We recently had the great fortune to talk with Marshall Govindan, (aka Satchidananda), about Kriya Yoga. Satchidananda is the President of Babaji’s Kriya Yoga Order of Acharyas, and a disciple of Babaji Nagaraj, the famed Himalayan master and originator of Kriya Yoga, as well as his late disciple, Yogii S.A.A. Ramaiah.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to be bringing you this rich interview, chock-full of wisdom, in installments.
Levitating Monkey: What is Kriya Yoga?
Marshall Govindan Satchidananda: Babaji’s Kriya Yoga is a scientific art of God, Truth union and Self-Realization. It was revived by a great master of India, Babaji Nagaraj, as a synthesis of ancient teachings of the 18 Siddha tradition. It includes a progressive series of 144 techniques or ‘kriyas’ grouped into five phases or branches, originally taught and practiced over a period of twelve years, one technique per month. Paramahansa Yogananda taught that practice of Kriya Kundalini Pranayama can accelerate the natural progression of Divine Consciousness in human beings.
LM: As a graduate of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and George Washington University in Washington D.C., how did you initially come to be interested in Kriya Yoga?
MGS: Throughout my adolescence growing up in West Los Angeles, I nurtured an interest in spirituality. But I was also inspired by John F. Kennedy’s words: “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” After beginning my studies at Georgetown in 1966, my interest in spirituality matured under the guidance of the Jesuit priest, Thomas O. King, a true mystic, who happened also to be the counselor at the end of the hall in my dormitory. But it was the Autobiography of a Yogi that lead me to Kriya Yoga specifically It answered many of my existential questions and inspired me to apply to the Self Realization Fellowship, to commit myself for life to their monastic order, with Father King’s encouragement. The SRF asked me to wait for one year.
LM: What lead to your initiation in the early 1970s by Yogi Ramaiah?
MGS: Six months after entering the probationary period with the SRF, half way through my senior year, I saw a two-line ad for “Kriya Yoga” classes in the local “Free Press,” newspaper. I started attending these in a one-room apartment off Dupont Circle. Two months later, in February 1970, I attended the lecture and class given there by Yogi S.A. A. Ramaiah. He had a magnificent aura and his lecture and class so intrigued me that I began attending them every month, when he would come down from New York City on the Greyhound Bus. In the spring I passed the written and oral examinations to enter the United States Foreign Service, which until that time had been my career objective. But after receiving the first and second initiations into Babaji’s Kriya Yoga from Yogi Ramaiah in his apartment ashram at 112 East 7th Street, in New York City, I began to feel conflicted about choosing career as a diplomat. I wanted to advance in this Yoga, I wanted self-realization. I suppose it was dharma or destiny pushing in on my well-intended plans. The effects of the anti-war movement and the counter-cultural revolution in which I was an active participant beginning in Paris in 1968, had also given me serious doubts about making a commitment to supporting American foreign policy in particular, and American materialistic culture in general. I finally made a decision after raising the issue with Yogi Ramaiah. I remember asking him “What should I do?” Join the Foreign Service, or join his mission of Babaji’s Kriya Yoga? To his credit, he gave no encouragement to either alternative. He said I could become a diplomat and come and visit him whenever I liked. My decision not to join the Foreign Service was based upon my appreciation that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Here was an authentic Master of Yoga and a genuine disciple of Babaji. If I was going to advance in the field of Yoga, I would need to dedicate myself to it whole-heartedly. And perhaps I could best make a difference in the world not by representing the U.S. government, but by serving one person at a time through Yoga.
There was some subsequent irony to this decision. When I decided to join his mission, and before moving into a center he was setting up back in California, he wrote a letter in support of my application for exemption from military service to my draft board in Gardenia, California. The board gave me the exemption. I was probably the only person exempted from military service as a “seminary student” in a yoga ashram! Three years later, after a year in his ashram in Tamil Nadu, India, when Yogi Ramaiah sent me back to Washington, D.C. to serve our Kriya Yoga center there, after taking the U. S. Civil Service exam, I was offered two positions as an economist: one in the Department of Labor, and the other with the Chief of Naval Operations in the Pentagon. After asking him to advise me on which position to accept, he said that it would be best to take the position in the Pentagon! So, I spent the next four years there, getting over the “duality” of my ambivalence towards military service, until he asked me to move to Montreal, where he needed me to take over the center he had established there in 1970. So, my career of “foreign service” was elevated from government service to Babaji’s Kriya Yoga.
LM: Talk to us about how your book, Babaji and the 18 Siddha Kriya Yoga Tradition, came about.
MGS: In 1983, after 12 years of practicing the 144 kriyas for more than eight hours a day on the average, and helping Yogi Ramaiah to establish 23 teaching and sadhana centers around the world, he gave to me a list of rigorous conditions to fulfill, to prepare me for the heavy responsibility of initiating others into the advanced practices of Babaji’s Kriya Yoga. After fulfilling these conditions, Yogi Ramaiah asked me to wait. On December 25, 1988, Babaji told me to leave Yogi Ramaiah’s organization and to begin to teach his Kriya Yoga. In 1990, I began writing this book as a means of sharing the knowledge which I had acquired pertaining to Babaji and his tradition, during the past two decades. Because I had lived and breathed its contents for so long and so intimately, it was also my offering to my Guru, Babaji, in the form of all potential readers. I had a very demanding editor, Dr. Desh Sikka, Ph.D, an early student in Montreal, who obliged me to rewrite it five times: starting with the organization of the entire book, then that of each chapter, then that of each section, and finally every paragraph and sentence, tightening each one up, removing all extraneous words. That is why every page is so packed with information.
LM: Can you tell us about your two darshans with Babaji. (ie, When was it, what was context of the meeting, how did it leave you feeling, what were action steps post the meeting as it relates to Kriya Yoga)?
MGS: These occurred in early October, 1999, at Sapt Kund, also known as Saptopanth Tal, 20 miles above Badrinath, on the other side of Mount Neelakantan. For many years, I have meditated on going to Babaji’s ashram there. It is known as Gauri Shankar Peetam. It has been described by V.T. Neelakantan, in his book Babaji’s Masterkey to All Ills, and by Yogi Ramaiah in an early edition of his Kriya Yoga Magazine. Each of them were called there by Babaji, Neelakantan, on the astral plane, Yogi Ramaiah on the physical plane, in 1952 and 1954 respectively.
