Sunday, February 21, 2010
Religion and a Child’s Handful of Grass
I love Walt Whitman as a poet. Here are a few lines from his Song of Myself, which I find hauntingly beautiful.
“A child said ‘What is the grass?’ fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners,
That we may see and remark, and say Whose?”
The poem does not end here, but continues beautifully. However, this is enough for my present purpose, for my particular interest at the moment is in those last four lines: “Or I guess … and say Whose?”
When the child comes to the poet with a handful of grass in his hands and the question “What is the grass?” many answers comes to the poet’s mind. One of them is from the medieval times – the days of knights and their lady loves, of chivalry, honour, bravery, courage, courtliness and romantic love.
As you read those lines, an image emerges in your mind. Of a beautiful, lady of courtly bearing driving by in her carriage, of her seeing a knight on the way and being attracted to him, and of her dropping her handkerchief for him to pick up. The handkerchief is her gift to him, something to remember her by – a scented gift and remembrancer. The handkerchief bears its owner’s name – her name – in one corner of it. And she drops it on purpose, designedly. She wants him to pick it up. And she wants him to see her name – initials – and ask make enquiries about its owner, about her.
And she wants more. She wants him to follow her, to court her, and to make love to her. She wants him to make her his lady love – every knight in the chivalrous times had a lady love – and she wants him to make her his lady love. She wants him to face dangers in her name, undertake adventures inspired by her, and fight battles for her sake. She wants him to love and adore her so that every step he takes is for her sake, every breath he breathes becomes for her sake.
The beautiful young woman in Whitman’s poem is God, the Lord. “I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,” he says, speaking of the handful of grass the child brings to him. The handful of grass is the handkerchief that God has dropped so that man will it pick it up, look at the name in the corner, remark, “Whose?” and search for its owner, court him and live and die for him.
In its long ages of search for God, humanity has developed innumerable paths leading to him/her. And on each path, the relation between the seeker and God, the devotee and the Lord, is unique.
The Sufis see God as the Beloved. Sufism is the path of Love leading to God. It is bhakti at its highest. The Sufis court God as a man courts his ladylove. In the Sufi interpretation of Laila Majnun, perhaps the most famous love story in the world, Majnun is the devotee and Laila is God, love for whom intoxicates him, haunts him day and night and drives him to madness.
It is frequently said that religion is born of vairagya, that the quest for God begins when one develops dispassion for the world. Most monastic traditions follow the path of dispassion for the world. A sadhaka on this path has to reject the world altogether. And reject it with all that is good in it and all that is bad in it. He turns away from everything by seeing the defects in all things – by maintaining doshadrishti. He meditates on those defects so that his mind is not drawn toward these.
The Bhaja Govindam says, speaking from the standpoint of the male aspirant: naaree-sthanabhara-naabheedesham/ dRishtvaa maa gaa mohaavesham/ etan maamsavasaadi-vikaaram/ manasi vichintaya vaaram vaaram. Seeing the full breasts and the deep navel of a woman, do not get enticed and deluded, since these are nothing but modifications of flesh and fat. Reflect over this [truth] again and again.
In his need to turn the spiritual aspirant away from the world, Bhaja Govindam attacks all relationships, including family relationships that are otherwise considered sacred, and says: yaavad-vittopaarjana-saktah/ taavan nijaparivaaro raktah/ paschaaj jeevati jarjaradehe/ vaartaam ko’pi na pRcchhati gehe. So long as you are capable of making money, your family is attached to you. And after than when you live in your broken down body, no one takes the least interest in you.
Spirituality based on vairagya leads to world denial. Religions that stress vairagya become life denying and world negative.
But there is a different kind of religion too. A religion that see the world as filled with the glory of God and sees God as the source of that beauty and splendour.
Krishna’s religion belongs to this kind. The whole of the 10th chapter of the Gita, called the Vibhooti Yoga, the Path of Splendour, speaks of this kind of religion. He asks us to seek God in everything that is splendorous and says:
“Among the Vedas, I am the Sama Veda; I am Indra among the gods; among the senses I am the mind; and I am the intelligence among living beings. And among the Rudras, I am Shankara; among the Yakshas and Rakshasas, I am the Kubera; among the Vasus I am Lord of Fire; among the mountains I am the MERU … Among the great Rishis I am Bhrigu; among words I am the one-syllabled OM; among sacrifices I am the sacrifice of silent repetition; and among immovable things, I am the Himalayas…”
Concluding his long list Krishna says:
yad yad vibhūtimat sattvaM śrīmad ūrjitam eva vā |
tat tad evāvagaccha tvaM mama tejo 'mśa-saMbhavam ||BhG_10.41||
“Whatever is glorious, prosperous or endowed with energy in any being, know that to be a manifestation of a part of My splendour.”
