Receiving Grace

Raja_Ravi_Varma,_The_Milkmaid_(1904)The Gita says nothing can be achieved without God’s grace. So what should we do in order to receive it?

An urgent question from one of our members this week. She has completed most of her householder duties, and at this stage of her life has her eyes fixed on the ultimate prize of self realization.

We were fortunate to have not one but two guest speakers to address this question, both of whom are practicing sannyasa. They also happen to be my parents, so I was doubly blessed.

Swami Matrukrupananda talked to us first about achieving the goal through total concentration and single-minded focus. As long as you have any other goals in mind, he warned, you cannot achieve the most important one.

“While this might be feasible for some of us who have retired from the world, what about those of us who are still in the thick of it?” I asked. “We have many mini goals still, at home, at work, with our children. How can we stay focused only on realization when we are still very much embroiled in the world and all its activities?”

My father’s answer was that we could. It’s a matter of shifting our concentration. We do what we need to do, we conquer challenges, continue to achieve success, but with a sense of detachment, a sense of surrender, and an implacable belief that everything we do and everyone we come across is a part of that larger plan of self realization.

“Working without being attached to the fruits of action, having faith in God, and surrendering our ego will only bring us so far, “ he warned. “Ultimately, there is the role of grace.” He ended by urging us to pray for grace since with it, all things are possible, all sins are wiped away and we can step over that final boundary into immortality and bliss.

It was at this point that our member asked her question. If grace is so crucial, then how and where do we find it?

It was Swami Gurupriyananda’s turn to answer. What she said gave us all a jolt. “Grace,” she said, “is not some rare thing you need to seek out. It isn’t given out sparingly or reserved for the chosen few. In fact, grace is something God showers on us day and night without limit and without reservation.”

We found this hard to believe. If grace was so plentiful then why couldn’t we get any? Why were many of our prayers unanswered and why were we having such a hard time implementing even the most basic discipline on our path to realization?

My mother went on to explain that grace is like rain, it showers down on us like a torrent on empty clay pots. If the pots are turned down however, with their openings facing the ground, no amount of rain will get in. The pots need to be turned up, mouths open, and then they will quickly fill and overflow.

She gave us yet another very illuminating example. She urged us to think of grace as the extra credit on an exam. If we do our best and get very close to the top mark, then those few extra credit points will make all the difference. If we don’t try, however, and get a low score, those points won’t help us in the least.

This was a pretty eye opening moment for all of us. Rather than whining about not receiving grace we needed to simply turn ourselves in the right direction to receive it. Rather than rely wholly on outside help, we needed to make a determined effort first, as my father had suggested, so that this freely available grace could make a difference.

We realized that our hard work with the Gita was our sadhana and this dose of instant wisdom from our elders was the grace we had prepared ourselves to receive.

Our homework this week is to continue to be open to what is already abundant, by focusing on the goal, practicing nishkama karma, dissolving the ego, and having faith.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma, Wikimedia Commons

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little self/Big Self

336px-Ravi_Varma-Dattatreya“As long as we live our lives with a sense of acceptance, as long as we do our duty without any sense of attachment to the results, why do we need to consciously offer our work to God? Why do we need to say I am not the doer, You are the Doer?”

This was a question that came up today in class.

The Gita says that not only should we perform work without attachment, but to truly escape the bonds of karma, we need to offer that work to God as well, remembering that we are not the ones performing the action but that we are merely instruments of God’s work in the world.

So what is the difference? Isn’t the fact that we are releasing our attachment to the results of our work, evidence enough of our progress? Doesn’t that alone rid us of a tremendous amount of stress? Once you no longer worry whether you succeed or fail, but work only with a sense of dedication, then all the disappointments and brief elations of life seem to disappear and life becomes quiet, harmonious and peaceful.

For example, in the past I taught my classes with excitement and a strong sense of ownership. I researched all kinds of articles and printed them out for my students. I created exciting and engaging lesson plans and implemented them in class. Sometimes students would respond with interest and class would be amazing and I would come home floating on a euphoric cloud that I had aced the lesson.

Other times, my carefully designed activities would fall flat and I would be devastated that what I considered brilliant pedagogy had not been well received. “Pearls before swine,” I would mutter to myself. “Why do I even bother going to so much trouble for people who can’t even appreciate it?”

Since I’ve been practicing nishkama karma and letting go of the results, content merely to do my best and leave the results to God, I no longer fret and fume at perceived failures or go on an egotistical high when things go well. This is definitely a step forward.

