Education & Discipline

Somehow or the other, the term discipline always comes riding piggy-back with Education.

Teachers contend that unless they are given well-behaved, discipline, rules & regulations-abiding students, they cannot teach effectively. It has always been a contentious issue as to who will break the child into this ‘well-behaved’ mould. Teachers hold that parents and school administration should take care of training the children in attitudes & behavior skills, while guardians hold that it is the teachers who should do this job. There are sufficient arguments to bolster both the lines of reasoning.

Some learned ones however say that what is more important is to identify and remedy the causes of behavior problems in our students. Let’s look at a small story.

A small boy was accompanying his mother on the beach. Given below is the conversation between them:

Boy: Mummy, may I play in the sand?

Mummy: No, darling. You will only soil your clean clothes.

Boy: May I wade in the water?

Mummy: No, don’t. You will get wet and catch a cold.

Boy: may I play with the other children?

Mummy: No. You will get lost in the crowd.

Boy: Mummy, please buy me an ice-cream.

Mummy: No. Ice-cream is bad for your throat.

The little boy started crying. The mother tells her friend who is also nearby, “For Heaven’s sake! Have you ever seen such a neurotic child? Always throwing a tantrum! Can’t keep still a minute.”

Now, isn’t the reason for the child’s strange and rebellious behavior, clear to us? A famous Jesuit Educationist once said, “Before punishing a child, ask yourself if you are not the cause of the offence.” We ourselves are the root cause of student-indiscipline in most cases. How? There is a gap between us and our children, mostly. We seem to be unable to grasp the feelings of our own kids. Added to that, we labor with the misconception that ‘Understanding’ actually means ‘Imposing’. We are adepts in imposing our views on our children. Rarely do we find a grown-up person, be he a parent or a teacher, who tries to see from the child’s point of view.

James Baldwin [1]once famously said, “Our children seldom listen to our advices, but they also seldom fail to imitate us!”

Communication is the crux of the teacher-student relationship. Alas! When we are unable to establish decent channels of communication with our students, we resort to the despicable means of ‘controlling the kids by fear’. In most cases, teachers equate ‘Communication’ with ‘instilling fear’.

There was once a couple who had trouble handling their son. There was no way they could convince him that paper should not be torn. He had developed a strange habit. Wherever and whenever he got a piece of paper or a book or a magazine, immediately he would tear it to bits. They had consulted educational experts, counselors, doctors and even psychiatrists, but to no avail. One day, a good friend of the boy’s father came to their house and stayed with them for a week. During that time, the boy became very close to this man. One night, after dinner, the parents explained their dilemma regarding the boy’s inexplicable behavior to this man. And from the next day, the parents found that the boy had stopped tearing paper! They were shell-shocked. Where experts in the field of education and medicine and psychology had failed, this ordinary man had succeeded. They asked him about it. His reply is note-worthy. He said, “I took him on my lap, looked him in his eye and told him, ‘Look here, son. Don’t tear paper. You should use paper to write.’ You see, what happened with him is, all of you tried to do so many things with him, except tell him directly not to tear paper. If only one of you had told him explicitly what to do, the problem would have stopped long ago.”

Years upon years in the teaching profession tends to make us teachers immune to the ‘life-component’, to the living aspect of the children. I feel that is one of the deleterious, desensitizing effects of this most noble profession. Even the best of us are not immune from it at some point of time in our careers. James Baldwin once said, “The first duty of a teacher is to consider that the student is a human being…A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him.” The student is a living being with whom we can connect, with whom we can talk and reason and interact. Hence some argue that there is need of more love than law while dealing with students.

Swami Vivekananda says that the best teacher is he who can come down to the level of his student and teach him. When this is done, the student feels comfortable with the learning process. What then is the scheme for evaluation of the teaching-learning process? The ideal scheme should be evaluating the quality of life that the student leads. A teacher may have taught his students all the English and Sanskrit and Physics and Chemistry, but if the quality of the student’s life has not improved, all that teaching has been but superficial.

Once a burglar had an apprentice, who was learning burglary from him. After some months of training, one night, both went into a house and started to rob the house. Suddenly the teacher-burglar dropped some vessel, creating a loud noise which woke up the entire household. As soon as they heard footsteps, the teacher-burglar ran out, locked the room in which the apprentice was hiding, from outside, and escaped. After some hours, the apprentice came back with a huge booty, full of enthusiasm and wanted to explain his adventure. The teacher-burglar simply said, “Son, what need is there to explain how you did it? You escaped from them and are here in front of me in flesh and blood. That is sufficient proof for me that you have graduated in the trade of burglary!”

Swami Vivekananda said that true Education is that which makes a man stand on his own feet.

Some of us argue that we are academic teachers. We are not duty-bound to train our students in the behavioral aspects of their life. That is the purview of their homes. But let us try to understand that the difference between home and school is non-existent in the young child. The entire phase of childhood is one continuous learning process. The child does not make much distinction about the source of his learning. All that matters is who has the stronger hold of love over him. It could be a parent, or a teacher at school, or any other mature person who has access to him. And we find that when all these elders become impersonal, distant from the child, unable to establish meaningful links with the child’s psyche, the child will fall back upon his/her peers. These peers, being as immature as the child itself, are ineffective in giving any shape to the life of the child. Then the child’s behavior starts being classified as problematic. He/she then starts having discipline problems in the eyes of the elders. Seldom do the elders realize that the root cause of those problems have been their own indifference to the child’s needs, especially emotional and social needs.

