ONE CUP OF TEA AND TWO BISCUITS

FB_IMG_1456878290224I read “Freedom at Midnight” right through from cover to cover in a single day when I was a teen and recall loving it. The authors (they work as a team) spoke of an infamous Nizam of Hyderabad who was a noted miser. This Nawab (ruler) had two sets of clothes and two grimy skull caps. He was so rich that he stored currency notes (big denomination, foreign) in his cellars and rats feasted on them, even as his poor citizens struggled to keep body and soul together. This was during the time of British colonial rule. One day the Nizam was informed that a new British high official was about to make him a formal visit and that he should prepare appropriately. Naturally this official was anticipating a sumptuous reception; instead, the bewildered man was led into a small room to meet the Nizam and offered a cup of tea and two biscuits. So much for grand expectations, huh?

I grew up with parents who were ultra generous. My father believed not just in living well but in being extra hospitable to the extent he could. My mother (I have rarely come across so naturally good and innocent a woman) tried to help everyone. For big feasts, she would spend weeks before the event preparing sweets and savories in the traditional Indian way, and not just for family and relatives, but for the poor. Oh yes, they both had their faults, but their high ethics and willingness to help others have left an indelible impression on me. (They have both passed on, but sometimes I pray that they will come back to me in their reincarnated forms, just so I can be good to them, as I rarely was when I was a young rebel.)

Coming from such a background, I didn’t believe misers really existed (except in fiction) until I got to know one in close quarters. He puzzled me because, unlike that crusty old Nizam, he could he exceedingly generous in certain ways. For instance he loved gourmet food and did not stint on it for himself or others. But he was a hoarder of other goodies, and perhaps the most secretive man when it came to his money and assets, of which he had a lot.

FB_IMG_1490599852235Since then I have met other misers. Like the man who indulged in gourmet food, and yet was laughably tight-fisted in all other ways, these too had their own peculiarities. One wealthy woman spends abundantly on herself, her home, her pets and her current boyfriend, but shrinks back from spending a single dollar on even a close friend—unless there was some benefit in it for her. (She is committed to the Eastern path and a fervent meditator too, so go figure!) Another guy, who boasts that he has so much money that he doesn’t know what to do with it, religiously counts his pennies and will even ask you what you plan to order when he takes you to a restaurant—lest you are going to eat the most expensive items of the menu. Ha ha ha, not. Another big businessman I know has enough money for generations to come, but continues to spend most of his time making new deals; despite his seeming generosity, and although he would vehemently deny this, he too can be both miserly and crooked. And so on and so forth.

I used to be shocked and revolted by miserliness, but now I actually feel a deep compassion for those so attached to their material possessions that they cannot allow Spirit to move freely through them. The beauty of Advaita is that it teaches us that we are all One—that we emerge from a single source (sat-chit-ananda) and will eventually return to it.

Though convincingly real, the three states of waking sleeping and dreaming are not “real” in the context of Advaita, simply because they come and go; and it is the I AM, a split off from the Whole, that is the root of our powerful sense of I, me and mine. In its pure state, the I AM is the Guru, the Light, Brahman itself; in its mischievous form, it is Satan itself, for it seduces us to spend all our precious time grubbing away in the material world. The job of the seeker (Advaita) is to first to isolate the I AM, and then to focus solely on it, until it realizes it has been outed, and can then be coaxed to become your ally. Since the I AM has emerged directly from Source, it knows the way back to paradise; if Grace is showering down upon you, it will finally lead you home.

According to classical karmic theory, all our actions return to us multiplied, good and bad. So if we give, we are actually going to receive much more in return. In fact, giving or generosity is the first of the Paramitas, the great virtues that lead to enlightenment. But in order to qualify as a virtue, giving must be free of the ego. I know many (and I am guilty of this too) who will give a lot, but are also convinced that it is their mini-me, their egoic self, that is doing this great thing. This sort of giving only produces “dirty good karma”— results that sprout solely in the material ephemeral world.

The correct way to give is to realize that in truth we own nothing, for ownership implies control. Can you deny that even a billionaire cannot take a single hair or nail with him when Death comes calling? We have what we have due to our own past karma, which has a shelf life. And so the genuine seeker gives as if it is the Self that is giving, forgetting entirely about the human element.

8b0491b2a715579b114da4fdb36d7daaMostly it is suffering (intense grief, loss of possessions, reputation, loved ones and relationships, etc) that finally opens the eyes of the miser to the self-destructive beliefs he or she has been nursing. In our true state, we are abundance itself; study the lives of the great sages and you will see that many refused to even handle money or have possessions (except for essentials), and depended solely on the Divine (their own Self) to provide them with all their needs. We don’t have to be like them, of course, for few are secure enough to do this, but we can become more aware of our basic oneness, and know that when we are being generous to those in need, we are actually giving to our own Self.

Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who leads us, if we are ready and willing, from the unreal to the Real!

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MAHAMUDRA – Samsara’s Seven Flavors (2 of 4)

7293fc79f579a35ec9fc884aa6b3cadf-2THE GREAT SEAL

Etymologically, Mahamudra is a combination of two Sanskrit words: maha, or great, and mudra, translated in this context as seal. In ancient times, seals were the only way to confirm the authenticity of, say, a royal command. If a monarch sent an order to an outlying province to execute a corrupt minister, that message would have to bear his personal seal. And in the context of samsara or relative reality, Mahamudra is that seal of authenticity, for its characteristics are ubiquitous even in the tiniest aspect of samsara. 

