The Value of Satsang
Following the several months when many of us had to do without satsang because of the coronavirus pandemic, it might be helpful to revisit why satsang is so valuable. Perhaps its absence has reminded us of how precious it is and rekindled our longing for it.
In Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. III, Maharaj Charan Singh is quoted as saying:
If your boat is caught in a storm and you reach the shore, you feel so relieved. We are all in the storm of our mind, and when we go to the satsang of the mystics, we find we can land on a shore. How relieved we feel. Satsang is a great anchor.
Although satsang can never be a substitute for our own spiritual practice, it is nevertheless an essential part of our spiritual development. Sat means truth and sang means association or company. Truth is the true Master and in his company we grow spiritually. Satsang is a school of spirituality, a school with a difference because it is run by a realized soul who is one with the One. At satsang we receive an education of the heart (the spiritual heart or the soul). We learn about our true nature and our true position in the world and we learn about our relationship with our Creator and how to get back to him. We discover where we come from, who we are and where we are heading. Jesus Christ explained the essence of satsang when he said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
The Master is present at every satsang whether he is delivering the discourse or giving darshan, or whether it is a group meeting held without his physical presence. But are we there? Baba Ji counsels that we should rise above the limits of mind and body. In our group meetings we intellectually say he is here, but do we really know it? Do we act as if we believe it? Actually, if it was more than a mere concept for us, our approach and behaviour would be very different. The paradox is that it is by listening to satsang and acting upon what we hear that we get the precious insight that attending satsang is very important – whether the Master is physically present or not. Paltu Sahib, a true Master who lived in eighteenth century India, explains:
The Name of the Lord remains unknown, and without his Name,
Attachment to the world does not vanish. Until attachment goes,
There can be no release from bondage. Without release,
Longing for the Lord does not awaken. If longing is absent,
Devotion will not blossom. Without devotion,
Love will not be kindled in the heart. Without love, there is no Name.
And without the Name, no saint.
Seek the gift of satsang therefore, O Paltu.
Saint Paltu, His Life and Teachings
Paltu explains that satsang is the means whereby the whole process of going back to the Lord is set in motion. Satsang is given as a grace of the Lord and it is that grace which gives us enough faith to start regularly keeping company with the Master. It is the beginning of a soul’s transformation from being trapped by ego to realizing its own divine nature. Paltu’s beautiful words remind us that we are seeking the Shabd (the Lord’s Name), without which we can’t get rid of the attachments that tie us to the physical. It is only as satsang works on us and these attachments start to dissolve that the gift of divine longing unfolds. Longing establishes the soul’s natural devotion for the Lord. Devotion turns to love and we realize that Shabd (the Name) and the giver of the Name (the Master) are ever present.
In Spiritual Discourses, Vol. II, Hazur Maharaj Ji explains that in the company of the worldly, man loses his inborn spiritual qualities, whereas in the company of holy men or saints, he develops spiritual wisdom and love for God:
Our minds, as you know, are easily influenced by the company we keep. When we spend time with drinkers, we take on the habit of drinking; with smokers we get into the habit of smoking; with thieves, we begin to steal. When we keep the company of saints, devotees and lovers of God, we automatically develop the habit of devotion, whether we want to or not. That is why the Masters tell us to associate with saints.
In the quotation above, the Master gives very clear advice. He is not saying, “Well, you can attend satsang if you get time in your busy life.” He is rather implying that we must cling to those enlightened souls, the mystics, because only clinging to the enlightened ones will give us the chance to end the tyranny of the ego’s habitual worldliness. In associating with the saints, we will see holiness in action before our very eyes.
Maharaj Charan Singh gives further advice on what we can expect to hear at satsang, telling us, “There is never any pettiness or criticism of others in the satsangs of the saints … they simply pay homage to the Word and praise the Name … Guru Nanak Sahib says: “Know that as true satsang where the principle of the one Name is explained.”
There are many types of institutions in the world that call their meetings ‘satsangs’. They sometimes also perform the function of social clubs engaging in communal activities and even matchmaking. This all has its place in society, but true Masters consider the real satsang to be the place where only Nam or Shabd is discussed. Hazur Maharaj Ji reinforces this point when in Spiritual Discourses, Vol. II, he says:
My friends, that alone can be called satsang where the desire and longing to find the Lord is awakened and the method for uniting with him is described…. Saints clear up our misconceptions and remove our doubts and illusions through their company, through their satsang. They arouse within us the desire and longing to meditate on the Name…. What illusion are they referring to? Since everything we see is unreal, it is all an illusion. The real is what we cannot see, and the saints awaken within us the desire to experience it. They detach us from our love for the creation and engender within us a longing to find the real.
Soami Ji of Agra recognizes that though the effect of satsang may not be immediately apparent, it will ultimately bear fruit. He says in Sar Bachan that for those who are in love with the “unreal” – the creation – it will take time, but that by attending satsang we will at least be protected from the worst effects of the world:
Satsang comes first. Those who remain in satsang receive many benefits. A stone which remains in water keeps cool although the water does not penetrate it; still it is better than the stones outside the water. Likewise, the worldly people come to the satsang and are not affected by it, but this does not matter. Anyway they are better than the out-and-out worldly people. In course of time they will begin to accept the influence.
The Master’s powerful presence is actively at work in satsang. The following short poem by Kabir Sahib, a true Master who lived at the same time as Guru Nanak and Guru Ravidas, hints at the unseen process that takes place:
Master is the magic stone,
With humility and care;
He is the burning candle
To which neighbours come
To light their candles
From its flame
Kabir, The Weaver of God’s Name
Kabir Sahib explains that the true Master is an alchemist who owns the mythical philosopher’s stone that turns base metal into gold. The philosopher’s stone here is a metaphor for Shabd. If we are honest with ourselves, thinking back to our first encounter with satsang, were we not just like lumps of rusty metal, hypothetically speaking? But through the Master’s loving words and encouragement we take to the purifying four principles and gradually sort our lives out. His grace and our meditation (which we can only perform by his grace) effect the transformation.
Satsang is the most wonderful opportunity for us all. Let us remember that the alchemy is active whether he is physically present or not.