by Swami Krishnananda
The supreme objective of life has been conceived as a fourfold aim of human existence. The fourfold aspect is merely to facilitate its understanding and approach, and not because it has a real fourfold division. The great Reality of life cannot have divisions or degrees in its content, but our understanding of it has stages of approach regarded as a fourfold effort in the form of dharma, artha, kama and moksha.
I explained the importance of the concept of dharma in the evaluation of the other aims of life, artha, kama and moksha, and also their inter-relations – how one is linked to the other and draws sustenance from the other. When we understand this fourfold objective in this manner, we also understand at the same time that the four arthas or objectives are complimentary to one another in the sense that when we evolve intellectually, morally, psychologically, spiritually, and even materially, we seem to be dragging with us all these values of existence. When we advance on any path, we seem to be parallelly advancing on other paths also.
All these four paths or aspects are so intimately related to one another that we cannot ignore any one of them, but to take them into consideration in our daily life is to also understand the law called dharma which operates in terms of them. As I told you last time, dharma is a universally applicable rule of conduct and it applies to each and every person in every walk of life, in every stage of existence. Only the method of its application may vary.
The goal of our diet is to appease hunger. Though diets may vary, the principle behind them is to appease hunger. Likewise, there is a single principle behind the observation and the practise of the conduct of dharma, but its application varies from stage to stage in the development of the mind. It begins to be felt at greater and greater intensities, and its necessity becomes more and more stringent. Also, the laws which we have to abide by become more and more rigid, as it were, and more inescapable when we rise higher and higher in our evolution. There seems to be some sort of condoning, some pardon or exception, etc., in the beginning, but all this is an apparent permission given to us, something like the exceptions that we give to children in the rules of life. It is not that these rules do not apply; they do exist, and operate inexorably. The conduct which is expected to be demonstrated in one’s life is not merely an outward behaviour but a real expression of an inner feeling and participation in the law.
Dharma is not a compulsive force that is expected from outside; it is a voluntary acceptance of the operation of the necessary law. In the beginning, morality appears to be a kind of outer compulsion: We fear the law and then abide by its mandates. Whatever be the type of law that we operate under in the world, in the initial stages it comes upon us as a kind of necessity or compulsion from outside, a kind of ‘ought’; but in is real form, it is not a kind of external ‘ought’ but a voluntary acceptance.
An acceptance of a necessity cannot be called a compulsion. When it takes an internal form, dharma becomes a conscious acceptance of eternal values. As long as we live in our bodies, we are wedded to the external objective world, chained to the necessities and needs of physical existence, and we appear to be controlled by an external law. All law is ultimately a copy of the law of nature. Nature presses itself upon us both outwardly and inwardly. The law of nature is a very comprehensive term. It includes all existing laws operating everywhere. In the beginning, it appears to be an external law. It may appear to be the law of gravitation, or the law of health, physically; it may appear to be the rules of physics, chemistry and biology. These are external laws of nature, but nature is not exhausted by these external operations. Nature is also inside us.
In Sanskrit a very beautiful term, ‘Prakriti’, is used to designate nature. Prakriti is nature, and the law of nature is the law of Prakriti. This Prakriti is outside as well as inside. We are made up of it in every way; every fibre in us is constituted of Prakriti. From the outside, when viewed in terms of space, time and causation, the law of nature or Prakriti may come pressing upon us like the waves of an ocean inundating us. From inside us, it tries to work as a kind of inflorescence of flowers. While there is a pressure involuntarily exerted upon us from outside, there is a natural growth, as it were, from inside. This law is not merely physical, biological and psychological; it is also intellectual, moral and spiritual. Finally, it is the law of the Absolute operating in this universe, and it is this law that is called dharma.
Last time I mentioned two terms, satya and rita, found in the Vedas. Satya is the Truth, which is the Absolute, and rita is its expression – the cosmic order. The cosmic order is also the natural order. Truth is Eternal Existence, and rita is its expression. The law, the method, the symmetry and the system that we seem to see operating in the cosmos is the expression of Truth being universal. Its pressure is felt both in the outer phenomena and in the inner psychological realms. It is because of this difficult complexity of the manifestation of dharma, the intricate manner in which Truth expresses itself in creation, that the ancient seers visualised the necessity for the fourfold classification of our approach to this fundamental reality of dharma, artha, kama and moksha.
