Monday, 29 December 2014


One of the strangest aspects of the world we live in is the genuine ignorance that different religions and cultures have of each other. Thus, both east and west have very little idea that men and women of God, great Yogis, have lived everywhere across the globe. This gives a very skewed idea of things. To this day, you would be surprised at where the truly great teachers and yogis really do live. For example, once my Guru Sri Shivabalayogi was asked, while on one of his American trips, "Well, does America have truly enlightened people and Yogis?" Back came the reply: "Yes, but they are hidden. Most are Native American Indians." An intriguing comment!

The twentieth century produced some truly remarkable teachers, and the light of some of them shone in the darkest of times. One such was the Bulgarian mystic Peter Deunov, also called by the spiritual name Bensa Duono, who lived and worked in Bulgaria from 1864 to 1944. This put his life bang smack in the middle of two world wars, economic chaos, the breakup of an old order, and the threat of fascism and communism. A time when light was in particularly short supply.

The Master had a curious and visionary youth, and even lived when young briefly in America. He was the son of an Orthodox priest. His teaching work centred on many innovations, such as the vast circles of people in white practising cosmic exercises on summer mountain meadows. The exercises are a little like tai chi, and are called paneurhythmy. and you can see the circles of dance on you tube performed by the school of esoteric thought, the Order of the White Brotherhood that he founded.

Deunov was a magnetic speaker, a truly enlightened sage. He did not just look the part. Some credit him with the escape of Bulgarian jews from the fate that befell them in other countries during the second world war. He espoused a tolerant, wide open form of spirituality, diving into the mysteries of the indwelling Lord with great and gentle wisdom. Records of his talks are now available on the internet, so search him out.

I came across Deunov by accident around 20 years ago, picking up a second hand book without knowing anything about him or his work. I was greatly inspired by what I read. He faced many practical troubles from the usual type of officials who instinctively wanted to stamp out his teaching. But he managed to overcome all the challenges. 

Many years ago I also remember that he visited me in a dream. "I wanted to come and see you," he said, and I vividly remember the aura of peace and above all gentleness that emanated from this astral visitor.

One of his disciples, Omraam Mikael Aivanhov (who ended up looking uncannily like the Master) carried on his work and indeed became a master himself. Both of them revered the sacred Pranava Om as the expression of Godhead, and both particularly stressed the beneficial effects of getting up early, climbing a mountain, and watching the dawn come up. he also gave some wonderful prophecies about the times we live in.

Here, to save you looking, is an extract from one of his talks. Enjoy!


Love gives birth to the good. The good is the foundation of life. The good is the soil of life and at the same time its nourishment. Only the good can sustain life, only the good can nourish it.

When God limits Himself, the good is born in the world. When man is confined, evil is born. And when he is freed from confinement, good appears. In other words, when the desire to serve God originates within the human soul, then the conditions for the good are created.

Men wish to create good within themselves, but good is not created, it is born. It is implanted from the beginning in every man and he has only to become aware of it and reveal it.

Man must be good because good is the foundation of life. Without good the life of man has no foundation.
If man does not do good, evil is born. The evil that is now in the world is the unutilized good of the past.
Evil results from an unstable order. It is a world of arbitrary rule.
In the world of nature, it might be defined as reproduction without law.

Evil is, however, inevitable in the relations between forces and beings. Evil and good in Living Nature are forces which it utilizes equally. Behind the good and the evil is the Great Intelligence which utilizes everything. Man must not fight evil. He must escape it. He must not fight evil but must rather set good against it. The man who fights evil most, errs most. The only being who can harness evil into work is God.

You must know that there exists a collective consciousness of good and a collective consciousness of evil. They form the two great poles of Creation. Human life moves between those two great poles.

When evil is within, predominating over good, and the good is without, then evil reigns on earth. In other words, "hell" reigns on earth. But when good is within, triumphant, and evil is without, then "heaven" governs and good reigns in the world.

"Hell" is a place where evil is both inside and outside.
"Heaven" is a place where good is inside and outside.

And human life is "a place" where sometimes good is within and evil without, and sometimes the reverse.

Each man, according to the life he leads, is either at the pole of good or the pole of evil.

The man in whom evil is master lives in constant turmoil. Outwardly, he may have great wealth, he may be honored by men, but within himself he is not at peace. He is unceasingly troubled by evil misgivings and fears. Gradually he loses his health and his strength.

But when goodness is in the heart of a man, he may have neither riches nor power, but he is at peace and full of joy. His outward conditions are bad but his inner conditions are good. Such a man has something powerful within him and because of it he is loved by all.

The good people are the truly strong people in the world.

People think that evil is powerful in the world. Evil is powerful only because people love it. The love given to evil gives it strength. Evil obtains strength from love.

In spite of this, however, the striving for good can never cease. The process of good is eternal.
It is the creative process of life. Therefore, the good might be called the path to life. It leads us to life.
Evil is the path to death. It is condemned to barrenness.

Distinguishing between Good and Evil

In order to distinguish between good and evil, remember the following:
Good and evil are the high and the low in the world. Evil is the weakest possible vibration of good. Therefore, good is the price of rationality, and evil is the price of irrationality.

Good increases the value of human consciousness. Evil lowers it.

Through good, endowments are strengthened; through evil they are weakened and dimmed.

Good begins with small insignificant things. But they constantly grow, increase, and multiply, and then organize and unite into one whole. In evil there is always disintegration, disconnection.

The good might be compared to a spring that constantly flows. Evil on the other hand is like a dried-up spring that hardly trickles.

Evil promises much and gives nothing. Good promises nothing but gives much. Is it necessary for the spring to promise that it will flow? It simply flows.

So it is with a good man. In him, good is like a spring. He remains good under all conditions. It is delusion to think that conditions might change him. Good permeates his whole being, it is the foundation of his structure.

