Saturday, March 25, 2017

Reframing the Spiritual Life and The Certain Failure of the Guru Tradition

From Guru to Teacher
Reframing a Spiritual Life

I'm honored and delighted when I get a message or email from folks who ask my opinion, maybe even are asking for some insight. So thank you for that. I'm going to paste in the note I received this morning with just enough edits to protect privacy and make this more germane to us. So here we go.

As an individual who learned the yoga first in a guru do I reckon my desire to surrender fully to the presence of the outer form, the Guru as reflection of my inner self/self, master.
Like Shiva shares with Parvati in the Guru Gita?
Does one ever come to fully embrace ones own reflection as the guru? I am having difficulty "surrendering myself". I have been for years. But the current climate both political, social, my very personal life all reflects the dissonance of the outer.
I look back on my days of being fully in love with the was so much easier.
How do I surrender to a higher power?
What does this surrender mean?
How do you surrender, lay your burdens down?
How do I recognize the presence?
I am in tangles over such a basic question...

dbrk replies:

When first I went to India I too went looking for someone in whom I could entrust my heart, surrender to learning, and regard as the _perfect_ example. I had only limited exposure, the Upanishads and other written sources, and then the very limited resources of the Tantra as it was represented in English. (I particularly loved Sir John Woodruff.) When in Wisconsin studying Tamil in May 1977 I found Swami Muktananda's "Siddha Meditation," a book that I helped edit many years later in the retitled form "Nothing Exists that Is Not Siva." (I'm pretty sure that's the new title.) In this little page-turner Muktananda offers short commentaries on works of interest to him from Kashmir Shaivism and elsewhere, including the Gurugita. I read it 10,000 times that summer.  Oh how I wanted to believe.

I wanted to find _that_ Guru, the paradigm of perfection who was wise, loving, _complete_. It never occurred to me to go looking for Muktananda but I was also just young enough to have had a lot of exposure to gurus, including Maharajji, the Maharishi, a book about Ramana Maharishi, and, of course, plenty of Hari Krsna. I was dead set against that scene.  It looked like a scam because it is a scam.  But I had also worked up this notion of a more serous kind of textual and personal study, I had heard about how brahmin tradition had created gurukula, studying in someone's house with a small group of likeminded, serious students. You would learn not just texts and languages, you would learn the practices the only way you really can: first hand from someone with virtuosity, erudition, and seriousness. So I confess that I was never a candidate for the ashram scene. But I was a desperate seeker. And I mean desperate.

I could write more about what happened to me and why I think I was so very desperate to find help, to find a teacher. I believed with all my heart when I arrived in India that there had been such gurus, people whose character and probity matched their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual achievements. My first months were deeply sobering. To quote a quote, "who knew that this guru business could be so complicated?"

I was depressed, lonely, and more desperate than I had been before I left. Everyone I met who was a candidate was more disappointing than the next. My Jersey instincts were keen not to be conned, and to this day, I realize how I wanted that, I wanted to be conned, I wanted to _believe_ and then experience _that_ person. Then I got lucky. Really, that's the only explanation.

Fast forward because most of you know the kernel of this story. When I met Appa, he was forty-one years old, a father of three, the principal provider for his entire extended family, and already professor of Sanskrit at Madurai University. He dressed in western clothes at the University and was so soft-spoken and demurring that you had to lean forward to hear him--- or at least I did. Many of you know the story from here but suffice it to say, that dream, so vaguely and romantically envisioned came to pass. I lived as a member of Appa's family for many years. Our days started before sunrise with practices and meditations and ended when formal studies concluded about 8:30 every night. We studied, talked, worked all day ---in Sanskrit, Tamil, and English. Some other students came and went but I was the one who stayed. The work never got easier, but it did go faster.

Appa knew quite well that I was looking to him to be that guru. But for only the briefest time did he let me offer that kind of surrender, that complete feeling of being held and guided and allowed to be the disciple. He knew exactly what he was doing, as I look back on it. Little by little, again and again he dismantled the guru ideal as it was historically and culturally constructed. And in our lives together he brought me closer to him to reveal more of his humanity, not more guru perfection.  This was his plan all along.

