New Year’s Day

Why do so many cultures observe New Year’s Day with such fanfare? The mundaneness accentuates the forgotten origins of the holiday. In more northern latitudes New Year’s Day is in the thick of earliest winter, coming on the heels of the winter solstice, suggesting a seasonal origin.

But January first is not what is apparently universal about New Year’s Day. For the ancient Celts New Year’s Day was November first, which as a pastoral people signified the coming of cold when the animals could now long find pasture. The Chinese New Year is famously dated as the first day after the new moon of February, meaning the first day of spring. This latter practice exemplifies the seasonal character of optimism in the return of warmth, sunlight, long days, and renewed life.

Seasonal optimism was not a passive observation or mere hope. The return of spring involved appropriate propitiation, the sacrificial death of what anthropologist James Frazer called a “worshipful animal,” be it a wren, a boar, a goat, a pig, or a dog, as cultures universally marked a scapegoat to be driven into the deathly cold, or slain there before the assembled villagers. Thus New Year’s Day was the original and universal Day of Atonement.

The literalness of scapegoating can be seen in early modern Eastern Europe, where the overlay of Christian holidays and the urgency of midwinter propitiation blur ominously. The twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany were called the Witching Days or the Witching Time. During these days, witches and their protective female spirits must be driven from forests and fields, from every nook and cranny of the land and villages in order to assure good fortune for the coming year. Not merely prayers and exorcisms would accomplish this but the people took to torchlight processions, great bonfires, and, above all, noise: bells, horns, drums, kettles, and later shots ringing in the air.

Do we not have in the Witching Time an exemplar of today’s New Year’s Eve celebrations?

In medieval and later Japan, a custom among poets was to pen the year’s first poem, a New Year’s Day haiku, quietly mocked by the 18th century poet Buson:

New Year’s first poem
written — now self-satisfied,
O haiku poet!

Other poets, too, applied a reduction to seasonal images to dispel society’s aggrandizement of the first day of the year. Kikaku and Ransetsu reflectively observe birds; Issa observes the sky.

New Year’s dawn —
quietly the cranes
pace up and down.

New Year’s Day —
clear dawn, sparrows
telling tales.

New Year’s Day here —
utter simplicity,
sky deep blue.

We leave to haiku master Basho a restoration not only of seasonal imagery to this calendar day but also emotional sensibility essential to the interpretation of the passage of time and the panoply of nature. Basho, the oft-hermit, best captures the seasonal and intuitive characteristic of the day.

New Year’s Day —
each thought a loneliness
as winter dusk descends.

Martin Luther and solitude

One of the more complex figures of history is the Christian reformer Martin Luther. His reform ushered a religious revolution in Europe, not only as the end of the religious domination of the Catholic Church in the precedent it gave to the entire Protestant Reformation, but also in philosophy, especially German and northern European thought for centuries to come.

The famous religious scruples of Luther, considered as expressions of the contemporary milieu, were not entirely outside of the cultural context of medieval mentality. Luther’s insistence on resolving psychological and cultural issues into religious ones was consistent with the late medieval, which saw the rise of dynamic individuals not atypically medieval despite their “modern” thrust: Francis of Assisi to Joachim of Fiore, John Wycliffe to Jan Hus. But Luther viewed his core theological concerns with the nature of sacraments and priesthood, for example, as incompatible to the age. Viewing through a scriptural lens, Luther obliterated the medieval tension that had surrounded typical figures mentioned above and created what for lack of a better term must be called a “modern” point of view.

Not modern in the Renaissance sense — the very term “renaissance” suggests a rebirth of antiquities but not something new. Not modern, either, in the scientific sense; the preoccupations of a Galileo or Copernicus would have struck Luther as irrelevant. Not modern, initially, even in a theological sense, where scruples about abuses would have been reflective of as much a medieval as a modern point of view. Luther was not given to intellectualizing or rationalizing or accommodating the spirit of the age. This spirit was already brewing storms, and he successfully matched the storms of his inner being with those of the age, especially in reflective the restiveness of the German nobility and clergy.

Luther’s mode of thought and action was both his personal strength and his foible. With bracing clarity he could discern the necessities of his religious belief and was no hypocrite. But with equal energy, he could tangle himself in the psychological realm wherein his scriptural authorities offered no relief but dogged outlasting of the assaults of conscience. He thus reduced his inner capacity to wrestling his way past his demons.

From Luther’s scruples — and they are not mere psychological foibles but intrinsic philosophical concerns not resolved by theology alone — history draws a direct line to the doubts of Pascal, the fear and trembling of Kierkegaard, the vehemence and thunder of Nietzsche, the tragic irony of Unamuno.

