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The Ascent to Moksha
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 1: The Art of Receiving Knowledge

In the art of the reception of knowledge, we have to be prepared in the same manner as any good artist would equip himself or herself for the execution of the task. We are at the feet of Masters or Gurus, we are in institutions and in holy places for the reception of higher knowledge, and this process of the receiving of knowledge is an art which demands of the seeker an uncanny preparation and a suitable disposition of the mind.

It is not possible to commence a work of art with either an intellectual or an emotional prejudice. Such an efficient work cannot be commenced when we are intensely tired, fatigued, or exhausted either physically or mentally, or when we are in a very exasperated mood. When we are not prepared to receive anything from outside, when the system is in an intense state of ebullition and activity, the function of art cannot be successful, nor can knowledge be received in such a condition.

The precondition of the reception of knowledge is the capacity to receive. What is important is not the nature of knowledge that comes to us, but the state in which we are and the condition of the entry of knowledge into our personality. Under given conditions, we can either receive knowledge or repel it. Nature is abundant, full of resources, never poverty stricken at any time; still, with all this richness and plenitude of nature we can intensely suffer pangs and agonies of life when we cannot receive this abundance into ourselves. Knowledge is one aspect of the universal nature, and when it tries to gain entry into ourselves we have to be prepared to properly receive it.

Most students of spiritual life who practise yoga are too enthusiastic, beyond the permissible limit. Overenthusiasm is not a virtue because anything that is beyond its limits is likely to come back to its original state, and when the heat subsides there will be no enthusiasm and no energy to move forward. The prejudice of the emotion and the intellect has to be avoided very carefully when we are eager to receive the knowledge that can save us from the pains of life.

There is a vast difference between reception of knowledge in the schools and colleges of arts and science in the world, and the reception of knowledge in the school of life. We are likely to commit the error of entertaining the notion that we can gain the higher knowledge of life in the same way as we can learn the arts and sciences in institutions such as colleges and universities. There is a vast difference, a gulf of difference between the two processes. An inability to understand the difference between the two types of knowledge reduces even an enthusiastic seeker of Truth to a failure in life. It is not learning or information that we are trying to gather in holy places. It is not knowledge in the ordinary sense of the term. What is the distinction between the knowledge we are familiar with, and the saving knowledge for which we are cursing, for the sake of which we are at the feet of Masters, and in search of which we are hunting institutions in the world? What is the difference? It is all the difference conceivable.

Learning does not save us, though it can help us in a limited purpose. We can be in various kinds of difficulties. There are degrees of problems of life, and it is only the outer crust of the difficulties of life that can be encountered by what we call learning or education in the modern sense of the term. But we have deeper problems that we can think of in times of leisure and satisfaction. We can be in pain from which no one can save us, and such catastrophes can befall us when it will look as if the whole world is of no utility to us. At that time it is that the higher knowledge will come to our aid. When the ground under our feet seems to give way, when the whole of life seems to lose meaning for us, when we do not know whether we are to live or to die – when we are face to face with such conditions, learning does not help us because learning will vanish like a wisp of wind when such excruciating pains of the spirit come and engulf us. We should not, therefore, commit the mistake of thinking that we can gain that wisdom of life which we can use in times of utter desolateness by giving mere lip sympathy to the benefits of life.

Knowledge, in the true sense of the term – the knowledge which we are really after and which brings our mind to a permanent state of composure, giving it the final touch of satisfaction – can be had only if we pay the price for it. The price for this knowledge is high enough. All our time mostly goes in the preparation for the reception of this knowledge. Most of our efforts are in the direction of equipping ourselves for receiving this august guest, the illumination of knowledge, into our personal life. Just as when a distinguished guest comes to our house we are eager to make the place clean, sweep the cobwebs, dust the floor, decorate the seats, and so on, a sort of preparation is demanded of us for the reception of the higher illumination, the knowledge that we are seeking.

