Let us accept it. We all have this problem, this difficulty, this shortcoming, this imperfection. This hunger for praise by others.
It is one of the most serious difficulties or imperfections we come across when we walk the path of becoming self-aware, especially becoming aware of the nature of this part of our being called the ‘vital’ part*. It is serious because even though outwardly we may not think that we have this difficulty, we forget that it is quite capable of expressing itself subtly, often cleverly hiding under labels such as need for ‘self-esteem,’ ‘motivation’ etc.
“[Vital] is the life-force and desire-force in a man and the part of the being that responds to desire and is the instrument of the life-forces.”
“There are four parts of the vital being—
- first, the mental vital which gives a mental expression by thought, speech or otherwise to the emotions, desires, passions, sensations and other movements of the vital being;
- the emotional vital which is the seat of various feelings such as love, joy, sorrow, hatred, and the rest;
- the central vital which is the seat of the stronger vital longings and reactions, e.g. ambition, pride, fear, love of fame, attractions and repulsions, desires and passions of various kinds and the field of many vital energies;
- last, the lower vital which is occupied with small desires and feelings, such as make the greater part of daily life, e.g. food desire, sexual desire, small likings, dislikings, vanity, quarrels, love of praise, anger at blame, little wishes of all kinds—and a numberless host of other things.” (Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – I, CWSA, Vol. 28, pp. 185-187)
Ordinarily, we live in what Sri Aurobindo refers to as ‘surface vital’ and we are mostly driven by the lowest part of our vital and its cravings and desires. And as per its un-transformed nature, the vital ego has this need for appreciation, this hunger for praise by others. We not only want to be accepted by our peers or colleagues, we also want to be praised by them for our accomplishments, our achievements, our good deeds. We even desire this praise from our family and friends! It makes us feel ‘good.’
From an ordinary point of view, it may be argued that there is nothing wrong in expecting a decent dose of appreciation or even praise from others, especially if we have done something that is praise-worthy, that is admirable. And it would be the most ‘human’ argument because it is indeed human nature to expect so.
But it would also be an argument or justification coming from the same part of our being – our lower vital ego – which is the seat of this difficulty to begin with, only using the mental part of our being toward its own end, its own self-justification. (In ordinary language we would refer to such a behaviour as an ‘excuse’!)
But the hard truth is that this ‘oh-so-human’ tendency of our nature is exactly what binds us to all sorts of emotional-mental prisons, prisons of our own creation, so to speak. This bondage prevents us to proceed on the path of our further progress — path that will not only help us move ahead on the scale of becoming a better, a more evolved human being, but may also open the door to transcend the limitations of our ‘oh-so-human’ nature by gaining a greater sense of inner equality, a greater sense of detachment from the reactions of others, a greater sense of calm within and a deeper self-confidence and trust in oneself.
How can we work on this craving of the lower vital part of our nature? By making it see the Light — Light of Reason, which is in turn illumined by the Light of the Spirit. By re-kindling the Fire within, the Agni which is the Will for Progress, the true Progress, the Agni which kindles the Aspiration for the Truth, the Truth of our being, the Agni in which we must offer all the imperfections of our nature, including this craving and hunger for praise.
The Mother explains this perfectly:
“One of the commonest demands of the vital is for praise. It hates to be criticised and treated as if it were of little importance. But it must be always prepared for rebuffs and stand them with absolute calm; nor must it pay attention to compliments, forgetting that each movement of self-satisfaction is an offering at the altar of the lords of falsehood. …your own vital being and the vital forces behind it thrive—that is to say, fatten their ignorance—by absorbing the flatteries given by others. But you must remember that the compliments paid by creatures on the same level of ignorance as oneself are really worth nothing, they are just as worthless as the criticisms levelled at one. No matter from what pretentious source they derive, they are futile and empty. Unfortunately, however, the vital craves even for the most rotten food and is so greedy that it will accept praise from even the very embodiments of incompetence.
“What, however, is of genuine worth is the opinion of the Truth. When there is somebody who is in contact with the Divine Truth and can express it, then the opinions given out are no mere compliments or criticisms but what the Divine thinks of you, the value it sets on your qualities, its unerring stamp on your efforts. It must be your desire to hold nothing in esteem except the word of the Truth; and in order thus to raise your standard you must keep Agni, the soul’s flame of transformation, burning in you. It is noteworthy how, when Agni flares up, you immediately develop a loathing for the cheap praise which formerly used to gratify you so much, and understand clearly that your love of praise was a low movement of the untransformed nature.”
“Agni makes you see what a vast vista of possible improvement stretches in front of you, by filling you with a keen sense of your present insufficiency. The encomium lavished on you by others so disgusts you that you feel almost bitter towards those whom you would have once considered your friends; whereas all criticism comes as a welcome fuel to your humble aspiration towards the Truth. No longer do you feel depressed or slighted by the hostility of others. For, at least, you are able to ignore it with the greatest ease; at the most, you appreciate it as one more testimony to your present unregenerate state, inciting you to surpass yourself by surrendering to the Divine.” (The Mother, CWM, Vol. 3, pp. 137-138)
But why Agni? What is Agni? And how does it work?
We recently celebrated, Diwali, the festival of lights, a festival whose inner significance goes back to the Vedic foundations of Indian spiritual culture with its emphasis on invocation of Agni, the inner Light, Force and Will, the Aspiration for Truth.
“Agni in the Veda is always presented in the double aspect of force and light… Psychologically,…we may take Agni to be the divine will perfectly inspired by divine Wisdom, and indeed one with it, which is the active or effective power of the Truth-consciousness.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda, CWSA, Vol. 15, pp. 65-66)
“[Agni] is a truth conscious soul, a seer, a priest and a worker,—the immortal worker in man. His mission is to purify all that he works upon and to raise up the soul struggling in Nature from obscurity to the light, from the strife and the suffering to love and joy, from the heat and the labour to the peace and the bliss. …the flame of the divine will and knowledge is visible even in the densest obscurity of inconscient or half-conscient things. The infallible worker is there even when we see nowhere the conscious light of the guiding mind.” (ibid, p. 388)
The question we must ask ourselves is this — outwardly when we were lighting the diyas on the dark night of Diwali, were we able to remember the inner significance of this invocation of Light, the Agni — the purifying flame of Aspiration and Will and Force? And did we remember to offer the innumerable difficulties and imperfections of our vital nature, including this hunger for praise, in that purifying flame of Agni?
We should have.
We need not wait for next Diwali. We can begin today, this evening, by lighting a diya to invoke the inner Agni. We can do it every morning and every evening. Like it has been done by our ancestors since times immemorial. The important thing is to ‘remember and offer‘ — to remember what the outer act, the outer fire symbolizes, and to offer our imperfections and difficulties into that purifying flame of the inner fire, the inner Will.
*Sri Aurobindo makes a further distinction between the 'surface vital' which is narrow, ignorant, limited, full of obscure desires, passions, cravings, revolts, pleasures and pains, transient joys and griefs, exultations and depressions, and the 'true vital' which is wide, vast, calm, strong, without limitations, firm and immovable, capable of all power, all knowledge, all Ananda, and without ego, for it knows itself to be a projection and instrument of the Divine.