Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai

Mother’s Love – Swami Ishanananda – 5

Swami Ishanananda, the writer of these reminiscences, was indeed a blessed soul. He had the good fortune of becoming Holy Mother’s close attendant and helper when he was just an eleven-year-old schoolboy. He belonged to the group of young novices living at the Koalpara monastery, close to the Mother’s village, who used to assist the Mother in running her household. The Swami met the Mother in 1909 and served her until her passing away in 1920.

Source: Matrisannidhye (Bengali book). (A free translation by Br. Bodhi Chaitanya)

A Brahmachari tries to serve Holy Mother

When Holy Mother was living at Koalpara, a new Brahmachari came from Belur Math to pay his respects to her. When he met the Mother, he expressed his wish to stay on for some days, but she told him: `My son, if you stay here you will have to put up with many inconveniences. Here I am, in this jungle, with Radhu; and there is so much work to do.’ The Brahmachari, however, kept on insisting, and Holy Mother finally said: `All right, you may stay at the Koalpara Ashrama for some days.’ After a few days the Mother asked the Brahmachari: `Look, Radhu is on a special diet. Do you think you could cook her meals?’ The boy was overjoyed, and agreed at once to do the job.

The next day he cooked Radhu’s meal at the Ashrama. As he was taking the food to Holy Mother’s house nearby, the tray he carried felt so hot that his hands began to burn, and finally the tray fell on the ground, spreading its contents around! A perplexed Brahmachari presented himself before the Mother, empty tray in hand! He then told her what had happened. The Mother was rather displeased; and that day, of course, Radhu could not have her usual food. In the evening, when Varada went to visit the Mother, she told him: `Look, as a sadhu (holy man) the boy is quite good. But at the moment, here the work cannot go on without efficient people. This kind of work cannot be performed by sadhus that dwell under trees (i.e., sadhus indifferent to outward events).

Again, on the impulse of some temporary enthusiasm anybody can do a good job, but the nature of a person can be known by observing in detail just how they perform their every-day work.’

Continue Reading 1 Comment

Mother would eat last


We normally believe that culture blossoms, flowers and sustained well with the education. A highly educated person is supposed to exhibit good cultural traits. However culture can be manifested even if a person is unlettered or not educated. One such case came to my notice when I found an illiterate woman belonging to a poor village, eking out a living by preparing and selling hadia (home brewed rice-beer) expressing a very high cultural attitude through her action.

saradadurgablog.jpgThis lady heard about Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi. The life and teachings of Holy Mother fascinated her. She eventually proved that even without formal education, one can adopt Sarada Devi’s teachings in life. This episode was recently published in our monthly journal, Prabuddha Bharata, published by Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, Himalayas which is reproduced below:

It was during Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations. The Ranchi Sanatorium is surrounded by villages inhabited mostly by people of the Oraon and Munda tribes. We had a meeting with the villagers, and what they told us frankly surprised us. They said that all the six villages would take part in a big procession, starting in the morning, and would reach the ashrama campus by 11 a.m. Each village would have a jhanki or tableau specially made for the occasion.

On the tithi-puja day, the procession started from Tupudana, and reached the ashrama after a journey of 1 km. One of the jhankis, from the village Dungri, which had a little girl fully draped in a white sari like the Holy Mother with her long hair flowing over her shoulder, evoked lot of interest. She was seated on a thelagadi, a push-cart, and behind her there was a picture of Belur Math, drawn on a sheet of cardboard.

pbarati.jpgThe girl was known to us as Arati Kachhap, studying in class five. I asked her to sit by my side on the lawn in front of our temple, and she came down from the push-cart. Several devotees were also sitting there as the temple was full inside.

I asked Arati at what time she had left her home. She said, ‘By seven in the morning the didis (the elder girls of the village who were supervising the arrangements) came and dressed me up like Ma Sarada, and asked me to sit on the cart.’ Then I asked her, ‘Arati, did you eat anything before leaving your home?’

She replied that she had had nothing. Sensing that for a long time this little girl had been sitting on the cart without having had even a snack, I immediately asked one elder girl to bring prasad from the temple. When I gave her the prasad, she held it in her little hands but did not eat it. Surprised, I said, ‘Arati, take it! Oh! You have not had anything since early morning. Have it now!’

To my surprise, Arati refused to eat. When I asked her why she didn’t want to eat, her reply surprised me all the more. She said that her mother had instructed her not to eat. I was stunned, as I knew her mother well. She was a poor tribal woman eking out a living and supporting three children by preparing and selling hadia (home-made rice beer) in the bazaar. Her husband was of no use to the family. I asked Arati how it was that her mother did not approve of her eating prasad. Arati replied, after some hesitation and after my repeated prodding, ‘My mother told me, “Look Arati! Today you are dressed up like Holy Mother. You should not take any food at the ashrama until all the Dungri village people are fed – because Holy Mother would always eat last, after feeding all the devotees.”‘

Tears came to my eyes. Arati’s mother, an unlettered villager who brewed and sold hadia – just imagine what culture she exhibited! She had imbibed one of the core qualities of the Holy Mother, and was trying to fashion her daughter’s life with what she understood! If people would follow even a fraction of the Holy Mother’s teachings, how good our society would be. May Holy Mother inspire everyone!


Continue Reading 6 Comments

Mother’s Love – Swami Ishanananda – 4

Swami Ishanananda, the writer of these reminiscences, was indeed a blessed soul. He had the good fortune of becoming Holy Mother’s close attendant and helper when he was just an eleven-year-old schoolboy. He belonged to the group of young novices living at the Koalpara monastery, close to the Mother’s village, who used to assist the Mother in running her household. The Swami met the Mother in 1909 and served her until her passing away in 1920.

Source: Matrisannidhye (Bengali book). (A free translation by Br. Bodhi Chaitanya)

Holy Mother’s efforts to cure Radhu

In 1919 Radhu was pregnant, and gradually becoming mentally unbalanced. Seeing the Mother at a loss to know how to cure her, Nalini suggested that they make Radhu wear bangles offered to the `Mad Goddess Kali’ of the Tirol village, since that had once worked in lessening Radhu’s mother’s insanity in the past. The Mother agreed at once and, turning to Varada, said:

`Look, Nalini is right.Varada, tomorrow without fail please go to Tirol, offer worship to Mother Kali there, and bring the bangles with you.’

Varada left for Tirol the next day, spending the night at a devotee’s house on the way. Arriving in Tirol on the second day, he offered worship to Mother Kali and bought the bangles, returning to Holy Mother at Koalpara in the evening. The following morning before breakfast, Radhu was bathed and the bangles were put on her wrists according to scriptural injunctions. Holy Mother prostrated herself in the direction of Mad Goddess Kali’s shrine, and fervently prayed for Radhu’s recovery. Radhu’s condition, however, did not change or improve in the least by wearing the bangles; rather, Radhu’s mother’s madness took a turn for the worse! She began to quarrel with Nalini for having prescribed the bangles for Radhu. After a few days, Radhu’s mother began to reproach Holy Mother again and again, telling her: `Why did you bring Radhu from Calcutta? If she had stayed there, she could have received proper medical treatment. Now the weather is so hot; in Calcutta they would have applied ice on her head, and that would have alleviated her condition. If you can manage to procure ice and apply it on Radhu’s head, she will be cured.’ Holy Mother again believed in the new proposal and turning to Varada said:

`Varada, she is right. Tomorrow please go by bicycle to Bankura and bring some ice.’

As his bike was not in a very good condition, Varada was reluctant to cycle all the twenty-four miles distance to Bankura, but the Mother assured him: `It will be all right, you please go.’ The next morning Varada presented himself before the Mother, ready to depart. The Mother did some japa (repetition of a holy mantra) on his head and chest, and gave him an offered flower to tie in his cloth. Travelling by bicycle and by train, Varada managed to return to the Mother with twenty pounds of ice nicely packed, by five in the afternoon the next day. At the Bankura Ashrama the members had given Varada some cucumbers and other things for the Mother’s household, so in the end the young man had to carry a forty-pound load! While Holy Mother and Radhu’s mother were happily applying the ice to Radhu’s head, Uncle Kali (Holy Mother’s brother) happened to come that way. Hearing of the new treatment prescribed by the mad aunt (Radhu’s mother was known by that name), he said to Holy Mother: `Sister, do you apply ice on the head of a pregnant girl on the advice of the mad aunt? Take care that she doesn’t catch a cold.’, and: `Sister, you don’t understand. If the big doctors of Calcutta have admitted defeat, being unable to cure her, then this is no disease at all. In my opinion she is possessed by a ghost. In the village of Sushnegere there is a tantrik practitioner; why don’t you send for him and get his opinion about Radhu?’ At these words the Mother stopped applying ice on Radhu’s head and said to her brother:

`Fine. Tomorrow Varada will go to Jayrambati; from there you will take him to Sushnegere. Explain the case to the man and see if you can bring him with you.’

