I have received a question from a spiritually advanced friend who has a following of his own:

“I have one question in mind. A person decides to go to a world-famous Meditation Centre (Ashram) in South India, for 10 days. Supposing that the person, while leaving the city finds family person seriously ill, but continues with journey to that Ashram, will it be fair? Especially if the ill person at home has no one by his/her side and needs emotional support, more than anything?

Attachment or no attachment, should the person heal the family member and necessarily postpone it till problem at home is over OR carry on with the programme?”

My brief reply was:

“If meditation does not teach compassion, love and service to be rendered to the ill, poor and the bereaved, it is not a meditation; it is escapism.

Non-attachment does not mean neglect of those who are suffering.”

 This simple answer should not need any elaborate commentary but, still, here are a few thoughts to share.

The meditative mind is a pleasant mind, a stabilized mind. That state is called chitta-prasadana in Yoga-sutra 1.33. According to the sutra, such a state is obtained though the practice of

Maîtri: Universal love towards those who are happy

Karuna: Compassion towards those who are in suffering

Mudita: Joyfulness at seeing others virtuous

Upeksha: Indifference towards the evil in others

Without these practices the mind will never stabilize in meditation. The karmic debts we have not yet paid off will continue to disturb the meditation. While one is sitting with eyes closed, the mind will keep racing in all different directions.

Therefore, even to have undisturbed meditation, one is advised to

• Pay off one’s karmic debts

• Not incur any more debts (such as one incurred by leaving a sick person untended, in order to go sit in meditation!)

• Do one’s LOVING DUTIES, and

• Dedicate oneself to acts of compassion and selfless service.

• It is the selflessness in service that constitutes nonattachment.

Here, I would like to quote two stories with a single theme.

One of these stories occurs in Prayaga-mahatmya (the text extolling the sacred importance of the holy place called Prayaga) as far as I can remember as I do not have the book with me. Here is a paraphrase:

Shiva and Parvati were looking down on the holy land of Prayaga at the time of a great mela (like Kumbha, or some other). Shiva was expressing to Parvati his disappointment about how no one had made the pilgrimage. Parvati, looking down from Kailasha, disputed with Shiva, saying how many millions are there and why Shiva could not see them?

Shiva and Parvati decided to test how many pilgrims there were. They came down and sat in a corner disguised as a couple suffering from leprosy, begging.

Of millions who thronged, no one paid the leper couple any attention.

Finally one person stopped and gave the couple the last morsel of food he was carrying for himself and washed the couple’s wounds.

Shiva said to Parvati, “See, as I told you, at this holy occasion only one person has come to make the pilgrimage”.

There are stories with the same theme in many different religions. Here an Islamic story, also paraphrased:

Allah sat on his throne in heaven, expressing to archangel Jibrael (Gabriel) great disappointment about humanity because ‘this year no one has yet come to make the Haj pilgrimage.

Jibrael protested. ‘But, Lord, there are millions who do the circumambulation in the holy Qaba’. The Lord could see no one.

A very poor man in Damishq (modern Damascus) had a lifelong wish to undertake the Haj pilgrimage to Makkaa-sharif (Meccah). He laboured hard and saved from his meagre earnings the requisite amount needed to make the pilgrimage.

But his neighbour, even poorer than himself, fell ill and needed medicine and nutrition just as the man from Damishq was about to leave for the Haj. He saw how his neighbour needed his savings and, furthermore, needed to be tended in his acute illness.

He gave his life savings to the needy neighbour and stayed back to tend to the sick man.

Allah said to Jibrael: Oh yes, I do see one man, only one man, who has made the Haj pilgrimage this year.

I have a principle that if anyone asks for admission to my Ashram, I ask him/her about his/her family. Any parents who need service in their old age? Unless I am satisfied that the person is not just using the Ashram as an escape from his/her duties, I do not admit them. But, I must confess, many do manage to fool me; alas.

If you had planned to go to an Ashram but someone needed to be served, serve the needy while silently, secretly, keeping on with your mantra-japa; that is spiritually more meritorious than leaving someone untended, unloved, and ‘becoming holy’ by going to an Ashram or a pilgrimage.

One benefit of making the wise choice to render selfless service is that the Divine Guru is keeping His eye on you. As your karmic debt is paid off, the circumstances will unexpectedly present themselves so that you can actually go to your Ashram or your intended pilgrimage. It will happen without an effort of your own. I have seen it happen many times.

Remember, the true Ashram is in a selfless loving heart.