Another Book of Nothing Chapters 10-13:
Get back! A rose by any other name Sweet surrender All you need is love
‘Get back to where you once belonged!’ So sang The Beatles.
Curiously, some of the most famous and terrifying demons in Indian mythology, through the extremity of their evil deeds, compelled God to incarnate in human form, and then being killed by His or Her hand, were released from the wheel of birth and death.
The story goes that the great demons or rakshasas, Ravana, and his brother Kumbhakarna, were previously gatekeepers of the God, Lord Vishnu, but fell a victim to pride one day by ridiculing and refusing entry to the immortal Kumari rishis, or child 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 great beings, but he offered them a choice of having to endure 7 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. However, so great was their demonic power that Vishnu Himself was obliged to incarnate as Lord Rama, their mortal enemy, in order to destroy them - simultaneously giving rise to the universal blessing of His story and teaching in the Ramayana.
No doubt there are many ways to skin a cat. The point here is that despite their heinous deeds as demons on earth, in their obsessive determination to defeat Rama, their total focus and absorption, even through hatred, completely subsumed any idea of their individualised existence. Their minds being constantly and compulsively fixed on His image and how to destroy Him, in effect they thought about God all the time!
Such is the ultimate goal of any spiritual practice - when the empty mirror of mind alone remains as it is, reflecting nothing, not even itself, nevertheless, as an aid in helping us still the mind and attain such concentrated focus we have so many images of Gods and Goddesses, prophets and incarnations, saints and sages; their words and stories, miracles and wonders. We have devotional worship, meditation and spiritual practices. We have rituals and remembrances; religions, rules and regulations. However, it is up to us to judge for ourselves their validity and relevance by testing, tasting and trying them to see whether they take us closer to the 'centre' of our soul - or whether they engender separateness and fear, or even deny our right to see God for ourselves.
The great ones of this world have all spoken the simple truth of their realisation, but others with a more circumscribed understanding, sometimes even their immediate followers, have added much, much more. Many times have those original words been adapted to conform to existing cultural norms, or even as Rudyard Kipling said, ‘twisted by knaves into a trap for fools’ whereby they have been usurped to give credibility to the continued survival of existing religious or secular power structures. Vast organisations and hierarchies have grown to claim the authority of interpreting such utterances of enlightened inspiration and to propagate them according to their own understanding and priorities. Lamentably, such organisations - inevitably and by their very nature involving power, politics and control - while claiming to represent God and the divine right to determine whatever may be 'God’s will', can sometimes seem more intent on increasing their membership and wealth, or demanding submission to those who have been appointed to be in positions of authority - and all 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 their followers and God – even threatening eternal damnation to anyone who might disagree!
Indeed, there has never been a shortage of politicians eager to announce their religiosity and claim that God is on their side or that they are fighting for God thereby boosting their power base, and similarly, no shortage of religionists who would have the state enforce adherence to their beliefs and obedience to their dictates alone. All too often then, what seems to happen is that words that were originally intended to lead us to total spiritual and unconditioned freedom become selectively chosen 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 - meaning in every single individual, soul or being. Not the church, mosque or temple, priest, imam or guru. Even if others have or have had true realisation, it has to be ours to be real. Jesus’s statement, and indeed all his teaching, predicates no external authority or priestly intervention between us and himself or the kingdom of heaven - between us and God; and for this alone he paid the supreme sacrifice in this world.
As I understand it, Jesus also did not moralise and in fact 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 or wear and a host of other worldly matters and concerns that we are told by some religionists are very important and commanded by God – but are they? He only spoke about feelings and purity of heart as in doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, and his teaching was to deal with the world as it demands, but not to confuse its regulations, opinions and politics with the love of God - and indeed, to clearly distinguish the difference...
Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God, that which is God’s.
Gospel of St. Mark 12:17
Rather, all his words are about how to seek the kingdom of heaven by loving God...
Love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your mind.
This is the first and greatest commandment.
And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.
Gospel of St. Matthew 22:37
And in the same vein, 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.
The Baghdad Gita 18:65,66
There can be no controversy about following the genuine words of Christ or any other realised soul, and using them in one’s path of personal devotion, or in taking such exalted beings as one's spiritual guide and personal representation of the Divine in seeking the final answer to life’s problems. But when it comes to all the extra ideas and rituals that have been added in their name, it is our right to judge whatever people say with heart and reason - and to beware of red herrings!
