"Animals can do charitable work. Ants do it. Dogs do it. What is the difference then? Men can be masters of themselves. They can resist the reaction to anything. ...The animal cannot resist anything. He is held...by the string of nature everywhere. That is all the distinction. One is the master of nature, the other the slave of nature. What is nature? The five senses....the animal has its happiness in the senses, the man in his intellect". - Swami Vivekananda












PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | April 2004  





                From Fear to Fearlessness








     A mother could not get her son to get home before sunset. So she told him that the road to their house was haunted by ghosts, who came out after dusk. By the time the boy grew up he was so afraid of ghosts that he refused to run errands at night. So she gave him a medal and taught him that it would protect him.


     Bad religion gives him faith in the medal. Good religion gets him to see that ghosts do not exist.(1)



     Fear is an important emotion common to human beings and animals. If one fears darkness, another fears solitude; some fear water, flying, heights of buildings and so on. Phobias are unreasonable fears, not all of which might be harmful. Some phobias, however, leave a permanent scar in the human psyche. Does religion address this important human emotion?




     The Keynote of the Upanishads




     All fears necessarily involve a subject and an object: I and the object of fear. Vedanta says that fear will persist as long as we are conscious of an object different from us. And these objects include our own body and mind, of which the subject, the witness, is the Atman. It is from a second entity that fear comes, says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.(2) And in the words of the Taittiriya Upanishad, When a man finds fearless support in That which is invisible, formless, indefinable and supportless, he has then attained fearlessness. If he makes the slightest differentiation in It, there is fear for him.(3)


     Swami Vivekanandas teachings are laced and fortified with fearlessness. He could never suffer weakness in anyone. He considered fearlessness as one of the essential features of Hindu scriptures. During his wandering days in 1892 Swamiji spent nine days with Sri Sundararama Iyer in Trivandrum. Sri Iyers 14-year-old son Ramaswami Sastri was deeply impressed by Swamijis personality. Swamiji told him one day, You are still a young boy, I hope and wish that you will reverentially study the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, and the Bhagavadgita as also the Itihasas, the Puranas and the Agamas. You will not find the like of these anywhere in the world. Man alone, of all living creatures, has a hunger in his heart to know the whence and whither, the whys and wherefores of things. There are four key words you must remember: abhaya (fearlessness), ahimsa (non-injury), asangga (non-attachment) and ananda (bliss). These words really sum up the essence of all our sacred books. Remember them. Their implication will become clear to you later on.(4)


     Fear has to be our inevitable companion as long as the world appears real to us. Bhartriharis Vairagya Shataka portrays this truth admirably: In enjoyment is the fear of disease; in social position, the fear of falling off; in wealth, the fear of hostile kings; in honour, the fear of humiliation; in power, the fear of enemies; in beauty, the fear of old age; in scholarship, the fear of opponents; in virtue, the fear of calumny; and in body, the fear of death. Everything in this world is fraught with fear. Renunciation alone stands for fearlessness.(5)


     Only when man realizes his eternal, true Self does he realize that he is not subject to death, that he is not a finite human being with a body and mind, but the infinite Consciousness Itself. After imparting instructions to Janaka about Brahman, Yajnavalkya assured him, You have attained That which is free from fear.(6)




     Fearlessness as a Spiritual Trait




     In the Bhagavadgita catalogue of divine qualities fearlessness tops the list.(7) While Sri Shankaracharya and Sri Shridara Svamin explain abhaya as just absence of fear, Sri Ramanuja and Sant Jnaneshvar offer some detailed explanation.


     Equipoise in pleasure and pain: According to Sri Ramanuja, Fear is the pain resulting from the awareness of the cause that brings about pain in the form of dissociation from the objects of attainment or association with the objects of aversion. The absence of this is fearlessness.(8) The mind has its pet likes and dislikes. It always likes pleasure-producing stimuli and dislikes contrary ones. Right from ushering in the New Year to any of our everyday joys - physical as well as mental - every event signals party time for most people. But just an unpleasant event, a piece of bad news or silly criticism is enough to drive them crazy and to a corner, to bemoan their fate. That is how the mind is programmed to react. And programmed life is the lot of those who let circumstances and events determine their reactions.


