Friday, 26 April 2013

GAYATRI AND SANDHYA VANDANAM: THE WONDERS OF A SUPREME PRACTICE FOR ALL




The best prayers? The most exalted beneficial daily practice? Surely the Gayatri mantra and the ritual practice of the Sandhya Vandanam must be one of the very leading candidates. Both are of universal significance and both immeasurably help ward off misfortune, misery, attacks by dark forces and bad situations. They are a lifeline and if you have missed out on this, then wake up and start the practice.

But there are initial complexities. 

The first is, not everyone agrees that the Gayatri is for every one.

We strike here at the heart of the real Hinduism, the one the West knows very little about - where familiy lines have Gurus, where different castes feel entitled to different mantras, where everything is carefully hidden, transmitted orally and thus sealed away, like a flower stuck in a private hothouse at the back of a forbidding castle. If you belong to X caste, Y lineage, with Z as a guru, then, according to this view, you are entitled to recite the Gayatri mantra.

Such a pity. Satya Sai Baba may be a polarising and now controversial figure, but one thing he did, and did very well, was popularise the mass recitation of the Gayatri mantra. And all you have to do if you have a computer is go on YouTube, type in Sathya Sai Baba chanting the Gayatri mantra, or here if the link works https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8HtbFugrW8

And you will hear the Gayatri mantra chanted properly. Listen and learn it.

If you want any further support for its use, read one of the most precious books in my life, which is called Gayatri, the Highest Meditation by Sadguru Sant Keshavada. This book lays out the arguments that Gayatri is not confined to use by Brahmins, but is of universal use.

And I  quote:

"The Tejas of the brahmachari lies in Gayatri-japa. The support and prosperity of the householder is again the Gayatri. The strength and solace of the recluse is again the Gayatri."

The Gayatri is:

"Of all mantras the supreme and the most potent power of powers is the great, glorious Gayatri mantra". 



 So, what is it?







Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
tát savitúr váreṇ(i)yaṃ
bhárgo devásya dhīmahi

dhíyo yó naḥ pracodáyāt 

Translation:

Let us meditate on Ishvara, the Lord in the form of the Sun, and his glory, 
who has created the universe, who is fit to be worshipped
who is the remover of all sins and ignorance
May he enlighten our intellect

And it can be found (here I quote Wikipedia):


The Gāyatrī Mantra is a highly revered mantra, based on a Vedic Sanskrit verse from a hymn of the Rigveda (3.62.10), attributed to the rishi (sage) Viśvāmitra. The mantra is named for its vedic gāyatrī metre.[1] As the verse can be interpreted to invoke the deva Savitr, it is often called Sāvitrī.[2] Its recitation is traditionally preceded by oṃ and the formula bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ, known as the mahāvyāhṛti ("great utterance").
The Gayatri Mantra is repeated and cited very widely in vedic literature,[3] and praised in several well-known classical Hindu texts such as Manusmṛti,[4] Harivamsa,[5] and the Bhagavad Gita.[6][7] The mantra is an important part of the upanayanam ceremony for young males in Hinduism, and has long been recited by Brahmin males as part of their daily rituals. Modern Hindu reform movements spread the practice of the mantra to include women and all castes and its use is now very widespread.[8][9]



So... there it is. A wonderful, soothing, simple mantra and with universal applicability.

Now it is good to recite this mantra at least some time during the day, and preferably in the morning and evening. And the proper setting is the practice of Sandhya Vandanam, a series of 16 different disciplines or kriyas which takes about 1/2 hour and which acts like a truly magical internal cleanser of all impurities and obstacles.

The practice needs to be read and learned, but if you have the funds then buy the book above. There is also a Ramakrishna mission book on the Gayatri that lays out the same practice.


Sandhya Vandanam

Sandhya Vandanam connects us to the deep currents in existence. We offer our prayers early in the morning (and in the midday and evening if we can) to remove obstacles, prayers to the water, the wind, prayers for healing and illumination, and its such a beautiful and really simple discipline. Ideally, it is practised at dawn and dusk... tied in fact to the course of the sun over the day. And this is important. We can be so rootless in modern society, cut off from the feel of the soil on our feet, the play of water through our hands, the rays of the sun - I know this well, being pushed into working in a modern office where we cant even open the windows to let fresh air in. But lets assume you have not so much time, pressing responsibilities etc. Still, if you can, try it out. What we are really talking about is a way to reconnect, to plug into a tradition thousands of years old and absolutely alive and vibrant.

