About Raj

The Sword and the Needle
by Swami Brahmeshananda

We are in the midst of an unprecedented technological revolution all over the world. In comparison to which the earlier industrial revolution pales into insignificance. Every day new discoveries are made in various fields of science and technology, and they are being ingeniously used for practical purposes. Modern warfare has become essentially a technical warfare. Now, one need not even go to the battlefield. One can destroy cities sitting a hundred kilometers away, by merely pressing a button. Application of technology in the field of medicine has produced medical miracles. Kidney transplant, laser and microsurgery of eye and ear have now become routine affairs. Even diagnostic medicine has advanced considerably. One can now get a three dimensional picture of the inner organs of the human body with the help of machines. Information technology is another branch, which has made great strides. One need not elaborate on the subject of all these technological miracles. A high school student might give a much longer list of them, rather than the older citizens who are rapidly becoming backdated. Instead, let us trace these technological developments in a reverse order with the hope that we might learn some important lessons from such an exercise.

Stages of Technological Development

Today, digital electronic calculators do all calculations. They have become as indispensable as fountain pens with accountants, shopkeepers, and bank-clerks. When they were not there, salesmen used to calculate mentally with the help of multiplication tables or other arithmetical techniques. They could then calculate in no time the price of say fifteen and a half kilograms of a commodity at the rate of say twelve rupees and twenty five paisa per kilogram. Now they need not tax their brains over it. Consequently they have lost the capacity for rapid calculation.

Take another example. Earlier, the diagnostic tools of a physician were his stethoscope together with his senses_eyes, ears and fingers with which he used to observe the patient, listen to his heart beats and palpate his abdomen or feel other parts of his body. Now he has X-rays, USG, CT scan and MRI, over and above a number of biochemical and serological tests. Now the diagnosis depends on how efficiently a radiologist can 'read' an X-ray or a USG image and on what the biochemical investigations indicate.

Earlier the physician depended upon his personal skill and judgement and at times used his intuition. When there were very few gadgets, the physician developed a keen power of observation and an unexplainable supernatural `sixth-sense' with the help of which he could diagnose obscure diseases. Now, since machines do much of the work of diagnosis, these faculties do not develop and the diseases not discerned by these modern diagnostic techniques go undetected.

Great advances have occurred in the field of printing technology. All composing is now done on the computer, and excellent laser prints can be obtained. Everything is automatic. Before this, we had letter printing and letter composing. Galley proofs were read and corrected by proofreaders. Now a lot of corrections and adjustment of space etc. are done by the computer. Even before letter printing, there was the manually operated hand press. Still earlier, when there was no press, there were hand-written books. People had discovered permanent dyes and wrote in excellent handwriting. And even before that there was a time when there were no books at all, and the knowledge was transmitted verbally and was stored in memory. Thus we have what we call shrutis. There were shruti-dharas, men with prodigious memory who could memorize and reproduce at will volumes of knowledge learnt by hearing. But the modern student need not take the trouble of memorizing anything. Every piece of information he needs is in the computer, and he can get it merely by pressing the keys.

Communication technology too has advanced tremendously. The latest is the E-mail and cellular phones. Before them were ordinary telephones and still earlier, the fastest means of sending information was the wireless. Before that were ordinary surface mail and airmail. When there were no railways or automobiles, messages were sent by horse-riders. Some people trained hawks and pigeons to carry messages tied around their feet. Communication used to take a long time and people had to exercise a lot of patience. Some developed the faculty of sending and receiving messages mentally. There was great attraction and reason for developing yogic powers like clairvoyance and clairaudience. Some did develop these, but the majority of people were trained by circumstances to face uncertainty caused by lack of communication better than we can do now. How much uncertainty the mother of Sri Ramakrishna, Chandramani Devi, must have faced and how much patience she must have exercised when Sri Kshudiram, Sri Ramakrishna's father, had gone on a pilgrimage to Rameshwa-ram, when the only means of travel and communication were bullock carts and one's two feet!

Cruder Tools are discarded

It is a law that as newer and more efficient instruments are invented, the earlier cruder and less efficient ones are discarded. With the introduction of E-mail and Fax, wireless has become out-dated; USG, Echo, Doppler and X-rays have made the stethoscope almost useless. With personal computers, desktops and laptops, one need not even have a fountain pen. Hand presses are now found decorating museums.

