Give Wisdom a Chance

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Interview by Ranjit Hoskote, Times of India, Mumbai

Among the many hundreds who attended Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati's discourses in Mumbai recently, there may have been some who were surprised to see that the spiritual teacher is only 37 years old. The image of a young ascetic surrounded by older disciples is, however, a familiar one in the Indian tradition: Ashtavakra, Markandeya and the first Shankaracharya were all radiant youths, wise beyond their years.

Swami Niranjanananda – who has written more than 20 commentaries on yoga, the Tantras and the Upanishads – was born in 1960 and began his spiritual odyssey at the age of four. He was initiated into sannyasa at the age of 10 by his guru, Swami Satyananda Saraswati. As a parivrajaka, a wandering monk, he crisscrossed the globe for the next 13 years, conducting yoga programs in Europe, the USA and Latin America. Appointed President of the Bihar School of Yoga (BSY) in 1983, he succeeded his guru as preceptor to the School a decade later. The BSY is now an international organization with branches in 500 countries.

Education is one of Swami Niranjanananda's central concerns. He holds that the mind's potential is best tapped in childhood, through the interplay of yogic discipline and innate creativity. Regretting that adults practise yoga largely as therapy or relaxation, he reflects that if yoga is to contribute to the holistic evolution of the individual and society, “We must instil a basic spiritual awareness in children.”

In Bihar's Munger district, the BSY's world headquarters, it has trained 1,400 local children in the tradition and practice of yoga. The BSY has also imparted the arts of harmony and serenity to 400 life prisoners in Bihar's prisons. “We have noticed that their feelings of guilt, anger and revenge are greatly diminished,” smiles Swami Niranjan. “After all, the sage-poet Valmiki began as a dacoit, but he went on to compose the Ramayana!”

Swami Niranjan, who has supervised programs in the Condorcet School, Paris, and in America's legendary San Quentin Penitentiary, is no advocate of retreat. On the contrary, he asserts that yoga empowers one to act in the world. The metaphors that he reaches for are those of festivity; he never equates spirituality with self-mortification. Nor does he demand unquestioning obedience. “We welcome scepticism,” he says. “It is only through questioning that we come to believe.”

How can an individual operate in a world that is largely governed by the baser appetites, by anxieties? Where, in such a world, can one find the appropriate environment for meditation that the Bhagavad Gita describes?

You won't find the right environment for meditation anywhere. You have to create it for yourself, within yourself.

Yoga helps both to recognize one's inner potential, and to interact more positively with the world. While withdrawal is important initially, to concentrate the mind, yoga is not a means of isolation from the world. It is, rather, a movement towards greater participation in the world, leading to greater clarity, conviction and self-awareness.

It is much more important to apply the principles of yoga in daily life, than to practise yoga in an ashram. The ashrams are training grounds, but the real test of meditation is life.

It often happens that an individual's swadharma, his personal code of conduct, and the yugadharma, the conventional wisdom of the age, are in conflict. How do we cope with this?

The yugadharma is the ideology of the moment, the values that dominate a given society at a given time. It is, by definition, mutable. The swadharma, on the other hand, is a basic ethical core. It connotes righteous living, thinking and action – a constructive interaction with humanity. When you see someone sick or dying, do you ignore them or do you help them? Compassion is one of the key attitudes of swadharma, which one has to live out fully.

Most people interpret the term 'brahmacharya' narrowly, as 'celibacy'. Would you comment on the wider resonances of the concept?

Brahmacharya means to follow the path of Brahman. Brahman here means not God, but expanding self-consciousness, self-inquiry, knowledge. People have latched on to the more mundane meaning of the term and understand it as the denial of the senses and sensual experience. Such a denial goes against the principles of yoga and indeed, of human nature.

The spiritual meaning of brahmacharya is to maintain a balance between the extremes of austerity and indulgence. Brahmacharya means the transcending by the personality of the basic instincts – fear, the sexual urge, the need for food and rest. These instincts are active in all of us. Householders or renunciates, we all have to learn to deal with our sexuality. Yoga holds that the seeker can transform sexual energy through brahmacharya, the sublimation of pleasure.

But does pleasure not offer its own lessons?

Yes. The cycle of pleasure – enjoyment, achievement, loss – can lead to maturity, because it is a learning experience.

Is renunciation an impediment to the experience of beauty?

Renunciation is no impediment to the experience of beauty. It is simply the absence of obsession. You cannot truly see beauty if you are governed by desire, ambition and greed. For a sannyasin, who has rid himself of the desire to possess, the experience of beauty is a deep sense of appreciation for what is there.

Perhaps we must develop a new understanding of renunciation. We tend to associate it with ochre-robed people who retire to the forest....

In an earlier age, to renounce society meant to leave the community settlement and isolate oneself in the forest. But today, in the global village, what do you renounce and where do you retreat? If there is anything to renounce, it is the negative, detrimental and limiting aspects of our being.

Can a guru sometimes impede the spiritual growth of his disciples, by letting reverence degenerate into a dependency syndrome?

True gurus make sure that their disciples become independent. A guru who does not ensure this is not a guru.

Let us look at this question again. Who becomes a disciple? People who are in need of solace, guidance or direction. In this search, they tend to identify deeply with their guru and become dependent on his presence, like patients on a doctor's prescription. If the medicine doesn't work, the patient blames the doctor. Similarly, the guru begins as the master, but ends as the victim of the disciple's unfulfilled desires.

What's the way out for the guru?

We should be able to say: 'Now go away! Don't bother me!'

Have you got to the stage where you can say that?

I'm still learning to say no!

Unfortunately, false gurus can and do play havoc with people's lives.

False gurus are people who seek power, who feed their ego by collecting newspaper cuttings about themselves, or by cultivating influential people. False gurus are people gripped by a false ego, slaves of all those important things that we tell others to prove to ourselves how important we are.

Is there such a thing as a true ego, as against a false one?

In the sattwic state, the ego is a true knowledge of the self; in the rajasic, it is a desire for power; in the tamasic, it is selfishness incarnate. We all express these from time to time. The true ego is the 'I' that knows itself and has an honest sense of its abilities and limitations.

Yoga psychology?

(laughing) You could call it that!

How does one grow from jnana, knowledge, to bodha, wisdom?

Jnana is intellectual knowing. Bodha is experiential knowing, the realization and application of intellectual knowing.

And where does the sceptic fit in this scheme?

One becomes a sceptic because of one's upbringing or environment, or because one's faith has suffered a shock. Since the sceptic swears by empirical testing alone, he should analyze his own beliefs and get to the root of his scepticism. We stop growing if we are unwilling to look beyond our self-generated concepts.

You have a large following in Europe, Australia, North and South America. Why do people in these cultures turn to Indian spirituality, in preference to the Christian mystical traditions?

The pace of material development in the West has divorced people there from their spiritual resources. At a basic level, they do not have a teaching to ground them – while we in India, for all our philosophical ramblings, do have a practical teaching of life.

Yoga as the care of the self, an experiment in living?

Yes. In India, everything we do is experimental. For thousands of years, we have only been experimenting. It is not our way to establish final absolutes. Even after composing four voluminous Vedas, for instance, the rishis signed off with the 'neti, neti', the 'not this, not that' stance of Vedanta!

Any famous concluding words?

Give wisdom a chance!