Another Book of Nothing Chapters 14 - 19:
Ganesha Hanuman One and the same Vishnu Shiva-Shakti I believe
The elephant-headed god
First and foremost by time honoured tradition, let me call upon the elephant-headed God, Lord 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, Parvati, using the sandalwood paste that adorned her body, created him to guard her private chambers when it seemed that neither her husband, Shiva, nor any of his attendants seemed to have any respect for her privacy. He defeated anyone who tried to enter until, unknowingly, his father, the great Lord Shiva himself, came there and finding him standing in his way and refusing to let him in, decapitated him with his mighty trident. Faced with the fury of his wife and his own remorse, Shiva then ordered the head of the first being to be found sleeping with its head facing north - which happened to be an elephant - to be brought and affixed to the body of the boy, whose life was promptly restored. Thereafter Shiva ordained that Ganesha should be worshipped first before all other Gods as the remover (and sometimes also the benevolent placer) of obstacles and the granter of success in any venture.
Ganesha is also known as the God of wisdom. One day, Shiva and his wife, Parvati, thought they’d keep him and his brother Kartikeya amused by suggesting a race around the three worlds - the manifest 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 and in his case it’s a variety of rat or mouse. Kartikeya, on the other hand, leapt onto his much swifter mount, a peacock, and was soon out of sight. Ganesha meanwhile stood still and thought, then slowly walked clockwise around his mother and father and standing before them, saluted 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.
The worship of Kartikeya, often referred to as a radiant youth and warrior God, is not so evident in Northern India although he is mentioned from ancient times in many scriptures, epics and stories, and is revered a major divinity in the South, and especially among Tamil people.
You may notice one of Ganesha's tusks is broken. This came about when the great sage Vyasa asked Him to help in writing the Mahabharata, the story of the incarnation of Krishna. They made a deal whereby Ganesha agreed to do the writing on the condition that Vyasa didn’t pause in his dictation, to which Vyasa also made the proviso that Ganesha had to fully understand his words before writing them down. Well, as the flow of words and his instantaneous understanding of them went on, suddenly Ganesha’s pen snapped, so he broke off a tusk to keep on writing with and thereby kept his word.
The image of Ganesha at the entrance to
Chatuchak Market, Bangkok
All over India and elsewhere there are countless stories of the different Gods and Goddesses that have been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, and different versions wherever they are told. One local story goes like this: it was the time of the Chaturthi festival to worship Ganesha in a small village and everyone was bringing offerings of flowers and sweets to his temple, but one poor old woman had nothing but a few small coins and those she was saving for her daily needs yet she gave them, with apologies, as an offering to the Deity, nonetheless. That night as she lay in her bed in the back room of her little cottage, 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 you like,” 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 a pile of money in each corner of her front room, and in her joy, she told the whole 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!
This story is similar to that of the poor widow who gave her few remaining coins to the temple in the New Testament of the Bible (Mark 12:41-44) and of course, Jesus said:
“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” (Matthew 19:24)
But despite such an unequivocal statement, in this materialistic day and age we just don’t seem to hear much about that...
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, offering flowers at his wayside shrines and placing their little heads at his feet. As may indeed we all.
A wayside shrine in Kathmandu
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 purest 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 an incarnation of Shiva, who wanted to witness the play of Lord Rama and thus enjoy devotion to this beloved incarnation. 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, thinking it was a fruit, and he’s often pictured literally baring his heart to show Rama and His wife, Sita, enshrined therein. This refers to the time when he was offered jewels and riches as a reward for his exploits in the fight against the great demon, Ravana. His reaction however, was to bite each one, 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 declared, tearing open his chest for everyone to see.
It seems that 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 and having super-human strength. He is known as the God of hard-working people who labour with the strength of their bodies, of endurance, fortitude, indomitable faith and undying love.
There is a story in the Ramcharitamanasa, which goes like this: A woman called Shabari from humble origins who, being widowed, wanted to devote her life to the quest of beholding the vision of Lord Rama went to a forest ashram to ask the ‘holy men’ there to teach her. Unfortunately those people were still subject to notions of separation and superiority, and she being ‘untouchable’ according to the caste system, 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 to make it 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 quickly to the lake to bathe and purify himself from this accidental ‘pollution’. Well, henceforth the water in that lake became brackish and poisonous, but none could understand the reason why. Finally, a kinder holy man agreed to teach her and did so until the time of his death, having told her that Rama would definitely come to her one day. Thus she spent her time waiting - sweeping the path to her hut, tasting each fruit she collected each day and keeping only the sweetest to offer her Lord - and forever looking down the path, anticipating and expecting any moment that Rama would arrive.
