The River of Story
Aki Cederberg, 2012
I have told you all that constitutes the very core of Truth; There is no you, no me, no superior being, no disciple, no Guru. The nature of supreme Reality is self-evident and simple; I am nectarean knowledge, unchanging bliss; I am everywhere, like space.
(Avadhut Gita, chapter 3, verse 42)
I sit at a corner café off Boulevard St.Michel, right by the river Seine, watching the steady hum of the streets of Paris, the pulse in the arteries of this old, jaded city. There is a certain light that attracts me here - the way the sun settles over the houses and rooftops, the way the churches and temples glow ochre in stark contrast to the deep blue night sky. In this mythical city of light by an equally mythical river flowing through it all, something feels familiar or reoccurring. It seems I am always walking in the shadows of old gods still lingering at the limits of a modern world. Sometimes stumblingly, I pierce the veil to the catch a glimpse of the sacred, which lies just below the surface of everything, and yet remains ever elusive. And Pan smiles, unmoved, playing his flutes at Jardin de Luxemburg.
In my broken french, I order cognac, and cast a glance into the river of past, present and future. Vu de l'extérieur. A view from the outside, as I have into many things.
It has been more than two years since I was in India at the Kumbh Mela. Equally, time has passed since I have seen my friends from that world, the babas, yogis, chelas and sādhakas. Earlier today, after having spent a magical morning and afternoon in Disneyland, I went to meet my friends Surendra Puri and Christian at a Yoga center in Paris. I arrived late in the evening and the Puja had been concluded. Surendra Puri was holding court on his central mat, opposite to the altar and surrounded by those in attendance. As I went to greet him in the traditional manner by touching his feet (or the place where his feet connected with the earth), he in turn instantly grabbed me in his arms and embraced me. Then he smiled in his familiar deep, disarming style. "Good to see you, dear Adinath Puri Ji!". He put a bindu on my third eye with yellow and orange paste, and sprinkled some rice on my forehead. "We are family", he said, while tying a red cord around my right hand, and calling out for prasad, blessed food, to offer us.
How different can people's journeys in life be toward possibly the same, elusive end. Surendra Puri was about my age, but has led a vastly different existence. Early in his youth he had taken the path of the ultimate renunciate, living alone in a forest with no home, no possessions, and feeding off of what was growing in nature. He did this for several years, which might seem unfathomable to us, the civilized, urban consumers. He had practiced his sādhanā with such fierce severity that would make many would-be master Western magicians run for their protective circles. And yet his presence was anything but severe, but rather warm, playful and empathic. In a gentle and hushed tone, he told a story about when, a long time ago, under the guidance of his guru, he had meditated over a corpse in a burial ground for several nights in a row. "I was very scared, naked. Much bones. Repeating mantras. I was really happy the corpse did not suddenly rise up. But I knew my guru was there, so nothing very bad would happen".
Again, this brings up a central problem we face in the West. We mostly lack our own gurus- that is, teachers and guides with a voice of authority and the power reflecting an ancient, unbroken tradition. Our traditions have been severed, and the access we seldom gain to them is by highly suspicious entities, whether modern or claiming ancient lineages. We are also told that our own spiritual and magical traditions are irrelevant and outdated. Instead we are offered a range of religions, ideologies and creeds from which we can pick and choose whatever might interest us on an ideal, aesthetic, but ultimately surface-level. As we lack context and handles, we stumble along in a jungle of abstract ideas written in dark chambers by pale intellectuals and lifeless scholars, surrounding ourselves with dry academia, baseless new age books, countless feel-good courses and self-help guides, mostly of thoroughly modern origin. We seek for authenticity, fiddle around with this or that esoteric discipline, dabble in dark shit, and sometimes plunge headlong into the abyss with perhaps no one there to catch us. When we resurface from the other worlds, sometimes instead of gifts to bring back with us, we carry psychic scars and holes in souls - not to mention massively inflated egos.