The next day Uncle Kali and Varada arrived in Sushnegere and, as soon as they approached the tantrik occultist, the latter threw some mustard seeds at both of them, and at his altar, and then said: `Yes, I have understood everything. In the next couple of days I will have to go there. I have received the command.’, etc. Uncle Kali still told him in detail about Radhu’s mental condition and requested him to come to Koalpara to examine her. On the way back to Koalpara, Uncle Kali began to talk to Varada on different subjects, and finally said, referring to Holy Mother: `Look, Varada, if my sister would save all the money that the devotees give her, she could be very well-off, but instead of that, she spends it all on Radhu and her brothers, she doesn’t save at all. Well, to whom do you think she gives most?’ Seeing that Varada uttered no response, the uncle continued: `Look, Varada, my sister is not at all attached to money, that is why she is respected by so many people. Her relatives try to take advantage of her generosity as much as they can. If she were attached to money like ordinary people, then she wouldn’t be respected. That is why she is not a human being Ñshe is a Goddess, do you understand, Varada? Well, you boys have given up home and family at such an early age, and are busy serving Sister day and night. You are your parents’ only son. I know your father, he is a God-fearing, noble soul. You boys of Koalpara, how much you serve Sister! And Sister also is so gracious to you! Taking upon herself such a heavy burden as Radhu, Sister depends on you for help and support. Varada, you are indeed blessed!’ While the uncle talked in this manner, the two finally reached Jayrambati. The uncle stayed at his home and Varada proceeded alone to Koalpara. When he met Holy Mother she asked him in detail about the tantrik charmer, and then asked him further: `What did Kali say all along the way?’ As Varada repeated Uncle Kali’s words, the Mother smiled lightly and said: `Kali is always thinking about money. As if Sister were a money-bearing tree! But he also has some devotion and faith. It is Kali alone who stands by his sister through thick and thin, who always enquires about her. All the other brothers, if they can get some money, that’s enough for them!’ The next morning the charmer arrived at Koalpara. Holy Mother prostrated before him in all humility and explained in detail about Radhu’s condition. He examined the patient and attributed the malady to the influence of spirits. The remedy he prescribed, however, was impossible to procure: the oil extracted from ten pounds of sesame seeds; four gallons of Rui fish oil; iron obtained from distant, inaccessible places; and various kinds of plants and herbs. All these ingredients had to be heated in a fire made of bull-dung cakes. The resulting oil had to be applied on Radhu’s body, and from the iron from far-off places an amulet had to be made. Having given all these instructions, the charmer took a five-rupee fee and left. At first the Mother was very eager to get all the ingredients collected, but with the passing of the days it became obvious that the task was simply impossible. In this regard the Mother said, after a few days:

`How many deities do I pray to for Radhu’s sake, but I get no response at all. Whatever is to happen, will happen. Oh Master, you are the only protector!’

Continue Reading 1 Comment

Why Celibacy? – A Hindu Perspective

Swami Tyagananda is a Hindu monk of the Ramakrishna Order and presently the head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston. Currently he is also the Hindu chaplain at MIT and Harvard. He has presented papers at academic conferences and he gives lectures and classes at the Vedanta Society, MIT, Harvard, and other colleges in and around Boston.

     Whenever I am invited to present a Hindu view on anything, I often find it convenient to begin by explaining what my own name means. It is an unusual name in the West, difficult to pronounce and unintelligible to most people. “Swami” is the epithet used for Hindu monks and the word means “master”. It points to the ideal of being a master of oneself or being in control of oneself. The second part of my name is my actual: name, given to me when I received my final vows of sannyasa, or monastic life. Tyagananda is a combination of two words, “tyaga” and “ananda”: “tyaga” means detachment or letting go; “ananda” means joy. Taken together, the word means “the joy of detachment”. Again, it points to the ideal of letting go of all the non-essentials in order to focus on and hold on to the essentials.

     My name thus serves me as a reminder of two ideals: self-mastery and letting go. Both these are involved in the practice of celibacy as j understood in the Hindu way of life.

     I am a Hindu monk and, as all monks do, I have taken a formal vow of celibacy. I should make it clear that I am a monk, not a priest. In the Hindu tradition, monastic duties and priestly duties are different and distinct. Monks are always celibate. Priests don’t have to be. Indeed, most Hindu ceremonies need a married priest. An unmarried or a divorced priest or a widower priest is not eligible to perform certain religious ceremonies.

     Hindu monks are exempt from most rituals and ceremonies connected with the social aspects of religion. Their primary duty is towards the spiritual aspects of religion: transforming the inner life through prayer, meditation and study, and sharing their insights with other spiritual seekers. In ancient times Hindu monks lived outside the social structure. Their contact with society was minimal: those interested in spiritual life sought instruction from the monks, and others just left them alone. Monks lived on alms and led austere lives.

     In the last hundred years or so, Hindu monasticism has undergone a change. While a significant number of monks and nuns still follow the traditional pattern, many nowadays function within the social structure. They don’t go out begging for food anymore but engage themselves in activities designed to serve the needy sections of society. They look upon their work not as social service but as part of their spiritual practice, and they don’t hold salaried jobs. If God is present in the hearts of all beings, then serving others should be no different from worshipping the Divine present in them.

     This is the philosophy that guides the programmes of the Ramakrishna Order, to which I belong. The Order is named after the Hindu mystic Rnmakrishna, who lived in India in the nineteenth century. It was his disciple Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who came to this country exactly 110 years ago and started the Vedanta Societies. The Ramakrishna Order currently has about 1500 monks staying in many countries around the world.

     Brahmacharya: “Dwelling in Brahman”

     Hindu monks take the vow of poverty and celibacy. The Sanskrit word for celibacy is brahmacharya, “dwelling in Brahman”. What do I mean by Brahman? What does “dwelling in” mean and how is it to be practised? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to understand the Hindu world view. Let us begin with a few key concepts.

     In Hinduism, the ultimate Reality is called Brahman. Brahman is not the name of a person. It is not a state to be attained. It is not a place to be reached. Literally the word simply means that which is vast. It is used to denote pure consciousness. Why ‘pure’ consciousness? By that is meant not the consciousness ‘of something but ‘consciousness-itself. Understood thus, Brahman – or consciousness-itself – is undivided, all-pervading, birthless and deathless.

     The characteristics of Brahman are best described by the word sat-cit-ananda, “Being-Consciousness-Bliss Absolute”. Brahman is not merely consciousness-itself but also being-itseif and bliss-itself. To be “dwelling in Brahman” is the same as being one with being, consciousness and bliss. Oneness with being removes the threat of being reduced to non-being or “nothingness” (which is what death looks like); oneness with consciousness removes the threat of being reduced to dust (the eventual fate of the body); and oneness with bliss removes the threat of sorrow and suffering in this life and the afterlife. Sat-cit-ananda, or Being-Consciousness-Bliss Absolute, is not just the “ultimate” reality, it is also the “present” reality of you and me.   

     Atman, the “Real Me”

     Our current experience of who we are doesn’t, of course, correspond to what I just said. We don’t see ourselves as Being-Consciousness-Bliss Absolute. We see ourselves as just ordinary human beings – weak, imperfect, and vulnerable to forces outside of ourselves. According to Hindu teachers, this happens because something is obstructing us from getting in touch with our true reality. My true reality is my real Self, the “real me”, which is different from the ego. The Hindus see the ego as a function of the mind. They don’t see the mind as the “real me”. According to them, the mind is still outside – or is a kind of covering over – the “real me”, which is sometimes called the true Self (to distinguish it from the ego) or the divine Self (to distinguish it from our frail human identity) – usually the “S” is capitalized in writing.

     The Sanskrit word for the true Self or divine Self is Atman. That is the only spiritual part of the human personality. By spiritual I mean non-material. Both the body and the mind are material parts. That the body is made up of material particles is perhaps easy to understand, but it may sound strange that even the mind is material. According to the Hindu tradition, the mind is not visible the way the body is because it is made of subtle matter. Our sense organs have their limitations and so we cannot see the mind the way I we can see the body.

     The mind is similar to the body in many ways: both undergo changes for better or worse; both are subject to illness and both have doctors; both get tired and need rest; both can produce joy and sorrow. The most obvious difference between the two is that one can be seen while the other can only be felt. Hindu thinkers attribute this not to a difference in kind but in degree: they say that both body and mind are material, one made of gross matter and the other of subtle, or fine, matter. Both body and mind cover – or, at least, seem to cover – the Atman, our spiritual Self, which is why our true identity remains hidden from us.

     The Hindus say that the goal of life – or the supreme consummation of life – is reached when we have a direct experience of our true nature as divine beings, and when we dwell continually in that blessed experience. Those who attain this state are called enlightened: these are the people who are truly in the state of brahmacharya, because they are truly dwelling in Brahman.

     The body and the mind limit the full manifestation of our divine nature. It’s a big climbdown really: imagine being reduced to a miserable, bound, imperfect and mortal human being from our original status as the blissful, free, perfect and immortal divine being. This is the Hindu version of the biblical myth of the fall – and the consequent expulsion – of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. For Hindus, spiritual life is a conscious and voluntary effort to go back to our original state of joy and freedom, pristine purity and perfection. For this spiritual journey to be successful, every hurdle on the way needs to be overcome and transcended.

     The Value of Celibacy

     Hurdles and obstacles there will be plenty (as every spiritual seeker can testify), but the root problem is the chronic forgetfulness of our joyful spiritual identity and the amazing attachment to our frail, sorrow-ridden human identity. What make us human are, of course, the human body and the human mind (which includes the intellect and the ego). My human identity is inseparably connected with perceiving my body and mind as “me”. Every demand of the body and mind is considered “my” demand – and in the process, the spiritual Self within is forgotten; my body-mind complex becomes my de facto “self”.

