The Three Paths In One

N. Sri Ram

Chapter 14 of the book Seeking Wisdom reproduced with permission from The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai

It is the generally accepted religious view among those brought up in the Indian religious tradition that there are three Paths to the highest goal for man, the highest state of being he can attain, any one of which he may choose and follow. They are spoken of as the paths of Wisdom, Action and Devotion. Each of them is described as a type of Yoga. But when we look into the basic facts pertaining to these three kinds of discipline, as they might be termed, we shall realize that there cannot be in actuality such a clear separation among them as may seem to exist at first sight. There are also other aspects of Yoga spoken of in the Gita, such as the Yoga of Renunciation. In fact, all the eighteen chapters in that book are termed Yoga of one sort or another. One of them is named “The Field and the Knower of the Field”. Why is it called Yoga? The field is the object of knowledge or rather the sum total of such objects, whether it is the universe or a section of the universe, and there is the knower of the field present in the field itself or outside it. There is also the field of one’s individual consciousness. Obviously, the truth in regard to them is brought under the heading of Yoga, because it is necessary to realize it, Yoga being a state of realization. The realization of this truth is an essential part of Wisdom. If it is essential to know it in order to be wise, we must possess that knowledge. This indicates that all these so-called different Paths merge into one. The qualities described as belonging to any of them are qualities needed for the perfection of all.

Let us consider what action means and implies. A person may be exceedingly active in the pursuit of some object to which he is dedicated. He may go on from year to year, yet feel at the end of those years that he has not achieved anything important, that what he has done is but a drop in the ocean. He may even feel within himself a sense of frustration and discontent. But if the action is of the right quality, it should not give rise to such a feeling; the feeling arises because the action has been largely superficial, formal or mechanical.

That is what the Yoga of Action may become if it is not rightly understood–going round and round, doing the same old things, perhaps not even better than originally; because as we go on, we tend to become more tired; we have to force ourselves to do whatever is to be done, and do not have the original zest and intensity. When action becomes mechanical, it loses its grace, it becomes lifeless and extremely limited in its effect. Such action, although it may seem to be altruistic or geared to an exalted end, may be subtly or even blatantly egoistic. So long as one feels important in the work, he is apt to be enthusiastic about it and extremely energetic.

Everyone around him may say: “What a good worker, he does not spare himself.” But behind his action there may be all the time a subtle feeling of self-importance, the feeling, “How well I do those things, there is no one else who can do as well.” Such a feeling may lurk at the back of the mind and keep him going but when the person has no longer the position he has held, his enthusiasm will sag, he may even feel completely lost without that position. His enthusiasm depended evidently upon his having it, upon his having the feeling that his is the most important work of all. We must become aware of such faults in our own mentality, and eliminate them in order to be really good workers, effective from the standpoint of the results, seen and unseen, that ensue from our action.

The teaching in the Gita is Action without desire for its fruit. If you do not desire the fruit of your action, not even its success, then why should the action be performed at all, what is the urge or motive behind it? It has to be action for its own sake, because you think it right to perform it; the doing of it has its own value; it does not matter whether it is crowned with immediate success or not. It is an extremely rare individual who can act with great intensity, force and enthusiasm, without desiring anything at all for himself, neither money, position, praise, nor even any secret gratification that one may feel as an inner reaction to the ability he displays.

Performance of action because it is right and good and desirable implies the presence of an inner sense that guides the person to it. Wisdom is needed so to guide him. A person may say with some satisfaction, “I do it as my duty.” But is it really his duty, or only a conventional notion he has, of what he should do, being in his position. Possibly he feels that if he does not do it, he will fall in the estimation of others. If what is called duty is performed grudgingly, with a feeling of compulsion, then that action has no grace. A person may have to attend a patient, be awake at all hours of the night, to minister to various physical needs. But if he does all that with a feeling of bitter necessity, which may even breed animosity, we cannot say that the action has the right quality.

It is only action freely and wholeheartedly rendered which is really beautiful. One acts in this manner when there is love, and then it is action with one’s whole being, not only a portion of that being. Action does not consist only in specific, overt acts, like performing some task or a religious ceremony, attending to various points in it; that becomes just a procedure. All of life’s expressions, at whatever level, are action, a truth which needs to be understood to see the picture completely. Thought is action; when one meditates, that is action; and as J. Krishnamurti points out, listening with complete attention is also action.

All action that belongs to life in any of its aspects has an importance that springs from its own nature, has its own significance. In love, which is a highly sensitive and complete state of being, there is action of great intensity. When there is such love, the person’s whole nature is at its highest point of sensitiveness, and also there is a feeling of completeness in his being. The action of the whole being in love is like the action of the ultra-violet rays which we may not be able to see on a screen as we see the ordinary colours of the spectrum, but we know from scientific investigations that there are these intense and powerful rays.