Samsara is the condition of being forced by the power of one’s own karma to repeatedly take on an impure body and mind; in other words, the minds and bodies we currently wear are the creation of personal karma created over thousands of lifetimes. It’s okay to have a mind-body system, our guru would say with a laconic grin, but not one that is forced upon you. As for Emptinessit is an inadequate translation of the Sanskrit word Shunyata, the fecund void from which all things manifest. Why did western scholars use the word empty to describe Shunyata? Because the perception of an object depends on who is doing the perceiving—and it is therefore empty of having a fixed and permanent nature of its own. One man’s meat is another man’s poison….beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. These truisms refer to a great truth—that every pair of eyes that views an object is compelled to see it differently.

Why the word compelled? Because we are each literally forced to perceive an object in a particular way. Watch a movie with friends, for instance, and all of you might have a contrasting opinion—you love it, Keshav hates it, Anthea is bored. So the movie itself is essentially empty of having a fixed nature and is no more than a blank screen upon which each viewer projects his or her personal likes and dislikes. This phenomenon holds true even when folks agree on a thing, for individual perceptions differ at least slightly. And when non-humans perceive the same object, there are no common labels: for instance, what a soaring hawk sees when he looks down at a patch of forest a human can only speculate upon. Another critical teaching of eastern philosophy is that before we can see properly, we must first cultivate the right view, the correct filter through which to perceive the reality we inhabit. This view is critical particularly to the seeker of ultimate freedom.

6cfa74207d9988dbbdc3a2b428999120Diamond Sword

These are excerpts from the introduction I wrote on Mahamudra:

Imagine you own a sword fashioned of pure diamond which can slice through to the blazing heart of reality. This sword, however, is sheathed in layers of ignorance and is your own mind, your own consciousness. The poisons that dull it are delusions about the ultimate nature of reality, poisons that begin to form from our first moments of consciousness, when we begin to see all things as fixed in their nature—beautiful and ugly, cruel and kind, good and bad. Feelings spring forth from this world-view. We learn to like and dislike, to desire and to push away, to crave and to seek escape. This gives rise to an uncontrollable stream of thoughts, often resulting in heedless words and actions. Then, when our physical body dissolves back into the elements, our mindstream lives on, impregnated with the seeds of these habitual patterns (known as vasanas or samskaras). We are forced to take birth again, and the great wheel makes another turn. We suffer, age and die, again and again and again, trapped in defective worlds of our own creation.
Is there a way out of this madness? Yes! If we transform the way we think, speak and act, the movie of our relative life transforms too: Karma metamorphoses into a benevolent producer intent on giving us a blissful role, using her power to create a paradise for us to play within. Karma is compelled to act in this manner because the world is “empty”, because there is no base reality, because it is our thoughts, words and actions alone that fashion our reality.

303537_3128548673069_1069126392_nMahamudra is the systematic stripping of ignorance that all of us must undertake at some point in our eternal timeline. If we succeed in eliminating poisons that incline us to perceive ugliness instead of beauty, we are in a position to construct heaven. The stakes are incredibly high—eons of suffering if we don’t clean up the mess, luminous immortality if we do. 

Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who vows to help us strip away the unreal from the real, so we can rest in the peace and bliss of our immortal Self!

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MAHAMUDRA – Samsara’s Seven Flavors (1 of 4)

4b2c8bc7f1869ccbf64a10955f1f61ddPeak of summer, Manhattan 1995….life is on the upswing: an admin gig at a top law firm, my own apartment in picturesque Brooklyn Heights with a scintillating nocturnal view of New York’s other three boroughs (Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island), and glimpses of the cool profile of the Lady of Liberty towering over the horizon.

A swirl of friends—artists, musicians, writers, poets, sculptors, photographers, and the occasional lawyer or stockbroker—add zest to the mix. And while the week is one crazy stretch, weekends allow me to dip my soul into yoga and meditation, an amazing novel, an off-Broadway show, or even an evening performance of Shakespeare in Central Park, after which a bunch of us would troop over to a penthouse on the upper west side to party beneath a canopy of stars.

And yet, if life is so wonderful, why does angst continue to gnaw at my insides like a vicious bandicoot? Despite the glamorous facade of my life, the bitter truth is that I am alone and adrift in a thrumming city that never sleeps, learning the hard way that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

How to get off this spinning wheel? I’d walked away from my marriage with zilch, and am now paying big chunks to the IRS, Social Security, Medicare and a co-op mortgage, which renders the prospect of escape bleak. I see other slaves of New York growing cynical—but I, like a female Icarus, yearn to fly free, even if I burn my gossamer wings daring to approach the blazing sun of liberation.

One Saturday morning I stroll down to Atlantic Avenue to shop at my favorite Moroccan grocery store. I step right into a scene from a souk in the Arabian Nights: wooden vats of black and green olives, tubs overflowing with varieties of grains, oils, herbs, and links of merguez (spicy lamb sausage) dangling from the eaves. Mehmet hands me a cup of mint tea flavored with orange blossom honey and a slice of baklava that melts deliciously in my mouth. As I bask in this old-world warmth, my worries dissolve into joy.

Backpack laden with goodies, I walk out and spot Angelica slouching along the avenue in faded Levis and paint-splattered sweatshirt. An artist who lived precariously in a Williamsburg loft with a heroin-addicted sculptor, I know Angelica is on a perennial hunt for a savior. Once, stoned out of her head, she’d blurted out that on her fifth birthday, her dad had stormed out of the house following a fight with her drunken mother, whereupon her mother had picked up a baseball bat and swung it at Angelica, shattering several tiny ribs; this was one of the many violent episodes that had broken her faith in humanity. “Hey Mira,” Angelica yelled, her face lighting up as she saw me. “I’m going to check out this brilliant lama tonight down in the Village. Wanna come?

