Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Difference Between Yoga and Work, Life in the Distracted World

I have a minute here because the machine that I need to work on today is figuring itself out. I have to wait for it to finish its job before I can do some yoga.

A coupla' years ago I banned electronics from the classroom because students couldn't help themselves. The distraction was too much and rather than pay any attention to class, they just surfed. I walk through the library to get outta' Dodge and that's what I see: students on their phones and/or surfing with their work propped up right in front of them. The percentage of surfers to workers is about 10 to 1. Life is oh so busy.

We are all susceptible and tempted, it's the nature of the apple in the garden: it's not the serpent's fault, it's that eating a tasty apple is way more fun than any inner directive---much less than merely obeying your Invisible Friend's dictates. No one despises the tyranny of The Man more than I do, whether The Man is some god, capitalism's imperatives, or the trivialities of the human condition.

These kids at my college are smart and also nearly illiterate; they are ambitious but some few are still a bit conflicted when they hear (not knowing what they are hearing) the voice of their Inner Rilke demanding more art and less submission to the costs of worldly success. I understand their conflict, it's not peculiar to their station. We should all be dutifully afraid of the price of worldly failure since most of us have barely the means to survive more than a month or two of serious travail. Capitalism is a merciless, indifferent commandant ruling this gulag of profit before people.

Fewer students than ever take my classes, the decline has been precipitous. I would take that personally but it’s across the board and many colleagues have no students and advertise their wares. I would rather talk to myself than have to sell the idea that ideas must be sold. The information is easily accessible, in fact more so than it has ever been. I get why the advertising is done: it’s all part of the same problem. We are vying for attention in a world in which there is just more trivial distraction than anyone could want, even those claiming some higher purpose or the guise of the indifferent Luddite.

I don't know how to make people care about something.  I certainly don't believe they should care about what I happen to love to do or think about.  But I sure hope that they do care about more than work or play.  I hope they create a yoga.  More on this soon.

Opting out of news cycles, social media, and the rest may be a vacation but it is not the work of citizenship. The more we pretend to be serious reclusives the more inane and ill-equipped we become for anything but the cave on the mountaintop. That place, I assure you, has wi-fi too.

Much of what I am writing here is personal, that is, it’s my own stuff about having too much to do in the way of responsibilities to “the world” and my worry that I will die with fewer than Wittgenstein’s 81 unfinished manuscripts on my desk. Writing comes quickly to me but it takes time to do all of it that I must do: the need for me is like air itself. I can no more deny my political outrage than I can my long studies of Mahabharata or the endless (thank goodness) cycles of Goddess mythologies. I have to get it all out.

Somewhere there must also be sleep, some activity other than sitting in a chair, and time with human beings in, you know, conversations where you could actually touch each other in permissible ways, say, by looking them in the eye. I am just as susceptible as the next person to the digital distraction so part of my solution is to burn the candle at three ends or more. I hate vacations. All I want to do on a vacation is bring the stuff I have at home with me---like books, pencils (I love pencils), diaries, and the computer. The distinction for me is that “work” is just stuff I don’t want to be doing but have to because life.

Working now on completing the prose translation of the Bhagavadgita I have chosen not to translate the word “yoga” or its related cognates whenever possible. I mention this not because I don’t have a preferred translation but rather because I really do want people to see how many ways the word does it job. But that job is pretty clear, as far as I can tell. Yoga means paying attention. And it means imposing upon oneself---yes, imposing, insisting, making one’s self do something because that something can’t be done properly without the time, effort, commitment, and focus it requires.

To wit, yoga means something like discipline and that’s a word so far out of currency and implicative that it doesn’t convey the meanings I want to suggest. But truth to tell, yoga isn’t just what you care about, it’s doing the time with the real effort it takes make the worthwhile investment. It’s less about the results, so Krishna is right about that: it’s about the emotional and cognitive and physical focus. Pay attention, stop complaining means that “complaining” is really everything but paying attention.

I have work to do today, which means I will pay as little attention to that as is necessary to get it done. I need only as much yoga as is required to do my work. Paying attention doesn’t mean you can’t multitask. I entirely reject that proposition. It really is possible to understand that some things don’t require much yoga at all and that that leaves some time to rest, to wander, to do some healthy nothing while you work. But the rest of my time I hope will be spent in some or another “yoga of.” That is, when I’m not distracted. I'm working now but soon I will do some yoga.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Pilgrimage Diary Entry, January 5th 2019 Tamil Nadu, India, Somewhere on the Bus

On pilgrimage is about my favorite thing in the world, it's an indulgence I cannot help but want more of no matter how much I get. What I understand about that feeling is that life's journey is never far from the imperatives of culture: culture makes for differences that demand, invite, and challenge every bit of shared humanity.

Some of us are so fortunate---that strikes me as not earned whatever we have earned---that our journeying places us _together_ in the strange, shared circumstances of sharing our differences. Whatever we agree upon to be or to do, how we act and what we offer, it is nearly always difference that we share. What else makes us human than that we are not all, not one of us the same? How could we be doing this were we not the same? That is as much an opening as it is a meeting, like the journey itself, it gives us no reason to believe that we are somehow here for the same reasons or for much of the same anything. But here we are and we journey to meet the next and the next.

What we believe or believe we are doing doesn't require agreement. We may depend on agreements in every moment just to carry on but nothing about belief makes an agreement true. What's true is more than belief, likely less too. What's true is that we all want something from the journey.

India doesn't so much invite us to believe as it does offer up the idea that believing is something we do along with other things that are done and to be done. How you believe here is what you are doing and what you believe is rarely queried; it's not beyond language or gesture or observation no matter how it is convicted or heartfelt. What we are on the outside obviously doesn't tell us about what is concealed within. We never bring that to conclusion, we tell us ourselves to "integrate" but our inconclusion must persist if there is any hope of further self-discovery.

