Necessity of Cleaning

Swami Sankalpananda Saraswati

A question often asked by newcomers to the ashram is, 'Why the necessity of performing daily cleaning duties while leading a spiritual life? Why involve oneself again in such tasks?' In answer to this question, there is a Zen parable which says:

'Before enlightenment,
Chopping wood and carrying water.
After enlightenment,
Chopping wood and carrying water.'

Unfortunately, many people have the notion that in order to practice sadhana for self-purification, they must leave behind all worldly duties and live a life of total detachment. However, this idea is grossly misunderstood. Actually such renunciation can only be practised by those rare evolved souls who have exhausted all their karmas. Whether a person is living in the ashram or is leading the life of a householder, still the karmas have to be experienced and worked through. It is true that many saints are often seen sitting quietly conducting satsang, while their disciples are busy carrying out the chores. But this does not mean that these great souls have renounced the affairs of daily life. They too perform their daily duties. One can never leave the karmas. The truly wise ones do not renounce their karmas in the middle of the journey, saying, 'These are the cause of downfall; all actions create bondage.' In fact, in the course of carrying out their duties, they exhaust their karmas and attain complete salvation.

This is the natural way to self-evolution. Then the karmas drop away of their own. There is no need for personal effort or suppression, as it is all part of a spontaneous process. When actions are performed with the attitude of complete detachment or un-involvement, then there is no bondage and the existing karmas quickly fall away.

In the following short story the necessity of continuing with daily cleaning duties even in ashram life is clearly illustrated.

Every morning a young disciple used to get up early and greet his guru. After this, it was his duty to clean the whole ashram from top to bottom. First he would sweep all the paths. Then he would bring buckets of fresh water from the well and water the plants in the garden. Finally, when all this work was completed, he would sit with his guru for a short time, and if he had any questions, he would ask them. After his guru dismissed him, he would take up his other duties, which included marketing, cooking and replying to letters.

One day the disciple, who had been troubled for some time by this question of daily cleaning work, decided to bring it out into the open. But the guru, wanting him to realise the importance for himself, decided to try a little experiment. Accordingly, the next day as soon as the disciple began to clean, the guru told him to leave it and go for a bath in the Ganges instead. So, without attending to his usual duties, the disciple walked down to the river. After having his bath, he sat leisurely on the bank for some time in order to dry himself. By the time he returned to the ashram, it was too late to complete his cleaning, so he decided to leave it and go on with his other work.

The second day, when the disciple got up, he found his guru waiting for him at the gate. Immediately the guru ushered him out and informed him that he had to attend a special festival on the other side of the river. By the time it was over, and he had returned to the ashram, it was even later than the previous day. So instead of doing the cleaning, as he had previously intended, the disciple again had to leave it and take up his other duties.

Finally, on the third day, when the disciple got up, he was suffering from fever and headache. So the guru told him to go back to bed and rest, and definitely not to get up until the fever had abated. The disciple followed his guru's instructions, but the fever continued for several days. All this time he was unable to take bath and he felt dull and miserable. As soon as the fever was gone and he was able to get up, the disciple went to his guru.

On the way, he observed that the whole compound looked equally dull and dirty. All the flower beds were dry, the paths were dusty and debris was littered everywhere. The kitchen was open and full of dirty pots and plates. In fact the ashram looked completely unkempt and disorderly.

When the disciple went inside his guru's room, he found him sitting quietly amidst so much dirt and disarray. Without saying a word, he immediately picked up the broom and began to sweep the room. Then the guru, who had been watching him out of the corner of his eye, called out, 'Why trouble yourself? All this cleaning is totally unnecessary. After all, we have become emancipated and enlightened. Put away the broom and let us discuss spiritual matters. It does not matter whether the ashram is clean or dirty.'

At this point, the disciple suddenly realised his mistake and bowing to the feet of his guru, he replied, 'Since I stopped my cleaning duties, my body has become more filthy than the ashram. I have not taken a bath for three days and I am feeling so dull and depressed. Before. I was so keen and enthusiastic to get up early, clean the whole ashram and then come to speak about spiritual matters with you. Now my body is in a miserable condition, and I regret to see the state of the ashram. Guruji, please allow me to resume my cleaning duties.'

The guru was pleased to see how well his experiment had worked, thus showing his disciple how necessary are the cleaning duties for the sadhaka. As long as the nature of the self is not realised, these daily duties are essential. Of course when the time is right, they either fall away or are transmuted. Just as milk changes into curd, in the same way, karma and bhakti, even dhyana, are transformed after fusion with God. Our duties are only a means and not the end. They are the first steps on this long path of experience which we call life, and all are important and necessary in order to reach the top.