Purnima Coontoor deftly uses a conversation with her Vedantin uncle as a vehicle for spiritual discourse, through which she introduces us to the eternal wisdom of Advaita Vedanta
Name the oldest living environmentalist from Karnataka who received the Padma Shri in 2019’ was the next question on the quiz show on TV. “Saalumarada Thimmakka!” I exclaimed. “That’s such a no-brainer. Everybody knows her!” Or do they?
“Saalu...who?” asked Proffesor from behind me, sipping his favourite beverage—filter coffee. Prof., an uncle of mine, was a Vedantic scholar, academician, and a popular speaker on Indic philosophy at various fora across the globe. Happily, my residence in Bengaluru was his chosen pit-stop for resting, refuelling, and engaging in robust debates with me on topics of mutual interest. Now, taken aback by my expression of incredulity, he said apologetically, “Sorry dear, I am not up-to-date with social affairs lately. So tell me, why is she worth knowing about?”
“Saalumarada Thimmakka is a 106-year-old eco-warrior who has planted around 8000 trees in her lifetime. To start with, she lined a four-kilometre stretch of barren road near her village in Karnataka with banyan trees on either side and has since been rendering her environment green for seven decades. ‘Saalu-mara’ means ‘row of trees’ in Kannada. ‘Thimmakka’ is her name.”
Prof. was impressed. “Very noble indeed. ‘He that plants trees loves others besides himself.’—Thomas Fuller.’”
I sighed. “Why can’t more of us love others besides ourselves? The world would be a much kinder and greener place! If a daily-wage worker, illiterate by urban standards, and a person of extremely limited means like Thimmakka can find it in her heart to do so, it should be possible for others too, right?” I asked doubtfully.
“Sure. The whole Universe is doing exactly that. Otherwise, the sun would shine only on those it favoured and flowers would bloom only where they’d fetch a good price. But they simply go on giving.”
“Ah, the Universe,” I rolled my eyes. “Those are involuntary, natural phenomena. But I’m neither the sun nor a flower. I’m a sentient being who can think and act of my own volition.”
“More’s the pity.”
I sighed again. “True. Why are most of us so self-centred? Why is it so difficult to give?”
“I’m sure people do give when they feel love, gratitude, compassion, joy, even sorrow. You engage in some charitable activities surely?”
“Yes, but most of the time, my acts of charity are either compulsive or impulsive! Compulsive meaning out of compulsion, when I part with something because I’m obliged to and too polite to refuse, or impulsive, an act of spur-of-the-moment generosity which I might regret later.”
“Charmingly put,” smiled Prof. “In the Gita, Lord Krishna classifies daana or charity as - sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic. Briefly, tamasic charity is when you part with things that are no longer useful to you: the annual garage sale variety. Rajasic charity is when you give away things expecting some returns or favours: like the expensive sweet box given to the boss during Diwali or the elaborate ritual performed for removing the ill-effects of planets in your horoscope prescribed by priests.”
“That’s familiar; I do plenty of tamasic and rajasic charity! And what is sattvic charity?”
“It is the noblest kind, when you give spontaneously with no agenda whatsoever. Not even recognition or accolades or even expectation of favourable results. Evolved souls do not even think of their actions as selfless or charitable. Being so is their very nature. Involuntary, like the Universe.”
“It sounds like a wonderful state of being. Is that even possible?”
“Oh yes. Many are the stories of great acts of giving spontaneously. My favourite is a little-known anecdote from the Ramayana.” Prof. recounted this heart-warming story to illustrate the same:
Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, had camped on the outskirts of Lanka along with his army of monkeys led by their king Sugreeva. He had reluctantly entered into battle with Ravana in a bid to reclaim his wife, Sita. When Vibhishana, Ravana’s younger brother crossed over to surrender to Rama, the prince accepted him lovingly and promised to crown him king of Lanka once Ravana was vanquished. However, Rama always harboured the wish that Ravana would surrender of his own volition, as he did not want to slay such a mighty warrior unnecessarily. When he expressed this to Sugreeva, the latter was mighty perturbed. “But my Lord,” he said, “you have already promised Vibhishana that he would be crowned king of Lanka! What will you do if Ravana surrenders? You, being the embodiment of truth, cannot break your promise to Vibhishana, can you?” Rama smiled. “I will not. If Ravana surrenders, I will crown him the emperor of Ayodhya itself. Where is the problem?”
Giving up attachment
I was overwhelmed. Spontaneous and natural, devoid of drama or premeditation— such was Rama’s selflessness. How could one hope to come even close to such a state of purity?
