Austerity and Enlightenment

“There’s no advantage in making a mood about abstemiousness or making a mood about non-attachment to material possessions, attempting to fake it till you make it by pretending to be someone who leans towards celibacy or pretending to be someone who leans towards the discomforts of an abstemious life, indeed, perhaps even an impoverished life.”

Thom Knoles

As humans, we often draw conclusions based on observations. However, these observations can frequently lead us down the wrong path. 

Take, for instance, the assumption that wisdom or enlightenment demands an austere or stoic life. This belief stems from centuries of observing monastics and ascetics, who have traditionally been custodians of wisdom.

This can lead people to think either, a) that they must lead an austere life to become enlightened, or b) that enlightenment is out of reach for them because they can’t imagine themselves leading an austere life. 

Thom sets the record straight in this episode, exploring the history of the custodians of Vedic wisdom, and the origin story that led to this misunderstanding, at least with respect to Vedic knowledge.

It will come as a relief to many and put enlightenment back within reach of those who might think it’s beyond their scope in this lifetime. 

Thom also shares the technique that we can all use to accelerate the process.

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Episode Highlights


False Assumptions about Enlightenment and Monastic Living



Living a Tasteful Life in Enlightenment



Origin of the Misconception



Shukadeva’s Vision



Geography’s Role in India’s Civilization



Shukadeva’s Foresight



Emergence of Monastic Orders



Colonization and the Monastic Tradition



Buddha’s Pursuit of Enlightenment



Transitioning from Monastic to Householder Enlightenment



Maharishi’s 200 Percent Joys of Life



We Cannot Gain Enlightenment by Suffering More


Jai Guru Deva


Austerity and Enlightenment

[00:45] False Assumptions about Enlightenment and Monastic Living

It is a very interesting misconception in the public that in order to gain a state of enlightenment, one has to be virtually monastic, or to be someone who is not in possession of material goods, or indeed even relationships, perhaps be abstemious with regard to relating to people, to live a life of virtual seclusion, or at the very least to live a life where you’re not surrounded by any kind of luxury or any kind of opulence, and that, this is what it looks like to be enlightened.

You’re virtually a monk. If not a monk in terms of relationships, then you’re very abstemious in your life.

And I’d like to shine some light on, first of all, why is it that people think that way? And interestingly, it comes from a set of false assumptions made by observing traditions like the tradition from which I come.

Right now, as I sit here in my sky island mountain perch in far north Arizona, for those of you who think in meters, the local mountain that I’m looking at is 4,000 meters in altitude, and in Europe, trees don’t grow anywhere near that height, but here forests grow all the way up to nearly 4,000 meters, 13,000 feet of elevation. The air is thin and crisp, and it’s a beautiful sunny day in the middle of a notoriously hot summer, but where I am, the atmosphere is cool because the mountains lift me so high.

[02:46] Living a Tasteful Life in Enlightenment

So people hearing that I live up in the mountains might think that I’m also sitting here, having only had, what, some nuts and things for the last five days, and that I’m someone who abstains from worldly pleasures.

And in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Though I don’t live a life of extraordinary luxury or the kind of ostentatious opulence, I do lead a tasteful life, and I enjoy natural beauty, as expressed in having fine things and being surrounded by fine things. 

Where did people come up with this idea that in order to be a great yogi; a yogi is someone whose consciousness is permanently established in that, at that point of connection of Yoga.

Yoga, forget about the physical exercises and the lycra and the spandex and the coffees and things. Yoga is a consciousness state attained to by anyone who meditates. It’s that state where the mind is established in Being with eyes open. We practice Vedic Meditation twice a day. We close our eyes, and we settle beyond all of the dis-tractions of daily life into the a-ttraction of the quiet inner state of Being.

After we go beyond the finest state of thinking, consciously, we experience that place where the inner unbounded cosmic status is in interaction with the individuality, where individuality and cosmic status meet. This layer has many names, and one of those names is Yoga. It’s the union state. The state of union is where we get our English word yoke.

[04:51] Origin of the Misconception

The yoke is that that connects the beast of burden with the cart. Yoke comes from the Sanskrit word yog, which is Yoga. The union state, the state of unity.

And that in order to arrive in that state of unity, somehow you’ll do it better if all you did was eat nuts that week, or you had a car that broke down all the time whenever you drove it, or you had a leaky roof on your shack up in the mountains, that this is going to be a better condition for experiencing Yoga.

So why is it that people have this kind of thinking? It has to do with a changing of the guard that happened in India thousands of years back.

For the first many thousand years of the existence of a formal passing of this knowledge from person to person, it was passed from parents to their children, from householders, meaning people who have homes, who have possessions, who have relationships, householder, to the children of the householder, who grew up under the umbrella of this body of knowledge, of this wisdom.

And this went on in generation after generation, after generation, after generation, until one particular child of a great master, this child was known as Shuka. Shuka, who later became called Shukadeva, the Divine Shuka was the son of Veda Vyasa. Vyasa of enlightened vision.

