Home » The meaning of atom vows Part I: Philosophy

The meaning of atom vows Part I: Philosophy

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Part I: Philosophy

While the world in this spiritually dark age, which already lasted and will still last many millennia, is struggling with war and crime, fear and ignorance, disappointment in other’s attitudes and the cultural misunderstandings between countries and continents, there have always been at least a few who came to help, to show us the way to a happier and more elevated living, to guide us during our long and often arduous pilgrimage and evolution towards the accomplishment of what we really are: humans in the best sense of the word. Deep within us is a knowledge, a wisdom, which wants to speak to us. It does so via the impulses of our heart which we recognize as unselfish love, compassion and the wish to be like a radiant star consoling and helping all living beings. It also speaks through our minds, by inspiring us to lofty ideas of how to accomplish a better and happier and nobler world in practice. Our mind allows us to understand the world around us, the secrets of the universe, and ultimately the real, true nature of all phenomena, of existence itself.

Our lowest mind can make us to something lower and a million times more terrifying than even the cruelest animal. But our higher mind can lead us to the portals which gives entrance to the realms of the immortals – call them gods or spiritual conquerors if you like.

A few examples of the last decades of such humble workers for the benefit of those directly around them and for the benefit of the whole of humankind – indeed for all realms of nature where sentient beings live – are the late Acharya Tulsi and Acharya Mahapragya and their successor Acharya Mahashraman and their many helpers who feel inspired by their approach. These two great humanists worked and work within the field of the small philosophy/ religion/ science known to the world as Jainism – a jewel among existing religions.

In their concern for the world in its present stage they laid down a modern version of the so-called atom-vows (anuvratas – using the ancient Sanskrit term), which were formulated in the days of the Jain’s 24th great preceptor, Mahāvīra, more than 2500 years ago. These were: Refraining from violence, lying, taking things not given, sexual misbehavior, and from possessiveness, i.e. limiting once possessions to the necessary minimum. We can also call these core-vows, essential small vows of life, etc., in distinction of the more strenuous ‘great vows’ which in practice can only be kept my monks/ ascetics. The are meant for all common people, not just Jains or Indians.

Acharya Tulsi’s original challenge was to formulate the five old vows in such a way that Indian people in modern society could understand and apply them. The modern version has 11 (sometimes 12) vows. In India this idea has found widespread recognition and appraisal, and thousands actually took the vows. This is the Indian way. A vow (vrata), in its true meaning is not just a promise, but it is an unbreakable promise to one’s inner god or jīva or Self, the breaking of which is not without the karmic consequences which arise from the deeper layers of one’s being. A vow can be taken openly, or silently towards one own higher and purer being, without anyone outside even knowing it. Universal ideas are not only for India. Great Teachers like Mahāvīra, Buddha, and many others worked for the benefit of all. But their jewels of wisdom have to be presented in accordance with the mind frames of people the world over. It is these mind frames which differ on the surface, molded as they are through centuries of isolation and against different backgrounds.

I was born and raised Europe, in the so-called western part of the world . Now I live in India. An obstacle for the materially often extremely wealthy countries is that people have become used to an unreal easiness of life, where there seems to be a technical solution for every problem. This has lead to large scale spiritual indifference and to an attitude that wants to put the whole of nature and even ‘God’ under its personal willpower. People feel kind of ‘happy’ with their gadgets and physical and emotional freedom, and numbed as they have become are unaware that the real happiness of inner freedom and knowledge is something infinitely greater than the everyday happiness in which we usually live. Indeed this ‘happiness’ en ‘richness’ is pure suffering from the viewpoint of an enlightened being. We have become attached to and ‘satisfied’ with the glass pearls of the mundane world and are not willing to believe the stories of the pure diamonds of the spirit.

But during lecturing and traveling I have experienced that in spiritually more developed countries like India, people lean on ages-old cultural experience and teachings. In the West though, especially in America which is a still young developing country, people can be very open to new ideas. Many spiritual seekers drink the eastern values like amrita, the nectar of immortality. But it is also a part of the western culture to accept nothing on authority – indeed a necessary precaution and protection against falsehoods entering a spiritually under-developed and error-prone culture. Things must be weighed and judged by the logical mind, against the background of scientific fact, and must be acceptable to the awakening intuitive heart that has already been prepared for this task.

The heart is connected with the innermost nature, with the divine soul even, and it knows of no dogmas or commandments. It is connected with direct and real knowledge. People have wandered far away though from listening to the inner ‘voice of the silence’, and therefore wise people have designed helpful support in the form of spiritual teachings, myths and stories, rules and vows, non of which were ever meant to become dogmas! We can see the harm done by dogmas everywhere in the world around us.

So, what is actually a ‘vow’? As I see it, vows can be accepted on subsequent levels, vows can be accepted on subsequent levels of increasing helpfulness. Even when only reading or hearing them once, even when they do not stick to our conscious memory, they leave some imprint. These work as seeds which may sprout in the future, near or far. Though our personal mentality may not accept them, in the depth of our being there has been some recognition.

A next and most fruitful step is when one not merely takes notice of the vows, but takes them seriously into consideration in one’s mind. Better still, one meditates calmly and analytically on them, so that they become part of one’s thought atmosphere.

