Intellectual Knowledge and Spiritual Illumination

Intellectual Knowledge and Spiritual Illumination

Illumined souls are those whose consciousness has been lighted up by the self-effulgent light of Truth, the Supreme Divine Reality, called variously God, Brahman, Jehovah, Allah. We must, however, clearly distinguish between mere theoretical knowledge and the knowledge which follows actual experience. Book-learning is often mistaken for highest knowledge, but intellectual knowledge about the ultimate Reality is totally different from Its direct realization.

There is a world of difference between the man of realization and the mere intellectual. While the former is one who is “free from imperfections and doubts, with senses controlled, and engaged in the good of all beings,” the letter may, as Sri Ramakrishna points out, be no better than the vulture which soars high in the sky but has its gaze only on the charnel-pit below; intellectually he may be dabbling in the highest truths, but his heart may always be set on petty selfish gains.

Hindu teachers always draw a distinction between the two kinds of knowledge: the Para Vidya  and the Apara Vidya, the higher and the lower. The lower is the theoretical knowledge of the scriptures and related subjects like phonetics, prosody, grammar, etc. The higher is that knowledge by which the Supreme Spirit is known or realized.

There is a great risk of being lost in this lower knowledge which certainly holds an unending attraction of our superficially inquisitive minds. We would do well to realize its severe limitations. This truth is pointed out by Sri Ramakrishna in a homely parable:

“A pandit was once crossing the Ganga in a boat. Fond of displaying his erudition, he was asking a fellow-passenger, “Do you know Vedanta?”. And the reply was “No, revered sir.” “The Sankhya and the Yoga?” But the fellow-passenger was ignorant of all philosophies. Suddenly, while they were talking, a great storm arose and the boat was about to sink when the passenger turned to the pandit and asked him, “Sir, can you swim?”. “No,” replied the pandit. “I don’t know the Vedanta, Samkhya or Yoga,” said the passenger, “but I know how to swim.”

If one does not know how to cross the waters of Maya or Samsara, no amount of scriptural erudition will be of any avail.

When M, the author of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, met the Master, quite soon after their acquaintance, Sri Ramakrishna inquired about M’s wife: “Tell me, what kind of person is your wife? Has she spiritual attributes, or is she under the power of Avidya?” M replied, “She is all right, but I’m afraid she is ignorant.” M was a highly educated man, the headmaster of a high school, and so described his wife as ignorant. But sharply came the Master’s admonition, “Are you a man of knowledge, then?” M’s ego was badly shocked, but later he learnt that to know God is knowledge, and not to know is ignorance.

The Chandogya Upanishad relates an episode which drives home the same truth. Narada, who later became one of the greatest illumined saints of all times, approached the saint Sanatkumara as a student and asked for instruction. The teacher inquired: “What have you already studied?” Narada replied that he had mastered all the branches of learning – art, science, music, philosophy and the sacred scriptures. “But,” said he, “I have gained no peace. I have studied all this, but I have not known the Self. I have heard that he who knows the Self overcomes grief. Grief is ever my lot. Help me, I pray you, to overcome it.” And the essence of the teacher’s instruction in reply was: “The Infinite alone is Bliss. There is no bliss in the finite. Realize the Infinite.” Narada did realize the Infinite and thus became illumined. His heart was filled with love for all distressed beings. He became a teacher of the highest knowledge and devotion, and helped many to rise above all grief by realizing Divine Bliss.

Thus, it is the knowers of Truth that are the “illumined Souls.” Even as Christ has said: “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free.


The active and quite types of illumined souls

 Among the illumined souls, there is the active type and also the quite type. About them, Sri Ramakrishna says:

“There are two types of Paramahamsas. Those belonging to the first care for their own good alone: they feel satisfied if they themselves attain the goal. But there are others who, even after attaining the knowledge of Brahman, remain on this plane so that they may describe to others the various spiritual disciplines by which they have realized God. These perfected souls teach spiritual truths to others, and they do so only to help them in spiritual life. . . . . Some eat mangoes secretly and remove all trace of them by wiping their mouths with a towel. But some share the fruit with others. There are sages, who, even after attaining knowledge, work to help others and also to enjoy the Bliss of God in the company of devotees.

He also relates the parable of the four friends who once saw a place enclosed by a wall. The wall was very high and they were all eager to know what was on the other side. One of them climbed to the top of the wall. What he saw on looking inside made him speechless with wonder. He only cried “Ah! Ah!” and jumped in. The others, too, did the same. Now who could tell what was inside?

Fortunately all illumined souls are not like that. Some can and do come back to tell us of the mysteries beyond, and help us also to experience them. They are our greatest teachers. But, in our gratitude and admiration for them, we must not fail to appreciate also the greatness of the quite or contemplative type of enlightened souls. Let us not be thoughtless enough to call the later selfish. By living and realizing the spiritual ideal, they make it a blessing for us. Their powerful spiritual thoughts purify the mental atmosphere and fertilize the soil necessary for the growth of spiritual men and women. Their active spiritual vibrations ever support us in our spiritual endeavours and struggles. The power of the silent spiritual thought and realization is too great to be underestimated.

In all religions we find both the active or practical type and the silent or contemplative type of mystics. There were many ascetics in the Hindu and Buddhist faiths, the desert-fathers and pillar-saints in Christianity, and in Islam the Sufi saints who withdrew from social life and dedicated themselves exclusively to a life of contemplation. They are like some of the wonderful desert flowers which, without being seen by any human eye, disappear completely but leave their fragrance in the air.

  • Excerpted from “How Illumined Souls live in the world” a chapter in Adventures in Religious Life by SWAMY YATISWARANANDA, 1959, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, Eleventh reprint, March 2015.

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