Seeking – giving up pleasures? (Q. 322)

Q: I can see I need to live more austerely, and I am prepared to sacrifice much to bring about a more lucid and disciplined spiritual practice, but if I am honest, sacrificing those pleasures will have their cost and I will miss them. I would give up nearly anything to find a way forward, but I have heard that unless giving up pleasures is seen as so necessary it isn’t actually a sacrifice, it won’t produce any progress, making it pointless. I am confused. Living austerely definitely means sacrifice, and I could do it, but what’s the point in doing it if it won’t work? I hope I have been clear. If you could tell me what you think, I would be most grateful.

A (Sitara): Your emphasis on austerities and sacrifice indicates that you are influenced by a tradition other than Advaita Vedanta. While following dharma (an ethical lifestyle) has its place in Advaita Vedanta, it does not require austerities. It just means “be fair”, i.e. treat others the way you yourself would like to be treated. Also following a spiritual practice of meditation and prayer is thought of as beneficial for the seeker; but there is no need for much sacrifice here either, except for remaining with it even if sometimes inconvenient – having to get up a little earlier for example.

 Now, why does Advaita Vedanta ask seekers to follow dharma, meditate and pray? All these are not ends in themselves. In order to understand Vedanta the mind of the seeker has to be fine-tuned, sharp and calm and these measures help to develop such a mind. Slowly, slowly you will develop two essential attitudes: one consists in a change of priorities: life revolves less around making yourself secure and finding pleasure – because you realize that in the end such a focus always robs you of calm and clarity. Instead you start to select your actions according to whether they are likely to help you towards mokSha (enlightenment) or not. The other attitude is based on the insight that you will never ever be able to control life, you can only do the best you can and leave the rest to life itself, meaning to Ishvara/God, see

 All of this will prepare the seeker for Vedanta, i.e. awaken the thirst to know for him/herself what can be read in the scriptures: that the human being is not an insignificant speck of dust in an indifferent universe but is that which makes this universe possible in the first place. His thirst will open him up to finding a teacher who can help him gain this understanding and be free.

A (Peter): This question includes many statements that would not necessarily be supported by the traditional teachers of advaita Vedānta. This should come as good news for the questioner and relieve him or her of much angst. Below is a response to some of these statements.

 1. “I am prepared to sacrifice much to bring about a more lucid and disciplined spiritual practice”. Vedanta does not ask for this. A ‘lucid and disciplined spiritual practice’ comes from being clear that the pursuit of security, pleasure and ethical living aren’t the ultimate goals of a human life but all of them subserve the goal called mokṣa – i.e. freedom from the erroneous notion that I am a limited, small, insecure and unhappy person. As long as this is clear then the pursuit of pleasures that do not transgress dharma (a life of values) are no problem: they need not be given up. One simply needs to be clear not to over-value them: they can never deliver any more than temporary suspension of discontent.

 2. “I have heard that unless giving up pleasures is seen as so necessary it isn’t actually a sacrifice, it won’t produce any progress, making it pointless”. Nonsense! It is not ‘necessary’ to sacrifice anything (apart from a life that conflicts with natural universal human values)! The thing that really IS necessary is to make real efforts to find a proper teacher. The safest way of recognizing a qualified teacher is that he or she is likely to be one who has had a teacher who has had a teacher. Another clue is that they do not have a worldly life outside their spiritual life and teaching. Another clue is that they have some scriptural base to their teaching.

 3. “Living austerely definitely means sacrifice”. ‘Living austerely’ does not mean a life of deprivation. If anything, it means developing discrimination and discretion in action to strengthen one’s ability to be effective. It means having some mastery over the mind (i.e. not letting it stray wherever it wants when you need it to remain one-pointed, for example). It means having mastery over the senses (i.e. not indulging the senses in their attraction to the unpleasant or salacious or adharmic). It means doing one’s own duty (i.e. leaving others to live their own lives and not interfering in their duties). It means not losing balance in the face of victory or defeat, heat or cold, success or failure (i.e. accepting with grace and dignity life’s changing fortunes). It means finding a teacher and teaching you can trust (i.e. that which does not require you to deny logic or science or experience). It means having the ability to hold the mind to whatever it needs to focus on (i.e. to develop a pure and steady mind that is fit for the understanding of the subtlest knowledge).

 Bottom line: Be clear that the ultimate aim of a human life is limitless happiness (another name for mokṣa) and that this happiness comes from correcting the erroneous notions one has about oneself. Once that is really clear, then feel free to pursue security and pleasure in conformity with dharma in pursuit of this freedom from the wrong self-image.

