Wishing you and your family a Happy Diwali! May the divine light fill your life with radiance! May you be granted the four blessings of dharma, artha, kama, and moksha!
Wishing you and your family a Happy Diwali! May the divine light fill your life with radiance! May you be granted the four blessings of dharma, artha, kama, and moksha!
These days, I have found myself attracted to the Aparajita Stotram (full text here, online course here), which Shree Maa and Swamiji gave us as a sankalpa a couple of years ago. I am going to return to this stotram for the Western holiday season and for the beginning of 2018, starting with a 90 days repetition. I invite you to join me in this sankalpa for those of you who are reading.
You may have some reservations at first, and that is understandable. Perhaps you feel uncomfortable with your Sanskrit pronunciation. You may feel a bit embarrassed at first, and that is okay. Just remember that chanting is the prime way to get better at pronunciation and efficiency. After all, that’s how Swamiji learned, and he came to understand and translate every syllable of the Chandi and many other famous hymns! So don’t expect the pronunciation to be perfect the first time around: it will take many repetitions for the recitation to become smooth.
Now let me say something about the Aparajita Stotram. Just from my acquaintance so far, it has an aspect of valiantly overcoming all difficulties and a second aspect of receiving divine protection. You will note some of the names of the highest divinities, particularly related to Devi and Vishnu, but you will also note the names of other deities, celestial spirits, the various vahanas, etc. The hymn, for me, evokes the whole unseen cosmos, all of the divine beings, as the devotee brings them into the room, so to speak.
As for the practical import of the mantra for this time and place, we may have made some progress towards our goals in 2017. We may have made some wise investments, completed some good work, and done well by our families and our spiritual traditions. But can we truly say that we gave a complete effort? Did we seek entire victory or just a modicum of improvement? The Aparajita Stotram asks us to aim for the highest values, to raise our level of energy to a higher valence. It is the ritual enactment of victory.
As we enter the new year (at least according to the secular calendar), we want to not just survive, but to thrive! We want to not just half-heartedly do our sadhana, but to take it to a new level. We want to not just go through the motions in our work, but to creatively pursue avenues for success that we previously didn’t even know were there. We want to be more generous with our time and effort in all aspects of our lives.
Now, our egotistical selves will protest that there are, after all, only so many hours in the day. The ego will recall instances from the past in which we give it our all and failed. Remember that the ego is all about self-protection and self-aggrandizement. It fears failure above all. But the spirit of the Aparajita Stotram is to rise above all that: it reminds us that the divine retinue will be there, providing support and encouragement. It has that same energy as the Bhagavad Gita, which encourages us to give life our all and let the consequences fall where they may.
So this is a very compact devotion that sloughs away all excuses and brings our minds into the energy of complete attainment. We want to not just say the mantras but also live them, to become one with the energy of the devas in everything we do. The recitations make these mantras ring in our minds, and we also bring that vibration into every action, into every thought, word, and deed. Chandi Maa Ki Jai! Jai Maa! Jai Swamiji!
I have an image of Shirdi Sai Baba in my home that I painted myself (not pictured). It has been a comfort to me in times of need, whenever I have some small worry that bothers me. I also touch Baba’s feet as I am leaving the house in the morning. I will soon give this image to a mandir in my tradition so that other devotees can receive blessings. I may have mentioned before that I have visited Baba’s temple in Iselin, NJ, on two occasions, which is the closest one can get to actually visiting Shirdi without traveling to India.
Let me relate what happened on one of my trips to the mandir in Iselin. I was there for a conference in nearby New Brunswick. I took the train to the nearest station, stopping along the way to buy puja items, and then I walked to the temple. Commuters were gathering informally in the mandir to receive darshan on the way home from work (it was about 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. as I recall). Many of the couples had brought children with them, and I was happy to see the young ones gazing on the deity images and sitting in meditation. I was a stranger in this place, and no one paid much attention to me, except for the priest who blessed the puja items and offered them before the main murthi, which is said to be an exact replica of the one in Shirdi.
