“Having reflected for a moment and entered the Ashoka garden mentally, the highly powerful Hanuman jumped off of the ramparts of that palace.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 14.1)
sa muhūrtam iva dhyatvā manasā ca adhigamya tām |
avapluto mahā tejāḥ prākāram tasya veśmanaḥ ||
Should I stay put or should I work? Should I study things as they are or should I apply myself to a particular activity and learn through practical application? In the realm of spirituality, both paths can lead to the same destination, provided the intent is correct. Study alone coupled with renunciation can bring one to the lotus feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, as can work without attachment, with the results dedicated to the same person. In Hanuman’s travels through Lanka, we get an idea of how both processes can be effective.
“Only the ignorant speak of karma-yoga and devotional service as being different from the analytical study of the material world [sankhya]. Those who are actually learned say that he who applies himself well to one of these paths achieves the results of both.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.4)
Sankhya is the analytical study of the material world with respect to matter and spirit. This is a difficult philosophy to grasp at first because you have to go beyond what you see in your immediate vicinity. At the time of birth the discovery process starts. Take a look at the way infants behave and you’ll see that they’re constantly looking at new things and assessing what can be done with them. “Can I crawl through this space? What if I place this object in my mouth? What happens when I cry for help?”
They are mesmerized by the images shown on the television and they enjoy hearing different kinds of music. The discovery process turns formal once education starts, and throughout that maturation process the individual may think that they have figured everything out only to learn something new shortly thereafter. Through a particular experience they can maybe better predict how something will pan out for them going forward. “No way I’m doing that again. I don’t want the same thing to happen.”
Sankhya philosophy goes beyond the standard discovery process by dissecting the material elements and what causes action in the first place. Therefore, to understand this higher philosophy one must consult authorized information, knowledge first to be accepted on faith. This shouldn’t be that difficult for us to do, as we’re accustomed to accepting knowledge this way. What did we know about the alphabet, grammar, or math at the beginning? These things were told to us by teachers in school, and if we challenged them right away we wouldn’t have learned anything. We accepted the information on faith, applied the principles, and then saw for ourselves the validity to them.
In the same way, to learn about the real nature of things, one must consult a set of information that is flawless. Sankhya philosophy is purported to be without defects because it comes from the Supreme Lord. The greatest expounder on sankhya is the original Personality Himself in His incarnation as Kapiladeva. His discussion on sankhya is found in the Shrimad Bhagavatam, but there is also a review provided by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita.
“Lord Krishna made an analytical description of the soul just to bring Arjuna to the point of buddhi-yoga, or bhakti-yoga. Therefore, Lord Krishna's sankhya and Lord Kapila's sankhya, as described in the Bhagavatam; are one and the same. They are all bhakti-yoga.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bg. 2.39 Purport)
As a quick overview, there are five gross elements and three subtle elements. Earth, water, fire, air and ether make up the gross coverings of the living entities, and mind, intelligence and ego are the subtle coverings. Finer than even the ego is the atma, or soul. The soul is impossible to see with our conditioned eyes, for we are capable of mistaking a rope for a snake. How then can we understand that the person we’re looking at in the mirror is really spirit and not matter?
Through enough mental effort coupled with exposure to the philosophy, we can learn to remember that the bodies of the living entities always change. We look in the mirror and see ourselves today, but if we should take a picture right now and then look at it ten years later, we’ll wonder, “Wow, look at me. Who was that person? I wonder what he was thinking back then.” But of course you are the same person, just in a different outward manifestation. Nothing has happened to you except outward changes brought on by the influence of time.
“Not by merely abstaining from work can one achieve freedom from reaction, nor by renunciation alone can one attain perfection.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.4)
Studying philosophy does not involve outside work. It is a mental exercise, so through a style of renunciation you find enlightenment. The other option is to work. Forget about the philosophical approach if that’s not your cup of tea. Instead, do work without attachment to the result. Follow your duty and then give up the rewards for a higher purpose. But one must know what work to do and what work to avoid. This valuable information is provided by the Vedas, which give prescribed duties to every type of person based on their inherent characteristics. The teachers of the Vedic science help to explain the ins and outs, and the devoted soul then implements the procedures. In the process they gradually increase their awareness of the self, the spirit soul.
So which path is better? Which one is more dangerous? When the end-goal is the lotus feet of the origin of both sankhya-yoga and karma-yoga, there is no difference. We can see an example of this from Shri Hanuman. While in Lanka, he stopped for a brief moment to ponder over things, to figure out what was what. Though he wasn’t explicitly involved in study of sankhya, his brief halt from action showed a dedication to mental effort. He was working to please the Supreme Lord Rama, God’s incarnation as a warrior prince, so he had to decide what to do.
What did his thinking lead to? What was Hanuman thinking about? Rama had tasked Hanuman with finding the princess of Videha, Sita Devi. She was Rama’s wife and had gone missing while the couple was in the forest of Dandaka. Through many trials and tribulations, Hanuman eventually learned that Sita was staying on an island called Lanka. It was ruled over by the king of ogres, Ravana, who had taken her there against her will. Hanuman made it to Lanka by leaping across the massive ocean, and then he searched through the city and its many palaces while masking his natural monkey form.
The time for contemplation arrived after Hanuman exhausted his efforts. He conducted a very thorough and intense search for Sita, but he had yet to find her. He decided then to think things over, to contemplate what was ahead of him and what should be the best course of action. Notice that the thoughts had a purpose with relation to action. That is the whole point to mental effort after all. The vibrant spirit soul is provided a body which has limbs that give capability in movement. Just because in the ignorant state the hands and legs lead us to misery doesn’t mean that they are useless.
Hanuman spent time in thought, but in the end he decided on a course of action. In the above referenced verse from the Ramayana, we see him taking his first step, leaping from the outside walls of Ravana’s palace. Hanuman decided to enter an adjacent grove of Ashoka trees, a place he had yet to search. He first mentally entered the area to predict what conditions he would face. After the mental journey, he was ready to make the physical entry.
In either condition, thinking or doing, Hanuman’s goal was the same: to please Rama. Therefore in both situations he was in complete yoga, or connection with the divine. He would go on to succeed and please Sita and Rama so much that they still love and think of him to this day. Sometimes Hanuman is flying through the air and sometimes he is chanting the glories of Sita and Rama to himself in a secluded area, but never does he deviate from God consciousness.
So what should we do? Sit down and study or work for the Supreme Lord? Through the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, we can do both. By applying oneself in study of the Bhagavad-gita, Shrimad Bhagavatam, Ramayana and other sacred Vedic texts, one can achieve the same results as from working without attachment, sacrificing the fruits of action to the Supreme Lord and His interests. Similarly, by applying oneself to work in devotion, there is no need for explicit study. When the ultimate goal is to connect with the Supreme Lord, faithful indulgence in any one of His paths kindly bestowed upon the living entities travelling through a cycle of birth and death will lead to the same auspicious destination.
Should I work hard or should I sit and study?
I want to gain knowledge, but for action I’m ready.
Know that sankhya and karma in yoga are the same,
Bring connection with Krishna, life’s ultimate gain.
Can trust the words of Krishna found in the Gita,
Or follow Hanuman’s journey to find Sita.
In tough times, spent periods in deep contemplation,
But then acted again, to please Rama his motivation.
In either case, to Supreme Lord there was connection,
Chant holy names so in work or thought achieve perfection.