Wednesday, 18 February 2015


What a great man he was, a flash of light and inspiration in a short life of just 39 years old who utterly revolutionised spirituality at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century. What eloquence! What strength of character, uncompromising honesty, and also disarming sense of humour. The Ramakrishna Order that he founded along with his band of brothers - the famous direct disciples of the great sage Sri Paramahansa Ramakrishna - is now as much as part of the Indian cultural landscape as the postal service or the railways. The Order has a global reach, an esteemed history, a place in the general scheme of things. So it is easy to forget that this was not always so - that it originated in a shifting group of about a dozen young Bengalis, living in a ruined house supposed to be haunted, and without anything to their name beyond a shared determination to live the life of sannyasins and follow the steps of their great master. 

Most of the growth of the Order is ultimately down to this single young man who blazed briefly as bright as a rocket, expending his life force in the effort to create something lasting. 

Vivekananda was really the first Indian to make a mark in the West. In fact his influence now seems out of all proportion, as if something rather strange was at work! He became the unlikely star attraction of something taken very seriously at the time - a world parliament of religions. Arriving without funds, clothes, or a place to go, he actually slept in a rail yard before giving this landmark speech in Chicago in 1893. He began with the simple words "Welcome, brothers and sisters of America" and received a two minute standing ovation! After that, he never looked back. 

He was an educated man, and this stood him in very good stead in the West, where he adroitly moved within the confines of what was then considered polite society - dressing for dinner, attending cocktail parties, teas, house visits, giving lectures and classes and dealing with an ever-growing flock of mostly rich, well-connected and utterly devoted American spinsters. 

But however well integrated he appeared to be with different cultures, Vivekananda never lost sight of his goal: to revolutionise and reinvigorate  India's spiritual legacy, taking in the best of the west, but removing some of the dire cultural superstitions. He espoused independence for India, an end to the most draining aspects of the caste system, greater freedom for women, and above all the basic point that shunning the world as mud without making any effort to help mankind was something that had to be changed in this age.

Vivekananda was no Yogi, even though Ramakrishna described him as an awesomely powerful soul. Ramakrishna effectively locked up this aspect of his young disciple until the very final few days of his life. No: Vivekananda's role was very different. He was an innovator, teacher, inspirer. He was a leader of men. He was an instigator, a catalyst. He accepted no cant, no hypocrisy. He demanded idealism PLUS a certain muscle: he repeatedly stressed that the one thing Indians lacked at the time, which the West had in abundance, was physical energy - and that this was what was needed to free India from its chains. Vivekananda wanted doers, not dreamers. And doers he got. 

The life of Vivekananda makes great reading and studying. But even more intriguing and useful is the 6 volume collected works of the great innovator. The volumes are sold at a reasonable price by the Ramakrishna mission. Hidden within the volumes are all sorts of fascinating details - for example a record of his conversations with a disciple towards the end of life ("I want men with Rajas!" he declared to the disciple). Or a fantastic potted history of India in 5 pages. Or the stream of letters that issued from his pen to his admirers, brother disciples, and friends. He would have liked email, without a doubt! 

This was a man you could easily have seen as a key political figure, the head of a large organisation, or the head of a revolutionary movement. Yet his passion and unusual intelligence were carefully channelled by Ramakrishna in one direction.

The volumes also reveal more of the man: in one brief lesson, he talks to westerners about the harsh realities of being a wandering sannyasin, living on bread so hard it has to be soaked in water to be edible, taking alms from those who had very little, freezing in a single robe, out in the harsh weather. When you are young, you can have a zeal for this kind of thing - but nevertheless the tough times he went through undoubtedly helped shorten his life.

The other part of his life was mostly hidden from view: the struggles he had when his over-generous father suddenly died, leaving his family destitute and himself as the head of the family and therefore responsible for its survival. Somehow he managed to avoid marriage and the life of a householder. But this was a very hard weight to carry and almost deprived the world of Vivekananda's later glories.

What makes him particularly suited to the modern age is his absolute refusal to believe something without testing it. He thought Ramakrishna at first was a mad but harmless old man living in fantasy, that worship of deities as idols was demeaning superstition, that most of Indian spirituality was obscured by generations of  misinterpretation. Yet he learned, step by step, to completely reconsider. By the time he became world-famous, he believed Ramakrishna to be an avatar, and had experienced for himself the power of the Mother, of Adi Shakti expressed as Kali-ma in the famous Dakshineshwar temple near Calcutta where Ramakrishna served as a pujari.

Thankfully, not all of his life was spent facing the world alone. His tender love of his brother disciples shines in all the words he wrote and the memories of him that were later written down.

Vivekananda lived in a very different age in some ways: far less noisy, polluted, or cynical; but also far less interconnected. He helped the connections. He foresaw, although he did not articulate it very precisely, that west and east would learn from each other and produce an entirely new wave of spiritual growth. and so it proved to be - but it took another 50 years after his death before the explosion really happened. 

