Identity matters

There is this popular slogan that you become who you believe you are. Motivational speakers are often found asking people to believe in themselves. I will take a small diversion from here to a slightly spiritual side.

Mindfulness training enables us to carefully monitor our thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions and experienced events. It involves observing without attachment, judgment or identification.

By becoming aware of our mental lives, we understand clearly who we are not. Mindful moments are those that create the opportunity to be authentically ourselves.

In the philosophy of Viśiṣṭādvaita, it is considered that our true nature consists of two components: (1) essential consciousness (svarūpa-jñāna) and (2) attributive consciousness (dharma-bhūta-jñāna). Essential consciousness is the basic awareness that remains aware in mindful states. Attributive consciousness is an attribute of essential consciousness which is modified by the mind (kind of like the rays of the sun being an attribute of the sun). The mind modifies attributive consciousness in accordance with karma. Phew! Too many concepts!! Let us take a break and try to understand.

Karma is simply the conditioning of the mind and body. If you keep flexing a muscle, it gets stronger. This applies to the mind too. If you flex the ‘muscles’ of anger, frustration, lust, etc. in the brain, these forces get stronger too. When they get stronger, they cloud who we really are and make us live in an over-simplified world. I am sad today. She is so wrong. Everyone, including ourselves, is reduced to a very simple identity in our mental judgment.

Karma causes trouble when we react from anger or even from unexamined positive emotions. Parents are usually at the receiving end of the karmic reactions when they despair from either over-pampering their children or becoming too distant and harsh. Such problems arise in other relationships as well. As much as we can train our mind-body to ride a cycle, we can train this system to react angrily, be constantly irritated and become noisily judgmental as well.

The core of the problem exists not in the karmic dispositions themselves – everyone who exists is disposed in some way and experiences different mental states. The problem lies in the identification of who we truly are with this ghost. The reason why this identification occurs is due to the fact that the modified attributive-consciousness is an attribute of the essential consciousness and inseparably associated with it. The color of attributive-consciousness blinds one to the essential consciousness.

The above architecture of consciousness can help one understand & observe from the essential self that the attributive consciousness is being modified by mental experience. It can allow one to anchor oneself in the core of awareness. This situation enables one to avoid misidentifying with everything that is going on in the mind, and obtaining a tinted view of the world.

Mindfulness is not a quick fix solution to all problems. It demands a continuous state of openness, understanding and being in awareness. It is the anti-thesis of responding in harmfully conditioned ways. It is a process of perceiving better and responding with understanding. It is also a mirror to our true identity, and also of others.

This identity matters: not who we believe or tell ourselves we are, but who we really are. It just takes a little courage to give it a try.

The Light of Embar

There is a story in the life of the great Śrīvaiṣṇava saint, Bhagavad Rāmānuja. He had a younger cousin by name Govinda Perumāḷ. Govinda Perumāḷ was married while Śrī Rāmānuja was an ascetic.

Though Govinda was married, he never behaved like a normal householder. His mother was upset about this difference in behavior. She complained to Śrī Rāmānuja about his cousin’s behavior.

Śrī Rāmānuja knew of his cousin but to demonstrate his holy state, he called him before all and said, ‘Govinda! At the time of darkness, enjoy pleasure by mingling with your wife.’ Everyone present was shocked. Here is an ascetic advising his disciple to have pleasure with his wife in darkness! But, Govinda quietly accepted the instruction and left.

The next day, Śrī Rāmānuja summoned his cousin in front of all and asked, ‘Govinda, did you enjoy pleasure with your wife yesterday?’ Govinda replied, ‘No, Master.’

Śrī Rāmānuja feigned surprise and asked, ‘Why Govinda? Why did you lose the time of darkness? What a waste!’

Govinda replied, ‘I did not miss it, Master. I kept waiting for the time of darkness when I can exploit pleasure from the flesh of another human, but it never arrived.’

Now, everyone gathered there was utterly confused as to what was going on between the two cousins.  Did not night fall? Was there not darkness? Why is the ascetic so intent on this issue and why is his cousin replying as if night did not fall?

Śrī Rāmānuja looked at his cousin, his eyes gleaming with admiration. Almost reverentially, he asked his cousin, ‘Govinda! Would you mind explaining your last remark?’

Govinda replied, ‘When the Supreme Self shines forth in the heart and fills it with light, where is the scope for mundane business, Master? Where is darkness when His light, that is brighter than a thousand suns shining together, illuminates? Where is the pettiness of the individual soul that in its darkness seeks pleasure from the flesh of another person? I kept waiting for that time of darkness when I would descend to that pettiness and seek pleasure with a mind raging with desire. But, that hour did not arrive. The light that was shining within did not let up. Hence, O Master, I am incapable of behaving like a normal householder.’

