To think or not to think? A debate between East and West


Ramana Maharishi

When there are thoughts, it is distraction: when there are no thoughts, it is meditation.

– Ramana Maharshi

India has studied Human Thought in detail. Gurus have talked about the state of no thought as a very powerful state. The goal of meditation and religious practices is to move beyond the noise and confusion to absolute stillness of mind.

How do you reach a state of no thought?

Human beings consider language as a tool for thought. Except in deep sleep, thoughts appear constantly in mind as words and images. Though there is no physical concept of mind as an organ like the brain, we do experience mind as consciousness. But, how many of us have the luxury of a still mind, so clear like the surface of a still pond?

Consider you are travelling on a highway and see a hoarding of a popular movie star. This reminds you of a scene that touched you a lot, which again reminds you of an incident in your past. Maybe that incident connects you to a friend, which takes your mind to a personal loss. That loss could make you sad and feel how unpredictable life is. This shows the journey of an uncontrolled mind. All of this started from one image on the street.

Saints like Ramana Maharishi told us to look at the place from where the thought arises. Is it memory? Is it feelings? Is it mind? Then look beyond it. Where does this memory come from? What is the cause of this memory? This is called “Self Enquiry”. It is through a very clear inspection of our self that we reach that place where we transcend thought itself. This is a meditative experience. After consciously practicing meditation for a while, there is no need of a physical process of sitting in a silent room with closed eyes. The very mind becomes meditative in nature with no thought, but just an awareness about the task at hand.

But, I think therefore I am. What about that?

The western thought has taught us to constantly indulge in thoughts. The very definition of Self is considered to be the presence of our thoughts about who we are, what we are and where we are going to. There is a lot of action and speed about such a perception about Self. This thought process has lead our consciousness to great confusion. The process of not thinking is almost considered failure. The thinking process is often compared to “mental gymnastics” of sorts that people are not even able to sleep peacefully.

So, to think or not to think. That is the question really.   

Why a lot of Emotional Investment behind Hope is not Wise

The wise one lives without hope.

He has no attachment to his children, wife or anyone.

Pleasure means nothing to him.

His life is glorious.

(Ashtavakra Gita)

Consider the idea behind Hope. A lot of weight is given to hope in the western world and now on a global basis. It is said that people with chronic pain, mental illnesses, cancer and such health issues get cured faster with better hope. In the post colonial age, a lot of economies have grown and established themselves with the power of hope. Then, why is the Ashtavakra Gita saying “The wise lives without hope”?


(Image Credit: Steve Snodgrass)

How to view hope

To view hope rather naively can be compared to watching a game on TV. The supporters of both teams invest hope heavily on their respective teams. So if a team wins, it shows that hope of one side was better than hope of the other side. There is a flaw in that argument. Or consider for instance the expectation of a super speciality mental hospital with capacity for 1000 patients. With the intellectual, financial and personnel investment behind such a venture, the hospital officials are not hoping that there should not be depressed and dejected people in society. Their very existence is based on people being sick. So, two people may hope very earnestly for their individual goals – which may be against each other in many respects. How are results viewed in such cases?

It is quite necessary to derive the right intelligence behind hope. A lot of people do talk about “emotional investment” behind some result – be it personal or professional ideas. With a lot of mental weightage behind these ideas, there are often cases of losing peace and happiness over the outcome behind these results. This is not a wise thing to do. Consider a student who is very passionate to study at Harvard. She/he prepares so much that at one point, a decision is made that no other university will do. In this day and age, it is not uncommon to see such ambitions result in depression and rage resulting from failure. So, “hope” creates difficulties here. On the other hand, a love for the subject and learning would have created a positive outcome for that student in today’s world of options. That would be wisdom.

Purpose and Pleasure

We are passionate about purpose these days. A parent, spouse, sibling or teacher cannot decide the life purpose of another person. It is dependent on samskara or tendencies of that individual from experiences of life. Consciously or otherwise, people act according to their life purposes. It is a matter of luck and effort that they identify the purpose and tune life towards it. So, a wise man is not bothered about attaching too much importance to thoughts and decisions of people around him. Sensual pleasure or ideological pleasure is not very important for the wise. This is a very evolved level of freedom that is quite rare in the modern world. Though free to act and move about in this material world, we see that a good majority of people are not happy. What can cause this happiness? It is the ultimate sense of freedom that really results in this level of happiness.

The Ashtavakra Gita is a beautiful poem that talks about this sense of Freedom from the viewpoint of Vedanta. A lot of wisdom from India is reflected in this poetry. There will be a lot of articles in this website from the Ashtavakra Gita in the future.

