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Reader comment on Bertrand Russell's passage ...

Individual and Social Ethics


On Dec 23, 2010 Somik Raha wrote:

I am so glad I made it last night, for we were treated by the presence of Haricharan Das. The irony was not lost upon me that the Wednesday focused on Bertrand Russell's reflections was also the Wednesday with the most mention of God. :)

Hari shared many stories, which have been beautifully captured by Richard Whittaker far better than I could possibly attempt. Instead of recounting them here, readers can refer to In the Company of Saints. I will instead focus on Hari's philosophy.

He started out by saying that feelings of goodness are not enough. There must be action, otherwise the feelings are just entertainment. When one is moved to help others, one must get up and do so. Bravo! He also clarified at the beginning that he uses the word "God" to denote "reality as it is" and encouraged people to replace it by whatever word they preferred.

He shared about Gandhi - the man was shot dead, and with his last few breaths, he uttered the name of God. Hari reminded us how at the slightest difficulty, we forget God altogether, and instead uttery "Oh no!" or "Why me?" It is only possible to die with God's name if like Gandhi, we've practiced living with God's name.

He shared how he got into his spiritual quest through his candle flame story (see Richard's interview). That made him realize there were things that he really did not know. He emphasized a ruthless determination to get to the truth that is a hallmark of the spiritual quest. To me, this is the essence of science. I would be committing intellectual fraud if I claimed to be a scientist, and yet, closed my mind to phenomena that I did not understand. Reading Richard Feynman (in The Uncertainty of Science) last night, I came across the following:

"When the scientist tells you he does not know the answer, he is an ignorant man. When he tells you he has a hunch about how it is going to work, he is uncertain about it. When he is pretty sure of how it is going to work, and he tells you, "This is the way it's going to work, I'll bet," he still is in some doubt. And it is of paramount importance, in order to make progress, that we recognize this ignorance and this doubt. Because we have the doubt, we then propose looking in new directions for new ideas. The rate of the development of science is not the rate at which you make observations alone but, much more important, the rate at which you create new things to test."

My professor, who is uber-rational, taught me a thing or two on scientific attitude. He used to organize a group called "Beyond Rationality," which we restarted, where only topics that could not be discussed in a classroom could be brought in. The requirement of the participants in the group was to come in, neither as a believer, nor as a disbeliever. In my mind, that required presence and openness. So, when someone claimed that his sister had an eerily lucky hand in her die rolls whenever they played board games, that would invite questions like "What about when she rolls the die for other people?" and not "Are you taking grass?" Hard to put a label on the third attitude (neither a believer nor a skeptic), but sufficeth to say that it is possible to come from that space, and experience the learning that results.

Hari kept using the word "mysticism" and this brought up an interesting question after-hours on the connection between mysticism and science. Mysticism is the science of the future that we haven't caught up with. It was not that far back when thunder was the weapon of the Gods. Today, it is the play of the clouds rubbing against each other. To explain this phenomena to one who does not possess the language of electricity or physics is like explaining a mystical subject. Interestingly, Swami Vivekananda firmly rejected all mysticism not by dropping down to the level of intellectual dishonesty and ignoring phenomena, but by encouraging us to raise our level of science with a ruthless determination to penetrating the deepest mysteries of the universe. I think that was also the essence of Hari's talk yesterday.

One question that came up was how to balance service with spirituality. Hari said they were no different. To serve others selflessly was the highest spiritual practice. Another question was on music and stillness. Hari said that music and stillness were both valid paths to reach God. Art was also a valid path - the first thing he sees in art is the "I" of the artist perceiving the universe, a deep spiritual act. There are many dimensions beyond that which takes the viewer even deeper.

To a question on what people with no Guru should do, he responded that everyone had a Guru at their personal level - their own conscience. At another level, nature is also our Guru - it teaches us so much. We find layers of Gurus. He talked about having one root Guru who guides us and blesses us to be able to gain knowledge from several other Gurus, but this root Guru is the one who opens the door for the disciple directly to God (or reality). He also said that liberation is the destiny of all - it is not a matter of "if," but a matter of "when," and to him, the mercy of God was in the infinite cycle of birth and death where we get to try again and again.

To a question on whether women could be gurus, he responded, "Of course! There is absolutely no difference between men and women in terms of spiritual ability. The only reason we don't hear about women teachers is because men control the press." When asked if his day job in painting was a mystical experience, he responded, "No, it is hard work."

What touched me the most was his total acceptance. In response to a question, he said, "God(Reality/Truth) opens many doors for us. When the door of teaching opens for me, I go and teach. When it closes, I do what is in front of me. It is all God's work." Later on, I asked him why he closed his ashram. His response, "Oh, the lease expired." That's it. He didn't fight it, or try advertizing campaigns. So he now paints houses to pay the bills and shares his journey with whoever asks for it. That blew me away.

Another gem: "The Universe is putting on a galactic show for our benefit, which is on all the time. We somehow choose not to see it." Recalling Feynman (same essay as quoted above),

"... there are the atoms. Beautiful - mile upon mile of one ball after another ball in some repeating pattern in a crystal. Things that look quiet and still, like a glass of water with a covered top that has been sitting for several days, are active all the time; the atoms are leaving the surface, bouncing around inside, and coming back, What looks still to our crude eyes is a wild and dynamic dance."

Interestingly, Hari does not prefer to share much about his mystical experiences. He shared in the interview and last night that people draw wrong conclusions and turn away. He prefers to focus on meditation and practical questions, from his own experience and the knowledge of the Yoga Sutras. One gem was "Treat your heart like your home. When you keep it clean, (good) guests will come." That was the message of his life - he kept purifying himself and found himself in the company of saints. Another thing I liked about him - he did not engage in false modesty. He told the truth as best he could.

Upon requests to share an unbelievable story, he shared about a time when he knew a person whose Guru was not alive. This person had a deep connection with her Guru and told Hari that she was talking to him. Hari decided to test it, as it was too crazy to believe. He walked into his library, picked a book, opened a page, and then asked this person to share the contents of the page by asking her Guru. The next thing he knew, she rattled off the entire page.

When someone later on went to him for advice, he shared, "People look at me differently - as a guru, teacher, friend, painter, etc. I cannot control what they think. But I can control my practice. So the most important thing is that no matter what other people think about you, stick to your spiritual practice." During his talk, he also emphasized not caring about what other people think, and the importance of settling on any one practice that we can go deep in, and not be forever sampling at the surface level.

After-hours, when pressed further about the need for a Guru, he said something very interesting. When we practice by ourselves, and start to gain benefits, it is easy for us to lose our minds and think that we are big achievers. That stops our progress. When we have a Guru who we see as a manifestation of God, we have something to compare to, and will keep ourselves humble. The essence of what he said, in my mind, is universal, in that, when we surround ourselves with saintly people who serve as an example for us, they are in a sense taking the position of a Guru we look up to, and compare ourselves to whenever our ego tries to rise up.

The penultimate question in the circle was from CFDad, who asked about Gurus who would perform  miracles to impress disciples. Isn't that a distraction? Hari totally agreed, and called it magic, distinguishing it from mysticism. He opined that most people were not trained to distinguish between the two. Magic to him was about self-aggrandizement, inflating the ego. Mysticism was about relinquishing the ego, letting go of all and going toward reality/truth/God. Interestingly, he also said that "yogis know the difference, but are too kind and don't say too much. Ultimately, the kingdom takes care of it." And he laughed, as he often did last night.

To me, a sign of spiritual depth is how someone laughs. Haricharan Das laughs like a man who has found his peace.



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