The Rasa Lila: Spiritual Lovers

1280px-Sage_Sukdeva_narrating_the_story_of_Krishna_to_Raja_Parikshata,_National_Museum,_New_Delhi
Shukadev narrating the life story of Krishna.

This is adapted from a talk I gave the National Gallery of Victoria.

We meditate upon that transcendent reality from
Whom the universe springs, in whom it abides
And into whom it returns,
Because He is present in all existing things…
We meditate upon Him who is self-conscious and self-effulgent…
On account of whom the creation shines as a reality and
Who excludes illusion by his own Self-effulgent glory. (Bhagavatam page xiv)

Thus begins the Bhagavatam, the Book of God, one of Hinduism’s most holy texts, the story of the birth, life and death of Lord Krishna. Sages have gathered in a holy city to perform a yagna, a fire ritual and to hear spiritual discourse. They invite Sūta, who they call ‘the master of all the scriptures’ to give a summary on ‘how man will instantly be delivered from this ever-whirling cycle of birth and death.’

Sūta replies saying:

‘Man should constantly endeavor to do that which generates devotion to Lord Krishna—devotion which is motiveless, which knows no obstruction, and as a result of which one realizes the all-blissful God.’(2nd January page I.2)

Many Hindu texts take the form of conversations between a Guru and a disciple. The disciple is in a state of apathy, weighed down by sorrow, and the Guru works diligently to teach the disciple by anecdote, story and example in order to free him or her from suffering.

In the customary style of teaching Sūta narrates a conversation between King Parikshit, who is destined to die in seven days, and Shukadev, a great sage, who has agreed to impart his wisdom to the dying king.

Their conversation goes on uninterrupted for seven days prior to the king’s death, during which the king does not eat, drink or sleep. Shuka tells the king that the true goal in life is to give up sensual enjoyment and embrace the supreme absolute truth, embodied in the teachings and life of Shri Krishna.

Hindu theology differs from Western in that it says the sages, saints, great beings and Gurus, the ‘son of God’ take birth now, and always. There is never a time when a great being does not exist.

The Bhagavatam says there are three types of people incarnating at all times: human beings, wicked people and those inclined toward divinity, or gods, who are known as Avatars, Gurus, sages and seers.

The difference between Gurus, sages and Avatars is that an Avatar is born self-realized, with full knowledge and experience of their divinity and oneness with the Lord. They are souls who ‘descend into the lower realm,’ into the world, for a special purpose. Avatars incarnate when the suffering of mankind is overpowering joy; evil is rising over good; or by the intense yearning of devotees for their beloved Lord to manifest in human form.

Gurus, seers and sages are born with an inclination to know the Self. They are conscious of their separation from the Lord and but must do sadhana, spiritual practice and austerity in order to realize the Self and connect with the Divine.

An Avatar’s life, is a ‘lila’, a play or sport of the Lord and is never ordinary, it is epic. As their lives unfold there are dramatic incidences of violence, unconditional love, confusion, self-realization, knowledge, apathy, sorrow, anger, despair, greed, fear, jealousy, desire, lust and finally, moksha¸ freedom from suffering for there devotees.

‘Whenever there is decline of righteousness here and an increase of sin, then the lord manifests himself.’ (3rd August page IX.24)

Krishna’s life is typical of an Avatar’s, which is full of tests and miracles. As he overcomes the obstacles he teaches those witnessing them and those who are eager to hear the truth. The outcome of each challenge shows how right understanding leads to right action and right action leads to freedom.

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Shakti, the Universal Mother

The energy of an Avatar represent different aspects of God’s power: Brahma, the creative energy, Shiva, the energy of dissolution and change and Vishnu, the sustaining energy or “that which abides”. Each has a feminine counterpart or Goddess as a consort. She is known as Shakti, the Holy Mother, Maya, or the great Goddess. She is also called Kali, Durga, Devi, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Radha and Parvati; her names are many and represent the female aspect of God. Her responsibility is to manifest the material world, the mission and work of the Lord, the avatar and the Guru. She gives outer form to the Lord’s highest attainment and spiritual goals. She embodies power and energy, compassion and wisdom.

The masculine energy is still, quiet, peaceful, tranquil and calm; the feminine energy is dynamic, powerful, creative. He is a canvas; She is the artist who gives shape, colour and texture. He is a screen; She is the image on the screen. He is a lake; She is the rippling wave on the lake. He is the invisible; She is the visible.

The scriptures say that the masculine and feminine energies unite in cosmic ecstasy to create the whole universe. Although they appear separate they are one and never apart. Shakti is the inner potency of the Lord manifested as the world and is His spiritual inspiration.

The Lord and Shakti incarnate in order to experience themselves as ‘other’ and to play out the dance of separation and oneness. They mirror the positive and negative, the dark and the light, the possibility of liberation and the temptation of destruction. In this cosmic joining the masculine and feminine reflect and manifest the highest spiritual potential, the personal and divine Self of a human being.

babykrishna
Baby Krishna

Krishna was accompanied by two main Shaktis, Radha, head Gopi, and her friends the cowgirls, who he bewitched and beguiled in his youth and Rukmini, the wife of his elder years.

The exact date of Krishna’s birth was not recorded, however most scholars agree that it coincided with the advent of the Kali Yuga, the age of darkness which began at least 3000 years before the birth of Christ. Some scholars think that Krishna was a folk hero whose valor became legend over generations, and he took on God-like attributes. Some say that he may not have been one person and that his story is a series of fables of different men from different eras morphed into one man. Regardless of whether he was one person or many, today Krishna is worshipped by millions of Hindus as an incarnation of the God Vishnu and is regarded as the “Lord of Love”.

Love inspires everyone. Artists, writers, poets, and actors search for inspiration to give voice to their craft out of love. Others seek love in order to give a focus to life and anchor it. Love settles us and gives us a purpose for living.

Love is the sustaining power of our lives. We create works of art, build a career and a family and sustain life by love, by giving it our attention, energy and good heart. Our lives are reflections of loving thoughts and feelings. When we withdraw love, we stop sustaining what we have created and our life begins to fall apart. When we again turn to our life with love, it flourishes.

