The Key to Discovery
SRI SWAMI VENKATESANANDA
When engaged in an enquiry into the nature of the truth concerning the world, oneself, relationship and why the relationship exists, where does the answer come from? In olden days especially, it was usual to insist upon revelation. The truth was always revealed through a divine mystery, a divine dispensation, divine grace. Vasishtha has one of the most brilliant responses to this. He says: “What do you know about grace? Nothing. Do you believe in the existence of God who whispers into your ears? Nonsense! Drop it. Did some God serve you dinner, or did your wife or somebody else prepare it and give it you? Self-effort–that is what counts, nothing else counts. Dismiss all these speculations and enquire into it afresh.”
The Master insists upon self-effort, so that one cannot say: “All right, if it has to happen accidentally, it will happen.” This doctrine of accidental coincidence is meant to clear mental blocks, first of all. Secondly, it is to stop this guessing game: “This must have a cause, therefore I am sure–” modified into: “I am pretty sure–” modified into: “I guess this is the cause.” Then one is on a wild-goose-chase so that the attention is always distracted, diverted, dissipated and meaningful effort is prevented. The Master concedes that if one is to have freedom, one must engage oneself in effort. In order to free oneself, there must necessarily be an understanding of the causal connection, that is, right effort. Why does one look for right effort? Because one knows that from right effort, right results will arise. So, even here, the doctrine of Vasishtha is not terribly cut and dried. I love to call it ‘neither-nor’ philosophy. Does everything happen accidentally? No. Is there a causal connection between A and B? No. Neither this nor that. Be watchful, be vigilant, then it is possible you will understand when this is applicable and when that is applicable. That which is neither-nor is the famous ‘middle path’, the middle being neither this nor that. But at the same time it should become clear that the middle is both this and that. It is neither this exclusively nor that exclusively, but this middle path takes on the characteristics of both sides.
In all religious ceremonies and rituals there is fire involved somewhere, as an intermediary between the human and the divine. Why is it so? Because fire stands in the middle of the so-called five elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. Since it is in the middle, it is neither gross nor subtle, which means it shares the characteristics of the gross and the subtle. Like earth and water it can be seen, but like air and space it can only be felt but not grasped. Unlike the earth or the water which can be scooped up and thrown away, you can throw the burning substance away, but not the fire. Just as you can move your hand through air and space, so you can move your hand through fire. This fire is somewhere in between. That which is in the middle, on the one hand shares the characteristics of both, and on the other hand it is neither exclusively this nor exclusively that. This is the fundamental secret, the key to the doctrine of Vasishtha–neither self-effort nor grace; neither accidental coincidence nor absence of it.
Although the wonderful sage Vasishtha insists upon self-effort, there is always the question of freedom of choice: self-effort versus predestination, destiny, karma. How does Vasishtha solve this, how does he reconcile it? If you study the scripture carefully, you will be puzzled. A few chapters are devoted entirely to self-effort. Vasishtha says: “What is called God and what is called destiny is nonsense. There is nothing called destiny, self-effort is the most important thing.” Then let us roll up our sleeves and fight the battle of life–Vasistha says: “No, that is not it. What can you, a puny little human being, do? Everything is pre-determined, everything is destiny.” Then you are tempted to turn around to the sage and say: “Please, make up your mind–am I free to act or am I destined to act?” And Vasishtha says: “You are destined to feel you are free, and what is called destiny is a choice which you exercised earlier on! You are free, but not free to change your colour, change your shape, change your sex, change your genes. You have already exercised that choice. And so, what you call destiny is nothing but the fruition of your own free will exercised earlier on. All right, now start a new chain-reaction. Plant a seed now which will germinate in its own time, which Will bring up its shoot in its own good time.” Thus, these two are reconciled.
There is another problem with most of us: am I a free agent or is my life pre-destined absolutely–in which case, what part does divine grace play in it? If divine grace can do nothing, then why should I pray? If divine grace can do nothing then I do not have to pray, I do not have to meditate, what has to happen will happen. Or, can grace veto destiny? How does that work? Can I do something about it? Vasishtha says again: “Yes, of course you can do something about it. Grace itself demands that you should do something about it and change your destiny.” Thus all the so-called irreconcilables are beautifully, reconciled in this scripture. At one point something is emphasised and at another point the direct opposite is emphasised. Then it is pointed out that the two are not opposites, one is the continuation of the other. For instance, you plant a seed and a shoot comes out of it. These are not two unrelated events, the shoot and the whole tree were already contained in that seed, but not as cause and effect.