People vest in belief because the anxiety we must feel to be alive is but few moments from desperation or catastrophe. We all live _as if_ we know what is next because the alternatives are even more untenable. It is how we tell themselves what to do, how to survive, and what makes them us think we can flourish, are happy, have meaning.

What we know with even modest reflection is that this isn't always true even when things work out well. By that I mean we do more than survive, we may be consoled and even flourish, we are living the better for the beliefs we count on to be true. And it is just as often the case that we are not the better for any belief, particularly those we cherish. Our most honored beliefs may not be true, they may have never been true. They may simply do a job we need done even when we admit the same beliefs may also fail us.

Belief may be testable but we humans extol faith, which somehow rises to another level of asservation. What might just be possible or resilient we insist must be more or cut more deeply into us. It's less what we believe or in what we place our faith than the ways we feel. We may prefer being saved by faith or something more like "taking refuge" (as the Buddhists would have it) but none of us are immune to the idea that what we can count we want to count on. We all learn that the tests of belief involve matters so everyday that we don't count them at all, we merely act accordingly. However we take matters into our own hands, the facts persist whether we conjure them or not.

It's interesting to believe we need this "faith" but not because we must but because it may merely be evolutionary. The faithful are not merely selecting as humans do to live faithfully but are being selected because the consequence of denying some or another faith can get you killed, or worse. We have had centuries of traditions not only telling us what to believe but to believe.  It doesn't matter if the faithful refuse reason or attempt to embrace it: truth wants nothing to do with faith.  Truth subverts, it never just believes and faith is by definition a problem, never a solution or conclusion.

Religion does this with especial fervor, often to our positive detriment. But life at its best is difficult and even more difficult to understand because what we want is not the same as what turns out. And it is in those spaces and in those incongruities that we place belief, that which we call upon as the fictional light of faith usually for the purpose of ignoring its well-tested shadow.

Of course, we will be tested by the shadow even when we do not see it. It's the ones we test that take us to others and, if we're lucky, back to some more burning light. Be prepared to be burnt even when you are illumined.  Don't stop looking into the darkness even when you can't see.  The darkness isn't there to be revealed, it's to be included because it comes with the light.

Faith's shadow is neither doubt nor the disappointments that follow after belief; faith's shadow begins when we take up the hard work, often frustrating and arduous tasks that demands we remain stalwart in our incompleteness and ineptness; that we come to terms with truths to live with and to live by that are unfinished and will remain open to further inquiry. We now live in a world of so many facts and so many beliefs that we can not possibly pretend that anyone could grasp it all, not even a fraction of all that what we actually know. That's not a matter of belief. That's as true as any day spent learning.

It is difficult to ask any question when those around you would prefer you did not. We are so tender, so easily insulted, we take truth as personally as we take its discomforting pursuits. It is challenging to follow the evidence wherever it might take us because we might discover things we wish we had not, we might be compelled to change our mind or admit mistakes.

We might never see our mistakes even if we go looking honestly. We might never be able to remedy, fix, or address our failures even when we want to enough to suffer the consequences. What is unintended is just as powerful as any intention. It is exhausting to pursue possibilities that may be unknown or mere speculation because we must refuse mere belief in order to continue to learn. Faith in not believing is likely a positive virtue until it becomes a disadvantage to living with the real differences that separate us.

No one wants to feel separation and there is a good argument that separation does not exist in a world of connectivities. Shall we tell ourselves again that difference is real but separation is not? How worthy or valuable is that contemplation? That strikes me as the question while the point, the content is secondary. What's it worth to us to take up the question? I prefer my truths to be questions. Answers are interesting only when the questions insist on never being erased just because we prefer some, any answer---even those that are true.

But the fact that we are all connected does not mean that our connections are available to our feelings or understandings. Let's admit too that being connected doesn't necessarily make us good or happy either. Those are matters just as ambivalent as any matter of belief or deep felt desire or hope.

Truth is not doubt anymore than it is certainty. Truth is not one process nor does it demand but one, singular method of inquiry. We can feel and know, we can reason and know, we can intuit and gain empowered understanding just as we can experiment with evidence both material and imaginary. What makes truth possible is not that it is somehow there to be found. What makes things true is not merely that we have done our due diligence or reached consensus. What makes things true is not that we believe things or even act in certain ways because of truths.

What makes things true is that we can learn and change, that we can be sure and doubt at the same time. What makes things true is that we can embrace truth as a paradox even as we use it to solve problems, raise serious concerns, or feel deeply about something.

The nature of the paradox of truth is human nature. We are here but we are unfinished and will never be finished; for not even death finishes us off as it casts us into both nothing and the collective memory. We are made of bodies and are nothing more than the powers of cognition but we are also minds and souls who also want all things beautiful possible and impossible because somehow we want or need or just do that.

Truth is not mere preference or belief but neither could it be (and it is) without some willingness to admit our needs or desires be they pleasant or painful. Truth may be blind, pitiless, and indifferent to our wants but we aren't or at least we should hope we are not. Truth doesn't care but we can. The paradoxes don't end, do they?

Our human nature is not a fixed fact however it may have emerged to be, to exist as it does in a shared process, one of nearly unimaginable complexity of its own self-making, little by little, from things so simple now so complex. We invent ourselves but have been invented by facts that we did not invent, that we do not control, that nothing and no one invented or controls. Our shared humanity is true but is not necessary and the universe has no plan, no reasons for our existence, and no purpose to our being. Still we are truly here for this brief, warm respite that is life, burning, howling, weeping, bleeding, and loving, all of us, no what kind of break we got.

Nature is kinder to some than others though nature itself possesses no kindness. Nature doesn't need to think or feel or have cause because it can carry on without any of them and still create life. Culture, history has brought privileges that create deep and painfully real inequities that have nothing to do with goodness or merit, rights or our shared humanity; we social humans can't live without society and society both provides our possibility and invariably brings us to limits, boundaries, and end games that advantage some and cruelly disadvantage others.