Kiri 16GB sd card 6243-1Absolute & Relative Reality

Angelica and I rode the subway into downtown Manhattan and then walked to a packed hall near 8th street in the simmering east village. She was right—her lama was magnetic. In hindsight, it is easy to see how his unique methods of teaching gave my own life meaning and forever changed its course. Years flashed by as I studied with him, absorbing every nugget he dropped. I saw his ego grow monstrous as his flock swelled, but I stayed on, convinced that his teachings were authentic, culled directly as they were from the ancient scriptures. In fact I was so enraptured by his efforts to spread the dharma among the lost tribes of Manhattan that I offered to transcribe his teachings on Mahamudra—a word that has many connotations in the Buddhist world, but which he introduced to us as an ancient teaching on the nature of samsara, or relative reality.

Bhagavan Sri Ramana MaharshiEastern philosophy teaches that there are Two TruthsAbsolute and Relative. The Absolute is the true nature of all beings without exception, and is often characterized as having three qualities—existence, awareness and bliss, which are really the same thing—just as mango ice-cream is simultaneously cold, sweet and tastes of mango. Only the Relative (samsara) varies from being to being. But before we can merge with the Absolute, we must first make sense of our relative lives, and this is where Mahamudra enters the picture, for it breaks mundane reality into easily digestible blocks. When one accepts that all things are subject to these flavors (flavors, not steps or stages, since none is higher or lower), relative life finally begins to make sense, and one is free to move forward with clarity and confidence.

Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who vows to help us strip away the unreal from the real, so we can rest in the peace and bliss of our immortal Self!

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ADVAITA IS NOT TWO

20dbcbc664f4efce769d85cf3c84993cAs a little girl, I discovered an interesting trait about myself—that, when I hurt others, as I often did, (almost always inadvertently, but sometimes intentionally—when I wanted to force them to look at their behavior through my eyes, see that they were wrong, and then choose to transform)—I would be just as hurt as they were, if not more. I was born intense and fierce, so I guess everything I said and did had an impact, positive or negative. Now this pain one experiences is actually our guru, for it warns us that we are powerful beings capable of inflicting suffering on others; if we ourselves don’t like pain, why then do we callously disregard the feelings of others?

Decades later I came upon the ancient teaching on Oneness, of Advaita, which literally means “not two” and understood my angst in a different way: Of course, I realized, when I hurt you, I too would suffer, simply because the essence of my mini-me is no different from yours. (Now I have met people so thick-skinned and non-empathetic that the pain they inflict does not currently seem to bother them; what they may not realize is that the karmic counter is clicking inexorably away, and that what they are giving out now is bound to eventually swing back to them, multiplied; at some point their agony will be intense).

Yes, some humans develop a tough hide and a monstrous ego that prevents them, literally, from feeling. Recently I listened to a woman complaining (really, it was an accumulation of doubt and bitterness due to subjecting herself for decades to a dishonest, warped, cold and materialistic man, who did not give a fig for her as a person, or as a vulnerable woman who craved love and connection. If at all he honors her, it is because she is the mother of his children whom he blindly adores, and because it serves his ego to present a shining façade to his family/community. The sharp pain I heard in her voice instantly became my pain—and that this man had chosen to hurt a sensitive woman to this point (clinical depression), and for so long, made me literally cry.

279dbfcf2cba52b1ecbc23c53cf96b95And I was angry with her too, for being weak and submissive to a tyrant, no matter his façade of being a talented and wonderful guy with more resources than the majority of our world. She reminded me of thousands of Indian women (I know this syndrome is not restricted to the East) who do more or less the same thing by allowing the patriarchy to torment and bully them. And yet I can empathize with the older generation of women, who felt they had no option but to stay and take the abuse. If they had stood up for themselves, most often their own blood families turned viciously on them, and even ostracized them. Besides, women did not work during that time, so how were they supposed to feed themselves and their children if they antagonized the narcissistic breadwinner of the family?

But this woman was different; she’d remained in a horrible marriage for decades despite being highly educated with oodles of money and the freedom to seek sure answers to her problems. Some of us, as you can see, are our own worst enemies. (If you encounter one such, after trying to get them to see the light, it is best to leave them to stew in their own misery, otherwise you are only wasting your precious time and energy. I am now learning when to stop trying to help—the reason being that I myself get dispirited and drained, and then I am of no use to anyone).

Others are empathetic to other humans, but not to birds, animals and reptiles. Don’t they know, I wonder, that the essence of all beings is the same? The outer covering is merely that—a shell; within each of us—dog, cat, cobra, pesky house fly or human—is the very same golden essence, for the Divine is embedded deeply within us all. As the Bhagavad Gita says so poetically, nothing can destroy this essence, neither fire, sword, wind nor water.

FB_IMG_1456878290224Karma has projected for us a certain form to learn new lessons in, and when that karma is exhausted, the spirit returns to the source, the One, Parabrahman. To give generously of our love and resources to a sick dog or cat, for instance, to feed strays and to support sanctuaries, orphanages, homes for battered women, or whatever, is only one way of acknowledging our Oneness. Who knows how we will return to the relative realm if we don’t figure out this potent truth despite all the wisdom that is spreading through our realm?

