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Living a Spiritual Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 4: Understanding the Situation of Life

The outcome of our earlier discussions centres round the conclusion that the properties constituting the sense organs move towards the very same properties that constitute the world of objects. That is to say, the affinity between the characters of the perceiving or cognising organs and the structure of the objects is the reason behind sense perception. It is as if friends meet friends. This is something easy to understand. Similar things attract each other; dissimilar things repel each other.

While the river moves with a great force towards the ocean, the ocean can receive the river with a greater force than the river can muster. All the rivers jointly cannot face the power of the ocean. Likewise, it may be said that the sense organs, which are like the rivers moving towards the sea of the objects of sense, may find themselves faced with a large tumultuous ocean of objectivity which they cannot easily comprehend, and cannot exhaust with all their might and main.

This is the reason why there is no end for sense desires. Any amount of water poured into the ocean cannot satisfy the ocean. It is not only that all our desires conceived through the sense organs or their activity cannot be fulfilled by the objects of the world; but much more than that, the world of objects can create more desires. Inasmuch as there is an endless repertoire in this stock of the oceanic expanse of the world of objects, the sense organs can never feel that they have exhausted the resources of the world by their contact with them. This is evidently the reason behind the great statement of the seer of the Upanishads that the pull of the world is greater than the pull of the sense organs towards the objects.

The world can attract us with a greater might and ferocity than can be conceived by the velocity of the sense organs. The sense organs are strong enough, impetuous enough, but the power of the objects spread throughout the world of Nature is insurmountable. The force of objectivity can see to it that the senses get completely dried up, and the owner of the senses perishes without having achieved fulfilment of this infinite desire.

Finite individuality with finite sensations cannot contain the infinitude of presentation coming from the world of objects. Such is the insurmountable and inexhaustible attraction of the senses for the world of objects that several births have to be taken for even attempting to see whether the gamut of the world of objects can be covered in all the lives or incarnations through which one may pass.

The world is too big for a human individual, or any kind of individuality. Thus, desires can never be extinguished by fulfilment through contact of objects. The result of such a contact is repeated birth and death, and suffering, even at the time of this so-called pleasurable sensation of sense contact. In the beginning, it was an agony caused by the finitude of not being able to obtain the objects of desire; in the end, at the time of passing, it is again the agony that the desired result has not followed from the activity of the senses.

Even in the little span of life midway between the birth and the death of the individual, it is agony for various reasons, such as: How long will the object be with me? It can vanish for various reasons. If it is gold and silver and land and property and house, for well-known reasons, one can lose them. If they are human individuals, there can be bereavement. Many other causes known to human history can suffice to describe the agony of the human being throughout life, from birth to death. It is because of this turmoil and tragic background of human existence in the midst of the objects of the world that life has been called samsara, an aberration from the truth of life.

In one way, the movement of the sense organs towards the objects seems to be a natural activity because of the affinity already existing between the senses and their objects, due to the properties sattva, rajas, and tamas preponderating both in the sense organs and the objects. While this is conceded and appears natural and irresistible, there is an element of unnaturalness also behind it which is the source of sorrow, because if it had been entirely natural and normal, nobody would suffer in search of sense pleasures.

Where is the unnaturalness? It is secret. It is a hidden mystery that Nature keeps under her armpit without disclosing it to anybody. She would see that we dance to her tunes until we die. Her secrets should not be known to us because if we know the secret of the magician, we cannot enjoy the performance.

Why does the world attract us? One of the reasons is what has been already mentioned: the commensurability and the affinity of properties with properties. But something more is there about it, which is the tragedy behind it. That is the secret of the magician which has to be revealed—namely, why do the senses move towards the objects if the objects are made of the same stuff as they are made of? Will gold move towards gold? Is gold not sufficient unto itself? The fact that all the substances that go to constitute or form the world of objects are within us should make us ponder as to why we are dissatisfied with that stuff in us, and want to eat, grab, and possess that same stuff which is elsewhere.

How is it that we are dissatisfied with that thing which we have, and want to have the very same thing which is elsewhere? What is the great mystery behind this? Why does even a wealthy man want to grab somebody's property as if his wealth is insufficient?

Here is a secret that is behind the operations of Nature, as there are people pulling the wires behind the screen to make puppets dance. The puppets do not dance; they are moved by someone pulling the strings to which these puppets are connected. We are dancing. Active we are. We run about every day here and there doing many a thing because we are made to dance, as puppets, by strings pulled by somebody else behind the operative phenomenon of visible Nature.

