Ritual

The Vedas and the Sense of Wonder

The Vedas are an extraordinarily old and beautiful piece of literature that articulates the values and the hopes and fears of people who lived a life very different from ours. Although the archeological sites along the Indus Valley of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro demonstrate to us that at least as early as 6000 years ago, cities of over 25,000 people were organized in South Asia, the people of the Vedas did not know anything about the level of urbanization we experience today as a matter of course.

View of the YamunaThe people of Vedic times lived basically from the earth, from the land, and saw the sun rise in the morning and set in the evening. Without any kind of scientific instrumentation, they observed very carefully the phases of the moon through the centuries, and they observed the movement of the constellations in the sky. They observed very carefully the impact of these movements on their individual lives and on their environment. They developed predictive systems that served them so well that this Vedic culture is the only traditional culture that you can still see traces of walking through the streets of Mumbai or Delhi or Chennai. It had richness and depth and strength that gave it great longevity.

The relationship of these people to the earth and their awareness of their environment was extraordinary enough that they understood that the light of the stars and the light of the planets and, most importantly, the light of the sun and the moon had a tremendous impact on their environment. They understood that the whole cosmos was available to them to observe as one totally integrated dynamic system.

They marveled at the power of nature and the variety of ways in which this power manifested. To the degree that they appreciated it, they personified it and paid their respects to it.

So, for the people who lived in the time of the Vedas, their first duty as an authentic human being living an authentic life was to live in alignment with the earth and the powers of all the various energy sources that demonstrated themselves in their environment as Life. While it is not explicitly articulated in the Vedas, there is the intuition that the light in the sky and the light on the earth and the light of fire and lightning was all one. That energy was one and the source of all life, and intrinsic to life was a quality of illumination that made everything visible.

Lots of Western scholars have found the Vedas to be pantheistic--to be filled with the worship of lots of different gods. But that is not my reading of it at all. My reading of them is that the Vedas articulated a sense of wonder about the natural world, a sense of wonder about all naturally occurring phenomenon that left these people in awe and at the end of the day caused them to feel it was essential that they live in alignment with those forces and to acknowledge and express their gratitude for the abundance that those forces made possible in their lives. Their technology for living in alignment, for becoming aligned and staying aligned, for putting themselves in touch with the health and well-being and abundance that was the natural manifestation of the balance of the natural world, was ritual sacrifice --Vedic ritual.

The Vedas are about the forces that give rise to the elements that compose life and the technology by which human beings will live in alignment with that vibrancy, thereby coming into contentment. The Vedas also appreciated that human beings and in fact all forms of life, all living beings emerge out of the natural vibrancy of life itself. As the natural vibrancy arises and meets all of the forces of the natural world, there is a condensation of energies that come together as five sheaths. Those five sheaths come together as living being and also as human beings. It is the coalescing of these five sheaths into a human life set in motion in the world that become integrated through Vedic ritual and aligned with the natural forces of the world. This alignment allows the person to experience the fullness and abundance that is intrinsic to life itself.

What Do We Have to Renounce?

In yoga, and in the traditions that embrace yoga as their methodology for self-recognition and self-fulfillment, the discussion of renunciation plays a significant role.  Most of the lifestyles taught by the traditions that embrace yoga are very ascetic lifestyles.  Sannyas is conceived of as, in a way, the pinnacle of this asceticism, the ultimate renunciation.

So I want to give you my short take on renunciation.  What is it that we actually have to renounce?

I like to tell a story about going to India and going to the Ganges with my Brahmin friend. He always does a ritual there for his ancestors. In the ritual, we wade up to our belly buttons in the river. Then we do a little chant and take water in our hands and offer it to the river. That’s such a simple sweet thing for me to do because we are offering water to the river. Yet it’s silly.  First of all, offer water to a river? Second of all, it’s not our water.  It’s the river’s water.  It was never our water.  It was always the river’s water.  What that tells us is that basically, if you think about it, what do we really have to offer?

river_offering

If the water in my hands belongs to the river, the water in my body does, too. Whatever minerals there are that compose this tissue belong to the earth.  It’s not mine.  When I am out of here it’s going to become earth again.

