JavaScript Menu, DHTML Menu Powered By Milonic
Go to Home Page
Radio Sai Home Page
Home > Serials >  
Listen to the streaming audio version now Listen to the streaming audio version now
spiritual questions and answers - PART 1
By Prof. G. Venkataraman
Download the audio version of this article Download the audio version of this article
[14.9 MB]

Since Heart2Heart started in 2003, readers have very often written to us seeking answers to many spiritual questions. We have answered them at times through appropriate articles in H2H. However, there are still many that have to be explained carefully and in detail. And in the recent past, a lot more queries have arrived on varied topics concerning spirituality and personal growth. We have now meticulously compiled and categorised these questions, and Prof. G. Venkataraman has offered to answer all these queries in a structured and systematic way as a series on Radio Sai as well as in H2H. In this way, these answers now remain always on our website as a ready reckoner on spiritual doubts.

A New Series

Loving Sai Ram and greetings from Prashanti Nilayam. For quite some time, we have been receiving questions from various listeners as also from other sources such as Heart2Heart, requesting answers to spiritual questions. In the past, these questions were dealt with occasionally, sometimes over the air, and sometimes via e-mail. In addition, both in my classes in the University and whenever I give talks on Radio Sai, I am invariably asked many questions after the session. While sometimes the same questions are asked, at other times, the queries are novel and even quite challenging.

Sai Avatars

Last year (2007), I decided that it was about time that we made a serious effort to compile the various questions received and make an equally systematic effort to respond to doubts and queries; the present radio series which is also carried in H2H is the result. I should mention that our effort would not stop with this and we invite comments, supplementary questions, discussion, and so on in response to these series. Eventually, based on all these, we hope to come out with a formal book that would then serve as a ready reference for all those who are interested.

As I start, we have with us a question bank of over a hundred questions compiled from various sources and I expect as I go along that more questions would be added to the bank. I should mention that many have helped in the question collection, categorisation, and so on. In particular, I should mention the names of Mr. Rangarajan and Amey Deshpande, both of whom assist me in my Awareness classes in the University. And of course, there is Bishu Prusty, who is truly the heart and soul of Heart2Heart, and literally runs it almost all by himself. But for the staunch support that these people have given, this series on Radio Sai and Heart2Heart that I have been planning for long would never have taken off.

A Probable Book on Spiritual Questions and Answers

With that preamble and acknowledgement, let me now get down to business. I should mention that the questions are basically as received, and as I go along, some of them would necessarily overlap. I feel that this does not matter where a Radio/H2H series is concerned; but when, God willing, we finally come out with a book, it would, we hope, contain suitable cross references and the like, adding to its scholarly value and utility as a reference manual; but all that comes in the future. For now, it is just straightforward Q and A as in a talk or lecture.

The question bank that I referred to has been sorted out into suitable categories, and today, I wish to start with some questions in the category that has been entitled: Man’s True Purpose. This is just a generic title, intended to convey the fact that the questions deal essentially with the purpose of life. By the way, the questions have not necessarily been lined up in the best possible logical order; in any case, the decision as to what exactly is the best order is of course somewhat subjective. So, skipping such semantic issues, let me get on with the job and see what we have in this issue’s basket.

Living Like a Lotus

The first question, as received, is the following:

Question 1: How does one live in the world, but not of the world?


I believe the questioner is basically asking: “How to go through life, without attachment.” Now, before I answer this question, perhaps I should explain why at all such a question would arise. Clearly, whoever has asked this question has done so because he or she has heard a bit of Vedanta, about giving up attachment, and so on. I do not expect, for example, someone from the West who does not know anything about Vedanta, or for that matter, even someone from India, such as a present-day college student, to ask such a question.

Sai Avatars
The human spirit pushes us past our boundaries

That, by the way, was meant to convey the fact that most students in this country today are almost completely cut off from their spiritual roots, and if someone told them that while living in this world we must not allow it to affect us, even as the water drops on the lotus leaf in the pond do not wet the leaf, they would ask exactly the kind of question I am now venturing to answer; hope you follow that.

The way I have introduced the question, clearly implies that detachment is a virtue while attachment is not only a burden but a spiritual obstruction as well. So, really speaking, I must explain why this is considered to be so; and that is what I shall try and do by way of responding to this question.

Now, if you think about it a bit, the word ‘spirituality’ has a lot to do with the word ‘spirit’. People may frown upon hearing the word ‘spirituality’, but even an atheist would have no objection to the word ‘spirit’, the human spirit that is. Why? Because that word refers to something within each one of us, that all recognise it exists, and which also has meaning. Let us say that the Indian cricket team has lost an important match not because they lacked the talent, but because the players did not apply themselves.

I must here confess that like almost all Indians, I have a weakness for this game even though many consider it absolutely foolish. Be that as it may, let me get back to what I was trying to say. When say, our team loses, we often condemn our players with remarks like, “Our fellows simply caved in; they showed no spirit at all.” I am sure many of you have heard such comments. Or else, people would say, “The human spirit is capable of tremendous drive; it can help man achieve anything, like conquering Everest, taking him to the Moon and outer space, to split the atom, to map the human genome, to unravel the cosmos, and so on.”

