Everything in Vedic philosophy is based on qualities. Since the advent of modern science, everything in modern thinking is based on quantity. The focus on qualities needs the distinction between better and worse. The focus on quantities needs the distinction between more and less. Under the influence of quantity thinking, people stop thinking about quality improvement. They think that more of everything is better. This is misleading. More is encouraged only if it improves the quality. More is not a virtue in itself. Better is a virtue in itself. When more makes things better, then it is accepted as a virtue, not because of quantitative increase but due to qualitative improvement. In this post, I will discuss how an exclusive focus on quality improvement is necessary and sufficient for spiritual progress. A quantitative increase is accepted only if it is improving the quality. For every other reason, quantity increase is rejected.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Quality-Quantity Dilemma
- 2 Quality vs. Quantity in Organizations
- 3 Boiling the Milk to Thicken It
- 4 The Inverted Tree of Qualities
- 5 Quality vs. Quantity of Consumption
- 6 Improving the Quality of Chanting
- 7 The Path of Quality Improvement
- 8 Free Speech Degrades Quality
- 9 How Quality Improvement Spreads
- 10 The Role of Guru in Quality Improvement
- 11 Symptoms of Quality Conversation
- 12 Traits of Low-Quality Conversations
- 13 The More vs. Better Distinction
The Quality-Quantity Dilemma
A high-quality thing has multiple qualitative aspects. For instance, a high-quality book has well-edited text, a well-formatted layout, an attractive cover, an index, and an adequate list of references. Each of these has a quality of its own. To produce a high-quality book, we can sometimes increase the quantity of people who are responsible for creating the different qualitative aspects of the book because a single person may not have the expertise to do everything. In such cases, an increase in quantity is accepted because it improves the quality through the division of labor by utilizing the different talents of people.
But quantity increase has a limit. We cannot produce a better-quality book by endlessly dividing work into smaller parts. An endless increase in quantity will degrade the book quality by division of labor. We call this “too many cooks spoil the broth”. We increase the cooks only so long as we get a better-quality broth, and stop that increase when the quality stops improving or starts degrading.
Quality vs. Quantity in Organizations
We can apply this principle to a religious organization. A religious organization can add more people if it improves the organization’s quality. Each person added to the organization can contribute to quality improvement. Some people can make better garlands, others can cook better dishes, others can improve the deity worship quality, some people can improve the book covers, while others clean the premises. Division of labor in the organization often improves quality.
Adding branches to an organization often improves its quality. It might strengthen it—there is more respect for a large organization than a small one. There is more resilience in a large organization than in a small one. However, organizational expansion isn’t a virtue if it is not adding to organizational resilience and respect. If some branches of an organization go rogue, then they don’t add to its respect. If different organizational branches fight or contradict each other, then they are not adding to the organization’s resilience.
The history of religious expansion tells us that those religions that focused either exclusively or primarily on quantitative increase created a sprawl in which the different organizational divisions started infighting, breaking the organization into sects and subsects, which then acted at cross-purposes, weakening the religion’s quality. Expansion is not always a source of respect and resilience. It can also be the cause of disrespect and weakness if we focus on quantitative expansion while we neglect its qualitative improvement.
Boiling the Milk to Thicken It
Śrila Prabhupāda called this “boiling the milk to thicken it”. Don’t make too many disciples if you are not making the disciples better. Don’t make too many temples if you are not making the temples better. Don’t preach too much if you are not making the preaching better. Don’t collect too much money if you are not using the money better. Don’t prepare too many recipes if you are not making the recipes better. Don’t write too many books if you are not making the books better. We can focus on quantity increase if it is contributing to quality improvement. Reckless increase in quantity is spiritually detrimental.
More is a virtue only if it is better. More is not a virtue in itself. Without better, more is a vice. Diluting the milk to produce a big quantity of milk is not progress. It is rather a sign of regress. If the milk has been diluted, then it has to be boiled again to reduce the quantity and improve the quality.
The Inverted Tree of Qualities
Both material and spiritual realities are built out of qualities. There is one highest quality and many lower qualities. The one is the supreme quality, and the many are partial qualitative aspects of the supreme quality. The supreme quality is the root of an inverted tree, while the partial qualitative aspects are the trunks, branches, twigs, and leaves emanating from the root. The root is one, but there are many trunks, branches, twigs, and leaves. The supreme root of all qualities is capable of supporting an ever-increasing tree sprawl.
