Stories from the Dhuni

Yoga as Life — By on March 1, 2009 11:40 AM
By Miriam Stollar
 
 
A dhuni is the campfire of a sadhu, or ascetic, in India.  It is both a sacred and respected space, and his cooking, sleeping, and hosting space, and, as his only ‘home,’ it is the very essence of his impermanent and ascetic life. 
 

The Two Wings of the Bird
 
There are two essential qualities that spiritual aspirants, or yogis and yoginis, have to develop in order to achieve purity of the mind.  These are devotion and  knowledge, considered necessary not only in the path of yoga, but in almost all spiritual paths and religions. 
 
Once, in India, there was a man who decided to go to see an all-knowing saint.
 
In India, any travel, if not for business purpose, is, still these days, quite often for pilgrimage.  Pilgrimage, an idea which practically no longer exists in Western culture, is still a staple of travel in the East.  Especially in the past, few people had the idea of travelling for pleasure, what is now called holidays.  Even in the West, vacationing is a relatively new cultural phenomenon that only fairly recently became widespread.  Pilgrimage has become quite unusual in the West, though Europe still retains some small sparks of pilgrimage here and there.  I remember in Italy, about one hour’s drive from Rome, meeting an older couple who were on route from France to Rome, by foot.  
 
Especially in India, where religion began with the worship of multiple places and objects, without developing into monotheistic adoration of one all-inclusive God,  there is a plethora of pilgrimage spots where people go simply to pay respect or to hope their prayers will be answered.
 
Often in pilgrimage sites, local saints become an important part of the pilgrimage scene.  While Christian saints are bestowed with sainthood only after their death and official canonization is a long and strict process of investigation, the holy or esteemed religious man in India becomes a revered saint in his lifetime, and to meet a living saint is considered a chance to pay respect and gain wisdom.  Here, a main difference in the western and eastern ideas of a holy man shows itself.  In the east, a holy man need not be a perfect man, whose life is rigorously examined after his death for saintly perfection and manifestation of miracles, but may be a man striving for perfection, and dedicating his life to the spiritual path.  This man, in India, is called a ‘sadhu,’ coming from the word ‘sadhana’ which means ‘spiritual practice.’

Back to our story, once, in India, there was a man who decided to go on pilgrimage to visit a renowned sadhu, to pay his respect and possibly to have the chance to ask some questions, and receive some healing or blessing.  The all-knowing saint of India’s spiritual tales plays a role somewhat similar to the oracle of ancient Greek culture, having the ability to answer any question, as long as the question is given correctly. 
 
So, our pilgrim sets out on his journey.  On his way, he meets a jnani yogi, a yogi seeking liberation through the path of knowledge, or jnana.  The jnani yogi is sitting in the middle of a smoky circle of five fires, under the scorching sun, holding a parchment from which he is studying ancient scriptures.  He is practicing the  tapasya, or austerity, of the six fires- sitting in the smoke and heat of the five fires, under the sixth fire, the sun.  At the same time he is studying ancient scriptures, or svardhaya.  As both tapasya and svardhaya are part of the Niyama observances of the eight branches of yoga practice, the jnani yogi is obviously practicing yoga determinedly.  Another element of the five Niyama, however, is santosha, contentment, something this jnani yogi does not find, as he practices his strict austerity and study.  Contentment, being satisfied with what we have and being able to accept situations as they are, is sometimes much more difficult than strict austerities. 
 
Our pilgrim, a respectful man, stops by the jnani yogi and greets him, and the two men have a lively conversation.  Hearing about the pilgrim’s intention to visit the all-knowing oracle-saint, the jnani yogi requests the pilgrim to ask a question of the saint on his behalf.  “For how many lifetimes must tapasya, or austeries, be practiced, until the mind is purged of impurities and mental liberation is achieved?” The pilgrim heartily agrees to put forth this question on behalf of the jnani yogi, and continues on his way. 
 
Farther along the way, the pilgrim meets a bhakta yogi, or the yogi who follows the path of devotion, or bhakti.  The bhakta yogi worships all gods and goddesses, as one and as multiples, and his spiritual path is merely chanting the divine names of the deities again and again, dancing in joy under the tree.  Around the bhakta yogi, the pilgrim can see left-overs of a sumptous feast and spilled drops of good wine.  The bhakta yogi seems mesmerized, under a divine spell, longing in love for the gods and forgetting everything else.  He sees god in everything around him, and in god, he sees all.  His devotion is his pleasure, and through this pleasure, he reaches true devotion.  He sees no point in trying to understand god intellectually, without surrendering to god and to the flow of nature and cosmos.  Since ancient times, people worshipped what they didn’t understand, what they feared, and the forces on which they depended. 
 
