(Transcribed from a lecture delivered at the Old School, Temple, New Hampshire, 14 September 2002, 6:00 p.m.
This article has been published in a journal of Indian thought and thinking called NamaRupa.)
Success at ritual is all about alignment. We want first of all to align ourselves with Ganesha, so that the objects that we are going to employ in our ritual will cooperate with us, so that our sense organs will be turned in the direction of the ritual that we are going to perform, and so that all the disembodied personalities in the neighborhood will be properly aligned as well. Those that want to cooperate will cooperate; those that don’t want to cooperate we thus encourage to go elsewhere during this period.
Once you have invoked Ganesha, you continue with your ritual. Often at the very beginning you will invoke Ganesha in a very simple way, because you will be reinvoking him frequently during your process. In this your ritual resembles a concert, as if you were an Indian musician, and you were elaborating a raga. The word raga means a mode, a musical mode, a specific order of notes going up and specific order coming down; but it also means redness, heat, inflammation and passion. Music’s job is to arouse your emotional energy, and each raga activates emotional energy in a different way. You elaborate the raga in a particular rhythm, and wherever you begin your elaboration, your rhythm always has to come back to sama, to the point where one rhythmic figure ends and the next begins.
You are doing the same sort of thing with your ritual. You put your energy out, and then draw it back, and you keep coming back to Ganesha because you keep starting the process over again. There are many layers of obstacles along the way to get rid of, and Ganesha will help you arrive eventually in an area where things are relatively, temporarily obstacle free. Look at it with the help of a Sri Yantra. A Sri Yantra is composed of a group of triangles that intersect one another. At its center is a dot, or bindu, that represents the dimensionless point that is the ultimate realty of absolute consciousness, unlimited in any way. People like you and me worship a Sri Yantra from the outside in; we are on the outside, in the world of complications, and we are trying to move inside, toward the calm center. Only one whose awareness is already unlimited, already at the point of the bindu, can worship a Sri Yantra from the inside out.
After you enter into the field of the Sri Yantra you move progressively further into its interior, until you reach its center. At every doorway you will want to invoke Ganesha, to eliminate any obstacle that might lurk behind the door. It’s sort of like playing a video game on a number of different levels. If at each level you were to invoke Ganesha, you would be able to blast whoever you need to blast more effectively along the way.
But a Sri Yantra, and the mantra associated with it (which, depending on your tradition, will probably be the Kadi Vidya or the Hadi Vidya – or maybe even the Sadi Vidya ), and the ritual for its worship, are all very complex. Better to begin with something much simpler – like Om Namah Shivaya, for instance, the so-called Panchakshari Mantra. You would still want to be nice to Ganesha if you are reciting Om Namah Shivaya – for one thing, Ganesha is Shiva’s son. Well, technically he is Parvati’s son, not Shiva’s. Shiva and Parvati are an unusual couple in that they have two children, but one was created entirely out of Shiva, and the other was created entirely out of Parvati; they did cooperate with one another in the creation of these two sons, but only indirectly. Ganesha is technically Shiva’s son in that Shiva killed him by decapitating him, then brought him back to life with an elephant’s head. Even if you are planning to worship Lord Shiva, you will want to make Ganesha happy. Because you know how parents are: if you come to visit the parent and the first thing you do is give something to one of the children, the parent automatically feels very good – better, if he or she is a good parent, than if you gave something first to the parent. If you bribe the children first, the parents immediately become more pliable.
So, begin by saluting Ganesha, then perform netrodakasparsana, which is to apply water to your eyes; a symbolic washing of your eyes, to make them see more clearly. In Sanskrit the word darshana means both “vision” and “philosophy.” What you see is thus what you believe, and what you believe in will determine what you are able to see. Since you want to be able to see things as clearly as possible, you wash your eyes symbolically by applying a little water to them. Then you wash your mouth and tongue, because you want them also to be symbolically purified, that you may recite clearly and accurately whatever mantra you want to recite. If it is a generic mantra, what we call a mula mantra, like Om Namah Shivaya, then a few mistakes in pronunciation are not so important; but if it is a Vedic mantra a small mistake in pronunciation can cause a giant difference in effect, because each rca, each Vedic hymn, was meant to be pronounced very particularly, with specific intonation, prana centered at a certain point in the body at the time of recitation. It requires a lot of attention to recite a Vedic mantra properly, so please select a mantra to recite that is appropriate for you according to your capabilities.
Next you purify your mouth, with acamana, by sipping water three times out of your hand, and then offering some water to the ground. Then you request the ground to make the place where you will sit – your asana – nice and firm. Yes, this is the same word that is used in yoga, but here asana means the piece of ground on which you establish yourself. If you work with the Earth Element to establish a good seat for yourself, then your body will be firm while you are performing your ritual, and while you are accumulating energy by reciting your mantra. Fail to establish a good asana and some instability may develop during the ritual, instability that could interfere with your achieving the goal you have set yourself to achieve.