After making the offering, I prostrated three times, each time making one request of Baba. The first two were pretty mundane and even materialistic. First, I asked for safe travel, as I was far from home and low on funds. I was a bit stressed by spending time on the road and missing my family back in Georgia. Second, I asked for a new sari for my wife, as we were to attend a baby dedication in a short period of time. Third, I asked for something more spiritual in nature, that I would become a true guru (satguru or jagadguru), and that I would spread Baba’s message to the world.
I didn’t feel very much at the time other than perhaps a certain peacefulness, much like one often receives when visiting spiritual places where much faith is exhibited. I then made the rather long trek back to my hotel, which involved a good deal of walking and a train journey, followed by more walking. In total, I spent maybe twenty minutes in the mandir and probably an hour’s journey each way. It was snowy at the time: this must have been in March, and I had brought my only winter coat (which I rarely needed in Georgia). I went back to the hotel and returned to my normal routine, calling my family and then settling down for a bit of relaxation.
It was then that I felt something in my hair. I reached up and found three grains of rice in my hair, one for each time that I had prostrated in the temple! I recalled my three prayers, and I took the grains of rice as confirmation that Baba had heard me. I felt joyful right away, but I kept the whole thing quiet until now, about two years later. Of course, Baba promises that he will instantly hear the prayers of his devotees, and he is the most approachable of saints.
As for my three requests, I went through the rest of the trip without any problems. When I got to the sari shop, I didn’t have the money to buy one, as they were pretty expensive and nicely decorated (with sequins, etc.). I was able to make arrangements with the merchant that I would pay when I arrived home, and they would ship the sari to my house. This saved me the additional difficulty of having to carry the package on the plane.
So the first two requests were easily accomplished within a few days, but what about the third? I asked to become a great guru, which might be called prideful or egotistical. This is something that has been a great struggle for me for several years, in fact, my whole adult life. It’s a long story, but I was rejected from becoming a Christian minister, and this was a great disappointment and an emotional blow for me. Since my conversion to Hinduism, I have mostly been laboring anonymously, maintaining this site on my own and writing meditation books for a small readership. I have many times been tempted to just leave the spiritual life altogether.
I discussed this with my guru, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, via email. To put it briefly, I told him that I have a wife, a family, three kids, and a job. I have a need to make money and provide for them. Given these realities, I asked him, wouldn’t it make sense to just put this spiritual business on hold and wait until a more favorable time? Or should I persist in my stubborn attempts to become an illumined soul? Should I keep trying to be like Swamiji, Shirdi Sai, and Ramakrishna?
This is what Swamiji said to me, “Please, be that person!” He reiterated to me that “guru” means “remover of darkness.” A guru is someone who makes the burdens of other people lighter, who offers support and encouragement, and that is exactly what I have been trying to do. Swamiji actually pleaded with me to think of myself in that way. Since then, a couple more visions have given me slightly more confidence, although I suspect the guru shoes will always feel too big.
Once, when I was meditating, I saw a lotus seat carved out of wood. It was the sort of seat often used by Indian teachers. It was surrounded by a a fine rug and brocade cushions. A voice came to me that said, “The seat is empty. Take it.” I thought a good deal about leadership and how oftentimes the person who runs something is just the person who was willing to take the initiative.
On another occasion, I had been intensely meditating for some hours. I had a very brilliant vision of Narasimha deva with many heads and many arms. This is not a normal thing for me: like most people, I don’t “see” very much when I meditate. Then I looked down at my own arm, and there was tied there a piece of animal fur. If you know the Bible, you will know that this was a reference to the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25-27).