We humans are all human but not two of us are really the same, not even those identical twins. We aren't equal nor endowed by a creator even as creation endows us and we pursue in good faith the meanings of equality. We can invent our humanity by dedicating to noble proposition but none of us is beyond the tinctures of hypocrisy, prejudice, or cruelty that we inflict upon one another. None of us is ever just kind even when some of us make too fine a point of being cruel. We can all do that too. We must not only embrace paradox to use it to help us be true, we must succumb to paradox as part of our incomplete nature.

Belief rarely helps but we can't live without it. Faith is often an excuse not to think or change or learn but where would we be without it? How would faithlessness be better? Or maybe when is it better? Better is something we can imagine, perhaps something we must continually reinvent. Maybe that's enough. Maybe being human is less a pursuit of happiness and more an invitation to more, to more better, to whatever that might be given what we can do, each of us.

Friday, January 18, 2019

For the Love of More, And Its Costs. Another Long Note to Myself

I write this morning because I'm working out two stories in the "news." The first is personal but one I think we might share in with some common interests. I mean to say something here about Hindu pilgrimage, the practices of darshan, and all that comes with making this a journey of self. For me, this is nothing less than obsession but I collect obsessions the way obsessives collect whatever it is they are obsessing over. I want only more until there's just the end and I'm gone from this life. The second story involves yet another piece in the news where, once again, I am deeply offended by matters involving religion, education, and the absence of self-critical thought.

First things first, and the happier of the two stories.

We have again returned from India and another rich, evocative, truly wonderful pilgrimage. Darshan is the centerpiece of that effort and the effort itself invites an ardor that's, for me, never enough. I like that it is physically, mentally, emotionally demanding, in every way demanding, that it takes something of you and from you, I like that it's no day at the spa even if there's time along the way to have a day at the spa. The point of pilgrimage is to make a vrata, a vow, a commitment to _see_ and to do what it takes to have experiences of seeing. With that comes the body---pain, health, illness--- and involves all of the other senses, the imagination and all of its powers, the mind and all that is demanded from within a context that _means to overwhelm_ one's capacities, all of them, all of the time. Too much of everything is just enough.  I will get on that bus again and again until I can't walk, I will go find another temple, look for another god, goddess, demon, and demigod, and I will ask for arhati and make darshan. There's never enough for me. It's like poetry, art, music, and literature. It's like the study of science, history, culture, and human possibilities: I am insatiable, I like it that way. This is not going to end until I end. I'll go alone if no one else wants to come.

I am wholly convinced that the reasons I love Hindu pilgrimage and darshan have little to with what the majority of other Hindus are hoping to receive from the practice, though I think it's plain enough that we do share many comparable _feelings_. I have no qualms identifying as a "Hindu" since those are the very signs we pass as we enter the shrines. They say, "Hindus only beyond this point" and while I may not identify with others' beliefs or values, I must admit that we share the same ritual shapes and destinations. We all _do_ the same things and the beauty of the practice itself is that there is no one to dictate what anyone is meant to believe or think or feel. What's required is a shared respect and, above all, a shared behavior that extends into gesture, movement, dress, marker, and, above all, an application of the rules, explicit and implicit. For newbies this orthopraxis has to be learned and mimicked if one wants the shared participation.

I am a creature of ritual, which invariably demands an imposition of protocols that place boundaries and terms on our behaviors. But I am no less a creature of the rigors of critical humanist thinking and the deep evocative powers of mythology to cull the heart's desires, feelings, and mysteries. As I learned Rajanaka that meant wanting _all_ of these things, with all of the complexity, paradox, contradiction, beauty, and strangeness that accompanies a life rich and well-loved, outside and in.

I remain a student of religion because religion is the human endeavor that has had the most to do with our histories of creativity, it has been a repository for the creation of art, beauty, wonder, sensuality, peace, courage, the entire array of the rasas---just as it has been a nearly inexhaustible resource for the manufacture of hatred, sexism, bigotry, manipulation, and false hope. (I feel just as committed to science but far less adept.) To say that I am conflicted over and about things that come from and work through religion is merely to describe my entire personal and professional life.

But I mean to go further: without all of that discomfort, contradiction, ambivalence, horror, and challenge I would want nothing to do with the things-of-religion. Or anything else. Without conflict and shadow, without rage and disdain, without passion and love and hope and softness, these practices that move through religion along with all their forms and stories would be ruinous and, for me, just plain false, nonsense. No one escapes moral compromise or lives without a tincture of hypocrisy. That itself is an idea that religions cannot seem to admit as honestly as I would hope. We are not sinners to be redeemed. I want no redemption or forgiveness. I want to make these facts of life livable, something I can manage to bring into every good thing I seek. Without the strife there's nothing.

So the second story. It's about how Vice-President Pence is offended that we are offended that his wife the art teacher chooses to work in a Christian school where, "The school’s employment application asks applicants to initial a passage stating that they will "live a personal life of moral purity.” The “moral misconduct” that disqualifies potential employees includes “heterosexual activity outside of marriage (e.g., premarital sex, cohabitation, extramarital sex), homosexual or lesbian sexual activity, polygamy, transgender identity, any other violation of the unique roles of male and female, sexual harassment, use or viewing of pornographic material or websites, and sexual abuse or improprieties toward minors as defined by Scripture and federal or state law.”"

Let's not mince words here. These people _are_ Christians because they say they are. There isn't anything like a "real" or "true" Christianity just because you too by be offended by theirs. I am often offended by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, you name it, just about everyone who practices or claims some belief or behavior on the basis of their religious affiliation that I find less than commendable. I have no qualms about feeling offended or how my feelings and thoughts are matters of judgment. We all judge, no matter what we claim, and the issue at hand is so what about that.

Let's return to Pence. I know, I know but this isn't about that story. It's about what that story claims. This school claims to offer "religious education" and that, I assert, is an oxymoron. Pence wants us not to be offended by what they believe. I am merely offended _that_ they believe though _what_ they believe is reprehensible and moronic. It's not as if I don't have opinions. You may notice this as we continue.