This drama can best be followed in Luther’s views of solitude. To Luther, as in Judaism (and Islam, for that matter), solitude contradicts the solidarity of the family and community of believers, which is strong not only from belief but as a cultural and ethnic solidarity. While some mystics in these traditions escape the strictures of this proscription — and see solitude as a viable mechanism — Luther was not a mystic. He had no desire to escape or transcend his age and its problems. He was acutely conscious of an individuality that troubled him, and restricted himself to the limited psychological tools available in religion. At times he prayed and yet wondered not merely at God’s answer but doubted the very efficacy of prayer. His was not a dark night or a spiritual dryness but a lifetime of doubt and struggle. In the end, only faith, blind or stubborn, uninformed or inevitable, could overcome.

When in hiding at Wartburg Castle after the trial at Worms, Luther described his dwelling-place as “my Patmos,” or “my wilderness.” Doubts reeled in his mind — as can be understood at such a momentous point in his life, but the doubts were not viewed by him as human, as part of the crisis he had created, the turmoil he had engendered. The doubts were demonic, and the Prince of Darkness taunted him:

Are you alone wise? Have so many centuries gone wrong? What if you are in error and are taking so many others with you to eternal damnation?

And Luther himself, languishing the the castle, experienced an insecurity reminiscent of a novice desert hermit. He wrote to his friend Melancthon:

I can tell you in this idle solitude there are a thousand battles with Satan. It is much easier to fight against the incarnate Devil — that is, against men — than against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places. Often I fall and am lifted again by God’s right hand.

As sympathetic biographer Roland Bainton notes: “Solitude and idleness increased his distress.” The forces against him were building, yet he could not abide patient waiting. Luther was so restless with solitude, with what Bainton calls his “loneliness and lack of public activity,” that Luther averred: “I wanted to be in the fray. … I had rather burn on live coals than rot here.” His digestive ailments worsened and he suffered a virulent insomnia.

When I go to bed, the Devil is always waiting for me, When he begins to plague me, I give him this answer: “Devil, I must sleep, That’s God’s command, ‘Work by day. Sleep by night.’ So go away.” If that doesn’t work and he brings out a catalog of sins, I say, “Yes, old fellow, I know all about it. And I know some more you have overlooked. Here are a few extra. Put them down.” If he still won’t quit and presses me hard and accuses me as a sinner, I scorn him and say, “St. Satan, pray for me. Of course, you have never done anything wrong kin your life. You alone are holy. Go to God, and get grace for yourself. If you want to get me all straightened out, I say, ‘Physician, heal thyself.’”

At other times, Luther writes, he argued with God for remaining hidden and denying the virtue of his challenge to Christendom.

Luther’s restlessness with himself translated into an opposition to solitude. Luther was of peasant stock, with the virtue of community and conviviality as foremost ways of living, and this formed his character in a compelling way. After so many years as a monk, however, his liberation did not bring peace, for relations with God remained, by his own belief, at an individual level, without intermediate church or priesthood. So his advice to himself for overcoming solitude, whether psychological or theological solitude, was a good dose of the world — not worldliness, but the world of his upbringing and that of his peasant and humble compatriots. Solitude is the field of temptation and the devil, he tells himself. Don’t fight there. As Bainton notes, Luther’s final solution was to “banish the whole subject. Seek company and discuss some irrelevant matter as, for example, what is going on in Venice. Shun solitude.”

As Luther himself put it: “Eve got into trouble when she walked in the garden alone. I have my worst temptations when I am by myself.'”

Bainton continues paraphrasing Luther’s sentiments on solitude:

Seek out some Christian brother, some wise counselor. Ungird yourself with the fellowship of the church. Then, too, seek convivial company, feminine company, dine, dance, joke, and sing. Make yourself eat and drink even though food may be very distasteful. Fasting is the very worst expedient. Once Luther gave three rules for dispelling despondency: the first is faith in Christ; the second is to get downright angry; the third is the love of a woman.

Music was especially commended. The Devil hates it because he cannot endure gaiety. Luther’s physician relates that on one occasion he came with some friends for a musical soiree only to find Luther in a swoon; but when the others struck up the song, he was soon one of the party. Home life was a comfort and a diversion. So also was the presence of his wife when the Devil assaulted him in the night watches. …

Manual labor was a relief. A good way, counseled Luther, to exorcise the Devil is to harness the horse and spread manure on the field. In all this advice to flee the fray Luther was in a way prescribing faith as a cure for the lack of faith. To give up the argument is of itself an act of faith akin to the Gelassenheit of the mystics, an expression of confidence in the restorative power of God, who operates in the subconscious while man occupies himself with extraneous things.

