Studying the lives of saints inspires us along our spiritual journey. We learn about the possibilities of our own achievements through their examples.
Part one of this article defines a saint and explains the value of hero worship. A saint, by the Eastern definition, is a human being who has achieved spiritual enlightenment. You might find a saint in any walk of life: managing a business or a family, teaching crowds of devotees, or living in a mountain cave. There are no physical characteristics that fit each and every enlightened person. A saint walking down a crowded street doesn’t look any different than you or me.
In this post, we continue to explore how studying the lives of saints can support us on our paths, both worldly and spiritual.
When we study saints’ lives, we might come to either of these conclusions:
- They are so exalted and special, we could never achieve their state, or
- They were human beings, like us, and as fellow human beings, we too can experience a life of peace and happiness.
Obstacles to Understanding
One of the biggest obstacles on the spiritual path is the belief that we can’t achieve a state of saintliness. That belief holds us back. It drains our inspiration and motivation. Like any effective obstacle, it impedes our progress. But this is an obstacle that is within our power to remove.
The Importance of Faith in Our Potential
We must have faith that Self-realization is possible for us. Studying the lives of saints helps us develop that faith. It’s the saints’ inner holiness that we want to achieve—perfect peace, joy, and love. As spiritual aspirants, we must believe in our potential—that we can achieve spiritual enlightenment—in this body and in this lifetime.
This quote, published by a wise and successful businessman is appropriate:
“Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” ― Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich
The Notion of Miracles
Another obstacle on the spiritual path is the notion of miracles or special powers.
There’s no reason to doubt the existence of miracles. Milarepa was known to fly through the sky. Many saints were miraculous healers. Some brought the dead back to life. A few saints have been reported to physically ascend to heaven after death.
We like miracles and are attracted to them. In fact, miracles are so intriguing that those are the stories that last the longest. The problem with a focus on miracles is the mistaken belief that all saints perform them. What might follow is the belief that to become saintly, we must also be able perform miracles.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a bible among yoga enthusiasts, outlines the practices needed to obtain special powers. Interestingly, Patanjali also warns that attachment to these powers is an obstacle on the spiritual path. They are to be avoided by anyone who seeks the highest realization.
Expectation of Fame
Another obstacle worth mentioning is seekers’ expectations of being recognized for their achievements—fame. Most enlightened beings don’t become famous. They live quiet lives outside the notice of others. Most of them don’t even become teachers of any great status.
Persons of quiet, unrecognized holiness do not attract crowds. They don’t get written into history. And yet, they exist.
We Can—and Must—Become Saints Ourselves
Several years ago, my Guru visited Yogananda’s headquarters in Los Angeles. A young starry-eyed nun led the tour, singing the praises of her Guru (as she should). While describing her Guru, she admitted, “But we can never reach his high state of Self-realization.”
Later, as Gurudev was relating this story to us, he said, “What is the point of being a disciple if you can’t become like your Guru?” That’s something I appreciate in any teacher—especially one who has reached the summit of spirituality.
Ideally, human beings evolve during the course of their lives. Eastern philosophy teaches that the individual soul evolves through many births. That evolution leads to enlightenment. A great teacher will say, “If you want to know what I know, here’s the way,” and then encourage, instruct, and support the student until the goal is met.
Self-realization is no more difficult to achieve than becoming a concert pianist, a doctor, an engineer, or an Olympic gold medalist. What these occupations have in common is focused dedication over a long period of time.
Make Your Selection Carefully
Just as we select our food carefully, being attentive to its nutritional content, we must also choose our mental food with care. Reading or studying is a form of keeping company. The choices we make have a direct effect on our state of mind. Choose well.
If you’re new to the spiritual path and feel unable to make your own wise choices, it’s best to seek help. The list provided in part one of this article is a good start.
Avoid Doubt, Criticism, and Fault-Finding
The first ingredient to benefiting from studying a saint’s life is to keep an open mind. The often-quoted saying that “attitude is everything” also applies to reading the lives of saints. In his autobiography, Baba says:
“It is not at all desirable to question the characters of great men, their noble qualities and extraordinary actions…Do not judge their actions by the criteria of vice or virtue. Each action of theirs is sacred, being divinely inspired.”
