The Role of Obedience in Spiritual Life

Swami Satyadharma Saraswati

Obedience is a quality which must be cultivated by every sadhaka and disciple, if he wishes to advance to a higher level in spiritual life. Unfortunately, however, it is a quality which most people nowadays think that they can live without, and Sadhakas are no exception. In fact, I have asked many of the Sadhakas and sannyasins here in this ashram what they think about obedience and its role in spiritual life and almost all replied, 'Look, I cannot say anything about it, because I am a most disobedient person.'

Much of our ignorance, apathy and even disdain of this important aspect of spiritual life is due to our early training in life, and also to the era in which we are living. In this kali yuga where man has already lost three quarters of his spiritual faith and moral principles and is in the process of losing the remaining quarter, the prevailing values can hardly give rise to any form of moral or spiritual obedience. Man is no longer able to follow the dharma, for at all levels he is living for himself. Then whom should he obey and for what?

In the previous eras when man was more spiritual minded, he was also more inclined towards obedience. It came naturally for him to obey his parents, his elders, his gurus and his superiors. That was the way of the dharma, and also in those days the elders were disciplined and worthy of being obeyed. Today, however, the situation is very different. Even a small child refuses to obey. The first word he learns to say is 'No!' The child establishes his own individual identity at an early age and this remains with him for life. This is his personality or ego.

Passive and dynamic obedience

We are living in an age of anarchy where the material has sway over the spiritual. Obedience has been lost, because there is nobody to obey. It is each man for himself. Of course, one must obey the social rules and laws of the land to some extent, in order to avoid being ostracised, incarcerated or heavily fined. However, this type of passive obedience is of no value to us spiritually. It is only for maintaining the social order. What is necessary in the life of a sadhaka, of a disciple and of a sannyasin, is a dynamic form of obedience. That is what is essential for maintaining a spiritual order.

Passive obedience is developed by following the rules and restrictions which are externally enforced for the promotion of social order and welfare. Whereas dynamic obedience comes from within. One obeys certain rules or precepts and follows a particular discipline, because he wishes to do so for the purpose of spiritual development. In the early stages the guru or preceptor is instrumental in helping the disciple to develop this form of obedience by giving him a particular sadhana or discipline to follow. But in later stages this form of obedience must be internalised as the disciple learns to obey the commands of the internal guru or the Self.

Dynamic obedience is the basis of discipleship. Without this type of inner obedience, the disciple's spiritual progress is constantly hindered by the dictates of the lower mind, which lead him away from the path of sadhana and self-discipline again and again. Obedience is the sign of a disciple who is prepared to loosen the bonds of ego and to unite the lower self with the higher Self, in whatever form it may take, be it guru, elder, ishta or inner guide.

Obedience is the crux of spiritual life. It is the submission of the lower will to the higher will. It is only through the higher will that the disciple is able to transcend the instinctive drives and persevere with a regular sadhana and discipline. By wilful obedience the blockages imposed by intellect and ego are removed and the disciple's mind becomes receptive to the higher teachings. For the disciple who has attuned his mind to the guru through obedience, spiritual transmission takes place spontaneously, at all times, whether waking or sleeping.

The three attributes

Once the disciple has understood the role of obedience in spiritual life, be can cultivate this quality as he might other qualities such as charity, compassion, abstinence etc. Obedience is an inherent part of our nature, which we are all born with but few develop, because in our life there is no one whom we feel to obey. That obedience which comes from one's own volition must be based on three important attributes: respect, faith and devotion. In order to practise dynamic obedience, there must be someone in our life who can inspire these three within us. Then obedience comes naturally and it is highly expedient to our spiritual growth.

This is why, at a certain stage of our evolution, we need a guru, a person before us who has risen above the ignominies of life, and can therefore inspire these three attributes within us. To obey such a person is a privilege and an honour. When the ego and intellect are stilled by respect, faith and devotion, submission becomes an intoxicating and thrilling experience. It is not oppressive but expressive of the divine will which manifests through you during the act of obedience.

To obey the guru or teacher who is able to inspire respect, faith and devotion, is never difficult, no matter what you are asked to do. Through obedience the realisation dawns that you are not the doer, but guru is doing everything through you. Therefore, nothing is impossible. His knowledge, power and capacity will come through you and the deed will be done. When the disciple experiences this, his respect, faith and devotion for the guru become deep and unwavering within him. All doubts and uncertainties are dissolved, and he becomes established on the path. From this point there can be no turning back for him.

Guru is God

Through obedience the disciple forms an immutable link with the guru and nothing can be withheld from either. The very life of both flows one into the other, and the two merge at the cosmic level where the guru is established. The disciple who is absolutely devoted and obedient is easily raised to the level of his guru, because there is no blockage, no restraint and no duality in their relationship. Through obedience the disciple removes all the barriers, so that the guru can raise him.

The true disciple is, therefore, one who loses his mind in the guru. As the disciple develops a deep, internal communion with the guru, he becomes less and less argumentative and more and more intuitive. He sacrifices himself, his desires, his ego and loses himself totally in the guru. The guru's desire becomes his desire. He understands the guru's command whether spoken or unspoken. Such a disciple obeys the guru with an internal urgency which brooks no intellectual speculation, rather the entire awareness of the disciple is focused on the doing.

This is something which the disciple must experience for himself in order to understand. And this experience in itself will be enough to transport him into unimagined heights of bliss which are not attainable even through years of contemplation and meditation. Therefore, it is said that the guru is god, and the true disciple ever approaches him with an attitude of humility and obedience. In obeying the guru, the disciple obeys god.

Sunshine and shadow

For the disciple who practises obedience, the guru's word is final. There can be no question, no alternative and no compromise. The attitude of 'Thy will be done' begins to develop at this stage through the contact and link with the external guru. Later on, when the practice of obedience becomes internalised, the disciple becomes a guru in his own right, as be is able to express the divine will through his own Self, and he is disciplined and strong enough to follow it through. Such a disciple has fulfilled his commitments.

The guru also puts such disciples to very severe tests. One test is that he asks the disciple to remain physically afar. The guru knows that a fruit must have both sunshine and shadow in order to ripen. So, the disciple must have the experience of both fellowship and separation. In separation too, there is union. Spiritual obedience to the guru's will, not physical nearness to the guru, is the mark of true discipleship.