Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Swami Veda follows Grandfather Bhishma

I just received a call from Adhikari in Rishikesh that yoga master 108 Sri Mahamandaleshwar Swami Veda Bharati Maharaj has left his body. I hereby offer my condolences to all his disciples and followers, many of whom have become good friends over the years. Swamiji was a good friend and guide to me. I first became associated with him in 2007 when I joined the SRSG Gurukula as a teacher of Sanskrit. It is unfortunate that I never knew him earlier in life. Those who did knew him as a tireless teacher of meditation and Indian yogic culture. He was, in fact, an extraordinarily learned person, not only in traditional branches of knowledge, but in Western scholarship as well. He was a magnet for scholars of Sanskrit and Hindu shastra, especially those who came from the West, and I got to meet many of them at SRSG -- David Frawley, Bettina Boehner, Chris Chapple, Mark Singleton, to just mention a few off the top of my head. When he was still in fairly good form, Swamiji would have very lively meals in the evening, usually with special guests, mostly very interesting ones. Swamiji would lead the way with much boisterous story telling. Over the years I met his son and daughter, grandchildren, as well as hundreds of his disciple children. It was a good and interesting company. Swamiji's evening meals were called the "Rishikesh Nightclub" and they always finished with Swamiji reciting, like a maha-mantra, the various choices of beverage with which the meal could be concluded, including cinnamon from Malaysia and cocoa from Trinidad. At first I was primarily a Sanskrit teacher, but Swamiji approved of my meagre Sanskrit skills and so asked me to work on a number of projects, including several old translations that had been sitting around and just needed finalizing. Sanat-sujatiya and the Gita in the Vasishtha Ramayana were two of them. Swamiji also confided me with the Yoga-tarangini work. He also sent me a couple of times to represent him at conferences at the Ramkrishna Mission in Kolkata and Punjab University. But the biggest project was redoing the first volume of Yoga Sutra, in the hope that the copyright to it could be wrested from the Himalayan Institute. The new volume was published privately, and it looks pretty good. Swamiji naturally wanted the other volumes of YS to be at the same standard, which may now never happen. Nevertheless, I finished going through the third volume just before leaving Rishikesh a couple of weeks ago and so I am quite confident that this volume will be up to the standard. Swamiji had already started going through Volume II to revise that. And there are notes and so on for Volume IV. I tried to persuade Swamiji to concentrate on the sutras of the fourth volume and to leave aside the multitude of appendices he wanted to add to other volumes. Swamiji really wanted to present the Yoga Sutras authoritatively, encompassing the entire Sanskrit commentatorial tradition and highlighting practices or interpretations as given in the oral tradition, as he had received it from Swami Rama and others in his many years of contact with the world of yoga. Swamiji also has, he has let it be known, a volume of reminiscences of his relationship with Swami Rama, which he wanted to be published posthumously. One of the reasons that he wanted it published posthumously is because there are many incidences in these memoirs that have a miraculous flavor to them, and moreover would seem to show his guru's special favour on him. But this was characteristic of Swami Veda. Although he was proud of his career, of the special circumstances of his early life and the role he played in the Caribbean with the Hindu diaspora there, and the winding road he took that led him to create Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama and the Gurukula project in Rishikesh. Although these projects will need to be carefully cared for, may Swamiji's desire to create an atmosphere where serious minded yogis -- particular those from the West -- can study and practice without distraction or disturbance and make real progress towards the higher reaches of yoga, namely Samadhi -- be fulfilled. Swamiji made a point of not allowing his pictures to be hung in any official location on the ashram grounds, though some individuals naturally kept his photo on the walls of their room. But Swamiji had a horror of the lavish worship and cultish mentality that so many gurus promote. He wanted his disciples to understand the proper relationship of disciple to guru, but he refused to use such gross techniques to manipulate their minds. There are, of course, certain superficial advantages to the cult mentality, and had he so wished he could easily have employed those techniques, but he refused on principle. Though I have written a few things about my experiences with Swami Veda on this blog and elsewhere, in the last few months that I spent at SRSG Swamiji called me to his room a couple of times. With John and Souresh present he made me promise to finish the Yoga Sutra project (and a lot of others that would require too much commitment from me). Then on another occasion -- just when the Yoga Tarangini came out -- he again exacted the same promise from me. Where the Yoga Sutra is concerned I think that if I am to continue with the project even now, that we could follow the same technique that Swamiji used and then make use of recorded lectures and notes to supplement them to come up with something that would be close to his standard and his teaching intentions. It would, of course, require the contributions of all of Swamiji's longtime associates and disciples, who were most likely to have received the grace of knowing his lesser known secrets. Swamiji was proud of his connection to Swami Rama and the "oral tradition" of Himalayan yoga. This is where I would no doubt be less helpful. I hope that all these projects will be maintained and carried out in the way that he envisioned and that his disciples will be empowered to carry his mantle and continue to lead the way and spread his legacy and that of the Himalayan tradition. Many years ago, Swamiji wrote books about death and preparing for death, Meditation and the Art of Dying. He also cited the example of Grandfather Bhishma from the Mahabharata and his iccha-mrityu. Many times he expressed admiration for that model of departing from the world willingly. This last year Swamiji told me several times that the astrologers had told him that the mahamaraka yoga of inevitable death was hanging over him, but that he simply "refused to die." Each time he said this, he said it with absolute determination. He would especially go into silence and meditation, using nari shodhana and other techniques to stay the call of Death, all so that he could see his projects through. Just before I left SRSG in mid-June, Swamiji again said to me that he hoped that he would be able to finish everything, then say goodbye and enter kaivalya forever. I cannot believe that even though he left quietly in the auspicious brahma muhurta he did not do so in keeping with his ambitions of a glorious and voluntary death. At any rate, it is not for a person's death that we remember them, but for their life and the good they do for others. Swamiji's contributions to deepening humanity's understanding of yoga and meditation and their benefits will long be remembered. And I would not like to minimize the work that he did for international peace and finding ways of harmonizing different religious traditions through meditation. His sterling relations with the Keralan Christians and Sufi sheikhs are just one sample of the work he did in this regard. And again, to all those who have been with him for more than forty years -- Swami Ritavan, Stoma Parker, Swami Radha, Joanne Sullivan and a host of others, including Maryon Masse, Silvia Barata, Caroline Hume, Caroline and Stephan Hodges, etc., as well as those like Suren, Mei Wan, Tejas and the rest of the residents of SRSG who have been with Swamiji and served him for so long -- I offer my heartfelt condolences. May he live in immortality. By the way, his absolute last instructions to me were to floss…

