Monday, August 23, 2010

This is not a dog.

We never learn to generalize by learning things in general. And generalization is one of the great goals of all learning. I mean, what’s better than a truism that applies to “all” cases? Indian logic values this kind of knowledge as much as western tradition: it’s a human thing to want truth to be “pervasive” (vyapti is the Sanskrit term), and so attain universality beyond mere instances or personal idiosyncrasies. But how do we reach such levels of applicability? Do we have to begin with the idea that there are such truths? Ones that are true in all cases at all times?

Between what we learn from the proofs of quantum and the concept of lila we may have to live in a world in which truth is more like a paradox than a problem to be solved. To whit, we pursue universals, truths that are true, because these will endeavor to make us more human even as we admit that anything can happen at anytime for no discernable reason. We’ll return to this issue soon enough in another piece but for now let’s think about generalization in more practical terms, say, as it applies to our understandings of “yoga” and “Tantra.” More than ever folks identify themselves or what they are doing as “yoga” and, especially in the past ten years, more identify their yoga as “Tantra.” What’s that mean?

The more we learn about the traditions of yoga and Tantra the less clear we become about matters in general. The reason for this is simple enough: as the diversity and complexity of the sources become more apparent, it is increasingly difficult to reach consensus. To define yoga we might take a narrow view and reduce the meaning to, say, Patanjali’s famous yogascittavrtti nirodhah but what makes this normative --- the “ought” “should” definition other than familiarity, predisposition, or bias? The Bhagavadgita uses the word “yoga” in more than one hundred fifty variants on the verbal root and when we reach the historically later works of the Tantra even more definitions abound. What exactly is yoga? Who gets to decide and why do we give more authority to one source than to another? For practical purposes nothing serves us better than the clarity we get from a definition since that’s the first step to generalization. But if we start, for example, with Patanjali’s view we’d have to exclude a great deal of Tantra and, frankly, that makes no sense. In a comparable way, the more we find out about Tantra the more difficult it is to generalize in ways that withstand much scrutiny and it’s not like we talking about angels, dancing, and pins here, we dive into exceptions-to-the-rule so vast and cavernous that it’s impossible to ignore them. There is simply too much diversity and plurality in Tantra to produce generalizations that apply to people practicing their yoga even in the narrow confines of their own historical recollections. It’s not that we lack historical examples to provide definitions; it’s that we have so many that they become incommensurate for all of their genuine diversity. There’re no objectified criteria; no way to reach a standard, no buoy(s) in the ocean of comparison that can guide our understanding to homeport. We might say a yogin is anyone who practices yoga (and what does that mean?) but we can no longer say that yogins are persons who refer to the traditions or sources of yoga---- not with the inventions that apply to “yoga” as it is practiced today in the West (and as it is migrating back to India).

What is generally called “yoga” today in North America not only bears little resemblance to the histories and sources of Asian traditions, it is this emphasis on asana practice, the veritable stretching-in-Sanskrit, that is re-defining yoga even in India. (You can see signs for yoga studios all over India these days and it’s the contemporary practice of asana that is being sold.) There’s nothing “wrong” with such innovation and creativity, and certainly nothing wrong with asana practice being “yoga”; I’m not remonstrating contemporary “hatha yoga” but rather only pointing out that historical usage, practical observation, and the process of creating meaning and identity are far more complex than meets the eye. And I can assure you that the majority of what is said about yoga in historical sources from India has still yet to be brought into public conversation. What we don’t know or haven’t considered from the historical sources outweighs what we have already before us ten-million-fold. But this may not matter as much as the simple fact that “yoga” and “Tantra” are terms whose meanings are being re-created by their current usages. I’m not arguing for or about who is “real” or what is “authentic,” only that we are in an age when ideas and behaviors with complex historical meanings are becoming both more and less clear. Popular culture ---and not just in the West--- is increasingly identifying yoga with asana practice, with or without any other associated discourse, while the more we learn about yoga (much less Tantra!) the more we gather that it’s about more than we reckoned. There’s always more.

A long time ago I took up some of these issues in a formal academic way, talking about the application of a family resemblance theory that doesn’t rely on any single characteristic. In this way we can look for sets of features and use resemblance, a judgment call about close enough, much like the way we might look at someone to notice family resemblance but without, say, the precision of analyzing their DNA (which can be quantified). When’s one thing enough like another to say that’s one too? When is one lineage or school of Tantra close enough in notable features to say, “that’s Tantra” or “that’s Tantra too?”

