Surrendra Paul Lecture 2013

December 28, 2013

Erasing the Dividing Lines

Swami Shantatmananda

Swami Shantatmananda

Swami Shantatmananda

Why do we see so much of disharmony, discontent, enmity, fight and so on in this world?  Wherever there is a division, there is bound to be disharmony and the attendant evils.  We see this constantly happening in families, in societies, in countries and in the whole world.  The divisions can happen on the basis of religion, on the basis of wealth and other possessions, on the basis of relations and many other existential factors.  Hence, the only way to remove disharmony or bring about harmony is by erasing the dividing lines.

Sri Ramakrishna is hailed as the prophet of harmony not only in India, the country where he was born, but also in several parts of the globe.  Normally, his name is associated with the idea of harmony of religions because he was the first prophet to declare “As many faiths, so many paths” meaning thereby that there are numerous paths to reach the Ultimate Goal.  This declaration of his was based on his own experience.  After performing the Sadhanas according to different traditions within Hinduism including the ultimate Vedantic Sadhana and after reaching or realizing the Ultimate Goal as per each tradition, he practised the Sadhanas as per Christian and Islamic (Sufi) traditions and also had extraordinary spiritual experiences.  Thus his statement about the validity of different paths for reaching the Ultimate Goal of life was not a mere intellectual conviction, but a great truth based on his extraordinary spiritual experiences.  The ancient Hindu scriptures have declared “Truth is one, but sages call it variously” i.e. Ekam Sad Viprah Bahudha Vadanti.  While this statement might be acceptable to different schools of Hinduism, this may not find favour with the followers of other religions.  Even within Hinduism, the followers of the schools of Dvaita and Advaita clearly declare that the Ultimate Truth according to each one of them is different.  While it is possible to reconcile this difference through a subtle and convincing intellectual exercise, it is very difficult to do so with respect to other religions.  This is where the extraordinary spiritual genius of Sri Ramakrishna comes into play.  In a sense he shifted the emphasis from the goal to the path.  He was emphatic that the Ultimate Truth cannot be expressed through words.  This is extremely logical and reasonable because the Ultimate Truth belongs to the realm of the transcendental whereas any description of it can be attempted only from the realm of the senses.  Obviously, this attempt can never be full or complete or go anywhere near perfection in describing the Ultimate Truth.  So, Sri Ramakrishna said that instead of fighting about the description of the Ultimate Goal it is much more worthwhile and meaningful to concentrate on the path.  He brought about this paradigm shift by emphasizing on the supreme importance of Sadhana or spiritual practice.  He said that anyone undertaking a spiritual journey with an intense longing to reach the Ultimate Goal or Truth is certain to succeed. While it is easy to recognize the paths of Sadhakas according to different traditions are not the same, yet it is possible to live in peace and harmony under the common definition of Sadhana.  Only when an attempt is made to define the Ultimate Truth or Goal, insurmountable problems and difficulties arise.  Thus Sri Ramakrishna established harmony among different religions of the world by uniting the followers under the common umbrella of Sadhana and thus in a sense erased the dividing lines between different religions.  Of course, this was not a deliberate or calculated attempt.  Rather this was the spontaneous result of his intense and one-pointed search for Truth.  There were several other areas in which his unique capacity for bringing about harmony found expression.  In an amazing way he brought about harmony between Pravritti and Nivritti, Jnana and Karma, Contemplation and Action, Sacred and Secular, and even between Grihastha and Sannyasa dharmas or householders and renunciates.  These ideas of his find expression in the immortal text titled “Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna” and also through the works of his foremost disciple Swami Vivekananda.

India has an extraordinary spiritual heritage.  The Indian mind, to be more specific the Hindu mind, had an integral view of life.  Life was based on ‘Dharma’, a Sanskrit word which means that which supports or upholds.  The four desirable goals or objectives of life are same for all human beings.  Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha were defined or declared as the four Purusharthas of life.  Thus one could acquire wealth and also fulfill one’s desires, but these endeavours have to pass through the filter of Dharma.  Thus based on Dharma one can achieve these two Purusharthas.  But, ultimately everyone should aspire for the fourth Purushartha i.e. liberation or Moksha.  For this purpose the Hindu Shastras have prescribed four Ashramas or stages of life namely, Brahmacharya or the life of a student, Garhastya or the life of a householder, Vanaprastha or the life of retirement (into forest) and finally Sannyasa or total withdrawal for the purpose of attaining liberation or Moksha.