However, while this attitude gets us to a more relaxed and calm way of living, it fails on its own to take us to the next level of spiritual progress.

While I am calmer now when faced with either success or failure, I still consider it my success or failure. I wrote the lesson plan, I created the activity, I did all that work, I was so eloquent, I just couldn’t get through to them. Or alternatively, my idea was perfect, I was so good at directing the conversation, I was able to get my students to think critically, I am a really good speaker.

The problem is that my ego is omnipresent here, taking all the credit, shouldering all the blame, and in both cases accumulating more and more karma by believing that this little self in this temporary body is solely responsible for all my actions. It’s only when I can release that sense of ego, when I can see my actions as prayerful acts of service to a higher being and a higher purpose, that I will really escape the bonds of karma.

Nowadays, when I set out to teach, I say “God I am merely an instrument to perform this work. You have given me both the work and the capability to do it. I will do it to the best of my ability knowing that I am not the doer at all. You are the teacher and the taught, and I am merely a vehicle to convey the knowledge. You speak through me, and teach through me.”

Amazing what such an attitude can do for one’s work ethic. While it may seem at first glance that removing ourselves from the equation would make us less inclined to put in too much effort, I find that I have become so much better at what I do. After all, doing anything less than my best would be incredibly disrespectful to my Maker.

Knowing that it isn’t just me, the fallible and mercurial little self that considers herself a professor with all kinds of great ideas, but God who is teaching, and remembering that my students are not just the various little selves who moan and complain about homework, or turn things in late, or fail to see the relevance of my lectures, but God who is being taught, is an incredibly humbling experience. It allows me to push my little ego aside and work doubly hard to deliver the lesson and to facilitate learning among my students. It enables me to consider my work as an offering, rather than something I do merely as a duty.

That, to answer our member’s question, is why I think we need to do more than merely work without expectation. We need to transform our work into constant worship, so that along with attachment, we can rid ourselves of our ego as well.

Image: Dattatreya, the Supreme Teacher. Raja Ravi Varma, Wikimedia Commons.


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A Lesson in Humility


512px-Raja_Ravi_Varma,_ExpectationIt’s been a couple of months since I’ve had the chance to blog. The learning though has gone on unabated. I went to India, spent time with family, was inundated by the sights and sounds and smells and tastes, and the many temptations that lie in wait in the crowded marketplaces and the luxurious showrooms full of silks and gold.

I kept up as much as I could with the classes over zoom, although I missed a few when I was either traveling or attending events.

So many lessons to learn! It’s easy to sit at home, secluded from the world and its siren call, immune from the conflicts and chaos that come from being among lots of people and lots of situations, and feel we are indeed progressing on the spiritual path. The real test comes when we are in the thick of things, right in the middle of raw unfiltered living.

There were highs and there were lows on my journey. I cherished the moments with family, there is nothing like going back to your childhood haunts and being among old familiar faces who have known you forever. I was swept away with love and joy when I was back in Odisha with the children who have become so dear to me over the past eight years. They are graduating this year and I had a chance to say goodbye and to share what words of wisdom I could as they set out into the world.

But I also found myself faltering, losing my temper with my fellow adults. I found myself condemning, judging, being impatient and intolerant, failing to see my fellow atmas in those I encountered, unable to recognize them as teachers and guides who were helping me on my spiritual journey. I let desire for material objects tamper with my peace of mind. Not for long, but enough to cause me to lose my balance temporarily.

I tried my best not to gossip but was pulled into it time and again. I tried not to harbor resentment but found myself losing my cool very quickly. I made every effort to be patient but burst into a fit of uncontrolled anger at least twice during my trip. So much for my imagined progress! It all fell apart when I was under duress.

The Gita says as Karma Yogis, we need to stand up and fight for our own progress. If Arjuna, a prince surrounded by every temptation, in the thick of political intrigue and family drama, could maintain his composure and put his full faith in the Lord, then I with my little dramas and silly conflicts can surely rise above them and push forward. To be fair though, even Arjuna threw aside his weapons and was willing to surrender rather than fight such a difficult battle. It was only because he had the sense to choose the right charioteer that he was given the guidance and strength he needed in his darkest hour.

I’m hoping that because our little group has chosen the Gita as our guide that we too will receive the same kind of strength and wisdom to keep going and not give up, despite an occasional defeat.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma via Wikimedia Commons

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The Slippery Slope

Urvashi-Pururavas_by_RRVIs it wrong to want to buy gold ornaments for our daughters? Is it wrong to want a bigger house? Is it okay to buy a fancy new car?

