OBSTACLES IN SPIRITUAL LIFE – Part 1
Yatiswarananda (1889 - 1966) was a disciple of Swami Brahmananda.
He spent seven years teaching Vedanta in Europe, where he
founded an ashram in Switzerland, though he lectured on Vedanta
from Madrid to Warsaw. He left Europe as the second World
War forced a closure to the European Vedanta work. The swami
then spent ten years teaching Vedanta in the United States,
returning to India to head several Centers, eventually becoming
Vice-President of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission.
Swami Yatiswarananda was famed for his meditative life and
spiritual attainment. His book, Meditation and Spiritual Life,
a compilation of his class talks, is considered one of the
finest compendiums on spiritual life. The article below was
taken from the Jan-Feb 1959 Vedanta in the West.
Are the Obstacles?
spiritual life, we use the word “obstacles” with reference
to both the inner and the outer world, to physical and subtle
objects, and to conditions and situations which stand in the
way of our spiritual progress.
In general, there are obstacles of various kinds producing
misery, or duhkha of various types. In the Sankhya Sutras,
Kapila mentions duhkhas of three types: adhyatmika or that
caused within ourselves—in the body by illness and unhealthy
living, and the mind by evil desires, anger, greed, folly,
pride, envy, etc.: adhibhautika or that caused by other living
beings such as beasts, thieves, and evil-minded persons; and
the adhidaivika or the misery brought about by natural phenomena
such as extremes of temperature, floods and storms, earthquakes,
pestilences , etc. These may act as hindrances to spiritual
life. And we are affected by our troubles all the more when
we are not well inwardly.
are all born with subtle impressions and tendencies brought
from previous lives and we also acquire new ones in our present
life. While good tendencies help, evil ones obstruct our spiritual
There are different kinds of obstacles, and we come across
them in the different stages of our spiritual life. Spiritual
life is like a stream and should move towards the ocean of
Sat-Chit-Ananda or Infinite Existence-Consciousness-Bliss,
call it Godhead, Brahman, the Lord, Allah, or Tao, as you
please. Sometimes the spiritual current does not move at all;
sometimes it moves for a time and stops; sometimes it tends
to move in wrong directions. The task in our spiritual life
is to make this current move; move in the right direction
and move steadily till the goal is reached.
Are Inevitable but Can Be Overcome
is the ideal. But in actual life, there is no such thing as
movement in a straight line. There are ups and downs, breaks
or stops, in the movement. Obstacles continue to confront
us till we have known God’s grace and attain the peace and
blessedness that come from divine realization. Until then,
however, we have to persist steadily in our spiritual practices;
we have to continue the struggle however insurmountable the
obstacles may seem for the time being.
is a matter of actual experience for many spiritual aspirants.
A young man was once asked about this spiritual progress by
Swami Brahmananda, his teacher. He said, “Not very well, Maharaj;
my mind is restless. I have no taste for spiritual practices
yet. There seems to be an obstacle inside me. I feel so unhappy.
I must have been born with evil tendencies and these stand
in the way of my spiritual progress.” To this the Swami replied:
“My boy, you must not talk like that. Try to practice japa
(chanting the Lord’s name) at dead of night; if that is not
possible, do it during the early hours of the morning. . .
. Waste no more of your valuable time. Lose yourself in prayer
and meditation; otherwise, how can the door to spiritual truth
be opened? . . . The aspirant should first learn about the
spiritual path from some great soul and then follow it methodically.
If the person proceeds haphazardly he or she cannot make much
progress, and if the person gives up entirely, the effort
to begin again will be twice as difficult. But no effort is
wasted. Lust, greed, anger, all gradually leave one who practices
the young man said, “My mind is restless,” he was not speaking
of ordinary restlessness and unhappiness. Having made some
substantial progress in spiritual life, he found inner obstacles
standing in the way and these were making further advance
difficult. The question may be asked, how do I know the mind
of the young man? I know it because the young man was none
other than myself.
is restlessness and restlessness - that of the worldly man
hankering for the pleasures of the world; and of the spiritual
seeker yearning for progress, wanting to move from a lower
plan of consciousness to a higher one.
Spiritual life is a twofold movement, one of which may be
represented as vertical and the other as horizontal. We have
to rise higher and higher and also expand more and more in
of us may not care to rise to a higher plane. We fool ourselves
by thinking that we are all right where we are. We are like
Pluto’s men in the cave who took the shadows to be real and
were quite satisfied with the life of darkness they lived.
