Living a Spiritual Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: The Impossibility of Attaining the Object

The spiritual vision of things is markedly different from the ordinary perception of things. During our earlier sessions we discussed certain questions such as: “What do we mean by seeing anything at all? What is involved in the perceptional process?” Having gone deep into this subject, we encountered another question: “Who is it that is seeing?” About this issue also, there was considerable deliberation.

The third question that arose was, “What is it that is seen? What are we seeing in front of us? What is the object of perception made of? Of what is it constituted?” There are further questions of a similar kind which we always take for granted, and never try to properly probe into and understand in depth.

The concept of relations is highly intriguing. In what way are we related to anything in the world? How are things related to one another? What is actually the meaning of the word ‘relation’? We touched upon this subject earlier to some extent when analysing the process of perception itself, because it was noticed that the perception of an object is, at the same time, the establishment of a kind of relationship with the object. So this issue came up earlier, and we understood it in some way.

We have no time to go into these questions in our daily life and imagine that everything is clear to us. We say, “This house belongs to me,” which is the relationship spoken of between the house and its owner. This is a way of speaking commonly appreciated everywhere in society, but never understood properly. How does the house belong to any person? It has never entered the personality of the owner. Perhaps the house was there even before this owner was born. “This land belongs to me,” people say. The land was there ever since the Earth was there. How does it belong to us?

Since we feel some acquaintance with things that we consider as ours, it is necessary to know how this acquaintance gets established. It is because of a mess that we make in the understanding of this issue that we get into trouble every moment of time. There is conflict. Even after carefully knowing that a thing is intimately related to us, there can be a problem with that particular thing. How can an intimately related thing create difficulties?

The nearest and the dearest of things can create problems, which is unthinkable if it is really so near and dear that it is inseparable from oneself. The idea of something being immensely dear and near is the idea of inseparability of oneself with that particular thing. If something is inseparable from us, there is no question of fear regarding that particular thing. It cannot leave us, desert us, and there cannot be any bereavement in respect of that thing. But, the nearest one goes; the dearest one passes away, and everything is lost one day or the other. This is a very difficult thing for a person to swallow. All that we considered as ours does not seem to be really ours; and yet, without the notion of something being ours, life cannot go on.

There is a contradiction in having a dual notion of something being unavoidably related to ourselves, so that life may go on smoothly, and at the same time having a notion that one day we shall lose all those things. This predicament has to be explained and understood properly. On the one hand, we cannot live without some sort of relation with things; on the other hand, things are treacherous in their nature, inasmuch as they can desert us at any moment. Sarvaṁ tam parādād (Brihad. 2.4.6): “Everything shall leave you one day,” says the great master Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

Why should a thing that is loved so much leave us? How our perceptional faculty is related to the object of perception is briefly explained in the Bhagavadgita when Bhagavan Sri Krishna makes a statement in this context: guṇā guṇeṣu vartanta, iti matvā na sajjate (Gita3.28). Both these contradictory sides are elucidated in this half sentence, guṇā guṇeṣu vartanta: “Properties commingle properties,” explains one side of the matter. Iti matvā na sajjate: “Knowing this, one does not get attached to anything,” answers the other side of things.

One side is that some relationship is unavoidably there with things; the other side is that every unavoidably related thing also shall leave us one day or the other. These two issues are highlighted in this verse: guṇā guṇeṣu vartanta, iti matvā na sajjate. “Having known that in the perceptional process properties of prakriti collide with properties of prakriti, one is not attached to anything in the world.” Now, how are we to understand this mysterious statement in the Bhagavadgita? What actually is the meaning of saying that qualities, or properties, come in contact with properties?

