Sunday, November 4, 2007

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Upanishads and the Ideal of Service.

The Upanishadic Ideal of service is based on the concepts of Truth, Dharma and Yagna. Without comprehending these concepts we cannot find a niche for what we have come to recognise as service today, the most appealing and popular component of modern religions.


Thousands of years ago, when humanity was still in a state of stupor, the super scientists of India were engaged in the difficult task of uncovering the Ultimate Reality, Satya, beyond the ever changing phenomena experienced through our senses. Step by step, negating the world of plurality they delved into the very core of their inner being and realised the Ultimate Truth as the Self within. When they woke up from this Samâdhi to the world of plurality there also dawned the realisation that Truth is One in which everything in the universe remains interconnected, interrelated and interdependent. This is the greatest discovery ever made by man and this Truth of Self-realization is the best of blessings that the Rishis bestowed on the world they lived in. For us, in India this discovery ushered in the dawn of enlightenment and introduced us to the immaculate concept of Life Eternal. Since then this Ganga of Advaitic vision had been cascading over our country without a break enriching every field of human activity creating a rich, unique and spiritually oriented civilisation and culture.


To realise that Eternal Truth within oneself, remain firmly rooted in that awareness, be sustained by that Truth, see it manifested in the whole universe and adjust all one’s life activities to reflect that principle of Oneness - this is the ideal that Upanishads keep before every human being as his dharma, with its aim as Self realisation. This is the essence of Upanishadic knowledge, the first ever peep by human beings into the Ultimate Reality of the Universe. This vision has been summarised in the eloquent words “Satyam vada, Dharmam cara”

In this vision of Reality, of Oneness, there was neither subject nor object. The One Truth pervaded everything everywhere. Nature outside was an externalised expression of the Truth within. This was truly a quantum leap in knowledge, from unity to universality. This vision of the Whole and the awareness of man’s interrelatedness with and interdependence on all that exists is what has made the Indian culture so unique, at once spiritual and in modern terms highly scientific and holistic.

A profound respect for nature and the wisdom inherent in it was the hallmark of Upanishadic vision. Tolerance became a byword, genuine hospitality and warm friendship replaced feelings of resentment and strangeness. Ecological balance and social justice were the natural outcome of such a wholesome living centred round the vision of a Universal Reality -where the individual felt himself bound to the Cosmos as a whole. This became the Dharma of the individual.


Perhaps the ideal nearest to service lies in the concept of Yajna which is immensely more comprehensive, enriching and universal than what is conveyed by the word service. Rishis recognise man as an indivisible part of the Whole. Within him is a spark of the divinity which is only quantitatively, (not qualitatively as Swamiji used to stress) different from the Totality. Therefore, all human efforts should be directed towards the realisation of this Truth. This extraordinary unity of the individual, the world he lives in and the Reality or God (Jeeva, Jagat and Ishwara) is what Sanatana Dharma emphasised from time immemorial, of which Yajna was a symbol.

Yajna is thus an attempt for the unification and universalisation of the human spirit and is made clear by its basic tenets:

Idam na mama:

This expression, spoken as oblations are poured into the fire during Yajnas emphasises that the benefits that accrue from it are not for the doer but are meant for the welfare of all. Such an attitude made the individual dedicate his life for the welfare of all and thus get rid of the temptations of jealousy, avarice, arrogance, violence, selfish motivation, etc. This ideal later took a more practical form when Sri Krishna introduced it in Gita as nishkama karma, a must for all to achieve excellence in life and for one’s onward evolution. Swami Vivekananda made it the core of his Karma yoga ideal and upheld it for ‘man-making and nation building’ programmes for our country’s regeneration.


Here again the idea is the surrender of ego. Truth, patience, non-stealing, forgiveness, discipline, etc., are all implied in this utterance with which the deities are worshipped through offerings. In the above two practices tyaga of self is emphasised. Tyaga is a difficult idea for a purely materialistic mind to grasp. This tyaga is backed by ‘nishkama bhava’ which in turn leads, not to poverty or destitution, but to mastery and authority over action.