To achieve this end the Shastras speak about two approaches depending upon the nature, tendency or predilection of human beings.  These are called Pravritti and Nivritti Margas loosely translated as action and contemplation.  The Pravritti Margis are those who are inclined to participate in the world in an active manner aspiring for the four purusharthas or attainable goals of life.  Thus the followers of this path can acquire wealth or have desires satisfied provided their pursuits are based on Dharma and then reach the Ultimate Goal of life namely Moksha.  In the process they go through the four Ashramas or stages of life mentioned above.  Nivritti Margis are those blessed with a marked tendency for contemplation or inwardness.  Early in life they realize the transitoriness of the world and direct their minds towards higher pursuits based on Dharma.  They strive for Moksha not being interested in Artha or Kama.  They also proceed directly from the stage of Brahmacharya to Sannyasa bypassing the intermediary stages of Garhasthya and Vanaprastha.  Although the two paths are quite different and divergent, Pravritti Marga being less strenuous is more suited for the normal type of aspirants, whereas Nivritti Marga which involves a hard grind is more suited for those with a contemplative bent of mind.  But, the Ultimate Goal for both is same, namely Moksha.  Thus there was peace and harmony in the society with everyone progressing towards the same Ultimate Goal of life.  But, over a long period of time, not only the paths, even the goals became different.  Pravritti Margis indulging more and more in sense pleasures or Bhoga, forgot the Ultimate Goal of life and stopped at the stage of Kama or satisfaction of desires.  In any case the Nivritti Margis were small in number and hence there was a clear ascendency of Adharma on earth paving the way for yet another incarnation of God on earth, as delineated in Bhagavad Gita “Yada yada hi dharmasya …”  There arose a need for harmonizing the followers of Pravritti and Nivritti Margas.  One of the questions often repeated in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna is whether the householders can realize God.  Shri Ramakrishna again and again emphatically declared that it is possible and he has also given a wonderful prescription or methodology for achieving this goal.  He even praises the efforts of householders saying that they deserve to be praised since they have to struggle against all odds if they want to call on God.  While emphasizing again and again that Tyaga or renunciation is absolutely essential for Moksha, he made it possible even for the householders to practise this important discipline by his unique message.  Through wonderful examples drawn from daily life he taught how to live with a sense of detachment in the world.  Some of the examples used by him are the shining body of the mudfish which lives in mud, breaking the jackfruit applying oil to the hands and living in the world like a maid servant in a rich man’s house.  He also said that external sign or symbol of renunciation is extremely essential for a monk or Sannyasin whereas it is enough if the householders renounce internally.  His own life was an extraordinary blending of the ideals of Sannyasa and Garhasthya.  He didn’t wear an ochre cloth of a monk or have any external symbol of renunciation.  He wore a white cloth and was married.  But, those who have even had a peep into his life would realize that he lived an extraordinary life of renunciation.  It was of such high order that he practiced perfect renunciation even at the realm of ideas.  There are several incidents in his life which bear testimony to this fact.  For example, he would often talk about the importance of the renunciation of lust and lucre which in his own inimitable style he would describe as Kamini and Kanchan.  His renunciation of Kanchan was so extraordinary that the very idea would bring about a tremendous response even from his body.  Once he had gone to the pine groves to answer the call of nature.  Narendranath, who was present in his room, wanted to test his renunciation of money or Kanchan.    He quietly kept a coin beneath his bed without anyone else noticing it.  Sri Ramakrishna returned to his room and the moment he sat on his bed he jumped up giving out a tremendous cry of pain.  He felt excruciating and unbearable pain in his body.  Nobody could find the cause of Sri Ramakrishna’s discomfort.  Then somebody caught hold of the bedroll and started shaking it vigorously.  Suddenly the coin popped out on to the floor making a metallic noise.  Narendranath hung his head in shame.  But, Sri Ramakrishna was not annoyed.  He was happy that his disciple had put him to test.  In the instant case his renunciation of money or Kanchan was so complete that any violation was impossible even in the remotest manner.  The idea had got embedded and crystalized in his mind to such an extent that whenever an occasion arose even remotely indicating the possibility of a violation of his idea of Tyaga or renunciation, his body reacted in such a manner so as to protect his vow.

