Life - The Pilgrim Progress
by Roohi Saluja
Book of Mirdad
In the Milky Mountains, upon the lofty summit called the Altar Peak, stand the spacious and sombre ruins of a monastery once famous as The Ark. From the very beginning, numerous legends have been woven together in myth and folklore, to explain its origins. It was believed that when Noah and his family drifted in the ark on the day of the Great Flood, it finally docked itself in the Milky Mountains where they found fertile valleys and abundant cultivation.
As Noah approached his death, he feared that people would soon forget the Grand Ark as a pillar of faith. It had led humanity through the one-hundred-and-fifty-day ordeal against the wrath of the Furies, and ultimately delivered them unto a peaceful new life. He feared that people would resume their old lustful and wicked ways and the lesson of the Ark would go unnoticed.
Noah bid his son, Sam, to build an altar on the highest peak of the mountains. This was named as the Altar Peak. He asked him to build a house around this altar, similar to the ark, which would be a sanctuary where no less and no more than nine chosen men must stay. This came to be known as The Ark.
A few generations passed, and one of the nine companions died. According to tradition, the very first man who would seek admittance would be taken in to fill the ninth place. And so it happened that one day a naked, famished and wounded man knocked at the door. At first, the senior abbot of The Ark, Shamadam, repelled by his appearance, refused him admittance. But on the stranger’s insistence, he was finally let in, but on the condition that he would be a servant, and not companion.
Seven years passed, and the monastery hoarded unaccountable riches. But in the eighth year, Shamadam felt his authority begin to gradually loosen over the companions. The stranger-servant who had served in silence, took charge. Under his leadership, the monks gave away all their riches and deserted the monastery. As the stranger himself was about to leave, he laid a curse upon Shamadam, whereby he was bound to the grounds of the monastery, rendered dumb until his day of deliverance.
What unfolds is a timeless tale of a mysterious man, Mirdad, who centuries later, decided to set off on a journey to The Ark. The vision of a solitary monk wandering in the gloom of the ruins of the monastery beckoned him. At last he decided, “I must ascend the mountain.”
On his ascent, Mirdad decided to take the way up the Flint Slope. But what had seemed earlier like a smooth, straight road, stretched out before him as a vast, steep, unconquerable passage. Yet, he was not deterred.
Soon, he felt the throes of hunger. As he untied the handkerchief around his waist and took out a loaf of bread, a shepherd appeared with his herd of hungry goats and a bellwether. Mirdad had no qualms about sharing his bread with him. But to his surprise, the latter fed all the seven loaves to his goats. Suppressing his anger, Mirdad asked for a portion of the goat’s milk to sustain him on the long journey. To this the shepherd replied: Your flesh is food sufficient, and your blood is drink sufficient. There is the way besides.
Having crossed the Black Pit, bruised and mutilated by a series of ordeals, Mirdad now sought shelter in a grotto. Just then, an old, decrepit couple entered the cave, who robbed him of his staff and drove him out to face the chill of the soot-black night. As he tried to resist, the couple muttered,
“Happy are the staffless,
They stumble not.
Happy are the homeless,
They are at home.
…The home-chained only,
Must have a home.”
As Mirdad set out once again to face the lonesome darkness of the night, this time unarmed, naked, and famished, he fell flat on the ground and fainted. His breath froze in the nostrils, but he continued to hold on to the last words of the old couple: Die to live, or live to die. Mirdad was blessed. The call of grace beckoned: Arise, O happy stranger. You have attained your goal.
Let there be light
The Book of Mirdad is a timeless allegorical tale about encountering untold danger and loss on the higher quest. It entails for the traveller an expansion of consciousness through facing one’s fears and vulnerability on a voyage into uncharted territory. The spiritual journey culminates in coming face-to-face with higher wisdom through the dissolution of one’s sense of duality.
Mikhail Naimy reveals that in the end, The Ark is nothing but a symbol of enlightenment. In the final paradoxical twist to the story, the mysterious stranger Mirdad is in fact the servant of yesteryears who had promised Shamadam to return and redeem him!
The unkempt and tattered stranger-servant is none other than one’s own rejected shadow, which must be accepted by the ego with compassion and love, to be reintegrated within the personality to achieve wholeness and balance. Until such integration occurs, there is always a sense of emptiness within.
The shadow knocks on the doors of consciousness, and the ego seeks to suppress it, because it represents those aspects of oneself, which, if brought to light, can bring on censure or ridicule in society. It thus seems to highlight one’s innermost fears. Eventually, through repeated face-offs with the shadow self, the master-ego begins
to lose its control until, one day, the shadow part is able to overcome the ego. It forces the self to get rid of all that is weighing it down into a false sense of security and well-being.
