A Review of Ruzbeh N. Bharucha’s Dancing with Swans: A Book of Quotes

cover Dancing with Swans

This is a book of short prayers and aphorisms. Ruzbeh Bharucha states in the foreword of the book that 2018 is the 100th year anniversary of Baba Sai of Shirdi’s Maha Samadhi – his enlightened departure from the Earthly realm. Bharucha dedicates the book to “my dear Master, the Fakir of Shirdi; You, The One in whom reside The Goddess and The Lord and the Oneness Family,” (v). Further, Bharucha writes that it is nonsense that Shirdi Sai Baba is gone, “You live in the hearts, minds, breaths and sighs of countless of Your followers and lovers. So how could You ever leave Your body as everything of ours is Yours and if all of ours is Yours, then You reside in millions of us,” (v). The book is thus dedicated to Shirdi Sai Baba as Guru and non-dual Oneness.

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Sai Baba of Shirdi, By Kifayat Hidayat Mawal

Ruzbeh N. Bharucha is the author of many books in which the protagonist walks and talks and jokes (often irreverently) with God in the form of the Guru, Shirdi Sai Baba: The Fakir series, Rabda, and Ice With Very Unusual Spirits. These books remind me of an Indian Richard Bach, filled with humour and love as they explore the relationship between the wayward devotee and the spiritual teacher. The books are earthy and teach that one does not have to be boring to be spiritual. In fact, it is often the outsider aspect of the protagonist that leads to the spiritual relationship.

Ruzbeh N. Bharucha - Copy

Ruzbeh N. Bharucha

Bharucha has also been writing works that are not spiritual fiction, but more of an autobiographical and non-fiction approach, for instance The Aum of All Things, The Perfect Ones, and The Musk Syndrome. The current book, Dancing with Swans: A Book of Quotes, is in this vein, a book of quotes that came to the author whilst he was in meditation/communion with Shirdi Sai Baba. Bharucha was guided to meditate “after sunset for a certain number of weeks,” (ix). He portrays himself as a slacker, falling asleep, and meditating only a few minutes, but then he would write down the inspired wisdom he received. Bharucha summarizes the book in the following way:

“The theme of this book, in reality, is very simple. Give your best to each moment and leave the rest to The One and after that accept your lot with joyous acceptance. Be kind. Be compassionate. Be a bit crazy. Try not to be an adult. Be childlike but not childish. Be mature, not cynical. Don’t judge. Live and let live. Spend time in work, prayer and play. We are the makers of our own destiny through the use of fee will in our past lives, this one and the future…When life is rubbing our noses in the ground, inhale the fragrance of Mother Earth. When life is tossing us in the air, try and gaze into the sky. All is as well as we want it to be,” (x).

Swan through bushes, St. James

What follows is some 280+ pages of inspired quotes, roughly divided into different topical sections. To me this is solidly a good book, but not great in the way of The Fakir series is. Nevertheless, there are some gems in the book, such as in pointing toward non-duality, “You are the one praying to The One within you. So you are chanting and being prayed to. You are the one chanting and being chanted to. You are The One,” (14). Or, the following:

“Often sadness or emptiness within is a reflection of the yearning of the soul to move towards The One. Those who understand this, move into silence and prayer, or spread joy and compassion. That’s the only antidote to fill the void within,” (16).

Bharucha teaches a path of living spirituality. “Not the path of religion,” he tells us, “but that of spirituality comes from loving God,” (38). Further distinguishing religion and spirituality, he states that, “All that is spiritual leads us to Oneness. Earlier, being religious and spiritual meant the same. Now nothing divides one brother from another as surely as the false interpretation of religion,” (88). Bharucha often illuminates the hypocrisy of religion, ritual, and conservatism, showing that it is those who step outside societal norms and expectations who are the true lovers of God.

“Till one does not make God, Goddess, Guru—the three Gs—as the sole and soul priority, there are innumerable distractions, obstacles, temptations, confusions, to make life a living hell, this and in future lives,” (39).

There are sources of consolation within the book. Particularly in reminding the reader that emptiness and loneliness are steps on the spiritual path.

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Path to Chapel of Saint Non, Pembrokeshire, Wales, © D. Kopacz 2018

“The emptiness the seeker feels on The Path is a must. One needs to be empty for the Divine Energy to fill us up. The page has to be blank for the Divine Words to be written on,” (23).

In times of darkness, such as our own, Bharucha advises us that the way forward is through, through embracing our fears, just as in the hero’s journey the darkness of the abyss contains the boon that can transform self and world. “The hour before dawn is the darkest but also the most spiritual—the true meditative Kali; you either fear the darkness or go within and become one with Her radiance,” (131). Rather than denying pain or seeking to avoid it, Bharucha writes that the pain is a way to open us up and make us more compassionate and that our choice of how to react to inevitable pain and suffering is what determines our experience.

“I feel sometimes the cosmos has no other way to make us more compassionate than by making us experience hunger, pain, sorrow, loss and anguish. The wise learn from these experiences and become more understanding. Others waste the opportunity and become negative. Karma means going through an experience, while free will decides heaven, hell or in-between,” (195).

Getting back to his main theme of the book, Bharucha reminds us, “The true role of any individual is to allow the unhindered and uncorrupted Divine Energy to flow through him or her. That, in reality, is our only purpose of existence,” (203). Allowing this “unhindered and uncorrupted” flow does not turn us into pious and staid religious people who stand back and above the fray, rather this Divine Energy makes us all individuals, sometimes somewhat quirky and irreverent, engaged in the world, offering compassion and doing good regardless of whether it is an official holy day or not. And yet as the Divine Energy flowing through us makes us into individuals, we are simultaneously in touch with and at one with Oneness, what Bharucha calls the 3 Gs—God, Goddess, and Guru. The Oneness is the energy that flows through the individual, animating diversity, allowing the many in One.

“Don’t waste time on negative stuff. Don’t. In a blink of a moment, we shall be either old, alone or dead, and then realize what we have let slip away from our grasp. All this shit isn’t worth it. Let it go,” (91).

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Swan, St. James’s Park, London, © D. Kopacz 2018

 

 

A Review of “When God Is A Traveller,” by Arundhathi Subramaniam

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Following up on my review of Where I Live (2009) by Arundhathi Subramaniam, we will next look at her 2014 When God Is A Traveller (HarperCollins India). This book actually contains 22 poems from the “Deeper in Transit” section of Where I Live, thus there is substantial overlap in poems between books. Still, there are 29 new poems in this book, and it is a beautiful hardcover with very attractive cover art, making it a nice little book of poetry to carry around. The 22 duplicate poems are worth reading again, anyway. “Leapfrog” and “Catnap” were quoted in my review of Where I Live. Writing about gods, goddesses, and heroines as well as daily life, and a favourite topic of writing on writing, this little book is well worth reading and travelling along the various textual references which lead to empty space, which is the terrain of gods, goddesses, and heroines.

Arundhathi Subramaniam

In “How Some Hindus Find Their Personal Gods,” Subramaniam answers AS’s question about ishta devas. With so many gods and goddesses to choose from, how does one find one to have a personal relationship with? She advises:

               “It’s about learning to trust

               the tug

               that draws you to a shadowed alcove

               undisturbed by footfall

              and butter lamps

              …

             A god who looks

             like he could understand errors in translation,

            blizzards on the screen,

            gaps in memory,

            lapses in attention,

           who might even learn by rote

           …

          the awkward Remington stutter

          of your heart,

         who could make them his own.

        After that you can settle for none other.” (43-44)

Personal Gods

© D. Kopacz 2018

The book cover features a rich, blue, green, and gold peacock, feathers spread across about one-third of the cover, flowers blooming on a shrub in another corner, above darkness with the silhouette of a hunter shooting an arrow into a stag leaping in death throes. In “Eight Poems for Shakuntala,” Arundhathi Subramaniam pens some modern lines on Shakuntala whose story is told in the Mahabharata. One day King Dushyanta shot a stag with an arrow and pursued the wounded animal through the forest, when instead of his prey, he stumbled across Shakuntala and fell in love with her and married. Dushyanta gave her a ring, but left back to the palace, saying he would return later to fetch her. In the meantime, Shakuntala, pining for her absent love, accidently insulted a holy man who cursed her, that the man who gave her the ring would not remember her, unless she were to show him the ring he gave her. Time passed and Shakuntala lost the ring while crossing a river and when she arrived to court, Dushyanta did not recognize her. Heart-broken, she returned to the forest and gave birth the child she had conceived on Dushyanta’s first visit. A fisherman found the ring in the belly of a fish, presented it to the king, who then remembered his lost bride and searched for her, finding her again and meeting his son, and thus the family was reunited. Poems 3 and 5 in the series capture the longing of Shakuntala whilst waiting in the forest for Dushyanta’s return.

 

              “But all those nights

               when all you want

               is a lover’s breath,

                              regular,

                              regular,

 

               starlight through a diaphanous curtain,

               and a respite

               from too much wisdom?” (III, 50)

               …

               “Nothing original

               but the hope

               of something new

               between parted lips.

               A kiss—

               jasmine lapis moonshock.

               And around the corner

               with the old refrain,

               this chorus,

               (Sanskrit, Greek, whatever):

               It’s never close enough

               It’s never long enough

               It’s never enough

               It’s never” (V, 52).

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“Shakuntala looking back to glimpse Dushyanta,” by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Subramaniam often writes about the mundane as well as the sublime in her poems, and often there ends up being a poem or two about a cat. In “I Knew a Cat” she writes of the pain of losing a beloved furry friend:

               “I knew a cat

               with a face like a star.

               I waited for her to die

               so my heart would hurt

               a little less.

               Now the nights are darker,

               my life a little easier.” (71)

 

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Neo, d. 2010

In the poem which gives the book its title, “When God is a Traveller,” Subramaniam muses about “Kartikeya/Murga/Subramania, my namesake.” Kartikeya/Murga/Subramania is known by all those names, as well as Skanda, and is the son of Śiva, in some legends of him alone, as Gaṇeśa is born of Pārvatī alone, but also often considered the son of both Śiva and Pārvatī. Subramania is the god of war who is also known as Guhā (cave, secret) or Guruguhā (cave-teacher) as he renounces war in some legends and retreats to the mountains. (For stories of Subramania, see Kartikeya as well as the Skanda Purāṇa and for comparison of various legends, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic). Arundhathi Subramaniam writes in this poem:

               “Trust the god

               back from his travels

               …

               Trust him

               who has seen enough—

               revolutions, promises…

               …

               Trust him

               who recognizes you—

               auspicious, abundant, battle-scarred,

                              alive—

               and knows from where you come.

