There are four kinds of promptings to enter into the mansion of spiritual life, depending upon the four types of persons (described below) aspiring to enter the world of spirituality. Hinduism embraces a huge variety of paradigms and therefore the language used by the aspirant would apparently differ although the content is the same: the theist would call it approaching God, the impersonally inclined would call it enquiry into the Ultimate Reality or Brahman, the scientifically trained would call it enquiry into the truth of Nature, inner and outer, the inward looking contemplative would call it a purely psychological process of controlling or restraining the pulls of the outgoing tendencies of the mind, the good Samaritan activist would call it expansion of one’s little self to embrace all. Thus, entry into spiritual life has been described in Hinduism as any of the following: entering God’s mansion—Deva Loka or Ishwara’s Abode, World of the Inner Self or Atman—Atmaloka or Brahmaloka, attainment of Samadhi or transcendental mystic experience, merging of the little individuality into the infinite wisdom or Jnana—Jiva-Brahma-eikya, oneness of the individual self with the Supreme Self.
The most remarkable text according to me that describes the four ways of spiritual entry depending on the four types of spiritual aspirants is the Bhagavad Gita verse number 16 in Chapter 7. This verse (7.16) reads in translation as follows:
The Lord (Sri Krishna) said: “O Arjuna, there are four types of devotees who aspire to come to Me—those afflicted with sorrows and misery, those who are keen enquirers by temperament, those who seek worldly prosperity and wellbeing, and those who are ripe in their wisdom.”
Aspiring to come to the Lord is another expression for entering spiritual life which is the subject of our present discussion.
- For most people, it is shocks, terrible knocks and blows in life, assailing by the turbulent waters and whirlpools of worldly life, disappointments and frustrations, betrayals and ingratitude, stabbings on the back and unjustified ignominy, cries and wails that jolt them out of their inordinate clinging to the relative world and awaken them to the reality of the Spirit as contrasted with the unreality and ephemerality of the worldly life. In a mood of anguish and bitter sarcasm, Swami Vivekananda once burst out in a letter: “I hate this world, this horrible nightmare, with churches and chicaneries, its books and blackguardism, fair faces and false hearts, howling righteousness on the surface and utter hollowness beneath, and above all, its sanctified shopkeeing.” In a word, it is bitter sorrow that opens the door to the spiritual mansion in most people. Lord Buddha’s life and philosophy is fully based on this realistic idea of ‘existential sorrow’ pushing people to spiritual awakening.
- There are some partially awakened persons who are habitually examine critically their experiences, outer and inner. They habitually inquire into what they see and experience in life. Most of the material scientists belong to this category. They are not so much concerned about the ultimate spiritual reality or living a spiritual life, but they cannot remain satisfied with uncritically accepting their experiences. Vedanta, the end of the Vedas also called the Upanishads, is therefore called in the famous spiritual texts of Hinduism as Brahma-jijnasa, that is, enquiry into the truth of the Ultimate Reality.
- The third category of persons is the class of seekers of worldly prosperity—wealth, position, power, health, long life and an endless list of desires that they think will make them happy. They believe that God can shower these worldly goods on them provided He is sufficiently and properly propitiated. The class of Vedic followers called mimamsakas belonged to this category. They invented elaborate rituals and ceremonies, highly complex forms of esoteric rites and sacrifices with the one aim of achieving worldly prosperity and to attain to various forms of heaven with subtler and more refined forms of enjoyment. They were highly calculative about gain and loss. The modern corporate sector people come close to this category, with their clear-cut and well-designed strategy of profit and loss. Unselfishness, self-sacrifice etc., are concepts alien to their thinking and such ideas are considered by them to be hopelessly impracticable and unrealistic at their best and downright stupid and foolish at their worst.
- The fourth and final class of persons are the highly enlightened beings, called jnanis in the Gita verse, who genuinely “hunger and thirst” (Jesus, The Sermon on the Mount) for God, who deeply long to realize the Unchanging Absolute Truth behind the changing panorama of relative existence. Their entry into spiritual life is not prompted by any negative factor like suffering, nor by any intellectual exercise like enquiry, nor by any worldly desire or ambition, but it is propelled purely by a profound urge to realize the Truth or God, by a spontaneous pull towards the Divine—in the language of devotion it is the pull that the soul feels towards its Beloved God, in the language of impersonal knowledge it is the longing for Freedom from the bondage of relative existence. The image used in Vedanta is that of a person whose hair has caught fire and who therefore rushes like one mad towards the water in a lake in order to quench the fire. Swami Vivekananda, following Buddha, urges in his famous Song of the Sannyasin: “This thirst for life for ever quench. It drags from birth to death and death to birth the soul.” Sri Ramakrishna described such an intensity of longing by a parable: the disciple asked the guru what kind of longing was necessary to realize God or the Truth. The guru said he would answer this question while they together went to the river for a bath. While the disciple was bathing, the guru suddenly held the disciple’s head under water and would not let him go. The disciple struggled for breath and after quite some time, the guru released him. The disciple put his head out and frantically was struggling to inhale some air. Then the guru asked him how the disciple felt. The disciple said that he was just panting for a breath of air. The guru then smiled and said: If you possess this kind of longing to realize the Truth or God, then realization would be instantly near at hand.
There are any number of texts in the vast Hindu scriptures that describe each of the above four categories.