by Swami Krishnananda
Skandhas six and seven of the Srimad Bhagavata are devoted entirely to the great battle that was waged between Indra and Vritra, and in this context we have also the story of Chitraketu; and it is in the seventh skandha that we have a more detailed analysis of Ashrama Dharma which Narada recounts to Yudhishthira in the context of his question concerning the birth of Prahlada, ending with Narasimha Avatara due the activities of Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu, two children born to Kashyapa and Diti under queer circumstances. Narada’s instruction to Yudhishthira is especially on the Dharmas to be followed in the Ashrama system of life.
From birth onwards, there is a graduated building up of personality through conservation of energy at different levels of being. Taking as a given that a person will live for one hundred years, the first twenty-five years are supposed to be devoted totally to an ascetic conservation of the energy of the system, which prepares the person for future life. It is very important to know that the way in which we are brought up in early childhood, and the circumstances under which we lived in the family when we were very young, will affect us in old age. The treasure that we gathered up by conservation of energy at an early age may keep us in good stead throughout our life; but if, as it happens in modern times, right from the beginning of a person’s life there is a tendency to dissipate energy through various channels of sensory agitation such as television, movies, nightclubs, drinking, smoking and other things, there is a sacrifice of oneself for these so-called enjoyments. It is emphasised in the Manu Smriti that life is not meant for enjoyment, it is meant for working vigorously for the attainment of Freedom. The Freedom that we expect in our life is, again, an achievement through a graduated process.
If we do not believe that our life will continue for one hundred years and think that it may be less, we have to proportionately arrange the pattern of our life accordingly for the fulfilment which life intends. Study and intellectual training, building up of acumen through gathering of knowledge under a Gurukula, under a competent Master, and purifying oneself in every way through prayer, meditation, japa, surya namaskara, and the service of the Guru under whom the student lives during these preparatory years, pave the way for the necessary apparatus required to live life later on.
Many fortunate ones are born in favourable circumstances, in a family of good parents who are examples of good behaviour, good conduct, and who themselves are religiously oriented. We cannot find such parents everywhere. The conditions of life today have changed so much that one has to work hard to wean oneself from the distractions which come to us like an oceanic flood from all sides, in endless waves, through various media of expression. In a way, we may say that the whole world is now living in a very dissipated atmosphere. There is an externalised impulsion of energy for various types of contact which the senses seek in their attempt at enjoyment. It is not that one should not enjoy life or only suffer in life, but there is a period for it, there is a time for it, there is an occasion for it, and there is a way for it. Irrespective of consideration of these factors, if we think that we are born to enjoy from childhood itself, then we will pay the penalty for it with tragedies of experience in later life.
Good company – the tutelage of good parents, good teachers, good guides, good Gurus – and through study of good scriptures and textbooks that are contributory to increase one’s mental, intellectual and physical energy, are what is required during one’s youth. It is called Brahmacharya Ashrama. There is no such thing these days. Brahmacharya Ashrama does not exist at all, due to the trouble into which one is cast right from the beginning itself through the web of problems of life arising from the very inception of one’s existence.
But anyone who is interested in the welfare of their own being and knows what is good for them has to remember always that the pleasant is not always the good. We always like pleasant things, sweet things, and they attract our senses perpetually, so that the senses gather our energies and pour them outwards on the conditions of life outside; and if this is the habit that we form right from the beginning of life, we will have to reap the fruit of this misbehaviour towards the end of our life. It is not necessary that we must be bedridden in old age. That condition is imposed on us by the circumstances into which we are born and which we have introduced into our own selves by desire for dissipation.
