The Foundation of Spirituality
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 4: The Stages of Karma, Upasana and Jnana in Our Spiritual Growth

In the light of our attempt at a study of the prerequisites to spiritual practice as we have considered up to this time, it would appear that the whole adventure is a graduated process. It is a living, growing and fulfilling advance which the true being of the person makes in the achievement of its purpose, its aim, its goal. Nothing is done in a hurry. It is always considered safe to take firm steps, though they are slow steps and not slippery ones, though they may look like fast ones.

The accepted tradition of the practice of sadhana chalks out a program which, in the language of an accepted ancient system, goes by the name of karma, upasana and jnana. To translate it literally, it is action, contemplation and knowledge. The one is not to be compared with the other, as if one is better than, or worse than, the other. As it was stated, these are to be regarded more as stages of ascent, rather than watertight systems of practice to be chosen according to one’s predilection of this or that, exclusively.

These stages, reputedly known as karma, upasana and jnana, are not three paths of practice. They are three stages of the ascent in the spiritual fulfilment of the total personality of the human being. It is a veritable procedure and technology of education of the human individuality. The lower and the higher, as stages of educational advancement, are not to be compared with each other as lower and higher. They are necessary stages. “I like only meditation. Why should I do any work?” There are some who think in this manner. “All this is Brahman. Why should I contemplate on anyone? There is no personal God. I like only Nirguna.” These are only some of the whims and fancies of certain illiterate spiritual seekers.

There are others who think humanity, humanity, humanity; service, service, service; work, work, work. And nothing is equal to that, nothing superior to that, nothing comparable with it. These are all extremist views of protagonists who take sides under the impression that the sides they have ignored or rejected either are unimportant, or perhaps do not exist at all. Neither are the ignored sides non-existent, nor are they unimportant.

The human personality is a very complicated structure. It is not something easy to understand. Our body is not just a bag into which we fill some food and pour some drink. Many young ones, children, and those who are not tutored adequately may be under the impression that the human body is only a barrel, that it is a vacuum inside, and we can go on filling anything into it as if it is a drum. No one knows what is operating inside the body. Only one who is acquainted with the anatomy and the physiological system within will know that the human body is not a barrel, is not a drum, is not a bag. It is not a sack into which we can throw anything we like.

But this knowledge that the body is not a sack or a bag, that it is something quite different and astounding in the way of its operation and reaction, will be known only to a deep investigative faculty arisen by profound education along these lines. Well, this is only to speak a little about the human physical body.

But man is more than the body, as can be easily ascertained. Our destiny, our joys, our sorrows, our aspirations are not really connected with the anatomy or the physiology of the body. Our feelings rule our destiny to a larger extent than even the health of the physical system. Our longings and our griefs, our disappointments and our breakdowns in emotions tell upon us more vehemently than even what can happen to us by starvation of the physical body. The body can stand starvation for some time, but not the feelings, not the emotions, not the curious reason which wants to know all things, not the inner longing of the root of man to fulfil himself in every way. These inner upsurges of the human personality cannot be stifled, and they cannot observe a fast. They have to seek their fulfilment.

Spiritual practice, to revert to our original point once again, is not an occupation, a job that you choose as you would like. You are free to choose any particular vocation according to your requirement, knowledge or capacity from among the many other jobs or occupations that are also accessible and possible, but spirituality is not such a job which you can choose. It is not one among the many pursuits of life. Here is a vital point that has to be driven into the minds of every sincere seeker.

Religion, call it spirituality, is not a way that you choose. It is not a path that you tread among the many others possible. It is the background, the very sustenance, the very basis, the meaning, and the foundation, the total essence, the very substance of anything that you can consider as meaningful or worthwhile in life. There is no such thing as taking to religion or resorting to spirituality. Such a thing is a misnomer.

