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Before We Begin . . .
"Everything in life is a story. And the story of mankind is history:
without history, we have no meaning."
– Laurens van der Post
I will begin my consideration with a story from our recent history . . .
"Particularly in the time in which we now live, when the ideas of all the provinces of earth are gathering together for the first time in human history and all the absolute dogmas find themselves casually associated, to be judged like a crowd of silly Napoleons or mad Christs in an asylum, the complex mind of Everyman is remembering itself all at once. Therefore we are obliged to discover the Truth again by penetrating the bizarre consciousness of all the races combined as one."
– Adi Da Samraj
In 1959, Dr. Milton Rokeach was a psychiatrist in charge of the mental hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan. During that time three individuals were committed to his institution each of whom thought he was Jesus Christ. Rokeach put them all in a room together and wrote a book about what happened. The book is called, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, and it describes what took place between these three individuals who possessed mutually contradictory ideas and beliefs of a personal and religious nature.
We live in a unique time in the history of the world when humanity has become inter-communicative like never before. We too are crowded together in the same room of our inter-connected world like The Three Christs of Ypsilanti where we are forced to confront fundamental ideas, philosophies, political ideologies and religiously held beliefs many of which are mutually contradictory and cannot all be true. One could say the world has always been this way, but I believe the context has changed; the many religious beliefs and philosophies of human history and the words of our greatest teachers and story-tellers both past and present, are now heard and considered by the community of all mankind, not merely one's own family, sect, province, country, religion or time (or that of one's proximate neighbor).
I would point to the closing years of the 19th century as the beginning of our 'modern' age when technological advancements, especially in the realm of electricity, promised to transform the everyday life of mankind. Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of scientific discoveries occurred at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, called the 'Columbia Exposition'; it was a celebration of the four-hundred-year anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America and also the largest demonstration of man-made electrical power the world had ever seen. George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla had worked together to power the 40-acre-large fair with huge electrical generators.
The interiors of the buildings and the sidewalks of the Columbus Exposition were the first in the world to be lit with electricity. An electrically powered Ferris wheel built by George Washington Ferris, and capable of carrying over 2000 people at a time became the main attraction of the fair. The world's largest enclosed structure (of the time), was the 'Manufactures building,' containing a veritable city of large multi-storied buildings under its roof, each one comprised of multi-floor exhibitions. Electric elevators had been installed and an electrically powered moving sidewalk, over a half-mile long, carried thousands of people from the dock of the ferry boats that had sailed to the fair across Lake Michigan from Chicago. Attendance was massive and it is said that 1 in 4 people who lived in the United States at that time visited the site.
Observing the profound effects of electricity and electrical machines on the world, Tesla wrote: “It (electricity and electrical motors) signifies the subjugation of natural forces to the service of man, the discontinuance of barbarous methods and the relieving of millions from want and suffering."
This grand celebration of scientific achievement heralded tremendous changes, not merely in machines and technology, but also in our understanding of human beings, their religions, and our understanding of life; along with dazzling displays of scientific progress and technology, many of the independent cultures and religions of the world confronted one another, like the Three Christs of Ypsilanti. The (Western interpretation) of the relatively recent politically and economically dominant religion of Christianity, now had to acknowledge there were (and had been) other 'Christs' in the room, for with the technological expansion of our abilities to communicate, it became apparent there were many other religions in the world and nearly all of them far older than Christianity. Because of the revelation of this 'new world,' an ecumenical group of Christians decided to hold along with the fair, a 'World Parliament of Religions'; for sixteen days (September 11-27, 1893) they sought, "To bring together in conference, the leading representatives of the great historic religions of the world." A large building ( the Memorial Art Palace) was constructed for the occasion and a gathering of representatives from nearly all the religions of the world was assembled together on the same stage for the first time in history. Daily crowds of over 7000 people jammed the main hall to witness this unique event held in the heartland of America in 1893.
