THINKING ABOUT MY TEACHER
Once, in the years before the advent of colour TV, I caught the latter part of a program on religion – so I gathered. I was half-listening to some preacher who could not get my attention, and I turned away… when my attention was fully caught by the next person that came on. His voice was somewhat high-pitched, but sweet. His eyes looked straight at me, into me. He was seated, cross-legged, on a bed. His hair was long and a beard completed (for me, at least) the picture of one that dwelt in a mountain cave. He was speaking about God, my relationship with him, and my purpose in life. All those abstruse ideas that I had been trying to gather from the Upanishads (without any commentary!) came flowing to me, into me. Here was a man, I thought, who not only understood what he was saying, but somehow I felt that they were a part of him. I listened in silent amazement. And as quickly, his piece came to an end.
I had gathered nothing about this strange man to whom I felt an inexplicable attraction. The thought arose in me: I must meet him. But of course it was a hopeless thought.
How strange is Destiny! How marvellously she weaves her complex plots. I was to meet this man once more!
Some years passed by. (Colour TV had become a part of our lives!) At school, I embarked on reviving the old Hindu Society. The first meeting was a great success. Among the teachers whose help I had taken was a young man who was singularly impressed by me and who later was instrumental in inviting me to speak at the Sri Sarada Devi Ashram which had just come into existence. While I was in the middle of my talk, a small group entered the shrine. I paused. The young man next to me asked me to continue.
But I could not. With the few devotees had entered a monk. He walked down the steps on the right side, against the wall. To me, he looked like a mountain of shining gold. Though he had an ever so slight limp, he had the majestic gait of a lion. He came to the front of the shrine, bowed down before the deities on the altar, and seated himself on an orange-covered cushion, facing the devotees. He smiled at us. It was an enchanting smile!
Later, he spoke. The group had returned from Zimbabwe, I think. They had had a near accident. But, he said, he had prayed for their safety before leaving, and, turning to the image of Sri Ramakrishna on the altar, he said, ‘He too had to save his face.’ I was stunned to hear such words addressed to and about God. I could never have imagined that such a familiarity could exist between God and a human being. O, the intimacy!
He spoke in a humorous vein, and we all were laughing. I was especially amused by his peculiar accent. But that lasted only a brief moment. I forgot every such distraction as I listened to his comments on what I had said. He retold everything, but in a language that was so simple and thought that was so clear that I felt myself raised to another level of being. Now I really understood what I had been discoursing on earlier for some thirty minutes! I had presented so much information coloured by my limited perception on a subject I had but a superficial understanding of.
After the service, when most of the devotees had left, I was taken to meet him in the lounge. There was a group around him – the devotees that formed the inner circle. Someone told him that I taught English and that I had a good command of the language and wrote well. ‘Then you must write for the Centre,’ he said to me.
‘Will I get a royalty?’ I asked jestingly.
He looked intensely at me with those piercing eyes. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘do not ask for royalty. Ask for Reality.’ Though I had produced two booklets and a series of articles at his request, they were never published; nor (alas) did I get Reality.
A few months later, it was Guru Purnima. I felt restless. I wanted to see a holy man. In the evening, I told my wife that we should visit a certain priest who, in my opinion, came closest to a holy man. It was a week day, so I did not think that I could go to the ashram to meet the Swami. As I drove, I saw clearly, the face of the Swami in front of me, as if beckoning me. We did meet the priest, late though it was. Still he was pleased to meet us and gave us his blessing. Now, I resolved to go to the ashram.
I was surprised to see the number of cars there. After visiting the shrine, we went to the lounge. The room was filled with people, and there was much activity. The Swami looked up as we entered. He looked as if he were waiting for me. I sat close to him. He was speaking about the Guru. I listened in fascination to his words. The truth of his words struck me.
He paused and looked at me. ‘Can you make tea?’ he asked. Of course I could make tea! He asked me to make him a cup of tea. It was much later that I learnt what a special privilege had been accorded to me. Some lady accompanied me to the kitchen to show me where the needful articles were. I worked with concentrated mind, repeating Lord’s name as I prepared the tea, and took it to the Swami. A sudden hush fell over the room. He sipped. All looked expectantly. He smiled.’The boy makes good tea!’ I was relieved, so were some devotees who had a love for me.
He asked if they all would like some tea, too. When they all answered in the affirmative, he sent me to the kitchen once more. But this time, two other women came along. One of them proceeded in a rush, and gave me no chance to do a thing. Hastily she put in the sugar, and the other woman discovered that it was the salt that she had put in. Now they poured all the tea into the sink and started anew. Time ticked on. And at long last the cups of tea were placed on a tray and I carried it to the lounge. Again he looked at me. ‘Why so long?’ I did not answer. He was smiling at me in an amused way. He knew! ‘It is not so easy to make a cup of tea. Do you think it is easy to get Knowledge?’
