Saturday, February 23, 2008

David Frawley: Sacred Fire, Sacred Elements

One of the features of staying here in this ashram has been meeting the numerous guests who pass through, many of whom are talented and accomplished individuals in their own right. The other day, we had the pleasure of hearing an accomplished classical Indian vehala player named Ashish Chatterjee, who gave a concert for the benefit of the ashram residents. Last night, it was an honor to greet David Frawley, whom I had not previously met. He is in Rishikesh for a conference on Yoga and Ayurveda. Since Frawley is also known as Vamadeva Shastri, I will use the title "Shastriji" to refer to him through this article.

The subject Shastriji spoke on was based on his latest book, called Yoga and the Sacred Fire. I must admit that I have never read anything by Shastriji and may even have been a little biased against him because of his controversial stand on the Aryan Invasion Theory, which he opposes along with the likes of Subhash Kak. The academic establishment holds on to the AIT as something of an axiomatic truth and to oppose it you run the risk of being branded as a Hindu nationalist or extremist, etc.

Nevertheless, Swamiji asked me to introduce Shastriji and so I perused a couple of his books in the library and found the ones I looked at to be good insightful popularizations of Ayurveda and so on. At any rate, it is always a pleasure to see and hear successful and reputed individuals for whatever insights one may derive from them. I will summarize in a most subjective way my impressions.

Frawley’s lecture was a meditation on Agni, or fire, which is where the Veda begins. Starting from the first hymn of the Rig Veda and tracing the various ways in which the element of fire has been understood in yoga and tantra, as well as in non-Indian traditions, especially the Zoroastrian, etc., he gave a steady, heady list of associations, real and metaphorical, including digestion, asceticism, purification, light, insight, realization, wisdom, life itself, transcendence. There were even forays into scientific thinking, with the caveat that he is not a scientist.

Since coming here I have noticed that speculations on the material elements (pancha maha-bhuta) are a central part of thinking here and in the yogic community in general. Part of this naturally has to do with Ayurveda, but more to do with Yoga’s traditional association with Sankhya. Recently we had staying here a woman sannyasi, Nityamuktananda Swami, who has also recently written a book on all five elements (The Big Five )
and lectured on it for three days in impressive fashion. When I recently went through Sarva-siddhanta-sangraha I was again mystified by the preoccupation with categorizing the elements that features in nearly all Indian philosophical systems. It does seem a bit beside the point for those of us who are conditioned by bhakti traditions.

At one point I started to wonder what the point of the exercise was, but Shastriji did not disappoint. As he started talking about the sense of the sacred that is missing in modern society and the insight of the Vedic seers into the presence of the divine in these elements, he succeeded in communicating that this kind of pantheistic awareness is in fact very profound. Shastriji also spoke about ritual, no doubt inspired by the Vedic fire sacrifice, and the need to be drawn back into a consciousness of the very basics of the universe and their sacred character.

He here mentioned the problem with “religion,” which is sectarianism, and I could appreciate his point. Fire is something that everyone has a visceral relationship with. A fire burns wild in California or even in the northern forests of Alberta and it becomes a threatening, dangerous thing, like storms and floods, a part of Nature that is still outside man's vain grasping for omnipotence. And yet, in its transformations, like electricity, it is an all-pervading necessity of modern life.

We can all relate to fire, or the other powers of material nature, whereas Jesus or Krishna or other historical personalities are often a matter of personal taste, or even controversy, at least when it comes to expressing devotion. That is the nature of personality: it is far more complex than the material elements. It seems easier to worship the latter, or at least, it would seem, in Shastriji’s thinking, that it is a more universal common denominator than the personality-based religions.

It was here, however, that my own little fire of prajna sparked into a slightly bigger flame. How much greater a phenomenon, divisive as it is, is personality. This is really the reason that the material elements were personified from the very beginnings of humanity, and this is the reason that the personal religions ultimately usurped the animistic or pantheistic ones. The miracle of human personality, with its ideal possibilities as divined in the persons of the saints and of the Gods, transcends even the miracles of material nature.

