When you are ready and willing, you will always be pointed in the direction you must take.
“Do we necessarily need a Guru to initiate us into Self-realization,” asked a reader yesterday. I have myself asked this question before; and I keep getting asked this question often too.
We must first understand the meaning of Guru. Guru really means ‘remover of ignorance’ – ‘Gu’ means ‘darkness of ignorance’ and ‘Ru’ means ‘remover, one who removes’. So, as I have experienced and learnt from Life, anyone or anything, that removes your ignorance, or helps you to become aware, or that which awakens you to a truth, is a Guru. So, a Guru is not necessarily a someone who has matted hair, is ritualistic, has a followership and has an ashram or a retreat. To me, a Guru, is a teacher. And since I am really, continuously, learning from Life’s experiences, I consider Life my constant Guru, my ever-present Teacher!
Now, to the next part of the question. I feel the word and the concept of ‘Self-realization’ is over-rated, and therefore, unnecessarily complicated. ‘Self-realization’ is simply the awareness of the transient nature of Life. I have written on writer Shreekumar Varma’s idea of happiness in my Sunday column, The Happiness Road, for DT Next. While conversing with Shreekumar, who is a scion of the Travancore royal family, he shared what his grandmother, the erstwhile ruler of the state of Travancore, used to say about Life: “I once had a kingdom, then I had a palace, then I had a house and now I have a room.” “This awareness”, pointed out Shreekumar, “is key to leading a simple, happy Life – that nothing and no one is going to be yours or with you permanently.”
I will add to his learning that this awareness is what ‘Self-realization’ is. Which is, you are not this body, you are not this human form, you are not the qualifications you have, you are not your position, your title, your bank balance, your relationship, your property, your grief, your worry, your health – you are none of those. In a basic, practical, simplistic context, you are just your breath. Everything and everyone who is around you is with you only because you are alive, you are breathing. Once you die, where does your breath go? It just becomes one with the Universal energy. I wouldn’t even complicate this discourse with the concept of soul, atman, and such – I am just sharing what I understand. To me, everything matters only because of this breath, only because of the fact that I am alive. Life is only jab tak hai jaan! This means, live your Life to the fullest, as long as it lasts. Utilize the opportunity of this lifetime within the lifetime of the opportunity. When you go, you are going to take nothing with you. So, don’t cling on to anything or anyone – practice detachment in every moment. This realization, this awareness is what ‘Self-realization’ really is. As you can see, it is downright simple.
Now, do you need a Guru to awaken you to this truth? The answer is simple. Do you need an alarm to wake up in the mornings or do you wake up on your own? Both possibilities exist. Those who are used to bio-rhythm, will be woken up by their body clocks. Those who need a wake-up call will respond to an alarm. And then, there’s the third category, those who are not sleeping at all, they are pretending to be asleep. They can never be woken up. So, a Guru really steps into your Life when you are ready and willing. As the Buddhist saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. And that Guru will not necessarily be a scholar or a religious leader or a God-person. It need not even be a person! A book can be your Guru, a movie can be a Guru, a Life experience can be a Guru. And there can even be a combination of Gurus – different people, things, events coming together to remove your ignorance, to wake you up and to point you in the direction you must take.
A genuine Guru will not advise that you follow him or her, will not insist on any ritual or prayer, will not champion that you fear a God. A true Guru awakens you to understand the impermanence of Life, and therefore invites you to celebrate yourself and to be happy. A Guru is an enabler, who helps you unshackle yourself and sets you free.
I used to regularly visit a hairdresser named Ramalingam at the erstwhile Taj Residency (now Vivanta by Taj) in Bangalore. I was a lot younger then and had a lot of hair. I was also an angry man – aggressive, impatient and quite rabid. One day, when Ramalingam was working on my hair, I received a phone call from my accountant saying a particular client payment, which was overdue by six months, was unlikely to come in for another week. I just took off on my colleague over the phone – I raved, ranted, screamed and literally shredded my colleague verbally. Ramalingam stepped back as I went ballistic. And when I got off the call, I gestured to him brusquely to continue with his work. As he resumed, Ramalingam whispered into my ear: “Sir, losing your cool like this is no good. This is not the sign of a mature leader. You are a very capable man. But you are letting your anger ruin you. Intelligent living doesn’t call for big intelligence. It requires common-sense. If you can learn to be in this world and yet be above it, untouched by its pulls and pressures, then you are a true, evolved leader.” Ramalingam’s words strangely did not anger me or hurt me. In fact, they gripped my conscience and woke me up from my stupor. It has been over 15 years now. I am still a work-in-progress. But my journey of channelizing my anger and my spiritual quest – both – began that day sitting in that salon chair. I was Arjuna that day and Ramalingam was my Krishna. He was my first Guru – he removed a part of the ignorance that I was steeped in and, set me off on glorious path where I have experienced freedom, inner peace and happiness – despite my excruciating material circumstances. (Read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal)
On this path, whoever I meet now or whatever comes my way, is a Guru. I know I have miles to go, but I know there will always be a Guru to light up the path, every step of the way.
