Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Chapeau to A Friend

You may notice that if I am ever quoted I rarely comment and try not to endorse that kindness with a "like." This morning one of you did as much, and beautifully so. I write here to make a few points likely well-understood, so apologies if I bore you. I hope you know that I am flattered and not at all ungrateful for the shout-outs. I am deeply honored when you cite something you heard or read. But the reason I don't always acknowledge those citations is that I want those experiences to be yours. This is what _you_ heard or these are the words _you_ read.

I mean to honor _you_ for your experience and choose, as far as seems reasonable, not to "interfere." Unless there's some egregious mistake, I will leave your memories to you. I will try to let your experience come through. There's no catechisms, no repeat after me. Appa was insistent that this was how we learn more creatively. He would time and again ask me to put matters in my own forms, even if that included citing him or using a quotation. He was keen to "get it right" but he was just as keen to invite your own understanding.

It's an important feature of Rajanaka that we affirm more autonomy of experience in relationship, that intimacy demands that we strive to protect another's autonomy. When you speak about or for Rajanaka you will notice too that, for my part, it belongs to you. I'm not keen to "control" or "manage" anyone. The ethos of autonomy and self-empowerment has a greater priority than any form of "management" over what is or is not "Rajanaka." And _that said_, I still acknowledge full responsibility and mean to do right by you or others, which is why "Rajanaka" is also technically copyrighted. More embrace the paradox, as you would expect.

We experience our experience of the world. This is a premise common to even the most objectivist schools of Indian thought and it is the cause of much conversation, particularly around the term "māyā." Since māyā refers to the ways we take our measure---that common etymology in Proto-Indo-European is /ma, from which we get "measure," "meter," etc. But when we see things, we see ourselves making the world from consciousness. Bees see bee-world, pandas see panda world, humans see human world. But human world is different from all other worlds. Why?

Human worlds cannot be extricated from something that, so far as we know, only humans do, that is, use language. I won't rewrite Steven Pinker here but will recommend The Language Instinct. My point here was to tell you a story from class yesterday.

In one of those professor homilies that I routinely give about what it means to be in college, to acquire an education, I made a routine comment. As we grow up and continuing well into the process of science education we learn that words refer to "things." Those things can be ideas as much as feelings or objects but we are taught that there is a world that appears before us that all of us share. The purpose of language is to draw this process into greater clarity. Early Wittgenstein argued that the ideal propositions put that relationship in a one-to-one and isomorphic relationship. In other words, when we really get it right we make the direct and proper correlation between the word and the thing. Wittgenstein spent most of the rest of his life refuting this point for which he was so famous---and much to the chagrin of his mentors Russell and Ayer. (Shall we someday read his Tractatus together? We could do that, you know.)

But what makes language so much more like the Indian premise of referring to consciousness experience _as the things_ we experience is also a part of the transition that needs to be part of learning to learn. As a caveat, learning how to learn is heart and soul of being educated in contrast to merely well-informed or exhibiting "intelligence." This is a complex process because it involves an integrated self---one that is engaged somatically, emotionally, with all facets of our being human. But it crucially involves language. "Language" here too becomes a much more complex category since it will involve matters well beyond and, importantly, sometimes without words at all. Dance, music, mathematics, yoga asana are all forms of language learning, all taking on the shapes of their own "words" that must reference _other "words"_ to be meaningful. Learning how to learn without words is itself a _part of language learning_ when we redefine the parameters of language itself. That said, words no longer refer merely to things but now to other words.

Let me say that again because this was the point I made in class (for the umpteenth time) and this time it was met with an unusual incredulity. I think that is part of the problem in our new education: we are failing to make clear to young people that _words do not refer to things but to other words._ Of course this doesn't mean that words don't refer to things, it means that we must turn to other words to understand the words we use to express "things." We are creatures of consciousness, a peculiar kind of consciousness (as far as we know) that _depends_ on words in ways other creatures do not. Such a process of referencing the process of words---that we are _always_ talking about the words we are using to explain other words---means that the interpretive matrix is never separate from the references we think we are making. When I say "apple" I mean the word "apple" refers to other words as much as it references the fruit on the table.

