Volume 8 - Issue 05
MAY 2010
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spiritual questions and answers
PART 18

By Prof. G. Venkataraman
 
 
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Since Heart2Heart started in 2003, readers have very often written to us seeking answers to many spiritual questions. We have answered them at times through appropriate articles in H2H. However, there are still many that have to be explained carefully and in detail. And in the recent past, a lot more queries have arrived on varied topics concerning spirituality and personal growth.

We have now meticulously compiled and categorised these questions, and Prof. G. Venkataraman has offered to answer all these queries in a structured and systematic way as a series on Radio Sai as well as in H2H. In this way, these answers now remain always on our website as a ready reckoner on spiritual doubts. This is a suitably adapted transcript of one of the talks of this radio series bearing the same name.

Loving Sai Ram and welcome to the Question and Answer series. If you recall, I am currently dealing with the topic of Spiritual Practices. Before I take up the next question, maybe I should make a remark or two just to put all these Q and A talks in an integrated perspective. It is quite likely that some of you are listening only occasionally and might therefore be focussed on local aspects of my answers.

This, of course, is unavoidable, but from my point of view, this being an extended series dealing with a range of topics, one must see each of my answers in a larger perspective; if you do that, then these talks would make much more sense than they might otherwise. For your convenience, we are doing our best to help you further by offering Q and A Archives in H2H.

 

While considering the answer to any specific question, we should always have the broad picture in view. This is where the Purpose of Life becomes very important. You might recall that I discussed the topic of the Purpose of Life extensively earlier. Life, let me remind you again, is a priceless gift given to us by God, so that we can use our stay on earth to do all we can to get back to God. That’s OK, but what exactly is one supposed to do in order to get back to God? Swami has answered all that in detail. In brief, it all means that we must clean up the mess that clogs our Minds. And how does one do that? That precisely is where Spiritual Practices becomes important – I hope you get the general idea.  

Now there are of course all sorts of Spiritual Practices, and as you can see, currently I am dealing with questions related to some of them. In all this, there is one important thing we must never lose sight of which is that God is everywhere, in everything, all the time, and we should always keep this in mind, no matter what we are doing. In a sense, that is THE bottom line. Some of you might say: “It sounds simple no doubt but in practice, what does this statement mean?” Let me explain.

Firstly, people repeat stotras, because that is what tradition calls for. Secondly, they believe, as in olden days, that God would be pleased by such a chant. Let me mention at this point that even it is repetitive, God does feel happy when we try do something good by way of loving Him. Thirdly, as years pass and we become mature, the stotras that once seemed repetitive, suddenly start acquiring deep meaning.

Take a thing like corruption, which usually means offering or taking a bribe. Corruption always involves two parties, one who wants a favour or something done, while the other who has the power or the authority to grant the favour sought or do the thing asked for. If both these people see God in each other and are bound by Sathya and Dharma, then both would shun from doing anything illegal or immoral. And as a result there would be no corruption. So you see, seeing God everywhere is a very practical matter; and it can as well as does help – that is the important point; and that is how Spirituality becomes very practical as well as tied to our daily life.

I know that things being what they are at present, many would shake their heads and murmur that such things are not possible. However, let us remember at the same time that though not motivated by moral compulsions, people in Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries, do observe ethical codes, which is why corruption is almost absent there. True, this is in no small measure due to economic equity that prevails there, as compared to say many countries in Africa, or for that matter India, where the economic disparity between the rich and the poor is large. Yet, if we all really choose to be honest and moral, then things can turn around. It all starts with each one of us, and that is where Spiritual Practices, Sadhana and all the rest of it becomes very relevant.

 

Let us dig a bit deeper, because I am sure most of you would not buy what I am saying. Consider the cost of living in India today, a good bit of which is driven by the life style of the rich and the upper middle class. They have money to spend and the first thing that happens when plenty of money chases goods is that the cost of goods, including essential ones, starts going up.

I can see it right here in Puttaparthi. Today, thanks to the heavy pilgrim traffic, even a simple banana costs more than a rupee. For years, the humble banana was a meal for the poor, but today even bananas and ordinary vegetables have become quite expensive. Under this kind of asymmetric economic situation, it is no wonder the run of the mill government servant feels compelled to accept bribes so as make both ends meet.

At the other end, the big officials can manage to buy bananas and vegetables even though they are expensive; but then, they have many costly desires. They want cars, holiday abroad, and so on. All that costs money, which is why they start accepting bribes. Now, if these people decide to be frugal and lead a simple life [which is what people used to do once], then corruption would not be so widely prevalent.

