Discourse 5: Narada Instructs Yudhisthira on Ashrama Dharma
The Sixth and Seventh Skandhas of the Srimad Bhagavata are devoted entirely to the great battle that was waged between Indra and Vritra, and in this context we also have the story of Chitraketu. 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 the birth of a child into this world onwards, there is a graduated building up of personality through conservation of energy at different levels of being. Taking for granted 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 the 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 Manusmriti 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 the gathering of knowledge in 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 we are now living in a very dissipated atmosphere of the whole world. 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 by experiencing tragedies in later life.
Good company—the tutelage of good parents, good teachers, good guides, good Gurus—and a thorough study of good scriptures and textbooks that are contributory to increasing one’s mental, intellectual and physical energy, are what is required during one’s youth. It is called Brahmacharya Ashrama. 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 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 the desire for dissipation.
We feel a great joy when we pour ourselves externally in love for power, in love for money, in 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 or it will go horizontally. 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. 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, from an 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 is 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, 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 the 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 Himalayas we may feel that we are a Grihastha because of the pressure that we feel inside. The external things, appurtenances, husband, wife, etc., are only symbols of forms of an inner connotation, a need that is felt inside us. What binds us or liberates us is the need that is felt 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. 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.
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, 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 made our own. It has to be befriended, and this can be done only by the experience of passing through the conditions of life.
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 the problems, sufferings, sorrows, and the joys of life are the obverse and reverse of the same coin. No one can have only one side. 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 towards a higher aspiration. The Grihastha does not have time to always sit in meditation, though he has to do that also for a certain prescribed time. 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 are retired and have no work 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, and this is traditionally designated 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 a necessity. We have to be completely free from the 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 the 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 befriend the quarters of heaven—the gods ruling the horizon, 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 with the five elements—earth, water, fire, air and 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.
What is that something that is higher? It will come gradually. In the beginning, we expose ourselves to coming in contact with the whole creation. The Grihastha has no time to do that because he has other duties. The Brahmachari is not concerned with it at all, as he is concerned only with the accumulation of energy and the study of the Veda, etc. Here is the time when we become a friend of all—sarvabhūtahite ratāḥ (B.G. 12.4). We are not merely a friend of people, but even the very elements will bend before us.
Upasana in this form is very difficult because the mind has to expand into the arena of the performance of the five elements. We have to place ourselves in the context of all things in the world, so that we are not only sitting and meditating in one place; the five elements are meditating with us. It is mentioned in the Chhandogya Upanishad that the Earth itself is meditating. The position in the equilibrium and the precision that the elements maintain is itself considered as a meditation. The elements are not acting chaotically; a method is maintained. Whether it is sunrise, moonrise or sunset, or whether it is the ocean, the wind or anything else, everything is maintaining a maryada, or a norm of behaviour, so that they maintain the required harmony among themselves—into which the upasaka enters because the five elements are also the constituents of one’s own body and personality. There is a great cosmic meditation taking place, as described in the Aranyakas. The world itself is the object of our contemplation.
There is no chance of distraction of mind here if we have properly prepared ourselves from an early age, but if we have lived a very dissipated life until fifty or sixty years of age and then attempt this meditation, we will find that our mind will not concentrate at all because we have not given it time to prepare itself through the earlier conditions required during the previous parts of our life. It is necessary to remember that one’s whole life is a period of austerity, conservation, duty, and meditation.
Here, in these Aranyakas, the various upasanas are prescribed: how the cosmic prana can be meditated upon, how the cosmic mind can be conceived, how Brahma—the Mahat, or the cosmic intellect—can be brought into the focus of our attention, how we can intensely feel the unity of the parts of our physical body with the parts of the physical universe. This is the highest form of upasana that we can think of.
There are also various other ways. This is a transcendental technique of the Aranyaka portion of the Vedas, but we have other devotional paths which can also be called upasana—such as contemplation/meditation on a form of God, or an ishta devata, as it is called, that we think is suitable for us. The ishta devata is a chosen deity. It may be the name that we give to our concept of God as a person pervading the whole world, or as a person seated near us as an image on our altar or a murti in a temple, as the case may be. In the earlier stages, we may require a physical form of the object of our meditation, and that could be a yantra, mantra, murti, image, idol, saligrama, painted picture or whatever it is, for the purpose of concentration.
