February 2012


I bought a compilation of Buddhist writings.  I was struck by one of the pictures in the book.  It was a Chinese village and the villagers, busy executing various activities, looked like cardboard cut-outs.

A man was hammering horse-shoes and another selling some kind of merchandise.  There was a woman selling fish and a man taking care of cows.  Crude houses and trees were interspersed amongst the busy villagers.  The village was a microcosm of society; and the villagers were dutifully playing their roles.  Looking at the picture, I realized that everyone is engaged in some kind of work and that the particular work we do in this world bind us to it.  We work for results – money, shelter, prestige – and the fruits of our work manifest as karma.  A musician, for example, is forced by the laws of nature to play music.  That is unavoidable.

There was something pathetic about the figures in the picture, who were so  – whose inextricably linked to what they did, as if their activities defined who they were.  They were doomed.  Doomed to act out the scripts of their lives in a fatalistic, archetypal, mechanical way.  Like seals at the aquarium.  Paul liked to quote the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau:  ‘Man is free, yet everywhere he is bound by chains’.  It’s the same for us, I thought.  We are just like these villagers.  We are stuck in the wheel of Samsara.

Why are we stuck in this vicious cycle of working, life after life, for the sake of working?  The picture offered no answer.  I might has well have been looking at Hieronymous Bosch’s depictions of hell.  Nothing made sense.  The sadness of living and dying, like a puppet, with no sense of a purpose beyond essentially meaningless activity disturbed me.  My unconscious perception of the suffering of this world was opening like a flower, becoming conscious.  Knowledge was a loss of innocence in a sense.  Ignorance, as they say, is a poor man’s friend.  I felt trapped, like Aeneas,in a deathly Underworld.  I also identified with Goethe’s Werther who at one point in The Sorrows of Werther exclaims, ‘This whole world is a prison.  Who has thrown away the key?’

Buddhism offers a balanced way of living – the ‘middle way’.  Buddhist teachings offer a fine code of ethics and morality.  I admired the fact that many strict Buddhists, including Lord Buddha himself, were vegetarian.  The fact that Buddhist writings hardly mentioned the existence of the soul or God, however, made me feel uneasy.  The goal of Buddhism – Nirvana – meant the extinction of personality and individuality.   I could not accept this.  I must exist.  How could I not exist?  It was only my conditioning I was uncomfortable with, not my intrinsic sense of self.  Surely I could change? Surely I could become a better person. I wanted to know who I was in an unconditioned sense.  I gravitated more to the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita which offered the same rarefied ethics of Buddhism, yet affirmed the existence of the soul and the soul’s unique individuality.  Even the pathetic villagers, bitten by routine, could be imbued with a sense of purpose if they were connected to Divinity in a personal, sentient way.

March 1997

Waiting at the Fishoek Station with a copy of Sri Isopanisad in my bag.  The platform is sunbleached and scratchy.  Someone else is here: blonde, unshaven.  I pace up and down, chanting, wedged between the platform and fence.  Everything’s silent and grey.

The platform is the only area where I can pace.  I am some distance from the guy.  I try not to attract attention to myself.  The chanting washes over me.  Even here.  Especially here.  I get the feeling, without seeing, that he is observing me.  I look over to where he is sitting.  He looks down.  The train pulls into the station.

We are alone in the compartment.  We stare from each side.  After some time I ask his name.  ‘My name is Nick’.  I introduce myself, ‘Michael’.  The chanting beads are in my hand.  He asks, in a cagey kind of way, ‘Why were you walking in circles on the platform?’  He asks in the same way a ringmaster might approach a lion in a circus, as if I am mad or something. I explain, to the best of my ability, what I was doing.  I also take the liberty to present several salient points on the philosophy of Krishna consciousness.  He is interested.  The sans serif letters RONDEBOSCH come into view against a backdrop of yellow.  ‘That’s my station’, I say.  I pass him the Isopanisad.  He smiles.

I spend the night at the Temple and attend mangala-arati for the first time.  I walk outside just before sunrise.  Staying awake from four in the morning enhances the intensity of the sunrise.  Yaso tells me that this is the most auspicious time of the day, ‘Lord Caitanya would dance in ecstasy at sunrise’.  A picture of Lord Caitanya, dancing at sunrise, appears in my mind.

I speak to the guest speaker, Kadamba prabhu, after breakfast.  I mention to him that, in spite of my university education, I consider even the simplest of the devotees are more learned than me.  ‘Yes’, he says, ‘devotees have greater knowledge than these professors.  Prabhupada compares this kind of academic knowledge to a serpent with a large jewel on its forehead’.  His voice is deep, but warm.  Kadamba tells me a story from the Mahabharata, the ancient history of India.  Two princes set out to find a good and a bad person.  The one prince could only see faults in those he met, whereas his cousin could only see the good.  The moral of the story was that no-one is entirely good and no-one is entirely bad.  It is like a glass.  It is half empty and half full when it contains liquid.  I carry this thought with me.

