We should think of an ideal society in terms of the laws of nature, not of the ambitions of politicians. Politicians have always wanted to develop society along the lines of one ideal, one religion, one language, one slogan, one flag. This can never be the ideal society. It will be a cruel, intolerant and barbaric society, and history has evidence of this. There have been many instances of such an ‘ideal’ society where everybody had to like the same things, wear the same clothes, pray the same way and pay homage to God in the same way.
This is difficult for us to accept, because we know very well that not all children who go to school will go to university. Many of the children who go to school don’t even get beyond the primary classes. Everybody is in a different class.
If everybody is in a different class on account of intellectual differences, then why not have different classes for spiritual differences? We are spiritually different and we are different in our evolution. We are not the same. We are not all going to attain realization on a certain date in the calendar. One person may not attain self-realization in this life, and someone may have it immediately. Therefore, we have classes in spiritual life also and these classes are said to be the tamasic, the rajasic and the sattwic.
According to this division, the rishis have set aside the provision for sattwic people – the appropriate sadhana, food, social interactions and political affiliation. It is written what they should be. If you read these books, not merely the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads or the Ramayana, but also the smritis and samhitas, then you will know how they have framed methods for different types of people.
On the one hand, it is said that people who have attained the level of sattwa must not look at sense objects which are like poison and will kill the soul. A wise person must leave these conditions and attachments and consider sense objects as the venom of a cobra.
Another smriti says that one must live with one’s wife, husband and child. One should keep money like this, behave like that and have this attitude. One must fulfil one’s obligations, desires and karmas. Why are the scriptures talking of two different ways?
Many times people who criticize the basis of Hindu religion and its variety say that it is contradictory. At one point, there is talk of renunciation, of Buddha, Mahavir or Shankaracharya. On the other hand, there is talk about rishis married to women or rishis having extramarital relationships. So, what is one to follow?
However, the wise people say, “If you are fit for this, then you do it. If you are not fit for it, then leave it.” Therefore, they designed the four ashramas in order to give a chance and opportunity for you to fulfil your desires, if they are there. If they are not there, then it is fine, and you can continue straight away. However, if desires are there, then you have to fulfil them. These stages are called ashramas, stages in life.
The first ashrama is called brahmacharya, the second grihastha, the third vanaprastha and the fourth one is known as sannyasa ashrama. If you desire to acquire knowledge, live with a guru and discipline yourself, then you go to brahmacharya ashrama. If you are a person predominantly strong in passions and cravings, if you want to fulfil your desires and ambitions; if you want to acquire wealth, money and respect, have children and discharge your obligations to ancestors, then you go into grihastha ashrama.
When you begin to realize that the purpose of grihastha ashrama has come to an end, and there is no more need or compulsion, but you are just living because you have to live, then you make a little change, and that is vanaprastha ashrama. You withdraw yourself from certain social, religious and family commitments. You no longer attend any marriage, funeral and ancestral ceremonies, but just sit down quietly and let others take over. When you have become steadfast and established in vanaprastha ashrama, then take to sannyasa.
This sequence is the general rule, but at the same time, the rishis have said that if you begin to realize even before grihastha ashrama that you are not someone who needs to fulfil desires or hankers after accomplishments, then don’t enter into grihastha ashrama, but go straight away from brahmacharya into sannyasa ashrama.
There are two ways according to our system. One is called krama, which means step by step: brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha, sannyasa, in that order. The other is called vidvat, which means awareness. When you have become aware and can transcend one of the ashramas, you go straight from grihastha ashrama into sannyasa, or from brahmacharya ashrama into sannyasa. Sukhadeva, Shankaracharya or the four Kumaras didn’t even enter into brahmacharya ashrama, but went straight to sannyasa. The moment they were born, they became aware of a greater reality. They did not enter into the life of brahmacharya or the life of a householder, but immediately became sannyasins.
Ashramas are organized in this way, and it is the greatest point of difference between Hinduism and other religions. Ashramas are not organized in order to create a society, but for use in relation to society. In ancient Hindu society, everything was organized in order to facilitate the path of atma jnana, knowledge of the Self. Nowadays we facilitate a society through family and marriage and so on, but originally it was organized so that one would be able to succeed in spiritual life.
With other forms of society, everything is organized in order to have a strong nation and society. This is because of insecurity. When the people of a nation are insecure, when their temperament is insecure, then they organize a society with discipline, with religion and laws, not to facilitate self-realization, but to create a strong society that will face the dangers from outside. India never did that.
It is obvious that different people have different aptitudes and abilities, and for that reason, there are four varnas, classes: brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra. Therefore, it is not necessary to draft everybody for war. Not everybody is trained for military purposes because not everybody is suited to it. It does not apply to certain people and for their evolution the duties lie elsewhere.
