(the person in the above painting is Paul Brunton. I am just using this picture to give a visual picture of this interview!)
Arthur Koetler visited India & Japan to meet several religious/spiritual leaders and to know the culture and as an outcome he wrote a book called “Lotus and the robot”. This book was subsequently banned in India….He also met Paramacharya as part of his plan. When I came about this incident, I was curious to know why this book was banned and how the interview went between him and Him. I bought this book from Amazon and here is the section on Sage of Kanchi. I also read the section about his meeting with Acharya Vinobhave.
I can tell, as an Indian reader, I hate his derogatory style of writing / describing Indians and their customs etc. If you see from Western visitor’s perspective who had no clue about what India is in those days, this is probably how they would describe – can’t blame him. What is visible is his arrogance!
Just see Periyava’s opening questioning….”Is your trip to India merely to observe the country and the people, or is it to guide them in some healthy manner?’ – Only Periyava can do this so that his half-baked westerner knows his boundaries.
In the whole book, the only guru Arthur respected was Mahaperiyava – not that Periyava needs a certificate from this guy. It only proves that there is not a person who has not become an experiencer of His boundless compassion!
I found him in wikipedia and sadly both him and his wife committed suicide on the same day as Arthur could not deal with his advanced stage Parkinsons disease and cancer. His wife could not think of a life without Arthur and they both died on the same day.
Here is the intro and the interview…..
I was anxious to meet a religious leader occupying a position of authority, from whom I could learn the orthodox view. But Hinduism is split into countless sects, and it has of course no Church hierarchy in the Western sense. The nearest to an authoritative position, I learnt, was attributed to the five Sankaracharyas, leaders of an important Traditionalist sect, all of them descendants in direct spiritual lineage, as it were, from Sankara Acharya, the great religious reformer in the eighth century. Sankara combated idolatry, taught a purified version of pantheism, and tried to create a unified system of orthodox Hindu belief. Each of the subsequent Acharyas appointed his own successor, and in the present generation His Holiness the Sankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam wielded the highest spiritual authority. He had succeeded in unifying two large, previously divided sects, and was considered to be the originator of the current of religious revival noticeable mainly in the South. He was described to me as a very holy man, far advanced on the path towards final enlightenment. He was staying near Madras when I visited him.
The audience had been arranged by Professor Raghavan, who holds the Chair of Sanskrit at the University of Madras. His book, The Indian Heritage (with a Preface by the President of the Republic), was published in 1956 by UNESCO, and I am much indebted to it as an authoritative source-book for Sanskrit literature, which will be often quoted in subsequent chapters.
The first time I met Dr. Raghavan at his office at the University, he wore European clothes and behaved with the somewhat harassed courtesy of a busy don. The second time, when I picked him up in the evening for our appointment with the Sankaracharya, he emerged from his house and got into the car, dressed only in a loin-cloth. There are, of course, a number of pilgrims and beggars similarly attired in the streets of Madras; nevertheless, a middle-aged professor dining on the leather upholstery of a limousine, naked down to the navel, is an unusual sight. I asked him whether he and a mutual friend, had been influenced by the Sankaracharya. He said: ‘To the measure of our success, we are his pupils, to the measure of our failings we desert him.’ (Isn’t this the most appropriate way to describe ourselves?!! Dr Raghavan is just great!!!)
We drove to a suburb, stopped at a dark street-corner, got out of the car and of our shoes, and were greeted by another middle-aged gentleman in a loin-cloth, whom the Professor introduced as a Madras publisher. The publisher explained that he was spending every evening from six to eleven in attendance on His Holiness.
We entered a small and dilapidated house next to a temple. Facing us there was a dark, narrow corridor, blocked by an ancient palanquin painted white, with long, hard-wood poles sticking out front and back. A small room, rather like a police cell, opened from the corridor, and there we squatted down on a mat in the company of several others. After a few minutes of whispered conversation, a young man approached the palanquin, bent over it and murmured some words. A brown rug inside the palanquin, covering what looked like a shapeless bundle, began slowly to heave and stir, and finally His Holiness scrambled out of it, wrapping the blanket round his head and bare torso in the process of emerging.