We never master words anymore than we master consciousness. The task before us is to know that the world we experience is human-made by language that we inherit, adapt, and employ to meet our needs or fulfill our desires. Learning how to learn is the yoga we call Rajanaka, which means that we're always in unfinished worlds and lives, entering further into undiscovered territories. How we see words creating the relationships of meaning will tell us what kind of world in which we are living and help us create invent the worlds in which we aspire to live.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

On Saubhagya Sampradaya and the Sunday Homily

Every kid who was ever made to go to church hated the sermon more than any other bit. Not only did we have to sit through _all those words_, we had to act like they were important. Pullleezze. A homily is a shorter sermon, usually an explanation of "scripture." The definition of scripture, leaving aside it etymologies that have to do with "writing," is actually "never has so much been written or said about so very little."  Nearly everything thing about preaching is maudlin, prating nonsense, and that's when the sermon is good.  But I still can't help myself.  It must be some deep wound I'm working out, some piece of my dark shadow that is looking to relive what I did to myself for no good reason.  If you need your moral edification from a sermon you're in way bigger trouble than you think.  I don't do it for that.  More or less, I sermonize to see if I understand something I think I understand, but may not.  Why you might like 'em is totally beyond me.

With this in mind you are prepared for far more words than are ever necessary, the requisite fake solemnity that spares you any parental aftermath punishment for laughing at all this ridiculousness, and a certain kind of incredulity regarding the grown ups who make you listen to reallystupidshit and must somehow know this too. Now I say all of this, which is likely to offend someone or another, and my parents _never_ even made me go to church. I sent myself. WTF was that about? What kinda'akid does that? The result is that I now mean to torture you occasionally as I self-tortured myself with an old fashioned Sunday homily. Praise the 330 Million. Or not. Caveat: never ever ever take anything too too seriously unless you have to. When you have to, do that, but otherwise mostly laugh it off, roll with it, let it be no more than it needs to be. Onward.

Today's homily is just that, a few paragraphs about some Sanskrit words and ideas that are _nothing_ like what I endured in church. But it's still a homily and that's always a little annoying. Enjoy.

***

Appa often referred to Rajanaka's relationship to Shrividya, the goddess traditions of Auspicious Wisdom, with the more common older term "Saubhagya Sampradaya." This is how Jayaratha in his brief notes on Vāmakeśvarimata and others from the contemporaneous Kashmiri tradition refer to the Traipura-s, the followers of Tripurasundari, the Beautiful One of the Three Cities. "Saubhagya" means prosperity, good fortune, bounty, and beneficence. The -bhagya bit is a noun form that you will recognize in Bhagavan, bhaga, and other words that mean to share, to enjoy, to bless, to make blessed---these are all in some sense food-words, that is, about being nourished, satisfied, soothed (the opposite of hangry), and feed. The prefix su- means "good" the way its opposite dur- (or duh. as in duhkha or suffering, literally "bad sky") means "bad" or "detrimental." When make the vowel heavy by gradation from su- to sau- then it means made of or possessed of, in this case goodness. So "saubhagya" means especially well nourished, truly contented or assuaged, well-soothed, taken care of, brought to good fortune, enjoying good fortune or prosperity.

The word "sampradaya" is an easy etymology. Two prefixes: sam- means to collect, to put together, to exalt, to celebrate, to make whole; pra- means to bring forward, to take apart, to advance, to fall or lean towards or into. "Dāya" is a noun form from the verbal root /dā, to give, offer, make a gift. A "sampradaya" means tradition because it is the collection that carries forward, but it also has the sense of that which pays forward (as we use that term nowadays). When you pay forward you reach into the past, collect what is valuable and make it a gift to others: this is the _purpose_ of tradition. It is not to create dogma or catechism that keeps people in line; it's not about merely preserving the past or holding on to the anachronistic. Rather it's about collective value, advancement, and offering: this is how Appa described it, and that changed everything I thought about "tradition."

What makes Rajanaka different than most other Shrividya traditions is that others usually say that the _real_ saubhagya is liberation, some exalted state of identity with the essential power that is the goddess such that the Self is now no longer confined or bound by the terms of samsara. This is---how shall we put it?---typical liberation theory stuff. Appa was keen not to talk about this, which was his way of respecting others' viewpoints without endorsing them. This supreme state of liberation, the majority contend, then becomes the experience of the everyday, which is the goddess in the form(s) of the world. So, like the Kashmir Shaivites, this is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too sort of claim. So much for the majority's opinion. What say Rajanaka?

