Friday, November 30, 2012

Surrounded by Saints

In one of those cycles that comes with consistent practice where I feel a little lost.  Not that I am slacking with practice, yet it has been feeling rather mechanical, like on autopilot. I’ve been doing this long enough to recognize it for what it is—a natural ebb and flow, and I know that continuing to practice, even without bhava  (faith) is important.

 Swami Sivananda, in speaking about japa practice, states:

“The name of God chanted correctly or incorrectly, knowingly or unknowingly, carefully or carelessly, with bhava or without bhava is sure to give the desired fruit. The bhava will come itself after some time…” (Essence of Yoga. p 17)

It is easy to apply Swamiji’s statement to the entirety of the practice. But waiting for that bhava to re-appear is a challenge.

Seeking inspiration, I have been reading a lot.  More accurately reading a little from a lot of different books.  Various translations of The Ramayana, The Yoga Sutras, The Bhagavad Gita, The Dhamapada, The Upanishads, etc. Somewhere along the way, maybe in one translation of The Yoga Sutras or another, the text mentions [paraphrasing] keeping the company of Saints as a good practice.  The commentator writes about reading positive books; Swami Sivananda also encourages reading of the lives of Saints. The general agreement is that you don’t have to be in the physical presence of Saints to be positively influenced by them.

Taking a step back, I realize how lucky I am to live in this time.  Even though I feel completely lost and directionless with my practice (temporary, I know, temporary), I have the teachings of countless Saints within easy reach.  My book shelf, my flash drive, Google books, The Guttenberg Project, an infinite number of websites all with writings from great teachers. There has been no other time when everyone can instantly be surrounded by Saints—most of this stuff was not written down or translated even 100 years ago, and it is only very recently that so many of these teachings have been placed online for free and easy access. For countless eons, one had to be in the direct company of a teacher to gain their wisdom.  The Information Age has truly let us transcend both  time and space.

Even if my faith is not there right now, I take comfort knowing that I am completely surrounded by saints, and their faith gives me the strength to carry on.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Return of the King

From Ramayana: The Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel (author and artist)

Once upon a time, in India, there lived a brilliant scholar. His 10 heads gave him superior brain power, but that also meant he had a huge ego.  He performed severe penance to gain a gift from the gods--every thousand years he cut off one of his heads and threw it in a fire as an offering.  Just as he was about to offer his last head, Brahma (the creator god) stopped him and offered him a wish. The scholar asked that he would never be defeated by any gods or divine beings.  Brahma, true to his word, granted the wish. Now with 10 heads, 20 arms, and a ticket of invulnerability from the creator, the former scholar, now a demon, went on a rampage, conquering all the gods and claiming the title King of the Worlds.  The scholar became known by the name of Ravana, meaning "He who makes the universe scream."

The gods did not know what to do.  Brahma's word must remain true, so he could not reverse his gift of invulnerability.  The gods asked Vishnu, the god who preserves the universe, for help.  Vishnu had a plan. He remembered that Ravana asked only never to be defeated by gods or divine beings, he did not ask for protection from humans or animals. Vishnu decides that he will accept birth as a man to circumvent Brahma's gift and slay the Ravana.

The only catch is that he had to truly be born a man: ignorant of his divine powers. The rest of the gods decide to help out, and take birth as animals--specifically monkeys and bears.  They too, must remain ignorant of their divine nature.

Vishnu takes birth as Rama, a prince in the city of Ayodhya, and Vishnu's divine plan is set in motion.  Through trickery, Rama, his wife, and his brother are banished to the forest for 14 years.  During the course of their exile, Rama's wife is kidnapped by Ravana, a great war ensues, and Rama triumphs.  On the anniversary of his 14th year of exile, Rama returns to Ayodhya to take his righful place as King.

This story (called The Ramayana--literally "The comings and goings of Rama")  is the oldest epic poem known to man.  There are those (when I say "those" I am referring to about 1 billion people) who take this story as truth.  Let us respect that, and let us see the more universal aspects of this story.

Several themes permeate this story.  The first is that we all have something greater inside of us that we have forgotten, and by defeating our ego (represented by the 10 headed 20 armed Ravana) we can re-discover that something. Of course, this is not easy.  Secondly, every character in this story represents an ideal--the ideal king, father, son, brother, wife, mother, devotee, etc., and demonstrates how we should act correctly in any given situation.

Rama's return from exile, the triumph of Good over Evil, the Light of Truth over the Darkness of Ignorance/Ego, is celebrated in India as Diwali.  This year Diwali begins on Tuesday November 13th.  This is a joyous festival of lights--a time for celebration, a time for giving thanks, a time for knowing that the universe operates correctly and that good will always win.  When all is right with the world, we see that we are truly a small extension of something larger--we see that everything is one. When that happens, we operate out of love.  It is said in The Ramayana that "Rama loves only love."  If we want to gain favor of The Lord (the greater Love) we must first give and act out of love.

On Diwali, spread love and happiness.  Know that our true nature of Love can shine through.  Even more importantly, remember that Diwali is not limited to one day--it is everyday.

Jai Ram!