‘Get back to where you once belonged’!
Curiously, the greatest demons in Indian mythology, through their evil deeds compelled god to incarnate in human form, and being killed by his or her hand, were released from the wheel of birth and death.
The story goes that the great demons, Ravana, and his brother Kumbhakarna were previously gatekeepers of the god, Lord Vishnu, but fell a victim to pride one day by refusing entry to one of the eternal rishis, or sages, who cursed them to be born in the world. Desperate with grief, they ran to Vishnu who told them even he couldn’t countermand the word of such a great being, but he offered them maybe 10 lives on earth as his devotees, or 3 lives as his enemies. Being great devotees, almost united to their lord in love, they chose the shorter term of separation, and thus it was that Vishnu himself incarnated as Lord Rama, their mortal enemy, giving rise to the universal blessing of his story and teaching, - the Ramayana.
No doubt there are many ways to skin a cat. The point here is that in their obsessive determination to defeat Rama, such total focus and absorption on a symbol, even through hatred, completely subsumed any idea of their individualised existence.
They thought about god all the time!
Such is the ultimate goal, - when the mirror reflects nothing, not even itself. To attain such focus we have images of gods and goddesses, prophets and incarnations, saints and sages; their words and stories, miracles and wonders. We have rituals and remembrances; religions, rules and regulations. But please do judge for yourself their validity and relevance. Test them! Taste them! Try them! See whether they take you closer to the centre of your soul, - or engender fear and deny your right to see god yourself.
The great ones of this world have all spoken the simple truth of their realization, but others have added much, much more. Many times have their words been ‘twisted by knaves into a trap for fools’. Vast organizations and hierarchies have grown to claim the authority of interpreting such words. Organizations, inevitably of power, politics and control, that claim to represent god and are intent on increasing their membership in his or her name! Such ‘authorities’ may even contradict the very words and teachings they claim to espouse, by placing themselves and their rules and regulations between you and god.
There seems to be no shortage of politicians who would love to claim that god is on their side, and similarly no shortage of religionists who would have the state enforce adherence to their beliefs. All too often, what seems to happen is that words intended to lead us to total spiritual freedom become selected and manipulated to perpetuate our dependence, bondage, and fear of some external authority in this world or beyond.
When dear Jesus says: “The kingdom of god is within you,” surely he means in you. Not the church, mosque or temple; priest, imam or guru. Even if they have true realisation, it has to be yours to be real.
Jesus’s statement predicates no external authority between you and himself or the kingdom of heaven, - between you and god; and for this alone he paid the supreme sacrifice in this world.
As I understand it, he said nothing about sex before marriage or with the same sex either; divorce, abortion or birth control, let alone smoking tobacco or drugs, what or what not to eat and a host of other worldly matters that matter, - or matter not. He didn’t even mention the right to life, but spoke about feelings and purity of heart, - to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. His teaching was to deal with the world as it demands, but not to confuse its regulations and opinions with the search for god.
“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto god, that which is god’s.”
All his words are about how to seek the kingdom of heaven by loving god with all our heart and soul and mind, and to let god’s will be done. Krishna similarly says:
“Fix your mind on me, be devoted to me, worship me and bow to me; so shall you without doubt reach me. This I promise to you; for you are dear to me. Surrendering all duties to me, seek refuge in me alone. I shall absolve you of all sins; grieve not”.
We could go on. To my mind, the true Christian is he or she who follows the simple words of Jesus, and uses them in their personal devotion to him, as an ideal of goodness to try to emulate, and as their guide and symbol in seeking the final answer to life’s problems, - turning the other cheek, and judging the right and wrong of their actions against the clarity of their heart.
Judge with heart and reason, - and beware of red herrings!
A story goes that once a boy was watching as his father prepared a religious ceremony to gain merit for his family. All was in place for the ceremony to proceed when a stray cat entered the scene. Not wanting the cat to interfere with the proceedings, the father took a string and tied it to a post. Years later, when the boy’s turn came to perform the same ceremony and when everything was ready, he said, “And now we have to find a cat”!