The good man differs fundamentally in construction from the evil one. The nervous system of a good man is more intricate and more finely constructed. His brain has more cells and more folds; it is differently constructed. His circulatory system, also, forms a richer and thicker network. The skin of the good man has more cells, and it is finer than the skin of the evil man.

The good man generally has a more perfect constitution. He is a highly advanced being. That is why every person who lags behind in his development becomes evil.

There is no greater act than this - to do good.

However minute this good might be, it is a noble act that all in heaven praise because God is hidden within goodness.

Nature is very careful even with the smallest gain. When a man does a good deed in the world, when he performs an intelligent act, there is great rejoicing in the invisible world.

To do good means to call upon God to act through you. And when God acts, He does so not only for one person, but for all. That is why when good is being done, all heavenly beings participate.

Thus, every act in which heaven does not participate is human, and every act in which heaven participates is divine.

Good must be done at the proper time. It does not take much time to do good, but it is necessary that your mind, your heart, your will, your soul and your spirit be fully concentrated, during those moments, upon the good you do.

Do Good now!

There must be no delay in doing good. When you wish to do good, you must do it at once, without postponement. If you postpone it, the opportunity is lost.

Do not think, however, that you must do good only when you are well disposed. Good may be done even when you are in the worst of dispositions. Indisposition is something that concerns the flesh. It does not concern the spirit of man.

People think that good is something that is dead. This is not true. Within the sacred idea which has stimulated you to do good, acts a higher, secret spirit who will illuminate this deed and will reveal that the life of the man who serves God is always fulfilled.

The good is the first link in life. The good is the first bond between people. It is the only material bond that truly unites people. Moreover, good is the first real bond between the souls of all people, on earth or in heaven.

You can acquire no knowledge without goodness. Knowledge begins with acquaintance with good.

A good deed is never forgotten. It is recorded in the Divine book because it is an act of love and as such it will be remembered in the Divine world for all time.

Everyone who does good becomes an ideal for others.

Do not think that when you do good, this will deprive you of something. On the contrary, good will elevate you.

Therefore, never shrink from difficulties when you ought to do good. Be brave, be decisive, do the good and let that good bring life, light and freedom to your fellow men.

All of you can do good, because there is good in the hearts of all of you.
Every good you do is a bond that gradually increases in strength.
You must continually form such bonds - not just once.

However, do not forget that man must remain anonymous in doing good as he tries to remain anonymous in doing evil.

Do not hasten to become good. Good is an indispensable condition for the perfection of man, but man does not become good in one day. If he aspires towards perfection, however, good will help him.

To be perfect, you must be strong in the good.

The only thing that distinguishes a man is the good that lives within him.
Good is a way to find Divine Love.

Monday, 15 December 2014


My twin brother William died on 7 December, just over a year after he was diagnosed - out of the blue - with an inoperable cancer of the brain. He only found out by a strange accident. He was driving a car, turning into a road, and happened to knock over a cyclist turning at the same time whom he had simply failed to spot. Off he went for an eye test, and within a week he was being referred to a cancer specialist in a hospital.

William then had months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy that failed to arrest the tumour, and by the time summer came along, you could clearly witness parts of his mind shutting down, until at the end he was unable to speak, or recognise anyone,or remember anything. And thus he died. 

The scriptures from any traditions constantly tell us "Be aware! Death is stalking." But we tend to ignore this inconvenient truth until death does indeed come knocking at the front door of our house. The scriptures also tell us,"Look, this life involves a lot of trials and suffering. We all have to drink from the cup of sorrow." But again, when we are young and vigorous, its a warning alarm that is easy to ignore. 

Sword of events

When suffering does fall in our lap, when our hearts are pierced by the sword of events, what then? One classic response is something like "Why is life so horrible? There cannot be a God, how can He allow pain and sorrow?" 

So actually saying "OK, things are as they are", and still managing to stick to our own spiritual mission and values, it's truly a moment of truth. It's when we realise that sadhana has a real life-changing value.

Some of us have faith, some of us do not. Some of us are well-acquainted with grief and know that it, too, passes just like everything else in this changing world. Some of us indeed find our strength, our desire to serve the Divine stronger than ever, even if the roof caves in, problems multiply, losses swallow us in a chaotic avalanche. Some of us find a wisdom in events, even if we do not know the purpose or the direction of the Divine play. This does not mean there is no hurt or pain. But it means that even in the deepest, darkest series of events, we do not lose our centre.

I do not pretend to know the karmic reasons why, in this case, one twin brother died and the other lived on. As a practitioner and knower of Jyotish, Vedic astrology, I can see why death might have occurred as it did (we shared virtually identical birth charts), but not why he should choose to go at that time. There are always many such periods when the so-called Maraka, or "death dealing planet" is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I do know, however, that right from the earliest age William thought he would die young (if you can call 60 young).  He was a great lover of life, but never did any spiritual practice. Yet in those early days of his illness, when his mind was intact and he desperately had to prioritise the remaining tasks he had to do (he was in the restaurant trade) he also told me "It's wierd, you know. But there's this other presence I feel now, it's like a voice that tells me what practical things I need to do and what I do not have to worry about, It's really reassuring." So even the worldly William felt something, someone outside of himself at the darkest moments.


Life includes suffering. Some suffering we know we cause ourselves. Others come to us unbidden and unawares. This is the mystery of destiny, or prarabdha karma. In Vedic thought, the karma is a legacy from previous lives. It may elevate us to riches. It may doom us to destitution. But it can only be thinned out by spiritual practice.

Such karma has one basic lesson to teach us: humility. Indeed, until suffering touches us we can often be insufferable, arrogant, careless, self-obsessed. Suffering is a way for our hearts to open, for compassion to dawn for the plight of others. Because when we suffer a loss we begin to see how pervasive loss and pain is throughout this world. Economic disparities, the prosperity and ease of the few over the many; oppression; poverty; starvation; disease. It's all there. As someone says of the modern world, "we are all just two wage slips away from starvation". Many of us get caught up in the workings of national karma. In my own country,the UK, I can clearly see how my and earlier generations have had to deal with the karma engendered by all that rapacious empire building done in the nineteenth century.

