The sum and substance of spiritual life, the best teaching of Vedanta, is atmabhava, which means feeling the pain and distress of others as if it were your own, feeling the poverty, sickness and calamities of others as your own. God permeates the whole of creation like electricity, water and air. The best and easiest way to attain Him is to have a genuine feeling of compassion for others, to have the same intensity of feeling for the suffering of others as you have for your own self.
Thinking of others as you think of yourself means atmabhava, including everybody within your own heart. The Vedas, Upanishads, rishis and munis have told us that atmabhava, sympathy and feeling oneness with others, identifying with their woes, is sarvatma bhava, all-encompassing affection for the creatures of the whole world.
God is here and now among human beings. Look for Him where He is most needed, not in the temples where people are pouring wealth on His idol. That God is very rich, but the God living among the poor and the downtrodden in the guise of a lame or blind person is needy. Go and look for Him in destitution, hunger and starvation. Go to those houses where there are no hearths. Today there is so much pain and misery everywhere because God is not seen where he actually is, in suffering humanity. Therefore, your spiritual endeavour will fail. You will feel peace of mind in the temples, but that is not the ultimate in life. You have to search for God. You have to find him in alleys, lanes and houses. This is the duty of saints, sages and holy people, as well as householders. It is the duty of humanity.
Seeing everyone in oneself and oneself in everyone is the highest attainment of Vedanta - atmamani pashyanti bhutani, which means seeing the Self in all and all in the Self as one Brahman. If we do not expand atmabhava, the sense of selfhood, then all sadhana is useless.
How do you experience this feeling of self and Brahman, that Brahman which is eternal, constant, immortal, perfect and formless? This doesn't happen by speaking about it alone. If you identify yourself with the pain of another, the problem of that person becomes your problem. If your mother, sister, daughter or wife is suffering in the house during the night, then you won't be able to sleep. When your son falls sick, what happens to you? Yet when somebody else's son falls sick in your neighbourhood, you say, "Give him cortisone." You do not think beyond that. Nothing happens in the heart or in the head either. You go to sleep peacefully although his son is still sick. The feeling that you get when your child is sick doesn't come. Why not? Atmabhava is not there.
If someone you love falls sick, you cannot sleep at night. You go to visit your family because they are your family. This is not atmabhava. If you feel pain in your foot when a thorn pricks it but you do not feel anything when it pricks my foot, then it is not atmabhava. Atmabhava is where you make an effort towards someone who has no use for you, who does not belong to your family or clan, yet you express love towards him.
Yoga is alright for the body. A little bit of pranayama, japa and dhyana are also necessary. A little bit of swadhyaya, satsang, kirtan and bhajan are also fine, but nothing is going to happen through them. They will not take the car of your spiritual life forward even one inch. For fifty years, I walked that path and my spiritual car did not stir. Even though I practiced many hard and intense sadhanas, my car stayed stuck at one place. It did not move forward even one inch. It was only when a trace of atmabhava awakened in me that my car did start moving.
You are wasting your time if you just grapple and wrestle with your own mind twenty-four hours a day. You box with it and give it the slip. In your combat with the mind sometimes you fall, sometimes the mind falls, but nobody attains a decisive victory. Sometimes you win, sometimes the mind wins. Head and tail win equally, half and half, and the wrestling ends in quits. In the evening you are fagged out, you begin to moan with a headache and take a tranquillizer or open a bottle. Some opt to go to a temple for respite, some choose to go to a discotheque to refresh themselves, and others decide on a session of yoga nidra and play a tape.
Nobody thinks of going to the house of a poor man and lighting a lamp. Nobody thinks of visiting the have-nots. If a child is born in a poor family, at least go and give the child a crib. When a child is born in your own family you immediately think of a crib and there are elaborate preparations in anticipation. When there is a new-born in another family, you just give good wishes and greetings, but that will not help the child. Go to the house and give a warm sweater, some tonic for the mother and some money.
This is a practical sadhana I am giving you. The mind has a vulnerability and weakness. If you think of the misery and misfortune of others, the mind melts. It sloughs off its hard crust. Suppose you have ten or twenty thousand rupees and the thought comes to your mind, let me help the poor with this money. If you actually do something to help the poor, that day your mind will be very pleased and very peaceful. You will feel so peaceful that you will not be able to express it in words.
I was a hard and heartless person, but by my guru's grace I began to soften. The association with my guru brought about this change within me. Swami Sivananda was a very special person. His heart was very large. He was happiest when he was feeding and giving to people. His philosophy in life was that God is real and everything else is unreal. His heart was completely open, without any doors or windows.