This entire area around Badrinath is steeped in legends. Arjuna is reported to have gone to Sapt Kund to bathe and cleanse himself after the battle of Kurushetra. Vyasa is reported to have written the Mahabharata in a particular cave at Mana, a village 3 km beyond the town of Badrinath. I have written about Badrinath itself in my book Babaji and the 18 Siddha Kriya Yoga Tradition.
Yogi Ramaiah had taught me how to communicate with Babaji. I started visiting Badrinath in 1986, with Yogi Ramaiah, after the Mahakumba mela in Haridwar. During my visit to Badrinath in 1998, Babaji told me to apply for permission to go into the restricted area above Badrinath the following year. No foreigners had ever been granted permission to enter this area because of its proximity to the border of Tibet and China. When our Chidambaram ashram manager Neelakantan managed to get permission for us to travel hike up there, with the help of a local businessman, Rohit, we found a local guide and hired three Nepalese porters. The six of us hiked up to this glacial lake, the source of the Alakananda River, in two days, reaching there on October 2. With the air containing only fifty percent the oxygen at sea level, the trek over the slippery ice and rock strewn glacier itself was extremely arduous.
After exploring the steep slopes around the sides of the lake for caves or places to erect a “lean -to” for shelter, as we had not brought tents, we decided upon a low stone wall, built up on three sides, about three feet high, which had been erected probably long ago by shepherds or pilgrims. I draped a large plastic tarpaulin over it, and fastened it sides down with stones. I could enter it by the fourth, open side. Neelakantan moved into a nearby cave, eight feet long, with a low entrance, and just wide enough for him to lay down in. The porters moved into the kutir and unpacked.
It was a glorious sunlit day, with sky bluer than anywhere else I’d ever seen. It seemed to be “popping” with pranic energy. In the afternoon, after lunch, I began to explore the area, praying that I might find Babaji’s ashram. From reading V.T. Neelakantan’s account of his visit to Sapt Kund, I had anticipated that Babaji’s actual ashram would be hidden. As there were no trails, only boulders and rocks strewn and piled on top of one another on the steep slopes, exploring was not easy. I finally found a perch high above the lake, on a flat slab. From here, I could see almost the entire lake, as well as all of the surrounding mountains. Over the next few days I spent most of my time here practicing many of the 144 Kriyas which Babaji had taught to Yogi Ramaiah here 45 years earlier.
Later in the afternoon, I climbed down near the lakeside where I found a large cave underneath two large boulders. The entrance to the cave, was so low that I had to crawl into it, but once inside I could easily stand up in its center. It looked as though it may have served up to a dozen persons at one time. It had apparently been used for a group because in several places, stone seats were evident near the inner wall. I sat down in the far corner on a large flat stone and closed my eyes. Babaji’s powerful presence became evident and I was filled with rapture and light, a great expansion of being, and a very deep peace. I was home.
Later, upon leaving the cave, I discovered a fire pit, twenty yards down the slope, constructed from stone, in a square in the traditional manner of a mantra yagna peetam. In it were the charcoal remains of a yagna fire. Four feet away from it on four sides were flat stones on which one could easily sit facing the fire. I was thrilled to find it, just as Yogi Ramaiah had depicted it in his painting of Mataji washing the feet of Babaji. In fact, this painting which served as the basis of the painting made by my sister, Gail Tarrant, and reproduced on the rear cover my book Babaji and the 18 Siddha Kriya Yoga Tradition was a remarkably accurate representation of the actual Satopanth lake scene. In particular, the three peaks in the background, which include Mount Neelakantan, and the steep hills which border the lake on all sides, except the narrow area where Babaji and Mataji are sitting, were found to be the same as in these paintings.
Over the next few days I continued to sit most of the day in rapture on my perch high above the lake. “What ineffable joy!” During my first meditation there, I clearly heard Babaji’s voice say “Abide in me”, and these words made such an impact on me that over the next few days, my consciousness “turned inside out”, so to speak. “That”, “The Presence”, came to the foreground and everything else withdrew to the background. The physical world as witnessed through the senses appeared as images upon a movie screen. Perhaps the rarified atmosphere there, and the purification process of what I’d been through during the past few days, not to mention 30 years of intense sadhana, no doubt, helped “set the stage”. The show, however, was not about phenomena. It was the fusion of “consciousness” which had up to then been locked inside, with That Reality pervading everywhere. Such ineffable peace and tranquility. The absence of thought forms which are generally so common where ever one finds human habitation (and physical and mental pollution) was remarkable. The pure snow covered mountains towering above on all sides, stood like sentinels, guarding this sacred space. They pointed skywards, towards blue infinity. The intense sunlight enlightened and permeated everything. What rapture! Here, natural events, like the avalanches of snow and rock which occurred several times a day, took on new meanings. I marvelled at how the glacier upon which I sat and which surrounded me, had been built up over hundreds of thousands of years by the cumulative effect of such avalanches; and how their slow movement and melting had fed the Ganges and the dry, dusty plains of India for thousands of generations. How interconnected we all are across space and time.
“Effulgent self-consciousness”, I’d exclaim at times, afterwards, when the mind made attempts to describe the state. I drank deeply from the ocean of bliss pouring out of that deep glacier at Sapt Kund, one of the four major river origins of the Ganges.
On October 5, 1999, between 3:30 and 5 p.m., I had the first of two visions of Babaji. I was seated on my favorite perch, 100 yards above Saptopanth lake, when Babaji’s radiant form appeared before me. He looked just like the photograph taken by V.T. Neelakantan nearly 50 years ago. With copper colored hair, fair brown skin, dark brown eyes, he was barefooted and wore only a pale yellow dhoti from his waist to his ankles. He walked towards me and embraced me. I felt diffused with a powerful golden light. “I am very happy that you received and acted upon the messages that I sent to you telepathically”, he said. “Despite all of the difficulties, and your heavy schedule, you have finally made it here. I had to remove many obstacles to your coming here. I tapped the officer in Joshimutt to give you a pass. I kept it from snowing here all winter so that you could make it across the glacier”. He went on: “It is good that you did not bring a group, because the conditions would have been too difficult and their distraction would have prevented you from receiving the experiences I wanted you to have here.” He then smiled when he said the following: “You have my blessings and the Order of Acharyas which you have founded in my name will gradually spread my Kriya Yoga throughout the world”. Then he gave me several important personal messages to relate to others.
