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Role of Institution in Spiritual Evolution

Institution – invisible and visible

Poojya Swamiji used to say: “I never wanted to build any institution. I only wanted to institute Brahmavidya in the hearts of people.”

Well, a Saint perhaps never ‘wants’ to build an institution. The institution grows around him spontaneously, out of the need of the seekers and the society. An Ashram or a similar spiritual institution is not an organization but a vibrant organism – an expression of the saadhana of the seekers living and interacting in Gurusannidhi, the abode of the Guru. On one hand it acts as an anvil where the seekers’ personalities are shaped and moulded – nay, as a crucible in which seekers’ minds with all the world complexities are brought together, melted and purified in the fire of association of the Teacher. On the other hand, through the austerity of the Saint and the seekers, it grows as a foundation for the preservation, perpetuation and propagation of Brahmavidya in the society.

So, if Brahmavidya is really instituted in the hearts of people, the institution grows inevitably. It is so because Brahmavidya is not like any other knowledge that can be owned by reading or listening once or a few times. Real Brahmavidya necessarily means a total transformation and evolution of the student’s being. And for that, living and interacting in the presence of the Guru becomes absolutely essential. That is why Poojya Swamiji has been hammering again and again the indispensability of interactional saadhana.

The Seed

In 1965, when Swamiji visited Jamshedpur for the first time, he had asked his new initiates to sit together at least once a week throughout the year. “Something good for the society will come out of it,” he told them. That seed of ‘institution’ sprouted first in Jamshedpur and then in Delhi and some other places, to grow into the present Brahma Vidya Centres.

But, for many years, although the weekly or monthly Satsangs continued, the Centres used to spring to life only on the eve of Poojya Swamiji’s annual visits – for organizing the annual Jnaana Yajna. During the Yajnas, Swamiji used to be hosted and looked after primarily by one of the senior disciples. Matters took a drastic turn in 1992, when in Delhi, circumstances led to the building up of some essential facilities at the land in South Sainik Farm. Poojya Swamiji along with his new Sannyasin disciples, Ma Gurupriya and myself, started staying there during the Jnaana Yajnas.

Speciality of a Saint’s residence

The importance of a ‘public place’ to host a Saint became vivid. A Saint belongs to the universe. People must feel free to come to him, share their heart, and also serve him. And that is possible only in an Ashram set up. Seekers and devotees from all sections of the society started coming freely. Poojya Swamiji wanted to feed everybody with the best of care and love. That obviously needed some resources – both human and material. Moreover, it needed earnest seekers who would be ready to grow with humility to the standard of discipline, purity, refinement and large-heartedness expected by Poojya Gurudev. A number of volunteers and participants came forward, which naturally implied closer interaction with their Teacher – living, at least temporarily or part-time, in Gurusannidhi.  

The saadhana in Gurusannidhi

It is one thing to worship the Guru from a distance, listen to him and practise meditation. It is altogether different to live and interact with him closely in a set up run according to his cherished values and directions. Only in close association with the Guru, working under his direct guidance and observation, the seeker comes to know what is ego-effacement or ego-sublimation. The new exposure in Gurusannidhi, made many of the seekers re-evaluate their position and progress. Some came closer; some others felt distanced.

Some of the earnest devotees discovered that organizing Jnaana Yajnas and listening to Swamiji’s talks and discussions can only be a beginning of Brahmavidya pursuit. Surely it creates some interest and understanding of the subject. But, the real saadhana of self-expansion and self-transformation begins when we live and interact with the Guru. Through interactions we express our qualities and impurities, and the Guru gets an opportunity to correct and purify us.

Through the Teacher’s responses to various situations, we get a touch of his vision – his love and his dispassion. In receiving his comments and accepting the corrections, our ego gets sublimated. In working with the co-disciples and accommodating others lovingly as the Guru does, our minds expand. Swamiji always says: “A few difficult persons should always be there for the seekers to progress in their saadhana. Being good to good people is very easy. Real goodness lies in being good even to the difficult and harmful people.