“How do Rama and other great souls get to be sattvic, and ordinary mortals don’t?” I asked petulantly.
“Simple. Great souls do not feel finite or separate from the rest of humanity or even the cosmos.”
I pondered. Indeed that was true; my capacity to love was limited. I cared most for my immediate family, and only then did I extend it to other circles—the farther the lesser. Yes, I did feel strongly for the multiple problems of society, but the devastating fire in Australia couldn’t singe me unless it was in my neck of the woods. I didn’t like it! I could do better, surely?
I sat up straight and asked Prof., “So tell me, how can I become a little less selfish and exclusive, a little more expansive and inclusive? How can I learn to give unconditionally?”
“By consciously trying to be so.”
I wasn’t convinced. “Are you sure that’s enough to become a Rama?”
Prof. laughed. “You’ll be happy to know that nobler souls than yourself have been seeking to achieve that since time immemorial, and the success rate is kind of limited.”
“Why is it so hard to be selfless?” I exclaimed in despair.
“Because you are too attached to everything in and around you! Only when one has a degree of detachment towards one’s own affairs can one truly think of the welfare of others. But attachment, my dear, is not easy to get rid of. Especially in a seeker, attachment sets back the clock by a few lifetimes.” And so Prof. went on to relate another story of a sage called Jada Bharata:
Once upon a time, Jada Bharata had been meditating deep inside the forest for years, presumably in search of salvation. He lived a most austere life in isolation, and the only concession he made was to take care of a deer which visited his hermitage regularly. Over time, the sage became so attached to the deer that when his end was near, his only thought was who would tend to the animal after he was gone. And lo! Jada Bharata was born as a deer in his next life!
“All that penance wasted because he was attached to a little deer?” I asked in alarm. “That’s not fair.” I shuddered to think of the many people and things and ideas and concepts I was attached to.
“Exactly,” said Prof., reading my mind. “Dhyayato visayanpumsahsangastesupajayate.” While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops sanga(attachment) towards them, says Krishna in the Gita (2.62).
In the next (quite famous) verse, he adds: Attachment goes on to become kama (desire), in turn, giving rise to krodha (anger), sammoha (delusion), smriti vibhramah (bewilderment of memory), resulting in buddhi naasha (destruction of the intellect) and, ultimately, leading to one’s pranashyati (ruin). So your actions depend on what your mind is predominantly absorbed in. What about yours? Netflix? Films? Friends? Family? Food? Facebook?”
I let that sink in. “So I give up social media time to give time for social service, so to speak?”
“I’m saying be aware of how much energy you are investing in non-productive activities, that’s all. Are your petty preoccupations making your mind dull or energised? Contemplate more and more on the qualities of selfless persons you hold in esteem instead of behaving like a teenager who idolises her pop icon. This, in fact, is called the bhramara-keetanyaya in Vedanta or the logic of the caterpillar and the wasp. The keeta (caterpillar), which lives in fear of being eaten up by abhramara (wasp), by default, thinks of the predator all the time. Eventually, the caterpillar will itself transform into a wasp. King Kamsa of Mathura, for all his evil deeds, is said to have attained mukti (liberation) because he was obsessed with Krishna even before the child was born! Simply put, you become what you think. Simple logic?”
“The logic is valid, but I doubt if I can ‘think’ myself into selflessness!” I cried. “At my level though, I do contemplate on the admirable qualities of people I respect, read biographies of saints, and follow philanthropists on twitter.”
“Good for you. Step it up a little more, translate your feelings to action, and you’ll be doing society an enormous service. Like Saalumarada Thimmakka.”
“I doubt Thimmakka went through any of those steps. What do you think was her motivation for planting all those trees? I would say she had enough on her plate already, trying to make ends meet.”
“Well, that particular mystery is easily solved,” said Prof., tapping on his cellphone. “Her motivation, says Wikipedia, was that she was unable to have children; so she decided to nurture trees instead. Not that it takes anything away from her achievement. People are often driven towards social service because of some lack in their own lives or because they have too much of everything. The large section of the population in between are generally content doing some charity here and there when time permits.”
“True. And there are those who throw themselves into it to make it their life’s mission, like Mother Teresa.”
“And some, like most freedom fighters, who sacrifice their lives to heed a higher calling.”
“What does it take to make the transition from giving consciously with an effort involved, to giving spontaneously? What is it that makes a Rama tick?” I persisted.