If we treat others with disdain and contempt, if we invest all our energy in protecting our egoic self (which is “unreal” according to Advaita, for it will dissolve back into the elements at the instant of physical death), we might come back as an amoeba, or a deadly serpent, or even a clump of moss or a pretty rock, and be forced to make our way back up the ladder of evolution in painful little steps. Think I’m joking? Not.

I once asked a wise man what would happen to a certain dictator after he died (he had committed genocide with cold and brutal efficiency). Yes, he had convinced himself that the race he was determined to exterminate was not human, but demonic. (Oh, really? Clearly he could not see his twisted ego attempting to compensate for the wounds some of these humans had unwittingly (or wittingly) subjected him to. Was this not a particularly virulent form of egoic payback, rather than the great cleansing work he had convinced himself, as well as thousands of insane followers, to believe he was doing?)

The old man told me he would have to return to the bottom of the ladder of evolution and go through billions of births and deaths before Karma would once again give him a human form. You see, he had been given so many blessings, and he had abused them. What goes around comes around, simple as that.

We can learn to be happy and peaceful the easy way, or the hard way. Right now, for instance, I am in my Saturn period (according to Vedic Astrology) and so I have to be extra careful. Saturn (Shani) has been likened to a powerful but stern father who wants to see his precious offspring make the best use of their potential. Fortunately I accept this, and so I am careful with how I think, speak and act. And when I do wrong, as often happens, I am as quick as lightning to make amends. Pain is essential, as Gautama Buddha said so long ago, but misery is optional. I, for one, have suffered enough. If treating all beings as my own precious Self leads me to the permanent freedom from desire and fear I crave (moksha, in Sanskrit), then why not invest all my energy in this awesome venture?

31bfa8c67297ecc9ab574db35cd84ca5Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who vows to dissolve all our conditioning, delusions and blinders, so that we can see that essentially we are ONE!

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Genesis: Whip of the Wild God: A Novel of Tantra in Ancient India – 2/4

WWG-Small-TrilogySolace came in the form of hatha yoga, meditation and studying Eastern philosophy. Someone gave me Robert Svoboda’s Aghora—crude, intense, richHis chapter on karma made one thing crystal clear—that none of us are victims in the big picture. Our experiences are only the result of our own past karma, eons of thinking, speaking and acting in certain ways. Now I felt sure that the half-a-million dollars or more that I’d lost by leaving my marriage was the result of the karmic pendulum swinging back at me. Had I retaliated, as several feminist friends exhorted me to do, I suspected this pendulum would have swung back and knocked me down for the count.

Back to Ananda Ashram: my companion and I waded towards the bookstore through mounds of sparkling snow. I wanted a memento of our trip, so I bought the thinnest book I could find, hoping it was also the least expensive. When I got back to Manhattan, I devoured The Brilliant Function of Pain by Dr. Milton Ward in one fell swoop. Its premise is simple: that pain can be our best friend, for it warns us when we are in danger and forces us to flower into our full potential. Those who cannot feel pain die quickly; imagine you are burning to death and cannot feel a thing! Yes, that book was more than worth its weight in gold, for it also spoke of a little known myth about Shiva, the mesmerizing god of paradox and the Destroyer in the current Indian pantheon. It claims that Shiva lashes souls who have strayed with a psychic whip that unleashes excruciating pain. Why? Because while humans can tolerate high levels of discomfort, we cannot endure agony; lashed by Shiva’s whip, we are forced to spiritually ascend.

I had no illusions about myself; even as a rebellious teen, I had always flirted with both darkness and light. I knew I was composed of two equally powerful selves—hedonist and ascetic. Sometimes the dark side completely took over, throwing its black cloak over me and suffocating me until I longed for extinction. But when I had worked out the angst, light would suffuse my world with fresh radiance. So the concept of Shiva’s whip made perfect sense to me.

FB_IMG_1494089545295I have since confirmed that pain does indeed open the petals of the human heart. If we don’t know what it is to suffer—to be alone for long stretches of time; to lose loved ones in tragic accidents; to be frightened out of our wits and broke in an expensive city; to be dangerously ill and friendless—how can we possibly empathize with others who also suffer? To understand all, as the old saying goes, is to forgive all. Why forgive? Because when we investigate the underlying fabric of reasons why people think, speak and act as they do, we begin to realize that in essence we are no different; that insidious sense of separation begins to dissolve and we become One. Indeed it is when we first comprehend the brilliant function of pain that we can finally move forward, with grace and confidence. (To be continued in the next post).

Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who vows to help us clear up the wreckage of our relative lives, so we can rest in the peace and bliss of our immortal Self!

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Genesis: Whip of the Wild God: A Novel of Tantra in Ancient India: 1/4

WWG-Small-TrilogyNeither of us being in the mood for the frenetic end-of-year partying for which Manhattan is famed, a friend and I decided to spend the end of 1993 at Ananda Ashram in upstate New York. It was stunningly beautiful in that snow-blanketed world, and I was immensely grateful for this respite: after years of trying every damn thing to make my marriage work, I had finally left my partner of fourteen years. All I’d carried away with me were my clothes, some furniture, a collection of books and music, and the bitter festering wounds of what felt like a major failure.