It should be clear to us at the very outset that knowledge is not very much interested in us. We are interested in it. It is not too eager to thrust itself into us. It is we that cry for it from birth to death, and in order to receive it, we may have to prepare the ground in a proper manner. The cobwebs within us are the prejudices of personality, which hardly die in any individual. It is easy to imagine that we are well off in culture and the learning of the spirit. As long as we are contented with the achievements that we have made in life, knowledge is far off from us. A self-contented person is contented even with knowledge. That is the meaning of contentment. So if we are already filled, we cannot be filled again with something else: Empty thyself, and then only I can fill thee, not before that. This emptying of oneself is a very hard job.

There have been honest seekers, sannyasins even, monks, sadhakas, brahmacharins, who have abandoned homestead and chattel and come in search of Truth; they have spent years in lonely places, secluded spots, and after maybe ten years, twenty years, fifty years of apparent effort in what they thought was the proper direction, dissatisfaction came down upon their heads like a dark cloud. If we study the lives of sadhakas, even honest seekers who are really enthusiastic about realising Truth, it would be really a psychological history of specific personalities. It is seen that in the end, years of effort appear to go in vain because while the effort was there, it was not properly directed. The enthusiasm was there, but the intelligence was lacking. Our intelligence should go together with our emotional upsurge. It is not enough if we merely weep and cry. We have also to understand. It is true that we have to weep. There are occasions when weeping is essential, but that is not the only thing that we are called upon to do.

Our agony of the spirit, which is an emotional upsurge, has to be simultaneously illumined with the light of understanding. This is what is called the wisdom of life, quite different from what we call learning, education, or holding a degree. Wisdom is different from learning. There is an old saying: Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers. It will not come so quickly, because the prerequisites for the reception of this wisdom are awfully lacking in the majority of persons.

The greatest defect in all of us is inadequate understanding of the circumstances in which we are placed. We may be good people who are honestly seeking redress from pains of every kind, and we may have spent years leading a holy and pure life. Nevertheless, we may not have the necessary equipment of understanding the situation in which our individual personality is placed, which is why there is a conflict between our feelings and our experience in life. It is also the reason why we are at loggerheads with our neighbours, with our community, with nature as a whole, and with the world in general.

Our understanding is not equal to the task. The reason behind this is that our emotion has taken an upper hand. Emotion is in a greater percentage than understanding, and so while we are very eager to achieve something, we have not got the equipment to do it.

We must be a good person, but also a very intelligent person. Sri Ramakrishna was never tired of saying that a devotee is not a fool. He is a very wise person who can understand everything. Though he may weep for his separation from God throughout the night in agony like the Gopis of Brindavana, he is a very wise person. He knows where he stands. He will not ask for what he is not equipped to receive. Our energies and our powers have to be assessed before we embark upon any task.

The practice of yoga, the living of the spiritual life, is the ultimate task upon which we are now to embark. But before we enter into any field of activity, it is very essential to know what our powers are, what our strength is. Are we up to the task, or is there any shortcoming in ourselves? Any work needs a proper instrument for working, and here the instrument is our own self. It is not an external tool that we can use here. Our instrument in the reception of knowledge is our own body, our own mind, our own intellect, our own feeling, our individuality, our personality. Is it ready to receive the knowledge? Have we the needed powers, the equipment to tune ourselves to those conditions which are amenable to the entry of knowledge into our personality?

We must be very humble. It is very, very important. It is no use assuming airs of importance or achievement in this field of true learning, of real knowledge of the wisdom of life. The might of the cosmos, the majesty of the universe, is such that before it our personality pales into insignificance. There is no use assuming importance before the terror of the cosmos. We are nothing before it. We can be blown away like a dry leaf by the wrath of nature.

There is no real importance in any person or individual. It is just vanity, emptiness, hollowness which makes us think that we are something. We are really nothing, if we are honestly to attest our worth under the circumstances of the vast environment of creation which oftentimes stares at us, perhaps, with suspicion.

The initial precondition would be of humility. Do not assume airs of knowledge, as if you know so many things. You must have read many books, and you may be holding some university degrees, but it is of no avail here in the university of life where knowledge is identical with being. It is the difference between learning and physical enlightenment. The learning of colleges is information about an object – knowledge of the structure of things, knowledge about something. It is not knowledge of being.  But knowledge that is en rapport with the object is spiritual knowledge.