               Trust the god

               ready to circle the world all over again

               this time for no reason at all

               other than to see it

               through your eyes.” (100-101)

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Sri Shanmukha Subrahmanya Swami by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to writing about gods, goddesses, and heroines, in addition to writing about love, Arundhathi Subramaniam loves to write about writing. In “Six About Love Stories,” she writes:

               “Some stories have holes.

               Some don’t join the dots.

               Sometimes the only way from middle to end

                              Is the leap.

               …

               Some stories devour other stories.

               I recognize you.” (96)

And in the closing poem, “Poems Matter,” she again writes about writing and about what it is that gives poems their meaning – not so much because of their substance, but because of the space within them that allows for something more than what we can say:

               “It’s taken a long time

               to understand

               poems matter

               because they have holes.” (103).

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Crow Flying Through Dark Matter, © D. Kopacz 2017

 

A Review of Where I Live: New & Selected Poems by Arundhathi Subramaniam

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I first heard of Arundhathi Subramaniam in her role as the editor of Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry (2014). I started reading Sadhguru’s Adiyogi: The Source of Yoga, and to my surprise it is co-written by Arundhathi Subramaniam! I was interested in her journey with this spiritual teacher and her blending of rational skepticism with thirst for spiritual knowledge, and it reminded me a bit of my own work with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow). This led me to look to see what else she has written, as I like to read all of a writer’s work once I become interested in one aspect of the work. This led me to the collection of poems, Where I Live (2009) published by Bloodaxe Books, in Northumberland, UK. (Please note that 22 poems from Deeper in Transit also appear in her 2014 book, When God is a Traveler).

Arundhathi Subramaniam

Image from Neil Astley @BloodaxeBooks tweet, 10/10/17

Where I Live contains selections from Subramaniam’s earlier works: On Cleaning Bookshelves (2001) and Where I Live (2005). The back cover describes her poems as exploring “various ambivalences – around human intimacy…myth the politics of culture and gender, and the…existential journey…the desire for adventure and anchorage; expansion and containment; vulnerability and strength; freedom and belonging.” This is an apt description of poems that often have a tension within them, exploring the places between contradictions and ambivalences.

The collection opens with “Blank Page” which sets up the Indian writer as a “conquistador of the blank page,” with its “white autocracy of silence,” juxtaposing creativity with conquest. The poem raises the power and omnipotency of the writer over the blank paper, and perhaps the reader as well, who possibly fears that she will “surge/into your frontiers/and claim for my own/the sleeping mohenjodaros of your mind,” (11). Mohenjodaro (c. 2500 BCE) is an ancient city, now an archaeological site, perhaps the home to the ancestors of Dravidian peoples living in the Indus Valley prior to the arrival of the Aryan migration into India. The poem immediately raises issues of race, culture, history, power, subjugation, and creativity in a few short lines, without any sense of resolution.

On Cleaning Bookshelves Cover

I love the poem title, “On Cleaning Bookshelves” which brings up the practical issue of the bother of what to do with piles of books, yet also speaks to the organization and categorization of knowledge. I particularly relate to this poem as I recently had the brilliant idea of turning all my books on their side so as to pack more of them on to the shelves, which is very efficient, but not very practical, as they are now very difficult to extract. The poem starts with the advice: “Begin by respecting the logic/that governed earlier conjunctions,” (30). As the narrator of the poem arranges her books, we get an idea of the breadth and scope of her reading, which spans the globe. She describes rearranging books as a chance to “match-make” which allows

“Kerouac

to nudge familiarly

at Milton,

Mira at Shankara,

watch Nietzsche sniff suspiciously

at Krishnamurti.

And listen close,

as Ghalib in the back row

murmurs drowsily

to Keats.”

There seems to be a conference of books happening, everything is coming together and jumbling up East and West. New possibilities seem to arise from these conjunctions. Goethe’s Faust came to my mind, “Formation, Transformation, Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation,” (cited in Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 196).Yet the poem ends by throwing this off-balance and raising the possibility that the gaps cannot be bridged:

               “And amid the whispers

               of reunion and discovery,

               the hum of interrupted conversations

               resumed after centuries

               know that it is time

               to turn away.

               And accept finiteness.

               Accept exclusion.”

I read “On Cleaning Bookshelves” a few times, both excited and disappointed by it. Eventually I had to move on and read about the inevitability of inner and outer changes with ageing in “By Thirty.”

“By thirty,

you know you want to walk

away from ruined empires of fermented dream

towards lands vast and unchoreographed,

where every step ahead is adventure,

and every step ahead, anchorage, (42).

And then on further to “Arunachala (at the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, Triuvannamalai)” which has, perhaps some hope: “It feels like given time/I could understand something here,” but instead, it is time to move on, “But for now this enough,” (43), ending with:

               “For somewhere here, I know,

               is something black,

               something large,

               something limpid,

               something like home.”

Arunachala

Sakthiprasanna (2015) Wikipedia, “Arunachala”

 

We then move on to Arundhathi Subramaniam’s newer poems. “Where I Live” begins with, “I live on a wedge of land/reclaimed from a tired ocean/somewhere at the edge of the universe” and ends with “where it is perfectly historical/to be looking out /on a sooty handkerchief of ocean,/searching for God,” (49-50).

Subramaniam writes about writing in the collection, from the first poem and throughout. “First Draft” writes about the “old fashioned” way of using pen and paper for writing before putting the words of a poem through a word processor. The handwritten words on paper are compared to spaces in the world: a stream, an alley, a glacier, a chasm. But, eventually, the words must go from individual to mass-produced:

               “when a page I dreamt piecemeal

               in some many-voiced moon-shadowed thicket

               flickers back at me

               in Everyman’s handwriting

               filaments of smell and sight

               cleanly amputated –

   Times New Roman, font size fourteen,” (73)

In the beautiful poem, “Leapfrog,” she states that she does not want to write “scripture,” but rather would capture with words the movements of life, invoking frogs, birds, and childhood memories:

“that allows words

to spring

from the cusp of breathsong,

from a place radiant

with birdflight and rivergreen.

Grant me the fierce tenderness

of watching

word slither into word

into the miraculous algae

of language,

untamed by doubt

or gravity,

words careening,

diving,

               swarming, un-

forming, wilder

than snowstorms in Antarctica, wetter

than days in Cherrapunjee

alighting on paper, only

for a moment…

before

leaping

for some place the voice

is still learning

to reach.

Not scripture,

but a tadpole among the stars,” (104-105)

Arundhathi Subramaniam’s collection of poems, spanning 9 years of work at the start of the millennium, captures the moods and understandings of a traveler in the world and brings together, like a jumbled collection of books on a shelf, different, shifting conjunctions and disjunctions of the profound and the mundane. In “Catnap” she quotes the Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness/Emptiness is form,” and of how her cat, “Pukka sahib/learns/to purr,” in a shoebox (117). In the final poem, “Swimming,” Subramaniam compares the thrill of carnival rides with a sense of identification with Lord Śiva’s dance of creation and destruction of the cosmos:

               “Because for a moment

               you could even be Him

               the Lord of Tillai,

               birthing, juggling,

               slaying universes

               in an inspired mayhem

               of limb and lust.

               Because deep within your seashell heart

               you hear it again,

               the oceanic roar

               that reminds you

               that it’s happening

               right now.

               Life is here,” (126).

Siva

 

 

Review of the Taittirīya Upaniṣad: Ancient Wisdom that is Much Needed for Modern Times

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This short book follows the course of the Taittirīya Upaniad with commentaries by Swami Muni Narayana Prasad. The reading requires a moderate degree of concentration and has technical Sanskrit terms that are well-defined (and includes a 12-page glossary). A major theme in this, as in many Upaniads, is that the seat of the Divine is within the heart of the human being. The concept and experience of human-Divine Oneness leads to a very practical and much-needed change in our current world culture in which separateness and division lead to war, suffering, and discrimination.

The book is part of the Rediscovering Indian Literary Classics series published by D.K. Printworld out of New Delhi, India. This series is reasonably priced and attractive, with some of the larger editions in hardcover (as is this one, at 200+ pages). They include the original Sanskrit text, the Romanized transliteration, and the English translation. The Taittirīya Upaniad is the 16th in the series. The translator of this ancient text is Swami Muni Narayana Prasad, who is of the lineage of Nataraja Guru and Narayana Guru.

The Upaniads (which Swami defines as “secret wisdom,” 25) consistence of 108 texts. Ten are considered “major” or “principle” (Mukhya)   Upaniads, which includes the Taittirīya. There is a Wikipedia page (“Muktikā” meaning “deliverance”) that lists all 108 texts. They were written across the centuries, dating back as far as 6th century BCE, and as recent as 15th century CE.

In his preface, Swami Muni Narayana Prasad writes,

“Indian spiritual tradition is a great banyan tree…the Upaniads are the flowers having the fragrance and beauty of the philosophy of non-dualism, blossomed on the vast banyan tree of the Vedas which in turn are enlaced by the complexities of rituals. The Taittirīya Upaniad is one of the best among such flowers.”

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Chestnut Tree Flowers, Hever Castle, UK, © David Kopacz, 2018

Swami describes the text of the Taittirīya Upaniad which is in three chapters. The first chapter has two parts: the first part focuses on śikā (“the art of correct chanting of Vedic hymns with proper intonation”) and the second part includes instruction for a disciple leaving gurukula education (a period of time living with the guru). These instructions are “meant for leading an ideal worldly life, show clearly that Brahmavidyā or Vedānta is not merely escapism. Rather it insists on making the life in this world perfect with the guidance of the wisdom of Vedānta,” (7-8). The second chapter focuses on Brahman “directly perceived by one in his own being, as the Self,” (8). This chapter follows a “gradual interiorization” which “begins from food and ends with ānanda (Bliss or Value),” (8). From a non-dual perspective, all nourishment is spiritual nourishment. The last chapter follows the seeker’s journey toward Brahman.