Establishing a good asana is accomplished by worshiping the Earth Element. It is definitely not a coincidence that Ganesha, who rules the Earth Element, sits in the body at the Muladhara Chakra, which happens to be the place in your organism where the Earth Element is located. If you can make Ganesha happy, he will gladly go down and talk with Mother Earth on your behalf. You may find it difficult to make Mother Earth happy on your own, for you are a human, and humans have done a lot of very naughty things to our world. But if you bribe Ganesha with a stick of sugar cane, and he goes and makes the Earth Element happy, then things become immediately easier for you.
In classical India there were four strategies for getting things done: sama, dana, bheda, and danda. Danda means punishment, but few dare to threaten ethereal beings with penalties. Bheda means diplomacy, which you can employ if you are really clever; but in dealings with gods and goddesses diplomacy does not usually work very well. Dana means offering, and offerings are a good way to go. Sama means appeal to reason and rationale, which is also wise. Using sama and dana together is usually a good approach for dealing with beings like Ganesha: give him things that he wants, explain politely and clearly what you’d like, and there is every chance that he will cooperate.
Remember that we exist within a web of multiple realities, and that you are working little by little toward getting all these different levels of reality to align properly, that you may enter into a sort of “full-thickness reality.” But this will not happen all at one time, because everything has to be tweaked into alignment. And so you start off with Ganesha, and then move to your sense organs, then to the earth; and then you remember Lord Vishnu, because by remembering Him you purify everything. Then you remember all the myriads of celestial beings, particularly all of the planets and the Great Gods and Goddesses, requesting all of them to be benevolently disposed towards you, to send rays of good energy down upon you, and to encourage any nasty things to depart.
Then it becomes time to formally express your intention, which you can do in your own simple language, or by using a Sanskrit formula. There are formulas for everything in Sanskrit, because in the past people had lots of time on their hands, and some of them used that time to generate useful formulas. Should you choose to use the Sanskrit formula for expressing your intention, you will begin at the very beginning, by saying “Vishnur, Vishnur, Vishnuh.” First of all: “Lord Vishnu, You are my witness. You are the Preserver. It is thanks to You that everything is in one piece. O Lord Vishnu, I request you to be my witness.” Next, you mention your time and your space, beginning with the fact that we happen to be living during the second half of the life of the Creator. How did they figure this out? I don’t know. But everyone agrees that we are currently living in the second half of the life of Brahma, the Creator. Everything that is born eventually dies; Brahma lives for 100 celestial years, and each celestial year has 360 celestial days and 360 celestial nights, and each one of those celestial days is called a kalpa. During a kalpa, things manifest. During the celestial night, everything dissolves back into the Indeterminate. During the next celestial day, they manifest again. During the night, they dissolve back. It’s all the dream of the Creator, who lives for hundreds of trillions of our years, but is mortal, nonetheless.
Our current kalpa is the Sveta Varaha Kalpa, the Kalpa of the White Boar. During this kalpa Vishnu incarnates as a white boar. We are in the Vaivasvata Manvantara, the seventh of the fourteen manvantaras during this kalpa; and we are in the twenty-eighth mahayuga (yuga cycle) since the beginning of this manvantara. Since there are seventy-two mahayugas in each manvantara, we are not quite yet to this manvantara’s middle.
We are currently living in Kali Yuga, the twenty-eighth Kali Yuga of this manvantara, and in the first quarter of this twenty-eighth Kali Yuga. We also have to mention where we are located in the sixty-year samvatsara cycle to consider, as well as the lunar year, lunar month, and lunar day. Today for example is the ninth lunar day of the bright fortnight of the lunar month of Bhadrapada.
Once your time has been pinpointed, you then delineate space, by stating where all of the planets are, where the sun is currently (in sidereal Virgo), and the moon (currently in Dhanur Rashi, the constellation Sagittarius, and in the nakshatra (lunar constellation) Mula). Jupiter is currently exalted in Cancer. You mention then where all the other planets are, and wherever they happen to be you encourage them all to be nice and quiet, and request them not to interfere with anything.
Then you say: I am sitting in this place. If you are in India, it is Bharatavarsha, Bharata Khanda. Here we are in America, in New Hampshire. Then you mention on which bank of the nearest big river you are sitting. In India it might be the Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, or some other, here it could be the local river, or even the Connecticut, which is your biggest nearby river. Rivers are nadis of the earth, big vessels in which prana in the form of water moves. All these specifications indicate our location on Earth’s body, so that earth and the celestials and the local deities and other important ethereal beings will be aware of where we are, and will be able to cooperate with us, should they desire to do so.