A story goes that once a boy was watching as his father prepared everything for a religious ceremony to gain merit for his family. All was finally in place and ready 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 for his family and when everything was just about ready, he said, “Ah! And now we have to find a cat!”
And so it often goes...
A rose by any other name
… would smell as sweet.
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa - the great saint of of Dakshineshwar near Calcutta in India at the end of the 19th century (Paramahamsa 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 the division between ‘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, the policy of divide and rule. Doesn’t everybody’s God create the world and everything in it? Just as water is the same life-giving liquid everywhere on earth but called by different names, I think it only takes just a little contemplation of this statement to recognise its truth. In the same simple way, Sri Ramakrishna also said that if God is indeed all knowing, then like a mother who instinctively knows whenever her baby is calling her, whether with cries, gurgles, words or names in any language, and runs straightway to her darling child without a second thought - what difference can it make what those words are, and would not God, the Universal Mother, respond likewise?
In the wonderful ‘Parliament of the Birds’ by Farid ud-din Attar, a Sufi allegorical work describing the stages of understanding leading to the vision of God, there is a very touching story that once the angel Gabriel saw "The lips of Allah trembling with the word of perfect acceptation", saying "Yes" to a devotee’s prayer. Wondering who such a perfect devotee could be to touch the very heart of the Divine, he went searching high and low all over the world in all the mosques and places of prayer, but all in vain - until finally seeing "in God’s eyes", that the prayer was "rising like incense from the lips of one who to an idol bowed – as best he knew, under that false God, worshipping the true". (Translation by Edward Fitzgerald, 1889)
I would, however, take exception to the idea of a ‘false god’, and this story itself illustrates that when any image or idol, or even a name or word such as ‘God’, ‘Allah’, ‘Shiva’, ‘Buddha’, ‘Om’ and so on, is sincerely loved and worshipped and taken as a symbol of the nameless and formless Divine Reality - that when it comes to devotion to the Supreme - the heart is all that matters. When the true worshipper folds their hands or holds them out in prayer and supplication to the Divine, whether in a mosque, church, temple, synagogue or any shrine, is it not with exactly the same degree of sincerity, love, faith and dedication in their hearts?
In the book ‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel, it tells how, as a boy, Pi was drawn to following the stories and practices of the Hindu, Moslem and Christian faiths, finding no contradiction but delight in loving the different sentiments and approaches to the Divine – even to the extent of running to thank Krishna for having led him to discover Christ. Then, in a beautiful passage that was sadly not included in the movie, Pi is walking with his parents on the seaside promenade of Pondicherry in India, when by chance they meet up, not only with the local Hindu priest who told the parents in glowing terms what a good Hindu the boy was, but also the imam from the local mosque who told them he was a good Muslim, and then the Christian priest who declared him to be a faithful Christian - all happening to come together there in the same place at the same time. Thereupon the priests and imam all started arguing vehemently among themselves as to which religion was the best – to the bewilderment of Pi and his parents. Finally, Pi’s mother asked him what he had to say about all this and he replied, “(Mahatma) Bapu Gandhi said all religions are true. I just want to love God”. To which his father then said, “I suppose that’s what we’re all trying to do - love God”, and with that, albeit grudgingly, they all had to agree.
Those who seek to gain some commission for their deeds or remission of their sins by setting out with the purpose of converting others to their faith, however sincerely held, while denigrating or condemning that of others, must unfortunately have a far more debased and prescriptive image of God than this - and how many wars have been fought over how many centuries, and how many have died or been killed in the name of such?
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.
The Bhagavad Gita 7:19
Yet, Krishna himself changed his outward form to that of Rama, his previous incarnation, when Hanuman, the great and immortal devotee of Rama, came to see him, understanding that his love and devotion were focussed solely on this form of his earlier incarnation.
Arjuna, howsoever men approach me,
even so do I approach them;
for all men follow my path from all sides.
The Bhagavad Gita 4:11
For achieving the contemplation, concentration and absorption required to reveal the truth of God within, having a single image or personage, a chosen symbol in which to invest the energy of our being and concentrate our feelings and intellect - a place for the mind to settle and become still - is the usual way of devotion. In this 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, in fact, to dissolve all other imaginings.