Bhūmir āponalo vāyuḥ khaṁ mano buddhir eva ca (Gita 7.4). There are two kinds of nature, says Bhagavan Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. "Earth, water, fire, air, ether—these are my natural manifestations. Apareyam itas tvanyāṁ prakṛtiṁ viddhi me parām (Gita 7.5). But there is another secret of mine, which is above and beyond and far transcendent to the visible nature which is, of course, my nature."

The magician says, “Beautiful are my performances, but there is a secret behind my performances which should be considered as more beautiful. My wisdom in deceiving you is really more wondrous than the way in which I deceive you.” This is what Nature will tell us, finally.

Like fish caught by the fisherman's bait who think that they are catching a tasty dish but never realise that it is to their death, we are grabbed by the objects while imagining that we are grabbing them. As the world is too large, its power overwhelms us and we meekly submit to the pressure exerted upon our sense organs by the vast arena of objectivity.

Now, it is for the spiritual seekers to go deep into this matter. Why is it that sense control is necessary, if the senses come in contact with the objects in a natural manner, on account of affinity of properties? The reason for self-control is the very mistake that we are committing in this working for the affinity between two sides of Nature. It is indescribable as to how we can persuade ourselves to be dissatisfied with what we have, and try to be satisfied with the very same thing somewhere else. This enigma is the secret behind the so-called pleasures of life, and also the sorrows of life.

The senses do not really derive pleasure from the objects. They are deceived into that feeling. Why are they deceived in this way? Because of some subtle operation taking place behind them—the higher nature, as mentioned—being there behind and beyond the lower nature, which is confronting us in the form of the objects of sense.

It is worth knowing what happens when our sense organ comes in contact with an object. We only know that there is a contact of the sense with the object, but what happens behind the screen is not known to us at that time because we are struck with the wonderment of the beauty and the satisfying character of the object to such an extent that we cannot think what is happening to us. We may, in a way, say that the object brainwashes the senses and prevents them from knowing what is happening.

When the contact of the sense organ with the object has not taken place, there is a distress felt within, due to the reason that the longed-for thing has not been obtained. Therefore, a person who longs for a particular object feels grieved inside and does not want to talk to anybody until he comes in contact with that object. He would fast and lose sleep until that object comes into his possession.

When the object appears to be coming nearer, the prospect of its possible possession lessens the agony caused by the absence of such a contact, and there is a slight pleasure that it is coming near. This satisfaction is called priya, a slight titillation of the nervous system under the apprehension that what we require comes, and it is nearby. When it is nearer still, priya becomes moda, a deeper satisfaction that it is, after all, in the vicinity and it is soon going to be ours. When it is possessed, there is pramoda, or heightened satisfaction, and the mind ceases to think in terms of that object.

The thinking of the object was the source of the sorrow. That it has not been possessed is the sorrow. Now it has been possessed and, therefore, the sorrow ceases. There is deep satisfaction. From where has this satisfaction arisen? From the object? How have we imported pleasure from the object? How has it entered us, when it is really outside us?

Even the closest contact of oneself with the desired object still keeps the object as an external something. It does not enter the person. Even the closest and the nearest contact of a desired object does not mean that it is possessed. Unless it is part of our being, it cannot be regarded as having been possessed, and no object can become our being because it has its own independence. Thus, nobody can possess anything permanently in the world, except in a state of delusion.

Now, coming to the point, when the desire for the object ceases on account of the feeling that it has already been possessed, the distress caused by that desire also ceases. When the distress ceases, what happens at that flash of a second—before another agony starts that it may run away, leave us, we may lose it, somebody may grab it, and something may happen to it—between that subsequent possible feeling of another sorrow and the cessation of the earlier sorrow, there is a modicum of gap of the cessation of desire, in which context the immortal Atman within reflects itself in the mind and flashes forth as immense bliss. This is sense satisfaction.

The poor Atman, unknown to everybody, unrecognised, disliked, never cared for, comes to our rescue to give us this motherly affection even during the idiotic activity that we are entering into by sensory contact. Hence, now we can know why we are both happy and unhappy, simultaneously, when we come in contact with a sense object.

Sadhakas should, therefore, beware of this mischievous activity taking place in the world everywhere for everyone whose sense organs are active in respect of the objects outside. The lower nature tempts, the higher nature gives satisfaction. Both the natures are working within us at different times, and under different conditions.

As explained, the power of the sense organs is immense. Indriyāṇi pramāthīni haranti prasabhaṁ manaḥ (Gita 2.60): Very strong is the gale, the tornado, the whirlwind of the movement of the senses. They can pull the mind in their own direction, as a whirlwind can uproot trees and throw them in the direction it moves.