Emphasis on corporate outlook

The experience in Delhi showed the path to devotees in other places also. Emphasis was given on bringing in as much public character as possible to the arrangements made during the Jnaana Yajnas held anywhere, especially in Jamshedpur. Necessity of functioning as a well-integrated spiritual family, with all the purity and impersonality of an Ashram, was highlighted more and more. Poojya Swamiji had been explaining that meditational saadhana will not fructify unless the personality is sublimated through interactional saadhana. But, to realize what this interactional saadhana really means, one had to work in Gurusannidhi.

The Ashram at South Sainik Farm which played this great role of initiating an exclusive Gurusannidhi during the Jnaana Yajnas, failed to grow humbly and harmoniously with the Saintly ways. But, by that time the ‘institution’ had already grown in dimension, and it was no more feasible to conduct the Yajnas from any individual domestic setup. Hence we started looking for a suitable place where the institution that had grown in the hearts of people, could find its material base.

In the meantime, before we could locate the land in Vasundhara and build up the minimum infrastructure of the Centre for Inner Resources Development (CIRD) there, the Jnaana Yajnas continued to be conducted with the public character from the farm house of a benevolent devotee.

The challenge in Delhi

The transformation that started in 1992, underwent a significant consolidation during the past one year (The article was written in the year 2001) – especially in Delhi with the inauguration of CIRD and in Jamshedpur with the formal registration of the Brahma Vidya Centre as a Society.

The path, of course, was not easy for all. The minds had to expand. The disharmonies had to be sorted out. A new spiritual fraternity had to grow transcending many preferences and dislikes.

In November 2000, when the preparations for the Delhi annual Jnaana Yajna were in full swing, Poojya Swamiji wrote to the devotees in Delhi:

“… …It seems, running the Centre during the Jnaana Yajna this time will be more difficult than last year’s. Those who used to be throughout there earlier years, will not be present this time. This is a set back, no doubt, but it will certainly be a very good test and opportunity for you all, strengthening your saadhana appreciably.

“Last year, CIRD was not properly set. This time we are getting the place somewhat ready for the purpose. And the Centre’s role and activities are going to take shape. The transition is very important and every one of you should give full heart and dedication to the matter. Whatever you do now will determine the state of affairs to come.

“I would like you to keep this in mind and reflect upon the immediate needs – say, finding the cooks, making arrangements to lovingly host and feed people daily, and simultaneously conduct all the allied programmes meticulously and smoothly. This may demand special time, attention and sacrifice from many of you, especially the volunteers.

“Please pass on the message to as many people as possible beforehand, so that next Sunday all can meet in CIRD and you can chalk out a detailed programme.

“Many of you have worked hard to take the construction to the present stage. This year marks the transition as well as the inauguration of CIRD’s activities. It is necessary that you do a fresh thinking to orient yourselves for the new task of setting up the infrastructure and keeping the Centre open during my presence as well as afterwards. It primarily depends upon the Delhi devotees and seekers to come forward and take the lead. So far, it was a question of making the buildings. Now it is a question of manning them to fulfill our objective.

“During our stay, some volunteers must be there in the Centre always to look after the general running of the place. You may make a roster of those who will stay for the purpose, ensuring that one set of volunteers will always be there. The team may change in 2, 3 or 4 days. Who will do what job, is to be decided thoughtfully.

“Of the eight rooms in Saadhana Niketan, at least two should be kept free for the volunteers – one for male and one for female. The rest can be used for visiting devotees. Here too, make the allotments carefully, knowing well who all would like to come and stay. If the number of people is more, then enough sacrifice and adjustments have to be made by visiting devotees between themselves. Treat all this as an important part of your saadhana.