Tall and lean, but not emaciated, he looked dazed as he squeezed past the palanquin in the corridor and entered the little cell. He sat down cross-legged, facing me on the mat, while the others moved out into the corridor, leaning in through the open door to hear better. One of the devotees was a compulsive nose-picker, such as one finds in every Indian crowd. A Professor of Philosophy, from the Vivekananda College in Madras, acted as interpreter.
His Holiness remained silent for about half a minute, and I had time to study his remarkable face. Its features had been reduced to bare essentials by hard spiritual discipline. It was dominated by the high, smooth, domed forehead under the short-cropped, white hair. The brown eyes were set so deep that they seemed to be peering out from inside the skull, with soft dark shadows underneath. His firm, curved lips, framed by a trimmed white beard, were surprisingly mobile and expressive as they carefully farmed each word. He was emerging from sleep or trance, his eyes only gradually focusing on those present. I was told that he managed an average of three hours’ sleep a day, in short fits between duties and observances, always huddled in the palanquin; and that the devotees were often unable to tell whether he was asleep or in samadhi. He asked me gently why I had come to India:
‘Is it merely to observe the country and the people, or is it to guide them in some healthy manner?’
This was an allusion to certain Press comments, concerned with earlier books. I answered that I had come to see and learn, and with no other purpose.
H. H.: ‘One’s passive interest, too, exerts an influence. Even without any specific activity, the angle from which you approach a problem or country produces a shakti – an active force.’
I said that I was sorry this should be so, but nobody could avoid throwing a shadow.
The Sankaracharya answered: ‘But one’s sincere sympathy throws its own radiance’; and as he said that, a smile transformed his face into that of a child. I had never seen a comparable smile or expression; it had an extraordinary charm and sweetness. Later, on my way back, I wondered why in Western paintings of saints entranced, blessed or martyred, I had never encountered anything like that enchanted smile.
Since all mystics agree that their experience cannot be put into words, perhaps their expression also eludes representation by chisel and brush. However much I admired a Last Supper or a scene from Calvary, I have never felt that Jesus of Nazareth really looked like that. On the other hand, certain sculptures of the Gupta period and of the early Indian Baroque do convey an idea of that peculiar smile.
My first question was whether His Holiness thought that it was necessary to adapt the doctrines and observances of Hinduism to the changing social structure of India.
The Sankaracharya’s answer, according to the stenographic transcript (which I have slightly compressed) was as follows:
‘The present is not the only time when there has been a social revolution. Changes have been taking place even in the remote past, when revolutions were not so violent as they are now. But there are certain fundamentals which have been kept intact. We compare the impact of a social change to a storm. It is necessary to stand firm by the fundamental values and to keep affirming them. We may note the deterioration in moral values and standards. When Alexander came to India, Greek observers wrote that there were no thefts in this country. One cannot say that this standard has been kept up in subsequent times. But we cannot say either that because the situation with regard to morality has changed, teachers should adapt themselves to present-day standards. In the same way, adaptations have no place in the standards of spiritual discipline.’
Question: ‘Is there not a difference between spiritual values and religious observances? Assuming a person is working in a factory or office. He has to be at his working place at 8 a.m. To perform his religious observances he must start at five in the morning. Would it not be possible to shorten the prescribed ritual?’
H. H.: ‘If a man cannot perform his prayers, rites and obediences in the prescribed way, he must feel regret and penitence. He can do penance and still perform his duties in the proper way on holidays or at other times of the day when he is less busy. Once concessions are made in the way of shortening observances, there is no limit, and this will lead to their gradual dwindling and extinction.’
