The Ascent to Moksha
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 5: The Essence of Spiritual Life

The life that we call spiritual is not an aspect of the life that we are supposed to live in the world. It is not one of the functions that we are obliged to perform in our life here. Many of the erroneous notions concerning spiritual life, even among circles who are honestly after an understanding of truth, are due to the fact that we are accustomed mostly to think section-wise whatever subject may be presented before us, and not take a comprehensive view of anything. Truly speaking, we have never been made fit enough to take a total view of things because our thoughts always run along partial lines of approach and, applying this logic of partial thinking, we have taken the liberty of considering even spiritual life as a partial aspect or side of human life. It is one branch of learning, one field of activity or a particular science, as we have many others in the field of our studies.

This is also the reason why spiritual life is mostly relegated to the later part of one’s life, old age particularly, when we have had enough of the enjoyments of the world to surfeit. When we cannot see properly, cannot walk, and nobody wants us, then we search after the spirit. This is usually the attitude of people because of a wrong set of values that have become the guiding lights in our practical life. Our very attitude to life is fundamentally wrong. We are diseased at the core, to put it precisely. We are ill totally, in the entirety of our personality, so we cannot see anything perfectly or correctly.

Spiritual life is a novel attitude which cannot be equated with or compared with any other sets of attitude that we develop towards things of the world. It is not one of the attitudes. Then what is it? As the very term ‘spirit’ would connote, it is the attitude which is based on the essential values of things. We usually make a distinction between letter and spirit – the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, as we usually say. The spirit of a situation is different from the literal interpretation of it. We generally are accustomed to saying, “You have not got the spirit of what I said, though you understood my words,” and so on. When we speak of the spirit of a thing, we usually mean the essential substantiality of it. Whatever is of worth in it, whatever is meaningful or significant, or whatever is true or real, that is the spirit of a thing. Anything outside the spirit of a thing is an accretion grown over it, a tentative relationship established with it or established by it, some sort of an association which is not part of its being. All these are apart from the spirit of a thing. So the spiritual life is that type of living which is in consonance with the spirit of things.

Now, what is the spirit of things as different from the letter or the literal meaning of things? This is again a moot question that we would have to answer. The letter and the spirit are distinguished by their structure, by their fundamental being, by what may be regarded as the ultimate minimal residual value in anything in this world. When a thing is divested of all its relationships, visible as well as conceivable, what would remain in a thing is its spirit, and to live in consonance with the law of that spirit would be spiritual life. When you free a person, a thing, an object, a situation or an agent from all temporal associations of every type and kind, something would remain there. That something is the spirit of that person, of that object, of that thing, event or situation. That minimal residuum has a determining law guiding and defining its existence. To live in conformity with that law is the life spiritual. This would be a general statement of fact, a sort of academic definition of spiritual values. But all this is difficult for the common mind to grasp. It will simply go over our heads if we are told about all these hard nuts to crack.

Nevertheless, we are told that spiritual life is perhaps the ultimate meaning of things, towards which we are gravitating consciously or unconsciously. Hence, it is impossible for us to give up the quest of the meaning which is spiritual in things, whether or not we are in a position to understand it properly. To look at the spirit of a thing is not to look at the thing. This is a distinction, again. To look at a person, and to look at the spirit behind the person are two different things altogether.

When we look at an object, we are not looking at the spirit of the object because the object is nothing but a colocation of relationships. When we look at a person, for example, it is impossible to differentiate the person as he is or she is from the associations which that person has with the outer circumstances in the world. Suppose we see a magistrate. It is impossible to forget that this person is a magistrate, notwithstanding that the person was not born a magistrate. He or she was something different, completely dissociated from that relationship that has been tentatively foisted upon that person later on, many years after birth.

