Friday, December 11, 2009
I was reading Romain Rolland’s Life of Sri Ramakrishna this morning when I came across this fascinating incident from the life of the great master. The incident involves Sri Ramakrishna’s guru Tota Puri coming under the influence of Maya and the the sage of Dakshineshwar, the disciple, laughing at it with the merriment of a child.
Tota Puri, the naked saint, as everyone familiar with the life of Sri Ramakrishna knows, is one of the two teachers of the saint of Dakhineshwar, the other being Bhairavi Brahmani. While the Brahmani’s instructions to Sri Ramakrishna were mostly in tantric spiritual practices, Tota Puri was the master’s teacher in Advaita.
Speaking about Tota Puri, Ramain Rolland says: “Towards the end of 1864 just at the moment when Ramakrishna had achieved his conquest of the personal God, the messenger of the impersonal God, ignorant as yet of his mission, arrived at Dakshineshwar. This was Tota Puri – an extraordinary Vedantic ascetic, a wandering monk, who had reached the ultimate revelation after forty years of preparation – a liberated soul, whose impersonal gaze looked upon the phantom of this world with complete indifference.”
Sri Ramakrishna is then twenty-eight years old. When Tota Puri sees him first, Sri Ramakrishna is seated on one of the steps of the temple at Dakshineshwar, lost in the ecstasy of a vision. Tota Puri tells him, “My son, I see that you have already travelled far along the way of truth. If you so wish it, I can help you reach the next stage, I will teach you Vedanta.”
Sri Ramakrishna answers that he must first seek the permission of the Divine Mother [Kali] and can accept his guidance only if the Mother permits it. He runs to the temple and comes back in a short while – yes, she has given him her permission. Ramakrishna becomes Tota Puri’s disciple.
Tota Puri was a wandering monk who had taken the vow of never staying at one place for more than three days. But fascinated by his extraordinary disciple, he breaks his vow and stays at Dakshineshwar for eleven months, instructing Sri Ramakrishna in the highest spiritual practices.
Speaking about the final stage of his sadhanas, the master says: “Nangta Baba [the naked saint, Tota Puri] taught me to detach my mind from all objects and to plunge it into the heart of the Atman. But despite all my efforts, I could not cross the realm of name and form and lead my spirit to the Unconditional state. I had no difficulty in detaching my mind from all objects with the one exception of the form of the radiant Mother [Kali], the essence of pure knowledge, who appeared before me as a living reality. She barred the say to the beyond. I tried on several occasions to concentrate my mind on the precepts of Advaita Vedanta, but each time the form of the Mother intervened. I said to Nangta Baba in despair: ‘It is no good. I shall never succeed in lifting my spirit to the “unconditioned” state and find myself face to face with the Atman.’ He replied severely, ‘What! You say you cannot? You must!’ Looking about him, he found a piece of glass. He took it and stuck the point between my eyes, saying: “Concentrate your point on that point.” Then I began to meditate with all my might, and as soon as the gracious form of the Divine Mother appeared, I used my discrimination as a sword, and I clove Her in two. The last barrier fell and my spirit immediately precipitated itself beyond the plane of the ‘conditioned”, and I lost myself in Samadhi.’
Sri Ramakrishna thus reaches the highest peaks of spirituality under the guidance of Tota Puri.
Something extraordinarily fascinating happens on a subsequent occasion.
The Nangta Baba was contemptuous of all rituals, prayers, hymns, dances and so on and he expressed his contempt openly. But over time, the beauty of Sri Ramakrishna and of his prayers and rituals began working their charm on Tota Puri. Certain hymns sung in his melodious voice moved Tota Puri so that hidden tears came into his eyes. The man who had scornfully rejected all emotions had now begun to come under their influence.
Let me quote Rolland here, “There are contradictions, often unobserved by their owners, even in the strongest minds. This scorner of cults had the weakness to adore a symbol in the shape of fire: for he always kept a lighted one near him. One day a servant came to remove some brands, and Tota Puri protested against such disrespect. Ramakrishna laughed, as only he knew how to laugh, with the gaiety of a child. ‘Look, look,’ he cried: ‘You also have succumbed to the irresistible power of Maya!’
