By Ananthu, T.S
The ultimate goal of the spiritual path is learning to live happily in His Will. This is of course easier said than done. I have struggled with this concept and its implementation all my life. So, I thought of sharing some of my dilemmas and insights on this important topic with all of you, which I am doing in the little write-up that follows. Hope you find it meaningful.
To begin with, we do not really know what His Will is. We have no way of communicating with God, so every time we take a decision, we are giving a direction to our life without having any means to be aware of any grand plan that God might have for us.
I am reminded of an occasion when my wife Jyoti and me had a major disagreement about something we had to do together. As those of you who had known her are aware, Jyoti was an intensely spiritual-minded person. So, she defended her position in our argument with the words, “I can accept His Will, but I cannot accept your will”. I was about to joke with her saying that Christ and all other saints have only spoken of accepting His Will, not Her Will - but withheld my comment fearing it may come in the way of our taking a decision amicably. And that is precisely what we did - it was our decision, taken without any idea of what His Will is all about.
And so it is with all of life. We deal with each other and take our decisions, and they seem our decisions. So, the first question we need to resolve is - why do the saints and mystics speak of living happily in His Will, when we have no way of knowing what His Will is? This question perplexed me no end, until I finally resolved it using the analogy of a sports person being trained by his coach.
For instance, let us take an accomplished cricketer who would like to see his 5-year old grow up to be an equally accomplished batsman. So, what does he do? He trains his son by giving him the bat and coaching him on how to face balls. To begin with, he bowls underhand to the boy, and does not aim the ball to the wicket. The boy swings his bat wildly, misses, but is still ‘not out’ because the ball is always wide off the stumps. The father continues these types of balls until a stage is reached when the boy learns how to connect bat and ball. Once that happens, the father then slowly starts aiming the ball at the wicket. Even though he is now batting better than before, sometimes the boy still fails to connect with the ball and it reaches the wicket. It may seem to the boy that his batting has deteriorated because he is now getting ‘out’ once in a while whereas he was never ‘out’ earlier. But the father knows that this is not the case. He knows that he is actually training his son to higher and higher levels of batting. At each level, the boy needed to feel that he had the ‘free will’ to swing his bat any way he felt appropriate. At the first stage, he enjoyed full ‘free will’ because irrespective of how inappropriately he swung his bat, he was never ‘out’. Once he had learnt how to connect bat with ball, his ‘freedom’ to swing his bat any way he liked came down because the ball was now being aimed at the wicket and not away from it. When he reaches a stage where he is able to drive away every ball from the wicket, the father will shift to the next level of training - switching from underhand bowling to over arm. The boy’s ‘freedom’ to swing his bat will get further curtailed if he does not want to be declared ‘out’, but in the process he will have learnt a little more of what real batting is all about. Once he has done that, the father will start bowling off spinners, then leg spinners, then gogglies, and finally bouncers and bumpers. Each will represent a stage of higher evolution in the batting performance of the boy, but will also mean curtailing his ‘free will’ of where and when and how he can swing his bat. Thus, loss of ‘free will’ does not mean the boy loses anything of value, but gains what he is really after - becoming a better and better batsman. In fact, it is not even a “loss” of free will, for the boy has voluntarily surrendered his free will at every stage because he is aiming to become as perfect a batsman as his father.
I found the above a beautiful analogy in understanding the ‘game’ that the Lord is playing with us. He sends us into this world to learn just one lesson - the art and science of love. As it says in the Book of Mirdad:
“Love is the Law of God. You live that you may learn to love. You love that you may learn to live. No other lesson is required of Man. And what is it to love but for the lover to absorb forever the beloved so that the twain may be one?”
We slowly evolve, through millions of births, from the lower forms of love to the higher ones. As we do so, we voluntarily curtail our ‘freedom’ - and finally, we reach that stage of perfect love where ‘the twain becomes one’, and so the ‘I’ no longer exists. It is only at this stage that we live in His Will - for when the ‘I’ does not exist, we have surrendered fully to Him, and can accept His Will cheerfully. Paradoxically, we then gain real freedom (unlike the false freedom that we think we are now enjoying), just as a perfect batsman like Tendulkar is called a Master batsman - not because he can swing his bat any way he likes, but because he has learnt to ‘flow’ with the higher dimensions of the game. A good example of what the equivalent means in the ‘game of love’ is conveyed by this little story:
A 5-year old girl asked her 7-year old brother “What is love?”
