A Choice Is Thrust upon Me
God had other plans for me in this life than becoming a hermit. He now gave me a dramatic demonstration of His intentions.
After Christmas, the Chaudhuris invited me to a Saturday evening dinner party at the home of one of their students, Ethel Appleby. I was scheduled to leave two days later for Mexico. We parted on the street outside, and they wished me a safe journey. Somehow, for some days I hadn’t felt that I’d really be leaving. Even now, the journey seemed unreal. Still, with friendly waves we bade one another goodbye.
The next day my plans were altered drastically. Dr. Chaudhuri, during his Sunday sermon, collapsed with a heart attack. When the news reached me, I knew I couldn’t possibly leave. There was no one to take his place at the ashram. That afternoon I telephoned Bina and asked if she’d like me to substitute for him until he recovered.
“Oh, thank God!” she exclaimed. “I was afraid to ask you, knowing you were so keen on leaving. But-do you really think you could do it?”
I moved into the ashram, and lived there for one year. It was January, 1964, when my life entered a new phase, altogether different from the hermit’s life but surely what God wanted of me now. The least I could do for the Chaudhuris, after all they’d done for me, was help them in their time of need.
I gave the Sunday services and mid-week classes, and received in return meals and lodging at the ashram as well as an honorarium from donations for my talks. The rest of every week I had free. I took the opportunity to do research at the public library for the book I was contemplating. I read scientific journals, and took out books on various subjects, scientific and philosophical, relating to the subject of meaninglessness. It was fascinating to familiarize myself with ways of thinking that were so diametrically opposed to my entire belief structure.
I was tempted to dismiss what I read as utter nonsense. No good would result from doing so, however, for I was hoping to help people who were infected by this kind of reasoning, and who, consequently, had lost faith in life. I wasn’t interested in convincing those with an actual preference for believing in nothing. Many of them, I knew, found a certain comfort in meaninglessness as an excuse for their own lack of principles, or found in its teaching a match for their own absence of energy. I did want very much, however, to reach those who longed to find in themselves a basis for honest faith.
I couldn’t help realizing that these authors were not fools. Mistaken, yes, but I had to take them seriously if I wanted readers to take me seriously.
I’d spent fourteen years in an environment where everyone shared the same basic beliefs. The people I wanted to help now, however, were lost in a labyrinth of false reasoning and from which they could find no way out. Many of the suicides nowadays, especially among the young, must surely be the result of a system of education that mocked at faith and bred into its students a nihilistic outlook on life. The writers I studied seemed to exult in their own cleverness. In meaninglessness they found a kind of substitute faith-dry as dust, but declaring it to people who had no stomach for it satisfied their own egos. For all their brilliance, however, it lacked common sense.
By stepping back a little from it, I realized that it was not objective. Those writers were biased toward a negative belief system. If one asks questions with a negative bias, one receives negative answers. I realized I would have to discipline myself to deal with, and not to repudiate, attitudes of life-rejection. The challenge, for me, was to try to appreciate such a point of view without letting it affect my conviction of life’s deep and wonderful meaning.
The great master Sri Ramakrishna used to say that if you peel onions, your hands will smell of them. Since I’d chosen deliberately-and I hoped not foolishly, in light of my devotional life-to “peel onions,” I’d have to be strong inwardly. I couldn’t wear protective gloves, so to speak, for I needed to “get a feel” for this uncongenial outlook. It would always be necessary, afterward, to “wash my hands” by faithful meditation and by ever-deepening attunement with my Guru.
Dr. Chaudhuri helped me greatly with my research. A well-known writer on philosophy, he suggested books that might be of help to me. One of them would lead me to another. Thus, gradually, I learned some of the principal currents in modern thought. Much of this material was, for me as a devotee, highly unpleasant to read. The teachings had already eaten their way corrosively into the fabric of modern society. I’d had training, however, in a school of wisdom that provided the answers people needed now. I must hold to this understanding, and not be affected by the corrosion of clever reasoning, though I’d have to listen with an open mind in order to tune in, as it were, to what I was reading.
First, I tackled the question of relativity. Many claimed that, since everything is relative, every definition of morality, whether serious or bizarre, expresses only beliefs, not objective truths. A university student told me that he’d lunched in a restaurant with one of his professors. The man had pocketed a spoon. “Why did you do that?” asked the student.
