become of one faith is what everyone speaks of;
the proselytizers do not recognize;
men, freed of objections to another’s faith,
this secret in full.
In principle all are aimed at arriving at the same faith.
Disputants do not realize this. Wise people who are free of sectarian
exclusiveness know this secret in full.
All men do even plead for a single faith to prevail
Which no disputant owns to himself withal;
Those wise ones free from other-faith-dispute
Alone can know here wholly, the secret here implied,
47 is one of a dozen or so commentaries in Atmo that to my mind are utterly
transformative: open, welcoming invitations to change ourselves right now and enjoy
a vastly improved
life from the first minute we take the resolve. And it’s mainly a chatty
lecture, a wry man telling profound stories with whimsical detachment. What a
joy to spend an evening with it!
class did an admirable job of teasing out the implications of the two main
threads, or really the main thread and a prime implication of it. Nitya
impeccably presents a very practical way to convert ourselves from polar
adversaries into friends, thus opening up worlds of possibilities for
communication and evolution. Thinking about it, we pondered why it was so
difficult for humans to let go of our fixed position: our default setting seems
to be to take a stand in opposition. Why? And more, why do we do it even after
years of wise gurus demonstrating how all such posturing is grounded in
ignorance? What is our compulsion? This is really worth pondering over.
anecdote of how Gandhi showed him the limitations of a polarized position and
invited him to try out another angle of vision sums up all the theory we have
been struggling with for the last dozen or so verses. Because of its value,
I’ll reprint the same story as it appears in Love and Blessings in Part III below. Both versions are great
such a simple change of attitude really make a meaningful difference? Nataraja
Guru, in his most excellent comments, sums up its importance: “In
terms of inner life in
this kind of coupling of inner with outer (or negative with positive) value-factors, we
have implicit the basis of self-realization itself.” Is it possible that simply
reorienting our attitude lays the groundwork for self-realization? Hard to
believe. And yet, he may be right! Is it possible? In referring to his
interchange with Gandhi, Nitya says this:
This simple incident was a great
turning point in my life. It completely silenced me. Thereafter, when I talked
with another person it always occurred to me that there could be one more way
of looking at truth. I learned to step down from my pedestal and walk over to
the other person’s, to sympathetically get into his way of seeing. To me, this
was the beginning of a great discovery of what a wonderful world we live in and
how rich our human heritage is.
Anyone who can do this will find themselves overcoming
obstacles, converting enemies into friends and teachers, and being much more
effective in their interactions with everyone. It is indeed highly enriching.
So once again, what is holding us back?
major impediment is that we base our idea of our self on what other people
think. We have forgotten our true nature, so in a sense we are afraid it
doesn’t exist, that we don’t exist. We see nothing inside that can be
identified as us. So we contrive to build a “Frankenstein’s monster” to
represent who we wish we were, conjured out of this or that spare part cobbled
together. Because the whole edifice is on very shaky ground, we have to defend
it ferociously. We are afraid if our position is denied, we will cease to
exist, so like a cornered animal we will spit and claw to uphold the pretence.
But it’s only our posture, our false beliefs that put us in such a dire
Alpert, better known as Ram Das, tells a great story about learning to let go
of his personality constructs, and I read out the version that appears in The Harvard
Psychedelic Club, by Don
Lattin (New York: Harper One, 2010). This is Alpert’s first trip, and it
describes how we can pare down our personality constructs to grant ourselves
freedom, aided by soma or not:
Alpert really started coming on
to the psilocybin. There was too much talking in the kitchen, so he walked into
the living room, a darker and more peaceful setting. He sat down on the sofa
and tried to collect himself. Looking up, he saw some people over in the
corner. Who are they? Were they real?
Then he started to see them as images of himself in his various roles. They
were hallucinations, but they seemed so real. There was the professor with a
cap and gown. There was a pilot in a pilot’s hat. There was the lover. At
first, he was a bit amused by the vision. Those
are just my roles. That role can go. That role can go. I’ve had it with that
role. Then he saw himself as his father’s son. The feeling changed. Wait a
minute. This drug is giving me
amnesia! I’ll wake up and I won’t know who I am! That was terrifying, but
Alpert reminded himself that those roles weren’t really important. Stop worrying.
