The Individual and Society

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Through the sufferings of life and the inspirations that come as we progress in spiritual life and through guru's teachings, we begin to realize that many things we thought were normal parts of life are wrong. We start to introduce changes like living in the present and reducing our needs, but they seem clumsy as we are beginners and such changes are not valued by our society. How can we stay steady on this new path without disturbing others' values or letting old values take over again?

The question is in many different parts. First of all, society's values are not wrong, nor are the things that we learn in society. Society does not differentiate between one human being and another. There are theories which say that the individual is influenced by society, but we believe that the individual is a part of society. Each person has a responsibility to defend certain values in society, keeping in mind what the aim and the final outcome of life should be.

We can't seem to learn how to use our common sense. We may think that we do, but in reality we do not. If we apply our common sense to the experiences, to the education that we imbibe from society, then there will be a clear distinction and definition of what is beneficial for the growth of the individual and of society. What are the barriers to the development of the individual and society? There are so many things that we know should not be done but we do them. We become habituated to drugs, alcohol and smoking, and we know that overindulgence in them can lead to ill-health. Yet we ignore the right concept and become the slave of, or subject to, a bad habit due to a lack of common sense.

In this way there are a million things that one can definitely say are detrimental to human health and human life. Why do we keep on doing them, not only at a personal level, but also at a global level? It is nothing but lack of common sense and as human beings we have not learned the application of common sense. We have become too self-centred to begin with. 'I, me and mine' has become the dominant factor in our lives. This deep individual or personal identity limits the vision and the perception of global reality. When the perception of global reality becomes clouded, then we cannot connect with anything else except our own ambitions and desires which stem from selfishness. Such people say that rules are meant to be broken.

As a result of this self-centred awareness we project our aspirations for the future, we try to see ourselves in an image which we were never cut out for and we find security in experiences of the happy moments of the past. Whenever we remember our past, we always remember the joyous moments and identify with them, and that is what we project for our future, too. If you see this as the right way to live then there is nothing to say, but if you see some fault in this type of living then you can fill in the gaps for yourself.

Selfless action

What is the definition of a balanced lifestyle? A balanced lifestyle is where you are able to integrate and harmonize the experiences, first at the individual level, body, mind and spirit, then at the social level, through care and support, inspiration and motivation. In this way you not only improve yourself, but society and the environment as well. But the care and nurturing of society has to be done from a selfless perspective, not a selfish one.

All the different forms of creation live for others. It is only human beings that live for themselves. Look at nature around you. Trees give their fruit to others, they don't eat it themselves. They don't say, “This is my fruit and I will eat it,” they say, “The fruit is ripe, you take it, eat it and enjoy it.” If you look at the other aspects of nature, you will find something similar happening there as well. But are you able to see the difference between other forms of creation and yourself? If you can't, there is nothing to say. If you can, then you have something to think about.

The thrust of yoga, or any spiritual subject, belief or philosophy, is that one should learn to live in the present. Yoga is not against any social thoughts or values. It is for the improvement of the quality of life. The philosophy of yoga is: Gain wisdom from past experiences and use that wisdom to improve the present. The future is unknown. Let it be. There are certain things in life that have to remain mysteries. The future should and must remain a mystery. Life before birth should and must remain a mystery. Ideas about God should and must remain a mystery.

Apart from these, you have accumulated a set of experiences in your life. Have they meant anything to you till today? Have you derived any wisdom from them? Or have they simply been like a film, in your own mind? If we have to give a purpose or aim to human life, we must be practical. We should say that the aim and purpose of life is to derive wisdom. Wisdom does come into everyone's life but, like opportunity which also knocks on everyone's door, we ignore it. This is due to the restricted conditionings of the self.

Nurture the spirit

Any effort to improve life does not begin externally. The seed is first planted in the mind. It is nurtured and grows in the mind, in the form of motivation, in the form of desire, in the form of wanting to do something, and then it is implemented in action. If you can make sure that the seed is a healthy and not a sick one, which is changing the normal, natural state of mind through discipline, then you will begin to realize that the values, ideas and concepts which felt alien in the beginning have become a natural part of your life. The thrust in society has been to project the external life. This is the difference.

When you look at a tree, what do you see? You see the trunk, the branches, the leaves and the flowers. But the support of the tree is the roots which cannot be seen. If the roots are destroyed, the tree will die. Similarly the social mentality is to nurture and encourage the health of the body and the health of the mind, but not the health of the spirit, which is the root of our life.

Previously in society it was 'survival of the fittest'. Today it is 'survival of the weakest'. You may be sick and ailing, yet you are kept alive with medication. You may be a vegetable, but kept alive in a hospital. I am not saying anything against the medical, technological and scientific achievements because everybody loves life, there is no question about it. But just look at the trend, as to how certain ideas have been emphasized by the externalized social mentality, or we can even say the over-indulging materialistic society.

We look after the body and there is no harm in that, it should be done. We look after the mind and there is no harm in that, it should be done. But at the same time we need to make an effort to maintain the health of the spirit. Before the advent of modern psychology and psychiatry people used to say, “Look after the body. What happens to the mind does not really matter as the body is important and should remain healthy.” As the concept of psychology slowly evolved, people started saying, “Mental health is also necessary. Remain free from stress and tension. Don't go through emotional conflict. Let psychoanalysts, psychiatrists and counsellors treat the mental side.”

If we talk of spiritual sickness, then people say, “How can the spirit be sick?” Of course it can be sick. Just as the roots of a tree can become weak, sick and die, similarly the spirit can become weak, sick and die. People say that the spirit is immortal, but this is nonsense. The spirit, the life force which resides in the body is subject to birth and death, and anything which is subject to birth and death goes through infirmity, through decay.

Change comes from within

There are other dimensions of the spirit, just as there are many dimensions of the mind. Just as psychologists say there is the conscious mind, the subconscious mind, the unconscious mind and, beyond that, the supermind, similarly,there are levels and dimensions of the spirit – the spirit contained in the body, the spirit contained in nature, the spirit contained in the universe, the created dimension, the spirit of the non-visible dimension, the divine spirit. These are the different expressions that the seers have used in the past.

We define the spirit as jivatma, atma and paramatma. These are the three distinct definitions of the spirit. When there is a distinction, then obviously there has to be a difference in the quality, in the nature of the spirit. I am just trying to explain the difference between the normal concept and belief about the spirit and the actual concept of the spirit, because it is relevant to one's life, to one's growth and to one's evolution.

The direction of spiritual teaching is to bring about harmony in the experience of body, mind and spirit. If you look at it from this perspective, once harmony begins to set in then one goes through purification. Habits change, ideas change, beliefs change and if you try to use those ideas, beliefs and habits to improve your own self-image, then there is a reaction from society. One tries to become a prophet overnight with the idea of profiting from becoming a prophet. The change has to come from within.

Ganga Darshan,12 October 1998