With this verse you are entering Thus concludes the commentary of the first verse of Atrnopadea satakam, the One Hundred Verses of Self Instruction of Narayana Guru, the best known of his major works. Epitomizing the essence of Guru- disciple transmission, That Alone: The Core of Wisdom recounts 100 darsanas presenting the meaning of Atmopadea satakam to a group of disciples.
The power of the Hundred Verses is summed up by Guru Nitya: “There is no need to learn each verse and then rationally apply it in everyday life. You can even hear it and forget it. Forgetting means it only goes deeper into you. Once you have heard it, it will go and work its way by itself. The effect will be very subtle. It comes almost without you knowing that it is something which you heard that is enabling you to see things iii a new light or make resolutions in a certain more helpful way.”
Combining scientific rigor with mystical rapture, this book has the power to bring about a total transformation of consciousness by leading the reader to his or her own Core, wherein lies the essence of wisdom.
South India’s preeminent seer and revaluator of ancient wisdom, Narayana Guru composed a number of mystical texts to elaborate his revelations. The best known of these is Atmopade tu satakam, which serves as the frame of the present work. It embodies a holistic philosophy embracing all aspects of existence and consciousness. The Guru is recognized today as one of the most important teachers and catalysts for change in India’s history.
A sannyasi in the ancient Indian tradition, Nitya wandered the world studying and teaching the most profound thoughts of the major philosophers of both the East and the West. He found his calling with the Narayana Gurukula, where he dedicated himself to the transmission and interpretation of the philosophy of Narayana Guru. His writings combine rare insight and profound wisdom with an uncanny ability to communicate in terms readily understood by students everywhere.
This story was told to me by my Master, Nataraja Guru. As he himself was a disciple of Narayana Gum, it is even possible that he was the novice mentioned.
The point, however, is that truth is so very simple we don’t need to make any effort to know it, but an undetectable ignorance conceals what should be obvious. Then we take a lifetime of beating around the bush to arrive once again at what is already known to us. Once the lost truth is regained, the search comes to a close and there is no need to utter another word.
Between the effortlessness of the obvious and the silent wonder of regaining the forgotten truth, there are many hurdles to be cleared.
The truth we speak of is neither fact or fiction. It is not the object of immediate perception or the subject of mediate inference. Either you unconditionally know it or you do not. This is the knowledge which cannot be taught but, paradoxically, it dawns upon you on listening to one who knows.
There is no assurance you will know because you listen, and there is also no assurance you will know if you do not listen. What one listens to is a word symbol of that which cannot be adequately symbolised or represented. To rectify this defect, a series of mutually complementary symbols can be presented by the knower. One or all of these analogies may prepare the listener to have a state of mind which can suddenly get the jolt of confronting the Absolute. There is no guarantee, but it is in the compassionate nature of gurus to offer any number of chances to those who are willing to listen.
In the Atmopadesa satakam, the polarising of the Self and the non-Self is therefore presented with one hundred variations.
Narayana Guru (1854-1928), composed these hundred verses in Malayalam in the year 1897. For about half a century it was only read by a few scholars, and no one thought of translating it into any other language. The first English translation and commentary was written by Natarala Guru in the Fifties, though it was not published until 1969. During that time three Malayalam commentaries and one Sanskrit translation and commentary were written and published. One of these was based on Nataraja Guru’s English commentary. Of late, the works of Narayana Guru have attracted many scholars, and new translations and commentaries are appearing year after year.
Narayana Guru’s basic stand is that of a non-dualist visionary. At the same time he could appreciate the value of the traditions that entered into the aggregate rightly or wrongly called the Hindu religion. He was not a partisan in favour of any particular religion. This made it possible for him to have a neutral stand and to view all religions with the attitude of a devoted lover of beauty, goodness, love and truth.
It may seems superfluous for me to write a new translation and commentary when my own Guru has already written one which is undoubtedly a bona fide translation and authentic commentary.
