Thursday, April 1, 2010
The Myth of Sisyphus and Prati Prasav
Ancient Greece has told some of the most beautiful stories ever told by man. And among the many such incredibly beautiful stories, one of the most powerful is the myth of Sisyphus.
He was the son of king Aeolus of Thessaly and Enarete, the myth tells us. As a king, he promoted navigation and commerce and did a lot of other good things. However, his weakness was power greed. And such was his greed for power and position that he would stop at nothing. Offering hospitality to visitors, he enjoyed killing them if that allowed him to improve his position in any way. And he was crafty. Lying, deceit, betrayals, all came naturally to him. He seduced his own niece, he took the throne that belonged to his brother. At one time he was cursed by Zeus because he was revealing the god’s secrets. In a fury, Zeus ordered Thanatos [god of death] to chain Sisyphus to a rock in Tartarus. Sisyphus innocently asked Death to demonstrate how the chains worked. And when Thanatos demonstrated it, he locked the god of death in chains and death was no more able to visit the world of men.
Sisyphus soon achieved the dubious fame of being the cleverest man in the world. And so proud of his cunning was Sisyphus that he believed himself not only an equal to the gods, but smarter than the gods themselves – smarter even than Zeus, the lord of Gods, himself. When Zeus kidnapped Aegina, the daughter of the river god Asopus, and kept her in hiding, Sisyphus revealed the truth to Asopus – not out of moral outrage at Zeus’ behaviour, not out of a feeling for justice but just to show he was cleverer than Zeus.
It was the anger of the gods in general and of Zeus in particular that brought Sisyphus’ curse upon him. And the curse was for all time to come. For all eternity, Sisyphus was cursed to roll up a huge boulder up a hill. And when the boulder reached the top, it will roll down by itself and then Sisyphus had to roll it up again.
The myth of Sisyphus could be understood at several levels. It is the story of man and his life at many, many levels. For the time being, let us look at it from the standpoint of prati prasava, the ancient Indian practice of travelling back into past lifetimes.
Prati prasava literally means reverse birth. What we do in the process is travel back into our previous lifetimes through the process of meditation. Incidentally, whether we do it deliberately or not, according to the Buddha, every single one of us passes through a process of past life recollection/reliving as the process of meditation advances. Used as a technique, prati prasava is very much like past life regression as, say, practiced by Brian Weiss. Those who are interested in the process are welcome to read his Many Lives, Many Masters or better still his Through Time Into Healing, which I find the better of the two books. Through Time Into Healing also has a script attached to it in the appendices, which one could use for journeying back into past life times.
Today prati prasava or past life regression is mostly used for resolving unresolved conflicts that we carry with us from our past lifetimes and for healing. But prati prasava could also be used for remembering our past learning and sadhanas, for starting from where we left in the last times.
I remember reading a short story some time back. The woman in the story has the history of a chain of abusive marriages. Each of her marriages has gone exactly the same way. It begins beautifully with rich romance, both she and her lover falling deeply in love with each other. They get married and soon the relationship between the two begins to change. In a short while she finds herself abused verbally, attacked physically, humiliated constantly and reduced to the status of a sexual slave. As the story ends, the woman is once again in exactly the same relationship, this time with the new young waiter who has just joined the hotel where she is hiding. The boy has a criminal record – he has killed his own father. What began as the woman in the commanding position doing sexual favours to the boy ends up by her becoming his slave.
We repeat our own unique life patterns endlessly in our life. Some of us repeat patterns of success, others of failure; some of acceptance, others of rejection; some of happiness and others of pain.
And it is not only in one lifetime that we repeat the same pattern again and again. We do that in lifetime after lifetime. There are stories that past life regression has revealed, in which two individuals continue the victim-perpetrator relationship in lifetime after lifetime, one of which I have discussed in some detail in an article called Reincarnation, Transactional Analysis and Karma elsewhere on this blog. [Please see http://innertraditions.blogspot.com/2009/05/reincarnation-transactional-analysis.html]
Sisyphus rolls the stone up all the way to the top of the hill and then it comes crashing down. He climbs down and picking it up, begins rolling it up the hill again.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Bardo Thodal, speaks of how after death the disembodied soul becomes hungry for the same experiences as he has lived for when he was in the body and returns to the world of embodied living to begin it all, all over again.
Most of us are like Sisyphus and do precisely the same thing in lifetime after lifetime. We repeat the same patterns and do exactly the same things we have done in the past. Life after life we live like the bullock that is tied to the oil mill that walks the same circle day after day – and that circle does not take it anywhere.
Prati prasava can connect us with our learnings in past life times and with the spiritual journeys made in past existences.
In the Bhagavad Gita there is an interesting discussion between Krishna and Arjuna about this possibility. In Chapter Six of the Gita, Arjuna asks about the fate of the practitioner of yoga who falls on the way and Krishna assures him that no harm comes to him. One of the possibilities is that such a man is reborn in the home of pure and spiritual people, or of intelligent yogis and there he is united with the memories of his past lifetimes and making fast progress, reaches his goal.
