Today is Republic Day in India. Jan. 26, 1950, the Indian Constitution was officially accepted and the national flag unfurled. There is a strong contingent of Gurukula students here who have an RSS background. RSS is the Rashtriya Svayam Sevaka Sangha, sometimes called a paramilitary organization, but really a kind of glorified nationalist boy scouts.
Nilakanth told me that when these students, nearly all (if not all) of whom are from Orissa, first came, they kept up their marching in formation and saluting flags and stuff for a while until it was washed out of them with dhyana and yoga exercises. Today they got a chance to do it all again, and one or two of them showed me how they used to strut. They led the flag unfurling ceremony and a rousing rendition of the national anthem, written by Rabindranath Tagore.
India’s anthem is in Bengali, but only one or two verbs betray the linguistic origins, for one aspect of its genius is that it can be understood by practically any speaker of any Indian language.
Unlike most other national anthems, the Indian is a prayer to God, “the arbiter of India’s fortune,” as if the author recognized the near impossibility of forging so many diverse peoples into a single nation. For the most part it is a listing of names of the land’s principal geographical features (Vindhya, Himachala, Yamuna, Ganga) and member states—and I imagine there is some grousing about who got left out, especially since the still recent division of several of the original states into tribally dominated areas.
“We beg for your blessings of prosperity, and we sing songs of your victory, O bestower of auspiciousness on our people, O arbiter of India’s fortune.” And then followed by a series of jaya heys. No militaristic calls for conquering other nations. It is about recreating that common cultural and geographical identity that had been there for millennia and had been made politically possible by the British, but one that could not be accepted, unfortunately, by Muslims—despite the absence of anything overtly Hindu or even faintly anti-Muslim in the entire text.
Yesterday I was talking about Arjuna’s anti-war arguments in my Gita class (I am still in the first chapter). It has been hard not to talk about Iraq in them, and one person even complained to me afterwards that there was too much. But I had to discuss the idea of just war and all that, and I had to put the Gita in the context the events of the past 20 years, especially the idea of propaganda. Because, for some people, the Gita is nothing but a piece of exemplary propaganda. After all, although the Gita does not devalue life per se, by saying that the soul does not die, does it not reduce the momentousness and absolute finality of the act of killing? Does it not fly in the face of Kant’s statement that every life should be treated as “an end in itself,” one of the cornerstones of modern ethics?
But we who were treated to a masterly piece of deceptive propaganda only a few years ago, to promote a war in Iraq that some incredibly high percentage of Americans subscribed to, need to recognize our susceptibility to calls for revenge and appeals to our desire to “do good for others” by killing selected representatives of Evil.
But I observed, having only observed it recently myself, that although Krishna encourages Arjuna to fight, he never makes it about demonizing the enemy. Duryodhan is never mentioned in Krishna’s hundreds of verses, except in the vishva-rupa darshan. Nowhere is he talking about saving the world or oppressed peoples, though it is assumed that Arjuna is on the side of righteousness. If anyone, Arjuna is more concerned about these things than Krishna. Krishna’s responses belong to an entirely different realm.
Anyway, this morning, I talked to Sudhir Das, one of the former RSS Orissans, with whom I have become rather good friends. We often converse in Sanskrit, at which I am getting rather good. He is tall and thin, with long hair and a beard, darkskinned but effulgent, with bright eyes and a quick and pleasant smile. Altogether quite a charismatic fellow. He has been trying to persuade Swamiji to give him sannyas for the last year, and Swamiji has him doing a purascharan of Gayatri mantra.
Sudhir was telling me about his RSS activities, which he conducted for more than five years in Sambalpur district in northwestern Orissa. They had to be jacks-of-all-trades: they would come into villages, sing nationalistic songs, teach Indian martial arts like stickfighting, teach yoga and Sanskrit. Even now, the “RSS boys” have kirtan on Saturday nights, and several amongst them play harmonium or tabla, including Sudhir. Some of them also specialized in speaking on Hindu texts like Bhagavata, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Their main purpose in all this is to expand the organization and create new branches for their brand of disciplined and selfless Indian nationalism. It is an old model, with a that old Victorian fragrance about it—nowadays, the “way forward” is through hedonistically motivated economic activity.
Sudhir told me that when he got promoted to work in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, he decided to change directions and get a deeper knowledge of the Sanskrit texts. Basically, as many young idealists, he was (and still is) disturbed by all the phoneys he sees in the Hindu religious leadership. Now he wants to take sannyas and do some kind of socially involved religious work in his home state. When I asked him whether he intended to work with anyone else or independently, he vehemently responded, “independent!” I would like to press him a little further for details of what exactly he wants to do.
