If you retire into seclusion with a spiritual purpose, it is intended to avoid the unwanted and unnecessary association with society and the family. That is the purpose. There are so many things in society we do not like, we do not want, but still we have to do them because we are part of it. So people retire into seclusion to avoid it all and practise sadhana earnestly. The advantages of seclusion so far as spiritual practices are concerned, are supreme. Even someone who is not spiritually evolved will make quick progress if he goes into seclusion under the guidance of a guru with a definite program in mind. In seclusion the spiritual progress that would normally take six years takes six months.
When a sincere sadhaka is in seclusion for many years without meeting anyone, the world becomes almost non-existent for him. All the values are lost and his subconscious mind becomes very powerful. All the things one usually sees in life, he can see within himself.
When I was practising pranayama in silence and seclusion in Gangotri, I had a different kind of perception. The way I used to hear the sound of the river was not the same as the sounds I hear now. If any bird made a sound, even in the dead of night at the distance of two or three miles, I would hear it. My senses had become so keen that even inside my room I knew from which direction the wind was blowing. I could tell, not by feeling it, but by sensing the vibrations from the walls. My sense of smell was so sharp that from my room I could tell when the mahatma, who lived half a mile away, put water on the fire to boil his potatoes. I smelt him mashing the potatoes and adding brown sugar to them. The sense of sight had also become more developed. At night, when I looked out of my window, I could see far away, how high the snow had come and which stone had been submerged.
Now it is not possible for me, but my vision improved a great deal at that time. Nowadays I think in the form of thought, just imagination without images, but then images used to just form themselves. Whatever I used to think in my mind, would come to me like a flame. Once I was thinking about the mythological descent of Ganga, and the image came to me so clearly that I could actually see a man with broad shoulders, King Bhagirath and the flow of Ganga water falling on him. It was not a thought but a vision.
That is the effect of silence and seclusion. The mind has a very great capacity, but in society we use it up in so many different ways. We are using our energy from moment to moment. That same mental energy is conserved during long periods of silence and seclusion. During that period nothing is earned from outside, but you save what is already within you. There are some people who have found the perennial source of energy and are connected to it. In order to tap that perennial source you must retire into seclusion, otherwise it is not possible. It is like playing a tape recorder when the battery is flat.
The reactions of various people to seclusion are different, and it is hard to generalise. Buddha and Mahavira emerged with a tremendous capacity for work. Swami Sivananda said that when he was leading a secluded life, he used to chant Om out loud at night, he had so much energy. In the dead of night, he used to leave his kutir and stand in the Ganga, which was icy cold. There he would practise japa and come back full of energy. If the sadhaka is earnest, seclusion gives him so much energy that he can practise sadhana for hours together without any exhaustion or depression, without any difficulties at all. Yet there are many sadhus who go into seclusion without a sadhana, and after a few days they cannot bear it any longer.
There was a sadhaka who went to Gangotri, high up in the mountains. He used to live there on potatoes and khichadi, only once a day. Suddenly he felt that his whole spinal cord was full of heat, and visions of all dimensions came to him. He was aware of the outer world and the inner visions at the same time and he could not manage it. It was too much for him; he thought he had perhaps gone mad, and he had to leave.
It depends on what the sadhaka is like. There are some spiritual aspirants who are all right as long as they are in society, but the moment they retire into seclusion, fear creeps in. All insecurities, all kinds of passion, every damned and blessed thing comes up into the mind. They become so confused and afraid that they come out of seclusion and go back to society.
Once I took to seclusion in Rishikesh. I don't think it was even for as long as three months. I had a program; I knew what to do: japa, dhyana, but still I could not do it. Lethargy and indolence took over because I was not prepared for seclusion. In the morning I would take my mala and go to sleep. When it was nine o'clock I used to go to the kshetra for my rotis, come out, take my Brahma Sutra, start one sutra and fall asleep. I'd get up at three o'clock, take a shower, go to the kshetra for rotis, take my mala and sleep! I knew what I was to do, but I could not do it.
Reactions take place differently according to the individual's stage of evolution. Great men like Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Mahavira and others went into seclusion before their self-realization. Of course it is possible to realise yourself even in the world, but if you are very keen about self-realization, some time has to be spent in seclusion, in absolute silence. There you are not compelled to see other people.
In seclusion and silence you are nearer to yourself. The seclusion must be complete. Some sadhus I have come across retire from their homes and have a building in Rishikesh and another in Gangotri or Haridwar. They have a servant who cooks for them and an account in the bank. They themselves go to the shops to choose their vegetables and if a mahatma comes to the district they go to visit him. This is not seclusion.
Seclusion means cooking your food yourself and trying to avoid the company of other thinking people as much as possible. Just as a thief avoids the company of policemen and moves in the dark, in the same way, one must check the socialising tendencies of the mind to meet and exchange greetings. If you go and stay at Gangotri you will know what I mean. I was there for nine months. One day I went to see a mahatma. He was sitting quietly and I stood expecting him to call me, but he did not. After a while I said, 'I have just arrived here'. He said, 'Don't waste your time, go back to your own place. I'm not interested in you.' This is the sort of attitude these people have; they never meet anyone. There was another mahatma in the Krishna Ashram who was so old, about 130, that when people used to come to Gangotri on a pilgrimage, his disciples would carry him up higher until the people left.
Seclusion has to be done as a stage of sadhana. Much of Christ's life is not recorded, but it is written in the Bible that he retired for forty days into the wilderness. Buddha retired for some time and Mohammed and Mahavira went into the mountains. In the Gita too it is said, you should try to enjoy seclusion and keep yourself away from the company of any kind of person.
After a long period of silence, the physical activity of the brain becomes absolutely calm. You find that your taste for life becomes extremely weak. But there is something else I can tell you with absolute authority, that even after fifty years of silence and seclusion everything in life can become weak, but not the will of God.
By going into seclusion for a long period, you can reveal your unconscious personality. As a result of your practice, the conscious personality becomes more and more introverted while the subconscious personality is expressed in the form of visions and other experiences. Ultimately the unconscious personality reveals itself, which is the same as the awakening of samadhi. In seclusion you will also find that thoughts gradually diminish. Ultimately you will not be at all interested in thinking. It is not that you check the thoughts, but you are not interested in them; you just feel quiet. And then unconsciousness comes, it is a state of mind that lasts for a certain period of time. Paramahamsa Ramakrishna would be unconscious for six days, sitting in exactly the same position, and after that time his disciples would sing kirtan before him and he would get up, otherwise he would stay in samadhi.