Affiliation to a God or a religion or a ritual is a personal choice.
The administrator of my apartment block’s facilities came by the other morning. He wanted a contribution of Rs.100/- that the apartment owners’ association was collecting to conduct a puja and distribute prasadam to the poor and needy. I told him that I don’t make any contributions in the name of God, religion or rituals. He seemed a bit lost with my reply. It was evident he wasn’t expecting that response from me. So I explained to him that I preferred in celebrating the God within each one of us, in bowing to humanity than being part of any practice that was divisive and bred either a superiority complex or instilled fear among people. My perspective was lost on him, surely. I guess he must have gone back and simply reported to the management committee of the association that I refused to pay up. And the members of that committee may have drawn their individual inferences from my decision.
But I couldn’t care less.
I am fine with feeding the poor and needy. We must all support and be there for each other. But why bring our efforts under the umbrella of religion? Why bring God into the picture? God is a personal concept. Affiliation to a God or a religion or a ritual is a personal choice. And that’s how it must be. Inviting God into our social contexts, into culture, is what’s messing things up. Which is why I ask, why color any socially relevant, beneficial initiative with this God thing?
I see it like this. I am not sure if there is “a” God like the way it is popularly perceived. But I do know that there is a Higher Energy that is powering the Universe. An Energy that is clearly beyond human comprehension. So, if we just offer whatever we do to the Universe, to this Higher Energy, it is enough. Why do we want to label this Energy? Simply, the breath that each of us takes, what keeps us alive, is the same. You don’t live any longer or problem-free because you have a Hindu breath or a Muslim breath or Christian breath. In the grand, beautiful, inscrutable scheme of Life’s design, religion and God, are totally irrelevant. It appears to me that humans have invented religion and God to control each other. So, no God or religion for me please, thank you! I simply surrender to this Higher Energy a.k.a Life and I am humbled being able to serve humanity in my own, limited, small way.
I certainly believe the time has come for us to stop complaining about the rot in our social fabric and culture and instead do something about it. Anything that pits one human being against another on the grounds of God, religion, rituals, caste, race or creed, must be expunged from the face of this planet. My thinking and effort may be too irrelevant, and laughable too, but at least it makes me happy that I am able to make a small contribution to make our world a better, inclusive, pluralistic, place.
True intelligence and distinction lies in your Buddhahood!
At a grocery store the other day, a couple we know had brought their son along with them. The young boy has autism. So, he is often reflective and lost in his own world. Someone seeing the child, smiling curiously at the ceiling, remarked in Tamizh to another: “Ashadu Sirikkarthu!” Loosely translated, it means, “The idiot is laughing!” Of course, it was a very insensitive, inhuman comment. And the person to whom the comment was made quickly whispered a firm admonishment. So, I did not take up the issue with them.
But the inappropriate remark kept me thinking. I concluded that the real ‘ashadu’, idiot, was not the autism-afflicted boy. It was the person who made that comment. Because only an idiot will see Life so insensitively, so inhumanly. To me, the young boy is a Buddha. He has, unwittingly perhaps, learnt the art of living with equanimity, in total bliss, happy being who he is. His autism is a blessing. All of us, educated, intelligent, all-faculties-intact folks, only aspire to get to that state which the young boy has already arrived in. Many of us even fail to understand what this Buddhahood is all about. We wrongly imagine that it is about religion and ritual. We think being educated and financially well-off means we are better than most people around us. But the truth is mere education and knowledge do not necessarily guarantee wisdom. Hear what Osho, the Master, has to say about this. It is brilliant: “Our whole education is absolutely unaware of the fact that growing up is a different process than growing old. Even idiots grow old; only Buddhas grow up!”
Academic education, in fact, when overdone, and over-relied-upon, is a disease. An affliction, that comes in the way of intelligent living! Which is why, I am all for Buddhahood. To be sure, each of us is capable of it. Except that we have to grow up. And for that we have to first awaken. Growing up clearly is not about knowledge and qualifications. It is about going within, connecting with your source, your core, your Self. When you delve deeper you will find value in the silence that will greet you there. And the peace that you discover inside you, in that silence, that peace makes you a Buddha.