The practice takes you only about 30 minutes and helps you through some simple but effective purificatory rituals and internal cleansing before reciting the Gayatri mantra, which vary broadly depending on which faith tradition from which you can (ie Vaishnava, Shaivite, Shakta). These are:


  1. Acamana
  2. Pranayama
  3. Sankalpa
  4. Marjana
  5. Apa Prasana
  6. Aghamarshana
  7. Arghya Pradana
  8. Bhu Siddhi
  9. Bhuta Siddhi
  10. Asana Vidhi
  11. Gayatri Hyrdaya Parayana
  12. Gayatri Nyasa
  13. Gayatri Dhyana
  14. Tarpana
  15. Upasthana
  16. Gayatri Pratashapana

Many of these steps are very simple and quick, and most will be very familiar to all who perform regular pujas, because they form the essential building blocks of any puja.

All you need is two containers of water and a spoon, a place to sit, preferably access to the sun and preferably access to a stream/river, and a japa mala  (recitation beads). At the bare minimum, two glasses water and a teaspoon will do the trick, plus your hand on which to count japa. So unlike most elaborate Hindu rituals, you don't need to go overboard on this one.

The joy is that you go through your own purification - for example cleansing yourself of sins committed in the previous night, and specifically Aghamarsana (meaning discipline through which we become sinless) which directly addresses papapurusha, the body of sin or impurity within you. In sanskrit you recite a prayer which ends (English translation):

Let this water sanctified by the mantra
Wash away my sins and purify me
Just as a prisoner is freed
from the prison house
and a man is rid
of his dirt by bathing

This kind of purification really does have a life of its own, and can change your flat dull mood around in an instant. Also embedding the recitation of the Gayatri mantra in various veils and rituals means that you embark on an inner sacred visit to your inner temple, passing through courtyards, doors, one after the other, which instills reverence, slows you down, and brings you into focus.


I've found in my own life that Sandhya Vandanam truly settles my mind when it is particularly wild... it is like giving a wild dog a bone. The mind chews contentedly on the mantras, and suddenly you can find yourself connected to your royal road of spiritual practice, to all those memories and experiences you have built up of reverence, effort, connection. Connection really is the key word. No matter what you've done the night, the day, the month, the year, the life before, Sandhya vandanam offers you an inner housecleaning, no questions asked, no judgements made.

Some say its practice is directly related to the opening of the 3rd eye. I say its practice is directly connected to wisdom, maturity, sobreity, devotion, like returning to a safe and embracing place. The mantras weave around you, protecting and inspiring. And the jewel in the crown of the Sandhya Vandanam practice is the Gayatri mantra.

If you are serious about sadhana, looking for a great step up, give this a try. It really will change your life. My own practice takes place in the most unlikeliest of places, my office early in the morning. It has become such a sacred help, such a boon, so natural and easy. You owe it to yourself... get a spiritual car wash!


Selected prayers from the Sandhya Vandanam

Here are some great prayers to use anyway, if you are so inclined. We start with the very first prayers of the morning:

Uttishthottishtha Govinda
Uttishtha garudadhvaja
Uttishtha kamalakanta
Trailokyam mangalam kuru

Awake and arise in my heart, oh my Lord Govinda
Awake, my Lord who flies on an eagle
Awake, oh spouse of the the Goddess of Prosperity
Bless all three world with peace


Then, looking at both of your palms and holding them together:

Karaagre vasate Lakshmi
Karamadhye Sarasvati
Karamule to Govindah
Prabhaate karadarshanam

I meditate on Lakshmi residing on the tips of my fingers
On Saraswati in the mid-palm
On Govina at the base of the palm.
I meditate on these seeing God in my palms


And the beautiful chant to waters:

Gange cha Yamune chaiva
Godaavari Sarasvati
Narmade Sindhu Kaaveri
Jale'smin sannidhim kuru

Pushkaradyani tirthani
Gangadyaah saritas tatha
Aagacchantu pavitrani
Snaanakale sada mama

Bless me with thy presence
Oh holy rivers
Ganges, Yamuna etc

May Pushkara and 
all the holy waters and rivers
such as the Ganges
always come at the time of my bath

The Chart of the Gayatri

This gives the different subtle associations of each part of the Gayatri, as it corresponds to the Chakras...

