Spirituality and Health

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, AIIMS, Delhi, October 1995

The most important part of a tree is not the trunk, but the root. One has to nurture the root more than any other part, because once the root becomes weak, what kind of life will the tree have? You may prop it up but with one small storm it will fall, because it lacks the strength to stand upright. From the time of our birth till the time of our death, we care for our trunk, branches, leaves, flowers and fruit, but neglect our roots. Our body represents the trunk. The branches represent the different organs, karmendriyas and jnanendriyas of the body. The leaves, flowers and fruit represent the mind and the different experiences of the total mind. But the roots are somewhere hidden and we have never looked deep inside to find them.

The roots are the spirit that is dormant within and unknown to us. Because we have not looked after our spirit, we are weak physically, mentally, emotionally, psychically and spiritually. When the body becomes sick, we try to care for it because the body is the medium for experiencing the higher realities of life. When the mind becomes infirm, we try to heal it with the different therapies that are available. But we have neglected to care for the inner structure, the inner spirit. This has been the greatest folly of mankind and it is the reason why we have been unable to find enjoyment, contentment, happiness, health and our place in life. It is this state of total well-being that we have to aim for.

Well-being of the human personality

The well-being of the body, mind and emotions, the sense of ethics and morality, represents the concept of health, and not necessarily the absence of disease. According to tradition, once we become life members of this club of prakriti, we have to go through three experiences: janma, birth, vyadhi, disease, and mrityu, death. Janma, or birth, is our admission into the club of prakriti. Once we become members of this club, it is natural that we will experience vyadhi, or disease.

The definition of disease is 'disturbed ease'. The natural harmony of the self becomes disturbed due to the attractions of the senses and the world, due to the diversion of the mind from the inner self to an imposed outer identity. This creates an imbalance in the structure of the mind, body, psyche and emotions. Later, that imbalance is reflected in our behaviour, performance, thought processes, and mental and emotional expressions.

When we are happy and content, everything seems to go smoothly. But when we are unhappy, when we struggle to attain something which is lacking in our lives, then we tend to lose our equilibrium and clarity of mind. These are the things that both modern and ancient therapies try to treat. However, it is not the symptom but the cause of the disturbance that has to be treated. Some therapies can do this and others cannot. We need to realize that there are ways to regulate our lifestyle. Regulation of lifestyle is the keyword here for the well-being of the human personality.

Better servicing through yoga

We take care of the many mechanical things and electronic gadgets in our homes. When we purchase a new car we are very observant of the mileage it has run. After a certain number of kilometres we have it serviced, because we know that if we look after the car, it will give us better service, it will have a long life; there will be less wear and tear. If we can apply this principle to those things that we cherish and wish to maintain, then why don't we apply the same principle to our own body and mind?

How many times have we taken ourself for servicing since we were born? When there is wear and tear in the body, then we go to the doctor. The doctor looks inside and says, “Yes, the valves need to be replaced inside your heart.” Then we go into a state of shock and anxiety and begin to wonder, “What is going to happen to me? Will the replacement work or not? Will I become dependent on medication and a doctor for the rest of my life?” Why do we allow things to get to that stage? We allow it because we have kept our knowledge and understanding as a status symbol and not applied it in our own lives.

When something happens to the mind, we run to the specialist with anxiety, depression, tension, frustration, anger, neurosis. What can he do at that time except give us some support, help us relax, and try to make us see the positive side of things, not the negative. All our lives, from birth to death, we go through this show of running from pillar to post, trying to find a sense of physical, mental, emotional, moral and spiritual well-being in life, but we do not find it anywhere. Regulation of lifestyle is the keyword for well-being, and the lifestyle can be regulated by application of the very simple and basic principles of yoga.

Dealing with old age and death

Old age is a natural process of physical and mental evolution. Old age represents the state of maturity of the body and mind. You can't stop the process of ageing and decaying, because that is another important attribute of this club of prakriti. You have to fulfil the journey from one end, which is birth, to the other end, which is death. We all get neurotic in old age and begin to feel insecure: “What will happen to me? I can't eat properly, I can't walk properly, I need support, I need help.” This leads to further mental and physical deterioration which makes one weaker and more debilitated. This becomes a restricting factor in the expression of human creativity. The yogic tradition says that the third stage, ageing and death, can also be regulated by application of the four purusharthas, or efforts in life.

