Universal Life-guides

by | Feb 15, 2021

I had gone to Greece in 2006 with my wife and had spent a week there. We traversed from Athens to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in the hills and sailed in the Saronic Gulf to the Hydra, Poros and Aegina islands in a cruise boat. In Athens, one of the world’s oldest cities, with its recorded history spanning over 3,400 years, I roamed around as if in a trance, while my wife attended her conference. There were ruins with their stories everywhere – the Acropolis with the temples of Parthenon and Athena Nike, the Agora marketplace, and the Panathenaic Stadium, with a capacity for 60,000 spectators, constructed around the year 335 before common era.

I also visited the cave at the Philoppapos hill, where Socrates was tried and sentenced to drink poison for his refusal to give up his philosophical views. It looks so strange in today’s modern world of deal makings. Even a cursory study of world history reveals that in different times, people living in totally disconnected lands had got a consciousness upgrade. The first such, or rather well established, instance is the “Axial Age” some 2500 years ago. Socrates in Greece, Buddha in India, and Confucius in China were talking from a higher level of consciousness. Having accomplished his mission, Socrates left this world satisfied, what if by drinking poison. 

The term for religion used in the Indian civilization is “Sanatana Dharma” – an eternal order of righteousness. It is a constant ascent of consciousness since time immemorial conveyed through individual thinkers for articulation and communicated to the people around them. Lokmanya Balgangadhar Tilak (1856-1920) traced the origin of mankind to the Arctic Circle from where early humans traversed to the Northern parts of Europe and Asia in search of lands for new settlements around 10,000 years ago, possibly due to an ice deluge. This hypothesis is contrary to the Western narrative but is indeed quite credible.

The sky at the North Pole would have been seen by the early men as a heaven revolving around as a potter’s wheel. The stars would not rise and set but move round and round in horizontal planes during the long night of six months. The empty horizons, the whooping winds, the fire emerging out of stones… this stunning drama was recorded in several Vedic and Zoroastrian hymns, which looks weird to the people living away from the poles in the modern world, but that is how it was. Our ancestors knew that human beings are not only very small, but also very ephemeral. 

The order in ever-changing phenomenon was observed and recorded. It was called “Rta” by the Vedic people and seasons were therefore known as “Rtu” in most of the Indian languages. People lived together through consensus and cooperation. The ancient Indian, Greco-Roman and African societies were governed by the elites with widespread participation of the people. Then the game of thrones started. Empires started capturing territories, dividing people into winners and losers – the Mauryan, the Persian, and the Roman empires became the new world order. However, universal ideas keep flourishing beneath ever-changing political formations. 

In this period of empire-making, a businessman, Zeno from Citium, Cyprus, had a shipwreck, losing all his wealth and landed in Athens as a pauper. There, he got introduced to the ideas of Socrates, who had lived there a 100 years earlier. Zeno believed in the divine nature of the universe and the end goal of human life to achieve one’s highest version by living according to Nature. He started a school that attracted many young people. He used to address his students from a painted porch, “Stoa Poikile” in Greek. His teachings acquired the name Stoicism, or the philosophy of “The Porch.” One must live in the world like a person smiling on the “porch” after coming out of his house after a big fight with his spouse.

This disposition resonates with the term “Stithpragya,” introduced in verse 52 of the second chapter in the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita. It indeed refers to the mental disposition of one who is situated in divine consciousness. In the next 18 verses, such a person is elaborately described. For us ordinary people of the world, “Pragya” is wise, intelligent, and learned; whereas “Sthit” means grounded, anchored, stayed, steady, and firm. When combining both words “Stithpragya” means — a person who has disciplined the mind and senses, is firm in judgment, and free from any delusions. In other words, it refers to one who is contended, determined, and steady in life. 

In Stoic literature, we come across concepts like “Eudaimonia,” which means human flourishing, prosperity, and blessedness, perfectly matching a Stithpragya. And Stoics tell you to take responsibility, live expressing your highest self (“Arete” in Greek), and focus on what you can control, leaving the result to the higher power, as if explaining verse 47 of Chapter II in the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita in a different language to a different audience.

