By Devadatta Kali
This lecture was given at the Ramakrishna Monastery in Trabuco on May 31, 2009 and at the Hollywood Temple on September 27, 2009. We are posting this lecture in two parts.
Every culture has a world-view or even a package of world-views, and that is as true of twenty-first century America as of any other time and place. The American view of the world rests primarily on the developments of European civilization, which derive in large part from the ancient Semitic and Greco-Roman cultures. These are the foundations of what we call modern Western civilization.
On the other hand, as Vedantins we embrace ideas that are sometimes different from those of the modern West. These ideas about humankind, the world, and divinity are distinctive in many ways. It is equally true that, as holders of a minority view, we find ourselves influenced by the ideas of the dominant culture, just through the experience of our everyday lives.
At the present time the American world-view is dominated by two myths: the myth of progress and the myth of apocalypse. These represent the two ends of the spectrum, and—as is so often true—in some ways the two extremes look rather similar.
The myth of progress is a secular, humanistic world-view. It tells us that humans have the capacity to make the world better and better. With science and technology we can understand how the world works and then refashion it for our increasing convenience, comfort, and pleasure. This myth of progress owes much to the Renaissance philosopher Rene Descartes, whose thinking led to a radical distinction between mind and matter. This dualism contributed in turn to Newton’s view of the universe as a gigantic machine that human reason can learn to master and control. Even if God initiated creation and determined the mechanistic laws that govern the universe, he then left the machine to run on its own. In other words, the Divine is remote from our ordinary experience.
While the myth of progress forms a huge part of the modern Western world-view, America also sees itself as one of the most religious nations on earth. This is where the myth of apocalypse comes in. The apocalyptic world-view has a long history, going back to the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Iran, which centered on a cosmic conflict between good and evil. Eventually the world would come to a fiery, all-purifying end, when God would at last prevail over the evil spirit. This apocalyptic dualism passed into Judaism and later into Christianity, where it forms the core of today’s fundamentalism.
The myths of progress and apocalypse have several points in common. Both speak of refashioning the world—either through human intelligence and ingenuity or through a divine intervention that brings the world as we know it to a catastrophic end and purges everything in fire. Both myths are grounded in dualism. The scientific view rests on a duality of mind and matter. The apocalyptic view rests on a duality of good and evil. In both myths God is somehow separate from this world. The myth of progress has him exiled by science and reason, and the myth of apocalypse has him temporarily pushed aside by Satan, who appears to be running the show.
Distinct from either of these dualistic scenarios, Vedanta favors the nondualistic view of reality. We Vedantins do not subscribe to a view that imposes a firm divide between the sacred and the profane, between the religious and the secular, or between spirit and matter. Swami Prabhavananda was fond of recounting an important lesson he had learned from his guru. The punch-line, which Swami Brahmananda delivered in English, is: “Show me the line of demarcation where matter ends and spirit begins.” These words remind us that we do not live in a world where we see the Divine as otherworldly.
The rishis of early Vedic times regarded everything in the world as imbued with spirit. The Divine was understood to manifest through natural forces. The rishis saw the power of God in the sun, the wind, the lightning, the rain, the dawn, the night, the flowing rivers and all other facets of nature. They called this divine power Surya, Vayu, Indra, Parjanya, Ushas, Ratri, Sarasvati, and a host of other names and then concluded that by whatever name it is called, the divine reality is One.
The Chandogyopanishad expressed that same idea in the statement sarvam khalv idam brahma—”all this world is surely Brahman.” Similarly the seer Svetasvatara celebrated everything in the world as divine: the One has become all this—humankind, every sort of living creature, and the whole of the natural world. Divinity pervades the here-and-now, even while transcending the here-and-now. Reality, or Brahman, is One, and that One is the Self or pure essence of all that exists.
If the world is God’s own self-expression, then it follows that there should be signs of spiritual truth all around. And that is exactly what we find in a famous narrative from the Srimad Bhagavatam. This huge text is perhaps the best known of the Puranas. The Puranas are a class of sacred texts that embody the lofty truths of the Upanishads, illustrated through stories of kings, sages, devotees, and a host of other creatures, both natural and mythical. The eleventh book of the Bhagavatam is known as the Uddhava Gita, and it consists of Sri Krishna’s teaching to his disciple Uddhava. Its style is very different from that of the Bhagavadgita, because it follows the Puranic format of storytelling.
One of Krishna’s stories recounts the meeting of King Yadu and a young holy man, whom the text calls an avadhuta. An avadhuta is a person who has cast off all worldly ties and lives in a spiritually free state.
As the conversation begins, King Yadu, says: :
7.26 “O Brahmin, you are indeed possessed of great wisdom. Tell me, please, how you have come to roam about in the world as carefree as a child. 7.27 Usually people pursue the goals of virtue, wealth, and pleasure, driven by their desire for long life, fame, and prosperity. 7.28 But you, who are strong, learned, capable, handsome, and well-spoken, show no such desires, no striving at all! …
7.29 “While others are scorched by the flames of desire and greed, you remain untouched by their heat, like an elephant submerged in the waters of the Ganga. 7.30 O holy one, please tell me what fills your heart with constant joy, though you appear to be poor and alone.”