There is no such thing as "religious education" though plainly we can be educated _about_ religion. There is only religious inculcation, even within the most critical and self-examining traditions. Christian scholastics, Buddhist logicians, Kashmiri Shavites---not _one_ them is willing in the end to change their views on the basis of further evidence and experiment.

Further, religious views are not merely captive of language or vocabulary. Rather, the problem is that the method of enquiry does not permit subversion _as the method of enquiry_. And Madhyamaka Buddhist method notwithstanding, they invariably reach their desired conclusions. Madhyamaka is built on the theory of impasse or prasanga, which claims that all argument ends without ultimate certainty. However, ultimate uncertainty is ultimately true---and what if it's not? It's not merely _that_ question that pushes the matter forward it is that provisional-only worlds undermine their claims of what Buddhas know. However they cherish human beings, they are not humanists bent upon the acknowledgement that we reach no "awakened" end game that leaves us all flawed, incomplete, and shadowed. The claim of awakened beings is anti-human, it is sexism and classism, it is merely false, religious nonsense---and, worse, it is dangerous for its manipulations.

The humanist cannot claim the methodologies of skepticism and incomplete knowledge are superior except insofar as they refuse the privilege endemic to religious conclusions. Matters are as true as the best evidence invites us to experiment with the notion of truth. This doesn't mean that everything is opinion or that there is no such thing as "truth." Rather it means that the processes of discovery are themselves subjects of inquiry _and_ that the best (provisional) conclusions are reached when evidence is examined without predisposition for certain outcomes.

As much as the religious might employ strategies of doubt, their ultimate end is self-verification and the reclamation of basic dogmatic assertions; to wit, conclusions are foregone _because_ they are religious objectives. You're not about to convince the Dalai Lama that there's self anymore than the Pope will admit that Jesus was merely human and did not rise from the dead. Don't equivocate over whether this is allegory or symbolic language---the claims themselves are not _replaceable_ no matter what questions are asked or evidence revealed. When Einstein pulled the rug from under Sir Issac, well, that was that: certain _fundamental_ claims in Newton's theories were understood to be faulty or just plain false. What people believe is not the same as what we might discover to be the better truth we can share.

What's at stake is not mere veridical conclusion. "Truths" invoke _feelings_ that may have nothing to do with being rational. How we prefer to feel or what we feel may be all the truth we need to believe some or another truth. But how truth makes us feel may have nothing to do with the facts, with truths we agree are the true explanation. Remember that Charles Darwin withheld his theory of natural selection because he rightly feared that the _facts_ of his discovery would prove deeply disturbing to theists, offend their sensibilities, and provoke backlash. He was right. Again.

Religion comes hand in hand with tender sensibilities; it is the place where we keep many of our most cherished desires, preferences, and feelings about family, tradition, history, our identities. When we are offended it is itself an insight into how we have been made and can make ourselves human. Whatever else might be said, to be human is to explore what moves us to feel, to think, to contend with our mortal selves. Without the contest, the challenges, and contradictions, I have no reasons left to live. Love is not enough even if we can hope to love more and better. Life's never just one thing. It's a maze, a prism, a mirror of selves unfinished, incomplete, and journeying until they are annihilated by the gift of life that made them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Who Cares? When You Do.

A Brief Note on False Consolations, Better Worlds, and Santa's Proper Job
I'm grading undergraduate papers today and must finish them---there are plenty left in this pile. I read every word because it's my job. I am a creature of duty. How quaint, eh? I was also glancing into Hitchens who I admire so deeply that I don't feel any need to agree even when I agree. He's that good at _his_ job. The quotation at the bottom of this little tirade will get me through today.

I will be more compassionate and understanding than their poor writing warrants reminding me that we make whatever goodness there is in this world. They are learning something writing these papers---well, hopefully---and I am revisiting old lessons about life. A better world is a made world, an invented world, a world that is created and we alone are its creators. We flawed, imperfect, confused, mixed up humans. So much the better.

One of the better ideas promulgated by some few Hindus---at least insofar as such a thing can be said at all---is that there really is room for those of us, who like Hitchens says, detest religion for saying things that are not only false consolations but become testimonies of human vanity, being both false and inexcusable.

I've long gotten past the idea that people---in fact, many people---need these kinds of "consolations," just to claim some thing is "divine" or that we are human for them. People will say almost anything to get by, through, and into feeling better about a world that on its own terms promises nothing and delivers without any of our pleadings in mind.  We make our nests; we live in them.

For the record, there is nothing, not.one.thing. in Rajanaka that Appa ever taught me (or that I have said over these many years) to suggest that the world has us somehow in its care or cares about us. She mothers us by providing, not by caring. WE must do the caring of each other and that seems to be much more to the point. That mother nature is blind, pitiless, and indifferent to everything and that we _might_ survive and flourish on _its_ terms is, in truth, the real comfort to me. It gives Momma a break that she doesn't need and it places the responsibility on us to make life worthy of living.

I don't want the universe or god or any damn thing else knowing or looking out or having a f'in plan, which of course it doesn't, can't and never has. Santa can kiss my ass too. Instead I want the burdens of care placed solely on us: we humans must decide to care, care and invite others to care. That doesn't make us divine anymore than it makes us human. (Plenty of humans don't act like they care whatsoever, thank you, Mr President.) But it does make it possible to be something that nature alone does not insist we be. That could be a "new" or better definition of "divine."

YMMV.
But on this point Hitchens nails it again:

I suppose that one reason I have always detested religion is its sly tendency to insinuate the idea that the universe is designed with "you" in mind or, even worse, that there is a divine plan into which one fits whether one knows it or not. This kind of modesty is too arrogant for me.
--Christopher Hitchens

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Ayyappa, Ayyappa Vrata, and the Gift of Living A Brief Note About Pilgrimage as Practice


It's 12 days to India now. This morning I vowed Ayyappa. So a few words about what that means, at least to me. Pilgrimage seems like such a religious thing, such a construct of anachronism and folly, even cultural appropriation. And we all know how dangerous that is, personally, politically, one can hardly breathe without stealing or borrowing something. Not even the air that we breathe.