The point of sadhana is not to avoid karma, but to be so centred in the Divine that even when misfortunes flow our way, we remain steady, humble and keenly aware of the grace of Divine pouring into creation each new day. By living this way, the tears still flow when pain visits, but even beneath the tears there is a whole deeper sub-stratum of joy of being alive. And ahead - the home of full enlightenment when we are bathed in union, when there is no "outside" to impact us. All is One.

I know I will meet my dearly loved Brother again, and thank him for his kindness of spirit, joy of living, and great sense of fun. He was a great light in my life when I was young. And I know that I will meet him in joy and love, and we shall joke as we always did about all the amazing drama of existence. I could not save his life. But I have saved in my heart the loving-kindness he spread when he lived on this earth. And I pray that he is safe and sound in our true home. 

So, suffering is part of the trial of life. And that being so, what do we do? We just keep walking up that hill to find the home of love, truth and goodness.  

William, a week after he was diagnosed

And a year later, a month before he died

Monday, 24 November 2014


Warning: This post is not meant for the idle or the curious. But it will call the persons for whom it is intended. So please... apply common sense and don't put this into practice unless you feel you are being called to a truly deeper closeness to God!

"Total Surrender is when one yields to Him, not due to the pressure of circumstances but voluntarily with hands folded, head bowed, ego surrendered and heart divinised." 
Swami Satyananda Saraswati


Sadhana commitment is a lifetime's affair, and at its heart lies the secret of surrender, a constant, always renewed, bowing down to Divinity and the ultimate merging with the source of divine hidden inside your heart. 

There are seasons to deep surrender, and the timing unfolds according to a rhythm that is hidden inside your destiny. Perhaps, for whatever reason, due to whatever series of events, you now feel you have reached a point where a far deeper commitment to the spiritual life is called for. You feel an urgent need in your heart to dedicate yourself absolutely and irrevocably to following the Lord in all of God's myriad manifestations, as child, as mother, as father, as the stealer of hearts. You may feel this as an urgent impulse hammering away inside of you. Something blindly leads you on. 

Only you can know if you reach such a point, but be aware that it is rare. Most people practice a bit of meditation, may be some japa, or prayers, a few stretches, and that's the extent of surrender -plus a few retreats scheduled in between life. The urge to deeper surrender is both a gift and a trouble. Everything is thrown topsy-turvy. Part of you will rise to fight against any such impulse, so you are immediately pitched into a battle with your lower nature.

If your heart is not pure, then your surrender will not be absolute. But very few hearts are pure at the time of commitment. So, surrender will only be a promissary note, a signing away of your rights as an individual to the highest good, the highest purpose. As your heart is slowly cleaned by spiritual practice, the opportunity to surrender ever more deeply comes time and time again. 

No one else need know. But the subsequent dance with the Beloved is conducted across time and space, and produces extraordinary states of exultation, bliss, as well as loss and dismay. a bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, You are swept up in the close embrace of a whirlwind.

Surrender with any expectation of reward is simply not what is meant by surrender. Surrender to obtain something, get something, exalt yourself, get powers and abilities - that's just a mockery of the essential truth of surrender. So is the cautious bargaining "Well, I might surrender, but you need to show me something first!" Nope, that won't cut it either. Nor "I want to surrender... I am frightened... later in life."

This is why deep surrender is so very rare, such a startling and wonderful and completely illogical human activity. And yet, where do all the saints and yogis come from? From the ranks of those who have surrendered to God. And from where does society get its renewal? From those very same individuals.

The Five Jewels

The act of surrender (its is called Samarpan in Sanskrit) does however bear fruit. Not immediately. It takes time and much back-breaking effort and challenge. But Surrender produces among many other wonders, 5 jewels of life in particular:

1) The Jewel of constancy

Constancy means steadfastness, means maintaining an even connection with a core mission of surrender, and slowly training yourself to live in a way that reflects, down to the very last particular, the reality of surrender.

The great Christian message of "Thy Will be Done" is the heartbeat of this constancy. Whatever comes up, good, bad, terrifying, boring, frustrating, exciting... whatever life throws at you,  you maintain this constant link to the core surrender of your life.

If you do this properly, then don't worry, this jewel of constancy will remind you of its presence, will nudge you to refocus, you recalibrate your settings back to surrender until it is so automatic that surrender becomes an unbroken stream of intention.

"Divine will is mysterious, ever elusive, ever receding, subtle, inexpressable, invisible, and yet all-pervading, knowable through intuition, devotion and purity. Who can know the divine will? Only one who has surrendered unreservedly to God can know it as the source and goal of life."
Swami Sivananda

2) The Jewel of Serenity

"Oh Lord, thou art my all in all," This prayer, the constant prayer in the heart, eventually becomes a statement of absolute truth and reality, even if it starts out as anything but. It is the outward expression of an inner peace of the heart that descends or is uncovered after many trials and efforts. Serenity is the  comfort of being inwardly secure in a sea of love, And this can felt whatever yuou are doing ... even if you are ranting and raving! Serenity is inner peace. It comes and goes over many years, but each wave of serenity seems deeper and fuller. It manifests through deep surrender.

3) The Jewel of Renewal

In  each of us is a mysterious inner spring that is the source of all vitality. It is a fountain not made by the hand of man, and it is found principally in the heart.With surrender comes a freedom to drink from this spring directly. You are renewed by the inner ambrosia daily. There are many esoteric scriptures that refer to this hidden inner spring, and it can never be used for any selfish ends, or for greed or self-aggrandisment. Those after siddhis, powers, glory, they will never get near its location. Only those surrendered will be given the gift of access, or those entirely innocent - such as small children. But with deep surrender comes deep, daily renewal.