Love is the reason and purpose of Krishna’s birth. His mission is to reflect God’s love and to show his devotees how to attain it and hold onto it.

Avatars never take birth alone, not only do they have a Shakti; they are accompanied by a host of companions. Each has a spiritual attitude, a bhav toward the Lord. Some are friends, lovers, wife or husband, colleagues, servants, advisors, gurus, demigods, saints and enemies. They are a mandala, a circle of wholeness and completion, each with a particular role to play in the Avatar’s drama. And so Krishna is accompanied by a retinue of associates who help him fulfill his destiny.

The Radha bhav, the attitude of the Gopis toward Krishna, is said to be the highest spiritual feeling that a person can hold toward God. The Gopis consider Krishna to be husband and lover for Krishna embodies everything that is holy and sacred. They are pulled toward him in order to reach ‘Supreme Love’.

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Radha and Krishna

Their love has some of the qualities of personal romantic love, the love we look for when we search for a partner. However, it is much more than the personal love most of us know. Personal love can be contaminated by desire for pleasure and possessiveness. Inevitably, when romance and Eros fade it falls under the influence of fear, desire, anger and attachment.

Radha bhav is complex, mysterious, and contains the bittersweet experience called ‘the bliss of the pain of separation’. The relationship is more piquant from the dance of union and separation, the longing to merge with the Lord or Guru, the pain of separation from Him and finally permanent union with Him.

The Gopis feel an intense attraction, a yearning to be close to their object of love, Krishna. This is partially due to Krishna’s mission, which is to draw them close to him so that they can realise unconditional love and become an inspiration for others. However their love must be free of selfishness or any negative emotion that separates them from Krishna. Their spiritual task is to hold to devotion, the highest understanding and love for Krishna without attachment, without wanting anything in return.

Krishna energy is charming, fickle and playful. Krishna types are usually the naughty boys that girls adore and mothers fear. Mothers have a sixth sense about the Krishna energy and encourage their daughters to avoid it. Of course, they don’t and heartbreak is usually inevitable. In the contemporary novel ‘The Hindi Bindi Club’ one mother’s advice to her daughter is, ‘play around with Krishna but marry Shiva.’ Shiva is loyal, faithful and steady.

The Krishna of the Bhagavatam is much more than a charming young man; he is the Lord of the universe and has a serious purpose. His mission is to return righteousness, divine love and prosperity to the people of the land of Vraja.

As our story begins, at the onset of the age of darkness, violence, greed, dishonesty and jealousy are on the rise. There is great fear and confusion in the land where Krishna is about to take birth. Kamsa, a wicked king whose addiction to pleasure has destroyed his wisdom and compassion, rules the kingdom of Vraja.

Kamsa arranges the marriage of his sister, Devaki, to a local king, Vasudev. On their wedding day Kamsa hears a voice in his mind that tells him that Devaki’s eighth child will slay him. He decides to kill Devaki and her future husband. Upon hearing their fate, Vasudev convinces Kamsa to imprison them both instead of murdering Devaki. Kamsa agrees with a promise that he will slay every child born to them and so he does.

Years pass and evil has risen. It is time for the Lord to incarnate. He speaks to his Shakti and asks Her to incarnate with him saying that:

‘You will earn a place of glory in the heart of humanity. People will erect temples for you and worship you in your various aspects….’(5th August, page X.2)

The night of the birth of the eighth child Krishna, the gates of the prison mysteriously open. Vasudev recognizes the hand of the Lord in this magic. He carries Krishna to Vrindavan, where he exchanges him for the girl child, the newborn daughter of Yashoda, wife of King Nanda, ruler of Vraja who will foster Krishna into manhood.

When Kamsa hears of the birth, he comes to kill the newborn baby girl. She manifests as the Supreme Goddess, the holy mother Mahamaya, and scares him off. Laughing at his folly she says:

‘What is the use of trying to kill me, O fool! Your death has taken birth somewhere else. Therefore, do not harm the innocent.’ (8th August, page X.4)

Since then the divine mother has been worshipped everywhere under many different names. Unable to slay her, Kamsa vows to destroy all babies under the age of ten months.

As the story of Krishna’s birth and Kamsa’s failure becomes known, the people of the valley herald the birth of an incarnation of Vishnu, sent to release them from Kamsa’s tyranny.

As Kamsa’s wickedness grows so too does the divine power of Lord Krishna. From the moment of his birth it is obvious he is not an ordinary person. Miracles happen around him. As a young child he is shepherd to the village cows; he defends them against wild animals and thieves, thereby safeguarding the villagers’ income, food and wellbeing. Krishna’s sweet nature attracts the villagers to him and they share in the ecstasy of his spiritual joy. He plays various roles. He is the magical child who teases the village mothers, steals their butter and hides things from them.

When Kamsa sends a host of demons to slay Krishna and others, he easily wins every battle, even as a young boy. His reputation grows and the whole valley celebrates him as an incarnation of the Lord. He is constantly demonstrating his mystical power that confirms their belief that he is none other than the supreme Lord Vishnu.

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Krishna and Balaram

Krishna’s older brother, Balaram, who avoided death at the hands of Kamsa by mystical means, always accompanies Krishna. Krishna and his brother enchant the villagers, for a radiant light seems to follow them wherever they go.

Sūta says:

‘Here comes Krishna, the protector of Vraja and the cows, with elders bowing to him. He appears fatigued, but even so he is beautiful and delightful to look at, with his garland covered with the dust of the hooves of the cows—his dear ones. As he strolls in, like a little elephant, he removes the distress in our hearts caused by our separation from him during the day.’ (10th September page X.35) 

Later in his life he is a great King and wise Guru but for now he is the sustainer of lives and playmate of the Gopis. As Krishna grows up he becomes the enchanter, the playful seducer of tender hearts. He is flirtatious and teases the cowgirls without mercy. He calls them to him and then runs away, thereby increasing their yearning to be in his company. His romantic play of oneness and separation intensifies as he leaves his childhood behind and enters manhood.