Once we have specified our time and space, we make our statement of intention, by saying, “According to the procedure that is laid down in the Vedas (or the Puranas, or the Tantras, or whatever other tradition that I might belong to) for the purpose of kshema, sthairya, aishvarya, arogya, ityadi (stability, firmness, power, health, and so on) this activity (which you then name: japa, homa, shraddha, tarpana, bali, or whatever) I perform.” While you have been reciting your statement of intention, you have kept some water in the palm of your hand, water that is acting as your elemental witness. You are asking the Water Element to witness your statement of intention. Once you have completed that statement you pour the water onto the ground as you speak the words “I perform” (aham karishye); this seals your oath. You have now promised the universe that you will perform the ritual, and as they say in Hindi, “jo vada kiya ho, nibahna padega“: “whatever promise you have made, you will have to fulfill”.
The universe doesn’t expect you to make any promise at all, at any time, but should you make a promise, then the universe expects you to fulfill it. If you don’t, then you should be aware that the universe could become annoyed at your failure; the cosmos could feel unhappy because you put your intent into acting and then failed to act. Once you dispatch your intention the energy behind it has left you, but has not yet got to where it was supposed to go; your energy is out in the world wandering around, and could end up getting tangled up in something unfortunate. So once you commit to your action you need to see it through.
Once you seal your oath you enter more completely into your ritual space, where now you can approach yet closer to the Ultimate Reality of unlimited consciousness. Your further entry into ritual space means that, again, you will want to return to Ganesha, who is now your dearest friend since he is going to get rid of yet more of your obstacles. Now is a good time to invest in Ganesha yet further energy, to make a sincere effort to encourage Ganesha to be pleased. Once you have pleased Ganesha to the best of your ability, you turn to Ganesha’s mother. It will now be easier to make Her happy, because the satisfied Ganesha will go to his mother and say, “What a nice person that fellow is! He gave me some sweets. Why don’t you do something nice for him?” Then Ganesha’s mother, being of an indulgent nature, will indulge Her child, and will become more agreeable to your plans. Ganesha’s mother is Parvati, the goddess who “comes from the mountain.” The chain of mountains in question here is the chain of vertebrae that form the spinal column, for Parvati is the energy of the spine, the so-called Kundalini energy. To whatever extent your own personal energy of transformation is awakened, you want that energy to be moving in the direction of whatever it is that you want the ritual to accomplish.
The Kundalini energy and ahamkara, the energy of your ego, are identical. As long as that energy is invested mainly with identifying with your limited personality we call it ahamkara, the ego; as soon as it starts to retract some of its attention from the limited you and begins to send its attention elsewhere, we call it Kundalini. When Ganesha, at the tip of the spine, gives the go-ahead, his mother will cooperate to release some of that energy, which will enable you to move in your chosen direction, toward the Absolute. With the help of the mother of Ganesha you thus move in the direction of Ganesha’s father, Lord Shiva, the embodiment of the Unlimited. Lord Shiva is often represented iconographically as a rock, which represents the bindu that’s at the center of all, that Ultimate Reality of limitless consciousness that is a dimensionless point. As you move toward Shiva you will want to remember whom He is fondest of: Lord Vishnu, particularly in the form of the Divine Cowherd Krishna, the Supreme Perfection of Personhood. And whom does Vishnu worship? Shiva. Vishnu cannot do without Shiva, and Shiva cannot do without Vishnu; they work together as a team.
At this point the most important beings in the cosmos have now turned, however slightly, in your direction. If your focus is extremely powerful, you will be able to draw their attention to you very quickly; if your focus is fairly minor, then they will notice out of the corner of one of their many heads that someone is calling them from way, way far down on the earth, and they will send a tiny fraction of their attention down there to deal with that call. Everything you have done to this point is basically the purva karma, the preparatory stuff, preparatory because you have been purifying and aligning the external and internal worlds. Once things are well purified and aligned, internally and externally, and you have the attention of the Great Gods and Goddesses, that is the time to perform your ritual’s pradhana karma, the main activity that you want to perform, whatever it might be.
Let’s assume that you are doing a very simple kind of puja, puja meaning generic ritual worship. Pujas can be complicated or simple depending on your offerings. The simplest common puja is the Panchopachara Puja, the “puja of the five offerings,” those five offerings being a flower, incense, a lamp, food of some kind, and some sort of fragrant substance, like sandalwood paste or an essential oil. The flower represents the Element of Space or Ether. The incense, or rather its smoke, represents the Element of Air. The lamp represents the Element of Fire. The food represents the Element of Water, and the liquid or solid fragrance represents the Element of Earth. By making these five offerings you are symbolically offering up the Five Elements from which your being as a limited individual is composed, requesting your ishtha devata, or personal deity, to purify those elements that are within you, to transform the elements within you into the purified forms of those elements in your offerings: to make the space in your body floral, and delicate like a flower; to make the air in your body fragrant, moving without obstruction, literally and figuratively; to make the fire in your body burn cleanly and brightly; to make the water in your body as nourishing as the food that you offer; and to make the flesh of your organism as fragrant and cool as sandalwood paste. If you want to live a long and healthy life, your flesh must be cool, not hot; being overheated is a good way to grow old quickly.
