Saturday, January 07, 2017

Rumi's Celebrity

The American translator, Coleman Barks, has helped make Djalleledin Maulana Rumi’s spiritual and mystical epics, the Masnavi and the Divan, amongst the most loved poetry in the US. The growing popularity of the the 13th century Muslim poet has even spawned an upcoming Hollywood biopic, with Leonardo DiCaprio at one time favoured to play the lead role. 
Though, as a mystic, Rumi transcended man-made religious dogmas, he was also a devout Muslim, and a renowned Islamic scholar. Barks' translations are beautiful, but his interpretations downplay the Islamic inspiration of the Rumi's works almost to the point of erasure. In New Age quotations and anthologies of Rumi, there is often little or no acknowledgement of Rumi's religion. Instead, images of people doing hatha yoga on beaches, or even photos of Buddhist statues, are likely to accompany the quotes. 

On one level there is nothing wrong with this - it is a testimony to Rumi's universality - but it may also be a kind of whitewashing, as some have suggested is the case with the choice of an actor of European background to play a Persian historical figure. 
This article in The New Yorker examines this phenomenon:


... Like many others, Omid Safi credits Barks with introducing Rumi to millions of readers in the United States; in morphing Rumi into American verse, Barks has dedicated considerable time and love to the poet’s works and life. And there are other versions of Rumi that are even further removed from the original—such as the New Age books by Deepak Chopra and Daniel Ladinsky which are marketed and sold as Rumi but bear little resemblance to the poet’s writing. Chopra, an author of spiritual works and an alternative-medicine enthusiast, admits that his poems are not Rumi’s words. Rather, as he writes in the introduction to “The Love Poems of Rumi,” they are “ ‘moods’ we have captured as certain phrases radiated from the original Farsi, giving life to a new creation but retaining the essence of its source.”

Discussing these New Age “translations,” Safi said, “I see a type of ‘spiritual colonialism’ at work here: bypassing, erasing, and occupying a spiritual landscape that has been lived and breathed and internalized by Muslims from Bosnia and Istanbul to Konya and Iran to Central and South Asia.” Extracting the spiritual from the religious context has deep reverberations. Islam is regularly diagnosed as a “cancer,” including by General Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national-security adviser, and, even today, policymakers suggestthat non-Western and nonwhite groups have not contributed to civilization.

For his part, Barks sees religion as secondary to the essence of Rumi. “Religion is such a point of contention for the world,” he told me. “I got my truth and you got your truth—this is just absurd. We’re all in this together and I’m trying to open my heart, and Rumi’s poetry helps with that.” One might detect in this philosophy something of Rumi’s own approach to poetry: Rumi often amended texts from the Koran so that they would fit the lyrical rhyme and meter of the Persian verse. But while Rumi’s Persian readers would recognize the tactic, most American readers are unaware of the Islamic blueprint. Safi has compared reading Rumi without the Koran to reading Milton without the Bible: even if Rumi was heterodox, it’s important to recognize that he was heterodox in a Muslim context—and that Islamic culture, centuries ago, had room for such heterodoxy. Rumi’s works are not just layered with religion; they represent the historical dynamism within Islamic scholarship.

Read full article: here

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Givenness of Things

On September 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa, President Obama and the writer Marilynne Robinson sat down to talk. They recorded a conversation that, in the president’s words, was designed to cover “some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction that the country should be going in.” The two had a warm and wide-ranging discussion, later published by The New York Review of Books and posted to iTunes, addressing Robinson’s writing life and Obama’s admiration of her novels; the democratic virtues expressed at Little League games, in emergency rooms, and in school buildings; and their shared sense that once upon a time democracy itself was considered an ongoing achievement. (The conversation has now been appended to the paperback edition of Robinson’s most recent essay collection, The Givenness of Things.) In the midst of some observations about American “goodness and decency and common sense on the ground,” the president arrived at a moment of synthesis, confronting an issue that, he said, “I’ve been struggling with throughout my political career.” continue reading

Barack Obama was the first American president to officially celebrate Diwali, the festival, observed by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists, which marks the victory of light over darkness. Shri Mataji has said that this is the time of birth of Lord Jesus, the Light of the World. Although millions of people celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Dec. 25, most scholars agree that he wasn't born on that day, or even in the year 1 A.D.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Seamus Heaney on William Wordsworth's One Big Truth