     Fearlessness necessitates writing a new programme with the help of buddhi, the discriminative faculty. This means augmenting good mental impressions (samskaras) with noble thoughts and actions, and strengthening our character. Only a strong character can help us remain independent of external events.


     That is why the Gita emphasizes equipoise amid work - a mindset that prevents us from feeling elated with pleasure and depressed with pain. When a despondent Arjuna was overcome with misplaced compassion for his enemies, Sri Krishna goaded him to perform his dharma: Pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat - looking upon all this alike, engage yourself in battle; you will incur no sin.(9) A potent means to acquire equipoise is to offer everything - both pleasure and pain - to the Lord: Yadyad-karma karomi tattad-akhilam shambho tavaradhanam; whatever I do, O Shiva, all that is Your worship.(10) And in the words of Sri Krishna, Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you offer as gifts, whatever austerities you perform - do that all as an offering to Me.(11)


     The spirit of non-dualism, freedom from egotism: In the Jnaneshvari, his celebrated commentary on the Gita, Sant Jnaneshvar explains fearlessness:


     Just as a person who does not leap into a great flood is not afraid of being drowned, or one who follows the prescribed diet does not feel concerned about being ill, so he who has no egotistic feeling while performing actions or not performing them, has no fear of worldly existence. When his mind is filled with the notion of non-dualism, he knows that the whole world is pervaded by Brahman and discards fear.(12)


     A true karma yogi knows the secret of work: freedom from attachment to work and renouncing the fruits of action. When a spiritual aspirant offers the fruits of his actions to God, he ceases to have fear or anxiety about the outcome. And the notion of non-dualism implies a strong faith in ones real nature, the Atman. During our initial spiritual struggles, it is enough if we go about our activities looking upon ourselves as a luminous spiritual entity different from our body and the wayward mind. This amounts to identification with buddhi, the discriminative faculty. The sattvic worker outlined in the Gita is the ideal for a spiritual aspirant: He who is free from attachment and egotism, endowed with fortitude and zeal, and is unaffected by success and failure - such a person is said to be a sattvic worker.(13)




     Some Useful Fears




     We saw that fearlessness is synonymous with the ultimate Reality. Till one realizes that Reality, however, one is within the domain of maya and is hence subject to duality and fear. It is needless to say that a spiritual aspirant should steer clear of unreasonable fears of all kinds. This he accomplishes with faith in his higher Self and in the indwelling God. Cultivating fears of the healthy and right kind can help him in his march towards his spiritual ideal. Says the well-known Tamil classic Tirukkural, It is foolish not to fear what is to be feared. It is the duty of the wise to fear such things.(14) In other words, wise ones are conscious of pitfalls and dangers in life and do not make light of them. It is useful to keep in mind the implication of fear in the above discussion. What is meant is not fear per se, but the need to be cautious of traps in spiritual life. What are such snares that a spiritual aspirant cannot be too careful about?




     All-powerful Maya




     Verily the divine Mahamaya forcibly draws the minds of even jnanis and throws them into delusion, cautions the Devi Mahatmya.(15) The Puranas are replete with stories of how holy men succumbed to the lures of maya. A spiritual aspirant can never be too careful about maya. What is maya? In simple words, maya denotes life in the world characterized by attachment arising from a strong sense of I and mine. Sri Ramakrishna reduced maya to just two things: lust and greed. In the words of the Gita, hell has a threefold gate: lust, anger and greed.(16) Sri Krishna further cautions against maya: This divine maya of mine is composed of the three gunas and difficult to cross. Only those who take refuge in Me cross this maya.(17)


     Sri Ramakrishna was an example of burning renunciation of lust and greed. He advised his disciples to steer clear of these impediments to spiritual life. How maya drags down an aspirant unawares, he illustrated with an example: Once I went to the Fort in a carriage, feeling all the while that I was going along a level road. At last I found that I had gone four storeys down.(18)


     A spiritual aspirant is careful about the all-powerful maya and struggles to strengthen weaker links in his character. He never commits the mistake of being overconfident about his capacity to be free from mayas enticements.


