By Suma Varughese
Internationally known writer, Vedantin, teacher and practitioner of ayurveda and Jyotish or astrology, David Frawley is one of the western world’s most ardent supporters of Vedic Hinduism. On a recent visit to India, he gave an interview to Suma Varughese
David Frawley, otherwise known as Vamadeva Shastri, is a US citizen by birth and a Hindu by conviction. He sees his life work as forming a bridge between these two widely opposing cultures, and he does so with a rare dedication and thoroughness. An acknowledged Vedantin, Frawley is an expert in ayurveda, Vedic astrology, yoga, and tantra , all of which, he says, have their basis in Vedanta. Indeed it is the interdisciplinary approach to Vedanta that he sees as his particular contribution in demystifying eastern spirituality. Frawley has written a number of books on all these disciplines, including Yoga and Vedanta, and Ayurveda and the Mind. His latest books include Vedantic Meditation, and Yoga for your Type.
Frawley speaks out ardently in favor of India finding its own dharmic solutions rather than borrowing western concepts. He has written many books on the subject including Hinduism and the Clash of Civilisation, and The Myth of the Aryan Invasion. He sees modern civilization as doomed and envisages the dawn of a planetary culture linked by consciousness. Eastern values have a key role to play in fashioning this new culture, he says. Frawley is associated with the Naimisha Research Institute for Vedic Studies in Bangalore, India, and is the founder-director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies in Sante Fe, New Mexico, USA.
The bearded Frawley met Parveen Chopra and Suma Varughese over lunch at the India International Centre in New Delhi. Excerpts from the interview:
You mention in your website that there is need in India to generate right social, economic and political action. What do you mean by ‘right’?
India has many traditions, not just a spiritual tradition. There are Vedic approaches relative to ecology, vaastu, and much else. They can provide dharmic solutions to modern problems rather than importing answers from the West.
Indians are realizing that there is a lot of value in their spiritual traditions. Even the solutions to the problems that may come in the next century may lie more in the eastern traditions than in the western ones. We have reached an age when commercialism and destruction of the environment have gone too far. The dharma of society, nature and consciousness is going to be the most important paradigm in the coming century. So, it’s important to keep alive many of the traditions that were marginalized or lost.
How do you reconcile the western culture you were born in to the Hindu dharma you have adopted?
We have a lot of freedom so I can do what I want. I came in contact with Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings at 20; also with Sri Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi . So developed my Vedantic view of the world. I developed an interest in Vedas and in Jyotish (astrology). In the ’70s, with the natural healing movement, I became interested in ayurveda.
How would you define your identity?
I usually don’t define myself. I define what I do. But I see myself as a bridge between the East and the West, the ancient and the modern. My approach to Vedic knowledge is interdisciplinary because yoga, ayurveda, Vedanta, Jyotish are all aspects of the culture whose foundations are in the Vedas. Also, in India, I’ve addressed some of the contemporary issues. What is the state of society, where is it going? At IIT Delhi, I spoke about the current situation, globalization, the IT revolution, high-tech, and how it can be made relevant in the age of greater consciousness that is coming forth.
How do you reconcile with high-tech?
I am not against anything. But the high-tech world is still at the level of information, not intelligence. Intelligence helps you grasp the fundamental principles behind anything. With just a lot of data you don’t necessarily reach the right conclusion. The current globalization is at the information level, but to have real globalization you need a connection at the consciousness level. We exclude the role of nature in globalization. Globalization that destroys nature is not planetary. It becomes human destruction of the planet.
You’ve had some association with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
A little bit. I’ve had association with many organizations, the BJP, RSS, Arya Samaj, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, the Sringeri and Kanchi Shankaracharyas, Ramana Ashram, Pramukh Swami and the Swaminarayan order.
So you do feel that there is a movement towards one culture.
