The Way Universal is the Way Spiritual
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on November 23rd, 1976.)

I have been asked to speak on what may be regarded as my way of thinking, which perhaps may also be of some benefit to you all in your personal and social lives as well as your life as a spirit in this world. God bless you all.

We have pre-eminently three ways of looking or seeing which, incidentally, is perhaps a threefold way of thinking. Every other way of conduct which we manifest in our lives can be subsumed under these three ways that we adopt spontaneously in our attitudes towards life in its entirety. We, first of all, look at ourselves. We have a consciousness of our being, and then we look at the outside world and have a consciousness of what is not ourselves. Finally, there is a third thing to which we gaze in wonder and often become conscious of, which is the mystery of life, which presents itself  before us almost every day as a miracle that operates between ourselves and the world that we behold before us, and in which we live.

Though it is true that our concern is primarily personal and communal in the sense of a community life of mankind in the world, we have, through a study of the history of human nature, come to learn that life is not merely what we regard ourselves to be and what opinion we have about the world outside us. This study of history, therefore, is not looking at a chronicle of events that take place in the passage of time, one after another. Rather, it is a study of the presuppositions of these events.

Mankind has always been restless on account of this miracle that operates per force between the onlooker who is the human being and the world which he gazes at and tries to tackle in his daily affairs. The whole of life’s activity is nothing but dealing with the world in one sense of the term. Mankind has been dealing with the world in many ways, through methods which are social, political, technological, scientific, and so on. All these constitute what is known as human history in this world of temporal affairs. But history is history; it has never become something different qualitatively in spite of quantitative evolutions and revolutions of various kinds which have always eluded the grasp of the understanding of man who has managed to remain a man after all, after centuries of evolutionary process.

The process of human history has not changed the quality of human thinking. This is an outstanding conclusion we have to draw, though we may call it an unfortunate conclusion because of the fact that the quality of our life has not improved although the quantity of our desires has increased very much and the modus operandi of the fulfilment of these desires also have multiplied themselves enormously. We have quantitatively enlarged ourselves to an incredible extent so that we are now trying to overstep the limits quantitatively even of the earth plane to grab the planes physically above it, but what about the quality of our living? That has remained the same. It has not changed. We have the same kind of hunger today as man had centuries back. Our hunger today is not qualitatively different. We have the same thirst, the same inducement to sleep, the same desires, the same passions, the same urges of the psychological being, so that the quality that is called mankind or human nature has not changed a whit.

This is an interesting study that we have to make as the quintessence of the study of history. History is not a story that we read of kings, wars, battles and murders, etc. It is an investigation into the processes that are undergone by human nature in its confrontations of various vicissitudes, a manner of living whose purpose has always remained beyond the ken of human grasp. We have never been able to understand one simple fact of life, namely, the purpose of our living, the main aim of existence itself, and the intention that seems to be behind the activity of nature. What is this hectic activity of nature that we see around us, right from the galaxies to the electrons? “What is this tremendous restlessness that we observe – to what intent and what purpose?” is a question that one can pose before oneself and others, but it has no answer. We have ever been dragged helplessly, as it were, like slaves, by the modis of action of nature, and our talks of conquering nature have always been merely a kind of blabber, which is like patting oneself on the back. We have never conquered nature. We have always been subject to the principles and laws of nature physically, biologically, psychologically, and in every sense. That man thinks he has conquered nature or that he is capable of conquering nature is a misnomer. He cannot do so for certain reasons, which we are going to investigate in our own humble manner.

The faculties of the human being are the instruments of understanding, the tools which he applies for investigating and conquering nature, as he calls it. But where do these tools come from? From where do you get this apparatus with which you try to adapt yourself to nature for the purpose of investigating it and conquering it? The tools come from nature. You are trying to apply the tools of nature to nature itself, a wonderful system of working indeed. If the tool or the instrument of observation, action and investigation is to be a handmaiden of the very object which you are trying to observe, investigate and study, well you can understand to what extent would be the success of your conclusions.

There cannot be a dispassionate observation of an object, of anything whatsoever, as long as the method of observation is not independent of the object that is observed. If the method is involved in some way in the conditions in which the object itself is involved, then the study would be fallacious and there would be a begging of the question. You have already presupposed something which you are trying to understand through the scientific methods you are adopting. This has been the failure, unfortunately, of modern scientific technology, and of psychology also, because even the mind cannot be said to be separate from nature if we probe deep into the structure of nature.