We have relationships of various kinds. I am only giving a single instance among many, which is the concrete example of a human being. When you look at a human being, several ideas come to your mind. This is a person bearing such and such a name. That name also cannot be forgotten. Immediately the name rushes into your mind, together with the personality that you are seeing. Also, you cannot dissociate that person from the position in society which that person is holding. And there may be other relationships of various kinds, positive and negative. The possessions with which that person is invested, the various types of status which the person is holding in the world and, in short, even the very definition of that person would be in terms of relationships. Who is such and such a person? If I ask you, you would give a definition of that person in terms of the relationship which that person has with other persons, other things, and other conditions of the world. Minus these relationships, what is that person? Such a definition is rarely given. You either say, “I am the son of so-and-so, the daughter of so-and-so. I am holding such and such an office, doing such a business, staying in such a place.” All these are not your real definitions. They are not the spirit of your existence or your personality, because you may be divested of these relationships. You may possess nothing one day. You may have no relations, no wealth, hold no position, and you may be almost worth nothing in the eyes of people when you are dissociated of all these relationships, and yet you remain a something.

Or, to give another example, there is an object that you see. An object is a bundle of relationships, just as a piece of cloth is nothing but a bundle of threads. This is, again, a very difficult thing for the mind to grasp, though it is easier to understand because you have seen a fabric or a piece of cloth. There is no such thing as a cloth; it is only a name that is given to a pattern of threads. This is how you can get into the spirit of a thing rather than the form or the relationship of a thing. Now, take the instance of a cloth. Is there such a thing as a cloth? Yes, for all practical purposes there is a cloth. When you go to a cloth merchant and want to purchase a sari or a dhoti, you do not ask for a bundle of threads. You say, “I want a cloth,” and so on. He understands what you mean, but yet you know there is no such thing as a cloth. It is only the warp and wolf of threads, threads woven lengthwise and crosswise. There is nothing else. This is what you call the cloth. But what are these threads? They are only small fibres of cotton or some sort of a fibre of a tree, and so on. There is no cloth, because that is only a name you give to a system of threads.

Now I am going to tell you, there is also no such thing as threads. That is only a name that you have given to a continuity of minute fibres which are attached to one another by twisting and kneading, etc. So there is no cloth, there are no threads, there are only fibres. But what are these fibres? They are fine units of cotton, and they can be blown into the air. Finally, you will see no cloth there; it is simply blown off. If you take out every little unit of fibre from the cloth and blow on it, it will be flying in the air. You will not know what happened to this huge sari, or the cloth. It has gone. So far, this is intelligible.

But we can carry on the investigation into the constitution of cloth a little further by a careful analysis through finer instruments of observation, as is usually done in laboratories these days. The fibre of cotton is constituted of minuter substances, which are fine molecules. They are distinguished from one another due to their chemical structure or compound. And there are various kinds of molecules, according to the substance out of which they are made, or which they constitute. We have molecules of water, molecules of earth, molecules of air, molecules of fire, or fire atoms, and so on. These molecules are plenty. It is said there are at least a hundred of them.

Now, if you pursue the analysis of the structure of these units called molecules, you will be led along the lines of an astonishing discovery as to the nature of things – that they are distinct, yet not different. There will be a distinction, but there will be no difference. There will be fine particles, one different from the other, but not different in their structure or constitution, just like sand particles. One sand particle is different from another sand particle, no doubt, and yet structurally, for all practical purposes, in every respect, one sand particle is like another sand particle, and there is no difference in the constitution of the substance of these units.

Now we shall halt here, and not go further. In this manner we may analyse the structure or substantiality of any object, any personality, anything, for the matter of that, divested of names temporally given for a particular structure, pattern or form. It is difficult to divest an object of all its relationships. Some relationship will remain in spite of our ultimate attempts at arriving at the indivisible, final residuum of the object. In this manner if we carry on an analysis or investigation of every blessed thing in the world, we will come to a static independence of values. The word ‘independence’ has to be underlined, because these units will then not be dependent on other units for their activity or existence. We depend on many other factors for our work and function in the world. You know it very well. For any little thing, you depend on various factors. You cannot simply be, and yet be happy. You come in contact with various people, you develop associations with things, connect yourself with various values in the world, and feel the need for other things than what you yourself are.