     The practice of brahmacharya, “dwelling in Brahman”, involves moving away from the body-mind complex, which is the false self, and going towards the Atman, our true Self. What makes the “moving away” process difficult is the strong claim the body and the mind exert over me, the constant demands they make of me. Indeed, it’s difficult for most of us to even conceive of our existence apart from our body-mind experience. Our actions and thoughts throughout the day keep us preoccupied with either the body or the mind or both.

     Hunger and thirst, rest and work, joy and sorrow, ambition and frustration, likes and dislikes – who has been free from the demands and pressures of these? The body and the mind make their presence felt through all these and more. But the intensity of sexual desire is often more powerful and more persistent than that of our other needs, so the meaning of brahmacharya often gets narrowed down to sexual abstinence.

     Sex plays an important part in human life and it often absorbs much of our thinking, feeling and willing. In Hinduism it is customary to view most things at three levels: physical, mental and verbal. Brahmacharya, or celibacy, includes sexual abstinence at all these levels. Celibacy thus is not limited to merely physical abstinence from sex but also non-indulgence in sexual fantasy and sexual talk. Body, mind and speech are interconnected and they tend to influence one another. When these three become compartmentalized and disconnected, the result is disharmony, which often leads to mental stress and anxiety, physical illness and unhealthy interpersonal relations.

     This description of brahmacharya may be all right for monks and nuns, but what about those who are not monks and who choose to get married? Does this ideal not apply to them? The Hindu tradition believes that the ideal of brahmacharya is relevant to all, but its “application” to monastic life is different from its application to married life.

     Marriage is not a licence to do away with all restraints. Chastity and fidelity are the foundation on which a strong and happy marital relationship can be built. The Bhagavata, a tenth-century Hindu text, has this message for the married: “Among the duties of a married person are the practice of brahmacharya except for the purpose of procreation, austerity, purity, contentment and friendliness toward all” (11.18. 43).

     In a world full of temptations, if a married person can fulfil these duties, he or she can get the same benefits that a monk does through a sincere practice of celibacy. Since brahmacharya is about self-restraint, it doesn’t really matter to whom one feels sexually attracted or with whom one has a committed long-term relationship. Sex is sex, whether heterosexual, homosexual or unisexual. For spiritual seekers of every persuasion, the ideal is still brahmacharya. This ideal is not about sex per se. It means “dwelling in Brahman”, or dwelling in the experience of our identity as sat-cit-ananda, Being-Consciousness-Bliss Absolute.

     The troubled times in which we live today may lead us to imagine that the brahmacharya ideal is unattainable. It seems out of reach for non-monastics and one may question whether it is attainable even for those who have chosen to be monks or nuns. The Hindu tradition addresses this legitimate doubt by pointing out that the ideal of brahmacharya is no more difficult today than it was any time in the past. It has always been difficult and probably it will always be. But there are in every generation people who have lived up to this ideal and that gives hope to the rest of us.

     Second, the ideal of brahmacharya, although relevant for all, is not mandatory for all. Not everyone feels the call to practise brahmacharya, and those who do, have options and a graded system of employing it in their own lives. For those who choose a monastic life, the rules are most stringent and uncompromising. If one finds that these are too difficult to follow – as some do sooner or later – one has the freedom to choose a different lifestyle, where the rules are somewhat relaxed. In marriage, the emphasis is on fidelity – remaining faithful to one’s spouse. Indeed, the glory of chastity in married life and the spiritual power it can generate have been described in great detail in Hindu history as well as mythology.

     Benefits of Celibacy

     What are the benefits of celibacy? What exactly happens when a person practises brahmacharya? The yoga traditions of Hinduism have made a deep study of this. According to them, the sexual impulse and the human energy that fuels it, when checked and controlled, become converted into a refined, subtle power called ojas. A yogi tries to transform all of the sexual energy into ojas through the practice of celibacy. It is only celibacy – or chastity in the case of the married – that causes the ojas to rise and be stored in the brain. Lack of chastity produces loss of mental vigour and moral strength.

     According to the Hindu tradition, if one practises brahmacharya for twelve years, a special nerve, called medha nadi in Sanskrit, is developed. This produces spiritual intuition, a strong memory and a remarkable capacity to grasp the subtle realities of life. It may not make a person an intellectual prodigy or a wrestler but it definitely makes him healthy, both physically and mentally.

     For the sustained practice of contemplation our brain needs to be strong and calm – and this becomes possible through brahmacharya because it provides nourishment and vigour to the brain. It also nourishes our creative energy and makes it flow on a higher plane. The validity of these claims is borne out by the actual experience of people who have practised brahmacharya.

     Aids to Celibacy

     It is needless to say that like any other ideal the ideal of celibacy has its own challenges and pitfalls. These challenges have to be faced head-on and the pitfalls avoided. This has to be done by both individuals as well as institutions. Among the things important to keep the ideal of celibacy untarnished are the following:

     1. Motivation: There is a saying in Sanskrit: “Prayojanam anuddisya na mando’pi pravartate, Even a stupid person does not do anything unless there is a motive.” Practising celibacy is not simply a matter of keeping one’s vow or abiding by the rules of an institution. lt is not a question of what one “should do”. The question is: Do I really want to do it? The impulse has to come from within. For that to happen, the practitioner has to be clear about why he is practising celibacy. In the Hindu tradition, the practice of celibacy is considered a must – even if it is practised in a graded manner – to transcend our human limitations and to regain our divine identity.

     2. Spiritual Longing: Motivation and hunger go together. I cannot be motivated to eat unless I am hungry for food. I cannot be motivated to study unless I am hungry for knowledge. Similarly, I cannot be motivated to practise celibacy unless I am hungry for the spiritual ideal or, in theistic language, I long to commune with God. Burning love for God is the greatest aid in the practice of celibacy. With love of God in the heart, no challenge is too difficult. Without it, every step becomes potentially slippery. Armed with God’s grace, we can attain any ideal. Without his grace, we cannot be certain about anything – not even the next moment or the next breath.

     3. Detachment: Allurements can come in many guises and from many directions. Unless we look deeply and analyse what is “essential” and what is “non-essential” to our lives, we won’t know what we must keep and what we need to trash. Wealth and fame, power and possessions, may have their utility but a spiritual seeker learns to deal with them with detachment. Monks in the Hindu tradition take a vow – and remind themselves about it daily – to renounce the desire for wealth (vittaisana), fame (lokaisnna) and sensual enjoyment (cittaisana). This obviously does not apply to non-monastics. What does apply to all is the necessity to arrange our priorities in life or importance depending on what we perceive as the goal and purpose of our existence.

     4. Self-restraint: Daily reminders of one’s vows would be meaningless unless these are backed up by a lifestyle that is in harmony with one’s spiritual ideal. Swami Brahmananda, the first spiritual head of the Order to which I belong, gave this advice to those who wished to practise brahmacharya: “Avoid exciting food, oversleep, over-exercise, laziness, bad company and useless conversation”. Hindus have given much thought to the effect food has on the body and mind, even going to the extent of experimenting which food I has what effect on us. Accordingly, they have classified certain foods as “exciting food”: meaning that too much of their intake stimulates passions and restlessness. They also found that overdoing of anything – be it physical exercise or sleep – is injurious to spiritual life; hence the advice to practise moderation in everything.

     5. Higher Creativity: Every one of us is endowed with creative energy and we have the freedom to decide how to express that creativity. In most people, at least a portion of the creative energy gets expressed through sex at the physiological level. But it is possible to express it through other channels such as art, music and scholarly pursuits. One who wishes to practise brahmacharya must learn to give a higher turn to one’s creative energies. This helps to keep the mind on a higher plane.

     I have mentioned five factors which are helpful in the practice of celibacy: motivation, spiritual longing, detachment, self-restraint and higher creativity. The rules and tradition of Hindu monastic life in particular – and spiritual life in general – have incorporated all of these factors to facilitate the practice of brahmacharya.

     There are times when some of those who embraced monastic life, mostly novices, find it difficult to continue for one reason or another. Many of those who return to secular life start families and become responsible and respected citizens, and contribute positively to community life. This has confirmed my belief that monastic celibacy is a great ideal but it is not for all. When people are unable to maintain celibacy, it’s because they’re trying to fit into a situation where they cannot fit. Problems arise only when people find themselves in a wrong place or with a wrong vocation. Every problem needs to be addressed appropriately and there is no problem that doesn’t have a solution.

Continue Reading No Comments

Mother’s Love – Swami Ishanananda – 3

Swami Ishanananda, the writer of these reminiscences, was indeed a blessed soul. He had the good fortune of becoming Holy Mother’s close attendant and helper when he was just an eleven-year-old schoolboy. He belonged to the group of young novices living at the Koalpara monastery, close to the Mother’s village, who used to assist the Mother in running her household. The Swami met the Mother in 1909 and served her until her passing away in 1920.

