by Seeker

The word “slavery” has a negative connotation, largely due to the exploitation (or abuse) associated with it in the past few centuries. However, if slavery is chosen by a person on one’s own volition leading to one’s own benefit (or for larger good), then it is acceptable and it is sometimes praiseworthy. We indulge in such “slavery” often in life as in the case of an individual bidding the orders of superiors even if it means going against once own conscience: it is seen in armed forces, any organization, a family or in practicing religion also.

In religion, one always comes to this cross-roads in one’s journey (usually more than once):  “should I follow whatever is said by a person (or written in a scripture) blindly like a ‘slave’ or should I follow one’s conscience (could be in-line with or against scriptures) and learn from the consequences of my own actions like a self-driven individual?” On the face of it, one may say the former path is simpler and easier to follow as there is no need to re-invent the wheel as seen in following the latter path – assuming the personage and scripture is the right one to be followed (not an easy one to determine). On the contrary, I would say both the paths are necessary and it is up to the individual to apply the appropriate path in each case. More often than not, it is the latter path of following one’s conscience that helps a person to learn a great deal in life.  Usually, people glibly assent to a particular doctrine mentioned by a great personage or scripture, but that assent has no significant impact on transforming their lives. It would be better in such a case to actually go against the doctrine, if necessary, and face the consequences of that action as one’s life would then undergo a real transformation for the better.

Broadly speaking, the attitude of “slavery” to a personage/scripture forms the cornerstone in the path of devotion whereas in the path of analysis the usual method is to apply self-effort based on one’s conscience and learn through its consequences: recall the parable of kitten (resigned to its mother) and baby-monkey (clings to the mother by its own will) told by Sri Ramakrishna in this context. Many of us are of little faith and it is better for us to go through the path of self-analysis than delude ourselves to think that we are devoted to an ideal and then do nothing. Lord Jesus saying is apt here: “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20). But this ultimate faith or resignation to Higher Self comes only after the individual has completely exhausted all the options of self-analysis/self-effort. The parable told by Sri Ramakrishna: ‘a bird on the mast of the ship that sailed away from the port leading to it frantically flying in all directions, only to find no land nearby and then resigning itself calmly sits on the mast again’ is a good illustration.


  1. This "slavish" mentality as you put it is glorified a lot in religion at a personal level:
    An except from Complete Works of Vivekananda (with his disciple Sarat Chakravarty): "And in due relevancy came along such topics also as how one-pointed in devotion one has to be in order to build up a spiritual life, how firm
    faith and strong devotion to the Guru have to be kept up, how deep reliance has to be placed on the words of the Guru, and how even one's life has to be laid down for his sake. Then putting some questions to the disciple, Swamiji began to test his heart: "Well, are you ready to do my bidding to your utmost, whatever it be and whenever it may come? If I ask you to plunge into the Ganga or to jump from the roof of a house, meaning it all for your good, could you do even that without any hesitation? Just think of it even now; otherwise don't rush forward on the spur of the moment to accept me as your Guru."

    In the above excerpt, all this works well if your Guru is a genuine one: you need to do self-analysis first of the Guru and once chosen, become a slave by giving up your self-analysis. Otherwise, these days we hear many cases of brainwashed youth indulging in all kinds of violence just because their superior told them to do so.

    It is also seen at an organization level as seen in this excerpt from the same source ("Sannyasa and its ideal practice"): "The true man is he who is strong as strength itself and yet possesses a woman's heart. You must feel for the millions of beings around you, and yet you must be strong and inflexible and you must also possess Obedience; though it may seem a little paradoxical — you must possess these apparently conflicting virtues. If your superior order you to throw yourself into a river and catch a crocodile, you must first obey and then reason with him. Even if the order be wrong, first obey and then contradict it. The bane of sects, especially in Bengal, is that if any one happens to have a different opinion, he immediately starts a new sect, he has no patience to wait. So you must have a deep regard for your Sangha. There is no place for disobedience here. Crush it out without mercy. No disobedient members here, you must turn them out. There must not be any traitors in the camp. You must be as free as the air, and as obedient as this plant and the dog."

    Now for the preservation of an organization, one's personal conscience must be kept aside — just like in army where you need to wage a war even though you may think it is unjust. It is not easy for a free-thinking individual to be part of organizational "crowd" and strangely this above excerpt conveys an idea that an organization is more important than an individual's free spirit. There is a reason for that: this free spirit has a danger to lead one astray and hence it needs to be curtailed in the fashion mentioned above. But again this very same free spirit also has the potential to lead to freedom of the individual quickly if used well. It is a difficult choice for a person to make: whether to take a risk of being totally lost by not being part of an organizational set-up OR stifle one's conscience and just be satisfied with slavish mentality in an organization thereby enuring some kind of safety with a potential stunted growth. It is just like investment: high risk-high returns, low risk-low returns!

  2. Excellent post and comment! I understand Swamiji's words as a grave warning NEVER to give up oneself completely to any human (being in flesh and blood, ghosts etc. if one believes in their existence). At best, humans are representatives/servants of the divine Guru/God. As such, they have to lead and convince by personal example. Thus, if a Guru wants me to jump from the roof of a house, I'd politely ask him to jump first so that I can observe how to jump correctly and what spiritual benefits one is getting from that. As far as I know, even Sri Ramakrishna usually refused to be called a Guru, precisely because it was his inmost desire that his disciples develop a close and direct relationship with God. He knew that the interaction with his body would come to an end sooner or later (death) and that only the relationship with the eternally living God can last forever.
    One may say that Jesus expected his close disciples to accept crucifixion, if necessary, but he was also the first one to go to the cross.

    In a (religious) organisation, one can give up one's independence in matters of secondary importance so that the mind is not wasting its energy by quarreling over whether to eat rice or potatoes…

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