the Jungle this is happening. Many dried twigs are lying on the ground. The lion’s paw steps on one such dried twig, and it breaks. There is a sound that comes from that twig breaking. That is not a natural sound of the Jungle. The deer is very alert to the natural sounds of the Jungle. This was not a natural sound. This sound comes only when some animal steps on a twig and it breaks. The deer knows that. It immediately stops eating, looks up and around. The lion too realizes the mistake it made. It just freezes in its tracks. The stalemate goes on for a few minutes. When no further unnatural sound comes, the deer relaxes and goes back to its grazing. The lion then lifts its paw to its mouth and bites hard till blood comes out! Do you know why it does this? Since that paw is wounded, it will not place it fully on the ground and no further unnatural sounds from breaking twigs will scare the deer away!

This is called Tapas in our Hindu Scriptures. This is the only way to overcome distractions. Can you punish yourself for digressions? If others punish you, you become angry. Why don’t you do it yourself? That is the path for self-improvement. We saw how to deal with wrong thoughts in our mind, in the bald king’s story. Now we see here in this lion’s example how to deal with our wrong actions. This is how we slowly grow.

  • Responsibility:

The last point I wish to place before you today is – Responsibility. Let me tell you a story to explain this very important point.

You all know that Bhagawan Buddha, before he arrived at the Truth, was an earnest seeker by the name Siddhartha Gautama. One summer day he was walking in the forest and he came upon a beautiful lake. It had cool, clear water and he felt like taking a bath. He slowly entered the water, had a bath, felt refreshed and as he was about to come out of the lake, he saw some beautiful lotus flowers in bloom at the far end of the lake. He went near the flowers, bent down and smelled the heavenly fragrance of the flowers. Then he came out of the lake and started wearing clothes.

At that moment, a Yaksha, a demigod materialized before him. The Yaksha said, “Say, young monk, how dare you enter my lake without obtaining my permission?” The Yaksha berated Gautama for quite some time. Gautama’s head was bent down in shame. He wanted to say that he had no idea that the lake had a caretaker, but he never got a chance to put in a word; the Yaksha was relentless in his scolding.

In the meantime, a King’s nobleman rode up to the lake on horseback. He too saw the cool, clear waters on that hot summer day, tied his horse to a tree, tore his clothes apart and jumped into the lake. He splashed around for a long time, making the clear water all murky. When he had finished his sporting in water, as he was about to come out, he too eyed the beautiful lotus flowers in bloom. He went to the corner of the lake, roughly plucked a handful of flowers for his sweetheart at home, came out of the lake, wore his clothes and rode away.

All this while, Gautama was thinking, ‘I did nothing in comparison to what this nobleman is doing and I was berated so badly; perhaps the Yaksha will strike this man down dead any minute now!’ But, when the nobleman went away safely, Gautama said to the Yaksha, “Well, Yaksha; I now understand you. I am a gentle person and hence you scolded me to your heart’s content. I saw that you did nothing to that nobleman. Of course, how could you? He is a big, powerful man.”

The Yaksha’s reply is worthy of our meditation. The Yaksha said, “Gautama, I scolded you because you proclaim to follow a very high ideal in your life. That nobleman is an ordinary man, with simple goals in his life. I am happy that he didn’t urinate in my lake. The standards of behavior are different for you and for him.”

So, higher the ideals we aim to achieve, greater is the responsibility in our thoughts, words & deeds. This is one point we tend to miss. We wish to achieve the higher status associated with the higher ideals, but wish to enjoy the benefits of the child! Or, it may be that deep down in our heart we know the greater responsibility that entails with the higher ideals, and that may be the reason why we seldom grow! Who would want greater responsibilities in our actions? Wouldn’t it be great if we only got the higher privileges and status associated with the higher ideals without the attendant responsibilities?

So, there is a need to develop the habit of taking our responsibilities seriously. You see, we have basic problems, and we dream of big things! We cannot study properly, something that we have to do as students, and we wish to grow spiritually. That is the reason Swamiji said so beautifully, Let us work on, doing as we go whatever happens to be our duty, and being ever ready to put our shoulders to the wheel. Then surely shall we see the Light!

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[1] I say this because the higher spiritual ideals are revealed to us in the personalities of Incarnations and Prophets. And with each new Incarnation, we get higher and yet higher ideals. Hence, I say ‘as we understand them now’. We do not know what further ideals will be revealed by the Incarnations who will come later.