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Adalat Shekh’s familiar spirit

This was originally written several years ago, but it is nowhere on any of my current blogs, so I am reposting it after a long time.

I lived in the Mayapur Chandrodaya Mandir between 1975 and 1979, where I was in charge of the Gurukula school. During the time I was there, the ashram was undergoing constant growth, as it is even today, and there seemed to be construction underway at nearly all times. There was a constant influx of new personnel, many of them East Bengali refugees, whose motives in coming to the ashram seemed to be as much practical as spiritual. At the time of my story, there had been a rash of petty thievery -- clocks, watches, cash and other such items were going missing from the quarters of the Western devotees, causing much irritation to them and the temple management. When a fairly expensive brass gong went missing from the temple room, however, they lost patience and decided to take extraordinary measures to solve the problem.

About two kilometers north of the ashram is Mayapur village, in fact Miapore, a poor settlement of Muslims that destiny placed in the middle of the largest development of Hindu shrines in Bengal in the 20th century. This village had long furnished the manpower for the construction of Mayapur Chandrodaya Mandir, and though this relationship went through many ups and downs over the years, the Muslims generally prospered as a result of the plentiful jobs the temple provided.

The countermaster of Mayapur village was a trusted and well-liked elderly Muslim with a white beard named Adalat Shekh, who also acted as a night guard. Besides being adept with the lathi, or fighting staff, Adalat Shekh had another talent that I had not known about before then, but apparently the temple managers did. Tapomoy Das, a dark and passionate young brahmachari who was in charge of the ashram's day-to-day management, decided to make use of that talent to solve the intractable petty-theft problem.

Adalat Shekh was an ojha. Ojhas are village magicians who use their skills for things like tracking lost objects or animals, curing snakebite, or answering other pressing questions for troubled villagers. Adalat Shekh apparently had mastery over a familiar spirit that helped him to accomplish these tasks. His fame was quite widespread, and many was the lost or stolen cow or buffalo he had found and brought back to its rightful owner.

At the time of my story, the north boundary guesthouse, a 200 meter long building three stories high, was under construction. A single story building followed the western boundary of the property; it was probably about 350 meters long, broken up by two gates, the magnificent main one to the north and a smaller one for deliveries near the southern end. This southwestern corner of the property was the site of the kitchen and dining pavillion, a functional hangar-like building with metal gates and asbestos roof.

From 7.30 to 8.30 each morning, the students of the gurukula were assigned various tasks around the ashram—generally cleaning, sweeping the roads, washing the temple floors or hallways, and so on. On this particular day, however, Tapomoy had taken a pair of boys to the square of pavement surrounded by the kitchen, the dining pavilion and the north wall, from which the road to the main gate began. Adalat was waiting there, as were a few curious members of the ashram staff, mostly other boys.

