True Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 24: The Desirelessness and Joy of the Atman

We were discussing the discipline of dispassion, wherein the mind is purified and enabled to return to its essential nature. The vairagya, or the spirit of renunciation that yoga speaks of, is a very subtle attitude of consciousness, and it is not merely any kind of outward conduct or behaviour. It is not an abandonment of things in the pure physical sense, though a safe distance from attractive physical objects may be conducive to this internal discipline of dispassion. But mere physical distance from objects of sense is not what is meant here, because the desire of the mind can connect it with its objects even under conditions in which they are physically remote and out of reach. Physical distance does not prevent the mind from desiring and, therefore, a mere physical isolation is not the entire meaning of renunciation. It is an inward transformation that has to take place, by which consciousness—or in its more pronounced form, the mind—does not relate it to its objects.

The object of sense can be physical or conceptual, and one can be attached to a conceptual object even though there may be no physical object. As far as attachment is concerned, it makes not much difference whether its object is physical or purely psychological, because inward reveries of the mind are as dangerous as outward possessive attitudes. But most students of yoga do not go deep into this peculiar feature of dispassion; they follow a traditional attitude of renunciation, which simply means a monastic life—life in a monastery or a convent, etc. That is not what is ultimately required of us. We may live in a monastery or a convent, but it is no use if the mind is hankering for enjoyment. The mind can be in the thick of enjoyment even there, and this craving of the mind is what binds us and makes us take rebirth. We are not renunciates merely because we are living in a monastery, because the conditions of bondage and those factors that will bring about rebirth are still present in our mind. It is not the physical object of sense that causes rebirth. It is a mental potentiality, a predisposition of the mind towards something, that causes rebirth.

The mind can inwardly harbour an abundance of pleasurable feelings, and feel happy. We can be inwardly happy by enjoying a psychological object. There is not always a need for a physical object. The senses can get excited by even the thought of the object of sense, and it is this excitement that causes pleasure, not the object. So, whenever the nerves or the senses are stimulated, there is a sensation of pleasure. It may be that the physical proximity of an external object stirs the nerves and the senses in this manner, and we hanker after a physical object of sense merely because it acts as an instrument in stirring up the nerves and the senses. The pleasure is not caused by the object; it is the stirring of the feelings, sensations and nerves that is the source of pleasure. This is very important to remember. We are happy because of a stimulation of the bodily organism, and not because of the presence or the absence of the object.

We mix up things, and in a confused attitude imagine that the joy comes from the object we are thinking of, loving, or are attached to. What actually happens is that an inward stimulation takes place, and this stimulation can be brought about merely by thought, even if the object is a thousand miles away. We can merely think of that object and the corresponding sense will be stimulated, and a similar type of joy and pleasure will be felt within us. Psychologists and psychoanalysts can tell us the details of this peculiar character of the mind. It is the mind that creates an atmosphere of satisfaction and joy by a rearrangement of its own constituents; and merely because an external circumstance helps in the arrangement of its psychological constitution, it does not mean that the joy comes only from the object. The point is that merely because we are away from physical objects of sense, it does not mean that we are in a state of renunciation. Yoga does not prescribe this sort of renunciation. What it expects of us is a healthy attitude of our consciousness towards things. It does not expect us to brood over objects of sense.

Mostly, our renunciation is compelled, it is forced upon us by outward conditions, and this is a dangerous type of life that one can live, at least from the point of view of psychological health. Any kind of undue pressure exerted upon us is contrary to the requirement of yoga, because every stage of yoga is a spontaneity and a voluntary enterprise on the part of the seeker. Wherever there is an absence of spontaneity of action, there is a drudgery felt within. We enjoy a work when we do it of our own accord, but we dislike a work when it is forced upon us by our boss. We can walk ten miles if it is our wish to walk as a sort of diversion or recreation, but we will not walk even one furlong if we are sent on a duty. We will say we cannot walk so much, and go by car or scooter. Therefore, voluntary and spontaneous aspiration is called for in yoga.

When the teacher Patanjali lays great emphasis on the requisite of vairagya, or renunciation, he intends to convey to us the message that bondage, from which yoga tries to free us, is not merely in a physical location of objects of sense, but is a connection of consciousness with these locations of objects and an appreciation by the mind of the characters of these objects. We cannot enjoy an object unless we appreciate it, and this appreciation is the recognition by the mind of certain characters or values in the object which the mind itself is lacking.

