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.
Then the avadhuta introduces a second idea. For the realized soul there is no distinction of I and other. The supreme Self is one and indivisible. The light of consciousness reflected in each of us produces the appearance of separate selves, but just as there remains only one sun in the sky no matter how many pots of water reflect it, the supreme Self remains One without a second.
[8, the dove, kapotah] 7.53 “Once there lived a dove with its mate in a nest on the branch of a tree in the forest. … 7.58 In due time young ones were born to them, 7.59 and the happy pair reared them tenderly. … 7.62 One day, while the parent birds were away in search of food, 7.63 their young were captured in a net by a fowler. … 7.65 Returning and seeing her offspring in the net, the mother bird became distressed and … 7.66 … rushed to their rescue, only to be caught. … 7.71 Then the male dove, despairing, threw himself into the same snare and also lost his life. … 7.73 In the same way, one whose mind is uncontrolled, who has attachments and is tossed around by the currents of life, ultimately comes to grief. 7.74 Having attained human birth, which is an open door to liberation, one who, like the dove, remains attached to the ties of the world, runs the risk of falling into an abyss. …
This story is not meant to disparage love or family. Rather it is about our ties to what we create: to the feelings, opinions, and attitudes we formulate and nurture and then rush to defend through gut-level reactions, often to our own detriment or at our own peril. The dove is meant here as a symbol of unbridled emotion and unreasoning attachment. How often do we stop to consider why we value family, friends, and even possessions? One of the greatest rishis, Yajnavalkya, affectionately explained to his beloved wife Maitreyi that it is not for the sake of the husband that the husband is dear, but for the sake of the Self; it is not for the sake of the wife that the wife is dear, but for the sake of the Self, and so on. In other words, look for the divine reality abiding within everyone and everything, and you will know that there is no greater love and no greater wealth.
[9, the python, ajagarah] 8.2 “… Food comes of itself to the python, and he is satisfied with whatever chance may bring. So does the wise mendicant remain satisfied with whatever food he receives, be it well-cooked or ill-cooked, sumptuous or meager. … 8.4 Such a soul struggles not for the mere maintenance of life, but applies all energy and skill to keeping the mind united with the Divine, with life’s supreme goal.”
Everyone is endowed with energy or life-force, called sakti or prana. We cannot live without expending energy. Every breath, every beat of the heart, is an expression of energy. So is everything we think, feel, say, or do. But is our energy wisely spent? What results do we have to show for it? When striving for anything, we must ask if the object or the goal is worthwhile and if it will give lasting satisfaction. The holy man uses the example of the python to show that we should not strive vainly, expending all our physical, intellectual, and emotional strength on things that do not matter greatly. Instead, our precious energy should be directed to the supreme goal of life, which is Self-realization.
[10, the ocean, sindhuh] 8.5 “Like the ocean when it is calm and placid, the wise one is tranquil, unperturbed, and immersed in knowledge. 8.6 Just as the ocean, ever full, overflows not, the mind of the sage, absorbed in contemplation of God, is neither exhilarated by worldly abundance nor disturbed by its absence. …”
The small self is limited; the true Self is infinite like the ocean. When we experience our own divine fullness, we want for nothing. Like the calm sea, the mind of the sage is not lifted up in waves of exuberance or plunged down in troughs of despair. Life’s ups and downs fail to unsettle one who is wise.
[11, the moth, patangah] 8.8 “… As infatuation with the dazzling creations of maya robs one of discrimination and generates intense attachment, the person so deluded falls victim to their allures, just as the moth falls into the flame and perishes. …”
The moth drawn to the flame is a universal symbol in human culture, so clearly illustrating that those things that appear irresistibly attractive may prove intensely harmful. Thus it serves our own best interests to be ever in control of our thoughts, desires, and motivations and never to let them control us. Any form of addiction is a case in point. When we surrender our autonomy, we fall victim to forces outside of ourselves.
[12, the bee, madhukrit] 8.10 “Like the bee that gathers honey from many different flowers, the intelligent person seeks the essence of different scriptures and accepts the good in all religions. 8.11 But unlike the bee, who hoards its honey, an ascetic should not hoard. 8.12 Such a one is likely to perish along with his wealth, just as the bee when its honey is gathered.”
