My grandparents on my mother’s side spent many years in India during the Raj (British Rule)—and also after partition—my grandfather working as an accountant for an English firm called Octavius Steel (perhaps the Roman name is appropriate).
I mentioned this family fact at a concert I was singing at recently and there was an audible murmur of disdain in the crowd—from, I might add, a very friendly crowd. Is it any wonder honesty is such as rare commodity? For that reason alone, I clearly must mention it again.
My Aunt was actually born in Calcutta in 1927, and my mom spent several years there as a very young child in the late 1930s, as the photo shows, and has a great affinity for India—although all the Hindi she can remember is, “Could I have an orange, please?”
Obviously that was English, because I don’t know the Hindi. But if I was ever with my mom in India, we could probably get an orange, even if the person we were speaking to spoke no English but spoke Hindi, and assuming they were a shop-keeper, or for some other reason were carrying an orange. And hopefully, we also wanted an orange at that time.
As life would have it (and it will have it), I—born in England and raised in Canada—have a great pull towards Eastern spirituality (and the mystic paths in general) that has led me so often to the Vedas, the Indian sacred scriptures.
So when my mom was going back to India last year for the first time in over 60 years, I wrote her this letter explaining the little I know about Indian spirituality, to try and enrich the trip (which was amazing, she said—you should see the photos).
The few friends (and my sister—also a friend) who read this piece, found it to my surprise clarifying and enlightening in some way, so I thought I’d put it in here in the essay section. Re-printed by loving permission, of course.
9/13/2005 8:58 AM
They also have many texts called the Puranas and another set called the Upanishads. Plus they have two epics. One is called the Ramayana (Ra-my-an-a); the other the Mahabharata (Ma-ha-bar-a-ta).
The first time God (Vishnu) came as Ram, the king and warrior, who is transcendentally inseparable from his consort Sita. For the record, Ghandi (although not deeply schooled in the Vedas), constantly chanted the name of Ram and was crazy for the Bhagavad Gita (a bit like Geof is mad for Beano).
One of the sections in the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, which is the book I’m giving you, and means Song of God: Bhagavad (God), Gita (Song). The whole thing is supposed to be sung, actually (to the tune of It’s a Small World After All). Actually, I made that up. It’s to I’m a Little Teapot. I don’t know if I’d recommend singing it on the plane, but you could maybe
whistle it. In the transcendental they say souls don’t talk, they sing; they don’t walk, they dance; they don’t run, they fly Air India.
As for the Mahabharata War, for fourteen years a family known as the Pandavas had done everything possible to avoid going to war (had they been now, they would have found WMDs, loaded and ready to fire) against a huge army on the other side that included some of their own family members, in-laws, gurus etc.
This caused the Pandavas great grief. But the Commanders on this other side would not even give the Pandavas enough land to “nail in the head of a pin”, let alone the five small villages the Pandavas had asked for to live on so as to avoid the war. So war it was.
The two sides (of millions, supposedly, and astronomical evidence mentioned in the book actually lines the dates up with five thousand years ago!—as for archeology, I don’t know) lined up across from each other, ready to do battle.
But just before the conch is blown and the battle begins, Arjuna, the great warrior on the side of the Pandavas (the good guys), falls into a deep depression at the thought of killing his family and teachers and in-laws etc.
Delirious with grief, he goes to Krishna, who is both God and his cousin and his best friend (not a bad confidant when times are rough), and asks him to pull his chariot between the two forces. Once there, Arjuna basically blurts it out: “Krishna, buddy, I feel sick, depressed. I don’t know what to do. Fighting in this war is a no win situation…(Chapter 1, v. 30-35).”
From here the two best friends talk about life, one’s true nature, yoga, duty (which is “dharma”), addiction, detachment, love, service, time, possibly cooking and a friendly cricket match when the madness finally blows over.
In short, the Gita is a summary on Indian spiritual thought.
Either way, please ponder and consider how great, wondrous and miraculous you are. You really are that, mom. And eternal? That’s my bet (with absolutely no proof). Remember those photos at your birthday. Who did you feel like at 2, at 22, at 70? You felt like the same person, give or take a few aches. So the body changes. But that continuing sense of you? That’s the soul—or a glimpse of it. What is our true nature? Are we this body? What is God? What is Self?