‘It was summer. But in Vrndavan, it was forever springtime. The blazing sun shone pleasantly over the valley, bringing warmth but not heat. The air was constantly cooled by the numerous ponds and was laden with the fragrance and the pollen of flowers. The earth was thickly carpeted with many-hued flowers for the Lord to sport on; and the birds and beasts entertained him with their sweet notes. He loved them. He was love.’ (23rd August, X.18/19)

Then autumn followed:

‘As the moon is surrounded by stars, so Krishna, surrounded by his friends, brought delight to the hearts of all. The temperate climate brought relief to the hearts of all except the women of Vrndavan whose hearts had been stolen by Krishna.’

And so the scene is set for Krishna to show the Gopis their spiritual destiny. They had already lost their hearts to him. During the months of December and January they rose early every day and bathed in the river. Afterward they worshipped the goddess Katyayani and prayed:

‘Oh Goddess Katyayani, please make Krishna my husband’. (26th August, X.22)

Upon hearing their prayer Krishna replies:

‘I know your hearts’ desire, O chaste girls, and it shall be fulfilled. Desire directed towards me is no desire at all, even as seed roasted in fire is no seed. You will soon realize the fruit of your worship of the Goddess.’ (26th August, page X.22)

In other words the yearning directed toward the Lord is free of negative consequence. Because their prayer is full of devotion for the Lord, it is only a matter of time before Krishna grants their wishes.

The Gopis are either married or betrothed. Certainly no husband, betrothed or parent would allow his or her daughters to sport unattended with a man, even if he is the Lord. So then, what of their attitude?

The Gopis fear their husbands and parents might disown them for visiting Krishna un-chaperoned and tell Krishna of their doubt. Krishna assures them that there is nothing to fear, and there is not.

Their husbands, parents and betrothed are sporting with Krishna also, in order to know the love of the Self. Aware of his great spiritual power and radiance they curse themselves. They are guilty and embarrassed in front of the knowing eye of Krishna. They admit that many of their religious rites and sacrifices have only worked to make them selfish and greedy. Praying to Krishna they plea:

‘Surely we are blessed to have had these ladies as our partners in life, for through them we too can develop devotion to the Lord’. (28th August, page X.23)

Already the Gopis are fulfilling their spiritual destiny by example of pure devotion that has moved their husbands to self-examination. Krishna counsels all of the villagers to be like a tree saying:

‘Blessed is the life of a tree. They afford food and shelter to all beings, and they never turn anyone away without sharing what they have. By their fruits, leaves, flowers, roots, bark and firewood they serve all. This indeed is the greatest duty—that one serves another and works out one’s salvation with the life, wealth, intelligence and speech that one has.’ (26th August, page X.22)

Krishna takes every opportunity to teach and encourage the villagers.

One autumn day there is a special sweetness in the air. The Gopis are constantly meditating on Krishna, yearning to become one with him, the villagers are pining to catch a glimpse of him, and the whole valley is alive and glowing from his radiance. The atmosphere is intoxicating.

Woh Kadamba Ka Ped
Kadamba Tree on the banks of the Yamuna River where Krishna danced with the Gopis.

The story goes on:

‘It was autumn and in the clear blue sky the lovely full moon rose. The setting was ideal, thought Krishna, for enacting a divine drama. Krishna was seated in the forest and, wishing to shower his grace upon the gopis, he played a few notes on his flute. The music fanned the flame of love that constantly burned in their hearts of these women.

‘Spell-bound they began to arrive where Krishna was seated. At the moment they heard the flute of Krishna they dropped whatever they were doing and turned their steps towards him. Not one could restrain them. It did not matter if they were not properly dressed and adorned. At the first sound of the music, their hearts, their soul, their very life and already reached the feet of Krishna; the body followed without argument.

‘Some, however, found that all the exits from their house had been bolted and locked. Contemplating Krishna in their hearts they sat with their eyes closed. Intense longing burned in them—and it burned the residue of ignorance and bad deeds. In deep meditation they embraced the Krishna of their soul, and the bliss they enjoyed worked more deeply on the residue of past good karma in them. Thus rid of the consequences of both good and bad karma, and resorting to Krishna, though as a lover, they attained so: one who loves or hates; fears or befriends the Lord is united with him. This is the very purpose of his incarnation: to make himself easily accessible to everyone.’ (2nd September, page X.29) 

The Bhagavatam says that any thought, whether positive or negative, when turned toward the Lord, invites the Lord into the heart. And so, even the wicked can attain liberation, even though they meditate upon Krishna with grievance or evil. The Gopis’ work is the opposite, to meditate on Krishna without attachment or grievance.

When they arrive Krishna speaks:

‘Welcome blessed ladies! What shall we do? But, why have you come away from your homes at night? Your parents and husbands will be worried. It may be that you are attached to me, for I am the Self of all in which everyone finds delight. But it is the duty of a married woman to be devoted to her husband, regarding him as a god, even if he is wicked, unlucky, aged, sick or poor. It is not necessary that my devotee should by physically close to me, but should hear and sing my glories and meditate upon me. Hence, return to your homes soon!’ (2nd September, page X.29)

The Gopis reply:

‘Do not spurn us Lord. We have completely renounced all the objects of this world and have resorted to your feet. Kindly accept us as your servants. For even so does the Lord of the universe treat the seekers after liberation. You have taught us that service to our husbands is our foremost duty. Let that be so. But are you not the very self of all beings—hence the very self of our husbands? So, by serving you we are serving them. Even they who perform their duties and scriptural rituals are only worshipping you….

‘Since we touched your lotus feet, our hearts do not wish to hold anyone else dear. The goddess of wealth vies with the sacred basil leaf for the dust of your feet. All the world seeks the blessings of that goddess; but we seek the dust of your feet. Listening to the music of your flute even birds and beasts are entranced. So how could concern for respectability restrain us from being magnetically drawn to you by that music? You have taken birth to save us from all fears and sufferings; hence, we beseech you, place your divine hands on our hearts and on our breasts.’ (3rd September, page X.29)

Krishna, moved by their plea spends time in their company. They sing, and run about in the garden. He leads them to the river bank and plays in the water. As they soak up his loving attention, the mood shifts. Each thinks they are the chosen one, superior to all other women. Krishna the indweller of all, knows their thoughts and in order to destroy their pride he vanishes. They are immediately stricken with grief. One moment their hearts are filled with love and the next overwhelming grief.