Although many Christians thought they would demonstrate the supremacy of their religion, what occurred was quite the opposite . . . on the very first day of the World Parliament on the shores of Lake Michigan, one speaker after another stood and faced the crowded room of people and formally addressing the assembly as, "Ladies and Gentleman," went on to present the beliefs and ideas of their own religious traditions and sect. As the talks proceeded into the afternoon, a Hindu monk by the name of Swami Vivekananda was called to the lectern to address the assembly.
Vivekananda was the closest disciple of one of the greatest Indian saints of the 19th century, Sri Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar, an extraordinary being who had 'Realized' the ultimate goal of Hindu Vaishnava Bhakti by worshipping the different forms of Vishnu (Rama, Krishna, Radha). But that was not all; Ramakrishna also 'Realized' the ultimate goals of Christianity, Islam, and the formless Realization of Advaita Vedanta, and had done so by fully engaging and fulfilling the religious practices or sadhana of each of these great religions!
Ramakrishna said, “God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times, and countries. All doctrines are so many paths, but a path is by no means God Himself . . . the practices, paths, Gods and goals of all religions are true and ultimately the same in their goal." Ramakrishna did not merely state this as a philosophy he believed in, he literally Realized it in his own life! His views about 'religion' were based on his experience and not just belief and Swami Vivekananda had not only received first-hand Ramakrishna's teachings but had been given his Realization as well; this was the man who now stood to address the World Parliament of Religions.
Tall, strikingly good-looking, and extremely well-educated (English education in India), Vivekananda was an Indian swami (renunciant) of noble bearing. After taking the lectern, he paused for a moment to pray to Saraswati, the Goddess of wisdom and eloquence, and then in a resonant voice, using perfect English, he addressed the assembly, "Brothers and Sisters of America."
As if a dam had suddenly burst open, thousands of people rose to their feet, and on the impact of these few words alone gave him a five-minute standing ovation. The fog of previous intellectual explanations had been pierced with a lightning flash of love and at that moment, Vivekananda now touched, as no speaker had before him, the hearts of the American people and with that touch, the eternal living spark of Wisdom and Realization kept alive in the Indian tradition for thousands of years, lept into the minds and hearts of the people of the American continent. It was a moment of Truth, not merely a presentation of ideas. His words expressed the eternal essence of religion both East and West and he exemplified what he spoke of . . . he was brilliant, simple, emotional, and full of heartfelt feeling. Here was an embodiment of love, not merely the rational expression of a different belief system. To this day, Vivekananda's opening speech to the Parliament is memorized by Indian schoolchildren and worldwide, his presence at the Parliament is the single most remembered event of that occasion.
Over the next several days in a series of talks heard by thousands, Vivekananda conveyed the ancient perennial wisdom of Yoga and the highest Advaitic (non-dualistic) philosophy of India. He proclaimed a philosophy and understanding never before heard in the West; one that spoke not of many gods or even one god, but of Only God; a Truth that could only be confirmed only by experience and not mere belief. This was the moment when the torch of the Sanatana (Eternal) Dharma, of Yoga and Vedanta, the ancient Indian science and philosophy of God-Realization, was passed from ancient India to the West. His words blazed across the Western mind like a shooting star, illuminating the time in which we now live with the light of eternity. Vivekananda was a messenger of the most ancient religious tradition on earth, now revealing itself in an age that was just beginning.
Today, when we search the internet or walk into any bookstore, we will find teachers, teachings and practices representing the religious and philosophical traditions of ancient India as well as the whole world, past and present; and because every one of these traditions whether exoteric or esoteric, based on belief or experience, claim to contain a definition of the highest Truth, meaningful practice, real goal, or a description of what Reality is not; and because their narratives and assumptions, like those of the Three Christs of Ypsilanti, do not agree and are often radically different from one another, and because we all live on 'spaceship earth' in a vast multi-cultural 'room' of different religions, societies and peoples now crowded together in a technologically interconnected world; the truths we espouse and the tales we tell today are contextually different from any moment in the past; how, in such a circumstance as this could one believe only the provincial stories of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism or Christianity (to name but a few) in whose midst we grew up? Must we not also acknowledge the other descriptions and paths to God and their meanings of Salvation or Liberation that are all around us? Must we not at least seek to discern if a common thread runs through all of them?
