The Ascent of the Spirit
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 12: The Cloister and the Hearth

There has been through the history of times a visible irreconcilability, though looking apparent, between the values spiritual and the values temporal. This psychological gulf that has been persistently managing to interfere with the practical life of the individual has many forms which are partly personal and partly social. But, whatever be the nature of this insistent feeling subconsciously operating in the minds of people, it has, obviously, far-reaching consequences. The usual demarcation that is traditionally made between the life religious and the life secular is an outstanding example of the roots of this phenomenon which has manifested itself not only in the private lives of individuals but also in the social and political levels of life. It is this feature inextricably wound up in the thought of man that makes him feel occasionally the rise of a fervour of a renunciation of earthly values for those that are religious, or even spiritual in the sense that he is able to comprehend within the limitations of his own psychological being.

Not only this; the phenomenon mentioned has also its negative sides which have created a rift in the layers of personal feeling, as also in the mode of living necessitated by one’s relationship with the social structure in the external world. The result of this historical distinction that has been repeatedly made by everyone through the centuries cannot be regarded as ultimately healthy, because this result has always been equivalent with some sort of a discontent, an unhappiness which perforce attends upon such a necessity of thinking in human nature. We may take into consideration only one among the several forms in which this psychological phenomenon has created a tension in the individual and the society; and it is the comparative worth of emphasising and working upon the demands of the religious sense and those of the secular calls of practical life.

The call of renunciation and the call of work may be said to be the ostensible contours of this twofold pull exerted on human nature—the pressing urge of the cloister and the comforting warmth of the hearth. Some of the doubts that can insinuate themselves into the hearts of people are: Does religion enjoin renunciation of the pleasures of life, and, if this is true, will it not amount to a sadistic mandate for a torture of the otherwise healthy life of the individual? Does the insistence on religion imply a relinquishment of works, especially of what should be regarded as one’s inviolable duty such as service of the family, service of the country, service of humanity, service of the poor and the downtrodden? Is not the religious inclination a tendency towards self-centredness, a selfish callousness towards life’s realities, a running away from the hard facts of existence, a morbid antipathy towards a positive approach to life, apart from its being a culpable ego-centricity of attitude seeking one’s personal salvation from the pains of the world in a transcendent God, while the ignorant and hungry and poor brethren on this earth are suffering the agonies inflicted on them by a cruel fate?

Before we try to find an answer to these piercing doubts and incisive objections, we may do well to listen to the arguments of the defending counsel in his prefatory remarks to the nature of the whole case: Is it true entirely that the plea of the social sense is born of wholly pious motives right from the bottom? Will not a thoroughgoing psychoanalysis reveal a covert egoism behind even the irresistible sentiment to be of service to others? It is doubtful if totally unfavourable circumstances threatening to cause a damaging effect upon an individual whether by loss of material possessions, public opprobrium and open censure of hidden motive, or even the pain of death and destruction, would induce him to embark upon this dangerous adventure which is capable of producing such repercussions of a hurting nature. It is quite detectable that the whole of human nature does not rise to the field of action and those levels of the psychological personality which are deeper than the conscious and the external lie buried invisibly, so that it is impossible to conclude that the activities of the human individual are sprung into movement by the total individual, for the whole of the individual is not exhausted by the conscious level. The subconscious and the unconscious layers effectively tell upon the nature of conscious activity and inasmuch as all the logical pros and cons considered as well as the arguments adduced in favour of the justifiability of one’s thought, speech or action proceed from the conscious level alone, it is difficult to believe that the logic of human conduct usually projected as a defense of personal behaviour is ultimately tenable. The freedom of the individual and the alternative of choice in making a decision which is really the forte of all human effort is thus founded on quicksand.

