Difficulties on the Spiritual Path and the Necessity for a Guru
by Swami Krishnananda

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The well-known troubles of life are also the troubles of the spiritual seeker. A sadhaka on the path – one who treads the way of divine realisation, a seeker of God – is also in trouble in the same way as anyone else can be, as long as he is a part of this world. The various experiences, sometimes painful and at other times pleasant, are mysterious occurrences, and cannot be wholly attributed either to our own selves or to the structure of the world.

The question, “Why do we suffer?” is almost similar to the question, “How do we know that there is a world outside us?” Our experiences appear to be of suffering under the existing conditions of our physical body and the circumstances of our psychological operations. The conditions of life – we may call them conditions of the world – are not acceptable to the conditions of the body and mind of the person concerned, and so there is a coming together of two forces, asserting themselves in two different ways: the world in one way, and the body with its own mind in another way. The war between the world and the individual is the sorrow of life.

But why should this war take place? Here is the difference between the understanding of a sincere seeker and the opinion of the ordinary man of the world. The impact of the world on ourselves is what we call experience. It is up to us to understand it in any way we like and take it in any spirit. The world is certainly a substance which goes to the constitution of our own bodily individuality also. The gunas of prakritisattva, rajas and tamas – which are supposed to become concretised in denser and denser forms in the process of creation, become the various realms, the planes of existence; and our internal layers of personality are not in any way exempt from this law of the condensation of this threefold cause.

The layers of human individuality correspond to the realms of cosmic expression, the degrees of reality. The system of yoga that studies the internal structural patterns and layers of the psyche holds that there are whorls of power known as chakras, and these gradational arrangements of the whorls of force within us is a miniature presentation of a cosmical whorl in a gradational form, which we call the planes, the lokas or the realms of the universe. Thus, everyone is in the world, everyone is in this universe.

After passing through years of intense meditation and ardent conduct of discipline such as japa, anushthana, svadhyaya and self-control, there is likely to be a rebuff of a very painful nature, which all saints in the past also had to undergo. Though, in a very lofty sense, God’s creation is a veritable Kingdom of Heaven, the whole universe is the abode of the Almighty and, therefore, it is all eternal felicitation everywhere in His Kingdom. Uglinesss, pain and sorrow are unthinkable in this realm of perfection. Yet man sees nothing but imperfection, ugliness, dirt and the most undesirable ever conceivable.

These repercussions in the form of undesirable experience appear to become more and more intensified and more and more intolerable as the sadhaka treads the path further and further. Perhaps the normal troubles which people undergo in the world are somehow compensated by other joys and pleasures. They have their recreations and diversions, the pleasures of sense and the comforts of the body, but the spiritual seeker has none. He has no comfort. The compensating factors are absent in a seeker who treads the path of discipline because this restraint of self, called spiritual discipline, involves a percentage of indifference on the part of the seeker to any motivation inside in the direction of asking for any comfort or satisfaction in life. This motivation becomes totally absent in the end, and becomes at least diminished even in the earlier stages.

But there is an endless asking for comfort in the world, and the more the sorrow, the greater is the need felt to counteract the sorrow, which is what is called the desire for further comfort and satisfaction. Man struggles and struggles, and somehow succeeds. But such a struggle is absent in the spiritual seeker. A peculiar mood overtakes him, which prevents this gesture of the inner psyche in the form of asking. So there is a peculiar situation created, due to which the world may look insipid, bitter and totally unwanted. But the world is there, and it is not going to listen to our cries, and it cares not for our opinions.

So on the one side there is an inadequate provision of the means of physical comfort, and on the other side the world is as hard as ever; it is not going to bend before us. The tortures inwardly felt by the spiritual seeker may look more intense than the sufferings of even the poorest man in the world because there is already the submission of self to a kind of obligation to non-asking, non-expectation and non putting forth of direct effort in the direction of acquisition of comfort, because any effort that is diverted in that way may diminish the intensity of the effort in the right direction, for which purpose the discipline is practised. For fear of diversification of energy, for fear of depleting strength, the sadhaka contemplates intensely on an ideal which, in certain stages of the development and process of ascent, bitterly conflicts with the natural forces of life.