Let it be re-stated: what yogis and babas are is a living link in a ancient line of knowledge, of wisdom not confined to a book or creed, but spoken and sung through countless mouths since time immemorial. Yogis are the guardians of this line, which in India is called Sanātan Dharma, the eternal tradition and the laws of nature and the cosmos. What yogis do is act as conduits of magic, the blessings of nature, rooted in this ancient tradition of knowledge, for the people that seek and come to them. Ideally at least, they bring happiness, prosperity and wisdom into peoples lives. They are also the great storytellers, reflecting the story told again and again in myth and legend and long before these were written down. They tell of the quest of the hero - that is, the journey of the true human being.
Ever since I can remember, great stories have been a central part of my life. They have provided a narration and a map to this long, strange voyage. My earliest memories revolve around my grandmother telling me fairytales, legends and stories. Although the details of these have been dimmed in my memory by time, I can still remember many of their motifs. And I can remember my grandmother, rocking back and forth calmly in her swinging chair, smoking and telling me tales and reading to me, bathing me in the river of story. In my minds eye I see a great red book, massive in my little hands, with time-worn pages and black and white pictures of dark woods, castles, monsters, beautiful maidens, along with many other strange and wonderful things. And stories upon stories of heroes and villains, of great epic journeys, of quests and hidden treasures.
The imprint these stories left on my spirit is undeniable. They stirred my soul. I would play in the nearby woods with a bow and arrows and a small sword. The stories of my grandmother would be inevitably linked with my adventures and games. I would search for treasures and bury some of my own for others to find. And in my games, I always played the part of the hero, of course. I would like to think much has not changed from that.
These little stories were and are connected to the Great Story, which is not new, but the oldest story that there is. This story is written on the surface of the earth, and reflected in the hemisphere of the starry sky. In this day and age, we still have stories and we still have games, but the storytellers themselves -the bards, the shamans, the wise elders, the keepers of memory and lore, the links in the great chain- are fast disappearing, rowing their boats out to the ocean. And we are left on the shore, staring into the mist at the edge of worlds.
All this goes well beyond Yoga, Sanātan Dharma or India.
When we were talking about this subject with Naga Baba Rampuri some years back, he said: "Speaking of your country... I saw this painting the last time I was there that really opened my eyes to Finland. What I saw, if I might just spend a second describing it, was that the point-of-view was from inside what almost appeared to be a tepee. We are looking out of this tepee and we see a forest that has been chopped down and cleared of all trees, except for one. And this one tree has been cut and is lying on the ground. There is a musical instrument that is resting upon this tree that is cut down- obviously no one is playing it. Nobody is in the foreground of the picture. And next to this instrument and the tree is a small fire that looks like it is smoldering and going out. Off in the distance, we see a number of people that have gathered on a hill and they seem to be building something. Now, when I saw that I knew immediately what they were building: it was a church. And I could see that the spirits of the forest had left, that the storyteller had left his instrument behind him and was gone, that the fire was very quickly going out, and yet people were gathering at a distance on a hill to build something of man. This was very revealing to me of the culture of Finland and the time (I believe he painted this at the end of the 19th century). And so I could see that here was a calling to somehow return, not to go backwards in time when I say return, but rather an embracing of that substance and that foundation that lies beneath the surface in the culture, in the land, of Finland. If I could be somehow useful in giving people a means of re- embracing that spirit of the land, then I would consider my work to be very successful."
Rampuri is of course describing a classic work by Akseli Gallén-Kallela, Heathendom and Christendom (ed. note: suom.huom "Pakanuus ja kristinusko"). The storyteller that has departed is Väinämöinen, one of the central archetypal shamanic figures in the Finnish mythos. It is Väinämöinen who with his instrument, the Kantele, sings the world into being with his runes, while gods and spirits from all worlds gather around to listen. The forest, once the temple of the holy that came into being from Väinämöinen's song, is cut down, being reduced to a mere gross resource. This is historical fact: one of the prime agendas of the new arriving christian religion to Finland was to cut down the holy trees and sacred groves, in order to sever relationships and cut connections that the folk had to the land. The mythic songs of the gods played with the Kantele have been mostly abandoned and forgotten. The fire of storytelling, that is, the wisdom that lies in ancestral memory and knowledge, a way of seeing and reading the world, passed down since ancient times, is fast going out and mere embers remain. We are left standing alone in an arid desert with the arbitrary and abstract constructions of man.
