Towards a Purposeful Spiritual Striving

Swami Vireshananda

A human is aware of insentient objects outside and also is aware of himself to be a conscious entity.  The insentient objects do not have self-awareness. However, every human being is endowed with not only the awareness of external objects but also Self-awareness, the knowledge that one is a conscious being, not an insentient one. Without this self-awareness, the very existence of a human being is impossible. It is because, in reality, a human being is not a body-mind complex, an insentient entity, but of the nature of pure consciousness.

However, an ordinary human is in a state of predicament. He or she would not be able to live solely depending on one’s self-awareness, nor does one depend solely on external insentient objects. Nor a normal person is capable of diving deep into the depth of one’s being and remaining unperturbed and equipoised. At the same time, too much extrovert tendency and engagement with the external world will not give one peace and tranquillity of the mind.

The history of humankind is but a strife between two human tendencies: whether to select consciousness over insentient or insentient over consciousness. It is so in the individual life as well. Every person struggles to choose between spiritual life that is centred on self-awareness and mundane life that is centred on the pleasure one gets out of external objects. An ordinary human does not find stability in life and tranquillity of mind due to such conflict in one’s mind. The life of every human being is, more or less, the story of such an encounter between the spiritual and mundane.

It is the equilibrium that removes turbulence and helps one to find steadiness and fulfilment, its offshoot. Sri Aurobindo says that the main cause for the problems involving human existence is one’s inability to maintain equilibrium in one’s life. The instability in human life is due to one’s inability to find and realize the Unity of one’s existence and the whole universe. Humans in general, so far, have utterly failed to achieve such an equilibrium between the spiritual and mundane. They will not be able to succeed in this effort as it is an impossible mission.  This dilemma has become an invariable component in human life from time immemorial and there is always a lasting possibility that it would remain so forever.

This fundamental human predicament is the main reason why people harbour lingering feelings of insecurity and fear throughout their lives.  The incongruity is that as humans become more and more civilized, this psychic conflict also becomes more and more intense and severe. This has been observed and analyzed by many eminent thinkers of the modern period.

Analysis by modern psychologists

The spiritual crisis, depicted above, has been analyzed threadbare in the works of Dr Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychoanalyst mainly in his famous essay, ‘The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man‘. He says that “the catastrophic results of world war shows in itself in our life by the shattering of faith in ourselves and our own worth” i According to him, “the modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his mediaeval brother, and set up in his place the ideals of material security, general welfare and humanness.” ii  This has alarmed the modern man with fear and paralyzed his faith in the lasting effectiveness of social and practical measures. As for physical sciences are concerned, they have destroyed even the faith, which is the refuge of inner life.

Dr Jung also says that modern people has broken away from the clutches of old superstitions and traditions. However, in their place, failing to find anything new that gives solidity to their life, they are still suffering from uncertainty and ambiguity. This has become the main characteristic of the modern civilization. The catastrophic result is that we have lost our inner life and devalued ourselves as human beings.  According to  Dr Jung, ‘material stability’ achieved by civilizational progress and economic growth has undermined the ‘spiritual stability’ of the human mind.  Every step, humanity has taken towards material progress, has increased the possibility of the fearful insecurity in the psychic realm.

Eric Fromm was a German-American social psychologist who opines that the desire for and the accumulation of material wealth are detrimental to the spiritual well-being of humans. He says that “our civilization began when the human race started taking active control of nature; but that control remained limited until the advent of the industrial age. With industrial progress, from the substitution of mechanical and then nuclear energy for animal and human energy to the substitution of the computer for the human mind, we could feel that we were on our way to unlimited production and, hence, unlimited consumption; that technique made us omnipotent; that science made us omniscient. We were on our way to becoming gods, supreme beings who could create a second world, using the natural world only as building blocks for our new creation.” iii However, Eric Fromm observes that “the observable data show most clearly that our kind of “pursuit of happiness” does not produce well-being. We are a society of notoriously unhappy people: lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, dependent—people who are glad when we have killed the time we are trying so hard to save.” iv  He also says that “Unrestricted satisfaction of all desires is not conducive to well-being, nor is it the way to happiness or even to maximum pleasure.” v As humans have become cogs in bureaucratic machines, their dream of becoming independent masters has ended. As for economic progress, it is restricted to the rich nations and the gap between rich and poor nations has since widened. Technological progress has its flip side also as it has induced dangers like ecological disaster and nuclear war — both of which can put an end to our civilization and very human life itself. vi

Limitations of Science and Technology

Science has contributed immensely to the development and prosperity of human civilization. It was believed in the earlier centuries that science will make way for a perfect humanity in which everyone lives with peace and harmony with one’s fellow beings. However, what we see in the course of recent history is that the advancement of science, instead of making this world more secure, has converted it into a veritable abyss in which people are suffering from insecurity, stress, fear and unnecessary phobias.