[06:36] Shukadeva’s Vision

Vyasa who wrote fully three-quarters of everything we know to be the Vedic knowledge, the 18 Puranas, the Mahabharata, the Brahma Sutras, and so on and so on. The famous Bhagavad Gita, these were all authored by Vyasa.

And now we’re talking about the son of Vyasa, Shukadeva. Rishi Shukadeva, when he became a seer, after having lived a householder life for a period of time, had a cognition. And to understand this cognition, we need to understand something of the geography of India.

India in those days was known as Bharata, but that final a is usually dropped Bharat, B-H-A-R-A-T, Bharat . Bharata, as a subcontinent of Asia, was isolated by two things: one, the umbrella of the Himalayan mountain range that stretched from east to west 4,000 miles, virtually blocking off the rest of Asia from what we know today as India, Bharata.

And these mountains, as probably many of you remember from kindergarten geology, the highest mountains on earth. Not only are they many thousands of miles from east to west, west to east, but also nearly a thousand miles wide, thick, in terms of north to south, and to get an army or even a culture or even an individual person to cross those mountains to get into India from the north.

The other thing that protected India was its coastline, and for thousands of years, India has thousands of miles of coastline. So mountains to the north, coastline on the west, on the south, and on the east. And shipping had not yet fully developed.

[08:45] Geography’s Role in India’s Civilization

So, what we have here is a cradle of civilization that was free of invasions for millennia. And this allowed the civilization to prosper and grow with minimal interruption to its growth, where the specialties could be engaged, in once agriculture had taken hold, and people didn’t have to forage and fossick and hunt and gather in order to survive, once agriculture was in place food supplies were all but guaranteed and this allowed people to dive into specialties.

Somebody who was a wheelwright, someone who knew how to make wheels, could really specialize in making wheels because they didn’t have to go hunting for food every day. Food was provided by the agriculturalists, and so they became really, really very good at making wheels.

Someone who specialized in philosophy had hours per day to dive into philosophical pursuits, intellectual discrimination and discernment and observation of the natural world around them in order to build a capacity as a philosopher. The philosopher didn’t have to go and hunt and gather in order merely to survive.

And so the point is that all the specialties in the arts and culture and the sciences became very powerfully developed in the Vedic civilization.

And then eventually, there was one particular cultural group north of the Himalayas, the Mongols, who found their way through the Khyber Pass near Afghanistan, modern-day Afghanistan, made their way through a pass and were able to bring an army south into India.

[10:40] Shukadeva’s Foresight

And a few hundred years before that time, Shukadeva, the Rishi, the son of Vyasa, cognized and foretold this event. He also was able to foresee that when invaders finally did make their way into the subcontinent, the first people they would go after would be the householders who had knowledge: the children, the women and the men of those families who were known to be the holders of knowledge would be the first ones to be sought out and either incarcerated or ridiculed or made silent.

Because one of the things that you do when you seek to colonize a country is to silence the wisdom givers, to silence those who are respected by the population. Shukadeva could see this coming.

And so it was he who decided that there should be something akin to, to use computer language, a backup disc created, a group of people who could maintain the knowledge, but who didn’t live in obvious places, didn’t live in homes and cities and towns and villages, who were not well-known.

He began to recruit people who were ascetics, people who by nature, and there’s usually less than 1 percent of the population of the world who are, by nature, hermits. They’re, by nature, non-social beings. They’re not anti-social per se, but they’re certainly not known for their desire to be around others, people whose nature makes them want to have solitude, blessed solitude, and to them, it’s the only blessedness.

[12:40] Emergence of Monastic Orders

And to gather these people together in different groups and train them in the Vedic knowledge, and then to place them in certain settings, academies of learning that were far away from gold mines, silver mines, and diamond mines, far away from cities, far away from the comforts of civilization, and for there to be a general rule that to qualify to be in this place, one naturally had to have a leaning towards celibacy.

That is to say, a disinclination toward relating to others and an inclination toward solitude. And so this was the first creation of the monastic orders, and Shukadeva himself graduated in the older time of his life from being a householder to being a celibate monk. This happened arguably four and a half thousand years ago.

After Shukadeva came the invasions, and the invasions into India were very effective, leaving behind only those masters who lived in these reclusive, secluded places that were of no interest to the invaders, who lived in these places where a jungle or a high mountain range or some other place that was of no interest to the invading colonists and the tradition then began to move not from parent to child but from celibate teacher to celibate disciple, celibate teacher to celibate disciple to celibate disciple like that, became the norm for the next few thousand years, and people who wanted to gain enlightenment had to march off into the high mountains or into the thick forests and find one of these secluded, solitude-favoring, celibate monks to teach them.

[14:50] Colonization and the Monastic Tradition

And, it was seeing that the highest state of enlightenment, which once upon a time could be possessed by any great master of knowledge, whether they had children, families, homes, and possessions, and all of that, or didn’t. Once upon a time, anyone who had a sincere enough interest in Vedic knowledge could gain complete enlightenment.

