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.