A list of these sorrows is enumerated by Patanjali in one of his sutras: vyādhi styāna saṁśaya pramāda ālasya avirati bhrāntidarśana alabdhabhūmikatva anavasthitatvāni cittavikśepaḥ te antarāyāḥ (Yoga Sutras 1.30). Physical illness is the first. Of all the troubles, the illness of the body is the first torture. The sadhaka will always be ill with something or the other because of the dual impact on the body: inner concentration, which causes pressure to be exerted on the prana, and, on the other side, the absence of the normal facilities of life. So, as if between the devil and the deep sea, the sadhaka plods on, and most of even the sincere seekers may feel a sense of ‘enough’ with this sort of living. Many have put a stop to this effort because one can bear suffering to some extent but it becomes unbearable beyond a certain limit, and so there is a tendency to put an end to all suffering by the putting an end to effort itself. And the higher we go, the greater is the thud with which we will drop. A drop from a few feet above is one thing, but a drop from thousands of feet or a few miles above is a different thing altogether.

The mind takes revenge under many circumstances – that is, the affirmative principle, or the assertive ego, which has been pushed aside with great effort by the power of discipline, takes the person to task and then starts the great drama of inward and outer conflict. Why does this happen, is a great question. Why should the path of God be strewn with hurdles, thorns and threats of every kind from fearsome elements? This is a question which can receive an answer only by deep contemplative analysis. How does it follow that the path to God is paved with suffering? Where is the relationship between these two extremes or contraries?

The answer is simple – namely, the stage in which we are at the present moment in the scheme of evolution. The consciousness in man has descended very low, and to say this is indeed to say very little because something worse has happened to man. He has not merely descended very low; something more atrocious has taken place, which is the entry of consciousness into a localised encasement called the body and the projection of it externally in space and time through the senses so that, like light rays passing through a prism and becoming deflected in various ways, the one consciousness appears as if it is a fivefold sensation. This is the reason why we have the sensations of a fivefold character – through the eyes, through the ears, through the tongue, through the skin, etc. It is not merely a simple entry of consciousness into the body and a coming out of it through the senses; it is a grasping of this projected consciousness in terms of that which it pounces upon, called objects. It is not a silent movement, a calm flow of consciousness in the sense of the movement of light rays through a prism; it is a vehement, intense rush of an eager spirit.

In the Puranas there is the story of Ganga descending with terrible power. Such was the force with which she descended that nobody could prevent her from entering into the nether regions, piercing through the bowels of the earth. The story goes that Bhagiratha had to perform such intense austerity to please the great god Mahadeva, Siva, that years and years passed in this effort of his. It is said that Ganga flowed from the kamandal of Brahma with a rapidity that only Lord Siva could bear. One can imagine what would be the force which would require a person like Siva to put a stop to it.

This great urge of consciousness to descend for the purpose of the fulfilment of the intentions of nature is strong enough to penetrate through the apertures of the body and lose no percentage of energy in that process. Like a wild animal which rapaciously moves with fury in a dark jungle searching for its prey, consciousness rushes through this physical body and makes it a petty instrument, a pawn that it pierces through in the direction of that for which it craves for its self-fulfilment.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad calls this grasping consciousness graha and calls the object atigraha. The vehement rush of consciousness in the direction of the objects of sense is comparable to a foolish person’s insatiable desire to catch hold of the mouth of an alligator or a crocodile, and the atighraha is the object or the crocodile itself. Its grasp on this person is stronger than the grasp of the one who has caught hold of it. So the foolish one, not knowing what he is catching, rushes into the crocodile’s mouth of gaping teeth and faces the terrible consequence of being caught between them, from which extrication is almost impossible. Vehement is the grasping, and more vehement is the regrasping of consciousness by the objects’ constitution itself. Vehement is the desire for enjoyment in terms of objects, but more vehement is the desire that follows as a consequence of that enjoyment.