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।

मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि।।

Your right is for action alone, never for the results. Do not become the agent of the results of action. May you not have any inclination for inaction. 

An IT professional, Jaisooria, is my son, Amol’s friend. He lost his father, Dr. Kalpetta Balakrishnan, renowned writer and ex-secretary of Kerala Kalamandalam, and a humanist philosopher, in December 2020. Balakrishnanji taught at Sree Kerala Varma College at Thrissur and was a senate member in Cochin and Calicut Universities. When Amol told Jaisooria about my observation of a great parallel between Stoicism and the idea of Stithpragya postulated in the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Jaisooria told him that during his last days, his father was contemplating to write on this topic. Taking it as God’s will, I will take up this task now.

Religion and mythology have long been used as vehicles for philosophical teachings but in the Internet driven world, these vehicles seem to have gone out of fashion, if not turned obsolete. Universal philosophical themes – action without attachment, the perils of escapism, oneness with the universe, and the pitfalls of desires – do not need rituals, gurus and cults. They need to be practiced in everyday action. The power of philosophy to blunt the blows of fate is a credible tool at everyone’s disposal. 

I leave you with three cues from Marcus Aurelius: (1) If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it;  (2) Dig within. Within is the wellspring of Good; and it is always ready to bubble up, if you just dig; and (3) Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you shall have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?” If you practice these simple suggestions, you will feel much better, and even more effective in whatever you are doing. 

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25 Comments

  1. Your blog with enriching thoughts on the divine nature of the universe and end goal of human life is very interesting Prof Tiwariji!

    Your elucidation of universal guides for contented, determined and steady life is excellent !!

  2. Is this necessary? What a powerful Mantra!, In de-cluttering unnecessary thought & action .In the first paragraph you told while roaming Greece , You felt like you were in trance .In same way many of us act & think the way society or system demands without thinking whether our action is required or not ? While consciously adhering to necessary action & thought we can gain enough time & space in mind to patiently face all situation, which help to attain STHITTHPRAGYA State.

  3. Thank you for this treasure of facts and thoughts, Sir. I found the alternative hypothesis about the origin of mankind intriguing and worth exploring. The idea of night for six months and empty horizons at the North Pole. This window to the galaxy, where time may not even have a measure — and would be meaningless, in fact. Indeed, just imagining this, one gets a sense of how tiny and inconsequential is man, along with his routines, ‘goals’ and also the ebb and flow of his fortunes!

    You relate Zeno’s tale, who lost everything, and ended up being a Pathfinder. Not any ordinary pathfinder, but one whose philosophy corresponds to the highest level of teachings — those in the Gita. Socrates fulfilled his mission here and passed onward, “so what if from drinking poison”. Perhaps nothing is a `tragedy’ really…that is the message one gets.

    How to make sure that fate’s blows will drive us to growth and evolution, rather than ‘distractions’ and escape measures? How to create a predisposition to Stoicism among the younger generations? These are my next thoughts, Sir.

  4. That you got into a trance while measuring the streets, the ruins, the temples and above all the huge capacity Stadium built then in Greece is understandable. It was bound to resonate and play Calypso music for you to enjoy while Mrs Tiwari was at work there. Building the world’s largest cricket stadium at Motera in Ahmedabad Gujarat with a seating capacity of 110,000 spectators, in present modern era of Technology falls way too short of the Panathenaic Stadium built in Greece then of 60,000 capacity. No wonders they were the host to the first ever Olympic international competition on April 6th 1896 with athletes from 13 nations.

    Makes me ponder, why Greek language which served as the lingua franca including in the adjoining Italy so much so that even the Greek intellectuals performed most of their work in Rome… then why, how and from where did crop up, the non understandable – ‘It’s all Greek to me.’ The travel aficionado that you have been has lots of things up your sleeve to share….and I love it time and again.