And so He did! Wandering with His brother, Lakshmana, after Ravana had kidnapped Sita, He came to the ashram causing much excitement among the people there. To their chagrin, however, He asked only 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 simply beholding His divinely beautiful form. However, when she offered the brothers the fruits she had collected that day, each piece with a bite taken out of it to test its sweetness, Lakshmana could not bring himself to eat it and secretly threw it away into the bushes. Rama, on the other hand, was delighted with the sweetness of the fruit, and even more so by the pure love which the gift was imbued.
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
The Bhagavad-Gita 9:26
And so 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’ there and then, extinguishing any separation from her beloved Lord. Thereafter Rama told the people to scatter her ashes in the lake, and yes, the water became pure again.
Hanuman then features in the sequel to this story. When Lakshmana was wounded by a poisoned arrow in the battle outside Lanka, Ravana’s capital on the island of modern-day Sri Lanka, he 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 in one gigantic leap. However, 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, and thus we see the enduring image of Hanuman flying through the sky with the mountain on his outstretched hand.
Faith can indeed move mountains!
Another favourite image comes to mind - of Hanuman towering high above the world, carrying Rama and Lakshmana, on his shoulders. May he thus carry our spirit high above all the complexities of life!
There are many more stories concerning Hanuman in the epic tales and it is said that he will remain as an immortal in the world for as long as the story of Rama is treasured and told, and that wherever that may be, he is sure to be there in some secret form of His choosing - and so to him, here in this place and at this time, my deepest and loving obeisance.
Brāhma, Vishnu and Shiva
One and the same
Whatever God, deity, saviour or prophet we may worship or pray to in this world, the common factor is surely the quality of surrender in our hearts.
The major trinity of Gods in Hinduism consists of Brāhma, Vishnu and Shiva. In the ancient scriptures, the Brāhma Purana states that the first manifestation of the One Formless Supreme was Brāhma and that he then created Vishnu and Shiva and all the other Gods. In the Vishnu Purana it is Vishnu who creates Brāhma and Shiva and so on, and in the Shiva Purana it is Shiva who is the original form. In the same way, the Devi-Bhagavata Purana attributes the origin of all others to the Mother goddess.
From this it is clear that all images of God can be seen as different manifestations and forms of the one in which the devotee chooses to worship the Supreme.
Four-faced Brāhma is said to be the creator of the universe, Vishnu the preserver or sustainer, and Shiva the destroyer and regenerator of life. These roles, you may observe, correspond to the primary modes of nature or matter whereby every thing that comes into existence, lasts for a period of time and then ceases to be.
Not many temples in India are found to be dedicated to Brāhma, perhaps because His work of creation is a fait accompli and already done. The reason given in the ancient scriptures, however, is that He and Vishnu were arguing over who was superior when a column or pillar of brilliant light appeared in front of them of which neither the top nor the bottom could be seen. Perplexed by this, they decided that whoever could find the top or bottom would be recognised as the superior God, so Vishnu, taking the form of a boar, plunged downwards while Brāhma, taking the form of a swan flew upward. In fact neither, could find any limit, but Brāhma found a flower floating downwards and although it also had no idea where the top might be, they made a deal whereby the flower agreed to say it had witnessed Brāhma reaching there. So when they both returned to where they had started, Brāhma claimed to be the winner and was supported by the flower, whereas Vishnu admitted his failure, but then Shiva appeared from the shaft of light and clipped off one of Brāhma's original five heads in punishment, reprimanded Him for the falsehood and demoted Him from being worshipped as being equal to Himself, whereas He declared that Vishnu, for being honest and declaring his inability to reach any final depth of the pillar of light, would henceforth be regarded and worshipped with the same reverence as Himself, as the One Supreme Deity. That particular species of flower was thereafter declared inauspicious for worship while the pillar of light became the origin of the Shivalinga, the stone pillar or phallic image, seen and worshipped everywhere as the veritable form of Lord Shiva Himself.
The image of Brāhma is however very popular in Thailand, where the famous Erawan shrine in central Bangkok is a golden statue of the 4-faced Brāhma, known locally as Phra Phom, and there are similar shrines dedicated to Him, and also Ganesha, to be found in many places such as outside many hotels and shopping malls throughout the country.
