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Every now and then there are stories about a spiritual leader “falling down”. These are not limited to one religion or religious organization. They are known to occur across all religions and organizations. The reasons are simple—The spiritual journey is long, every successive stage leads to more hardship, and one must be enthusiastic, patient, and determined to keep moving forward, keep doing the necessary corrections, associate with the saintly people, and stay away from the materialistic people. If we are not mentally prepared for a very long journey, then successive hardships will cause exasperation and a fall.

The story of the hare and the tortoise comes to mind. The hare runs for a while and then stops. The tortoise shows enthusiasm, patience, and determination. He keeps trudging due to humility. He knows that he is a tortoise, not as capable as the hare. He has to move slowly because he cannot sprint. His enthusiasm, determination, and patience are the results of his humility. He recognizes the enormity of the journey, and his personal inabilities, and wins the race.

In this post, I will discuss the enormity of the material realm, and what it takes to cross it. Those who are too eager to declare victory before completing this journey fall behind, like the hare. They can still complete the journey. But they will be like hares who ran, went to sleep, woke up, and ran again, to complete the journey after the tortoises have completed it. These temporary failures are insignificant in the ultimate sense. But if we are still interested in avoiding them, then we should try to understand why the journey is long.

Implications of Cosmology for Spiritual Path

The Enormity of the Material Realm

The soul is never in matter, but he is covered by it. By that covering, the soul’s awareness is projected into matter as its awareness of matter. Since the soul is outside the material realm, therefore, it is called transcendent to the material world. However, since its awareness is invested or focused on the material reality, hence, the soul is said to be bound to the material realm.

The coverings of the soul are layered on top of the other. They can be broadly divided into the waking, dreaming, and unconscious states. The unconscious realm is divided into the seven coverings of the universe in which the outermost layer is the innermost covering of the soul. The outermost layer is ten times (in diameter) that of the next inner layer, and there are seven such coverings. All these coverings constitute the unconscious realm from which the conscious realm springs. The unconscious realm is 10,000,000 times bigger in diameter than the conscious realm. Conversely, the conscious realm is the innermost core of the universe, which is 10,000,000 times smaller than the unconscious realm.

The conscious realm is divided into dreaming and waking. The dreaming reality is twice in “diameter” as the waking reality and called āloka-varśa, the realm of darkness. Since dreaming and waking realities are described as “spheres”, what is half in “diameter” is one-eighth in “volume”. The waking reality is therefore one-eighth of the āloka-varśa and is called loka-varśa or the realm of light.

Within this waking realm, there are 14 planetary systems, called “loka”. Each “loka” is a flat planar realm, and the 14 planetary systems are stacked on top of each other. Each “loka” is divided into 14 subparts called “dvīpa” and “samudra” in which the outer is more complex—and twice in diameter bigger—than the previous inner. What is twice the diameter is four times bigger in “area”. This means that the outermost is 32,768 times larger than the innermost. Each “dvīpa” is subdivided into 7 parts called “varśa”, which we generally call a “planet”. Within this planet there are trillions of living entities, and each living entity just occupies one position that denotes its “type” as different from others.

The key point is that what we see currently is roughly a trillionth of a trillionth part of what is possible in this universe. This universe is one of the trillions of universes. Since the soul is transcendent, therefore, there is a possibility of trillion-trillion-trillion different kinds of lives compared to what we experience right now. To cross the material realm, one has to get rid of trillion-trillion-trillion times of material diversity, lives, and experiences that we are seeing right now. We can totally renounce the current life, and we still have the possibility of taking on trillion-trillion-trillion different kinds of material lives.

Lessons of Cosmology for Spiritual Practice

Once we understand the cosmological structure, then we must understand that getting out of the material realm involves something that renounces all the unconscious, dreaming, and waking realms. If we have achieved some success in one of the waking realms, we should not get too excited. There are trillion-trillion-trillion such lives, most of them far more alluring than the present. We should not assume that the success seen during our waking experience is anything significant from a cosmic perspective. We should stick to the path and try to cleanse all the waking, dreaming, and unconscious impurities.