Here we have a king who possesses great worldly wealth, power, fame, and responsibility. We would consider him privileged, but there is no doubt that he feels the weight of his privilege, however grand and glorious it may seem. He is a man who appears to have everything in this life, yet when he comes across a wandering mendicant who has nothing—except serenity, joy, and freedom—he gets to thinking. He, the king, is not unperturbed, his moods fluctuate according to the conditions that surround him, and his sense of responsibility ties him to the best interests of his subjects. Despite all his worldly power, he is not free.
7.31 Being thus questioned, … the noble avadhuta replied: 7.32 “O King, I wander about the earth a free soul, having received wisdom from many teachers. Listen and hear who they are. 7.33–35 There are twenty-four gurus from whom I have learned great lessons and have gathered my wisdom. They are: the earth, air, space, water, the moon, fire, the sun, the dove, the python, the ocean, the moth, the bee, the elephant, the honey-gatherer, the deer, the fish, the courtesan Pingala, the osprey, the maiden, the arrowsmith, the snake, the spider, and the caterpillar-wasp. 7.36 Hear from me which guru taught me what, and how.
We can appreciate what the young holy man is about to tell on more than one level. On the surface we can enjoy it as a conversation between a king and a mendicant. On a deeper level we can identify with the king. His concerns are our concerns, and the sadhu can impart some instruction that will be helpful to us. On a still deeper level we can understand the king and the avadhuta as two aspects of ourselves. The king represents that side of our nature concerned with ordinary, day-to-day living, and the avadhuta represents the wisdom of our own higher nature.
In answer to the king’s question of how the holy man found serenity and fulfillment, the avadhuta explains that he learned from teachers all around. This takes us back to the initial point. Society in the modern Western world for the most part draws a distinction between the sacred and the secular. For many people religion is what they do on Sunday morning, and the rest of the week is for work or recreation. Life is compartmentalized, and so is the way people look at it. What is holy remains apart from what is not. But here the avadhuta is saying that he has attained spiritual wisdom by looking at the world around him. He says that his gurus are the five elements, the moon and sun, the ocean, and a host of living creatures: birds, insects, reptiles, fish, animals, and human beings.
Then he explains, one by one, who the twenty-four teachers are and the lessons he learned from them.
[1, earth, prithivi] 7.37 “From earth I have learned that one who is self-controlled should never depart from the chosen path but should at all times remain steady, forbearing, and poised, even in the face of disturbance from others. 7.38 From the mountains of the earth and the trees that grow on their slopes, I have learned also that one who is wise should strive unselfishly to yield good to all. This must be the purpose of one’s life. …”
There are two lessons here. The first is that spiritual life requires stability. There must be a sense of resolve to reach the goal, and accompanying that resolve there must be a sense of steadiness, above all of mental steadiness. One should remain immune to the distractions of the surrounding world. If the mind is held steady, then one’s behavior will also be steady, rational, purposeful. A person who is easily swayed by others often acts erratically and follows an uncertain course, turning first here and then there but rarely toward the goal.
The second lesson is one of altruism. Just as the activity of the trees on the mountainside is to grow and yield food and timber and other useful products for the benefit of others, the actions of a spiritual aspirant should likewise be selfless. Action performed for the sake of another directs the mind away from one’s own ego, and it is the ego-sense that is the source of so many human problems. It is the ego that restricts the sense of who I am to a small, individual self, separate from other individual selves. It is the ego also that seeks to possess, that loves and hates, that seeks to impose its will and comes into conflict with other egos. Be steady and selfless at all times—that is the lesson the avadhuta learned by contemplating the mountains and the trees on their slopes.
[2, air, vayuh] 7.40 “As the air remains unaffected by contact with objects pleasing or displeasing, so a person who is wise, though moving among sense objects of diverse qualities, should remain untouched by good or bad. 7.41 Such a yogin, though inhabiting a body, performs its functions but remains as unaffected as the air, for that wise one is established in awareness of the Self.”
Human life consists of a variety of experiences, which the sastras tend to classify under the headings of sukha and duhkha, usually translated as happiness and misery. Sukha refers broadly to a sense of well-being, and duhkha to the opposite.
We can rate our life experiences at any place along a continuum from one extreme to the other. The quality of an experience can be positive, negative, or neutral—good, bad, or indifferent. However, it is human nature to seek the pleasant and to avoid the unpleasant or the merely boring. Our activity is driven by the related principles of attraction and aversion, which are two sides of the same coin. Why is this?
