"When human beings bind themselves by the power of a vow, they seek to become wholly reliable." — The Aquarian Almanac"

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October 10, 2015 Theme for Contemplation: Ethics of Vow-Taking

” The soul must be trained.” – Plotinus

” This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.” – William Shakespeare

I find it interesting that being true to oneself implies an Oversoul idea which would make us true to "others".

October 11, 2015 Theme for Contemplation: Ethics of Vow-Taking

” The man who wars against himself and wins the battle can do it only when he knows that in that war he is doing the one thing which is worth doing.”

— H.P. Blavatsky

“Self-restraint is the very key-stone of the ethics of vow-taking.”

— M.K. Gandhi

Why is self-restraint so important? Is it always a key aspect of a vow, or are there vows that don't rely so heavily on restraint?

I reflect on my experience of making the vow of veganism, which is simply the vow of non-violence under another term. In that vow, it does outwardly appear to involve restraint (the act of not partaking in certain actions, certain foods, etc.), but inwardly I don't feel much need for restraint since there is no desire for those things and since I understand what partaking of them really involves (i.e. suffering). Is self-restraint moreso an important first step, until we more fully realize the "why" of our vow, at which point the need for restraint might be lessened?

I think self-restraint is crucial to a vow.  By definition a vow seeks to seal an unconditional commitment to some aim.  If there was no resistance there would be no need for a vow.  Not all vows are the same, I am sure.  A dietary change, albeit challenging, would not be as severe as a vow to be non-violent of mind for example.  Now there is a mountain to climb because to be true to that pledge would mean mastering one's lower nature and the resistance would be intense.

I've been pondering the question: "what exactly is a vow?" What exactly are we doing when we engage in a vow? It's really an agreement of sorts, isn't it... but I wonder if it is ever truly an agreement with someone or something other than ourselves. Seems to me that any vow I've made, even if it outwardly involves another person, is ultimately an agreement between my self and my Self. It might be an agreement to treat others a certain way, or give something of myself to them, but in the end it's still a promise made to myself.

Jon - yes, sometime it is a promise to ourselves. Don't we also make promises in the form of vows to other people, for example, when we promise to be faithful and to care for them as in wedding vows?  

Essentially, a vow is a pledge to either carry out some action, to refrain from some action, or a mixture of the two.  The action may be physical or mental.  It's a serious or solemn promise, a declaration of true intent.  Sometimes that declaration of intent concerns only our own wellbeing.  Sometimes it concerns the wellbeing of another or others.

The intent can be for 'good' or 'evil', benevolent or destructive.

People also make vows to take revenge on others for perceived grievances done to themselves or to those they love.  Many such vows may never be verbally expressed yet remain as an ominous intent within.

The bodhisattva makes a vow to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.

What sort of vows do the Moderators have in mind that students of theosophy might consider?

What difference does it make whether one takes a vow or not?  It does not seem to change the course or commitment in one's spiritual life.

I think that's an important question, Barbara.  

Thomas a Kempis refers to “resolution” in the quotation given to us.  This is from his chapter on Temptation, in ‘The Imitation of Christ’.  Thomas says we need to be strong to resist the temptations of the Devil who is always on the prowl for some easy prey to devour, but is he suggesting we have to take a vow in order resist such temptation?

“The beginning of all temptation lies in a wavering mind and little trust in God, for as a rudderless ship is driven hither and yon by waves, so a careless and irresolute man is tempted in many ways.”  (The Imitation of Christ, Ch. 13)

Is a vow necessary to follow Shakespeare’s and Tennyson’s suggestions to be true to ourselves or to keep our word?

HPB paints a graphic picture of the man warring with himself - does that require a vow?

Or, would a vow of some kind help us to better live up to our ideals and/or overcome the challenges on the Way?

If we're only talking about outward or formal vows, I think I might agree that it doesn't necessarily change our commitment or course, but in our spiritual lives, the commitment is a vow, is it not? Without some kind of promise to ourselves (even if that promise is simply to do our best), wouldn't our spiritual life and course be somewhat too casual or erratic?