It’s fine. At least I have a
body. Then Alpert looked down on the couch at his body. There’s no body! Where’s
my body? There’s
no-body. There’s nobody. That was terrifying. He started to call out for
Tim [Leary]. Wait a minute. How can I
call out to Tim? Who was going to call for Tim? The minder of the store, me
would be calling for Tim. But who is me? It was terrifying at first, but
all of a sudden Alpert started watching the whole show with a kind of calm
that moment Richard Alpert met his own soul, his true soul. He jumped off the
couch, ran out the door, and rolled down a snow-covered hill behind Leary’s
house. It was bliss. Pure bliss. (54-5)
You can hear an early recording of Ram Das telling the story
very nicely, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQ77tlV72Bk
. He was a terrific public speaker in those heady days of the 1960s. He faced
the exact same question we are mulling over today: do you dare to let go of
your own constructs? It seems terrifying, but if you can pull it off it the
terror melts away, leaving you in bliss.
advice was in conversation to ask yourself how am I listening? Or, even, am I
listening? We so often do what young Nitya did with Gandhi: listen to ourself
and plan our counterattack, paying little heed to what the other person is
actually saying. Opening up in calmness changes the whole dynamic.
reiterated how our entire educational system is geared to having us come up
with the one right answer to test questions. There is some value to this in
terms of physical science and math, but when it comes to emotional and
spiritual issues it is devastating. We need to take care not to mix up our
contexts. Spiritual oneness is inclusive, not exclusive, as the one right answer would
be. As Deb
put it, we feel that if our opinion is wrong then we are wrong. Paul added “When
I put my identity in the small self then I have a responsibility to defend
myself. My need is to defend a false self.”
also have to surrender our fear of disintegrating if we confront an unsavory
opinion, otherwise we will never be able to listen properly. Jan talked about
how she has a dialogue with herself. She starts out feeling (as we all do) that
she wants her position to be right. But then she says to herself that the other
person’s position might have something to commend it, so she can allow a little
bit. When she concedes a small measure to the other person, she grows that much
bigger herself, and she loses nothing.
It helps her to relax and enjoy the exchange.
brought up a subject where progressives and fundamentalists regularly come into
conflict, over the issue of abortion. She wanted to hold to her assurance that
she was right and those who protested were wrong. The thing is, that may be
true. It’s certainly true when crimes are involved. Listening to the other
person and tolerating their opinion doesn’t mean you endorse their position,
however. That’s a red herring. What happens is that in such situations we
usually supply our position and the
other person’s position. Why couldn’t we try to find out what they think their
position is? As Nitya asserts, then we will discover worlds of value that we
hadn’t imagined before. Yes, there are some people who are dangerous or so
obnoxious it is reasonable to avoid them, but there are plenty of good souls
with different ideas than ours, and if we let them in to our life we will find
we have more room in our own being. Once we actually know where the other
person stands, we can act intelligently toward them. Until then, we are acting
only according to our predetermined ideas, otherwise known as our prejudices.
requires a fine balance, as Nancy talked about. If we set out to influence the
other person, the effort rebounds and their defenses will be reinforced. We may
very much want to influence them, but to do so we have to rein ourself in. Only
then does mutual enrichment become possible. It’s one of those devilish
paradoxes. Nancy added cogently that the unhelpful cycle is the result of
layers of mistakes, of forcing when we should let go.
figured it's always our wanting that
is the problem. Wanting it my way: desire. We are born wanting. When we mature
we realize that wanting is selfish and causes trouble. It produces obstacles.