And so it often goes.
A rose by any other name
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, - (Paramahansa means a ‘great swan’ that is said to be able to sift the milk of truth from its dilution in the waters of earthly existence), said:
“All religions are but different paths that lead to the same reality”.
Doesn’t the world need to hear this? Doesn’t the world in which power depends on the perpetuation of ‘us and them’ need to hear this?
Surely it does. But I fear there are many whose belief forbids it; they are subject to the politics of control by separation. Doesn’t everybody’s god create the world and everything in it? I think it only takes just a little contemplation of this statement to recognise its truth. In such a simple way, Sri Ramakrishna said that if god is indeed all-knowing, then like a mother who knows her baby is calling her, - with cries, gurgles; words or names in any language, - what difference does it make? Those who seek to gain some commission or remission by converting others to their faith must unfortunately have a far more debased and prescriptive image of god than this, and how many have died or been killed in the name of such?
Intellect should not be abandoned in the name of emotion, nor vice versa.
Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita says:
“In the very last of all births, the man of realization worships me, realizing that all this is god. Such a great soul is very rare”.
Yet Krishna himself changed his form to that of Rama, his previous incarnation, when Hanuman, the great devotee of Rama, came to see him, knowing that his love was focussed on that earlier form of his. And again he said:
“Arjuna, howsoever men approach me, even so do I approach them; for all men follow my path from all sides.”
For achieving the contemplation, concentration and absorption required to reveal the truth of god within, a single image, - a chosen symbol in which to invest the energy of our being and concentrate our feelings and intellect, - is the usual way. We worship one form to encompass all forms, one thought to encompass all thoughts, one concept to encompass all concepts; a haven for the spirit and an image of love, - an imagination to dissolve all our other imaginings.
Jesus says: “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light”.
By concentrating on one image, we may still the mind and be open to that which lies behind both the symbol and the manifestation of all we see.
But please do not deny that all forms are god, - infinite manifestations of the one you choose. Above all, when others cry with equal sincerity to another form, name or concept, see your god in the form of their Buddha, your Rama as their Allah, and the glory of your god in that which has no form at all.
Can you expand your image of god to be truly all that is, and honour all those images and the places where they are found as countless others have before you, holding only god and goodness in their hearts?
"I go into the Muslim mosque and the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church and I see one altar."
To see god in all that is, - including the good, the bad and the ugly!
There was a wandering ascetic who came to a village and asked to spend the night in a deserted temple. The people were horrified and told him no-one who stayed there lived to tell the tale. Undaunted, he was lying down to sleep in the temple, when a terrifying demonic form appeared, threatening to devour him. However the ascetic merely bowed and folded his hands in worship saying, “I know who you are, - every form is but an image of god, - I am so happy to see you!” Needless to say, he passed the night happily, free from harm.
The bottom line in any path to understanding is surrender, to be receptive, and to under-stand. Things are as they are whether we like it or not. In the play of life, we ultimately have no control, although that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make our universe a better place to be, and thereby cultivate compassion in our heart regardless of whether we succeed or fail.
In Christianity this attitude is crystallized in the dictum “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, or “Man proposes, god disposes”.
It is our disagreement with the way things are, the frustration of our desires and our rejection of that to which we are averse, that quite obviously perpetuates our separation from the divine.
Let violent winds which characterise the end of aeons (kalpas) blow; let all the oceans unite, let the twelve suns burn (simultaneously), still no harm befalls one whose mind is extinct.
Even here is the mortal plane conquered by those whose mind is established in equanimity; since the absolute is free from blemish and equanimous, hence they are established in the eternal.
Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita
I notice there is a general reticence among many ‘western’ people, to bow before another. Humility is taken to be a form of weakness whereas in the East such greetings symbolize recognition of the divine in all. It is often the case that those who prefer to present an image of strength do so to cover a sense of weakness within, and in the process, deny themselves a source of genuine joy. Taken to extremes, such arrogance believes that man is superior to all, and that one day even nature itself will succumb to his will. A will for what? To claim that he is not himself the product and a part of nature too?