Such knowledge is far from us. This is the reason why great masters like Acharya Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, and great saints in the past and the present have been untiringly hammering upon our mind that intellectual and emotional preparations are very, very important – equally important, if not more important than the studies that we have to make subsequently.

Humility is most essential, a character which ninety-nine percent of people lack. There is no goodness of behaviour as long as humility is lacking. We cannot be called a good person as long we have not got this virtue of humility, because humility comes by the knowledge of our true nature. When we know what we really are, we automatically become humble. As we do not know what we are, as we have a wrong idea, a wrong notion of what we are, we become vain, audacious and arrogant.

Hence, the search for knowledge is a search for the facts of life, which include facts of our own self. Knowledge is knowledge of facts. The primary object of investigation is not some distant thing or entity, but that which is nearest. That which is nearest to us is our own self. Nothing can be nearer than that. When we have a thoroughgoing misunderstanding about ourselves, and inasmuch as we are going to use this instrument of our personality in knowing the facts of other objects in the world, our efforts will be a failure if the instrument is not up to the mark.

This is the reason why earnest seekers of yore went to Masters, Gurus, and prostrated and surrendered themselves before the Master. These days, surrender is unknown. We think it is a weakness, a kind of absence of guts or depth. Far from it. A man with depth or guts in the wrong sense is going to achieve nothing. He will be a failure. His life will crack into pieces when it is tested in the touchstone of life.

Though history advances, ages roll on, times pass by, the essential facts of life do not change. We may think that we are advancing, that the twentieth century has come far above the shoulders of the earlier centuries. Unfortunately, we are apt to imagine that we are advancing into higher states of freedom and knowledge under a misapprehension. Whatever be the fact, the essential problems have not changed. The old questions persist even today, and what people were seeking thousands of years ago, we are seeking that very same thing even today, though with a different set of instruments and with a different state of mind.

The problems of ancient times are also the problems of today, of modern times. The ancient man's hunger is not different from the modern man's hunger. It is the same. Our worries and his worries are identical in essence. Though the causes of these worries may be different, the worries are the same. The essentialities of life are identical in all the ages, so the principle approach prescribed for the reception of knowledge cannot change. It flows from the Master, the Guru. That surrender of personality, that goodness of behaviour, that humility of conduct is to be the same even today.

Suffice it to say that an egoistic person can receive no knowledge. Knowledge is the opposite of ego. Knowledge is the condition where the ego completely melts like camphor, without any residuum. So where there is even a trace of ego, there is no knowledge. Where there is a trace of false self-complacency, there is no entry of knowledge. Where one becomes one's own Guru and thinks there is no one equal to oneself, knowledge is far.

There are people equal to us, and more than equal. We should be very simple and very humble. The great master Manu in one place says in his Smriti, viṣād apy amṛtaṁ grāhyaṁ bālād api subhāṣitam, amitrād api sadvṛttam amedhyād api kāñcanam: Knowledge has to be gained wherever it is available. You should not think that you possess all the knowledge. Even a child can speak wisdom to you. Even an enemy can be a source of inspiration to you. Your enemy is not necessarily a bad person. He may be a source of great inspiration, virtue and piety, though he may be opposed to you in some respects. Nectar has to be extracted even from poison, says Manu. Knowledge and words of wisdom may come even from a child, and good conduct even from an enemy, just as we pick up a nugget of gold even if it is in dung.

The universe is vast, beyond the ken of our perception and understanding. Whatever be the equipment of our knowledge, the gamut of the universe exceeds our knowledge, so we have to be humble. Humility and goodness mean one and the same thing. Whatever be our learning and knowledge, there is something beyond it. It can never be exhausted. The object of knowledge is infinite. It has no limits; therefore, we can never be fully possessed of the entirety of knowledge at any time in the world. There is always something over and above us, beyond us.

There is a story that Indra, the king of the celestials, having learned all the arts and sciences and mastered the sixty-four vidyas, went to Brihaspati, the genius, with a pride of having possessed knowledge. He queried the master: “Sir, how much have I learnt?”