Now, closely related to this universal classification of dharma, artha, kama and moksha there is also a subjective classification of the stages of life, which we call the Ashramas. Ashrama here does not mean a monastery. It means a stage of life, an abode literally speaking, but an abode of the soul in its evolutional process. The Ashramas are related to the Purusharthas; just as we have dharma, artha, kama and moksha as the Purusharthas of life, we have the four stages or grades or degrees of the development of the human mind in one’s life called Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa. These classifications signify the different types of discipline that we have to undergo in the pursuit of the objectives, the Purusharthas.
Truth in its pristine nature is difficult in its comprehension. Hence, we were asked to look upon it as an object of the fourfold effort. To minimise the difficulty in understanding and approaching it, now we are told that the Purusharthas themselves are difficult to approach and practice unless we individually, each by oneself, undergo a system of discipline in our life. The discipline called upon every individual is the system of the rules of the Ashramas. We are familiar with these terms Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa, but their inter-relationship may not be clear. It is not merely a social order, as many would take it. It is not a convenience that we have introduced into society for certain practical ulterior purposes. Not so. The Purusharthas are not merely a concoction of some brave genius; these classifications have some close relationship with Reality in itself. So also, this grouping of the stages of life has something vitally to do with our practical conduct in relation to the Purusharthas.
The aim of our existence is single and indivisible: the realisation of the Supreme Being. There is no other purpose in life, but this purpose appears to be manifold on account of the limitations of our personality. It is the nature of the degrees of the entanglement that determines the degrees of our ascent from stage to stage. The orders of life and their relations to the Purusharthas are so beautifully conceived that in the performance of the duties in respect to these, nothing seems to be excluded. It is a complete approach.
The sowing of the seed in fertile soil is the beginning of the gradual growth of a tendril into a tree which bears fruit later on. The concept of the Ashramas, beginning with Brahmacharya and ending with Sannyasa, is also a concept of the gradual growth of the human mind in its maturity of experience. These classifications into the stages of life are more psychological and spiritual than social and external. Therefore, they relate more to ourselves personally than to others socially.
The whole setup may be regarded as a system of the stages of the conservation of energy. All moral conduct aims at conservation of values in terms of energies, forces which constitute everything in nature, including the internal as well as the external world. The purpose of all rules in life is the conservation of energy, not only with the Ashramas but also with the Varnas, or the classifications of society – and for the matter of that, any system of ethics and morality. In India especially, great importance is given to the conservation of the forces which constitute individuality.
We, as individuals who aspire for perfection, are embodiments of force. This concept is generally attributed to a philosopher in the West called Leibniz. It was he who thought that everything is made up of forces. But before the birth of Leibniz, in India people had already discovered this necessity of regarding every unit as a centre of force. As individuals, as bodily encasements, as physical embodiments, we are bursting energies – energies seeking release, asking for expression, wanting an escape, never being able to rest. This is the nature of energy. Energy cannot be bottled up for a long time. It can be restrained for some time, but not always.
The very meaning of energy is force tending towards expression. Force has to be harnessed for a particular purpose, and for the time being we may confine ourselves to the understanding of individuals as centres of force. While everything in the universe is a centre of force, now we are particularly concerned with our own self as individuals aspiring for perfection. Because we are energies seeking release, we have to be cautious about our own self. By ‘we’, I mean each individual designated by ‘I’. Everyone as a subject, pure and simple, is a centre of force, and this force has to be harnessed. If it is not scientifically and logically harnessed, it shall seek its expression in its own ways.
If we are not able to utilise the water of a river that is locked up behind a bund or a dam, the water knows what to do with itself: it shall break through the dam and seek its expression anywhere it likes. It shall burst open by force. If our energies are not properly utilised, the energies shall find a way out, like a soda bottle bursting. The purpose of the analysis of life into the Ashramas and the Purusharthas is to see that the individuality does not take the law into its own hands and act as it would like, but be directed to move along a definite course of action.
From the very beginning, from childhood, the fundamental institution of the Samskaras, for example, is conceived in such a manner that it is always in view. We have the beautiful system of the Samskaras from Garbhadhana, Pumsavana, etc. These are not just ideas of ritualistic people, but beautifully thought out systems of the expression of the human energy in practical social life. Today we have lost knowledge of all these sciences, and look at them as superstition. It has become a fashion nowadays to look upon every blessed thing of old as a superstition. It is not so. The system of Samskaras, which forms a part of living life according to the rules of the Ashramas, has a meaning in the conservation of human values.
Today, if our students run riot, there is a lot of complaint about them. The truth is that their energies have not been systemically channelled. Their energies go hither and thither like bursting soda bottles, and they do not know what to do. Their energies are linked with human intelligence, unfortunately, and when the energies go astray, the intelligence also goes astray.