Let us remember that the senses and the mind are also instruments and are called karana in Sanskrit. And it is but natural that with the advancement and refinement of modern instruments, they too should lose at least some of their capabilities and functions. It is not at all necessary to sharpen our senses and develop the mind. Now it is enough if one can learn to handle a computer and manipulate computer-software. What does it show? The machine is not an unmixed blessing. It is a double-edged weapon and while providing comforts and advantages, it may also hinder the development of human excellence.

The greater the number of machines, instruments and tools, the more we depend upon them. If they were to fail and fail they must one day we would find ourselves utterly helpless. The computer problem of Y2K is an example of machine created problem. They give us a false sense of being all-powerful. A century ago man was not so dependent upon tools nor were there many. He depended more upon his own capabilities and developed them too. He was more prepared for possible eventualities, accidents and challenges. And, being more conscious of his limitations had greater reliance on an all-powerful weapon in the form of faith in God. The modern technological tools and gadgets seem to take away that invincible weapon, the name of God, by luring man with much, much weaker mundane tools.

Machine and Human Evolution

How has the machine affected the evolution of the species? An amoeba had to struggle for its survival and evolved into a hydra with a special tissue a nerve network. As it went on facing greater and greater challenges, it went on evolving newer and newer organs and capabilities. It developed a complicated nervous system, then a brain and finally the highly developed and intricate cerebral hemispheres. On the psychological scale there developed reflex action, followed by instinct, emotions and intellect. And finally the human animal developed what is called intuition.

It is at this stage, or a little earlier, that man, the tool-making animal that he is, invented the machine; refined, sharpened and perfected it to such a degree that he now does not seem to have the need to develop higher intuition! Has the machine hampered man's evolution beyond the cerebral intellectual level? Some believe that the acme of the evolution of the species has been reached. Superman is nothing but a man who can handle a super-computer and other super-gadgets for better or worse!

The machine has nothing to do with altruism and moral and ethical values. A gadget is absolutely neutral. It can be used for the good of humanity or for its harm. Unfortunately, the technological boom has so lured and intoxicated man that he has totally forgotten the task of the expansion of heart. There are today brilliant young men with an I.Q. of one hundred and fifty or more, but full of jealousy, hatred and a feeling of cutthroat competition. The best intellectuals are today engaged in weapon-industry or in inventing means of how best to exploit others.

Sri Ramakrishna's Message

Sri Ramakrishna was born at a time when none of the modern technological miracles were even dreamt of. There was no electricity then, nor automobiles. There was the steam engine however, and Sri Ramakrishna could go upto Kashi and Vrindaban with the help of the railways. But he himself was almost wholly illiterate. He would not have fitted into our modern age of computer-culture. He was very inquisitive, though, and wished to learn as long as he lived. But interestingly and significantly, he could not learn many things. He could not look through a microscope. He wanted to learn how the solar and lunar eclipses occurred but the explanation made his head reel. And yet he learnt a lot. He learnt about all the various paths, which lead to God, not only theoretically but also experimentally. He never learnt the physical sciences but learnt that, knowing which everything else is known.

His advice was also similar. He never encouraged even intellectual pursuits. He would say, What is there in mere scholarship? Crying to Him with a longing heart can attain God. There is no need to know many things. He who is an acharya has to know different things. One needs a sword and shield to kill others; but to kill oneself, a needle or a nail-knife suffices.1

We are all mad after collecting, and sharpening scores of swords and shields, but Sri Ramakrishna had specialized in the use of the needle. Although Sri Ramakrishna did realize the need for scholarship and in effect, all the material sciences he definitely gave it a lower status. But today, being enamoured of the glamorous swords and shields offered by modern technology, we are so busy collecting them that we have forgotten that the needle too has its utility. There is a vast field of inner development and research, in the realm of intuition beyond intellect, in the field of the expansion of heart, of the conquest of inner nature and of the realization of one's identity and solidarity with the whole of humanity, nay with the whole universe.