The painting by Gallén-Kallela speaks to us clearly about this vacuity and disconnection which lies at the root of the many ills of our age. Something essential has been lost of our role and interaction with the natural world, and perhaps most of all, with ourselves. However, the magical instrument has been left behind for future generations, that they may once more play the divine songs in time of dire need and the departed king might return. Beyond doubt, we need our gods and our sense of them to rejoin us. How this might be done is still a matter of great concern and debate. There is no going back to past forms, nor is there any sense in being nostalgic toward the outer trappings of yesterday. To somehow rekindle the essence can be all that matters; we can only move ever forward. We have to become the hero of our own story, both in our personal lives and as a collective. All this might sound like a cliché, but in today ́s post-whatever culture, it seems most truths are. We have to dig deep into our roots, into the recesses of our soul, and simultaneously have our vision into the future. The slumbering embers of the dying fire need to be bought back to a smoldering flame in order to guide us through a very dark age indeed, the Kali Yuga revealing itself all around us.
The mythical and magical place into which I entered in India is a closing world. I wrote in the last chapter of my story that the world that I encountered in the Kumbh Mela was one that was disappearing in its current form, as it seemed to belong to an age of the past. I realized that I had my foot in the door to a place into which the entrances are being shut and ever harder to find.
This closing world is being sealed off from both inside the world and from outside of it. Already parts of the melas are moving indoors, camps and tents abandoned, not mention the increase of modern technology at the fair. The Kumbh is being partially broadcast live on both tv and the internet, and indeed tv's can be seen present at some of the babas dhunis. Stories told by the fire are being replaced by dramatic renditions watched on tv; the direct, visceral experience is replaced by the vicarious. How long the melas will remain untouched by the gnawing teeth of the changing times and the onslaught of modernization remains to be seen.
To the obvious dismay of the Juna Akhara, some naga babas of the order have also recently left their vocation as saddhus to become householders or to get married, sometimes in the west. I do not claim to have the answers to the questions this has raised recently, but one thing is clear. As with so many areas related to India and its traditions, and the complex, multifaceted issues surrounding it, dichotomical, dualistic thinking and valuing will get us nowhere. This line of thinking, which simplistically puts one supposed side against another, "good versus evil", is glaringly prevalent equally among western yogic practitioners, as well as some babas.
It seems the words in the last chapter of my story have rang especially true in light of recent events. Perhaps partially as a backlash to the times and circumstances within the order, the Juna Akhara has effectively banned entry of foreigners into their camp at the next Kumbh Mela. To protect its sacred and ancient tradition from modernity, progress and globalism, it has closed its gates from the influence of outsiders and mleccha's. This does probably not affect foreigners already initiated into to the order or connected to it, but it certainly will make things harder for those seeking entry from outside. But perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps this is to be taken as a statement that people should seek out their own sacred traditions, seek out the divine on the land they are standing on, and connect with the streams of knowledge dormant in their own blood.
The Kumbh Mela I took part in had affected my guru bhais (*ed.note: footnote: spiritual brothers and students of the same teacher) in various ways. It seemed that for most, magic had happened. Christian, with whom we had shared whisky and tears with at the Ganga, while mourning over our newly departed parents, had moved to Paris, founded a Yoga center (L’école Yoga et Méditation Paris) and gotten married. Vijaya Puri, who had heartbreakingly told me about the almost non-existent chances for her and her husband to ever conceive a child, had become pregnant shortly after the Kumbh, and had now given birth to a suitably named magical son, Merlin. Yogananda Puri and Savitri Puri had made the heroic sacrifice and become chelas, disciples, joining the ranks of the extremely rare naga babas of Western origin.
