By Swami Pavitrananda
Swami Pavitrananda was the head of the Vedanta Society in New York City from 1951 until his death in 1977. He was editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1931 to 1935 and was elected a Trustee of the Ramakrishna Order in 1947. This article was first published in the Nov-Dec, 1967 issue of Vedanta and the West.
“Hold fast to the lotus feet of the Lord. Remember him constantly. Don’t waste your time in idle thoughts. Struggle to control the outgoing mind and fix it on God. Struggle. Struggle hard! Then you will realize what joy there is in spiritual life, what fun it is. You must overcome maya, ignorance, even in this life. It won’t be easy unless you devote yourself to the work of the spirit. You must have faith, intense faith. Let no doubt enter your mind.
“God cannot be known by the finite mind. He is beyond this mortal mind and far beyond the human intellect. This apparent universe which you see is within the domain of the mind. The mind has conjured it up; it is its author, and the mind cannot go beyond its own domain.
“Behind the mind of which we are aware is a subtle, spiritual mind, existing in seed-form. Through contemplation and prayer this mind develops and with its unfoldment a new vision opens. The aspirant realizes many spiritual truths. However, this is not the final experience. The subtle mind also cannot reach God., the supreme Atman, but it leads you nearer to him. At this stage the world loses all its charms for the aspirant; he remains absorbed in the consciousness of God.
“Next comes what is called samadhi. The experience of samadhi is indescribable, beyond is and is not. In this blessed experience, there is neither happiness nor misery, neither light nor darkness. All is Infinite Being—inexpressible.” —Swami Brahmananada
In ancient days, long, long, ago, a sage of the Upanishads declared: “I have known that supreme Being who is beyond the ocean of infinite darkness, by knowing whom only one can conquer death. There is no other way.” Perhaps that is the earliest document still in existence of a person who came face to face with the ultimate reality.
There are other sages also mentioned in the Upanishads who spoke of their direct experience of the ultimate reality thus: “We have know that reality. That is the only way to have bliss in life. That is the only way to conquer death and to conquer life. Those who have not realized that are objects of pity.”
Not only the Upanishadic sages. Saints belonging to all religions say more or less the same thing. Some of the Hebrew prophets also spoke of direct communication with God or ultimate reality. Buddha spoke of enlightenment, which means great joy. He did not go into the details. He did not talk of a personal God, but he spoke of infinite bliss. Christ said that he had the direct experience. He said clearly, “Who hath seen me, hath seen the Father.” He was so positive. Records say that once he was transfigured.
In the medieval age, many Christian saints spoke of their direct experience. The pagan Greek mystic, Plotinus, said he had direct experience of ultimate truth. His disciple, Porphyry, testified that Plotinus had the experience three or four times, and he himself had it once. In India, in the medieval age—in the age of devotion—many saints, some of them unlettered, had direct access to god.
But the vision of God was experienced by persons not only in ancient days and in the medieval age, there are reliable records of some saints in modern times who had such experience. The experiences of the Upanishads were repeated in their lives. Truth does not pay homage to time. If it was realized in the past, it can be realized in the present.
In the modern age, in India, some had the direct experience of those truths. Their realizations were tested by agnostics and atheists, by persons who were not sentimental, who were not gullible, who had open minds and modern education. More than that, the influence of those persons who realized the Truth was immense, stupendous in their time. And their influence is still going on.
If you keep an open mind, you will find that religion is not the dream of an idle person; it is not “other-worldliness.” It brings the “other world” right into the present world, into our mundane existence. It has a direct relation to our mundane existence. Real religion brings heaven down to earth.
We have not to wait for death to have an experience of heaven. If that were so, heaven would not even be worth the attempt. If there is such a thing as heaven, it must be brought right here. It is not a fact that heaven is a limited geographical area beyond this world. There is only one world, one existence, one life. As the Upanishads say, if there is Truth, it must be realized in this very life, in this very world, while living in this human body—otherwise, life is a failure. Those persons who have realized Truth directly speak in such a bold, clear-cut-way, with no ambiguity: Truth must be known here and now.
But in modern times we find it hard to believe that these things are true. In spite of the fact that these truths have been directly experienced by persons even in the modern age, still we find it hard to believe that they are true. But ignorance is not the criterion of truth. If we are ignorant, we find it hard to believe what is true. We are to be pitied for our ignorance. We should try to find out how to remove that ignorance. That is rational. That makes sense.
Even many people who have a little spiritual inclination will say that these things could happen only in the remote past, in ancient times or in the medieval age. One bishop said recently that these things happened in the medieval age, as if they cannot happen now.
Some will say, “The saints and prophets of the past were so great. It is not possible for us to become like them.” And so they do not think the struggle is worthwhile. And the result is, even what could be expected of them, they do not do. They do not do even what they could. Other people make an attempt, but they are unable to continue. Because of their self-love or self-will they go astray. They become stranded on the path. They do not get anything.
If we are to judge what happens in spiritual life, what are the fruits of spiritual practice, we must remember one thing. In worldly life, many of those who have had splendid success did not dream that their success in life would be so great. They began their life in an ordinary way, they were struggling, and success began to come. The greater the success, the greater was their boldness. They began to aspire for more and more. Success leads to success. In the beginning they were not so bold.
Einstein was dull when young. His father despaired of him. Afterwards things came out. So also in spiritual life. Let us not, just in the beginning, think in terms of the highest. Naturally we shall get frightened. We shall see a great distance between us and the ideal. That is not the way to reach the ideal.
In mountain climbing, from the foot of the hill you see first a peak perhaps one thousand feet high, and what lies beyond is covered. When you go to the top of that peak, you find another thousand or two thousand feet above you. I remember the first time I went mountain climbing. From the foot of the hill we could see, at a great height, a peak covered with forest. When we reached that peak, we saw another big peak in front of us. That is what happens in mountain climbing, until you reach Mount Everest.
This is the way one attains the highest worldly success. Why should you think, as soon as you feel interested in religion, that the spiritual struggle is not possible for you because you will not be able to reach the highest?
When you go to school and learn the alphabet, you do not think at that time that you will become a great scholar. Even those who become great scholars afterwards have to begin with the alphabet and gradually their knowledge increases. Before beginning our religious life we should not ask, what does one gain? Or even being in religious life, we should not ask, what have we gained? We should not think that way. We do not take that attitude in worldly life; why should we do so in spiritual life?
The question is, are we dissatisfied with the present? That is the important point. If we are not dissatisfied with the present, we cannot aspire to real religion.
Most people are satisfied with the status quo, with eating, drinking and making merry (provided you can remain merry always). The first prerequisite for spiritual life is a great dissatisfaction with the present. That does not mean preaching that the world is full of misery. Let those who think the world is good be satisfied with it.
But fortunately there are persons who are not satisfied with the status quo. They want to break this dream. However great might be our share of joys, we cannot make any head or tail of this world. We do not know where we come from, where we shall go, or what will be the outcome of our effort. Each generation thinks it will bring the millennium to this world. And each generation leaves the world as it was before, if not in a worse condition. This is how things are going on.
But there are some persons who boldly refuse to spend their lives going after earthly enjoyment—physical or mental. They do not want enjoyment in heaven either. They want to know truth and nothing but truth—not relative truths, but the essence of truth. Some are people ready to sacrifice everything to know that truth. In their search for truth, scientists sacrifice many comforts and become absorbed in laboratory work. In the same way, when our dissatisfaction is great, we feel that at any cost we must know the meaning of life, we must know what is the real truth, not just partial truths.
That feeling also increases. You begin with some dissatisfaction and you try to find out the remedy for that dissatisfaction. When there is dissatisfaction, when there is a problem, sooner or later a solution comes. It has been the experience of all saints that when there is spiritual dissatisfaction in us, help comes. Sometimes help comes unexpectedly. You may perchance come across a book, or a friend, or a guide, or even a saint. That has been the experience of saints. Water finds its own level. We also find our own level. When there is great spiritual dissatisfaction, we begin to grow. Movement comes and we find our level, where we are at home. But we do not remain at that level. We go higher and higher.
What happens to those who deliberately try to live a spiritual life and do spiritual practice? In the beginning some find it all mechanical and dry, extremely dry. Others are carried along for a while by the excitement of new things, the glamour of the mysterious East. They will sit in lotus posture and stop their nostrils and think they are becoming great yogis.
But afterward the novelty wears off and there comes depression. Religious life is not a question of newness. You have to struggle and struggle till you reach the goal. This is an eternal problem. Those who are attracted by the novelty of something exotic are bound to be disillusioned, unless before that time they gain strength.
One must be ready to struggle. If you really want a thing, you will not grudge struggling for it. In the beginning, in most cases, the struggle will be mechanical. There might be a little excitement, just in the beginning; but after the novelty wears off, you have to struggle by the common light of day. It is a stark reality. Don’t go by dreams. For the time being, leave the dream higher up. Let our eyes be on the ground. We are “of the earth and earthly,” so we must struggle from were we are. The result comes sooner or later, depending on the person. Some people get the result immediately. Others may have to wait a short or longer period of time. Then interest grows. That is the important thing—interest grows. That means one is getting some result.
But even when interest grows, it does not at once take us higher up. Interest grows, but doubt also comes—sometimes doubt about the truth of what you are seeking, sometimes doubt about your ability to reach the goal. These things will come, more or less, to everyone. There will be ups and downs, as in every sphere of life, in every business. But if doubt is conquered, you get greater strength, greater interest. Love for God begins to grow.
Other things come, too. Your understanding becomes clearer and clearer. Sentimentality drops off. Many persons sentimentally dream about spiritual life, waiting for something spectacular to happen. But as you do your spiritual practice regularly, your understanding becomes clearer. You can easily detect what is wrong and what is false. Your reason becomes sharp, you emotion becomes chastened.
The mind sometimes comes under great control. But one cannot be sure of that. Sometimes the mind will be in a very favorable condition. You might have some spiritual experience which gives you great joy, but afterwards for a long time you might not have anything. It is something like fishing. When you put the bait in the water, sometimes there is a little nibbling, but afterwards nothing bites. According to some, God tests you in that way. In any case, these are the facts of spiritual life.
As you progress, your ego becomes less and less. Introspection grows; self-examination becomes automatic. You begin to see your shortcomings. You clearly see your ego; you clearly perceive your pride, your self-conceit. Ordinary people do not see their shortcomings. Or even if they see them, they do not like to look at them. They suppress their awareness of them. Some people even say that you should not try to find out your shortcomings, because your ego will resent it. But religious people will see their own shortcomings. Sometimes it might be frightening.
When the mind becomes sharp, one can see more clearly, and one sees one’s shortcomings. The greater your progress in spiritual life, the greater will be your sensibility, the more you will see your shortcomings. One has to put up with these things. This is the struggle. Gross mind and subtle mind. When your mind becomes subtle, you can easily detect what is in your subconscious mind.
One great saint said that when undesirable thoughts began to appear, he would stop them, even in the seed form, before they came to the surface. One learns the art of doing these things. One becomes forgiving. One develops love for one and all. Not all at once. One might not be engaged in social welfare activities, but that does not mean one has no sympathy for others. Don’t think those who are engaged in social welfare activities and make a loud noise, all have feelings for people. Even as in religious life, some of those who start with idealism afterwards become hardhearted. But in religious life one is struggling against that. One is cautious. One feels good thoughts coming, but harmful thoughts also come, one finds. One becomes patient and forgiving.
But don’t judge a religious person only by these things. You want to see the list of virtues which it is said will be visible in the life of a saint; and if, by that list, you find that a certain person is not a saint, you think he or she is good for nothing, he or she has not developed spirituality. It might be that they have cleared the plate of their mind of many shortcomings, but a dark spot remains somewhere, and they are struggling with that. This is the way one grows. All the while one is growing.
A spiritual aspirant might not himself be aware that he or she is growing. It is very difficult for people to find that they are growing, because they are struggling. They are in the thick of the fight. But those who are highly developed spiritually can watch and find how a struggling person is growing. It is said that sometimes a person who is passing through the worst period of spiritual struggle might be experiencing the highest thing. Through that struggle one is acquiring strength.
But spiritual life will not be all “dark night of the soul.” As I said, one will get joy also. Sometimes the mind will be very calm. Interest will develop into love for God, genuine love. The pity is that one has to pass through changes. The only remedy is perseverance. Those who really want to develop their spiritual life will stick to the struggle, because it is their life. What else will they do? They have to stick to it. But it is not all a dismal fight. It is not a hopeless task. At a period it might seem hopeless, but those who know, or those who get advice from persons experienced in spiritual life, expect that various obstacles will come. Laziness will come. False understanding will come. You may think you are having spiritual experiences when it is all imagination.
