Friday, February 29, 2008

why are you working so hard?

So long as one clamors for the I and the Mine,
our works are as naught.
When all the love of the I and Mine is dead,
then the work of the Lord is done.
Kabir I.83

tues, 26 feb 08

There is a little temple that sits on a hill along the path of the shortcut we take to the yoga centre in the morning. I assumed it was abandoned, but a few days ago I started seeing people there again, and one of my mates told me that there was a sadhu who lived there. I saw him a few times, talking with other people there and have wanted to stop and meet him, though I am generally not good at those kinds of getting-out-of-myself encounters. Saturday, at the end of our free day, I was walking the path and noticed that he was sitting out on the low stone wall, and there didn’t seem to be anybody else there, so I decided to go up. There were in fact a few other people, most of them young guys scraping the walls of the temple and preparing it to be repainted. He greeted me gently. I told him I just wanted to look and he gestured to me to do so. When I had walked all around the temple and back to where he was sitting, he started asking me a few questions about where I was from etc., and I sat down on the ground in front of him and we talked for bit. His English was rough; he seemed to speak better than he understood. His story, which I pieced together after an hour-long conversation, is that he is from the state of Karnatica. He is a vairagya monk, like Baba Hari Das, not a sannyasi (he wears white). His name was Swami Saccitananda, very propitious! His father died when he was 7 months in the womb, and then his mother died when he was 9. He lived with his uncle for a year and then somehow moved into an ashram under a guru at 10 years old. He was a mauna, silent, for 12 years, from 12 to 24 years old, and then lived with his guru in Mysore for some years. Eleven years ago he moved here into the house next to this abandoned Shiva temple. He knew of the yoga school, and had himself done a full yoga course only recently, “not to teach, just for self.” I think after a while he finally understood that I was a monk and priest as well as a musician. He had that typically Indian way of holding a conversation in that he was in no hurry to fill the silent gaps between topics, so you never knew if he was done talking or not. I’ve learned to ride those silences out by now, so it was a comfortable time together. The others had all left by the time we really got talking.

Anyway, the Swami said something that made me very happy and that kept echoing over and over again in my dreams and waking all that night. After I told him about the yoga course, he said to me in kind of a funny voice, “Why are you working so hard?” I must have looked a little perplexed because he went on to explain what he meant: “Forty minutes in the morning before meditation is enough. This yoga is good for 20 year old and 30 year old but at our age [he was 46], this is enough.” During the course of the conversation I had asked him if he did puja or chanting the Vedas, and he said, “A little sometimes.” He was telling me that he spoke Karnatic, Maharastra, Hindi and a little English, and I asked him about Sanskrit. His face kind of screwed up, and he shook his head and said, “No, no, no Sanskrit.” I asked him what Scriptures he read, the Gita, the Upanishads? He waved his hand dismissively and said, “No Scriptures, only meditation.” Then he said something like, “I meditate three, four hours a day, I do some sweeping, maybe puja sometimes, but I think about God all the time. I stay here all the time, never go out, no attachments to people. That’s enough.”

The place has little shrines to Kali and Hanuman as well as the main shrine to Shiva, and another separate one dedicated to the nine planets. Fr Bede loved to mention that tendency toward monotheism that underlies Hinduism, the tendency to “see beyond all these gods to the one Reality which lay behind them.” There is a famous verse in the Rig Veda, ekam vipru bahuda vadanti: “the one being that the wise call by many names.” Swami gave living proof of that again. I asked him if he had any devotion–bhakta to any particular deity, and he gently screwed up his face again in that way of his, frowned and said, “No, just Brahman, nirguna, nirmurthi, nirakkar.” No qualities, no images. It is really this one Being that Bede says “haunted” the mind of the Vedic seers who knew that all the “gods” and powers were really nama-rupa, name and form of this same one Reality.

I’ve gone back a few times now, and wish I had discovered the place earlier. The swami had told me the story of how Vivekananda had come there, over a hundred years ago, and met with another famous swami, Turiyananda. What I didn’t realize until my second or third time there was that down below the temple there is something called the “Vivekananda Meditation Cave,” a beautiful spot that reminded me of Virupraksha cave at Tiru. Sunday I stopped by partly to visit with him, but even more just to sit there in front of the inner shrine with its Shiva linga and various icons and I realized what I have been missing these days: that bhakta-devotional element. We chant the text in honor of Patanjali every day, and Rajiv ends every class by guiding us in a meditation, inviting us to bow in supplication and gratitude to the point of refulgence within the vast space in within us, cloaked in an image of the Divine that is dear to us, and he often spices up the class with references to Hindu mythology and bits of philosophy, but I have to admit sometimes it has felt more dry than many of my classes in the gym. I have missed that spiritual context that we have, for example, in the Saturday AM classes at Mount Madonna, and I have missed the ambiance of, say, a place like Sri Ramanashram at Tiruvanamalai or Shantivanam or even Rishikesh. Somehow sitting in that little temple with this solitary swami felt like being home.

