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 is the second part of an editorial which was posted as the January, 2002 reading. This article was first published in the February, 1986 Prabuddha Bharata.
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.
Another area of contradiction related to the above is the conflict between the two ways of life, monastic and lay. This conflict occurs chiefly in those people who come into close contact with monks and monasteries. Lay people have two problems. One of these is the belief that a householder’s life is full of distractions and temptations and it is difficult to attain spiritual enlightenment through it. This, however, is a wrong assumption. The real difficulty is the absence of intense aspiration and the courage and strength to pursue the spiritual ideal. What drains away aspiration and strength is not normal life or work but guilt feelings, repression, needless worries, emotional involvement in the affairs of other people, and a sense of one’s own worthlessness which a life of indulgence usually brings.
The other problem is the absence of a clear-cut spiritual ideal for householders. In India, sannyasa—final monastic vows of renunciation—has come to be regarded as the highest ideal and the sannyasin is alone believed to attain mukti or liberation. It is not widely recognized that the ancient Aryan ideal was that of the rishi and the sannyasin ideal became dominant only after Buddha popularized monasticism as an unavoidable path to nirvana.
The rishi ideal does not see monasticism and social involvement as alternatives but as one unified path. The sages we meet in the Upanishads, MahabharataRamayana were mostly rishis, some of whom lived in forest training disciples, others lived in cities as kings’ counselors or even as kings themselves. This ancient ideal had for long remained eclipsed until Sri Ramakrishna revived it through his great life and raised it to its pristine glory. Sri Ramakrishna has revealed the spiritual significance and possibilities of the householder’s life and has restored its dignity, though he has also imposed upon it a spiritual responsibility which is in no way less than that of the monk.
Present trends show that the rishi ideal is going to be dominant religious ideal in the coming centuries. While monks are getting more involved in social service activities, there is a growing awareness among householders about the need for bringing into their lives something of the monastic spirit of renunciation, self-control, contemplation and common life.
This trend is seen particularly in the West where a number of small communities of married and unmarried people have come up committed to holistic life, rejection of competitive success, spiritual fulfillment and collective sharing of work and experience. A few monastic congregations have been functioning within the Anglican Church and some Protestant theologians now speak of “open monasticism” for all people. The Catholic church itself has started thinking of “the monk as a universal archetype.” The archetypal monk can be none other than the rishi.
The real conflict is not between monastic life and lay life but between pravritti and nivritti which may be translated as self-indulgence and self-denial respectively. Pravritti is the search for sense pleasure, wealth, fame power; nivritti is the search for truth, God, the Supreme Self. The rishi ideal should not be mistaken to be a synthesis of these two paths. No, these two paths cannot be combined; you can’t have the cake and eat it too.
Another field of self-alienation is our instinctive movements in relation to the human society of which we are a part. The triangle of three primary instinctive movements, raga (love), dvesha (hate) and bhaya (fear), forms the basis of all human actions and reactions. The ego remains trapped in this triangle.
To love is a natural quality of the soul. To love oneself is an expression of one’s true self-existence. Ideally, to love other people should also be an equally natural tendency and there should be no conflict between love for oneself and love for one’s neighbors. In fact in primitive social life, still surviving among tribal societies, such a conflict is seldom found. The tendency to regard self-interest as antagonistic to social interest or vice versa is generally found only in civilized societies.
This is partly caused by socio-economic factors like the enormous multiplication of material objects of enjoyment. The means of producing the goods by feudal and industrial methods have led to inequality in the sharing of these objects of enjoyments. For centuries politicians have been trying in vain to solve this socio-economic problem, although social thinkers from Plato to Karl Marx have suggested several nostrums. These efforts at solving the problems of humanity by changing the whole society are beyond the scope of the present discussion. We are here chiefly concerned with the existential causes of the conflict between love for oneself and love for others and also between self-assertion and humility.
Selfishness, self-centeredness, self-love—all these are treated as synonymous and as a crime against one’s fellow human beings. Most of the scriptures of the world condemn it in no uncertain terms and uphold selflessness as a divine virtue to be followed by all. Yet, people continue to live selfishly. There are of course people who claim to be selfless and are engaged in several forms of social service. If their claims to selflessness were true, then, according to the infallible law of karma yoga, they would have attained transcendental spiritual illumination, but this is seldom seen. Clearly, there is more in selflessness than meets the eye and that true selflessness is difficult to acquire.
