4 May 2019

Delhi Spring

To Golu, for being that someone, who I can give flowers to :)

As the chill of winter slows down,
And the Petunia ends its fling;
Delhi is adorned with a flowery crown,
As the festival of colours welcomes spring!

Neither too hot, nor too cold,
The sky sporting hues of blue,
The summer clothes are now unrolled,
Bringing the cotton fluffs and hay flu!

The Palaash makes a fiery appearance,
Suddenly blooming, suddenly falling;
The Peepal tree once so dense,
At once shedding, at once reviving!

The Allamanda mimicking sunshine,
The eyes bathing in its beauty;
Its cousin will arrive in sometime,
The Amaltas will shine no matter its fragility!

Madhumalti showing off its colourful bunches,
Changing like a chameleon, falling like the rain;
The Bougenville giving it even handed punches,
Blossoming vivid leaves for its flower's gain!
Soon enough comes the Gulmohar,
Its luminous orange blazing the sky;
So different from it is Sadabahar,
Simple, yet forever attracting the butterfly!

Even more, there is Japa Kusum displaying its tongue,
An example of grace, an example of wisdom;
Oh! Thousands and thousands of praises can be sung,
Of the wonderous flowers decorating this kingdom!

An enchanting time to be in Delhi,
A shift of the seasons, a new beginning;
All you need to do is look, really!
And you shall find in that flower, 
What you have always been seeking!

Photo credits: Mokshi Sethi

19 February 2019

The Three Wise Monkeys

The Three Wise Monkeys is a popular icon/symbol in India. Though it appears that the icon/symbol had origins in Japanese culture, it became popular in India through its association with the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi. The Three Monkeys portray a simple message - "See no evil, Hear no evil and Speak no evil." The focus is on good conduct and morality and that one should not engage the senses in activity which one considers evil.

Through this post, I seek to give an alternate interpretation to the motif of the Three Monkeys. By no means do I suggest that this was Gandhi's interpretation. I am simply suggesting an interpretation. The interpretation could be divorced from the original meaning or intent and so I state very clearly that it is not my burden to draw any parallels or links with any earlier meaning or intent.

The gross message that we get when we look at the Three Monkeys is one of control of the senses. The said subject has been a focus of debate since times immemorial - the materialists advocating a fuller exploitation of the senses and the spiritual advocating restraint. Much mistranslation and misinterpretation happens between the two ends.

I am not a votary for pertinaciousness (हठ), when it comes to interaction with sense objects. Abstaining from sense objects has some value and it does help to a certain extent. However, I do not believe that it is sustainable in the long term. I also don't believe that it solves the problem. Abstaining from objects only solves the problem of access. It does not solve the mental part of the transaction i.e.: desire. To my understanding, the sustainable solution is to train the senses to perceive according to the intellect's instruction.

In other words, shutting the senses from interacting with sense objects (as is pictorially depicted in the Three Monkeys) is not the sustainable solution. The Three Monkeys depict something subtler i.e.: the training of the senses, or if I may call it, making the senses introverted.

For instance, imagine yourself entering a room full of people. You go into the room, glance across the room, you look for your significant other and on not finding them, you come out of the room. Outside, you meet your significant other. She asks you whether there was a painting in the room or not. You may or may not recollect this. But given that you were not focussing on the wall hangings, the likelihood of remembering is lesser. It is not as if you did not see the walls in the room. You saw all of them, but you did not register/process the information. Similarly, the senses can be trained to selectively perceive/process. It's all about where our attention is.

At the moment, a lot of our interaction is mindless. When I say mindless, what I mean is that the interaction does not have any direction or sense. The senses run roughshod over our emotions and rationality. Take for example gory pictures. The mind feels terrible at the sight of gory pictures. Yet, the senses continue seeing it. Thus, even though the sight is disagreeable to the mind, the eye continues making it a subject.

