Editorial by M. Govindan
"All our ignorance brings us closer
to death" — T.S. Eliot
This line from the great American poet, T.S.
Eliot, which I came across recently, paraphrases what an eminent
gerontologist said to me at a conference on aging at the National
Institute of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, more than 25 years
ago. During the question and answer period I asked the panel
of eminent doctors and scientists, "Why do humans die?" The
respondent’s answer was both surprising and humble. He
replied: "Humans die because of their ignorance. We have
so many bad habits which wear us out." When I then asked
him, "Is there a theoretical limit to human life?" he
replied "There is no real theoretical limit to human life.
Humans could live indefinitely. We do not know why there should
be any limit to human life."
Since that time, many scientific studies
have pointed to the effects of "free radicals" and
even the existence of a gene which seems to control aging,
but we are still basically ignorant as to why we die. Many
have tried to correlate the effects of stress, diet, lifestyle,
one’s environment, social status, and genealogy with
aging The Siddhas, of course had a great deal to say about
the correlation between our rate of breathing and aging
However, the topic of "ignorance" itself,
is often overlooked. The term "avidya" is the Sanskrit
word for "ignorance." It refers not to an absence
of knowledge, or a lack of education, as the term is used in
the preceding paragraphs. According to Patanjali: "Ignorance
is seeing the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure,
the painful as pleasurable and the non-Self as the Self." (Yoga-Sutras
II.5) This is the fundamental error to which humans are prone,
and involves the mistaken sense of identity with what we are
not. We say: "I am tired" or "I am sick, angry
or worried." We approach the truth, however, when we say: "My
body is tired," or "I have angry thoughts." Our
current cultural context, the media, our language syntax and
our educational system all foster this fundamental error, which
hides our true identity, the Self. The Self is the eternal
witness, the Seer, a constant, pure One Being, infinite, all
pervasive, present in everything. Everything else is changing
and will therefore be lost one day. By clinging to the impermanent,
to what changes, we ignore the Real, and we suffer. All desire
is painful for it creates an insatiable need to have something
which we currently do not possess, or to be something, which
we are not. Even when we fulfill desires there will always
be more desires, as well as the desire not to lose what we
have, hence more suffering.
Patanjali tells us that "Ignorance,
egoism, attachment, aversion and clinging to life are the five
afflictions (klesah) "(II.3). These five afflictions prevent
Self-realization. Ignorance is the most significant, he goes
onto say in the following verse: "Ignorance is the field
(from which other) afflictions (arise) and can be dormant,
weak, intercepted or active." That is, ignorance is the
primary cause of our suffering and it brings about the others.
It is the cause of the confusion between the subject "I
am," and the objects of our experience. It hides our inner
awareness and creates a false identity: I am the body, mind,
senses, emotions, etc.
In the average person, ignorance, egoism,
attachment, aversion and clinging to life are constant and
sustained. We constantly follow the promptings of subconscious
based desires. When our well-being or survival, is threatened,
we typically respond in fear without any reflection. When we
begin to practice Yoga, however, we intercept many such promptings,
detach from or resist them, and substitute feelings of love,
self-discipline, and generosity, etc. It requires vigilance
and effort however; if not, the old habits are revived.
In an advanced practitioner of Yoga, the
afflictions become very weak, or dormant, because he or she
no longer responds to them. The practitioner’s constant
discipline (sadhana) has resulted in a state of equanimity,
which cannot be disturbed by such promptings.
So to overcome this ignorance, we should
seek ways to remind ourselves of who we truly are: by the regular
study of texts such as the Yoga-Sutras and the Bhagavad-Gita,
by using affirmations and auto-suggestions regarding our true
Self, and by the cultivation of Self-awareness through the
five-fold path of Babaji’s Kriya Yoga.
Copyright 2001 by
Marshall Govindan. All rights reserved.