Source: Matrisannidhye (Bengali book). (A free translation by Br. Bodhi Chaitanya)

Maharaj’s (Swami Brahmananda’s) visit to Holy Mother

One morning at nine o’ clock, Swami Brahmananda arrived at the Udbodhan House to have the darshan of Holy Mother. Covering herself with a shawl, the Mother sat on a cot and asked Varada to bring the Swami in. Varada escorted Swami Brahmananda, walking behind him towards the Mother’s room, and, as they came into her presence, he could see the Swami’s legs trembling! Maharaj made a full prostration at the Mother’s feet and then asked her about Radhu’s health. The Mother blessed him by placing her hand on his head, then told him about Radhu’s illness, and asked him about himself and the other monks. After giving brief replies to the Mother’s questions, Maharaj came out and sat in Swami Saradananda’s room. Varada then saw that, after meeting the Mother, Maharaj was perspiring profusely. Following the Mother’s instructions, Varada arranged some biscuits, fruits, and sweets on a tray. Holy Mother held the offerings before Sri Ramakrishna’s picture for a while, partook of a tiny bit of it, and then gave it to Varada saying: `Give this to Rakhal’. When Varada entered Swami Saradananda’s room and handed the prasad to Maharaj, Swami Saradananda exclaimed: `Will you eat the Mother’s prasad all by yourself ? Maharaj: `Sarat, you eat Mother’s prasad daily, do you want a share of this prasad as well? All right, here you are. After all you are Mother’s doorkeeper; unless you are pleased one cannot go near the Mother.’ Swami Saradananda: `Brother, you are the one who appointed me to this job!’ Joking in this way, the two brother-disciples ate the Mother’s prasad with great joy.

A Brahmachari tries to serve Holy Mother

When Holy Mother was living at Koalpara, a new Brahmachari came from Belur Math to pay his respects to her. When he met the Mother, he expressed his wish to stay on for some days, but she told him: `My son, if you stay here you will have to put up with many inconveniences. Here I am, in this jungle, with Radhu; and there is so much work to do.’ The Brahmachari, however, kept on insisting, and Holy Mother finally said: `All right, you may stay at the Koalpara Ashrama for some days.’ After a few days the Mother asked the Brahmachari: `Look, Radhu is on a special diet. Do you think you could cook her meals?’ The boy was overjoyed, and agreed at once to do the job. The next day he cooked Radhu’s meal at the Ashrama. As he was taking the food to Holy Mother’s house nearby, the tray he carried felt so hot that his hands began to burn, and finally the tray fell on the ground, spreading its contents around! A perplexed Brahmachari presented himself before the Mother, empty tray in hand! He then told her what had happened. The Mother was rather displeased; and that day, of course, Radhu could not have her usual food. In the evening, when Varada went to visit the Mother, she told him: `Look, as a sadhu (holy man) the boy is quite good. But at the moment, here the work cannot go on without efficient people. This kind of work cannot be performed by sadhus that dwell under trees (i.e., sadhus indifferent to outward events). Again, on the impulse of some temporary enthusiasm anybody can do a good job, but the nature of a person can be known by observing in detail just how they perform their every-day work.’

Continue Reading No Comments

Mother’s Love – Swami Ishanananda – 2

Swami Ishanananda, the writer of these reminiscences, was indeed a blessed soul. He had the good fortune of becoming Holy Mother’s close attendant and helper when he was just an eleven-year-old schoolboy. He belonged to the group of young novices living at the Koalpara monastery, close to the Mother’s village, who used to assist the Mother in running her household. The Swami met the Mother in 1909 and served her until her passing away in 1920.

Source: Matrisannidhye (Bengali book). (A free translation by Br. Bodhi Chaitanya)

Holy Mother’s reaction to human suffering

During the famine of 1918 in Orissa, the Ramakrishna Mission took active part in the relief operations. At that time Holy Mother received a long letter of three or four pages from Swami Saradananda, written from Orissa itself. In it the Swami described people’s suffering and fervently prayed to her for the improvement of their condition. He explained that the help the Mission was rendering was quite insubstantial compared to the needs of the people, and that they did not know how to cope with the situation. After the whole letter had been read out to her, Holy Mother prayed to the Master with tearful eyes: `Lord, I can no longer see and hear about people’s misery; please put an end to their sufferings.’ Then she added: `Have you noticed Sarat’s (Swami Saradananda’s) large-heartedness? He is always ready to assist those in distress.’ `Oh Lord, give them in abundance; may they be able to supply the needs of all the people!’ Then the Mother wiped her tears with her hands.

A Mother’s Heart

In 1918, when Holy Mother was sixty-five years old, she fell seriously ill with malarial fever at the Koalpara Ashrama, near her native village. The monastic members of the Ashrama as well as the villagers of the locality were very concerned about her delicate condition. At this juncture, when Holy Mother would have been much comforted to have her dear niece Radhu by her side, the latter -whimsical as usual- suddenly took it into her head to visit her husband’s parental home in Tajpur, not far away, and left at once in a palanquin. Holy Mother must naturally have felt a bit hurt, but nevertheless decided to send a Brahmachari to Radhu, to find out whether she would like to accompany her to Calcutta. Radhu would not listen to any such suggestion, and refused to move from her father-in-law’s house. Meanwhile, Swami Saradananda and Yogin Ma arrived with a physician in order to take Holy Mother to Calcutta, where she could receive proper medical treatment. Within seven or eight days, when the patient was in a condition to travel, they all left for Calcutta. This was Holy Mother’s first visit to Calcutta without Radhu. In Calcutta Holy Mother soon recovered from her illness, but then it was Radhu’s turn to fall sick! By the middle of June of the same year Radhu had a painful boil on one finger and wrote to the Mother in Calcutta asking if she could stay with her again. The compassionate Mother, whom Radhu had recently deserted during her illness, now behaved as if she did not remember anything of it at all! She at once made all arrangements for Radhu’s journey to Calcutta. Radhu travelled with her husband and her mother, and a Brahmachari escorted them all the way from Koalpara. They arrived at the Mother’s house after nine in the evening, and the next day a doctor began to treat Radhu’s finger.

Continue Reading No Comments

Mother’s Love – Swami Ishanananda

Swami Ishanananda, the writer of these reminiscences, was indeed a blessed soul. He had the good fortune of becoming Holy Mother’s close attendant and helper when he was just an eleven-year-old schoolboy. He belonged to the group of young novices living at the Koalpara monastery, close to the Mother’s village, who used to assist the Mother in running her household. The Swami met the Mother in 1909 and served her until her passing away in 1920.

Source: Matrisannidhye (Bengali book). (A free translation by Br. Bodhi Chaitanya)

A son caught in a storm

A few days before Sri Ramakrishna’s birthday celebration in the year 1917, Varada arrived by bicycle one day at noon at the Mother’s house. He was on some errand for her. The Mother was then having lunch. When he had finished his work, the Mother gave him some prasad to eat. Radhu wanted him to stay for some time before returning, but he refused, knowing that there was a lot of urgent work to do at the Koalpara Ashrama. Radhu kept on insisting, and, in order to pacify her, the Mother also tried to persuade him to stay a bit longer. Looking at the sky, the Mother saw some clouds and said: `Look, some clouds are gathering, and Radhu also is insisting so much, just stay for some time and then you can go.’ Varada, however, had already made up his mind, and left at once on the bicycle. When he reached the fields beyond the village of Deshra, a terrible hailstorm arose. As the hailstones were quite large, he tied the cloth he was wearing round his head and took shelter under a tree. Unfortunately it was late winter and the tree was quite bare, so it couldn’t afford him much protection. The pelting was so severe that his toes began to bleed. After a while, when the storm subsided, he resumed his journey on foot, pushing the bicycle along. Reaching Koalpara at dusk, he went straight to bed without telling anything to anybody. The next day in the morning, a devotee from Jayrambati arrived with a letter for the Mahanta (the head of the monastery). The letter was from Holy Mother, and read: `Please let me know whether Varada arrived safely and how he is now. Yesterday I spent the night in great anxiety because of his travelling during the hailstorm. I am very worried.’ In the reply the Mother was informed that the boy had had some fever during the night, but that now he was all right. After a couple of days, when Varada again visited the Mother, she told him: `You were obstinate and left without listening to me. Afterwards, how worried I was on your account! In order to avoid the abbot’s scolding, you left without listening to me. Am I then a stranger to you? If you do not listen to my words, I am the one who has to suffer. When someone speaks from the heart, one should listen to them.’ Then the Mother asked him in detail about his journey in the storm.

Holy Mother and her brothers’ Guru

It was the year 1918, the Jagaddhatri Puja was being celebrated at the Mother’s house in Jayrambati. From early morning that day, Holy Mother had been repeatedly coming near the image and, prostrating in all humility, had prayed to the deity for the successful completion of the worship. One Hrishikesh Bhattacharya officiated as pujari (priest), while the tantradharaka (the prompter who helps in the recitation of the lengthy mantras) was the family guru of Holy Mother’s brothers. After the three worships and food offerings had been performed according to scriptural injunctions, there was arati (waving of lights before the image) and a homa ceremony (worship in the fire). When all the ceremonies were over, Holy Mother prostrated before the image of the Divine Mother, and then prostrated before the family guru, taking the dust of his feet.

When the Mother was about to prostrate before the priest, the latter did not allow her saying: `Mother, that you should prostrate before us! Please bless me!’ He was very annoyed at the family guru’s accepting Holy Mother’s prostrations without any objection. Holy Mother was revered and worshipped by so many people, and besides, she was much older than the guru. When the priest expressed his displeasure to the guru, the latter, somewhat understanding his mistake, replied with the following well-known verse:

`By whom the entire universe is pervaded, Both the moving and the unmoving, Whose undivided form is the whole universe, To the One who has revealed that State to me, To that Guru, be my salutation.’