Increasing the quantity is akin to adding leaves to a tree—the tree grows broader. But this broader tree can survive only if it has also gotten deeper by strengthening the roots, fattening the trunks, hardening the branches, and firming the twigs, before we add more leaves to it. Adding leaves often contributes to strengthening the roots, fattening the trunks, hardening the branches, and firming the twigs. However, if we rapidly add so many leaves that the rest of the tree cannot support them, then all the leaves will die.
A big tree supports many leaves on a structure of roots, trunks, branches, and twigs—a small tree cannot. If we increase the number of leaves, without fattening the roots, trunks, branches, and twigs, then the tree will die. The number of leaves is the quantity or the tree’s breadth. Everything else is quality or tree depth. We add only so many leaves as the tree’s root, trunks, branches, and twigs can support. More leaves can be added after strengthening the root, trunks, branches, and twigs. Adding those leaves gradually strengthens the tree progressively. But the reckless addition of leaves—without strong twigs, branches, trunks, and root—will cause the tree to self-destruct.
Quality vs. Quantity of Consumption
Qualities are divided into three categories—sattva, rajas, and tamas—sattva is the best and tamas is the worst. The higher quality strengthens the deeper reality and the lower quality strengthens the shallower reality. For instance, to strengthen our minds, we have to consume food in sattva. But to strengthen the body, we can also consume food in tamas. The general principle is that if the deeper reality is strong, then the shallower reality automatically becomes stronger. But the reverse is not true. For instance, we can build a big muscular body by consuming meat, but it will weaken the mind. The mind imbued by tamas will be dull, angry, and lazy, and the body will not be immune, restful, and energetic. However, if we consume cow’s milk, then it will strengthen both the mind and the body. The mind imbued by sattva will become sharp, calm, and active, and the body will then be immune, restful, and energetic.
You can say that the body needs “protein”. But there is meat protein and milk protein. If we take meat protein, then the mind will be dull, angry, and lazy, and the body will be restless, sick, and tired. But if we take milk protein, then the mind will be sharp, calm, and active, and the body will be restful, immune, and active. This is the science of qualities—we can distinguish milk protein from meat protein, and identify which type is protein is good or bad for the body.
If we eat good quality food, then we have to eat less of it. This is because our body requires quality. If it can get that quality from less food (because the food is high-quality) then we don’t need much food. However, if the food is low-quality, then we have to eat more of it because the body requires quality, it is not getting that quality from little low-quality food, so we have to consume a lot of food. However, if we start eating a lot of food in tamas, then the body will get bigger and the mind will get smaller. Over time, the person who eats a lot will get a dull, lazy, and angry mind and a sick, tired, and restless body.
A small amount of high-quality conversation nourishes the mind and removes the need to talk a lot because the mind needs quality nourishment, and a little high-quality conversation satisfies the mind. If the conversation is of low quality, then one has to talk a lot because the mind is seeking quality nourishment but it is not getting it from the low-quality conversation.
Improving the Quality of Chanting
We can apply this principle to the chanting of mantras. The quantity of chanting is useful if it improves the quality of chanting. Chanting a lot while the mind is wandering all over the universe is not useful. It will only increase our frustration—I have chanted so much and I still have no taste. Instead, chant a little with great focus to improve the quality. When the quality improves, the taste for chanting will improve, and the quantity of chanting will also increase. This is why Śrila Prabhupāda reduced the number of rounds to be chanted per day to 16, while Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswati had prescribed 64 rounds.
Chanting 64 rounds requires at least 10 hours a day. If we start chanting in the morning, the whole day will go into chanting. As the day progresses, the mind goes from sattva to rajas to tamas. The mind is attentive in the morning, distracted in the afternoon, and exhausted at night. A distracted mind thinks of dozens of things apart from the mantra’s sound. An exhausted mind stops listening to the sound of the mantra and sleeps. This is why chanting in the morning is most useful for improving the quality. When the quality improves, then quantity will increase, and one can mentally chant the entire day.
The Path of Quality Improvement
The path of progress is: More of worse → less of worse → less of better → more of better. Eating less is not bad if we are eating less poison. Eating more is good only if we are eating nectar. If we have been eating poison, then we have to fast to purge the body of the poison. Then we can slowly start eating a little nectar. Slowly, as the body gets stronger due to nectar, then we can eat a lot of nectar.
