Choosing a Material or Spiritual Lifestyle,
or a Balance of Both
By Stephen Knapp
Quite often I get questions from young people, especially those of Indian descent, who may be in college or starting out in their career, regarding the decision of whether they should take up a serious spiritual lifestyle, or remain engaged in material pursuits, such as education, career, family, etc. Often times they are worried that their family will not understand or will wonder what will become of them if they become overly spiritual. Or the family may even become overly upset if they show too much spiritual inclination. So they may be ever so motivated toward spiritual interests and really want to follow a spiritual lifestyle, but due to family demands and expectations, they are not sure what to do. So let us think this over.
Points for Staying in a Material Lifestyle
First of all, I tell everyone that you naturally should not use spirituality as an excuse to give up your responsibilities, especially if you already have families and children to support. If you already are married, and especially if you are going to have children or already have them, then you must meet these responsibilities and take care of your family as well. It is far better to take care of your family than to have such obligations follow you.
Secondly, it is not always possible to be as spiritual as we would like to be, either because of particular responsibilities, as mentioned, or other limitations in our situation. So sometimes we may have to wait until some of our responsibilities subside, such as when our children grow up, or we finish college, or we retire from our profession. Unless, of course, we can do without such dependants which increase our responsibilities or the need for a husband or wife, and simply join an ashrama and be happily engaged in a simple life. But one thing I tend to advise is that we never know what may happen in the future, or how things may work out, so if you are a student already going to college or university, then finish your courses and graduate so you can have a marketable skill to always fall back on if you need to. And if you do graduate with a degree and then join an ashrama and later things work out in a way so that you never need that degree, so much the better. But always have a backup plan.
Thirdly, few are those who can really and seriously give up all material tendencies and obligations and join an ashrama and take up nothing but spiritual life. There is certainly no harm in trying it and finding out that maybe you are not quite ready. The experience will always do you good. And you can always come back to that at a later time when you may be more ready than you are now. But material interests can remain strong if you are not serious about spiritual practice and can pull you back if you are not ready to move on without them.
Nonetheless, there are things we need to consider when deciding on our direction in life, and whether we should be more spiritual or continue with our material pursuits.
Using the Srimad-Bhagavatam as a reference for our decisions, it (11.2.2) specifically mentions our need to understand that life in the material world is full or danger and we face the possibility of death at every step. Therefore, we must bear this in mind everyday that we live, that one day will be our last and that we must be ready for that, at least if we expect to use this life for its greater good. Otherwise, if that is not our concern, then it really does not matter what we do or think. We can do any damn thing for any damn reason, and why should we care? But if you are reading this, then I can assume that is not your motivation. You already know there is something deeper to this existence then that. And you are right, because as the Bhagavatam continues to relate (11.2.29), out of all the different species of life, the human body is most difficult to achieve in this world and can be lost at any moment. And those who do achieve it rarely are interested to associate with those who can deliver them to the spiritual world. Therefore, if you realize this, do not waste this human existence. You can still take care of your family and become spiritually advanced and give that association to your wife, husband and children. This is your duty to your dependents, and a rare blessing to give to your family, whether they fully understand it or not.
However, this is one of the responsibilities of householder life, that one should not become a father, mother, teacher, or have any dependents unless you can deliver them from further rounds of material existence. If you can do that, you will do what few others can do, or are even interested in doing. Then as you accomplish such tasks and enter old age, you can also take your own spiritual life much more seriously, especially after you have seen how your own children can take care of themselves.
Points for Going Toward a Spiritual Lifestyle
Now, if you are thinking of taking up spiritual life full time, there will be usually one of two stages in life in which you do this, or when such an opportunity is most likely to knock on your door. First, if you have stayed in material pursuits as described above, and now you find most of your material, family or social obligations have been fulfilled, then you may be ready to take up spiritual life more seriously. By now you may be looking forward to it. However, on the other hand, you may already be too much set in your ways and unable to adopt to anything else. That is a tragedy, considered to be like a dark well from which you cannot escape. So let us hope that does not happen to you.
In the second most likely scenario, you may be in your younger years, either before going into college or while you are now in college. That may be when you find yourself thinking of how material life makes little sense and that taking up spiritual life seems more appropriate. So what should you do?
Again, there are many reasons for taking to a spiritual lifestyle. For a few simple reasons, we can utilize the values and moral principles that we have learned in every moment of our lives, rather than having to contradict ourselves or lower our standards as is often the case while working with other materialists in a materialistic or money-motivated society. In this way, we often waste time on shallow endeavors, or act in ways against our nature or that seem contrary to our real purpose or interest. Otherwise, associating with devotees or spiritualists is a priceless treasure that is not often available outside the ashrama or temple. (Bhag.11.2.30) Furthermore, in materialistic association, people are generally completely on the bodily platform, thinking primarily of how they can satisfy their mind and senses, and do whatever they need to do to fulfill their desires. Associating with such people tends to make us also begin to think like that, which will not help us. Or we become increasingly disgusted with such association.