Your puja requests whatever it is you are focusing on to transform your ordinariness into something more refined. Your transformation will be limited solely by the limits on your ability to self-identify with whatever it is that you are focusing on, which could be something with form (like a deity), or it could be the Absolute, the Reality that has no name or form, no nama or rupa. The Absolute has no qualities whatsoever; it is attribute-free. If you find it easy to focus on that ultimate quality-free state, then it will be easy enough for that Ultimate Reality to provide you what you require. If on the other hand you find it easier and more agreeable to connect to something that has form, then there are an unlimited number of gods, goddesses, trees, rocks, and other things with form, like this very Shiva Linga right over here, on which you can focus your attention. Once you can establish a healthy connection with one or more of these things, they will start to lead you actively and enthusiastically in the direction in which you need to go.
You need the preliminaries to purify your focus so that your connection with Reality will be strong and secure. In Ayurveda we talk about pancha karma, purification of the physical organism. Puja is purification of the spiritual organism. Before you perform pancha karma, which involves vomiting and purging and enemas and what have you – things that are not quite so agreeable as sandalwood paste – you must first prepare the body so that it will purify easily. You will need to massage it with oil and make it sweat gently, until the body becomes very relaxed and loose, at which point you must act, and cause the body to expel whatever toxins it is ready to eliminate. Similarly, the initial portion of a worship ritual helps you get disconnected from your normal day-to-day consciousness, so that you may reconnect to a more divine consciousness. Normal day-to-day consciousness during Kali Yuga is strongly outward-pointing, making it difficult for you to connect directly to your unseen aim. Hence the preliminaries, the steps you take away from your normal everyday consciousness as you move towards the center of Reality.
An avarana is a sheath or coating. There are Three Avaranas that prevent Kundalini from directly perceiving the Ultimate Reality: the Pancha Mahabhuta, the Five Elements that make up our world; the Tri Guna, the Three Archetypal Qualities that are innate to all creation; and the Shad Rasa, the Six Tastes. The Five Elements are the physical obstacles that keep us from aligning well with the Ultimate, and the Three Gunas are the mental obstacles that keep us from aligning well with the Ultimate. The Six Tastes influence both body and mind, because the organism uses the tastes to translate between body and mind; mind and body communicate with taste. We find ourselves attached to mind, body, and the communication between them because we are stuck in the Five Elements, the Three Gunas, and the Six Tastes.
Encouraging the Five Elements to cooperate is a good way to get the body to behave properly. Encouraging the Six Tastes to cooperate, which we can do by eating the right foods, performing the right actions, and entertaining the right emotions, is a good way to get body and mind to communicate well. And encouraging the Three Gunas to cooperate is a good way to get the mind to behave properly. Every food you eat will cause sattva, rajas or tamas to increase or decrease. Sattva is the quality of equilibrium: ‘sat’ means truth and ‘tva’ means ‘ness,’ so sattva means ‘trueness,’ or accuracy, which is the state of the mind when it does the job it’s supposed to do. What the mind is supposed to do is to take information in from the sense organs, align that information, put it together into a nice comprehensible narrative, and send that report to the faculty of discernment for action. The mind is very much like a good personal assistant, whose job it is to get all the files ready and take them in to the CEO. The CEO will look at the files and say: “Yes…No… Come… Go… Act… Don’t act,” or whatever. Then the job of the mind is to take those commands from the CEO and forward them to the sense organs in the precise order that will accomplish the task that the faculty of discernment has set it to do.
An impure mind will attempt to edit, gloss, add to, and subtract from what the faculty of discernment has determined. It may fail to give the faculty of discernment all of the information that it requires, hiding some of it, magnifying certain portions, issuing small white lies or big black lies, putting out chaff, sending up balloons – employing, in short, every countermeasure that it can to make it appear that things are different from the way that they really are, so that the mind may try to maintain its own influence and control. All parts of the organism have their own agendas; the body has its agenda, the mind has its agenda, the faculty of discernment has its agenda. Even the Ultimate Reality has its own agenda. At this point in human evolution the mind has been able to achieve a large part of its agenda, and this success has rendered the mind over-stimulated, overactive, and overconfident. Today, in almost everyone, misuse of the mind is the main reason for pathological disturbances in body or mind. We can best facilitate clarity of mind by doing things and eating things that are appropriate for us. When you eat something and digest it well it will produce metabolites that are agreeable to the brain, which will encourage your brain to think more clearly.