Wisdom, which is essential for right action, does not lie in mere knowledge. One can fill his head with various facts as given in an encyclopaedia but that will not make him wise. Knowledge is of facts, which are actual things, although it may also be confused with various ideas one forms. The way one responds to the facts will determine whether he is wise or unwise. The kind of response depends largely upon one’s interests. One may look at a beautiful gem which has colour, lustre and other special qualities. A certain image of it is then formed in his mind. The gem exists as an actual thing, but the response is to that image in the mind. It may be pure appreciation of its beauty and qualities, or it may take the form: “I would like to possess it.” The nature of the response is quite different in these two cases. All that a trader in gems may think about is: “Where can I get these gems? How can I sell them?” But if the person is a chemist, he would want only to analyse the composition of the gem; or if a geologist to know how the gem came to be formed in the bowels of the earth. How one responds inwardly to a fact determines whether he is really wise or unwise, even apart from what he may or may not do outwardly with regard to it.

The mere possession of ideas, or even knowledge, is a static condition of being, whereas life is always a flow, a movement. If there is not that flow, if one is not acting in some manner, it means there is a condition of being blocked or inhibited. Why does a person not act, when there is need for action? He may be so addicted to his own comfort, physical or mental, that he does not like to be disturbed from it. He is then likely to say: “There are other people to do it.” If he is a man of learning, satisfied with his knowledge, he might think his dharma lies within this province. Or other reasons can be invented for not acting. If we do not act when action is demanded, either we lack perception or are prevented by hindrances within our own natures from action which should naturally follow. If someone is ill at home and needs help, any person in a proper state of mind will take the necessary action immediately and not need a spur to be applied to him to do so. One acts because the action is right, and it takes place easily and naturally.

Life is always in action, and there has to be action at one level or another for its natural flow. The really happy state is one in which there is this flow not only at the physical level but at all levels, and there are levels of which we know little. Writing and speaking are action. Thinking, when it arises from a certain inner condition, can be as much a form of life’s free flow as any other. A certain type of feeling, without thought, not arising from the self, can be one of the most beautiful of life’s expressions. Whatever may be outwardly the form of one’s action, it is the inner condition of which it is an expression that gives it its deepest significance.

Life must flow all the time, but in the way of wisdom, not folly. One learns to be wise only as he acts with awareness and intelligence, not mechanically. Doing a thing because one has got into the habit of doing it is mechanical, for then it is the forces in one’s nature, the elemental or the gunas, to use the word in the Gita, which act, not one’s free intelligence, which alone is wise or can be wise. Action without wisdom is folly; but wisdom without action is only so-called wisdom, a lame and stilted substitute.

A man whose action possesses the quality of wisdom may not act in the way others are acting. He may not even be acting to all outer appearance. Yet there will be in him, inwardly, that condition which would exist if he were also outwardly acting. If one’s action takes the form of learning or listening, the state of mind and heart in which that action takes place would have all the vitality, scintillation, and readiness to respond, which would exist if he were acting physically with all his faculties at his command. We cannot separate wisdom from action at any level, since the one calls for the other and they flow as a single stream.

Both wisdom and action that is beautiful and right have as their common basis the quality of love. We speak of devotion as a path, but not usually of love, although in the Gita Shri Krishna speaks of friendliness and compassion as marks of a devotee. The basis of devotion, when it is non-self-seeking, can only be love. It is not loyalty for the sake of any gain or reward, whether definitely formulated in one’s mind or present only subconsciously. People are apt to think that loyalty and devotion are essentially the same. Why is one loyal to some person or cause? Loyalty is an attitude of mind, and one can put on an attitude. What produces it is often expectation of some benefit, tangible or intangible.

A religiously inclined man concentrates on the particular object of his devotion, often with the idea of receiving a certain blessing which might protect him from misfortune and help him in this world and the next. It is loyalty for a consideration. The element of expectation exists in the devotion of most people, though they may not be normally conscious of it. Absolutely to surrender oneself to the Lord is spoken of in the books as the ultimate in devotion, but in so many cases there is the feeling that it then becomes the responsibility of the Lord to take over the burden and look after one. Such surrender is often a mere declaration, a mental act, although it may be due to strong personal emotions. But if the surrender is of the total being, there cannot exist at the same time a self with its separate identity, looking after itself. There can be no surrender of one’s being or of one’s whole heart, whether in love or devotion, so long as there is a self which has any reservation or claim.

The heart can surrender itself only to that which, in the very nature of things, is capable of attracting it, being inwardly related to it. Such surrender, when it is absolute and not qualified, represents an ultimate state of being. Therefore, for the petty little self to say prematurely that it has surrendered everything is an extraordinary travesty of the real state. There has to be a total renunciation of the self before love or devotion can appear in all its glory and beauty. Such renunciation opens the heart to the Divine in everything, not only to a particular figure or form. Then one does not speak of his love, for there is no oneself apart from the love that gives itself.