However, when Nataraja Guru instituted a hierarchy of teachers, a parampara, for the Narayana Gurukula, his intention was to have an unbroken chain of the continuators of wisdom teaching. He personally told me on several occasions to develop and enlarge on points and aspects of the work which he had only hinted at and which he had had no time to elaborate.
In the Malayalam language there are no words more simple than the ones the Guru has used. Thus, one cannot escape the fault of meddling with the obvious and making each verse a conglomeration of confusion by commenting on it. Yet we take that risk in the hope that our listener or reader will ultimately leave us and take refuge in the compassion of the Guru, developing a proper attitude which is more likely to help him or her to see the Guru’s wisdom-gesture, imprinted in his every word, of the forgotten truth which everyone is seeking all the time.
Beginning in the Fall of 1977 and continuing through the Winter and early Spring of 1978, the students of the Narayana Gurukula in Portland, Oregon, USA agreed to participate in a meditation on Atmopadethi atakam. The idea was to learn one verse a day and to give full attention to external events and internal life, understanding and molding them in the light of the meditation that ensued from each verse. This book is a transcription of the morning meditation I gave on the meaning of each verse. We have decided to publish it because it complements the translation and commentary of Nataraja Gum. The Guru’s translation faithfully adheres to the original word structure of Narayana Gum’s Malayalam composition. In the present translation we have taken the freedom to rearrange words to enable the reader to have an easier reading of the meaning, but we have taken every care not to deflect from the original intention of the author. An even freer translation will be found in the Appendix of this work.
As Nataraja Guru’s commentary will always remain as the most authentic, we have not repeated what is so ably expounded by him. However, we hope that the present book will be seen as complementary to his. It is our wish that the reader will find this book a helpful guide to meditating on the One Hundred Verses of self-instruction.
A thin, intense-looking man sat quietly next to a small pond hidden in the wilds near the southern tip of India. The man’s legs were crossed in lotus pose and his body remained quiet, but his thoughts were intense and penetrating. A bright sun shone brilliantly on the surface of the water, and each tiny wave carried a burning image of the solar disk on its crest. The pond was alive with the dancing, shimmering wavelets, undulating hypnotically in a way that would have mesmerised anyone less wakeful.
The soil in this region is sandy in all directions, to the south and west joining the shore of the Arabian Sea with a barely noticeable break. Palms and scrub undergrowth are sparse in the desert soil, gnarled arid twisted by heat and prevailing winds. At the foot of the nearby mountains, increased nutrients allow the jungle to grow more thickly, while the tropical climate favours an exuberant outburst of life. Vines engulf the trees, epiphytes blossom on every branch, and insects swarm in profusion. Snakes, many of them poisonous, lie camouflaged in branches fallen to the ground.
As the day wore on a light breeze sprang up, and sand and dust sifted onto the pool’s surface. The man watched carefully as the dirt slowly sank into the crystalline water, swirling downwards as myriad speckles of light, until lost in the darkness of the depths. He knew that in time the little lake would fill totally with sand, becoming as dry and barren as much of the land around it, but that the wind would also scour out new hollows in other places which the monsoon rains could fill up in turn.
As the young man critically studied the scene the depth of his contemplation intensified. The wind sang through the vine laden trees nearby. The multiple sun-images gradually merged together, increasing the light to a dazzling degree. Suddenly, like a dam giving way, his awareness was flooded with insight rushing upon insight, and he was enveloped in a gloriously all-embracing happiness. In the face of such meaningful brilliance, all he could do was incline in reverent adulation towards the source of all his wonder.
Deep in his state of blissful contemplation, the man’s mind reeled with the implications of the scene before him. Not a single insight, but a full flood of them prevailed on all sides, filling him with a sense of understanding. The wayside pool became a perfect symbol of humanity’s eternal situation. Whatever elements were present in the surrounding world the winds blew about, scattering them into the pond. This meant that if an individual self was likened to a neglected pond in a waste land, the winds bringing in dust from the surroundings were like the forces of nature or maya presenting perceptual and conceptual material. Each of these sensory elements affects consciousness by producing some kind of reaction, as an agitation of the surface of the pond. By its very existence the material affects the clarity of the water, and as it sinks to the bottom its accumulation alters the terrain in the same way that samskaras condition individuals, by gradually changing the shape of their inner landscape.
