Time magazine in Jan, 1950 called it the “Revolt of a doormat” (alternate link). Nandini Mehta, wife of Bombay textile millionaire Bhagvandas Mehta and mother of three children went to court asking for legal separation. She had become a disciple of Jiddu Krishnamurti and aspired to live a celibate life but her husband would not permit her to do so. After an acrimonious court battle, she eventually separated from her husband but was unable to gain custody of her children (1). She devoted the rest of her life to running an orphanage Bal Anand (i.e. “joy of children”; it still exists; see a report).
Instances of people quitting family life to gain solitude are legion, more so with men than women, since the latter were not always allowed to do so in the past due to social norms. “All life is Yoga” said Sri Aurobindo implying that one has to apply spiritual principles to all aspects of life. This is fine in theory but presents practical difficulties for those seeking to make a living amidst people who have no spiritual urge in them. Life can get pretty exhausting earning a living, meeting children’s and spousal needs, not to mention the endless peripheral social demands which arise as a consequence. Disparities in the spiritual orientation of the spouse or the children only serve to exacerbate the problem. You find yourself trapped in a vicious circle with no energy and time left for Sadhana. The Gita says that one has to develop the power to withstand and resist the clamour around oneself but that itself requires some fairly rigorous Sadhana. In the meanwhile, one remains hopelessly vulnerable to the swirling tempests of unruly passions and social expectations which continue to circulate all around.
What is the solution to this predicament? Should we just abandon the foolhardy attempt to reconcile family life with the spiritual aspiration and instead retire to a secluded place? There is no uniform rule, no settled law if we examine the guidance given to a variety of people by Ramakrishna, Anandamayi Ma, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo, the Mother and other Gurus. Some people were permitted to leave their family life behind while others were asked to remain married and given specific instructions on how to go about their Sadhana. The Guru’s guidance is based on the orientation of the soul (Dharma) and its stage in spiritual development (i.e. past-life Karma). For instance, when Kodadarama Rao left his family and came to live with Sri Aurobindo, his father-in-law and wife followed him to Pondicherry and begged him to return, but Sri Aurobindo refused to intervene, probably because he perceived that Kodadarama Rao had some spiritual potential which required his presence in Pondicherry (2). The Mother herself left her son, Andre Morisset, behind in Paris when she came to stay in Pondicherry with Sri Aurobindo.
In the absence of a living Guru to provide guidance on such involved matters, we can immerse ourselves in written works of past Gurus and allow it unlock the wisdom which lies latent within our own consciousness. If we subject ourselves to this maieutic process every day, we will inevitably have those unforgettable moments when Time stands still and reveals to us the source of our difficulties. There will undoubtedly be mistakes in scriptural interpretation but that is part and parcel of the soul’s evolution.
Amiya Sen has compiled Ramakrishna Paramahansa’s words of wisdom in a new book “His Words: The Preaching and Parables of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa”. One section of this book is devoted to advice on the conflicts between the family life and the spiritual path. These are some selections from the book interspersed with my comments.
Ramakrishna (to a Brahmo devotee): Truly speaking, there is nothing wrong in leading the life of a householder. But your thoughts must be continually on God. With one of your hands, engage in worldly activity, with the other cling to God. After you have completed all your activities, clasp God with both your hands! The mind is at the root of everything. Essentially, both the feeling of being entrapped in this world and the desire to be released from it, are states of mind. The mind is like a piece of cloth which takes on the colour of the dye into which the dyer dips it. If he uses a red dye, it will turn red, if he uses a blue dye, it will turn blue, and if he uses a green dye, it will turn green. Similarly, if you associate with the wicked, your thoughts are bound to be affected by them. If, on the other hand, your mind is in tune with that of a devotee, it will perennially dwell in God.
It is your mind that determines how you conduct yourself in this world. On one side you have your wife, on the other, your children and naturally, you relate to each of them differently. And yet, it is the same mind that performs these diverse functions. (3)
How much money should one earn? Family desires keep increasing, responsibilities keep growing, and the pressure to earn more and more money keeps rising, especially if one’s spouse and kids are unwilling to embrace the same level of austerity and instead frequently demand the latest gadgets and conveniences that today’s consumer culture has to offer. Predictably, there are no easy answers .
Mani: Sir, would it be proper for me to try to augment my income or assets?
