Colours of Transcendence

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In the collective unconscious of the Indian subcontinent, Holi is intertwined with the youthful, playful aspect of Krishna. I recently came across a myth about the genesis of the festival that I had never heard before. It has to do with a dark-skinned Krishna smearing the fair-skinned Radha with colour, thereby erasing the difference between their complexions. The colour of skin, that sharp and contentious dividing line between human beings that exists till today, is discarded and a step taken towards transcending outer form in favour of deeper truths.

In its erasure of all kinds of boundaries – of race, age, class, and even the otherwise immobile ones of caste and gender – Holi is somewhat akin to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, where slaves and masters exchanged places for a day. It led to a much-needed catharsis, a blowing off of steam, as well as a reminder to all of their essential humanity.

In mystical love poetry such as that associated with Radha and Krishna, being doused with the colour of human love is often used as a metaphor for absorption in the Divine. In this context, a poem by the thirteenth century Sufi poet, Amir Khusrau – Aaj rang hai – comes to mind. In it, he adopts the stance of a woman looking for her beloved, who appears in the form of his master, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.

His master’s rang, literally ‘colour’ but which might also mean his aura of spiritual attainment, is unique, says Khusrau. It exists nowhere else, not in Gokul or Mathura, and it is such that it lights up the whole world. ‘Mohe apne hi rang mein rang le Khwaja ji,’ prays the supplicant, begging his master to dye him, the disciple, in the same rang as himself. This could mean two things – the disciple’s desire to reach the same enlightened state as his master, his rang, so to speak, or the disciple’s wish to surrender his ego to the master and subsume a separate sense of self into his master’s rang, his field of consciousness. Either way, the master is the one who will show the way, who will impart the catalyzing rang to enable the seeker to discard his limited identity and become one with the Divine.

One of Kabir’s couplets expresses this beautifully: ‘Lali mere lal ki, jit dekhoon tit lal / lali dekhan main gayi, main bhi ho gayi lal’ – the crimson glow of my Beloved is everywhere, so much so that I am completely imbued with it. Here, too, the metaphor of colour is used to indicate the stages of spiritual seeking – as a supplicant, the seeker looks upon the beauty of the Divine and marvels at it. The more she becomes absorbed in her efforts to realize Truth, the closer she draws to the source of that beauty, until a point comes where there remains no separation. From a seeker and appreciator of beauty, she becomes beauty herself.

Autobiography of a Contemporary Yogi (book review)

Given the fact that authentic, experiential accounts of the lives of spiritual seekers and adepts, especially those written by their own hand, are so rare, If Truth Be Told: A Monk’s Memoir by Om Swami is a unique book. I am tempted to compare it with that spiritual classic of the twentieth century – Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi – simply because it covers similar ground in telling the story of a young man embarking upon a quest that takes him to gurus and teachers, but ultimately within, into his own self.

As the title indicates, this is a memoir of the author’s journey into not just monkhood, but more importantly towards self-realization. As the author discovers during the course of the book, these two are not synonymous. The act of renunciation, the donning of a sannyasi’s robes, even the performance of rituals and austerities does not automatically lead to realization of the truth about one’s self. Then how can self-realization be achieved? This is what the author attempts to find an answer to.

Om Swami begins life as Amit, whose sainthood is predicted by a sadhu even before his birth, reminiscent of the prophecy made at birth about Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha. While Siddhartha’s parents did their best to keep him away from anything that might encourage him towards renunciation, Amit’s parents really do nothing of the sort. The child grows up in a middle class home devouring books, playing with older siblings, and imbibing some of his mother’s religiosity. He develops an intuitive faculty that enables him to correctly read people and learns how to cast astrological charts. His quest, however, runs deeper than that.

The time for opting out of the rat-race is not here as yet, and the book’s narrative follows Amit as he flies out to Australia in search of a wider horizon. Once there, he proves himself to be something of a prodigy, creating complex software code even as he struggles to find tuition money for college. His sadhana takes a backseat, but the ten years he subsequently spends setting up his company and working on various lucrative projects, create the necessary conditions that lead up to the moment of his renunciation. Writing with the benefit of hindsight, the author is able to lend a note of inevitability to his entire entrepreneurial journey. He says he will renounce the world at 30, and he does in fact do so.

