Volume XII – The Divinity of the Human Soul
Part I: The Vision of God and Man and other Lectures
THE LIFE OF THE SAGE IN THE EAST
WHEN I reflect on the English word ‘sage’ it seems to me that it must come from two different roots, of which one is to be found in Sanskrit, namely ‘swaga’, and the other in Persian, ‘safa’ or ‘saga’. The first root means ‘heaven’, which suggests that the one who tries to become a sage is trying to attain heaven or to become it himself. The other root suggests that a sage is a person who wishes to construct something, one who is constructive. But, of course, there is no such word as ‘sage’ in any eastern language, though they possess a similar word, ‘sant’, which has the same meaning as ‘saint’. Then there is the word ‘sadhana’, which means ‘mastery’; and a Sadhu is one who masters life.
Now there are two different temperaments. There is the one which is always inclined to be contented with things, to accept everything as it comes, willing to live a retired life, resigned to everything that may happen. Indeed we see this temperament more or less in everyone. The other temperament is the one which wishes to master things, which has a desire to master every situation, to master another person, to master an undertaking, to act with will power and courage.
No doubt there is good and evil in both temperaments. The person who is always retired and resigned and contented with everything is not necessarily all good, without any evil in him, nor is the one who controls others and masters circumstances always an ideal person. It is just that there are these two temperaments, and everyone has more or less of the one or of the other.
The Sadhu and the Sant represent these two temperaments. The Sadhu controls and masters things; the Sant is resigned and contented in all situations and under all circumstances in life. He chooses a life of retirement and resignation. If you were to ask me which of the two is superior, I would say that there is neither superior nor inferior. If you work according to your temperament, that is the natural work for you, whereas if you work against your temperament it is like knocking yourself against a rock, and there is no hope of progress. But if you do what you are fitted for, and act accordingly to your temperament, then there will always be progress. The temperament is not a virtue to be displayed; neither is it something to be overcome so that one acts against one’s own nature. The sage recognizes these two temperaments and uses them accordingly, giving them more rein and rendering them more evident to the eye of the seer. He studies how they operate in people’s lives, and no doubt it is very interesting to study the lives of the sages in the East from this point of view; but to a stranger in these countries it is mystifying how their different behaviors can belong to sagehood or saintliness, because in the West people have the idea a sage must be kind, retiring and renouncing, or perhaps even a wonder-worker. So when such qualities are not in evidence it might seem that there is something wrong with the sages! To gain deep understanding of what the saintly life means, and to form a reasonable opinion about the sages in the East, much patience and tolerance are required. People are apt to be disappointed when they judge from appearances.
We will first take the sages among the Hindus. This race is naturally sage-like, and a Hindu sage may be a Brahmin, a Kshatriya, a Vaishya, or even a Shudra. There are sages among all castes in India. The idea has been worked out in that country for thousands of years; it is in the people’s blood, and this tendency can be seen even in a child. In my own childhood I derived great pleasure from being in the presence of a sage. At an age when others liked to play ball or play with kites and pigeons I yearned for solitude. It is as if such a desire has been carried on for thousands of years; not only have the sages made their impression on the race, but the race has also been impressed by sagehood itself. The people have the greatest respect for a sage; the greatest admiration, whether they are in business or in a profession, or students, or whatever walk of life they follow. Their greatest joy is to be at the feet of a sage; it is as if one were at the feet of the Deity. So the greatest thing in the world, the highest ideal of life, is some day to be able to become a sage. Not only does the Brahmin feel thus, but also the laborer, the Shudra, has the desire to be released from his toil and obtain a glimpse of that beauty which is hidden in the sage.
There are two kinds of Hindu sages: the Vairagi and the Sant. The one is ascetic, the other is saintly. The life of the Vairagi is very surprising, very extraordinary, and it is a great puzzle to those who meet him. One might be quite afraid of a man who was lying down with ashes rubbed all over his face and body, or perhaps sitting almost in a fire. His very appearance is so strange. He may be living in a graveyard outside the city, and going into the city only to obtain food for himself and his friends who are Vairgis like himself. At other times he goes off into the wilderness and lives there. He spends most of his time in meditation and in striving after mastery of the self.
The path which the Hindus follow is one of the four Yogas, and it is through Hatha Yoga, the path of abstinence, that the Vairagi endeavors to develop his spiritual life. In following this path, practices may be carried out which seem hideous, or at least very strange, to those who do not understand the underlying philosophy or ideal. Whatever he does, the object is to reach the spirit by killing everything that hides the spirit from his sight. One might say that he considers himself to be his own enemy, so he crushes everything that is not spirit, everything that interferes with his spiritual progress. He seeks to kill all that is mortal within himself, realizing that in this way he can attain to a higher and more powerful life.