I will give a few highlights of the text from here on.

“One who knows Reality…sees himself or herself in everything and hence loves everything as one loves oneself,” (18).

In discussing the “science of pronunciation,” Swami describes the non-dual relationship between sound, meaning, and spirit:

“Knowledge, when expressed through language, has three basic elements: the uttered sound (śabda), its meaning (artha), and the mysterious power of a sound to contain a meaning as its own (śakti),” (21).

Rather than approaching material reality the way that Western science does – by a process of objectification and separation – this Upaniad teaches that all that manifests as diversity is, in reality, part of One non-dual Reality, which is a complementary and opposite approach to Western science taking everything apart into pieces. Swami reminds us of his guru’s guru, Nārāyana Guru’s prayers to Subraḥmanya [one of the names of Kartikeya, son of Śiva], “Please grant me the favour of the intimate merging of you and me,” (37).

One of my favourite parts of the Taittirīya Upaniad is the discussion of God being in the heart. This brings together the microcosm and the macrocosm in non-duality. The journey to the Ultimate is through the centre of one’s own heart. I am reminded of Abhishiktananda’s discussions of the guhā, the cave of the heart (Joseph Rael and I write on this topic in our forthcoming book, Becoming Medicine). The word “guhāyām” does appear in the text of the Taittirīya, translated as “secret cavern” in the phrase “the transcendental space within the secret cavern,” (84). Here is Swami’s description of finding the Truth (“AUM, maha, Brahman, ātman”) in the space within the heart:

“To make the placement easier to conceive, the Truth is called purua (Person) in this section. The seat of that Person is within the heart. The heart here is not to be understood as the organ which pumps blood to all parts of the body. It is rather an imaginary locus of the psycho-physical entity of the individual. While the heart is the locus of the individual, space (ākāśa) is that which gives room for the universe to exist. Here the Person is described as seated in the universal space within the heart,” (49-50).

Heart Meditation

Heart Meditation, © David Kopacz, 2014

Swami unpacks nihitam guhāyām in a section entitled “Placed Within the Cavern,” which examines the non-duality of the individual and the Self that is found within the unitary centre of the heart.

     “We could conveniently say that the Self is hidden in us. This hideout could be poetically imagined to be the darkness of a cave. Hence the Upaniadic ṛṣis, at the beginning of their inward search for the Self, imagine it as seated in the darkness of the cavern of every being. We can see the same imagery in the Kaha Upaniad (II-20) as well. Nārāyana Guru also, when he defines the Self, refers to its being in darkness. He says, ‘the Self is that which knows while sitting in darkness’.

     It might sound strange that the consciousness that hides in darkness is bright. Moreover, what was thought to be inside turns out not to be inside. Really, it is neither inside nor outside. Truth subsists equally in what we call interior and exterior,” (93).

Swami tells us that education and experience in the ordinary view of the world lead us away from this place of the heart which contains the seat of the Divine, we thus “forget our real nature,” (68). Similar to my writings on re-humanisation in medicine, Swami tells us we must reconnect with our hearts in order to understand our real humanity.

“Thus we become alienated from ourselves through our educational process. The only remedy for this is to remoralize our education so as to make all the knowledge we accumulate an outgrowth of the main trunk of our real humanity. Knowing our real humanity means knowing the oneness of all humans, and seeing those we call ‘others’ as not different than ourselves. Living with a full awareness of this oneness makes us really human, and our life becomes peaceful,” (68).

The way to peace is through realizing that we are not only all interconnected, but we are all actually One. This oneness leads to compassion and peace. Thus, this esoteric, mystical doctrine of non-duality leads us back to our responsibility for each other, for humanity, and for the planet.

 

Review of Aitareya Upanisad

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This short book follows the course of the Aitareya Upaniad with commentaries by Swami Muni Narayana Prasad. The reading requires a moderate degree of concentration and has technical Sanskrit terms that are well-defined (and includes a 6-page glossary). It contains timeless non-dual wisdom that has modern applications of decreasing our sense of separateness from each other and from the Earth, whose ultimate goal is the achievement of the experience of Oneness, non-duality with all things.

The book is part of the Rediscovering Indian Literary Classics series published by D.K. Printworld out of New Delhi, India. This series is reasonably priced and attractive, with some of the larger editions in hardcover. They include the original Sanskrit text, the Romanized version, and the English translation.

I have been looking for a set of complete translations of the Upaniads. Juan Mascaró’s translations for Penguin Classics is still a great place to start and his introduction is like an Upaniad, itself. However, it only includes a selection of Upaniads, and does not include the Aitareya. Mascaró sought to capture the poetry as well as the technical translation of the works, writing that the “composers of the Upanishads were thinkers and poets…and the poet knows well that if poetry takes us away from a lower reality of daily life it is only to lead us to the vision of a higher Reality even in this daily life, where limitations give way for the poet to the joy of liberation,” (Mascaró, The Upanishads, 11).

The Upaniads consistent of 108 texts. Ten are considered “major” or “principle” (Mukhya)   Upaniads, which includes the Aitareya. There is a Wikipedia page (“Muktikā” meaning “deliverance”) that lists all 108 texts. They were written across the centuries, dating back as far as 6th century BCE, and as recent as 15th century CE.

 

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The Aitareya Upaniad is the 9th in the series, a short (80 page) paperback, which for $4.15 is quite a bargain. The translator of this ancient text is Swami Muni Narayana Prasad, who is of the lineage of Nataraja Guru and Narayana Guru.

The foreword is by Sadhu Suhakara Saukumarya and he gives a short description of what the Upaniads are and that Swami Muni Narayana Prasad “employs his knowledge of psychology, philosophy, modern science, and above all common sense,” in his discussion. Saukumarya writes:

“The Upaniads are unexpected mines of contemplative spirituality. It is uttered in the moments of ecstasy in mellifluous poetic diction by Indian seers. A seer or a guru of that order represents in his person the throb of the Absolute,” (v).

Swami Muni Narayana Prasad gives the background of the word Aitareya, meaning “born of Itarā,” as the work can be traced back to Aitareya Mahīdāsa, who born of a low caste mother, “testified the meaninglessness of caste-based social concepts and prejudices,” (2-3). Swami writes that “What all the Upaniṣads try to do is to reveal through the medium of words the Supreme Wisdom that is really ineffable,” (3).

“The present Upaniṣad…portrays in a rather poetically picturesque way how the mysterious phenomenon of the world and life, with their universal and particular aspects of existence, get unfolded from the one primeval causal Reality (ātman), and finally how ātman perceives itself as the one underlying substance of all such phenomena,” (3).

Swami describes an organizing structure or framework that can be used by the seeker in her or his search for Truth. In this way the Upaniads are a kind of science – a method for perceiving and understanding the Universe. Their method, however, is not through the perception of objective reality, but in passing inward, through subjective reality, to reach the mystical oneness of Absolute Reality.

“Searching for Reality is what sciences do, each having their own field of enquiry whose bounds no science is willing to cross. The result is that an indepth knowledge of each science endows us with a different notion of life, none providing us with an over-all vision. Once an integral vision becomes available and attained, all the different fields of enquiry and the notions they provide achieve unity, each becoming a view of Reality from a particular angle, while adding to the holistic vision, each science thus gaining a new dimension, a new value,” (10).

 

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This describes what we have today, a plurality of sciences, each based on the scientific method, but resulting in a fragmentation of self and reality if there is no over-arching integration. Swami describes the Upaniads as providing a “Science of sciences” that brings the fragments of sense perception and objective measurement back together into a meaningful whole.

“The science this Upaniṣad [Aitareya] teaches — brahmavidyā — is the Science of sciences, that holds together all sciences, as belonging to one whole, each thus making life more meaningful. If such a Science of sciences is lacking, different sciences go different ways, one vying with another and each sowing a different seed of peril. The freedom man has to choose, may be the greatest bane in human life, but also the greatest of boons,” (10).

We can see this bane playing out in the human pursuit of technology and development without any restraint. The cost of unrestrained development is degradation of the environment as well as the expendability of the poor at the profit of the wealthy. Unrestrained “development” of the environment and consumption of resources is only possible because we view ourselves as separate, isolated individuals, rather than as interrelated aspects of the larger environment of the Earth and cosmos.

“Man, having no existence of his own apart from the cosmic system is an inseparable part of it. Any attempt to know oneself as an entity existing on its own, therefore, results in no proper understanding of oneself. Man is part of the world; his life is part of eternal flux. The proper knowledge one acquires about oneself should therefore be the knowledge of the everchanging world as well…the world and I are not two. Oneself and the world together, when considered as an object of enquiry, is signified by the word idam in the Upaniṣads, literally meaning ‘this’, but rendered here as ‘here’, (14).

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The mystical has practical applications because it influences the way we perceive ourselves, each other, and the Earth. The mystical goal of the teachings of this Upaniṣad is a sense of unity between the individual and cosmic Reality.

“The one who sees himself as ātma embodied will see others also in exactly the same light. All being thus one in essence, nothing will be seen by him to be spoken of as ‘the other’. He sees ātma alone in all beings. Ātma meaning oneself, he sees himself alone in all beings. Ātma means also the substance that underlies one’s own beingness. The same substance that underlies all beings in all the worlds, is called Brahman, literally that which constantly grows. One who sees oneself as ātma, he sees himself as Brahman in essence also, as he sees Brahman alone in all beings,” (53-54).

Consider what it would be like instead of seeing people as separate and different from you if you saw them as part of yourself! Where would you build a wall if you were trying to separate yourself from yourself? Swami Muni Narayana Prasad describes how this perspective leads, inherently to goodness.

“A visionary who perceives Brahman alone in each and every specific entity, and who exclaims, ‘Now I see it!’ is given the name of Idandra. Literally, it means, one who runs up to whatever can be referred to as ‘this’ (idam)…one becomes free of the good-evil duality, reaching a state of absolute goodness. Idandra in that sense is considered sat (good) here,” (54-55).

Achieving this mystical state of non-duality, one becomes a real seer. This transforms the cravings and desires of the individual. Rather than perceiving oneself as empty and having desires to fill oneself with “objects” in the world, one perceives oneself as already full of everything in existence.

