Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature: external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control , or philosophy – by one, or more, or all of these – and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.
I went to learn some rituals. Swami Sarvadenanda said he’d teach them to me after aarti. It meant I had to figure out what aarti was.
The ritual worship of Ramakrishna at the Vedanta Society is easy to miss, at first. It wasn’t in the schedule the temple sent out every month but that’s because it happens every day at six in the evening. In its own quiet way, it was every bit as dramatic as the rituals at the temple in Whittier.
In a class, the swami had described the importance of ritual this way: “God is love. But how are we to know that?” he said, pausing as though one of us sitting in the class might actually answer him. “If you see a person who shows more love than is commonly manifested in everyday life, then you can use them as a role model. Like Ramakrishna. This is the source of the evangelical idea that you can only go to God through Christ. It’s important to see these spiritual giants as a role model so that we get encouraged to try to develop that kind of love.”
Okay, so the idea of revering a historical figure is starting to make some sense. I don’t think I can go so far as to worship Ramakrishna as though he were Divine but perhaps I can find traits of his worth admiring and even emulating although I’m not so good at the hero thing. It seems that everytime I get one, I look too close and they crash down.. Maybe I’ve looked for them in the wrong places like books, plays, movies, and biographies. Or maybe it’s because I demand too much of them. I’ve always thought heroes had to be perfect. Perhaps it's both of those reasons and one other: I doubt I could recognize a hero if I’d met one; I’m always too busy looking out for the clay feet.
Does it take death to fully recognize a hero? I deeply loved and admired my father-in-law while he was alive. When I think of a life lived on faith, I think of him, of his decision to become an orthopedist to help disabled children as Christ did and he did it outside his regular practice, without compensation, for his entire life. But it wasn’t until his death that this essential fact became untangled from the mundane family and human logistics which distracted from the truth, his truth, and now my truth. John didn’t need to be perfect to be one of my heroes. From his example I’ve learned what it means to live on faith and to give for no other purpose but as an exercise of that faith.
But it’s not easy with Ramakrishna. Even his main disciple, Vivekananda, the guy who started this sect of Hinduism called the Ramakrishna Mission or Vedanta here in the United States after Ramakrishna died, took quite some time before he fully appreciated his teacher. So what can I appreciate about Ramakrishna? I admire his unshakable desire to know the Unknowable and his single-minded devotion to the search, to know for himself. So I might not find myself swept away by spiritual ardor but I might be able to lay a flower at the base of his photo or get some sustenance from having his picture around the way I do from the photos of John on my mantelpiece at home.
At the aarti that night, everyone who came into the temple walked to the front, kneeled down and then most touched their heads on the clean carpet. I figured now was the time. No one much cared what I did or didn’t do. Plus, it was dark. So I walked up to the far side and did it: I kneeled down, touched my forehead to the carpet, and sat down on the floor.
All I felt was relief.
Whether or not it will ever be any more than that, I don’t know. Something about the idea of getting to the Divine through thinking of or reflecting on an example of someone who really tried, with every fiber of their being, to live a spiritual life makes it much less of a big deal. I’m not worshipping a picture or an icon so much as paying respect to an effort made, hoping to learn what I can from the act.
In half-light, Swami Sarvadevananda came in through a side door and stood facing the altar while a short-haired Anglo nun did all of the rituals which included a near constant ringing of the brass bell in her hand. Two congregants beat gongs while everyone chanted “Jai Sri Ramakrishna” - like Hemu’s greeting “Jai Swaminarayan” only with a different name. In the description on the website, it said the service was called “Arati” or Vespers; its purpose was “to remember that all we do is for God’s sake.”
