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Jnana Yogi with Bhakti

Arthur Koestler

We entered a small and dilapidated house next to a temple. Facing us there was a dark, narrow corridor, blocked by an ancient palanquin painted white, with long hard wood poles sticking out front and back. A small room, rather like a police cell, opened from the corridor, and there we squatted down on a mat in the company of several others. After a few minutes of whispered conversation, a young man approached the palanquin, bent over it and murmured some words. A brown rug inside the palanquin, covering what looked like a shapeless bundle, began slowly to heave and stir, and finally His Holiness scrambled out of it, wrapping the blanket round his head and bare torso in the process of emerging. Tall and lean, but not emaciated, he looked dazed as he squeezed past the palanquin in the corridor and entered the little cell. He sat down cross-legged, facing me on that mat, while the others moved out into the corridor, leaning in through the open door to hear better.

His Holiness remained silent for about half a minute, and I had time to study his remarkable face. Its feature had been reduced to bare essentials, by hard spiritual discipline. It was dominated by the high smooth, domed forehead under the short cropped, white hair. The brown eyes were set so deep that they seemed to be peering out from inside the skull, with soft dark shadows, underneath. His firm, curved lips, framed by a trimmed white beard, were surpassingly mobile and expressive as they carefully formed each word. He was emerging from sleep or trance, his eyes only focussing on those present. I was told that he managed an average of three hours sleep a day, in short fits between duties and observances, always huddled in the palanquin, and that the devotees were often unable to tell whether he was asleep or in samadhi. He asked me gently why I had come to India :

"Is it merely to observe the country and the people, or is it to guide them in some healthy manner?"

This was an allusion to certain press comments, concerned with earlier book. I answered that I had come to see and learn, and with no other purpose.

H.H. : " One's passive interest, too, exerts and influence. Even without any specific activity, the angle from which you approach a problem or country produced shakti-an active force."

I said that I was sorry this should be so, but nobody could avoid throwing a shadow.

The Sankaracharya answered : "But one's sincere sympathy throws its own radiance"; and as he had said that, a smile transformed his face into that of a child. I had never seen a comparable smile or expression; it had an extraordinary charm and sweetness. Later, on my way back, I wondered why in Western paintings of saints entranced, blessed or martyred. I had never encountered anything like that enchanted smile. Since all mystics agree that their experience also eludes representation by chisel and brush. However much I admired a Last Supper or a scene from Calvary, I have never felt that Jesus of Nazareth really looked like that. On the other hand, certain sculptures of the Gupta period and of the early Indian Baroque do convey an idea of that peculiar smile.

My first question was whether His Holiness though that it was necessary to adapt the doctrines and observances of Hinduism to the changing social structure of India.

The Sankaracharya's answer, according to the stenographic transcript (which I have slightly compressed) was as follows:

"The present is not the only time when there was been a social revolution. Changes have been taking place even in the remote past, when revolutions were not so violent as they are now. But there are certain fundamentals which have been kept intact. We compare the impact of a social change to a storm. It is necessary to stand firm by the fundamental values and standards. When Alexander came to India, Greek observers wrote that there were no thefts in this country. They cannot say that this standard has been kept up in subsequent times. But we cannot say either that because the situation with regard to morality has changed, teachers should adapt themselves to present day. Adaptation have no place in the standards of spiritual discipline."

Question: "Is there not a difference between spiritual values and religious observances? Assuming a person is working n a factory or officer, he has to be at his working place at 9 a.m. To perform this religious observance he must start at five in the morning. Would it not be possible to shorted the prescribed ritual?"

H.H. : "If a man cannot perform his prayers, rites and observances in the prescribed way, he must feel egret and penitence. He can do penance and still perform his duties in the proper way on holidays or at other times of the day when he is less busy. Once concessions are may in the way of shortening observances, there is no limit, and this will lead to their gradual dwindling and extinction."

Question: "If the full discharge of the rites is, in modern society, beyond the average person's capacity, may it not be harmful to make him feel constantly guilty and aware of his failing?"

H.H.: "If a person feels sincere repentance, that sincerity has its own value."

In view of his unyielding attitude, I changed the subject..... I turned to a subject on which he was an unquestioned authority.

Question : "I had several talks with Hindu psychiatrists in Bombay. They all agreed that spiritual exercises greatly help to effect medical cures. What bothered them was the absence of criteria to distinguish between insights gained by mystic trance on the one hand, and hallucinations on the other."

His answer was short and precise: "The state of hallucination is a temporary one. A person should learn to control his mind. What comes after such mental discipline is mystic experience. What appear in the uncontrolled state of mind are hallucinations. These are caused by the wishes and fears of the ego. the mystic's mind is a blank, his experience is shapeless and without object."

Question: "Can a mystic experience by artificially induced by means of drugs?"

H.H. You ask this because you think of the experiments of Aldous Huxley.

"Bhang is used among the people in some parts of India to induce certain states of mind. It is not a habit in the South. Such an artificially induced stated does not last long. The real mystic is more permanent."

Question: "How is an outside observer to distinguish between the genuine and the no-so-genuine?"

H.H. : "Of course, sometimes people mistake a Pseudo -Yogi for a real one. But the behavior of the man who has disciplined his mind, who is a true Yogi, will be different. When you look at him you will see that his face is serene and at peace. That will discover and differentiate him."

He spoke without a trace of self-consciousness; it evidently did not occur to him that description applied to himself.

I felt that my time was up, though the Sankaracharya denied with great gentleness that he was tired. In India, it is the visitor who is supposed to bring the audience to an end, which sometimes leads to embarrassing situations. I embarked on an anecdote about the Jesuit priest who was asked how he would reconcile God's all-embracing love with the idea of eternal Hell, and who answered : `yes, Hell does not exist, but it is always empty.'

I suppose my motive in telling the story was to make him smile again. He did, then said, still smiling : `We have no eternal Hell in Hinduism. Even a little practice of dharma will go a long way in accumulating merit. `He quoted a line form the Gita in Sanskrit.

This was the end of the conversation. I found at last the courage to get up first, and the Sankaracharya, after a very gentle and unceremonious salute, quickly took the few steps to the palanquin and vanished into its interior. The room was suddenly dingy and empty and I had a reeling of a personal loss.

Such were the views of an orthodox religious leader in contemporary India. The remarkable thing about them is that they bore no relation to contemporaneity Equally striking was the contrast between his gentle saintly personality, lovable and loving, peaceful and peace giving, immersed in contemplation `without shape of object' - and the rigidity of its views in Hindu doctrine and religious observances. If one tried to project him on to the European scene, one would have to go back several centuries to find a Christian mystic of equal depth and stature; yet in his views on religious practice he compared with the rigid ecclesiastics of the nineteenth century.

Indians call the Sankaracharya a Jnana Yogi with a strong inclination toward Bhakti union through devotional worship.