What is spiritual merit? How do you gain spiritual merit? What is true sacrifice and what is it that needs to be sacrificed? These are questions that one must ask to get a clear understanding of how to live a spiritual life.
Most people relate to these two concepts in a superstitious and superficial way. This is due to their ignorance and lack of understanding as to what spirituality is really about.
A perfect example for this is found in the story from the Katha Upanishad about Nachiketa and his father.
Nachiketa’s father wanted to gain spiritual merit. He knew that according to the scriptures one must perform sacrifice to gain spiritual merit. Because of his ignorance as to what true sacrifice really means, and because he was a greedy and selfish person, he chose to sacrifice or give away the oldest, sickest and most useless cows that cannot give milk anymore, hoping that God will be pleased and reward him for his actions.
Nachiketa, who understood the scriptures, was puzzled by his father’s action. Even though his father was sincere in wanting spiritual merit, his actions will bear quite the opposite result. Because of his selfishness and superstition, his actions will further magnify his ego and keep him in bondage and delusion.
Spiritual merit is accumulated to the extent that you free yourself from the lower nature of selfishness, greed etc. The only way to do this is by practicing charity. That means practicing to let go of things that you consider valuable.
Nachiketa tried to shock his father into this understanding by asking him over and over again, “to whom will you give me father?” Instead of reflecting on what his son was trying to tell him, he became angry with him instead.
One can see from this story that Nachiketa’s father did not have an understanding of spiritual life and what the true meaning of spiritual merit and sacrifice is.
Living a spiritual life means that you are aspiring to reach the goal of life which is realizing and experiencing that you are Divine, that you are one with this ocean of consciousness. The awareness of your divinity, takes place when the mind becomes completely still and steady. In that state you identify with your true Divine Self; at all other times you identify with the thought waves in the mind. All spiritual practices should bring the mind to a more peaceful state until this goal is reached.
The main cause of restlessness and agitation in the mind is the lower emotions of lust, anger, greed, hatred, jealousy, envy and fear. When these emotions are substituted or sacrificed for higher emotions such as love, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, charity etc., the mind becomes purified and higher levels of peace are experienced. Once you understand this process, you can see that true spiritual merit is everything that frees you from the lower nature and brings your mind to a higher state of peace and bliss.
Lust is the source of all the impurities in the mind. From lust stem greed, envy, jealousy, hatred, anger, and lots of fear. Throughout their lives, people are only involved in lust; lusting for pleasure, wealth, name, fame, etc.
The only way for you to free yourself and elevate your consciousness is through giving and sacrificing. It is only through giving what is dear to you that you are freeing yourself from selfishness and greed. Just because a person is practicing Asana and Pranayama does not mean that he is freeing himself from these degrading qualities. For most people, the practice of Asana and Pranayama just serves to build up their Ego and this keeps them in greater bondage. The vast majority of the Yoga community is not even aware that the very foundation of Spiritual life is the eradication of the lower nature from the personality. Some of those people are only looking for advanced techniques of raising Kundalini Shakti, trying to acquire powers so that they can become famous and manipulate people.
The practice of Asana and Pranayama can be done for a higher purpose. If you are involved in it because you want to maintain good health so that you can be of service to the humanity, or because you want to have knowledge and understanding of the subject so that you can share it with other people to help them improve their life, that is a very valuable form of charity and service to humanity.
The whole process of spiritual evolution is to move from the gross to the subtle, from Tamas to Rajas and from Rajas to Satwa. These are the three Gunas that operates on all levels of creation. The practice of charity and sacrifice is expressed in each individual according to their predominant Guna.
In people, Tamas is expressed as laziness, inertia, dullness, ignorance, stupidity, superstition, etc. Tamasic people do not really have a concept of charity, and they usually do not have anything to give because they are lazy and dull. In most cases, they will not give anything, or if they do, it would be their garbage, things that are useless to them and to others.
Their idea of sacrifice is worship of the dead, Voodoo, black magic, sacrificing animals and humans etc. Due to their ignorance, they do not understand that the higher meaning of animal sacrifice is the sacrifice of the lower animalistic nature.
The Tamasic person only seeks pleasure. His pleasure is very base and gross; he only lies down, eats, sleeps or is usually involved in degrading activities such as drug use, excessive drinking, over-eating, over-indulging in sex and so on. Because of his ignorance, he is not even aware of his degraded state and is not ready to sacrifice his stupidity, ignorance, obesity, gluttony and laziness for anything higher. To rise above that state of Tamas, somebody needs to motivate him to become successful.