A desire cannot be extinguished by its fulfilment because a conviction is driven into the mind that certainly joy is lodged in the object, else how could I be happy? My joy is incomparable when I come in contact with that which I love, which I consider as dear and near. This satisfaction that I have gained by union with that which I longed for is a confirmation of the fact that my own earlier opinion is correct. In this manner, opinions pile over opinions and there is a greater rush, intensifying itself more and more, like an avalanche falling into a deep cavern or the unthinkable velocity of the waters of a river which flow deep into the lower regions of the earth.

What has happened to man is not a happy predicament. We have a petty, childish understanding of the world. What is this world? It is a phantasmal externalisation in terms of an illusory screen called space and time, occasioned by this rapid movement of consciousness that has entered the body and moved out through the senses, interpreting the Universal as an object fit to be grasped through the senses.

We are often told in Vedanta philosophy and religious scriptures that the whole universe is the body of Virat. What does one mean by saying that the universe is the body of the Virat? Its meaning is unthinkable. No one can know what it actually means and what is its message, because if it is true that this universe is the body of God – the appearance of Hiranyagarbha or Virat – then everything that we think, all that we feel and do, becomes a meaningless chimerical acting in an arena which is clearly conceptual, having no reality or basis whatsoever.

The catastrophe that has befallen us can be appreciated only by investigative understanding which can compare its present condition with whatever could be the condition of that which we consider as ensouling the whole cosmos. When we call the universe as the body of the Virat, we mean that it is no more an object of anybody. It is not a thing that is to be seen with the eyes, and if God is the Reality, Hiranyagarbha, Virat is that which is finally real, and no other experience can be regarded as real.

Therefore, the desire for objects is an unthinkable, inconceivable malady of the mind of man. It is a disease whose description is really beyond the power of human language. Our longings, called desires, are the expressions of the very force of that descended Universal consciousness through this body, dissecting itself into a variety of forms through the apertures of the senses and then catching hold of the visible objects, whether they are physical or merely conceptual. I mentioned that the Upanishad has a very interesting terminology that it gives to the process of grasping and the reaction which this grasping produces – graha and atighraha. It is very difficult to understand what has happened to us. If we are strong in our adamant desire to grasp the objects of sense, the objects are even stronger than us. The objects are not going to leave us because they are configurations of world energy and, therefore, their strength is incalculable.

I gave the example of a crocodile. It is not fun to try to embrace an alligator, whatever be its beauty, as we know the consequence. Another example is given in a passage in the Yoga Vasishtha. There is no point in intensely longing to take rest under the cool shade of the cobra’s hood. No matter how hot the sun is, who will seek the shade of a cobra’s hood? This world is such. It is a peculiar presentation before these distracted forms of human consciousness, and the satisfactions are utter chimeras, illusory to the core. They are illusory because of the fact that the world outside consciousness is illusory. The world is not outside consciousness, and inasmuch as every satisfaction in life is a consequence of the externality of the world, there is no such thing as joy except in terms of objects. Objects are unthinkable except as things placed outside us, and inasmuch as outsideness is only an illusory spatio-temproal projection, all joys of life are utter illusions. One who is sunk in this condition cannot easily understand because the understanding that has to understand this condition is already immersed in this condition of involvement. Who is to understand the understander?

The Yoga System has scientific methods for a graduated wrenching of this projected consciousness from its vehement grasping in terms of objects, by what are called the yamas and the niyamas, asana, pranayama, etc. We all know these very well. Everyone has read these scriptures and knows the sutras of Patanjali. Even a child can repeat these aphorisms of Patanjali, and anyone can become a yoga instructor and teach these sutras; but the world is a crocodile nevertheless, and it can never be anything else.