Turner, Buttermere

Behind him lay a childhood and schooltime full of luminous and enlarging experiences around Hawkshead, in the mountains of his native Cumberland. He had grown up visited by sensations of immensity, communing with a reality he apprehended beyond the world of the senses, and he was therefore naturally inclined to accept the universe as a mansion of spirit rather than a congeries of matter. He had also grown up in a rural society where the egalitarian spirit prevailed and people behaved with reticence and fortitude in a setting that was both awesome and elemental. All of which predisposed him to greet the outbreak of the French Revolution with hope and to espouse its ideals:
If at the first outbreak I rejoiced
Less than might well befit my youth, the cause
In part lay here, that unto me the events
Seemed nothing out of nature’s certain course,
A gift that rather was come late than soon.
The natural goodness of man he inclined to take for granted, so it did indeed seem possible that the removal of repressive forms of government and the establishment of unmediated relations between nature and human nature could lead to a regeneration of the world. Certainly, when Wordsworth and his friend Robert Jones went on a walking tour through France in 1790, the summer after the fall of the Bastille, they could not miss the atmosphere of festival and the feeling that the country had awakened.
Read more here

Monday, March 07, 2016

Happy Shivaratri

Shiva and Parvati riding on Nandi, Ink and gouache and gold c. 1820 - 40

 A man comes to himself
When he wakes from sleep.
Likewise, I have perceived the God and Goddess
By waking from my ego.

When salt dissolves,
It becomes one with the ocean;
When my ego dissolved,
I became one with Shiva and Shakti.

- Shri Jnaneshwara (Dnyaneshwar, Dnanadeva), 13th century

Monday, February 15, 2016

Aquarius and Kundalini

"Lay a virtuous path. 
Teach goodness. 
Feel the Shakti flowing within you."
- Shri Mataji, Sankranti 2008

The Shakti, the manifest power of the all-pervading Divine Self, can be felt within as the Kundalini energy. 

The Kundalini corresponds to the astrological sign Aquarius. Aquarius is depicted by a figure pouring out water from a vessel (Kumbha in Sanskrit) but it also represents the release of spiritual energy.

Aquarius by Jake Baddeley

Monday, September 07, 2015

John Coltrane and Indian Spirituality

The ground-breaking jazz musician, John Coltrane, was deeply influenced by Indian spirituality. According to Bill Cole, the jazz musician and ethnomusicologist, he was a practitioner of yoga. By 'yoga', he almost certainly meant, not the system of physical postures, but the spiritual practice aimed at Self-realisation.

Raised a Methodist Christian, Coltrane came to believe in the truth of all religions. His first wife was Muslim, and his second wife, Alice, was a devotee of Indian spirituality who later established a Vedantic centre in California. It was probably at least partly due to Alice's influence that Coltrane also developed a strong interest in Eastern philosophy, and studied Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad Gita.

The Indian spiritual concept of 'raga' fascinated him in particular because of its application to his own music. 'Raga' (also spelled 'rag') can be translated as 'emotional state'. The word also refers to the ancient musical scales used to invoke specific moods, and associated seasons or times of day. 

Mian Tansen, the famous 16th century Indian master musician, had the power, according to legend, to influence nature by playing the appropriate raga. For instance, when he played Rag Deepak (named after a burning lamp), the weather would become hot, or lamps would magically light themselves. His performance of Rag Megha (cloud) was said to have summoned rain.

Coltrane was aware of the potential power of raga. He once said in an interview:

"I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different sound and immediately he’d receive all the money he needed. But what are these pieces and what is the road to travel to attain a knowledge of them, that I don’t know. The true powers of music are still unknown. To be able to control them must be, I believe, the goal of every musician. I’m passionate about understanding these forces. I would like to provoke reactions in the listeners to my music, to create a real atmosphere. It’s in that direction that I want to commit myself and to go as far as possible,"

The Indian influence is obvious In the posthumously released album 'Om', named after the syllable sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism and other Indian religions. The track titles are references to Indian spiritual concepts, and the recording even features chanting from Hindu and Buddhist texts.