[2] Complete Works: Vol-1: Karma Yoga: Ch-IV: What Is Duty?

[3] See, for instance: Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on 23rd Oct 1885: Chapter: The Master and Dr. Sarkar; You will find this same instruction repeated in the following entries: 9th March, 1884: Chapter: Rules For Householders And Monks; 6th Dec 1884: Chapter: Bankim Chandra; 22nd Feb 1885: Chapter: The Master’s Birthday; 23rd Oct 1885: Chapter: The Master And Dr. Sarkar; There are indeed many more places in the Gospel where Sri Ramakrishna mentions this idea. The constant repetition of this instruction tells us how much of importance Sri Ramakrishna gave to this idea.

[4] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on 6th Dec 1884: Chapter: Bankim Chandra

[5] Complete Works: Vol-6: Notes Taken Down In Madras

[6] Complete Works: Vol-4: A Plan Of Work For India

[7] Complete Works: Vol-4: Christ The Messenger

[8] Complete Works: Vol-2: Practical Vedanta: The Way To The Realization Of A Universal Religion

[9] Complete Works: Vol-1: Vedanta As A Factor In Civilization

[10] Complete Works: Vol-9: Sayings And Utterances: Mr. Thomas J. Allan’s reminiscences

[11] Dharma is one of those Hindu terms which have multiple layers of meaning. What we have described here is one meaning. Later on, we shall show that this very term also means ‘belief in the Law of Karma’ with regard to one’s own life.

[12] Complete Works: Vol-2: Jnana-Yoga: Ch-II: The Real Nature of Man

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Gossiping is good

Hello! What’s the matter with you – gone to sleep? Have not had any news of you for a long time…How is life going on with you – grinding, as usual? Any improvements? Write a chatty letter if you feel like. I am dying to get news.” [1]

“You want a chatty letter, don’t you? I have not much to chat about. Mr. Sturdy came last two days. He goes home in Wales tomorrow.” [2]

“I begin here my promised big chatty letter…” [3]

The human aspects of a Prophet are invaluable to us. They bring him so much closer to us. It is so gladdening to see how Swamiji is being chatty with his disciples and friends! Now, some would immediately object and say that would be a wrong understanding of the great Prophet. For, did not the same Swamiji exhort his brother monks, ‘Let me write something for you all…It shall be wholly forbidden to huddle together in a room and chat the whole day away, with any number of outsiders coming and joining in the hubbub.[4]

No doubt, word on the street is that gossip is bad. It is ‘the faceless demon that breaks hearts and ruins careers.’ It is a ‘three-pronged tongue’ that kills three people: the teller, the listener, and the person being gossiped about[5]. The acclaimed Philosopher Blaise Pascal observed that ‘if people really knew what others said about them, there would not be four friends left in the world.’ However, a significant body of research suggests that gossip may in fact be healthy.

It’s a good thing, too, since gossip is pretty pervasive.[6] Children tend to be seasoned gossips by the age of five.[7] Gossip as most researchers understand it – talk between at least two people about absent others – accounts for about two-thirds of conversation![8]

In the 1980s, the journalist Blythe Holbrooke took a stab at bringing rigor to the subject by positing the Law of Inverse Accuracy in Gossip:[9] 

which means: the likelihood of gossip being circulated (C) equals its timeliness (T) times its interest (I) to the power of its unverifiability (v) minus the reluctance someone might feel about repeating it out of taste (t).

Despite gossip’s dodgy reputation, a surprisingly small share of it – as little as 4% – is actually malicious.[10] But, this little bit goes a long way and destroys fellow-feeling. Malicious gossip is what destroys any organized work. It is this aspect of gossip that Swamiji sternly warned about when he said ‘It shall be wholly forbidden to huddle together in a room and chat the whole day away, with any number of outsiders coming and joining in the hubbub.’

But, there is a positive aspect of gossip, which was studied by anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. Once upon a time, in Dunbar’s account, our primate ancestors bonded through grooming, their mutual back-scratching ensuring mutual self-defense in the event of attack by predators. But as hominids grew more intelligent and more social, their groups became too large to unite by grooming alone. That’s where language – and gossip, broadly defined – stepped in.[11] Dunbar argues that idle chatter with and about others gave early humans a sense of shared identity and helped them grow more aware of their environment, thus incubating the complex higher functioning that would ultimately yield the glories of civilization.