Sense of Duty and Detachment in Everyday Life

Renunciation and Career (Duty) are seen as two ends of a spectrum. Indian Wisdom has pointed to the fact that they need not be so. There is work involved in renunciation and also renunciation involved in duty.

Consider the following words. Sanyasi. Yogi.

Do these bring a colourless image in our minds about people who lead very boring lives?


(Image Credit: Moosa Khan)

Who is a Sanyasi?

So, we may ask who really is a Sanyasi? The image of the monk in the himalayas in India or one who has left home, family and work in search of God is usually interpreted as a Sanyasi. However, Shastras in India do not really paint such a picture. Even a person living in supreme riches with all comforts of material life can also be a Sanyasi. The only criterion is not to attach the actions performed towards expecting results in the way we want.

Look at certain examples. A student who works hard in order to be a topper in class, and not to appreciate and understand the subject matter, is actually attached to the glory of a rank rather than the learning offered. A publication or a brand that works towards an award, by tweaking its offering in particular ways to please a jury, rather than sticking to its own nature is again looking at a certain result. This result focussed action is not the best kind of action.

On the other hand, we also find people who have faced certain failure giving up on their potential. Instead of coming back with more preparation and wisdom, they retire into a “Sanyasa” wherein all hope is lost and religion is stitched onto themselves as a protection against the world. This is wrong too.

Bhagavad Gita says that Those who perform prescribed duties without desiring the results of their action are actual sanyasis and yogis. Those who cease to do their duties (yajnas) are not sanyasis and those who abandon all bodily activities are not yogis (Chapter 6, Sloka 1).

A Yogi is not necessarily a super flexible acrobat!

In the West, Yogi is a person who is an expert in Yoga, the exercise routine. In fact the exercise is only one part of Yoga, which is called “Hatha Yoga”. Yoga really means “union”. There are several ways of union with the truth and duty is one of them.

We have heard about terms Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga, the way of duty and the way of knowledge. These are not in fact watertight compartments. A being cannot perform duty without knowledge and also she/he cannot reach knowledge without action. One who understand that Knowledge and Action are intermingled with one another really becomes a “Yogi”.

Sanyasa or Renunciation is actually a search for knowledge – call it Self Knowledge or God. Action is what the world runs by, in the form of technology, business, education, politics, economics and what not. Why should knowledge be sought by forgetting other routes? Even Christ has said “All roads lead to God”. So why should the wisdom that is obtained from performing duty of choice not lead to “God”?

We feel it is necessary for man to understand sense of duty and sense of renunciation in everyday life. This will actually make work and life a lot more enjoyable and meaningful in many ways. Indian Wisdom is a great place to look out for such insights.

Learnings from the imagery and symbolism of Saraswati Devi

An image speaks a thousand words. Ancient Rishis understood this truth and represented a lot of wisdom in Hindu God imagery. Detachment, Learning, Creativity and a lot more is clearly represented in Saraswati Devi.

The Ancient Indian thought created images out of ideas that are being worshipped today as Gods. These images represent qualities that must be present in Human Beings to elevate themselves to higher levels of evolution.

Let us consider the symbology of Saraswati Devi here. It is interesting to note what the image really speaks here.

Saraswati Devi

Rock Solid Wisdom and Detached sense of being

The Goddess is represented as sitting on a rock. The rock depicts steadiness of the mind or of knowledge. The key to all activities in life is to reach that steady spot where one is not affected by the passing of life as it is. There maybe different episodes that presents itself in life; but remain steady come what may.

The white clothes adorned by the Devi represent the Sattva Guna in her. Sattva Guna is one of the three qualities (Gunas) that is represented in the Gita. This quality is one of subtlety and purity as compared to Rajas Guna (representing Passion and lots of Action) or with Tamas Guna (representing laziness and Sleep). In fact all three Gunas are needed in human beings. The question here is in what mix are these gunas really represented in us? A better mix of Satvic Qualities will go a long way, as represented by Saraswati Devi here.

A lotus is seen at her feet. The lotus flower grows from the Mud under water and blossoms just above the water level. But, the flower is mostly detached from water and is never wet on its surface. So, even if its origins are in mud and the environment is wet, the flower never reflects this. Also, the Devi is seen to be “footed” or placing her feet on this very detachment. So, blaming the circumstances or environment in which we are placed is graphically criticised here very clearly.

Discrimination and addressal of Imbalance.