On the night before October 7, it snowed again, but this time very heavily. In the morning, about six inches of snow covered everything. There was a risk of being snowed in if it continued. Fortunately, it was sunny October 7, but the snow was not melting. I decided that it was time to break camp and to leave. While part of me will always remain there and is there even now, the grosser vehicle could not have survived and was duty bound to “continue to deliver the mail” to so many persons. Babaji is in everyone, and now I see Him clearly so! And that is perhaps the message he wanted me to convey the most: “Seek Babaji to become Babaji”, first in your own hearts, then in everyone and everything.
LM: What is Siddhantha and who are the Siddhas?
MGS: “Siddhantha” refers to the body of teachings of Indian Yogic or Tantric adepts, known as “Siddhas” or perfected masters, those who have attained some degree of perfection or divine powers known as “siddhis.” Aside from the “Siddhas” associated with Tibetan Buddhism, they are mystics who emphasized the practice of Kundalini Yoga to realize one’s potential divinity in all five planes of existence. They condemned institutional religion with its emphasis on temple and idol worship, ritualism, casteism and reliance upon scriptures. They taught that one’s own experience is the most reliable authoritative source of knowledge and wisdom and to acquire this one must turn within to the subtle dimensions of life through Yoga and meditation.
Most of their writings go back 800 to 1600 years, as far back as the 2nd century, A.D. Anta means “final end.” Siddhanta means the final end, conclusion or goals of the Siddhas, the perfect masters. It is also derived from citta and anta meaning that it is the end of the thinking faculty, therefore this is the final conclusion reached at the end of thinking. While they existed all over India and even Tibet, the tradition to which we belong, and whose literature we have researched, translated and published since the 1960’s is from south India, and is known as “Tamil Kriya Yoga Siddhantha.”
The writings of the Tamil Yoga Siddhas were in the form of poems, in the vernacular language of the people, rather than Sanskrit, which was known only to the top most caste, the priestly Brahmins, who opposed them. Nowhere in their writings do they sing praises to any deities. Theologically their teachings can be classified as “monistic theism.” But these do not attempt to create a philosophical system or a religion. They seek to provide practical teachings, particularly related to Kundalini Yoga, to realize Truth directly, and what one should avoid on the spiritual path.
Sectarian affiliation has no importance for Siddhas. They feel at ease among persons of all faiths. Their approach towards truth is to first experience it in samadhi, the mystical communion of cognitive absorption, and then to gradually surrender to it completely until it becomes their constant state of consciousness in the state of enlightenment. Their approach does not include attempts to build systems of philosophy or to construct religious belief systems. The Siddhas’ poems show no trace of shared opinions or collective thinking; theirs is an “open philosophy” in which all expressions of truth were valued. Their poems and songs do not preach any doctrines; they only suggest a direction by which aspiration for a direct, intuitive, personal and profound realization of the Divine truth may be realized.
The Siddhas, however, used a forceful, vernacular language designed to shock people out of their conventional morality and egoistic delusion. They used the common language of the people, rather than the elitist Sanskrit, in order to reach their listeners. They urged their listeners to rebel against pretentious, empty orthodox beliefs and practices, including temple worship and rituals, caste, and petition like prayers. They taught that at a certain stage, once the process of surrender of the ego fully embraces the intellectual plane of existence, one’s own experience, rather than scriptures, becomes the ultimate authority of one’s truth. The Siddha is a free thinker and a revolutionary who refuses to allow himself to be carried away by any dogma, scripture or ritual. The Siddha is a radical in the true sense of the term, for he has personally gone to the “root” of things.
LM: What is Advaita and why is it important?
MGS: Advaita refers to one branch of Vedanta, the philosophical teachings of the Vedas. In the west, theologians would refer to it as “monism.” Webster’s Dictionary defines monism as “the doctrine that there is only one ultimate substance or principle, that reality is an organic whole without independent parts.” This is the opposite of dualism: “the theory that the world is composed of two irreducible elements (matter and spirit), or…the doctrine that there are two mutually antagonistic principles in the universe, good and evil.”
Pluralism is defined as “the theory that reality is composed of a multiplicity of ultimate beings, principles or substances.”
Why are these distinctions important? These are subtle distinctions which may not seem to relate to one’s daily religious experience. Thus, we may be inclined to dismiss such matters as of concern only to theologians, satgurus, swamis, yogis and philosophers. Yet, they are the very core of religion and cannot be regarded as trivial. They affect everyone, for they define distinct perceptions of the nature of the soul (and therefore of ourselves), of the world and of God. They offer different spiritual goals: either to merge fully and forever in Him (a state which transcends even states of bliss) or to remain eternally separated from God (though such separation is seen positively as endless bliss). One view, monism, is unity in identity in which the embodied soul, jiva, actually is and becomes God (Siva). The other view, pluralism, is unity in duality, two in one, in which the soul enjoys proximity with God but remains forever an individual soul, or three in one because the third entity, the world, or pasha, does not ever, even partly, merge with God.
Furthermore, depending upon which of these perspectives one adopts, the view of the world changes. The nondualist (advaitan) sees the world as “unreal,” as illusionary, and consequently unimportant. One avoids becoming entangled in the world’s affairs, which is dismissed as illusionary. There is no God. There is no soul. It is neither theistic nor atheistic. It is monistic: meaning that there is only One. There is only One reality, referred to as Brahman, an impersonal “That.” The goal is moksha, freedom from the illusion (maya) which prevents one from realizing that there is only One. Upon awakening from the illusion of maya, one realizes continuous awareness of this nondual reality. The prescribed means involve “Self enquiry” or “Self remembrance.” This may involve the contemplation of such phrases as “Who Am I?” or “I am That,” or “I am Brahman,” or the study of the Upanishads, the Vedantic commentaries on the Vedas. It may also involve taking formal vows of renunciation in a monastic order, such as the Dasami, the swami orders founded by the leading exponent of Advaita, Adi Sankara in the 9th century.