What I am trying to bring home to your mind is that we cannot think of conquering nature, much less understanding nature, if we are not going to have the patience to know the relationship that obtains between us and nature. You should not dogmatically take for granted your relationship with nature as something isolated, segregated, compartmentalised. It is not an object that you are studying. This is the blunder committed by classical science of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that nature, the world as a whole, is an object and we can deal with it like a carpenter deals with his object, the wood, etc. This is not the case.

The involvement of human nature in nature as a whole is a fact which has not come to light till recently. Now it is becoming apparent by the investigations of psychology, philosophy and science that nature is not an object of observation. What we call nature is not the world of physical elements. It is not the mountains and the trees and the wood and the stones. Nature is not an object in the sense we generally define objects. The classical definition of an object does not apply to nature. And we have today a more sophisticated definition of it, arrived at by a deeper investigation of the conditions of life itself. When we speak of nature, we generally define it as the physical elements. The geographical circumstances in which we live are generally considered by us as nature. If I study geography or geology, I may be said to be studying the nature of physics, for instance, or chemistry. But nature is not that. It is something different. It is because of this peculiarity which was hidden up to this time in nature that we have never been able to approach her and understand her. So there has been a failure in the attempts of mankind from centuries in conquering nature and gaining permanent happiness or peace in this world of nature. We have never been happy. Not one has been happy because we have always been struggling with nature. This war has never come to a close, and even today we cannot win this tug-of-war between man and nature.

The great seers of the East especially had occasion to plumb deeper into these mysteries and visualise a greater affinity that obtains between man and nature so that there was discovered a necessity to cooperate with the law of nature rather than attempt to conquer nature. It was realised, to the great satisfaction of these seers, that there is no need to conquer nature or grab nature for one’s utilitarian purposes. There has always been a necessity to adapt oneself to the requirements of the laws of nature, and this is the source of the problem as well as the answer which mankind has been posing and encountering throughout history.

Our activities in life, whatever be the type of activity we engage ourselves in, are directed to the achievement of a success of some kind, and this success is commensurate with the satisfaction of the mind. Satisfaction is inseparable from peace of mind, so they are all together in one bundle: peace, happiness, satisfaction, and a sense of having achieved the aim that is before us. The aim was not clear, and therefore, there was bungling in one’s movement in the direction of this achievement. The difficulty arose on account of a primal misconception of the relationship between man and nature.

Now, as I pointed out, the Eastern seers had the prerogative of going deeper into these questions, and perhaps the seers of the Upanishads were the first in the history of mankind, we may safely say, who could proclaim in a stentorian voice that they had plumbed the bottom of infinity, caught the glimpse of Truth and were able to express it in a glorious, scintillating language for the benefit of mankind. These are what we call the Upanishads.

What is this plumbing, and what is this question they were encountering and answering? That was precisely the subject with which I began: nature, and man’s relationship with it – the question of life as a whole. This question as answered by the Eastern seers, primarily, pre-eminently the sages of the Upanishads, was a question of a novel type altogether. It cannot be called scientific in the sense of modern investigations because if science is the technique of observation and experiment with something which you are not, then this is far removed from science because these seers had the occasion to discover quite a different reality and truth altogether, namely, that there is no question of investigating into what you are not because there is nothing on earth with which you are really unconnected. If this is the case, the whole edifice of science breaks down into pieces at one stroke.

If science or technological adaptation of oneself to nature is the study of what you are not – the study of what is outside you totally, biologically and organically – then science has to fail. It has been discovered that this approach is mistaken, misguided, because total estrangement of the observing individual from the object observed is uncalled for because there are subtle tentacles which proceed from the personality of the observer and commingle with the internal fibres of the object itself. This could not be known by any sensory observation or visual perception because the inner organic relationship between the observer and the observed, man and nature, is so deeply hidden beneath the surface activity of the senses that sensory observation has always been oblivious of the presence of such a thing at all. We could never even dream that such a thing is possible because our way of living has always been sensory – visual, auditory, tactile, etc.

But all these activities of ours, sensuous in any manner we may define them, have been, unfortunately, far removed from the base on which they were rooted and from which they were proceeding like rays from the sun. The radii of a circle proceed in different directions from the centre, but the centre holds in its single grasp and grip all the radii in spite of the fact of their diversification in various ways towards the periphery of the circle. Likewise, there seems to be some centre, and this centre is the controlling machine which exerts its influence in every way upon the various kinds of sensory activity which proceed from that centre like radii from a centre towards the periphery, the circumference of the circle. The urge of the senses towards externality, the force with which they move outward, the velocity of their activity in respect of objects outside is so vehement, so uncontrollable, so restless and impetuous that it has never been possible for the senses to turn back and see the source from which they proceed and the centre which controls them.

