When you chant something for years on end, whether the prayer is in a language you know or not, you’d best realize that at some point what you are asking for may well be granted.
I was just 15 in 1971, when I heard my first Sanskrit chant in a yoga class. I often quip that the only yoga pose I ever mastered was savasana, lying flat on the floor for deep relaxation in the corpse pose. What did make an indelible impression, though I had not a clue of what any of it meant, was the chanting.
One part of the chant at the beginning of class was, as I was to find out decades later, the “victory over death” prayer; the “Mahamrityumjaya Mantra“:
Om Trayambakam yajamahe sughandim pushti vardhanam urvarukamiva bandhanan mrityor mukshiya mamritat
Like many things from the teen years, it was forgotten as life moved on.
Later in life, with a renewed focus on chanting, I was re-introduced to the mantra and incorporated it into my practice, but not until I was in the lobby of a small hotel in Madurai, India, did I finally understand the meaning. On a huge yellowed wall poster was an English translation:
“OM. We worship the Three-eyed Lord Who is fragrant and Who nourishes and nurtures all beings. As the ripened cucumber is freed from its bondage (to the stalk), may He liberate us from death for the sake of immortality.”
Cucumber? Somehow, as I had chanted the sacred words thousands of times, I had never imagined vegetables to be part of the equation. I smiled at the unexpected metaphor—even as I understood it to be about releasing attachment to the world as easily as the cucumber falls into the hands of the gardener when the time is ripe.
Now, at least I knew what I was chanting.
I later learned that the chant was part of the Rudram Namakam, a long daily prayer from the Yajurveda invoking God to slay all our bad qualities.
So this particular prayer, which entered my life at 15 and was re-encountered in my 40’s, which I have repeated thousands of times, is all about asking the aspect of the Creator responsible for the destruction of illusions to free you from the iron grip of the world process as a ripe soul, so that true immortality—enlightenment—may be attained.
The prayer is said to be so powerful that it helps the soul release the body at death and crossover to find its eternal abode. For this reason, when my dear friend Lila was in her last days in hospice, already unconscious, I sat with her playing endless rounds of this mantra 24 x 7 during her final three days, fulfilling her last request to me. Those of us who knew Lila are quite sure that her cucumber fell straight into the hands of her beloved Gardener.
When I moved 18 months ago from my last comfortable 4-bedroom home in the Northeast into a small bedroom in a shared house with friends in the mid-West, I was partly motivated by economic necessity. The other part was motivated by the chance to live in what unintentionally became an intentional spiritual community. All of us “Spiritual Golden Girls” are, in our own ways, committed to God-realization, by whatever name each calls it. But all also have to find new ways to generate consistent income well into the future in order to meet the basic needs of life in a world that has appeared to become, at our stage, increasingly economically unfriendly.
Around the time of my move I made humorous references to those who understood that I was shifting into the “vanaprasth” or “forest” stage of life.
According to ancient practices in Vedic times, when you finish raising your children, you leave your family and all your possessions because you recognize that, well, sic transit gloria mundi—”all things must pass”—and that includes you. If you have a spiritual goal, it’s high time to get down to business. (Or, as someone once joked to me: “Why do people start reading the Bible as they get older? Studying for finals!”).
While such lofty goals were not exactly the motivation for the move, when the option presented itself, not only did I recognize the practicality, some part of me realized that a bigger force was at work.
For as long as I’ve been on a determined spiritual journey, my prayer has been the same; to attain God-realization in this lifetime. One of the hallmarks of that state is total equanimity regardless of the circumstances.
The Jesuits call this “indifference”. In this context, indifference doesn’t mean “selfishly uncaring”. It means, not being invested in one side or another of an outcome; being at peace in all circumstances, however things turn out.
Most major spiritual disciplines recognize that state of being, and have lots of practices to cultivate it. Another term for indifference is “equanimity.” A quick check in with any of my house-mates will confirm that I have not yet reached this vaunted state.
Realizing Equanimity: Diamonds Form Only Under Great Pressure
The great ten-headed demon Ravana (aka Ravan) knew something about the result of indifference. In a famous incident from the epic Ramayana, he does what demons do when their ego inflates beyond all limits: he challenges God Himself. (There are many backstories enfolded in this little incident, but I’ll stick to the main points.)
Ravana, a great Shiva devotee, uses his immense strength to uproot Mt. Kailash, Shiva’s Himalayan abode, intending to carry the mountain—Lord Shiva and all—off to his island kingdom of Lanka.
Shiva responds to this display of arrogance by merely pressing down on the mountain with his big toe, trapping Ravana’s (many) hands.
But Ravana is no dummy.
