by Swami Krishnananda
The theme of discussion suggested for the present moment is: Has social activity any relation to spiritual practice or sadhana? This question is similar to other questions, such as: Is the body related to the soul, or is the body not related to the soul? Is the world related to God, or is the world not related to God? Is time related to eternity, or is time not related to eternity? These are all identical questions.
We may say that the body is not the soul, as has been said everywhere by every saint, philosopher and sage. Because the body is perishable, the soul is immortal; therefore the body cannot be said to have any relevance to the soul.
The world is full of discrepancy, disparity, conflict, evil and pain, which cannot be regarded as the characteristics of God. There is a birth and death for the world also, in the sense of the evolutionary process. Evolution is the continuous activity of the structure of the universe, wherein the preceding condition dies for the birth of a succeeding condition. Transient, therefore, is this world. The Bhagavadgita describes this world – anitvam – impermanent; asukham – unpleasant; dukhalayam – an abode of sorrow; and asashvatam – not lasting even for tomorrow.
In this sense, we may say this world has no connection with God. If that is the case, life in this world has no relation to the aspiration for God. Such negative conclusions follow from visualizing the reality of life from one particular angle of vision. If the body is not the soul, and spiritual practice or sadhana is connected with the development of the soul in its advance towards God Almighty, then anything connected with the body also is not spiritual.
Is not social activity connected with physical existence? Is social activity a work undertaken by the soul? If we think in this manner, it will mean that any social work has no connection with spirituality. But everywhere, people are praising social welfare work. "Do good deeds; do charity; help poor people; be philanthropic," is the conundrum, the slogan of the world, at least at the present moment.
Why go so far? Bhagavan Sri Krishna in the Bhagavadgita is emphasizing action again and again: "Do the work; do your duty." "For the welfare and solidarity of the world, do your duty," is the great admonition of Bhagavan Sri Krishna in the Gita. Do we not see the great contradiction here in these statements? How could perishable activity, which results in perishable fruits as a result of activity undertaken by a perishable body, do any permanent good? A perishable body can engage itself only in perishable activity, and only perishable results will follow. So, all the expectations in terms of social welfare will also perish with the perishing of the body and the perishing of the psychological intentions of a person.
If the body is not the soul, and the world cannot be identified with God, and the temporal process is not in any way related to eternity, then there would be no passage to God from this world. There would be an unbridgeable gulf between our psychophysical individual existence here, and the aspiration of our soul; a gulf between time process, in which we are all engaged, and eternity, which is the nature of God; a gulf between this transitory world and the infinitude of God.
The problem arises on account of our inability to establish a proper relationship between what is visible and what is invisible. 'Process and Reality' is the title of a well-known book by the famous philosopher-scientist Alfred North Whitehead. How could process be reality, because process is a perishable transitory movement of one condition into another condition? As the great Buddha has told us long, long ago, there is nothing existent. Nothing is static. There is no being. Everything is becoming; everything is fluxation; everything dies. All things are a wisp of wind, momentary in every way. This made people think that Buddha had denied the existence of the soul itself. Virtually, this amounts to denying the existence of God also, which characteristic is attributed by many thinkers of Buddhism.
However, as the case may be, is it possible for us to reach God, to Infinity, we ourselves being finite? Is there no contradiction between the finite and the Infinite – utter contradiction? It is the difference between day and night. Has any connection been seen between night and day? We may say that night and day cannot be related to each other – one is brilliance and the other is darkness. But we forget night and day are the obverse and reverse of the same coin of the revolution of the earth around the sun, and when it is darkness in one part of the world, it is light somewhere else. There is perpetual light and daytime on the surface of the earth somewhere, and perpetual night, daybreak and dusk in other parts of the world. So, these are all viewpoints, and not ultimate realities.
If the body and the soul are two different things, and activities connected with the physical existence of a person cannot be regarded as having any relevance to spiritual aspiration, we have to think three times before understanding what the Bhagavadgita is saying. On one side, the Almighty represented in the personality of Krishna says, "Everything is done by me." And, at the same time, there is an injunction upon the human individual Arjuna, "Do your work, your duty."
Why should Arjuna, the human individual, have to do any work at all if there is One Being who does all the work? What is the compatibility between individual action and universal activity? The Bhagavadgita is a very difficult thing to understand. Even if we read a hundred commentaries, its true meaning cannot be appreciated, because everywhere we see contradiction between one verse and another verse.
Doing one's duty, engaging oneself in activity of any kind, according to the requirement of the doctrine of the Bhagavadgita, is to be set in tune with the principle that all things are done by one Being only. Though the two look different in every way, there has to be some relation between the finite and the Infinite, if it should become possible for the finite to reach the Infinite; else, the finite would be finite forever – time-bound, process-bound – and the Infinite would be unreachable. Our aspiration for God, which is what is known as spiritual practice or sadhana, can have relevance only if this world has relevance to God, and our actions have some connection with that actionless existence, which is supreme identity. The idea behind the gospel of the Bhagavadgita here in this context is that action is not a performance motivated or engendered by any particular individual. If the individual is the responsible agent of an action, then there would be a repercussion following as a consequence of this individualised action. It would be a nemesis of action. Every action produces a reaction. If we consider action to be that which is motivated by the ideational process of the human individual only, and if every action produces a reaction, it is good not to do any action at all because it is told to us that karma is binding. The binding factor in karma is the inviolability of a reaction following from the action performed. But the gospel of the Gita is insistent that we have to engage ourselves in such action that it should not produce any reaction. Is it possible to do such a work?
