This article is from the book What The River Has Taught Me.
A certain Sannyasin (renunciate) friend of mine narrated to me a very interesting story. This Swamiji, before he retired from service and took Sannyasa, was known as Mr. Rao and was in the army where his job was to train typists. This was in the pre-Independence days when India was ruled by the British. One of the students in Mr. Rao’s class was a young Englishman named Thomas who continued to type badly despite all possible coaching. One day Mr. Rao got tired of him and asked him a straight question: “Mr. Thomas! You have been in my class for so long. And I have also tried to help you out as much as I could. Please tell me, how is it you still continue to make the same old mistakes?”. To that Mr. Thomas answered: “Mr. Rao, the first mistake I made was to be born in this world. All other mistakes followed in natural sequence”.
I shall never forget that incisive remark of Thomas as faithfully recapitulated to me by my dear Swamiji friend. Our plight in the world is because we are born into it. What is this world, after all? just a trap set by Maya to capture the Jivas (individual souls) in its net and keep them away from God. So, being born into this world means the same thing as being caught in Maya’s trap.
And for a trapped person, can there be any happiness? In a remarkable sentence, so reminiscent of the Gita description of worldly life, Thomas Hardy describes life in this world. Says the great English novelist, “Life is an onion. Weep as you peel it”. How true! From birth to death, it is struggle, struggle, struggle all along. For some in this world, it is a struggle for very existence. For others, it is a struggle for money or a woman or a position. Some exercise to reduce weight, others strive to put it on. Some spend ten years and twenty years running from pillar to post pining for a child. Others weep unable to support their children. People are distracted all the time. To a wise man, this whole world presents the spectacle of a lunatic asylum, where all men are in a very real sense, psychiatric cases. The vision of no man is perfect. The only exceptions are the God-realised sages whose wisdom is absolute.
Among this suffering, distracted humanity, there are people whose pride will not let them admit that they are suffering. It is difficult to deal with this lot.
There is a second group of people whose members believe that their suffering can be mitigated or removed, not by spiritual solutions, but by worldly solutions. There are two categories in this second group. In the first category, are the hungry millions of this world. They want food for their hunger, a job for their unemployment, a house for their shelterless existence. They are not interested (in their state, they cannot be interested) in the religious preacher who promises them a golden future by declaring, “You’ll have pie, by and by, when you die”. The starving masses want food to live, not food after they die. And they are right. Religion cannot be fed to hungry stomachs.
In the second category of the second group are the rich materialists who, despite all their wealth and women and power and position, have their own “rich man’s problems and diseases”, but who, in their ignorance, are unwilling to admit religion and spirituality as a way out for their vexations. They are the people who are neck-deep in the worldly mire and only time and repeated suffering can open their eye of wisdom.
The third or the last group of people are those who are above physical want, and besides, are convinced that a lasting solution to all their problems can be found only through spiritual endeavour. They have seen enough of worldly life to realise that worldly solutions are but piecemeal solutions and cannot solve all problems that vex the human mind and for all time. They understand that there is no end to problems in this world, and that these problems change colour and complexion like the proverbial chameleon. These are the people who have tried all the tricks in their bag to secure unalloyed happiness in this world and ultimately failed. They have come to realise the deceptive attractiveness of the worldly objects. They have experimented and found for themselves that a change of place or circumstance or environment in this world does not produce a lasting change for the better, but only resembles a change from the frying pan to the fire. Every thing and every place is fraught with misery. Every worldly experience is conditioned by suffering and exertion. It is for these people who have realised the futility of worldly exertion, who, have understood the real nature of the world as a school of suffering, that Sadhana (spiritual practice) is prescribed, that spiritual life is advocated. These are the people who are qualified to become students of the school of spirituality. They are the Sadhaks or the spiritual seekers or the spiritual aspirants proper.
A spiritual aspirant is one who feels himself in a state of bondage. He experiences a sense of suffocation, of stiffing, of impatience with Samsara (worldly life), a feeling of “I am fed up”. Generally, a person who says “I am fed up with life” or “I can’t cope up” does not feel fed up with everything. What he feels fed up with are certain bad situations in which he may be placed in life; his mind is full of desires and he would like to enjoy all the world if he can. That is not enough for a spiritual aspirant. He must get fed up with everything in Samsara.
A true Sadhak is thus one who tries to free himself from worldly bondage. He exerts to detach himself from the world and attach himself to God or the Spirit. He constantly struggles to undo the “first mistake”. He wants to become Spirit-bound. Whereas, a worldly man is one who is still mind-bound, sense-bound, world-bound. That is the essential difference between a Sadhak and a worldly person.
In these days of materialism when selfishness has became the fashion of the day, when the go-getter who is willing to sacrifice others’ interests to serve his own is considered the model to copy, when every person and thing and circumstance is looked at and weighed in the mental balance to judge its utility to serve one’s own ends and purposes is prone to look at God and saints also as multipurpose tools. What is God’s utility to me? How can the saint help me? That is the question. Can your God help me to achieve my desires? Can your saint help me to fulfil my ambitions? If so, hats off to your God and to your saint. Otherwise, I want neither your God nor your saint. That is the attitude of many people.
What is the utilitarian value of God? Can He help me to pass my examination with distinction? Can He help me to win my court-case over the disputed land? Can He bless me with a son? Can He cure my disease declared incurable by the doctors? Can He destroy my enemies? “My bank wants me to go on a transfer to Bombay. I like, Delhi and want to stay here itself.” Cannot your God fulfil this small desire of mine? Cannot your saint’s blessings bring this about? These and a myriad other selfish expectations are sought to be realised by people through resort to God and saints.
God will be no God if He does not answer the sincere prayers of devotees. So He blesses people with the fulfilment of their desires. He answers their prayers provided they pray with sincerity and faith. People who say that their prayers are not answered are people who do not have much of a faith in God and who pray just like that on the off chance that He might after all help. By and large, the majority of devotees belong to this category only. They pray with a selfish motive. Materialism is their creed. Worldly success is their goal. They are not interested in the theory of rebirth or in the other world or in spiritual salvation. To the extent that God can help them in their material ambitious, well and good. These are the people who, when they get into trouble, when they are faced with difficulties which they find themselves unable to tackle with their own wit, turn to God out of sheer despair and helplessness. These are the people who, though not normally given to visiting temples and doing worship, will one day suddenly clean the Puja room and light lamps and buy flower-garlands to decorate the Deity. Once their prayers are answered, the lights in the Puja room will go out, and in the place of flower-garlands, cobwebs will gather. God will then go out of their mind. Like putting a car back in the garage after use, they relegate God to the background once He has done His work for them and they need Him no more.
But then, in matters like this, there can be no generalisation. There are people who develop a real and lasting faith in God after once experiencing his saving grace in a time of crisis. The crisis in personal life and consequent helplessness turn their mind, for the first time maybe, towards God and religion, and once they experience God’s grace their initial half- hearted approach to God turns into living faith.
People who turn to God and spirituality for the sake of God and spirituality form or constitute a microscopic minority among devotees. But they are there. They have seen the world, understood the utter worthlessness of life on the earth-plane, realised its transience, realised its miseries and want to get out of it all. They have heard it said that abiding peace can be had only in God and they desire to know how to reach Him. They are the spiritual seekers proper. They seek the Spirit. The attraction for matter, for the world, has died in their mind, albeit temporarily.