Since Shastriji had spoken of ritual, which is something I have been thinking about a great deal lately, I was curious as to whether he had any concrete ideas. Although his answer was meaningful on the platform of theory, the idea of reviving the Vedic sacrifice as a common human ritual (the closest he came to the concrete) did not ring plausible. Swamiji afterwards laughed and called him a “true Arya Samaji,” and said, “I could hear myself giving almost the same lecture 50 years ago, in my Arya Samaj days.”

Anyway, the idea of the sacred and the need for ritual is also an essential part of the Sahaja path. Only here, our sacred and essential, univerals element—I suppose we could also say the fire—is the Kamagni. When we metaphorize Radha and Krishna by saying that they represent Desire and Love and the conquest of the latter over the former, or any other variations of the metaphor, we are in effect universalizing the concepts and abstracting them away from the troublesome personal or mythological elements.

Nevertheless, as I keep saying, the mythological elements have their own separate sticking power. They stick to our psyches, and these speculations stick to them. Just as multiple associations have accumulated around the powerful image of fire, so too multiple associations have accumulated around sex, and in turn multiple associations have accumulated around Radha and Krishna. Some of these are compatible, some coincide, some do not. Sex is a powerful material force, Love is its transformation; it is the addition of the personal at the most profound level of being.

When sexuality and love are used metaphorically in relation to God, then here again we have the same duality: desire is the raw, powerful force that pushes us to seek Life, in whatever form. Love is the discovery of God as a Person.

The yogic, etc., preoccupation with the elements is of course not unique to it. Swamiji even mentioned afterwards how much he liked the Bhagavata’s account of Kapiladeva’s Sankhya in the third canto. And the avadhuta in the Eleventh Canto was specifically quoted by Nityamuktananda in the conclusion to her lectures on the elements, for the Avadhuta names each of them as the first five of his 24 gurus. Nevertheless, in the hierarchy of sacred manifestations, for all its ambivalence, the pinnacle is human personality: consciousness and its possibilities. And the element in human personality that burns strongest is the desire for absolute love. Although the need to sacralize our existence and our place within material nature includes the elements, our need to sacralize sexuality is the greatest necessity of all.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Gangesh Chaitanya

One of my students is a 25-year-old brahmachari named Gangesh. He is from a well-to-do family in Bangalore, but has taken a vow of naishthika brahmacharya from Swami Veda since joining the Gurukula in September last year.

Gangesh is dark-skinned with his head shaven, leaving a large, South Indian sikha. He is a bit stocky, strong looking, and his face, with bright and even teeth, exudes an effulgent good humor. Yesterday he came into my room to show me his latest enthusiasm, a copy of Tirumantiram, the Tamil Shaiva Siddhanta work, which according to Gangesh “contains everything.”

I leafed through it and it does indeed look interesting. It is a famous work which I have unfortunately never read, so I put it on my mental filing cabinet for things that I must one day and hopefully will do.

Then Gangesh, with the force of the Ganges as it passes under Lakshman Jhula, began to tell me of his adventures over the past few years. To repeat everything would take more time than I have, but I thought I would at least share with you a couple of his yarns.

When the desire for spiritual life was aroused in him, he went to stay at an ashram in South India, where his talkative nature got him into trouble with the other residents of the ashram. Someone had told him that Shiva was a devotee of Rama and Rama a devotee of Shiva. So whenever he came to a Shiva linga he would chant Rama’s name, and whenever in front of an image of Rama, he would chant "Om namah Shivaya." Indeed, his guru had given him the mantra,

rAma rAmeti rAmeti rame rAme manorame
sahasra-nAmabhis tulyam rAma-nAma varAnane

(Narada-pancharatra 4.3.223)

And so he chanted it for the pleasure of Lord Shiva. One day, after doing this, he had a dream in which Lord Shiva appeared to him and talked constantly throughout the dream, but when he woke up he could not remember anything that the Lord said. Even so, he considered this dream appearance the blessed result of his method of chanting and so he shared his experience with other members of the ashram. But rather than share his wonder and excitement, one of them told him he was crazy and should go on “bhramana,” meaning wandering through India from one sacred place to another, depending on the mercy of the Lord.

