Q: Do we attain spiritual fulfillment and ultimate freedom through self-effort or through God’s grace? Which of the two is more important?
A: Self-realization dawns through God’s grace, but it would be a big mistake to abandon self-effort or to underestimate the role it plays in the spiritual quest. The grace of God is like rain, which falls without regard for which areas will benefit from it. Areas with impermeable or infertile soil remain barren even when they receive plenty of rain. But in fertile land that has been prepared to receive and retain moisture, crops thrive, trees grow, and flowers bloom when it rains. The same is true of our ability to receive the ever-flowing stream of grace, assimilate it, and benefit from it.
Grace comes in four main forms: atma kripa, the grace of oneself; shastra kripa, the grace of the scriptures; guru kripa, the grace of the guru; and Ishvara kripa, the grace of God. When these four graces converge, enlightenment dawns.
Atma kripa, the grace of your own self, is key because without it everything else goes in vain. Every spiritual quest rests on individual self-effort. No one but you is responsible for the success or failure of your spiritual endeavor. Your sadhana will not bear fruit if you fail to put sustained effort into your practice. When you are inspired, alert, and motivated, you invest yourself fully in your spiritual quest. This is atma kripa, your own grace emerging from deep within.
Without strong self-motivation, you are like rocky or compacted soil. No matter how often it rains, the water rolls away and nothing grows. But when you cultivate self-motivation, courage, and enthusiasm, when you are alert to your own thought processes and observe, analyze, and examine yourself, you make yourself permeable, and by doing so, you invite the other three forms of grace to walk into your life.
When you are open to learning, for example, shastra kripa dawns. Shastra means “scripture”—a book whose inspired content flows from a master’s direct experience. Scriptural transmission is so perfect and pure that you receive the master’s experiential knowledge without contamination or distortion. That is why the scriptures are said to be our living teachers.
As you study the scriptures they begin to unveil their meaning. For example, as you read and reflect on the first book of the Yoga Sutra, you come to see that sutras 1:33–36 are particularly significant. That insight leads you to study and assimilate sutras 1:47–51. From there you go to the second chapter and eventually come to focus on sutras 2:15–18 and then on sutras 2:46–55. As the meaning of these sutras becomes clear, you do your best to practice them. As you begin to get a sense of exactly where this practice leads, a totally different understanding of the third chapter reveals itself to you. That is shastra kripa in action.
Through the grace of the scriptures you gain a deepening understanding of the higher dimensions of life, overcome your trivial concerns and doubts, and become even more inspired. This reinforces your atma kripa, and your commitment to your practice and study strengthens.
When you are alert, doing your best to practice and to study scriptures and other inspired books, the guiding force within you and outside you—guru kripa, the grace of the guru— walks into your life. That is why it is said: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” In its own mysterious way, this guiding force enables you to receive and comprehend whatever is best for you. And once you receive guru kripa, God’s grace dawns spontaneously.
In other words, all four graces work together. When the first three forms of grace are with you, you do not need to make any effort to receive God’s grace—it dawns automatically. Behind all four graces lies a powerful force: karuna, compassion, the unconditional love of the divine for all individual souls. This eternal and ever-flowing stream of divine compassion manifests in all forms of grace, and leads sincere seekers to complete fulfillment and ultimate freedom.