By Ajay Kalra
It is faith that sustains seekers and keeps them traveling on the razor’s edge. However, not all faith lasts. What happens to seekers when their faith begins to crumble? How can they pick up the pieces and walk again?
Seer may be guilty of offense: court,’ screamed the headline of a newspaper in connection with the ongoing Shankaracharya case. Even though the truth of the matter is yet to be established, one thing definitely occurred on that fateful day. Faith shook! And the tremors of that shake could be felt in the hearts of millions of devotees across the nation.
So what happens when faith shakes? And more importantly, why does it shake? What is the final outcome of this painful spiritual churning?
Most seekers begin their journey with a guru, and in most cases an organisation built around the guru. One of the prerequisites to any sort of learning is openness. An openness to absorb and assimilate beyond, or in spite of, what one already knows. Trust naturally follows. When this relationship is nurtured over a period of time it gives birth to faith. A feeling that encompasses love, devotion and surrender under one umbrella. An umbrella that nurtures and accelerates spiritual growth.
The Wonder Years
Deep Mehta, founder of No Mind Zen Meditation Center, who began his spiritual journey in his teens with Osho, says, ‘Our mother was one of the first few dedicated devotees of Bhagwan when he began giving public discourses in the early seventies. Both my brother and I were immensely drawn by the intensely charged atmosphere around Osho. Those early years were magical. Absolute devotion to the master facilitated deep transformation.’
My own personal experience resonates with Deep’s observation. Having begun my spiritual journey with the Art of Living in 1998, I was intensely involved with the organisation for two years. Those were the wonder years! I was absolutely fresh and blank, having had no prior spiritual experience. My utmost devotion and love for Sri Sri Ravi Shankar helped me blossom into a new individual. Remarkably, I have met Sri Sri personally in a group only four times for not more than five minutes each. Nevertheless, faith in, and love for, the guru made me immensely receptive to transformation from all experiences. I remember clutching Sri Sri’s photograph and walking back home after having assisted a course, bathed in love. Sticking posters on walls, I discovered, can be a profoundly spiritual experience.
Ruby K Bhatia, TV personality, says of her early ISKCON experience, ‘When I do something I do it with full heart and soul. My first thought when I went to ISKCON was, ‘Oh, my goodness, I would never dance like that!’ But six months later, I was dancing whether or not anybody else was dancing. That was my sadhana as advocated by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The years with ISKCON were a complete romance. They taught me the ability to be completely submerged in devotional thought, oblivious of everything else. I could taste the devotional rasa right at the outset of my spiritual journey. It was beautiful!’
Most romances eventually culminate in a relationship, and the guru-shishya bond is no different. However, all relationships do not last. The apparent causes for the separation may differ for each seeker, but the underlying emotions it raises are essentially the same. Neena Dandekar, financial analyst and housewife, speaks of her experience,’My spiritual quest began young in the Vedantic tradition. The family used to regularly attend discourses by Swami Chinmayanada and later Swami Parthasarthy. Later, for six years, I was very closely associated with Jaya Row, who also happened to be my classmate. Those years contributed immensely to my growth and learning. The intellectual and logical thrust of Vedanta fitted my personality well. For me, organizing events and touching people’s lives is very satisfying and purposeful. The transition began with a misunderstanding between us, which we were unable to resolve despite sincere efforts and we drifted apart. For the next two years, I experienced an intense vacuum and self-doubt.’
While for some it could be a misunderstanding, for others an intense soul search may trigger a shift. Ruby recalls, ‘My parents felt I was being brain-washed. Even though I could logically prove them incorrect, it eventually made me ask God, ‘I am very happy, but are you?’ And that was the triggering point when I started to get signs that said he was not. So that year I was in so much turmoil and confusion. All of a sudden I didn’t know what to do. If there was a choice between going to the temple or a media event, I didn’t know what to choose. Earlier, the temple was the obvious choice, but now the thought, ‘What if God wants me to go to that event?’ made me utterly confused.’
God is the ultimate refuge for seekers when the solid anchor of faith begins to give way. After having spent two years with the Art of Living, turmoil on the work front, coupled with my own insecurities, pushed me to question my faith. I distinctly remember asking God on a bus-ride, ‘If this is the path for me, let me know. If not, guide me.’ Even though I didn’t get any distinct signs or answers, life simply flowed in such a manner that I drifted away.
