Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Who Am I? Part II

(In a series of articles that attempts to examine the purpose of life, based on our scriptures, this is an introduction to the ‘Adwait’ philosophy of Vedanta)

The Adwait philosophy of Vedanta was fortified in the 8th century by Adi Shankracharya. The foundation of the Vedant philosophy vests on the principle of ‘one-ness’. In this context, Adi Shankaracharya said, ‘Brahma Satya, Jagat Mithya’. It means Brahm/Brahman is the ‘ultimate reality’, the world is an ‘illusion’ or ‘maya’ and ultimately, Jeeva (individual self) and Brahma are one and the same. Mithya does not mean that the world is ‘false’, it means the world is temporary because we can see it and experience it with our sensory organs and mind. But the real self is one which pervades beyond the sensory organs and mind, therefore, the world has been said to be mithya.
If we pause for a minute and ask ourselves, ‘Who Am I’, the probable answer could be a resultant of our parentage, status, designation, address, name etc. We consider these things to be our identity. We never think beyond the physical self or our body and identify ourselves with the body only. Why is there a need to as the question ‘who am I?’? Have we ever thought why we were born as a human? Could there be a purpose behind this or is it simply a chemical/biological process that ends with the end of the body? Is our ‘true self’ beyond the body? If so, how do we ascertain our true self? This is a journey, a quest to answer this question.
At the outset, the answer to this question i.e. ‘Who Am I?’ is ‘I am soul’ and ‘I am Brahma’. As easy as it may seem, the real challenge is to arrive at that realization. That realization is buddhatva, that is moksha. Yog, meditation and different forms of worships are ‘tools’ to reach that realization. Brahma can be seen as an ocean and soul can be seen as a drop of the ocean, that which is a part of the ocean but if separated from it, one thinks that it has a separate existence. This is the ultimate truth, the meaning of Vedanta, i.e. ‘truth as it is’.
In Chapter II of the Bhagwat Gita, Krishna tells Arjun:
na tvevāha jātu nāsa na tva neme janādhipā
na chaiva na bhavi
hyāma sarve vayamata param
त्वेवाहं जातु नासं त्वं नेमे जनाधिपाः चैव भविष्यामः सर्वे वयमतः परम्
Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. Krishna indicates at the eternal nature of the soul. He further hints at ‘one-ness’ of all beings as flowing from ‘brahma’.
The real ‘I’ is beyond life and death. When a body dies, the real ‘I’ leaves the body. This separate entity is ‘Aatma’ or the ‘Soul’ which is our real identity. That is the ‘default setting’ of a being, however, on account of agyan one starts identifying one’s self with body and the interests of the body are represented by the sensory organs and mind which constantly strive for physical gratification. When desires become cravings , the deluded person frantically tries to satisfy them by any means – fair or foul. When man identifies himself with Aatma , his aspirations and inclinations naturally begin to follow the righteous path of self discipline , which provides happiness to the Soul.
जायते म्रियते वा कदाचि न्नायं भूत्वा भविता वा भूयः। अजो नित्यः शाश्वतोऽयं पुराणो न हन्यते हन्यमाने शरीरे।।2.20।।
Bhagwat Gita 2/20:
The soul is neither born, nor does it ever die; nor having once existed, does it ever cease to be. The soul is without birth, eternal, immortal, and ageless. It is not destroyed when the body is destroyed
Ashtavakra Gita and ‘Tattvabodh’ (of Adi Shankracharya), define the soul as the ‘witness’ of ‘panchbhoot’ or the ‘Five Elements’ that make up a body, i.e., earth, water, fire, air and space. It is said that the soul is neither these five elements, nor is it the body and even the mind. It pervades all and stays as a neutral ‘drishta’ or observer.
To achieve the goal of Brahma or realise the self, Shankaracharya has suggested a four-fold method which is quintessential for a seeker of Vedanta. These are (1) Vivek (Reasoning), (2) Vairagya (Dispassion), (3) Shat Shampati (Six Treasures) viz. Sham (Controlling the mind), Dama (Controlling the senses), Uprati (internal dispassion), Titiksha (endurance), Shraddha (faith) and Samadhan (focus and concentration) and (4) Mumukshatva (Desire to know the truth).

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Monk who inspired millions!