Being a part of those worlds entirely, Appa saw the beauty and the beast of this concept and he was _wholly committed_ to a _radical_ revision. The heart of the matter was the charlatanism, the _impossibility_ of the ideal, and the failure to embrace a serious humanity and humanism. It took me quite a while to catch on. In the end, it was about creating a different model, which I'll say more about below.

It's important to say that Appa, for all of his blistering criticism and disavowal of the guru, was not actually anti-guru. He believed that we need to see ourselves in forms, in examples, and that good teachers say over and over again that the "real" guru is one's own truest self reflection. But he railed against the concept of "perfection" and thought every last traditionalist definition of liberation and/or enlightenment was a misleading fantasy and a scam. He did this with such gentle, unassuming clarity that you hardly fathomed how determined and adamant he was. But he also embraced the idea that other people have their own ideas and their own needs. Appa's liberality and tolerance were as essential to his character as was his own unambiguous opinions. He could say in the same breath, some people need and want a guru tradition and yet that will NOT do for me and neither would he agree to allow me to treat him as such a person.

So what is the alternative model. The critical phrase is this: Deference but never surrender. Respect but never an abdication of critical self-awareness or relinquishment of the personal responsibility we have for thinking. Appa taught conversation, contrariety, and the methods of critical analysis that rely on evidence, reason, and shared argument. We learn trust and care, character and love from a deeper appreciation of our humanity, with all of its flaws, foibles, weaknesses, and failures. The best teachers reveal theirs and show us how to allow these shadows to become part of our greater narrative, a human story where there's no need to be perfect and we gather a story that lets us _live_ with _all_ of our person. We never stop learning, we still err, and we find out what is _really_ possible rather than wishing for a world and a life that doesn't actually exist. Appa wanted us to be peers, conversation partners, and the kinds of friends who would create _deep acceptance_ of our humanity, compassion for our individuality, and collective effort for community.

Each of us has talents, expertise, and experience that makes us a gift to others. We defer to each other to learn but surrender no power. We let mutually conferred authority become the seat of the teacher and require accountability in the simplest human terms for _all_. No one gets a pass, no one gets a privilege unearned or prerogative that is not offered freely, and every one gets a break. It's important to honor people's achievements and, at the same time, retain our power to determine our own lives as we see fit. It's critical to accept people for their gifts, liabilities, and personal character features ---we all hope to be growing and learning more and from mistakes.

Appa sought a humanism that guru traditions often _say_ they endorse but then utterly fail to represent.  This is because the guru is somehow more than human.   Appa had no such aspirations.  We need not be more than human.  Indian spiritualities rooted in liberation traditions are looking for immunity, invulnerability, and a person whose authority ---morally, personally, intellectually is more than decent, honorable, and ethical, but is _perfect_. That guru only exists as kind of chimera of wishful thinking. Don't we all want mommy or daddy, god or guru, to keep us safe, know everything, never make a mistake, redeem us, enlighten us, and have nothing to do but make the world wonderful? Right, I thought so.

So what about all of these guru traits that don't pan out, aren't true, what about that kind of exaggeration and hyperbole? What about the kinds of spiritual longing that envisions such a character or generates such a need?

First, we need to be weaned from that ideal and those kinds of needs. We need to learn how to embrace the mortal and conditional with cool, steady realism ---even when that entails a very disturbing and sobering set of facts. Life is harder than we wish it were, more conditional and unpredictable and painful than we are likely to imagine it can be. Life requires more trust, conversation, acceptance, and seriousness than we are prepared to have, but still must have. We'll fail at these things but that does not mean we failed. We'll be in deficit and make all kinds of mistakes but that doesn't mean we aren't doing what we can. The people we count on will also fail and fail us, because that happens too. But this doesn't diminish their greatness, and that's the next crucial piece.