Balavan indriya-gramo vidvamsam api karshati [SB 9.19.17]: The cumulative power of the sense organs is such that in an unguarded moment, anyone can fall victim. The guarding of oneself against such mischievous activity of the sense organs is the beginning of spiritual practice, the commencement of real sadhana. When such is the power of the senses and the objects, how would we succeed in restraining the activity of the senses and revert into the Atman, from where alone we received the joy, even through the process of sense contact?

A great concentrated effort is called for; preparations galore are necessary. The sadhana-chatushtaya mentioned in the scriptures, viveka, vairagya, sadshampat and mumukshutva, say at the very beginning that we have to exercise our understanding before we start doing anything. Even in worldly activities, understanding precedes action. We cannot jump into a project without knowing what it is that we are embarking upon. The viveka spoken of here under the system of sadhana-chatushtaya, or the fourfold necessary qualification preparatory to higher spiritual practice, is the capacity to know the distinction between what is unreal and what is real—or, we may say, the distinction to be drawn between the working of the lower nature and the higher nature.

The lower nature pulls the centre in the direction of the circumference of things. The higher nature draws everything towards the centre. One is centrifugal and the other is centripetal. Both these activities are taking place in us. Spiritual seekers have a dual feeling, mostly. They cannot say that they are not in the world. Even the best spiritual seeker may find sometimes that the world is too much for him. It is impossible to resist it. The beauties of the world cannot be simply bypassed. Everyone knows what the world can give.

A poverty-stricken, financially poor spiritual seeker who has not seen what wealth is cannot ignore the fact that his ignorance of the values of life cannot be regarded as a spiritual virtue. That we do not have a thing does not mean that we do not want to have it. In the initial enthusiasm, spiritual aspirants are pumped up into a sudden outburst of inner activity making them leave their home and disconnect themselves from all that is near and dear, and resort to places where they think that they can be alone. There is no aloneness in this world. Everywhere we are in the world.

Bringing the analogy of the properties of objects, we can say the very same properties that constitute the father and mother and house and fields, etc., also constitute that place where we are living independently.

A starved individual can eat even a dry stick and it will be tasty. If we do not eat food for fifteen days, we will never complain against any diet. Everything is beautiful, and we gobble it. But if we eat three meals every day, we find that this is not all right, that is not all right; there will be all sorts of complaints against the dish that is served.

A starved individual is not to be regarded as a spiritual aspirant. Either we ought to have seen the world thoroughly, if it is possible, in which case as a king wanting no more of the kingdom, having seen through it thoroughly, we may resort to aloneness; or, if this is not practicable—nobody can be a king and enjoy the world thoroughly—then we have to exercise great philosophic wisdom and penetrating rationality to understand things both outwardly and inwardly so that, right from the beginning, we are guarded against any kind of onslaught of the objects by our miscalculation.

The viveka that is spoken of is described as nitya-anitya-vastu-viveka. The permanent and the impermanent have to be distinguished. This requires great rational and philosophical investigation. What are impermanent things, fleeting things, unsubstantial things? From this little analysis of sense contact and the pleasure thereof, we would gather that everything is fleeting. There is destruction of close contacts with anything in this world, due to the operations of history and the activities of Nature. Which is permanent in the world? We cannot say that even our breath is a permanent process. We are not masters of our breathing activity. We are breathing unconsciously. In a sense, our life is an unconscious activity. We are not consciously operating our brain, heart, lungs, or the breathing process.

Freedom is not this kind of living. Being subject to pressure and unknown principles operating behind us in every manner cannot be regarded as a life of freedom. Yet, people talk of freedom, saying they are independent individuals, though they are subjects to the core. Thus, like Buddha, who discovered that everything is a fluxation like a moving river or a burning flame which is not a stable object, covet not the objects of the senses under the impression that they are permanent, solid objects. There are no solid objects in this world, even according to discoveries of modern science. There are only forces, electrical charges, space-time complexities, which appear as concrete presentations before us in the form of objects. Objects, solidly speaking, do not exist. Therefore, a craving for solid objects, permanent things in the world, is pursuing a will-o'-the-wisp. It is running after a shadow.

And, from the analogy we cited, we also came to know that the happiness even in sense contact comes not from the object of the senses. It comes from somewhere else, which we have neglected throughout our life.

When the son is in a tragic condition, many a time the mother is the only rescue. Everyone else will desert him. The mother's love is greater than the love of anybody else, and this dear mother, which is the Atman within us, comes to our rescue. Even when we were going astray totally, the Atman was giving us a jot of pleasure. It could have refused to give that; then we would have died in one second. But even in the worst of conditions through which we are passing, it is there at our beck and call.

