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The Nature of True Spirituality
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on June 1, 1978.)

I would like to place before you a few ideas on the nature of true spirituality, the very purpose for which people are struggling in many ways through the practice of various religions and undergoing different kinds of austerity and self-discipline.

Often we will realise, to our discomfort, that our efforts at leading a spiritual life do not seem to bring us as much visible benefit and satisfaction as would be expected.  Some people are highly enthusiastic, very honest and sincere in their efforts, fired up with a zeal for the liberation of the soul, the realisation of God, which is a blessed thing indeed to see in this world. But this zeal has to be vitalised with the spirit of spirituality, which is different from the normal definition which our minds may pose—the usual concept of what is good for us, which often degenerates into a commercial attitude even in our notion of religion and spirituality, an attitude of give-and-take and a looking to the profit side as if we are casting a balance sheet in accounts for our personal advantage.

Our idea of the good is many a time mixed up with our desire for the pleasant. This is a very important fact we should not miss. No doubt, we ask for the good and are trying our best to work for the good, but we do not wish that the good should be unpleasant. Our religious practices, our daily routines of worship, japa, meditation, svadhyaya, and so on, should not take an unpleasant turn to the agony of the mind in any manner whatsoever. Even if it be an injunction from a scripture, an ordinance from a Guru, a requirement from an institution, or whatever shape the religious discipline may take, we are subconsciously careful that it does not strike an unpleasant note in our personal lives. We have to analyse why it is that we are so much averse to unpleasant things and seek only the pleasant and that which satisfies our immediate existence.

To our discredit almost, we should honestly accept that we cannot distinguish between our personal valuations of things and an impersonal valuation that is required in a life of true spirituality. The doings which take the form of religious practice do not always coincide with the requirements of true spirituality. To state the whole matter in one sentence, we may say that spirituality is the affirmation of the nature of the spirit. The assertion in our consciousness of the nature of the spirit is spirituality. This affirmation of the nature of the spirit in our daily lives may take the form of social service, of temple worship, of service of a Guru, or even of work in an office, an industrial organisation or a factory. Whatever form it may take is a different matter, but the form is always enlivened with the concept and the conscious affirmation of the ideal. That is spirituality.

Our activities are external forms taken by our idealism of existence, and this idealism is spirituality. Minus this idealism in our consciousness, actions may take the form of a mechanistic routine, like a worker going to the factory whether he wants to or not. Many people work under pressure of circumstances, not because they are fired up with an idealism of spirit, and so it does not bring joy. Work does not bring happiness when this idealism is absent.

One of the characteristics of unspiritual activity is the unhappiness that is attended with it. There is a sort of dissatisfaction, a grouse in the mind when a work is imposed even in the name of a necessary religious practice. The inner complaint that the mind makes against the conditions which have been imposed upon it is a characteristic of the isolation of this inner idealism from the form of the work in which one is perforce involved.

What is work? Anything that you do is work. Whatever the nature in which you manifest yourself in the external world is work or activity. There is absolutely no qualitative difference between one work and another work as far as its relationship with true spiritual life is concerned. One can be equally spiritual, whatever be the nature of the work that one does. One may be a sweeper, a factory worker, a driver, a pilot, a warrior, a clerk, or anything else, for the matter of that. That has no relevance whatsoever to the quality with which the activity or the work is endowed on account of the presence of the inner idealism that is affirmed in consciousness.

The medicine is the same; the bottles are different. The bottles do not make any difference to the content inside. It may be a coloured bottle, a round bottle, a square bottle; it may be long or short. The medicine may be administered orally or by injection, but the purpose is the introduction of the medicine into the body. That is the idealism, the consciousness which affirms the nature of the spirit.

Here we come to the difficulty in leading a spiritual life. It is very easy to go to a church or a temple and do whatever work we are asked to do. The important point is to consider the spirit with which the work is done and the spirit with which it ought to be done for the purpose of transforming it into a spiritual shape.