This is the great point made in a famous verse of the Kathopanishad: parāñci khāni vyatṛṇat svayambhῡs tasmāt parāṅ paśyati nāntarātman (Katha 2.1.1.): The Creator urged the senses, as it were, permanently towards objects of external observation in perception so that they could never behold what is behind them. This is the reason why it has not been possible for us to probe into the mysteries of nature, which is a completeness by itself, embracing within its gamut everything and everyone – yourself and myself, organic and inorganic – which are all various degrees of the manifestation of nature, the densities through which it reveals itself to our perception.

This was a great truth that came to Masters such as Yajnavalkya, to speak of only one. These Masters tell us that these three envisagements – these three ways of looking inwardly towards oneself, outwardly towards the world, and above towards a mystery that eludes one’s grasp – are really three methods by which the mind is trying to grasp the total miracle of life, of which itself has become a part. The mind itself has become a miracle. The observing individual also is a miracle. You are a miracle and I am a miracle, if we go deep into ourselves. We are not so simple as we appear to be. We are a terrible complexity involved in many things of which we are not aware, and our personality is not so isolated in a small room of the house, as we think it to be. Our tiny individuality and personality, this little tabernacle, this body, this so-called nothing as it appears for all ordinary purposes, has deeply hidden within it, within its bosom, mysteries that reach the stars and beyond them. Man is a wonder, and the wonder that man is comes to the surface of one’s understanding when one goes deep. The deeper you go, the more you know about yourself and your reaches outside.

The isolatedness of your personality and the segregation of the individual is a falsity of notion. It is not true, and therefore, there is no need for that type of observation which science is advancing today in the name of physics, etc., because no study of nature is possible unless the student of nature himself or herself also takes that aspect into consideration in their study. We may go with the great poet who said that the proper study of mankind is man. Know thyself. You cannot know the world, you cannot know nature, you cannot know the cosmos, you cannot know anything whatsoever unless you know yourself. Why? Because you are inextricably involved in this paradox of observation, this mystery of creation, this tangle called the object, and this problem called life. You are involved in it. Your problem and my problem are not two different problems; they are a single problem. It is a single mystery that catches hold of everyone, only appearing with different colours like a chameleon under different circumstances. The different colours of the chameleon are not its own colours. They are only reactions to the atmosphere in which it is living. It has no colour by itself. Likewise, the mystery of life is not manifold as it appears on the surface. It is a single profound something which appears to be manifold on account of its variegated reactions to the various structures of individual personality.

So we make an onward march into the master solution struck by the master seers into this mystery – namely, the problem of life, the grappling of the problem at one stroke in its totality, and not studying the patient little by little as some specialist doctors today are prone to do. We study a nose separately or an eye separately or a stomach separately or a head separately, as if they are all independent persons. How can we study the structure of the eye, which is organically connected with the whole body, if we do not know the anatomy of the whole body? How can we know what is happening in the stomach unless we know the structure of the whole body?

There is, therefore, a need to take an organic approach to anything whatsoever, and if success of any kind is our aim in life, we have also to know how to achieve success. There is no use merely desiring without deserving. We have to apply the proper means, and if the proper means is applied, why should not success come? We fail because we have a total misconception about ourselves, about the world, and the aim of life itself. This misconception has arisen on account of a misfortune that has befallen us, and an ignorance – avidya, as the traditional philosophies tell us – which again stands before us gazing like a mystery. But if we go deep into this, we will find that it is not a mystery. It is an inability to properly go deep into the problem that has made us to consider it a kind of ignorance, as if it is another object altogether.

The ignorance that we are speaking of is not an object. The whole point of the Upanishad – Eastern mysticism, if you would like to call it that – is that there is no need to study any object. There is a need to study life. We are concerned with life much more than any object. Our concern today with objects, whether they are economic or otherwise, is a travesty of affairs. Life is something inscrutable, invisible to the eyes, and intangible to the senses. We cannot see it. How can we see life within a laboratory? We cannot test it, put it in a test tube, and see what life is. Who can see life? And yet it is everywhere.

The principle of life is not an object of observation by the senses, it is not a matter of investigation by the laws of physics and chemistry, it is not to be studied as we study astronomy, etc., yet that is the only thing that we have to study. What is the good of knowing the inner contents of the solar orb which is 93 million miles away from here, and not knowing what is happening to your own mind inside? What is the use of knowing the treasures that are hidden in Mars without knowing the fibre of your own personality inside, and also not knowing the defects that have been already involved in your erroneous perception of the content of another planet such as Mars, which you say is such and such a thing? How are you sure that your observations are correct? How are you cocksure that your conclusions are true for all times because, as I have already mentioned, no conclusion of any kind, scientific or otherwise, can be regarded as final unless you are sure that the methods you have adopted in this study, in this observation and investigation, are infallible.

