This post is an article that was published in Namarupa Magazine last month. I wrote it to commemorate Guruji, and to speak a little about the world-view within which Guruji came to learn about yoga. The narrative with which we, as Westerners, come to yoga is quite different than that of Guruji. For us, yoga is something foreign to which we have adapted ourselves, with of course, great delight. However, it is still something our culture was unable or couldn’t provide. For Guruji, yoga was woven into the very fabric of his culture, his country, and as we shall see, his small, lost village in South India.
For many years Guruji worked to understand the Westerners, and how to transmit yoga to a culture that has little vocabulary for the discipline and moral values upon which yoga is founded upon. Many have perhaps heard that Pattabhi Jois ran away from home when he was twelve, and that later, at the young age of twenty-two, he became the first head of the yoga department at the Mysore Sanskrit University. As well, he taught yoga to the Maharaja of Mysore which was no small feat. However, what may provide more insight into his nature, more than biographical information, is an understanding of the culture into which he was born.
The Hindu tradition is widely diverse, as are almost all of the world religions; it is broken up into many factions, some with widely divergent beliefs, so we cannot say there is necessarily one, cohesive, Hindu thought system. Certain ideas are unilaterally accepted, but with variant conclusions: the notion of karma, dharma, reincarnation, and the varying views on Brahman, or some form of the absolute. Within each faction, there is a thread that can carry the teachings from generation to generation, called parampara, or, lineage. Whatever is held to in the parampara creates the narrative that is followed by those born into the fold; it is the lens by which a world-view is formed, a perspective in which the importance of life, work, pleasure and death are understood.
The operative idea of tradition is to pass down something that is alive – whether it be a ritual, a practice or a recipe. That aliveness is like a stream, a continuous flow, and in relation to spirituality it is a flow of knowledge. When we step into that stream, we immerse ourselves in the knowledge that has run through the minds and experience of the elders who set the precedent for us, and therefore it has power and authority. There are many different approaches to a spiritual life. One, for example, is to have an idea of what one wants to attain, and then set about attaining it. This way is colored by a certain amount of individuality, and if one remains attached to the idea of what one wants to attain, the results will be limited in the attainment of the desire. Another way is surrender, to have the desire to learn that which is beyond one’s understanding, not wanting to learn a particular thing, but what a particular thing has to teach – not to transform oneself, but to be transformed. In this approach, the ego may subside into a balanced state, because it is not striving, it is absorbing. It is not reaching to get something that it feels will make it more whole and complete, more accomplished, because our the inner self already is whole, complete and accomplished. When the approach to a spiritual life is one of surrender, of immersing oneself in the stream of teachings without having to alter them to suit one’s preferences, then something interesting can truly be learned. As well, our ideas about what it is that we desire for ourselves, and in our lives, change as time goes by. We may have the goal of striving for mukti, or liberation, but we should not be too fixated on what we think mukti may be. Indeed, it will be something that our conceptual mind is unable to hold. This is not a new idea. I took both of these approaches to practice while studying with Guruji, at different times, and found that the latter approach, that of surrender, was keeping more in line with Guruji’s methodology. He would admonish us time and again, don’t ask too many questions, just practice. That is where the answers are to be found.
When traditions are passed down from generation to generation, the knowledge contained within their transmission is not lost. How many wonderful artisanal occupations have disappeared due to loss of use? The Indian ideal is to preserve knowledge and pass it on – like, for example, yoga. The power of tradition remains alive by its purity and continuity. Even yoga, though, has had its troubled times. When Krishnamacharya wanted to learn practical yoga, he had to journey thousands of miles to find a knowledgeable guru. Later, Krishnamacharya’s teachings, through his disciples, most certainly helped to revive yoga, and turn it, through the force of their faith and conviction, into a global phenomenon. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna speaks to Arjuna about the yogic teachings, their decline and revival in two succinct verses:
Thus [this imperishable yoga] was received in succession (parampara praptam), the royal rsis knew of it. Here, after a long time, this yoga was lost, oh Arjuna. I am teaching this ancient yoga to you, this day, since you are my friend and devotee. This secret is supreme indeed. Bhagavad Gita 4.2-3
Though Guruji was born into a caste that boasted many brilliant thinkers, artists and religious leaders, the knowledge he was seeking was not available to him in his home. It was only through his contact with Krishnamacharya, and then later by spending many years at the Maharaja’s college in Mysore, that his immersion into the greatness of his heritage took a firm hold on him, and ultimately shaped the direction of his life.
