Brahman-Consciousness

In the last post, the nature of non-dual awareness leading to bhakti was discussed. A question arises as to why this awareness is necessary.

What is Brahman-consciousness?

It is the recognition that the boundaries we draw between one and the other are artificial. We are all appearances of the Brahman in matter, energy and spirit. We live in the Brahman. Where else could we live? The Vedic sage would announce, The Brahman is my home.

Some say that we are parts of the Brahman. But, one must be very careful about what ‘part’ means. We are not individual pieces brought together to constitute a whole. Since we are conscious entities disposed to identify and work with objects, we divide the world into the several. This is an artifact of the mind. Are there several objects? No. What we regard as several things are several expressions or appearances of one Brahman. The Brahman is not a thing to be constituted by parts or discerned through them.

Brahman-consciousness is the realization of kinship with everything there is. The hand does not poke the eye when the hand and the eye are from the same body. There is kinship between them. But the hand pokes the eye of another because of an absence of the sense of kinship.

The legal system and our sense of justice have largely become corrupted by the fancies of selfishness. Anything that harms me must be put down as violently as possible, and we can legalize it as long as a large number of us agree that it is right.  Nations try to cultivate brute strength. They are all vying with each other to become more powerful, each with their own judgements of right and wrong. The greatest folly is being enacted in front of our eyes where we think that matters of truth and ethics can be settled by a display of might.

It has been the case in history that the more spiritual a civilization, the less inclined it becomes in cultivating physical might or sophisticated weaponry. The absence of external might is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. However, history tells us about how peaceful and civilized peoples have been run over by those with a thirst for power or wealth. In India, during the invasions of medieval times, we listen with a shudder to some spiritually blind poet extolling his master for exterminating a thousand saints and monks who were a distraction to his ‘noble’ pursuits. There are distasteful jokes about some saint or monk being tricked by a ‘clever’ fellow. When we pause to look around at the impact of all this cleverness, there is only pain, distrust, wounds, revenge, resentment and grieving. The world has been pillaged of her wealth to make some pretty cash for investors. Weapon business is good because it provides employment and promotes the economy. Birds can be grown in horrifying conditions and fattened for food. These are the expressions of our moral consciousness today. We may look down upon those incarcerated as sinners, but we ourselves, by our collective unconsciousness, are participants in nurturing this environment of violence.

The problem is obvious. Anyone, who becomes spiritually aware, becomes perceived as weak. I am not spiritually mature by any stretch of imagination but a good number of wise souls have already judged that I am not ambitious because I am insane, incompetent and impotent. Spirituality is for the weak, they say.  In reality, it takes great strength to keep one’s courage and peace in midst of storm. The world is such that hurting another person comes more easily than understanding. Our superficial attractions are certainly a pleasure but only when they last. This is not naive pessimism, but the truth.

How can the external frailty and vulnerability of spiritual souls survive in an ambiance of hostility and closed-mindedness? The forces of spiritual blindness are exceptionally strong. An act of spiritual blindness can easily draw forth a response in equal measure and blind the other person too. It takes only a small spark of fire to burn down an entire store. It takes very little spiritual blindness to corrupt our hearts. Yet, in our world, acting unconsciously as a slave to mental patterns is more common than spiritual insight.

The only way for our deliverance lies in awakening in large numbers, leaders and peoples alike. Acts of violence, in their course of time, inevitably lead to pain. And this pain itself can become an opportunity to wake up. When one wakes up, one’s past self looks like a ghost.

An easier, less painful way to wake up, is Brahman-consciousness, a realization of kinship of oneself with everyone and everything else. It is a point of view where one is organically present in the All, always, naturally. In a sense, there is no real need to find reasons for cooperation or discover how we are dependent on each other for ordinary survival – this can surely be done, no doubt. The truth of our abiding in Brahman stands above all these concepts of the mind. Instead of individual success, we strive for collective harmony.

What does it mean to possess any object or thing in truth? Waving a piece of paper that several people have agreed to means nothing in truth. It is an expression of complete inversion of reality. In reality, we are at the mercy of everything – air, water, food, light, heat, etc. There is suffering when this reality in turned upside down and we behave as if they are at our mercy. We all belong to the Brahman, the Great, and live in it as aided by its conditions. There is no other possibility, no other truth.

As science progresses, technology evolves to put greater and greater intelligence and strength in machines, economy becomes an act of trickery. It is going to be so much easier to hire a robot to kill a human, however compassionate, and purchase the morality of that act with money. Our dull mass media would report, Extended intelligence capability engages with and diffuses target. Yup! That’s it! It may even be become a moment to celebration a ‘success’.

The choice rests before us. It has been there for a while but it won’t be around for long. We can either wake up now or decide to sleep forever.

Advertisements

The case of God

This article clearly steps outside the confines of intellectual safety.

As long as one is talking about the natural world, one can venture with a certain amount of reasonable confidence. Spirituality is a little trickier. But, some practice of mindfulness or some other form of meditation can quickly bring both the speaker and audience up to speed on what is going on. The difference between the core of consciousness itself and its modifications can be discerned. There are thoughts arising, emotions arising, perceptions arising, sensations arising, experiences arising, events arising …

One can quietly watch this show with the confidence, this is not I, this is not I. Having attained to this state of truth, some of us can find ourselves justified in declaring victory and completion of spiritual maturity. Some call this the non-dual experience or the realization of the non-dual truth.

Upon introspection, some others would conclude that this is not really the end of spiritual practice but only the door to it. The end of grasping, and attachment, the distancing of one’s core from the modifications of the consciousness do indeed create a less selfish experience, a more spacious one. However, it is still selfish in a different way: this realization belongs to one locality of consciousness, one human being among many. If this were not the case, one would not need to even engage in teaching or speaking about this with others. No teacher would need to exist if there were not other localities of consciousness. .

