Vanquishing Raktabija: Navarathri and the Gunas, Part II

In the previous post, we examined the symbolism of the Devi Mahatmyam, the text that is most widely read during Navarathri.  The asuras (evil forces) of creation take over and the result is utter pandemonium. The arch enemies of the asuras are the devas, who represent the forces of nature that maintain balance. For example, Indra, the lord of the devas symbolizes rain and wields a thunderbolt as his weapon. Agni, Surya, Varuna and Chandra represent fire, the sun, water bodies and the moon, respectively. Asuras then are the opposing forces that result in disharmony.

On the individual level, the devas represent the harmony of sattva while the asuras are symbolic of the qualities in us that result in inner and outer conflict. When dark and heavy, they form a dense veil over our inherent wisdom and constitute tamas. When hyperactive or restless, the veil is less denser but still covers the light of self-knowledge (knowledge of our true nature) as rajas. Sattva is the lightest of the veils and most conducive to Self-knowledge (but is still a veil). All three gunas arise as a result of desire. The quality of our desires represents the quality of our inner state and vice versa.

Desire and Knowledge

What is it about desire that binds us? It has to do with becoming attached to the outcome of that wanting. When I become attached to wanting a particular result, not getting what I want causes me disappointment and/or resentment. When I get what I want, a strange thing happens – there is momentary peace because the energy of wanting subsides temporarily but I mistakenly think that peace was the result of getting what I want. Naturally, I think that if I get more of what I want, perhaps I might get to a place of permanent peace. However, that never happens because I don’t always get what I want. In fact, there is no way for me to predict that my actions will certainly get me a particular result or that even if I get it, I won’t lose it. So not only is there no guarantee that I’ll get what I want but when I do, I worry about losing it! Either way, attachment to the outcome of desire binds me in a cascade of actions. My desires keep morphing and growing, binding me further in cycles of disappointment or temporary elation followed by fear.

Desires are so seductive that eventually, they become the labels through which we start to define ourselves. Our likes and dislikes become our identity, the veils that cover our true (divine) nature. The denser the desire, the heavier the veil.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna describes the gunas of desire in this way:

Just as smoke veils fire, dirt veils a mirror, and a womb veils a fetus, so does desire veil Self-knowledge. (3.38)

A baby is so well-covered by the womb that it is engulfed in darkness. Similarly, tamas engulfs our divine nature in darkness and our likes and dislikes are so strong that we are unable to see beyond them. We lose perspective entirely, being entirely at the mercy of the fulfillment of our desires (which, remember, is never guaranteed and works in our favor only about half the time). Just as we have to nurture the pregnancy through proper nutrition and other measures and patiently wait to see the baby, so too do the lifestyle measures of fasting, exercising and cultivating inner silence aid in thinning of the tamasic veil.

If you’ve ever cleaned an old dusty mirror, you know the effort it takes!  This is the case with rajas, which is defined by hyperactivity, restlessness, greed, ambition, inability to sit still, racing thoughts and conditions like anxiety. Under its influence, our desires keep proliferating, one giving rise to several others. Like the mirror under the layer of dust, our divine nature is concealed under the layer of desires. In the Devi Mahatmyam, this all-too-common predicament is depicted by Raktabija (rakta=blood, bija=seed), an asura with unique abilities.

Raktabija Meets His End

After the slaying of Mahishasura, peace is restored and Shakti disappears. In another era, the devas are once again defeated by the asuras and call for her. The ever-compassionate Devi comes to their aid once again to restore order in the cosmos. This time she takes the form of Lakshmi and Saraswati and the asura brothers Shumbha and Nishumbha are the main villains. They assign several generals with the task of destroying her and Devi in turn slays them all effortlessly, until Raktabija makes an appearance on the battlefield.

