The Bhagavad Gita

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The Bhagavad Gita

When I was interviewed on the Ray D’Arcy radio show last year Ray recommended that I read a book called ‘Beyond Belief’ by Jenna Miscavige Hill. The book is about a former Scientologist who lifted the lid on her life inside Scientology. It was, I think, Ray’s attempt to show me the dangers of religion and of religious belief.

I responded (uninvitedly but immediately) with a recommendation of my own  – ‘The Bhagavad Gita’, an ancient Hindu scripture which I had read for the first time in its entirety last winter. It was, I think, my attempt to show him the wisdom or beauty of some religious texts or beliefs.

Afterwards, when I got home, I realised that the Gita, as it is often called, was probably not a great choice. Within the book there is mention of things like ‘divinity’ and ‘god’ and ‘spirituality’ and ‘the divine within’. Dirty words. For some.

In today’s emerging post-Catholic Ireland, a new atheistic fervour is burgeoning. Certain conversations or words, in some circles, initiate or even unwittingly invite ridicule. I would suggest that ‘coming out’ as an atheist is now passé, the new ‘coming out’ is for those who have faith. Meaning it is, these days, sometimes a brave ‘admission’.

This cutting down of conversation means there are new conversational boundaries and social norms in relation to religion or religious belief. It also means that certain texts and ideas which could open up interesting discussions are consigned to the dung-hill-heap. And this is a shame. The Bhagavad Gita, in this new Ireland, is tricky because of the ideas and words it contains. It requires a freeze-frame of preconceptions and perceptions of ‘divinity’ or what is divine in order for a reading of it to be worthwhile or enjoyable.

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God in the sky – 15th century painting ‘The Annunciation’ by Jacques Yverni on display in the National Gallery of Ireland

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Little but powerful god in the sky – ‘The Virgin Invoking God to Heal the Hand of Pope Leo I’, 15th century painting by Antonia Romano, on display in the National Gallery of Ireland

In the National Gallery recently I saw paintings from the 15th century. Where god was portrayed as a white skinned, blue-eyed, bearded MAN, looking down on earth from up in the skies. God as a ‘supernatural being’. Such a simplistic definition of the divine lends itself easily to atheistic leanings.

Words can be tricky things. The idea of ‘god’. Labels depend on perspective. On how ‘god’ is defined. The idea of ‘god’ changes over time and space. As does the idea of ‘love’. The Hollywood ‘Notebook’ notion of love is different to love as it is lived. For most. So can it be possible to discuss the ‘idea’ of god without any assumption of belief?

On to the Bhagavad Gita.

The Gita is one of the (arguably the) most important and influential texts of Hinduism. Composed a long long time ago it is just one part of a huge Hindu epic called the Mahabharata. The Gita is set on a battlefield and is focused on a conversation between a man called Arjuna and his charioteer who is Krishna, an avatar or embodied divine being.

When Gandhi died one of his very few possessions was a copy of the Gita. It’s the key text for the Hare Krishna movement. It’s also influenced a host of western thinkers including Henry David Thoreau.

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Hindu Cultural Centre of Ireland, Rosse Court, Lucan

And so, today, I headed off to the new Hindu Cultural Centre of Ireland in Lucan where, every Sunday, there is a talk about the Bhagavad Gita.

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Shrine area

The HCCI centre in Lucan is located in a small flat-roof building rented for use as a temple and cultural space. There are around 10,000 Hindus living in Ireland there is no purpose built Hindu temple – this is the closest they have to it.

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Swami Purnananda

The main room of the building has a large shrine area where there are lots of idols of different gods (or aspects of the divine). The idols are made of marble and hand carved in India.

There was some confusion today about keys and the building was late opening for the talk which was due to start at 2.30. There were about five people attending the talk which was given by a guy called Swami Purnananda who was wearing orange robes and a white-ish beard and had blue eyes and is originally from Zimbabwe and has been a monk since 1970.

The event officially began with everyone chanting ‘om’ together three times and then a recitation of a mantra called the Gayatri mantra. Then Swami Purnananda began his talk by saying that today is an important day as it is the 30th National Youth Day in India and that it is the birthday of Swami Vivekenanda. He said that he himself belongs to Vivekenanda’s tradition. (Vivekenanda is attributed with bringing Hinduism to the west and he gave a real important talk at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago.)

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Tables with offerings and lamps in front of some of the idols

Swami Purananda talks about the god debate – saying it’s an important debate in the occident but not so important in the orient. He says that ‘in Hinduism theoretically there is no requirement for god’. He talks about the importance of concentration and the ability to not be easily distracted.

A man comes into the temple in his black-stockinged feet and rings the bell at the entrance to the shrine area, clears away empty night-light holders from in front of the idols. He then lights fresh little candles and places one in front of each idol. Another man reads from the Gita in Sanskrit and the swami translates and gives some interpretation. They are reading from chapter 10. It is their third week covering chapter 10. There are 18 chapters in the Gita in total.

The talk today finished promptly at 3.30 as a group, new to the temple, arrived. The new group were all connected to Kerala in India and told someone that up to now they had met to worship in a space over a supermarket in Lucan. News of the new temple, it seems, is still only reaching some of the Hindu community of Ireland.

Beyond talk of god and divinity, the Bhagavad Gita talks about selfless action, impermanence, reality, duty, ego, peace, detachment,  greed, fear, anger, karma, reincarnation, death.

If I could turn back time, not like Cher (and apologies for putting the song in your heads) I would instead recommend to Ray ‘Chuang Tzu In a Nutshell’. No mention of god or divine in that one. Much easier to discuss a thing called ‘the way’. Taoism. But the message seems the same. The butterfly life of illusion and no need to grieve a dream.