On another level we accept them as ‘good intentions.’ Good intentions often do not hold very long though. They have to be continuously remembered and repeated to bear any fruit. Better is to think and meditate first. If not followed up, good intentions even hold the danger of killing the young sprout of spiritual elevation – though the essence of the seed can never be killed. Good intentions or halfhearted vows may be partial. For ‘beginners’ this might be the easier way, when stern decisions are too demanding for now. For example one decides to become a vegetarian, but not in all circumstances, or excluding fish or poultry or eggs. A decision like that is not at all useless. It avoids the suffering of at least some animals, and as far as our own karma is concerned: no good action remains without reward – though this should never be a motivation – and it brings about some elevation and strength to our own character. One can think out similar examples for the other atom-vows. Another option is that one accepts a number of vows, but not all of them: one decides on not-stealing and not-lying, but becoming a vegetarian one regards as too difficult in the present circumstances of life. Also one should consider that vows are more effective for those who have to put more effort in maintaining them. For example ‘not taking what has not been given’ may be more challenging for people in the commercial sector, or in an environment soaked with corruption. When kept, such vows make one into a light-bearer in his or her environment, and the positive consequences stretch much father then betterment of one’s own character alone. Vows regarding sexuality may not be too difficult when you are 80 and therefore of little value if limited to this lifetime only, but when you are 20 things are different. Special vows may be meditated upon according to the circumstances in which you life. Taking of drugs and/or alcohol is staggering among young people, especially in the ‘developed’ world, and these habits need much consideration for the people involved. In special circumstances or professions one may think out useful vows for oneself (such as no unprotected sex if one is a prostitute, thus preventing aids etc. for others; or a vow not to kill creatures in the soil for house builders. Or keeping to one partner for homosexuals ‘as if married’. Such things are helpful in building one’s future character. But enormously beneficial, even over lifetimes to come, would be if the prostitute could abandon this form of sex completely, or if a homosexual would have the great strength and courage to accept his situation as a challenge within a wider perspective, and make use of the opportunity to direct his or her mind entirely away from sexual desire and use it for more universal purposes. These are just a few examples. Hundreds of challenges could be thought up and hundreds of vows, partial or total, could be connected to these. Everyone has his or her own life to life, everyone has different challenges. But basically all are reducible to mentioned atom vows. Every effort, weak or strong, bears its fruit now and in future. One can think up hundreds of such examples. For someone with a responsible position in the army, a vow of non-violence or non-killing (or ordering others to do so) is almost impossible. But one can vow (in oneself) to use one’s position to avoid worse and do everything to prevent suffering as much as possible weighing the circumstances for ‘enemy’ as well as friend. Naturally one realizes that the objective experience of suffering is the same for fighters and their families on both sides. Special vows have been formulated by Acharya Tulsi for various categories of people: relating to social class, students, teachers, businessmen, officers/ employees, workers, peasants, and, most significantly in our ‘globalizing’ civilization: an international code of conduct, which we will discuss further on in this article.

More meditation on physical and psychological suffering (often lavishly provided by nature itself) is needed before one becomes determined enough to take a relatively difficult step. Karma is the unfailing law of cause and effect in nature, and works with ‘chemical’ precision on the gross and subtle matters of which we are composed: whatever one sows – by what one thinks, says, or does – one will reap. Seeds as well as fruits can be weak or strong, beneficial or harmful.

More courageous people with a deeper understanding may take real vows. When someone has reached a stage in which he or she recognizes the deeper values of which the formulated vows are but reflections, the taking of a vow becomes a natural and happy event. Taking a vow is not meant to suppress nature thus making the man or women depressive; it is meant to support one’s higher inner nature, which will eventually lead to conquest of everything in us that is illusionary and leads to suffering. If one looks and the statues of jinas – those who conquered themselves – in Jain temples of which there are thousands in India – they show complete composure and uprightness, and radiant, usually slightly smiling faces. Vows lead to happiness, not sadness.

What is a vow really? It is more than a good intention. It is more than a promise in everyday society. A real vow is an unbreakable promise – unbreakable without facing dire consequences. For those who accept God or gods or enlightened beings as a reality, a vow is a promise in face of the highest being or beings. For those who follow a guru, as is so often the case in India (and elsewhere), a vow is taken before that highly respected person – as the embodied representation of Truth or God or Wisdom. A vow is a contract with Truth; and truth is unshakable, unerodible, absolute. Breaking a contract with Truth is only harmful to the transgressor, not to Truth or God, Buddha or the Jina. It is like throwing dirt against the wind: it will only contaminate the thrower. The returning ‘dirt’ is this case will be total mental confusion, falling back into illusion, with all its painful consequences.

In occult reality a vow means making a link with the higher forces of nature – which are tremendous. It means the promise to cooperate in harmony with the deeper powers of compassion and wisdom in the divine side of nature. Don’t try to turn your personal self against such forces! It can bring no benefit. These intelligent and ultimately compassionate forces may be very unkind to personal attachments and to comfortable and suitable beliefs and illusions, and are therefore in the iconography of some religions depicted as ‘wrathful’ and ‘blood-thirsty’ deities with all kinds of terrible weapons to destroy our ignorance and its consequent illusions and aberrations.

Written vows and outer teachers are means to help us. But it will be clear from the above that the highest and most real vows are taken inwardly, in the silent recesses of one’s being and nobody has to know about our decision. This is not easy, because the outer world will misinterpret our behavior. One know that one has made a promise to the divine side of nature as it really is. The vows themselves will deepen and evolve when making progress on the silent inner path.

The Ultimate Vow, if I may shape this term, is the vow to reach – first in complete harmony with, and then actually to become our essential inner God, Jīva, Self, Buddha-nature, or whatever name humans have given it. Each of us has already taken this vow. It is the primordial vow of nature, our destiny, the ‘lost son’ bound to return home after his enriching experiences in the world or universe. Our inner being is waiting with infinite patience and benevolence until our minds take the conscious decision.


To be continued: Part II: Discussion.