Contemplation in an Active World
the many developments in the post–Second World War period,
the popularity of contemplation and meditation is particularly
significant. With the advancement of technology, the hope
of getting more leisure dawned on modern man. But, alas, instead
of increased leisure, increased activity has become the order
of the day! Instead of rest, restlessness has taken hold of
the human heart. What went wrong?
this age, when progress is reckoned in terms of material development,
economics takes centre stage. Activity calls for more activity,
resulting in increased production. This, in turn, demands
more markets for selling the goods produced. Advertising creates
more markets, and that again leads to increased consumerism.
Thus the rat race goes on!
the Bhagavata there is the story of the great king Yayati,
who, at the threshold of old age, felt that his desire for
worldly enjoyments had not been satiated. So he requested
his four sons - one after another - to exchange their youth
for his old age. The first three sons refused to do so, but
the fourth son, Puru, agreed. Yayati, with the borrowed youth
of his son, continued with his enjoyment of worldly pleasures.
After some years he suddenly realized that desires can never
be satiated by more enjoyment, and uttered this great truth:
‘Na jatu kamah kamanamupabhogena shamyati, havisa krsnavartmeva
bhuya evabhivardhate; Desires are never appeased by more
enjoyments; rather they grow all the more fierce, like a smouldering
fire fed with ghee.’ (1)
people, finding no respite from intense activity on the one
hand and boredom on the other, are seeking ways and means
of bringing a little peace and quiet to their disturbed minds.
In this scenario, they clutch at various kinds of contemplative
and meditation practices marketed by the latest management
gurus. It seems that they do derive some benefit from these
physical and mental exercises.
the basic question remains: Is activity opposed to contemplation?
In India, for centuries it has been thought that meditation
is not compatible with activity - this in spite of the fact
that the most sought-after scripture of the Hindus, the Bhagavadgita,
advocates intense activity along with deep contemplation.
activity begins in the mind. It may be to fulfil some desire
or to work towards a goal that we act. Activity and contemplation
seem apparently contradictory. But both can go on simultaneously.
The Gita describes this graphically: ‘With the mind purified
by devotion to performance of action, the body conquered,
and senses subdued, one who realizes one’s Self as the self
in all beings, though acting, is not tainted. The knower of
Truth, being centred in the Self, thinks, “I do nothing at
all”, though doing many things. He who acts forsaking attachment,
resigning himself to Brahman, is not soiled by evil, just
as a lotus leaf is untouched by water.’ (2)
the nineteenth-century New England philosopher, says: ‘It
is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion - it
is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great
man is he who, in the midst of the world, keeps with perfect
sweetness the independence of solitude.’
we try to understand our mind, we will find that it is the
source of all action. This manifests as volition, the activity
of the ego. The mind is working ceaselessly. Either it is
going towards something or it is turning away from something
else. The senses are drawn towards their objects, but it is
the mind that gets connected with the senses. It then gets
connected with the ego, which makes us think, ‘I am doing
this, or I am not doing this, or I will not do that’ and so
on. Thus we identify ourselves with the ego and the senses
through the mind.
spiritual practice is concerned with the control of the mind
- to direct our thoughts through a channel. Thus, one part
of our mind can always be directed towards a goal to be attained
while the other parts of the mind
may be busy with other things: ‘Gunah gunesu vartante iti
matva na sajjate; It is the [three] gunas (which
constitute the senses) that act upon the gunas (as
sense objects); with this understanding the sadhaka does not
get attached (either to actions or to their results)’ (3.28).
mentioned earlier, even before I met Swami Gadadharananda,
I used to do puja at home. Ours was a religious home, and
we had a tradition of thakur seva (service to the family
deity). In the hostel also I used to do sandhya-vandana
(daily devotions prescribed by the scriptures) regularly.
That, however, was traditional. What I got from the ashrama
was something totally different. An ashrama is a place full
of spiritual vibrations. That is something inspiring, lively.
But in one’s home and family, it is a mere traditional way
of life, and religious practice, a routine thing; there is
not that life there.
lies the secret: to be intensely active, but all the time
remaining a witness of one’s actions, keeping one part of
the mind directed towards God, the supreme goal of life. Whenever
the mind, in the midst of various activities, forgets this
goal, one has to take notice and turn it back to God again.
Brother Lawrence says that with him the time of prayer is
not different from that for any other work. He further says:
‘That useless thoughts spoil all; that the mischief began
there; but that we ought to reject them as soon as we perceived
their impertinence to the matter in hand, or our salvation,
and return to our communion with God.’ (3) He was kept busy
all the time with the various activities of the monastery
where he lived. But by this practice of keeping his mind always
tuned to God, he had come to love God and, in spite of his
being very little educated, even many of his superiors found
it spiritually profitable to converse with him.