The whole universe is materially conceived as an all-pervading substance known in Sanskrit as prakriti, the mother of all objective phenomena, the matrix of things. It is a presentation of three conditions. Because it is a phenomenon created by three conditions, we cannot regard it as a substance, as a solid something. A condition cannot be an object because it is a moving, procedural activity. Thus, the whole universe of material perception seems to not be a solid object because it is constituted of three conditions, known as sattva, rajas, and tamas in Sanskrit. Material conditions are actually a blend of these threefold constituent conditions: sattva, or equipoise; rajas, or disturbance of the equipoise; and tamas, or inert, unstable, and unconscious existence.

In the state of deep sleep we are, to some extent, in the state of tamas; darkness supervenes in the state of tamas or inertia, which is pure equilibrium of the negative type, not the equilibrium of the positive aspect known as sattva. In that state of deep sleep we seem to be merged in a uniformly spread-out equipoise of unconsciousness, and nothing is seen there, though everything is actually present there.

When the clouds are equally distributed in the sky, sometimes we cannot actually perceive that the cloud is there at all. When it is thickly clouded and there is an equal distribution of the substance of cloud element, sometimes we cannot see any motion of the clouds. It is just all-pervading potential for rain.

In a similar manner is an individual experience of this tamas. Corresponding to this individual condition of inert ubiquitousness, there is a cosmic, material, tamasic condition also, which is supposed to be the original state prior to the manifestation of the variety of cosmic creation. Asit idam tamo bhutam: “Originally, everything was darkness,” says the Manu Smriti at the very commencement of its code of ethics and creation. Aprajatam alaksanam apradartyam avijyan prabhutam sarvogata: “Everything was asleep, as it were, in the cosmic condition of dark equipoise.” Without going into the details of the process of creation, something seems to disturb this condition. When winds blow, clouds start scudding from one direction to another, and it is possible for us to see the thickening of the cloud somewhere, and the thinning of it elsewhere—without which, we cannot see the cloud at all. This is a disturbance that is caused by the blowing of strong winds.

In a similar manner, a wind that is cosmic in nature seems to be blowing over this dark condition of the original material substance, and we can see certain things happening. Movement takes place. This is rajas.

Ordinarily, we cannot understand what sattva means because it does not usually manifest itself in our life. We are either rajasic or tamasic, mostly—very active or inactive. There is no third condition known to us. Very rarely does this third condition also reveal itself in our daily life—when we are superbly happy and rejoice at the prospect of something wonderful, whatever the reason behind it be.

These three conditions are called properties, gunas. Like the strands of a rope, they are the constituent substances—or more properly, properties, conditions—of universal matter. Inasmuch as this so-called material substance is everywhere, it is in our personality also. We are made up of the same thing. It is not that the world is outside us; it is inside us also. The ‘world within’ comes in contact with the ‘world without’ in perception.

What is this ‘world without’? We have studied what this object is made of last time. We need not revert into that issue again. And, “What is this inner world made of?” was also briefly discussed last time. The physical body is made up of the same three gunas, including the sense organs which abide in this physical system, as the properties which constitute the world which appears to be outside us.

There is a peculiar shaking up, or tremor, or a movement taking place in the perceptional process. The very same three gunas, sattva, rajas and tamas, in our body, mind, intellect and sense organs get agitated and feel disturbed on cognising a similar component outside the sense organs in the form of material objects. As a tiger may pounce on a deer, a snake may jump on a frog, a thief may jump on a nugget of gold, the sense organs pounce on objects. Why do they do this? For what purpose? They see themselves there, or they see their counterpart there, as the case may be. They see themselves there because they themselves are constituted of the same substances as that out of which the world of objects is made. In this sense, they feel an affinity: the brother sees the brother, and wishes to embrace the brother. There is a love for things because they are made of the same substance as our own selves that wish to love things. As milk mixes with milk, water with water, subjective conditions collide and come in contact with objective conditions when they are placed in an equal context, on a similar degree of reality, and under specific given conditions.

It is not that we see things always. For instance, we cannot see heaven; we cannot see hell. We see only the so-called physical things, because our physical body is not made up of that rarefied substance out of which heavenly conditions are made; nor is it so gross as that situation which we call hell. The human situation is midway between heaven and hell, and so we are partaking of two situations in our process of perception. We are grieved, and at the same time we are also happy that we are in the midst of things.

