Life becomes like walking over open countryside towards a clear objective8 min read

When the three elements of karma-yoga have been practised for a long time, or a shorter time with more intensity, things become simpler. Independence of the opposites, acting in evenness of mind, and samādhi-meditations on aspects of the Lord, produce an inner peace and energy. Life becomes like walking over open countryside towards a clear objective, instead of being lost in crowded streets, assailed by tricksters, beggars, tempters, shouters, and radios at full blast.

In this connection, Dr Shastri sometimes used the simile of electricity to give students an idea of the practice:

Don’t act so much that your soul will be tired, and don’t be so fond of solitude that you do not fulfil the reasonable expectations of the world. Man charges his being with spiritual electricity, and discharges that electricity by means of his thoughts and by means of his actions. The soul has to be charged every day with divine spiritual electricity, otherwise it will all be spent. And when it is about to be spent entirely, you feel worried, melancholic, with inclinations to suicide, and so on.

These are the symptoms that it is nearing exhaustion. . . . You have to charge your battery every day. How? In silence, meditation, holy study … for at least two hours a day. If you properly meditate, not as a burden, not as a pledge fulfilled, your soul will be healthy and you will not be a victim to boredom, melancholy, over-sensitiveness and the like. The electricity is generated in the alchemy of your soul: bring your mind nearer and nearer to the great Self. Withdraw your mind from the objects of the senses, from the world, from love and hate: bring it nearer to OM, and rest there, and it will be charged. Then when you act, you act as a karma-yogin, and your actions will be perfect.

When the interior clamour has died down to a considerable extent, the state is called Purity of Being. The karma-yogin begins to be attracted to the Knowledge texts. Though Arjuna could not yet undertake the Knowledge-yoga, which requires an experience of the Self to enter it, still texts on the Self were given to him from the very beginning: ‘Eternal, present everywhere, fixed, immovable is He, the Self’ (II.24).

While the mind is completely enmeshed in individual considerations, this is nonsense. How can my self – even with a capital letter, Self – be present everywhere? It is clearly confined in the body. At most, these phrases could be somehow poetical, perhaps symbolic of man’s infinite aspiration – so says the mind entangled in limitations.

With karma-yoga practice, mind finds itself less cluttered. Thinking and feeling become spaced out, and through the gaps there are glimpses of a light which is not the light of perception or conception. The Knowledge texts begin to pull.

Even so, it seems incredible. ‘I am that all-pervading divine Self’: the mind draws back before such a text. Here teachers recommend meditation on bare ‘I am’. Mind tries to complete this with ‘I am British’, ‘I am Chinese’, ‘I am man’, ‘I am woman’, ‘I am young’, ‘I am old’. All these are to be rejected. ‘No, no. I am, I am, I am.’ We think we know ‘I am’, but we know it only as ‘I am here, I am not there, I am thinking, I am remembering’, and so on. It is possible to dismiss these adjuncts, as Śakara calls them; they are no more the Self than clothes are their wearer.

When ‘I am’ meditation comes to maturity, that is to say has laid down saskāra-impressions of truth in the depths of the being, ‘I am’ will be completed in a living awareness of the true T. This is called Knowledge; the yogin who has purified his being by karma and samādhi, in time finds it in himself by himself (IV.38). The Lord within stirs and shows himself. When this happens, the path of Knowledge begins.

‘I am’ is an actor throwing off the props which identify his role. The play King takes off his heavy crown. Long John Silver lays down his crutch; in the play, he cannot walk without it, but now he moves around to stretch his legs. He takes it up again when he is to go back to his role, but for the moment, he wants to be free of it. Similarly, during the meditation period, the karma-yogin is, so to speak, stretching himself and then sitting in the wings.

On a special occasion for a special divine purpose, he might throw off the restrictions of the role even during the performance of the play. When Jesus is arrested, the Fourth Gospel describes him as asking: ‘Who is it you want?’ to which the police reply: ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Then he says: ‘I am.’ At his ‘I am’, they recoil and fall to the ground. Translators, Western and Eastern, amend it to ‘I am he’, because ‘I am’ would not fit in with the scene. It has to be ‘I am someone or something’, otherwise it does not make sense to the world. But perhaps at that moment the star of the play threw off momentarily his role of defenceless ascetic, and exposed the other actors, powerful in the play, as very little in reality.

Then as though recollecting himself, and setting up the play again, he repeats his first question: ‘Who is it you want?’ They make the same reply: ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, and now he picks up the script, as it were: ‘I have told you that I am – if I am the man you want, let these others go free.’

The main function of the I Am meditation is to discard the makeup and conviction of the reality of the role. The true status is then apparent without striving: in the realization of Brahman there is no effort, says Śakara.

‘Well, even so [the mind raises its endless objections], how could that true status be the one all-pervading Lord? The analogy does not hold: the actors are still separate. We may have unsuspected depths, but we are still different selves. It is obviously so. All the spiritual sales talk cannot alter that. One individual is very limited physically and mentally: there is not very much to him or her. Whereas another is gifted and energetic and ambitious, and thus very effective in the world. How can they be called the same?’ So objects the mind.

The tradition answers: ‘The analogy was a sign-post. It must not be taken beyond the point it is meant to illustrate. What you call sales talk is to help a wavering mind to keep to the practice; one that can really take decisions would not need it. I give you another, for your new question. But the question can be finally settled only by experience, not by analogies or inferences or guesses.

Under great deserts like Sahara or Thar, there are equally great sheets of water. Sometimes there are underground streams. This was known in very early times. The communities set about digging wells, some large and some small. The ancients dug wells over 1,000 feet deep. As a well got deeper, groundwater would appear in it. This might vary very much. A well could have a limited capacity; in some seasons it might dry up. These wells were indeed separate from each other, with different capacities.

But if it went deep enough to reach an underground river, the well could never be exhausted. Whether its diameter was great or small, the water supply was unlimited. So though such wells had different locations, they were now all one – the underground stream. A tiny well might have room for only one bucket. But when that bucketful had been taken, the well would still be full.

The stream of divine inspiration can come through the channel of a brilliant intellect, strong will, and widely recognized charity: but it also comes through an illiterate, slow-thinking and obscure channel. The teacher of St Anselm was Lanfranc, also one of the great minds of the Middle Ages, and also Archbishop of Canterbury to the early Norman dynasty in England. His own teacher, who inspired this subtle Italian ex-lawyer with vision and purity of purpose, had been Herlwin, an almost illiterate hermit monk.

Śāriputra was one of the Buddha’s chief disciples; he became so famous that some early texts of other schools speak of him as the Buddha himself: Śāriputra the Buddha. He had previously been head of another sect, but was converted to Buddhism, without any words being spoken. He saw Ajita, one of the first followers of the Buddha, walking in the street on a begging round. He went up to him and said: ‘From the way you walk, I am somehow sure that you have solved the riddle of existence. Teach me.’ Ajita replied: ‘My teacher is now staying on the hill called Vulture Peak: you will recognize it from the black and white rocks, like a vulture’s feathers. Ask him.’ This incident is all that is recorded of Ajita. But it changed the spiritual history of India and of much of the rest of Asia.

While the well is self-sufficient, it has identity. ‘I am large’, ‘I am small’, ‘My water is sweet’, ‘My water alas is briny’. But when the digging has gone down to the deep river, there is no more separate identity, only the rush of the river: ‘I am, I am, I am.’

© Trevor Leggett