Giving up the ego
“Hmm. A disciple, after years of studying the scriptures and serving in an ashram dutifully, one fine day, grew impatient and fed up with it all. He wrote a letter expressing his angst to the guru, as the old man was rather strict, in which he went on and on about the futility of his sadhana (spiritual practice). ‘I wake up at this time, meditate for so many hours, attend classes, study the scriptures, water the plants, clean the cowshed, massage the guru’s feet, refrain from visiting my parents, etc.,’ and he concluded with the question ‘Yet I’m not enlightened! When?’
“Exactly!” I too felt indignance on the young man’s behalf.
“The master took one look at the disciple and said, ‘Yes, you have indeed been a sincere student of mine, but do you know how many times you have used the word ‘I’ in your short letter? 43 times.’ Prof. paused for effect, ‘Let go of the ‘I,’ and all your questions will dissolve.’
This was getting more complicated than I expected. “Prof., you have lost me here,” I confessed. “Can you please walk me through this from the beginning? Let me list things out.”
• I cannot express unconditional selflessness because I feel finite and exclusive rather than expansive and inclusive.
• I do not feel expansive and inclusive because I have moha (attachment to worldly things).
• Attachment to something develops when the mind is absorbed in it either consciously or unconsciously.
• If I constantly think of noble deeds rather than objects of the senses, I will develop an attachment to nobility.
• But I will not succeed in manifesting nobility fully because I am attached to the ‘I,’ by which, I suppose, you mean the ego.”
Even as I said this, I knew it was an impossible situation, but I had to get to the bottom of this.
“Correct,” said Prof.
“No wonder the Ramas of the world are so rare to find!” I exclaimed.
“But they have found themselves,” smiled Prof.
“Good for Rama, but how can the ego be dropped by ordinary mortals like me, neck-deep in samsara (cycle of death and rebirth)? Like you said, nobler souls have failed in that attempt. And I’m not even sure what the ego is to pin it down before I can think of letting it go.”
Prof. laughed. “Ok. Introduce yourself to me now, as if I were a stranger. Elaborately please.”
I complied with the strange request, with Prof egging me on for more details: “Hi. My name is___. I am___ years old and I am a qualified___. I work at___. I am married to___ and I have___ children. I live in ___. I love listening to___. I feel very strongly about___. My goal in life is___.”
“Thank you. And that description of yourself is your identity, the ego. If you notice, you just described yourself at three levels: the physical (age, husband, children, residence), mental (likes, dislikes, emotions, feelings), and intellectual (qualification, profession, goal). All three put together have a specific name— yours. With me so far?”
“This identity of body, mind, and intellect are unique to every single person on earth. Right?”
I considered this for a while and nodded.
“You are attached to this identity of yours, in the sense you have a feeling ‘This is me.’
I couldn’t argue with that.
“And this identity limits you—physically, mentally, and intellectually—in the sense, you are you and not someone else. Yes?”
“There you are. How can you feel ‘whole’ when you feel limited?”
That stopped me in my tracks. The logic was unbeatable, but I didn’t quite get it. “But how can I help it? I am born with my body, mind, and intellect, and they’ll be with me until I die. How can I give them up when I’m alive?”
“I didn‘t say that. I said one has to give up the identity, the ‘I.’ And you cannot give up the body-mind complex even if you wish to, because they are giving up on you anyway.”
“They are?” I was totally clueless as to where this was heading.
Prof. explained. “Consider this: You were born with a body, yes? But do you have the same body even after 50 odd years? No? It has grown, changed, transformed, aged. In fact, every cell in your body is replaced by a new cell every seven years. The skin is said to regenerate itself every 27 days. So the body has a natural tendency to ‘give up’ on you. Agree?”
“I hadn’t thought about it like that! True that.”
“Now consider the mind. How long can you hold on to a thought? Half a minute, if you are lucky, before another one pops up? How many times do you change your mind about what dress to wear, what to cook, what to watch on TV, where to go? Haven’t your likes and dislikes, and emotions and feelings changed over the years? Can you hold on to anything you call your mind? It is estimated that the mind throws up 50,000 thoughts in a day. The mind, therefore, is also ‘giving up’ on you all the time.”
“Same with the intellect.” I had caught on to the logic now. “My comprehension, understanding, and knowledge have grown and changed over the years and will continue to. The intellect is also ‘giving up’ on me.”
“Indeed. What does that imply?”
“That my identity, which felt solid and tangible until now, isn’t so at all!” I was confused.
“Correct. And clinging to an intangible identity that also makes you feel finite is not an intelligent way to go about life.”
