Is there a trap in devotion?

An Indic Response to Jason Gregory’s piece on “The Trap of Devotion to God and Guru”.

Is there a trap in devotion?

Jason Gregory, an Australian commentator on religions, has recently come up with an article provocatively titled “The Trap of Devotion to God and Guru”, which advises spiritual seekers, especially those from the West, to avoid the “trap” of becoming dependent on any Guru and/or upon God. The author formulates this dependence as some sort of human weakness that the seeker of spiritual liberation must overcome in order to attain his goal. The Sanatana Dharma’s unambiguous emphasis on the indispensability of the Guru in making progress in one’s spiritual life and its equation of the master and the Godhead (ācārya devo bhava) has been disputed by the author. He claims that this necessity is only culture-specific, and not a universal necessity. This means that given a chance, the author would plunge into the path of spiritual progress on his own and advise others, non-Indic seekers, to do the same. It will be pertinent to mention here that the Upanishads describe the spiritual path in rather bleak terms:
kṣurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā durgaṁ pathastatkavayo vadanti” (Kaṭhopanishad 1.3.14)
For sharp as a razor’s edge, hard to traverse, difficult of going is that path, say the sages.
And since this path is extremely difficult to traverse, the tradition prescribes that the seeker of Truth, the pilgrim wishing to advance in this path take the able guidance of one who has already walked this path – one who has already completed his pilgrimage to the Abode of Truth. That guide is the Guru, the one who destroys the darkness of ignorance, out of endless sympathy and love for the disciple. He, like the Godhead, can be compared to the mother cat that takes care of her kitten, carrying it by its neck from one place to another; the kitten having completely surrendered itself to her will. This plunge of faith into absolute dependence on the Guru is not at all an obstacle in the path of attaining supreme sovereignty over one’s spirit as the author has construed; rather it is the stepping stone to attaining that lofty and difficult goal.
The author also describes the dependence on the Divine, which he calls ‘God’ in his essay, as a religio-psychological construct.“We fear nothing more than being truly independent”, the author declares as he opens his essay, and he supplements that declaration with the following assertion:

“Real independence is spiritual sovereignty, meaning the individual truly lives psychologically from the Heart with no agenda and is free from the attachment to social, cultural, and religious programs which imprison our mind.”