‘In the loneliness and silence of the forest they could ask no human being about Krishna’s whereabouts, but they asked the flowers, the shrubs and the vines.’ (4th September, page X.30)

When one Gopi (perhaps Radha) thinks, ‘Krishna loves me best; I am His favorite; or I am the most beautiful’; they lose touch with divinity, their egos expand and the divine vision leaves them. They again find themselves in separation.

Even though Krishna plays with them as an equal, he is their Guru and insists they renounce possessiveness. They must understand that love and oneness is sustained only in the awareness—we are one; Love is one; Krishna belongs to everyone.

For hours they search for Krishna to no avail. He is not to be found while they are in the state of attachment. Eventually realizing their folly they stop searching and sit to pray:

‘Because you were born there, Vraja is even more prosperous. Indeed, the goddess of wealth dwells there permanently now. Beloved, see how your devotees are wandering about in search of you. By the shafts of your love-laden eyes you have robbed us of our very lives. Yet you have indeed saved us, the people of Vraja, time and again from diverse calamities. We know that you are not the playmate of the Gopis, and that you are the indwelling witness of all beings. You have taken birth among the satvata [the pure] at the specific prayer of the creator.’ (6th September, page X.31)

While they are absorbed in meditation Krishna appears, ‘looking like the enchanter Cupid’. He again leads them to the bank of the river where they find a sandy beach that is illumined by a flood of moonlight. There the Gopis prepare a seat for him with their scarves. Krishna sits, surrounded by the beautiful Gopis, a heavenly sight. Sitting close to him they question him:

‘Some love those who love them, others love even those who do not love them, and yet others do not love even those who love them! Can you tell us why?’

Krishna answers:

‘Friends love one another actuated by selfish interests; there is no true friendliness there, but only self-interest. Others love even those who do not love them—this is like paternal affection; here the love is actuated by duty and friendliness, and it is blameless. Yet others do not love even those that love them: they are either sages who delight in their own self, or those whose desires have all been fulfilled, ungrateful people, or they who hate their own benefactors and elders.’

‘As for me, I do not love even those who love me, so that they may never forget me nor take me for granted, but remain forever immersed in quest of me—like a poor man who found a pearl which he lost and is, therefore, forever looking for it.

‘I disappeared from your midst for awhile but I tell you, even if I am born again and again for many millennia, I will not be able to repay the debt I owe you nor to recompense your pure love for me.’

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The Raslila

Enthralled by the loving words of Krishna, the Gopis form a circle around him. By his own divine power he appears between every two and he commences the rasa dance. Sensing this divine play the Celestials gathers in heaven to watch this rare scene. Krishna and the Gopis dance, their bodies sway, rock and whirl. Their dresses and tresses fly around. Some are overcome by fatigue and cling to Krishna’s shoulder; some fondly kiss his arm and swoon in ecstasy; some press his hands to their bosom. Thus they play and sport with the Lord in this magical atmosphere:

‘Embracing them, touching them, looking at them, smiling at them, the Lord sported as a child would play with its own reflection.’

‘It is said that the moon, the stars, the planets and the constellations, stood still, witness this wondrous play of the Lord who was in truth reveling in his own self all the time.

‘Then, surrounded by the Gopis, he entered the waters of the river. There again he played with the gopis who sprinkled him with water as the celestials watched and rejoiced. Afterwards Krishna roamed the groves and gardens on the bank of the river surrounded by the Gopis.’ (8th September, page X.33)

Again the question of propriety arises. King Parikshit who has been listening with deep interest asks:

‘How was it that the Lord, who incarnated as Krishna to establish righteousness, thus sported with others’ wives?’ (8th September, page X.33)

Shuka answers:

‘What appears to be transgression of duty is noticed in the conduct of the great, but it does not taint them. A wise man would accept their precepts as authoritative and emulate only those actions of theirs, which are in accord with the highest teachings, not others.

‘Non-volitional, spontaneous actions of those who have transcended ego are totally unselfish and are beyond the realm of virtue and vice.’ (8th September, page X.33)

Krishna lives fearlessly without ego. And so the villagers’ spiritual task is to see Krishna with a divine eye, and not with an ordinary ‘human’ eye. He is not an interloper, who has come to tear apart lives, but he is a healer of broken hearts and a destroyer of the negative karma evil brings.

Krishna as an incarnation of the Lord, is the indweller all, of the Gopis and of their husbands. Even though he appears to be a person, a separate human being, he is not. He is not a worldly threat, but a spiritual call to see the world through the eyes of the Lord. Hence the Gopis’ husbands are accepting. Krishna’s love is not carnal and even though the Gopis’ husbands suspect there is physical affection, they are drawn into the spiritual ecstasy resulting from the dance. This was the moment of testing for the Gopis and their dear ones, to see Krishna as the inner Self of all, not as another. This was their opportunity to embrace the Lord in pure love and so be united with him.

Shortly after the dance Krishna was called to Mathura to take up his kingly responsibilities. And so, even though the Gopis personified true and pure devotion to him alas, he left them.

They pined and yearned for him. The yearning to hold the experience of him burned within them. They embraced their destiny by becoming one with him spiritually.

Later concerned about their welfare, Krishna sends his disciple Uddhava to give them a message. Upon seeing he has come from Krishna they ask:

Why have you come here and what will you gain by singing the glory of Krishna to us? Having stolen our hearts once, he has deserted us. What need of our friendship has he? For his sake we have fully controlled our inborn tendencies, likes and dislikes, and are leading the life of mendicants. The very mention of his name fills us with distress and despair. Can you take us back to Krishna?’ (22nd September, page X.47)

Uddhava replies:

‘You have with your own lives laid a unique path to god-realisation—that of supreme love. Hear now Krishna’s special message to you:

‘You can never be separated from me, for I am the life and very self of all. I create, sustain and withdraw the universe, by myself, within myself. The self is ever-pure, it is consciousness itself and should be sought in and through the waking, dream and deep sleep states. At all times remember that this world is not different from an object in a dream. It is not necessary that you should be physically near me as away from me you will be spiritually closer to me.’ (22nd September, page X.47)’

The gopis are delighted to hear Krishna’s message. Moved by their profound understanding and seeing their love for Krishna Uddhava spends many months learning the art of devotion.