Rajanaka takes the more this-worldly approach to such saubhagya inasmuch as there is no claim to some ultimate relief, extrication, or liberation from any particular bondage or samsara claim. We will suffer in this mortal life and there is no unconditional relief somewhere or somehow, there's just life. Further, the liberationists will contend that their liberation not only solves suffering ultimately but that it relieves the burdens and bondage of the shadow, of the problematics, regrets, losses, and pains, seen and unseen, known and hidden.

Rajanaka's idea is that in saubhagya we learn how to incorporate, adapt, integrate, and include the shadow, the pain and the loss, the known and deeply concealed forms of inextricable and oh so mortal existence. To wit, there is no liberation either in some ultimate sense or from the shadow's continued presence in mortal life. Rather, there are ways to continue to "enjoy" the struggle, the strife, the incomplete and unfinished business, the broken, missing, and extra pieces of a life that we want to be "well-lived."

And that's the take away from this Sunday sermon. What is Rajanaka's saubhagya-sampradaya? Rajanaka is a life well-lived---with all its slings and arrows and outrageous fortunes and misfortunes. This is saubhagya. The tradition, the sampradaya, as participation invites us to reach into the value of provenance in our own experience and pay it forward to make one's own life a gift to others. That's when we will experience others for who they are, for better and for worse, as beings of light and shadow, just like everyone else.

As for "liberation," well, you are most free when you feel and fathom the boundaries of a mortal life---revel in human accomplishments and acknowledge every human error. Savor the rasa, the flavor and feeling, of each breath for what it has to offer, love your life even when that seems near impossible to do. Rajanaka doesn't promise what can't be delivered in this world and has no views of any other. So dream like you'll live forever and live like there's always more life yet to live. Happy Sunday. Now go do something fun.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Note about Cultural Appropriation Since Nearly Forever


In 404 C.E. or thereabouts a Buddhist monk named Kumarajiva was abducted at the command of the Chinese emperor and forced to spend the rest of his life in exile from his native land, his personal freedom restricted. He was tasked to translate texts from Sanskrit and other central Asian languages into Chinese. Kumarajiva was apparently of Chinese and Central Asian parentage and possessed unusual fluency in languages and culture.  His translations of the Lotus Sutra and other principal works of the Mahayana canon---nearly all of which came from sources composed in India, in Indian languages, and translated along the Silk Roads into other central Asian languages---shaped the course of Chinese Buddhism.

 Most of these "original” Indian sources did not survive in India---but did survive in translations because Tibetans, Chinese, and others “appropriated” them. I once spent a good bit of time working these texts back into the "original" Sanskrit in an effort to understand what they might be saying in English. In turn, many of these same sources moved from Chinese translations into Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese, again usually by the efforts of Buddhist missionaries and canon-seeking appropriators. Everyone in this story is taking something from someone and making it their own.  They are changing things too.  They aren't always "faithful" to the originals.  Not by a long shot.  They are doing what they want with them every step of the way.

What all of these folks wanted over the course of many centuries were resources: ideas, values, practices, images, art, literature, and culture that they did not “invent” nor could they claim to be their own. They appropriated. They begged, borrowed, stole, kidnapped, bargained, bought, sold, plagiarized, sometimes were caught giving back to those they appropriated from, and often times not. They occasionally honored and coveted such work because they cared deeply and other times they were little more than grifting and profiteering. The history of civilization is the history of appropriations, for better and for worse. There is power and privilege, privation and exploitation everywhere we look. What we see today is neither strange nor new. It might be a step too far to ask but where would we be without it?

Sir Aurel Stein, a philologist of real accomplishment, was also party to stealing the great fresco wall-paintings at the caves of Tung-huang in China. Those stolen paintings hanging in Europe are the only ones that now survive because the Chinese Red Guard destroyed the remaining in situ cave paintings during one of their cultural revolutions. Hundreds of manuscripts in the Sanskrit tradition still exist today because western scholars cared enough to copy them, steal them, borrow them, and share them and no one in their right mind with an honest assessment of history believes this material would have survived if the colonialist scholars had not taken an interest. Those bent upon denouncing these colonialist interests in the Sanskrit language often seem just as disinterested in actually learning it.  So it goes. The world is complicated place. There’s plenty of blame and censure to go around. What we count as virtue when there is this much pain from the past and present could well invite more future collaboration and reconciliation. Motives matter and the past can’t be changed. But I can guarantee you that the world ahead is in for at least as much “cultural appropriation” as it has ever been. What is at stake is how we decide to share resources we all want, no matter our motives.