All spiritual paths seek to reduce our dependence on external identity and to encourage the surrender of our personal power and interest in favour of emptiness. As Jesus says:
“Who, by taking thought, can add one cubit to his stature”?
Indeed, by thinking, are we making ‘thoughts our aim’? The thinker is not a thought, any more than the hearer is a sound, or the seer a sight. The perceiver of all cannot be that which is perceived; the subject cannot be an object of its own perception. Thoughts and perceptions flow out from their origin, appear and disappear, - but cannot take you there. You are already there, - here and now!
A nameless Sadhu (wandering Indian holy-man) said:
“Shanti meh, sab ata, sab jata”.
“In peace, - everything comes and everything goes”.
The aim of meditation or prayer is the absorption of all thinking in a state of surrender. This may be powered emotionally by devotion to any idea or image in a relationship of love, or intellectually by a calm disassociation from thought and identity.
In regard to the method of restraining thought that includes the constant repetition of a prayer or ‘mantra’, Sri Ramakrishna told the story of a man who begged a ‘yogi’ to give him control over a ghost or disembodied spirit. The sage warned him that if he could not keep the spirit busy it would devour him, but the man could not be swayed from his determination, and so his wish was granted. The spirit had the power to manifest anything the man desired, and this certainly proved no problem to begin with. The man requested gold and palaces and everything he’d ever wanted, however, the spirit produced them all in a flash; so of course he soon began to run out of things to request. Fearing for his life, the man ran back to the yogi, pleading to be saved from the hungry spirit. Taking pity on him the yogi told him to get a curly-tailed dog and ask the spirit to comb its tail straight. No problem, thought the spirit, but every time he combed it straight it straightway curled up again. Exasperated, the spirit finally begged the man to release him.
All religious practices have in common this aim to tame the power of the mind by controlling its focus to one degree or another.
You may consider surrendering thus to be a kind of trick or a means to an end, but what’s the alternative?
As the great Sage Vashistha said to Rama:
“Even the slightest thought immerses a man in sorrow. When devoid of all thoughts, he enjoys imperishable bliss”.
All you need is love
What is love? It offers us that sweet feeling of completeness and unity of spirit, of accepting all and being accepted for what we are, yet it comes in many different forms.
There is a child’s love for its mother or father, and their love for the child; there is the love for a brother or sister, and that for a friend; there’s the love of lovers and the love between husband and wife; finally, there is love for a mistress or paramour! This last form, directed towards one’s chosen ideal, believe it or not, is said in India to be an analogy of the highest spiritual love. Why? Because the soul yearns for its lover, - a moment’s separation becomes unbearable to the point of hardly being able to breathe, and despite being involved in the daily duties of life and family, the heart and mind are continuously, totally absorbed in the object of love.
Love in all these different forms, however, is love. One form cannot really be said to be superior to any other. It is a human emotion, and as such we may well feel inclined to love our chosen form of god as our child, mother, father, brother, sister, friend or lover. What can be purer than this? Beware of ‘holiness’ putting god beyond your reach! God’s holiness is all that is, and all that is, is god.
The acceptance of any form of god, as I have argued, is a matter of imagination, and a conscious choice to believe and have faith in that concept, or belief in the faith and knowledge of others. Among the common images (or non-images) that are most worshipped at this moment in the history of mankind there are those which have been bequeathed to us by historical figures who are regarded as messengers, prophets, the ‘son’ of god, and even the incarnations of god himself. There are also those deities whose origin lies far back before the beginning of historical records, which have yet continued to be loved and venerated and nurtured, as it were, by communal imagination.
Those religions that, like a pyramid, depend primarily on the ‘authority’ of a single figure, have all it seems been subject to schisms as debate has raged as to the correct interpretation of their founders’ words. This alone has led to countless wars and feuds, many of which continue still, and which are oftentimes encouraged by political and material agendas greedy to claim such enormous bases of power. Such power depends on separation, and thus the exclusivity of these faiths has often been promoted to justify violence and destruction.