Ramakrishna: Yes, indeed, but only if it is for a just and right cause. You can certainly attempt to earn more, but do so honestly. Remember, your prime objective in life is not to earn money but to serve God. When you spend your earnings in the service of God you are making good use of money. (4)
Meditation is typically successful when, even for a brief amount of time, you touch a higher plane of consciousness. It is that imperceptible touch which permeates your inner being and manifests externally in a palpable feeling of calmness. This peace and immobility that you gain is, however, very difficult to retain when you live amidst a unruly bunch of individuals; it dissipates quickly when you chatter without control, eat in a communal setting or even worse, engage in sexual activities. In order to increase the retention capacity, one has no choice but to take some time away from the family, as Ramakrishna explains here:
Ramakrishna (to a Brahmo devotee): It is difficult to stay detached or disinterested while leading the life of a householder. Is there then no way out for the man of the world? There certainly is. The way out is to retreat to a secluded spot for a few days for individual sadhana; thereafter, you may return to everyday domestic life. When undergoing this solitary sadhana, you must cut yourself off completely from all possible distractions. Make sure that during that time your wife, children, parents, brothers, sisters and other relatives are nowhere near you. And while doing this sadhana, you must keep reminding yourself that everything you truly have is God, not the people who make up your family. Pray to Him with heartfelt devotion to grant you knowledge.
If you asked me for how many days you should keep yourself detached from family members, I would say, the longer, the better. This can be extended to twelve days, a month, three months, a year, it all depends on what one is capable of. (5)
There are situations where separation from the family may be required, and this occurs when one has reached the stage where a newer, more illumined consciousness cannot blossom without a temporary withdrawal. One must however examine oneself and determine that one is not leaving prematurely in frustration at one’s inability to cope with the hardships of life or deal with the abominable and oleaginous people around us. When we exit prematurely from the challenges that have been set before us, we continue to carry the seeds of frustrations, rage, and disgust within us which go on to cause further complications (i.e. Karma). One must first have access to a Divine guidance, an inner voice to determine when the time to withdraw from family matters has come. As the inner consciousness changes, there comes a time when the Karma also changes and the bonds which tied one to one’s past propensities automatically drop away.
Mani: How long are we obliged to fulfill our duties towards our families?
Ramakrishna: You should ensure that they are adequately fed and clothed. However, once a son has grown up and is capable of looking after himself, you may stop supporting him. Once her offspring are capable of gathering their own food, the mother bird does not allow them to feed off the food that she has collected for herself. She chases them away by pecking at them. (6)
In another anecdote, Ramakrishna spoke of the danger of premature renunciation:
Ramakrishna (to a visitor dressed up in the ochre robes of a sanyasi): Why take to the gerua (monk’s robe)? Do you think one can wear just anything, any time? Renunciation comes about broadly speaking in three or four ways. He, who has taken to the gerua simply because of the travails of family life, does not remain in that state for long. There was, for instance, a man, who, exasperated with his day to day domestic life, retired to the holy city of Kashi. And then, only three or four months later, he wrote to say that he had found a job and would be home soon!
True renunciation comes not in a state of material want but prosperity. There is the man who feels that he has everything he wants and yet his mind is not at ease. Occasionally, he withdraws from routine, everyday life and weeps at the thought of being separated from God. That is true renunciation.
That which is fake or false will never yield good results. It is not good even to fake renunciation. A man who tries to renounce the world when his mind is not ready to do so can be adversely affected. A man who keeps lying all the time gradually loses all sense of sin or shame. So long as one is not fully prepared to renounce, it is better to keep to plain clothes. What a disaster it would be if a man caught up in worldly desires and indulging frequently in immoral acts, were to wear the gerua! (7)
This is also a good opportunity to clear up a question that conscientious plebeians as well as wide-eyed novices to the spiritual path frequently raise: why do Gurus marry and then leave their family behind to suffer from hardships? Why not just live an ascetic life from the beginning? The reason for that is quite simple: they did not know when they got married that they were going to end up as Gurus later in life! When the spiritual awakening occurs, one starts getting guidance from the Divine in the form of voices, visions and immersive experiences. After these drastic changes, one has to abandon the social norms and proceed based solely on inner guidance. This is an exchange between Sri Aurobindo and a disciple on this topic:
Nirodbaran: Somebody writing a biography of Confucius in Bengali says: “Why do the Dharmagurus marry, we can’t understand. Buddha did and his wife’s tale is heart-rending
Sri Aurobindo: Why? What is there heart-rending in it?
