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.