Are Spiritual Practices Necessary?
Sri Swami Chidananda
This article is a chapter from the book Seek The Beyond.
The Need for a Purified Mind
The Transforming Power of Spiritual Practices
We speak of the necessity of an awakened awareness. We speak of the necessity of a higher awareness which alone will make our life genuine and authentic. Until that awareness becomes firmly established in our heart, our life is still counterfeit, our life is still, if you want to put it more charitably, apurna, inadequate. It is not fully the life we are supposed to live; it is not a spiritual life.
A spiritual life is based upon spiritual consciousness. A spiritual life is based upon spiritual thinking; it is based upon a spiritual approach to all things. It is based upon a spiritual vision of the universe in which we live; it is based upon a spiritual awareness of oneself, a divine awareness of oneself. It is a transcendence of one’s present, limited body-mind-bound and time-space-oriented human personality. It is a going beyond this present earth consciousness, this psychophysical human consciousness, which by its very nature is temporary, changeful and inadequate. For, in every cycle of 24 hours, this human consciousness is extinguished. It is simply not there. It has a recurring death every day during deep sleep, and this is not philosophy or metaphysics or speculation. It is the fact of experience of all, be he king or beggar, donkey or dog. That being the case, when this human consciousness appears and disappears every 24 hours, how can it be called truly real?
Therefore, spiritual life begins from this central point, this subjective starting point: How do you know yourself? What is your awareness of yourself? From morning till night, what is the awareness of yourself that pervades your consciousness, that dominates your heart, that fills your mind and that directs the manner in which your intellect functions?
If spiritual life is to be authentic, genuine, true, and, therefore, go on yielding spiritual results, it is this which is the very key. You are what your inner awareness is. Hence the great prayer to the effulgent Light of lights beyond all darkness, Narayana, shining as this Light of lights: “dhiyo yo nah prachodayat—May my inner being—mind, intellect, thought, emotion, sentiment—all become characterised by an effulgence, by a certain radiance, a certain brightness. May Your light of inner spiritual vision bring a flood of light into my intellect.” Hence, again and again, this prayer is offered.
Thus, it is true that the essence of spiritual life is an awakened and alert awareness, an unfolded inner consciousness of yourself upon a higher dimension, upon a higher plane. It is true. But then, what relevance, what meaning, what significance, what relationship, what place, do processes such as japa, kirtan, formal worship, study, pilgrimage, Ganges bath, mantra writing have? What do these various sadhanas, various aspects of practical spiritual life, have to do with this awareness?
Are they irrelevant? Are they meaningless? Are they a superstition? Are they an unnecessary burden we are carrying—unscientific, irrational, illogical, outmoded? Or, do they have a role to play in our spiritual life? Do they have some practical value? Do they even have a central, important place in our spiritual life and sadhana?
One way of answering this and understanding it is very direct. It is supra-logical, direct. Had they no importance, if they did not have any real, vital link, some relationship, some connection, with this inner awareness, some definite role to play, some very indispensable function, then great souls like Gurudev Swami Sivanandaji would never have endorsed them, supported them or made provision for them, would never have built a temple, a Bhajan Hall, instituted akhanda nama sankirtan or written books called Japa Yoga and Philosophy of Idol Worship. All these Swami Sivanandaji would not have done unless they had some great significance and value. So this is enough answer. Had these things not a relevance, a purpose and a value, he would not have endorsed them. And no one in his senses would say that Swami Sivananda was a superstitious person.
Similarly, a great spiritual phenomenon like Sri Sri Anandamayi Ma would not have endorsed japa, kirtan, havans and various other worships. Neither would Papa Ramdas by bell, book and candle have proclaimed the supremacy, the supreme efficacy of the Name: OM SRI RAM JAI RAM JAI JAI RAM. And mind you, none of these people were orthodox in the conservative sense of the term. They were modern people, of our own times, who were aware of all the new trends of thought. And yet they meticulously followed certain outer forms. That is enough answer.