I love that: “Why are you working so hard?” My left hip was aching all night one night and I kept tossing and turning trying to find a comfortable place to sleep, and every time I would wake and try to go back to sleep I heard his voice clear as a bell saying, “Why are you working so hard?” and I knew somehow that it was enough to just stay close to God with the mantra, the name, the image in the cave of the heart.

* * *

I had been vacillating about whether to leave on Wednesday (by necessity to get down to Delhi to catch my plane out for Singapore on Thursday) or a day or two early to see the folks in Rishikesh again and/or Haridwar before taking off. I opted out of Rishikesh again, just to get as much class time as possible, but I am going to go to Haridwar today to visit Sri Ram and our friends from Mount Madonna who are there with Baba Hari Das at this time. I must admit, after this much time with folks from the Iyengar tradition, I am looking forward to talk to someone from what feels more like “my” tradition, simply to compare notes and get re-grounded.

Rajiv himself kind of summed up my final thoughts on this experience. He was downplaying yet again the notion of getting teaching training certificates and qualifications of being any kind of yogi, and said something like, “So you will go home and write on your CV: ‘Went to Rajpur, Rajiv yelled at me for three weeks, learned some asanas and left… with mixed feelings.’” There was a pause and then we all laughed quite a lot about the “mixed feelings.” He seemed kind of melancholy and frustrated yesterday, and talked more than usual, a good half of the class time. He was trying to instill in us again the real meaning of yoga––“the art of personal transformation”––and how asana practice can lead you to the foothills of the mountains and from there we can look at where the great yogis are, and it is then that we choose or, better, we are chosen by, one of the great margas—pathways, karma or jnana or bhakti or dhyana yoga. That was the first time I had heard it put that way, that the four yogas are only chosen after we had mastered a certain practice. He also talked about the great saint Mira Bai, who never did asana practice at all, in the context of saying the real conquest is the conquering of self, so obviously he believes that one can become a great yogi without the technology of asana as well.

Rajiv obviously has a real bone to pick with Western yoga in general and even especially Iyengar Yoga as taught in the West. For all his insistence on accuracy in poses he says that Western yoga has an obsession with shapes and they (we) think that all yoga is about is looking beautiful. The others in the class who have been here for these courses before, I found out later, were annoyed to hear this harangue again; apparently it is a constant theme of his. But in between the berating and exhorting, he has moments of real lucidity and genuine humility. I think he recognizes his own shortcomings as a teacher and does not consider himself to be a great yogi or a holy man, but merely a close disciple of Guru-ji BKS Iyengar and an accomplished instructor, both of which are true. He and Swati have certainly put together a stellar center and I am glad for the experience. I would be interested to go back to an Iyengar class at the OM Room in Santa Cruz now for more of the “technology” of this system from another teacher.

* * *

I’d agreed to go up to the Purkal Youth Development Center to sing and talk about the American election process on Monday night. One day when I was visiting the Swami asked me to sing something, and I said I would (and did) but told him that I would be passing by with my guitar on Monday, and could I stop and sing then. He liked that idea, so I stopped by late afternoon on Monday on my way to Yoganga to be picked up and driven to Purkal. As he had warned me, there was a group pandits there, which in this case means young (20-something) brahmacaryas doing a nama-japa at the shrine of the nine planets that had already lasted the better part of the day. Also there was the crew of local guys who had been hired to scrape and re-paint the temple, who I had already met on previous visits. The pandits eyed me a little funnily as I walked up with my guitar on my back, but the Swami ushered me right into the central room of the central shrine next to the Shiva linga surrounded by the hooded cobra and icons of various other deities, gave me a large straw mat to sit on, lit some incense and an oil lamp and left me to it. I hard him outside say something in Hindi to someone else who was there that included the words “music program.” I wasn’t sure; I thought maybe he was going to come back in and sit down. So I played for a while, tuning and warming up, getting used to the space––a beautiful acoustic; the guitar was almost too loud for the voice––but he never came back. I alternated singing and playing for 30 minutes. At one point one of the pandits came in and laid down a mat for himself as well, and I could see various others circulating around outside the low door. I asked to make sure I wasn’t disturbing their ceremonies but he assured me not. I think they were done by then. When I finished the young pandit thanked me and asked, “Coming tomorrow?” But alas, that was my last day. I would have liked to, and again was regretting that I hadn’t discovered the place earlier. Still in all, this is enough. I bade goodbye to Swami and he handed me a little bowl of sweets.