He replied: “Love is when you rob my chocolates from my bag everyday and I still continue to put them into the same bag”.
The boy in the above story did have the freedom to hide his chocolates, but chose not to because he loved his sister. In the process, he was quite willing to accept His Will (loss of chocolates) cheerfully as the price needed for developing real love for his sister.
Just as a good coach keeps the nature of what he is about to bowl a secret from the budding batsman, God also keeps what he ‘bowls’ at as a secret - a good example being the kind of sibling who gets born to our mother. Depending upon our level of evolution in the scale of love, He could give us a younger sister who is very nice to us because we have not yet evolved to the stage where we can handle the nasty ones; or else He could give us a sister who is always stealing chocolates from our bag - if we have reached that level from where we can (maybe with a lot of mental effort) graduate to a stage where we can continue to put the chocolates into the same bag despite knowing they will be stolen. Love has different and often difficult stages (and only the coach knows which stage we are ready for), as conveyed by the Buddha to his disciples:
“Let us learn to live with love amongst men who hate”.
So, when we say, ‘hey, but what is His Will?’, it is as though the 5-year old son is asking the father, “But Dad, you have not told me what kind of ball you are going to bowl to me”. If His Will were revealed to us, the game would no longer exist. No, we have to take our decision without any knowledge of His Will, and then accept whatever comes as prasad (holy offering) from Him who is all Love, who is teaching us to evolve to the highest echelons of love, who is making us one with Him, just as the father cricketer is training the son to reach his level of the game.
When looked at this way, every single thing that is happening to us is a part of this training - balls bowled by the Trainer sitting ‘out there’ and directing His Creation. More accurately, He is actually ‘in here’ – within each one of us, representing our own highest level of consciousness, which is training us with infinite love and patience towards Godhood. As someone put it very aptly:
“Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment. This includes:
• Every mosquito
• Every misfortune
• Every red light
• Every traffic jam
• Every obnoxious supervisor (or employee)
• Every illness
• Every loss
• Every moment of joy
• Every moment of depression
• Every addiction
• Every piece of garbage
• Every breath
Every moment is the guru.”
So, a guru is not just a holy person or evolved soul sitting ‘out there’. The physical body of the perfect guru is the ‘Word made flesh’, as Christ had put it, but the Word itself is always with each one of us - in fact, within us, and is responsible for all that we are experiencing here, whether it is a mosquito bite, a traffic jam, a jinxed relationship, or whatever. This power - call it God, call it Word, call it Kismet, call it what you like - that has created us and the entire creation is nowhere outside, but is resident within us, in much the same way that our mind is resident within us. The only difference between the two is that we are aware of the mind, but unaware of the other power that is coaching us in this game called love. Thomas Merton, the great Catholic priest and mystic, has used the term self for the former and Self for the latter. That is a very useful way of addressing the two powers resident within us, for it conveys a profound truth - that our real self is not the body or the ‘I’ we think we are, but that we are actually nothing less than God Himself. Merton’s nomenclature also addresses a very deep concern we always feel when we try to surrender to His Will - our reluctance to give up our freedom. We are actually not surrendering to anyone else ‘out there’ but our real Self ‘in here’, deep within us, even closer to us than our own mind. By doing so, we are not squandering our freedom, but actually gaining it - just as the son of our batsman-coach was gaining in freedom by learning to curtail the way he swings his bat at the ball.
Of course, there is a major difference between the self and the Self which needs to be taken into account. The self - our current state of consciousness, wherein we are aware of our ‘thought’ or ‘mind’ but nothing beyond it - is ignorant, in the sense that it can never really be certain of what is going to happen in the future. On the other hand, the Self (our soul, which is a drop of the ocean called God) knows all - nothing is hidden from it. When we feel unhappy, it is the mind (self rather than Self) which is dissatisfied with life. Our mind feels frustrated with the circumstances in which we have been placed, for we feel life is going in the wrong direction. But that assumes the mind knows what the future will bring - and here is where we go wrong. This mistake is the root cause of all worry, all unhappiness, all fear, and all nervousness. The self never really knows the future, only the Self does. Here is a humourous way this has been conveyed:
“The only thing that is certain in this world is that nothing is certain; and even that is a little bit uncertain.”