India is a culture in which things great, mahā, is part of a way of understanding, a tool for imagining, a method for dealing, and a claim to be understood with paradox, contradiction, and hyperbole as critical features. I've written about this at some length, but "great" is fundamentally a way of saying: we must learn to do what we must, we must accept and deal with everything as best we can, whatever that means. We must not reconcile or dismiss the contradictions or incongruities, but give them a place in a life of radical affirmation. This is what Appa called the Rajanaka way.

A few more things in reply to the question.
*There is no higher power to which we must surrender but to the facts of a mortal, human life. Surrender to nothing, defer and accept instead what is and innovate to address what is next.
*How do we lay down our burdens? With each other, day by day, little by little, again and again. No take backs, no do-overs, but plenty of room for regret and wistful hopes, fantasies, simple pleasures, and plenty of coping, dealing, and carrying on. We need each other and conversation, we need to be committed to learning and to accepting our shadows as part of our stories. Then we can decide what to do.
*What should we do? We need a comprehensive plan: physical, emotional, intellectual, practical, all for the sake of a comprehensive self (from somatic to autobiographical).
*The presence you seek is in every little thing you are experiencing. Sure, there are big moments and important events but once we stop looking for what isn't there, we can start loving what is possible. Hope is the art of the possible.
*Never deny yourself a simple love of life and that means your desires, hopes, dreams, wishes, and plenty of fantasies. To have those work for you, well, you're going to need to keep things practical, patient, forbearing, and use all of your resources to do what you need to do. To flourish we must first do what it takes to survive and live with the consequences of being human.
*Last (for now), if these questions and issues don't tangle you up, you're likely not trying hard enough or thinking deeply. So you are and being confused, finding complications, knowing there is more you don't know and much you will always struggle with, well, that's normal, that's human. We don't need to be _more_ than human ---and this is why the guru concept has to go.
*We need to be more aware of what this being human will bring us--- comfort and discomfort, clarity and despair, hope and hypocrisy, the all of life is all we need recognize. That's no small effort and certainly is going to be incomplete. Imperfection isn't perfection and when we think it is, we're not being quite honest enough about our irresolvable self. We're going to need to learn how to live in the spaces of incongruity, in the ordinary crisis, and with the incomplete business of a moral existence. Now let us care for ourselves and each other.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Tiger's Tale: Earning Your Paws and the Meaning of Mahā

Tradition says that it falls to the rishi Vyaghrapada to gather orchids not yet tasted by bees for the purpose of making a perfect offering to the Great God Shiva.  Vyaghrapada was born for this greatness and yet makes himself greater still when, by the power of his tapas and his love for the Lord, he earns his tiger paws so that he can climb to the very top of the toxic tillai trees.  Deep in this impenetrable forest is where greatness itself protects greatness, at any cost.  The task of greatness has no end, no reason but itself, and calls us to embrace all that is great for its own sake.  Greatness means you earn your paws.

There are few words in Sanskrit more important than mahā, the “great.”  Grammatically, mahā is used in the familiar form as a prefix to nearly any and every word.  Conceptually it carries every sense of our contemporary use of “great” and “greatness,” which has its own likely proto-Indo-European root *ghreu.  These are very old words.  “Great” replaces the older English usage mickle, which takes us back circuitously to Sanskrit and the antecedent Vedic.

Mahā is derived from the Sanskrit verb /mah, which appears in the oldest works including Rg Veda, where in addition to the sense of magnify, esteem, honor, and revere, it carries other positive intimations: to rejoice, elate, and gladden.  The Sanskrit nominal weak form is mahat, the strong form is mahant, which help us too recognize cognate forms in Greek μεγάλος (megálos), the familiar Latin magnus, Old German michel, and eventually in English, “much” and other familiar words “magnify,” “magnificent,” and the rest.

