ARISE! MAGAZINE ISSUE #5
AKI CEDERBERG – A PILGRIMAGE
BY ANTTI KLEMI
As deceptive as they can be, I have faith in words. If someone's gestures and words speak differently, we're instinctively inclined to believe what the gestures say. But still, words are my realm or, at the very least, the most crucial building blocks of my reality, our reality. But what is it that I try to seek in this reality? Truth? Knowledge? Transcendence?
Like the majority of Finnish children, I was born Christian and raised agnostic. I was always taught to be sceptical about things. After all, what is the atom but a theory. One plus one is two only because we tend to favour the decimal pattern over the binary number system. I can't say that I fully understand the way our bodies function, or what happens in this laptop to make it work the way it does. Many things, no, ALL things require a leap of faith of some sort.
It's just a question of how long you're willing to jump, isnt it? I mean, if we think about words for another ten seconds, isn't it interesting that the word sann means true in Swedish, and the word san means Saint or holy in Spanish. Or that the Swedish word tro, meaning believe, is pronounced exactly the same way as true in English. So we go in circles. What is true, what is holy, what do you believe in?
Asked the latter question point blank, Aki Cederberg, writer of the upcoming book Journeys in the Kali Yuga: A Pilgrimage from Esoteric India to Pagan Europe, says that like the tietäjä ("knowers") of old, he is a seeker of knowledge over belief. And as we'll later find out, he thinks the word spirituality is all hollow these days. Makes one think what we've been talking about throughout this whole zine.
As the title of the book suggests, Cederberg's search has taken him to places far away but also brought him back home. In the book he talks a lot about wanderlust, something that he thinks is encoded in his DNA.
– I have always been fascinated by ancestral memory – the idea that certain strong traits and even memories are passed down in one's blood. Hence, perhaps it is because of my sailor ancestors from my mother’s side that I have always felt the sea in my veins: a siren call for far journeys and distant shores, a calling for adventuring, voyaging – and ultimately, discovering.
– At the same time, my father's side has been full of priests, and I feel that I have inherited my inherent nature and longing toward the holy from them. But we do not live an age of pagan priests.
– It must be pointed out that I have always had a thirst to truly find something, and not merely to gather extreme or exotic experiences, as many of today's travellers seemingly do. It takes a long time and much serious effort to truly start knowing a foreign tradition, for instance – or even one's own tradition for that matter. There are no shotcuts to such knowledge.
– As I tell in my book Journeys in the Kali Yuga, the places I have felt most at home in have been primarily inner landscapes – places in dreams and visions, whose equivalents I have sought in the outer, waking world. And when I have found them, they have been places of power.
– One need not of course travel to some exotic land like India to find such places, but one should look to one's native soil first. Finland, and Europe, is full of such places of power, even if we have often forgotten they exist. It is my mission to rediscover the holy enshrined in such places, and to point to them so that others may discover it also.
You talk about how "to truly know the story, one has to become the story" and also how the idea of pilgrimage is to surrender yourself to the stream of experience(s). How obvious a choice was it for you to travel to the roots of Hinduism in the first place?
– Before journeying to India, I travelled extensively in Europe in search of living pagan tradition. While still in my formative years, I spent months living as part of a pagan order in Albion, traveling to sacred sites there, and practicing, as much as is possible in the modern world, a type of paganism. But even though I found many profound things I was looking for, I also found the most serious deficit of the West: the lack of living pagan tradition, and the lack of authentic teachers and knowers representing an unbroken line of knowledge. And seeing as India holds one of the only truly living, unbroken pagan traditions in our world today, it became clear to me at some point that much could be learned from that ancient land. One could say that Shiva was calling out to me.
Seeking no "theories and ideologies but a living link to a living tradition of knowledge," Cederberg soon saw the words "should one desire a guide along the path, one will appear when the will is strong enough" come into flesh. Using the Jungian term synchronicity, Cederberg talks about the circumstances that put him into contact with "a real Naga Baba and a rare one at that."
Shri Mahant Rampuri, whom Cederberg calls a spiritual father, is an American expatriate who left his California home in the late 1960s at the age of nineteen to travel to India. He has received the panch guru initiation, "the sacrament of the five gurus," and become the first foreigner ever to be initiated into India's most ancient order of yogis and shamans, the Naga Babas. Those interested in Rampuri's extraordinary story are encouraged to read his Autobiography of a Sadhu: A Journey into Mystic India (2010).