Ah, Desire! Always present, never satisfied, seemingly within our grasp, but always elusive. We talked about the nature of desire this week. Like fire, the Gita says, desire only grows fiercer when it is fed. So the idea that once we achieve the right position, status, or economic level, or we possess the right car, house, family, then we will finally be happy is completely and utterly false. We see proof of that all around us on a daily basis, especially among the suicidal rich and famous, who despite having all of the above, are unhappy enough to take their own lives. And yet, unsympathetic, we condemn them for their folly, thinking what could have been if only we were given the same opportunities.

One of our members wondered what was so bad about desire. Isn’t it important to want something in order to act? If we were all in a desireless state how would the world even function? A good question. If we look at the root cause of all action, good or bad, we find desire. We work because we desire money. We create families because we desire love and affection and stability. We acquire property because we desire comfort and luxury. We struggle to climb the social ladder because we want status and dignity. So if we didn’t desire any of these things what would happen? Why would anyone bother to work or even get an education? Wouldn’t the social fabric fall apart?

The Gita cautions us though, not to confuse duty with desire. Once we are born into the world, we have specific duties at each stage of our lives. Ideally, in our youth we study and learn, as adults we work and build a family, as we approach middle age, we begin to hand over the reins to the next generation, focusing on social service, and sharing our knowledge and wisdom, and as elders, we withdraw into a life of reflection and meditation. None of this comes under desire according to the Gita, but under our obligation as human beings living in the world.

In our discussion this week, we decided to further refine what desire meant to us. This theoretical debate was all well and good but how were we to apply this in our daily lives? We decided that based on the Gita, desire is dangerous because it leads to disappointment, which leads to anger, which leads to sorrow, all of which lead us from a state of balance to one of misery.

I was trying to think of a time when I let desire get the better of me. In recent times, it has been all about the job. That elusive position at a dream university. I’ve applied, year after year, hoping. I’ve been rejected year after year. My desire kept me coming back for more. Until last year, though I submitted my application routinely, not really expecting a response, I got one. A phone interview. I aced it. An on campus interview. It went well. By this time, desire had wrapped its tentacles around my heart, gripped me tightly in its embrace, until all I could think, speak and dream of was that offer. The days went by and nothing mattered but for the phone to ring. It didn’t. A week, two weeks, I kept myself going by imagining the delays in the hiring process, the need to check references, the busy schedules of the search committee. As long as I didn’t get a regret, there was hope. I didn’t know the letter had been sent to the wrong address. Until I finally got the call. My heart pounding, sure that the only reason they would call was to make the offer, I was told it was a follow up to the regret letter. A fittingly cruel end to a miserable three weeks. Looking back, it seems  it is best to avoid desire all together, squelch it at the very outset when it raises its sly head. Easier said than done.

Coming back to the question of whether it was wrong to want to buy things for our children or get a bigger house or enjoy our new cars, our little group decided that as long as we were able to keep our balance if any of those wishes were unfulfilled, then we were safe. It was only if we thought we simply couldn’t live without any of those things, that the world would stop if we couldn’t buy that house or drive that car, that we were entering dangerous territory. Of course this is a slippery slope. While most desires seem innocent enough at first, and easily relinquished, what the Gita is warning us about is how quickly what was once a whim can become a burning necessity and the cause of much agony.

Still, as householders living in a highly materialistic status conscious society, we have to start somewhere. Precarious as it may be, this is our current position, to entertain desires without being consumed by them. We’ll have to see how successful we are.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Doing What Comes Naturally

Bhagavadgita-Arjuna-KrishnaWhen Arjuna announces that he would rather beg for a living than to destroy his enemies, Lord Krishna scolds him for his weakness. He reminds Arjuna that he is a warrior by nature and warriors are meant to fight. To assume the role of a beggar, however simple and passive it might seem, would go against everything that Arjuna was born and bred to do, which is to fight with evil and maintain justice.

Lord Krishna insists that everyone must follow their svadharma, their duty as determined by their nature, rather than paradharma, which is a duty that is not natural to them. People tend to interpret this passage as restrictive, urging a strict division between socioeconomic levels or castes. And as is usual with any religious texts, people have used such false interpretations over the ages to exploit and control both women and the less fortunate to keep rigid power structures intact.

We were confused by the verse at first, not sure if this was a good thing since it seemed to dictate a strict adherence to one’s path with no chance of expanding it or changing it.

It was only after I shared my confusion with my father, who happens to be a practicing sannyasi, that we found a clear and helpful explanation.