There is one so-called religion, however, which is generally inclusive of all spiritual aspirations. As such perhaps it should not be defined as a religion, rather a location or state of open-mindedness capable of absorbing any and every opinion within an understanding of this very basic human need. Such a location, to my mind, is the sub-continent of India, where this understanding generally prevails even today. Over the millennia, any religion has been able to find a sympathetic hearing and a home here and, despite periods and instances of intolerance which have preyed upon the primitive tribal tendency of humans to identify with one grouping or sect, they have survived and flourished.
Indeed I would rather not label in any way this attitude, which to my mind covers everything, encompassing the whole gamut of human spiritual yearning and experience. Taken as a whole, it embraces monotheism, polytheism, both and neither, - recognising god in any and every form, no form at all, and simultaneously with form and without. All incarnations, saints and sages are honoured and accepted, and thus it may indeed be called a universal religion.
The personalities and stories of Hinduism are practically infinite. The very name is a recent one for what has always been known as Sanatana Dharma, or the ‘Eternal Truth’. As such it goes back before time, even time before that, and considers time itself as but a concept barely noticeable on the bosom of the infinite. The very lifespan of creation is said to be but a breath of god, and yet may be contained in less than the space between two thoughts. Against this background, historical veracity rates hardly a mention, and its relevance pales before such profound philosophy, sublime teaching, and the overwhelming moral authenticity of its stories.
Such a philosophy renders every human activity divine as the “Lila” or play of god. Its cosmology of archetypal images and symbols provides pictorial delight. The music of India, owing as much to Moslem as to Hindu masters, sings the spirit of our emotions through from heart-piercing pathos to transcendent joy and the heavenly enjoyment of the gods themselves. And yet, in its panoply of images, none can be found more vibrantly beautiful than that beheld in the devotee’s heart!
In the human psyche it seems there has always been a desire to believe in the existence of beings with ‘super-human’ capacity and power over nature. Indeed, I dare to suggest that there has never been a society which did not idealize some such ‘god’ and such power is part and parcel of the very concept of any god. Where the excitement has faded in relation to traditional gods, these powers have been transferred as it were to local heroes, myths and legends, and any being, real or imagined, that transcends the normal limitations of human existence. In this respect I would point to the modern fixation on sports and movie stars, and fictitious characters such as the cartoon ‘super-heroes’ of America, Japan, and other places.
“Every such creature as is glorious, brilliant or powerful, know that to be a manifestation of a spark of my effulgence.
Or what will you gain by knowing all this in detail, Arjuna? Suffice it to say that I stand holding this entire universe by a spark of my yogic power”.
Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita
Many societies used to have a living belief in gods and goddesses, but few remain today. In Europe, the Nordic, Greek and Roman gods, among others, once held sway, but hardly a soul worships them now. In India however, the ancient gods remain very much alive, but why? I believe the answer to this lies in the fact that ultimately the role of the ‘Hindu’ gods has always been associated with the teaching of liberation from bondage and the transcendence of the human condition, coupled with a profound philosophy that has never feared to propose the ultimate negation of all, including the gods and goddesses themselves, in a state of supreme enlightenment.
It is this underlying acceptance that all originates in the human mind which itself is nothing but an imagined state of ‘existing’, that allows imagination to expand and be fully included within the infinite boundaries of our so-called reality.
What is more, a dedicated imagination and faith in such a ‘super-reality’, as so many great spiritual beings have confirmed, can create and reveal a level of being wherein the vision of these divine forms speaks to us directly from the archetypal spirit and building blocks of our souls, teaching us and compelling the surrender of our hearts.
So allow me briefly to invite to these pages, according to my humble lights and personal imagination, some of the best known images of god in India, - an archetypal family, - a communal imagination if you like, in which the aspirations, joy and suffering of countless generations have been entwined and their faith sustained.
The elephant-headed god
First and foremost by time honoured tradition let me call upon the elephant-headed god, Ganesha.
