"The Advaita is the only system which gives unto man complete possession of himself, takes off all dependence and its associated superstitions, thus making us brave to suffer, brave to do, and in the long run attain to Absolute Freedom. To give this one truth a freer and fuller scope in elevating the lives of individuals and leavening the mass of mankind, we start this Advaita Ashrama on the Himalayan heights" - Swami Vivekananda













PRABUDDHA BHARATASacrifice as a Spiritual Discipline | Editorial  





             Sacrifice as a Spiritual Discipline








     In the July 2003 editorial, We, God and the Universe, we saw that the macrocosm (God) and the microcosm (we) are under dynamic equilibrium at different levels: the gross, the subtle and the causal. The divinity behind the individuals body and mind is called Atman, and that behind the universe and the cosmic mind, Brahman. And ultimately, Atman and Brahman are identical according to the famous Upanishadic equation Ayam atma brahma, This Atman is Brahman.(1) Realization of this identity is the goal of life, goal of religion.


     With this background we shall examine an important verse in the Bhagavadgita: The world is bound by work because work is not performed as a sacrifice. Therefore, O son of Kunti, work for the sake of sacrifice, devoid of attachment to it.(2)




     Yajna: Different Interpretations




     By sacrifice, Sri Shankaracharya and Sri Shridhara Svamin mean God, citing Yajno vai vishnuh, Yajna is Vishnu.(3) Sri Ramanuja interprets sacrifice as the Vedic yajna. Sant Jnaneshvar advocates looking upon ones duty itself as an obligatory sacrifice. Yajna as a fire ritual, or offering of oblations to gods through fire, has almost fallen into disuse now. Therefore, [1] looking upon sacrifice as Vishnu and performing actions for the Lord, and [2] considering ones duty itself as a sacrifice seem to be more relevant interpretations meriting deeper analysis. A third important point emerges from the Gita verse cited: Sri Krishna asks Arjuna to work for the sake of sacrifice (yajna), devoid of attachment to work. That underlines the fact that detachment (from work and its outcome) is the main factor in work performed in a spirit of sacrifice.




     Work for the Lord




     According to the first interpretation, working for the sake of yajna implies working for God, not out of selfish interests. Such work frees us from the good and bad effects of work. Sri Krishna shows how such a work is done: Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer as oblation in a sacrifice, whatever gifts or service you give, whatever austerities you perform - O son of Kunti, do that all as an offering unto me.(4) With a slight modification this can serve as an offering verse: Whatever I do O God, I offer that all unto you.5 A person who works for the Lord remembers that God is the Prime Mover of all activities. It is God who directs our thoughts and actions from within as the antaryamin (Inner Controller). Such an aspirant offers the fruits of his actions to that Prime Mover: I take refuge in that primal Purusha, from whom have streamed forth the eternal activity (of projection, sustenance and dissolution).6 Repeatedly offering his actions to the indwelling supreme Spirit, he undergoes self-renewal and learns to look upon himself more and more as a spark of divinity, part of the luminous ultimate Reality. The hold on him of his body-mind complex thus gradually wears thin.


     For such an aspirant, even the simple act of prostration before images of God becomes a significant spiritual practice. With each prostration he offers his body, mind and buddhi - the slightly awakened Self - to the supreme Spirit pervading the holy Image. He feels spiritually renewed with such a simple but qualitatively uplifting act and gradually develops detachment from his body and mind. His focus gradually shifts to the Deity that dwells within him, as his real I.


     Such an aspirant does not look upon his little awakening as some non-dual realization. His little awakening does not preclude his prostration before images of God or His incarnations. He knows the difference between him and God (or an incarnation): In him the awakening or realization is so feeble that he needs to struggle to keep his mind above the pull of the body and the senses. An incarnation of God - as in the case of Sri Ramakrishna - has his mind riveted to the Infinite all the time, and with great difficulty brings his mind down to the normal plane, to show humanity the path to God. The spiritual aspirants prostration before images of God is a symbolic sacrifice of his partially awakened Self (and body-mind) in the supreme Spirit behind the image or in the divine fire of realization of the incarnation.


     It may be parenthetically remembered that Sri Ramakrishna never found any incongruity in prostrating before the image of Bhavatarini in the Dakshineswar temple, even after scaling heights of non-dual experiences and beyond.


