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!"

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.