Om Bhuh
Tattva: Prithvi (earth)
Tanmatra: Gandha (smell)
Loka: Earth
Devata: Indra
Vehicle: Airavata
Chakra: Muladhara

Om Bhuvah
Tattva: Jala (water)
Tanmatra: Rasa (taste)
Loka: Atmosphere
Devata: Varuna
Vehicle: Alligator
Chakra: Svadisthana

Om Svah
Tattva: Agni (fire)
Tanmatra: Rupa (form)
Loka: Celestial
Devata: Agni
Vehicle: Ram
Chakra: Manipura


Om Mahah
Tattva: Vayu (earth)
Tanmatra: Sparsha (touch)
Loka: Siddha
Devata: Vayu
Vehicle: Antelope
Chakra: Anahata


Om Janah
Tattva: Akasha
Tanmatra: Shabda (smell)
Loka: Ancestors
Devata: Saraswati
Vehicle: White elephant
Chakra: Vishudda

Om Tapah
Tattva: Mahat (intelligence)
Tanmatra: Buddhi
Loka: 7 Sages
Devata: Guru
Chakra: Ajna


Om Satyam
Tattva: Purusha
Tanmatra: Prakriti
Loka: Sphere of truth
Devata: Shiva
Chakra: Sahasrara






Wednesday, 24 April 2013

WESTERN YOGIS: CAN YOU TRUST ANY OF THEM?



About 15 years ago an amiable English Professor from a little known English university produced a voluminous tome called, as far as I can remember, the Book of Enlightened Masters. It became an unexpected good seller in New Age circles, and it chronicled, with very little critical editing, the life stories of some of the westerners who imbibed teachings of the east, especially India, Tibet and Japan, and ended up proclaiming themselves enlightened in some form or another.

I imagine, after this time, some of these individuals might feel a little bit stupid and hopefully wiser and humbler. But it made a good story, mostly along the lines of "I met this teacher... and then IT happened." If you believed the book, then the West was alive with great wise souls...

What was interesting was that this book came out just at the dawn of the age of the internet, and it was the internet that finally brought a much-needed levelling of so-called perfected masters. 

With one sad tale after another, spiritual leaders were exposed as predatory sexual offenders, obsessed with money power and status, just plain wierd, utterly narcissistic, and throughly undeserving of the faith their followers placed at their feet. Big names, like Sri Chimnoy, the Hare Krishnas, Amrit Desai, Baba Muktananda, Swamis Sacchidananda and Chetananda all faced sharp revisions to their reputation. Many other gurus came under fire as well, including Satya Sai Baba... joining the likes of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Adi Da, Maharishi who had already been through the mill with adverse publicity. Some schools even fired their Guru and struck off on their own. Various teachers of advaita flourished briefly and then, they too fell for the lures of the world and showed they were no better than anyone else.

So it's not such a silly question to wonder aloud if anyone was left with integrity, humility, and dedication. That was certainly the question I  asked myself some years ago, and I decided then and there not to bow to anyone without due reason, not to leave my common sense behind, not to indulge in magical thinking that everyone who claimed to be a guru actually deserved the title. In other words, after years of cheerful spiritual childhood, I started to grow up, and gather together everything I'd learned, and steer clear of schools, ashrams, organisations, cults, groups, people soliciting for money.

Tnen along came a series of transpersonal events involving a dead Yogi, meditation, and spiritual one pointedness. This unexpected spiritual blooming was welcome, it reminded me that actually real Yogis exist, they are not bound by time and space and however strange they may seem, they walk their talk.

