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The Principal Items of Spiritual Practice
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on October 24, 1973.)

Yesterday we were referring to the instruction of Bhagavan Sri Krishna in the Bhagavadgita regarding control of the senses and the mind, wherein we have been advised to always resort to the higher principle when a lower principle is to be regulated, disciplined or controlled. The application of law in any manner whatsoever is the method by which a higher regulative order determines the function of a lower principle. All activities in life, all conduct, all forms of behaviour, anything worthwhile in this world, has to be judged, determined and regulated in terms of a higher principle above it.

There are various stages and degrees of the manifestation of law, as we saw when we were discussing the nature of dharma, or universal law. What this series of degrees of the manifestation of law actually means can be illustrated by a homely example. You know that the balance and the health of the physical body does not entirely depend upon the diet that you take, though diet also counts in the determination of the health and the condition of the physiological organs. There are many factors controlling the health and the life of the body other than just the food that you eat. The value of the body, the worth of your physical personality depends to some extent on the health of your sense organs. If all the senses are healthy and active, to that extent your body also becomes healthy and active.

Now, the senses cannot be regarded as the ultimate determining factors in the health of the body because the health of the senses depends upon the condition of your nervous system. If the nerves of your body are completely out of order, the senses cannot function healthily, and your body also cannot function. But the nerves are not the ultimate regulating factor. There is something above the nerves. The prana-shakti, the vital force moving in your body, is the controlling factor of the health, action and function of the senses, the nerves and the muscles of the body.

The pranas also cannot be regarded as the ultimate determining factors. The mind controls even the movement of the pranas. Chaotic thinking, confused thinking, abnormal thinking affects the senses and the nervous system accordingly, and the whole system goes to sixes and sevens.

Higher than the mind is the intellect, says Bhagavan Sri Krishna. Higher than the intellect is the supreme eternal regulative Being, which is our fundamental Existence-Consciousness-Bliss – Sat-Chit-Ananda. So the degree in which a particular law manifests itself in our practical life depends upon the stage of evolution in which we are, so that when we judge a thing, when we try to understand the relationship of anything with another thing in terms of a law that operates in that particular realm, we have to take into consideration the immediate environment in which we are.

For example, we are now living in a physical world. Physical laws apply to our life. The laws of gravitation, for example, are physical laws, and they apply to our life. The laws of gravitation do not apply in the higher realms, but we cannot ignore the operation of the law of gravitation in the physical world merely because of the fact that the realms beyond the physical are transcendent to the operation of the law of gravitation. That is why whenever we judge any particular thing ethically, psychologically, philosophically, spiritually or socially, we have to take into consideration the law that operates immediately above us, and not the highest law of the Absolute which, notwithstanding the fact that it is ruling above all things, cannot immediately be made manifest in our practical realm.

So the advice of the Bhagavadgita in regard to the control of the senses and the mind is that when a particular thing is taken into consideration, the law of the realm or condition just above it is also simultaneously taken into consideration. When you control the activity of the senses in respect of the objects outside, you think of the law above the senses, namely, the law of the mind. Whose mind? Your mind, not somebody else's mind. You are concerned with your own mind when you think of the control of your senses. In what condition of mind are you?

Now we come to some practical questions in regard to the determination of the activities of the senses from the point of view of the condition of our mind. Here we are psychologists of our own selves. We are not professors of psychology lecturing to students in a university or college. Our purpose is not to teach others but to regulate our own lives. A sadhaka, or spiritual seeker, is a psychologist of himself or herself, and as a psychologist of one's own self, one has to study one's own mind in the given condition in which it is at any particular moment of time. Today, at this moment, what is the condition of your mind? That condition of your mind will determine your sensory activities in respect of the objects outside you today. We are now concerned only with today, and should not think of that which is far off in the future or be bothered about what is dead and gone in the past. What is the condition of your mind just now? In what manner can it exert a positive and healthy influence on the activities of your senses in respect of the objects outside?

Now when you study your own mind, you have to put several questions to your own self. This is very important, and you have to listen with caution and attention. How do you judge your mind? It is very easy to say, “I'm perfectly all right.” Everybody says that. “All fault is others'. I am not at fault.” This is the judgment of oneself that everyone has. You will never say that you are at fault. It is always the fault of others. But this is to put the cart before the horse, and is not the attitude of a good psychologist. You must be an impartial witness to analyse your own self, which is indistinguishable from your own mind.

