Last revised: 5 April 2008
All genuine spiritual paths lead to God
A second debate concerns which path will take us to God and which will not. The avatar Sri Ramakrishna had heard devotees quarreling so many times that he was weary of it.
There are many opinions and many ways. I have seen them all and do not like them any more. The devotees of different faiths quarrel among themselves. (1)
All genuine paths, Sri Ramakrishna taught, will lead to God: “Let each man follow his own path. If he sincerely and ardently wishes to know God, ... he will surely realize Him. “(2)
God Himself, Sri Ramakrishna teaches, arranged the varieties of paths to take into account our levels of knowledge and varieties of temperament:
God Himself has provided different forms of worship. He who is the Lord of the Universe has arranged all these forms to suit different men in different stages of knowledge.
The mother cooks different dishes to suit the stomachs of her different children. Suppose she has five children. If there is a fish to cook, she prepares different dishes from it -- pilau, pickled fish, fried fish, and so on -- to suit their different tastes and powers of digestion. (3)
He reassured us that, if we are transparently seeking God, we can confidently take up a new path. We need not worry about offending Him through imperfect efforts: “Suppose there is an error in worshipping the clay image; doesn't God know that through it He alone is being evoked? He will be pleased with that worship.” (4)
A word of caution though
That having been said, we must emphasize that Sri Ramakrishna is talking about “genuine” spiritual paths. What he said cannot be stretched to cover any path at all, genuine or not. To emphasize this, Sri Ramakrishna told his beloved Naren, later Swami Vivekananda, that "of one hundred persons who take up the spiritual life, eighty turn out to be charlatans. ... Therefore, beware." (5)
His message is meant for all of us. We must beware of charlatans.
How are we to sort out the genuine masters from the charlatans and the genuine paths from the non-genuine? We would do well to apply two of Jesus’ teachings. One is that the truth will set us free (6) and the second is that by their fruits ye shall know them. (7)
If we are not feeling increasing release and joy following a path, we may wish to question it. Its truth is not setting us free. Moreover, if we are not impressed with the type of fruits (teachings, practices, aspirants, etc.) that arise from the path, we again may wish to lay it aside. If we do not like its fruits, we will not like its impact on us.
Have we any standards against which to measure our perceived attainment on a particular path? Yes, Shankara advises us:
The words of the scriptures, your own power of reasoning, and the teaching of your master should all help to convince you [that you have produced desirable results] -- but the only absolute proof is the direct and immediate experience, within your own soul. (8)
Swami Nikhilananda, the great compiler of Sri Ramakrishna's works, draws on Vedanta to answer the same question, leaving out the fourth criterion that Shankara includes: “the teaching of your master.”
To protect the aspirant from error and delusion the seers of Vedanta lay down three criteria of Truth. These are scriptural authority..., reasoning..., and personal experience.... Any one of these, singly, may enable a man to realize partial truth, but when all three point to the same conclusion, the aspirant may be assured that he has realized the whole of Truth. (9)
This advice can help us distinguish the genuine from the non-genuine path. If we keep these warnings in our mind when we listen to other masters on the subject of path, we will hear their teachings in a productive light.
A path wherever you turn your face
Although Sri Ramakrishna’s advice that any genuine path will lead to God may startle us, we hear it again and again from other masters of enlightenment. “Which ever way you turn your face,” the thirteenth-century Sufi sage Ibn Arabi tells us, “there you will find a road which leads to God." (10) The ancient Hindu Sage Vasistha counsels us that "this [Supreme Self] can be attained by a hundred ways and means." (11)
Contemporary Mother Meera advises that “there is no difference. All paths lead to the same goal; that is, to realize the Divine.” (12) Sri Krishna underscores the point:
Whatever path men travel
Is my path:
No matter where they walk
It leads to me. (13)
He gives examples:
Some see me one with themselves, or separate:
Some bow to the countless gods that are only
My million faces. (14)
Some [yogis] withdraw all their senses from contact with exterior sense-objects. For these, hearing and other senses are the offering, and self-discipline the sacrificial fire. Others allow their minds and senses to wander unchecked, and try to see Brahman within all exterior sense-objects. For these, sound and the other sense-objects are the offering, and sense-enjoyment the sacrificial fire. (15)
He says that we can take matters by degrees. There are many roads in.
If you cannot become absorbed in me, then try to reach me by repeated concentration. If you lack the strength to concentrate, then devote yourself to works which will please me. For, by working for my sake only, you will achieve perfection. If you cannot even do this, then surrender yourself to me altogether. Control the lusts of your heart, and renounce the fruits of every action. (16)
In fact, Sri Ramakrishna tells us, God does not mind, if we jump into the lake, dive in, or fall in. All entrances work the same effect. (17)
Each path but a step
The ascended master speaking through Mabel Collins surveyed the vista of spiritual evolution and taught that each path took us but a step up Jacob’s ladder of consciousness.
