Going the Distance in Spiritual Life — Part 6
Refuge in Spouse, Wealth, & Offspring
In the last post we covered 1–3 of the Five Causes for Lack of Spiritual Success as stated or implied in Shankara’s Vivekachudamani. We will continue now with the fourth point.
- Failure to awaken spiritually
- Refuge in spouse, wealth, offspring
- Obsession with work/activity
These points can be found and/or inferred in verses 4–7 of the Vivekachudamani.
Refuge in Spouse, Wealth, & Offspring
In verses six and seven, Shankara emphatically states that only by realizing the identity of the individual Self as Brahman will Liberation be attained and never by performing rituals, gathering wealth, or begetting offspring. In Shankara’s time these three were integrated into one’s religious life and they satisfied the ancestors and society. Performed dharmically, they are a means to attain good karma and heavenly realms leading to rebirth in good circumstances back on earth. But as Swami Aseshanandaji would say, you cannot get an infinite result from a finite cause. So none of these can cause Liberation. Liberation is ever present but not recognized until one realizes one’s identity in Brahman. (Please see the attached chart, “The Five Cosmic Bondages & Three Great Desires” at the bottom of this article.)
The Eshanatrayam and the Gunas
Eshanatrayam is a Sanskrit word referring to spouse, wealth, and offspring as the triple bondage. It is one of the evolutes of maya responsible for entangling people in a web of desire and karma that will keep them rotating in samsara (rounds of birth and death in ignorance) in the same place and condition, spiritually speaking, for lifetimes if they are merely moral and ethical. Sri Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita, refers to these moral and ethical persons as predominantly rajasic in nature. Though they abide by the injunctions of religion and society, they are intent on fulfilling their desires in the world. Merely following the moral-ethical codes of society and religion does not lead to Liberation. Others, of uncontrolled passions (both rajas leaning towards tamas, and mostly tamasic), fall headlong into very dark lifetimes. Even for the spiritual person of increasingly sattvic nature and practicing spiritual disciplines, work and family life easily distract one’s attention, keeping it focused on relative concerns, and drawing precious energy and time away from sadhana and the teaching of dharma to their children.
Sri Ramakrishna tells the story of a man who renounced the world with the blessings of his guru who told him to remain where he was practicing spiritual austerities. The guru promised to return in due time. The man did as he was told for many months, maybe even years. Then one day he noticed that his only loin cloth was being eaten by mice. Some well-meaning villagers gave him a cat to keep the mice away. But then the cat needed milk, so he was given a cow, which naturally needed land to graze on, so he also got a little plot. Eventually, his possessions required management, so he got married, then children came, more land was needed to feed everyone, and so forth. Some years went by and the guru went looking for his disciple. The villagers sent him to the man’s now prosperous holdings. We can imagine that meeting…..
We need to hear the message of renunciation, and boldly face the facts of how spouse, wealth, and offspring have to be carefully handled in order to be a source of spiritual strength, camaraderie, and a channel for enlightened souls to enter the world.
This sounds very damning for family life, and to be sure, the Vivekachudamani was written for monks and vanaprasthins (forest dwellers). However, in this modern era, some householders are getting attracted to the radical and uncompromising truth of Advaita Vedanta. We need to hear this message of renunciation, and boldly face the facts of how spouse, wealth, and offspring have to be carefully handled in order to be a source of spiritual strength, camaraderie, and a channel for enlightened souls to enter the world. Sri Ramakrishna also referred to family life as a “fort” for the spiritual householder, and we must not forget that many of the Indian rishis connected to the Upanisads were householders. Without compromise or complacency let us make our homes into ashrams centered around dharma — hearing the truth, reasoning and practicing it, and finally realizing it.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna elucidates on the teaching above concerning how those of a tamasic nature (dull and deluded) devolve, entering darker and darker wombs; those of rajasic nature (restless) revolve where they are; and those of a sattvic (balanced) nature rise. But this is not to say that mere sattva can result in Liberation either. Sattva binds with pleasure, as Shankara states in later verses of the Vivekachudamani. It is associated with seeking heaven through good actions, which is just a gold chain, as opposed to the iron chains of desire-based negative actions. Applying this in terms of the eshanatrayam, one can see how a rajasic family life binds one to lives of restless and worldly striving, creating negative and positive karmas, and a sattvic family life, binds one to the pleasure earned from good actions, keeping one revolving between heaven and earth. What is the way out of this for a dharmic householder? The answer is always in mature renunciation — an inner mental posture for the householder.