Truthfully, at a certain point one can’t prove anything. Take a “given” like love, for example: immeasurable, unquantifiable, untouchable, yet we feel it. That’s all: an emotion and we call it love. And there are a thousand different kinds of love.
Helen Keller said something quite beautiful: “Because I have immortal longings I believe in the immortal nature of the soul.” And she was blind and deaf, and probably not a great dresser.
We must look at the wonder of creation, mysterious creation, unfolding in every second, with awe, gratitude, humility. Extraordinary. Every eighteen years and a bit, while hurtling through space, the sun, moon and the earth line up absolutely perfectly, in their orbits, and block each other. Perfectly and predictably. The sun is 93 million miles away! That takes some serious Swiss watch-making skill, to which one can only bow at some sort of intelligence.
So when you’re in India, Mom, look back at your life and pretend nothing was random, all was unfolding and repeating to teach you—me, everybody—something. As we’ve spoken before, your relationship karma is obvious. But what if nothing was random?
THE ONE AND THE MANY
India has very many but two basic takes on God. First of all, India is not a bunch of Gods, but monotheistic, with all the “Gods” as manifestations of that Supreme Source.
Secondly, the male always has a female counterpart—the Goddess, the Feminine Divine, Mother Nature…this makes me so happy, for it is that energy, the female energy (called Shakti) that holds life together. Anyone can see that, especially at Christmas.
The other thing about God in India is that one group sees God as impersonal—that is, without form or attributes. The other sees God as having attributes. This one is called personalism.
The impersonalists believe, in general, that this world is false and when we finally “get” it, we realize: “Tat tvam asi”, or “Thou Art That.” The thou is you, and the that is God. It means when we realize it, everything is one, all Brahman (all God), and you (Thou) are God (that). That’s right, God. Impersonal, without attributes, but God. The idea of a soul, or being the “atma,” is also considered an illusion.
With impersonalism there are no distinctions, anywhere. This means, in theory, you and Geof are God, and you are Geof. Geof is Bruce and Candy is you and all of you are an illusion, and where people that really annoy you fit in, well God only knows, and since you are God, you tell me, although there is no you and I am that—God, that is. See? All these distinctions we see are an illusion.
However, this is only one idea. Because I can’t change the world, stop the weather, control the increase of hair growth as I age, I don’t therefore believe this idea (in its entirety). Or maybe I’m just a few million hours or lifetimes from “getting” it.
In short, I can barely stop myself from gorging on your crumble or remember where I put my keys, which makes me deeply question the fact that I may be God. But perhaps I miss the point.
That rings a lot more true for me personally—in a mysterious sort of meditative way. It means this world is real (not an illusion), but temporary. That is true, of course. We can all see the temporary nature of things. We are also mysteriously unified (you and Geof again).
But at the same time the personalists say we are individual and eternal “atmas,” souls. This is our true nature, and the soul’s nature is sat (eternal), chit (conscious), ananda (joyful), and vigraha (has eternal personhood)—which is different than personality (which is good, judging by certain personalities).
Right now I am an eternal soul currently having the Pete McCormack experience, my body a karmic body shaped by past-lives, my soul’s desires, what it needs and wants to experience in the material world (or this aspect of the Supreme Being, of which I am also a part).
The journey here is to understand my true nature, the soul, and understand the nature of the material world, which by itself is unconscious (which is why when we get covered by matter we forget who we are). This soul is identical to the Supreme Intelligence, God, the Supreme Being etc., in qualities and essence but not in magnitude.
That’s why when the atma (that is eternally me or you or Candy) enters the material world, it gets covered in matter and forgets its true nature. Then it rises through millions of material experiences (a sort of educational and spiritual evolution/university) before reaching the human experience (many), where arises the opportunity to ask who am I?, where am I from?, where am I going? and can I please have a cheese sandwich? becomes available. This is the great beauty and miracle of the human experience. Only a human can be “liberated,” which is even better than discounts for seniors.
So if the world is remarkably stunningly beautiful and intelligent, the question is: What is the Source of that intelligence and beauty? I love that question, and don’t know the answer. But India (as well as the rest of the world) has some thoughts on it.