I've met many people in my life who self-identify as "spiritual", but they engage in a great deal of dilettantism, wandering from this or that idea, jumping from branch to branch, from spiritual system or method of practice to another and another and another. It has always struck me as merely another manifestation of the monkey mind, but masquerading as "spiritual". On the other hand, those whom I've met who have seemed to have made a strong inner vow to follow a certain course, have always seemed more sure, more stable and more able to make progress, even when the times get tough (or especially when the times get tough).

So, to me the inner vow to ourselves, in regards to our spiritual life, seems rather inseparable from commitment.

Making a vow is not for everyone.   For some people, it may help.  For some, it makes no difference and may even seem like a distraction.   It neither adds nor diminishes one's focus.  When spirituality becomes a choiceless choice, meaning there is nothing else in life, then the formality appears insignificant. 

Certainly, making a vow is not for everyone. But then again, neither is chelaship.

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 13, 2015 at 2:43am

What is 'The Aquarian Almanac' from which some of the quotes come from?

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 15, 2015 at 6:41am

Please can someone respond to the above question.  I remember this was asked last year and the source was given, but I can't find that message. Thanks.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on October 13, 2015 at 9:51am

October 12, 2015 Theme for Contemplation: Ethics of Vow-Taking

” For, as a ship without a helm is driven to and fro by the waves, so the man who is negligent and giveth up his resolution is tempted in many ways.”

— Thomas a Kempis

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on October 13, 2015 at 9:55am

October 13, 2015 Theme for Contemplation: Ethics of Vow-Taking

” A Brahmin, at the beginning and end of a lesson on the Vedas, must always pronounce the syllable OM, for unless OM precedes, his learning will slip away from him, and unless it follows, nothing will be long retained.”

— Padma Purana

“Man’s word is God in man.”

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 14, 2015 at 10:48am

How is pronouncing the OM at the beginning and end of the Vedic lessons connected to making vows?  

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on October 14, 2015 at 12:56pm

"With us OM has a signification. It represents the constant undercurrent of meditation, which ought to be carried on by every man, even while engaged in the necessary duties of this life. There is for every conditioned being a target at which the aim is constantly directed." WQJ

If one has not made the vow, one will have a hard time making true and lasting progress in his occult life. His knowledge will slip away from him from life to life; his studies will be like one who tries to read a book with no binding, whose pages are left to the wind to scatter. Opening and closing our "studies" (read: our lives, our occultlives) with OM is symbolic of setting the tone of that journey, in each life, from beginning to end, and to set the tone of that journey is to make the vow.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on October 14, 2015 at 1:39pm

Because in both cases we are soliciting the highest within us.

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 15, 2015 at 6:10am

Are your saying, Gerry, that pronouncing the syllable OM at the beginning and end of a lesson in the Vedas is equivalent to taking a vow? I'm not following your line of thought here. Sorry.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on October 15, 2015 at 9:19am

You had asked what the relationship of  pronouncing the OM was with vow-taking.  The answer.  Both are acts of reaching towards one's Higher Nature.  The one is an act in time perhaps and the vow is the effort to maintain it over time.  Every effort to reach up is a good one.

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 15, 2015 at 11:22am

That wasn't quite what I asked if you look back at my question, but no matter.  Yes, I see what you are saying.  For you, both are acts of reaching towards our Higher Nature.  Of course, that will depend on the nature of the vow, wouldn't it, so it might not be the same for everybody. Pronouncing the OM in itself does not constitute a vow, but it could be linked with a vow, if we choose to do so.   That makes sense.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on October 14, 2015 at 10:34am

October 14, 2015 Theme for Contemplation: Ethics of Vow-Taking

“The man who in view of gain thinks of righteousness, who in view of danger is prepared to give up his life; and who does not forget an old agreement however far back it extends — such a man may be reckoned a complete man.”