The dualist (dvaitan) on the other hand recognizes that the world is real, and distinct from the soul or spirit. Classical Yoga, based upon the dualist Samkhya philosophy teaches that to become liberated from suffering in the world one needs to repeatedly enter into the state of consciousness known as samadhi, cognitive absorption. In this state, one becomes aware of what is aware. One transcends egoism’s false identification with the body and the movements of the mind. The causes of suffering are gradually eliminated as a result. Instead of the intellectual approach of Advaita and Vedanta, it teaches that the Truth can only be known by entering into the samadhi state of conscious, wherein the mind becomes silent. It prescribes a progressive sadhana, spiritual practices to prepare one to enter samadhi. This is the approach of Classical Yoga, Tantra, some devotional (bhakti) schools of Vedanta. Self-realization is the goal of Classical Yoga, and perfection, involving transformation of human nature, is the goal of Tantra. It is based upon an understanding of Samkhya’s principles (tattvas) of Nature, and it to seek to remain balanced amidst Nature’s constituents (gunas), seeking to remain as the Seer, or Witness, rather than identified with the body-mind-personality. One’s own experience is the ultimate authority, rather than scripture. “Jiva is becoming Siva” summarizes the monistic theistic approach of Siddhantha and Kashmir Shaivism. Identity of the individual soul, the jiva, with That (Siva) is the ultimate end, as it is in the nondualist perspective.
The pluralist is what one finds in theistic religions, such as the monotheistic religions of the West (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) and dualistic traditions of Vedanta (those of Ramunuja acharya and Madhwacharya) and the Saiva Siddhantha pluralist realist philosophy of Meykandar prevalent in south India. “Realist” because Meykandar taught that God, the soul and the world are eternally separate. In all of these, the belief in a personal God prevails. The world is not only real, but evil. The soul needs to find a way out of the world and into heaven, where God will be found. Belief in and devotion to the Lord, scriptures, rituals, prayer, and institutional religion are the means, with emphasis on faith.Furthermore, the Western religions do not include a belief in reincarnation, and are commonly eschatological, meaning that they are awaiting an apocalyptic end of the world and a “Judgment Day,” in which the righteous souls will be raised to heaven, and other souls will be condemned to hell for eternity.
LM: Why has Siddhantha and the writings of the Tamil Yoga Siddhas been a secret for so long?
MGS: Tirumular, probably the oldest of the Tamil Yoga Siddhas, states in his Tirumandiram, (5th century A.D.) that he is revealing a “new Yoga” (nava yoga), containing all of the elements referred to as “kundalini yoga” by Siddhas later, and which will bring about a complete transformation of the human condition, including the physical body.
During the first millennia of the common era, the siddhas invented kundalini yoga, as a powerful means of Self-realization (samadhi). It was a product of their experimental efforts to find more effective ways to know the truth of things, beyond the heavily intellectual, ritualistic, devotional, or ascetic paths, and to transform human nature. It is “new” today because it Tirumandiram and the writings of the 18 Tamil Yoga Siddhas were unknown outside of Tamil speaking south India and Sri Lanka until they were first translated by us, and either ignored or misunderstood by Tamil scholars and pundits because of their deliberately obscure “twilight language.” Because the Siddhas condemned the orthodox Brahmin pundits and priests, they also earned the ire of members of this community, who condemned them as magicians or worse. Consequently, their writings were not preserved in institutional repositories like temples and manuscript libraries, but only by hereditary families of physicians, Siddha Vaidhyas, who kept their writings secret, applying them only for medical purposes. Because of the widespread ignorance of their teachings and the popular association of the Siddhas with “magicians” by the orthodox community, until recently, they have not been held in esteem in some circles of Indian society. I can vividly recall the sarcastic and emotional reply of one famous teacher of Vedanta, a renowned Swami and member of the Brahmin community, whose mother tongue was Tamil, when in 1986, I asked him his opinion of the writings of the Tamil Yoga Siddhas.
MGS: Siddhantha, like Classical Yoga and Kashmir Shaivism and Tantra begins from the perspective of what one experiences on the relative plane of existence, in the world, with all of its limitations and sources of suffering. It does not dismiss the world as “unreal” or illusionary maya. Maya even has a different meaning in Siddhantha than in Vedanta. Maya refers to subjective delusion in Siddhantha. In Advaita Vedanta, maya refers to the power of objective illusion, by which the one reality appears to be many. Advaita or nondualism begins and ends from the perspective of the absolute plane of existence. Only Brahman exists. Everything else is only apparently real. Siddhantha recognizes that few persons have the necessary power of concentration, dispassion and virtuous character to follow the path of Advaita, maintaining this perspective from the absolute plane, even if they understand its teachings intellectually. Therefore Siddhantha recommends a progressive path known as sanmarga which begins from the perspective of the relative plane, and has as its end, the absolute plane. Thus it begins with “theism,” the perspective of the embodied soul in the world, and ends in “monism,” the perspective of unity in identity, continuous nondual awareness of That. It is therefore “monistic theism,” as is Kashmir Saivism, which probably developed parallel to Sidddhantha. This path of sanmarga includes the following four phases to prepare for nondual awareness:
- Charya is performing service in the shrines or temples, such as cleaning, gathering flowers for worship, assisting the activities of the holy place, self service. It is the path of the servitor, and one dwells in the proximity of the Lord.
- Kriya is the second path, and here it means ritualistic worship, and one becomes “the Lord’s child.” The devotee is close, even intimate with the Lord.
- Yoga is the third approach, and it calls for contemplation and other spiritual practices such as Kundalini Yoga and Astanga Yoga. One becomes the friend of the Lord. One attains the form and insignia of the Lord, manifesting his qualities and powers. The first three paths are considered to be preliminary.