The path of yoga, the path of religion or spirituality, is not a resorting to some way of living. It is an entering into the field of the totality of life. Thus, what you wrongly and in a miscalculated way call spirituality, religion, is not a Godward otherworldly movement from the existing world of physical realities. It is such an involvement in the total reality of life, visible or invisible, that the true spiritual seeker, sadhaka or religious aspiring soul becomes a perfectly healthy, developed whole being belonging to the world in its entirety. A spiritual seeker belongs to the world. Such a seeker does not belong to a little community or a family. He or she ceases even to have the consciousness of male or female when the intensity of spiritual aspiration takes possession. The spiritual seeker is radiance rather than a human being. It is a light rather than a personality. It is a response from within to the call from the eternal, rather than a man or a woman treading the path of religion. It is the answer of the soul within to the call of the Almighty. This is spiritual sadhana. Here the question of cult, creed, religion, colour, distance, direction and sex do not arise.

Thus it is that when you tread the path of the spirit, when you enter into the way of what is called spiritual practice, you overcome the limitations of an ordinary individual and become rather a super individual. Let us not use that magnificent word ‘superhuman’.

Karma, upasana and jnana – action, contemplation and wisdom or awakening – the stages mentioned according to accepted tradition, correspond to the stages of ascent of the inner constitution of the human individual. We live in a social world, and we live in the midst of people around us. There is nature, there is the atmosphere of the physical world, and there is the environment of humanity around us. Whatever be the truth of things finally in the end, there is also an empirical truth, visible truth, perceptible truth, experienced truth, which is the truth of involvement in the world of nature and the world of human society.

Action, karma so-called, the initial stage as it is usually considered to be, may be regarded as a necessary art of fulfilling the obligations which one owes to human society in which one is situated and in which one is involved, and according to the old, accepted tradition, these obligations, while they can be manifold, have been classified into at least five different essentials.

The duty towards your ancestors who brought you up is not to be considered as a non-essential. You know very well your parents have taken care of you; in your upward enthusiasm, may not this little essentiality be ignored. I was talking to an old man a few minutes before I came into the hall who was telling me to give him refuge in the ashram. Though his grandson is like a king, the grandfather wants refuge in the ashram. I told him, “Your grandson is a king, I know very well. How is it that you have no refuge except a tree and a little ashram?” This is modern education where grandparents have no value at all. Fathers and mothers lose significance when the son becomes a youth and has found it possible for him to live a newly wedded life of opulence with an imagined strength and a vainglorious satisfaction in life. This is very unfortunate.

We have a duty to everyone whose salt we have eaten, whose protection we have secured, who has sweated for our upbringing, and we owe perhaps some duty even to that soul in whose womb we have been writhing for several months. We owe perhaps a duty to the father who sent us to the school, to the parent who saw that we don’t fall off a precipice and break our legs, or touch a fire and burn our fingers, or go and fall upon a snake or a scorpion. We have been guarded against these obnoxious possibilities in our untutored ignorance of childhood. How can we say that we have no duties?

Well, there are many other duties apart from our duties to ancestors. We have a duty to our teacher, the master. He may be the teacher in a primary school. Can you say you have no respect and regard for him? The teacher who taught you in the schools, the professor who enlightened your brain in the university – you have no duty towards him? You have no regard for him? You do not owe anything to him? Are you superior to him? Are you imagining that you have just dropped from the skies like a sweet fruit and nobody has taken care of you?

There is a duty towards parents, there is a duty towards the superiors who have taken care of us, guided us, advised us and protected us and helped us in some way or the other. We have a duty to our teachers, to our schoolmasters, to our professors, to our guardians, to our guides in the universities. And we have a duty to many other things whose breath we are breathing. Even the tax that we pay to the government is not to be avoided. We have to pay the tax because the government protects us. It is not asking us to pay a charity to it. Everyone knows how a government is necessary. We have created it as an unavoidable necessity for protection, and the origin of the governmental system is well known to everybody who is acquainted with the philosophy of political science. If it is not a necessity, why should it be there? Let it not be there; you will see what happens to you. And people don’t want to pay tax. They avoid it somehow or other as if it is a grudging consideration on your part, a kind of dole that you are giving to the government. It is a little requirement that is demanded from you for the salt of the government that you eat. By salt, I mean the protection that you gain.

So is the human society – the neighbour, the community, the person next door. He is a friend, and he has some regard for you. The person next door is not a nobody. Some consideration on your part is expected in regard to that person also.

