“Samānubhūti is the awareness of parity that leads to deep empathy, compassion, and understanding.”
We have been examining this facet of samānubhūti—the virtue given by Shri Gurumayi for her birthday on June 24, 2022—in Parts III and IV of this commentary. So far, we’ve looked at what deep empathy is, and we’ve begun our exploration of compassion—how it relates to empathy and how it differs from it. And even though our inspection of these qualities has been thorough and illuminating, truly speaking, we feel that the potential for discovery is inexhaustible—there is just so much to learn when we study these qualities through the lenses of Gurumayi’s teachings and our own Siddha Yoga sādhanā experiences, and as we continue to put them into practice.
In this part of the commentary, we will further our study of compassion, and we will also turn our attention to the quality of understanding.
So, let’s dwell a little longer on the quality of compassion. We spoke previously about how, while compassion and empathy may feel similar, one of the features that sets them apart is the external impetus that evokes one or the other of these qualities within us. (For more on this, see Part IV of this commentary.)
Compassion is distinct from empathy in yet another way. Empathy has a one-on-one component to it, a specificity. It requires some kind of connection with whoever it is you’re extending empathy toward. It’s not that you need to know them all that well, or even to have met them personally—but you do need to be able to feel enough of a sense of familiarity to put yourself in their shoes, to feel a resonance with whatever it is they’re experiencing.
While compassion can be focused on one or more specific people (or animals, or plants), it can also be directed more generally—toward a whole group or community or society. One can have compassion for all of humanity in the abstract; compassion is generalizable in this way. By contrast, it’s difficult to comprehend what it would mean to have empathy for all of humanity, since generalizing empathy is counter to its essence.
In Part I of this commentary, we explained that while the most direct translation of samānubhūti into English is empathy, samānubhūti actually has meanings and connotations beyond just this one English word. By connoting empathy and compassion, samānubhūti encompasses both the specific and the more expansive aspects we’ve just described. For this reason, the virtue of samānubhūti is at the core of every generous act, whether it seems big or small. It is the impulse stemming from samānubhūti that motivates us to contribute to food drives to feed the hungry, for example, or to support a neighbor in their hour of need. It is samānubhūti that inspires efforts to protect endangered species, and it is samānubhūti that prompts us to make small changes in the way we live in order to preserve and protect the environment.
In the course of writing this commentary, Garima was looking through her sādhanā journal and came across something she had heard Gurumayi say. It’s a well-known subhāshita, a saying in Sanskrit:
पिबन्ति नद्यः स्वयमेव नाम्भः
स्वयं न खादन्ति फलानि वृक्षाः।
नादन्ति स्वस्यं खलु वारिवाहाः
परोपकाराय सतां विभूतयः॥
pibanti nadyaḥ svayameva nāmbhaḥ
svayaṁ na khādanti phalāni vṛkṣāḥ ।
nādanti svasyaṁ khalu vārivāhāḥ
paropakārāya satāṁ vibhūtayaḥ ৷৷
The rivers don’t drink their own waters.
The trees don’t eat their own fruits.
The clouds do not eat the crops they have watered;
in the same way, good-hearted people
give what belongs to them
for the benefit of others.1
We may not immediately think of nature as having the kind of cognizance and sensitivity that samānubhūti would require, but in its own way, it absolutely does. The waters assuage thirst and the trees satiate hunger. It is inherent in their character to support the survival and the flourishing of others. Similarly, when we remember our true nature, when we reconnect with it for even a moment, it becomes very natural to give the best of ourselves to others.
When we thought about this subhāshita, we remembered a song very dear to both Gurumayi and Baba Muktananda, which we have heard them sing in satsang. It was a song that Baba ji first heard in the mid-1960s when he was traveling from Gurudev Siddha Peeth to Mumbai. At one point, Baba’s car was stopped at a traffic signal, and he heard some children on the side of the road singing a Hindi song. (Much later, someone told Baba that this was a song from a Bollywood movie.) Baba loved both the melody and the meaning of the words; he began singing this song himself and also had the musicians from the Ashram sing it while he would give darshan in the courtyard of Gurudev Siddha Peeth. People who came to visit the Ashram to receive Baba’s darshan and offer sevā loved hearing the song and would hum along with the musicians.