He is childlike in his rounded ‘jumbo’ form, but with an element of mischief and stubbornness about him as befits the boy whose mother created him to guard her private chambers. He defeated anyone who tried to enter, until his father, the great Lord Shiva himself, came and decapitated him with his mighty trident. Faced with the fury of his wife and his own remorse, Shiva ordered the head of the first being found to be sleeping with its head facing north to be brought and affixed to the boy whose life was promptly restored. It was an elephant. Thereafter Shiva ordained that Ganesha should be worshipped before all other gods as the remover of obstacles and granter of success in any venture.
Ganesha is also known as the god of wisdom. One day his mother, Parvati, and Shiva, his father, thought they’d keep him and his brother Kartikeya amused by suggesting a race around the three worlds, - the manifested universe of all that is. Well, as with all Hindu gods and goddesses, Ganesha has an animal, an alter-ego as it were, on which to ride. In his case, it’s a variety of rat or mouse. Kartikeya, on the other hand, has a much swifter mount, - a peacock, and soon he was out of sight. Ganesha stood still and thought, then slowly walked around his mother and father, saluted them and bowed his head at their feet, saying, “The whole universe, seen and unseen, is contained in you, so I have won!” And that they could not deny.
You may notice one of his tusks is broken. This came about when the great sage Vyasa asked him to write the Mahabharata, the story of the incarnation of Krishna. The deal was this: Ganesha agreed on the condition that Vyasa didn’t pause in his dictation, to which Vyasa made the proviso that Ganesha had to fully understand everything before he wrote. Well, as the flow went on. Ganesha’s pen snapped, so he broke off a tusk to keep on writing and thus kept his word.
In India and elsewhere there are countless stories that have been handed down from generation to generation, and different versions wherever they are told. A local story goes like this: it was the special day to worship Ganesha in a small village, - everyone was bringing offerings of flowers and sweets to his temple, - but one poor old woman had nothing but a few little coins to spare, and those were for her daily needs. She gave them with apologies to the deity, nonetheless. That night as she lay in her bed in a back room, there was a loud knocking on her front door. “Who’s there?” she called. “Ganesha!” came the reply. Too nervous to come out, she said, “What do you want?” “I want to pee! Where can I go?” “Oh, anywhere” she said. “Can I pee inside?” “Yes of course, go anywhere” she said. Then she heard the sound of peeing coming from a corner of the front room. When it stopped, Ganesha called out “I want to go again! Where can I go?” “Anywhere at all” she replied. And so it went on until he had peed in every corner, and saying “thank you!” he left. In the morning the old lady found piles of money in each corner of her front room, and in her joy, she told the village.
Well, no-one was so impressed as the local rich man, to whom money meant a lot, and so the following year he spent lavishly to please Ganesha, and sure enough, that night he had the same experience as the old woman and did exactly as she had done. Running out to check in the morning, of course, he found a puddle of pee in every corner!
“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”.
But we don’t hear much about that these days.
Ganesha is a god that children learn to love at an early age, being himself childlike and endearing as a baby elephant. They play at his worship, placing flowers at his wayside shrines, and, little bottoms in the air, place their foreheads at his feet. As may indeed we all.
I won’t try to go into the symbology any further regarding the image of Ganesha, what he holds in his hands, the snake around his waist and so on. Images and their symbols have many meanings; suffice it to say his open palm gives peace and blessings, and the rest is up to the devotee’s heart and pure imagination.
The monkey god
Another children’s favourite is Hanuman, the “monkey god”, image of superhuman strength and loyalty, and a simple, innocent and literal nature.
It is said that he is the incarnation of Shiva, determined to witness the play of Rama and thus enjoy devotion to his beloved. It is also said that Rama worships Shiva, and yet again, that there is no real distinction between the two. Hanuman’s image may be seen all over India, painted vermillion red, and often in the form of a natural rock that resembles his form. His mouth is rather large from trying to eat the sun as a child, and he’s often seen literally baring his heart to show Rama and his wife, Sita, enshrined there. This came about when he was offered jewels and riches as a reward for his exploits in the fight against Ravana. His reaction was to bite them, and not finding Sita and Rama in them throw them away. “Then what about your own body,” he was challenged, “are Sita and Rama in that?” “Oh yes,” he replied, tearing open his chest for everyone to see.
