Power of solitude: save it for the last
Hinduism teaches life management through the ashram system - the journey of the mind from outside to inside. As a religious philosophy, Hinduism encourages experience and avoids a dogmatic approach. The seers and philosophers highly extolled the expansive experiential living that the Ashram system (Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyas ) offers. Even modern life coaches and spiritual gurus focus on experiential living as the best way to live fully. As a way of life, Hinduism suggests various measures to stay in harmony within and with the outside world and various preparatory tools for life management. One such preparatory tool is Ekant (एकांत- Solitude). It's a powerful tool for self-awareness and acquiring true knowledge( para Vidya). Ekantin (एकांतिन), or the person practising ekant, is highly respected in Hindu religious and philosophical history. The Sanskrit word Ekantin is translated as " devoted to one object only ''. Ekantin is highly revered in the Vaishnav sect of Hinduism.
To stay in isolation is a positive attribute; it's an idea of completeness within. A person practising ekant internalises knowledge that he has gathered through various scripture or in the company of great sages. Even a person involved in acquiring deep knowledge is suggested to practice solitude to internalise the information he has gathered to process it into knowledge
चर्चा करु तब चौहटे, ज्ञान करो तब दोय
ध्यान करो तब एकिला, और न दूजा कोय (Kabir)
However, solitude is perceived differently by different people. For few, it's the absence of people and society around us, a negative state of isolation. For some, it's quality time with yourself. The idea of solitude is broad, from the perception of absence to the perception of self-presence.
To practice, solitude is a strength in Hinduism. Ekantin is an influential person who has started his inner journey and is in harmony with his inner world. We seek people and society around us as we avoid solitude. If we have a problem with solitude, then it means deep within, we have a problem with ourselves, with our thought. Staying happy in solitude means we have started the inner journey.
Wise Gurus, scholars and sages advocated Ekantwaas (एकांतवास ) as essential to manage and prepare for the sannyasa (सन्यास) stage. We can not control the end of this physical body, so it's wise to accept and prepare for what we can't control. The practice of Solitude or Ekantwas is vital in this regard. Ekantwas helped in practising non-attachment to progress with Vanaprastha and sanyas. Also, ekantwas was advocated as a method of repentance or prayaschit (प्रायश्चित) as people introspected their actions when they were in solitude.
In Mahabharat, after the Kurukshetra war was over, the righteous Vidura was disturbed. He felt helpless at being unable to stop the considerable loss of human life, including his relatives. At the same time, he felt guilty for being party to this bloodshed. Not comfortable with his actions and thoughts, he left the kingdom and wandered across the country. He stayed various days in solitude, practising yoga (योग) and yajna ( यज्ञ). He remained in the company of the great sage Maitreya for some time and learnt the secret knowledge of self. He practised solitude to internalise the knowledge he had gathered from Maitreya and other sages.
Vidura returned to Kurukshetra after several years of practising solitude and travelling to sacred places. He shared his experiences with the royal family. He observed that though Dhristrashtra was getting all respect and comfort as a king, he still looked sad and distressed. He suggested Dhritarashtra shun the life of comfort in the palace and move to the company of great sages at the bank of a sacred river, practising yajna( यज्ञ) and yoga (योग) in solitude. Only this act will provide him relief from his mental agony.
After hearing the experiences of Vidura, Dhritarashtra was in double Minds. Yudhisthira, however, was not willing to let his uncle Dhristrashtra go. It was only after the interference and guidance of the wise sage Vyasa, Yudhisthira agreed to let his uncle go. Vyasa told Yudhisthira to grant permission to the old King Dhristrashtra to retire to the woods and not die an inglorious death at home. Vyasa said, "O, Yudhisthira, Let the old King follow the royal path of the sages retiring to the woods. This is the highest duty of royal sages. According to the scriptures, they should die either in battle or in the woods." Sage Vyasa and wise Vidur knew that Dhritarashtra must practice penance for his wrongdoing and accept vanaprastha ashram to be in harmony and prepare a glorious migration to the other world.
The practice of penance is highly valued in the Indian system. As action or karma ( कर्म )is central to Hinduism, so is penance or prayashchit (प्रायश्चित) for our intentional or unintentional wrong actions. Since there is no escape from karma, all the prescribed paths at the end lead to penance or prayaschit. The life of a person practising penance has various degrees of actions ranging from accepting their misdeeds, charity, fasting, pilgrimage, bathing in sacred waters to changing their lifestyle by residing in forest areas and banks of a holy river, staying in the company of great sages and meditating in solitude.
Vidura convinced Dhritarashtra that he must practice penance for his wrongdoings. He must repay through penance for his non-action when he needed to act. Vidura told Dhritarashtra that he and his sons tried to kill Pandavas and forced immense suffering on them and Draupadi. So it is Wise that Dhristrashtra should leave this royal comfort, proceed to the woods, stay in the company of great sages and practice yoga and meditation in solitude.
Gandhari, Sanjay and Vidura decided to accompany Dhritarashtra to the forest-dwelling. Parting with their beloved uncle and senior was enough sadness for the royal clan and Pandavas. But alas, who could ever fight with destiny? Pandavas were stuck upon another thundering piece of information that Kunti, their beloved mother, had decided to proceed to the banks of the sacred river to practice detachment and penance along with Dhritarashtra and Gandhari. With her sons, their wives and grandchildren settled in the royal life; she felt it was the right time to proceed to the vanaprastha ashram.
Though everyone tried to convince Kunti to stay in the royal comfort as she had struggled a lot and her time had arrived now, she was firm in her resolve. She said that she does not want to waste her life enjoying the fruits of the sovereignty that her virtuous children have earned. Her duty was over; she was always with her children when they needed her most in difficult times. She now was desirous of gaining merit through meditations and yajna while dwelling in the forest.
The next day, at the dawn of the morning, Dhritarashtra, Gandhari, Kunti, Sanjay and Vidura proceeded towards the city's outskirts to embark on the inner journey. After a few days of travelling, they reached the banks of Bhagirathi. The place was called saptsrota (सप्तस्रोत) as the river was divided into seven streams at this point.
There they met great sage Satyupa and stayed in his company practising river bathing in the sacred waters, practising yoga, meditation, and Yajnas. Satayupa, the famous King of kekayas, had handed over the kingdom to his son and proceeded to the forest to celebrate the next stage of his life like a true royal.
To summarise, the journey starts from outward expression to inward realisation, and the last two phases of Ashram dharma help progressively achieve inner realisation. Vanaprastha and sannyasa ashram help in the gradual withdrawal from worldly obligations for a peaceful migration to the other world. Solitude has that power which will aid our progress of inward realisation, which is a prelude to peaceful migration to the other world.
निस्सङ्गत्वे निर्मोहत्वम् |
निश्चलतत्त्वे जीवन्मुक्तिः ‖ 9 ‖ ( Bhajagovindam)
Staying in the company of good people (saints) gives rise to non-attachment; from non-attachment comes freedom from delusion, which leads to awareness of reality; understanding of reality leads to emancipation which makes way for the liberation of the soul (jīvan-Mukti), while still alive.
मयि चानन्ययोगेन भक्तिरव्यभिचारिणी |
विविक्तदेशसेवित्वमरतिर्जनसंसदि || 11|| ( Bhagavadgita 13.11)
constant and exclusive devotion toward Me; an inclination for solitary places and an aversion for mundane society.
(in BhagvadGita, For those seeking to know kshetra and its nature, specific prerequisites are mentioned .out of various conditions, the inclination of solitary places is one)