- Jnana is the fourth path, direct realization, which results in complete union with the Lord. But individuality is not lost. The essential aspect common to both Siva and jiva is consciousness, chit, the former being highest, and the latter, that which is prevalent in humans. Patanjali tells us who is Siva, the Lord, Ishvara (Isha + svara, Siva + one’s own Self):
Ishvara is the special Self, untouched by any affliction, actions, fruits of action or by any inner impressions of desire. – Yoga-sutra I.24
At the deepest, purest level of your being, that is who you are, and to realize That you must purify yourself from the causes of suffering (ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, clinging to life), the egoistic perspective that “I am the doer,” the habits of which karma is formed, and desires. What initially appears to be two, the soul and God, upon realization, is seen to be only One. This reminds of the paradoxical exhortation of Jesus, who said: “Love your enemies!” If you love your enemies you have no enemies.
While these stages are at the foundation of the predominant religious culture of south India, very few persons get beyond the above first or second stages. The Sivavakkiyam, like other Siddha’s literary works, admonishes the reader not to get stuck in the “half way houses” of the first two stages above: temple worship, rituals, organized religion, scriptures, and caste, but to seek “direct realization” jnana, through the practice of Kundalini Yoga.
While it is dualist in approach (theistic with the relationship between the soul and God) on the relative plane of existence where souls must deal with ignorance of their true identity, maya (mental delusion with regards to time, passions etc.), karma and the gunas of human nature, it is monistic on the absolute plane of reality.
This paradox can be seen more clearly with the following analogy which underlines the importance of perspective. When one begins to seek Truth, or God or Reality, it is like a person who is walking towards a mountain. From a distance, the mountain, like God, Truth, or Reality, appears to be so big that it is unknowable. This is from a particular perspective in time and space. Eventually one finds a path, perhaps one of many, up the mountain. These paths are analogous to various religions, philosophies, spiritual practices, or even science. As one climbs the path, one becomes more and more familiar. One gains knowledge about it. One’s perspective changes as one approaches and climbs the mountain. When one reaches the top of the mountain however, one’s perspective changes completely. There is no longer any difference between oneself and the mountain. Neither the Seer nor the Seen has changed however. The seeker and the mountain remain as they have always been. Only the perspective of the seeker has changed.
This is why it is so important not to confuse the relative plane of existence (the world and one’s actual state of mind) with the absolute plane of existence where everything is seen as One, ignoring the conditions and consequences of each. Many persons who follow what critics refer to as “Neo-Advaitan” teachers ignore this distinction and consequently believe that mere knowledge of the nondual state is sufficient and that there is nothing to do to realize it and nothing to do to maintain ones awareness of it.
LM: What is the value of the human body in relationship to one’s spiritual development?
MGS: The Siddhas refer to three great blessings in life: First, to be born as a human being, which is exceedingly rare. Only when one is incarnated on the physical plane can the soul grow in wisdom, and purify itself of the blemishes or fetters. Second, to find the spiritual path, which is also very rare, with all of the distractions to the five senses, and the confusion of the mind and intellect. Third, to find one’s spiritual preceptor, the guru, whose teachings and example guide the soul to liberation. Once found, progress towards the goal can become rapid if one keeps the physical body healthy and applies oneself to the spiritual discipline and teachings prescribed by the guru and his tradition.
The Siddhas viewed the body as the temple of God, and so they made every effort to maintain its health and even to extend its life, so that one would have sufficient time to complete the process of complete surrender to the Divine, which was their ultimate goal. As tantrics, they sought to transform, to perfect their human nature. Perfection, they realized, could not be limited to the spiritual plane. Enlightenment in a diseased body or neurotic mind and desire filled vital body was not perfection. Recognizing that the physical body was ignorant of its potential, and therefore subject to metabolic decay and disease, and using the remarkable powers mentioned above, the Siddhas undertook a systematic study of nature and its elements and from what they were able to grasp they developed a highly systematic medicine they developed a system of medicine known as “Siddha” with many uniquely effective remedies which is still widely practiced in south India. They wrote many medical treatises on longevity, which today form the foundation for one of the four systems of medicine recognized by the government of India.
Recognizing that they were in a race against time, to complete the physical body’s transformation before its demise, they also developed unique herbal and material formula known as kaya kalpa to extend the life of the body. But they believed that only kundalini pranayama (breathing) exercises could ultimately complete this process.
The Siddha Tirumular, provides some insight into this question of longevity in his definition of medicine:
Medicine is that which treats the disorders of the physical body;
Medicine is that which treats the disorders of the mind;
Medicine is that which prevents illness;
Medicine is that which enables immortality.
The Siddhas discovered why the body ages and developed steps to prevent aging. They, for instance saw that the span of all animal life is inversely proportional to the rate of breathing. That is, the slower the breathing, the longer the life. And conversely, the faster the breathing the shorter is the life. Animals, like the sea tortoise, whale, dolphin and parrot, which take the fewest number of breaths per minute have lives that are much longer than humans, whereas the dog and the mouse, which breathe five times faster than the human’s average, have one fifth their longevity. The Siddhas suggest that if one breathes fatten times or less per minute, he/she should live for a hundred years. It is when breathing becomes agitated or habitually much faster than this, that one’s life span is reduced.
LM: What is the connection between the Siddhas and Babaji? How does this differ from the view of Babaji in Vedanta?
MGS: Babaji is a Siddha. He was born as a human being. He never claimed to be an avatar. He related to V.T. Neelakantan and Yogi Ramaiahs some details regarding birth, early years and how he sought for and learned classical Yoga and kundalini yoga from his gurus Boganathar and Agastyar.
