The Path to Freedom: Mastering the Art of Total Perception
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 7: The Four Stages of Life as a Means to Reaching the Eternal

The exuberant growth of the plant of Brahmacharya into the strong tree of the life of the Grihastha is intended to yield the ripe fruits of Vanaprastha and Sannyasa. The energies seeking expression get subdued gradually by progression and retrogression, by steps taken forward as well as backward. The intention achieved is as in a long journey—many a hill and dale to cross, ups and downs, ascents and descents—yet indicating an onward movement in the journey.

The growth of the energies of the human being is in this sense a very complex movement, extending in almost every direction. The growth of the human system into a state of perfection that it aspires for is not a march in the sense of walking in one direction along a road to a fixed destination, but a different type of movement altogether. It is impossible to compare the way in which it grows or expresses itself internally. It is a simultaneous expansion in every direction, touching every point of the compass and taking into consideration every aspect of existence. In this sense, it is different from the ordinary movements of physical bodies. The movement of vital forces, the movement of consciousness, is impossible of judgement through logical categories. We cannot know how we proceed in the path of evolution. Our intellectual powers are not equipped to measure the extent of the inner response of the individual consciousness to the call of the Universal Spirit.

I began by saying there is a kind of inner relationship of the four Ashramas or stages of life with the four Purusharthas—dharma, artha, kama and moksha. These are indicative of destinies the human soul reaches, and the ways of pursuit, which are quite different in structure and content from anything we can understand in this world.

The most difficult of all things is to understand one’s self because the self of ours, the self of any individual, is inextricably involved in all the processes of creation. When we touch our self, we seem to be touching all the vital strings in creation. The difficulty in understanding one’s own mind lies in the fact that we made a very sharp distinction between our own self and our environment.

Our intellectual powers are unsuited to understanding the soul because the soul is organically related to the structural reality of the whole creation, whereas the intellect is so made, fortunately or unfortunately, that it can bifurcate the characteristic of objects from the objects themselves whenever it tries to understand them. This logic of bifurcation of the objects from its adjectives and predicates is applied by the intellect in the understanding of the Self, God, the Absolute, etc.

We are often told that intellectual logic is no help in understanding Reality. The reason is that the Real is the soul of the cosmos in some sense, as we have a soul in our own body. When we talk of a soul, we do not mean a single unit, a point in space, etc., though this would be the usual notion of the soul. When we talk of the soul of a body and when we speak of the souls of things metaphorically, we cannot help imagining a centre in space—enlightening and luminous though it may be. But the soul is not a shining centre, like a spark of fire. This conception of the soul is again due to a false application of intellectual logic to Reality.

This has become the reason for even our localising the concept of God to space. Everything for us is in space. We are in space, our soul is in space, God is in space. Nothing can be external to space. This difficulty has arisen on account of the fundamental error of our subjugating ourselves to the limitations of intellectual things; and so organically are we involved in this process of thinking that, for us, rationality is the soul. There were philosophers, in the West especially, who thought that the soul is a rational being; hence, rationality is the soul of man. Not so. The soul is super-rational. If at all you can associate the word ‘rational’ with the soul, it is super-rational in the sense that it includes within itself everything and anything that rationality can comprehend.

But it has in itself something unique which the intellect cannot comprehend, unique in the sense that the perception of the soul is not understanding, but a vision which is superior to understanding. This vision is, again to reiterate, what is known as intuition. We have heard so much about intuition, the correct grasp of Truth as it is. This intuition is the vision of the soul—the soul seeing directly, independent of the instruments of the senses, the mind, and the understanding. This direct apprehension of the soul by the soul is called intuition; therefore, the movement of the soul towards this destination in the process of evolution cannot be comprehended by intellectual sciences. Quite obvious is the reason behind it: Who can know the presupposition of the rational function of the intellect? It is faulty to imagine the soul to be a unit like a particle of dust or a spark of fire, or anything else that may be located in space and time.

The soul thus represents the transempirical reality. It is the Eternal that is shining through us. The soul is only a name that we give to the manner in which the Eternal expresses itself in the temporal. It is the Supreme Being that is speaking in a language unique to itself through the mortal coil. How can we restrict the soul to a concept or an object that is a part of creation? The soul is not a created object. Inasmuch as it is not a part of creation, the evolutionary part does not touch it vitally, and so it transcends human understanding.