— Confucius

“Have a care where there is more sail than ballast.”

— William Penn

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 14, 2015 at 10:54am

Is the suggestion here (see Confucius) that any agreement is a vow of some kind?

I don't follow the connection between Penn and vows.  Sorry.  Thoughts?

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Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on October 14, 2015 at 12:38pm

Re: Confucius: It's the other way around: any vow is an agreement of some kind. And once one sets themselves on a vow one ought to follow it through.

Re: Penn: The ballast provides the stability to the sailing vessel; if there's "more sail than ballast" the ship will be torn to pieces. Take care, then, to be sure your vessel is stable and structurally sound before embarking on a difficult journey. Or, as HPB has said (paraphrasing here): if you can't complete a vow, don't make it in the first place. Make yourself ready first. i.e. build up your ballast before setting sail.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on October 14, 2015 at 1:38pm

A vow is needed when there is an arena of great challenge.  No challenge is greater than self-mastery or enlightenment.  We have to prepare ourselves for the challenge to come and this is the ballast suggestion that Jon refers to rightly I believe.  We would not enter an athletic contest without ample training, or a debate without ample research.   So I suspect the point is we need to prepare ourselves for a solemn vow of any import.

My life's experience, so far, has proven at least one thing true for me, that is whenever a promise is made, commitment confirmed or vow taken it is followed at some point by serious counter forces.

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 15, 2015 at 6:39am

What Barbara is suggesting is that if one has the determination and the focus to live the spiritual life then you don’t need to add to that with the formality of a vow.  To make a vow may be useful for some people but it is not necessary for all.   Gerry, you and Jon appear to be saying that it is only by making a vow (‘the vow’, as Jon refers to it) that one is capable of meeting the challenges of the spiritual life, and that there are no exceptions. Have I understood you both correctly?

Are all three of you talking about the same thing?  Jon refers to the vows needed to become a ‘chela’.  What sort of ‘vows’ are you as the moderators hoping we will explore here?  It might help us focus and get beyond the differences of view.

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on October 15, 2015 at 2:42pm

"Gerry, you and Jon appear to be saying that it is only by making a vow (‘the vow’, as Jon refers to it) that one is capable of meeting the challenges of the spiritual life, and that there are no exceptions. Have I understood you both correctly?"

No, I don't think you've understood either of us in this case. Firstly, it's important to note that Gerry and Jon aren't trying to say something in unison, or as an agenda of ideology. We are individuals speaking individually, on behalf of ourselves alone. Heck, we differ in our opinions as much as any other two theosophists! which, as we all know from experience, is quite a lot, haha. ;)

In referring to chelaship, I'm saying that there are some endeavors in life that cannot even be begun without a vow or vows, without some kind of promise and commitment to uphold that promise. Such, for instance, was the rule in the Pythagorean school, the Platonic academy, genuine esoteric eastern schools whether brahmanical, buddhist, vedantic, etc., the ES of the original TS, the Masters when they accept Chelas, etc., etc., etc. I'm not making any further qualifications here other than to point this out for consideration. Might we not grant these masters and great teachers the benefit of the doubt that vows hold at least some kind of importance along the path? and then ask ourselves what might be the real nature of that importance?

"What sort of ‘vows’ are you as the moderators hoping we will explore here?"

"The moderators", I'm sure, are each hoping we'll discuss vows of any kind, discuss the very nature of the meaning of "vow" or "pledge", what it means to each of us, how we understand it, etc., etc. Let's go deep into the idea, explore it, engage in some dialectic about it. Have some fun with it. :) God, how much we love to see when members take up a discussion and really run with it! But please understand that we engage here as students, not as some kind of authority figures and certainly not as dictators of the direction of any discussion. Heck, I bet most members aren't even sure who is or is not a "moderator" here on Nexus, and that is how it should be, because whether or not we help out with the websites behind the scenes, we're all just students wishing for a space to study together, as equals.