    Right, what if Socrates in Greece died by drinking poison (Perhaps his choosing exile would have been his acceptance of guilt). Buddha in India out of illness and infection, (His last words – Strive on untiringly, be your own light) and Confucius in China (His gospel – not to be ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crime) All the legends crossed over fully satisfied and contended showing a path for generations to come – Tread on, with faith in yourself, strive on with pure thoughts and fear not but rectify your mistakes. Empowered with these enriching thoughts, one can move on to cross over. This indeed would be a wonderful transshipment. Your soul will welcome the new dawn promising to shine brighter.

    Your well worded, nothing short of sermons – to remain grounded, anchored, steady and firm besides possessing a disciplined mind, firm judgment and free of delusions surely signifies the individual having attained what Socrates, Buddha or Confucius preached, what they propagated. Life appears well lived, blessed and now ready to move on.

    The teachings from religion and mythology, the recourse to in earlier times, the one which became the go to teacher and which empowered our forefathers as torch bearers, for guidance and for showing the righteous path are now passé. Couple of more generations and our recourse to them would exit. Yes! You are absolutely correct; the internet driven world has and is fast taking over. Good or bad, is debatable, but the fact remains that human values, thoughts or needs to be satisfied and contended in life will always form the roots of a well lived life. Showing the path to tread to attain nirvana could come from any source be it old teachings from Vedas or the new internet guidance but the root needs to be strong, well watered and well manured throughout the life to have a nice healthy green and fruit laden tree. A tree to provide shade and fruit to the seeker that in my opinion would be life well lived.

  5. Sir, Stoicism is indeed a very practical philosophy. All Stoics were men of action—Marcus Aurelius was emperor of the most powerful empire in the history of the world. Cato, the moral example for many philosophers, defended the Roman republic with Stoic bravery until his defiant death. Epictetus, the lecturer, was a former slave. And honestly, I find you practicing Stoics at Care Foundation. You kept yourself, and us shielded from whatever unwholesome was going around us to very good results.

    I have read the books of Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Anti Fragile, Black Swan, for example. We can call him a modern-day Stoic. He described a good man as someone who, “transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation and desire into undertaking.” Using this definition as a model we can see that throughout the centuries Stoicism has been practiced by Kings, presidents, artists, writers and entrepreneurs. Stoicism is indeed a way of life.

  6. Thank you Sir for sharing this wonderful article. Your articles have always been an eye-opener for me. Your teachings on Bhagwad Gita got me inspired to read more about it and adapt the lessons in day-to-day life.

    It was interesting to know how similar the teachings of Stoicism and Bhagwad Gita are.
    Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.

    Gita teaches us to focus on actions and not the result like you rightly said.
    It is important to inculcate these values in this modern era of internet chaos where nobody has the time to reflect and ponder on their actions.

    Thank you again for always enlightening me with your blogs.

  7. Dear Sir, Your Blog is like an awakening call to the society after going through one year of Pandemic. And to convey your idea of awakening the consciousness, you have chosen history as the background. Greece is truly an ancient country and we have all read about Athens and Socrates in our history books. You are very right when you say that even in ancient times, the awakening of consciousness took place at far of remotely located different places. The teachings of Lord Buddha and Socrates are so similar because the consciousness belongs to the Atman which is so pure and same in all human beings, however far away they may be from each other.

    You have defined Stithpragya which is stated in verse 52 of the Chapter II of Shrimad Bhagvad Gita. No other book explains the devine comsciousness better than Bhagvad Gita. I have just finished the reading and understanding of Bhagvad Gita and its teachings. No wonder, Shri Krishna gave these teachings to Arjuna to make him mentally strong and discipline his mind and senses to fight the strong Kauravas and their very strong Army.

    I am of the firm opinion that if you have truly understood the teachings of Bhagvad Gita and practice them in your life, rest of the spiritual books become redundant. The whole essence of the Lord Krishna’s teachings is that you are responsible for your actions alone and after that do not bother for the outcome. Leave it to Lord Krishna. This has been explained in the holi book at many places in different forms.

    In the end you have, in a way, summarized the teachings from Srimad Bhagvad Gita – action without attachment, oneness with universe and pitfalls of of desires. No doubt, if one practices these teachings one can attain Moksha and get rid of the cycle of the birth and death. What Marcus Aurelius said was spelt out by Lord Krishna much before – that one has to dig within to understand the true nature of devine life. The last Chapter (Chapter XVIII) of Bhagvad Gita is devoted to the three types of life, one lives in this world- SATVIKI, RAJSI and TAMSI. If one can understand these and works towards in transforming oneself from a TAMSI life to RAJSI and then to living a SATVIKI life, he will live a most fulfilling life.