Led by this line of thought, it would be fair to conclude that what is declared the non-dual experience is not that; it is only the fall of false identification with the mind than a true experience of the truth of non-duality. One has become liberated from the vagaries of one’s own mind and become distant from its blemishes, but one has still not truly become one with the All.

Though it is tempting to call this stage of inner realization as the realization of God, it would be hasty to rush into that view. For one, the locality of consciousness that has attained to this realization is still subject to the force of experience. One observes, but one cannot say what is coming next. One cannot know or direct the dynamics and laws of the universe that stand resolute and immutable despite claims of miracles. In a way, it is clear that the conscious entity and the world are bound by some dynamics. While the conscious entity has become free of the vagaries of the mind, it has not become completely free as the All. Consciousness and the world alike are subject to some laws which move on like clock-work. Even the hazier field of quantum physics is mathematically defined and not a show of utter, incomprehensible magic.

At this stage, one might feel inclined to take a point of view where both conscious entities and world are manifestations of the One. This view is seeded by the realization of the true self (or core) that is free of mental modifications, without individuation and separation, liberated of selfishness. Once the hard boundaries of the individual dissolve, there is an opportunity to realize kinship with the universe. Both the spiritual and material aspects can be seen to be manifestations of the One. Everything is timelessly woven into the fabric of reality manifesting in specific configurations over the course of time when the conditions so favour.

This window, this cot, this table, this consciousness, all of them that are seen, heard or experienced in any other way, everything that we have known to be the way it is, are all appearances of the One. In that sense, everything that we might reckon is pregnant with Brahman. Hence, the pen-name for this blog is Brahmātmaka, where even the self has for its self, the Brahman. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka (The Great Forest Secret) says, He who stands in the self, who is deeper to the self, whom the self does not know, whose body is the self, who rules the self from within … He is the self of all, the deepest ruler, who is beyond all change.

Once again, it is very tempting to go further and talk about this God or Brahman. But, to do so would be the act of a fool. The Brahman teases us out of thought: so close, yet so far … so far, yet so close. It is this tease that lies at the root of mysticism. As the Brahman escapes formal definition, it finds definition as the teaser unto the spiritual self. The availability of the Brahman everywhere while simultaneously being unavailable to grasp leads to an interesting spiritual condition. The overflowing nature of unconditional love that manifests after liberation from the mind suddenly finds a target in the Brahman, in the All. The passive discovery of non-duality takes an active dimension which comes to regarded as bhakti. And here, talking too much is not good for anyone. Bhakti is not emotional excess or crass superstition. At the same time, one would only embarrass oneself trying to put it in words. Let us just say this. The knowledge that one is in the Brahman, of the Brahman and with the Brahman is not just liberating. It makes Brahman-hood a birthright open to all. Indians would know that despite efforts by several masters, it was only in bhakti that those historically relegated to the lower layers of caste rose to be regarded the highest saints of the land.  The equations turned upside down. Formal religious philosophy works with the idea that the human is bound to the authority of God and God favours some choicest few. Bhakti radically inverts that relationship and stakes the authority of every bhakta  (human) over God. God is bound to man as much as man is bound to God. The sage Tagore wrote, The Vaishnava religion has boldly declared that God has bound himself to man, and in that consists the greatest glory of human existence.  There is this daring act of dragging the inscrutable Brahman to the humble hut of the human and drenching Him in human love. If meditation is not for the weak of mind, bhakti is not for the weak of heart.

I am getting too talkative. Let me stop.

Sacrifice in action

It has been written several times in this blog that God is revealed only in love. How this love cultivated? Is it cultivated by developing emotional states or getting into relationships?

Some teachers preached the way of knowledge. Kṛṣṇa also preached the way of knowledge but one in which one does not sit cross-legged with closed eyes forever, but one that involves everyday action. This method is called Karma Yoga or skill in action.

The starting point of Karma Yoga is an initial awakening to the fact that there are two categories: material and spiritual. This understanding does not require any theory about these categories but only a first-level acknowledgement. Otherwise, there is mis-identification of oneself with the mind and body.

There are three elements to Karma Yoga which are called the three sacrifices. The sacrifices are to be performed with understanding and not as rituals.

  1. The sacrifice of agency: The unexamined mind assumes endless freedom in action and yet constantly finds itself in conflict. This is an open paradox that we miss right in front of our eyes. The project of life is not easy as it is. On top of it, we carry on our shoulders the burden of agency. I have to do this and then that. If we examine carefully we find that the work is made possible only because of the conditions of the universe. The mind and body are in sufficient health to perform the action. We subsist on food which is organic life. We need water and air. That is how we get energy to act.  The intention to perform the action has arisen in our awareness. Our environment is conducive to allow the action to be performed. So, who is the agent of action? While one is entitled to think that one participates in the action, it is clear that we are not independent agents. An action depends on innumerable preconditions. It is only by these preconditions that an action is occasioned. When one attains this knowledge, one acts out of gratitude that the action has been made possible. It is beautiful that any action is possible and when it occurs, it feels to be us. Then, action becomes less burdensome and complicated.
  2. The sacrifice of possessiveness: A trauma greater than agency is possessiveness regarding action. This is my action; I need to get it done and succeed at it. This thought is the root cause of psychological stress. What am I doing with my life? What should I do next to succeed? Where is my life headed? Am I a big failure and a disappointment? One can hear these voices in the darkest hour. These voices are the most cruel suffering one can inflict upon oneself. Once again, by careful reflection, one can find that the action does not belong to us. An action is occasioned only by preconditions. If anything, the action belongs more to the circumstance than to this puny me. The realities of our existence – the need for food, water, money, health, contingencies – make us act and we can act only if we are disposed to act. So, action belongs to the complete condition of reality and not just to me.
  3. The sacrifice of fruit: A key distraction from action is the constant obsession with result. Has the result come forth? Is this working for me? Am I getting anything out of this? Obsessing with the result leads to unskilled action. Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna, You are qualified only to act; you are powerless in results. Constantly worrying about results does not help action. Even when the results come, they come because of a variety of conditions. One cannot say that one produced a result completely discounting the environment which made the result possible. Also, a result that is favorable to one may be unfavorable to another. Today, we have this insatiable quest for money. We destroy the environment with impunity as long as we can make a few extra bucks. So, results have to be interpreted not simply from our narrow selfish perspective but from a wholesome perspective. It is the state of reality that births a result and carries endless meaning to its constituents. This understanding is the third sacrifice.