The social consciousness is an interesting feature for study and observation, for it is the peculiar turn which the individual consciousness takes in the assessment of values by an extension of itself into a field which cannot be really regarded as its normal jurisdiction of operation. This is noticed by an observation of the intriguing phenomenon that, when an excessive pressure is exerted on the individual by social circumstances, the individual reverts to its original state and withdraws itself into the cocoon of those conscious and instinctive activities which are directly concerned with the fulfilment of the fundamental urges of its psycho-physical structure. But, then, if, a powerful psychoanalytical investigation applied to human nature reveals a basically individualistic inclination of action as the residual minimum of human nature to which one is obliged to resort in the end as the last refuge available and even conceivable, why is there such an insistent and wide-spread trend in everyone to embrace a social form of life, such as the family, the community, the nation, or mankind as a whole? The psychoanalyst answer is plain-spoken and calls a spade a spade, and according to it man is essentially selfish, and unselfishness is not his true nature. If there are seen such unselfish movements of the human mind as service of others and love of others than one’s own self, it is because social relationship and collaboration has always proved to be conducive to the enhancement of personal comfort by way of the fulfilment of one’s desires as well as to protection of oneself from possible attacks from outside. This social attitude, psychoanalysis says, cannot be regarded as genuinely unselfish, for though social relationship has the appearance of unselfishness by an exceeding of the limits of one’s individuality, its intention is really selfish, the motive not so pious as it is made to look from its outer cloak.

This analysis would no doubt be revolting to the social form which the individual mind takes in its daily life, a blasphemy and an outrage on the essential goodness behind the motive force of social relationship, altruistic conduct and philanthropic behaviour, but psychoanalysis would retort that this resentment of the scientific analysis of a patent fact would only be an added proof of the egoism of human nature.

Now, taking up the doubts and queries that the social mind is prone to raise against its elder brother, religion, we may tentatively concede that the formalistic religions of the world have always advocated an austerity of life, a subjugation of the senses and a renunciation of earthly joys. The reason behind this religious injunction seems to be that the eternal is regarded as different from the temporal, and the characteristic values of earthly life are held to have no relevance to the values attached to life eternal. As regards the question, whether religion is justified in enjoining an abandoning of all work and activity in preference to a life of inward contemplation or meditation on God, the answer is that this insistence of religion, at least its suggestion, is a natural outcome of the traditional distinction made between the temporal and the eternal. If the visible is the transient and the eternal is invisible, it becomes an automatic conclusion that every value that is worth the while in the realm of the transient has to be cast out with effort in order that the mind may fix itself on that which is true and permanent. A quick resort is found in such admonitions as the one we find in the Mahabharata: “For the good of the family, an individual may be abandoned; for the good of the village, a family may be abandoned; for the good of the country, a village may be abandoned; for the sake of the Universal Self, the world may be abandoned.”

While this prima facie point of view of religion may be regarded as the immediately available answer of the traditional religion to the matter-of-fact, or rather secular, objection raised against the entire religious attitude, as cited above, it is necessary to conduct a deeper investigation into the validity of these off-hand replies which the organised religious approach to life may trot out as its main defense. The defect of the traditional religion, which is perhaps the only religion we find active in the world today, is that it is susceptible to making an unwarranted distinction between the temporal and the eternal values of life. What is usually known as the attitude of renunciation, austerity, sense-control, a hermit life or a sequestration in monastic atmosphere is, on the very face of it, pregnant with a possibility of laying an undue emphasis on the evanescence and sorrow of life on earth and the entertaining of a nebulous hope for a future joy in eternal life, implying thereby that the eternal is ‘external to’ or ‘outside’ the temporal and bears no vital relation to temporal life. If a large section of mankind is today inclined to look upon with obloquy the church-goer, the religious man, the renunciate or the monk, the cause thereof has to be attributed to the natural reaction which the neglected temporal values set up against the camouflage of eternal values which masquerade in the form of hibernating religious sentiments which have proudly erected the decorated edifices of the so-called religions of the world. It is strange that the traditional religions forget to learn the lesson that the eternal would cease to be eternal the moment it is ‘isolated’ or cut off from any other existent value, notwithstanding the fact that this value might be tentative or temporal. The spiritual culture of India, at least, unmistakably stresses the important truth that Reality is also immanent in the Universe, and not merely transcendent. The unnecessary and erroneous obsession for the transcendent alone, which consequently denies any reality or value to the universe of temporal events, is the untenable side-tracked attitude of the popular religion of the masses, which has unfortunately been dubbed as the only meaning of religion even by the elite or the intelligentsia of modern human society. The true religious spirit, no doubt, regards moksha or salvation from relativistic bondage as the ultimate aim of life, but it is at the same time cautious to take note of and, give due credit to artha or the material and economic value as well as to kama or the vital and aesthetic value involved in temporal life, not as a morbid concession to or a disease characteristic of all life but a transitional necessity relevant to the growth of the individual to the Universal Reality, by the gradual inclusive transcendence of the lower in the higher. The connecting link between moksha on the one hand and artha and kama on the other, or, rather, the force that blends these three aspects, into an organic completeness, is known as dharma, or the law of life.

