"I believe with all my heart heart that civilization has produced nothing finer than a man or woman who thinks and practices true tolerance. Some one has said that most of us don't think, we just occasionally rearrange our prejudices. And I suspect that even today, with all the progress we have made in liberal thought, the quality of true tolerance is as rare as the quality of mercy. That men of all creeds have fundamental common objectives is a fact one must learn by the process of education. How to work jointly towards these objectives must be learned by experience". - Frank Knox











PRABUDDHA BHARATA Prabuddha Bharata | November 2004  







                Swami Yuktatmananda








     Vedanta extols titiksha, or fortitude, as one of the six treasures of a spiritual aspirant. The three consonants sa, sha and sha in Bengali are pronounced alike as sho, which means forbear. Sri Ramakrishna taught his disciples to sho, sho, sho and said, Je shoi she roi; je na shoi she nash hoi, meaning Those who forbear, live; those who dont, perish. Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, too, taught that forbearance is nobler than any other virtue.




     What Is Fortitude?




     Fortitude means putting up with all difficulties, miseries and problems, without trying for their removal and at the same time not fretting or complaining about them, says Sri Shankaracharya. (1) A bit of an idealistic definition indeed, but Vedanta advocates striving to live up to the ideal, rather than lowering the ideal to the actual. Says Swami Vivekananda, One of the most insinuating things comes to us in the shape of persons who apologise for our mistakes and teach us how to make special excuses for all our foolish wants and foolish desires; and we think that their ideal is the only ideal we need have. But it is not so. The Vedanta teaches no such thing. The actual should be reconciled to the ideal, the present life should be made to coincide with life eternal. (2)




     Challenges for Fortitude




     Physical discomfort: The Bhagavadgita says, Heat and cold, and pleasure and pain arise from the contact of sense organs. They come and go, being impermanent. Bear with them patiently.3 Heat and cold dont pose any challenge to us, thanks to gadgets that can keep us in comfort. Of course, braving heat and cold during power outages is a challenge. As for pleasure and pain arising from the contact of the senses with their objects, we respond to them in a way we have been programmed by our thoughts and actions: desire pleasure and loathe pain.


     Dualities of life: Mental discomforts arise from the dualities of life like pleasure and pain, praise and blame, and gain and loss. Though we tend to seek the pleasant and detest the painful, we need to face both, since life offers a package deal: you seek the one, and the other comes uninvited.


     The agitation caused by lust and anger: Braving the forces of lust and anger is the greatest challenge. Under their grip man forgets what he is and acts in spite of himself in a way he himself might not approve of in his saner moments. Says Sri Krishna, He who is able to withstand even while alive the agitation caused by lust and anger - he is the self-controlled one and he is the happy man. (4) Commenting on the verse, Shridhara Svamin forcefully describes the immensity of the task: Just as a dead man is able to withstand the urge of passion or anger though his body is embraced by a wailing young woman or burnt by his sons and others, even so he who is able to withstand that urge even while alive - he alone is a poised and happy man.


     Dealing with impossible people: Another challenge is to put up with difficult people. We are of different temperaments, each with his own quota of foolishness, worldliness, selfishness and unreasonableness. When we cannot do without interacting with unreasonable people, establishing some sort of working relationship with them becomes a demanding task.




     Why Practise Fortitude?




     A very obvious answer to this question is, only fortitude can ensure sane and peaceful living. Every impulsive reaction to an event means unavoidable loss of mental energy and takes its toll on our physical well-being as well. Vedanta offers a better reason to practise fortitude: We are divine by nature, and realization of this divinity, the Atman, is the goal of human life. We are not conscious of this divinity because of our identification with our body and mind. To the extent we free ourselves from their hold, we get glimpses of our true nature. The more agitated and impulsive we are, the more we remain identified with our mind and remain alien to our true nature. Fortitude can help us see ourselves in perspective, strengthen our will and facilitate our inner growth.




     Practice of Fortitude




     Bearing with physical afflictions: Sri Ramakrishna lived what he taught. Here is an important teaching of his: Let the body and the affliction take care of themselves; O mind, you learn to be happy (by detaching yourself from them). People pray to God for relief from afflictions. The prayer is not bad in itself, inasmuch as it affords them an occasion to think of God, albeit momentarily. Vedanta teaches us that the body has six characteristics: it comes into being (jayate), exists as an object (asti), grows (vardhate), undergoes transformation (viparinamate), decays (apakshiyate) and dies (nashyati). No ones body - neither saints nor sinners - is exempt from this rule. As the saying goes, after the game of chess is over, the king and the pawns go back to the same box. When such is the case, Vedanta says it is foolish to expect the body to be free from afflictions and decay. Amid his excruciating pain from throat cancer and despite being forbidden by his physician to talk, Sri Ramakrishna spoke to people on spiritual life, since he was sure that might help even one soul towards God-realization. So it is far saner and more logical to pray for strength of mind to bear our karma-prompted affliction than to pray to be free from it. True, such a prayer for deliverance from affliction, too, could have a momentary positive effect, but that is a different matter.