I’ll take this right to the limit too. Without cultural appropriation where would we be? There’d be no rock n’ roll, no Beatles and no “British invasion.” Little Walter was learning and covering Stones’ songs while they were covering his past work. Didn’t Queen Aretha sing about being a natural woman while Carole King and Gerry Goffin wept in pride for their composition? Personally speaking, I would be even more upset about this than even the losses within my chosen profession had there been no “cultural appropriation.”  For the past forty years I have worked hard to learn everything I can about the religions and languages of south Asian and have been teaching those subjects for more thirty years at University.  It’s a profession to learn about history, culture, and related materials and I’ve been compensated for what I know.  Do you teach yoga too?  I’ve tried too to give back in money, time, effort, and love and I’ve been roundly blessed and cursed for that too. I’ve meant to be sympathetic and serious, to commend and condemn when it seemed right; to support and to criticize because that’s an honest thing to do. There have been successes and failures. We’re all trying to figure out right from wrong; we’re all liable to err and some even try to learn from their mistakes. We might have to beg, borrow, steal, buy and sell some of our soul to do those things too. If we’re trying to do good we pay forward, we try to give more than we take, and make sure those around us leave better off than they came. But what’s fair value? What’s fair?  We could talk about that.

As we seek deeper forms of collaboration built on respect and differences of opinion, there will undoubtedly be disagreements and contest. The powerful will need to relinquish some power and share more honestly their privileges and perks. In academia I think we can say that that pursuit of justice is at least underway. There are no guarantees of success and we could just as easily go backward. America is in the midst of that very regression into tribalism as I write. But we will need to be more willing to understand the complexities of civilization-in-the making when others “take” or “use” or “want” our “stuff.” If we are going to live in greater global conversation, we need to be prepared to be offended by speech, by other people’s actions and intentions and religions and whatever it is they do, and so be prepared too that we will offend and be found wanting in our own desires and aims. The alternatives are far less appealing if we decide to cut ourselves off, lock ourselves in, or try to suppress the processes of civilization.

I would rather risk being offensive and to be offended by someone’s speech or beliefs than live under censorship and tyranny. But of course, one person’s justice is another’s oppression. Are we so incapable of seeing another’s point of view? As much as we appropriate from one another, we share in the gifts of human imagination. What is art but the ability to move hearts and minds in the uncanny ways we share a common humanity? We’re going to need to figure out how to live with each other’s calumny and faults--- and how to act responsibly and pursue justice when we are violated and wronged. But be sure of this: we’ll all be appropriating, one way or another because humans learn from other humans. What is stake is character and decency and how we will offer respect to differences that both edify and defame will be the measure of our humanity.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Sing Along, "It's A Very Good Place to Start..."

Words mean what people say, how they use them; it matters by whom they are said and for what purposes. Words are social, political, and always powerful because humans care about them. The dynamics of words are as complex as our humanity because we are the only species that we know uses them to make the world more complex, more complicated. We talk about clarity, simplicity, and the rigors of expression but we want nuance, shade, implication, and suggestion. We don't just want things to be clear; we want them to be meaningful. And that's not always the same thing, not by a long shot.

In Sanskrit cultures there are worlds and reams of rules about this meaning and usage thing, and as much by subject---the rules for word usage in logic are different than poetry and _specified_ by each body of tradition. The word "rupa" means one thing in Buddhist philosophy and quite another thing in erotic Sanskrit poetry. We don't know meaning just from context, history, and usage. We work with meaning because it takes work to stay in the fray, to persist in the struggle _for_ meaning. There are whole literatures devoted to the study of subjects, meta-subjects like criticism to poetry, and all of them turn back to language, to its complex uses, to what we _want_ from meaning. Never underestimate desire in any human endeavor. What we want is rarely as simple as we want it to be.

There's an important distinction to be made here because in words we attempt to bridge what we want---things we might feel or need or hope, wish, or imagine---with what we say and can be said. I submit that the reason there is so much serious discussion about ineffability---what can and cannot be said or even _ever_ completely said---is because Sanskrit traditions are so deeply devoted to the idea that things can be _properly_ said. Thus, even when we know there are limits, boundaries, and realities of ineffability, we can also describe and properly explain the limitations themselves.

