Friday, January 29, 2010

The Free Man

In my youth I knew a young Jewish scholar. He had at that time few attainments, but his mind was quick and he could speak intelligently on even obscure topics. The depth and breadth of his knowledge was remarkable. 

His prodigious curiosity ranged many disciplines, and I sincerely believed that the world, which produced such a man endowed with such gifts, would surely profit by him. 

Together we studied the science of politics. He secured his degree and went on his way. But my faith in this science was shaken. In its innermost chamber I peered behind the curtain and saw its armless ancient idol balanced on a crooked foundation. In despair I abandoned that pursuit, ridiculed by those who worshiped at the altar of this fraudulent god. 

During this time I abandoned all things, even reason. But I returned at last and discovered by chance that the scholar I once knew had bartered the gold of his youth for the alchemy of his studies. He now received payment for imparting this science to students such as we were once. 

Learning this, I bit the lip of disbelief and said these words for his benefit. 

“Your mind is strong and noble. You are perceptive. Your intellectual qualities are real. You possess a treasure house of knowledge. You understand readily what others only with difficulty grasp. Why then do you waste this mind with small thoughts, applying your skill to twaddle? Your pursuits are beneath you. 

“Among those I have known, you have been the most intelligent. Yet I would not call you the wisest. Too many marionettes play this part; you without sense play their part in turn. The king does not wear shackles; he does not bedeck his prisoners in robes of honor. Is this the end to which you have been purposed? Is this the end to which great intellect brings you? 

“By your name, you are called a free man. Exercise that freedom. Yet if in the comfort of inconsequential thoughts you expend your allotted time, what will they say of the gifts you were granted? They are never given to those unworthy of them, except that we make ourselves unworthy of them, forgetting our duty to them. It is a struggle to deserve what we are given, knowing that we neither earned nor merited our gifts. Remember what Arjuna learned: "Do not let the reins slip from your hand. Rise up, without desire, and fight." 

“You may not count me a friend. But I have never given friendlier counsel.” 

When I relayed these words to him, his face became sour and he accused me likewise for wasting my life and more meager intellect on worthless metaphysics and philosophical meanderings. To this accusation I assented, saying, “Everything you say about me is true. I cannot deny it. But the wise have said: 

To deny my virtue is no testament to yours.
The truth of my failure does not falsify yours.
The snake with a broken back may stay still strike.
The lantern with polluted oil may still burn."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Obelisk

I had come to Kufa on my way from Shiraz. There I saw a man, a mendicant on the street, sitting alone in the shade of a battered wall. His mouth was filled with rotting teeth and his eyes were white on white. He spoke, but his words were nonsense, a lunatic in conversation with his lunacy. As my shadow fell over him, he rushed forward and stood before me, barring my path. And his voice became suddenly clear and his blinded eyes fixed on me. I reached for some coins in my pocket but he grasped my arm, not allowing me to deliver them into his begging bowl. He said, “I have a riddle for you.”

I said, “What is your riddle?”

He recited these words:

She knows without knowledge. Unknown, she is knowing.
She speaks without language. Unspoken, she sings.
She moves without motion. She soars above knowledge.
Who is she?

Assuming this was more madness, I answered, “I don’t know.”

He said, “Know yourself as you are. What is the obelisk of self?

“You possess body and form. This is the foundation.

“You possess sense awareness, which is the sensual appetite and reflex. This is the column.

“You possess subterranean consciousness, which feeds upon sense, but is the gibbering, wordless, unknowing source of emotion. This is the topmost pyramid.

“You possess apparent consciousness, which are the thoughts you think at any moment. Here you will find the self you imagine yourself to be. This is the topmost stone.

“But above this is hyperborean consciousness, unknown from moment to moment. She is the crown of self, she is the simurgh atop the obelisk. She is glimpsed in dream and vision. She is epiphany. She is the blinding light on the road to Damascus. She is the vision of Gabriel to Ahmad. She is the atman. She is your true Self. She is not God, but a mirror of Him. She is not God, but the Soul, created in His image.

“The obelisk is her perch, her nest. From here she emerged from the egg and learns to fly. She is the way to detachment and contentment. She is the ineffable Self. And if she takes wing before the Earth reclaims the obelisk, she alights in Paradise. But if the obelisk is broken, she tumbles from its peak, she falls eternally from darkness into darkness."

When he finished speaking, he sat down again and placed his bowl beside him and took up speaking nonsense to himself where he’d left off.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Daughters of Vraj

“When Krishna was still young, the daughters of Vraj fell in love with him. Each girl desired that Krishna would become her husband. So they undertook a vow to the goddess Katyayani to obtain what they desired. At the banks of the river Kalindi, where every morning they bathed, they fashioned an image of the goddess in the sand, decorating her with red dye. Each morning, naked before they entered the water, the girls made obeisance to the idol, and repeated their vow. For a month they performed this vow every morning, setting aside their clothes, praying to the idol, then bathing in the river Kalindi where they swam and sported and sang of Krishna.

