While in Joshua Tree this weekend for another event, my friend and I swung by Shaktifest, the sister festival of the more popular Bhaktifest, which takes place every September. Both fetes are entirely devoted to the music of kirtan (mantra chanting) and bhakti (devotional) yoga.
By midday Sunday temperatures shot up to the low 90s; after a six-hour desert hike the previous day, I was in need of a recharge. We found the only air-conditioned space and lied on the floor. Fifteen minutes later an American swami named Indradyumna came on stage, performed a twenty-minute kirtan and began to speak.
He seemed like a very nice fellow, someone you could have a beer with (if swamis drink beer, one appealing quality of brewing monks often absent in the yoga world). I was only able to stay for ten minutes before we had to return to DJ at the other festival, but in that short space I noticed two troubling statements I’ve often heard over the years.
Indradyumna began by discussing the world and all of existence as an illusion. This definition is problematic, considering that the term used to denote illusion, maya, has a more succinct meaning: magic creative force. This idea removes the mysticism from the concept and pays credence to the creative nature of the human imagination. As William K Mahoney wrote in his book, The Artful Universe,
Vedic thought holds that a true vision of a divine universe must necessarily include the brokenness of the world, and that in fact it is precisely the imagination that is able to see the way the whole fits together despite the often disjointed nature of the parts.
Mahony posits that it is our imagination that propels us forward into creating our existence. This is a much more powerful idea than saying the world is merely an illusion, a statement that translates as absolutely meaningless jibberish.
(I've heard it expressed that the illusion is our separation from the rest of existence. This is a better working definition, though if thats' what is meant, I've rarely heard it qualified as such, leaving the more ambiguous 'illusion' to dwell in people's minds.)
Indradyumna took advantage of an oft-used analogy of a crystal: the ‘true’ essence of a human being is a crystal that needs to be polished in order to shine. While a pleasant metaphor, it presupposes a destiny, which is explained through reincarnation, the exact point that the philosophy really begins to fall apart.
While I’ve previously written about this topic, a few unasked questions remain. First, the general idea of reincarnation: in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna states that divinity puts on and takes off human bodies like we do clothing. There is also a foggy notion that we ‘earned’ our body through karma, but considering that served as a tool of oppression to keep caste lines distinct, I’ll leave it aside.
This is the challenge of developing a philosophy of existence: you have to take a lot of things into consideration. Karma and the afterlife became a convenient loophole in order to escape from impossible questions asked in this lifetime, much the same function that the Christian and Muslim afterworlds hold.
He got hit and killed by a bus? Oh, must be some past life karma coming back.
He got hit and killed by a bus? Well then he's in a better place now.
This serial copping out forces us to ponder the following:
If we are truly reincarnated souls, as put forward by Indradyumna and many others, how does one explain the population explosion? In 1804, earth hit one billion people. It took 123 years to hit two billion, but only 33 years to climb to three. We’re looking at nine billion in 2046. Do souls get split? Do I have a seventh of a soul that was around two centuries ago? Or do souls merge, so that I have pieces of seven different ones?
There is also a notion that ‘we,’ or our ‘soul,’ chooses the body it will inhabit, meaning it picks the parents ‘it’ will have. This could get interesting. Has a parent ever chosen their child to reincarnate through? That would be some weird karma. More importantly, if our brain is not fully developed until our twenties, as magnetic imaging has shown, how does a fetus ‘choose’ a parent? Biologically, humans produce the weakest babies imaginable, considering we nurse longer than any other animal. And since we have all this foresight in knowing what set of parents to choose, why do some of us choose ones who beat and/or sexually molest us? Did we not see that coming? Oh, right, we ‘earned’ those things through our karma.
Why do all my friends who believe in this stuff always believe they were cool people in the past? I’ve heard monks, gypsies, singers, actresses, generals and great souls referenced. No one ever told me they were an SS guard. But don’t they get reincarnated too? I guess that’s why there’s a tradition of ‘lower’ animals becoming humans through some sort of mystical animal merit, as well as humans returning as animals for things like causing genocide. Yet I’ve also never heard anyone tell me they were cockroaches in the past. Poor little roaches, never achieving bipedalism.
There is no doubt that the world and its disparate parts fit together, as Mahony suggests. This does not mean it has a ‘reason’ for doing so, or that we need take forty lifetimes to accomplish the ability to sit there and tell others they need forty lifetimes to accomplish sitting there.
Our imagination serve an extremely important function, as Mahony describes throughout his artful book. It helps us create our future, and defines both our reactivity to situations as well as the motivation behind what we do on this planet. We don’t need to have reincarnated to understand this, nor should our focus be on what ‘world’ we’re heading to next.
Yoga has plenty of components to help us step out into this world, not the ones we think we came from or are heading to. Meditation and philosophy are perfectly fine worlds to retreat into, as long as we remember to step back out. Our imaginations are wonderful catalysts but terrible bedfellows if we confuse existence as being ‘made’ for us.