So, it has been seen in many societies all over the world, that while the parents and teachers have been busy arguing as to who was responsible for the child’s indiscipline, the child however has been deteriorating further at a very dangerous rate.

An African proverb says, ‘It takes an entire village to educate a child’. Every mature person in society has a role to play in the training and education of the children. Can’t we atleast learn something of value about this from our animal-friends who co-habit this planet with us? When a young one is born among animals, the responsibility of training it is shared by every elder member of the animal group! While, we, the most advanced species on Earth, are still busy trying to ascertain whose responsibility it is to train our young ones! Pathetic, indeed.

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[1] James Baldwin (1924-87) was a Civil Rights activist and literary figure in America. His essays contain wonderful insights on education.

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The Superior Teacher

Revered Secretary Maharaj, Revered Maharajjis assembled here, distinguished speakers on the dais, and dear teachers, today is the 2nd day of the Annual Celebrations of this Ashrama. We are having a Teachers’ Convention today. Before I begin my lecture, I wish to ask you all a question. This question is for my benefit. How many of you have some teaching experience? Those of you, who have five years of teaching in a classroom, please raise your hand. (Around 70% of the audience raises their hands.) You see, the topic given to me us ‘The Superior Teacher’. Excellence in teaching requires fine-tuning of the teaching experience. You don’t start off your teaching career as a teacher-par-excellence. So, what I am going to tell you today will be addressed mainly to those of you who have already had some teaching experience. The rest of you, who are probably studying B.Ed now, may keep my ideas in mind and implement them as and when you get the opportunity in the future.

I think it was George Bernhard Shaw who was once asked which was the most dangerous profession. He had replied that the most dangerous profession was teaching. His argument was – if a doctor commits a mistake, it gets buried six feet underground; if a lawyer commits a mistake, it hangs six feet above the ground; but if a teacher commits a mistake, it destroys six hundred years of his country’s future! Our profession is that important!

I have been associated with the teaching – learning activities in Ramakrishna Mission for the last ten years. You all know that Ramakrishna Mission has pioneered nationalistic education in India and has gained enormous experience in the last 100 years. I am going to present before you the best practices of our Ramakrishna Mission teachers. We believe that the high quality of education for which Ramakrishna Mission has become synonymous today is because of the high quality of our teachers. Hence, if I explain to you the practices of our Ramakrishna Mission teachers, that would serve as pointers to you, as a benchmark, regarding how to become a superior teacher.

Analyzing the distinguishing characteristics of the superior teachers in our Institutions, I have been able to categorize them under three cardinal rules for teachers.

The first cardinal rule for being a superior teacher is ‘Patience & cheerfulness’. Enormous patience is required when dealing with students. I remember seeing a documentary once in which a very old man asks his son if it is a Sunday. The son answers that it is indeed Sunday. Sometime later, the old father again asks the same question. When the old man asks the same question for the third time, the son loses his patience and yells at him. Then the old man brings out an old diary. In it he had recorded something that had happened about 30 years ago when that son was a 5-year old boy. The old man had written: Today, my son asked me the questions ‘why is the crow black?’ a total of thirty-two times and each time I had lovingly replied that black is the natural color of the crow!

Children tend to forget very quickly. You can’t help it. They forget. We need to keep on repeating the same thing again and again, and put in processes to help them internalize the points we tell them. We need to keep this point in mind when we discipline the kids. It won’t do if we just mention the rules of behavior once and then expect the kids to remember them. They just won’t. And we shouldn’t end up concluding that the child is willfully ignoring our advice. There was a Sufi saint who was entertaining some friends one day. He had served them tea in some very costly china cups. After the tea, he called his son and asked him to carefully take the empty china cups and give them to his wife in the kitchen for cleaning. He told the boy to be careful about the china. Then he slapped him hard. His friends asked him, ‘Hey, the boy hasn’t done anything wrong. Maybe he will be careful with the china. Why did you beat him before he has committed a mistake?’ The Sufi saint replied, ‘What is the use of beating him after he drops the cups and breaks them?’ We have to take care to see that we don’t end up behaving like this.

Disciplining is a difficult job. It takes lot of patience. Lot of repetition is required. You need to clearly specify what rules you want to be followed in your class. In fact, when I was in our Along School, I had announced that the first few days of a new academic year, the teachers would concentrate on just explaining the behavior they expected out of their students in their class. The teachers would first of all have the rules clearly written down. Then they would dictate them to their students. Then they would explain those rules to their students and ensure that each student understood each rule. The underlying idea of disciplining is to train the child to enter into the complex system of processes and procedures that exist in our present day society. Just look around you. Everywhere, it is system, process & procedure that operate. Take this very convention for example. You all didn’t just walk in today. The whole thing must have started a month ago. From this office here, notices would have gone to your schools and colleges. Then your school or college would have announced appropriately for your information. Then you would have registered your name in the specified place and manner. That is how the present day world works. The child has to be trained to deal with this. The whole idea of disciplining is this training – how to adopt oneself to this ever expanding network of systems and procedures.

