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Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Vision of the Sages BY Pandit Raimani Tigunait, Ph.D.

*The Vision of the Sages
Yoga International Magazine, Asia Edition, Nov./Dec. 2004
Pandit Raimani Tigunait, Ph.D.

There are still thousands of villages in India that are as yet untouched by
the complexities and comforts of modern civilization. Here people live
simply, farming, raising cattle, and practicing the same trades their
ancestors practiced working as carpenters, blacksmiths, washermen, barbers,
cobblers, tailors, ropemakers, potters, and fishermen. I was born in one
such village and raised on the plains of northern India. I grew up in a
world that was lighted only by sunlight, moonlight, and firelight, a world
governed by the rhythms of nature the rising and setting of the sun, the
waxing and waning of the moon, and the slow turning of the seasons. But it
was not until my life in the village had become a childhood memory that I
realized it had been shaped by the vision of the sages.

Our village had the only primary school in a ten mile radius, so it drew
hundreds of children. The small building housed an office and one classroom,
which was reserved for fifth-graders. The rest of us had our lessons under
the surrounding trees. After fifth grade we went to a middle school in a
village three miles away, but we considered ourselves lucky - some of the
students had to travel fifteen miles to get there.

School was where we learned to read and write and work with numbers and
where we heard about such exotic inventions as electricity, telegraphs, and
telephones. But we learned how to behave and formed our concepts of virtue
and sin - and of gods and demons - in the course of village life.

None of what we knew about the causes of disease had anything do with the
principles of modern science. We learned that killing frogs would cause an
earache, for example, and we were certain that anyone who eavesdropped would
be reborn as a bat. We called ladybugs Rama ki Ghodi, "the mares of Rama,"
because it was from the back of these tiny creatures that Lord Rama
inspected and nourished our crops, and we knew that harming them was
self-destructive and offensive to God. We were convinced that a ghost lived
in the eye of the small, powerful dust devils that swirled across the
countryside in the dry season, and we knew that tucking an onion in our
pockets would protect us from being possessed by these ghosts. But if the
dust devil was exceptionally strong, the ghost might prove more powerful
than the onion. The symptoms of possession thirst and feeling hot were
unmistakable. I was possessed more than once, but I knew how to exorcise the
demon: wash my hands and feet and recite a prayer to the mighty god Hanuman
before taking a drink or eating anything.

These were facts of life as real to me as the ground beneath my feet. Even
when I was quite young I never sat with my feet pointed toward the fire,
because I knew it was a sin. Spitting, urinating, or throwing garbage in
fire or water was a spiritual offence, and so was selling either fire or
water. It was a sin to turn away a stranger stopping at your door in the
evening, and no one ever ate before an invited guest began eating.

In our village, as in all of rural India, the economy operated on the
jajamani system, in which every family in the village is a "client" of all
other families. We all worked for each other, and remuneration for all
labour was in the form of an exchange of goods and services. (Money was
scarce, and scarcely needed.) The washermen collected and laundered the
clothes of the entire village, and in return collected pots from the
potters, rope from the ropemakers, hay and grain from the farmers; they got
their hair cut by the barbers and their clothes stitched by the tailors. Our
family owned some land, and by observing how my parents treated the barbers,
washermen, cobblers, and others who performed services for us, I understood
that giving these people less than their fair share of hay and grain was a

In the interval between harvest and planting anyone's livestock could graze
in our grain fields and those of the other landowners. The same was true of
vegetable patches the owner took only what he needed and when he declared
himself finished with his harvest, anyone could come and take what remained.
When all the vegetables were harvested, cattle and goats ate the plants.
Thus nothing was wasted, and at certain times of the year all the land
around the village was open pasture.

The same attitude applied to fruit trees. We all understood that the person
who owned the land where the tree grew was the only one entitled to pluck
fruit from its branches, but anyone even a passing stranger was entitled to
fruit that had fallen. (Shaking the tree to make fruit fall was theft.) Once
I heard someone tell my father that a landowner had prevented other
villagers from picking up fruit that had fallen from the trees on his land.
"How low of him," my father remarked. "This is one more proof that the kali
yuga [the dark age] is in full swing."

In the realm of personal behaviour, separating yourself from your aging
parents and failing to take care of them in their old age was an unthinkable
disgrace. Sleeping after sunrise and failing to light the lamps at dusk were
spiritual offences. A teacher who did not pass on his knowledge to the next
generation would remain unembodied after death. Using wind and light as a
locus for his consciousness, such a teacher would become a brahma rakshasa
and suffer regret, hunger, and thirst until the bad karma incurred by his
negligence was exhausted.