To the blissful meditator the one sun above clearly represented the Absolute, the giver of all light and life which remains unaffected by the rotation of the earth, cloud activity, storms, or any other terrestrial phenomenon. To him, this was the Self with a capital ‘5’. The multiple images reflected by each separate wave, mirror, dewdrop, or other surface on the earth below were like the endless parade of changing individuals, selves with a small ‘s’. Each of these images reflected the true sun in a beautiful and uniquely distorted manner. When the pond was still the images grew more and more perfect, though no one would be so foolish as to mistake even the most perfect of them for the sun itself. When wind rippled the surface the images became increasingly agitated, until at their most extreme the image of the sun was entirely obscured. But no amount of clouding or evaporation had even the most negligible effect on the sun above. It was exactly like the individual self’s relation to the Self: close and harmonious in moments of peace, farther from sight as one became more agitated.
The man was Narayana Guru, and many profound revelations like these came to him as he sat alone in the wilderness of south India. Through him the fruits of his realisation would begin to spread out in ripples of wisdom which would eventually impact the whole world. But before that happened he wanted to allow the inner principle that was instructing him to teach him as much as possible.
Like a grand book, the whole universe is a symbolic expression of higher truth, and the guru principle is a name for the way in which this truth reveals itself to the seeker. For Narayana Guru the world of nature around him was the medium of this invisible wisdom transmission, so that everywhere he looked he saw meaning. The vines climbing into the trees spoke of the pattern of our lives where the accretions of memories slowly choke and submerge our original form. The red hot ember of a stick from a cooking fire being twirled around to produce virtual images became an analogy for the course of our lives, with its bright, moving spark of the present leaving a virtual afterimage of shapes in memory. Spinning oil lamps hanging in the dark of a simple place of worship spoke to him of the inner structure of the human body. Waves rolling in to the shore whispered of individual existences sweeping across the depths of the Real. Each grain of sand became for him a precious jewel of value beyond price. He was overwhelmed by intense happiness and gratitude for this oceanic awareness, and knew he must share it with anyone who might also wish to embrace it. The time of teaching was no longer far in the future.
Sitting quietly in the midst of this torrent of meaningful images, the Guru began to formulate a new and revolutionary philosophy. While the prevailing belief of most of humanity is that this world is either unreal or merely a practice ground for a future life in another place, he knew from inner assurance that it was the whole, and this was many times over more than enough. That Absolute, which everyone spoke of in different ways, was itself manifesting as all This. Everything was here, at this very moment. But when it was conceived of as having a specific form, people tended to forget its connection with the original mold from which it came — its Karu — and focus only on the form. This led to fantasies and projections about the past and the future, which in turn led to endless arguments and disputes. But those who remembered the source had no need to quarrel: they were content to know and share their knowledge.
This was not so much a casting down of gods and the religions that paid homage to them, as an emancipation from illusory ideas. The apparent loss brought about by the dissolution of imaginary deities was more than offset by the gain through the understanding of one’s own being. If people could truly appreciate the unity of the created with the creator they would at last be freed of all constraints, and happiness would be seen to be their own essential nature. This would free everyone from so many delusions and release them from misery. The Guru’s heart went out to everyone and everything: he must bring this insight to the world.
Filled with intense happiness and a boundless compassion for humanity’s suffering, Narayana Guru moved from his wilderness retreat to the fringes of civilization, where he soon attracted the attention of sensitive souls. All who came to associate with him felt a pervasive peace -in his presence, and found their minds becoming activated in ways that solved problems rather than manufactured them. Very rapidly his followers became numerous, and his influence began to spread.