4) The Jewel of Humility

Giving up your rights, ambitions, plans, pride of accomplishment is far more difficult than simply uttering a pompous speech to the heavens. Again, practitioners of sadhana tend to only go along with the practice if their egos are being fed. Surrender destroys this part of the ego. Surrender brings us to many moments of worldly and spiritual humiliation as we empty ourselves of our toxic natures. We have to be tough to learn humility, to take the blows and knocks. Life around great Gurus often include deliberate events or occasions when the disciple's ego is hauled before the coals... in public. In this modern age, of course, law suits may be likely to follow from the outraged disciple. But a true disciple will bow, will let pride be washed away. Only when we are naked, poor, foolish and simple will true humility dawn. And no one might even guess that such and such person has this extraordinary level of surrender. But God knows, every time.

5) The Jewel of Illuminating Light

Such a soul, such a rare soul, that surrenders and then stays true to surrender... they are the jewels of any nation. And from them a light shines which illumines all around. Is the light love? Is the love light? Yes the two are closely linked. Surrender causes a vast light to shine from your heart. This light penetrates all evil, all trouble, all inauspicious times and places. It is the pilgrim's light of one who walks the mountains of the Lord - whether you call the mountain Mt Kailash, Arunachala, Mt Zion, Mt Carmel, however your spiritual language tells you. The light is what heals our world.  

Monday, 10 November 2014


The Mahavidyas are covered in the Serious Sadhana correspondence course, and this post includes an excerpt from the part on Bhuvaneshwari.

When you sit back and think about Deity looking after each and every part of the manifested universe, it is not easy to gain perspective. The town, village or city in which we live has enough almost infinite series of variations and energy exchanges  - and just contemplate what goes on in our body alone. Now expand that, expand beyond the earth's boundaries and imagine floating through the vastness of space.

This vastness is what Mata Bhuvaneshwari embodies. Her direction in the Mahavidyas is west. So, we look west at the time of the setting sun and what do we see? Emerging space, the clarity of stars beginning to appear in the sky. 

If you have ever had the chance to truly see the unclouded night sky in all its glory, far from city lights, then you know how awe-inspiring such a sight is. I live in one of the most light-polluted cities on earth, but just occasionally in my life have seen the unguarded splendour of space unfold as I lie down on the ground and simply... gaze in wonder. The last time this happened was in a small tropical island off Zanzibar. A friend of mine once took a trip in the Egyptian desert, where the stars seem so near you feel you can touch them.

All this majesty and mystery is part of Bhuvaneshwari. This is the Mother not as the intimate mother to the soul, looking after your needs and welfare. No, this is the Mother in all Her splendour, the Mother of inconceivable vastness and majesty.

Some of us will be more drawn to Her in this aspect. She is what we imagine God to be, this being of such size that we cannot comprehend Her as a whole in our normal awareness, not at all. In the west, especially, we are most comfortable with this gigantic, epic conception. The interstellar reaches, the birth and death of stars, black holes, parallel universes, galaxies - all this is part of Bhuvaneshwari's form. 

There are two amazing descriptions which help understand this cosmic power. One is Yogananda's own experience of Cosmic Consciousness, a very famous passage from his Autobiography of a Yogi. The other comes from the unusual books by a British writer of the mid 20th century, Olaf Stapleton. These are loosely labelled science fiction but are anything but. He was a deep thinker and one of the very few writers able to sketch out visions on a truly galactic and vast scale, especially in Starmaker (don't be put off by the title, it's an erudite work not a space soap opera). 

The point of contact with Bhuvaneshwari for all those pursuing Devi sadhana is the bija mantra HRIM (pronounced Hreem)  which is also called Hrillekha, the streak or sudden emanation like lightening from the heart space, or the Devi Pranava (which can also be applied to other shakti bija mantras). This bija mantra is embedded wherever you look when worshipping the Mother, it is absolutely vital. Hrim connects our heart space to the transcendent by creating this flashing-forth of the heart-streak. 

Hrim is also known as the "modest" Bija, Lajja Bija, and the subtle meaning of this is that She, as the Mother of space, gives birth to worlds and universes which are "modest", which are not yet fully revealed or uncovered -which will unfold in time. So contained in this name is one of the secrets of the universe: that worlds unfold in time, just as our own souls reveal their potential over time. This is the closest that Tantra comes to the evolutionary impulse. But it is also worth remembering that just as we can unfold, so we can fold - that there are two basic movements in the universe. It's not all continual expansion or spinning out. At some point every creation draws in, ends and dies.

The Mother as Bhuvaneshwari encompasses vastness and Space, which in Sanskrit is the fifth element akasha. This is the form that contains all the manifested universe, of which we are an infinitesimal part, the Mother of whom Yogananda sang in one of his Cosmic Chants “Thousands of suns and moons from Thy body do shine.”  It is also connected with the heart-space,the sacred heart which is the resting place of the Divine in all of us. Her name in the Vedas is also Aditi, the great mother of all the Devas. Yet another name familiar to all: Maya,  or Mahamaya, the great veiling power of the unmanifest becoming the manifest.

Bhuvana means world, ishwari ruler, but nevertheless she is not an earth goddess at all, but a ruler of all space who fills it and protects it. This rulership gives her a calmness and serenity, a dispassion and mildness that makes her easy to approach. All troubles and woes disappear in the vastness and calmness of space. She is also known as Aditi, the primordial Mother.

Bhuvaneshwari therefore is connected with Kali, because she provides the cosmic ground on which Kali dances – thus Space provides the ground for Time. She is sacred ground, the ground on which all creation unfolds, and therefore the innermost sheath covering the unmanifest, Lord Shiva. Her name Bhuvana, means cosmos, and appears in a truncated form in the famous Gayatri mantra.

