by Swami Krishnananda
There are many difficulties that we may have to face in life. When we are intensely agitated by forces that we cannot confront, we must have some home to which we can retire. If that is absent, we would be simply tossed into the winds by the forces of the world; we would be nowhere. It is very essential that every spiritual seeker should develop a background of thought which is permanent – strongly built, not built on quicksand – and this can be nothing less than our concept of God. Our concept of God is a very important aspect to consider in our discussion on the nature of spiritual practice.
Every one of you has some notion of God and perhaps worship God in some form or the other, yet there are some people who deny the existence of God because God is not visible to their eyes. He is not a sensory object. We cannot think Him through the mind, we cannot understand Him, we cannot feel His presence. There is nothing that we can do with this so-called God. We want something which we can see with our eyes, smell with our nose, taste with our tongue, hear with our ears, touch with our hands, etc. But God is something which cannot be dealt with in this manner.
“Does God exist at all?” is a very valid doubt in many minds, but the question is wrongly put. Our question should be not whether God exists, but whether anything exists at all. If anything exists, then what is it? It is not very important to discuss whether God exists, because in our talks on the existence of God, generally ‘God’ means something which exists in this world. That is why we can dispense with Him if we like. We can take Him or not take Him. To us, God is a kind of commodity. It is on account of this concept of God, wrong as it is, that there have been people who have denied the existence of God. But God is not any such thing as they think. We cannot afford to either want Him or not want Him. There is no question of discussion about Him because it eludes all approaches to the human mind.
In the Eighteenth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita there are three verses which give us some hint of the various ways in which people have tried to approach the concept of God. Very few people might have thought over the implications of these verses, but they are very significant if they are properly told.
Yat tu kṛtsnavad ekasmin kārye saktam ahetukam, atattvārthavad alpaṁ ca tat tāmasam udāhṛtam (Gita 18.22). The lowest concept of Reality is mentioned here. To take an effect for the cause, to take the part for the whole, would be the tamasic concept of Reality. Ahetukam: Untenable is this concept. Atattvārthavad alpaṁ ca: It is finite and devoid of substantiality. That would be the tamasic, or the lowest form, of the concept of Truth. But all people, perhaps 99.9%, conceive Reality in this way. For us, Reality is the world and its contents, scattered in space and time. It is because of this tamasic concept of Reality that our senses run towards the objects.
The senses run to realities. They do not run to phantoms. Nobody likes a phantasmagoria to be presented. When the senses want objects from the world, they go for them by convincing themselves that they are realities, truths. So the sense world presents the tamasic form of Truth. The god of the senses is perhaps described in this verse of the Bhagavadgita. The senses also have their gods, and all these scattered particulars of the world are the gods of the senses, and also the gods of all those people who live according to the dictates of the senses, who think in terms of the senses, who live a sensory life. For them these are the gods, the objects of sense.
If we interpret this verse metaphysically, the lowest concept of Reality is to regard isolated particulars as final entities in creation. We have examples of Vaisheshika metaphysics and the Nyaya. In certain theological schools, where bheda or distinction is regarded as final, it is regarded as one of the real categories. The Vaisheshikas tell us that there are nine padarthas, nine dravyas or substances, and so on. They think that the segregated particulars constitute independent realities themselves – the Atman being one of the entities of creation. It is one of many things, not the only reality. So to think in this way, to imagine that Reality is manifold, multitudinous, variegated, scattered, unrelated in its parts, and with this notion run towards them for possessing them, enjoying them, etc., would be one type of philosophy. But there is a higher concept of Truth, which another verse of the same chapter tells us.
Pṛthaktvena tu yaj jñānaṁ nānābhāvān pṛthagvidhān, vetti sarveṣu bhūteṣu taj jñānaṁ viddhi rājasam (Gita 18.21). There is a higher concept of Truth where we feel an inter-relatedness of things; things are not so isolated as the senses tell us. While the senses give us a report that everything is cut off from each other, there is only nanatva or variety. Reason rises higher than sense and tells us that there is mutual relationship of things, and it is not true that each is cut off from the other. There is a kind of mutual dependence of the entities that constitute creation. There is a correlativity and mutual dependence of things in the cosmos, and we cannot say which is the cause and which is the effect here.
When I pinch you and you pinch me, who pushes whom? There is a game where each one pinches the one nearby, and so there is a circular pinching. Well, in this game there is someone who starts pinching, but in this world of causality, we do not know where the beginning is. Which is the first pinch? In a world of related mutually coordinated elements, we cannot say where it begins. To give an example, we have our own physical body. It is so very organically related in its parts that we cannot say where the body begins. Where does body begin? At the foot? At the fingers? At the nose? Well, it can begin at any part; it is all equally good. So is this mysterious inter-related cosmos.
Thus, from the notion of the particularity of Truth, we come to the inter-relatedness of it, a higher concept. But still higher is what is proclaimed in another verse of the same chapter in the Bhagavadgita: sarvabhūteṣu yenaikaṁ bhāvam avyayam īkṣate, avibhaktaṁ vibhakteṣu taj jñānaṁ viddhi sāttvikam (Gita 18.20). To visualise a single element in all these particulars as well as in this interrelated system would be to tumble on Reality. It is the report of the senses that everything is isolated, everything is disconnected: You have nothing to do with me, and I have nothing to do with you. That is one sort of philosophy of the senses, the lowest of philosophies. The higher philosophy is that there is some kind of cooperative principle moving amidst us. There is an interrelatedness of things. But this interrelatedness of things implies that there is a Universal Absolute element behind all relations.