“One day Krishna came upon the girls while they splashed in the river. By the riverbank he saw the idol and understood their petition as they sang of him. Yet they were oblivious to his presence. Stealthily he gathered up their clothes and climbed a tall tree. As they sang and played, he called down to them and said, ‘O ladies. I have heard your vow and understand the meaning of your idol in the sand. But I am here among you, and you have no need for idols. Come out to see me.’

“The girls were startled by Krishna’s voice out of darkness, but were overjoyed that he was with them, though he had their clothes and was in the tree above them, out of their reach. As Krishna called for them to come out of the river, the girls shrank deeper into the water to conceal their nakedness. Krishna called out, ‘Why do you hesitate? I am here, as you wished. Come out and let me see you.’

“The girls laughed and called back, ‘Please don’t joke with us. We can’t come out. Where are our clothes?’

“Krishna smiled and said, ‘I have your clothes. Come out and take them back from me.’

“The girls scolded Krishna, saying, ‘This is shameful. We love you and are devoted to you and yet you mock us with your teasing. Return our clothes to us, beloved, for you know the way of dharma.’

“Krishna said, ‘You say that you love me and are devoted to me and that I know the way of dharma, but this is not true. I am myself the way of dharma, yet you do not obey me. Come out and I will forgive you and will return your clothes to you.’

“The girls relented and emerged from the water, modestly covering themselves with their hands and arms. They were smiling, but were bashful and embarrassed. With their clothes over his shoulder, Krishna climbed down from the tree and watched them as they shivered in the cold air. They called out to him to keep his promise and give them their clothes. But Krishna said, ‘You undertook a vow to attain my presence, but you violated that vow by bathing naked. Fold your hands upon your heads and offer obeisance to me. If you do not, your rites and devotions will come to nothing. I am the remover of imperfection. Obey me and attain what I desire for you.’

“Without hesitation they forgot themselves and obeyed Krishna without shame. When they made obeisance Krishna returned their clothes to them. He said, ‘To attain me, don’t worship idols in the sand. Don’t call on Katyayani or Indra, or any of the devas. Yet I am patient with you. If men worship even devas with humility performing rites to obtain what they seek, they may acquire what they seek, but whatever they attain comes from my hand alone.’”

The boy said, “There are many meanings to this story. The literal meaning is the least of them. Krishna represents God, the girls His devotees. They have worshipped improperly to attain His presence, but He forgives them and removes their imperfections. Abasing themselves to the idol in the sand to obtain Him, He appears to them and reveals to them a way to approach Him, though they did not see that simply by His presence He had already granted to them what they sought. Once they obeyed Him, following His dharma, forgetting themselves, their rites were fulfilled and their vows accomplished. In this there are lessons not for young girls who are in love, but for the wise.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Mischief of Krishna


When Krishna was a little boy he was famous for his bad behavior. Everywhere he went he acted mischievously, but concealed this from his mother, Yasoda. Though the gopis and gopas, and even his brother, Balarama, complained in loving anger of Krishna’s bad habits and small transgressions, Yasoda would not believe them. One day, while Balarama and other boys were playing, they saw Krishna putting mud into his mouth. At once they called out to Yasoda and accused Krishna. Krishna, whose eyes grew very wide, and who put upon his face an appearance of fear, denied that he had eaten dirt. Yasoda scolded her son. She said, ‘There is dirt on your cheek!’ but he denied it again. 

Angrily, she took his hand and brought him inside and said, ‘Then open your mouth and let me see.’

Krishna did as his mother asked and opened his mouth. Yasoda peered within and she trembled at what she saw. In her little boy’s mouth she saw all gods and demons, and all the creatures of the world. She saw Indra in his palace, Vayu among the clouds, and the Goddess crowned by the pleiades. Above she saw the heavens and the circle of the constellations; she saw the moon and Surya in the sky shining brightly. Below, she saw the gates of hell and all its denizens. On the earth she saw green fields, farmland, forests, rivers and seas. She saw howling storms and golden clouds over oceans and continents. 

Beyond this she saw Brahma upon his throne at the end of a lotus. She saw Shiva with his bow surrounded in burning light. And beyond even these, she saw Vishnu and his countless arms, bellies, mouths, and eyes. She saw no beginning and no end. She saw all things, moving and unmoving in every direction. From above she saw her own village where Balarama and the other boys played outside; she saw within her own home; she saw herself peering into her son’s mouth. 

Terror filled her and she fell back. She said, ‘You are not my son, but are the very form of God. Who am I? I am nothing, possessing nothing, knowing nothing. You are not my son, but I am your servant and seek your protection from what I have seen. I seek refuge in God from God!’