“A real seer, a jñānin, sees only one Reality in everything, everywhere. Who, then, desires what? Desire itself then becomes meaningless. Desireless, the attainer of wisdom feels the satisfaction of having fulfilled all desires in life,” (64).

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A Review of the Work of Jaideva Singh: Dualism and Non-dualism in Indian Philosophy & Spirituality, PART I

PART I: Introduction

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This is a review (and expanded discussion) of two short books by Jaideva Singh (1893-1986), Indian musicologist, philosopher, and translator of many texts of Kashmiri Shaivism. Singh blended two careers in music and as a translator and philosopher of sacred texts. I could not find much in English about his life, the same biography appeared in Wikipedia and on a number of other sites. There is an edition of Sruti Magazine devoted to his life (Sruti, e-Issue 17, November 2013 – note that the page numbers are not always sequential in the pdf and some page numbers appear to be missing, e.g. #34). Dr. M.R. Gautam writes in an article, “A Great Savant of India,” that Singh was born in what is now known as Uttar Pradesh and that his grandfather, Udit Narayan Singh was beheaded by the British, his father was also supposed to be killed, but at 2 years of age, Gopal Narayan Singh was hidden under burnt wheat chaff in the village (21). During the course of Thakur Jaideva Singh’s studies he came under the influence of Theosophist, Annie Besant, as well as Babu Bhagwan Das, and that he became a vegetarian. In an odd twist, similar for Gandhi, it was through a Westerner that Singh came to a deeper study of Sanskrit and original sacred texts. He met a German scholar who encouraged him to study Sanskrit, which in fact he did. His life-long love of music led him to be the Chief Producer at All India Radio for about six years. In retirement he got down to studying and writing. He began to study tantra and yoga under Mahamahopadhyaya Pandit Gopinath Kaviraj. He also studied with Swami Lakshman Joo and this collaboration led to English translations of a number of Kashmiri Shaivite texts, including: Pratyabhijnahrdayam: The Secret of Self-Recognition, Vijnanabhairava or Divine Consciousness: A Treasury of 112 Types of Yoga, Siva Sutras: The Yoga of Supreme Identity, Spanda-Karikas: The Divine Creative Pulsation, Para-trisika-Vivarana by Abhinavagupta: The Secret of Tantric Mysticism. The two books that this review will focus upon are Vedanta and Advaita Shaivagama of Kashmir: A Comparative Study and An Introduction to Madhyamaka Philosophy. Both of these books are far more accessible than the major translations listed above.

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Gautam writes:

Thakur Saheb was a voracious reader. His thirst for knowledge was so great that he wished to study the great works of renowned scholars on mysticism, music, philosophy and other subjects in their original versions. Therefore he learnt Greek, Latin, Persian, French and German in addition to English, Sanskrit, Pali, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati and Urdu…and his library consisted of 6000-7000 rare books, (Gautam, Sruti, 24-25).

Singh was a true scholar of world religions.

He found a striking closeness of spirit between Christian and Hindu mysticism, as also Sufism. His mind was thus marked by the openness and universality which are the signs of great spirits. Being rooted in his own tradition, he accepted the truth, from whichever source it came. This, his openness, was also connected with the fact that he was deeply influenced by the thought of A.K. Coomaraswamy, with whom he entertained correspondence, as well as by Rene Guenon and the traditionalist school. Besides, he was a theosophist of a very free and non-sectarian type,” (Unknown author as previous page missing in pdf, possibly Dr. Bettina Baumer, Sruti, 35).

I came to reading Jaideva Singh after a conversation with Richard Miller, PhD, the developer or iRest (Integrative Restoration), an adaptation of yoga nidra which has been studied with military veterans and active duty military personnel as well as other populations. After reading Richard’s books (Yoga Nidra: Awaken to Unqualified Presence Through Traditional Mind-Body Practices and The iRest Program for Healing PTSD: A Proven-Effective Approach to Using Yoga Nidra Meditation and Deep Relaxation Techniques to Overcome Trauma), I was curious as to the historical background and spiritual tradition that the concepts came out of and Richard mentioned a few different sources, including those of Jaideva Singh. I made my way, slowly through Pratyabhijnahrdayam, Vijñānabhairava, Siva Sutras, Spanda-Karikas, Para-trisika-Vivarana. These texts are dense with layers of the original Sanskrit texts (generally from around 800-1200 CE), commentaries by ancient sages, and then modern commentary. I found them difficult, but worthwhile and found various gems throughout. I then turned scholarly texts by Western professors on the subject and found Paul Muller-Ortega’s The Triadic Heart of Siva: Kaula Tantricism of Abhinavagupta in the Non-dual Shaivism of Kashmir and Mark Dyczkowski’s The Doctrine of Vibration: An Analysis of the Doctrines and Practices Associated with Kashmir Shaivism illuminating.

There are a number of contemporary authors studying these same ancient texts and offering contemporary translations for a more general, than academic and esoteric, audience. Daniel Odier’s Yoga Spandakarika: The Sacred Texts at the Origins of Tantra is very readable and accessible. I have recently read once through Lorin Roche’s The Radiance Sutras: 112 Gateways to the Yoga of Wonder and Delight, and this includes a review of previous translations and tracing the lineages from Lakshman Joo, including Jaideva Singh’s Vijñānabhairava. I am currently making my way through Christopher D Wallis’ The Recognition Sutras: Illuminating a 1,000-Year-Old Spiritual Masterpiece, which is strikes a middle ground between academic rigour and accessibility.

Why have I spent so much time reading through these translations of ancient texts of the Kashmiri Shaivite tradition? This tradition is also one of the major sources of the concept of “Tantra,” which is a more popular term. Tantric traditions are found in various branches of Hinduism and Buddhism. Two of the primary reasons I have immersed myself in these writings and teachings are: non-dualism and sound mysticism (the relationship of sound, word, creation, and reality). The primary focus of this review is on non-dualism, we will have a brief aside on sound mysticism and then focus on non-dualism and two of Jaideva Singh’s books for the remainder of the review.

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Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) & David Kopacz

My work with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), a Native American mystic and visionary, who comes from the Southern Ute and Picuris Pueblo cultural traditions, has led me to expand my studies into various cultures and traditions to try to understand and contextualize some of his teachings. Joseph teaches that the sound energy of the word contains meaning. The signifier (the word sound) is not separate from the signified (the meaning of the word). Joseph teaches me to listen to, rather than think about, reality (this is a challenge for me as an academic and Westerner). Joseph often speaks about the differences between Western languages which are noun-based and focus on people, places, and things – this is great for science and for dividing reality up into separate pieces, but it loses something of the heart and soul and living spirituality of verb-based languages. Many indigenous languages are verb-based – they focus on processes, flow, and relationship rather than on fixed, separate objects. This has profound and far-reaching consequences, the most tangible being the European view of land as a “thing” to be owned” rather than Mother Earth being a living being who is our source and to whom we are all interconnected and interrelated. The most esoteric, and yet perhaps the most fundamental, of Joseph’s teachings is: “we do not exist.” This is a koan-like statement that I continually turn over in my mind and heart and which I have come to understand in many different, multi-layered ways. One way of understanding this statement that we do not exist is that we do not exist as nouns (as fixed, concrete, boundaried objects), but that we do exist as a kind of continually changing, flowing, and pulsating verb that is in relation with everything. The Native American concept of interrelation is quite well-known, for instance the Lakota saying mitakuye oyasin, often translated as “we are all related.” Joseph takes this interrelation a step further to the point that we do not exist in separation, but we do exist in a kind of unity in which there is no difference between the individual and what Joseph calls Vast Self (God, Creator, the One Being creating and observing reality).

Joseph is very interested in science and is always giving me references to articles he reads in various science magazines about dark matter and dark energy. These are forces that “don’t exist” from the perspective of our everyday senses, yet we can infer through scientific observation and study that these unseen forces do exist and influence visible reality. This parallels Joseph’s teachings around ordinary and non-ordinary reality. Ordinary reality is perceptual reality and non-ordinary is the reality that we can reach through intuitive and spiritual methods that exists in a different way. Much of his teaching with me has been on being able to move into a state of non-ordinary reality and then back. My sense is that, ultimately, non-ordinary reality is the source of the momentary manifestation of ordinary reality.

Sound is one way that we can travel from ordinary to non-ordinary reality. Ordinary reality is not separate from non-ordinary reality, it is a manifestation of it. The sound we hear with our ears contains within it esoteric teachings about reality. Joseph speaks of principle ideas that various sounds contain and that more complex concepts are created out of the building blocks of the principle ideas contained within the sounds. For instances, when Joseph teaches the medicine wheel each direction has a vowel sound associated with it and each vowel sound manifests a principle idea. A (ah) is east, mind, spring, purity; E (eh) is south, emotion, summer, placement; I (ee) is west, body, autumn, awareness; O (oh) is north, spirit, winter, innocence. Thus, the outer direction of east corresponds to the inner direction of mind, these are not two separate things, but inner and outer manifestations of the principle idea of purity.

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Joseph Rael’s Medicine Wheel, Rendition by David Kopacz ©2016

The four inner and outer directions of the medicine wheel are interrelated, just as the four seasons are interrelated – they are different “things” in a way, but they do not exist in and of themselves, but only in relationship to each other, just as what we call “winter” cannot exist without a relationship with “summer.” Joseph says that the reason we have war and violence is because we misperceive ourselves as existing and separate from “others,” whereas we do not really exist as separate beings, but only in relationship with others. We talk about the medicine wheel and coming home from war to peace in our book, Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD. Using the four directions of the medicine wheel, we can bring ourselves back into harmony internally and externally, bringing peace to ourselves and to the world as we come back into interrelationship and interbeing.

The next level of work I am doing with Joseph starts at the end of Walking the Medicine Wheel and continues on in our forthcoming book, Becoming Medicine. This is the movement from interrelationship to oneness and unity: non-duality. After walking the four inner and outer directions of the medicine wheel, there is a further journey – which is the journey of the mystic, the visionary, and the shaman – into the center of the medicine wheel, the very heart of reality. Joseph teaches that the sound of the center is: U (uu) center, heart, carrying. Moving into the heart of the medicine wheel first comes to the level of our personal heart, but as we go deeper it is revealed that our personal heart leads to the universal heart and it is through the universal heart that we are not only interconnected with all of reality, but we are one with it. This is a place of non-duality.