The West has mostly forgotten that it ever went so crazy for Vivekananda. But India has not. India reveres him wherever you go. His life is taught in schools. He is on stamps. His organisation is everywhere you look. He is seen, rightly so, as one of India's greatest sons. Well, I  think any country in any age would have regarded him in the same way. To me, he stands with the greatest reforming spiritual teachers, such as Adi Shankara, Ramunaja, St Francis of Assisi, or Guru Nanak. He was the first to really produce the book, others have since filled out the pages. Amazing to think that if he had lived a very full span of years, he might have been alive in the 1960s! He would have been a giant in whatever sphere he choose. Luckily, he chose the pursuit of spiritual endeavour. And our world became brighter because of what he gave. A human being of which our human species can be proud. 

Monday, 2 February 2015


What is the Sat Guru? To say he is nothing but light is in one sense entirely obvious. We are all actually ultimately nothing but light. But the Satguru is light in a special sense.

He is the vessel, reflecting the light of the Oversoul, the Paramatman. Of course this vessel has a structure, and therefore in between this Divine light beaming forth and us the onlooker is what remains of the characteristics and personality of the human being.

Imagine it this way, that our human body is like a house, with a definite plan, of rooms, floors and so forth. And the normal house is made of bricks, metal and wood. But houses change, become as transparent as crystal. Now what do you have? You still have a house, its structure is still the same. But it is also entirely different from other houses. This is what the enlightened Guru is like, a house so transparent that it reflects and beams out light pulsing from the source.

The source is the same for all of the enlightened, the same light which beams from every enlightened being. So in one sense we can say the Sat Guru is that single source, manifesting itself in different bodies, cultures, conditions, ages. There is never just one human being who is the Sat Guru, while all others are inferior. There are just different vessels form the Paramatman. Thus when you get to doctrinal squabbles, the inhabitants  of ashram A claiming their master is the real Sat Guru, while down the road inhabitants of ashram B saying the same thing... Both may well be right.

Treating the Guru as the Sat Guru is a personal not communal matter. It is up to each one of us to decide "yes, something manifests itself in the body of my Guru which is Divine" or "No, this person is a wise teacher but his flaws are all too obvious and his disciples not of the highest quality snd I am stuck in simply a social satsang rut and too comfortable." If you decide yes, then you must feel something, not just blindly believe because people wave lights in front of this person and shout and yell with great enthusiasm.

You must feel it unmistakeably. You must feel a profound flash of recognition in you... The kind of recognition that made ordinary Jewish fishermen drop absolutely everything and go and follow Jesus. You must feel that this figure is the transparent vessel for something absolutely tremendous and even life shattering for you. What it is you might not be able to say. But you will simply feel deep down in you a conviction "ah! I have found the One for me, the portal through which God will play in my life".

Needing a Guru

Now do you need a Guru? Every Vedic scripture says so, Buddhism goes a little the other way.  All sorts of metaphors and teaching stories point out that we need a guide. At certain stages of spiritual practice, when we need to make big steps up, then we do need a helping hand. But we will discover that this figure of a Sat Guru teaches us by always being steps ahead of us, always a little out of reach.

 This Guru will be the focal point of a long and perilous battle that we must fight to master our lower natures. He is not a donkey on which to offload our burdens, even if he does provide shelter. He is the example, the proof that dharma is true. He is the Mother, staying a little away from the baby to teach that baby how to walk. The Guru is the Father because discipline is also necessary, and we are all lazy, self-pitying and inclined to cheat. He is our lover, because the Divine light that emanates from Him is profoundly attractive even to the senses. He is even our child, because in our sadhana dharma is weak and must be protected.

There are many famous verses about the Guru from the Sri Guru Gita, some of which seem absurd on face value, such as the Guru is Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, or that the root of worship is the Guru's feet. How can any of that be true when the Guru goes to the toilet like the rest of us, might have a temper, or very eccentric habits? Well, remember that the house, though transparent, remains a house! And that its value is the tremendous Light it captures and resonates.

People think that because a person can read your thoughts, or appear in two plces at once, that makes them the Sat Guru. Well, your partner can read your thoughts as well, like it or not, and can also appear in two plces at once simply by Skyping a phone call. Miracles, too, can be easily faked as we are all pretty credulous. A Sat Guru is not a miracle person, but the living example of the ultimate end result for us humans... Full enlightenment.

So, next time you honour the Guru as the Sat Guru, do it out of free choice, sober reflection, and because deep down that is exactly what your Guru embodies for you. The light of Dharma is eternal. It manifests again and again in every culture, time and period of human history. The light is enshrined in the example of Lord Shiva, master of all Yogis and, as Dakshineshwara, the One who out of sheer benevolence instructs humanity. He is the Sat Guru in every case. To Him we bow.

Your Sat Guru may not be in the vicinity. May not even be alive. Maybe a photo you see, a phrase you read, a voice you hear just once... But that once is enough. Again, to borrow a phrase from Jesus, "The sheep know their shepherd, the shepherd knows his sheep." You will know when Dharma manifests as a Sat Guru for you. And it may turn out to be someone very different from the Guru you follow at present.