By Swami Bhajanananda
Swami Bhajanananda was the editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1979 through 1986, and has contributed many articles to various Vedanta journals. Swami Bhajanananda is an Assistant-Secretary and Trustee of the Ramakrishna Order. This article was first published in the February, 1986 Prabuddha Bharata and is the first of two installments; the second will appear on this site in February, 2002.
If we want to succeed in any enterprise we must give undivided attention to it. Undivided attention means an undivided life, the consecration of one’s whole life. The goal we aim at may be immediately attainable or it may take several years; in either case, as long as the goal remains unrealized we have to give our whole life to it.
This is one of the most important lessons we learn from the lives of great people, people who reached the height of excellence in their fields of activity: art, science, business, politics, spirituality. Michael Faraday the scientist, Thomas Edison the inventor, Joshua Reynolds the painter, Rodin the sculptor, Albert Schweitzer the medical missionary, Francis of Assisi the saint—the life of every one of them was a total consecration to their chosen goal.
We have to first of all consider whether the goal we have chosen is the one that our hearts really aspire for and whether it is worth all the sacrifices that it demands. Once we are convinced that it is, we should convert our entire life into a means for the attainment of that goal. If this total dedication is necessary for all worthwhile endeavors in secular life, it is all the more necessary in spiritual life.
An anecdote recorded by Sister Devamata in one of her books vividly illustrates this point. A Christian missionary in Madras asked a merchant who was carrying offerings to a wayside shrine of Ganesha, the Hindu god reputed to be the remover of obstacles and bestower of prosperity: “Why do you worship that stone idol? Why don’t you worship the one true God?” The merchant replied: “That wouldn’t be honest. To worship the highest form of deity I would have to cease to care for money. I would have to give up shop keeping and devote my whole life to Him.”
The merchant’s reply showed not only his sincerity but also his sound pragmatic sense. For anything short of the dedication of one’s whole life will not be the worship of the one true God and will bring precious little of the treasures of the Spirit. Had that Hindu merchant turned to the worship of the one true God, he would have become as greedy of spiritual wealth as he had formerly been of worldly wealth. The missionary was probably a Protestant and was not aware of the famous Jesuit maxim, Sis spiritualis avarus et mercator, “Regarding spiritual wealth be greedy like a merchant.”
The question is often asked: Why is it that some people even after practicing japa (the repetition of God’s name) and meditation for a number of years do not succeed in realizing the light of the Spirit? In most of these instances the chief cause of failure usually turns out to be lack of undivided application. The Bhagavad Gita states: “The intellect of a persevering aspirant is one-pointed, whereas the intellect of the unpersevering is many-branched and aimless.” The same idea has been expressed with characteristic simplicity by Sri Ramakrishna: “If you want sixteen annas worth of cloth, you must pay sixteen annas.”
It is generally seen that as long as a person leads a thoroughly worldly life he or she has only one chief (though not high) aim in life—as for instance, to become the director of a company, the chair of a department, the president of an institution, the principal of a college, an athlete, a musician or a writer—and is able to attune his or her whole life to the pursuit of that goal, and succeeds in deriving some satisfaction from that. However, when that person turns to spiritual life, he or she finds their life divided between two mutually incompatible goals.
Owing to this conflict of aims the aspirant is unable to intensify the effort in either direction. Lack of intensity reduces the zest for life, produces feelings of ineffectiveness and boredom and prevents the person from attaining success in worldly life as well as spiritual life. That condition may be described as ito nashtah tato bhrashtah (“Deprived of this place, denied that place.”)
All people may not have an acute awareness of the contradictions in their lives and many of those who have it usually attribute them to external causes and “obstacles.” The real cause is internal and may be best described as self-alienation. Self-alienation means the estrangement of one part of the soul from another part. In most people the ego is cut off from its own foundation, the inmost Self or pratyagatman, or from universal life or virat.
