[This is a transcript of recording #7202 from “Practical Spiritual Attitudes” by Swami Veda Bharati (1980) Transcription by Michael Smith. An mp3 audio can be downloaded at this link: Compassion Practical Spiritual Attitudes 7202.zip. In 1980, Swami Veda was Pandit Usharbudh Arya.]
The Sanskrit word for compassion is karuṇā,1 which implies doing something.
Compassion is not a passive quality or a passive attitude, but an attitude that implies some act. Compassion is not pity, which comes from a superiority complex. Compassion is not sympathy. In sympathy, you see someone crying – you also cry; in compassion, when you see someone crying, you give him your joy. In sympathy, you take someone’s sorrow; in compassion you give someone your joy. The great beings, the incarnate beings, the great avataras (the Buddhas and the Christs) and the masters are not sympathetic beings, but compassionate beings. As I said, the word karuṇā implies doing something. When they feel that compassion, they go out and do something to remove that suffering.
In yoga philosophy there is a word for the Four Right Attitudes that one is asked to cultivate. And in the Yoga-sutras of Patāñjali, which is the bible of the yogis, these Four Right Attitudes are described.2 One must cultivate the Four Right Attitudes. There are called, in Sanskrit: maitrī, karuṇā, muditā and upekṣhā.
Maitrī: friendship and love towards those who are happy.
Karuṇā: compassion to those who are in any kind of suffering.
Muditā: joyfulness, happiness, a feeling of gratification, to see others being virtuous and making spiritual progress; to feel joyful at seeing someone do an act of love, an act of compassion, devote oneself to higher principles, see someone moving towards the sublime.
Upekṣhā: indifference towards evil, much in the same sense that Jesus said, “Resist ye not evil.”3
These are the Four Right Attitudes that are enjoined upon us to cultivate, to develop. The collective title for these four attitudes in Sanskrit is Brahma-vihāra, which means “frolicking in God.”
There are all kinds of questions one can raise about the quality and attitude of compassion. People say, “Well, I just don’t want to suffer. If somebody suffers, that his problem. We see [nowadays], more and more, of this attitude articulated and practiced. “I don’t want to get involved.” “I don’t want to be bothered.” “I don’t want to intrude.” “It’s too much trouble.” You’re living in an apartment, and someone picks up a child in anger and smashes him against the wall. You hear it happening and do nothing. “It’s not my business,” you say. “I do my morning meditations.” Excuse me, but to hell with that meditation if it teaches you such a withdrawal; it is of no consequence – it’s a sickness.
Compassion is a quality that we cultivate constantly. It requires initially taking trouble, but later, on it doubles your joy. Anyone who has practiced compassion and has done those acts of compassion has a far greater feeling of gratification than one who just sits by and watches the world suffer.
Compassion may be understood on two different levels. One is the level in which you understand and share ordinary human suffering. That human suffering can be of many kinds. Someone is hungry. You know what hunger is like, so you help. Even if you don’t know what hunger is like, you help – someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and so on. And the compassionate beings have the subtlest and the most permanent kind of joy in life – because that joy is not dependent on somebody coming and giving you something which is not in your hands, but a joy in which you go out and give somebody else something. In the first kind of joy that people derive from people coming and giving you something, you are not free; there is no freedom – you are dependent on somebody else’s whim. You keep expecting, and you keep getting frustrated. Well, that is one way of deriving joy – sitting there waiting for someone to give you something. It’s a hit-and-miss thing. You never know if you’re going to get it or you’re not going to get it. There’s nothing certain about it, and you sit there on tinder hooks just waiting: “Will he?” “Will he not?” “Will she?” “Will she not?” If he doesn’t, if she doesn’t, you’re down in the dumps.
But then, you have the other kind of joy in which you’re not dependent on anybody. You go out and give, and by that fact you derive a joy, you derive a satisfaction, you derive a gratification. That is the joy of freedom – irrespective on any response, irrespective of any thanks, irrespective of any gratitude.