Śrī Rāmānuja is said to have enacted this episode only to reveal this message to his disciples. Govinda went on to become a great master himself and was called Embār with the idea that he was just like Śrī Rāmānuja.

Some people copy only the external signs and behave with a clueless detachment. They try to control their senses and commit violence upon their bodies and minds. This is not the intent of this episode.

This is a message of Vedānta that we encounter in several places. The Puruṣa Sūkta reveals this first showing that the Supreme Self, Brahman is always manifest along with the soul-self, jīva.

The Lord of all creatures keeps walking into wombs.

Being birthless, He is born several times. 

Only the enlightened recognize His birth.

There is no use searching for God in a hundred external places if one cannot see the God within, if one cannot find the Supreme Self within oneself. In mystic experiences, this is seen as the greatest grace of God, to be born with us and to stay within us.

The Muṇḍaka Upaniṣat says

dvā suparṇa sayujā sakhāya samānaṃ vṛkṣaṃ pariṣasvajāte |
tayor-anyaḥ pippalaṃ svādvatty-anaśnannanyo abhicākaśīti ||

There are two birds which are together and are good friends. They climb on to the same tree. Of the two, one eats the delicious fruit; the other looks on without eating. 

The two birds are the soul-self and the Supreme Self – jīvātmā and paramātmā. The body is the tree. The soul-self enjoys and suffers all experiences of this body. The Supreme Self only watches, bearing witness.

The light of the Supreme Self is in all of us. The darkness of our existence would vanish if we are aligned with the witnessing Supreme Self, our friend who is with us.

The lady saint, Āṇḍāḷ realized the message of the Brahman’s appearance as Kṛṣṇa among the common-folk.  She saw the message as God being always with us. She says, We have the great good of having You born with us. Unblemished Lord! This bond can never be broken. 

Yes, He is born with us, with each one of us and lives in our hearts. He is not to found afar but within oneself. The last set of hymns in  Āṇḍāḷ’s Nācchiyār Tirumozi go like this:

Have you seen Kṛṣṇa who is such and such? 

Yes, we have. We have seen Him in Bṛndāvana. 

Bṛndāvana is our own hearts, our own self.

In Gītāñjali, Rabindranath Tagore writes,

Deliverance? Where is this deliverance to be found? Our master himself has joyfully taken upon him the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all for ever.

This is the same message conveyed through the scripture, the legends, the experience of mystics and the saints.

Our Light is within us. Let it shine!

Learning to love

What is the first education in life? Is it adding numbers or learning the alphabet?

It is religion. For without it, one would not know how to use everything else. The great scientist and sage Albert Einstein said, Science without religion is lame. Religion provides the background purpose for all further education without which we would be fickle and fall prey to our impulses. Science clarifies one’s vision and abolishes superstition. Religion without science is blind. 

What is the first education in religion? Is it reading the scripture or learning some ritual? Is it the cultivation of obedience to authority or the disciplining of the mind?

The first education is religion is love. Incidentally, it is also the last lesson. One revisits the lesson of love until one lives in its joy.

The biggest problem of our times is knowledge without religion. By religion, I do not intend to imply the agenda of dogmatism and blind faith. Religion is the art of spirituality. Spirituality is a notion, an intent; religion makes it happen and gives it life. The purpose of spirituality is to know oneself. Hence, religion is the art of self discovery.

The failure of today’s religion is due to misplaced priorities. Love is used as a catch-phrase to attract crowds. What is taught hence is something entirely different. Religion, in several of its manifestations, fails to teach love as its core. Love has to be taught not just as a message, a concept or a theory, but as actual practice. We need to be taught how to love.

The great Indian sage of the last century, Rabindranath Tagore wrote poems of mysticism directed to God, poems that were full of love. But, before those poems, he wrote poems that were just love poems, which explored the dimensions of love.

Here is one beautiful poem from The Gardener where he brings out the nature of love:

Love is simple as a song

Hands cling to hands and eyes linger on eyes: thus begins the record of our hearts.
It is the moonlit night of March; the sweet smell of henna is in the air; my flute lies on the earth neglected and your garland of flowers in unfinished.
This love between you and me is simple as a song.

Your veil of the saffron colour makes my eyes drunk.
The jasmine wreath that you wove me thrills to my heart like praise.
It is a game of giving and withholding, revealing and screening again; some smiles and some little shyness, and some sweet useless struggles.
This love between you and me is simple as a song.