Ours had been an old-fashioned marriage: he had played the role of wily businessman, while I had slipped into the role of scatterbrained artiste. Convincing me I was lousy at handling money, he had assumed total control over our joint finances. Dutifully I had handed him my pay checks, and all our assets were in his name. His mother colluded with him. As his extraordinary good looks and charm began to pall, I could no longer hide from the wide swath of deviousness that marred his character. Even as my own horizons spiraled into the mystical, I felt strongly that it was better for me to be alone.

My friend Robin was aware that I had neither a bank account nor a credit card, both of which I would need in order to break free. One Saturday morning, she escorted me to Citibank on Sixth Avenue and hovered over me like a guardian angel as I opened my first checking account. This single act of defiance signaled a fresh start but also opened up a fresh can of worms; as the chorus of that terrific rock song goes, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

“I’d rather go to prison than give you one cent,” my husband said grimly, when I asked for a portion of our marital assets. Although New York divorce law was clear—each of a divorcing couple is entitled to fifty percent of marital assets—Big Apple lawyers cost big money. Adding salt to my wounds, the contingency law which allows a divorce lawyer to take a percentage of a settlement had just been rescinded. To keep from jumping out the window, I dwelt on how extraordinarily kind and generous he had been to me in our early years; he was not intrinsically a bad guy, I assured myself, just congenitally unable to investigate his own gaping faults.

f92f7dea9f17b0dbcc31e5be036538d6Instinct warned me I’d gain nothing by fighting him. Still, I consulted a few lawyers, but every one of them asked for thousands of dollars upfront—money I did not have. Finally I talked to a tough lesbian lawyer. “Cut loose,” was her terse advice. “You’ll never pin this rascal down. Fight him in court, and you’ll lose everything, including your sanity.” I took her advice, and began life as a single, staying afloat by freelancing as an administrative temp on Wall Street and in Manhattan’s law firms. (To be continued in the next post).

Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who vows to help us clear up the wreckage of our relative lives, so we can rest in the peace and bliss of our immortal Self!

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Shiva’s Spectacular Gender Divide: 4/4

FB_IMG_1463360088510My intense emotional reactions to suffering often paralyzed me into depression. By the time I was in my teens, I already knew that in order to survive, I would have to make peace with the patriarchy. The concept of brawn over brain seemed to have distorted the collective psyche, for everywhere, among rich and poor, educated and illiterate, I saw perverted masculinity. Instead of cherishing their womenfolk, many men viewed their own sisters, wives and daughters as rivals to be diminished and trounced, and sp they smashed feminine self-esteem to smithereens. As a result, sexual union was often reduced to the usurpation of the female body, and marriage, in many cases, to no more than a legal form of rape.

Fortunately, in my late teens I stumbled onto the priceless tools of eastern philosophy. Focusing on the theories of karma and reincarnation, I trained myself to apply this spiritual knowledge to all situations. My intent was to restore myself to peace so I could get on with life. Soon everything really did begin to fall into place. Contrary to mainstream thinking, karmic software is not designed to punish; instead it throws abusers into situations where perpetrator becomes victim. Gradually we come to see that each of us perceives but a fragment of the cosmic picture; ultimately there is no separation and we are truly one. This process evokes empathy and the melting of destructive patterns, and therefore karma is our friend, for it helps us evolve.

We also learn to question our instinctive perceptions. We may see a husband striking his wife, for instance, and be gripped by a terrible anger; however, not being omniscient, we cannot see the events (in this or past incarnations) that preceded this beating. Perhaps the woman being brutalized has brutalized; the molested child has molested; the honest man reduced to poverty by a ruthless rival has himself been a lethal shark. None of which means that we should stand by passively and watch evil being done; on the contrary! Humans of integrity must always be willing to protect the weak, the gullible and the innocent, even while accepting that there is more to any picture than meets the eye; in simple words, when we step in to help, we must do so as instruments of the Divine, and not from the limited ego.

IMG-20170321-WA0001In an ideal world, man and woman would consider each other equal but different. A couple is much stronger when their bond is energized by respect, love, harmony and co-operation. As for those who commit themselves to celibacy, they too must find ways to unite male and female aspects within themselves. For both the committed couple and the celibate, Tantra is one teaching that offers a variety of profound solutions.

The human race appears to have oscillated between diametrically opposed archetypes—absolute patriarchal power, and the holistic paradigm of ancient cultures, where male and female are revered as divine halves of a whole. Sex alone can never satiate the human soul; what is called for is the intimate bonding of equals and mutual appreciation. In so empowering each other, man is encouraged to grow into awesome grandeur, and woman reclaims her sacred role as primal healer. If we are to transform prevalent disturbing male-female equations, each of us must first become aware of the insidiously deep layers of conditioning that have seeped into the collective subconscious. Then we must shine our torch fearlessly onto our own dysfunctional views of the opposite sex and melt the blocks within our own psyches. To refine one’s own self, as one of my gurus said, is to refine our experience of the world. And while it can be agonizing to use the mind to unearth embedded the subconscious codes that block us from giving and receiving joy, the rewards can be rich.

Bhagavan RamanaFor those who wish to begin this herculean task, I recommend seeking out an authentic form of meditation—such as Atma-Vichara (Self-investigation), the direct path to higher consciousness as taught by Ramana Maharshi. Direct investigation into one’s true nature has the power to dissolve all relative darkness, along with the countless fear-based separations humans automatically set up as barriers between self and other. After all, in the realm of the Absolute we are neither man nor woman, ugly nor beautiful, young nor old, rich nor poor, intelligent nor dumb; instead, we are the perfect manifestation of one single energy, whose ground is the incandescent Divine.

Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who destroys all that blocks us from knowing we are the immortal and blissful Self!