One cannot help but find parallels with the Buddha’s story here too. Like the prince in his palace who was dissatisfied amidst all his luxuries, having driven the latest models of cars, worn high-end branded clothes, and generally lived the good life as defined by material success, Amit is not really fulfilled. Sure, there is joy and fulfillment in the material world, but it is transient and ultimately meaningless. The call his spirit feels towards knowing the reality of life never leaves Amit. His restlessness amidst material success cements his resolve and he sets a date when he will leave everything behind. As Siddhartha sneaked out of his bedroom at night while his wife and child slept, Amit leaves his entire life behind without telling his family. He later sends them emails detailing his decision and then deletes his account. That very act has a ring of finality to it that most of us hooked on to electronic devices all the time will resonate with. In today’s times, renunciation would also entail deleting our electronic identities!

Though he has finally given himself over to the inner quest, any sort of attainment is still far away. Through his struggle to find a guru, we glimpse the kind of deception and exploitation a sincere seeker might have to face. For the path of spiritual seeking passes through the chaos of the world. It does not automatically take flight into some realm of pure consciousness. Getting there requires diligent, patient and incessant hard work, and at times a touch of grace. The time he spends in tough living conditions with an indifferent and exploitative teacher is also not time wasted for Amit. All the while, his ego is being worn down, as is his attachment to his body. He is being toughened up for the sadhana that still remains, and which soon unfolds in the Himalayas.

There is a strong undercurrent of fate in this book. From the initial prediction of sainthood to the meetings with certain key teachers and companions, to journeys that trigger important insights or happenings, it all seems predestined. Of course, this does not detract in any way from the enormity of Om Swami’s experiences, which include a face-to-face with the Goddess, whom he calls ‘Mother Divine’. What it does is make for predictability and inspire jadedness in the ordinary seeker who might think, ‘If all this is predestined, what might I hope to achieve? Should I first find somebody to tell me whether I am destined for the spiritual path and then embark upon it?’ This book, then, is not a manual that offers a blueprint of the spiritual path to other seekers. It is one man’s journey, an extraordinary one at that, and must be read and valued as such.

[Published in The Asian Age, Sunday, March 1st 2015 edition. Link here]

The Shiva Detox

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As gods go, Shiva is difficult to slot into any easy category. He is the lord of yoga and dance, a dreadlocked rebel smeared in ash and adorned with snakes, an all-powerful warrior whose army comprises ghouls and ghosts. He can reveal depths of knowledge with a single, diamond-edged glance, and yet grieve like a man. His third eye can incinerate when he is enraged, and his tandava can end time. For those who pray to him, he is the ‘auspicious one’. For those who try to understand him in his entirety, Shiva can appear as an enigma coiled in contradictions like the snakes around his neck.

Sifting through the myths that surround Shiva, one that catches my attention combines his legendary yogic prowess with a spiritual lesson relevant to us all. A popular myth, it has to do with how Shiva received one of his many epithets – Neelkantha, or ‘blue throat’. Most of us know how the story goes. It unfolds during the massive endeavour of churning the primordial ocean – samudra manthan – in which gods and demons come together in an unprecedented collaboration based on mutual greed. As the ocean throws up its spoils, the collaborators fight with one another to claim them. What each side is actually waiting for is the ultimate prize – amrit, the nectar that bestows immortality.

As is the nature of life, where there is pleasure there is also pain, tears chase smiles, and before one can find nectar, one must deal with poison. In fact, the nectar of inner bliss can only be accessed after one has dealt with the poison of negative emotions and habit patterns. So, before amrit could emerge from the depths of the primordial ocean, there appeared halahal, a powerful distillate of all the poisons in existence.

The churners who had been clamouring for the gifts of the ocean, fled in horror when they saw what their efforts had unearthed. Shiva was petitioned, who in his great compassion, decided to take care of the problem. Since the poison could not be returned to where it came from, nor could it be disposed off anywhere where it could pose a danger much like nuclear waste, Shiva decided to absorb it in himself. It is believed that through his yogic prowess, he was able to restrict the poison to his throat and prevent it from spreading through his body, thereby defusing its impact. The presence of this potent poison in his throat turned it blue, hence he also came to be called ‘Neelkantha’.

What is inspiring about this story is Shiva’s ability to not only absorb poisonous negativity within himself, but also to successfully deactivate it. This is a skill we need to develop in terms of our emotional lives. Too often, we absorb negativity and allow it to create havoc in our inner environment. If someone says anything negative directed at us, we are ever ready to swallow it and react with anger, violence, and so on. What if we were to arrest the passage of poison by using the power of awareness? By not allowing it to spread into our mind and vitiating our quality of consciousness, we would be more in control of our emotional responses than if we were to absorb it unchecked. This is a lesson we could learn from Neelkantha on this Mahashivratri.

Moksha and the Modern Indian

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For centuries, the Indian subcontinent has been a cradle for journeys into the inner worlds of the human mind and spirit. Though never a mass pursuit, spiritual adventurism has existed for several millennia, emerging in the form of individual seeking, texts and manuscripts, as well as the birth of religions and wisdom traditions.