Brāhma’s consort or wife, Saraswati, is widely worshipped as the Mother Goddess of learning, music and the arts. She is revered by students, especially before exams, and musicians, who will often attach a small figurine of a swan, Saraswati's symbol, to their sitar or other instruments, however in South India, she is more usually depicted with a peacock. She is seen to be manifest in the form of books and musical instruments, for example, and these are therefore usually treated with care and the appropriate respect.
Vishnu and Shiva and their respective consorts are the principle Gods who are worshipped throughout the length and breadth of India and Nepal, having many different appellations in different places according to the incarnation, form, manifestation or aspect of divinity they are worshipped as in each place.
Vishnu, who carries a discus, lotus flower, mace and conch shell in his four hands, is said to have ten incarnations including Rama, Krishna and the Buddha, and of which the last, Kalki, is yet to come.
Arjuna, whenever there is a decline in righteousness,
and unrighteousness is in the ascendant, then I body myself forth.
For the protection of the virtuous, for the destruction of evil-doers,
and for establishing Dharma (righteousness) on a firm footing,
I am born from age to age.
The Bhagavad-Gita 4:7,8
One amusing story goes that in his third incarnation as a boar, having rescued the world from where it had been hidden in the depths of the primordial ocean by the demon Hiranyaksha, Vishnu settled down quite happily with a sow and their piglets, wallowing in the mud, and quite forgetting His role as a God. Alarmed at this turn of events, all the other Gods ran to Shiva, who at their behest came and pierced Him with his trident, whereupon He returned laughing to heaven.
In another story, Vishnu was relaxing with His wife, Laxmi, in their heavenly abode, when all of a sudden He jumped up and rushed out of the door in mad hurry without so much as putting on the appropriate clothing. After only a short while however, He came back and slowly settled down again. So then Laxmi asked what all that had been about. ‘Well”, He said, “My devotee was in trouble, being attacked by bandits, and was crying for My help, but as I was rushing to his aid I saw that he was fighting them off by his own efforts, so I wasn’t needed after all”.
Laxmi, Vishnu’s consort is known as the Mother Goddess of wealth and good fortune, and presides over the cash-boxes of merchants and is greeted with lights adorning every home for her visit to earth at the time of Diwali, when gambling is also allowed. Yes, even money is a form of God, but not vice versa! Finally, Vishnu and Laxmi ride on Garuda, king of the birds and enemy of serpents, who remains a significant icon throughout South-East Asia, and the official seal of the Royal Thai government, bearing testimony to the former spread of Hinduism.
Lord Vishnu and Laxmi, riding on Garuda
Primarily, Vishnu is worshipped in either of the forms of his two famous human incarnations, the first as Rama with a bow, and the second as Krishna with a flute.
The stories of both have given rise to the religion of love, or Bhakti Yoga, whereby devotees aspire to an intensely personal relationship with their chosen form. Both represent the perfection of being human – epitomising kingship and nobility, being loving, righteous and wise in all things, and teaching that the Supreme is attainable through thoughts, words and actions dedicated to one's chosen personal form of God with a heart full of love.
They are both featured and worshipped in the forms of a child, youth and adult.
I cannot attempt to tell all their stories here, which are the subject of the great epics of India. People in India and elsewhere never tire of hearing the story and teachings of Rama which are contained in the ‘Ramayana’ of the great sage Valmiki, written in Sanskrit, or the ‘Ramacharitamanasa’ of Tulsidas rendered in Hindi. Adjunct to these is the highly esoteric and advaitic teaching of ‘Yoga Vasishtha’, in which the sage Vasishtha, guru of Rama’s family, addresses the despondency and world-weariness that afflicts Rama as young man.
The stories of Krishna, told in the Mahabharata by the sage Vyasa, primarily extoll Bhakti Yoga, or the path of loving devotion. He is worshipped as a child, whose mother saw a vision of the whole universe in his mouth when she checked to see if he had been stealing and eating the butter she made. As a youth, growing up in a village of dairy farmers, he is loved as a playmate by his fellow cowherds, and playing his flute he entices the milkmaids, who adore him, to dance under a bright full moon. In particular, it is the love of Radha for her divine sweetheart that firmly establishes romantic love as a path of devotion and a means of ascending to the heights of spiritual bliss and enlightenment.