Cosmology is not just for scientists. Parikshit, who was about to die in 7 days, was told about cosmology to make him understand how big the material contamination is relative to the current perceived reality. This is an exercise in knowledge, but it is not just knowledge. It is also the source of humility. I may be a king right now, but there are trillions upon trillions of such kings, most of them far bigger than me. If I lose my kingdom, there is nothing to worry about because there are trillions upon trillions of living entities without a kingdom. Neither my glories nor my miseries are too big. Everything is insignificant.

We are not God’s greatest creation at the center of His attention—as many religions teach. God hasn’t endowed us with the power of dominion over the rest of the world—again as many religions teach. We are literally nothing, especially when we are in this material realm. We become something of great importance when we become devotees of the Lord, not because we get bigger, but because God gives us more importance. We don’t become more than what we are right now. We just become more valuable to God. Like a diamond can be small, but if cut properly, it shines and becomes immensely valuable.

Results of Ignorance of Cosmology

If we have not understood Vedic cosmology—either because we did not study it, or we think that it is meant for someone else—then we make a serious mistake in spiritual life when we equate successes in this life to a large success in an absolute sense. The correct understanding would be to divide the current success by trillion-trillion-trillion to understand the success in an absolute sense—within the material realm. Then we have to understand how enormous the spiritual realm is, and how it is completely different from matter.

Even if we see some success in the waking sense—i.e., what others can also see from our behaviors—it 10,000,000 times smaller than the unconscious, is still 8 times smaller than the dreaming realm, and trillions of times smaller than all the possibilities within the waking realm in this universe. We can know the dreaming reality much better, because we dream, fantasize, imagine, or conjure it. Even if our present bodily behaviors are pure, but our dreams, fantasies, and imaginations, are conjuring are impure, then we aren’t yet pure. Even if our dreaming is pure, we shouldn’t get too excited, unless we have purified the unconscious, which is 10,000,000 times bigger than dreaming. In short, in this universe, fantasies are 8 times bigger than all the waking reality. But what we cannot fantasize about still exists although it remains hidden from us, and its effects occasionally manifest in our fantasies and the waking world.

The spiritual journey is long because of an enormous realm of hidden realities that cover the soul but remain invisible to the soul that is too absorbed in the dreaming and waking realms. We become aware of the unconscious realm when we enter a thoughtless, emotionless, and isolated state. At that time, we can feel anxieties, stresses, fears, insecurities, emptiness, and loneliness. The tantra scriptures classify these anxieties in six ways—(a) I cannot act in every possible way, (b) I don’t know everything, (c) I cannot adjust to all my current situations, (d) I cannot adjust to things in other places, (e) I cannot adjust to things in other times, and (f) I am very small, insignificant, and incomplete.

Purification from matter means not just what we exhibit to others. It also means the purification of our dreams, fantasies, desires, imaginations, and conjuring. Finally, it means freedom from all kinds of fears, anxieties, insecurities, emptiness, and loneliness. Such a person is considered liberated. We may stop the bodily impurity, but our conjuring can be impure. We may stop impure conjuring but our fears exist. Until we are totally purified, we will be led to conjuring, which will then lead to action. We cannot be stable, quiet, peaceful, and satisfied as long as there is fear, insecurity, and anxiety within us.

The process of purification begins outwardly—from the body. Then we purify the conscious mind. And then we purify the unconscious mind. When we are free of all fear, distress, and unhappiness, then we are liberated. Every successive stage is harder than before because the realms are multiple times bigger than the bodily realm. We cannot linearly project success based on the past, because in this steeple chase, the steeples keep getting taller. We try to jump over the steeple and we fall. We practice and then jump over one steeple and then stumble over the next steeple. It gets harder and harder.

Long and Difficult Journey of Perfection

The Rarity of the Spiritual Perfection

The Bhagavad-Gita states—one out of thousands attempt liberation, one out of thousands attempting liberation attain liberation, and one out of thousands liberated truly knows the Lord and becomes significant. We can be one among the thousands who are attempting liberation. That doesn’t mean we will get liberated. And even if we are liberated, we may still not know the Lord, not become significant, and fall back into trying to become significant in ways other than through the process of becoming significant to the Lord.

