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Who is a Mahatma ?

By Rabindranath Tagore

(This is a speech by Guru Rabindranath Tagore wherein he explains the meaning of 'living a life of sacrifice' and how human beings can reach immortality). 

I wished, when I came to Ahmedabad to visit this Ashram once more, in which I spent a happy time with you a little over two years ago when Mahatmaji was with you. I know how very deeply you are all feeling his absence from your midst and how you would like me to speak to you before I leave. I will try to do so very briefly.

You are all living in this Ashram a life of self-sacrifice. I do hope that you will be able to realize the significance of that discipline which you are undergoing. All training, which takes the form of self-renunciation, has its positive aspect. It is nothing negative. Only, unfortunately, human beings make the mistake and get infatuated  with the idea of suffering for its own sake and as an end in itself. That idea is not true.

What, then, is the true meaning of sacrifice? It means that for human beings, the life of the body is not the best life, but the life of the soul. The material world which we share with the animals, is not the only world. We have higher needs, because we have a deeper and a higher life hidden within us. That hidden life is immortal. Our physical life has its immortality. Only those human beings, who can get rid of the sheath of self, can reach that immortality. They must lose their separate self in order to realize the infinite. They must become Dwijatwice born; born of the spirit; born into the light.

They who realize the Infinite in themselves become immortal.

They realize the life that knows no loss; and it is the privilege of human beings to be born again into the sphere of immortality. Just as the chick breaks through the shell and comes out into the light, so men must break through the shell of self  and come out into the world of spiritual freedom.

Since men have always felt dimly that the  material world is not final, therefore, they have sought all kinds of discipline in order to rid themselves of its thraldom and bondage. All the different religions of the world have this one meaning. They express this one aspiration. They point the way to be born again, even through the portals of deathinto the world of spirit, the sphere of immortality.

All forms of self-sacrifice, if they are true, must have this ultimate goal, the goal of freedom from the self into the realm of the unselfish. We must all of us have our tapasya, if we would truly get rid of self. That is the meaning of the prayer of our sages:

Lead me out of the world of unreality into the kingdom of the truth.

Lead me out of the world of darkness into the light.

Lead me out of  the world of death to immortality.

This prayer, which we all must utter, must be supported by the life of self-sacrifice. You are in this Ashram, going through that discipline of sacrifice. You are striving through tapasya to reach that Amrita Loka that kingdom of immortality.

I am sure, you all feel that the spirit of Mahatmaji is working among you. What is the true meaning of the great word Mahatma? It implies the emancipated soul that realizes itself in all souls. It means the life that is no  longer confined within itself, but finds its larger soul of Atman, of Spirit. Then in such realization it becomes Mahatma. For it includes all spirits in itself.

That spirit is working among you, that Great spirit. You have to realize that it is not  merely deprivation of comfort that has any value. There is no true value  in sacrifice, in tapasya except the spiritual value. For it is said in the Upanishad:

This is divinity of universal activity who is the great soul, who constantly dwells in the hearts of all people. They who know him with the heart and with the mind, which is sure in its perception, become immortal.

The meaning is this. The great universal spirit, the Mahatma, whose activities are for the world, is not for any confinement, or limitation, but for the universe. Therefore this Deva himself is called Vishvakarma. He is the Infinite Soul, whose activities are for the whole. He dwells in the hearts of all. The Infinite Soul, whose activities are boundless and whose dwelling place is in the hearts of all human beings, he is the Mahatma.

The Upanishad text goes on to say:

He dwells in the hearts of all men.

The meaning is that they who know him with heart and mind shall attain immortality.

To know him with the heart and mind is to be Vishvakarma, to dedicate one's activities to the service of the Universal Man; to be one with Mahatma, the Great Soul, to realize one's spiritual unity with all beings.

Our discipline of self-sacrifice is to attain this goal, it is to be emancipated from the confined life of self and to attain the true freedom of the spiritual life. It is for this great end that men are required to live the life of sacrifice.

In our scriptures it has been wonderfully said that Brahma began this world with sacrifice. Thus, he created the universe. Therefore, self-sacrifice in this higher sense, is creative. When men live this life of self-sacrifice, they come thereby into touch with the Infinite whose great sacrifice is this world. When we have this spirit within, we are one with the Vishvakarma, we are united with the Mahatma; we become his partners, his fellow-workers, in the boundless work of creation.

Source: Aspects of Gandhian Thought