If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.
Gospel of St. Matthew 6:22
By concentrating on one image and stilling the mind in an attitude of surrender we are opening our hearts to that eternal Reality which lies behind both the symbolism and even the manifestation of all we see.
But please, let us not deny that in the final analysis all forms are God - infinite manifestations of the one we choose to focus on. Above all, when others cry with equal sincerity to another form, name or concept, can we not see our own Deity represented in the all the different forms that are worshipped throughout the world, and above all, in the ultimate glory of the One Single Truth that encompasses all forms, yet which, in Itself, has no form at all?
Can we expand our image of God to be truly all that is, and honour all those images, whatever their forms, and the places where they are loved and revered, as countless generations have before us, 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.
So is it really possible to see God in all that is - including the good, the bad and the ugly?
There was a wandering ascetic or sadhu, as wandering ‘holy men’ who have renounced the world are known in India and Nepal, who came to a village and asked to spend the night in a deserted temple that local people said was haunted by an evil spirit. The people were horrified and told him no one who stayed there lived to tell the tale. Undaunted, as he was lying down to sleep in the temple, a terrifying demonic form appeared and threatened to devour him. However, the ascetic merely bowed his head and folding his hands in worship said, “I know exactly who you are - every form is in truth but an image of God. My Lord, I am so happy to see you!” Needless to say, he passed the night peacefully, free from any harm.
In such cultures where it is regarded as perfectly normal to place one's head at the feet of one's parents and by natural extension, at those of one's Deity, it is an opportunity to express a feeling of heartfelt devotion, love and gratitude. For those fortunate enough to have faith in an authentic teacher or guru or in the transcendent realisation of any living soul, such a moment of bowing at their feet with complete faith and pure-hearted surrender can evoke the sweetest experience of comfort, loving warmth and a blessing that is uniquely special in this world.
The bottom line in any path to understanding is to surrender one's pride, to be receptive, and indeed to under-stand or stand under - like an empty cup - in order to be able to learn or receive any knowledge including that of and from the Divine.
Attain this knowledge by all means.
if you prostrate yourself at the feet of the wise,
render them all forms of service,
and question them with a guileless heart,
again and again those wise seers of Truth
will unfold that knowledge to you.
The Bhagavad Gita 4:34
In other cultures, especially in the modern ‘western’ world, it is quite unusual for anyone to bow before another and humility is often taken to be a form of weakness or subservience. In most Eastern cultures however, greetings such as placing the palms together, either in front of the body, the face or up to the forehead and above - and bowing, from perhaps just a slight inclination to placing one’s head on the ground - as for example before one’s family elders, Deity or Buddha for example – are used to denote varying degrees respect and gratitude, and in everyday salutations symbolise recognition of the divine that exists in all. In contrast to such expressions of humility and reverence, it can often be the case that those who are most intent on presenting an image of strength, power or stubborn independence and pride do so to compensate for a feeling of weakness and insecurity within, but in behaving with such rigidity they deny themselves a source of great sweetness, trust and joy, especially when it comes to the surrender of our lesser selves in love, worship and devotion.
Certainly, a culture of blind obedience and subservience to anyone deemed in some way to be superior due to their wealth or social status, and maintaining the ridiculous idea that such people are perfect in every respect, can lead to an even greater sense of pride and privilege in those who feel so entitled, and from an outsider's point of view, lead to rather pathetic examples of ‘the emperor’s clothes’, as for example when no one will dare to point out the most obvious failings or problems in an organisation so as not to cause any loss of face to the boss or those in charge. In a similar vein, it is such arrogance that believes man to be superior to all, and that eventually even nature itself will succumb to his will – but a will for what? To claim that he is not himself simply a product and totally dependent part of nature too?
On an everyday level, things are as they are whether we like it or not. In the play of life, we ultimately have no control over anything, although that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make our universe a better place for us to be, regardless of whether we succeed or fail, by cultivating goodness and compassion in our heart.