Realizing that the ashram was no longer conducive to his spiritual life, he went and asked his guru for permission to go on bhramana. So for the next two years, he walked from Bangalore north to Uttar Kashi and also as far as Ayodhya in the East, staying mostly at different ashrams where he would remain for varying periods of time (including two months at Madhuban, the Hare Krishna temple here in Rishikesh).

Though he had many adventures, one story he told was rather fun, so I will just tell it as he did.

Gangesh was staying at an ashram in Maharashtra, which was undergoing a dry spell. It was a particular tithi and the mahanta was taking him to the Godavari in a car when for some reason he began to either tease or torment Gangesh by telling him that he did not believe he was really a brahmachari. Finally, in frustration, Gangesh blurted out that if he was truly a brahmachari, then the next day at nine o’clock in the evening rain would fall from the heavens.

He immediately regretted having said it. To quote, “Swamiji, I was saying myself, what for you say this thing?” But the mahanta, who sounds like a bit of schemer, decided to spread word around, telling all the villagers that the visiting sadhu had promised rain. A steady procession of poor village people came to the dumbfounded Gangesh who was at a loss for what to tell them to solve their problems. He just told them to do Go-seva. A woman trying to get pregnant was told to say a few prayers and feed and circumambulate a cow. He was telling everyone to circumambulate the cows.

By nightfall he was in deep anxiety. He went to bed hoping that by morning everyone would have forgotten, but that was too much to expect. Still, being nervous about what would happen, Gangesh decided to follow his own advice and circumambulate a cow or two.

The day went by and no one said anything. Finally, that evening, while the mahanta was serving Gangesh a fine meal, he said, “Half an hour to go.” Gangesh was near panic, but for no reason. The gods smiled on him and gave recognition to his brahmacharya by raining at the appointed moment.

The next day, all the villagers came with money and gifts for the sadhu. According to Gangesh, he said the gifts should be given to the poor, and since you are poor yourselves, keep them. They naturally wanted him to stay in the village, but Gangesh, fearful of labha, puja and pratishtha, pushed on north towards Uttara Kashi on his wandering adventure.

True or not, it was true to genre. And it was told with utmost sincerity and panache.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Walk Through Rajaji Park

Today I am observing Ekadasi, so I decided to do nothing. As a part of doing nothing, I am writing on my blog.

It has been damp and overcast over the past few days, so a normal winter day was welcome. I went for a long walk in the warm sunshine after morning class and doing some asanas. This time I crossed the hydroelectric barrage that interrupts the Ganges’ flow and entered the Rajaji National Park. I don’t know why I had not done it before. It is a far more agreeable walk than going through the built up parts of Rishikesh, even better than the promenade alongside the Ganges behind the dam itself.

Just outside the park’s entrance was a huge colorful billboard welcoming Krishnalal Advani, who came here a couple of days ago to celebrate some political accomplishment or another. The billboard shows a group of about 25 boys dressed in saffron, with the Shaivaite tripundra on their foreheads and the smiling face of their bearded youthful-looking guru.

Svarga Ashram looked like a good destination at eight kilometers, so I started with the intention of covering that distance. The entrance to the park is marked by a sign, “Elephant zone.” I was rather hoping to spot an elephant or two, but I saw no wildlife except for a mere two monkeys, looking for remnants in a potato chip wrapper by the side of the road. They would have had better pickings in town, as the road through the park, though not pristine, was not the eyesore one gets accustomed to townside. And, of course, there were a few colorful birds, of which there are so many.

I finally cut back on my ambition, only going four kilometers, as weakness from fasting, lack of water, and the need to be back for my Sanskrit class made me reconsider. But overall the walk was quite spectacular. The road, though not deserted, is not overly travelled. The gullies and ravines which the road follows are deep and the drops steep. It was pleasant to see so much unviolated greenery, so rare in India, even though the basic dryness of the climate is evident everywhere. There are many magnificent banyans and other species of trees that are not familiar to me by name. The occasional clearings gave beautiful views of the Ganges below and the temples and ashrams on its banks. I kind of wish I had a camera today.

Got back with a bit of a headache, probably the result of dehydration and walking in the sun so soon after sirshasan and sarvangasan, but if the weather is good next Sunday, I will definitely try it again.