Dvipade chatushpade:

A very striking concept that is found in our ancient Sastras is the deep concern for all life that became in born in our Seers due to the realisation of the One Truth. Including all beings, be they men, animals, insects etc., in their prayers and benedictions the rishis upheld the unity of life, the interrelatedness and interdependence that are part of nature. Man grows in stature as he recognizes himself in everything and starts serving them as his own. He feels duty bound to contribute to the wellbeing and prosperity of all. Such a wholesome idea of inter-dependence is dawning in the modern scientific community only now, when it looks almost too late.


Ishavasya Upanishad points out that everything is ‘Poorna’- perfect and thus divine in essence. The mahavakyas of the upanishads which form the bedrock of Sanatana Dharma – Aham Brahmasmi, Tattwamasi, Prajnanam Brahma, and Sarvam khalvidam Brahma, emphasise this Truth. Swamiji in his own inimitable way summarises it thus: Each soul is potentially divine, and the goal of life is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work or worship, psychic control or philosophy, by one, or more, or all of these and be free.’

It is using this key board that Swamiji produced that magnificent symphony of Karma Yoga with renunciation and service as its key notes; glorified the enchanting bliss of self surrender of Bhakti Yoga; validated the science of self control of Raja Yoga and scaled through self analysis the heights of Adwaita of Jnana Yoga, Not only that, he harmonised all these paths and emphasised that one or more or all of them could be practised by any one struggling along the path of self unfoldment irrespective of caste, creed, race or religion, thus upholding the universal principles of Vedanta.

Yajna has three highly relevant connotations.

1. Deva Puja: This means service of God Almighty by respecting parents, teachers, seniors, guests, as also the mighty powers of five elements. The famous Upanishadic ideals Matru Devo bhava, Pitru Devo bhava and so on also imply that they should be well looked after with a spirit of selfless service and should be helped in every way to lead a healthy useful social life.

2. Sangateekarana: This means maintaining unity and integrity of the home or organisation by cultivating the same ideals and thoughts through harmonious words and deeds and healthy debates. Famous Vedic hymns ‘Sangachadwam, samvadadwam samvomanamsi janatam’ (R.V. X -192 -2) emphasise this unity of minds to create healthy powerful organisations for prosperity and happiness of all and to promote fellow feeling and righteousness.

3. Dana: Dana can be in the form of wealth, respect, knowledge, service and so on, the idea being that it is by giving that man receives back and that leads to real happiness. In this magnificent, all comprehensive Upanishadic vision, where every individual life is an act of oblation, where does the modern idea of service, by which is mostly meant just the consideration of the purely physical and materialistic aspects of life like food, clothes and shelter fit in ? Swamiji’s words throw light on this:

“Helping others physically, by removing their physical needs is indeed great; but the help is greater according as the need is greater and according as the help is far reaching. If a mans wants can removed for an hour, it is helping him in deed; if his wants can be removed for a year it will be more help to him; but if his wants can be removed for ever, it is surely the greatest help that can be given him. Spiritual knowledge is the only thing that can destroy our miseries for ever; any other knowledge satisfies wants only for a time. It is only with the knowledge of the spirit that the faculty of want is annihilated forever; so helping man spiritually is the highest help that can be given him.”

Based on this contention when one’s life is valued we find that in essence one is full and perfect and all that is needed is a realisation of this Truth, a rekindling of this spark within. The most valuable service that can be rendered is to teach each individual to recognise the Truth within, a de-hypnotization as Swamiji often repeated, by de-recognizing and rejecting the untruth. It is the unfortunate clinging to the untruth that leads to the obliteration of the Truth or Reality and consequent miseries and unhappiness in life.

Truly has it been said that the lives of the great men are not lived in vain. In the life and message of Swami Vivekananda which reflect that extraordinary spiritual effulgence of Sri Ramakrishna’s life, we find not only the revitalization of the ideals of Satya, Dharma and Yajna but also the motivation and direction that are urgently needed for the spiritual regeneration of our Motherland. For this Service based on the Upanishadic ideals must become part of our lives. If service could be spiritually enlivened and elevated that would indeed become a man making – nation building ideal. Swamiji’s dictum “atmano mokshartam jagatdhitaya ca” can be a wonderful guideline for it. This is the great service – Mother’s work, for which Sri Ramakrishna equipped and ordained Swamiji. He drew the attention of the world thinkers to this vision of Truth or Reality, which has remained, from time immemorial, the fountainhead of the magnificent Indian spiritual heritage and the unique dharmic or Hindu way of life. It is this truth that Swamiji found actualized in the life of his great master Sri Ramakrishna.