MAAS PARAAYAN HELD BY TULSI CULTURAL INSTITUTE
The dew drops fall, silently, unseen, nourishing the roots to make the roses bud and burst into brilliance. Such is the way in which the Tulsi Cultural Institutes (Durban) works. Its most recent project, in collaboration with several organisations, was the recital of the entire Tulsikrit Ramayan in thirty days, held from 08 December 2012 to 06 January 2013. As far as we know, this is the first time that such a thing has been done in South Africa.
It was held at 8 different venues: Newlands Ramayan Mandalee (2 days), University Hindu Centre – UKZN Westville (17 days), Rydalvale Ramayan Mandalee (4 days), Reservoir Hills Seva Samaj (5 days) and Redfern Ramayan Mandalee and Sydenham Sanatan Dharma Vishnu Mandir 1 day each. (At all these venues, the Ramayan is recited regularly.)
Each day, the program commenced with the traditional / recommended worship, followed by the recital. On any day, there were three generations of reciters: some were youngsters still at school and tertiary institutions, and the others were parents and grandparents. How wonderful! And the Ramayan was recited in so many varied tunes, each time consistent with the mood and feelings of the text – as though the nine sentiments which Tulsidasji says he evoked were present before us.
The number of dohas to be recited each day was according to the divisions prescribed by the text. The recital was followed by an English summary with some comments. We were fortunate to have with us Prof R Sitaram, one who is internationally respected for his contribution to the Ramayan literature and its propagation, and one who has inspired many people here in South Africa to pursue a study of the Ramayan. Unfortunately for us, he was not able to stay all through as he had to fulfil arrangements which had been concluded some time earlier. So in the latter part of the programme we missed very much his penetrating insights into the Ramayan. However, there were others who lovingly fulfilled that role.
The evening was concluded by arati and shanti paath. And supper was always served. Dining together, I learnt that there were some youngsters who had been reciting Ramayan since their childhood. How fortunate they were, I thought, to absorb the eternal values and noble culture as presented in the Ramayan. The observant eye perceives the effect of this in their behaviour, their speech, their general demeanour.
There was a core group of some 20 or 30 that always attended the recital. They included the reciters, the musicians, the lighting / sound technicians, and those that carried out the various other duties such as seeing to the supper, etc. How hectic it must have been for many of them, considering that they were working, and had to travel long distances on many occasions. But they all recounted how fortunate they were to be involved in this great event.
The commencement date was fixed on one consideration only: that the Sundarkand of the Ramayan be recited on the last day of the year. It has long been the practice of the Tulsi Cultural Institute to hold a public recital of the Sundarkand on the last night of the year and usher in the New Year with the chanting of Ram-Nam. On New Year’s Eve night, some 600 people together recited the Sundarkand. How very marvellous then that the commencement and end dates were naumi tithis! (Sri Rama was born on naumi tithi.)
This Maas Parayan was something very special indeed. It was a nectarean shower in the form of the Ramayan that soaked into our very being; Ram-Nam was a lullaby that took our consciousness into sleep, and Ram-Nam was a clarion that awoke our consciousness in the morning; it has created for us a boat of faith that is propelling us across the waters of this mundane existence.
Glory to Sri Ram who is compassionate and creates such occasions for His devotees!
‘M’ was the pen-name of Mahendra Nath Gupta, the author of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. He was an excellent teacher and well-versed in eastern philosophy, knew Sanskrit well, was familiar with the Puranas, and various subjects such as astronomy and science. In addition, he knew western philosophy and literature.
M had a photographic memory and kept a diary. He said: ‘I recorded whatever I heard with my own ears from the lips of the Master and whatever I saw of his life with my own eyes.’ It was from his diary notes that M wrote the Gospel. The poetic imagination and his penchant for details makes the Gospel not only a treasure-house of spiritual teachings but also a means of meditation on every scenes and settings, and even on Sri Ramakrishna himself.
M’s first meeting with Sri Ramakrishna
Because of family problems, M was contemplating suicide. But somehow, accompanied by Siddhu his nephew, he came to the temple garden of Dakshineswar, where he met Sri Ramakrishna. It was a Sunday in March, 1882. It was the day of a special religious festival and people had gathered in great numbers in Sri Ramakrishna’s room and on the veranda. M recalled: ‘I was thinking of killing myself, but instead I found my real Self. My family troubles led me to God.’ What a wonderful instance of the divine play of the Lord! Suffering led not only to happiness but to the supreme bliss. The first meeting with Sri Ramakrishna was life-changing. M said: ‘After meeting Sri Ramakrishna, I completely forgot my past. His towering personality and spiritual magnetism erased my sad memories.’