I recall the typical response from many persons in North India when I mentioned that our guru was Babaji Nagaraj. If they had read the Autobiography of a Yogi, they would ask “Is he still alive?” If not, and we mentioned that he had been alive for centuries, they would say something like: “Oh, he must have very bad karma, to be obliged to stay in this world of suffering for so long.” Even the leading members of other lineages of the Kriya Yoga tradition have been unable to appreciate what is “new” with regards to Babaji and the Siddhas. Sri Yukteswar said with regards to Babaji: “He is beyond my comprehension.” That is, his state could not fit within the paradigm of Vedanta, in which he was schooled. Yogananda and others could only conceive of him as an “avatar,” an incarnation of God Himself, and “Christ-like,” though Babaji has never referred to himself in such terms. In his Autobiography, on the first page of the chapter where he introduces the reader to Babaji, Yogananda mentions that like the Siddha Agastyar, he has been alive for thousands of years. Yogananda failed to grasp how close these two Siddhas really were, and that like Agastyar, Babaji was a human being who became a Siddha, not God, who became an avatar. Avatars are exceedingly rare. They are not found within the Saivite tradition, but only among the Vaishnava tradition, with its ten successive avatars, including Rama and Krishna. All of these responses reflect perspectives which are limited to the philosophical perspectives of the speakers, whether it be Vedantic, Samkya, Christian, or Vaishnava.
Sri Aurobindo is one of the few sages in modern times who could appreciate who the Siddhas were, including Tirumular, Babaji and Ramalinga
LM: How does the practice of Kriya Yoga weaken the causes of human suffering?
MGS: In the Yoga Sutras, the Siddha Patanjali describes five kleshas or causes of suffering:
- Ignorance of our true identity, the soul, sat chid ananda, seeing the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasurable, and the non-Self as the Self;
- Egoism, born of ignorance, the habit of identifying with what we are not: the physical body-mind complex, its senses, emotions and thoughts;
- Attachment is clinging to what is pleasurable
- Aversion is clinging to suffering; fear, disliking;
- Clinging to life, or fear of death.
Patanjali tells us: in their subtle form, these causes of suffering are uprooted by tracing them back to their origin by repeatedly returning to the various stages of Samadhi. In their active state they are destroyed by meditation. Yoga sutras II.3-11.
He tells us that the practice of “Kriya Yoga” has as its purpose the weakening of these causes of suffering and the cultivation of cognitive absorption (samadhi, or Self-realization). Yoga-sutras II.2
LM: What is the relationship between Babaji’s Kriya Yoga and Siddhantha?
MGS: Babaji’s Kriya Yoga is a distillation of Siddhantha. It’s five fold path combines the cultivation of dispassion and meditation in Classical Yoga as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, with the Kundalini Yoga of the Siddhas. This five fold path includes:
Kriya Hatha Yoga: including “asanas,” physical postures of relaxation, “bandahs,” muscular locks, and “mudras,” psycho-physical gestures, all of which bring about greater health, peace and the awakening of the principal energy channels, “the nadis”, and centers, the “chakras.” Babaji has selected a particularly effective series of 18 postures, which are taught in stages and in pairs. One cares for the physical body not for its own sake but as a vehicle or temple of the Divine.
Kriya Kundalini Pranayama: is a powerful breathing technique to awaken one’s potential power and consciousness and to circulate it through the seven principal chakras between the base of the spine and the crown of the head. It awakens the latent faculties associated with the seven chakras and makes one a dynamo on all five planes of existence.
Kriya Dhyana Yoga: is a progressive series of meditation techniques to learn the scientific art of mastering the mind – to cleanse the subconscious, to develop concentration, mental clarity and vision, to awaken the intellectual, intuitive and creative faculties, and to bring about the breathless state of communion with God, “Samadhi” and Self-Realization.
Kriya Mantra Yoga: the silent mental repetition of subtle sounds to awaken the intuition, the intellect and the chakras; the mantra becomes a substitute for the “I” – centered mental chatter and facilitates the accumulation of great amounts of energy. The mantra also cleanses habitual subconscious tendencies.
Kriya Bhakti Yoga: the cultivation of the soul’s aspiration for the Divine. It includes devotional activities and service to awaken unconditional love and spiritual bliss in the spiritual body; it mayinclude chanting and singing. Gradually, all of one’s activities become soaked with sweetness, as the “Beloved” is perceived in all.
LM: Why is it important for those on the road to spiritual liberation to understand Siddhanta, Advaita and Yoga?
MGS: My teacher, Yogi Ramaiah used to say that Siddhantha begins where Advaita ends. But why? Yogi Ramaiah answered this question succinctly when he described Siddhanthan’s goal as “complete surrender.” While the Advaitan may surrender the perspective of the ego to the perspective of the soul in the spiritual plane of existence, the Siddhas realized that perfection in a diseased physical body, or with a vital body filled with desires and emotions, or a neurotic mind, is no perfection. They realized that “enlightenment” or “complete surrender” or “liberation,” cannot be limited to the spiritual plane of existence. They envisioned and realized humanity’s evolutionary potential, and at the vanguard of its perfection, developed the means to realize a progressive process of purification (shuddhi) involving surrender of the ego’s perspective and false identification:
1. In the spiritual body, the anandamayakosha, wherein one realizes sat chid ananda, Shiva-Shakti, or Self realization; one becomes a saint, with intimate communion with the Divine. The ordinary egoistic perspective of a saint is replaced at least in part, by an awareness of the Presence of the Divine. One identifies with the “Seer” or “Witness,” but the mind, the vital and the physical are neither transformed nor even supportive of the surrender. However, if the mystic’s surrender or communion is limited to the spiritual plane of reality only, he may still be bound by a need to make philosophical or theological distinctions until he begins to surrender his ego in the intellectual plane. Nor will most saints remain on the physical plane long enough to complete the process of surrender, for various reasons ranging from physical health, to aspiration to “get away from this world of suffering.”
2. In the intellectual body, vinjananmayakosha, silence rules, thinking largely ceases, and one develops the jnana siddhi, the ability to know things intuitively, by identity, and communicate this knowledge with facility; one is a sage, guided primarily by intuitive wisdom, one has surrendered the pride of knowing, but one is still distracted by the mind, vital and physical nature. The ego still lingers until the surrender encompasses all planes of existence. There is always the risk of a fall, and desire, aversion, clinging to life can still create suffering. As Saint Augustine put it: “Lord, help me to surrender, but not yet.” That is, part of our lower human nature, in particular the mental plane, the seat of fantasy and desires, and the vital plane, the seat of the emotions and desires, resists the transformation which surrender entails.