Those who come with sentimental aspirations at once will say that their kundalini has risen to this or that chakra. Once when I was in Seattle with the Swami in charge of our Center there, he wanted to buy something for me. At the store I was waiting while he was shopping, when a salesman came to me and said that he was the disciple of a certain yogi. I said I had heard that that yogi was not still alive. Well, he got his instruction from some disciple of a disciple of that yogi. That was all right. But then he began to talk about his kundalini, saying that after practicing for three or four months his kundalini had risen to this chakra and that chakra. I looked at him and wondered if he was out of mind. Really, I was alarmed about him. He was such a nice person. I was worried about him. But if one shows the least disbelief, such people are hurt. They are so sure they are getting realizations.
When there is sentimentality, that means one’s understanding has not become clear, one’s reasoning faculty has not become sharp. It is extremely necessary that your reasoning capacity be very sharp; otherwise you will be deluded. Patanjali warns that we may be seeing wrong things, we may be mistakenly thinking that we are getting spiritual experiences. Some people have visions. But you cannot always trust visions. A vision is tested by its after-effect, by the transformation it brings about in your character.
A vision might be simply a dream, an imagination, a fantasy. When you meditate, you are in another world, the thought world. Many fantasies come and go. You might be thinking those fantasies are visions. But they are not. If a vision does not change your life, if it does not give you inner strength, it is not a true vision.
But some visions are true. Even if they do not change one’s life completely, their memory gives one strength. I have heard from some people—thoroughly reliable people—who had true visions. They said that when a real vision comes, it is a splendid joy, an intense joy. It comes all of a sudden unexpectedly. “A great soul told me that when he was having spiritual problems, passing through a crisis, all of a sudden a vision came. It lasted. But even he told me that it was a phase. One gets a vision, but the spiritual struggle goes on. However, it is not the same struggle. One has got strength; one’s faith has increased.
So there are true visions, but not all visions are true. Beware of that. What you think is a vision might be your imagination.
Some people have visions, some do not. Because you do not get visions, that does not mean that you are not progressing. In one English book on mysticism, there is a nice distinction: imaginary vision and intellectual vision. In an intellectual vision you do not see any form. Your understanding become clearer, you perception becomes very clear and strong. It is like getting the result after doing a mathematical calculation. When one gets the result, one knows at once that it is the truth, the correct result.
In the same way, in spiritual life, you may get a very clear insight into some particular idea; you feel sure you have understood it. That makes a great impact on you. This is also a kind of spiritual experience. Sometimes an experience of this type is much better than an ordinary vision. What happens as a result of true spiritual experience is that your conviction grows.
Visions are secondary; the important thing is conviction. That gives you strength. You may have a vision which gives you joy for the time being—great joy, perhaps—but afterwards it is just a memory. That memory may give a little stimulus, but it does not necessarily give strength. What you want is strength and conviction. Real conviction is as good as realization. Once feels so clearly the truth of a thing.
When these experiences come, you begin to feel more and more that you are not the body, you are not the mind. You are separate from them. Behind this world which you see with your senses, there is another world which is much more real. In this world everything is changing, everything is unreliable, including the mind. Swami Vivekananda once said that everyone is irresponsible. Only those persons who have known the Truth are responsible; everyone else is irresponsible. One does not know what one will do.
But when there is conviction about the reality of the Spirit, one grows. The mind comes under greater and greater control. Inner strength comes. The important thing is that inner strength must come. Gradually one begins to feel that one is not body and mind, that one is something else. What that is one cannot define, but one is sure that it is much more real than body and mind.
When one can clearly see that mind is unstable, unreliable, one gets an idea of something beyond the mind. Sometimes one gets a glimpse of that. Sometimes when the mind is under control to a great extent one sees the reality of that thing more clearly. These experiences give one strength. Even a saint might say that he has not achieved anything, that he is still struggling. We might think, “How is it that even this man who has been struggling for so many years says he has not achieved anything?” He has surely got something. But he counts that as nothing. He wants more.
In this way one grows until one reaches a state where one sees, one feels that the whole world is non-existent. Only oneself and God exist. Two things exist. One has become almost zero. I say almost zero, for otherwise one could not see two. That is a great state in spiritual life. Afterwards, the two vanishes and only one remains, as in the quotation I gave at the beginning. The highest state cannot be described. It is neither “is” nor “is not.” “Is” or “is not” you perceive with your mind, but at that time one’s self has become lost in the eternity. Or, in terms of dualism, in terms of devotion, one’s love for God has become so great that one has lost oneself in God.
When we compare the saints of different religions, we find that they all say the same thing, though in different ways. One Sufi saint, describing what happens in spiritual life, said that when you begin, God is far away. We imagine God is somewhere in heaven, in some geographical area, where we will enjoy the afterlife. One feels God is far away. But why should God be far away? God is everywhere.
