The Obstacles to Spiritual Practice | Śrī-Vaiṣṇavism 5

Chapter 5

The Obstacles to Spiritual Practice
(Virodhi Svarūpam)

1. Intro

The spiritual path is metaphorically described in the Upanishads as “the edge of a razor” (kṣīrasya dhāra) because of all the dangers inherent upon it.

The spiritual path is beset with difficulties, obscuration and obstructions and as such is traversable only by those with courage, determination and insight.

There are 5 categories of obstacles upon the spiritual path which have to be recognised and avoided by the aspirant. These hindrances arise from various misconceptions that we have accumulated over lifetimes of misinformation and indoctrination:

1. Mistaken identity. svarūpa-virodhi
2. Theological misconceptions. paratva-virodhi
3. Misconceptions about the purpose of life. purushartha-virodhi
4. Ignorance of the means to Liberation. upaya-virodhi
5. Offences of commission and omission. prapatti-virodhi

2. Mistaken Identity

When we are asked the question “who are you?” we immediately reply by giving our name.

But the name is merely a device that differentiates between members of the same family and between members of the society, it does not answer the real question of who we really are.

Every other attempt at answering this question produces similar inadequate replies. We may identify ourselves with our family, city of origin, with our nationalities, race, religion, interests, sexual preferences, profession and a thousand other props.

All of which are essentially functional identities - we identify ourselves by what we are in relation to others. Every way we try to define ourselves is to further perpetuate difference - “them and us.”

None of these props can possibly describe the real Self and they are all aspects of spiritual ignorance manifesting in 5 ways;-

1. Not having any inkling as to one’s true nature. tamas
2. The association of the sense of “I” (the Self) with the body/mind complex. moha
3. A keen desire for sense-gratification. Maha-moha
4. The experience of frustration and resentment at the obstruction to personal gratification. Tāmiśra
5. The feeling of the loss of part of oneself in the loss of the objects of enjoyment that are dear to one. Aṅdha-Tāmiśra

These forms of ignorance which all arise from a mistaken identification of the Self with the body -mind vehicle, lead to the following states which are the causes of suffering and perpetuate the cycle of births and deaths:

1.  Identification of the Self with the body/mind complex (dehatma-abhimana) leads to stress, mental agitation, mood swings and depression.

2.  Delusion that one is completely autonomous (Svātantrya) leads to frustration and anger at not being able to achieve one's goals or matching up to the ideal that one has set for oneself, or meeting the expectations of others - family, friends, society, peers, colleagues etc. against whom we identify ourselves.

3.  A physical identification leads to perpetual servitude to others (anya-sheshatva) such as spouse, children, friends, boss, pets etc. instead of God.

Everyone in the world stands in the relation of server to someone else and reluctant, begrudging service to others is fraught with disappointments, disenchantment and frustration.

4. Imagining that one can bring about Liberation through one's own efforts (vishaya-pravanya) leads to spiritual egoism, pride, feelings of superiority and self-complacency, as well as the negative experiences of frustration, doubt, depression and disenchantment with spiritual life because of the failure to progress, all of which are obstructive to real spiritual development.

3. Theological Misconceptions.

Misconceptions about the nature of God are hindrances to Prapatti, they are;-

1.  The belief that some God created the world and set it in motion but takes no interest in it - a theory known as Deism.

2.  Considering that any of the administering devas of the universe are equal to the Supreme Godhead in granting Moksha.

3.  Considering the Incarnations (Avatāras) to be mere human beings.

4.  Thinking that the Icons (arca-avatara) in a temple are mere objects of stone or wood whose purpose is either decorative or simply to act as a focus for supplicatory prayer.

5.  Considering that the Grace of God is irrelevant or unnecessary for liberation which can be achieved through works and personal effort.

There are 2 views of the Ultimate Reality (Brahman): The way in which we view the Godhead and the actual nature of the Godhead itself.

The nature of the illimitable Godhead is a great mystery and essentially incomprehensible to us limited human beings.

Therefore all discussion about God within any spiritual tradition is from the subjective, limited, conditioned individual perspective and never from the understanding of the objective, unconditioned Absolute Godhead.

Rāmānuja declares in the Gītā Bhāṣya that the positive theological conviction for a Śrī Vaiṣṇava is as follows:

1. Whenever the abstract term Parā-Brahman (the Supreme Being) is used, it should be taken to refer to the Personal God.

2. God is devoid of even the slightest trace of negativity,

3. He possesses an inestimable abundance of auspicious and excellent attributes such as omniscience, power etc., boundless and essential to Him.

4. The sole purpose of the whole of the Vedas and the Vedanta is to reveal Him.

5. He is the sole cause of the universe

6. He is the ground (substratum) of the entire universe.

7. He is the essential actuator of all.

8. All works [secular and religious] enjoined in the Vedas are to be done as sacred acts which are service to God.

9. When propitiated in this manner the Lord confers the results of the practice of Dharma (Right living), Artha (Financial advancement), Kāma (Pleasure) and Moksha (Liberation).