Spirituality is the Science of the Spirit

What it all boils down to is that most people accept that one can talk of an intangible entity called the human spirit, though one cannot actually see it; and this includes believers, agonistics and even atheists. The problem starts when one wants to know something more about this mysterious entity called the spirit; and that is where all the arguments begin. Here, I must disclose that I belong to the school that believes in what is called Spirituality, which is nothing but the Science of the Spirit.

Sai Avatars

Spirituality - the 'Science of the Spirit'


I am a physicist by training, and indeed, my career has been closely connected with physics in many different ways. Physics, chemistry, biology, and so on, are all sciences connected with the material world, and there is a particular methodology associated with exploring this world. Basically, the tools used are the method of theory, combined with the method of experimentation.

These two are not disconnected, but feed each other. I cannot go into all that here, but for the sake of completeness, let me add that in the 20th century, a new tool has been added, namely computer simulation; a large part of what you hear these days about climate change, comes via simulation performed using various computer models.

Now what has all this got to do with Spirituality or the Science of the Spirit? I brought in all this because many say, “In science as we normally understand it, there are well laid down rules for exploration, hypothesis testing, experimental verification, and so on. The way spirituality seems to be practiced does not follow the rules laid down by us; so we cannot accept it.”

This is how non-believers tend to dismiss spirituality. However, spirituality is not as hollow as many would have us believe; rather, it is based on its own methodology of exploration, logical analysis, hypothesis testing, and so on. Very great minds have been engaged in this kind of activity for thousands of years, and their collective wisdom cannot be pooh-poohed or summarily dismissed just because the system they followed happens to be different from what those who explore the material world swear by.

Relying On Vedanta

The reason why I am going through this rather lengthy preamble is just to drive home the fact that my responses would be based on Vedanta, the ancient Science of the Spirit. Vedanta must not be confused with cults, creeds and the like. It is a philosophy, indeed spiritual philosophy at its best that has grown out of the collective wisdom of thousands of unknown sages, and has found expression through the famous Upanishads.

Sai Avatars
Vedanta is the ancient science of the spirit

Indeed, so inspiring are its contents, that Mahatma Gandhi made them the anchor of his entire service to humanity, while great physicists such as Erwin Schoredinger and Brian Josephson, both of whom won the Noble Prize, literally swore by Vedanta. I hope all that would lend credibility to what I would be saying, since my responses would be governed mainly by Vedanta.

And to wind up this part of the argument, let me mention two other facts that in a sense override all the above. The first is that the celebrated BhagavadGita is nothing but a restatement of the essence of Vedanta by the Lord Himself appearing as Sri Krishna, while the Divine Discourses of Swami are, at the core, nothing but a reiteration of all that Vedanta stands for. In other words, my responses would rely heavily on Vedanta, although I might, for purposes of illustration, resort to modern examples.

By way of assuring you once more that I have not got lost, let me return to the question I started with and face it frontally. Keeping in view all that I said just now, let me rephrase that question:

We live in this world and we are connected with it in innumerable ways. What sense does it make then to say that we must not be attached to this world? If we become detached, then we would be going through life essentially in a spiritless manner, if one might put it that way. It would mean that the purpose of spirituality is to quench and maybe even kill the human spirit! What do you say to this?

That would be the way the Devil’s Advocate would argue, and perhaps many disbelievers in Vedanta also would! Let us try to answer this new question for if that is done, then the original question would also get answered; incidentally, this would also make the answering of questions that follow somewhat simpler.

Vedanta’s response to all this is as follows: Yes, humans do have a spirit, and this spirit resides in a body. However, while the body is made up of gross matter, that is to say, of molecules and atoms, which in turn are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, the spirit is not. The spirit of any particular individual, says Vedanta, might operationally be regarded as a part of the Universal Spirit or Universal Soul; it is just that a part of this Universal Spirit finds itself “encased” in a gross human body.

Bursting The Balloon

Sai Avatars

The atma and jivatma separated by the 'balloon' of the body


The name that Vedanta uses for the Universal Spirit or Universal Soul is Atma, while the Individual Spirit or the Individualised Soul is called Jivatma. If you want an analogy, the Jivatma is like a balloon, in which the rubber casing is like the body and the air within is like the spirit. A balloon has air within it and there is also air surrounding it; however, while the air within is “trapped,” the air outside is “free”.

As long as the balloon has an existence, the air within is trapped and cannot mix with that which is outside and free. However, if the balloon bursts, then the air within gets released and becomes free, and immediately mixes with the air outside. Please keep this analogy in mind for it would come in very handy in what follows.

Let us move on and link all this to attachment, detachment, and so on, for that is the real core of the question we started with. The individual human soul has two options; one is to remain “trapped” and the other is to become “free”; but what exactly do these words “trapped” and “free” mean? Vedanta has the answer.