Technology is the sprout of science, which intensifies the pleasure-seeking and gratification humans are occupied with from time immemorial. These very traits of a human being degrade one to the level of an animal that lives primarily on sensual delights. Dr S Radhakrishnan, one of the eminent philosophers of modern India puts this idea succinctly:

“In a technological civilization, in a mass society, the individual becomes a depersonalized unit. Things control life. Statistical averages replace qualitative human beings. To be human is to be trusting, to be kind, to be cooperative, to be sympathetic and responsive….But the technological organization of modern society in which the individual counts for less and less fosters a fundamental scepticism and negation of the spirit of man.” vii

Beyond the Mundane Life

It is not surprising that the material progress so far achieved by humankind has miserably failed to fulfil the spiritual aspiration of human beings. It is because the primary want of a human being is not found in external material objects, but in transcending the barriers they have put and finding one’s spiritual nature. It is the reason why any amount of material wealth fails to satisfy the inner spiritual craving of a human being. As Sri Aurobindo says, the natural search of human beings is for immaculate Truth and Bliss. The external material world will never be able to provide them in the least.

Swami Vivekananda explains this actuality in a different dimension. He says that a human tries to discover infinity within the limits of the material world. What an ordinary person tries to achieve in this manner unknowingly, physical sciences make an effort to actualize consciously. They explore perfection and infinity within the boundaries of the physical realm. However, even the greatest of scientists have realized that more than two hundred years of such an endeavour has not succeeded and it is unlikely such an attempt will be accomplished anywhere in the future. Swamiji says in this context:

“Every human being, whosoever and wheresoever he may be, has an ideal of infinite power. Every human being has an ideal of infinite pleasure. Most of the works that we find around us, the activities displayed everywhere, are due to the struggle for this infinite power or this infinite pleasure. But a few quickly discover that although they are struggling for infinite power, it is not through the senses that it can be reached. They find out very soon that infinite pleasure is not to be got through the senses, or, in other words, the senses are too limited, and the body is too limited, to express the Infinite.viii

Genuine Search For Divinity

The human body and the mind are physical structures. However, the Atman, the indwelling Self is of the nature of consciousness. What every human is struggling through one’s various enterprises— physical and psychical— is to manifest that Supreme Consciousness in all its glory. Human beings will never find fulfilment in their lives until they become successful in this lifetime spiritual adventure.

However, Atman, being conscious, has an infinite dimension, the awareness of which cannot be grasped by the physical sense organs. Sri Shankaracharya explains this in his commentary on verse no.2.2.1 of the Kathopanishad. It reads in parts: “A city and its master are quite different from each other. A change in the former does not affect the latter. Likewise, Atman is entirely different from the body. The growth or decay of the body does not in any way affect Atman. Immutable and changeless, It is independent of the body” ix

“To manifest the Infinite through the finite is impossible, and sooner or later, man learns to give up the attempt to express the Infinite through the finite. This giving up, this renunciation of the attempt, is the background of ethics. Renunciation is the very basis upon which ethics stands. There never was an ethical code preached which had not renunciation for its basis.” x It is this renunciation that inspires a human to struggle to transcend the senses and realise the Divine. This supreme effort on the part of the human being is, according to Swamiji, what constitutes a Religion.

The nature of religion is not only to withdraw from the external objects of the world, but also, through that, the manifestation of inherent pure consciousness within the framework of the boy-mind-complex. William James, the doyen of Western psychology defines Religion as the “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine.” xi Swami Vivekananda defines religion as the manifestation of divinity already in a human. Both these definitions point out that true religion is the genuine search for Divinity within ourselves.

Inner Transformation

This sincere search for divine consciousness within one’s own being takes the form of intense spiritual practices that eventually bring about an inner transformation of one’s psyche.  St. Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ gives a beautiful verbal expression to this spiritual evolution: “Do not copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good, pleasing and perfect.” xii  The ultimate goal of spiritual practices is the inner transformation charmingly articulated in the above words. This is also termed one’s spiritual rejuvenation or a new spiritual birth in spiritual literature.

This transformation will free us from the clutches of the material world. As a result, we will discover our real nature as pure consciousness and experience perfect freedom and bliss. Sri Ramakrishna would compare such spiritual ecstasy to the joy a fish feels— after being taken out of water— is again put in the water. Sadhana or spiritual practice is the ultimate endeavour one puts on with full awareness to reach the ultimate spiritual excellence.