She is connected with Tripura Sundari because she represents Jnana Shakti, the energy from knowledge. The difference between the two is this calmness, the universal equipoise beyond all movement of passion or desire. She is the Mother who supports and interpenetrates all of creation, but the mother, too, without a court unlike Tripura Sundari.

And yet she is virtually unknown to the wider world! Clearly the world is not yet wide enough for this Goddess of the Universe. Perhaps in the West, her calmness and universality makes her the most easily understood of all the Mahavidyas. Again, there are echoes in other religions of Her, especially the Egyptian Goddess Nut, whose depiction is of a giant form bestriding the night sky with a body made of stars.

We look out therefore at the goddess who inhabits all, as far as we can see. Her inconography is similar to Tripura Sundari except her colour, which despite her position in the west has the colour of the rising sun.

How to worship such a Goddess? How to worship such scale? For surely we then condemn ourselves to being the utterly insignificent speck on an utterly insignificant corner of an utterly insignificant galaxy. But the point about this massive conception of the Mother is that interpenetrates us to the depth of every cell, that she has infinite eyes, infinite limbs, infinite senses. That she sports in us, and therefore connects us with every other part of her. 

Akasha, her medium, is all pervading in the manifested world. It is the ground of manifestation, it is what everything floats in, from the nucleus, the atom, to the biggest neutron star. Space is pervasive, this is another part of her message for us.

Connecting with Bhuvaneshwari calls therefore for a courageous recognition that really, every moment of every day, we are manifested as a vibrational light in a wider sea than we ever consciously think about. She is that sea. This is the Mother at her most awe-inspiring. And all of this is unlooked by that apparently simple bija mantra, Hrim. Amazing! Just say, if you have the time, this wonderful mantra out loud, really stretching it, in a darkened room...

Thursday, 6 November 2014


Would you give up your life to save a grove of trees? Would you protect wildlife and the environment at all costs despite living in a harsh desert environment where resources are scarce? Well in one region in India there is a faith that values the world around us so highly, devotees have sacrificed themselves to prevent others from harming it.

The faith is called the Bishnoi religion, founded over 500 years ago by one of India's least known saints, Guru Jambheshwar. It is narrowly focused in one social grouping in the Western thar desert of India. The Bishnoi name is derived from the number 29 and refers to 29 core principles (given below) handed down by the Guru.

The remarkable aspect of this faith is that its care of the environment and animals has had a truly wonderful effect. Even in the desert conditions, the land flourishes and animals flourish in peace with intervention by humans, whereas all around no such bounty exists. Why is this so? The peacefulness urged by the faith has essentially done a large part in eradicating violence in society. 

The Bishnois appear briefly in a new BBC documentary series on the Monsoon lands, and their ways carefully explained by the tribal elders. What a wonderful bit of heaven! Ahimsa, non-violence, is one of the vital Yamas and Niyamas which underpin all spiritual practice, but to be truly non-violent you have to extend this to the world around you. 

Elsewhere in the desert, deer are chased away and driven far from water sources. In Bishnoi land they wander freely and are honoured and nurtured. And all of this at least 500 years before the world spawned environmental activists!

The great Guru himself must have been a beautiful soul. His essential teachings boiled down into 29 principles are nothing startling in terms of spiritual discipline. But they add some extra clauses. Have a look at them (this translation is from Wikipedia):

  1. Observe 30 days' state of untouchability after child's birth
  2. Observe 5 days' segregation while a woman is in her menses
  3. Bath early morning
  4. Obey the ideal rules of life: Modesty
  5. Obey the ideal rules of life: Patience or satisfactions
  6. Obey the ideal rules of life: Purifications
  7. Perform Sandhya two times a day
  8. Eulogise their God, Vishnu, in evening hours (Aarti)
  9. Perform Yajna (Havan) every morning
  10. Filter water, milk and firewood
  11. Speak pure words in all sincerity
  12. Adopt the rule of forgiveness and pity
  13. Don't steal
  14. Do not condemn or criticize
  15. Don't lie
  16. Don't waste the time on argument
  17. Fast on Amavashya and offer prayers to Vishnu
  18. Have pity on all living beings and love them
  19. Do not cut green trees, save the environment
  20. Crush lust, anger, greed and attachment
  21. Accept food and water from our purified people only
  22. Provide a common shelter for male goat/sheep to avoid them being slaughtered in abattoirs
  23. Don't sterilise ox
  24. Don't use opium
  25. Don't take smoke and use tobacco
  26. Don't take bhang or hemp
  27. Don't take wine or any type of liquor
  28. Don't eat meat, remain always pure vegetarian
  29. Never use blue clothes

The principles you find nowhere else are also intriguing. The gelding of male bullocks or their destruction at birth is one of the saddest results of modern agriculture, where only milk producing cows are valued and male cows have no use, because the use of oxen as a key tool in agriculture is declining even in India.In the west this situation is appalling but to the credit of the Hare Krishna movement, they run a save an oxen movement in the UK, The ban on the colour blue refers to the use of indigo which involved large scale destruction of plants. 

What is amazing is that the Guru managed to persuade villagers to follow these principles so faithfully and pass them down through the generations. If only the rest of India would take note! This is a land that should look so beautiful yet is marred by such polluting ugliness, especially the awful profusion of human waste, plastic bags, and general detritus strewn around the outskirts of cities. 

To me it seems as though the rest of the world has got some catching up to do with the Bishnois. It is as if God decided to perform a little experiment in one small corner of the world and see what would result. What did transpire, no one could have foreseen. Over 300 Bishnois laid down their lives rather than let a ruthless raja cut down their trees. As recently as 1995 a Bishnoi gave his life to stop hunters on Bishnoi land. Now that is truly living a spiritual life to the max.

The proof of the pudding in this case is how fertile the Bishnoi lands are compared with elsewhere. In our violent modern culture where taking is considered the one motivation, the Bishnois remind us, no, there is another way to go. And this way works. What a fantastic tradition!