The nun waved a brass candle holder followed by a pitcher of water, a folded piece of cloth, a flower, and a long fan made of hair from a yak’s tail which almost floated through the air when she was waved around. The bell ringing symbolizes the sound “OM” which is the symbol of Hinduism and also represents God (Brahman.) “The lights symbolize the light of Brahman (the Godhead). They also symbolize fire, one of the five elements that comprise the universe.” The water stands for itself; the flower represents earth; the flowing fan, called a chamara, symbolizes air; and the cloth represents space (as in cloth covers the body as space envelops all creation.) The point of the fire and the chanting of Ramakrishna’s name was to ask him to be present in the service.The nun moved each item with a rhythmic but slightly sensuous dance-like movement confined to her right arm while her left moved just enough to keep the bell gently ringing at her side.
When the ritual was over, a silent meditation began. Swami Sarvadevananda sat on a mat to the far right side of the altar, his back utterly straight, until the hour was over. By the time we opened our eyes, at the back of the chapel was a basket of flowers taken from the altar for people to take home with them.
The lights came on, the night class began and still the swami hadn’t had a chance to teach me a single ritual. After class, came dinner and I went to that, too, hoping he hadn’t forgotten.
More than twenty people sat down to eat, a number of them guests from out of town. I scooped the little food I took – rice and spiced vegetables along with homemade bread – off the paper plate and into my face as quickly as I could. In an awkward moment, the Swami abruptly excused himself from the long table and motioned for me to follow him into another room for a few private words, not my idea of how I wanted this to go. I couldn’t forget the large group eating, waiting for his return.
For the daily rituals and an explanation of their meaning, he suggested I get a small book called The Worship of Sri Ramakrishna but, as to the first steps he’d suggest for someone like me? “Try to think that there is a divine in everything, and there is a divine presence with you and you are connected in that way. This is a whole day awareness, hmm?” His hand emphasized just how complete this moment-by-moment focus should be. “That means bringing the mind a little bit internal but focus on your work, whatever that is. At the end of your work, make your time for meditation. When you do that, forget everything that happens: what he said, what she said, what happened.”
This wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. I wanted a list, details, directives and “One other thing— “ I hesitated. “Uhm, a mantra? Isn’t that part of it?”
“A mantra, I cannot give you. Only the senior swami in each center can and he is out of town for at least a month more” the swami said. “But you— Which form of God speaks to your heart? Tell me: who? Who is your ideal?”
Who is “my ideal?” I had no idea and no idea what to say. I guessed he meant one of those altar icons I’d seen in other Hindu temples, those enormous elaborate statues, but they were all a blur to me; there wasn’t one that spoke to me more than any other because I didn’t know their stories. What I wished I’d said was: What do you mean? Or: What’s on the menu? Or, even: What do you suggest? But what I said was, “It’s not a form. Not a form.” All I meant by that was, so far, I still had a hard time saying or even typing the word “God” because it felt too concrete, too specific a term for something I can’t grasp, like an idea at the edge of a dream. “Form” meant that bearded guy, to me, and that notion of the Divine just doesn’t work for me. I saw the men walking on the moon far above the clouds. I saw the pictures of earth hanging in the sky like a blue swirled moon. Those swirls held God? I don’t think so.
“Okay,” the swami said, “get out of form. Say that it is infinite, like space, like ocean, an ocean of light and joy, like that, and chant a simple ‘om’.” The swami closed his eyes and immediately went somewhere else. His voice was low and lasting. “Oooooooooooooooommmmm Iiiiinnnfiniiiiiiite liiiiight. Iiiiiiiinfiiiniiiiiite joooooooy.”
I was unable to be where I was. Watching him chant, one-on-one, made me nervous. I kept thinking about the swami’s half-eaten plate of food and the twenty people back at the table wondering where he went and when he’d come back. “I’ll let you get back to your dinner. Thank you, Swamiji.”
I got up to leave and then, with out a hesitation, without a thought, I found myself bending down to touch the swami’s black socks. I touched them then stood up with my hands together and said, “Namaste.”
He smiled, bowed back at me, and then went back to his dinner and I went home.
I done it. I’d done something.