It is a great joy to be in the midst of many things, and it is also a great fear, for two different reasons altogether. We feel miserable in the midst of many things, and we also feel happy. The reason is the heavenly side and the opposite side of it both act in this middle term of existence called human nature. The upper pull is the heavenly pull, the downward pull is the hellish or the dark pressure.

So even when we cognise a physical object, it is not that we are seeing everything that is created. The object has to be placed in a particular position, at a distance which is commendable, with necessary light, and in a circumstance that is favourable. All these conditions make human perception of things possible. Therefore, our perceptions are finite. We cannot have infinite perception. A finite condition alone can be perceived by the finite cognising media which are our sense organs and mind. The relationship between the perceiving subject and the object arises on account of two finitudes being placed in a particular context, juxtaposed in a particular manner, and feeling the need to widen their dimension and assume a sort of infinitude in their being by contact with another finite object.

Since the finite objects are too many in the world, we cannot be concerned only with one object throughout our life. The mind moves from one thing to another thing on account of its knowledge that finitude is immense and large enough to cover entire space. Thus, finite perception can never be satisfied by the mere act of perception. No human individual, nothing finite, can be really satisfied by coming in contact with another finite object, because the very finitude of it makes it unfit to produce an infinite satisfaction in oneself.

What we require is unlimited satisfaction. That cannot be provided by anything that is limited in space and time. Thus, we have a limited scratching of our nerves, as it were, in perceptional processes, which gives us a sensation of satisfaction caused by the tickling of nerves and the activity of the sense organs; but that activity ceases because we cannot go on creating titillating conditions permanently. When that situation ceases, the joy also ceases at the same time, and we get fed up with that object under the impression that it has not done what it promised to do. Then we experiment with another object, which also ends in the same failure for a similar reason. Thus, life from birth to death becomes a continuous activity of finite individuality trying to experiment with finite objects endlessly in time, until death takes place.

The world can provide no satisfaction by this process. The necessity to come in contact with any object arises on account of our finitude of existence, and our appreciation only for finite objects. Nothing all-pervading can attract us. Even the universal treasure trove cannot make us happy because it is too much for us. Even wealth is to be given to us in a limited form; unlimited wealth cannot be contained. It will lose its meaning because no one knows where to keep it. The limited mind cannot conceive an unlimited quantum of any kind of property or wealth. If all the skies and the heavens are ours, we do not know what to think about them. So, even our expectation of joy or happiness in this world is an asking for a limited little titbit of give-and-take process.

We do not want too much of anything; even too much joy can kill us. That is because too much joy, though it is wonderful in itself, cannot be contained by an insufficiently located personal existence, a finite individuality. We can very well imagine our state, the condition in which we are living in this world.

The vision of a spiritual seeker is different from the vision of a materialist, or a sensualist, or the common man on the street who sees things in a prosaic way. We are here seated in this hall as spiritual aspirants, not as purchasers in a market or business people with a give-and-take policy. Inasmuch as this is our inward longing, we have to learn the art of seeing things as they really are in relation to ourselves as we really are.

We find all this too much for us because, as I stated, anything that looks too much cannot be contained by the little mind. Even God is too much for us. It cannot be conceived; and any amount of prayer to God does not seem to satisfy us because it is too much for us. The notion of it is impossible.

In order that our longing for utter spiritual perfection be fulfilled, we have to make ourselves ready to receive that gift of perfection. If all things are given to us, we must also know how to keep them safe in a particular corner of our life. We find that this is not possible because we persist in maintaining our finitude: I am this person, and nothing more, nothing less.

Even in advanced spiritual aspiration and heightened forms of meditations, the personality consciousness does not leave us. It is an inveterate clinging habit of the mind to this particular body only, which it has inherited, right from its inception. The attachment to this body is so strong because it is manufactured by our mind. It is not made by somebody else. We ourselves have created this body for a specific purpose. What is that purpose?