There are four human efforts that must be made during the course of life in order to experience completeness. Traditionally, the purusharthas are described as: (i) artha – financial fulfillment, (ii) kama – emotional fulfillment, (iii) dharma – social fulfillment and (iv) moksha – spiritual fulfillment. These four purusharthas are not alien to us, rather, they are an integral part of our culture and lifestyle. It is the proper observance of these four efforts in life which leads to our ultimate well-being and spiritual understanding at the time of old age and death.

Tree of Life

Spirituality is awareness of the root of the tree of life. This has been clearly stated in the 15th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita which is Purushottam Yoga, the yoga of the supreme spirit. Here it says: Urdhvamoolamadhahshakham, which means that life is like an inverted tree, with the roots above and the branches below. The roots represent the spirit. The trunk is the manifestation of the human nature, identity, personality and individuality. The branches, which are at the lower level, represent the many expressions of the gunas in human nature, in the form of knowledge, creativity, energy, feeling, attitude, positivity and negativity, which we express in our lives.

In the same chapter, it has also been said: Asangashastrena dridhena chhitva, which means that, ultimately, we have to cut the trunk of the tree, so that the physical and mental experiences are isolated from the spiritual experiences. There are different astras, or divine weapons, such as the brahmaastra, agnyaastra, vayavyaastra. Here, Lord Krishna has defined another form of astra to cut the trunk at the root. The instrument is anasakti – the axe of detachment. Those things we cannot leave are asakti, or attachments. When we hold the axe of detachment in our hands, we can cut this tree of life off at the root. Then we are free from attachment to the physical and material life and can experience spiritual life. This is viveka and vairagya, discrimination and non-attachment.

Four wheels of life

In this manner, the four purusharthas: artha, kama, dharma and moksha, are experienced. Every member of the club of prakriti has to follow the code of conduct, which has four rules. However, many people want to be exempt from some of these rules. So, they say, “I can't follow all four; I will follow only two.” People who are involved in life only follow artha and kama, and those who have renounced the world follow dharma and moksha. However, the car moves on all four wheels. If two are punctured, one cannot go forward. Even if there is just one puncture, it must be fixed. Yet we try to keep moving on just two wheels throughout our life. This is the reason we have so many breakdowns and the driver has broken bones due to the jerking and bumping of the car.

Application of artha and kama

The meaning of artha is absolute security, which is not based on selfish desire and ambition, but on a sense of fulfillment, contentment and attainment. Artha means sampannataa or prosperity. We can be sampanna, well-off, without money also. Money is not an indication of sampannataa or of total well-being. It is only a means of exchange which is needed to survive in the world today. The sense of well-being and security has to emanate from the mind, from the inner nature. Satisfaction, or prasannata, has to be felt inside on all levels. This security is physical, social and financial, in the family, personal and cosmic life.

The meaning of kama is different to most people's understanding. People generally relate kama to the senses, the sensorial life, but it goes deeper than that. Kama is the seed, the motivating factor in life, the impulse behind every action. It is kamana, desire; it is ambition, the force that guides one to attain something in life. This also has to be managed and regulated properly, because the negative aspect of kama is definitely degrading, and the positive aspect is an uplifting state of being and experience.

Dharma and moksha

Dharma means commitment to duty, not only professional, social and personal, but also universal. These are the duties that you can truly follow. It also refers to the means or way of thought by which you can develop. Dharma does not mean religion or following some form of religious precept. Dharma is a process by which one can ultimately experience the state of transcendence, and for this, commitment, awareness and pursuit of duty towards oneself, one's family, one's society, one's nation, one's world and one's universe has to be recognized.

What good is commitment to ourself? What use is the life we lead? We do service, raise children and then die. This is the routine of our life. There is more to life than this, but we are unable to experience it, because we forget that the main purpose of performing action is kartavya, duty. Therefore, we deviate from the path of dharma, and this is a purushartha which we all have to do in order to experience a meaningful and fulfilling life.

The last purushartha is moksha which means enlightenment, but enlightenment is not an effort. It is classified as a purushartha to make us aware that it is a stage to be reached in the course of our life. In reality, it is a state of attainment which is gained after following and fulfilling the first three purusharthas. God-realization is not the aim of human life, and it is not necessary for us to make an effort to experience God in our lives. God-realization is the result of having attained fulfillment in life.

When the stomach is full, satisfaction is gained and the aim is attained. Satisfaction is an indication that we have eaten well. The actual effort is in eating, not in satisfying the hunger. In the same way, the effort here is to attain fulfillment, completeness and wholeness in life, and the result of that attainment is God-realization. Therefore, it is a natural process, a natural experience, which is bound to happen regardless of whether we wish it or not. This is confirmed by the Shanti Mantra in the 40th Samhita of Rig Veda: Om poornamadah, poornamidam, poornaat, poornamudachyate, poornasya, poornamaadaya, poornameva vashishyate. Om shantih, shantih, shantih. The meaning of this mantra is: Fullness comes from fullness. If you remove the full from the full, only the fullness remains.

