In the early editions of Autobiography of a Yogi Paramhansa Yogananda drew a comparison between the householder path and that of monastic renunciation. “To fulfill one’s earthly responsibilities,” he wrote, “is indeed the higher path, provided the yogi, maintaining a mental uninvolvement with egotistical desires, plays his part as a willing instrument of God.”
He did not mean, of course, that marriage is in itself “the higher path.” The sincere seeker, if contemplating marriage as a path to God, must be prepared resolutely to leave the beaten track of ego-gratification. St. Paul tells us in I Corinthians, “He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord, but he that is married careth for the things of the world, how he may please his wife.”
Paramhansa Yogananda, quoting this passage, also went on to say, “I had analyzed the lives of many of my friends who, after undergoing certain spiritual disciplines, had then married. Launched on the sea of worldly responsibilities, they had forgotten their resolutions to meditate deeply. To allot God a secondary place in life was, to me, inconceivable.”
An inner sanctuary in the mind
For many householders, the greatest obstacle to living more spiritually lies in the simple thought, “But what can I do that is all that spiritual?” The difficulty lies in the thought that spirituality demands doing things that are commonly labeled “spiritual.”
The challenge for renunciates and householders is essentially the same: to develop “an inner sanctuary in the mind.” Brother Lawrence, in his famous book, The Practice of the Presence of God, stated that he had reached a point in his spiritual life where he felt as much devotion when picking up a straw as while at worship in the chapel.
What was so particularly meaningful to him about picking up straws? Nothing, obviously. It was his attitude of devotion that gave the act meaning. When a person’s mind is internalized, he perceives God’s presence everywhere, and in everything. Householders can indeed be God-seeking devotees, once they understand that to worship God truly is, simply and basically, to love Him, and not necessarily to participate in specific outward forms of service to Him.
The ideal couple for all time
In relation to one another, husbands and wives need to strive to perfect the divine aspect of their own masculinity and femininity, and for this, they need role models. The ideal couple for all time was depicted in The Ramayana, a great Indian epic written thousands of years ago. Rama epitomized the ideal husband; Sita, the ideal wife. Their examples are still valid today.
Rama displayed the masculine nature developed to perfection. He was high-minded, magnanimous, unhesitatingly truthful, strong in himself, committed at all times to what was right and true, ever ready to protect and defend the weak, forgiving of weakness in others, generous in victory, firmly committed to virtue, demanding of no one, fair-minded, reasonable, and wise.
Sita was divine perfection manifested as femininity: loving, compassionate, utterly loyal, supportive, motherly sacrificing; the counterpart of Rama in every virtue, but with softness and all-inclusive understanding rather than with outward strength. Each saw in the other, not the human personality merely, but a manifestation of the Divine, and each delighted in that manifestation in the other. Never did they observe one another for deficiencies in themselves.
One facet of the relationship between Rama and Sita will hold little appeal for modern men and women. Sita served her husband, and was obedient to him. Rama, for his part, accepted her service as ennobling both to himself and to her. For him, her obedience was a reminder to himself to live always in the truth. For it was to his expression of the truth that she gave her obedience, not to his human personality. (Indeed, when Rama told her to remain in the palace, instead of following him in his exile in the forest, Sita reminded him lovingly but firmly that her place was by his side. Rama had no choice but to acquiesce.)
Harmonizing reason and feeling
There is a natural balance that ensues from a healthy relationship between husband and wife: the harmonizing of reason and feeling. The offering up of feeling to the judgment of reason is, in most matters, a natural directional flow for right action.
Feeling, if not “kept in a state of reason”– which is when its flow is upward – can easily become caught up in emotional likes and dislikes, and focused more on its subjective reactions than on objective reality.
The heart’s energy, representing the feminine principle, needs to be directed upward to the center of will and spiritual vision in the forehead, which represents the masculine principle. When the feeling flows upward from the heart toward the brain, and through the brain to the “spiritual eye” in the forehead, perfect mental and emotional equilibrium is achieved.
Only thus can the heart’s energy achieve its own fulfillment. When, instead, it flows outward to the world in the restlessness of likes and dislikes, the feelings become enmeshed in emotions, and, consequently, in delusion.
In the end, these complementary aspects of human consciousness achieve perfection as though in the closing of a circle, at which point it is no longer possible to speak of either quality as having a beginning or an end. The circle is complete in itself.
Developing impersonal love
Marriage, to become a path to spiritual enlightenment, must be focused on the attainment, ultimately, of impersonal awareness. This, for many people, is not an easy concept to grasp, particularly as an ideal in the relationship between husband and wife. Yet it is not such an alien concept as may first appear. For true impersonality is not coldness or indifference to another’s needs. Many monks and nuns, even, confuse impersonality with an aloofness that borders on pride.
Impersonality, when rightly understood, is seen as the essence of kindness and selfless love. Impersonality means not to be selfishly attached to others, but to love them for their good rather than for one’s own. It means thinking, not, “What can I get out of others?” but, “What can I give to them?” The great danger in the married state lies in the thought, “He (or she) owes me something.” This perception is both selfish and self-deluding. To depend on anyone else for the happiness we can find only within ourselves is to blind ourselves to the deepest truth of our own being. To make excessive demands of one’s mate is also to trample underfoot the tender petals of true love.
One way of developing impersonality in your love is to try always to behold in your partner, as if hidden by the veil of human personality, the Divine Presence. Work at becoming “other-minded.” See your partner as a manifestation of God’s love, or as God’s special gift to you – a gift meant not only for your comfort, but sometimes, also, for your spiritual training and discipline.
Is every marriage “made in heaven?”
An attitude of “other-mindedness” is more difficult to maintain in marriage than in less intimate relationships. Ideally, your mate will be spiritually refined enough to appreciate and reciprocate in kind. Unfortunately, however, many couples are not so evenly matched, especially if the quest for God comes late in marriage or to one partner alone. What are you to do, if your partner simply doesn’t share your spiritual zeal?
Where understanding in these matters is not mutual, it is important never to attempt to “convert” your mate. Offer selfless love, instead. If a change is ever to come, it will be more likely to come as a result of your quiet example than of your admonishments, nagging or otherwise.
Not every marriage is made in heaven, theological claims to the contrary notwithstanding. When a duty conflicts with a higher duty, it ceases to be a duty. Mankind’s highest duty is to seek God, and truth. A marriage that gives this ideal a secondary place, in the name of a merely human compromise, is destined for failure on both levels, human and divine.
Life is always a compromise between our subjective expectations and objective realities. Any compromise we make, however, should be adjusted to our principles, not our principles to the compromise.
Which path is better?
It is more difficult, in some ways, to live a life of spiritual dedication within the home than living alone, or within the walls of a monastery. It is also easier to see one’s work as spiritual when it is given the outward clothing of some spiritual cause.
However, since the ultimate goal of spiritual striving is to rise above egoic involvement in the realization of union with God, the goal of the householder devotee cannot be radically different in any respect from that of the monk or nun. Which path is better: that of the householder or the renunciate? The choice must be left to the individual. Human nature is too varied to admit of absolute rules.