We teachers will have to constantly introspect whether we ourselves are the cause of indiscipline in our students. An ordinary teacher learns to correct and train his student. But a superior teacher learns to respect his student as an individual. Swami Vivekananda wrote to Swami Brahmananda once, ‘Take care of how you trample on the least rights of others.’ You all remember the famous drama written by George Bernhard Shaw called Pygmalion. In that drama, Professor Higgins undertakes to train a rustic flower-girl into a very sophisticated lady. After she becomes a lady accepted in the highest social circles in London, she explains what actually made her a lady from her humble beginnings. She says it wasn’t the meticulous training of Prof Higgins. She says she became a lady the moment Colonel Pickering called her ‘Miss Doolittle’!

We ourselves are not clear what we want the child to do. All that we know is what the child shouldn’t do. A superior teacher has a clear idea of what the student must do and not just what he shouldn’t be doing. Let me explain what I am trying to tell. A young mother was once walking on the road with her small child. She met her friend on the way. As happens when two ladies meet, they started talking. The child got bored. Children get bored very easily. So this child asked its mother, ‘Mother, can I play with that dog?’ ‘No.’ after a few minutes, ‘Mother, can I go over to that shop and see those toys?’ ‘No.’ Again, after a few minutes, ‘Mother, will you get me an ice-cream?’ ‘No, ice-cream causes sore throat.’ The child started crying. The mother tells her friend, ‘Have you seen a child like this? So difficult to control; starts crying anywhere and everywhere.’ We are always telling the child what not to do. If we specify what the child should do, maybe children will be disciplined better.

When I was in Along, I noticed something very interesting. I was on the corridor outside the classrooms and I was observing a particular class. A boy in that class was seeing outside the window. He was intrigued by a butterfly outside. You know, in the North-east, you have very large and colorful butterflies. The teacher was teaching something, perhaps mathematics. This boy got up and asked the teacher if he could go out of the class. The teacher asked why. He said he wanted to go near and see that wonderful butterfly. The teacher flew into a rage and shouted him down. After sometime, that very boy stood up and said he had to go pee. The teacher allowed him. I was observing. The boy went out, didn’t go anywhere near the toilet, went out to the garden, played around the butterfly and came back! Just see what happened here. That teacher had ‘taught’ the boy to tell a lie! So, we need to be very, very careful.

Our main problem is we forget that communicating with children is different from talking to adults. Suppose I am to address this audience here today regarding maintaining silence it is sufficient to say ‘It will be good if silence is maintained here in keeping with the decorum of the Ashrama’. Do you think this statement would mean anything to students? What idea do they have about an Ashrama’s decorum? If I were to address an audience of students I should have been much more direct. Then they would have understood. Listen to a story.

There was once a couple who had trouble handling their son. There was no way they could convince him that paper should not be torn. He had developed a strange habit. Wherever and whenever he got a piece of paper or a book or a magazine, immediately he would tear it to bits. They had consulted educational experts, counselors, doctors and even psychiatrists, but to no avail. One day, a good friend of the boy’s father came to their house and stayed with them for a week. During that time, the boy became very close to this man. One night, after dinner, the parents explained their dilemma regarding the boy’s inexplicable behavior to this man. And from the next day, the parents found that the boy had stopped tearing paper! They were shell-shocked. Where experts in the field of education and medicine and psychology had failed, this ordinary man had succeeded. They asked him about it. His reply is note-worthy. He said, “I took him on my lap, looked him in his eye and told him, ‘Look here, son. Don’t tear paper. You should use paper to write.’ You see, what happened with him is, all of you tried to do so many things with him, except tell him directly not to tear paper. If only one of you had told him explicitly what to do, the boy would have understood and the problem would have stopped long ago.”

So, the first cardinal rule is – We have to be patient and cheerful. The second cardinal rule is something that the Jesuits always say. You know the Jesuits; they have made some great contributions to education. Saint Ignatius Loyola used to say, ‘To teach Mathematics to John, you need to know two things. You need to know Mathematics. And you need to know John.’ Please try to understand this statement. You need to know your subject. You must be thorough in your understanding of your subject. You make only one statement. But, there are 40 minds in your class. All may not understand what you said. You will need to tailor your statement in as many different ways as possible so that every mind in that class understands. You must plan your class. You know, you must have your lesson plan, your evaluation schedule and all that stuff that you learn in your B.Ed class. That is a vital requisite. But the other part of the Jesuits’ saying is even more important. You must know John. You must know your student in as much detail as possible. You must know the child’s home background. You must make notes about each student in a journal. Every data, every bit of information and your observation about that child must be present in that journal. The Jesuits have another wonderful saying. They say, ‘A child that gets love at home comes to the school to learn; a child that is not loved at home comes to the school to get love & affection.’ Please remember this marvelous saying. Problems at home reflect in the behavior of the student in class. Dysfunctional family reflects as inability to concentrate or as general restlessness in the child. Then there are many other symptoms such as ADD or ADHD or Dyslexia that may also be contributing to the child’s lack of focus. Today, most school boards have mandated that schools must have a dedicated counselor who has psychological expertise. But I hold that each teacher has to be a counselor.