The importance of spiritual practice

All the scriptures including the Upanishads emphasise the necessity of spiritual practices in our life. When Yajnavalkya offers his wealth to his wife Maitreyi, she does not accept saying one would not become immortal through all the wealth in the world. The Upanishadic sages have realized that the attainment of immortality is possible only through spiritual practices with intense renunciation.  A sage wonders in another context: “Being in this very body we have somehow known that (Brahman). If not, (I should have been) ignorant, (and) great destruction (would have taken place). Those who know It become immortal, while others attain misery alone.” xiii

An interesting episode highlights the significance of knowledge of Atman. Narada, a divine sage, who is learned in almost all branches of secular and Vedic knowledge, approaches the sage Santkumara with a distressed mind. He requests his teacher: “O venerable sir, such as I am, I merely know the subjects textually. But I am not a knower of the Self… O venerable sir, please take me beyond sorrow.” xiv In Kathopanishad, we hear the clarion call of a realised sage to the whole of humanity: “Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the excellent ones. The wise ones describe that path to be as impassable as a razor’s edge, which when sharpened, is difficult to tread on.” xv

In the same vein, Mundakopanishad teaches how a spiritual aspirant should prepare oneself to enter into the spiritual life: “A Brahmana (a spiritual aspirant) should resort to renunciation after examining all the worlds acquired through karma, with the help of the maxim: ‘There is nothing (here) that is not the result of that karma; so what is the need of (performing) karma ?” xvi

Sri Krishna repeatedly highlights the importance of sadhana in Bhagavadgita especially emphasising abhyasa, uninterrupted spiritual practice. He says: “If however, you are unable to establish the mind steadily on Me, O Dhananjaya, seek to attain Me through the Yoga of Practice.” xvii Sri Shankaracharya explains thus: ‘Practice consists in repeatedly fixing the mind on a single object by withdrawing it from everything else. The Yoga following from this, and consisting in the concentration of the mind is abhyasa-yoga.” xviii


In this modern age, it is Sri Ramakrishna who demonstrated in his life the significance of spiritual practice. What we find in his life are utmost sincerity and never-seen-before intensity in performing spiritual practices. It is often said that the Master has introduced a new kind of Yoga called vyākulatā yoga, the yoga of longing for God. He would completely identify himself with any spiritual discipline he engages in and performs it full of enthusiasm and immaculate love. This is the hallmark of numerous spiritual disciplines undertaken by Sri Ramakrishna in his lifetime.

The teachings of Sri Ramakrishna are nuggets of gold purified in the furnace of his divine life. He would not teach anything which he had not found to be true in his life. Regarding the importance of sadhana he says: “You must practice spiritual discipline a little. It will not do simply to say that milk contains butter. You must let the milk set into curd and then churn it. Only then can you get butter from it. Spiritual aspirants must go into solitude now and then. After acquiring love of God in solitude, they may live in the world.” xix

Chandogya Upanishad  says ‘yo vai bhūmā tatsukha nālpe sukhamasti bhūmaiva sukha ;  That which is infinite is the source of happiness.’ xx There is no happiness in the finite.   It is very essential in one’s life to have a higher goal and make an all-out effort to realise it.  It is the spiritual goal and the spiritual practices that make one’s life meaningful and fruitful. Not only it is a great lesson history of humanity has taught us, but it is also the actuality one has to discover through the course of  our individual life.

i Modern Man In Search of a Soul, C G Jung, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co Ltd., 1947, London, page 234

ii Ibid, page 235

iii To Have Or To Be, Eric Fromm, Continuum, New York, 2008, page no 1

iv Ibid, Page 25

v Ibid page 2

vi Ibid see page  2

vii Recovery of Faith, Dr S Radhakrishnan, Orient Paperbacks, Delhi, Page 21

viii CW II.62

ix The Upanishads (Katha, Isha, Kena and Mundaka) – Vol 1, by Swami Nikhilananda, Ramakrishna- Vivekananda Centre, New York, 1990, page 169

x Ibid, 62


xii New Testament, Romans 12.2, New Living Translation

xiii Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,  4.4.14

xiv Chandogya Upanishad, 7.1.3

xv Katha Upanishad, 1.3.14

xvi Mundaka Upanishad, 1.2.12

xvii Bhagavadgita, 12.9

xviii Sri Shankaracharya’s Commentary on the verse 12.9

xix Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, 241

xx Chandogya Upanishad, 7.23.1