Fear to Fearlessness
mother could not get her son to get home before sunset. So
she told him that the road to their house was haunted by
ghosts, who came out after dusk. By the time the boy grew
up he was so afraid of ghosts that he refused to run errands
at night. So she gave him a medal and taught him that it would
religion gives him faith in the medal. Good religion gets
him to see that ghosts do not exist.(1)
is an important emotion common to human beings and animals.
If one fears darkness, another fears solitude; some fear water,
flying, heights of buildings and so on. Phobias are unreasonable
fears, not all of which might be harmful. Some phobias, however,
leave a permanent scar in the human psyche. Does religion
address this important human emotion?
Keynote of the Upanishads
fears necessarily involve a subject and an object: I and the
object of fear. Vedanta says that fear will persist as long
as we are conscious of an object different from us. And these
objects include our own body and mind, of which the subject,
the witness, is the Atman. ‘It is from a second entity that
fear comes,’ says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.(2)
And in the words of the Taittiriya Upanishad, ‘When
a man finds fearless support in That which is invisible, formless,
indefinable and supportless, he has then attained fearlessness.
If he makes the slightest differentiation in It, there is
fear for him.’(3)
Vivekananda’s teachings are laced and fortified with fearlessness.
He could never suffer weakness in anyone. He considered fearlessness
as one of the essential features of Hindu scriptures. During
his wandering days in 1892 Swamiji spent nine days with Sri
Sundararama Iyer in Trivandrum. Sri Iyer’s 14-year-old son
Ramaswami Sastri was deeply impressed by Swamiji’s personality.
Swamiji told him one day, ‘You are still a young boy, I hope
and wish that you will reverentially study the Upanishads,
the Brahma Sutras, and the Bhagavadgita … as
also the Itihasas, the Puranas and the Agamas. You will not
find the like of these anywhere in the world. Man alone, of
all living creatures, has a hunger in his heart to know the
whence and whither, the whys and wherefores of things. There
are four key words you must remember: abhaya (fearlessness),
ahimsa (non-injury), asangga (non-attachment)
and ananda (bliss). These words really sum up the essence
of all our sacred books. Remember them. Their implication
will become clear to you later on.’(4)
has to be our inevitable companion as long as the world appears
real to us. Bhartrihari’s Vairagya Shataka portrays this truth
admirably: ‘In enjoyment is the fear of disease; in social
position, the fear of falling off; in wealth, the fear of
hostile kings; in honour, the fear of humiliation; in power,
the fear of enemies; in beauty, the fear of old age; in scholarship,
the fear of opponents; in virtue, the fear of calumny; and
in body, the fear of death. Everything in this world is fraught
with fear. Renunciation alone stands for fearlessness.’(5)
when man realizes his eternal, true Self does he realize that
he is not subject to death, that he is not a finite human
being with a body and mind, but the infinite Consciousness
Itself. After imparting instructions to Janaka about Brahman,
Yajnavalkya assured him, ‘You have attained That which is
free from fear.’(6)
as a Spiritual Trait
the Bhagavadgita catalogue of divine qualities fearlessness
tops the list.(7) While Sri Shankaracharya and Sri Shridara
Svamin explain abhaya as just absence of fear, Sri
Ramanuja and Sant Jnaneshvar offer some detailed explanation.
in pleasure and pain: According to Sri Ramanuja, ‘Fear
is the pain resulting from the awareness of the cause that
brings about pain in the form of dissociation from the objects
of attainment or association with the objects of aversion.
The absence of this is fearlessness.’(8) The mind has its
pet likes and dislikes. It always likes pleasure-producing
stimuli and dislikes contrary ones. Right from ushering in
the New Year to any of our everyday joys - physical as well
as mental - every event signals party time for most people.
But just an unpleasant event, a piece of bad news or silly
criticism is enough to drive them crazy and to a corner, to
bemoan their fate. That is how the mind is programmed to react.