‘These village girls have fulfilled the purpose of human life, thought Uddhava. I salute the dust of the feet of the gopis, who uplift the three worlds by remembering and singing Krishna’s name.’ (23rd September, page X.47)

When it is time to leave, Uddhava praises their spiritual attainment saying:

‘May our minds and all our thoughts rest forever in the lotus feet of Krishna. May our speech always glorify him. May our bodies bow to him who is all-pervading, and may we ever serve him. Whatever be our destiny, may we ever be devoted to Lord Krishna.’ (23rd September, page X.47)

This ends the story of Krishna and the Gopis who to this day, remain the shining light of the Bhakti movement, the path of love.

I am not sure if the story of Krishna and the Gopis dispels the confusion and mystery of love or not. One thing is clear, however, that the ultimate test of our commitment to wanting our hearts to be full of love is, paradoxically, according to Krishna and the Gopis, to keep giving our love to God and the Guru in every situation, especially when our hearts break and it is the last thing we want to do.

 

The Fountain of Grace

The swish of the broom lingers on the edge of my mind as I sit to meditate with Bhagawan. I look up and the temple sweeper, an elderly Indian woman, slightly bent from ageing, casually dusts the carpets in the early morning. One hand is on the broom and one is resting comfortably on her back. I imagine the silent prayers to Bhagawan she speaks as she does her work. Thousands and thousands pairs of feet have walked through this temple seeking Guru’s grace. I am fortunate to be one of them.

Everything is impermanent said the Buddha. There is nothing in the outer world that remains stable, or lasts forever. But here, in Ganeshpuri, the Shakti is the same. Shiva is the same. Bhagawan is the same; Muktananda is the same. That Consciousness never changes. This temple is a refuge, a well from which devotees can sip the deepest waters.

Mandagni Mountain stands as a custodian of the Tansa valley and the village. Mandagni seems ancient. As Kailas is to Shiva, as Arunachala is to Ramana Maharshi, Mandagni is to Guruji. During his years with Baba he saluted its majesty every day.

The valley is mysterious. Legend says that sages did fire ceremonies here and that the Pandava princes stayed here when they were in exile. And even with the smoke from the brick factories, the stench of human excrement, the physical tapasya, the heat and dust it is the most magical place I have ever visited. Discomfort disappears in the presence of Bhagawan whose aura of purity and Shakti sanctifies the valley. The Shakti and peace of the mountain is apparent.

TansaRiver
Tansa River and Valley

A few years ago I was inspired to climb Mandagni when a local swami told me there was a cave two thirds of the way up where Bhagawan meditated. Once a volcano, its cliffs are lava covered and the heat from its former eruptions fuel the hot springs.

Baba once said that celibate cobras with jewels in their foreheads lived there, as well as leopards, meditating yogis and other wild creatures. I saw none of that but the cave is there and it is a cozy nook for meditation. Someone has put a small statue of Bhagawan and built a yagna pit. I could imagine Bhagawan and other yogis meditating there.

One morning Guruji said, ‘we are fortunate to be here in the fountain of grace. For those whose hearts are open to the Guru will experience the love and Shakti of my Guru and my Paramaguru. I am blessed, we are blessed; devotees of the Guru are blessed.’

‘Also,’ he said, ‘any day you can sit under Mandagni Mountain is a good day.’

 

Death Must Die

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Death Must Die

A Western Woman’s Life-Long Spiritual Quest in India with Shree Anandamayi MaBased on the Diaries of Atmananda
Ram Alexander
Publisher: First Impression New Delhi
ISBN: 81 86569 32 4

Swami Atmananda never thought her diaries would be read by anyone but herself. A uniquely independent woman for her time, as a young girl maturing in the 40s she was absorbed in Western intellectual and artistic culture. At the first touch of spiritual knowledge she was inspired to explore more deeply her own nature and the nature of reality. Eventually she gave Western comforts up to seek the truth.

Her first spiritual influence was the Theosophical Society, and so she gravitated to Krishnamurti. Dissatisfied still, she was led to the great saint Anandamayi Ma but not without conflict as to whose presence she would take refuge. As a Westerner and a woman, the Brahmin orthodox tested her determination to be accepted as a disciple by Anandamayi Ma.

There is a natural mystery in the drama of her spiritual life, which she takes seriously. Her diaries are frank, honest and sometimes tortured as her spiritual unfolding progresses. She is tormented by the desire for personal love and a personal life, and the longing for liberation, which set up an internal conflict that tears her apart. Doubt is a deadly poison on the path, but ultimately she resolves these two passions and accepts her destiny as a disciple and swami.

On January 23, 1946 she writes:

I am not sincere, my surrender is only a farce. Therefore I cannot concentrate. Nowadays thoughts about the details of how I am going to drop work and what to do with all my things etc. creep into my mind. Then when I think of giving all I have to Her, it occurs to me that suppose I do not get on in the Ashram, what will I do? Suppose She won’t give me money to travel with Her, etc. Is that surrender? But I feel happy to prostrate myself on the ground before her and say: “Take all and make me the smallest particle of yourself.”

Atmananda eventually became a translator for many Westerners who found themselves at Ma Anandamayi’s Ashram. She also edited the writings and books that were published during and after her life. One of the most beautiful excerpts from a conversation Ma had with Swami Premanand was translated by her. Ma advised him:

Meditate on God all the time, whatever you do, wherever you are. Remember that whatever you see, whatever you hear, is He alone. Pain exists because you believe yourself to be separate. Don’t consider anyone as separate from yourself. Regard everyone as your friend…

American Veda

This book is by Philip Goldberg, an ordained interfaith minister, and founder of Spiritual Wellness and Healing Associates who has thoroughly researched Hinduism’s impact on North America from the 50s until now.