There are two kinds of “vehicles” for the Goddess represented here – Swan and Peacock. The Swan represents discrimination. It has the capability to separate milk and water from a watery mixture of milk and consume the milk alone. This is also called “viveka” in Indian languages. Consider news that we listen to everyday. Are we really capable of filtering the news and taking in the core of the news? Can we forget the biases and such present in the news? This is represented by the swans. A peacock is sitting next to Saraswati and is anxiously waiting to serve as Her vehicle.  A peacock depicts unpredictable behavior as its moods can be influenced by the changes in the weather.  Saraswati is using a swan as a vehicle and not the peacock.  This signifies that one should overcome fear, indecision, and fickleness in order to acquire true knowledge. So, how do you decide to balance your “ride” between the discrimination and the imbalance? This question is asked by the symbology of Saraswati Devi.

The mind system

Four hands of the Devi represents manas (mind, sense), buddhi (intellect, reasoning), citta (imagination, creativity) and ahamkara (self consciousness, ego). These are the major functioning of the human thought. The feeling and thinking part of the human psyche are represented beautifully here. A good control over these four “hands” would result in the elevation of human system within ourselves. An out of control mind, intellect, imagination and ego is the key to all our troubles.

There is a veena she plays, which represents creative efforts within us. The veena shows arts, crafts, and technology. Also, it talks about the guru who tunes up the mind and intellect. So, the sense of ego that “I” am behind all my results in tech or arts is given to the Guru here. Again the Gita also points to the fact to forget that we are behind all our actions. It is the Brahman that guides our actions in the right way. There is a rosary that represents meditation and peace in her right hand. A book (veda) in her left hand represent learning and knowledge.

The image of the moon, the river, flowers, the trees, the time of the day pictured, the jewellery and all these details have further symbolical meanings. By looking at the image, a seeker is expected to get all these messages so quickly in one glance.

Isn’t this such a beautiful concept?

Vested interests of Dronacharya reflected in his Students

Are students from top universities in the world really capable of facing the world during tough times? Or are they people with high potential who break down or resort to ill means during bad times like Drona’s students?

Take a look at leading universities around the world. One key question to ask here is whether there are vested interests behind their functioning or is Education being seen as a noble cause alone? For the time being, let us forget the profit motives here – as it is obvious that good infrastructure do costs and corresponding fees must be charged. But, the ideologies and philosophy behind education that is granted to students and the consequent mind frames with which students graduate should be looked at.


(Image Credit: Abhishek Nagar)

Dark side of Drona

In this context, let us look at Dronacharya from Mahabharata. Dronacharya was a Brahmin by birth and hence he did have a good hold on Shastras. Considering the fact that he learned with Rishi Bharadwaj do give the benefit of having learned the Dharma in detail. There is no doubt about the War Techniques of Drona, as is seen in the techniques and strategy of his students – the Kauravas and Pandavas. But, even after spending more than 12 years together, why was Drona not able to address the differences between Kauravas and Pandavas? Why was not the message of love between cousins not addressed? Why did he reject Karna and Ekalavya in spite of the boys being top class in their art?

Vested Interests of Drona in establishing himself as a powerhouse and then seeking revenge from his own classmate King Drupada of Panchala is key in Drona’s actions. The very purpose of taking Kuru Princes (Kauravas and Pandavas) of Hastinapura as his disciples was to prove a point to King Drupada and defeat him for the insult that Drona had to face at Drupada’s court. So, education here was not meant to raise the level of consciousness and valour of seeking scholars. He claimed he will have only one batch of students in his career – the Kuru Princes. Nobody other than these Princes will be entertained. Also, his own son Aswathama will join the princes in education. He wanted to defeat Drupada and install Aswathama in the Panchala Kingdom. So, it was necessary for the boy to socialise with the Princes and learn from them as well. How do you transform an innocent boy into a very ambitious Throne seeker? Put him in company of similar people day and night, year after year.

Students who faltered

  1. Arjun, his favourite student, fell into confusion and despair just before the Kurukshetra war. There was the Bhagavad Gita to raise Arjun to his natural potential of a World Class Archer from Krishna at that point. Why did Arjun need Gita from Krishna? Why couldn’t Drona instill that learning in him?
  2. Aswathama, Drona’s son and student went against the moral code and killed Draupadi’s sons while they were sleeping. He even sent his Brahmastra at Uttara’s womb in order to eliminate that race completely. Do people resort to corruption at heights of tension? Why couldn’t Drona educate his son enough not to resort to bad means when odds are against him?
  3. Dushasana insulted Draupadi in court of Hastinapura and no one, including Drona himself could raise a finger against him. Except for the Kaurava, Vikarna, none of Drona’s students could talk against such a folly.

At all these instances, there was a need of Krishna to come up and address these issues. So, isn’t Krishna’s teacher, Sandeepani better than Dronacharya?  

