The word “discrimination” has negative connotations, because we very often use it in negative contexts. For example, “racial discrimination,” “caste discrimination,” “gender discrimination,” etc. As a result, it is quite common to hear advice against discrimination. We are advised to treat everyone equally, without making value or character judgements. These ideals are considered very noble, but we do not see them practised widely. Even those who follow them cannot follow them all the time, because everyone judges and discriminates at some level—in fact, it is the very function of the intellect to discriminate and make judgements. Asking a person with intellect not to make judgements is like asking a person with ears not to hear.
Actually, we need to make judgements, and cannot live without them. If a man enters a ladies bathroom at the airport, there will be a commotion. If you park your car in the spot reserved for handicapped, you will be fined. In certain countries, you can lose your head if you kiss your partner in public. So one needs to make proper decisions and judgements according to particular situations. We need to discriminate the men’s room from the ladies’, the regular parking spot from the handicapped spot, the acceptable place from the unacceptable place for romantic expressions.
Not all discrimination is negative. It does not need to involve insult, condescension, or disparagement.
In Indian philosophy, discrimination is called viveka, and is considered an attribute one has to practice for spiritual advancement. The word viveka is derived from the verbal root √vicir which means “to separate” or “to see the difference between two objects, qualities, or activities.” Viveka is the basis for right judgement, right understanding, discernment, etc. On the path of knowledge, jñāna-yoga, it is one of the four attributes of a spiritual discipline.
Discrimination is required when two things are mixed up with each other in a way that makes distinguishing them difficult. It is easy to discriminate between day and night or white and black, but it becomes difficult to discriminate between one shade of white and another. In life, the eternal and the ephemeral are mixed up with each other in much the same way. Therefore, in spirituality, viveka ultimately refers to the ability to differentiate between the real and unreal, eternal and temporary, self and non-self, material pleasure and bliss. Thus viveka is a spiritual practice of realizing the Truth.
In jñāna-yoga, it is one of the key elements for achieving mokṣa, or liberation. The great Hindu philosopher, Ādi Śaṅkara, wrote a famous poem entitled Viveka-cūḍāmaṇi (“The Crest Jewel of Discrimination”), where he described viveka and its importance on the path to liberation. He defines viveka as follows:
brahma satyaṃ jaganmithyetyevaṃrūpo viniścayaḥ |
so’yaṃ nityānityavastuvivekaḥ samudāhṛtaḥ || 20 ||
“The definite comprehension that Brahman is real and the universe unreal is called discrimination (viveka) between eternal and the ephemeral objects”.
Although viveka has utmost importance on the path of jñāna-yoga, it is also an important aspect on other paths such as yoga, karma and bhakti, because all these paths are based on the basic fact that the self is distinct from the physical body and mind – which is the most fundamental instruction of Kṛṣṇa in the very beginning of Bhagavad-Gītā. All these paths believe that the root cause of our suffering is ignorance of our true identity as the self. Out of ignorance, we consider ourselves as the physical body, which houses the mind, and we become thus conditioned. This results in continual suffering, birth after birth. This is the root cause of all sorts of evils in society. In other words, all these spiritual paths believe that the inability to distinguish the self from the non-self is the root of all our problems, and therefore viveka is a very important attribute for a spiritualist on any path.
All our decision making involves viveka, even in our day-to-day life. We need viveka to have good human relationships with family members, friends, co-workers and members of society because we cannot treat everyone in the same manner. The way we treat our parents is not the same the way we treat our children. The way we deal with our boss is different than the way we treat our junior.
Viveka is based on wisdom. We use our wisdom to separate that which is beneficial from that which is not beneficial. Education imparts wisdom, morality and ethics, and therefore informs our own power to discriminate and make beneficial decisions. Viveka is therefore developed by careful education and critical examination of an event or a situation using reasoning and analysis.
Benefits of viveka
Viveka helps us set and stick to priorities; with viveka we can favor what is more important over what is less important. Viveka is also what makes us unique as an individual. Without it we just follow the crowd mentality and we are more like a sheep.
Viveka also allows us to break bad habits. Habits are formed by the repetition of an act that produces pleasure. It is a bad habit if that pleasure comes at an undue cost. The mind on its own will not break a habit because it always flows towards a pleasure it is accustomed to. Kṛṣṇa explains that discrimination is superior to the mind (Gītā 3.42), because it is only viveka that allows us to see: “Wait, this actually produces more harm than good.”
A person with strong viveka sees the mind’s inclinations (likes and dislikes, fears and desires) as transitory, and sees the self as permanent. Thus he is not entirely invested in the mind’s inclinations and can muster the force to change them and form new habits.
Because of this, a discriminating person ultimately turns his attention away from the world of objects and focusses on the Self. This is the main sādhana of jñāna-yoga. Until discrimination is perfect, a person will get caught up in the world of transitory pleasures and sufferings. If we understand the Self or Absolute Reality to be the most important, our efforts will naturally be directed towards knowing this Self. This is possible only if we use our viveka properly.
Viveka leads to vairāgya
Viveka therefore produces vairāgya (“dispassion”). The word vairāgya means freedom from rāga, and rāga means passion or attachment. The mind moves in the grooves of rāga (and its opposite, dveṣa).
“Attachment” is the impulse to cling to a particular object or activity. The mind naturally focuses on the objects it is attached to. The more intense the attachment, the more deeply the mind meditates on that object or activity. Thus, the mind of a person under the influence of rāga and dveṣa is always pushed and pulled, and cannot be truly peaceful or free.
One may wonder if it is even possible to be free of likes and dislikes: “As long as we have senses, they will have their attraction and repulsion for certain objects. Even a liberated person would therefore like certain foods and dislike others.” The answer is that having likes and dislikes is not a problem. The problem lies in becoming attached to them. A liberated person’s mind is not attached to his likes and dislikes. He does not get agitated by having or not having them. He remains balanced. He is not controlled by them. If he likes the taste of a particular food and does not get it, he is not agitated by that. On the other hand, a common person becomes bound by his likes and dislikes. They are a sort of addiction to him and if they are not supplied to him, he feels miserable. Therefore, to be enlightened or liberated does not mean a total lack of likes or dislikes. It also does not mean that a liberated person has no emotions. He is not a peace of stone. He has desires and emotions but is in control of them. He is not controlled by them.
Incidental and real vairāgya
Vairāgya is of two kinds. The first type is incidental or causal vairāgya. Sometimes it is called śmaśāna–vairāgya or the “dispassion that arises when one participates in a funeral ceremony.” This type of vairāgya comes on account of some miseries in life or by the influence of some specific situation in life such as the death in the family. It is not a lasting dispassion, because as soon as the situation changes, the vairāgya also disappears. The mind of a person who has incidental vairāgya waits to enjoy what he has given up. As soon as he gets the opportunity, he plunges himself into enjoyment. His true color comes out, and he goes back to the former state. In fact, now he enjoys with more intensity because his senses were starving.
The second type of vairāgya is based upon viveka, discrimination between the real and unreal. One who has such vairāgya gives up objects for sensual enjoyment, knowing that they are illusory. This type of vairāgya is stable and leads to spiritual advancement. Such a person will not give up spiritual practice and will not revert back to sense pleasure.
Bhakti is like asking you to burn your house, but who would like to do that? Bhakti is difficult to follow because you have to change. Krishna says nobody really knows me. I know everybody, and nobody knows me. To know him you have to destroy your palace. And what opens to you is a new world that is most amazing, most wonderful and you wonder why didn’t I do this before? Why didn’t I get rid of this nonsense?
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