Sunday, August 29, 2010
Excerpt: Gurus, Rock Stars & the Men In Between ch 1
I don’t profess any one spiritual path superior to another. I’ve always had a soft spot for Jesus, and my schools were denomination based in a saccharin-vanilla Christian sense. Regardless of cultural origins we remain unique. The innumerable available spiritual paths exist to accommodate our many flavored needs. Though raised on a blond, blue-eyed Savior, I’m finding my flavor, my reason, and my answer to life’s question in a saffron-soaked India. I don’t want to be a monk for the rest of my life. I do want to learn about the one thing I consider important, the one thing my religious school never taught. I want to learn about the elephant in the room. I want to learn the meaning of life.
I spend months traveling around the subcontinent. I hear of one Saint in the north, stay at that Ashram for a period where I hear of another, and travel thousands of miles south to stay with and learn from a new Guru. They are all great personalities and meaningful personal experiences, but it’s only the philosophy and tradition of Vaishnavism* that’s capturing my heart.
Each tradition is essentially a branch of Hinduism†, and as a whole they enjoy many similarities. The defining difference for me is that while the tradition of Guru exists in Vaishnavism, there is equal if not more importance given to God and philosophy. I’m not OK with a room full of people worshiping in a personality cult. I’m not saying that’s exactly and always what I experience at other ashrams. Though at times enough elements combine to send my spidey-sense off the Richter scale. What attracts me to Vaishnavism is the emphasis on studying ancient Vedic scripture, beyond simply listening to a mortal seated on high. God or self-realization is placed as most important, while the worship of Guru is in relational reverence and gratitude for a teacher revealing esoteric knowledge, and facilitating connection with the Divine.
Worship of the Guru personality alone is a dangerous cocktail. And I’m a cheap drunk. I want to be careful. I’ve come to India to learn the meaning of life, not find a new celebrity before which to fall prostrate. I see many Westerners fall into the Guru-worship trap. While the presence of Guru in Vaishnavism will inevitably produce fanatics, the scriptures offer a constant reminder this is an aberration.
The Sanskrit word ‘yoga,’ means to yoke or reconnect. Vaishnavism is the practice of bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion. In bhakti yoga one can incorporate the other yogic disciplines such as hatha,* but these are not offered as the goal of spiritual practice. They are seen as favorable breezes on the path, designed to quiet the twitching mind and body, so one can practice spirituality peacefully.
The goal of bhakti yoga is to awaken perpetual love of God. It is the yoga of love, the simplest and yet most difficult form of yoga, because it requires saranagati: complete surrender of the heart. We are blessed in Western culture to have the life of Jesus as a wonderful example of saranagati. Rightwing Christians would nail me to the cross for that statement.
In fifteenth century India, a famous Saint ignited a mass movement of the bhakti faith across the continent. While the West was going through its Renaissance, rejecting the shackles of the Church in order to embrace art and science, India as usual, was doing the complete opposite. India was experiencing a spiritual reawakening. This Saint, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, reintroduced the ancient art of kirtan, otherwise known as congregational chanting. The first obvious glimpse in the West was in the 1960s with the Beatles and the Hare Krishnas. So if you’d like to sue someone for the clanging symbols and exuberant dancing mob, that would be him. The inability of the Krishnas to gently proselytize or keep over enthusiastic devotees in line has at times overshadowed an otherwise beautiful, surprisingly widespread and conventional spiritual path.
Decades later, in cities all around the world, kirtan can be heard from yoga studios loud and unapologetically. Considered the chic of the über chic, it’s not uncommon to spot celebrities and professional juggernauts sitting crossed legged, eyes closed, thumb and pointer-finger joined, swaying in ecstatic throws of chanting. Hare Rama!
* A monotheistic, devotional faith
† A misnomer and legacy of colonialism. The real term is Sanatana Dharma.
* A prescribed set of physical exercises often simply referred to as ‘yoga’ in the West.