So the 1st Cardinal Rule is ‘Patience & Cheerfulness’. The 2nd Cardinal Rule for being a superior teacher is ‘To teach Mathematics to John, you must know Mathematics & you must know John’. Now we come to the third rule. You must love your job. You must have a sense of pride in your job as a teacher. Today, it is a matter of great pride to say that I am a space scientist in ISRO. Do we feel the same sense of pride when saying ‘I am a teacher’? That is needed. The child may not consciously understand all this pride stuff. But it will intuitively grasp whether we love our job or hate it. If we love our job, our students will start respecting us automatically.

You know, there is no such thing as a difficult subject. Some of us end up feeling – Oh! I teach history. Mathematics or Physics has prestige, but not history or civics. That is to be avoided. Listen to a story. A man once purchased a pet dog. He was greatly enamored with that pet. He purchased lots of good books on how to rear a pet dog, read all of them and patiently went about doing all those things mentioned in them. In all of them, it said that pet dogs love cod-liver-oil, and that it was absolutely essential for the pet to grow up fit and fine. Well, our man brings home a big bottle of cod-liver-oil. He pours some oil onto a large spoon, catches the dog, splices the dog between his legs, forces open its mouth and pours the oil into it. The dog pukes out the oil and runs away. The owner is flabbergasted. Something must be wrong with his pet. It simply doesn’t love cod-liver-oil. But every day, he did the same exercise. Then one day, while he was maneuvering the spoon into the dog’s mouth, the dog jerked strongly, and the bottle of cod-liver-oil fell down and broke. The owner was now livid with anger. But, he was surprised to see that the dog was greedily lapping up the oil that had spilled onto the floor, and in a few minutes, it had licked the whole floor clean!

So, the dog did not hate cod-liver-oil. It just rejected the method through which it was fed its favorite cod-liver-oil! Do we have a lesson here, as teachers aiming to be superior teachers? Let us all kindly think deeply over it.

Some of you may have a question – how to love our job? There is such a thing called Shared Vision. You need to key yourself to a larger vision in order to get pride in the small job that you do. A senior Swamiji in our Order used to say ‘You may be doing a clerk’s job; but why do you have to do it with a clerk’s mind? Do it with the mind of the President of India.’ Please think about this statement. Imagine the mind of the President of India. He may be living in a small room in Delhi. But every moment he is thinking about the whole country. Every decision he takes, he will pause and think how it will affect the remotest village of his country. So also, we may be teaching in a small class room to only 40 students. But we may be aware in our minds about the future of those students, of the 600 years of our country’s future; how my teaching will affect them.

When I was a student, I was a member of Vivekananda Balaka Sangha in our Bangalore Ramakrishna Ashrama. There was a senior Swamiji of Ramakrishna Order called Swami Ranganathanandaji who later became a President of Ramakrishna Mission. He used to visit Bangalore Ashrama once or twice every year. Once when he came, he spent some time with us. We were all school-college boys, volunteers in the Sangha. It was afternoon, after his lunch. We all sat on the ground in front of him. He asked us ‘Can you tell me which is the golden period of Indian history?’ We were all good students and we started giving our answers. One of us said it was the Ashoka’s reign. Another said it was the Gupta period, especially under Samudra Gupta & Chandragupta-II. Yet another said it was under King Harshavardhana. The Mughal period under Akbar-Shah Jehan was also said by some. Swamiji was just looking at all of us when we were giving our answers. Then one of us asked the Swamiji, ‘What is the correct answer, Swamiji?’ What he said was marvelous. He said, ‘You know, I was recently in Japan. There I met some students, just like this. I asked them the very same question – what is the golden period of Japanese history? And they all answered ‘Swami, the golden period of Japan is the future and we are going to make it.’ When I heard that, I immediately felt that those young boys couldn’t have hit upon that answer all by themselves. There must have been some teacher who must have put that amazing idea in their minds. That is what is called ‘Shared Vision’.

You have all heard of NASA, the American organization that deals with its space programmes. Sometime in the 1960s, J F Kennedy announced that NASA would put a man on the moon. That was the goal he gave. Once he was visiting NASA’s office. When he was walking down the corridor, he met a man. That man was the janitor, whose job was to clean the toilets and corridors of NASA. He shook hands with that janitor and asked him what he did in NASA. That janitor replied, ‘Mr. President, I am putting a man on the moon.’ He didn’t feel ‘I am an insignificant toilet cleaner in NASA’. Instead he was able to identify himself with the mission of the organization. A superior teacher will be able to do that with respect to his job of teaching.

Before I wrap up my lecture, I will summarize the main points I have placed before you.

A superior teacher is found to follow three cardinal rules:

  1. He/she is always patient and cheerful.
  2. He/she realizes that ‘to teach Mathematics to John, you should know Mathematics and you should know John’.
  3. He/she will love his/her job of teaching. He/she will have genuine pride in being a teacher.

I pray to Guru Maharaj that all of you may be inspired to raise yourselves from an ordinary teacher to a superior teacher. Thanks for your patient hearing.