Both paths are wondrous and enlightening, and it is (as you may read) our material propensity that attracts us to one or the other, or Christianity, or Atheism, or certain people, or Boxing day sales, or camping, or whatever. That is why it is important to see what we truly are and what we’re not. Or not think about it at all. Whatever this body desires in this lifetime is its nature—which is why Hindus don’t convert by the sword, and threats of hell are pointless.
When a human doesn’t find the most peace this way, and in fact finds the most peace at coffee shops—this is called attaining mocha (Sam’s joke), which is totally different (actually, a true yogi would find just as much peace at a coffee shop—or anywhere else).
A skim milk mocha is more towards the light than whole milk, but less devotional (as long as the cow was well-treated).
The point is, somewhere between obtaining mocha and moksha, we can all practice being the soul. This can be done by being the “witness”, or observing our body from a slightly different stance. Just stand back and imagine you are not your body. You are a soul having a Tessa experience—and the Tessa experience, like the Pete experience, wakes up a little stiff, gets attached to frustration that was totally predictable but we act like it’s new. And we forget it will soon leave so we make it our story. This creates more karma, and so on. Speaking of Moksha (liberation), by the way—and other words—I’ll give a quick glossary of a few terms for the Bhagavad Gita.
Devas also are outside karma, and by their own desire in previous lifetimes, have earned the right to completely serve the Divine. That’s the beautiful part. The downside is, from that realm they can’t attain liberation. Even after that deva experience, they have to go back into human form to get liberated and throw away their bras.
The apocryphal (not in the text) story in Christianity is that Satan (Lucifer) was an angel who refused to bow before humans (would only bow to God) and, well, God said, “No, you have to bow to
humans too.” Satan said, “No,” and things went frosty from there as he was cast away to always be here in the material world…his punishment being eternal separation from God. In fact, though, he has a relatively friendly conversation with God at the beginning of the Book Of Job in the Old Testament, but that’s another story…
For example, if all one wants to do is eat immense amounts of food and have sex, it’s possible they’re not only our neighbours, but they’ll come back as a pig or a goat. It’s not punishment, it’s just that if you don’t want to use your human capabilities, you don’t have to. But it’s difficult to understand even a few of the intricacies of karma. Yogis say our karma can go back a hundred life times. Even Krishna says (Ch 4, v16-19) how confusing karma (action) is.
The key or objective is to not just follow our material desires, but to be the soul, or witness, and watch the body, understand it, and know You are not it. This is the means of transcending karma—by no longer living as the body, as Pete McCormack, but as a soul (Ch 12, v 31-32). This is also liberation. But the yogis say that even if one has transcended karma, like a fan that has been unplugged, it keeps acting for a little while just because it is karma and we have a body (and a body must act).
Our body, for the record, is called our karmic body: a material manifestation of our soul’s desire, an accumulation of our actions and desires.
A little understanding of "As you sow, so shall you reap" is important, because then you can't blame the condition you're in on anyone else. You know that it's by your own actions you're able to get more in a mess or out of one. It's your own actions that relieve or bind you.”
Dharma is that which our material nature is truly meant to do. So me, although I loved playing hockey, it wasn’t my dharma, and I, being fragile, had colitis at seventeen—praise Jesus! It went away as soon as I quit hockey. My material dharma in this lifetime is creativity. Dharma is that quality that something has that, when taken away, that something is no longer that something.
Having kids actually changes one’s dharma (sorry about that!). When a child is born, a woman’s dharma (generalizing, of course) is to nurture and raise that child, and the man’s dharma is to support and protect the child and mother. No wonder we’re all so confused, with two cars and eight jobs.
I wrote a poem about my two dharmas this weekend, called, appropriately enough, My Two Dharmas (material and spiritual):
The Sanskrit mantras (chants) that are done, create a wavelength of sound or a bandwidth—with correct intention—that aligns the chanter, Goddess willing, with a divine vibration. Literally, it’s supposed to be like a phone number to the divine, going inwards and outwards, to the Divine within and the Divine without, who are the same. Can sound be passed invisibly like that? Imagine believing in cell phones a few hundred years ago.
A final thing about all those Indian Gods. They are not confusing when they are taught and initiated—but just by looking and then jumping to conclusions, they become a jumble. But that of course, is what the jumbler wants to make of them (as do most people criticizing a spiritual path without digging in to it).
