Thursday, November 21, 2013

A short note on the use of Swami Venkatesananda's translation of the Yoga Vasistha

I just wanted to write a quick note about translation.

I like Swami Venkatesananda's 'translation' or what I think of as actually transmission of the Yoga Vasistha.

Regardless of the original Sanskrit, Swami V's rendition is a unique entity in and of itself. And it is the one that has affected me on all levels. Thus I am choosing to use it and even struggle at times with the English choices that he has given for this massive work.

Throughout history, important works have taken on a unique light through translation. I feel that the choices made by the translators are important in that they cast a unique reflection on these classics.

If I had the time and motivation, I would most certainly dive into the original Sanskrit. I would even attempt it a little bit here but alas my Sanskrit version of Yoga Vasistha is hopelessly buried somewhere deep in my storage unit.

So Swami V will suffice for now. Please pardon my slight arrogance with this choice but I do feel that Swami V is a very capable soul. I have heard first hand account from some of his students who met him, have read some of his other works, and find him to be a beautiful, beautiful man.

So do I think all of the English words chosen by Swami V are the appropriate choice? Honestly I'm not sure. But I was raised with English and since I really like this beautiful man who I have never met, for now it works for me.

However, I may change my mind from time to time...

Many thanks to you Swami V!!!!

Work and Knowledge

After a glorious salutation to Sat, Cit and Ananda, the Real, the Luminous and the Ocean of Bliss, the story that is the Yoga Vasistha unfolds...

The setting for the entire work is set into motion with the very first question, asked to the ancient sage Agastya :

"Which of the two is conducive to liberation, work or knowledge?"

A classic dilemna given in many Indian texts.

Is freedom or liberation dependent on doing anything at all? Or is it just about a deeper level gnosis or knowledge? If freedom was dependent on doing something, wouldn't that imply that it could be taken away?

And what exactly does liberation mean anyway? The text will define it very soon but it is good to examine such lofty concepts ourselves directly.

When you ask your Self of selves what liberation is, what do YOU come up with?

And what do you feel in your heart of hearts is the answer to the question above?

I used to believe Shankaracarya in his Atmabodha, when he said that work can never lead to liberation, that liberation is beyond cause and effect.  But then one of my yoga teachers argued otherwise. The Yajnavalkya Samhita, a classical hatha text agrees with the answer that Vasistha gives.

Which is this:

"Verily, birds are able to fly with their two wings: even so both work and knowledge together lead to the supreme goal of liberation... both of them together form the means."

The deeper answer to the why of this answer unfolds in a strange way like a Russian doll, its structure reminiscent of the layering of our own mind. A story is opened within a story within a story. Until we arrive at a layer involving the sage Valmiki, who then opens another layer, the main layer of the text. The story of the God Prince Rama of epic fame and the court guru Vasistha, and their dialogue.

Before we go there, lets sit longer with the answer of the two wings, Action and Knowledge, because this question forms a powerful container for the entire text to come. We might ask what action and knowledge are. I've seen them also translated differently but it doesn't really matter. Going back to the Sanskrit roots honestly doesn't even concern me here. What mostly matters is the intent of these words...

One involves the relative truth of Reality which is ever changing. The other involves something  absolute which is constant.

Changing. Constant.
Perhaps we are getting closer to the intent of these words action and knowledge?

What is the relationship between the changing and the constant? Are we able to recognize each of these aspects of Reality separately?

Back to the beginning for a moment....

Yoga Vasistha opens with a beautiful prayer to Sat, Cit and Ananda.

Sat, the Real is acknowledged first. The sum total of all. Everything.

Cit, the Consciousness/Luminosity is that very light that sees. This is constant, undying, unchanging.

Ananda, the Bliss. Moving, changing, experiencing, filled with life.

These are the three aspects that are saluted in the opening verses of Yoga Vasistha. Thus it is fitting that the question is asked very quickly as to whether work or knowledge is necessary. Regardless of what liberation actually is, are we aware, cognizant on some level of all of these three levels of our being?

'Work' or 'action' takes place through movement and change, even if that movement is somehow apparent.

The 'knowledge' described here is not head knowledge. It is direct and constant. It is the Light itself which illuminates, which sees, which knows.

Why is there not a third category to describe some sort of concept related to Sat, the Real? Because this is completely beyond all movement and non-movement. The Real is just the Real. Sat is Sat.