    Jai Shri Krishna, Jai Hind.

  8. Nice article Sir. There is an air of suspicion that always raises when one talks about religion unfortunately because people view religion from a narrow prism of getting gains either political or otherwise. To complicate matters in our society, rituals get associated with religion which leads to unnecessary discussions. If one concentrates on the teachings of every religion then the nomenclature or the worshiped God, the Society will be far a better place to live.

    Mythology was effectively used in the earlier times to propagate the religious teachings but with time, this has been adulterated with talking only about rituals associated with any religion. I do not think anyone of us are in a position to comment on the authenticity of these rituals (other than to misuse the freedom of expression liberty) as we first do not understand or implement the teachings of any religion.

    The article has been well narrated in a simple way and the three cues possibly captures the essence of how we need to live and operate in life. Many of us ( in real sense, I hope) are caught up with the retrospection act and hardly do we introspect ourselves. Having said this Sir, we all find ourselves in many situations doing things which are not in the best interest, but fall a slave to the compulsions of our day to day living because of the expectations that are set in us about “way of living”. This is where the second cue of Dig within (introspection) is such an essential part of our living.

    In my school days there were two subjects ; one was Moral Science and the other was SUPW (socially useful productive work). It helped me in understanding and valuing the essential needs of our life, the values and contribution we can make in life in simple ways and the importance of the kind of lifestyle one needs to follow. More than what we contribute the attitude and intention to contribute effectively is far more important.

  9. Guidance in life is indeed very important. It comes from religion and traditions and mostly provided by parents and teachers. Unfortunately, everyone is so busy that this function is not being performed properly. Your blog is therefore most timely and a wakeup call.

    As you very rightly pointed out there was a consciousness upgrade, 500 BC, like we have OS updates in our devices. Since globalization in the late 1990s, and due to the Internet available on phone, there is excessive cognitive load on our minds.

    You have been regularly asking us to spend some quiet time with our own selves and I take this article giving the basic reason for that. “Dig within. Within is the wellspring of Good; and it is always ready to bubble up, if you just dig.” Thank you, Sir, for this wonderful refresh!

  10. Thank you for sharimg such an excellent blog Sir. I have always been of the opinion that the Bhagvaf Gita is a good tutor in terms of how to live life. It keeps one grounded and teaches us how not to let emotions get the better of us. The values and principles of Sanatana Dhatma are what help steady a person as society decays further and further.

  11. Reading your posts helps me rediscover places. Be it the Acropolis or the Socrates cave, everything seemed larger than life, radical, charismatic and counterintuitive I would say. Travelling with Dr. Kalam made it more meaningful because he too would philosophise unhindered and it was a pleasure.

    To live a fulfilling life in an ever changing world we must try to do as much good as possible or at least no voluntary harm. That kindness and goodness being the foundation of all religions, cultures and philosophies over the world cant be portrayed better than than your thoughts. In harmony with moral reality alone, we can create a milieu in which everyone flourishes.

    As for me philosophy of any religion can model itself as truth seeking, innovative and transformative with a clear conscience.

  12. Dear Sir The last paragraph is the ultimate source of lifestyle management, The only important thing is to control your mind and to decide the priorities for yourself, Actually it is being practiced more frequently in IT PROJECTS, We are now doing this on a daily basis in stand-up meetings, It really very effective. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Warm Regards.

  13. I am not well read in historical and philosophical literature. Reading your posts does give me a lot of interesting information on these two aspects. Visiting old historical places does bring in a very strange feeling inside depending upon the degree of association one indulges in with a monument, particularly with those, which are in ruins today. However, they do impart an important lesson of life – howsoever strong and grand one may be, all will disappear one day and lie in ruins. One has to be humble in life and thankful to the Almighty for whatever one is today.

