Thursday, 29 January 2015

INDIAN YOGIS: THE GREATNESS OF SWAMI SIVANANDA


Throughout 40 years of sadhana, and all the wonderful teachings, pilgrimages, experiences,  thrills and spills - and disillusionments - that it has brought in my life, one figure has quietly remained in the background as a constant inspiration, and that is the genial but towering figure of Swami Sivananda, who died in 1963. I do not follow his path or the many schools that his disciples created. He is certainly not the person i revere as my Guru. And yet... he is impossible to ignore, and rightly so!

Swami Sivananda is arguably by far the best known of the great 20th century Indian Saints and teachers who had the job of renovating ancient teachings of the East for the west. He it was who inspired the entire global boom in Yoga, and whose prolific writings helped explain the depth of Vedic knowledge. Like the great Sri Ramakrishna Parahamansa, Sivananda had a universalist approach to wisdom, revering all the different strands of religion. He created an arati song that made sure that his ashrams paid homage to as many different deities as he could remember, an arati that is faithfully sung today across the world. He was not seduced by money. Nor women. Nor power. Thus he remained untainted.

The purity of his presence and teaching was reflected in the amazing disciples that gathered around him. Each one was remarkable in very different ways. Consider the stellar line-up of the organising genius Swami Chidananda; the intellectual giant Swami Krishnananda; Swami Satchitananda (who attracted a wide following in the west); Swami Venkatasananda who translated the Yoga Vashista into English, Swami Satyananda who founded the Bihar school of Yoga; Swami Chinmayananda, Swami Vishnu-Devananda who had an enormous impact as a yoga teacher in the west, and the Canadian Swami Sivananda Radha, Just one of these great souls would have attested to Sivananda's excellence as a teacher, but only Sri Ramakrishnanda before him could claim in this modern age to have attracted such an extensive mandala of advanced souls.

Life

The great Swami was born in south India, but lived as a doctor in what was then the British colony of Malaya,  He made his way back to India, travelled the country as an itinerant sadhu and eventually settled at Rishikesh, founding the Divine Life society in 1936. Rishikesh was the scene of some severe austerities which in the end broke his health, such as standing for hours in the icy waters of the Ganges. 

His influence soon spread beyond India, because Sivananda knew English and was a tireless writer of books. The writing was in fact dictation, and the books have a particular idiosyncratic charm, being for the most part an exhilarating mix of fact, exhortation, parables, admonitions and depth of knowledge. He also wrote a rambling autobiography which is anything but, and not particularly well organised. But the charm of this great soul shines from every page that was ever published. Recordings of his sonorous voice are easily found on You Tube.

Stories 

There are many vivid tales from his disciples about Sivananda, and his powers - which were normally carefully hidden from view. But perhaps the most revealing comes from Swami Sivananda Radha's autobiography, which is an honest account of how difficult it was for a woman from the west to fit into Rishikesh life in the 1950s, long before westerners had turned the place into a yoga mat world traveller hotspot.

Sivananda Radha writes about the disorganisation, the irritation she felt at the seemingly random happenings in the ashram, and the daily habits of Swami Sivananda. Her character sketches of this great man are delightfully honest. He wisely taught her to not judge India by its dirt, chaos and squalor but by the greatness of those who served in his ashram. And Sivananda Radha met most of the stellar disciples. Her faith was reaffirmed many times over by the experiences she had. And she went on to found an ashram in Canada that flourishes to this day, all in the name of Sivananda. She it was who gave him the huge cashmere coat you sometimes see in pictures of Sivananda (see below):




There are fierce Yogis, arrogant Yogis, boring Yogis, rigid Yogis; even mad and sociopathic Yogis. But few have been as genial and welcoming as Sivananda. Unlike many Yogis, he had a shrewd grasp of modern life through his life as a Doctor. He had a healthy common sense, too. But what really comes across is a wonderful sense of joy and good humour. I am sure he could be a formidable task master to those who took him as their guru. He was no push-over! But his sunny, wise disposition won him hearts whoever he met. 

Through Sivananda, a river of wisdom flowed. Judge a guru by the calibre of his disciples. Few have been as successful as Sivananda as instilling holiness in those who sought his shelter.

These days it is strange that the many thousands who practice Hatha Yoga across the world have no idea who started the ball rolling. But Hatha Yoga was just one of the gifts that this wise teacher brought us. I salute his memory, I return to his books and teachings again and again. And sometimes when I gloomily think that there are no uncorrupt teachers any more in Kali Yuga, I just have to think of Sivananda, and all is right with the world once more. How lucky we were to have him! Sivananda was, as the saying goes, the real deal. Was - and is. 


