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Self-enquiry is the essence of ancient India || BITS Pilani (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
23 min
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Questioner (Q): In this modern age, ancient Indian practices are mostly forgotten. There are the traditions with their virtues, values, and wisdom, and there is a lot there that we could learn from. Sadly, they are all forgotten now. People do not practice spirituality or follow these truths that we once knew anymore.

Some of these practices are very hard to follow in this modern world. For example, it is not really practically possible to renounce everything and go live in a forest or something. And even small stuff like, for example, eating sāttvika food becomes hard for, let’s say, an engineering student who is in his campus, his hostel, where the choices of food are limited. So, even though these old values and practices are good, they cannot be implemented.

So, my question to you is, should we learn from these ancient Indian practices, and how do we implement them in this modern age?

Acharya Prashant (AP): Ancient Indian practices were for ancient India. If you try to practice them, this is what you will repeatedly come to: “Oh, it is so difficult to practice sāttvika food in modern engineering campuses!” Those practices were for a certain time, place, situation. That is when they were practical.

Practices do not determine the core of spirituality; consciousness does. If someone is feeding you practices in the name of spirituality, then that fellow is either ignorant or cunning or both, which is actually the same thing. It is not practices, it is understanding that you need. And then, even if you are in a jungle or a frozen desert, you will still know what to eat, what not to eat.

How is it possible that in India—in a campus, you are saying—it is difficult to get the right food? With all the degradation that is happening, India is still a paradise for vegetarians. If in India you are finding it difficult to practice vegetarianism or veganism, then where would you find it facile? Would you say you have come to, let’s say, a place like the North Pole, Siberia, or someplace where it is easier to get fresh fruits?

So, it is not a question of whether you are in Kerala or Punjab or Siberia; it is a question of the depth of your understanding. Once you know, your action flows from there. Then you do not say, “Oh, it is too tough to do”; then you do not say, “Oh, it is right but difficult.” It is difficult. Learn how to do it, because it has to be done.

That is the thing with the Truth: it is absolute. It does not give you space to deviate, meander and such things. If something is to be done, it is to be done. Find a way. The question is, what is the right way? The question is not whether or not to do it; it has to be done. Full stop. And if something is not to be done, find a way how not to do it. Do not say, “Oh well, you know, because it is difficult to not do it, I am questioning whether or not to do it.” Difficulty is not the criteria. Understanding is the criteria. What are you a man for if you cannot take difficulties?

And difficulties, remember, will never be taken beyond a point by the animal within you. Even a lion retreats in face of adversity. We call the thing the king of the jungle, no? You will find enough evidence, enough videos showing lions and tigers retreating from adverse situations. So, it is animals who decide their actions based on the difficulty of the situation. Human beings are not supposed to do that.

Lay down your life doing the right thing. Do not buckle under. What is life to be preserved for if it is not to be spent rightly? You are saying, “Oh, I am preserving life”—for what? Life is a movement, life is a space in time, and now that entire space you have filled up with all kinds of unworthy things, and you are saying, “I am prolonging my life because doing the right thing was difficult.” Prolonging it for what, towards what end?

So, practice being loyal to understanding. That is the practice you need. Practice not doing anything without understanding. Practice inquiry, particularly practice self-inquiry. These are the practices that you need, not ancient Indian practices.

In the name of ancient Indian practices there is a lot of nonsense going around. Somebody is trying to wear clothes that were in circulation three thousand years back; somebody is wearing the sacred thread; somebody is doing all kinds of things; somebody is trying to wear wooden slippers and hacking down trees and saying, “Oh, this is ancient Indian stuff, exotic.”

Now, let’s come to ancient India, what ancient India is really about. Ancient India is highlighted by Vedic wisdom, right? You call yourself Sanātanī when you say you are an Indian. India is the land of the Vedas, and the part of Vedas that is relevant today and will remain immortally relevant is the Upanishadic part, the wisdom part, not the Karma Kāṇḍa part. That became obsolete long back, and that is also the part that contains a lot of rituals and practices and this and that.

Some people are still sticking to that; many people, most people rather, are still sticking to that, thinking that that is the essence of the Vedas. That part became obsolete and redundant. There is nothing in that; it belongs to the museum now. That part still has some historical value, you can refer to it, and there are times when you find gems hidden even there, in the Karma Kāṇḍa part. But mostly it has value only in antiquity, just as you preserve a piece of some antique good. But still, the Vedas have tremendous value even today, and they will remain immortal. Why is that so? Because of Vedanta. That is the essence of ancient India.