Acting with these three sacrifices removes selfishness and purifies the mind. Such action becomes a true worship of God, who is the Real manifesting as all reality. It provides space for one to appreciate who one truly is and cultivates deep love.

In a mature state of this understanding, the sage Tagore wrote,

What divine drink wouldst thou have, my God, from this overflowing cup of my life?

My poet, is it thy delight to see thy creation through my eyes and to stand at the portals of my ears silently to listen to thine own eternal harmony?

Thy world is weaving words in my mind and thy joy is adding music to them. Thou givest thyself to me in love and then feelest thine own entire sweetness in me.

Coming true before God

In the Gītā, Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna to abide by five states: ‘nistraiguṇyo bhava! nirdvandvo bhava! nityasattvastho bhava! niryogakṣemo bhava! ātmavān bhava!’

Triguṇa stands for the three qualities of matter. Traiguṇya refers to the objects that possess these qualities: that is, all material objects. The first state (nistraiguṇya) is to emerge unattached from hankering for material objects. This state is achieved by recognizing the difference between the body and the self, the material and the spiritual.

Detachment leads to equanimity which is the second state, nirdvandva: to remain calm and peaceful when stimulated by the dualities of  pleasure and pain, heat and cold, etc. One can understand this by carefully noting that the spiritual self is unaffected by almost anything and all sensations, perceptions and emotions arise in and due to the body/mind.

The third state is nityasattvastha: constantly abiding in truth. This is the most transformative of the five states, a kind of phase shift from a lower level of consciousness to a higher level.  What is false in the Vedānta is not the physical or mental world. What is false is the misidentification of ourselves with physical/mental constructs. This is Māyā or the great magic where an entity as pure and beautiful as the conscious self starts thinking, I am human, He is so mean, I am so angry, etc. and suffers. The word ‘māyā’ literally means magic or something that is full of wonder. The magic draws an illusion that confuses the true identity of the conscious self. The way to avoid this is to abide in truth. One abides in truth through equanimity and the wisdom of difference between body and self.

It is not possible to abide in truth without dissolving all the devices of the mind. Complete purity of the mind is necessary and this can come only in a state of no-grasping cultivated by equanimity. It is to become self-aware without letting the mind interpret that state of awareness. Allowing the mind to do this job leads to identification at the level of the mind. The mind is that permanent chatterbox of a friend we all have in our lives who has an insatiable urge to describe the obvious and talk out of turn.

Spirituality is a process of stripping oneself of every pretense thrown up by the mind, a condition of becoming completely naked in awareness. This is the state of abiding in truth.

Śrīmad-Bhāgavata-Purāṇa speaks about the Gopī-s becoming naked before Kṛṣṇa when He steals their clothes. Anyone who is familiar with Hinduism would find endless arguments from detractors about whether it is morally right to steal clothes – that too for a God – only to be matched by followers who invent baffling reasons to defend the act. The story is simply an account of God teaching the self to let go of its pretensions in the mind and come clean, to be oneself as one truly is. Stories of ascetics relinquishing all clothes are also not to be interpreted literally (as some have). They only teach what many traditions have always taught, If you are arriving before God, approach in completeness nakedness of awareness. The Purāṇas are full of accounts of so-called demons inventing devices to outsmart God and win their way, only to end up causing pain for themselves and others. They are not to be taken literally to mean that demons truly exist, nor are they to be dismissed as fairy-tales of a primitive civilization (a sad truth being that the old Vedic civilization had better urban & rural planning than some of our modern cities).

God or the ultimate truth is not accessed by mental constructs but by the lack of them. One does not commune with God by building mental security but through abject vulnerability. Such are those who are the poor, the humble and the meek, who do not keep grasping and accumulating, who are free of anxiety and abide in the truth.

Abiding in the truth leads to cessation of anxiety, the fourth state, niryogakṣema, where one is not caught in perpetual anxiety about accumulating and defending possessions selfishly.

This dropping of the effect of ‘māyā’ allows one to be oneself, ātmavān. Behold this miracle where anxiety transforms into love or bhakti. Kṛṣṇa teaches that it is only in love that God is comprehended. This love is not the emotional excess of attachment and desire which expresses itself as and feeds from various moods and sentiments. This is a state of love achieved by being oneself. The former is a product of the mind; the latter transcends it.

602118_439720142774269_537005532_n

Courtesy: Yugala Priya Devi Dasi who must have immense spiritual vision to paint like this

Communion with God is possible here and now, not in some enclosure or within some organization. The doors to this beautiful world are not in books or in houses. And here is the most radical of truths: the door to heaven opens on the inside.

The kingdom of God exists and thrives in our own state of awareness. Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna, that (self) is My highest heaven  (tad-dhāma paramaṃ mama).  Anything outside this is hell. And it is as simple as that.

Non-duality – Clarified

Non-duality has increasingly become a well known concept across the world. Several spiritually oriented people are interested in non-duality.  The oldest source of non-duality happens to be the teachings of Vedānta – the Upaniṣads and the Gītā.

Non-duality is usually taught in terms of not-two, not-even-two, not-even-one, etc. and the premise of non-duality is the realization of the complete oneness of everything.