We are quite contented with our life in the cellar.
some of us want to come out into the light and rise to a higher
plane with the help of the spiritual current, which may be
likened to the elevator which takes people from one floor
to another. The spiritual current, when properly roused, takes
us from one center of consciousness, or chakra, to another.
Sometimes we want to get into the elevator but the door does
not open; this is one of the obstacles. The door opens and
we get into the box but the box does not move - this is another
kind of obstacle. A third one is, we move up but the door
does not open. The fourth is the door opens, we get out on
the floor, move about for a time, but are not able to find
our way back to the elevator when we want to rise higher.
Something of this kind happened to me when I spoke to Swami
Brahmananda of some obstacles standing in the way of my spiritual
these obstacles can be overcome. We can undergo spiritual
practices, unfold the inner eye, discover the “secret stairs”
and move up higher and higher.
of Obstacles and Helps
us not, however, imagine that life is only full of obstacles.
If we come across many obstacles and hindrances, we get also
many helps and aids both within us and without. It is essential
that we have a correct idea, a balanced estimate, of our conditions
should we weaken ourselves by thinking too much of our shortcomings
only. If we have evil tendencies, we also have good ones -
even more of the good than the evil. If we have within us
such enemies of spiritual life as egotism, sensuality, greed,
and anger, we have also such friends as selflessness, self-control,
charity, and compassion.
great help to our moral and spiritual life is the remembering
of the supreme truth that we are the Atman. We are the souls
eternally in touch with the Oversoul, just as a wave is in
constant touch with, and is supported by, the ocean, just
as a ray of light is in touch with the infinite light.
we must beware of morbid theologians who think only in terms
of sin, who always speak of humanity as a bundle of sin. There
is a story of a new clergyman who started talking too much
of sin. One of the congregation congratulated him, “We never
knew what sin was until you came!” What a compliment!
our spiritual teachers tell us that there are two opposite
types of ideas working in our lives, the good and the pleasant
- sreyas and preyas. We find in the Katha Upanishad: “The
good is one thing; the pleasant another. Both these, serving
different needs, present themselves to humanity. It goes well
with the person who, of the two, takes the good; but one who
chooses the pleasant misses the end. . . . Both the good and
the pleasant come to humanity. The calm one examines them
well and discriminates. The calm one prefers the good to the
pleasant, but the fool chooses the pleasant out of greed and
the power that has projected this phenomenal world, itself
has two aspects, vidya and avidya, which may be compared to
the centripetal and centrifugal forces. Vidya is that current
which leads us Godward; it manifests itself as discrimination,
nonattachment, devotion, and love for God. Avidya leads us
to worldliness and expresses itself as the various passions
- desire for wealth, worldly ambition, work with attachment,
cruelty, etc. Avidya darkens the understanding and binds the
soul. Vidya tends to help us towards Self-realization and
freedom. Let us choose the path of good and become purer in
body and mind. This purity is essential for our spiritual
growth and brings us in touch with the cosmic spiritual forces
which the devotee calls the grace of God.
for Spiritual Unfoldment
is necessary for us to have a clear conception of spiritual
unfoldment and its relation to cosmic existence and cosmic
forces. Let us try to understand its secret through the illustration
of a seed. If the seed is planted in the proper bed and is
kept in touch with nature - with earth, water, heat, air,
and space - it grows into a plant and finally develops into
a mighty tree. The seed must be kept in close touch with nature
and also in the proper condition internally, for only then
can it profit by earth, water, etc.
microcosm develops properly when it is in tune with the macrocosm.
This is true in spiritual life also. The individual must be
in tune with the cosmos. If we look within ourselves, we find
that our body is a part of the ocean of matter and that cosmic
energy is flowing through it and sustaining it. Our individual
mind is a part of the cosmic mind, and our individual soul
is a part of the cosmic soul. In order to keep the body in
good health, we must follow the physical laws. When the body
is kept in good condition, it remains in touch with the cosmic
forces, which again help the body to maintain good health.
keep the mind in good health, we must follow the moral laws
which stand for harmony and purity. This keeps the mind in
contact with the cosmic mind and so in good health. Similarly
our soul must also be in a fit condition, in a state of purity
and harmony, so that it may remain in direct touch with the
cosmic spiritual forces. It is then that the cosmic will or
the divine grace flows through the soul and assures its progress.
food, moral practices, and spiritual exercises remove the
obstacles in body, mind, and ego, keep us in tune with the
cosmic will and fit to receive divine grace. Divine grace
comes to us at first in the form of spiritual yearning and
striving. As we become purer and purer, we come more and more
in direct contact with the cosmic spiritual current.
spiritual life, there must be tremendous effort, but is must
not be of the egocentric type. All our practices must be carried
out in a spirit of prayer, self-surrender, and dedication
to the Divine. In our outlook, habits, and ways of thinking,
there must be a revolution. Spiritual life, if properly lived,
must lead us from the egocentric to the cosmocentric position.