And by the way, in discussing corruption we should not forget that frequently, the corporate sector goes out of the way to offer bribes simply to get various favours, such as bagging a huge contract. It is common knowledge that big companies competing for huge orders, say for the sale of aircrafts, military equipment, etc., do not hesitate to offer huge kick-backs; in fact, these are offered to people at the top, not at the bottom.

We thus see here that while the poor are corrupt because they want to make both ends meet, the well-placed officials become corrupt because they want a life style they cannot afford. And where the big corporations are concerned, while they all routinely complain about corruption, when the competition becomes rough and tough, they do not hesitate in the least to offer bribes.

To get back to the point I was making, when one is deeply conscious that God is present in all, one would hesitate doing many of the things that people tend to do ever so easily these days. This would apply to the poor, the middle class, and to the rich as well. You may not believe it but as recently as sixty years ago, corruption was quite rare in India; and India was much poorer in those days. Back then, everyone, whether they were rich or poor, really took morality and Spirituality far more seriously than we do at present; and there was a ceiling on desires too, which greatly helped.

“The Vedas are the most ancient amongst the world’s scriptures. They are a vast storehouse of Wisdom. Manu has declared, ‘Everything is derived from the Vedas’. The Vedas are immeasurable, unrivalled and filled with Bliss. The word Veda is derived from the verb ‘vid’ which means ‘to know’. Knowledge of the Supreme is Veda.”

I think I have said enough by way of a preamble and a recap of the objective of this series, and let me now turn to the first question in today’s bag. The question reads as follows:

Prayers are defined as conversation with God. What is the significance of chanting so many stotras which almost mean the same, when we can just say in our mother-tongue, “God help me to follow Your path and bless me”?

This is a very good question and the questioner actually makes an excellent point. By the way, for the benefit of those who might not be aware, the word stotra might be defined as a hymn in praise of the Lord. What the questioner is essentially saying is this: “Why should we go on singing the praise of the Lord in so many different ways, when we could instead have a simple conversation with God, saying something meaningful in our mother tongue?”

Let us start with the point: “Why do people repeat stotras, most of which mean more or less the same thing anyway?” Many do so because they have seen others do so; in a sense, it is a matter of hanging on to tradition. To understand why chanting of stotras was insisted upon in earlier times, one has to try and understand how Society functioned in those times and the way people used to think then.

Life was very different back in ancient times, and in India as almost everywhere, the life of the individual had to conform to accepted norms, whether the person liked it or not. Incidentally, this applied not only to religious matters but various other social preferences as well. By the way, repetitive chants even without understanding, used to be a part of a standard drill insisted upon in ancient times, not only in India but the world over.

When one is young, one does not understand why one should follow such drills, but one certainly obeyed what the elders demanded – that was all there was to it! In fact, I can personally testify to the fact that soon after I went through the Upanayanam ceremony, I was required to perform a certain mandated worship three times a day, and at noon time, my mother would be watching to see if I actually went through it. Only when she was convinced I had fulfilled my Spiritual obligations would I get lunch!

As a young person who felt he was being imposed upon unreasonably and all that, I was naturally quite upset and did not at all like what I had to put up with. However, looking back, I am glad that my mother was uncompromising and made me learn all those mantras and insisted that I chant the Gayathri repeatedly. Why do I say that? Because I have now reached a stage in life where I am not only able to reflect intelligently on the Vedas etc., but also admire their sonic grandeur, besides appreciating to some extent, the depth of their meaning.

OK, so what is the point I am trying to make at the end of all this digression? What precisely is my response to the questioner? My response is as follows:

 

Firstly, people repeat stotras, because that is what tradition calls for. Secondly, they believe, as in olden days, that God would be pleased by such a chant. Let me mention at this point that even it is repetitive, God does feel happy when we try do something good by way of loving Him. Thirdly, as years pass and we become mature, the stotras that once seemed repetitive, suddenly start acquiring deep meaning.

Having said all that, I think it is perfectly OK for the questioner to adopt a personalised approach by conversing with God in the mother tongue. After all, in moments of sheer desperation, devotees often cry out, “O God, why is all this happening to me? Where are You? Why are You not doing anything to protect me or save me?”

We are all familiar with such wailings. Maybe at times there is no immediate relief – that could very much depend on the Karma burden one bears. That said, such lamentations are in fact very meaningful because one is totally focussed on God and is immersed in appealing to Him, excluding everything else from his or her Mind. That total focus, even if it is brief, is the important thing.

While mentioning conversations with God, I should not forget Saint Tyagaraja, for whom the conversation was often via music. And how grand that music was!