“The very standpoint you have taken over years and lifetimes in your interaction with the world has been erroneous. As an unstable, changing entity yourself, dealing with other unstable, changing entities, how can you expect to find equilibrium in such an inherently entropic equation?”
How indeed? “And if I cannot find equilibrium in myself, how can I spread love and light in the world, like I wish to?”
“You cannot. Hence the conflict—within yourself and with the world.”
“If I am not the body-mind complex, who am I?”
Giving up to Self-enquiry
“Aha, you’re finally asking the right question!” said Prof. with glee. “That’s the teaching of Ramana Maharshi: the path of Self-enquiry. The logic is that the more you enquire about your true identity, the faster the grip of the body-mind complex will loosen, and your true nature will emerge.”
“Which is? That I am the soul, atman, Sat-Chit-Ananda, etc., etc.?”
“Not so fast, and not with such flippancy! It’s easy to bandy these words about, but the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Hold on to that thought ‘Who Am I’ using the bhramara-keetanyaya, and you’ll eventually recognise your real identity. Ask yourself again and again: ‘If I am not the body-mind complex, who am I?’ Recognise that you, whoever you are,” Prof. looked at me piercingly, “are still around, despite your physical and mental transformations.”
“Yes,” I said thoughtfully, “there’s something that’s me that survives the changing components in me.”
“Nisargadatta Maharaj calls it the unmistakable, unshakeable feeling of ‘I Am.’
“I exist in all my apparent physical and mental states.”
“And that unchanging reality ‘I,’ as opposed to the other changing ‘I’ you tend to cling to, is your real identity. Get hold of it, and let go of your association with the body-mind complex.”
“How is that possible?” I was fascinated despite myself. “Tell me more!”
“That particular conversation is likely to be a long discourse! Perhaps, during my next visit. But in simple terms, simply shift your attention from yourself to your Self. You are not an individual, isolated, limited entity but the pure consciousness that pervades the whole universe itself. The same consciousness in frog and fish, friend and foe. The same cosmic energy that powers the stars and the sand dunes, the one that pervades the outer as well as the inner space. You are the soul of the universe. Identification with the body limits you, identification with the soul makes you infinite, immortal.
“This is the most profound teaching of Advaita Vedanta. The secrets of existence are embedded in the Upanishads. The Bhagavad Gita is the most comprehensive exposition of the truths contained in all the 108 Upanishads. Enlightened masters like Adi Shankara, Vidyaranya, and Goudapada have written several texts expounding this philosophy called Advaita Vedanta or Non-Dualism. Contemporary Western masters like Eckhart Tolle and Alan Watts also speak of the same reality—the oneness of existence. Studying these scriptures under the guidance of a realised master to find your true identity is called Jnana Marga, the path of knowledge.
“When you recognise yourself as the infinite, immortal soul, there is no separation, there is no other. You will no longer be self-centred; you will be Self-centred. The Australian fire will then be as real for you as if your own backyard was on fire, and you will do whatever it takes to douse it and bring relief to the suffering masses. Not necessarily physically; your intention alone will be powerful in itself to shift the cosmic gears and make the right things happen.”
Just to hear these eternal truths was beautiful in itself. How much more beautiful if one could achieve that state of being in one’s lifetime!
“But Prof., I understand how the world can benefit from this transformation in an individual. But isn’t such an individual at a disadvantage? How can one live normally if one goes on resonating with each and every ill that befalls the world every moment? Rama, for all his good intentions, suffered a great deal in his lifetime.”
“Good observation. To quote Nisargadatta Maharaj, ‘In matters of daily life, the knower of the real has no advantage; he may be at a disadvantage rather. Being free from greed and fear, he does not protect himself. The very idea of profit is foreign to him; he abhors accretions. His life is a constant divesting of oneself, sharing, giving.’”
“But a liberated soul does not ‘experience’ the disadvantage, if you know what I mean.”
“Like in “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional?”
“Correct! Now tell me what you have understood so far,” said Prof. “What do you have to give up to be able to give?”
“Samsara! Looks like I’ll have to live in an ashram in Rishikesh and do years of sadhana to realise that I am not my body or mind but infinite, pure consciousness, before I can attach the suffix ‘Ananda’ to my name,” I remarked, half-jokingly.
Giving up Ignorance
Prof. shook his head. “Wrong. One can live like a renunciate and yet be attached to the world. One can be in the midst of samsara and yet be in bliss, like King Janaka. Have you heard of him?”