This is the refrain of the song:
नदिया न पिए कभी अपना जल
वृक्ष न खाए कभी अपने फल
अपने तन का मन का धन का
दूजों को दे जो दान है
वो सच्चा इंसान अरे
इस धरती का भगवान है
nadiyā na pie kabhī apnā jal
vṛkṣa na khāe kabhī apne phal
apne tan kā man kā dhan kā
dūjõ ko de jo dān hai
vo saccā insān are
is dharatī kā bhagavān hai
A river doesn’t drink its own water.
A tree doesn’t eat its own fruits.
One who gives to others
of his body, mind, and wealth
is a true human being
and is truly God of this earth.2
As we recall this song, it also brings to mind a very special account that we have heard from fellow Siddha Yogis. Three days after Baba took mahāsamādhi on the full-moon night of October 2, 1982, leaving his physical body to merge into universal Consciousness, Gurumayi addressed a group of Siddha Yogis in what is now Baba’s Samadhi Shrine in Gurudev Siddha Peeth. Gurumayi spoke about the unparalleled life of her Guru, how he lived that life for the upliftment of others, and how for his devotees, Baba was God. Then Gurumayi sang this song, nadiyā na pie kabhī apnā jal. In doing so, Gurumayi wished to describe Baba’s life, and to honor Baba with this poem, this song, that he so loved.
Now that we’ve dedicated ample time to learning more about deep empathy and compassion as they relate to samānubhūti, let us look at how samānubhūti also connotes understanding.
There is a saying in English: “Judging separates us; understanding brings us together.” In Part IV of this commentary, we shared what we have learned from Gurumayi about how judgment cannot coexist with compassion—and that, by extension, it cannot coexist with samānubhūti. Judgment is only possible when we evaluate and assign values to the differences we perceive in our world (i.e., we deem some people or things to be inherently “better” or “worse” than others). Understanding, however, entails the opposite—it implies an effort to bridge differences, a willingness to get to know someone or something outside ourselves, or outside of the beliefs and perspectives we hold close. Understanding is therefore a necessary precondition for expressing samānubhūti.
The Hindi word for “understanding” is samajh, and its meanings include “comprehension,” “discretion,” “intellect,” and “grasp.” To be samajhadār, to be understanding, is to be wise, sensible, and prudent.
There is a story that we, Ami and Garima, heard from a Siddha Yogi and would like to share with you now. It too took place around the time of Baba Muktananda’s mahāsamādhi in October 1982.
In the days and weeks following Baba’s mahāsamādhi, Gurumayi would give darshan in the courtyard in Gurudev Siddha Peeth for hours on end, from when the first colors of dawn shone in the sky until deep into the night. Thousands of Baba’s devotees visited the Ashram to receive Gurumayi’s darshan and to ask for guidance in their sādhanā going forward.
One evening, when the darkness of night had descended and the stars had begun twinkling in the sky—when the perfume of the rātarāni, the night-blooming jasmine, had intensified and was permeating the courtyard—someone came before Gurumayi in darshan and asked her this question:
“Gurumayi ji, how do I do sādhanā now?”
The Siddha Yogi who told us this story said that she vividly recalls what happened next. She heard Gurumayi’s voice, resonating through the still night air with seemingly infinite compassion and with the full power of the Guru-shakti, as Gurumayi responded in Hindi:
तुमने बहुत साधना की है। जो करना बाक़ी है वह है समझना। समझो।
Tumane bahut sādhanā kī hai. Jo karanā bāqī hai vah hai samajhanā. Samajho.
You have done much sādhanā. What is left for you to do is understand. Samajho—understand.
