Today we’ll start with an interesting story. A brahmana once approached Lord Ramachandra with a complaint. He mourned for his son who died before him. And he blamed the ruler of Ayodhya for that:
“O king, the laws of nature in your kingdom are broken. It can only mean one thing. Someone acts contrary to dharma, and you are responsible for that!”
Meanwhile, Narada Muni stayed in Lord Ramachandra’s palace. Deeply saddened, Rama called Narada and asked for his advice. Narada thought briefly and then delivered his judgment:
“The cause of boy’s death is that someone in your kingdom contrary to dharma tries to comprehend things he’s not supposed to know.”
Ramachandra didn’t hesitate to set out in search of a wrongdoer. After some time He came to the edge of the wood and saw a man of low origin. The man was hanging from a tree upside down.
“Oh shudra, what are you doing?” asked Bhagavan.
“Can’t you see? I’m performing tapasya to gain power and achieve immortality.”
“And do you have a master?”
“Why do I need a master? I have my own head screwed on the right way!”
“Therein lies your problem,” said Ramachandra and cut off shudra’s head upon that.
The shudra tried to do something he was not entitled to. Shudras were not allowed to perform austerities and penances in Treta-yuga, especially without instructions of a guru. The risk that they would abuse and misuse acquired power was too high.
In Satya-yuga only brahmanas had the right to perform austerity.
In Treta-yuga it also became the privilege of kings.
Asceticism in Dvapara-yuga became available even for vaishyas.
In Kali-yuga anyone can perform austerity, supposing he/she knows what it is. The recommended meditation in Kali-yuga is chanting of the Holy Name.
Asceticism was regarded as a quick way to get the object of desires at all times. However, despite the fact that it can really bring quick results, that kind of attitude to austerities belittles their spiritual significance and relegates them to the category of material activity. Pseudo-spiritual scriptures inspire a modern human to torture oneself a bit to get one’s desires fulfilled without working. But the essence of asceticism is not self-torture. The essence of asceticism is the ability to endure hardships decreed by fate. Hardships come in our life, and we must be ready to meet our fate with fortitude. This is what true asceticism is about. First of all, it implies the ability not to cause suffering to others.
Only those get the real benefit who are prepared to meet all life’s challenges. By contrast, those who want to benefit at the expense of self-torture, don’t understand the very goal of asceticism. Hence, they don’t benefit at all. Such materialistic activity is called austerity in passion. Instead of purification, pride comes. One begins to think that people who don’t follow my austerities are far less advanced and even fallen. But sages explain than a householder can’t be considered less exalted than a monk. Both of them are real ascetics if they are ready to endure problems weighing heavily on them. If any of them is getting proud, their penance becomes materialistic and brings pride and thus, pollution instead of purification.
A real austerity is indeed capable of purifying the mind. Scriptures say that fire gives the molten gold even more luster. The same pertains to a person who can humbly accept the suffering that falls to his/her lot. Such a person gets really purified. Their body begins to emanate special radiance which is sometimes visible to human eye. Such a victory of spirit over the body is indeed worthy of respect. It makes an ascetic steady in his purpose no matter what. This is real asceticism. By contrast to this, an effort to get some chocolate bars from karma by means of self-torture is nothing but a foolish attempt to overreach oneself. As a result of such false pretences everyone gets frustrated and sooner or later gives up both austerities and spiritual advancement itself.
In a word, asceticism is not some special, out-of-the-ordinary activity, but a daily mood which manifests itself as fidelity and persistence. Violation of the principle of austerity is called impiety. For example, it is stated in the scriptures that if you break your promise, such as a vow of fidelity, even in your mind, then all the five material elements laugh at stupidity and uselessness of such deceit. Therefore, sages remind us: one should always remember there are at least six witnesses of each sinful act. Not only all-pervading God sees everything that happens, as He is in everyone’s heart, but five physical elements scornfully laugh at a man who thinks that no one noticed his cunning plan.