Both sword and needle are necessary. The needle and vice-versa cannot do the work of the sword. Similarly material science and spiritual science are both necessary. With the help of science and technology we may conquer the outer world, but, unable to conquer the inner world, we may remain slaves to passions and desires. This is exactly what is happening: already slaves of our passions, we are now becoming slaves of the gadgets we have ourselves invented, and there is every danger that we may entangle ourselves inextricably in the meshes of our own technological creation.

If all these tools and instruments, and means and methods, including the body, the mind and the senses are to be used for the greatest good of the greatest number, the individuals handling them must be perfect. The need for the perfection of the needle, i.e. one's own purification and perfection, has therefore become far more urgent in the present times than it was ever before. Says Swami Vivekananda, We are to take care of ourselves that much we can do and give up attending to others for a time. Let us perfect the means; the end will take care of itself. For the world can be good and pure only if our lives are good and pure. It is an effect, and we are the means. Therefore let us purify ourselves. Let us make ourselves perfect.Let us, therefore, turn to Sri Ramakrishna before the needle is lost in the heap of swords and shields.

The Use of the Needle

In Sri Ramakrishna's illustration the sword and the shield stand for scholarship and academic learning. The needle stands for the knowledge of God. The former includes all secular knowledge and capabilities, the apar… vidya, and the latter all spiritual values and realizations, the par… vidya. Why did Sri Ramakrishna compare the means for God realization to a needle? Are they so simple or insignificant as a needle when compared with a sword? Although not insignificant, they are, in the opinion of Sri Ramakrishna, the greatest specialists in the use of the needle, simple indeed: 'Call on God with a longing heart.' No breath-control, no complicated yogasanas, no sitting in meditation in stiff postures! Yes, indeed to know God is as simple and easy as killing one with a needle is. Just weep for him; call on him with true longing. Even for plucking a flower, one needs to move the hand outwards. For God, we have not to do even this. We have just to turn our gaze within.

But what about our duties and responsibilities? In the language of the allegory, how are we to use the needle while wielding swords and shields? Of course, Sri Ramakrishna would have very much liked that we learn to call on God before acquiring secular knowledge and entering the world. But doesn't matter. We can call on God even while doing our worldly duties.3 Let us hold to the lotus feet of God with one hand and do our duties with the other. But when the work is over let us hold to God with both hands.

It is important to realize that the needle is always present with the swords and shields. Whatever work we might be engaged in, however busy we might be, we can keep a part of our mind united with God. This is what Sri Ramakrishna means when he says that we must hold to God with one hand while doing one's duty.

A saint was once asked, 'What should be done to realize God?' The saint replied: 'Do whatever you are doing to realize God.' Nothing special or extra has to be done to realize God. We have just to turn our attention towards God. Isn't it as simple as the use of a little needle? Sri Krishna also told the same thing to Arjuna: m…manusmara yuddha cha 'Fight while remembering me.' But it is so difficult to remember God while being engaged in work, and we don't know whether Arjuna was able to do so. But he had one great advantage. Sri Krishna was with him always. We often forget that the Lord too is always with us. We may not be able to constantly remember God but let us at least remember this much that he is with us as our eternal guide and companion. All the tasks of purification and perfection of our inner being can be performed easily by this mere remembrance of the presence of God, even while we are surrounded By multifarious tools and gadgets and burdened with duties and responsibilities.

The moment we discover this little needle of remembrance of God, and calling on him coupled with every shield and sword we shall find that the whole scene would change in a moment. Life would suddenly become so simple, so joyous and so relaxed. No more shall we feel the burdens of duties and obligations. And then and then alone shall we realize, how important, how urgent and how blessed it is to find the needle and use it.

1. Gospel, p. 180.
2. CW., Vol.2, p. 9.
3. Gospel, p. 549.
4. Gospel, p. 627.

A physician by training, Swami Brahmeshananda is a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Mission, a Worldwide Order of serving monks founded by Swami Vivekananda in India a century ago. He has written many articles on MEDICINE AND RELIGION. His latest book is THE MOTHERHOOD OF GOD. He is at present the Editor of THE VEDANTA KESARI, a monthly journal of the Ramakrishna Mission, published from Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India. The journal is now in its eighty fifth year.
Contact Address:

Phone:(91)(44)4941231. Fax:(91)(44)4934589
Email: srkmath@giasmd01.vsnl.net.in

Copyright 1996, 1997, 1998 Dr. Raj Mehta. All rights reserved.