“Why not?” the professor replied indifferently. “Everything is relative.” To him, taking a spoon didn’t rate as stealing, provided one didn’t define it as such. What the restaurant lost, he gained.
That story typified much of what passes for “new wisdom” today. I read what these “philosophers” had to say, rather than pushing it away in disgust as I wanted to do. I then drew back mentally, and applied the standards of common sense to what they’d written, avoiding the convoluted logic with which they teased their readers into dropping what, in an earlier era, would have been called “bourgeois preconceptions.” Logic was the trap they offered, having already fallen into it themselves. What was needed now, I knew, was not more of the same kind of reasoning, based on untested premises, but the sharp axe of discrimination.
It was then I saw the rent in their fabric. Yes, of course everything is relative. Morality too is relative. This simple fact, however, doesn’t mean that truth is only a concept in the brain. It is not a euphemism for chaos and fragmented values. Over-intellectuality had tricked those “philosophers” into overlooking the obvious: that relativity implies relationship! To accept the relativity of values does not make them a matter of mere taste or convenience.
A toy gun in the hands of a child is only a toy, but brandished, even jokingly, in the hands of an adult might give some cause for apprehension. If Jesus Christ or Mahatma Gandhi had awakened one morning and declared, “I’m tired of serving humanity! I’ve decided to become a millionaire,” wouldn’t everyone, even an atheist, say he was making a mistake? But if a sluggard made the same declaration, wouldn’t everyone, even a saint, applaud his decision?
Truth is relative in the sense that our perception of it depends on our level of understanding and awareness. Its relativity is directional, and that direction is the same for everybody. Only God, who is beyond relativity, may be called absolute. Values themselves cannot be that. They are, however, universal. A mistake often made is to confuse those two words, “absolute” and “universal.” Einstein related all velocity to what he called the “absolute” speed of light. Philosophers said that when it comes to moral values, there is nothing absolute to which to relate them. However, there is no need to relate them to an absolute. There is in relativity itself a direction toward which all try to move: happiness. There is also a direction away from happiness: pain. In that directional relativity, not in any fixed moral rule, values exist. In moral philosophy, the search for an absolute has been a will-o’-the-wisp. It has lured people toward something that was never there. They should have concluded long ago that the light they were seeking was another.
Heat and cold are relative. These are universal perceptions, though they affect Eskimos and Fiji islanders differently. A relativity of values doesn’t imply that the only criterion of their validity is common agreement. Many basic values apply in varying degrees to everyone, for the simple reason that those values are rooted in nature, not in human opinion. To help someone in need is a virtue not because scripture says so, but for the simple reason that nature implants in us an urge toward self-expansion. We satisfy that urge toward expansion in many ways: in sympathy, knowledge, understanding. A self-serving attitude, on the other hand, is contractive, and goes against that natural urge. Even if a whole culture endorses it, the result, for its people, is general unhappiness. To contradict any impulse that is implanted in us by nature is to be punished by nature. As the saying goes, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” To eat nails, which the human body is not made to assimilate, is to experience pain-and, very probably, death.
The writers I was studying claimed that human beings are independent from nature-“radically free” as the nihilist Jean-Paul Sartre put it. Sartre made this the premise for most of his reasoning. How, I asked myself, could anything in nature be apart from nature? We share the planet together with the beetles! It is absurd to claim that mankind is “radically free,” and then not offer a shred of evidence in support of this statement, while adding that therefore one can do as one likes, provided he is sincere about it. Essentially, Sartre was saying, “Mankind is radically free; therefore he is free.”
The more I studied Sartre, the more I realized that within his own frame of reasoning he was neither reasonable, nor realistic, nor sincere. In one of the chapters of my book I unmasked him for his dishonesty. So many of the “intelligentsia” of our times take him seriously-like the people in Hans Christian Andersen’s story who convinced themselves they were beholding their emperor in a new suit of clothes, when in fact he was wearing nothing. I found it no joy to read Sartre; the man was unclean. Read him I did, however-enough of his works and more than enough to get the picture, for he represented more boldly than most the widespread fallacy of meaninglessness. When finally I wrote about him, it was a pleasure to unmask his ruthless and arrogant reasoning and reveal him as an intellectual fraud. It was a joy also to think that people need no longer be caught in his snare of false reasoning and prevented from finding the freedom of their own being, as children of God.