So, when you say ancient India, do not mean anything except Vedanta. And that is what you have to practice.

Q: What are the truths or understandings that we should pick up from there?

AP: No, there are no truths there; there is just the instruction in several forms, repeated in several ways: to always be vigilant, always self-enquire. That is the message of the Upanishads. You are nothing except your understanding. Keep knowing, keep asking, keep knowing, keep asking.

So, when I say you should know, when the Upanishads tell you that you should constantly be on the journey from darkness to light— that is ancient India, not all the other hotchpotch.

Q: I think many people are not aware of this. So, how would you suggest that people take it up, start becoming aware, start learning and implementing being conscious of oneself, realizing its importance, and actually doing it?

AP: Even your method is not too bad, no? Come talk to me, that’s one good way.

Q: But everyone has to discover this for themselves, right?

AP: Even you are discovering it for yourself, using me. I am available to be used. Come, use me, as long as I can be used. This is only half a joke. I am serious about it.

So, I talk of Vedanta. Vedanta is available to everybody, it is no secret. If you really have a thing for Indian wisdom, go to Vedanta. With me, without me, depends on your preference, but do listen to what those beautiful elders had to say. They have left behind a treasure trove of great insights.

And be humble enough to accept that without their guidance it will be very difficult for you, if not impossible, to discover those things on your own. Even with their help and guidance it is still very difficult. Not that I am asking you to accept crutches. Even if you go to the Upanishads, even if you go to Gita and Vedanta, even if you take all the guidance they have to offer, still it is very difficult to fight against your animal tendencies and inner darkness.

So, I am not asking you to be dependent on the wise elders. I am just asking you to not refuse help where it is available. Because, you see, a lot of bad things are happening to you without your consent; they are just situational. The situations are doing much damage to you without your consent. Now, in the domain of situations themselves, if help is available, why not take it?

You are saying you are prepared to accept enemies, but you are not prepared to accept friends. What kind of wisdom is that? Or is that not pure egoism? People say, “No, I want to discover it on my own.” It is not as if you go to the Upanishads and somebody else will discover it for you; even then you will anyway have to discover it on your own. And I am telling you in advance, even with the Upanishads, chances that you will discover yourself are very meager.

When life offers you all kinds of obstacles, do you say, “Please, do not offer me obstacles”? No, then you don’t say that; then you say, “Oh, that is life. If obstacles come, you have to take them.” Equally, when help is being offered, why don’t you take it? When you can’t refuse obstacles, why do you want to refuse help? Is that not just the ego saying, “I will do it on my own”—when the fact is you cannot do it on your own, except if you have the caliber of an Ashtavakra, and the probability of that is miniscule.

So, just as you are forced to accept unasked obstacles, similarly, when help is there to be taken, be humble enough to just take it. And that help is in the shape of Vedanta. That is ancient Indian wisdom.

Q: The world is obviously not very exposed to ancient Indian wisdom. Still, there are many modern schools of thought and philosophies in circulation these days. How is Vedanta different from them?

AP: Vedanta goes into the very root of thought, the thinker himself. So, all these philosophies are in a different dimension compared to Vedanta. Vedanta is not a school of thought. Vedanta is not a philosophy. We do call it Vedanta darśana , but it is not really a darśana in the sense of being a philosophy. You are not philosophizing; in fact, you are dismantling the philosopher. That is what Vedanta does. We all have that self-proclaimed philosopher sitting within, talking big and without pause. Vedanta slaughters that philosopher.

Q: Do we have to go very deeply into Vedantic wisdom to understand it and solve our ordinary problems?

AP: No, it is rather very ordinary. Vedanta is not complicated. When you read Marx or Voltaire, that is where you find complications. How thick are their works? This thick (indicates size of a thick book) , and that is why hardly anybody reads them. Even Marxists don’t read Marx, right? You know that very well. Upanishads—what, five pages? Four pages? Two pages? Except the couple of lengthy ones.

So, there are no complications there; there is just childlike simplicity. It is just that that kind of disarming innocence is sometimes too much to take for very complicated people, so they say, “Oh, we cannot wrap our heads around it.” That is what the sage is saying. “Son, where are your questions coming from?” (Picks up a small book from the table) This is an Upanishad—I mean, five percent of it. Ninety-five percent is my commentary. This thick! Five percent of this is the Upanishad. Where is the complication? And it is talking of very, very simple things. How can someone say, “I don’t understand Vedanta”? But what is there to not understand?