The comprehensive teachings of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, often alluded to as the bible of Hinduism, once again emphasise the oneness of all Gods in Arjuna’s vision of His universal form in Chapter 11, and extol the path of selfless service and one-pointed, loving devotion to the Supreme.
Lord Krishna shows Arjuna His Universal Form
You are the prime deity, the most ancient person;
You are the ultimate resort of this universe.
You are both the knower and the knowable, and the highest abode.
It is You who pervade the universe, assuming endless forms.
The Bhagavad-Gita 11:38
Lord Shiva Mahadeva
Shiva and Shakti
Lord Shiva personifies the archetypal father, at once austere, yet having a heart so tender that it takes hardly anything to please Him. Indeed he is the father of Ganesha and Kartikeya, and yet he appears physically as the very antithesis of Vishnu, wearing no crown or regal ornamentation but the matted hair of an ascetic and his half-naked body is smeared with ashes. Thus he symbolises the renunciation of all worldly things as being transitory and a distraction in the quest for true Selfhood. He is most often seen in meditation posture with the crescent moon above his head and the River Ganges flowing from His hair. Around his neck is a cobra, its hood raised; he wears a bear, tiger or leopard skin and holds in one hand a mighty trident, and in another a dumaru, a small 2-sided drum. Instead of gold or precious jewels, he wears bracelets, armlets and necklaces of beads made from the seeds of the Rudraksha tree that is said to have grown from the tears of compassion he shed when emerging from deep meditation on seeing the sorrows of humanity. Beside him is Nandi, the great white Brāhma bull on which he rides, and behind him stand the lofty Himalayas. He also carries the small water pot of a Sadhu – as one who has renounced the world and wanders alone, with no material possessions. He is known as Mahadeva, the Great God, and indeed, the head once laid at his feet can hardly be expected to ever want to rise again.
Shiva is said to reside on Mount Kailas in the far reaches of the Himalayas - the same mountain that is known in Buddhism as Mount Meru, the centre of the universe.
In the myths and legends, his followers are said to include all the odd, even ghoulish creatures that are regarded as freaks and normally rejected by human society.
Though never assuming a human incarnation as such, he is known to be visible in the form of the great sages and teachers of mankind and not least of all in those apparently crazy, dishevelled vagabonds who seem to have completely lost touch with this world, who are regarded as mad and whose physical existence receives no credit whatsoever, yet who, abiding in the spirit of Reality itself, constitute the very highest blessing to the world.
Paradoxically, in contrast to such an image of austere renunciation, Shiva is also the ‘family man’ of the Hindu pantheon, and is often pictured with his wife Parvati and their two sons, Ganesha and Kartikeya.
Shiva, Parvati, Ganesh and Kartikeya
For His worshippers and those of his consort or wife, Shiva symbolises the Supreme Divinity as pure formless spirit, and she his energy, or Shakti, who personifies the same Supreme in the form of the created universe of matter and energy and its endless play. Symbolising that ultimately these two aspects are understood to be one, they are sometimes depicted as the two halves of the one body, one male and the other female - as in the famous Ardhanarishvara image in the Elephanta caves near Mumbai.
As ‘Purusha’, the undiluted universal spirit of consciousness or awareness, Shiva is also worshipped in the form of a ‘Linga’ or stone phallus as the symbol of that primeval principle or spirit from which is born the genesis of creative energy, matter, space and time.
near Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu
Shakti, as the Mother Goddess and wife of Shiva, has many different forms. The first is known as Sati, a daughter of the first earthly king, Daksha, whose sisters also married many of the other Gods. Her father was proud of his status and became upset that Shiva would not bow to him (for his own good) and consequently bore a grudge against him. Some time later, when holding a great ceremony, he invited all his daughters and their husbands, but not Shiva and Sati. However, Sati saw her sisters, dressed in their best finery, flying past in their aerial chariots on their way there, and really wanted to go too. So she went to her husband, pleading for them to go too, but Shiva advised her that it would not be a good idea to go uninvited, let alone to a place where the host held a grudge against them. However she was so determined to go that Shiva reluctantly had to let her go, while still refusing to go himself. However, when Sati arrived at the ceremony she found all the other Gods and her sisters seated in their appointed places but no place set aside for herself or Shiva. Embarrassed and shamed in front of them all, and mortified for not listening to the wisdom of her husband, She publicly berated her father for not understanding the true greatness of Shiva, and promptly departed her body, there and then, through the fire of her yogic power.