So, in effect, the more educated you think your academic qualifications make you, the more wealthy you think your material assets make you, the more experienced you think you are because of your professional body of work, well, these mean nothing from a Life-fulfilment point of view. These only mean you have grown older. It only means you are now a bigger idiot! Being educated, being financially wealthy, being a subject matter expert are not sinful – but imagining that you are, therefore, better off than others is sinful! True intelligence and distinction lies in your Buddhahood. To attain Buddhahood, you must simply un-cling from all that its worldly, all that is perishable, and see the light, metaphorically, in the sky. As Gautama Buddha famously said, “When you see how perfect your Life is, you will look up at the sky and laugh!”
Well, isn’t that what the young boy in the store was doing? Pause and reflect: are you capable of looking up at the sky and laughing with such equanimity and honesty? When you do that, you too will be a Buddha. Until then, just be accepting of the ‘ashadu’ that you are!
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In prayer, be grateful and offer yourself to the Universe.
I know someone who is never available for any conversation or meetings. Every time we try to connect with him he’s either at work (which is for about 5 hours a day) or he is performing poojas, worshipping. He runs a small business and by his own admission, performs 8 prayer rituals a day, in three spells, over 12 hours. “Are you happy,” I asked him one day. “Hardly. Business is tough. A lot of money is stuck with debtors. I am continuously in prayer trying to seek a way out,” he said.
This man’s confession substantiates the case I am making – merely being ritualistic is never going to solve any problem for you. Yet, to each, his or her own way. Especially in matters concerning faith and prayer. But Zen offers a beautiful perspective on prayer. And it is worth thinking about and understanding.
Zen Buddhism says that true prayer is when no petition, no wish, is made, when no assistance is sought, but when mindfulness is practiced. Through such practice, you offer whatever you have, a flower, an incense stick, or maybe even yourself, to something higher than yourself. What can be and is greater than you? Creation. Creation is the Higher Energy. So, offering yourself to Creation, makes you be one with the Universe. When you offer yourself you are expressing your gratitude for your creation and everything that you have. You are saying – “You created me. Thanks. I am offering everything I have, mindfully, consciously, with all my being, to you.” That’s when you truly unite with the Universal energy and are soaked in its brilliance and abundance.
The popular notion that prayer is an appeal to an “external, invisible” God is a by-product of how religion has come to be practiced over many centuries. Maharishi Patanjali had demystified this in one of his works, perhaps at the beginning of the Common Era, where he equated God to be a mere clothes peg. Just as you would hang a coat on a clothes peg on the wall, we have been taught to pray looking to a “non-existent” God. He says, God is an invention, because, if God isn’t there, who will you pray to? But just as you would have learnt to hang your coat elsewhere if there were no clothes peg, you must learn the value of prayer, and develop the ability to pray, in the purest, truest sense. When you pray, as a means of complete surrender to Creation, then you don’t need a God, you are the prayer and you are one with who you pray to. God, he says, is for beginners. Like when you are learning cycling, you need the small wheels on either side of the bicycle’s rear wheel to help you balance. But once you have mastered cycling, you don’t need those two small wheels jutting out – you discard them and that helps you ride freely. So, it is with prayer. The more you learn to pray, unconditionally, humbly, as a thanksgiving, the more peaceful you become.
True prayer is totally non-ritualistic and non-demanding. It imposes no conditions. It asks for nothing from you – not your time, not your offerings. You don’t need to fast nor do you need to give up or abstain from anything! It is not what you do out of fear (that God will punish you if you don’t pray) or out of greed (I want this or that – grant me my wish!). It is always about being in the moment. The moment that you choose to offer your gratitude to Creation for all that you have and are endowed with – that moment itself is your prayer. You can be anywhere in that moment – you could even be seated on the potty! Also, there is no price to be paid in prayer and there are no rewards to be claimed. When you pray, you pray. And that prayerful moment, when gone through with all humility and gratitude, is itself the reward, the treasure, the fortune!
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Don’t mourn the dead, celebrate their Life instead!
An elderly resident in our apartment block has had a bereavement in her family. Normally, she leads the community navarathri celebrations in the building. But she cried out this year saying she was in mourning. Her choice made me wonder if we should at all mourn our dead.
I often hear people say that when someone passes away, you should not offer prayers for three to 10 days, depending on your closeness to the departed; you should not celebrate festivals, birthdays and anniversaries for a full year and, in some cases, I have noticed people even abstain from visiting ‘big’ temples like Tirupathi or their native shrines. Now, my perspective on this is limited to the way Hindus, particularly TamBrahms, mourn as I am exposed primarily to this culture. I must add here that my views on God and religion are significantly skewed to the journey within, to Godliness and to the religion of humanity. Even so, this is not even about God or religion. This is about, as I see it, the wasted, often dramatic, practice of mourning.
