Coming to the United States in 1957, Swami Shraddhananda was head of the Vedanta Society in Sacramento from 1970 until his death in 1996. He was the author of Seeing God Everywhere and Story of an Epoch as well as many articles published in both English and Bengali journals. “Freedom” appears in Seeing God Everywhere (Vedanta Press, 1996).
The ideal of freedom holds a cherished place in human hearts, equalled in depth and intensity only by the feeling of love. To experience both is our natural state. Swami Vivekananda, the great mystic who at the turn of the century inaugurated the Vedanta movement in America, was a tireless adherent of freedom. He was fascinated by the historical account of the American struggle for freedom and independence. In his poem “To the Fourth of July,” he expressed his belief that the American experiment was of spiritual origin and was the forerunner of the ultimate freedom of all oppressed peoples. So impressed was the Swami that he chose the fourth of July as the day of his passing. Much of his writing was concerned with attaining inner freedom. Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading architects of American independence, wrote, “The God who gave us life also gave us freedom.” John Adams, the second president of the United States, died with the words “Independence forever” on his lips.
Significantly, death claimed both these great Americans in the same year and on the same day—the fourth of July. Jefferson and Adams were primarily concerned with the political aspect of freedom. But freedom has a much broader concept which embraces all spheres of human existence.
With the intake of our first breath, our instinctual urge for freedom is born. A babe in arms methodically advances from the crawling stage to standing, and thence to walking. Each stage symbolizes a fresh experience of freedom. The child instinctively knows when the stage of lying helpless has been outgrown, and restlessly seeks action. That embryonic sense of freedom is constantly expanding; it has no end. Physical and mental growth therefore challenge any obstruction to our inherent urge for freedom.
Recently feminists have challenged the ancient Judaic male concept of God. Why should God be construed only as male—as Father? They hold that the human concept of God should include the female aspect. Statistics indicate that increasing numbers of women are joining the professional ranks and are also entering the ministry. The latter is especially true in some Protestant churches. Hence the increasing rejection of the concept of God as a solely male principle. This is a healthy sign and a symbol of the urge for freedom.
The Indian sages foresaw this identical situation thousands of years ago and formulated both the male and female aspects of God. The ancient sages depicted Shiva, the male principle, and Shakti, the female principle, as together symbolizing the concept of God where both male and female principles are equally combined. Shiva represents the tranquil, inactive state, while the female principle, Shakti, represents the dynamic aspect of God. According to ancient Hindu teachings, Shiva, the quiescent element of God’s truth, and Shakti, the dynamic aspect, together represent God the Father and God the Mother; both are actually one and the same.
In the Old Testament we read that God, through Moses, gave the world the Ten Commandments. It may be asked why commandments need be given to bind human conduct. Provocative questions such as this illustrate the urge for freedom which motivates the human mind to challenge at will. Why should there be morality? Illumined sages have held that morality is not only a bulwark of freedom, but it is also instrumental for the realization of a higher and more sublime freedom. To safeguard this ideal, well-defined restrictions or moral disciplines have to be imposed. Therefore, although the Ten Commandments constitute barriers to human freedom, they bind human conduct in order to provide a higher freedom.
It is indisputable that under the guise of freedom, a form of bondage or slavery can ensue. Questions such as, Why should there be marriage? Why not enjoy free sex? are posed. In the sacred name of freedom, it is permissible for these moral concepts to be challenged. However, it would seem that queries such as these are not prompted so much by clear-cut reasoning as by uncontrolled passions. Instead of freedom, one who harbors such desire is in bondage to base, animal instincts. This state of mind is the antithesis of inner freedom.
When translated from theory into practice, the noble concept of freedom is inevitably confronted by many pitfalls if not wisely and ably directed. Should it be imperfectly understood or misapplied, it inevitably degenerates into some form of slavery affecting all spheres of life.