This isn’t my body.  It is a body. Even this mind is not my mind. Most of the thoughts that go on in my head are not mine.  (This may not be easy for you to grok, but trust me on it. ) Whatever stuff I have, when I go, it’s eventually going to become water and dirt. It’s nothing.

So what is it that we have to renounce? Well, actually, we do have something: our ego and the tensions that comprise it.

Our ego is just a bundle of tensions all glommed together that we call us. These tensions completely limit our understanding and the richness and the range of our self-expression. If there is one thing that is very important to renounce, in order to discover the largeness, the vastness, the sweetness, the richness of the life that is alive inside us, the only thing we have to renounce are our tensions. Of course, this is easier said than done.  It’s much easier to renounce vegetables and alcohol and meat. We can renounce all of these things, and that’s easy.  But renouncing our tensions isn’t so easy.

Renouncing tensions allows our creative energy to flow.  In the flow of that creative energy, qualities and capacity, talents and skills that are alive within us emerge. Ordinarily we never have the opportunity to be in contact with them. We are usually too busy wasting our energy, struggling with this tension and that tension, wrestling with our egos, to be in touch.   The richness that is available when we release those tensions is absolutely amazing. Renouncing tensions and allowing our creative energy to flow makes every miracle that is possible in the world happen. Every miracle that is possible in your life is awakened.

We are not here to deal with each others' faults.  We’re here to practice opening our hearts to everyone, even the people whom we think we don’t like and that we think don’t like us. We are here to take in every experience and every person, and dissolve the tensions and take the energy of that experience and learn from it.  What we can be learning is to release tension and allow ever-growing love in our life. It is that ever-growing love in our life that blesses us in every way that is possible.

The Experience of Bliss

There is a special kind of Vedic ritual called the soma sacrifice that was once very important and done on a regular basis. It was done during a time when all the practitioners in a particular community gathered together, all the priests who had memorized a particular Veda and a particular set of these works – the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, or the Upanishads, tens of thousands of lines. All these people would gather together and perform the soma sacrifice, in which they drank a liquor made from a hallucinogenic plant, and they got completely spun out. They even offered it into the fire, so that Indra would become equally blissful. Later on, the soma sacrifice fell into disuse. It fell into oblivion to the degree that, today, nobody even knows what plant was actually used to create soma. That’s unusual because there are still literally thousands of people who can recite the entire Rig Veda. The reason why the soma practice fell into disuse, in my opinion, is because it became obsolete. It became obsolete because people understood that the bliss that unites us with the ultimate reality is ever-present within us. The intoxicating substance was really taken to shift our neurochemistry just enough that our tensions could be suspended for a moment, and we could experience the movement of our own creative energy and the bliss that is inherent in our own inner power. Once that is understood, there is no substance necessary for any support because we can simply turn our attention within and, on our breath, awaken our energetic mechanism and experience this bliss.

In the context of that joy, what activity does your mind engage in? My own experience is that when my heart is really open, my mind is dead quiet. In that dead quiet, all the forms of all the phenomena that manifest in my sensory experiential field take on the appearance of rainbows. Cultivating our capacity to make contact with our own hearts, to open our hearts and feel within ourselves the joy of the flow of life itself within us, liberates us from the ordinary garbage of our ordinary day and brings us to a state within ourselves that is transcendent and sacred, and incredibly simple. Cultivating within ourselves the capacity to live in that state transforms our lives completely and is a total blessing to the lives of all the people we’re connected with.

Feel your breath, focus your mind, relax your body and discover the soma, the bliss that is the essence of you. Discovering that bliss, that richness, that joy, that sweetness, that love that is ever present within us – cultivating and living from that – liberates our life to express itself in its fullest, unlimited potential. That is the message of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Yoga Sutras and all of the Tantras. What I hope to express is that I wish that all for you, all of it.

The Purpose of the Havan

In the Vedic period, the havan (also called the homa, the yajna, and the agnihotra) was the practice by which people re-established their alignment with the natural order of the whole universe. In this practice, they aligned themselves internally. They then aligned themselves with all the forces that operated in their environment for the purpose of sustaining balance and harmony for the benefit of the whole: the individual, the family, and the community.

The fire ceremony had two aspects to it. One is regular and private to the family. I have friends in Kerala, in South India, in whose house the fire has not gone out for more than 1,000 years. That, to me, is just amazing.