The reason is, we have to divert our affection for life to the life of the Total. We love ourselves, we love our own life, but it is good that we love the Total Life which has bequeathed to us this personal life. If the Total Life is ignored, the personal life cannot be guarded. It is the security of the Total Life that gives us security here individually, because the Total controls individual existence, as the whole is inclusive of all the parts. We should not imagine that we can have everything that we want individually, irrespective of our concern for the world that is outside us. The world is not outside us, really speaking; it is ingrained into the very vitals of our energy. It is actually the warp and woof of our existence. The five elements, including the sun, moon and stars, all superintend our sense organs, mind, intellect, etc. Such meditation is called for through a gradual process.
In order to go on with this meditation, we have to take our ishta devata for our contemplation. Our ishta devata can be Rama, Krishna, Devi, Bhagavati, Narayana, Siva, Ganesha or whatever the case may be, or if we belong to another religious faith it may be the concept of Allah, Jesus Christ, Father in heaven, etc. Whatever it be, that concept has to be internalised for the purpose of upasana. We should think only that and nothing else, and believe in the protection that it can grant us. The ishta devata protects us, guides us, and enlightens us. It gives us security, and we feel happy with it. Some devotees hug the image of their ishta devata, wear it around their necks, kiss it, and feel that it is their beloved. It is truly that, because it symbolises the divinity that is pervading everywhere. Such kind of upasanas, to mention briefly, are the duties of a Vanaprastha.
But there is a still higher stage, called Sannyasa. It does not mean shaving the head, wearing a robe, and saying “I am a Sannyasin”. God is not afraid of all these rituals. It is a gradual rise from maturity to maturity. It is not that the Sannyasin is an old man, the Grihastha is youthful, and the Brahmachari is a little boy; these ideas must be cast aside. These stages are all forms of operation of the mind in various degrees of perfection. We rise from perfection to perfection. Every stage is a stage of perfection—only, one is a miniature form of it, another is a wider form of it, and it goes on enlarging its circle until it becomes total perfection.
The Sannyasin is the apex of energy conservation and meditation, and it has nothing to do with shaving one’s head or wearing a particular cloth, which are only social requirements that have been imposed upon individuals for keeping abreast with the circumstances of present living. It is to be remembered that we cannot take our Sannyasa cloth to God when we enter Him; we go bare, as a centre of consciousness, without any cloth, without hair, without head, without anything. We know what will go when one emerges from this body, and that is what is important.
The detachment that is associated with the life of Sannyasa is not a keeping oneself away from the things of the world, but a union with them. The union with everything looks like a detachment from them. This is something very curious to understand. When we are one with an object, we have detached ourselves from it at the same time—because we do not want it any more. The detachment, so-called, is nothing but not wanting it; and not wanting it is a condition which arises automatically when we are one with it. Just as we do not feel a desire to possess our finger, we do not want anything else at that time.
So, the life of Sannyasa is a wondrous concept of the perfection of the values of life, which is what Narada tells Yudhishthira in the Seventh Skandha of the Srimad Bhagavata, wherein the upasana culminates into actual absorption. In the condition of Sannyasa, the meditation is not an upasana in the sense of being near an object of meditation, but becoming the object of meditation itself. That is the point that distinguishes Sannyasa from the Vanaprastha stage. The Sannyasin does not contemplate on something as if it is outside; he himself is that. The universe has entered him, and he himself is contemplating as the universe: I am what I am. In some Vedanta texts this is called ahamgraha upasana. The catching of the true ‘I’ is called ahamgraha. We have not been able to find this ‘aham’ because we do not know where this ‘I’ is really. We are under the impression that the ‘I’ is in the family, the ‘I’ is in the money, the ‘I’ is in the work that we do, the ‘I’ is in the body, etc.; but it is nowhere. It is in itself only. And that ‘I’ which, as philosophers call it, is the transcendental unity of apperception, has to be caught. It is the true light—atma jyoti. Jyotiṣām api taj jyotis tamasaḥ param ucyate, jñānaṁ jñeyaṁ jñānagamyaṁ hṛdi sarvasya viṣṭhitam (B.G. 13.17): That majesty that you are aspiring for is seated in your own heart, like the twinkling of a star. That star has to become a conflagration.
