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PRABUDDHA BHARATA Prabuddha Bharata | November 2004  





              Faith, Priviledge and Spirituality



               Dr. C.S.Shah




     Until one gets true Knowledge, it is all faith, and all faith is blind. Without this blind faith, however, man does not strive to acquire true faith, or knowledge, as it is usually called. True Knowledge - that of the oneness of all existence - has no room for privilege, and, conversely, where there is a seeking for privilege, true Knowledge has not arisen there. Spirituality concerns itself with spiritual disciplines based on faith in the scriptures and the utterances of realized souls. Such faith may be called active faith as it activates one to practice, and this active faith leads to ultimate Knowledge.



     Advaita in Brief



     Swami Vivekananda started discussing the practical aspects of Vedanta after having nearly finished the metaphysical portion of the Advaita. (1) He summarized the teaching of Advaita Vedanta in a few sentences when he proclaimed:


     All we see around us, and the whole universe, in fact, is the evolution of that one Absolute. This is called, in Sanskrit, Brahman. The Absolute has become changed into the whole of nature. But here comes a difficulty. How is it possible for the Absolute to change? Change of the unchangeable would be a contradiction.



     [The theory of Vedanta] is that this universe, as we know and think it, does not exist, that the unchangeable has not changed, that the whole of this universe is mere appearance and not reality, that this idea of parts, and little beings, and differentiations is only apparent, not the nature of the thing itself. (1.417-8)


     Narendranath (later Swami Vivekananda) had the fortune of converting this conclusion of Advaita Vedanta into Knowledge at the holy feet of Sri Ramakrishna, and later he spread this Truth while addressing the East and the West. If we fail to take this into consideration, we may neither understand the true import of his teachings on Practical Vedanta nor the meaning of faith, privilege and spirituality.



     Faith Precedes Knowledge



     Truly, we find it difficult to proceed to discuss Swamijis ideas on faith, privilege or spirituality as we have no actual knowledge of the said Advaita teaching. We can only talk in terms of conjecture and hypothesis. With the exception of a few realized souls, probably this shortcoming applies to the vast majority of persons attempting to write or elaborate on the teachings of Swamiji. By necessity, therefore, the force of explanation becomes weak and does not appeal to the readers with the conviction the writer desires to transmit. The dilemma can be overcome to some extent by deliberately cultivating faith in his teachings and sayings first.


     Other peoples experience is just a belief or faith for the beginner. The father tells his son that the mango is sweet; and the child eats it to confirm its sweetness. The child gets joy after it. Copernicus came to the conclusion that the Earth moves round the Sun, and not the other way round. A few people believed in him in the beginning. The truth of his proposition became evident later. Faith is the starting point of a novice to attempt to know the truth himself. But faith is not static laziness; it is dynamic activity. It stimulates the person to act to reach the goal. In this process faith evolves and appears as changing, but this change is the sign of its vitality. Let us not forget that the concepts of physics evolved from Newtonian Laws to the Quantum Theory.


     The scientific approach is lost, shout intellectuals when we speak of faith. Supplementing science with the ingredient of faith is not yet acceptable to most moderns. They fail to understand that their science and methods of experiments are also based on and start with the firm belief in the findings and observations of their predecessors and nothing else. This faith itself they call and take for granted as knowledge.


     Here comes the role of the basic teaching of Vedanta: Unless and until an individual has actually experienced the truth of Vedantic statements, it cannot be called knowledge. Otherwise, at best, it is a firm belief or faith as we call it. When the truth embodied in that belief is realized in ones own life, it becomes knowledge.



     Shraddha Goads One to Action



     Swamiji defines shraddha as strong faith in God and the consequent eagerness to reach Him. (1.407) Sri Ramakrishna gives a wonderful example to define faith: Suppose there is a thief in this room, and he gets to know that there is a mass of gold in the next room; what will be the condition of that thief? [The answer is,] He will not be able to sleep at all; his brain will be actively thinking of some means of getting at the gold, and he will think of nothing else (1.407)


     Three things are to be noted here: 1. that the person is a thief; 2. he has not seen the gold, but believes because a person has told him so; 3. he is restless to get it; he will be happy and quiet after he gets it with efforts.


     One may substitute thief with lawyer, doctor, engineer, worker or businessman, and consequently, gold, as an object of desire, with name and fame, profit making, winning or treating a case and so on. The strong desire to get the desired outcome will remain; and the person will be happy when he obtains it. The emphasis is on the belief and the strong desire, which is what faith means.


     However, all such worldly pleasures are temporary. They tickle ones senses and the mind; and the happiness, therefore, is shortlived. First, this is because, instead of being reposed, the mind becomes greedier. Therefore, the means employed to fulfil the rising expectations are distorted and unethical. Second, Vedanta says this is what can be expected from the pursuit of sense pleasures, because sense objects can give only limited pleasure. And people seek pleasure in the senses since they are not aware of an alternative offering them higher happiness. The karma-kanda of the Vedas is to be studied in this respect: it tries to lead a person of worldly concern gradually from a lower faith to a higher faith, from selfishness to selflessness.



