Answer: Viveka means discrimination, or the ability to correctly discern one thing from another. For instance, when we go to the market, what do we do? We look for the good vegetables, which go into our basket, and we leave the bad vegetables there. We do the same with good fruit and bad fruit. When we shop for shoes or clothes we check to see if there are any defects in them. We keep what is good and leave what is not good in the store. This is discrimination.
Normally, people who are more conscious will choose good food over bad food because it is healthier. They will choose clean air over toxic air, good exercise over laziness. If we have discrimination, we go to the gym, we practice yoga. We learn, first of all, how to discriminate between what is good for us and what is not good for us on a physical level.
There is also discrimination at the mental level, which is a very strange level of discrimination between pure thoughts and toxic thoughts. Although we would never take in spoiled or toxic food, something very bizarre happens when it comes to thoughts: we just joyfully let everything come in. This is very foolish because thoughts are more important, more essential, than physical food. Lord Jesus explains this very beautifully when he says, “It is not so much what comes into the mouth that affects us,” meaning physical food, “but what goes out of the mouth that affects us,” meaning what we say. The words we speak are physical, external expressions of our thinking so that others can understand our thoughts. Speech is manifested thought. Nevertheless, even though thought is more important than food, our discrimination on the mental level is usually lacking because we let all types of junk thoughts come in. We should not take in toxic thoughts any more than we should take in junk food. Swami Vishnudevenanda taught the practice of positive thinking and meditation, which teaches us how to take in good thoughts. This is also a discrimination — negative thoughts out, positive thoughts in.
Then we come to the ultimate discrimination. It is all well and good to keep our physical body healthy, or our mind healthy, but for what purpose? What is it good for except to improve our condition within samsara, within this vicious cycle of birth and death and misery in between? Think of it as if we are in a mega prison, a huge prison. We try to improve our conditions in the prison and this is one way to do it. Remember, though, that you are in a prison, so even if you improve your conditions there, suffering is still guaranteed. Misery is guaranteed. Really, you cannot improve your conditions in the prison. You can improve your physical condition and even your mental condition, which as a starting point is not bad, but unless you exit this mega prison that we call samsara, what you are doing is not so valuable. In the context of ultimate discrimination, just taking care of the physical body and the mind doesn’t make much sense.
We have to understand our real situation and to understand that, we have to be like Lord Buddha. Lord Buddha, if you remember, was a prince. He lived in a beautiful kingdom. He was a very beautiful boy, very handsome, very healthy, very good psychological makeup. He was provided with every possible type of pleasure. He had a beautiful wife, beautiful children, everybody loved him. He had everything that any human being might desire. Nevertheless, he left his kingdom, left the riches, left the pleasures. Actually, he escaped a kingdom that for him was like a prison and went into the world to try to find the solution for universal human misery. An interesting thing about Lord Buddha was that he himself did not experience misery but when he saw other people suffering he understood that their suffering was his suffering. Although he himself did not suffer, through empathy he realized a profound truth: if you are a developed human being, you cannot be happy when everyone else is suffering. If you are happy when everyone else is suffering, something is wrong with you.
When Lord Buddha described the universal truth of suffering, he mentioned four things. He said disease is suffering, and nobody needs proof; everybody understands this. He said old age is suffering, which everybody understands. He said death is suffering, and nobody needs proof. Then he said something extraordinary: He said birth is suffering. Why is birth suffering? Because it is the cause of the other three. Now when a person is born we are very happy. Why? The real reason is that when a soul comes into this Earth, it has a golden opportunity to attain the purpose of its existence, which is to realize the Self. On an intuitive level we are happy because, in order to realize the Self, we must have a human body, we need to be born in a physical body, that is a must. It is such a golden opportunity. Then, when a person dies, we cry. Why? Because most of the time a person exiting this Earth has missed his opportunity, so intuitively we cry. Actually, we should not cry, because we know that everyone is going to exit. In the case of a self-realized sage, we don’t cry, we celebrate. When a self-realized sage leaves the body, we call it mahasamadhi, the great samadhi, and there is a great celebration. Why? Because that person did not miss his opportunity.
The questioner asked about viveka, and in fact there is an ultimate viveka, an ultimate discrimination. To be honest with you, it is the only one that is meaningful. The other types of discrimination I mentioned are more preparatory. You need a healthy body in order to do spiritual practice. You need a healthy mind in order to do spiritual practice. But if you don’t know the reason you have a physical body and a mind, this cannot help. Spiritual discrimination is the only discrimination that is meaningful and it is the discrimination between what we call the real and the unreal. In other words, between what seems to be real but it is illusory by nature, and what is real but veiled. The phenomenal world of names and forms is illusory by nature, and the Atman, which is the true Self, is veiled. In other words, the absolute reality, which is the substratum of this phenomenal reality, the ground of being of all of these phenomenal realities, our real Self, is veiled. We mix truth and untruth, the eternal and the ephemeral, the real and what is illusory, and therefore we suffer.
The real discrimination is between what is real and what is not real, and it cannot be done in the beginning. We need a long process of practice before we can practice jnana yoga or the yoga of wisdom, which is the yoga of discrimination — viveka — between the real and the unreal. Until then we have to develop our power of discrimination on the physical level, on the mental level, and so on as I described. Ultimately, spiritual discrimination should take place. Only spiritual discrimination can bring an end to samsara, an end to this mode of miserable, sugar-coated existence.