That is Maya.
One of the definitions of Maya is ‘the power that makes the impossible possible.’ Even the greatest masters become subject to her unawares. That is the reason why the Adhyatma Upanishad says:
yathāpakrshtam śaivālam kshanamātram na tishthati |
avrnoti tathā māyā prajnām vāpi parāngmukhām || Adhyatma Up 15||
“Just as the moss in a tank momentarily displaced resumes again its original position in a minute, so too Maya envelops even the wise, should they be careless even for a moment.”
Here is a beautiful story told by our Pauranic lore.
Sage Narada is walking across a vast desert with God as his companion. The silence between them is broken by a question Narada asks, "Tell me Bhagavan, what is the secret of Maya?"
God smiles and makes no reply. They continue their walk.
After a while God tells Narada, "The sun is hot today, and I am thirsty. Ahead you will find a village. Go there and fetch me some water."
Narada sets off. Arriving at the village, he approaches the first house he sees and knocks at the door. A beautiful young woman answers. The moment the sage looks into her eyes he forgets why he has come there.
The woman ushers Narada into the house, where he is warmly welcomed by her family. It is as if everyone in this gentle household has been expecting him. The sage is asked to eat with the family, and then to stay the night, which Narada accepts gladly, enjoying the family's warm hospitality and secretly marveling at the young woman's loveliness.
A week goes by, then two. Sage decides to stay on, and he soon begins to share in the household chores. And then one day, unable to resist the temptation any more, Narada asks for the woman's hand in marriage. The family has been expecting this, it turns out. Everyone is overjoyed.
The sage and his young wife settle down in her family's house, where she soon bears him three children – two sons and a daughter.
Years pass. When his wife's mother and father pass away, the sage takes over as head of the household. He opens a small shop in the village and it prospers. Before long he is an honored citizen of the community. Giving himself up to the age-old joys and sorrows of village life, Narada lives there contentedly for many years.
Then one night during the monsoon season a violent storm breaks overhead, and the river rises so high from the sudden rains that the village begins to flood. Narada gathers his family and leads them through the dark night toward higher ground. But the winds blow so violently and the rain pelts down with such force that one of his sons is washed away by the torrent.
Narada reaches for the boy, and in so doing lets go of his second son. A moment later a gale tears his daughter from his arms. Then his beloved wife is washed away into the roaring darkness.
The sage wails helplessly and claws at the sky. But his cries are drowned by a towering wave that rises from the depths of the terrible night and washes him headlong into the river.
Everything goes black. Hours pass. Slowly, painfully, Narada comes to his senses, only to discover that he has been washed onto a sandbank far down the river. It is daytime now, and the storm has passed. But there is no sign of his family anywhere, nor, for that matter, of any living creature.
For a long time the sage remains lying on the sand almost mad with grief. Bits of wreckage float past him in the river. The smell of death is on the wind.
Everything has been taken from him now; everything has disappeared into the swirling waters. There is little to do, it seems, but weep.
Then, suddenly, the sage hears a voice behind him that makes the blood stop in his veins. "Narada," the voice asks, "where is the water you went to fetch?" The sage turns and sees God standing at his side. The river has vanished, and once again he and God are alone in the empty desert. "Where is my water?" God asks again. "I have been waiting for you to bring it now for several minutes."
The sage throws himself at the Lord's feet and begs for forgiveness. "I forgot!" Narada cries again and again. “I forgot what you asked of me, God! Forgive me!”
God smiles and asks, "Do you now understand the power of Maya, Narada?”
That’s the power of Maya. Even great sages like Narada and Tota Puri are subject to her.
Is there no way out then?
Yes, say the great masters. Surrender to her, accept her as the Divine Mother, as the mother of the universe, and live your life as a celebration of her lila.
Not blinded by that lila, but with your eyes open.