Krishna closed his mouth and said, ‘Pay no attention to a little mud in the mouth of the One who devours worlds.’ Taking pity on his mother, feeling only affection for her and seeing her love for him, both as her child and as God made manifest, he stole from her mind the memory of what she saw. At once, she was composed and at ease. She laughed at her little boy and set him on her lap, with a heart full of love.


Because of Krishna’s mischief, Yasoda, his mother, decided to punish him. 

Krishna had run away from her when she caught him misbehaving. He had broken a pot of butter and was feedings its contents to the monkeys that lived in the trees by the window. Seeing this, Yasoda chased Krishna through their home. When she caught him, she resolved to bind him with rope to keep him near and out of trouble. 

As she wrapped the rope around him, she found it was two fingers short. She took another length and tied it to the rope around Krishna, and found that now it was three fingers short. At last, she gathered up every piece of rope in her home, yet every time she knotted another length, she found it shorter still. Pitying his mother, Krishna at last allowed himself to be bound.

What knot can hold the sun, what rope has length,
To tether it to earth, or sap its strength?

Monday, January 4, 2010

The First Mudra

His unity is deep, mysterious.
In a well of fathomless waters,
You will not discover its depths.
In the stars that crown the celestial sphere,
You will not reach its heights.
He is above all that is,
Even the highest.
He is beyond all that is,
Even the most distant.
Go no further to find Him.
He is nearer to you than your own flesh.
He is closer to you than your most secret thought.
In every direction you turn,
There He is.
In every moment, movement,
With every breath you draw,
There He is.
The candle flickers,
There He is.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Hyperboreans

Athena said, "Yet accepting my gift you take no part and you share no fault for the destruction of your father’s city. One day, in your great old age, you lie down in the forests, near your herd, to rest awhile. Nearby, a hunter, seeing only the color of your skin, mistakes you for a deer. He fires his arrow into your eye, no poison upon it, but you die from the wound, in your sleep, and Oenone, who finds you, cannot revive you. Death comes over you, darkness covers your eyes and you do not awaken.”

Paris said, “So my choice is to be king, to be beloved of the most beautiful woman in the world, or to be a shepherd, which I already am. And in all cases Troy falls whether I am present or I am absent.”

Athena said, “Come with me to the land of the dead and I will explain this mystery to you.” And Athena took Paris’ hand and led him from the grove in which they stood, along a forest path, down a ravine where the sound of flowing water soothed him, to a cavern Paris had never seen before, from which blew a cold draught.

Paris hesitated and said, “I won’t go in.”

Athena smiled patiently upon him, saying, “You are under my protection and no harm will come to you here.” And saying this she drew him into the cave that led deep into the earth. At last, the goddess and her friend entered a great cavern, through which ran five rivers. And in the darkness, as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, Paris saw unnumbered figures, ghostly white and partly transparent, crowding together in the massive cavern, wandering without aim, flitting like phantoms without purpose, with empty eyes.”
Athena said, “Take your sword and dig a trench here, not too deep.”

Paris obeyed and, when he finished, Athena produced wine, milk and honey and poured this into the trench. This work done, Athena then brought him a black sheep, without spot or blemish. She held back its head and Paris cut its throat, creating a pool of blood in the trench. Straight away, the dead, smelling the blood, turned toward Paris and approached the trench, but Athena, glorious to behold in her shining armor stopped them and turned them away, for even the dead, who have nothing left to fear, were cowed by her. And those who came too close, she unveiled the aegis to them, and the gorgon’s head turned them to stone. She called out, her voice ringing in the cavern, both beautiful and awful to hear, “Tiresias! Come forward! This offering is for you.”

Then stepped forward the ghost of Tiresias, grasping a golden scepter. He said, “Why do you call me, Athena? How may I serve you when I am among the dead?”

Athena said, “Drink your fill; we have poured this libation for you.”

Tiresias knelt down on the wet earth and cupped his hands, taking up a little of the bloody offering, drinking a mouthful at a time. At last he stopped and, leaning upon his scepter, stood again before them.
Paris, wearing a look of horror, said, “How is it that you speak and seem sensible when all these others seem feckless and speechless?”

Tiresias said, “I have kept my speech and mind and possess even my powers of prophecy, though I am among the dead. These other mindless ones wander without purpose, troubled but without knowing what troubles them. Knowing only appearance, they are as much dead to themselves as they are to you.”
Paris said, “What do you know of my death? What does your power of prophecy reveal to you about me?”

Tiresias said, “Your death is fixed, but your life is not yet decided.”

Athena said, “Tell him, Tiresias, what will become of him if he accepts my gift.”

Tiresias said, “He will be blessed beyond the blessing I have received. Like me, he shall retain knowledge of himself in the land of the dead, but he will pass beyond the land of the dead to the land of true life, which is known only to a few.”