There is a well-known story in the Chinese tradition to convey the above. It is the story of an old man who used to live with his grandson and a horse. The grandson used the horse to plough the land and get a good crop from it. One day, the horse bolted from the stable, and the villagers expressed their condolences to the old man at his misfortune. The old man merely replied,” Thanks, but how do you know it is a misfortune?” The villagers were perplexed, but the truth of what the old man said came through when the horse returned a few days later, bringing in tow four other horses. It had met these wild horses and been lured away by them. But after a few days’ life in the insecurity of the jungle with its carnivores and the difficulty of getting good grass to eat, this horse conveyed to his four new-found friends that life in the barn was so much more comfortable, as food was supplied right to your mouth and there were no dangers lurking anywhere near. Thereupon the four offered to join him at the old man’s farm, and so the old man became the richest person in the village, having five horses using which to grow a wonderful, sumptuous crop. The villagers now congratulated the old man on his good luck. But the old man merely said: “Thanks, but how do you know it is good luck?” The villagers were again perplexed, but realized the wisdom contained in the old man when, some years later, his grandson broke his leg while riding one of the horses which he thought he had tamed, but whose old wild ways got the better of it. Again, the villagers came to express their condolences to the old man, who again repeated,” Thanks, but how do you know it is bad luck?” The villagers shook their heads in disbelief at this. But the truth of this dawned on them a few days later, when the king’s army forcibly took away all young men living in the village as recruits for waging a very dangerous war from which none was expected to return alive, but spared the old man’s grandson because of his injury.
If any of us looks back on his or her life, we will find it full of incidents which seemed, like in the above story, “so terrible” at the time of its occurrence and then turned out to be a blessing in disguise, and vice versa. To give one example from my own life: when Jyoti and I started living at Navadarshanam, it was a desolate and isolated place, with no proper roads to access Bangalore or any other town with a hospital. One evening, a visitor who had come from California was bitten by a cobra. It was a terrible evening for us, for the visitor hovered between life and death till midnight, and we were feeling very terrible about what had happened. Somehow, her life was saved, but we had gone through hell in the process. We had to remind ourselves again and again during this agonizing period to accept His Will, and we did so through this cartoon we had made during that time:
But when I look back at the event, I can see that it laid the foundation for a very deep and abiding friendship. Our visitor, who recovered fully in a few weeks’ time, developed a special bond with those who cared for her during that fateful night. She and her husband have become really close friends, sharing so many of our values. So, what seemed a tragedy laid the foundation for such an abiding and valuable friendship.
And yet, despite being reminded again and again by life’s events that things are not what they seem, we have not developed the Chinese old man’s wisdom but continue to be gripped by fear and worry when a ‘misfortune’ occurs or seems likely to occur. Why is this case? Because we feel the mind knows the future, when in fact it does not. The self within us can never know the future, only the Self can. And as our perception of the present is determined by what the future will bring, our worries and anxieties are based upon ignorance, not reality. As Jyoti’s niece Sadhna Kaikini once aptly put it:
“God upsets our plans only to set up His Plans for us. We see our present and plan for the future. But God sees our future and plans our present.”
The above beautiful statement represents the quintessence of the rationale behind the need for learning to accept His Will. We are unhappy and dissatisfied with life only because we think the condition in which we find ourselves is not the best. But in actuality it is the very best, for it has been custom-tailored for us by that power (Self) which knows our future, unlike the mind (self) which does not, and hence feels frustrated and upset. But the more we learn to accept His Will, the more we will graduate to higher and higher levels of love and learning, eventually to reach and become Him who is our real Self - in just the same way that the 5-year old boy has to struggle intensely before he can emulate his father as a master batsman.
Thomas Merton captured the essence of this struggle in the following powerful words:
“Between the self and the Self there is eternal warfare, for the one is a barrier upon the other’s journey home. We shall know suffering, and in particular the agony of fear, as long as this duality remains, and there is no escape from this battlefield.”