“Aatmano mokshaartham jagad-hitaaya ca – this is the code for spiritual people, especially seekers and ascetics. Remember this. The participation, sharing and contribution you all make physically, mentally, time-wise and otherwise must be in this light. Know that to be an important and inevitable part of your personal saadhana.

“Keep in mind that the near billion people of India are not born of any one mother or father. The whole number is made of individuals, individually born to individual families. So your individual contribution is not at all negligible or small. Anything in the nation or society is a gift from the individual, and through the individual’s own efforts. In the case of spiritual austerity and its benefits, it is all the more so.

“Remember what I told you sitting in Sureka Farm satsang hall: ‘I want you to assemble in Vasundhara on every Sunday as an austerity so that the proposed work of the Centre there will be smooth and effective.’ I was greatly pleased with the thatched mandapam you had made for the weekly satsang. The manner in which you conducted the austere assembly will certainly have its effects. That is the nucleus from which all this has taken place.

“Now that the first part of the project is nearly complete, put in even greater austerity, so that the second part will also come through. First a handful of people, then a small place from where spread the cordial, collective and integral efforts. Thus does any common abode, more so a spiritual institution, grow to be of lasting benefit to the society.

“Be austere. Be fond of each other. Purify yourselves with service and expansive thoughts. Do not miss the occasion to be of help and assistance. Love and ashirvaad.”

Delhi Jnaana Yajna 2000

All the programmes during the November-December Jnaana Yajna 2000 were conducted very well. Careful planning and orderly execution could be felt in almost every event. The CIRD complex with its lush green lawn and sublime architecture appealed to everybody. Many of those who came for the first time after Bhoomi-pooja, expressed their surprise. “As if the whole complex has come up suddenly by the touch of Poojya Swamiji’s magic wand,” commented more than one visitor.

The lectures in FICCI auditorium were well organized. The service counter was better managed. The series of morning classes on “Viveka-choodaamani” was well attended. It was announced as “classes on inner resources development” to emphasize that one must not keep spirituality away even if he is prejudiced about our ancient culture. The discipline and sublimity in the conduct of Saarvajanika Vishnusahasranaama Yajna at CIRD lawn and the orderliness and heartiness in the Bhakti-bhojana made many devotees emotional. About 600 devotees and an equal number of poor were fed after the Yajna. Throughout Poojya Swamiji’s stay, all who visited CIRD, were offered food.

Role of disharmonies

Apparently, all the functions were conducted well. But, what about the difficulties faced by the organizing group? What about the integrity and interpersonal harmony evinced by the volunteers? If everything goes on smoothly and well, without any confusion or conflict caused by ego and intolerance, by lack of understanding and openness, then where will be the scope for saadhana? What is the necessity for such a faultless collective life in the spiritual pursuit of a seeker?

Perhaps there is widespread misunderstanding about this point. Life in the Ashram is not supposed to be free of all worldly difficulties and disharmony. Seekers come to the Ashram from the society with all kinds of mental constriction and insufficiency – only to get rid of them, not after getting rid of them. A good Ashram should rather be a colourful collection of all human complexities!

Only when imperfections are present, there will be scope for sublimation and progress. In an Ashram, in the association of a Mahatma, all discordant situations and interpersonal conflicts get transformed into golden opportunities for saadhana – for discovering the impurities and removing them. Whatever be the external situation or difficulty, the Guru points out the constriction in the seeker’s mind due to which alone it gets affected by the situation. He helps the seeker broaden his vision and sublimate his mind to transcend the affectation. The interpersonal difficulties thus lead to spiritual progress and purification of the seekers on one hand and a loftier bond and integrity in the institution on the other.

So, discordant notes and unpleasant occasions are quite common, nay welcome, in a spiritual abode or institution. And they were so in CIRD too, in November 2000.