It is mysterious how one person can act as a catalyst for social change, while others who might uphold the same beliefs remain unknown and ineffective. Narayana Guru spoke gently and lived simply, but his message went directly to the heart of the people and began to have important consequences. The populace felt moved to action by his words and presence as nothing had ever moved them before. Life in South India began slowly to improve, though as with all change it was a slow and challenging process.
Everywhere he went the Guru rhetorically asked people, if, as taught even in the scriptures, we are one in essence and the Absolute is equally the source of all things, why should there be high and low castes, why should women be treated as unworthy, and why should humanity treat the environment in a sense the body of the divine as either an evil to be eradicated or a mere waste receptacle. Why indeed? Such logic appealed to people’s common sense, and the Guru’s ideas began to have an impact. In a land where the downtrodden and fortunate alike had come to accept their places as divinely assigned, and the social code was rigidly enforced by fear of mundane as well as divine retribution, sea changes began to occur. The various castes began to have contact with each other, with some radicals, led by the Guru himself, even maintaining that castes should be abolished altogether. Schools for girls were instituted, and a more universal education began to chip away at inequality based on privilege. Only in the area of man’s relation to his environment did the Guru’s message fail to move the rock of habitual behaviour, but considering the magnitude of the task of totally reorienting a society it is understandable that this was put off until the most egregious human wrongs could be attended to. Humanity as a whole has barely begun to address this issue, though it looms large in the near future, as the health of the earth begins to seriously decline from overpopulation and pollution.
Narayana Guru directly embodies the ancient ideal of the lone seeker experiencing the “flight of the alone to the Alone.” The smattering of stories that have been passed down about his early life show that he was an unusually wise and sensitive child, with strong tendencies towards absolutism and the courage to follow his own instincts with little regard for social pressures. Though perhaps instructed by his family, no one speaks of his having had a guru. When the time came to leave home, he plunged into solitude. He rediscovered his true nature on his own, far from any ashram or school, by sitting quietly and contemplating alertly. He went deeply into his own core and there discovered the Core of all, what he calls the Karu in the present work. Later on, when he studied the classics, he could see he was allied with ancient rishis like sankara, Ramanuja, and Patanjali. As he himself said, “First we experienced it in ourselves and then we found it was written in books.”
Such relevant insight was a key reason that Narayana Guru became widely known and tremendously influential during his lifetime. His philosophical revaluation of the weak points of the ancient wisdom teachings, such as the issues of caste and orthodoxy, bringing them up to par with the rest, places him in the forefront of the great Indian teachers of history. The insight he experienced transformed those around him, flowing outwards like the ripples on a pond to affect society as a whole. Such was the power of his influence that today South western India is celebrated as one of the most advanced societies in the world.
Throughout his long lifetime of introspection, Narayana Guru’s philosophy evolved from one virtually indistinguishable from the classicism of ankara to a radical vision that was uniquely his own. Whereas the ultimate analysis of India’s ancient schools was that this world is unreal and the Absolute alone is real, the Guru decided that falsifying the world around us was not only invalid but led to a state of mind which allowed all the evils of religious corruption to overwhelm the world’s innate beauty, in the same way that parasitic vines engulf and often kill the trees on which they grow.
In the ninth verse of the One Hundred Verses of Self-Instruction, Narayana Guru presents one of his favourite images: that of a contemplative sitting alertly under a great free. Growing on the free and simultaneously reaching out to engulf the contemplative is a proliferating vine: the beauteous profusion of creation. Many of us have become mesmerised by the swaying branches of the creeper, and have forgotten the magnificent free which supports it, giving it shape and providing its nourishment, We surrender to the embrace of the enfolding vines. India in Narayana Guru’s time, the late nineteenth century, was a stultifying example of this, a tremendously oppressive social structure held rigidly in place by fatalistic acceptance, with all people’s hopes for happiness deferred to heaven worlds and future lives.