Becoming Medicine

© Joseph Rael

There is a common tension between the spiritual concepts of immanence and transcendence that seems to be found in all major religions. Immanence is the concept that all materially reality contains spirit within it. Transcendence is the concept that there is a spiritual realm that exists above and beyond material reality. As with all dualisms, immanence/transcendence leads to violence and we see this throughout the history of humankind and the history of religion. The ossified teachings of most religions teach that material reality is sinful, evil, or irrelevant (e.g. maya, illusion). The Fall in Christianity teaches us that the body is sinful and evil, that we are trapped in matter that is constantly trying to lead us to sin and that salvation leads to rejecting or controlling the body and being “good” and getting to heaven after death. In dualistic versions of Hinduism and Buddhism, material reality is considered maya, illusion, and that the religious path is found by detaching from the physical and focusing on the spiritual. We can look at secular materialism as a form of radical immanence (without the recognition of the sacred). Capitalism that is unbalanced by another belief/value system teaches us that the ultimate good and goal of life is to accumulate as many things and dollars as possible. Much of the blending of Christianity and Capitalism results in a dualism with a dissociation of business (Capitalism, Materialism) and spirituality (going to church and being “better” than those who don’t go to Church and being “better” than non-Christians). It is a puzzling observation that the “founders” of religions are generally mystics and visionaries, but later on the followers lose the mystical thread of living spirituality and fall prey to dualistic conceptions of us/them that leads to so many inequalities and wars. Consider the fact that Jesus in the Bible cannot in anyway be considered a Capitalist or Materialist. He is far more of a Socialist, but ultimately he was a renunciate (an anti-Materialist) – who rather than amass wealth and belongings taught that we should love one another and not cast the first stone of dualistic judgment. Sufis, Tantriks, Christian mystics all broke down the boundaries of dualism that divide us and separate us from the Ultimate spiritual Reality. Native American teachings highly value immanence, the sacredness of the physical world, which includes our physical being. Joseph Rael also includes transcendence, that physical reality is sacred, but it also does not exist and that there is another, non-ordinary reality, which is hidden within ordinary reality. He does this in a way that does not create dualism, but rather is non-dualistic.

 

 

PART II: Jaideva Singh’s Vedanta and Advaita Shaivagama of Kashmir

JS Vedanta and Advaita

We will now turn to Jaideva Singh’s discussions of non-dualism in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. Vedanta and Advaita Shaivagama of Kashmir is a short book of 51 pages and consists of the transcripts of three lectures that Jaideva Singh gave in 1984 as Banka Bihari-Hemangini Pal memorial lectures at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture in Kolkata, India. As these were lectures, they are flowing, have minimal references and footnotes, and are a good introduction for the novice. The three lectures are: “The Philosophy of Vedanta,” “The Philosophy of Shaivagama,” and a short “Comparative of Vedanta and Advaita Shaiva Philosophy.” I have heard it said that we should not use the term “Hinduism,” but rather should use “Vedanta” or “Advaita Vedanta.” Vedanta comes from the religious texts, the Vedas. Advaita means “non-dualism.” However, there Vedanta and Advaita Vedanta appear to be one of many different philosophies that make up the larger concept that “Hinduism” seeks to represent. Just as there are many different Christian sects and “Christianities” there are many different “Hinduisms” and “Buddhisms.” We can use words to understand the world, but we can also use words to muddy the waters of reality and confuse things and bring about dualisms and separations. This is the challenge that the mystics have after glimpsing unitary reality when they try to bring back and teach what they have experienced. Jaideva Singh starts his lecture with the statement, “An unfortunate fact about Vedanta is that it is generally considered to be synonymous with Shankara’s philosophy. Advaita or Vedanta has come to mean the philosophy as propounded by Shankara,” (1). Shankara lived, most likely, during the first half of the 8th century CE and is credited with unifying different schools of Hinduism and distinguishing Hinduism from Buddhism. Singh states that in his lecture “we shall try to go to the original source and see what the truth yields to us…we shall take our stand entirely upon the Upanishads,” (1).

Lecture 1: “The Philosophy of Vedanta”

Singh structures this first lecture around four major topics: 1) “The svarupa [nature] of Brahman,” 2) “The essence of the human being,” 3) “The relation of the essence of the human being to Brahman,” and 4) “The relation of the world to Brahman.” Brahman refers to the “world-ground” or the essence of Reality.

  1. “The svarupa of Brahman” – Singh describes the negative (what Brahman is not) and the positive approaches (what Brahman is) of understanding the nature of Brahman, Reality. A) The negative approach recognizes that we cannot reach or capture Brahman through human thought. “Reality is beyond the senses and thought,” Singh writes, because it is “thought or vikalpa that always sunders Reality into two,” (4). This is a common point that mystics make, that thought is based on separation and division and thus is not a tool that is made for understanding holistic, unitary Reality. The negative approach also recognizes that “thought is relational in nature…thought has always a subject-object duality, nay even a triad, viz, knower, known and knowledge,” (4). The very basis of thought divides into dualism, or even into a triad that gives the false perception that reality is made up of separate pieces, rather than its true nature being unitary. This is similar to Joseph Rael’s concept of noun languages and verb languages. Noun languages are based on separation and verb languages are based on connection. B) The positive approach recognizes Brahman as Sachchidanada subjectively and satyam, jnanam, and anantam, objectively. This approach recognizes the unity of the knower, the known, and knowledge. Sachchidanada is the triad of “sat, chit, ananda—existence, consciousness, bliss,” (5-6). Objectively this corresponds to “satyam, jnanam, anantam—truth, knowledge, and infinity,” (6). The challenge of non-dualism is to capture how diversity is within unity, rather than separate from it.
  2. “The Essence of the Human Being” – this is a short section that essentially describes the “vehicles of the Self,” roughly a kind of mind-body-spirit set of distinctions that describe separate dimensions of human being yet are holistic in their interrelation, (8).
  3. “The Relation of the Essence of the Human Being to Brahman” – this section describes the ways of understanding that the human being and Brahman are non-dual, they appear as diversity, but they reflect an underlying unity. Singh states that Brahman is “the eternal subject which can never be reduced to an object, the eternal knower that can never be reduced to the state of the known,” (10). He quotes the saying, “By what can the knower of all knowledge be known?” (10). While there is apparent diversity of human beings from Brahman, our true nature is not duality, but non-duality. Singh has a nice paragraph that sums up a unitary view:

    As the rivers that flow towards the ocean, having reached it disappear ; their name and form are destroyed and they designate the ocean, even so of this spectator, these sixteen parts (five organs of the sense + five organs of action + manas + tanmatras) that tend towards the Purusha, on reaching the Purusha, disappear ; their name and form are destroyed and they are designated simply Purusha. That one continues partless and immortal, (12).

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    Sunset from Druidstone Inn, Pembrokeshire, Wales (D. Kopacz, 2018)

    Singh describes our apparent separation as a “forgetfulness of…true Self,” and that the individual, “becomes a voluntary exile in order to realize better the sweetness of home,” (13).

  4. “The Relation of the World to Brahman” – here Singh describes how the world, as well as the human being, are simply transitory manifestations of the deeper, underlying unitary reality of Brahman. Creation is not of a separate substance than the Creator. The Creator creates creation out of the Unitary Self, hence sayings such as “All is Śiva.” “Brahman is the origin of all beings ; all beings proceed from Him and are dissolved in Him,” (14). Singh describes two different methods for realizing this unitary essence of Reality. The first is meditation on the word-sound Om, which is one sound made up of four different parts “a, u, m, and the ardhamatra after m are the true representatives of Brahman,” (15). Here we are back to sound-mysticism in which the sounds contain the essence. Sometimes the essence is reduced from the four sounds of aum (a, u, m, silence) to just the first letter, A, which contains all the rest of the letters, sounds, and words within it, for instance:

              “I am the self in the inner-most

               heart of all, I am their

               beginning, middle and end. (10.20)

               The science of the soul among sciences, (10.32)

               I am the speech of the letters,

               I am A.” (10.33)

(Krishna, Bhagavad Gita, cited in Louise Landes Levi, Sweet on My Lips: The Love Poems of Mirabai, 17).

The other meditation Singh speaks of is on the heart-centre, the Dahara-Vidya which is recommended in the Chhandogya Upanishad, which he quotes. “What is here in this city of Brahman is an abode, a small lotus-flower. Within that there is a small space. That should be searched out, that is what one should desire to understand,” (15).  Singh ends this lecture reminding us that this is the “mystic heart,” not the physical heart. “One has to meditate on it. This leads to the transformation of the empirical mind into the Divine,” (15). This is what Joseph Rael and I are working on in our next book, Becoming Medicine. Going into the center or our own heart, which is also the center of the universal heart, the center of the medicine wheel, a journey which sacralizes us into medicine.

Lecture 2: “The Philosophy of Shaivagama”

We will not go into exhaustive detail of this lecture which makes up the bulk of the book and covers the 36 Tattvas of Universal Experience, amongst other things. These describe the series of stages from the Ultimate Unitary Reality through the various possible states of manifestation which can be viewed both as a 36 rung ladder out of the Unitary into diversity and back from diversity into Unity. This is a very helpful introduction to Kashmiri Shaivism and would be a nice reference for reading any of Singh’s larger works of translation.

Singh describes some of the different terms used to represent Unitary Reality, such as annuttara (the Highest Reality), however all these terms represent “the changeless principle of all change,” (17).

Shiva and Shakti are not different. It is the same Absolute which from one point of view is Shiva, from another Shakti. From the point of view of prakasha, Shiva is vishvottirna or transcendent to the universe. From the point of view of vimarsha or Shakti, he is vishvamaya or immanent in the universe, (17-18).