The Need for a Purified Mind
But then, if you want a different answer, more along the modern line of thinking, it is that such an awakened awareness, such an unfolded spiritual awareness, an active divine awareness, needs a certain medium, a certain field through which and in which to manifest, wherein to abide, just as any force needs some medium to manifest itself in and through. And the point lies here: this subtle, alert, awakened awareness, divine awareness, is an extremely subtle state of consciousness that can manifest only in a refined inner instrument, in a purified mind.
Such a very subtle state of mind and intellect is conspicuous by its absence in the vast majority of present day global mankind. They are steeped in rajas and tamas. For them, this gross world of names and forms alone is real, and they live to satisfy sense appetites and to fulfil desires. They are firmly bound down to a lesser, grosser level of being, of thinking, feeling and acting. In such beings, the mind-stuff, the chitta,is gross; it vibrates in a very rajasic and tamasic way. It may be able to make scientific discoveries and inventions, but it is ego-bound. It is bound to dehatma Buddhi—”I am the body” awareness. Even the slightest concept of the abstruse, the purely abstract principle as Spirit, is not there at all. They will mouth certain words; it may be part of their vocabulary, but it is not part of their thought frame; it is not part of their inner content.
This being the case, an awakened awareness, an alert awareness upon a spiritual level, is well nigh impossible to them. The utmost that one could say is that through intelligence and study, some of them may come to have a relatively or comparatively awakened awareness. Psychologically, they may be able to understand some of their moods and emotions, their neuroses and their inner complexes. So, having an intellect, they may be able to have some psychological awareness, which does make them different from the vast majority of their fellow beings in whom even this is absent. But then, psychological awareness is one thing, spiritual awareness is totally another thing.
Spiritual awakening and awareness require chitta suddhi (a pure mind). They require an abundance of sattva. They require a purified intellect. They require purity of heart, a total inner purity. Then alone the mind becomes an adequate and a suitable instrument for this heightened spiritual consciousness to manifest itself in, to dwell in and to be supported by.
And herein it is that the relevance of japa, meditation, nishkama paropakara seva (selfless service), study, pilgrimage etc., becomes clear. It is through such processes alone that the interior is purified and uplifted, made subtle, becomes an instrument par excellenceas it were—very suitable, very appropriate, very fitting—to harbour and retain and invoke this higher state of consciousness, this radiant inner spiritual awareness. Thus the role of all the various observances, the various items of sadhana, as we know them, is to bring about in your being a totally purified interior; it is to bring godliness into your feeling about yourself. When this is achieved then all talk of an awakened awareness, spiritual awareness, becomes meaningful.
To elaborate further: Not any mind can meditate. Not any mind can enter into higher awareness. Not any mind can become a fit framework for God-consciousness, Divine-awareness. The gross mind, the mind filled with tamas, the mind filled with rajas, is unfit. It cannot hold this consciousness; it cannot help in bringing about this awareness. In the classical Vedantic sense, such a mind is impure even if it is pure in an ordinary sense. Because, according to classical Vedantic terminology, impurity constitutes not only ordinary impurity such as impure desires, anger, avarice and greed, infatuated attachment, arrogance etc., but also a lack of subtlety, a non-refined state of mind containing certain defects.
The outgoing nature of the mind is an impurity. It is an inveterate bad habit; it is an impurity of which the mind should be cleansed. Worldly thinking, jagat chintana, is an impurity. Gluttony is an impurity. The inability to trust others, always doubting, always suspecting, is an impurity. Pettiness is an impurity. Drowsiness is an impurity. And, egotism and selfishness are the greatest dirt, the most impure of all impurities of the mind.
Therefore the interior has to be transformed to make it fit for the higher awareness. There is need for what is known as an inner alchemy. Gross metal has to be transmuted into pure gold. This is spiritual life. This is spiritual sadhana. This is everything about yoga. And this is brought about by the various yoga practices, each working upon some scientific base, invoking some scientific principle.