The questions that you have to put to your own self in the analysis and study of your own mind are something like this. One: Have you any unfulfilled desires in your mind? Do not say you have no desires. Nobody will believe this. You have desires, and everyone has desires. Do not bother about the fulfilled desires. They are gone. Have you unfulfilled desires? Now, how do you answer this question? If you are honest, you can know it; but if you want to be dishonest to your own self, then you cannot answer this question. A careful, intelligent, rational, philosophical, scientific attitude is essential here. A sadhaka, a spiritual seeker, is a very good scientist, a very good psychologist, the highest philosopher, the best of persons. Write down in your notebook: “I have subtle desires of this kind which I have not been able to fulfil. I have these desires buried in my mind which I have not been able to fulfil on account of a social taboo. Society is objecting to it. If I start manifesting my desires, society will retaliate and put me down. So on account of a fear of society I may not be able to express all my desires.” But privately in your own individual diary you can make a note. “These are the desires lurking in my mind. I am not able to express them due to fear of social disapproval.”

Now, desires can be of two kinds: sensory and egoistic. Sensory desires are connected with the wish of the mind to come in contact with things outside. You want to have some particular type of contact with another person or a thing of the world, and that may be called a sensory desire. Desire of the mind to come in physical contact with persons and things for any reason may be grouped under sensory desires, but egoistic desires are of a different type. You may require a good name, fame and recognition, and want everyone to say that you are wonderful, beautiful. This is not a sensory desire; it is an egoistic desire. You want always the front seat. You do not want to sit behind. If the seat is removed you will get angry. “Where is my seat? What do you think I am? Why did you invite me, you idiots?” Name, fame, power, authority, recognition, approbation, praise, a good word, thanks – all desires pertaining to these things are egoistic desires. You want at least a word of thanks, and then you are very happy. Otherwise, you will say, “Look at this man; he didn't even thank me.” Why do you want the man to thank you? Desire for thanks, desire for good a word, desire for name, fame, power, authority, any kind of recognition of any kind of your individuality in society pertains to egoistic desire. Have you any such desire?

Often you will not be able to answer this question even to your own self because your true nature does not manifest itself unless it is opposed and contradicted by other persons or prevailing conditions. You cannot say just now how you will behave when you are insulted. You will say, “Well, I will say nothing. I will go, not saying anything.” But you will not do that when the situation actually comes, so it is not a correct answer. You will immediately frown and fret, and say something. This means that you cannot be a good psychologist of yourself always. It is because of this difficulty that they say a Guru is necessary. A Guru, a master in this path, will be able to understand you better than you understand your own self.

Sometimes the opinion that others have about you has a greater value than the opinion that you have about your own self. Vox populi vox dei: “The voice of people is the voice of God,” is sometimes said. You cannot see your own defects, but I can see them. And I cannot see my own defects, but you may observe them because the defects in one's personality are always covered over with a veneer of self-satisfaction and complacency. It is a peculiar maya that is working in the mind of everyone. So while it is essential that you should be very dispassionate in the judgment of your own mind, you should also take the guidance of a spiritual guide, a master who is your superior. Everyone must have a spiritual superior, and I do not think the world is lacking in spiritual superiors. Whenever you have to dispassionately judge yourself and understand yourself, you consult your master. “Am I right, my dear Guru, in holding this opinion about myself?”

He will say, “No, there is some mistake. You are not exactly like that.” So with the help of the Guru and with the help of your own discriminative understanding, you may be able to answer these questions of whether or not you have unfulfilled sensory or egoistic desires.

To ameliorate this difficulty arising out of this complex of frustrated desire – not to completely obviate, because that is impossible, but to ameliorate, to bring the difficulty down to the minimum – you would do well to deliberately place yourself in such social circumstances. Voluntarily, deliberately, you try to place yourself in society under such circumstances where you will be the least in society. You will lose nothing by becoming a small person. While you have to do much from the point of your service, you have to be the least – if not the least, at least that which approximates to it – in order that you may not be put out of gear when forces go contradictory or opposing to you. This is exactly the implication of the canons of the yamas and niyamas in the sutras of Patanjali. You must have heard of ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha. These canons of morality are really intended to bring down the boiling urges of the ego and the sense voluntarily, under one's own sweet will and pleasure instead of bringing them down under the pressure of others. If you cannot control your ego, the ego will be controlled by the pressure exerted by forces outside because every centre is a centre of ego. You have an ego, I have an ego, and everything has an ego, and if your ego rises beyond a certain limit, the other egos will see that it is put down. So instead of being pushed down by force, why not deliberately bring it down honourably? The essentiality of egoism is that one ego cannot tolerate another ego. Therefore, voluntarily and deliberately place yourself under circumstances of minimum requirement, minimum personal satisfaction, together with the greatest service that you can contribute from the point of view of unselfish dedication and sacrifice.