The mind which divides, names and grasps is responsible for the perception of apparent multiplicity of objects. In reality, there is only one, the Brahman, which gets resolved by the conceptual mind into several. While the conceptual mind grasps the appearances of the Brahman, the mind that does not break down entities and comes in contact with the entirety of reality grasps the Brahman.

This situation leads to the distinction of the Absolute vs the Relative.  There is a view that the Relative is mostly an illusion and only the Absolute is real. This view is prone to  cause confusion. For example, if a tiger appears before a person, should a knower of Absolute sit quietly assuming the tiger is an illusion? Are poverty and suffering mere illusions that should not influence a knower of the Absolute?

Some teachers come back with the answer that the Relative has practical validity though it is not ultimately real. It can be honored for practical purposes. This answer greatly weakens the non-dual position. If the Relative is practical, it is clear that the Absolute is impractical. As practical concerns are more relevant due to their immediate effect, the Absolute gets relegated to a mere philosophical abstraction that is of no use at all. Knowing that there is such an Absolute becomes a mere intellectual position. The Absolute becomes a concept (ironically) that is incapable of providing any inspiration to the human condition since it is beyond all relations.  What is the use of knowledge without value?

However in most of Vaiṣṇava Vedānta, the above understanding of non-duality is strongly denied. The question first investigated is if the Ultimate Reality is something to be realized or is it beyond all knowledge and realization. If the Ultimate Reality is utterly beyond all forms of knowledge, realization and experience, it does not exist for the human condition. We would end up converting our system into a dogmatic religion where everything must be unquestioningly accepted whether they make sense or not. Since we are not such a religion of doctrines, it has to be accepted that the Brahman can be realized (as oneself).

Language is simply a way of naming things that we perceive, comprehend or understand. If the Brahman can be realized, then it can be named through language. That is how the names, Brahman, Viṣṇu or Kṛṣṇa  come to be used. As long as one realizes that the Brahman is like no other thing, there is no need to consider language as the source of illusion. It is all a matter of perspective.

In the Vaiṣṇava approach to Vedānta, the Brahman is known to be Absolute and the Ultimate Reality. However, though the Brahman is not relative, it is relatable. The Brahman that one relates to is not a lower form of Brahman. It is exactly the same Brahman Itself. The Brahman that one relates to is the Brahman realized in human condition. It is a distinct experience since it is not like the realization of a pot or a crow. Though the Brahman is transcendent, it is not a complete void, it is not zero. A description of the Brahman escapes words; this is not the same as saying the Brahman has no aspect to be described (and where description fails). These two are often confused.

The Brahman realized in the human condition is called God or Īśvara. Īśvara is non-different from the Brahman. For anyone born in the human condition, Īśvara is the only Brahman that can be known and experienced. God is not a mental construct, nor a fantasy or a myth. God is the blissful who resides in the deepest layers of consciousness. That is how God can be experienced no matter how deep a samādhi one gets into.

In Vaiṣṇava systems, one is not asked to become indifferent to the world and remove one’s mind of all concepts. It is recognized that conceptualization exists for a purpose and a person’s life would be one of misery if one were to keep switching between using concepts and not-using them from time to time.

Instead, the mind of relations is asked to relate to the Brahman. When the mind is purified of anger, desire, etc. it can not only see itself but also recognize something deeper in awareness, the Witnessing Self. The mind is then asked to relate favorably to the Self.

Another view in Vaiṣṇava systems is to equate the mind with the brain, and its function. The mind is insentient and devoid of consciousness though it is capable of interacting with the latter. It is the individual self or jīva who is recognized to be the conscious entity. Ego belongs to the jīva, not the mind. The mind binds and conditions the conscious experience of the jīva. The one to whom thoughts occur, who participates in action is the jīva. The mind and the body are drivers and enablers of action. But, agency is ascribed to the jīva due to the notion that agency can only be attributed to a sentient entity. Though the jīva is an agent, it is a helpless agent for the most part driven by impulses, the workings of the mind (sub-conscious), the state of the body and other circumstances. However, all is not lost and the jīva has the opportunity for liberation. Liberation comes by directing the mind to the Supreme Self within oneself. When the mind becomes very quiet and awareness is heightened, one realizes the Supreme Self. Hence, the Upaniṣads which say The Brahman is beyond the grasp of speech or intellect, also say By the pure mind, one knows the Brahman. 

Unlike other non-dual traditions, the Vaiṣṇava approach to Vedānta does not proclaim the demise or disappearance of the jīva after realization of Brahman. There is only a shift in awareness. Instead of the light of awareness being concentrated around the ego, awareness now extends into its greater depths and discovers the Brahman. The jīva continues to exist though it is not experienced as a separate entity. The only experience is as the Divine to which the jīva becomes transparent. The loss is not of entity but of identity. The jīva is not experienced separately to lead to the notion of an entity with independent identity. Instead it is identified with the Brahman. Some ‘gurus’ commit offences after realization. This is because they deceived themselves that the jīva would die once realization was achieved. Yet, it persisted. Since it was ignored, its morality fell apart leading to indiscretion.

Instead of complete internal absorption and withdrawal from all action, the Vaiṣṇava approach is to draw out the Divine into the field of play – the universe. The jīva submits to the Brahman and becomes an accessory to Divine action. One’s mind and senses are surrendered to the Brahman’s disposal with the clear realization: All this is of the Brahman and so am I.

The Vaiṣṇava resolution of reality is not on the basis of presence or absence of relations but on independence. Brahman is the only independent real. The jīva and the universe are conditional reals (not unreal, not illusions). Theistic versions of Vaiṣṇavism employ these ideas to great effect.