Anything that is worthwhile, anything that is of momentous consequence in our life is not an intellectual affair. We know this only in the deepest recesses of our heart. It is something which we cannot express through language because it is the ‘I’ in us. We love it so much. So substantial it is that everything seems to evaporate into airy nothing before it. The language of the airy nothing is not spoken through our tongues, and so it is often said in the scriptures that the soul of the cosmos—the Reality behind all things—is beyond logic and intellectuality.

Hence it is that the path of the soul to its destiny is so secretly guarded by mysteries. This knowledge is the Upanishads—not in the sense of a written text, but in the sense of a secret apprehension of Truth, a knowledge which is identical with its Being. A soul’s revelation to itself is the Upanishads. When we speak of the soul’s evolution to its Self-realisation, we speak of something we cannot understand. Often we do not know what we are saying about the matter. It is because of these difficulties in associating the soul with anything that happens in the universe that we feel it hard to associate social life with spirituality. We are bound by social restrictions. Our bodily relations are socially tethered to rules and laws of many kinds, but we have a soul which refuses to be a social unit, which asserts itself as something absolutely independent of all social laws, and we often feel things have a Reality whose meaning social laws cannot explain.

We cannot bind the soul with any kind of law. Therefore, it is above all law, and all laws are made for its sake. Even the law of evolution, the highest of laws, is intended for explaining the meaning of the soul’s expressing itself into its own pristine nature. The march of the soul is thus not a movement in space. Universal movement is not spatial movement. And inasmuch as spiritual life is connected with the soul’s movement, spiritual life is independent of scientific formulations, social regulations and intellectual logic. Thus, spiritual life is peculiar to itself—explicable only through itself, and not by any other means.

The spirit can explain itself only through itself. It is intuition growing and expressing itself in the form of the progress of the movement of the world we call evolution. On account of this mystery hidden behind the cosmic evolution in which every one of us seems to be involved, the life of the individual becomes difficult to understand. Many a time we are face to face with problems which we cannot answer because they are not created by people, by things, or by laws and regulations. They arise simultaneously with our nature, which is bound up by the nature of the world.

Our nature is intrinsic to us, and an answer of a spiritual character can only come from within, not from without. All spiritual growth is an inner growth, like the growth of a tree. It is purely internal, though in its internal growth it draws sustenance from external forces. The individual centre, which is a unit of force, seeks expression and gathers within itself a momentum, like a river that flows into the ocean. The human individual’s evolutionary act may, to some extent, be compared to a river flowing to the ocean. In the beginning it is a droplet like the Ganga at Gangotri or Gomukh, and we cannot even see it, so insignificant it is in the beginning. But though it is small rivulets, yet even at the very beginning it has a tendency to move towards its destination. Though this tendency is not visible outside, it is inherent within, and it gains momentum by moving further. It gathers its tributaries into itself and gains more strength; and in this gaining of strength, it also gains further momentum to rush through the plains, inundating villages, sometimes destroying things, caring not what it confronts in its way. Somehow it finds its way to its home in the ocean, where it shall gain peace forever. When the river reaches the ocean, it rushes no more. It wants nothing further, for its purpose is served.

Likewise, human energies are forces that cannot rest quiet until they reach their consummation in the sea of forces. Though the waters of the river are akin to the waters of the ocean in substance, the manner of their working is different. While the ocean is calm, subdued and magnificent in its profundity, the river is restless and cannot find peace anywhere. It is universal force in comparison with individual force. As a river seeks its peace in the vast expanse of the ocean, the forces that constitute the unit of individuality rush towards the sea of force in the cosmos. All our hectic activity throughout the day is an attempt of the segregated units of energy to find their attunement in the ocean of energy. We have been isolated from home, and we ask for an attunement with it. Now in this process of the reuniting of the individual with the cosmic, many a mistake may happen, as in the rivers trying to find their way to the ocean. The river may have to face mountains obstructing its path, due to which it may have to run in a thousand directions, splashing its waters hither and thither and wasting itself in the effort to confront the barrier, overcome it, and find its way to the ocean.

The human individual may have to face the same situation. It is not that the human energies flow calmly, majestically into the ocean of universal force. We are obstructed by circular motions of force—whirls and coils of energies which may catch us on the way and suck us into themselves, wherein we may either get caught up or lose consciousness of our destination. This happens when the ultimate purpose of the movement of the universal force, manifest as an individual, is coupled somehow or other with personal desire.