To be brief, if a man knows that he has cheated, there are at least six others who know the intricacies of this deception. In the scriptures such a man is called feeble-minded and is compared to a cow which puts on tiger skin in order to avoid being beaten as it grazes in someone else’s fields. People may consider a deceiver a saint thinking that his consciousness has already defeated his body, but in reality he is just a sly deceiver. It can remain a secret for a time. However, since this is not a secret, but is known to a group of six, it will soon be known to everyone. By the way, if one calls oneself a sage but lives stupid life, a karmic punishment for such misconduct can hardly be measured in terms of time or quantity. It is simply stated that it creates an infinite amount of suffering. This is because as a result of such misconduct, many people lose faith in spiritual advancement.
Therefore, it’s recommended not to believe our eyes as long as we don’t know what is really on the mind of a man who looks like a sage. Vedas say that a wounding arrow looks smooth and straight, while the curved lyre produces sweet sounds. One should judge not by appearance but by human behavior. Of course, a sage may also do something wrong. Sometimes he can make mistakes and take wrong decisions. But despite all mistakes and failures, he is headed in the right direction and firmly follows it. He steadfastly endures criticism, attacks and insults of others. He is merciful to everybody, including the enemies. Seeing the qualities of a real ascetic, one should ask him for blessings to become as serious and committed to spiritual life as he is.
The secret here lies in the fact that everything we’ve just discussed refers to austerities somehow or other connected with the beginning of spiritual life. Although somewhat materialistic, they help us enter the world of spiritual bliss. And then the real spiritual austerity begins. In short, true wisdom is to understand that spiritual life is not asceticism, but a great pleasure. And what makes a spiritual austerity is when we tolerate our inability to share our happiness with the whole world. This is the ability to wait until the person whom we love becomes ready to accept spiritual knowledge. This is willingness to share happiness only when it is adequately treated and doesn’t cause rejection. By the way, spiritual life itself is not achieved by asceticism. It is open to everyone, and absolutely everyone can touch it.
Now hear an interesting parable on the subject.
A knight was walking through the desert. It was a long and winding road for him. He lost his horse, helmet and armor along the way. Only a sword remained.
The knight was hungry and thirsty. Suddenly he saw a lake in the distance.
He summoned all the remaining strength and went to the water. But there was a three-headed dragon sitting near the lake. The knight drew his sword and began to fight the monster. The fight lasted two days. Two dragon heads were cut off.
On the third day an exhausted dragon fell down. Next to him the knight fell prostrated, unable to stand and hold a sword anymore. And then with the last bit of strength the dragon asked:
“What did you want, knight?”
“To drink some water,” said the knight.
“Well, why haven’t you drunk then?”
Sometimes we become such knights. All our life we’re prepared to fight for something. We struggle with astonished dragons. But the opportunity of spiritual happiness is right in front of us. It is open to all. As for the battles, we need them only to count ourselves great knights. But to die as a knight and die as a saint is not the same thing. So before we embark on more austerity, we should determine whom we fight and what should be the result.
Thus, asceticism must be aimed at achieving spiritual happiness rather than material result. If austerity is aimed at spiritual happiness, it is not exactly an austerity. It’s a real bliss. As long as we experience some difficulties, this is not an austerity. This is called performance of prescribed vows or duties. Vow differs from austerity in that it’s taken for the whole life, and austerity comes, as fate has willed. Therefore, a vow shouldn’t be treated as an austerity – it’s just a way of life. If it is perceived as an austerity, it hasn’t been accepted as a vow. It means that the risk of breaking it is too high.
Vows in spiritual life are called regulative principles, not austerities. Sensual pleasures are like salt. A good cook knows that if to throw a pinch of salt while cooking, it emphasizes the flavors of food. But if we overdo, we’ll spoil the whole meal. The same goes for sensual pleasures. We get sense gratification, but we regulate it. There must be control over this process. We may have regulated sensual pleasure by following the methods prescribed in the scriptures. Otherwise, if there’s no such control, it is similar to over-salting your food. The whole thing will become spoilt.