What Krishna says here is that this happens on its own. But there are also ways of doing this through yogic processes. Prati prasava is one such method.
Albert Camus, the Nobel Prize willing writer, has written an essay called The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he says that “If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious.” Camus is right, in a way. The day the bullock realizes the absurdity of its life, it will perhaps go mad. If the bullock does not realize its situation, it could only be called a blessing.
But at the same time, at least in the case of man, his unconsciousness is a tragedy too. That he is unconscious of his situation is a blessing in the sense that the day he becomes conscious of it, there is every possibility he will go mad. But it is a tragedy because his unconsciousness also prevents him from ever waking up. So long as he does not become conscious of his situation, there is no possibility that he will wake up. It is only the consciousness of his situation that will make it possible for him to wake up.
There is a beautiful story about Narada and Maya.
One day, says the story, Sage Narada was walking across a vast desert with God as his companion. Suddenly Narada asked God, “Bhagavan, tell me, what is Maya?”
God smiled but made no reply. They continued their walk.
After a while God told Narada, "The sun is hot today, and I am thirsty. Ahead you will find a village. Go there and fetch me some water."
Narada set off to carry out God’s errand. Arriving at the village, he approached the first house he saw and knocked on the door. A beautiful young woman came and opened the door. The sage looked into her eyes and he forgot all about his errand. The woman’s loveliness was intoxicating.
The woman ushered Narada into the house, telling it is hot outside. He was warmly welcomed by her family. It was as if everyone in their household had been expecting him. The sage was asked to eat with the family, and then to stay the night, which Narada accepted gladly, enjoying the family's warm hospitality. All the while his mind was toying with the young woman’s incredible beauty. He wanted to make her his own and to give himself to her.
A week went by, then two. The sage wanted to pay back for their hospitality. He began to share in the household chores.
And then one day, unable to resist the temptation any more, Narada asked for the woman's hand in marriage. The family had been expecting this and they are overjoyed.
The sage and his young wife settled down in her family's house, where she soon bore him a child, and then two more – two sons and a daughter.
Years passed. When his wife's mother and father passed away, the sage took over as head of the household. He opened a small shop in the village and it prospered. Before long he was an honoured member of the community. Giving himself up to the age-old joys and sorrows of village life, Narada lived there contentedly for many years.
Then it happened. One night during the monsoon season a violent storm broke overhead, and the river rose so high from the sudden rains it began to flood. Narada gathered his family and led them through the dark night toward higher ground. But the winds blew so violently and the rain pelted down with such force that one of his sons was washed away by the torrent.
Narada reached for the boy, but in so doing let go of his second son. A moment later a gale tore his daughter from his arms. Then his beloved wife was also washed away into the roaring darkness.
The sage wailed helplessly. But his cries were drowned by a towering wave that rose from the depths of the terrible night and washed him headlong into the river.
Everything went black. Hours passed. Slowly, painfully, Narada came to his senses, only to discover that he had been washed onto a sandbank far down the river. It was daytime now and the storm had passed. But there was no sign of his family anywhere, nor, for that matter, of any living creature.
For a long time the sage remained lying on the sand almost mad with grief. Bits of wreckage floated past him in the river. The smell of death was on the wind.
Everything had been taken from him now; everything has disappeared into the swirling waters. There was little he could do but weep.
Then, suddenly, the sage heard a voice behind him that made the blood stop in his veins. "Narada," the voice asked, "where is the water you went to fetch?" The sage turned and saw God standing at his side. The river had vanished, and once again he and God were alone in the empty desert. "Where is my water?" God asked again. "I have been waiting for you to bring it now for several minutes."
The sage threw himself at God’s feet and begged for forgiveness. "I forgot!" Narada cried again and again. “I forgot what you asked of me, God! Forgive me!”
God smiled and said, "Do you now understand the power of Maya, Narada?”
Such is the power of Maya, even great sages become slaves to her. Under her power, we forget things again and again and live the life we have lived a thousand times over.
Maya is both a blessing and a curse. But for her blessing which makes us forget our past, we will not be able to go through the same things a thousand times. But Maya is a curse because but for her power to delude us, perhaps we would have become conscious that we are living the life of the bullock yoked to the oil mill – kolhoo ka bail.
Prati prasava helps us see with our own eyes the lives we have lived in the past and its repetitive patterns.
Great masters use unusual techniques to teach the world. Naranath Bhranthan was one such great master who lived in Kerala a long while ago. What Sisyphus was cursed to do, Naranath chose to do as a teaching device. The great master lived in a burial ground and every morning he went to the nearby hill and began rolling up a stone to the top. As soon as the stone reached the hilltop, he would let it go and standing on top, clap his hands and laugh. Most people thought him mad – hence the name Bhranthan, meaning Mad. But to those who had eyes to see, there was a great lesson in his actions. What we do in each lifetime is the mad thing he was doing every day. And what we do life after life too is nothing but repeating that madness.
But we are so busy rolling up boulders uphill, we have no time to stop and think about what we are doing. And since we have no time to stop and think, it goes on forever and ever.