Path to Higher Consciousness
Exploring how following Hindu principles develops the refined character needed to move from anger and fear to lofty states of mind
BY SATGURU BODHINATHA VEYLANSWAMI
IT IS NOT UNCOMMON TO HEAR HINDUS ASK RHETORICALLY, “Aren’t all religions pretty much the same?” In fact, people of all faiths can be heard asking this. A related statement echoes this sentiment: “Living a virtuous life and helping your fellowman is the essence of all religions, isn’t it?”
Our editors’ study of the world’s major religions, as presented in this issue’s Educational Insight, finds similarities but also significant differences between religions. By presenting information on the world’s religions in brief and easily comparable write-ups, the article seeks to dispel “the myth that all religions are one, that they all seek to lead adherents by the same means to the same Ultimate Reality.” They don’t, as a conscientious review of the article will show.
For example, from the Hindu perspective, it is not the attainment of heaven that is difficult. Remaining there is the challenge, as explained in the Mundaka Upanishad. After death those who have performed daily rituals and humanitarian works earn the grace of access to heaven. However, the merit of their good deeds is eventually exhausted, and they are once again born on Earth. The Upanishad offers two ways to remain in heaven and ultimately transcend that realm and merge in eternal oneness with God. The first is the attainment of a serene mind and controlled senses, which leads to renunciation of the world and the acceptance of a guru capable of guiding seekers to God Realization. The second path is retirement to the forest in one’s elderly years, there to live in solitary, performing intense austerities and worship of a Deity. To the Hindu mind it makes sense that achieving a permanent stay in heaven requires more than mere virtuous living and humanitarian acts.
As the Insight mentions, “Hinduism is a mystical religion, leading the devotee to personally experience the Truth within, finally reaching the pinnacle of consciousness where man and God are one.” Wikipedia’s take on this, slightly edited by me, reads like this:
“Higher consciousness, superconsciousness and God-consciousness are expressions used in Hinduism to denote the consciousness of a human being who has reached a higher level of development and who has come to know reality as it is.… Evolution in this sense is not that which occurs by natural selection over generations of human reproduction but evolution brought about by the application of spiritual knowledge to the conduct of human life, and of the refinement of the mind brought about by spiritual practices. Through the application of such knowledge to practical self-management, the awakening and development of faculties dormant in the ordinary human being is achieved. These faculties are aroused by and developed in conjunction with certain virtues such as lucidity, patience, kindness, truthfulness, humility and forgiveness toward one’s fellow man—qualities without which higher consciousness is not possible.”
Let’s look more closely at the word consciousness. Our Himalayan Academy lexicon describes it as “perception, awareness, apprehension. There are many layers or levels of consciousness, ranging from the ordinary, everyday consciousness of our body and mind to omniscient states of superconsciousness. Consciousness aware only of itself is Pure Consciousness.”
The principles and practices of Hinduism are designed to help us ascend to ever higher levels of consciousness, moving out of negative states to positive ones, from positive states to creative ones and from creative states to divine knowing, the highest state, which is the unitive consciousness of soul and God. This happens in small steps, in a gradational approach, over a period of many lives.
The most common negative states of consciousness that Hindus work to overcome are fear and anger. My guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, gave a number of techniques for reducing and then eliminating altogether these powerful instinctive forces. He emphasized the worship of Lord Ganesha, the benevolent elephant-faced Lord of Obstacles: “Worship of Lord Ganesha is immediate. One has but to think of His form to contact His ever-present mind. Our great God Ganesha sits contentedly upon the muladhara chakra. This chakra controls the forces of memory within every creature. Worship of Him strengthens your memory, builds character and brings knowledge from the within. It also protects you from the lower forces which reside in the little-known chakras below the muladhara. These darker chakras govern fear, anger, jealousy and the confused thinking centered around self-preservation.”
Progressing through levels of consciousness by applying Hindu principles and practices has similarities to the modern idea of self-improvement. It also has some important differences. It adds God and the soul as central elements. It also brings in the larger time frame required by reincarnation. We are looking for these changes to take place over a number of lives, and we know we have all the time we need to achieve our goals.
As in any system of self-improvement, it is important to start at the beginning. In the Hindu approach, that means focusing on our conduct and making sure it aligns with dharmic ideals. An appropriate place to start is with overcoming basic instinctive patterns, which can be thought of as belonging to the lower chakras. The ten classical restraints called yamas outline qualities that help control lower-consciousness tendencies: noninjury, truthfulness, nonstealing, divine conduct, patience, steadfastness, compassion, honesty, moderate appetite and purity. As we become established in these, more character refinements can be developed, such as courageousness, industriousness, joyfulness, observation and respect. This evolution of character is a natural movement from lower to higher consciousness.
Artist A. Manivel shows a seeker ascending steps to a small Ganesha shrine at the top of a knoll. With offerings in hand, he consciously works within himself to mold his life in accord with dharma, knowing that he must overcome the baser, instinctive emotions and reactions before gaining access to the divine states of mind his guru has spoken of.
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Character is the sum total of mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. On the spiritual path, the first phase of effort is to build, improve and transform our character.
The foundational importance of character is not limited to religion. A school of modern mental health called Positive Psychology states: “We have discovered that there is a set of human strengths that are the most likely buffers against mental illness: courage, optimism, interpersonal skill, work ethic, hope, honesty and perseverance. Much of the task of prevention will be to create a science of human strength whose mission will be to foster these virtues in young people.” (Prof. Martin Seligman, University of Pennsylvania, 1998)
In addition to cultivating those human strengths, we can renounce actions motivated solely by selfish desires—actions that give us additional pleasure, wealth or possessions but do nothing for our family, friends or associates.
Good character is rooted in duty. We all have certain duties to perform. The duties of those following the path of family life in Hinduism change according to age. This is called ashrama dharma. For example, in the second ashrama, grihastha, age 24-48, the primary focus is raising a family and fulfilling a career. Some think spiritual life draws us away from the world and our duties in it, but, in fact, duty well performed matures our spiritual search, and spiritual practices enhance the performance of duty.
Those sincerely striving for higher consciousness can add new activities to life that are purely selfless, helping others in truly giving ways, with no expectation of payment, presents, praise or prestige. This matures our character. Often such service is done at a temple or ashram, but it is wise and prudent to extend such altruism as widely in your life as you can, such as helping others in your workplace beyond what is expected, willingly and without complaint.
Selfless service has an added depth when it involves sacrifice, the giving up a cherished possession, be it money, time, intelligence or a physical object, to manifest a greater good. Sacrifice is similar to charity but has a touch of self-denial, such as fasting for a day and giving the money saved to a Hindu institution or giving up an expensive vacation for a budget vacation and donating the savings to charity.
Selflessness, dutifulness and overcoming fear and anger are all part of the great and difficult work of transforming our nature. As we achieve these, we are naturally led to devotional practices and meditative disciplines. Worship, meditation and the several yogas then open new possibilities for refining character and lifting our consciousness. Hinduism’s gradational approach to mysticism requires patience. Correctly understood, this approach blesses us with the fulfilling knowledge that we are making tangible progress toward the eventual goal of God Realization, and averts any sense of frustration that we have not yet achieved it.