Volume VII - In an Eastern Rose Garden
THE IDEAL LIFE
When speaking on the subject of ideal life, the words of the Prophet of Islam may be quoted, where he says, 'Every soul has its own religion.' This means that every soul has a certain direction, which it has chosen, a goal to attain during life. This goal is a certain ideal, which depends on the soul's evolution.
For instance, a young man in a family understands that he has the responsibility for his mother and father, who are old. It is a duty, and not only a duty but a virtue on his part, that he should devote all that he earns, and give every service that he can render them in their old age. His idea of virtue is that if he can be helpful to his aged parents with money or with service, he will devote both to them, and he considers that to be a virtue. That is the ideal thing for him to do, so he does it. Perhaps he does not perceive anything beyond it, but what he does perceive is virtue in his eyes. And that is why he wishes to do it, and in it lies his satisfaction.
Another person is in business, as the agent of a firm. He thinks, 'I am paid by my firm, and the head of my firm is so kind that it is my first duty to prove myself faithful to my firm.' He labors with enthusiasm and great zeal from morning to evening, seeing a great virtue in serving well, although he does not pretend to religion or spirituality. But, he considers his service as his virtue, and as long as he considers that he is doing his duty, he is following his religion.
Religion in the East is not made into a thing apart from one's life, as in the West where business, profession, and other things on the one side of life, and going to church one day in the week on the other side, together constitute religion, with a prayer before going to rest. But, strictly speaking, life is religion. When one has that ideal before one with whatever occupation one is concerned, business, industry, domestic life, or whatever it is, one carries it out, trying to be worthy of it, that is religion.
In the Hindu language, the same word, Dharma, means both duty and religion. Both are expressed by one word. 'This is your Dharma' means: 'This is your faith.' How beautiful the thought is! Whatever kind of duty it is, so long as you have an ideal before you and are performing that duty, you are walking in the path of religion.
We, with our narrowness of faith or belief, accuse others of belonging to another religion, another chapel or church. We say, 'This temple is better, that faith is better.' The whole world has kept on fighting and devastating itself just because it can not understand that each form of religion is peculiar to itself. Therefore, the ideal life is in following one's own ideal. It is not in checking other people's ideals. If a certain thing is one's ideal, that does not mean that another person will agree that it is best to offer prayers ten times a day. He may be doing better by following his religion in his shop than by going to a mosque and offering up a prayer twenty times a day. Perhaps somebody with that ideal cannot see that the other person's way is an ideal also. Leave everyone to follow his own ideal.
Does the ideal remain the same all the time? No, the ideal grows and improves as man grows and improves with the years. Perhaps at some time in his life a man thinks that it would be ideal to have a beautiful house, a beautiful estate, good clothes, and all manner of comforts. From that moment this is the path he ought to pursue. But then he arrives at another ideal. He comes to think, 'My surroundings are not important if the people in the town are not happy nor in good surroundings.' From that time he cares less for his own house and his beautiful things, and goes into the town every day and seeks to improve the health and happiness of others. He thinks, 'The poor in the town should be looked after.' This is his new ideal. Before he evolved his new ideal he was only enjoying his beautiful home. He was living up to a lower ideal.
And then later on he may come to say, 'Never mind about my town. I think of my whole country.' The whole nation comes in for consideration: what is beneficial to it, and what are the things that should be improved. His fortune may not be very great. Perhaps his town is not so beautiful as that of someone who is thinking only about his town. But he is thinking about the whole nation, and so his ideal is still greater. It does not matter to him in which town he lives, his life is in the whole country, in the whole nation. He becomes the spirit of the whole nation. That is his ideal.
Is man the same, whatever his appearance? We see now that it is all a matter of his ideal whether a man differs from his neighbor, whether he is heavenly or earthly, as high as the Devas, the heavenly beings, or as low as the demons. His ideal makes him as high as the one, or as low as the demons. The greatness of man lies in the greatness of his ideal.
That which makes us esteem those whom we esteem is their ideal. That which raises man from earth to heaven is his ideal. And that which pulls man down from the heavens to the earth is also his ideal. When he does not live up to his ideal, he falls to earth. And when he raises his ideal he goes from earth to heaven. He can rise to any height, according to the stature of his ideal.
One person thinks, 'O, it does not matter. If I have a good dinner, never mind what others have.' Another thinks, 'It is no pleasure to me to have had a good dinner, since my family still starve. It gives me much more happiness if I have only a frugal dinner, as long as my family is satisfied.' This raises him higher than the person who thinks only of his own happiness. A third person thinks, 'It does not matter how I live, so long as I have brought some happiness to the people of my town, or village. That would be worthwhile.' His ideal is greater still.
The trust that is sent by heaven is the ideal given to man. That is his charge in life, his responsibility in life. To take care of this and prove worthy of this responsibility and position that has been given to us, that is what should prove to be our ideal, our religion, our Dharma. In the Gospel the 'talent' represents the same ideal. At first it is small, but it expands as we go through life.