No words can ever describe the experience he gains. No one else but he himself can possibly understand his experience; it is like a child who has never eaten sugar what the word ‘sweet’ means. Only they can understand the idea of sweet who have experienced sweetness. So a Vairagi is very powerful; to perform a miracle all he has to do is flick his hand. His whole life seems to stand before him as his obedient servant; all who see a Vairagi know that he is the master of life.
Once one is master of self one is master of life. The self is that which makes our life limited, so when we master it we master life, and we become its master in proportion to the degree in which we have attained self-mastery. Such a person is master even of plants and trees, or any living being; he has mastered everything. We cannot easily appreciate this, for it is quite unintelligible until one has oneself developed that mastery in one’s own life. Then it is possible to see how life seems to become obedient in all manner of relationships.
Do we not see, even in our own limited experience, how things go wrong when we have become weak in will or mind in one affair or another? It is not possible to master the conditions of life until we have learned to control ourselves. Once we have mastery over our self everything will go right. It is just the same as when a rider has no strength in his fingers, so that he cannot hold the horse’s reins. His fingers must obey his mind before the horse will obey. This is true of all circumstances in life, and of all the various conditions around us, our relations, our friends. We may complain that no one listens, that our servant does not do what we wish him to do, that our assistants do not carry out our orders. We may blame them when all the time it is ourselves who are to blame because we have not mastered ourselves first. After we have done this they will obey.
The Vairagi learns his lesson mainly through abstinence. Why is this? Because things go wrong through our own weakness; we do not do what we wish to do; we consider ourselves so small that we cannot achieve our own wishes.
There are many wonder-workers among the sages of the Vairagi category. But do not think that they will mount a platform and perform! Anyone who walks on to a stage to show off miracles is false, not real. The real Vairagi aims at his own mastery and is not concerned with doing tricks for the world to see, so no one sees them. The Vairagi’s whole life is a wonder, and yet the world is unaware of it. Not only is he a wonder in himself, but the whole world is a wonder to him, so great is his vision, his power, his inspiration. But his life is a very hard one; it is a great renunciation.
The other kind of sage is the Sant. He also grows through four stages, of which the first is Brahmacharya-shrama or the stage of study. He uses the intellect and he learns about life through both study and practice. This is an intellectual attainment of knowledge. From this he passes on to Grihastha-shrama, the attainment of knowledge through practical experience of the responsibilities of life – responsibility for wife, husband, children, home; the experience of living with neighbors, with enemies; doing one’s duty by them in every way. All this is necessary before he can become a sage.
Next there is Vanaprastha-shrama, in which the aspirant goes beyond serving just his family. His consciousness comes to realize that all he has done for his family so far has been done for himself, for his wife and children. Now he must live for others, for the people of the town, of the country, of the race; he must even do what he can for the whole world. This is the service of humanity, the path of duty.
Finally he arrives at Sanyasa-shrama, which is a life of retirement and solitude. This is the life of retreat. The man who has lived a life of honesty, virtue, goodness, and service is recognized as having done so by his wife and children, and they appreciate that now he should be allowed to follow the life of his own choice. They realize it is time for him to go into retreat. He must go into Sanyasa-shrama; but he does not do this unless his family consents.
Before describing this life I must explain why it is necessary. Why should not one always be in the world? Why the need for retirement at the latter part of life? This retirement is only too necessary. In the first place the man has given up all his life, all his time, all his energy, to the study of worldly things; secondly he has done all this in the interest of his family or perhaps for many people around him. It is right that he should some day have a rest. We ourselves feel justified in resting when Saturday comes, so why should he not have his Sunday after working all his life – a life that has been nothing but continual conflict every moment, proving him to be wise and kind and gentle, true, honest, and virtuous through it all? His patience and virtue have been tested through all the temptations to which he was exposed, through all of life’s difficulties, dangers, humiliations, and responsibilities that had to be faced. This man is surely justified, on reaching the fourth stage of life, in having a little peace, with no more worries or responsibilities of business or profession or even of his family. The world should leave him alone to think and meditate and let his muscles, bones, body, and mind be at rest. All this is natural. So you cannot imagine anyone in the East, and especially in India, not longing from the time he was born for the day when he can become a sage. Whatever may have been his occupation, profession, business, trade or family, he will have been longing for that moment when he could become a Vairagi at last, when he could cast off the load of responsibility that he had carried on his back all those years. He has longed for the time when he can give himself over to thinking about the truth, having now peace and rest and opportunity to communicate with the eternal Being. He has all the time been hoping for his desire to be granted when he may have a rest, with enough time to think of God and live that life wherein one becomes capable of being one with God.