No mystery beyond the present; no striving for the impossible; no shadow behind the charm; no groping in the depth of the dark.
This love between you and me is simple as a song.

We do not stray out of all words into the ever silent; we do not raise our hands to the void for things beyond hope.
It is enough what we give and we get.
We have not crushed the joy to the utmost to wring from it the wine of pain.
This love between you and me is simple as a song.

Love is simple as a song. Loving simply is the highest spiritual practice.

Let the senses come alive: In the first stanza, Tagore shows how love brings alive the senses. The touching of hands and the meeting of eyes perform the communication between hearts. The business of playing the flute to the delight of his beloved and stringing of flowers to garland her love lie unfinished. What is the use for these accessories that fuel love when the greatest of life is already there? They are thrown aside unfinished for love no longer requires anything more than the meeting of eyes, the touching of hands, the smell of fragrance. The senses have come alive.

Give up on strategy: The second stanza speaks of the absence of strategy in love. One’s senses are awakened to the maximum. The translucent veil of saffron she wears makes her lover drunk. The unfinished jasmine wreath that lies by the side excites the heart for it is the work of love. Without strategy and without plan, a connection is made between the hearts of two individuals. Love dances in the rhythms up and down, giving oneself for a moment and withholding for another, revealing one’s heart and stealing it away. Drawing forward and teasing, it proceeds with spontaneity. There is mirth and there is blushing, mirth and blushing that hold each others hands when the beloved struggles to escape her lover knowing to fail, but there is sweetness. O! Why do we even try to explain poetry! How do we explain with sophisticated language the dynamics of love which dances to the tune of innocence.

Live in the present: In the third stanza, Tagore makes very explicit the nature of love. Love belongs to the present. There is no scheming, no planning, no thinking. There are no mysteries to be solved analytically for the mystery of presence defeats the mind and arrests it. There are no impossible dreams to be attained by self-conscious effort. There is nothing put on artificially, some hidden selfish desire behind the charm waiting to make appearance at some stage. There is no searching of one another to find something, where to anchor love. Love exists in the thoughtless presence.

Love without grasping:  Love is free of grasping. The grasping self does not make its appearance and stand confounded losing its words, overwhelmed with feeling. The expressions of love make their appearance forever because there is no indulgence for the sweetness of experience, only the spontaneous interplay of love. There is no hope, no seeking into the nothingness out of want. There is immeasurable satisfaction in giving and taking, whatever it is. Love is the fountain of joy when it is such.  It is such when it is not crushed by efforts of trying to squeeze pleasure out of each other only to discover pain. Tender is the art of love, its flower is hurt by the softest of grasps. The free flower is a monument of joy that withers away when grasped. Such is the nature of love. It lives only as sheer simplicity.

All this is not wistful thinking, a fantasy or a dream. It is life itself when lived fully. The magic of love works not because of this or that. We fool ourselves by finding reasons for love, by grasping. When those reasons fall apart, there is pain. The initial stages of love are the most blissful because there is innocence. Once the innocence is lost, love dies and is replaced by a contract for selfish pleasure.

In the system of Vedānta, marriage is not a contract between two individuals finalized in front of society. Marriage is not the art of seeking that it has become today in India where either side measures each other’s wealth and appearance. Marriage is a form of religion designed for an intensely spiritual experience. It is a spiritual safe-space outside of all the complexities of the world where our defenses are always up and there is always anxiety. It is a space for two individuals to come innocent before each other, dropping all defenses and constructs of mind. It is the space in which one finds oneself and one’s own inner beauty. It is the space for redemption.

This is possible not because in these moments of love, we find something to like and grasp in each other. It is not even because we accept in our minds each other completely. It is because in the highest moments of love, there is no separate one and there is no separate other. The dividing walls are pulled down in love and there is the vision of the Self, the Supreme Self, the All, the Brahman.

The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣat has this to say in the voice of Sage Yājñavalkya,

Verily, a husband is not dear, that you may love the husband; but that you may love the Self, therefore a husband is dear.

Verily, a wife is not dear, that you may love the wife; but that you may love the Self, therefore a wife is dear.

It is the beauty of the Self which is revealed in love. Once one is trained in the chamber of marriage, one learns to love the Self. Love fails and goes sour when one commits the folly of abandoning the Self and selfishly grasping the other. The partner is dear, but only because he or she shows us the Self.