I read books on biology also, and saw the lengths to which “authorities” had gone to justify the claims of materialism. It was obvious they’d made an a priori commitment to it. The facts alone, however, in no way forced the conclusions they came to. It was painful to see that many students in this fact-oriented society of ours had leapt onto that “bandwagon,” merely because the noise it made was so loud.
“Did humanity evolve more in producing a brain than the elephant in producing a trunk?” This rhetorical question was solemnly proposed to an audience whom the author expected to be in complete sympathy with his view of life. I wanted to laugh, and probably did. But I also had to take the man seriously, if I was to answer him in terms of his own logic.
And so I applied myself to the question of evolution, and pondered why students of the subject thought evolution is only a mechanism. “Evolution,” I read (this is a paraphrase, not a direct quote), “is completely accidental. It is not progressive in any meaningful sense, for there is nothing toward which to progress. The process is entirely mechanical. Life is meaningless, purposeless, and unintelligent.” Facts were offered in support of this thesis; thousands of them. The conclusions drawn from them, however, were as unnecessary to the facts as the belief of certain primitive peoples that thunder means the gods are displeased. Philosophers had been asking the wrong questions.
When I was a child of six, my father told me that the human race is dominant on earth as an evolutionary accident. Perhaps, he said, the birds will be the next to rule, since they haven’t had their turn yet. I remember thinking even at that age that his idea was unsatisfactory, for it implied no dominance of consciousness. I hadn’t the vocabulary to verbalize my reaction, but my vague sense was that life cannot be haphazard and meaningless.
Instead of denying the facts presented by biologists, as apologists for religion have generally done, I accepted them without question. Then, however, I drew back mentally and asked myself, “What does it all mean ?” From the same facts, I realized, completely different conclusions can be drawn-and more sensible ones, too. A sheer plethora of facts had seduced too many people into forgetting common sense.
Writers claimed that there is no difference between animate and inanimate matter. Indeed, a number of famous scientists, among them J. C. Bose in India and Karl Bonhoefer in Germany, had demonstrated that the reactions of metal to electrical stimuli are identical to those of nerve tissue. The materialists claimed to see in such facts proof that so-called life and consciousness are without either life or consciousness. Nothing exists, they insisted, except inert matter.
I accepted their facts. I even went farther than they had, bringing several different discoveries of this nature into a single presentation which, together, became overwhelmingly convincing. Thus, I made their case more thoroughly, perhaps, than they’d made it themselves. And then-I turned it on its head! If, I said, inanimate and inanimate matter are the same, then instead of concluding-consciously!-that both are unconscious, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to conclude that consciousness exists, at least latently, in them both?
This, indeed, is the ancient teaching of Vedanta!
I addressed other issues as well in my book, all of them as reasonably as I could, and never emotionally. Years later, a student from a prominent university expressed to me his spiritual doubts, which he had as a result of exposure to that kind of thinking. For my reply I suggested he read Crises in Modern Thought. He did so. After graduating, he became a member of Ananda.
Many of the concepts in this book had an important influence on Ananda’s growth. The emphasis, for example, on the fact that there are different levels in people’s ability to understand reality contrasted with the unanimity most institutions expect of their members. At Ananda there is a different rule: “People are more important than things.” People also are more important than any rule formulated for their governance. As Jesus Christ put it, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Ananda gives people latitude for development according to their own, inner light.
The work I did on “Crises” was important in another respect for Ananda’s development. My emphasis on the evolution of consciousness through form, rather than on the multiplicity of forms themselves, had a major influence on everything we do. For the spirit behind what is done is always Ananda’s first consideration. Of what good, we ask ourselves, is an efficient mechanism if what it produces is efficiency, but not joy?
Research took up much of 1964 for me. In that year I also made another, quite unexpected discovery: a new way of serving Master’s mission. This, too, was one that SRF had not explored, and would therefore give them no competition. This discovery also proved vitally important to the story of Ananda, and contributed greatly, in time, to its success. What it concerned was music.