He wins the prize for the best sentence of the night: “When you remove the
obstacles, reality rushes in.”
few times in my life I have been able to stop my immediate reaction to people
who elicit a negative gut response from me. I tell myself I’m not going to
consider them my arch enemy from birth, but treat them as just another human
being. I decide I'm not going to presume this person is part of the dark forces
out to get me. When I have been able to do it, the person usually responds in
kind—they seem pleased to be taken for who they think they are rather than
demonized, and they usually turn out to be all right. It can be very exciting.
When I haven’t been able to do it, weird feelings course through my system and
I make a big mess out of what might have been a pleasant or at least trivial
moment, as in Paul’s famous jailhouse experiment. I know I will almost always
have a reactive impulse first, but now I’m confident I have an opportunity to
upgrade it, if I can catch myself in time. Often it’s the best contribution I
can make. The Gandhis and Nityas of the world may never be ruffled by conflict,
and good on them. But the rest of us can accept our weaknesses and compensate
for them with the excellent advice we have been blessed to receive, because it
really does work.
This Nor That But . . . Aum:
what I say.” “This is the whole truth.” “What is your opinion?” We often hear
such remarks in the course of conversations. Conversations, letters, books,
magazine articles and public speeches are all intended to bring about unity of
During the Conference of World Religions convened by
Narayana Guru, he gave the delegates the following watchword: “We are here to
know and to let know, not to argue and win.” A person wanting to know envisages
the value of another man's vision. His preparedness to listen paves the way for
acceptance, and consequently unity arises. When a person wants to share his
knowledge or spiritual experience he already desires the well-being of another.
The essence of all religions is equally precious to those who have no hang-ups
such as “my religion” and “your religion.”
Until recently, if a Hindu went to a restaurant in North
India the waiter would ask the cook to supply a “beautiful tea,” but if a
Muslim should go to the same restaurant, the same waiter would ask the same
cook to supply a “plain tea.” In both instances the cook would produce the same
tea, but in a cup and saucer of floral design for the Hindu and in a plain cup
and saucer for the Muslim. This was to assure the Hindu that he was not using
the same utensils as the Muslim and vice versa. This is only one of the mildest
idiosyncrasies born of separatism. The most grotesque and catastrophic versions
are the eruptions of war between India and Pakistan, Israel and Arab countries,
and the constant clash between the Catholics and the Protestants in Northern
Ireland, to mention only a few well-known examples.
Russell puts his finger right on the crux of the whole issue when he says that
all differences are born of the semantic ambiguity which does not make clear a
word meaning. A recent catastrophe, which erupted from such a semantic issue,
happened because of the lack of clarity in defining democracy and communism.
The Marxists called themselves social democrats until Lenin decided to call his
creed communism. To decide the operational meaning of these two words, the
United States of America sent at least half a million young men to the marshy
fields of Vietnam to kill or get killed. Ultimately the whole of Vietnam came
under the label of communism and the semantic issue continues unresolved.
or ideology becomes more than a curse to people when politicians offer
themselves to be the efficient interpreters of high ideals.
Christian proselytizer thinks that if all people are brought under the banner
of one church this would be equivalent to establishing the Kingdom of God on
earth. No one could question his sincerity or the unity he aims at.
Unfortunately the Muslim, also aiming at unity, thinks that the final
revelation came much after Christ and that the prophet Muhammad was the last
person appointed by God to bring about human fraternity. These enthusiastic
bigots forget the fact that there is a distinction between the universal and
the particular. The universality is the essence, and the particular mood is
substantiated by its existential uniqueness. One who knows the organic
correlation between the universal and the particular will never attempt to make
regimentations to cut everyone down to the same size for the sake of uniformity
as Procrustes did.
verses 41, 42 and 45, the Guru calls our attention to meditate on the true
significance of the unifying and indiscernible aspect of the Absolute implied
in the word “this.” Here he repeats that only those who visualize the
all-embracing unity of “this” know the exact rotation between the universal
sameness and the individual uniqueness of each formation. Those seers alone
escape the confounding confusion caused by the enigmatic juxtaposition of the
universal and the particular, which comes again and again in the context of our
life situation. Mankind is already one, and its search for happiness points to
the same value. There is no other uniformity to be effected than what already
exists. All we need is a constant remembrance of our natural unity in the
universality of Being.