Guruji was born in a small village of Kaushika, in Karanataka. Once, when Guruji’s grandson Sharath and I were in Kaushika, Guruji brought us down to a small covered structure, facing a stone pillar, and related the following story to us. It concerned the sage Vishvamitra, who was previously a great and beloved King named Kaushika, known for his caring nature and his violent temper. Once, the great king was on a campaign through the forests, and came across the ashram of the sage Vashista…
“Vashista offers hospitality to the King, and though the King refuses on account of the large number of men in his army, Vashista insists, and the King relents. The sage summons his sacred cow Kamadhenu, who delivers a feast full of the rarest and tastiest food, food that even the royal kitchen couldn’t conjure up. Vishvamitra was amazed. He wondered how a mere hermit could exercise such powers, which he as King couldn’t.
Realizing the great powers of the cow Kamadhenu, who could limitlessly provide anything, King Vishvamitra offered 100 cows to have her, saying that Kamadhenu was fit to be in a king’s palace.
Vashista explained that she was a cow that belonged to God, but at the King’s insistence, he obliged. The King sent his men to fetch the cow, but when they approached her, Kamadhenu shrugged her body, from which thousands of soldiers were produced. These soldiers simply massacred Vishvamitra’s men.
The King was livid and declared war against the sage. He warned him that he would be killed if he did not part with the cow. Sage Vashista placed on the ground a blade of grass that he imbued with divine powers and sat in penance behind it.
The King signaled the start of war. All of the arms and ammunition that came at him were completely swallowed by that blade of grass. The Sage could not be harmed. King Vishvamitra was stupefied. He realized the powers of penance were far greater then the might of an entire army.
Useless is the power of the Kshatriya – the strength of the Brahma rishi alone is strength; with only one staff of Brahma, all of my weapons have been destroyed. ***
Saying this, Vishvamitra began the rigors of penance himself.
He sat in penance, facing the various directions on the earth, for thousands of years. At one point the seductress Menaka brought an end to his penance by her charms. He began to live with her, thus interrupting his tapas.
On another occasion, a member of a lower caste, a shudra, came to Vishvamitra requesting he be sent to Indra Loka, the world of Lord Indra. Vishvamitra directed him to sage Vashista, who refused.
So, Vishvamitra began the rituals necessary for the shudra to be transported to Indra Loka. And soon enough the Shudra was there. But he was denied entry and thrown back towards the Earth.
He screamed to Vishvamitra that there was no place for him in Indra Loka. Vishvamitra arrogantly declared that he would create another Indra Loka and asked him to stay put.
Vishvamitra’s penance was affected by his efforts to create a new universe for the shudra. So he renewed his penance, and it was only then, at this place, at this very spot, that his penance bore fruit.
As a result of the force and power of his penance, Indra Loka began to burn. The devas (celestial beings) rushed to Brahma and Vishnu seeking help. They asked them to contact Visvamitra himself.
Brahma descended and requested that Vishvamitra stop his penance, and bestowed upon him the title of Brahma Rishi. But Vishvamitra wouldn’t budge, until, he demanded, that Sage Vashista accept him as such. And so, the sage declared Vishvamitra as a Brahma Rishi, although there was still a simmering discontentment between the two. Only then did Vishvamitra conclude his penance. It is believed that it was here in Kowshika at this very location that all these incidents took place. Vishvamitra’s other name was Kowshika, and hence, this village came to be known as Kowshika.” (translated from Guruji’s Kannada)
It was in these environs that Guruji grew up – his playing fields were the very grounds where the stories from the epics occurred. The village of Kaushika was populated by about sixty Brahmin families, mainly the Hoysala Karnatakans, Guruji’s caste, and Sanketi Brahmins. These castes were both known for producing many Vedic scholars, pandits, pontiffs, musicians and philosophers. Among the renowned Hoysala Karnatakas were Madhava Vidyaranya, the pontiff of Sringeri Mutt, who was well know for his works on Advaita Vedanta. Another notable member of the Hoysala Karnataka community was his Holiness Sri Chandrashekarendra Sarasvati, the deceased pontiff of the Kanca Kamakoti Peetham, a saint whose humility, simplicity, spiritual qualities, intelligence and charity were an inspiration for many millions of Hindus, followers of other religions, and Westerners alike. The Hoysala dynasty ruled over Karnataka for three centuries; early inscriptions date back to 1117 AD.*
Guruji’s life as a child, before he began middle school, was very free. He and his friends hardly stayed at home, where there was much work to do, and were scolded for causing trouble and playing their rambunctious games. Of playing in the forests of Kaushika, he said, “At times we would not return home for two or three days. We would keep playing… sleep in some temple for the night…” After middle school began, Guruji became increasingly interested in his studies, and his contact with the local shastris and with Krishnamacharya increased his fervor. After Guruji’s thread ceremony, any time he would open his books to study, his family would comment sarcastically that he was a scholar of the Ramayana or Mahabharata – ”Go tend the cows,” they would say. His mother did not think that there was much to be gained from his studies, and that they were a waste of precious money and time. However, it was the very stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata and contact with the local scholars that opened his eyes to the immense history and spiritual weight of the village that he was from. His desire to study the Bhagavad Gita and to learn Sanskrit as Krishnamacharya had done, grew. When life became unbearable in Kaushika, his only prospect picking coconuts from his Uncle’s trees, he packed up two dhotis and his vessels for performing his morning prayers, and left for Mysore.
