March 2012


‘Those favoured by God find their paths set by thorns’

‘There is no peace or happiness in our worldly life.  Circumstances create turmoil and annoyance’

‘As dalliance with the body in luxury increases, so wanes the spirit of service to the Lord’

‘Let me not desire anything but the highest good for my worst enemies’

‘To recite the name of Sri Krsna is bhakti

‘A devotee feels the presence of God everywhere, but one averse to the Lord denies His existence everywhere’.

‘We are put to test and trial in this world.  Only those who attend the kirtan of the devotees can succeed’

‘The Lord Gaurasundara, puts His devotees in various difficulties and associations to test their patience and strength of mind.  Success depends on their good fortune’

‘Look within.  Amend yourself, rather than pry into the frailties of others’

‘When faults in others misguide and delude you – have patience, introspect, find faults in yourself.  Know that others cannot harm you unless  you harm yourself’

How to please the Dhama: 1. print books; 2. nama-hatta; and, 3. distribute literature.

Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati

Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

December 1996

I began to read Juan Mascaro‘s Gita with more attention.  Ranke’s History of the Popes made me feel disillusioned with Catholicism.  If Roman Catholicism was already so corrupt by the 1400s, what must it be like now?  I accepted Christ’s life and teachings, but saw many flaws with the Christian institutions.  I loved the sense of relevance of the Gita and I was attracted to the simplicity of Krishna’s teachings.  How could I learn more?

I read a verse in the Gita that described how a person who had lived a virtuous life in yoga with the Supreme would take birth in a family of yogis in his next life.  My mind created a picture of such a family.  They might be carpenters, like Jesus Christ.  Maybe they practised yoga asanas and lived a simple, peaceful life.  They would wear robes, of course, and work in the spirit of detachment that the Gita spoke about.  To the best of my knowledge, no such families existed in the western world.  They would have to live in India.  With my heavy routine of exercise, study and philosophical inquiry I was beginning to consider myself a bit of a yogi.  I realized, however, that I was unqualified.  I had taken birth in a western family, far off the mark of the devotion and ascetism I had read about in the Vedas.

It dawned on me that I needed to find such a family like the family of yogis I had read about in the Gita.  They must exist.  Maybe you could find them in India.  Yes, I thought to myself, maybe I should go to India.  I did not realize I would not have to go that far.  I wanted my flatmate, Justin, to read the Gita.  He had told me that he had read some eastern philosophy before.  He was studying an MSc. in Geology, specializing in aquafers – underground deposits of water.  Justin was very spontaneous.  Sometimes he’d just get on his motorbike and take a ride out into the countryside – see the Namaqualand daisies or some local oddity.  He had ridden through Africa, from Cape Town to Turkey, on a motorbike at the age of twenty-one.  He was the one who inspired me to run up to the blockhouse, above Rhodes Memorial.  He had done that to get fit for Western Province waterpolo.

The Bhagavad-gita contained a precise description of spiritual understanding or, what I had discovered to be, the Absolute Truth.  It was the final destination of my literary wanderings and the beginning of a new journey.  The 700 verses of the Gita seemed to summarize all knowledge and point to the boundless, eternal wisdom of the soul and God.  My experience of Christianity had proved disappointing.  There did not seem to be a very integrated congruence between the Biblical text and spiritual experience.  The Gita also seemed to offer a more life-affirming approach to life than the nihilistic and negative teachings of Buddhism.  I am cognizant.  I am aware of who I am.  I must, therefore, exist.  I must be an individual.  My discovery of Vedic literature aroused in me a thirst for spiritual excellence.  And the Bhagavad-gita was showing me the way.

Diogenes

Diogenes (Photo credit: Stifts- och landsbiblioteket i Skara)

There was a quote by Ludwig Wittgenstein on a piece of paper on my wall: ‘Context determines use’.  It amused me that the great philosopher was once found in a ditch, with his notebooks, by one of his friends.  Is this where the philosophers end up?  In a ditch?  In bed?  (Descartes wrote his philosophical tracts in bed).  Sitting at a desk. A lot of writers seemed to include the process of writing in their books.  Writing about writing.