This is what the great philosopher Shankara does, for example, when he describes how his concept of Self cannot be fully attested by the meaning of words and yet can only be grasped when we have the proper understanding of how works _can_ work. His theories of metaphor take up volumes as he labors to explain what words can and cannot do. No one in Indian literature ever gives up on words, not even those who espouse quietism and ineffability. Arguably, Patanjali gives you 195 sutras about stanching, occluding, and halting the processes of thought---but even that's a lot of words about what words and thoughts _do_ for us, even if it's said in little itty bitty threads of ideas. Not even the most devoted mystic can remain completely silent.

I have argued over the last 20 years to the "yoga community" that we should honor the complexity of meanings of the word "yoga." Does yoga really have many meanings or is it just used in many different ways? That's yet another kind of question. I won't rehearse much more of that here because you've all likely heard long seminar rants that rail against reductive thinking and how we devalue history and tradition when we try to make "yoga" mean one thing or two, or limit its scope of uses. But that too is a process of meaning: meaning without limited scope invites more than ambiguity, it invites meaninglessness.

So for example if "religion" encompasses everything including politics, economics, art, philosophy, as it seemingly does in ancient India, then what _is_ it in comparison to those things. When something means everything it means less. So words can have power capacities to _encompass_ and _include_ and work to expand the possibilities of meaning _and_ they need boundaries and limitations to function at all. Once again, Rajanaka teaches us to embrace the paradox. To create more meaning, we have to find boundaries. And only then can you begin to address the issues that come with deeper desires.

This leads me back to "yoga" in a more personal way and for that I ask your advice and for your input.

We have always suggested that wha we need is a seat at the table of yoga. I walk into yoga studios many times in a year---well, hopefully 'cause I like the work---but I don't teach asana. And no one is fooled that asana is why yoga studios exist, or at least how they remain businesses. Many are keen not to use the word "asana" anymore because that too is too estranging in the modern yoga business. A yoga studio without asana is what exactly? An "ashram"? A classroom for learning? Learning what? Yoga? What's that? And so we go 'round.

But it's increasingly plain that story-telling, philosophy teaching, meditations, the stuff we do, whatever we what to call what Rajanaka does has been called "yoga." But folks don't really call what Rajanaka does "yoga" because they sorta' know that's misleading by any modern standard. They (you?) call it "teachings," one comes and gives and receives "teachings", and they use this language because they want these "teachings" to imply more than instructions, directions, or information; they suggest there is some kind of guidance and, more importantly, edification. We are _better_ for "the teachings" in ways that knowing how to put together the toilet handle (our needs repair) is a decidedly different kind of instruction and has different meaning, different purpose, vastly different intent. Or maybe even the more dangerous instruction "come to the front of your mat..." is not quite the same "teaching"? The idea here is that _this_ yoga implies its purpose is to edify your character, implicate your moral being, that it asks you to want a deeper part of you to go more deeply towards you. That's some pretty heady stuff for the word "yoga," at least the way it's used _now_ and in a world where _everyday_ it more means postures, exercise, asana, you know _exactly_ what I mean. Yoga once made those demands routinely. Times change, words change with the times.

Everyday nowadays I struggle with the compound "Rajanaka Yoga" because _is_ it yoga? Do we continue to fight for a seat at the _bigger table_ of yoga's meanings when we admit as well that "yoga" means exactly-what-we-know-it-means? Or do we give up on the word and no longer make the complexity case for meaning---that is, "yoga means lots of things, let's work on that..." Truth to tell, I haven't decided. For these many years the Rajanaka website has called it "Rajanaka Yoga: A Tantric Tradition of Auspicious Wisdom," which nods not only to the complexity of yoga but to "Tantra" (what's _that_?) and then encodes in the Sanskrit compound "Shrividya" for "Auspicious Wisdom." There's obviously a lot going on here that could warrant further explanation.

Given just how far Rajanaka deviates from the mainstream schools of Shrividya I struggle everyday with even that elemental identity. Rajanaka was first explained to me as "Auspicious Wisdom" and that led to sixteen years of ceaseless study and conversation with my teacher. That has continued now for 40+ years. We still look at the same stories, images, and at least foil with the ideas even when we disagree (umm, adamantly) with the mainstream (umm, 99%). So what is still being accomplished by calling it "Rajanaka Yoga"? Are we looking for a seat at a table _that no longer exists_? That is, the one where yoga _really does mean_ more than you-know-what? Are we trying to make a case for a bigger table when "our kind of yogas" were there long before modern associations with you-know-what?