Wednesday, 8 October 2014


India has given birth to many of the wisest people who have ever walked the earth, and a host of great enlightened sages throughout its wonderful history. But three figures particularly stand out for their care and concern of the rights of the oppressed. Two are well known throughout the world — Mahatma Gandhi and the great Swami Vivekananda. But one figure is mysteriously little known outside India, despite his exceptional and very modern life, and that is the brilliant figure of Basava. 

How can he best described? An enlightened politician; A poet; A wise man; the inspiration of a new religious movement; A born networker; the essence of compassion and empathy. All these fit, but consider the fact that he lived in the 12th century, when Europe was only just emerging from an era of chronic warfare, ignorance and dogmatic superstition. 

Basava, also called Basavanna or Basaveshwara lived in troubled times. He was orphaned at an early age but adopted by a wealthy and well connected family and enjoyed privilege and a solid education, but chose as a young man instead to pursue sadhana at a place two sacred waters met. That gives you some idea of his unusual qualities. He became illuminated. Destiny led him back into the world, where his talents led him to become the treasurer in the Royal household of King Bijjala the first of the Kalichura dynasty in what is now known as Karnataka.

In the end, the brilliant court he fostered, which gathered together an extraordinary number of saints and poets, such as the female Yogini Akkhamahadevi, and Allamaprabhu all fell apart and he had to leave the kingdom, dying shortly after - his experiment in egalitarian social democracy apparently failing. But what a wonder that court must have been! People gathering not for show, not for ambition, but for love of God and humanity. Many of us might dream about this when young, but Basava actually created it.

Basava fought against the caste system - the only great saint in our modern era who chose so to do. He believed, too, in equal rights for women, in the role of parliaments (he created a model parliament called Anubhava Matapa, And somehow, until the end and the rise of treachery, managed to create and sustain a little slice of heaven. The movement broke apart after the forces of religious dogmatism seized on the marriage of a brahmin girl and an outcaste man. You can imagine the orgy of self-righteous cruelty and killing as a result. What a wonderful heart Basava possessed! His dramatic story would make a truly epic movie, and I keep hoping to see one made. Still waiting. But there is a whole Purana written in Kannada language about it. 

These days Basava is revered by the religious tradition he created as something close to a god, as a Divine Guru or Vishwa Guru. But if you strip away the adulation, you can see that what he was principally concerned about was honesty and simplicity in spiritual practice. And the main teaching solution he came up are the famous Vachanas, short, pithy and  accessible poems in the common tongue of the people that deal with the grittiness of normal life and urge, every time, to wake up, be aware how fleeting life is, and turn to God.

Basava's system of Virashaivism centred around the Linga, the sacred symbol of Shiva, as an object of focus and the manifestation or entry point of the divine in the body. The complex but robust theology that developed from this is practiced by his many followers today. He approached spiritual teachings with the eye of the poet, and his exquisite sensitivity shines through all his legacy. What a truly wonderful genius he was.

I first came to know Basava about 15 years ago, attracted by the stories of the court that grew around him, and was completely staggered that any such figure had existed in such a dark period of human history. It's almost like he was a time traveller from a more enlightened future. His poems were wonderful, especially the memorable phrases he used again and again... Kudala Sangama Deva or  "Lord of the Meeting Rivers" and "Lord as white as jasmine".

I wondered then, as I do now, how could an enlightened sage become both a highly important political figure and a social revolutionary and still have time to write poetry! How he could even do what he did. Truly his personality must have been magnetic. 

The story has been updated recently because for the first time you can now access some of his teachings and poems in one handy-sized book which is worth getting, and available from Amazon, called Enriching Life, Guidance from Vachanas:

I'd forgotten, before reading this book, how brilliantly pithy, succint and memorable were some of these vasanas.

Here are some examples. The one in big type sums up sadhana in a nutshell:

“God is truly divine
Devotee of God is indeed of superior birth.
Shadakshra* mantra is the mantra,
Not killing is the dharma
Not accepting that which comes from adharma is the vow
Not having desires is the penance
Not having rage is the chanting
Not having deceit is the devotion
Not inflating or deflating is the righteous path
This is the truth, God knows
And God is the witness.” 

Urilingapeddi*Om Namah Shivayah

Yearnings are not quenched
And rage is not leaving!
Until the cruel speech and mockery stops,
Where are you and where is God?
Get lost oh Fool!
Until the darkness known as
The malady of Bhava is comprehended
Where is Lord Kudalasangayya,
And where are you, Oh fool!

“In the raft of Samsara
I am now sinking, suffering and being inundated , Oh Father.
Hurry, oh Father! Please do hurry!
I have fallen into an impregnable trap:
Please rush to the rescue and hoist me up, Oh Father.
Hoist me up!”

“This woman known as the desire
Draws anyone and everyone towards her.
This woman known as desire, without discrimination,
Plots to kills every single person.
Whatever happens she will not stop at it.
She will tempt by throwing every rank of heavens.

Because of this woman known as desire,
I am unable to find a path towards you.

When will I  forsake this woman known as desire,
When will I join you, and be without separation,
My Lord Kapilasiddhamallikarjuna?”


A tiny Indian Brahmin woman named Aghoremani Devi, widowed from childhood, was one of Paramahansa Ramakrishna's most exalted and hidden disciples in the 19th century. She earned the name Gopala Ma as testament to her extraordinary sadhana, which centred around the practice of Japa done to the child aspect of Lord Krishna - the infant Gopala.  This sadhana, furthermore was successful. She became illumined through her tapasya, and it took Ramakrishna to point it out.

An orthodox Brahmin widow in the 19th century did not really have that many options available. In Gopala Ma's case, she had just about enough money from an annuity to scrape by, living in a bare room in a temple near the Ganges about 3 miles away from Dakshineshwar, where Paramahansa Ramakrishna lived. Both her and the widowed owner of the temple were of one mind and purpose, opting to dive into spiritual practice.

