In the Bhagavad Gita, the warrior prince Arjuna is with his charioteer, the divine incarnation, Krishna, on the eve of a great battle against an enemy comprising many of his relatives, friends, and revered teachers. Although fearless and renowned for his skills as an archer, Arjuna says he has no will to fight, since even if he wins the battle he loses it, slaying so many dear to him. This is when Krishna ceases to be a mere charioteer, delivering what amounts to a sermon as his answer to Arjuna’s plight of conscience. The Gita is a small section in what is still the world’s longest poem, the Mahabharata, which recounts a great war in much the same way as Homer’s Iliad does – except that the Gita, one of Hinduism’s most sacred scriptures, is obviously a later addition, barely connected to the main story – which may well be the account of a real conflict from Indian pre-history. Bhagavad Gita was the first Sanskrit text translated into English, by Charles Wilkins in 1785 – which is why I have included a discussion of it in my forthcoming book, Queen Victoria’s Secret, set in the late eighteenth century, when battles were scarcely different from the one Arjuna will fight, and my central character is also a warrior prince ambivalent to the nature of victory, yet cognizant of his obligations to duty.
I am well aware in this blog that I have devoted too much space to politics, particularly strife in the Middle East, when my true concerns are those related to the purpose of life and the realization of one’s immortal identity. I have no doubt that this is why we are born, and will indeed be ceaselessly reborn until the truth becomes clear. Yet the world has many distractions – though fewer since I lost my eyesight – and even the best of intentions can lead us far astray from the straight path we trod after many lifetimes searching for it, and with the guidance of a master whose grace also had to be earned over many incarnations of yearning. I liken the situation to that of Arjuna, since, after personally experiencing the 1991 and 2003 attacks on Iraq, along with numerous other war zones, I became convinced that war was the greatest of all crimes and ought to be eliminated from future human history. But wars invariably lead one into politics, which form a maze there is no escape from, a labyrinth housing the Minotaur of a vested interest that will destroy its critic. I faced that beast after my books A War Against Truth, and Homeland, both of them works of anger and indignation, and both inciting anger and indignation from powers I had no chance of defeating, having now lost all equanimity. Anger causes war, it does not end it, just as war cannot bring peace. Only peace, compassion, and a love for all can bring lasting peace.
Krishna tells Arjuna that he must fight the following day, since fate has already determined the result, and those destined to die will die whether or not he fights. Initially, this seems harsh; but Krishna then reveals truth and wisdom: the soul, or self, is immortal, never born, thus never dying. A body is born, its mind formed by sense-perceptions, and then also memories. Actions performed within time bring identical consequences – good for good, bad for bad – some consequences extending into new lives. But the soul, the real self, exists in a timeless eternity, without beginning, without end, unimaginably small, yet also infinitely large, containing only a consciousness, a unity within which exists all that was, is, or ever can be. One. Poets labour over it; scriptures variously call it by qualities, which are names for the Nameless; or describe it simply as Light, Silence, Peace, Emptiness, God. Oddly enough, and burdened by a monotheism – with the dualistic absurdity of a humankind and a God – it is Moses who asks his Nameless for a name, receiving the immeasurably profound ‘I am that I am’ (which can also be translated as ‘I am that I will be’). In this one phrase is the whole truth, the goal of self-inquiry. Someone born with no senses would know only this one reality: I exist, and I am conscious I exist. There would be no where or why. A baby has never been born without some senses – except possibly the stillborn – yet if one were born thus science would term it brain-dead, just as many reclusive yogis or holy men, sitting for years in meditational trance, would be diagnosed as catatonic or insane (using of course the latest label preventing physicians from concealing ignorance). The great Sufi Master and sublime poet, Rumi, was widely called mejnun, or ‘mad’. The summation of this is that time is illusory, and life a kind of dream, from which the self awakes at death into Eternity, an unchanging reality of which it is a part, just as a raindrop is itself yet also one with the ocean into which it falls. Such a truth cannot be understood by the mind, which requires a subject-object relationship in order to function; yet this One, this Unity, can be experienced , described sometimes in Sanskrit as sat-chit-ananda, or ‘existence-consciousness-bliss’. Most of us have glimpses of it when the heart aches with compassion for suffering strangers, or is aglow with love, both supreme and temporal. These states are experiences not thoughts, always felt in the heart area, believed by many to be the seat of self or soul. One cannot think about such experiences while experiencing them, although they can be recollected in tranquility, where language will struggle to describe them. Hence metaphor and allegory pervade poetry and scripture, which may inspire a reader to seek for the personal experience, yet cannot provide it. Even austere disciplines, diets, self-denial, chanting and meditation cannot provide it – although they will probably be uplifting, as will the company of spiritually-inclined people.