If you are an independent unit by yourself, not under the necessity of coming in contact with other things in the world, you would be approximating yourself to your spirit, or what you really are – approximating, of course. You have not yet come to the spirit of it. You would be nearing to what you really are or to what anything, for the matter of that, is in the world, when you take objects and persons as independent values, not related values, independent units, not units connected for the purpose of existence and functions with other units in the world.

So from this angle of vision, spirituality would be that sort of life which is connected with the independent existence of things. Everything is ultimately an independent unit. It is made dependent on account of its descent into fields of perception and sensory activity. When we come to a world of sense perception and feel our limitations too much, we also feel, at the same time, a need to make good that limitation of our personality by associating ourselves with other persons, things and values. When we cease to have any sort of relationship with people and things, when we assert our independence and our value as we were born and as we would die, that sort of value would be a wholly independent something incapable of conception, and to visualise things from this angle of vision would be not only to take a total vision of things, but also to regard things from their own point of view rather than from the point of view of the factors on which they are tentatively made dependent for the purpose of temporal existence and activity.

Or, to put it another way, I must take you for what you are, and not for what you appear to be. This would be to assess your spiritual worth. This should be the way in which you judge everything in the world, including your own self. The world becomes a vast kingdom of independent units, not slaves dependent on factors. Perhaps this was what people meant by the condition of Krita Yuga, Satya Yuga, or sometimes it is known as Ramarajya, the kingdom of dharma or righteousness, the law of truth operating everywhere, and everyone knowing what his or her dharma was.

When you take a spiritual attitude of life, you do not need a mandate from outside to regulate yourself. There is no need for law or government when each one knows what the correct attitude to life ought to be or is. There is no need to be controlled by factors outside your personality. This is Krita Yuga, or Satya Yuga, when people are said to have been living the life of the spirit.

Bhishma speaks to Yudhisthira, as recorded in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, that in Satya Yuga there was no system of administration or government. There were no rulers, no kings. The reason was that there was no such thing as demerit, apunya, wrong action, unrighteousness, adharma. There was no adharma because each one’s attitude to life was spiritual. It was wholly based on the internal structure of things, and not on what they are made to appear due to their false relationship with external factors. That would be to see through things, rather than merely see things. You see through and through the object which is before your eyes. You do not merely define it by external factors – from its colour, from its weight, from its dimension, etc. Its value is more than all these can measure or calculate.

When we enter into the ultimate essence of things and realise that harmonious relationship which fundamentally subsists among the various objects of the world, we also realise that spiritual life is the only life possible, practicable and meaningful, because what could be higher than the spirit of a thing, or the meaning of a thing, the life of a thing? What is more valuable in you than the life principle that is in you? Minus your life principle, what are you? Whatever be your worth in this world from the social point of view, that would be reduced to a nihil if the life-giving element in you is taken away. That is the spirit of the person, the vitality of your being, that which makes people take cognisance of you, love you or hate you. When that life principle is present in you, people can love you, people can hate you. But when that life principle is not in you, people will not love you and people will not hate you. They will have no concern with you because what is called the ‘you’ and which is taken notice of by others, and which is valued so much in life, is an invisible significance. That is all we can say about it – an invisible something, a peculiar significance or meaning that we read in persons and things, but they are quite different from the formations which we call persons and things. These significances are very abstract in their nature, and yet they are more concrete than what we call concrete.