The bee imparts a positive lesson and a negative one. The first is to be open-minded, to recognize the truth in all religions, and to accept the benefits of all. The opposite is narrow-minded dogmatism. “My way is the only way” is not the statement of an enlightened soul.
The second lesson is about not hoarding; once again the message is nonattachment. As for the bee, whose experience in that regard proves unfortunate, the avadhuta will have more to say in a short while. But for the moment his thought turns to the example of the elephant.
[13, the elephant, gajah] 8.13 “An ascetic must not look upon anyone with lustful eyes, or even entertain such suggestions. One who does so will become bound, just as the bull-elephant is captivated by the female 8.14 … and then faces danger from competing males who may prove more powerful.”
Behind the natural attractions that we all may feel, there is an ever-lurking danger. Whether it is the flame that destroys the moth, or a rival pursuing the same goal that we are after, we must be ever aware of the risks that accompany our desires and also remember that our actions have consequences. Having said that, the avadhuta returns to the bee to elaborate on the negative lesson of hoarding:
[14, the honey-gatherer, madhuha] 8.15 “Just as the honey stored in the beehive is stolen away by the honey-gatherer before the bee can enjoy it, so can hoarded human wealth by taken from the greedy and miserly, who neither enjoy its pleasures themselves nor have the joy of doing good with it. …”
Wherever attachment arises, there is also the fear of loss. This is true whether we’re speaking of wealth, reputation, power, romance, or anything else that brings worldly satisfaction. The bee cannot enjoy the honey while hoarding it, and in the end the honey-gatherer takes it all away. Miserly people do not enjoy the benefits of wealth. Spending becomes painful, and many of life’s pleasures are foregone while the bank balance grows and grows. In the end the miser has nothing and has missed out on a lot.
This teaching recalls a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 6:19–21: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal; For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
The true treasure is not material but spiritual, and that is the lesson the avadhuta learned from the bee. Gathering the nectar from many flowers, it rejoices in the sweetness, just as the holy person finds joy in the knowledge of all religions without any sense of exclusiveness.
[15, the deer, harinah] 8.17 “The forest-dwelling ascetic should avoid whatever stimulates sensuality and should take warning from the deer, which, being attracted by the hunter’s feigned call of the doe, falls into his snare. …”
This is similar to the lessons gained from the moth and the elephant. The many allures of the world can be fraught with deception for those who fail to practice spiritual discrimination.
[16, the fish, minah] 8.19 “One who is overly indulgent, whose taste for food is uncontrolled and unduly excites the mind, meets with death like a fish caught on a hook. … 8.21 The palate is the most difficult sense organ to control, and one who has subdued it has control over all other senses.”
Again we have the same message. The example of the moth involved the sense of sight. With the elephant it was the delightful promise of touch. With the deer it was hearing, and now with the fish it is taste. The knowledge of the world gained through the senses is often misleading. We mistake the appearance for the reality, and like the poor fish become caught in the net of maya. The avadhuta’s call is to cultivate the higher knowledge and to recognize the divine reality behind all appearances.
Next the young wanderer tells the king his longest story:
[17, the courtesan, Pingala] 8.22 “Long ago in the city of Videha there lived a courtesan named Pingala. From her I learned a great lesson. 8.23 One evening, decked out in all her finery, Pingala, stood as usual at her door, ready to receive any chance lover. 8.24 Greedy for wealth, she watched the men who passed by, looking upon each as a possible source of gain. … 8.25 Many passed by, untempted by her beauty, … 8.27 while she waited at the door until long past midnight …. 8.28 Finally, tired and impatient, she felt within herself a deep disgust, and … recognized her own folly. …
8.30 “‘… I’ve truly been a fool to expect happiness from false lovers. 8.31 In my ignorance I’ve been running after unworthy creatures who cannot fulfill my longing, even while neglecting the true lover who dwells in my own heart! In him, the nearest of the near, are true delight and immeasurable wealth. 8.32 Needlessly have I afflicted my soul by this detestable livelihood, … hoping to gain wealth and pleasure. … 8.37 Surely the Lord has shown me his grace, since out of disappointment has arisen this great joy. … 8.40 Henceforth satisfied with whatever I have …, I shall delight in the company of him who is none other than my own Self ….’”
