Healthy, Happy and Wise

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Interview by Indian Express, Mumbai

What is your approach to life?

Our approach to life changes from time to time. Right now I'm involved with the mission of yoga and, at the same time, directing certain institutions and activities. Our lifestyle combines yoga, sannyasa and institutional life. Sannyasa is our personal life in which, by following the sadhanas prescribed for a sannyasin, we try to encourage and promote awareness in people of their physical and mental condition, and also provide spiritual guidelines for those who need them. In institutional life we manage the ashram in Munger, the Bihar School of Yoga. We are also establishing the Bihar Yoga Bharati Institute, which is going to become the first Yoga University in the world.

What do you have to say to people in Mumbai who are suffering in many ways in this complex world?

One of the major problems in the world is the management of stress. Stress begins when there are pressures to fulfil personal and social demands, demands from the family and the work environment. This personal stress leads to the breakdown of mental capabilities and clarity and as a result one is depleted of antar shakti, inner force. This leads to aggressive and violent behaviour or we go to the other extreme and become depressed and pessimistic. These imbalanced emotions affect our personality, expressions and ambitions, and we resort to whatever method we can find to fulfil our aspirations. Whether the method is correct or corrupt, right or wrong, is irrelevant.

The breakdown of human personality, leading to ethical and moral decay, is a result of uncontrolled stress in our lives. The stress we feel as individuals is reflected in society. Our stress is reflected in the people we interact with at work. In this way, it multiplies from one person to another. Our tension affects our family. Our happiness is also a contagious disease. In the same way, society, the community, the town, the nation as a whole, is affected when large numbers of people experience the same thing.

The solution to the management of disease in your personal life is to learn certain practices which can help you to attain physical, mental and emotional relaxation, to focus your mind and to utilize the faculties of discrimination, viveka. That will influence the family and the people around you. Just as the seed of negativity multiplies, so the seed of positivity also multiplies. Then there will be people who will want to make others feel the same benefits and so they become inspirers, teachers and propagators of yoga. Many people, after applying the techniques in their own lives, have started teaching yoga for health or mental peace or concentration or God-realization. Today yoga is definitely more widely accepted in society than it was 20 years ago. In 20 years' time I don't think we will be discussing these questions, because yoga will have spread even more and we will have other issues to discuss.

Do we create our own stress?

Stress is not our creation, stress is a creation of modern technology. Stress is a creation of our search for fulfilment and satisfaction and also of our sky high ambitions. If you could manage your ambitions then you would not suffer from stress. But why is India, the most ancient civilization, suffering from the same diseases as new civilizations? The reason is that the newer, dynamic civilizations have adopted an approach which has given them control and power over the world. They call it the 'might of the dollar', and we are influenced by that. Our dress has come from outside: farmers wear trousers and shirts in India, but farmers in America don't wear dhotis. Our style of sleeping and our eating habits have come from outside. When even our toilets come from outside what does that indicate? That the newer civilizations are more active and dynamic.

However, the West still has to experiment with the human spirit. The difference between East and West is that eastern ideas, Indian ideas say that the atma, the soul, is primary. The soul resides in the body. The body decays and dies and the soul again takes another body. So whatever opportunity we miss in this life will be fulfilled in the next. The western idea is that there is the body, and the soul is possibly inside the body. It is a totally opposite idea. Their search for material, sensual fulfilment, which we see in the form of night clubs, discotheques, bars and many other things, has influenced the imagination of this generation of Indians. Your father would never have imagined that such things could happen. Even you would never have imagined we would come to this state. But your children cannot conceive of how their fathers lived, because they are following a pattern which is now the fashion. Therefore, stress is not a result of our lives, but rather the result of our high ambitions and aspirations after seeing the sensuality of other cultures.

As well as the might of the dollar, technological advancement is also forcing its values on society.

What are we dependent on in this room? Every piece of equipment in the room is dependent on electricity, whether it is the radio or the fan or the AC. If the electricity fails then our lives stop. Why have we reached this stage of dependence on technology? There has to be a time in everybody's lives when they should go and live with nature, live by their own efforts. Don't take a battery with you, light a candle. Don't take packaged food with you, cook your own. Don't think of taking a hot bath or shower, jump in the river and take a bath. Lead a natural life if you want to get rid of stress.

The stresses of modern technology have come to us from the West. Yoga has gone to the West from India. So it is a reciprocal give and take. We have taken bad things from the West and given them good things in return. This is the greatness of India.

Most of the time we are in a comatose state and not really aware of what is happening. We don't wake refreshed in the morning. Is there any remedy?

Yes, in order to be fresh in the morning it is better to improve the quality of sleep. You go to sleep thinking about problems or events that have happened during the day. The mind is fully active, but the body is tired. The body goes to sleep, but the thought patterns which have started in the mind keep going. The wheel keeps turning and you are consuming your mental energy even in sleep, because you have not stopped the mental process. Therefore, when you wake up the next morning you feel tired, lethargic, drowsy, as if you have no energy, strength or stamina to start work again. You drag yourself out because you have to.