These difficulties are the difficulties of a sincere spiritual seeker because once we have descended into this body through the prarabdha karma, the conditions prescribed by this prarabdha have to be our lot. There is the old analogy of the hunter who shot a poisonous arrow at an animal he saw moving in the thick forest at twilight, which he mistook for a prowling tiger; but as soon as the arrow was released, he realised that it was a grazing cow, not a tiger. His heart broke. “What a mistake I have committed! I have hit a poor cow grazing grass, and not a tiger. The knowledge of the fact that a mistake has been committed arises after the mistake has already been committed, as is the case with the hunter who realised that it was a cow only after he let off the arrow, and he had no control over the result. Controlling the arrow is possible only when it is in the hand of the hunter. Once he discharges it, it shall have its say, and it had its say, and it hit the cow and killed it.

In earlier incarnations, in the births through which we have passed, we thought that things are beautiful, the world is delightful, and the objects of sense are intensely satisfying, nectar-like. We prayed to God, “Give us a body through which we can enjoy these objects.” We craved for this joy of the union with the objects of sense, not knowing what the objects were really made of. We mistook the objects for delightful abodes as the hunter mistook the cow for the tiger, getting them mixed up in his consciousness. There are a few blessed ones who might have awakened themselves into the recognition of the fact that some mistake has been committed and the world is not what it may have appeared to be earlier. It is not an abode of joy. Now this body has come as a necessary instrument which was wanted earlier but is not wanted now, but once it was asked for and granted, its burden has to be borne, and we bear the burden – rather, consciousness bears the burden of this body. The physical body of an intensely contemplative spiritual seeker no more appears as a desirable instrument. It is a kind of curse which asks for food every day, clothing every day, rest every day, and facilities of every kind every day, but we cannot complain. We cannot speak one word, because the consciousness wanted to descend into this body.

In a humorous description of the process of creation, the Aitareya Upanishad tells us that the fallen angel wanted an abode from God. The centres of consciousness splashed off like sparks of fire from the universal conflagration of God’s majesty. These shootings, these shot-out sparks, are the angels in heaven that we speak of, and once they were shot out like satellites, they lost consciousness of their original union with the total whole, which was the Almighty Completeness. Hunger caught hold of each angel, says the Upanishad. Hunger is the most intense longing of any person or any living thing. The most intolerable and agonising longing of living beings is the desire to satisfy hunger; every other desire comes afterwards. “Give us food,” said these angels to the great Almighty. In a more specific way, the Panchadasi of Sage Vidyaranya tells us that God created this world as the food for the jiva. Sevenfold food is mentioned in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad – psychological food and psychical food. However, food is anything that is outside consciousness.

Anything that is external to consciousness should be considered as matter. ‘Matter’ is a term that we use to designate that which consciousness cannot consider as its own self, and so this world is material and our desires are not merely for these sensorily cognisable material objects, but we sometimes have even a greater longing for psychological conditions. Name and fame, for instance, are not visible objects. Respect is not a physical object, but one can end oneself for want of respect. In spite of having a multitude of physical objects for the purpose of sensory enjoyment, people have fallen into wells, hung themselves with ropes, and died miserably merely because of loss of self respect, not because they were poor from the point of view of material possessions. These incidents would show that psychological desires, or rather the longings of consciousness for conceptual objects, are more intense than the desire for physical objects. Name and fame, self-respect, are conceptual objects for which we long more than even food and clothing. Better to die than lose self-respect, is what people feel. Therefore, the invisible objects, such as the ones mentioned, have a more powerful force of grasping, the atigrahatva, than the physical objects.

Thus, we are caught by a twofold power – psychological longing on one side, and physical longing through the senses on the other side. When we are placed in this utter dilemma, in conditions of this type, we are likely to feel that we have no escape from being caught by the devil on one side or by the deep sea on the other side. Someone was asked, “Which is better, the devil or the deep sea? Which would you prefer?” The reply was, “The devil is better because once I enter the deep sea there is no hope of coming back, but I may somehow escape from the devil.” In a similar way, we sometimes feel that this wretched world is better than the tortures of spiritual life, and we revert to the world. “Let it be wretched. It is hell, but this hell is better than the greater hell of the pursuit of that which neither the mind can understand nor the body can tolerate.”