Monday, 26 January 2015

WESTERN YOGIS: THE MYSTERIOUS US HEALER FRANCIS SCHLATTER


Yogis were a little thin on the ground in the frontier towns of 19th century America, when cowboys were galloping around the sage deserts and small towns of the Wild West. But this unlikely setting saw a brief flash of a truly inspiring healing ministry from a young man who walked barefoot and without possessions, attracting vast crowds drawn by his healing powers - and who mysteriously disappeared after declaring his mission was fulfilled.

The young man, Francis Schlatter, was an immigrant from Europe, a weaver by trade and Catholic by upbringing, who gave up everything as a result of a mystic vision, choosing instead to wander across America following the dictates of God in the 1890s. 

The healer crossed deserts without shoes, spent freezing nights on mountains, got flung in jail twice and at one point endured 50 lashes from the brutal prisoners with whom he was locked up. He had no money, no food, no possessions but time and time again found sustenance along the way. He would only stay at houses if "the Father" said yes, and this link to the Father could be a strange one - denying him comforts and shelter on many occasions. 

His healing powers were extraordinary. At first he healed by touch. But as the crowds built up, he would even heal simply by touching articles of clothing the sick left, or by leaving a glove that he had touched which the crowds subsequently touched as well. The crowds gathered especially in what was then the small town of Denver, Colorado and his sensational ministry attracted plenty of press coverage.

We know a lot about him because he actually wrote a brief autobiography detailing the struggle for survival he went through on his epic journeys, while he recuperated at the house of a friendly family. The trials he went through were extraordinary, and though he tells his tale with dispassion (and almost no humour) there is much to relish from the genuine puzzlement both his appearance and mission caused from the people he met along the way - and here we are talking about a cast of characters that could come straight from any western. Most were completely bemused by this earnest and reticent young man with long hair, ragged clothes and no shoes and the authorities (perplexed sheriffs and the like) did not really know what to do with him. Mostly they wanted him out of their territory as quickly as possible. 

There is an obvious link between the austerities and suffering he underwent and the  healing powers that he obtained. People even hailed him as a second Christ. He took no money for his healing ministry, and simply disappeared one morning on a white horse, never to be seen again. For a time, a number of imposters turned up claiming to be Francis Schlatter and the authorities claimed to have found hid bones in the desert - although he had warned one of his supporters not to believe reports of his death at all. 

What is so wonderful about this strange life was that healing and integrity did not need the exchange of money, flashy PR, advertising or branding. It was simply a man on a mission to serve God just at the cusp of the modern age.  We tend to think of the west in the 19th century in terms of gunfights, gamblers and gold prospectors, but here was something and someone utterly different.


"Thy Will Be Done"

Schlatter lived this life following one law, enshrined in part of the famous "our Father" prayer taught by Jesus: "Thy Will be Done". Now this takes serious dedication. Those who consciously choose to follow the Divine normally find out that God will tell them "That's good. Now, stay where I put you..." but just occasionally the divine voice will say "Give up everything and follow me." This is what Schlatter did, without any compromise whatsoever. He simply lived according to the will of God, however difficult this was in terms of survival. 

Of course if a barefoot man with no food and long unkempt hair turned up at Denver in 21st century America, you can imagine his fate: he would be swiftly incarcerated and hustled away from public view! 

But what a courageous soul, and what an unlikely life! He reminds me of his namesake, the world-famous beggar of God St Francis, founder of the Franciscan Order, although the earlier Francis had a very well developed sense of the ridiculous and fun. Francis Schlatter certainly does not look like a man who walked on the sunny side of the street.  

And now, nobody remembers him at all. In such a way, the great souls and Yogis can often pass through life unnoticed, hidden from view but carrying a powerful healing presence wherever they p[ass. The next time you see a ragged beggar muttering to themselves, don't be so quick to dismiss them. You might just have seen one of those hidden righteous souls who save our planet from destruction time and time again by supporting and serving dharma. 

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

NARASIMHA KAVACH: DIVINE HELP FOR A LIFE CRISIS



Difficulties and serious challenges can come our way in life, and sometimes in overwhelming waves that causes us severe distress. At such times we feel utterly helpless, lose our centre, our peace of mind, our natural sleep patterns until we start to wail and shake or have a cosmic meltdown at the apparent unfairness of our miserable lives. Or we actually live in serious danger for our lives from dark forces around us. And of course we can forget that help is always at hand. Because it is.