Like many others, this monk from Gourmohan Mukherjee Street in North Calcutta caught my imagination as a teenager.  I read about him & his guru but his teachings on Vedanta were heavy-duty stuff for me back then. Thus, as life slipped into the routine stuff of earning, eating, sleeping, reproducing, Swami Vivekananda was forgotten.
About two and a half years ago, I was introduced to my Guru, Pandit Shriram Sharma Acharya and from thereon, I decided to tread on the difficult path of spiritual awakening hitherto unknown to me. Although Gurudev shed his physical self in 1990, his writings, in excess of 3000 books, still illuminate and enlighten millions. He used to say “I am not a person but a thought”. It looks like an invisible force is guiding me to lead life in a particular way and make it worth wile. A pre-requisite of spiritual awakening is a disciplined life and continuously attempting to lead it with austerity.
There are three or four prominent figures from the spiritual realm, which Gurudev has repeatedly referred to in his writings viz. Mahrishi Raman, Arvind, Mahatma Gandhi & Vivekananda. On account of spiritual endeavours, my previous fascination for Swami Vivekananda re-surfaced and I began to draw parallels between a “modern” day average individual and the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. Let us try and glance at the life he led and the way he showed to humanity for thousands of years to come
Early Life
Born in a relatively privileged & well-to-do family from North Calcutta, Naren (as Swami Vivekananda was called before becoming a monk & formally accepting Sanyas) had quite a comfortable childhood. He was blessed with a photographic memory and was a restless child. As he grew up, he used to discuss Western Philosophy & other literary stuff with his father, Attorney Bishwanath Dutta, who was a well-read man. His mother, Bhuvneshwari Devi, had a deep influence on him and recited to him, inspirational stories from ancient religious texts. He got introduced to Thakur Ramkrishna Parmahans at a common acquaintance’s house. Thakur immediately took a liking for the boy and invited him to Dakshineshwar Temple, where he served as a priest. Perhaps he had already foreseen Naren’s future and had planned things for him. Naren was sceptical of this man and thought he was mad, claiming to go in bhaav Samadhi (trance). He was restless to meet a person who could claim to have seen God or direct him to God! Thakur claimed he had and would help Naren see God as well. Naren did not believe in these assertions easily. He was a classic example of an educated, city bred boy who would not take things on their face value. He believed in testing everything on the thresh-hold of “proof” and not beliefs. Thakur was patient with him and layer by layer cleared all the doubts in his mind regarding existence and the purpose of life.
Tragedy intervened and Bishwanath Dutta passed away, leaving Naren as the sole earning member of the family. There were times when he used to be completely hungry. This period was of uncertainties, dejection & acute poverty. But then, such has been the story of all great men.
From Narendra Nath Dutta to Swami Vivekananda
Naren requested Thakur to pray to Goddess Kali to take care of his problems & provide respite to him and his family. Thakur suggested Naren to go before the deity himself and ask for it. He went thrice and could only ask for knowledge (gyaan), devotion (bhakti) and renunciation (vairagya). He understood that the purpose of his life lay elsewhere and not in worldly affairs. He formally entered Sanyas along with other disciples of Ramkrishna. He pledged to spread the teachings of his Guru for upliftment of humanity. Ramkrishna was diagnosed with throat cancer which proved to be fatal. Entrusting Naren with the responsibility of taking care of other Guru Bhais and of spreading his teachings, Ramkrishna gave up his physical self. Naren organised his guru bhais into a monk-order which was the nucleus of the present day Ramkrishna Mission. These young men, barely in their late 20s, discussed a wide range of subjects, with spirituality being at the core. They used to beg food like true Sanyasis. Naren assumed the name of Swami Vivekananda.
Swamiji decided to tour the entire country alone, which apart from being under a foreign rule, was also chained by superstitions, casteism, point-less regressive rituals and practices. He travelled the length & breadth of the country and was appalled at the poverty, ignorance & pitiable state of his fellow countrymen.  At times, tears would trickle down on his face uncontrollably.  He decided to devote his life to serve his countrymen and therefore, his first & the most valuable teaching was-serve the poor countrymen and it is equal to serving god. It is the greatest religion to serve humanity and no religion can be greater than that.
At Kanyakumari, he sat on a rock few kilometres away from the sea shore, and meditated for three days. He had swam the entire distance to be on the said rock! From thereon, he conceptualised the idea of crossing the sea and going to the West and spreading the message of Hindu Religion & Indian culture. It looked like an indication & instruction from his Guru.
The Parliament of World’s Religions
With the help of Maharaja Ajeet Singhji of Khetri (Rajasthan), he reached America and despite a number of difficulties, he stood to address a wide range of audience hailing from different cultures, religions, countries & ethnicities on 11 September 1893 at the Parliament of World’s Religions, Art Institute of Chicago. He started his address by the now famous phrase “Sisters & brothers of America..”. Barely had he spoken and the audience burst into an applause, giving him a standing ovation. But Vivekananda had mustered a lot of courage to stand up and speak. In fact, he let other speakers speak and skipped his turn on multiple occasions. He was nervous and he was doubtful. So he invoked his Guru and sought confidence & courage. The plea was answered and when he rose to speak he was radiating with energy and confidence. He spoke of the most ancient orders of the monks in the world, of the mother of religions (Hindu Dharma). His message “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true” gives the crux of entire Hindu Religion in one sentence. He asserted the principle enshrined in the Bhagwat Geeta that "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." He concluded by calling for universal harmony and co-existence of all religions and the principles of "Help and not fight," "Assimilation and not Destruction," "Harmony and Peace and not Dissension." This speech of his is relevant even after over a century later continues to inspire people across all horizons. An important and underlining teaching from this is unflinching faith in Guru. Swamiji had tremendous faith in his Guru. After his initial phase of doubts & questions, once he realised his relationship with his guru, he offered total surrender, irrespective of physical existence of his guru.
A lot of people ask these days “What is the need of a Guru?” Their perception is based on stories of those who claim themselves to be Gurus but turn out to be deceits. In today’s times, there are a lot of people, or thugs, who fool people on the name of religion. Therefore, it is natural to be sceptical of the guru-shishya concept. However, it must be kept in mind that guru-shishya tradition is an age old concept in Indian culture. A guru has been equated with the trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh. A guru has been placed above parents. A Sadguru can turn an ordinary man into a great human being. Samarth Ramdas-Shivaji, Chanakya-Chandragupta, Gokahle-Gandhi etc. are a few from the innumerable examples of guru-shishya. In the Bhagwat Geeta, Arjun argues and reasons with Krishna against killing of his own kith & kin, but after a point, he clearly says, I am your Shishya (disciple), show me the right way. It is often said that real geeta begins from this point, when Arjun offers surrender to his Guru as a Shishya. "Shishyaste ham shaadi maam tvaam prapannaa- I propose to be your disciple, please guide me” says Arjun. Thus, it is important to have a Guru and offer total surrender to him like these great men did.
Youth & Swami Vivekananda
Swamiji was passionate about moulding Youth. He almost gave a war cry to the Youth when he said “Arise, awake and stop not, till the goal is reached”. To him, it was inexplicable, that while his motherland & her thousands of destitute children suffer, how could one rest and think of material pleasures? Humans and animals have somethings in common. Eating, sleeping & reproduction. But man has been given the power of speech, of being rational, of communicating, of doing great things. By indulging in material pleasures why is man degrading himself when he has been bestowed with powers to do great things? Yogeshwar Krishna says in Geeta “Like a tortoise contracts all of its organs into its shell, a man should have the power to control his senses.”
Swamiji’s birthday 12 January is celebrated as “Yuva Diwas” or “Youth Day” in India. His life is an example for the youth of this country to follow. By 2020, a major chunk of the population will be between the age-group 18-35. This period is a period of transition and change and his following message to the Youth is something for all of us to imbibe and practice:-
I have faith in my country, and especially in the youth of my country. My hope is in you. With an immense amount of feeling and enthusiasm in the blood, will come heroes who will march from one corner of the earth to the other, preaching and teaching the eternal spiritual truths of our forefathers. And this is the great work before you. Each one of you has a glorious future if you dare believe me.
Rouse yourselves, therefore, for life is short. A far greater work is this sacrifice of yourselves for the benefit of your race, for the welfare of humanity. I will tell you in plain language that you work best when you work for others. The best work that you ever did for yourselves was when you worked for others. This life is short, vanities of the world are transient, but they alone live who live for others, the rest are more dead than alive. Be not afraid of anything. You will do marvelous work.