We wholly agree with the author when he asserts that spiritual sovereignty is independence in real terms, but the epistemology (i.e. the means of knowing something) and axiology (i.e. the enquiry into the value of things) that he conjures by bringing the two assertions mentioned above within a single discourse, are highly problematic. In simple terms, the problem is this: it is okay to say that we are actually afraid of becoming absolutely independent within this limited mode of existence. It is also okay to say that one cannot attain absolute independence unless he has gained sovereignty over his self, over his spirit. But when these two separate assertions are brought together and stated one after another, making it a single discourse, then such a discourse may give rise to certain misunderstandings. We fear that that is what has happened in this essay.
How does an individual become independent? Let us focus on the individual’s material independence first, before going into the more complex and subtler subject of spiritual independence. One important aspect of becoming materially independent is to become economically independent. In order to become economically independent, the individual has to either inherit a huge fortune which will be inexhaustible in a single lifetime, or acquire certain skills which will help the individual earn, all by himself, the income that is required for his subsistence. Now we say the skills have to be acquired, because, although the individual in question may be born with certain talents, these talents remain in him only in the potential form. To bring those potentials out of his dormant being and to make them useful for fetching money and other resources for his subsistence, he has to first identify these talents, then nurture them; develop them through hard work and practice to be able to encash them. None of these would be possible without the guidance in one or more forms, which an average individual usually receives from his parents and/or teachers. One can hardly come across an absolutely and completely self-taught professional in the real world, let alone a completely self-taught maestro.
Now if something as basic (but important, nevertheless) as becoming economically independent requires the individual to seek guidance and help from outside his own being, then what can be said of becoming spiritually independent – the path(s) for which is/are immensely more complex and, indeed, much more fraught with danger? It’s impossible to scale the heights of “spiritual sovereignty”, as the author puts it, without proper guidance and sympathetic help offered by a teacher. In the traditions of our Sanatana Dharma, we call such a guide, such a teacher, the Guru. Literally translated into English, this Sanskrit word would mean “the destroyer of darkness”. What darkness is being referred to here? It is the darkness that we all carry within ourselves: the darkness of ignorance, of meanness of being, of the perceived ideas of suffering and bondage in human life.
Now the question that can be raised is this: Does it spiritually subjugate the individual to the Guru if he or she reaches out to a Guru, seeking help and guidance in their ventures into the unknown corners of their being, into the uncharted territories of their self – or selves – that lay hidden inside them? Also, does it bring dependence (or overdependence) on the Guru, if the individual in question displays his respect and love for the destroyer of his inner darkness, by falling at the latter’s feet, touching them with their hands and taking up the dust of the Guru’s feet, to mark his gratitude of discipleship?
It does not. It does not, because,
namanti phalino vrikṣā namanti guṇino janāḥ/śuṣkakāṣṭhañca mūrkhaśca bhidyate na tu namyate
Trees overhung with fruits bow down by their weight, as do the men possessing good qualities by their humility/it is only the dry timber and the ignorant fool who do not bend even when they’re broken).
So these acts of bowing down and touching one’s Guru’s feet, are these all about humility only? Is there no other value in these little acts of respectful gesture-conveying?
Not so. There is also the aspect of living out the truth(s) that the individual has learned theoretically, by their repeated practice – by acting them out. Words, ideas and an intellectual grasp over them are not enough. One has to act these things out. One must live up to the words and ideas that one has come to understand as valuable. Intellectuality is dry. Rasa lies in acting things out. And therefore the respect that one harbours for the master or for the Supreme Godhead in their heart must be given an expression – which is where gestures of respect (like that of praṇāma) come into play.
Now we will see how the author’s theorisation of these gestures, carried out by truth-seeking disciples within the various Indic traditions as their mark of respect for Guru and God, end up distorting their meaning. Theories are built on data, duly collected through meticulous observation and presented systematically in a transparent manner; and then operating the theorist’s own unique ways of interpretation of the same. Let us see if that has been achieved in the essay under discussion.