It is not external circumstances or other people that are preventing us from having one-pointed dedication to our chosen ideal in life but divisions in the soul. Official responsibilities, unfavorable living conditions or unsympathetic relatives may cause temporary distractions, but these external factors will not deflect us from the main quest if the inner life is integrated.
Self-alienation is a form of spiritual loss which affects all parts of the soul—feeling, will and reason. Sri Ramakrishna has described this loss as “theft in the sanctum of the heart.” Patanjali has referred to forgetfulness as theft (sampramosha) of the object of experience from the mind. By “theft” Sri Ramakrishna meant not mere absent-mindedness but something deeper. The cream of human feelings is love, and the heart is its sanctum. By “the room of feeling” what Sri Ramakrishna meant was this inner sanctum.
In spiritual life the heart serves as the altar where love is transformed into the flame of aspiration, vyakulata (yearning) as Sri Ramakrishna called it. All the motive power for the pursuit of the highest ideal is provided by the aspiration. It is the diversion of aspiration to lower ideals and the fulfillment of worldly desires that Sri Ramakrishna referred to as “inner theft.” When this happens, no amount of meditation and japa will produce spiritual awakening. That is why Sri Ramakrishna used to say, “If there is theft in the sanctum of the heart, all effort will be unfruitful.”
The heart is the center where self-alienation takes place. It is therefore in the heart center that de-alienation or re-integration of the self is to be affected. For this the very first step is to detect and understand the self-alienation process through meditation and keep a watchful eye on this process at all other times of the day. We must be constantly aware of the workings of the ego: how it separates itself from the foundational reality and operates independently in a sensual, selfish or arrogant way. This constant inward alertness is described as “guarding the heart” in some Christian ascetical works like the Philokalia. Buddha taught it as the discipline of fixing the memory (samyak smriti or in Pali, satti) which later developed into specialized techniques called samprajanya and vipashyana (vipassana in Pali).
In Vedanta this inward alertness is achieved through the process of viveka or discrimination. Viveka is generally described as discrimination between the real and the unreal. But when this is done by an unawakened ego, it often becomes a form of spiritual romance or one of the several types of self-deception that the ego indulges in. That is why many people, in spite of reading about maya and talking about the unreality of the world, continue to remain slaves of greed, hatred and other passions.
Beginners in spiritual life should exercise their faculty of discrimination primarily to understand the process of self-alienation and to reduce their egoism and selfishness. This kind of introspective discrimination will lead to ego-awakening and the awakened ego will be able to discriminate correctly between the real and the unreal.
Introspective discrimination should be supported by an integral view of life. There are two ways of looking at the world: analytic or atomistic and synthetic or integral. In the analytic view of life is seen as a vast stream of countless entities, living and non-living, mutually compatible or antagonistic. The self is only one among these types and consciousness is a rare and incidental part of existence. According to this view, human effort should be primarily directed to controlling nature. This view underlies Nyaya-Vaisheshika and Samkhya philosophies in India and science in the West.
In the synthetic view life is seen as one single organism with all its members projected and sustained by the Supreme Self. Consciousness is the fundamental reality. All problems are understood in their relation to one’s own self and their solutions are sought primarily through the transformation of consciousness. This view is held mainly by the Vedanta system of philosophy based on the Upanishads. This is the view that can help us in ending self-alienation and in re-integrating our lives.
However, mere intellectual acceptance of an integral view is not enough; it must be lived; it must become a vision, an experience; one’s whole life must conform to it; everything that one does, speaks or writes must be an expression of it. When this happens, objects, persons, events and experiences acquire a new meaning as parts of a grand scheme of cosmic evolution in which one’s own spiritual evolution is included.
It is the self that gives meaning to everything; anything that cannot be integrated into the self becomes meaningless. Love is not a mere emotion; it is self-to-self contact. Married people may be faithful to one another but, if he is unable to integrate her self into his or if she is unable to integrate his self into hers, the marriage will lose its ultimate meaning for them.
