July 19, 2010

Para Vidya and Apara Vidya

When some sincere aspirant devotes his or her life in the pursuit of knowledge of not only the beautiful world around but also about oneself, then there appears a fundamental problem. In the beginning we may start with a broad canvas, but as we proceed, our focus keeps becoming smaller & smaller. Super specialists are experts in a very miniscule part of the whole. Unfortunately all those who have truly worked to even get that knowledge become very humble. This is because their pursuit of knowledge instead of revealing the ultimate truth of that object just reveals to them that there are still unfathomed depths & dimensions of the object of their specialization, which they are yet to fully know. Every pursuit of knowledge does reveal some aspects of life, but more than that it reveals our ignorance. The world may say that so & so person is very knowledgeable, but that so called learned person humbly knows as to how little he or she knows, and how much there is still left to know. No wonder great people like Newton said that all what they have known till now is comparable to just few pebbles on a seashore. So there is indeed a fundamental problem, if we don’t pursue knowledge we anyway shall live in ignorance, and even if we pursue knowledge we still live in ignorance, the only difference is that in the latter case we have come to realize our ignorance. Every such person shall have profound respect for the question, as to how can a man ever be omniscient? How can we know the truth of everything around? How can we live an enlightened life?

The entire spectrum of things around us in this world can be classified in two categories viz. the Para and the Apara Vidya. Objective of any such classification and categorization is to basically segregate things requiring a different approach. Even though the word meaning of Para and Apara are, Higher & Lower, yet it is noteworthy that the Upanishads say that both of them are worth knowing. The specific name should not imply any demeaning of the so-called Lower Knowledge. The objective of the specific words is to indicate that the Para Vidya alone shall fulfill the wish of the student of getting omniscience. Apara Vidya by itself is not competent to bless us with the desired fulfillment, while Para Vidya alone shall help us attain the desired fulfillment.

Apara Vidya encompasses the entire spectrum of 'objects', that is, anything that can be objectified by our senses or mind i.e. anything that can be 'seen' is an object of Apara Vidya. Under this category comes all our worldly knowledge's viz. science, arts, commerce, management, technical knowledge etc. Interestingly the Vedas and Vedangas are also classified in this category because they are also a part of the limited & changing world in front of us. This knowledge is worth knowing because of various reasons. One, specialization in any one field of objective world, helps us to serve our society & world better, two, pursuit of knowledge disciplines our mind & intellect, so that we become capable of thinking deeply & properly, and last but not the least, this pursuit of Apara Vidya helps us to realize the ephemerality of the objective world, and thus helps us to get qualities of vairagya (renunciation) etc, and also motivates us to look out for something more permanent in this ever changing world. This categorization is to indicate to us that however much we may know the world outside, but by this pursuit alone we shall never move towards omniscience. Apara Vidya shall help us to make a living, have a dignified & respectable life, have a thoughtful intelligent mind, but never ever hope that you shall move towards omniscience. This is not the way for the fulfillment of such an aspiration.

The second category of knowledge is called Para Vidya, or Higher Knowledge. It is 'that knowledge' by which the imperishable is known. So there does exist a definite methodology and tradition to know, that which is permanent & imperishable. Here even though the words are used but no words directly define the imperishable. It has been rightly said that 'God defined is God defiled'. The moment we use any word, it in fact limits the object as so & so, and whatever is limited can never be the permanent. Moreover, everything that can be seen is changing, thus the imperishable can never be an object of our knowledge. It is in fact the very subject, the essence of the very knower. So the knower has to know his own self, his own essence, which can never be seen by our senses, because this fellow alone is peeping outside through his window like senses. However, there is a very clear & definite way of knowing this subjective essence.

When we go into these pointers in the right way then we do come to realize that divine & imperishable subjective essence. One needs to keep negating till no object whatsoever remain in our mind. A mind that is well awake yet is not objectifying any object, shall know the truth of the very knower easily. Negation is not just 'not-seeing' any objects, it is basically realizing the ephemerality of an object so very clearly that getting or losing that object doesn't bring about any difference in us. Even if the object is in front it doesn't register in our mind. To realize the hollowness of a particular object is to realize the ephemerality (Mithya) of that object. A sincere aspirant of truth is not only capable to intellectually understand the uselessness of all objects, but is capable of treating the objects accordingly. When no objects, achievements, experiences etc fascinate us, and even if we get them or lose them it makes no difference to us, then alone we have 'negated' them. When all 'objects' are negated, then there is nothing to be known outside, and the very duality of 'knower-known' gets redundant and thus falls off, and what remains is the very essence of the knower, the actor who was playing the role of a knower, which is incidentally self-effulgent or self-revealing. So what we need to learn is the art of negation. Then even though the truth is realized, yet is not known in the worldly sense, wherein there is a knower standing apart from an object and knowing it. I never know the imperishable as an object, but realize it as our very self. A Self from which all the thoughts & even this vast world spring forth.