This word, samajho, “understand,” lingered in the atmosphere. It stayed there, suspended and scintillating in the air around the courtyard for several moments that could easily have stretched into hours, a wisdom not bounded by time, and it reached into the hearts of all the Siddha Yogis who were present to receive Gurumayi’s teaching.
In Hindi, there’s a popular saying: Samajhadār ko ishārā kāfī hai. Literally, this means that for one who is samajhadār, for one who is prudent and wise, even just a hint is enough. In other words, a person who has understanding needs only a hint of what’s going on—a word, a gesture, the perception of a subtle shift in energy—to grasp a situation fully, and to tune in to the needs of the moment and act in a manner that is helpful and appropriate. In order to feel and express empathy or compassion for someone, you have to first comprehend, at least to a certain degree, the situation that they are in.
There is another saying in Hindi: Mūrkh ko samajhānā patthar par sar māranā hai. The literal meaning of this phrase is that to try and help a fool understand is like hitting one’s head on a rock. It can serve as a counterpoint to the other saying, implying that not only is it very difficult to try to help a stubborn and ignorant person to understand, but that when someone tries to do so, they only end up hurting themselves. They waste their time and energy in what is ultimately a futile endeavor. In the process, they might also experience disappointment, frustration, and anger.
If you take a moment to reflect on your life, you may find that at times you have been the one who is samajhadār, or understanding, and that at other times, you have been the mūrkh, the fool. The tendency to behave foolishly or ignorantly is often a result of stubbornness rather than a lack of aptitude per se; it is the refusal, rather than the incapacity, to know and act better. As a seeker who has been studying samānubhūti, it is incumbent upon you to be watchful of any tendency you may have to be stubbornly ignorant, and instead to nourish and expand your capacity to understand and be understanding.
So, what exactly does that require of you?
Well, for one thing, to be capable of understanding another’s situation, you need to first be grounded in an understanding of yourself. You have to do the work, the inner work to come to know who you are. That means getting to know your physical and emotional constitution, your motivations, your attitudes, your behavioral tendencies, your characteristic responses to different types of situations. Only when you have understood the “you” in this equation—who you are and what you are—can you even begin to understand and be of support to anyone else. It’s like the safety instructions you hear when traveling on a plane; the flight attendant will tell passengers who are parents or caretakers of young children that in the case of an emergency, they must put their own oxygen mask on before assisting the child in their care. The reason for this is simple. If they pass out from lack of oxygen, who will help the child?
What you will find, if you don’t make the ongoing effort to understand yourself, is that your own agenda will have a sneaky way of usurping even your best-laid plans to help someone else. The parent on the airplane intends to prioritize helping their child; however, their own biology, the demands of their physical body, takes over and thwarts their efforts.
Having said all of this, we want to make something crystal-clear: you actually don’t have to wait to be in a perfect place or state within yourself in order to understand someone else’s situation and express samānubhūti toward them. You might recall how, in Part II of this commentary, you read about how we human beings will always have something going on within us—something is always rattling around in our minds, in our bodies, in the course of day-to-day living. We’ll reiterate here what we spoke about then: it’s about constantly finding and maintaining an inner balance. It’s about learning how to relate—and keep relating—to the many moving parts of yourself, such that when the time comes to support someone else, you’re not preoccupied with what’s going on inside of you. It’s about developing resilience and cultivating your own inner knowingness.
Think about a rubber band. You can stretch it out, you can pull it this way and that, but once you stop, it will return to its original form. A good, solid rubber band will have that innate flexibility, that capacity to adapt and respond to outside demands and pressures (in the form of someone or something pulling on it)—without losing its original nature. This is what it means to be resilient.
To give a different analogy: let’s say you are in a store, and this store is packed from floor to ceiling with products. You, however, are looking for one very specific item. You ask the shopkeeper where this item is, and somehow, in spite of the maelstrom of stuff around them, they know exactly where to go and find it. This is similar to the kind of knowingness that you must have in order to express samānubhūti. It’s not that you won’t have your own “stuff” going on, or that you should not be feeling whatever emotions or sensations are coming up inside of you. Rather, the task for you is to know how to pivot in such situations; it’s to know where to go inside of yourself so that you can be present and available for someone else, so that you can act from a place of genuine empathy.