Work is not mere activity; it is the expression of the soul’s creativity. A person may do their work sincerely but, if it is not integrated into his or her self, it will appear meaningless to that person. For one whose inner life is well integrated, everything from the mighty sun to the lowly moss, from the Vedas to newspapers from meditation to sweeping the floor, every person he or she meets, every experience including sorrow, hardship and humiliation has a certain ultimate meaning in that person’s life.
Such an aspirant cannot do anything unless its meaning is clear to him or her, that is, unless he or she succeeds in integrating it into their own self. For such aspirants, their room or house is not a mere dwelling place, but the external representation of their mind. The books they own are not merely sources of information, but the externalized records of their experiences. The people they love become images of their own self. There is nothing superficial or casual about him or her as their whole life is anchored in the innermost Self.
Every aspect of human life is to be regarded as a department of the Self. The development of an integral life is not possible if there exist divisions and incongruities in these departments of the Self. It is therefore necessary to identify those areas of life where self-alienation takes place and to find out how it can be eliminated.
The most commonly felt form of contradiction in life is the conflict between the sacred and the secular. The popular notion is that temples, churches, gurudwaras, ashramas and other places of worship are sacred, whereas offices, factories, banks, shops, schools and other places of work are secular; prayer, meditation, puja, reading of scriptures, etc. are holy activities, whereas eating, washing clothes, writing accounts, business transactions, nursing the sick, reading newspapers etc., are worldly activities.
Some people, especially sincere spiritual aspirants, feel this distinction between the sacred and the secular so acutely that they feel miserable when they are engaged in the so-called worldly activities. But they overlook the fact that the distinctions are almost wholly subjective and human made; they have no validity per se. Activities such as farming, construction of buildings, keeping accounts, etc. which are generally regarded as secular cease to be considered so when they are carried out in monasteries and other religious institutions. In the larger scheme of divine creation, these distinctions between the sacred and the secular do not exist.
The secularization or desacralization as Abraham Maslow called it, of social life that is characteristic feature of modern life has been to a great extent caused by the spread of western materialism. The roots of western culture lie in the Judeo-Christian tradition in which there is wide separation between the sacred and the secular.
In the Old Testament holiness is said to belong to God alone. Since God is a person, wholly different, transcendent and fenced in by his unapproachable holiness, everything else that is not directly connected with God is profane, unholy. (Agios, the Greek word for “holy” used in the Old Testament, implies separation or isolation. Holiness is a gift of God to humankind. For example we read in Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God is holy.”) When science and philosophy eliminated the concept of God from western culture, the idea of sacredness too got eliminated from it.
In Hindu culture there has never been a sharp demarcation between the sacred and the secular. There are some sects and schools of thought in India which do not believe in any kind of God but this has not led to the vulgarization of life. Even those who believe in a personal God do not look upon the world as unholy, for God is immanent in it. The Advaitins look upon the world as maya but not as unholy, for it has Brahman for its substratum.
In the Upanishads the universe is described as consisting of vibrations of prana which itself is an emanation of Brahman. In the Tantras the universe is regarded as a product of Shakti which is the dynamic aspect of Brahman. In the Brahmana and Samhita portions of the Vedas, the whole universe is regarded as an altar in which an eternal cosmic sacrifice (yajna) is going on continuously. What is common to all these views is the concept that “the Supreme Self fills all space like a huge immovable tree,” as one Upanishad puts it.
If all space is filled by the Supreme Self, then everything is holy and every activity is a sacred rite. However, a mere intellectual understanding of this concept is not enough. If we want to eliminate the distinction between the sacred and the secular from our lives, if we wish to convert our work in factories, banks, offices and laboratories into spiritual techniques, we have to fulfill three conditions.