But it is mahā- as a prefix that tells us something important about India.  There is mahādeva, a great god, and mahāsura, a great demon.  One can make a great vow (mahāvrata), live in a great place (mahārāstra), and be a great lord (maheśvara).  Perhaps, for we humans, the greatest of great matters is that we might ascend to the status of mahātma, a great soul.  Just what such greatness entails will depend upon who we ask.

Mahātman ---this is the root form--- may be a metaphysical claim, a description of moral character, or a marker of nearly any form of greatness a person might achieve or be recognized to be.   I can think of no other Indo-European language in which this prefix, this sense and sentiment is so ubiquitous.   In Sanskrit, great-something is indeed something that has never diminished in usage or in sensibility.  And this is the centerpiece of our concerns.

Everything about ancient India is described as mahā- and this larger than life, greater than great affectation is a fact and an aspiration, a description and prescription.  Dharma is not only virtue, religion, duty, righteousness, and law, it is mahā and so too it must be eternal, universal, expansive, and encyclopedic.  Just as much will be attributed to liberation, moksha, and those who are understood to have reached such a state: unconditional, certain, unequivocal, and genuine.  Such liberated beings have great powers (mahāsiddhi) that are similarly exalted.  To wit, whatever exaggeration we might find in such unconstrained embroidery, Indian culture regards as authentic and legitimate.

India loves greatness, and with it nearly any and all exaggerated attribution, in ways we find difficult to fathom and appreciate.  Ours is a culture reared on religious repentance, contrition, humility, even humiliation.  While we are no less inclined to aggrandizement and our forms of idolatry, especially in our culture’s theatre of spectacle, India has made an art of such elevation, homage, and ennoblement for as long as there has been India.

When the subject turns to government ---including the wiles of rulership, kings, warriors, spies, and the rest in Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra we will find no less commitment to all that is mahā.  The hyperbole transfers to the methods, means, and teachings of kings and rulers, and all of the ways a raja is a mahārāja.  To call these injunctions and recommendations extreme and often in directly, unambiguous violation of the greatness of Dharma is beyond dispute.  Machiavelli would blush at Kautilya’s art of governance by domination, corruption, and any means---that’s the mahā.

When we turn to matters of sex in the Kāmasūtra, there is a similar mahā, and that would apply as much to its endorsements of adultery, seduction, and just about anything that would enlarge, fantasize, and inflate possibilities.  That there is contradiction, incongruity, and discrepancy between all of these various mahā-s as applied to each subject is also mahā.   We should expect nothing less: every subject raises itself to the level of its own supremacy, its claim to greatness is that there is nothing beyond the claim it makes for itself.

Wherever we look there is mahā in India and this is what we should recognize as the defining judgment and commendation of cultural identity.  India has never shrunk from its claims to greatness, not then and certainly not now.  All things valuable by self-definition are mahā even if that means there are mahā-conflicts or negations.  Facts, history, contradictions, it matters not, everything is beholden to the Rule of Maha, everything that is true needs to be run through the algorithm that endows it with mahā.

So let us take up a few matters where mahā might cause us to think there is more consternation than composure, the kind that comes with maha-contradiction.  How is it that Dharma virtues and standards held to be inviolate, irreproachable, and immune are so wholly rejected, in mahā terms, by authoritative works on government like Arthaśāstra and sex like Kāmasūtra?

I submit two reasons how this kind of inconsistency is normal and what we might make of that.

First, India’s larger-than-lifeness, its commitment to mahā is itself sanctioned.  Mahatā, greatness, is the category that supplies permission and need only confirm itself: everything that is great neither diminishes nor intervenes in any other greatness.  For India this is normal, traditional, even routine.  Greatness is a convention that does not diminish any greatness but rather provides the standard required to represent the relationship between power and authority. 

Second, and this, I think is the crucial point: India is a culture of radical affirmations.  We are as capable of virtue as we are of venality.  We are as good and as beholden to the Law (Dharma), to all of its prescribed virtues, as we also are within the terms of, say, the Arthaśāstra's truly diabolical machinations.  Dharma may intercede, claim authority and superiority but this is no more great than another’s greatness, be that the great words of a great sage or command of a great god or another realm of great knowledge, such as Government (Artha).