What is relation? It is the consciousness of one thing being connected with another. This consciousness should be above this connection. It goes without saying if ‘A’ is here and ‘B’ is here, and I am conscious of ‘A’ and ‘B’ simultaneously, my consciousness of ‘A’ and ‘B’ should transcend the difference between ‘A’ and ‘B’; this is simple logic. So if there is to be an interrelatedness of things in mutual relation of everything in the world, the universe should be animated by a single Reality.
Ekatvena pṛthaktvena bahudhā viśvatomukham (Gita 9.15) says the Gita in another place: “I am adored as one, separate and manifold.” The approach is manifold in the beginning, distinct later on, and as one ultimately. A similar type of statement is also made in the Srimad Bhagavata where we are told that God is conceived in many ways: He is Brahman, Paramatman and Bhagavan. All these are various ways of putting the same truth in different styles: that we live in the beginning in a world of isolation, separateness, and a consciousness of distinction of things. Then we slowly rise to the higher consciousness of the immanence of Reality in this variety, and in the highest reaches of our consciousness we realise its Absoluteness, a word which is difficult to define. So in the practice of spiritual sadhana, we rise from one concept of God to another.
Psychologically this is an effort, and spiritually it is an achievement. Inwardly taking sadhana as a personal exertion, an effort, a will directed in a particular way, it is a function of the psychological organs; but this function is connected to a positive Being, which seems to speak to us both inwardly and outwardly. God is within us as well as without us, and when we move in the path of spiritual sadhana, we live and move and have our being in God. So the more we advance in sadhana, the more also are our thoughts clarified in regard to our notion of God. We do not any more search for God as an object in creation, and we have nothing to say about Him, for or against.
But God becomes an indispensible something, without which existence itself has no sense. It is only a word, an appellation that we have used to describe That Which Is, as St. Augustine calls Him. We cannot say that nothing is. Something is. Even the atheist cannot say that something is not. And so, if something is, that something is God. The question is, what is? The materialist and the atheist may accept that something is, but what is it?
As I stated earlier, the scriptures seem to be a guide for us in our ascent from the lower concept of what is, to the higher and higher concepts of it. In the beginning we think that only sense objects are. For a child, what is? Whatever is in front of the child, that is, and that is all. This is the baby’s philosophy of concrete objectiveness, where it takes the physical substantiality for reality and considers it, at the same time, to be absolutely disconnected from other things.
As long as we are wedded to the senses, we are all materialists. We may be spiritualists in our arguments and thinking, but in practical life we depend on matter for our existence. Hence, we are all materialists. Our body is material, the objects of sense are material, the food that we eat is material, the air that we breathe is material, the water that we drink is material, the earth that we walk upon is material. We cannot get out of the clutches of matter, so in practice it seems to be all materialism. This is a sense world. It only proves that we are still in the sense world, and we cannot get out of this interpretation of Reality in terms of matter.
Deep manana, thought bestowed on this situation, enables our consciousness to see a different meaning in this very thing called matter. It is not that matter is not there; it is there, but what is it that we call matter? There is no point in abhorring matter as being not there, and so on. What we are expected to do is to understand what really is there in what we regard as matter today.
Sometimes the mother may put on a mask of a tiger or a ghost and try to terrify the child in play. She makes a kind of sound. Sometimes she covers her face with a cloth and then slowly creeps near the child to terrify it, and then the child cries out and runs away. When the mask is lifted, it is the mother. That from which the child cried and ran, now to that very thing the child runs in affection.
In spiritual sadhana also, the same thing will take place. That from which we have to withdraw in self-restraint and prathyahara will be the very same thing to which we have to run when we realise what it is. Therefore, it is essential that we sift our thoughts properly, both objectively in our notion of God and subjectively in our concept of sadhana and self-control.
We are walking on slippery ground, both ways. We are likely to fall down both in our attempt at grasping the meaning of what God is, and in our practice of self-restraint and yoga, because they are interrelated. Krishna and Arjuna go together. The concept of God and spiritual practice in its personal sense are inseparable. They are like the two birds perched on the same tree, as the Upanishad tells us, the two heroes seated in a single chariot, Ishwara and jiva working in unison.
This is why the Kathopanishad says that in this practice, we must be extremely diligent. Apramattastadā bhavati yogo hi prabhavāpyayau (Katha 2.3.11): We cannot just walk carefree in this world, thinking that everything is all right. What is death? Death is heedlessness as to our welfare. If we cannot know what our true welfare is, we will be heading towards doom. There is no other destruction or doom in this world.
Tām yogam iti manyante sthirām indriya-dhāraṇām, apramattas tadā bhavati, yogo hi prabhavāpyayau (Katha 2.3.11), says the Kathopanishad: Yoga, to put it concisely and precisely in one sentence, is the adamantine restraint of the senses in tune with the Self within, and an extreme watchfulness of this condition, because yogo hi prabhavāpyayau: Yoga will come and go. It will not always be there at our beck and call.
So difficult is the practice of yoga; so difficult it is even to entertain a correct notion of God; and so difficult again is the understanding of the processes of our own minds in relation to the objects outside, and ultimately in relation to the Supreme Reality.