By Uday Acharya
The path is well worn but each time, it feels new beneath the seeker’s feet. The truths gathered on the way lead the seeker to the ultimate knowledge.
My spiritual journey began as a teenager with great enthusiasm. I was part of a youth group attending study class to discuss works like Viveka Chudamani and Atma Bodh written by Adi Shankara. Gradually I was exposed to contemporary masters like Swami Chinmayananda. Soon I was attending public talks and residential camps conducted by my teacher Swami Dayananda wherein I learned about the fundamental human problem of inadequacy. It was from him that I first heard the story of the tenth man.
Ten persons set out on a trip. They came to a river. In order to get across, they had to wade through to the other side. Once across, they counted themselves and discovered that they were only nine. The tenth man was missing! They began to grieve. A passer-by stopped to inquire about the cause of their sadness.
After he listened to them, the passer-by replied: ‘The tenth man is right here.’
‘Where?’ the group frantically asked.
‘Sir, you are the tenth man,’ the passer-by said to the person who had counted the rest. ‘You have forgotten to count yourself’.
The spiritual search is very similar. According to Kabir, the wave searches for the ocean; the thread searches for the cloth; the soul searches for the universal self; all of them are but deluded. Self-ignorance is like the blind spot in our eye. We do not see it unless it is pointed out to us.
As students, we found it hard to digest the fact that realization was so simple. If enlightenment is so easy to attain, just a matter of hide and seek, how come people spend entire lifetimes in the pursuit of this knowledge?
Practices like meditation, yoga, and Zen alter the state of consciousness and take us to the relative state of ‘no-mind’. Duties performed as a dedication to the Lord serve to purify the mind and release it from the hold of personal likes and dislikes. Devotional practices redirect the mind towards the higher realms of spirituality. The discipline of learning helps resolve the mental fog of confusion and creates a mind that is perceptive to reality. These four paths, delineated by Vivekananda as yoga, karma, bhakti and jnana, are all means to the same goal: the preparation of the mind to become a receptacle for higher knowledge.
What does higher knowledge accomplish? This was put into proper perspective by one of my senior gurubhais for whom I have great respect. Higher knowledge does not change anything; it only presents you with a fact about yourself. The fact is that you are the absolute universal Self. You cannot become what you already are. But you can own up to what you are, when the fact is pointed out to you. That is because, like the missing tenth man, here is a case of self-ignorance, and you can miss yourself even when you are fully present here and now.
Take the case of the wooden elephant. The elephant is made of wood and has been so all along. You don’t have to convert it into wood. You simply need to recognize the fact of its wooden nature. Here is a case for cognitive change rather than physical transformation. The elephant need not be destroyed to reach its wood. You simply need to see that the elephant is an appearance superimposed on wood. There is no elephant as such out there.
While teaching my classes on Vedanta, I frequently used the words ‘unconditional reality’. I find the term ‘unconditional’ fascinating. The unconditional is not a condition, and hence cannot be isolated or identified. At the same time, it is the underlying reality of all conditions. It is not some thing, nor is it nothing. The unconditional is not to be reached; it is to be understood. In contrast, relative conditions require to be reached, modified, produced, or purified. There is no process to transform conditions into the unconditional and vice versa.
Throughout my ashram stay, both in Bombay and at Rishikesh, I enjoyed a quiet life of study, contemplation and prayer. The daily schedule included participation in the temple puja and personal prayer, chanting shlokas and suktas, singing bhajans and kirtans, exercising the body through surya namaskars, asanas, pranayama and walks, being involved in physical service like gardening and cleaning. Guided meditation sessions, study of different schools of philosophy, Sanskrit, logic, and an indepth exposure to the scriptures like Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Brahma Sutras filled my days.
In Rishikesh where I spent a major portion of my study period, I lived among sadhus and participated in their activities like going to Kali Kambliwala kshetra where they were provided with their daily meals. My gurubhais and I participated in bhandaras at different ashrams where sadhus were invited and honored with food and gifts. I remember my first time, standing in line to receive my food at one of the kshetras. It was a difficult moment for me, standing in the line common for sadhus and beggars. Should I feel high or low? Either option was an ego trap, and this experience was an opportunity to recognize the different avatars of the ego firsthand. It takes great effort to have a balanced sense of self-esteem and see things in the right perspective.
During this period, I also recognized that it is not clothes or the lifestyle that determines spirituality. I found that there are spiritual people in all walks of life, and many of them are silent about their inner goodness and strength. The person who quietly serves a holy person all his life may in fact be an enlightened person himself. Many of my gurubhais graduated as sanyasis while a few chose to settle down to a married life.
They were sincere to their pursuit, no matter what lifestyle they chose to live. Honesty, sincerity, the learning spirit, courage of conviction, willingness to face obstacles, compassion for people, simplicity, self-acceptance, patience, faith, and light-heartedness, are some of the qualities that I have admired in them.
Every activity is holy or profane as you make it out to be. Shankara in his Bhaja Govindam speaks of managing desires rather than suppressing them or becoming slavishly entrapped by them. Vairagya is not absence of desire; it is freedom from the hold of desires, a different thing altogether. Shankara considers greed an obstacle to spirituality, as opposed to the enjoyment of wealth that a person earns through honest effort.
Of late, I have been conducting a series of workshops for management students on emotional and spiritual intelligence. I see spiritual intelligence as the ability to come to terms with ourselves and our past. It is the ability to transform tragic experiences into growth opportunities. When we are able to deal with situations and relationships in life objectively without personalizing them, we are able to flow in life. Generally, we get hurt because we take things personally and feel threatened by them. Experiencing vulnerability in our childhood and the pain associated with it, we develop the ego. This ego is nothing but a defense system to cope with and conceal our vulnerability.
Spirituality helps us accept and work with this vulnerability. Vulnerability is part of being human, hence need not be feared. The ability to let go of past pain and becoming free from within is wisdom.
In the spiritual journey, no one characteristic can be a sure sign of wisdom. These characteristics merely represent enlightenment, they do not ensure it. We can only presume that a person with a predominance of these qualities is a wise person. These qualities constitute relative wisdom that could or need not mirror enlightenment. That apart, these milestones also double up as the chequered flag of enlightenment. We soon realize that the point where we begin our journey is also the end point. The farthest end of the globe is also its beginning. When our paradigm about enlightenment shifts from a linear model to a global one, we would have understood the spiritual journey in all its splendor.
The writer is a student of Swami Dayananda. He is a teacher of Vedanta and conducts workshops on personal and spiritual growth. He has been teaching in Mumbai for 18 years now.
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