The relatable nature of the Brahman leads to the Brahman being experienced as the guide, as the father, as the mother. The independence of the Brahman set against the conditional existence of other reals leads to the idea of subservience of the soul to God. The complete actualization of the soul in its being accessory to the Divine creates the notion of the soul as a servant of God. The sweetness and bliss of the Self allow the cultivation of devotional love, and experiences of God as a sweet child or God as the lover. These are not to be ridiculed or laughed at. These are human responses to deep engagement with the Divine.

At the same time, one must be wary of these theistic manifestations of principle. Excessive externalization can lead to blindness of the fact that the Brahman is not outside but within, that the Brahman is not the other but oneself.

Spirituality walks on a very thin line that separates an indifferent, inert, impractical understanding of non-duality and full-blown dualism that takes us back to square one. The Vaiṣṇava stance rests on this thin line. The jīva is not denied or dissipated but actualized by allowing it to lose itself in the awareness of Brahman.

It must be noted that the modern understanding of non-duality – even in the aggressively self-denying spheres – is slowly coming out of inertness and inaction in order to appeal to all walks of life and all cultures, not just the extreme ascetics of India. The emphasis is less on inaction or self-denial, and more on waking up. It is a good sign that some go even to the extent of teaching people how to love, how to solve disputes and how to relate with one another. It should be obvious that without this empowering understanding of non-duality, spirituality cannot inspire morality and uplift the human condition.

Surrender – clarified

The principle of surrender exists in almost all spiritual traditions. Surrender is the way of acceptance and provides purity to the mind. In the Śrīvaiṣṇava tradition, it goes by the name of prapatti.

This essay will seek to clarify a basic misconception about surrender in modern Śrīvaiṣṇavism, and for that reason, this article would specifically talk to a narrow audience.

Somehow, it has come to be understood in some of our circles that surrender implies inaction. One shall not perform any action in one’s own interest if one has surrendered. This misunderstanding comes from the complex nature of surrender.

Prapatti or surrender is not an excuse for abandoning one’s spiritual practice. Surrender, by itself, does not replace any other discipline. It is part of a larger discipline that leads to the realization of the Supreme Self.

The common notion is that once one has surrendered, grace will begin to act and take over. This would lead to liberation and nothing else needs to be done. Through this understanding some folks go to the extent of abandoning all spiritual discipline. Some even go to the extent of criticizing those who are committed to some spiritual discipline.

Here, I will show that not only is individual effort / discipline significant but also that it is absolutely necessary to go along with prapatti.

Prapatti is understood not to have any restriction with respect to the fruits it can deliver. It has no phala niyama. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that a student performs prapatti in order to do well in an important exam. Should the student put individual effort to study or should he/she not?

If the student understands personal efforts in achieving the goal to be obstacles to prapatti and refrains from studying, the prapatti will definitely not succeed and the student would miserably fail in the exam. Prapatti or surrender only removes the anxiety of the student and lets him/her come intimate with the study – to study with focused attention without getting too anxious of the reward. The student abandons the worry of succeeding or failing, and channels complete focus and energy into the effort. This is the true principle of surrender. Surrender is not the state of complete inaction; it is the state of maximum action.

Just as in the above case, in the domain of spirituality too, one cannot bypass the disciplines taught in different texts by different masters using prapatti or surrender. I have no worry. Hence, no discipline is necessary. has become a common utterance. Or, some others do not know what they are supposed to do ‘after surrender’ and invent some rituals by themselves to avoid appearing to do the established discipline while also keeping in touch with some part of it.

Surrender teaches us that worry or anxiety is not the motivation for action. I have no worry, hence I act with discipline. As long as there is worry, the discipline is degraded as something that one must get over as soon as possible to obtain a different result. It fuels the ego instead of subduing it.

But in surrender, one acts in the discipline leaving the result to God. One is not anxious – self-evaluating, judging at every step but letting go and allowing the discipline to work with grace to produce its result on its own terms.

A famous verse in Muṇḍaka Upaniṣat goes like this:

The Self cannot be attained by instruction, or by intelligence, or through much listening (to different teachings). It is attained by one who is chosen by the Self. To that person, the Self reveals its true form.

While it is correct to understand that this verse establishes the role of grace, just look at the very next verse in the same text which is not quoted quite as often.

The Self cannot be attained without strength (in efforts), or by negligence (in discipline), or through austerities without intent. He who truly tries by established methods, he understands and enters the light of Brahman.

The above verses are not contradictory and must be understood correctly. Grace and individual effort are complementary, and are unopposed to one another. The Gītā explains the way of right action which invites grace. Grace is the force behind the inner transformation effected by the Self which underlies the ego. Grace is said to be causeless because of the understanding that what is in the effect must be present equally in the cause. Since grace is exceedingly beautiful and there is no end to its transformative power, there is nothing the individual could have done to elicit the power of grace. The individual only sets the stage for grace to operate by acting in the right way, by following the right discipline (not by utter inaction).

This understanding can easily resolve the division in Śrīvaiṣṇavism today. Sādhana is not a dangerous term. Of course, the Supreme Brahman is the real means, being the support and source of all. But, this is a deep understanding which cannot be oversimplified to a point where it demands total inaction from the individual and completely discredits the value of individual effort/discipline to a point where it is blatantly illogical.

Therefore, fight!

Spirituality is not the process of going idle. And, no other text does justice to this point like Śrīmad-Bhagavad-Gītā.

Lord Kṛṣṇa calls for spiritual fight, tasmād-yuddhyasva bhārata. [Bhārata! Therefore, fight!]  The knower of dharma does not abandon everything and retire to the forest. Dharma is not for the faint-hearted. One does not engage in dharma to discover some new peace or tranquility. I want to be peaceful. I need something to work for me. Let me try dharma.  – this is not the right approach to dharma. Dharma does bring peace, it does create a better world. But, one must not cling to these rewards selfishly. By doing so, one loses those rewards.

