The following article is developed based on a seminar on the text Yati Panchakam by Swami Ananda Saraswati. This was held in early Dec, 2017 in Italy.
Yati Panchakam is a set of five verses by Sri Adi Sankaracharya. In English, the text’s title can be roughly translated as, the Wisdom of a Loin Cloth Renunciate; that explains the secret to happiness. The text in essence states that for a man to be happy, he needs no possession other than that of a loin cloth; sufficient enough to cover himself to the barest minimum.
An average mind would be surprised at such a proclamation. Some might even dismiss this thought as lofty idealism that is outright impractical. This is hardly surprising as all of us are conditioned to believe that we need to gain possessions in life in order to become happy. But at the core of Yati Panchakam, Adi Sankara reflecs that the goal of man is not to become happy but rather to understand the principles that can help one be happy. Between being happy and becoming happy, therein lies a world of difference.
Happiness is not about what we have. It is about who we are. We are constantly engaged in thinking about what we have and what we could potentially have in our lives. This thought originates from the body, moves towards attributes related to the body, like name, fame, position, education, and wealth and so on and so forth. In this fashion, a predominant part of our lives is consumed in dwelling on thoughts related to our possessions. But hardly any time is spared with reference to knowing who we are. An average person who is constantly engaged in such a pursuit ends up wrongly concluding, I can feel good only when good things happen in my life. I feel good because I have a good family, a productive job, a wonderful house and a fancy car. But my feeling of goodness is so fragile that it collapses the moment one of the attributes I have goes falls short. But Yati Panchakam tells us that this is a perception borne out of ignorance. It, on the contrary, explains that we are the source of all goodness; one that is independent of what we have or possess. It proclaims gloriously that I am the one who invites goodness in my life.
To invite goodness, we need to look at ourselves without a given role. But we never see ourselves without a role. Even during meditation, we look at ourselves as a meditator which is also another role. Playing a role is essential but seeing ourselves without a role is fundamental. Understanding and seeing are one and the same. But in common parlance, these two words end up getting misused. For instance, we should aim to understand God. On the contrary, we try to see God. God cannot be seen with our limited eyes; that is a futile quest. But interestingly, understanding God is equivalent to seeing God. To understand is to see, albeit not in a physical context. In English, we often ask our counterparts, “Do you see my point?” That is we ask whether the person listening is able to understand what we say without a doubt.
In the five verses of Yati Panchakam, the thought of seeing ourselves without a role is implicitly driven towards us. But usually, we end up seeing ourselves in a role and most unfortunately, we see a given situation not with the role that it entails but with the one that we find comfortable. In other words, we always choose to put ourselves in a role that is least challenging or most convenient.
A good example here is that of mothers. Every woman likes to be a mother as in this role, she feels highly wanted (by her child). Her likes, dislikes and preferences go unchallenged. In few instances, we can also find some women playing the role of a mother to their husbands. There can be a motherly attitude in a wife but a wife cannot take the role of a mother. The same role misappropriation also happens in the case of men. This can even be extended to Swamis (teacher in Sanskrit). For example, I am now entrusted with the responsibility of playing the role of a teacher to a set of people who have come together. I have this role as long as I am teaching but the moment I step out to travel, I become a traveler. If I continue to don the role of a teacher even when I am travelling, would it not lead to confusion within me?
So we need to be very cautious in our role play. We all have to play multiple roles and it is imperative that we do not mix up one with another. Seeing one role through the eyes of another is in fact the root of all conflict.
And why do we choose some roles over the other? It is because we believe that certain roles will give us more comfort. But does that really happen? We gain comfort when we learn to see comfort, not when we try to seek it. That person is a comfortable person, who sees comfort but not runs behind comfort. Comfort is not to be achieved, in fact the more we run behind comfort, the more the comfort moves away from us. On the contrary, comfort has to be discovered. The more one sees comfort, the more one can be comfortable in any given situation.
Interchanging roles causes not just conflict but tremendous discomfort. The very moment we start to see one role through the eyes of another, discomfort begins.
Let me take my very own example. I am now playing the role of a teacher to a class in Tuscany. If I suddenly start thinking that I am a Swami from the Himalayas, and begin to mix that role in my current play, what is likely to happen? I will start seeing everyone and everything around me from the standpoint of a Swami. My mind will start to judge the Italian setting from a Himalayan standpoint and it will inevitably start to throw complaints and misgivings about all that surrounds me. In short, everything that I see in this class in Tuscany will start to become a source of discomfort. My mind, instead of letting me play the role of a teacher, which is what is expected of me, will wrongly start judging the situation from an inappropriate standpoint. That then leads to the zone of discomfort, making me fail to do what I have to do at this given point.