The nature of the spirit is the living force that vitalises activity and converts it into what is called karma yoga, to put it in the language of the Bhagavadgita. A copper wire is not an electric force unless energy is made to pass through it. Our activities are like mere copper wires with no strength inside because there is no force or power running through them. Just as a wire through which electricity is passing and a wire with no electricity look alike to mere outer perception, likewise, spiritual activity and ordinary activity may look alike. You will not see any difference between spiritual activity and ordinary activity merely by looking at it with your naked eyes, just as by looking at a wire from a distance you cannot know whether electricity is passing through it or not, but the difference is well known. The character of spirituality is a character of consciousness. It is not a form, but a substance. It is not a shape that your activity takes, but the vitality with which it is infused.

Now we go a little deeper into what is this nature of the spirit which we are supposed to affirm as an inner idealism so that our outward life also may become spiritual. Again I have to affirm here that our works in any field or vocation are of equal importance, and there is no such thing as higher work and lower work. All work is equally good and equally relevant to spirituality, provided that it becomes a vehicle for the conveyance of the nature of the spirit.

What is the meaning of the nature of the spirit, and how are we to affirm it or assert it in our consciousness in order that our external conduct or activity may become spiritual, so that our life may become spiritual? This is a point which is easily missed even by ardent seekers of Truth because the mind is not accustomed to think in this manner. We are never taught to think in terms of the nature of the spirit—not by our parents, by our society, or by our schools and colleges; nobody teaches us what the nature of the spirit is. We are only asked to do some work, and this everyone does, but it has brought unhappiness. We are not satisfied; we are grieved inside, we have complaints, and we are morose. No one seems to be satisfied with any work that one does. What is the difficulty?

The difficulty is very basic and profound. It is not easy for the mind to entertain the nature of the spirit in its consciousness. This is a new art altogether. It is not like fine art, painting or architecture, and is not a science like arithmetic or mathematics or logic. It is a new type of art, a new type of science whose meaning is driven into our ears by all the scriptures and the great sayings of the masters, sages and saints; but unfortunately for us, we are unable to receive the import of these instructions. We have heard a thousand times that God-realisation is the goal of life, and we are hearing it even today, but what meaning does it convey to us? A mere injunction will carry no weight unless the import or meaning is also injected into our blood at the same time.

The meaning, unfortunately, is easy to misinterpret and to miss altogether because the mind always thinks in terms of objects. It thinks with a commercial attitude of give-and-take: “If I do something, what will I get? Why should I do anything unless I get something? I would rather keep quiet and do nothing. If I do anything, I must get something.” This is the businessman's way of thinking, and in this sense, everyone in the world is a businessman because everyone thinks in this manner only. “Why should I do anything, and if I am asked to do something, what does it bring?” This is not the spiritual way of thinking. The affirmation of the nature of the spirit in consciousness is not expected to bring anything to the spirit that asserts itself.

Because of the fact that we have to introduce ourselves into an absolutely new way of thinking altogether, the art of spiritual life is a superhuman task indeed. The spirit is not an object. This is the first thing that we have to understand. It cannot be seen with the eyes; therefore, it cannot be thought with the mind. You may ask me, “Why is it that we cannot even think it with the mind? Can we not at least imagine something?” Yes, but what can be imagined?

Whatever we imagine is in terms of a relationship between ourselves and some object, and whenever we become conscious of an object outside, we again develop a commercial attitude. What is the purpose of my relationship with this object? I like it, I do not like it, I am indifferent towards it, etc. This is a kind of external calculated attitude towards an object outside. There is no such calculation involved in spiritual life. It is an affirmation of consciousness for its own sake, and not for the sake of something that it may bring. If I do a work, it does not mean that the work will bring something else as an ulterior effect by which I have to conclude that the work is a means to an end. A work that is a means to an end is not karma yoga. Karma yoga is a work that is an end in itself. That itself is the fruit. It is not something that we do for the sake of something else. We work in an office because we want salary, but this is not the way in which karma yoga is done. The work itself is the fruit, and it is the benefit that immediately accrues as an end in itself. The affirmation of the spirit is the fruit by itself; it is not a means to an end. The non-objective character of the spirit implies its wholeness, a kind of completeness. We never regard our consciousness or our own selves as objects at any time. There is always a wholeness in our existence. We are always wholes, completes, and we never feel that we are fractions or parts of something. This wholeness of attitude is the primary requisite in the understanding of the nature of true spirituality.