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American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation
How Indian Spirituality Changed the West
Philip Goldberg
Publisher: Harmony Books, Random House
ISBN: 978 0 385 52134 5

This book fills a unique niche as a commentary on the rise of Vedic teachings, and the Gurus who transmitted them in America. Philip Goldberg is a wonderful writer and spiritual analyst who examined the Vedic exodus from the East to the West, and its considerable influence on American culture.

He writes:

Vedanta-Yoga is a kind of empirical science of the inner life; its postulates can be tested in the laboratory of one’s own consciousness, using the test tubes and Bunsen burners of yogic disciplines. And the goal does not have to be union with God, or Self-realisation; it can be something instrumental, like reduced stress or a clearer mind. In other words, what some saw as theology, others saw as testable hypotheses. What some viewed as spiritual practices, others viewed as therapies.

Even though Goldberg focuses on America, he addresses a dilemma a lot of Westerners face. Buddhists call themselves Buddhists, Christians call themselves Christians, and Jews call themselves Jews. But what do Westerners who have a Guru and have embraced Hindu teachings like yoga and meditation, call themselves? Goldberg made a choice to move away from calling the teachings ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hinduism’ and instead calls the movement by the book’s title ‘American Veda’.

Goldberg eloquently discusses the evolutionary relationship between East and West as a kind of cultural ‘transmission,’ which is seeping into every aspect of American thought and life. He relates stories and anecdotes of the most influential Gurus, practitioners and students of Eastern thought. He traces the spiritual history of Vedic teachings in America, from the first hatha yoga teacher, to the present teachers.

This book is readable, entertaining and immensely interesting. Goldberg is not just a scholar, he is also a practitioner who brings his years of experience and understanding of yoga to the pages.

 

The Supreme Yoga: Yoga Vasishtha

 

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Translated by Swami Venkatesananda

Publisher: The Chiltern Yoga Trust (Australia) ISBN 0 9590690 0 3

The Yoga Vasishtha is one of the most noble spiritual works ever written. Translating such an epic work is not easy, but Swami Venkatesananda, a disciple of the late great Swami Shivananda, has done these teachings justice. He is lucid and devotional in his rendition.

The Gurus of this book use the stories of seekers’ lives as a teaching device. Stories cleverly avoid confronting disciples directly. They soften the teachings and the students’ responsibility is to intuit the message the guru is trying to convey. Each story unfolds as a drama of anger, fear, sorrow, vengeance and suffering but also the means to overcome them.

We begin with a question from one sage to another, ‘O Sage, kindly enlighten me on this problem of liberation—which one of the two is conducive to liberation, work or knowledge?’

The sage Agastya replies, ‘Verily birds are able to fly with their two wings: even so both work and knowledge together lead to the supreme goal of liberation.’

Agastya reminds the questioner of an incident where a King refused an invitation to enter heaven. Perplexed by his refusal Indra, the Lord of heaven, sent him to Valmiki, the narrator of most of this wonderful book, for advice.

Thus the story within a story continues when Valmiki, a great renunciant and guru, tells how the sage Vasishtha helped Lord Ram overcome the despair and sorrow inherent in life, to attain liberation.

These are some of the most beautiful yogic teachings available. They communicate the intelligence, energy and love of the Self and inspire meditation.

 

How To Know God

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Translated with a commentary by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood

Vedanta Press  ISBN 0 87481 041 8

I recommend this book for beginning practitioners who want to deepen their understanding of meditation and yoga.

 

 

The authors offer us a clear exposition of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. There are wonderful anecdotes and metaphors that explain the complex mental gymnastics of yoga.

Yogis often use sleep as an analogy to describe a deep state of meditation and how we come close to the inner Self in sleep. Sutra 1.10 states, ‘Sleep is a wave of thought about nothingness’. The writers explain that the sleep state is actually a ‘positive experience of nothingness’. There is a sense of self, a witness of our experience, even when we sleep for when we awaken we know that we slept.

In my early years of meditation I went into a deep trance state that felt similar to sleep except that when I came out of it I felt a lot of energy. Over time I became more awake in my meditation, more conscious of what was happening in my mind. My meditation went from ‘sleep’ to ‘waking’. True to Patanjali’s sutra, I was aware of what had happened both when I was ‘asleep’ and when I ‘awoke’.

Another striking commentary is Sutra 1.36: ‘Concentration may also be attained by fixing the mind upon the Inner Light, which is beyond sorrow.’

‘The ancient yogis believed that there was an actual centre of spiritual consciousness, call the “lotus of the heart”, situated between the abdomen and the thorax, which could be revealed in deep meditation. They claimed that it had the form of a lotus and that it shone with an inner light. It was said to be “beyond sorrow”, since those who saw it were filled with an extraordinary sense of peace and joy.’

Their writing is inspirational and encouraging. They reassure us that with perseverance we can attain ‘peace and joy.’

Seeking and Finding

I was not looking to worship another;

I was seeking an end to self-hatred.

I was not seeking a marriage;

I was seeking a higher purpose.

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On the Ganges in Kankhal 2007.

I was not seeking pleasure;

I was yearning for lasting happiness.

I did not want to be wilful;

I was looking for the one who could hold my heart.

I was not afraid of life;

I was seeking refuge.

I did not want to leave the world;

I was searching for my place in it.

I was not seeking a religion;

I was yearning for God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfold The Inner Shakti

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Zen Garden in the front of the Ashram.

This morning in the shower I picked up a little wood bug that was struggling on its back to roll over. Many small creatures find their way into my bathroom and I try to save them. I don’t like to see them or anything suffer. When given a choice to kill defenceless creatures or save them, I will try to save them even if some are resistant.

I fed the dogs, sat down and looked out over my courtyard. As I glanced around I realised there are many thriving plants I had saved from death’s door. ‘What is this’, I asked myself. Do I have some kind of saviour complex? If I do it is not like Mother Teresa. I would never go to Calcutta and pick up lepers off the street. I might imagine doing it. That is not my purpose or way of serving but I am grateful to those who do it.