Indra thought that a very satisfying answer would come. He expected Brihaspati to reply that Indra knew everything: “You are now complete with knowledge.” That was the answer Indra sought, but Brihaspati said nothing. He took Indra to a seashore where there were miles of sand and he could not even see the end of the beach. There Brihaspati took a handful of sand, showed it to Indra, and said, “So much do you know, and so much is still there.” Indra returned shamefaced. This is to show us that the smaller we become, the greater are the chances of redemption.

We come to the point, then, that a Guru is necessary. We can achieve nothing without a Master or a Guru, a guide in spiritual life. We may be holding many degrees, but we need a Guru because it is a path of pitfalls with many dangers, unforeseen problems and difficulties which we cannot dream of today. What is ahead of us, we cannot know. We should not be under the impression that the concept of God has entered the mind and now we can suddenly jump into meditation. It is nothing of the kind. “A Guru is one,” says the Upanishads, “who is a Brahmasrotriya and a Brahmanishta – one who is well versed in spiritual lore, and one who is also practically and personally established in the experience of spiritual truth.”

Two qualifications are mentioned in respect of a Guru. He is not merely learned in spiritual lore, but he is established in the experience of Truth. This qualification is given with a specific intention because there are various types of Gurus. Masters are of various kinds. They are not all of the same category. There are some whom we cannot understand at all. We may be living with them for years, but understand nothing about them. Sometimes we have a wrong knowledge about them. We may even leave them in disgust, thinking that they are good for nothing. They may be geniuses and may be the real persons to save us, but we will not know anything about them because they will not exhibit their character. There are Gurus who can be known, and there are Gurus who cannot be known.

Now, these characteristics of the Gurus mentioned in the Upanishads are the Brahmasrotriya and the Brahmanishta. It is specifically stated that a preceptor must be one who has a personal contact with Reality, and also be capable of speaking about it. Both these characteristics are to be present. We may be a Master, but we may not be able to speak for various reasons, such as lack of language or lack of interest. There are Gurus who will not be interested in us. And there are others who may not have the linguistic equipment to speak to us, or have various other difficulties. They cannot answer all our questions, nor will they be interested in answering questions. They will have a simple answer to all our questions.

Thus, a teacher who will be able to satisfy a seeking soul is supposed to be vastly equipped with the scriptural lore, as well as having his own personality deeply rooted in the Spirit. He is perfect without, as well as within. These Masters are difficult to find these days. We may be having one or the other type, but not a combination of these characters. There may be Masters who will not be accessible to us at all, and we will not gain anything from them because they are not accessible. But there may be people who are eager to teach us but do not have personal experience within, so they cannot carry conviction.

Difficult it is to find guides and spiritual teachers who have personal experience so that it can carry conviction, and also an interest as well as the capacity to express themselves and teach us in the proper manner. In this age, these Masters are rare. They are becoming fewer and fewer in number. Yet they still exist, and are not completely extinct.

So what I mean to say is, whoever be your Guru or Master, whoever be the guide that you have chosen, your attitude towards the Guru should be of humility, surrender, and a complete emptying of yourself for the receiving of the knowledge.

It is also mentioned that if we have no trust in the Guru, we will receive nothing from the Guru. This is because knowledge is also connected with morality, and it is not merely intellectuality. While learning of the university is only intellectual and has nothing to do with morality, wisdom is quite different. It is inseparable from a moral life. There is no use merely being an intellectual genius bereft of moral stuff. Spiritual wisdom is a blending, a coalescing, a melting together of superior understanding and a high calibre of morality. Distrust in the Guru is a lack in the moral sense of the term. It is a great shortcoming. Students are likely to observe the Guru with their physical eyes, perceiving defects and poking holes in their lives, which implies that the student is superior to the Guru. Otherwise, we cannot see defects. We think we are greater than the Guru, which is why we are able to see defects. If this is your attitude, bid goodbye to spiritual life and search for a job in the world.

Difficult is the search for wisdom. Difficult it is to find a Guru. Most difficult is God-realisation, almost an impossibility for the majority of people. We will end up with a sense of disgust and hopelessness, as if it is all a wild-goose chase.