We feel a great joy when we pour ourselves externally on love for power, on love for money, on love for enjoyments of various kinds, not knowing that this is not real pleasure because when the tension that is created in us – when the quantum of energy already existing in us wells up like an elephant’s energy – it does not know what to do. Either it will go vertically upward, or it will go horizontally out. Like a river in flood, it can move in any direction. It is necessary that we should prepare a program of our life by which our energy quantum rises vertically, and does not move horizontally. Otherwise, it will be like a dissipated river flooding everywhere and destroying villages and persons. The vertical ascent of energy is the art of the Brahmacharya system. The energy rises gradually through the lower parts of the body to the upper part until the brain becomes brilliant, sharp, and able to catch everything very quickly.
These days, nothing enters students' heads. Even if they are told something a hundred times, they do not remember it. But in earlier days it was not like that. Even fifty or sixty years ago things were much better, and students were very sharp, eager to study, and even though they always wished to stand first in the examination, they would not adopt dishonest means to get a certificate. Cheating was unknown in those days; but that attitude is now diluted.
If we, as students of spiritual life, are to ignore these externalities of dissipation and attraction, we have to somehow prepare ourselves to wade through this ocean of distraction; and we cannot complain that this world is very bad, because we have been born into it and we have to pass through it. For whatever reason, we have been born into this world of certain conditions – good or bad, necessary or otherwise – through which we have to wade. This is why in early age through adolescence there should be no external contact whatsoever, only an aspiration to grow higher and higher.
As I mentioned, the system of Dharma does not deny the necessary enjoyments of life. There is a fourfold picture placed before us of the way in which we have to live, which is called dharma, artha, kama, ending in moksha. Artha and kama are not denied; they are part of life. It is not that we deny ourselves everything in life. It is a denial for the purpose of accumulation. The more the renunciation, the greater is the acquisition.
In the next stage, which is generally called Grihastha, a kind of life is prescribed which is markedly different from the purely ascetic life of Brahmacharya through conservation of energy. Grihastha is the system provided for the utilisation of this energy. During the early years of Brahmacharya, the energy should not be utilised. It has been kept intact, totally conserved so that it keeps one brilliant not only in the brain, but also in the face, and that itself is a satisfaction. In the stage of Grihastha, permission is given for certain types of enjoyment and experience of this nature, coupled with duty. There is no duty for a Brahmacharin. The only duty is to study, conserve energy, and offer prayers. But the Grihastha has a double responsibility of the performance of duty, and also the acquisition of values that are permissible under those circumstances.
Now, a Grihastha does not necessarily mean a person with a wife. Even a person without a wife can be a Grihastha, because the peculiar connotation of Grihastha is the expression of an inner need through an external symbol. A wife is only a symbol of a pressure of internal need felt by oneself. As long as the need continues, the presence or absence of a wife does not matter. It is up to each one to understand what this means. The need for a kind of externalised living felt under given conditions of life leads to what we call the life of marriage – having a husband or wife – though that is not a contract that we have to undertake for purpose of purely selfish individual expectations, but a joint action taken for the purpose of a parallel movement towards the ultimate Freedom of life.
It is immaterial whether we marry or not. It depends upon the need that is felt inside. Even in the Himalayan mountains we may feel that we are a Grihastha only, because of the pressure that we feel inside. The external things, appurtenances, husband, wife, etc., are only symbols of forms of an inner connotation that is inside us – a need that is felt. What binds us or liberates us is the need that is inside. We are the makers of our destiny; we create our bondage, and we are also responsible for our freedom. No external aid can help us in this matter. But external aids are sometimes necessary, just as we require a pen to write a book, a plate on which to eat our meal, a glass for drinking water, a seat to sit on, and a bed to lie on; but these are external forms of requirement necessitated by the needs felt inside, which otherwise cannot be expressed properly. If the need can be sublimated, the external appurtenances are not necessary.
But there are duties imposed upon a householder, apart from this justification for enjoyment in a controlled manner. The duty is, to be of service to people. Social welfare, which is very much emphasised these days, is part and parcel of the requirement of a Grihastha life. A Grihastha is not a libertine who can do whatever he likes; it is, again, a life of austerity. Inasmuch as the duties control the enjoyments of life, all the experiences in that condition become spiritualised. Wherever duty controls experience, that particular experience gets spiritualised. Where we have no duty, but only rights accruing to us, then there is an adverse effect produced by our experiences. This is a purely psychological secret into which we have to delve for our own welfare.