His superpower is that a horde of clones are created spontaneously from every drop of his shed blood. All of Devi’s weapons therefore end up creating an increasingly bigger army of his clones. Devi summons the Shaktis (powers) of the various devas and deities to ward off the clones – Brahmani, the Shakti of Brahma, Aindri, the Shakti of Indra, Varuni, the Shakti of Varuna, and so on. Devi’s army marches on, slaying the clones by the thousands. Unfortunately, in the place of each of Raktabija’s clone arise thousands more. Devi frowns in concentration as she devises a plan, and from the power of her energy, Kali springs to life and leaps on to the battlefield.

Devi asks Kali to devour the clones before any of their blood is spilled. Kali opens her great mouth and consumes the clones struck by Devi and her army. Drained of his blood, Raktabija eventually falls.

Rajasic desires are like Raktabija’s blood. Each one forms the seed for scores more, keeping us engaged on the never-ending path of desire-fulfillment. These are the desires that drive us to seek wealth, money, fame, success and relationships. Rajas is easier to conquer compared to tamas – remember how Mahishasura keeps changing his form, which is the natural cunning of tamas that is steeped in likes and dislikes. Raktabija is relatively straightforward in comparison. With the right amount of vigilance and the practice of karma yoga, his clones can be devoured before they spill their blood.

What happens when we act on our desires without consideration of how it might affect our lives and those of others? This kind of indiscriminate action is the “spilling of blood,” where we are like a leaf in the wind, blown this way and that by our uncontrolled likes and dislikes. Every time we fulfill the desire for a drink, a cigarette or browsing the internet, we create deeper grooves of habit and eventually become slaves to it. Eventually, we “have” to have that drink, the cigarette or that browse time. The habits we cultivate come to determine the company we keep and the stories we tell ourselves about others. Like the layer of dust on the mirror, they keep us from discovering the bliss of our true nature.

Karma Yoga, the Cure for Uncontrolled Desire

You may have heard that karma yoga is selfless service. It is, but it is a bit more. Karma yoga is the gateway to Self-knowledge because it literally thins out the veil of rajas by sucking up the lifeblood of desire. There are two important aspects of karma yoga: (1) to perform action without attachment to its consequence and, (2) to give up doership.

Both of these aspects are easier said than done.

Performing action without attachment to its fruit is difficult because it takes a reprogramming of our ways of thinking and acting. However, it is made easier by understanding that the only thing we have control over is our actions. You can do your best in any situation knowing that what will happen next is largely out of your control. Now, there are of course physical laws with predictable outcomes – if you don’t know how to swim and jump into a 20-foot pool, you will drown quite predictably. What we are discussing here are the actions we perform throughout the day based on our mental and emotional assessment of a situation.

You can do all your research for your new project, invest in it and work 16-hour days to get it off the ground. Whether it will take off or not is largely dependent on factors out of your control, such as the national economy, natural disasters, technology, competition, market interest and so on. If you had visualized success to look a particular way and it looks different in comparison, you will suffer. On the other hand, if you realize that “what will be will be,” without fixed ideas about the consequences of your hard work, the effort will be joyful for its own sake.

In the following Radical Beauty Ritual, we will explore karma yoga, which gradually vanquishes the inner Raktabija.