The five mahayajnas mentioned in ancient traditional circles have relevance to this point. When you have received knowledge from someone who had that knowledge, it follows that the person who had that knowledge shared that knowledge with you. You are today illumined because one who had that knowledge had the goodness and the charitableness of sharing that knowledge with you, so you too have to share that knowledge with others. Adhyāpanaṁ brahmayajñaḥ, says the Manu Smriti. Brahma yajna, or the sacrifice of knowledge, as you may call it, the sacrament, the worshipful adoration of knowledge is the respect that you pay to it by sharing it with others, and keeping the line of tradition of the continuity of this learning, and not breaking this thread. If no one had taught you, what would you have known? You would have been in ignorance. So if you have received something from others, why should not others also receive something from you? Be charitable. Share your knowledge by teaching: adhyāpanaṁ.

Pitṛyajñas tu tarpaṇam. I mentioned that you have an obligation to your ancestors. Ancestors, of course, may mean our own parents, grandparents, relatives who are alive here. They may also be those who are not alive in this world, because there is no such thing as really not being in this world. To this essential point I made a reference sometime back that there is no such thing as running away from the world because the world is everywhere, wherever you go. Even if you shed this body, you will be in the world only – in another realm of the world, but not away from the world. Likewise, there is no such thing as a dead and non-existent ancestor. Nobody is really dead; somewhere they are, and it would be a propitious gesture from your side to regard those ancient ones whose vibrations may perhaps be still active in the veins of your own body.

According to Hindu tradition at least, we believe in sixteen generations of ancestors. There is a ritual called shraddha, what is called pinda dhana, etc. This is an external ceremony which is indicative of a remembrance on our part of sixteen generations behind us. The seventeenth generation is dropped, according to tradition. The idea behind this seems to be that the power of the ancestors through sixteen generations may have some impact upon us. Their thoughts and the components of their blood may perhaps be capable of being traced in the little genes and chromosomes in our own body. Maybe after the sixteenth generation they may be completely transformed. These are mysteries into which we have no proper access. So we have a duty towards ancestors who are both alive and not alive by our daily prayers for their welfare in whatever realm they may be, and for their salvation, if that could be in our hands to some extent.

Homo daivo balir bhauto nṛyajño 'tithipūjanam, is a verse from the Manusmriti. There are powers which guard us. It is not merely the army and the police that protect us, though that is also true to some extent, as I mentioned to you already.

The gods in the heavens are not non-existent chimeras. They are realities. If you exist and I exist, why should they not exist? The gods, so-called, the deities, are referred to in a famous verse of the third chapter of the Bhagavadgita. Sahayajñāḥ prajāḥ sṛṣṭvā purovāca prajāpatiḥ, anena prasaviṣyadhvam eṣa vostv iṣṭakāmadhuk. Devān bhāvayatānena te devā bhāvayantu vaḥ, parasparaṁ bhāvayantaḥ śreyaḥ param avāpsyatha (Gita 3.10-11). Propitiate the gods because due to their superintendence over you, you are alive here, whether you know it or not. Who knows what authority the sun in the heavens has over your eyes, the organs of perception? He is supposed to be the deity over the eye, and it is believed that every limb of the body has a deity.

“What is this deity?” you may ask me. It is not the time to go into details of this intricate subject. When I spoke on several occasions previously, reference was made as to what these deities are. They are the necessary connecting divine elements between the subject and the object, the seer and the seen, yourself and the world, consciousness and its content, without whose intermediary operation knowledge itself would be unaccountable. Your knowledge of the world outside, your consciousness of anything being there outside, is due to the presence of something which is either a transcendent being, as you may call it, or something in which both you and your object is involved.

The god that we speak of is a relative term. This is the reason why we have many gods in religions. The many gods are not like many persons. They are like various grades of the authority exercised by the supreme divinity. In a way, we may say all the officials in the government are one person only. They are not many persons, though they look like many persons. And similarly, these gods look like many divinities but are not many divinities, as there are no many governments though there are many officials. These officials are gradational descents of a single authority at the top, called the governmental ordinance. So these gods are the officials, and they are multifarious. They have to be such, yet they are one only in the end.