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Shiva’s Spectacular Gender Divide: 3/4

236b5bffa3aec42a4dafbe6ef9a84e94Another little tale: Noor, a slender Muslim girl with a sexy overbite, joined my school as a senior. Rumor had it that she’d been expelled from her old school for hanging out with boys. Pretty Noor was clearly lacking in the brains department and soon she was back to her old tricks—Lotharios on fast motorbikes and slicked-back pompadour hair would pick her up at the school gate at the start of lunch break and rush back with her, grinning shamelessly, just before the bell rang for afternoon class. What they managed to do in so short a time boggles the imagination.

Years went by and I was in college. One day, strolling down the main drag of our suburban neighborhood, a woman waved at me from the doorway of one of the new houses that had mushroomed all around us. Garbed in purdah, carrying an infant in her arms, she did not look like anyone I would know. Curious, I walked across and recognized the overbite—yes, it was Noor! As she plied me with tea and pistachio barfi, she told me her father had forced her to marry right after school. Her husband was a businessman who treated her like dirt—because, she admitted sadly, he was aware of her wicked past. He’d agreed to marry her only because of the huge dowry her father had offered. She pointed to a photo of her husband and herself on the mantelpiece; I bit my lip: just a few days ago, this same fellow had stopped his car as I walked down the road and, with a lecherous smirk, had asked if I’d join him for a beer at Bangalore Club.

If this sort of stuff happens in the higher echelons, what do you think happens to, say, women servants? Let me tell you about the strapping driver employed by a friend of mine. After work, the fellow would visit one of his five mistresses—each of whom had been abandoned by her husband. The woman would fry up spicy chicken livers to go with the country liquor to which he was addicted, but if she dared to pick a fight, he’d up and leave, sticking four fingers in the air—the message was this: hey, woman, if you don’t like me just the way I am, there are four others right now who’ll take me in! 

6cfa74207d9988dbbdc3a2b428999120Deepa Mehta, one of our finest film-makers, was asked why she thought the attitude towards women in India is so depressingly ugly. “Patriarchy,” she retorted succinctly. “We’ve always felt that the girl child is worth nothing and should in fact be aborted even before she is born. The boy can do no wrong. If the girl is treated as a sub-human, or the boy is raised to believe he can do no wrong, then this is what will happen.” But India was not always this way. What happened? My own elliptical quest for answers led me to partially blame Manu, author of the Manava Dharma-shastra (dates for the creation of this text vary from 1500 BCE to 500 AD) for tossing the Indian gender ball down the hill. Some say Manu compiled the laws at the request of ten great sages following a great flood; others claim he was given the sacred laws by Brahma the Creator himself, rendering the Manusmriti divine. Whatever the truth, Manu was no democrat, for the Brahmin (highest caste) was accorded near divine status while the Sudra (lowest caste) was denigrated and reviled. The Manusmriti specified light fines and penalties for Brahmin offenders and these punishments increased in severity for warriors, farmers, and serfs.

Manu’s views on women in particular make me shudder. Woman, he pronounced, was inept, inconsistent, and prone to sensuality. Therefore he deemed her unfit to exercise individual rights. As an infant, she was to be placed under the dominion of her father; as a wife, she was to be subservient to her husband; as a mother, to her sons; if widowed in her youth, she was never to marry again; if her husband was an adulterous rogue, she was still bound to consider him equal to God; while she could share in the wealth of the family, her wages were never to exceed half of a man’s wages for the same labor; and worst of all, she was prohibited from studying the sacred scriptures or participating in important social functions. I am not surprised that Dr. Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti in public. Born into the lowest caste himself, this brilliant man who battled unimaginable odds to rise to his eminent position, and who crafted the Indian Constitution, would have had excellent reason to do so. I only wish I had been there to dance around that particular funeral pyre.

The good news is that Manu’s influence was not as profound as it might have been. Indians, bless our hearts, can be notorious law-breakers; many, I am sure, scorn Manu’s code for its evil in rigidifying the once liberal caste system and for its misogyny. In fact, right up to about the eleventh century, Indians were a free-thinking lot with a healthy sexual outlook. Take a look at the Kamasutra (The Art of Love-Making), where union between the sexes is elevated to an unparalleled art form. In those golden days, Indian women were free to choose their own partners and men vied with each other to win their hearts in a tradition known as swayamvara. As for the amazing temples of Khajuraho and Konarak, they depict the art of sexuality in both its proud eroticism as well as its transcendental spirituality. Nor was it just sexual freedom that our maidens enjoyed—Gargi, Maitreyi, Leelavati and Lopamudra engaged in spirited philosophical and political debate. As for Mirabai, a fourteenth century Rajput Princess whose heart-melting songs of adoration for the Blue God Krishna are still sung all over India, she  wriggled free of a rigid and entrenched patriarchy to become an icon for the liberation of all women.

Kiri 16GB sd card 6243-1Certainly the Shakti Cult was responsible for providing women with a multitude of freedoms. Predating the Hindu faith, it was based on the sacred union of male and female as the balancing forces in the Universe. Male represented the physical manifestation of the “Divine”, while female represented Shakti, or non-material energy. Adherents of this path treated all females as personifications of Nature—a notion which echoes eco-feminism in new-age terminology. And so ancient India glorified polyandrous Draupadi with her five Pandava husbands, and extolled Mandodari, wife of the demon-king Ravana, who married her brother-in-law Vibhishana after her husband’s death. Tara wed Sugriva after the death of Bali and Kunti had pre-marital sex. All these women were considered noble, and rightly so, for they were exceptional humans. As for the Mahabharata, it provides proof that far from being considered a mundane pleasure, sexuality had entered the dimension of the sacred.