Paris said, “Is this land a Paradise? A place of heavenly enjoyment and delights?”

Tiresias said, “That you expect it to be such a thing is a barrier to it. The road to that land is blocked even to the immortals if they are not purified of worldly desire and foolish expectation. Give up all knowledge of heaven and earth and cleanse yourself that you may attain that station and may enter the House constructed for you in worlds yet to form, under stars yet unborn, in skies not yet raised. Only then is the road open to you, if you accept Athena’s gift and turn away all other gifts. If not, then join these dead here today, for you already wander among them.” Tiresias then fell silent and slipped, like mist, back into the unnumbered crowd of the dead, disappearing among them altogether. And, at once, Paris was again in the grove, smelling the sweet mountain air, the goddess naked before him.

Paris said, “I have no taste for Hera’s glory, but that vision of death might be forgotten in the arms of Aphrodite’s promise”

Athena said, “You may take some comfort there, but you must at last face death. And when you are dead, Helen will betray all things, even the city in which she found protection, even the king who offered her sanctuary, to save her own precious life. And when you are buried, rejected by Oenone and cast into an earthen pit, Helen will forget her tears for you and remember her affection for Menelaus. In his bed she will gladly lodge again while you roll and couple with dust. Those who speak of 'deathless' love speak in code of something else, or else they have no sense. Mortal love, like martial glory, like all mortal things, has an ending in time. Do not put your faith in such things or exchange one for the other. Unwisely men spend their lives bartering one useless thing for another and consider themselves great negotiators.

“Seek a cunning superior to Odysseus’, a strength greater than Ajax’s, an authority higher than Agamemnon’s, a glory better than Achilles’ and claim your birthright, higher than Hector’s. Follow Tiresias’ prophecy for you and win every battle at my side, not among men in armor, or in hollow ships or on fleet horses upon the plains of Troy, but against yourself. Become my kinsmen, closer even than my father.

”I am truly the daughter of the Thunderer Zeus, that lover of lightening; but he is only display beside the power I serve. Zeus is my father, but he, like me, and like his fathers before him, is but a creature. He is not the font of wisdom nor the source of the cosmos. He is not the highest in heavenly glory, nor the best of his kind. He is king now, as Cronus was king before him, and as another will be king in his place. He is my father, from whom I have sprung. But consider your own father, who would have you murdered in the crib. There is One greater than the king of Troy, and there is One greater than the king of gods. From Zeus I have sprung, but I serve the One beyond singleness, the Man beyond men, the God beyond gods. Become like me, and serve wisdom and let wisdom serve you and what I say will become evident to you. The gods themselves will honor you. You have nothing to fear in life and in death you have nothing to fear nor in the life yet to come. Do not accept Hera’s bribe and resist Aphrodite’s allurements; these are not gifts but springes. To live in service to your desires is a snare; it is not life, nor is abjuring such desires death.

"This calling is for few, and I offer to you, if you judge me the fairest of the three. Have you heard of the race, north beyond north, called the Hyperboreans?"

"Yes, I have heard of them. They live in a land of warmth, of plenty, of eternal sunshine, both day and night. They are worshippers of Helios."

"They do not worship Helios, but Helios worships them, does obeisance to them. 'Neither by land nor sea shall you find the road to the Hyperboreans.' They are 'beyond north, beyond ice, beyond death.' Yet none of that tribe goes a moment without the Muse at his side, without celestial music in his ears, without the warm sun on his skin.

"No wind can parch him, for he is beyond winds. No darkness can blind him, for he wears the warmth of the sun. His eyes are brighter than sun and moon and stars together. Neither hunger nor thirst can reach him, for always he is filled with what sustains him and he drinks deeply of the waters of true knowledge. Though to you, he may seem poor, but beyond your sight he is caparisoned like a god. Though to you, he may seem without friend, the gods vie for his companionship. Though to you, no sun shines upon him, but in his sight the sun shines at all times, in all places. He is beyond worldly riches, for his treasury overflows. He has no need for love's passion, for he loves beyond passion. He has no craving for power; power is powerless before him. The winds of sorrows and joys do not trouble him, for his is beyond all earthly storms. Men say he is from the north, where winds do not rule. Yet he may be in any place. He is unmoved by any earthly power. His life even the gods cannot possess, for he is beyond all gods and goddesses. His mind is stillness, quietude, peace. His goal is not happiness, for contentment rests on his brow. What no living man perceives, the gods envy. Such is your perception!"

At last, Athena said, "Become Hyperborean and rise above all things. Be detached from all that is in heaven and on earth. Abstain from the lures of the world, for the one who desires the world shall always be reborn to desire. Go beyond life and death, beyond all things that have an ending in time. This is what I offer the one who counts me the fairest of the three."