What is the enlightenment that these seekers sought? It has been called by different names in different eras and by different teachers – moksha, nirvana, kaivalya, self-realisation, liberation, and so on. Essentially it is a state of transcendence, characterized by stepping beyond the boundaries of the human condition. Interpretations might vary, but enlightenment is undoubtedly the Holy Grail of all spiritual paths, the point where seeking ceases, and something happens to transmute the human into the possibly divine.

Whether it is an actual tipping point or a cumulative process, resulting in a cataclysmic inner event or a gradual realization, seems to be subjective and determined by each individual’s experience and journey. The end result, however, seems to be similar – an opening up, a falling away, a boundlessness, a liberation. Just like one who has never tasted honey can neither describe its taste nor understand it wholly, those of us who have not experienced the bliss of enlightenment cannot hope to understand it in its entirety.

To give credence to this search, there exist enough examples in spiritual literature of the enlightened ones, some universally acknowledged and others lesser known and understood. Just the fact that there have been actual human beings who have attained enlightenment and have spoken about it, like the Buddha among many others, holds out hope for the rest of humanity that indeed, this is not only the stuff of myth. It is a real and reachable state of existence.

As India hurtles towards ‘Project Development’, and a materially affluent lifestyle is what everybody seems to be intent on, what is the state of the enlightenment quest in India today? Gurus of various persuasions seem to abound, but what are they offering, and what are their followers interested in imbibing from them? Is Indian spirituality about enlightenment any longer, or has it become a purveyor of quick fixes to relieve urban stress and angst?

Dharma, artha, kama, moksha – roughly translated respectively as righteousness, prosperity, pleasure and enlightenment – were traditionally placed as the four goals of human life in India. A well-managed pursuit of all four was the measure of success. If we were to evaluate our lives today according to this yardstick, I think most of us would find that we focus inordinate amounts of time and energy on one or two of these, while neglecting the others. How do we find a path that includes a consideration of moksha, alongside achieving appropriate amounts of artha, kama, and of dharma as well? This is the creative challenge of the modern spiritual seeker, and one that each of us must grapple with in the battleground of our individual lives.

A Meditation on Time

I take this opportunity to wish you all a happy new year!

On new year’s eve, we celebrate our collective passage from one year to the next. Birthdays perhaps serve a similar function, but their significance is restricted to the individual. Each culture has its own version of a ‘new year’, when the old year is declared finished and a new one as having begun. In farming communities, this event was often tied to the beginning of an agricultural season. Though we continue to celebrate those new years as well, such as Vishu, Ugadi, Baisakhi, Bihu and so on, most of us avidly celebrate the yearly transit as deemed by the Gregorian calendar – from December 31st to January 1st.

Time’s passage can be measured with clocks and calendars at the level of linearity, but at another level, it has been understood as being cyclical. In Indic wisdom traditions, time, or kaal, and its nature is explained using the metaphor of a wheel, chakra. Jain philosophy divides this wheel into two equal parts, denoted by two serpents facing one another. The ascendant part of this cycle of time is called utsarpini, while the descendant part is avasarpini. As the wheel begins to turn, during utsarpini, it is believed that there is a proliferation of goodness and happiness, while it all goes downhill in the downward aspect of the wheel, avasarpini. Any guesses on where we are placed right now according to this view?

There is no concept of an absolute beginning of time, and therefore of a definite end, in the Kaalchakra doctrines of ancient India. There is no Big Bang, in other words. Time always was, is, and will be. One rotation of the chakra would be followed by another. Within a chakra rotation, of course, there is a beginning, middle and end. Creation, destruction and renewal are inbuilt in this view of time. Every beginning has an end coded into it, and every end is followed by a beginning. Nothing is static. Everything is dynamic, everything flows. The Hindu view of the expansion of each cycle comprises its division into four yugasatya, treta, dwapar and kali. There is a comparable concept of a general decline that sets in as each cycle progresses, perhaps to justify its coming to an end.

This view of time encompasses both eternality and change. Time itself always is, though it never is in stasis. It is always on the move, and we who are governed by it have no choice but to move along with it. Its dynamic passage is in evidence in our bodies and in the world around us. When we detach from our being and concerns and sink into meditative absorption, we can experience a point where time seems to expand or ‘come to a standstill’. It is not actually standing still, but because the mind has stilled, so has the point of contact with time. In this stillness, there is a possibility of accessing the part of us that is beyond time. What has been called akaal – timeless, unbound, eternal.