Nirodbaran: He goes on: “Aurobindo Ghose, not a Dharmaguru, though he may be called Dharma-mad”— how do you feel about that, Sir? — “has done it too.”
Sri Aurobindo: Well, it is better to be Dharma-mad than to be a sententious ass and pronounce on what one does not understand.
Nirodbaran: So we don’t understand why they marry and why this change comes soon after marriage.
Sri Aurobindo: Perfectly natural — they marry before the change — then the change comes and the marriage belongs to the past self, not to the new one.
Nirodbaran: If married life is an obstacle to spirituality, then they might as well not marry.
Sri Aurobindo: No doubt. But then when they marry, there is not an omniscient ass like this biographer to tell them that they were going to be Dharmaguru or Dharma-mad or in any way concerned with any other … than the biographer’s.
Nirodbaran: I touch upon a delicate subject, but it is a puzzle.
Sri Aurobindo: Why delicate? and why a puzzle? Do you think that Buddha or Confucius or myself were born with a prevision that they or I would take to the spiritual life? So long as one is in the ordinary consciousness, one lives the ordinary life — when the awakening and the new consciousness come, one leaves it —nothing puzzling in that. (8)
What about the hardship and betrayal this renunciation causes to other family members, some might further ask? Their hardship is an ineluctable aspect of the life that they have adopted. So long as their consciousness is limited, so long as they do not anchor themselves in the Divine, they must be prepared to endure the unexpected setbacks that the phenomenal world delivers. In the Essays on the Gita, Sri Aurobindo elucidates that the interpretation of the term “duty” is relative to one’s inner consciousness:
We must remember that duty is an idea which in practice rests upon social conceptions. We may extend the term beyond its proper connotation and talk of our duty to ourselves or we may, if we like, say in a transcendent sense that it was Buddha’s duty to abandon all, or even that it is the ascetic’s duty to sit motionless in a cave! But this is obviously to play with words. Duty is a relative term and depends upon our relation to others. It is a father’s duty, as a father, to nurture and educate his children; a lawyer’s to do his best for his client even if he knows him to be guilty and his defence to be a lie; a soldier’s to fight and shoot to order even if he kill his own kin and countrymen; a judge’s to send the guilty to prison and hang the murderer. And so long as these positions are accepted, the duty remains clear, a practical matter of course even when it is not a point of honour or affection, and overrides the absolute religious or moral law. But what if the inner view is changed, if the lawyer is awakened to the absolute sinfulness of falsehood, the judge becomes convinced that capital punishment is a crime against humanity, the man called upon to the battlefield feels, like the conscientious objector of today or as a Tolstoy would feel, that in no circumstances is it permissible to take human life any more than to eat human flesh? It is obvious that here the moral law which is above all relative duties must prevail; and that law depends on no social relation or conception of duty but on the awakened inner perception of man, the moral being.
There are in the world, in fact, two different laws of conduct each valid on its own plane, the rule principally dependent on external status and the rule independent of status and entirely dependent on the thought and conscience. The Gita does not teach us to subordinate the higher plane to the lower, it does not ask the awakened moral consciousness to slay itself on the altar of duty as a sacrifice and victim to the law of the social status. It calls us higher and not lower; from the conflict of the two planes it bids us ascend to a supreme poise above the mainly practical, above the purely ethical, to the Brahmic consciousness. It replaces the conception of social duty by a divine obligation. The subjection to external law gives place to a certain principle of inner self-determination of action proceeding by the soul’s freedom from the tangled law of works. And this, as we shall see,—the Brahmic consciousness, the soul’s freedom from works and the determination of works in the nature by the Lord within and above us,—is the kernel of the Gita’s teaching with regard to action (9).
- Pupul Jayakar. J Krishnamurti. A Biography. http://www.jiddu-krishnamurti.net/en/krishnamurti-biography/krishnamurti-biography-1947-1949-krishnamurti-in-india-14
- T. Kodandarama Rao. At the Feet of the Master, Pondicherry: SABDA 2007.
- Amiya Sen, His words : the preachings and parables of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, New Delhi, India : Pengin Books India : Viking, 2010, 166.
- Ibid., 167
- Ibid., 174
- Ibid., 168
- Ibid., 202
- Nirodbaran, Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo, 576
- Sri Aurobindo. Essays on the Gita, CWSA vol. 19, 34-35.
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- The foundation of spiritual relationships
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- How to read holy scriptures
- The message of the Gita
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- Guidance by random book opening
- Why read Sri Aurobindo’s books?
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