The Spiritual Churning
When a seeker is thus cast away from his moorings, he undergoes a tremendous upheaval. He questions the tenets of his faith. Unquestioning devotion gives way to bewilderment and doubt. He is also haunted by the question, how does he avoid making the same mistake once again? Once faith falters, it is doubly difficult to trust again.
The key is to maintain a fine balance between devotion and discernment. The spiritual journey is in many ways like walking on the razor’s edge, upheld firmly on both sides by these two qualities. A minor slip and you are bound to cut yourself. Mark Barian, now Swami Tadatmananda, says in his book, The Roar of the Ganges, ‘While exploring India’s spiritual landscape, I constantly looked through two different sets of eyes. One pair belonged to a seeker who was eager to find answers to heartfelt questions; the other pair, to a skeptic who maintained a critical, rational perspective at all times. I was not inclined to believe anything. On the other hand, I did not want excessive caution or skepticism to prevent me from penetrating deeply into this spiritual world.’
While skepticism may prevent you from opening up to deep transformation, independent thinking may be your only safeguard against abuse. Numerous tales of exploitation by fake gurus abound. So how does one differentiate true devotion from subservience or, for that matter, healthy discernment from dismissiveness? While there are no simple answers, and one simply learns as one goes along the path, here are a few pointers (see box). In a letter on the Internet, Lee Underwood, musician and writer, says, ‘Open yourself to all influences that help you feel more alert, more alive, more liberated, more energized. Gently set aside those influences that you either subtly and intuitively or blatantly and directly find unhealthy, destructive, distractive, misleading or toxic. Use your judgment and discriminatory powers. Trust them. Keep in mind that you are your own person. Your experience is your own. Trust it. Go with whatever helps you open your eyes and your heart. Freedom is the first step. Not the last, but the first. Begin in freedom and choose in freedom.’
Another factor raised by the transition is the social dilemma of acknowledging your fall-out. This is particularly acute for a public personality. Admits Ruby, ‘Leaving ISKCON was not only hurtful, but embarrassing. When I was in ISKCON a lot of youngsters used to look up to me. What do I tell them now? Do I say, ‘No, it’s a wrong path’? Or do I say, ‘No, it’s right. Continue, but don’t go too far.’ Or do I say, ‘Do your own thing’? Anything that I say will never be the complete truth.’ Her dilemma epitomizes the classic limitation of expressing an intensely personal experience through thoughts and words. Given the fragmentary nature of words, any statement reflects only the partial truth.
There is also the awkwardness of appearing foolish and vulnerable in public. Ruby says, ‘You’re afraid of people running down the organisation. You are torn between defending them and justifying your own exit. How do you explain to people who don’t care about or understand this way of life? And why explain anyway? For me the whole experience was part of my spiritual journey, not just a passing phase.’
The Next Step
Eventually, one emerges from the stormiest passages to a new sanctuary, where the next step unfolds. We attract the gurus who resonate to our level of consciousness, and once we have learnt our lessons, or when fate decides that we are ready for the next grade, we move on. Either to another guru or to a simple state of surrender to existence, with the faith that whatever is needed for your spiritual journey shall be provided to you at the correct moment.
Says Neena Dandekar, ‘After having moved from the Vedanta Vision, I spent the next two years visiting various spiritual masters and places until I came across the Oneness Movement, founded by Sri Kalki Bhagavan and Sri Amma. On attending a workshop, I felt a bang of energy. The focus here is more on bhakti than on intellectual understanding, even though there is a scientific explanation for the transfer of jeevan mukti energy (enlightenment) through deeksha.’
While Neena moved from the intellect to devotion, Ruby’s movement was from intense devotion to quiet meditation. She speaks of her transition, ‘I had read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhamsa Yogananda, even before my involvement with ISKCON. When I started drifting away from ISKCON, I placed Yoganandaji’s picture on my altar, and kept beseeching him to accept me as his student. However, my first few attempts at becoming a member of the Yogoda Satsanga were unsuccessful for some reason or the other. During this period, I went through a very important test in life, and I maintained my strength right through it. Immediately thereafter, I got a call for satsang. I had a dubbing which got cancelled and I went and stayed there for four hours. I couldn’t believe this was finally happening!’
As for me, The Roar of the Ganges, the book I read during this period introduced me to Vedanta, the next step on my journey. It laid the seed for a two-month scriptural course on the Svetashvatara Upanishad conducted by Swami Dayananda Saraswati at the Dayananda Ashram in Rishikesh. The stay at Rishikesh not only introduced me to the Advaita philosophy expounded in the Upanishads, but also to India’s spiritual stew of fellow seekers, ashrams and gurus. Since then I have joined the ranks of several seekers exploring the complex spiritual world on the quest for self-fulfillment.