One who craves freedom from ignorance and unwholesome passions is apt to search for God through prayer and meditation. Such a person professes to love God and claims to be a servant of God. This constitutes a form of slavery—slavery to God. But should such a seeker be taken to task on this point, a heated denial would no doubt ensue. For though this state is submission to God, it is actually a form of transcendent freedom because one who is able to sincerely love and experience God knows the highest form of freedom—freedom from the ills and sorrows of life. The seeker may feel servitude toward God by acknowledging God as master, but at the same time he or she intuitively knows that this “slavery” is raising him or her to spiritual heights through transcendental experience. Such a devotee is released from bondage to passions such as hatred, violence, pride, and jealousy. The limitations to freedom which the ignorant experience on the material plane are nonexistent to devotees of God.
A voluntary curtailment of freedom is vital in order for greater freedom to ensue. One of the most far-reaching truths that India has revealed to the world is that all human beings are basically and eternally free—free from all bondage, whether of space, time, natural laws, moral obligations, and/or the bondage of religious worship. However, the realization of this blessing is not immediate. One must spiritually evolve through barriers to freedom such as moral and religious disciplines. These involve prayer, worship, and meditation.
From a spiritual standpoint, the created universe itself constitutes bondage. The realization of the implications of this bondage and its far-reaching effects is a slow and arduous process. For example, political bondage, social barriers, and inordinate attachments are but a few threats to inner freedom. A spiritually-evolved person becomes ever more conscious of the insidious subtleties of material bondage. This great revelation, however, is denied to those who are not on the spiritual path. They are deluded by the material senses which are treacherous and unreliable. One of the results of spiritual growth is the realization that bondage to the material senses poses the greatest threat to our inner freedom.
A dedicated follower of the spiritual path challenges his or her own body much as Saint Francis of Assisi did when he aspired to higher experiences of God. In this respect he found his physical body a great handicap. When he wished to meditate he felt drowsy; when he wanted to pray, his body clamored for food. He would soundly berate his body, calling it “Brother Ass.” Conversely he would say, “Well, Brother, you have cooperated so you shall have food today.” The food consisted of weak lentil soup, the main constituent of Saint Francis’ meager diet.
All material existence is characterized by constant change. This being so, a dedicated seeker senses an underlying threat to freedom in the existent life plan. In a mystical mood, Shakespeare put the following words on the lips of a dying soldier, philosophizing on the futility of the world’s sham:
But thought’s the slave of life, and life time’s fool;
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop.
As Shakespeare observed, the mind is but a tool of life; it is not the ultimate. Through our powerful spiritual potential, we can subdue and overcome the mind. The mind is only a servant of human life, but without its guidance life would be impossible. Again, life itself is not independent, being in turn the slave of time.
Ages ago there was no life on this planet; life evolved from a cosmic source at a later, specific stage of evolution. Time, then, is more powerful than life. There is a school of scientific thought which holds that at some distant time there will be no life on this planet. The solar system, indispensable to life, will cease to be. Shakespeare’s lines, then, pose a challenge: Is there anything more powerful than time?
The innermost soul of humanity replies in the affirmative. We can overcome time, for time “must have a stop.” This is not idle speculation. Dedicated followers of truth have been known to stop time. When does time stop? It stops in the realm of the Infinite. The infinite Self is not subject to time; the Self nullifies time. Time and space are mere projections of, and confined to, the human self on the material plane. Infinite Consciousness, which is our own true nature, is totally independent of anything belonging to space, time, or causation. According to Vedanta, God has an absolute nature and that nature is above the personal God to whom dedicated human beings meditate, pray, and delight in surrendering themselves.
Spiritual progress is marked by specific stages; there is no royal road or shortcut. The way is hard and long, requiring strict, supervised discipline. Then slowly but surely, through patient dedicated worship, meditation, and prayer, spiritual development gradually occurs. This stage is reached by worshipping God faithfully as the God of infinite love, power, and compassion. Complete freedom from one’s lower animal nature inevitably results.
When this sublime stage is reached, we realize that God has guided our lives. Being adjudged ready, we become the recipients of a higher spiritual experience. God now reveals Himself as absolute Truth. It is at this stage that freedom in the truest sense becomes a reality. We feel unity with everything and are no longer identified with the physical body; we become one with God the Absolute.