In Christianity the attitude of surrendering one's personal will to that of the Divine is crystallized in the dictum of The Lord’s Prayer “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, or from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, as “Man proposes, God disposes”, and indeed, it is our disagreement with the way things are and our individual preferences as to how we think they should be - the frustration of our desires and our rejection of that to which we are averse - that quite obviously perpetuates our separation from the Divine.
The sun of ultimate reality, naturally occurring awareness,
is obscured by the clouds of both virtue and harm, positive and negative,
and obstructed by the lightning of obsessive efforts to accept or reject.
Longchen Rabjam, The Precious Treasury of the Way of Abiding
The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.
HSIN HSIN MING - Verses on the Faith Mind (or The Book of Nothing) by The 3rd Zen Patriarch, Sengstau
All spiritual paths, whether of devotion or knowledge, thus seek to reduce our dependence on the likes and dislikes of external identity and to encourage the surrender of our ego, our personal pride and interest, in favour of humility. As Jesus says:
Who, by taking thought, can add one cubit to his stature?
Gospel of St. Matthew 6:27
Surrender thus involves a recognition of our helplessness, that in the end we know nothing, and that the forces of nature and the unpredictability of anything in life beyond the present moment mean that in spite of all our efforts in thought and action to be in control of events, anything can still happen. Above all, regardless of whatever pride we may take in our ability and achievements, it is absolutely sure that everything will sooner or later be forgotten and reduced to complete insignificance in light of our inescapable mortality.
In the Tibetan region of the Himalayas, there is an ancient legend about the enlightened, god-like, King Gesar, the stories of whose miraculous exploits have been passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, sprinkled throughout with words of the highest wisdom and which, thanks to Douglas J. Penick, are now also available in English. In ‘Crossings on a Bridge of Light’, Gesar travels to hell, the lowest of the six bardos or realms of existence to rescue his deceased mother, and from there ascends with her, experiencing in turn the nature of each of the six realms of existence (hell, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demi-gods or Asuras and gods or Devas) until in each case becoming finally absorbed ‘in the golden light of the Wisdom Of Equanimity’ or the non-dual Reality of all existence, before again moving on to the next. Each form of existence is characterised by its own particular brand of suffering, and that which distinguishes the realm of humans, absorbed in the drama of their circumstances, is the rather presumptuous belief in their ability to change anything by means of intelligence, thought and action according to their every whim and desire, firmly convinced there is nothing, even immortality, that cannot eventually be achieved or attained thereby.
Creating systems of thought and action,
Following spiritual and secular paths,
Endowed with great intelligence and the power to change,
You seek to establish a reality that will never change.
Searching for the truth
In the mirror phantasmagoria of ‘self and other’
Here, you live in the relentless duality of the Human Realm.
This duality can never be resolved:
It is the display of that
Which is beyond duality and beyond mind.
Douglas J. Penick, Crossings on a Bridge of Light, The Songs and Deeds of Gesar, King of Ling
Thoughts and perceptions flow out from their origin, appear and disappear again - but cannot take you back to where they come from because that is where you already are and always have been - never, ever, actually leaving the mysterious timeless here and now!
In a small and rustic Nepali tea shop, I once bought a cup of tea for a nameless Sadhu (wandering holy-man) and laid three single rupee coins in a row on the table before him. In reply to my unspoken request, he said:
“Shanti meh, sab ata, sab jata”
“In peace... everything comes, everything goes”.
The aim of meditation or prayer is the absorption of all thinking in a state of complete surrender. This may be powered emotionally by devotion to any idea or image of the divine in a relationship of supreme love, or intellectually by a calm disassociation from thought and individual identity.
One common method of restraining thought and our ever-active minds is by means of the constant repetition of the name of God, a prayer or ‘mantra’. As a way of illustrating the efficacy of this technique, Sri Ramakrishna told the story of a man who begged an accomplished ‘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 by this repetition with no end in sight, the spirit finally begged the man to release him.
The koans of Zen have a similar effect by exhausting the mind’s ability to comprehend some statement such as the famous sound of one hand clapping, and lead ideally to its complete surrender.
The nature of the mind is to promise everything, yet it never leaves us in peace. Thus all religious and spiritual practices have in common this aim to somehow tame the power of the mind by controlling its focus to one degree or another – at least until the water and waves are seen to be one.
