April 4-6 — Visiting the Ashram

Goodbye to Mandir 006


I titled this series of entries:

“Settled in Pune — the Center of the Universe”

and said I would explain myself.

This grandiose title may sound a little parochial or ethnocentric, or maybe better, exo-ethno-centric, as I’m not an Indian, much less a Pune native.

But in 2011, a few days after I arrived at the ashram of my spiritual teacher (who is now deceased), Shankarji, the current monk-in-charge asked, “Well, how does it feel being here?”   I said, “I feel like I’m at the center of the universe.”

Now, if you’ll forgive me, I would like to muse a little about that reply.  (Feel free to skip ahead, if you prefer!).  Note also: this note talks about “God”—a word you may find politically and ontologically suspect.   But to me it’s fine to think of  THAT WORD as just a metaphor for SOMETHING ELSE that people have fallen under the spell of.

Augustine of Hippo defined God as a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

In Hinduism, there is a cool notion called the Ishta Devata, or “cherished divinity,” a term used to refer to one’s favorite image for the Divine.   This is one of my favorite aspects of Hinduism.  You get to choose the image for the Divine that appeals to you most.  (Or not choose one at all).  The great nineteenth-century saint, Ramakrishna, like many others, said that you can worship Krishna, Shiva, Kali, Jesus, the Buddha, or whatever image for the Divine most inspires you.  Or you can think of IT (whatever IT is) as beyond all concepts, hence, Emptiness—i.e, empty of concept/form/image/idea—as Buddhists do.   Hindus call that Nirguna Brahma, God without form, 0r Satchitananda—“Existence, Consciousness, Bliss.”   That works, too.

(Interestingly, this week there’s an interview in the New York Times with Howard Wettstein, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, in which Wettstein, a devout  Jewish practitioner, speaks at length about the irrelevance of theological questions about the existence of “God.”  He says that practice, prayer, is central, theologizing about God is futile: IT is beyond the purview of mental notions and conceptions.  The interview is somewhat misleadingly titled, as “Is Belief a Jewish Notion?).

For Ramana Maharishi IT was the mountain Arunachala, his image for Shiva.

(Ramakrishna also said, by the way, that God is in all places everywhere, but his favorite abode is in his devotee’s heart.)

Wendy Doniger, in her book, “The Hindus” (being pulped as we speak and no longer being published by Penguin India, because of a lawsuit by Hindu fundamentalists, alleging that it is offensive to Hindu sensibilities–which is really ironic, given the point I’m trying to make here, one about Hindu tolerance),  says that contradiction is not a big problem in Hinduism.   There is a myth in which Brahma creates Vishnu and then creates the universe, and there’s a myth in which Vishnu creates Brahma and then the universe.  This inverting, interpenetrating contradiction is not seen as a problem.   (Maybe Whitman learned his comfort with contradiction in his readings about Hinduism.)

So, my friend, you worship Shiva and see him as the Absolute Reality.  I worship Kali and see her as the Absolute Reality.  Cool, how about a cup of chai? In medieval Europe, upon finding that our friend had a different notion than us about our Ishta Devata, rather than offering them a cup of chai, we would more likely burn them at the stake.

Yet, this idea of the One Final Absolute Reality being located wholly and completely in all these different Ishta Devatas that millions of people hold in their hearts at the same time begins to sound a little like Augustine’s definition of God.  (Though he would not have liked my saying so.)

Or as Blake said, ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand /. . . /Eternity in an hour.”

Which is all a very roundabout way of saying that being at the ashram of my spiritual teacher is like being at the center of the universe TO ME.

And, since we’re quoting poems, here is a poem of Tukaram’s, the seventeenth-century Marathi poet, that I posted on Facebook a few days ago:

Words are the only

Jewels I possess

Words are the only

clothes I wear

Words are the only food

That sustains my life

Words are the only wealth

I distribute among the people

Says Tuka

Witness the Word

He is God

I worship Him

With words



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