When instead you eat things that produce undesirable chemicals, your brain will think less clearly; your blood will be perverted, your thinking will be perverted, and you yourself may end up being perverted – which will be a bad thing, because it will produce in you more rajas and tamas. Rajas and tamas are the two doshas of the mind, the two things that throw the mind out of whack. Rajas means activity, which is necessary for change. Tamas means inertia, which is necessary for stability. Rajas and tamas become doshas, they turn bad, only when you become attached to them. A person who is very attached to tamas is someone who will never agree to change, even when change is essential. Someone who is attached to rajas is someone who is always changing, never sticking with anything long enough to become stable. Someone who is afflicted by both rajas and tamas will get stuck in one place, and after being stuck there for a while will lurch suddenly over to the next place to be stuck in, and will remain stuck there for a while. Such people will continue staggering from inappropriate location to inappropriate location, thinking all the while that they are advancing their cause.
Initially, we need more sattva, and ritual can facilitate this aim, provided that we can locate enough sattva to inspire us to go in the right direction to begin with. We can facilitate the action of sattva by doing appropriate yoga, eating properly, removing toxins from the system, aligning with the planets, and in general doing anything that promotes equilibrium. We need to have sufficient sattva so that, when we get to the point in our ritual where we have done all of the purva karma, all the preliminary activities, and we are ready to make our main offerings, the chief interactions that we want to have with the universe at this particular time, our offerings will be well offered. We can make this more likely by ensuring that we have got rid of as much rajas and tamas as possible, that we have minimized the influence of the Five Elements, and aligned the Six Tastes as best as possible. The Sanskrit word rasa means taste, but it also means water, juice, soup, the sap in trees, blood plasma, semen, and emotion. This equivalence of taste and emotion tells us that, while a good way to refine your tastes is by eating the right food and digesting it properly, it’s even better to have the right emotional attitude to life, and to everything in life.
Your aim, while you perform all your purva karma, is getting your mind into the right emotional attitude so that when you are ready to make your main offering, you make it from a position of bhakti, or devotion. If you value your life and your happiness, never make any offering from a position of arrogance: “I am an expert at this ritual, I am very smart, I can recite everything properly, I know exactly how to manipulate the universe.” There are no doubt people who do learn how to manipulate the universe, but if you are only thinking of manipulating the universe, you will eventually turn into a mighty demon, and God will have to arrange for your slaughter. This is very inconvenient for God, and will also be very inconvenient for you, because God could easily decide to send you into some unpleasant wombs for many long years until you learn your lesson, and get rid of some of the swelling of your head. Better than that is to get rid of the swollen head to begin with, which you can do by bowing down. Get into the habit of bowing down. Start by bowing down to Ganesha, and you will find that bowing down is not all that much trouble. In fact, you’ll find that it feels pretty darn good. And then you’ll start to thinking, “Maybe I will bow down more often.” This is good, because whenever your ego has to humble itself, its prone position puts you into the position of being able to receive beneficial influences.
The two basic paths of life development are the Bhakti Marga, the path of devotion, and the Jnana Marga, the path of knowledge. In the path of knowledge you identify with Reality, and say things like, aham brahmasmi (“I am the Ultimate Reality!”) or tat tvam asi, (“Thou art that!”). The path of knowledge is very good, provided that you can identify wholly with the Ultimate Reality, and lose your own limited human attachment to your own limited human personality. If you only identify yourself partially, though, you will end up a demonic sort of person. If you cannot reach that point of total identification it’s much better to be a devotee, and to say “Thy will be done!” instead of “My will be done!”
Whichever path you may follow, you will want the appropriate rasa, the proper emotional attitude, to flower at the moment that you are performing your main offering, your pradhana karma. Ideally during the preliminary processes you have moved in the direction of this supreme moment, when you will be able to bring all your energy, your attention, and your bhava, your emotional being, into the right space for you to make a fitting gesture, an eloquent expression of your chief desire, which we hope is to facilitate the development of awareness and consciousness in all sentient beings everywhere, or something to that effect. This moment is the highlight of your ritual, the climax of your interaction with the Absolute, with the reality of the Real.
And then, having reached for that moment, in that time and space, as close as you have been able to approach that central bindu, that central point of points, you will now need to return slowly to a more conventional state of human awareness – unless of course you happen to be able to stay in that consciousness indefinitely. If you can stay there indefinitely, more power to you. We salute you. In fact, we will come visit you, and ask you to bless us with some of that energy and awareness for ourselves. So long as you cannot stay there indefinitely, though, you will need to make a safe reentry into the “normal” world so that you will be able to integrate your experience of heightened awareness with the other varieties of awareness that you use to deal with the details of day-to-day life: picking the kids up from school, taking them to soccer practice, paying your bills, buying artichokes, and so on. As you proceeded inside slowly, so you will also want to slowly reemerge.