Even in everyday life, doubt, criticism, and fault-finding disturb our peace of mind. When we read about the lives of saints, such negativity is even more detrimental. If a saint’s story is not resonating or inspiring to you, then find another that does.
Understanding develops over time. Sometimes a reader is not sufficiently ready. Reserve judgment. Most spiritual seekers return repeatedly to their favorite stories and texts, discovering a deeper meaning each time.
Spend Quality Time on the Lives of Saints
Studying the lives of saints is worth adding to your daily list of practices. Set aside a few minutes each morning and evening to read about your favorite inspirational person.
The following is a verse from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:
“Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by…meditating on the heart of an illumined soul, that is free from passion.” (1:33, 37)
As you study the life and teachings of your chosen saint, try to imagine what he or she looked like. What was the life and culture like at that time? How did he spend his day? What sort of hardships did she endure? Look for the lessons in their lives and teachings, especially those that are easily applied in your own life.
Use your imagination and feel that you are in the physical presence of a divine being.
Have Faith in Yourself
Put aside any doubts you might have about your abilities or worthiness. Remember this: you have the supreme blessing of a human body. You have the ability to make choices and take actions. And you have a mind that is capable of great things.
As you read about the lives of saints, you are keeping company with them. Through their company, your mind becomes purified and holy. Gradually you become like them.
All yogic texts and great teachers tell us that enlightenment is within our reach. Start with a tiny seed of belief in your own possibility. Plant that seed in the fertile soil of sincere effort. Nurture its growth until the fruits mature—those of perfect peace, love, and bliss.
The Lives of Saints: Share Your Favorites with Others
Has a spiritual leader, Eastern or Western, inspired you to be a better person? Please take a moment to share your recommendation with others in the comments section below.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.
Svāmi Chityānanda Sarasvati,
Our minds are like sponges. When one places oneself in any situation for any length of time one can pick up something good or not so good. That’s why being in the presence of a saint or reading about a life of a saint could only be helpful to one’s spiritual journey. Lately, when I have some important and sometimes tough decisions, I ask myself what would my Gurudev do, or I remember the things he has taught me and apply it to my situation. Keeping company with saints could only help you live a life that is good and God-like. Thank you Svami for another inspiring article.
Thank you for your nice comment, Nakisa. You apparently already understand the value of keeping company with saints and have had some good experience with that practice. I know you are better for it. Namaste.
I love this Quiet Karma, it is refreshing. It helps me build spiritual confidence, and increases faith in my self and my practice. Thank you!
Thank you, Mary. I’m so happy to learn that you are benefiting from Quiet Karma. It’s for you. Namaste.
Good Morning. This thought captured my attention: “Most of them (saints) don’t even become teachers of any great status.”
I read recently that Swami Muktananda (Baba) said that a genuine disciple is content to stay, go or do whatever his Guru says. Baba stayed where his Guru said. As it happened, many people came to be with him and even fame…but fame was never his goal. His only goal was to be an excellent, surrendered disciple of his Guru.
Baba also points out that destiny brings saints fame and infamy, health and illness and every other condition we encounter in this world. For good or ill, when their destiny comes, the Realized man or woman has a supreme advantage: unshakeable, unbreakable inner communion with God’s bliss. Thank you for this opportunity to ponder the life of a great saint…
Thank you for pointing out that statement, Rob. It’s a common misconception that spiritually evolved people become popular leaders and attract huge crowds of followers. I’m of the opinion that just the opposite is true. We walk among saints every day without knowing it. And, one day soon, we are one of them. Namaste.
What you’ve said is very helpful to keep in mind. To spend time with a Saints teaching and life story is always inspirational. To understand what they did to achieve the goal of realization shows what needs to be done and that it can be done. Thank you.
Thank you for commenting, Lee. I’m so pleased that you and others have noticed the message that spiritual enlightenment is a real possibility for us all. Namaste.
More often than not, I read something by one of the great saints only to realize Svāmī Gurupremānanda has said a similar thing or sentiment. His words help reinforce what I read.