The initial step that we have to take in living the spiritual life is to learn the art of a wholeness of thinking, and to give up fractional ways of thinking. Wholeness of thinking is the inclusion in every value judgment of two sides of the matter at the same time: the object that is judged, and the subject that judges. By ‘judgment' we do not mean any kind of decree that is passed as in a court of law, for instance. Judgment means any kind of evaluation. Thinking that the weather just now is tolerably cool is not a decree of a court, but rather a judgment passed by my mind, an opinion it holds by understanding the circumstances prevailing. Any kind of opinion that we hold about anything is called a judgment, and in any value judgment we have to be careful to see that the various sides that are involved in the judgment are given due justice.

What are the sides that are involved in a judgment? They are oneself as a subject, and a set of external factors upon which the judgment is passed. The mistake that the individual does, that everyone does in this process of judging, is that the judging subject is always kept aside, aloof from the circumstance of judgment, and the entire burden is thrown on the object alone so that the factors that go to determine the nature of the judgment are entirely objective and have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject. In my opinion about a thing, I am not involved. This is my self-assertive nature which speaks in this language.

I am giving a very crude example of how we can make mistakes in judgments. When I make a statement such as “The weather is cool”, I do not imagine for a moment that my mind, my physiological constitution, my psychophysical setup is automatically involved in this judgment. For all practical purposes, this coolness is a characteristic of the weather and it has nothing to do with me. I am not cool; it is the weather that is cool, so I am holding an opinion about something outside me, and not about myself. This is the opinion that anyone can have about the nature of this judgment.

But is it true? Is it true that the coolness of the weather is a quality of something prevailing entirely outside? It is not true. The coolness of the weather is an experience of my psychophysical personality in relation to a condition that is prevailing outside. If my bodily constitution or the entire psychophysical organism has been constituted in a different manner altogether—for example, if the cells of my physical organism are vibrating at a higher frequency, a million times more than the frequency with which they are rotating and revolving just now—it is doubtful if I will make the statement that the weather is cool. If the vibration of the cells of the body was so high that it was equal to the rate of vibration of the atoms in a flame of fire, what would be my experience about the weather outside? It would be completely different from what it appears to be just now. So am I correct in saying that the judgment of cool weather is entirely objective? I am as much involved in the judgment as the object upon which I am passing the judgment.

Sugar is very sweet. The sweetness is not the quality of one's tongue, as we know. Sugar is outside us, and so the sweetness is in the object outside, in the crystals of sugar. Is it true that the sweetness is entirely in the sugar and that we have nothing to do with it? This is also not true. Sweetness is nothing but a reaction that is set up by our psychophysical organism to the structural pattern of something outside. It is the reaction that is called sweetness, and not the nature of the object of such. The reaction is produced in that manner because the body is made in that way. If the entire body is structurally different, such a reaction may not be made. We feel an intense chill when we enter the Ganga water, but the fish do not feel the cold. How is it? If it is cold, everybody should feel the cold. These are only gross examples to give an idea as to how it is not true that judgments are entirely objective. It is a wholeness of circumstance. No judgment is entirely objective, nor is it entirely subjective. There is a correlation of the subjective and objective in every experience, every value judgment, every opinion and every experience, whatever it be.

The understanding of the fact that every opinion, every experience, every judgment, every concept is a wholeness, and not either entirely subjective or entirely objective, is the beginning of the art of right thinking. If we learn this art, if this knowledge deeply enters our hearts, if we learn the technique of thinking in this manner, we will not be the persons that we are today. We will be altogether different. As spirituality is nothing but an impersonality of outlook, there would be an impersonality of outlook emanating from our personality always.

Spirituality has various stages of ascent, rising from the lower to the higher. There are various degrees of manifestation of this wholeness. In the lowest or initial stage, this wholeness may manifest as a consideration for the feelings of others, the needs of others, the conditions of others, as much as one is concerned about one's own self.