What do _we_ want from these words? And more importantly what is conveyed when we use them because words aren't important just because they mean things to _us_ but because they mean things to others too. Words are not private matters, as Wittgenstein so aptly proved, and they are more than the just the case even when they are all that is the case. In human worlds, how we use words to describe ourselves is no small matter. Think of how words implicating gender implicate us or what it means to call oneself a "liberal." Or a "yogi"?

Yesterday I wrote that the word yoga is up for grabs on the interwebs because when an influential and wide-reaching platform uses it _in certain ways_ then that matters. Rajanaka is not that influential, we don't move _vast swathes_ of opinion even when we have done our share to create meanings and introduce words for contemporary yoga worlds. We've done a lot of that, with and without acknowledgment. So I wonder and, yes, I struggle with "yoga" because we are _once again_ finding ourselves not only a minority in an ocean of views with _much_ bigger fish, we know those other fish are hungry and we look like lunch. Those other big, hungry fish are called today "yoga."

Yoga may yet swallow us, that is, we may be eaten, digested, and assimilated into its Leviathan that is you-know-what-yoga, so the question remains do we run for our lives, do we attempt to persuade our predator (i.e, the usage of the word) not to eat us, do we stay around to make our case for a seat at a table (in an ocean, mixed metaphor alert!)? Do we just call it "Rajanaka" and drop "yoga," "Tantra," and even the deep code of Auspicious Wisdom?

You know I usually vote for stay the course. I am a keeper of flames, a lover of provenance, and more like Vishnu in persistence and a steady the course course than any rock n' roll chaos loving storm maker would ever wants to admit. Don't lose the plot. Don't pay attention to the man behind the curtain. Just do _your_ thing. Rilke taught us not to care for the critics but to make our art. Hitchens taught us to read our critics and respond and never fail to respond. Rajanaka says yes to both. Embracing paradox never goes away, does it?

But if I may, let me draw another analogy. Stay with me, this is worth it... We're a lot like the steel racing bicycles hat I truly love. What you need to know is that these are not only out of fashion, they are largely obsolete in the pro ranks. They aren't used anymore when once they were definitional. In fact, they are no longer really a thing at all and if they were once _the_ thing, the anachronism is now consigned to words like "retro" and "vintage."

I'm fond of "vintage", not much "retro" because _I am_ vintage, I don't have to pretend or reinvent or retro anything. I'm happy to keep making and riding our own steel bike, the Rajanaka bike, because it's beautiful to me, it works brilliantly, and I like it just just fine. It's not static, it continues to move and progress, I hope. I have no intention of going with the trend or giving up what I love and regard and have always _tried_ to evolve. But to evolve and to grow is not the same as to follow the fashions. My steel bikes are not static things, anymore than Rajanaka but they are not _the thing_ anymore, not by a _long shot_. So, it's important with words, like it is in the world, to know yourself by knowing as well what others understand and do, and what things _mean_. What say you?

Thursday, August 9, 2018

On Putting It Out There

Hindus put their gods and goddesses, their demons, and expressions of light and darkness on the outside so that they can take them inside. Vedic deity is unseen and moves invisibily. Hindus turn this around: they put it into form and beauty, that is, the same word in Sanskrit, "rupa." When you put yourself into form and beauty, that's Rajanaka. It doesn't matter if your particular outside-in is "Hindu." What matters is putting yourself "out there" you see more of yourself, to make a life of modest artistry. Your provenance and perspective are the keys to progress.

I've always been reluctant to talk about Rajanaka as such and instead just tell the stories, offer up our take, explain the material as thoroughly, honestly as possible. About 90% of Rajanaka is just telling the truth and for my part that's about having had immersion in the culture, languages, the critical and historical education required to do the work. Rajanaka is truly more method than content though it's easy to see the content as voluminous, encyclopedic, and never ending, because it truly is. Once we become comparativists and perennialists then the subject opens to far, far more than south Asian studies. Academia doesn't much approve of that latter agenda largely because it doesn't reward the specialty and so the "profession."