Power of the Lord’s Holy Name
With a smiling face, Sri Ramakrishna was speaking to the devotees of the power of the Lord’s Holy Name and true Bhakti as the means of attaining God-vision.
Master: Yes, the Holy Name has saving powers, but there must be earnest longing with it. Without earnest longing of the heart, no one can see God by mere repetition of His Name. One may repeat His Name, but if one’s mind is attached to lust and wealth, that will not help much. When a man is bitten by a scorpion or a tarantula, mere repetition of a mantram will not do; a special remedy is necessary. (In other words, we have been bitten by the scorpion of worldliness.)
In a recent radio interview on Hindvani, Swami Abhedanandaji Maharaj, Spiritual Head of the Chinmaya Mission SA, used the game of cricket as an image for life. I am recollecting some of his inspirational words here.
We are at the crease, now. The bat is our hands. The bowler is about to bowl the first ball. We must be ready to expect anything from him. We cannot beg him, ‘Please bowl a slow ball. I cannot play a googly. I will not be able to see the fast ball!’ Life does not listen to us nor give us what we ask for.
We are all at the crease of life. We are facing Life, the bowler. We must be ready and expect the unexpected. We must take whatever life gives us, and turn it to our advantage.
Most often, we do the least and expect the most. We do not do our best, but expect life to give us the best. We must be ready for anything. Whatever challenge the world throws at us, we should face it and accept it. We should be prepared for the worst. And when good comes, it is a great bonus.
But many of us hoping for the best. And when the worst comes, it shatters us.
Let us take up the challenges of life. Say to the world, ‘OK, bowl. I am ready.’ And whatever ball the world bowls, we should hit, not singles, but fours and sixes. Let us play a good inning, and when we leave the crease, let all the spectators say, ‘O! What a great inning!’
How strange that I should weep when those that made us weep attained the shelter of thy feet!
The buffalo pounded the earth, rent the seamless space, ousted the gods, battled furiously with thee, and fell – in blissful repose at thy feet.
And the shining brothers two who ravaged the earth, plundered, and stole the beauty and wealth of gods, even cast their eyes upon thee, and fought to take thee a prisoner, O Boundless Mother.
But can you tell me, O Mother, where are they now?
O for shame! What greater sins of mine have turned thee away from me! This much alone is thy victory: You have stilled the stream of songs whose sounds were the beats of my heart. But you, in whom the contracted powers of the universe lie, cannot pound to dust this little heap of sins!
O Mother, if this you cannot do, will not do, can you not cast a sidelong glance, even in disdain, towards me?
When the equine waves of the mind stand still, when their powers burst into an austere flame which illumines perception, when the sensuous earth reflects the spirit-sky, when the spirit-sky pervades the earth, when the eyes see through the purged heart, when speech comes shining throughout the intellect, when we reach the centre of the spinning world where motion is stilled — then a thought forms of strands of truths, then flows in earthy words covered in spirit-sky. That is the poetry that told, and could not tell, the truths experienced in a realm beyond the gravity of earth and the infinity of space.
Beyond the circumscription of the corporeal body, freed of the seductive senses, unfettered by space … there where is neither perception nor knowledge, nor language …. there is the stuff of the seer-poet. He sees the infinite as a dewdrop dissolving into space, becoming space.
At the confluence of the three-braided time where past and present and future are one, the point at which measured time flows into the ocean of eternity … then when language cannot exist, is born the seer’s poem.
He knows eternity in the sand grain of the hourglass. Particles flow from infinity, through the present, fall in heaps of memory. Modicums of time, infinitely small, connect and merge and flow as a river flows. Time is the cradle of events that flow, connecting and merging – the dance of chaos and meaning.
Stillness is the very heart of motion. The poet sits still in his ever-moving world. Observing. In this ethereal world, there is no language. He comes down, is caught in motion, and recalls and recreates. He transmits through words an experience, a thought, an observation. The network of words cast by the mind of the poet catches us. The poem is the intersection of a mind trying to know with a mind that knows. That is the experience between the struggle and the stillness.
To tell in a language tethered by earth of things beyond the limitless sky, of experiences unknowable by senses, of thoughts inconceivable by mind and transcending the intellect, of a realm where the polarities and contradictions of existence cease – that is their challenge.
The struggle, oh, the eternal struggle of the mind to be free of the meshes of word and world. To be free of motions that enslave and take labour that is the motions of emotions. O, the struggle to make the thought end in a wordless poem!