One the important issues that comes up when we generalize about yoga or Tantra is that in order to reach resemblance much less universality we have to generalize without enough attention to the people who are yogins or Tantrikas. We stand to lose the real anthropology of the traditions, that is, the peeps who identify themselves as such and are instead left with abstractions, like “yoga is equanimity” (Bhagavadgita, 2.48) or “yoga is stanching the movements of the psycho-physical consciousness” (Yogasutra, 1.2). People are compelled to conform to the concept when the matter at hand is to create an understanding that is common to (true for, applies to all) those who call themselves “yogins” or “Tantrikas.” And if we turn exclusively to what people say about themselves we don’t necessarily reach any better understanding. For example, someone might well say, “I am not a Tantric yogin” because they don’t fancy the associations made with the words as they understand them or for the nuances of social or historical identity. But if this same person is quoting Tantric sources as important or even definitive to their practical identity then what do we make of their disclaimer? What people say about themselves is always true but not necessarily for the reasons that they give. That’s worth thinking about.

What we must do of course is create a construct, invent a model that empowers us to see what neither “objectification” nor the limits of anthropology can surmise. We can neither point to nature for a standard (the way we can when we look at the elements and think about creating a periodic table) nor the claims of authoritative persons (because they will invariably conflict). I’m not suggesting here a solution though the method proposed some twenty years back involving polythetic classification still seems a wise place to start for achieving a bit more clarity (see The Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Sakta Tantrism, UChicgoPress, 1990). Instead what I suggest by revisiting the idea of generalization that has plagued my consciousness since I began thinking about “yoga,” “Tantra,” “Hinduism,” etc., is that we not abandon the responsibility to engage the issue or reduce it by the demeaning notion it is a “mere” construct, as if constructs were false, unhelpful, or more than heuristic.

Everything we humans know, we know because we construct it. You can say all you like about “direct” experience or some other (quasi-) mystical state but in order to convey and to share experience we must construct a bridge, a way to communicate it, to offer it beyond the irrefragable confines of our own private cognitions. In short, we each have our own direct experiences but we can only share them by constructing modalities of communication, constructs that empower us to relay and recognize what we share in an experience that extends to more than one time or one place. Unique experiences are the least valuable ones we have if we mean to share our possibilities. After all, you may have some fantastic, wonderful experience but if it’s all and only yours, so what? What about that really helps me? Somewhere in Abhinavagupta’s Tantraloka he argues that it’s better to have a teacher who can teach you than it is to try to learn from a great siddha who has no such interest in communicating her or his state beyond personal example. We aren’t merely examples to each other, we are teachers, and we must become more adept communicators; and as for reducing experience to the narrowest sense of yours is true because it’s yours, perhaps we might remember that expanding into greater circles of understanding is the goal of inclusion. Check out the dog.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dust into Gold

Today is Appa’s birthday, his solar birthday. My teacher, Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy was born on March 11th, 1936, we think. I say, “think,” because there was no name or date on his birth certificate, just “baby boy” and the names of his parents. Appa wasn’t sure about the precise day and Brahmins of his era took the traditional stance, waiting the prescribed ten days before naming a child--- time enough for the traumas of birth to pass and for the appropriate gathering of friends and family. The namakarana or “naming ceremony” is largely a deshacara, that is, a matter of custom because the orthodox texts (called Grhyasutra) actually don’t specify the ritual. (There’s a fine, short piece about namakarana here, if you are curious: Appa was born under the Pushyam nakshatra, said to be the most auspicious of the lunar mansions and it is the nakshatra that determines the date for one’s traditional birthday celebration among orthodox Hindus.

Each of the twenty-seven nakshatra divide the sun’s eliptic. Simply put, the sun appears to trace an eastward path spherically around the earth as the year passes and with the orbit of the moon taking 27.3 days, it takes about one day for the moon to pass through each nakshatra or “lunar mansion.” (There’s more about the elipitic here: Where the moon is in the celestial sphere at the moment of one’s birth decides one’s nakshatra and defines the auspicious moment of birth, a determination so complex to calculate that Appa used to say jokingly that it was yet another way for the Brahmins to keep themselves employed. Nowadays there are nakshatra calculators on the Internet and any number of explanations of their astrological significance. I’m not in the business of contending others’ amusements but as far as I can tell almost any endeavor of learning will surpass what might be gained from pursuing these astrological matters, except perhaps as a way of understanding better Indian culture and history.

While he would not have made much mention of his opinions publicly, Appa never much cared for jyotisha, astrology, nor did he invest much importance in its claims. But he also would not have liked to offend others’ interests and in his culture astrology, like the Iron Chef’s cuisine, reigns supreme. (I’m constantly reminded in my everyday life that Appa was a better person than I am. Growing up in Jersey as a boy we were perfectly willing to offend a sensibility if it was in the service of something more sensible. You talkin’ to me? You gotta’ be kiddin’ me.) Appa maintained that astrological determinations played upon our human desire to know without offering enough information of real value in return; he much preferred our ability to cultivate the mind, speak authentically from the heart, and allow the cosmos do what it does with a greater reliance upon more proximate and important sources of influence upon our human experience. But he was also deeply respectful of his culture and there’s no underestimating the degree to which astrological calculation plays its role in the organization of Hindu social and religious identity. When performing even ordinary rites in a Hindu temple, the priest will invariably ask for your nakshatra as part of the process by which the god recognizes who, where, and when you appeared within the greater divine matrix. Don’t leave home without it.