It will, thus, be seen that there cannot be a gulf between the cloister and the hearth, the monk in the monastery and the public in the street, the sannyasin and the grihastha, if the organic relationship that exists between the temporal and the eternal is always borne in mind. It is wrong to think that religion is otherworldly, ignoring entirely the significances and the suggestive implications of temporal life. The other-worldliness ostensible in many of the popular religions is really unfortunate, and it is this wrong notion and incorrect attitude that must be regarded as responsible for the several reactionary movements in human society so menacingly rampant in the present day. A line has to be drawn between the necessary and unnecessary values of life at any given stage of the evolution of the individual to the Higher Life, and no value can be regarded as a false value meant to be rejected or abandoned as long as it is felt to be an indispensable necessity at that particular level of the evolution of the individual. That a particular value is likely to be subject to transcendence in a higher stage of evolution does not justify the abrogation of the former at that stage with which it is inextricably connected. The philosophy of the Vedanta rightly recognises the value of vyavaharika-satta or empirical reality at the stage where it is experienced as an inviolable reality, though it might be that it is going to be subsumed, absorbed or transcended in the paramarthik-satta or absolute reality. The philosophy of a particular religious technique known as tantra-sadhana is tirelessly insistent on the necessity of conceding and including, rather than denying and excluding, the visible values of life in an alchemic transmutation of the total organism of life’s extensive structure for the purpose of the realisation of the Absolute.

From the above observations it can be concluded that any association of sadism, masochism or mortification of the flesh with religion is wholly unjustified and is based on a woeful ignorance of the purpose and meaning of religion. Religion, as the supreme science and art of the integration of social values, individual values, natural values and spiritual values, all at once, is the gravitating movement of the whole universe to the Absolute which is its real Self—at once the Self of all beings, in a magnificent comprehensiveness with which the human mind at present is not acquainted and which it, therefore, cannot, at present, either understand or appreciate. Religion does not set aside the value of actions or works in the life of the world; else, what can be the point in proclaiming so loudly the gospel of divine action, known as Karma-Yoga, which is the central theme of those eternal teachings embodied in the Bhagavadgita? If there has been occasionally an over-emphasis on the monastic phase of religion, with a wrong interpretation of its suggestiveness that it implies a contempt for work or action of every kind, this, again, has to be regarded as an unfortunate outcome of a misunderstanding of religion. No great saint or sage has committed or would ever commit such a blunder as what this miscalculated view of religion would implicate.

Simultaneously we should urgently point out that the secularist disregard of religion in its entirety is an unfounded and unjustifiable kink in human attitude, for the religious demand for self-transcendence in the progressive evolution of the individual to the Absolute, though it includes by sublimation and absorption the lower relative values, thus, at the same time, has its justification in the rather incomprehensible nature of the Ultimate Reality which overcomes relationships as well as contradictions characteristic of all types of empirical consciousness, a truth, again, which anyone wholly caught up in the web of empirical relativity will not be able to understand. The requirement of religion to renounce the pleasures of life is somewhat akin to the advice of the science of hygiene and medicine that an aspiration for health implies also an effort to eradicate the disease present in the system of the body, for, after all, what are the pleasures of life if not a mitigation of the irritation of the senses and the itching of the ego by means of pampering which cannot in any way be regarded as a cure to their sickly restlessness caused by factors far removed from those which are usually considered as instrumental in satisfying the cravings of the senses and the clamourings of the ego? Spiritual practice, which is a synthesis of service to others, devotion to God, and meditation on the Absolute, is an all-round panacea for every form taken by the ills of life, and a healthy educational procedure of not only guarding oneself from unwarily being involved in the defects and torturous errors inseparable from all relative life but also infusing into life the toning power which rises into potent action by a comprehending and living of the true and ultimate significance of all existence.