Ultimately, then, Luther was to abandon the strictures against conviviality of his own St. Augustine. He was now in a lay state, or, rather, that novelty to medieval culture of lay priesthood or ministry, new even to him. Solitude could have no place in this realm, banished as the cause or field of his psychological problems, and of his theological doubts. Solitude was the tool of the devil, who hates sociability, conviviality, and gaiety. Solitude betrayed his childhood ideals and his new-found theology that the virtuous soul could only expect doubt and mental struggle.

Yet even those who seemed at peace with the world and their nature, those whom the Gospel already identified as children, were deemed by Luther to lack the fire of truth. Or, rather, this mental struggle was projected upon them. Once, Luther’s infant son was nursing and elicited a melancholy remark: “Child, your enemies are the popes, the bishops, Duke George, Ferdinand, and the Devil. And there you are sucking unconcernedly.” And when his little daughter prattled about Christ and heaven and angels, Luther said wistfully, “If only we could hold fast to this faith.” The little daughter replied innocently: “Why, papa, don’t you believe it?”

Martin Luther was an unwitting catalyst of great revolutions of thought. One of these was to banish solitude from modern Christian tradition, though it lingers in the human condition, and dogs the thinkers, secular and religious, centuries later.

Meditation, sleep, death

Meditation is neither a small death nor a small sleep.

Sleep is a physiological necessity that repairs organs and cells. The unconscious state of sleep brings rest but also disengages conscious thought. Without conscious thought, dreams bubble up and run freely as explorations. Sleep is made by physiology to be cycled, completed, and then have consciousness retrieved. All animals engage in equivalents of sleep.

Some hermits and mystics have boasted of their few hours of sleep. Such sleep deprivation is an expression of pride, and a celebration of physical feats that inevitably ruin health and mental stability. Even in the name of higher spirituality, denial of sleep is folly. Sloth is one extreme, but deprivation is another.

Death is also a physiological necessity. Contemporary longevity movements explore genetic research and the pursuit of superfoods to prolong life expectancy. Calming cells and lowering extreme activity is another technique, but faith in technology’s ability to find a magic gene or nutrient, an external drug, is a hapless pursuit. How does this differ from the alchemists and those who pursued the imagined “fountain of youth” on the other side of the developed world?

Taoist religion (as opposed to philosophy) has also sought longevity exercises and elixirs, with the idea that by prolonging life one has the chance to achieve enlightenment — if not immortality. The environment in which Taoism emerged, the proliferation of herbs and foods, the cleanliness of mountains and forests, the vast solitary stretches of ancient China — all gave rise to this sentiment. When it detached itself from Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, philosophy and religion parted, but only on a continuum. Behind it remain good resources for wise physical practices, including meditation.

Why the preoccupation to prolong life if the average person of today hardly pursues a conscious existence anyway. Modern people will find amusement and spectacles to be the same solution whether they live life to the “fullest” or they find life to be a drudgery.

Of course, regardless of our point of view, we die. But what matters is not whether we die but how we live, in accordance with our own expectations. Being around people trying to amuse themselves is always a toll upon one’s own time. We have all the time in the world for the present, but we hardly have time for the future. What is the point of longevity if it means more of the same escape from time? Science, technology, and knowledge, became pastimes and a striving for power.

Meditation is not a physiological necessity, at least not a requirement of health. But meditation is a necessity of well-being and of that insight that clues us to our personality and disposition to life’s vicissitudes. Meditation clarifies and puts into perspective all those aspects of the world swirling around us. Meditation takes leave of them, like sleep, and frees us, like dreams. Meditation lets them dissipate or shrink in importance, like everything when facing death, a small death for those worldly things. A short respite in meditation reveals the nature of things, for when the mind is in meditation, there is no room for anything that does not matter.

The meditator knows that after a little practice, with the mind not focused on anything, the body takes on the disposition of sleep. The breath lengthens and regularizes, and may even sound like a sleeping person sounds. The muscles relax, the heart slows, as in sleep. Yet the meditator sees this, watches this, is aware of it, and is careful not to dwell on it lest it collapse. Why pursue meditation if it can so easily collapse? Each moment brings an unspoken peace that transfers into the body, refreshes and vitalizes like sleep, but purges the dross of the mind’s thought like death, so that mental strength is restored. With time that strength would not be dissipated by anything in the world, only by the self slipping away from its discipline.