This is further clarified in Ishavasya Upanishad by the following mantra: Om ishaa vaasyamidam sarvam yatkincha jagatyaam jagat. Tena tyaktena bhunjeethaamaa gridhah kasyasvid dhanam. This means that the entire universe, the visible cosmos, is the seat of divinity. At the same time there are also bhogas, things to enjoy. So enjoy them while they are there, but do not lose track of divinity in that enjoyment. This is the realization of moksha, which the philosophers have called the realization of advaita, non difference of Self and Brahman.

Yogic view of spirituality

The combination of the four purusharthas is spirituality. Spirituality does not require us to isolate ourself from society, to close our eyes, concentrate, meditate and try to have different divine experiences. Yoga teaches us spirituality, not by running away from life, but by running into life with total awareness, total conviction, total faith, total belief in the completeness and the fullness that 'I am'.

In order to change our view of spirituality, we will have to differentiate between spirituality and religion, between the practical experiences we can have of spirituality and of religion. Science is a global concept. Science remains the same whether it is taught in English, Hindi, Chinese or Japanese. Physics, chemistry and mathematics are the same whether in the East or the West. Religion, on the other hand, is a social concept. Every jati, or caste, has its own line of thought; every sampradaya, or sect, has its own line of thought; every culture has its own line of thought.

Therefore, religion is a social concept; it can change from society to society. However, spirituality is not a social concept; it is very much an individual concept. At the same time it is a universal concept, because spirituality takes birth and unfolds from within, and it unites us with the universe by providing a sense of total fulfillment, and the experience of the effulgent personality. Yoga has always aimed for this.

Complete personality

How does the yogic process relate to health and spirituality? There are many misconceptions about yoga. Some people think it relates only to the physical body, others think it is only meditation, while others think that it is a way of managing stress. However, yoga has definite and specific roles for each condition and stage of life. Yoga maintains the health of the body, well-being of the mind and harmony of the emotions. Ultimately, yoga culminates in the awakening of the human psyche and realization of the human spirit.

If we remove the word 'yoga', we will also see that all these are the things we need in our lives. The body requires health, the mind requires well-being, the emotions need to be harmonized, the psyche needs to be awakened, and the spirit needs to be realized. This is the complete human personality. In the Bible it is said that man does not live by bread alone. This means that instead of seeing just one aspect of ourselves, we have to develop a wholistic view. Only then can we claim to be true human beings.

Physical health

When we consider our needs, we also have to see where the imbalances in our lifestyle lie. These imbalances create disturbances in the harmonious structure of the body, thus giving birth to illness and disease. Asana, pranayama, shatkarma, mudra and bandha provide health to the physical body by removing the blockages, toxins and different imbalances which occur in the internal systems. Yoga is a spiritual science, but it also works as a therapy, so people are accepting it in that form.

Mental well-being

In order to experience mental well-being, so that we are not subject to stress, tension, anxiety, frustration and depression, yoga provides the methods of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana. Yoga says that the faculties and energies of the mind are dissipated at present like four wild horses running in all directions. If we cannot stop our mind or emotions, or control negative thoughts, how can we achieve a spiritual state? There is jealousy, anger, pride, and when we sit for meditation, we think, “I am going to have darshan of God”.

This is a futile hope. Until mental well-being is attained through the techniques of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana, we will not be able to control the other manifestations of our personality. The techniques of pratyahara aim, firstly, to relax the stress and tension we have created internally. The second stage is recognition of the different sensorial and psychological experiences which are happening internally. After that, concentration is developed by gaining the ability to focus at one point without a struggle. Then comes dhyana, which is continuing the experience of concentration for an extended period of time. Mental well-being can be attained by following this process.

Emotional harmony

Emotion represents the raw expression of conscious energy in the human personality and it cannot be intellectually controlled. It is an explosion. Hatred and frustration cannot be controlled through the intellect. They are explosions and we become obsessed by them. Yoga teaches us to manage and harmonize the emotions by the practice of bhakti yoga. Bhakti yoga is considered to be devotional yoga, but that is a concept we have developed. In reality, bhakti yoga is the method by which we can regulate, divert, channel and give a direction to the forces of our emotions.