The rise of discomfort is thus not due to people or situations. It arises owing to our inability to play the role that is needed and instead, choosing a preferred role that is less challenging. Our role in life is thus not to run behind comfort but rather to see comfort from where we are. This can also be further substantiated from another angle. Let us look at ourselves. We are all bestowed with a number of comforts. But do we truly feel comfortable?
And have we ever asked ourselves as to why we feel uncomfortable despite having so much of comfort all around? The reason is because we do not see comfort within ourselves. And when we don’t see comfort in ourselves, we do not give the right value to our possessions.
Everything in this world has its own value. A needle is as useful as a sword, and its utility is purely determined by the situation. A sword cannot stitch clothes while a needle cannot help fight a war. Thus a given object becomes useful and valuable depending on our usage. But we mostly never give value to an object based on its utility. This is best explained by the gold rush in India, where people flock to get gold whenever they have money. And they buy gold because they find it precious and valuable. But do you know what happens to most of the gold that is bought? It stays dormant in bank lockers. So the value that was attributed was not out of utility but rather out of perception. Isn’t this tragic waste of money?
Many among us also have this habit of not valuing things at our disposal. But we superimpose high value on things unknown. A new employee, for instance, will always hold his CEO in his esteem, especially when he first begins. But after a few years of experience, his opinion will start changing and the stature of the CEO by all means, will start dwindling. It was not that the CEO became undesirable all of a sudden. He was the same person before and is the same person now. It is only the apparent ignorance of the new employee that made him weigh the CEO wrongly in the first place. To go back, when we learn to see comfort, we also learn to value things out of utility. And in a remarkable way, we will end up seeing that everything has its own value.
There is a wonderful story that illustrates this message in detail.
There was once an old boatman in the country side who used to earn his living by helping people cross a river. He had with him a boat that was as old as him but still was good enough to do the job. One fine day, with the sun at its peak, he was about to retire after one last journey across the river. While on his way back, he noticed an unusually shiny stone at the river bank. As he landed at the bank, he walked hurriedly to pick it up.
It was a large stone that sparkled brilliantly, reflecting the sun’s rays in all its splendour. He decided then to keep this stone as a souvenir from the river and placed it in his boat at all times. Time and again, he used to see the stone during his work and marvel at its brilliance.
One fine day, a cobbler who sought the boatman’s services was awestruck by the stone’s luster.
He asked the boatman, “Where did you get this stone? It is so beautiful”
“I got it from the river bank” replied the old man
The cobbler was tempted; he wanted to possess the stone and asked the boatman spontaneously,
“Can I buy this stone from you? I will pay you 500 Rupees”
The Oldman felt that this was a good deal. He hardly made 150 Rupees each day and he told himself that he had already gained his share of pleasure from the stone. He felt it was fine for him to give it away for good money. So the cobbler bought the stone. His happiness knew no bounds and he wanted to keep the stone with himself in his shop. He used it at work and showed it with great pride to his customers.
Many weeks passed by and one fine day, a goldsmith happened to visit the cobbler. His trained eye gravitated towards the stone and he at once knew this was not an ordinary one. This stone was a precious stone, a diamond, which the cobbler was blissfully unaware. He found it hard to digest that the cobbler was using a diamond worth millions in the most frivolous of ways.
Sensing an opportunity, he asked, “I really like your stone. Where did you buy it?”
The cobbler beaming with pride said. “I got this from the local boatman for 500 Rupees”
The goldsmith slowly pushed his case, “I have grown so fond of your stone and I am ready to pay you 1000 Rupees for it. Will you sell it to me?”
The cobbler nodded in disagreement, “I am not keen to give this stone away. Please don’t take me wrong”
The Goldsmith increased the price five times, and said, “Will you refuse even if I were to pay you 5000 Rupees?”
The cobbler gave in. He could make 5000 Rupees only in a month, and this was an offer that was hard to resist. The goldsmith relished in his success and rushed to his shop to test the quality of the diamond at hand. But the very moment he put himself to work on it, the diamond shattered into pieces. The goldsmith, who had just been jumping with joy, was heartbroken. He could not comprehend what went wrong.
At that moment, a voice from above spoke.
“The boatman who picked this stone first did not know of its true value, neither did the cobbler who bought it from him. But you knew its true value and yet you cheated the cobbler. You thus do not deserve to gain this diamond and its value”
Does the same not happen in our lives?
Seeing comfort and seeking comfort are two different mind sets. We must understand that comfort must always be seen and never be sought. And when we truly discover comfort within ourselves, we will find value in everything. And ironically, we will find the right value in everything only when we truly deserve it.
Note: A masculine reference has been used in this article across all examples and illustrations. This has been assumed purely for the sake of convenience.
– Written by Karthik Sundaram based on Swamiji’s talk