Friday, November 13, 2009

Sitting with tradition

When you sat in study with my teacher you felt as if you were there, with the teachers, the commentators, the authors of the great philosophical and ritual sources of yoga. Sometimes, of course, you were, in a literal sense.

I recall once a manuscript arrived at our home from the famous Sarasvati Mahal Library in Thanjavur. Appa was Professor of Sanskrit at Madurai Kamaraj University and we were often privileged and indeed blessed to have access to some of the most remarkable, often unstudied works of the yoga traditions. On this day a work of the Auspicious Wisdom, the Shrividya tradition of the goddess-centered Tantra arrived in a carefully packed parcel. It was the Saubhagyaratnakara, an immense, complex, and largely unstudied exposition of visionary Tantra written in the form of evocative ritual. We think this work was composed in the fifteenth century and here we sat, holding this treasure in our hands, and hoping to make the most of the time it was on loan to us.

In the later Shakta traditions there are relatively few of those compelling prose works of philosophical theology that rouse your heart by the sheer magnitude of wondrous and inspiring contemplation. You know, like those quoted translations from Abhinavagupta that grace pages with elegant notions of Consciousness abiding in the hearts of all beings. The Kashmir Shaivites possessed a particular genius for this kind of expression and such voluminous and visionary philosophy provides a lifetime’s worth of study and reflection. In contrast the south Indian Shrividya treats us to a very different kind of experience, one of evocative thought-feeling projects that oblige us to imagine their performance as rites and practices; these Goddess-centered Tantrikas bid us to think ritually rather than in discourse, to see (as if we were performing a play or standing before a work of art) and act out the process directly through the practices of mantra, yantra, mudra, and the other arts of contemplative ritual. Ritual is, among the many things we might say, a way of bringing consciousness into acts of reflective consciousness. But ritual does not demand we comprehend, interpret, or even consider these acts past their performance; only that we do them with the consideration that something will happen. Thinking ritually means first that we act knowing that there can be meaning in actions, expressions, symbols, and forms, but that these are concealed in the revelation of the action itself. In the Shrividya we get much less speculative, argumentative, or didactic teaching, almost no explanation or interpretation but instead description, prescription (do this now, then do that), and an open opportunity to create meaning rather than garner and imbibe it.

So there we sat in the quiet foyer of Appa’s house with this magnificent work, months and months as we worked through the prosaic details of this ritual of the great goddess, the Mahadevi who is Embodied Prosperity (saubhagya). We imagined Her, then invoked, awakened, summoned Her presence through this peculiar mixture of description and offering that make up the essentials of the ritual, the engagement, yes, the yoga of She who is the ritual. These are not mere descriptions of acts that create the desired experiences of the yogin, they are themselves the forms of the goddess who is being charged to appear as these forms of mantra and ritual action. I will return to this subject again; I digress (and if you know me, I bet you find that unusual. I’ve never been much of a linear thinker.)

Near the end of our time with the Saubhagyaratnakara we turned to a series of verses scholars call the colophon. These verses provide a certain amount of information about the transmission, production, the patronage of the text, sometimes telling us who, where, and even when the work was copied ---- for there are no truly ancient manuscripts in India, we will never have a Qumran, no Dead Sea scrolls-like find in the sub-continent, weather, materials used for production, a host of factors make that impossible. Instead we rely upon copies of copies, all of different quality and value; it may sound romantic to sit with manuscripts pouring over material unedited and as close as we will ever come to the “original” but it is, in truth, tedious, painstaking, and difficult work, the sort of thing you only learn to do by doing it, a ritual, a performative yoga that confers its grace only after you’ve had, say, years and years of classroom Sanskrit, Tamil, pick-your-language, learn-the-next-script-it’s-written-in training.