Pilgrimage seems so not of today but for the superstitious. For me it is anything but that, not because I am immune to superstition but because I want to think about life and need _more ways_ to think and feel being alive. So let's talk now about one of the gods, an important one in Rajanaka lore. Ayyappa you may have heard something about from me. Here's a bit more.

In linguist's terms the word "Ayyappa" is a compound back formation, which means it's made up of two words and, in this case, _which_ words is subconsciously, deliberately, or accidentally ambiguous.

First the easy part. The -pa ending can be both the Dravidian (Tamil, etc.) contraction of appa, meaning father, daddio, big cheese, that guy with a lot of affection because that's why it's shortened. It can also be the IE (Vedic, Sanskrit) verbal root /pa, meaning to protect, to guard (like the literal door guardians called "dvārapāla-s" and other comparable words). So if we take "Ayyappa" as a kind of manipravala (literally what we call a jewel-jewel word, mani is Skt for "jewel," "prabala" is Tamil (also likely a shared word or borrowed?) for coral=jewel, then it is a combination word using both Skt and Tamil and _that_ is also _another kind of_ sammelana, a commingling word (Skt concept) that uses multiple intimations and meanings assigned from two different languages (or more). We can discuss both maniprabala language and the rich, complex notion of sammelana further at another time. Just to be very brief "sammelana" is what makes Natarajar appear so masculine _and_ feminine and still _more_, other, broken, and wholly possessed of all of that, all at once. Got that?

The first part of the word "Ayya-" is similar as a jeweljewel sammelana, thus it could mean the Tamil "ayya" or "aiyar" which is an honorific of appa plus the deep Skt influence of arya being pronounced in Tamil. When a Tamil addresses a man, particularly older and respected, he is called "ayya" or "anna" for older brother, or ayyar where the extra -ar ending means to convey respect as in the nominative formation of Natarajar in Tamil. Thus Ayyappa means not only the god who you recognize as the "third son", the golden child, who is lord of ghosts and "learned in Dharma" (called in Skt "Dharmaśāsta), he is the respect we offer to the recognition of "protection." Let's move on to that idea.

One who protects is truly "learned in Dharma" in the true sense of all of Dharma's complexity regarding shadow and light: the very best of us fail, don't see all, can't finish knowledge, and all the rest that is hidden; the very best must make deeply compromising choices, make mistakes, and can't perfectly get it right. Mythically, of course, Ayyappa is the son of betrayal and of consoling love of his mother. He is the bastard son of Vishnu and Shiva. And most of what is said on the internet has little to do with the ways Rajanaka tells these stories. We'll have more time to tell more stories, including Ayyappa stories. Sometimes we call him Aiyannar. The words actually are not confusing but they are complex.

Dharma means that there is an armature of decency, character, and empowerment in creating meaningful boundaries and making difficult decisions with clarity, humility about "rightness," and wise reflection on the realities of unforeseen possibilities. Dharma tries to make good on a world that has not decided it is good or isn't good or is indifferent to goodness but for what we can make. "Studying" that is called śasana, being learned is called being a śasta, and such a state of wisdom takes provenance, time, study, reflection, failure, and continuing work.

Hence Ayyappa is Dharmaśasta. He is the warm, embracing protection that _respects_ the depth of Dharma as it holds us and keeps us safe in world that is never, ever safe, much less from ourselves. To respect respect itself is critical but Ayyappa is also feral, furious, the lord of ghosts, consorts with the darkness of the forest; as a child he is abandoned by his parents, raised by a tiger-pawed sage who is morphing into primal danger, and keeps the company of all that is imperiling and filled with risk, fugitive terror, subject to all that is capricious, unpredicted, stochastic, and relentlessly endangering.

Ayyappa is wild in the truest natural sense: primally aware but not always successful, keen to be instinctual but capable of that strange way humans alone (among things we know) can _learn_ but can't conquer. He resides most at home in the depths of the forest and the forest is the unconscious. Everything originates there, in the unconscious, and Ayyappa is present every step of the way towards every surface, revelation, appearance, and form. What does it look like when the furthest reaches of the unknown manifest? It looks like you.

Ayyappa is the place, the thought and feeling, the ways we connect to honoring, respecting the gift of a brief, mortal life that ends and begins. To become further attuned, to touch that source we go to our forest of feelings and into the great matrix of thought. We go to the places where he is she, she is them, all is, and where every difference is real and respected but where separation can never be so real that we are separate.

One thing is two and more, two and more reside in one, but two is never other to itself. Duck, rabbit, duckrabbit, etc. But to see is to try to see more. Because there is always more, there is no end, no liberation, no finality to learning and growth, there is death and in the meantime love and savor life. Truly, come to respect and protect and honor being given the gift of life---as far as you can, with power and privilege further paid forward. And so we honor, -pa, we protect, -pa, and we call it by the name we all hope to deserve "ayya," which then means that others see your character and your desire to do good and be good. "Ayya" is when people love you for what you have to offer, who you really are, it is when you are seen and acknowledged for being, just for being, and that is certainly good enough. Ayyappa means reveling in what is worthwhile and worthy, and that is your humanity itself.

So when we take on an Ayyappa vrata, a turn or vow to Ayyappa we try to create a context for those feelings, ideals, aspirations, and acknowledge that we are grateful to be alive. This means we will have to make ourselves _feel_ in body, mind, heart---and make ourselves touch what is uncomfortable, discomforting, extracting something from the "vow." What are you prepared to do about "it"? Whatever "it" you decide that to be? That is the nature of the vow. And the object of the vow is to become more Ayyappa, more of what it could mean.

Ayyappa has gender but no gender, more gender, less gender, any way and every way we are called to respect life, the fury all living things experience being _alive_. And then Ayyappa is all that acknowledges that life's treasure, it's gold, it's ghee and adornment, it's beauty and wonder is fragile and durable, powerful and vulnerable, the sammelana that happens when two things become three.

One and one is two in the worlds of śāstra (learning), one and one is three in worlds of poetry and myth (the poet is kavi, Ayyappa is called kaviraja, poetic sovereign), and then it all goes forward and back from there, without any required purpose, end, meaning, or goal. It just goes. Ayyappa asks who do you want to be, who do you imagine or wish you were, who are you---all at once.

So now 12 days before I breathe in India again, I take an Ayyappa vrata. This means I will demand a few things from my body, do and deny a few things to make me feel more, be a normal person outside and an Ayyappa inside. Until I reach India then I get to be just a little more Ayyappa on the outside too. Who do you want to be? What do you want from a brief, moral life? Ayyappa is not the answer and offers only answers but much more importantly is all of the questions. What questions do you ask? Could you? Can you? That is why you take an Ayyappa vrata.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Is Rajanaka "religion"? A Note to a Friend




I wrote this first as a personal email to a friend for whom I have very deep regard. He happens to be a colleague, a college professor of history, so the tone here is meant to speak to our common concerns and shared educational values. He raised serious and basic questions about Rajanaka and especially about Rajanaka pilgrimage. I almost immediately turned my reply into a more for-everyone response. It's typically lengthy. In addition to being deeply accomplished and a gifted critical thinker, he's also sorta' new around here and I will never tire of trying to describe and explain what Appa so patiently taught me more than 40 years ago about Rajanaka. If any or all seems familiar to you, I hope it too inspires beginner's mind and opens all again to inquiry. Aappa wanted simple things first: dignity, education, support, affection, and respect. But he never thought those things were easy. The easy stuff is learning things anyone can learn, like some Sanskrit or the names of all of the gods.

Let's talk about this basic question just for fun not because all good conversation is fun but because no one else in the world needs to take this question seriously other than, say, me. Any of you who use the word "Rajanaka" have always made your own peace with its meanings precisely because that is what "Rajanaka" is _meant_ to be.

Appa encouraged me (actually it was as close to an imperative as anything he ever "suggested") to create my own sensibilities and meanings. So what is left if most is left up to you? That's a question within, behind the question that we began with. If you don't care or don't use the word "Rajanaka" other than to refer to what we do here (or what Appa or I have said), I'm only presuming we are true friends, that being all he ever hoped of me.

I'm going to take this in two pieces. First, the ways Rajanaka is _like_ religion and uses religion(s). Second, how Rajanaka is most decidedly _not_ like religion or like most religions I can reference. Since I'm, you know, a professor in a Religion & Classics Department, I'm presuming the ability to function with a bit of "outsider-ness"---in the profession we call this "etic", the view from "outside" a social group---while I'm also "emic", couldn't be more of an "inside" than this. Much of this will bore you. Because, really, who cares? It's axiomatic that I never assume anyone should or will care about ideas I find interesting.

Like a religion...

*Provenance and Tradition
Rajanaka originates in conversations rooted unambiguously in Hindu worlds. Think of this as concentric circles or our proverbial matryoshka dolls, which is how to best understand all forms of Hinduism. Working the dolls from the inside out, that is, from the particular which means the "lineage" out towards larger segments of tradition tells the story most accurately. (You never learn to generalize by learning things in general.) Rajanaka begins within the larger Nataraja Chidambaram setting, including its principal conversants being raised in that environment of images, ideas, myths, rituals, customs, and values. This already makes Rajanaka an outlier among Shaivisms of south India because Nataraja is unlike other gods and temples: it decenters the sanctum, does not privilege the linga as image, has its own rules (far, far more "liberal" than others), has no direct association with any ideology or theology, and creates no authority for source material or interpretation. The temple runs on custom, not doctrine: this is crucial because it invokes orthopraxy (do it) over orthodoxy (believe it, say it).

Sitting side by side the Nataraja center, co-equal such as it is, is the Great Goddess, the Tantra of Auspicious Wisdom or Shrividya, which has no direct historical connections with the temple other than that it's ubiquitous among Shaiva-Shakta centers across south India. Within any ordinary definition of Shrividya as doctrine or ideology, Rajanaka is heresy, an outlier, very much not like any other lineage I have studied (i.e., hundreds in text and anthropology). Where Rajanaka is like other Shrividyas is in conceptual symbolism and practices---all of which are interpreted by _every lineage_ to suit themselves. We do the stories, images, many of the pujas (not all, others don't do ours), practices, etc. that are common to nearly all Shrividya. Rajanaka begins within this context at least four or five generations before me---Appa spoke with clarity and familiarity about three sets of elders in the lines (parampara) of transmission (i.e., conversation over the same material). All of these conversants created a sammelana, that is, a commingling of the complex of Nataraja myths (plus temple lore, associations) and Shrividya.|

So Rajanaka is a parampara, just like other traditional lineage teachings, and one that has a central body that comes from geography, canons of philosophers and those employing imagery, myth, ritual, and practices (things we do like darshan, puja, meditations). It's a strange form of Shrividya with a Nataraja source, that's the simplest provenance solution. Appa extends back three or four generations and there are real names and real persons associated with that learning and "passing along." We are not based on a mystical claim or a reclamation theory (i.e., revival after loss, like all the neo-Kashmir Shaivisms). Does Rajanaka itself go back further than, say, about the middle of the 18th century? I have no historical information about that. Appa said that because it evolves in _every generation_ because it uses contemporary ideas, it's more like evolution via natural selection---it changes with the mutations that survive each generation. This is, I think, the wisest description of our continuities and connections. See the list of ways we are _not_ like religions for a further comment on this matter.

The details of the content of Rajanaka traditions are what you have all been learning in seminars and camps and pilgrimage for the last nearly 20 years now. I’m on Rajanaka year 41 and let’s say year about 44 of committed studies in Hinduism and the comparative study of religions.

To summarize, first, like other Hinduisms, Rajanaka has a history within the complexities of history, geography, language, social organization, ideologies, and practices. The most important take away is that Rajanaka does not adhere or draw its teachings or interpretations in concordance with any historical figures, schools, or canons. Rather, Rajanaka puts itself in conversation with these sources and finds itself largely at odds with basic and foundational claims. Why? First, it is the nature of a Rajanaka conversation to desist from any dogma or doctrine that avers the critical examination. Critical thought is, by every modern definition, a secular enterprise. More about this shortly. Second, Rajanaka takes what we might call "the Vedic attitude," which unlike later Hinduism has _no_ concept of final liberation, the "realized being" (pick your term here: buddha, siddha, et.al.), or mystical states that somehow exempt us from the terms of our limited, mortal condition. The Veda declares "give to me, I give," and so creates the "attitude" that life is for living, with all its imperfections, incompletions, successes and failures. Rajanaka _uses_ Hindu canons of myth (textual and oral), ritual, etc., but interprets them wholly from within "Vedic attitudes." Lots of detail here to reference later.

Rajanaka also draws deeply from certain other religions, particularly Buddhism. Appa was far more learned than any of his predecessors in Buddhism, Confucian and Taoist traditions, basically in the history of religions. He incorporated a great deal from this material as he did from western and secular literatures. You don't find this in other traditional Hinduisms but it is not terribly uncommon in what we call Neo-Hinduisms and other kinds of Perennialist formulations.

Not like a "religion"...
*Method and Purpose
Rajanaka method is grounded on secular humanistic inquiry that focuses on empirical processes of "argument." To wit, our "famous" triadic referencing of ask _any_ question, follow evidence where it leads, and always attempt to undermine your best argument with other arguments. Knowledge is provisional, unfinished, incomplete, and works within the confines of what is generally understood to be modern "scientific method." As far as I can tell, this has been a founding principle, meaning that Appa always described Rajanaka as method rather than any doctrine. As one scientist recently put it, "The history and purpose of science has been to supplant itself, throw out old paradigms as they reach a crisis and are supplanted by new ones. This never happens in theology."

If Rajanaka is a "theology" inasmuch as it uses and talks about gods (demons, etc.), then it is a science and artistry dedicated to the gods. The god are us, we are every character in the story. But the author has a point: religions do not generally desire or claim to "throw out" their old paradigms and, by the way, don't let the Buddhists fool you about this either. They too, even in their most subversive forms of doctrine, claim doctrines, not merely heuristic devices. For example, all Buddhisms claim enlightentment, buddhas, and magical powers, even Zen and Theravada based versions. There are nowadays "secular Buddhisms" that share much in common with Rajanaka's secular methodologies and humanist concerns.

*Evolutionary Identity and Individual Interpretation

Not only does Rajanaka leave it up to you to think and feel and put things in your own perspective, it's method encourages that kind of inquiry. If you wander off the reservation of secular method, I get nervous about what you might claim but it's a principle too of secular method that our personal madnesses are personal and so can't really be verified or refuted. Try not to be too crazy and do your best to stick to what we think we do know--it's the method of asking that makes us us and that's wholly "secular." Rajanaka changes with every generations' acquisition of more information, better evidence, more critical arguments. It certainly has changed dramatically in the past 40 years and has especially become more inclusive of the finding of critical thinking: history, language, science, etc.

Rajanaka takes up secular argument as its method not because its perfect, flawless, or incontrovertible but because none of those things apply. "Argument" (this is a technical term, it's not quarreling) is simply what we think is better than other kinds of evidence finding and inquiry. Arugments are replaced with "better" arguments and we think we can do that because human beings learn, albeit always imperfectly. No perfection, no finality, but a real commitment to "at present this is the best we got..." and that makes for some kind of truth. There's no higher truth, nothing but our hard-won human efforts to learn.

*Goals and Outcomes

Religions promise or claim things that Rajanaka does not advocate or express much interest in. Things like afterlife or much of what is deemed mystical knowledge is not on the docket. Other typical claims are more overtly rejected. For example, to claim a superior human state that solves the problematics of the human condition (with all its flawsn and shadows) is outrightly rejected as anachronistic and morally suspect. To claim that someone is somehow exempt or relieved of full human accountability, is immune or beyond foible or flaw in any way is dangerous and _de-humanizing_.

This means that about 99.9% of all claims for buddha, siddha, guru, etc. are regarded as religious assertions and, more importantly, are _deeply suspect_ for their implications. Abuse, misuse of power, structural privilege and prejudice certainly follow from even the most innocent interpretations of these basic concepts. Of course there is real human achievement, deep respect for learning and obvious needs for hierarchies of merit---but it is much like the American experiment as Thomas Paine put it: "the law is the king" and that means it can change, that its interpreters are often deeply flawed, and that no one beyond its ideals or merits.

Rajanaka uses "Dharma" to mean an ideal that of "laws" that must be constantly subject to reappraisal, evolution, and revision. Imperfect as we are, we are trying to make things fair and use principles of human equality. When Appa invited an American teenager to live in his orthoprax south Indian Brahmin home he was making a cultural, political, and religious statement. His religious statement was revolutionary and largely apostasy by any conventional standard. He looked at us as _human beings_, nothing more and never less. Rajanaka's goal is a life well-lived and life deeply loved. Making that opportunity possible for others and one's self is our goal. How you decided to love your life is something Appa _wanted_ to affirm---just try not to impose your preferences and consolations on others as far as possible. Appa taught freedom and thought of that as socially secular and individually about liberty. I think this is why he spoke so much about the American experiment and tied it to the ideals of India's independence, quite fully aware of the hypocrisies, foibles, on-going failures and future perils (and abuses).

Rajanaka invites moral character based on the notion that serving others' opportunities for personal development invites us to live as far as possible in the dignity and integrity of our values and ideals. It's complicated because we are all imperfect and so much is hidden from, within, and by us. We are creatures of light and shadow: Rajanaka invites us to interrogate and integrate those basic human circumstances and possibilities.

ONE LAST POINT...

Rajanaka focuses on "indirect" sources of experience within its secular agenda. That is, we are particularly interested in mythology, poetry, literature, art, music, and human endeavors like pilgrimage, ritual, and embodied experiences (including yoga, anything that you would regard to be "spiritual" including reading or meditation). Our interest is twofold: first, to create a deeper _evocative_ human experience of _feeling_ as for resource of character and in relationships. Second, it is to work _within_ the provenance of traditions to respect and honor those with whom we participate and from whom we learn. Pilgrimage presents a particularly important example.

To take a Rajanaka pilgrimage is to enter a conversation of cultural appropriation and shared engagement. We go to south India and try to dress, act, eat, and share in and with Tamil culture as far as possible. Tamils almost universally applaud and receive this "appropriation" by westerners as deeply honoring and emotionally moving. I have heard hundreds of ambient conversations in Tamil about how our presentation is elevating, honoring, and even inspiring. But it is what this "appropriation" does as well to us and for us. Rajanaka see the world as a stage and invites us to play roles that invite deeper participation, all the while hoping not to create deeper offense. (Invariably someone somewhere will take some offense. So? Choose wisely how you engage, that is always the Rajanaka way.)

Appa thought I should "act normally" when I came back to America and basically honor my own heritage, take notice of when being unnoticed serves well. He wouldn't have said anything if I wore Indian clothes to work here but I guarantee you that he wouldn't have done that anymore than he would do puja, seek darshan, or go on pilgrimage in anything but appropriate traditional Indian dress. In our home in India, I always wore "normal" traditional Tamil dress. He would go to his university job in western clothes, as I would in Indian _unless_ he was going to a puja or temple, then he would dress appropriately for that too. In short, he did the appropriate thing and that was a judgment call, usually not a hard one.

There's a word for this in Sanskrit that we use: ācityā, which literally means "to the very boundaries of awareness" but can be translated as "appropriate." We are all appropriating _something_ all of the time. The idea here is to be respectful of others _and_ to _evoke within one's self_ the feelings that arise when one dares to create roles in life and live them with integrity. I don't invite my students at the university to use my first name nor are they permitted to attend Rajanaka events (until they graduate). I am trying to take roles and relationships seriously but also respecting context, provenance, and the ways humans use and offer_power_. If one wants to do _Rajanaka_ pilgrimage in India _with me_ then there are "rules" that apply to everyone so that we can share experiences of pilgrimage. If one has another goal or idea then they are free to do it in another context.

If 'dressing up' for pilgrimage makes you feel uncomfortable then that's part of the process and the role, just like darshan as a practice is likely to make you feel very very strange. Appa said that we westerners get more from pilgrimage and darshan precisely because it makes us feel uncomfortable while Indians see it as something not to question in the same ways. He also chuckled when I said that I make some Indian folks a bit self conscious and replied that this is part of the "theatre of memory" that churns us from the source of feeling that originates in the unconscious. It is to churn the unconscious that is at the heart of all Rajanaka learning and practices. What comes up from those deep and dark places is the light that illumines the self and the many selves we inhabit.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Two Games, But Only One Set of Rules, Bhagavad-Gita 4.42 Applied

Democracy is a messy and compromised game but that's because it's not supposed to be played dirty and become corrupt. We take sides, do what it takes to win, but not win at any cost, especially in ways that inflict real harm on others; we're supposed to relish winning, not become vindictive, malicious, or spiteful. We're testing ourselves, not our beliefs alone but our willingness to act, to stand to live with ourselves and stand in a life that does not promise to be fair or just. How will we stand?

We're supposed to play hard, play the game to win because we care, because we believe that's the way to play best. We believe too that that's the best way to play the game, even when our opponents know how to use what we care about to their own faithless advantage. We can decide not to be noxious, vengeful, or punitive. So, what difference does this difference make when there are actually two games and still we play as if there is one set of rules? What do we make of that?

It's not hard to fathom even if it's challenging to do, that's a point that should never be lost on us. It is first to try to imagine what it is like to be the other person. Virtue begins a human task that founds itself in the powers of empathy and imagination. These are things that make us decisively human because we are asked to care both about our own feelings _and_ someone else with whom we deeply disagree. What will we do if we win?

Our current president assumes every opposition must be met with resentment and retaliation. His party's leadership philosophy is ironfisted and pitiless, not merely tough and realistic.

So the further issue we face is how to do deal with a game that is actually no longer a game at all---when the situation no longer involves playing by the same rules. If we are playing two very different games it's tantamount to suicidal, isn't it?

I think we must not lose the plot, _our_ plot, or give up on the rules of the game. Test your character everyday to show up ready to play. Don't give in. If you're not up to it today, rely on your friends to do as much. Come back tomorrow, they will need you as you need them.

Try to hold yourself to a standard that is ever so slightly out of reach, even for yourself, but not so remote that you can't see yourself both succeeding and failing. Don't work so hard that you can't play again tomorrow or if you do, make sure there's someone else on watch too. Don't give up so easily that you hate losing more than trying again. Know what your opponents will do when you decide who _you want to be_ and they will use _that_ to exploit you, wrong you, abuse you. But don't take up their jobbery or demoralize yourself because the game isn't fair and your opponents are powerful and dishonest. Courage is not virtue, it is what you need to create virtue. We create virtue from character but we become virtuous when we are willing to pay the costs.

You will need to wield the weapons of understanding knowing how you can injure or compromise yourself if you do, even when you do carefully. But brandish you must that self that dares not to forget: a life of character is as powerful as you are vulnerable. Try to remember always to care about more than what is only present now even as you stand wholly in the present.

tasmad ajnana-sambhutam
hrt-stham jnanasinatmanah
chittvainam samsayam yogam
atisthottistha bharata

"So you must cut with the sword of knowledge this doubt in your heart born of ignorance. Commit! Stand up, inheritor of the world!"