The love that we feel towards an object is an indication that those features which we see in the object of our attraction are absent in us, and we try to make good the lack by a psychological connection that we establish inwardly between ourselves and the object. It looks as if we become whole when the counterpart that we lack is provided to us; but this is a mistake that the mind is making, because what we lack is something unintelligible to us. The love of objects of sense is an experiment that the mind makes in trying to find out what it is lacking, and the short life that we have in this world is spent in mere experimentation. Can we love an object eternally, for all times, from birth to death? That is not possible. We jump from one thing to another thing. Today this is desirable, tomorrow another thing is desirable; and what was desirable yesterday does not look desirable today because, by experiment, the mind has found that the object which attracted it yesterday is inadequate today. So, it tries to experiment with another object, and it fails there also, so it goes to a third object. But with all its experiments, it finds that it cannot find or acquire what it lacks, because the mind is incapable of knowing what it really lacks.

What we lack, what the mind is in need of, is not a temporary stimulation of the senses or the nerves. What it is in need of is not any kind of physical object. It is in need of something else, which it is trying to discover in the objects of the world. But, no one has found the object of one’s ultimate quest in anything of the senses, because the shortcoming of the mind is of such a nature that it cannot be made good by anything that is finite. There is an infinite shortcoming in the mind and, therefore, finite objects cannot bring it satisfaction. When there is an awakening into this fact, it tries to discover the causes of its failure and take to right methods by which it can gain what it has really lost and what it really seeks. But the mind is wedded to the senses. It always plays second fiddle to the tune of the senses, so even in its investigations into the causes of its failure, it takes the advice of the senses only, because it has no other advisors except the senses.

Hence, in a life of renunciation, in a life of monastic discipline, etc., what the mind is trying to do is to act independently for its own self and discover the remedies for its sorrow. But in the act of this discovery of the causes of its sorrow, it once again takes the aid of the senses and, therefore, it comes a cropper. The senses begin to tell the very same thing that they conveyed to it earlier, and we once again begin to interpret the causes of our suffering in this world in terms of the objects of the world; and then there is a possibility of our entering into a muddle, which is a state of mental confusion.

This is what is described in the First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita, in which condition on one side we feel that we are in need of light, advice and guidance from a higher power, a greater source of wisdom, but on the other side we cling to our own views and stick to our guns, as Arjuna did. He was seeking advice from Bhagavan Sri Krishna, but he was also arguing on behalf of his own feelings and opinions, as if they were right. In this confused state, the mind can get into an entangled situation where outwardly it may appear to be engaging itself in a pious adventure of the practice of yoga, devotion to God, and so on, but unfortunately it can become totally sidetracked due to following the guidance of the senses. It can imagine that it is moving in the right direction, though it is moving in the opposite direction.

All this is a precaution that masters of yoga, adepts, give us so that we may not get caught up by the very same forces from which we try to gain freedom, because freedom is an inward adjustment of consciousness towards the natural order of things, as we were discussing in the previous session. Our harmony with the universe is real freedom, and the absence of it is bondage; and to cling to objects—whether outwardly in their physical form or inwardly by way of mere conceptual thinking—would be, once again, bondage. Inward reveries are more dangerous than outward clinging, because the inner desires of the mind, by which it subtly enjoys the pleasures of sense, can be more vehement than outward clinging. The Bhagavadgita tells us that even if we are physically away from objects of sense, the taste for objects will not leave us. Rasavarjam means that even if we are free from everything, we are not free from the taste for things; and it is this taste for things that catches us. ‘Taste’ means the feeling of pleasure in an object of sense and the belief that the object of sense can bring us pleasure. This taste is present in the mind in a very subtle form—like a highly potentised homeopathic dose, invisible indeed, but very powerful—and it can grossen itself into actual action when outward conditions become favourable. Once again, we repeat that any kind of diverting the mind from objects of sense is not the remedy for its cravings, because it cannot forget that there are objects of pleasure.

The yoga process is a process of education, which means to say, a gradual enlightenment, an awakening into the daylight of knowledge, and not merely groping in the night of darkness. Though it may be that we are moving from one place to another place in that dark night, shifting the position of the body in darkness is not a solution. The solution is the rising of the sun.

This is why Patanjali says: dṛṣṭa anuśravika viṣaya vitṛṣṇasya vaśīkārasaṁjña vairāgyaṁ (Y.S. 1.15). Vairagya, or the spirit of renunciation, is a mastery that we gain over the objects of sense, and is not merely a forgetful attitude of the mind in respect of the objects of sense. What are the objects of sense? Drishta and anusravika are the words used. That which is seen, and that which is heard about—both these are objects. We can cling to objects which are seen with our eyes, and also cling to things which are only heard about by our mind. When we see a thing directly, physically, of course the mind will begin to read a tremendous attractive significance in the object, and jump upon it. Not merely that, even by hearing of the glories of an object of sense, the mind can become restless and ask for its possession—like the joys of heaven, for instance, as the celestials in Indraloka are said to be enjoying pleasures far superior to the pleasures of the earthly senses.