     Working for God also includes selfless participation in a movement furthering the mission of an incarnation of God; for according to Sri Ramakrishna, There is no doubt that God exists in all things; but the manifestations of his Power are different in different beings. The greatest manifestation of His Power is through an Incarnation. Again in some Incarnations there is a complete manifestation of Gods Power. It is the Shakti, the Power of God, that is born as an Incarnation.(7)




     Performing Ones Duties as Sacrifice




     The wheels of social life can revolve smoothly only if individuals discharge their responsibilities, conscious of their impact on the good of society as a whole. None can remain in a mental island and isolate himself from the welfare of others. Discharging to perfection ones duties without prompting from others - other people or rules of the state - is another way of performing work as a sacrifice. The interrelatedness of the activities of the members of society and the resultant social harmony are brought out clearly in the following words of a former Vice President of the Ramakrishna Order:


     Production and distribution of consumable commodities is done through an exchange of services by capitalists, technocrats, labour, the distributor and the consumer. All these factors functioning within the good of the whole social order in view and contributing their respective services and receiving their due rewards without any party trying to take undue advantage of the others - may be called yajna in the social sense. All this is based on work and a person who seeks all the benefits of society but keeps quiet and fails to contribute his share for social good can be described as an exploiter and a thief as the Gita does. The difference in this interpretation is that, in place of the divine agencies, only the social environment is taken for mutual exchange of services and rewards. This explanation sublimates the ritualistic yajna.(8)



     God Himself Works




     An important verse from the third chapter of the Gita lends another dimension to work done in a spirit of sacrifice. Sri Krishna says: O Partha, I have no duty to speak of. There is nothing in the three worlds that I have not gained; nor is there anything that I have to gain. Still I continue to work.(9)


     God takes a human form with a special mission: to uplift humanity from animal nature to human nature to divine nature. Avatara means one who has descended. Here the descent is from a state of pure undivided Consciousness, Brahman, to a human form, with associated pain and misery - not a mean sacrifice on Gods part. God assumes a human form whenever there is decline in dharma, righteousness, and prevalence of adharma, unrighteousness. (4.7) Sri Krishna further clarifies the concept of incarnation: Though I am birthless, of changeless nature and the Lord of all beings, yet having my Prakriti (maya) under my control I come into being by my own maya. (4.6)


     A mother went for shopping along with her four-year-old daughter. They saw someone across the street, walking along with some policemen. Who is he? asked the child. He is a thief being taken to the police station, replied the mother. A couple of days later, the child asked her again, pointing out someone accompanied by policemen, Who is that thief, mom? The mother hurriedly shut the childs mouth and said, No, my dear, he is not a thief. He is the Governor of our state; the police are offering him protection.


     There was police escort in both the cases. But the governor had the police under his control, while the thief was under police control. This example is cited to prove an important Vedantic point: Brahman appears as an incarnation of God, or functions as Ishvara, with maya under Its control. The individual souls - all of us - on the other hand, are under mayas control.


     Whatever an incarnation of God does is for the welfare of humanity, uplift of dharma being his primary concern. He is subject to sufferings in the world; he undergoes struggles like an ordinary spiritual aspirant, practises spiritual disciplines and shows that it is possible to live a God-centred life amid the world and its lures and problems. Students of the lives of Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi, his spiritual consort, can appreciate the point.


     Sri Krishna is an important character in that monumental epic, the Mahabharata. Even some apparently controversial actions of his have this one aim: uplift of dharma. He lived what he preached in the Gita: calmness amid intense activity and absolute freedom from selfishness and attachment. Citing his own case, Sri Krishna encourages Arjuna - and through him, us - to work without attachment, without anxiety for the outcome.




     Gods Work: Another Viewpoint




     A second way of looking at Gods work is to analyse his functions as Ishvara, Personal God. We need to recap on some points we discussed in the July 2003 editorial. In the God-Soul-Universe triangle all the three vertices of the triangle stand or fall together. As long as our individuality is real to us, God and the universe continue to be real. According to Swami Vivekananda, Personal God is the highest reading of the Absolute [Brahman] by the human mind.(10)


     We also saw in the said editorial that Ishvara (Personal God) is the macrocosmic counterpart of the microcosmic causal body, which the individual soul dons during deep sleep. Just as we have a gross body and a subtle mind, even so Ishvara has a gross body (the entire universe) and a subtle mind (the cosmic Mind, of which all individual minds are, as it were, parts). Incidentally, according to qualified non-dualism, besides the universe, we, individual souls, also constitute Ishvaras body. And Ishvara is the Soul of our souls.