If you place a crystal on a red cloth, it will reflect the colour red; if you place it on a black cloth, it will reflect the colour black, and if you place it on a blue cloth, it will reflect the colour blue. In exactly the same way, emotions are colourless in themselves, but they are coloured by different situations, circumstances and events. They are coloured when we are attracted or become attached to something which grabs our attention. Then our emotions reflect according to the colour of our mind.

If I recognize you as a friend, my emotion will be that of friendship. If I recognize you as my adversary, the emotion will take the form of animosity. If I recognize you as my elder or peer, my emotion will take the form of respect. If I think of you as my lover, my emotion will take the form of passion. If I recognize you as my son, my emotion will take the form of affection. If my mind runs after money, my emotion will take the form of greed. If I look at you as my competitor, my emotion will take the form of jealousy. However, if I can divert this emotion in a positive direction, not towards the world but towards the Self or God, then it takes the form of bhakti.

How to channel the emotions is explained very beautifully in bhakti yoga. Bhakti yoga is a training whereas bhakti is a state of experience. In bhakti yoga we have to train ourselves to divert the emotions. Once the emotions are diverted, we experience bhakti. The training given is the channelling of all emotions towards the experience of our inner nature. In the Bhagavad Gita, this is called nishkama bhava. In other literature it is called sakaratmic bhava or sattwic bhava.

Psychic awakening

The fourth stage of developing the human personality is psychic unfoldment, because our nature has the potential to experience both the known and the unknown, the visible and the invisible. However, we tend to be more in awe of the manifest. We do not know how to accept the unmanifest because we have no concept of it. Psychic development is going through the various states of consciousness, recognizing their weaknesses and strengthening their faculties. This is again possible through the practices of kriya and kundalini yoga.

Consciousness is the factor which controls all our expressions in life. The Mandukya Upanishad has described the different stages of consciousness in a very beautiful way. Modern psychology describes consciousness as a state, and the different levels of consciousness as the conscious, subconscious and unconscious states. The yogic tradition, on the other hand, describes the various levels of consciousness, not as states, but as the totality of experience of the self: the conscious self, the subconscious self, the unconscious self and, beyond that, the superconscious self.

I am not talking about jagrit, swapna, nidra or turiya avastha (the word avastha meaning state in relation to the human mind), but about human consciousness, and there is a difference between mind and consciousness. Mind relates to the realm of prakriti. Consciousness relates, not only to the realm of prakriti, but also to the realm of divinity. Therefore, we have to look at these states in relation to consciousness in the form of the totality of an experience which is known as the self.

In the Mandukya Upanishad, it is said that consciousness or the conscious self is Vaishwanara, the subconscious self is Tejas and the unconscious self is Pragya. It has described the condition, the power and the experience that one can have at each level. In brief, the psychic potential of every human being is limitless and this potential exists at different levels of consciousness.

Non-attachment – anasakta bhava

One more thing remains to be explained, which is asanga astra or detachment. There is a passage in the Yoga Sutras which states: Sukhaanushayi raagaha – we are attracted towards the things that give us pleasure; Dukhaanushayi dweshaha – we are repulsed by the things that give us suffering. Attraction is known as raga, attachment, or asakti. Repulsion is known as dwesha or anasakti. These two are opposing concepts. Attachment means we are stuck to something, and detachment means that surgery is performed in order to remove that.

Anasakta bhava is not detachment, because it has the faculty of discrimination. Once we have the ability to discriminate, then non-attachment arises. Non-attachment means we have everything, but we are not attached to it. Detachment means that we make an effort to cut ourself off. In anasakta bhava, we are not making an effort to cut ourselves off, because we have viveka, the faculty of discrimination. So anasakta bhava is actually non-attachment rather than detachment.

There are many examples in history of anasakta bhava and anasakta yogis who lived in the world and, at the same time, were non-attached. King Janaka ruled a large empire and yet was totally non-attached to it. He fulfilled his duties, role and obligations as a king, but at the same time, he was always in a state of internal harmony and peace.

Spiritual enlightenment

The expression of spiritual awakening manifests in the form of genius. It is experienced as a total change in viewpoint and ability to act in life. Interactions, behaviour and attitudes change as the vision becomes more universal. Spiritual enlightenment, the last stage of yoga, is the outcome of having attained physical health, mental well-being, emotional harmony and psychic awakening. It is the result of these attainments, and that is how we can look into or look towards our roots.

Spiritual enlightenment is the totality of experience, of fulfilment, of knowledge, which can only be attained by developing all the aspects of our personality. So, in order to experience spirituality, we must live a complete life and attain total health in all the aspects of our personality. And in order to attain total health and development of our personality, we must bring yoga into our lives.