A key conclusion that comes here is how do our present day universities rate? Are the students of the top universities of the world performing like Dronacharya’s students at critical instances of life or are they strong enough to face adversities?

Bollywood Wisdom – Deewar (1975)

Indian Wisdom is manifested not only in religious teachings, vedas and scriptures. Even mainstream movies carry a lot of messages. The way of life and the consciousness here in India is pregnant with wisdom, even though it is not apparent in the daily transactions we undertake. Take for instance the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Deewar (1975) for instance.


Deewar tells the story of two sons of a trade union leader in a coal mine. The attachment to his family causes the trade union leader to compromise on the union’s demands to the management and soon the hero of the revolution turns into a thief in the society’s eyes. Even the family is tormented so much that the mother had to flee with both her sons to Urban Bombay with scars so permanent that life cannot delete it. The Elder son Vijay turns to materialism in such a strong way that the thug life of the city and the seedy underbelly seemed to answer his calling. Money and prestige seemed to answer his calling against the injustice of his boyhood. The younger son Ravi turns to academics and straight forward living which eventually leads him to a career with the Police Force.

An interesting observation in the movie is where Vijay and Ravi goes their own ways from a Temple, where their mother performs her daily pooja. Vijay never enters the temple as he feels that concept of God is absurd for him. The bitter experiences life presented to the boy is so deep that there is no faith in him. No one forces him to bow his head to the deity. “When faith arises in this boy, he will come here automatically” – tells the priest to the mother. Yet, it so happens that his labour badge reads 786 – equivalent to the Islamic “Bismillah” – God before all. Even though paying respects to a deity seems off for this man, the value of the badge is quite high for him. In typical Bollywood style, the badge does save his life from bullets and bad men. Call it faith, call it devotion, call it a lucky charm – we really don’t know what causes Vijay to follow the 786. Symbolisms are so strong here.

Ravi’s upbringing, his courage, tact, valour and love for principles turns him against his gangster brother even though there is high respect and love for him. Principles and ideals are so much more important for a human being than the apparent relationships he may be having through birth or life. Some may argue that it is not the case today in life. However, I feel that there is still a lot of value for one’s principles and ideals in life. How else do you face the trials and tribulations of life. This was the same debate that Arjun had with himself when preparing for the great Kurukshetra war. There is a Kurukshetra war happening within us on a real time basis.

Finally the materialistic gains of Vijay ends up on a temple veranda in his mother’s lap. “All the wealth in the world never gave me sleep mother. Now I am feeling sleepy. Please hold me closer mother” – and the Gangster passes away. Nothing with him. Back to the basics.

Deewar – a masterpiece of a movie that can happen only in India.

A Question on Avatars

Indian Religious thought can be divided roughly into two eras – The Vedic Era and the Aryan Era. In the Vedic Era, idol worship was virtually non existent and religious thought was guided by the Puranas, Vedas, Upanishads and such. It was a period of appreciation of pure logic and enquiry into the nature of man and the universe he belongs to. Aryan Era brought in the Gods and the cults. The core of both the eras is the same. The colour and texture of Consciousness seems to differ – that is all.

The Avatars of Vishnu showcases the periods that the planet went through. The time of the floods and the Maha Pralaya had the Matsya Avatar. Soon the water started receding resulting in the onset of Amphibian life and so the Koorma Avatar was manifested. Drylands started coming up and that resulted in Varaha Avatar. So, the scientific evolution and the way in which Avatars came up is really showcased beautifully. The initial Avatars were so bound to nature and life itself. Later on, the shape of Avatars changed to challenge and suit the Human Spiritual Evolution.

With human population growing exponentially during the last 6000 or so years, man became more competitive and greedy rather than moral and virtuous. This is a natural way of life. When the resources are the same and there are many hands looking for the same goals, being virtuous does not always help. It is Economics at play here. Mahabharata is a time when this way of life was very prevalent. The materialistic outlook of life by Kauravas and Pandavas needed to be resolved by none less than a diplomat, a strategician, a leader. A Vamana, Sri Rama or Parasurama could not have resolve this. Here, we needed a Krishna. That is how Swami Chinmayananda justifies the manifestation of Krishna Avatar.

If we look at the situation now and the rise of Adharma in the 21st century, many souls are crying out for an Avatar. But, Eastern Wisdom repeatedly say to look within ourselves for solutions and not to rely on outside situations to combat our problems. The idea that the entire universe is within ourselves and we can adapt, evolve and strengthen our lives to the situations around us is really powerful.

A Krishna was relevant 5000 years ago. Who will be relevant now?