All spiritual traditions have a code of behaviour that aspirants are advised to follow. We are all familiar with the ten commandments of Christianity and Judaism. Likewise, the first two limbs of ashtanga yoga spell out the behavioural disciplines that are advised for those who wish to follow the path of yoga. Even secular societies have a moral basis, supported in law, that prohibits such behaviours as violence towards others, theft and slander. There is a common theme to many of these, as expressed in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or to paraphrase Rabbi Hillel: “Love thy neighbour as thyself; all the rest is commentary.” The Dalai Lama has put it even more simply: “My religion is kindness.”
Some traditions emphasize the concept of sin in which digressions are punished by an all-powerful deity. In this way “good” behaviour is enforced by threat of punishment. Yoga takes a different approach; Babaji tells us that in yoga a “sin” is any thought or action that obstructs our spiritual progress. In other words, we are not punished for our sins, we are punished by them. The fundamental sin, ignorance of our true nature, avidya in Sanskrit, results in the illusory sense of individuality and alienation, resulting in loss of the peace and joy of the unitive state. In essence, all behavioural guidelines are aimed at taking us back to this unitive state. They can be divided into two general categories: (i) choosing actions that reduce our separation from others, and (ii) avoiding actions that increase our sense of separateness. Of actions that connect us with others, love is supreme. From it come such virtues as kindness, generosity, patience, forgiveness and humility. Cultivating thoughts and actions based on these virtues helps restore our deep spiritual connection to people and things, aligning us more closely with the reality that beneath all surface differences there is no true separation. Conversely, we are advised to avoid thoughts and actions that increase our sense of alienation and separateness, the so-called vices. Foremost among these are killing and other forms of violence towards any sentient beings. In the Christian tradition there are the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, and pride. Ashtanga yoga has the five yamas: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (non-lustfulness), aparigraha (absence of greed). Of these, non-violence is the cornerstone of yogic behaviour, since violence is the most extreme form of alienating behaviour.
Cultivating virtue and avoiding vice is a most important practice in yoga. Traditionally, the rishis of old would not take on a spiritual aspirant who had not already developed this part of the practice. Many in the west have taken up asana, pranayama and meditation without much attention to the cultivation of these moral precepts. It is like trying to fill up a bucket with holes in it. Babaji has stressed on many occasions the importance of the yamas and niyamas. They are not something to be worked on and then dropped. He tells us that as the grosser forms of negative thoughts and actions fall away, they become more subtle; for example, we may become increasingly sensitive to our latent anger in even mild degrees of frustration, impatience and irritability. We begin to drop the blaming habit and see those who bring out these traits in us as friends and teachers – how else would we know the negativity we harbour without interactions with difficult people? As Gandhi has said: “They work without pay!”
Guidelines for Self-Development
Babaji’s guidelines for our self-development are listed below. They are not exhaustive but will provide plenty of grist for the mill that slowly grinds down our egocentric tendencies. Look through the list and recognize the principles described above – each guideline either increases our connection with others or decreases our alienation from others. Practice makes perfect!
- Express love and kindness in words and actions in dealing with others
- Express compassion in your actions towards those who are suffering physically or emotionally
- Anything that comes to you should be received as a gift from Providence
- Do not hoard things that are not required
- Give away things to those who are in need Keep busy in selfless service
- Reduce your needs to a minimum
- Avoid discussions or reading books that are contrary to your self-development
- Do not indulge in any action that may cause harm to others in any form, directly or indirectly
- Look for good qualities in others rather than looking for their shortcomings
- Do not get involved in unnecessary talks
- Do not expect praise for your good actions
- Anger, hate and jealousy appear in the mind by comparing with others; they should be replaced by love towards others.
- Be humble and give respect to others
- Pray to God for forgiveness of any undesired actions, done knowingly or unknowingly
- Perform your duties towards your family, society and country with pure and selfless intent
- Do not let laziness or dullness control your mind
- Be honest to others as well as to yourself
- Be firm in your spiritual convictions