When we do this to ourselves we can feel lost and confused, because we have substantially limited ourselves by identifying with only a part of the whole. Therefore the Guru counsels us not to run away and not to try to destroy the creeper, but to sit alertly, uncaught, remembering the free and renewing our freedom at every moment while simultaneously appreciating how wondrously the situation remains in balance.
It is not easy to maintain a balance between the real and the unreal. It requires intense contemplation. We must remain awake to the changing situation, walking a fine line as it were, a razor’s edge of equilibrium. When we relax our vigilance we drift to one side or the other, becoming caught in the deceptions of worldliness or, on the other hand, drifting away from involvement with the world, considering it of less importance than some abstract, hypothetical notion. Only a dynamic interplay between our assessment of the free and the creepers produces a living, creative philosophy.
So instead of dismissing the world as an illusion born of maya, Narayana Gum’s vision embraces the world as simultaneously true and untrue, both real and unreal at once. Resistant of but not impervious to scientific analysis, these elements mix together in a way that can only be described as a wonder, a wonder so perfect as to deeply inspire the contemplator of the mystery of existence. The dialectical solution to this paradox is the key to a lifetime of freedom.
Guru Nitya speaks to this point towards the end of his commentary:
There is a generally held belief that because Vedanta treats this world as maya it dampens one’s interest in everything here, making one ineffective. Many European critics think even now that the progress of India is retarded because of Vedanta’s emphasis on maya as explaining away the need to do anything in this world. Narayana Guru restates Vedanta in such a way that every individual reaction, every aspiration which is ontologically valid, has a relevant place in life. There is no shying away from any responsibility or any efficient action, as long as it is done at the right time and in the right place. In this way we can say he corrects the notion of Vedanta in these verses.
Now by verse 92 the proper status of the transactional world is well established. Life is valid. It only lacks validity when we are confused regarding the pratibhasa and the vyavahara, or everyday, aspects. Pratibhasa means that within the transactional world there are possibilities for illusion. It’s true those illusions are to be avoided, but this doesn’t mean that because it gives rise to illusion we should neglect the necessary aspects of the on to logic world. That would be an unwarranted extrapolation.
This way of looking at the world charges us to engage in our own life to the maximum degree. Reality is not a substitute for something else — it is exactly what it is. There is no other place, no heaven or hell to which our actions are leading us. The implications of such a philosophy are profound, and indeed the Guru’s life as one of the great emancipators of the human race clearly demonstrates the potential of those implications. Unfortunately, it is such a radical belief that few have been bold enough to embrace it. Humans are all so deeply grounded in escapist belief systems that even when we encounter such an example we are unconsciously drawn back to our fantasies of future payoffs, diverting and diluting our capabilities from involvement in the crucial issues of the present. Even within the mystery school of the Guru’s own philosophy, the Narayana Gurukula, there is only an incipient appreciation of this revolutionary outlook.
Narayana Guru clearly foresaw the importance of a demonstrable ideology in keeping with the tenets of science, so that people all over the world could understand his message of unity and tolerance. With this end in mind, he sent one of his three preeminent disciples, P. Natarajan, the future Nataraja Guru, to do graduate work at the Sorbonne in France, in order to become well- versed in Western philosophy and science. The combination of Vedantic reductionism and scientific mental discipline had a profound effect on him, and he was later able to make a philosophic breakthrough, expressing the elements of Self-realisation in a revolutionary scheme of correlation that was free from localised or limiting elements. This allowed him to interpret the mystical truths of his guru in academically strict scientific and mathematical terms. In order to perpetuate the teachings of Narayana Guru he started the Piarayana Gurukula, loosely based on the model of the traditional Indian ashram.
Nataraja Guru was succeeded by his disciple, Guru Nitya, who excelled at interpreting the teachings in human terms, expressing them clearly and simply on the level of daily life. It was his role as a teacher of all who approached him with sincerity, including the Americans to whom the present commentary was given, that assisted him to hone his communication skills to a fine point. Through these three teachers, the parampara or hierarchy of the Narayana Gurukula has brought over 100 years of continuous contemplation to bear on the present work.
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