Rightly performed, ritual puja can assist you to align your day-to-day world with the unseen world. Suppose you perform a Shodashopachara Puja, in which you offer sixteen items to the deity, relating to the deity as if he or she was your guest. Since you may have trouble relating to Ganesha or Parvati or Shiva directly, you can choose instead to relate to them with the rituals you have been taught that are appropriate to offer to honored guest. First you invite the deity to enter your home, and you wash the deity’s feet, which will be dusty after the long journey to your door. Since celestial energy naturally moves into the top of the body through the head, and down and out of the body through the soles of the feet, when you wash the deity’s feet and then drink that water, you are enjoying celestial energy that has been filtered through Godhead. Very tasty!
Now, the deity is bound to be tired after the long journey from the celestial regions, so a bit of a rest will be most welcome. So you make sure the deity has a comfortable seat to sit on, you offer various offerings like arghya, and you massage and bathe the deity. Then it’s time for dinner! You feed your guest with all the tidbits that they most enjoy, you offer after-dinner savories, and finally you make the main offering of the Shodashopachara Puja, which is arati, the waving of a lamp in front of the deity. By doing that you are requesting the Fire Element that is within you to become enkindled in your awareness, in your astral body. Ordinarily most of your fire is stuck in your physical body, where it is busy digesting things and sending messages here and there and keeping your body in one piece, and so on. But if you want to make spiritual progress you will need the fire not to be stuck in your physical body; you will want instead for it to become rarefied, to transformed into a subtler form.
Waving the arati flame in front of the deity will, to a degree that will depend on your receptivity at that moment, enkindle the fire in your astral body, which should make you feel good, or at least better than before. If you have made your deity happy, your deity should make you happy; and how can the deity not be happy, after a nice bath and a nice meal? After arati, you can offer yet more, to please the deity even further. You can sing, dance, do pretty much whatever you want so long as you do it with devotion. Diana Eck writes that Indian worship rituals are like playing house with God – and, in fact, all over India you will find many people who actually play house with God. This is particularly true in the Pushti Sampradaya, a sect that worships Krishna in a very opulent fashion. They dress him up with different clothes every day, and keep little croquet mallets and little chess sets near him for his play. Each season he is offered seasonal food. Some of them have little silver electric fans so that Krishna will not be hot during the hot season, and during the cold season they make him wear a little cap, and provide him a little brazier of hot coals so that he will not take a chill.
This sort of worship is all extremely focused on providing Krishna with the kind of opulence that you would probably also find enjoyable in your own life. If when you make your offerings you tell Krishna, “This is all for you, and it’s all up to you, but I wouldn’t mind having some of these things in my own life; however, please provide for me exactly as you see fit, and I will accept it,” then Krishna may ensure that at least some of that opulence will come your way. What Krishna says is, “I will give you exactly what you want. If you really want wealth I will give you that, but then you can’t have me; you can only have my shakti, my Shri. If you really want me, then you will have to become miserable, because that’s the only way you are going to remember who I am; otherwise you are just going to get stuck in my beautiful sumptuousness. I alone am in a position to enjoy splendor, because I alone can enjoy it while remaining completely aloof from it. You, being a human being, will not be able to stay wholly aloof, so it will be better for you if you possess very little, so that you would have no alternative but to remember me.”
Each deity has his or her own style of dealing with Reality, and each requires to be worshiped according to that style, with appropriate substances and activities. But whatever the deity, and whatever the worship, things begin to wind down after arati. This is a sort of vinyasa, vinyasa in the way that word was employed by Yogi T. Krishnamacharya, who used to say that all life is a vinyasa. He meant that you should do whatever it is you intend to do by beginning slowly, accelerating to a climax, then decelerating, ending at a point that should act as an appropriate starting point for your next activity.
Your day should begin with vinyasa, when you wake up in the morning. Instead of immediately jumping out of bed, get out of bed slowly and deliberately, and check to see which nostril is working, to make sure that when you arise the appropriate nostril is working for the appropriate day. There are several systems of nostril activity that you can follow; one says that on the days ruled by harsh planets (Sunday, Tuesday, Saturday, ruled by Sun, Mars, and Saturn respectively), the right nostril should be working first, and on the days ruled by gentle planets (Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, ruled respectively by Moon, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus), the left nostril should be working first. Other systems use the tithis, the days of the lunar fortnight. Select and follow the system you want to use, and if the wrong nostril is working when you get up you can try to change it over to the one that should be working. In the West we talk about “getting out of bed on the wrong foot” in the morning; in India, though we do talk about the right and wrong feet, we pay more attention to the right and wrong nostrils.
Once your nostrils are cooperating you should figure out how things are digesting in your system, to determine how the vinyasa of your day is going to proceed. If you ate a pizza at 2:00 a.m. with three bottles of beer and a big bowl of ice cream, you will probably not want to immediately do three hours of yoga, or eat a giant breakfast; instead, you will probably want to allow some digestion to occur before you move in any direction. You always want to move in the right direction at the time at the right speed so that healthy acceleration can occur, in everything that you do. Think of vigorous exercise: if you are going to go play basketball, and if you value your body, you won’t immediately jump on to the court and start playing. No, before you jump onto the court you will first do some warm-up exercises, and after your exercise you will cool down again before you take your shower and go on your way. This is your exercise vinyasa.