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Sri Ramakrishna and Prayer

What is the way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to pray?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Pandit: Does God listen to our prayers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brahmo Devotee: Sir, what is the way?

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

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

Master: First love, and then prayer.

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

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

Brahmo: Is it good to renounce the world?

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

Brahmo: Then should they lead a worldly life?

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

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

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

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

Neighbor: Who can know God?

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

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

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

Neighbor: What is that medicine, sir?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to pray for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazra: The devotee really prays to his own Self.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whom to pray to?

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

1st incident: I quote from the Gospel:

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

Master: Do you know Balaram Bose?

M: No, sir. I don’t.

Master : He lives in Bosepara.

M: Well, sir, I shall find him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2nd incident:

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

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

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

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

“I don’t have time, Master.”

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

“Yes, that I can do.”

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

3rd incident:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[2] Ibid: Pg.: 179

[3] Ibid: Pg.: 190

[4] Ibid: Pg.: 215

[5] Ibid: Pg.: 326

[6] Ibid: Pg.: 452-53

[7] Ibid: Pg.: 385

[8] Ibid: Pg.: 534

[9] Ibid: Pg.: 291-292

[10] Ibid: Pg.: 401

[11] Ibid: Pg.: 629

[12] Ibid: Pg.: 640

[13] Ibid: Pg.: 111

[14] Ibid: Pg.: 702

[15] Ibid: Pg.: 456-57

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

[17] Ibid: Pg.: 362

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

[19] Ibid: Pg.: 257

[20] Ibid: Pg.: 171

[21] Ibid: Pg.: 471

[22] Ibid: Pg.: 821

[23] Ibid: Pg.: 381

[24] Ibid: Pg.: 599

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

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

[27] Ibid: Pg.: 96

[28] Ibid: Pg.: 244

[29] Ibid: Pg.: 640

[30] Ibid: Pg.: 671

[31] Ibid: Pg.: 306

[32] Ibid: Pg.: 256

[33] Ibid: Pg.: 257

[34] Ibid: Pg.: 596

[35] Ibid: Pg.: 703

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

[37] Ibid: Pg.:844

[38] Ibid: Pg.:171

[39] Ibid: Pg.:385

[40] Ibid: Pg.:452

[41] Ibid: Pg.:454

[42] Ibid: Pg.:379

[43] Ibid: Pg.:612

[44] Ibid: Pg.:636

[45] Ibid: Pg.:867

[46] Ibid: Pg.:98

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

[48] Ibid: Pg.:740

[49] Ibid: Pg.:481

[50] Ibid: Pg.:820

[51] Ibid: Pg.:377

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

[53] Ibid: Pg.:215

[54] Ibid: Pg.:328-29

[55] Ibid: Pg.:162

[56] Ibid: Pg.:627-28

[57] Ibid: Pg.:912

[58] Ibid: Pg.:323

[59] Ibid: Pg.:923

[60] Ibid: Pg.:846

[61] Ibid: Pg.:518

[62] Ibid: Pg.:646

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

[64] Ibid: Pg.:521

[65] Ibid: Pg.:670

[66] Ibid: Pg.:603

[67] Ibid: Pg.:506

[68] Ibid: Pg.:379

[69] Ibid: Pg.: 866

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

[71] Ibid: Pg.: 92

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

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

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

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

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

[77] Ibid: Pg.: 646

Why do bad things happen to good people?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Na tvaham kaamaye raajyam, na svargam, na punarbhavam;

Kaamaye duhkataptaanaam praaninaam aarthinaashanam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

Chitta Shuddhi[①]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purpose of cleanliness : Rationale behind Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan

 

Distinguished officers of the Ordnance Factory Board, respected Professor Supriyo Munshi of Gandhi Sangrahalaya, Barrackpore, distinguished officers in the audience, and my dear friends: I am glad to be present here today to participate in your Swachh Bharat Pakhwada. Actually, OFB office contacted Belur Math for sending a monk to speak in this seminar and that is how I came here. As informed to you by Dr Uddipan Mukherjee, I come from Ramakrishna Mission Shilpamandira, a Diploma College & Skill development Center, right at the gate of Belur Math.

Today, I will speak to you all, very briefly on Swami Vivekananda’s ideas on cleanliness. According to Swamiji, we can consider cleanliness on two levels – on the personal level, and on the collective level. At whatever level we consider this issue of cleanliness, unless we understand the necessity, the purpose of cleanliness, we will never be driven to practice it in our lives actively.

At the individual level, we Indians understand the necessity of purity for our spiritual growth. There is a manual for spiritual growth in our country called ‘Patanjali Yoga Sutras’. This book mentions that of the five sine-qua-nons for spiritual growth, the very first one is ‘Purity’. It mentions that when we get established in cleanliness, we start experiencing a most wonderful dissociation from our own bodies. The psychology is like this: we all try to keep our bodies clean. We all know too well how dirty our bodies can get if this effort stops. Sooner or later, it will dawn on us that no matter how hard we try to keep it clean, it gets dirty very quickly. Ergo, it is indeed a thing that has the nature of dirt! Ergo, it is despicable. Unless we sincerely believe that we are not the body, we will not sincerely seek for something higher than that, will we? Therein lies the purpose of cleanliness from the individual point of view. It serves as a paramount necessity if we truly seek spiritual growth.