He is the offspring of a great Rishi (sage) and a Demon princess. His ten heads are said to represent his mastery of every branch of knowledge. (Alas, knowledge and practice are, as we all know, very different things.)
One such piece of knowledge is that when you need to propitiate an offended diety, it is wise to sing their praises, long and loudly.
Thus, Ravan chants the beautiful poetic verses that have come down the ages, almost hypnotic in their sublime meter. In some versions, Ravana, no stranger to austerities, chants this prayer, the Shiva Tandav Stotram, for a thousand years.
Ravana conquered the three worlds of earth, heaven and the nether regions; he has untold power and wealth. Yet, when under duress, this son of a sage demonstrates that he well-understands what true freedom really looks like:
“When will I worship Lord Sadasiva (eternally auspicious God), with equal vision towards the people and an emperor, and a blade of grass and lotus-like eye, towards both friends and enemies, towards the valuable gem and some lump of dirt, towards a snake and a garland and towards varied ways of the world?”
—from the Shiva Tandav Stotram, the prayer to Lord Shiva, attributed to Ravana
Shiva—one of whose qualities is being easily pleased—not only releases and forgives the penitent Ravan; he grants him the additional boon of the mystic sword Chandrahas. The gift comes with the warning that if he ever misuses the Chandrahas for an unjust purpose, it will return to Shiva. Then, despite Ravan having won a previous boon of near-immortality, his days will be numbered.
Of note, “Chandra” means moon, and the moon is said to govern the intellect. Perhaps Shiva was giving his great devotee a sword of discrimination in one great last chance at redemption from the snares of the mind—or in his case, ten minds.
Is there any smidgen of a doubt that Ravana will soon abuse this gift and meet his end? Shiva may be “easily pleased” but when granting boons to those craving worldly power, the boons often boomerang on the petitioner, much like lottery winners who end up more destitute than before.
Ravan has become the archetype for the very worst aspects of the human ego. Despite all his great knowledge, and lots of wise counsel, he unfailingly opts for the most self-aggrandizing choice. Yet, his plea to be released is really our plea to be released from enslavement to pampering our endless likes and dislikes, and from the ever-escalating rat-race of attempting to fulfill our insatiable earthly desires.
In short, our ego-generated desires are all born of the illusion that happiness lies just around the corner in the fulfillment of “if only…”. These desires, in which we invest so much energy, petition and prayer, often constitute exactly the worst thing possible for our ultimate good—yes, even our plan to capture God and carry Him off to our own private abode so He can be our servant and answer our prayers at our convenience.
Well, so much for that idea.
It does not go unnoticed by me that the answer to Ravan’s question “When will I truly achieve equanimity…” is at least in part: “When God drops a mountain on your fingers, that’s when.”
Hmm. So back to that ripe-cucumber-falling-from-the-stalk thing.
This particular cucumber, (and I know I’m not alone here) clings stubbornly to the entanglement of her old familiar vines and remaining attachments. I may want liberation while still in the body, but, as so much of what used to constitute my world has fallen away, it appears that what is revealed is—as Caroline Myss used to tease her students—that I’d like to achieve it with some sort of recognizably comfortable life, a modicum of economic security, a good manicure and a latte from Starbucks. There’s at least an echo within me of the prayer of the young St. Augustine: “O Lord, make me chaste—but not yet!”
So many days I feel like the guy hanging off a cliff, pleading with God to rescue him. You know the joke: the voice comes from the sky: “Trust and let go!” The guy reflects for a moment and calls out: “Is anyone else there?”
Be careful what you pray for.
Dam, Dam, Dam, Dam Damaru Bhaje…
In the background, I can hear the Damaru—the drum of Shiva—as the compassionate Lord answers my lifelong prayer and does his ego-smashing Tandav right on my fingers, insistent that I give up my remaining illusions of control, security and a whole host of other things I thought I’d handled.
O Maheshwar, I like my lattes with an extra shot…
When will I be happy, living in the hallowed place near the celestial river, Ganga, carrying the folded hands on my head all the time, with my bad thinking washed away, and uttering the mantra of Lord Shiva and devoted in the God with glorious forehead with vibrating eyes?”
—from the Shiva Tandav Stotram, the prayer to Lord Shiva, attributed to Ravana
About 20 years ago, I was standing in Borders Books in Stamford CT, leafing through this beautiful and expensive hardcover volume that I decided to buy for a friend of mine who was an artist as well as an India-phile. An artist myself, I knew a beautiful set of illustrations when I saw them, and knew she would adore the book. I was vaguely familiar with the fact that the Ramayana was an ancient Indian tale, albeit one I’d never read. As I paged through the story, I read the brief recounting of the tale that accompanied the lush illustrations. When I got toward the end of the narrative— which involved a hapless woman being forced to give a test of her purity by fire—I lost all interest, but I still loved the pictures. I meant to eventually buy myself a copy of the book, but I never got around to it.