The Transforming Power of Spiritual Practices
For example, a devotee will worship God every day. He may use an image of his ishta devata (chosen Deity) and worship It. He may sit before It for an half an hour or an hour. He bathes It, clothes It, ornaments It, puts sandal paste and kumkum on It, offers incense and waves lights, sings hymns and chants Its Name, prays to It and prostrates himself before It. All the time, his eye is fixed upon the divine form. All the time, his mind is thinking about his ishta devata and Its divinity. All the time, his heart is directed towards It in a stream of devotion, in pious holy thought.
So, the constant dwelling upon a thing, day after day, in a regular way, gradually brings about a transference into the worshipper of whatever is sublime, noble and divine in that thing; the worshipper becomes like the object worshipped or the ideal worshipped. This is a definite law, a specific law. That is the way in which a worshipper gradually becomes holy, pure and divine.
It is the same when you repeat the Name, do japa. The holy Name is a mass of Divinity. The Name is a repository of the infinite power of God. The constant repetition of the Name penetrates into the deepest recesses of our being. It even changes samskaras and vasanas (subtle tendencies and desires) from asubha into subha (inauspicious into auspicious) and brings in an abundant influx of sattva guna (the quality of purity). Because the Name is pure sattva, one hundred per cent suddha sattva. We can even call it super sattva because it fills you with sattva, overcoming rajas and tamas. That is how japa brings about a transformation.
They say: “As a man thinketh, so he becometh.” Therefore, constant intake of sublime, life-transforming, thrilling, inspiring ideas, constantly putting them inside, also gradually brings about a complete transformation in the fabric of the antahkarana (inner being). That is why the great scientific sage, Maharshi Patanjali, included svadhyaya (spiritual study) as a specific item in his graduated, systematised yoga science. Similarly, unbroken remembrance of God has been advocated everywhere, in all scriptures.
From one point of view these practices are dispensable. If you attain Self-realisation they are dispensable. And these practices must be done with the awareness that their purpose is to bring about an inner transformation. If done for this purpose and with the right perspective, then they are not superstition. There may be superstition in the Hindu religion. There may be superstition in Hindu customs and practices, but there is no superstition in Hindu spirituality. There is no superstition in Hindu yoga science no matter what a thousand critics may say.
But if these practices are done mechanically, as a dull routine, just because someone has said they should be done, or if they are done with some lesser objective, like getting a desire fulfilled or attaining some petty earthly end, then they deserve to be criticised. If people make their entire religion a process of petty bargaining with God through worship, fasting, prayer, pilgrimage, bathing etc., then it becomes a puerile and mundane affair. They bring religion into a lower level, a lesser level.
However, it must be admitted that religion starts at this lesser level for everyone. Because no one is suddenly endowed with higher understanding. One gradually graduates from lesser understanding, erroneous understanding to better understanding, correct understanding, the right perspective. This is also a process, an evolutionary process.
Therefore, everything has a place. When properly understood and properly practised with the right attitude and right approach, everything will help. However, don’t get stuck in any process. Know that this is also a stage that one has to pass through, transcend. But don’t take it for granted or presume that you have already transcended it, passed beyond it. That may land you in error. Know that all these sadhanas are meant to bring about this total transmutation of the human nature, so that the human instrument, the mind, intellect and heart become fit channels for the Divine.
That is our task. That is why we have come here. If we are seriously engaged in this task, our life will move towards our own highest good, towards supreme blessedness. If we deviate, not only is the Goal lost, but one lands up in a mess which can result in duhkha, great sorrow.
So this is how it is. Take what you will. We have to evoke these scientific principles and in an understanding manner engage in these various processes of yoga and bring about this inner alchemy, a total transmutation. Divinity can enter into Divinity. A godly individual can enter into God-consciousness, into God. We have to become like that which we are trying to attain. Sometimes we may fail, but if we persist, success is sure to be ours. If you persist it must yield results, because that is the great law. Perseverance always pays.
Therefore, one who perseveres and practises yoga in an understanding way, in a wise way, will reap a golden harvest of bliss, peace, divine perfection and liberation. May God’s grace and Gurudev’s choicest blessings enable you to see this clearly and enable you to live a life of heightened awareness and spiritual consciousness! God bless you all!