This individual aspect of cleanliness has been driven very deep into our minds in India. But that is just one aspect of cleanliness. There is another very important, and very interesting aspect of cleanliness – that is its collective aspect. At the collective level, power, organization & cleanliness are closely connected.

Cleanliness by itself doesn’t serve any purpose in society. Considered per se, you might as well be unclean. Take the case of this body. I clean it today. For what purpose? It gets dirty within a few hours. In Kolkata, within a few minutes! So why bother to clean it at all? Seen from this angle, our attempts at cleanliness look like trying to straighten a dog’s curly tail. It won’t ever become straight! Cleanliness has meaning only if there is some other purpose behind it at the collective level. What is that purpose?

Swami Vivekananda says – that purpose is ‘Power’. If we wish to become powerful, we need cleanliness. What power is he talking of? The connection is not apparent. Let us look at it more closely.

Take any country. You will notice that if that country is capable of producing enormous wealth, it will invariably be clean. Similarly with respect to houses. Rich peoples’ houses tend to be clean. Poor peoples’ houses tend to be dirty. Is this a coincidence? In fact, let us ask if this is a correct generalization or not in the first place. Yes, there are houses which belong to poor people, yet they are pretty clean. Similarly, Mr Yajurvedi was telling us a little while ago that Thailand and Indonesia are countries poorer than us, but are very clean. Taken all in all, however, I am afraid, this generalization does hold water. The examples of poverty associated with cleanliness are indeed much fewer than those of prosperity associated with cleanliness. Now, material prosperity in a nation doesn’t come alone. It invariably brings along prestige & power of influence among other nations. If you study history, this will be quite clear to us. Take the Middle East, for instance. Before oil was discovered there, it was a place nobody wished to go and stay. Once oil money started pouring in, those small nations started wielding enormous power over other nations in the world. Prestige started getting associating with those small nations. Simultaneously, their landscape started becoming hip. The towns and cities became spick and span. So, material prosperity, power, prestige and cleanliness – all these are closely interlinked. What links them together? A particular style of thinking, a particular style of living and working.

Noted historian Alan Macfarlane[1] wrote: There is a loose link between growing prosperity and cleanliness according to Kames[2]. He could see how clean the English were, and believed this to be a recent development. “A change so extraordinary in the taste and manners of the English, rouses our curiosity.” He thought it was caused by some link with industriousness. Indolence breeds dirt, while “the industrious, on the contrary, are improved in neatness and propriety, by the art or manufacture that constantly employs them: they are never reduced to purge the stable of Augeas; for being prone to action, they suffer not dirt to rest unmolested. Industrious nations accordingly, all the world over are the most cleanly.” His main example was Holland. “Arts and industry had long flourished in Holland, where Erasmus was born and educated: the people were clean above all their neighbors, because they were industrious above all their neighbors; and, upon that account, the dirtiness of England could not fail to strike a Hollander.” Later the English became more industrious and cleaner. The comparison between France and England created something of a problem, for “the French are less cleanly than the English, though not less industrious.” He thought this could be explained by the distribution of wealth, for “the lower classes of people being in England more at their ease than in France, have a greater taste for living well, and in particular for keeping themselves clean…Thus cleanness improves gradually with manners, and makes a figure in every industrious nation.” The idea that if people were busily moving matter from place to place in one aspect of their lives, making and producing, exchanging and behaving in an active way, this would spread into all of their behavior is an intriguing one. ‘The more you do, the more you do’, is a generally observed phenomenon. If dirt containment is largely concerned with keeping matter in its right place, it is very similar to commercial activities. It all comes down to the shifting of atoms to places where they can create useful things for humans, away from places where they can do harm. Both are about creating separations, divisions, new order out of disorder. Some sort of ‘elective affinity’ between industriousness and cleanliness was noted by William Hazlitt[3]; “a people that are remarkable for cleanliness, will be so for industry, for honesty, for avarice, and vice versa.” The same association had a little earlier been noted by a visitor. Writing of London, he was impressed in London by “…the extraordinary neatness of the dwellings, both within and without, by the exertions in point of commerce, and the universal industry which gives animation and spirit to every quarter of the town…” As we shall see, a religion which encourages orderliness of life will usually apply not merely to spiritual but also physical cleanliness. In this respect, Holland, England and Japan were notably ‘industrious’. Yet, as Kames noticed, sheer hard work is not a sufficient cause. In many societies ordinary people work incredibly hard, are very ‘industrious’, and yet live, or are forced to live, in a great deal of dirt. Kames added the dimension of wealth to his model; in England, but not France, the poor had some wealth and hence pride. This takes us on to Westermarck’s factor, namely that “Poverty, also, is for obvious reasons a cause of uncleanliness.” In this respect, as we have noted, it is significant that the English and the Dutch had the most widely spread ‘wealth’ in seventeenth century Europe and Japan, though the wealth was at a lower level, was their nearest equivalent in Asia. Put in another way, getting rid of dirt takes time, effort and often depends on a considerable infrastructure. In particular in crowded societies, it is difficult to keep up high standards if one is living on a knife edge of subsistence. The fact that these three nations had risen well above this level was both a cause, and a consequence, of their increasing wealth.