I had mentioned about making the senses introverted. A legitimate question that follows is - How can the senses, which are designed to be outward, be made introvert? The senses are designed to make gross objects as their subjects and cannot perceive subtler concepts. Any subtle concept (such as the soul, mind, intellect, self etc.) cannot be known through the senses. If that be so, how can the senses ever face inward? After all, the space occupied by psychology and spirituality hardly has any gross objects.

When I say that senses be made inward/introverted, what I am really saying is that the senses should take instruction from the mind/intellect before they engage with the world. Ordinarily, the senses face outward and indiscriminately perceive the outside world. By making them turn inwards, the goal is that the senses should turn their face inside (i.e.: to the subtler concept of me - the mind/intellect) and take instruction from the mind/intellect, as to what to perceive and where to put the attention. In this way, even though you see the whole room containing good and evil, the focus is on the good. The eye has perceived the image before it, but it does not register the evil in the picture. Even though the ear has heard the sounds of an abuse, it has not registered the evil in the sounds. Thus, extroverted senses and introverted senses perceive the same objects, but the latter is able to ignore the evil. Once again, there is no blanket shutting of the senses.

A sentence or two must be said over here about the power of reasoned decision making (निश्चय). Most of us make the mistake of not taking a firm decision, because of which our senses run astray. If we make a firm decision, then the senses act according to that decision. We forget that the decision must come first and the resource deployment follows thereafter.  So, if I make the decision that all objects in the world are a gift of God, then perhaps, when seeing them, I would focus on them being gifts than just being objects.

The whole thing can be seen from another perspective. Assume that I shut off my senses. For instance, I close my eyes. After closing my eyes, I do not see any gross object. I only see darkness. There is no new thought that comes forth. Similarly, let us say that I don't open my mouth to speak. No new communication takes place. There is cessation of activity. But a cessation of external activity, does not necessarily lead to a better or more moral or a higher spiritual life.

On the contrary, the perception by the senses allows the seeker to understand subtler concepts. The beautiful thing about sense perception is that it not only allows you to know the object, but it also allows you to know that you are perceiving the object. This may sound jargon-y and so let me illustrate -
When I see a pot, I have knowledge of the pot. The knowledge of the pot is a direct result of the eye seeing the pot. This knowledge is expressed as - This is a pot.

Now, another result of the eye seeing the pot, is the knowledge of the fact - 'I can see'. The knowledge "I can see" can happen only when the eye perceives an object. I will know that I can see only when my eye perceives an external object. When perceiving through the senses, this knowledge, even though present, is often ignored.

But, why is the knowledge "I can see" of any consequence? The knowledge "I can see" is of relevance because it is through this knowledge that one can ask the deeper questions - "Who sees?" and "What power enables me to see?"

If the senses are shut off, there is no perception, there is no experience of perception and hence there is no enquiry into the perceiver. Thus, another way to look at the motif of the Three Monkeys, is that it asks you not to focus on the external objects of the senses. The external objects are infinite and endless and no amount of lifetimes will ever satiate knowledge of them. Instead, focus on the subtler concept of who perceives and how she perceives. In that way, the senses are turned inward/introverted to explore the mechanics of 'Who am I?' It's a gradual shift from the seen to the seer. So, the idea is not to shut off the senses. Instead, when deploying the senses, the focus shifts from what is perceived to who is perceiving. In that sense, evil is not seen, spoken or heard, as the attention is on the seer. When seeing or hearing or speaking - take a pause and ask yourself - Who sees? Who hears? Who speaks?

Thus, to my mind, the Three Monkeys do not advocate a closure of the senses. Either they refer to a control of the senses through the intellect/mind. Or they refer to shift in the focus from gross objects to subtle objects. A human being goes through three states of consciousness - waking, dream and deep sleep. Of these three, constructive thinking is possible only in the waking. The senses are available only in the waking. Therefore, the senses must be utilised for achievement of constructive thinking. Turning them off completely would be a tragedy.