Together with these questions that you may put to your own self concerning the sensory or egotistical desires lurking in your mind, you have also to jot down in your diary what your minimum needs in life are. “Do I want five blankets, or can I get on with two blankets? What are the minimum needs in this cold place of Rishikesh? Perhaps I may need at least two blankets. But in Val Morin perhaps it may be colder and I may require four blankets, according to conditions. How much food, how much clothing, what sort of accommodation do I need to live to the minimum possible comfort necessary for keeping my soul and body together?

Luxury should be isolated from needs. Often, luxuries are regarded as needs, necessities. That is a very complacent attitude that the mind puts on because it cannot distinguish between a need and a luxury. A need is that without which you cannot exist, but a luxury is that which only pampers the demands of the senses and the ego, and is not essentially necessary for the existence and the normal function of the physiological and psychological system.

Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj has written something very pertinent to the life of every sadhaka: “Be satisfied with what you have, but be dissatisfied with what you are.” But we always do the opposite: We are always satisfied with what we are but never satisfied with what we have. We always complain, “This situation is not sufficient. But I am perfectly all right.” The point is that the truth is the reverse. You are not to be satisfied with what you are, because you have to evolve higher and higher into wider and wider realms of greater and greater consciousness and perfection, while you have to keep the minimum of physical and social needs. One room is sufficient for your existence. Do not say, “I want an attached bathroom.” Why do you want it? “I want a vehicle, I want a servant.” When your legs are all right by God's grace, you can walk. And why do you want a servant? A servant is necessary when you cannot do something for your own self for some reason or the other. Where you can do it, you must do it yourself. This is not merely an institutional or a social mandate but a personal discipline of every spiritual seeker.

Asking for comfort is reprehensible from the point of view of the discipline of spiritual practice. You may require books to read, paper to write upon, a minimum diet to eat, minimum clothing, minimum accommodation. Keep all these to the minimum. Do not accept what is not necessary for your physical existence. That is called aparigraha – non-acceptance of gifts, as it is usually translated according to the sutra of Patanjali.

These are not humorous instructions but scientific recipes medically administered to every spiritual seeker because once you give a long rope to your likes and dislikes, they will control you, and you will be no master of them. Everything goes with a preference. “You see, I prefer coffee to tea,” they will say. They do not say, “I have an attachment to it.” “I prefer” seems to be a harmless and sattvic expression. “I prefer coffee to tea.” Afterwards the preference becomes, “I wish that I should have only coffee.” Preference has become a wish, and then it becomes a desire. “I must have coffee only.” Then it becomes an overruling need. “I cannot sleep without coffee; otherwise, I will get a splitting headache so I must take coffee.” Now the coffee has started controlling you instead of your controlling it. Let not preference become an overwhelming passion over you. A passion is a preference that has become wild, uncontrollable. A preference becomes a wish, a wish becomes a desire, a desire becomes a passion. Then you are no master, you are a slave. You become psychopathic to some extent. Then there is no sadhana; it is all gone. You become a slave of forces that are beyond your control.

Very cautious questions have to be put to one's own self – firstly, as I said, whether you have unfulfilled, frustrated desires sensorially or egoistically. Secondly, what are your needs as different from the luxuries that you may like to have? Thirdly, a very important thing to remember, is whether the ideals that you are pursuing, the aim that you are driving at is really in consonance with the ultimate aim of your life. It is difficult to always keep the ultimate aim before your mind's eye even in the small things of life, and even advanced seekers will not be successful in this attempt. When you take your bath, when you go for a walk, when you take your lunch, when you smile with friends, when you are having a little recreation, in such easy items of your life it is difficult for you to keep before your mind's eye the ultimate purpose for which you exist and are supposed to function.