I mentioned earlier that we have two kinds of energies, the Deva and the Asuric, the higher and the lower, one pulling us up to our universal home and the other tethering us down to the universal campus. The forces that tie us to the body are called desires; the forces that try to escape the limitations of the body and seek their expansion in the ocean of force are the aspirations for freedom. The Ashramas of life—the stages of Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprashtha and Sannyasa—are intended to sublimate this riotous force in our personality, riotous because it can get involved in desires of the body.

The onward journey of righteousness, therefore, oftentimes gets smothered by the downward pull of desire. To obviate this, the ancient seers have instituted this life of the Ashramas, where all stages are equally important. The Ashramas are inter-related, one sustaining the other, one having meaning in the other, one fulfilling the other, as also holds true for the Purusharthas. The stage of the Brahmacharin is the time intended for gathering momentum, gaining strength for further fulfilment. The Grihastha-dharma is an obstacle on the way that has to be confronted and overcome. In this confrontation of the mountain in front of the rushing river, it may waste some of its water breaking through the dams; it may even destroy things, but it shall fulfil its need. So the Grihastha-dharma is a kind of dam that is faced by the movement of this force. Necessary or unnecessary, it is something that it faces.

The Grihastha-dharma is not merely a social institution. The stages of life—Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa – are not social institutions created by man for his own whim and fancy. They are external names of forms taken by certain psychological necessities, and they have a tremendous reality behind them. They may take an external form in society for the internal training of the individual.

The whole purpose of the four stages is a gradual release of the energy that is in an incipient stage at the birth of a child. A child is born with desires of various types, of which it can have no knowledge on account of its immature mind. As it grows, the Ashramas act as an educative process for the child. They tend, protect and enable the incipient budding energies to grow with a purpose rather than wildly like trees in a forest.

Hence, the Ashramas are a process of education of the soul. The soul is something transempirical, as I mentioned already, unconnected with intellectual processes and sciences. Inasmuch as this process of education is so intricate and internal, it becomes difficult for us to understand what it is. We mistake it for the arts and sciences that teach us how to get on well in life. This is quite different. The education of the soul, which is the purpose of the Ashramas, is an inner process not merely in a scientific psychological sense, but in a more profound sense—so profound that it is inseparable from our own self.

We look at even our own self as we look at others, because we still have the habit of conceiving things in the form of objects. Even the soul is an object for us. It is really a non-objective principle, incapable of objectification. We cannot analyse or understand it with our intellect; it is ourselves. Who is to understand his own self? We are the understander. How can we know the soul, and where can there be a definition? Who is to define the soul when the definer himself is the soul? Such being the complexity of the soul, such being the difficulty of apprehending it in its pristine purity, so difficult also is the education of it. Therefore, a unique type of education called the Gurukula system was instituted.

Due consideration was given to the demands of the soul in the expressions of the energies in space and time in the form of desires. Remember, we have the Devas and the Asuras in us. The tremendous battle between the two is going on always—one asking for nectar, the other for poison. Both are struggling for victory within our own selves. Many times we lend our eyes either this side or that side. It is a Herculean task in the path of sadhana to strike a via media between these two calls, the higher and the lower, and often it can look that the life of a sadhaka is a miserable one.

Painful is the life of sadhana; therefore, we do not know which of the two directions to go. When we are asked to move both ways and are in the lower forms of mental expression, in the counter form of evolution, we are likely to listen to the call of the lower nature. It is easier to flow with the current of the river than to swim across or move upstream. The tendency of the lower Prakriti is to move towards the objects. The lower Prakriti, the Apara Prakriti, is the totality of the objects of the world and the forces that tend towards these objects. The lower nature of Apara Prakriti calls attention of the desireful mind; the higher aspirations, though they may be present even in the lower levels like fire hidden in a matchstick, are smothered and not visible.

No one likes to deliberately commit a wrong, but everyone unknowingly does it because the inner voice of the conscience which speaks in the language of Truth is misdirected by the illusory light that is shed by the senses that direct the mind towards the objects. So this Gurukula educational process of the soul took into consideration the lower and higher sides of the human individual.

Tremendous self-discipline was imparted to the Brahmachari. Especially, he was asked to live the life of the Golden Mean; otherwise, energies which are opposed but not sublimated may do more harm than if they are let alone. The Grihastha-dharma has been instituted after the stage of Brahmacharya merely to act as a resting place on the onward journey of the soul. It takes rest, but after the rest it has to move further. Even the period of rest is a period of preparation, not a period of mere slumber or woolgathering. It is the time given for the soul to recollect its memories, to gather more strength than it might spend in the life of Grihastha for the sake of a complete subdual of the forces in the stages of Vanaprastha and Sannyasa.