The crafty ghost of self-centeredness

Years back, lying on the cot in an ashram in Rishikesh, I was looking at the ceiling fan. The ceiling was full of cobwebs; the fan was even more grimy. Gazing at the fan I remarked, “See, we have been in this room for more than a week – quite leisurely, immersed in spiritual studies and contemplation. Everyday we are seeing the pitiable condition of the fan and the ceiling. But, how is it that our minds do not react? Is it not simply because we don’t have for this place the identity or mamataa we have for our own house?”

The observation was quite simple, not uncommon either; but it worked on my mind then as a great revelation. I understood that although most of the time we were immersed in the contemplation of the Self, what we were practicing was utter selfishness!

Baba’s words rang in my ears. During our last meeting, before Baba left his body, one day when I was pressing his feet, Baba said, “My dear son, even for a Knower it is very difficult to get rid of mamataa while interacting in the world.” Later on I found Swamiji emphasizing again and again: “It is rather easy, I would say, to have samaadhi or Self-experience. One may even remain immersed in lofty spiritual states of ecstasy and absorption. But when it comes to the question of sublimation and expansion of the mind through every interaction, there is no limit to the height and dimension one can reach. And most of the seekers fail miserably in this aspect of spiritual saadhana.”

As a person I was unusually meticulous about maintenance, cleanliness and order of everything around – be it the house or the office room. Coming back from outside I had never kept my shoes without brushing them clean. The steel and wooden furniture, I used to wipe almost everyday. The fresh look of the scooter even after 3 years of use was a talk among friends. They never knew that under the bonnet it was all the more so!

Being so exacting about maintenance, how is it that I did not hear the cry of the room we were staying in? There was no lack of time or energy. The only lack was of belongingness for the place. Such constricted is our mind! That too, of a person who had been spiritual and had Satsang right from childhood, who was soaked in meditative absorption and vedantic contemplation, and who was to renounce worldly life very soon!

This is how self-centeredness continues to delude us in our saadhana. It is the most long-lasting malady and delusion the seekers suffer from. Most of the hindrances to the progress in individual saadhana and most of the difficulties and disharmonies in the collective life of an ashram arise from this notorious ghost of ‘self-centeredness’.

Initially our mind remains tied to the worldly possessions and relationships. We choose profession, place and people according to our own likes and dislikes. When spiritual aspiration overtakes all other desires and interests, the mind gets attached to its own spiritual ‘saadhana’ and ‘fruition’. This attachment is good, and essential too, insofar as it snatches the mind from all other attachments or desires and makes it one-pointed. But, if not treated at the right time, this too makes the mind self-centered and hinders further progress. The simple truth that expansion leads one to the universal Self, and any attitude that constricts the mind leads one to ignorance, eludes the seeker.

Ashram life exposes self-centeredness

Surprisingly, this crafty way of the ego goes undiscovered, or at least unrealized, even by the very advanced seekers until they come to serve the Guru and his Ashram wholesomely.

The collective life of an Ashram relentlessly provides situations where our self-centeredness gets exposed. A seeker may remain engaged in intense saadhana for years leading a secluded ascetic life, he may enjoy the rare peace and ecstasy of highest spiritual states of absorption and oneness, but fail miserably in keeping his poise and harmony in the collective interactive life of an ashram. His life in the ashram will never be harmonious until he orients himself to a new saadhana of expansion and assimilation – which, in truth, is the saadhana of transcending our likes and dislikes.

So, the interactional saadhana in an ashram demands more thorough and comprehensive purification, refinement and expansion of the seeker’s personality than would otherwise take place through individual ascetic saadhana pursued in seclusion.

Moreover, the scope for this kind of exposure and growth is not available in the usual collective lives of family, educational centres or professional institutions. Because, although there too we have to reconcile and accommodate, the central aim of transforming and dedicating our life for a supreme impersonal cause is not there. That is why ‘surrender’ and ‘wholesome dedication to the service of the Guru’ play the fundamental role in the collective life of an ashram. 