But though the ultimate purpose may not be always clear to your mind, one thing at least should be clear, namely, that what you do and the way in which you conduct yourselves in life is not dissonant with the ultimate aim. It should be consonant with it. Taking a bath cannot be connected with the ultimate purpose of the realisation of God. What is the connection between the realisation of God and taking a bath? There may not be a direct connection, but indirectly it has a connection. All things need not be directly connected with God, but they are indirectly connected somehow or other. If you do not take a bath, you will have discomfort of the body; it may tend to illness, and when illness comes, something else will be upset. If one thing is upset, another thing becomes upset, and finally sadhana is upset, and then mental peace has gone. That is how it is connected with God-realisation. Eating food seems to have no connection with God-realisation, but it has a purpose. It is connected with God-realisation also, in some way; otherwise, you would not be doing it.

Now you must very cautiously put a third question of whether the activities of your life are at least indirectly connected with your ultimate purpose. If an activity is absolutely unconnected, you should not do it. There is a famous aphorism of Kapila in the Sankhya sutras: Absolutely irrelevant deeds and conduct would be to your bondage. This happened in the case of Sage Jadabharata, a great sage, who was bound by an indiscreet connection with irrelevant items not connected with spiritual sadhana, which story occurs in the Srimad Bhagavata. So the third question is, “Is anything in my life absolutely irrelevant for the ultimate purpose?” If it is irrelevant, it has to be got rid of with great effort of mind.

The fourth question that you have to put to your own self is whether you do anything positively contributory to the achievement of your goal, apart from negatively restraining yourself from contact with undesirable things. Sadhana is twofold: vairagya and abhyasa. Abhyāsa vairāgyābhyāṁ tan nirodhaḥ (Y.S. 1.12) says Patanjali, and says the Bhagavadgita also. Sadhana is a twofold process of vairagya and abhyasa: negative freedom from contact with undesirable things is vairagya, and positive practice directly contributory to the achievement of your ultimate goal is abhyasa. So you have to practise this twofold sadhana. On one side you should be cautious that you do not get entangled in undesirable activities and things of the world. Though that is not enough, it is very essential. But more importantly, the gap is to be filled by a positive content. Avoiding something is one thing, but what you replace it with is practical sadhana, direct sadhana, such as japa, svadhyaya, dhyana, etc. While you should not be in the midst of attractive sensory objects and in an atmosphere which is repulsive to the spirit of sadhana within, you have also to be cautious that you fill this gap with japa, dhyana, svadhyaya and satsanga. Very important is satsanga, which is the company of the wise and the good. Either have good and wise friends or have no friends, but do not have undesirable friends. Your friend should be one who will help you in your spiritual progress. At least that friend should not be opposed in any manner to the spiritual progress you are aiming at.

All factors which are repugnant to the aspirations of the soul within should be cautiously avoided, and positive company of the wise and the good to the extent practicable in this world should be cultivated. Satsanga, svadhyaya, japa and dhyana or meditation – these are the principal items of spiritual practice. And an inward silent prayer to the Almighty to bless you with that intelligence and strength necessary to maintain the spirit is also a part of sadhana. Remember that a heartfelt, soul-felt prayer rising from the bottom of your being will be answered. There is no doubt about it. “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of,” said a poet very wisely. Prayer is not a foolish man's blabbering; it is not a rustic's attitude of sadhana. I feel, for myself at least, that prayer is perhaps the highest form of sadhana. It combines within itself all the other aspects of the different sides of spiritual practice. Meditation, japa, etc., are combined in it. A prayer of the soul, which your essence really is, is rising to the occasion and craving to unite itself with the Universal Soul in all its expressions. The prayer may be expressed in language, or it can be merely a feeling that arises from within. You may close your eyes, say nothing, and yet you are in the mode of prayer. “God please save me.” You may not utter it in these words, but your feelings are the real prayer; and every prayer rightly directed and really rising from the recesses of your heart shall be answered. There is no doubt about it. Be sure about it.

These are the positive aspects of sadhana, and are the implied aspects of Bhagavan Sri Krishna's instruction in the Third Chapter of the Bhagavadgita when he says that the higher should determine the lower. The element of divinity, spirituality and perfection should always regulate and determine the function of the lower principles and vocations of your life. God is your real friend, and you have no other friend in this world. The other friends will desert you one day, but God will not desert you.