I was saying that on the human level there are many different kinds of suffering towards which you exhibit and practice compassion: Ordinary physical suffering, which is quite manifest. There are many hungry, and many sick, and many orphans. But there is compassion towards another kind of suffering, which is very difficult to practice – and that compassion is towards what in the Yoga philosophy is called the kleśhas. The word kleśha refers to a pain of mind which is synonymous with an impurity of mind, a stain in the mind. We all have stained minds – stained with pride, stained with egotistical thoughts, stained with selfishness, stained with cruelty, viciousness and malice, gossip, stained with anger. It is very easy to satisfy the hunger of a hungry man out of compassion. It is very difficult to pacify the anger of an angry man out of compassion – because our ordinary response to anger is always anger.
We must understand that these kleśhas – the pains and stains of the mind as synonymous – the things that you call evil or sinful, or unvirtuous or unmeritorious, or antisocial – take whatever terminology you like; the labels don’t matter – whether it’s a “sin” or an “antisocial behavior,” it amounts to the same thing – or whether it’s a “psychological disturbance,” it’s the same thing.
So, to consider someone’s anger also to be a pain and to treat it in the same way in which you would treat somebody’s hunger is very difficult. A hungry man cries and shouts at you to have you satisfy his hunger. We do not realize that the angry man cries and shouts at you, not that you may shout back, but just as Jesus said, “Which of you, if your son asked for bread, would give him a stone to eat.”4 If you meet someone who is angry, would you give him pacification, or would you give him more anger? Treat an angry man the same way in which you would treat a hungry man. That is called compassion.
To learn the art of pacifying someone’s anger is compassion. Hunger cries for bread. Anger cries for soothing. Most of us have a gross sense of compassion: to give bread to the hungry. But we don’t have the finer sense of compassion: to give soothing to the angry. Because anger, too, is a pain of mind.
So, this subtler compassion we often fail to develop. Some would like to consider forgiveness as a part of this compassion, but “compassion,” I believe, is a much wider, more all-embracing term. As you refine you own mind, your perception of other people’s painful behavior changes. Your perception of their destructive behavior changes, and then you act out of compassion, not to change someone’s behavior, but to change the feeling, to change the sentiment, to replace their sentiment with a more positive sentiment.
This is on a human level. But when we come to the level of the great masters, the incarnate beings, the spirit beings, the celestial beings, the angelic beings, the great masters – Jesus and the Christs and the Buddhas of the world – then we have an even more enhanced view of compassion.
There is a figure in Tibetan Buddhism. One of the five major Buddhas or the enlightened figures that they honor and venerate, is called Avalokiteśhvara. Avalokiteśhvara simply means “the Lord looking down.” Not looking down upon us, but looking down at us in compassion. It is very much like the figure of a mother standing over the crib of a sick child who is asleep. The great beings, of whose existence we are hardly aware of – in the same way that a sick infant who is sleeping is not aware of the mother’s existence, whom we hardly ever give thought to except when we want to get picked up and nursed on a breast – yet they stand there and often reach down to help.
There is a vow that a Bodhisattva has to take. The word bodhisattva means “a potential Buddha, a potential Christlike being, someone who has taken the vow to reach that goal of enlightenment at the end of his journey. And the moment a person rises to that status, he takes a special vow. Ordinarily we are all going on in the world, but there comes a time when we come what the Buddhists call the sotāpanna, “the stream-entered ones”5 – that we have entered the main stream of spirituality and have started flowing with the current of the divine will. But you have to flow a long way before your mind is truly made up – truly made up! It doesn’t mean that you say, “Yeah, yeah! That’s what I would like to do. Yeah, I think I’ll try it for the next six weeks” and you give up in six days. No, when your mind is truly made up, you have made your decision for life, after life, after life – not just for the next one year. Not for just three years. Not just for the duration of your stay in Minneapolis because there is a nice center here. “Oh, I’m sorry, I fell away from doing my practices because I moved out of Minneapolis.” No, none of that. “I have a job offer. It is very lucrative, Dr. Arya, but I’m afraid to move from here because there’s a nice center here and it keeps me inspired.” I appreciate that appreciation of the Center but, my friend, it’s a weakness. Be self-inspired. Wherever you are – in the middle of a desert. So, not that kind of a decision, but a decision that you know will continue – you may accept reincarnation or not, but from my point of view – from incarnation to incarnation to incarnation, until my goal of enlightenment is reached. At that point he becomes a potential Buddha, there’s no turning back, he takes a vow.