The blog contains many thoughts on the powerful protection of Durga Ma, who has her own kavach (armouring prayer) to recite, but the tradition of Narasimha leads us back to Vaishnava thought and belief, and something possibly even more ancient. One of the odd finds in European paleolithic caves in the nineteenth century, so dating back at least 30,000 years, was a carved figure half lion, half man. So we are dealing with an ancient archetype which survived and flourished especially in India. 

The wonderful incarnation of Sri Narasimhadev, (also known as Nrsimha or Nrsimhaya) is the personification of the powerful protective force of the Divine in Vaishnava tradition. He came in a flash, an impossible God who assumed the form of half man, half lion, at the junction point between day and night, emerging from a pillar to save his devotee Prahlada from destruction from the Asuric despot Hiranyakashipu. This was the only way that God could get round the protective boons that the Demon king had got for himself.  Narasimha is therefore the "Bhairav" or fierce aspect of Vasudevaya, Lord Vishnu. 

His main centre of worship remains today the forested hills of a place called Ahobilam in India (there's an excellent DVD to search out made by a young and adventurous Hare Krishna devotee called Pilgrimage to Ahobilam that takes us round the various sites dedicated to Narasimhadev in the vicinity of Ahobilam that is well worth checking out). My favourite shrine in the DVD has the murti at the end of an underground, water-filled chamber which is populated by bats and has a squidgy floor of very questionable mud and grime... not for the faint-hearted!

There are in fact two kavachas of Lord Nrsimha, but one is enough to recite if you need that sense of help and protection around you. It has been part of the prayers and shlokas I recite for many years now, a sort of secret joyful task that I turn to again and again to steel my life with courage and protection. Like many others, I live in a large city, in a relatively poor neighbourhood, and been over the years a victim of both robbery and street violence... if you do not live in a mansion you have to be careful in the challenging and tense urban environment. 

I've lived in places where the neighbours were extremely violent, where the practice of sadhana has been difficult in the face of noise, ugliness, and so forth. But the Nrsimha Kavach has always helped. It is this kavach, rather than the longer Devi Kavach (contained in the blog) which I recite. And Lord Nrsimhah has an honoured place on my own puja.

One peculiarity about Lord Narasimhadev is the way the west in fact knows far more about him than most other deities, because the Isckon Hare Krishna movement wisely promoted His worship as it expanded in western cities. One Isckon murti of Nrsimha in fact was deliberately placed in West Germany at a time when Germany was divided and the might of the communist east with the attendant threat of nuclear annihilation was just across the border. We all know who won in the end!

There was a time I used to chant this every lunchtime in a park in the middle of London, at a time when money was scarce and responsibilities onerous. The kavach was a sort of security blanket, a pledge of loyalty and a plea for support. I still wear the central mantra of the Kavach in an amulet hung around my neck.

I love the idea of a God who shows both overwhelming protective power and ferocity, and great tenderness to the devotees. Too often Hindu iconography shows gods who look as if a gust of wind will blow them over, but non-one can really prettify Lord Narasimha. Nor should they.

This is a God who roars as loud as a clap of thunder, who appears suddenly, who is utterly invincible with sharp teeth and claws, whom no one can resist. And it is good to be reminded that when life is no longer sweetness and light, but dark with storms, treachery, violence and negativity, well... there is a force far stronger than evil. And it is on our side!

A great rendition of the Lord's Bija Mantra Ksraum can be heard on You Tube, by the way... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdkBh9DFVkU

A hint of the image of Nrsimha also exists in the popular Narnia books and films, the stately lion Aslan  The books have a specific Christian message, but nevertheless they mine a rich vein of  revealing the power and wildness of the Divine.






Narasimha's iconography reminds us both of God's majesty, and the central link with the devotee. As you can see from the particular murti of Nrisimha in his benign form above, there is often the figure of Prahlada in the presence of the Lord (bottom right). In his fierce, ugra form, the Lord's relationship changes, and often includes the disembowelled figure of Hiranyakashipu, meeting his just but grisly end (See below). Equally popular is the pairing of the Lord with Lakshmi, who normally happily sits on His knee.






The Narasimha Kavach

Reciting the kavach will help all who use it, and remind the chanter of the Lord's protective relationship. Use it in trouble and distress without fear and DO what it says! Unfortunately I cannot find my copy of the text with diacritical marks (that tell you when vowels are long and short etc, but trawling around the internet here's a workable version to use. Relish this chant, it's a piece of ritualistic performance art if you do it right. This is the very essence of a "Please Protect Me" prayer and it might be exactly what you need to recite in your current life circumstance...