Darwin once wrote, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” Appa would have loved this observation. Not (or is it not merely) because it subverts the claim for a God who is minding the store and therefore must also somehow be held accountable for all the evil, mischief, and natural disaster we experience but because it insists that we, as part of this “pitiless indifference” are truly free, not created for a purpose but rather free to create. We are not here for a reason much less a purpose; we aren’t in a moral universe at all but rather a powerful one, a Shakti universe as the Tantra puts it, and so we are compelled to adapt, innovate, and re-create ourselves in order to be successful, not only good. Appa loved goodness, being good, and he admired those who are, but he didn’t think that we are born good, born to be good, or that we are somehow conforming to our nature when we are. Rather he thought that the power that is the universe affirms and that as far as humans are concerned, well, being good is doing good. Instead of a commandment or a compulsion of nature, with requisite rewards and punishments (be they divinely dispensed or attributed to karma) goodness is a choice that affirms a human possibility to contribute something of value to the very world to which we owe our existence. With goodness we are better at being human, not because God or karma rewards the good (or punishes the bad) but because we can be.

In the past few years, the teachings of Rajanaka have moved forward in ways that I know would have delighted Appa. I say that because continued research and some very good luck have produced findings that even he didn’t know about. Appa loved to say he didn’t know and by possessing a rare combination of genius and determination, he was capable of learning, correcting his mistakes, and taking the Tantra to new levels of continued growth; he wanted to evolve our understanding of things that not only have come before but also bring Tantric yoga into the future with all we have gained since. Rajanaka has never been captive of the golden age sentimentality of spirituality, the kind that implies that everything we ever wanted to know about ourselves has already been discovered and that the best we can do, in fact the only thing we really want to do is re-cover and un-cover what has long since or always been known. Rajanaka, he insisted, was progressive and evolving, meant to address an unfinished reality and the evolving conditions of human consciousness and understanding. Truth is, we know much more now than we ever have: about the physical universe and the powers of technology, about the origins of life and our human nature, about so many things from the developments of science to the history of human migration. Appa always looked for examples and ways to make the ancient yoga relevant or to revise it when necessary. As he was fond of saying, “This isn’t the 11th century anymore. Tell me something about these teachings that matters now.” So failing to consider our contemporary findings as part of how we engage ourselves and the world is to set yoga apart, it is to reduce yoga to a religion of corroboration with dogmas, yet another way to conform to some claim about how we wish the world were rather than invite the process of our discovering how much more it is.

It should be perfectly clear by now that I have no idea when Appa’s nakshatra day occurs this year but it’s almost certainly not his solar birthday. It rarely is---- lunar calculations are far too fickle to make that happen. But I’m happy to celebrate March 11th on the Christmas Principle (I just made that up. I mean, who knows when Jesus of Nazareth was born and the 25th of December has nothing to do with that), the Neighborhood Play (, or close enough for rock n’ roll, an old saw about how a band needs only to tune close enough to play well enough, and so this day will serve about as well any and I can’t seem to make the precise day matter more than that to me. Appa would not have liked any fuss if it were over him. He might not even have liked me talking about him half as much as I do: he always said that the teachings of Rajanaka were never about him or anyone who might teach them but rather about the ways others’ receive their value and make them their own. I’m sure he’s right about that. A great teaching of yoga will change lives because it goes far past the person who teaches it, even if it has come through that person. Truths are never tied to individuals; everyone knows that or needs to. But nothing that I have ever learned from yoga will ever matter as much to me as Appa did. Things that matter are also like that. And I don’t think I’m contradicting my teacher or his teachings here. Loving him doesn’t create a conflict in me. Instead it compels the embrace of another paradox. I know that the most valuable things I have ever learned are not only about him, even if it’s also true that those things have entered my life because of him. And still there’s something far more than that going on.

It’s hard not to think of Appa’s passing so young even on this day I celebrate his birth--- he was only about fifty-seven when he succumbed to cancer. What I really wanted to say about him here has already been said countless times before, far better than I can hope to express. Here’s one, a verse by another guy from Jersey who has a way of saying things. It captures everything I’d like you who’ve read this far to know about how I feel this day about my teacher, my Appa, Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy.

"Now the world is filled with many wonders under the passing sun.And sometimes something comes along and you know it's for sure the only one. The Mona Lisa, the David, the Sistine Chapel, Jesus, Mary, and Joe. And when they built you, brother, they broke the mold. 

 When they built you, brother, they turned dust into gold
. When they built you, brother, they broke the mold

. They say you can't take it with you, but I think that they're wrong.
 'Cause all I know is I woke up this morning, and something big was gone
… But love is a power greater than death, just like the songs and stories told 
And when she built you, brother, she broke the mold." ---Bruce Springsteen, Terry’s Song.