The possibility of it is the central meaning of the Bhagavadgita gospel. In this sense, we may say that all action is not a doing of something by the individual, but a participation of the individual in a universal process or requirement. There is a difference between participation and actual doing. If it is a doing from the initiative of our personal individuality, then we have to bear the brunt of it in the form of the reaction or the nemesis of action, karmaphala – to enjoy which, or to suffer which, we may have to take another birth.
But no one would like to do work of this kind, which is binding in its nature and which involves necessarily a very unpleasant reaction and nemesis. Inasmuch as the whole universe is moving in terms of an evolutionary process, no one involved in this process can be said to be keeping quiet. We cannot say that we are not moving while we are sitting in a moving railway train; but if we believe that we are moving, and not the train, we will be fools of the first water. We are not moving; it is the train that is moving, and our movement is a consequence of the movement of the train. In a similar manner we may say that our actions may bind us due to a foolishness involved in the very causative implication behind it, even as a foolish person may think that his being seated in the compartment of a train has some connection with the movement of the train.
The fact that no one can be inactive, but everybody has to be active doing something or the other, follows from the fact that universal evolutionary process is compulsive in its effect upon everyone organically associated with this process – myself, yourself, down to the very ant and the atom – so, automatically, every part of the evolutionary process also moves with the evolutionary process. There is activity automatically taking place in every individual part or aspect of this organism of cosmic evolution, whether one knows it or not.
That is why Bhagavan Sri Krishna says even if we decide not to work, we will do it on account of the pressure of prakriti. The cosmic process will compel us to be engaged in a kind of activity. We cannot keep quiet unless we are outside the very process of evolutionary activity, which is an impossible thing.
So, on the one hand, it is true that action may bind us; on the other hand, it is impossible for us to keep quiet without being engaged in some process of action. This is why the Bhagavadgita gospel is so hard to understand. It is blowing hot and cold from both sides, slapping us on both our cheeks. We do not know what it is saying. We have to understand the difference between individual doing, and participation in the work of the cosmos. While it is told that work must be done, it does not mean that we have to initiate the action motivated by our own personal will. That is not the intention. The idea is that we have to consciously participate in the necessary activity of the development of the whole universe towards Self-realisation in the Absolute.
So, if in this sense we are to view the whole world of activity and the process of evolution, we will find that willy-nilly we have to engage ourselves in some work. If we will not do this work, we will do another work. If we consciously do not participate in the evolutionary process, which includes what we call social activity, we may be doing some negative activity under the impression that it is good for us. Nothing can be called good in this world which is not associated with a conscious participation in the evolutionary process of the world. Every individually motivated work is a binding process.
So, social work should not be done for our pleasure, for our name, fame, authority, and announcement of our name in the newspaper, etc. Every social worker should touch his or her heart and answer why they are doing this work. Why are they doing flood relief? Why are they doing hospital work? Why do they help people in their educational career? Why do they give charity to a beggar? Why do they do it? Suppose they do not do it; what happens? They will have a glib, very unintelligent answer: "It is good to help poor people. Is it not good?" This is a child's answer, that it is good to help people. Who told us that it is good to help people? Where is it written?
They will be shocked if any such question is raised. "Oh, here is a man who is questioning the validity of good social welfare work." If social welfare activity means trying to do good to people in general in some way or the other, the rationality behind it should be known, first and foremost, because there would be some instinct inside the social worker, slinking surreptitiously, making it a personal, comfortable activity for maintaining one's position in society, to receive encomium, and to earn a greater name, more and more social connection with people, and incidentally, authority over people.
This subterfuge of suggestiveness which may be there, even behind the so-called altruistic activity of people, is something to be guarded against. No one can be so careful as to go so deep into one's own mind to find out what is the motivation behind doing social work at all. "It is good to do social work. It is good to help people." This is a slogan. We cannot go on with a slogan like that. We must have a reason behind our slogan. Why are we shouting this slogan that it is good to do social work? If everybody dies in the world, what do we lose? We will say, "It is horrible." Why is it horrible? We cannot answer these questions, because welfare activity is not a work undertaken by the world of sensory perception; it is something quite different altogether. The concept of total work is difficult to maintain ordinarily. I will give an example which is very intriguing.
Thousands of soldiers march in the battlefield to protect the nation. Tell me please what is meant by a 'nation'. Is it the ground of the earth? The earth need not be protected by anybody, by any soldier. Nobody can bring harm to the ground of the earth. The earth itself cannot be regarded as a nation. Mountains and rivers and trees – are they the nation? They do not require to be protected by soldiers. The sun and the moon and the stars and the sky constitute the nation. "My sky," we say – national sky, national space, etc. They do not require to be protected, but we have to protect our nation. What are we protecting when we say that the nation is to be protected?
There is an obvious answer to this. It is nothing but the protection of the people living in a particular locality called the geographical ground of the nation. So, when we engage ourselves in a war with someone in the interest of the welfare of our nation, it is possible that some twenty-five percent of the people may die in the war, and the nation will win victory.
Now, can we say that because twenty-five percent of the nationhood has perished in the war that the nation is only seventy-five percent alive now? Or, is it complete? Can we say twenty-five percent of the nation has perished in the war, so now the nation is only seventy-five percent? No one would say that. Seventy-five percent is not the nation; it is a hundred percent. Even if fifty percent of the people die for the national cause, the nation is remaining still complete in itself. How do we make such a statement?