In retrospect (after years of trying to figure out why it happened) I feel that was the way it was meant to be for me. The path I have travelled on was exactly what I needed for my growth. The breadth of perception is as important as the depth of devotion. Art of Living gave me the depth while exposing myself to various teachings and masters has enabled me to understand the validity of all paths, and to fully accept and relate to people irrespective of their affiliation to any guru or organisation. I am truly a wandering seeker now, even though my feelings for my first guru continue to be of love and gratitude, evidenced by the number of Sri Sri pictures at home. After all, one never forgets his first love!
The final step in the transition is to harmoniously resolve your feelings towards the previous guru or organisation and move on. It takes time to genuinely assimilate the lessons from the experience and respond with gratitude and love.
Spiritual gurus or organizations are like boats that help us cross the river of samsara. While traveling in these boats we carry our ego-sustaining luggage of fear and desires along with us. Hence we derive our self-sustaining sense of identity from each boat we travel in, while the eventual object of the journey is to dissolve this limiting identity altogether. To sustain our ego the mind shifts loyalties from one boat to the other, deriding the earlier experience as not the ‘real thing.’
Let me humbly admit, I made this mistake too. Having moved to Vedanta, I felt I had moved to a superior path; the Sudarshan Kriya and bhajans that were a source of tremendous joy and bliss in the Art of Living, were no longer necessary, since the focus now was in knowing my true Self through the scriptures. In other words, I discounted my true experience to sustain my mental ego as a Vedantin. It took me a good two years to become aware of this delusion and I went back to repeat an Advanced Course at my spiritual alma mater – the AOL ashram in Bangalore.
While it may be necessary for a seeker to follow one path intensely, it is equally important to realize that the paths are intrinsically interconnected, beyond the surface differences of labels and practices. For the ultimate human wisdom, just like human sorrow, is truly universal and not restricted to the followers of a given path or sect. Geetanjali Khanna, a grandmother and housewife who moved from Shirdi Sai Baba to Sri Aurobindo and now to a Buddhist-based organization, Soka Gakkai, wisely states, ‘I firmly believe it’s all one source and can feel the interconnectedness of all paths, in spite of being a part of one.’
Says Lee Underwood, ‘Each teacher has much to offer, and at each stage and level of development in your life, there is a teacher who can help you. Seek these teachers. When you find them, embrace them, absorb them as life-giving nourishment. Stay with them intensely, with dedication and trust as long as you need them and find them fulfilling. If a time comes to move along, then kiss them goodbye, bless them, gently set them aside, seek and find whatever is needed next. Wisdom is universal. It is everywhere. Diamonds in the sand; light in air; music inside the ocean of your own being.’
So what are the lessons we learn after having experienced the tremors of these faith-quakes? Lesson one: transience. Says Neena, ‘This experience has taught me about the impermanence of things. ‘This shall pass’ was a mantra that kept me going during those two years of turmoil.’ Lesson two: surrender. All my prayers now fit into a single sentence ‘Oh God, guide me on the path,’ and invariably he does. And the final lesson: resilience. Exclaims Ruby, ‘Never say die! Heck, no problem. Ten times over, for my Lord, no problem. I’ll find him one day!’
Safeguards on the Path
o In our need to believe in a guru and belong to a community, we mortgage our minds to them. Examine these needs, especially the overriding need to feel exclusive and special through the guru or by being a member of an organisation.
o Move from black and white thinking to objective shades of grey. See what works for you and learn to draw firm and polite boundaries to anything that undermines your self-worth or makes you uncomfortable. Be careful to discern self-worth from an ego-centered self-image. A true master may puncture your ego repeatedly.
o In the case of living masters, examine the everyday life of the guru. Actions speak louder than words. Also learn to perceive beyond the façade, propaganda and the electric environment created around them.
o In situations where the guru is no more or a personal interaction with the guru is not possible (especially in the case of popular gurus), let neither the idolaters nor the attackers sidetrack you. Keep your head clear, and above all, remain close to the teachings and the responses of your own heart. It is your own direct, one-to-one relationship with the guru that counts, not the relationships others may have.
o Expose yourself to other teachings and masters, at your own pace and need. This will give the necessary breadth of perception to evaluate yours and other paths objectively.
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