Like in everything else in life, gossip, per se, isn’t all bad. In fact, it is an essential ingredient in maintaining one’s sanity in the complex world we live in. Vangmaya Tapas (austerity of speech) ensures that our interactions remain on a civil level. If done at this level, gossip defuses a great amount of stress that builds up in the course of our daily life. Haven’t you noticed how socially withdrawn clinically depressed people become? So the next time you’re tempted to say ‘Hello! What’s the matter with you? Talk! I am dying to get news’, remember that the Prophet of the Modern World, Swami Vivekananda actually said those words! You are safe; go ahead; bond with others civilly, and save your sanity.

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[1] Complete Works: Vol – 9 : Letters: CLXV: To Sister Christine from San Francisco, on 9th April, 1900

[2] Complete Works: Vol – 8 : Epistles: CXXXIX : To Miss Marie Halboister from England in August, 1899

[3] Complete Works: Vol – 8 : Epistles: XCIV: To Marie Halboister from Almora, on 2nd June, 1897

[4] Complete Works: Vol – 7 : Epistles: XXXII: To his brother monks at Alambazar Math from USA on 27th April, 1896

[5] The Talmud describes Gossip this way!

[6] Please see The Atlantic, July-Aug 2018 issue for a detailed article by Ben Healy on Gossip.

[7] Engelmann et al., ‘Pre-schoolers Affect Others’ Reputations Through Prosocial Gossip’: British Journal of Developmental Psychology, Sept. 2016

[8] Nicholas Emler, ‘Gossip, Reputation, and Social Adaptation,’ in Good Gossip :University Press of Kansas, 1994

[9] Blythe Holbrooke, Gossip :St. Martin’s, 1983

[10] Dunbar et al., ‘Human Conversational Behavior’ : Human Nature, Sept. 1997

[11] Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language: Harvard University Press, 1998

Importance of love in family

Duty is seldom sweet. It is only when love greases its wheels that it runs smoothly; it is a continuous friction otherwise. How else could parents do their duties to their children, husbands to their wives, and vice versa? Do we not meet with cases of friction every day in our lives? Duty is sweet only through love, and love shines in freedom alone. Yet is it freedom to be a slave to the senses, to anger, to jealousies and a hundred other petty things that must occur every day in human life? In all these little roughnesses that we meet with in life, the highest expression of freedom is to forbear. Women, slaves to their own irritable, jealous tempers, are apt to blame their husbands, and assert their own ‘freedom’, as they think, not knowing that thereby they only prove that they are slaves. So it is with husbands who eternally find fault with their wives.  –‘What is Duty?’; Karma Yoga: Swami Vivekananda

It is an established fact that parents who physically or emotionally abuse their children do them lasting damage, mainly by undermining their ability to trust others and accurately read their emotions.

But what about the children of parents who experience simple, everyday conflict? The question assumes great importance in the scenario of increased nuclearization of family.

A recent research published the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships[1] shows that the emotional processing of these children, too, can be affected, potentially making them over-vigilant, anxious and vulnerable to distorting human interactions that are neutral in tone, throwing them off-balance interpersonally as adults.

“The message is clear: even low-level adversity like parental conflict isn’t good for kids,” said Alice Schermerhorn, an assistant professor in the University of Vermont’s Department of Psychological Sciences and the lead author of the study.

Schermerhorn sees two possible interpretations of the results. If their perception of conflict and threat leads children to be vigilant for signs of trouble, that could lead them to interpret neutral expressions as angry ones. In any case, they may simply present greater processing challenges. Alternatively, the children may be more tuned into angry interactions, which could be a cue for them to retreat to their room. For such kids, neutral interactions don’t offer much information, so they may not value them or learn to recognize them.

Shyness Compounds Problem

The study is also one of the first to measure the impact of temperamental shyness on the children’s ability to process and recognize emotion.

The shy children in the study, who were identified via a questionnaire given to the mothers of the study subjects, were unable to correctly identify couples in neutral poses, even if they were not from high conflict homes.

Shyness also made them more vulnerable to parental conflict. Children who were both shy and felt threated by their parents’ conflict had a high level of inaccuracy in identifying neutral interactions.

“Parents of shy children need to be especially thoughtful about how they express conflict,’ Schermerhorn said.

Implications for adulthood

The research results are significant, Schermerhorn said, for the light they shed on the impact relatively low-level adversity like parental conflict can have on children’s development.

Either of her interpretations of the research findings could spell trouble for children down the road. “One the one hand, being over-vigilant and anxious can be destabilizing in many different ways,” she said. “On the other, correctly reading neutral interactions may not be important for children who live in high conflict homes, but that gap in their perceptual inventory could be damaging in subsequent experiences with, for example, teachers, peers, and partners in romantic relationships.”

