From Biochemistry to Spirituality

No sooner had she obtained her PhD in biochemistry than she begun her training in Vedanta under the guidance of her renowned Guru Pujya Swami Tadrupanand in the Manan Ashram in South India. How come you made this transition from science to spirituality so quickly, I asked Swamini Shraddhananda Saraswati.

Her reply was that she had already felt the ‘call’ to a more exalted pursuit when she was in school, when she used to go and attend the gyan-yagnas of Pujya Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda with her father. She said that his teaching used to resonate with her for weeks on end, and she knew that that’s what she wanted to go deeper into, but that circumstances led her to follow the conventional education path before she took to Vedanta exclusively.

On completion of her training and obtaining sanyasa she spent a month in quietude at the Ramana Maharishi Ashram in Arunachal, and eventually she joined Mataji Tanmayananda at the Praman Param Darshanalaya in Pardi, district Valsad, Gujarat. It may be recalled that we had the great privilege and joy of having Mataji Tanmayananda in our midst in 2005, when she held a gyan-yajna on the Bhaagwat Purana.

Swamini Shraddhananda like the other acharyas at the Praman Param Darshanalaya is committed to teaching and propagating the Hindu scriptures in India and abroad to seekers of all age groups. She is widely appreciated for her lucid and eloquent exposition of the scriptural texts, something which we have experienced first hand during her short stay in our midst. But more than that, she is gifted with a mellifluous voice, which enchanted us during her rendering of the slokas of the Bhagavad Gita before she went on to elaborate on them. She has to her credit numerous audio-CDs of bhajans, stotras and vedic chants, in particular Ved Ghosh which she has set to music herself.

Swamini Shraddhananda was here for two weeks, and left on Tuesday last. Hopefully we will have the opportunity of welcoming her again in about a year’s time if all goes as planned given her busy schedule. She conducted a public gyan-yagna on chapter 12 (Bhaktiyoga) of the Bhagavad Gita at the Rengasamy Nagen Auditorium, Rose-Hill, on 12-14 August. Afterwards she held a spiritual camp for a smaller group of seekers (of spiritual knowledge) over four days, which consisted of meditation sessions, chanting of vedic mantras and further teaching on Bhaktiyoga.

The purpose of meditation is to steady and quieten the mind so that it becomes serene and thus prepared to receive the highest knowledge, which is knowledge of one’s self. Who am I? What am I doing here on earth? And what happens when I die? These are fundamental questions that apply to every human being, and there cannot be any two or ambiguous answers. And whatever answers one gets must not only be universal – that is, be applicable to anyone anywhere, but must make sense and be final, in other words they must not contradict common sense, reason, and human experience. And they must form the basis for a code of sound, purposeful and peaceful living.

When we think of knowledge, we usually mean knowledge of the external world that enables us to deal with and live in it. It comprises both science and non-science subjects. Such knowledge obtained through the education system or informally is referred to as ‘lower knowledge’, whereas the knowledge of the self is known as ‘higher knowledge’, or paravidya, that is, ‘that knowing which everything else is known.’ A simple but crude analogy is gold and ornaments made of gold: whatever their forms and appearances, they are all made of the one thing, gold. If one knows that, then one knows the fundamental or most important thing about the ornaments, because it reveals their true nature. It is roughly akin to the discovery of the Higgs boson in physics, which explains everything about the universe of matter.

Similarly with higher knowledge or paravidya. By giving us a correct understanding of ourselves, of the world, of the source of our being and of existence and how to manage the relationships pertaining to these three sets, it guides and prepares us to lead a fulfilling life. ‘Para’ means beyond, and here this means beyond the limitations of space and time, therefore timeless and boundless, and vidya means knowledge. Paravidya therefore refers to knowledge which is eternal, and is contained in the source books of Hinduism known as the Vedas, which are the oldest record of the ancient spiritual teaching of mankind.

As this knowledge (veda) is found towards the end (‘anta’) of the Vedas, which are four in number, it is therefore known as Vedanta, which can be defined as ‘a living ancient teaching tradition that explores the reality of oneself, the world and the sacred. This teaching presents a vision that transforms the limiting notions we entertain about ourselves into a direct appreciation that we already are what we seek to become. It is in this recognition that freedom, fullness and peace are discovered, allowing one to simply become alive to what is, and meet life with joy, compassion and purpose.’

Of the rich range of scriptural texts in Hinduism, Bhagavad Gita is considered to present the essence of Vedanta. Swaminiji, expounding on Chapter 12, explained how Bhaktiyoga is the name given to an entire range of spiritual sadhanas or disciplines, spiritual because they are relevant only when they are done in an atmosphere of Iswara bhakti, which can be stated as devotion to the divine. That is why, she emphasized, these sessions were not talks or discourses in the ordinary or mundane sense: they were preceded by the recitation of mantras that generated the proper spiritual atmosphere, and engaged the audience in a committed and dedicated manner to pay full attention and gain understanding. Afterwards, through questions and answers the audience sought and obtained further clarifications.

Swaminiji elaborated on the five levels of sadhanas that led one from Karmayoga (action) to Jnanayoga (higher knowledge). In common language, this means that by devotedly following these sadhanas the individual – devotee – progresses from a state where he is wholly inclined towards the material things of life (which is not denied since one has to survive) to the stage of spiritual enlightenment. He then becomes a jnani, when he realizes that his essential nature is not the perishable body (with which we all usually identify) but the immortal atman. This knowledge transforms one’s way of living because on the way to this level one progressively acquires positive qualities which alter one’s life for the better. A good part of the gyan-yajna was therefore about the characteristics of a jnani.

Before engaging on this path, the devoteee must cultivate certain qualities, such as mastery over one’s senses which tend to attract one towards material desires and temptations of the external world, discernment (viveka) between the good and the bad, detachment (vairagya) from things that are impermanent, the six-fold discipline that leads to equanimity of the mind, and the focused desire (mumukshatwam) to gain this higher knowledge.

This might sound complicated and difficult, but in fact it is not so: once one takes the commitment, and participates regularly in the satsangs such as the gyan-yajnas then the vista opens up as it were, with increasing calm and peace being experienced. And this allows one to ‘meet life with joy, compassion and purpose.’

All who were present are eagerly awaiting the next visit of Swamini Shraddhananda to make us fly higher still, but in the meantime the learning continues with Swamini Karunananda and others who are dispensing the teaching. Om Narayane.

Gyan-yajna by Swamini Shraddhananda Saraswati


  • Published in print edition on 28 August 2015

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