Shankaracharya and the Smarta Brahmins
There are three basic, popular religious views in Hinduism: Vaisnav (worshippers of Vishnu), Saivite (worshippers of Siva), and Shakti (worshippers of the Goddess). Adi Shankaracharya (788-820 AD)**, the great philosopher and saint who propagated the Advaita Vedanta philosophy in the 8th century, instituted a fourth view, which over time became immensely popular, called Smarta Sampradaya. This is the tradition that Guruji was born into; his family Guru is Adi Shankaracharya, and Guruji adhered to Shankaracharya’s philosophical perspective on the self, the world and God, and to his methodology of worship. The Smarta tradition held that Siva, Vishnu, and Shakti were all equal representations of the Absolute, and included three other Deities; Ganesha, Surya (the Sun) and Skanda, or Subramanya. The devotee, according to family tradition or personal preference, chooses one of these forms as their central deity, but worships all each day. For their daily puja, the chosen deity (ishta devata) is placed in the center of the puja plate, and the other deities placed around them. The chosen deity receives the first worship, and all of the others are attended to after.
Shankaracharya was a tremendously prolific and influential teacher. In his short thirty-two years, he wrote important commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and Brahma Sutras, as well as composed hundreds of devotional poems and songs, many of which are still sung on a daily basis throughout India. What he is most well known for, though, is his teaching of non-dualism — that the ultimate import of Vedanta is a non-dual state of reality, summed up in the maxim:
Brahma satyam, jagat mithya, jivo brahmaiva na aparah – Brahman (the Absolute) is real; the world is unreal; the individual self is not different than Brahman.
Guruji used to sum this up succinctly, saying “God is one, not two.”
Though the Absolute reality is present everywhere and in everything at all times, it is not possible for the mind to be focused everywhere, and on everything, at all times. Furthermore, the mind is made up of material essence, the three gunas that constitute all qualities of nature; illumination, activity and stability (sattva, rajas and tamas): the mind indeed is material – it is moldable and malleable. Therefore, in order to focus the mind in a particular direction, it needs a form to focus on. The form of the ishta devata is sattvic, pure and illuminative. It is imbued with subtle meanings, and when worshipped and served with devotion, increases the reflective and illuminative nature of our minds. Our relationship with the deity, ourselves, and the world can begin to shift towards a philosophical bent that can begin to understand, or contemplate inwardly, the issues that led us to a spiritual practice in the first place. It is very difficult for the mind to focus on, or attempt to contemplate, the formless:
For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.
But those who, renouncing the fruits of all actions, with their minds absorbed in me, with their minds fixed by yoga, worship and meditate upon me… I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death. Bhagavad Gita 12.5-6
In order to focus the mind and emotions with reverence and devotion, a form of God becomes essential. Though it is possible to focus on the formless, those that can actually accomplish it are rare, and probably, at some point, had a form of some sort that they used to bring their minds to the refined state necessary to reflect on the formless. How can a mind, which is obsessed with objects, become attached to objectlessness? It is very rare, and very difficult.
Therefore, though Shankaracharya is known as an Advaitin – following a philosophy which is commonly associated with a formless, nameless and unthinkable conception of the Absolute his followers in India, the Smartas, engage in the elaborate worship of several deities for the sake of generating devotion, love and surrender, that create the quality of mind needed for subtle contemplation. They choose an object – an object of devotion – and through the linking of the mind and heart, bring their consciousness into a state of concentration. Patanjali speaks of this as well in the Yoga Sutras when he says, “samadhi siddhih Ishvara pranidhanat” – “perfection of samadhi comes from surrender to Ishvara.” Surrender to Ishvara is inculcated in us through puja and worship of God with form – Ishvara. Yajnavalkya goes so far as to include Ishvarapuja as one of the ten yamas in the Yoga Yajnavalkya.