So you see, it is the Bhavam or the underlying feeling that is most important. If I sincerely feel that God would be pleased with stotra chanting and chant in that spirit, you can bet that God would be very happy. On the other hand, if is a direct and personal conversation I want, God sure would listen very carefully to what I have to say. Why would God be pleased with a conversation as opposed to stotra chanting? Because we talk to Him in the full belief that He would listen! You know, what God really expects from us is faith, full and unconditional faith – the packaging does not matter, at least for Him.

An overseas devotee who simply could not do Namasmarana by chanting Sanskrit names started saying, “Swami, I can’t chant all those Sanskrit names, but I sure love you Swami.” And soon for him, Namasmarana simply became: “I love you Swami!” And that chant sent him into bliss! That is why one of our bhajans advises that we may choose any Name we like but when we chant, we must do it with feeling and love; the same applies to stotra chanting or conversation.

I am here reminded of an overseas devotee who simply could not do Namasmarana by chanting Sanskrit names. He then started saying, “Swami, I can’t chant all those Sanskrit names, but I sure love you Swami.” And soon for him, Namasmarana simply became: “I love you Swami!” And that chant sent him into bliss! That is why one of our bhajans advises that we may choose any Name we like but when we chant, we must do it with feeling and love; the same applies to stotra chanting or conversation, whatever it be.

Let me end this part of the discussion recalling a conversation I had with Mr. Tajmool Hussein of West Indies. If I recall, Mr. Hussein was the head of the Sai Organisation of West Indies for many years. In professional life, he was an eminent barrister, trained in England.

Mr. Hussein is a Muslim and his father had immigrated into Trinidad in the early part of the twentieth century. He was an Imam who was introduced to the Quran when very young and knew it very well. He did not know a word of Arabic, the language in which the Quran is written. Yet he learnt every word and could recite it very well – that is what he told me when I did an interview for Radio Sai. He said he knew what the words meant in substance though he could not translate the hymns word for word.

However, said Mr. Hussein, that being ignorant of the literal translation was no handicap in experiencing in his Heart, the beauty, the grandeur and the feeling of compassion that Islam evoked so beautifully. What it all adds up to is that for those who have been brought up on hymns, with or without a detailed knowledge of what the words meant exactly, chanting stotras is quite OK.  But if you prefer conversation, that also is fine. God just wants good feelings and steady faith. Give Him that, and He does not bother too much about the methodology.

Let me move on to the next question, which is:

What is the importance of chanting the Vedas? Should we know the meaning?

This is a question that we get often. Before I answer this specifically, maybe a few words on Vedas in general would be helpful. I shall start with the following quote from Swami which explains to us as to what exactly are the Vedas. This is what Swami says:

“The Vedas are the most ancient amongst the world’s scriptures. They are a vast storehouse of Wisdom. Manu has declared, ‘Everything is derived from the Vedas’. The Vedas are immeasurable, unrivalled and filled with Bliss. The word Veda is derived from the verb ‘vid’ which means ‘to know’. Knowledge of the Supreme is Veda.”

Tradition has it that Vedas essentially constitute Divine revelation to sages and seers over ages. Clearly, no one sage had it all, but when painstakingly put together over centuries – and who knows maybe even thousands of years – the Vedas all added up to Spiritual Wisdom. That is what Swami says and that is my first point.

Now, as many of you might be aware, there are four principal Vedas, each with lots of hymns in them, a good many of them associated with specific rituals of various kinds. Understandably, people chant these hymns when those rituals are performed. Quite apart from these ritual- specific hymns, there are many like those you find being chanted by Swami’s students practically every day during darshan time.

Let us now turn to the listener’s question which is: “What is the importance of chanting the Vedas? Should we know the meaning?”

These are important questions, and we must consider the issue carefully. Speaking from a personal point of view, I would say that for people  whom the Vedas form an integral part of their faith, it would be very useful to at least understand what the Vedas are all about, for the simple reason that they allow the person to look far into the past and link to his or her roots.

I consider linking to one’s roots as being very important. At one time, this was considered very important not merely for religious or Spiritual reasons but even for cultural reasons. I am sure that all of you are aware that when it comes to roots, the white people in America invariably seek a link to the culture of Europe. Similarly, the black people in America seek to trace their roots all the way back to Africa.

 

Thus it is that Hindus who wish to reconnect, make an effort to learn something about the Vedas, and also how to chant a few select portions. I must mention here that some of the things that the Vedas appear to mandate might not sound OK in this day and age. There are two points to be kept in mind here.

The first is the cultural factor, and since cultural practices change with time, what was good then, might not quite be appropriate now. Secondly, even Vedic concepts evolved over centuries and millennia.