February 19, 2010

Life and Teachings of Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda was born on January 12th, 1863. Growing up as a young man, Narendranath Dutta, acquired many attributes of a strong leader and quickly commanded the respect of many of his peers. Curious about whether God could be known intimately, Narendranath found himself seeking the sage of Dakshineshwar, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Narendranath and many others were deeply inspired by Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings. After the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna, he wandered all over India and touched the hearts of many people. He reached the Himalayas and from there travelled south until he reached the southernmost tip of India. There he meditated for three days on top of Kanyakumari.

During his wandering days he met the poverty-stricken and illiterate as well, and saw the effects of Hinduism’s social caste system. However, he understood that religion was the backbone of mother India and that it must also be the foundation of modern India. For him religion was not the Brahminical customs, but rather it was the perpetual scriptures of the Vedas, which held the Vedantic truths. Seeking to spread this message to the world, Vivekananda travelled to the United States to represent Hinduism at the Parliament of Religions on September 11th, 1893 and brought the spiritual teachings of India to the West. He has greatly influenced the last hundred years of spiritual growth in Europe and America.

Swami Vivekananda was not a retiring or reticent figure. Neither was he an aloof monk with a superior attitude or a spiritual ego. His down-to-earth policies of beneficial action coupled with an unsurpassed knowledge of the scriptures place him in a league all his own. Yet, he was not content to work slavishly in an imperfect world, only to advocate profound philosophy to secular and materialistic societies. His was a plan that incorporated selfless service to suffering millions with the living realization of God both within the world and beyond it as well. The eternal religious principles he espoused were, to him, directly realizable in everyday life, and not content to merely point them out, he fashioned new and refreshing avenues of spiritual expression for them. The Advaitic aspect of Vedanta was very dear to him and he saw in it the solution for all the problems of relative existence.

In addition to the humanistic element in his work, the Swami broke through many other types of antiquated taboos concerning outmoded traditional values. Being the first to leave India in order to teach the timeless message of Vedanta to the rest of the world, Vivekananda broke with the tradition and lost his caste as a result. Criticized for this and for teaching the Vedic wisdom to foreigners, the Swami explained that the lover of God has no caste restrictions that the devotees of the Lord form their own caste. By this fearless action and in many other ways, Vivekananda destroyed old conventions and concepts, opening the way for spiritual teachers from the east to come westward.

The regeneration of India that is taking place at present, as well as the new respect and reverence for its ancient culture and spiritual treasures the world over, is also greatly due to his untiring efforts. His many admirers, both eastern and western acknowledge him as a modern Buddha and an emanation of Lord Shiva. Like Shankara, who lived a very short physical life but who regenerated India and added considerably to the world's spiritual wealth, Swami Vivekananda possessed an illumined intellect, a vast and retentive memory, a heart devoted to God that was full of compassion for his fellow human beings and an ever-present realization of his true nature, whether working, worshiping or meditating.

In him it is clearly seen, elements of non-dual realization harmonized perfectly with the diverse modes and expressions of spiritual life. Vedantic Truth, Tantric practice and Yogic realization were all fused perfectly in him. His ability to reveal the Truth, implement the practice and lead the way unto realization was a special quality he possessed. He encouraged all to seek the unalloyed bliss of freedom and the profound peace of inner realization. Appreciated as both a spiritual luminary of the highest order and a patriot acting for the well being of his country, Swami Vivekananda stands out as a leader of souls.

Acknowledged as the foremost of Sri Ramakrishna's many notable disciples, both lay and monastic, Swami Vivekananda was an illumined being of the highest Order. He received an important teaching from Ramakrishna that "Jiva is Shiva." This became his Mantra, and he coined the concept of Daridra Narayana Seva - the service of God in and through (poor) human beings. With this thought in mind he founded the Ramakrishna Order on the principle of “Atmano Mokshartham Jagathitaya Cha” "For the realization of the Self and for the good of the world." The Ramakrishna Mission came into existence in 1897 and since then continues to function and inspire one and all, all over the world. Swami Vivekananda was a mighty inspiration to youth throughout his lifetime, and continues to inspire the youth of today. He believed that the essence of Hinduism was best expressed in the Vedanta philosophy. He summarized the Vedanta's teachings as, “Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”

Vivekananda dedicated his life to teaching and guiding the youth the importance of social service and laying the groundwork of character and leader attributes. He passed into Mahasamadhi (final absorption into Absolute Reality) on the July 4th 1902.