A (Ramesam): Yes, you have been very clear and what you raised is a very significant issue many sadhaks (seekers) may not be even conscious of beyond following the diktat of a real or fake guru!

There are several dimensions from which the question needs to be examined. It is a topic for a full blown essay. In fact I have been planning for the last few months to prepare a write up on “self-control” and maybe I would do so one of these days.

One point that should be clear upfront, right away, is that Advaita is not a business proposition. No give this and take that guarantees. No tradeoffs.

Several religious teachings (not only the TV Evangelists but many Swamis too) lure the public with ‘promises’ of fulfilling their desires, of bestowing happiness, of an assured heaven etc. for the return of their ‘faithful unquestioning obedience to certain instructions.’

And precisely there lies the distinct mark of Advaita.

Advaita is NOT a religion; it is not about ‘promises’; it is not about a laundry list of dos and don’ts.

Advaita is about knowing Truth; it is about understanding who or what ‘You’ really are; it is about Self-inquiry. 

Any inquiry will necessarily follow a method. All methods do require some preparedness on the part of the inquirer. And every preparation will have an outcome. It makes you ‘ready’ for the inquiry.

What happens at the end of the self-inquiry is something ‘unknown.’ It cannot be expressed in words. It cannot be captured and sealed in terms of what we are normally familiar with using the word pairs of opposites like happiness and unhappiness; receivables and rejectables; likes and dislikes.

The Knowers (let us not at this stage get into the question of who is a “Knower”) use the indicative word Brahman for that ‘unknown’ merely as a ‘pointer.’

Brahman does not have any limits of size and is not definable by qualities. Hence, It is said to be ‘Infinite.’

Brahman does not contain any other things within It. Hence It is said to be ‘Indivisible.’

Brahman does not have any descriptors of length, width, height, weight, smell or even quantum physical terms like spin, polarity, charge etc. So It is said to be ‘Indescribable.’

Any attribute that we can think of ascribing to a thing depends on our sensory or mental perceptions (i.e. concepts developed on the basis of the five senses and mind). But what is indicated by Brahman is beyond the senses and mind. It cannot be ‘effed.’ So It is said to be ‘Ineffable.’

Even the Advaita™ concepts like ‘maya, avidya etc.’ are finally dispensable – these words are explanatory artifacts to satisfy an inquisitive mind. Hence Brahman is said to be ‘Inexpressible.’

And one more thing.  Advaita is not even about self-help.  The very point that Advaita tells is that there is no ‘self’ – a separate individuating ‘me’ – there in you.  When there is no ‘self’, what do you have to help improve, become better?

Just as there is no practice or pre-requisites to realize that there is no ‘self’ in you, in the final game of things, it has to be realized that there is no animal called “Brahman” to be attained! With this “realization” all the search ends. And “realization” is the ending of seeking.

When everything is sublated, what is the residuum?  Just ‘this’ – the world as is without a you or a me or any percept whatsoever and without a name.

Then a certain morality automatically thrives. All those so called ‘good’ qualities prevail. The ego meets its death.

The ‘ego’ does not die with any amount of assumed ‘false’ humility. Any amount of sacrifice you make will show you to be more ‘selfish’ when you give up things for obtaining a far superior / better ‘self.’ Emulation of ‘presumed’ good qualities and practices expecting some benevolent results is like putting the cart before the horse.  As a Telugu proverb says, burning stripes on its body to resemble a tiger will not convert a jackal to a tiger. (Perhaps, Dennis can cite an equivalent or more idiomatic English saying).

Yes, acquisition of the Fourfold Aids of Seeking (including the cultivation of the six qualities like control of internal and external organs etc.) is taught as a pre-qualifier before the final teaching is handed down in the traditional system. But that was a syllabus for a different age, for a different set of (brahmachari) population.

What is of prime importance, IMHO, is a clear cut and unambiguous understanding of the Advaita message. Does not matter at a verbal or intellectual level to start with. Let the message sink in. Let the message do its work.

Even after the message is clearly understood that there is no separate ‘me’, the mind keeps coming back to its old ways of assertion saying that you are an individualistic entity out of its sheer habit.  The mind needs to be retrained in its new worldview. Such a retraining will take much less time in case it is already chastened and tamed by prior practice (i.e. before learning and understanding the Non-dual message). But mature, educated and intelligent (wo)men can understand the teaching first because the ‘understanding’ itself is not a function of that practice.

