Glory of the Guru

Search for a Guru:

Two kinds of knowledge exist – Secular knowledge and Spiritual knowledge. Both of these are wonderful in their own ways. Both of these ought to be sought after in our life. Secular knowledge consists of everything that concerns our present daily life. Spiritual knowledge contains the subtle secrets of the innermost core of our being. Both of these are essential for us. The true path of evolution lies in maturing from secular knowledge to spiritual knowledge. Therefore we should learn all that secular knowledge has to teach us and then progress with our lives. This necessitates approaching different teachers, each of whom is qualified to impart a particular aspect of secular knowledge. It is only when the ephemeral nature of this world is intensely felt by the heart that man can wholeheartedly turn to spiritual life. Until then, secular knowledge is everything for him. From the blessed moment when this world stops satisfying the man, he develops an inquiry into the ‘other worldly’ knowledge or spiritual knowledge. What he then needs is the powerful beacon light of a spiritual teacher, also called a ‘Guru’. A search for such a Guru has to awaken in us.

Regarding our search for a Guru who can impart knowledge about our self, we need to know that there is no guarantee that we shall find him at hand. But once the search starts, even if we get a person more advanced than us in the spiritual search, it is a very great good fortune.

Sri Ramakrishna proclaims that when the real cry of the soul for a Guru reaches a feverish pitch, the able spiritual Guru himself approaches that fit student!

Who is the Guru?

Some say “He that teaches you even one alphabet is a Guru”. But in the course of our life, so many people teach us so many things. Are all of them our Guru then? How can that be? Can we have more than one Guru? With respect to secular knowledge, we can understand many Gurus, but regarding spiritual knowledge, can we have many Gurus?

Here, we need to clarify a distinction between the two words ‘Teacher’ and ‘Guru’. In the English language, we generally use the word ‘Teacher’ to denote anyone who teaches us secular knowledge. The word ‘Guru’ is generally used with respect to one who deals with our spiritual life. Although now-a-days, we do find the frequent use of words such as ‘Management-Guru’ or ‘Technical-Guru’. In this book, however, we shall be using the two words as mentioned above.