In understanding for ourselves the meaning of work and knowledge, the changing and the constant, we are going to come to a deeper wholeness. Perhaps this wholeness of our being is 'liberation' or freedom.

And thus the story unfolds as to how to remember this inherent wholeness of what we are in actuality...

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Luminous Vasistha

I owe a lot to the Yoga Vasistha.

In 1994, when I picked up a copy of Swami Venkatesananda's Vasistha's Yoga, I was instantly fascinated and also mystified and blown away by the content of this large volume. I had no idea of the ride it would take me on and the depths that it would bring me to.

I read from it every day in the beginning, usually just a page or two as much of it seemed so beyond me.

Over the years for some strange reason, the book kept forcing me back to the beginning so I didn't actually complete the whole work until about 10 years later. But by then I had read the initial parts dozens of times. It came at me in waves. Wave after wave until I reached the other shore of the last page. And then I started it all over again.

Sometime in the early 2000's I began to read the Yoga Vasistha to my students every Friday in the early mornings. We would have discussions which proved to be extremely powerful and illuminating as to the deeper meaning of the many stories and complex language. It is a tradition that I continue to this day with my group in Seattle. A small group of my Portland students has been getting together for coffee and Vasistha still every Friday morning as well, continuing the tradition there.

I hear tell that Swami Venkatesananda used to sit at Swami Sivananda's feet every morning for the reading of the Yoga Vasistha. I don't know if this is true or not but it shows in his translation. His level of insight, regardless of the actual rendering is astounding. Few translations have been made of this very large body of work. To be commended is the ongoing vasistha google groups translation project. I send prayers and blessings to them that they finish this monumental task.

There is much to say about this work. I am starting this blog to share some of my ideas around it with others who might not be familiar with the work as well as those Vasistha veterans who want something additional to chew on.

I am, and and the same time am not, a scholar. I don't have a Phd. I'm not a master of Sanskrit. My views frankly are a bit heretical and crass at times. So I may occasionally offend the serious student of this work. And I love it. I have thrown the book across the room a few times, pissed off at Vasistha's idiotic patriarchal attitudes and yet I pick it up again because at the core of it, Vasistha is telling the truth about consciousness. Regardless of who wrote this, regardless of its depth being conveyed by a patriarchal traditionalist, regardless of whether you agree or disagree, there is some serious power in this work.

Anyway...  I'm not going to give a scholarly rendition of this work. That would bore me. This blog is going to be how Vasistha hits me on the gut level. The raw level. The place prior to words and scholarly debates. Scholars are definitely welcome to comment but understand that sometimes I will actually defy what Vasistha says either because I know it's bullshit or I'm working with the gradual path around certain topics, or just to try it out and see if its really true. I don't mind the ride. I'm not looking for enlightenment. To me the Yoga Vasistha is more a celebration of what we are. What we are capable of.

The Yoga Vasistha is extremely large. I will be using the translation by Swami Venkatesananda, Vasistha's Yoga and occasionally pull from sources like Atreya and other classical sources. As much as I'd like to say I'm going to follow it chronologically, I may not... Well, we'll at least start at the beginning.

Some reasons I like Yoga Vasistha:

The Yoga Vasistha is for everyone. Especially those who live in the world. Every character in the many stories of the Yoga Vasistha not only 'wakes up' but goes back to work. They live their life. The Yoga Vasistha is ultimately about engagement in reality from the central point of the bindu. It is not about escapism. King Janaka, Queen Cudala, and the others all do their work in the world after realizing that 'waking up' does not mean checking out.

Vasistha doesn't discriminate as to the character of the person who wakes up. Even the evil ones have the capability to realize their true nature. Lord Bali and Karkati, the demoness all wake up. What does it mean for a demon to wake up? Really?

The structure of the Vasistha is layered in similar ways to our own mind/consciousness. The stories reflect some of our own. One of the most powerful examples of this is the Story of Lila. The cyclical nature of our reflective world is revealed in the three chapters on creation, existence, and dissolution.

Vasistha emphasizes effort and free will over fate. Chapter 2 gives much information on this as well as some profound techniques and practices.

There are many other reasons I like the Yoga Vasistha. We'll explore many soon. 

I invite you to join me as we explore this awesome work together in this blog.