As a world, we have numbed ourselves to the problems that take place in front of our eyes. Those who desire material rewards go on executing their project of seeking at any cost. Those of us who desire spiritual well-being worry about our own peace, our own dharma. We want to find a way to escape the suffering of the world, to remove ourselves from the turmoil.

The legend-maker Vyāsa beautifully converts a story of war into a story of the inner dynamics of human existence. In this, he paints the mindset of two types of people: Duryodhana and Arjuna. The former seeks to solve his problems by amassing wealth at any cost, by causing pain to others. He is greedy and his father (moral guide) has gone blind to his transgressions. He has come unhinged from his being and is unmindful of the impact of his actions. On the other side is Arjuna, who is spiritually oriented.

In the Mahābhārata, there comes a stage when both Duryodhana and Arjuna decide to seek help in their fight. Both approach Kṛṣṇa at exactly the same time. Kṛṣṇa announces that He Himself will not fight but will only aid them in one of two ways: (1) He will provide His huge army and resources to one of the sides (2) He will give Himself to the other side but only in a non-combat role. He asks the cousins to choose. Duryodhana chooses the military might of Kṛṣṇa while Arjuna chooses Kṛṣṇa Himself. The message of the story is that while one prefers materialistic defenses, the other takes a spiritual route and wants to remain connected with the Self.

The war that Duryodhana and Arjuna wage is the war we wage everyday in our lives. It is the perpetual conflict and trouble of existence. The greedy and unmindful would like to win at any cost and gain victory. But, the spiritually oriented, like Arjuna, prefer to retire to obscurity. Faced with the challenge of the world, Arjuna prefers to leave it. Kṛṣṇa chides him, These opponents will call you a coward! Powerful unmindful people take the note of reconciliation and understanding adopted by the wise as weakness, and inflicting more pain. They would attribute their success to their immense abilities and the failure of others to their impotence. Even death is better than being shamed by the wicked! Kṛṣṇa tries to play the mind of Arjuna with first-order arguments before delving into the depths of spiritual life. It is an important spiritual practice not to be judgmental. But, one has to recognize problems where they are. It is not okay to walk by non-judgmentally whren violence is wrought, when there are those suffering in pain in front of our eyes.

William Wordsworth reveals to us a very high ideal,

Never to blend our pleasure or our pride

With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels.

It does not take a great genius to dismiss this ideal as exaggerated or impractical. It takes a genius to realize the ideal to whatever extent possible and to awaken the world to its collective suffering.

It is tempting to let it all go and retire, to avoid contact with a troublesome world, to worry only about oneself, to have lofty internal goals. It would be nice to avoid conflict. But, the dynamics of the world do not lend themselves to this expectation.

The pain of a spiritual person is immense. It is a pain to watch before one’s eyes, the lives of people, who have the opportunity for a better life, ruin themselves in the so-called pursuit of happiness. It is a pain to watch innocent children being introduced to the world with images of strife in an environment that treats violence as normal.

The solution to this problem is not to avoid seeing it, but to try and transform it. Success is not guaranteed. Kṛṣṇa says, You may win, or you may lose. But, what does it matter to a spiritual person like you? With equanimity, finding contentment only in the Self, face up to your challenge. 

We like the simple assurances of law or of common-place religion that announce, The righteous will survive and triumph. The wicked will be destroyed. But, we all know deep down that real life is more complicated than that. The teaching of Kṛṣṇa is not a shortcut to success or happiness.

What is the use of trying to transform oneself and the world if victory is not guaranteed? Why not give ourselves to the hopelessness of the world and become party to avarice? Or, why not remain noble but remain out of touch with the world, letting it hurtle to its doom?

Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna, Only by acts of sacrifice, Arjuna, is this world sustained. Hence, do not cease to engage in such action. 

It is not by acts of seeking, of aggrandizing ourselves that we make the world a better place. It is a convenient lie we tell ourselves while we weep in the depths of our own hearts. It is by true acts of sacrifice that the world transforms. Sacrifice is sacred action. It is the art of acting without greed, without perpetual seeking, with dedication, with love. For one who has gained the Self, what higher reward lies to be gained through action, what greater treasure is risked being lost?

No, no. It is not courageous to steal, to hurt, to shoot, to abuse, to make wealth for oneself, to succeed by twisting the law. These are the acts of profound cowardice, of extreme anxiety, of constant fear, of obsessive need to avoid any form of defeat.

Kṛṣṇa states this clearly, One, who consumes for oneself, only consumes grave sin. 

It is in sacrifice that we work with attention, and in closeness to nature. By being close to nature and in harmony with her, we receive her boons. Through enlightened action, we again transform her boons in ways that find harmony with her. This is a perpetual cycle without which the world will not sustain.

While inner transformation is the first and last step of spiritual progress, it has no value without external transformation. What is the use of a light that shines alone in a closed room. It takes courage to invite all the troubles of the world into oneself, feel them and transform them without letting them distort oneself. Nay, it is the final act in courage. Good people are nice, but they fulfill their presence when they are also courageous.

Stopping abuse

This is the age of great awakening. It is also the age of profound darkness. It is the age where we are coming to understand the value of life. It is also the age when we are finding how to exploit life outside or inside the scope of law.

The more we enact laws, the more we understand the insufficiency of laws to cure the human condition. For those of us who were born much after the world wars, the people and leaders who led to the war appeared distant and abnormal. It appeared foolish. For those of us who were born in the post-colonialism, post-slavery era, these ideas appeared silly too and we were distant from those times.

But, the recent wars in the Middle East have shaken all of us. In our own times, we have seen children being killed. In our own times, we have seen the most cruel exploitation of women. In our own times, we have borne witness to horrifying accounts of torture.

By what kind of law do we prevent such violence against our own?

While one has to salute those fighting legal battles to bring the miscreants to justice, it appears that their efforts alone would be insufficient.