  • Before starting any activity, as per our ancient Hindu tradition, our first step ought to be – offering our salutations to the Guru. The first step in the studies of the Vedas is uttering the mantra – ‘Sri Gurubhyo Namaha’ which means ‘Salutations to the Guru’.
  • Supposing someone makes the absurd claim that he has sufficiently praised God, we may believe him. But if someone says that he is done praising his Guru sufficiently, that is unacceptable. Because, it is the Guru who shows us and puts us on the path to God. Without the Guru to help us, there would be no God-realization.
  • There is no power greater than the power of the Guru. What is this power? What can it achieve? How and where does it operate? Our attempts to answer all these questions will fall short of reality. In order to correctly understand these subtle aspects of the Guru-Shakti, we need to see a disciple who has achieved life-fulfilment by receiving his Guru’s Grace!
  • A little reflection will show you that everyone, on whom we depend in this world, will desert us one day or the other. But the Guru’s Grace protects us and sustains us, life after life.
  • Most people look at the human form of the Guru and ask ‘He is a man just like us; what indeed can he achieve for us!’ This is but natural. He eats and drinks just like us. He experiences all joys & pains associated with the body just like us. He ages just like us. He even dies one day, just like the rest of us. Seeing all these, this conclusion that the run-of-the-mill people arrive at, is quite natural. But, a true disciple sees the Guru from a totally different perspective. Guru is All-Powerful to him. No, not just that. Guru is the veritable Infinite to him!
  • The Guru heartily welcomes the blessed soul that approaches him. However, he does not despise the wretched souls that come to him. He welcomes them too, with great compassion.
  • The Guru teaches the highest secrets of spiritual sadhana to the pure souls that approach him. However, he starts with the first lessons of basic inner purification to the impure ones that seek refuge in him.
  • Those who come to him as disciples have each their own different levels of competence, and their own distinct inner tendencies. The experienced Guru imparts training in accordance with each disciple’s inner propensities and spiritual capabilities.
  • The true Guru is one, who has not only the moral power of an austere life behind him, but also has drunk deep out of the fountain of spiritual realization. He slowly starts pouring his spiritual power into those whom he accepts as his own dear disciples. As the disciple starts performing spiritual sadhana as per the guidance of the Guru, the intensity of this flow becomes greater and greater.
  • What is spiritual sadhana? It is something similar to what a farmer does – a farmer digs a channel from the water reservoir to his own field. Guru’s Grace is like the water from the reservoir. The more enthusiastically the farmer digs the channel, the more forcefully does the water rush into his field. Even so, as the disciple performs his sadhana with great sincerity & Shraddha, the Guru Shakti infills the disciple.
  • If the disciple embarks on his Sadhana sincerely, Guru ensures that the disciple gets established on his path and progresses onwards on his path. Not only that, he also ensures that his disciple achieves fulfilment along that path.
  • We often see all kinds of teachers in India calling themselves as ‘Guru’ or ‘Guruji’. That is alright. We have no objection to that. But, if even a little bit of sense dawns in the teachers of this world, they too will start seeking a true spiritual Guru. This is but inevitable.
  • If the disciple but possesses sincerity, the Guru gladly pardons him a thousand omissions and leads him again along the disciple’s chosen path. If the disciple does not correct himself quickly, progress may be slow, but it doesn’t stop altogether. Surprisingly, stagnation is avoided because he has Guru Shakti behind him.
  • A spiritual Guru may sometimes not be revered by worldly people. They may be unable to see any speciality in him that warrants their reverence. This is because, the worldly people need the help of teachers who can show them the way to earn a livelihood. But a spiritual person will not look down upon a teacher of secular knowledge. This is because they know very well that even in those teachers, it is the same Guru Shakti that is working. But, they accord the highest place to the spiritual Guru. It is impossible for a disciple who has tasted even a little bit of true spiritual bliss, not to accord the highest place to a spiritual Guru. It is but natural.
  • A person who has no money is called poor. A person who has no food is called poor. But, there is none poorer than a person who has not received the supremely uplifting Grace of a Guru.
  • In this world, many people suffer reversals of fate in various ways. But there is no greater loss than losing the Grace of the Guru.
  • A person may somehow manage to retain the Grace of Guru even after exhibiting the grossest arrogance; a person may somehow manage to retain the Grace of Guru even after committing the greatest blunders; but a disciple with a treacherous heart, whose heart, mind & actions are not in unison, cannot retain the Grace of the Guru in himself, no matter how intelligent he considers himself to be!
  • Divine Love manifests in various forms – Mother’s love, Father’s love, Friend’s love, love of the Spouse, etc. But none of these even remotely approach the level of the Guru’s love!
  • What indeed can equal the Guru’s love that dispels the darkness of the soul, by lighting the lamp of self-consciousness within us, and enabling us to taste the ambrosial nectar of self-realization!
  • The human Guru, no matter how exalted he be today, was indeed a humble disciple, once upon a time. Isn’t it so? Then, won’t he be able to sympathize with the conflicts, doubts and troubles of the disciples who approach him today?
  • What can be the best gift from a disciple to his Guru? Enthusiastic Sadhana, filled with Shraddha, performed most sincerely by the disciple.
  • It is said that service rendered to the Guru is most beneficial and is the highest service that one can perform in this world. However, whole-heartedly believing all the advices that the Guru has given to us, and based on Shraddha in his words, performing Sadhana enthusiastically, day after day, is not in any way lesser than personal service rendered to the Guru!
  • The spiritual path is most dangerous for the person who has no devotion to his Guru. And, that same spiritual path is most enjoyable to one who has great devotion to his Guru.
  • If we consider only the external, visible man and offer our adoration to his physical frame & corporal personality, it ends up as a Personality Cult. But, the same adoration accorded by a disciple who perceives the brilliant light burning within that frail frame of the Guru culminates into a veritable ‘Shaktipuja’.
  • No matter how far a disciple be from the Guru in terms of physical distance, one thought-wave such as ‘May this person prosper’, coming out of the Guru’s heart will catapult the disciple to empyrean heights along his chosen spiritual path; the disciple thus lifted up, starts experiencing the world of Light.
  • Owing to ignorance, it is not possible to tell, how many wrong paths the disciple will be walking along. But, the Guru keeps a close watch on his footsteps. And very slowly, he changes the direction along which his disciple is walking. Oh! How wonderful it is to watch this divine ‘Cat & Mouse’ game!!
  • There are only two things that follow us across lifetimes, across many births – one is our Karma; the other is Guru’s Grace. One who hasn’t accepted a Guru, only his own Karma follows him birth after birth.
  • There are thousands of Gurus all over the world. But the power behind all of them is only one – the selfsame Guru Shakti.
  • We may accept a human Guru and obtain Mantra-Diksha from him. But the one who has actually accepted our inner surrender is the same entity – the one Guru of the whole world, the Vishwa-Guru.
  • A disciple may accept a human being saying ‘He is my Guru’. But, in reality, only the Guru knows who the real Guru is!
  • Some say that Guru is greater than God. Some others argue that God is greater than Guru. But why this meaningless argument? Guru IS God; and God IS Guru!