Radical Beauty Ritual: Overcoming Rajas

  • Lifestyle changes. Continue with the lifestyle modifications that overcome tamas, including fasting and waking up early.
  • Meditate daily. Cultivating inner silence is the most effective way of cultivating sattva.
  • Pause before acting. The problem that most of us run into is that we almost always react and rarely do we respond. Reactions arise immediately and viscerally from the deep grooves of conditioning created by our likes and dislikes. Response, on the other hand, arises from stepping out of the situation and examining the facts with dispassion (non-attachment to our likes and dislikes). It helps to pause and pay attention to our inner landscape before jumping into action. Pause. Observe your breath – is it shallow and rapid, or slow and relaxed? How are you holding your body? Is there tension in your shoulders, belly, chest? Can you feel your heartbeat? When we take the focus out of the mind’s activity and put it on physiological processes, we begin to free ourselves from its slavery.
  • Pause again before acting. Once you’ve observed your body, breath and heartbeat, pause and ask yourself what you want to do and why. Do you need to respond? Can you choose to respond differently regardless of what you like or don’t like? Practice putting aside your preferences and step out of your comfort zone. After a while, this will become natural and liberating.
  • Cultivate devotion. Consider how selfless we can be as parents. When it comes to our children, we put aside our personal feelings and preferences and do what they need. This is because we are devoted to them. The Devi Mahatmyam is a text that evokes great devotion to the goddess as the Divine Mother. When we become devoted to a deity, we naturally come to dedicate everything to him or her. Cultivate devotion to your ideal – read about the deity, spiritual teacher, guru or prophet and emulate him or her in daily life. One practice that I’ve found very helpful is to make a promise every morning to my ideal – “Thy will, my Lord, not mine.” It is a reminder that whatever happens is a gift and what we ask for is merely the grace to know this.
  • Practice Inquiry. Inner silence cultivated through meditation enables us to stand back from our mental processes and observe our thoughts as they arise. This inner awareness is the great mother Kali, who consumes thoughts as they arise to deplete the mass of desire that Raktabija represents. Become curious about your desires – where do they come from? See that the basis of all desire is to be happy. Examine how often a fulfilled desire has brought your permanent happiness. What would happen if you didn’t frantically pursue every desire?

The color of rajas is red, symbolic of the blood shed that occurs on the battlefield. It is the color of fire and dynamism that keeps us engaged in the mundane without ever touching the divine within. The middle three days of Navarathri are dedicated to goddess Lakshmi, whose grace is needed to obtain the wealth of Self-knowledge. The power of desire is so strong that we will need the help of all the Shaktis to overcome them – Brahmani’s wisdom, Aindri’s vigilance, Varuni’s fluidity, and so on. So we invoke the great Devi who embodies all these qualities to help us in this quest for freedom from the tyranny of desire.

The most difficult war is yet to come. In the final three days of Navarathri, we will have to weed out the subtlest form of desire that resides in sattva. This is when we will have to examine the second aspect of karma yoga – doership, which is impossible to let go of without the grace of Saraswati. We will examine this great inner war in the next post.

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Fuel Desire to Create Destiny in 5 Simple Steps

The wheel of desire and destinyIn the last post, we delved into the need to uncover authentic desire. Whether we know it or not, our deepest desire drives our destiny. The mind can clutter and obscure authentic desire and we end up chasing things that never satisfy us. Not living our authentic desire leads to deep-seated dissatisfaction, causing inner conflict and restlessness. Not aligning with our authentic desire leaves us wanting more, like we haven’t lived to our fullest potential. To live fully, we need to unearth what it is that we really want. The “last-day-of-life meditation” is a powerful tool to unearth this desire. This desire can be used to fuel our actions and create our destiny.

It was exhilarating for me to discover my passion for writing even though it was not exactly a surprise. I’ve geeked out on syntax, grammar, word choice and creativity in language for as long as I remember. Well-written books and articles bring me to tears as much for the style of expression as the content. My love of writing was obscured by “other” desires and goals, like establishing a medical practice and raising a family. However, the authentic desire for expression never went away. It unconsciously drove my career choice where writing scientific papers, reviews and book chapters became facets of my daily work. When I started blogging years ago, I realized that writing nourished my soul. Whether it is a scientific paper, a blog post or a clinic note, the process of writing is deeply satisfying for its own sake. Whether or not a manuscript is accepted at my targeted journal or whether anyone is reading the blog post I painstakingly wrote  is irrelevant.