He would call all the sweepers and scavengers, feed and clothe them, give them tea, wash their feet, and ask me to do the same, but my response was negative. I found it useless and irrelevant for spiritual evolution. He also started a leper colony for about two hundred and fifty patients behind Kailash Ashram on the banks of the Ganga. I was given the duty of going amongst the lepers and sick to narrate the Ramayana, but my heart was not in the work. My guru built them huts with thatched roofs and gave them goats to rear because lepers were forbidden to raise cows. He forbade them to beg in the streets and would even send them bundles of bidis.
There were thousands of incidents like this in Swami Sivananda's life, which I saw with my own eyes. He believed that those who think well of others have soft, tender hearts. I used to accompany the doctors and distribute drugs and medicines among the lepers. I performed all the duties, but not from my heart. One who thinks ill of others has a hard heart which needs to be pounded. The heart should be so sensitive that it responds immediately to another's pain.
Many years ago during a Kumbha Mela, a man suffering with leprosy was brought to the ashram in a gunny bag. Swami Sivananda called me and said, "Put him in a room and clean his body with the necessary antiseptics." Swamiji was a doctor and he knew what to do. I also had a little knowledge about such matters, so I carried out my duty. That man was obnoxious, and his smell, attitude, behaviour, his entire being, was difficult to accept.
The next morning, when I gave Swamiji a report, he asked me how the man was. I said, "Swamiji, that man's disease is so difficult to handle." He replied, "You want to find God without any effort. You want to realize God without a change of heart, mind, philosophy and concept, without destroying your personal nest. You have a personality, character, views, habits, likes and dislikes. Destroy them first and change your heart."
If it had been a beautiful young lady or even a beautiful or rich man, I would have served them without complaining. Such a man was I. Do you think I was fit to realize God? No, I was unfit. I performed the tasks not as seva, but as a duty which my guru had given to me. That was not seva because I did not have the bhava, disposition, for seva inside me. His pain was not my pain. I was assigned that job, therefore I was doing it. It is not enough to just do something, the bhava is essential.
On the day when I heard the command, "Love your neighbours. Help them as I have helped you," what Swamiji had told me came into my mind. "You want to realize God without changing yourself. You want to see the light without operating upon your own cataract. No, it is not possible." At that time the realization dawned.
Though I tried hard for liberation, I never attained it and though I tried hard to see God, I never got Him. I tried a lot to liberate myself from avidya, ignorance, but I couldn't do it. I wanted to have a vision of God, like Moses had of a fire burning in the bush or like many other saints had, but I didn't have anything. Then I started helping my neighbours and after that I always heard His voice.
You wonder why God does not hear you when you perform rituals and worship, asana and pranayama, study Vedanta and make pilgrimages. God is sitting right in your heart, but He is not ready to listen to you because you do not recognize the pain of others. Until you are able to do this, your sadhana will not be successful. God only listens to you when you are able to feel the pain of others the way you feel the pain of your own child. If your child is in pain or meets with an accident, what kind of a state are you in? Do you think of others like that? Is there one person who has spent a sleepless night thinking of the millions of poor who will go to bed hungry tonight? We are all selfish; we are only concerned with us and ours. We are not concerned about anyone else. Why then should God who is all-pervading listen to you? Isn't the one who is in pain God's child as well? Even if you don't perform the rituals of worship or go on pilgrimages, it is fine. But it is necessary that you have compassion and sympathy in your heart. They are very important qualities for every aspirant.
Before you are able to experience Brahman or the Lord, to see the light or experience enlightenment, you must be able to feel the tragedy in another's life. Otherwise you cannot attain peace. A compassionate and sensitive heart attains knowledge effortlessly. The more distant you are from the suffering of others, the further Brahman will be from you. God, Shiva, Rama, Devi will all be beyond your reach. You should be tender and sensitive to the misery of others, compassion should flow from you, and your heart should immediately respond. You should experience other people's pain as your own. Only tender hearts can feel and experience the paramatma, the supreme soul.
Man has bound himself with the cord of selfishness. The human race is inherently selfish; it does not have the tradition to work for others. Your world is only limited to you and your family. You will not exert for the sake of strangers. However, the rest of the creation is selfless - trees produce fruits for others, rivers give water to others, the cow feeds you with its milk all its life and even after it dies, its skin is made use of. The human being is unable to do this.