Now, the quotes given from time to time are meant as seeds for contemplation, and for discussion if some quote strikes a chord with a member. If one doesn't find a particular quote useful, one can just move on and discuss what they wish to discuss about vows. If one thinks the whole idea of sharing quotes here is unhelpful, one can just ignore them all and continue on with the discussion. There's really no agenda of what kind of vow should be discussed here. So....

What does a vow mean to you? What role does it play in your life and journey? What's the difference between outward and inward vows? What's really going on in our inner being when we engage in a vow? What's the relationship between taking a vow and karma? How do vows relate to ethics? What is the relationship between vows and sacrifice? etc. etc. etc. That's what this discussion can be about if we want it to be.

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 16, 2015 at 6:56am

Hi Jon,  I was only meaning to make an observation and seek clarification.  I’m happy to stand corrected - no problem.  I observed that Barbara was saying one kind of thing about vows and that you and Gerry were saying quite a different kind of thing about vows - yours and Gerry’s views being similar.  I didn’t assume from this that you and Gerry agree on everything.  However, as there are many different types of vow this did lead me to wonder whether the divergence of views might be due to people not referring to the same thing or same type of vow.   That doesn’t mean I think everyone should agree, of course.

 I also thought it might be worth checking out whether you and Gerry, as the moderators, had a particular aspect of vows in mind when you planned this topic and which you were hoping we all might explore together.  If you did, that would be helpful to know as then we could all aim to be on the same page with our explorations.  If you didn’t that would also be useful to know.

We have already been exploring this general ‘topic at hand’ together, haven’t we ? - sharing thoughts, asking each other questions, seeking to understand the other person’s point of view, probing the quotes as to their meaning and relevance. Yes, I do wonder about the relevance of some of the quotes and I will continue, from time to time, to ask what is the thinking or understanding behind these.  Importantly, I always appreciate and value of your thoughts and contributions, Jon, even on those few occasions when I disagree or appear doubtful as to what you propose.  I mean that.

Permalink Reply by barbaram on October 15, 2015 at 8:34pm

What is the difference between a vow and an affirmation we utter to ourselves sometimes? 

I think what I am trying to say is that aspiration comes from within;  nothing imposed externally will affect this.     

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on October 15, 2015 at 9:24pm

The taking of a vow is a sacred undertaking we are told and is  time honored in all the spiritual traditions.  It is wholly from within and not an external thing at all in its authentic meaning.  Gandhi held that a life without vows was a like a ship without a rudder. 

There is a natural tension between higher and lower self for control of the human tabernacle.  A vow is a commitment by the lower to adhere to the higher.  A vow in its best sense is a pledge of fidelity to follow through with some action or committment on behalf  one's Higher Self and can only be taken after much testing, preparation and soul searching. 

I think we have to elevate the idea to understand it better. A spiritual vow is an attempt to bind the lower to the higher and stake a claim against the fickleness of the monkey mind. Maybe it could be thought of as a plank in the Antahkarana Bridge.

Earthly, everyday vows, are shadows of their spiritual counterparts.

From the Gita:

But those great of soul, partaking of the godlike nature, knowing me to be the imperishable principle of all things, worship me, diverted to nothing else. Fixed in unbroken vows they worship, everywhere proclaiming me and bowing down to me. Others with the sacrifice of knowledge in other ways worship me as indivisible, as separable, as the Spirit of the universe.

From the Pythagorean Golden Verses:

"First to the Gods thy humble Homage pay;

The greatest this, and first of Laws, obey:

Perform thy Vows, observe thy plighted Troth,

And let Religion bind thee to thy Oath."

It is something to think about.

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on October 16, 2015 at 11:45am

I can understand what you're saying here. Indeed aspiration does come from within and cannot really be imparted from without (the teacher can only point the way, but not walk the path for you, as they say). However, I do not believe that this implies that "nothing imposed externally will affect this". In my personal experience, taking a vow has proved to be a very productive endeavor, leading to results that I doubt could've arisen had I felt that the vow was unnecessary.