I did not know then that the illustrator, B.G. Sharma, was one of the most famous modern sacred artists in India. I did not know then that the monkey on the cover would, over the course of many more years, subtly inveigle his way into my consciousness. And I certainly did not know then that this tale would slowly take over my very existence.
I’m hardly alone in that, though. Versions of the Ramayana are known all over Asia, and the tale has been told for time out of mind. There are hundreds if not thousands of entire websites devoted to it; there have been an abundance of film and tv versions made in India (every decade inspires a new remake that can keep up with advances in special effects); there are books of philosophy written about it and teachings in universities and business schools based on the lessons therein. It is told and retold and re-enacted and re-illustrated.
And anything that has that kind of sway over that many people for that long a time seemed to be at least worth familiarizing myself with.
One thing I came to appreciate: it’s impossible to have an understanding of India or Indian culture without familiarity with its two great epics: The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. The two express the very soul of India in a way that, in my opinion, has no comparison in Western culture. It forms a vocabulary and a frame of reference for everything from the most ordinary facets of life to the highest halls of learning and spirituality.
But that does not explain why it stole into my own life to the point where, really, I could only admit to others of the same ilk the degree to which it has taken over and pretty much crowded out 80% of everything else.
I should pause here to say that my involvement with The Mahabharata preceded my romance with Ramayana. It all started in 2005 during a visit to India, when I shipped home two huge volumes that constituted an abridged (only 2000 pages) Mahabharata, and was soon followed by a translation of the Ramayana. My obsession with both epics has continued pretty much unabated since then. It seems that The Mahabharata alternates with the Ramayana in my life, much like Beethoven contrasts with Mozart—different temperaments; both awesome, both transformative, both able to bring you into the realm of the transcendent if you allow them.
Each character in these epics embodies an aspect of human life and aspiration. We can see ourselves in all our greatness and all our folly, much like the phenomenon that makes Shakespeare timeless despite the changing idioms and languages of five centuries.
But that understanding was still not enough to explain my obsession.
Until finally, the mystery got solved a year ago, when, driven by this compulsion, I attended a three-day Ramanyana retreat with Swami Jyotirmayananda of Yoga Research Foundation in Miami, FL, whom I’d heard about from my friend Patty.
That retreat afforded me the rare opportunity to be in the presence of one who is both an eminent scholar & author and an enlightened sage. It’s a killer combo; and I’m sure he was drawn into my life at that juncture by the intensity of my interest. When I say he is an enlightened sage, I don’t mean enlightened as in “he sheds light on the subject”, (although he does that too), but enlightened as in “has attained total Divine Union and bliss consciousness with God while still in a human body.” Only an enlightened sage can speak of the symbols and deep meanings in these stories not from a philosophical speculation or intellectual explanation, but from direct soul experience.
What I realized in the first few hours of listening to him was that the reason these tales had moved into my mental neighborhood and evicted most of the earlier residents is that they are encoded maps to enlightenment. Far beyond being references for life in the everyday world, they are maps of the journey of the Soul to Re-Union (yoga) with itSelf. At the deepest, most archetypal level, the part of me that had been on this path for a long time recognized that fact even though I could not name it. And understanding that which Swamiji calls the mystic meanings, resolves most of my conflicts about various events in the story.
I now believe that certain archetypes speak to our understanding of the Journey of Life, but on different levels. Some archetypes serve to inform us about the wisdom of leading our life on this earth plane. Many fairy tales come under this heading, as do Shakespeare and other beloved stories from many cultures.
The Ramayana (and the Mahabharata) do this as well, but they go a giant leap further—beyond the earth plane to the true purpose of the journey of the soul: Divine RE-Union.
I was taught by Caroline Myss that the ancient Mystery Schools divided the Mysteries into Lesser Mysteries and Greater Mysteries. The Lesser Mysteries were for those in the outer courts; those who needed the veil of symbols and rituals to enact for them great spiritual truths that the masses were not capable of digesting whole. Only Initiates were allowed into the Greater Mysteries; and the net result of the Greater Mysteries was attaining the actual integrated experience that All is One, aka Divine Union—enlightenment.
The Ramayana is the Lesser and the Greater Mysteries all rolled into one. At the level of the Lesser Mysteries, it’s a great mythic story with the usual gangs of Gods and Demons, Heroes and Villains, Damsels in Distress, Triumphs and Tragedies. But at the Greater Mysteries level, it’s the Treasure Hunt Map to the Long Journey Home. The same holds true for the Mahabharata, which holds at its great heart the Bhagavad Gita, which serves as the ultimate scripture for more than a billion people.