In human beings, Rajas manifests as desire for success, power, name and fame. When the person is motivated to become successful, he will sacrifice pleasure for money and material wealth. He will even leave his family to get a better job and earn more money. Eventually, when wealth does not satisfy him anymore, he will sacrifice it to get power, name and fame.
Even if a Rajasik person sees the need to be charitable, he will do it in a way that will bring him name and fame. He will call the media, showing everybody how he is giving soup to the poor or holding the sick baby. He will want everybody to know what a charitable and wonderful person he is.
Rajasic people will give because they are promised that they will receive here and in heaven, tenfold of what they give. They do not understand that by being charitable they are freeing themselves from base qualities and gaining a purified mind. A purified mind is infinitely more precious than any material wealth.
The more one strives for success and acquires material wealth, the more he is freeing himself from Tamas, but at the same time can become enslaved by Rajas. Nevertheless, that is an infinitely better state than the gross Tamasic state. People who strive for success become more and more efficient, disciplined, focused and dynamic. They practice determination and perseverance, and exercise a great deal of self-effort. These are qualities that are essential on the spiritual path. With proper guidance they can channel their energy in a direction that will bring about the state of Satva in their personality. Sattva is the state of peace, true happiness, purity, intelligence, right discrimination, dispassion and a feeling of fullness.
One’s relationship to material wealth and success can either enslave or free him. If he is attached to his wealth and uses it only to fulfill his selfish desires, it will degrade and corrupt his mind.
On the other hand, if it helps him to gain freedom from possessiveness, to develop dispassion and detachment, and he is using it to be loving and charitable, this will bring him spiritual merit and success. His mind will become purified and he will experience more Shantih, peace. Eventually, as he continues to practice detachment, that will lead him to the state of Sanyas. In that state he will see pleasure, wealth, power, name and fame as garbage. A piece of dirt will be of the same value to him as a piece of gold. That is the highest state of renunciation where everything is given up and one ceases to desire any manifestation of nature.
Understanding this process is very important as this concept of Sanyas can lead to another kind of delusion. Just because somebody puts on an orange robe does not mean that he is has reached that state of Sanyas. He might be using that robe to get recognition, power, name and fame. Many people think that being spiritual means that you have to give away all of your possessions and become a renunciate, a Sanyasin. Tamasic people will use that as an excuse to abandon their responsibilities and duties in life. It is your duty to be successful; otherwise you become a liability to society.
Sanyas is a state that you reach by virtue of your spiritual evolution. It is a step by step process that will lead you to that state. You have to go through these stages of Tamas and Rajas and become established in Satwa. You have to prove to yourself that you are an efficient and capable person, that you can be successful and that it is not because you cannot achieve material wealth, or get a boyfriend/girlfriend that you claim you do not want these things. In that state of Sanyas you have developed dispassion for the world and these things really do not attract you anymore.
When one sees the emptiness that comes from satisfying worldly desires, from pursuing wealth, power, name, fame etc., the mind will naturally withdraw from that and look for something higher.
That is why Satwic people will sacrifice and transform their material wealth and blessings for higher spiritual knowledge. In this process they are acquiring another kind of wealth – Spiritual knowledge, that when put in practice, creates transformation within them. Eventually when they reach that state of understanding and enlightenment, they will share that knowledge with humanity, not because they are expecting anything in return, but out of pure love and compassion. Take for example a true spiritual Guru; the Guru sacrifices his own peace of mind, his own comfort and bliss, to teach the disciple and help him elevate himself. For someone to bring into their home a complete stranger and treat him as one of his family members, care for him and guide him 24 hours a day, one must definitely be a great soul, involved in the highest form of love, charity and sacrifice.
This is referred to as Gyan Yajna – Giving the gift of knowledge, the pearls of your wisdom, without any regret or reservation. As Jesus did, the true spiritual teacher will continue to teach the truth as he knows it, even if it costs him his life, even if he knows that he will be crucified.
The teachings of Jesus on charity and giving can be summarized in three sentences: “What your right hand is giving, the left hand should not know”, “If somebody asks you for your cloak, give him your coat also”, and to leave no room for doubt he said: “You should give until it hurts-give with the cup full, pressed down and run over!”
