These were delivered by me on BBC Radio 2 over the last three weeks on specific themes which they requested. There will be more of these from myself in the next three weeks also. (Thursdays at 5.45)
Week 31 - Fasting
This week marks the beginning of Ramadan and Muslims all over the world will begin observing their sacred month of fasting. I have to admire them for this as I know how difficult it can be, having myself to observe many such fast days throughout the year.
Of course, I don’t have to fast, and in our society where food is abundant nor does anyone else, but it is a choice made by many devout followers in all religions for the purpose of bringing one closer to the divine. By forgoing bodily pleasure for the satisfaction of God, one can attract his grace, leading to spiritual progress.
But it can be difficult. An American friend told me how in his youth he had attempted a forty day fast. Convinced that extreme bodily privation would lead to deep mystical experiences he went into the Californian desert and proceeded to live on only water. However, after a few days in the punishing heat he was overcome by intolerable cravings and headed back to the city where, as he put it, he ‘grossed out’ on ice cream. He tried again a couple of times but with pretty much the same result. Needless to say he did not attain any spiritual realisations beyond that bodily desires are mighty forces indeed.
Although his was a failed experiment, I think he was on the right track and just needed some proper guidance. When fasting is done in accordance with scriptural direction, as an offering to the Supreme, one reaches higher levels of consciousness. The Bhagavad-gita explains that the first point of spiritual understanding is to recognise how the soul is different from the material body it inhabits. This is a difficult concept to grasp while we are fully absorbed in indulging our bodily demands, seeking pleasure through satisfying our senses. As long as our consciousness is focused outwards on the objects of bodily pleasure we cannot go within and discover our deeper spiritual essence. It is therefore recommended that the senses are controlled, and fasting really helps.
From my own faith perspective the aim is to more and more reduce bodily demands and increase one’s absorption in the divine. This results in a far higher happiness than can be found through any sensual pleasure. Great saints in our tradition and indeed in all faiths reach levels where they are so rapt in spiritual ecstasy that they entirely forget the wants of their bodies.
But, as my friend discovered, this takes time and gradual practice, and ultimately God’s grace. Through our penance and our prayer we please him, and when he is pleased with us we will find the strength to withstand bodily demands and discover levels of joy far beyond anything afforded through bodily senses. And thankfully we don’t have to go to any wilderness.
Week 32 - Escape
School holidays are here and for our kids that means six weeks of glorious escape, although of course their parents might take a rather different view. It’s not just children of course, all of us need to escape from time to time and towards that end we have, as well as holidays, books, films and other such diversions in which we like to lose ourselves.
Too much escape though is not seen as good. Then one is called an escapist, which tends to be a pejorative, a head in the clouds kind of person who can’t face reality. When I first started following the Krishna faith I sometimes found myself confronted with this accusation. At first I would argue but now I would tend to agree. I am indeed trying to escape from the realities of this world, but what exactly are they?
I am not thinking of work, managing a household, raising a family and all that, because I have certainly not escaped that, but rather I mean the intrinsic reality of our human condition. That means the miseries of disease, anxiety, old age and death. For most of us these are seen as inevitabilities, but according to the Bhagavad-Gita everyone can escape from them by spiritual practise and we are exhorted to make that our prime endeavour in life.
In many ways we already try. Science strenuously seeks solutions to the problems we face, hoping to one day eradicate them. Huge resources go into research that aims to cure or eliminate disease, for example. Even old age and death – some scientists believe that if they can just identify the gene that makes us grow old then they will be able to stop the aging the process. I don’t think I will hold my breath on that one.
We have to admit that our natural condition in this world is rather an awkward one. We constantly endeavour to adjust our environment in order to make it more comfortable, more secure, safe and peaceful. We have to work hard for this or soon everything would descend into disorder and madness.
But along with this work we should not neglect our spiritual side which ultimately offers the only real escape to our problems. By turning to God and realising our true nature as his eternal blissful parts we transcend this troubled world. We belong with God and somehow made the mistake of turning away from him to come here. Accepting this truth, that this mortal sphere is a place of misery, can be difficult when we so much want to enjoy ourselves here, but for me head in the clouds has always been better than head in the sand.
Week 33 - Opportunities
Nerves will be jangling up and down the country this morning as A-level students anticipate their results. Today is the big day - the fruits of two long, hard years of work and hopefully the doors to that desired university place swinging open. And for those Dads like me who sought to incentivise their leisure-focused offspring by dangling the time honoured carrot of hard cash in front of them, it might be time to dig deep.
What we really want though is for our children to recognise and seize the opportunity that a good education can provide. We want them to be all they can be and above all to be happy. Becoming qualified for a decent career that they actually enjoy is a good start and missing that opportunity would certainly be a shame.
However, everyone has in their life a far greater opportunity than any material education can offer, to achieve something unimaginably more wonderful. To understand this we first need to understand the real point of education. Why do we want to gain knowledge? Maybe to get that plum job or whatever, but really what we are trying to do is avoid difficulty. Knowledge equips us with the ability to cope with life, to deal with its many challenges and carve out what we hope will be some sort of comfortable existence. Without any education or knowledge we will be in trouble. Some of you may remember one of the first AIDS campaigns years ago that led with the slogan ‘don’t die of ignorance.’ Lack of knowledge can have a deadly outcome.
The Bhagavad-Gita tells us that perfect knowledge leads to perfect happiness and urges us to seek that immediately. What am I? Why am I in this world? Why is their misery? Only human life affords us the opportunity to ask these questions and find out the answers. Opportunities for physical and mental enjoyment are there in all species of life, indeed many animals have more facility for material enjoyment than us, but in human life alone can we seek and understand spiritual truths.
To miss this opportunity is compared to a poverty stricken person who has been left a vast fortune in a will but never finds about it. The highest type of worldly enjoyment is said to be like a drop of water next to the ocean when compared to the ecstasy experienced when we realise our spiritual nature and our relationship with God. In the words of the Gita, “having gained this one feels there is no greater gain and is fully satisfied, being plunged into a sea of happiness that has no shore.” And for this no A-levels or degree are required. It is available to us all.