But one of the qualifications expected of the disciple is tenacity. We must be persistent in our efforts, like the story of Robert Bruce. He observed a spider trying to climb up, and though it fell down many times, finally it somehow gained strength and climbed up. This gave courage to Robert Bruce, and he entered the battlefield again, and won victory.

So should be our life. We are likely to be disappointed in the earlier days of our spiritual pursuits because what we see in the beginning is not light, but darkness. When the ocean was churned for nectar, what came in the beginning, at the outset, was poison, not the nectar that was searched for. We have always to remember that the object of our quest will not come at the very outset. It is mud and dust and dirt and thorn and trouble that we see in the beginning. It is said that when we want to drink the sweet milk of the cow, first we have to dirty our hands with cow dung by cleaning her, washing her, tending her, bringing grass to her, and so on. Then only can we get the sweet milk. We cannot expect merely the milk and have nothing to do with the cow. That would not be possible.

So is knowledge, the milk of knowledge, a difficult thing to acquire. It requires persistent effort, humility of attitude, and the readiness, which is rare to find in people – the readiness to gain knowledge from wherever it is available. The difficulty of the acquisition of knowledge is beautifully stated in a passage of the Chhandogya Upanishad where Narada, the master of all learning, is in a state of despondence. The seventh section of the Chhandogya Upanishad gives us a beautiful narration of the search for knowledge by a true disciple. Narada was a great master. There was nothing which he did not know. He was an expert in all the branches of learning, in all the arts and sciences, but he was grieved at heart. He was sorry at the core. He was unhappy, not knowing what was the cause thereof. In great humility, in utter submission of the spirit, Narada approached the Master, Sanatkumara, and implored the sage, “Master, I have learnt all the arts, all the sciences. There is nothing which I do not know either in the heavens or on earth. Every blessed science I know, and all the arts I have studied, but Master, my heart is unhappy. I am grieved at the bottom of my being. Take me beyond this ocean of sorrow by the illumination of knowledge.”

What was the reply of Sage Sanatkumara to Narada? “It is all words, only names that you have learnt. This is not knowledge. All the art and all the sciences that you are equipped with, all the wonder of the earth and the heavens is mere name. It is not substance. You have gathered the shadow, but not caught the substance. That is why you are unhappy, Narada, in spite of knowing so much.”

“What is the substance, Master? Will you please initiate me into it? You call all my learning only a name, mere words, useless ultimately. Can you take me to that substance of wisdom which shall bestow on me perennial peace?”

Gradually the mind of Narada is taken step by step, stage by stage, through a winding path leading to the vast universe outside, searching for wisdom everywhere, but not finding it in anything. The wise Sanatkumara knew the psychology of teaching. He did not suddenly give the answer. No wise teacher will suddenly, abruptly, answer questions. He would rather follow the Socratic method, as they say, which is the art of taking the mind of the disciple gradually from known realities to unknown ones. We should not speak about unknown facts immediately. That would not be the psychology of teaching. We should take our stand on facts that are accepted, that are taken for granted, which are very clear on the face of it. This is the character of a good teacher. We should not rebut or refute anything suddenly, because then we will also be rebutted. So we always accept first: “Yes, okay.” Probe that accepted fact stage by stage and make the mind of the disciple, the mind of the student, walk of its own accord, with its own strength, through the stages of the path.

Narada's mind was taken outwardly first, because that is the pleasure of the mind. We travel far distances and are happy. But if we are asked to sit in one place, we are unhappy. We are very happy to travel far in a jet plane, but if we are told to keep quiet and do nothing, we are unhappy. “What is this nonsense?” we think.

So Sage Sanatkumara took the mind of Narada to the vaster cosmos first – to the five elements, to the vast earth, to realms of water, fire, air and ether, and to the other subtler realms of the wider cosmos. “Do you find happiness anywhere? No. There is something beyond, there is something beyond.” At every stage of ascent, Sanatkumara began to say that there was yet something beyond. “What is that, Master? What is that which is beyond even this state?” asked Narada.

