Some say that the monsoon season is sad and depressing, because everything gets wet, gray and cold. However, rain in India is a sign of abundance with children playing in the streets, peacocks dancing in the forest, and – especially in West Bengal – women prepare to celebrate Navaratri. Navaratri literally means “nine nights”. In Hindu mythology, this name refers to the nine nights of battle between Durga and the Asuras. Symbolically the goddess Durga represents the feminine energy of transformation and destruction, and the Asuras represent everything that robs us of our purpose, meaning the desires that dominate us. It is said that Durga fights the Asuras during nine nights and these days are celebrated every year with much festivity.
It had been over 2 years that Shanti had left home to work in Calcutta. Although she talked to her mother almost every night, the distance from home and the social pressure of the modern world had made her into what everyone would call a dedicated and focused person. She worked tirelessly and was able to suppress her individuality to deal with the abusive behavior of her colleagues. In two years of work, she went from being a sales assistant to assistant manager of the store of saris where she worked. Perhaps, if she had not been so far from Durgapur, her hometown, there would not be all the pressure to survive and her story would be different, but that is not how it happened and behind that strong and determined woman, there was still a desperate and homesick girl ready to emerge at any moment.
That is when a very special customer left the newspaper on the counter. And on the back page there was a gorgeous photo of the goddess Durga. The colors were so lush and the outline so relevant that Shanti froze at that moment. With her mind concentrated, her eyes filled with tears, she remembered her childhood and celebrating Navaratri, how she prepared the clay dolls with her mother, who adorned the altar and how things were simple and how she was spontaneous and happy.
Then, the bell on the counter rang 3 times and the manager shouted:
“Shanti! Are you deaf?!”
The old man looked angrily and Shanti ran towards him.
“We’re at the end of the month, the people at the head office need the reports! You cannot lose your focus, girl. Our company has clear rules, you’re the assistant maaaaaaaaanager. We still have to count all the merchandise and close the books for the entire month. The stock of silk saris is running low, the new shipment from Coimbatore has arrived…”
After a few seconds, Shanti looked into the manager’s eyes, who was moving his mouth and saying something, but the words were not making sense to her. Something had happened to her. She did not feel like doing anything and did not feel aversion to anything, she was still in a state of shock. She shook her head as if she had understood everything that was said and said to herself: “I came to Calcutta to make something of my life, but I’m living as if I were dead”. She picked up the newspaper like someone who cleans the counter and put it in her bag. One thing she was certain of, this year she would not miss Navaratri, even if she had to work overnight, she was going to go to the festival.
The region of Bengal is known in India for some characteristics: the special taste of the food; the ideological debates on every street corner; the beautiful, well-dressed women with large and expressive eyes; and, especially, for the particular way in which Navaratri is celebrated. It is the most anticipated date of the year, stores close, people organize large events with lots of food and dance and of course many rituals to worship the female Deities.
The date was coming up. While Durga fought the Asuras, Shanti fought the figures and reports for the head office. She placed a small, bright sticker of the Goddess in the bottom part of her computer and fulfilled her purpose on the eighth day. Shanti had no doubt that she would be able to execute all of her tasks on time, but closing the month always brings surprises, but this time the old man had no chance.
“Shanti, I’m glad you’ve delivered the reports. I just wanted to ask you for a favor, I will not be able to tend to the store this weekend, can you take care of everything for me here?”
She would have tended the store on any other weekend, but this time she could not, so she had to improvise – and she was much sharper than one would imagine.
“Ji! Sure I can, I just need to take care of a problem … I promised Durga that I was going to the festival this year.”
“Oh Damn! Then you’re going to have to break the promise, this is work, girl.”
“You’re right, work always comes first. So if you, my boss, asks me to stay I’m sure there is a good enough reason and Durga will understand. In this case, my part will be taken care of, and you will have to keep my promise with Durga. Is that okay with you?”
“Well, in this case, I can ask someone else to stay, you know how it is?! Stores close, but someone has to answer the phone. That’s the only reason why I asked you.”
Before the old man had the chance to change his mind, she closed her laptop, put it in her bag and went home.