Eventually, through embracing the risk of giving up one’s illusions and meeting the bare self shorn of its duality, the shadow is purified and transformed into a being of light, which returns to redeem the ego. This, in essence, is the meaning of Mirdad’s heroic journey and his quest to return to The Ark. Both Mirdad and Shamadam are one and the same, torn apart through the illusion of separateness, and unless they are united in mutual honour, they are condemned to live in pain and suffering.
The tale also reminds us that irrespective of our social standing, we are all mystics by virtue of our birth. Human life is a means to nurture soul-awakening, which is made possible by a journey to the centre, through an immersion in non-duality, to experience the Oneness of all existence. The moment we recognise this truth, our hearts open to compassion and love for all in their suffering. This was the lesson that the bully Shamadam had to learn for his redemption. And this was also the lesson that Mirdad had to learn to be able to reach The Ark.
Meeting the higher vision
The lands where sages and prophets leave their trail come to be known as sacred places – journey to which becomes a pilgrimage for lesser travellers on the path.
Visiting these places is to tap in and experience the spiritual dimension of the event in which God made himself known. As we become receptive to the higher vibrations of the holy site, the rarefied frequencies purge the darkness within and cleanse us of negative karma, to uplift our consciousness towards higher unfolding.
Spiritual attainment is a matter of transformation of consciousness. But how can this occur unless we let go of our attachment to habitual modes of thinking? A pilgrimage is a process to allow us to experience encounters with the divine. It means going past the known, familiar terrain. One has to start living simply, drop all guards and pretences, and head straight into that which is holy and sacred. All that one knows, or imagines one knows is at stake. Little by little, the familiar way of life falls apart. We begin to change, to accommodate strange new experiences. But if the call is refused, and the lessons not learnt, we may never return to our home and sanity! The reward, in terms of transformation and awakening, is often in direct proportion to the level of risk involved in making the faith leap over deep chasms of self-obliteration.
The purpose of pilgrimage assumes meaning when we understand the purpose of life itself – that is, to grow towards wholeness, in union with the divine. This implies liberation from the illusion of separative consciousness, and thus also from the repetitive cycles of death and rebirth.
Part of this realisation requires self-purification. This paves way for clarity in perceiving who we are and the importance of spiritual evolution. This results in an expansion of consciousness, and if the gods are gracious, there is enlightenment.
But more than a trek across the oceans or up the soaring peaks, the spiritual journey is a deeper expression of an inner response to the call of the mystical divine spirit. The phantom that waits at each turn, or the grotto that leads into sinister darkness is a manifestation of the danger that foretells the death of the ego.
This is the threat that Mirdad faced in giving up the seven loaves of bread to the bellwether and going provisionless on the journey; or in leaving the grotto without a staff, unarmed to face the dark saturnalia of the night. Nevertheless, it is only in confronting these threats head-on that he finally attains enlightenment, symbolised by his entry into The Ark.
Leigh, healer and transformation thinker, in his article, The Journey Towards Unity Consciousness, explains that our voyage of evolution is our journey towards unity consciousness. This may begin when we feel pain or suffering, usually caused by our fear of separation – be it from a person, society, world, or from oneself. Our journey of evolution requires that we go into the fear, and see what positive message it has to give us. The essence, at the end of the day, will be to experience the higher identity of our being as co-creators of our destiny. And then, Noah, Mirdad, Shamadam, man and woman – all dissolve in the Eternal One.
Empty your travel bags
In the olden days, setting out on a pilgrimage meant letting go of the familiar, including material support. It implied encountering divinity in nothingness, and with nothing. In the practice of vanaprasthashram – elderly couples retired to the forests to achieve a spiritualised living for the attainment of moksha. Until recent times, old widows undertook the long journey to Kashi, the city of light, to await liberation from the cycles of death and rebirth.
Revered sadhus went on grand parikramas by foot, travelling over vast distances. They wore only a loin cloth, and equipped with a khapar (begging bowl), kamandalu (water canister), khadau (wooden sandals), a bag of holy ash and the chimta (iron tongs) – to turn the embers in the sacred fire of the dhuni – embarked on perilous escapades in the wilderness.
Facing death at every turn on rough terrain – there were deserts, mountains and forests on the way, with wild animals, sickness, inclement weather and bandits to boot – the ego was thrashed, humiliated, and bruised over and over again, so that all its greedy declarations of ‘me and mine’ submerged in the expansive understanding of the real. To survive, they lived by their wits and developed considerable ‘presence of mind’. This is the space where illusions cease, dualities dissolve; the form becomes void, and stillness encompasses form. Those pilgrims who were blessed with the higher vision, returned home as enlightened pathfinders, to lead the uninitiated towards higher spiritual awareness.
Buddha undertook a similar journey as an itinerant monk. In his quest for enlightenment, he set out on a six-year, three-phase journey to truth. The first phase was his mastering the art of meditation, the second phase belonged to his years of asceticism and self-mortification, and the finale was when he transcended the darkness of human negativity and moved into a state of clarity and wisdom in total serenity.