IN the three verses that follow we have a section which
happens to occupy the core or almost the central place in the
whole composition, and which pertains to an all-important topic. When we
remember the number of times in human history that the earth has been drenched
with human blood caused by feuds, whether arising out of fanaticism,
patriotism, or through love of ideologies or idolatrous infatuations by which
men are willing to give up or to take others’ lives, the importance of the
teaching contained in this central section will become evident to anyone.
There is thus a subtle element of tragedy, as between the
values that enter into interplay in human affairs. Favourite objects or even
ideological preferences become linked up with the Self in the form of bipolar
Self or the non-Self might prevail or loom large in
consciousness at a given
moment in such two-sided affinities, tending to give one or the other an
absolute or relative status.
In terms of inner life in this kind of coupling of inner with
outer (or negative with positive) value-factors, we have
implicit the basis of self-realization itself. Verses 47, 48 and 49 have to be
carefully scrutinized with these theoretical considerations in mind if the full
lesson from this section is to be derived.
The subtle secret here is the paradoxical position delicately
stated in the first two lines. The situation is comparable to a man in a
meeting with many others who shouts for silence without remembering that his
own shouting adds to the noise rather than taking away from the evil meant to
be eliminated. The very zeal of the faithful who might want unity in world
faith could, by a strange travesty of circumstance, be the major hindrance to
When the Christians took up arms against the Saracens, both
were right and both were wrong, which is the same as saying that neither were
right nor wholly wrong without any justification. To get round this double-edged
situation a new yet
time-honoured kind of unitive approach in reasoning is
required, which is the
secret of the wise man here referred to.
In respect of the desire to see fellowship or unity of
faiths, both the parties involved in this delicately balanced
dialectical situation may be
said to be sailing in the same boat. The tragedy of the situation has to be
located in the fact that, while a zealous follower of a certain faith is highly
conscious of the importance of his own mission, his tendency to find fault with
the honest faith of another acts itself, at the same time, as a subtle veil.
The full recognition of the fact that the other man is just like himself in his
own zeal for the particular religion that he prefers to call his own is absent.
There is easy vertical adoption and difficult horizontal recognition of the
values involved in ‘rival’ faiths which could be reconciled only when looked at
What is more, there is a disproportionate degree of
absolutism that might mentally be attributed to one of the
values involved as between
what refers to the Self and the non-Self. Egotism might colour one’s judgement and put
accent on the
one or the other of the personal or impersonal values involved in this doubly complicated mix-up.
There is inter-physical
or trans-personal complexity of possible relational attitudes. Orthodoxy and heterodoxy can mix
explosive or poisonous compounds. To visualize all
such dangers in clear terms
requires a subtle dialectical insight which it is the prerogative only of rare
human beings to possess. This is the reason why the Guru in the second half of
the above verse refers to the wise man, so rare on earth, who can see through
the intricate tangle that such a socio-religious problem can present. In fact
this one point of non-recognition by a wise man of the difference between the mechanistic
view in this matter and the dialectical view of the same, explains the reason
for all the disasters and failures in the attempts that well-intentioned
persons have made to avoid religious conflicts in the course of what
constitutes the history of humanity till now.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the Guru takes care in
the above verse to underline that no piecemeal approach to this secret will do.
The solution does not depend on place, culture or time. It is one secret known
that will solve paradox and reconcile conflict anywhere and at any time.
going on the road for two weeks or so, which means any additional feedback will
come at the end of February. I want to get this off before I go.
how Nitya retold his crucial moment with Gandhi in Love and Blessings:
Every time I looked at Gandhi he
raised two fingers as if he was admonishing me and stopping me from speaking my
mind. Once, though, when I was able to look straight into his eyes, I thought
he might be willing to listen to me. I burst out, “Babuji, your Ramarajya will
never save India. Only class war will bring India true liberation. There are
two classes: people who have and people who have not. Those who have are the
exploiters, and those who have not are the exploited. The interests of these
two classes are diametrically opposed. A class war is inevitable between them.