One culture but in the Vedic sense—pluralistic. Not the triumph of one religion or one language or one race. The American culture is spreading, but it’s superficial. Many cultures—particularly traditional, native and indigenous—are being destroyed. Just as bio-diversity is necessary for the health of the planet, so cultural diversity is necessary for the health of society. Western civilization is too large and intensely destructive. It doesn’t recognize other cultural paradigms and civilizational models.
Have you formally converted to Hinduism?
Yes, but it’s not a question of conversion, but of finding your dharma. I don’t believe anybody is saved by conversion. It’s your own karma, your own acts that save you. I don’t believe that names and forms matter. If somebody is a good person, the background doesn’t matter. We should judge a person’s actions and state of mind.
But you would call yourself a Hindu.
Yes, because I follow those ideas. I believe that Vedantic philosophy makes the most sense, and I’ve been following gurus of this tradition like Ramana Maharshi.
Is the Hindu nationalistic awakening good and positive?
I would most agree with V.S. Naipaul. Overall, every awakening has its fringe groups; for instance, when the blacks in America awakened on civil rights issues, there were extremist groups. For Hindus the awakening is necessary today. The Christians have done it, the Muslims have done it, even the Buddhists have done it. Hindus need to say that we have a place in the world, we have a point of view, you don’t need to step on us.
Coming to astrology, believers often surrender their free will. Everything in Vedic knowledge is karma. Karma is not destiny. Karma means we create who we are over time. So ayurveda or Jyotish are just methods to change our karma. Improve it for the future. Jyotish is like the weather report. If it tells you that it’s raining tomorrow, you can dress differently. You are not at the mercy of the weather. Astrology is there to guide us; unfortunately people take it fatalistically. But that’s a misunderstanding of Jyotish and of karma.
How far do you think you’ve evolved spiritually?
That’s not something for me to answer. But when I look back on my life in some areas, I’ve accomplished things I never thought I could. Yet, I wouldn’t say that I have fulfilled all fantasies of what I thought I would be able to do. But I’m always looking at the future. There’s a certain movement. Consciousness is like the flow of a river. You follow the stream. You don’t think, ‘How far have I gone’?
Which of your books would you recommend?
My work has many sides. Yoga and Ayurveda covers many of the principles I have been working on. It covers the spiritual, the psychological, the health aspect, the inter-relationship between these two systems according to Vedic principles.
Is ayurveda a complete answer to allopathy?
One need not exclude the other. Ayurveda is good for health maintenance and for broader principles, allopathy is good for acute conditions, pain management and surgery.
Did you read the Vedic scriptures in Sanskrit?
Yes, I know the language relatively well.
Was technology developed in the Vedic ages?
There was not a mass development of technology but there was knowledge of various subtle forces of nature. They had knowledge of mantras and so on. So it’s possible they used that knowledge to develop certain tools, but I don’t think they had an air force. But they did have a vimana (flying machine). They had an occult knowledge that we don’t have today. Material techn ology cannot last long. The material technology that we have will destroy the planet within a hundred years, unless it changes. So if a previous civilization had had it, they would have moved on to something more nature-friendly.
Is spiritual technology possible, which will enable man to control forces through the use of his own inner powers?
A yogi has some powers, to control different things like the temperature of his body, his thought process; yes, that’s possible.
You have studied the Rig Veda in the original. What have been the misunderstandings created by both Christian missionaries and Indian scholars?
Pretty much the whole thing. They had no conception of the yogic nature of the Vedas. Rig Veda starts off with Agni. But who is Agni? They say it’s the fire to which you offer sacrifice. But no, I think it stands for the principle of fire, perception, light at a universal level. Western scholars and missionaries took things literally and superficially. They did not see the mystical, poetic, symbolic value. At the adhyatmic or spiritual level, Agni stands for the principle of consciousness. So the ancient people understood the universe and the forces of nature as powers of consciousness. Yagna (Vedic fire ritual) is also a yogic practice where you offer speech, prana and mind into the fire of consciousness. Modern scholars, many of them Marxist, have missed the spiritual depth of the Rig Veda.