From the Trailokya Vijaya in the Samhita of Brahma

1. Sri Narada-uvaca
indr-adi deva vrndesa
pateshvara jagat-pate
maha vishnor nrisimhasya
kavacho bruhi me prabho
yasya prana thanad vidvan
trilokya vijayi bhavet


Sri Narad Muni said: “My dear father and lord, master of the Universe, lord of the multitude of demigods headed by Indra, kindly tell me the kavaca mantra of Lord Nrsimha, the incarnation of Visnu. O master, reading this kavaca aloud, a learned man will become victorious throughout the three worlds."

2. sri brahmovaca
srinu narada vaksyami
putra shrestha tapodhana
kavacham narasimhasya
trailokya vijaya bhavet


"Lord Brahma said: My dear Narada, please hear me. O best of my sons, who are rich in austerity, I shall speak this kavaca of Lord Narasimha, which gives victory over the three worlds."


3. yasya prapathanad vayami
trailokya vijayi bhavet
shresthaham jagatam vatsa
pathanat dharanat yataha


"My dear boy, by recitation of this kavaca an eloquent person will become victorious throughout the three worlds. It is by reciting this and meditating deeply on it that I (lord Brahma) am the creator of all these planetary systems."



4. laksmir jagat-trayam pati
samharta cha maheshvaraha
pathanad dharanad deva
babhuvush cha digishvaraha


"It is by reciting and meditating upon this that Laksmi maintains the three worlds, and Lord Siva destroys them. Also the demigods in this way became controllers of the different directions."


5. brahma mantra nayam vakshye
bhutadi vinvakaram
yasya prasadad durvasa
trailokya vijayi munih
pathanad dharanad yasya
shasta cha krodha bhairavaha


"I shall speak this essence of all Vedic mantras, which wards off all kinds of ghosts and hobgoblins. By its grace the sage Durvasa became victorious throughout the three worlds, commanding respect and most fearful in his anger."



6. trailokya-vijayasyasa
kavachasya prajapatih
rshish chandash cha gayatri
nrisimho devata vibhuhu


"For this kavaca, which is directly perceived as giving victory over the three worlds, I (Brahma) am the Rsi, Gayatri is the metre, and the all powerful Nrsimhadev is the Deity."



7+ 8 ksraum bijam me shirah pati
chandra-varno maha-manuhu
"ugram viram maha-visnum
jvalantam sarvatomukham
nrisimham bhishanam bhadram
mrtyu-mrtyum namamy aham"
dva-trimshad aksharo mantro
mantra-rajah sura drumaha


"One should place Lord Nrsimha's mantra bija, ksraum, on one's head, thinking, 'May my head be protected by the moon-colored one, who is the greatest among humans. My obeisances unto the ferocious and powerful, the great Visnu, the fiery one, who's faces are on all sides, the fearful one, Nrsimha, who causes the death of even death personified, or the one who can overcome death.' One should place this mantra, composed of thirty two syllables upon his head. It is the king of all mantras. It is like a wish fulfilling tree for the demigods and devotees."



9. kantham patu dhruvam ksraum hrid
bhagavato chakshusha mama
narasimhaya cha jvala
maline patu mastakam


"One should also place ksraum firmly upon his neck for protection. Placing the word bhagavate upon his heart,narasimhaya upon his two eyes, and jvala maline on the top of his head, one meditates upon the different parts of this narasimha mantra protecting the different parts of his body."


10. dipta-damshtraya cha tatha
agni netraya cha nasikam
sarva-raksho-ghnaya sarva
bhuta-vinashanaya cha


"One should place on his nose the syllables dipta damstraya agni netraya sarva rakso ghnaya sarva bhuta vinasanaya. (Obeisances unto Him, whose teeth are blazing, whose eyes are fire, and who destroys all ghosts and raksasas.)"



11. sarva-jvara-vinashaya
daha daha pacha dvayam
raksha raksha sarva-mantra
svaha patu mukham mama


"Meditating on the protection of one's face, one should place there the syllables ‘sarva jvara vinasaya daha daha paca paca raksa raksa. ksraum ugram viram maha visnum jvalanatam sarvatomukham nrsimham bhisanam bhadram mrtyu mrtyum namamy aham. ksraum bhagavate narasimhya jvalamaline dipta damstrayagni netraya sarva rakso ghnaya sarva bhuta vinasanaya svaha’. (This means: Unto He who vanquishes all fevers, oblations. Burn and burn, cook and cook, protect protect. My obeisances unto the ferocious and powerful, the great Visnu, the fiery one whose faces are on all sides, the fearful one, Nrsimha, who causes the death of even death personified, or who can overcome even death. Unto the Personality of Godhead Narasimha, garlanded with blazing energy, whose teeth are glowing and whose eyes are fiery, who kills all raksasas and demons and annihilates the ghosts, to You my oblations)"



12. taradi ramachandraya
namah payad gudam mama
klim payat pani-yugmam cha
taram namah padam tataha
narayanaya parshvam cha
am hrim kraum kshraum cha hum phat


"Meditating on the protection of one's rectum, one should first sip water for purification and chant om Ramacandra namah. Sipping water again one should place the bija mantra klim on both of his hands together. Thereafter one should place om namah on his feet and narayanaya on his side, as well as the bija mantras am hrim kraum ksraum hum phat."