It is common knowledge that this is not our only life. We have lived many other types of life also in our earlier incarnations. The desire to live is so strong that it overwhelms us every moment of time, and will not allow us to speak on any other issue except this particular intensity of longing to exist in this body only.

When everything goes, we must be physically alive. Life is saved: I have come back safe; I am alive. This satisfaction is greater than the satisfaction of owning the whole world as one’s property. One may lose the whole world, but one cannot lose one’s body. That is the dearest and nearest thing. Though we imagine that family, gold and silver, husband, wife and children are the dearest and nearest ones, it is not true. When the time for it comes, we will know who is dearest. It is our self only.

This body is clung to by the mind because through the various incarnations one has experienced, one has also developed certain longings connected with the finitude of this body. Desires arise only when there is finitude of consciousness; otherwise, there cannot be any desire. So, every incarnation, every life, is a finitude of living. A desire for overcoming that finitude arises artificially in terms of sensory activity; that procedure adopted by the sense organs is called desire.

Since the asking for conditions favouring breaking up the limitations of finitude is insurmountably large, the desires cannot be fulfilled in one life. One can go on amassing all the conditions needed, the appurtenances necessary for enhancing the situation of oneself to become larger in size. The finite gets still larger, but yet it is finite only. Even if you are as stout as the sky, you are still a finite being only, because there is a limitation even to that.

Because of this finitude of longing which is characteristic of every human individual, desires pour themselves on the corresponding finitude of objects endlessly, like rain water. But, since all desires cannot be fulfilled in one life, the particular body which was created for the purpose of the fulfilment of a set of desires cannot become adequate for that purpose; it is shed and death takes place. Since desires have not been fulfilled entirely, the unfulfilled ones concretise themselves, become hardened, as it were, in space and time, in the form of a new body, which is called the birth of a new individual.

This is the reason for this drama of coming and going being played by everyone in this world. Unless desires cease, there cannot be true satisfaction of a non-finite nature. We shall have only finite happiness, which is not what we actually want.

In order to entertain in our mind even the notion of perfection or the existence of God, we have to raise the status of our mind to a particular level commensurate with the largeness of the object that we are longing for. This preparatory process is called ethical perfection, moral restraint, tapasya, and the like, which we hear of in our scriptures and from our Gurus and masters. Intense tapas is necessary in order to make this finite individuality capable of even entertaining the idea of the Infinite.

One great philosopher said, “Whether God is or God is not, is not important. What is wonderful is that this little mind of a puny individual with a small brain can conceive such an infinitude as God. That is a greater wonder than even the wonder of God’s real existence.” How are we able to contain this thought of endlessness while we are ourselves limitedly situated in this little body, in one place only?

That is to say, we are basically, in the root of our roots, not made up of only finite stuff. The iceberg of our personality has a large base, and only its tip is seen on the surface as this particular body. In this ocean of life, we are like a mass of incalculably wide iceberg, with layers and layers, one over the other, tapering off into a little top, a peak, which is this limited body of ours, connected with the conscious mind, as we call it. But there are layers of this iceberg inside which are the potentials of our personality; they are made manifest partially, occasionally, in our day-to-day conscious operations.

Psychologists tell us that among the various levels of this iceberg of human individuality, at least three can be distinguished as the conscious, the subconscious, and the unconscious. We can divide this iceberg into many other possible layers also. The conscious level is the retail commodity that the owner of the shop keeps outside for the perception of customers. The entire shop is not visible; it is behind. He brings a little bit from his godown, which stores the entire resource of the shop; a few bags he will bring out, so that out of these few bags he may sell one or two. These one or two that are being sold are the conscious; the few bags which are behind are the subconscious; and the invisible storehouse is the unconscious. Similiarly, some portion is let out for meeting the demands of conscious existence, which is the littlest part of our personality coming in contact with the littlest part of the world. It is just like scratching the top of the iceberg.