On hearing these words, Holy Mother exclaimed: `Oh, please don’t speak like that’ and left the room. Afterwards the consecrated food was distributed among all the devotees and the villagers present. Lalu has some fun On the day after the above incident, Lalu the fisherman came to Holy Mother and after prostrating to her said: `Auntie, today in the evening I will sing some baul2 songs.’ Mother replied: `Oh no, what will you sing? You will only give me trouble! Where are the canopy and the lantern? I cannot arrange these things for you.’ Lalu was not to be put off so easily, he said: `No problem, auntie. I will procure all those things.’ At the appointed time, shortly before dusk, Lalu appeared on the scene carrying a broken trunk on his head, and with a tom-tom hanging from his shoulders. On seeing him, the Mother tried to discourage him: `Lalu, why do you want to make people laugh at you? Instead of this, why don’t you just sit with the other boys and sing at few devotional songs to Mother Jagaddhatri? You can have Mother’s consecrated food before going back home.’ Lalu, however, had already made up his mind, and started setting things up on the meadow opposite Holy Mother’s house. He improvised a frame of bamboo poles and spread on it some torn canvas cloth, thus getting the canopy ready. He then tied a hurricane lamp to the canopy. The stage being ready, Lalu began to play the tom-tom very loudly, so as to let the villagers know that a special performance was about to commence. After a while, when Lalu had played the announcing tom-tom for a second time, he managed to get a small crowd of spectators around the stage. He took a cloak, anklets, and the ektara out of the trunk. As he unfolded the cloak and was about to put it on, lots of cockroaches fell from it! Nalini3 exclaimed: `You rascal! You need not do any singing. I see you’ve come here to release cockroaches only! Close that trunk quickly and be off!’ Undeterred, Lalu shook the cloak clean and then began his performance to the accompaniment of the ektara:

`He who takes this world for real, he is indeed deluded, Just think: who is whose father, Who is whose uncle, in this insubstantial world? Now take a puff at the hubble-bubble, And a gurgling sound it makes, But see the old man whose teeth are gone, Puffed rice powder is all he takes.’

By singing a few such songs, Lalu entertained the villagers, who were very happy and laughed a good deal. Holy Mother also was seen laughing now and then, she enjoyed the function too!

Continue Reading No Comments

The Contemplative Life – Most Revered Swami Atmasthanandaji Maharaj

Most Revered Swami Atmasthanandaji Maharaj is the present President of the world-wide Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission. In this article Most Revered Maharaj provides guidelines on how to lead a contemplative life citing many personal reminiscences of senior monks of the Ramakrishna tradition who lead inspiring spiritual lives.

Source: Prabuddha Bharata – Jan 2007

      SADHAN-BHAJAN or spiritual practice – japa, prayer and meditation – should play a very vital role in the lives of all. This is a sure way to peace despite all the hindrances that one has to face in daily life. The usual complaint is that it is very difficult to lead an inward life of sadhana or contemplation amidst the rush and bustle of everyday life. But with earnestness and unshakable determination one is sure to succeed. Sri Ramakrishna has said that a devotee should hold on to the feet of the Lord with the right hand and clear the obstacles of everyday life with the other.     

     There are two primary obstacles to contemplative life. The first one is posed by personal internal weaknesses. One must have unswerving determination to surmount these. The second one consists of external problems. These we have to keep out, knowing them to be harmful impediments to our goal.

     For success in contemplative life, one needs earnestness and regularity. Study of the scriptures, holy company, and quiet living help develop our inner lives. I have clearly seen that all the great swamis of our Order have led a life of contemplation even in the midst of great distractions. They lived this life amidst engagement in service to the Lord through whatever responsibility they were assigned. I have been very fortunate to have come in close contact with some of the very illustrious monks of our Order like the revered Swamis Virajananda, Achalananda, Shantananda, Jagadananda, Madhavananda, Nirvedananda, and Gadadharananda. Their lives have been wonderful. There was always a glow on their faces, and association with them was spiritually very inspiring, assuring one of the priceless value of sadhana.

     One thing that is a very great power in all men of God is unaccountable love. You cannot explain why they love you. They don’t ask anything in return. They do not ask that you become a monk or do anything in return. They just love you. This is something very, very wonderful. Whenever I visited Belur Math, I found this to be true. But the first monk to leave a deep impress on me was Swami Gadadharananda.

     I was then doing my intermediate at Cotton College, Gauhati. During summer vacation, when I was visiting my home at Dinajpur, I came down with serious malaria with several complications. My father, who was a big Sanskrit pandit and a specialist in the Bhagavata, had gone to deliver a lecture at a function in a nearby school. Swami Gadadharananda was at that time the head of the Dinajpur centre (now in Bangladesh). He happened to meet my father at this function and found him very worried. He enquired about the reason and, on learning about my illness, asked if he could come and see me. My father of course welcomed him. Next I found a monk placing his hand on my head and chest – and to my surprise, and everybody else’s, all problems were soon over! He had also spoken in such an affectionate and loving manner that I had at once felt drawn to him. So when I was cured I asked my father who the sannyasin was, and coming to know that he was the head of the nearby Ramakrishna Ashrama, went to meet him one day with some friends.

      Swami Gadadharananda was very pleased to see us. He took us to the shrine there and introduced us to Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda. He gave us prasad and asked us to come again. So I started frequenting the Ashrama. The swami gave me books like Swami Vivekananda’s Lectures from Colombo to Almora, which I started reading. Knowing that I came from a Brahmin family with the tradition of worship at home, he asked me to do arati in the shrine and then also puja, even though I had not had my spiritual initiation as yet. After the arati he would ask me to meditate a little before returning home. I was deeply impressed.

     In the morning, after mangalarati, he used to go out walking on the bank of the Kanchan River. Sometimes he would ask if I would like to go with him. During the walk he would suddenly ask: ‘What are you thinking as you are walking? Always think of Him, of God. “Ho jaye tere nam vasa, ho jaye tere nam vasa; may your name become my refuge, may your name become my refuge.” Whenever you walk here and there, you must mentally think like this.’ He would find a nice place to sit by the riverbank, and would soon close his eyes and start meditating. What could I do? Not knowing what meditation was, I started imitating him. He would be very still and appear very happy. I imitated him, and in this process, discovered something happening within.

     The swami also allowed me to occasionally spend the night at the Ashrama. There were not many rooms there, so he let me stay in his own room. And there I saw something wonderful. Whenever I happened to wake up, at midnight or any other time, I found the swami sitting and meditating! I was amazed! You see how holy company works!

     Swami Gadadharananda was nothing short of a saint. I have never seen him hating anyone. He was always ready to serve anybody in need. Even his way of collecting flowers, making garlands, and preparing for the arati impressed me. I could not help following him and assisting whenever possible.

     As mentioned earlier, even before I met Swami Gadadharananda, I used to do puja at home. Ours was a religious home, and we had a tradition of thakur seva (service to the family deity). In the hostel also I used to do sandhya-vandana (daily devotions prescribed by the scriptures) regularly. That, however, was traditional. What I got from the ashrama was something totally different. An ashrama is a place full of spiritual vibrations. That is something inspiring, lively. But in one’s home and family, it is a mere traditional way of life, and religious practice, a routine thing; there is not that life there.

     Another person who greatly inspired me to take to monastic life was Swami Achalananda, popularly known as Kedar Baba. He was a very austere sadhu. When I first saw him at Belur Math, he was walking about clad only in a kaupina (loin cloth). Oh, his regular prayer, japa, and meditation! Even when his health was completely broken, out of twenty-four hours, his rest and other personal activities would take up at most six to eight hours.

     I was in close contact with him. He used to come to Belur Math every year for two to three months and stay in the Leggett house, in the room where Holy Mother had lived. Whenever he used to come, I would go and clean his room and serve him a bit. Every day he would ask me to read the Kathamrita and would ask me, ‘How much japa have you done?’

     Once there was a feast at the Math. Next day Kedar Baba asked us how many rasgullas we had eaten. When I said that I had had two, he exclaimed, ‘What? Two rasgullas, and that at night! And you want to be a monk and follow Swamiji! Impossible! Those who want to live a pure life must eat a very light meal at night and be careful about sweets.’ He was a terrific inspiration.

     I was in the Calcutta Students’ Home while pursuing my graduate studies, and there I came in close contact with Swami Nirvedananda, a real inspiration in every sense. He emphasized brahmacharya and a God-oriented life, especially for students.

     Swami Shantananda was another great contemplative. He was a quiet man and talked very little, but you would always find him doing japa. I think, out of twenty-four hours, he would be doing japa for eighteen to twenty hours. Very sweet and very kind – that was Swami Shantananda. Even when he was down with tuberculosis, there was no change in his routine. When he was asked not to strain himself doing prolonged spiritual practice, he said that he could not do otherwise. And never did he give any external expression to the distress of disease.

     Then there was Swami Madhavananda. Though he was the General Secretary, and very active, his life was very regular. He was very strict in matters of principle. But he also knew when to be considerate. Those who live this contemplative life regularly also work better. There is no doubt about it. There is nothing haphazard about their work. Whatever they do they do with all their heart, and as service to God.