In meditation, the mind slowly dispenses with those dear elements of self-identity — thought, images, dialogue, scenarios. And living without it comes as a revelation. In meditation, there is a kind of pleasure: the meditator is left mute, unable to articulate, reluctant to depart from this sheer envelope of warmth and comfort and reassurance. But there is also a kind of knowledge: that one need not go back to the world with its point of view ever again, that the self is stronger than it seemed.

Meditation is a little sleep from the physiological view, a little death from the mind view. In that solitude and the body’s simplicity awaken all the living insights that the world and the worldly miss altogether, that they are too busy pursuing to realize that there is nothing to pursue.

Meditation exists as a tool in every spiritual tradition. It is the core of unspoken and universal knowledge that every tradition enjoys, and which transcends each traditions’ experiences, creeds, or rites. It is all that is left when everything else falls away. That is why the wisest traditions recommend meditation (however its form) from the start — no doctrines or scriptures or philosophizing. Just meditate — and the rest will come. It will come because the core wisdom is already in you. The more one engages with the world and with others, the more cloudy and inaccessible becomes this core.

Death, sleep, and meditating are all bound up, as are health and right living. We don’t need teachers other than the wisdom core within, and the right environment for solitude to nurture this inner understanding.

Meanwhile, there are the classics …

Remember to retire into this little territory of your own, and above all do not distract or strain yourself, but be free, and look at things as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal. But among the things readiest to hand to which you should turn, let there be these two: 1) Things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable. Our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within. 2) All these things around us, which you see, change immediately and will no longer be. Constantly bear in mind how many of these changes you have already witnessed. The universe is transformation. Life is opinion. …
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.

Tagore on nature

A key distinction between Eastern and Western thought is how nature is viewed. In the West, the inheritance of both the biblical sense of domination and the Greek sense of separation have yielded centuries of exploitation and alienation, culminating in the destructiveness of nature and principles of simplicity witnessed today.

The distinction was succinctly drawn by the Buddhist T. D. Suzuki in contrasting how the poet Tennyson viewed a flower, versus Basho. (Mentioned in a couple of past entries here and here.) But the distinction is fruitfully elaborated upon by the Hindu Rabindranath Tagore in the first chapter of his essay Sadhana, titled “The Relation of the Individual to the Universe.” Tagore looks beyond the logic or philosophizing behind these issues to look at the historical and environmental experiences, of how we surround ourselves with objects and circumstances that mould how we view nature.

Tagor beings:

The civilisation of ancient Greece was nurtured within city walls. In fact, all the modern civilisations have their cradles of brick and mortar.

These walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men. They set up a principle of “divide and rule” in our mental outlook, which begets in us a habit of securing all our conquests by fortifying them and separating them from one another. We divide nation and nation, knowledge and knowledge, man and nature. It breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built, and everything has to fight hard for its entrance into our recognition.

Tagore contrasts the walls of ancient Greece — and he might mention the famous walls of Jerusalem and Rome as weel — with the open forests of ancient India.

When the first Aryan invaders appeared in India it was a vast land of forests, and the new-comers rapidly took advantage of them. These forests afforded them shelter from the fierce heat of the sun and the ravages of tropical storms, pastures for cattle, fuel for sacrificial fire, and materials for building cottages. And the different Aryan clans with their patriarchal heads settled in the different forest tracts which had some special advantage of natural protection, and food and water in plenty.

Thus in India it was in the forests that our civilisation had its birth, and it took a distinct character from this origin and environment. It was surrounded by the vast life of nature, was fed and clothed by her, and had the closest and most constant intercourse with her varying aspects.

The effect of the forests did not stifled intellectual growth but invoigorated it, made it less artificial or contrived.

Such a life, it may be thought, tends to have the effect of dulling human intelligence and dwarfing the incentives to progress by lowering the standards of existence. But in ancient India we find that the circumstances of forest life did not overcome man’s mind, and did not enfeeble the current of his energies, but only gave to it a particular direction. Having been in constant contact with the living growth of nature, his mind was free from the desire to extend his dominion by erecting boundary walls around his acquisitions. His aim was not to acquire but to realise, to enlarge his consciousness by growing with and growing into his surroundings. He felt that truth is all-comprehensive, that there is no such thing as absolute isolation in existence, and the only way of attaining truth is through the interpenetration of our being into all objects. To realise this great harmony between man’s spirit and the spirit of the world was the endeavour of the forest-dwelling sages of ancient India.

The debate about the transition from hunter-gather to pastoralist and agriculturalist, favorite themes in the search for what went “wrong” with human beings in their social evolution, does not enter here. Most of the focus on this issue has been on the origins and nature of the three Western scriptural religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — but the material conditions of all was the desert locale of East Asia. The primeval forests of ancient India did their cultural nurturing at a time when the scripturalists of the West were locked in combat with their arid and inhospitable physical environment.