When this news reached Shiva he was understandably very upset and angry, and pulling out a lock of hair threw it to the ground, whereupon his Shakti appeared in the form of Kali. Kali is dark blue with long black dishevelled hair. The crescent moon adorns her head and she carries the trident too. She wields a machete-like sword and holds a decapitated head and a bowl to catch the blood. She wears a garland of severed heads and a skirt of human arms.
Shiva told Kali to go to the ceremony and wreak havoc, and that she did. Trying to protect them all, Vishnu threw his mighty discus, which nothing in the world can withstand, but she opened her mouth and swallowed it - whereupon he decided that this was no longer any business of his!
After exchanging Daksha’s head with that of a decapitated goat, she went on a rampage of destruction that threatened the very existence of the world, prompting all the other Gods to run to Shiva in alarm to beg for his help as the only one capable of controlling her. In response he went and lay down in Kali’s path where she stepped on him, putting out her bright red tongue in surprise and shame. It is in this pose that Mother Kali is most often seen depicted - the spark of contact between her foot and Shiva’s prostrate form symbolising that the energy and mayhem of the world yet requires the touch of spirit for it to appear as real at all.
As Ambika, Mother of the Universe, Sati, Uma, Parvati, Kali and Durga, the demon-slayer, all-embracing gentleness and terror, chaos and peace, the contradictions of life are reconciled in the great divine Mother Goddess. For Shiva and Shakti are one – life and death, spirit and matter, creator and created, unity and diversity – as the two sides of a coin that has no sides at all.
Shiva is also known as Nataraj, the lord of rhythm and dance. If you whirl a flaming stick around it appears as a continuous circle of fire. Given speed and vibration, the whole universe of matter appears. Surrounded by such a ring of fire, Shiva dances to the rhythm of his dumaru, alternately creating and destroying the universe.
Lord Shiva Nataraj
Finally, Shiva is most often shown in a pose of deep meditation with half-closed eyes, absorbed in his Supreme Selfhood. It would be fair to imagine, that in that state of pristine awareness there would be no trace whatsoever of any transitory, compounded object, nor any thought or feeling to be be found, let alone any sense of self. In other words, the complete, unborn and utter emptiness that our objective minds - which only have existence in terms of having something to ‘see’ - cannot possibly comprehend, yet which see solely by means of that same, all-inclusive, invisible awareness-consciousness which, in and as itself, is totally, completely and timelessly devoid of anything at all – and that is Shiva.
Lord Shiva in meditation
Such are the main Hindu Divinities which, surrounded by a cast of sages and legends of human experience, are the common heritage of millions and indeed, the world. The sheer size and breadth of this communally shared vision is quite astounding, inclusive as it is of any and every form of devotion and wisdom that can be held within the human heart.
Most shrines and temples feature these primary deities who, having many different names and titles themselves, are again known by many local names and forms, not to mention the different epithets favoured by each devotee, hence the often quoted ‘300 million’ Gods and Goddesses of India. It is merely an extension to include Gautama Buddha or Jesus Christ and the various Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism, Kuan Yin, the female Bodhisattva and Goddess of Compassion of Chinese origin, and indeed, all the names and forms of God and the numerous saints, sages and prophets of all religions that are worshipped throughout the world.
Of somewhat less importance, but very much a part of Hindu mythology, are the ‘demi-gods’ who reside in a heaven of pleasure that is attainable for the duration of merit acquired on earth, and who embody the powers of nature - the sun, the wind, fire and water, the passion of love, time, death and so on. Their king is Indra and they exist in an eternal rivalry or counter balance with the Asuras or power-seeking demons from the underworld. Despite their dominant characteristics however, neither have a monopoly over either virtue or vice, and wisdom or inordinate desire may manifest in either - and indeed, both realms have a spiritual mentor, preceptor or ‘guru’. Nor do they represent a permanent state, and on the exhaustion of their merit or demerit, all must return again to human form in order to continue their spiritual journey beyond such dualistic concepts. The corresponding beings are also to be found within the six types or classes of beings in Buddhist cosmology, namely Gods and Demi-gods (Asuras), which also include humans, animals, hungry ghosts (souls who are tormented by a constant but insatiable hunger that they are physically unable to satisfy) and the residents of hell, which has its own various levels of repetitive suffering. In the same way that heaven in Hinduism is enjoyed after death for a length of time determined by previous meritorious deeds, hell may likewise be endured for the time it takes for the demerit earned by wrongful or sinful deeds to be exhausted. When a being's outstanding karmic excesses have thus been dealt with, the soul must be reborn in the earthly realm, which is the only place where progress and real learning can be made on its journey towards final liberation and the end of the cycle of birth, death and suffering.
