Today I want to share some aspects of the story of Balakrishnan Menon who was an atheist but then became the world renowned Swami Chinmayananda, a great spiritual guru to millions. He was born on 8th May 1916, to a lawyer father and a home maker mother. In his younger years as Menon, he was fun-loving, popular, rebellious, and extremely brilliant.
A product of the British education system, he graduated with degrees in literature and law from the Lucknow University in India. He became a journalist and took up the job of the sub-editor of the ‘National Herald’ newspaper in Delhi. This was the time of the Freedom struggle in India.
Balakrishnan Menon had been brought up in a very religious Hindu family that practiced old customs and traditions. Being a rebel he constantly questioned the reasoning and logic underlying customs and traditions, doubted the very existence of God and considered himself an atheist. He had been exposed to many saints and masters in his childhood and he wondered, Could these people really have been genuine men of God? Did they have the answers he was seeking? ‘His rational mind shouted, ‘No, there’s no such thing as God!’. Convinced that spiritual masters were frauds, he set out to visit the saints in the Himalayas and expose their fraud. He intended to write a report about ‘How they are keeping up the bluff among the masses!”
Menon journeyed to Ananda Kutir, an ashram of Swami Shivananda in Rishikesh. In his confidence he thought he would need only 2 days to do what he had set out to do. But he was completely awestruck by the dynamic lifestyle of Swami Shivananda whose entire day was spent in service – guided meditations, greeting visitors, administering the hospital, writing articles and books, giving discourses on spiritual texts and conducting prayers with devotees. The two day short stay extended to a full month and nowhere was Menon close to finishing his article, let alone starting it! Such was the inspiration and influence of Swami Shivananda, a true saint in every sense of the word. It was one such day when Balakrishnan Menon again started asking him a barrage of questions and Swami Shivananda looked him in the eye and said ‘Young man you ask too many questions. When will your questions turn into a quest? That was the impetus he needed and soon enough Menon decided to renounce his job and become a sannyasi, a Hindu monk. In February1949, he was initiated into monkhood by Swami Shivananda and gained the new name, Swami Chinmayananda.
Swami Shivananada asked the new sannyasi to go and study with the great Vedantic teacher, Swami Tapovan Maharaj who lived in Uttarkashi. Burning with intensity and commitment Swami Chinmayananda walked the 11 miles through difficult terrain to meet Swami Tapovanam. He finally reached the hut. Seeing Swami Tapovanam he prostrated respectfully. He introduced himself and expressed his desire to become his student and that Swami Shivananda sent him here. Swami Tapovanam asked him to leave stating that he needed a letter of proof and referral from Swami Shivananda. Perhaps Swami Tapovanam was testing the new student’s commitment or making the new student toughen up for the rigorous discipline that lay ahead. Not one to give up easily, Swami Chinmayananda walked back the entire 11 km distance to Rishikesh, returning with the said the letter. When he gave the letter to Swami Tapovanam, he just kept it aside without bothering to look at it. Swami Tapovanam took him on as a disciple on the condition that he would never repeat anything. The student would have to take the responsibility of going deep into the studies through his own personal notes, reflection and meditation. After a few years having gained the wisdom, Swami Chinmayananda returned to the plains and revolutionised the learning of Vedanta by taking it to the masses in cities in the language of English.
The good thing about an atheist is that they are willing to take a position based on their beliefs. They are not fence sitters like agnostics. They have applied their logic and reason to the question of theism. Using perception and inference they conclude ‘I cannot see a distinct all powerful being who seems like God’. If I cannot see God it does not exist. Hence, I don’t believe in God’ A Vedantin also does not believe in the idea of God that an atheist has – as some being distinct from the creation. Who would believe in this kind of a God anyway?
Let me turn to the story of another great person but not a monastic, Sita Ram Goel, an Indian historian, religious and political activist and well known author. I share a few exceprts from his book on How I Became a Hindu, The Story of My Rejection of Communism, Existentialism, Catholicism and Materialism.
Goel was born a Hindu. But he stopped being one by the time he came out of college. By the age of twenty-two, he had become a Marxist and a militant atheist. I had come to believe that Hindu scriptures should be burnt in a bonfire if India was to be saved. Only fifteen years later, he saw it as the explosion of an inflated ego.
During his teenage years, he started doubting, first of all slowly and then rather strongly, if there was a moral order in the universe at large and in the human society in which he lived. The sages, saints and thinkers whom he had honored so far were sure that the world was made and governed by a God who was Satyam (Truth), Shivam (Good), Sundaram (Beauty). But all around him, he saw much that was untrue, unwholesome and ugly. God and His creation could not be reconciled.