Q: Since this an engineering college, I would like to ask what advice you have for us apart from getting into Vedantic wisdom or understanding ourselves?

AP: Why should I give you other advice? You are on the ventilator and you are saying, “Do you have some other gas except oxygen?” First of all, right now you have a brain fog because oxygen levels are low; secondly, in that brain fog you are asking for more nitrogen or carbon monoxide. Why are you asking for an option, son? First of all, try this thing out. Maybe it will tell you who is the chooser within who wants choices and more choices and options and more varieties. Why the hell do we hanker for these things? So, please, please try to begin.

Q: No, I was saying apart from that.

AP: Apart from oxygen you have ozone!

Q: You have been to the Indian Civil Services as well, right? You have been to IIM Ahmedabad also. That has been inspirational actually, seeing that you have selected such an unconventional path for yourself. So, it would be useful and helpful to us if you could share your experiences regarding this career thing also.

AP: What exactly is the question regarding the career thing?

Q: There is no question as such. I am just saying that discussions on that side would be very nice to have as well, apart from the spiritual themes.

AP: It is all one. There is no distinction there. You can ask on that side also and you will get the same response. So, there is not much hope for you. Even if you ask me about my career days it will somehow close in on Vedanta.

Q: You said that we should not buckle under when facing difficulties that come with having the right purpose in life. But our body does need some training or practice so that we can withstand the pressure of the process, right? You mentioned that the Karma Kāṇḍa part of the Vedas has become dated. But still, there might be some practices there that could be useful in training the body, like fasting, for example.

AP You can have that practice. Go.

Q: So, maybe we should be focusing on those things that…

AP: No, you cannot focus on those things. Those things are like, you know, just washing your clothes once every three, four days. You can’t focus your life on the washing machine. If you want to train your body so that you can listen to me, that is fine, but the central thing is listening, not training the body.

I do not know what kind of and how intensive a training you require to just listen. There might be a fellow who has some problem in the hips or in the back or somewhere, who can’t even sit still or sit straight; there might be somebody who has a problem in the ears—these are the kind of people who require some kind of physical training or a physical operation to even listen. But otherwise, I do not know what you want to do with your body to just listen, to just see, to just know, very innocently.

I also do not know when you will call your physical training complete, because the body is a mass of imperfections. I do not know when you will declare yourself fit enough to listen, physically fit that is. You will practice for, let’s say, thirty, forty years and then try to declare, “Now I am fit to have some knowledge.” By that time you will have arthritis and osteoporosis because age will catch up on you. Everybody has to die, irrespective of how fit your body is.

So, I do not know how long you want to continue servicing your body, but I do agree that the body, even as an instrument, does require certain upkeep and maintenance. So, fine, provide it that kind of maintenance. But that cannot be the focus of life, and that cannot be the core of spirituality. You cannot say, “I am doing physical practices and that will make me realize, that will lead me to have some wisdom.” No wisdom is going to come out of physical things—zero, none at all. You can keep doing physical stuff for a thousand years—you will still be equally stupid. It is just that now you will be a very fit and stupid person.

Q: It is said that keeping the backbone straight is necessary for one’s spiritual growth. Whenever I try to keep my backbone straight, I fail. I am unable to do so for more than half an hour. So, what is the solution for this problem?

AP: You are asking the wrong person, mate. I have never focused on having any part of my body straight or in some other position. Even at this moment, I really do not know the shape of my backbone. I am not focusing on my posture at all. All I am caring about is having a certain posture that enables me to be committed to you in the maximum way possible. I am not at this time concerned, worried about my body at all. There is something far more important I must attend to and that is what I am doing.

So, I do not know whether backbone and such things are important. To me, there is something else that is far more important. Let me ask you, if you are focusing on the backbone, how will you know whether the backbone is a perfect perpendicular to the horizon through the horizontal surface?

Q: When we stand, I think.

AP: When you stand, are you sure the backbone is exactly perpendicular to the horizontal surface? Because an absolute ninety-degree angle is anyway never going to be possible, and if that is what you demand for your spiritual growth, you will always find yourself lacking.

Sometimes, you might come close to being orthogonal to the surface, let’s say 89.9 degrees, but even that is not a perfect 90 degrees. I am not asking you to slouch or you have a curved backbone; no, that is not the advice. I am not advising you to have a distorted body posture. What I am wondering is whether this is the most important thing to talk of, whether this is the most important question in the process of spirituality.

