by Swami Krishnananda
To search for the Spirit is to seek a meaning rather than a substance or an object. This is the subtle import of all spiritual seeking. We often make the mistake of thinking that, when we ask for God, we are asking for a thing, a person, an object or a substance. While our notions of God or the Spirit have some significance in our search for it, all these notions fall short of the real and the true, inasmuch as there is something deeper that we are really seeking that what comes to the surface of our minds. To give certain concrete examples of what ‘meaning’ is, rather than a thing or a substance: When we ask for food, for all outward purposes it looks that we are in need of some substance. When we say, ‘I need some food’, we may think that perhaps we need some wheat, rice, vegetables, butter, milk, etc. These are generally interpreted to be food. But there is something in this asking for food, a meaning behind this asking, which does not always become apparent to our minds. Truly speaking, it is not these articles of diet that we are asking for. We are asking for a meaning that is hidden behind these articles. They are capable of conveying a significance in our personal life, here, in this instance, our physical bodily life. If this group of articles is not to convey any significance to bodily existence, they will not be the things that we require.
Whenever we look at an object, we read a meaning into it. It means something. Now, this habit of reading a meaning is so familiar that we cannot think in any other manner. We do not think first and then read the meaning afterwards. The thinking and the reading of the meaning go together: Or, to put it in a slightly psychological terminology, the understanding and the feeling work simultaneously in our perception. When we think of an object, we also feel something about it; in other words, it means the recognition of an object in terms of the significance it conveys to our lives. This signification it is that escapes our attention in our search for values in life, while it is really a set of values that we want and not objects or things.
The meaning behind the articles of diet is to appease hunger. That is what we need, and not bags of rice;this is not what we want. It so happens that a grain called rice, in a certain quantity, when it comes in contact with our physical body in a particular manner, is in a position to appease a state of biological reaction which we call hunger. It so happens that this particular thing can act in this particular manner; otherwise it would be something else that we would need.
So, it is not any particular object that we seek. We seek only the value that is hidden in the object. So is the case with money. It is not the material stuff that we are in need of, but its capacity to provide us with purchasing power; that is called money. It is not gold and silver or notes. That is the meaning behind cash value; and so on, and so forth, with every blessed thing in the world. There is a significance hidden behind our asking for things, a meaning behind our relationship with things, behind the way in which we talk, the way in which we conduct ourselves in society, the way in which we think and feel and act. All these things have a hidden significance, a meaning; and it is this meaning which we are really in search of. Unfortunately, we confuse this meaning with the outer form of an object. And it looks as if we are in search of objects rather than values. Not so. When we speak even in ordinary language: “What is the spirit of the teaching?”—we make a distinction between the letter and the spirit. There is a letter of the law and the spirit of the law, for example. The words that I speak and the spirit in which I speak are different. So, even in common parlance, we use the term ‘spirit’ to signify a meaning rather than an outer form that a particular conduct puts on.
As is the case with ordinary life, so in the case of our cosmical relations, there is a Spirit behind our very existence as individuals, even as, in the example cited, the concrete substances like articles of diet or currency notes have a significance behind, which alone we are in need of and not the things themselves. If the meaning is absent, we will not go for it.
There is a spirit which we have lost in the midst of the clamouring particulars. And we have heard this word ‘spirit’ many a time uttered. Still we cannot help contemplating the ‘spirit’ as if it is some object. We have to learn to think a little bit impersonally when we tread the spiritual path. We have been too much wedded to personalities, things and concrete substances. So we have been taught to think only in terms of these physical entities, as it were. We cannot think impersonally. It is very difficult. It may be my person or somebody else’s person; all our thoughts are personal. The impersonal is hidden behind all personal evaluations of things. And it is the impersonal that we seek, even through persons. The ‘general’ is hidden in the ‘particular’: the impersonal is behind in all the forms. The Implicit is present in all the individualities. There is a gradual rise in our aspiration from lower particulars to higher particulars, the higher particular for the time being acting as the general and the universal for the lower particular.
Now, in the search for the Spirit of life, we do not search for any existent object. The Spirit is not an object. To come to our examples again, the spirit of law is not a thing that you can see with your eyes. Yet you know what it means. The spirit has an intangible significance which makes itself felt not to the senses, but to something which seems to have a kinship with our own being. The spirit of things cannot be seen through the senses. It is not appreciated even by the understanding, which always works in terms of the senses. We have in our own individualities something which can be said to be the meaning of our own existence. What you call as the ‘you’ or ‘yourself’ or the ‘I’ is the meaning hidden in what you regard yourself to be or what I regard myself to be. The same analogy can be applied to our personalities. The spirit of my being is different from my bodily existence.
When I ask for the spirit, what do I ask? ‘What is spirituality?’ is the moot question. Spirituality is that condition of consciousness where it asks for the spirit of things rather than the forms or bodies of things. You do not interpret things in terms of objects and persons any more. Your evaluations of life do not then depend on persons and things. You learn to think in terms of the generals and the universals rather than the particulars and bodily existences. This would be spirituality, whatever be the degree of its expression, even the lowest.
