Sunday, February 19, 2017

Searching for One's Own Feet: The Paradox of Spiritual Search

by Sajjeev X. Antony

HAT IS SO PARADOXICAL ABOUT INDIAN philosophy is that it will send you on a complex search for Truth with capital T, only to let you know when you are absolutely exhausted from your search, that there was really nothing to search for. Reason? Tat-twam Asi!  You are It.
(To be fair, in India we constantly hear tat-twam asi, aham Brahmosmi etc. but these phrases are uttered with such great reverence that their down-to-earth quality is always missed.)
      If you are lucky to find the right sort of Hindu guru — I mean a really wise and honest one (a rare breed nowadays) — he may first gently try to convince you, "Oh, you are the truth you seek. Just breathe and keep your eyes and ears open, live your life, and that is all about it." 
        This is how Ramana Maharishi used to dissuade devotees from sitting at his feet. He knew the pointlessness of preaching. Either you knew or you did not. There was no way to  force enlightenment. But still they came, just to sit by the Master, enjoying the bliss of his very presence, looking into those large twinkling eyes, and refusing to accept that he and they were the same. Out of compassion he let them hang around. Once in a while he would say something and the scribes would eagerly jot it down, then squeeze out everything from it except the truth. The Sage would sigh and again go silent.
      J. Krishnamurti had the same frustration. Among the masters of 20th century he had the least to say but he spoke and wrote the most. He was a natural linguist, his prose style admired even by literary masters like Adous Huxlely. Though Krishnamurti kept saying the same thing over and over again for sixty years,  none of his admirers would admit he was repeating himself. Towards the end of his life he grudgingly acknowledged that only four or five people might have been helped by his 60 years of talking. So someone asked him, “Why are you talking then?” and Krishanmurti responded disarmingly, “Why does a flower bloom?” He enjoyed talking and he talked!
COMING BACK TO WHY WE ARE GETTING STUCK LIKE THIS, the trouble seems to be the human drive for improving ourselves, earning "higher" rewards — so we erroneously treat spirituality also as a long term investment, expecting killer returns. We expect the finest spiritual real estate, especially for our life-after-life. That is why Abrahamic religions which promise the best physical afterlife infrastructure get most followers.
        For Hinduism it is somewhat different. What muddies the spiritual waters in Hinduism is its concept of reincarnation. You are here in this world to purify yourself to the extent possible. You may have already lived countless lives in different life forms in different planets (Hinduism had an impressively large concept of the universe). Occasionally even spiritual masters and gods misbehave and take birth at lower levels. It may take thousands of more incarnations for you to become one with Brahman, the ultimate reality.
       I don't really think any Hindu really want to merge with the Brahman, they want to keep their identity and be born better in the next birth. So for most Hindus reincarnation remains just another  promotion or demotion, just as materialistic as Abrahamic beliefs in heaven and hell.

DEVOTEES HECKLE THEIR GURUS with questions like "What were I in my previous births?" (meaning: "How much have I achieved so far?" so that he could create a mental chart of future progress.) But this the sign that the quest is in the wrong direction. The rare honest guru who dares to retort with, "WHO wants to know?" or, "whatever reincarnates, it won't be you!" stands to lose his market value. So most gurus mumble something vaguely encouraging which causes the disciple to misunderstand the entire concept of reincarnation. 
       Fortified by this misunderstanding, the devotee becomes willing to perform tough spiritual practices and penances before he can give himself permission to feel liberated. After all, it is part of his long term investment. Well-meaning gurus might play along with them initially, and suggest several spiritual practices, but hope that he would understand and come out of these and see the simplicity of the truth. (Disturbingly, some of these gurus may actually become corrupted by the unquestioned devotion of their followers, which is why India has become notorious for dubious characters in the garb of spiritual masters. But that is another story.)
       The devotee gets fixated on one of these methodologies, perhaps even become an exponent of one, and find followers of their own. But their search has stopped at a blind-spot there because they were  looking for pleasure, certainty and security, not truth.
      The pleasure principle which prompts our "search for truth" cause us to stop our search the  moment we get some real sustainable pleasure, whether it is from worshiping God or the bliss of meditation or yoga.
VERY RARELY there may be seekers willing and able to walk all the way along the "razor's edge." Such rare beings are likely to find the truth to be so simple and stark  truth, which would shock the average seeker.  They had been walking around the entire earth in search of their own feet. They never need have left! Had they invested in vain?
      Apparently Hindu philosophy also assures us that the search was not in vain. We would not accept the simple reality unless we had gone through the full process of discarding what is unreal. They would not have found their own feet, if they never started seeking in the first place? Probably not. After all, the vast majority of people never bother to seek and never find their feet!
      That is the whole point of Hindu philosophy as it takes you higher and higher, which, paradoxically also takes you lower and lower (and that is how it should be)! It ultimately turns out that what we are searching for is that blessed void of the present moment, unpolluted by thought and conditioning. Period.*

Ashtavakra Gita: 

This paradox is brought out best in  AshtaVakra Gita, a rare down to earth Indian philosophical treatise which does not allow the seeker to escape to future but forces him to stay firmly in the present, and so is frequently misunderstood and generally not discussed in devout spiritual circles.
      This is because AVG is too honest. It takes the reader up, up, to a precipice, strips him of all his armor and drops him down into the abyss. The idea is that if he is truly ready, he would take flight. It has no hidden secrets at all. If you are open minded, it will take you only one or two readings to understand what AVG is saying. If you don't get it, leave it alone. Don’t fall into the mistake of memorizing its verses, or toting up pious commentaries, which are mostly written by people who want sanitize it and make it respectable. 
      So here is AshtaVakra Gita, in simple English. (Ignore those who tell you that you should read the original Sanskrit only.)

Download AshtaVakra Gita here. (PDF)

They same principle is brought out with great beauty in Herman Hesse's Nobel prize winning little novel Siddhartha. So if it happens that you dont understand Ashtavakra Gita, read Siddhartha. At least watch the movie version (though it is nowhere near the book)!