I trust also that there must've been a good reason, for instance, for the vow of silence that was imposed on all would-be students of Pythagoras, without which they were not allowed to join his proper school. Surely he must've perceived that there was some good reason to impose this vow upon them. And this is but one of many vows they were made to take. Same goes for so many other genuine esoteric schools.

I'd be curious to hear what others think of why vows (even formal external vows) have formed such a large part of all esoteric spiritual traditions...

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 15, 2015 at 6:02am

Jon - thanks for the explanations.  I can better understand your line of thought now, though I’m not sure I would have got there from those quotes alone.

Is a vow always an agreement of some kind?  It certainly is in some cases e.g. a vow of secrecy ;  the vows of ethical conduct required for a spiritual retreat or to receive a certain teachings.   Could there be vows which aren’t agreements but are expressions of intent?

Even if all vows are agreements of some kind, there’s no indication that Confucius is talking about vows in his definition of the ‘complete man’.  That’s because not all agreements are vows.   Confucius is simply saying that one of the things that constitute a good person is that such a person does what they agreed to do, no matter how long ago they agreed to do it.  That could have been repaying money borrowed, repairing the broken shelf in the kitchen or giving some form of help that was offered previously.  Of course, we should stick to what we have agreed with others whether these are vows or simple promises.  One of the questions for us is, what distinguishes a vow from our everyday promises and agreements?

Yes, I take your point - don’t make a vow unless you think you can actually carry it out.   Is that obvious from Penn’s image of the ballast in a ship, which acts as the counterweight underneath the water to the sway of the ship above?  I think what you’ve just written is far clearer and doesn’t require the reader to guess what the connection might be to the topic.

With regards to the quote about pronouncing the syllable OM at beginning and end of a lesson on the Vedas -  I mean no disrespect when I say that it takes a number of steps and further quotes to get from there to your interpretation that it means: unless one has made a vow, a person will have a hard time making true and lasting progress in their occult life and that without a vow such a person will lose any knowledge gained in this life and in future lives. 

In Judge’s article on the OM he is talking about, in part, an understanding which should act as an undercurrent of meditation to our everyday life, not just the few minutes a day (if any) we practice meditation.  As far as I can tell, there’s no implication here that one has to take a vow in order to do this or that repeating the syllable OM at the beginning and end of studying the Vedas (a quote he refers to earlier in the article) is the equivalent to, or, requires a vow.

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on October 15, 2015 at 2:46pm

"I’m not sure I would have got there from those quotes alone."

"Is that obvious from Penn’s image of the ballast in a ship..."

"it takes a number of steps and further quotes to get from there..."

Peter, as I've said elsewhere, these quotes are simply meant as seeds for contemplation. They're not supposed to be obvious, haha. No spoon-feeding intended here. ;) It's supposed to take a few steps, or a few minutes or hours, or a decent amount of mental energy to explore the idea within ourselves and decide for ourselves what they mean to us, or if they have any use for us at all—and maybe they do, maybe they don't. Maybe you find a certain quote useless or even misleading or entirely unrelated, but another member finds something helpful in it.

I must say that no one expects anyone here to come to a grand philosophical understanding of "vows" from these quotes alone. haha, if only it were that easy! And nobody expects anyone to "guess what the connection might be to the topic"... just contemplate it, and if that yields nothing, move on. What I offered in my comments is merely the result of a few minutes of contemplation on each quote, given that you asked about them. More minutes would likely yield more results. And different results will likely be yielded by different members.

I propose that we explore the topic at hand, and leave the quotes if they're not helping. Perhaps you can simply share some of your own thoughts about the nature of vows?

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 16, 2015 at 6:58am
Permalink Reply by Peter on October 15, 2015 at 7:04am

I think the buddhist tradition is very good at turning our aspirations into vows and using simple vows to help nurture and develop our aspirations.   At the beginning of any spiritual practice or, indeed, any activity in life that involves assisting others one can mentally dedicate whatever merit (karmic) that arising from that activity to the benefit of all beings.  The aim is to help constantly orient our endeavours in the present for the benefit of others. There are many forms of words the student can find in the literature and/or at the beginning of talks by buddhist teachers, of which the Dalai Lama is an excellent source.  Whether we call these vows, dedications or intentions doesn't matter.