But how can you be sure? How can you trust your eyes, for instance? Your eyes are made in a particular manner. You know the lenses of the eyes deceive you. When you put on spectacles, you can see things differently. The lenses of spectacles tell you different features of the objects. The convex lens, the concave lens, etc., are examples before you. And if there is a defect in the eye, if there is a cataract, for instance, you have got defective vision.

So the physiological structure of the human being has much to contribute to the nature of the observations made by the senses, and just because every human being sees the same thing in the same way, you cannot conclude that it is necessarily a correct conclusion. All human beings are made in the same way; therefore, everyone will have to say the same thing. Everyone’s eyes are made in the same manner, and therefore, there is a uniformity of observation among human beings about certain things, and so when a million people proclaim a truth, we think it is true. But, after all, it is a human proclamation, and that cannot be regarded as a final verdict on the nature of things because that which is non-human or superhuman has always remained outside the vision of the mental structure of the human being.

We should not be too complacent about ourselves. As things change, observations also change. When conditions and circumstances change, the conclusions also must change, so there should be a means which is infallible. We should find a technique of knowledge which is not subject to defects of any kind, and which is permanently valuable for all times – past, present and future – for you, for me and for everyone.

Can you say that you see the world in the same way as a cat sees it, for instance? No. The cat’s perception of the world is different from your perception, and whose perception is correct? If it is true that realms of being exist – that there are planes of cosmos other than the physical which can be corroborated even by physical observations – if this is the fact, why is it that your physical eyes cannot perceive the presence of these other realms? It is merely because the present apparatus, the senses, are incapable of adjusting and adapting themselves to the conditions of the other realms that operate beyond their ken. There are high-frequency waves, for instance, light waves and sound waves which cannot be grasped either by the eyes or the ears, but nevertheless they exist.

Thus, the point that we have to make here is that our conclusions should not be regarded as permanent, and as the whole truth. Na sāmparāyaḥ pratibhāti bālam pramādyantaṁ vittamohena mῡḍham (Katha 1.2.6), says the Upanishad again: The Beyond is not visible to the senses, and one who confines himself merely to sensory observation and ignores the operation of the laws of the realms beyond is caught in the meshes of death. Such a person it is that is subject to transmigration, birth and death. And what is birth and death? What is transmigration? It is nothing but the pressure exerted upon the individual by the forces of the cosmos in order that chances may be provided to the individual to attune himself, herself or itself with the laws that be. So even this punishment called birth and death is, after all, a kind of reformatory activity conducted by the school of nature for the purpose of the higher evolution of mankind, of the soul by itself.

We have been exiled somehow or other from our own home, and it is this mystery that has been our woe. This fact is not known to us. Even inside the prison we are imagining we are in a palace. We have mistaken one thing for another thing. The conditions of life in which we are living today are not at all the primary conditions of life. They are only certain aspects projected by life as a whole.

So we have to draw a demarcating line between the so-called technological, physical, scientific way of thinking of the so-called modernised man, and the integral vision of the sage which has managed to grasp reality in its completeness. In this complete grasp, the dichotomy between man and nature has been removed once and for all so that the conditions of permanent peace for mankind have been discovered. Today we know how we can be happy, and how we can be unhappy also. It is very easy to be unhappy, and it is equally easy to be happy, if only you make up your mind. You can create a hell just now here, and you can create a heaven if you like, provided you can adapt your personality in that required manner to the circumstances outside. A complete disharmony and misalignment with the laws of nature is the hell that we create, and the alignment is the heaven. The moment you tune your personality in alignment with the laws of nature you are in paradise, and this paradise is not outside this hall. It is inside this hall also, just under your nose, but you can create the worst of hells if you cast yourself into a mood of disharmony and quarrel with nature, turning your back upon it so that you see quite the opposite of what nature sees and begin to see objects where there are only subjects, to put it in a more philosophical language.

Nature, to come to our conclusion, is a supreme subject. It is not an object of physical observation. This is the Upanishadic proclamation, as contradistinguished from our modern scientists’ dictum that nature is an object of investigation in a laboratory. It is not so. Nature is not an object of investigation; nature is the subject which investigates. This is a great difference between the Eastern and Western approaches, and it makes all the difference in every sense of the term.

