Sri Ramakrishna and Prayer

What is the way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to pray?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Pandit: Does God listen to our prayers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brahmo Devotee: Sir, what is the way?

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

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

Master: First love, and then prayer.

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

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

Brahmo: Is it good to renounce the world?

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

Brahmo: Then should they lead a worldly life?

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

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

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

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

Neighbor: Who can know God?

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

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

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

Neighbor: What is that medicine, sir?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to pray for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazra: The devotee really prays to his own Self.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whom to pray to?

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

1st incident: I quote from the Gospel:

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

Master: Do you know Balaram Bose?

M: No, sir. I don’t.

Master : He lives in Bosepara.

M: Well, sir, I shall find him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2nd incident:

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

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

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

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

“I don’t have time, Master.”

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

“Yes, that I can do.”

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

3rd incident:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[2] Ibid: Pg.: 179

[3] Ibid: Pg.: 190

[4] Ibid: Pg.: 215

[5] Ibid: Pg.: 326

[6] Ibid: Pg.: 452-53

[7] Ibid: Pg.: 385

[8] Ibid: Pg.: 534

[9] Ibid: Pg.: 291-292

[10] Ibid: Pg.: 401

[11] Ibid: Pg.: 629

[12] Ibid: Pg.: 640

[13] Ibid: Pg.: 111

[14] Ibid: Pg.: 702

[15] Ibid: Pg.: 456-57

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

[17] Ibid: Pg.: 362

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

[19] Ibid: Pg.: 257

[20] Ibid: Pg.: 171

[21] Ibid: Pg.: 471

[22] Ibid: Pg.: 821

[23] Ibid: Pg.: 381

[24] Ibid: Pg.: 599

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

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

[27] Ibid: Pg.: 96

[28] Ibid: Pg.: 244

[29] Ibid: Pg.: 640

[30] Ibid: Pg.: 671

[31] Ibid: Pg.: 306

[32] Ibid: Pg.: 256

[33] Ibid: Pg.: 257

[34] Ibid: Pg.: 596

[35] Ibid: Pg.: 703

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

[37] Ibid: Pg.:844

[38] Ibid: Pg.:171

[39] Ibid: Pg.:385

[40] Ibid: Pg.:452

[41] Ibid: Pg.:454

[42] Ibid: Pg.:379

[43] Ibid: Pg.:612

[44] Ibid: Pg.:636

[45] Ibid: Pg.:867

[46] Ibid: Pg.:98

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

[48] Ibid: Pg.:740

[49] Ibid: Pg.:481

[50] Ibid: Pg.:820

[51] Ibid: Pg.:377

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

[53] Ibid: Pg.:215

[54] Ibid: Pg.:328-29

[55] Ibid: Pg.:162

[56] Ibid: Pg.:627-28

[57] Ibid: Pg.:912

[58] Ibid: Pg.:323

[59] Ibid: Pg.:923

[60] Ibid: Pg.:846

[61] Ibid: Pg.:518

[62] Ibid: Pg.:646

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

[64] Ibid: Pg.:521

[65] Ibid: Pg.:670

[66] Ibid: Pg.:603

[67] Ibid: Pg.:506

[68] Ibid: Pg.:379

[69] Ibid: Pg.: 866

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

[71] Ibid: Pg.: 92

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

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

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

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

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

[77] Ibid: Pg.: 646

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

Efficacy of Karma Yoga

Let me begin by presenting some statements regarding Karma Yoga:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Kurvanneveha karmani jijeevishet shatam samaha;

Evam tvayi nanyatyetosti na karma lipyate narey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Please refer http://www.scribd.com/doc/83776171/Swami-Vivekananda-and-Pavhari-Baba, for a detailed article on this topic.

[8] Please refer http://www.scribd.com/doc/195501244/Swami-Vivekananda-s-Karma-Yoga-The-Scripture-for-Modern-Mankind for a detailed explanation of these & related issues.

