Enjoying a dosa in the shade of a roadside pipal tree in the small northern Indian city of Allahabad, I could’ve sworn the tree was speaking to me. From my seat, I admired its generosity: its twinkling green canopy provided shelter and shade for the cook pouring batter on his two-burner stove, for his helper washing dishes at its feet on the backside, and for his customers sitting out front at a few long tables. With wooden pegs around its midriff, it patiently held the jackets of the cook and his helper. And on top of that, this great tree marked the local bus stop and welcomed customers to the counter. “You are the walls, the roof, the climate control, ambiance, and host,” I mused. “This whole restaurant and our comfort and pleasure depend entirely on your beneficence.” It was then that the tree rustled gently and sent a single brown heart-shaped leaf fluttering sweetly, smiling, into my lap.
Authentic spiritual practice brings us to a radical shift in how we see the world--a transformation, a paradigm shift, or a rebirth as religions are fond of describing it.
Is this coincidence, or the language of intelligent nature? In India, the miraculous, the astonishing, the impossible, and the unbelievable happen all the time. Perhaps that’s true everywhere else also, but it’s harder to notice in the industrialized world where there is an engineering answer to everything. For example, in the United States, when you get into a vehicle, you strap on a seat belt as insurance against the unknown forces of fate. Here in Allahabad, instead of the hand reaching for the seat belt, the eye latches onto an image of the Divine on the dash. Every bus, jeep, car, truck, and auto rickshaw has one—a miniature shrine which receives regular offerings of garlands and prayers. It’s not decorative any more than the seat belt is in the States, and it serves the same purpose. If you’re lucky, your car has both, but at the moment I’m more in need of the grace of God. That’s why I am here, under this tree, my mind at a standstill, suddenly seeing a very different world.
As that leaf floated down it seemed clear to me that the universe was sending an acknowledgement, not just of my appreciation, but of the deeply interwoven web of intelligence and consciousness that is the substratum of the universe. Sooner or later, authentic spiritual practice brings us to a radical shift in how we see the world—a transformation, a paradigm shift, or a rebirth as religions are fond of describing it. For most of us, it’s not a sudden dramatic shift like Saul on the road to Damascus, or Valmiki overcome by robbers in the forest of ancient India. It is, rather, a slow growth, an ongoing reworking and revision of preconceived notions, programmed actions and beliefs, and a self-centered view of life until, like the ancients, we see the world as enchanted. Yoga is the map for this evolution, but we are in danger of forgetting that as we focus on hot yoga, water yoga, this yoga and that yoga.
An integral part of this transformation is seeing the natural world as imbued with spirit, with consciousness, with divinity. “Earth, water, fire, air, space, mind, intelligence, and ego, this is my primordial nature, divided eightfold,” says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. This means that each and every part of the world, including human beings, are aspects of the Cosmic Being, that all aspects of the world are intrinsically saturated with divinity, and that this natural world, imbued with divinity and sacredness, is an extension of our own self.
Traditional societies have always understood this, whether it’s the remnants of traditional Vedic village life in India, or the illiterate sea gypsies of Thailand who recently made the news because their entire community, steeped in the conviction that the sea has a spirit, recognized what they describe as its anger—and escaped the devastation of the December 2005 tsunami. In a relationship with a natural world less troubled than ours, they see the whole world infused with spirit and consciousness. This is the same view reflected in the myths, stories, and sacred literature of many spiritual traditions and traditional cultures—the consciousness of humankind is the same consciousness that permeates the natural world. Harmony in one is harmony in the other.
There is nothing unusual about a restaurant under a roadside pipal tree in Allahabad, a small city in northern India. But this tree was speaking to me; I’m sure of it.I am staying at the Himalayan Institute campus in a small village downriver from Allahabad. Every day Kamala comes from the village to clean and wash dishes. It’s winter, and relentlessly cold. Her hands are chapped and red, and she coughs. Like most women in the village, she has no indoor plumbing, and bathes in the river Ganga. From my room in the guest house I offer her hot water, a rare and valuable commodity, which she graciously accepts for scrubbing the floors. But when it comes to washing her hair, she sweetly declines. Gesturing to the river, she says with a smile, “Gangaji.” I admire her devotion, her dignity, her worldview. I wonder if the Ganga speaks to her, and think probably so. I don’t wash my hair at all. Even with hot water, it’s just too cold for me, accustomed as I am to comfort.
Every winter a huge month-long spiritual festival, the Mela, is held in Allahabad at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gather to mark the stars’ yearly rite of passage through the heavens, and to reaffirm the presence of the gods here on earth. The pilgrims worship the Ganga, believing that bathing at the confluence on this day washes away lifetimes of error and misunderstanding. The day after mauni amavasya, an important day for rituals, several of us decide to visit the Mela.
