Wednesday, November 3, 2021

More About Tradition & Transmission, More About Rajanaka Learning & History

In last Saturday's Conversation (31 October 2021) I was asked what about Rajanaka had changed or what had I evolved since Appa offered up his understandings. What innovations or interests had I brought?  I will write more about those matters with greater specificity soon.  This is a wonderful query about our learning and what Rajanaka means. 


There is indeed quite a bit of information that I’ve uncovered since Appa and I studied together.  I try to make clear where the research has gone and how it turned up.  One of the interesting features of these traditions is how material is withheld and how reluctant folks can be to part with it.


Some of you know about the old Sabanayaka Diksitar priest who I would visit in Chidambaram and a few of you made the journey to his house to meet him.  Ananda Kuncitapada Diksitar was the nephew of Rajaratna Diksitar, the priest who took in Appa’s mother and the whole of his family, took them in off the streets when they had nowhere else to go, when they had been cast aside from their lives in the village a some six years or so after Appa's father passed.  

Poverty and familial controversies had left them homeless.  Literally on the verge of beggary, Rajaratna Diksitar took in a widow and her children.  Our Appa never forgot that act of generosity and the goodness it brought.  It was undoubtedly as important a moment in his life as any that would shape his character.


Appa was raised in Rajaratna’s house, adopted officially into his family (he and his wife Tangamma were childless), and so began the story of his relationship to scholarship, to the great Natarajar Temple, and to the worlds of Rajanaka.  Appa was only six or seven when they moved into the Rajaratna’s home.  Down the street lived Rajaratna’s sister, married of course to another Diksitar, and Ananda Kuncitapada was their son---he became our family’s principal contact inside the Temple after Rajaratna passed in the 1980s.  He was about ten years younger than Appa.  Ananda Kuncitapada knew his time was coming---he passed in 2015, as I recall--- and he asked me to spend time with him.


With all of our pilgrimage pals safely on their own, I returned for five or six long conversations into the evening and the very early mornings.  It was then he gave me a stack of texts, with explicit instructions about how to treat them, and told me things that I know he’d not told me or Appa earlier.  I was curious if these stories, particularly involving important characters in Rajanaka lore like Ayyappa, Tillai Kali (and Her temple forms), Panchamukha Anjaneya Hanuman, and others, were things he’d learned since those conversations we had together in the 1990s or if he had simply not told us.  I never asked him about this but I suspect that he knew most of it all along and was working out the rest over the years---a combination of both withholding and his “new” learning. 


These subjects involve deeply private, personally important matters and in the worlds of Tantra there are differences between secrecy and privacy.  Secret matters are concealed usually to prevent the “unqualified” from access to information deemed potentially “dangerous.”  In truth, that danger can be social opprobrium, embarrassment, or any number of other issues that involve how “powerful” ideas or actions may be restricted.  Sometimes restriction itself is a form of power but the “sacred” is, as we know, often a defined as permission and prohibition.  To control access is to manage power and the sacred is power when one has the keys to open and close doors.


Privacy differs from secrecy inasmuch as it involves more personal feelings.  Rather than traditionally stated restrictions it may feel inappropriate to discuss one’s own experiences.  Why?  Certainly humility and the sanctity of the heart are in the mix but who knows exactly why people keep their own confidences?  There is also an old convention that matters not asked for may not necessarily be revealed.  One gets the information one is capable of asking for (cf., Gita 2.70ff) while at the same time it can feel awkward, rude, or graceless even to ask.  How can you learn if you can't ask?  How does one know what to ask for if information is withheld?   If this situation sounds “contradictory” or at the very least complicated, you wouldn’t be wrong but that wouldn’t change matters.


Appa was particularly used to my stumbling, sometimes coarse lines of questioning, and yet he genuinely invited me to ask any question, every question---not just the ones apparently permitted.  I might still have to work hard for those questions and his insights.  It could be difficult to know where a line of inquiry was going but as usual, little by little, again and again the task was to stay on the trail, to be persistent, to have the courage to speak up.

He may not offer everything all at once.  He may tell me to wait.  He may offer bits and pieces to see how much more he would reveal or over a course of time.  It can be complicated talking to a person of his depth and erudition even if he trusts you, loves you, and wants you to have what you ask for.  You learn to follow his clues and leads, use indirectness when it seems the better way to get around, and don’t give up if he deflects or says “another time.”


It was important to know when to poke and when to pause in any line of questioning and I wasn’t always so adroit or skilled.  With Ananda Kuncitapada or other members of Appa’s Rajanaka Mandali (i.e., the circle of conversants) the situation was more delicate.  As much family history and trust we shared over the years, as deep as our affections ran, there were still matters of privacy to consider.  I think no matters of secrecy were at last ever concealed from me---there was nothing in texts or practices that I asked to learn that was withheld, no esoterica left unexplained or concealed---but I feel just as confident that Ananda Kuncitapada kept much in his heart that was his own musings and experiences.  As far as we both knew, there were no others left to share in these studies or who knew these stories or who were curious to make these lines of inquiry.  


How much was transmission passed along?  How much was culled from research?  How much had been uncovered over decades of contemplation and critical analysis?  I asked myself these questions whenever I spoke to any members of the Rajanaka Mandali.  One thing is clear: they all agreed that transmission was far less important and vital to the processes of learning than tradition.  There were transmitted texts and practices that could be imitated and understood---this kind of learning could take time but it was only a matter of diligence and understanding what anyone interested and committed could be taught.

But it was their understanding that transmission is not the core of a spiritual life but merely a process of access and information,  To reach that center of one's own experience demands a commitment to tradition.

I have written about the difference between transmission and tradition before.  It is a matter, I think, that translates across many kinds of learning when we consider matters of provenance and the processes of personalizing what one has received.


Let’s go back for a moment to the citation from one of Japan’s National Treasures, the late potter in the Bizan-style, Kaneshige Michiaki (1934-1995).  He put this difference between transmission and tradition this way,


Tradition is sometimes confused with transmission. Copying Momoyama pieces is transmission. Producing contemporary pieces incorporating Momoyama period techniques is tradition. Tradition consists of retaining transmitted forms and techniques in one's mind when producing a contemporary piece. Tradition is always changing. A mere copy of an old piece has not changed; it is nearly the same as its prototype of four hundred years ago. Tradition consists of creating something new with what one has inherited.