You must remember this famous verse of the Bhagavadgita, which is like a pendant hanging in the garland of the verses of the whole gospel. Ananyāś cintayanto māṁ ye janāḥ paryupāsate, teṣāṁ nityābhiyuktānāṁ yogakṣemaṁ vahāmyaham (BG 9.22): “I shall take care of and protect that devotee of mine who is intently contemplating Me and resorts to Me and depends on Me wholeheartedly.” This verse is proclaimed by God as the Supreme Cosmic Being, and is the assurance of God to the whole of creation, to entire mankind, that if you wholeheartedly and entirely, totally depend upon God even for the smallest items of your life and your existence, your needs shall be fulfilled. Even the smallest, tiniest, silliest needs of your life shall be provided for. The universe is never poor. The resources of the cosmos are abundant. There cannot be dearth of things in this creation. Everything is full and perfect and overflowing in this creation of God, and we have only to tap the right source in the proper manner, which is the mood of prayer which is called sadhana, which is called meditation. When you are rightly tuned with the forces of the world, the world shall take care of you. It is the duty of the world to protect you because you are a citizen of the world. Just as the government of your nation protects you because you are a citizen of your country and you abide by the law of your nation, the law of the world shall protect you when you become a citizen of the world by abiding by the laws of the world, and God shall protect you when you abide by the laws of God. This is exactly the meaning of this verse of the Bhagavadgita, ananyāś cintayanto māṁ, etc. In this manner we have to positively fill our life of spiritual seeking together with a caution exercised by way of refraining from contact with undesirable things. This is to explain in a nutshell what vairagya and abhyasa mean.

The choice of books for your study also should be intelligently done. Svadhyaya, as I mentioned, is one of the items of sadhana. “God be thanked for books,” said a great poet. Books are great treasures. When you cannot have positive satsanga of living saints, you can have a sort of negative satsanga with the authors of these wonderful scriptures and spiritual texts. If you cannot see the great sage Vyasa directly, read the Bhagavata, the Bhagavadgita, the Mahabharata, which are the writings and the expositions of this great saint. The saint's thoughts are embedded in these great scriptures. You cannot see Jesus Christ directly, but reading the Bible, the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount gives you in the vehicle of language the spirit and blood of Christ himself. You set yourself in tune with the spirit of Christ when you study and contemplate upon the words of the Sermon on the Mount. When you read the Dhammapada you are in tune with the thought of Buddha. When you read the Bhagavadgita, you are in tune with the thought of Vyasa and Bhagavan Sri Krishna. So svadhyaya is as important as direct satsanga with mahatmas or masters and sages. We cannot always have masters and sages before us, so we resort to their writings, their expressions, their revelations in the form of scriptures and philosophical or yogic texts.

Going to a library and picking up any book that is there is not svadhyaya. Reading and svadhyaya are not identical with each other. In svadhyaya, you do not read a book merely for the sake of information. Svadhyaya means a regulated daily disciplined study of a chosen text or a chosen group of texts. It is a discipline of the soul, and not merely study for an examination or a hobby or just for recreation, as you do in a public library. It is a disciplined sacred study. Svadhyaya means sacred study. You study only a select set of books which are supposed to contain everything that you need and which will provide you enough food for intellectual and spiritual contemplation. This is to tell you what svadhyaya means and how important and necessary it is in our daily life.

Together with svadhyaya is japa. Japa is as important as svadhyaya. Japa is the disciplined sacred recitation, repetition, brooding over, contemplation of a chosen formula, a set of words or phrases. It may be even a song which is supposed to stimulate such ideas as are necessary to entertain the thought of God in our mind. Japa is only symbolic of spiritual contemplation. When we cannot invoke higher thoughts directly into our mind by sheer dint of will, we take the help of symbols in the form of chants, repetitions, recitations, etc., which is called japa sadhana. And what sort of mantra it is that would be required for your purpose will be decided by your Guru. That is called initiation. Japa and svadhyaya are thus complementary to dhyana or meditation. The best form of positive practice is dhyana or meditation. Japa, svadhyaya and satsanga are supposed to help in direct meditation on God, or the supreme goal of your life. In meditation the mind adjusts itself in such a manner that it is assonant with the law of God, or the Infinite. This is, again, done by stages. Next time I shall try to talk upon the aspects of meditation, which is the best form of spiritual practice, positively speaking.