As important as it is to unearth our authentic desire, it is only the first step. The desire is most useful if it fuels our actions. Like a wheel, desire fuels consistent action. Consistent action opens us to deeper authentic desire and further clarity of purpose. Purposeful action creates our destiny. While this is a process we must traverse in our own unique ways, here are 5 simple steps that might be useful for you:

  1. Allow. Writing about yoga or the divine feminine has nothing to do with my job. When I first began writing, I worried about what my colleagues would think, and whether it would affect my credibility. The more I dug in to my own purpose, I realized that it didn’t matter. Not allowing this passion to arise and shape my life was stifling. Firstly, acknowledge your authentic desire. Don’t worry about whether it is right or wrong, whether it makes sense or not, and whether it is applicable to your life. Let your passion speak. Say you have a corporate desk job and what really drives you is music. Allow this love and dream of playing music to consume you. Sure, it has nothing to do with your job and you can’t make a career out of it (yet). Let it surface anyway. Allow the natural excitement of your interest to fill you up.
  2. Research. The next step in the desire-t0-destiny process is to research your passion. Become curious. Read up on the genre, the instrument and the musicians. Look up online and social media groups with similar interests. Join in the conversations. The advantage of living in this age of information is that there is no dearth of learning material or inspirational, like-minded folks. Use technology to your advantage. Cultivate enthusiasm for your desire.
  3. Apply. This is the critical next step. When I started blogging, I was periodically overcome with self-doubt and inertia. They arose from feeling that I was wasting time, that I should be doing something else, or that nobody was reading my writing. Again and again, I was pulled into writing despite the mind’s chatter because it was so joyful. It was not enough to research and read up on my favorite authors. I had to actually write. Take your interest and just do it (thanks, Nike!). Commit to 10 minutes initially (nobody can say they don’t have 10 minutes). Take the instrument out of the case. Tune it. Play it, even if it is for 5 minutes. The most important thing is your attitude. Bring your curiosity and enthusiasm from your research and discussions into the process. Make it fun.
  4. Re-evaluate. Check in when you are doing the activity. Does it feel joyful? Even if it is challenging, does it make you feel alive and vibrant? Do you lose yourself in it with no cares of the past or future? Do you love the activity for its own sake without worrying about what you will gain from it? Do you feel you could do this all day every day, given a choice? If the answer to all of the above is a resounding yes, you’ve nailed it. You’ve found your authentic desire. Become accustomed to this inner joy. Favor it every time. Soon, the activity will become a habit if you favor your joy.
  5. Intensify. Once my self-doubt about writing was mitigated, I began to write with abandon, participating in groups and learning from those whose style I love and admire. I enjoy interacting and learning from writing tasks. When the self-doubt arises, it is remedied by allowing the love of writing to take center stage again (Step 1). Once you’ve aligned yourself with the joy of doing, kick it up a notch (or several notches). Increase the time you commit to the activity. Reorganize your schedule. Practice more. Take a lesson. Or learn on your own.

At some point, we may be tempted to ask, “Fine. What then? How is this going to pay my bills? Will I make money off of it?” The answer is maybe. Or maybe not. Making a living is a respectable goal. How we want to live is a different goal. When we allow our heart’s desire to sprout, the two goals may come together in unexpected ways. Keeping an open heart and allowing our inner wisdom to bloom are essential ingredients for magic!

Radical Beauty Ritual:

  • After you’ve applied the five steps for a few weeks, do the last-day-of-life meditation again.
  • What comes up now? Is the passion still the same?
  • If the five steps are in line with your authentic desire, it will come up again with clarity and certainty. As you get to the last moments of your life in meditation, a sense of peace will prevail.
  • If you’ve dabbled in the activity to fulfill superficial desires, you will quickly lose interest in it.
  • Here are some examples of inauthentic or “borrowed” desires that will not inspire you to keep up the commitment:

(a) Trying to live up to an ideal image of yourself.

(b) Trying to please someone else.

(c) Because it might be fun to try it.

(d) Because someone else is doing it.

(This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try something for fun, of course! We are talking about creating destiny here and not casual activities).