Our potentials are very deep, and as wide as space and time itself. By a psycho-analytical process we have to bring our buried impulses to the subconscious and conscious levels and make ourselves known perfectly to our own selves also. A spiritual seeker should know what he is made of. There should not be any kind of imaginary feeling about oneself because if one has a complete knowledge of oneself, there may not be moods in our life.

Today we put on a long face, tomorrow we smile, and the third day we don’t want to talk to anybody at all; the fourth day we say we won’t eat, the fifth day we sleep, and the sixth day we run about. This shows we do not know ourselves fully. When the impulse presents itself, it takes possession of us; we become the slave of that particular impulse and behave in that manner, under the compulsion of the pressure of that impulse. It is better to know what is there inside us.

We need not find it difficult to be honest to our own selves. “To thine own Self be true” is a wonderful spiritual statement. You have to be honest to yourself; at least you must know who you are. Let anybody say what you are, but are you fully conversant with yourself? Though we may want to know ourselves fully, we will find it difficult because of conscious attachment to this body. Hunger and thirst, heat and cold, illnesses of various types, and physical relationships with family, etc., compel us to limit ourselves to this bodily perception only, and we have no time even to think. We wake up from our sleep into a world of immense activity and go to bed after immense activity, so that there is no time to think as to what is happening to us, and why we have been active at all throughout our life.

Why are you so active the whole day, sir? A labourer will say, “I have to earn something every day to maintain my family.” Why do you want to maintain your family? “They belong to me; they are mine. If I don’t work, I will die; the family will also die.” What happens? “I will not exist at all.” Your desire is to exist; your desire is not to earn bread, salary, or take care of your family and children. The desire is finally to exist: “I must exist, and that which I consider as mine should also exist.” This is the mortal desire of a perishable individual.

To make ourselves ready for the cognition of this great ideal of salvation, immortal being, before us, we have to make ourselves fit for it. Only a dignitary can shake hands with a dignitary; a president meets a president, a prime minister meets a prime minister, etc. The lower and the higher do not come in contact with each other. The highest is God-consciousness, Immortal Being, Universality. This is what we call salvation. But are we fit for it? Our present state of being has not risen to the level of that dimension which we are aspiring to be.

The necessary preparation for this great achievement is crisply and briefly stated to be a form of tapas, or intense heating up of the person by the restraint of the sense organs. A person given to sensory activity, sensuousness, or desires connected with these activities of the body cannot understand what tapas means. We feel that we gain by sensory contact, and lose by separation from objects of sense. This is our false notion about things and our life. On the other hand, the case is the reverse. We gain by restraint of the senses. We lose by giving them a long rope.

What do we gain by the control of the senses? Energy quantum which is depleted by the contact of the senses with objects returns to itself and we get energised. It is like the river water rising to a high level of power when a bandh is put over it. Sense control is a bandh put on sensory activity, and the energy quantum rises to an optimum level. That is why we feel strong by the act of even three days’ restraint of the sense organs. It generates heat of the character that is seen in any kind of energy.

In the creational hymns of the Vedas and the Upanishads it is said that the Supreme Being did tapas. He contemplated intensely and concentrated the Cosmic Mind for the purpose of the oncoming creation, say the scriptures.

Any successful endeavour can reach its fulfilment only by concentration, and not by distribution of the activity of the sense organs. The mind becomes weak by getting channelised through five different modes of cognition, called sensation. If there are five holes in a pot filled to the brim with water, water will run out through five different holes, with pressure divided fivefold through these apertures; but if there is only one hole, it will rush with greater force because it has only one channel. Thus, in concentration, which is the directing of the mind in one channel, we rise to a heightened form of activity, which is necessary for us in the practice of meditation.

God, especially in the form of Lord Siva, is regarded as a great renunciate, a mahavairagta, a tyagi, owning nothing. This is how we picture Lord Siva. The idea is that God owns nothing, the implication behind it being that there is no external object for God that He may long for or want.