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Ardhanarishvara (painting & photo, D. Kopacz)

Shiva and Shakti, the universal masculine and universal feminine are in a yin-yang-like relationship, each is part of a larger whole. Through science and logical thought, which we have so developed in Western languages and cultures, allows us to see how things are distinct and separate and this has given us tremendous knowledge and power over the material world, and yet we lose something of our souls when we specialize in the function of separation over the function of union. In becoming masters of what Joseph Rael calls “ordinary reality,” we may bring about our own destruction by becoming illiterate in “non-ordinary reality” which is the realm of unseen interconnection. Singh describes the roots of the word maya, often translated as illusion. “Maya is derived from the root ‘ma’ which means ‘to measure out.’ That which makes experience measureable, i.e. limited, and severs ‘this’ from ‘I’ and ‘I’ from “this’ and excludes things from one another is Maya,” (31). It is interesting to ponder this cross-culturally to look at the project of knowledge in the West which so highly values objectivity and the ever increasing division of the whole into parts which can be separated, isolated, and then controlled and manipulated. Singh might say that the project of knowledge in the West is purely a function of learning diversity and separation, maya, or that which is transitory and illusory. Physical science, based on the scientific principle of objectivity, is only half of reality, and perhaps not the most important half, because its knowledge comes at the expense of holistic, spiritual, and intuitive elements of human beings and of Ultimate Reality.

One of the teachings that Singh describes near the end of this lecture is that of Varanyoga, which describes a vibration of “an imperceptible, inarticulate sound which is known as varna,” which goes on “naturally and continuously in every living creature,” (42). “No one sounds it voluntarily, nor can any one prevent its being sounded. The deity abiding in the heart of living creatures sounds it himself,” (42). Perhaps this is why the Sanskrit word for the heart chakra is anahata, meaning a sound which is “unstruck.” The essence of Reality is always vibrating out from the heart of every individual. The Truth is closer than you think, because when you think you separate yourself from it, but when you allow the vibration to resonate within your heart, you become that which you have been seeking.

Lecture 3: “Comparative of Vedanta and Advaita Shaiva Philosophy”

This lecture is just a few short pages and brings together the chapter on Vedanta and the chapter on Shaivagama and it describes the popular philosophy of Vedanta as a kind of dualism as it rejects immanence and rejects the world of physical reality as being unreal. Shankara’s Vedanta sees action in the material world as only capable of producing karma. Kashmiri Shaivism, however, sees action as a manifestation of the ultimate, rather than a veiling or distraction of the Ultimate. “Shaivagama takes kriya [activity], in a wide sense, in the sense of chiti-shakti, in the sense of spanda, throb or pulsation to manifest,” (44). Singh points out that Shankara is distinct from Brahman. “If maya is something quite external, then advaita [non-dualism] cannot be maintained. If maya is shakti of Brahman, then surely, it is an activity of Brahman,” (45).

This distinction of whether or not maya is something separate from or is a unitary aspect of Brahman has practical as well as theological implications. In a dualistic, transcendent-only spirituality (whether Hindu or Christian) we see a correlation with the devaluing of the Earth, of the body, of women. Mother Earth, matter (which is an English word that comes from the root Latin, mater, or “mother”), and the feminine are all related principle ideas. In Hinduism, maya is feminine, and orthodox teachings are often misogynistic. However, Kashmiri Shaivism recognizes the feminine Shakti as a manifestation of, not as separate from, Shiva. Kashmiri Shaivism thus preserves elements of the ancient mother goddess spiritualities of ancient India, which formed a zone of the veneration of the goddess across India and the Fertile Crescent. Singh writes, “Maya is the creative power of the Divine, Maya is not a power of illusion,” (47). Further, Singh writes, “Manifestation only means making explicit what is implicit. Variety is not contradictory to unity,” (48).

The ideal of mukti [liberation] in Vedanta is kaivalya or isolation just as in Samkhya-yoga. The only difference is that in Samkhya-yoga, it is isolation from prakriti [the changing natural world], in Vedanta, it is isolation from maya. The ideal of mukti in Shaivagama is shivatva-yojana or being integrated with Shiva.

According to Vedanta, the world is annulled in mukti. According to Shaivagama, the world appears to be a form of Shiva-consciousness in liberation, (51).

Singh describes Shaivagama, Kashmiri Shaivism, as a true non-dual tradition that recognizes the essence of the Divine as both manifest within physical reality and also transcendent to physical reality. Non-dualism is not just an esoteric, theological concept, it is an organizing framework that changes the way we view human nature, physical reality, and the Divine. It brings us into harmony and unity with all that is. The practical concern is that those whose belief system is based on duality see the world through the lens of separation, of us/them. This leads, ultimately, to oppression and abuse of women, indigenous people and those who are labelled as “other” or “enemy of the people.” It also leads to exploitation and degradation of the environment because people functioning in dualism do not see that they are part of the environment and part of the Earth and think they can act without feeling any impact or repercussions of their actions. Perhaps, now more than ever, we should be striving for an experience of non-duality in order to become the medicine that is much needed in our current wounded world and fractured political state.

PART III: Jaideva Singh’s An Introduction to Madhyamaka Philosophy

 

JS Madhyamaka

This review has gone on longer than I thought it would, but still I think it is worth a brief review of Singh’s An Introduction to Madhyamaka Philosophy, originally published in 1968. This 64 page booklet describes the difference between Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna Buddhism, which turns out to also hinge on a similar distinction of dualism and non-dualism as does Singh’s discussion of Vedanta and Shaivagama. Hīnayāna is also known as “Southern Buddhism,” or “Original Buddhism,” and is found largely throughout Southern India and Southeast Asia, (1). Mahāyāna is also known as “Northern Buddhism,” and “Developed Buddhism,” and spread from Northern India into Tibet, China, (influencing Zen), and into Japan and Korea. These terms that we have and that scholars use have an obvious political or polemical nature as those followers of Mahāyāna described their school as “the higher vehicle” and Hīnayāna as the “lower vehicle.” Singh follows the development of Madhyamaka Philosophy, a root aspect of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Madhyamaka traces back to Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka Śāstra. Many of the Madhyamaka texts were lost in their original Sanskrit, but have survived through translations into Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan. In the 1830s a series of bundles of Sanskrit texts were found in Nepal, including Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka Śāstra. Madhyamaka refers back to the Buddha’s teaching of “madhyamā-pratipad (the middle path),” (4).

Nāgārjuna (c. 250-150 BCE) has a legend associated with his name, as Singh describes.

Nagarjuna_at_Samye_Ling_Monastery

Image taken by Benjamin Matthews on visit to Samye Ling Monastery, Dumfriesshire, UK, on 1 May 2004.

Nāga means a serpent or dragon. Arjuna is the name of a tree. It is said that he was born under an Arjuna tree, and he visited the submarine kingdom of the Nāgas, where the Nāga king transmitted to him the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra which had been entrusted to the Nāgas by the Buddha.

The word ‘Nāga’ however, is symbolic of wisdom. The Buddha is said to have remarked, “The serpent is a name for one who has destroyed the āsavas (passions),” (5).

One of the core teachings of Nāgārjuna is śūnyatā. This word is often translated as “emptiness” or “insubstantial.” Here we find the universal truth of the mystic that “empirical knowledge could not give us an insight into Reality,” (8). Singh reviews the literary sources of Madhyamaka Philosophy.

The most important of these works are the prajñāpāramitā sūtras. Prajñā-pāramitā is generally translated as ‘perfect wisdom.’ The word ‘pāram-itā’ i.e. ‘gone beyond’ suggests that it would be better to translate prajñā-pāramitā as ‘transcendent insight’ or ‘transcendent wisdom.’ The Tibetans translate it in this way. In all countries where Mahāyāna is a living religion, the following prajñā-pāramitā mantra is generally recited: Gate, gate, pāra-gate, pārasagate Bodhi, svāhā i.e. “O wisdom which has gone beyond the beyond, to thee Homage,” (9).

Another important Madhyamaka text is the Vajracchedikā, Diamond Sutra, an early abridgement of the prajñāpāramitā sūtras, “translated into Chinese probably in the 5th century A. D. This translation was printed in China on 11th May, 868. This is said to be the oldest printed book in the world,” (9). Singh writes that the Prajñāpāramitā was later condensed into mantras. One of these “Ekākṣarī says that the perfection of wisdom is contained only in one letter, viz. ‘a’. Ultimately Prajñāpāramitā was personified as a goddess to be worshipped,” (9-10).

Nāgārjuna’s primary philosophical tool was prasaga which reduced any statement of ultimate fact in words or argument to absurdity. Given the true nature of Reality as śūnyatā (emptiness), any positivistic description of Reality was bound to fall short of capturing reality. One can trace this concept into Zen teachings which constantly challenged the novice to drop their discursive mind’s attempt to understand and put reality into words. Ultimate reality is found more in silence and stillness than in mental and verbal description, thus the emphasis on silent meditation in so many spiritual traditions.

We will not go into detail of Nāgārjuna’s method of prasaga, other than to mention that any argument or statement can be broken down into a four-part dialectic:

  1. A positive thesis

  2. A negative counter-thesis

  3. A conjunctive affirmation of the first two

  4. A disjunctive denial of the first two (16)

Nāgārjuna draws on Buddha’s statement that “he neither believed in Śāśvata-vāda, and absolute affirmation, nor in Ucchedavāda an absolute negation. His position was one of madhyamā prati-pada (literally, the middle position),” (15).

Singh describes the positive contributions of Nāgārjuna around the concept of dharmaianā. This concept teaches that even in error there is a secret longing for truth. “It says that the tendency of man to seize the relative as the absolute is, at root, the secret-inchoate longing in the heart of man for the absolute (dharmaianā),” (21). Thus, there is an inherent longing for the absolute in every person, however the longing can get attached to something fleeting and passing, but even in its delusion, it still is revealing the essence of the longing for the divine. Nāgārjuna wrote, “That which is of the nature of coming and going, arising and perishing, in its conditioned aspect is itself Nirvāa, in its unconditioned aspect,” (22). There is non-duality, again according to Nāgārjuna, “Nothing of phenomenal existence (sasāra) is different from nirvāa, nothing of nirvāa is different from phenomenal existence,” (29).

Once he is awake to the conditionedness (Śūnyatā) of the conditioned, his sense of values changes. He becomes a transformed man and then his dharmaianā, his mysterious longing for the Real finds its meaning and fulfillment, (21).

