Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ask Asha: Gifts vs. Obligations

[You can ask your own question here.]


[Written in response to a previous letter: “In marriage, is celibacy or sex more appropriate?”]

I am not sure you are intending to open this topic up for general discussion. My viewpoint is that when couples enter a state of matrimony, they do agree to provide marital gifts to one another. These are gifts, however, we lovingly bestow and not necessarily obligations.



Dear K:

This letter has generated more comments than any other letter I’ve written. So I am happy to continue the discussion.

The heart of your comment seems to be in the last sentence, “gifts...we lovingly bestow and not necessarily obligations.”

Friendship, Master tells us, is the highest relationship we can have with one another because it is the only relationship free of all compulsion. Even though mother love is viewed as the most selfless -- the mother sacrifices her own body to give life to her child -- still, there is an element of compulsion.

Once conception occurs the child will grow within her. Her free choice is gone (putting aside the question of terminating the pregnancy). And once the baby is born, again, a compulsion takes over. If mother and father do not care for the child, the child will die.

Wives and husbands develop duties and expectations and, obligations, as you call them, to provide for one another in certain ways. This is especially true if they have united to produce and raise children. But even if they are alone together, sex, as just one example, becomes part of the “contract,” so to speak.

Traditionally, one earns money and the other takes care of home and children. Even if these things are done in a spirit of equality, lovingly, and selflessly, still, a level of roles to be played almost always sets in. This isn’t necessarily bad; it is just a fact.

Friendship, however, is formless. Nothing compels us to be friends except a sincere desire to do so.

In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna calls Arjuna “friend.” Master in his commentary tells us what a high compliment this is. Jesus in the last days of his life elevates his disciples to the level of “friends.” Even between guru and disciple, friendship is the ideal.

When we contemplate human love, especially romantic love, in the abstract, the idea of love freely given is naturally attractive. Many people seize upon this as a fundamental principle of relationships -- never compelled, always free. And they are not wrong. Friendship is the most solid foundation for a life-long partnership.

The question is, “What is freedom?”

The ego tends to define freedom as the ability to do whatever it feels like doing. Applied to romantic love this means we are together as long as it makes us happy to be together and then we freely allow one another to follow the heart wherever it may lead.

It sounds good until one heart feels the relationship is over, or must change in fundamental ways, and the other heart is not in tune with that idea. Then theory hits reality often with a heart-rending thud.

The problem is, freedom is not of the ego. Freedom is of the soul. No matter how much we indulge our egoic desires they will never give us the satisfaction we seek. It is not the way we are made.

As St. Augustine put it, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

This, of course, is a long treatise in itself. I refer you to Swamiji’s book, God is for Everyone, as just one place where these ideas are explored in depth.

The point here is that eventually, even in our romantic relationships, if the relationship is going not only to endure, but to be a source of ever-increasing happiness and spiritual growth, the focus has to shift from “What do I want?” to “What can I give?”

It is more blessed, Jesus tells us, to give than to receive. By blessed, he means blissful. As a person matures, he gradually learns that the satisfaction he hoped to find in freely indulging his ego can only be found by transcending it.

For the ego itself is the antithesis of freedom, because it binds us to the never-ending cycle of likes and dislikes. Transcending the ego is to be even-minded and cheerful in all circumstances. Even more, as Master puts it, to “stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds.”

From the outside, it may look as if a person is bound by obligations and duties. But from the inside, if those responsibilities are willingly embraced as the appropriate dharma for that individual, then there is no sense of bondage but only the free will offering of the heart.

(Dharma are those actions and attitudes which lead to expanded consciousness and spiritual freedom.)

Naturally, not every one can rise to this level of freedom. It takes practice. The divine reason why we are compelled into relationships of all kinds is so that we can experience, and experiment, and learn -- over many incarnations -- how to find the fulfillment we seek.

Learning how to love is a long-term project. It has to develop from inside. It is not a set of external behaviors that we impose upon ourselves. We must be realistic and sincere.

As Swamiji put it, just staying together as a couple for a whole lifetime, for example, is not necessarily a spiritual victory. There must also be inner growth and the expansion of true love. Merely to endure is not the same as to transcend. Sometimes change is necessary. It is an individual matter, not a dogma where one size fits all.

That is what I was trying to explain in the letter about sex and celibacy. The dogma here is that giving up sex is inherently the right thing to do. I wanted that man to understand the implications of his actions.

As Master put it, we have to be “practical in our idealism.” That man has taken on certain responsibilities and the way to freedom for him now may be through the performance of those duties, not by repudiating them.

Nayaswami Asha

P.S. On our website there is another letter called “Love vs. Attachment” that you might find interesting.

[Questions and answers from other Ananda ministers worldwide can be found on the Ask the Experts page of]

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