I love to watch people, animals, flowers grow and flourish. To grow inwardly and outwardly is to expand the Shakti. I hate to see things wither and dry up. The garden in the Ashram was a wasteland when we bought it. I have taken great pleasure, along with a whole team of people, turning it into a place of beauty and peace.

This morning a plumber came to quote on a job. ‘What is this place?’ he asked Bhaktananda. ‘It is so beautiful.’

Much more than destroying things, I love to build things and watch them being built. There was a time when the opposite was true. I was filled with self-hatred, doubt and fear, but the Guru changed my vision of myself and the world. Free of self-concern by Guru’s grace, it is possible to make a contribution that feeds my soul.

Over the years many young people have come through the Ashram doors, confused, agitated, broken-hearted, drug or alcohol addicted, lost and without purpose. After some years most have transformed and found their purpose, their life partner, and their career. To provide an atmosphere where seekers can awaken to Guru’s grace and unfold their destiny is the most sublime work.

When students move out of the Ashram to begin their householder lives, Guruji calls it ‘Graduation’ and gives diplomas based on the number of years they have spent in the ‘Ashram Residential Course’. When once the world reflected their negative mind states, now it reflects their growth and essence.

In the beginning of Guruji’s book ‘Consciousness Is Everything’ he quotes from the sage Keshemaraja on how to dispel suffering:

He is a bound soul who has poverty of Shakti. With the unfoldment of his Shakti, however, he becomes Shiva himself.

To unfold the inner Shakti and become Shiva means freedom from pain.

Shaivism says that Shakti unfolds with the grace of a Shaktipat Guru. And so many ashramites have moved from darkness to light, from ignorance to understanding during their sadhana with Guruji. Confusion has become clarity, addiction a passion for God, heartache love of Self, and aimless wandering a sense of purpose.

With the Shakti we will never feel impoverished, never feel a lack, never feel alone, never feel lost, never feel confused and never feel separate.

The other night in study group Guruji said, ‘It is rare to meet a Sadguru. Once you have met the Guru you can find a million reasons to leave him. But, there is only one reason to stay…and that is to know the Self.’

The connection with the Guru’s Shakti nourishes our whole being and unites us with his state of Consciousness. It is a direct line to Shiva, who breathes life into us and sustains grace.

When that connection wobbles we suffer from ‘poverty of Shakti’. The highest priority, whether you are an ashramite or a householder, is to maintain the flow of energy. When we hold to that we discover a love that weathers all storms.

Peace Symposium September 2012

A few years ago I was invited to speak at an Islamic women’s conference at a mosque in Melbourne. What follows are my thoughts on peace.

Thank you to our hosts for presenting this program today, and thank you for inviting me, and my colleagues to participate.

My Gurus have taught me that to welcome another person with love and respect is the true goal of meditation and spirituality. They also say that in order to do that we must first learn to love and accept ourselves, and then we can share that love with everyone.

The issue of Global Peace has become more urgent since the rise of terrorism in the late 70s and after 9/11. For many middle Eastern, and a few European countries terrorism has been a constant threat. 9/11 woke up the Americas in a dramatic way. Now, suddenly, there were terrorist threats in our homes and our loved ones were dying.

The question arises, ‘is peace possible?’

Classically there are two views on attaining peace. One you could call the ‘external’ point of view. If you change the government and you don’t allow selfish, greedy and rich people to run things from their self-interest then you have a chance for peace.

The other the ‘internal’ says that as long as there is violence in the individual heart, aggression is translated into domestic violence, social violence and global violence.

We cannot have peace in the world when there is a lack of peace in the hearts and minds of individuals. The mystic GI Gurdjieff used to say: ‘external consider always, internal consider never.’

Internal considering is when we imagine how others see us and we react to that imagining. When we internal consider we worry about how we look to others, what others think of us, whether we are more intelligent, more beautiful, richer, or more successful, have more or can do more. We can become obsessed with ourselves. We are so concerned about ourselves that we are blind and deaf to others. There is no friendship, no communication, and no understanding when we are caught in self-concern.

External considering is the opposite. We focus our attention and awareness on the ‘other’ and speak to the listening of the other person. A wise person always hears first and speaks second. They are free of self-concern, self-pity. External considering creates oneness. It is from this place that solutions, negotiation, agreement can be found.

The great sage Sai Baba of Shirdi said about his devotees, ‘I give them what they want until they want what I have to give.’ In other words if they came asking for a blessing to have a baby, he gave it. If they came looking for a dowry for their daughter’s marriage, he gave it. If they came looking for money, he gave it. He did not lecture them on what they should or should not want or, that they should be asking for spiritual enlightenment. But when they asked for that, he gave it.

tumblr_ma5130UznZ1qg2xvoo1_1280I was an activist in the 70s for a short time. I was working for a Youth Hostel funded by the Canadian Federal Government. When the funding ended the residents took to the streets in protest. The riot police showed up ready for battle. It became violent and I began to question the effectiveness of political activism. As I watched the police brutally beat my fellow demonstrators I understood that if I was going to work for peace it would not be in politics. Fortunately I was dragged away by a friend and was not arrested. That day my spiritual search began.

A few years later I was fortunate to meet a Guru whose teachings resonated within me, and whose energy woke me to a spiritual life. I began to do ‘sadhana’, serious work on myself. I learned to meditate.

Meditation has shown me all the good and not so good things about myself. It has taught me that Divinity is within me but it also taught me that I had unconscious fear, anger and sorrow that needed to be addressed. I learned to recognise negative emotion when it arose within me and to not speak or act out of it. As I meditated I began to understand myself and accept myself. As I accepted myself and learned to love myself my anger, fear and sadness lessened.

To commit to non-violence within one’s own heart is an act of great compassion. It is not easy.

My teacher Swami Shankarananda says: ‘Tell the truth don’t get angry’ meaning that we need to find the razor’s edge of truth and kindness in our communication. We can say what we have to say if we have compassion.

He also says: there is no good situation that a bad attitude cannot ruin, and there is no bad situation that a good attitude cannot improve. It is important to examine whether our attitude or understanding is contributing to peace or inflaming conflict.