A lot of what has been said above is covered in the Kathopanishad. I am only a repackager. I have been lucky to have had teachers who have taken great pains to help me with the subject and to them I am eternally grateful.

If you're interested in the subject, I would recommend that you at the very least read the commentary of the first shloka of the first valli of the second chapter of the Kathopanishad. I found the commentary of Swami Maheshananda Giri Ji to be extremely comprehensive -  http://dakshinamurtimath.com/index.php/download/kathoupnishad2/

Hari Om Tat Sat

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ektogamat/2687444500

4 June 2018

Godmen and Gurus

Recently, I had the chance to watch Wild Wild Country, a documentary by Netflix on Osho (though to be frank, I felt that the documentary was more on Ma Anand Sheela). I had not the slightest idea about the extent of the Rajneeshee movement until I saw the documentary. Off late, there has also been a lot of discussion in India about Godmen. Asaram Bapu and Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh have had their bruises with the Indian legal system. In Delhi, several girls were rescued from an 'Adhyatmik Vishwa Vidyalaya'. Suffice to say that all is not well. Much is done in the name of religion/faith/spirituality, which is far removed from these lofty ideals.

It is in this background that I am writing this post. But before I begin, I want to put out a disclaimer. I have principally experienced only Hinduism and therefore the contents of this post are restricted to Hinduism. I have had some exposure to Sikhism, but I would not count that as sufficient to write a post. For that matter, I would not call myself an अधिकारी (authority) to write on Hinduism either. Therefore, what you have below are only some stray strings and thoughts.

In Hinduism, there is a strong emphasis on श्रद्धा (faith). श्रद्धा is defined as गुरूक्तवेदान्तवाक्येषु विश्वासः श्रद्धा (belief in the Vedantic words spoken by the Guru). It is is the Guru that takes the disciple from ignorance to knowledge. The Guru enjoys the same (if not higher) place as that of the Gods. Therefore, doubting the Master is tricky business. Instead, it is desired that there be intense faith towards the Guru.

Perhaps, this is where most persons find themselves at odds with Hinduism (and maybe other religions as well). Non-believers mock श्रद्धा  as stupidity. At times, श्रद्धा is viewed from the lens of blind faith. But such a narrow vision keeps out the internal controls and checks that Hinduism provides for श्रद्धा. 

The first control is that of enquiry. Anyone familiar with Hindu texts would see the emphasis on debate, reason and dialogue. The whole framework is based on asking questions, seeking answers, reflection, meditation and enquiry. श्रद्धा and विवेक (faculty of distinguishing and classifying things according to their real properties) come together. It is not the case that one turns off and the other activates. Both are applied together and are cultivated together.

The second control (which is really the focus of this post) is the qualities of a Guru. Hinduism provides for a stringent and difficult qualification to be a Guru. In my humble opinion, this requirement has completely gone away from today's equation. By way of illustration, following are some examples of the qualities of a Guru.

मणिरत्नमाला is a text composed by Adi Shankaracharya. The text is a unique composition and is in a question-answer form. While the question-answers are simple, the message conveyed is deep and profound. The first part of Verse 7 is directly on point:

को वा गुरुर्यो हि हितोपदेष्टा
शिष्यस्तु को यो गुरुभक्त एव ।

Translation: Who is a Guru? One who gives only the most favourable teaching (for the benefit of His student). Who is a student? One who is a devoted to the Guru.

Therefore, the qualification for a Guru is that He is must act in the best interests of the student. His own self-interest is immaterial.

Thereafter, Verse 10 deals with the question - Who is a Mahatma/संत (saint)?

के सन्ति सन्तोऽखिलवीतरागा
अपास्तमोहाः शिवतत्त्वनिष्ठाः।।

Translation: Who is Mahatma/Saint? One who has dispassion towards the whole universe, whose ignorance has ended and who is fixed upon that Supreme Being.

Thus, in addition to the qualification in Verse 7, three more qualifications are added, which to my understanding are attributes of a realised soul.