February 1, 2010

Geriatrics: Boon or Curse?

A very well known English proverb goes like “Knowledge is Power.” The knowledge of aging empowers us to provide for a better quality of life for the aged. It’s a well-known fact that ageing is universal and an irreversible process. If we try to look to the age old traditions of Indian Culture, old age is considered as one of the stages of human development wherein an individual attains wisdom, maturity, social & economic security, with social recognition and emotional fulfillment, leading to the last phase of life, which is considered to be of spiritual salvation. This process of aging & old age has been considered as an integral part of the process of development of the life course, set against the backdrop of births & rebirths. In ancient times the elderly occupied a position of prestige, power & privilege. The Varna Ashrama dharma scheme of life also associated honour and respect to the aged. With the advent of modern medical science & health care service, life expectancy/longevity got increased considerably. The rapid and faster technological growth in medical science has considerably controlled the fertility & mortality rate and relatively large population of elderly persons.

India is in the throes of a temporary compacted demographic transition. Thus, India, being a country with a tradition of good elder care, is facing many affronts that seem to threaten the status of the elderly. Like many other developing countries in the world, India is presently witnessing rapid ageing of its population. Urbanization, modernization and globalization have led to changes in economic structure, erosion of societal values and the weakening of social institutions such as the joint family. In this changing economic and social milieu, the younger generation is searching for new identities encompassing economic independence and redefined social roles within, as well as outside the family. The changing economic structure has reduced the dependence of families on land, which had provided strength to bonds between generations. The traditional sense of duty and obligation of the younger generation towards their older generation is being eroded. The older generation is caught between the decline in traditional values on the one hand and the absence of an adequate social security system, on the other. This breakdown of traditional kinship and family organizations leaves the elderly helpless, isolated, and economically dependent. The mental health of older persons is influenced not just by ageing changes in the body and brain, but also by socio-economic and psychological factors. Growing old can also be agonizing for the ageing. Then there are things to consider such as the very volatile emotional state of the elderly, their loss of self-esteem and the accompanying feeling of uselessness, and the loneliness they have to deal with when they realize that all their friends have already gone ahead of them!

In the present scenario the traditional family is fast disappearing. With urbanization, families are becoming nuclear, smaller and are not always capable of caring for older relatives. Increasingly, older people may be perceived as burdens due to their disability or dependence. Rapid changes in the family system are reducing the availability of kin support. With modernization, older values are being replaced by ‘individualism’. The family’s capacity to provide quality care to older people is decreasing. In non-agrarian societies older persons who are ‘economically unproductive’ do not have the same authority and prestige that they used to enjoy in extended families where they had greater control over family resources. The unconditional respect, power and authority that older people used to enjoy in extended traditional family are being gradually eroded in recent years. The social and economic pressures are impinging on intergenerational relationships. Efforts are being made to revive cultural values and reinforce the traditional practice of interdependence among generations.

India is geographically vast and culturally heterogeneous country and the Indian subcontinent is physically and culturally diverse. Though Hindus are the majority, secular India is home to different religions. Different parts of the country are experiencing varying degrees of socio-economic change. Literacy, employment, health and morbidity rates vary from region to region. Urban and rural environments present contrasting pictures with respect to quality of life at any age. Population ageing is the most significant result of the process known as demographic transition and India is undergoing such a demographic transition.

In ancient India, life span was divided into four stages: life of a student, householder, forest dweller and ascetic. There was a gradual move from personal, social to spiritual preoccupations with age. In most gerontological literature, people above 60 years of age are considered as ‘old’ and as constituting the ‘elderly’ segment of the population. Manu, the ancient lawgiver, in his Dharmasastra divided this span of life into four ‘Ashramas’ or life stages. The first, ‘Brahmacharya’ (life of a student) was to be spent at the teacher’s (guru) house. This is the life of a celibate, to be spent in education and training. Once education was complete, the boy (grown into adulthood by now) would be ready to enter the ‘Grihasta’ ashram. This was the life of a householder. A man was to marry, have children, and shoulder the responsibilities of an average citizen in the society. He was to discharge the debts he owed to the parents (Pitru Rina) by begetting sons and to the gods (Deva Rina) by performing Yajnas (rituals). This was the stage when a man would fulfill his basic desires, for love, marriage, for parenthood, for status, wealth, prestige and other such physical and social needs. When a man’s head turned grey and wrinkles appeared, he was to give up this life of householder and turn to ‘Vanaprastha’, which literally means ‘moving to the forest’. A mature and ageing man would gradually give up his worldly pursuits, move away from the mundane routine of householder and turn inward in search of spiritual growth. Finally, when he was spiritually ready, he would renounce the world completely and enter the stage of ‘Sannyasa’ or asceticism.

