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The Second Greatest Mantra

by Tim Garvin | Oct 3, 2019 | Essay 

It’s hard to talk about God, not just because he’s invisible and elusive, but because he’s surrounded on one side by confident deniers and on the other by confident believers, and neither usually have any experience of God. The deniers don’t need to, but the believers don’t either, which is why that’s what they’re called.

Both erect formidable idea systems and are a lot of trouble to talk to, especially for someone in search of the truth. Because the truth, if there is any, had better be an experience. If it’s only an idea, it’s not worth the effort.

What we’re looking for from both of those groups is the best way to behave. What should we do all day? How should we live? I said somewhere in a different essay that life rains questions but not answers so we mostly just get on with it. Which works. We know how to get to New York, how to open a car door, what shoes are comfortable, that sort of thing, handy knowledge. But we don’t know what life is or means. Now and then it becomes important though, so we erect a mental billboard called belief. Deniers sometimes deny needing a belief billboard, at least the kind believers need, but, in fact, belief in its most basic form is a requirement for living. I lock the door and walk away. Did I lock the door? I believe so. But sometimes I glance back, because, hey, memory’s tricky. The belief billboard deniers reject is the one believers use as a barrier against the soft nuzzle of depression which can probe even our gladdest moments with that familiar what’s-it-all-for feeling. Deniers recommend courage to combat this feeling. The feeling can worsen with age though, even among deniers, because here comes death before we’ve figured out life. Besides, too often, even usually these days, any billboard we’ve been able to erect by that time hangs with rags and tatters, battered by science, disappointment, and the confident contempt of atheists.

But fair enough. I actually love science and atheists. I can even, in my most broad-minded moods, celebrate disappointment (mostly if it’s already past). Because I want my belief in a raggedy-ass state. That way little rays of wonder can gleam from the tatters.

In any case, belief, as atheists are fond of reminding us—and which is all most of us ever have—has been the harasser of mankind for millennia. It sets the table for pundits. It creates and defends piety. Both piety and punditry are, as Shakespeare might have put it, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.

The piety I’m thinking about, of course, is the public sort, the kind you notice and are meant to notice. It’s the ego’s best-ever hiding place because it’s where we’re trained not to look. It’s what supported the Inquisition and heretic-burning, and it’s stubborn persistence is one of the deniers’ strongest argument against religion.

It’s interesting to note that when our search for the truth moves us past both the piety of believers and punditry of deniers we can encounter the disquieting oddity of true spirituality, an experience that usually tatters the billboards of our belief. I knew a man named Minoo who from time to time as a young man stayed at the ashram of Upsasni Maharaj, a master from Maharashtra, India. Upasani had left his master, Sai Baba, and had taken up residence in a little temple in the village of Sakori. He wore only a gunny sack, sometimes not even that, and often had a fiery disposition. It is said he once disdainfully exposed his genitals to Gandhi, no doubt tattering the great man’s billboard. But people were attracted to Upasani, and he soon had a considerable following.

Minoo told me a fascinating story. He said there was a doctor staying at the ashram when he was there—this was sometime in the 1920s—and one day Upasani rushed from his hut with a stick of bamboo and began to beat the doctor with it. The doctor fell down, and Upasani continued to beat him. Minoo was sure that Upasani would be sent to prison for murder, and that the ashram where he had come in search of God would be disbanded, so he fled from the incident in dismay. The next morning he went tentatively to the outdoor faucet to wash up. And there was the doctor, himself washing up. Minoo asked how he was. The doctor beamed, and said he was never better. He showed no ill affects from the beating Minoo had thought must surely have been fatal.

This is hard to understand without a small disquisition on sanskaras, or impressions. It’s a term that come from Vedanta, which is ancient Indian philosophy. Sanskaras are the stuff of existence really. They are the traces of memory and desire that somehow accumulate around the inner being as it evolves, creating the lens or self through which we experience existence. The somehow in that sentence is important, since this sanskara business is mysterious and a long way from what we think about in the West, which is atoms and electrons. Mind might be as good a term here as any, as long as we remember it’s just a term pointing to a mystery. Mind is so hard to understand that even in the West psychology has always been considered the little sister of the hard sciences.

But why beat the poor doctor? Because the way we advance spiritually is to get our sanskaras in balance, and the doctor, according to this idea train, needed a good beating to balance the beating he had delivered in some previous life. I’m guessing, of course. But Upasani, who is revered in India as god-realized, would persumably  have been an ideal sanskara-remover.

Upasani’s master, Sai Baba, also a perfect master, was eccentric as well. If you came to Sai Baba, he would usually ask for all your money and immediately redistribute it to the poor. You would often leave without a rupee. He would lead a group of his devotees, plus musicians, each morning on a walk, called a lendi procession, to a field where he would defecate. Shirdi, where he resided, is now an immense complex of stalls and businesses, and the line to bow before his tomb, called taking his darshan, is normally a half day long.

I like masters like these, because in them there is zero see-me piety, and because they validate the bold authenticity required for the inner search. For me, their existence is like a wind that blows egoism into high relief.

I am reminded of a tale about the female saint, Rabe’a of Basra, from Farid al-Din Attar’s Muslim Saints and Mystics:

One day Hasan of Basra, Malek-e Dinar and Shaqiqe Balkhi went to visit Rabe’a on her sickbed.

“He is not truthful in his claim,” Hasan began, “who does not bear with fortitude the lash of his Lord.”

“These words stink of egoism,” Rabe’a commented.

“He is not truthful in his claim,” Shaqiq tried, “who is not grateful for the lash of his Lord.”

“We need something better than that,” Rabe’a observed.

“He is not truthful in his claim,” Malek-e Dinar offered, “who does not take delight in the lash of his Lord.”

“We need something better than that,” Rabe’a repeated.

“Then you say,” they urged.

“He is not truthful in his claim,” Rabe’a pronounced, “who does not forget the lash in contemplation of his Master.”

Real spirituality has never been piety. It’s more a wrestling match. We wrestle with the lower because we yearn for the higher. Upasani said the greatest mantra was “Be As It May,” a saying that points to the letting be of what is, which is surrender, which is the Gita’s message of releasing the fruits of lower desire so that we can absorb the essence of the higher inner being.

Now here’s my fun second greatest mantra: Om, Motherfucker, Om. Om at the front, because we come from God, and Om at the end, because we all get home. And in the middle, the motherfucking wrestling match of trying to be a better person. Motherfucker is an offensive word, no doubt, but the egoism that separates us from the Oms is more offensive yet, and the word is a good reminder of that. Think of it as a hyphen. Which, I am convinced, is all human life is anyway.

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