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

Spirituality in Business & Nation’s Governance

Lecture at World Confluence of Religions

P C Chandra Gardens, Kolkata (Organised by SREI)

I will be speaking to you on spirituality in Business & National Governance. Let me begin by telling you a story:

One of our Swamis was addressing the employees of an MNC on the concept of work culture. One of the participants asked the Swamiji: “I joined this organization 25 years ago as an engineer trainee. Over the last 25 years I have gone through every experience in the organization. I am now the senior manager looking after Materials Department independently. During the initial part of my career, the job was very challenging and interesting. Every day was exciting and I looked forward to each day with lot of interest. However, since there is nothing new in my job now, I no longer find my job interesting. As I have seen and handled every conceivable situation there are no more challenges in my work. I am now feeling bored because I am doing a routine job.

However, Swamiji, I am living in the same house for over forty years. I am the same son for the same parents for over forty five years. I am the father for the same children for the past ten years and the husband for the same lady for the past twenty years. In these personal roles I do not feel bored and the passage of time has not taken away the zeal from me. Please tell me why I am bored of the routine in the office and not in the house?”

This was a very interesting question and we were all curious to know what the Swamiji had to say. He in turn asked the executive: “Please tell me for whom does your wife cook?”

The executive replied “Obviously my wife cooks for all of us – the family.”

The Swamiji pointed “Since your wife ‘serves’ others, this service-mindedness doesn’t make her feel tired or bored. Similarly, when you are at home, you do not perceive your role as the “work”.

But in an office, we ‘work’, not ‘serve’. Anything we consider as service will not make us feel bored. That is difference between serving and working.

 

Coming back to our topic ‘Spirituality in Business & National Governance’; first of all I wish to point out that there is a fine line between religion and spirituality. The dividing line is so fine that for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist. Hence we feel that it is impossible to get spirituality without the channel of one or the other of the established religions of the world. In search of spirituality we enter into one of the innumerable religions and then what happens? All religions have their own religious institutions which have vested interests. You cannot enter into a religion without having anything to do with the religious institutions associated with them. Once a business house or a Govt Official starts aligning with a religious body, an unmistakable but subtle form of corruption starts setting in. Hence it is any day better for corporate houses and the Govt to stay equidistant from all religions.

But if business and the Govt stay far away from the established religions, what about the spiritual evolution of those people engaged in businesses and in running the country?

The solution is to find out a path for the spiritual evolution of people completely independent of the established religions of the world.

Let me tell you another story to drive home this point.

A young monk went to a forest; there he meditated, worshipped, and practiced Yoga for a long time. After years of hard work and practice, he was one day sitting under a tree, when some dry leaves fell upon his head. He looked up and saw a crow and a crane fighting on the top of the tree, which made him very angry. He said, “What! How dare you throw these dry leaves upon my head?” As he looked angrily at them, a flash of fire went out of his head. Such was the monk’s power. The birds got burnt to ashes. He was overjoyed at this development of power. He could burn the crow and the crane by a look.  After some time he had to go to the town to beg his food. He went, stood at a door, and said, “Mother, give me food.” A voice came from inside the house, “Wait a little, my son.” The young monk thought, “You wretched woman, how dare you make me wait! You do not know my power yet.” While he was thinking thus the voice came again: “Boy, don’t think too much of yourself. There is neither a crow nor a crane here.” He was astonished. At last the woman came, and he fell at her feet and said, “Mother, how did you know that?” She said, “My boy, I do not know your Yoga or your practices. I am a common everyday woman. I made you wait because my husband is ill, and I was nursing him. All my life I have struggled to do my duty. When I was unmarried, I did my duty to my parents; now that I am married, I do my duty to my husband; that is all the Yoga I practice. But by doing my duty I have become illumined; thus I could read your thoughts and know what you had done in the forest. If you want to know something higher than this, go to the market where you will find a butcher who will tell you something that you will be very glad to learn.”  The monk came to the market and there he saw a big fat butcher cutting meat with big knives, talking and bargaining with different people. The butcher looked up and said, “O Swami, did that lady send you here? Take a seat until I have done my business.” And he went on with his work. After he had finished he took his money and said to the monk, “Come sir, come to my home.” On reaching home the butcher gave him a seat, saying, “Wait here,” and went into the house. He then washed his old father and mother, fed them, and did all he could to please them, after which he came to the monk and said, “Now, sir, you have come here to see me; what can I do for you?” The monk asked him a few questions about soul and about God, and the butcher gave him a lecture which forms a part of the Mahabharata, called the Vyadha-Gita. It contains one of the highest flights of the Vedanta. When the butcher finished his teaching, the monk felt astonished. He asked, “Why are you in this trade? With such knowledge as yours why are you still a butcher, and doing such filthy, ugly work?” “My son,” replied the butcher, “no duty is ugly, no duty is impure. My birth placed me in these circumstances and environments. In my boyhood I learnt the trade; I am unattached, and I try to do my duty well. I try to do my duty, and I try to do all I can to make my family and customers happy. I neither know your Yoga, nor have I become a monk; nevertheless, all that you have heard and seen has come to me through the unattached doing of the duty which belongs to my position.”