Have you ever seen a mango tree eating her own fruit? Grains, vegetables, flowers and fruits grow in abundance for others to eat. Look around and you will see that everything lives, thrives and grows for others. It is only man who lives selfishly for himself. He earns only for his own children and keeps clinging to them selfishly. Do not live only for the sake of those who belong to you. Live a little for others also. You cannot totally share the happiness and sorrows of the world, this is only possible for God, but in some little way share the sorrows of others.
You have to find a place in your heart for people who are not known to you. You have to act out your compassion and feelings on behalf of these people. Consolation with words only is not enough. If you visit forty odd houses in India you will come across scarcity, dearth, suffering, poverty, darkness and dejection. There is nothing else. As an exception you may come across a house where it is different, but for millions and millions of people the state of affairs is abysmal. They have no shelter, no food, no place to cook, no toilet, not even water to drink. What have you done for such people?
We are all selfish, not selfless, and the path to God proceeds from selflessness. Generosity doesn't proceed from selfishness. Whatever spiritual path we follow, it must be a path of selflessness, and this has been said in all the scriptures. There is no difference between a sannyasin and a householder unless you have overcome your mind, your weaknesses and limitations and purified yourself completely. The change has to take place within your own consciousness, and that is called transformation. When that transformation has taken place, then you will become a different person, whether you are a sannyasin or a householder. Until this happens it is all the same, whether you are a renunciate or a man of the world.
If you seek peace of mind and salvation for yourself, it will not come because all around you there are problems, anxieties and restlessness. How can you be happy when the whole world is unhappy? The whole world is burning and you are seeking your own peace and salvation. Therefore, first take care of others, then take care of yourself. First take care of their moksha, then your moksha is guaranteed. First take care of their peace and prosperity, then your peace and prosperity are guaranteed. If you can't think about others and understand the problems of others, you can never realize yourself.
This is the sum and substance of all religions, the message of all saints. I know this very well because He spoke to me, to my inner soul. I heard the message very clearly, "You have to look after your neighbours as I have looked after you." Who are my neighbours? That depends upon my capacity.
Ayam nijah paroveti jananaa laghuchetasaam
Udaaracharitaanaam tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam.
Those who are narrow-minded say, `This is mine, and this is yours.' For those with an open heart the whole world becomes their neighbourhood.
You have to find a place in your heart for people who are not known to you. Don't turn away the beggar at your gate. Nobody, however wicked he may be, will come begging at your gate to cheat you. I am telling you honestly. I have lived that life, that is why I can speak from my own experience. It is no good wailing, "O God, he has come to my door!" After all he is a beggar. He has a soul and that soul is in you too. The soul, the light that is inside the beggar is the same light that is in you. The electricity in one bulb is the same electricity as in another bulb. It is the same electricity in Deoghar and Bombay. The same soul is in everyone, only the circuits are different. Your circuit is different from my circuit, so when I turn on the switch my light is on, not yours. What is that circuit? Ego, the circuit of individuality. If ego is effaced, then if my light is on, everyone's light goes on and if my light is off, then everyone else's goes off. I am talking about a spiritual science in which you should remember that you are not alone, but a part of the whole. You are a link in the chain of this total existence, and if you are broken, then everything is broken.
We who have enough of everything should develop the philosophy of atmabhava in our lives. There is a difference between the feeling of service and the feeling of Self. The feeling of Self means atmabhava, the sentiment of others being like one's own Self. If I am hurt I feel pain, that is natural, but do I also feel pain if you are hurt? Atmabhava means to feel the experience of others as my own experience. The sorrow and sufferings of others, the death of somebody unknown to me, the problems of families who are strangers to me are all felt as my own.
The world family starts from your own village and the people in your immediate neighbourhood. Don't talk about Vedanta as long as their misery, shocking condition and abject poverty does not touch a chord in your heart, as long as their suffering does not become part of your own suffering, their difficulty does not become your difficulty, their pangs of hunger do not become your pangs! It is wrong to do so. It would be better to say, "I do not believe in God and that is all."
I often pray to God for another birth and an early departure, because at this advanced age I am not as effective in serving people as I would be if I had a new life. When I see these young people fully absorbed in their own selfish ends, I crave even more for a new life because I do not aspire for pleasure and riches, nor do I crave for a kingdom. My only craving is to serve those who are deprived and living in need. So, I pray to God to bless me with a new birth, in a poor family where one feels the pangs of hunger, where one undergoes the torture of cold without adequate clothing, and where one lives and dies in sickness without proper treatment. I intend to have a life of hardship and rise from there.