Sri Ramakrishna wanted the entire Universe to throb with love of God. Swami Vivekananda wanted to begin from man and sought ways and means of bringing Godliness first into the life of man. He wanted man to become fully aware of the divinity within him and then learn to manifest the same in his daily life and offered a variety of paths such as work, worship, psychic control or philosophy or any one of its combinations. The goal to be reached was freedom, from the thraldom of matter, of attachment, of ignorance, of delusion.

To make this integration more wholesome and fulfilling Sri Ramakrishna has left behind for us an exquisite gem of thought – “Shivajnane jiver seva”. Swami Vivekananda, who caught the momentous significance of this utterance, made his own life a commentary on this thought of His Master. To make it more explicit, Swamiji gave it a simpler form “Serve Man, Serve God”, a wonderful formula, pregnant with great Vedantic and practical significance.

Swamiji’s Mahavakya “Serve Man, Serve God” also holds within it an extraordinarily harmonising ideal for social upliftment through self-development. By keeping God as the be-all and end-all, Swamiji acknowledges the supremacy of the invisible power controlling the universe. Social welfare or man’s liberty without a spiritual basis or an ultimate spiritual aim doesn’t lead anywhere. Spiritual awareness alone can hold us together as one and assure the survival of mankind.

By equating man with God, the highest Vedantic ideal of Oneness is emphasised as in it lies the real meaning of liberty, equality and fraternity. This is the greatest gift of our rishis to humankind for all times to come. Sooner or later, by whichever path one may choose, man must realise the “God” within him and learn the art of manifesting that Godliness, the real fountainhead of all virtues. Swamiji underscores that manifestation of this divinity is the aim and purpose of education, religion, culture, why, life itself. Lack of this realisation is the root cause of many of the present day ills, in our society. Unless spiritual awareness is woven back into the fabric of our society, the future of the world, especially of our great nation would be very bleak indeed.

By stressing the word “serve’, for both man and God, the ideal of Sarvatma bhava, the unified field comprehension of the entire universe, is emphasised. This is the ultimate in awareness, which dissolves the barrier between the subjective and the objective and along with it disappear fear, anxiety, insecurity, loneliness and so on, feelings which torment the human mind. Thus Swamiji’s formula holds out to us a very simple form of doing the highest sadhana by transforming our humble acts of service of fellow human beings as service of the Almighty who is present in every being as one’s own Self.

By bringing man into the picture, the insufficiency of serving God alone is shown. Religion starts degenerating when we enshrine God only in places of worship, establish systems of worship and engage mediators to do worship on our behalf. To save mankind from the clutches of institutionalized religion, Swami Vivekananda comes out with this revolutionary ideal, of a new form of worship, of approaching God through the proper channel of man. It would mean seeing “man” as a moving temple of Narayana. Spiritual expansion of the self as also the experience of Sarvatma Bhava are possible if we learn to serve nara as Narayana.

Jnana, Bhakti and Karma yogas are harmonised in the above expression in a remarkable way. Identification of man as God comes through Jnana, surrender to God through Bhakti and service of man through Karma. All of them have to be blended together in the life of man, each enriching the others. Inlaid in the formula is also the sense of renunciation without which no act of man can turn into true service. Unless man learns the value of self-abnegation, service to man can never be elevated to the service of God.

This awareness of Unity, this miracle of Love and this saga of service are what all our great teachers have preached from time immemorial. If these great principles, which ere part of Nature’ laws, could enlighten the prism of our Life, we would truly capture the Eternal Light of Truth and beautifully, colorfully and harmoniously let it flow of our humble lives, enriching ourselves and others. This is the ultimate in Service.