Theory and Practice in Spiritual Life
Sri N. Ananthanarayanan
This article is from the book What The River Has Taught Me.
If you read a spiritual book, if you attend a spiritual discourse, if you listen to a Mahatma’s Upadesa, you get spiritual guidance. You get theoretical knowledge of matters spiritual. It is what is called Paroksha Jnana in Sanskrit. Paroksha means indirect. Jnana means knowledge, wisdom. Paroksha Jnana is indirect knowledge. It is like the knowledge of cooking gained through reading a book of recipes. It has a value. It is necessary too, but it is useless by itself. A man who knows how to cook but does not cook cannot appease his hunger. Even so, a man who knows what is spiritual life, how to practise Sadhana, but does not do a thing about it, cannot appease his spiritual hunger, cannot register progress in the spiritual path. The man who knows what to do but does not do is in much the same position as the man who does not know what to do. Knowledge becomes fruitful only when it is applied. Or else, it is useless. In fact, it can even turn harmful in as much as mere theoretical knowledge can make a man’s head swell and make him vain and puffed up. Practice is the crucial thing. That is where most of us fail and fail miserably. In fact, before we begin reading scriptures, before we approach sages and saints, before we do all that, most of us can make substantial spiritual progress by ourselves if only we would start doing all those things which we know we should do and abstain from doing all those things which we already know we should not do. This way every one of us can begin the right life, the spiritual life.
If it be so, why do we not begin in the right direction? Why do we not make a beginning? And why do we fail to plunge into spiritual practice? The reason is not far to seek. There is no particular external compulsion. There is no sufficient necessity to do so. In the matter of food, the pangs of hunger and thirst drive you to earn money to buy the food. Nobody will give you money if you do not work. So you work. Similarly in the case of the lower appetites. These, like lust, are powerful. Sex-urge is the most powerful natural urge. It pushes man, often despite himself, to seek satisfaction in woman and it pushes woman, often despite herself, to seek satisfaction in man. Even saints are fooled in this matter. They trip. They succumb. Visvamitra fell a prey to Menaka. Rishya Sringa, that boy of pristine purity, was enticed and deluded by the girls. And we know many modern Visvamitras and Menakas.
Back to the point. There is no such compelling force, as in the case of lust, to turn man’s mind towards God. In the vast majority of cases, that is. A powerful spiritual hunger is the most uncommon thing. Why? Because this whole universe, this whole fabric of Maya, this whole phenomenal shroud has been designed by God to cloud the wisdom in man and keep him away from God. The world is designed to submerge man in Maya. Why? Why? Why? This ‘Why?’ question will keep recurring at every turn when you discuss matters spiritual. To many questions there are convincing answers. To many more there are no answers. Sages style these latter questions, these unanswerable questions, these impossible questions, as transcendental questions and declare unequivocally that the answers to these transcendental questions can be found only when you realise God, only when you destroy the mind.
Since the world is designed to keep man’s mind away from God, the spiritual seeker is forced constantly to battle against the forces of Maya, against the diverse world-currents. It is an uphill task. But the reward is high. It is a challenging task. But you will wear the crown of God on your head when you succeed in the task in the end.
The desire to tread the spiritual path arises in man’s mind as a result of meritorious deeds in many previous births. Quite often, the spiritual spark in man is kindled by contact with a spiritual Master, a true Guru, a realised Soul. Sometimes, the spiritual ignition is occasioned by terrible disappointments in worldly life. That is why Swami Sivananda characterizes pain as the best teacher. Pain turns man’s mind away from the world and towards God. Pain is the end-product of worldly life and the beginning of spiritual life.
Once the spiritual thirst is created, the seeker naturally turns towards spiritual books or spiritual teachers for light on the path. He acquires theoretical knowledge, Paroksha Jnana. This, as we noticed, is the first step, and a necessary step. The next step in spiritual life, and the most essential step, is practice.
Practice ultimately leads to Aparoksha Anubhuti or the supreme Direct Experience. Indirect knowledge becomes direct experience. All that is learnt and understood about Brahman is more than verified by one’s own experience, by realising one’s own true nature as Brahman. That brings down the final curtain on the drama of life. But between the initial stepping on to the spiritual path and the final experience of realising Brahman, there are innumerable facts of spiritual life which the Sadhak verifies for himself personally. And with each verification his conviction in the truth of what he learnt grows.
Practice is the thing. Practice is what Lord Krishna characterizes as Abhyasa. Practice is kept up by dispassion or Vairagya. Dispassion is aided by discrimination or Viveka. These things go together. A spiritual seeker, if he is earnest about his task, should introduce order, system, method in his self-chosen undertaking. Viveka or discriminative understanding is the best friend of the spiritual seeker. The spiritual seeker should never forget to discriminate between the Real and the unreal. He should never fail to draw the distinction between the eternal and the ephemeral, between the substance and the shell. Discriminative thinking, correct understanding, viewing things in perspective should become a habit of mind with him. He cannot afford to remain without Viveka even for a split second, because that split second may well turn out to be the moment of temptation and ruin.
Vairagya follows in the wake of Viveka. Once you know what is real and what is unreal, once you know what is productive of bliss in the long run and what is productive of pain in the long run, once you understand what is diamond and what is stone, once you appreciate that all the worldly pleasures are but sugar-coated poison, once you learn to realise that in God only can be had unalloyed and lasting bliss, you will naturally turn away from the world and towards God. This is dispassion. Dislike for worldly pleasures is dispassion. Distaste for sense-objects is dispassion. Dispassion and discrimination go together.
Your Abhyasa or spiritual practice will be sustained and continuous only if it is supported by an unbroken current of Viveka and Vairagya.
Practice is the thing. It is practice which can take you forward and onward in your spiritual journey. Suppose you want to go from New York to Los Angeles. You know the route. You know the means of transport. You have the money to buy the ticket. But all this is useless unless you buy the ticket and get into the train or plane or bus. Then you will progress towards Los Angeles every hour of your travel. Similarly in spiritual life. You may know the route to God. You may know how to practise Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga. You may also have the health and the strength, the circumstances and environment, the facilities and aids to practise Yoga. But unless you begin the actual practice, you cannot move an inch forward. Spiritual practice is like cooking food. Enjoying the spiritual bliss that arises out of spiritual practice, the spiritual Ananda, is akin to eating the cooked food. It satisfies your spiritual hunger.