Some quotes from the Bhagavad Gita

‘Do your worldly duty, but do it without any attachment to it or desire for its fruits’.

‘Meet the inevitable good and bad of life with an even mind’.

‘Concentrate on freeing yourself from the tyranny of the so-called pairs of opposites. Release yourself from always trying to evaluate and judge everything. Disentangle from your habit pattern of seeing things as good or bad, lovable or hateful, pleasant or painful, and so forth’.

‘Work performed with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done in a state of calmness’.

(There are many different versions and translations of the Bhagavad Gita – I have ‘The Bhagavad Gita; A Walkthrough for Westerners’ by Jack Hawley which was recommended to me by my cousin Shelagh who teaches Hindu philosophy for yoga teachers).

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Idols representing aspects of the divine – note the ‘om’ symbol and the swastika (which Hitler adopted and twisted the meaning of)

 

 

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Kali

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Durga

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Door into temple entrance

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A poster in a window – visible from outside – the only indication that the building is used as a temple/Hindu cultural centre

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Ganesh

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Shiva and Parvati

 

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Krishna and Radha

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Shiva Parvati Lingam Yoni

A levitating Hindu yogi on Grafton Street

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Levitating on Grafton Street

Last week a Hindu friend of mine sent me a photograph of a man who was levitating in the middle of Grafton Street in Dublin city centre. The levitator was wearing the orange-robes of a Hindu holy man but was pale skinned and blue-eyed. My friend also sent me the levitator’s name (Ananda) and phone number.

I call the number and a South African-accented man answers. He tells me he is only in Dublin for a few days, that he lives in Cork. We arrange to meet. He suggests McDonalds. I am surprised.

And so this morning I head into town armed with a spiral bound notebook and we meet in McDonalds. We sit in the café section. An elderly woman sitting next to us seems to be eavesdropping and throws me occasional dirty looks as the conversation progresses.

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Ananda-Emil in casual clothes in McDonalds

Ananda is wearing a black jacket and black trousers and his long hair is held up on the back of his head, tied up with his one dreadlock. He tells me his real name is Emil. He has a small black backpack beside him.

‘I’m a world traveller’ he says. ‘I’ve been travelling for 25 years looking for a place to settle and haven’t found a place yet so I’ve settled in myself’.

He tells me that he started life in South Africa as a Christian ‘but that didn’t really do it for me and then I looked into Hinduism and that didn’t do it for me either’. So now he does his own thing. He was even a Hindu monk or yogi for a time.

He quit life as a monk because, he says, he was disappointed by his teachers. ‘They were supposed to be vegetarian and spiritual and I caught one of them doing something very far removed from the path they were teaching. I’m not going to say what it was. But I left immediately. Then I met a person who taught me what I know now’. This person, he says, was an African from a remote village.

These days Ananda lives on a farm in West Cork, makes his own electricity and lives 20 minutes walk from the nearest road. He uses a thing called ‘woofing’ whereby people come and stay on the farm and help him with the work in exchange for accommodation. He spends three or four days a month in Dublin and this is when he levitates. He tells me that he’s not vegetarian. For the moment he is celibate (but not tied to it as a life choice).

He says that in his country it is said that those who are born with a helmet on their head are called to a spiritual life. It seems the ‘helmet’ is what in Ireland is known as a ‘caul’ or ‘cowl’ which is a kind of membrane that sometimes covers the head of a baby after birth. In South Africa it is said that a spiritual life is unavoidable for people born with this helmet.

I myself once worked with a woman from county Cork who’d been born with a ‘caul’ and it was seen as a precious thing because a caul meant a person couldn’t drown. As a child she kept her caul in a shoebox under her bed. It looked like shrivelled skin. She used to bring friends upstairs, pull out the shoebox and proudly show them the caul. Fishermen or sailors sometimes used to buy cauls in the hopes it would keep them safe.

Regardless of the reason why, Ananda has spent a lot of his life searching for spiritual answers. He talks about different dimensions of being – physical, mental, spiritual, astral. He mentions twelve dimensions and says that these are not removed from god but lead to god. He says he is ‘very involved in spiritual things’.

So what about the levitation? ‘It’s an illusion’ he tells me. ‘I can’t levitate. No-one can really levitate. I saw it in India and it’s very simple to do. It’s the same as what the yogis or sadhus in India do. They fake it. In all religions there are people who make use of religion to make money’.

Ananda then tells me about an Indian guy called Basava Premanand who spent most of his life exposing the tricks of holy men in India and then sending people out onto the streets to perform the tricks. ‘There’s a lot of trickery in the Christian revival movement too’ he says.

On Grafton street when he ‘levitates’ he sometimes has a crowd of hundreds around him. He says people respond in all kinds of ways  – ‘disbelief, aggression, anger, jealousy’. He’s also been attacked but, he says, looking bemused, ‘I’ve only been attacked by women not men’.

‘Why do they attack you?’ I ask him. ‘I think it’s too much for them to comprehend’ he explains. ‘I allow them to take pictures and to check underneath. It’s very well done’.

I chance my arm – ‘you’d hardly tell me how it’s done?’ ‘No’ he says, smiling, ‘I don’t tell the secret’.

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The tiny piece of paper Ananda hands out to people who watch him levitating

So why do the levitation trick? ‘It’s something I do. I enjoy it. It makes people happy. It makes people sad. I make good money. And I give something in return’.

He pulls a little piece of white paper from his pocket and hands it to me. This is what he gives to people who watch him. It says ‘smile, be happy’. ‘The simple order in life’ he says ‘is smile and be happy and don’t think too much’.

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Ananda waiting for his ‘busking’ spot on Grafton Street to set up his levitation

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A wet January day on Grafton Street, Dublin