    ‘Consciousness upgrade’ is a constant endeavor of human race. An ex-ICRISAT British scientist, Rupert Sheldrake, had proposed a theory that if a sub-population of a species learnt new skill somewhere, the other sub-populations of the same species elsewhere, although isolated, will also pick up the same skill. He also published a book on his proposed theory. I believe the Nature had instituted an award to validate this hypothesis. There appears to be not only vertical upgrade but also horizontal upgrade of the consciousness.

    Universal ideas or fundamentals, provided they are correct, will continue to flourish unchanged irrespective of changing social, political and religious scenario. Message of the Gita, ‘do your duty, result is not thy concern’, is well known. However, a duty is performed to ensure some result. Action without attachment is possible but without concern for the result would be akin to taking an aim in darkness. Similarly, posing a question, ‘is this necessary’ each time, would result in complete inaction in the end. Barring very basic necessities of life, all other things are non-essential to survive and live-on. Regards

  14. Dear Arun ji, Thank you for sharing this blog. The last para message on avoiding unnecessary, untruthful, wrong and non essential things is excellent to become more effective.

  15. Prof Tiwari, Reflecting on your article, I could not help but wonder if we have succeeded as a people to see value in the lives of others, would we be comfortable if people did to us what we often do to them and feel the same?

    The last paragraph is everything that needs to be done if our happiness will be sustained, I mean genuine personal satisfaction in our lives: “Three cues from Marcus Aurelius:

    1. If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it;
    2. Dig within for the wellspring of Good; which is always ready to bubble up,
    3. Most of what we say and do is not essential.

    Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”

    The wisest man to have ever lived admonishes us in Proverbs 17:27, 28: 27 He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit. 28 Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.

    We do well to live this principle! ‘I am because we are’ is the essence of the Ubuntu spirit!

  16. Excellent Arunji.. The 3 clues from Marcus Aurelius at the bottom of the article made my day for sure. And within that as well, simply loved the 3rd one – “most of what we say and do is not essential”. And absolutely when I look back through my life, this becomes so so evident.

    Just eliminating the non-essentials from longer term perspective, which all seem to be essentials at the spur of moment, has potential to remove all the complications and complexities in life. This will probably need un-training the mind to some extent from wasting non-fruitful efforts in lots of mundane stuff, looking deeper, wider & broader in everything we engage and enjoy the mental and physical bandwidth saved on to be calm & happy..

    Wish to be able to retain some learning from this towards realizing the beauty of life!

  17. Thank you for your thoughtful blog. And for informing me of the advice of Marcus Aurelius, the most important of which is the first piece of advice: if it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.

  18. Beautiful piece your write up on stithaprajya reminds of the Sufi parable below. Worth a read !!

    “The Sun and the Cave”

    “One day the Sun and a Cave struck up a conversation. The Sun had trouble understanding what “dark” meant and the Cave didn’t quite get the hang of “light and clear” so they decided to change places.

    The Cave went up to the Sun and said, “Ah, I see, this is beyond wonderful. Now come down and see where I have been living.”

    The Sun went down to the cave and said, “Gee, I don’t see any difference.”

    When the sun went down, it took its light along and even the darkest corners were illuminated. That’s why the Sun couldn’t see any difference.

    There is a quote from an old book that says “The enlightened ones can never be sent to hell or pushed into darkness. They carry their heaven on their shoulders all the time”.

    We thought that heaven is a place where we are supposed to go, but it was a state of mind we were supposed to achieve.

    If you are illuminated like the Sun, then the darkness of the cave wouldn’t matter.

    You’ll be carrying your Heaven with you.”

  19. Sir, Your blog has clarified that Sanatana Dharma is the original idea of ‘order’ in nature. There are unseen forces acting upon what is visible. The visible appears out of the invisible and dissolves back into the unseen. “The term for religion used in the Indian civilization is “Sanatana Dharma” – an eternal order of righteousness. It is a constant ascent of consciousness since time immemorial conveyed through individual thinkers for articulation and communicated to the people around them.”