The bhakta yogi was so absorbed in his divine trance that it took him a long time to notice our pilgrim, who, being respectful, as well as a curious man, stood by a considerable amount of time, trying to understand the state of the entranced bhakta yogi.  Eventually, the bhakta yogi greeted the pilgrim in his devotional manner, with the greeting of namaste or namaskar (depending on the region of India), which literally means ‘I recognize the divinity within you.’ 
 
After exchanging greetings and conversation, the bhakta yogi asked the pilgrim if he would transmit his question to the all-knowing saint on his behalf.  “For how many more lifetimes does the bhakta yogi have to live in his path of devotion, adoring the divine, before achieving liberation?”  The pilgrim heartily agreed to put forth the question on behalf of the bhakta yogi, and continued on his way.
 
After a long and arduous route, the pilgrim reached his goal.  He received an audience, or darshan, with the all-knowing oracle-saint, and was able to ask his own questions as well as the ones he had been given, and was given blessings and boons.  He set out on his path home, and taking a different route, first came across the jnani yogi, in the middle of strict austerities, who eagerly inquired about the answer to his question.  The oracle-saint had seen: “Seven long lifetimes until absolute knowledge will dawn in the mind of the yogi!”  Hearing this, the jnani yogi burst into sorrowful weeping, with frustration lamenting, “seven more years!,” as he started again to vigorously recite the holy scriptures.
 
The pilgrim bade him farewell and moved on, eventually coming across the bhakta yogi dancing and screaming the names of the gods and goddesses, crying in joy.  The bhakta yogi was so immersed in his devotion that again it took a long, long time for the pilgrim to gain his attention.  Eventually, the bhakta yogi noticed the pilgrim, and remembered the question he had put forth for the saint, how many more lifetimes before final liberation.  He inquired as to the answer, and received the words of the all-knowing saint: “As many leaves on the huge tree he dwells under, that many lifetimes!”  The jnani yogi would have been driven to despair upon hearing such a fortune, but the bhakta yogi jumped with joy, elated to have so many more lifetimes of existence to practice his devotion to the divine, before achieving liberation.  At the exact moment the bhakta yogi was jumping for joy, the earth shook, and all the leaves fell down from the tree.  In that instant, the bhakta yogi became enlightened. 
 
In some scriptures, it is said that every individual enlightenment is followed by an earthquake.  Other scriptures say that earthquakes are caused by the shifting of the earth and that fate does not exist, only a natural course of cause and effect.
 
Jnana, or the path of knowledge, tries to analyze all the contradictions within each school of religion, attempting to bridge vague symbolism to clear scientific images.  Bhakti, the path of devotion, stresses the heart rather than the mind, and intuitive experience over factual knowledge alone.  In logic, there are two ways to examine any phenomenon, either by dissecting and analyzing the parts, or by synthesis, putting all parts together and seeing the whole.  The former is an example of jnana, and the latter, of devotion.  Bhakti is a step forward into the unknown; jnana follows and tries to explain what happened.
 
The real path is of course a balance of the two.  Blind devotion leads to fanaticism, absence of reason, and excessive concentration, which only leads to more fanatical devotion.  Knowledge without devotion, on the other hand, easily becomes dry intellectual rationalism that may lead to cynicism.  One without the other is akin to a bird with only one wing trying to fly.  With two equal wings of knowledge and devotion, the bird takes off in flight.  Take also a blind man meeting a lame man in a burning maze.  Alone, neither can get out, but when the blind man puts the lame man on his shoulders, and the lame man guides him, together, they escape from the burning maze. 
 
In the path of meditation, knowledge stands for dhyana, or mental concentration.  Dhyana is the concentrated tranquility necessary to calm the mind so it will be able to realize truth, and devotion allows the insight into wisdom, or vipassana- a step into the unknown.  As we heard all throughout childhood, knowledge comes from experience.  It starts with the first step.  As the famous words go- one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
 
Peace, Happiness to All

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