Goddess Saraswati, phenomenology, and the Greeks

Let’s start with the Greeks. A few years ago I had to read with my students a number of Ancient Greek texts, and I found one of the tragedies quite interesting, because it was rather different from the others. Here goes the story: Hippolytus was a boy, or a young man, who did not want to fall in love and get married. He liked hunting with his buddies, spending time in the forest, riding chariots, exercising, and doing all the stuff noble boys did in those times, and he was worshipping the goddess Artemis. Now, Artemis was quite special among the Olympian gods, being the daughter of Zeus, the twin sister of Apollo, the story has it, when she was young, she asked of her father, among other things, to never be married, to remain a virgin goddess (one of the few virgin goddesses in Greek mythology, Athena is another one). So she is the one, who is forever young, who hunts and spends time with animals and plants, she protects the virgins, she is also said to be the patron of midwives, aiding women in childbirth.

Hippolytus is such an ardent follower of the virgin goddess Artemis that he ends up offending the goddess of love Aphrodite, who becomes quite upset, and then the tragedy unfolds from her wrath. Now, some of the traditional and boring interpretations of that myth would say, that like in every other Greek tragedy, Hippolytus commits “hubris” – arrogance against gods (or a god), and is punished for that, yet, it is much more interesting to see, that unlike the other human characters in most Greek tragedies, Hippolytus maintains his moral standing, he remains true to the principles he is following, and so even though he dies young, in some versions of the myth he is rewarded in afterlife.

The reason I remembered this story, however, is that it brings attention, in a very dramatic way, to the reality, that some of the principles, ways or aspects of life might seem to contradict each other, or at least compete with each other, especially if they are taken up and followed through in a radical way. Lucky us, that we do not have the human-like in their imperfections and whimsical in their decisions Greek gods of questionable moral character breathing down our necks, still the moment of reflection to bring from this story is about the multi-faced-ness (is there such a word?) of being and of our being, and about balance between the different aspects of the whole.

Shri Saraswati is the Goddess of learning, both arts on one hand, and science and scholarship on the other, She is the one that gives us the sense of beauty as well as true knowledge. (See, the Greeks were right, when they felt that beauty and truth are the same, or that beauty is the shining of the truth of things). On a larger scale, Shri Saraswati is the Goddess of creativity, and perhaps even any sort of physical and mental activity.

Ranjan, our music teacher at Canajoharie Nirmal Arts Academy, said on several occasions: “when you sit to practice, ask Her that whatever you do pleases Her, and, you will see, you will learn very fast.” For a while I conveniently assumed, that by “Her” he meant the Primordial Mother, the Adi Shakti, this is ultimately Whom we worship when our meditation evolves from the level of “self-help” and “stress management” to the level of spiritual practice. And, of course, to some extent that was correct, for Adi Shakti contains within Herself all other aspects and Deities that come from Her. But no, Ranjan meant, Goddes Saraswati, the aspect of the Divine that inspires and nourishes all learning, and the art in particular, and makes things beautiful. When I realized that, I also had to admit that I have little if any sense of this aspect of the divine. Of course, I know some things about it mentally, but have very little experience of it, or, at least, am not well aware of it.

You see, I never cared much about the looks of things, about how to make things pretty (Easter eggs being the only exception 🙂 ), about design, clothes, make-up, I considered all of that superficial, so ultimately not important, and also boring :). Even when it came to the natural beauty, I always liked mountains and the sea, and loved feeling them, but somehow failed to see visually the beauty of nature as “extraordinary”. Instead, I always valued the “inner”, the deep, the “invisible” qualities. You know, Shiva, the Spirit, does not care about appearances, neither his own, nor of others, but only cares about the quality of the heart.

When I came to Canada to do my MA, I took Sam’s course, and ten minutes into the first class I knew that he was my teacher. He had this amazing capacity to get to the very heart of things so naturally and with so much grace, and yet also with such an insight. I guess, things liked him and were willing or maybe even eager to open up to him. So I wanted to learn that. It took a few years to convince him that I was his student. He later denied that at first he doubted whether I had what it takes, that was Sam :). So, this philosophical method he developed is very interesting, you really have to take your time to explore all these different bodily ways that the things show themselves to us and that we respond to them, and yes, for him “bodily” included cognition and emotion. Once you spend enough time circling around on the surface, with a little luck you might find, quite suddenly, that the surface has opened out, and the deeper truths of things have become visible to you. It’s like this: things might seem a certain way on the surface, but if you care to take your time and give your attention, and reach a little deeper, you might see, that actually things are different than what they seemed, and if you care to go even deeper, you might find them different again. So there is this play between the surface (or layers of surfaces) and the depth, and while they might offer us different “truths”, they are not the enemies of each other, rather they just trace out two different directions of truth showing or hiding itself.

Perhaps I had to do this hard core philosophy stuff to better understand something about Goddess Saraswati. Namely, even if we accept an oversimplified view that Shri Saraswati is responsible for the “outward” aspect while Shri Shiva – for the very heart, they are sister and brother, and so they do not compete, but work together. In fact, in Sahaja yoga we learn that if you over-work and drive out of balance your right channel, the sphere of Shri Saraswati, and especially right Swadishthan chakra, then your heart will suffer, first in subtle ways, and eventually also on a physical level, because in the microcosm of our individual being Shri Shiva will not be getting enough support from His over-worked and exhausted sister.