Sanatkumara, with a long tour, came from the outer cosmos to the very heart of Narada. Here is the source of all troubles, and here is also the reservoir of happiness. Here is the floundering, blundering seeker. Here is also that which we search for. That completeness, that perfection, that plenitude, that plenum, that happiness which Narada sought was actually told to be deposited at the very bottom of the being of Narada himself. We cannot see our own back. What we are searching for is behind us, and we are moving ahead in search of our back, which we cannot see. If we walk miles and miles forward to see where our back is, we will not see it because it is behind us. How will we see it?

So this futile effort of moving, marching or acting in the wrong direction is not going to bring the knowledge that we are after. That which we are searching for, that which we are asking for, that which is the answer to our questions is behind the question itself, is at the background of our minds. It is the presupposition of our very existence. This is why the search for knowledge has become so difficult. It is the I of the I, the understanding of the understanding, the mind of the mind, says the Upanishad. The eyes can see things, but who can see the eye behind the eye? The eyes through which these physical eyes behold objects, that eye behind the eye, is the object of our quest.

Ordinary effort is of no avail in spiritual life. Ordinary effort does not bring success in spiritual life because what is needed is a different type of effort altogether. It is a march, if at all we can call it a march or a forward movement, a march towards that which the eyes cannot see, the senses cannot grasp, the objects cannot exhaust in their confinement. This knowledge is limitless expanse, and therefore, it cannot be observed as the observed things of the world. Knowledge is limitless. How can we see limitlessness?

This is the background of spiritual life, which puts us almost in a state of consternation. The lives of more serious students than we people, students who lived in the past, whose lives I would advise you to study very well for your own benefit, will teach us that life spiritual is not a joke. You cannot be a big person in the world and also a big person in the eyes of God. That would not be possible.

Every gain in the realm of the spirit looks like a comparative corresponding loss in the realm of nature and of the world. The more we gain of God, the more also do we seem to lose from nature, which we are not prepared to accept. We do not want to lose anything from the world of nature or the world of our personal lives. Therefore, we have received nothing of the divine life, and God seems to be far away from us yet, almost an impossibility still.

Again I come to the point, that all this is a hard job. None of us can be said to be properly equipped for the task. To reiterate, a Guru is essential. You should not say that you cannot find a Guru. Generally, the person whom you have found most satisfying among all the others that you have seen in the world may be taken as your first Guru. And when you are advanced, you will be brought in contact with the proper Guru. The saying that the Guru comes rather than the disciple goes is true to a large extent. When you are ready to receive the higher knowledge, the Guru will come to you. You will be brought in contact with a suitable Guru by the laws of God Himself, so you need not be too anxious about it. But you have to be ready to receive.

While it is our duty to keep ourselves ready for the reception of knowledge, the entry of it into our personality is God's business. We can plough the field, sow the seeds, allow the water to flow, but we cannot create the harvest. That is in the hands of somebody else. The harvest shall take care of itself, provided we have properly done everything that is within our capacity.

Again, the primary precondition of the reception of knowledge in spiritual life is goodness of conduct and humility of behaviour. In the light of the majesty of the Almighty, the dignity of the cosmos, the vastness of knowledge, and difficulty of attaining the Immortal, it is very important.

Be a small person. Do not try to be a big person. The smaller you are, the better for you. He that is on the ground fears no fall. If you climb a tree, there is a fear of falling. Do not climb a tree. Be on the ground. Be small, be humble, be good, be little, be the last person in the world, not the first, not the middle. Be the last person. It may look that you are perhaps the most unwanted person in the world. Let it be so.

Thus, be ready for the grace of God. Be the smallest, the most unwanted, the most unknown, unbefriended. Let there not be any misconception that importance in the eyes of people or status in society and the world has anything to do with spiritual life. Absolutely, it has nothing to do with spiritual life. It has to be made clear before your mind's eye so that your search may be an honest asking and not merely a duplicity or self-deceit of the heart.

With prayers to the Almighty, the Supreme Being, may we tread on the path of this supreme attainment which is God-realisation, the realisation of Truth or the Self, which may, we hope, come to us by the grace of God in this very life.