Between Divine Grace and Self-Effort
we term self-effort and divine grace supplement each other.
We cannot have the one without the other. Without intense
and unremitting striving on our part, we can never experience
divine grace. Mere prayer without corresponding effort will
not bear fruit. It will be just like the man who, finding
his house on fire, started praying for rain instead of trying
to put the fire out through means available then and there.
The proper thing is to do all we can and also to pray.
little girl’s brother used to set a trap to catch birds. Thinking
this was wrong and cruel, she became very sad and wept. After
some time, the mother found her happy and cheerful and was
curious to know how such a change had come about. “Mommy,”
the girl explained, “First I prayed that my brother may be
a better boy, then I prayed that no more birds may fall into
the trap, and then . . .” she added triumphantly, “I went
out and kicked the old trap to pieces.” So prayer is to be
combined with self-effort to break old unethical habits and
form new good ones.
by their own narrow ideas, theologians make too much of a
mystery about divine grace, which they say can be attained
only by following their own pet doctrines and dogmas. But
the enlightened ones speak in a different language. “Blessed
are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” says Christ
in the greatest beatitude uttered by him. This is also the
ancient teaching of the sages of India: “The resplendent and
pure Self, whom pure and sinless souls, free from evil or
impurities, have realized as residing in the body, can be
attained by truthfulness, concentration, true knowledge, and
Supreme Reality, or God, is like the sun. It reflects itself
on the pure mind. With the help of an illuminating conversation
between a devotee and Sri Sarada Devi - the spiritual consort
of Sri Ramakrishna, also known as the Holy Mother—we can clearly
understand the connection between spiritual practice and divine
“Mother, how does one realize God? Worship, japa, meditation
- do these help one?”
“None of these can help.”
“Then how does one attain to the wisdom of God?”
“It is only through his grace. But one must practice meditation
and japa. That removes the impurities of the mind. One must
practice spiritual disciplines such as worship, and so forth.
As one gets the fragrance of a flower by handling it, as one
gets the fragrance of sandalwood by rubbing it against a stone,
in the same way one gets spiritual awakening by constantly
thinking of God. But you can realize him right now if you
become free from desire.”
mind has become soiled by worldliness. Spiritual practices
remove the impurities, and then just as the clear mirror reflects
the shining sun in all its glory, the Divine Spirit is revealed
clearly in the purified mind in a spontaneous way.
one point must be plainly understood. The purity attained
through spiritual disciplines may be of a very high order,
but it is not perfect. The spiritual seeker is established
in perfect purity only after divine realization, when objects
of temptation become unreal, and the Supreme Spirit remains
the only reality. That is why Sri Krishna declares in the
Bhagavad-Gita: “Sense objects recede from the abstinent person,
but the taste for them lingers still; with the realization
of the Supreme Spirit, even the taste disappears.”
is necessary for us to understand the relation of spiritual
practice to divine grace and the important part they play
in our lives in removing our inner obstacles. Then only can
we feel enthusiastic about the disciplines, which we ordinarily
undergo in a haphazard way.
a disciple asked the Holy Mother about the utility of spiritual
practice. She replied: “Through these spiritual disciplines,
the ties of past karma are cut asunder. By these disciplines
the turbulence of the sense-organs is subdued.”
“Can action ever cancel action?”
“Why not? If you do a good action, that will counteract your
past evil action. Past sins can be counteracted by meditation,
japa, and spiritual thought."
is a matter of experience that to the extent we succeed in
making our mind pure through moral and spiritual struggle,
we feel the flow of divine grace. Swami Brahmananda used to
tell us: “To obtain God’s grace is the most important aid
in spiritual life. The breeze of his grace is always blowing.