3. In the mental body, manomayakosha, wherein one develops some of the siddhis associated with the subtle senses; beginning with clairvoyance – the ability to see things at a distance in time or space, or clairaudience – the subtle sense of hearing, or clairsentience – the subtle sense of feeling. One may make prophecies, manifest the capacity to heal the sick, and know the past of others by intuitive insight, as one can enter into deep states of communion with the past, future, or any aspect of an object upon which one concentrates. One becomes a Siddha, having surrendered the pride of person, and the search for new experiences, but one may still have troublesome emotions and desires in the vital body which is not yet surrendered.
4. In the vital body, pranamayakosha, wherein it surrenders all of its desires and emotions, and changes it allegiance completely from the ego, towards what Sri Aurobindo called “the psychic being” or soul, which then completes the process, and one manifests other extraordinary siddhis. One becomes a great or Maha Siddha, after surrendering the ego at the level of the vital plane of existence, capable of manifesting siddhis or powers, which involve nature itself. This may include materialization of objects, levitation, control of the weather, wish fulfillment and invisibility. While they have lived principally in India, Tibet, China, and southeast Asia, by their own accounts, the Maha Siddhas have traveled all over the world. But the physical body has still not surrendered to the higher nature, the descent of supreme consciousness into its very cells.
5. In the physical body, annamayakosha, which becomes a divine body, a divya deha, glowing with a golden light of immortality. A few rare Siddhas are able to surrender their egos at the level of the physical plane, wherein the limited consciousness of the cells of the body give up their ordinary metabolic purposes, and become fully integrated with the Supreme Consciousness. These great Siddhas are capable of manifesting siddhis or powers, which involve material nature itself. Their physical body glows with a golden light of this consciousness becomes impervious to disease and death. Even for the most serious of Yogis, this is difficult to conceive of if one remains tied to the old paradigm of opposition between spirit/consciousness versus the body and the world. One becomes a Babaji or a Boganathar or an Agastyar, and one’s perfection is no longer limited by the ignorance of the physical human nature; one is invulnerable to disease and death. If one leaves the physical plane it is not because the physical nature forces one to leave. Throughout the writings of the Siddhas we see many descriptions of this level of divine transformation. Ramalinga achieved this state in the 19th century. Sri Aurobindo described in voluminous detail its potential as the next stage in human evolution, based upon his own experience with what he referred to as the descent of the supramental.
While the writings of the Siddhas and Sri Aurobindo remains only as lofty vision for some aspirants, they can also serve as a guide to one’s life choices and sadhana or discipline. Westerner’s too often collect techniques without understanding or studying their philosophical origin, or without even questioning the philosophical or theological origins of the beliefs they have adopted from their parents. After a few years, they may find themselves conflicted, confused, or discouraged, if their practices are not aligned with their philosophy or values, and if they have made no effort to purify themselves of egoism, bad habits and emotional blockages. Those who aspire for spiritual liberation must realize that progress towards it is proportional to the degree to which they purify themselves of the defects of human nature.
LM: What is Neo-Advaita and why is it controversial?
MGS: The modern Advaita movement has undergone a split between two factions: one remains committed to a more traditional articulation of Advaita Vedanta, and the other has departed in significant ways from this traditional spiritual system. Over the past fifteen years, the Traditional Modern Advaita (TMA) faction has launched sustained and wide-ranging criticism of Non-Traditional Modern Advaita (NTMA) teachers and teachings. This split is similar in many ways to what has occurred during the past 20 years between traditional Yoga teachings and those who are teaching Yoga primarily as a business enterprise. There are today more than 200 self-proclaimed NTMA teachers according to a recent article. Professor Philip Lucas has written an excellent article, entitled “Not So Fast, Awakened Ones: Neo-Advaitin Gurus and their Detractors,” in The Mountain Path, the journal of the Ramana Maharshi Ashram, Volume 49, no. 1 (January-March 2012) and republished in an expanded version in the academic journal Nova Religio, The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, volume 17, no. 3, February 2014, page 6-37, published by the University of California Press,
I highly recommend this article because it is relevant to all students of Yoga, who may be wondering whether the offerings of NTMA may be an effective alternative to the sadhana of Yoga. It will also be instructive to any seeker of nonduality, monism or Truth.
I would like to first summarize the four main areas of criticism being made by the Traditional Modern Advaita faction against the Neo-Advaitan teachers and teachings, according to Professor Lucas, and then share with you the comments I gave to him.
The first area involves the allegation that Neo-Advaitan teachers disavows the need for sadhana, or spiritual effort in the process of Self-realization.
The second area of criticism involves the allegation that Neo-Advaita ignores the necessity of moral development and the cultivation of virtues as a pre-requisite from authentic spiritual realization.
The third area of criticism is that Neo-Advaitans lack knowledge of the texts, language and traditions associated with Advaita. Consequently, too many such teachers begin teaching within a short time of their first “awakening” experience, without being established in the state of sahajasamadhi, ( continuous nondual awareness) necessary for effective teaching.
The fourth area of criticism pertains to the satsang format used by Neo-Advaita teachers and the readiness of their participants. Critics charge that these teachers are only concerned with psychological empowerment, self-help, and the experience of community, and offer “instant enlightenment” experiences rather than ongoing assistance in the task of ego purification.
A fifth area of criticism is the charge that Neo-Advaitan teachers make no distinction between the absolute and relative planes of awareness and existence. Consequently, they give little or no support for a life of engaged spiritual discipline, and development in the physical, emotional, mental and intellectual dimensions or engagement in society. All of their focus is on the ultimate state of spiritual realization. This gives rise to the delusion that one is liberated and disengagement from ordinary life.
In sum, Neo-Advaitan teachers have removed the essential requirements of the Advaita approach to liberation, critics charge, and have substituted a kind of pseudo-spirituality which is not effective, and may be harmful.
His article also discusses the “economic model” of religion, and the phenomena of “adaptation” of religion when it moves from one culture to another.