Suhṛdaṁ sarvabhūtānāṁ jñātvā māṁ śāntim ṛcchati (Gita 5.29): “Know me as the friend of all. Under the worst condition in which you are passing, I am your friend. I shall come to you. All the friends will leave you, the best of associations will desert you, condemn you, crucify you, hang you, for the least of your faults. But I shall be there at your rescue.” Remember this great verse of the Bhagavadgita. “Know me as your friend,” says the great God of the universe, planted within us as the Atman scintillating all bliss, all joy, an ocean of satisfaction.

Knowing this, viveka, rational investigation, understanding, is to be exercised by every spiritual seeker. When this understanding takes fruit, true vairagya, or the spirit of dissociation from fleeting phenomena, takes place automatically. Who will jump into a pit, knowing that there is a pit in front? If we do not know that there is a pit, even an elephant can fall inside.

You have to know that this world is made up of fleeting phenomena, not solid substances and, therefore, you cannot love anything with any common sense. Then whom are you going to love? That great friend who has promised you all things. Yogakṣemaṁ vahāmy aham (Gita 9.22): “I shall give you everything that you want, and guard you from every tragedy and suffering.” Somebody says that; find out who it is. The ignored friend comes now to the rescue of this aberrant prodigal son. Thus vairagya, or true detachment from fleeting phenomena, automatically takes place on the exercise of pure reason, viveka. Then these two effects follow, namely viveka and vairagya, in the true sense of the term. We have to emphasise 'true sense of the term'. It is not abhava vairagya, or the renunciation caused by absence of things, but having enough of things, we do not want them. When these two effects preponderate, when there is viveka and vairagya, the other emotional satisfying qualities also follow automatically.

The philosophical investigation has brought out a philosophical detachment, and now there is a need for emotional satisfaction. There should not be any kind of subtle longing that all the glory of the Earth has been lost. Sama, dama, uparati, titiksha, sraddha, samadhana are mentioned as the noble qualities to be seen automatically in a person who is detached from sense objects and perpetually exercising clear understanding. Calm and quiet is that individual. He is not irritated; he cannot be disturbed by the events of the world, because the events of the world have now been known in their true nature. They cannot cause any anxiety; they are passing phenomena. The serenity of the mind achieved in this manner brings about also a subdual of the activity of the sense organs, called dama. The agitations of the senses cease slowly, gradually, because of understanding.

The greatest power in this world is understanding; everything else comes afterwards. Physical strength is no strength; money strength is no strength. The strength of understanding is real strength. One must know everything in its truth and in its depths. Then one becomes calm and quiet. Śānto dānta uparatas titikṣuḥ samāhito bhūtvā (Brihad. 4.4.23) says the Upanishad. He ceases from unnecessary activity. It is not that he is inactive. The Bhagavadgita is again a great warning to us. The person who has ceased from desiring objects of sense is not necessarily a physically inert individual. There is an activity of a different type altogether.

One who is detached from the things of the world can work greater wonders in the world than those who are connected to the things of the world. We are, many a time, under the wrong impression that successful activity is a result of intense concern and desire for the result of that activity. It is not the case. Detached activity also brings with it the power of perpetual satisfaction arising from another source altogether than the activity itself. The satisfaction behind activity is not from the activity. It is another thing altogether, which is universally operating. This is why the Bhagavadgita insists on a kind of perpetual activity based on a universal knowledge. Karma Yoga is based on Buddhi Yoga. Karma Yoga is not activity only; it is not work. It is an operation that is unavoidably undertaken by a person involved in the process of Nature—participating in the work of God Himself, as it were, but wanting nothing for oneself because in this understanding, one has realised the fact that there is no such thing as 'oneself'. The 'oneself' has gone completely, like a wisp of wind, in the light of this analysis of the unsubstantiality of things which appear as solid objects.

Then, the power of endurance, titiksha, also follows at the same time. We can bear certain difficulties by the power of understanding so that we will not grieve if we lose something that is dear to us. It is to be tested for the good of everyone, what one feels when one loses what one considers as very necessary. Just think over: You have a very valued wristwatch. It is lost. What do you feel at that time? Test your mind. And if you lose a more valuable thing, what happens to the emotions inside at that time? That also is to be seen by every spiritual seeker.

Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj gave certain humorous suggestions for testing oneself: You are clean and neat, having taken a bath and put on beautiful clothing, and somebody inadvertently throws an ink pot on you. What do you feel at that time? You yourself have to see what your feelings would be. There are many other things mentioned in that little series of advice by Swamiji Maharaj.

Thus, persistence in one's practice in the light of the higher understanding mentioned, cessation of emotional longing for the objects of sense, power of endurance—all these follow spontaneously from a correct analysis of the situation of life and perpetual meditation on it, so that one may not forget even for a moment this truth that is discovered. With these preparations we have to move forward in the direction of our destination.