Thus is the way we may try to understand what these gods are. They have some say over us, and we offer our prayers, our worships, our pujas, and all those rituals called adoration, prayer, worship, mass or whatever be the name you give to it according to your own religious tradition. These are the obligations, duties, karmas you owe to these divinities. When you cannot directly contemplate them and mentally adore them, you perform this worship through an external ritual in the form of offering of a flower, waving of a light or pouring sacred ghee into the holy fire. If your mind is strong, external forms may not be necessary; internal communion is adequate. But you know very well an internal communion is not practicable for those who live in an external world of outward relations. So outward performance of rituals in the form of worship is important as long as you consider there are people outside you and the world is real, external to you.

And you have a duty even to animals. Don’t think that you are a human being and, therefore, you have concern only with human beings. Humanity, mankind – you go on crying hoarse as if the world is made up of only human beings and there is nobody else. Perhaps the world contains greater truths than what man can imagine in his mind, and the powers that govern the world are superhuman, not human.

Well, apart from human beings, there are powers which are sometimes considered by us as subhuman, but they are not. The power of an atom may be called subhuman, but you know what power it is. The power of electricity, the high voltage current, is subhuman, but you know its strength. And all the powers that you can recognise in the five elements – earth, water, fire, air, ether – may be said to be subhuman, but you know their strength. They can wipe you out in one minute, though you think you are human and they are subhuman.

You have, therefore, a duty of consideration even for those little humble creatures who cannot speak in a language – the cows, the dogs, the birds, and even the ants, says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Disturb not even an ant in your house. Don’t crush it and throw it out with a broom. It is not a poor nothing. Unfortunate is the knowledge of man if he thinks that the ant is a poor nobody, and that it has no say in this world. It has as much a say as the Creator Brahma himself may have. So the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, especially towards the conclusion of the fourth section of the first chapter, is eloquent when it stresses to harm not even ants in your house, and feed them. And what does the Upanishad tell you? These little things whom you have taken care of and fed with love and affection will take care of you one day or the other. A mouse can save a lion. Let not the lion say, “You poor mouse, what can you do to me?” Do not proud men say, “You poor ant, what can you do to me?” And you know the story of how a mouse could save a lion. If that is true, pride not your ego, and do not pat yourself on the back unnecessarily that you are the crown of creation. Nothing of the kind may be true.

As the Upanishad puts it here in this context, extend the love of self to even these little creatures. If you harm them not, if on the other hand you take care of them and disturb them not, they will love you as their own self. As you have extended your selfhood to them, they will one day or the other find an opportunity to extend their selfhood to you. As you do to others, so you will be done. Be careful. This is called bali yajna. In ancient tradition people keep a little rice or foodstuff outside for crows, dogs, cattle, whoever they be.

And you should not gulp your food without having any consideration as to what is outside. The Smriti says that just at the time when you are taking your meal, says the Smriti, have a look around and see if anybody is standing at your door. You may ask him, “Have you taken your meal?” It is your duty to ask. And if he has not, may you share what you have. This is atithi yajna.

These yajnas, the five mentioned as mahayajnaspancha mahayajnas – are not merely expiations for commissions and omissions, as they are sometimes interpreted to be. They may also be regarded as essential duties. You owe a duty to everyone and everything whose support you receive knowingly or unknowingly.

You have a duty even to the very five elements: the earth on which you are seated, the water that you drink, the air that you breathe, the heat that warms you, and the very space that accommodates you. Says the Manusmriti, the very five elements will stand witness one day or other for what you have thought, felt and done.

Karma, action, duty, obligation is not a non-essential as over-enthusiasts in religion and spiritual life may imagine. Shirking duty is not equivalent to running to God. There is no connection between the two. “Make friendship with your brother first before you enter the Kingdom of God,” said Christ.

Thus, karma is the stage which is essential in the ascent of the spirit to the ultimate goal of life as enunciated in our tradition. I have tried to explain this in some detail as would be comprehended by you sadhakas seated here, and I am sure you have noted down these essentialities for the time being.