When one progresses, one feels God has come nearer and nearer. Still, one thinks of God, one loves God, as a separate entity. The worshipper and the object of worship are different. But when love for God becomes intense, one’s separate existence vanishes. That is called the highest state. That is called oneness, the ultimate reality, where nothing exists except supreme joy.
How do we know that that joy exists? Those rare people who come to the ordinary level after realizing the highest state, say that it was great joy. Sometimes people from outside can see that a knower of truth has so much joy in him or her.
Many people witnessed this in Ramakrishna’s life. Sometimes he would be in what is called samadhi, the transcendental state. His eyelids would not move; even if someone touched his eyeball, there was no response. To all intents and purposes the body was dead. His doctor, who was atheistic (though a very good man), found that his heartbeat stopped during his samadhi. But people would find great joy beaming through his face.
M., the recorder of The Gospel of Ramakrishna, when he first saw Ramakrishna in samadhi, thought it was strange that, though he was altogether oblivious of the surroundings, great joy was beaming through his face, coming through his apparently dead, inactive eyes.
That joy is so great, Ramakrishna would say, that it cannot be expressed in words. The Narada Bhakti Sutras a classic book on devotion, gives the simile of the dumb man who tasted something very sweet. He could not express his experience. Even we cannot express it. About a sweet food, we can say only that it tastes sweet; more than that we cannot express. But over and above that, a dumb man cannot talk at all.
In the same way, one cannot say anything about the experience of the highest truth. Ramakrishna would say that everything has been defiled except the knowledge of Brahman. Defiled means that it has been uttered with the lips.
How do we know that what is experienced in that state is real, and not a hallucination? We know that it is a reality from the life and teachings of wisdom that fall from their lips. Ramakrishna had no book learning, but his wisdom put to silence scholars, philosophers, leaders of society. When he would speak, they would sit silently and drink in every word that fell from his lips. That is what happens. This experience is a reality.
In our ignorance, we might say that there is no truth in religious experience. What can you say to one who is ignorant? If such a person would go to Ramakrishna, or any saint, he might simply smile and not answer. He would not care to give any answer unless he felt pity, or he felt there were spiritual potentialities in that person.
But in our spiritual life, struggle is a part of the path we take. And if we follow the path, it is up to us how far we can go. Everyone who makes the attempt is certain to get something. Wherever there is real spiritual hunger, it will be appeased, and one will be satisfied. “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” The words are so appropriate, so accurate.
If one has spiritual hunger, one will be filled. Spiritual hunger is more important than physical hunger. Those who struggle for their spiritual life, those who do spiritual practice and continue it, are sure to get something. Simply because you have tried for a period with care or carelessness and not got the result does not mean that others will not get it. Some will get it, more or less. To what extent, to what degree one will get it depends on one’s potentialities, one’s assiduity, one’s perseverance.
A great saint whom I knew said once (though not directly to me) that in worldly life you find that many persons fail in many things. One is not sure of success. But in spiritual life, he said, there is not a single instance of a person who sincerely tried and did not get any result. If one tries, one will surely get something.
But to get results, we cannot practice parenthetically, as M. would say. M. was a literary man; when giving advice, he used very accurate expressions. You cannot have spiritual life parenthetically—within brackets or between two dashes. We cannot busy ourselves with worldly things and do spiritual practice parenthetically. You cannot have religion, as Swami Vivekananda said, like an Oriental vase to decorate your table. If you have it as a decoration, it will remain a decoration. Not even that: it will dry up. Cut flowers will dry up tomorrow or the next day.
Describing the different stages of spiritual life, Buddha said that first comes the practice of ethical virtues, then faith, then energy. But that energy is of a different kind. When you have faith, your energy becomes different. You assert your claim. “Why should truth be denied to me?” Conviction has arisen. It is not simply a dreamy idea. From that conviction comes energy. Ramakrishna used to say to the Divine Mother. “Thou didst reveal thyself to Ramprasad, so why not to me?” This is how one prays when energy comes.
Then afterwards comes concentration, afterwards comes wisdom. These are the higher stages. But as in ordinary life we find our level, in spiritual life also, according to our struggle, according to the intensity of our spiritual practice, we shall find our level. But no one will go hungry if he has real hunger. One will get one’s fruits at the right time. The greater the hunger, the greater the fulfillment. That is spiritual life.