Scholars who had a yogic background like Sri Aurobindo had a deeper understanding of the Vedic texts. Max Mueller was a good scholar of his time, but his work seems dated now. His work is a good starting point but it’s a bad place to end things. He had just initiated a process of looking at Vedic texts. He lacked the tools to understand them. He was not a practitioner of yoga and meditation. He didn’t know the symbols. So he tried to interpret them according to mythology, symbology.
How can the Indian mind and the western mind collaborate?
They can collaborate easily. The western role is to develop the outer sciences. The Indian mind is to develop the inner sciences. The science of mantra. Of prana, forms of meditation, chakras. Spiritual science is necessary to balance the outer sciences. That’s India’s contribution. The West needs to develop and appreciate that in itself.
Is there any hope at all for this material civilization or is it going to change completely?
It has to change. The question is how much damage it will cause before it sees that it is necessary to change. We can’t go on in this way. You can’t continue to destroy nature, overpopulate the planet. In the USA, every year 13 million animals are slaughtered for consumption. That kind of destructive civilization has to change. At the same time there are certain forces in society seeking change.
You must be aware that Indian HRD minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, is trying to introduce a more traditional interpretation of Indian history.
It’s necessary. Unfortunately, most of the history texts are written by Marxists who don’t like India and Hinduism. Like Romila Thapar. She would never meditate or go to a temple. India as a country needs to claim its own educational heritage. In the USA we can study about the Puritans as part of the development of American culture. Why can’t you study the Mahabharata as a participatory part of your history? All over the world there has been a movement away from the colonial interpretation of history. In America, the blacks said we want the interpretation of history from our perspective—we don’t want the colonial view, the Marxist view, the missionary view. And that needs to be changed in India too. For example, on ancient India, the archaeological findings have increased 10-20 times. The whole geology of the Saraswati river has come out. How can you ignore these things and pretend that the archaeological findings of the ’30 is the last word on the subject? So it’s necessary to change books. And India has a spiritual heritage that the world should recognize.
But it’s hard to believe that books like the Ramayana are historical records.
I don’t think anybody is saying that. Ramayana is a Mahakavya or epic poem, though it has its historical base too. There may have been a king called Rama. Who knows? The obsession with literal history is a western obsession. In the Hindu tradition, they were more concerned with the teachings of the dharma. But there is a historical core. For instance, the list of kings in the Puranas—we can’t pretend they didn’t exist. When Megasthenes came to India with Alexander in third century BC, by his own records he found that there was a tradition that went back by 153 kings, going back 6,400 years. How can we pretend that these things had no basis at all?
So the use of Mahabharata or Ramayana is basically to look at how these stories have impacted us?
Well, the teachings, yes. And there is a historical side. There were these kingdoms, the rishis or sages, the gotras (lineages). But the Mahabharata is not a literal record. Yet, clearly the Indian civilization is extremely old. It has maintained its characteristic identity and continuity since almost the earliest period. Even the idea of Hindu pluralism goes back to the Rig Veda: Ekam sat, vipra bahudha vadanti (that which exists is One, the wise call it by many names). The Rig Veda mentions terms like mantra, dhyana, prana, atma, karma, dharma. All the basic terminology was already there.
Some say the Rig Veda was brought to India by the Aryans.
Oh, that’s plain misinterpretation. The Rig Veda speaks of the Saraswati river as the homeland. And geological records now show that the Saraswati was the largest river in India before 2000 BC, going back at least 5000 years before that. There are many other factors. Harappan sites display swastikas, yagyashalas (Vedic fire ritual sites), and figures sitting in meditation. I think the gap between Vedic records and archaeological records exist more in the mind of the western scholars. Landsat photography from outer space showed that there was once a Saraswati river.
Was this pre-Indus Valley civilization or post?
There were several Vedic ages; the Harappan period was part of the late Vedic age. You have to understand that the Vedas are a record—just one book as the record of the culture. If you had only one book preserved from the modern world, it would not represent all the cultures, all the people and every aspect of it. It represents a major trend within that society, but you can’t make it exhaustive.
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