Indian culture, like many other Asian cultures, emphasized filial piety. Parents were to be honoured as gods. It was considered the duty of a son to respect and care for his parents. Indian society is patriarchal and after marriage sons bring their wives to the parental household to live. This tradition assured that old people would have younger in-laws and grandchildren to care for them. Also, caste and kin group exerted pressure on younger members to obey and respect elders. Apart from these the old people played the most significant part in the socialization of young by transmitting their knowledge. As a result of recent induced and spontaneous social change, the traditional social structure based on ascriptive criteria is crumbling down and gradually yielding to a new system based achievement criteria. As the traditional bonds are weakening, the extended family system is being gradually replaced with nuclear family system.

In modern India, for all practical purposes people above 60 are considered to be ‘senior citizens’. How elderly people are regarded in society varies from culture to culture and country to country and affects their care, independence, and participation. A culture's high regard for elderly people can be estimated by the extent to which societal values support positive self-esteem and status of elderly people. In industrialized societies older people are not critical to the functioning of the nuclear family, and extended care of dependent elderly people is often assumed by formal systems of long-term care. As nations become more industrialized, there appears to be a trend toward loss of role and status for elderly people, with an accompanying move toward a more nuclear family structure that minimizes the contributions of elderly people.

It is inevitable for a human being to undergo this phase of life, i.e. old age. In our Hindu scriptures it is clearly mentioned that there are six stages of human life viz. “Jayate, Vardhate, Asti, Parinamayate, Apakshiyate and Mriyate.” This “Parinamayate” i.e. transformation of human body is inevitable whether one is rich or poor, educated or uneducated, weak or strong, whether one is Muslim, Christian or a Hindu, this old age is bound to come to one and all with its varied complications. It is impossible to think that one will remain evergreen forever. In this connection a very significant event happened in the life of Gautama Buddha when he was Prince Siddhartha. He was born as a son of king Suddhodhana and was raised carefully by his father with luxuries so that he would not be tempted to abandon his destiny as the ruler of Sakhyan kingdom, for the prophecies were uncertain concerning whether he would succeed his father as king or leave the palace to become a spiritual master. In spite of his father’s protection, Siddhartha came to know old age, disease and death as unavoidable sufferings of all human beings. His encounter with these existential questions finally led him to forsake his royal environment to seek liberation from sufferings in an ascetic life. He devoted six years to his ascetic exercise before his great enlightenment took place. At the age of 35, Gautama attained a complete awakening and became the Buddha, or the Awakened One. On the morning of the enlightenment, the Buddha apprehended the truth that all things and all beings are interconnected and mutually dependent in time and space. The spiritual journey of a man is a continual exploration of the truth of interdependence, which Siddhartha Gautama realized to become the Buddha, “the Enlightened One.”

February 4, 2009

"Neelakantha Namaamaha" ~ Salutations to the Blue Throated One

Our knowledge of the universe has grown manifolds. This was made possible because of the unprecedented breakthroughs in the field of science and technology. Satellites orbiting in space are constantly providing us with a feel and view of every nook & corner of the universe. Advancement in the field of computer science and telecommunications has made it possible for everyone to get close to each other sitting in different corners of the earth. It has also given us the freedom to access the information and knowledge accumulated over centuries, sitting cozily in the most remote place of the world. This process of transformation of local or regional phenomena into global ones is what we call today as Globalization. It can also be described as a process by which the people of the world are unified into a single society and function together or in other words a combination of economic, technological, socio-cultural and political forces.

Unfortunately this trend towards globalization, which had the prospects of bringing about global peace and shared prosperity, has instead greatly increased inequality, injustice, economic disparity and exploitation. The secular culture ushered in by science has broken the unity of existence and has replaced co-operation and interdependence with competition and the struggle for survival. It has ignored Socrates teachings that “Knowledge is Virtue” and replaced it with its own, “Knowledge is Power.”

This whole process of globalization completely ignored the aspect of divinity of the human soul and it gave rise to a chain reaction which has been set in motion, that of alienation from reality, from nature and from our own self. Every individual, in the present day, has lost sight of the higher aspiration of “Unity in Diversity” which can be reached through compassion, love and democratic equality. This truth has been proclaimed by our sages centuries ago as “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” meaning we are all from one family.