To site another example, the young Yogen, the disciple of Sri Ramakrishna who later became Swami Yogananda, used to bring a lemon from one of the gardens in Dakshineshwar to prepare lemon juice for Sri Ramakrishna.  The owner of the garden had permitted this.  But, one day when Yogen brought a lemon and the Sarbat was prepared, Sri Ramakrishna could not lift the glass of lemon juice to his mouth however much he tried.  Later on it transpired that the ownership of the garden had changed hands that very day on which Sri Ramakrishna could not accept the lemon juice, the reason being he had not obtained the permission of the new owner and accepting a lemon which was plucked without his permission would amount to stealing.  Thus there are numerous examples to prove that his renunciation was so perfect not only at the physical level, but much more at the level of the mind or realm of ideas.

Not only that, his spiritual consort, Sri Sarada Devi, who once again wore the clothes of a normal housewife, was an embodiment of extraordinary renunciation.  She was active from 3:00 a.m. in the morning till 11:00 p.m. at night and yet she could dive deep into great depths of contemplation or mediation.  Both were extraordinary examples of harmony between household life and a life of renunciation.

Another important and significant contribution of Sri Ramakrishna was the harmony he brought about between the sacred and the secular.  One day he was explaining the three basic tenets of Vaishnava religion.  After pronouncing the first two tenets, namely the taste for the Lord’s name and compassion to the living beings he went into a transcendental state or Samadhi.  When he came down, he said, “What ! How can a man who is insignificant as a worm show compassion to another.  It is not compassion but service to God in man or service looking upon Jiva as Shiva.”  Swami Vivekananda, who was then Narendranath, was present in the room.  He said that he had heard something very new that day and should God give him an opportunity would proclaim this before the whole world.  After wandering through the length and breadth of the entire country he sat in mediation for three days and three nights on a huge rock in the shark-infested waters of sea at Kanyakumari.  He had a great spiritual experience and the blue print for his future work for the regeneration of our motherland was revealed to him.  He went to America to participate in the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893 and after his triumphant return to India in 1897 he established the Ramakrishna Mission with the twin ideals of Atmano Mokshartham Jagaddhitayacha i.e. one’s own spiritual evolution and welfare of the world, incorporating into it the idea of service to God in man.  His mandate for the monks of the order was that one moment they should dive deep into meditation and the next moment be prepared to go and sell produce in the market.  He said that although the majority of human beings have one predominant tendency or characteristic out of Jnana, Bhakti, Yoga and Karma, yet he alone is truly cast in the mould of Sri Ramakrishna if he is able to harmonize all the four yogas in his life of Sadhana.  That is why Sister Nivedita wrote in her introduction to the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, “If the many and the One be indeed the same Reality, then it is not all modes of worship alone, but equally all modes of work, all modes of struggle, all modes of creation, which are paths of realisation. No distinction, henceforth, between sacred and secular. To labour is to pray. To conquer is to renounce.  Life is itself religion. To have and to hold is as stern a trust as to quit and to avoid.”

Through the extraordinary institution, Ramakrishna Mission, which he founded, Swami Vivekananda brought about a wonderful harmony between Jnana and Karma as well as Contemplation and Action.  The traditional idea of Advaita was that work or Karma can lead an aspirant only upto a certain point of progress in spiritual path and finally all works have to be abandoned, and the aspirant has to take to the path of Jnana and only then final liberation or Mukti is possible.  The traditional Advaita emphasizes that Karma can lead a Sadhaka only upto Chitta Shuddhi and Moksha is possible only by restoring to Jnana Nishtha at that stage.  But, Swami Vivekananda clearly said that through work or Karma Yoga to be more specific, one can reach the highest goal of life or the supreme state of realization, the same as that attained by the follower of the path of Jnana.  This he achieved by shifting the emphasis from the goal to the path in a manner similar to the way Sri Ramakrishna dealt with Pravritti and Nivritti.  Swami Vivekananda said that when the mind becomes absolutely pure due to the practice of Karma Yoga, knowledge is bound to shine in such a pure mind.  It is absolutely unnecessary to emphasize a further discipline for reaching the ultimate goal of life at that stage of Sadhana.  So he said if one goes on performing works or Karma Yoga in the right manner, such a Sadhana results in supreme spiritual evolution whereby the mind becomes absolutely pure.  Such an aspirant is bound to realize the highest or the ultimate goal of life or the Supreme Brahman.

Thus the Ramakrishna-Sarada-Vivekananda tradition erased the dividing lines between Pravritti and Nivritti, contemplation and action and also between householders and sannyasins.