Joe was my oldest friend in Manhattan; he died recently, in his nineties. A professor of economics who’d taught at Ivy League Colleges, Joe confessed to me when we first met way back in the 1990’s that in his days of youthful rebellion, he had come under the influence of a Russian Communist and been indoctrinated into that philosophy.
My own interest in mysticism baffled Joe. How can you follow such a heartless path, Mira? He asked me once, when I mentioned I was heading out of town for a meditation retreat. Surprised, I asked what he meant. Oh, Joe said, this friend of mine told me a story—a true story, mind you!—about two Buddhist monks who were walking past a river. A man was drowning in the river and screaming for help. One monk said to the other: “Hey, jump in and save him! I can’t swim.” The other shrugged. “It’s his karma,” he said nonchalantly. “Let him drown.” And they both walked on. “You see?” Joe said righteously. “Don’t tell me it’s not a selfish path!”
I was stunned; you see, I had fallen into a passionate love affair with eastern mysticism in my teens, and as I kept studying, practicing and contemplating the great truths, my affair was growing more intense and powerful. “No,” I said to Joe, “according to the teachings, this is not how true monks would behave. Your Communist friend was either spinning you a yarn, or he’d been spun a yarn himself, which, prior to investigation, he was regurgitating on to you.”
Joe looked at me curiously. “What would your version of the same story be like, Mira?”
“Two monks are passing a river when they see a drowning man,” I said. “One says to the other, ‘Jump in and save him! I can’t swim!’ The second monk dives into the water and rescues the man, who thanks them. He explains he got a cramp while swimming—he was in truth a champion swimmer. The monks resume their journey to their monastery. “Funny, that man’s karma, eh?” one says to the other. “To be a strong swimmer and then to almost drown because of a cramp! Fellow must have done something in the past to have gotten into that mess. Good thing we were passing by…it was our karma to save him.” His friend shrugs and smiles. “Yes,” he agrees. “Karma on both ends of the stick. That’s how this world spins.”
Why, early this morning, did I think of Joe and his skewed notions of mysticism? Because last evening a friend and I were discussing social media and she said she was very careful whom she “friended”—there were too many trolls and weirdos out there, she said darkly, and one had to be exceedingly careful.
I explained that as an indie writer, I had had no choice but to dive into social media. I told her a ‘friend’ had ‘unfriended’ me because she objected to my sharing posts regarding the horrific situation in Gaza. I had explained to her that, regardless who was committing crimes against humanity, I would stand against them. My philosophy is Advaita-Vedanta, which reveals to the committed seeker that we are One. How could a follower of Advaita endorse the evil of racism by staying silent?
Now this friend said to me: Gaza isn’t your business, Mira. You are here to become enlightened. Why bother with worldly matters?
Oh, I thought, here we go again. So I told her about the Two Truths, or the concept of Absolute and Relative Reality. (https://miraprabhu.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/two-great-truths-absolute-and-relative-reality-real-and-unreal).
Each of us is the Divine in human flesh, I explained—just as my own gurus had explained to me. Each of us straddles both Absolute and Relative. If we choose to enter the inner path, all the more reason to show compassion to those who are suffering—as long as our activism does not embitter us to the extent that we lose sight of our own primary goal, which is permanent freedom from desire and fear (Ramana Maharshi’s simple definition of the state of enlightenment). Conflicting expressions crossed her mobile face. “If your mother or sister or best friend was one of those being bombed to hell in Gaza or any place else,” I asked then, “would you still consider your interference there a “worldly matter”?
She shook her head. Then she told me that a while back in Rishikesh she had encountered a sadhu—a wild man who claimed to worship Goddess Kali, but who was regularly beating up on his young wife. The traumatized woman was imprisoned in a tent—lest people saw her battered state. My friend decided to rescue her; on the pretext of taking her to the hospital to treat her cold, she got the woman out of the tent. Unfortunately the sadhu went along too! It was in the auto driving to the hospital that he realized my friend was planning to steal his victim away to friends engaged in social work. When the rickshaw stopped at a traffic intersection, he grabbed hold of his wife, jumped out, and dragged her quickly away.
Since she was heading back to Europe the next day, my friend called the people who had offered to help take care of the battered woman and begged them to rescue her as soon as possible. It was too painful for her to further investigate, so she never found out that poor woman’s fate. “So many people warned me not to get involved,” she said, “but I could not bear to see what was happening. I failed, miserably, and most likely he bashed her up even more afterwards. Still, I did what I had to do.”
I then told her about how, as a teenager, I had diverted a drunk by screaming at him when he was about to kill his pregnant wife. The drunk had swung around and hit me on the jaw, which hurt like hell, but by diverting his attention, I managed to save the woman and her unborn child.
On and on we went, swapping stories about how we had “interfered” in worldly matters and mostly failed in achieving the results we had hoped for. I ended by telling her that Eckhart Tolle’s advice was perfect for me: to straddle both realms (Absolute and Relative), and she agreed.
Many genuine seekers believe they should not get involved in the suffering of others. Yes, the relative world is indeed illusion. It is not ‘real’ as defined by Advaita-Vedanta, where the word means ‘that which is permanent and lasting.’ Today I am convinced that life is nothing but a stream of karmic consequences, individual and collective, unfurling at a rapid speed and deceiving us into believing it is all real—just as a movie, made up of tens of thousands of single shots rolls on, giving us the impression of a continuous reality. And yet we are too a part of this relative dream. For those serious on this path, it is critical first to distinguish between what is real and what is unreal—in other words, the Dreamer must learn how to step out of the Dream; but when things go drastically wrong in the dream, he or she must also learn how to step back in and play his or her role as a force for justice and peace.
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva in the form of a mountain, who promises to destroy our egoic mind so that we can experience our true nature, which is the blissful and immortal Self!