As you advance in your studies, you become more and more abstract in your concepts, notions and ideas. You do not need physical illustrations of things for study. You can merely conceive and judge the values of things. Do you know that the whole world is regulated by certain principles or laws, and these principles or laws are invisible, and do not exist physically? Can you say that there is a physical existence of the astronomical laws of the cosmos or the law of a nation, the law of a society, or the law governing your own physical being? There is a system, a methodology, or a principle operating behind physical values and visible objects. That principle may look abstract and perhaps less real from the point of view of a child’s way of looking at things, but you know very well that principles govern things. Things are nothing if the principles behind them are nowhere. The principle is what gives value, meaning and life to the objects and things of the world. That principle itself is invisible to the eyes, and it almost looks less real than the concrete objects. The spirit is invisible, and is regarded as less real than the formations which are animated by the spirit. We are living in a mortal world of physical objects, and we take them for what reality is in its totality. But principles which govern these physical formations, being invisible to the senses, are completely ignored by us. We live an unprincipled and undisciplined life because of the fact that we do not see the principles governing things, but they are more real, more concrete, more tangible than the sensory objects.

The laws of science, the laws governing administration, the laws governing the planetary motions, are prior to the motions themselves, prior to the activities themselves. The constitution is framed first in the minds of people; it does not exist physically outside in the sensible world, and yet that notion which is called the system of working, the constitution, is the regulative principle behind what is called the visible life of things. Such is the spirit and value of all things in the world, and we must learn to go deeper and deeper into these subliminal levels wherein is located the heart of things.

In one version of the Ramayana – not in the Valmiki Ramayana – we are told that the life principle of Ravana was not in his body. It was somewhere else, and so even if his heads were severed he would not die. Rama was told that Ravana could not be killed by merely severing his heads because his pranas were lodged in something else; and when that was dismantled and disintegrated, Ravana would collapse. They say it was in a parrot or some such thing. It is a fable, some story to give us an idea that the meaning of a thing may be somewhere else than in its visible shape or relationship.

A few days back, someone read me a passage from Nammalvar’s poem. The first line meant: Do not fix your heart elsewhere than where your home is. Some such meaning was made out by that passage. Do not fix your heart elsewhere than where your real home is. Well, we could pin our faith in things which are appearances. We can love our own reflections in a mirror. This is not impossible. You look at yourself in a mirror, and start admiring your own self. Loving your own self as seen in a mirror, you garland your mirror self, which would mean you garland the mirror shadow, not your own original personality. You bathe it, you dress it, not knowing that it is nothing but a refraction of light which causes a severance of your personality into an objective something seen through a pane of glass or a mirror, while your original substance cannot be seen. You cannot see your own self. If you want to see yourself, you place a mirror in front of you; otherwise, you cannot see your face.

The substance of things cannot be seen because the substance is not an object. It is a principle. You hold a mirror in front of the substance in order to see it. Well, you may see it as reflected through a mirror; there is no harm in it, but you should not mistake that reflection for what is reflected.

To bring our illustration of spirit and letter, the spirit is what is reflected, the letter is what is seen as the reflection. The spirit never becomes an object – the spirit of anything, for the matter of that – and therefore, to have a spiritual attitude to things is a hard job indeed. To have a spiritual attitude to life is not to look at the objects of the world but to look at that out of which the objects are made, which is their prana, which is their sum and substance, which is coextensive with the substance of your own body and personality.

We move from diversity to harmony, and from harmony to unity. This is the process of evolution of thought. In the beginning, everything looks discrete and isolated from other things. Everything is different from every other thing. There is no apparent relationship of one thing with another. What connection can there be among ourselves here, seated in this hall? Everyone is independent. After a few minutes you will all get up and go in different directions, as if you have nothing to do with one another. This is the sensory evaluation of the world. Everything is disconnected. It may even be chaotic, so bad a situation that anything could be in any condition at any time. This is the tamasic attitude to life.