On his return to the world, what he beheld without was the visual aspect of the magnanimous, transcendent emptiness on which his own experience of ego, form, perceptions, and knowledge rode. He was filled with empathy for the self-terrorised beings who lived in fright of their own nightmares. This was his ‘great compassionate act.’ Waves of grace emanated from such a one for the liberation of all beleaguered humanity.
The journey within
But the inner journey need not always be triggered by a physical trek. The French novelist, Marcel Proust points out aptly, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
The inner pilgrimage is a dialogue between divinity and the self. It means living a life of contemplation, opening our hearts and souls to the sacred. The quest is the search for our core values, our passions and our spiritual gifts. What motivates us to go beyond the familiar is a longing for the ambrosial moments of grace.
This is the journey that the mystic poet Mira undertook, to attain inner spiritual union with Krishna:
“My lover’s in my heart,
What need have I to go anywhere?”
Or take the instance of the Persian poet Rumi, who, explains Deepak Chopra in The Soul In Love, “was so enraptured with God that he clung to a pole outside his house, swinging back and forth in ecstasy. From his lips poured joyous, drunken words about his beloved… To him God was everywhere, and every atom of the universe pulsated with the same divine rapture. This experience was not all pleasure; it was earthshaking:
Motes of dust dancing in the light
That’s our dance, too.
We don’t listen inside to hear the music – No matter.
The dance goes on, and in the joy
of the sun
Is hiding a God.”
Rumi was dancing the dance of life. Mira was the besotted slave of love, longing for her Dark Lord. But the emotions of both were not merely inflamed passion; they also had the ability to touch the deep, creative centres within. Deepak Chopra suggests that the intrinsic quality of such intoxicated love is freedom. It is not bound by time and space; it does not need expression or outward show because nothing is happening outwardly.
The grammar of symbols
When Rumi whirled in the dance of the dervishes and sang in rhapsody, the villagers around him were fascinated. They were reluctant to join him, but nevertheless loved to listen to him, for his words bore an uncanny feeling of familiarity – as though they were co-travellers who shared the entire experience with him. This is what I meant when I mentioned before, that we all are mystics by birth.
Mythology, across cultures, abounds with timeless symbols of transformative journeys to distant lands, which serve as the archetype of the human journey into consciousness to discover the ‘egoless self’ that holds the promise of enlightenment.
v Joseph Campbell, American folklorist and expert on mythology, in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, reasons that the mythical journey of Jason to acquire the Golden Fleece, King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, the fantastic travelogues of Jataka tales, or even the ecstatic journey of the Shamanic healer into the underworld – are nothing but the different faces of a single hero.
The road of trials is packed with ugly phantoms, winged bulls, and dragons that depict the many-headed ego, which needs to be constantly beheaded, even when the adventurer is close to the ultimate prize. Even Buddha had to encounter the tempter Mara who tried to distract him with promises and phantom fears, and Oedipus has to solve the riddle of the Sphinx before becoming the king of Thebes.
The Prince Five-weapons of Jataka manages to subdue the ogre, Sticky Hair, only when he gives up the weapons of his five senses, and uses instead the unnamed, intuitive Weapon of Knowledge. This is the divine thunderbolt of knowledge of a transpersonal divinity that goes beyond the known names and forms. In that moment, the prince is not caught, but stands released.
The crucial lesson to be learnt in all these mythological journeys is to submit to self-annihilation. This requires being swallowed into the dark abyss of the unknown like Jonah by the whale in the Book of Jonah, or when the Greek god Cronus gulps the whole Greek pantheon down.
According to Campbell, the myth of the heroic journey serves as a general scale for ordinary human beings, by which to measure their performance, and it then assists in going beyond common restrictions. Who and where are the ogres? What are the ideals? These are the reflections that one must grasp to set on the path to enlightenment.
On the way there are the spiritual guides who are personifications of faith. Dante’s Beatrice in Paradiso, Thoth, the ibis god of Egyptian myth, or the Holy Ghost in Christianity – all suggest the essential quality of reassurance, that if one learns to know and trust, the guiding light will appear.
Follow the mythic hero
And now the obvious question: What does one make of these mythological journeys in contemporary times? How do they affect our own personal quest for enlightenment?
Campbell answers, “We have not to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the centre of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
Following this thread of the hero-path is what the poet William Stafford means by “following the golden thread.” The real challenge for a modern seeker is to learn to interpret the grammar of these mythological symbols, holding them gently for a time until they deliver their message to us.
And how does one do this? For Campbell, the answer lies in following your bliss, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”
Furthermore, as you pass the Holy Grail, drink what you alone desire and learn your own lessons. And when it comes back to you again, receive it again, for it brings newer revelations, each with the power of transformation. The Great Mystery unfolds… fare thee well, traveller.
Subject: The Book Of Mirdad - 9 June 2010
My most revered book. A wonderful commentary which reveals some of the deeper mystery.
by: Lyn McCormack
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