Question: ‘If the full discharge of the rites is, in modern society, beyond the average person’s capacity, may it not be harmful to make him feel constantly guilty and aware of his failings?’
H. H.: ‘If a person feels sincere repentance, that sincerity has its own value.’
In view of his unyielding attitude, I changed the subject.
Question: ‘In the West, in the days of the Pythagorean Brotherhood, and again during the early Renaissance, the great savants were also great mystics and considered the pursuit of Science as a form of worship. This was also true of Einstein, who was a deeply religious man, or of Max Planck, the founder of the quantum theory; and Kepler, the father of modern astronomy, regarded Science as an approach to the ultimate mystery. How does this approach relate to Indian thought?’
The orthodox Hindu purification rites, prayers and observances require several hours a day.
H. H. : ‘The more Science develops the more does it confirm the fundamental truths of religious philosophy. Indian Science, far from being opposed to religion, had a spiritual origin and a religious orientation. It is significant that every science in India is called a Sastra – a system of thought with a spiritual purpose. In our temples, for instance, all sciences and arts are pressed into the service of religion. Architecture, music, dance, mathematics, astronomy, all have a spiritual and religious significance.’
Again I felt that the saint and my humble self were talking different languages. The Sankaracharya’s reference to the sciences being pressed into service in the temples implied approval of the debasement of astronomy into astrology, of mathematics into mystic number-lore, which had brought Indian science to a standstill some fifteen hundred years before. I again changed the subject, and brought up the din and noise in Indian temples. Was this the reason why Indians with a meditative disposition had to resort to the solitude of the mountains, or bury themselves in lonely caves?
H.H.: ‘The case is just the reverse. Because solitude and a secluded spot have been prescribed, from oldest times, for contemplation, temples do not have to serve that purpose. Our temples are not organized as places for meditation, nor for congregational worship. The purpose of a temple is different. We enjoy the goods of life such as house, food, clothing, ornaments, music, dance, etc. We pay a tribute in the form of taxes to the King – now the Government – for making it possible for us to enjoy them by giving us their protection. The King-protector is provided with a palace and other paraphernalia of royalty. Even as we render homage to the king for the enjoyment of these things, we are bound to tender our gratitude to God who has primarily given us the good things of life. We offer a part of these good things as a token of our gratitude to Him in the temple. We first offer to Him all that He has given to us, in the shape of food, clothing, jewels, music, flowers, lights, incense, and so on, with the grateful consciousness that they are His gifts to us; and we receive them back from Him as His prasadam. The temple is the place where these offerings are made on behalf of the collective community where it is situated. Even if people do not go to the temple, it is enough that these offerings are made to God on be~alf of the community. The duty of the people at the place is to see that these offerings are made in a proper manner. There have been people who would not take their day’s meal till the temple bell announced that the offering to God of food for the day had been done. Then only do they take their meal as God’s prasada.’
Question: ‘Where, then, can an individual meditate in silence and enjoy the feeling of being alone with his God?’
H . H.: ‘In almost every Hindu home, and in riverside structures, there is a place of daily worship. We can obtain in it the seclusion and silence needed for meditation.’
I would have been impertinent to contradict the saint by telling him that I had visited some of those ‘riverside structures’ and private shrines in Hindu houses. About the former – the ghats and shrines of Benares, for instance – the less said the better; the latter are usually the size of a larder, or simply a corner in a bedroom. There would be a small figure of Krishna or Durga with some wilted daisies in front of it, and some oil-prints of the Monkey God on the wall. But in the average cramped and crowded Indian habitation, that shrine offers no privacy whatsoever. A saint, of course, will feel at peace in the midst of any din and noise. But I was concerned with the average person.
I asked His Holiness whether the doctrines of Hindu religion are meant to be interpreted literally or as symbols.
