With My Arms Open

Dharmakeerti (Dr Usha Sundaram), Bangalore

"I shall run into the desert of life with my arms open, sometimes falling, sometimes stumbling, but always picking myself up a thousand times if necessary."

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Mandan Mishra was giving his discourse. The audience was carried away by the eloquence of his exposition. "What a jnani", said one learned listener, "he speaks so well". There was hushed silence as he spoke the shantipata. With dignified steps he walked down the dais and the group parted to give him way. Entering his car he was whisked away. Back home, he laid aside his silk upper garment, settled down in an easy chair and sipped his tea from a silver vessel with satisfaction.

"Do you know how many pandits there were in the audience?" he asked his wife. "Five hundred and they were full of appreciation. They had never heard anyone speak so well". His wife's eyes gleamed. It was only on such occasions that he was pleasant at home, shared a few moments of joy with her- in fact even cared to look at her. For Mandan Mishra was one of those who, steeped in tradition and ritual, prided themselves on being detached.

'Detachment' is a fascinating word. One finds many people in mental health clinics in a severe state of depression or at the accused end of a suffering family situation, having experimented all their lives with their own brand of detachment, which has nothing to do with the shastras.

No sleep

It so happened that on this evening, like it did on every other evening, Mishra's children came home full of cheer, with gay abandon, stopping short at the threshold when they saw their father. Time and again they had been shouted at by him for their laughter. Mandan Mishra believed that children brought up well and with a sense of responsibility were serious about life. They did not waste their time joking or being flippant. Sensing his mood, the family normally went around talking , in hushed whispers whenever he was present, only letting themselves go when he was out of the house.

Mishra went to his backyard. The sun was sinking, bathing the skies in purple, crimson and gold. But Mishra did not see any of this. His grandchild of five came running to him and, in her hurry, stumbled on a stone and fell. "How many times have I told you not to run?" shouted Mishra. Hearing the child cry, his widowed sister gathered her up and consoled her. "What a fuss," said Mishra turning away.

"Mishraji", called out his neighbour - who was also the schoolteacher - "you should discipline your children better. Your Shankar was smoking beedies behind the school toilet. I asked him how the son of such an illustrious man could stoop to this." Mishra was shaken. He went in, shouted at his wife for her leniency with the children, caned the offending boy and went to bed. But sleep was not for him.

Something, somewhere, had gone wrong. He had lost control over his son. Tossing and turning he woke up, paced the room till morning, declined his coffee and arrived at the clinic in a severe state of agitated depression. He was afraid of dying and he felt sure he was going to die.

When I asked him why he felt so, he kept saying, "I have lost control, I have lost control." After almost 50 years of un-demonstrativeness, this tormented man burst into tears and wept. Having clone that, he felt guilty, tarnished, ashamed of having lost control over his emotions, although in reality he felt better. In an attempt to regain control, Mishra started talking.


Born in an impoverished family, as a child he had been told by his parents often that 'the world was for the rich, the poor had no place'. Although he was a bright and healthy boy, he slowly came to identify himself with a victimised minority though his personal experience did not justify it. His parents never knew that they had planted a negative seed in him - the seed of a sense of inferiority, vulnerability, needing protection from a hostile world.

Following the approval of his schoolteacher for scoring marks in Sanskrit, he decided that the only way he could compensate for his poverty was by being brilliant. The teacher's kind words brought tears to his eyes and he went home, feeling a sense of fullness, only to be shouted at by his father for his emotional lack of control. "You must be detached," said his father.

Mishra's childhood left him that day. Every time he laughed, every time he was moved by anything beautiful or inspiring, his inner mind would say. 'Aren't you ashamed? You must be detached.' Over the years the father within him systematically trampled down and repressed any emotion that tended to surface. He felt safer. In refusing to recognise his emotions, he believed that they did not exist. And if he did not have moments of wonder, he also did not get hurt. Lest he should feel a deficit in himself, he glorified this suppression with the term 'detachment' as his father had done before him. Over the years he became an eminent intellectual in his place and was respected for it. However, he never really lost his sense of inferiority. Every time a good word was spoken of another, he would tear their work to shreds with his verbal attack, telling himself it was the work of a dispassionate objectivity, while in reality it was a cutting down to size of another lest in his eyes the man surpass him and he be 'inferior'.