A person who produces high-quality content can talk endlessly. Those who cannot do so must stay silent. There can be an infinite amount of depth and high-quality conversation, but it will happen if we terminate the shallow low-quality conversation. When a society encourages talking, then everybody talks although they don’t have high-quality content to speak of. Therefore, they produce a lot of low-quality content, and because the mind is always searching for quality, therefore, it is not satiated by low-quality conversation. The person goes on talking endlessly to extract a little quality from a lot of quantity.
A person who talks a lot is disqualified from the role of a guru. He should not talk about spiritual matters because he cannot produce high-quality content. He degrades the quality to increase the quantity. This is a preliminary rule. Upon advancement, if a person can talk about high-quality content, then he can talk a lot. The rule “silence is golden” creates less of worse. Then, we get less of better. Then we get more of better. Less of worse is better than more of worse. Less of better is better than less of worse. And more of better is better than less of better. Therefore, we just focus on better. We allow more only if it improves the quality. We do not encourage more when the quality is stagnant or declining.
Free Speech Degrades Quality
The internet has increased the quantity of conversations while degrading their quality. The audience switches from one content to another so fast that the essence of a good quality discussion—which progresses carefully through difficult steps—is destroyed. To grab the audience’s attention, the content creators produce even more quantity, thereby further reducing the quality.
In the Vedic tradition, the educated and enlightened speak, and the others listen. Those who speak, have spent a lifetime learning and realizing it through practice. Everyone else can ask them a question, and they listen patiently while a long-form answer is provided slowly and deliberately covering various nuances. We can study Vedic texts to see this being displayed. Arjuna asks a question, and Lord Kṛṣṇa provides a long answer. Parikshit asks a question and Sukadeva Goswami provides a long answer. This is how the tree of knowledge lives for millions of years. It is always trying to improve the quality of the conversation and increases the quantity after high quality is achieved.
Reckless speech is the enemy of the tree of knowledge. The tree will die unless we deepen it before broadening it. Every religious society that increases the quantity of people without improving their quality will die. Every knowledge system that increases the quantity of talking without improving the quality will die. The culture of improving the quality before increasing the quantity is essential for any long-lived society and its knowledge. We have to delay the gratification of quantity increase and improve the quality prior.
How Quality Improvement Spreads
A high-quality conversation will automatically improve the quality of chanting. If the quality of chanting is continuously improving, then we can sit the entire day discussing topics on the internet, because the improving quality of chanting indicates a high-quality internet conversation. But if we are discussing topics on the internet, while the quality of chanting is either stagnant or declining, then we are not engaged in a high-quality conversation. If we are engaged in high-quality service, then the quality of chanting will improve as a result of that service. Conversely, if the quality of chanting is not improving, or it is declining, then we are also engaged in low-quality or declining-quality service.
The quantity of talking or serving is useful if the quality is improving. Quantity is prescribed to improve the quality, and quantity helps if the quality of serving and talking is high. To improve quality, we have to serve and talk with great attention, eliminate all mistakes, and produce high-quality output. A large quantity of zombie activity riddled with mistakes will not improve the quality of chanting. But careful activity free of mistakes in one area of spiritual life will improve all other areas, including chanting. Therefore, whatever service we perform, we must measure its effectiveness by the quality improvement in chanting. That service is also chanting if it improves the quality of chanting.
If the mind is sleeping or distracted, bodily activity results in many mistakes. This is low-quality work. However, when the mind is attentive, these mistakes are eliminated. This is high-quality work. Therefore, whatever we do, should be done with great attention, because this is how the mind is freed from sleeping (tamo-guna) and distraction (rajo-guna). An attentive mind (sattva-guna) is symptomized by high-quality output devoid of casual or reckless mistakes.
The Role of Guru in Quality Improvement
Spiritual activity is given by a spiritual master. It may or may not match our abilities or desires. However, if we try to fulfill the instructions of the spiritual master with a high-quality, then our chanting will automatically improve. If we invent our activities and relabel them as spiritual activities for show, then even a high-quality output of that work will not improve our chanting.