From Eshanatrayam to “Dharmatrayam” — Guru, Dharma, and Sangha.
“Renunciation is not condemnation, but deification.” — Swami Aseshanandaji
Householders need the holy company of illumined and authentic preceptors and that of other spiritually-striving families. The path of the householder intent on realizing “Ayam Atma Brahman” (this Self is Brahman) is necessarily a yogic and/or tantric path that blends discrimination between the Self and the non-Self, and renunciation of the non-Self, with “assuming the position” of seeing everything in God. “Renunciation is not condemnation, but deification.” It is a path of Wisdom in Love. Sri Ramakrishna explained to his devotees that “everything you see is the union of Siva and Shakti.” This tells us that form (Shakti) covers Formlessness (Siva) — all phenomena is superimposed over pure Reality, which is pure Existence, Awareness, and Bliss.
Applying this insight to insentient objects leads to freedom from attachment and aversion — Shakti is Dancing on Siva; phenomena is shimmering “atop” the Noumenon. When we apply this to relationships we begin to have infinite, abiding love for what is eternal — the one indivisible Atman — in each other. This strengthens families and empowers all members to live in knowledge of one’s true Nature. As the ancient rishi, Yajnavalkya said to his wife Maitreyi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad, “It is not for the sake of the husband (form) that the husband is loved, but for the sake of the Self (Formlessness).”
Adhering to this ideal in the midst of a society that is asleep to the nature of the Self is a tremendous challenge, but there is no alternative for the yogic householder. Guru, Dharma, and Sangha are essential for support and guidance. For Western families pioneering this kind of family life, it is fraught with situations where work or family issues can veil the knowledge we have been given in the dharma — knowledge that would dissolve stressful reactions and uphold a balanced mind for dealing with them. We have to trust the words of the Seers as we go forward and not fall back on the conventional eshanatrayam, which assumes:
· The world is ultimately real
· We are separate individuals that are born and die;
· The purpose of life is pleasure; my home is for security and entertainment; wealth is for me and mine;
· My spouse is there for my happiness and fulfillment.
· Children are physical bodies and personalities that are brought forth to fulfill my earthly desires
· Karmas and samskaras developed over lifetimes don’t exist.
In contrast, householder yogis proceed on the following principles:
· Only Brahmam is Real; the world is a manifestation of Its dynamic power; it deludes when discrimination is absent; it is sportive play when discrimination and detachment are present.
· The Atman (Self) is never born or dies but associates with psycho-physical forms
· The purpose of life is to realize the Self; one’s home is an ashram and wealth is to support the dharma and raising a dharmic family.
· One’s spouse is a divine companion, of transcendent Essence, to have and to hold, with selfless loving service, along the path of Yoga
· Children are so many forms of the one indivisible Atman temporarily in one’s care to help them pick up the thread of Yoga from previous lifetimes;
· The manifestation of innate tendencies (samskaras) are to be scrutinized with guidance from the preceptor in order to nurture the beneficial and help neutralize the negative.
The eshanatrayam and its assumptions lead away from Yoga, from Self-Realization. In the words of the Bengali poet-saint, Ramprasad Sen, “To hope for help from relatives and wealth provides no profound solution. Have you forgotten that everyone is lost here? Everyone lives in pallid imitation of everyone else hoping to find the true way.” Therefore, a yogic householder eschews the conventional family life of eshanatrayam and takes recourse in the “dharmatrayam” — Guru, Dharma, and Sangha.