Then Muslim hordes invaded India and ruled for almost six hundred years. Hindus ordered their women to stay indoors, fearing the hot eyes of their Muslim rulers. And, as ugly fear-based patriarchal values took over, the mutual respect, friendship and love forged between our men and women dissolved into the fear and suppression we so often see today.

7293fc79f579a35ec9fc884aa6b3cadf-2Sex is a creative energy bestowed on all living creatures and inextricably aligned to the level of consciousness. Since humans have the highest degree of consciousness, sex occupies a vital place in human inner consciousness and is therefore more than a self replicating process. All ancient civilizations performed fertility rituals to celebrate the energy of the elemental Universe; indeed it is through the body that both body and mind can be transcended, for orgasmic ecstasy suspends the body and elevates consciousness. (To be continued in the next post).

Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who destroys all that blocks us from knowing we are the immortal and blissful Self.

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Shiva’s Spectacular Gender Divide: 2/4

279dbfcf2cba52b1ecbc23c53cf96b95As I moved into my teen years, I sought out friends who equally dreaded being thrust into the marriage market—to be assessed in terms of dowry, fair complexions, domestic skills, and the ability to please husband and in-laws. (While the practice of dowry has been illegal for decades now, women are harassed, even burned to death, if their families are unable to satiate greedy in-laws. In some cases, a man marries, gets a good dowry, kills his bride in collusion with his mother, and gets away with it, either by bribing the cops or by faking a credible accident—whereupon he goes bride-hunting again.)

During summer holiday afternoons while the rest of my family was taking their siesta, I’d creep out to pay impromptu visits to my girlfriends in the hood. Inside their bedrooms, with the fan going full blast, we’d giggle and gossip as we gorged on sweets and savories. One family I befriended were Himachali Brahmins who had settled in Bangalore. The husband spent his time slumbering or seated cross-legged on the living room couch, perusing the papers or some crappy thriller. His wife was a good-looking and industrious woman, a Hindu fanatic and Sanskrit scholar who ran the household with iron efficiency and was tough on everyone but her indolent husband. All he had to do was crook a little finger—demanding chai or that she clean his ears or trim his finger and toenails—and she’d run to obey.

Unfortunately “Uncle” took a weird shine to me. One afternoon I dropped in on the family, unaware that the girls were away visiting relatives. Uncle opened the door, summoned me over to his couch and handed me a paperback novel. He pointed to a paragraph. “Read this out to me, please,” he ordered. Vain as I was, I began to read in a loud voice, showing off my perfect diction. It was a Harold Robbins book, and the section he’d chosen described the heroine being banged silly by the smoldering hero. Innocent as I then was, I still knew an older man asking a thirteen-year old to read soft porn to him was hideously wrong. In seconds, I was red-faced and stuttering. Uncle took a firm grasp of my arm to prevent me from escaping. I was doing so very well, he crooned; he was so enjoying my reading. Just then his wife entered the room. With a rude flick of a hand, he ordered that proud woman out. I wriggled out of his grasp, flung the book on the floor, and hurtled out into the hot afternoon, feeling an ugly mix of guilt and shame and rage.

9e4db9873c00799c674eaa9df76ed47aKnowing I’d be blamed, I was reluctant to confide what had happened to anyone in my family. Who asked you to go there in the first place? I could hear my mother shriek. Weren’t you supposed to be sleeping? WhatYou jumped over the wall again? You are utterly shameless and deserve everything you get! You see? Already I was aware that in the world I inhabited, the female of the species would be the eternal scapegoat. Had I complained, a variation of that old song would have been sung: “Don’t blame meShe was wearing a red dress, and so I raped her.”

On the street parallel to our home lived a Rajput family. Rajputs are a fierce and beautiful race, originators of Sati, the ancient and hideous practice of urging a wife to leap on to her husband’s funeral pyre—for what is a woman worth without a man, anyway? Better to burn baby burn, and get all the endless abuse to which a widow is subjected out of the way once and for all. Never mind that in thousands of cases the dead husband was a doddering old fart, and the wife a young girl led to marital slaughter by virtuous parents. Duty and honor were considered paramount, and a “good” woman was urged to end her life when her man was gone. Those who refused were drugged, thrown onto the funeral pyre, and drums were beaten loud and hard to drown out their shrieks.

Now Lakshmi, youngest of three daughters born to this family, committed the mortal sin of falling in love with the attractive son of a local Muslim building contractor. Traditionally speaking, the Rajputs and the Muslims are arch enemies; so, when some spiteful gossip leaked the information to Lakshmi’s parents, her father, an important man in the community, went bonkers: Lakshmi was pulled out of college, given a whipping, and placed under house arrest. Shocked, a bunch of us neighborhood kids held a pow-pow to which we invited Shaukat, her grieving lover. Since I was considered the bravest, it was decided that I would find out what was going on. Next morning we waited until her father’s car drove out of their house. Armed with a letter from her swain hidden in my bag, I walked in through her gate and rang the house bell. Her mother, a darkly pretty woman from a village near Jaipur who spoke no English, opened the door, probably thinking I was a salesman. I pushed past her and raced up the stairs to find Lakshmi, who had spied me entering the gate through her window, standing at the door to her bedroom. Quickly I slipped her the love letter and tried valiantly to control my tears—for in the space of days, her eyes were swollen with crying and her lovely face was covered with pimples. In a low dramatic voice I delivered Shaukat’s romantic oath—that he would rescue her and make her his bride. The light that shone through her stark misery made me want to cry even more.