And programmed life is the lot of those who let circumstances
and events determine their reactions.
necessitates writing a new programme with the help of buddhi,
the discriminative faculty. This means augmenting good mental
impressions (samskaras) with noble thoughts and actions, and
strengthening our character. Only a strong character can help
us remain independent of external events.
is why the Gita emphasizes equipoise amid work - a
mindset that prevents us from feeling elated with pleasure
and depressed with pain. When a despondent Arjuna was overcome
with misplaced compassion for his enemies, Sri Krishna goaded
him to perform his dharma: ‘Pleasure and pain, gain and loss,
victory and defeat - looking upon all this alike, engage yourself
in battle; you will incur no sin.’(9) A potent means to acquire
equipoise is to offer everything - both pleasure and pain
- to the Lord: ‘Yadyad-karma karomi tattad-akhilam shambho
tavaradhanam; whatever I do, O Shiva, all that is Your worship.’(10)
And in the words of Sri Krishna, ‘Whatever you do, whatever
you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you offer
as gifts, whatever austerities you perform - do that all as
an offering to Me.’(11)
spirit of non-dualism, freedom from egotism: In the Jnaneshvari,
his celebrated commentary on the Gita, Sant Jnaneshvar explains
as a person who does not leap into a great flood is not
afraid of being drowned, or one who follows the prescribed
diet does not feel concerned about being ill, so he who
has no egotistic feeling while performing actions or not
performing them, has no fear of worldly existence. When
his mind is filled with the notion of non-dualism, he knows
that the whole world is pervaded by Brahman and discards
true karma yogi knows the secret of work: freedom from attachment
to work and renouncing the fruits of action. When a spiritual
aspirant offers the fruits of his actions to God, he ceases
to have fear or anxiety about the outcome. And ‘the notion
of non-dualism’ implies a strong faith in one’s real nature,
the Atman. During our initial spiritual struggles, it is enough
if we go about our activities looking upon ourselves as a
luminous spiritual entity different from our body and the
wayward mind. This amounts to identification with buddhi,
the discriminative faculty. The sattvic worker outlined in
the Gita is the ideal for a spiritual aspirant: ‘He
who is free from attachment and egotism, endowed with fortitude
and zeal, and is unaffected by success and failure - such
a person is said to be a sattvic worker.(13)
saw that fearlessness is synonymous with the ultimate Reality.
Till one realizes that Reality, however, one is within the
domain of maya and is hence subject to duality and fear. It
is needless to say that a spiritual aspirant should steer
clear of unreasonable fears of all kinds. This he accomplishes
with faith in his higher Self and in the indwelling God. Cultivating
fears of the healthy and right kind can help him in his march
towards his spiritual ideal. Says the well-known Tamil classic
Tirukkural, ‘It is foolish not to fear what is to be
feared. It is the duty of the wise to fear such things.’(14)
In other words, wise ones are conscious of pitfalls and dangers
in life and do not make light of them. It is useful to keep
in mind the implication of fear in the above discussion. What
is meant is not fear per se, but the need to be cautious
of traps in spiritual life. What are such snares that a spiritual
aspirant cannot be too careful about?
the divine Mahamaya forcibly draws the minds of even jnanis
and throws them into delusion,’ cautions the Devi Mahatmya.(15)
The Puranas are replete with stories of how holy men succumbed
to the lures of maya. A spiritual aspirant can never be too
careful about maya. What is maya? In simple words, maya denotes
life in the world characterized by attachment arising from
a strong sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. Sri Ramakrishna reduced
maya to just two things: lust and greed. In the words of the
Gita, hell has a threefold gate: lust, anger and greed.(16)
Sri Krishna further cautions against maya: ‘This divine maya
of mine is composed of the three gunas and difficult to cross.
Only those who take refuge in Me cross this maya.’(17)
Ramakrishna was an example of burning renunciation of lust
and greed. He advised his disciples to steer clear of these
impediments to spiritual life. How maya drags down an aspirant
unawares, he illustrated with an example: ‘Once I went to
the Fort in a carriage, feeling all the while that I was going
along a level road. At last I found that I had gone four storeys
spiritual aspirant is careful about the all-powerful maya
and struggles to strengthen weaker links in his character.
He never commits the mistake of being overconfident about
his capacity to be free from maya’s enticements.