Some people may want to study, but there are other people who by temperament want to fight. They are kshatriyas, warriors, and if they become the head of an institution, they will beat everybody. The differences come according to different temperaments. People and society have to be organized in order to give them the opportunity to channel their energy according to their nature.
You are married, have children and a job in an office, you have a good society and are integrated. You drink or you don’t, you eat meat or you don’t, you have a marital relationship or extramarital relationships. It is alright, but what is the aim of your life? Why are you doing all this? If you are doing all this in order to fix your karma, in order to exhaust your samskaras, well and good.
Therefore, the vision of an ideal society that I have in mind is not of a uniform temperament. I have great respect for sannyasa. It is so much on my mind, but at the same time I think practically. I am not idealistic because I know what can happen and what cannot happen, what should happen and what should not happen.
I am closely related to Tibet because my grandmother came from Tibet. Her behaviour was funny. At that time I didn’t know how everything can play upon the human mind and behaviour. Her guru used to come to our house. I was a student and maybe I misunderstood them, but even now I think they were funny people. They wore cloaks and the sleeves were really long, so they could not bring their hands out of the sleeves. My grandmother used to say, “My guru has renounced all karmas. He does not bring his hands out so he has to be fed.” We used to feed him with a spoon. The bigger the sleeves the greater one was, because one did not work. I could not understand this idea.
What have activities got to do with realization? Karmas do not taint as long as one is not attached. If one is not related, they will not taint anyone and one can do anything.
There is a story in the Mahabharata of a yogi who had attained a siddhi. When he was sitting underneath a tree and practising trataka, from a pigeon above his head little droppings were falling on him. The yogi was annoyed and when he looked at the pigeon, it was immediately reduced to ashes. Later in the day, he was going from door to door calling for alms. From inside one house a female voice replied, “Do please wait.” He waited for an hour and ultimately he became furious and thought to turn the lady into ashes. As soon as the thought came to him, the lady from inside the house called, “I am not that pigeon.” The man was struck with wonder. What happened and who is this lady who knows everything?
Finally she came with the alms. The yogi asked, “How did you know about the pigeon, how did you get this vidya, knowledge?” She said, “I don’t have time to talk now because my husband is very ill. I have to give him his bath and feed him. You had better go and see this other person.”
The yogi went as directed and found that he had come to a butcher’s shop. He thought that it might be the wrong address. However, the butcher called the yogi by name and said, “The lady sent you in order to know the secret of her attainment. May I tell you something about it?” The yogi replied, “I don’t think you will be able to tell me anything at all because you are a butcher. You kill and eat animals. It is such a horrible job. How can you attain knowledge?”
So the butcher directed the yogi to the shop of a baniya or merchant. To his question about attaining knowledge, the shopkeeper replied, “You cannot judge spiritual evolution by external manifestation. Enlightenment, higher awareness, samadhi or moksha is the quality of the atman, the soul, not of the body. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. Your soul can find absolute enlightenment through the practices which are natural to your evolution.
“That lady is dedicated to her husband and that is her sadhana. The butcher is dedicated to his parents, because he has to feed and sustain them, and that is his sadhana. You are a yogi, you have no wife and no children, you are dedicated to trataka and this is your sadhana. Why do you say that only a person who is religious, pure, moral or orthodox can find enlightenment? Why don’t you say that a dancing girl, a prostitute, a shopkeeper can find enlightenment?”
It is said why can the women who have no time for sadhana because of cooking and cleaning, or a vaishya, trader, who all the time thinks of making a profit, or a shudra, labourer, who is always engaged in cleaning away the rubbish in the streets, not attain the transcendental state? There are definitely many paths to enlightenment!
If society is well organized and the disciplines are perfect, but the inspiration is not spiritual and the incentive is sensual enjoyment, then it does not matter how many countries you conquer, how much wealth you amass, how long you live in the annals of history, a black day will definitely come. Nature is cruel, because prakriti is very precise.
Nations have been effaced from the face of the earth, and there will be a time when they won’t even be mentioned. No matter how powerful they were, no matter how many countries they conquered from east to west and north to south, no matter how much they wanted to impose their language on other people, their laws and codes of conduct, their social structure and their political systems, these nations will not survive. You won’t find a single one of them in history.
Therefore, we must first of all accept the diversity in our society. Those of us who are dedicated to yoga and aspiring for sannyasa must remember that whatever we do in society, we should have just one aim. We should organize our family or the whole of society so that we may be able to attain atma jnana, self-knowledge.
—Ganga Darshan, Munger, 21 October 1981