The Dalai Lama often includes verses from Shantideva's 'Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life' at the beginning of his teachings. For example:

For as long as space endures,
For as long as sentient beings remain,
May I too remain
And dispel the miseries of this world.

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on October 15, 2015 at 7:08am

"Never will I seek nor receive private, individual salvation; never will I enter into final peace alone; but forever and everywhere will I live and strive for the redemption of every creature throughout the world from the bonds of conditioned existence."


This is one of the most beautiful vows I know about.

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 15, 2015 at 7:17am

That is very beautiful, Grace. Thank you.

If you will allow me to add a thought - it is just that kind of vow and the one mentioned earlier from Shantideva that can give us an indication that there is more to vows than keeping secrets, ethical conduct, or getting over obstacles. A vow can orient us and act like a compass to guide all our efforts, whether great or small.

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on October 15, 2015 at 7:26am

Indeed Peter, spiritual ballast one might say.

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 15, 2015 at 7:37am

One might, indeed.  :-)

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on October 15, 2015 at 11:12am

October 15, 2015 Theme for Contemplation: Ethics of Vow-Taking

” It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide; but to climb back again, to retrace one’s steps to the upper air — there’s the rub, the task.”

— Virgil

“Life always gets harder toward the summit — the cold increases, responsibility increases.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on October 16, 2015 at 10:18am

October 16, 2015 Theme for Contemplation: Ethics of Vow-Taking

“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.”

— Henry David Thoreau

“Hast thou attempted greatness?

Then go on;

Back-turning slackens resolution.”

— Robert Herrick

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 16, 2015 at 11:38am

For those interested in Gandhi’s thoughts on vows, there’s an interesting collection of articles here:


Here’s a taster:

“Vows can be taken only on points of universally recognized principles.” 

In other words you can’t vow to carry out a sin, according to Gandhi, as this goes against universal principles.

“Taking vows is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. To do at any cost something that one ought to do constitutes a vow. It becomes a bulwark of strength. A man who says that he will do something 'as far as possible betrays either his' pride or his weakness. I have noticed in my own case, as well as in the case of others, that the limitation 'as far as possible' provides a fatal loophole. To do something 'as far as possible is to succumb to the very first temptation.”

Gandhi appears to be responding in the above to the criticism that only weak people need to make vows. In addition, Gandhi considers that any decision or resolution we make during the day to do something is a vow.  We might say, for example, 'I am going to get on with some work for the next hour.' Once we say that is what we are going to do, then we should carry out that act to completion.

We shouldn’t make vows that we can’t keep but, he says, we can make conditional vows. For example, a worker at the spinning wheel could make a conditional vow to spin for at least one hour everyday and not turn out less that 200 yards of thread except when he was travelling or sick. This would be better than deciding (i.e making a vow) to spin for that time and to produce that amount everyday and then discover one can’t do it due to illness or the need to travel. In Gandhi’s eyes that latter would involve breaking a vow, or making a vow that we do not know we can keep.

One question might be, does Gandhi’s idea of the conditional vow help or water down our resolutions?

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on October 16, 2015 at 1:31pm

Gandhi was very critical of the concept of a commitment or vow to be held, "as far as possible'.  That was not the function of a vow as I read him.  He saw a vow as a right angle, something to hold up a building, something to endure.  As you say he did speak of conditional vows but I believe what he meant was a conditional vow was training and preparation for a full vow when one would not deviate from a particular course of action.

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 17, 2015 at 4:45am

I’m not sure Gandhi meant conditional vows were to be seen as training for a full vows.  He’s probably just being realistic.   If you believe that all our daily commitments and decisions should be seen as vows and that all vows should be properly undertaken and completed, then conditional vows are a requirement.  That’s because we are not in complete control of all the circumstances and events in our lives.  