This take us to the second feature of our recent conversation about how things Rajanaka have “changed” over the years, particularly with me.  But truth to tell, Rajanaka is something of an outlier inasmuch as “innovation” or what Michiaki calls “something new” is often construed as deviation, alteration, or even departure.  Transmission is typically regarded in Tantric traditions as the direct imprimatur of one’s lineage.  The suggestion is that truth is recursive, a perfect (re-)iteration of what is past.


Appa regarded any such transmission as religious palaver, not something we could take seriously on the basis of the merits of learning.  In other words, we can’t inherit our learning---or our character, our commitment, or achievements-- but for the ways we must make them all our own through hard work.  No tapas, no claim to tradition.  And as for transmission, that too is tradition insofar as whatever was passed along must be made relevant to context and times.


Rajanaka is a tradition with many currents.  We can identify those currents and contents relatively easily.  It takes up the south Indian worlds of gods, Vedic and Tantric lore, embracing the enormity of Hindu cultural creativities in literature and the arts and sciences.  But above all Rajanaka is not merely what we learn it is how we learn.

Rajanaka is learning to learn.  Put another way, it is learning to be educated, not merely to learn.  We are always emulating what we admire or regard, adopting from nd reflecting on others.  But what we are in the business of becoming is ourselves and living with that complexity of self, indeed creating more complexity and more selves of depth, consideration, and care: that is the business of Rajanaka.  When once I asked Appa what is the greatest human possibility he said, “To appreciate more deeply our shared humanity, to savor our own, to feel empathy for others.”



Monday, October 18, 2021

Transmission and Tradition A Note about Rajanaka Values

Before the Gita Session yesterday I got on a bit of jag about how the claims to perfection and accomplishment (siddha/siddhi) and “realization” are a positive detriment to learning.  Let us leave aside for the moment that the yoga traditions (Hindu, Buddhist, etc.) assertion that certain individuals are more than merely empowered, gifted, skilled examples of a shared humanity----that this is dehumanizing, that it sets apart these persons and not only deprives them of their humanity but in effect tells the rest of us how we are inferior (or not yet them).  


The refutation of the ersatz-divination of human beings, which is actually at the heart of all bondage/liberation traditions, makes Rajanaka an outlier, heresy, perhaps even beyond the pale.  Appa was adamant that we should honor even revere accomplishments hard won but that all this comes at great cost---personal, emotional costs---that casts real shadows.  The more brightly we burn the more shadow we cast.

Attainments or capabilities however worthy are anything but perfection: we’re going to need the unwanted, complex shadows and flaws that come with them in order to learn; we’re going to need grief to love; we're going to need to admit our unfinished, incomplete, even unwholesome selves if we are ever pry more deeply into the pursuit of betterment.  And anyways there’s no getting around it: we’re just human.  And that’s enough.  


You’ve heard that before around here, I’m sure.


The further point I want to be clear is that we when we substitute veneration and charisma for accomplishment and the difficult tasks of learning we conflate and confuse important issues.  The once-serious Shankara tradition rooted in the discourse of argument and gnostic awareness is now little more than an emblem of that past and a devotional movement.  Don’t mistake me if participating in a community of loving souls does your heart good, who would object?  But projecting on a guru supernormal abilities much less moral superiority is a prescription for self-delusion, bypass, and an invitation to corruption; it effectively discourages our own hard work, the trial and error, the worthy experiments that may fail.


The notion that any such superiority is a birthright (cf., Abhinavagupta’s claims about being conceived in a Tantric ritual) or a transmission of  lineage inheritance is the stuff of religion or, as we in the reality-based world might say, nonsense.  But in fact it’s worse.  It’s an invitation to diminish one’s worth, abdicate the responsibilities of a shared humanity, and resign from the demanding ardor that might actually contribute to a wiser, more compassionate human experience. 

We cannot replicate another’s experience and there is no state or ideal, no Buddha, no Siddha, no savior or supernormal beingwh o we can copy.  Transmission is copying, it’s getting what they got, or so we're told.  We’re not faithful reproductions of the past. Rather, we’re each a furtherance of what has come before with no guarantees of better or success but by self-application and luck.


Ardor (tapas) mustn’t be for the sake of transcending or extricating us from our limited, conditional reality but because hard work might just allow us  to live a little better with ourselves and each other. As for "attainment," well, there's always more and our failures are as important as our successes.



We all wish there was a way out, something more that relieves us of our human sorrows and the existential truths of ordinary limitations.   But alas Rajanaka offers something that I think is far better than a transmission that falsely claims power and authority beyond the human condition.  Rajanaka is, in fact, not a transmission at all.   It is a tradition.  And,  yes, it comes not only from our own hard work but from an inheritance of learning that has been taught and passed from teachers to students.


To finish this last point we can get some help from the late Japanese potter Kaneshige Michiaki (1934-1995), a master of the Bizen-ware style:


Tradition is sometimes confused with transmission. Copying Momoyama pieces is transmission. Producing contemporary pieces incorporating Momoyama period techniques is tradition. Tradition consists of retaining transmitted forms and techniques in one's mind when producing a contemporary piece. Tradition is always changing. A mere copy of an old piece has not changed; it is nearly the same as its prototype of four hundred years ago. Tradition consists of creating something new with what one has inherited.  


This means that Rajanaka is yours as are all the traditions you inherit.  We are not seeking to replicate, to reproduce an enlightenment, or to receive a transmission so that we can somehow have what “the great ones” achieved.  Instead we are invited to the more challenging task of creating something new from our inheritances, something that might make our teachers proud.   “To surpass the teacher is to repay the debt.”  We may believe that we never quite arrive at such greatness but that, of course, is not the point.  Make tradition.  Make the living promise to do the worthy ardor. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Tandava as the Calm Inside the Storm

 June 1, 2021


I hope this finds you well coming through the Memorial Day weekend, both with a renewed sense of some normalcy with family and friends and just some time to refresh.  I spent much of the weekend reading and preparing for our Session on Natarajar tomorrow, which will be more storytelling and myth than has been.  There's so much more and tomorrow will take you through some of the essentials of the mythology and imagery with clarity and care.  More about that in a moment.