He had uttered these words over a century ago but the strong effect they have can be fathomed and applied in today’s context easily. India has great potential and if its youth can be channelized, it can offer solutions to all the global problems. The problems during Swamiji’s period ware akin to those what we face today, although their form and intensity may vary from those which existed back then. Terrorism, global warming, illiteracy, poverty are some of the broad problems which exist today. Other than these problems a wider range of other problems like depression of various kinds, jealousy, a mad-want for materialistic pleasures, of accumulating and amassing, degradation of values etc. persist. If one reads the works of Swami Vivekananda and his life carefully, one can find all the solutions to these problems. Swamiji used to say, what I’ve done is perhaps sufficient for the coming thousand years. It is about time that we, the young men and women of India, pay heed to Swamiji’s teachings and messages in order to build a strong family, society and nation.  Continuous efforts must be made to remove bad tendencies hiding in the subtle mind. It is absolutely necessary that whatever bad tendencies we find in our actions, thoughts and personality, we gather positive thoughts to counter these tendencies. Eradication of bad thoughts is only possible by current of good thoughts. Only when we are equipped with good thoughts and vision, we will be able to serve others and rise above selfishness.
Swamiji lived for little less than 40 years. He worked tirelessly, ignoring his health, in completing the task assigned to him by his guru. He had foreseen his end long back. To science, his end may seem as something which was brought about by the numerous diseases such as diabetes, asthma etc. he suffered from during his final years. If we try to understand it from a more subtle-spiritual angle, it can be said that his consciousness or chetana had become so huge, that his body was unable to contain it and he had to leave it.
Whatever the case may be, the fulcrum of his life was serving humanity and passing on teachings which will help men become better human beings. Till the very end, he suffered with the sufferings of his fellow beings. In conclusion, it can be said that for generations to come, he will inspire us to grow spiritually, devote ourselves to service of all those in need and eventually service of the nation.