Yoga says, at night in bed remove all thoughts of the day. Focus yourself in the body through the practice of yoga nidra. Become aware of the environment and the sounds. Then focus on the flow of your breath. Then become aware of the different parts of the body and the tension which you feel. Then gradually start visualizing something pleasant and joyous. In that way you slowly move away from the influence of the hectic, dynamic, impulsive thought patterns. You can go to sleep while practising yoga nidra. The quality of your sleep will be different and you will wake up in the morning absolutely fresh.

In the morning practise some asanas and pranayama. If you normally do pooja, use five minutes of that time to just sit down and meditate. Do asanas to revitalize and recharge the body, do pranayama to recharge the brain, do meditation to prepare the mind to face the world again. The morning session can take 30 minutes to one hour. Don't worry about the evening session because you are doing it in bed and you can go to sleep anytime while practising yoga nidra. In my opinion that is the ideal lifestyle. In the olden days the ideal lifestyle for a student was to say Gayatri mantra just 24 times while looking at the rising sun, followed by study and school. Many times we force our children to say the Gayatri mantra, but we don't do it ourselves.

What are your thoughts on the uses of money?

The purusharthas of this age are definitely artha and kama, not dharma and moksha. Artha is financial security and kama is the fulfilment of desire. There is no harm in these purusharthas, they are needed for our lives. But the nature of artha and kama can be altered. Right now, our purushartha of artha and kama is based on greed and personal desire, to attain status, a name, and that is the tamasic nature.

Artha and kama have been accepted in our tradition, but from a sattwic point of view, meaning that you work for the money and earn it, earn millions, but you have to be the master and not let the money become your master. There is no problem in fulfilling your desires, your sensual needs, but have a definite reason and purpose for kama, so that it uplifts you, so that it becomes an aid for the attainment of the objectives of your life. When artha and kama become sattwic then you experience ananda. When artha and kama remain tamasic then you experience destruction, vidvansh.

You don't see anything bad in artha and kama?

It depends whether it is sattwic or tamasic. Yoga teaches you to be sattwic through relaxation. Materialism makes you tamasic. In order to convert stress into sattwa you also have to do purushartha.

Can one can take sannyasa while still in artha and kama?

Definitely. We don't believe sannyasa to be renunciation, because it is possible to renounce a family but it is not possible to renounce samskaras. Even in a jungle an artist will always be an artist, a musician will always be a musician, a philosopher will always be a philosopher.

Sannyasa is very much dependent on a sadhana. Sadhana, not lifestyle, is the basis of sannyasa. Whether you live in society, in a jungle, on the periphery of society or in the middle of the market is irrelevant. In ancient days the concept of sannyasa was different because the population was smaller and information could not be received as fast as today. There was no cable TV, radio, or cellular phones. People thought that sannyasins were only propagators of dharma. That was fine because of the limited pockets of population, but today, when there are people everywhere and it is very difficult to find isolation, the concept of sannyasa has to change, because social conditions are different.

Shankaracharya definitely travelled as a missionary to re-establish the Sanatan Dharma. He could have gone to the mountains and started his meditations, but he did not do that. We are also travelling and propagating yoga just as Shankaracharya propagated Sanatan Dharma. The need of today is not Vedanta, it is yoga. If you are sick and I come and tell you, “Look, you and your God are one”, it won't mean anything to you. You will say, “Very nice, Swamiji. Thank you very much.” But if I can help you by saying, “If you do this practice you will get better”, you'll appreciate that more than a philosophical discourse on the nature of your relationship with Brahma, with God.

So, sannyasa today is exactly the same as it was in the past, and in the future it will be the same. Even when we enter the space age I'll be going to other planets in geru to teach. Why not? We travel in planes today, tomorrow we'll travel in rockets, because after all the basis of sannyasa is sadhana.

Can this approach change society?

Whenever anyone in the world wants self-realization they come to India. Nobody goes to Australia for self-realization, or to Africa or America or Japan or China or England or Burma. They all come to India. When we want money then we go to America, England, France, Germany, because we have identified these countries as fulfilling that need, and they have identified this country as fulfilling their inner search.

There was an age for Vedanta when there were internal struggles between religions – Buddhism against Jainism, Jainism against Tantra, Tantra against Samkhya, Samkhya against Vedanta. Today the nature of our conflict is the quest for happiness, not philosophical ideology. Today we are striving to be healthy physically, happy mentally and wise spiritually. Our need is different so our approach has to be different. Through yoga we can become healthy, happy and wise. And if in the future the need of humanity is something different, then we won't teach yoga. We will teach what is relevant in that age. We also have to adapt to the times.

You are saying that the form of religion today is not renunciation. But how does spiritual wisdom fit on the stage of yoga?

You see, dharma means the established values of society today, for example, doing namaz three or five times a day, or going to church on Sunday, or doing pooja three times a day. These are the established norms which we say are religion. However, according to the traditional belief, established norms are only a help to discover what is righteous. Dharma is related to right action. If you hit me and I hit you then neither good actions nor justice are done. But if you fall down and I dress your wounds then it will be a good and justifiable action. Rituals can be done anywhere, in the temple, the church or at home. The basis of dharma is justice and righteousness. The basis of spirituality is realization of your relationship with people and God by following the path of righteousness and justice. That is what I have called spiritual wisdom and it is a continual process.