Samadhi means a type of sameness – the mind takes on the form of that which is being contemplated and we become that upon which we are meditating. When doing upasana, or worship of one of the deities, we come to the realization that the deity is none other than our own inner self.
Another word that infers a type of sameness, which is also equanimity, is samatvam. In the Bhagavad Gita we read:
Yogasthah kuru karmani sangam tvaktva Dhananjaya
Siddhya asiddhyo samo bhutva samatvam yoga ucyate
Perform actions having renounced attachment, Oh Arjuna,
Becoming the same in regards to success and failure – that equanimity of mind is called yoga. BG 2.46
However, there are certain preconditions for samatvam, or samadhi, and this is the basis for yoga practice. Shankaracharya says in the Aparokshanubhuti:
Nitya abhyasadrte prapti na bhavet saccidatmanah. Ap. 101
‘That Atman that is absolute truth and consciousness cannot be obtained without constant practice.’
He lists fifteen steps that one should follow in order to be able to practice nidhi-dhyasana – profound meditation. Among these fifteen are posture, the restraining root, equipoise of the body, steadiness of the vision, and control of the vital forces – known in sanksrit as asana, mulabandha, dehasamyam, drksthiti (drsti), and pranayama. These are terms with which most yoga practitioners are familiar. Shankara gives deep, inner meanings for each of these practices – for example, asana:
One should know that the real posture is that within which meditation of Brahman flows spontaneously and unceasingly, and not any other that destroys happiness. Ap. 112
However, it is very important to understand that this is basically the end game, so to speak, of yoga. To pretend that we are ready for such profound meditation is usually another form of delusion, when we have so many other things to take care of first –our emotions, our relationships, our ability to function in the world calmly. Though meditation on the Absolute can help bring perspective to our relationships, we should take care that it does not become a form of escapism. Therefore, preparation, or cultivation of the body, breath and mind is required before we can cross the bridge of mukti, so to speak. And indeed though Shankara talks of asana and pranayama, and gives deep inner meanings for them as very profound and absolute states of pure consciousness – we have to remember that he is drawing from a colloquial, yogic terminology and placing his own philosophical bent on them. Asana and pranayama are are known to be yogic tools; he is using the common parlance to try to widen the perspective on practice – not to negate it.
Therefore, this is precisely where, in Guruji’s tradition, the practice of yoga fits into the importance and notion of our relationships within the world, and eventually, our realization of Atman. Indeed, in Yoga Mala, Guruji says that one of the important meanings of the word yoga is relation. All yoga is preparation: our body must become stable so that we do not worry about illness; our breath must become calm so that our emotions do not carry us away; the organs of perception must become purified so that we do not, in a fog-like state, let our likes and dislikes carry us away. Realization of philosophic principles requires that all of these faculties are purified. This was very important to Guruji. He said that you should always pray to God before you do any work. “If you pray to God first,” he would say, “your work [or yoga] will have success. If you don’t, no success. God is only one, only many names. Any name you take, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, God is only one. Whatever is your faith, there is God.” And he would go on further to say, “This kind of vision is very difficult, you can’t do it with these eyes. That’s why you take practice; practice, practice, practice. Without practice, no use.”
The practice of asanas and pranayama is but one part of the undertaking of yoga; philosophic investigation forms another part. But it is the spark of love and devotion that is the secret ingredient in bringing the entire undertaking within the cave of the heart, where, as the scriptures proclaim again and again, the Absolute is to be found. When we look at Guruji’s system, we should understand that the yoga he taught was grounded in the body first and foremost, for we are embodied beings, and we should not negate this fact of our existence. His enthusiasm for yoga, however, was not simply physical – the physical is the gateway. In the mystical stories of India, the stories of the yogis, of the saints, of the devotees and lovers of the divine, in the thousands and thousands of stories it is recounted how, through the body, the yogi attained bliss and realization. This was, I would suggest, in essence, Guruji’s inspiration in his yoga.
**There are at least two dates proposed by the scholars. The 788-820 is based on records from the Sringeri Sarada Peetham (the same temple as depicted in the image of Shankaracharya above). The records they have kept are relatively unbroken since the third acharya (Shankara was the first). The other date of 509-477 BCE is based on records from Dwarka and Puri Maths, and are considered to be inconsistent with references and citations made by Shankaracharya in his commentaries. (http://www.advaita-vedanta.org/avhp/dating-Sankara.html)
***dig balam kshatriya balam brahma tejo balam balam. Ekena brahmadandena sarvastrani hathani me. (Valmiki Ramayana 1.56.23)4