No Gita class today, by the way. A national holiday.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Friday, January 18, 2008
Last night, Swami called up the entire ashram to come up and listen while he gave a radio interview to Janet Bray Attwood, the author of The Passion Test, one of those self-help publishing phenoms that spring into the forefront every now and then. She is apparently doing a series of interviews with spiritual leaders and gurus.
Funnily enough, just the other day, a priest from Kerala, Father Thomas, who is doing his PhD in Minneapolis, also came with a similar mission. He has been tracking down various spiritual leaders to ask them questions on particular subjects related to their spiritual experience.
Swamiji's radio interview was very good. He led a five minute meditation session in his inimitable manner, but it was immediately clear why he had the entire ashram present. As soon as he began, everyone went into trance (may as well call it that) and it made his presentation of the meditation very powerful. It is a simple procedure really, simply concentrating on the breath and chanting the mantra, but his voice and manner make a huge effect. His answers to her questions, which we did not hear, were also simple and clear.
Afterwards, Swamiji insisted that I eat with him. There were only three of us, included Swami Ritavan, an American who is currently in charge of the Minneapolis center. After I made some observations about Swamiji's interview, Pyare (Pierre, also from Montreal), joked that every public lecture Swamiji gave was always the same. He said, "You always start by asking to be reminded of the topic you are supposed to be speaking on, and then you lead a meditation."
This led somehow into Swamiji talking about his early life. His purvashram name was Usharbudh Arya. The last name is indicative of his Arya Samaj upbringing. Actually, his father was a bit of an Arya Samaj fanatic and when he saw the potential his son had for study, gave up all his worldly commitments and cut himself from his entire family in order to dedicate himself exclusively to his son's education. Usharbudh was only four at the time. Within a short time, though, he was showing that he was indeed a child prodigy. He gave his first public lecture on the Yoga Sutras at the age of nine. But his speciality was the Vedas.
He told us the story last night of what he considers to be the real anniversary of his "teaching" career. By the time he was 13, he had already been conducting fire sacrifices, a prominent part of the Arya Samaj ritual, for some time. He had learned the four Vedas so well that he practically knew them by heart. That year, 1947, he was actually invited to conduct an Agnihotra sacrifice in Rishikesh, for which he was placed on the seat of Brahma, as chief priest. When the brahman and sannyasi elders saw that a young boy of 13 was given the place of honor, they challenged him. "To sit on this seat, you must know the four Vedas. Do you?" "Yes," he answered. "Along with the meanings?" "Yes."
Swamiji then offered to open the volume before him on any page and explain any verse, according to its adhibhautika, adhidaivika or adhyatmika interpretation. And with that started two days of intense examination. Finally, after he had explained the root of the word shishna (male organ) as coming from the root sna (to bathe), he was challenged by a pandit who had himself published a translation and commentary on Yaska's Nirukti, the Vedic dictionary. The pandit said that such a derivation was impossible (with some justification), but the young prodigy came back with the answer, "But Panditji, in your own book, on such and such a page, you have given this very derivation yourself! How can you challenge me?" And with that, his examination was over.
After that he began to get invitations to lecture all over northern India. Nevertheless, Swamiji said, his father did not trust him and before every public speaking engagement, insisted that he study, and he himself would give him copious notes to examine. But when the time came to sit on the asan, he said with a laugh, he would just open the book and say whatever came to his mind. There was no disappointment in his audiences, but his father was not pleased.
I asked how it came about that he left his father. Though I did not get any details, Swamiji says that hïs father was too controlling and he finally ran away when he was sixteen. This was, he said, recognized as appropriate by those who knew the two of them well. Nevertheless, in order to make the space between him and his father sufficient, he accepted an offer to serve as an Arya Samaj missionary in Guyana, South America, where there is a sizable Indian diaspora. He was only 18.
From there the conversation led into a discussion of child saints in India, starting with Shukadeva. Apparently the place where Shukadeva first spoke the Bhagavatam is not too far from here, on the way to Delhi.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
This gives a fairly good idea of what the ashram's main portion looks like. Of course this is only a small part of the whole complex. Swami Veda's quarters, offices, library are upstairs to the left. The meditation hall is in the lower part of the same edifice, to the right. My office, which is in the manuscript room, is in the lower part of the building to the left. The structure on the right of this picture is the yajna shala. You can see the hills in the background.
This is the view outside my office, looking out over the cottages, where paying guests stay. The large buildings in the back are a dental college.
This picture is of me in my office, standing in front of the cabinets which house the manuscripts. I have a better picture of my office but I will have to add it later.