But now, there were no examples of these. They were all removed by the cruel process of colonization by invader cultures, leaving behind only the reclusive monks who were the backup disc for the Vedic knowledge, who passed it from heart to heart, from master to disciple over thousands of years. This went on right up to the modern day.

Our Guru Deva, Guru Deva is the name that is given to one’s master’s master. His real name was Swami Brahmananda Saraswati. Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, Guru Deva as we call him, Shri Guru Deva. Shri is an honorific title. Guru Deva was the master of my master, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Guru Deva had hundreds of monastic celibate disciples. He himself spent two stints, two stints in the forest. His first was 10 years in complete seclusion in the jungles of central India. His second was another 40 years of silence living in the forests, the temperate rain forests of Northwestern India.

[16:38] Buddha’s Pursuit of Enlightenment

Before he came out of his seclusion and acceded to requests to become very visibly the “King of the Yogis,” the master of all the masters, the undisputed preeminent one, and he continued to teach and so even he was a reclusive, celibate, someone who lived a life that most of us would consider impossible to live. A life relying only upon whatever products the forest could provide in order for you to live, and so then, this kind of tendency in India and it spread elsewhere, to Burma, to further east, to the west as far as Afghanistan.

The Buddha, as the Shakya Muni became known, Shakya Muni, the sage, the Muni, sage or saint, of the Shakya clan, the royal family of North India, near the border of Nepal.

He produced a crown prince, a son, who in his twenties, left behind a wife and a child, went off into the forests to gain enlightenment, and became known as the Shakya Muni, the sage of the Shakya clan, later on described as the Buddha, the master of the intellect, Buddha.

And he, too, gave the impression that the ease with which one could gain enlightenment would be greater if one lived an extraordinarily simple life, indeed even a life of implicit celibacy. So this is the impression that we’ve received.

[18:29] Transitioning from Monastic to Householder Enlightenment

However, this is not the origin of our tradition. The origin of our tradition is in fully-fledged householders, many of them the advisors and wise and trusted counselors, even to the queens and kings of ancient India, who were provided with beautiful homes and apartments in which to live in palaces and the great cities of ancient India.

Many of the Rishis, masters of our tradition, are among that particular set, and the reclusive tradition only came later. During Guru Deva’s lifetime, he expressed on many occasions that it was high time, now that India had cast off the colonialism of the British Empire, now that his tenure as the King of the Yogis spanned that period of time when that shuffling off of colonialism, took place in Bharat, in India.

The desire that he expressed was that it was high time for householders, once again, to become the great inspiration that once they were, the great expression of enlightenment, that one did not need to be a celibate monk or someone who led an abstemious life in order to be enlightened.

It turns out that the abstemious life was a preference that these people had prior to them becoming spiritual seekers. They found themselves wanting to be hermits before they ever became infected, as it were, with the desire to gain enlightenment. And so hermit-like people naturally were attracted to hermit-like settings, and that’s all there was for so many years.

[20:32] Maharishi’s 200 Percent Joys of Life

Now we have made a change, and one of the things that my master Maharishi Mahesh Yogi did, himself a celibate monk, was to make that transition from the enlightened state being solely in the possession of monastic people to the enlightenment state once again becoming a natural product of a life lived with 100 percent joys of the relative world and one could add to that 100 percent joy of spiritual life.

This is the formula that Maharishi espoused very early in his career as 200 percent all joys of life, both worldly and divine.

So there’s no advantage in making a mood about abstemiousness or making a mood about non-attachment to material possessions, making a mood about, “I don’t particularly need to be in a relationship.” In other words, attempting to fake it till you make it by pretending to be someone who leans towards celibacy or pretending to be someone who leans towards the discomforts of an abstemious life, indeed, perhaps even an impoverished life.

[21:58] We Cannot Gain Enlightenment by Suffering More

We cannot gain enlightenment faster by suffering more. For someone who, by nature, is a celibate monastic, a hermit kind of person, it would be suffering for them to artificially engage in relationships and to be surrounded by ephemeral things like material possessions.

For someone who is in the other 99.9 percent of the population, who naturally leans into relationships, family, and then, of course, the comforts that append to these things, it would be suffering to pretend not to want any of that, if one was doing so purely for the sake of somehow, getting a shortcut to enlightenment.

There’s no shortcut to enlightenment through engaging in pretense or trying to live the dharma, D-H-A-R-M-A, you remember? Dharma means one’s personal role in the evolution of everything. That’s dharma.

To live the life, the dharma that is naturally yours will spontaneously occur when you practice Vedic Meditation twice every day on a regular basis. You’ll discover your dharma.

And so for those whose dharma it is to be secluded and in solitude and not bothered by material possessions, they’re going to discover this if they practice Vedic Meditation twice a day. But don’t be surprised if it continues to be far less than 1 percent of the entire population.

Surely 99 plus percent of all people, when they learn Vedic Meditation, will find that the joys of life, the joys of earning capacity, the joys of relationships only ever increase, not decrease. Life should be lived in this 200 percent mentality: 100 percent of the inner spiritual provided by our meditation technique, and 100 percent of the outer, that is in full acceptance of deserving the best.

Jai Guru Deva. 

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