When you sat with Appa, you felt a grounding, that clear sense of commitment to _the work_, which he loved and which I loved when I was with him. He often "drifted" into other subjects---topics far afield from the particular text or story we might be working on. I never stopped him or tried. Now I realize how lucky I was, that he would compare across cultures and history very challenging material, that he would endlessly pursue our common humanity---sensitive to cultural difference but willing to take those risks and experiment with ideas and feelings.

I never felt this way in any other professional or educational setting. In other contexts of learning, like Harvard, one _never_ actually _loves_ the work, one _does_ the work and you _might_ survive. If you do love this kind of environment (and I know people who do), I listen like its French to me: I attend to about every fifth word. For me, well, I survived, I still survive and it's easy to keep up with their schtick, but what it takes to like it is beyond me. Forensics is a cold business, a cutthroat, self-absorbed, insular business and personally scholarship as such is just another kind of special neurotic obsession. It's neurosis with skills and self-importance. I try not to be angry about it but for my own regrets about choosing this _as_ a profession. Lord knows, I'm not capable of anything else. My own favored forms of neurosis are _way_ more fun than academics.

With Appa you felt his character, his warmth and deep commitments to justice, to humanism and humane being, his honesty and candor always coupled to his care and patience and indulgence of human travail. Really, I have no notion of supernatural saintliness---because I think of that as nothing but nonsense---but Appa gave you a pretty good idea of what saints could look like if they are real humans with real flaws, regrets, and shadows woven within a fabric of light. But here I go again talking about Rajanaka, and I'm doing that because I wonder---and I ask this with real honesty---if this _interests_ you? I mean I would be happy to tell more stories about the learning, about him, about how he woven his interests, curiosities, tastes, and feelings into a life, into a person.

I try not to make Rajanaka anything other than your thing. But here is my point: what you love to do, what you care about, even little things, if you have your heart in it and it speaks to your humanity, then share it. When you do, that's Rajanaka. I'm trying to do a bit of that on Instagram. Mostly just things I have right in front of me. (Look here if you like: @profdbrk) Having decided that being a Trump-Twitter-troll is not particularly edifying, I don't tweet back to the imbecile (though I confess it is occasionally fun). So I'm taking a few pictures everyday of stuff---old bike bits, camera stuff, junk, books, things with provenance, things I've kept that tell stories. Whatchu'got? Things we keep can tell us how we connect inside and with each other. Put out there, take it in. If no one else cares about it, that's okay too. Make yourself an offering.  And while you're at it, tell us about the things you care about and about remarkable people you've met: artists, makers, humanists, anyone you know that you think we might like to know.  That's Rajanaka.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Provenance and Progress, Seeing At Once Behind and Before


I'm often asked about Rajanaka's sources and traditions, it's provenance. And it is to provenance to which we often appeal when I describe the relationship between Rajanaka's historical relationships to south India and Srividya and it's very forward-looking, progressive values. Appa was not content to use only the sources of Indian tradition when he knew quite well that knowledge belonged to all human cultures. He believed we must evolve and change, and that we could be both revolutionary and claim provenance.

This complementarity was the very heart of Appa's heart. He was deeply committed to rooting and valuing the past and, at the same time, _fully_ dedicated to a progressive, innovative, even pioneering future. To reach into the past was no matter of nostalgia. Sundaramoorthy was not one to ache for some chimera of utopia, attempt fabrication or settle for less when it came to understanding and criticizing sources. He had no notion of a golden age, no need to invent a past to romanticize our human achievements or by-pass our shadows and failures. As a brahmin and a privileged male he was keen to see himself and his tradition as important players in the history of oppression and to take responsibility for that past. That shadow of provenance was part of what motivated him to bring about a more evolved present and envisioned future. Still, Appa was not about to give up the past; such costs would not justify abandonment. There is no reforming the past and no revisionism could withstand the truth. But there is the possibility of bringing the past forward. And _this_ is what he meant when he used the word "provenance."

So first, if I may, a bit about this perhaps unfamiliar word.
Provenance usually refers to a place of origin, particularly applicable to a work of art, an archaeological specimen, or concept. For example, in Charles Eliot's Buddhism and Hinduism, A Historical Sketch (see vol. 3 of 3), he writes, "The Garuḍa may itself be of Persian provenance, for birds play a considerable part in Persian mythology." We find a proximate etymology in the Middle French, provenir, which means to come forth, arise, originate. "Provenance" would be a present participle form (the endings here being cognate to Sanskrit formations which mimic the possessive suffix, just fyi). We can find even more provenance by taking provenance further back to the Latin prōvenīre to originate, which adds the pro- prefix to the verb venīre, which means to come. But nothing about the etymology tells us about the _sense_ of the word.