This explains the fact that the sin and virtue of two people cannot be the same. For instance, there may be two students, and one is sent to a university and is studying for an examination. There are only two months left, but he happens to see an exciting play advertised. He thinks he would like to see this play, and yet there is such a short time for study. 'But then it is only one evening, and I can soon make that up. I will go just this once, and it will make no difference,' he says. He disregards the importance of the ideal he had: that of passing his examination. He has changed his ideal by thinking that the examination does not matter. So he goes this once, but the next day he sees another play advertised, and again gives in to his pleasure, and again and again. His fondness for the theatre grows, and the evenings go by, and the time comes when he is no longer ready for his examination. So he fails. Seeing the plays was a sin, not because it was a sinful action, but because he failed to keep to his ideal. He was meant to study to pass his examination.
Again, there is another student. He is trying to become a good playwright, or orator, or actor. He sees the same advertisement. He goes to the play and enjoys it very much. Every play he attends adds to his experience and increases his knowledge. The same action has become a virtue, for by going to the theatre and giving his thought to the plays he has helped to accomplish his ideal. Therefore, it all depends on our ideal whether the same action be a sin or a virtue. We have to follow and prove ourselves worthy of that ideal, and the further we go the more our ideal develops. However small it was at the beginning, we are always progressing as long as we follow it and wish to prove ourselves worthy of it. But, when we stray from our ideal we lose the track. And if there is anything wrong or evil in the world, it is this: leaving the track of the ideal that we have set before ourselves.
A person may say that a religious ideal is the true ideal, or a moral, spiritual, or a practical life. Many people say it is much better to be in the world, to live in the world. Others say it is better to live away from the wicked world, to get away and live in the forests, the jungles, or the caves. They say, 'This is the only way to live.' Others say, 'Just make merry, eat, drink, and enjoy life.' But others again say, 'The good life is in the service of man. As much service as we can give, as much kindness, as much love, that is the ideal.'
If we ask a hundred people, we will hear of a hundred ideals. Everyone thinks that he who follows his ideal is the best person, and whoever follows another ideal is wicked. Sufis, mystics, ascetics, in spite of all their high ideals, have been killed, beheaded, and tortured by different religious authorities, because these religious authorities had a different ideal, and were convinced that their own ideal was right and the other wrong. They said, 'My Church is the only Church which exists, the only one, which can teach you the real truth.' Is it not true that every Church or every faith in which there is a willingness for others to join, thinks that its ideal and its belief is the best to follow? That is man's foolishness. He wishes everyone to follow the same ideal as his. He does not know that the prophets whom the world may follow, often could not get their brother or their wife or their child to follow them!
If we read the history of Abraham, Moses, or Muhammad, we see what happened. It was difficult for their own people to follow them, however many other followers they may have had, because every soul has its own peculiar ideal, and it wants to go on towards it.
True preaching would be asking everyone to develop his own ideal, however wrong it might appear to the outsider at the moment. Let each one develop his faculty of doing right in his own judgment. One will see that in time he will develop the real thing, because in him is the light of God and it will never misguide him.
Once I was with a sage whom many people went to see. He pleased them all, and he was not fond of disputing or discussing, because to a sage there is nothing to discuss. Discussion is for those who say, 'What I say is right, and what you say is wrong.' A sage never says such a thing; hence there is no discussion. But the world is always fighting and discussing and disputing.
Many would come and try to dispute with him, but he did his best to avoid dispute. I was very fond of listening to his way of dealing with inquirers. My friends wanted to discuss what the ideal life is. He said, 'Whatever you think it is.' But my friends were not satisfied with this. They wanted a discussion. They answered, 'Do you think this worldly life, with so many responsibilities, with strife from morning to evening, can be the ideal life?' He said, 'Yes.' They asked, 'Do you not think that the life you lead, retirement and seclusion, is the ideal life?' He answered, 'Yes.' They said, 'But how can we give up our present life, our responsibilities to our children, our occupations, and all these things that take up so much time. How can we leave that life in order to follow your ideal life?' He said, 'Do not leave it.' They went on, 'But, if we do not leave it, how can we get on in the spiritual life?' Then the sage asked, 'What do you mean by the spiritual life?' 'We mean by spiritual life a life like yours,' they answered. He said, 'If you think my life is a spiritual life, be like me. If you think your life is a spiritual life, keep to it. It is not possible to say which life is best. If you think your worldly strife brings you happiness, just keep to it. If you think my life gives you happiness, give up your own. Whatever makes you happy and makes you think you are doing right, do it from that moment, and see what the result is. If it gives you more happiness, go on regardless of what others say. If it gives you happiness, if you are satisfied while doing it, while reaping its effect, then it is all right. Go on with it, and you will always be blessed.'
Therefore, when the question of the ideal life arises, no one on earth can tell us that this or that particular way is the ideal. The one who presumes to know this says absurd things. He only tells us what he thinks is the ideal; it is not necessarily the ideal for us. Whatever we think best, we should follow it; for then we are on the right path, in whatever direction it may lead, whether to heaven or to earth; both will lead to the same goal if pursued to the end.