“When I take this vow, I declare to all the past Buddhas, to all those who have become enlightened, and I declare to all the living beings in this universe – I shall not desist,
I shall not step back, I shall not be discouraged, I shall not break this promise and this declaration – even if my body is to be burned in a million fires – I shall not move from this path.”
And the vow of the Bodhisattva is:
“I shall work for the removal of pain from all living beings. The purpose of my enlightenment is to come to the place where I have the power, the strength, the capacity, to remove their pain, to take their pain upon myself — that I shall not enter the final Nirvana, the ultimate abode joy or whatever, till all the living beings have been liberated from their ignorance and from their pain.”
This is the Vow of a Bodhisattva, the vow of a potential Buddha. And it is for this reason, it is said, that they continue to come back, continue to be reborn, continue to incarnate – or leave their Himalayan abodes and come down into the world, and help and guide, irrespective of whether we respect them or wish them to perish. This is called compassion.
There are all kinds of stories of compassion. And I’m just going to tell you one story of compassion at all the different little levels. There is compassion at ordinary human levels, which many of us are capable of practicing. A mother practices that compassion towards an infant. And if you were to go to a planet – to a “brave new world,” as per Aldous Huxley,6 where babies are incubated, it would be unbelievable for the people there to experience, to believe, to accept, to understand, to grasp, to comprehend even the slightest idea of what “mother” is. So, also, for us – it is incomprehensible as to what a master is! Because we, too, are living in a “brave new world” where such compassion is not experienced.
It is a kind of compassion which gives a blessing even to an assassin. There is a story of a great swami who was born in the last century. He was a great reformer and, as you know, reformers are never popular in at least some segments of society. He was a compassionate person, but very critical of the ills of the society that he was trying to reform. And, you know, the vested interests always try to do something to you to stop you. If they can’t buy you, then they threaten you, and if the threat doesn’t work, they actually carry out the threat. So, finally they bribed his cook, who poisoned the swami, to get rid of him. You see, the orthodox never understand that reforms cannot be kept back by assassination. The oppressors never understand that the people will rise irrespective of any oppression you visit on them. The conquerors never understand that the conquests are all futile. So, the reforms that that swami instituted really raised his country out of a mire of what was regarded as the dark ages. But, anyway, at that moment, at that time, they managed to poison him, and there was no antidote. And he found out that it was his cook who had been bribed. He called his cook to him and said, “You have been found out, and my followers are going to be very unhappy with you. Now, you served me for many years. Here are bills of 500 rupees. Take them tonight and run and go get out of the country before the police catch you.”
The man is all in tears. Okay, so let’s say you don’t do this; you hand him to the police. What good does it do? What does it create? What does it do for you? And what does it do for him? But that moment, when the Swami takes out the 500 rupees and hands it to him and says, “Run,” all the repentance comes flowing out. The tears purify him – purifies him! The swami dies, and the cook went, and he was safe. You see, you cannot do such an act without a quality of compassion – that all the so-called evil acts in themselves are painful.
There is a story by the famous French author, Voltaire. I don’t recall it exactly as it was written, but the gist of the story is that there was at one time a thief, a rogue, a robber, a murderer who spent his whole life torturing people and destroying their lives, and killing and stealing and robbing. And upon his death, the messengers of the powers-that-be came, and the judgement was passed: “You go to hell!” “Have I not been enough of a hell already? Is there another hell now?” Do you follow. One who understands an evil act as a painful act is compassionate – and tries to pull the person out of his evil, tries to pull the person out of his spiritual failure and his psychological suffering.
Comment: It is the same thing with Christ when they were crucifying him, he said….
Yes, “Forgive them for they know not, they know not, what they do.”7 It is their ignorance, and the need to pull them out of their ignorance.
Question: Did Gandhi also bless the person who shot him?
Gandhi had no time to say anything. When he was shot, his mantra was “Ram,” and the mantra “Ram” came out of his mouth. When he was shot: “Ram! Ram!” and he could not say anything more. But I know that if he had any life left or words of power, he would have given forgiveness – no question about it. Most people do not know that the man who shot Gandhi, before doing so, bowed to him, because he, too, did it out of his own genuine conviction, but he respected the man. It’s a question of a whole long history of Indian national politics. I don’t need to go into that. It was a very bad time for that country. There was a question in the mind of the people between pacification and, you know, every country has its own problems, and you know – “We have all these enemies out there. And who is this man, practicing pacification when we should be strong and powerful and have a big army,” you know – and so on and so forth. “Teach them a lesson!” It’s the same everywhere.
