The Pseudo Indian Yogi and his Bhagvad Gita

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We are a nation of yogis. Or maybe I should say pseudo Yogis. We are spiritually enlightened and evolved; we quote from The Bhagvad Gita at the drop of a hat; Ramdev or no Ramdev , we know “yoga” very well,; we worship animals and plants as manifestations of the Divine; we have a plethora of gurus, saints and sadhus. Name what you desire in the name of god, religion or spirituality and you will find it hidden in some corner of the country. It has often been said that you can take an Indian away from God but cannot take God away from an Indian. Even the most atheistic of us has god lingering somewhere in the periphery of his or her existence- maybe in the form of a devout spouse or parent or the ever so welcome public holiday.

However,we have our own interpretation of religion, spirituality and Bhagvad Gita that changes as per our needs. At the core of our existence and existential dilemma lies the body-spirit duality. Dwelling in the spiritual realm as we do, we look down upon the body- anything physical in fact. So it’s perfectly okay to just sit around and bloat up rather than exert and get into shape. The body, we say, is not worth fretting over. Not that there are many fitness enthusiasts, but a few who do take physical fitness seriously are frowned down upon as being vain. They are deemed to be too caught up with corporeal affairs to pursue our higher spiritual goals seriously. When did being physically unfit translate into being spiritual, I fail to see. All that we do in the name of physical exercise is a sham of a walk and a bigger sham of yoga. Walk means a community get together of men or women strolling along discussing their household or national problems. Yoga, one of the best gifts you can give yourself, has somehow become synonymous with furious stomach pumping and graceless poses struck at all odd angles. Visit any community park in the morning and you will know what I’m talking about. Ramdev may have popularised yoga, pranayam more specifically, but the way this ancient practice is being carried on leaves a lot to be desired.

Strangely, the body that we deride throughout our lives, gains paramount importance when someone dies. Yes, the death of a beloved is a great loss and I don’t mean to belittle that loss. My point is simply that, when someone dies and a body departs, we don’t take a second to burst into collective outpouring of grief, forgetting that the soul is immortal. The same body that was not worth caring for is now of paramount importance. The knowledge about the soul being immortal and the body being mere garments as espoused in the Bhagvad Gita, is reserved only while being lazy, ignoring the body’s legitimate demands of being cared for or for consoling others. The whole relationship and dynamics of the body-soul seem rather nebulous and open to interpretation.

Closely related to this Yogic quest for even mindedness in the face of adversity is the reality of our existence wherein we daily fail in this search. The first trial of the day, a traffic snarl or a recalcitrant child, and there goes the equanimity. If anyone dares to point out this shortcoming, we are quick to retort with one of the many anecdotes from Hindu mythology- say of Lord Shiva Himself losing His cool on losing His wife, Sati. When Lord Almighty failed, what can be expected of us lesser mortals? Yes, life is full of trials and tribulations, some of far greater gravity and intensity than our daily tin pot tragedies. Repeated attempts at maintaining and regaining this ever elusive equanimity alone will get us somewhere on the path- professing it out loud and making excuses when you fail, will not. Again, the line between even mindedness and smug complacency is so fine that most of us err on the side of the latter.

“Karma” and destiny are other concepts that never fail to beguile me. As I see it, the former basically translates into something as simple as “As you sow, so shall you reap”. Yet I have heard it in all its avatars- a threat when someone else commits a wrong (“your karmas will come to haunt you”); refusing to assume the responsibility for a wrong action and instead attributing the result to a past karma. Combine it with our lopsided understanding of “destiny” and you have the deadliest of all combinations. Refuse to be proactive, blame destiny; face to face with the repercussions of a foolish decision, blame both karma and destiny; refuse to introspect and learn from your past – blame destiny, karma and the stars above instead. So many more such permutations and combinations are afloat that it is truly bewildering.

As we blunder through our daily lives, we the denizens of this land of snake charmers and sadhus, seem to have forgotten the very basic tenet of The Bhagavad Gita- Surrender unto me.

sarva-dharmān parityajya

mām ekaḿ śaraṇaḿ vraja

ahaḿ tvāḿ sarva-pāpebhyo

mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ

Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear. (Chapter 18, Verse 66)

Or maybe we haven’t. Only that this surrender too we have interpreted superficially to suit ourselves- blame the Lord above and continue in your foolish ways while taking His name once in a while. And so lives on the Great Indian Pseudo Yogi!

