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.
Image Source: kalipath.com