Esau was the older son, the son of the promise in the lineage of Abraham and the rightful heir. But Esau was also impulsive and greedy, and he traded his birthright for a bowl of lentils. Jacob and Esau’s mother, Rebekah, favored Jacob and wanted him to receive Isaac’s blessing. Isaac was blind and could only recognize Esau by his hairy body. Rebekah has Jacob put an animal skin on his forearm and take a bowl of soup to his father (who is apparently quite hungry and impulsive like his older son). Then Isaac grants his blessing to Jacob, making him the son of the promise in the lineage of Abraham.
Just like in the Indian scriptures, when a father gives a blessing to a son, it is an irrevocable vow. And I felt that Narasimha was giving me his blessing, despite a certain amount of illegitimacy. I recognize that I do not come from an Indian family, that I should be a Protestant Christian, as is expected of someone from my background. I do not have the proper “credentials” to be a teacher in this tradition. And yet, somehow, quite oddly, I find myself here, with an animal skin tied to my arm, an unlikely part of this story of the transmission of Sanatana Dharma.
I am not a real son of India. I do not hail from a Himalayan village. In one sense, I am a fake. And yet I am also a “real” fake, in that I have been adopted into a genuine lineage going back directly to Ramakrishna, and, for that, I am quite grateful. Sometimes the person who receives the inheritance is the one who wants it badly enough, and I am grateful for the support of the Divine Mother, who is a wonderful illusionist and trickster. She is the one who has brought me into this fold and who supports me to this day.
I don’t have any magic tricks: I can’t levitate or survive for years only on sunshine. I can’t produce coins out of thin air or make fireballs shoot from my palms. But I do have Devi, and it is Her leela that matters. She alone can trick the Father into believing in me. She can take my deficits and make me into a real teacher. She works through Her saints, and they offer me protection. For some reason I have been snatched from beside the Jordan and taken over to the Ganges, and I believe that She must have her purpose for that.
Swamiji also often says that the word for “grace” in Sanskrit is krpa, which he translates as “do and get.” One who follows the dharma and teaches others to do so is protected by dharma. Whether or not I have any special powers is irrelevant, because the teachings work. The person who follows the teachings will receive the blessings. I am not special as a person: I have no merit of my own. If someone takes refuge, they take refuge not in me but in the Atman-Brahman, which is eternal. If I am the vehicle for that, then well and good. If I fail in making the teachings known, that is okay as well. It is better to die having made the attempt than to venture nothing.
My spiritual name is “Janyananda,” and it means, “he who is the bliss of all beings born.” It also refers to the ceremony that confers the sacred thread, in which one is empowered to say the Gayatri mantra. Now, how can I take such a title, which is so magnificent and beyond understanding? Only because I know that the power does not reside with myself but with the divine flame within, the same divine flame that resides within each being. As a person, I am quite ordinary, but I hold within me the key to all joy, as do you.
So we can all ask Shirdi Sai for help, and he will render that help immediately. When we go to him with faith, our prayers will be answered. I encourage you to seek him, by singing his devotional songs, by gazing upon his images, and by offering him fruits, flowers, and incense. And remember me as well, this second son who, by some cosmic quirk, became the son of the promise. I have this animal skin tied onto to my arm, in a mock image of full maturity, but one day I will grow into the promise completely. My roar will be as fearsome as Sri Narasimha Deva Himself. Jaya vijaya bhava!
Just another day, right? It can always wait until tomorrow. Just one more minute, one more click. Later, later, later. Deferral, endless deferral. This is the pattern that we must break. Train the mind to not go outside itself or get ahead of itself. Train the mind to sit still, to exert no effort at all. Call the thoughts, like chickens, back home to roost. Do not get hooked on looking for the next big thing. Do not get hooked on the many distractions. The world will always offer another absorption, another chain of do more and be more. The world will always offer you another opportunity to get ahead of yourself, to live outside of yourself. Rarely will it allow you to just be. In fact, sitting still is not possible within the prevailing mindset.