Our senses can be worn out by repeated enjoyment. We may get exhausted, we may fall sick, we may enter into old age, we may die; but the scriptures tell us that the pleasures of the celestials—the devatas, the gods in the heavens, in paradise—are qualitatively more intense. Their senses do not get exhausted, they do not become worn out, they do not become old and they will not die, and so our mind can crave for such things also. “Oh! Such things are there. Why should I not go there?” This is a desire that arises in the mind by merely hearing about things which we have not seen with our eyes; and when we actually see them, of course we are completely put out of order. All the ratiocinations of the intellect cease, and the best brains stop functioning when an object of sense is presented directly. No brain will work at that time; the brain stops.

What is vairagya then, which yoga speaks of ? It is a vitrishnata, a feeling of inward desirelessness towards everything that is seen or capable of being seen, and everything that is heard of through the scriptures or from other sources. In one of the writings of Acharya Sankara, his definition of vairagya is terrifying. He says that even the pleasures of Brahmaloka are to be despised by a desireless mind, as they are mere dirt which have no essence in them. But who can imagine what the pleasures of Brahmaloka are? They are not like the pleasures of the celestials. They are far superior to even Indra’s pleasures, because that is the description of the subtlest condition of sattvic enjoyment. Even this is an enjoyment only, though this enjoyment is effected not through the physical senses, not even by an ordinary psychological process, but by a subtle instrument called the anandamaya kosa. They say that in Brahmaloka the physical body is not there, and not even the ordinary subtle body is there; there is a subtler-still body which is comparable only with what we call the causal body in us. Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatkumara>, Sanatsujata, Narada and such others are said to be living there. These are all unthinkable. These pleasures also are not to be coveted in comparison with a still greater joy, which is identical with the Self.

The joy of the Atman, the Supreme Self, reflects itself in all these manifestations right from the delight of Brahma, the Creator, down to the grossest physical object of sense, in various degrees. What is giving us joy, pleasure, is the Atman present in things. We are happy wherever the Atman is manifest. Where the Atman is not manifest, we cannot feel joy. Even in the grossest object of sense, the Atman is manifest. That is why it attracts us. It is a great wonder how the Atman can manifest itself in an object of sense. Is it possible? Yes, it is possible, and it is because of this mystery that is revealed through the objects that the senses run after them. The Atman is not an object, of course, and yet it is capable of getting revealed in some degree through the objects.

The Atman is a symmetry of perfection, a well-arranged pattern which reflects completeness; and wherever this arrangement of completeness, pattern or symmetry is visible, the mind begins to feel that its object is present. Anything that is symmetrical attracts us, and anything that is confused or chaotic does not attract us. Symmetry is also a very difficult thing to understand. It is not merely geometrical symmetry that we are speaking of here, though that also has an element of this superior form of symmetry.

Completeness, or an absence of any kind of want, is the character of the Atman. There are many features in the Atman, not merely symmetry. It is difficult to explain the qualities that are discoverable in the Atman. There is exuberance and buoyancy, force and symmetry, perfection, and freshness. The object of sense looks fresher and fresher every day. The more we see it, the more we like to see it. It does not look old. We do not feel that we have seen it a hundred times. Every day we would like to see it as many times as possible, because freshness is one of the characters of the Atman. We cannot know what this freshness is. It is not the freshness of a ripe fruit, like an apple; it is something that pulls our whole being.

For example, every day, the sun rises in a beautiful manner. We are happy to see the rise of the sun, and we never feel that it is a dull sun that has been rising for centuries. Every day it is fresh, invigorating, and exciting. The capacity to excite us into a tremendous activity through every part of our body, senses and mind is the capacity of the Atman; and wherever such inordinate capacity to stir the total personality is seen, upon that the mind focuses, and goes toward it.

But, the mind forgets that what attracts it is not this vehicle called the physical object, but something that is revealed through it due to a peculiar placement of that object in a certain atmosphere, in comparison with a peculiar and particular condition of our own mind in a certain stage of evolution. Attraction is impossible unless both the object and our own mind cooperate. The object has to be placed in a proper context, it must reveal certain characters, and those characters and that context should be the very same thing that our mind is lacking at that particular time. Then we are attracted by it. That is why we cannot be attracted by the same thing always, because the mind changes when we advance in age or in experience.

Knowing all these things, the viveki, or the man of discrimination, gets disillusioned: “This is the state of affairs. I am very sorry. I was totally mistaken.” Pariṇāma tāpa saṁskāra duḥkaiḥ guṇavṛtti virodhāt ca duḥkham eva sarvaṁ vivekinaḥ (Y.S. 2.15). For certain reasons which are to be explained, the whole world is full of pain only. It is not a place of beautiful enjoyment or an occasion for exciting pleasures. There is something very terrible about things, and this sutra that I quoted just now tells us what it is.