God could be seen in and through his glory expressed in the creation.
As in most of his other teachings, Krishna, the Veda Purusha, is restating in his own terms, modern for his age, the ancient teachings of the Vedas.
The Vedas see God in everything; and they particularly love to see God in everything that is splendorous. Thus the God of the Vedas is addressed in the following words, in this prayer in which Agni is seen as God:
“Thou O Agni, art Indra, the hero of heroes. Thou art Vishnu of the mighty stride, adorable. Thou, O Brahmanaspati, art Brahman who possesses wealth. Thou, O Sustainer, tendest us with wisdom.”
“Thou, O Agni, art King Varuna whose laws stand fast. Thou as Mitra, wonder-worker, art adorable. Thou art Aryaman, lord of heroes, enriching all. O thou God, thou liberal Amsha in the celestial assembly.”
“Thou, God Agni, art Aditi to the offerer of oblation. Thou, Hotra Bharati, art glorified by the song. For conferring power, thou art the hundred-wintered Ila. Thou, Lord of wealth, art Vritra-slayer and Sarasvati.” [RV II 1-11]
Agni is everything that is glorious; God is everything that is glorious.
The Shatarudriya, which is part of the Yajur Veda, says:
“Prostration to Rudra, who protects with His outstretched bow, the Ruler of all fields (temples, bodies and all creation). Prostration to the Charioteer (Director of all things), the Invincible One, the Lord of all forests, (vegetation life). Prostration to the Crimson-hued One, who, existing (even) in trees, is the Supreme Protector of all ...
“Prostration to Him who is in marshes and lakes; prostration to Him who is in rivers and reservoirs; prostration to Him who is in wells and pits; prostration to Him who is in rains and in oceans; prostration to Him who is in the clouds and in lightning.
“Prostration to Him who is in the autumnal clouds and in the heating sun; prostration to Him who is in the winds and in the stormy downpours of the deluge; prostration to Him who is in the wealth of cattle and land.”
Seeing God in his splendour as manifested in the world is a way taught by our ancient masters, including the Vedic rishis and Krishna himself.
Rather than hating the world and rejecting it, a healthier path to God and God realization is seeing his glory in everything. In the sunrise, in the glory of the midday sun, in the sunset; in the innocence of childhood, in the passion of youth and the serenity of old age. In summer, in winter, in spring and in the rainy season. In man, in woman, in animals, birds, in trees, in plants, and in the grass.
Which is what the Shvetashvatara Upanishad does when it addresses God and says: “Thou art the woman, thou art the man; thou art the youth, thou art the maiden; thou, as an old man, totterest along supported by thy staff; thou art born with thy face turned everywhere. Thou art the dark-blue bee, thou art the green parrot with red eyes, thou art the thunder-cloud, the seasons, the seas. Thou art without beginning, because thou art infinite. Thou art he from whom all worlds are born.”
Everything is God and in everything God could be seen. Everything should remind one of the splendour and glory of God. Everything is “the handkerchief of the Lord,/A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,/Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners,/That we may see and remark, and say Whose?”
Here is something beautiful that Osho says:
“Those who say that the world is ugly and renounce it are absolutely wrong, because if you renounce this world, deep down you are renouncing the creator. Don’t renounce. A woman’s face is beautiful, because it reflects [the glory of its Creator]. A man’s face is beautiful, the body is beautiful, because they reflect. The trees are beautiful, the birds are beautiful, because they reflect. The reflection is so beautiful – what to say about the original? So a real seeker is not against the world. A real seeker loves the world so much, he loves the reflection so much that he wants to see the original.”
When you seek the woman who dropped the handkerchief for you, you are not doing so because you hate the handkerchief, but the handkerchief is so beautiful, the scent so alluring, you want to see the woman who dropped it so that you would pick it up.
Religion can be life assertive, rather than life negative. And in today’s world, you need religion that is life assertive rather than life negative. What we need today is not a religion that tells us there is no beauty in the world, but one that tells us that all beauty has only one Source and helps us see that immense, incredible, indescribable Source of all beauty.
The religion of the poet, the religion of the lover, is more relevant today than the religion of the ascetic.
Perhaps that is how it has always been.
Note: The illustration on top shows Laila and Majnun. Translations from the Gita are from my Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda’s The Holy Gita and translations from the Vedas, by Dr AC Bose.