    Recently I received through WhatsApp a scanned copy of a book “Santana Dharma: An Elementary Text Book on Hindu Religion and Ethics” published in 1916 by Central Hindu College, one of India’s largest schools which is situated at Kamachha in the heart of the holy city Varanasi. You may like to write a blog on this book sometime. “Our ancestors knew that human beings are not only very small, but also very ephemeral.” Thank you Sir for enlightening us.

  20. Let me put my little take on Stoicism.

    The world around us is a sequence of changing and flowing events. Our life is defined by two things: (1) The events that happen around us; (2) How we respond to those events, and what values, expectations, and beliefs we project onto them.

    We should take full responsibility for the things in life within our control, which are: our thoughts & perceptions, our beliefs, our values, and our actions.

    We should accept the things outside our control, which are: other people, the weather, time, the economy, traffic, public opinion, etc.

    Thank you Tauji for this wonderful blog. When India beats England tomorrow in Chennai cricket test, I am not going to celebrate it as my victory, as my first realization.

  21. Religion and mythology as said are the two important tools of philosophical teachings. In this era of smartphones, we still need a guiding light within us and people have became aware of the fact in the time of pandemic.

    I myself truly believe, that do your best and forget about the results. My inner peace and satisfaction lies on the fact that, I did my best and gave my 100% to the job.

    The question “if it’s necessary” seems to solve our major issues, if we ask ourselves every time taking an action. The major task is to develop a habit of the same.

  22. Good afternoon Sir, You taught Stoicism as part of our Medical Humanities course in MBA Healthcare at Hyderabad University. It was a wonderful experience and I have retained it with me since then. As a teacher now, I am proud to be your student.

    During the throes of modern life, it is easy to lose ourselves in our daily chores, occupations and moments of freedom, temptations, and great choices. The demand for our time as we become ever more engrossed by what we are expected to do but these expectations are usually projected onto the situation itself. We fret, we become stressed, we consume excessively to sate this internal turmoil and recover, repeating the cycle time and again to ease any discomfort.
    Thank you Sir.

    It is understandable why we become upset at times, based on so many factors being out of our control. Yet to be mindful of this and to manage any possible outcome with detachment is perhaps the key to maintaining a consistent and positive disposition.

  23. Sir, I recall attending one lecture you gave on Stoicism. It was many years ago, maybe in 2012. I did not capture much at that time except that it is a practical philosophy. After reading this blog I can understand better. Or maybe years since then made me mature. I am writing here my five understandings, lest I myself lose these insights and with the hope that it will benefit others.

    (1) You can’t change things outside of your control, but you can change your attitude; (2) Don’t fall prey to modern society’s materialistic nature; (3) Picture life without the people and possessions you have to truly appreciate them; (4) Be genuinely cheerful in all your interactions; and (5) Practicing your values beats preaching them.

    Above all, when frustrating things happen, breathe, recognize your emotion and the reason for it, and let it pass. You can’t do anything about it anyway. All that you can control is your reaction, and all you can do is embody goodness and appreciate all you have, which is something I’m sure we’ll all find joy in.

    Thanks for making my day with this blog.

  24. Dear Sir, Interesting observations, and the 3 cues are very apt for the current situation. The only challenge that keeps arising is the verse from Gita that you have also cited:

    कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन |
    मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि

    In the current situation, where people are measured only on outcomes & results , I am thinking if we can really absolve ourselves of the results and say I did my duty?

  25. Thank you Sir for this wonderful blog. My own exposure to Greek was through Trigonometry and the famous Pythagoras Theorem. I was indeed fascinated with Greek alphabets alpha, beta, gamma…. and on my own learnt the entire 24 letters. In fact, our word “alphabet” comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta! The letters u and j, as distinct from v and i, were introduced in the 16th century, and w assumed the status of an independent letter, making 26 letters in English Alphabet.

    Stoic philosophy and Bhagavad Gita sound so similar. I think we have overdone the mythology part in our religions, and it is high time that we focus on the core spiritual content of eternal religion – the Sanatana Dharma. “Universal philosophical themes – action without attachment, the perils of escapism, oneness with the universe, and the pitfalls of desires – do not need rituals, gurus and cults. They need to be practiced in everyday action.”

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