Thank you for sharing your experience, James. I’m sure that other readers are encouraged to know how reading the lives of saints affects your own practice. Namaste.
Re: As you read the stories of saints you are keeping company with them. Through their company, your mind becomes purified and holy, like them. Gradually you become like them.
Like Richard, I am inspired after reading this line. Let’s get this straight; I can purify my mind and become like an enlightened person. You also say gradually and this makes sense also. It takes time for everything in this life. It takes time to develop talent, to make money, to grow a garden. Thanks for the article. It makes me feel I can make spiritual progress.
Thank you for reaffirming an important principle, Modesto: We become like the company we keep. It’s so much better to keep company with those who inspire us and make us believe in our potential. Yes, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, heading in the right direction, and you will realize your goal. Namaste.
Re: Avoid Doubt, Criticism, and Fault-Finding
One of the most memorable scenes for me in the movie “Jesus of Nazareth” was when Jesus looked directly at a disciple (and the audience) and said, “Don’t judge.” He meant it!
It was also Dale Carnegie’s first principle: Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.
Thank you for commenting, Roxie. Saints say that the world is like a mirror; it reflects your own inner state of mind. That means, when we find fault with others, it’s coming from an place of discontent within ourselves. Better that we should only see the good in others! … The movie scene that you describe illustrates a saint’s words according to a movie director’s concept. Still, a good lesson, and apparently it made an impression on your mind. … Would you like to enlighten us further on your Dale Carnegie quote? Where can readers find his other principles? In what book? Thank you, SCS.
Dale Carnegie’s first principle: Don’t criticize, condemn or complain, can be found in his book “How to Win Friends & Influence People.” “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” is also very helpful. Both books can help anyone gain and maintain firm footing for their spiritual journey.
I feel very inspired after reading this. My thrill started with the first line: “Studying the lives of saints inspires us along our spiritual journey. We learn about the possibilities of our own achievements through their examples.” Fascinating are the pathways, challenges, and victories that permeated the lives of the saints I have read.
Thank you, Richard. I’m so happy to learn that this article struck a chord within your own heart. It sounds like you have a good deal of enlightening experience reading about saints’ lives. Namaste.
This essay caused me to reflect upon my own experiences in finding my teacher, Swami Gurupremananda. I have been most fortunate to not have gone from saint to saint looking for a teacher. I found him and did not have to equivocate about his teachings. I truly feel that when doubt and negativity set in, the mind doesn’t just look for a good way out, and this can be dangerous. Much of what I have studied in the scriptures hasn’t taken on meaning until I pause and reflect on some of my own past experiences. I remember an incident where I was attacked verbally and I didn’t lose my cool, in fact, I smiled and expected that everything was going to be okay – quiet and calm. And, that is what happened! The strength came from keeping company with my teacher, and for that I will be eternally grateful.
Thank you for giving us a real-life, personal example of what saintly company has done for you, John. Namaste.
I am glad to see that you talk about the importance of believing that it is actually possible to become a saint and become like the Guru. It requires diligence and focus but is possible. The saints can seem so elevated that it can be hard for us to think that we can attain their state of realization.
Thank you, Tim. I think it’s an important part of our journey to believe that perfection is possible. That belief gives us strength when the road gets rough or when we need to pick ourselves up after a fall. It also keeps us focused when distractions come along. What fool would dedicate their lives to an unattainable goal? Namaste.
The phrase “Inner holiness” is very meaningful. It ties in with your quote about “meditating on the heart of an illumined soul, that is free from passion.”
Reflecting on the hardships the saints endured is a good reminder. Ramana Maharshi said that transcending the false self is a hero’s journey. Thanks for this post.
Thank you for contributing, Elizabeth, and for Ramana Maharashi’s comment about the false self. Another word for false self is ego (for the readers who might be more familiar with that term.) And, yes, getting rid of the ego is not for the faint of heart–it really does require heroic effort. But that kind of effort is entirely possible for anyone who sincerely wants the prize. I also think, that with the right attitude, the spiritual path is not a hardship. We can call it that if we want to, but I doubt that a Self-realized being thinks it’s anything but the price to be paid. Namaste.