India has not succumbed to moral insouciance by admitting such multiple, contradictory great authorities.  On the contrary, I think what we see here is India’s deep, abiding sense of realism rather than fantasy.  We must do what we must do.  And in all such matters, no matter what it is that we take up and what we must do, we are charged to take the great course.  If our task is goodness, we are enjoined to great goodness and if it is liberation, then its own form of greatness.  And if we are thieves, gamblers, sinners, kings, whatever we are, we are adjured to be nothing less than great.  Like Vyaghrapada we manifest our own tiger paws to discover and offer the delicate orchid that is the gift we make of ourselves to greatness, at every cost.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Yoga of Curiosity and Moral Creativity

When I was in my twenties studying in India with my teacher I was daily astonished by his erudition and liberality of heart.  His brilliance was much like his generosity, patience, and tolerance: he seemed to have an endless reservoir of all of these virtues and values.  The only thing perhaps more in abundance was his humility.

When once I asked him how he had become so vast by the age of forty, he smiled wryly and said that it wasn’t what he knew but rather the horizon of his ignorance.  He was trying, he said, with curiosity and diligence to expand that horizon of ignorance.  Knowing more meant gaining a better grasp on what more one could know and how little one does know.  One important consequence of being a seeker, one looking to know about everything, is a commensurate humility.

In Sanskrit there is a term used for this idea: jijñāsa.  It means “desiring to know” and for grammar geeks it’s nominal (a noun) made using a special process called the desiderative (described in Pānini at 2.1.21,  Usually the focus of the concept is on the nature of knowledge, what knowledge is, and the goals of knowledge.  Philosophers usually want to know what happens to you when you know this or that.  This would account for the famous first line of the Vedāntasūtras which declaires, “Now then the desire to know brahman, the Absolute” (atha’to brahmajijñāsa).  There’s rarely much discussion in the commentarial literature about how wanting to know changes your character, about what kind of person you become because you want to know.  But that was Appa’s focus.  He wanted to know what happens to us when we couple deep curiosity to diligence and self-application.  This, he said, was one important way we will cultivate a genuine moral character.  We don’t learn virtues to become good, we learn to learn and that will invite us to be good.

When we are ferociously curious much of the rest of what we need to evolve our character comes with it: attentiveness, care, constancy, assiduity, and industry.  All of this is encompassed by the term jijñāsa, and takes us to an ironic outcome.  The more desire we have to know the less stable knowledge becomes because it is growing, changing, evolving, because it is on the move.  But the more stable our character becomes because the effects of jijñāsa will both winnow the chaff of feelings and ideas we don’t need and burnish the gold that is our heart’s truest desires.  Goodness is no longer a state of being or a claim we make but part of the process of our truest desires to know.  The peril here is that unless we cultivate this kind of pertinacity to learn, we can suffer the consequences of its inverse, and there are few things less edifying for us than laziness.  We have a Sanskrit word for that too, alasa.

The practicality of these ideas, as abstract as they might seem, is in full view.  So you’ll forgive me if it appears as if I’m shifting topics.  In truth, I think we find our yoga best in everyday examples.

I think most of us reading this would agree that America is in deep trouble.  I’ve written quite a bit about how we are divided by our values, not just policies.  Policies are the outcome of values.  We believe human beings are this way or that and we have deep seated feelings about the kinds of responsibilities we have towards others.  Ironically, much of the disdain expressed towards the “undeserving” is that they are lazy.  The evidence about immigrants and minorities is quite to the contrary and the assertion itself is the result of lazy thinking, or to put it in our language, not enough jijñāsa

Intellectual becomes mythical laziness to indict people who receive public aid or other social safety net programs as lazy.  Evidence notwithstanding is a key indicator: not enough jijñāsa.