When we learn to be spiritual, we live more and more as generals rather than as particulars, which means that we begin to comprehend other values in our own existences that we were unable to do earlier. In our present state of bodily existence our bodies are restricted to our own physical needs. My hunger, my thirst, my sleepiness, my difficulties, my problems, etc.—these engage my attention so much that I cannot exceed the limits of my bodily needs. That is the lowest aspect of human life where one’s thoughts and feelings get so restricted to the bodily encasement that there is no thought and feeling beyond that. But when one becomes capable of recognising the significance of the lives of other people, in their spirit rather than the form, and learns at the same time to associate one’s personal values with the values which appear to be external at present, then the self of oneself becomes enlarged. What we call the self is nothing but the Spirit behind ourselves and behind all things. When we talk of the Self, or think of the Self, we are likely to think of it as a kind of substance. Philosophers have defined the soul as a substance many a time. But it is not a substance; it is not a substance in the sense of anything that we can understand. It is not a tangible object. It is supersensible, as our scriptures are not tired of saying. Supersensible is the meaning of our personality; the meaning of all creation. That it is supersensible means that it cannot be seen. It cannot be touched by the hand, it cannot be smelt, it cannot be heard of, it cannot be tasted, one cannot have any kind of intelligible relation with it. Such is the Spirit of things.
Now, who is to understand the Spirit? What do you mean by the spiritual aspiration at all? If Spirit would mean the meaning of life, and this meaning is so abstract, then it cannot have any value to the senses, that meaning would appear to be meaningless to the sensory operations. The Spirit of life is present in our own bodies. It is not far from us and so it is possible for us here to reach out to the Spirit of the cosmos as a whole; not through the senses and the intellect, but through something which we are. That which we are is the meaning that is in us. We convey an eternal meaning. That eternal meaning which is hidden in us is what we are. It is not the temporary meaning which we seem to exhibit in our day-to-day life that we can call our own self. These are tentative, local adjustments that we generally make, but these are not our real meaning.
If we are divested of all associations, physical and psychological, what do we remain as? That would be our true meaning. If we have no body, if we have no mind to think, what would be our condition? What would be the sort of relationship that we might establish with other existences? We may not be in a position to contemplate such a possibility. How can I exist without a body, a mind? How can it be?
This mystery is the significance of life. This is what we call the Spirit of things. One may wonder that on a careful thought bestowed on this Spirit of things, it looks like an abstract concept, not anything substantial. It appears to be a psychological interpretation rather than a physical contact, due to our habit of coming in contact with objects, beyond whose existence we have not learnt to see. But the Spirit is not abstraction; on the other hand the so-called concrete objects are an abstraction from it. When you contact the Spirit, you do not contact an air or an empty space or a non-existent something. The mind is unable to think IT; that is why the mind reads an abstraction into it. The ‘existence’ of all things may be regarded as the Spirit of all things. Divest all things of their existence, and what do you see in them? When the mind tells you that Spirit is only an abstraction and the objects are more concrete, try to tell it: “My dear friend, my mind, the Spirit is the ‘existence’ of everything that you regard as concrete.”
Minus existence, what are these concrete substances? Free all things from their existence; there is, then, only non-existence. Their concreteness vanishes. The so-called concreteness, tangibleness, hardness, substantialness, solidity, etc., is a way of sensation. It is the way in which the senses react to the Spirit. That is what you call tangibility. There is no tangible object in this world. We are deluded. We are touching the Spirit even when we are touching solid objects like a table. But it looks that we are touching some other thing altogether. That so-called thing which attracts you, and which makes you feel that you are contacting a tangible object, is the Spirit itself. And the substantiality and the solidity of the object is due to the mutual reaction of the Spirit within and the Spirit without, falsely differentiated by space and time.
The world is the drama played by space, time and causality. If these three things are not to be there, there would be no such thing as the world. There is no such thing as the world, objects, persons and things, apart from the trick played by the union of space, time and causal relation. It is not possible for the mind to understand how the world can be equated to these three; because we see again and again the solidity of things. Apart from space and time we see solidity in objects, but the solidity is due to the Spirit masquerading in space and time. And if it were not to be there, there would not be any solidity. This substantiality of the Spirit is more solid (if you could use such a term) than the most solid things. And the reason why this substance behind all substances, the meaning behind all meanings, appears as an object outside, while it is really not, is because here space, time and causal relation play havoc.
The mind is torn into two pieces—the seer and the seen. The seer is the Spirit, and the seen also is the Spirit. The Spirit sees itself in all perceptions. But it looks like the differentiated perception of an object on account of the intervention of space and time. Divest meaning of space-time value, and you will behold the Reality of the cosmos. The hardest thinker will recoil on thinking along these lines, because the mind is not taught to think by freeing itself from the relations of space and time. Vedantins and philosophers have been telling us that God alone is. The world is not! The world is nothing but God’s Face. How could it be? It can only be possible if the very objects in front of us can enshrine the Spirit of God in them, even now in their sensory externality; and if God had not been so near to us, and was not so real, it would not have been possible for us to think of Him, ask for Him or aspire for Him.