The Ramayana contains something that the Mahabharata does not*: Hanuman.
(*Note: Hanuman actually has an important cameo role in the Mahabharata, but in the Ramayana he is one of the hearts of the story.)
Hanuman is the monkey on the cover of the book that first drew me in. Devotion to Hanuman was, at another point in my own journey, frankly, quite alien to me no matter how expansive my background.
Long before I had any familiarity with any epic outside of my own culture’s, I remember reading a quote from Sathya Sai Baba in one of my study groups, how Hanuman was the Lord’s greatest devotee of all time.
“Great,” I thought, knowing absolutely nothing about Hanuman at the time, “a monkey is the greatest devotee. Then what chance do humans have? Very discouraging.”
When I actually read the story, I came to understand that the vanaras, which we translate as “monkey”, but which I’ve seen translated as forest dwellers, were far beyond our present-day conception of monkeys. In the Ramayana, they are the incarnations of demigods, born expressly to help Vishnu, the aspect of God that is devoted to preserving and sustaining creation, to overcome the evil which had gotten out of bounds. The demigods needed to take this form because the chief antagonist of the age, the demon Ravana, had secured a boon which made him invulnerable to all—all except for man and apes, both of whom he considered too puny to be concerned about. Vishnu descends to earth to aid mankind by incarnating as a man—four men in fact: Rama and his three brothers. Vishnu’s eternal consort, Lakshmi, incarnates as Sita, born of the earth itself, intimately expressing the connection between God and Nature, between Creator and Creation. In order to help Vishnu in this divine mission to destroy evil, the aspect of God that represents destruction (or transformational energy)—Shiva himself—is born as the invincible Hanuman, whose only raison d’etre is to serve Rama.
It was through Swami Jyotirmayananda’s teachings that I came to understand why the most recognized pictures of the Ramayana always depict this quartet: Rama, his wife Sita, his brother Lakshman, and kneeling at their feet, always, Hanuman. Ram is the embodied symbol of the all-pervasive pure God consciousness; the Eternal Witness. Sita represents the intuitional intellect, or the higher intuitional wisdom of the mind. Lakshman, the devoted warrior-brother-with-a-quick-temper embodies the Will to action, and Hanuman, the immortal and invincible one who could literally “move mountains” is the aspect of Devotion. Where there is Hanuman, there is Ram; where there is Devotion, there is God. It is the power of devotion that moves mountains, that melts the heart of the Lord, that creates miracles, that manifests our own Superpowers. Ram is victorious only because of Hanuman; Hanuman accomplishes all his victories through the power of Ram.
Among the various routes back to divine knowledge of the eternal Self, (yoga), Devotion, or Bhakti in Sanskrit, is the path of yoga to which I gravitate. I’ve never been a disciplined meditator (Raja yoga), I often fail to live up to my own noble notions of spending more time in selfless service (the path of Karma, or Action-oriented yoga), I’m not proficient or consistent in my occasional flirtations with Hatha (physical) yoga, and while I love to read, I’m far more drawn to the stories and legends (Puranas) than I am to pure Jnana (philophical inquiries). But Bhakti is like my home country: singing, chanting, mantras, silent repetition of one of the names or aspects of the Divine have become so integrated into my life that they are all like breathing.
Since Hanuman is the ultimate symbol of devotion, it followed that, whether I liked it or not, I have, little by little found that indeed, there is a legendary Monkey on My Back, and I have no intentions of shaking him off any time soon, or any time at all, for that matter. I do intend, from time to time, to share some reflections on the Ramayana and its well-traversed episodes, of which there is a seemingly inexhaustible font of interpretations and observations to mine.
Although I’d already read several book versions of the Ramayana, and had seen the great 1988 television series by Ramanand Sagar—which, when first aired, literally brought India to a standstill and which has been seen by an estimated 100 million people in its time—it was when I stumbled across the later 2008 Sagar tv version that I became a totally lost cause.
The music throughout the series by legendary composer and singer Ravindra Jain slays me, and to this day I react viscerally to the theme song.
Fortunately for me, I have infected my housemate, friend and colleague, Jan, with Ramayana disease. One night, when we were watching yet another go-round of some version of Rama’s story, she turned to me and asked: “Is this what we’ll be doing for the rest of our lives? Watching the Ramayana?”
“Pretty much, yes,” I replied. “is there anything else?”
It’s my intention to share some of the rich journey with that story on these pages here from time to time, hopefully making the wisdom accessible to people who are not so enamoured of immersing themselves in the story.
Jai Hanuman! Jai Sri Ram!