When I really take a break I read things like some folks eat comfort food.  I have comfort reading and my list is actually kinda’ short---Mahabharata, the Iliad, Tolkien, and Patrick O’Brian.  I drop in on Rilke, Dickenson, Keats, and the Bard too.  Actually, there are a lot of things that bring me comfort when I’m especially tired of thinking about “now how am I going to describe or explain that.”  I’m thinking of you when I think about putting things to words whereas my pure comfort reading invites me merely soak in the familiarity, like a plate of momma's pasta: I let Tolkien or O’Brian do all the work and I just enjoy listening, whether reading or actually listening.  But when I think about what most draws me to my versions of “comfort” in any of these works it is that all of them have one or another kind of tandava that comes from the heart of Rudra and Kali.  Lemme ‘splain some.

Tandava is the dance of possession, it’s when you gotta’ move and that your movement, inside and out, physically and emotionally, when the whole of your being is wholly involved, thoroughly engaged.  Tandava is samadhi without the chill.  You see we associate the word samadhi with calm and equanimity, and in the Patanjali-sense of yoga with the idea of release, attenuation of movement, with nirodha or ceasing.  But we Rajanaka as the children of the non-binary Natarajar think of samadhi as calm rage, as a fury of deeply focused passion and care and intense concentration, at once deliberate and spontaneous, something that is calculated but wholly uncontained by the purity of its being “born together” (sahaja) with no second thought required.

Tandava is Rajanaka’s reinterpretation of samadhi, not as the relinquishment of passion or feeling but rather a mind not released from thought, a whole person making the deepest connection with all that we can feel and think.   We arrive at equanimity because there is so much attention paid (hence the place where consciousness (-dhi in Sanskrit) is in same-ness (sama-, thus samadhi).  The ancient Rudra is blood red with passion and howling at the moon but as calm as Alec Guinness as George Smiley or Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Kali Ma, well, she’s the momma who never loses her cool even as the blood drips and the demons piss with fear.  You get the picture.  But in both we see the proto-tandava, the elemental passion and thought, the care directed towards being as cool as Toshiro Mifune doing his samurai schtick and as furious as the unexpected tsunami, tha afternoon in Tokyo when a really ticked off Gozilla decides to make an appearance.  Unleashed calm may seem paradoxical but that is precisely the point.

Now Frodo and Sam are running towards the fire.  O’Brian’s Aubrey reminds us dozens of times “there is not a moment to lose.”  Achilles may be taking his time to enter the fray---and it does take the death of Patroclus to get bring him to his turning point and who has ever had more patience with the nihilists than the heroic Yudhisthira of the Pandava?  But in every case there’s that tandava thing: an inexorable calling from the heart to bring into motion the intentions and actions that must be engaged now, because there is a past and the need for a better future.  What is calculated is spontaneous, what is chosen is made to look effortless but that is because virtuosity is making something difficult look easy.   Worthwhile things are hard things and the “trick” is no trick at all, it is to make it all appear seamless even when flawed, decisive because doubt is now another empowerment, anxiety isn’t under control but neither is it controlling: the dance goes on and you have to decide whether you’re in or sitting it out.

Now sitting it out isn’t rest or taking a break or recovery---sitting it out is abdication, apathetic, inattentive, or passive and that is the unwholesome opposite of tandava.  We need to become as persevering and diligent in the power of rest as we are engaged in the fight.  Learning to rest may well be harder even than rising to the occasion of the activity because rest is work.  Yup, think about it.  If rest isn’t a critical aspect of our work then we have reduced rest to procrastinating, to the languid and indifferent.  Now all of those things happen to everyone too so let’s not get too high minded here: the best of us indulge the shadow of rest less than perfectly.  It’s only human to make these ordinary “mistakes” and it’s the job of yoga not to punish or merely admonish ourselves for making them but rather to figure out how to live in greater salubrity.  Living with yourself is life’s most challenging privilege.

In today’s NY Times there’s an interesting piece called “How to Take a Break.”  I can’t say I endorse or agree to all of the proposals in this article but it does raise the important issue, which is that we humans need time to rest and need to make rest a part of our lives as important as any work.  As I’ve already said, I don’t think of rest as the opposite of work but rather both active and restful time as integrated into a life of purpose and meaning.  Just how you do this for yourself is crucial.  It too is tandava, as the Rajanaka call it.  

I’ve had some rest this week and my focus and passion has improved over the last two days.  I mean I can notice the effects of an efficacious “downtime,” even if that’s nothing more than a power nap.  Oh and here’s the link to the Times bit:

TOMORROW, we resume the Wednesday Course on Natarajar, Tillai Koothan, the Dancer of the Amaurosis Forest.  We’ll be talking more about tandava of course and about the structure of the mythology and storytelling tradition that brings us more deeply into the yoga, the engagement we need with our hearts, our bodies and minds.  I warmly invite you to come.  We’re going to tell great stories, the kind that matter, the kind that change your life.  

Saprema, with affection, 


ps you can find that ^^^course now archived on

Friday, April 9, 2021

Why There Are No Ethics Nor Ethical Theory in the Yogasutra

It is a misreading to conclude that the Patanjali Yogasutra has, in fact, any interest in directing a moral life. The text uses modalities of behavior, intention, and directives to action for the purpose of creating a method that prepares the aspirant for the achievement of samadhi and/or nirodha.

The purpose of yamas and niyaman as such is not to lead us back into the world in order to lead an ethical life---certainly there is not value added project associated with such a life except as it facilitates the further processes of introversion and excision _from_ the world. Thus, there is no morality as such in Patanjali's yoga and what is proposed has to do with furthering the relinquishment of karmas and the extrication of one from the world. To be moral would be to commit TO the world and I challenge anyone who reads YS to show me how this text commits us to a further engagement with the limited and conditioned world. It's purpose is precisely the opposite. To wit, to prepare us and create a circumstance of experience----be that physical, mental, or emotional---for furthering our introversion for the purposes of arriving at a state that renders us immune to mental trauma caused by change. This is the so-called citta-vrtti-nirodha.