In Milton’s poem, Adam cries before God, “Great God, You have created trees, plants, and animals who move among themselves in friendship, and You have created me alone without a friend.”

God says, “Do you know, my dear child, that I have been alone ever since eternity, even before I created the world? Do you believe that I am unhappy and feeling alone to myself?”

“No Master, You do not feel unhappy. You are all bliss.”

“If I can be all bliss, and eternally satisfied by being alone to myself, why should you not be happy by being alone to yourself? Anyway, because you ask for another, I shall provide you with another.” And so, the twin becomes created, as the Bhagavata, the Vishnu Purana or the Bible says. This is actually the picture of the creational process and the condition in which we are placed.

The reversal of this process is tapas. Coming down from the centre to the circumference of creation is the descent into a worsened form of suffering; the withdrawal of attention from this peripheral activity through the circumference of creation, by the restraint of the sense organs, bringing the energy of the senses back into the mind and concentrating on what you want finally—that is tapas, and meditation is the highest tapas. Anything that is contributory to this meditational process is also tapas. Anything that will put an end to the excessive activity of the sense organs, in any manner whatsoever, is tapas.

But, one has to be very cautious in performing tapas because the Bhagavadgita criticises, condemns, foolish types of tapas. Tapas, restraint of the sense organs, does not mean torture of the sense organs, penalising the body, or bringing harm to one’s own health. Tat tāmasam udāhṛtam (Gita 17.22), says Bhagavan Sri Krishna. Such tapas is called idiotic, tamasic.

Narada prevents the children of Prachetasa from going into utter meditation while the intention of the father was that they should go for meditation for the purpose of procreation. Narada said, “This is not worth the while. Curb the desire for procreation. Do not go for it.” And they withheld this intention, got up from the water and retired from the place, which was contrary to the wish of the father. He cursed Narada, “You have spoiled my children!” His reason was that a person who has not tasted the world cannot retire from the world.

We have to conquer the world before reaching God; we should not go defeated by the world. So, I repeat from memory what Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj used to say. “Only a king in the previous life can be a sannyasin in this birth, because you have seen the whole world of satisfaction as an emperor, and so you are now capable of being a sannyasin. You don’t want anything, because you had everything. A pauper cannot be a sannyasin; a beggar is not a recluse. To have nothing, though one would have all things, is not tapas. You should have got everything, and seen everything, obtained everything, and got fed up with everything; then you retire from the whole thing.” This is the psychology behind the ashrama dharma: brahmacharya, grihastha, vanprastha and sannyasa. Stage by stage you overcome the world. You do not retire from the world defeated, getting thrown out by the world.

Moderation is called for in our understanding of the relation between body and soul, sense organs and objects, God and the world. Just as we can become materialists by thinking that the world alone is real and there is no God, and become ethereal idealists by imagining that God alone is there in the heavens and the world is nothing, is to be kicked out, so also we may imagine that this body is an evil because we want the soul only—that the objects are tempters to be condemned. All these are extreme ideas that spiritual seekers may have. Spiritual practice is not an extreme of any kind; it is a golden medium of rapport between the visible and the invisible, body and soul, sense organs and the objects, God and creation.

Thus, to be a spiritual seeker is hard. One has to be tremendously cautious from moment to moment to see that no mistake is committed in our enthusiasm, even if it is in the right direction. Even while moving in the right direction, we may commit a mistake due to extremes of enthusiasm. Moderation is the watchword; understanding, viveka, is compulsory in our successful movement towards spiritual perfection.

Kṣurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā; durgam pathas tat kavayo vadanti (Katha 1.3.14): As if walking on the edge of a sword or a razor, so subtle is this path of the spirit—impossible to understand, difficult to grasp, and more difficult to practise. Therefore, to gird up our loins for this supreme purpose, a tremendous will is necessary, and an equally great understanding is called for.