I, personally have heard several teachers and students of Advaita claim that they no longer do sadhana, that “You don’t need to practice Yoga,” or that it is not needed because they are already “enlightened” or for some other reason. The second area of criticism resembles the tendency of Yoga teachers and students in the West to ignore the first “limb” of yoga: the yamas, or social restraints: non-harming, not lying, chastity, not stealing, greedlessness. The third area of criticism is similar to ignoring one of the second limbs of Yoga, the “niyama” of “self-study,” part of which involves the study of the wisdom texts which serve as mirrors of one’s true Self. The fourth area of criticism is similar to the abridgement of the remaining limbs of Classical, eight limbedYoga in the West to only asana, as a means of physical fitness, weight loss or stress management, mundane preoccupations particular to the Western culture. The fifth area is particular to Advaita itself, because it is almost entirely an intellectual approach, with no visible means of distinguishing or verifying who is “enlightened.” Consequently a wannabe teacher of Neo-Advaita can easily learn to mimic the manner of speaking and teaching of TMA teachers such as Ramana Maharshi or Nisgaradatta Maharaj.
After reading Professor Lucas’s article in the Mountain Path two years ago, I wrote to him. He asked me to send my comments on his article. After doing so, he expressed his agreement with my comments. As he is a Professor of Religion at Stetson University, in Florida, a few miles from where I live in the winter, we met for dinner recently, after I had sent to him some comments on his article. Here are the comments on his article which I sent to him:
1. The “economic model of religion” helps to explain much of this divide, particularly in the West, where there is a spiritual market for “instant” and “easy” “enlightenment” among persons who have come to expect “instant” and “easy” everything. Humans are by nature, lazy, and so they will seek the “easiest” and “quickest” means possible, effectively creating the demand for teachers who will in turn supply to them an “easy” and even “instantaneous” experience of “enlightenment.” “ Just attend my satsang,” or “attend my transformation seminar,” or “read my book,” “and you too can become enlightened” is the kind of hype that many novices will succumb to in the spiritual marketplace. The fact that it may cost them something, even a lot of money, only serves to enhance the perceived value of such promise in the eyes of neophyte consumers. The fact that they have little or no idea as to what “enlightenment” actually is, makes the work of such teachers all the easier. But as the shoppers and consumers in this marketplace begin to notice that their belief that they are “enlightened” does nothing to resolve the problems associated with their human nature, or even their existential crisis, some of those who are sincerely seeking “enlightenment “ will move onto the mature market offerings of TMA (Traditional Modern Advaita). Many others will remain satisfied with the fleeting glimpses of it proffered in the satsangs of NTMA (Non Traditional Modern Advaitan) teachers, rewarded with emotional and social compensations.
2.Westerners, particularly Americans, are generally ignorant about religion, other than what they may recall from Sunday school. The average American is unable to distinguish “theism” from “monism” from “atheism” from “agnosticism” from “gnosticism.” And because of America’s Constitution, which bars religious education in public schools, most of them do not even think about the issues which Eastern religions such as Advaita all address: existential suffering. So they are unprepared to even consider much of what TMA requires.
3.The word guru has lost its aura of respectability in the West, ever since scandals broke the reputation of nearly ever Hindu and Buddhist guru who visited the West during the last quarter century. Consequently, Westerners, with very few exceptions, rarely seek a guru. While Indians generally still do. This fact I believe, explains the reason, to a large extent, for the divide which you have described between NTMA and TMA. This phenomena has occurred on a much greater scale in the domain of Yoga. The scandals associated with many Indian Yoga gurus who brought a spiritual if not Hindu Yoga to the West during the 1960’s and 1970’s lead to their replacement by what the Yoga Journal proudly proclaims as American Yoga, which is proudly anti-guru, individualistic, commercial, competitive, therapeutic, athletic or body-centered, non-religious, and fragmented.
For further reading, available from http://www.babajiskriyayoga.net/english/bookstore.htm :
- How I became a disciple of Babaji, by M. Govindan
- Babaji and the 18 Siddha Kriya Yoga Tradition, by M. Govindan
- Kriya Yoga Insights Along the Path, by M. Govindan
- Kriya Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Siddhas, by M. Govindan
- The Voice of Babaji: Trilogy on Kriya Yoga, V.T. Neelakantan, S.A.A. Ramaiah, Babaji Nagaraj
- The Wisdom of Jesus and the Yoga Siddhas, by M. Govindan
- The Yoga of the Eighteen Siddhas: An Anthology, by editors T. N. Ganapathy, M. Govindan
- The Yoga of Boganathar, volumes 1 and 2, by T. N. Ganapathy
- Babaji’s Kriya Yoga: Deepening Your Practice, by Durga Ahlund
- Babaji’s Kriya Hatha Yoga: Eighteen Postures for Relaxation and Rejuvenation, by M. Govindan
- The Grace of Babaji’s Kriya Yoga: a Correspondence Course, by Durga Ahlund and M. Govindan
- The Tirumandiram, (5 volumes), by editors T. N. Ganapathy, M. Govindan
About Marshall Govindan:
Marshall Govindan, (also known as Satchidananda), is a disciple of Babaji Nagaraj, the famed Himalayan master and originator of Kriya Yoga, and of his late disciple, Yogi S.A.A. Ramaiah. He has practiced Babaji’s Kriya Yoga intensively since 1969, including five years in India. Since 1980, Marshall Govindan has been engaged in the research and publication of the writings of the Yoga Siddhas. He is the author of the bestselling book, Babaji and the 18 Siddha Kriya Yoga Tradition, now published in 15 languages, the first international English translation of Thirumandiram: a Classic of Yoga and Tantra, Kriya Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Siddhas, and the Wisdom of Jesus and the Yoga Siddhas. Since the year 2000, he has sponsored and directed a team of seven scholars in Tamil Nadu, India in a large scale research project engaged in the preservation, transcription, translation and publication of the whole of the literature related to the Yoga of the 18 Siddhas. Six publications have been produced from this project, including a ten volume edition of the Tirumandiram in 2010. In 1997 he founded a lay order of teachers of Kriya Yoga: Babaji’s Kriya Yoga Order of Acharyas, a non-profit educational charity, incorporated in the USA, Canada, India and Sri Lanka, presently with 28 members. The Order maintains ashrams in Quebec, Bangalore and Badrinath, India, Colombo and Katargama, Sri Lanka. For more information visit http://babajiskriyayoga.net
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