So far this story illustrates many of the themes that the avadhuta has learned in other ways, but at the end he reveals its essential message:
8.44 “Expectation is the source of the worst misery, and freedom from expectation is the source of supreme happiness. … This I learned from the story of Pingala.”
That is the main point. As soon as we form an expectation, we set ourselves up for disappointment. If we tie our well-being to something we wish to happen in the future, we can never be fully present in the moment. Part of our attention is taken up either in anticipation of something we look forward to or in anxiety that the outcome will not be all that we wish for. We are constantly unsettled, having lost our focus. To form an expectation is to impose a condition on our experience; how can that make us free?
Notice also that in presenting a prostitute as one of his spiritual teachers, the young holy man makes no moral condemnation. He recognizes that the world is filled with error, but that it is also pervaded by the Divine, and that a sublime lesson may be found even in an improbable place.
The story of the courtesan works on many levels. The pitfalls of expectation are its primary lesson, but we can also see in it a call to examine our own behavior: do we ever prostitute ourselves through ethical or moral lapses; do we ever compromise our integrity or betray our higher values for the sake of gain? Also there is the idea that good can come out of adversity; Pingala’s frustration led to her spiritual awakening. She created her own misery, but unconditional divine grace removed it.
The next lesson again comes from nature:
[18, the osprey, kurarah] 9.1 The avadhuta continued, “The more something is desired and sought after, the more it leads to misery. One who knows this and lets go of all attachment finds endless joy. 9.2 [This lesson I have learned from] an osprey, who carried a morsel of food in his beak. For as long as it flew with that bit of fish, it was chased and attacked by hungrier and stronger birds, but on letting it go, the osprey became free and at peace.”
The message is clear enough: attachment endangers us. Next:
[19, the child, arbhakah] 9.3 “Praise and blame are the same to me, and I have not the worry of those who are attached to family and possessions. I go about freely like a child, having my delight in the contemplation of the Self. 9.4 There are two who are free from worldly care and steeped in joy: one is the child, who is unthinking, the other is the sage, who has gone beyond the varied range of human experiences.”
The sastras speak of eight fetters that bind us to the woes of worldly life. One of these is sila, the concern over good conduct. We become tied up in worry over what other people think of us. Is our conduct praiseworthy? Will we win approval and admiration? What is behind this concern? Of course it is the ego. Let go of the ego and be as spontaneous and innocent as a child—that is what the avadhuta is saying. Stop calculating and simply enjoy. Sri Ramakrishna likewise taught that after realizing God, one has the ego of a child (Gospel, 860g). He explained that the ego of a child is not attached to anything (708e). On another occasion he compared it to a line drawn on water (171a, 480c). We make such a big deal of the ego, yet Sri Ramakrishna tells us to make it insubstantial.
The next story also begins with concerns over what people think, but then the avadhuta discovers another lesson as well:
[20, the maiden, kumari] 9.5 “… Once a young man, along with his retinue, came to the home of a maiden to ask her hand in marriage. Because no one else was at home, the maiden herself had to receive the visitors. 9.6 To prepare food for them, she went off to husk the paddy, but as she toiled, the bangles on her wrists jangled loudly. 9.7 Embarrassed that she would be discovered at such a menial task …, she broke the bangles, one after the other, until only one pair remained on each arm. 9.8 But even those jangled as she went on husking, so she broke one of each pair. Then there was silence. 9.9 This is a lesson I have learned by wandering about and observing life: 9.10 Where many people live together in one place, quarreling results. Even where there are only two, there is still conversation instead of contemplation of the Self. So I find it better to be like the single bangle on either arm of the maiden, solitary and contemplative.”
Next he elaborates on the process of contemplation:
[21, the arrow-maker, sarakrit] 9.11 “Seating oneself firmly, controlling the vital energy, one should fix the mind on a single thought. Through dispassion one should curb the outward movement of the mind with great vigilance and learn to achieve steadiness in concentration. 9.12Through steadiness, one overcomes both the restlessness and the lethargy of the mind. … 9.13 This steadiness is like the state of a smith who fashions an arrowhead. His mind is so fixed on his task that he would be unaware of even a king and his entourage passing by. Even so is the mind of a sage. One who is absorbed in contemplation of the Self enters a state of pure awareness, in which no thought relating to anything external or even internal can intrude.”