‘So why is it so important?  Golokera prema dhana.  Because it is coming from Goloka Vrndavana.  This transcendental sound, Hare Krsna maha-mantraBhagavad-gitaSrimad Bhagavatam, they are coming from Goloka Vrndavana.  Just like you receive through radio machine news from a distant place, thousands and thousands of miles away.  Now the instruments have improved.  They are trying to get information from other planets also.  That’s nice.  But there is another machine which can give you information of the Goloka Vrndavana.  That machine is nothing manufactured by the manterial scientists.  But there is a machine what is that machine?  That machine is the guru-parampara.  Evam parampara-praptam imam rajarsayoh viduh.  If you receive the message by the guru-parampara.

The first guru is Krsna.  Next guru is Lord Brahma.  Next guru is Narada.  Next guru is Vyasadeva.  Next guru is Madhvacarya.  And so many others.  And their branches.  in this way, Caitanya Mahaprabhu.  Then the Goswamis.  then Srinivasa, Srinivasa Acarya, Narottama dasa Thakura.  In this way, the parampara is coming.  So this is the machine.  How can I understand this machine is correct?  Yes, it is correct.  How is it correct?  You can corroborate.  The Bhagavad-gita says, the original machine, Krsna, says, sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja.  So the same message is being broadcast in the Krsna consciousness movement.  What are we speaking?  We are speaking, “Give up everything.  Just surrender to Krsna”.  Is not that the same machine?  If you keep the words, the vibration of the machine the same, then it is the same machine.

You get the correct information.  Krsna is speaking – about Himself, about His abode, about the spiritual world, the activities.  Krsna is speaking everything in the Srimad-Bhagavata, in Bhagavad-gita.  And we don’t require to change unnecessarily.  if we present the same thing as it is, as we are presenting Bhagavad-gita as it is, then the machine is there.  You can get all the information.  There is no difficulty.  Just like you are getting by the present machine, radio machine, message from far, distant place.  Similarly, you can get all the information of the spiritual world by the proper machine.  The Bhagavad-gita received through the parampara, disciplic succession of bona fide spiritual masters.  It is not difficult’ – A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Festival Lecture on Srila Krsnadasa Kaviraja Goswami

Newlands Forest, 1997

We reach the Temple.  Yaso says, ‘Haribol’, and goes to his room.  The devotees invite me to take prasadam with them.  Afterwards, Nicholas and I sit on the old cane furniture, as we usually do, in the foyer.  We philosophize – even argue – until  I look at my watch. It is 10pm.  I bid Nicholas goodbye and rush for the train – dashing out the door, sprinting across St. Andrews Road and bounding down the glaring white light of the subway.  Damn.  That was the last train.

The lights are out when I get back to the Temple.  Nicholas would be awake, but his room is on the far side of the asrama.  What am I to do?  Where am I going to sleep?  I can’t stay at the Temple.  I am not pure.  I am attached to my academic work.  Pride has crept in amongst these half-developed feelings of humility.  I am a yogi.  I am renounced.   I can sleep in the forest.  

The forest is dark.  I lie on a bed of pine needles near the gravel road where we walked this afternoon.  I am afraid, but I also know that if I depend on God everything will be okay.  What if snakes come out at night?  What if there’s a killer in the dark?  I have no blanket.  The combination of cold and a niggling sense of fear keeps me awake.  I go down to the river.  I lie on the same rock we dried ourselves on earlier.  It is warmer than the forest floor.  I sleep for two hours, but the morning sun forces my eyes open like coarse sandpaper.

I long for my bed.  I want to sleep.  I catch the train to Fishoek.  Some kind of yogi you are.  Yes, some kind of yogi.

I spend the afternoon walking with Yaso in Newlands Forest.  Newlands Forest covers Devil’s Peak up to the contour path; and  Devil’s Peak flanks Table Mountain.

We walk in a bee-line, past the car park, to the worn footpath at the edge of the picnic area.  We are alone.  We follow the footpath to a stream; and follow the stream to another path.  This path ends at a forestry turnstile.  Yaso has thick wooden beads around his neck and arms.  He is wearing a thick cotton lungi and a yellow-brown turban.

Yaso and I pass through the turnstile.  The slope levels at the gravel road.  The blueness of the sky and tallness of the trees lends to a sense of space and freedom.  Yaso says, ‘You can feel the prana here’.   To our left, over the fynbos, we can see the leafy green suburbs below.  If you gaze further you can see the houses of the Cape Flats, glinting like pieces of glass and shell on a beach. Stretch farther, and you can see the mountains and sky.  To our right are pines and eucalyptus, interspersed with indigenous silver trees.  Devil’s Peak towers to the far right.

We talk about all sorts of things: telepathy, Alexander the Great’s meeting with Diogenes, chanting and mystic experience.  There is no pretense.  We are kindred spirits.  I can hear the river further down the road.  We eventually reach the part of the road where the road becomes a bridge over the mountain stream.  We follow the bank of the river until we reach a large pool.  Yaso carefully submerges himself.  Is he smiling?  Is he grimacing?   I am not sure.  I pull off my tee-shirt and jump in.  It is cold and refreshing.

I think of the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  His intelligent mind had such a fine grasp of logic and reason, yet his final conclusion is summed up in one word: uncertainty.  The Vedas, on the other hand – summarized by Krishna’s words in the Bhagavad-gita – give the reader a sense of purpose and certainty.   We dry ourselves on the warm rocks and begin our walk past the faded picnic space, back to the Temple.