Kamala’s uncle arrives in a weathered flat-bottomed wooden boat to take us a mile upriver to the confluence. It’s misty and cold and threatening to rain—one of those days where the sky and water are indistinguishable, both sheeted in silver mist. The boat slips quietly onto the liquid sky of the sweet soft Gangaji, flowing with light and grace, and soon it glides out of ordinary time and space. It’s another world in the middle of the river—the shores have slipped away in the fog and everything assumes mythological proportions: Huge bars of sand materialize out of the mist, their promontories guarded by the titihari (river lapwings), their white shoulders hunched against the cold. Occasionally, without warning, a silent boat slips past us in the mist, a hooded dark figure at the helm. On the far side, in a shallow inlet, squats the mysterious and sober pandubbi (cormorant)—solid, black, thick-bodied, and sphinxlike—a floating gatekeeper who dives underwater only to magically reappear some distance away a few minutes later.
The river is full of offerings. Clots of marigolds and roses bob up and down as they drift downstream. Along with the flower litter on the far bank, we see the charred remnants of ritual fires and the half-submerged carcasses of sacrificial goats wrapped in red string. Far off in the distance a pair of huge storklike birds, as tall as humans, stand on a thin sliver of sand. Our boatman drags us upstream in shallow water, carefully reading the surface of the river. Foreseeing the deep and swift current, he jumps into the boat and pulls on the hand-hewn wooden oars until sweat rolls off his brow in spite of the cold. Then he jumps back into the water, hitches up his plaid lungi, adjusts the towel wrapped around his head, and wades on.
I have come to see the river as the boundary between worlds, the place that is both here and there—here with its chrome and coliform-laden stream, and beyond with its amrita-laden stream of divine grace. Or maybe, depending on your perspective, here with its stream of elixir, and there with its load of dirt and toxins that threatens to overwhelm its place in the physical plane, where we have violated every natural law and sent the right order of things spinning on its head.
Approaching the confluence we hear it first—a low undercurrent of sound rolling across the open water, the sound of a thousand voices chanting, a thousand voices gathered in supplication, in praise, and a thousand more raised in the business of daily life. Then, in the distance, the Mela camp, a mirage of a golden city, materializes in the shifting fog and smoke, lit up by the morning sun like a shimmering Shangri-La.
The environmental and social consequences of being disconnected from the immediate natural world pile up.
Back in the guest house, I am conscious of every piece of trash: the peanut can, sent in a care package, used sheets of paper, a pen that has run out of ink, tea leaves, the Styrofoam and plastic packaging of my new cell phone, shards of a broken mirror, a flashlight that doesn’t work. The detritus of my life is somehow disconnected from the flow of things here. What to do with it? Every day Kamala’s 13-year-old daughter comes to my room to collect my offerings to the trash can. But on my morning walk I see a pile of familiar plastic and paper resting on the grass in the fledgling orchard behind the kitchen. I think, so much paper. At least it will rot, but what about the burned-out lightbulb and the batteries which my cassette player consumes with voracious appetite, driven by my own voracious appetite for entertainment?
I am not the only one with this problem, however. As the modern world invades the traditional village, the modern problems arrive. Outside the gates of our campus, discarded pastel plastic bags litter the roadsides and fields, looking for all the world like meadows of blue and pink poppies. At the local cyber café (think cement stall with a roll-down garage door, a couple of outdated CPUs, plastic chairs, and a rat’s nest of power cords) where I struggle with my e-mail, the hot chai comes in a large blue plastic bag. Sanjeev is delighted that I come so often and stay so long, and pours chai for me from the bag into a tiny disposable plastic cup. In the old-fashioned tea stalls chai is served in unfired clay cups that resemble miniature flower pots, and which, when tossed out back, quickly become a handful of shards nearly indistinguishable from the clay soil. Likewise, the chai Sanjeev serves me has been made on a gas burner, instead of over a buffalo-chip fire. And so the shift from the local clay and cow dung to imported petrochemical products goes on, and the environmental and social consequences of being disconnected from the immediate natural world pile up.
Back at campus I watch Kamala scrape the floor of the cow shed with her hands. She slaps the wet manure like fresh cement into a shallow basket, and with graceful dignity, carries it on her head to the walled grove of trees overlooking the Ganga. Then she mixes it with water, and with her hands she spreads the slip over the hard-packed floor around the fire pit in the grove to keep it free of insects and dust. I think of her and the wisdom of her traditional life when I do yoga postures on that clean, smooth surface, and while I sit for yajna, the ritual fire ceremony we conduct in this grove.
The Ritual of Life
Yajna is ritual fire sacrifice on the one hand, but its more general meaning is that which contributes to the beauty and well-being of creation. Yajna is that which sustains and nourishes the matrix of life. Swami Rama writes in his translation of the Bhagavad Gita, “In the universe every action is a ritual, and the ritual is performed for the sake of sacrifice. The raindrop sacrifices itself to become part of the plant, the sun gives up its energy to give light and life to all beings.” He was fond of saying, “Giving is the law of the universe.” Selfless actions, he would tell us, unconditional love, the offering of inner vitalities to the Lord of Life, working with less attachment to the outcome and more attention to our highest values—these are yajnas.