In the eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita we are introduced to these three stages of thought, or three degrees of reality, as we may say. It is possible to take a single unit for a completeness by itself, as we generally do, and take a thing for the whole of reality, attaching ourselves completely to it as if that is the sum and substance of all meaning in life; while this is possible, this is the lowest and the crudest form of attitude that we can have towards things. When we develop attachment to certain persons and things, we are tamasically attuned to objects, because there cannot be a whole-souled attachment to anything unless that thing is taken for the entire reality. This is the crass, earthly attitude of the senses, the tamasic attitude to life, the lowest form of truth, which is totally distorted and taken far away from its centre. This is the lowest category of truth perception.

But a higher form of it is to realise and to recognise an organic relationship among things. It is not true that each thing is absolutely disconnected from each other thing. There is some sort of a connection. It may be a mechanical connection or a vital connection. Parts of a machine are connected with one another, and you are able to appreciate that the whole structure which is called the machine is a completeness by itself, constituted of different limbs which can be disconnected and taken away.

Even in this concept of harmony, therefore, there are two stages. One is a purely mechanical notion of ideas. When we think of a nation as a political unit, we have, perhaps, this mechanised concept of harmony or relationship. Political unity is mechanised, or mechanical, in the sense that it holds good only for the time being. When a particular system of government supervenes or reigns supreme, and when the nation is identified with a particular geographical area of the Earth, this is not an organic relationship because it is subject to change in the passage of time.

But a higher concept of harmony is an inseparable relationship that obtains among the objects and persons in the world. This is to approach the system called dharma, or righteousness, operating in the world. Dharma is not a mechanical relationship of things but a vital, living relationship that obtains among the objects of the world.

So from the crudest form of perception of objects as entirely isolated from one another, having no real relationship between one thing and another thing, we come to a mechanised concept of harmony. This holds good for some time, yet it can crumble to pieces, as it is far from reality. And then we come to the vital, living relationship, which cannot be easily separated. Still, we are far from reality because Truth is not a relationship; it is not even a harmony, because to accept a system of harmony would be to accept distinction of values and a need to connect them, though by a vital relationship.

‘Unity’ is also not the word for the nature of Truth. Unity is a coming together of different parts, but Truth is not made up of parts, so Truth is not a unity. There is no word or phrase which can correctly define or designate what Truth ultimately is. It is not anything that language can describe. That is the ultimate spirit of all things, not a unity of things, not a harmony of things, not a relationship of things – transcending all things, yet present in all things.

The life spiritual, therefore, is the complete life. It is that form of life which gives meaning to any walk of life, any field of activity or anything that is worthwhile in this world. A common measure of values is present in everything as the basic substance or substantiality of things. That is the spiritual attitude of things. There can be a spiritual attitude, therefore, in business; there can be a spiritual attitude in work that you do in a factory, in an educational institution, in family life, and in political administration. There can be a spiritual attitude even in war, as is amply demonstrated in the Bhagavadgita and the Mahabharata. Even in actual battle and warfare there can be a spiritual attitude.

The correct attitude to things is the spiritual attitude to things. The permanent attitude to things, not subject to change, is the spiritual attitude to things. That attitude which is not subject to transformation at any time is the spiritual attitude to things. That ultimate judgment of all values is the spiritual attitude to things. It is the final Supreme Court judgment. There is no appeal beyond that; that is the spiritual attitude. When you look at a thing spiritually, you see the ultimate meaning of that thing. Nothing can be beyond that. And so we can very well realise what spirituality is. It is not to be relegated to a section of life, to old age, etc. It is the life principle, the vitality, the meaning, the significance, the worth of anything in this world, living or non-living.

Hence, it is impossible to be unspiritual or nonspiritual, to be other than spiritual. Life bereft of spirituality is unthinkable because there is no such thing as that. To look upon things as bereft of spiritual values would be to look upon corpses, not living entities. The vitality of things is spirituality, the totality of things is spirituality, the life principle of things is spirituality, the truth or reality of things is spirituality, at which level they converge into a point which is universal in its gamut.