This for Gopal Ma involved Japa - and hours of it. Her routine and regimen was particularly taxing. Up at 2am, Japa all the way through to about 11am, Japa resuming in the afternoon and also in the night. In between, she would worship the deities and keep her small living space meticulously spotless. We have a great description of this room from Vivekenanda's Irish disciple Sister Nivedita, and from Ramakrishna's direct disciple Swmi Saradananda, both of whom devoted some pages in their books to Gopal Ma. 

The room contained pretty much nothing else than two pots, a small trunk for clothes, the small deity Gopala, basic cooking equipment, and a mat. When a visitor came, Gopal Ma would offer them her tattered mat to sit on. Now most people these days would bewail their fate if they found themselves in similar constrained circumstances, but there was a further barrier as well - Gopala Ma was meticulously orthodox as a Brahmin, which made interacting with the world even more challenging.

Many people give up reciting Japa because their mind wanders, their attention flags and they want to be off doing something far more interesting. Not Gopala Ma. She stuck at it. Hours a day, a japa mala, the Ganges at the bottom of the garden... over and over again the recitation of her Gopala mantra. Her devotion took the attitude of the Mother: she approached God as the Mother to the helpless baby Gopala.

And something happened.


One day she noticed a beautiful young boy, around 2 or 3 years old, helping her prepare the food for offering. When she realised who this was - Gopala himself - she went a little mad with ecstacy. Soon, baby Gopala was manifesting as a real figure, begging food, complaining about the hardness of her wooden pillow, grumbling, teasing, demanding attention.

She saw Ramakrishna for the first time not long after, and we can imagine her feelings when (greatly daring for her orthodox ways) she and her friend hopped on a boat to Dakshineshwar, went to see this holy man, offered him some stale sweets bought in the market only for him to say "Give me something to eat next time that you have cooked yourself". Indeed the first visits she made he repeated this, seemed only interested in food she could bring, and his reaction when she brought him some curry and vegetables she had cooked seemed so over the top, she was convinced he was mad.

But, of course, she could not stay away. And then Ramakrishna appeared in an astral form in her own room, and merged into the baby Gopala. This was the culminating phase of her sadhana. She was so overwhelmed by this vision, she somehow walked to Dakshineshwar, staggered towards Ramakrishna with her bare dress dishevelled, in a state of ecstacy. He in turn sat on her lap. This must have been a sight to behold! She was convinced that Gopala and Ramakrishna were one and the same. In turn he recognised her exceptional purity and high state of consciousness.

The end of the journey

It took Ramakrishna to point out to Gopala Ma that she had reached the end of her sadhana journey. All those years of Japa had drawn God irresistably to vher. He told he she did not have to do japa any more... it had achieved its aim.

The final years of her life are in many ways the most interesting thing about her. Visions came less frequently, but she found hereself being subtly taught by Ramakrishna to open out a little, to move beyond the stifling caste restrictions that had defined and constrained most of her years. 

She was one of the intimate companions of Sri Sarada Devi, Ramakrishna's holy spouse. She also struck up an unlikely friendship with some of Ramakrishna's young disciples, especially Swami Saradananda. And one of the most touching events was Ramakrishna's artful arrangement of an informal debate between the young Vivekananda (intellectually brilliant, and suspicious of idols and God with form) and the unlettered , humble, tiny Gopal Ma. She told the young man all about her visions, and it helped profoundly shift Vivekananda's determined non-dualism. What a debate it must have been!


The lesson of Gopal Ma for me is that Japa is not a game, or an idle pursuit. It is peculiarly suited to the age in which we live. Perhaps we might wonder - is Japa a fantasy? Does anyone ever hear us? Well, Gopal Ma's life was proof that yes, Japa is heard and that yes, its sharp and steady focus on a Divine name does draw the Bright One to us. Of course, she was no ordinary soul. She did not have to cope with the dramas and responsibilities of family life. And she certainly never took a holiday, never went down a wrong path. But how beautiful a life it was! It teaches us that this kind of sadhana is not make believe, not pretense, not a sort of wooly wish fulfilment. No! Japa works. Of course it does.

So sometimes when I pick up my battered Japa mala and set to reciting the mantra, I remember that little Indian woman, and give thanks for her service and her example. "Keep going," I seem to hear her say. "Keep going... we will all each the goal!" And she's right. 


Thursday, 4 September 2014


The Blogger interviewed on Lord Ganesh:

So, Firstly, why is Lord Ganesh so revered in the Vedic tradition?
The interface between the Divine and man can be a bit difficult. Our human frailties make it necessary for us to spend a long time in self-purification before we can sense and interact with the Divine Light in us and around us. But there are are particular entry points and helpers along the way. Lord Ganesh is one of three very approachable deities whose forms and presence is really welcome not just to those of us who practise sadhana but also to every single human being.

The other two?
Shri Mata Matangi, one of the ten Mahavidya aspects of the mother, and Lord Krishna in the form of Lord Jagannatha. So all three are very approachable, all three appear to be willing to interact and uplift humanity without the need for too much meticulous preparations and systems of worship. But of the three, Lord Ganesh is perhaps the most universally beloved.  In fact, so universal is he, that you can go into shops across the western world and buy a figure of Lord Ganesh - and of course he is revered in Buddhist countries as well. If you are in an Asian country with elephants, he's probably represented. We humans just seem to instinctively feel warm and safe around him. There's a sweetness and a smile to him.

Can you tell us a little bit about his attributes and iconography?
Like any other Hindu deity, He has his fierce side, but He is principally known as the son of Lord Shiva and Parvati, brother to Lord Kartikkeya (Murugan), with an elephant's head and a corpulent human body. The head of the elephant is explained in a number of ways, the principle one being that Parvati asked her son to guard Her while she took a bath, and then Lord Shiva came along after a long period of tapasya (another day in the office for him!) and saw this figure barring the way to his wife's chambers, lost his temper and lopped off his head. When an understandably enraged Parvati confronted Shiva, he hastily had to find the first available living thing to restore his son to life, which happened to be an elephant. It is a sweet and very human story, because we can all easily imagine exactly what Parvati would have said, and Lord Shiva's resultant panic!