Tagore continues the story of India, not elaborating on the evolution of castes and priesthood, hallmarks of the Aryan religion overlaid on the indigenous Dravidians. He is right, however, to consider a kind of nostalgia for the forests to be intrinsic to the evolved Hindus of successive centuries, a feeling that Western counterparts at this time could not experience.

Tagore continues:

The west seems to take a pride in thinking that it is subduing nature; as if we are living in a hostile world where we have to wrest everything we want from an unwilling and alien arrangement of things. This sentiment is the product of the city-wall habit and training of mind. For in the city life man naturally directs the concentrated light of his mental vision upon his own life and works, and this creates an artificial dissociation between himself and the Universal Nature within whose bosom he lies.

But in India the point of view was different; it included the world with the man as one great truth. India put all her emphasis on the harmony that exists between the individual and the universal. She felt we could have no communication whatever with our surroundings if they were absolutely foreign to us. Man’s complaint against nature is that he has to acquire most of his necessaries by his own efforts. Yes, but his efforts are not in vain; he is reaping success every day, and that shows there is a rational connection between him and nature, for we never can make anything our own except that which is truly related to us.

Not that this material progress is bringing humanity into closer relations to nature. It is the opposite. Modern humanity is separated from nature because it has taken an opposite point of view with regards to the universe, like a road that separates and confounds and frustrates and angers.

In the west the prevalent feeling is that nature belongs exclusively to inanimate things and to beasts, that there is a sudden unaccountable break where human-nature begins. According to it, everything that is low in the scale of beings is merely nature, and whatever has the stamp of perfection on it, intellectual or moral, is human-nature. It is like dividing the bud and the blossom into two separate categories, and putting their grace to the credit of two different and antithetical principles. But the Indian mind never has any hesitation in acknowledging its kinship with nature, its unbroken relation with all.

The universe, according to Tagore’s synopsis of Indian thought, is not a division or sepration of substances, of divine versus mundane. Science sees this unity (when it is not busy reflecting the cultural demands for consumption and consumer goods from military weapons to paper clips), and so does Indian thought, so that potentially they can be reconciled. This is the view of Eastern thinkers such as the Dalai Lama, who makes conscious efforts to bring science and philosophy. It is refleshing to find this openness in Tagore, writing in the early 20th century.

The fundamental unity of creation was not simply a philosophical speculation for India; it was her life-object to realise this great harmony in feeling and in action. With mediation and service, with a regulation of life, she cultivated her consciousness in such a way that everything had a spiritual meaning to her. The earth, water and light, fruits and flowers, to her were not merely physical phenomena to be turned to use and then left aside. They were necessary to her in the attainment of her ideal of perfection, as every note is necessary to the completeness of the symphony. India intuitively felt that the essential fact of this world has a vital meaning for us; we have to be fully alive to it and establish a conscious relation with it, not merely impelled by scientific curiosity or greed of material advantage, but realising it in the spirit of sympathy, with a large feeling of joy and peace.

The man of science knows, in one aspect, that the world is not merely what it appears to be to our senses; he knows that earth and water are really the play of forces that manifest themselves to us as earth and water–how, we can but partially apprehend. Likewise the man who has his spiritual eyes open knows that the ultimate truth about earth and water lies in our apprehension of the eternal will which works in time and takes shape in the forces we realise under those aspects. This is not mere knowledge, as science is, but it is a preception of the soul by the soul. This does not lead us to power, as knowledge does, but it gives us joy, which is the product of the union of kindred things. The man whose acquaintance with the world does not lead him deeper than science leads him, will never understand what it is that the man with the spiritual vision finds in these natural phenomena. The water does not merely cleanse his limbs, but it purifies his heart; for it touches his soul. The earth does not merely hold his body, but it gladdens his mind; for its contact is more than a physical contact–it is a living presence. When a man does not realise his kinship with the world, he lives in a prison-house whose walls are alien to him. When he meets the eternal spirit in all objects, then is he emancipated, for then he discovers the fullest significance of the world into which he is born; then he finds himself in perfect truth, and his harmony with the all is established. In India men are enjoined to be fully awake to the fact that they are in the closest relation to things around them, body and soul, and that they are to hail the morning sun, the flowing water, the fruitful earth, as the manifestation of the same living truth which holds them in its embrace. Thus the text of our everyday meditation is the Gayathri, a verse which is considered to be the epitome of all the Vedas. By its help we try to realise the essential unity of the world with the conscious soul of man; we learn to perceive the unity held together by the one Eternal Spirit, whose power creates the earth, the sky, and the stars, and at the same time irradiates our minds with the light of a consciousness that moves and exists in unbroken continuity with the outer world.