It is like a bullet: The bullet contains fire, so when a bullet hits the target, it is fire that is hitting, not merely a lead ball. It is the force that penetrates. Likewise, when energy is channelled in a particular direction, intelligence also gets channelled. It is like a poisoned arrow: Together with the arrow that shoots forth, there is also the poison that is attached to it.
Human energies are not harnessed properly these days on account of defective systems of education. The manner and system of discipline of the human mind and intelligence is called education. And if we do not discipline it properly, well, like a comet shooting into the skies, it shall shoot forth anywhere it likes, and carry the energy with it. This is a part of the explanation of social misery these days. There is no proper education.
No one knows the aim of life and, therefore, one can attach to any community, any system of thinking, and can do anything at any time. This social chaos seems to be threatening us even today, at this advanced stage of our civilisation. All this is because of a fundamental error in misconceiving, underestimating and disregarding human values, considering human values as meaningless, as nothing at all and without any significance, and together with it brushing aside all eternal values of life. When we become irreligionists, become atheists, become materialists and lose the sense of the sacredness of life, then we begin to live not a human life, but a kind of vegetative existence that somehow drags itself forward blindly and dashes against anything that comes in front of it.
This cannot be called life. It is called dragging on, pulling on, getting on somehow or the other. Are we to get on, pull on in life, or are we to live it? As human beings we are supposed to always regard ourselves as superior beings, Homo sapiens. Are we not to live intelligently? To live life is to understand it in its correlation to other life.
All study is comparative, in one sense. We cannot have a bifurcated study of anything. Every subject bears a relation to some other subject and some other thing in the world. In this comparative study of human values, which bears relation to eternal values, we come to regard ourselves as very sacred units of experience, understanding, and relationship with others. It was this concept of the eternal relationship of human values that gave rise to the concept of the Ashramas and the Purusharthas. Glorious is this culture that conceived these ideas, because they have Eternity as their background. Hence, sometimes this dharma is called sanathana dharma: a dharma that is eternal, a dharma that will not perish in the process of time. It cannot perish because its roots are in the Eternal. These eternal relationships of human value have given rise to the concept of the Ashramas and the Purusharthas.
The Ashramas, commencing with Brahmacharya, are the systemised training of the individual for the harnessing of energy. What is energy? Energy in one sense is universal. It is everywhere like electricity, but it manifests itself in a certain intensity when it is associated with certain magnetic fields. Electricity is everywhere, but it is more keenly felt in a magnetic field, as every electrician knows. Likewise is energy; it is everywhere. The human system is a kind of magnetic field, in which it expresses itself palpably; and when we realise it as a magnetic field, visibly felt, palpable, it is then that we have to be careful about its operation. We do not go into a magnetic field without caution.
Energy in a general sense is everywhere, and we are not very much concerned with it; but when it becomes part and parcel of our own nature, we become very much concerned with it. This energy that is magnetically bottled up in us and seeks expression has to be dealt with in a particular manner. When we grow into an adult, into a mature mind, our energies become more and more intensified and uncontrollable. They seek expression, but in what way are they to be expressed?
Before trying to express our energies, we have to try to conserve them. The conservation is the preliminary process. We cannot expect fruit from a tree immediately. In the beginning it has to be tended with great care. The tending of this growing tree of human energy and taking care of it with great affection is the stage of Brahmacharya. One is very cautiously brought up in this stage, so that there is no contamination by unspiritual values, forces which are antagonistic to growth – forces which may repel it and break it open. When it is tended and taken care of, it grows like a lion cub – very powerful, potent in itself, and it has the tremendous potency of power to become a lion one day.
Likewise, the body grows. We should not regard it as meaningless. It is something that grows, and our purpose is to enable it to grow and not to dissipate the energies in the very beginning. In ancient days when people were supposed to live for at least one hundred years, this classification was done into a fourfold group of twenty-five years each. Twenty-five years of Brahmacharya was very diligently practised. This number of years may not be strictly applicable now, but the principle behind this classification is that a very large part of our life is to be utilised for helping growth, rather than expecting the child to start doing something. It is not the time for that, it is the time to grow and become something. We have to be something, in order that we may be in a position to do something later on.
So the stage of Brahmacharya is the stage of becoming something in oneself – gathering strength from all corners and not allowing the energy to leak out. The energies are not to be used in the stages of Brahmacharya. They are only to be tended, conserved and enabled to grow until they become powerful enough to meet the buffets of life, the challenges of existence – and then, the question arises of relating oneself to the Purusharthas.