Spiritual Fitness (Adhikāra)

Indra, the leader of the celestials, and Virocana, the leader of the demons, once approached Prajāpati. They were right away told to spend thirty-two years practicing the disciplines of a celibate student. Only after that did Prajāpati ask them the purpose of their visit. When they told him of their desire to know the Ātman, he gave them a preliminary teaching.

The teaching satisfied Virocana. He felt that it was all he needed. He felt no need to explore and examine what was told because it seemed to confirm his own prior understanding, which was sadly superficial. Virocana thought of himself in terms of his body and, as he heard from Prajāpati, the Ātman was the self. Presto!—the body is the Ātman. Problem solved.

But the more Indra reflected on the teaching, the more questions arose in his heart. How could the perishable body be the imperishable self? He went back for clarification. Prajāpati made Indra undergo more moral and physical disciplines for another thirty-two years, at the end of which he imparted to Indra a deeper teaching on the Ātman. Indra was again assailed by doubts and he returned to Prajāpati to get his doubts resolved. Indra had to undergo similar disciplines for another thirty-two years before receiving a yet higher teaching.

When Indra’s heart was still not satisfied and craved for greater clarity, he was made to stay and practice disciplines for five more years, at the end of which Prajāpati, now finding Indra to have made himself fully competent, gave him the highest knowledge. At long last, Indra not only understood the Ātman intellectually but experienced his own identity as the Ātman, the true self beyond the body, the mind, the senses, and the ego. All of Indra’s doubts were dispelled and the knots of ignorance binding his heart were cut asunder for ever.

This story from the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (8.7.1–8.12.6) illustrates some important points. First, it emphasizes the need for competence (adhikāra) to know and realize spiritual truths. It is significant that Prajāpati did not even ask Indra and Virocana the purpose of their visit until they had spent thirty-two years under discipline. Why “thirty-two”? I don’t know. The number doesn’t matter, except to convey the idea that without sufficient preparation we cannot really benefit from a teaching. A seed planted in a barren and infertile soil cannot fructify unless the soil is prepared well with water and adequate nutrients.

Secondly, the story makes an obvious point: there are differences in the aptitudes and capacities of those seeking knowledge. No two persons are alike. Indra and Virocana were quite different from each other. What made sense to Virocana made no sense to Indra. Another important point the story stresses is that the knowledge gained is directly proportional to the fitness of the student. Virocana got only what he could understand and assimilate according to his capacity (which was small) and his stage of development (which was rudimentary), hence his knowledge remained superficial. Indra’s case was different. After repeated disciplines and deep reflection (which increased his capacity and deepened his understanding), Indra became fit to receive the highest knowledge and Prajāpati gave it to Indra after assessing his competence.

Yet another factor is the value of asking questions. Indra’s questions revealed the direction of his thinking and the roadblocks in his reasoning. The quality of the questions we ask depends on the clarity of our minds. As our understanding deepens, our questions become clearer and more refined. Good teachers seldom spoon-feed their students. They don’t give answers but provide enough hints, so the students can make their own discoveries and achieve their own breakthroughs. Lastly, the story also shows that it is possible to lead a student to the highest truth in a phased manner, provided the student aspires to go higher and is prepared to work for it, as Indra was.

All these ideas find expression in one of the fundamental tenets of Hinduism called adhikāri-vāda, the Principle of Competence. The recognition of differences in individuals, in their fitness and aspirations, has historically made Hindus tolerant, patient and accepting. Swami Vivekananda referred to these outstanding characteristics in his inaugural address in 1893 at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He said, “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true” (CW 1. 3).

Acknowledging the need of different minds to approach Truth in a manner specifically suited to each, a Vedic sage could boldly proclaim: Ekam sat, viprā bahudhā vadanti, “Truth is one, the wise describe it variously” (Ṛg-Veda, 1.164.46). The Truth is one but the paths leading to that Truth can be many. That is what Sri Ramakrishna meant when he said, “There are as many paths (to the Truth) as there are faiths.” Not only are the paths diverse, but those walking on the paths are also diverse. That is how the Principle of Competence gave rise to the concept of the Chosen Deity (iṣṭa-devatā), leaving the spiritual seekers free to worship the form and aspect of Truth that appealed to them, and also gave them the freedom to choose the way or method (iṣṭa-mārga) that suited their temperaments and capacities.