Such people often fail to see how temporary is life and everything in it. Thus they work so hard to attain what can be had for only a short time, if they can attain it at all. Therefore, in spiritual life we can practice our Vedic customs everyday, not merely on festival days, and work for understanding and perceiving the reality that exists within everything. This is what can bring freedom from the illusion and also freedom from the karma that comes from materialistic pursuits. Freedom from karma brings us closer to real freedom, which is freedom from any further rounds of birth and death, or moksha, liberation into the spiritual domain. Whereas more karma only produces more suffering, more rounds of samsara or birth and death in the material world. How many times have we already done this?
A fully dedicated spiritual life frees us from this. This ultimate freedom, and attaining our real spiritual identity is the real goal of life. In fact, all that we observe around us, all that is seen with the senses is but part of the temporary nature, which is also called maya, or the illusion. By developing our spiritual consciousness, we can rise above that level of vision and see the spiritual atmosphere that pervades everything. But we have to develop ourselves to perceive this. And that is the importance of spiritual pursuits, or our sadhana.
Actually, this is the value of human life. It is for taking up the process to attain the highest knowledge, highest realizations, and the direct perception of the spiritual dimension. This is the means to attain real happiness. This is the means to purify one’s consciousness. This is the means to reach the spiritual abode. You can never do that while engaged in your material pursuits. Actually, the senses will pull you into all kinds of directions in your attempt to satisfy them. But they always want something more, something different. Then you become a slave to the mind and senses. And too much attachment to the senses and sensual objects prevents one from realizing one’s spiritual identity, and only leads to more suffering, until finally death takes everything away, which often involves a painful process which is not at all pleasant for anyone. Materially, that is when you lose everything you have been working for, whereas in spiritual life that is when you take another step toward everything you are working for.
Also, by taking to spiritual life, we can remember the teachings of Lord Krishna in all walks of life, in everything we do, and not just when we go to the temples. It is the teachings and observances of our spiritual traditions that help keep us in the right frame of mind. It is explained (Bhag.11.11.48) that this dedication to spiritual life and service to God is the only means for escaping material existence. Thus, it should not be taken lightly.
A Balance of Both Material and Spiritual
In spite of all the above information, most people still cannot dedicate their lives completely to spiritual practice, even if it makes perfect sense to them. They may be ever so attracted to spiritual philosophy, but there are still too many distractions, too many desires, too many responsibilities, too many other things that they feel attracted to, or occupations and families that require time and attention. So what do we do?
It may be considered too premature for someone to give up their material engagements to dedicate themselves to spiritual practice if they are not ready, and have not prepared themselves properly. So, for most people, a combination of our material life and spiritual interests works best. This means that you continue with your academic or occupational studies, your career, your marriage and family responsibilities, but add to that your spiritual interests.
Some of our greatest acharyas had also achieved high levels of academic education, or even degrees from universities before renouncing the world. This gave them an advantage in organizational skills and in awareness in dealing with financial or business affairs. Of course, this could have also provided an impetus to get away from the material lifestyle as well. This is not out of the ordinary that when a person really tries to adopt him or herself to gaining material qualifications for materialistic success, it can push them over the edge wherein they realize this is not what they want. On the other hand, there have also been many spiritual teachers and leaders who did not pursue any educational degrees or material progress of this nature, but simply stayed focused on their spiritual studies and practices, which gave them everything they ever needed.
However, there have also been those who made great strides in their spiritual development and were able to become acharyas, gurus and teachers, even after having been married and raising children. Thus, they had gone through all aspects of life and were later fully prepared for a dedication to spiritual practice, and were also able to better relate to many people who are also going through similar aspects of life.
Therefore, by pursuing an honest career, raising your family with Dharmic principles and training them in spiritual standards and knowledge, as well as attending the local temple and participating in the traditions, holidays, and the activities of service to the temple and the deity, you can still reach the purpose of life, and attain a spiritual consciousness as is recommended. As you grow in this way, you can continue to use your spare time for spiritual study and practice, taking instructions from the gurus and those who are more advanced, and make progress in whatever your situation may be. Thus, your life remains very balanced and progressive, both materially and spiritually.
As Lord Krishna explains in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.18.43-45), worshiping Him is practiced by all human beings, regardless of social or occupational positions. "I am the Supreme Lord of all worlds, and I create and destroy this universe, being its ultimate cause. I am thus the Absolute Truth, and one who worships Me with unfailing devotional service comes to Me."
Thus, whatever our situation may be, if we keep this as the main purpose or the center of our lives, we can still reach the spiritual abode. Maintaining our spiritual pursuits can certainly help us reach our highest potential. Just as in material life there are self-sacrifices you have to make in order to get ahead and make something of yourself, the same is in spiritual life in order to deepen your spiritual knowledge, realizations, or perceptions into the higher or spiritual dimension. Your choice all depends on how serious and sincere you are, and how far you want to go with it. Success can still be achieved, and the more sincere you are, the more God will remove whatever obstacles there may be so that you can excel in your spiritual progress whenever the time is right. This may indeed be while you are young, or it may be when you are older and have done all else that you need to do. God gives you the means to choose, and the opportunity to progress is always there for you. But do not neglect it.
Also see my other article, "How to Spiritualize Your Busy Life and Why" on my website through this link.
[This article and more information at www.stephen-knapp.com]