Molasses may come about when sugar is manufactured. But production of molasses will not yield sugar. Good behavior and ‘selflessness’ etc. are byproducts of realizing the Truth of what ‘You’ really are. Do not keep the byproducts as the goal.

So the first and foremost thing is to understand the Truth. The understanding must be understanding as a fact, not understanding as a thought as JK would put it. In fact, diminishing ‘selfishness’, reducing desires, decreasing interest in pleasures, aversion for acquisitions and so on can serve as ‘markers’ for the clarity with which the Non-dual message is assimilated and the ability of the retrained mind in the abidance of that assimilation.

A (Shuka): You are right in that unless giving up pleasures is seen as so necessary, you will not make any progress. This is clear and my only wonder, therefore, is where the confusion is? Maybe you see it as a value to practice because someone has advised you to and therefore, you are willing to sacrifice and yet, internally, you miss them and hence the confusion.

 Vairagya, meaning dispassion, should arise out of Viveka, which means discrimination. Definition of Viveka is nitya anitya vastu vivekaḥ, meaning clearly seeing the difference between eternal and ephemeral things. Vairagya is iha amutrārtha phala bhoga viragaḥ, meaning dispassion towards pleasures in this world and worlds herein after such as Heaven. Clear knowledge of the eternal and ephemeral, should result in dispassion towards pleasures of this world and herein after.

If vairagya is born out of viveka, then sacrificing the pleasures will be natural event, a happening where there will be not even a sense of sacrifice; if one psyches oneself into giving up, then it will only be bottled up emotions waiting to burst out. Bhagavān Krṣṇa says in Bhagavad Gīta (verse 3.06), “one who has externally reigned in the senses, but indulges in it within his mind, is a hypocrite and the biggest fool.”

A (Dhanya): Two things my Vedanta teacher has said which may be apropos of your concern.

One is that desires which are not opposed to dharma are considered to be vibhutis, i.e. glories of the Lord. My teacher has often pointed out that Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita says, ‘I come to you in the form of desires which are not opposed to dharma.’

Why would that be said? Because in this life we are unfolding our prarabdha karma’s, those karmas that caused us to take birth and which will take us through to our death. Those karmas need to be unfolded, and it is often through the arising and fulfillment of desires that happens.

For instance, one might desire to become a doctor, or get married, or have children; and that is all well and good, because that is how one’s karma is meant to get unfolded.

Further we can look at the issue of desires and viragya. Viragya means having the proper attitude toward desires. In terms of gaining knowledge of the self it is important to understand that true happiness does not actually lie in the fulfillment of a desire. True happiness does not lie in any object, person or situation. If it did then the same object, person, or situation would make everyone happy, and that clearly is not the case.

Happiness is you. It is your nature. When we have viragya toward the objects and experiences in the world then we do not get carried away by our desires. It could said that we have sorted out what is what. We can enjoy the objects and experiences as they arise, but we know that our happiness resides only in the self. Thus we can fulfill desires as we need and want to, as long as they do not oppose dharma. And we should fulfill them in order to fulfill our karma. At the same time we should know that the fulfillment of no desire will bring about ultimate happiness.

There is only one desire whose fulfillment brings about ultimate happiness, and that is the desire for liberation, because once fulfilled, that desire gives rise to no other. From that place one is free.

A (Dennis): You do not have to give up pleasures. And living austerely will not bring about enlightenment. Here are a couple of points to clarify this:

. doing (anything), i.e. karma or action will never bring about enlightenment; only self-knowledge can do this, since only knowledge is opposed to ignorance.

. regarding attitude to pleasure and so on, you have to want mokSha more than anything else and, this being the case, it will be perfectly natural always to put that desire before all others. But you can still enjoy a good meal etc! You only really need to give something up if its pursuit is interfering with your pursuit of knowledge. And, if you have the right attitude, then giving up will not be any problem; indeed there would probably be no interference in the first place.

. the purpose of the disciplined spiritual practice is only to prepare the mind so that it is in a fit state for taking on board the knowledge. If it is not fit, the j~nAnam will not have its effect. Once this has been achieved, you need to drop the karma yoga. The belief that karma and j~nAna should be practiced together right up to enlightenment is a belief called samuchchaya vAda – and is refuted by Shankara in the upadesha sAhasrI. (I may write a blog on this topic soon. It interests me because I have just realized that this was effectively the belief of the organization I attended – SES.)

Hope this relieves your concerns!