Thus, we have a very startling recipe given to the diseases of mankind, startling because it is unknown up to this time, startling because it is incapable of ordinary grasp, startling because it is a revolutionary method of approach as compared with the usual methods of living of the ordinary human being. How can you conceive nature as a subject? It is impossible because it has always been an object outside us. But this is the beginning of spiritual life: to turn from the erroneous way of thinking on the standard of which we have been regarding nature as an object, and to flow with the current of a new type of thinking, according to which nature can be a subject, or perhaps it is the only subject. That approach itself is the beginning of spirituality. The concept of nature as an object may be said to be the trend of materialistic life, but the other way around – the cooperation that we are charitable enough to give in respect of nature by regarding it as a friend of ourselves, as a subject as we ourselves are – would be the other way round where the tables have been turned. From the materialistic conception of life we come to the spiritual conception of life.

From this definition of life and from this concept of nature that I have tried to place before you, you will realise that spiritual life is the only complete life. Every other form of life is fragmentary and incomplete. Because it is fragmentary and incomplete, it is incapable of giving us what we need; therefore, every other kind of life is a source of sorrow. Any type of living which is unspiritual, other than spiritual, is bound to lead us into the mire of suffering of some kind or the other because anything which is not a spiritual outlook of life is a fragmentary way of looking, and therefore, a wrong way of looking.

So it is high time now that we take a more comprehensive view of things and refrain from subjecting ourselves to the slavish way of thought of the ancient man on the street or the man of the woods, and begin a new way of reoriented thinking wherein we have really to take no time to find ourselves in a paradise of happiness. You can contact the most distant of things in a second if you like, provided this technique of friendliness with nature becomes possible of practice in your daily life. If you can really be friendly with nature as a whole, you can touch the corners of nature which are farthest from the point of view of astronomical observance, because there is no distance in nature; there is only distance for us in nature. For nature as a whole, neither space exists nor time exists; therefore, when you commune with this structure of nature in your spirit, you become the friend of all beings, sarvabhūtahite ratāḥ (Gita 5.25), as the Bhagavadgita says.

The life that is spiritual is not something different from the life that we live in nature. It is not an unnatural life; it is the only natural life. Spiritual life is the life that nature lives, so it is a natural life, and any other kind of life is, therefore, unnatural. But what is that life which nature lives? It is the concept of nature which nature itself has. This is again difficult for the mind to understand. How can we imagine what nature thinks of itself? But you can to some extent imagine what it can be by comparing by analogy the ways of nature with the way of thinking of your own self. What do you think about yourself? That nature thinks about itself also. This is the metaphysical background of the ethical dictum atmanaḥ pratikūlāni pareśāṁ na samācharet (M.B. 5.15.17): You should not do to others what you would not like to be done to yourself. Why? Because everyone thinks of himself or herself as you think of yourself. This is the truth. We can simply turn the table around before the scientists and say that there are no objects, there are only subjects. For the scientists there are only objects, but the truth seems to be altogether different. Do you regard yourself as an object? Never. Do I regard myself as an object? No. Can anything regard itself as an object? If everything regards itself as a subject, where are the objects? So it is the question of viewpoint. If everything is an object, well, we are in samsara. If everything is a subject, we are in moksha at this very moment. So to view everything as a subject is liberation; to view everything as an object is samsara, or bondage. The great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna said that moksha, or liberation, and naraka, which is samsara, or bondage, are at the same place. Just at the same pinpointed space we have hell and heaven both. If you look at a thing as an object, it is hell; if you look at it as a subject, it is heaven. If I can look at you as you look at yourself, that would be my spiritual attitude. But if I look at you as I would like to look at you, as an object, then that would be the contrary of it.

So, after all this analysis, what we arrive at is a very simple thing. It is not very difficult, not complicated: Mankind’s happiness is in its own hands. If you want peace, you can have it, and if you do not want it, nobody can give it to you. It is not an object, again. Peace, happiness, freedom are not objects of sense, they are conditions of consciousness; and if consciousness is the subject, a modification of the attitude of the subject is the precondition for achieving peace and happiness.

I would like to sum up in a single sentence what I told you all this while, that the way spiritual is the way universal because the universe is also the supreme subject. That is what we call God, ultimately; the Supreme Father of the universe, Ishvara, the Absolute, by whatever name, is the universal subject; and to view life from the point of view of that presence is life spiritual. It does not cost you anything, not even one paise, to think like this. For such a charitable gesture from your consciousness, which is the sacrifice of its own being in the universality of existence, you are immediately blessed with the blend of eternity and infinity here and now, which is the message of the Upanishads. God bless you all.