Notice here the conditions that the butcher mentions as responsible for his own spiritual growth. He did not follow any established religion. He merely performed his duties in life. And he did it in an unattached manner. This unattached manner of working is called “Service”.

Most often, we do not get the proper perspective for converting our daily work into service. That is where religious people come in and tell the corporate houses and the Govt, ‘Give some money to the work that we are doing; that is service.’ But that alone is not service. Anybody can serve. Serving is not the monopoly of any particular group of people. Any person doing any kind of work can convert it into service if he gets the right perspective. And by converting his daily work into service, he invariably achieves an expansion in his consciousness, which is what spirituality is all about – expansion of consciousness.

You are engaged in some business activity. It is not the profits that you earn that matter. Of course, I agree that profits are essential in a business enterprise. But, the profits that you or your company earns alone are not the issue that should be on your mind. What is your contribution to the national economy? You may be manufacturing a small item. But all the time you will have to keep the role your small item plays in the national economy at the back of your mind. It may be a very small item, but make it the best possible quality. This way of running your business will itself take you to the place where I will reach by my daily meditation on the Lord.

Similarly, you may be a Govt officer or a clerk or even a minister. Try to constantly keep in mind the people who are getting affected by the signature you are putting on a paper. They are all your own. Thus gradually, you will find your sphere of consciousness expanding without involvement in any religion. And by working like this, you will reach the same place that I will reach through my meditation on the Lord.

The underlying idea in this whole thing is – do not go about creating a new God and then neglect this world in pleasing that God by a series of rituals that have relevance only to you and no relevance to the world. Rather recognize the God that already exists, this vast, complex world. Immerse yourself in your daily allotted duties and thus worship the already existing God. God exists as the Nation. God exists as the national economy. Participate in it with a worshipful attitude and achieve all the spiritual growth you aspire for.

I bring my lecture to a close with these words of Swami Vivekananda, “…This, our great Mother India. Let all other vain gods disappear for the time from our minds. This is the only god that is awake, our own race – “everywhere his hands, everywhere his feet, everywhere his ears, he covers everything.” All other gods are sleeping. What vain gods shall we go after and yet cannot worship the god that we see all round us, the Virat? When we have worshipped this, we shall be able to worship all other gods… The first of all worship is the worship of the Virat – of those all around us. Worship It. Worship is the exact equivalent of the Sanskrit word, and no other English word will do. These are all our gods – men and animals; and the first gods we have to worship are our countrymen. These we have to worship, instead of being jealous of each other and fighting each other.

 

Thank you all.

 

Swami Vedatitananda

Ramakrishna Mission Shilpamandira

Belur Math, Howrah

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.

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

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

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

The New Ideal, the New Doctrine, the New Life

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

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

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

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

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

The Beginning:

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

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

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

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

Raja Yoga as the Panacea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Condensed India’:

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

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

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

But what was to be the way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A self-adjusting organization:

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘New Doctrine’:

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

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

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

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

‘Rejuvenation of the Motherland’:

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

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

Divine Mother validates his decisions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The New Life’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Cf: ibid; pg: 250.

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

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

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

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

[10] Cf: ibid; pg: 362.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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