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