(Please note that He “confers the results” - which are due to one’s own actions. God is not capricious in awarding joy to some and sorrow to others. Please see the discussion on Karma.)

4. Misconceptions about Life’s Goals

These are obstacles which arise due to a misunderstanding of the Four Goals of life or their incorrect application:

Engaging in self-gratification and unrestrained sense-indulgence as an end in itself without adhering to the guidance of the Dharma is a serious obstacle to Spiritual life.

Pursuance of money and economic prosperity as an end in itself without being philanthropic, and the squandering of precious resources in contradiction to the Sacred Laws is a hindrance to Prapatti.

Even the practice of Dharma itself can prove to be an obstacle if it is done with the idea of obtaining rewards in this life or in the hereafter:

All the obligatory daily rituals (nitya-karma) and periodical duties (naimittika-karma) which are laid down in the Dharma Śāstras are to be meticulously followed with the idea that they are Service (kainkaryam) to God, and not for any rewards that they may produce.

These daily rituals intended only for the twice-born (Dvījas) like sandhya-vandana, brahma-yajña, Tarpaṇam etc. are never to be abandoned, even by renunciates (jiyar).

Common devotees are under no obligation to follow any of the rituals and practices laid down in the Dharma Shastra. The only duty is to make offerings and chant the holy mantras whenever possible. But what they should do is consider that their chosen occupation is their svadharma and act accordingly.

5. Misconceptions about the Means

In order to foster firm and unadulterated and single-minded devotion, the aspirant should avoid:-

-  considering that his/her liberation can be brought about by supplicating any other form of God other than Śrīman Nārāyaṇa.

- Considering that it is possible to attain Liberation from Samsāra through one's personal efforts in study, meditation and mystical practices or through works, rituals and pilgrimages is self-delusion.

- Considering that the personal pursuit of self-realisation (kaivalya) is equal to surrender to the Lord. (It is in fact an advanced form of spiritual egoism and as such is also a serious obstacle).

6. Offences in Prapatti Dharma

These are offences that one may commit after being initiated and making a commitment to the Śrī Vaiṣṇava spiritual path and should be avoided by those who are trying to perfect their sādhana.

They fall into three categories;-

Offences against the Lord (Bhāgavat-upachāra).

- Considering that the divine incarnations:- Rāma and Krishna were simply ordinary men with some extraordinary power.

-  Speculating about the material from which the sacred icons are made instead of being mindful of the Divine Nature pervading them.

-  Stealing the temple’s property or personally utilising anything that was dedicated to the Lord. Stealing the temple property oneself, aiding and abetting the theft, or receiving these stolen goods, whether solicited or unsolicited.

-  Considering that the Self is separate from the Godhead.

Non-perception of the essential interconnectedness of all beings in the Divine leads to Pride which is the delusion of Self- importance.

This attitude then develops feelings of separateness and otherness between oneself and others; and between oneself and God. This dynamic is said to be the offence of ātma-apaharana - stealing of the Self from the Lord to whom it actually belongs.

Offences against the Devotees (bhagavata-upachāra)

These offences can be committed either by devotees themselves or by non-devotees;

1.  Confiscating or appropriating the property of a devotee.

2.  Wrongfully accusing a devotee of a crime.

3.  Abusing a devotee.

4.  Assaulting a devotee.

5.  Neglecting or showing disrespect to another devotee.

6.  Inquiring into the caste or social status of a devotee.

7.  Treating non-brāhmin devotees as socially and spiritually inferior to brāhmin devotees.

The offences against the devotees are considered to be worse that the offences against the Lord Himself.

Offences against the āchāryas (asahya- upachāra)

Any offence committed against the spiritual Preceptor is considered the worst of all offences. They are known as asahya- upachāra which means an offence which is unbearable to the Lord.

They are the hardest of all to forgive because the āchāryas have abandoned everything and dedicated their lives for alleviating the sufferings of others.

These offences which are enumerated in the Dharma-Shastras are;-

1.  Addressing the āchāryas by their personal name, issuing instructions to them, requesting service of them or treating them as equals.

2.  Wearing an upper garment in their presence.

3.  Speaking to them whilst reclining on a bed, eating or with the face turned away.

4.  Sitting on a seat higher than that of the āchārya.

5.  Using the Ācārya’s seat, bed, books or other implements without permission.

6.  Mimicking their walk, speech or deportment.

7.  Saluting them from a seat or carriage without having descended.

8.  Greeting the āchārya while holding implements in one's hands.

9.  Stretching out the feet towards them, holding one's knees, or clasping the hands behind the back in their presence.

10.  Breathing on them or spraying spittle on them while talking to them in close proximity. (The hand or hem of the garment should be held over the mouth when talking to the āchārya from close quarters).

11.  Rendering service to the son or the wife of the Preceptor by massaging them, assisting them in their bath, washing or anointing their feet or arranging their hair.

12.  Laughing in the presence of the āchārya without putting the hand over the mouth.