Seek [the way] not by any one road. To each temperament there is one road which seems the most desirable. But the way is not found by devotion alone, by religious contemplation alone, by ardent progress, by self-sacrificing labour, by studious observation of life. None alone can take the disciple more than one step onwards. All steps are necessary to make up the ladder. The vices of man become steps in the ladder, one by one, as they are surmounted. The virtues of man are steps indeed, necessary -- not by any means to be dispensed with. Yet, though they create a fair atmosphere and a happy future, they are useless if they stand alone. The whole nature of man must be used wisely by the one who desires to enter the way. (18)
"Entering the way" for him is a journey that contextualizes and surpasses any one level of enlightenment. As we shall see in later chapters, he looks very much farther down the road than we are used to looking.
Life beyond path
Paths carry us as far as the teacher we are dealing with. Many individuals, like Ramana Maharshi and Eckhart Tolle for example, have reached enlightenment without following a formal path or teacher. Many others, like Bernadette Roberts or Sri Ramakrishna himself, have gone beyond the reach of the paths available to them.
Bernadette Roberts, when the Self fell away, found herself in a place not described by any existing, conventional path that she knew of.
[During my] two-year journey ... I experienced the falling away of everything I can call a self. It was a journey through an unknown passageway that led to a life so new and different that, despite forty years of varied contemplative experiences, I never suspected its existence …
I came upon a permanent state in which there was no self, not even a higher self, a true self, or anything that could be called a self. Clearly, I had fallen outside my own, as well as the traditional, frame of reference when I came upon a path that seemed to begin where the writers on the contemplative life had left off. (19)
The avatar Sri Ramakrishna left paths behind after God-Realization and went further. The highest level he makes known to us he calls vijnana (for more on vijnana, see “Beyond God-Realization” and “When Gods Meets God”). I shall include a mention of it here to show one level of enlightenment beyond where many conventional paths end.
What is vijnana? It is knowing God in a special way. The awareness and conviction that fire exists in wood is jnana, knowledge. But to cook rice on that fire, eat the rice, and get nourishment from it is vijnana. To know by one’s inner experience that God exists is jnana. But to talk to Him, to enjoy Him as Child, as Friend, as Master, as Beloved, is vijnana. The realization that God alone has become the universe and all living beings is vijnana. (20)
He describes one occasion when he experienced vijnana and, with it, intimate contact with God:
God talked to me. It was not merely His vision. Yes, He talked to me. Under the banyen-tree. I saw Him coming from the Ganges. Then we laughed so much! By way of playing with me He cracked my fingers. ...
For three days I wept continuously. And He revealed to me what is in the Vedas, the Puranas, the Tantras, and the other scriptures. (21)
Because of these sublime experiences, beyond the paths of his day, he was able to say in later life: “I can swear that you can see God and talk with Him as intensely as you see me and talk with me. You can hear His words and feel His touch.” (22)
Paths reflect the highest attainments of their spiritual originators. New paths undoubtedly will be found or fashioned to suit our circumstances or take humanity collectively further.
While we, as humans, never reach an end to our journey of enlightenment (see “Enlightenment is Virtually Endless”), we achieve enlightenment as an act of grace, as Franklin Merrell-Wolff explains.
As the lower cannot command the Higher, the individual ego is not lord over the Universal SELF. Hence, from the individual standpoint, the Realization is spontaneous and thus is often called an act of Grace. The SELF, which it must be remembered is Identical with Divinity, does not stand within the causal sequence. Consequently, strictly considered, Realization of the SELF is never an effect of causes set up by the individual man acting in space and time. The latter through his efforts prepares the candle, as it were, but the Flame is lighted through a spontaneous act of Spirit. (23)
Bernadette Roberts emphasizes that this point is often reached after we have exerted ourselves to the utmost on our path. Having sunk down in despair at the inadequacy of all our efforts, we let go and God, by His Grace, closes the distance:
At a certain point, when we have done all we can [to bring about an abiding union with the divine], the divine steps in and takes over. (24)
We would be wise to remember that this exhaustion of our own efforts will occur for us time and time again as we journey up the staircase of existence and back to God. God remains always outside of path and beyond it.
What keeps us journeying, lifetime after lifetime, towards God? Is there a Divine Feature of life that keeps all sentient beings moving down and up Jacob’s ladder?
For full details on these sources, see Bibliography
(1) VIV, 28.
(2) Ibid., 30.
(3) GSR, 81.
(4) Ibid., 80.
(5) VIV., 30.
(6) Jesus, John 8:32.
(7) Jesus, Matthew 7:20.
(8) CJD, 112.
(9) SK, 20-1.
(10) KK, 25.
(11) CYV, 84.
(12) MTHR, back cover.
(13) BG, 51.
(14) Ibid., 81.
(15) Ibid., 53.
(16) Ibid., 98.
(17) “You see, the thing is somehow or other to get into the Lake of the Nectar of Immortality. Suppose one person gets into It by propitiating the Deity with hymns and worship, and you are pushed into It. The result will be the same. Both of you will certainly become immortal.” (PR in GSR, 217.)
(18) LOP, 12-3.
(19) ENS, 9 and 10.
(21) Ibid., 830.
(22) VIV, 21.
(23) PTS, 23.
(24) PNS2, 131.