The idea is to attenuate and then cease little by little any and all such involvements with the world. There is no such commitment to deepening commitments of action in the world---that would only cause further karmic malaise and thus further implicate bondage. Morality is merely prepatory or heuristic on a path that entails further disinvolvments If we are to compare, this is why Krsna in the Gita does have a buy in to the moral order insofar as he is admonishing his pal Arjuna to get back to the fight, win the war, and get on with it in a society that has standards and principles and even values.  One can argue that that admonishment is also not moral as such but legalist. We are enjoined to align our intentions with behaviors that are enjoined and commanded by virtue of social rules, or Dharma. We aren't being asked to be good. We're being asked to act in certain ways and that our intentions about such acts inform and have consequences about those actions. The actions themselves that are enjoined might be construed to be moral but that is not the reason they are to be enjoined nor would it matter. The fact is that they are commanded as such, that they are social expectations of the law to be met. That they are deemed good is epiphenomenal once again: their goodness is not their point, their execution in totality is the point. But just what the natural world of karma has to do with the ethical remains a more open argument because it begs the question, just how does the natural world reward or punish any action on the basis of intention or value?

Here we can argue tha the Gita is influenced by Buddhists and others who claim that moral intention has natural effects. But where is the evidence that Krsna thinks this? Where is the evidence that this is more than just a claim about how the world works? There is none, as far as I can tell. The ethical as such is of no mind to the world of power. The answer I think is that there are no morals as such but there are rules and expectations. If you want to think those come from intentions, it wouldn't change a thing. Our cultural lives are anything but immune from the implications of our beliefs or actions expressed and our lives in the natural world are deeply if not wholly culturally affected (when it is not determined).

What I mean is that culture will reward and punish us for our ethics, be they intentions, words, beliefs, or actions and that means we as natural beings with bodies will be deeply influenced and affected. What culture can do to us will influence our physical an and emotional well-being as creatures.

Is that ethics as such? I think not precisely because what is at stake is not goodness but a sense of physical and mental health that is required to undertake the further practices enjoined as yoga. That yoga---to say it again---does not invite us to live ethically in the world but to intend and act in ways that relieve us of the burdens of being in the world. I think that what we call ethical certainly influences our lives because human beings depend upon and are formulated culturally and socially. Thus, our actions or intentions have implications of outcome and consequence whether or not we mean it but apparently particularly when we mean it. Krsna in the Gita wants out of the morality business as quickly as he can make that happen so that he can resume the regular order of a powerful but amoral universe.  Yogasutra never was in the morality business, not even a little, not for any reason that has to do with the agendas of yoga.

The only exception to this argument I can muster is that if we are unethical this gets in the way of the projects of introversion and reidentification with immortal (always immune) Self. Thus we entangle ourselves in even worse karmas when we violate moral dicta but otherwise the issue is not to become moral but to stop acting in the world in ways that implicate further karma at all. Let's put it more plainly, Yogasutra gives no fucks for the moral dimensions of a given behavior or intention except insofar as it creates some, more, or any consequences that would interfere with the project of yoga, which has to do with disentangling with the world. There is no bodhisattva doctrine of saving others; there is no call to compassion or empathy.

How would any of that lead to eliminating false identification with the temporal? How would any commitment to entangling oneself in moral choices make it clearer that one is not merely the conditional, material reality but the ever perfectly free disentangled by nature Spirit that is Purusa? The strategies of yoga purported by the Yogasutra are, at best, influenced by Jains and Buddhists insofar as they all agree to espousing relief, extrication, DISINTEREST in acting or reentering the world.  There is no concomitant commitment in YS to saving others from their karma or claiming that ethical behaviors are for ethical purposes. One acts to relieve karma, not to do good as such Just what is the world for but leaving it? Until you grasp this agenda of the YS you do not understand its most basic interpretation (according to Vyasabhasya). Some later interpretations espouse moral action as karma relieving but is this the same as making a commitment to some kind of social good or personal conscience?

I fail to see how that would matter if one's goal is not to stay in the world to do good but rather to arrive at a sublime state of exemption. Once you get that that is the ACTUAL agenda then all further questions of ethical actions are, at best, epiphenomenal or irrelevant.  I hope this makes it clearer that there is no ethical theory nor are their ethical injunctions made in the teachings of Yogasutra.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Burn on, So Long as You Can

I was up early with the pup---she did some business, ate, played, and is in a cur-snooze. I was thinking about everything, which is somehow yer job when you finally figure out that you'd better get one. I write selfishly because I have to get it out and then figure out if it "goes out" in public. (Twice as much is never "published.") So here goes.

There is an ironic twist to self-evolution in the traditions of yoga. The more we engage to become that better version of ourselves, the more we must come to trems with living with who we are.

We can claim transcendence, that we have surpassed and relinquished our karmas, accumulated and no longer deciding for us, but is that the task? Are we getting past our past or moving forward because we have a past?

The option to take the bypass and claim that the different person we know ourselves to be is no longer the person that once was. But this is the mistake that will almost surely lead to less than who we could be if we are willing to receive into our ever-new self (Skt. abhinava-) the all of the self of light and shadow.

We'll never see all of those shadows---they hide from us and we hide them, for worse and sometimes better---and we'll never see all of the light, which would blind us with the false conviction that we've arrived, that we're complete, actualized and so discharged from the past.

To invest in progress we have to allow who we have been to become a teacher to the artist we seek to become. In Rajanaka this is, in part, the relationship between the seated dancer Daksinamurti, the teacher, and Nataraja, the artist. One of the most important things that Nataraja shows us is that even our most exquisite artistry is an expression of the hard-won conversations with our shadows.