There is a great ethical dictum proclaimed in all religions—ātmanaḥ pratikūlāni pareśāṁ na samācharet (M.B. 5.15.17): “If something is not good for you, naturally it will not be good for others also.” You cannot introduce a judgment upon somebody else which you would not accept when you are similarly judged. If it is not okay for you, it is not okay for others also. But the objective way of thinking is so inveterate in our minds that this wholeness of vision never comes to the surface of our consciousness. The ego asserts itself as an isolated factor always, and we go on saying the Ganga is cool, fire is hot, the weather is such and such, people are like this, I am this, and so on. All these judgments are partial because of the fact that the subject that is judging has kept itself away from the object that it judges.

The wholeness of perception is initially social and ethical. This is what children are taught as good behaviour. Children are told that their behaviour should be good, that they must be polite, sweet, considerate, serviceable, and affectionate. But what is the meaning behind this? The meaning is that we cannot treat an object as something outside us, as if it is completely cut off from us.

Ethical injunctions and social considerations of various types are the root upon which political organisations are built. The social, ethical and economic factors coalesce into political concepts, and governments are formed for the enforcement of the law of a wholeness in human existence so that people may not affirm their egos too much and go to the extreme of violating the law of oneness. Governments exist so that selfishness may not go to extremes and become rampant.

Great thinkers, philosophers, opine that even a governmental administration is a spiritual organisation. There is nothing unspiritual in this world. It is spiritual because of the fact that its purpose is spiritual. Social organisations, the family setup, and any kind of relationship in society is spiritual, provided that this relationship takes into consideration the existence of factors outside oneself which are as equally important as one's own self.

The Upanishads tell us that Ishvara has become all these things. He willed to be many, and He became the many. What is Ishvara but the name that we give to a total Universal Subject? Ishvara is God, and God is the designation for the Universal Subject. God is not an object. The total omnipresent subjectivity of consciousness is called God, or Ishvara, which split itself into the many. It has become all these things—you, me, and everything.

The Upanishads, in giving this theory of creation, intend to convey to us the message that the whole world is filled with the subjectivity of God. The world is not an object, and the world is not filled with objects, because the objects of the world are the fragments of the Universal Subject, which is Ishvara. So there is a subjectivity present in everything that we call an object. Merely because it is a fragment of the Total Subject, it does not become an object; it is nevertheless a subject, but it has become an individualised subject and erroneously conceives other subjects as its objects because of judging the so-called objects outside through the sense organs.

When a fragment of the supreme Ishvara, which is also a subject, is discerned through the sense organs of a particular subject, the other subjects look like objects. If you look at things through the spirit, through the wholeness of vision, through the intuitive faculty, through your consciousness rather than your sense organs or your eyes, you will not see objects in this world. You will not see people sitting in front of you. They are fragments of the same Universal Spirit; therefore, they cannot be called objects, and therefore they cannot be treated as objects outside you. They cannot be utilised or harnessed for your personal purpose.

There should not be exploitation of any kind. Any kind of exploitation or utilisation of another thing for your purpose is the converting of the subject into an object. Then it is that actions produce reactions. The nemesis of action, the reaction of an action, or the karmaphala which is said to bind the jiva to samsara, is nothing but the resentment that is jetted forth by the so-called object due to being treated as an object. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Sage Yajnavakya says that anything that is treated by you as an object will run away from you. It is an insult to anything to be regarded as an object because you are denying the selfhood which is its real nature. It is not really an object, but you are calling it an object. You are calling a wise man an idiot, and he will not tolerate this kind of treatment. Sarvaṁ tam parādād yo'nyatrātmano sarvaṁ veda (B.U. 2.4.6): “It is futile on the part of anyone to attempt to gain anything in this world by treating that thing as an object outside. It will run away—sarvaṁ tam parādād.” So no desire can be fulfilled if that desire treats its object as something outside it.

Why is it that desires are never satiated ultimately? It is because they run after things which they treat as objects outside, and so the objects flee. You cannot love anything by treating it as an object. You have already stigmatised it by calling it an object, so how can it be familiar with you, friendly with you? To treat an entity as an object is to treat it as an outcast, a foreigner. Well, it is something very derogatory to the status of that particular thing to be treated in that manner. You have no real affection for things when you treat them as objects, and when you have no affection for things, they also do not have affection for you. As you treat others, so others will treat you. As you treat me, so I treat you. This is a law of the world, the law of society, the law of nature, and the law of God.

