Tag Archives: religion

Book Review: I Am That, by Nisargadatta Maharaj

I just finished all 531 pages of I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj, translated by Maurice Frydman. I started reading it in late May and just finished now in mid-September. Why did it take me so long? It certainly wasn’t that he used complicated words. Any high school student could understand it if they have the patience to decipher some the Sanskrit terminology that can be found in the book’s appendix. It certainly wasn’t long drawn out chapters. The book contains 101 chapters which are two to four pages long. It took me so long because the concepts in the book, when thought about and considered, are among the deepest one may experience.

The book is in the the typical question and answer format one reads in most of the non-dualist genre. Nisargadatta Maharaj gave satsang, or spiritual teachings, based out his Bombay (Mumbai) apartment until his death in 1981. He wasn’t a typical yoga practitioner. He made a living making and selling cigarettes on the street and chain smoked them as he gave his teachings. He liked to argue with his disciples, and would kick them out if he felt they have overstayed their welcome after receiving the essence of his teachings. He only spoke in Marathi, and would employ translators for Westerners.

In all of his eccentricities, his teachings get to the heart of the matter: we are not what we take ourselves to be, we are the very universe itself. He foremost rejects that he is his body which is repeated ad nauseum in this text. He rejects that he is his mind, which he says belongs to the body. “As long as one is burdened with a personality, one is exposed to its idiosyncrasies and habits.” He says he is that which does not change: the purusha. Purusha can be translated as “soul” but Maharaj gives it a much more nuanced and textured meaning throughout his book.

His basic teaching is summed up in this dialogue:

Maharaj: How can an unsteady mind make itself steady? Of course it cannot. It is the nature of the mind to roam about. All you can do is to shift the focus of consciousness beyond the mind.

Questioner: How is it done?

Maharaj: Refuse all thoughts except one: the thought ‘I am’. The mind will rebel in the beginning, but with patience and perseverance it will yield and keep quiet. Once you are quiet, things will begin to happen spontaneously and quite naturally without any interference on your part. (page 17)

This may sound a lot like the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. Maharaj’s teachings are very similar with the exception that Maharaj was not silent the way Ramana Maharshi was (Maharshi said very few words to his devotees). But by using his preferred format of argument, the teachings of Nisargadatta yield more concrete “instructions” that are well suited for the Western mind.

I would recommend this book after one is familiarized with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, as many of the concepts draw from that classic text. In fact if you struggle with the Sutra-s in terms of how prakriti and purusha interplay, I Am That offers elegant explanations and possible solutions. To read this book properly, I wouldn’t advise taking on more than a chapter a day (3-4 pages), and really think about the words. You won’t be the same after reading it.

Linked below is a pdf of the book, and also a video which can be viewed as a primer to the teachings.

http://advaita.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/1-I-Am-That-Nisargadatta-Maharaj-Resumo.pdf

 

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Appreciating Yoga’s relationship to Hinduism (instead of fearing it)

hanuman

People seem deathly afraid of Hinduism cropping up in the West for some strange reason. Just this week, two state legislators in Idaho protested when a Hindu prayer was said before the start of a session. One of the big debates of late is whether Yoga is a Hindu practice. There seems to even be legal rulings on whether or not Yoga should be considered a religion or a workout. In the same vein, why are we not afraid that Sufism is rooted in Islam, or that Qabbala is rooted in Judaism?

Many of the texts and concepts in Yoga are shared with people who practice Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) being a good example. It the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna on a battlefield where Arjuna is in the middle. On one side are his teachers, and the other side are his family members. Arjuna is in an awful dilemma. Krishna advises him to use Yoga to conquer the dilemma and to do his dharma as a warrior.

Other Hindu elements crop of in the names of Yoga Asanas. Bharadvaja, Vashistha, Marchi, and Hanuman just to name a few were figures in the Mahabharata. Of course in Western Yoga classes, these poses are renamed based on their body movements like “the splits” and “twists.”

My view may not be a popular one, but instead of watering down the names and concepts of Yoga that come from Hinduism, why not embrace them? I am not asking you to drop your faith and become Hindu. But I am asking that Yoga practitioners in the West more deeply explore the relationship between Yoga and Hinduism, rather than just using the parts that are convenient for them to present to a judge who will rule and decide if Yoga is considered a religion or a workout.

When you study the Yoga Sutras and read about Siddhis  (superpowers that come from Yoga practice), it is helpful to read about Hanuman who displays his mastery of all the Siddhis in his efforts to reunite Sita and Rama. These stories show how powers cultivated in Yoga can be used properly and for the good of mankind. Not to say that anyone actually will attain Siddhis in their practice, but If you woke up one day and were able to float on air, wouldn’t it be nice to have a guideline on how to use this power?

Being a New Mexico native, then moving to Hawai’i, I have seen the recurrent theme of having a rich culture be exploited by people who first try to make money off the unique attributes of the culture, then completely water it down until there is no culture left to market. They just built a Target store in my hometown of Kailua, transforming a charming beach community into Anywhere Else, USA full of traffic. I see the same thing happening in Yoga. Look no further than the Wanderlust Facebook page to see what I mean.

So my challenge to practitioners of Yoga in the West is to read some of these texts like The Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana. Try to understand the concepts of reincarnation even though  that may not be your belief system. And minimally, use the Sanskrit terms of the Asana names instead of just calling them things like “updog.” As a deeper practice, go 30 days without buying things from those who commercialize and exploit Yoga, like the Lululemon store. Your Yoga practice will only get richer as a result.

 

Yama and Niyama and the Ten Commandments

10 commandments

When I was getting my masters in psychology years ago, I wrote a great deal of my papers about yoga. I took a class called “Spiritual Dimensions of Counseling” and remember writing a paper comparing and contrasting the Yama and Niyama to the Ten Commandments of Judeo Christianity. I can remember the power of seeing the two side by side and seeing how both are more alike than different. So you can see for yourself:

yoga sutras

Yama (Restraints)

  • Ahimsa (non-harming)
  • Satya (truthfulness)
  • Asteya (non-stealing)
  • Brahmacharya (chastity)
  • Aparigraha (non-greediness)

Niyama (Observances)

  • Saucha (Cleanliness)
  • Santosha (Contentment)
  • Tapas (Intensive spiritual effort)
  • Svadhyaya (Study of the self and scriptures)
  • Ishvara Pranidhana (Complete surrender to God)

The Ten Commandments

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. You shall not make idols.
  3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet.

As you can see, there are striking similarities particularly in basic ethical conduct of not stealing and not harming. It is also an interesting choice of wording of “You shall have no other gods before Me” opposed to “Complete surrender to God.” I am not here to make any assumptions or commentary aside from just presenting the two side by side.

On a historical note, Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras in 400 CE, but used what had been practiced for centuries and simply condensed and refined it. Yama and Niyama are in the second book of the Yoga Sutras. The Ten Commandments were written around 1500 BCE which makes them older than the yoga sutras. The Bhagavad Gita, which had many concepts that were adapted to the yoga sutras was written at the same time as the Ten Commandments around 1500 BCE. Again, this is not a contest of which is older. Without judgement or preconceived notions, it is just interesting to see the timeline of these two very similar psycho/spiritual/ethical codes.