There is the Christian saying: “Who will serve God for naught?” that is, without asking for anything. Such persons are rare. Ordinarily God is regarded as the giver of protection, the bestower of blessings, the fountain-head of favours. Since we can give Him nothing but praise and allegiance, we think that is the way to obtain His bounty. God is thus treated like any earthly potentate. When Shri Krishna says, “abandon all concerns”, He means the concerns of the personal self. When He says, “Take refuge in Me”, He speaks as the Logos in man or in the words of St. Paul, “the Christ in you”. Taking refuge is to surrender oneself to that Divine Nature which He represents, the nature also of one’s own “Higher Self” and to become one with it. Unless we understand His words in this sense, we not only miss the beauty of that inner state which He pictures, but actually pervert their meaning. What is styled devotion becomes a rank mushroom that pretends to be a lily and is worlds apart from that unearthly reality which is more glorious than beauty of whatever sort conceived by the mind of man.

Shri Krishna enumerates at some length the marks of a true devotee: “Alike towards friend and foe, in honour and dishonour, friendly and compassionate”, and so on and so forth. These words depict a state of being in which all that is most beautiful in oneself comes to flower. It is a condition of love, not rooted in the self, in which nothing is sought, there is no expectation, there is only a giving, a condition in which all the beauty that one can imagine, or rather, a beauty that one cannot imagine, appears of its own accord.

True devotion is love suffused with the loveliness of the qualities in the object of devotion. This object may be only an image in the mind, therefore imperfect, but personifying all the nobility, strength, beauty and compassion that one can conceive; there is then the response to the qualities associated with the image. The response that comes from the depths of one’s heart is devotion, whether that image is called Krishna, Christ, or by any other name. The name carries associations, which in so far as they harmonize with the nature of the image, can only add tones and overtones to the total harmony of the response. Thus a concept of Shiva, one of the Indian Trinity, may bring with it a feeling of austere purity, of aloneness in thought and meditation, and concentration of spirituality; all this will colour the devotion felt towards the reality symbolized by the image. If it is Shri Krishna, the Christ or the Buddha who is pictured, other attributes will colour the energies of one’s response. In any case, the response has to come from the purity of one’s heart, without any element of personal wishes or self-seeking, if it is to be called love or devotion.

Without love there cannot be that fullness of action, which arises from the depths, but only partial action. Without that fullness in which the whole being participates, there cannot be the flowering of that untouched, untamed nature in oneself, which is the spiritual nature. When it comes into the picture, it brings with it a unique beauty, which finds expression in all one’s actions, thinking and feeling. Its action is very different from what we call action. It is because those in whom that nature is in full activity, the liberated Beings, can share its influence, beauty and power with other human beings in ways unknown to us, they remain for the most part aloof from the ways of the world where they can do little of comparable importance and value.

This nature which is to be called spiritual is as poles apart from the ways and ideas of the world; it is not a product or creation of the world. It is something unique and apart which comes into manifestation only when all that the world believes in, seeks and prizes is given up, not outwardly or ostentatiously, but utterly and in one’s heart. One can be in the world but not of it. In one of the Mahatma Letters there is this call: “Come out of your world into ours.” This does not mean that one should go to Tibet, the Himalayas, the Andes or some other far-away place. That would be understanding the words in “the letter that killeth the spirit”. The words mean ceasing to be a creature of the world, following its pursuits, and living a life of pure altruism based on truth, and not on fancies or illusions. It is possible to live such a life, remaining in the world. What is spiritual belongs to a nature not of this world, and it is a nature of wisdom, action and love, as understood from the standpoint of the Spirit.

To renounce every element of worldliness in our natures is the Yoga of Renunciation of which Shri Krishna speaks. Sometimes a person thinks he has renounced, while his every action is a kind of dramatization which shows that he is but laying the flattering unction to his self. He feels different from others, which raises him in his own estimation. When he is on a pinnacle of his own, he can dispense with the good opinion of others. But this is not renunciation of the self.

The Path, howsoever it may be labelled, calls for a complete revolution in oneself, which converts one into a new Being, in the sense that it is not produced by modifications of the old. It comes into existence as if from nowhere, and that is the nature of the Spirit. It has a quality that does not have its origin at any level of mind or matter, but is derived from some unknown source and dimension. There may be occasional moments in our lives when we experience its timeless nature. These are moments of love, of perfect beauty and happiness. That there are such moments indicates that there is such a nature in man, present as a possibility. It is a nature of love, wisdom, beauty and many other qualities, but all as they appear in the light from within, the light of the Spirit, not as interpreted by a sophisticated, worldly mind.

The spiritual nature is the nature of the human consciousness in its pristine purity. Although this consciousness is that of an individual being, his particular field, and in its unawareness becomes modified in various ways, it can through self-understanding cancel all the changes that have taken place and restore itself to that pristine condition. In that state the quality or qualities it manifests are those of consciousness in essence, or of that field which might be termed universal Being. Because of an identity of nature, the individual being, remaining individual, is then one with the universal Being. Shri Krishna in the Gita represents that universal Being. Therefore, after speaking of various means of purification, He refers to the possibility of this union as the highest goal for man.

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N. Sri Ram (1889-1973) was the fifth International President of Theosophical Society from 1953 to 1973. He is the author of many books, including Seeking Wisdom, Life’s Deeper Aspects, The Nature of Our Search, An Approach to Reality and The Way of Wisdom, among others.

Picture of N. Sri RamN. Sri Ram