Hardship does not mean attaining it is impossible because we fell into this problem voluntarily, and hence, we can get out of it voluntarily. But it takes willpower and humility. If we don’t have humility, we will equate a minor success to a major one, stop the process of purification, succumb to dreaming and unconscious impurities, and ultimately to waking impurities.

Those who fall from the path, or abandon the path, did not complete the journey. They just prematurely declared victory. They are like the hares who ran for some time, then went to sleep, thinking that they will win because they are ahead of some tortoises. They may have purified the body somewhat, but their minds are out of their control, and the unconscious is still impure. They succumb because they did not understand how big the problem is, how long it takes to attain perfection, and how the steeples get taller and taller.

Insincere Rationalization of Follies

When someone doesn’t understand the magnitude of the problem and lacks the humility to accept his problems, he starts pretending. He says: I am better than others and starts rationalizing his impurities as spiritual activities. There is an important scientific principle involved here—many causes can produce the same effect, and many effects can be produced by the same cause. The cause and effect are underdetermined by each other. When we rationalize, we try to explain an effect as the result of a different cause than what it actually is.

For instance, one might rationalize immoral activities as things done for the spiritual good. One can rationalize their lack of knowledge as something not absolutely essential for those who are engaged in the Lord’s service. One can rationalize their material desires for fame, power, and wealth as merely a means to a greater end. You cannot rationally argue against such a person because of underdetermination. Factually, one can sometimes lie and cheat to prevent a greater lie and cheating. One can sometimes remain ignorant if one strictly follows a person who truly knows. One can desire material things as a means to an end if one isn’t enjoying or pursuing the means as an end.

The rationalization of follies doesn’t make them true. There is more than one cause of every material effect. When we rationalize an effect by attributing it to a different cause, we cheat ourselves and try to cheat others. We can go on cheating ourselves and others for a long time, rationalizing immorality, ignorance, and carnality as something that it is not until we can no longer rationalize it. If a person begins rationalization, there is no way to disprove his actions other than to bring him to a point where he cannot rationalize it.

Humility is not something we need to add to the truth. The preliminary form of humility is simply accepting the truth. For instance, the truth is that the purification of the body doesn’t necessarily mean one’s dreaming, imagination, conjuring, and fantasies are also pure. Even if the dreams are purified, it is not certain that one is free from fear, anxiety, insecurity, emptiness, and loneliness. All these things are just the truth. We can accept the truth honestly, and we will remain humble. Humility is not a supplementary condition to be added to the truth. Just realizing and accepting the truth is a tremendous leap forward.

True humility comes much later when the Lord considers us very important, but we still think that we are insignificant. True humility is realizing that the Lord is so self-satisfied, that He doesn’t need me. I am totally dispensable for the Lord. And yet, the Lord gives me so much importance. This humility is also not an addition to the truth. It is just the truth. The Lord is factually so self-satisfied that He doesn’t need me. I am totally dispensable. And yet, the Lord wants me, even though He doesn’t need me. If we convert wanting into needing, we think that the Lord has become reliant on us. We are not dispensable for Him. This transformation of wanting into needing is the beginning of a fall. It is not the truth. Hence, arrogance is also a falsity, delusion, and ignorance. Factually, humility is never an additional requirement to the truth. The truth is necessary and sufficient. If we know the truth and accept the truth, then we will automatically become humble, with no supplementary requirements.

Self-Analysis and Introspection Tools

Śrila Prabhupāda onetime said—”God is great, but you don’t know how great”. This is an example of ignorance. When we don’t know how great God is, then we start giving ourselves too much importance. We think we are indispensable. That we are entitled to respect, coronation, adulation, and so on. We are grabbed by arrogance because of our ignorance. If we knew how great God is, and how small we are, then we will never be arrogant. Therefore, the cure for arrogance is knowledge. Just learn about the enormity of the universe and understand how big the material contamination is. The enormous universe is not outside. That enormous material contamination is inside. We can cure one type of contamination and get addicted to another. If we know how big that contamination is, and can be, then we will be naturally humble.