And even if you can sit still, even if you have training in advanced meditative techniques, can you train the mind to go back within, like the turtle withdrawing into its shell? If you do puja and homa, can you grasp the essence of the words you chant? That everything is Vishnu, Vishnu, Vishnu? That all is consciousness, including you? That everything is That? That you are That? As an old friend once asked, can you Be Here Now? It’s not that hard, but it is very hard. To sit still, yes, but to not let the thoughts go out and roam wherever they wish. To not follow along with that old goat rope of believe and achieve. And here’s the thing: when you get that little bit of silence, you might be afraid of missing out on something. But then the world washes over you in waves, and you see how beautiful it is.
And how would life look different if I didn’t need you to think in a certain way about me? What if I could let go of the need for you to think that I am beautiful or spiritual or [insert favored adjective here]? Letting go of caution, I could be free to be whatever occurs to me at this moment. Spontaneity and play would once again become a possibility. Living with true artistry would once again become a possibility. To live without having to please others or myself. To get out of the way and let be. To participate in the unfolding mystery, to let it engulf me and have its way with me. To merge with the secret heart of being. To feel the beginning-less origin making all things even now—each moment ancient, each moment brand new.
Doing nothing, happiness comes. Thinking nothing, happiness comes. Happiness arises at the end of striving. Happiness comes when the striving for happiness ceases. That’s the old trap, the old goat rope, to think that happiness lies out there, just beyond reach. Just try a little harder, just do a little more, just make a little more money. And of course that’s what the bosses want us to think, because they, too, have been deluded into thinking that they always need a little more and a little more. So we entrap ourselves and entrap others. We have to learn how to untie the knots that we have tied for ourselves, to break the chains of our bondage.
I can free myself by looking within. Finding nothing there inside myself, I must have the courage to keep looking, to stare into that abyss of darkness. I must have the courage to sit there in that nothing, in that gaping need, and do nothing about it. I must stop trying to be fulfilled. I must sit there reverently before this void. And, whether I sit or stand, whether I work or I play, whether I open my wallet or keep it shut, I must continue to acknowledge and keep company with this dark night inside. If I do not need to solve my problems, I am free. If I do not need to medicate or abdicate or eradicate, I am free. Then I can eat in peace and chant in peace, work in peace and pray in peace.
Gibberish. These words will not help. Unless you truly and purposely set down all preoccupation. Unless you have unwavering faith and devotion. Unless you are willing to set aside the payoff that you get from distraction. If you can truly listen, even for one second, happiness will be yours. But don’t look for happiness. Don’t allow yourself to be led by the nose. Become sovereign over your situation by sitting still, by giving up the old panicked way of thinking. Refuse to believe in fixes. Know yourself to already be whole. Perhaps alarm bells are ringing in your head now, that old self-preservation instinct, which says that you must go back to the old way of striving. And yet where are the demons, except within ourselves?
Give yourself permission to be at peace, right now, wherever you may be. Become extremely lazy, just for right now. Become so lazy that you cannot be bothered even to think. Set aside the heaviest of burdens, the human mind. You will find it hard to stop thinking, nigh unto impossible. Consider the wisps of thought that remain to be tendrils of incense drifting through the air of the holy temple. This holy temple is the mind that has inquired into its own nature, and, therefore, has been cleansed of all impurity. In this darkened, hallowed place, keep the lamps few. Trim the wicks carefully.
For the ungoverned mind, it will do no good to visit Bodh Gaya or Rishikesh. If I cannot stand to be with myself, it will not matter where I go. Everything will become an elaborate avoidance strategy, a kind of show that I put on for myself and others, a puppet show. Look at me being spiritual. Look at me being sexy. Look at this, look at that. In order to be at peace, I must at first just be. Then I will be prepared to receive the teaching. Then I will be inured to all this useless garbage that passes for culture and civilization. I wish peace for you, I wish peace for myself, I wish peace for the world. In order for that to happen, the drive for more must stop.