Cederberg's first meeting with Rampuri was in the latter's home in Goa in 2008. During the first visit, which lasted for several hours, the two discussed topics varying from ayurveda (a system of traditional medicine) to analogy or similarities between the European and Hindu traditions. In their later discussions, Rampuri and Cederberg also brilliantly cut through the facades of what many inflatedly refer to as spirituality, saying that "at the end of the day, there is no spirituality... Because you have to make dinner."
During a later meeting, Cederberg who – besides being a traveller, writer and Radio Wyrd podcast host –, has been involved in a number of bands such as Halo Manash and MAA, also gave Rampuri one of his CDs and later found the sadhu listening to it. Cederberg says the album in question was Halo Manash Am Kha Astri, but why that particular CD and did the discussion on the music ever go further than the mystic "I understand" from Rampuri?
– There was an interesting coincidence related to this. The album opens up with a spiral horn trumpet, traditionally used by shamans as an instrument to ascend or descend the world tree on their journeys into other worlds. The instrument is very rare and I got it while traveling in Nepal. I have this same horn tattooed as a talisman on my skin. Arriving at Rampuri's house, I discovered he had this very same horn on his altar, which I had previously never seen anywhere else. It has often been said that when one is on the right path, meaningful coincidences arise.
– The whole thing you bring up involved a discussion about the nature of ritual art which the mentioned album could be seen as a representative of. Is it ritual approximating theatre, or theatre approximating ritual?
– Now, if we view most artists of genres of music that profess some esoteric, magical, or "spiritual" dimension – be it dark ambient, ritual ambient, metal, what have you – the answer to this question is obvious. Whatever is "magical" and "esoteric" in it is only windowdressing and aesthetics of an often utterly childish or superficial kind. Often there is also an unhealthy and juvenile obsession with all things dark, morbid and macabre.
– Also, there exists a underlying idea in these esoteric underground circles of music and art mistaking sadness or dourness with "wisdom" or "depth". I have found the opposite to be true. Never listen to someone posing to be "dark" who doesn't smile or laugh. There is no need to try to hold up any kind of facade of "darkness". In my book I tell about my Indian sadhu friend Surendra Puri, whose spiritual practices would make many Western black magicians run for their protective magical circles. Surendra lived without possessions in the forest for many years and spent extensive time meditating on corpses at cremation grounds at night. Yet in person, he is warm, kind and gentle, the opposite to what one would perhaps expect.
– My guiding star has always been balance and equilibrium – even if of an extreme kind.
Continuing with what you just said about bands that profess an esoteric dimension, especially from the black metal genre, in interviews I've regularly come across the idea of making everyday things rituals in themselves. Things like going to the gym, academic endeavours et cetera. You point out that, in India, rituals are an integral part of many people's everyday lives. How do you approach or define the idea of ritual, and to what extent are rituals a part of your everyday life?
– Ritual is active engagement with mythic reality.
– Ritual marks the passage of time, although it interacts with and manifests what is essentially timeless. Ritual marks transition points in the daily and early seasonal cycles, which can be seen to apply to all life, both personal and supra-personal. Ritual celebrates the relationship between us and the holy powers, between mortal and immortal, between ancestor and descendant. Ritual is pure, sacred action; conscious intent put into practice. Of course it can and should be applied to any act or endavour. Make every moment sacred!
– Rites of passage, rites of yearly, seasonal celebration, and rites of personal transformation are all extremely important, and yet often ignored by our modern secular society – hence the spiritual malaise we see all around us in the West.
– Ritual is very much part of my daily life and yearly existence. When we engage in ritual our life cycles connect with the larger cycles beyond the temporary, and anchor us into the eternal. As time passes, I can see yet more wisdom in this – it gives deep meaning and a sense of connection in this existence.
Reading the book, I get the sense that you were very much diving head first to the deep end, as regards Hinduism, trying to take the whole tradition in. Coming from the Western world, a protestant, secular country like Finland, what were the most incompatible, perhaps estranging things in the Hindu tradition for you?