     Does it work the other way round too? For those who work well, do their inner lives also improve? Well, work alone will not do. The spirit behind the work is important. If you work with the spirit that it is service to God, then that work will be spiritually fruitful. Otherwise, well, everybody works. But their work and the work of a Ramakrishna Order monk is not the same. There are many doctors attending to patients. But there is a difference between their work and the service rendered by a monk to the sick. The monk’s spirit is that of service to Narayana, God. The other person doesn’t necessarily look upon the patient as an embodiment of God or any such thing. ‘He is a patient, I give treatment, and I get my fees, that’s all’ – that is the professional attitude.

     For those who have heavy work responsibilities, will the simple maintenance of this attitude of service to God improve their meditative life? Yes! There is no doubt about it. Relief work or hospital work or school work or kitchen work or whatever – it is all His service. That spirit must be there. Then your inner life improves automatically. This is my own personal experience. I have derived tremendous joy from hospital work. I worked at the Ramakrishna Mission Sevashrama in Rangoon, a busy general hospital. I was also involved in the building of the tuberculosis sanatorium in Ranchi, practically from the beginning. Oh, the joy! And when you worked with devotion, help came from the most unexpected quarters. We had to work hard. But I worked keeping in mind that this was service to the same Being to whom I offered flowers in the shrine. If He came in this shape and form, this was how I had to serve Him. But I also practised japa and meditation every day, irrespective of the time. That is the support one has to hold on to. For everybody that is a must, there is no question about that.

     There were also occasions when I took time out from work. That time I spent in spiritual practices and scriptural study. I used to go to Swami Jagadananda and study Vedantic texts. Swami Jagadananda was a living embodiment of the spirit of Vedanta. I shall describe the scene of his passing, and from that you can have an understanding of his personality. He had had a heart attack and was gasping for breath. We had brought him to the Vrindaban Sevashrama for treatment. The doctors had declared that there was no hope of recovery and that he would collapse very soon. His legs were turning ice-cold. The doctors asked us to massage the legs with brandy. While I was doing that, he suddenly looked at me and exclaimed in his native Sylhet dialect: ‘Kita karo? Kita karo? What are you doing? What are you doing?’ ‘Your legs are turning cold, so I am massaging them a little.’ ‘Massaging them a little!’ he retorted. ‘Satchidekam brahma! Brahman is Absolute Knowledge and Existence! Have you understood that, or not? Sarvam khalvidam brahma, all this is verily Brahman. Know and hold on to this!’ And he was gone!

     Are the joys of work and that of quiet contemplation and study equivalent? Yes, they are. But both are necessary for harmonious spiritual development.

     I had also the opportunity to serve Swami Virajananda, the tenth (sic, sixth) President of the Order. His life too was very regular, in its own way. And he was very hard-working also. Everything that he did, he did thoroughly – everything! And he was a hard taskmaster too. He had his hours of deep contemplative moods. And he had a great sense of humour. Sometimes he would prepare some sweets and snacks and send them for the monks after having checked the number – you could not get two! We knew that there would be more in his stock, and that all of it was turning stale. Coming to know what we were thinking, he would remark sarcastically, ‘Rotten! Rotten!’ Then he would do some trick and send those foodstuffs to us; and lo! it was all very good and fresh! He would then ask, ‘Now what are they doing, what are they doing?’

     Even at the time of his passing away he retained this sense of humour. The doctors had given up hope and many sadhus had gathered in his room. When he saw that the sadhus were preparing to chant ‘Hari Om Ramakrishna’ (which is usually done at the final hour) he quipped: ‘Ekhon na, ekhon na, deri ache; Not now, not now, there is still time.’ But when the actual time came it was a sight to see: a beaming face, hair standing on end, and tears trickling down from the outer corners of the eyes – all signs of divine joy according to the scriptures.

     Can householders also have equally inspiring lives? Yes, they can. Let me recall just one incident, again a parting scene: I heard that a certain devotee was on the verge of death. I went to see him. His wife was massaging his feet. He looked up and, seeing me, said, ‘Bless me, so that I can reach the goal, the feet of the Master.’ He was quiet for some time.Then he looked at his wife and said, ‘Now the moment has come. Put charanamrit (holy water) here (in my mouth).’ Having swallowed the charanamrit he uttered: ‘Ramakrishna, Ramakrishna.’ And that was the end.

     So, both householder life and monastic life can equally be ways of developing oneself spiritually. But one must follow the right route. A monastic life that ends with the taking of gerua robes alone is nothing. You have your mantra; you have to make that mantra practically realized in your life. Then alone is your sannyasa worthwhile.

     Let me conclude by recalling my own initiation from Swami Vijnanananda Maharaj, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. As he was giving us the mantra and reciting God’s name, it appeared as if he was intoxicated. The
atmosphere was indescribable. It is this divine intoxication that one seeks in leading the life of a contemplative. And on obtaining even a bit of that divine joy, one attains fulfilment.

Continue Reading 3 Comments

Some Permanent Facts About the ‘Impermanent’

Source of the Article: The Vedanta Kesary issue – May 2014

Two Instances

Let us consider the following:

The ousted leader of a country, indicted of crimes against humanity, flees from his country. When his residence is taken over by the protesters, they are shocked to see the lavish amenities and objects that their ‘leader’ had amassed, living in a luxurious style—gold-plated furniture and cutlery, exotic gardens, elaborate baths, luxury cars and so on. And all this when the country he was ruling was writhing in poverty and hunger! People’s ‘leader’! Power corrupts—absolutely.

Or take the case of a fraudulent business-man or government official. When they fall from grace, one thing that surprises all is the ill-gotten wealth and opulence, the diamonds and cars and all that they had earned through wrong means and now lies confiscated by others.

These are not stray cases, however. Nor are they new. Countless people down the ages have acted similarly. They have fleeced the poor and made merry while others died in indignity, deprivation and poverty. History is replete with instances of opulence and wealth coexisting with poverty and squalor. While the ‘haves’ wallow in riches, the ‘have-nots’ suffer silently in poverty and lack of basic amenities. Everyone knows this.

But let us take another instance:

During his travels, Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh tradition, camped in a small town. There he met a rich man. The rich man had amassed a lot of wealth and property and lived a life of luxury. While the rich man was taking leave of Guru Nanak, the latter took out a needle from his pouch and gave it to the rich man asking him to keep it safe. He told the rich man that he would ask for it in the next world. ‘But how can one carry a needle into the next world?’ remarked rich man. ‘Then what have you collected all these riches for?’ asked the great Guru. It acted like a hammer on his delusion and he understood his blunder—to think of wealth as permanent. He changed his ways and began to share his wealth with others and became pious.

When we consider these, we find that while the ousted leader or erring official, and millions like them, have tried to be rich in surreptitious ways, imagining that they would be, possibly, rich forever, and then an unpleasant end, the rich man in Guru Nanak’s story woke up to the reality of impermanence of wealth, and that realisation changed his life. Charity and generosity entered his life.

Indeed, man has been searching for centuries for a solution to this problem of what is permanent and what is impermanent—i.e., what is worth our efforts and what is not worth our efforts. Living as we do in a modern society, we need money but money is also the source of much evil and wickedness. One needs to save, accumulate money in order to live but this tendency and activity is also the cause of most evils and misery in the world. Money is an evil, right, but a necessary evil. The point is how much does man need? And how to get it?

Various ‘isms’ which govern the lives of millions are only attempts at solving this unending problem. Not that no solutions have been found. There have been many remarkable strides taken in this direction. Much progress and advancement have been made in this but the problem is much deeper than what appears on the surface. Swami Vivekananda pointed out more than a century ago the cause of this malady thus:

[We] think that we are little minds, that we are little bodies; it is the mother of all selfishness. As soon as I think that I am a little body, I want to preserve it, to protect it, to keep it nice, at the expense of other bodies; then you and I become separate. As soon as this idea of separation comes, it opens the door to all mischief and leads to all misery. This is the utility that if a very small fractional part of human beings living today can put aside the idea of selfishness, narrowness, and littleness, this earth will become a paradise tomorrow; but with machines and improvements of material knowledge only, it will never be. These only increase misery, as oil poured on fire increase the flame all the more. Without the knowledge of the Spirit, all material knowledge is only adding fuel to fire, only giving into the hands of selfish man one more instrument to take what belongs to others, to live upon the life of others, instead of giving up his life for them.1

Hence, what we are discussing is not a mere passing incident but the problem of a world-view, of seeing things from a much deeper angle than just the problem of wealth and poverty. It is the problem of finding out what is permanent and what is impermanent and how to discover the permanent in the midst of a changing world. It is the problem of Tyaga, renunciation, and Bhoga, enjoyment. Tyaga leads to simplicity and contentment while Bhoga leads to greed and restlessness. Tyaga means giving up selfishness, while Bhoga leads to increasing our selfishness.

Two Words

These two words, permanent and impermanent, are quite commonplace and we use them in different contexts and connotations—a permanent job, permanent building, permanent postal address, permanent identity card, permanent scar on the body, and so on. Impermanent or temporary too is used in a variety of ways and contexts.

But the terms permanent and impermanent have more deeper and serious meaning in spiritual context. They are especially used in Vedanta and hence one encounters them over and again. Called nityam and anityam, understanding of the words permanent and impermanent is a key to a proper and clear understanding of spiritual ideal and as to why one seeks it. Says Swami Vivekananda,

Life is but momentary, whether you have the poverty of the poorest man in rags or the wealth of the richest living person. Life is but momentary, whether you are a downtrodden man living in one of the big streets of the big cities of the West or a crowned Emperor ruling over millions. Life is but momentary, whether you have the best of health or the worst. Life is but momentary, whether you have the most poetical temperament or the most cruel. There is but one solution of life, says the Hindu, and that solution is what they call God and Religion. If these be true, life becomes explained, life becomes bearable, becomes enjoyable. Otherwise, life is but a useless burden.2

Indeed, life stands explained only when we have discovered God, the Permanent Truth behind all the changing truths of life. For Permanent is also related to happiness or lasting happiness. Both are interrelated. Temporary things bring temporary happiness and the permanent ones bring, permanent.