Now, this inner recalibration—this ability to know and to have the flexibility to act on that knowingness—is not something you can just think into existence. It’s generally not going to be achieved through the intellect alone. This is because when you’re agitated by something, your whole body feels it. Your sympathetic nervous system gets activated. It perceives danger or a stressful situation, and it goes into “fight-or-flight” mode, providing you with lots of extra energy to deal with the situation. Suddenly, adrenaline is coursing through you, and your awareness of and reactivity to your surroundings are heightened. In such a state, it is all but impossible to concentrate on anything other than yourself—especially if you have not learned how to take care of the “you,” if you have not taken the time to understand the “you,” if you have not continually given yourself the sustenance your inner world needs.
So the first step is to understand you—to get familiar with your own inner workings. Next you can equip yourself with tools to help you return to the space of calmness you have discovered and nurtured within yourself whenever it is that you need to do so.
On the Siddha Yoga path, our Gurus have given us the support of the mantra Om Namah Shivāya. They have instructed us in how to focus on the breath, the prāna-shakti. They have taught us that we can use affirmations and, as we mentioned in Part IV of this commentary, dhāranās—centering techniques—such as visualizing scenarios in which we must bring forth the virtues. All of these are methods you can use to restore inner balance by activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which is also known as the “rest and digest” mode of the body. When you are being guided by the parasympathetic nervous system, you conserve the energy in your body and become calm.
Then, from this place of inner calmness that you have discovered, nurtured, and honored through practice, through dhāranās, you can actually hear what someone else is saying to you. You can pick up on what they’re intending to communicate, both verbally and nonverbally. You can resonate with what is going on with them and find ways to support them. You can bring your clarity of understanding to the situation at hand.
As you strengthen your understanding of yourself, you will find that not only do opportunities abound in your day-to-day life for you to extend samānubhūti to others, but that you have become more empowered to do so. Rather than automatically thinking you’re a victim of your own physical and emotional body, you see that you have the choice to shift your focus from yourself to others, and that you have the capacity to make that shift.
Keep in mind, however, that even after you’ve recognized that you have a choice in such matters, the choice itself may not always feel so straightforward.
Say, for example, you have just learned that you didn’t get the promotion at work that you were hoping for. While you are processing this information, a close friend of yours calls you with their own jubilant personal news that they are bursting to share with you. What do you do in such a moment when you’re feeling so polarized inside yourself?
Think about it.
And think some more.
Or, to up the ante a bit: Consider a scenario in which you have some debts that you have been working steadily, over a long period of time, to pay off. Finally, the day comes when you have been able to save enough money to do so. “Ahh,” you think to yourself with satisfaction. “At last, I will be free of debt!”
Just then, you look out the window and you see your elderly neighbor standing in despair next to their car. You run over to them and find out that their car has broken down. They don’t have the means to fix their car or buy another one, nor do they have any family that they can turn to for financial support. You inquire a bit further about how much money they will need, and when they tell you the amount, you realize that it’s approximately the same sum that you have saved up to pay off your debts.
What do you do?
Think about it.
And think about it some more.
To give yet another example: let’s say you have some dietary restrictions. However, your friend is excitedly sharing with you about a delicious dish that they have made, and they are inviting you to try it. They continue to share in detail, listing ingredient after ingredient—many of which, you soon realize, are your favorites, yet you cannot have them because they’re not good for your health. What do you do?
Think about it.
And think about it some more.
To be samajhadār—to be prudent, to be wise, to discern, to understand—is something to aspire to, to long for; it’s a quality to wish to possess. And of course, it is an ability that you can—and must—cultivate and constantly sharpen.