Thus, the notion of spirituality begins with a consideration for the involvement of both the subject and the object in the predicament of experience. Therefore, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” said Christ. You are a mistaken individual indeed if you pass judgment on other people, because you will be judged in the same manner by the nemesis of action. You cannot judge anything because you are involved in the very act of judgment. That is why it is said to judge not. When you judge anything, you treat it as an object, and therefore you will also be judged as an object one day or the other. So judge not, lest you be judged.

There is no judgment of any kind in spirituality. It is a pure entertainment of an attitude which is complete in itself, satisfied in itself, and wanting nothing from outside. That is why it is said that the truly spiritual person is always satisfied. You have heard it said that saints are always satisfied, and do not ask for anything. Great sages, great masters, great spiritual adepts are said to be contented. Why are they contented? They are contented because the objects that they seek are always involved in the very consciousness of the subject. That is why they need not ask for anything. In the same way as you are involved in the object, the object is also involved in you, and so there is no need to ask for something. It is automatically there, provided you do not make the mistake of asking. If you ask, it will not be there because you have treated it as an object, and so it runs away. You have only to be aware of the fact as such, and it is there.

This is perhaps the great spiritual import behind the message of Bhagavan Sri Krishna when he says ananyāś cintayanto māṁ ye janāḥ paryupāsate, teṣāṁ nityābhiyuktānāṁ yogakṣemaṁ vahāmyaham (B.G. 9.22): “Those who undividedly contemplate Me, them I take care of in every way, in every manner whatsoever.” This is a way of saying that when you contemplate God or even the approximation of yourself to God in the level in which you are, you are affirming a reality which includes in its very existence the things that you are asking for. So in true spiritual attitudes, asking is not necessary, craving is not necessary, wanting is unnecessary. You need not beg for anything. The things are automatically there merely because of your affirmation.

The life spiritual is a highly advanced technique of conducting one's consciousness, and not because it brings something from outside. Again we have to reiterate that this mistake should not be committed. The affirmation of the spiritual attitude does not bring something from outside. That idea of “outside” must go because the very idea of outside is a mistake, and in the spiritual attitude the question of outside does not arise. That outside is always involved in the very affirmation itself, so it is again a totality that you are asserting, a wholeness even in the initial step.

The Upanishad says there is a descent of Ishvara into Hiranyagarbha, Virat and the five elements of ether, air, fire, water, earth. And then there is the rise of individualities such as plants, animals, human beings, etc. These are all lower categories of wholeness. Ishvara is a wholeness, Hiranyagarbha is a wholeness, Virat is a wholeness, ether is a wholeness, air is a wholeness, fire is a wholeness, water is a wholeness, earth is a wholeness, a plant is a wholeness, an animal is a wholeness, a human being is a wholeness. Everything is a whole by itself, but there are different limited capacities of wholeness. You feel that you are a whole being, not half a person. But there is a finitude which has infected this wholeness so that you are dissatisfied in spite of the so-called wholeness that you are affirming, because you are denying the wholeness of other people and other things in the world and affirming your finite wholeness.

In the Eighteenth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita, three types of knowledge are enunciated. The lowest type of knowledge is that which regards a finite object as if it is complete, and so you run after that object as if it is the whole thing. There are people who run after money, status in society, name, fame, power, etc., as if that is the whole thing. All reality is confined to that little thing that is in their minds. To regard any finite object, any particular limited thing in this world as if it is everything and run after that throughout one's life as if there is nothing else, that kind of attitude is the lowest type of knowledge.

A higher type of knowledge is that which accepts the existence of other finitudes also. It is not only this particular thing that is valuable; there are other equally valuable things, and they are all interrelated. For solidarity and commonweal, one rises above the utter selfishness by which one runs after finite objects in the world. This is a higher type of knowledge.

The highest type of knowledge, says the Bhagavadgita, is that where the one is seen in the many. You do not see particulars or isolated individualities; you see only one, everywhere. Even when you see the many, you are able to visualise that one in the fragments called the many. You can see gold in every ornament. Every ornament is different from every other ornament, and yet you see the same gold present in everything.