For Savitri Puri at least, this transition from her former self to a naga baba had been far from easy and painless. For her, the crossing of the threshold was comparable to a snake shedding its skin. She wrote to me that upon returning from India she had been lost, confused and overwhelmed, "almost wanting to leave her body". Slowly, however, she had started growing into her new personality, writing that even if it was and still is difficult, it has also been a a great opportunity for learning and knowledge, and for deconstructing her old personality. Savitri Puri continued: "The way this happens is from engagement, not withdrawal. This took me some time to be able to commit to. And it is not engagement with anything or anyone, it is an engagement with the new family of which my new person belongs to, and with my Guru, who not only is the authority for me, but a Western man who has already gone through these things himself." It seemed that for Savitri Puri, as for most of us, the struggle is between engagement and withdrawal. And ultimately, between love and fear.
As for myself, I certainly had my share of the struggle. In the aftermath of the death of my father began a phase of my life that was marked by an inward turning. The magic show was over, the curtains drawn and the lights switched on. A great wave of novelty had gushed over everything, and now it was receding, back into itself. "You have been disconnected", said the voice on the other end. My life became weary. Disillusionment, despair and depression grew intimate to me; nor were the vrittis, the endless, circular fluctuations of the mind, foreigners to my being. I had reached the end of many paths then, and wondered where all my pilgrimages had really taken me. And what, if anything, I had found to show for them.
There are stories within stories that are sometimes left untold, words whispered only in the dark of night. One such tale involves the first chapter of my story. By chance or by destiny, I connected with a woman during my first journey in India. Then, on the last morning before returning home, looking over the unusually tranquil sea, she cried silently. I did not then understand why. Some time later she was diagnosed with cancer and was dying in the hospital. Looking back on it now, I felt as if she had some awful premonition of the future. When I next saw her, she was weak and her head was shaved. We gazed out of the window, high above the dreary, winter-grey city into the nothingness. She asked me, "are you happy". "No", I said. You do not lie to a dying person. We walked down the quiet corridor of the cancer-ward. That was the last time I saw her alive.
I have been to hell. It is an endless, white hospital hall, lined with the suffering and the dying, being told that this is it. Whether the dark corridors at a refuge for lepers in Kathmandu or the sterile white walls of Helsinki, I sometimes see these vistas of deep sadness and bone-crushing suffering stretching into infinity. This is a vision I still struggle with greatly. But perhaps this is the eternal struggle we all face as human beings. And sometimes, even when the odds are against us, we have to fight.
A yoga teacher in Delhi once said to me that my "aura is surrounded by darkness". How right she may have been. But it is not through shunning darkness that we come to know light, but only through delving into it. I have always sought to be winged both in the Sun and the Moon. But in the process, I have certainly taken a plunge headlong into the depths. My consciousness has been plagued by many illusions, locked in limitations and paralyzed by fear. Kali is shown holding her hand in the mudra marking "no fear"- and yet I have been afraid. I have had recurring dreams, visions and thoughts of being alone in a mechanistic universe, just another piece of meat on the line waiting for the inevitable knife. I have felt separated from others and cut off from union with the divine.
All these things have come and gone. I have watched them approach and witnessed them leave. Sometimes, I have even been attached to them.
I have learned that much can be gained by simply letting go of things. Emotions and memories, spiritual or magical paths, identities or aspects of one's personality, material items and objects- it is all just stuff in the end (* ed.note: suom.huom. "stuff"="kama"). Following the classic model in many traditions, one starts from simplicity based on a lack of knowledge. Gradually one gains experience and knowledge, and slowly, one moves toward ever more complexity. But in the end, one has to let go of all that one has learned and return to simplicity. This is what I have done. The process I have undergone since the Kumbh has been one of deconstruction and simplification. Instead of an accumulation of more knowledge, it has been a letting go, a reduction of excess baggage. I have set my sight on the core and seed of things. From the depths, I have turned my gaze upwards, reaching for the brilliant radiance at the surface.