Instead of mere regret, contrition, and embarrassment, we have a chance to incorporate, literally, to put them in the body so we can connect more honestly, converse more deeply. The further we are willing to step into the darkness that follows, the more light the horizon of the self reveals.

The irony of our unfinished self is that it keeps us moving when we are at once supported and cajoled. No one likes to hear that we need some nudge, that we prefer complacency to being jostled or poked. It can feel like being you're being forced, bullied, or hustled. And it can actually be some or all of those wrong-headed and morally indefensible affronts to the self.

To feel the difference between the charge to act and being shoved is part of the challenge to keep moving. The alternative is a quiescence that is more empty than purposeful. Life itself may have offer no greater purpose but that is why we have to engage to create it.

We are at once called to become a better version of ourselves and that everything about this endeavor is an invitation to burn. That's the Sanskrit tapas. The purpose of making the burn burn is to remember that in the ancient world all light is heat. We burn for the sake of the light.

We can also seek to illumine for the sake of opening to the shadows. Those missing or broken pieces have always been present but too often are left unattended, whether they are before or behind us. It's easier to claim it's all behind us when it should be clear that what we are doing now that is so evidently success is our conversation with the need to engage all of ourselves, with shadows companions of awakening.

Let me say out loud what prompted this little sermon. (Personally I hate sermons but that's why I write them: to try not to hate them when I need to hear them and of course would prefer not to.) I was thinking about President Biden who now some sixty days into his term has not given a press conference. Joe has been in public service nearly his entire adult life and some 44 years in office. He's said and done so much in public that one could select evidence to suits whatever might be the preferred conclusion.

The reputed gaffe-machine however has not gaffed much at all and the strategy to avoid the insipid culture wars that Republicans would prefer (because they have nothing else) is leading to something of a quiet revolution. Much is proposed, important power has been delegated to persons who are not only capable but representative of real change.

Even Mitch is scared of what is coming, so scared he is threatening retaliation knowing he's lost the power he once wielded so ruthlessly. Biden won't be ruthless---that is not Rudra's way. He will howl and weep because he has bled and bleeds. He seems to have some sense of what it takes to make the ruddy into the auspicious.

I am not delivering beatitude, Joe is not beyond criticism, and he may fail. I think he knows this. I am sure I feel that same way about myself. But it's not fear that motivates. It's the understanding that you gotta keep your head in the game and rage on to make the wheels turn.

It's too early to tell if much of what is hoped for will be accomplished but it has led me to think that Joe has in fact learned from the past, both personally andprofessionally, that he burns and seeks to bring more light.

But the key to his wisdom---at least that is my projection---is that he has not forgotten his shadows, particularly his own losses which have alchemized his soul. He doesn't have a future that isn't present but rather a future he hopes to help others realize. He's no saint and may yet not prove "transformational" but there is something more than cleaver politics going on.

I think he wants to make a difference---and we so return to the irony that caught my attention this morning again. You gotta want to do the right thingand do the work to become a better version of yourself for others. We all have plenty of past to remind us what it feels like to stumble, hesitate, falter, tilt, and sometimes fall.

No one likes to do that again but we know we will. That's why we might actually stand a chance. I'm further along in life now. I don't yet see the light coming for me and I'm grateful for that. It will. There's more behind than ahead. But that's what now makes the yoga all the more important.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

A Note About the Auspicious Night and One Year of Pandemic

The irony of this Sivaratri falling on the anniversary of the day that COVID was declared a world pandemic shouldn't be lost on us.

What has been take from us all and hurt so many over this past year surely cannot be understated. But what has been revealed in these difficult times has not only tested our mettle. We have also been invited to seek out what lies more deeply within our hearts and minds. It's not all light and surely not all joy. But that too is a point the universe never fails to make. What then do we do with all of that?

In body and soul we mean to live through these challenges, with our honest experiences of grief, and stay committed to all the love we seek. We may yet weep and bleed and howl more than we've bargained for and in ways we never expected but that is the Rudra, the Heart that seeks the Auspicious we call Siva. And that is what lies within each of us who breathe to love this strange gift of life.

"When He playfully began His Dance His twisted locks of hair whipped in frenzied ecstasy spraying the water of the Heavenly River in all directions,And with each drop appears an auspicious destination marked by His Presence:Surrounded is That Lord by forms of divine joy and the host of all embodied feelings: I delight in the One's Graceful Curved Foot." 
---Kuñchitanghristava of Umāpatiśivācārya

To come face to face with all that is otherwise hidden is called Siva's Night, Sivaratri. What is otherwise hidden by darkness is revealed when darkness too is seen to offer its own strange light. 

Sivaratri is another seam in the fabric of Being, a Time to create Maya rather than resolve or even puzzle choices. To invite ourselves to the Auspicious Darkness---the literal meaning of Sivaratri---is to turn time inside out and step into another side of one's self: it is chance and the risk we might take to opportune vulnerability.

Tonight we see the dark side of the dark side of moon and the day as night; we remember the forgotten and forget to remember; and so it is auspicious to sing into the otherwise prohibited dark hours, to be awake when otherwise you would sleep. Perchance to dream! Enjoy Sivaratri for the paradox it refuses to resolve and the embrace it offers without conditions.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Middle Expanse and Keeping it Human

When we're calm enough that the world demands less at the moment we try to situate ourselves between that's true, dammit and how do I think I know that? This we might call the middle of the midline.

You can "expand the midline" and you can think you've actually found some "middle". Rajanaka uses the word "maya" to remind you that the very best you have and all you need is of human creativity. We're the measurers even when the measure and the measured is more or other than just us---it remains a human process and so unfinished in every mortal life. No one gets out alive and however certain that is, it's certainly ironic that what we can say we know is about processing a process.

One of the lessons you learn quickly when you read real Indian philosophers is that they are ideologues, purists, willing to take on their comers but never willing to concede, budge an inch, or compromise their need for certainty. Before anyone tries to say that Buddhists aren't like that or that _their_ teacher isn't like that (say, me, telling you that Appa was assuredly NOT like that...), I would suggest you spend more time reading in Sanskrit or Tibetan or You Pick. The need to be right is not terribly different in most western writing because who holds an opinion that they don't believe is true? That would be someone else's opinion.