There are times when no amount of reasoning will assuage the pain we feel. There are times when we can see no further than the tether that binds us to the limited circle of our circumstances. There are times when we seem helplessly bound to repeat the same habitual actions and reactions that only lead to the same pain, again and again. There are times when we yearn to lay down the burden of responsibility for our fate - to give up and surrender. There are times when we need to believe that our life is not for nothing.
At such times, our belief in a personal form of the Supreme Godhead may help us to find trust and faith in a divine benefactor, and be our refuge, while at other times we may be inspired with a sense of purpose in seeking the ultimate unity - to find the single source of diversity that is akin to the pure awareness in our hearts, of comfort, security and peace.
Four types of virtuous men worship Me, Arjuna,
the seeker of worldly objects, the sufferer,
the seeker for knowledge, and the man of wisdom,
The Bhagavad Gita 7:16
To many people all over the world, their main concern with worship or religion is motivated by the belief that divine intervention will give them what they want or relieve them from what they don’t in this worldly realm. Some may go to church or temple as a kind of insurance policy for their wellbeing not only for this life but also after death. When exams loom in Kathmandu, students swarm to the temple of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, and shopkeepers offer the first proceeds of the day to Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth. Deities are promised special gifts of food, money, service or austerities as you might seek to bribe a child with an ice cream - which is only human, after all. In most of Asia, it often seems that the real God being worshipped is luck, and why not? It acknowledges the power of belief, albeit that all worldly benefits are, by their very nature, transitory.
Again, we pray for relief of suffering for ourselves and loved ones when life is hard to bear, and the more sincerely we surrender, the more likely we are to find some peace in our torment.
The search for knowledge and the need to 'know' seems to be one of the nobler aspirations of mankind, trying to find the answers to so many questions and to satisfy the curiosity of our intellect and belief in purpose and progress. On the individual level we remain a human being manifested in this temporary body for a reason that is not so easy to find, and our search takes us on down myriad avenues of different concepts and perceptions, trying to fathom the how and why of the enigma that is life, the universe and everything.
Finally however, in seeking wisdom we may be blessed and our ever-questioning mind find rest, if only for a moment, in being humbled by a vision of the unity and greatness of our total Self.
Of these the best is the man of wisdom,
constantly established in identity with Me and possessed of exclusive devotion.
For extremely dear am I to the wise man who knows Me in reality,
and he is extremely dear to Me.
All these are noble, but the man of wisdom is verily My own self; this is my view.
For this devotee, who has his mind and intellect merged in Me
is firmly established in Me, the highest goal
The Bhagavad-Gita 7:17,18
Thus, the great sage and teacher, Dattatreya, begins the Avadhuta Gita with these words...
Through the grace of God alone, the desire for non-duality
arises in wise men to save them from great fear.
How shall I salute the formless being, indivisible, auspicious, and immutable,
who fills all this with his self and also fills the self with his self?
The universe composed of the five elements is like water in a mirage.
Oh, to whom shall I make obeisance – I who am one and taintless?
All is verily the absolute self. Distinction and non-distinction do not exist.
How can I say, “It exists; it does not exist?” I am filled with wonder!
The essence and the whole of Vedanta is this knowledge,
this supreme knowledge: that I am by nature the formless, all-pervasive self.
The Avadhuta Gita
The divine sage, Dattatreya himself, as shown in this image, is depicted as the combination of Brāhma, Vishnu and Shiva, yet in the guise of an ascetic. The cow symbolises mother earth, and the four dogs, the Vedas or ancient scriptures that take refuge in him during the dark age of materialism. Dattatreya also features as an incarnation of Vishnu as the Divine Teacher in the Tripura Rahasaya, which is an ancient and highly advatic work featuring the Mother Goddess as the manifestation of the Supreme Reality.
As a wandering mendicant he declared, "I am happy because of what I am, not because of what I have", and to him is attributed the authorship of the Avadhuta Gita, a sublime declaration of the total independence of Self-realization.