If we apply these observations to our daily life, we can deduce some interesting ideas. A clean office could mean two things. Either no work is done there! Or the working procedures are extremely well established. Meticulous working procedures involve everyone in the office. Even if one of us works haphazardly, it affects the entire office. Similarly with society. Similarly with the nation. A company which is clean in managing its data will be economically efficient. Hence it has a better chance of survival. Survival is always of the fittest.

Hence, inculcating methodical habits of working, methodical habits of living is what is urgently required. Why do we need that? Else, we will never accumulate power, as a society, as a community, as a nation. If we do not become powerful as a nation, we may keep seeking prestige from the world, but we will never get it.

Donald Trump visited Beijing and Dubai recently. It was in the papers. One of his first observations was that these cities were extremely clean, spick & span! We dream of overtaking China in the near future. That is never going to happen as along as we do not develop this civic sense in ourselves.

Modern world stands on an idea that is very alien to the Indian mind. The idea of the civic society. We understand individuals. We also understand groups, in a limited sense. But we do not understand yet the concept of the civic society. The idea is however not entirely western. This is the same idea that is conveyed by the ancient Hindu word Dharma.

Swami Vivekananda made some very interesting comparisons and observations regarding cleanliness in his various writings. I will present here some excerpts from ‘East & the West’[4]: The grace of both Lakshmi (goddess of fortune) and Sarasvati (goddess of learning) now shines on the peoples of the Western countries. They do not stop at the mere acquisition of the objects of enjoyment, but in all their actions they seek for a sort of beauty and grace. In eating and drinking, in their homes and surroundings, in everything, they want to see an all-round elegance. We also had that trait once — when there was wealth and prosperity in the land. We have now too much poverty, but, to make matters worse, we are courting our ruin in two ways — namely, we are throwing away what we have as our own, and laboring in vain to make others’ ideals and habits ours. Those national virtues that we had are gradually disappearing, and we are not acquiring any of the Western ones either? In sitting, walking, talking, etc., there was in the olden days a traditional, specific trait of our own; that is now gone, and withal we have not the ability to take in the Western modes of etiquette. Those ancient religious rites, practices, studies, etc., that were left to us, you are consigning to the tide-waters to be swept away — and yet something new and suitable to the exigencies of the time, to make up for them, is not striking its roots and becoming stable with us. In oscillating between these two lines, all our present distress lies. The Nation that is to be has not as yet got a stable footing. Of course new things have to be learnt, have to be introduced and worked out; but are those to be done by sweeping away all that is old, just because it is old? What new things have you learnt? Not any — save and except a jumble of words! What really useful science or art have you acquired? Go, and see, even now in the distant villages, the old woodwork and brickwork. The carpenters of your towns cannot even turn out a decent pair of doors. Whether they are made for a hut or a mansion is hard to make out! They are only good at buying foreign tools, as if that is all of carpentry! Alas! That state of things has come upon all matters in our country. What we possessed as our own is all passing away, and yet, all that we have learnt from foreigners is the art of speechifying. Merely reading and talking! In the West, they have a habit of keeping everything about themselves neat and clean, and even the poorest have an eye towards it. And this regard for cleanliness has to be observed; for, unless the people have clean suits of clothes, none will employ them in their service. Their servants, maids, cooks, etc., are all dressed in spotlessly clean clothes. Their houses are kept trim and tidy by being daily brushed, washed and dusted. A part of good breeding consists in not throwing things about, but keeping them in their proper places. Their kitchens look clean and bright — vegetable peelings and such other refuse are placed, for the time being in a separate receptacle, and taken, later on, by a scavenger to a distance and thrown away in a proper place set apart for the purpose. They do not throw such things about in their yards or on the roads. The houses and other buildings of those who are wealthy are really a sight worth seeing — these are, night and day, a marvel of orderliness and cleanliness!

Before the II World War, Germany instituted a confidential study of Japan. They wanted to understand the causes of the enormous rise in Japan’s influence in Asia. The report mentions: Today Japan’s rising sun waves from the frozen northern sea to the coast of India. Today the once strongest powers tremble under the blows of Japan’s mighty power. Today the island nation of a hundred million Japanese leads with unbreakable will the millions of East Asia who make up a third of the world’s population. Today a huge kingdom has risen with a powerful heart where just 80 years ago an unknown people lived on their isolated island, satisfied with themselves and with no need or desire to leave the bounds of their islands. A powerful center of power has developed where only 80 years ago the conquerors and economic pioneers of Europe and America believed there was a colony that could easily be taken over. That is the amazing and unique miracle of Japan’s meteoric rise. The world today looks in amazement. Amazed, astonished, and also terrified that they had not earlier recognized the mysterious causes, but also the compelling logic that led to this fabulous ascent. Japan’s industrial structure is remarkable. Japanese experts followed the industrialization of Europe and America carefully. Japan succeeded in avoiding the atomizing tendencies of European industrialization and the growth of a rootless proletariat. Despite manifestations of capitalism, Japanese industrial capitalism never gave rise to class struggle. The common goal of both workers and owners — to build a strong Japanese fatherland — overcame all disputes about wages or other matters….Even today swords are made by the same families that have forged them for centuries. Sword-making even today in Japan is more an act of worship than one of craftsmanship. The smith who passes on the secrets of his father to his sons fasts the day before he begins to forge a sword and undergoes purifying ceremonies, since the Shinto religion views physical cleanliness as a prerequisite to spiritual cleanliness. Clothed in ceremonial white priestly robes, the apprentices hammer the steel in unison. The master follows carefully the slow development of the blade, which at exactly the right moment he plunges into cold water. The holy process results not only in a strong blade; It also reflects the deep significance of what a Japanese person sees in his sword.