So, these are, in my opinion and experience, irrelevant questions.

Q: I am sorry sir, but in yoga and āsanas (postures)…

AP: What are you sorry for?

Q: You said that these are irrelevant questions.

AP: Āsanas are good for health. I do not denounce them. So, be it āsana , mudrā or prāṇāyāma , they are good for health, and a good body is conducive to spiritual well-being, I fully agree. But I also know that it is not the central thing or the most important question.

If you keep practicing your āsana and the other things that you do in yoga or hatha yoga , you can practice till the dawn of your life and practice will never come to an end. That practice is not the goal of life; the goal of life is something else. Yes, obviously, having a fit body, a healthy body helps and so, with that end if you want to practice your Yoga, it is alright.

Q: In the Bhagavad Gita , Lord Krishna says, “Abandon every dharma and surrender unto Me alone. I shall liberate you and give you mokṣa (liberation).” Does it mean that we have to leave everything and surrender to Krishna alone, be devoted to Him and he will give us liberation? Will devotion alone be sufficient?

AP: Quit all small goals and focus only on the mightiest goal possible—that is what Krishna is saying. Sarva-dharma means all your small goals, your small duties, and small responsibilities; they are not worth anything. Mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja : focus only on the one real thing; devote your life to one mighty cause or end; get rid of all the small distractions and desires. That is the import of this verse.

Q: And sir, Brahma Samhita says in Brhan-Naradiya Purana (38.97): “In this age of quarrel and hypocrisy the only means of deliverance is chanting the holy name of the Lord. There is no other way. There is no other way. There is no other way.”

AP: Exactly same thing, nothing else. Nāma here refers to all the names and forms that appear to you as desires. All desires have a name, right? Have you ever desired something without name and form?

Q: No.

AP: So, what is being told is that everything that you desire is petty. Desire the highest, the ultimate— mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja . And the same thing has been repeated endlessly by various seers in all forms possible.

Q: How much time we should give for dhyāna or pūjā in a day?

AP: Alright, let’s say I say eight hours—what will you do with the remaining sixteen?

Q: Eight hours is impossible…

AP: Even eight hours is impossible?

Q: For pūjā it is impossible.

AP: Pūjā of the kind that you practice, obviously you cannot do it for eight hours, and for real pūjā eight hours is too little. Similarly, for real dhyāna eight hours is insufficient. Dhyāna and pūjā , they have to be continuous, they have to be twenty-four hours.

Q: Sir, how can we do that?

AP: First time in the conversation there is a pause in your mind, right? You are prepared to pause and listen. Good!

How is it possible? With the kind of things that you do, it is not possible at all. The kind of dhyāna you practice, the kind of notions and knowledge that you have, it is not going to happen. Are you listening to me?

Q: Yes.

AP: This is dhyāna . But the books you have read have never told you that dhyāna is a simple thing. It has to be very ordinary; it has to be present in all conditions, at all times.

Are you right now devoted to understanding? This is pūjā . But you have been told that unless you are offering flowers, fruits, and incense to the deity, it is not pūjā . If you need to have a deity, a material figure in front of you to worship at all times, then you will not be able to worship for too long.

Real pūjā involves being devoted to the highest within. The highest within is the peak of consciousness. When you at all times want to aim at that—“I want to be as conscious as possible”—that is worship. Pūjā and dhyāna , therefore, are one.

Q: Sir, you talked about consciousness and you also said that thought is a material thing. How can we find the difference between what is thought and what is consciousness?

AP: They are the same. The consciousness that we have is very thought-based. Therefore, we require attention. Attention uplifts consciousness. Thought is a mediocre level of consciousness. Being unthinking is a lower level of consciousness.

So, we as human beings mostly practice a mediocre state of consciousness. We are thinking beings, but that state is, however, superior to the state of animals who don’t think at all or to the state of human beings who don’t think much. Attention is superior to thought. We said it uplifts consciousness. So, the more attentive you are, the higher is your state of consciousness.

What does it mean to be attentive? To be attentive is to continuously remember your condition and, therefore, your imperative, your dharma . Your condition is of bondage and, therefore, your dharma is to move towards liberation, to act in a way that challenges your bondages. Remembering this continuously is attention.

When you remember this continuously, then you cannot patronize the frivolities of life. You know who you are: you are somebody in distress, you are somebody in chains. How can you allow your precious time and energy to be wasted away in trivial things? You are suffering and all you want is freedom from that suffering.

This is attention: to want freedom continuously, always.

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