Sunday, 16 October 2011

Diwali - Let the Divine Lamps Dispel the Darkness of Our Ignorance

Diwali is a glorious holiday. It is a holiday filled with continuous festivity, revelry and celebration. Even sworn enemies embrace, and hostilities melt as we share box after box of fresh sweets.

At this sacred time, I reflect upon the words of my Guru, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji: "Don't only light the lamps in your temples, homes and offices. Also remember to light the lamp in your own heart.  That divine lamp will dispel the darkness of ignorance; that is the true way of welcoming Bhagawan Rama into your life."

The lamp in our hearts? What divine light is he referring to? What darkness of ignorance is there within us which should be dispelled on this holy day?

Ignorance of the Nature of the True Self

We are all ignorant about so many things. One cannot possibly be an expert or even properly informed about the majority of subjects in the world. The information available in the world today is too vast, its depth and breadth boundless and unfathomable.   Yet ignorance of math, science, history or technology may make life slightly inconvenient but it does not shroud us in darkness. It does not keep the presence of the Divine an arm's length from our hearts.

What is the ignorance which is so dark it must be dispelled in order for us to live peaceful, fulfilling, meaningful and divinely-connected lives? It is the ignorance of the true nature of the Self.

To me, one of the most beautiful aspects of Hinduism is the belief that at the core of our being we are divine. In contrast to other major world religions, Hinduism teaches that at the essence of our being there is pure divinity, there is light, there is perfection. It is merely ignorance, the false identification with the body and its urges, which leads us to "sin".   Of course the karmic consequences for our actions must be paid, even when we realize that they were committed due to the darkness of ignorance rather than the darkness of evil. 

That Divine Light Within
When the saints and spiritual masters of India exhort us to remove the darkness, to light the lamp within, they are referring not to a transformation of inherent darkness into newly created light, but rather to a shedding of that ignorance, that false identification, that illusion, which shrouds our innate light from our view.  As Pujya Swamiji explains, "The sun is always shining outside, but if your windows are covered with two inches of mud it will be dark in your home. The answer is not to go out in search of the sun, to sign up for courses or workshops on invoking the power of the sun, or even to bemoan the darkness. The answer is simply to clean the windows so that the naturally occurring presence of light may flow into your home."

In the same way as the sun in Pujya Swamiji's example, the inner divine light is always there, always shining, always available. It is the core of our being.  However, the "windows" of our consciousness have become muddied by our false-identifications, our expectations, our grudges, our jealousies. Hence, that light is obscured from our view. 

Who AM I?
From the time of the war of Kurukshetra, when Bhagawan Krishna urged Arjuna to realize his true Self, to realize not only the universal dharma but his personal dharma as a kshetriya, as the son of Pandu, as one whose task was to restore dharma to adharma, saints and rishis and sages have enjoined us to recognize our true nature.

When we are not aware of who we really are, we inevitably try -- consciously or unconsciously -- to become something else. We then live our lives falsely identified with roles, masks and personalities that are not truly us. However, unlike the actor in a drama who remembers to remove his costume and make-up at the end of the day, we have become so internally united with our false self, that we have begun to think it is who we are. We have come to believe the mask is our true face, the script is our true life and the costume is our true Self.
We get a degree and we say, "I AM a PhD, or I AM a doctor." We put on make-up and expensive clothes or we get cosmetic surgery and we say "I AM beautiful." We earn a lot of money and we say, "I AM rich. I AM successful." We get married and have children and we say, "I AM a wife and mother" or "I AM a husband and father." We make many friends and we say "I AM popular. I AM well liked and respected."
However, these are merely things we DO, ways we spend our time, choices we make, personalities we don because it suits the culture in which we live. They are not who we ARE. We are not our degrees, our beauty, our bank accounts, our popularity or our relations.  