This vision of completeness or wholeness in the various degrees of its manifestation is the vision spiritual, and when this vision is present, every activity becomes spiritual. The religious disciplines inculcated in the scriptures, the gospels and the traditions of various climes and times are all vehicles to convey this immense spirit that has to enliven our outer practice. What is going to liberate us ultimately is not what we do with our hands and feet. You must remember this very well. You may be working very hard, but that is not going to liberate you. Your liberation, your freedom, does not depend upon merely the physical labour that you put forth in any work that you do, but on the inner conscious attitude that is behind it and the value judgment that is attending upon it, the feeling that you have towards it, and the way in which you encounter it, etc.

Bondage is not in the body. It is not the body that is troubling us. Samsara, or suffering, is not caused by the existence of the body; it is caused by a way of thinking and feeling. It is a psychic mishap that has taken place which is called suffering, and a psychic knot that cannot be cured or set right by mere physical manipulation of actions. It is an inner illness, a deep-rooted disease that has to be cured in the manner required from the depths in which it is rooted.

When we speak of ourselves, we do not merely speak of our bodies. It is a wholeness of attitude that we call ourselves. The “me” is nothing but an attitude. It is not the body, the fingers, the hands or the feet. A conscious attitude called “me” is the determining factor of my suffering or happiness. If I am happy or unhappy, it is due to that attitude. My conscious attitude which is also the wholeness in me—which is the real “me”, the real “I” —is what is to be taken care of in one's disciplines of spiritual practice.

Spirituality is not merely an outward social discipline. It is not that you should make it appear that you are spiritual—nothing of the kind. Nobody is going to free you by that attitude. Do not advertise your spirituality. What is the good of other people thinking that you are spiritual when you are inwardly suffering because you feel finite and useless? That is no use. Your confidence that you have understood the whole matter perfectly, the strength that you feel within yourself and the joy that you automatically feel merely because of this self-affirmation, that is a characteristic of being spiritual. You are happy not because you think that you are good. That judgment is not correct. Whatever be the judgment that may be foisted upon you, that is not going to make you happy if you do not have that intrinsic character in you. However much you may praise a fly as being as strong as an elephant, it is not going to be an elephant. It is, after all, only a fly. So the foisting of characters from outside is an inflated social ego, and it may keep you up for some time but it will burst one day or the other.

The spiritual life, therefore, is the life of consciousness. It is the life that you live in yourself, and you may know what the meaning of this “yourself” is. I have been trying to give an idea as to what this “yourself” is. It is not a particular thing that you are referring to as yourself. It is a total situation. Any situation which is responsible for a type of experience is the “you”, and we have already come to the conclusion that what is responsible for a total type of experience is not any particular thing. It is a setup of various circumstances, both inward and outward. Thus, you are a very mysterious being indeed, and not exactly as you think you are. You have not understood yourself properly, so how are you going to understand other things?

Though the life spiritual is a little difficult, it is the common heritage of everyone. Everyone is fit for it one day or the other, and everyone has to tread that path, but it is very hard to grasp its technique. Hence it is that we have always to be on guard to see that we do not go off track and have a complacent attitude that we are living the spiritual life while our inward agony, which is still there, tells us that our liberation or freedom is far, far from us.

May it not be that we die with a sorrow, with a complaint that, after all, we have wasted our lives. May that unfortunate moment not come to us. May it be our prayer that God's grace descend upon us in such a manner that it will enliven us into the true spirit of the lives that we have to live here, and if at all there is a blessing that we expect from God, may that blessing be in the form of enlightenment and not any material benefit or gain, which is not the thing that we are asking for because what our spirit asks for is itself, and nothing more. Our soul wants nothing but itself. The spirit seeks itself only, and it is wrong to think that it is asking for something else. Not me, not you, not anyone can be satisfied with anything else outside. The outside does not exist. The idea of the outside has to be abolished altogether from the dictionary of spirituality. Running after the shadow, as we call it, running after things and thinking they are outside, is a mistake.

Let us again remember the great dictum of the Upanishads: Ishvara has become all things. If so, all of the so-called objects are really only subjects, and hence, running after objects is a misnomer. Thus, the true spiritual life is not a dogmatic attitude of one individual in terms of other individuals or a stereotyped routine of activity in terms of experiencing things, but a totality of vision which is the wholeness of attitude of the spirit towards the higher dimension of itself, the movement of the spirit towards God.