As we, Ami and Garima, were writing about the word samajh, we became increasingly enamored with it, enthralled by the greatness of what it denotes. It’s such a simple word—an everyday word, one that we use all the time in phrases such as: Kyā tumhẽ samajh mẽ āyā? “Did you understand?” Kyā hum samajh paẽge? “Will we be able to understand?” Ye to tumhārī samajh par nirbhar karatā hai. “It depends on your understanding.” Ek bār tum samajh gae to phir spashta ho jāegā. “Once you understand, then you’ll get clear.”
So now we want to share with you a few of the synonyms of the word samajh in the Sanskrit, Hindi, and Urdu languages. (Between the two of us, we are well-versed in five languages, including these three!) To have samajh is to be buddhimān or aqlamand—intelligent, wise, prudent, sagacious, and sensible. It is to be viveki—judicious, discerning, perceptive, and thoughtful. These synonyms have helped us to enjoy studying what understanding and its many aspects mean, and we hope that you will experience the same.
The seat of understanding in one’s being has generally been understood to be the mind. Many scientists have posited that the faculties of the mind reside in, or arise from, the brain in the physical body (although more recently, some scientists and psychologists have begun expanding this definition, suggesting that the workings of the mind may not be solely a product of brain function). The Indian scriptures, however, have always spoken of the mind in a broader sense. The philosophy of Vedanta describes the mind as the antahkarana chatushtaya, the fourfold inner instrument that resides in the region of the heart in the subtle body. The antahkarana has these four aspects: manas, chitta, buddhi, and ahamkāra.
Manas works in conjunction with the sense organs. It takes in the information received by the eyes, the ears, and so on, then registers that information and projects it onto its own inner screen. (For example, manas might take in and project the image of a flower.)
Chitta is the subconscious mind. It is the storehouse of previous memory and knowledge. It takes the information that has been projected onto one’s inner screen and relates that information to what one already knows about it. (“This looks like a flower, and specifically a rose, which has thorns.”)
Buddhi, the intellect, is a faculty of discernment, which makes decisions about what the information is and whether the information is true or false. It also asks questions about that information and determines what one should do with it. (“Yes, this is a rose, and it has thorns. It is important to be careful not to touch those thorns.”)
Ahamkāra, a word which has many related meanings, including “pride,” “ego,” and a sense of “I-ness,” refers to the faculty that gives one a sense of individuality or unique identity. When the other faculties of the mind are receiving and processing information, the ahamkāra will identify one’s relationship or personal association with that information. (“I love roses and their fragrance is my favorite.”)
As you can see, all these four aspects come together—and work together—to make up the mind. If you pay attention, you can notice how understanding arises through the mind’s four faculties, through your antahkarana chatushtaya—in the form of a thought registered by the manas, contextualized by the chitta, discerned by the buddhi, and related to oneself through the ahamkāra .
Sometimes, however, understanding arises fully formed from the heart itself, from the hridaya, the core of your being. When this happens, it is called a pure spanda, a divine impulse that you might perceive as simply energy, a knowing that requires no articulated thought, memory, or discernment. You just know, and you know exactly what to do.
One way that you can refine your ability to understand—especially in terms of understanding the people and situations around you, so that you can extend empathy—is through observing others. How do other people express the virtue of samānubhūti? Make note of how they applied their intellect and their mental acuity to the situation, how they got in touch with and acted from an intuitive place within. You might, for example, notice that some people will express samānubhūti by holding someone’s hand as a gesture of comfort; others, meanwhile, might just sit silently by their side. Some might use humor to bring a smile to another person’s face; others might make it a regular practice to pray for other people’s well-being. Inspired by all the many examples of samānubhūti around you, you can find your own ways of applying your understanding and expressing samānubhūti.
We’d like you to remember that however you approach learning about, practicing, and implementing this virtue, the moment that you decide to do so is the right moment. It is the moment to go for it. Procrastination will have to take a back seat if you want to build momentum in your efforts to cultivate and act with samānubhūti! To use a well-known expression: you can take it one step at a time, one day at a time. No effort is too small.
Click here to read Part VI