The point about the unity of creation in Indian tradition versus the West is clear enough to this point in the chapter. The rest of the chapter elaborates on how this view has been put into practice by the sages of India. One can rest satisfied at this point in reading the chapter, but for the inquisitive searcher and the patient reader, here is the rest of the chapter:

It is not true that India has tried to ignore differences of value in different things, for she knows that would make life impossible. The sense of the superiority of man in the scale of creation has not been absent from her mind. But she has had her own idea as to that in which his superiority really consists. It is not in the power of possession but in the power of union. Therefore India chose her places of pilgrimage wherever there was in nature some special grandeur or beauty, so that her mind could come out of its world of narrow necessities and realise its place in the infinite. This was the reason why in India a whole people who once were meat-eaters gave up taking animal food to cultivate the sentiment of universal sympathy for life, an event unique in the history of mankind.

India knew that when by physical and mental barriers we violently detach ourselves from the inexhaustible life of nature; when we become merely man, but not man-in-the-universe, we create bewildering problems, and having shut off the source of their solution, we try all kinds of artificial methods each of which brings its own crop of interminable difficulties. When man leaves his resting-place in universal nature, when he walks on the single rope of humanity, it means either a dance or a fall for him, he has ceaselessly to strain every nerve and muscle to keep his balance at each step, and then, in the intervals of his weariness, he fulminates against Providence and feels a secret pride and satisfaction in thinking that he has been unfairly dealt with by the whole scheme of things.

But this cannot go on for ever. Man must realise the wholeness of his existence, his place in the infinite; he must know that hard as he may strive he can never create his honey within the cells of his hive; for the perennial supply of his life food is outside their walls. He must know that when man shuts himself out from the vitalising and purifying touch of the infinite, and falls back upon himself for his sustenance and his healing, then he goads himself into madness, tears himself into shreds, and eats his own substance. Deprived of the background of the whole, his poverty loses its one great quality, which is simplicity, and becomes squalid and shamefaced. His wealth is no longer magnanimous; it grows merely extravagant. His appetites do not minister to his life, keeping to the limits of their purpose; they become an end in themselves and set fire to his life and play the fiddle in the lurid light of the conflagration. Then it is that in our self-expression we try to startle and not to attract; in art we strive for originality and lose sight of truth which is old and yet ever new; in literature we miss the complete view of man which is simple and yet great, but he appears as a psychological problem or the embodiment of a passion that is intense because abnormal and because exhibited in the glare of a fiercely emphatic light which is artificial. When man’s consciousness is restricted only to the immediate vicinity of his human self, the deeper roots of his nature do not find their permanent soil, his spirit is ever on the brink of starvation, and in the place of healthful strength he substitutes rounds of stimulation. Then it is that man misses his inner perspective and measures his greatness by its bulk and not by its vital link with the infinite, judges his activity by its movement and not by the repose of perfection — the repose which is in the starry heavens, in the ever-flowing rhythmic dance of creation.

The first invasion of India has its exact parallel in the invasion of America by the European settlers. They also were confronted with primeval forests and a fierce struggle with aboriginal races. But this struggle between man and man, and man and nature lasted till the very end; they never came to any terms. In India the forests which were the habitation of the barbarians became the sanctuary of sages, but in America these great living cathedrals of nature had no deeper significance to man. The brought wealth and power to him, and perhaps at times they ministered to his enjoyment of beauty, and inspired a solitary poet. They never acquired a sacred association in the hearts of men as the site of some great spiritual reconcilement where man’s soul has its meeting-place with the soul of the world.

I do not for a moment wish to suggest that these things should have been otherwise. It would be an utter waste of opportunities if history were to repeat itself exactly in the same manner in every place. It is best for the commerce of the spirit that people differently situated should bring their different products into the market of humanity, each of which is complementary and necessary to the others. All that I wish to say is that India at the outset of her career met with a special combination of circumstances which was not lost upon her. She had, according to her opportunities, thought and pondered, striven and suffered, dived into the depths of existence, and achieved something which surely cannot be without its value to people whose evolution in history took a different way altogether. Man for his perfect growth requires all the living elements that constitute his complex life; that is why his food has to be cultivated in different fields and brought from different sources.