“No one can eliminate conflict altogether,” she said, “but helping children get the message that, even when they argue, parents care about each other and can work things out is important.”[2]

Couple these findings with the words of Swami Vivekananda we quoted in the beginning of this article: In all the little roughnesses that we meet with in life, the highest expression of freedom is to forbear. We might have an answer to the increased social problems (especially of youth) such as violence in India, as well as the repeated school and college mass shootings in the USA.

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


[1] Alice C. Schermerhorn: Associations of child emotion recognition with inter-parental conflict and shy child temperament traits. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2018; 026540751876260 DOI: 10.1177/0265407518762606

[2] Based on the article: University of Vermont: ‘Parental conflict can do lasting damage to kids.’ Science Daily: 28th March 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180328083402.htm>

Personality of Holy Mother Sri Sharada Devi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid: Pg: 34

[6]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[15] Ibid: Pg: 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sri Ramakrishna and Prayer

What is the way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to pray?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Pandit: Does God listen to our prayers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brahmo Devotee: Sir, what is the way?

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

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

Master: First love, and then prayer.

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

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

Brahmo: Is it good to renounce the world?

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

Brahmo: Then should they lead a worldly life?

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

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

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

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

Neighbor: Who can know God?

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

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

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

Neighbor: What is that medicine, sir?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to pray for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazra: The devotee really prays to his own Self.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whom to pray to?

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

1st incident: I quote from the Gospel:

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

Master: Do you know Balaram Bose?

M: No, sir. I don’t.

Master : He lives in Bosepara.

M: Well, sir, I shall find him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2nd incident:

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

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

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

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

“I don’t have time, Master.”

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

“Yes, that I can do.”

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

3rd incident:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[2] Ibid: Pg.: 179

[3] Ibid: Pg.: 190

[4] Ibid: Pg.: 215

[5] Ibid: Pg.: 326

[6] Ibid: Pg.: 452-53

[7] Ibid: Pg.: 385

[8] Ibid: Pg.: 534

[9] Ibid: Pg.: 291-292

[10] Ibid: Pg.: 401

[11] Ibid: Pg.: 629

[12] Ibid: Pg.: 640

[13] Ibid: Pg.: 111

[14] Ibid: Pg.: 702

[15] Ibid: Pg.: 456-57

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

[17] Ibid: Pg.: 362

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

[19] Ibid: Pg.: 257

[20] Ibid: Pg.: 171

[21] Ibid: Pg.: 471

[22] Ibid: Pg.: 821

[23] Ibid: Pg.: 381

[24] Ibid: Pg.: 599

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

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

[27] Ibid: Pg.: 96

[28] Ibid: Pg.: 244

[29] Ibid: Pg.: 640

[30] Ibid: Pg.: 671

[31] Ibid: Pg.: 306

[32] Ibid: Pg.: 256

[33] Ibid: Pg.: 257

[34] Ibid: Pg.: 596

[35] Ibid: Pg.: 703

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

[37] Ibid: Pg.:844

[38] Ibid: Pg.:171

[39] Ibid: Pg.:385

[40] Ibid: Pg.:452

[41] Ibid: Pg.:454

[42] Ibid: Pg.:379

[43] Ibid: Pg.:612

[44] Ibid: Pg.:636

[45] Ibid: Pg.:867

[46] Ibid: Pg.:98

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

[48] Ibid: Pg.:740

[49] Ibid: Pg.:481

[50] Ibid: Pg.:820

[51] Ibid: Pg.:377

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

[53] Ibid: Pg.:215

[54] Ibid: Pg.:328-29

[55] Ibid: Pg.:162

[56] Ibid: Pg.:627-28

[57] Ibid: Pg.:912

[58] Ibid: Pg.:323

[59] Ibid: Pg.:923

[60] Ibid: Pg.:846

[61] Ibid: Pg.:518

[62] Ibid: Pg.:646

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

[64] Ibid: Pg.:521

[65] Ibid: Pg.:670

[66] Ibid: Pg.:603

[67] Ibid: Pg.:506

[68] Ibid: Pg.:379

[69] Ibid: Pg.: 866

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

[71] Ibid: Pg.: 92

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

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

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

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

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

[77] Ibid: Pg.: 646

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

 

Introduction:

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

 

Initiative

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

1899

  

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.