So, the meditation of a Sannyasin is direct unified experience of consciousness with Reality. This is, finally, the catching of the Universal ‘I’ by the so-called individual ‘I’, in its attempt at unification of its ‘I’-ness with the Universal ‘I’. There are many ‘I’s in this world. You have an ‘I’-ness, I have an ‘I’-ness, and everybody is ‘I’. But these are empirical ‘I’s—physical ‘I’s, as it were, conditioned by physical bodies—and so it appears to us that there are many ‘I’s everywhere. But these ‘I’s are drops in the ocean of one single ‘I’, which is the ‘I’ of God, of the Universal Being. Catch it! Catch that Supreme ‘I’ which is inclusive of every ‘I’, as drops are included in the ocean. This Total ‘I’ is very difficult to attain or even conceive. Where is this Total ‘I’? It is the pure Universal Subjectivity, and is bereft of even a touch of externality. That is the Supreme ahamgraha upasana, meditation on the great ‘I’ of the universe—the Supreme Self, the Supreme Total, the Supreme unified consciousness identified with the Supreme Being.
Continuous meditation on That, and living for That, is called brahmabhyasa in the scriptures. Tat chintanaṁ tat kathanaṁ anyonyaṁ tat prabodhanam, eta deka paratvaṁ ca brahmābhyāsaṁ vidur budhāḥ (Pan. 7.106) is a verse from the Panchadasi, and also from the Yoga Vasishtha. Tat chintanaṁ: Think only That. Whatever be the circumstance of your life, wherever you are placed and whatever you may be doing, do not forget this. Think only That, think only That, think only That.
Tat kathanaṁ: If you meet people, speak about That. This is called satsanga. Do not talk nonsense, such as “How are you?” “How is the climate?” Or, “It is raining.” Instead say, “How are you progressing in spiritual life? What is your meditation technique? Please tell me your method, and what obstacles you have faced. I will also tell my difficulties.” This kind of concourse among students of meditation is satsanga, truly speaking. Tat kathanaṁ: Speaking only about that. Anyonyaṁ tat prabodhanam: We enlighten each other. You enlighten me, I enlighten you. We are brothers on the journey, having the same goal, so we ask each other how we are progressing. I will tell you my difficulties, my problems, and you tell me your problems, so that we can find a method to solve them. This kind of anyo’nya prabodhana is also a part of great spiritual practice. Eta deka paratvaṁ ca brahmābhyāsaṁ vidur budhāḥ: Depending only on That, and depending on nobody else. “You are everything.” “Thou art all.” Or, as in the ahamgraha meditation process, we may say, “I am the all.”
This is the duty of a Sannyasin. And a Sannyasin is the benefactor of all people at the same time. The Grihastha is also a benefactor of people; he serves people, gives food to them, does the pancha tapas in various forms, feeds guests, and the pancha mahayajnas are his duty. But the Sannyasin, the true meditator, is a spiritual hero who does service to people by the thought arising from his mind. Whatever such a powerful hero thinks, it will materialise. If he thinks, “May there be peace,” it shall be there. Why not? Such is the power of the conserved energy that whatever we need will come automatically. We need not say, “Bring it to me.” It will come because the mind is identified with that which it requires. Truth triumphs always, and the truth being our identity with this total ‘I’, it shall triumph always. In the beginning, we may feel we are defeated, that nothing is coming. Like the poison that arose in the beginning of the Amrita Manthana though nectar was expected, we may also have to face this Amrita Manthana experience and swallow the poison, which cannot be avoided. But we should persist and see that the treasures of life are slowly opened up through our own personality.
Aneka-janma saṁsiddhas tato yāti parāṁ gatim (B.G. 6.45): Sometimes many births have to be taken to achieve this goal, or to even have this idea in the mind. Even having an idea of it is to be considered a blessing, as this idea itself cannot arise in a buffalo, a donkey, or a corrupt individual. But you are devotees of Swami Sivananda and are here, hearing these things. These ideas are in your mind; you are accepting them and making them your own, which is itself a great blessing for you. You must have taken many births to come here and listen to these things, and to be devoted to the great ideals of Gurudev Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj.
Though you have taken many births, and it is possible that many of you will take more births, always expect the best. When you take an exam, do not have the attitude that you will come in second. Aspire for first place, and if you do not attain it, well and good; it is left to the mercy of God. But ask for first place only. “I want the best and the highest, and I want only that and nothing else.” Perhaps your determination will mature and bear fruit. You are the maker of your destiny. You are what you are always, and nobody external will help you.
This is the Ashrama dharma of the totally detached universal being of Sannyasa dharma, all of which is beautifully described with various details and analogies by Narada to Yudhishthira in the Seventh Skandha of the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana.