Relationships - Walking the path in companionship
It was the last day of the 10-day Ganesh Chaturthi festival and Mumbai was steeling itself to say goodbye to its favourite deity. Standing back against the railing of my suburban train, happy at having found a foothold, my thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a burst of melody. Looking back at the seats behind me, I saw a small, thin woman, her face and form alive with fervour, magnificently invoking Ganesha through well-known Marathi bhajans in a trained mellifluous voice. Her companions sang with her, but so too, I noticed, did other passengers who didn’t know her at all. Finding a seat close by, they would listen transfixed and soon their lips would move in unison, even as they fiddled with their mobiles or closed their eyes in repose. I was witnessing a satsang in action.
In a small clearing among tall trees and verdant shrubs in Mumbai’s Hanging Gardens, I listen to my five women companions read from Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri. The power and beauty of the words offset the ambience, with the sun’s rays slanting down from the leaves and the birds chirping happily. On a chair, the framed pictures of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother look on benevolently. After the reading and meditation, comes the sharing.
Reema Seth, one of the principal organisers, whose father created this little sanctuary adjoining the Hanging Gardens, is a yoga teacher and she tells the others about a Yoga Nidra class conducted by an Australian. Anahita Sanjana, another Yoga teacher working at J.B. Petit School, invites the others to the dress rehearsal of a yoga ballet she is conducting. Much kissing and bussing later, the group disperses, each face wreathed in a smile.
In another part of Mumbai a motley crowd of women sit in healer and channel Kashmira Elavia’s drawing room, with their eyes closed, following her instructions to apologise to their hearts and other parts of the anatomy. That done, she asks them to love themselves. The women weave their arms around themselves and sway rhythmically as she takes them through affirmations. Occasionally, there is exultant singing of a pop nature: “I close my eyes and you are there. I open my heart and you are everywhere.” The meditation is powerful and even I get under its sway. Eventually, Kashmira asks them to open their eyes and lo, it is party time. Dosas and tea are devoured and the members talk vociferously. Some of the younger ones demonstrate a dance step Kashmira teaches to improve coordination and consciousness, which soon dissolves into a bump and grind session. Laughter fills the air. These folks are having fun.
Another day, another satsang. This time at a school one early Sunday morning, where some 40 Vipassana meditators of both sexes have gathered. No word is exchanged as they enter, sit down and close their eyes to the sonorous chants of their guru, S.N. Goenka. After an hour, the guru’s voice sings: ‘Sab ka mangal…’ and they open their eyes. Communion is always part of the post-meditation scenario, but especially so today, for they share breakfast on the first Sunday of the month. Over chutney sandwiches and poha, satsang happens. Tall and leggy yoga teacher (yes, another one) Falguni enthuses over the Vivekananda Yoga Kendra in Bangalore, while others ask the all-time favourite Vipassana question: “How many courses have you done?” Laughter bubbles out and there is a palpably good feeling as we come out into the early morning sunshine to return home.
What is a satsang?
Interpreted literally, ‘satsang’ means a gathering of seekers (sangha) of truth (sat). This interpretation is so fluid and flexible that it can incorporate a teacher and student, a seeker communing with himself, to a group of people gathering together to discuss ideas, meditate, or do kirtan. Says Vedanta teacher Uday Acharya: “The heart of a satsang is the communication of spiritual ideas, so even an e-group fits the bill. Writing for Life Positive is also satsang!”
|SANGHAM SHARANAM GACHAMI— partaking of group energy is one of the three refuges prescribed by the Buddha|
In today’s more spiritually liberal and adventurous climate, satsangs rarely stick to the straight and narrow path. There are groups who meet to channel or to learn automatic writing. Some gather to read books as varying as the Bhagavad Gita and Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri to New Age books such as James Redfield’s Celestine Prophecy, Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, and Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God. There are groups who meet for personal growth through therapy, and groups with no fixed agenda, save to enjoy each other’s presence. There are chanting satsangs, meditating satsangs, and deep breathing satsangs. There are yoga groups, Vipassana groups, TM groups, Satya Sai groups, and Brahma Kumari groups. There are even socialite satsangs where sybarites wear saffron, partake of gourmet vegetarian fare and gather to sing bhajans and listen to discourses in jasmine-scented rooms.