So, a curious form from a domestic tiff
Yes, absolutely. But this story gives us two hints about Lord Ganesh. Firstly, he is the firm guardian of the Mother, which means in our own sadhana, he guards the way to the unfolding of shakti. Some say Lord Ganesh's place is seated right in the muladhara, the base chakra from which Mata Kundalini rises. He is, therefore, a gatekeeper of sadhana. 

Secondly, his very form is non-threatening, a bit comic, but reassuring. To add to mismatch, he only has one tusk, and whereas other deities have splendid mounts, such as Lord Shiva's bull Nandi, Durga's tiger, his brother's peacock and so forth, his mount is a humble mouse. And every legend about him reminds us that he loves sweet things of all kinds. 

What sort of role does Lord Ganesh play in sadhana?
He's the beginning. He's the auspicious start. That is how it works. He's the one at the gate of Siddha Loka saying "your papers, please." The only group of Hindus I know who conspicuously fail to honour Lord Ganesh in prayers and mantras are the Hare Krishna boys and girls, that is some of the more extreme forms of Vaishnava worship. Otherwise, when you begin your prayers, Lord Ganesh is immediately honoured. Whether you are his devotee or not, this honour comes to him. This acknowledges his role, then, as the gatekeeper or as he is often referred to, as the Lord of Obstacles, or to be more precise, Lord Vinayaka, the Remover of obstacles.

How does he remove obstacles?
Lord Ganesh is the one who hands out the tickets for Devi sadhana, for access to the mother's city and palace. So what he really represents is the victory over our animal, pashu, nature. In his iconography, The Lord has perfectly balanced the tremendous instinctual forces of the animal nature, represented by the elephant's head, with the human nature. All is under control. He is known as Shuddha, the pure one as well. So getting permission to do advanced sadhana is via Lord Ganesh, and this means the gradual control over our animal nature and less helpful tendencies. 

He has a particular association with Brahmacharya, doesn't he?
Yes he does have the association with sexual continence, even though in some legends he is married to two wives, with deep symbolic meanings.Again, this is a way of saying that if you truly are dedicated in your desire for sadhana, the yamas and niyamas, the yogic restraints and observances, are inevitable at some stage in that journey. 

What about his association with the Vedas?
Yes, in legend, Lord Ganesh is the one who patiently transcribed the Vedas, dictated to him by Veda Vyasa, the great human Rishi. So again, patience, humility, and also deep knowledge. For some he is the embodiment of the Pranava, the Om, and there are many ingenious bits of artwork you can find which turn the Om into an elephants shape. He is the lord of categories, so He is the one bringing order and depth of knowledge, a sort of librarian for our sadhana. 

And he is kind?
Yes, absolutely. Kind and forgiving and helpful, without pomp or circumstance. He is very approachable. Some people say that his presence can be felt in other figures in world myth, such as Santa Claus, or the laughing Buddha. Interesting idea.

And a family man?
This is one of the most curious aspects of Lord Ganesh, in as much as he appears as the dutiful son of what appears to be the ideal human family, Lord Shiva, Parvati and their two sons. This is a very popular image, and I remember even having place mats for the dinner table showing this setting. When you think about it, it's a very curious nuclear family - the husband off most of the time meditating, one son leading armies to sweeping victories, and the mother as the daughter of the mountains. But there is a serious point behind it. Lord Ganesh is the guardian of the mother's honour and modesty. The esoteric meaning behind this is that when Shakti fully awakes in our life through the rising of Kundalini, she is what some texts call "Naive, defenceless and complete", naked and unadorned by anything else, as she is pure energy. But this reality is guarded by Lord Ganesh. He does not allow others to see his Mother this way unless they are ready for the sight. 

So do you then have to worship him with pujas and so forth?
Lord Ganesh's worship has its own particular rhythms and rituals, particularly in the form of gestures and mudras, and are meant for his devotees alone. But this does not mean in your own life that you do not acknowledge him. The simplest way you do this is just say "Om Gam Ganapataye Namahah" when ever you begin chanting, meditation, or swadhyaya. This takes no time, obviously, but it is good to start off with the most auspicious acknowledgement we can about the helpful role of Divinity. Saying the 108 names of Lord Ganesh once a week is also a good idea, if you have the time.

What's your own relationship with Lord Ganesh?
A curious one.  The other day I  counted the number of Ganesh statues in the house, and came up with at least 8! Where did they come from?! They just sort of accumulated. One of my favourites is a small cheap mass-produced golden Ganesh with a book of scriptures, which I bought in Singapore.

He has been around in awareness for many years, and one of the very first periods of deep meditation I passed through unfailingly brought me to a point where I could feel two tiny Lord Ganesh figures dancing to the sound of kettle drums in either ear, which was just a wonderful vision and produced tremendous exultation. So he is around, but for me my heart is turned to the Devi, yet I feel in other lives I had a deep connection with him which keeps manifesting in curious ways. For example in my failed marriage, my wife brought me a gold pendant of Lord Ganesh for a wedding gift. He teaches us all great lessons without seeming to do so. He is the essence of humility, which I particularly warm to. If you are his devotee you, too, should display that humility, just as devotees of Maha Durga should be courageous and determined.

And as the remover of obstacles?
Above all, he is the one to pray to if you are unsure of which path to turn. This is because he can grant us pure discrimination, the ability to judge soberly, coolly, and with nobility. He should never be forgotten, never feared, but always treated with respect and love. He is the kind of deity who would happily play with our children, partake of the messiness of human family life with perfect serenity, good cheer and laughter. I always feel that Lord Ganesh really enjoys a joke! Blessings to him.