There were many actions we all regarded as especially virtuous. Chief among
them was planting trees, tending them, and renouncing all claim to them when
they began to bear fruit. Thus the roads were lined with trees that gave
fruit and shade to us all. We understood that the fruit from these trees
could be plucked only when it was ripe taking unripe fruit was stealing.
Cutting down one of these trees or indeed any tree growing on public land
was a sin so grave that it carried the taint of murder.

The villagers associated lack of progeny with bad karma and believed that
performing virtuous deeds, such as digging a pond for the use of the entire
village, would wipe that karma away. A woman could enhance her chances of
conceiving by planting banana trees, watering them daily, and watching them
blossom. Building bridges across streams and rivers would strengthen the
bond between wife and husband. Future troubles could be averted by building
a doorless shelter on the roadside for travellers. Digging a well and
offering the water to anyone who came ensured that you would never suffer
from thirst.

In village life, almost every useful plant is believed to have some sort of
association with the divine realm. My mother worshipped the neem tree
because, like her neighbours, she saw it as the abode of the Divine Mother.
We all revered the ashoka tree because Mother Sita had lived under just such
a tree for ten months. We knew the peepal tree as the home of Shiva and
revered the bilva tree because Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, lived
there. We knew that the tulsi plant is always accompanied by Lord Vishnu;
keeping one in the courtyard guaranteed Lord Vishnu's presence in your home.
Durva grass is favoured by Ganesha. Sugarcane is the direct manifestation of
Sri, the goddess of beauty and bliss, whose favourite flower is the
aparajita. Palasha is the tree of Agni, the fire god, and the banyan is the
tree of Krishna himself. Destroying or threatening any of them would offend
the gods, and no religious ceremony was complete unless the leaves, the
flowers, or the fruits of one or more of these plants were incorporated into
the ritual.

Each of life's transitions sacred or mundane was marked by ritual
ceremonies. Conception, childbirth, naming a child, the child's first
haircut, the first bite of solid food, the first day of school, marriage,
death, the funeral, and post-funeral rites all had their own ritual. Each
day of the full moon and of the new moon was dedicated to worshipping the
god of protection and nourishment. In addition, those people wishing to lead
a virtuous life performed specific rituals on certain days of the week. For
example, they worshipped the sun god on Sunday, Shiva on Monday, Hanuman on
Tuesday, the spiritual teacher on Thursday, and the Divine Mother on Friday.
Then there were special days such as Diwali (the festival of lights), Holi
(the festival of colours), Navaratri (nine days dedicated to the Divine
Mother) which the villagers celebrated with grand rituals. There were also
special days dedicated to honouring the plant and animal kingdom, such as
Naga Panchami, honouring snakes (the fifth day August), and Vata Savitri,
honouring the banyan tree (the day of the new moon in early summer).

All of these rituals centred around the fire offering. We could compensate
for failure to perform the obligatory practices or any shortcomings (known
or unknown) in our performance of the rituals simply by performing the fire
offering portion of the ritual. Many of the villagers did not know the
meaning and purpose of the fire offering; they made it because it was their
custom their fathers and their forefathers had done it before them. But they
all believed that fire is the mouth of God and whatever is offered into the
fire reaches God. Every family tried to make at least three oblations to the
fire each day. Chapatis (unleavened bread) were a staple of life, and the
first one was always offered to the flames over which it was cooked. Those
villagers who were especially devout also offered raw sugar and clarified
butter into the fire each day.

The web of life

While I was growing up it never occurred to me that these were religious
practices they were simply part of everyday life. When I was twelve I joined
a traditional Sanskrit school and began to study the scriptures. There I
learned that certain customs and rituals are more important than others. I
began to believe that if I observed those customs and performed those
rituals I would become a better person and that worldly and spiritual
prosperity would be mine. I also came to believe that if I did not perform
them, I would be abandoned by the benevolent forces. I admired my Sanskrit
teachers, who were deeply devoted to rituals, and their company fuelled my
conviction that I too should perform these rituals. But later, when I went
to the University of Allahabad and began taking courses in social science,
ethics, anthropology, and the history of philosophy, my attitude toward
these customs and ritualistic practices changed. I began to regard them as
silly and to believe that the villagers observed them only because they were
backward, illiterate, and superstitious.

Then I met Swami Sadananda, a saint who in a mysterious way restored my
respect for the web of rituals that governed village life. Though he lived
simply, he was intelligent and highly educated, an expert in ayurveda,
astrology, and all systems of Indian philosophy. He was also an unmatched
scholar of Sanskrit and well-versed in the scriptures. And he was known for
his miraculous healing powers.