13. varaksarah katim patu
om namah bhagavate padam
vasudevaya cha prishtham
klim krishnaya uru-dvayam


"Praying for the protection of one's waist, one should place there the varaksara Om. One should place the syllables om namo bhagavate upon his feet, vasudevaya on his back, and klim krsnaya upon his two thighs."


14. klim krishnaya sada patu
januni cha manuttamaha
klim glaum klim syamalangaya
namah payat pada dvayam


"Upon his knees, one should place the mantra klim krsnaya, thinking that the Lord may always protect me in His form as the best of human beings. Then one should sip water for purification and place the mantra klim glaum klim syamalangaya namah upon his feet."


15. kshraum narasimhaya kshraum cha
sarvangam me sadavatu


"One should meditate upon the constant protection of the body, placing the mantra kshraum narasimhaya kshraum upon all his limbs."


16. iti te kathitam vatsa
sarva-mantraugha-vigraham
tava snehan mayakhyatam
pravaktavyam na kasyachit


"Lord Brahma continued: My dear boy, thus I have told you the embodiment of the potencies of all mantras. Because of your great affection I have explained it to you, although it is not to be spoken to just anyone."


17. guru-pujam vidhayatha
grihniyat kavacham tataha
sarva-punya-yuto bhutva
sarva-siddhi-yuto bhavet


"Having performed worship of the spiritual master, one may accept this kavaca. Having become enriched in his pious activities he will attain all perfections."



18. shatam ashtottaram chaiva
purashcharya vidhih smritaha
havanadin dashamshena
kritva sadhaka-sattamaha


"Performing the ritualistic ceremonies of purification (purascarya) one hundred and eight times is equal to one tenth the effect received by that best of devotees who chants this kavaca."



19. tatas tu siddha-kavacaha
punyatma madanopaman
sparddham uddhuya bhavana
lakshmir vani vaset tataha


"Laksmi, the Goddess of fortune, and Sarasvati, the Goddess of speech and learning, reside in the home of that fortunate soul who has become perfected by this kavaca, giving up the intoxication of competing with others for supremacy."



20. pushpanjalyashtakam dattva
mulenaiva pathet sakrit
api varsa sahasranam
pujayah phalam apnuyat


"Simply offering eight times puspajali and reading only once the original version, one attains the result of even a thousand years of worship."



21. bhurje vilikhya gutikam
svarnastham dharayed yadi
kanthe va dakshine bahau
narasimho bhavet svayam


"If one write this down on a leaf or bark of a tree and keeps it within a golden capsule on his neck or right arm, Lord Nrsimhadev will be personally present."

22. yoshid vama-bhuje chaiva
purusho dakshine kare
vibhryat kavacham punyam
sarva-siddhi-yuto bhavet


"A woman may keep it on her left arm, a man on the right hand. Certainly this most auspicious kavaca brings all perfection to the bearer."



23. kaka-vandhya cha ya nari
mrita-vatsa cha ya bhavet
janma-vandhya nashta putra
bahu-putravati bhavet


"A woman who is totally barren, or who bears only one child, or whose sons are lost or dead may become possessed of many sons."

24. kavachasya prasadena
jivan mukta bhaven-naraha
trilokyam kshobhayasyeva
trailokya vijayi bhavet


"By the grace of this kavaca, a man becomes jivan mukta, liberated soul even within this life time. He is able to move the whole universe, and certainly becomes victorious throughout the three worlds."


25. bhuta-preta-pishachash cha
rakshasa danavash cha ye
tam drishtva prapalayante
deshad deshantaram dhruvam


"Certainly bhutas, pretas, pisacas, raksasas, and danavas all immediately flee from the country and go to another upon seeing it."



26. yasmin gehe cha kavacham
grame va yadi tishthati
tam deshantu parityajya
prayanti chatidurantaha


"In the home or even the same village where this kavaca exists, all such demoniac creatures, once having understood its presence, give up that place and go far away."

Thus ends the Sri Nrsimha Kavaca, of the Trailokya Vijaya in the Samhita of Brahma.