Civilisation is a kind of mould that each nation is busy making for itself to shape its men and women according to its best ideal. All its institutions, its legislature, its standard of approbation and condemnation, its conscious and unconscious teachings tend toward that object. The modern civilisation of the west, by all its organised efforts, is trying to turn out men perfect in physical, intellectual, and moral efficiency. There the vast energies of the nations are employed in extending man’s power over his surroundings, and people are combining and straining every faculty to possess and to turn to account all that they can lay their hands upon, to overcome every obstacle on their path of conquest. They are ever disciplining themselves to fight nature and other races; their armaments are getting more and more stupendous every day; their machines, their appliances, their organisations go on multiplying at an amazing rate. This is a splendid achievement, no doubt, and a wonderful manifestation of man’s masterfulness which knows no obstacle, and which has for its object the supremacy of himself over everything else.

The ancient civilisation of India had its own ideal of perfection towards which its efforts were directed. Its aim was not attaining power, and it neglected to cultivate to the utmost its capacities, and to organise men for defensive and offensive purposes, for co-operation in the acquisition of wealth and for military and political ascendancy. The ideal that India tried to realise led her best men to the isolation of a contemplative life, and the treasures that she gained for mankind by penetrating into the mysteries of reality cost her dear in the sphere of worldly success. Yet, this also was a sublime achievement, — it was a supreme manifestation of that human aspiration which knows no limit, and which has for its object nothing less than the realisation of the Infinite.

There were the virtuous, the wise, the courageous; there were the statesmen, kings and emperors of India; but whom amongst all these classes did she look up to and choose to be the representative of men?

They were the rishis. What were the rishis? They who having attained the supreme soul in knowledge were filled with wisdom, and having found him in union with the soul were in perfect harmony with the inner self; they having realised him in the heart were free from all selfish desires, and having experienced him in all the activities of the world, had attained calmness. The rishis were they who having reached the supreme God from all sides had found abiding peace, had become united with all, had entered into the life of the Universe.

Thus the state of realising our relationship with all, of entering into everything through union with God, was considered in India to be the ultimate end and fulfillment of humanity.

Man can destroy and plunder, earn and accumulate, invent and discover, but he is great because his soul comprehends all. It is dire destruction for him when he envelopes his soul in a dead shell of callous habits, and when a blind fury of works whirls round him like an eddying dust storm, shutting out the horizon. That indeed kills the very spirit of his being, which is the spirit of comprehension. Essentially man is not a slave either of himself or of the world; but he is a lover. His freedom and fulfillment is in love, which is another name for perfect comprehension. By this power of comprehension, this permeation of his being, he is united with the all-pervading Spirit, who is also the breath of his soul. Where a man tries to raise himself to eminence by pushing and jostling all others, to achieve a distinction by which he prides himself to be more than everybody else, there he is alienated from that Spirit. This is why the Upanishads describe those who have attained the goal of human life as “peaceful” and as “at-one-with- God,” meaning that they are in perfect harmony with man and nature, and therefore in undisturbed union with God.

We have a glimpse of the same truth in the teachings of Jesus when he says, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven” — which implies that whatever we treasure for ourselves separates us from others; our possessions are our limitations. He who is bent upon accumulating riches is unable, with his ego continually bulging, to pass through the gates of comprehension of the spiritual world, which is the world of perfect harmony; he is shut up within the narrow walls of his limited acquisitions.

Hence the spirit of the teachings of Upanishad is: In order to find him you must embrace all. In the pursuit of wealth you really give up everything to gain a few things, and that is not the way to attain him who is completeness.

Some modern philosophers of Europe, who are directly or indirectly indebted to the Upanishads, far from realising their debt, maintain that the Brahma of India is a mere abstraction, a negation of all that is in the world. In a word, that the Infinite Being is to be found nowhere except in metaphysics. It may be, that such a doctrine has been and still is prevalent with a section of our countrymen. But this is certainly not in accord with the pervading spirit of the Indian mind. Instead, it is the practice of realising and affirming the presence of the infinite in all things which has been its constant inspiration.

We are enjoined to see whatever there is in the world as being enveloped by God.

I bow to God over and over again who is in fire and in water, who permeates the whole world, who is in the annual crops as well as in the perennial trees.

Can this be God abstracted from the world? Instead, it signifies not merely seeing him in all things, but saluting him in all the objects of the world. The attitude of the God-conscious man of the Upanishad towards the universe is one of a deep feeling of adoration. His object of worship is present everywhere. It is the one living truth that makes all realities true. This truth is not only of knowledge but of devotion. ‘Namonamah,’ — we bow to him everywhere, and over and over again. It is recognised in the outburst of the Rishi, who addresses the whole world in a sudden ecstasy of joy: Listen to me, ye sons of the immortal spirit, ye who live in the heavenly abode, I have known the Supreme Person whose light shines forth from beyond the darkness. Do we not find the overwhelming delight of a direct and positive experience where there is not the least trace of vagueness or passivity?