As one explores the human condition, one understands that the roots of abuse lie at a much deeper level. It all starts with self-abuse. How would you feel if you were humiliated, disrespected on a continuous basis and dragged without dignity from one slavish task to another? We would feel bad, wouldn’t we? We would want to find a way to escape this situation. But, when the self inflicts this violence upon itself, it simply fails to see it.

An unexamined life is a life of abuse, self-abuse. Feeling for oneself is more important  than and is the root of feeling for others. Just as only a wealthy person is able to donate to charity which helps poor people and an educated person able to teach others to remove their ignorance, only a person who has come out of self-abuse can work towards preventing abuse to others.

In the western world, mindfulness has become a big movement despite its detractors and skeptics. It allows an examined life. It awakens us to how we are abusing ourselves, pushing ourselves to danger. Though some may contest the correctness of the name ‘mindfulness’, there is no problem as long as it is well understood. In mindfulness, one acknowledges the nature of the mind as being dissipated and fickle. It keeps grasping or creating one thing after another. The mind is a beautiful tool as long as it is an instrument. When it ceases to be and becomes a master, it wrecks havoc with our lives. The disciplines that teach us to control and starve the mind do not work because that does not sit well with the nature of the mind. The mind is always eager for something. Stopping it is committing violence against it. One cannot solve the problem of abuse by abusing the mind. Instead, one must come to an understanding of the mind itself. We allow the mind to have some support on which it can rest while we explore deeply. The mind is assigned the task of watching the breath, looking at the body condition or anything else that is suitable to us. In this way, the mind is not controlled. It is not starved. It is given a task to keep it busy.

When the mind is thus focused, one gets the opportunity to shift to a different kind of awareness. The result of mindfulness is not mindfulness itself but the transition to a different kind of awareness. It is a state of awareness that does not judge, that does not cling but only observes with clarity. In this state, one can watch, bear witness to, the self being dragged in different directions at the level of the mind. One can bear witness to the absurdity of some of our passions and certainties, our likes and dislikes. Some of us call this deepest sense of awareness, God, but it doesn’t really matter what you want to call it. Nowadays, it appears that the less we invoke the name ‘God’, the better it is.

It is in understanding how we abuse ourselves to the vagaries of the mind that we find both the way and the opportunity for universal compassion. We realize the human condition across the world and discover ways to cure the condition. Acting from this deeper sense of awareness is superior to acting from the level of the mind because in this former state is understanding, lack of selfish desire or some other form of insanity.

Awakening to the nature of the mind, we awaken to the immediate and grave dangers of leaving it unchecked. We realize that the solution is not to control the mind – it will fight back with a vengeance – but to understand and learn to live with it. The mind is like a child that will throw tantrums and misbehave when no one is watching. The key is to watch it and let it behave.

The need to stop abuse in this world is urgent. While on the one hand, we dream of exploring space, integrating with machines, etc. it is not necessary that our next step of evolution should either by shaped by external nature or by machines. It can happen at the level of consciousness and here lies the way to a creating a more dignified and free life for all of us – a way of life where you don’t have to lose for me to win.

The Light of Embar

There is a story in the life of the great Śrīvaiṣṇava saint, Bhagavad Rāmānuja. He had a younger cousin by name Govinda Perumāḷ. Govinda Perumāḷ was married while Śrī Rāmānuja was an ascetic.

Though Govinda was married, he never behaved like a normal householder. His mother was upset about this difference in behavior. She complained to Śrī Rāmānuja about his cousin’s behavior.

Śrī Rāmānuja knew of his cousin but to demonstrate his holy state, he called him before all and said, ‘Govinda! At the time of darkness, enjoy pleasure by mingling with your wife.’ Everyone present was shocked. Here is an ascetic advising his disciple to have pleasure with his wife in darkness! But, Govinda quietly accepted the instruction and left.

The next day, Śrī Rāmānuja summoned his cousin in front of all and asked, ‘Govinda, did you enjoy pleasure with your wife yesterday?’ Govinda replied, ‘No, Master.’

Śrī Rāmānuja feigned surprise and asked, ‘Why Govinda? Why did you lose the time of darkness? What a waste!’

Govinda replied, ‘I did not miss it, Master. I kept waiting for the time of darkness when I can exploit pleasure from the flesh of another human, but it never arrived.’

Now, everyone gathered there was utterly confused as to what was going on between the two cousins.  Did not night fall? Was there not darkness? Why is the ascetic so intent on this issue and why is his cousin replying as if night did not fall?

Śrī Rāmānuja looked at his cousin, his eyes gleaming with admiration. Almost reverentially, he asked his cousin, ‘Govinda! Would you mind explaining your last remark?’

Govinda replied, ‘When the Supreme Self shines forth in the heart and fills it with light, where is the scope for mundane business, Master? Where is darkness when His light, that is brighter than a thousand suns shining together, illuminates? Where is the pettiness of the individual soul that in its darkness seeks pleasure from the flesh of another person? I kept waiting for that time of darkness when I would descend to that pettiness and seek pleasure with a mind raging with desire. But, that hour did not arrive. The light that was shining within did not let up. Hence, O Master, I am incapable of behaving like a normal householder.’

Śrī Rāmānuja is said to have enacted this episode only to reveal this message to his disciples. Govinda went on to become a great master himself and was called Embār with the idea that he was just like Śrī Rāmānuja.

Some people copy only the external signs and behave with a clueless detachment. They try to control their senses and commit violence upon their bodies and minds. This is not the intent of this episode.

This is a message of Vedānta that we encounter in several places. The Puruṣa Sūkta reveals this first showing that the Supreme Self, Brahman is always manifest along with the soul-self, jīva.

The Lord of all creatures keeps walking into wombs.

Being birthless, He is born several times. 

Only the enlightened recognize His birth.

There is no use searching for God in a hundred external places if one cannot see the God within, if one cannot find the Supreme Self within oneself. In mystic experiences, this is seen as the greatest grace of God, to be born with us and to stay within us.