Current policies to cut spending drastically on social safety net programs, the environment, diplomacy is real laziness because, as astonishing as it may seem, many in our government have failed to learn what government does, how economy actually works, and what it takes to support a country under 21st century conditions.  The further refusal to learn from the evidence is willful ignorance driven by ideology, and there is nothing lazier than dogmatic thinking and the repetition of tested-and-failed experiments.  Politics is a lot like religion in this way: it turns to repeating back what it claims to be true without any more jijñāsa because that might cause one to change tactics or even have a change of heart.  If we understand a situation and can’t change that too is an abundance of alasa and a dearth of jijñāsa.

It takes real work to be a yogin and a good citizen.  One needs the desire to be informed, to consult sources that pose real challenges to assumptions and claims, and to study hard because life just isn’t easy to fathom.  That’s another feature of jijñāsa.  We need more of it because life doesn’t just get easier with knowledge, it’s at least as challenging as it’s ever been.  Well, likely more.  Knowledge doesn’t bless us with relief, it honors us with stress.  Yes, we aren’t less stressed because we are in hot pursuit of knowing, we are inviting more challenge, more labor, more of everything worthwhile.  And furthermore, the desire to know means taking counterargument and disagreements with real seriousness.  In fact, the better we make our opponent’s case the better we will understand the strengths and weaknesses of our own.  There’s nothing like contact with our assets and liabilities to encourage our character.

And now a little more partisanship because being curious will likely make you more opinionated, not less, just as it makes you more tolerant but nobody’s push over.  A good argument is an unlazy opinion. 

So here’s the deal.  Donald Trump’s core group of supporters, like the President* himself, are lazy citizens.  This makes for unformed character, not just ill-informed opinions and little is easier to manipulate.  Since Trump has never bothered to find out how government really works or what it actually does, he is keen to dismiss its value or value its role in formulating true arguments.  Instead we are treated to feelings that merely hermetically seal off curiosity and diligence ---and nothing good ever comes of that.

Wait.  I’m not done.

When Paul Ryan and diehard conservatives cannot steer from economic and social ideologies because they refuse to distinguish dogmas from evidence and outcomes, yup, they are lazy.  Now it could be that they are just adherents of the kind of capitalism that regards anything but enriching the wealthy as their own form of lazy thinking.  The rest of us are then the lazy and get what we deserve.

But our more tragic laziness is that we have all not been diligent enough to teach curiosity.  However much we are born with, there is more we can learn, which means that we must teach ourselves to be more curious.

Just how do we do that?  Well it’s like everything else that requires practice.  To get better we have to do it, keep doing it, and do it again.  Curiosity grows with diligence and diligence makes us more curious.  To do less is morally indefensible and that is no small outcome.  If this seems to you a circular argument, remember that the best things that come around, go around until you learn what there is to learn.  Then you go on, looking for more.

Come Dancing, But Leave Your Shoes

The festival of the great Dancing Śiva Natarāja is renown for its strange alchemy of ferocity and muliebrity.  Like the god himself, the people embody his tranquil rage and furious placidity.  They embrace the god’s lubricous virility and immoderate restraints.  He is, at once, beyond the pale of our mere humanness and the epitome of what we must become.  There is something so explicitly feminine about his greater complexion that one might think it an equally frank effort to conflate his masculinity.  But in fact this fusing and coalescence comes more effortlessly than we might foist upon him.  This is what we mean to explore here.

The fluidity of Natarāja's  movement is a deeper expression of a more natural, unassuming intelligence that represents a very particular view of nature, culture, and human experience.  It’s elasticity, animation, and vigor is neither insecure nor vacillating at its core.  There is a pliant anxiety and restlessness being affirmed in this capricious, fitful character that is mature, aggregated, and successful.

As a deeper exegesis of the mythology reveals, Natarāja loses none of his vulnerability and sacrifices none of his incorrectness to rise to this comely declaration of a whole being.  He is fragmented and stochastic in self-similarity but never splintered from the integration of the complete ensemble that makes the universe turn once and again.