Adalat had a clay pot partially filled with Ganges water, the indispensible material for all Hindu ritual, which somehow had found its way into the Muslim community. The clay pot had been duly daubed with vermillion and oil, swastikas and other symbols painted on it, including a stick figure that represented the spirit whose presence was being summoned. Adalat place two segments of split bamboo, about three meters long, on either side of the pot and then began muttering spells and blowing into the pot. Finally, he stood up and instructed the two boys Tapomoy had selected for the task to take hold of the two flexible pieces of bamboo, so that each of them was standing at their extremities, holding one piece in either hand.

After consulting with Tapomoy, Adalat then began to speak to the pot in a commanding voice: “Go and find the brass gong!” He used the diminutive form of the imperative, as is fitting in Bengali for a master to use when speaking to a menial servant. But nothing happened. The two boys looked at each other and laughed. Everyone else looked puzzled and Adalat looked annoyed. He turned to Tapomoy and complained that the boys were incapable of carrying out the function they had been given. Tapomoy shrugged and himself replaced one of them and signaled to me to take the other end of the bamboo sticks, which I did.

Adalat then repeated the mantras and the blowing into the pot, and then again commanded his familiar spirit to find the brass gong. As soon as he had finished giving the order, Tapomoy and I felt a sudden surge in the bamboo sticks, as if someone had taken hold of them in the middle and was tugging on them, pulling us very definitely to the west. Tapomoy and I looked at each other with wide-open eyes, astonished grins on both our faces. The sticks pulled us along with confidence, taking us to the limits of the kitchen where they made a very crisp movement to the right, leading us again to the limits of the building and turning right again, leading us to the construction foreman’s hut, which stood behind the dining pavillion. Without any hesitation, they led us directly to the foreman’s doorway and leaned against it, practically knocking on the padlocked door as if trying to get in. The foreman was not at home.

Tapomoy and Adalat consulted with each other. Tapomoy said, “The gong may be inside, but the foreman isn’t. So let’s have the spirit take us to the foreman.” Adalat gave the order and the sticks did an about face; where they had been bent toward the foreman’s door, they immediately turned upward and then spun in the opposite direction, and began pulling us that way.

There was a chain link fence about eight feet high in this corner of the property, but it was only partially complete. There was a footpath leading from the head mistry’s residence as far as the last fencepost; it then turned around and led on the other side of the fence through a rice field to the main road, which continued east towards the ferry pier where one would cross the river to get to Nabadwip town. The sticks led us along this path, very emphatically turning the 180 degrees at the last fencepost and leading us at almost a running pace toward the river. Evidently the foreman had gone into town.

Adalat immediately called to his spirit to halt. It was here I learned the rather amusing piece of information that he could not carry out his paranormal activities in public areas because he did not have a license! Apparently such activities could only be conducted on private property. On consulting with Tapomoy, they decided that the brass gong could not be retrieved at that particular moment, and the spirit was asked to lead us to one of the other missing items, a clock; this time, in fact, Tapomoy decided to ask for the thief before the lost good.

In a movement that was becoming familiar, the two sticks swooshed in the opposite direction and led us back the way we had come, past the kitchen and back onto the road that followed the north wall. Our strange little group had by now grown to a fairly large size, with many curious children and devotees struggling to keep up with the sticks which were stretched out in an arc in front of Tapomoy and myself, pulling us steadily to a destination that only Adalat's familiar spirit knew.

Rushing along, it led us past the main gate and further along the north wall, to a series of rooms where many of the Bengali inmates were quartered. At this time, most of the temple devotees had finished their early morning duties or temple activities and were returning to their quarters to clean up or change before going to the dining pavillion for breakfast.

The sticks led us directly to a woman, whose name I have regrettably forgotten, but whose reputation for sticky fingers was well known. With amazing dexterity, the two sticks cornered the woman in front of her room, and while she stared at Tapomoy and myself with wide-eyed and open-mouthed astonishment, straddled her head and nestled on either side of her neck, pinning her against the wall. Evidently, the spirit had spoken: this was the culprit who had taken the clock.

Time was running out for the spirit’s work, but Tapomoy decided we had enough to try to find one more item, a watch, if I remember correctly. Again, the sticks did their about face and led us into the crossroads in front of the main gate, where the road south led to the main temple, while the road east led to the kitchen. A small throng of about fifteen men and women was in the road coming from the temple and the sticks led us right into their midst. They all scattered, forming a rough circle as everyone stood around to observe what was going on. The sticks immediately turned toward a smaller cluster of three or four individuals, which again broke up. The sticks made the adjustment, chose its target and again made the arrest by tightly pressing against either side of their prisoner's neck.

With that, Adalat Shekh and his spirit’s work was done. Tapomoy and I needed to say little to each other. It was obvious that neither of us had manipulated the sticks. The movements had been too sudden and sharp, the tugging so sure and confident that it could only have been coming from outside either of us. There was not the remotest possibility that either of us had been manipulating the bamboo; every single movement had been a total surprise to both of us.

