Spirituality and the Modern Family

I am blessed to be involved in a study of Gita with very intelligent and sincere participants. As we studied chapter three, one of them asked these questions:

Q: Buddha renounced his family, kingdom etc and went away to get enlightenment. Was he running away from Karma Yoga? Adi Shankaracharya left home at 8 yrs. Did he fail his duty as a son by doing that? Krishna left Vrindavan/Mathura leaving behind parents and loved ones. Did he fail them?

No. I guess the mentioned spiritual souls had a higher purpose in life and to fulfill the duty of incarnation, they left their home. If we do the same, we will be labelled as cowards running away from responsibilities. But don’t we also have a higher purpose of realizing God?

Krishna doesn’t belong with the other examples you cited. He did not leave Vṛndāvana for sannyāsa, quite the opposite. And he did not leave his family, he returned to his family. But many others could be added to the examples you cited, for example Śrī Caitanya.

These people did not act for their own sake. In truth, what they did was dangerous to themselves, but they did it because they had to make an important contribution to society. They took society as their more permanent family and acted out of that responsibility. They did not act irresponsibly.

The thought will cross our mind that perhaps we too should do that, because perhaps we too are historically unusual individuals.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating” if you want to try to be an advanced gymnast right away – go ahead and try. You may find out you are among the very rare prodigies, or you may break your neck and become paralyzed. Odds are strongly in favor of broken bones. The fact is that scores of aspirants try to follow the sannyasa marg prematurely and scores of them break their necks and make fools of themselves, or ruin and modify the sannyāsa āśrama to mask their failures. If you look with an open eye you will find many, many sannyāsīs with bank accounts and multiple homes, and even with female secretaries, etc.

If you like risk, go for it – but ask yourself why? And don’t complain that its risky and dangerous and contested against, after all, you are supposed to be giving up everything – like the respect of your family and society.

If you want the safe, sure path, do karma-yoga as the first step towards jñāna-yoga.

If you sincerely practice karma-yoga, you will rid yourself of the misconception that being a sannyasi is “higher” than being a housewife. In truth there is no greater sannyasi than the housewife. No one sacrifices selflessly for others more thoroughly and constantly than a loving housewife. No one comes and gives her puṣpa-māla (flower garlands). No one calls her “swāmījī gurujī paṇḍitjī.” No one gives her donations, pays for her vacations, and cooks all her food after paying all her bills, and then cleans and irons her clothes, and then patiently tolerates whatever indifference, callousness, and air of entitlement she may exhibit… she does what she does without any of this glamor, recognition and paycheck. She does what she does only out of love, or at least out of the external form of love: obligation. So she is the true sādhu and true sannyasī.

People may think I have a strange opinion here, but Krishna himself makes a very, very similar statement in Gītā 3.4 and especially forcefully in 3.6-7.

This is not true only for a housewife, but for anyone who performs their social and familiar obligations with care and dedication. To be a true husband, for example, is just as spiritually beneficial as being a true sannyasi. This is the big lesson of Gita’s Third Chapter.

Q: Though the Rishis were married, they went about their business without nitty-gritties of worldly affairs. The wife did not nag the husband, nor the husband demand undue labour from wife. There were no in-law problems, societal typecasts/opinions to abide by.

A) This is not entirely true. The first huge in-law problem happened very very early in the history of the world, between Dakṣa and Śiva, and resulted in the suicide of Dakṣa’s daughter, Śiva’s beloved Sati.

B) It is true that material life is much easier when it is not kali-yuga, but this isn’t because of chance. It is because the people living at that time were responsible, dutiful, and affectionate. If the Ṛṣis did not have high-stress lives, it was mostly because they made intelligent decisions about how to live. We can try to do the same.

Q: I understand Krishna’s point about Karma Yoga, but in today’s world (esp city life) engaging in modern activities tie us down or entangle in unnecessary things, leaving no time for sadhana or atleast meaningful work.

This is a myth. If you rid yourself of this myth, you will do yourself a great favor.

If you have the idea that only absolute dedication dhyan-yoga is sādhana, then you will feel this way and believe this myth. But if you realize that such dhyan-yoga is a certain stage of sādhana, appropriate for certain people at certain times of their life, and that there are other forms of sādhana for others at other stages, then you will realize that spiritual practice is possible for everyone, always.

Sādhana doesn’t require heaps of time or some special exterior environment, it requires sincerity. 5 seconds of sincere Sādhana is more effective that 15 hours of pretense. Sādhana (especially bhakti-sādhana) can be done effectively by anyone, in any circumstance, at any time. The only requirement is the sincere interest.

Also, if you take Krishna’s advice very seriously you will see that NOTHING needs to be meaningless or unnecessary.

If we put our foot down to object to do our duty as a family member (say as a daughter-in-law or wife) so as to serve our own purpose of meditation or attending Bhagavad Gita class or studying some scripture, are we failing to do our duty?

I ask this question because generally in India, women don’t get time for themselves. They are ‘stuck’ working only for other family members (I mentioned stuck because more often responsibilities are thrust on them). So if they decide to work for themselves, are they wrong?

They are mothers and wives so they have their duties, if they do not tend to those duties they are wrong and create debt in their karma. However, they also have a deeper, more permanent identity than the temporary one which defines them as a mother and wife. If they do not tend to the duties associated with that more permanent identity, they are even more wrong and acquire even deeper karmic debt.

So, yes, they must “put their foot down” so that one set of duties does not override and destroy another set. More than “putting feet down” they must put their brains to work, to figure out how to harmonize the duties and accomplish them all and see how nothing is meaningless except our own ignorance.