Our famous epics Mahabharatha and Ramayana are actually allegories that depict this eternal battle between the self and the Self. Gandhiji’s secretary Mahadev Desai has described in his “Gita according to Gandhi” how Gandhiji insisted that the battle of Kurukshetra is not a historical phenomenon but a battle between the self and the Self: the Kauravas representing the evil tendencies within us, the Pandavas the good ones. Each aspect of this epic story is full of symbolic meaning - e.g., there are 100 Kauravas and only 5 Pandavas, because the negative forces within us always outnumber the positive ones, and so the latter need the help of the Lord (Krishna) to overcome the former. If it had been otherwise, a man who overcomes the evil within would end up being a proud man - and it is this pride, or sense of ‘I’ness, that Krishna asks Arjuna (that part of our mind which wants to fight with the evil tendencies within) to give up through the 18 kinds of yoga which each chapter of the Gita represents.
As it is with all allegories, the real meaning behind these epics can always be the subject of dispute. Veer Savarkar had pooh-poohed Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gita, accusing him of injecting love and non-violence into a story which was based upon war and conflict. This is, indeed, one limitation of trying to convey spiritual truths using the analogy of battle - even the way Thomas Merton has done. Fighting the ‘self’, or the mind, or the Negative Power or Kal - all these give the feeling that the spiritual consciousness is a state to be ‘achieved’, whereas the truth lies somewhere else. As a matter of fact, we need to give up all ‘achievement-orientation’ if we are to move forward towards real spirituality. This is especially difficult for the modern, educated person who has been trained right from school days to achieve, achieve and achieve - more and ever more. This ‘achievement-orientation’ in which we have been seeped from childhood forms the biggest obstacle to living in His Will, which demands total and unconditional surrender.
Therefore, I feel more attracted towards the comparison with the beautiful butterfly which I think gives us a better picture of what spiritual consciousness is all about. If we try to catch the butterfly, it is likely to fly away, and even if we succeed in catching it, we end up with a dead butterfly, in which beauty is no longer present. On the other hand, if we learn to sit quietly, without going after the butterfly, the chances are that it will come and sit on our lap, and we can enjoy its beauty to our heart’s content. It is to drive home this aspect of the spiritual journey that the importance of learning to live in His Will has been emphasized.
From this angle, I found a recent analogy that a friend sent me to be much more appealing than that of ‘war’ between the self and the Self. This friend asked me to look carefully at the word ‘Guidance’, which plays such a critical role in the Guru-Shishya relationship. He pointed out that the word ends with letters‘d-a-n-c-e’, and that dance in its ideal form represents a state wherein two become fused into one, flowing together effortlessly. So, spirituality can be likened to a dance - between us and God, self and Self. For this to happen, the self has to recognize its ignorance, and allow the Self to lead, never demanding to know where it is going to be led. And this is possible only when the self knows that the Self is all Love, and so whatever the Self does is for its good.
That is the heart of the matter as far as living in His Will is concerned. It is not a question of knowing His Will, but of accepting His Will cheerfully. In other words, the self in us is happy to leave it to the Self within us to act as the guide and to participate in this dance of life accepting the lead of the Self. This requires an attitude of trust, acceptance, willingness, attentiveness as well as surrender - elements that form the foundation of any good dance between any two partners (otherwise, they end up stepping on each other’s toes). As these qualities of trust, acceptance, willingness, attentiveness and surrender develop within us, the Dance of Life will start shedding its uncomfortable and jerky nature, and we will begin to flow with the music of life.
While the last letters of the word ‘guidance’ are ‘dance’, my friend pointed out, the first three letters are ‘g’, ‘u’ and ‘i’. G stands for God, ‘u’ for our real Self, ‘i’ for our false self. So, living happily in His Will is like saying,” God, u and i will dance”. It means the false ‘self’ (or ‘i’) in us accepts the lead of the real Self through willingness, trust and attentiveness - which leads to love, and finally to surrender. When that happens, the two who are dancing fuse into one. Like in a good dance, the result is joy. We become happy. Incredibly happy.
T.S. Ananthu is a scientist and eminent Gandhian worker who has written extensively on various aspects of Gandhi’s approach to society and life, particularly ecology and farming. He is a trustee of Navadarshanam, living an earth reverent life at the Navadarshanam integrated settlement in Bangalore.