You should support the rights of the exploited.”
On hearing this, the Mahatma looked
at me with compassion and said, “Do you think I have had no occasion in my life
to read Karl Marx and to consider his theory of liberation?” I was most
surprised that he was speaking in English. I lowered my voice and said, “You
might have read it, but have you given any consideration to it?” He went on,
“If Marx is right, am I wrong?” I immediately replied, “Yes, of course.”
After a pause he looked into my
face like a doctor looking at a patient suffering from an incurable disease and
said, “You have certainly moved out of your own shoes to stand in Marx’s to
look at truth from his angle of vision. Can you not be generous with me also?
Will you take the trouble to understand my viewpoint? How many facets does
truth have?” Brashly I said “One.” Gandhi said, “No, truth is like a diamond.
It is many-faceted.”
This was the first time I had
thought of such a possibility. Doubts leapt into my mind. I murmured to myself,
“Truth has many facets! Then which is the right vision of truth?” Seeing my
confusion the Mahatma explained how a rational view is always relative and only
a partial consideration. The more he spoke, the more eloquent he became.
“You seem to be sincere in
convictions. Are you sincere?” I didn’t like my sincerity being questioned. “Of
course.” “Do you think I am also sincere and speaking with conviction?” I felt
embarrassed. “I think so,” I replied.
On hearing this Gandhi smiled and
said, “Look here. We hold two contradictory views. But both of us are sincere,
and we have conviction in what we say. You think only one of us can be correct,
but I think truth has many facets. You are seeing truth from your own point of
view, or rather that of a Marxist. I see it from the angle of an Indian who is
steeped in his country’s traditions and treasured values. I can appreciate your
view. Can’t you shift your stand and appreciate mine?”
While the Mahatma was arguing he
did not raise his voice or show any impatience. The spell of his magnetic
personality, logical persuasiveness, and appeal to my instinctive emotional
loyalty to my grassroots, silenced my tongue. What he said was not anything
particularly profound, but it served to turn me away from the exclusiveness of
my doctrinaire fanaticism. My previous convictions were shattered. I was unable
to even open my mouth. Suddenly I felt I should just give myself to him. Putting
penitence and humility in my words, I implored him, “Babuji, will you allow me
to serve you by joining your Harijan Seva Dal?” He smiled and said, “Yes, of
course, from this very moment.”
Suddenly the commotion in my mind
transformed into peaceful silence. It was as if I had crossed over to another
shore. I immediately went to the office and registered as a volunteer.
By evening when I attended Gandhi’s
prayer meeting I had acquired a copy of the Gita and followed along as he
recited the lines. Over the next few days I went deep into silence, giving up
all argumentation. I started really listening to people, without constantly
creating counter-thoughts and counter-arguments in my mind. In this way I
finally learned to be a worthy student, a student of anyone who cared to speak
words of wisdom to me.
This simple incident marked a
milestone in my search, and served me as a point of departure from subscribing
to totalitarian views. Even today I may not agree with another man’s arbitrary
beliefs, but I am willing to listen and respect his stand, provided he doesn’t
insist on imposing them on me. (88-9)
comments are somewhat exaggerated, probably needing revision, but he plans to
do that at some point:
the opening sentence of his commentary on this verse, Nitya identifies the word
secret as the key to the verse’s
message. The wise recognize the
oneness of religion while the ignorant do not and as a consequence go about
enforcing their partial beliefs as if they were a totality, thereby becoming
more rigid and doctrinaire in the process. Eric Hoffer’s True
Believer, Jacques Ellul’s Mass Man, and Hannah Arendt’s purveyor’s of the
“Banality of Evil” all examine
this mob mentality that has played such an influential role in modern history
and has become more and more attractive as the social remedy for the human
a way of illustrating this very development, Nitya presents his personal
history as an object lesson. He
writes that in his mid-teens he made a project of gaining admittance to Mahatma
Gandhi’s inner circle because of his work at the time in removing the British
from India, at least as the ruling power.