The newspaper talked about an event that was going to be held in a gym in the center of town. For the Durga festival, the red sari with golden bangles that her grandmother had given her was chosen. She prepared an arrangement of flowers in a basket to place at the Goddess’ feet and went to the festival excitedly.
Horns, bang snaps, fire works, screams and more horns were everywhere, rickshaws (3-wheeled taxis in India) like a cat walking through traffic, made the miracle of locomotion possible in India. At the gym door next to the curb, an ocean of sandals and slippers, everyone left their shoes there before going in. At the door, a man with a big mustache smiled. “Namaskaram! Welcome.”
Holding a flyer of the event, looking at the children running around, the music playing loudly and raucously, she gradually became more relaxed and turned into a child once again. Within a few minutes, she was smiling spontaneously – not because she was in a spiritual ecstasy or anything of the sort – she was smiling because she did not see herself as detached from anything that was going on about her. She felt at home again and was happy to be back.
She did not even know why, but she just knew that she was there to deliver those flowers. She walked to the altar and saw that huge image made of clay with many arms and colors, and prayed:
“Divine Mother, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you. I’ve strived to do everything that I must do. However hard it may be, I’m here in Calcutta, managing to survive with your blessings. But, Mother, give me a sign. What is the truth of it all? Where is this life going to lead me? What am I doing here? What do I have to do to be happy and at peace? Please show me the truth of it all.”
She rubbed the flowers in her heart as one who deposits all her love and threw them at the feet of the image, which in Shanti’s mind, was the Goddess herself.
At that moment, the music stopped and in a weird tongue, the announcer introduced the next attraction a swami, who came to do a “Satsang”, talk openly about everyday issues in the vision of the Vedas. Shanti sat at the feet of the Goddess and turned to see that bald, orange-colored man take the stage with the help of a boy. Slowly, the microphone passed from person to person in the crowd asking about various things. “Why is there so much injustice in the world? … Is it necessary to take a shower to pray? … What is the purpose of Yoga? … What is needed to become a successful yogi?”
She was finding everything a bit repetitive, at which time someone asked:
What do I need to be happy?” – The audience laughed, but the swami knew the question was relevant and decided to test the seriousness of the individual.
Well, that depends. For how long do you want to be happy? 1 hour, 1 day, 1 month? Do you have a specific place where you search for this happiness? At home or at work?
The individual laughed, having not expected a counter question, and said: “I didn’t know it was so hard to be happy. I didn’t want to provoke or disrespect you”…
The swami kept looking at the individual, he did not feel challenged, and did not think that the answer was complicated, but he wanted the person to be available to hear it, because a question like that requires full attention of the listener in order for it to be understood otherwise it is a waste.
Embarrassed, the individual said, “Swami, I don’t know if it’s possible and forgive me if I’m talking nonsense. I’d like to be happy all the time and anywhere.”
The swami smiled and everyone waited for an answer to judge the individual, but the master wasted no time. Upon noticing the openness in people’s minds to transmit a deeper message, he began:
… dear friend, your question is very pertinent to this occasion. Take a look at this gorgeous image of Durga, so many colors, how expressive?! Despite of all the details, it is only made of clay. It was built piece by piece during the entire month, and many people participated in this task. Today it is here, whole, but three days after navaratri, it will be immersed in the river again and all of this beauty will be gone…
And that’s how we try to be happy, that’s how we build our project of happiness. We always visualize something and work to build it. We may not succeed due to many factors because there are many people involved, other elements that are beyond our control and even our own abilities are limited. However, with persistence, intelligence and hard work, we build different images like these in our lives, but the truth is that they are made of clay. And, as a result, we sometimes we have it all: a good job, money, a good family and friends, but there is still a feeling that something is missing. However beautiful the image may be, regardless of how organized situations are, we know that it will be immersed back into the river, because this is the nature of clay images. People change, situations change, and with them feelings also change and we live an apparent enigma, where we are working tirelessly to produce situations, then we enjoy them a little and suffer afterwards when they’re gone…
When we least expect it we are stuck in this “chakra” (wheel) which is called samsara. We are stuck there going back and forth, but we don’t really go anywhere. We are living, but we’re still the same needy, helpless person trying to be happy. And what to do?…
Well, first of all, this is not anyone’s problem in particular, this is the dilemma of human life that is lived since the beginning of time and there is a solution for this, when this problem is seen with clarity…
The solution is called self-knowledge, which is also called liberation, because the idea is that knowledge frees you from samsara. It removes us from this learned behavior of having to change the world to become whole. Now how can knowledge release me from something?
