Role of Poverty in Spiritual Life

From Rikhiapeeth Satsangs 3, Swami Satyananda Saraswati

In Thailand, anybody who follows Buddhism has to wear geru, sleep on a mat, beg for alms, shave their head and live in a monastery for a certain period. He may be a king or a servant; nobody is exempted. What is the use of such a system? Even I have begged for alms, but I never felt the need to beg. Then why did I do so? I did not have any requirements or needs. If I had a wife and family I would have begged for them, but I don't, so why did I beg? I could get two rotis, a minimal meal, easily. In Varanasi, nobody dies hungry. Just sit anywhere and you will be fed. In Varanasi, there are many anna kshetras, food houses. Go to any one of them and you will certainly get dal and roti.

Even so, for about four to five years I was seeking alms. Why did I do this? It is essential for mental growth and mental health. Whatever I have received in my life, the credit for that goes to things like these, begging for alms, living in dharamshalas, spending the night under a banyan tree, sleeping on somebody's veranda, all these things have a profound impact on the mental state and spiritual life, and uplift them both. What the real, tangible effect of this is, I also do not understand, but this tradition exists among Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Jains. Begging for alms and wandering like a monk is a tradition of all religions.

I wandered everywhere, from Afghanistan to Burma, and didn't have a penny in my pocket. If I got some money from somewhere, I would start out once again. On the train, I would tell the ticket collector, "I want to go to Varanasi." He would say, "Okay. Sit down anywhere." I would sit without a ticket, though not without permission. In those days we were under the British rule. In 1945, during their rule, we received a lot of cooperation. Back then it was less difficult for us sadhus; now it is very difficult.

Mouse soup

At that time I traveled extensively; Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Tajikistan. Once I went to Assam on elephant-back. I even crossed the river on elephant-back. In Madhya Pradesh, I stayed with remote tribal people, in areas where no roads could reach; even bicycles could not reach there. Yet I would travel to such places, and stay in cowsheds. They were poor people. One gave me mouse soup, not once, but for two months. I didn't know. I was in Jagdalpur district, doing my chaturmas, the period of sadhana during the four months of the monsoon season.

A disciple of my guru was a revenue inspector there. He dropped me at the home of an adivasi, tribal person, as I wanted complete solitude. I would spread a few leaves under a tree and sit there all day long. The adivasi had a tiny little hut and at night the whole family would sleep in a huddle and I'd sleep there with them. During the day, he would bring me some rice and the mouse soup. At the end of two months, on the full moon, the revenue inspector came to fetch me. The adivasi brought the same food for him. He asked, "What is this?" He said, "This is mouse soup." The inspector said, "Oh my goodness! It's sacrilege." I said, "Forget it, he is a poor man." What I am trying to say is that it did not affect me at all. I thought, "It has not affected my mind in any way. I did not get sick. I do not know what people have fed me, I might have eaten anything. At least here I know what he gave me!"

A wanderer's life, poverty and begging for alms, is therapeutic. It cures diseases. Poverty is not a curse; the curse is the pain, sorrow and suffering. It is a curse when the suffering caused by poverty creates frustration; when you see your child's hungry face. When Dronacharya saw Ashwathama's face, he was shaken. When your wife makes a reproachful remark or the elders say something unpleasant, you become frustrated. If I had a wife and children, I too would be worried. There was nobody to tell me anything, and I enjoyed that.

—13 January 1997