You should also observe some variety of eating ritual, some dining vinyasa. You should not just plop down at the table and promptly stick a big drumstick into your mouth. No, you should start slowly and accelerate; start off with something small to awaken the digestive fire, then fan your digestive fire slowly into flame so that, as the centerpiece of the meal, you can enjoy your flaming filet of yak, Peking style, or whatever other main course is coming your way. After this apex of your dinner you should decelerate. If you are European, you may have your salad, your cheese and your fruit afterward; if you are American, you may merely have dessert. Whatever your menu, it should build up to that main dish, then reduce again.
In the case of your worship ritual, once you reach the apex, you realize that you are as aligned with the deities as you are going to be just then – which makes just then a good time for more gentle bribery. Once you have offered everything you can think might be appropriate to offer, then you begin your apologies – the deities are far more perfected than you are, far more refined. In case you made some inadvertent mistake, offered something improperly, committed some faux pas, you would like very much to be forgiven. Here your intention is crucial. If your desired result is simply that you should be in good shape, that everyone else should be should be in good shape, and that the world should be in good shape, then a mistake or two is less significant.
But if you are trying to create some specific kind of result, if for instance you are determined to build a giant building on a certain piece of land, and you are performing a puja to get the gods and goddesses to help you out with your plan, then you have to be much more careful. You have to be a lot more specific about what you do and how you do it, and you have to be a lot more careful with which mantras and offerings you use and how you use them, so that you can create that very specific result for yourself. Of course, we also hope that you have evaluated your own situation, and that it is clear that constructing a big building is a good idea for you. We hope that. Because if it is not appropriate for you to do that, if you are not adhikara for that activity, you will eventually regret it.
My mentor used to say that only in very specific cases should you ask for very specific results. Only when it seems to you that there is absolutely no other alternative, when you can see what needs to be done but you can’t figure out how to do it, should you bother God with it. Because God is very busy. God has millions of people pestering him, phoning him up with all sorts of desires. God’s telephone lines are always open, but God’s operators may put you on hold, and there is no guarantee of how long will be on hold. You should only disturb God when things are really serious; otherwise, you should do yourself whatever you can to move things in the right direction, and ask for all to go well. A good prayer to make is, “May everyone I know be happy,” because if everyone you know is happy, then they will all beam happiness in all directions, and you will then likely end up being happy. It will be easy for you to be happy if everyone around you is happy.
If you are satisfied with saying, “May everyone be happy, healthy, and holy, and may everything move in the right direction,” then you need not worry too much about how perfectly you have performed your worship. The Great Goddess Herself has promised us in the Durga Sapta Shati, the “Seven Hundred Verses in Praise of Durga”, that whether you are aware or unaware of how to perform your ritual, so long as you perform that ritual with devotion to Her, She will see that it gets properly completed. So, just in case you have screwed it up a bit, you will want to say to your deity, at the very end, with complete sincerity: “O Lord, O Lady, please, I have done what I could, but I know I am a human, and that humans make mistakes. Please complete my ritual for me, and compensate for all its inadequacies.” And then you should also pray, “O Lord, O Lady, I am now about to move back into the consciousness of the ordinary universe. Please watch over me while I am there, and bring me safely back to you very soon!” And then you thank the deity for bringing you near to the center of the Universal Reality, and you recite yet more mantras, a veritable garland of mantras, and your consciousness will gradually reconnect with the outside world. When the right moment arises to end the festivities, then define your end point carefully, and close. You began with a definite starting point, and you shouldn’t just let things peter out; you want a definite end point so that you can close off that sacred space, exiting from it cleanly and maintaining it in a sacred, pure state. Once you shut that space, once you have minimized that space and shut down the program, then you can proceed to do whatever it is you deem ought next to be done. If your vinyasa has been good, your process ought to land you at just that point where you need to be in order to do the thing that you next need to do in the course of your human existence. Which is the point we have reached now, in the course of this lecture. We will punctuate the end of this lecture process with the sacred mantra Om Nama Shivaya, and that brings things to a close.
QUESTION: Can you tell us just a little bit about how you came to be here now?
- SVOBODA: I drove from Brattleboro! Ha, ha! Well, it’s a long story. How long does it take for a chestnut tree to bear? Five years, ten years? Let’s say ten years. So suppose you take a healthy chestnut and sprout it and put it in a pot, and it becomes a seedling. From a seedling it becomes a tree-ling, and then you put it into the ground, and take care of it carefully, preventing marauding animals from marauding it, talking to it, offering it water and food, speaking to it nicely. And it grows. Slowly. Every day it’s growing slowly. After ten years, you will get some chestnuts, God willing. But during the nine years, eleven months, and twenty-nine days before then you had to invest a lot of energy into it, and your attention may waver occasionally. You may forget the ultimate purpose of all your effort. You may occasionally decide that you would like to do something else.