In the ancient tradition of yajna, milk, fragrant herbs, and grains are offered to the fire, and the fire carries the distilled essence of the offerings into the subtle realm to nourish and propitiate the forces of nature. Acknowledging this interdependent matrix of life, the Bhagavad Gita says, “Beings are born from food; food is produced from the rain; rain is produced from sacrifice (yajna), and yajna arises from action.” The actions of humans living in harmony with the environment nourish the atmosphere, keeping the rain in balance, and protecting the soil, plants, and entire food chain.
Our consumer-oriented culture has not only mastered consumption, it actively cultivates greed.
As if in mockery of the ancient fire rituals, the smokestacks of the modern world offer the toxic residues of coal-burning power plants, petrochemical refineries, metal-processing plants, chemical manufacturers, and waste disposal industries to the atmosphere. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in farming have so disturbed the health of the soil that the life-giving vitality in our food has radically declined in the past 50 years.
Our consumer-oriented culture has not only mastered consumption, it actively cultivates greed. We are in pursuit of pleasure, not goodness and the joy of the harmonious whole. Our technology exists for our short-term comfort and convenience, not for the nourishment of the planet and the coordination of cosmic cycles. And our world—despite its conveniences and wondrous technical accomplishments—has become an increasingly dangerous and poisonous place. Nature, once experienced as the source of our physical and spiritual being, has become a commodity to be exploited for financial gain, and we are left with a sense of isolation and separation—from nature, from the Divine, and from one another.
We have created a mind-set and a resulting world that is psychologically, socially, and ecologically destructive. There’s a thread of fear and antagonism running through our relationship not only to the natural world, but also to each other.
According to the rich yoga tradition (which abounds in stories of conflict and exploitation and ecological disaster) this is not a new or even unusual state of affairs. A story from the Devi Mahatmyam, for example, tells of two demons, Shumbha and Nishumba, who have overrun the world. They have already stolen the best gems, the finest horses, elephants, and chariots from all the three worlds, and they have seized treasures from Indra and Brahma as well as the Lord of Wealth, the Ocean-King, and the Lord of Death. When they are told about the most beautiful woman in the world, they must have her too. They send this message to her where she sits on a peak in the Himalayas: “Jewel among women, come to us. In all the three worlds all the rare and most excellent objects are in our possession, and all the devas are obedient to us. You must also come to us. By marrying us, wealth beyond measure will be yours.” But it turns out that this jewel among women is none other than the Divine Mother herself, Queen of the Universe. She challenges them, saying she will marry only he who defeats her in battle, and after a long and bloody struggle, the demons are defeated.
With that, the world regained perfect well-being. The sky cleared, and favorable winds began to blow. The sun shone with perfect brilliance, and all living beings offered praise to the Divine Mother, saying, “You are beyond praise….You are the sole substratum of the world. You exist in the form of the earth, in the shape of water…. What words, however excellent, can praise you? Salutations to you, O Devi, who also abide as intelligence in the hearts of all creatures.”
Let us miss no opportunity to praise the beauty of the world, and in so doing, let us bring ourselves closer to the pure force of consciousness that connects us all.
Among the many layers of meaning, this story describes the spiritual journey on the personal level. On another level, consider how, driven by greed and ignorant of our true relationship with the forces of nature and the cosmic web of life, we have commandeered all the forces of nature to serve our endless collective desires. In our ignorance, we may even try to employ spiritual practices to further empower this small materialistic world of our own making, rather than seeking the right order of the universe, the right perception of the divine power in the world.
What we need most at this moment is to cultivate an awareness of and appreciation for the sacredness of the play of prakriti—the embodiment of the Divine in the physical realm. And this realignment of our worldview brings with it a profound sense of gratitude and joy. The magnificence of the world is spread before us at every moment. The physical and the spiritual, we see, are two dimensions of the same thing. Food and a sense of gratitude for it, the beauty of the world and a sense of wonder—these go hand in hand, and every act in daily life becomes a sacrament infused with larger meaning. This re-enchantment of the world, this awakening of gratitude, it is said, is a sign of the enlightened mind.
Authentic spiritual practices, especially those of yoga, ground us deeply in the physical body that we might feel the privilege of having eyes, and skin, and ears, and hands; that we might ride a wave of bliss as we float down the Ganga on a wooden boat with the contented calls of birds falling through the cool golden light; that we might find enormous gratitude for the great gift of life and for our own bones in their peculiar and fluid articulation; that we might speak and dance and work and bear witness to the whole of creation. Let us miss no opportunity to praise the beauty of the world, and in so doing, let us bring ourselves closer to the pure force of consciousness that connects us all.