Jesus defines God’s holiness as compassionate love,
not as separation from everything impure.
God is great and holy,
not because he is separated from impurity,
but because he is compassionate to all.
Compassion is God’s way of being.
7 march, Shantivanam
I had a really fine week at Tiruvanamalai. Michael Christian (MC) had as usual arranged a room for me in back with the permanent and semi-permanent ashramites, right next to his room as a matter of fact. I felt right at home there right away, and fell easily into the rhythm of the place.
There was a special series of Vedic chantings going on led by a highly trained group of mostly young Brahmin pandits. It’s a style of chanting called ganam, and it involves not only reciting the text but repeating each syllable (if I understood correctly) 13 times in various groupings. We were never sure which Veda they were chanting, but the meaning of the words was not the important element anyway. The way MC explained it to me, many of these pandits do not actually know the meaning of what they are chanting either, even though their Sanskrit is impeccable. What they are doing is releasing the power in the sounds. This is known as shabda. I’ll share with you from this article I wrote back in 2001 on this.
Shabda is never simply noise; Hindus believe that shabda-sound has power. Especially powerful are sounds created by human beings because they are intentionally focused releases of energy, whether in music or in speech, above all in mantras. It is believed, for example, that the spoken word when properly controlled can reconnect one with the source of creation, and lead to direct illumination. Hence the importance placed upon the chanting of the Vedas, which when sung properly are believed literally to release the wisdom they contain as real sacred energy that can create the spiritual states of mind and of life which the words describe, and influence the course of human destiny and even the order of the Universe.
So these pandits who wander the land chanting the sacred mantras and singing the Vedas are doing so not only for their own spiritual attainments, but for maintaining the equilibrium of the world as well. What was the most amazing thing is the fact that these guys can sing for hours from memory.
MC had rented a scooter from our friend Kumar, and so we went wheeling off like a couple of Deadheads following these guys from site to site where they were chanting, at the main temple and then at a series of smaller temples and shrines throughout the city. There was a small crowd besides us that I recognized from place to place as well.
I also availed myself of Mount Arunachala, and Skanda Ashram and Virupaksha Cave as much as possible the first days as well, and then when all that was over settled into my room and watched the peacocks strut by and caught up on some writing projects I’ve been wanting to get to.
By the weekend we were at the other extreme––hanging out with JP and the folks at Quo Vadis. This time it struck me even more than before, that’s why I say “the other extreme.” I think it is no offense to anyone to say that whereas Sri Ramana Ashram is most definitely a Brahmin community––and there was a time at least when lower caste people could not get into temples or other such places––Quo Vadis is the most open place in the world and run by folks who are mostly exponents of what I’ve heard called “Dalit Theology,” (India’s version of Liberation Theology) dalits being the untouchable caste. Many dalits converted to Christianity, many of the Protestant religious I’ve met are passionately committed to the social gospel, and many of them have no time for the Brahminization of Christianity through Sanskrit, yoga and meditation. As a matter of fact, one of the Lutheran pastors that I met later in the week told me proudly that an ecumenical group has just completed a liturgical translation that is “pure Tamil, no Sanskrit!” In the early days, so I was told, liturgical and scriptural translations were done by Brahmins, and so a lot of Sanskrit worked its way in instead of Tamil––the “sacred” as opposed to the vernacular language. I’ve run into that before, but it was good to be reminded of that when dealing with Indian Christians. There is a real sensitivity about this among some Indians when we Westerners come over with our limited understanding. Also, it’s interesting to compare this to what we’re dealing with in the Roman church in regards the new English translation; you might say we’re going through a bit of a re-Brahminization of our liturgy with our slavish translations of Latin texts among other things.
Anyway, I did a concert for Quo Vadis, this time right there at QV instead of out at the Arunai Ananda hotel where we did it the last three times. JP still drew a respectable crowd and, some problems with the sound at the beginning notwithstanding, it was a beautiful evening. The next morning I had Mass with some of the diaspora Catholics, and was supposed to lead a meditation back at QV that evening, but I got felled pretty good with a case of food poisoning that knocked me out ‘til Monday.
Some Carmelite sisters had been at the concert Saturday night and really want me to come and visit, so MC had set up for us to go there for tea on Sunday as well, but wound up going alone. I was even sorrier that I didn’t go after he returned. Not only had they laid out quite a spread––a real proper “tea”––MC got to find out a lot about their work, mostly with AIDS victims and sex workers in the local villages. He was astounded by the stories they told him about the staggering numbers, and profoundly moved, as was I in the recounting, by the work that these women do, unflinching tough work in the midst of the absolute worst conditions. It makes our arguments about birth control seem very paltry in context, and also makes me feel like I am doing almost nothing with my life compared to their kind of service for the People of God.