Yes, when someone you know and love dies, you will feel sad. And you can’t and you should not avoid that grief. Hold it and allow it to hold you. It will last for a while. But as it wears off after some time, and it will, let it go. By imposing socially – as dictated by the high-priests of religion – prescribed mourning norms, you are missing the big picture. Death is not a dark, monstrous ‘something’ that must be feared and abhorred. In fact, death is the only constant about Life. It is the inevitable. It is the only certainty you have in Life: if you are born, you will die! And as long as you live, death is your constant companion. It travels with you along the course of your entire lifetime, as a shadow will.
I learnt an important Life lesson from a slum dweller several years ago. One afternoon, I found traffic slowing down on Greenways Road. This was surprising because this is one of the freer thoroughfares in Chennai. In some time, the traffic came to a grinding halt. I stepped out of my car and walked a few metres ahead to find that a funeral procession was winging its way out of the Sathya Nagar slum in the area. As the flower-bedecked cortege of an old man snaked forward, I noticed several people, young and old, mostly men, dancing to the beats to a drum. They were leading the cortege. They danced furiously. And I could make out that several of them were drunk. I had seen this happen on the streets of Chennai many, many times before this one. But this time I was keen to understand why slum dwellers acted in such drunken frenzy while seeing off their dead. So I asked an elderly member of the procession if he could tell me what was going on. He reeked of cheap sarakku (liquor) and was probably in his 70s. He was not dancing; but he was swaying to the drum beats and the effect of alcohol nonetheless. He paused though and answered my question: “Saar, we are celebrating that our man is dead. That he has found viduthalai, freedom, from this earthly existence. He’s gone to a happier, prosperous place. We are happy for him. In celebrating his death, his freedom, we know, ours will come too. Soon!”
I found the man’s perspective to be a revelation. I had not thought of death from that point of view ever.
It is so simple. Celebrate the departed’s opportunity to be free from real world issues, challenges, attachments, bondages, whatever! I extended the thought and have since held the view that our dead must not be mourned but their lives must be celebrated. On the night when my father-in-law died, two years ago, I sat quietly and drank all by myself. I recalled how much I had learned from him and thanked him for his compassion and trust in me – beginning, of course, with his choice to let me marry Vaani, way back in the late ‘80s, even when I was barely out of college, and unemployed! It was a quiet communion and a personal celebration!
As I grow older, I find the rituals that impose mourning very meaningless, in fact, stifling. On the contrary, I find the slum-dwellers’ practice of dancing for their dead, of celebrating their dead, deeply spiritual. Many of them may well be uneducated. But perhaps they are more evolved than us. They surely know what it means to celebrate the lives of those who are gone. So, I believe mourning as a practice must be expunged. Instead we must do all the stuff that our dead would have loved. And through doing all of that, let’s celebrate their Life. As for me, I have advised Vaani and my children to abstain from all rituals and instead host my Death-Day party! I have asked them to play RD Burman-Gulzar-Kishore Kumar songs and hold a toast with the finest whiskeys as my celebration at my death!!!
If we can focus on the essence of a religion or ritual, than merely being dogmatic about it, we will awaken.
In response to my blogpost yesterday on the value of remaining detached – both materially and emotionally, a reader reached out to ask me this: “Sir, is the poonal (the cotton thread worn across the shoulder by Brahmin menfolk, who deem it to be ‘sacred’) an attachment? Or is it a ceremonial identity for those born into a sect?”
Now, I am not going to answer this reader’s questions in specific. But I am going to share what I think of being born a Brahmin; and having given up wearing a poonal, what I have understood about being prayerful, being spiritual versus being ritualistic and religious.
I come from a very conservative Palakkad Brahmin, Iyer, (Palaghattan) family. My upanayanam (sacred thread/poonal ceremony) was performed when I was 13. While, for some inexplicable reason, I took to liking the Gayatri Mantra, even though I never understood its meaning then (just to clarify, I never asked for, nor was I taught, its meaning), I loathed the practice of doing sandhyavandanam thrice daily. Looking back, I feel it wasn’t about the practice, it was the draconian manner in which it was forced upon me that got my goat. As an adolescent, I had more worldly, more physical, more spirited matters to deal with in my body and mind, than to explore the spiritual aspect of living. I simply resisted the whole idea of being Brahmin and having to imagine that I was ‘intelligent, exclusive and exalted’.