It seems Hanuman habitually regards himself as a simple servant of Rama, and only when invoking Rama’s name does he remember his awesome power, flying through the air, leaping over oceans. He is known as the god of hard-working people who labour with the strength of their bodies; of endurance, fortitude and undying love.
Let me here for a moment digress to a story from the Ramayana of which Hanuman is so much a part:
A woman called Shabari from humble origins, being widowed, wanted to devote her life to finding Rama. She went to a forest ashram to ask the ‘holy men’ there to help her and teach her. Unfortunately those people were still subject to notions of separation and superiority, and she being an ‘untouchable’, let alone a woman and a widow, they totally rejected her and tried to drive her away. Nevertheless, she decided to serve them in secret, getting up very early in the dark, every morning, to sweep the path they took to bathe in a nearby lake free of any thorns or stones that might trouble them.
One morning, however, one of the men was earlier than usual and bumped into Shabari in the dark. Horrified at finding out whom he had touched, he ran to the lake to bathe and ‘purify’ himself. Well, henceforth the water in that lake became brackish and poisonous, but none could see the reason why. Finally, a kinder holy man agreed to teach her, and did so until the time of his death when he told her that Rama would surely come to her one day. Thus she spent her time waiting; sweeping the path to her hut; tasting the fruits she collected each day and keeping only the sweetest to offer her lord; and forever looking down the path, waiting, anticipating, and expecting any moment that Rama would arrive.
And so he did! Wandering with his brother, Lakshmana, after Sita had been kidnapped by Ravana, he came to the ashram causing much excitement among the people there. To their dismay, however, he went straight to see Shabari, who of course, was beside herself with joy. As a result she was totally confused in the rituals of receiving such a guest, getting everything upside-down and back-to-front when she wasn’t transfixed beholding his beautiful form. When she offered the brothers the fruits she had collected that day, each piece with a bite taken out of it, Lakshmana could not bring himself to eat it. Instead he secretly threw it away into the bushes. Rama, however, was overjoyed with its sweetness, and more so by the love which imbued it.
“Whosoever offers to me with love a leaf, a flower, a fruit or even water, I appear in person before that disinterested devotee of pure intellect, and delightfully partake of that article offered by him with love”
Well, to finish the story, Rama told Shabari to ask for whatever she wanted, but she said “Having seen you, how could I want for anything else in this world? Pray let me give up this body and come to you”. So with his consent, she burnt her body with the ‘fire of yogic practice’ then and there, extinguishing any separation from her lord. Thereafter Rama told the people to scatter her ashes in the lake, and yes, the water became pure again.
Now for the sequel! Wounded by a poisoned arrow in the battle outside Lanka, Ravana’s capital on the island of modern-day Sri Lanka, Lakshmana was told that only a medicinal herb from a distant mountain could save his life and it turned out to be none other than that which grew from Shabari’s fruit which he had thrown away. It was so far away and time was short, but being reminded once again of what he could do for the sake of Rama, Hanuman came to the rescue by flying there. Now when he arrived, he really wasn’t sure which the herb in question was, so, time being all important, he lifted the entire mountain and flew back in time to save Lakshmana. Hence, the enduring image of Hanuman flying in the sky, the mountain on his outstretched hand.
Faith can move mountains!
Another favourite image of Hanuman comes to mind, towering above the world, carrying Rama and Lakshmana, on his shoulders. May he thus raise our spirit high above the complexities of this world!
There are many more stories concerning Hanuman in the epic tales of Rama. It is also said that he remains in the world for as long as these stories are treasured, and that wherever they are told, he is sure to be there in some form of his choosing, and to him, in this place and at this time, my deepest obeisance.