One morning I arrived at his ashram to find him in the company of a man who
suffered from epileptic fits so frequent and severe that someone always had
to accompany him. After a short conversation Swami Sadananda gave this man a
powder that looked like ash and told him to take it as a medicine. Then he
instructed him to feed cracked wheat and other grains to wild birds before
eating the first meal of the day.

When the man and his companion left I said, I understand the value of taking
medicine, but why does he have to feed the birds?" "You should watch," Swami
Sadananda replied. "When he is cured I will explain."

For three days the man went hungry because the birds would not eat the grain
he scattered for them. Finally on the fourth day they ate the grain, and the
man too could eat. It became his routine to feed the birds before starting
his day, and within a month his fits came less frequently; within six months
they vanished. When I asked Swami Sadananda to explain he said, "Birds are
part of nature. Their relationship with humans is not contaminated by
selfishness and expectation. Serving them is serving nature, the repository
of all our karmas."

I did not understand how curing epilepsy had anything to do with feeding
birds, and told him so. "You are unable to grasp this because you don't
understand the spiritual aspect of the planet's ecology," Swami Sadananda
replied.The earth is one living organism. Here everything in the web of life
is interconnected. Our health and happiness are not separate from the health
and happiness of others. Similarly, the world within us and the world
outside us are interconnected. What happens in the outer world affects our
inner life; our inner life affects the outer world. Everything within and
without is part of the collective consciousness that pervades both the
manifest and unmanifest aspects of creation. And if the collective
consciousness is undernourished, then our individual consciousness becomes
sick. If we are to be healthy and lead harmonious lives, nature's forces
must be healthy and harmonious, for we are an integral part of nature. To
cure this man of epilepsy, I used feeding the birds as a means of
propitiating the collective consciousness that supplies healing energy to
all individuals."

Then, after pausing for a moment, he said, "You are not yet satisfied with
my explanation. You are a Sanskrit student. Study the Vedic and tantric
scriptures properly and you will develop a better understanding of yourself
and the world in which you live."

I had already read many of the scriptures Swami Sadananda was recommending
and had found them to be a collection of prayers and mantras for ritual
worship. But after this encounter I began to read them with a different
intention and a new attitude. To broaden my understanding of the scriptures,
I studied Hindi texts on Vedic and tantric mythology. I was particularly
intrigued by the Hindi translation of the book Vedic Mythology by A. A.
McDonald. An eminent twentieth-century Indologist, McDonald described the
place of each particular god in the Vedic pantheon. According to him the
people of ancient India were polytheists and worshipped a host of gods, each
of which presides over a different aspect of nature. For example, Indra
presides over rain, Varuna rules the ocean, and Vishnu presides over the
three worlds - earth, heaven, and the space in between.

But when I discussed these Ideas with Swami Sadananda, he said bluntly,
"This is a Western interpretation. The god Indra does not preside over the
rain - rain itself is the god. The word for 'god' in the Vedas is deva,
which means 'shining or bright being, one who is loving and compassionate,
one who is constantly giving, serving, protecting, and nourishing all
creation.' Life on earth depends on rain, therefore rain is deva. Further,
rain is central to life, therefore rain is the central deva. All other forms
of nourishment are secondary to rain which is why Indra is the king of the
gods. The actual, physical form of rain is the body of god, and the dynamic
forces that act together to bring the rain form the spirit of that god. The
entire universe is the body of the Absolute Divine Being, known in the
scriptures as Virat, the cosmic being. Different aspects of nature are the
limbs and organs of that cosmic being. Everything in this world big or small
is an extension of one cosmic being."

This explanation helped me understand why the ancient sages called earth,
water, fire, air, sky, sun, moon, stars, day, night, lightning, clouds,
mountains, ocean, rivers, and forests "deva." These sages had a very simple
definition of god: one who illuminates our path and enables us to complete
the journey of life. We cannot survive without food, they realized,
therefore food is deva. We cannot complete the journey of life without water
or air, therefore these forces of nature are deva. There would be no light
on earth without the light of the sun, therefore the sun is deva. There is a
perfect symbiotic relationship between plants, insects, birds, animals, and
humans because all are an integral part of the web of life. ... ...

Pandit Raimani Tigunait, Ph.D., the Spiritual Head of the Himalayan
Institute, is Swami Rama's successor. Lecturing and teaching worldwide for
more than a quarter of a century, he is a regular contributor to Yoga
International magazine, and the author of eleven books. Pandit Tigunait
holds two doctorates: one in Sanskrit from the University of Allababad in
India, and another in Oriental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania._

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