Shankara lays stress on the grace of God, especially in his Gita commentary. The grace is attracted by the efforts of the disciple, if those efforts are directed towards transcending his individuality. At the beginning a yogi tends to set up some ideal of his own: that he may be virtuous, may be loyal, may be eloquent in spreading the truth, may be compassionate, and so on. This picture has been selected from the basis of his individuality as he feels it to be – it is often a compensation for a feeling of inadequacy. As he makes progress, he begins to abandon these ambitions of spiritual childhood. He prays not that his inner being may find expression in one of these things selected by itself, but that it may be transformed into what the divine seeks to express through him. That may be something which he cannot conceive at present. Or if he could conceive it, it may seem to him something inferior.
When a savage prays to his god, he will ask for strength to conquer his enemies and protect his family and tribe, for skill in agriculture or hunting so that his people may be fed, and so on. The notion of forgiveness of enemies, or hospitality to strangers from another tribe, will not occur to him if it is not in his tradition. And if they are suggested to his mind, he will tend to despise them as based on weakness. Yet this is the true ideal in every man, as Christ and Buddha taught.
By repetition of the name of God and meditation on its meaning, and by prayer, the cramp of desire can be loosened. Such prayers are often apparently not answered for a time, because the disciple unconsciously may not in fact be too willing that the change should take place. But if he continues to struggle, there comes a bursting out, which he knows by the falling away of bonds which have held him prisoner for many years. He may, however, hardly be aware of the operation of divine grace till it is over.
A young monk by chance encountered the daughter of a wealthy merchant when her father brought her to visit his temple. They were overwhelmed with love for each other, as they believed it to be. The thought came to him to give up his profession, and try to enter the business and marry her. He knew her father would take her next morning to their own part of the country.
In the night he got up and prayed in the sanctuary to be freed from the temptation, but it became stronger and stronger. He repeated the holy name but it had no effect on his mind. Finally in the middle of his tears he fell asleep.
When he saw the morning spring sun shining in through the door he knew what he had to do. Without any preparations he went and quietly joined the merchant’s party, lending a hand with the baggage. He became an apprentice in the business, and showed extraordinary ability. The father took to him, and made him his chief assistant, soon he asked permission to marry the daughter and the father agreed. They wed and had a child, the father died and he managed the business with outstanding success. Then an illness carried off both his wife and child, and he was prostrated with sorrow. He began to interest himself in charitable activities, first as a means of distracting himself from his grief, and later for their own sake. Then a series of accidents ruined the business and he was penniless. He became a pilgrim, and wandered round the country, trying to teach organization and mutual help to the poor. He also tried to tell them that satisfaction of worldly desires alone would not lead to lasting happiness, but he had not the spiritual training and force which could carry conviction.
One evening he found himself near his former temple, and stole quietly in. Now an old and broken man, he prostrated himself and prayed for forgiveness. He asked only that the remainder of his life might be devoted to the good of all in any way the Lord might direct.
Again he fell asleep. Again he saw the morning sun shining in through the doorway. He found himself a young man once more, and realized it had all been a dream. But the desire had fallen away from him, and with the enormous access of energy released, he threw himself into his yogic practices and holy study. He became a spiritual light who influenced life in all that part of the country. Through grace, he experienced in a single night what would otherwise have occupied a whole life. In the same way, through grace, one tiny incident can give volumes of experience, what to another person would be almost nothing can be the turning-point of a life.
Of all the ways, the path of devotion to the Lord is the easiest, so says the Gita.
To students of real sincerity, the stones and the fires and the animals reveal transcendental truth, as it is related in the Chandogya Upanishad.
The Lord can speak through anything. In one way or another he lights the flame of Self-realization in a devotee, and then the desires of the world thin out.
Shankara concludes his exposition of the subject with the words, ‘The highest vairagya is no other than pure knowledge”.
© Trevor Leggett