Around this time I began to question the significance of the world I found myself in and its influence on me.  Our position in a certain place at a certain time was a signifier of our destiny.  The pursuit of an introspective life gave me a greater sense of self-awareness.  I began to appreciate the need for self-preservation and simplicity.  I saw my life in relation to my own personal history and the greater history around me.

Why study slavery?  Well, it was part of our undergraduate history curriculum. In addition to being part of our syllabus, I also found it fascinating, if not sickening at times. Diogenes of Sinope, who had been a slave, used to say to the freedmen of his town, ‘I am a slave, but a master of men’.  What did he mean?   My understanding was that he had a deeper understanding of himself and his personal worth.  In that sense, he was liberated from his servile position.  Diogenes would sometimes walk around the town with a lamp.  People would ask him, ‘Diogenes, why are you walking around with a lamp in the middle of the day?’  Diogenes answered, ‘I am looking for an honest man’.

Diogenes slept under a bathtub.  He lived a reflective life,exercised and tutored the youth.  In the course of his conquests, Alexander the Great passed through the town of Sinope.  He saw Diogenes leaning against a wall.  Alexander asked Diogenes if he could do anything for him.  Diogenes said, ‘Yes.  you can move out of my sun’.  Alexander walked away.  After some time he turned to his soldiers and said, ‘If I could be anyone I would be Diogenes’.  Diogenes was self-realized.  He understood that we are bound by nature’s laws and he strove to transcend them.

‘Krishna consciousness develops to the point of ecstasy.  This is what’s being expected in this prayer: ‘When, oh when will that day be mine?’  Krishna consciousness begins with what we’re doing right now – we’re hearing.  And that hearing develops a taste for this way of life, these devotional feeling, these devotional emotions.  And as one desires it more and more, naturally he becomes satisfied in his intelligence that I should take to this science; I should take to the process of executing devotional life.  As soon as his intelligence is satisfied by hearing sufficiently, that means he has agreed to act on what he’s heard.  He hears about the laws of karma, he hears about the desires of Krishna, how to please Krishna, and he acts in that way.  As soon as one acts in that way, he breaks his chain of karma, which has caused him to take birth after birth after birth.  He’s not creating any more karma, good or bad’ – Vishnujana Swami quoted in Vaiyasaki’s Radha-Damodara Vilas: The Inner Life of Vishnujana Swami and Jayananda Prabhu, p.333.

I liked walking on the slopes of Table Mountain.  Sometimes I’d walk alone.  Sometimes I’d go with my friend, Pierre.  We sometimes ran up the winding forest slope to the contour path, walk along the shaded path to the opening near the old Blockhouse.

We’d sit amongst patches of heather and wind-blown mountain flowers and watch the city below, cars scurrying to-and-fro.  Everything seemed insignificant here.

Once we climbed the staircase of Rhodes Memorial and stood before Rhodes’s statue.  An iron cheek slumped against an iron elbow, supporting an expressionless gaze to the north.  The placque said: ‘YOUR HINTERLAND IS THERE’.  ‘Cecil John Rhodes’, I jeered, ‘A cruel and greedy imperialist!’.  Our eyes drifted towards the statue of a muscular horseman on a bucking horse, hand above brow, gazing north.  Rhodes had envisaged a British Empire stretching from the Cape to Cairo.  The sickly empire-builder had drawn much of his inspiration from the Plutarch’s Lives of the great Romans and Greeks.

I turned to Pierre and said, ‘It little profiteth a man if he gains the whole world but loses his eternal soul’.  Pierre snapped, ‘Yes.  What’s your point, Mike?’

I had not expected Pierre to react like this so I chose my next words carefully, ‘Well, Cecil John Rhodes may have been successful in the material field.  He was, after all, a great financier and statesman.  He was the Bill Gates of his time – a milionaire at nineteen!’  I drew an arc over the Cape Flats and looked at Pierre, ‘Rhodes had a vision of the future.  There was hardly anything here in his time.  He could not have foreseen this.’  I drove my point home, ‘We may have our ambitions, and our vision of how things will be, but who could have foreseen the appearance of this city and of the people living in these houses?  Rhodes could not predict this outcome.  That was his failing.  He could influence and manipulate events, but he could not create people or determine their destinies. Like all of us, he was limited in his scope of doing things’.