     This background is to help us appreciate that the ceaseless flow of ideas in the cosmic Mind constitute Ishvaras mental activities, and the unceasing, but rhythmic, movements of galaxies, stars, planets and solar systems are His physical activities. Ishvara Himself is unattached to these activities. He has no likes or dislikes towards anyone,(11) nor does He take note of anyones merits or demerits. (5.15) He is a silent witness to the happenings in His creation. (He responds to His devotees prayers; He can bring about inexplicable transformation in their lives and can alter the course of their destiny - all this is true, but we are not discussing them here.) Ishvara is ever conscious of His divinity and a perfect embodiment of the inaction amid action and action amid inaction described in the Gita. (4.18)


     In order to be free from maya and realize his potential divinity, man needs to emulate his macrocosmic counterpart in his thoughts and activities: not giving way to lethargy, trying to practise calmness amid activity and expecting nothing in return. In other words, he needs to hold his body, mind and spirit as a sacrifice to the supreme Spirit, and offers in It the fruits of his actions.




     Sacrifice and Detachment




     Attachment to work results from selfishness, an offshoot of the feelings of I and mine. As a corollary, detachment from work and its results implies giving up selfishness. Swamiji equates unselfishness with God Himself(12) and traces the root of misery to selfishness:


     This I and mine causes the whole misery. With the sense of possession comes selfishness, and selfishness brings on misery. Every act of selfishness or thought of selfishness makes us attached to something, and immediately we are made slaves. Each wave in the Chitta [mind-stuff] that says I and mine immediately puts a chain round us and makes us slaves; and the more we say I and mine, the more slavery grows, the more misery increases. Therefore KarmaYoga tells us to enjoy the beauty of all the pictures in the world, but not to identify ourselves with any of them. Never say mine. Whenever we say a thing is mine, misery will immediately come. Do not even say my child in your mind. Possess the child, but do not say mine. If you do, then will come the misery. Do not say my house, do not say my body. The whole difficulty is there. The body is neither yours, nor mine, nor anybodys. These bodies are coming and going by the laws of nature, but we are free, standing as witness. This body is no more free than a picture or a wall. Why should we be attached so much to a body? If somebody paints a picture, he does it and passes on. Do not project that tentacle of selfishness, I must possess it. As soon as that is projected, misery will begin.



     So Karma-Yoga says, first destroy the tendency to project this tentacle of selfishness, and when you have the power of checking it, hold it in and do not allow the mind to get into the ways of selfishness. (1.100-1)


     An unselfish attitude coupled with an attitude of worship and adoration towards the recipient of service can help us in the process of attunement with the macrocosm, in simulating the actions of God. In the words of Swamiji, When you are doing any work, do not think of anything beyond. Do it as worship, as the highest worship, and devote your whole life to it for the time being. (1.71) And this is the gist of all worship - to be pure and to do good to others. (3.141)



      ~ ~ ~



     In sum, sacrifice involves renunciation of selfishness and cultivation of detachment from the fruits of actions. This will pave the way for the ultimate sacrifice: renunciation of attachment to the body-mind complex, offering ones self as an oblation into the imperishable supreme Self - the supreme sacrifice that lends meaning to human life.







     1. Mandukya Upanishad, 2.

     2. Bhagavadgita, 3.9.

     3. Taittiriya Samhita, 1.7.4.

     4. Gita, 3.27.

     5. Yatkaromi yadashnami yajjuhomi dadami yat;
     Yattapasyami govinda tatkaromi tvadarpanam.

     6. Gita, 15.4.

     7. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 726.

     8. Srimad Bhagavadgita: The Scripture of Mankind, trans. Swami Tapasyananda (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1984), 108.

     9. Gita, 3.22.

     10. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.377, 2.337.

     11. Gita, 9.29.

     12. CW, 1.87.

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









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