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
Love offers us the sweetest, all-encompassing feeling of emotional completeness and unity of spirit, unconditionally accepting and being accepted just as we are - yet it manifests in the form of so many different relationships.
There is a child’s love for its mother or father, and their love for the child; there is the love of brothers or sisters, close friends or even a pet; there’s the love shared by lovers and the love between lifelong partners, husbands and wives - and then there is also the love for a mistress or paramour in a secret affair. This last form, believe it or not, is said in Hindu scriptures to be an analogy of the highest spiritual love when directed towards God in the form of one’s chosen ideal. Why? Because the soul yearns for its lover so much that 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 thinking of the object of love.
Love in all these different forms, however, is love - and one form cannot really be said to be superior to any other. It is a human emotion, and as such we may feel most attracted to love a personalised form of God as our child, mother, father, brother, sister, friend or lover – or even in the form of an animal or nature herself. In this path of devotional love, known in Hinduism as Bhakti Yoga, the stories and images of Gods and Goddesses provide ample scope to direct and transform one’s most heartfelt and very human emotions into the quest for spiritual fulfilment. What can be purer than this? Indeed, the idea of ‘holiness’ can sometimes make God seem far beyond one's reach and almost unattainable, when surely God’s holiness is evident in all that is, and all that is, is God.
The acceptance of any form of God, as we have discussed, initially at least, is a matter of imagination, and a conscious choice to believe and have faith in that form or concept, or else a belief in the faith, knowledge and words of others as when, for example, as children we may have accepted the beliefs of our parents and knelt besides our beds in prayer. Apart from the various names used by different cultures and religions to denote the Supreme Spirit, among the common forms or images that are most worshipped or revered in the world today, there are those of historically enlightened beings who are regarded as messengers, prophets, the ‘son’ of God or Buddhas - including those who are regarded as divine incarnations - and then there are those Deities such as the pantheon, or ‘super-family’ of Hindu Gods and Goddesses whose origins lie far back before the beginning of historical records, but which yet continue to be loved and venerated with their stories and teaching nurtured by the communal belief of a whole society and inseparably embedded in its culture.
In this respect, Hinduism, including the Bodhisattvas, deities and Gods that have merged into Tibetan and Nepali Buddhism, is unique in having no traceable historical foundation other than the very beginning of creation itself. The wisdom of the Vedas and Upanishads, together with the stories and teachings of great sages and incarnations of the Gods themselves – continuously reaffirmed with minimal variation throughout history in the experience of a succession of enlightened souls in every age – are such that they cannot be claimed by any particular individual or religious leader as being their own unique revelation alone.
On the other hand, those religions that, like a pyramid, depend primarily on the authority of a single figure, have often in the years and centuries after their passing been subject to schisms as debate has raged as to the correct interpretation of their originator’s’ words or over who is the true inheritor of their wisdom. 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, and profit from, such enormous bases of power. Such power depends on division and separation, and thus the exclusivity of these faiths has often been promoted to justify violence and destruction that has sometimes been ongoing for centuries.
Hinduism may also have its faults, especially when connected to the politics of nationalism and the agendas of those who would divide society into ‘us against them’, however in its essence and teaching it is generally inclusive of all spiritual aspirations. Over the millennia, almost any religion has been able to find a sympathetic hearing and a home in the lands of India and Nepal and despite periods of fanaticism and instances of intolerance which have preyed upon the unfortunate tribal tendency of humans to identify with one grouping or sect, they have survived and flourished. Ideally, those who follow the stories and teachings of Shiva, Krishna, Rama or any of the Gods and Goddesses, learn from them to have an open-mindedness that is capable of absorbing any and every spiritual path or opinion within an understanding of this very basic human need for a connection to the divine.
Arjuna, even those devotees who, endowed with faith,
worship other Gods, they too worship Me alone…
Bhagavad Gita 9:23
At its best then, the religion known as Hinduism encompasses 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 from a simple stone or natural feature such as the River Ganges to the most ethereal abstract principle of having no form at all, being simultaneously both with form and without, or even neither one or the other and indescribable in words – but always, in the final analysis, as the name, manifestation or symbol of One Single Truth. Thus the incarnations, saints and sages of all religions are generally honoured and accepted in what may indeed be called a universal religion.