If one already has dharmaianā, but does not know one has it, how does one seek and find it? “The only way of reaching the goal is to realize that in the ultimate sense there is no goal to be reached,” (26). Thus, it is not a matter of seeking, it is a matter of stopping the seeking after a long period of exhausting seeking. To shift from outward action into inward stillness. “It is not the world that we have to change, but only ourselves,” (29).

Returning to the distinction between Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna, Singh sums it up: “the ideal of Hīnayāna is individual enlightenment; the ideal of Mahāyāna is universal enlightenment,” (30). The Hīnayāna-ist understands the concept of enlightenment, but seeks it for the escape of the wheel of birth and death, making the categorical mistake of thinking that his or her ego is separate from all of humanity and all of existence. This is still a form of dualism. The Mahāyāna-ist recognizes that there is non-difference between self and other and thus that enlightenment must include all sentient beings, otherwise it is only partial. “The Bodhisattva (Pāli, Boddhisatta) seeks supreme enlightenment not for himself alone but for all sentient beings,” (31).

Another distinction is in the nature of the Buddha as well as between dualism and non-dualism.

Hīnayāna was entirely intellectual…it was the human aspect of the Buddha which was emphasized.

In  Mahāyāna, Buddha was taken as God, as Supreme Reality itself that had descended on the earth in human form for the good of mankind, (35).

               …

The philosophy of Hīnayāna was one of radical pluralism, that of Mahāyāna was undiluted non-dualism (advaya)…

The approach to truth adopted in Hīnayāna was one of mystically-tinged rationalism, that adopted by Mahāyāna was one of super-rationalism and profound mysticism, (36).

The source of dualism for Hīnayāna (as well as for Vedanta) is in splitting the dual meaning of Śūnyatā (or maya). Śūnyatā is the pregnant void, emptiness which yet contains all things. “Śūnyatā is an abstract noun derived from śūnya. It means deprivation and suggests fullness,” (37). To view something as separate, or even to believe that one can separate from or transcend one aspect of reality to enter another reality is a false presumption, because there is only Absolute Reality.

The world is not a conglomeration of things. It is simply process, and things are simply events. A ‘thing’ by itself is ‘nothing’ at all. This is what is meant by the śūnyatā or emptiness of all dharmas, (39).

Thus, all teachings, all explanations of reality are empty. The development of philosophies and schools of thought that positivistically explain reality are doomed to failure. In fact the Truth is beyond all philosophies.

Dark Energy Moving through Dark Matter

Dark Energy Moving Through Dark Matter © D. Kopacz

Śūnyatā was declared by the Buddha for dispensing with all views or ‘isms’. Those who convert Śūnyatā itself into another ‘ism’ are verily beyond hope or help, (43).

Śūnyatā is not the final goal of the teachings, however.

Meditation on the śūnyatā (emptiness) is only a preparation for the spiritual discipline of prajñāpāramitā…The functional prajñā puts an end to the darkness of ignorance and thus the eternal prajñā comes to the fore. In the eternal prajñā, one cannot find even the distinction of ignorance and knowledge. It is an ever-present luminous knowledge. It is the ‘eternal light in the heart of man.’ Particular objects arise and perish, but the light of this prajñā keeps ever shining, (45).

Heart at the Center of Dark Matter

Heart at the Center of Dark Matter © D. Kopacz, 2016 

While Nāgārjuna teaches the emptiness of all dharmas (which can mean “scripture, doctrine, religion” as well as the “impersonal energy behind and in everything”), there is a more expansive concept of Dharmakāya meaning “the principle of cosmic unity,” (47).

The Dharma-kāya is the essential nature of Buddha. As Dharmakāya, the Buddha experiences his identity with Dharma or the Absolute and his unity (samatā) with all beings. The Dharmakāya is a knowing ; loving, willing being, an inexhaustible fountain-head of love and compassion, (47).

I remember in my East Asian Religions class at university, with Professor Peter N. Gregory, he would talk at length about Buddha nature. Professor Gregory would recount all the different stories about monks asking masters about what Buddha nature was and who or what had it and did not have it. I remember him gleefully recounting one story in which the answer was that Buddha nature was “even in shit and piss!”

Extreme, one-sided views lead to fundamentalism, a dangerous issue so prevalent in today’s world. Fundamentalism is based on a belief that there one’s own belief-group owns the truth and is justified in discriminating against, imprisoning, or even killing those who are do not share the same beliefs. Singh reminds us of the Buddha’s teaching of the Middle Way.

Extremes become dead-ends of eternalism and annhilationalism. There are those who cling to nonbeing and there are others who cling exclusively to being. The great Buddha meant, by his doctrine of madhyamā pratipat (Middle way), to drive home the truth that things here are neither absolute being nor absolute non-being, but are arising and perishing, forming continuous becoming, and that Reality is transcendent to thought and cannot be caught up in the dichotomies of the mind, (50).

The Absolute and the world are not two different sets of reality posited against each other, (51).

Reality is not one thing or another thing, but all things. Reality is “both transcendent and immanent. It is transcendent as ultimate Reality, but it is present in everyone as his inmost ground and essence,” (57).

Reading in Iceland

It is said that 1 in 10 people in Iceland will publish a book. The everlasting daylight of summer gives way to cold and darkness in the winter where people must get creative to occupy themselves. (There is also a high percentage of musicians in Iceland). Reykjavík has a lot of bookstores and there are many Icelandic authors – about half the books are in English and half in Icelandic in the stores.

I have long wanted to go to Iceland – something about the natural beauty, and maybe the creativity goes along with that in some way. In planning the trip, I had been more aware of my Welsh ancestry, but I do have a small percentage of Scandinavian DNA, 3% by Ancestry.com estimates. Maybe this was through various ancient European migrations, more recent linkages through my father’s Polish side (where we cannot get back much more than my Great Great grandparents who immigrated to the USA), or perhaps most likely through Viking raids into Britain (my mom has a surprisingly high percentage of Scandinavian DNA).

I walked through several bookstores, looking to pick up a book by an Icelandic author. Laxness novels were well represented, but what caught my eye was a trilogy by Jón Kalman Stefánsson and these books accompanied me throughout our journeys in Iceland, on the 8 hour plane flight back to Seattle, and for my first week back in the States as I finished reading them. I liked them so much that I will provide a short review of the books (possibly giving away a little bit of plot), or maybe just list a few of my favourite quotes. Not only were they great books that I found very gripping, but also, perhaps one gets a bit more of a feel for a culture reading its literature and going into the inner psychological and narrative realms, in addition to moving through the beautiful and awesome landscapes.

The weather was very nice when we were in Iceland, but internally I was whipped by the cold sea water and snow and ice of Iceland winter as I read Kalman’s books. Death, life, poetry, the life and death demands of writing and reading, the struggle to find home, to find identity, and the struggle of creatives to find a place in society that often did not provide a place for creativity are some of the themes of these books: Heaven and Hell; The Sorrow of Angels; and The Heart of Man.

 

Heaven and Hell

Heaven and Hell (2)

Our words are a kind of rescue team on a relentless mission to save past events and extinguished lives from the black hole of oblivion, and that is no easy task; along the way they are welcome to find some answers, then get us out of here before it is too late. Let this suffice for now, we’ll send the words on to you, those bewildered, scattered rescue teams unsure of their task, all compasses broken, maps torn or out of date, yet you should welcome them. Then we shall see what happens,” (3).

Thus begins the book which follows “the boy” (no name is given which makes him a kind of everyman/everyperson). He has lost everyone he cared about in his life. Father drowned at sea, he and his brother fostered out to homes in other villages. He receives letters from his mother, until she and his young sister die of illness. His mother wrote him about her and his father’s passion for books and reading.

We thought continuously about books, about being educated, became fervent, frantic, if we heard of some new interesting book, imagined what it might be like, spoke about its possible contents in the evenings, after you’d gone to bed. And later we’d read it in turns, or together, when and if we managed to get hold of it, or a handwritten copy of it,” (34).

The boy is befriended by Bárður, another lover of books, and they work on fishing boats, out in the sea, fishing for cod. One early morning they are preparing for sea. Bárður goes back to the house to read through some lines of Paradise Lost, to read to the boy and savour when they are out at sea with the crew in the small sixareen. Bárður remembers the poetry, but he forgets to bring his waterproof coat and a sudden winter storm lashes down upon the crew while they are pulling up their lines.

Bárður had taken the boy to the village to visit an old blind sea captain, blind like Milton was when he dictated Paradise Lost. Kolbeinn, the blind captain says to Bárður, “you see…it will change your life, which could certainly use a change,” (55). The book does certainly prove to change Bárður’s life. As they row out to sea, Bárður is thinking about the lines from Paradise Lost. Kalman doesn’t bother setting off quotes when someone is talking or reciting lines of poetry, it all runs together without clear separation of inner and outer.

“Bárður pants and mumbles something, in snatches of the strain…cowl casts…colour of dusk. All of their hearts beat fast. The heart is a muscle that pumps blood, the abode of pain, loneliness, joy, the one muscle that can keep us awake at night,” (50).

When the rain and snow starts, Bárður realizes he does not have his waterproof.

“Damned waterproof, I forgot it, and Bárður curses more, he curses having focused unnecessarily on memorizing lines from Paradise Lost, so focused that he forgot his waterproof…This is what poems can do to us,” (60).

It begins to become clear, quite quickly, that Bárður’s life is in danger. Their captain, a man of few words, begins to chant. He goes through a kind of shamanic transformation – such is the power of words when they are forged deep within the center of being. Words have an energy and his chants begin to build up heat as he recites the only poems he knows, at first about heroism on the sea, but eventually obscene verses. As the heat builds, perhaps the heat of these words can save him from the foolishness fix that carrying poetry rather than a waterproof have gotten him into…

“The verses gush out of him. As if to exorcise the arctic cold itself. The verses become steadily more raw, more violent, and Pétur is transformed. He is no longer a silent, serious skipper, the workhorse, something ancient and dark awakens in him, this is no longer poetry that wells up from within him, poetry is for laggards and schoolmen, this is a primitive force, a language with deep roots in a dim subconscious, sprung from a harsh life and ever present death. Pétur grows burning hot and he rocks rhythmically on the thwart, slaps his hands now and then on his thigh when the rhyming words become so heavy that it is difficult for the human body to handle them, because the human body is delicate, it cannot bear the impact of large rocks, cannot bear avalanches, the stinging cold, cannot endure loneliness, cannot endure rhyming words heavy with antiquity, saturated with lust, and this is why Pétur slaps his thigh, to bring words forth, and the five men start in surprise, everyone bound by this primitive power streaming from their skipper…Pétur has taken off his sou’wester, he has been sweating,” (63-64).

