Mother Teresa has done unparalleled service to India. Could she also have benefited from the unparalleled spiritual wealth of India? Yes, definitely! Although Mother Teresa lived in this ancient land of rich spiritual heritage, she stayed away from Indian spirituality and remained an island unto herself. It is not uncommon for spiritual seekers to lose sight of what is happening inside them when they get involved in serving others.
Whether many so-called religious people are really on the spiritual path itself is questionable. They neither acknowledge nor recognize the conflicts and agony that one faces on the spiritual path. Mother Teresa has been so sincere and honest to herself that she expressed what she was experiencing. On the spiritual path, what is most important is to be honest with yourself and recognize what is happening within you.
Serving others uplifts one's energy, but it does not alleviate one from the inner torment. For that, one has to understand the mechanics of consciousness and their relation with pleasure or pain. This knowledge is found in many Indian scriptures such as the Upanishads, Yoga Vashistha, Ashtavakra Geeta and Tripura Rahasya.
The knowledge of Vedanta could have helped Mother Teresa get over her doubts and quench her intense seeking. All the states described in her letters are mentioned in the nine obstacles to yoga enunciated by Maharshi Patanjali.
Mother Teresa would have benefited immensely from Maharshi's enunciations on how to face the obstacles of Vyadhi (ill-health), Styana (procrastination), Samshaya (doubt), Pramada (carelessness), Aalasya (laziness), Avirati (craving), Bhranti-darshana (confusion), Alabdha Bhumikatva (lack of any spiritual attainment) and Anavasthitva (emptiness or agonizing state of mind).
Mother Teresa seemed to have gone through the agony of these states of consciousness without the knowledge of spiritual science. This is akin to a person suffering from malaria, not knowing what medicines to take.
What Mother Teresa experienced is not different from what many saints from different religions, including Sri Ram, went through. Sri Ram found his guidance from Maharshi Vashishtha in the form of Yoga Vashishta. In the scriptures it is said that only one who is well versed in some practice of samadhi can help one to overcome spiritual torment and misery.
When orthodox beliefs limit us from looking beyond, it becomes an impediment on our spiritual journey.
One on the spiritual path should have an open mind and, at the same time, honor orthodoxy. Spirituality beyond the boundaries of a religion can help one to cope with loneliness, isolation and emptiness. It need not be seen as a betrayal of one's own religion or philosophy.
Spiritual practices like yoga and meditation do not in any way conflict with one's religious beliefs. Take the example of Father Bede Griffith who came to India and studied yoga and Vedanta philosophy in Trichy. These teachings helped him to overcome obstacles on the spiritual path while remaining true to his faith as a devout Christian monk.
Being orthodox, Mother Teresa perhaps thought she would be betraying Jesus if she searched for answers to her dilemma in Indian spirituality. A seeker has to keep the goal in front and if there is a block on the path, he or she has to find an alternative route to the goal.
When we see God as an object of perception, that is when we are totally lost and misery follows. From the scene to the seer, from the object of perception to the perceiver... that shift of consciousness makes all the difference on the spiritual journey. This is how the real joy, which is the nature of consciousness, gets kindled. And all the barriers, mental blocks and intellectual inhibitions that our understanding imposes can be transcended by experiencing the precepts of Vedanta.
It is unfortunate that people are not open in their thinking. I am sure that just a few sessions of pranayama and meditation would have helped Mother Teresa to overcome those days of darkness and inner torment. Thousands of seekers on the spiritual path experience this state, but they overcome it once they practice dhyana.
The Indian philosophy talks of three types of misery - physical, mental and spiritual. Spiritual torment is the worst. The agony and torment that one experiences is at the level of the mind and to go beyond the mind, go beyond thoughts, is the very purpose of samadhi. Mind is the cause of both bondage and liberation. Unless one knows how to quieten the mind, it is impossible to achieve inner peace.
The mind can be transcended through yoga sadhana. Yoga is not asanas alone; pranayama and meditation are an integral part of it. Patanjali Yoga Darshan, Adi Shankara's Drig Drishya Viveka, Vigyan Bhairav Tantra of Kashmir Shaivism, Thirumandiram of Saint Thirumula all offer different techniques that help one overcome spiritual torment and misery.
Ayurveda, yoga and Vedanta respectively are the three remedies to eliminate mala (impurities in the body) vikshepa (disturbances in mind) and avarna (veil that covers the light within). While Ayurveda helps people to calm their thoughts, pranayama and meditation help one become happy from the core of their Being.
Happiness is only a sign of connection with the divinity deep within. Through these Vedantic practices, you can experience the scintillating consciousness that you are. It is a simple recognition of what is and has always been in us, and with us, as our self.
The basic principle of Vedanta is that what you are seeking is already there, like the air around you. You don't have to go somewhere searching; you only need to become aware. In the same way divinity, or the consciousness, bliss, love, is already present in you; it is only a matter of recognizing it.
Scientific temper and Vedantic knowledge together make one whole and bring inner stillness. And that is the essence of Indian spirituality. Critics often ask what use is spirituality if the underprivileged are not taken care of. What they fail to see is that wherever there is genuine spirituality, a component of seva or service has always been attached to it. And this can be seen through the length and breadth of this country.
In the realm of consciousness, as you sow so shall you reap. If you think suffering is an important tool for uniting with God, then you are bound to attract it. If you sow a seed of suffering, that multiplies. The lack of experience of dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (equanimity) can keep a seeker morose and dull. To overcome this, one needs a shift in understanding about heaven and hell, and about the consciousness that is all pervading. Spirituality alone can bring that shift.
In the Eastern philosophy, experience comes first and then faith follows. In the occidental way of thinking, belief comes first and then experience. Mother Teresa had faith but was struggling for an experience. And it was experience which turned atheist Vivekananda into a swami. Ironically, Kolkata witnessed both in the same century!
(The writer is the widely revered Indian spiritual guru who heads the Art of Living Foundation.)