Hope this gives you something to ponder about and put in practice. As always, do share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Tools for Inner Archaeology

The right tools make all the difference!So you’re ready for this digging expedition. Let’s get started! For success in any endeavor, we need to be adequately and thoughtfully prepared. If you’re like me, you’re probably familiar with the “blindly jumping in” syndrome. It has taken me years to slow down and take time to prepare for the journey, particularly those into mystical realms. Gathering the right tools for inner archaeology makes all the difference in how deep we can dig and what we will find.

The primary tools for unearthing Radical Beauty are Radical Commitment, Radical Honesty and Radical Willingness. “Radical” is an essential qualifier for each tool. Half-hearted honesty or willingness will get us nowhere. We know now that we cannot expect different results with the same old tools, which only result in rearranging the debris. If we want to transform, we will have to upgrade our tools.

In my travels, I’m astounded by the hardships that archaeologists face in their desire to dig up past treasures. It is backbreaking, methodical and delicate work that few are cut out for. Their commitment to working through challenges is worth emulating. In fact, steady and dogged commitment to a goal is the secret of success in any field. The form of Shakti known as Tripura Bhairavi symbolizes Radical Commitment.

Why is it so hard to commit to effort? The answer is simple. We can only commit to what we really want. Thus, the basis for commitment is desire, which leads to vision. My beloved yoga guru, Yogani incisively distills down achievement to be the result of desire + vision + action. This is true for whether we want to get through college, make a marriage work, or rise to the top of an organization. It is most definitely true for the path of inner exploration. If you don’t want it, you will not be committed. If you are not committed, you will not act. If you don’t act, you will not achieve. Simple. Radical Commitment translates desire and vision into consistent action.

Desire is a loaded word and concept. Many schools of spirituality shun desire as an evil trait that needs to be gotten rid of. I used to believe that too! It is common for spiritual aspirants to try to give up desire. However, trying to rid oneself of desire is a fruitless endeavor. The desire to give up desire binds us in a circular, nonserving argument. It is much more useful to hone down desire into a a sharp focus. When we become crystal clear about what we want, Bhairavi comes to our aid and cuts through everything that doesn’t serve that singular focus. She moves the whole universe to fulfill that desire. Bhairavi’s light leads to progressive refining of desire, which then explodes into love and beauty.

The tricky part of this is to know what we actually desire. We have been fed with ideas and concepts about what we should desire. This is particularly true for women. For example, we may have been indoctrinated into thinking that if we don’t desire a mate, children or stability, there is something wrong with us. Or that our place is at home, or some variation of “good girls don’t do xyz.” In the cacophony of voices that scream in our heads telling us what to want, the unique purpose for which we were created becomes thwarted. In the conflict between innate and fed desires, we can live unfulfilled lives, never discovering our unique gifts and abilities.

In order to sharpen the tool of Radical Commitment that will lead to consistent action toward self-discovery, we will need to tune into our heart’s desire and vision. That is the purpose of this next Beauty ritual.

Radical Beauty Ritual:

To embark on this expedition, I recommend that you acquire a good quality journal. This will become your best friend as you begin your inner explorations.

  • Make time to sit still for a few minutes daily. Set a timer so that you can be free of chores during this time. Take a few slow deep breaths and settle down into the chair. This exercise works best if you are in a relaxed state, like daydreaming. Become curious about what you will find. Gently ask: “I wonder what I really want.” Don’t expect an immediate answer! Explore what comes up. If it is something like, “I want a romantic partner,” sit with that. Turn it over in your mind. Wonder why you want it. When the timer goes off, take a few more deep slow breaths before you get up and go about your day.
  • Pay attention to how you feel about the different tasks you do on a daily basis. Write down the thoughts you have about the roles you play and the tasks you do. It is tempting to be cavalier and say you’d rather be sunning on the beach. Dig deeper. Beach bumming can become boring if that is all you did!
  • Write down the following. What do you really want now? This year? Over the next five years?


*Do share your thoughts in the comments below. What did you find? Have you discovered your heart’s desire? Are you Radically Committed?


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