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.

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