In my opinion I was very fortunate to have escaped from practicing medicine in the USA. I was admitted into medical school in Oklahoma back in 1972, but I never actually began my studies there, because after being admitted I went traveling in Africa, joined a tribe in Kenya, flew to England, crossed overland to Nepal, attended a Kala Chakra initiation that the Dalai Lama was conducting in 1974, and decided to remain for a while in South Asia. I learned many interesting things there, about medicine, astrology, ritual, and more. And I sincerely think about these things as living things. Medicine is to be a living being, a goddess who is an integral component of the universe and whose job is to create health. And I believe that that this goddess of healing can be incarnated on Earth at any time and any place, and that any good physician, no matter who he or she is or what method or what technique or what system he or she follows, is actually acting as a vehicle for that universal energy of healing. Healing happens not because the healer is clever, but because that energy acts through him or her. Astrologers allow the light of the heavenly bodies to act through them, to illuminate in someone’s life an area that needs to be illuminated. You can certainly go through your entire life without ever needing to study, practice, or be practiced upon, in medicine or astrology. On the other hand, sometimes your karmas may be such that you may paint yourself into a corner and not be able to figure out a way to get out on your own. So I think that there is something to be said for maintaining the traditions that have been passed down for many, many thousands of years.
To me, it’s as if the Wisdom of India decided that She would like to take a trip. She packed up her steamer trunk, booked passage on the astral equivalent of an ocean liner, and set off on a Grand Tour of Europe and Australia and North America and other islands and continents, searching for ground in these places that is sufficiently fertile to host some sprouts of her traditions, where those traditions can develop and grow. Appreciating the many things that these traditions have done for me, I try in my own imperfect way to do what I can, from my perspective, to encourage those sprouts to grow: spreading seeds here and there, watering them occasionally, encouraging other people to continue watering them, encouraging people who have those sprouts in their gardens to take proper care of them, finding the right conditions in which they can best grow.
QUESTION: I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about personal ritual, because what you talked a lot about tonight were traditions that have been brought down for centuries. But if you are in a situation where you don’t have the traditions around you what can you do? I planted a garden here in New Hampshire with all of the veggies in that I wanted to grow, and my cauliflower is dead, the broccoli is dead – but the basil was like five feet tall.
- SVOBODA: And how did the basil taste?
QUESTION: The basil was great.
- SVOBODA: So now you know that not everything transplants well. We see this everywhere. In the continental United States there is, so far as I know, precisely one Pipal tree, or Bodhi tree; it is on Martha’s Vineyard, brought there by a sea captain. It was apparently planted in a large bucket, and grew on his ship for a number of years until it was strong enough to come ashore and get planted in the ground. One individual of that species has made it here, and that individual has thus far remained unique.
On the other hand, look at the potato. The potato has gone everywhere. All peoples on all continents rely on potatoes. Potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, may have all originated in the Western Hemisphere, but they all have become pervasive. Clearly, some species travel well, and some species don’t. Which do which? That depends. Some things adapt to any situation. In the case of the potato, a possible reason that it adapts so well is that it developed in the high desert of Peru, perhaps at 10,000 feet elevation, where it rains maybe one inch a year. So the poor thing had to be able to extract everything that it possibly could from its environment, whenever the opportunity arose. Put such a hardy tuber in a more convenient place and it will flourish. Broccoli and cauliflower, though, are more delicate vegetables. They begin life as the humble cabbage, and then were trained into differentiation.
Similarly, when it comes to ritual and the like, some things will have difficulty traveling, and others will travel well. With regard to the Hindu deities, Lord Shiva has, for example, become very popular. Of course He is a simple kind of guy: in our world, he appears as a stone. Most people can relate to a rock in some way. Lord Narasimha, on the other hand, has not become as popular. A man-lion – half man and half lion – depicted disemboweling a demon and wearing his entrails as a necklace is an image that many people find difficult to easily relate to. But this need not disturb you. If you want to develop a personal ritual, you should keep it simple. Think of only two things to begin with: what is your purpose, your intention, and whom is your intention pointed towards? What conception of the Ultimate Reality have you taken to your heart, as being closest to your own personal being, and what are you trying to do with your ritual? Your ritual can be as simple as lighting a stick of incense and saying, “God is great! Allahu akbar!” If you really, sincerely feel that sentiment, then you will eventually achieve something good.
You can make your ritual complicated or simple, whichever is appropriate for you; your worship is, after all your time for becoming intimate with Reality. How you want to be intimate with Reality is up to you; there is no set rule for it. There is only the necessity for doing so, the craving to unite with the Ultimate, that each of us feels. This is a craving that must be satisfied; you should figure out how to best satisfy it, in the context of your own life, and then proceed toward its satisfaction.
Copyright © 2003
Robert Edwin Svoboda