Since then, I've got a more mature understanding of who the real stars of the story are - and they are not the leaders, but the disciples, the sadhakas, the seekers who by hook or by crook somehow keep that flame alive, stick to the safety of practices, and are not arrogant or greedy.

A few books have appeared that reinforce the point. There's a lovely one called Western Sadhus in India which is particularly heart-warming, chronically obscure individuals who came to India and stuck it out, learning to live with India's poverty, dirt and contradictions, and the book is strongly recommended. Some great stories of the brutal tapasya particularly some western women had to endure (Penny Ma's story tells of almost unbearable discomfort) but what is so great about this book is that they made it through with undeviating devotion. Some of these great figures, now thoroughly Indianised, provide sober analysis of the westerners who still turn up looking for great masters: stuck in the head, with their yoga mats, electronic devices, there to "get high" rather than "Be high" as Ram Dass once put it. Yoga as a hobby and past-time...me, I warm to the ones who humbly and courageously really did turn past-time into a real endeavour to escape the nets and snares of the world.

Another surprising joy is a book called, I  think, the Journey Home by a Hare Krishna devotee Radannath Swami (apologies if I misspelled the name). Now the Hare Krishna movement is at the best of times in-your-face, ultra dogmatic, rigid, inflexible, sexist and sort of unpleasantly buzzing. This was the first ever indication for me that Hare Krishnas were indeed capable of being tolerant, gentle, and respectful of other paths. His is a great story of a young american meeting many great saints in India before settling down in Isckon.

There are, as a counter-balance some toe-squirming hagiographic accounts by some of the original disciples of Swami Prabhupada, who found themselves by the nature of their strict Vaishnava system lauded as perfect masters. Their collective downfall from grace by the very movement they briefly commanded is a lesson in the well worn adage "pride comes before a fall". Satsvarupa Das Goswami and Tamil Krishna Goswami both wrote inadvertedly revealing accounts. The musician and ecologist Ranchor Prime has written a far more gentle account of the early days of the movement in London. But a part of me still shudders at the harshness of the Hare Krishnas, as bad as born-again Christians in their insistence that theirs is the only way. A biography of the young Vishnujana Swami, a charismatic American devotee who died in mysterious circumstances in 1975, is also worth a read. He was a pure and gentle soul, and a famous singer of bhajans. 

There's a wonderful Biblical quote, used in a great Gospel song that I know, which goes "The race is not given to the fast... or the strong...but to Him who endureth". What better way to put the point? Beyond the hooplah of spiritual movements, the money for courses, the heirarchies, there are many rare jewels of souls. 

Take for example the uplifting and wise Collision with the Infinite, a book about the now deceased Suzanne Seagal, who I  met once when she was on a TM course in Switzerland back in the 1970s. She entered samadhi unexpectedly while waiting for a bus in Paris, and her story is fascinating and well worth searching out.

Before this turns into a spiritual shopping list, I'll remind myself of the question: can you trust anyone of the western yogis? Well, use your discrimination. Watch very carefully, see what they are like off the public platform. Best of all, look at the audience. Thats where the great souls will be....

For my generation, what is so wonderful in some ways is that the western teachers with most heart grew up along with the rest of us. The prime example is Ram Dass, who I  talk about in an earlier post. His virtue is a real honesty, coupled with the ability to laugh at himself and tell a vivid story. One of his most recent books is called Be Love Now and is a very valuable look both at his own journey and the profusion of great 20th century saints that become the object of enormous reverence in the west, the ones above and beyond scandal or bad press - Anandamayi Ma, Bhagwan Nityananda, Ramana Maharshi, Neem Karoli Baba for starters. It's a beautiful, humble little book. His compatriot Bhagavan Das and fellow American hippie turned seeker has also recently written a candid autobiography called It's Here Now (Are You) which contains a fascinating account of a meeting with Anandamayi Ma in particular. Bhagavan Das is almost a text case of early promise unfulfilled and the need for some kind of personal discipline - his life unfolded into an unruly mess of loose ends, broken relationships, dodgy sexual liasons and so forth. But his book is cheerfully honest about it all, how one line of spirituality in the west flirted that thin line between drugs and yoga.

