Monday, July 12, 2010

Separation and Longing in Hindu tradition

In Shakuntala, the consummation of the love of Dushyanta and Shakuntala is put off several times before they finally get together. This shows the place of "longing" in this tradition.
Spiritually this is a metaphor for separation from the divine.
Longing for us today seems as if it is merely a nuisance, or worse a privation, but in the Hindu tradition, the idea of longing is presented as beautiful and potent.

The following reflections come from an article by Anantanand Rambachan
The Svetasvatara Upanishad (4:6-7) uses an interesting analogy to describe the human separation from and discovery of God. It describes two beautiful birds who are inseparable friends residing on the same tree. One eats the fruits of the tree with relish while the other looks on without eating. Sitting on the same tree, one bird becomes sad, entangled and deluded. But, when he turns and sees the other, the contented Lord and the Lord's majesty, his grief disappears. The two birds are the human being, and God and the tree is the life itself. God's attention is always on the human being, but the human being, absorbed in the world, ignores God. He is unaware of the divine who is close by and patiently waiting. Human ignorance and inattentiveness to God, however, is the fundamental cause of misery which ends only when one turns round and recognizes God at one's side.

Ignorance of God is the source of our suffering and from this we must be awake. Awakening to God is consistently associated in the Hindu tradition and texts with freedom from sorrow and the attainment of joy. "Only when people shall roll up the sky like a piece of leather," says the Svetasvatara Upanishad, "will there be an end of misery for them," often used to describe the absolute. "The Infinite Itself is joy. There is no joy in the finite. The Infinite alone is joy," says Sanatkumara to Narada in the Chandogya Upanishad (7.23.1). On a particle of the bliss of God, teaches Yajnavalkya in the Brhadaranyana Upanishad (4.3.32), other beings live.

Knowing God and the bliss which is God ought not, in the Hindu tradition, to lead to selfish absorption in oneself. This is where the Assembly theme challenges us as Hindus. One cannot and ought not to turn to God without, at the same time, turning to creation and to all human beings with love and reverence. To turn to God is not to turn away from the world, but to see the world as infused by God.


Margi said...

I remember us stumbling over that word penitential in our first reading of the adapted script in January. It seemed like such a strange dichotomy: penitential + grove. I think we in the modern secular world associate nature with personal freedom and open space. And on the other hand we associate institutions and prisons with penitence. But here we have a different view into the meaning of both nature and penitence.

Looking back, I think that unique understanding of a “penitential grove” is part of the magic of this play. The play asks us to discover divinity in the watering of trees, the rhythms of night and day, and the blossoming of a lotus flower. And each being in this grove must perform their humble part in this divine grove. Both Dushyanta and Shakuntala have to lose everything before they can receive what they want. They are stripped of power and pride before they receive the blessing of love and union. In a sense, they have to become as humble as the grove itself in order to blossom as a couple.

And I love the questions George asks about Vishwamitra in this post. Why was Menaka sent? It seems very much in keeping with the nature of this divine grove to shake the foundations of those who land there. As if to say: don’t be so sure you have it all figured out. There is something much greater at work than you can possibly understand.

Erika said...

I like Margi's interpretation about Vishwamitra and the role of the grove in shaking up our expectations and assumptions. Saju George referred to longing in the Hindu tradition as a 'purifying fire.' While we were in rehearsal, I remember talking about the fact that Dushyanta seems to appreciate Shakuntala's beauty but perhaps takes her for granted until after he loses her. It is through loss and longing that his love for her is purified.

Wendy said...

What a different world we would live in if we didn't see "longing as a nuisance or a privation" but instead as "beautiful and potent." I think this shift in the perception of longing is the beginning of a real transformation. How often do we seek to attain security and affirmation and "knowing," what if we could live more often in "not knowing?" What if we weren't so quick to get our longings or desires met, to find answers, to solve things? What if we allowed the energy of longing to be something beautiful and potent? Maybe we wouldn't fight so much with each other and with ourselves.