Just unfurl your sail.” This means that we should keep ourselves
open to the divine grace - the cosmic spiritual current -
by attaining purity through the performance of regular spiritual
Life - The Preparation for Receiving Divine Grace
our spiritual teachers declare unanimously that the soul in
its essential nature is pure spirit. Owing to ignorance, the
spirit forgets itself and becomes identified with the ego,
with the mind and the senses, with attachment and aversion,
with the sense objects, with the body and its functions -
all products of ignorance. The Atman puts on the masks of
the causal body, the subtle body, and the gross body. It is
the masks that become impure, not the Atman. The ego, the
mind, and the body may be defiled but the spirit ever remains
pure, enlightened, and free.
illustration of Sri Ramakrishna helps us to understand this
better. The body is like a vessel, the mind is like the water
in it. Brahman is like the sun that is reflected in the water.
The water may be impure and disturbed, but the light of the
sun ever remains shining and pure. The Katha Upanishad declares:
“As the sun, which forms the eye of the universe, is never
defiled by the external impurities seen by the eyes, so the
one Self that resides in all beings is never touched by the
evils of the world.”
impurity can affect our primary nature, which ever remains
pure. It is our second nature that becomes impure, and it
can and should be purified. Spiritual life is the cleansing
of this second nature of ours, the cleansing of the masks
- the coverings of the ego, the mind, and the body. So there
is certainly hope for every one of us. It is rightly said
that even as every saint has a past, so has every sinner a
the Bhagavad-Gita, Sri Krishna gives this categorical assurance:
“Even the most sinful amongst people, if that person worships
me, the Supreme Spirit, with unswerving devotion, must be
regarded as virtuous, for that person has resolved rightly.
Soon the person becomes righteous and attains eternal peace.
Proclaim it boldly that my devotee is never destroyed.” “Giving
up all other duties, take refuge in me alone. I will free
you from all sins; grieve not.” The Lord himself removes all
obstacles for the devotee who has completely surrendered to
Transforming Power of Divine Grace
glorious illustration of how a most sinful person can become
righteous and attain the highest illumination and peace through
the grace of the Supreme Spirit is seen in the life of Girish
Chandra Ghosh, the famous actor-dramatist and a great disciple
of Sri Ramakrishna. According to his own statement, there
was no sin that Girish did not commit. At one time he considered
religion a fraud. Later, however, a great change came over
him and there grew a deep yearning for spiritual light and
peace. It was then that he was drawn to Sri Ramakrishna. Gradually
his mind became purified, though he had to go a long way.
Once the following conversation took place:
“Sir, please bless me.”
“Have faith in the Divine Mother, and you will attain everything.”
“But I am a sinner.”
“The wretch who constantly harps on sin becomes a sinner.”
“Sir, the very ground where I sit becomes unholy.”
“How can you say that? Suppose a light is brought into a room
that had been dark a thousand years, does it illumine the
room little by little, or in a flash?”
“I have no sincerity; please grant it to me.”
“All right, you have faith.”
Narendra, who later became Swami Vivekananda, was very friendly
with Girish and was warned by the Master not to associate
with him too much: “Girish is like a cup in which garlic is
kept. You may wash it a thousand times but can never get rid
of the smell altogether.” Girish heard this and felt offended.
He asked the Master if the “garlic smell” would go at all.
The Master assured him, “All the smell disappears when a blazing
fire is lighted; if you heat the cup in the fire you will
get rid of the smell,” and he declared that people would be
astounded at the marvelous change that would come over Girish.
The garlic smell did disappear in due course, and he became
by the Master, Girish followed the path of absolute self-surrender
to the divine will - a path very few can follow. He would
not promise to undergo even the simplest spiritual discipline,
and was very happy when Sri Ramakrishna asked him to give
“the power of attorney” and promised to assume all responsibility
for his spiritual life.
at that time thought that the path of self-surrender was the
easiest but later on realized what a most exacting thing it
was. He had to practice self-surrender every moment! As a
result of this, however, he felt continually the presence
of the Lord, and became a man of God. The Lord had removed
all his vices - his obstacles in the spiritual path - and
filled his soul with his loving, divine presence.
last time some of us saw Girish, he told us: “As I move my
hand, I feel that it is not I but the Lord who is moving it.”
His eyes and face were radiant with the glow of his inner
illumination and unbounded love for the Lord. This is one
of the most sublime illustrations of transformation brought
about the divine grace, which flows into the spiritual seeker
as he strives to his utmost.
second part of this essay will appear in July, 2003.
Survey of the Mind (August 2004)
Survey of the Mind (September 2004)