The problem with this false identification is that these roles are all fleeting.  They are based merely on what we have done and achieved today.  So, when they get shattered, as falsehood is inevitably shattered and as anything of the flesh is inevitably limited, we lose not merely a title or a job or money or beauty, but we lose the very connection to our Self. We have wrapped our sense of Self so tightly around these roles that when the curtain falls and the drama ends, we feel that our life is being torn out from within us. If I AM beautiful, what happens when I age or my skin breaks out or I have an accident that scars my face? Then who AM I? If I AM a mother or  wife then when my children grow up and don't need me or my husband divorces me or dies, who AM I? If I AM rich and successful, if I lose my money or retire from my profession, who AM I?

We also say, "I AM angry. I AM sad. I AM frustrated. I AM depressed." Yet, our scriptures, philosophy and gurus tell us we are none of these things.  Our brain may be experiencing emotional patterns of chemical and electric energy that correlate to what psychologists term anger or depression. However, I, the true Self is pure, perfect, untouched and unafflicted by patterns of energy corresponding to emotional states. I am the one who is aware, who is watching, who is witnessing, who is able to name the states of sadness and depression, but not the one who is afflicted by them.

Ignorance of the Self Leads to Misery
The lack of awareness of who we truly are, the lack of ability to distinguish between what I DO and who I AM, this ignorance is the darkness which leads to suffering and misery in life. It is also this ignorance of the Self's true nature that leads us to act in ways for which we have to reap the fruits of negative karma. Greed, lust, dishonesty, jealousy, anger and  arrogance are products of our blindness toward the true light within and toward the true nature of the Self.  If I am already full and complete then there is nothing to covet.

The True Self's Cup is Always Overflowing
These days in the new-age "spiritual" circles there is talk about "enlightened abundance," which typically refers to the concept of becoming so enlightened that one can manifest piles of money! There are books, films, courses and workshops on manifesting abundance as though if one is simply in touch enough with the Source, that Source will provide whatever one asks. However, what the lives and teachings of the true saints and rishis teach us is that the moment one has even a taste of awakening, a taste of Divine Connection, a taste of being One with the Source, one immediately experiences not a genie who will grant three wishes, but rather an immediate and overwhelming sense of completeness. Those who are truly enlightened live with the experience that their cup is overflowing. They are One with all of creation; thus there is no need to possess the wealth of the universe. It is already theirs. This is why in the stories of our scriptures, whether it's Kunti (mother of the Pandavas) or Dhruv or Prahlad, when God Himself stands in front of them instructing them to ask for any boon, there is nothing they want. They are complete merely due to His presence.

When I first came to Rishikesh, during one of my early satsangs with Pujya Swamiji He held up a pen in front of me and He said to me, "You are not this pen." I laughed. Of course I am not a pen, I thought. How obvious. He then said, "There will come a time when I will tell you that you are not that body and you will laugh in the same way you just laughed when I said you're not a pen.  A time will come when it will be as ridiculous to assume you are the body as it is ridiculous to assume you are a pen."

At this sacred time of Diwali, when we line our homes and offices and streets with brightly burning lamps, let us  pray for that light within our own hearts that illumines the nature of our Self, showing us who we really are.   When that light is there, then we know that Bhagawan Rama has truly returned, not merely to Ayodhya but also into our hearts and our lives.  

Friday, 7 October 2011

Rosh Hashanah

Green, crisp, tart granny-smith apples smothered in dripping, sticky honey.  These are my memories of Rosh Hashanah as a child. I remember the anticipation with which I awaited the round plate that our counselor at the Jewish day-care center would place in front of us, apples sliced ever so delicately, with what seemed to be a vat of honey next to it.  We were permitted one piece at time, and wooden popsicle sticks served as knives for spreading.  Grasping a crescent-moon shaped piece of apple with one hand, I would lather on as much honey as a popsicle stick could hold; then the race began to get the apple into my mouth before the precious honey dripped off and onto the table.

Memories of fruit and honey.  Crunchy and smooth.   Sour and sweet. Cool and warm. A perfect blending of tastes and textures. A moment of Heaven for a small child. 