‘Every such idea must be understood literally and not symbolically. He then went on to explain that ‘a comparative study of Hindu and Christian doctrines revealed that the fundamental and philosophical truths of Hinduism appear in Christian religion as dogmas based on a misunderstanding of their original meaning’. Thus the ‘Adam’ of the Scriptures is to be traced to Atma, which in the original Sanskrit was Ad-ma, and ‘Eve’ corresponds to Jiva (the individual self).
In the Upamshads there ts a reference to two birds sitting on the same tree. One bird eats the fruit of the tree. The other simply looks on without eating. The bird which eats the fruit is Jiva – Eve. The bird which simply looks on is the supreme Atma – Adam. The tree on which the two birds are seated is the pippal, which is akin to the Biblical apple. It is also known as the Bodhi tree, or the Tree of Knowledge. It was while sitting under it that the Buddha got enlightenment.
Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge. But in the transition of the idea from India, the real significance of the Upanishadic motive was lost.’
I suspected that few students of comparative religion would agree with the Sankaracharya’s theory. But time was running short, and I turned to a subject on which he was an unquestioned authority.
Question: ‘I had several talks with Hindu psychiatrists in Bombay. They all agreed that spiritual exercises greatly help to effect medical cures. What bothered them was the absence of criteria to distinguish between insights gained in mystic trance on the one hand, and hallucinations on the other.’
His answer was short and precise: ‘The state of hallucination is a temporary one. A person should learn to control his mind. What comes after such mental discipline is mystic experience. What appears in the uncontrolled state of mind the hallucinations. These are caused by the wishes and fears of the ego. The mystic’s mind is a blank, his experience is shapeless and without object.’
Question: ‘Can a mystic experience be artificially induced by means of drugs?’
H. H : ‘You ask this because you think of the experiments of Aldous Huxley.’
A. K.: ‘No, I was thinking of bhang.’
H. H. : ‘Bhang is used among the people in some parts of India to induce certain states of mind. It is not a habit in the South. Such an artificially induced state does not last long. The real mystic condition is more permanent.’
Question: ‘How is an outside observer to distinguish between the genuine and the not-so-genuine?’
H.H : ‘Of course, sometimes people mistake a pseudo Yogi for a real one. But the behaviour of the man who has disciplined his mind, who is a true Yogi, will be different. When you look at him you will see that his face is serene and at peace. That will discover and differentiate him.’
He spoke without a trace of self-consciousness; it evidently did not occur to him that the description applied to himself.
I felt that my time was up, though the Sankarcharya denied with great gentleness that he was tired; in India it is the visitor who is supposed to bring the audience to an end which sometimes leads to embarrassing situations. I waited for H. H. to get up, but he made no move. There was a silence; only the nose-picking disciple kept up his activities.
So I embarked on an anecdote – about the Jesuit priest who was asked how he would reconcile God’s all-embracing love with the idea of eternal Hell, and who answered: ‘Yes, Hell does exist, but it is always empty.’
I suppose my motive in telling the story was to make him smile again. He did, then said, still smiling: ‘We have no eternal Hell in Hinduism; even a little practice of dharma will go a long way in accumulating merit.’ He quoted a line from the Gita in Sanskrit.
That was the end of the conversation. I found at last the courage to get up first, and the Sankaracharya, after a very gentle and unceremonious salute, quickly took the few steps to the palanqum and vanished into its interior. The room was suddenly dingy and empty, and I had a feeling of a personal loss.
Such were the views of an orthodox religious leader in contemporary India. The remarkable thing about them is that they bore no relation to contemporaneity. Equally striking was the contrast between his gentle, saintly personality, lovable and loving, peaceful and peace-giving, immersed in contemplation without shape or object’ – and the rigidity of his views on Hmdu doctrine and religious observances. If one tried to project him onto the European scene’. one would have to go back several centuries to find a Christian mystic of equal depth and stature; yet in his views on religious practice he compared with the rigid ecclesiastics of the nineteenth century.
Indians call the Sankaracharya a Jnana Yogi with a strong inclination toward bhakti-union through devotional worship.