The Muṇḍaka Upaniṣat says

dvā suparṇa sayujā sakhāya samānaṃ vṛkṣaṃ pariṣasvajāte |
tayor-anyaḥ pippalaṃ svādvatty-anaśnannanyo abhicākaśīti ||

There are two birds which are together and are good friends. They climb on to the same tree. Of the two, one eats the delicious fruit; the other looks on without eating. 

The two birds are the soul-self and the Supreme Self – jīvātmā and paramātmā. The body is the tree. The soul-self enjoys and suffers all experiences of this body. The Supreme Self only watches, bearing witness.

The light of the Supreme Self is in all of us. The darkness of our existence would vanish if we are aligned with the witnessing Supreme Self, our friend who is with us.

The lady saint, Āṇḍāḷ realized the message of the Brahman’s appearance as Kṛṣṇa among the common-folk.  She saw the message as God being always with us. She says, We have the great good of having You born with us. Unblemished Lord! This bond can never be broken. 

Yes, He is born with us, with each one of us and lives in our hearts. He is not to found afar but within oneself. The last set of hymns in  Āṇḍāḷ’s Nācchiyār Tirumozi go like this:

Have you seen Kṛṣṇa who is such and such? 

Yes, we have. We have seen Him in Bṛndāvana. 

Bṛndāvana is our own hearts, our own self.

In Gītāñjali, Rabindranath Tagore writes,

Deliverance? Where is this deliverance to be found? Our master himself has joyfully taken upon him the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all for ever.

This is the same message conveyed through the scripture, the legends, the experience of mystics and the saints.

Our Light is within us. Let it shine!

Create no more suffering!

Saint Narsinh Mehta wrote,

Vaiṣṇava jana to tēnē kahiyē
Je pīḍ parāyī jāṇē rē !

Call those Vaiṣṇavas, who understand the suffering of others.

The song is quite famous due to its use as daily prayer by Gandhi. Needless to say it inspired the non-violent movement for Indian independence.

This is a very special requirement for a member of a religion. Feel the pain of others. The saint does not want us to affirm our faith in Viṣṇu to be called a Vaiṣṇava. He wants us to understand the pain of all.

____

There is the sound of a new born baby crying. The parents are elated. But my mind is troubled. It is a beautiful moment, no doubt. But, the heart shudders while thinking about the world the innocent baby is coming into.

In the daily grind for survival and in the midst of numerous problems and conflicts, this thought hardly crosses us. Where lies the salvation of man (and woman)?

We demand our rights, we ask for political and economic freedom. It is all nice compared to the horrors of slavery and autocratic rules. We ask for the freedom of opinion and religion. We keep making laws to enhance our liberties. But, is this all? Do we simply need more of the same thing or is there a need for a paradigm shift in our perspective that allows us to evolve to the next level?

But why should I care? As I long as I take care of myself, amass enough wealth, obtain sufficient luxury, find a partner to share my life and live for my own family, it is should be enough, isn’t it? Let anyone else suffer or rejoice. Why do I need to bother? My concern reduces for things and people far away, who I feel are irrelevant to my well-being.

Only a little introspection disturbs this convenient and happy dream. When I try to understand myself, I fail at words. Clearly, this body alone is not me, this brain alone is not me. They will be here still when I am dead. Would I outlast death? If I would, then caring for this particular life alone makes no sense. If I do not know where I would be reborn, I better make every place beautiful and peaceful.

But, what if this is just folly. It could be that I perish with death and it is all over. Yet, the body with the brain lies here and does not explain who I am. If I look at myself, beyond the body, beyond the mind, I cannot tell any difference between myself and the next person, between myself and the baby. We are different because of our different minds, different bodies and different conditions. But, at some level, we are all the same. It is impossible to make out any difference at this essential level.

Regardless of whether I am eternal or perishable, beyond this body and mind, it is I who makes an appearance everywhere couched in different bodies, minds and conditions. It is I acting differently due to the difference in role and costume.

I am the first form of life that appeared on earth. I am the fish that decided to explore the land. I am the plant that blossomed a new flower. I am the inventor of the wheel, of fire and of every technology. I am the greatest of kings. I am the lowest criminal. I am the person who was scheming the fall of civilizations. I am the saint and I am the sinner. I am my father and I am also my son. Wherever I see, I only see I.  Now, I am this new born baby that is crying, resting on her mother’s lap.

I can be truly happy only when every I is happy. For this, I must understand suffering. The “I” is unlike anything else. The difference between an apple and another is not the same as the difference between one “I” and the other. Because in essence, there is exact identity and what happens to me is important.

It is not possible for me to take care of myself without taking care of every other “I”. How can I be happy when I am clutching my stomach with the pain of hunger on the street? How can I be happy when I am living with mortal fear in the middle of war? How can I be happy when I am consumed with madness? The pain of everyone is my pain.

We use language carelessly and distance ourselves with the word ‘others’. Who are these others? In essence, they are all “I”. That is how they feel themselves! They feel like “I”, all of them!

There is a grand shift in perspective when I stop using words ‘everybody’ or ‘everyone’ which distance the living entity and make it look like an object, like a stone. Start using the word ‘every-I’. This term, however ridiculous it may sound, conveys the message of unity of all life that has feeling. It is more accurate in its description and does not obscure the conscious entity.

In this moment, as we watch life renewing itself, appearing as “I”, let us feel for it and resolve to create no more suffering due to our myopic understanding and interests. If we can, let us put in our efforts to create a world that is more livable. Let not the disjointed nature of our memories and sensations fool us into tormenting ourselves. Let there be peace. In this lies our salvation, our liberation – for I cannot be liberated without liberating every “I”.  How can I enjoy a blissful heaven, when I know that a majority of every-I is in deep suffering?