The reality is that most people are not interested in knowledge. They don’t want to understand why we see what we see. Sāñkhya philosophy and Vedic cosmology are for “scientists” not for “devotees”. The result is arrogance. When the process of getting humble is rejected, then the result is arrogance.

Under this arrogance, people declare victory too soon, like the hare who sleeps after running for some time. Spiritual life is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to go on for many lifetimes with the utmost sincerity. Of course, if one is supremely and exclusively dedicated to one goal, then he can attain perfection even in one life. It requires a highly self-critical attitude in which we get purified because we keep analyzing our follies, keep endeavoring to correct them, and remain humble despite making progress because we can see that even if we have traveled many miles forward there are still lightyears to go.

Self-analysis, self-criticism, and self-reproach are essential introspective tools to see the faults within. The guru can also analyze, criticize, and reproach, and hence a guru is essential for those who are incapable of self-analysis, self-criticism, and self-reproach. But if the disciple dislikes being analyzed, criticized, and reproached, because he just wants the guru to love him, then the guru loses interest in improving the disciple. The guru stops giving advice because the disciple is prone to challenge it, question it, and not follow the guru’s advice. Even the Paramātma in the heart stops advising a person who is not analyzing his flaws. Such a person may pretend to be perfect, but he has been abandoned by the Paramātma and the guru. He is now under the control of material energy and he will fall the influence of this energy.

With the grace of the guru and Paramātma, we get answers to our questions. But if we are arrogant, we get nothing. We don’t know how to keep moving forward. We don’t get inspiration, ideas, and excitement. We can chug along for a while, like a ball slowing down on its upward rise and then coming to a halt. Then, unknown to others we start falling into ever-more degrading activities. They may remain hidden from the vision of others, but the fall has already begun. It is only later that the previously rising ball crashes into the ground again, and everyone realizes—Oh, the ball has been falling for quite a while.

Simple Criteria for Continuous Progress

True and False Lessons from a Fall

A fall from a respectable position is humiliating. But this humiliation is an act of kindness by nature because all other methods to correct ignorance and arrogance have failed. A person has to be brought to the same level that he was before—which is sometimes called “again become a mouse”—to destroy his ignorance. There is no other way for a person to resume his progress. The humiliation is of course very painful. But what other alternative is left for someone who cannot accept his flaws, has stopped reforming himself, and would rather pretend to be perfect than endeavor to become perfect?

Most people learn the wrong lesson from such episodes. They conclude: This spiritual process doesn’t work, even after trying so hard people haven’t made progress, those who have seemed to have progressed in the past haven’t actually progressed, as evidenced by their subsequent fall. The correct lesson is: Spiritual life is a very long journey; even if you progress, don’t underestimate the problem. Don’t consider yourself successful too quickly. Keep reforming. Stay humble, stay devoted to the guru, and the Paramātma will keep guiding you in the heart on how to improve. If you make mistakes, accept them. Your problems will not cause the guru or Paramātma to abandon you. You had far greater problems in the past. The guru and Paramātma had helped you then. Why will they abandon you now, if you are still pursuing purification?

Those who accept their flaws are never arrogant. Their humility is visible in their continuous progress. They are always active, motivated, and excited. There may be no overt reasons for being excited, but the humble person is always excited because the Paramātma in the heart is always inspiring, motivating, and encouraging the sincere soul. The reasons for excitement are not external. They are internal to a person—due to Paramātma’s inspiration.

The Paramātma in the heart knows all our flaws. We cannot hide anything from Him. But if the Lord hasn’t abandoned us despite our flaws, then why should we hide our flaws? Why not accept them, seek Paramātma’s guidance, and try to fix them? What would be achieved by covering up and pretending to be something that we are not? Thereby, the essence of spirituality is honesty and humility.