If the quality of chanting is improving, then we are engaged in spiritual activity and the output of our work is high-quality. If the quality of chanting is not improving, then either we are doing something other than the guru’s instructions, or we are doing what the guru has instructed but the quality of our work is low. There is no scenario under which high-quality work done to fulfill the spiritual master’s instructions will not improve the quality of chanting. That scenario exists only when we are doing something other than the spiritual master’s instructions or following the instructions poorly.
Symptoms of Quality Conversation
The symptom of a quality conversation is progressing from the leaves toward the root. There are many leaves springing from one root. If we are going to the root, then the conversation must converge on one fundamental topic. If we don’t discuss the root of problems in an ideology as we discuss thousands of leaf problems springing out of that root problem, then we are not converging, and we have not grasped the root from which the leaves springs. A good conversation is always about the fundamental rather than the superficial, depth rather than breadth, which reduces the quantity to improve the quality.
Improving the quality means going deeper into an issue, examining it from hundreds of viewpoints, to see the root from which many branches and leaves are springing. Those who cannot do that, or are not inclined toward this, are requested to keep quiet in the interest of the tree of knowledge. Don’t destroy the tree by talking too much. Ponder each issue seriously, and ask intelligent and relevant questions. There is no other way to progress. If we indulge in low-quality talking, then we will never understand the high-quality truth. We must have a high-quality container even to receive a high-quality truth.
Traits of Low-Quality Conversations
The truth is so beautiful that a person who knows it is satisfied just knowing the truth. Those who are ignorant, instead, are always dissatisfied. But most ignorant people cannot accept their ignorance. Their need to prove their superiority makes them averse to accepting their ignorance. Thus, ignorant people fight with themselves—their need to prove that they know the truth goes against their unhappiness with ignorance. They externalize inner conflict to see a knowledgeable person as their enemy. They are unhappy if a knowledgeable person exposes their ignorance and they are unhappy if they stay ignorant. There is no scenario in which the ignorant person is happy with the outcome.
A quality conversation occurs either between two knowledgeable people or between a person who has accepted that he is ignorant and is truly seeking the truth to overcome the unhappiness of ignorance. Low-quality people instead see conversations as boxing matches in which there are winners and losers. They have a favorite boxer whom they want to win and they have placed a mental bet on their favorite boxer (which can be themselves) even before the match has started. The loss of their favorite player is their loss. They come to watch a boxing match or participate in it, to see their favorite boxer decimate the opponent. They jeer the opponent and cheer their favorite boxer.
Either knowledge or humility is a precondition to a quality conversation. To the extent that humility is itself the result of some knowledge, some knowledge is a precondition for more knowledge. While the full truth can be given to anybody, the reality is that everybody cannot accept it due to inner conflict in which a person is unhappy due to ignorance and unhappy to accept ignorance. Most unhappy people refuse to accept that they are unhappy because acceptance makes them more unhappy. The unhappy person justifies to himself that he is happy, that happiness is a relative state and everyone can individually define their notion of happiness, or that nobody is happy and happiness is impossible. Hence, the full truth is never given to a person suffering from an inner conflict. Rather, you give just a glimpse of the type of truth that the person can accept and not fight with the teacher. That is not a high-quality conversation, but it is not possible to have a high-quality conversation with a conflicted person.
The More vs. Better Distinction
The quality system is not opposed to more of better. But unless we reduce the quantity to improve the quality, we will not get less of worse or less of better, before more of better. A frugal society progresses because when it goes to less, it goes to less of worse. Then it slowly goes to less of better, and eventually to more of better. A hedonistic society always goes toward more of worse.
The quantitative understanding of the quality reality flattens the quality hierarchy and we stop seeing the difference between better and worse. We just count the number to be more or less. Then we equate progress to an increase in quantity, but it continually degrades the quality because the quantitative description only knows how to articulate more vs. less rather than better vs. worse. The fact is that there is more of better, more of worse, less of better, and less of worse. More is not a virtue in itself. Better is a virtue in itself. With an exclusive focus on better, we can judge when more vs. less is better.
There used to be a Pepsi advertisement in India with the slogan “Yeh dil maange more” which means “this heart demands more”. They were indoctrinating people into drinking more toxic sugared water. Materialism is always about more of the worse. Spiritualism is about more of the better. To get to that stage, we have to pass through less of worse and less of better before we get more of better. When we do less of worse, we call that renunciation. When we do more of the better, we call that enjoyment. This is the real enjoyment. It is not harmful or toxic. It makes everything better, not just more of worse.