Coltrane described Om as the "first syllable, the primal word, the word of power". For him, this universal sound preceded and formed the basis of musical creativity. In Yoga philosophy, with its system of chakras, the Om is embodied as Shri Ganesha in the Mooladhara Chakra. This chakra is the basis of the whole subtle system, and is prerequisite for the existence of the second Chakra, the Swadisthana, which is the seat of artistic creativity. The Swadisthana is the domain of the Goddess Saraswati, often depicted playing a vina, an Indian stringed instrument.

Not long before he died in 1967, Coltrane had intended to spend six months studying Indian music in depth with Ravi Shankar. Shankar had already met Coltrane in 1964 and taught him the basics, noting his intense interest in the subject. It would have been interesting to hear how his music might have changed, had this training occurred. 

Coltrane's music is Jazz, not Indian classical music, but he no doubt drew from the spirit of the raga, and other traditions, in his own personal way. Specifically, he sometimes used an underlying drone, like the continuous tampura sound that supports the melody of the raga. He often improvised around a very limited set of notes, even focussing on a single note, as Indian musicians do when playing ragas. His time signatures often resemble the Indian rhythmic patterns known as 'tals'. Generally he moved from the conventional chord changes of jazz to a modal way of playing, similar to the raga, in which a single emotion is evoked.

Many jazz musicians have been deeply influenced by Coltrane and have also explored Indian music and spirituality with varying degrees of success.

Jazz-Indian fusion music doesn't always work for me. When it doesn't work, it's because only a superficial flavour of indian-ness has been adopted, rather than a deep understanding of the spiritual ideas underlying Indian music. Coltrane's universal spirituality touches the same depths as that of the Indian masters, without adopting Indian styles in a literal way.

Coltrane said that one day he had a very distinct spiritual awakening which changed him fundamentally. An overwhelming experience of joy led him to give up an addiction to drugs overnight, and prompted him to asked the Divine for the ability to spread this joy to others. For Coltrane, as it is in India, music was much more than a form of entertainment; it was a way to the attainment of truth.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Saturday, June 06, 2015


I don’t really know whether art can exist without a certain degree of tranquillity or spiritual poise; without a certain amount of quiet you can have neither philosophy nor religion nor painting nor poetry. And as one of the specialties of modern life is to abolish this quiet, we are in danger of losing our arts together with the quiet of the soul that art demands.

- Saul Bellow

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Inner Being

Deborah Stevenson, Time out of Mind, paper collage.
Image used with kind permission of the artist.
See more of her work at

Try to meditate. 
Meditate more, so that you reach that inner being. 
And this inner being is the vast ocean of bliss 
which exists inside every one of us.

-Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi, 1983

According to several Indian teachings, including that of Guru Nanaka, the founder of the Sikh religion, the inner Self and the universe "outside" are one and the same. No part of the infinite cosmos, with all it's countless swirling galaxies, is outside the ambit of who you are.

One of the main obstacles to meditation is the mind's objection to being quietened - something it tends to see as a form of limitation. However, contrary to the mind's expectations, genuine states of meditation are characterised by a sense of expansiveness in consciousness; something Buddhists call the Vast Mind.

The poet and translator, Patricia Donegan, uses the composition and reading of the Japanese Haiku form as an awareness practice, a means of realising the Vast Mind. In her book, Haiku Mind, she writes: "to create and appreciate this tiny form of poetry, one needs a vast mind like the sky." 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Inner Wheels

“There are beautiful wild forces within us. 
Let them turn the mills inside 
and fill sacks that feed even heaven.”
–St. Francis of Assisi 

Painting by Graham Brown

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Devi Mahatmyam

Detail from an illustration to the Markandeya Purana, a Hindu text containing the Devi Mahatmyam, an account of the heroic martial exploits of the Goddess Devi as she protects the world from evil forces. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Non Ownership of Happiness

"Just imagine to yourself that the purpose of your life is your happiness only - and then life becomes a cruel and senseless thing. You have to embrace what the wisdom of humanity, your intellect and your heart all tell you - that the meaning of life is to serve the divine will which sent you into this world: then life will become a constant joy."
-Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy reading, by Ilya Repin

Sunday, August 03, 2014

The Inner River

When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.