As we are reading along Appa raised his eyes from the page and smiled. This manuscript had been commissioned by the famous king Seforji II, an early 19th century ruler of Taml country originally from Maharastra in western India. He patronized all sorts of scholarship, from zoology to yoga shastra, and to hold in our hands just such a work was an amazing feeling. I could feel the “happy hair” (lomaharsana) bristling and was enjoying the sweet expression on my Appa’s face when he said, “Well, you know, the Brahmin from whom the king received this text was my relative; I recognize the name.” And so it was to sit in the heart of the living tradition, to live with a man for whom these great works were no mere enterprise of the intellect or remote spiritual resource made part of lineage by six or eight or whoknowshowmany degrees of separation. Studying with Appa meant sitting inside tradition.

But for all of his innate sense of familiarity and personal connection, for all the many years of practice and experience that informed his teaching, Appa was always an astute and gifted scholar with a keen, critical eye. He was ill disposed to treat the texts, any texts, as if they were somehow transcendental in content, as if they came from some mystical place above our comprehension, beyond our examination, or exempt from our critique. I think it was the deeply human connection he made to them that so affected me. I have always been in awe of the genius and stirred deeply by the spiritual power of these sources, and yet for Appa our work as scholars and as keepers of the tradition were never separate enterprises and he was more than disinclined to place these “scriptures” on some pedestal above us. Rather it was his way to treat them as profound thought-experiments. In this way, we could bring them into our own world, test them in the laboratory of our own experience, and not have to bother with the idea of conforming, believing, or somehow getting what they got.

Appa treated yoga and its great works as projects of human enterprise deeply grounded in serious efforts of intellectual expression and artistic offering. When he said things like “the great Abhinavagupta” he had no illusions that these siddhas should somehow stand above us, that their work or lives were somehow not like our own (however seriously he took the project of understanding them as historical beings living their historical contexts), despite the claims of tradition or even their own conceptions of privileged spiritual birth (e.g., like Abhinavagupta’s testimony of being “born of a yogini” in the opening sections of his Tantrasara, where he explains his conception in his parents Tantric ritual and how this has predetermined his state, his ability to cultivate and realize the goals of his yoga.)

Whatever yo. I’m not buying it (though I am keen to study it) and neither did Appa. It’s just not our tradition: for the Rajanaka Shrividya these beings are great, truly amazing for their contributions but they are not our spiritual superiors, not exempt or beyond error, and, most importantly, their work is not more than a process of deep engagement born of their own experiences. What they offer, as far as the Rajanaka are concerned, are projects from which we can evolve further the teachings and practices of yoga. They are our predecessors, gifted and insightful in ways I know I will likely never achieve, but nonetheless contributors to the conversation of which we are a part. And for all the love and admiration I hold for my own teacher, he would never have permitted more than the deep respect, deference, and affection that I felt and made clear as my offering to him.

The tendency to treat great souls and great works in the yoga traditions, especially works regarded as “heard” (shruti), the Veda and even Tantra, as revelatory in the sense of being immaculate containers of Truth is common, even prescribed. But as soon as we endow them with such impeccability we can no longer consider ourselves their peers but rather only their subordinate interpreters. Our project is to replicate, to re-achieve their achievements. We are not then being called upon to contribute but only to get it: you know, Harry met Sally meets enlightenment, I’ll have what she’s having. But not in Rajanaka Shrividya. I am not suggesting that these are not works of genius much less that I am fully capable of comprehending their depth and power. But for Appa it was always a conversation with greatness that he sought, not some submission to those scriptures or enlightened ones who possessed or achieved what was not yet ours.

Appa was the least presumptuous man I have ever known, a fact all the more remarkable for his genius, not merely as a erudite proponent of tradition or as a scholar but as a human being.

What Rajanaka seeks are partners in a conversation, not adherents of a tradition whose sources stand above us. Rather, as Appa made so clear in his own life, as conversant players engaged, offering each our own yoga, experimenting with truth rather than claiming it, living a tradition that invites or perhaps even insists that we bring it, with ourselves, to its next level rather than merely its next iteration.