Purascharana

A monastic devotee

This is not an article so much as a case history. In an article you can speculate; can rove over a subject, emphasising certain aspects, suppressing others, artistically making your point. But what I wish to do here is to recount in a straightforward, open fashion my experiences having to do with the discipline known as purascharana. The reader may rest assured that what is reported here is true, but as in the case of published clinical reports, actual names and places have been disguised or left blank.

I joined the Vedanta Society as a monastic probationer in 1950. Born and brought up a Protestant Christian, it had never occurred to me that the essence of spiritual life is meditation. (Remember, this was thirty years ago, well before the quietest revolution of the 1960's had broken out in America, which was to honour Zen, Yoga and other disciplines teaching the need for going within.) The leader of our centre, a senior swami, had established it as a rule that his disciples should go to the chapel for meditation at least twice every day. And so I went.

But five years passed and I felt I had gained very little spiritually. I was still a dabbler, was still the same rank amateur in relation to any kind of inner life that I had been the day I entered - a spiritual outsider.

It had been determined that I was soon to take the vow of brahmacharya. I began to fear that I would be entering upon this engagement under false pretences if something didn't change. I told my guru so. 'Can't you take some urgent measures?' I asked. 'This is serious. Don't you have some intensive remedy to apply, to cure a bad case of spiritual backwardness?' 'Yes', he replied. 'Do a year's purascharana.'

My heart contracted. I knew what this meant from having read The Eternal Companion. Great masses of japa, whose quantity was to increase or diminish by one thousand repetitions per day according to the phase of the moon, to reach a hefty fifteen thousand once a month, on full moon day. A half hour or so of japa in dark phases, but four to six hours of it as the moon moved toward full zenith.

I was aware of Swami Brahmananda's confidence in the efficacy of japa. Our swami-in-charge had often told us about something he had witnessed as a young novice at Belur Math around 1920. At that period several monastics were required to share the same dormitory rooms. One of the occupants of the room where the then young swami lodged was an older man who had been given permission to enter after some years of worldly life, much beyond the normal age limit. 'What an intense struggle he had to make to gain purification', our leader would explain. 'Maharaj's prescription for him was japa in large doses. I used to wake up in the night, and there he'd be, seated on his bed with his mala in his hand, by the hour. And it did work. I tell you, my child, it did work; it does work.'

Well, I did it. For twelve months my whole life centred on japa. I rejoiced in the moon's dark phases and struggled through its climaxes. I never failed in what was required for that day, although at times I did not get the final hundreds done till late in the evening, half asleep; and once they went over into the early minutes of the following day.

I took the vow of brahmacharya in the summer of 1955. Our leader had selected a full moon day, which was also the birthday of Swami Niranjanananda, as an auspicious date for administering our vows. But what did that choice signal for me and my japa? At that time, lodged in a caravan on the temple site, I was overseeing the construction of the new temple. The ceremony was to be performed at the monastery, some 200 kilometres distant. I felt I could not be absent from the temple work for more than twenty four hours. I decided I would drive to the monastery the afternoon before, prepare for and participate in the ceremony the following morning, and drive back the same day. But how could I do my fourteen thousand/fifteen thousand repetitions of the mantra? On this red letter day of my life, surely I would be justified in putting aside my rosary and giving relief to the thumb and calloused middle finger of my right hand.

'No!' replied our Leader, in response to my eager suggestion. 'Make some other adjustment. Don't baby the mind. The essence of purascharana is no exception. You've taken up the commitment; now fulfil it.' Of course he was right, and I managed the required repetitions by rearranging my schedule.

That purascharana produces an effect; for me there can be no doubt. Let me try to describe it in as clinical a fashion as possible. First of all, you feel virtuous. There is an expression used in Christianity, 'State of Grace'. A state of grace enfolds you when you feel you are making an effort to do what you should be doing and to avoid doing what you should not be doing. Grace comes as we make a positive response to His request: 'If you love me, keep My commandments.' It might be said that enjoying a state of grace is the same thing as attaining a clear conscience. Or it is equivalent, I should think, to what Indian teachers refer to as gaining the grace of your own mind. You feel inwardly strong, right and enthusiastic. That is definitely what I felt throughout the whole year of purascharana.

Or one could say that this effect is simply a case of God rewarding our effort to please Him. Or that by sacrifice we gain His sympathetic attention. The rising smoke of our burning offering is pleasant to His nostrils. I don't believe such explanations; they are too anthropomorphic. I would rather call achieving a state of grace the lawful psychological consequence of discipline. How often we have heard that the mind is like an unruly youngster. Doing purascharana it tells that child with steady insistence: I mean business. So it responds. Instead of continuing to behave like a spoilt baby, it becomes co-operative, helpful, charming.

Without doubt it would be better to be infused with longing, ardent longing. Passionate thirst for God is what characterises the true mystic. But in the absence of longing, there remains effort.

As the mind finds itself brought to heel, it begins its reform. Its whole attitude becomes refashioned, remodeled. The pressure of the Holy name, strenuously applied, as the Russian monk in The Way of the Pilgrim explains it, reorientates the mind's way of looking at things. Or to use a homely simile, here is an inkwell fixed to a desk. To clean it, pour in water. Bit by bit the dirty, dried residue will be dislodged and will flow away. In religious terms we can say that japa causes some light to shine out from the paramatman. In psychological terms it may be supposed that the sheath of ananda is rendered a little less opaque through the vigorous rubbing it gets from the Holy name.

Another effect I noticed (my clinical report would not be complete without my mentioning this side effect) was an increase in psychic energy. Or stated in layman's terms, intensive japa seems to have an aphrodisiac effect. (It is well known, of course, that yogic techniques can be used, or misused, by those who are sense-minded, to increase sensual powers, and I could see how this could be.) For the continent, this sensation transmutes itself into happiness and enthusiasm; 'delight' is the word the pilgrim often uses. One may describe this euphoria as the emotional consequence of obtaining the grace of one's own mind.

The clinical technique of shock therapy is used as a treatment for mental disorders in extreme cases. No one knows exactly how this technique works, but it is sometimes explained figuratively that the passage of a charge of electricity through the body causes the molecules of the disturbed mind to be, as it were, thrown up in the air, to fall back in a different and healthier pattern. Or that the unconscious, fearing it is going to be killed, defends itself by behaving in a more rational manner. A similar realignment of 'molecules', or rather a better balance of the mind's chemistry, is now claimed as a result of the introduction of so called mind bending drugs. Something similar happens in ordinary life, to normal people, also. A normal person, let it be noted, experiences a kind of shock therapy as a result of being involved in a grave accident, a desperate illness, or upon hearing some fatal news. 'From that day on', he will say, 'I saw things differently'. Or, 'After that my outlook was no longer the same'. One may guess that massive injections of japa may work in a manner analogous, to produce a like effect- shaking or shocking or bending the mind toward a new orientation.

This case history would not be complete if I failed to mention a permanent consequence of that year's purascharana. I find that I repeat the mantra, or rather that the mantra repeats itself, when the mind is 'in neutral' - when I am walking alone, when doing manual tasks, when preparing to sleep, when lying drowsily half conscious before fully waking. We speak of such an ingrained habit as something that has become second nature. One may quip that in the case of japa, what has become second nature goes a long way toward prying open the sought after first, or primary, nature.

But to conclude, I closed the year's purascharana with the assurance that I was on the inside track at last. When the molecules blown up by japa had settled down, I found that I had become committed, that I had become an insider, a devotee.

(Courtesy Prabuddha Bharata, June 1980)