I was just contemplating a little while the curious role of books in this age, particularly for the university educated western seeker, as a spreader and transmitter of sacred knowledge. In other ages, other vehicles... but the shakti of great Gurus, the very subtle tanmatras, or essential vibrations has chosen over a 50 year span to be transmitted not through visits, personal time, TV, You Tube, lectures... but books. Curious phenomenom. I have heard so many stories of people who "got" shaktipat, particularly through seeing the cover of Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi or Baba Muktananda's Play of Consciousness, like a benign virus which you don't really see elsewhere...  God uses the tools that are at hand.

Western Yogis: one person I've always admired is the now passed-on Canadian Swami Sivananda Radha, who founded the Yashoda ashram up in Canada. She wrote a truly wonderful autobiography of her time in the late 1950s early 1960s with the great Swami Sivananda and she exemplifies for me the real virtues of discipline and ethics in spiritual life. She wrote a small book called On Sanyas, advice to would-be sanyassins which is absolutely on the money, full of common sense practical advice.

Swami Sivananda was a mighty oak, whose many disciples branched out in different ways, but are ultimately all connected. The interaction between Him and Swami Sivananda Radha is a joy to read about, basically because a prickly western mind met the apparent chaos of an ashram with its lack of amenities and something new was born: westernised Indian yoga.

Some controversial figures include J Donald Waters aka Kriyananda, kicked out of his own Ananda ashram for abuse but still alive. He was a direct disciple of Yogananda and asked to leave SRF, but his book The Path is a good take on his days with Yogananda... and his career raises the all too familiar problem: when you invest all your power in a dodgy Guru, who's the one to blame? You have to be very, very careful about all this.

Which brings us to one of the most curious people of all, Adi Da aka about 1000 other names, who ended up in Fiji with a smallish cult of devotees, one of the strangest writers of all time. He proclaimed himself enlightened after spending time with Baba Muktananda and Rudi, Swami Rudrananda, and at first, as Bubba Free John, had a really refreshing take on spirituality with a modern ironic twist in the mid 1970s (which is when I first came across him). Scandal broke in the mid 1980s again involving sex, drugs, nefarious practices and off he went to reinvent himself in Fiji. The man clearly had an obsessive self regard and care of his image, but produced a frankly creepy organisation. One of many...

One of the patterns that does show up with lots of western Yogis is often a less than honest account of their "missing years"... so you will get a great account of a meeting with a Master, blissful states etc (Check out for example a book called "Bliss Now" by a western devotee of Anandamayi Ma calleed Ramananda) and then a sort of blank. Ramananda bills himself as the man who brought yoga to Las Vegas, which makes me smile.

There are some curious autobiographies by two ex devotees of Baba Muktananda, Brother Charles and, I think, Atmananda, that provide further details of one of the most enigmatic of modern gurus.

From an Indian perspective, the coming of eager Westerners must have been unsettling and sort of humourous, too. Many of us westerners frankly wanted to be Indian, down to the last detail of the last custom - but with better toilet facilities. But what has ultimately developed over the past 40 years or so is something no-one had quite anticipated: a sort of hybrid, patchwork spiritual tradition, half Western, half Indian. I got to know this well in both the TM and Siddha Yoga traditions, and both were canny examples of organisations geared to the Western consumer: buying the books, the techniques, the weekend courses and intensives, the special shawls and so on and so forth. This gives the misleading impression that the great forces of the universe can not just be bought or sold, but commanded at one's bidding.

You see the dreadful legacy of this idea all over the internet: "Powerful mantra to aid..." "Powerful mantra for wealth". It has about as much to do with real spirituality as... well, words fail me.

Another strain of Dharma where western teachers have really flourished is Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism and the teachings of Vipassana and Metta Bhavana. Vipassana is now all the rage as the deity free simple meditation technique, almost now the de facto meditation technique of the 21st century. The American Pema Chodron is a particularly shrewd and wordly-wise teacher and her many books are well worth seeking out.

Another peripheral figure is Andrew Cohen, a man I met in London once, and another claiming enlightenment with a sort of tetchy insistence. He did not seem to have much of a powerful presence when I met him, to be honest. But, again, a cogent writer.