Another major lesson Arjuna is taught concerns actions detached from their results – a particularly difficult concept for goal-oriented westerners to grasp. The prince in my novel wrestles with it, asking why anyone would do something if they didn’t care about the result. Finally, he sees a comparison between Krishna’s teaching and a soldier’s duty, which is to obey orders and fight as he was trained to fight, dealing only with the moment he is in, and thus necessarily detached from whatever conclusion his actions achieve. Attachment to results breeds inattention to the present moment in that process leading to a result. If one’s task is cleaning toilets well, a moment of inattention will mean some part of the job is less well performed, and the defined goal not achieved. A house ought to be cleaned, not to look clean. The Buddha defined boredom as a lack of attention – so much goes on, yet we fail to notice this, and are now often surprised by a video recording of ourselves containing birdsong, an electric hum, pitter-pattering rain, and many things we failed to notice at the time when we were in the now-digital moment. Awareness is a key to spiritual growth; we must be ever watchful of our actions, speech, thoughts, and the feelings projected by our deep heart. Just as every hair is numbered (an easier task daily in my case), every thought and deed profoundly affects the entire world, which is but a reflection of our collective mind. Five minutes spent in willing peace, compassion, and love to all is worth more than millions given to charity by someone hoping the act will bring rewards in heaven and a community plaque. It is all awareness, and so necessary because negativity is ever waiting for an opportunity to pour out its toxins, as what passes for ‘news’ shows us daily if me make the error of listening to it.
What brings enlightenment? The answer is an ancient one: divine grace, which is attracted, as St. Teresa of Lisieux said, only by love. A yearning for the divine through love is the only answer given by any sage or holy man who has truly attained his, or her, own complete enlightenment.
I have refrained from writing or talking about my own spiritual master, Sathya Sai Baba, until now, besides the superficial mention of him in my book Empire of the Soul, because the 40-year relationship and its qualities are essentially private, personal, and, often, either misunderstood or incomprehensible. But he left his physical body in 2011, and I am now 65, so I shall do what many have asked me to do over the years, and he has now given me permission to do: write about my time with him, and the many experiences and teachings whereof I was told not to speak, thereof not speaking, even to those closest to me. This blog will henceforth be a rough first draft of that as yet untitled book.
To dispense with my preliminary qualms, I shall state unequivocally those things which most seem to fascinate, repel, outrage, and in general bother people about the person I know as ‘Swami’, and shall refer to as such from hereon. Yes, he was an avatar, born as a divine incarnation, rather than someone who attained enlightenment during their lifetime. This is not a belief, since he proved to me it was true – and I shall describe the manner of this proof in good time. No, I did not worship him, since he told me this was unnecessary, because, “Guru, God, and Self are one, indivisible. For some it is necessary to make their devotion to an external form, an idol, a man, a cow, a tree – the form does not matter if the heart is pure.” Did he possess all the qualities accorded to God in every, or any, scripture? Yes, and I witnessed most, if not all, of them.
Was he different in private than he was in public? Yes, very. Free will is a cosmic law, and knowledge of the Divine must be arrived at, or earned, not forced upon people by witnessing acts which permit no doubt. What I experienced alone with him was even different from things witnessed in small gatherings in his house. Did he sexually molest children? Not to my knowledge. I am aware, however, that he occasionally cast out devotees to whom he had once been close, causing some of these people to turn against him, spreading malign rumours stemming from a single unreliable source. Tal Brooke is a good example: close to Swami, loaded with privileges, and then one day ignored, treated like anyone else. He decided Swami was Satan, writing a spitefully silly little book called Lord of the Air. This was back in the early seventies, but its circumlocutions, innuendo, and embellished rumours were seized upon by the group perpetuating slander and unsubstantiated allegations thirty years later. Professional skeptics were also, I believe, provided by Swami with deliberate acts of stage-magic – which were what they sought. He seemed to give everyone what they wanted, saying, “Few come for what I am really here to give them.” This was grace, the actual experience of divine love, which emanated from him like a perfume of the heart. Did he acquire vast wealth? Not personally, but his trust did, opening countless schools, hospitals, and providing various forms of help for the poor. He lived very simply, ate little, and his daily routines were unvarying. The Trust was run by a committee, some of whom I found obnoxious, as I did other officials at the ashram, once asking Swami why he kept so many awful people around him. He replied, “If they were not here they would be doing far more harm out in the world.” Why did he seem to favour wealthy or powerful devotees? If one believes in the laws of karma, people are born into lives they have merited by past actions; therefore it is logical to assume such people are more deserving of attention than others. There were also many such people he ignored or refused to see, including Indira Ghandi. He would rarely accept gifts, either, and many wealthy people I knew there were distraught to find their offers refused. Although he appeared to have an organization around him its chief officials were no closer to him than anyone else. He had no one approaching a ‘friend’ in any sense, and all behaved like children in his presence – even those who were otherwise haughty, bullying officials. He was unlike any person I have met, tiny, yet able to seem plump at times, with eyes revealing no one behind them. Not one photograph of the thousands existing conveys him remotely. Even his skin changed colour, from as pale as mine, to blue-black, and everything between. At times he would stand stock-still, writing in the air with a forefinger, his other hand revolving as if spinning a small disc, and his gaze seeming to be in other dimensions. He once told me, “All worlds come for my darshan (public presence), so I cannot ignore them just for you, can I?”
[To be continued]
Paul William Roberts