The personalities and stories of Hinduism are practically infinite. The very name is a comparatively recent one for what has always been known as Sanatana Dharma, or the ‘Eternal Truth’. As such it goes back before time, 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 single breath of God, and yet may also be contained in less than the space between two thoughts. Against this background, historical veracity is of little concern, and its relevance pales before such profound philosophy, sublime teaching, and the overwhelming moral authenticity of its stories.
In as much as loving devotion to God as a personal deity is not divorced from everyday human nature, taking the form of the familiar relationships of love being directed towards the divine child, father, mother, playmate or indeed lover, so also the array of Gods and Goddesses portray and embody these archetypal human forms. Indeed, Hindu philosophy ultimately renders every human activity divine as the “Lila” or play of God. Its cosmology of divine images and symbols provides pictorial delight, while the dancing and, in particular, the classical music of the Indian subcontinent, owing it must be said, as much to great Muslim as to Hindu masters, sings the spirit of our emotions through from heart-piercing pathos to transcendent bliss and the heavenly enjoyment of the Gods themselves. Yet, in its panoply of images and vivid portrayals of all the Gods and Goddesses, none can be found more vibrantly beautiful – and ultimately real - 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 that did not conceive of some form of divine being, and such miraculous power is part and parcel of the very concept of any God. In those places where the excitement and belief has faded in relation to traditional gods and their exploits, that admiration, love and awe of them have been transferred as it were to local heroes and heroines, myths and legends, and any being, real or imagined, that transcends the normal limitations of human existence. Thus, in the absence of divine beings, this seemingly innate propensity for adoration often finds its outlet in music, sports and movie stars, and the awesome super-powers of fictitious characters such as the ‘super-heroes’ of America, Japan, and other places in their archetypal roles of fighting injustice and evil.
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.
Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, 10:41,42
Many societies used to have a living belief in Gods and Goddesses, but few retain such active engagement today. In Europe, the Pagan belief in nature spirits and the Nordic, Greek and Roman gods, among others, once held sway, but hardly a soul worships them now. In India and Nepal however, the ancient Gods remain very much alive in the hearts and minds of the people, but why? I believe the answer to this lies in the fact that ultimately the worship and primary role and of the Hindu Gods has always been associated with the teaching of liberation from worldly bondage, transcendence of the human condition and freedom from the cycle of birth and death - coupled with a profound philosophy that has never feared to propose the ultimate negation and transcendence of all created, compounded and transitory things, including those very Gods and Goddesses themselves, in a state of supreme enlightenment.
Significantly however, it is the underlying acceptance that all originates in the human mind, which itself is nothing but an imagined state of ‘existing’, that allows the 'imagination' of Gods and Goddesses to expand and be fully and authentically included within the infinite boundaries of our so-called reality.
Tirtha Lal has said that although the path of devotion may take some effort to begin with, with determination and dedication there comes a time when, after some practice, one’s heart begins to feel attracted effortlessly towards contemplation of one’s Deity. What is more, a dedicated belief and faith in such a ‘super-reality’, as so many great spiritual beings have confirmed, can reveal a level of being and experience 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 in a vision of profound understanding and beauty that outshines all other human experience in its absolute purity and all-embracing love.
Over the many years I spent living with Sri Tirtha Lal and his family, there was plenty of time to read, absorb and hear so many of the stories and famous epics about the family of Hindu Gods and Goddesses and sages. I say family because, depending on whose story you are reading, each of the major divinities can be regarded as the original manifestation of the One, formless Supreme, and thereby the progenitor of all the others. As a result of this gradual absorption and immersion in a culture in which they play such a daily part, I developed a feeling of deep familiarity and love for them all, together with a profound respect for any genuinely spiritual image or person in whatever shape or form they may appear.
So, according to my humble lights and personal understanding, I would like, in the next few chapters, to provide a brief overview, especially for those for whom perhaps they are less familiar, of the best known forms in which the Supreme Being is loved and revered in India and Nepal - an archetypal family indeed, and a communal imagination if you like, in which the aspirations, joy and suffering of countless generations have been entwined and their faith sustained. In doing so I will relate a few favourite stories concerning each, that should demonstrate, to an unbiased mind, how the teaching and value of compassion and goodness is universal, and by no means the property of any single religion.