This brings out the very question of what is creation. What is the world we live in? What brings it into being? What are its various characteristics?


Understanding the ‘Impermanent’

The world, according to Vedanta, is temporary, not permanent. Only God, the Ultimate Truth behind the universe, is Changeless. Many fascinating terms in Sanskrit are used to explain the ‘world’ that we live, the world that is always on the move. These terms include Samsara, Nanatva, Prapancha, and Nama-rupatmaka. All these terms explain the idea of the world in a specific and pointed way—but all saying the same thing: the world is impermanent—that which ‘begins’, ‘ends’. Let us understand these terms:

1. Samsara means that which is ever moving (sam sarate iti samsara). The world is constantly on the move, changing. Change is the only changeless law of life. Young grow up and old ones die—that is life. There is movement, shifting, decay and rebirth. That is life. Says Swamiji,

In the universe, whatever we see of motion, or struggles in mineral or plants or animals is an effort to come back to the centre and be at rest. There was an equilibrium, and that has been destroyed; and all parts and atoms and molecules are struggling to find their lost equilibrium again. In this struggle they are combining and re-forming, giving rise to all the wonderful phenomena of nature. All struggles and competitions in animal life, plant life, and everywhere else, all social struggles and wars are but expressions of that eternal struggle to get back to that equilibrium. The going from birth to death, this travelling, is what is called Samsara in Sanskrit, the round of birth and death literally.3

2. Nanatva means manifoldness. Creation means variety. Indeed the world is so varied in colours, shapes, types and so on, rightly is it said that variety is the spice of life. Not only spice but the very nature of the world is variety, diversity. Says Swamiji,

Unity in variety is the plan of the universe. We are all men, and yet we are all distinct from one another. As a part of humanity I am one with you, and as Mr. So-and-so I am different from you. As a man you are separate from the woman; as a human being you are one with the woman. As a man you are separate from the animal, but as living beings, man, woman, animal, and plant are all one; and as existence, you are one with the whole universe.4

3. Prapancha means ‘made of five (pancha)’. These five elements are: air, fire, earth, water and space. Called pancha-tattvas, or pancha-bhutas, they constitute the world of creation. The whole creation consists of these five elements but they are not to be understood as just five physical elements; they are something deeper. Explains the real significance of ‘five-elements’ Swami Vivekananda:

What we call matter in modern times was called by the ancient psychologists Bhutas, the external elements. There is one element which, according to them, is eternal; every other element is produced out of this one. It is called Akasha. It is somewhat similar to the idea of ether of the moderns, though not exactly similar. Along with this element, there is the primal energy called Prana. Prana and Akasha combine and recombine and form the elements out of them. Then at the end of the Kalpa everything subsides, and goes back to Akasha and Prana. . . 

The Akasha, acted upon by the repeated blows of Prana, produces Vayu or vibrations. This Vayu vibrates, and the vibrations growing more and more rapid result in friction giving rise to heat, Tejas. Then this heat ends in liquefaction, Apah. Then that liquid becomes solid. We had ether, and motion, then came heat, then it became liquefied, and then it condensed into gross matter; and it goes back in exactly the reverse way. The solid will be liquefied and will then be converted into a mass of heat, and that will slowly get back into motion; that motion will stop, and this Kalpa will be destroyed. Then, again it will come back and again dissolve into ether. . .  Prana you can call in English life, the vital force; but you must not restrict it to the life of man; at the same time you must not identify it with Spirit, Atman. So this goes on. Creation cannot have either a beginning or an end; it is an eternal on-going.5

This Prapancha, the admixture of the ‘five elements’, is thus what we call the creation and that too, in its present state, is temporary. It manifests and resolves back—that is what is called life. And in this sense, life and death both are impermanent.

4. Nama-rupatmaka means that which is made of names and forms. The world is matter, in gross and subtle forms. It is also called maya—that which is and yet is not. Whole world consists of infinite number of names and forms. Says Swami Vivekananda,

This theory of Maya has been the most difficult thing to understand in all ages. Let me tell you in a few words that it is surely no theory, it is the combination of the three ideas Desha-Kala-Nimitta—space, time, and causation—and this time and space and cause have been further reduced into Nama-rupa. Suppose there is a wave in the ocean. The wave is distinct from the ocean only in its form and name, and this form and this name cannot have any separate existence from the wave; they exist only with the wave. The wave may subside, but the same amount of water remains, even if the name and form that were on the wave vanish for ever. So this Maya is what makes the difference between me and you, between all animals and man, between gods and men. In fact, it is this Maya that causes the Atman to be caught, as it were, in so many millions of beings, and these are distinguishable only through name and form. If you leave it alone, let name and form go, all this variety vanishes for ever, and you are what you really are.6

All these terms—samsara, nanatva, prapancha and nama-rupatmaka—describe the same substance: the world and life in it. Changing universe and the changeless behind this change—that is the Indian idea. Sri Ramakrishna, like other Great Ones, would always insist, that one should try to reach the Changeless One, the Atman, or God or Brah-
man, in this very life. It is in finding the eternal that one finds permanent peace and happiness.


Beyond the Impermanent

Vedanta speaks of the Eternal behind the ephemeral. But why do we not understand this simple truth? The Patanjali Yoga-sutras point out that it is due to our ignorance that we make this mistake. In fact, ignorance is mistaking the impermanent for the permanent:

Ignorance is taking the non-eternal, the impure, the painful, and the non-self for the eternal, the pure, the happy, and the Atman or Self.7

A wise man is one who has corrected his perception. He knows that the body is not the self; body is only a means for the Self to experience the world. He, the Brahman, is beyond the body-mind self. Body is not the self for it is not eternal. So is the mind.

This understanding is crucial to understand why man becomes selfish and why, as quoted in the beginning, one becomes so selfish and cruel. It all depends on our perceptions, and the most important of all perceptions is the perception of ourselves. What are we? Even more than the question of what this world is, the issue is what are we? Are we just a piece of bone and flesh held together by some intelligence and ego? Or are we something? As if answering our query, Swamiji says,

The body is dying every minute. The mind is constantly changing. The body is a combination, and so is the mind, and as such can never reach to a state beyond all change. But beyond this momentary sheathing of gross matter, beyond even the finer covering of the mind is the Atman, the true Self of man, the permanent, the ever free. It is his freedom that is percolating through layers of thought and matter, and, in spite of the colourings of name and form, is ever asserting its unshackled existence. It is his deathlessness, his bliss, his peace, his divinity that shines out and makes itself felt in spite of the thickest layers of ignorance. He is the real man, the fearless one, the deathless one, the free.8

Man in reality is seeking ‘himself’, his own Self, in various ways:

This infinite Atman is, as it were, trying to see His own face, and all, from the lowest animals to the highest of gods, are like so many mirrors to reflect Himself in, and He is taking up still others, finding them insufficient, until in the human body He comes to know that it is the finite of the finite, all is finite, there cannot be any expression of the Infinite in the finite. Then comes the retrograde march, and this is what is called renunciation, Vairagya. Back from the senses, back! Do not go to the senses is the watchword of Vairagya. This is the watchword of all morality, this is the watchword of all well-being.9

This Vairagya is the source of all goodness, all love and all the personal sacrifices that create a healthy human personality and society.

Armed with this understanding of the ‘impermanent’, one learns to take right decisions, keeping a larger vision of life in view. Nachiketa, for instance, when asked by his father to go to the Abode of Death, began to reflect: ‘Consider successively how your forefathers behaved, and consider how others behave now. Man decays and dies, like corn, and emerges again like corn.’ (Kath.U. I.i.6) In other words, life is transient. One should not compromise on truth. Nachiketa’s father’s words, ‘Unto death I give you,’ should not be denied; they should be fulfilled. Let us be strong, face death, keep up the truth, and follow the path of Dharma. Swami Vivekananda’s famous words to the Raja of Mysore may be cited here: ‘My young prince, the vanities of life are transient. They alone live who live for others; the rest are more dead than alive.’10


This then is the solution to the problem of greed and lust, the problem of how to change a man’s behaviour and his life—change his self-concept, change his character. Changing oneself is the way to change the world. It is man-making, the development of higher self-concept. No government, no system of governance or ‘more laws’ and better technology can solve man’s problems, though all of them have a place in man’s scheme of life. But it is man’s character where the solution to selfishness lies. In Swamiji’s words,

The miseries of the world cannot be cured by physical help only. Until man’s nature changes, these physical needs will always arise, and miseries will always be felt, and no amount of physical help will cure them completely. The only solution of this problem is to make mankind pure. Ignorance is the mother of all the evil and all the misery we see. Let men have light, let them be pure and spiritually strong and educated, then alone will misery cease in the world, not before. We may convert every house in the country into a charity asylum, we may fill the land with hospitals, but the misery of man will still continue to exist until man’s character changes.11 

Continue Reading No Comments

Renunciation and Spiritual Practice

Swami Yatiswarananda (1889-1966), a former Vice-President of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, was a well-known spiritual figure in the Neo-Vedanta Movement. He did several years of pioneering work in spreading Vedanta in Europe and U.S.A. His Meditation and Spiritual Life has been acclaimed as a spiritual classic. This article is based upon the notes of his class-talks on Vedantasara of Sadananda which were taken down at Wisbadan, Germany, during January-February 1934.