It is said that superhuman grace often descends upon the disciple from the Guru by a process called shakti-patha. A Guru is so knowledgeable of the conditions of the shishya, or the disciple, that he keeps a guard over him or her. He does not allow the disciple to wander independently, unprotected. It is believed that even the Buddha followed this practice. He was conscious of the movements and the conditions of life of his nearest disciples, and he would keep a watch over them. While he was kind and good enough to give a long rope to the mediocre idiosyncrasies and whims of human nature, he was a very able protector of his disciples.

The point is again before us that knowledge of the world is a kind of knowledge which is illusory. It is illusory because it is projected in terms of external objects. Any objectified knowledge cannot be really regarded finally as knowledge. Therefore, even the most learned person cannot be safe in this world. Any kind of professorial or academic achievement cannot be considered as adequate to the purpose because even the highest academician’s knowledge is a part of this illusory world. It is paroksha jnana, however intense it may be, however transparent it may look.

Thus, the possibility of slipping through the precipice of the erroneous conviction that the world is really outside is not ruled out even in the case of the most learned of individuals. Learning is one thing, and wisdom is another thing. Wisdom is the sprouting forth of that insight from within us which can be brought out to the surface of experience only by divine grace – call it Guru’s grace, call it God’s grace. Practical discipline is spiritual sadhana. It is not learning or reading books, which may have a value in its own realm, in its own measure, and serve its own purpose; that is another matter altogether. But when all is said and done, this is totally inadequate to the purpose of the one who sincerely longs to break through the fetters of life which are widespread before us, not merely in the form of little desires of the senses, but of a mighty screen before our mental eye in the form of space-time.

Who can break through this? This is the reason why yoga scriptures tell us that even in samadhi of a lower type, there is the danger of coming back. Processes, methods, techniques and ways of breaking through this fortress of the network of space-time-cause are all described, no doubt, but in enigmatic styles, difficult to understand. Even with commentaries on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, no one can understand what they mean. They are just sutras whose literal meanings may be known to us grammatically, but the spirit is a different thing altogether.

Thus comes the great age-old conclusion once again, to be repeated over and over, that the spiritual search is always an adventure that is undertaken under the guidance of a living teacher, in whose absence even the best of students may be in some danger one day or the other. Spiritual practice is compared to walking on a razor’s edge. ‘Razor’s edge’ has a double meaning. One meaning is that it is sharp and cutting like a razor, and the other meaning is that the path to God is invisible. The edge of the razor is so sharp, fine and subtle that it is not visible to eyes. So is the way to the Almighty; we cannot see it. It is not a beaten track. No one can know where the path to God is, or in which direction it is. This is the difficulty which one could feel in spite of vast learning and academic knowledge. Which is the way to God? The Upanishad which tells us that the path to God is like a razor’s edge also tells us that this mystery, this secret, can be known only with the guidance of one who is non-separate from God. Ananya-prokte gatir atra nāsty aṇīyān hy atarkyam aṇupramānāt (2.8), says the Katha Upanishad. No logic can break through this mystery. No amount of argument can bring you this knowledge because it is subtler than the subtlest conceivable thing. How do you know it then? You have to receive this knowledge only from one who exists in a state of identity with God. He is referred to in the Upanishads as Brahmanishtha, Brahmashrotriya, and perhaps it is the grace of God that brings a sincere seeker in contact with such a mighty soul in the world.

Thus, while spiritual practice, sadhana, is the only worthwhile thing in life, meaningful and significant for everyone, it is indeed a hard nut to crack. But the all-seeing eye of God, which is omniscient, is also the ever-protective power behind any sincere asking. This is again enunciated in the Bhagavadgita when we are told in that verse, ananyāś cintayanto māṁ ye janāḥ paryupāsate teṣāṁ nityābhiyuktānāṁ yogakṣemaṁ vahāmy aham (9.22). With all the difficulties, with all the hurdles, the grace is never denied to one who is ardently longing. Mokshatva is the prerequisite, and to such a one, God reveals Himself as the Guru. God is the Guru of all Gurus, and he will send one of his emissaries, suited to your purpose. Thus is the difficulty of the path, and thus is also the great glory of the way to God.