An intimation of provenance is not merely that things have traceable origins but that there is authenticity, genuineness, a sense of transmission, value, and continuance in practice, trade, or comprehension. Thus to have provenance is to claim sensibility, substance, and faithfulness. When things have provenance we mean to confer a value of constancy and worth---they have made the cut and persisted. Now, of course, things need not have provenance to have value since that is a measure made by other criteria such as efficacy or relevance. Be that as it may, Rajanaka is a humanism that speaks to the present because it takes the past seriously.

Historically speaking, Rajanaka goes at least three generations deeper than my Appa. I can trace it to sometime in the middle 18th century in south India. How much further in forms that resemble the present? I wouldn't venture to say. What Rajanaka's ancestors thought about the sricakra, the goddess and Shiva's complex mythologies, and the rest, I can only guess. I would be happy to explain more about Appa's teachers and how these teachings passed forward as well as textual sources, though those I caution are more important to western notions of authenticity than India, which regards oral tradition the core of provenance.

What I see as the core of Rajanaka is the strange and rather everyday relationship that is made between provenance and progress. Appa was keen in every way to move things _forward_, be that in ideas that would include science or critical studies in the humanities, or in social progress and change that would revolutionize society to foster justice. As I've said briefly in seminars, I am sure that teaching _me_ by inviting me into his ultra-orthodox household was a principled example of his Rajanaka teaching.

We studied ancient, even timeless, mythologies, rituals, philosophies, and yet he would never allow them to sit comfortably in some sanctified, wistful bathos. He insisted we upgrade the program at every possible opportunity. Why shouldn't women or gay folk or anyone have a chance to live and study and love as they wish? Why should tradition be reduced to recalcitrance, marooning us in a delusional past when there are so many frontiers we must explore and boundaries to reach?

One of my only regrets is how few of you met this visionary soul---though I tell you those who have will repeat as much about his graceful percipience. To look deeply into the past and to look forward at once, that was Appa's Rajanaka. He cared that at one time we might call it "Tantra" or "yoga" and "Hindu" but he would not have cared that those appellations would require revision and reconsideration. Look both ways at once. That's the true beginning of it all. Rajanaka's provenance continues in you. Thanks for that. Really, a lot.





Wednesday, August 1, 2018

On the Originals: the Sublime and Ridiculous

For many years so many of you have asked me about learning Sanskrit, sort of aching for the originals. I get that, there is so much I love composed in Sanskrit (and other Indian languages) where the taste is so much more pungent, soothing, profound in the original once one has enough context and exposure. Got 40,000 hours? That's usually what I say in reply.

That's what it will take to have enough exposure to make the difference that the language skill's difference _really_ makes. Oh, and then you have to spend a lot of time in culture to fathom how what people say, what they say they do, and what they do are really never the same thing. Anyways, there are times when knowing the original isn't sublime but rather deeply disheartening and disturbing. Much the same can be said about every other tradition's foray into things religious.

I was sitting here reading a Tantra in Sanskrit this morning and I realized that it's not the parts that I don't understand that I find disturbing but the ones that I do. (Mark Twain said the same thing about the Bible.) The "problem" here is historical, not cultural, the work is anachronistic, too much of it founded on assumptions or insights that are simply no longer true. Further, like so many religious artifacts, it's claims to truth do not operate _primarily_ in metaphor or symbolic thinking---they actually think this stuff. The ridiculous is presented as sublime. And thinking it otherwise is buying into their ridiculous.

Call me dense to the sublime but after a lifetime of reading this stuff, I am not uncomfortable saying this. What's "disturbing" about all that isn't the mere bullshit proclaimed but the dangerous fact that so many are still willing to buy into this kind of religious nonsense. Can we keep it a bit more real and read it for the metaphor please?

Lemme be clear: It's nonsense because it's founded on assertions, claims, private experiences, because it fails every single test of shared evidence truth and claims incontrovertible truth and reduces reality to personal "facts." This is why religion and delusion have so much in common. I won't specify the particular material's pratfalls---you're going to have to trust me that it's beyond the pale of contemporary credulity. It's just not the 11th century anymore. Thank goodness.