Svadharma is based on our innate nature. To help me understand, my father used his own life as an example. He said that his own nature was extremely rajasic or active. He wanted as a young man to save the world, discover new sources of energy, harness the sun, dig deep into the earth, all in attempts to find solutions to society’s problems. As he began his career as a research scientist and later became a director, he wanted to be top dog, to supervise and manage projects. As he got older and became more spiritual, he channeled that same drive for activity and management into working for the Hindu Temple, starting a health plan for retired Indians, or becoming a meditation center leader.

All the activities he indulged in were true to his rajasic nature. Going against that nature and deciding to be a monk before he was ready would have been foolish and painful, even though he was eager to go to the next stage and often asked his guru for the opportunity. His guru, being wise, kept advising him to wait, and to continue doing what came to him naturally. He knew what my father failed to realize at the time, that while becoming a monk might seem like the fastest and easiest route to liberation, it was not yet his nature to be still and engage in contemplation and prayer.

As my father continued doing his naturally driven duty of being active in the world and helping others in whatever way he could, but still practicing sadhana, reading scripture, following a guru and being devoted to God, he says Kramasannyasam or gradual progress occurred. That is, from saving the world, to serving God in various ways, to finally wanting to become one with God and letting go of all those outside activities, he now wanted only to be quiet, to meditate and do japa. As that finally happened, he no longer had to convince his guru that he was ready. His guru came to him and offered to initiate him into sannyasa.

As I began to finally understand the concept, my father continued, “Now let’s apply the same principle to you. If you were to come to me and say that you were ready to become a monk I would absolutely disagree, and here’s why. You started a Gita class six months ago with a small group. You meet every week and have discussions and do the homework. But that wasn’t enough. You also started a blog to spread the word to those who don’t attend. But that wasn’t enough either. You decided to start a second session and then a third.

This morning you contacted your aunts in India and Dubai  to guide them through installing the program so they could join as well. This is your nature. You like to teach and organize and disseminate knowledge. To fight that nature and sit quietly and meditate full time is not going to work for you.”

As it dawned on me just how strong my instinct for teaching is, compelling me to conduct three classes a week, during what is supposed to be my sabbatical and a break from my professorial duties,  my father continued.

“I am glad you are taking the time for prayer and meditation and scriptural study though. By continuing to do what you enjoy and what comes naturally to you, while you meditate and pray and perform selfless action with compassionate detachment, you will eventually move to the next step. This is what the Gita is urging.”

Nothing like a personal example to make things crystal clear! So, unlike Arjuna who was a warrior by nature, ready and armed to fight injustice, but in a moment of weakness, thinking it would be easier, wanted to throw down his weapons and beg for a living (paradharma),  we need to follow the svadharma of going through life, fulfilling our nature, rather than taking the easy way out, only to end up miserable. The only way to change and transform our nature is gradually, through sadhana. Eventually we will find our way.

It turns out then that this passage that has been misinterpreted so often and caused so much confusion is really not about castes and restrictions at all, but a blessing from a generous God to live out our true nature rather than trying to submerge it. The Gita urges us to be true to ourselves, while living with a sense of devotion and gratitude and a spirit of surrender, so that we can eventually rise above our human nature and discover the divinity within.

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Not So Fast! A Message from the Universe

Raja-Ravi-VarmakaliNow that we have three Gita classes, I’m enjoying the insights and contributions of all our members, learning what I can where I can.

Last week as we talked about how sorrow, fear and anger can drag us down and hold us back, one of our newest members said something really insightful. She argued that when an issue comes up repeatedly within one’s life, timidity, or depression, or hypersensitivity, or anger, when people remark on it, when friends advise us to work on it, when family members nag us over it, that we need to take that as a sign.

In this ongoing cycle of birth and death, she fancies, when our soul stands on the precipice,  about to reenter a brand new body and re-embark on this endless journey, we ask a favor of those souls who are traveling with us.

We ask them, she imagines, to remind us at least in this life, that we need to rid ourselves of those remaining imperfections. And so, when she is confronted by the people in her life who remind her, either through word or deed, through good intentions or bad, that she needs to work harder and be better, she takes it not as an affront to her dignity, but as a message from the universe, a message from her self appointed messengers. What a wonderful way to look at criticism or conflict!