     Sri Ramakrishna never tired of cautioning his disciples, Holy man, beware! Addressing his devotees he remarked once, a man must be extremely careful during the early stages of spiritual discipline. Then he must live far away from any woman. He must not go too close to one even if she is a great devotee of God. You see, a man must not sway his body while climbing to the roof; he may fall.(19)




     The Power of Samskaras




     Our every thought and action leaves a subtle impression in the mind, called samskara. With every repetition of the thought or action, the impression gets deepened. It is the sum total of these impressions that determines our character, says Swamiji. If the sum total is positive, the character is good; if negative, bad.


     An important property of these impressions is the tendency to repeat the action or thought that gave rise to them in the first place. A spiritual aspirant is cautious about this tendency and is careful in not gathering more bad impressions. By selfless work and devotion he counteracts his bad impressions. With regular spiritual practice he disciplines his mind and learns not to be swayed by past impressions. He avoids circumstances that could trigger old impressions or disturb his mind in any way. How faithfully Swami Adbhutananda (Latu Maharaj) followed his gurus instructions is evident from the following incident.


     Sri Ramakrishna once told Latu, Be careful about wine and about lust and gold. These things are obstacles that create doubts about God. A person who meditates after taking intoxicants and a yogi who is attached to women are both hypocrites and only deceive themselves.(20) While going one day from Dakshineswar to Ram Babus house in Calcutta, Latus mind became restless while passing a wine shop on the way. When he reported it to the Master he said, The odour of the wine caused restlessness in your mind. Avoid it from now on. Latu followed the Masters instruction literally, taking a circuitous route to Calcutta from then on, which meant double the usual distance of four miles.




     The Inexorability of Karma




     Another important property of samskaras is the accrual of karma-phala (fruits of actions) with unerring certainty. According to a well-known verse, As a calf among a thousand cows finds out the mother kine/ So deeds performed good or bad will come and say Im thine. The thought of having to suffer the fruits of ones good and bad actions of this life and of an unknown number of lives earlier, is mind-boggling, to say the least. But the situation is not all that bleak. Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi assures us that repetition of Gods name is a great help in minimizing the intensity of karma. When a disciple asked her if the effect of karma performed in previous lives could be cancelled by the repetition of Gods name, she said, One must experience the effect of past action. None can escape it. But japa minimizes its intensity. For example, a man who, as a result of his past karma, is destined to lose his leg, may instead suffer from the prick of a thorn in his foot.(21) A spiritual aspirant is conscious of the inevitability of karma and tries not to accrue new bad karmas; he is careful in his thoughts, words and actions.




     Fear of Slander




     Once we consider something a necessary evil, gradually it becomes more and more necessary and less and less evil. And there are philosophies to justify ones actions. Such an attitude can be cultivated only at the cost of ones character. Ever conscious that a strict moral life is a prerequisite to spiritual life, an aspirant does not engage himself in questionable actions. Aware that when character is lost everything is lost, he tries to conduct himself in a way that is beyond reproach.



                         ~ ~ ~


     True fearlessness is synonymous with the ultimate Reality. Till we realize that Truth, we are in the domain of maya and are subject to fear. Cultivation of the fears of the right kind can help us in our journey towards fearlessness.








     1. Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird (Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1989), 71.

     2. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.2.

     3. Taittiriya Upanishad, 2.7.1.

     4. His Eastern and Western Admirers, Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1994), 101.

     5. Vairagya Shataka, 31.

     6. Brihadaranyaka, 4.2.2.

     7. Bhagavadgita, 16.1.

     8. Ishtanishtaviyoga-samyoga rupasya duhkhasya hetu-darshanajam duhkham bhayam; tannivrittih abhayam. - Sri Ramanuja on the Gita, 16.1.

     9. Gita, 2.38.

     10. Shivamanasapujana Stotra, 4.

     11. Gita, 9.27.

     12. Sri Jnanadevas Bhavartha Dipika (Jnaneshwari), trans. M R Yardi (Pune: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2001), 524.

     13. Gita, 18.26.

     14. Tirukkural, 428.

     15. Devi Mahatmya, 1.55.

     16. Gita, 16.21.

     17. Ibid., 7.14.

     18. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 439.

     19. Ibid., 604.

     20. Swami Chetanananda, God Lived with Them (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2001), 401.

     21. Swami Nikhilananda, Holy Mother (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1962), 222.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015









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