This is meant to wake people up from their greedy and stingy way of giving; most people only give away their garbage or they give as little as they can. They do not want people to know about it so they try to do it discretely. Jesus taught that one should give without any reservation and without expecting reward or recognition – without the left hand knowing what the right hand is giving. Furthermore, one should practice detachment from the things of the world, which keep him in bondage. When being asked for his cloak, one should take the opportunity to release him-self from the attachment to material objects and give away his coat too. In this way he is truly practicing to be charitable.
In the beginning, when one just starts to practice giving and being charitable, he might find it difficult and painful because he still has attachment to the things that he is giving. If that person is really sincere and tries to free himself from his lower nature, he will follow the teachings of Jesus and try to give as much as he can – with the cup full, pressed down and run over!
As that person continues practicing charity and Satwa manifests in his personality he will begin to enjoy and delight in giving to others. In that state, he becomes established in love, compassion, generosity, forgiveness etc. He does not give because he desires recognition, it is simply his nature to give, and he does not expect anything in return. That person is naturally involved in Satwic sacrifice; sacrificing his lower nature and cultivating a divine personality.
The Sages and Saints who have observed humanity, saw this predicament in which people live – Most people do not have the knowledge of how to be successful without becoming selfish, greedy, jealous, hateful and egoistical; or how to live life without creating stress in and around them; they do not know how to satisfy the natural hunger for life’s enjoyments without getting lost in them; and how to live in the world without losing the chance to fulfill the higher purpose in life, which is realizing their inner fullness and identity with the divine. To help the individual progress towards freedom, the sages have delineated four principles called Purushartha – the four treasures of life, and outlined four stages of life and four landmarks for living a stress free life.
Brahmacharya, or being a student, is the first stage. This is the time where the student channels his energy in acquiring secular as well as spiritual knowledge and exercises self-discipline. In a cultured society, as a student you learn about the four treasures of life, which are Dharma, Artha, Kama and Mooksha.
The problem in society today is that there is no understanding of Dharma, of right and wrong – not in a relative sense, but in the ideal and absolute sense. This is because people are not aware of what is the true goal and purpose of life, and what will lead them there. The education system is lacking enlightened teachers, saints and Gurus, who will guide individuals and help them live a Dharmic spiritual life. Most people just exist in the mercy of the elements, drifting from one thing to another with no real purpose or direction in life. For others, the highest goal is to become successful, so that they can acquire all the things that they think will make them happy.
A satwic person lives according to Dharma; he has a clear understanding of how to live a spiritual life, because as a student, that has been a part of his education. In the second stage, as a Grahastha – a householder, he follows Artha, striving for success within the confines of Dharma, and contributes to the wellbeing of his family and society. In this way, becoming successful is a spiritual practice for him, since it helps him rise above Tamas and frees him from selfishness and greed. For that person, Kama, or pleasure, does not mean overindulging in sensual pleasures. He has gone beyond Tamas, and lives a Joyful, pleasant life within the confines of Dharma and Artha. The more the individual evolves, the more satwic the source of his enjoyments will be. He will delight in spiritual discourses and practices, eating nice satwic vegetarian food, and will derive satisfaction and joy from giving to others and from providing for his family and community.
The third stage is called Vanaprastha, or Retirement. When that person fulfills all his family and social obligations and experiences dispassion for the world, he will wish to retire from the outer world into the inner sanctum of the Ashram that he has been supporting as a Grahastha. This will happen around the age of fifty-four. The arrival of grandchildren signals its’ beginning.
The fourth stage is Sanyasa or Renunciation. In this stage, the mind completely turns away from the world and higher levels of peace are experienced. A person who practices charity and detachment throughout his life naturally evolves to that state.
You could see that by following these guidelines and living according to Dharma, Artha and Kama, having a clear understanding of the spiritual path, a person’s mind naturally becomes purified and peaceful. His path towards freedom is cleared of the major obstacles that most people have. Depending on the degree to which Dharma, Artha and Kama are fulfilled, that is the degree to which he will experience Mooksha, or liberation.
Every moment in life transformation is taking place. It is your choice if this transformation is positive or negative. It is how you relate to the things that present themselves to you that will determine if you are elevating or degrading yourself. Be vigilant and aware. Choose the good path rather than the pleasant path. Detach from that which degrades you and attach to what will carry you higher on the ladder of spiritual growth. This will bring you infinite peace and joy!