Transcending likes and dislikes

What do we mean by “serving wholesomely”? It means a service that calls for surrender of one’s likes and dislikes, surrender of one’s egocentric thoughts. Many devotees may come to a Saint, listen to his talks, take initiation and guidance from him, make some loving offerings or do some service for his mission. They may even have very intimate discussions with him. But the association will not be wholesome until they start living in his close company serving him forgoing their own likes and dislikes, following his words without any reservation or resistance. It is the unquestioning obedience that makes the service to the Guru wholesome.

In other words, the attitude of the disciple must be such that the Guru feels free to correct him and ask him to do whatever is necessary. That is the test of wholesomeness and receptivity of a seeker. Otherwise, even decades of ashram life or association with the Guru will not bring the transforming effects of Gurusannidhi. 

Surrendering the Ego 

Just before my initiation, Baba had given me a significant guidance in his characteristic brief manner. Looking into me with his piercing eyes, he said, “Baba (My dear son), if you take initiation from me, you will have to listen to me.”

The gravity of the statement flashed in my mind with its various implications. I understood, “So far I have been reading spiritual books and listening to Knowers and Saints, trying to understand the Vedantic philosophy and mould my life and behaviour according to what I read and heard. But, what I have practiced till now is only what ‘I’ thought and understood to be right and best for me, guided by my own mind and intelligence. The final decision regarding anything in life, including the kind of saadhana I should pursue, rested on my own understanding and desires. 

“Now, listening to Baba, my Gurudev, would surely mean that I shall have to do what Baba says even if it does not agree with my desires or my understanding of life.”

I almost shuddered, “Is it easy? But it has to be. Otherwise what is the purpose in accepting anyone as Guru? Unless I have faith that the Guru knows more and better even about myself – what is best and auspicious for my life – the very purpose of spiritual discipleship will be defeated.”

The singularity of spiritual discipleship  

Here lies the fundamental difference between spiritual discipleship and any other studentship. When we go to study any subject, we have no problem in accepting the superiority of the Teacher in that particular subject. Otherwise where is the question of going to him to learn? As the subject we learn is objective – different from our subject being and has nothing to do with our mind and behaviour – the ego does not pose any problem in accepting the superiority of the Teacher. But in Brahmavidya, the subject being our own Subject, the purpose being to deal with and transform our own mind and behaviour, resistance or interference from the ego becomes the primary hindrance.

That is why ‘surrender’ is so important in spiritual discipleship. Without surrender or self-effacement, discipleship loses its purpose. 

We have found many devotees saying: “What is there so difficult in obeying what the Guru says? Am I not doing whatever Swamiji asks me to do?” But within days, we have seen them questioning the necessity of even the simple instructions given by Swamiji. In fact, they question primarily because they are not able to win over the petty desires of their mind, the comfort or the indulgences their body is given to.

The point is, as long as the Guru’s comments on our behaviour or his instructions to us do not directly interfere with our own desires, likes and dislikes, or contradict our egoistic self-evaluation, we never come to know what is meant by listening to his words. It is far from hearing his words and acting according to our own limited understanding.

Moreover, as long as a seeker does not renounce his worldly status and relationships, and takes total refuge at the feet of the Guru, the Guru will not and cannot take the full liberty to mould him as he wishes. Also, the occasions for the ego getting exposed in its minutest details do not arise.

That is why the Saastras emphasize again and again the indispensability of Guru-sanga and Guru-sevaa in sublimating the ego and transcending likes and dislikes. The scriptures say that in Guru-sannidhi, a seeker need not do japa, meditation or any other saadhana; he need only serve the Guru with total surrender and self-effacement. Until a disciple tries to do so, he will not know what it is to transcend one’s likes and dislikes, and what is meant by sublimation of ego through interactional saadhana. And it is this spiritual evolution of a seeker call it sublimation of ego or self -effacement or transcending likes and dislikes where Guru-sannidhi in the spiritual institution called Ashram plays its unique, indispensable role.

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