I imagine that all of you want to know how knowledge can release us. Let’s put it this way… there are two kinds of problems: one that requires a change and the other that does not.
The problems that require a change or the acquisition of something in order to be happy – such as hunger or the need for shelter – cannot be solved with knowledge alone. Action is necessary; time is needed in order to the change people or situations in order to get the result desired.
However, there is another kind of problem that requires no such change, and therefore, knowledge alone is sufficient to solve the problem. For example, think of the moment that we thought we had lost our pen, and we ask for it, after searching incessantly for it, and someone responds: “It is in your pocket!” Apply knowledge and the problem is instantly solved. Or, we became angry about something that didn’t happen and everything is solved the moment we are aware of the truth. Or even in the traditional example of the story of the 10 boys that everyone already knows…
If happiness were always dependent upon a change in ourselves or in the people around us, no one would even be able to laugh at a simple joke, since the humor in a joke is only dependent upon the capacity of a person to understand it. No change is necessary. How long does it take to laugh at joke? It doesn’t even require time; it just requires comprehension, right? Even if we don’t understand it at the time, we might have a revelation later when taking a bath and we will have a laugh in that very moment. Am I right?
Everyone laughed. The individual had sat down and everyone looked attentively at the master’s movement. He did not want to convince anyone, let alone convert them to some kind of belief. He spoke of himself and each one got what they needed.
“..my name is Shanti, I’d like to know how to acquire this knowledge.”
“Like any other knowledge whoever wants to learn it must be prepared and have the means to acquire it.”
There are 2 means. First, you need a teacher with whom you connect, trust and who is able to teach. And that’s important. Because many masters may be part of the spiritual journey of a person, but not all of them have the same role. Some are sources of inspiration, great people who may already be dead. Others can cure illnesses and talk about the future and the past. Some only bless us, either with a hug, a look or a smile. However, for self-knowledge it is necessary someone who has already gone through the same process that we want to go through, more of a student than a teacher and that takes a while for us to understand. Our spiritual fantasies lead us to chase after those who have the longest white beard or those who talk about abstract things that are beautiful and inspiring, but the real problem is that on seeing ourselves, we are not complete and happy and it is only this view that needs to be corrected. Therefore, the first step is to have a good teacher who is able to reproduce what he went through.
The second is that the teacher is like a gardener who takes care of the plants, which are us. He knows how to do his part, but if the necessary conditions are not present, the plant will not grow or germinate and may even die. The condition to grow is called yoga, a life of yoga. Remember that yoga is not asanas (physical postures) – although they may be way into this lifestyle. In fact, yoga is a vision, an attitude toward life that brings space and balance. This is the second half. Then first comes yoga and then comes the teacher to teach knowledge.
Therefore, I end this satsang by quoting a verse from Katha Upanishad who talks exactly about this point:
मृत्युप्रोक्तां नाचिकेतोऽथ लब्ध्वा विद्यामेतां योगविधिं च कृत्स्नम्।
ब्रह्मप्राप्तो विरजोऽभूद्विमृत्युरन्योऽप्येवं यो विदध्यात्ममेव।
“… Therefore, having fully comprehended the teaching of the Lord of Death, a life of yoga, and self-knowledge, Naciketas (his disciple) attained Brahma and became pure and immortal, as all those that acquire yoga this knowledge shall also do…”
The announcer stepped in and placed a garland of flowers on the swami, who was duly thanked him before leaving the stage. While helping the teacher to get off the stage, the boy asked him why had not told the people where he taught and the times of the classes when he was asked how to study. And the master smiled and said. “This is a study that needs to be chosen and in order to choose there must be complete freedom. For some all that was said will suffice and those who need to learn more will know where to find me or will find another teacher.”
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