The popular notion that selfishness is the same as self-love and selflessness is the same as love for other people is too simplistic to be true. The truth, paradoxical as it may seem, is that intense selfishness and ostentatious selflessness have both self-hatred (atmavidvesha) as their common base. What differentiates the two attitudes is the direction that self-hatred takes. In the selfish person the self-hatred is projected outwards, upon other people whereas in the selfless person it is projected inwards upon his or her own self. The selfish person does not love him- or herself but appears to do so because he or she projects self-hatred towards other people.
The selfless person too does not love her- or himself, but in this case the self-hatred is directed internally; as a result he or she appears to love other people, but really that person does not. Both selfishness and selflessness are auto-corrective psychological mechanisms to hide or compensate for lack of true love for oneself. It is self-hatred that usually manifests itself as hatred of other people or as hostility towards life in general. People who have self-hatred in their hearts sow seeds of discord and discontent wherever they go; even when they are engaged in acts of selfless service.
Self-hatred makes some people cling to men and women passionately; in some others it appears as renunciation and austerity; in some others it appears as agnosticism and atheism. Yet another manifestation of self-hatred is lust. The primary purpose of sex is procreation and to cement the marital bond. Indulgence in sex beyond or without this purpose is a form of self-destruction. Maya is so powerful that it keeps people self-deluded in many ways.
What causes self-hatred? There may be several socially determined causes like guilt feelings, a wrong self-image acquired in childhood, parental neglect, introjection of parents’ attitudes (the mutual dislike of husband and wife gets “introjected” or incorporated into the minds of their children as self-hatred), failure in life which produce a sense of worthlessness, and social oppression. But the ultimate cause, clearly observed in spiritual life, is the separation of the ego from its foundation in the true Self, the Atman.
This self-alienation is partly a result of the awakening of the luminous Self itself in comparison with which the ego appears dark and defective. Awareness of this difference first manifests itself as highly sensitive conscience. This often leads to an acute awareness of one’s evil tendencies, inadequacies, desires and weaknesses. In order to escape from this sense of inner oppression, people take recourse to various stratagems which may be useless activities like gossip and reading fiction or useful activities like social service.
Service rendered as a means of escape from oneself may appear to be selfless, but it will not cure the disease of selfishness, for both are based on self-hate. If we want to love others truly we should remove self-hatred from our souls. For this self-knowledge is necessary. The roots of the ego in the Atman must be discovered and the higher and lower selves should be integrated. When self-hate disappears from the soul, love for other people becomes a natural state, an extension of one’s love for oneself. Then alone will selfless service become loving service.
In Judeo-Christian tradition selflessness is seen as a dialogue between I and thou: in Marxism selflessness is seen as the participation of I and thou in the dialectics of social life; in Vedantic tradition selflessness is seen as the integration of I and thou into the transcendental We. In Vedanta, selflessness and love are seen not as virtues to be acquired from books and teachers but as the natural qualities of the human soul which are to be manifested. That is why an illumined person is called, “one who delights in the Self.”
What does this term mean? It means “one who has gone to the source of all love.” In order to love others you must have an abundant supply of love within yourself. Most people fritter away their love-energy through attachments and therefore their hearts are empty. Nobody loves a person whose heart is empty of love. The heart of an atmarama is an unceasing source of love; everyone is eager to partake of that love and so that person is loved by all. Simply by “delighting in his Self,” by going to the source of all love, such a person fulfils the eternal Law of Love.
Another area of conflict in a person’s relationship with society is the polarity of egoism and humility. Egoism is usually condemned and humility is praised but very often these are found to be two sides of the same coin. We have seen that hate (dvesha) is the basis of the polarity of selfishness and selflessness. Similarly, fear (bhaya) constitutes the basis of both egoism and false humility. Here by “fear” is meant not the legitimate fear of car accidents, burglars, poisonous snakes, contagious diseases etc., but existential fear.
Existential fear is the deep sense of insecurity inherent in human beings owing to the awareness of one’s existence as a separate individual cut off from universal life. Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialist philosophers have shown that a civilized person’s existence has four attributes: individuality, freedom, choice, dread. This existential insecurity gets intensified by parental neglect, deprivation of love, unhappy experiences of childhood and unfavorable socio-economic conditions, which also produce feelings of inferiority.