The reason is that we are ignorant of who and what we truly are. Our true nature is the infinite Self, paramatman, and not the finite soul, jivatman. Forgetting our perfection, which is free of any want or need, we feel instead our individual smallness and lack, and we try to compensate through seeking those things that we think will bring fulfillment. At the same time, we seek to avoid whatever we think will bring pain or misery.
Knowing the true Self, whose nature is infinite fullness and constant joy, we are freed from the trap of attraction and aversion. As the avadhuta says, one who is established in the awareness of the Self remains as free as the air, untouched by life’s joys and sorrows, which are only relative and passing.
[3, space, akasam] 7.42 “Thus identified with Brahman, the wise one understands that the Self, like the all-pervading space is everywhere present and everywhere the same in all that moves and does not move. 7.43 Just as the clouds, driven by the wind, do not affect the sky, so the Self remains untainted by the changes of embodied existence, made of elements and propelled by time.”
When we free our thought from judging everything in terms of liking and disliking, from wanting to have and wanting to avoid, we free ourselves from the tyranny of duality. For India’s rishis of ancient times, the sky was the visible, shining symbol of infinity. The Rigvedic hymns conceptualize this nondual reality as Aditi, the Divine Mother, whose name means “undivided.” Here the avadhuta says that one’s true identity, the higher Self, is as vast as the endless stretches of space. Upon enlightenment the yogin’s sense of selfhood swells to fill and embrace the entire universe. In the unchanging reality of the Self, all the passing events of life make no more effect and leave no more trace than the clouds in the sky.
[4, water, apah] 7.44 “Like water, which is clear, soothing, sweet, and purifying, the sage, through holiness and love, purifies all who seek his company.”
At the physical level water is the element that washes, cleans, and purifies. The same is true metaphorically at the spiritual level. Probably all religions of the world use water in some way as a means to purify and consecrate. Muslims and Buddhists perform ritual acts of washing before entering their holy places; Hindus bathe in sacred rivers and employ water in the daily puja; Christians baptize with water, and so on. The avadhuta, having contemplated the purifying power of water physically and symbolically now extends the metaphor to the character of a holy person. Being in the presence of a great soul has a positive effect on others. A true man or woman of God radiates love and joy, and others benefit. Just as it is the nature of water to cleanse and purify, so is it the nature of the realized soul, through the outpouring of divine love, to be a blessing to the rest of humanity.
[5, fire, agnih] 7.45 “The sage shines with spiritual ardor. Without possessions and unpossessed by any desire, the sage is in constant communion with Brahman and remains unpolluted like an all-consuming fire. 7.46 This divine power is sometimes hidden, at other times revealed to those who are spiritual seekers. … 7.47 As fire assumes the forms of burning objects, so the all-pervading Lord assumes the forms of all beings in this world of cause and effect, through every body and every mind.
There are two ideas here. First, the free soul shines with spiritual ardor. The English word ardor is identical to the Latin word for flame. It carries the idea of light, brilliance, splendor, and enthusiasm. It also carries the idea of consuming. The spiritual ardor, or tapas in Sanskrit, burns away the impurities of ignorance until only knowledge remains. This great joy for the divine is always there in the heart of the free soul but sometimes remains hidden from onlookers in the same way that fire lies hidden in wood until the heat of friction causes the flame to burst forth and reveal itself. Spiritual practice generates a metaphorical heat, which burns away impurity and reveals the higher Self.
The second idea has to do with the essential nature (svabhava) of the divine Self. Just as fire appears to assume the shapes of the objects it burns, the light of consciousness, which is the essence of the Self, assumes all the forms in the world of our experience.
[6, the moon, candramas] 7.48 “With the moon’s waxing and waning, changes take place in its phases, though not in the moon itself. So with the revolving of time, the changes that unfold [in a human life] from conception to the cremation ground pertain only to the body and not to the Self. …”
Observing the moon in the night sky, growing from the thinnest crescent to a full orb, turned the avadhuta’s thoughts to the contemplation of time. The moon’s waxing and waning enabled early people to keep track of time, and with the passage of time comes inevitable change. Time and change are inseparably interwoven. Over time all living creatures die and the products of human endeavor will perish. And so, the moon, for the avadhuta, is a reminder of the fragility of existence. Still, he does not grieve but points out that change belongs only to the body and not to the indwelling Self.
[7, the sun, ravih] 7.50 “Just as the sun drinks up water with its rays, later to release it as rain, so does the yogin experience the world through the senses and their objects, not for selfish enjoyment but in order that his experiences may benefit others as needed. 7.51 When the one divine Self abides in its own supreme nature, there is no experience of I and other. When the supreme Self is reflected in manifold qualities, it appears to be many, just as the single sun appears as many when reflected in many vessels of water. …”
Here we have a poetic description of the natural cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation: the divine power that is the sun drinks up water, converts it to clouds, and releases it to earth again as rain. The rain causes the crops to grow, and living beings are nourished. In the same way, human action should be performed for the well-being of others.