Diksha Guru – Shiksha Guru:

These two terms are not very common in certain parts of India. But they are very popular wherever Vaishnavism has a stronghold. The word Diksha or Initiation befuddles most of us. Most people are even afraid of this word since it has connotations of renunciation! Words such as Sannyasa-Diksha, Yajna-Diksha are also in vogue. What Diksha does a Diksha Guru give? Questions such as these will naturally arise. In Bengal, the Guru who imparts Mantra-Diksha is called Diksha Guru. What is meant by saying that a Guru gives Mantra-Diksha? It means ‘imparting the mantra’, by uttering the mantra aloud. What is meant by Mantra? The Sanskrit root for this word Mantra is – ‘Mananaat traayate’ – It is a word, which, when uttered repeatedly, has the power to take the person across the ocean of grief & sorrow. So, the Guru who imparts the mantra that has the power to ferry us across the ocean of birth & death, is the Diksha-Guru.

The Diksha-Guru imparts the Mantra, gives a few invaluable advices, and then goes elsewhere to continue his divine ministrations. The disciple starts his spiritual sadhana by doing Japa, Dhyana, Swadhyaya, etc. As he begins his sadhana, he starts facing certain problems; as he progresses further along the spiritual path, he faces more problems, obstacles & doubts. This is most natural. But how is he to solve his problems? The one who helps him at that juncture is the one who is close at hand, the Shiksha-Guru. The Shiksha-Guru explains in great detail the various stages of sadhana, brings about an understanding of the entire path in the disciple’s mind, acclimatises him with the spiritual path and makes his progress easy for him. Every once in a while, the disciple will face what has been called the ‘dark night of the soul’; he starts losing faith in the efficacy of the path he is following; he loses Shraddha; doubts assail him; fear of the unknown grips him. The Shiksha-Guru helps him cross over all these obstacles, fills him up with renewed enthusiasm and eggs him along the path to perfection.

Among sadhakas, many will be householders. Some others will be bound by the vows of perfect chastity. These two categories of sadhakas have different capabilities and necessities in spiritual life. The Shiksha-Guru watches over all these aspects with great concern and in great detail. At the right psychological time, he gives apt suggestions and makes their progress smooth.

Sadhakas have to remember one very important point here. When some progress is made along the spiritual path, the external Guru remains outside. He can no longer be of much assistance. Then, the sadhaka has to start depending more and more on his ‘inner-Guru’, also called ‘Antaryamin-Guru’. This is because, it is the Antaryamin-Guru alone who knows the inner workings of the sadhaka’s mind and consciousness.

We offer our salutations to all Gurus.