The West has a habit of ingesting anything it can, but the synthesis of yogic traditions is in some ways utterly dire, in other ways wonderfully inventive, too. At its best, the West has a great habit of doing, building, making, and staying firmly embedded in common sense. At its worst, everything becomes a product to sell, like the dreaded yoga mats, yoga clothing, yoga water bottles and so forth - and yoga becomes merely a way for women to keep supple and prevent ageing. The real gems are the unknown ones, the ones who quietly follow a path year after year with purpose and courage.

One of the most moving things I ever read was an article many years ago written by a woman Hare Krishna devotee, and if you know anything about the Hare Krishnas, you'll know that women in particular got an awful deal. But her good humour, modesty, and wisdom shone out in her brief life story. She made no secret of the fact that her clothes were old, her youth faded, her life unknown, yet she shone from the page as one who had really committed, made a serious deep committment and stuck through it through thick and thin. She put my own wobbly steps to shame! And no, she did not claim to be enlightened. Thank goodness for her and others like her.



















.



Tuesday, 23 April 2013

HANUMAN IN THE WEST: A STRANGE SAGA




There He is, the son of the Wind, unaware of his own strength (the other Gods are afraid to remind him), and the true servant of the true king, Lord Rama. Entrusted with the most difficult missions to protect Dharma, righteousness, he flies like a burst of colour and good cheer across Vedic legends. So, quite a lot going on in terms of symbology, but there are two particularly powerful aspects of this wonderful and inspiring figure:

  1. Lord Hanuman is the very personification of Seva, of selfless service and the stories told about Him will tell you why this is so.
  2. He is also a powerful and implacable enemy of dark forces, invoked by reciting the simple and relatively short Hanuman Chalisa by the famous poet Tulsidas.

Given these two qualities in particular, you can see why this energy of Lord Hanuman did a sort of remarkable metaphorical... actually, maybe literal ... leap across two worlds from India to the West, especially America. Why, I mean, it was necessary. America, a society at its worst dedicated to entirely selfish aims of wealth, comfort, pleasure and security, and beset by tragically destructive undercurrents symbolised by violent wars, oppression, untoward incidents.

Lord Hanuman made his leap into America by a surprising set of coincidences, and it started really with these guys below:



The tall man on the left is known as Bhagavan Das, and the one on the right is Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert. Now Bhagavan Das is one of those delightfully eccentric and unique personalities you will find when you look deep into western spiritual tradition. He's written an autobiography, Its Here Now, Are You? detailing his wanderings in India as a  forerunner (just ahead of the curve) of the wave of Western spiritual seekers who came to India Guru-shopping in the late 1960s and early 1970s (me included). Not everything about Bhagavan Das seems entirely trustworthy, but he tells a heck of a good story. And he was the man who met an equally unique and exceptional personality, the great saint and Yogi Neem Karoli Baba.



So, these are the dramatis personae of a truly wonderful bit of God's lila, God's playful sport: Lord Hanuman, an enlightened Yogi Neem Karoli Baba, and two Americans searching for the divine. All came together in a fruitful explosion that electrified a generation of seekers.

Bhagavan Das recognised the miraculous saintliness of Neem Karoli Baba, who happened to be a particularly staunch devotee (and some say incarnation) of Lord Hanuman. Wherever he went in India, he would set up Hanuman temples, Hanuman murtis, institute chanting Hanuman mantras. And Hanuman is, as we have said, service personified.

Ram Dass came to India as a sort of apostle of hippiedom, a psychiatrist at Harvard turned advocate of all things LSD (it was the 60s after all) and pretty cocky with it. He was a close associate of the equally famous Timothy Leary, he of the "Tune In, Drop out" fame. Alpert, as he was then, thought he had the measure of most things, and that LSD really was the ultimate easy way to enlightenment. That, and sex.

Well, off he went to India, and there he met Bhagavan Das. Both being American, they got along. As both have told their sides of the story, there arte two slightly different versions of their relationship, but it is fair to say that Ram Dass was dazzled by the whole vibes of Bhgavan Das, but ended up outstripping his friend in terms of influence and attainment. Next thing you know, Bhagavan Das tells Alpert about Neem Karoli Baba, and leads him to the Guru. 