Thus it is that scholars say that the Upanishads that came towards the end of the evolution of the Vedas contain the noblest of ideas and thoughts. Which is why serious spiritual seekers focus more on the Upanishads rather than the ritual segment of the Vedas.

That holds good to this day, and it is no wonder that an eminent scientist like Erwin Schrodinger, one of those who won the Noble Prize in Physics for his contributions to the discovery of Quantum Mechanics, was deeply attracted to Upanishads.

And that also is the reason why J. R. Oppenheimer, often called the father of the Atom Bomb, became so fascinated with the Bhagavad Gita that he even had a Sanskrit tutor to help him to read the text in the original Sanskrit. What I am driving at is that the Upanishads truly represent the high point of Spiritual philosophy and are thus relevant for all people everywhere, and at all points of time.

In short, it greatly helps, especially in today’s environment, for people of various faiths to go to the roots of their faith, meaning they should try and read to the extent possible, their ancient scriptures in their original language. Maybe difficult given the demands on time these days, but still it might be worth it since roots are important. In this context, we might do well to remember Swami’s advice: “If you are a Christian, be a good Christian. If you are a Muslim, be a good Muslim,” and so on.

In turn this means people of all faiths would do well to dig deep into the basic theological and philosophical texts underlying their religion. Having said that, it is my personal opinion that for an overriding view of the quintessence of Spiritual philosophy, there is nothing like the Upanishads.

Coming back from broad generalities to the question before me, I hope I have said enough to answer the first part of the current question, which is: “What is the importance of chanting the Vedas?” To paraphrase what I have said thus far, the importance consists in helping us to connect with our spiritual roots and link us to the meaning of the original scriptures. This takes me to the second part of the question, which is: “Should we know the meaning?” My answer would be, “Knowing the meaning certainly helps.” Let me explain myself.

 

Take the Gayathri Mantra. This is a small but a very crucial part of the Vedas. These days, so many chant the Gayathri. Repeated chanting, especially in accordance with an ancient drill that calls for proper sonic discipline, is very soothing and calming even if one does not understand the meaning.

I have seen almost everyday how so many foreigners gathered in the Sai Kulwant Hall feel so filled with calm during the extended Veda chanting, even though I am sure they do not understand the meaning of what is being chanted. Nevertheless, even listening to the chants can be beneficial in its own way.

Turning next to the meaning of the Gayathri, this has been discussed any number of times but there is nothing like the crisp and absolutely grand interpretation that Swami has given. He says that the Gayathri, which is a prayer to the Universal Mother simply means the following:

O Universal Mother who is so full of Pure Love!
Please fill my Heart with feelings of Pure Love!
Let these feelings then fill my Mind with Loving thoughts!
And let these thoughts in turn be transformed into Loving actions by my body!
Grant me this wish, so that I can be filled with Bliss!

I do not say that this is verbatim translation, for it is not. However, it gives the real essence of the Gayathri and you can clearly see how universal this prayer is. What I am driving at is that it does make sense to chant knowing the real meaning. Talking of Gayathri, I cannot but make a reference to the famous British scientist J.B.S. Haldane, a socialist at heart, who despised imperialism and came to India to work in the Indian Statistical Institute.

From there he moved to Orissa for a variety of personal reasons, one of which was he liked to lead a very simple life. Though a keen Marxist at one time, Haldane became so captivated by the Gayathri, that he once declared that it must be inscribed at the entrance of every University! And why not? Of course, in Swami’s University, we have not inscribed it in stone or concrete but make sure it is etched permanently on the heart of every student!

 

Getting back to what I was saying earlier, yes, knowing the meaning does help and where possible, must be taken seriously.

I am not sure whether all this constitutes a complete response to the question considered, but I do hope I have at least given you enough to think about.

Finally, in passing, let me make a brief reference to Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a great son of India whose life overlapped the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth century. He was an amazing self-taught man who knew many languages. A scholar who was keen to know all he could about various religions, he at one point even studied Latin and Hebrew so that he could read the New and the Old Testaments in their original!

That was the depth of his thirst for knowledge about the scriptures of the world. This man was amazing not only for his scholarship but also for his various attempts in social reform, especially where women’s rights were concerned.

However, I made a reference to him mainly to mention that if the thirst is acute, then it makes one go to a great extent to connect with one’s roots. Roy tried to connect not only with his own tradition but also with those of others so that he could truly have a universal view of religions and Spirituality.

I think I have said enough for this instalment! Join me again for the next article which will be offered in H2H next month. God bless, Jai Sai Ram.

Dear Reader, how do you like this series? Does it help you in any way? Do you have any spiritual questions which need clarification? Please feel free to write to us at [email protected] mentioning your name and country. Thank you for your time.

 
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