Satsangs spread across all religions and faiths. Christians have their prayer and fellowship meetings where families gather to sing hymns, pray and read the Bible. Indeed, community (just another word for satsang) is the heart of Christianity. The practice gets its validity from Christ’s observation that when three or more gathered in his name, he would be among their presence. The Jains have the concept of swadhyaya, consisting of the study of scriptures in a group. Among the Muslims there is the concept of the majlis, held mainly in a mosque after the night namaz, where a speaker answers questions thrown to him by the audience. Sikhs are in satsang as they collectively listen to the holy scripture of Guru Granth Sahib or share the langar (community lunch).
Partaking of group energy is one of the three refuges prescribed by the Buddha. Apart from taking refuge in Buddha and dharma, the seeker is enjoined to take refuge in the sangha (Sangham sharanam gachami). In the Buddhist context, this traditionally means the company of ordained monks and nuns, but its symbolic meaning includes being in the presence of all realised masters, no matter what their persuasion.
The secret of its success
Why is satsang a key spiritual component? And why are there so many today?
One of the main reasons is the need for like-minded company. The lonely seeker often faces a period when he or she feels out of step with the immediate friend and family circle. Uncertain of his own changing perspective, desperate for validation and the need to confide the problems of the path, he sinks into the sanctuary of the satsang like a fish in water.
Says 18-year-old Diana Pagdiwala, a member of Kashmira Elavia’s group, which practises an eclectic range of activities from body work to psychic protection to forgiveness meditation every Friday afternoon: “We just wait for Fridays through the week.” Adds Anahita Sanjana: “You can’t speak about spirituality to those you socialise with. Being with this group gives me the strength to continue on the path.”
But even seasoned seekers draw precious sustenance from the experience.
Businessman Ashish Bagodia, who is part of a recently formed satsang of followers of Yogi Ramsuratkumar of Tiruvannamalai, says: “I have been part of many groups ranging from school and college friends to business friends and family and relatives, but I have never got from any of them what I get from my satsang. An emptiness gets fed. Last week, I was out of town, so one night we had an hour-long teleconference. We were on such a high that many of us could not sleep.”
Manjiri Aggarwal, a schoolteacher and member of the Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, enthuses: “It’s a family beyond your own family. The bond is really strong because we have the freedom to share our happiness and our problems. We celebrate our victories over the self and get guidance on the path from our leader and each other. When in a group, you realise your own relative progress.”
|You are either going up spiritually or going down—there is no such thing as remaining in stasis. Satsangs reverse the process of entropy|
Says Razia Rangwala, part of the Brahma Vidya meditation group run by Justice M.L. Dudhat, ex-judge of the High Court, Mumbai: “What I wear, my class, community and religion is not important. The relationship is pure.”
Bagodia’s affluent business background is of no import among his group. He says: “They are a bunch of absolutely self-respecting individuals who don’t care who I am, which is very good for me. They don’t allow me to throw my weight around. One of our members is a girl about 10 years younger than me, who even did summer training in my company, but in the course of our 12-hour-long Guru Purnima celebration when some businessmen came to meet me, she told me that I should not talk business. For a moment I was angry but I realised that she was right. Now there is talk of a picnic. I have a place I can offer, but I have decided that I would rather go along with whatever the group wants.”
It is this willingness to introspect and moderate one’s own behaviour, instead of operating by the societal rules of manipulation and power play, that is responsible for the satsang synergy. Fashion columnist Meher Castelino, a follower of Meher Baba, takes great pleasure in organising occasional meetings among fellow seekers not necessarily of the same persuasion. Says she: “My professional socialising does not give me the satisfaction that these meetings do. People are very relaxed and there is a lot of bonding because no one wants anything from anyone.”
|What is new is the growth of eclectic groups where activities range from bodywork to psychic protection to forgiveness meditation|
The role of the guru
It is here that the presence of the guru, for those groups lucky enough to have one, is all-important. The guru is the embodiment of our goal, the role model for behaviour, attitude and values, and our guide and support on the way.
Says Santosh Sachdeva, a student of Justice Dudhat and author of two books on Kundalini Yoga: “When I first joined the meditation group, I was so impatient, I would always interrupt Guruji to air my views. He taught me to listen. I also learnt through Guruji’s example not to judge. People’s viewpoints emerge out of their experiential truth. What I say or feel about it is not important.” She adds: “The guru represents all that is divine. I would like to be the way he is, without judgement and reaction.”