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

Translation of a small booklet called ‘Sri Guru Mahime’ by Swami Purushottamananda

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Chitta Shuddhi[①]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Management

{Delivered at Larsen & Toubro Ltd, MMHIC Headquarters, Godrej Towers, Newtown, Kolkata on 25th August 2014}

 Om sthapakaya cha dharmasya sarva dharma svarupine

Avatara varishtaya ramakrishaya te namaha.

Many thanks to Mrs Minakshi Bhattacharya for introducing me to you all; Revered Swami Sarvapriyanandaji Maharaj & dear friends, I begin today’s session by offering my pranams to Rev Swamiji here. Let me explain to you the details of today’s programme. First of all, I will speak for about 15 to 20 minutes on ‘Self-Management’ from the monastic point of view. Then Rev Swami Sarvapriyanandaji will speak for about 30 to 45 minutes on ‘Self-Management’ from the corporate point of view.

I worked in a corporate house just like this some 15 years ago. Then, I joined the Ramakrishna Mission. Ramakrishna Mission too is a corporate entity. It is also an organization, just as yours is. Of course, many will object saying that while yours is a ‘For-profit’ organization, Ramakrishna Mission is a ‘Non-profit’ organization. Yet, both are organizations, having rules and procedures and personnel and dealing with services and money and other kindred aspects concomitant with being an organization. Similarly, problems you find in your organization will be found in Ramakrishna Mission too. In fact, when I first joined the Mission, I would very keenly observe for these matching points. And then, what I discovered in each case was a paradigm altering view-point. I shall explain one of them to you today.

I remember my days in the corporate world. I remember very well that my entire life was governed by a foreboding sense of fear, of a perpetual apprehension. ‘What’s going to happen to me? Will my boss be kind to me with my annual performance appraisal? I hope I get a good rating this time. Does my boss know that the vital idea for that particular project came from me? I hope I get confirmed in my post this year. I hope that goof-up I made on that particular site doesn’t weigh down upon my personal records’ and stuff like that. I found that more often than not, my attention was pegged on the ‘other’ man out there, say, my boss or my seniors. So much of energy gets frittered away on things outside of me, on people around me. My happiness, my peace of mind depended on what the ‘other’ man out there felt about me! Although I felt this was ridiculous, I slowly started learning the mechanics of leading life like that; some of my friends in the company didn’t approve of it. I thought perhaps remaining aloof as they did from this ridiculous social rigmarole would keep them happy. But it didn’t. They would drink their fears away! I reckoned that it was better to go through the foolish social rigmarole than to drown oneself in the haze of alcohol and frustrated soft middle age! Anyway, what I was trying to tell you was that fear governed my life. And it wasn’t just me. So with all my friends; and the worst part of it was – so was it with my boss! I feared him; and he feared the one above him; and he also feared me, for he had no clue what I would do behind his back! And thus it went on. You see, fear is terrible. It leads to very strange situations. 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!

Our actions are most of the times knee-jerk reactions when we act out of fear. You won’t even know what real work is until you start working in a fear-free environment.

Then I joined Ramakrishna Mission and what a breath of fresh air it was! Don’t we have appraisals here? Yes we do. But then, we are free to remain as we wish, true to our own selves. Your suckering up to your immediate superior doesn’t affect your appraisal in any way. Here I found that one could truly remain true to himself and in that sort of environment alone does work become a joy. I used to feel surprised that work was stressful before. Now, work is a joy. I don’t need any further ‘entertainment’ after work for refreshing myself. The work I do is in itself quite refreshing to me. I don’t need to take vacations. In fact, ever since I joined Ramakrishna Mission, till date, I haven’t gone on a vacation. And I still feel fresh, rejuvenated. Don’t we have deadlines here? We manage huge institutions. Naturally, crises occur; deadlines have to be met; personnel problems arise; legal battles have to be fought; very similar to what you all face. But, the centering in our own self that is possible in Ramakrishna Mission makes it possible to experience a ‘flow’ in the job we do.