[22, the snake, sarpah] 9.14 “Like the snake, the sage should be a lone wanderer, reticent in speech and calling no place his home. … 9.15 The serpent builds no home for itself but rests contentedly in holes made by other creatures.”
Here the avadhuta describes the lifestyle, behavior, and attitudes of a wandering ascetic in ancient India. Most of us are householders in the twenty-first-century West, where our society does not support the modus vivendi of the holy wanderer. Still, we can cultivate the mental attitudes of nonattachment and contentment that the avadhuta speaks of. In that simple change of outlook we can find great peace of mind.
Another image from the natural world, found also in the Upanishads, is that of the spider:
[23, the spider, urnanabhih] 9.16–18 “At the end of a cosmic cycle, the Lord withdraws the universe which his own maya has brought forth. Then he rests in his own true being as the sole reality. Transcending all relative existence, he is boundless freedom, the ocean of pure consciousness and bliss. 9.19 When ready to create anew, he weaves the cosmos out of the threads of his energies, the three gunas. … 9.21 Just as the spider produces its web from out of itself, so does the great Lord, all by himself, issue forth, extend, enter into, and again withdraw the totality of creation.”
Finally, there is the lesson learned from the caterpillar-wasp. Its presentation is somewhat confusing, because the phenomenon the avadhuta describes was not understood scientifically at the time. The caterpillar-wasp is a parasitic insect that injects its eggs into the body of a caterpillar. The wasp larvae devour the caterpillar from inside, leaving the heart and brain intact so the host will live as long as possible. When the caterpillar finally dies, the larvae weave cocoons out of the caterpillar’s own silk, and then within two weeks a new generation of wasps emerges from the cocoons. Here is how the avadhuta tells it:
[24, the caterpillar-wasp, pesakrit] 9.22 “On whatever a person thinks intently, whether through love or hate or fear, so does he become. 9.23 The caterpillar, cowering in its hole and cringing at the buzzing of the wasp, eventually becomes a wasp. Thinking only of its foe, it becomes transformed into the object of its fear.”
The avadhuta may have had the science wrong, but the spiritual principle is sound. In the Brihadaranyakopanishad (4.4.5) Yajnavalkya instructs that as is one’s intention, so is the deed, and as is the deed, so does one become. A later seer, Svetasvatara, makes the same point: “The dweller in the body, through its intentions, involvements, outlooks, and delusions, assumes a succession of forms and conditions according to its [mental] actions (Svetasvataropanishad 5.11). From the book of Proverbs (23:7) in the Jewish Bible, we have the same idea: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” The avadhuta’s example is a cautionary tale, warning us not to be unduly influenced by what is around us, lest we turn into that which we fear or despise.
In closing, the young wanderer tells the king:
9.24 “All this have I learned from these many teachers. Now hear what I have learned from my own body. 9.25 Reflecting on its transitory nature …, I have awakened myself to dispassion and discrimination. … 9.28 “The Lord, after bringing various forms into existence, such as trees, reptiles, animals, birds, insects, and fish …, brought forth the human form, whose intelligence alone is capable of knowing the indwelling Self. 9.29 Although impermanent, human birth is the rarest of blessings. … Therefore one who is wise should leave vain pursuits to the vain and should strive for the knowledge that liberates.
9.30 “After learning many lessons from many teachers, I have gained the light of right understanding. Without any sense of I or mine, I move freely about the world.”
Then Sri Krisna concludes the narrative:
9.32 “ … Having said all this, the young avadhuta took leave of King Yadu, and the king, thus instructed by a knower of Brahman, also became free of attachment and established in peace.”
This is only an overview of the Puranic tale. Any one of its two dozen examples can be food for deeper thought. Further contemplation will reveal successive layers of meaning and increasingly deeper insights.
As long as we divide our experience of life into separate categories of sacred and secular, spiritual and non-spiritual, we fragment our view of reality and miss out on the greater truth. The avadhuta’s message is to see spiritual guidance in the ordinary things around us—not to cut ourselves off from the world but to divinize the world. How many spiritual lessons do we overlook every day simply by not paying attention, or by thinking that the holy is somehow apart from the mundane? There are teachers all around, if only we attune ourselves to the divine presence in and through all things.