I don’t know if I have ever told you the story of Rantideva. It’s a half mythological story of a very ancient king whose name was Rantideva.
King Rantideva had practiced love, compassion, charity all his life. If anyone came asking, he never refused. There was no blemish on his character. So when he died, the story goes, the messengers of heaven came and said, “Well, Rantideva, the king of paradise waits for you. Now let’s see, you have been almost perfect, but there have been one or two failures” – as is in the life of any human being – “there have been just one or two failures. And our orders are that when we take you to heaven from this earth, we have to take a detour so that you pass by outside the boundaries of hell — just pass by, outside the boundaries of hell, and then continue on to heaven.” He said, “Alright!”
So, King Rantideva is taken to heaven by way of hell, and as he reaches outside the boundaries of hell, he hears the cries of the denizens of hell – all in great pain and agony and suffering – all the infernal tortures. (They are described in Indian literature almost exactly as they are described by Dante; a thousand years ago, fifteen hundred years ago, two thousand years ago, they wrote the same exact thing.)
“King! Stay! Your reputation has come even all this way as a kind, compassionate, loving being. The very hot winds that flow out from hell, come and touch your merit-purified body and return as cool breezes. Just for a moment they reduce our agony. King, stay!”
So King Rantideva says to the messengers of heaven, “I cannot go with you. I have to stay. It has always been my vow to help, to take upon myself the suffering of others. You all agree that it is a good thing; otherwise you would not invite me, after my mortal death, to come to heaven. I must remain here. You can all go.”
“O King, you can’t do that. You are breaking all the laws of karma! The whole universe is one time. If the laws of karma are broken, everything goes topsy-turvy, and upside down. The sun will not rise in the right place tomorrow. All the orbits of the planets will be disturbed. Do you know what you are saying? Your karma is to come with us to heaven. We can’t let you stay here.”
The King says, “But my karma is to stay here and help these people. If my presence cools the breezes of hell, I must stay.”
“No, King, that’s not allowed. They are suffering for their bad acts. Come to paradise and enjoy your life there because of your good acts.”
“Is there nothing I can do?”
“No, King. I’m afraid not. No, your karma time is over. You don’t have a mortal body anymore to do those acts with.”
He says, “Well, if that is the case, I stand here and declare that all my good karma which entitles me to paradise, all the good karma that qualifies me for heaven, I hereby take, and with a great act of will and concentration, I hereby donate it to all the denizens of hell so that, through this good karma given to them, their miseries may be reduced – that, through the results of these good acts that I have conferred upon them, their miseries may be reduced, I hereby give. So, now I have no more good karma. I have given it all away. So, goodbye!”
The messengers of heaven said, “Do you know what you have done, King?”
“What? What have I done?”
“You don’t know what you have done?”
“No, I don’t. I have given my good karma away, so you have to go now. I don’t have any more good karma left.”
“No, by this act of charity you have doubled your good karma. Now come along. You have to stay in paradise twice as long.”
He said, “I do not seek kingdoms. I do not seek wealth or pleasures or even an empire extending over the entire universe. I do not seek even the termination of the cycles of reincarnation, nor do I seek paradise or liberation. Lord, if you were grant me a prayer, may the suffering of all living beings accrue to me so that they may be freed of their suffering.”
It’s a very ancient prayer.
One of the verses in India with which Hindus end their prayer liturgies in the churches is:
“May the wicked become good.
May the good attain peace.
May those at peace be liberated.
May the liberated ones liberate others.”
So, the purpose of our aspiration to enlightenment is to have the strength, the power, the capacity to carry greater responsibility. Because if you, yourself are in bondage and ignorance, you are no good to anybody. You will answer anger with anger, and you will keep on adding to the suffering of the world.
There is the story of a king who called his priest to him to read the scriptures.8 There is a tradition in India where priests are called to your home to read the scriptures, and sometimes these readings go on for a week, two weeks, months – a year! It would be like if you were to ask a priest to come to your home and read the whole Bible to your family and recite it to the neighbors from beginning to end. It’s done with great fanfare and song and ceremony and feasting and so forth.