Shiva, the spirit, is life itself, and when He abandons you, you die, but what that also means is that Shiva is the one who is the life in everything that is alive. It is the fullness of life, that capacity of things to shine, to show themselves, to be beautiful, from within and also outwardly. Here I do not mean “life” in the typical Western sense of “organic”, rather, I mean also the life of lakes and rivers, minerals, mountains – the way that they can shine forth, or, on the contrary, look dull and dead. Compare how the same fiber looks when it is dyed with natural vs. artificial pigment, and you will see what I mean. You will also see how that real and genuine essence in the very heart of everything, which is Shri Shiva, shines forth from “alive” natural things with the beauty of Shri Saraswati, especially when it has been tended to by careful hands, attentive eyes and ears, and pure intentions.

Since this is turning out to be a New Year post (it’s been slow-cooking for a couple months), let me wish that all of us in the next year are blessed abundantly by Shri Shiva, as well as Shri Saraswati, and all other Deities, but most of all, by their and our Primordial Mother.

On gurus and shishyas, teachers and disciples…

We watched a Marathi film Katyar Kalijat Ghusali about music, musical traditions and the learning or grooming of the artist. The film is excellent, and no wonder, it is based on the old Marathi play, the music for which was written by Pt. Jitendra Abhisheki, who was the guru of my first Indian music teacher, Arun Apte. In the film, they have retained a number of songs from the original play, and, of course, it had to remind me about my four months of learning music in Vaitarna, and also about some of the stories Arun Apte was telling about his guru and their relationship.
It is really amazing, how the story in the film touches on the subtleties of the guru-disciple relationship. I will probably need to watch it again, and perhaps more than once, to understand more of it – if you only have a hint of this experience in your own life, and especially if you are not really a part of that tradition, it’s not easy to understand it beyond the superficial level of the apparent.
The film is about the stages of the maturing of an artist, and the challenge in maturing without a guru who can instruct you, or without one who is willing to do so. Yes, of course, it is also about going beyond the ego – that most difficult arrogance one acquires, when one begins to master some, even tiny aspects of the art, and this is the message the film claims to deliver, from the very beginning till the end. But I don’t think this is the most valuable message of this story, at least for me that was not what felt most important, inspiring and meaningful. It was interesting to see struggles the hero has to go through to connect gradually to deeper and deeper sense of music – through learning the knowledge, then imitation to the point of identification with the guru, then to mastering a different style, and perhaps eventually finding one’s own style, though this film finishes at the point when that stage would have probably just start.
What moved me the most, was the importance of being “recognized” and blessed by your guru to go on being an artist. It is not just about the learning and the instruction, and not about the ego-oriented achievement or pride, but about that special love and care that flows between the guru and the disciple, both ways, that ties them together, for that special kind of relationship that exists between the two, part friendship and part parent-child relationship, both of them together, and yet neither of them, but something else, the relationship that becomes even more beautiful because of the difference and uniqueness inherent in it. So when the guru witnesses the disciple who has mastered the art, not only the technical proficiency, but also the respect for the art and for other artists, and has met the essence of the art, that is the greatest and the only gift that disciple can offer back to the guru, as gratitude for all the lessons, for the generosity and the dedication that the guru has given while teaching. That is why it is so important for the hero in the film to have a chance to sing for both his gurus.
Maybe I’m wrong in saying that one has to be Indian to really get to the heart of what it means to be a disciple and to have a guru. Maybe it is so difficult for me to find the inspiration to finish this dissertation, because Sam has died – it has been written for Sam, working with his art, having made mistakes that disappointed him and having tried to correct them, having worked though the difficult challenges and found the treasures of understanding that he praised and admired. Now this last stage of putting the parts together, adding the final decorations and polishing the work, seems meaningless, when he is not going to be there to witness his disciple “perform on stage”. Yes, yes, I know it has to be done, but it’s hard to find that drive, that creative call and commitment, that flows from the bountiful expressions of the art practiced by a live guru.
Of course, it’s a different story, when the guru-disciple relationship is happening in the field (kshetra?) of spirituality, rather than a more “human” art. It is said (if I understood it somewhat correctly), that when a disciple has reached the state of mastery, then there is the recognition of God being the Guru. The one who has achieved that state, is learning from God directly, and is performing for God, to please that Divine Guru and to give thanks for the teaching, the love, and the care. Maybe I’m wrong again, and that’s also the case with music as well as philosophy and any other “art”?
Here is the recording of my first music teacher performing for his (our) spiritual Guru, and singing to please God. This is my favorite of all his recordings that I have seen, though I probably never heard him singing this song live… Enjoy…

By the way, that Marathi film with English subtitles is here: http://www.einthusan.com/movies/watch.php?marathimoviesonline=Katyar+Kalijat+Ghusali&lang=marathi&id=2783