Deep-seated forces

'Being inferior' was associated in Mishra's mind with vulnerability to attack. Therefore he had to remain superior to survive. There were deep seated samskaras that he had trampled upon and which continued influencing every action of his, more effectively than if they had been faced sensibly, because the deeper aspects of the mind are more powerful both in their capacity to destroy and to create. And in punishing one's mind with guilt for its spontaneous joys and sorrows one makes an enemy of it rather than accepting oneself totally and using the loving mind as a friend. Having placed his thoughts, his actions and his inner world in a semblance of order he refused to allow anything else to enter, lest it should break that order and he lose control. His was an impoverished world where he allowed neither laughter nor tears to enter, neither wonder nor beauty. He filled up the emptiness with high sounding words. But they were only words and were of no use in a crisis.

When his son broke that well ordered life with unacceptable action, Mishra was jolted into reality. His deep seated samskaras that he had kept locked up and denied recognition exploded into his awareness. Such is the mind that when it is repressed and trampled on, it rebounds with stronger force when one is least prepared for it. Being ill equipped to face it, he broke down into a depressive illness and panic. With his own loss of control, his 'survival' was threatened and his subconscious threw it up with a symbolic fear of death. He did not realise then that his self-enforced emotional isolation had created a wide gulf between him and the rest of the family and was partly responsible for his son's behaviour. Every day for fifty years he had repeated Shankara's Samprapte sannihite kale Nahi nahi rakshati dukrin karane. Rules of grammar profit nothing Once the hour of death draws near. He had discoursed on it, but never did the reality of that sentence get to his heart until that morning when he realised he was not omnipotent - his skill with words was only skill in words, nothing beyond.

What he called 'detachment' was really just a fear of facing his own vulnerability. Many people live on this island of detachment until nature jolts them out of it. It is really an attachment - attachment to a false sense of security that is part of an illusion. To be truly detached, one has to start with awareness. Watch yourself in various situations- see the games you play with yourself. Watch your desires, anger, joys, likes and especially dislikes.

Who is truly detached?

A truly detached person is not disturbed in any situation. Many people equate detachment with hate. I have seen people vehemently saying, 'I am detached, I don't care for films like other people'. What they are really saying is, 'I am superior to other people' or that 'I am attached to pride.' Hate is a form of negative attachment and hatred binds much more firmly than anything else. If one saw oneself as a fantastic and unique instrument fashioned by the divine, one would see this uniqueness in another and any need for comparison would soon be seen as a habit of the mind not based on reality.

When one is aware of one's mental needs, one is able to push them to the side if a situation demands it be done. Being able to detach one's ego and its needs for the sake of appropriate action in any specific situation is the hallmark of a detached person. It might sometimes be necessary to put aside one's need to feel sympathetic if one sees sympathy making a cripple of another. Sometimes one's need to be known as a charitable and virtuous person may destroy another's sense of autonomy, creating only a beggar.

Therefore a truly detached person has full awareness and is not bound by the desires of his mind. He is truly compassionate, because having put himself aside he is able to tune in with the other and act appropriately and effectively. He knows the other's need, not desire, and he is able to supply it. He does not run away from life. He embraces life with its many vicissitudes and knows through direct experience, not intellectual speculation, that it is no threat but a learning situation. He may never have read a word of the shastras, Jesus, Buddha and Ramakrishna were not pandits. They were detached from their limited selves, only to find themselves larger - one with the cosmos - in tune with the world. God was everywhere - in the sinner and the saint.

When a man is truly detached, he does not reject life; he accepts all of it - its joys as well as tears. In his capacity of witness to them, he sees both as the games of the mind. Seeing it thus he is freed of all attachments and he becomes more effective in any situation. The mind detached from fear learns a flexibility that can act appropriately in any situation - and therefore effectively. Yogah karmasu kausalam. "Yoga is skill in action."

Courtesy: Bhavan's Journal