What happens next is well known because Ram Dass subsequently wrote a book about it. The book, Be Here Now, is still in print, and when it was published (first as a sort of free gift box) had an astonishing effect on the American hippie generation. Because of that book, thousands headed to India, and Indian gurus, such as Baba Muktananda, headed to the US. An explosion of learning took place. And at a stroke Neem Karoli Baba found himself with a rag-tag group of western devotees, including a man now known as Krishna Das, who found fame later on as a chanter of chants and bhajans in the West. Krishna  Das has written a candid autobiography Chants of a Lifetime (loving that titl!e) which includes a wonderful photograph of a somewhat confused looking young American man (him) put in charge of.. you guessed it... a Hanuman temple in India.

Ram Dass came back to America, and after many adventures began to develop his own style of Hanuman-inspired activity, based around the concept of Seva, of "How Can I serve You". And this was gritty stuff: caring for the sick, the old, the dispossessed, the poor, in a practical way - the kind of thing Catholic saints have done through the ages. He did it in a fresh, dedicated and always humourous way until He himself had a stroke and in turn had to be nursed.

Krishna Das in the late 1990s suddenly found himself singing again, to an audience, producing records, touring, and always at every opportunity singing the Hanuman Chalisa. He spread the same message: Serve others because western society needs selfless souls to counter the cultural zeitgeist of materialism and greed. Bhagavan das had a more controversial life, which took in stints as a car salesman, born again Christian, student of tibetan Buddhism and Native American shaman, and consort to a string of lissom young ladies, as well as parent.. mostly absentee... of various children. But he, too has turned his hand at chanting and released records and recovered that original part of him awakened and enlivened by Neem Karoli Baba.

And Hanuman temples and murtis began to spread in America as a result. Plus the spirit of service. Ram Dass helped set up the Seva Foundation, an active charity in the US. Neem Karoli Baba is the gUru who then years later entranced none other than the movie star Julia Roberts. Yup, her. Go figure...

The pursuit of Yoga is often characterised as refined selfishness - you are off to go get enlightened, hang the rest of the world, that kind of thing. But the inspiration of Lord Hanuman is vital in sadhana.

We are all in this together, nasty neighbours and all, and the life of a hermit is not granted to most of us, so we are out in a messy and confusing world. But somewhere there is always a thread: the Guru's golden thread, or the thread of Lord Hanuman, or whatever you want to call it. The name is immaterial. But what Lord Hanuman ultimately teaches us is to look at the Heart, not the Mind. Hanuman's heart is always beating with the name of the Lord. 

I may not be a part of the Neem Karoli, Ram Dass tradition, but I do honour and celebrate it, and the good humour that particularly characterises this line. There is a particular vibe about the Karoli boys and girls, a sort of candour that is all to rare in spiritual groups where most people end up pretending they do not have a shadow side. Ram Dass has faithfully detailed his own shortcomings and life circumstances which include a serious disabling stroke in the 1990s which cut short his touring and lecturing.

One slightly strange characteristic is that Neem Karoli Baba tended to be the Guru of householders, not sannyasins. This has made his energy and shakti very accessible, despite his mahasamadhi back in 1973. What has gradually been revealed over the years is that he was in fact a householder himself at a very young age - married at the age 11 or 12 - and kept up a sweet relationship with his own children. I've never felt any desire to follow Him or his school, but I'm glad He and They are out there, fellow brothers and sisters on the path. Ram Dass is the link between hippies and spirituality and as he rightly realised - Neem Karoli Baba did come to the West in his body, but in the pages of a book.

Of all the Gods that I am sure appreciate humour, Lord Hanuman and Lord Ganesh are the exemplars. And Hanuman is alive now across the world, leading a very motley army of beggars, fools, oddities to help the mission of Lord Rama. I'm happy to walk with this army for a time, they give me hope and joy and inspiration. True fellowship on the spiritual path is rare, but the Karoli boys and girls are definitely on that road I know so well.