But it is not that we have to live this kind of life of social work and family existence forever. There is a time in everyone’s life when one feels that the world cannot give more than what it has already given. The wisdom of life acquired during the Grihastha period consummates in a maturity of experience which tells us that we have had enough of this world. The sense of having enough cannot arise unless we have passed through this world and experienced all the layers of provision that the Earth can give us, because a rejection of the world cannot give us an idea of the world. The world has to be conquered, and it has to be made our own. It has to be befriended, and this can be done only by the experience of passing through the conditions of life itself.
What the world is made of has to be understood; and we have to pass through all these structural essences of the world. Every experience of the world has to be passed through. There are gifts that the world can give, and it can also give sorrows. It is not that everyone is born only to have a cosy life without any kind of difficulty, as problems, sufferings, sorrows, and joys of life are the obverse and reverse of the same coin. No one can have only one side of life. It is not that we have to be always sorrowing throughout our life, nor also that we have to be enjoying throughout our life. One cannot be without the other; they exist as two sides of a single experience.
A time comes when we feel that it is not necessary for us to expect anything from the world. It is not that the world cannot give anything to us, nor that we cannot take; but it is not necessary to take. We can become so mature that we are contented within ourselves. The contentment has matured into the ripe fruit of permanent experience, and then we live a life of what is generally called retirement. The life of retirement is not an idle life of sleeping; it is a further advanced state above the Grihastha, where the energy conserved and the potency that is inside is totally oriented by a higher aspiration. The Grihastha does not always have time to sit in meditation, though he has to do that also for some time each day. But now, in a period where we retire from active life of social existence, contact with people of a social or political nature, we do not just lie down and say we have nothing to do. The retirement is only from the distractions of life, not from the duties of life. That is to say, there is a higher duty than the duty of a Brahmacharin or a Grihastha, which is designated traditionally as the Vanaprastha stage.
In earlier days, people in the Vanaprastha stage would go to live in the forest, but that is not to be taken literally as necessary. We have to be completely free from entanglements of a household life. Here, the preparation starts for the utilisation of the conserved energy for the purpose of direct meditation. There was some kind of activity in the Brahmacharya stage, and more activity in the Grihastha stage, and now the activity that was earlier externally motivated in many ways becomes directed internally, and it becomes a mental energising process only. The Vanaprastha lives in his mind, in his thought, and not in his actions. In earlier stages, actions contributed a lot to the conservation of energy and the fulfilment of duties of life, but now thought itself is enough; and one contemplates by gathering up all one’s energies on the great aim of life.
Though the final aim of life is kept in mind even in the earlier stages, it is not brought into action directly on account of other circumstances through which one had to pass. But here, it is a direct entry into the consciousness of the higher values of life, where we befriend not merely human society, but we also befriend the quarters of heaven – the gods, the denizens of heaven.
The meditational process that commences in the Vanaprastha stage begins with what is known as upasana, which is placing oneself in the juxtaposed context of what is called ‘nearness to Reality’. Nearness to Reality is possible not through any physical means, but through the mind only. The mind, when it is charged with the consciousness of the Atman, adjusts itself to the need to keep itself in harmony with not merely the physical Earth or human society, but even the five elements – earth, water, fire, air, ether. The Vanaprastha contemplates not merely the world of people but the very elements that control all life. It is a higher meditation, which is upasana on the whole of creation – God manifest as this world.
It is called upasana because there is a devout pouring in of oneself to the objective, which is all creation itself. Various techniques of contemplation on this creational process are described in the Aranyaka portion of the Vedas, and the assiduous practice of upasana in this manner has to continue for a long time until the mind is able to concentrate on something still higher.