The first condition is the development of an attitude of acceptance. We should give up all hostile or negative thoughts about life and people and should accept all experiences, good and bad, as essential for our own growth and progress. We should look upon goodness, purity and joy as constituting the main stream of Universal Life, but should understand evil, sin and sorrow as coexisting with this main stream for the fulfillment of some universal purpose. We should not interfere too much in the natural course of events, should try as far as possible to live in harmony with our environment, and should allow freedom to everyone to grow according to his or her law of being.
The second condition is the possession of an impersonal outlook on life. This means following a holistic approach to the world unconditioned by passionate feelings, prejudices and egoistic clinging to persons. It also means the ability to enter into a kind of mystic communion with nature. Those who do not have this inherent ability (which cannot be artificially created or acquired) should at least have an artist’s view of human beings, plants, animals, the sun, stars, mountains and rivers, or a philosopher’s way of looking at everything sub specie aeternitatis—under the gaze of eternity—or a scientist’s grasp of time, space and causation.
The third condition is the conversion of one’s whole life into a yoga and yajna. Spiritual life is not an escape from the demands and responsibilities of life. Its most fundamental principle is the identification of the inner Self with the Supreme Self, which is attained by the transformation and transcendence of ego-consciousness. As this inner transformation proceeds, one’s outer life becomes a participation in the great cosmic sacrifice of the divine consisting of creation, sustenance and dissolution going on all over the universe continuously. The inner process of transformation and identification is yoga, and the outer process of participation is yajna. It is by coupling yoga and yajna that we can eliminate the distinction between the sacred and the secular.
The whole universe is in a state of flux, and everything from the blazing sun to the smallest bacterium owes its existence to the great cosmic sacrifice of the divine so vividly described in the Purusha-suktam of the Rig-Veda.
From the Universal Life we continuously receive food and knowledge which undergo certain changes within us and return to Universal Life in the form of the work we do. This cycle of processes constitute yajna. No one can retain more than what is necessary for the bare maintenance of life; everything else must be returned to the universal stream as work. Whether we know it or not, the life of every one of us is a part of this eternal sacrifice. When we consciously participate in it, our whole life becomes a yajna. It is because we are either unaware of the sacrificial nature of life, or do not consciously participate in the cosmic sacrifice of the Divine, that we live in bondage and suffering—says the Gita.
The important point is conscious participation. How to do it? By transforming our inner consciousness. This is done through yoga. Thus yoga and yajna are inseparably connected. One of the key concepts in the Upanishads is that yajna has consciousness as its basis. The whole cosmic sacrifice is sustained by universal consciousness or Brahman. Every activity is a sacrificial act and every organ in the body derives its power from Brahman. The Taittiriya Upanishad brings out this idea forcefully as follows:
The goodness that is in speech, the acceptance and maintenance that are in breathing, the action that is in hands, the mobility that is in feet, the expulsion done by the rectum, the plenitude that rains bring, the power of the thunderbolt, the fame that is in cows, the light that is in stars…. [all these are powers of Brahman. Therefore] meditate on Brahman as the support…. meditate on Brahman as great…. meditate on Brahman as mind…. meditate on Brahman as worship…. meditate Brahman as the Veda….. Meditate on Brahman as destruction.
In the Upanishads the distinction between sacred and secular activities is hardly found. All individual activities are parts of a universal dynamism derived from Brahman. Unfortunately, later Vedantic teachers rejected yajna as unnecessary for a spiritual seeker and dumped it into the limbo of the so-called Karma Kanda division of the Vedas. This removal of yajna from the sacrificial stream of Universal Life paved the way for the conflict between the sacred and the secular in modern Hindu society.
One point, however, should not be forgotten in this context. The removal of the distinction between the sacred and the secular does not at all mean the removal of the distinction between morality and immorality, between virtue and vice, between truth and falsehood. There is a universal moral law known as dharma governing both the sacred and secular aspects of human life. The compelling power of yajna itself is derived from this law, and any violation of it will destroy the sacrificial nature of life and will bring its own retribution sooner or later.