Listen, contemplate, meditate

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Spiritual practice requires of us an inward journey. Much of it takes place in solitude, within us, in the cave of our innermost being. This necessitates withdrawal from the external world, even if it is for a short while every day for those of us who lead worldly lives otherwise. Even when we attend teachings and listen to discourses, the real work of understanding happens in silence, after the words have been spoken and imbibed. An enlightened guru’s words can be potent pills with layers of meaning. To unfold them and reach their essence can be a multi-step process.

According to Vedanta, this process has three steps – sravana or careful listening, manana or deep contemplation, and nididhyasana or complete absorption. Each of these steps is in itself a comprehensive internal practice. Just to listen carefully requires us to harness our attention away from distractions, including mobile phones and our seemingly nonstop internal chatter, and focus it entirely on the act of listening. Some people find it easier to write or record a discourse, to be listened to later at leisure. While it is a good idea to do so, I would suggest an attempt at deep listening. It can be a meditative exercise on its own, and hone one’s practice of steering the mind away from tangible and intangible distractions and training it towards one particular task.

Manana is repeated contemplation of what has been heard and understood through sravana. The nature of the mind is such that even if it has heard the most profound truth, it is liable to push it aside the minute the experience of listening is over. So habituated is the mind to its monkey-like prancing from one branch to another, one thought to another, that the memory of a teaching recedes with the passage of time. Merely having listened is not enough. It must be brought into the mind’s conscious focus again and again for it to have a lasting impact. A lot of inner spiritual work lies in this category of effort, where we attempt to remain mindful of the content and meaning of the teachings that will act as one’s guide on the spiritual path.

The processes of listening and reflection must lead to something more, a higher state of consciousness or realization. This is nididhyasana, which has been variously defined by scholars of Vedanta but in simple terms, it is meditative absorption. It still involves some effort, in terms of holding and perpetuating a state of meditation, and there is some content of knowledge in it as well, even though self-conscious knowing has been transcended in favour of a more direct perception. It is a familiarization, if you will, of a higher truth, perhaps even of ‘the truth’, qualified as truth of the Self, or Brahman. Adi Sankaracharya says in the Vivekachudamani that this process of listening, contemplating and meditating can lead to nirvikalpa samadhi, where dualism ends and one is established in a direct experience of consciousness.

A Jewel in Indra’s Net

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Imagine a net that stretches into infinity. On each of its nodes is studded a brilliant jewel. Every jewel reflects all the other jewels on the net, and is in turn reflected in them, thereby creating a phenomenon of a deep and irrevocable interconnectedness. This Vedic metaphor of ‘Indra’s net’ was used in Samkhya Darshan and later in Buddhist philosophy to demonstrate the nature of reality. Which in Samkhya is nonduality, and so the net though made up of a million and more jewels, is essentially an integrated field of consciousness. Phenomena arise in it, but they are not disparate events. Rather, they form nodes in the same flow, the one continuum. In this oneness, creation unfolds.

According to the Buddhist perspective, Indra’s net expresses dependent origination – pratitya samutpada in Sanskrit. Briefly, one set of causes and conditions gives rise to another, and nothing exists without everything else that caused it to arise. One jewel reflects all the others, and its own existence in turn is revealed in them. One cause leads to another and so on, thereby forming a reality where everything is conjoined and is ultimately dependent on everything else.

These profound ideas have been around for a while now, but the radically connective new technology of the last couple of decades has evolved new meanings for them. What could be a better illustration of Indra’s net of interconnectedness than the worldwide web? Its tentacles reach out to cover almost the entire globe. Millions of nodes are logged into it, sending data back and forth along its pathways, creating a virtual prototype of the kind of interconnections that Indra’s net exemplifies.

Technology has increased the experience of connectedness in our daily lives. Yet, with vast amounts of connective information literally a touch away, there is a constant splintering of attention. Conceptually, the worldwide web might be a good example of an integrated field. But our actual experience of it is anything but unitive. Constant connectivity fractures our consciousness again and again, so we exist in many alternative mental realities at the same time. Any actual enrichment of the mind and heart is debatable.

What can we do to deal with this? One simple yet profound shift is to know that we use technology, and not the other way round. Human beings are not vehicles for technology to showcase its capabilities. To use it mindfully, simply become aware. Switch off and prioritize the act of joyfully connecting with what can be seen, felt, heard, touched and smelled. To revitalize the links of interconnectedness, we must begin from where we are. The ground beneath our feet, the water in our taps, the park in front of our homes, the rainwater that could be harvested, the garbage that could be ecologically disposed. Where we are is our world in this moment. We could consciously choose to engage with it mindfully. And savour being a jewel studded in the net of Indra.