After a few years in the Mission, I analyzed where the difference was. I was able to pin it down to the view I had about myself. In a company like yours, I have value based on what my boss perceives about me. In this organization, my value is based on what I intrinsically am. Others’ perception doesn’t matter and doesn’t evaluate me. Suppose I were a manager in your company and I were to be made an Asst manager! Imagine the stigma that would attach to me! I would seriously consider resigning from my job. Not so in this Mission. Today I may be a Principal in a huge School or College. Tomorrow I may be manning a books show-room, selling books. My value hasn’t changed one single bit here. I am not evaluated by the post I hold now. I remain a monk, whether I am in the School at its helm or in a poultry-farm rearing chicken for our students hostel.

Then I analyzed how this change in my view about myself had come about in me, since my joining the Ramakrishna Mission. I was able to zone it down to one single practice that I was asked to perform every day. I was routinely allotted duties in the Ashrama I stayed in. I was asked to perform my allotted duties sincerely, in an ‘unattached’ fashion. Ah! The catch is there; most of us work sincerely even in an organization like yours. But then ‘unattached’ work – well, that is difficult. What exactly is this ‘unattached’ work? Let me tell you a story.

There was once a king whose close friend was a monk. This king, as you all can understand, had a very stressful job.  Indeed, what job can indeed be more stressful than that of an all-powerful, absolute monarch?  So, one day he went to meet his friend the monk in the forest and told him, ‘I am fed up with running this kingdom. I have decided to renounce it all and go somewhere and live a low-key, peaceful life.’ The monk commented, ‘Is that so? Well, let me see…you must certainly have made provisions for your successor?’ The king had made no such arrangement. His own son was but a small boy. But he was planning to choose someone from his large kingdom so that he could hand over its reins and be free. However, since he was a conscientious king, who took his kingship very seriously, there was a nagging fear that he might not get the right kind of successor who would care for his immense kingdom just the way he had done all these  years. The monk understood all this. He volunteered, ‘Say, why don’t you gift your kingdom to me?’ The king was overjoyed. Where could he get a better successor than his closest friend?! So, he gave away his kingdom to the monk. There was a visible relief on the king’s face now. The monk asked him, ‘Where will you go now? What is your next plan?’ The king said, ‘Well, I will now go to my palace, take some money, go to a neighboring kingdom. I know many trades. I will earn my livelihood there.’ The monk stopped him, ‘Hey, wait. Did you say ‘my palace’ just now? Remember that the palace, along with everything in the kingdom is now mine!’ The king was indeed taken aback. Yes, what the monk said was indeed true. Without another word, he turned and was about to go away when the monk stopped him and said, ‘Say, my friend, you said you are ready to go elsewhere and do some job and earn your living. What do you say if I offer you a job right here?’ This was indeed acceptable and he agreed. Then the monk said, ‘Well, you see, I have just come upon this huge kingdom. I am a monk. I live according the voice in my soul. I need a trust-worthy man to look after this beautiful kingdom on my behalf.  You have sufficient experience in running kingdoms. Say, I will fix a certain amount as salary for you.  Why don’t you run this kingdom on my behalf?’ The king readily agreed. Thus he went back to his palace and went about managing his kingdom exactly the same way as it was before. A month later, the monk came to meet the king in the palace. He asked the king, ‘How are you? Are you facing any problems now?’ The king now replied, ‘I am doing fine. Problems, yes, of course there are; but I and my team of ministers keep solving them on your behalf.’

That is how you do ‘unattached’ work. I was taught to offer all the work I do to the Lord. Thus I would do a whole lot of work in the course of the day, and then I would offer all that to the Lord and I was a free man once again. How do you offer ‘work’ to the Lord? Flowers and stuff we can offer. How does one offer an intangible thing like ‘work’ to the Lord? Well, you may have noticed that I began today’s programme with a prayer. I am now delivering my speech. I will finish it by uttering another prayer and go my way with the peace of mind that I did all this as a loving offering to my Lord.