The forces that were incipient in Brahmacharya express themselves in Grihastha. They are then collected in Vanaprastha and Sannyasa, and focussed into a determination to reach the goal. Hence, the lives of the Vanaprasthi and the Sannyasi are lives of meditation in various forms. There are various types of meditations. As we have arts and sciences as types of education, likewise we have the many types of collecting the mental forces, all called meditation, to be done gradually, systematically, stage by stage, from the grosser to the subtler forms.

Thus, the relation to the four Purusharthas—dharma, artha, kama and moksha—is a final attunement of the individual forces with the purpose of creation. The purpose of creation is lost sight of on account of the insistent demands of the human desires. We do not want to know what the purpose of creation is. We have our own individual purposes and private business in which we get entangled so much that the final purpose of all the activities is lost. Very pitiable will be the condition of that mind whose vision gets constricted to its private concerns, taking them as its ultimate goal and missing the point at which it is really aiming.

All individual purpose, whatever it be in life, is a form tentatively taken by the universal purpose. The daily duties are miniatures of life’s duties. It is not that our daily duties are one thing, and our life duties are another. As minutes make the hour, our many duties make the life duty. In a likewise manner, the life duty is the duty of the cosmos. The life of the individual is intended for the fulfilment of the purpose of the universe. Inasmuch as all individuals are equally constructed and shaped, it follows from this that there should be a collaboration of individual purposes. There cannot be conflict of social forces or personalities because the purposes of individuals, though they appear to be different, are determined by a single subjective aim which directs itself into cosmic aim.

This is the purpose of spiritual education, which is the sum and substance of all education. It is the precondition of all processes of training of the mind. To be in tune with our own self is the ultimate purpose of learning anything in this world. What is the use of learning many things if we are not in tune with our own self? A person who is not in tune with his own self is called insane. All training that is consciously directed, called education, is intended to bring us nearer to our own self in its various expressions.

It is difficult to know what the self is. Again and again we will go to the old grandmother’s idea that the soul is a small spot in the body. Not so is the soul. It is not a dot shining in the heart. It is something different altogether. We cannot understand, and it is not supposed to be understood.

“Who is to understand the understander?” said Yajnavalkya. The soul is not to be understood by the methods of logic. Hence, collecting of energies through the stages of the Ashramas is meant for bringing the soul nearer to itself in the various stages of self-expression, and it is only by a gradual transcendence of these stages that we can know what the soul is. No one can be taught what the soul is; therefore, any teaching of this kind will only confound the mind. Hence, in the beginning we have to treat every human being as a child. Concrete forms should be brought in front of the minds of children. If we only say, “One and one is two,” it would not do. We have to bring concrete things like two sticks, for example. “Here is one and there is another. How many are there—one or two?” “Two,” says the child.

Hence, we are gradually brought to the subtler and subtler theoretical forms—from arithmetic to geometry, from geometry to algebra, etc. The gross form of the Self is what presents itself to us before our eyes, and even with Herculean effort we cannot get rid of this idea. Who are you, sir? “I am Mr. so and so,” is the definition of the soul, given even by educated people. Hence, the bodily self is taken as the base of understanding, which is outgrown gradually by what we may call the Socrates teaching method of induction and deduction in such a way that one does not know that the teaching is being injected at all. Everyone resents being taught because everyone feels, “I am wise enough.” No one likes to be taught or directed. As nothing seems more painful than being taught by someone else, the right type of teaching may be the Socratic Method.

Sometimes a teacher does not assume the role of a teacher at all. In the process of psychoanalysis, this is also sometimes adopted. At first we enter into the psychological condition of the student and study the student’s life. The teacher comes down to the level of the life of the student, lives as a student for all practical purposes, and then it becomes easier for the student to imbibe the character of the teacher. If the teacher is always on a high pedestal, the student may not reach the level of the teacher. There should be harmony between the student and the teacher, which can be done only when either the student rises up to the level of the teacher or the teacher comes down to the level of the student.

There should be harmonious movement between the forces that teach and those that receive the teachings. This is the principle behind the Gurukula education—the contact of the teacher and the student—wherein the teacher is both the teacher and the guardian. Nowadays parents and teachers are different persons. The teacher has no parental affection and the parent has no capacity to teach, so there is a gulf between the two things that the student needs. There are many difficulties in the processes of teaching. The expression of the soul through the gross form of the body is taken as the base of instruction. It is taken through the family and the society, and in a later stage it is taken to its vaster expanse of creation that we see before our eyes. Yet, we know the self we see is taken for a kind of object.