The System of Never-Ending Progress

I remind myself of the mantra “progress not perfection” as the hallmark of spiritual life whenever I am surrounded by problems. It doesn’t matter if I am not perfect despite my efforts. What matters is that I have progressed. I have to keep progressing, and it will happen if I am not too eager to declare my perfection before I am perfect. Factually, there is no limit to perfection. There will always be someone better than me. When we look upwards, we can see millions of far greater souls than us, and we remain humble. By that, we keep progressing. The other souls who are looking upward are also progressing. This progress is a never-ending proposition. There is no limit to perfection. Eternity is not a static thing. There is no finality in spiritual life. It is ever-growing, ever-expanding, and never diminishing. Hence, there is absolutely no reason to declare perfection, because there is no limit to that perfection.

If I am too eager to declare my perfection before I am perfect, then I have also misunderstood the nature of the spiritual life—i.e., that it is never-ending and always-growing perfection. Life is exciting only when there is continuous progress. The end of progress is stagnation and the death of spiritual life. Therefore, the more I progress, the more I will realize how imperfect I am because by progressing I can see how many more souls are better than me. That is not humiliation. That is not the reason to consider myself a failure. It is to realize that the journey I am on is continuously improving, inspiring, and expanding. It is like a carrot that gets bigger when I chew on it. I eat the carrot, the carrot gets bigger, and then I eat the bigger carrot, and the carrot gets even bigger. The process never culminates unless we choose to discontinue.

The hare is defeated by sleeping. The tortoise is victorious because he knows that he is the tortoise, incapable of running fast, but he has to walk one step after another, and he cannot afford to sleep. His awareness of his weaknesses is the cause of his victory. The reason a hare ran fast is its ego—it thought that it can win the race quickly. The reason that it went to sleep was its ego—it thought that it has covered so much ground so what is the harm in sleeping a bit? The reason that it is defeated is his ego—it thinks that it can cover the remaining ground easily. The correct approach is to look ahead to others who are further ahead than to look behind at those who are behind. When we look ahead, we remain humble. When we look behind, we become arrogant and start sleeping.

The Last Leg of Dharma for Kali-Yuga

Honesty or truthfulness is the last leg of dharma for this age. Hence, dishonesty is a greater problem than other forms of immorality. A man and woman meet, get attracted to each other, and have sex outside of marriage. It is immoral, but it is expected in this age. What is worse is the cover-up that follows. To understand why the cover-up is worse than the illicit sex, we have to look at the situation from the perspective of dharma, its four legs, and why only one of the four legs is said to remain in this age. That remaining leg is honesty.

It means that if someone has indulged in an immoral activity, then be honest about it, disclose the act, accept your mistake, and try to fix it. Don’t pretend to be the purest person living in the spiritual world. Stop accepting worship. Relinquish all your positions of deference, try to fix your problems, and set the correct example for others. If at some future point in time, confidence in your progress is restored, you can slowly try to resume your previous duties under the same caveat of honesty—if you make more mistakes, you will reveal them, accept them, acknowledge your failures, and try to fix your flaws.

If we follow this simple principle of honesty, then humility is not an additional requirement. Pride is not deserved respect. It is a dishonest demand for respect. Dishonesty worsens the problem because if genuine problems are covered up, they are never fixed, what is covered up keeps simmering under the hood and gets worse, until one day the diseased part has to be removed to make a show of purity. Those who are acting after the cover-up has been exposed are similarly infected and were involved in covering up problems in the past.

The show of purity doesn’t beget confidence. It rather makes everyone doubt the show of purity: If these things have been covered up for so long, and they are being exposed after a long cover-up, then what else has been covered up that we will discover much later after it has become much worse?

Honesty is the best policy. It is the last leg of dharma. We cannot get sanātana-dharma without this last leg of dharma. If we remain dishonest, we will stop our progress, and be the cause of sowing distrust in everyone’s heart, which will then become the cause of ending the progress of other people. When the Paramātma hasn’t abandoned us despite our flaws, the same Paramātma is there in everyone’s heart to make them understand that covering up flaws is worse than talking honestly about them, accepting that perfection is a never-ending journey, and the goal is continuous progress rather than perfection.