Describing the ways of the worldly minded, the Lord says:

O Partha, no set determination is formed in the minds of those that are deeply attached to pleasure and power, and whose discrimination is stolen away by the flowery words of the unwise, who are full of desires and look upon heaven as their highest goal, and who, taking pleasure in the panegyric words of the Vedas, declare that there is nothing else. Their flowery words are exuberant with various specific rites as the means to pleasure and power and are the causes of new births as the result of their works performed with desire.

And he further advises Arjuna to go beyond the gunas:

The Vedas deal with the three gunas. Be thou free, O Arjuna, from the triad of the Gunas, free from the pairs of opposites, ever-balanced, free from the thought of getting and keeping, and established in the self.

One should feel that this material existence is the source of endless pain and misery, and that there can never be any lasting happiness in the world. We must be tired of animal existence, of being swayed by the cravings and desires of our senses and our mind. One should cultivate a feeling of disgust towards all worldly pleasure and enjoyment. No person who is bound by pleasure and pain, can reach the goal. So for a person who is not prepared to get rid of the pairs of opposites, there is no place in spiritual life.

We can never make ourselves fit and prepared for the higher spiritual culture so long as we yearn for bodily pleasures.

In his Inspired Talks, Swami Vivekananda says:

Do not wait to have a harp and rest by degrees; why not take a harp and begin here? Why wait for heaven. Make it here! In heaven there is no marrying or giving in marriage; why not begin at once and have none here? The yellow robe of the Sannyasin is the sign of the free. Give up the beggar’s dress of the world; wear the flag of freedom, the ochre robe.

Without perfect purity–physical and mental–nothing can be achieved in spiritual life. This is the teaching of the Great Ones, the Christs, the Buddhas, the Ramakrishnas of the world.

Spiritual Life is for the Strong

We must be able to stand the destructive aspect of truth. First, truth burns many things in us: false attachments, false hopes, all worldly desires and all worldly loves. And all these have to be destroyed, if we want to clean our reflectors.

If you are really prepared to follow the spiritual path unconditionally, then you have to get rid of all such dreams, the gross dreams and the subtle ones. And this means tremendous courage, tremendous heroism, tremendous bravery and undauntedness. By those who are weak, who have got weak nerves, truth cannot be realised. And seeing that the dream as a dream is going to break anyhow, why not go and break it consciously, purposefully and manfully? Every dream is going to break sooner or later, why create new dreams? Why not stop dreaming altogether?

It is very important to be able to stand the destructive aspect of Truth. It must first of all burn away all our false hopes, false identifications, false pet ideas, all our false worldly aspirations, all our small, petty, greedy loves. Then only will Truth reveal Itself, not before. But very often we want to dream our miserable, petty, little dreams of love and greed and power–we want to hug them to our heart’s content and cling to them as long as we possibly can, till they are torn away from us.

As I said, if you are really prepared to follow the spiritual life, you must do away with all dreams, gross dreams, subtle dreams. There must be merciless scrubbing and cleaning and readjustment. A new outlook must be created, sacrificing old notions and pet ideas, prejudices etc. Tremendous and uncompromising boldness is necessary. Those who are bold and strong and purposeful alone can attain to the Truth. Not others. In Vedanta there is no place for the weakling, the worms groveling in the dust, the sinners who go on crying, ‘Oh, I am a sinner, I am a sinner’, and then continue to sin, to wallow in the mire, and wail and cry!

Truth is not to be attained by the weak. If purity is ours by birthright, why not manifest purity? If love is ours by birthright, why not manifest love? If bliss is ours by birthright, why not manifest bliss? If freedom is ours by birthright, why go on being slaves to our senses, to our body, mind, ego? Break the dream mercilessly! Learn to stand on your own feet.

Swami Vivekananda says in a poem:

…Be bold and face

The Truth! Be one with It! Let visions cease,

Or, if you cannot, dream but truer dreams,

Which are Eternal Love and Service Free!

This is the ideal, and the ideal must some day be made real. It must not be allowed to remain an ideal. Mere theories and elevating thoughts won’t do. The sine qua non of all spiritual life is unerring set determination, come what may. He who is not prepared to pay the price, had better not go in for it at all. Nothing can be had without paying the price. In the human being, anything that is not spiritual is to be eliminated, steadily, mercilessly, patiently. The human personality is to be mercilessly analyzed. Renunciation is the central theme–physical and mental renunciation. Renunciation of wealth and greed, renunciation of lust, renunciation of the ego.

Sri Ramakrishna says: ‘There are two characteristics required for the spiritual aspirant. One of them is freedom from guile, the other, calmness.’

This calmness has two aspects–the physical and the mental. The body must be calm, the mind must be calm, the nerves must be calm. It is only possible for us to study in a perfectly calm atmosphere; our mind must be concentrated and calm. Here we have been thinking good thoughts for the last two months, and this is bound to create an atmosphere, and we must make this atmosphere purer and purer, and stay in this atmosphere as much as possible. The physical and the mental environment is to be consciously created and purified by us all. Everybody should try to contribute as much as possible by purifying his whole thought-world and trying to create harmony and calmness in himself and in the others.

Constant Practice of Concentration

If thou are not able to fix thy mind on Me, then do thou seek to reach Me by constant practice (abhyasa).

Constant practice of meditation and of repeatedly withdrawing the mind from the objects to which it wanders and trying to fix it on one thing is necessary. There must be constant daily practice, daily concentration, so that the feeling colours the whole mind. All these thoughts must be driven deep into the subconscious in order to purify it and to destroy the old impure impressions with which it has been fed.

Constant reflection is necessary so that a permanent wave is formed in your mind. There must be permanent current flowing in one direction, not many currents flowing at random and wasting all the energy which has to be used by the aspirant for a higher purpose. Every sincere devotee should stop all channels through which his energy is being wasted and draw up a fixed daily routine which is to be followed scrupulously, patiently, unerringly, day by day. This is very important if you want to have success in spiritual life, but very often people don’t care to do this. They go on listening to nice talks without ever doing anything themselves. The goal can never be reached by vicarious striving.

Struggle, struggle, struggle! There is no other way. Let us not be cowards, let us not be afraid of struggles and failures and pain, but go on, steadily, patiently, unerringly, towards the one goal of our life. And here, very much depends upon the regularity of our spiritual practices and daily studies and readings.

Very often we are careless in this. We have to be more careful about our thoughts and doings for our own benefit as well as the benefit of others. There is too much idle gossip, too much thinking of unnecessary or even harmful thoughts. And all these will have to be eliminated before we can make any real progress towards the goal. It is essential for us to create the right mood before sitting for meditation. Steady regular practice in the right mood–that is what every aspirant has to go in for and to go on with.

Evil thoughts arise even in the mind that has been made strong, but these can do it no harm. Unless this world has been effaced completely, desires and passions can never be annihilated–I mean in their subtlest form.

When one realises the Atman as dwelling in all things and finds all things dwelling in oneself, the sage ceases to hate.

Until then the passions arise in the mind, but if we have strengthened our moral fibre through our practices and studies, we are able to stand them, and they can do us no serious harm.

Need for Purified Intellect

Reasoning and speculation carried to their utmost limits are by themselves unable to help any one in arriving at any satisfactory conclusion regarding the production of the universe. The Vedanta, perceiving their uselessness, calls in the help of actual experience there to solve the problem. But in order to reach the state of experience there must be clear thinking, intellectual studies pursued with regularity as a firm spiritual practice and a general development and culture of the intellectual faculty. Then only the question of transcending it would arise, not before. We do not want dullards in spiritual life–mere parasites living on hazy ideas and sentiments–least of all in the Vedantic path.

Try to develop your intellect and intellectual faculties and to make them as subtle as possible. There must be a harmonious co-ordination of intellect, feeling and will–purified intellect, purified feeling and purified will–not the intellect, feeling and will of the ordinary man. We should develop perfect harmony between intellect, feeling and will. There is an absolute necessity of having real Jnana side by side with real Bhakti, but Bhakti must never degenerate into mere emotionalism or sentimentalism, just as Jnana must never become dry intellectualism without any heart.

To the extent we are able to make our mind subtler and subtler through continence, through spiritual practice, through intellectual studies, to the extent our body and mind become purer and purer, we get a vision of Truth. Nothing can be done without a life of ethical culture and purity. Tapas is the one word in spiritual instruction: renunciation, austerity, purification of our intellect, feeling and will; and without tapas there cannot be any progress on the spiritual path.

We must have fine sensitiveness. We must develop a fine sense of proportion and become very well-balanced. When we look at a thing, we must learn to look through and through it, not only to see the appearance, the mere surface. That won’t do. We must learn to go below the surface and see the reality, and never to take things for granted without verifying them ourselves. Vedanta must not be made a comfortable religion. We must make our nerves so strong through ethical culture that we areno longer made mere creatures of circumstances. Great endurance is necessary. Don’t be like weathercocks, don’t be slaves of your mind!

Continue Reading No Comments