Today we are in a helpless and chaotic surrounding, facing a total crisis which was never there before. A serious conflict has arisen between the secular values and faith, between generations, between religions, between reason and dogmas, between human beings and nature. Wars, civil unrest, riots based upon religious prejudices have become everyday occurrences.

Against this backdrop of bleak and fearful developments, Vivekananda’s words become more relevant today than ever before. He once again sprinkled upon us and the society the essential teachings and message of Vedanta, the message of oneness of existence, unity of faiths, non-duality of the Godheads and divinity of the soul.

For spiritual seekers of all faiths and backgrounds, those who seek an alternate vision and yearn for solutions to the ideological conflicts that threaten our world today, Vivekananda’s message gives us hope for the future, a message of love, compassion and spiritual unity of humankind. His love for all beings gave him the mandate for his message, and his innate purity gave him an irresistible power that nobody could match. The same love that was born as Buddha-The Compassionate One, once again assumed in true sense a global human form as Swami Vivekananda.

January 28, 2009

“I’m the Mother of the virtuous; I’m the Mother of the wicked”

Once Emperor Akbar asked Birbal, “Who is the most beautiful child amongst all the children in my kingdom?” Pat came the reply, “Jahapanah, I know one such child who is the best amongst all the children in your empire. I can show you that child and you can judge yourself.” Accordingly, one day, both in disguise, walked all through crossing different localities, reached the filthiest of all places, a slum. The whole place was full of stench and obnoxious smell. From a distance Birbal showed Akbar a shabby house where the most beautiful child stayed. They waited there for sometime and suddenly from inside the house came out a very ugly looking small kid with torn clothes, disheveled hairs. Behind him came out his mother and took the child on her lap and started cajoling him, as he was crying. By the very sight of the child, Akbar was furious and he started scolding Birbal for such a cheap joke of his. This conversation between Akbar & Birbal, who were both in disguise made the Mother loose her temper as both were criticizing her son. She shouted at them and made it very clear and emphatically told them that her child was the best in the world. Then Birbal told Akbar, “Jahanpanah, for every Mother her own child is the most beautiful kid compared to others.”

The above story vividly describes a typical average earthly biological mother who devotes herself faithfully to the discharge of her household chores, takes good care of her own children, weeps for them in their sorrow, laughs with them in their state of joy and considers only them as her very own and none else beyond the realms of her family. On the contrary, the aspect of Divine Mother represents grace, compassion, and love for all the sentient as well as the insentient beings. The Devi Mahatmyam commonly reffered as Chandi describes this all encompassing feature of Divine Motherhood in a beautiful verse, “Ya Devi Sarvabhuteshu Matrirupena Sansthita….”, Salutations to that Power who is residing in every being in form of Mother.

Such a portrayal reflects in the life of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, the spiritual companion and helper in Sri Ramakrishna’s earthly mission. One day she invited a Muslim person Amjad (who was once a bandit and a desperado), for a meal, which was arranged on the porch of her house. Holy Mother’s niece began to throw the food at Amjad’s plate from a distance. She noticed this and said: “How can one enjoy food if it is offered with such scorn? Let me serve on him properly.” After Amjad finishes his meal, Mother cleaned the place with her own hands. Her niece shrieked: “Aunt, you have lost your caste!” “Keep quite”, Mother scolded her and added: “As Sharat is my son, exactly so is Amjad.” Sharat (Sw. Saradananda) was a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, the Secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission and a monk possessed of saintly virtues and Amjad was a man of disreputable character. Her behaviour on this occasion bears out her remark: “I am the Mother of the good and I am the Mother of the wicked. Whenever you are in distress, just say to yourself, I have a mother.”

To the Master, Sri Ramakrishna, she was the Goddess of Wisdom in human form. To her disciples she was the Divine Mother herself. To her devotees she was a more real mother than their own earthly mother. To the seekers of truth she was the final word, and to sinners she was the last refuge.

Her love and compassion were all-engulfing. By her love she conquered everybody. Her compassion flowed not only to humans but also to animals. She used to say, “He is unfortunate indeed who does not feel my compassion. I do not know anyone, not even an insect, for whom I do not feel compassion.” She was the embodiment of Sri Ramakrishna’s message of the Motherhood of God.

Although she is not there in her mortal frame in our midst but in her invisible form she continues to shower her blessings, even today, to anyone who accepts her as the real Mother and surrenders to her. Holy Mother Sri Sarada Dive is our Real Mother, not an adopted or a vague mother.