Ramakrishna never tired of cautioning his disciples, ‘Holy
man, beware!’ Addressing his devotees he remarked once, ‘…
a man must be extremely careful during the early stages of
spiritual discipline. Then he must live far away from any
woman. He must not go too close to one even if she is a great
devotee of God. You see, a man must not sway his body while
climbing to the roof; he may fall.’(19)
Power of Samskaras
every thought and action leaves a subtle impression in the
mind, called samskara. With every repetition of the thought
or action, the impression gets deepened. It is the sum total
of these impressions that determines our character, says Swamiji.
If the sum total is positive, the character is good; if negative,
important property of these impressions is the tendency to
repeat the action or thought that gave rise to them in the
first place. A spiritual aspirant is cautious about this tendency
and is careful in not gathering more bad impressions. By selfless
work and devotion he counteracts his bad impressions. With
regular spiritual practice he disciplines his mind and learns
not to be swayed by past impressions. He avoids circumstances
that could trigger old impressions or disturb his mind in
any way. How faithfully Swami Adbhutananda (Latu Maharaj)
followed his guru’s instructions is evident from the following
Ramakrishna once told Latu, ‘Be careful about wine and about
lust and gold. These things are obstacles that create doubts
about God. A person who meditates after taking intoxicants
and a yogi who is attached to women are both hypocrites and
only deceive themselves.’(20) While going one day from Dakshineswar
to Ram Babu’s house in Calcutta, Latu’s mind became restless
while passing a wine shop on the way. When he reported it
to the Master he said, ‘The odour of the wine caused restlessness
in your mind. Avoid it from now on.’ Latu followed the Master’s
instruction literally, taking a circuitous route to Calcutta
from then on, which meant double the usual distance of four
Inexorability of Karma
important property of samskaras is the accrual of karma-phala
(fruits of actions) with unerring certainty. According to
a well-known verse, ‘As a calf among a thousand cows finds
out the mother kine/ So deeds performed good or bad will come
and say I’m thine.’ The thought of having to suffer the fruits
of one’s good and bad actions of this life and of an unknown
number of lives earlier, is mind-boggling, to say the least.
But the situation is not all that bleak. Holy Mother Sri Sarada
Devi assures us that repetition of God’s name is a great help
in minimizing the intensity of karma. When a disciple asked
her if the effect of karma performed in previous lives could
be cancelled by the repetition of God’s name, she said, ‘One
must experience the effect of past action. None can escape
it. But japa minimizes its intensity. For example, a man who,
as a result of his past karma, is destined to lose his leg,
may instead suffer from the prick of a thorn in his foot.’(21)
A spiritual aspirant is conscious of the inevitability of
karma and tries not to accrue new bad karmas; he is careful
in his thoughts, words and actions.
we consider something a necessary evil, gradually it becomes
more and more necessary and less and less evil. And there
are philosophies to justify one’s actions. Such an attitude
can be cultivated only at the cost of one’s character. Ever
conscious that a strict moral life is a prerequisite to spiritual
life, an aspirant does not engage himself in questionable
actions. Aware that when character is lost everything is lost,
he tries to conduct himself in a way that is beyond reproach.
fearlessness is synonymous with the ultimate Reality. Till
we realize that Truth, we are in the domain of maya and are
subject to fear. Cultivation of the fears of the right kind
can help us in our journey towards fearlessness.
Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird (Anand: Gujarat
Sahitya Prakash, 1989), 71.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.2.
Taittiriya Upanishad, 2.7.1.
His Eastern and Western Admirers, Reminiscences of Swami
Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1994), 101.
Vairagya Shataka, 31.
Ishtanishtaviyoga-samyoga rupasya duhkhasya hetu-darshanajam
duhkham bhayam; tannivrittih abhayam. - Sri Ramanuja on
the Gita, 16.1.
Shivamanasapujana Stotra, 4.
Sri Jnanadeva’s Bhavartha Dipika (Jnaneshwari), trans.
M R Yardi (Pune: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2001), 524.
Devi Mahatmya, 1.55.
M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
(Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 439.
Swami Chetanananda, God Lived with Them (Kolkata: Advaita
Ashrama, 2001), 401.
Swami Nikhilananda, Holy Mother (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda
Center, 1962), 222.