– The severe acts of self-mortification that some sadhus pratice were still sometimes very bewildering to me. Sadhus practice tapasya, physical and spiritual yogic austerities and mortifications that often involve severe vows, ordeals, or endurance of pain and extreme suffering, to cultivate the inner fire (tapas) and to"get the attention of god." This could mean vows of silence lasting many years, or extreme pilgrimages barefoot to some remote snowy mountaintop, or to remain standing for many years, i.e. to never sit down. One such baba I met was Mahant Amar Bharti Ji, a famous urdhvabahu (arm raised) Baba, who had been holding up one arm for thirty-two years. Now what remained of his arm was a shriveled stick of bone. He said, "It is like a flag raised in honor of Shiva—and once raised, it does not come down."
– Especially bewildering to me were the "penis-pulling" acts, where the nerves of the penis would be damaged to make it impossible to achieve an erection; and especially when this was done for under-aged, young babas. It is one thing to renounce the world as an adult, and quite another to renounce it as a child when you have no idea what you are renouncing yet.
– Whether these kind of extreme acts are representative of the genuine, authentic tradition, or later aberrations, remains a question of debate.
Cederberg says that despite having "immense respect for and interest in the religious, spiritual and esoteric traditions of India," he has come to the conclusion that, ultimately, it is not his tradition. In fact, he states that the "esoteric path of India was not to be embarked upon by a European" such as him and at best provided "a new way to see one's own hereditary spiritual landscape."
For whatever reason, Cederberg's quest for darshan – visions of the divine – left him with the feeling of being an outsider in so-called sacred places and in the presence of so-called holy men. But as Cederberg points out, being an outsider is not necessarily a negative thing, because it may help one to embrace one's true nature, to find what is genuine and true. It would seem that, in order to find something like that, both Cederberg and Rampuri think we should, first and foremost, get in touch with the spirits and deities of our own land, the soil underneath our feet. And that is also what Journeys in the Kali Yuga gravitates towards, especially in its final chapters, where it shifts focus from Hindu tradition to European, Nordic and even Finnish mythologies.
A book called Suomen pyhät paikat (Sacred sites in Finland) was just recently published and it got me thinking about sacred places that I've visited myself, especially some places in Lapland that have had this very strong energy about them. In his foreword to Journeys in the Kali Yuga, Michael Moynihan also touches on this, saying "these sites [...] may be numinous features in the natural landscape such as mountains, groves, trees, lakes, wells, and waterways, or man-made structures like temples, altars, and shrines." It was already mentioned that you couldn't always connect with the sacred Hindu sites, but are there sites in Finland, for example, that you have a particular connection with?
– I very much appreciate the efforts of the writers of the book Suomen Pyhät Paikat, and other such projects, like the efforts to map out and protect our native sacred sites, holy trees, groves, stones et al.
– There are numerous sites in Finland that I connect with, and I keep learning about and visiting many previously unknown sites all the time. Finland is remarkably rich in sacred sites. However, I find sacred places not just in Finland, but throughout Europe, which I consider my spiritual homeland. For the past several years, I have made long pilgrimages throughout Europe in search of these sacred sites, both ancient and modern, which I consider to be beacons of spirit in a soulless age. I have thought about how to approach them and what their significance is to us living in the modern world, a world that has mostly lost touch with its own places of power and spiritual tradition. I consider it as my mission to point toward the holy, because these places of power have not disappeared anywhere, nor are they located in some far away land, but often they can be found right here under our feet, hidden in plain sight. This quest to rediscover and deepen the holy for myself, and for my people, is what my next book Holy Europe is about.
Going back to Journeys in the Kali Yuga, one of its most touching segments is where Cederberg tells about losing his father and getting the call from his mother while he was attending Kumbh Mela, which is the largest religious gathering in the world. Cederberg talks about "how raw the fabric of reality is when touched by tragedy" and that "sorrow is a reality, a sobering realization, bound to touch us during our life, no matter how we may wish to hide behind a facade of artifice built to protect us from such unpleasant things." The way I first read the segment was that Cederberg's saying that, while there may be moments of great joy and profound meaningfulness, life at its core is tragedy. That's not the way Cederberg sees it, however.
– Life is neither tragedy or comedy at its core, although it contains elements of both. I think platitudes such as "life is tragedy" are self-fulfilling beliefs, that we make into reality for ourselves if we believe in them enough; it is an easy escape. That is not to say that tragedy is not part of this life, because it certainly is, and it would be an error should we try to shun away from it. But I think we should live heroically, and face our tragedies and our joys with honor. As Nietzsche wrote, "Pagans are those who say Yes to life!"
Yes, indeed, preferably a life worthy of divine attention.