Now the story about this particular text is that it was originally taught by a great sage to another king, way in the past. And it is said that by the time the sage finished teaching this scripture to the king, in seven days’ time, the king was liberated by listening to this scripture.
So now this king asks his priest to come and read him the scripture slowly, every day. And a week passes, two weeks pass, a month passes and two months pass. And then [the king] says to his priest, “But Sir, you read this scripture to me for two months, three months, six months, almost a year. And you have been saying, according to the scriptures, that when this was taught by the sage Vyasa to King Janamejaya, that within one week, King Janamejaya was liberated. Now, reverend Sir, you have to tell my why, when you read the scriptures to me for such a long time – much, much, much longer than the original one week – why am I not liberated?”
So, the priest said, “Well, King, you have to give me some time to think of an answer.”
“Alright! How much time do you want?”
“Well, how about three days?”
“Okay, you have three days. And if you don’t come up with an answer, off with your head!”
“So the priest goes home, and he doesn’t eat and he doesn’t drink, and when his wife asks him questions, he grunts. His children come and try to sit in his lap, and he brushes them off. “Something is bothering, poor Daddy?”
So, one day, two days pass, and on the third day his eldest daughter – who was yet a little child, but who was precocious in wisdom – really, really insists: “Father, Father, you’ve got to tell me! You’ve got to tell us! Come on, come on. Tell me, Daddy, what’s wrong? What’s bothering you?”
“You wouldn’t understand. You’re just a little child. Leave me alone.”
“No, no, Father. Tell me, tell me.”
So, the father tells her the story. “And this is what happened, and the King wants an answer by tomorrow morning. I can’t think of an answer to the King’s question, so when tomorrow comes, your mother is not going to have a husband, and you are not going to have a father.”
So, the girl says, “Father, take me to the king, will you?”
“Take you to the king?”
“Yes! I’ll tackle him.”
“How will you tackle him. Here I am, a great man, a learned priest, a wise man, a philosopher, the court philosopher of the country, and I can’t answer the question. And you’re going to answer the question?! Okay, tell me the answer.”
“No, no, no, I’m not telling you the answer.”
So, she insists, and the poor father, having no other resorts, takes his little girl along to the court. And the king sees the little child and picks her up and plays with the child, and so on and so forth. And then, after a little while, the child starts to cry, and king says, “What’s the matter?”
“Oh, I’m bored. I want to play an interesting game.”
The king says, “Yes?”
“But I don’t want to play my interesting game in front of all these courtiers here. Send them all away.”
“Alright! Court dismissed! Go on! Everybody go home – holiday!” And they start to go home.
“No, you have to save one or two persons – one person. Keep one person back.”
“Okay! What’s the game now?”
She says, “Well, I want you to stand over there by that post.”
The king says, “Alright.”
“And now I want to tie you around the post.”
Alright, so it’s a child’s play, you know. The king is game, and so he allows himself to be tied to the post. And so. he stands there tied, and he’s squirming.
“Now, have your courtier tie me to this other post.”
So, the child stands by the other post, and the courtier comes and ties the child around the post. And the child says, “Now send him away. Tell him to go home.”
So, the king says, “Okay, you go home.”
And now, both of them are standing there tied up. And after a few minutes, when the child is sure that the man who tied them up has really gone far, she starts squirming, and she starts crying, and she starts complaining. “Untie me, King! King! Untie me! Won’t you untie me, please/ These ropes are hurting me.”
The king says, “How can I untie you? I’m tied up myself.”
“You mean you can’t untie me while you yourself are tied up?”
“Well, no! Don’t you know, you silly child, what you have done?”
“That original sage, who taught that original scripture to that original king for seven days – the king was liberated because the teacher himself was a liberated being. My father is just an ordinary man. A philosopher he might be, but he isn’t liberated yet. So how can his reading a scripture to you, liberate you in seven days?”
So, you have to be above the ordinary pains in the world and have that wisdom, that freedom, that mastery before you can go out and really do true and high compassionate deeds in the world. In the meantime, you do what you can. You start your social service, and you give to charity, and you do your philanthropy, but remember that quite often they become acts of ego. Alright?
You start with the little compassion towards the hungry. Then you move on towards compassion towards the angry – a person’s mental suffering – and then you move on to the higher compassion, which includes the entire universe towards which you are compassionate.
Once upon a time in Hindu mythology, the king of paradise, named Indra, was sitting and enjoying himself with song and dance. And as he was sitting there on his throne, his glance fell down to this planet Earth, and he said, “My! Look where I am. And look at that hog in the mud down there – wallowing in mud.”
So King Indra, the king of paradise, sent prayer to the Lord, the Creator, and said, “Lord, why did you put me up here, and then put that hog down there to wallow in the mud? Why did you do that? What kind of existence is that down there? You are the creator of that?!”
And the Lord said, “My dear King Indra, where you are, you think you are enjoying some pleasures?”
India says, “Yes. Sure! It was very kind of you to put me here. I have a very happy life indeed.”
“So, would you like to leave these pleasures?”
“You see, I want you to know that that hog, wallowing in the mud, is also enjoying his pleasure, and ask him if he wants to leave that mud.”
Indra says, “Who would want to wallow in that mud?”
“Alright, from this moment on, Indra, you are a hog. Go down there.”
And Indra, the King of Paradise, came tumbling down right into the same mud pool on Earth as the hog he saw, and now he’s a hog!
And he lies down. “Ah! This wonderful mud here!” And he wallows in the mud and enjoys himself, and he forgets that he is King of Paradise.
But the celestial sage, Narada, comes, and the Creator Lord whispers to him, “Look! You are Indra’s guru. Look what’s happening to him!”
The celestial sage, Narada, comes down to Earth and says, “Hey, Hog! I’ll make you a human being.”
The hog says, “What?! What kind of existence is that? You come down here and join me in the mud.”
“I’ll make you King of Paradise,” says Narada.
“Ugh! There’s nothing like this mud. Come on in!”
And so the great sage, the guru Narada, has to say all kinds of prayers for that hog’s soul.
And still, Indra the hog doesn’t want to be liberated. He struggles and he resists. “Who are you to try to take me away from this lovely, enjoyable mud pool? Look at this hot, sunny day. I’m having fun!
You see? But poor great sage Narada, out of his compassion, does everything possible – this is a long story cut short – and finally, willy-nilly, the hog is transformed back into his real station, sitting on his throne as Indra. And that other hog is still wallowing in mud.
So this is the ultimate compassion.
1 Quoting several commentators on the Yoga-sutras, Swami Veda has written: “Karuṇā compassion, is the desire to remove the pain of others as if it were one’s own, with the constant thought as to how their pain may be reduced or removed. This must be an unconditional sentiment toward friend or foe. This prevents the desire to hurt others and the pride that develops at seeing oneself comfortable while others are in suffering. When fully cultivated, this virtue of compassion wards off hatred (dveṣha).” (Yoga-sūtras of Patāñjali with the Exposition of Vyāsa: A Translation and Commentary, Volume I – Samādhi-pāda by Pandit Usharbudh Arya, D.Litt., p. 343.)
2 See Swami Veda’s commentary on Yoga-sutras I.33 — maitrī-karuṇā-muditopekṣhāṇāṁ sukha-duḥkha-puṇyāpuṇya-viṣhayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaśh chitta-prasādanam (“By cultivating and impressing into oneself the sentiments of amity and love, compassion, gladness and indifference with regard to those comfortable, those suffering, the virtuous and the non-virtuous (respectively), the mind is purified and made pleasant.”)
3 Matthew 5:39.
4 Matthew 7:9.
5 For more on sotāpanna: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sot%C4%81panna
6 Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley, considered to be one the most important books of the 20th century, is a dark science fiction novel of a future “engineered” totalitarian World State. The title was taken from an ironic line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “O wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in it.”
7 Luke 23:34.
8A variation of this story can be read here: https://aumamen.com/story/king-and-a-scholar-in-delusion. In this version, the Bhagavata Purana was originally read to King Pakishit by Shukadeva. Here is another variation: https://kabirassociationoftoronto.org/2019/04/13/the-way-to-liberation/
[This article was published in the September 2020 edition of the AHYMSIN newsletter.]