I had. And then Prof. narrated the story of King Janaka:
Yajnavalkya was a great sage who imparted the knowledge of atma jnana (knowledge of the Self) in his ashram, adjacent to the palace of King Janaka. Among his disciples was the king himself, who ruled his kingdom with wisdom and courage. One day, when a class was on, a guard came running to say that the palace and its surrounding areas had caught fire. While the disciples panicked and rushed to their cottages to collect their meagre belongings, Janaka continued to listen to his master with rapt attention, unperturbed by the disastrous news. Yajnavalkya later remarked to his shamefaced disciples, “All of you, so-called sanyasis (renunciates) cannot even let go of your begging bowl and loincloth, while your king was unfazed even when his grand palace was on fire!”
That was true renunciation, I realised, as I recalled the story with newfound wisdom. But was it possible to realise that truth while going about the humdrum of daily life? Could spirituality be one more thing on my to-do list, along with dropping off the laundry and picking up groceries?
“Spirituality can and should be on your to-do list, as long as it is at the very top. Vedanta has a very simple three-step process through which your true nature can be realised even as you wash dishes or write codes or whatever it is you do.
The first is Shravana: Listen to and study the truths given in the sacred texts through a qualified master.
The second is Manana: Meditate and contemplate on these truths until you understand them thoroughly by going back to the texts again and again and asking questions.
The third is Nidhidhyasana: Get stabilised in that truth and abide in that knowledge, which comes with practice. Repeat the steps as long as it takes.”
“As long as it takes. That sounds like a catch.”
“Indeed. Through this process, absolute clarity will dawn about your true identity as the Universal Self. The mind and ego, absorbed in and into the Self, will now become tools through which your intentions for the welfare of the world are achieved.”
I marvelled at the simplicity of it, despite the catch.
“Jnana Marga, the way of Knowledge through Shravana-Manana-Nidhidhyasana, is the most straightforward of all the paths that lead to Self-realisation and hence called the Direct Path. Now try again. What is it that you have to give up, to be able to give?”
“Ignorance,” I said with conviction. “Ignorance about my real identity as Pure Consciousness, the Universal Self.”
“Excellent!” cried Prof.
But the ‘catch’ was still nagging my mind. “How long will it take, even as I go through the three-step process, to drop ignorance?”
“As long as it took the Prince of Vaishali to recognise the Princess of Kashi,” said Prof. cryptically.
“And thereby hangs a tale!” I said happily, as Prof. related yet another intriguing story from ancient India:
The Queen of the Kingdom of Vaishali once organised a cultural programme at the palace for Navaratri, as women are wont to. She wanted to cast a little girl for the role of the princess of Kashi but found none suitable among her courtiers. So she simply dressed up her five-year-old son as a girl and let him play the role, as mothers are wont to. The little prince looked so pretty that the doting mother had a painting made of him in his princess costume and hung it in her chambers. Years passed and the painting found its way into the cellar, while the little prince grew up to be a handsome young man of marriageable age. Even as the hunt was on to find a suitable bride for the prince, the lad once wandered into the cellar and accidentally discovered the old painting. The prince, mesmerised by the beautiful little princess in the picture, promptly fell in love with her. He decided that the girl in the painting would be his bride, none else. As princesses, one more beautiful than the other, were brought to his notice, the prince rejected them all, and this charade went on for months. As the royal parents were getting angrier and the prince more and more frustrated, the latter finally confessed his love for the mysterious princess to his mother. “What girl? Which painting?” asked the Queen, and burst out laughing as she understood what her son was referring to. “That pretty girl is none other than you, my son,” she said in great merriment and recalled how it all came about. The prince laughed in surprise and relief, rather sheepishly, but the burden he had been carrying in his chest for months was lifted in an instant.
It was a beautiful story with multiple messages. I, as a little individual, am like the prince of Vaishali with an inherent tendency to like and dislike things, people and situations. However, when I know my real Self, I realise that, in essence, the persons I love or despise are none other than myself, though they appear to be separate individuals because of their distinct gross forms.
“How should we treat others?” Ramana Maharshi was once asked, to which the great sage replied, “There are no others.” Not knowing this, I go through life miserable. The moment I get it, all false physical and mental boundaries crumble, and I am liberated from every pleasant and unpleasant modification of the mind.
“Thank you, Prof., for patiently taking me through an introduction to Advaita Vedanta. I think I now understand how, ‘by helping others, you are helping yourself.’
Prof. smiled. “When that saying is no longer a platitude but your conviction, you will have understood. For now, you have merely heard the truth. Now go ahead and make it your own reality, a truth which you can live by. Shubhamastu!”
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