Tagore writes with immense insight,

It very often happens that our love for our children, our friends, or other loved ones, debars us from the further realisation of our soul. It enlarges our scope of consciousness, no doubt, yet it sets a limit to its freest expansion. Nevertheless, it is the first step, and all the wonder lies in this first step itself. It shows to us the true nature of our soul. From it we know, for certain, that our highest joy is in the losing of our egoistic self and in the uniting with others. This love gives us a new power and insight and beauty of mind to the extent of the limits we set around it, but ceases to do so if those limits lose their elasticity, and militate against the spirit of love altogether; then our friendships become exclusive, our families selfish and inhospitable, our nations insular and aggressively inimical to other races. It is like putting a burning light within a sealed enclosure, which shines brightly till the poisonous gases accumulate and smother the flame. Nevertheless it has proved its truth before it dies, and made known the joy of freedom from the grip of darkness, blind and empty and cold.

Vedānta – the tree and the mother

The tree of Vedānta is magical. The gods covet her but she grows in the soil of human heart. She has a thousand branches which bear a thousand fruits. Each of her fruits is full of wonder and has its special taste.

These fruits are for all to relish. But, a simple mind is so captivated by one of her fruits that he cherishes that one to the exclusion of everything else. He argues that there is only one real fruit and everything else is rotten.

It is clear to the sage that every fruit carries within itself the essence of the tree. A tree that bears only one true fruit is a sick tree. A tree that bears fruit only at one instance of its existence is as good as dead.

The tree of Vedānta is enduring and timeless. She bears her fruits again and again, for different times, each carrying within itself her essence.

And what is this, her essence?

Her roots are the Brahman and her soil is the human heart. Water the soil with love, and she grows forth.

In her essence, she proclaims the bold truth that everything is divine. When one listens in silence, she speaks through the rustling of her leaves. It is a distinct voice that says, brahmavid brahmaiva bhavati. Knowing the Brahman, one becomes Brahman. 

She urges us to leave this petty narrowness, this illusion of being separate, the illusion of arriving in to this world for some purpose for ourselves.

She looks at us with amazement and asks curiously, Where did you come from? We scratch our heads and find no answer. Nowhere we could have come from that is not Brahman.

We tell her that we are petty individuals who need to fight one another to succeed. She disagrees sadly and asks, What is all this around you? How are you alone and separate? You grow with food, you breathe the air, you let the cool water kiss your throat and let the fire caress you with warmth. In her voice, you can sense pity.  She pulls us like a mother would towards her chest and seats us on her lap. Taking her face very close to ours, she makes us see her point of view.

We protest and cry. How could I be divine? Only the Brahman is divine, while I am a petty fellow. It would be a crime to think otherwise.

She has an answer.  Dear child! Quite the opposite. It would be foolish to think that you are anything other than the Brahman. The idea of a lonely you, bound inside four walls is a tragic myth. You feel separate only because you are separately conscious. But, you are born from the Brahman, you sleep in the Brahman, you play in the Brahman. How could you be anything other than the Brahman? Anything other than profoundly divine? It is true that you are a small manifestation of the Brahman’s endless energies. Yet, the rays of the sun are not other than the sun. They are the expression of the sun’s being and so are you. It is through you that the Brahman announces Itself.   

We drink her milk of knowledge and the recognition of our folly is immediate. We drench her lap with endless tears. What folly of mind to think we are different from our Lord! What folly of mind to think of ourselves as independent agents, fighting and crying for our petty toys!

The Three Virtues

Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣat [5-2]
Brahmā/Prajāpati had three types of children – the gods, the humans and the demons. All three groups studied under their father. 
The gods asked Prajāpati, “Sir, Teach us.”
Prajāpati replied with a single letter, “da” and asked them, “Have you understood?”
The gods replied, “Yes, we have. da is dāmyata – have restraint.” Prajāpati agreed that they had. 
The humans asked Prajāpati, “Sir, Teach us.”
Prajāpati replied with a single letter, “da” and asked them, “Have you understood?”
The humans replied, “Yes, we have. da is datta- give.” Prajāpati agreed that they had. 
The demons asked Prajāpati, “Sir, Teach us.”
Prajāpati replied with a single letter, “da” and asked them, “Have you understood?”
The demons replied, “Yes, we have. da is dayadhvam- have compassion.” Prajāpati agreed that they had. 
The thunder in the sky goes “da da da” as if it were conveying this message to all of us: practise self-restraint, engage in charity and have compassion. 
The gods are the sense organs; humans are the mind and demons are emotions. What is needed for sense organs is restraint. What is needed for the mind is charity to overcome selfishness. What is needed for emotions is compassion to prevent them from going negative.
When the senses are in control, the mind is not craving and becomes generous, when emotions live in the background of compassion, one gains insight into oneself and gains a spiritual sight. That which cultivates a spiritual sight is a virtue.