e5a9d684e0fb9c4db5f10eaa9cae51c9Like Rajput heroines of yore, Lakshmi was amazingly resilient. She managed to convince her father—in truth, a kind man who simply could not break free of the old ways—that she had “reformed”. Then, three years later, exactly a day past her twenty-first birthday, she simply disappeared from the house, leaving behind all the expensive gifts her parents had given her. A note sat on her bed: “You gave me everything material,” it read in true Bollywood style, “but not my heart’s desire.” Her father drove frantically over to Shaukat’s house. “Where’s that bastard?” he screamed in Hindi at the servant woman who stood by their gate. The old thing spat a stream of red betel juice over the wall. “Gone,” she announced with a shrug. “Nobody here. All gone Shaukat marriage.” More than a decade later, on my annual vacation from Manhattan, I bumped into Lakshmi’s brother on Commercial Street. “How are things with Lakshmi? I asked anxiously. “Fine,” he replied with a grin. “They have three kids—two boys and a girl. Dad relented and invited them home after their third baby. Now both our families are friends.” A fairy-tale ending? Yes, but then Lakshmi was patient and cunning and Shaukat never gave up—and perhaps the Muslims wanted to teach the proud Rajputs a lesson. Most such situations would have ended in depression, murder or suicide. (To be continued in the next post).

Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who destroys all that blocks us from knowing we are the immortal and blissful Self!

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Shiva’s Spectacular Gender Divide: 1/4

WWG-Small-TrilogyIn the Manhattan winter of 1992, I dreamed about writing an epic set in a mythical civilization ruled by Rudra-Siva, the great god of paradox, and infused with the beauty of Tantra. Somehow, I intuited that the Wild God himself would spark my dream into roaring life; believe it or not, this is what happened twenty years later, under the shadow of Arunachala, the hill considered by millions to be the form taken by Shiva in order to help seekers dissolve back into the immortal and blissful Self.

While researching this novel, I came upon an ancient saying in the Tantras that goes something like this: When Shiva set his seal upon this world, he cleaved it into male and female; when male and female come together in sacred union, Shiva blesses them with the bliss of Oneness. Whether depicted as Ardhaniswara (half-man, half-woman), or in his contrasting roles of ascetic and hedonist, I knew this union referred to more than the conventional man-woman nexus. Shiva’s point is clear: in order to be whole, male and female must unite, and this can take place either in a celibate who seeks to unite these polarities in his or her own being, or in the matrix created by a spiritual couple.

As an Indian woman born into a multi-tiered society, I began to mull over why all male-dominated cultures had turned into raging gender battlefields. Since each of us is bound to have a unique take on the often subterranean gender wars that have ruined the fabric of our existence, I can speak only for myself and the way I learned to “see.” My home was dysfunctional, as most homes over the planet are, whether on the surface or deep in the bowels of core relationships; the tacit understanding that men ruled the roost permeated our domestic atmosphere. A brilliant and charismatic man who enthralled our guests with his easy raconteuring, his rage could incinerate, while his scathing tongue could eviscerate. Despite his liberal attitude towards educating all his children, my father was the undisputed patriarch and none of us, least of all my dutiful mother, dared challenge him.

Kiri 16GB sd card 4418Our society was studded with double-standards that applied to every aspect of our lives, and yet most women seemed to have accepted their lot. Some were born docile and did not rebel against playing second, third or nth fiddle; others were born under a lucky star—their men were sympathetic and pliable and life was good; still others toed the line because they had no option: since they were not encouraged to fend for themselves, existence could be pure hell if they incurred male ire.

The Indian patriarchy, like all virulent cancers, has a gazillion ways of perpetuating itself. One major trap: every married woman is urged to have children as soon as possible. The pressure is so enormous that many sink into depression when this does not happen. (Read: May You Be The Mother Of A Hundred Sons, by Elisabeth Bumiller). And once children come, so does slavery; burdened by hungry mouths to feed, at the mercy of menfolk who hold firmly on to the family purse-strings, women have even less time to challenge the patriarchy. And God forbid a wife should dare to complain about an abusive husband! If you are one such, you risk being called a “shrew”, a bitch, or even a “ghodi” (horse, a fast and therefore bad woman) or even ostracized.

Featured Image -- 9585While my father wanted his children to become doctors and diplomats, he firmly believed in the institution of arranged marriage. This was ahated prospect that hung over my mutinous head like a sword of Damocles, and I’d grumble to my mother that there was little point in educating us if we were going to be shoved into marriage and forced to have one kid after another. “How can you decide who I should live with, sleep with, cook for the rest of my life?” “Be a good girl,” she’d warn. “If you’re lucky, your husband will let you do what you want. Love comes after, not before marriage.” The word “good” was thrown at us so often that I cringed to hear it. What about being an original, excellent, humane, exciting, creative, and liberal human being? As for bad girls, they were warned that the entire family would suffer on their account—after all, which decent family would permit their children to marry into a family that harbored a single bad seed? And so emotional blackmail was thrown into the simmering witches’ cauldron of double standards. (To be continued in the next post).

Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who destroys all that blocks us from knowing we are the immortal and blissful Self!

If you’ve enjoyed reading my posts, please also check out my BOOKS and LINKS.

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