By Swati Chopra March 2002 It is said that there are as many ways to God-realization as there are seekers. We present some oft-traveled paths to God—Sufism, Shamanism, Kabbalah, Buddhism and Jainism, Zen, Tantra, and three yogic paths from Hinduism An analogy favorite with the Indian sages talks of a lump of salt that goes to plumb the depths of the ocean. What happens to it? The lump dissolves in seawater in no time and becomes the ocean. Similarly, knowing God intellectually is impossible, it is only possible by dissolving your identity as the small self into God, becoming God. Brahma vidam brahamaiva bhavati (the knower of Brahman becomes Brahman), declare the Vedas. Indian philosophy is also clear that the goal of human life is self-realization or enlightenment—and that it is a real blessing being born in human incarnation. The aim of all mystical traditions is the same. It can even be said of most major religions of the world that each one started off as a path to God, containing some esoteric knowledge, which tends to get eroded over time. They are called paths to God or self-realization because they contain specific practices and instructions. There is also the assurance that some others before you have walked that path and reached the goal. Those people may even have left accounts of their journey. Holy books and scriptures enshrine some of those accounts. The importance of the living guru, sheik or roshi is clear then. He knows the terrain firsthand. The master is also there to keep the student from forgetting what he has learnt. The guru-shishya (master-disciple) relationship is of dynamic give and take, not passive taking by the shishya But, even if you are walking the path of your religion or master, you are in effect carving your own, because you have to claim it for yourself, and all those truths have to be intuited all over again firsthand. for real transformation to take place. Even a cursory study of the different paths—some summarized in the following lines—shows you the similarities between them. The techniques may be different, the language and terminology may vary, but they all seem to arise from the same source. They also make it clear that no matter how desirable, ecstasy or other mystical states are not for their own sake. The idea is to increase awareness in daily life. God realization will come when it comes, meanwhile become a better human being: kind, compassionate, tolerant. No matter how good the path, for real progress the importance of persistence, perseverance, discipline and regularity cannot be emphasized enough. And, of course, one ounce of practice is better than tons of reading spiritual books or discussing them. Meditation, of any kind, is a useful practice to follow for anyone. It is the easiest method to quieten the mind. A well regulated, honest, clean life, evenness of temperament, and following the basic good health principles also help. If you don’t want to or cannot follow any practices, try Karma Yoga, one of the four main paths of yoga besides Bhakti, Jnana, and Raja Yoga. It constitutes performing actions without a feeling of doership or expectation of the fruits thereof, as an agent of God. That should be easy, and is highly recommended in the Bhagavad Gita. KABBALAH: WAY OF THE CHOSEN ONE Kabbalah are the secret mystical teachings of Judaism aimed at achieving union with God. Though they are founded on the Torah (Jewish scriptures) they are not an intellectual discipline and were traditionally transmitted orally from master to pupil. Many versions of the kabbalah exist, the oldest being the Merkabah, also called ‘shamanistic mysticism’ as it required going into trance and sending one’s soul to enter the Merkabah, ‘God’s throne chariot’. The mystics prepared for this ascension using talismans and incantations. Classical kabbalah is sourced from the 13th century Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of Splendour) written by Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and sees God as ‘Ein-Sof’, the endless. Since Ein-Sof created the world from Himself, everything exists in dependence of everything else. Thus the merger of the kabbalist with Ein-Sof is not only the supreme spiritual achievement but also an act of altruism, as it brings the rest of the cosmos closer to God. Central to the kabbalist’s practice was the ‘Tree of Life’, which he ascended symbolically through meditation. The Tree illustrated the path of reaching the Divine during one’s lifetime. The seven lower sephirot (paths) were Sovereignty, Foundation, Endurance, Majesty, Beauty, Loving-kindness and Judgment, and corresponded to the seven energy centers along the spine (chakras). The top three—Understanding, Wisdom and Crown (Humility)—were mystical steps to unity with God. To ascend the Tree of Life, the kabbalist visualized each sephirot vibrating with its specific color, along with images