I made it up the hill just in time for a little van to come roaring up to usher me away to the Purkal Youth Development Center. I was accompanied by two young teachers, one of them a gregarious young guy named Vimul who I had met the week before, who engaged me in polite rapid fire conversation. It was a wild very fast ride up the mountain. After a brief visit with Mr Swami who again clarified what he wanted me to do in addition to singing. He did ask a little about my own background then, for which I was oddly relieved. And then we went in to the 50 or so gathered kids from 6th, 7th and 8th Class, so perhaps 10 to 13 year olds. So I launched first into a couple of songs, including of course “My Own Two Hands,” which I used as a seque into talking about democracy and voting and how everything we do can change the whole world, and how important our voice and vote is. Had I ever taken a civics course (I must have somewhere along the line!?) my civics teachers would have been proud of me, but still only probably given me about an 80 for a grade on my oral report. I remembered the best I could and then did a little research online, so the presentation was well laid out and systematic, but I sort of folded when it came to the question and answer part. Of course, it was Mr Swami himself who was asking all the questions, as the kids’ attention drifted off in utter boredom at the tedious, complicated process of number of Senators plus number of Representatives equals the number of electors in the electoral college, etc. etc. They did enjoy the part when I divided them into Republicans and Democrats. The girls were the former and delighted to have the elephant as the symbol of their party. The boys on the other hand were quite dismayed about the donkey, and actually asked it they could have the lotus as their symbol instead, which is the symbol of the BJP party here in India. I said I was sorry but there decisions had already been made. Then I got to sing a few more songs, had another little visit with Mr Swami at his house, which was nearby, and then whisked back down the mountain. I found out from Mr Swami that he was a graduate of the same Loyola College in Chennai that I had just visited and he spoke of his high regard for the Jesuits. Though not a particularly religious man himself, he appreciated my path and work, and asked many questions. He said that he thought we’d all be a lot better off if the religions of the world could stop concentrating on their differences and come together about something.

One last dinner and long conversation with my wonderful housemates, and then in the morning I caught the train to Haridwar. I was vacillating about adding that little side trip but in the end really thought it would be a shame ot be so cose and not stop in. I was greeted very warmly, though there was actually not a bed for me, they were so full. Jaya was most apologetic but I was perfectly happy on an overstuffed mat in the yoga hall where one other intrepid drop-in was also camping. I saw Dayanand and Sadanand, and a few other faces I recognized with from Mount Madonna itself or from my two previous longer visits there. But I must say I was most happy that some of the kids remembered me, especially my young friend Vijay, who I saw just after I arrived as the kids were coming home for lunch. He’s the young guy who was coaching John on the tabla when we were here together in 2005, and with whom I played a bunch of music last year. We had both, apparently unsuccessfully, tried to send each other things this past year, I a CD and he an e-mail. I had heard from Dayanand that just after I left last year his little brother had one day simply shown up at the gate of the orphanage. I still didn’t get the whole story, but apparently neither one of them was able to talk for the first few days that he was there. He’s a strapping ten year old with a huge smile and enough confidence to run for office, and Vijay was very happy to introduce us, and when he did, I realized that that had been the main reason I had come––to see him and meet Krishna––and told him so.

While the kids finished school in the earl afternoon, Dayanand and I sat and played music in their apartment upstairs, he with a full five guitars and/or mohan veenas of various shapes and re-configurations. My favorite was a Taylor twelve-string that he had had modified at Rikki Ram (the famous sitar store in Delhi) with drone strings just above the low E, and another of sympathetic resonating strings set at an angle right above them. I could barely make hide nor hair of it but he made it sing. We played on happily for an hour and a half or so, gathering a small crowd. And then I spent as much time with the kids as possible: tea time with Baba-ji at 3, study hall with Sonja, Savita, Amita and Arun at 3:30. I watched the boys play cricket and then played a long couple of games of 21 (basketball) with Prakash. Either the basket was lowered, I have really improved with age, or I was having a very good day, because I kept swishing it from the free throw line. I think it was the first, but still Prakash was mightily impressed, as was I. Then after our (guests’) dinner I went to their cacophonous arathi in the shrine room. Krishna was quite proud to show me that he was the pandit that evening, which meant that he got to dress all in white, and wave the fire and incense. After that, all the kids go to Baba-ji’s room for candy and games, but Vijay stole me away, found Krishna, and led us to his new room for a private visit. We took a bunch of silly pictures, Vijay showed me his tabla books, I impressed them (or they acted like they were impressed) at being able to read a little bit of Hindi, and we exchanged e-mail IDs again. I had a wonderful time and stopped just short of offering to adopt the two of them as my sons. Suddenly that part of the sannyasa diksha made sense––“I give up the desire for progeny…”––and stung a little.

I take back what I said three weeks ago: last night on that matt on the floor of the yoga room was the best night’s sleep I have had in India, almost nine hours. Again before we slept Jyoti was apologetic about the lack of space, but I was as comfortable as could be on the floor and instead apologized to her for turning their yoga room into a flophouse for wandering sadhus. Early morning calisthenics with the kids (the same warm-up routine I do every single morning now) and then I joined them for their chanting and dhyana. As in time past, as they leave to go up to Baba’s before breakfast, I stayed in the shrine room for my morning prayers and meditation, and felt very much at home. I said goodbye to them all as they left for school, caught a taxi to the train station and am now on the train to Delhi.

We’re ambling into dirty Delhi now.