     Braving mental afflictions: We saw that mental problems arise from the dualities of life and, more important, from lust and anger. It is difficult to confront mental problems as long as we remain identified with our mind. Braving mental problems calls for a certain amount of detachment and learning to witness how the mind works. But this detachment is possible only by training and disciplining the mind. Thanks to our samskaras, our mind has been conditioned to respond to situations in a certain predetermined way. We need to re-programme the mind with wholesome thoughts, and engage in noble actions. That will augment our good samskaras. Practice of japa, prayer, meditation and the like is aimed at awakening our discriminative faculty called buddhi, which can be called our higher mind. It is only when buddhi awakens at least partially that we are able to see our thoughts and actions in perspective and stop acting impulsively or passionately. The mind always tends to follow the sense organs and their objects, either at the gross or at the subtle (mental) level. Forbearance at the mental level involves training the mind to turn upon itself and trying repeatedly to anchor it in the Self whenever it strays.


     Putting up with impossible people: This necessitates a change in outlook towards ourselves and, as a sequel, towards others. If we are sparks of divinity, the Atman, so are others. Maybe not everyone is struggling for freedom, but that does not undermine their divine essence. And we have no case for blaming others because all of us are what we are because of our mental make-up, our samskaras. Says Swamiji, Never say any man is hopeless, because he only represents a character, a bundle of habits, which can be checked by new and better ones. Character is repeated habits, and repeated habits alone can reform character. (5) We believe that we can turn over a new leaf some day. We need to extend that belief to others as well: they too can become better. Of course, we need not spend our energies in transforming others, but a proper mindset can help us see people in perspective. Rightly it is said that when we put ourselves in the other persons place, we are less likely to want to put him in his place.


     When his disciple Bhavanath told Sri Ramakrishna that he felt disturbed if he had some misunderstanding with others, the Master told him, Try at the outset to talk to him and establish a friendly relationship with him. If you fail in spite of your efforts, then dont give it another thought. Take refuge in God. Meditate on Him. There is no use in giving up God and feeling depressed from thinking about others. (6)


     Suffering others foolishness unflinchingly is not just a pet theory. Holy Mothers life is an ample demonstration of its immense possibility. There was no dearth of foolish, insane and greedy people under her care. She suffered them all thanks to her pure mind, which was always rooted in God.


     This topic of putting up with others leads us to some more related points.




     Fortitude and Weakness




     Fortitude does not mean being doormats. It is certainly not necessary to meekly bear with the idiosyncrasies of those who dont understand us. It is to be remembered that Sri Ramakrishna did not encourage weakness masquerading as forbearance. He advised people to hiss, but not bite, telling them the parable of the snake that stopped biting people after a brahmacharin initiated it with a mantra and taught it to mend its ways. The snake did not even protest in self-defence when a group of boys caught it by the tail, swung it hard against the ground and bruised it badly. When the brahmacharin returned after some time to see how his disciple fared, he was surprised to see the snake reduced to a mere skeleton. On coming to know of the reason, he told the snake with love and compassion, My foolish child, I forbade you to bite, but why didnt you hiss to protect yourself? Likewise, Sri Ramakrishna advised his householder disciples to hiss at those who troubled them, but forbade them to inject their venom into them. (7)




     Fortitude and Non-violence




     Non-violence can be a virtue only if we can strike, but dont. Weakness or inactivity cannot pass as fortitude, since neither is a spiritual virtue, but only a manifestation of inertia (tamas). In his lectures on karma yoga Swamiji describes what is true non-violence:


     The highest ideal is non-resistance, and this non-resistance is the highest manifestation of power in actual possession, and what is called the resisting of evil is but a step on the way towards the manifestation of this highest power, namely, non-resistance. Before reaching this highest ideal, mans duty is to resist evil; let him work, let him fight, let him strike straight from the shoulder. Then only, when he has gained the power to resist, will non-resistance be a virtue. (8)


     Incidentally, hissing in self-defence is all right for a householder, but a sannyasin must not have self-defence. (7.466)




     Fortitude and Passivity




     We saw that Sri Shankaras definition of fortitude has two aspects: (1) not seeking to remove the misery, and (2) not worrying and complaining about it. The first aspect may be possible only for a fairly advanced spiritual aspirant. But the second aspect is something that can lend itself to practice by everyone. With already a problem in hand, we can certainly avoid a second problem of working ourselves up in the process of solving the first. Many generally feel that their work will not be effective unless they get worked up to begin with. Swamiji demolishes this myth and says, the calmer we are and the less disturbed our nerves, the more shall we love and the better will our work be. (1.80) He further amplifies this idea in his lectures titled Practical Vedanta:


     The less passion there is, the better we work. The calmer we are, the better for us, and the more the amount of work we can do. When we let loose our feelings, we waste so much energy, shatter our nerves, disturb our minds, and accomplish very little work. The energy which ought to have gone out as work is spent as mere feeling, which counts for nothing. The man who gives way to anger, or hatred, or any other passion, cannot work; he only breaks himself to pieces, and does nothing practical. It is the calm, forgiving, equable, well-balanced mind that does the greatest amount of work. (2.293)

     Fortitude involves mind discipline, but it clears up our perception, enables us to lead saner lives and makes our work effective. As a spiritual discipline, it fosters detachment and strengthens spiritual aspiration.






     1. Vivekachudamani, 24.

     2. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.296-7.

     3. Bhagavadgita, 2.14.

     4. Ibid., 5.23.

     5. CW, 1.208.

     6. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 572.

     7. Ibid., 85-6.

     8. CW, 1.39.

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