He extensively read Mahatma Gandhi, Karl Marx and fascinated with socialism, concluded that God as a creator of this world could be conceived only in three ways—either as a rogue who sanctioned and shared in the roguery prevalent in his world, or as an imbecile who could no more control what he had created, or as a sannyasin, who no more cared for what was happening to his creatures. If God was a rogue, we had to rise in revolt against his rule. If he was an imbecile, we could forget him and take charge of the world ourselves. And if he was a sannyasin, he could mind his business while we minded our own. The scriptures, however, held out a different version of God and his role. That version was supported neither by experience nor by logic. The scriptures should, therefore, be burned in a bonfire.
Ready to join the communist party of India he shared his decision with his friend Ram Swarup, whom he had met after leaving college and who was to exercise a decisive influence on my intellectual evolution. He wrote back immediately: You are too intelligent not to become a communist. But you are also too intelligent to remain one for long.” Sure enough, a few months later he renounced Marxism as an inadequate philosophy.
Many other events followed including a Christian father trying to convert him to Christianity. Years later still being confused and seeking answers, Ram Swarup enquired of Goel what he meant by philosophy. Goel rattled out the list—Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and so on. Ram Swarup told me that at one time or the other he had studied all of them but had found them irrelevant and useless. Ram Swarup explained: “Suppose one knows this philosophical system or that. Does it make a better man out of him in any way? These systems are mere cerebrations and have little to offer towards practical purposes of life.” The word cerebration got stuck in his mind and made it impossible for me to read any abstract philosophy anymore.
Finally, he was back to square one. His faith in Gandhism had lost the battle to Marxism. Seeking an anchor, ge asked myself again and again: Where do I go from here? He voraciously read Sri Aurobindo’s works as well.
Once ‘The Buddha’s parable of the man struck by an arrow and refusing medical aid until a number of his intellectual questions and curiosities were satisfied struck him, in his solar plexus, as it were. He had spent a lifetime reveling in intellectual exercises. What was the nature of the universe? What was man’s place in it? Was there a God? Had he created this cosmos? Why had he made such a mess of it? What was the goal of human life? And so on.. Ram Swarup told him that what we called the normal human consciousness had to be made passive before one could establish contact with another consciousness which held the key to the proper questions and the proper answers.
Wrestling with all sorts of questions and curiosities was the surest way to block the way of a purer and higher consciousness which was always waiting on the threshold. He requested Ram Swarup to initiate him into meditation. As he started meditating, he found huge benefits. One day he meditated on ahimsa, which had remained an abstract concept for him. After a while he found myself begging forgiveness from all those whom he had hurt by word or deed. It was deeply personal and not an exercise in generalities. Person after person rose into his memory, going back into the distant past and he bowed in repentance before each one of them. Finally he even begged forgiveness from Stalin, against whom he had written so much. The bitterness which had poisoned his life over the long years was swept off the mind in a sudden relaxation of nerves.
The continuing practice of meditation was not the end of his seeking, which had only started in right earnest. But it was surely the end of his wandering in search of a shore where he could safely anchor himself. He had come back at last, come back to his spiritual home from which he had wandered away in self-forgetfulness. But this coming back was no atavistic act. On the contrary, it was a reawakening to his ancestral heritage, which was waiting for him all along to lay my claim on its largesse.
It was also the heritage of all mankind, as proved by the seers, sages and mystics of many a time and clime. It spoke in different languages to different people.
To him it spoke in the language of Hindu spirituality and Hindu culture at their highest.
He could not resist its call. He became a Hindu.
Two stories. Two people – one a monastic and the other an activist were able to seek and gain from Hinduism because being a seeker of truth is the one thing that is synonymous with even a seeker of Vedanta.
A lot of the atheists and agnostics of 30 years ago draw some comfort, solace from spiritual practices and so are increasingly identifying themselves as Spiritual but not Religious. Even if some of these people look at spiritual practices only for personal well being to better their health, relieve stress, and for emotional support, they will explore more. If they transform into seekers they are willing to delve deeper and show a greater commitment.
Why Vedanta might be good for atheists or even for the spiritual but not religious is because of the three pillars of Vedanta learning –
Sruti meaning the Vedas, Yukti meaning logic and reason and Anubhava, direct recognition. Together, they are helpful in pointing to the reality of you, the individual, God or Ishvara and the world.
How do these work?
Sruti that has been revealed by Bhagavan says that You the individual are Ishvara. This is systematically unfolded through a process of enquiry. You are not asked to have blind belief in the Vedas but just treat it as a means of knowledge, much like your eyes are a means of knowledge for the world of sight.
Yukti is reason. Logic. The Vedanta tradition values logic and reason and much of the teaching includes reasoning. Many of our stories in the Upanishads are in the form of dialogues between teacher and student where the student has the right and freedom to ask questions. All logic is susceptible to human error and hence logic compatible with Vedas which is not subject to human error, is considered.
Anubhava which is direct recognition or validation of the truth for yourself.