My new book, A Mindful Morning: Start Each Day with a Clear Mind and Open Heart, is now available for pre-order from Amazon, with the official release on August 1st. Here are the first few paragraphs from the introduction:
In devotional Hinduism, the hours before dawn are thought to be among the most auspicious for meditation, as the veil between the divine and human worlds is the thinnest during these hours. The morning rituals serve as purification for the day to come, to set the mind on the right track. Taking a few moments in the morning to collect your thoughts and check in with your emotions can do wonders for your ability to manage and dismiss stress throughout the remainder of the day. The modern rituals of drinking coffee and reading the news also prepare the mind to face the challenges ahead, and these, too, can be met with mindfulness. Mindfulness, an intentional and steady embrace of the present moment, comes from within.
Few of us claim to be morning people, but perhaps we haven’t given ourselves permission to savor the early hours, to appreciate the light of a new sun. The reflections in A Mindful Morning come from a variety of world philosophies and religions, and they will help you start each day intentionally. These moments of centering will help take the sting out of the morning commute and pressing schedule by easing you calmly into your day. Over the course of this book, you will develop strong inner reserves that help you remain at peace despite the trials of our frantic society, so you can move throughout the day consciously and purposefully as your best and most authentic self.
You may think that you do not have time for mindfulness or meditation, but just think about how much time you spend reading random bits of news and Internet ephemera. Think about how much time you spend tweeting or going on Facebook, or playing Minecraft or Candy Crush. Think about the time that you spend sorting through mostly nonvital e-mail. Think about the stuff that you have to do: compiling reports for work, taking care of the kids, paying bills, buying groceries, doing the laundry: The list goes on and on. You deserve a break of a few minutes, several times a day, to collect yourself and put your mind in a calmer state. You deserve a break from the constant stream of noise and information.
I wrote this book thinking that you, dear reader, have lots of competing priorities—that you do not, in fact, live in a hermitage on top of a mountain. I imagine you sneaking a few minutes here and there to center yourself. I imagine you setting down your cell phone and finding that comfortable chair or reading nook. I see you lighting a stick of incense for a brief time of sacred silence. I see you at your desk or cubicle grabbing a minute or two to take some deep breaths and engage in thoughtful reading. Know that, wherever you are, you stand at the center of the struggle of the ages learning how to live a peaceful life in the midst of the hectic world. May you find a welcome respite in these pages.
Blessings on the occasion of the auspicious beginning of Chaitra Navaratri! The Divine Mother has drawn you to this website for a reason, so that you, through Self inquiry, meditation, and worship, might give Her your burdens and receive the gift of divine illumination. She longs to scoop you, Her child, into her lap and comfort you. She longs to use her divine weapons to fight the demons for you. She takes joy in fulfilling the wishes of her devotees, in taking them to the highest bliss. We only have to ask to receive her help and protection.
Please consider taking part in this Chaitra Navaratri Sankalpa, to chant 10008 repetitions of the Durge Smrtaa mantra as a group. All the devotees will reap maximum benefit from taking part in this divine challenge given to us by Shree Maa and Swamiji. Chandi Maa Ki Jai!!!
Salt Lake City, October 2015
The spiritual aspirant (sadhak) and the spiritual community (satsangha) are intimately bound with one another. Indeed, the false opposition between the individual and the collective must be questioned, as all reality, temporal and eternal, manifests from Shiva-Shakti. There is no “inside” or “outside” for the satsangha, as all beings are on a pilgrimage to their home in God. These principles stem from an intuitive understanding that all things, living and non-living, human and animal, exist at the pleasure of the unseen divine love. The divine play (leela) alone makes the illusion (maya) of separation appear. The vision of love increases when initiates and non-initiates alike follow these precepts:
These principles, when followed daily, will rapidly accelerate the spiritual growth of individuals while simultaneously making the society vibrant. They should be reviewed regularly as a spiritual exercise, with each precept adapted to local needs and conditions.