There is an ironic player in this game of right, the Jainas argue for a view called Syādvāda, which is rightly called the Maybe Doctrine. And of course they argue for it adamantly (a good thing imo) but without any room to suggest that they will revise or reconsider if the evidence warrants. No one does that. 

I have been in countless seminars with current HH Dalai Lama (before he got too famous to be serious with a small group) and he always maintains that the Tibetan versions of Prasangika Madhyamaka, which is the official doctrine, is open to counterargument or revision.  The word "prasangha" means impasse, bringing things to a logical subversion of "all views."  Funny, that never happens. Not ever. This doesn't make him particularly intolerant in the sense of being anti-something (HH DL won't argue with the theists even though TBism has lengthy and detailed arguments against the existence of a god-creatore or a god-eternity).

We could say as critical students of the study of religion that such dogmatic claims (e.g., Buddhist emptiness, or any) are part of what make them religious but this is not far from the same tune that secular contemporary philosophers or certain scientists sing. To wit, they insist that their experiment is squares the circle of being both valid and sound argument, which is really no different than saying it is true. Or True if you like that kind of Kashmir Shaiva or Vedanta use of Capital Letters to be All Authoritative and Stuff. You know, Consicousness Is Blissful. Pick Your Claim, Okay? I'll stop now.

I write about this here for two reasons.

First, I mean to help folks without professional exposure to the materials to understand what they actually say. Not what some person who can't read the languages but is an "authority" because their "experience" says. I'm not pointing fingers here but I am, as usual, warning intelligent, curious, serious students that history includes records that aren't as flexible as someone's mere impressions.

Second, I mean to map out a wee bit of Rajanaka teaching here that strikes me as yet another thing that keeps me thinking. ("Rajanaka" here means the way Appa taught thinking, including his heretical take on 99% of Indian philosophies. It also means that I am interpreting him and you can too.) The idea goes like this... Rajanaka likes facts and arguments that ring true. Who doesn't? Well, there are cynical fascists who act in bad faith to manipulate people with lies and tell you that there is no such thing as any fact. You know, "people are saying..." and that is not only insidious, it is morally contemptible and intellectual fraud. So Rajanaka would like to land on "we're sure about that," "we think that's true because of the evidence and argument, "we think O.J. did it and that it should have been proven the first time." Stuff like that. We think you can fly to the moon if you have science and the courage and money to do it.

The facts it takes for any of those arguments to be true---both valid and sound---are things you can count on and things you can count. The math is often MORE real than the evidence or the experiments we can yet perform. Ask Einstein and don't ask "god" about that, okay? But what makes the Rajanaka view so...curious is how Appa refused to let the need for clarity, which closely approximates certainty, to become the closed-case of some Ultimate Truth. This puts him much closer to modern science than any religion, including all of the Indian ones. He wasn't saying that there aren't real facts or truths like math can provide. He advocated for our trust and confidence in the human ability to find things that are true and to abide in them, to work with them, to assert their power and purpose and _truth_. But he saw just a wee bit of light under the door. Not doubt exactly. But more like incomplete sentences. Like this one.

In other words, we can not only find out things that create a ground (we dally with the mythic Mahavishnu and Mahadeva and Devi to tell such stories too), but we get a certain kind of human purpose and _joy_ from the way things true ring true. The way they fall on the pallet, the way they taste. How they help us get through the hard stuff in life. So even when something really hurts and that hurt will never really heal or cure or finish hurting---- I think of Appa's premature death or maybe even his death at all since I miss him every single day, the way I do mom---he was saying that the facts of the matter are important parts of creating a deeper human life.

So we love and grieve and there are things we know---I will not see Sundaramoorthy again but in my dreams and meditations, and until I do not because I will not be but dreams and meditations myself (if anyone has them!). I will, like you, enter the great vast oceans of collective history, including the collective unconscious, and that is about all I am willing to say.

When people talk about after-death in "you never know" tones and smiles, I take that as an effort to feel better about personal extinction. Why should I care to dissuade (to be right?) other than that to remark that I think it is particularly interesting how humans soothe themselves with a world they don't control and by definition can't fully comprehend. The mysteries of non-comprehension lead me to no faith or belief that is beyond or, for that matter, Beyond. Your call? Call? I jest here. I mean to smirk a bit again at what we would like to be true when we have nothing more than the want to write that story. The plane has landed so let me pull up to the gate here.

Appa could argue with them all because, truth to tell, he'd done the work. He knew what they had said and understood it. But to make his own joy, to make a life of purpose and meaning, he chose to admit that human knowledge is at its best when it focuses on creating meaningful ways to love and create and endure and dissolve into a grace that conceals from us what we will never know or can't know.

He wanted to love life knowing as best he could what is fiction because that fiction can be powerfully humanizing) and what is fact because those facts are indifferent to what we believe or feel about them except for the way those feelings inform our dealing with life. We need to be sure "enough" and not too sure. We need to be clear as we can but not too clear that we can't see more or next or another. We have to hold tight but let go and the difference there makes quite the difference that makes meaning. ***Postscript exchange...

" two cents: direct experience counts too."

My reply: it sure does. The risk of relying on it is that it quickly approaches the boundaries of solipsism---we then use it as an excuse, as in "that's my opinion," or "that's my belief" or "faith." Okay, it's also impossible to argue with because it's not an argument, it's a belief, a faith, an assertion. Arguments aren't perfect, thank goodness, so they can be wrong and righted, but the question Rajanaka asks is if the argument is valuable, not utilitarian as such but does it serve something greater than itself. This is my qualm with Quine's logic strategies---the argument doesn't care about people, it just cares about being right. Your point is superbly taken.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

On Understanding Rajanaka as a Spiritual Philology

Tomorrow I'm being interviewed on a podcast about the meaning of yoga. So I offer here a few notes from my journal. I cull notes to remind myself of ideas and phrases.