From Swami Vivekananda’s observations and from this last quoted report of the Nazi study of Japan, it is clear that cleanliness has to emanate from a sense of sacredness. Cleanliness has always been associated with religion. All the major world religions lay down meticulous details concerning cleanliness. When we bring in this sense of sacredness to our daily work-a-day world, then cleanliness will be naturally incorporated in our work habits. That is the main strain along which Swami Vivekananda seems to be speaking.[5] He says that everything associated with our daily life in ancient India was sacred. Then, for various reasons, we have lost touch of those traditions. Today, we are attempting to adopt a totally new mode of life, something that is obtained from the West. In this period of transition from the old to the new, we will have to develop certain new modes of thought. Else, we will not have our old traditions to support us, nor can we ever completely adopt a western world-view. That is the reason why we are poor, why we are dirty, why we are corrupt, why we are strangely developed with a good number of high net worth individuals (HNI) and millions of abjectly poor people (BPL) living in the same economy! This confusion in our present society reflects the transition we are making as a nation. The most important thing required now by India is this wonderful idea of Swami Vivekananda. Learn to look upon this world as divine. Learn to look upon yourself as divine. Learn to look upon all people as divine. This spiritualizing of our work-a-day world is the one idea that will usher in a grand nation in India, a nation whose grandeur Swami Vivekananda literally sings poetry about as follows: The longest night seems to be passing away, the sorest trouble seems to be coming to an end at last, the seeming corpse appears to be awaking and a voice is coming to us — away back where history and even tradition fails to peep into the gloom of the past, coming down from there, reflected as it were from peak to peak of the infinite Himalaya of knowledge, and of love, and of work, India, this motherland of ours — a voice is coming unto us, gentle, firm, and yet unmistakable in its utterances, and is gaining volume as days pass by, and behold, the sleeper is awakening! Like a breeze from the Himalayas, it is bringing life into the almost dead bones and muscles, the lethargy is passing away, and only the blind cannot see, or the perverted will not see, that she is awakening, this motherland of ours, from her deep long sleep. None can desist her anymore; never is she going to sleep anymore; no outward powers can hold her back any more; for the infinite giant is rising to her feet….Therefore, whether you believe in spirituality or not, for the sake of the national life, you have to get a hold on spirituality and keep to it. Then stretch the other hand out and gain all you can from other races, but everything must be subordinated to that one ideal of life; and out of that a wonderful, glorious, future India will come — I am sure it is coming — a greater India than ever was. Sages will spring up greater than all the ancient sages; and your ancestors will not only be satisfied, but I am sure, they will be proud from their positions in other worlds to look down upon their descendants, so glorious, and so great.

This therefore is the main idea I wanted to convey to you all today. Let us understand the rationale behind this wonderful movement that our Prime Minister has initiated under the name ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’.

I am grateful to the authorities of Ordnance Factory Board for having invited me from Ramakrishna Mission to participate in this programme. Thank you all.

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[1] Alan Donald Macfarlane was born in Shillong, Meghalaya in 1941. He is an anthropologist and historian. He is the Professor Emeritus of King’s College-Cambridge, Fellow of the British Academy and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is the author of over 20 books on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan & China. He has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world.

[2] Lord Henry Kames was a Scottish philosopher of great influence. He was the central figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a founding member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh. His disciples included David Hume, Adam Smith and James Boswell.

[3] William Hazlitt was an influential social commentator & philosopher. He lived between 1778 & 1830.

[4] Please see Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol-V

[5] “There are two great obstacles on our path in India, the Scylla of old orthodoxy and the Charybdis of modern European civilization. Of these two, I vote for the old orthodoxy, and not for the Europeanized system; for the old orthodox man may be ignorant, he may be crude, but he is a man, he has a faith, he has strength, he stands on his own feet; while the Europeanized man has no backbone, he is a mass of heterogeneous ideas picked up at random from every source — and these ideas are unassimilated, undigested, unharmonized. He does not stand on his own feet, and his head is turning round and round. Where is the motive power of his work? — in a few patronizing pats from the English people. His schemes of reforms, his vehement vituperations against the evils of certain social customs, have, as the mainspring, some European patronage. Why are some of our customs called evils? Because the Europeans say so. That is about the reason he gives. I would not submit to that. Stand and die in your own strength, if there is any sin in the world, it is weakness; avoid all weakness, for weakness is sin, weakness is death. These unbalanced creatures are not yet formed into distinct personalities; what are we to call them – men, women, or animals? While those old orthodox people were staunch and were men.”