The Salt Lake Temple
Swamiji Prasannatmananda of Vedanta Society of Berkeley
Articles used by Ghandi, Ghandi Ashram exhibit
Ghandi original document, Ghandi Ashram exhibit
Tibetan Mandala Construction
Tibetan Bead Seller Booth
Sikh chanting, Golden Temple model in Langar Hall
Ute morning prayers
A few pictures can’t really capture the feelings of goodwill and harmony that embraced the gathering of 9500 people, representing all major faith traditions from around the world, who gathered in Salt Lake City, October 15-19, 2015. The attendees were devotees, philosophers, activists, scholars, and performers of every background, united around the common theme of “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity.” Not an unkind word was uttered among these delegates from supposedly antagonistic traditions, who discussed ways to address the major issues confronting humanity in the twenty-first century, especially women’s rights, global poverty, climate change, and war and terrorism.
Shree Maa has given us a new sankalpa for Ashwin Navaratri. It is a Mahishasura Mardini stotram by Shri Adi Shankara. We will be striving for 1008 repetitions as a group during Navaratri, in addition to Chandi worship. Sign up on the Shree Maa website if you can formally participate. The Mandir will be live streaming as well throughout Navaratri. Janyananda will be traveling to Utah for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. If you should happen to be going or live nearby, his talk is called “Sanatana Dharma and Earth Liberation: A Goddess-Based Path to a Sustainable Future,” and it will be in Room 355F at 2:00 p.m. Janyananda will be talking about Sita, the scene from Ramayana in the Ashoka grove, the moments of grief before Hanuman arrives to comfort her. This will begin a discussion of the destruction of earth and the grief for what is happening to our planet. He will also be meeting Hindu leaders and other religious leaders from around the world and will be seeking advice and blessings for the Society. May all of you have a wonderful Navaratri, and may the divine Mother in all of her forms bless you immensely!
If you were a teenager in America in the 1980s or 1990s, and if you belonged to the punk or indie subcultures, chances are you or a friend had a zine (short for magazine, appropriate for a small magazine) that you made with a typewriter and old school cut-and-paste techniques. Blogs have largely replaced zines, but there are still a lot of good ones out there. My favorites from the nineties were Cometbus and Pants That Don’t Fit. Shout-outs also go to Fizgig, Henry Fanclub Maga, The B.O.A. Constrictor, and Window Copy. Cometbus, which always had great writing and artwork, is still around and has expanded into Microcosm Publishing. I don’t know what happened to Pants That Don’t Fit, but someone drop me a line if you know anything. Zines render that down-to-earth feeling that, yes, I too have have something to say, and no, I will not be hindered by the lack of an advertising budget. Zines were ahead of the curve on LGBTQ issues and feminism, they reviewed bands from small and nonexistent labels, and they gave expression to idiosyncratic, first person points of view. Reading a zine was like sitting down for a cup of coffee with a friend. They were, and are, traded on a person-to-person basis or sold in independent bookstores and record shops.
In the best of that tradition, I offer you The Sacred Thread, a dharma punk zine for the 2010s. The zine will be distributed on a very limited basis in physical form, via mail and at a few shops in Augusta, GA and Aiken, SC. Or you can download it here. In this first issue:
EAT: GREENS AND BLACK-EYED PEAS
CONFESSIONS OF A MIDDLE-AGED SKATEBOARDER
KALI PRANAM MANTRA
NON-ADVERTISEMENTS FROM AWESOME PEOPLE WE SUPPORT
This was a whole lotta fun to make, and there will hopefully be new issues quarterly, for starters. Here are two versions that you can download. First, for the hardcore dharma activist, who can make copies, fold, and distribute:
And if you can’t be bothered with print and just want to read online:
In the future, I hope the zine will feature more vegan recipes, more about skate/punk culture, and more mantras and spiritual practices. Enjoy!