It says that the Universal Soul or the Atma is not only eternal, but its nature is bliss. Thus, if the Individual Soul merges with the Universal Soul the same way the air in the balloon becomes free and merges with the air outside, then it becomes possible to be eternally in a state of bliss.

What happens if no such merger takes place? Well in that case, the Individual Soul, being tied to the human body, has to face all the usual worldly experiences. “So what?” one might ask. The answer is that life is never a bed of roses; there are moments of pleasure and there are also moments of pain. As Swami often reminds us, pleasure is an interval between two pains.

Duality: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Sai Avatars
Setting the jivatma free means dissolving connection with the body so that our soul merges into the divine atma

The latter points needs a bit of elaboration. The world is a manifestation of duality, which means that it is a mixture of opposites such as pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, success and failure, happiness and misery, and so on. In other words, the opposites are tied together like the two sides of a coin are; in turn, it means that one cannot have happiness forever.

OK, may be all this is true, but what on earth does all this have to do with attachment and detachment? That is the point that I shall now consider. You see, as long as the Individual Soul is trapped in the body, this alternation of pleasure and pain is inevitable; that is to say, one simply cannot experience eternal bliss.

If eternal bliss is what one wants [and who would not want that?] then, one must make every effort to see that the Soul breaks free of the body and set it free for ever; this is like making the balloon burst. I hope these remarks would help you to see how the two words “trapped” and “being free” acquire meaning.

To get back to the question we started with, the answer is that if one is to live in the world and not be of it, then one must give up attachment to the world. Clearly, I need to explain what precisely that statement means, but before I do that, may be I should talk about the benefit we get by giving up attachment. Basically, it prevents rebirth. This point would come for greater discussion when I get down to answering the next question, but for now we may take it that the less the attachment, the less the chance of being reborn. And once, one escapes rebirth, one can become one with the Atma or God and enjoy permanent bliss.

So the formula is: While on earth, do what you have to, but do not become attached to the things of the world. The less the attachment, the less the probability of being born again. If attachment is totally reduced, then one escapes rebirth; and that means that the Individual Soul becomes united forever with the Atma or the Universal Soul; in turn that means one would be in a state of bliss forever.

The Answer is Equanimity

Now one might say, “Listen, I know all that; what I am looking for is a recipe for how not to be attached, and not a long lecture on the Individual Soul becoming united forever with the Atma.” I fully understand that my answer would not be complete without some remarks concerning that issue. However, it was in order to set the entire matter in a proper perspective that I took time off to discuss the issue of permanent union with the Atma and other subjects.

Sai Avatars

Let me now deal with the issue under consideration head on. The first thing one has to do is to ask oneself, “Am I interested in permanent bliss or not?” If one says, “I don’t know whether at all there is such a thing as permanent bliss, and therefore I shall not waste time seeking the non-existent,” then it is a different matter. However, if one believes in the Atma, one believes that the Atma is a state of eternal bliss, and that, as Swami has often told us, happiness is union with God or the Atma, and further that this goal is worth striving for, then one must go through life asking all the time, “Is what I am doing detrimental to my goal or not?”

Now comes a very practical point. Let us say there is a person who is a company executive. The question can be asked, “How can that person give up attachment? Would it at all be possible? Should he not be attached to his job? Without that passion, how can he do justice to the post he is holding?” and so on. Questions like these would make it seem that giving up attachment is impossible, adding that one simply cannot be in this world and not be of it.

Actually, that is not correct. One can be a good company executive; one can work hard and so on, but at the same time, one could also do a few other things. One could always take the view, “I shall do my best and leave the outcome entirely to God; and I shall cheerfully accept the outcome of my efforts whatever they be. If the outcome is a success, I shall not seek any credit while if it is not a success, I shall not blame anybody or curse anybody and not allow my equanimity to be disturbed.” That is the kind of attitude that one asks for.

The key word is equanimity. In the twelfth chapter of the Gita, Krishna strongly recommends equanimity; elsewhere He declares that equanimity is the best of all Yogas. Thus, living in the world and not being a part of it boils down to practicing equanimity. The less attached we become, the more easy it would be to achieve equanimity. And the benefits are, firstly, it would please the Lord immensely – He Himself says so in the twelfth chapter – and secondly, it would move us closer to permanent union to God, which as Swami tells us ever so often would bring permanent happiness. So, unless one is not keen on permanent happiness, one would have to learn the art of living in this world, and not being affected too much by it; no escape from it; and one word says it all and that is equanimity.

It looks like my very first question has taken almost an entire talk, and at this rate to deal with over hundred questions, you might think I would may be close to two hundred Q and A sessions! Don’t worry, the responses won’t always be as long and elaborate in the future. This being the first such exercise, I thought I would work in a few extra points so that they serve me as an anchor in my later sessions.

I hope I did not do too badly and that you would continue to read this series, comment and supplement with your ideas and understanding. Thank you and all the best till we get together again. Jai Sai Ram!

(To be Continued...)

Write to Us at H2H
Vol 6 Issue 11 - NOVEMBER 2008
Best viewed in Internet Explorer - 1024 x 768 resolution.