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One Master One Disciple by Jyotii Subramanian

One Master One Disciple 175

                   If you found the “Pray” section of “Eat Pray Love” absurd ,or the coincidences Gilbert refers to ( her husband signing the divorce petition or the effect of her chanting of Guru Gita on her nephew far away) way too much to handle, then this book “One Master One Disciple” is not for you. In fact this is a book not for any sceptic but for a hard core believer and not even someone who is just dabbling in meditation or some form of new age healing . To be able to read, let alone appreciate this book, you need to have Faith- in every sense of the word. Faith that there is a Power above who manifests Himself in various ways; faith that this Power is all pervasive though we may not be able to see or feel it with our blinded eyes; faith that human life is but an episode in a long karmic chain; faith that the ultimate aim of human life is God realisation and most importantly faith in a Guru- that when the time is ripe and your search genuine, a Guru will come to guide you, show you the way and that this “guru-shishaya” bond is something that cuts across life spans. If the reader has this kind of faith, then this will be a worthwhile reading. Or else, as the author goes on to recount her journey and her experiences on the spiritual path, it will sound like nothing more than ramblings and imaginings of a fevered mind. Out of body experiences, astral travel, divine interventions, past life revelations, black magic, visitations by Divine souls- all this and much more is a part and parcel of author’s daily life. Unless the reader too is a “sadhak”, a seeker on the spiritual path, all this will be enough to put him off rather than make him read.

           Jyotii Subramanian’s book belongs to the same genre as Paramhansa Yoganananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi” and Christopher Isherwood’s “Ramakrishna and His Disciples”. Same genre though not the same league for those were all time greats Saints, Gurus who have inspired millions down the ages and continue to do so. And, to her credit, the author makes no attempt to claim a place among them either. All that this work seeks to do is present a straight from the heart account of her own wanderings in the wilderness, her phoenix like resurrection from the depths of despair under the guidance of her Guru , Yogiraj Gurunath Siddhanath.

                    What strikes one immediately is the author’s alarming honesty. Anyone who is familiar with Chandigarh, the city that the author has been residing in and still does, will also know that for all its modern exterior, Chandigarh is a very small, closely knit conservative society organised unofficially into cliques.  People who have been residing here for sufficiently long period of time, like the author herself, know everyone else in the city. In this kind of a society, for the author to openly admit to her own and not simply her husband’s extra marital dalliances, is nothing short of social hara-kiri. Yet she does so, not to incite gossip, but to show her path to salvation and therein give hope to all sincere seekers. And if the reader is willing to lap up all of these personal details and believe them, why not believe her spiritual adventures as well?

    The style is very matter of fact and straight forward, nothing really to write home about. In fact at times the descriptive passages may not seem interesting enough. But the worth of such works lies not in their style, plot, characterisation or other such standards used for judging works of literature but in their insights into the spiritual life of the protagonist-author and whatever they can contribute towards the spiritual yearnings of the readers. The reader, even the genuine seeker, may not agree with her understanding of spirituality, her reflections that are interspersed throughout the book, may even argue whether experiences such as those that she has described should in fact be shared with the world at large. But what one cannot argue with is her genuine quest and the blessings of her Guru that keep her going- achieving and reaching out for more. And for that alone, it is worth reading. 

Eat Pray Love….Live

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What prompted me to pick up this book was the a reference to Julia Roberts on the cover. That the “Pretty Woman” was starring in the movie rendition of this  apparent international bestseller made the book seem a lot more attractive than it would have otherwise. Faced with the prospect of a boring three hour train run from Delhi to Chandigarh ahead of me, I picked it up at the railway station. Ironically, later on when I did watch the movie, I could not sit through it without getting fidgety in my seat, Roberts or no Roberts. This turned out to be one of those cases where in the book vs movie conflict, the book won hands down, at least for me . That is not to say that the book has not faced enough flak for being nothing but a self indulgent outpouring of a egotistical writer- basically a chick lit masquerading as a travel cum spiritual sojourn. Forget any real or immediate crisis, spiritual, emotional or psychological, it lays bare not Gilbert’s soul or journey of self discovery but is a pseudo spiritual travelogue at best it is often alleged.