Mythically, Natarāja will be fraught, as we are, with misjudgments, unforced errors, and unanticipated lapses.  But he will not lose one iota of his dignity or decorum, much less his cachet and sublimity.  While his contradictions are no less ours, the consistency and magnitude of their sheer range and inclusiveness gives them gravity and value.   When you come to see Natarāja  you come to see yourself for all of the awkward peril that entails.  Bring everything but your shoes to this dance, they stand between you and the power of the goddess who untethers all of the feelings he needs to invite you to dance too.

There is also something thoroughly Tamil about Natarāja  which means for all of us not born to Tamil culture that there is something at once utterly remote for its strangeness and alluring for the deep draft of its soundings.   Not everyone who comes to see Natarāja is Tamil ---the god surely appears in every corner of India--- but the culture of the Dancer’s labyrinthine mythic worlds is manifest in the entangled fusion of people and gods and culture.  The ascetic of the forest is entirely the same as that of the scrupulous anarchy of the temple, the garnished and sometimes absurdly gaudy street, and the greater cultural claim to be this god and his retinue.

At the great Cart Festival you are called to be vigilant for your safety, aware that the danger is real and an essential alloy in fashioning the composite of Natarāja s divine carriage.  This furious illusion of masculine potency, real as it is, is countered and commingled into the unalloyed femininity of Tamilness.  The god is made up, burnished and festooned with every kind of accessory, each appropriate to one gender, both, neither, and all.  It is a form of radical acquisition and occupancy where the character gets to live in every form he desires, willfully and subliminally.  All that is rational remains but is confected to defy any single identity.  

The Śiva’s tandava, usually translated as his “dance,” is in fact a kind of possession, both personal, self-possession, and an extension woven into the fabric of being, into culture, and human interaction.  People come to see Natarāja for all of the beauty and the frenzy, for the rich protocols and precision of the rituals that comfort and express their love of the Dancer’s dactylic nobility and loftiness.  They come because they feel they have to, that something urgent beseeches the heart to be a part of this…this tandava. 

The unmistakable, physically palpable gentility of Tamilness is the deep undercurrent that flows within this well-fermented apoplexy, contained as it is in the image of Natarāja’s bedizened tandava.  For the uninitiated, the enormity of the crowd and the cart on which he rides, the sheer excess of his mantle and the ceaseless plentitude with which he is being swaddled, belies the familiar image of the tiger-skinned, ash-strewn, serpentine eremitic yogin.  But in true Tamilness, the misanthropic recluse of supernal self-restraint is no less the copiously palatial, baroquely elegant, sometimes jaunty ingénue.  He is the picture of commingled codes in which gender becomes curvilinear and a sinuous sensuality rewrites what is otherwise outlawed or repressed.

These collisions with sexuality and entangled contradictions are the very heart of paradox embraced as the truest, more resilient paradigm for a life well lived.  We are both, we are neither, we are something more, and it is in the unfinished process that demands we take up the broken, missing, and extra pieces of our selves.  The Sanskrit word for this is sammelana, which means "commingled."  But the phenomena we are trying to describe is more demanding any one word could encompass.  The diffident, self-constrained, and taciturn god is also clamorous, ostentatious, and importunate. 

From this infiltration of the unconscious into configured, patterned contours we can create a society that can contest with itself without destroying its shared provenance.  Tamils have been doing this for centuries and we could stand to learn something from these archetypes that affirm human dignity and represent the divine in ways that both defy and assuage our explicit expectations and sublimated needs.

Life’s disquieting facts cannot be so easily mollified or addressed by claiming that every problem can be solved, much less that every provocative difference can be quelled or controlled.  We are going to have to learn to live with differences as intrinsically antithetic as they are beguiling and inevitable.  Natarāja is a south-facing god within the architecture of consciousness and the living temple, which means that he is primarily a teacher.  What there is to learn depends on how far we are willing to go into the fathomless possibilities obscured and revealed in human experience.