It's never been terribly easy to describe Rajanaka teaching. The core of that challenge isn't about describing our methods---we use accepted, nay routine forms of critical and scientific method, we have humanist aims and goals, and we lean into Jungian interpretations of myth and ritual. We are devoted as much to the truths that science creates as genuine human achievements and mean to integrate the most contemporary understandings into our "practice" (sadhana).

Our challenges have to do with both traditionalist and modern Hindu interpretations of our common sources, i.e., a broad sense of canon. The reason is that Rajanaka has its deepest ties to the Nataraja/Tillai Kali temple myth (and ritual) tradition and the Srividya goddess Tantra. Our interpretations however take us far from the traditional goals and claims of liberation and supernormal powers---because our goal is humanist: love your life, there is no "problem" of samsara. 

Rajanaka shares the core aim of older pre-Hindu Vedic religion expressed in the phrase, "give to me, I give to you" (dehi me, dadami te), not as mere transaction but as reciprocity and care for oneself and for others. You know all of this, I think, because I never tire of telling you how the original Rajanaka mandali (circle of conversation) in India were making the same points (albeit without universal agreements, inasmuch as they were a diverse bunch). 

Once we no longer endorse any explicitly religious (or mystical) claims, we can reconsider how religious practices, like rituals, meditation, pilgrimage, myths, art, etc.) inform our humanist aims. This is important to us because our "practice" can be confused with religious goals and be confusing because we take religious "contributions" as serious data and endeavors. After all, we closely connect with many religious practices and source materials; we just don't share their traditional interpretations or meanings. Specifically, practices like pilgrimage and darshan have always been at the heart of Rajanaka. These things get you out there in the world and deeper inside yourself. 

Now if ya' think about it, one of the important things Rajanaka does might be called "spiritual philology." The problem with _that_ is that virtually no one knows the term "philology." (Disclaimer: I am by profession a comparative philologist. I made my bones reading texts and describing what they say without prejudice or preference. Trained in the comparative study of religion and philosophy, my work has been both philological and anthropological, meaning I study classical texts and languages and I study actual humans and cultures.)

So what is philology? It's not a common word.

Philology is literally "love of words." All definition, formal and more idiomatic, extend from this etymological point of departure. "Spiritual" can mean a lot of things to folks, so let's add that into our mix and sort this out a bit. Words are essential to our humanity. It is only because we have words that human beings are capable of complex tasks (wanna go to the moon?) and, more importantly, organize themselves culturally to create informed meaningful relationships with each other, with vital matters like justice, law, and the furtherance of moral life. (As an example, think of how Ramayana or even the American Constitution (presumably) uses "law" (dharma) as a way of defining our humanity, human ideals, and possibilities.) We can accomplish remarkable things because we have words and can attend to their use and meaning.

The love of words is a gateway to the soulfulness that extends into other artistic endeavors. However, Rajanaka teaches that _all_ artistry, in a far broader sense than word-love, brings us into processes of valued human investigation and expression---thus music, art, dance, craft, practices like asana, you name it, if what you do is a pilgrimage of soulfulness, a journeying into the heart, than your practice is a Rajanaka sadhana (spiritual practice). Feelin' Soulful? Caring about the world, the planet, nature, yourself, each other, people you don't even now? Exploring those experiences deeply? How do _you_ do that?

If words as such aren't your thing, share with us what you do and what it means to you. That's the idea. So "spiritual" here means "soulful" and what I mean by that is that you are moved deeply in body, heart, _and_ mind. The somatic, emotional, and intellectual are of a piece, woven into the fabric of a human life. Soulfulness is an effort to deepen sensitivities of all sorts, to reach down into our shared humanity and to extend further into our individual experience. You don't have to love James Browns' music but he taught us that soul reaches _through_ words and sounds and music. As the Boss once put it, "when I'm gone I would like to have been known as a soul man." That's it.

Are you looking for more soulfulness in your life? What are you gonna do about that? Find your artistry in the things you do, live your love life deeply and seek connection to inquire into what is important (and what is by comparison merely transactional)---that's called yoga. Now let's get back to philology because we spend a lot of time in Rajanaka with story telling and the love of wisdom (philosophy) that means to inform our psychology and every day life.

Formally, all philologists do linguistics but not all linguists are philologists. This is because philology studies languages while linguistics is the study of language. Thus linguistics tells us how languages work (this is inherently comparative) while philologists study particular languages, usually through historical study (i.e., ancient material that comes forward into more modern forms). Not all philologists are comparativists. One can be a philologist of, say, Greek or Latin with little interest in other related (or not) language and culture. (Thus all Classicists are philologists and only a few are comparative philologists who might also study Sanskrit or some other sources.)

Philology studies the history of language as a window into culture, ideas, history, and language itself. In the less formal sense, philology is the study of texts as well as oral and written records in their original form. Philology then translates and interprets those works. But for what purpose? That depends. Academically it solely for the purposes of explanation using historically sound critical methods. Rajanaka wholly endorses and plays that game. But in Rajanaka it is ALSO for our "spiritual", soulful purposes, not merely lucid understanding. We can put down that marker between academic philology (which means to understand and explain without greater personal investments) and "spiritual philology" but they are thoroughly complementary and not at all opposed. Deeper truth is our common goal.

It is from this important task of spiritual philology that we move into other realms of human inquiry, particularly philosophy and psychology. Our philosophies focus on Indian sources but are not at all limited to them because we are comparativists---we take in whatever we find, like honey bees looking for the nectar across history, continents, cultures, and traditions. Our psychological studies look to Jung and the contemporary cognitive sciences. Rajanaka loves us some science because science looks for truths (durable and shared) and everything has to do with keepin' it real. I hope this was a little helpful or clarifying about, you know, the love of words and a soulful life.