I purposely used this term ‘point which is universal’. How could a point be universal? Yet it is that. I used the term ‘point’ to avoid the idea of spatial dimension, and I purposely used the word ‘universal’ to remove the notion that it is located only in one particular spot, as a point is. So it is indivisible like a point, and universal like space itself. That is Truth, and that is the spirit of things. It is the only existence of all creation, of all created things. It is the satta-samanya, as the Yoga Vasishtha puts it. The general existence or the general reality of all things, the irreducible minimum of things, is the spirituality of things; or rather, that is the element of God in things. That is spirituality. So minus God, there is no life, as minus spirituality there is no existence at all.

Therefore, to be spiritual is not to put on a robe or to enter into an order of life such as Vanaprastha, Sannyasa, and so on. It is not embracing a particular order. It is not changing your dress or avocation or function in life. It is nothing of the sort. It is to look at the meaning of things. Who could avoid this predicament? Can you avoid looking at the meaning of things, because that is all that is of any meaning and significance in life. Minus meaning, what is life? The meaning behind the meaning of life is spirituality. A great scholar wrote a book called The Meaning of Meaning. What do you mean by ‘meaning’? There is something behind it. That is the spirit of things. It is very difficult to conceive what spirituality is, and if you understand it correctly, you have won half the game. Fifty percent of your effort is over even in understanding what spirituality is, let alone living it. Living it is the other fifty percent. The first fifty percent of the trouble of life is the understanding of its meaning and its significance, the relationship of ourselves with creation outside. The very understanding of this takes half of our life, and it is only after this understanding is clear, and we are established in it, that we can take to practice. All practice is posterior to understanding because without a correct grasp of the method of approach to things, there cannot be that approach at all.

Hence it is that we should be doubly guarded in our attitude to all things in the world. We are likely to make mistakes in judging people, judging things, and more than anything else, judging our own selves. To avoid these pitfalls in our judgment of things, we have to be trained in a new line of approach altogether. We have to be administered a new type of education, because this education is completely different from the way in which we generally look at things on a commercial basis of give and take. In the attitude of the spiritual, all external relationships get superseded by a totality of concept. Hence, the idea of give and take vanishes. In the spiritual life, you neither give anything nor take anything. This is, again, very hard to conceive. As Shakespeare put it in another context, “Neither a lender nor a borrower be”. Neither you give anything nor you take anything when you enter into the concept that is purely spiritual, because you assert your independence as an ultimate unit of existence.

This is an outline of spirituality, which is very difficult to describe exhaustively. Gradually, by a daily training of our mind along this new line of approach, we can move towards this truth of things, the spiritual values of things; we can rise from the discrete concept of the world to a harmonious concept of the world and, finally, to the indivisible unity of existence, which is the passage of psychological evolution leading up to the direct realisation of a completeness of values, which is called the Absolute of things. This is what is called Brahman in the Upanishads. This is to be implemented in our practical day-to-day life.

The sum and substance of what I intended to say was that the spirit is not outside us, and it is not a future to us. It is a ‘now’, and it is a ‘here’. It is to be put into practice and brought into action in our small, insignificant activities of life. Spirituality can be tested in the smallest things that you do in life, not in the big things that you do, not in the orations that you give or the public administration that you are invested with or the powers that you wield, etc. The spirituality of a person can be seen in the small details of life. In the little words that you utter, in the casual words that you speak, in the passing remarks that you make, you can see your spirituality. You cannot see your spirituality in your puja room, in the temples of worship, when you read a Bhagavadgita or a scripture, or when you are on the pulpit. You will know the depths of your spirituality when you are walking on the street or when you are in the bathroom, when you are at your lunch table, when you are talking to your subordinate or your servant. In the bazaar when you go to purchase vegetables, there you can see your spirituality. When you talk to a tongawalla in the street or a taxiwalla, when you ask him for two annas less or more, you can see the depths of your spirituality, not in the temple, not in the puja room. Do not make mistakes.