Buddha who developed the practical side of the teaching of Upanishads, preached the same message when he said, With everything, whether it is above or below, remote or near, visible or invisible, thou shalt preserve a relation of unlimited love without any animosity or without a desire to kill. To live in such a consciousness while standing or walking, sitting or lying down till you are asleep, is Brahma vihāra, or, in other words, is living and moving and having your joy in the spirit of Brahma.

What is that spirit? The Upanishad says, The being who is in his essence the light and life of all, who is world-conscious, is Brahma. To feel all, to be conscious of everything, is his spirit. We are immersed in his consciousness body and soul. It is through his consciousness that the sun attracts the earth; it is through his consciousness that the light-waves are being transmitted from planet to planet.

Not only in space, but this light and life, this all-feeling being is in our souls. He is all-conscious in space, or the world of extension; and he is all-conscious in soul, or the world of intension.

Thus to attain our world-consciousness, we have to unite our feeling with this all-pervasive infinite feeling. In fact, the only true human progress is coincident with this widening of the range of feeling. All our poetry, philosophy, science, art and religion are serving to extend the scope of our consciousness towards higher and larger spheres. Man does not acquire rights through occupation of larger space, nor through external conduct, but his rights extend only so far as he is real, and his reality is measured by the scope of his consciousness.

We have, however, to pay a price for this attainment of the freedom of consciousness. What is the price? It is to give one’s self away. Our soul can realise itself truly only by denying itself. The Upanishad says, Thou shalt gain by giving away, Thou shalt not covet.

In Gita we are advised to work disinterestedly, abandoning all lust for the result. Many outsiders conclude from this teaching that the conception of the world as something unreal lies at the root of the so-called disinterestedness preached in India. But the reverse is true.

The man who aims at his own aggrandisement underrates everything else. Compared to his ego the rest of the world is unreal. Thus in order to be fully conscious of the reality of all, one has to be free himself from the bonds of personal desires. This discipline we have to go through to prepare ourselves for our social duties — for sharing the burdens of our fellow-beings. Every endeavour to attain a larger life requires of man “to gain by giving away, and not to be greedy.” And thus to expand gradually the consciousness of one’s unity with all is the striving of humanity.

The Infinite in India was not a thin nonentity, void of all content. The Rishis of India asserted emphatically, “To know him in this life is to be true; not to know him in this life is the desolation of death.” How to know him then? “By realising him in each and all.” Not only in nature but in the family, in society, and in the state, the more we realise the World- conscious in all, the better for us. Failing to realise it, we turn our faces to destruction.

It fills me with great joy and a high hope for the future of humanity when I realise that there was a time in the remote past when our poet-prophets stood under the lavish sunshine of an Indian sky and greeted the world with the glad recognition of kindred. It was not an anthropomorphic hallucination. It was not seeing man reflected everywhere in grotesquely exaggerated images, and witnessing the human drama acted on a gigantic scale in nature’s arena of flitting lights and shadows. On the contrary, it meant crossing the limiting barriers of the individual, to become more than man, to become one with the All. It was not a mere play of the imagination, but it was the liberation of consciousness from all the mystifications and exaggerations of the self. These ancient seers felt in the serene depth of their mind that the same energy which vibrates and passes into the endless forms of the world manifests itself in our inner being as consciousness; and there is no break in unity. For these seers there was no gap in their luminous vision of perfection. They never acknowledged even death itself as creating a chasm in the field of reality. They said, His reflection is death as well as immortality. They did not recognise any essential opposition between life and death, and they said with absolute assurance, “It is life that is death.” They saluted with the same serenity of gladness “life in its aspect of appearing and in its aspect of departure” — That which is past is hidden in life, and that which is to come. They knew that mere appearance and disappearance are on the surface like waves on the sea, but life which is permanent knows no decay or diminution.

Everything has sprung from immortal life and is vibrating with life, for life is immense.

This is the noble heritage from our forefathers waiting to be claimed by us as our own, this ideal of the supreme freedom of consciousness. It is not merely intellectual or emotional, it has an ethical basis, and it must be translated into action. In the Upanishad it is said, The supreme being is all-pervading, therefore he is the innate good in all. To be truly united in knowledge, love, and service with all beings, and thus to realise one’s self in the all-pervading God is the essence of goodness, and this is the keynote of the teachings of the Upanishads: Life is immense!