Many years ago in Varanasi I was given a prophecy of my life. I was sitting with a friend by the Manikarnika ghats watching the endless burning corpses, when an Indian man engaged us in conversation. He told us there was a great baba living in a shack nearby, who was proficient in astrology and could tell us great things. Of course, we did not believe him at all. But Varanasi being the city of thieves, we thought it would be an experience at least, and so we found ourselves sitting on the shitty floor of his shack with the eager Indian already rubbing his palms in anticipation. The old white-clad, gray-haired and bearded baba eventually arrived, and after much hassling about money, the session started. The baba told me many things about myself and my life to come, as he saw it written on my hands, face and the stars. He related to me my characteristics as they pertain to my life, love, passions, creative work, dispositions and such. He foretold the progression and unfolding of events. Although he was right about several things, at the time we laughed it all off. Now, some eight years later, I kept recalling some of the things the baba foretold, and looked up the tape wherein I had recorded parts of his words. I was surprised to discover that more of it was true than I would have thought. This is telling of how India was and still is for me partially an enigma, a sign that there is some magic to this world.
And so it often goes in life. Just when I have thought that the game is up, there comes a magic touch. The nature of the universe has beheld itself to me in an experience, telling me that we are not separate after all. Suddenly, all paths are again open for me. The magic is there as it always was, as long as I invoke it. And then I hear the the song of Dattatreya, the bringer of the teachings and giver of initiation:
Truly, it is by the grace of God That the knowledge of Unity arises within Then a man is released at last from the great fear of life and death
(Avadhut Gita, chapter 1, verse 1)
Back in Paris, we sat around the altar with Surendra Puri for satsang, the teachings. We talked about many things, and one area was the ever-alluring Tantra. Tantra, the union of Shiva and Shakti, is dubiously viewed with much suspicion and fear in modern India. Equally dubiously in the west, it has manifested as a series of silly new age "sensual and spiritual" erotic exercises. Someone exemplified this recently by asking me about my story, "is there tantra sex stuff in there?"
In response the recent upheavals in the Juna Akhara involving some naga babas leaving the saddhu life to become householders and marry, Surendra Puri had a curious comment: "The love is the same, but the thought is different". His words rang in my head long after that, and I pondered about what he meant.
There might not be a word more frivolously used than love. The word love has become banal and devaluated, a market-place manipulative commodity used as an easy emotional trigger. An entire culture exists around this mushy, adolescent and juvenile kind of love. Rather than something ever-expansive and connecting, this love is often rooted in fear, in a strange kind of desperation. And yet, despite all of these things, love is still one of the quintessential human qualities that marks us as beings reaching for something beyond ourselves.
I re-read my story about India and thought about how much love played a part in it. I too have experienced love gained and love lost. I too have witnessed the joy of love coming into being and the agony of love dying. But is there another kind of love, a deeper kind of love, a love that remains?
Union is the essence of life and is the creative force of the universe. This union is manifested in human terms as love. Possibly the highest kind of love is that between two souls that see each other as reflections of one another, as part of the same spirit. In this light, one's object of love becomes one's teacher, the highest embodiment of the divine. Worship takes form as seva ("service"). In the case of lovers, sex becomes sacrament in emulation of Shiva and Shakti. But it is not an easy path. One must become as Rama, fighting great wars and traveling to the world's end for his wife and lover, pure devotion as the focus of life.
In the end, the ultimate truth or supreme knowledge, as it pertains to human life, is profoundly simple. And yet, paradoxically, it might be too sublime, too austere, too simple for us to easily fathom. It often dwells just beyond our grasp, although it is within us all the time. This truth has been sung by the mouths of countless mystics since time immemorial, and later embodied in the sacred texts and symbolism of many cultures and religions - but mostly forgotten by modern man. This truth is not a concept, not a set of ideas, not a philosophical position - but a revealed knowledge of the bliss of unity, variously called "awakening", "illumination", "gnosis" or "enlightenment", whether reached through esoteric or spiritual practice, psychedelic substances, sex or a multitude of other things. The method is inconsequential, the aim is the same. A life in quest of this truth leads to pilgrimage - to inner and outer journeys in forceful search of glimpses in which truth is revealed to us, in us. And again, it is never somewhere else, but always "here", forever enshrined in the heart of hearts.