First things first: The author has provided incorrect data about the Indic traditions in his essay. There is NO evidence of any existing or extinct tradition of kissing the Guru’s feet as a mark of respect anywhere in India as claimed by the author throughout the article. At least it is not a standardised, ubiquitous practice in the Indian Subcontinent. And yet the author repeats this claim so often, almost like a trope – as if it were a truism – that the article seems to be based on the premise that Hindus and other Indic people kiss their Guru’s feet. In reality, however, the idea would sound highly unfamiliar and foreign to the Hindu. The multiplicity of existing Hindu traditions and communities do not have this practice, neither do the Jains, nor the Sikhs, nor even the Indian Buddhists. One can hardly find a reference to such a practice in the vast repository of Sanskrit literature. The etymology of the Sanskrit word praṇāma reveals that its literal meaning is ‘the act of bending forward’ (root ‘nam’). There’s no notion of kissing (the various verb roots for which are cumba, niṁste, reḍhi, rihati, nikṣati, dhayati) involved in this, whatsoever. On the other hand, ‘Kissing the feet of the Lord’ (the word ‘Lord’ used here may be taken as an honourary term for either a master or God or both) was actually a common Hebraic practice in Jesus’ time, a mark of supreme respect; which we see occurring several times in the New Testament in the Bible. E.g. Mary Magdalene washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair, and then kisses those feet. This custom is mentioned at several places in the book of Luke, some of them are mentioned by none other than Jesus himself. There are mentions of the companions kissing the feet of the Prophet and also of an early Muslim wishing to kiss the feet of Imam al-Bukhari in the Hadiths, and it is not an uncommon practice in Islam to kiss the feet of a revered figure to convey respect.  Therefore the practice of kissing the master/God is, if anything, an Abrahamic custom – but by no means a Hindu one. No Hindu/Sikh/Jain/Buddhist practices it, so the question of westerners imitating these Indic people in kissing the Guru/God’s feet does not arise.
Neither do Hindus kiss the divine symbol of footprints. We have several sacred places across the subcontinent, where divine footprints are regularly worshipped as a mark of God’s presence in those kṣetra-s. The sacred footprints of Lord Vishnu located in the Vishnupada Temple in Gaya ksetra is a case in point. Anybody attempting to kiss these divine footprints would firstly be laughed at because it would be an odd thing to do if we go by the Indic standards of expressing devotion; and, in any case, they would be barred from doing so.
We are forced to wonder: which archetypal framework is being referred to by the author when he mentions this specific practice? Is it really the Eastern or Indian archetypal framework as he claims, or is it actually the Judeo-Christian/Abrahamic archetypal framework that he has mistakenly (perhaps unconsciously) conflated with its Eastern counterpart?
Secondly, terms like ‘esoteric’ may arise in a discourse about the Vedic tradition or Sanatana Dharma only if the discourse starts with the presumption that spiritual knowledge may be gained only in a single lifetime. The concept of taking rebirth or multiple births before one could completely exhaust the good as well as bad effects of all good or bad karma (mental and physical actions) is missing from the framework of this discourse. In reality, all spiritual knowledge and experience is meant for everyone, but not everyone can come to exhaust the effects of their accumulated karma in a single lifetime. Hence from the point of view of an individual, living his life in the here and now of his individual lifetime, it appears as if only a chosen few can attain the highest peak of spiritual experience. But that is what it is – just an apparent truth, not the reality.
Throughout the piece, the author has displayed that he is suffering from a particularly acute case of orientalism. Phrases like “the people of India in their Childlike innocence”, “Oriental iconography”, “the Indian version of kissing the guru’s feet” etc. stink of unfiltered Orientalism, whose vices have been indicated by Edward Said in his magnum opus.
In the Vedic tradition, in Sanatana Dharma, the dependence of an individual on the Guru is absolute, surrender to the Guru’s will and His instructions have to be absolute; without which there can be no dissolution of the limited sense of the ‘I’ that is constantly eating away at his ability to perceive the sparks of the Universal Consciousness in the limited bounds of individual consciousness. This holds true to the extent that our tradition has gone so far as to equate the Guru with “Paraṁ Brahma”, the Supreme Being. The Śrī Guru Stotram declares:
Gururbrahmā gururviṣṇu gururdevo maheśvara |
Gurureva paraṁ brahma tasmai śrī gurave namaḥ ||
The Guru is Brahma, the Guru is Vishnu, the Guru is Lord Shiva;
Guru is indeed the Supreme Being – Paraṁ Brahma, I offer my salutations to that Guru.
The author describes the act of associating devotion to an image of God or to showing respect to the Guru as a “critical mistake”:

“Westerners, and also Easterners for that matter, make the critical mistake of intellectually associating devotion to an image of God or with kissing the feet of the guru or staring at an image of who one believes is the supreme intelligence of the universe.”

By doing so, the author lays bare nothing other than the archetypes of Abrahamic monotheism, rooted deeply in his own structures of thinking and understanding, which is dangerous because it not just misleads people – at its best, but in its worst form, it brings intolerance and zealotry in its wake. The last twelve centuries of our nation’s conflict-ridden political history stands as a testimony to that fact. We wish to point out to the author, in case he has not noticed, that the whole of humanity is not made in the same mould as a typical follower of any of the three Abrahamic faiths would tend to imagine. Not everyone starts their spiritual journey from the same stage; and the individual who finds it hard to conceive the idea of the Absolute devoid of any form or quality will surely become frustrated if he is expected to start his spiritual journey with that idea – and he will eventually become either bigoted or disinterested with that idea. Both are detrimental for the individual as well as for the society, the collective. The architects of the Sanatana Dharma were not so conceited as to think that everyone must be put into the same straitjacket in their individual approaches to the Divine. They were highly scientific in their thinking, and very thoughtfully they have prescribed a step-by-step ascendance to the highest conception of the Divine, which is the Truth Absolute-Consciousness Absolute-Bliss Absolute Saccidānada Brahman, devoid of any form or quality.
In short, what the author should have realised (we hope he does, sometime in the future) that there is no short-cut to the realisation of the Non-Dual Reality of existence. There is no direct path to that Crescendo of the Individual Consciousness; the path is, like all difficult and valuable things of life which are worth striving for, slow and gradual. (Unless, of course, one is an Adi Shankaracharya or a Sri Krishna, who were born with that consciousness and never forgot it throughout their lives.)
And then, what immediately follows in the essay is the unmistakable mark of a postmodernist approach of understanding practices and texts: deconstruction. See the following passage for an example of this:

This is an error because the habit and tendency to follow and depend on an external structural framework is the same egotistic conditioning we learn from our society, culture, and religion.

Here the author uses the deconstructivist method of first pointing out that the subject of his study is a social construct, and then quickly jumping to the conclusion that therefore the subject is of little or no value. Although deconstructivists pretend that they are somehow above the supposed ‘human folly’ of making value judgments, they are actually very judgmental. Sometimes this façade of being well above the judgmental tendency is achieved by the postmodernist claim that every single subject of study, like a text or a social custom or traditional practice, is of the same value – and therefore nothing is actually of any real value. This is a rather clever device: to say everything has the same value is to make actual valuable things devoid of their intrinsic value; to deny a hierarchy of things in terms of their value is the same as denying the value of valuable things. That is the actual fatal ‘trap’ that postmodernism has created for people who think little or who are easily bamboozled by fancy coinages and thickly knit prose.
The whole exercise seems to be an attempt (or rather, patchwork of several attempts) at organising the personal views that the author has come to develop in his encounters with the Indic spiritual traditions. If that be the case, then it should be pointed out to him that personal opinions too have a place in the spiritual path, they may be presented to a Guru who happens to be a realised soul in the form of questions. The Guru would dispel doubts and distortions of the disciple through discourses. Unfiltered opinions, expressed by an individual who has no direct experience of the truth, are nothing but the manifestation of ahaṁ or ego.
We believe that Mr Gregory is going to go nowhere (spiritually speaking) with the aid of such half-baked knowledge and wild conjectures about Indian traditions, customs, and Indian ways of approaching the Divine. We are sincerely worried over this sorry state of affairs in his personal understanding of the matter; but we are more concerned about his actions and utterances since he has undertaken to disseminate these erroneous notions through reputed and popular channels dedicated to the Hindu cause and to Indic affairs. We are not sceptical of his intentions so much – which we would like to believe are noble – but we do fear that, more than anything, such uninformed undertakings like this essay here might end up misleading more and more people (westerners and Indians alike) in their personal quests to discover a conglomeration of sacred Indic traditions, which are already fraught with devious designs of distortion put in place by religious proselytizers and godless left-liberal intellectuals. In view of all this, we, as Hindus, would like to give a sincere suggestion to the author: please consider taking refuge in the lotus feet of a sadguru, who will show you the path leading to Parama Pada – the Abode of the Supreme Being. We wish you all the luck that the universe has to offer in finding such a Guru, considering that the chances of coming across one are extremely rare. After all, more often than not, it is the Guru who arrives at the disciple’s door – and not the other way round. Jai Gurudev!
[All translations used in this essay, unless otherwise mentioned or provided links to, are done by the present author.]

About Author: Sreejit Datta

Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit happens to be an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres. He can be reached at: Email: sreejit.datta@gmail.com Blogs: https://medium.com/@SreejitDatta http://chadpur.blogspot.in/

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