Did we not start off saying that we must find out if the self exists and what its nature is? Yes, Even that can be understood only through self-effort. The discovery must be yours. When it becomes yours, it is then time to wonder whether that self which made the discovery is real or not. Otherwise one lives in a funny sort of fool’s paradise where everything seems to be clear when nothing is clear, where we depend upon words without having exerted ourselves to see if what we are listening to or what we are hearing is correct or incorrect. Therefore, Vasishtha insists upon self-effort. Enquire, contemplate as profoundly as it is possible for you at the present moment. The discovery will obviously depend upon your present state of maturity. Never be disheartened; and if something seems to be correct to you, good. But keep going.
There is a brilliant and beautiful parallel in the Taittiriya Upanishad. A student asks the master: “Sir, what is the ultimate, supreme truth?” The master replies: “Quite simple–that from which everything has come, that in which everything exists and that into which everything is ultimately resolved. That is the truth. But meditate and you will find it.” The student goes into deep meditation and comes up with a brilliant discovery–food! We are all born of food, we exist because of food and eventually we are returned to food–the earth. He comes to the master with this answer and the master does not approve or disapprove. He says: “Okay. But meditate still further, still deeper.” As the enquiry becomes more and more intense, layer after layer of the truth is revealed in a very different way. Not as a gratuitous gift. It is the intensity of self-effort that makes this discovery possible and what you discover for yourself is profound and fantastic.
Only when this discovery is made do we have real, true faith. Otherwise the faith that we have is usually just a belief, a big lie, and if somebody touches that belief with a feather, it shatters. Faith is when you engage yourself in intense self-effort. It is then that the truth shines and it is unmistakable.
What about the gurus and scriptures and so on? Are they necessary, are they indispensable, are they useful? As a matter of fact, in the Yoga Vasishtha these discussions are minimal because the situation in which the teaching as given is a guru-disciple relationship. The guru, Vasishtha, is discoursing particularly to Rama, the disciple, and the others. So the concept of the guru is not ridiculed but there is an insistence upon self-effort and not depending upon somebody or something else. Therefore the Master says: “The teacher and the scripture are not indispensable, but the realisation of the truth is not had without their help”–a double negative. So make use of them in an intelligent way, not subjecting yourself slavishly to them nor arrogating to yourself the ability to do without them.
It is a very intelligent approach if one understands this. Though your effort was inspired by the guru and the scriptures, if it is intelligently directed, there is no blind dependence. Such self-effort enables the truth to be discovered afresh by each one of you. Then true faith arises. But if you accept blindly the conclusion of the teachers or the scriptures as if they are your own, you have done nothing. They are not your truths and therefore they have no validity or strength whatsoever, and you have no faith. If at some stage the conclusion proves to be slightly unreliable, everything comes crashing down and you are lost beneath the debris. However, if the truth was properly and intelligently understood and the discovery made your own, you will probably carry on even if the master has crashed.
Does this self-effort mean that Vasishtha, the master, encourages ego-centric activity or ego trips? Not so. The ego thrives only as long as there is no self-effort and no direct discovery of the truth. It is dependence upon some other authority that is real ego. When I say: “I believe this master’s teaching, I am a follower of this master,” it means I am doing him a favour by joining his family. I am pushing him from behind as if he were an automobile that stalled on the road and without me he would not move. In all that this ego is hidden and it is not examined at all. On a superficial study of the text we are tempted to feel that self-effort is an ego trip. But contrary to what appears to be on the surface, self-effort destroys the ego, whereas blind acceptance or rejection often promotes the ego, keeps it hidden, uninvestigated and therefore blindly confirmed. The ego is made of unexamined, ill-digested half-truths.
We have never bothered to enquire, but we very humbly accepted when somebody told us that we were So-and-so. And, when a man of enlightenment was amidst us, we humbly accepted all his teaching, as if that great master walked on his knees begging us to accept. ‘I humbly accept someone’s teaching’ is an expression of terrible arrogance which the ego thrives on. When things are blindly accepted, the feeling ‘I am’, and ‘I am something quite different from you’ persists. This blind notion goes unchallenged throughout our lives.
So we are asked to pursue the enquiry of truth with intense self-effort. Through that self-effort, we begin to enquire into the nature of the world and the nature of the self. When that discovery becomes our own, we suddenly realise that there is nothing our own!