     Go Forward



     In this connection, we recollect Sri Ramakrishnas simple but very meaningful parable of the woodcutter:


     Go forward. A woodcutter once entered a forest to gather wood. A brahmachari said to him, Go forward. He obeyed the injunction and discovered some sandalwood trees. After a few days he reflected, The holy man asked me to go forward. He didnt tell me to stop here. So he went forward and found a silver-mine. After a few days he went still farther and discovered a gold-mine, and next, mines of diamonds and precious stones. With these he became immensely rich. (2)


     This going forward came to the mind of the woodcutter on reflecting upon the words of a wise man. The woodcutter had faith in the advice of the brahmacharin, who he believed had knowledge of the treasures ahead! A question may arise in those of us whose mind is engrossed in gold: Why, then, didnt the brahmacharin himself seek the treasure? Vedanta answers, that is because the brahmacharin had found a treasure of higher value: God, the ultimate Treasure. If we stretch the parable further, the woodcutter would perhaps become a sannyasin after enjoying the fruits of his acquired riches and attain peace after going still further!


     Swamiji says:


     When it is said that the same power which is manifesting in the flower is welling up in my own consciousness, it is the very same idea which the Vedantist wants to preach, that the reality of the external world and the reality of the internal world are one and the same. The theory of the Vedanta, therefore, comes to this, that you and I and everything in the universe are that Absolute, not parts, but the whole. You are the whole of that Absolute, and so are all others, because the idea of part cannot come into it. These divisions, these limitations, are only apparent, not in the thing itself. (3)


     According to our faith and the distance we have gone forward, we will understand the above passage, each in his own way. For a few, all this will appear as a dream or useless talk; for some, there may be points in the passage to ponder over; and for still others, it may suggest the diamond mine to be acquired by going forward. For the majority, however, at their present stage of evolution, faith is fixed at the pursuit of their vocation and earning money, name and fame, and so on. And ones faith dictates ones actions. This leads us to the following corollary: ones faith can be easily judged by observing the actions one is engaged in. I may be talking and writing about lofty ideas in an article, but if my actions are not in conformity with what I say or write, one can easily infer that my faith is just in writing the article and not beyond. I am still cutting the sandalwood instead of trying to gather the riches from the mines of treasures!



     Need to Change Oneself



     As one goes ahead in this field of philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, one sees the same God in every person. The idea of privilege gradually starts leaving him. He begins to understand that this philosophy is purely subjective. If he is pure, if he changes for the better, his vision changes and the world begins to appear different to him. As the subject grows in spirituality - love, beauty, goodness and holiness - to him the object of his observation, this world, undergoes change. He develops the sameness of vision (samatva) described in the Bhagavadgita.


     For many others the world still remains divided into many parts, full of misery and joy, good and bad - in short, a mixture of dualities. Let it be. Ones concern is to go ahead oneself without blaming anybody of lethargy or weakness or ignorance. If someone sees others weak, as sinners, ignorant or selfish, we can be sure that he himself is not able to discard these traits from his mind. At best, he can offer others a helping hand to pull them down to his own level! It will not be out of place here to quote Holy Mothers eternally relevant advice to this world: But one thing I tell you - if you want peace, my daughter, dont find fault with others, but find fault rather with yourself. Learn to make the world your own. Nobody is a stranger, my dear; the world is yours. (4)


     Faith evolves just as our ideas about matter do. With this evolution in faith, our knowledge of the relative world also changes. As we grow spiritually - and we are discussing the spirituality of Advaita Vedanta - our faith in separateness also vanishes, only to be replaced with a newer and higher faith in universal brotherhood. We grow from selfishness to selflessness. Our love grows from being limited to ourselves and the family, and extends to our neighbours and society at large. The restrictive egotism begins to lose its grip over our mind, and we start feeling more free. We start breathing in a vaster area of the world with peace and bliss.



     Faith Leads to Knowledge



     Firm faith in something gradually brings knowledge about it. A football player having faith in playing football gains name and fame, money, physical fitness and so on and starts playing the game with more and more concentration, determination and perseverance. While doing so he acquires the knowledge about the ideal air pressure in the ball, size of the ground, rules of the game, nuances and subtleties of play, the playing techniques of other great players of the past and present, and so on. He also realizes his capabilities and limitations. He tries to attain perfection according to his capacity. Afterwards, just the idea of enjoying the game remains in his heart. He takes pleasure in undertaking every activity related to the game. He has done sadhana in that field and achieved the goal, so to say!



     When Is Privilege Effaced from the Mind?



     The idea of privilege is, therefore, related to the object of our faith. If we have faith in sense enjoyments, we will seek more and more privilege based on wealth, education and secular knowledge. Similarly, a society engaged in sense pleasures will demand more privileges based on caste superiority and the monetary power of a few. The same thing will apply to the rich and technologically advanced nations who try to dominate the less privileged nations. A stage will come in everybodys life when the evolution of faith reaches the highest level where concepts like service of man as worship of God and the giver is more blessed than the receiver are realized in his life. Then the idea of privilege is totally effaced from his mind forever.



     ~ ~ ~



     Our only hope lies in our faith in the correctness of Vedanta philosophy: True knowledge and spirituality do not come from outside, but are inherent in each and every one of us irrespective of nationality, caste or sex. Fortunately, in India there have been many spiritual scientists from time immemorial. They have given us the Upanishads and other scriptures to strengthen and stabilize our shaking faith. We are fortunate to be living in a period of history not far from when the principles of Advaita Vedanta were personified in the lives of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother and Swamiji, and their disciples. These facts should make us bolder and more courageous to drive away all lingering doubts from our mind and allow shraddha to enter our heart.






     1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.417.

     2. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 109.

     3. CW, 1.419.

     4. Sri Sarada Devi: The Great Wonder (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1994), 409.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015









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