By meditation, some men
can see the Self in the self;
others, by the yoga of knowledge;
others, by selfless action.
Still others, not seeing, only
hear about it and worship;
they too cross beyond death,
trusting in what they have heard.
Bhagavad Gita 13.24-25
I have the shoe thing down. Slip-off shoes or sandals are the way to go. I walked in to the Swami Sarvadevananda’s weekly class in the Vedanta chapel, knocked off my sandals with a kick of my heel on the carpet and put them up on the white wooden shelves almost without a thought.
The swami was already cross-legged on the dais, his long arms resting on the low table. He was in the middle of saying one of those many words which all sound the same to me. The one I heard was “Ishta” but wasn’t even sure how to spell it so I settled for phonetics. “…that from which all creation comes and which is beyond all change,” he said. “But we must create an image of it. We can only love what is concrete. We love human beings, beautiful flowers, the rising moon because they are tangible. But how do you love the Infinite?”
I guess you need to think there is an “Infinite” to begin with before you can start trying to figure out how to love It. As I sat there scribbling down notes, I was pretty sure I could accept that much, that there probably is an “Infinite” but “loving It?” Why does It need me to “love” It, to worship It? Isn’t recognizing Its existence or just being open to It enough?
“In the beginning, we need forms to worship, forms like Buddha, like Christ, like Ramakrishna,” the swami said. “God cannot be worshipped except in symbols. There is no religion in the world that is not practicing on the concept (a symbol) of God. To say: ‘my symbol is better than yours’ is silly.” The swami said we mustn’t confuse the picture of Ramakrishna - or any symbol for that matter - with God Itself.
So, according to the way Hinduism is practiced at the Vedanta Temple, all those icons in Hindu temples all over the world are not meant to actually be considered Divine themselves but to be images of the Unknowable or the Absolute Reality. They’re forms which appear in the minds of people meditating, a different one for you and a different one for me. They each represent some of the powers of God as most of us need something specific to love. And that is what Bhakti yoga is all about: Love.
This idea of a religion acknowledging that different people might need different approaches to worship is one of the more stunning features of Hinduism. Built into its very structure is the notion that there are those among us who might be more comfortable learning about God in an intellectual way (jnana yoga) which might include a concept of a formless Absolute that was everywhere present. There might be some of us who want to demonstrate our devotion through selfless action (karma yoga), and still others who might revel in learning to control their bodies and minds as a way of coming into contact with the Divine (raja yoga). “But,” the swami added, “most Hindus, like most people, find it more natural to worship a representation of the Absolute. And that practice is called bhakti yoga.”
There were about a dozen of us in the pews. I still wasn’t sure what kind of person I was but I was getting an idea. My natural inclination is towards the notion of God without form ‑‑ the guy on a cloud thing never sat well with me, ever, -- and I clearly feel safer inside a book than in a ritual or service so that would make me, by Hinduism’s terms, more comfortable with jnana yoga and likely to find the bhakti path a bit of a stretch. But I hadn’t started this with the idea of staying the same.
Hinduism considers Christianity a bhakti path, (the path of devotion) where Christ is the Beloved; the cross, a sacred symbol of worship. The idea is that, because we don’t know what Absolute Reality looks like or even how to express it, it’s natural for limited humans to worship God in a symbolic way. But the ultimate goal is to come face-to-face with the Divine yourself. “But,” Swami Sarvadenvanada said, peering up over the top of the small book in his hands, “first you have to be convinced, intellectually, that this can happen. Once your conviction is strong, you can then make a journey to practice this in your life.”
That is the problem isn’t it? How do you get that conviction? I could look at my life before all this as either a journey without conviction or a conviction without a journey. I had the desire to know more but I’d taken only those steps I could hide under a disguise called work, mostly as television news stories. Did conviction have to come first or was it something that could grow from a journey begun in its absence? Or maybe, just maybe, I already had it if I wasn’t afraid to admit it. Maybe my struggle was really over what my definition of God was and then, what to do about it. Should I be grateful to this explosion of interfaith dissension for being the final push out the door to figure at least some of this out?
The swami then talked about how Ramakrishna eventually left rituals behind and disliked discussing theories once he saw that Divine light. He simply wanted to love God. “Ramakrishna said, ‘What use is it to walk into a grove of mango trees and discuss the number of branches, the shape of the leaves, or who planted the trees or when they were planted? What is the need of all this? Just eat the mangos.’” Swami Sarvadevananda laughed.
It would be great to have the kind of faith that was clear as seeing fruit hanging from a tree. But, right then, I couldn’t see the mango grove let alone the fruit.
“People are emotional more than rational,” Swami Sarvadevananda said. He was getting warmed up. “Can we use this emotion for God? All Ramakrishna cried for was to see the face of God and, when he did,” the Swami’s hands were flying farther and farther from his body. “He was filled with JOY and JOY and JOY!”
Why was this extreme abandon the swami described so off-putting?