Here I was, getting the lowest grades in my class – I was in fact thrown out of PSBB, KK Nagar, by the venerable Ms.YGP, for scoring 8/100 in Geometry in a quarterly. So, far from intelligent, I felt like I was a duffer. Second, all I wanted to do was hang out with friends, watch movies, smoke, have girlfriends and talk about and do stuff that all adolescents indulge in. But no. To do any of that was sinful, I was told. Because a. I now wore a poonal and b. I am Brahmin. I began hating the idea of being Brahmin and privileged even more. So, somewhere, along the way, I gave up doing sandhyavandanam (citing time constraints), but the poonal stayed on – possibly because of the fear-your-God-else-you-shall-be-punished orientation that I had received all through my childhood.
I grew older wearing the poonal. I did stuff that was deemed sacrilegious wearing the poonal – which is, I ate non-vegetarian food, drank alcohol, smoked tobacco and had sex! But the poonal stayed on. And, as they say, history, repeats itself. So, at 13, my son, Aashirwad, had his upanayanam. Vaani and I were liberal with him though. He had a choice to wear his poonal or do sandhyavandanam. Nothing was forced on him. And so, he made a choice not to do either! I don’t think I ever sat him down and helped him understand the meaning and significance of the Gayatri Mantra though. Life just went on for all of us.
Over time, thanks to our bankruptcy, and the cathartic experience that we are going through, I leaned more towards spirituality and started moving away from religion and rituals. This journey was smoother for me perhaps because of my early resistance to being a ‘privileged Brahmin’ and my intense distaste for rituals. I preferred to understand Life than be driven by tradition. So, Osho, Rumi, Gurdjieff, Gandhi, Eknath Eswaran, Kabir, Thich Nhat Hanh, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty, Shirdi Baba, Sathya Sai Baba and Vivekananda, appealed to me more than the pantheon of Hindu Gods that I have been brought up propitiating. I understood that Life really meant living, not earning-a-living. And living meant celebrating each moment. I realized that happiness and inner peace were intelligent choices available to each of us and that God is within you and me, who must be loved, not someone who controlled you from the outside and who must be feared.
I understood the real meaning of the Gayatri Mantra. There are several ways it can be explained. But two flavors appeal to me the most:
One, Swami Vivekanananda’s single-line Twitter-friendly version: “We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this Universe; may He/She enlighten our minds.” (Note – I added the ‘She’ to this to celebrate gender equality!)
Two, what a sage seeker once shared with me:
“Through the coming and going, and the balance of Life,
the essential nature, which illumines existence, remains.
May all perceive through subtle intellect
the brilliance of enlightenment.”
Consider both versions of the Gayatri Mantra’s meaning. Is there any religion in it? Is there any parochial Brahmin supremacy enshrined in it? Then why, why is it preached, promoted and peddled as a Brahminical virtue?
One night, in the summer of 2011, when Aash was down here in Chennai on vacation, both of us sat down to polish off a bottle of Glenfiddich (that Aash had bought for me from his first part-time job’s salary). The ladies of the house had retired. And soon father and son got talking about Life, Purpose, spirituality, religion, rituals, God and almost everything that remains inscrutable to us mortals. I shared with Aash how much Osho has helped me live a fuller and happier Life. And then I talked about the Gayatri Mantra – sharing the two meanings, that I have presented above, with him. I also told him what I thought of the wasted idea of Brahminism – of how important and relevant just being is compared to being ritualistic and religious.
I then poured myself one more drink, and declared emphatically, that what the world needs more is Humanism, not Brahminism. I said we need no more of religion or rituals but we urgently need compassion and spirituality. Aash stopped me short and said, in a dead-pan tone: “But Dad, you are still wearing your poonal, right? Doesn’t all this sound a bit hypocritical to you?!” I looked back into his eyes. I set my glass down, peeled off the tee-shirt I was wearing, removed my poonal, and politely discarded it in the trashcan in the kitchen!
To me, that night was nirvana, enlightenment, moksha – whatever! That night I detached from an idea that had been bothering me from my adolescence – an idea called Brahminism that was based on religion, community, caste and parochial thought! Since then I have abstained from religion – as it is practiced today – and from all rituals. I feel freer, I feel happier and I feel at peace with myself.
This inner peace and joy helps me deal with my Life much better. In the last 5-odd years I have been enjoying my journey of this lifetime more than I have ever for 44 years before that night. I am so much more happier despite my excruciating material circumstances. Maybe this is the enlightenment that the Gayatri Mantra invites us to embrace. At least this is the essence I have picked up – and I don’t see any reason why the whole world shouldn’t be knowing and learning this!