One of the major blocks to inner peace and good communication within an individual is blame. When things go wrong the mind automatically asks, ‘Who is responsible? Who’s at fault? Who can I blame?’

Blame and finding fault can destroy love, can destroy relationships, destroy family unity and creates enmity where there was friendship.

In the Hindu Trinity of Creation, Sustenance and Dissolution, love is the sustaining power. When we give our love and devotion openly and freely to our nearest and dearest, to our work, to our friends, to our lives, we have peace in our lives. If we withdraw our love from the life we have built then we create instability, confusion, separation and uncertainty.

The poet saint Rabia wrote:

I have two ways of loving You: one is selfish and the other is worthy of You. In my selfish love, I remember You and You alone. 
In that other love, You lift the veil
 and I feast my eyes on Your Living Face.

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The Islamic tiles in our Interfaith Garden.

As Rabia says, the minute we give our attention and our devotion to that which really matters we see and feel divine love. The power of our heart to love is perhaps the greatest power we have. Rabia inspires us to overcome the blocks to our love, our connection to the Self and to the Divine. Is your heart available? Is your heart open? Is your heart generous?

Women particularly feel the burden of violence. We do want those we love, our children, our husbands, our fathers or mothers going off to war to die at the hands of terrorists. We also want to protect them from the temptations of a worldly life that separates them from the family unit. And so the task of educating children to think and feel responsibly falls to mothers.

A few years ago I was on pilgrimage in India to visit the samadhi shrine of Bhagawan Nityananda, the spiritual source of the divine energy of my lineage. One afternoon while meditating I silently asked him if he had a teaching for me. As I listened for an answer I heard a voice, ‘Always return to love, especially when you do not want to.’

The famous guitarist Jimi Hendrix said: When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.

Avoid The Lagoon Of No Shakti

‘One should perceive the inner Self through the gift of the Guru’s grace. By this path of the Guru, knowledge of one’s Self arises.’ (Guru Gita verse 110)

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Kailas Nivas

Love, love and more love are the words to describe Ganeshpuri. The villagers, the children, the temple priests and the animals exude love. ‘Jai Nityananda’ can be heard all day long from devotees celebrating their love of the Guru.

We are nine days into our retreat. In the mornings we have been meditating in Kailas Nivas, Bhagawan’s ashram. It is where he lived until shortly before he took mahasamadhi, his death. My meditations in Kailas have been fruitful, peaceful, grounded in the Self.

This morning the voice of the Self spoke to me in meditation, ‘there is no there’ it said. I felt a powerful unity consciousness. My two worlds, the places where my heart sings—the ashram in Mount Eliza and the ashram of the village of Ganeshpuri had become one. There was no difference. There was no tomorrow, no present and no yesterday; there was only the ‘sky of Consciousness’. Devotion for the Guru, the feeling of intimacy with that which I hold most dear was bubbling in my heart.

The Guru/disciple relationship is everywhere in Ganeshpuri. There are at least eight Samadhi temples where disciples still tend their Gurus’ homes even though many of them died decades ago. The relationship to the Guru is not a temporary one it is eternal. It is no ordinary relationship. Once made it cannot be broken for long.

Once in Ann Arbor in the early days of my relationship with Guruji I was upset with him. I was burning in my anger. I felt compelled to confront him. I do not remember what it was about but it had something to do with wanting something that he wasn’t giving me. I ran to his room and knocked boldly. He opened the door, took one look at me and slammed it in my face.

The rage boiled up in me. But then as I stood there staring at the closed door something shifted. I realized that I was behaving like I behaved in every personal relationship. I knew that I did not need another personal relationship. I was confused by them and tired of them. I needed a Guru. I laughed and walked away.

It hasn’t always been like this. In the past I have sometimes let my ego get in the way of devotion. If you let them, the Guru’s tests can burn the heart, dry up devotion, and erase the memory of bliss. These tests are a tapasya, a fire that can burn the ego to ashes. The Guru will, in the course of sadhana challenge expectations, imaginary wishes, dreams or hopes that arise from the ego. The Guru burns up weakness, tendencies that lead to delusion and suffering.

Over the years from time to time I have fallen into withdrawal and separation from the Guru and the Self out of jealousy, fear, anger and grief. The worst moments have been when my mind plummets into the darkness of these emotions. In those times wisdom and love vanish, and good will disappears. I am left with negative thoughts and a contraction in the heart. Devotion is gone.

In Satsang With Baba he speaks about what happens when the disciple temporarily loses touch with Guru’s grace:

You can achieve perfection in Siddha Yoga only through the grace of a siddha, a realized master. The yoga that you receive through the grace of the guru will also be consummated by his grace, and there is no doubt about it. Generally it is seen that once you receive the grace of the Guru you don’t lose it easily.

The Guru is not like an ordinary businessman who would refuse to serve you a cup of tea if you don’t pay the price. Even if the disciple would behave foolishly and turn away from the Guru, a siddha Guru would not become angry with him for quite some time. If a disciple has received the Guru’s grace, why should he be so stupid as to lose it? Why should he begin to live such an impure life that he would lose the grace in the course of time? Why should he be so ungrateful?

Baba’s words speak directly to the dilemma a disciple faces. I have learned that there is no event or circumstance worth giving up oneness with the Self, or the flow of Guru’s grace. I cannot stand the feeling of separation even for a second. To deprive myself of the relationship to the Guru, to the Shakti, to the Self, is a living hell.

I have learned that it is always possible to return to Guru’s grace. When I look honestly at myself, when I see how anger hurts me then there is an opening to see what I have lost. Taking responsibility is the key, not blaming others. It takes humility and an admission of wrong understanding. Wrong understanding leads to what Guruji calls ‘the lagoon of no Shakti.’ He also says, ‘there is no positive situation that a bad attitude cannot ruin. There is no negative situation that a good attitude cannot improve.’

Baba also wrote:

I accept the love of the entire world…I accept the love of everyone and I give my love to everyone without any distinction. I never ask anyone what he shall give me in return for my love.

Baba’s state of Consciousness is the goal of the guru/disciple relationship. And this is the state of Consciousness the Guru bestows on the disciple.