I don’t believe that any of the stolen items were ever recovered, but somehow neither Tapomoy nor I ever doubted for a moment that the thieves were those Adalat Shekh’s familiar spirit had fingered.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Adhika Pathyam

Yesterday was Akshaya Tritiya, an auspicious day for undertakings, like marriages. I finished a book I started work on when I was a Gurukula teacher of Sanskrit at SRSG. I showed it to Swamiji and I am glad to say that he was very enthusiastic. Like me, he hopes that it will be of some interest to other devotees of Swami Veda and Swami Rama, as it includes explanations of all the verses that are chanted in the morning and evening at the ashram, including Gita verses and Ishopanishad. The name Adhika Pathyam is temporary. It needs a catchier title. Adhika Pathya means "extra reading material" for the course, to supplement other text books and reading materials, so that the students would feel that even if they did not learn Sanskrit that at least they would know what the prayers mean!
Here is a sample:

1. Guru-vandanā


गुरुर्ब्रह्मा गुरुर्विष्णुर्गुरुर्देवो महेश्वरः।
गुरुः साक्षात् परं ब्रह्म तस्मै श्रीगुरवे नमः॥

gurur brahmā gurur viṣṇur gurur devo maheśvaraḥ |
guruḥ sākṣāt paraṁ brahma tasmai śrī-gurave namaḥ ||

§  devo maheśvaraḥ = See the comments to Verse 6 (p. 6). mātā tu pārvatī, etc.
§  gurur = guruḥ. This is a visarga sandhi. When visarga is preceded by a vowel other than a or ā, and is followed by a soft consonant (all consonants other than ka, kha, ca, cha, ṭa, ṭha, ta, tha, pa, pha, śa, ṣa, sa), the visarga changes to r. In this verse, since s is a hard consonant, guruḥ did not become gurur in front of sākṣāt. These are visarga-sandhi rules 4a and 1a. See pages 104-105.
§  viṣṇur = viṣṇuḥ. Same rule. See also in Mealtime prayers, Gita 4.24 (p.16 of this book) havir.


§  tasmai = to him (caturthī vibhakti, dative case). This is a sarvanāma (pronoun)
§  śrī-gurave = to the guru (caturthī vibhakti, dative case)

Important: The word namaḥ always takes the caturthī vibhakti. Examples: oṁ namaḥ śivāya, oṁ namo bhagavate vāsudevāya, namas tasyai namas tasyai namas tasyai namo namaḥ.

This verse contains several short sentences.
  • gurur brahmā = The guru is Brahmā (creator god)
  • gurur viṣṇuḥ = The guru is Vishnu (god of maintaining the universe)
  • gurur devo maheśvaraḥ = The guru is Maheshwara (Śiva, god of destruction)
  • guruḥ sākṣāt paraṁ brahma = The guru is directly the Param Brahma, the Supreme Absolute Truth


अखण्डमण्डलाकारं व्याप्तं येन चराचरम्।
तत्पदं दर्शितं येन तस्मै श्रीगुरवे नमः॥

akhaṇḍa-maṇḍalākāraṁ vyāptaṁ yena carācaram |
tat-padaṁ darśitaṁ yena tasmai śrī-gurave namaḥ ||

Sandhis: Final m becomes anusvāra () in front of any consonant.

Main part of sentence: tasmai śrī-gurave namaḥ. (See Verse 1)

Syntax: This verse is a little more complicated than the other ones because of the use of relative pronouns, i.e. yena. Normally, wherever there is a tat, there is a yat, and vice versa.

So “I bow down to that (tasmai) guru…” Which guru? tat-padam darśitaṁ yena

§  yena = (the guru) by whom (tṛtīyā vibhakti, instrumental case)
§  tat padam = that thing, substance, state, place, position.
§  darśitam = was shown. This is a past participle, like dattam. It works like an adjective, agreeing with the subject, tat-padam, a neuter noun.

This is a passive construction, but Sanskrit uses the passive much more often than English, so we can translate “who showed me that state”

Now tat padam is doing the same thing. The tat here is looking for a yat. In the second quarter of the verse we find another yena. So in answer to which substance, thing, position or state, we have:

§  akhaṇḍa-maṇḍalākāraṁ carācaram = “the unbroken (akhaṇḍa) circle (maṇḍala) form (ākāraṁ), moving (cara) and unmoving (acara),” i.e., the universal creation. The word carācaraṁ and cognates are often used to mean the entire universe of moving and unmoving beings.
§  yena = “by which” (refering to pada)
§  vyāptaṁ = is pervaded. This is also a past participle. It agrees with the subject carācaram.

Again, this is a passive construction. Translate: “which pervades the universe of moving and unmoving creatures, shaped like an unbroken circle.”

So: I pay obeisances to Śrī Guru, who showed me that state (Brahman), which pervades the creation.