In the beginning of one's journey there might be the smaller goals of life one strives for - wealth, prosperity, success - which if and when attained, often lead to the realization that these smaller goals are but flickering, fleeting reflections of the true, ultimate goal. Sometimes great tragedy may also force us to confront this realization before we feel we are ready for it.
When I was by the river Ganga in Rishikesh, dazed and otherworldly, plagued by my familiar entourage of inner demons, I partook in an evening puja. From a young boy I bought some incense and a little floating ghee lamp made out of leaves. I wrote something on a little piece of paper - my ultimate wish and goal, the treasure I was seeking for. I folded and slipped the little sheet of paper, along with a coin, into the ghee lamp. Then I lighted it and watched in solemn silence as it drifted into the distance. It joined the stream of countless other floating lamps, becoming a small dot of light under the dark mountainous horizon, eventually vanishing completely into the night. That is several years ago now, and exactly what I scribed on the paper has been irretrievably lost in the sands of time. But the ultimate goal, the treasure I was seeking for, is still there.
"Adinath Puri, when are you coming to India again, to the Kumbh Mela?", Surendra Puri asked me when we were about to part ways in Paris. I did not know what to answer. I felt that I had gone as far as I could on that particular path. But then again, you never know. As long as there is life, there is pilgrimage.
Even if I left all these things forever behind me, I do not believe they will ever leave me. The gifts I have received and the connection I have made are never to be defiled. I will always treasure them as the talismans they are. As I am slumbering, somewhere in the distance I will hear bells ringing, calling me to them. And suddenly I will have a vision of the old warrior of the tales, who washed his bloody hands in a lake and rode triumphant over the mountains. I will remember all the blessings and bliss, the heights in which I have sung my will to the heavens, the wind carrying my voice into all directions. I will remember the valleys, in which I have bled tears and blood of deep longing into the ground. And soon I am awake, standing on the edge again, an unknown breeze on my face.
We never got to drink whisky by the river with Christian this time round and ruminate over days gone by as I had anticipated. But that is all just the past anyway. You can never drink whisky at the same river twice. The river is ever flowing, marked by its sound, "sarasarasara", invoking Saraswati, mother of creation and goddess of knowledge. And here in the present we did get to meet again. Seeing Surendra Puri and Christian felt familiar like meeting a brother. When we left into the night, I put my hand over Surendra's shoulder and we hugged again. "We are family", or something to that effect, Surendra Puri said again. Perhaps it really is this simple, at least partially. Yoga means union, magic means connection. And this was it. We said our goodbyes under the starry night sky of Paris. We would meet again.
As I wander by the river, my heart is filled with a sense of yearning and a sense of everything happening simultaneously. Looking back at the time-worn images from my journeys forever carved into my soul, I am overcome with the beauty, tragedy and majesty of those images. Sunrise, sunset. A starry night sky, the crashing waves of the ocean. A smile, a dance, an embrace. When we looked at each other, we saw ourselves. Creatures of consciousness in time, reflecting the infinite consciousness beyond time, connected to each other in the being of life, and what animates this being is the ultimate truth of the universe. Lost in moments such as these, the separation from the source and the angst of disconnection is lifted, the universe unveiling itself in an act of joy, and the gods want to play. Suddenly, as the celestial seeks itself in the sensual, at the touch of a lover or in the arms of the great unknown, the divine discloses itself in unity and bliss.
Maybe I had found the long sought-after darshan, the beholding, after all.
All this (world) is conjured by magic; It is only the water of a desert mirage. Beyond all differences, beyond all forms, Truly, there is Shiva alone.
(Ahadhut Gita, chapter 7, verse 14)
- Paris, May 2012 - Helsinki, Dhanteras – Lakshmi Puja, November 2012
THE RIVER OF STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS PART OF THE ANTHOLOGY THE FENRIS WOLF ISSUE #6 (Edda Publishing 2012), AND LATER AS A CHAPTER IN PYHIINVAELLUS: MATKALLA INTIASSA JA NEPALISSA (Salakirjat, 2013).