The second function of the havan is public. As an example of that, the oldest continuous yajna that I know of happens now in South India, but not very regularly. The people in the village where it happens claim that the ceremony has been going on for 8,000 years without interruption. The altar has three fire pits and is constructed in the shape of a bird, using 10,008 bricks which are specially made for the occasion–one brick for each line in the Rig Veda. The whole community builds the altar, covers it with thatch, and they meet for eight days, dawn til dusk, and chant the mantras together. They offer ghee, grains, nuts, and fruit into the fire. There is a very specific aesthetic quality to the whole experience because there is the fire, the offerings, the chanting and the smoke. All of the senses become completely engaged, and the ordinary, discursive, wandering mind becomes disabled.

For each of the sensory domains, the resonance of the experience permeates us and is intended to elevate us to a different level of experience of our own lives. So this practice, the ritual offerings, the mantra, the whole aesthetic sensibility, is intended to lift the practitioner and those attending into an ecstatic state in which a vision of the higher context in which each of us functions as human beings is accessible to us. It is a vision that we do not ever encounter in our ordinary lives.

In other words, the whole point of yoga is to achieve a state that transcends thought and feeling and makes accessible to us the direct experience of where we come from and why we’re here. That experience is so intimate that it transcends even the most intimate of our personal experiences.

A secondary aspect of that experience, seeing the larger context, we become aware of the more sophisticated reality in which we operate. We begin to understand that we are not the only sentient beings that are present here, and further, although we imagine we might be, we are not at the top of the food chain. In having the ecstatic vision of our own ultimate reality, we also encounter the spiritual beings that have a profound influence on all of our lives.

The Power of Gratitude

All rituals and all mantras are a technology for connecting to the subtle elements of our existence and expressing gratitude from our life to life itself. Every day we have to find a way to muster our resources to the degree that we cut through all of the smoke and dust that manifests in our mind to make contact with gratitude. We have to make contact and sustain it long enough that our hearts can be filled, that our minds can be cleared and nourished, and that our bodies can be relaxed. From that place, we can go forward in our life feeling and expressing gratitude and uplifting all of the circumstances that we move in.

As you might guess, this isn’t easy. If you try it, you are automatically going to attract obstacles–not because you have issues or problems, but because you are attempting something very powerful and important. The patterns of energy in your life will organize to resist change, and that resistance will manifest as obstacles. What you think of as issues are also your spiritual gifts, and you can be grateful for those as well. If you are, you can transform them, and those things that previously held you down become a source of tremendous energy and power.

You have to understand that the profound transformation that will unleash an unimaginable possibility in your life isn’t free. You have to focus on it, nurture and nourish it, and persevere. It’s been many eons, many lifetimes, that you’ve been wandering around in confusion, and that confusion may take a while to dissolve. So persevere and come to a place where there is fullness in your heart, light in your head and magic happening all around you in your life.

Whatever else is going on for you, if you bring yourself to a state of gratitude every day, it won’t take long for the obstacles to be surmounted and the difficulties to be resolved. There will be increasing joy and beauty and more reasons to be grateful.

Pouring Water into Water, Part 1

About a year ago I was in Rishikesh, India with a friend of mine. He’s a Brahmin, and when we were on the banks of the Ganges, he had to wade out into the river to say a mantra and make an offering to his ancestors. In that offering, he took the water of the river into his hands and offered it, pouring it back into the river.

That offering is an analogy for our lives. Taking water from the river and pouring it back into the river, thinking that you are making an offering, is the kind of egotistical thing that human beings do. The water is the water of the river to begin with, and in the middle and the end. There’s no place it was ever going but the river.

The water in our bodies is the water of the river.  Each of the elements that compose the container for this water was created in a star farther away than our eyes can see, a few billion years before our sun came into being. The elements of our body are not ours, and billions of years after we’re gone these elements will remain.

The only thing that is really our own is our complete connectedness to the ultimate reality, the pure, fine, vibrant silence–the rich and joyous silence of the core of our being. Silence that is uncreated and unceasing. Silence that was there before the universe and will be there after the universe is gone. That silence is pure being, pure consciousness, the very essence of all phenomena and life itself. That’s our own. Everything else we are going to give back. It’s impossible that the water that our bodies contain won’t pour itself back into the ocean of life.