Gandhi’s use of non-violent resistance in the face of overwhelming military
power is now legendary, but it was that technique itself that the young Nitya
saw as the Mahatma’s major error.
Nitya was bent on “correcting” Gandhi’s thinking so that it would be in
line with Nitya’s juvenile and total commitment to Marxism. Only through
violent revolution made
necessary because of the eternal class conflict between the haves and the
have-nots could the Workers Paradise be realized and the shackles of capitalism
be broken, he reasoned. Nitya
waited for the right opportunity when he and Gandhi were alone together to
begin his lesson (an event that the mature Nitya subsequently remembered with
more than a little embarrassment).
Gandhi quietly listened until Nitya had made all his remarks and then
asked, “Are you sincere?”, a question Nitya answered with an incredulous shout.
With the follow-up question, “You are
speaking with conviction?” Nitya began to put the pieces together—in order to
hold a position, he makes clear, one must have conviction. Sincerity ought to
follow. The fact that Gandhi did not hold the
same position as the young Nitya but that both held convictions denoted that
the two contradictory views existed simultaneously because of the conviction
and both sincerely held their views.
Both were partially correct.
Only by occupying the other’s position, Gandhi points out, could one
come to understand that alternative point of view, and it is only in that
openness that legitimate understanding can take place. Gandhi noted that he had
done just that
with Nitya and that he (Gandhi) was already familiar with Marxism (after having
spent many years in London). Up to
that point, however, (as he notes) Nitya had not listened to Gandhi at all and
had been determined to proselytize his faith, which he at that moment let go of. “The
truth,” continued Gandhi, “is many
faceted. You can look at it from a
number of points of view, and from each angle you get a different perspective.
. . .What I see you have no patience to consider” (p. 318).
later notes that when Narayana Guru “arranged for the Parliament of Religions,”
he saw its major purpose as being universal understanding, or as he phrased his
intent, “It is not to argue and win, but to know and let know” (p. 320).
In this construction the Guru had
summed up the meaning of Nitya’s early encounter with Mahatma Gandhi.
abstract moral value systems encounter conditions in the world of necessity, it
is, more often than not, the value systems that are compromised, especially in
American culture. This literary
theme, a staple in film and print, could easily constitute a genre of its own
as writers and visual arts manipulators go about re-working the human anguish
of characters as they make Sophie’s choice or have their professional male
lead-characters find a way to have their mistresses killed, hide the fact, and
then go on living an upper-middle class American life embedded in the Jewish
tradition (that Woody Allan was, for example, so adept at characterizing in his
film Crimes and Misdemeanors).
It seems to be a
western tradition, or at least an American one, to leave these fictionalized
compromises in air as they stand in contrast to the infinite question of life’s
meaning, but Nitya directly faces the conundrum in his commentary. When he encounters
Mahatma Gandhi, he
(Gandhi) is leading a broad social movement based on a universal moral theory
of inclusion rather than confrontation.
Non-violent resistance is
resistance, however passive it may be. The British military had demonstrated its character again
and again, so attempting to include them in an open-ended dialectic was not
possible because they had no intention of participating. Thoroughly embedded
in a “win” ethic,
the un-self aware British occupiers had to be resisted but doing so on their
terms would solve nothing—the character
of the British was the key element identifying them. These true believers mistook the non-self for the Self, and
their behavior clearly illustrated their ignorance.
It is this common
universal condition spoken of by the Guru in the present verse that constitutes
the backdrop for our moral compass in this world. The mystery of ethical ambiguity tirelessly re-worked in
American entertainment and literature is, according to the guru, no mystery at
all. The conditions giving rise to
it are contained in that original identity confusion. Our inability to identify and name this duality as we
encounter its inevitable development in proselytizers demanding that we honor
the rules of their game sanctions their use and narrows our responses to those
in kind if we don’t pay attention.
As Gandhi demonstrated, once such a point has been reached in our social
setting, resistance is required, but participating in the ignorance is not.