My reply, not a defence of the book, but a matter of fact statement is – so what if it is self indulgent ? As long as it meets the criterion of being a readable, entertaining piece that reaches out to you at some level, even if it’s not an honest baring of the soul or a journey in self discovery, so be it. We are clearly not looking at anything that will go down the annals of Literature as a masterpiece. In this age of instant gratifications and use and throw consumerism, it fares better than many other “bestsellers” in the market. Let us for a while try to forget that it is an autobiographical piece, and try to approach it as a work of fiction instead. In any case the whole question of “impersonality” of the author, in any work and not only biographies, has been the subject matter of much critical debate since time immemorial. If Gilbert’s quest, apart from making a good read, makes you think about your own life and the need for meaning therein, it’s well worth the money.

At the very onset Gilbert explains how the book works. Divided into three sections, it has 108 tales like the beads of a “japa mala”. The three sections correspond to the three countries she visited in this 1 year of self discovery- Italy, India and Indonesia corresponding to Eat, Pray and Love sections of the book respectively . The spiritual leanings of the author, and that the book is rooted in Indian philosophy, becomes apparent at the very onset where Gilbert not only talks of the book being structured like a “japa mala” but also thanks her Guru who is never named but is known to be Gurumayi Chidvilasananda.

As the 1st section Italy unfolds we are told about Gilbert’s nasty divorce and equally scarring rebound romance that brought her on the brink of a psychological breakdown thereby prompting this year long sabbatical. Italy, her 1st stop, is a life devoted to pleasure of the senses- not of the carnal nature but simply those catering to the taste buds. It is there that she learns “bel far niente”- the beauty of doing nothing. From her hectic goal oriented life always aimed at reaching somewhere and achieving something, this discovery is nothing short of revolutionary. This learning to let go of things, learning to make peace with the past, with her increased waist, appreciating “dolce vita”, the sweet life, sets the tone for the next section- Pray.

Meditation it is often said, throws up your worst fears, dreams and desires- it opens up the innermost recesses of your mind that you didn’t even know existed. While Italy gave the semblance of order returning to her hitherto battered existence, India presents aspects of the “monkey mind” that Gilbert was not prepared for. Anyone who has dabbled in meditation, for any reason- spiritual, psychological- can fully sympathise and empathise with Gilbert and her attempts at meditation. Instead of being wrapped up in Divine Communion not only does she flinch from her daily meditations, her “talk” with her “mind” as she sits for these daily trysts make for a hilarious and true to life reading. But she persists and that alone is the key to success. Dedication, perseverance- mind settles, meditation flows and answers come. Thoughts, feelings, arguments- “It all goes away. Eventually everything goes away” until one day you are face to face with your Self and can say-“Congratulations to meet you”!

If there is any part of the book that just doesn’t work, at least for me, it’s the third part- Love against the backdrop of Indonesia. Meant to strike a balance between a life devoted to senses and that devoted to prayer, it does neither. All we see is Gilbert, in true chick lit style, now fully healed and recuperated, falling in love and walking away into the sunset so to speak. Even the toothless medicine man whom she had expressed her desire in the beginning of having a “lasting experience of God” fails to make an impression. Her initial quest – “how to live in (this) world and enjoy its delights, but also devote myself to God”- answer to which this 3rd section was to provide seems to have been lost in the face of new found life and love. Yes she does “feel different” even in her “underpants” but that’s about it.

Throughout the book the casual, chatty tone and idiom carries the reader along on this rollercoaster ride of self discovery. No the book does not give you any final answers on finding a whole, balanced life. May be that is the point of it all- that there can be no universal answers or one size fits all solutions. Be it a life of the senses or a life of meditation, we all have to find our own answers, our own balance. “Eat Pray Love” may not be the way to live for many- either as a collection of these three activities or individually in whatsoever order and the book does not propose them as such. All that it does exhort you to do is to “Live”- find your life, your balance and truly live it. If reading such a book is a part of the kind of life you want, then it’s well worth a read otherwise not.