Spiritual Fitness 2

Everything tends to degenerate with time—things get old and break down, we too get old and eventually die, ideas become diluted or outdated, and principles get compromised or are abandoned. Alongside the brightness of positive tendencies in human nature resides the darkness of negative tendencies. The two opposites manage to coexist in an awkward balance. Our world is filled with such pairs of opposites—birth and death, good and bad, knowledge and ignorance, love and hate—and there is no way to avoid them unless we somehow transcend our present existence. Reformers come in every generation to prevent the darkness from taking over everything totally. Not that it can but, unless prevented, it can make the world a hellish experience, especially for those who are spiritually sensitive.

It is not surprising therefore that, down the centuries, the Principle of Competence (adhikāri-vāda) got diluted when it fell into the hands of those who were themselves not competent. Compromises were made, and the principle was misused and abused.

Spiritual life has two basic components, study and practice. In other words, it involves knowing what spiritual life is and then practicing it daily. Experience is the ultimate source of knowledge but, to get knowledge, we initially turn to two basic sources—texts and teachers. Knowledge is power, so those who have knowledge become powerful. The desire to retain power and to exert it to one’s advantage was the prime reason the Principle of Competence was abused.

How did they do it? By controlling access to knowledge. This was accomplished by placing restrictions on textual study (not everyone was deemed eligible to study) and access to teachers (not everyone was deemed eligible to be taught). To be sure, not everyone placed such restrictions, but many did. The Principle of Competence gradually got transformed into the Condition for Eligibility—a subtle shift, but one with devastating consequences.

Why would anyone want to do this? In addition to the desire to reap personal benefit, fear certainly played a part. If knowledge became easily available, the custodians of knowledge couldn’t hold on to their power and position, and the privileges that resulted from them. History is replete with examples of people who could not resist clinging to power, position and privilege. Effort was made therefore to keep the highest knowledge hidden from others. It was made a secret (rahasya). The excuse was that most people were incompetent, they wouldn’t be able to grasp the teachings, and their distorted understanding would create no end of trouble to themselves and to society.

The powers that be restricted the flow of knowledge to a select few, which predictably included their own families and those in their inner circle and, for others, they introduced a plethora of local customs and observances (deśācāra and lokācāra) so as to provide something easily practicable and digestible. As a result, mostly meaningless rituals and superstitions proliferated, and people held on to these tenaciously with the firm belief that those were the core of spiritual life.

This state of affairs did not go unchallenged. There were reformers in every generation who militated against the restrictions and tried to lift them or to go around them. They had mixed success, but the tussle continued between the so-called orthodox imposing restrictions and the liberals trying to remove them. Swami Vivekananda was among those who tried to throw open the door of the highest knowledge to one and all. He strongly resented the idea that spiritual teachings should remain a property monopolized over by a privileged few. Swamiji said:


“It shall no more be a rahasya, a secret; it shall no more live with monks in caves and forests, and in the Himalayas; it must come down to the daily, everyday life of the people; it shall be worked out in the palace of the king, in the cave of the recluse; it shall be worked out in the cottage of the poor, by the beggar in the street, everywhere; anywhere it can be worked out. Therefore do not fear whether you are a woman or a Sudra, for this religion is so great, says Lord Krishna, that even a little of it brings a great amount of good.” (CW 3. 427)


Wherever and whenever Swamiji found human beings suppressed, exploited and trampled upon, he was among the first who protested. He saw that the sublime and rational Principle of Competence had fallen into incompetent hands and they had made a travesty of it by withholding the light of knowledge and, in its stead, introducing superstitions and customs which, in Swamiji’s words, were “a mass of meaningless nonsense.”

While the earlier thinkers had stressed the objective differences between people, Swamiji emphasized their subjective unity as the Ātman, the innermost true self, pure and free by nature, and the repository of all knowledge. Given the right training and opportunities, it is possible for every person to manifest their intrinsic purity and knowledge. No one can be considered lost at any stage of evolution. If some are considered weak or unfit for higher knowledge, they deserve more attention and care, not less, than what is given to those who are strong and competent.

Swamiji admitted the truth of adhikāri-vāda, but pointed out that this great principle did not justify the neglect of, and indifference to, the vast majority of people considered unfit for higher knowledge. Swamiji thus infused great hope into the heart of all by emphasizing the potential divinity of the human soul.

Another important point Swamiji stressed was that light could never bring greater darkness, knowledge could never lead us to greater ignorance.


“Knowledge means [Swamiji said] freedom from the errors which ignorance leads to. Knowledge paving the way to error! Enlightenment leading to confusion! Is it possible? We are not bold enough to speak out broad truths for fear of losing the respect of the people… Preach the highest truths broadcast. Do not fear losing your respect or causing unhappy friction.” (CW 5. 264)


By pointing out the potential divinity of the soul and the infinite possibilities that lay hidden in it, and by showing the enlightening nature of knowledge, Swamiji freed the Principle of Competence from the unhealthy accretions it had gathered during the course of the last few centuries.

When Swamiji referred to this Principle as “the outcome of pure selfishness,” he was referring to the distorted version of adhikāri-vāda that was in vogue and had reached its peak in the nineteenth century. Swamiji showed in his own life how the Principle of Competence could be adopted in its pure and unalloyed form in training the disciples. Sister Christine, one of his Western disciples, later wrote of him:


“His method was different with each disciple. With some, it was an incessant hammering. The severest asceticism was imposed with regard to diet, habits, even clothing and conversation. With others … the habit of asceticism was not encouraged… With one the method was ridicule—loving ridicule—with another it was sternness... By all these means the process of evolution was accelerated, and the whole nature was transmuted.” (Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda, p. 196)


Swamiji had to address innumerable groups of people everywhere. He was aware that his audiences comprised men and women of varying capacities and temperaments. But he had a mission to fulfill. He knew intuitively that the teachings he was giving were not meant only for the groups that sat before him, but would also help the succeeding generations of spiritual seekers. He therefore gave expression to the highest truths before one and all.

He did not expect all to appreciate and assimilate at once his bold message. Nor was it necessary. During one of his class talks in America, one from the audience said to him. “Swami, I don’t agree with you.”  Swamiji turned to her and said, “Madam, it was not meant for you.” Another said, “But, Swami, I feel the truth of it.” “Ah! Then it was for you!” Swamiji exclaimed. He knew that, when people evolved spiritually, they would be able to see more light and meaning into his words.

Today, the access to texts and teachers is no longer restricted the way it once was. The internet has made access even more easy in the last few decades. All of this has added another layer of personal responsibility for every potential student. What this entails will be the focus of the next post.

from Vedanta Blog - Vedanta Society https://ift.tt/YPc5Z7a

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post

Contact Form