I do not claim that I am an expert in all this, or that I am a perfected man. But this much is true; I have practiced these things, just as I have explained to you now. And I have reaped enormous benefits for myself. So much so that I am able to compare myself to my own condition before I joined Ramakrishna Mission with my condition thereafter. Sometimes I have felt, if I had been taught this wonderful practice even while I was working in the other organization, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt the need to leave it and join Ramakrishna Mission. For, is it not possible to work as I have delineated just now, in your company, for instance? Perhaps it is possible. I don’t know. But then, there is one thing. If I had not joined Ramakrishna Mission, perhaps I wouldn’t have picked up this mode of working at all! It wasn’t easy for me in Ramakrishna Mission either, picking up this mode of working ‘unattachedly’. Again and again, I would forget. That would invariably lead to inter-personal problems. Again and again I would pick myself up and go about it. Over the years, it became sort of a habit.

Later on, I read Swami Vivekananda’s books and came to know that he had envisaged such a revolution among the masses; you know – a revolution in their thinking, in their mode of working. According to Swami Vivekananda, it wasn’t enough that his monks alone work like this. He wanted that everyone in India should work like this – unattached; well, at least the majority should work like that. That is what he envisaged.

How are the masses to work ‘unattachedly’? Which form of God are they going to offer their work to? Well, they will offer their work to whichever form of God appeals to them. Also, one can work unattachedly even when one doesn’t believe in God. How? The organization itself will be his highest ideal. There will have to be an apotheosis of the organization. Recall for instance India’s freedom struggle. Most of the great men of that period considered our nation as their highest ideal, apotheosizing it to a Goddess, and every act of theirs was an offering to Her. Similarly, for those of us who do not or cannot believe in what we cannot see, then we will have to metamorphose our conception of the organization for which we work into the highest ideal and then consider our work as an offering to that metamorphosed version of our company. Why offer again, some may ask. Duty isn’t enough. Offering is required. There is a small difference. Duty is a compulsion. Offering is voluntary. I remember a friend telling me once. He had just returned from Japan. This was in the early 2000s. He said that his Japanese friend’s shift started from 8am and ended at 5pm. But every day he found his friend arrives at the factory at 7am and leave at 6pm. He checked to see if he claimed any OT benefits. No, he didn’t. He asked him. The Japanese friend told him that the two hours were for his country and the 8 hours were for his company. I was stunned when I heard this. No wonder a country no bigger than West Bengal is today the 3rd largest economy in the world.

I don’t know the basis of their thinking. But here, in our country, we have a strong philosophy that backs such an outlook. So, I am very optimistic that in the years to come, we will see innumerable people take to this mode of working; a mode of working which is actually a spiritual practice; a mode of working which yields worldly fruits as well as confers spiritual benefits on the worker.

I leave you all with these ideas. I shall meet you all again. Thank you for patiently hearing me. Now, I too will sit peacefully over there and listen to Rev Swami Sarvapriyanandaji. I must inform you all that Rev Swamiji is one of the most sought after speakers today in Ramakrishna Mission. I too look forward to an intellectual treat from him today.

Om shantih, shantih, shantihi. Harihi Om, Sri Ramakrishnarpanam astu.

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The Desert Fathers

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

The Sayings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Father:

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

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

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

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

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

The Cell:

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

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

Ascesis:

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

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

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


 

Work:

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

Charity:

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer:

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

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

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

Hesychia:

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

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

Apatheia:

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

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

The Desert way of Life:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The scheme of monastic life:

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

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

  • Glorification of Self-Effort:

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

  • Vision of God – The central goal:

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

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

  • The Inner Life:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Humility – the crowning glory:

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

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

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

  • Abstinence & Obedience:

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Brotherly Love:

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

  • Common Sense:

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

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

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

  • Conclusion:

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

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

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

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

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

Swami Vivekananda: His new monastic Order

Swami Nirvanananda Memorial Lecture

at

Ramakrishna Math, Bhubaneswar

on 25th July 2015

 Om sthapakaya cha dharmasya sarva dharma svarupine

Avatara varishtaya Ramakrishnaya te namaha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Om shantih, shantih, shantih. Sri Ramakrishnarpanamastu.

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Swami Vivekananda & Organization

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

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

We see a few interesting points in the above passage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a very powerful idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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