of corresponding Hebrew letters denoting names of God (like YHVH), and planets, angels, metals, body parts and energy centers. Breath and sound were important in this. The ‘short path’ to God was developed by Spanish kabbalist Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia in the 13th century. This was through tzeruf (letter permutation) and based on the belief that each Hebrew letter has attributes and numerical values, which when meditated upon, unify mind and body and bring the mystic in contact with higher planes of consciousness. To meditate on these letters is to meditate on all Creation, and to become one with the Whole. The tzeruf would begin at midnight and the mystic would write sacred letters, visualize the Tree and do breathing techniques. An ecstasy, called shefa, would descend upon the mystic, bathing him in sensations of air, heat, and rushing water or oil. The kabbalah has always been an exclusive path to God-realization, divorced from mainstream Judaism. It is to be transmitted to only those ‘who were ready’. SUFISM: CREED OF THE ENLIGHTENED LOVERS Sufism is a branch of Islam devoted to personal worship of Allah. Its basic tenets are mystical love and oneness with God (tawhid). It takes a lifetime of love on the part of the Sufi to realize his own innate oneness with God, the Eternal Beloved. The path, tariqa, is but a means of this realization. The Sufi moves towards knowledge of the divine through study, prayer, and especially the dhikr—endless repetition of God’s name or sacred Koranic passages—often resulting in a trance-like state of mystical ecstasy. In his daily life, the Sufi observes faqr, pious poverty, and so is also known as a ‘fakir‘. The importance of simplicity is evident from the very word ‘sufi‘, that comes from the Arabic suf (wool) and refers to rough woolen gowns worn by early adherents. Guidance of a teacher, ‘sheikh‘, is considered essential to staying on the path. Sheikhs are venerated as saints to whom disciples bind themselves by oaths of allegiance. They then pledge to do their master’s bidding without any sense of their own desires—a first-step towards unconditional surrender to God. The Sufi must move through four stages of spiritual evolution—fana (annihilation of worldly attachment), baqa(permanency of God-consciousness), spiritual guidance, and helping others evolve on an esoteric plane. In fana, the Sufi is intoxicated with divine love and seeks union with God. In baqa, he has surrendered himself completely to God and lives in and through Him. This is also when he becomes a qutub, a disseminator of wisdom. Higher stages make him a ‘perfect master’, guiding others towards God. Although poetry addressed to the Beloved, music, dance, whirling, drum-beating have come to be inextricably interlinked with Sufism, they are not the be-all and end-all of the Sufi experience. The real achievement is the translation of the mystical experience in the temporal world in the form of love towards all, and freedom from afflictive emotions. To ‘be in the world but not of it’ is the core of the Sufi’s life. BHAKTI YOGA: LOVING GOD ABOVE EVERYTHING ELSE Indian saints dexterously used stories or analogies to drive home a point. To illustrate the difference between jnana and bhakti practices, they referred to the difference between the way infant monkeys and cats are carried by their mothers. The baby monkey wraps his arms around his mother and clings to her as she moves across the ground or swings from tree to tree. All responsibility to stay attached rests with the baby. If he lets go he falls and may die. The mother cat, however, grabs her offspring firmly behind the neck with her teeth. For the process to be smooth and painless, the kitten must not move at all-it must completely let go and surrender to the mother. That is what an aspirant in Bhakti Yoga needs to do. Bhakti Yoga is the path of love and devotion. The devotee uses the combined energies of all emotions and transmutes them, sublimating them into the highest of all emotions: prem, which is pure, unconditional, divine love. The devotee is, in fact, not even seeking enlightenment or God, he is just overflowing with his love for God. This path obviously suits and appeals to people with an emotional temperament. It may also be the easiest—no mind and body control as in Raja Yoga, no intellectual or intuitive prowess required as in Jnana Yoga. Bhakti Yoga proceeds by qualities of the heart. Love, emotion, happiness, kindness, and surrender are the qualities of the heart that sustain this path. Love of God is the greatest virtue that a man can cultivate; through this develops love for the creation of God and for his children, all beings. Compassion, tolerance and helpfulness to others emanate from the heart in which the love of God grows. Bhakti is classified as apara bhakti and par
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