This footnote comes from a dear friend who has been to India with us and ridden with us on the rails for many years, with deep love and respect for his insight here: 

I was recently asked what made Rajanaka Yoga different than other yoga systems. After the initial, "A lot," I started by quoting Douglas quoting Appa, "The universe has no meaning, no purpose, and no goal." Of course that always gets the quizzical look as people do tend to expect something more seemingly "spiritual." I told them that whether sitting at the fire as the priests are chanting the Rudram or at the Met for La Boheme or at The Globe for Much Ado or walking along a path through the woods or putting the curry leaves in the oil at the right moment--not too early, not too late--Rajanaka looks at the way that meaning is constructed, particularly, but not exclusively, how it is constructed through language and then explores how those meanings, given name, become the structures of purpose and meaning that both define who we are and who we might become.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Resolutions and the Ever-New Year

New Year’s is, of course, the time of the year we focus---and usually only for a moment---on making resolutions.  We’re going to get lots of advice about making resolutions, about how to achieve our goals and why we fail, and we’re going to hear much the same next year.  If we make resolutions every year we might want to think about making them just as ever-new every day and what that might mean.  If we talk about resolutions principally in terms of success and failure, we’re going to miss what is great.  Let’s try for better.

Greatness invariably includes success and failure but it speaks more directly to values, to worth and the possible.

When something has great value, we may succeed and fail time and again.  When things are worth it, we measure success more honestly and accept failure as another inevitability.  When we take to heart what is possible, we may not have all the choices we might wish for but can receive the grace to create choices we endow with resolve. 

We have arrived again at the importance of resolutions because they give us pause.  It is in that pause we have opportunity to create further interest---and interest means acceleration and, if we are smart about that, direction.


The greatness of resolution is that it does not resolve so much as invite us to direct our deliberations; it prompts us to initiate design, foster purpose, and so bring us to terms with choice.  What do you want? Why do you want it? What are you willing to do to make what is possible possible?


Greatness, like resolve, resides in the questions we ask that will encourage, entice, and provoke us.  Greatness entreats us not to finality but to inclusion, inclusion that compels us to receive change as opportunity rather than reversal, as invention and advance drawing us more deeply towards what is light and shadow.  The more greatness, the more shadow kindles illumination---and so more shadow with which we must sooner or later contend.  That the gift of light burns is resolve.

In Sanskrit we call such resolve and the act of resolution-making vrata.   The simplest translation is “vow” and the reason that suffices is because, if you think about it, we make very few vows in life, take even fewer oaths, and likely spend far too little time thinking about what we are doing when we do.  This is where the traditions of India can help again: we must never underestimate the power of contemplation to encourage clarity even if it cannot produce certainty. 

Now one who makes a vrata is called a vrātya and that too is worth further consideration.   One old meaning of “vrātya” is a person of ordinary or low stature deciding to act in ways that propose change for the better.  However we assess our self-worth, we might arrive at the better if we begin with our ordinary self.  What is extraordinary isn’t other than that ordinariness, it is what happens when we make a vrata, ourselves vrātya.

The extent of the word “vrata” should help us further understand what is at stake.  A vrata is an inner act of the 
will, it is a soul-yearning for soulfulness; it is self-command made on the inside meant to be brought outside; it can mean laying down a law, which may in fact be the original meaning of “law”---something that is laid down so that it can be seen and considered and made known to one’s self and others.

Sometimes the vrata is the commitment, that to which we commit and our obedience, our service, and the sphere of action in which it all occurs.  In other words, a vrata is an environment, a domain for change. No one changes significantly by being coerced but rather by receiving change as an experience of choice and circumstances that will define boundaries.

A vrata then is a sphere of action, a function not of mere code and conduct but of practice and creativity.   Taking vows is a personal matter.  Turning a vow into an oath is meant to objectify, to instantiate for public or institutional purposes.  Thus we vow personally, but we make an oath with the promise of accepting public accountability.  A vrata means to connect the two, that is, it implies the yoga, the connection between our self-promise and the oath’s self-endorsing powers that apply, whether or not we can keep our promise.  To wit, the vrata binds us to freedom by inviting karma to take its proper place between what we feel inside and what we commit to doing for all to see. 

In Rajanaka tradition the making of vratas is an everyday yoga, something that prevents the ordinary from becoming anodyne and the extraordinary from becoming merely balmy.  We ask ourselves to do hard things not because they are hard but because they are worth it.  Sometimes that can be just getting out of bed and getting dressed in the 11th month of pandemic isolation.  Sometimes it involves making a plan a year, two years, ten years in advance to do something worth it, to follow up, follow through, like making again a pilgrimage that you know invites being more uncomfortable that you need to be.

Difficult things are rare because we rarely do what is difficult unless we have to.  The purpose of a vrata is not to make the difficult more easily done but rather to do what is difficult.  For that we are going to need help, no matter how much we try to help ourselves.  This is why a vrata is made personally but is expressed in virtual terms like an oath.  This is why a vrata is best made by reaching into the soul and making soulful what you claim for yourself with others.


A vrata can be individual---it might even have to originate there, inside you, even if it is suggested or offered or comes from circumstance rather than self-invitation.  But the soul of the vrātya belongs to the community that sees in vrata that some things are worth the trouble, worth the effort, are difficult and rare---and that our best hope lies in the ways we support one another.

However alone we are, our best self is made plural by the relationships we create to live in dignity and through resolutions.  Our vratas must be living, which means they must move, adapt, do their work with a dynamic temporality that combines the merely mortal with purpose that out outlives the moment.  We participate in something more abiding than what time can rot when we bring our vrata into time knowing that it too is like the plural self: time is not one, not two, and achieves its only form of “perfection” by replacing itself with itself, time and again.  When we cannot do that for ourselves, memory will achieve it if the resolution meets the demands of greatness head on.


Our recursive self brings resolution to life again and again so that little by little we can open to more selves, to deeper relationships, to the prospect that in this brief, moral life we have made promises worth keeping.  Should we succeed, we live to do it all again.  Should we fail, we live to do it again.


The greatness of our vow lies in how we decide for ourselves and for each other what is worth our intention and actions, what is worth loving and so with it the prospects for grief that come with true experience.

If this sounds too solemn or portentous then let us be gentle with one another, let us ask no more from ourselves than is possible and no less than we should.  How that is decided is up to you.  We will be here for you, which is why you might consider your next resolution.  Make every resolution ofand ever-new resolution.  Be that vrātya, the maker of the vow, to be more than you are right now because that is possible, again and again.