Maybe this ancient force of words that has awakened from deep within the skipper can save Bárður, but alas, a doubt arises in Pétur’s mind, in his heart, and the words sputter to a halt and Bárður murmurs

“nothing is sweet to me, without thee, mumbles Bárður, the line of poetry written in the letter Bárður finished last evening, addressed to Sigriður… (71)…Bárður always went out at 8.00 to gaze at the moon and at the same time Sigriður watched as well, there were mountains and distances between them but their eyes met on the moon, precisely as the eyes of lovers have done since the beginning of time, and that is why the moon was placed in the sky,” (103-104).

Bárður freezes to death and dies in the boat before they get to shore and the boy has lost his anchor to this world again.

“Some poems take us places where no words reach, no thought, they take you up to the core itself, life stops for one moment and becomes beautiful, it becomes clear with regret and happiness. Some poems change the day, the night, your life. Some poems make you forget your waterproof, the frost comes to you, says, got you, and you’re dead,” (85).

The boy is driftless, without purpose, without connection to the social world. He decides he will kill himself, but first he needs to return the copy of Paradise Lost that Bárður borrowed from the blind sea captain, Kolbeinn. This book that caused the death of his friend becomes the thing that keeps him alive, at least until he can return it. He struggles over mountain and snow. Returns the book, but rather than kill himself he is taken in by a group of intellectuals, misfits, and very interesting people who live on the fringe of society. Like a band of punk rockers, they find companionship through the thing they have in common: not fitting into society.

One person he met had studied and journeyed abroad and was a reader of books:

“He’d been in the habit for many years of making long journeys, most often abroad, since there is nothing to see in Iceland except mountains, waterfalls, tussocks and this light that can pass through you and turn you into a poet,” (118).

I thought this line was quite interesting – the very reason that someone might have wanted to leave Iceland to see the world is now the very reason that so many tourists journey to Iceland: to see “mountains, waterfalls, tussocks.” I’m not sure if many of the tourists who venture through Iceland on guided tours notice “the light that can pass through you and turn you into a poet.” But maybe that explains why so many Icelanders become writers – this light that is turning them all into poets, poets, who, like all poets, have no choice but to let lose their words upon the world.

“But why tell you these stories?

What terrifying powers, other than despair, fling us over the Unnameable in order to tell you stories of extinguished lives?

 Our words are confused rescue teams with obsolete maps and birdsong in place of compasses. Confused and profoundly lost, yet their job is to save the world, save extinguished lives, save you and then hopefully us as well,” (95).

I won’t tell you the rest of the book and neither will I tell you more of the plot in the next two books, but I will share a few more quotes from the next two books.

 

The Sorrow of Angels

Sorrow.2

Our movements may be uncertain, hesitant, but our goal is clear ― to save the world. Save you and ourselves with these stories, these snippets from poems and dreams that sank long ago into oblivion. We’re in a leaky rowing boat with a rotten net and we’re going to catch stars,” (10).

The book starts with what sounds like the dead speaking from beyond the grave, or maybe it is all the Writers in the world speaking out to all the Readers. The book has more harrowing journeys over snow and blizzards and sea. This book continues the theme of those creatives who have to write, who have to question the meaning and value of what is given them in this world and in the social structures.

“He who stays up too late is poorly fit for the next day’s work, but he who doesn’t follow his dreams loses his heart,” (24).

I will just provide one other quote from this book and we will skip the plot:

“Of what other use is poetry unless it has the power to change fate?” (26).

 

The Heart of Man

The Heart of Man

“Where do dreams end, where does reality begin? Dreams come from within, they trickle in from the world that we all have inside us, possibly distorted, but what isn’t distorted, what isn’t dented?” (9).”

This book continues on these themes of inner and outer reality,  of what is created and what exists, of the inner movements of the heart against the struggles against the background of the social and physical landscapes. The boy is growing up. As I read these books I’m reminded of Dostoevsky, Camus, Kafka, but there is a bit of playfulness here along with a struggle against ending up bitter, like Louis Ferdinand-Céline if he had remained a poet and social critic and had not become a nihilist and anti-Semite. Kalman has elements of Existentialism, but he has hope, hope that the poets words can be rescue teams, search parties, that they can somehow find and redeem the heart of humanity.

“A nation that translates little, focusing only on its own thoughts, is constricted, and if it boasts a large population it becomes dangerous to others, as well, because most things are alien to it except for its own thoughts and customs. Translations broaden people, and thereby the world. They help you understand distant nations. People hate less, or fear less, what they understand. Understanding can save people from themselves. Generals have a harder time getting you to kill if you possess understanding. Hatred and prejudice, I say to you, are fear and ignorance; you may write that down,” (163).

How appropriate is this quote is – written in 2011 in the Icelandic and translated to English 2015 – with the rise of nationalism in the United States and around the world! Would that help us in our current state of the rampant rise of nationalism, intolerance, and the radical “other-ing” happening across the globe? Where can we find the light to fight this darkness sweeping the globe?

“I don’t know where the darkness comes from, yet I think that it comes from the same place as the light, and I think it grows dark because we let it happen. I think that it’s difficult to attain the light, often very difficult, but I also think that no-one attains it for us…If we don’t set out on our own, life is nothing,” (333).

Like Carl Jung, Kalman sees the light and dark arising from the same place. As Jung wrote:

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

The boy, who often is more aware of his inner mind and heart as he struggles with the sea and the snow, which claim many victims throughout the books. He struggles to find out who he is, he struggles to learn love and his own heart, he struggles to find his way in a world that seems created for people who are non-reflective. As persistently the environment struggles to erase and eradicate life, there is this compensatory realm of the inner world of the heart and the way it journeys out into the outer world through word and stories – trying to find some meaning and truth.

This is a war against oblivion, in the hope that hidden within the stories are words that free us from our fetters. You as well,” (87).

This ends our review of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s trilogy. I have material for one more post following our trip from Reykjavik to Vestmannaeyjar Island, the last leg of our trip that circles back around to Keflavik airport and back to Seattle.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Being Behind Becoming

A Review of Songs for Siva: Vacanas of Akka Mahadevi, translated by Vinaya Chaitanya (2017).

Songs for Siva cover

A small hardcover volume filled with poems seeking to move from duality and separation into divine union ― Songs for Siva is a new translation by Vinaya Chaitanya of the 12th century poet, Akka Mahadevi. She was known as “sky-clad” (digambaras), as she was of the tradition of the wandering saint, clad only with the hair she was given.

               If the cloth that covers them slips,

               Men and women become shy.

               If you, lord of life,

               Envelop the whole world,

               What is there to be shy of?

               If Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,

               Sees with the whole world as eyes,

               What shall you cover and hide, O man? (145)

The foreword by H.S. Shivaprakash describes Akka’s writing as “poetic without being poetry, spiritual without being religious or scriptural,” (vii). Transcending duality, Shivaprakash further states that Akka’s pathway of Siva is “where heaven and hell become one in the clear understanding of continuous awareness, turning nectar and poison into each other,” (viii).

               You grasped the space within the space

               That no one knows

               And handed it to me,

               O Guru Channamallikarjuna, jasmine tender (92)

Translator, Vinaya Chaitanya, provides an informative and intriguing introduction to Akka Mahadevi. Chaitanya draws parallels between the 12th century Virasaiva movement that Mahadevi was part of, and the translator’s own wisdom lineage of Narayan Guru: speaking out against discrimination and oppression based on separation and difference such as “caste, sex, language or dress,” (xvi). Chaitanya quotes Narayana Guru, “Humanity is of one caste, of one religion and of one God,” (xxix). As well as looking forward to the present, Chaitanya also looks back to the past, describing the Virasaiva movement as a continuation of the pre-Aryan, pre-Vedic “older, more contemplative tradition associated with Siva,” (xxiii). This movement accorded equal status to the sexes and there are “thirty-three vacanakartis (women writers of vacanas)” whose poems are known, (xxiv).

               I saw the divine form…

               I saw the great one

               Who makes all the males female.

               I saw the supreme guru

               Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,

               Ever united with the primal Sakti.

               Seeing him, I am saved. (141)

Ardhanarisvara

Ardhanarisvara

One of the fundamental human differences that is frequently a basis of discrimination is male and female. Chaitanya writes, “It is the dialectics between male and female that makes for the creative evolution of the world. When these opposites are united in harmony, there is peace and contentment; when the balance between them is lost, there is suffering,” (xii). The longing for union that Akka Mahadevi expresses toward her Lord Siva, whom she calls Channamallikarjuna, goes beyond the union of male and female, which is still a form of separation and dualism, to a state of mystical union with the Divine. A.K. Ramanujan translated Channamallikarjuna as “jasmine-white Lord,” in his translations of the 1970s, whereas Chaitanya chooses a slightly different translation, “jasmine-tender,” and continues to use the original in the poems as well, Channamallikarjuna (“Channa means ‘beautiful’; mallika is jasmine; arjuna meaning ‘bright’ or ‘white’”).

               My mind is unhappy.

               It cannot become empty

               Forgetting the two.

               Show me how you can become me,

               O, Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender. (10)

Like another Bhakti poet, Mirabai, Akka Mahadevi was married to a husband, but considered herself married to God, in Mirabai’s case Shyam (Krishna) and for Mahadevi, Śiva. The poems are called vacanas, meaning “to give one’s word” or “to make a promise or commitment,” (xxiii).

               Like treasure hidden by the earth.

               Like taste hidden by the fruit…

               Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,

               Hides as the being behind becoming;

               No one knows him. (9)

Aside from the timeless beauty of these poems, which express the ancient mystical longing to transcend dualism, these vacanas are topical today ― when we live in such a time that focuses so very much on walls and borders, differences and separation. We need reminders of our human unity and of the sacred and divine Oneness that transcends and swallows all our differences into the vast Cosmic Ocean of Being, out of which all this becoming arises.