Both the Muslims and British (Christianity) did this because they didn’t care to ask, and wanted to crush the civilization and spirit of India. But one cannot crush that which is eternal. The spirit remains. The intelligence remains. You can see the difference between invading cultures (Muslim, European), and India right there. In ten thousand years of history, supposedly, India has never invaded another country. All the strife has been internal, which is inevitable in the material world. The key is the amount of strife.
Anyway, all these Gods and Goddesses are representations of the different energies emanating from the Supreme Being, the source of all existence. They are energies one can focus on to understand the material energy, the soul/body relationship to matter: how to negotiate the material world with gratitude and grace, hopefully. Here are a few you might see.
The one with the elephant head is Ganesh. He is known to be the remover of obstacles and he helps us in transitions. Very popular. Eats a lot of candy. Soft belly. Notice one of his tusks is broken. He snapped it off, they say, to write down the Vedas. One chants or prays or thinks of Ganesh to avoid obstacles, to transition from one activity to another.
You can see how even a focus of this nature (transitions, obstacles) can at least bring in one’s attention and awareness to such things. And an energy is needed to transition smoothly, to negotiate obstacles. That is factual. We can all see that. This is Ganesh, and there are chants to him. His elephant head, symbolically, makes us turn off our left brain and consider the mystery. Is there really a God with an elephant head? The point is, is there anything at all in the invisible world or is it all just matter? Spiritually driven people tend to feel the most magic is in what cannot be seen.
Quantum physics itself, which is purely material world searching (not transcendental or beyond the forces of matter), has discovered, they say, eleven dimensions. Fascinating.
You can see, too, that dogs with amazing senses of smell and birds in flight actually sort of live on different planes—then humans with their busy brains. Mystery, mystery.
Brahma and Saraswati are the creators of all these things.
Vishnu and Lakshmi are the Divine maintainers of the material world. They like harmony and maintenance. The keep the material world going.
The female energy, of course, is virtually exorcised from the Middle Eastern religions, Islam, Chritianity, Judaism, but that’s a whole other letter (book).
As for the male energy, Shiva always has an erection (eternally 18 years old) but he’s also internal—doesn’t need to do anything about it (definitely not 18 years old). How unusual is this? He must live in an ashram in Northern California. I’m not sure what that means.
Anyway, he and Parvati, actually, are the parents of Ganesh (a long story which involved Dad cutting baby Ganesh’s head off and replacing it with the first one he saw—you guessed it, Dumbo). But the two are known, too, as the destroyers in the material world. This isn’t negative. This is a natural phenomenon in the material world. Everything is created, maintained, and then destructs…that’s what the last three pairs I mentioned—male and female—symbolize.
The names and stories go on and on.
But what matters here today, and in India, Mom, is your story. Your journey. Your relationship to that which is unseen. Your eternal journey through time. How fantastic to return to a place of so many changes.
Much will be different, gone. This is the nature of the material world. Destruction after creation and maintenance. Some will still be the same, or still there, anyway. This is maintenance. And then you will see new things and have new dreams. This is creation. And creation is not only happening without our awareness, it can also be observed.
This is the miracle of being a soul. That is what will not change, so the yogis say. The challenge and dilemma to all of us and all the millions around us, too, is trying to remember who we and they really are, beneath all this matter, and beyond all this matter. This is the ecstatic passion of the spiritual journey.
Learning to remember.
And when you get a glimpse, develop it, encourage it, listen to it. It is golden. In India, adults at a certain age (they say 75 to 100) do just this—for the rest of their lives they live thinking about and contemplating liberation. They teach the little ones about their true nature, the aims of life, thereby becoming non-superfluous. How much better is this to a rest home?—although that is beautiful too, with the mind still excited.
Ideas are youthful where the body fails. Plus by separating soul from body, you always have someone to talk to. Include the Great Goddess on high and the atma we are within, and the conversation never stops.
Dream a little more, Mom. You’ve been an amazing mother and an amazing friend. Dream of your eternal nature. It’s time to dream. In India, despite appearances, invasions, too much garbage in the Ganges and so on, it’s all about being the soul. And Thou Art That. I love you: laugh, walk, look, dream, take pictures…everything. And avoid the water or your soul’s body will be in a bit of trouble.
|copyright 2006 Pete McCormack|