Question: Amma, in your ashram much importance is given to selfless service. But isn’t action an impediment to true Self-enquiry?
Amma: For a true Advaitin, nothing is different from the Self. The steps leading to a terrace are made of brick and cement. The terrace is also made of brick and cement. When you reach the top, you realize that everything is one; that there is not difference at all. Still, the steps were necessary for you to reach the top. Likewise, to attain Self-realization, paths and methods are necessary. Selfless action is one such path.
Once a man rented a palatial house and moved in. He began to consider himself the king of the palace. One day a sannyasi came to visit him. The man put on the airs of a king and behaved arrogantly towards the sannyasi. The sannyasi said to him, “You say that this place belongs to you, but please ask your conscience what the truth is. You yourself know that this is only a rented building. There is nothing here that you can call your own; you don’t own even a single item in this house. Yet you imagine that everything is yours and that you are a king.”
Many people behave like this nowadays. They read a lot of books and blabber about what they have read, like a crow on the beach. What they speak of has no semblance at all to the type of life they are leading. Those who have understood the import of the scriptures, even to a small extent, will not discourage others from following the path they have chosen, but will only help them to advance. They will never waste time arguing about unnecessary things. For the Self to unfold, each person needs to follow the particular path that is determined by his samskara (latent tendencies and impressions). That is why there are so many different paths in Hinduism. Each way is suitable for certain people, for uplifting them from the level they are presently in. Advaita is not something to be crammed into the head — it is to be lived. Only then will it become your direct experience.
Occasionally, people come here who claim that they are pure consciousness. They ask, “What is the need of service — which Self is to serve which Self? What is the purpose of service in an ashram for aspirants who strive for Self-realization when study and contemplation alone will lead to That. Isn’t that sufficient?” and so on.
In the olden days, even the great souls used to embrace vanaprastha (the third stage of life, when the husband and wife retire to the forest for spiritual practices, leaving behind all worldly responsibilities) and sannyasa, only after they had gone through grihasthashrama (a spiritually oriented family life). In the gurukulas where the Self-realized masters lived, the disciples had to do a lot of selfless service. In this way, students of Vedanta would serve Vedantic masters. The disciples would go out to collect firewood, and they would graze the cattle. Haven’t you heard the story of Aruni who looked after the fields of his Guru? When he saw that water was pouring into the fields and the crop was going to be destroyed, he laid himself down in the breach to block the leakage. For such disciples nothing was different from Vedanta. Aruni didn’t think, “This is just a field: it’s mud. I am the Self. I am different form all that and have no need for action: He was ready to sacrifice his life to fulfill his duty. Such were the disciples of those times. Karma yoga (selfless action) was very prevalent then. In those days, a guru had only a few disciples, say three or four. On the other hand, in this ashram there are around a thousand residents. Will all these people be able to meditate all the 24 hours a day? No, that isn’t possible. Their minds will be filled with thoughts. Whether they work or not, a lot of thoughts will crop up in their minds. If so, what is wrong with channeling those thoughts in the right direction, and doing some selfless service for the benefit of others? Lord Krishna said to Arjuna, “O Arjuna, I have nothing to gain in these three worlds. Still I go on performing actions — actions that cannot bind.” Children, today your minds are on the level of body-consciousness. Let your minds expand into the Universal Consciousness. It is compassion towards the world, which allows the shoot of the mind to open up and blossom into the all-encompassing Mind.
Those who claim to be Vedantins believe that they alone are Brahman, and that the world is maya (unreality). But are they able to maintain this notion constantly? Never! They want their lunch to be ready by 12 o’clock. When they are hungry they don’t consider food to be maya! And when they are ill, they want to be taken care of in a hospital. At that time the hospital is not maya — it is a necessity; and they very munch need the service of others. They should understand that if all these things are necessities for them — who think that they are pure consciousness — these things must be necessary for other people as well. These so-called Vedantins need the service of others. But when they, in their turn, should be serving others, they refrain from doing so, considering themselves to be “pure consciousness.” It is a flagrant sign of utter laziness.
In this ashram there are engineers, doctors and chartered accountants. Everyone works according to his or her capacity. Along with the work they do, they also meditate and study the scriptures. They train themselves to perform actions without being bound by them. Selfless actions will help you to get rid of selfishness and body-consciousness. When an action is performed without any personal motives, it doesn’t bind you. It becomes the path to liberation. None of the residents here have any desire for heaven. They all wish to serve the world. Even if heaven would be offered to them, they wouldn’t care for it, because they already have heaven in their hearts; they have no need to go after another heaven. A mind full of compassion, this is their heaven. That is their outlook.
In the past, many spiritual people had withdrawn form society, claiming that they were pure consciousness. They weren’t prepared to go out amongst the people and serve them. That is why our samskara (culture) had to undergo the degeneration and decay, which can be seen today. The present generation suffers because of the indifference of those people. Are you saying that we should allow our culture to be impoverished still further? It should be understood that Advaita is something to be lived. It is a state in which we look upon all others as our own Self. What is the meaning of the battle at Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata? The Kurukshetra battle represents the individual’s Self unfoldment through interaction with the society. When doing selfless service we have to interact with other people, and this interaction, along with the sincere desire for spiritual advancement, will help us get rid of our ego and undesirable tendencies.
When crude granite stones are put in a rotating drum, the stones lose their sharp edges. They are made smooth and round through constant friction with the other stones. In the same way, through selfless service to the world, the individual mind loses its undesirable elements and becomes one with the Universal Consciousness. The mind is freed of its ugliness and assumes the form of the Self. That is why the Lord exhorted Arjuna to engage in battle with the Kauravas, who represent the evil. Such lessons are best taught through example, not through verbal teachings. Then people can easily imbibe the teachings. This is Amma’s aim.