I gave Pierre time to recover from my rant, ‘Doesn’t this give you faith in God, Pierre?  Only a supremely intelligent being would be capable of creation and diversity on such a well-organized and large scale.  Doesn’t that give you faith?’

George Dumezil describes history as ‘the pre-established congruence between the past and the present’.  Reading History at the University of Cape Town afforded me the opportunity of coming to an understanding of the congruence between the present and the past.  There were moments when I took my pursuit of an aesthetic ideal seriously.  The words that best describe my vision at the time are Heidegger’s ‘Metaphysics of Poetry’.  The Campus, at the base of the majestic Devil’s Peak, beckoned to my artistic and intellectual sensitivities.  Cape Town is like a combination of paradise and the gladiator’s arena.

The pursuit of an aesthetic ideal drew me to great civilizations of the past like Classical Greece and Rome.  I had learnt something of modern imperialism in our History Honours modules on Great Britain and the USA.  History was my favourite subject at school.  But my somewhat childish interest in history was turning into a more serious philosophical enquiry now that I was a postgraduate student.  I remember a scene from Roman Polanski’s film The Fearless Vampire Killers where the corpses come out of their graves and dance with each other at a costumed ball.  Was history a merely a macabre dance of the dead?  Was it, as Nietsche writes, for those who dwell in the graveyards?  History held a mystique for me which would not die.

The study of slavery and the slave trade caused me great vexation.  How do you rationalize the sale and commodification of human beings?  Are not oppressive modern labour systems, like apartheid and even our present systems of wage labour, similar to slavery?  Is the history of the slave trade merely part of a conqueror’s discourse?  Was the writing of a historical narrative on the slave trade part of the perpetuation of suffering and abuse?  Or was it a way of bringing the truth to light?  Settling the balance?  My thesis was a way for me to come to terms with the past in relation to my situation in the present.  I had to admit that I was part of a chain of cause-and-effect that I did not necessarily like or agree with.  It was an exorcism.

I was developing a personal hermeneutic.  My notebooks were filled with facts and ideas.  I was forming an intellectual language for myself with words like ontologyproblematizationhistoricitymethodologyiconography, epistemology and individuation.  I was, for the most part, unsupervised so I would spend the whole day in the library, from dusk till dawn, immersing myself in western thought.  I often left with several tomes to continue my pursuit at home.  Jacob Burckhardt’s Italian Civilization During the Renaissance, with its idea of the state being a divinely ordained work of art, appealed to my growing spiritual sensibilities.  Carlo Ginzburg’s extraordinary study of witch trials, Spiritti Notturna, helped me come to terms with the congruencies of historical phenomena.  Michel Foucault introduced me to what he called epistemes – conceptual ‘nodes’ in time where a phenomenon or an intellectual development can be traced.  The study of epistemes was particularly useful in the study of changing ethics and shifts in consciousness.

The diary of Bartolome de Las Casas, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, filled me with fascination and horror.  The Catholic bishop’s descriptions of the violence and cruelty of the conquistadores showed me the awful nightmare at the foundations of the American Dream.  The Indians greeted the conquistadores with fruit and chocolate – and they cut off their hands.  The conquistadores tied up the leaders of the local villages – the priests, administrators and merchants – to sticks and set them ablaze in front of the women and servile classes. They cut babies from the wombs of pregnant women.  They did this in the name of religion because they considered the Indians to be Godless heathens.

Some say Las Casas’ accounts were exaggerated to paint the Spanish in a bad light.  That is called the Black Legend.  The White Legend was a move, on the part of the Spanish, to counter the propaganda of the Black Legend.  The fact remains, however, that atrocities were committed in the name of western civilization and religion.  How come only fragments of the original Mayan Codices survive?  An entire civilization’s intellectual culture was torched by savage Europeans!  My romantic visions of history and of the past were destroyed when I learnt how the British gentry and the great banking houses like the House of Rothschild and the Warburgs had financed the insititution of slavery in the Americas.  The slave trade was possibly greatest act of inhumanity inflicted by one human being on another in the modern era and the banks had payrolled it.