I found her words to be full of wisdom and even shared it with the other groups. I was determined to take this same approach from now on, and recognize the hidden message in every conflict. Little did I realize how quickly I would be tested. That same evening, I found myself fuming, furious over a casual remark someone made about my son. While it was said in jest, I found it festering in my heart. Try as I might to apply the verses of the Gita, to remember to destroy the ego and the attachment to me and mine, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Despite imagining that I had left behind all those petty sensitivities, my primal mother instinct rushed to the fore and I was ready to do battle to defend his reputation, which I imagined, falsely, was in grave danger.

After trying and failing to suppress my emotions, I sat down and wrote an email to the person who made the remark, questioning their need to make it, their motive in saying such things, and hotly defending my son’s principles and character. Fortunately, she didn’t take offense, though she was bewildered by my reaction, explaining how she was making an affectionate joke and laughing with him, not at him.

I suppose I can take some comfort in the fact that my mental turmoil vanished very quickly once I knew what she meant. Still, the incident left me feeling rather chastened. I was clearly nowhere near as advanced as I had been hoping and the all encompassing, overwhelming, protective maternal instinct was apparently still present in full force, merely masquerading as compassionate detachment until an occasion presented itself to open its gaping maw and destroy any threat, real or perceived.

I thought about what our wise new member had said about messages and messengers. Surely, this incident was a message, and my unsuspecting friend was the messenger. I obviously need to think more clearly and keep my emotions in check when it comes to my son. Yes, he is my only child, and I went through hell and back trying to raise him and keep him safe when he was younger, but he is all grown up now, smart, successful, and fully capable of taking care of himself. The kind of blind fury and protectiveness that comes over me in these instances is neither rational, spiritual, nor healthy. It is a combination of anger, fear and sorrow that drags me into a much lower plane of consciousness.

Taking a cue from my wise group member, I am now grateful to my friend and open to the message she was carrying. This is something I definitely have to work on. Leave it to the universe to take me down a peg as I scramble willy nilly for the ultimate prize. If I intend to take on the aspect of  Kali the Goddess, destroying my enemies, then I need to focus my energy on  stamping out my inner demons, not those who cross my path bringing a message of growth that I am clearly in need of. “Not so fast, my friend,” comes the sharp reminder from above.” There is still a lot of work to do.”

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Leading an Exemplary Life

Shakuntala_RRV“How can we set an example, when we barely know what we are doing?” This was the response from our group to the Gita’s injunction this week, which asked that we not only perform our duties, but do so in an exemplary manner, one which inspires and informs others.

Yes, it’s true we are novices on this journey. We are trying to figure out and implement week by week the teachings of the Gita, teachings that seem to be getting progressively more difficult. What gives us the right to lead when we ourselves are lost?

I think the idea here is not that we must attain perfection before we can model proper behavior. The idea is that since we are compelled to work, to fulfill our duties, then it behooves us to fulfill them in such a manner that we can educate those around us. Even our struggles then become an example.

The fact that we are spending an hour each week, delving into the mysteries of the Gita together come what may, the stubborn effort we are showing in practicing the sometimes difficult assignments despite failing repeatedly, the fact that we are prioritizing our spiritual growth, are all messages to those around us that we find this important and valuable and fulfilling enough to keep pursuing.

As a result, the Gita class we began five months ago multiplied this week into three different sessions. We now have three different groups, each with their own set of members, with their own backgrounds and challenges to overcome, with their own goals to reach. It’s been a wonderful eye opening experience for me to navigate those groups this past week, to see the similarities and the differences, and the universal thirst for happiness that binds us all despite disparities in age, background and life experience.

I like to think that our original group, novices as we are, has set an example, merely by existing. Our struggles and our questions, documented on this blog, have highlighted our journey and its value. While not everyone will see that value, our job is to continue to struggle and at the same time inspire. So despite the fact that we are not perfect, and are far from realized, I see why the Gita demands us to lead by example and to live a life that, in the transparency of its struggle to reach the goal, as Satya Sai Baba always insisted, itself becomes the message.

We realized this week that this idea of an exemplary life should pervade not just the spiritual struggle but every facet of our daily lives. Our homework was to live each day as if we were living in a bubble, our very own reality show, each action being observed and serving as an example to the world. How would we act in any given situation if we knew we were being watched and possibly emulated? Can we lose our temper so easily? Can we watch mindless television for quite so many hours? Can we indulge in gluttony? What would change? What would we do better? What would we stop doing?

Leading an exemplary life, it seems,  is not the domain of the perfect or the realized. It is the duty of every spiritual seeker, a heavy responsibility to be sure, but one that allows us to examine our own actions on a constant basis, a basic prerequisite for any meaningful progress.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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