The self is so much identified with objectivity that we mistakenly think events take place in relation to our own self. The bodily pain is regarded as the soul’s pain, bodily pleasure is regarded as the soul’s pleasure, the family pleasures and pains are regarded as the person’s pleasure and pain; likewise is it in the other planes also. We have the bodily self, family self, patriot national self, world self, and so on. Even when we speak of the universal Self, it is still in a state of objectification; we regard it as a kind of power that is inherent in all things with which we have to be united. But that is a very advanced state, which very few people reach.

Hence, very few have been able to receive this lofty education of the spirit, but this is the intention of the education through the Ashramas. In the stages of Vanaprastha and Sannyasa, full maturity is reached and the true nature of the soul becomes apparent to the higher mind, which is not apparent earlier. In the two earlier stages of Brahmacharya and Grihastha, a kind of guarding from outside is necessary, and rules are enforced to restrict their movements and activities; there is external morality to a large extent in those stages. But internal morality flourishes in the Vanaprasthi and Sannyasi, where they abide by the law of their own accord and effort, and not because someone else asks them to. So there is a voluntary expression of the law of creation in Vanaprastha and Sannyasa, while in the Brahmacharya and Grihastha there is a compulsion, to some extent.

Whatever be the reason, the law is to be respected; whether by compulsion or impulsion, the purpose is the same. It appears to be a blind movement where we are taken by the hand, but later on it becomes a conscious movement with open eyes and clear vision. Thus, the internal purposes of the stages of the Ashramas are related to the universal purposes of dharma, artha, kama and moksha, and when these become apparent to our minds, we become mature seekers, and not otherwise.

Thus, we feel a need for knowing Truth. The call of the spirit is audibly heard and we cannot rest without responding to it, so we go to a master or a teacher. The Guru is approached by the disciple only when this wisdom dawns and when the need is felt as an inner impulsion, a conscious necessity, and not merely directed by external causes.

Now, the nature of the student on the spiritual path who approaches the Master or Guru is again worthy of consideration. The disciple is rare, says the Upanishad, and the teacher is even rarer. The giver of knowledge is a wonder, and the receiver of knowledge is also a wonder. The Kathopanishad says, āścaryo vaktā kuśalo (Katha 1.2.7): Shrewd should be the recipient of this wisdom. Dhīraḥ are these seekers,” says the Upanishad. Kaś cid dhīraḥ pratyag-ātmāna (Katha 2.1.1): It is for this purpose that people take to the lives of Vanaprastha and Sannyasa.

It is not a social order, again to reiterate, but a psychological maturity of the mind wherein it becomes fully conscious of its purpose in life. It is not merely partially aware, and its mind cannot be diverted in any way. Like an arrow that moves to its target, the mind of the seeker here asks for Truth, and Truth alone: Truth in its pristine purity. Then it is that a disciple approaches a master, fed up with all things of the world.

Who is to be the disciple and the student? One who has carefully examined the world through the pros and cons of its processes, who has seen through the world and not merely seen the world, who knows what the world is made up of and what the world can give. The world and that which are attainable through action or effort have to be carefully examined by the student.

What are the things of the world that are obtainable through effort? It is all that accrues to us in this life, or the other life, through efforts that we make. We do so many things throughout our life trying to obtain something. We have been working very hard for years together, in many a field of life. What have we got? We cannot say what we have got; yet, we have been sweating and toiling. Here the eyes get opened. We realise this in the last stages of life, to our own misfortune: substantially, the world has given us nothing. The fruits of our action in life seem to be nothing—hollow pretentions, tinsels that shine like silver and gold.

Realise the hollowness of all the fruits that have accrued from your hectic activities. You must get tired of all life—tired not from frustration or because you cannot fulfil your desires, but tired because you have seen everything. You know what they are and what they can give you.

It is wisdom that makes us tired of things, not frustrations. This tiresomeness, this weariness of the spirit makes us open our eyes to the fact that the Eternal is not to be reached by anything that is done in this world. All our efforts seem to be a waste before it. All the sleepless nights, all the midnight oil we burned seem to be meaningless before that Eternal call. All the many things we have done cannot achieve That which is not manufactured or done. The non-eternal cannot make us reach the Eternal. Therefore, we cannot reach the Eternal by any non-eternal activities. We have to approach the Guru who is well versed in all the knowledge of the scriptures and personally established in the Supreme Being, who alone can save us from this confusion, this misery, this bondage to action and desire.