Some people react to these feelings of insecurity and inferiority (of which they are seldom conscious) by becoming aggressive, arrogant or snobbish; whereas in some other people the reaction takes the form of timidity, submissiveness or false humility. Thus egoism and false humility (much of the humility we come across in life is of the false variety) are the ego’s two different methods of defense against existential fear. Both are signs of inner weakness.
The root cause of insecurity and inferiority is, again, the alienation of the ego from its true foundation, the Atman, and also from universal life. These feelings will disappear when a person realizes that his or her true nature is the Atman, which is immortal, free, and the source of all power, knowledge and beauty. When the ego capsule breaks, individual life communicates freely with universal life. A person who has overcome self-alienation and alienation from universal life becomes free from fear and sense of inferiority. Such people have no need to pretend to be more than or less than what they really are. These people are neither egoistic nor humble; they just remain as they really are. Instead of egoism and humility they have one unique characteristic: great inner strength.
A sizeable part of contemporary life is unreal. The more sophisticated it is, the greater its unreality. Unreality in life is of two types. One type is to be unrelated to the realities of the world around us. Most people cannot stand the reality of the outer world too long. They have to spend some time in the unreal world provided by novels, magazines, movies, television, radio and day dreaming—not to mention the “real” dreaming in sleep.
The other type of unreality is the lack of authenticity of a person’s own life. When we deal with people we cannot fail to notice that the lives of many of them are not authentic; they are not really what they appear to be. There is a wide disparity between their inherent dispositions, tendencies, capacities and creative impulses, on the one hand, and their outer appearance, behavior pattern, talk and actions, on the other.
A person may work as an engineer or a teacher but her or his real aspiration may be to become a musician or a politician. A person may appear to be calm and cheerful while within this person a storm may be raging. There are people whose behavior, gestures, manner of talking etc., are an imitation of somebody whom they admire. There are others who have no clear-cut views, opinions or independent judgment but just drift with the social group of which they are a part.
Lack of this kind of existential authenticity becomes a serious problem in spiritual life. If one’s japa, meditation, theoretical knowledge gained from books, and outer religious observances have little connection with one’s inner life and tendencies, then spiritual practices will not bear the desired fruit.
An unauthentic life does not mean a hypocritical life. Most of those whose lives are unauthentic, especially spiritual seekers, are sincere in their efforts. But they have repressed their real inborn tendencies, desires and views and shut them out of real life so effectively that they are either not conscious of them or refuse to recognize their existence. The major difficulty is the denial of one’s past, the attempt (usually unconscious) to forget one’s past. The roots of the ego lie in one’s past experience, and unless the past is integrated into the present life, the latter will continue to be unreal. It needs courage to face one’s past and integrate it into one’s present life. It needs great courage to lead an authentic life.
What is sadhana? Sadhana—which is generally defined as spiritual disciplines—is the flow of one’s whole life towards a spiritual ideal. This, however, is not the answer that suggests itself to many people. They usually think of sadhana in terms of the four yogas—karma yoga (the yoga of work), raja yoga (the yoga of meditation), bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion) and jnana yoga (the yoga of knowledge)—which are identified with certain techniques described in the books on them. These techniques in themselves have no value. They acquire meaning only when they are connected to real life. A real life is a total life. The purpose of yoga techniques is to give a higher direction of one’s whole life. If this primary purpose is forgotten, if yoga is regarded only as the following of a certain technique of meditation, repetition of a mantra, etc., yoga will only create divisions in one’s life instead of integrating it.
The problem becomes more complicated when we regard the four yogas as totally different techniques. Then the four yogas become four ways of dividing one’s life. This is a wrong understanding of yoga. There is actually only one yoga as there is only one life. But yoga can be applied at different levels of this one life, and the four yogas are only one yoga applied at four different levels of consciousness. This understanding has to be put into practice in order to convert one’s whole life into sadhana.
In conclusion it may be pointed out that all attempts at leading an integrated life and converting one’s entire life into an undivided consecration will be only partially successful until the higher unifying spiritual center known as buddhi or dhi awakens. For this awakening intense aspiration and divine grace are prime requisites.