भज गोविन्दं is another minor text composed by Adi Shankaracharya. In this text, Shankaracharya makes an emotional appeal to all students to rise up to the goal of मोक्ष (liberation). He emphatically repeats भज गोविन्दं भज गोविन्दं  (Seek Govinda, Seek Govinda) after the end of each verse. Verse 14 specifically highlights the problem faced today:

जटिलो मुण्डी लुञ्छितकेशः
काषायाम्बरबहुकृतवेषः ।
पश्यन्नपि च न पश्यति मूढो
ह्युदरनिमित्तं बहुकृतवेषः।।

Translation by Swami Chinmayananda ji : One ascetic with matted locks, one with shaven head, one with hair pulled out one by one, another parading in his ochre robes - these are fools who, though seeing, do not see. Indeed, these different disguises or apparels are only for their belly's sake.

The above verse from भज गोविन्दं shows that the problem of disguises is not a new one. The problem may have expanded and/or taken newer forms. Since time immemorial, dishonest people have taken the shield of outer appearances (such as ochre robes) to fulfil their own material goals. Adi Shankaracharya, in categorical terms, warns us of such persons. In His commentary on भज गोविन्दं, Swami Chinmayananda ji points out that even in the time of the Ramayana, Ravan took the guise of a saint to abduct Sita. 

विचार सागर of Swami Nischaldas describes the qualification of a Guru as follows:

वेदअर्थकूं भलै पिछानै।
अातम ब्रह्मरूप इक जानै।।
भेद पंचकी बुद्धि नसावै।
अद्वय अमल ब्रह्म दरसावै।।
भव मिथ्या मृगतृषा समाना।
अनुलव इम भाखत नहीं अाना।।
सो गुरु दे अद्भुतउपदेसा।
छेदक सिखा लुंचित केसा।।

Translation by Lala Sree Ram - He who knows well the drift of the Vedas, recognises self as the only Reality, non-different from Brahma; who is capable of removing the five differences by analysis and analogical inference; and by clearing Ignorance and other defects, brings Brahma vividly into the mental conception of his pupil, as something tangible, and reduces the objective world into its actual condition of non-reality, similar to the illusion of a mirage; and who speaks not of things other than Brahma, is a real and unrivalled preceptor; unlike those who simply cut away the forelock of their pupils hair, to turn them into their followers.

I cannot hope to explain the exact meaning of the above verses. But based on the digests that I read, to my understanding, the above verse puts forth two primary qualities of a Guru - (i) that He must have knowledge of the Vedas/scriptures; and (ii) He must be a realised/enlightened soul. Both qualifications are necessary. A knower of the Vedas, but who has not experienced the Self, is not fit to be a teacher. Furthermore, even a realised soul, who has not studied the Vedas is not the ideal teacher, as such a person would not be able to fully clarify the doubts that arise in the minds of the students/disciples (since that can be done only through the study of the Vedas). Hence, both qualifications must be met. The verse ends with the same warning of outer appearances.

A reading of the above would show that a true Guru is completely dispassionate towards the world. Such a person will not think of His own self-interest, but only the best interest of His students (which would be to end their ignorance). He is also one who is enlightened and has experienced the Self. He is a knower of the Vedas. He's not be identified through merely outer appearances such as ochre robes. Indeed, it is extremely rare (दुर्लभ) to find a true Guru. And it is on such a Guru that one must have श्रद्धा.

In the end, I will refer to the स्कन्द पुराण -

बहवो गुरवः सन्ति शिष्यवित्तापहारकाः।
दुर्लभोऽयं गुरुर्देवि ! शिष्यहृत्तापहारकः।।

Translation by S. Bhuvaneshwari - There are many teachers, who grab the wealth of the student. O Devi! Such a teacher is very difficult (to obtain) who destroys the pang in the heart of the student.


An Ocean of Enquiry (English Translation of the Sanskrit Vicharsagar) by S. Bhuvaneshwari

Kedarnath (October 2017)