Ramakrishna lived in the late 1800s and frequently went into spiritual reveries so intense, he’d lose all consciousness, sometimes for hours. At least once during one of these episodes, he fell down and broke his arm. Thank goodness earlier that day I’d spent some time with Christopher Isherwood’s books on Vedanta Hinduism. In his introduction to Vedanta for Modern Man, Isherwood said, “Ramakrishna is presented always as an exemplar (and not the only exemplar) of Vedanta.” He said that, while the Vedanta Society did worship Ramakrishna, it was “a matter of individual choice” and “no student of Vedanta need necessarily take part… much less discard his loyalty to any other divine personality.” So, when Swami Sarvadevananda became rhapsodic about Ramakrishna, Isherwood’s thoughts gave me permission to learn from Ramakrishna without worshipping him or even, necessarily, being comfortable with him. It made it possible for me to stay in my seat and listen.
“In our early devotional life we need rites and rituals – puja, and the like – every day. We do this until devotion grows. For many people, just thinking about God isn’t enough. That’s why the Catholics have mass, Jews have Torah study. It’s a great help to have spiritual people leading us to the highest experience of God. So, you start with the formalities, like when you first meet someone. When you start a journey, we have these little formalities: do this, don’t do that. But, once you love God, it’s not so important. All of these rituals are the reason that India has produced so many numberless saints and seers. There are rituals all day in the temple and from birth to death. Many think: ‘Oh, these rituals are so bad.’ Okay. But it’s like cleaning the bathtub with the baby. You don’t throw away all of the flavor of love that goes with the puja. Suppose you only bring the philosophy? That’s like bringing the structure without flesh and bone. There’s no sweetness, no manifestation of joy. Don’t destroy the rituals until they’ve raised your consciousness to the Divine. If you discard it, then you’ve got nothing but dry bones.”
I was getting pretty excited about the notion that I might be able to cut to the chase, to by-pass all those rituals that felt confusing and made me feel awkward and just stick to the reading, the meditating and the discussing but that wasn’t what the swami meant. Reading and learning about Hinduism without entering into the ritual, devotional part of it, was going to get me nowhere. Karen Armstrong, a former nun, wrote in The Spiral Staircase,
Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but doing things that change you. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life-enhancing. But you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.But, how?
The swami said, “Make a small altar in your room and put pictures of those who inspire you, those who you find divine. A picture of Christ, of (the Vedanta’s) Mother Durga, of the Buddha, and, after you shower, offer flower incense every morning and ask for their blessings. If you don’t do anything ritualistic and I ask about what you did, you will talk, talk, talk, about what happened in your office – that’s it. You have to make a separation between mundane life and spiritual life so that, eventually, you see the face of God everywhere. But you have to start with a ritual.”
I’m not sure I’m a ritual sort of girl after my experience trying to do Hemu’s rituals but this seemed at least a bit more within reach, something worth trying, at least.
Outside the cut glass windows of the chapel in the Vedanta Center, it was already dark when someone in the class raised their hand to ask Swami Sarvadevananda another question. “Can’t you do good work with out this?” Clearly I wasn’t the only one wondering if rituals were required, if we measured up if we didn’t do them.
“What happens to that good work when the world collapses into dust?” the swami answered. “When there is no world anymore? Ritual devotion adds spiritual flavor, makes our life more peaceful. More good will get done in a more substantial and permanent way by practicing devotion. One ounce of spiritual practice is worth more than tons and tons of frothy talks. How many times do we listen to great scholarly talks given by great (teachers) but, then, once we get out of the temple and someone asks what was said and many will answer: ‘I don’t know.’ (Whereas) someone else will speak simply, from the heart, and the world changes.”
Swami Sarvadevananda glanced at the small clock on his table and, before closing his book and ending with a chant which included “Om, shanti, shanti, shanti.” or “Om, peace, peace, peace,” he looked ahead in the book to next week’s topic. “Next time we’ll read ‘The Need of a Guru” which will answer the question: Who can help us and how we can reach the truth? Who can hold our hand?”
Wearing socks on his feet, the swami stepped down from the carpeted dais and walked down the center aisle to stand in the back to greet each person as they left with the night’s book tucked under one arm. Some bowed to him, others bent down to touch his feet.
At the end of one of the last classes, I’d told myself I’d finally do it, finally bow and touch his feet, but there was there was a ridiculous and growing chorus of voices in my head: “Will you bow? Will you touch his feet?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. What a moron for even thinking of doing it.”
“What’s the big deal? You signed up for going through this so just do it and see what it feels like.”
“Nah, get outta town.”
I could go on because “they” did in my head. It’s amazing how many things I can think of in the short walk from one end of a small room to the other. Well, I told myself, at least I’m certain about one thing: I’m just not a bow-er.
That night, I thought I’d gotten over it, that I was going to be able to do it but, when it was my turn, I still couldn’t. I stood rigid, an awkward distance from him. There was going to be no spine-bending from me.
He smiled and asked, “Are you staying for dinner?”
“Not tonight. I have to get home.”
“Is there a time you could teach me some of the rituals, Swamiji?” At least I’d learned what to call him: Swami-ji or Maharaj.
“Oh. After class on Tuesday.”
“Thank you, Swamiji.”
I sort of bobbed my head but I couldn’t even squeak out a “namaste” so there was nothing to do but turn and walk out of the chapel.
I took my sandals from the shelf, dropped them to the carpet and slipped into them, opening the heavy wooden door into a cold night.
(4 October 2006)