These are, of course, memories that seem to be purely culinary. They are not memories of God, nor even of culture or history. I am sure that prior to the much-anticipated placement of the apples and honey on our tables, the teachers must've shared with us -- perhaps for many preceding days -- the meaning, the stories, the significance and the history of this most sacred day. I am sure that we were not permitted to dive into our treats without demonstrating some understanding of the holiday upon us.  Yet, those memories have not stood the test of time. As vividly as I can see the tray of apples, as clearly as I can feel the cool crunch of the apple between my teeth, as much saliva as the mere memory generates more than thirty years later, I have no recollection of any kind of the religious training that most certainly accompanied this.

A tragedy of sorts, yes.  But this tragedy of modern, reformed Jewish education in America may point also to a precious and compelling awareness of the "felt-sense" of religion.  For, while I cannot conjure up the faintest recollection of any words spoken by the teachers (or even the rabbis) regarding this holiday, the mere thought of apples and honey brings a flood of tears to my eyes and deep warmth to my heart.  It is this "felt-sense", this inexplicable, un-nameable, undefineable yet unbreakable connection to Judaism that -- even after having lived for 15 years in a Hindu ashram where I have devoted my life to the service of a Hindu saint, even after having taken vows of renunciation in the Hindu tradition, even after becoming a speaker/teacher/leader to Hindus around the world -- causes tears to flow spontaneously from my eyes every time I hear chanting of the Torah or every time I light the candles of the menorah on Hanukkah. It is this absolutely indissoluble link between a Jew to Judaism -- regardless of whether that Jew could tell you anything about the most sacred of days other than that one eats apples and honey -- which has kept the religion alive, strong and flourishing for thousands of years despite invasions of every possible kind from every possible corner.   It is that link that causes me to cry, neither tears of joy nor tears of sadness, but merely tears of truth, as I say L'shana tova to myself, as the waters of a river I sacrilegiously yet profoundly worship as the Goddess flow outside my window.

What is religion then?  It is not the teachings I cannot remember that link me inextricably to the sound of the Torah chanting. It is not the sermons in the temple I missed while my friends and I gathered in the bathrooms to gossip. It is not the prayers I no longer know nor the holidays I no longer observe.  It is certainly not the identification, externally, with world Jewry that connects me, for a tiny number of people in my life today even know I'm Jewish.  In fact, in the land in which I live being white means Christian. There isn't even awareness of another religion.  So, if religion is neither in the teachings nor the services nor the prayers nor the community identification, what is it? What, after having become fully absorbed into an Indian Hindu spiritual culture, causes my heart to race in delighted anticipation at every inter-faith gathering as the Jewish Rabbi takes the podium?

What is this bond? What is this link that defies and surpasses practice and lifestyle?

In the peacekeeping and inter-religious harmony community there is much talk about the artificial lines of religion, about  unnecessary borders and boundaries between faiths, about the necessity of realizing that all is One.  Yes, all is One in the way that all drops of water are of the ocean. The molecules are all H2O.  They all came from the ocean and ultimately will return to the ocean.  But surely on some level, even if not detectable by microscope, water which has sat in a pool of the Himalayas, surrounded by mineral rich rocks and foliage, unknown to pollution, in a world of silence and serenity must be different than water which flows through the gutter of an impoverished, polluted, crime-ridden city.  There must be something, on some molecular or energetic level, different about these 2 drops of water.  That, of course, does not deem one better than the other or justified in oppressing or killing the other, but there must be some qualitative difference in these molecules.  Even if you take the drop from the gutter and put it in the Himalayas, wouldn't it, on some level, retain any bit of its "gutterness?" Similarly, if you take the drop from the Himalayas and put it in the gutter, despite the sewage and trash with which it is now associated, wouldn't that molecule remain, forever, somewhat different than the others?

The Chief Rabbi of Israel once lovingly said to Swamiji, as I tried unsuccessfully to serve him another plate of fruit during the Hindu-Jewish Summit in Jerusalem, "You can take her to India, you can make her a Hindu, but you can never take the Jewish mother out of her."  Perhaps in this lifetime being a mother, or at least a biological mother, was not part of my destiny, but being  a Jew certainly was.