For example - a man says he will always visit his mother every thursday at 7pm and help her in the house.  For Gandhi this would be a vow which must be carried out once decided upon.  But what happens if that man’s daughter falls ill, or if on the way to his mother’s house he comes across an accident in the road with people injured?  Or what happens if the man falls ill and cannot go.  So, like the spinner who wrote to Gandhi in the real life situation mentioned in the previous post, Gandhi says “a vow can be made conditional without losing any of its efficacy or virtue.”  Without a conditional vow, the man who made that promise to his mother always risks that his vow will be broken.  He could promise - ’Mother, bar other emergencies that may prevent me, I will always come and visit you on thursday evenings at 7pm.’  A conditional vow is not a part-vow as opposed to a full vow.  If the man carries out his conditional vow then he has completed it fully.  

“ It goes without saying that moderation and sobriety are of the very essence of vow-taking. The taking of vows that are not feasible or that are beyond one's capacity would betray thoughtlessness and want of balance. Similarly a vow can be made conditional without losing any of its efficacy or virtue.” (Gandhi - See above web link.)

However, conditional vows have the potential to leave the door open to the as far as possible 'get out' that Gandhi was critical of. We might ask though, is there anything wrong in promising to do something ‘as far as it is possible’ or ‘as best as we are able to’?  It probably depends, in part, on the intention of the person who makes such a statement and the context for it.  We may need to be to go beyond the words and phrases and to look at what these statements actually refer to.   Gandhi appears to be criticising the half heartedness that can lie behind such a promise or vow, the setting ourselves up for failure before we’ve begun.  But such statements can be seen from other perspectives too,  as HPB writes:

‘…he [who] does all that he can and knows how to do, he does his whole present duty.’  (CW IX 103)

It's not that one view is right and the other wrong, it may just be about context and looking at what's really going on in a given situation.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on October 16, 2015 at 1:37pm

Gandhi was 'Old School' meaning he frequently harkened back to classical traditions and classical conceptions.  His focus on vows was unusual and heart felt.  He was a little out of step with his times.  In ancient Indian if you so much as whispered an intention to do something it was iron clad and there was no deviating.  The Ramayana and Mahabharata are filled with stories about not breaking one's word.  Draupadi having to marry all the Pandava brothers because of the Mother telling them that whatever they found must be shared by all is a case in point.  Gandhi was very critical of western civilization and famously replied to a reporter when asked about what he thought of western civilization by saying he thought it would be a good idea.

Permalink Reply by Peter on October 16, 2015 at 1:56pm

Haha! Yes, still true.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on October 16, 2015 at 2:25pm

More from Gandhi: Responding to criticism from Kumarappa a contemporary and fellow freedom fighter.

"You seem to think vows publicly administered to audiences. The vow I am thinking of is a promise made by one to oneself.  We have to deal with two dwellers within, Rama and Ravana, God and Satan, Ormuzd and Ahriman.  The one binds us to make us really free, and the other only appears to free us so as to bind us tight within his grips.  A 'vow' is a promise made to Rama to do or not to do a certain thing, which if good we want to do but have not the strength unless we are tied down, and which if bad we should avoid but have not the strength to avoid unless similarly tied down.  This I hold to be a condition indispensable to growth.  I grant that we are higher than the sun, how much more necessary for us to be at least as true and faithful as the sun, if not truer and more faithful? If in matters of commerce, a man who vacillates is useless, why should he fare other otherwise in matters spiritual, which carry with them infinitely greater consequences?  If you hold that I must speak and do the right thing at any cost, you grant my whole position and so you also do if you grant that at the peril of my life I should be faithful to my wife or friend.  You can easily multiply such instances.  For me Jesus was preeminently a man of unshakable resolution, i.e., vows.  His yea was yea for ever.  A life of vows is like a marriage, a sacrament."

The Story of My Life,  vol 1  page 387