Such broadness of vision gave Hindus considerable power and freedom to embrace diverse ways of thinking and doing. Innumerable tribes and conquerors crossed the Indian frontier to loot and to rule. They brought with them their own cultural characteristics, religious beliefs and customs, superstitions and traditions. Besides the social, political and economic upheavals created by those incursions, they introduced even more diversity in the Hindu world. The attackers and the colonizers who stayed long enough were assimilated into the social and cultural fabric of the subcontinent, their personalities now a happy amalgam of Hindu characteristics and their own inherent qualities. Those that went away after a short stay carried with them some of the ideas they learnt in the process and enriched their own native cultures.

This is how religious consciousness or “the eternal religion” (sanātana dharma) evolves, rejecting none and accepting all in its wide embrace, with a word of cheer and encouragement to every soul struggling in the gymnasium of the world. Freedom is the necessary condition of growth. The inheritors of the Vedic traditions grew and developed spiritually because of the freedom they enjoyed on the spiritual plane. Vedanta, the science and philosophy that undergirds the Vedic wisdom, has freedom as its principle. In fact, it identifies the ultimate goal itself with absolute freedom (mukti or mokṣa).

The Principle of Competence was applied even in the selection of students, as is evident from Indra and Virocana’s story. It is necessary—imperative really—that the aptitude and capacity of students be rightly assessed before the training begins, so the teacher can guide them individually along the path and in a way that fits their needs. Only a structured training regimen, suited to the specific strengths of every student, can ensure success. There are innumerable instances in the Upaniṣads, the Purāṇas and other ancient books where the teachers tested their students before teaching them.

We read in the Kaṭhopaniṣad (1.1.23-29) that Yama tests Naciketā to ascertain his fitness for the knowledge of Brahman. Yama offers Naciketā horses, elephants and cattle, children and grandchildren, rulership of the earth and a long life, heavenly dancers and numerous other desirable things which are beyond the reach of mere mortals. But Naciketā is an adhikārī of the highest order and, realizing the transitory nature of those apparently covetable treasures, he spurns them all and seeks only the knowledge of Brahman. Yama is overjoyed to see such a supremely competent student and teaches him the highest Truth. Since Naciketā is a fit adhikārī and receives instructions from Yama, who is competent teacher, Naciketā becomes free from ignorance and death, and attains Brahman (2.3.18).

In other Upaniṣads too we find severe tests and disciplines to which the teachers subjected their students: Pratardana was tested by Indra (Kauśitaki Upaniṣad, 3.1), Janaśruti Pautrāyaņa by Raikva (Chāndogya Upaniṣad, 4.1), Aruņi by Pravāhana (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 6.2.6), Janaka by Yājñavalkya (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 4.3.1), and Bŗhadratha by Śākayanya (Maitrāyaṇi Upaniṣad, 1.2). In the Praśna Upanishad (9.2) we come across the sage Pippalāda who told his six disciples to practice austerities and celibacy for one full year before asking them any questions.

The tradition of teachers testing the competency of students is ancient, and it persists to this day not only across religious traditions but also in secular education. Sri Ramakrishna tested those that wanted to be his disciples and asked that they test him as well. Only after he was satisfied by his examination would he accept them and train them on their path. That is why we find that he had established a distinct relationship with every one of them, and the methods he employed and the instructions he gave varied according to the need and capability of each disciple. For instance, he encouraged young Narendra to read the nondualistic text Aṣṭāvakra Saṁhitā, while he warned the other disciples from even peeping into that book at that stage of their spiritual life.

Most classical Vedanta texts usually describe the basic qualities essential to make a student fit for the study. Many of the Upaniṣads, and books like the Brahma Sūtras, the Gītā, Vivekacūdāmaņi, Upadeśa-sāhasri, and Vedānta Sāra lay down a number of preliminary conditions which the student is expected to fulfill if the study of those books is to be fruitful. It is imperative to be an adhikārī, a fit student, before beginning the study. The conditions laid down and the disciplines enjoined are more or less similar in every case, requiring the student to be selfless, develop spiritual aspiration, and practice physical and mental disciplines.

In future posts we can take a deeper look at the preparation needed for a productive Vedanta study and practice. But first we must see how the Principle of Competence was sometimes misused and even abused in the past—and Swami Vivekananda’s corrective measures to help us evaluate spiritual fitness in our own times. That will be the focus of the next post.



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