Some perform sacrifice with material possessions;
some offer sacrifices in the shape of austerities;
others sacrifice through the practice of Yoga;
while some striving souls, observing austere vows,
perform sacrifice in the shape of wisdom
through the study of sacred texts.
(Bhagavad Gita 4:28)
Monday, 12 march, 2012
I’m getting out tomorrow. I’m happy to be going back to Shantivanam, but I’m a little sad to see this time end. It really has been a wonderful retreat, with just my holy books and computer, and lots of time alone. A guitar would have been nice.
I’ve also got a wonderful novel by Amitav Ghosh with me called “The Glass Palace” which I lucked on in the airport in Malaysia. It’s all about the Indians in relation to the Burmese and the Malays during the late colonial years, and it takes place in all three of those countries, in many places where I’ve been. Its climax happens during World War II when the Indians begin to question their allegiance to the British Army who still treats them like indentured servants, and questions the difference between colonialism and Fascism. Last year I read “The Mulberry Empire” which took place in Afghanistan in the period just prior to then, also about the end of the colonial period in that region. We may not realize how this crescent is all lined together––from Afghanistan through Pakistan, India and then on to Burma, Malaysia and Singapore, and on into Indonesia, not to mention Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam just above, and what an impact European colonial times had on the delicate ecosystem of the region. I couldn’t help but feel as if I were in the midst of it as I sat reading while hearing to the temple bell and the rush of traffic outside of my window and hear the news about the latest disaster in Afghanistan, the American soldier killing 16 civilians. I think a big part of the problem is and always will be that we have no idea what is going on in the psychic matrix of another culture’s soul.
After the visit to Pondicherry, I’ve been really inspired by Sri Aurobindo again, both personally and philosophically. I actually kept imagining him wrapped in his white dhoti, retired to his private chambers the last decades of his life, studying, writing (volumes) and practicing his Yoga, while the Mother attended to all the business of the Ashram, during my “retreat” here. I’ve got his “The Yoga and Its Objects” with me, along with my Gita and a cool travel sized copy of Prabhavananda’s translation of the Upanishads, besides a beautiful little copy of “Rumi’s Poems” that Claire gave me in Singapore before I left.
I’m also devouring Jose Pagola’s “Jesus: An Historical Approximation,” which I have been saving as my Christian spiritual reading for this trip since before we went to the Holy Land. It’s just wonderful. (In the name of full disclosure, though this book was a best seller in Spain and won acclaims from half of the Spanish episcopacy and one of the Vatican congregations, it is currently under by another Vatican congregation [the CDF] due to the other half of the Spanish episcopacy.) In it Pagola carefully sums up the best of the most current research into the historical Jesus and presents what he believes to be credible, possible and non-substantial. He for instance gives little credibility to the work or motivation of the Jesus Seminar People (though he cites them from time to time as if to say, “Even they say this…”); nor does he put much weight behind the apocryphal or Gnostic gospels or the novelistic approaches such as “Jesus’ lost years in India” (though again, he does often cite the Gospel of Thomas to back up the authenticity of certain sayings of Jesus). Anyone who ventures into this territory is asking for trouble. Those limitations of course make the left think he’s too conservative, and yet the right is questioning his dividing up the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith. He takes that right on in the introduction, quoting John Paul II and Pope Benedict, and it has never been an issue for me.
There are several reasons that I bring that up: because of a discussion MC and I had, some writing I’ve been doing regarding the perennial philosophy, an e-mail I got recently, and a follow up discussion I had just today with young Dr Prakash. MC carves a really balanced middle road it seems to me when he notes how often the historical critical method can, in my words, “take all the fun away.” He says the same trend in Buddhism can be bothersome as well, trying to pick out authentic sayings of the Buddha. What that has to do with the Perennial Philosophy: perhaps there was a moment in the dawning of the Axial Age, and in each of our developments when the sharp focus of rationality is just beginning to burst through the mythical mind, and the two live together nicely, and we don’t have to explain all the symbols and say what happened and what didn’t really happen. Perhaps this is also the mind that is still at work in us at ritual, in liturgy, for instance, when we’re not supposed to say too much out of the rational mind (in a homily or a sermon), just enough to let the rational mind catch up and shut up. MC says this is not an issue for the most part in India.
Then this e-mail the other day that someone sent me, a link to some talks by a fundamentalist preacher about “false religion.” I looked the guy up and read about him. If the rest of the stuff didn’t turn me off, his unequivocal support of the State of Israel as determined by divine revelation did. He did not support the ‘theology of replacement’ (neither do I, but for different reasons) and so the State of Israel is divinely sanctioned. With all due respect to my Jewish friends, for me that is going too far, and that’s false religion. You can’t use the Bible like that. At least that’s not how we understand it in my tradition. I support the State of Israel too, but not because God said that they must have this particular piece of land to the expense of everyone else on that land, and not so that it will bring about the Second Coming of Christ, but because it’s the right thing to do. And I also with my fellow Americans retain the right to criticize our friend Israel if they do not live up to international agreed upon standards of justice.
So with all that on my mind, Dr Prakash appeared at my door early this afternoon. I wasn’t quit sure if it was an official or a fraternal visit, as we say in the monastic world. If it started as the former––a few perfunctory questions, “How do you feel?”––it quickly became the latter. We talked a little about each other’s lives and his career plans. And then, “So, do you have any more doubts about the Bhagavad Gita?” was how he phrased it. I said that I respectfully disagreed about the assessment he had offered––that the Gita was the milk of the Upanishads––; that I thought it was just the opposite. He took that in stride. And then, some weeks ago someone had challenged me by referring to the most important verse in the Gita, and I did not know what that was, so I asked him. He said there was no most important verse, but that the first word and the last word of the Gita are its summary. Sure enough, I looked it up later: it begins with the dharma and ends with the word mama––“my dharma.” And then he asked me smiling, “So, you spend your life studying this books. What is your goal? What is your dharma?” I refrained from launching into my infamous discourse on telos and scopos (the end and the goal). And we had a good discussion about the various holy books.
After a while he also asked me to compare the Qur’an, the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. And that’s what leads me to the present discussion. I said that the Bible was not a book; it was a collection of books and that it was very difficult to understand because each section had its own way of being understood. I said that many observant Muslims believe that the Qur’an was dictated word for word by Allah directly to the Prophet (peace be upon him and his sons and daughters!), and there was no interpretation of levels of meaning to be discerned. This is why even the Sufis’ mystical interpretation is sometimes seen as suspicious if not outright heretical. Whereas it seems to me that few Hindus take the Bhagavad Gita literally as an historical record––that Arjuna and Krishna actually sat on a battlefield and discussed the entirety of the Gita––and so people can easily gather the milk from the coconuts. In other words, as MC pointed out, the Indian mind can sit in that beautiful place where rationality is still embedded in the mythical mind and not have to sort out what is what, just let it live together. He smiled and said, “That’s right!” and then left.
* * *
Wednesday, 15 march. I'm back at Shantivanam now, virtually being held under house arrest by the nuns at Ananda Ashram since the doctor said I am not supposed to do anything for anohter two weeks to fully effect the cure. This is a little hard because my hip and back feel great. So it is a continuation of a forced retreat, which is most welcome, and I'm delighted to be here looking over the River Cauvery again.