Her son, Gautam Sachdeva, is a student of Ramesh Balsekar, the unconventional Advaita guru who lives in south Mumbai, where seekers from all over the world converge at 9 a.m. every morning for a stimulating exchange of questions and answers.
Sachdeva too draws inspiration from Balsekar. Says he: “I really look up to Ramesh. He’s completely lucid and clear. There is no room for doubt. He never fumbles and he is so alive!” As for the group interaction, it is the diversity of the seekers that attracts him. “One day there is a Thai monk and the next day you will find an airline pilot. Millionaires jostle with people on the dole.”
Uday Acharya learnt Vedanta for several years under the guidance of his guru, Swami Dayanand Saraswati. According to him, a guru inspires you to grow. He says: “As you do so, the relationship changes. You no longer cling; it changes to friendship. He gives you the wisdom that makes you complete. But it is his gift, so you offer him your adulation until you reach the final guru, which is God.” Today, he himself teaches, and the circle is complete. The growth continues. “I get a lot of clarity the more and more I communicate with others. I become increasingly sensitive to the other’s viewpoint,” he explains.
Satsangs, as I can testify, don’t necessarily have to be spiritual in nature. For the last couple of years I have been intermittently meeting with some 10 others, both men and women, once every week for a course on personal growth under the guidance of psychiatrist and Life Positive columnist, Dayal Mirchandani. We too are seeking the truth, the truth about our psychological states, and for glimpses of the worldview that dictates our behaviour and thoughts. Through the interventions of the group, with its different views and the psychiatrist’s insights, we gradually come to understand ourselves better and free ourselves from habitual patterns of functioning.
It is by no means easy to go public on one’s shortcomings, be it a relationship with a family member, poor self-esteem, or the pain of an unsatisfactory childhood. But when we did do so, a magical thing happened. We found that the shortcomings didn’t hold us back so much. More important, we had broken the barriers that separated us from each other and wandered into intimacy.
According to Dr Mirchandani: “Thanks to the courage of those who open up and the strength of the relationships formed, the bond is probably deeper than those built up through spiritual satsangs.”
In his book, Love and Survival, Dr Dean Ornish talks of his own movement into self-awareness through psychotherapy. His problem was a fear of intimacy and it took therapy to make him realise its source lay in his hazy sense of self and lack of personal boundaries. Therapy, which includes group therapy, shines its light on such areas, not often explored by conventional satsang, and pushes the seeker that much closer to complete self-knowledge.
Satisfying and life-enhancing though they are, not all groups thrive. Seeker Salome Roy Kapoor talks wistfully of a group that met for two years to discuss spiritual texts as varied as Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet to Affirmations by Gary Zukov, before running out of steam.
What keeps the group spirit going? How can it be nurtured to robust growth? M. Scott Peck addresses this very question in his book, The Different Drum, on the dynamics of community building.
According to him there are four phases through which a group must go through to become a genuine community.
The first is pseudocommunity. This is the initial phase when we step around each other’s corns and try and be nice. Inevitably, this means that conflicts and differences are unresolved and authenticity is sacrificed. Letting go of this stage leads to the next.
Chaos is characterised by the release of all that was suppressed in the earlier stage. Disagreements, old grudges, differing viewpoints are noisily expressed.
The third stage is emptiness. At this stage, we empty ourselves of all that stops community from forming, be they prejudices, judgemental thinking or self-defensiveness.
Community happens. There is joy and peace within the group. Peck characterises community as being a deeply inclusive place where decisions are arrived at through consensus and the group is committed to hang in there through pleasant and unpleasant phases. Because it works its way through problems rather than ignoring them, community is realistic and contemplative. It introspects. It knows itself.
|In an ideal satsang, psychological approaches may be welded with the impassioned search for spirit|
Being in community is every bit as important as being in communion with oneself. Says Ornish: “I am finding that true freedom comes from choosing interdependence…” Harmony within oneself is essential for harmony without, but the reverse can also apply. Working towards external harmony forces you to grow into a state of internal harmony.
And where then would satsang lead us? Can it take us as far as enlightenment? Yes, says an authority on the subject, Adi Shankaracharya in Bhajagovindam:
(Satsang leads to freedom from desire/Freedom from desire leads to freedom from error/Freedom from error leads to perception of the truth/Perception of the truth leads to liberation)
I rest my case.
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