As for myself, the worldwide traditions of religion and spirituality have become my 'Bible' and the great Avatars, Pirs, Tsaddiks, Rabbis, Saints, and Siddhas of the world, my teachers; what can I do but take the stories of all the holy men and religions in the world into consideration; for I cannot help but notice that all of us spin like a wheel around the Reality of 'all the races, religions and peoples combined as one.' As a Jewish, American-born, storyteller-religious studies scholar living in India in the second decade of the 21st century, this is the nature of my world and mind and, I believe, the inevitable and increasingly evident recognition of all mankind.
Since 2011, I reside most of the year with my partner in a small valley in the high foothills of the Himalaya near the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Our small cottage sits on the meadowed shoulder of a huge mountain above a glacier-fed river near the foot of the Rohtang Pass that winds up into Ladakh and the Tibetan plateau. When we arrive in the spring and look out the windows of our cottage, there are golden rivers of flowering yellow mustard, flowing around islands of apple and apricot trees putting forth their new pink and redbuds. As the months pass and the days grow longer, our feelings are distilled by the summer's warmth and our vision lifts to the lofty peaks that surround our little valley, soaring high above the forests of Deodar trees, touching azure blue skies with Aiguilles of eternal snow; we live there happily; but time passes and the moon continues to wax and wane, and inevitably, just like growing older, the chilly days of fall begin to pervade the air of our mountainside, the apples are picked, the deciduous trees lose their leaves and the white snow falls further down the mountains. The freezing nights of November awaken a desire for warmth and for a while, we burn wood in our stove for heat all day before we finally travel south for the winter months, to Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, to live near the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, at the foot of the holy mountain, Arunachala, in southern India.
These are the places where I spend my days and most of that time in a room, where I sit, reflect, and write, attempting to share the great wealth that was given to me, my own experiences, and anything important that I remember. I consider my writing to be like the stone cairns used to mark high-mountain trails all over the world; 'cairns' are piles of rocks placed to mark a trail above the tree-line to guide a traveler when the path is not obvious across a sea of cloud-swept rocky scree; they show the way in harsh and foggy weather, indicate direction when evening falls, fatigue touches the bones, cold seeps into the body and one does not know which way to turn but must continue . . . I have been there; I have known how valuable such markers are; I have not forgotten.
I am thankful to those who have gone before me and the markers of stories they have left behind; I too seek to leave a cairn, mark a trail and point out where I went and if only by implication suggest what I think is not the way. Although I make these cairns myself and place the stones uniquely, I always remember my debt to others for absolutely everything I know and understand; I cannot help but notice that every one of my stories is woven like a cloth using the threads of the older stones and cairns of those who have passed this way before me. In this sense, I am but a thief; indeed we are all thieves . . . is there anything new under the sun? My debt is overwhelming and total, and much of what I have written here necessarily honors my uncountable sources, for they passed so much on to me, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
In 1896, three years after Swami Vivekananda brought the Yoga of God-Realization to America, Mark Twain visited India. He wrote, “(India) . . . is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition . . . our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India.” I fully agree with him; this land holds unique and archetypal knowledge; it is full of ancient tales whose retellings are now found (mainly unknowingly) in nearly every culture of the world. Just to visit this country is to walk on a beach where the shipwrecks of many ancient cultures have washed ashore for thousands of years. Viewing the flotsam and jetsam of so much culture, wisdom, instruction, beauty, and mystery, I am inspired to tell stories and that is what I try to do. Here are a few of those 'tellings,' flavored with wisdom, lessons, and inspirations from the great beings, religions, and cultures of India and the world. They represent as my teacher Adi Da suggests, "the bizarre consciousness of all the races combined as one." Like mountains of spices, they flavor the experiences of our lives.
Now, before I go further, let me issue a warning about stories in general,
to the people who hear or read them
and of course, to the storytellers that tell them: