Hari Prasad Shastri and Shri Dada of Aligarh

 Shri Dada was Hari Prasad Shastri’s teacher . Dr. Shastri was a learned man, and famous for his learning.

He was one of the great Sanskritists of his time; for instance, he produced the three-volume translation (after 50 years still regarded as the standard one) of the classical Indian epic called Ramayana.

He knew English, in which he produced some thirty books; naturally he knew Hindi, and also the classical Persian expected of a well-educated Indian of the time. But he also travelled extensively. He lived for years in Japan, and longer still in China.

After coming to Britain in 1929 he kept up his knowledge of Japanese (following the Chinese maxim in the Thousand-character Classic: Do not let slip what you have once learned). He read a little every day, and translated some poems From the Japanese to use in his lectures.

He wrote an account of some incidents of his time in Japan, in a small book called Echoes of Japan. He was a remarkable scholar. Not so his own teacher Shri Dada, who was not a learned man at all, though he was often accorded the courtesy title of `Pandit’ in recognition of his spiritual attainments. He was born in a family proud of its long Brahmin lineage, which had recently become rich by an unlikely piece of good fortune. The head of the house became excited by his prosperity and began to entertain aristocratic pretensions.

The son, Narayana (later to become Shri Dada) had a secular education, which did not extend to Sanskrit though he learned English. As a very young man he was attracted to the society of yogis, and began to attend the discourses of the great yogi who ultimately became his teacher. But the father did not approve: he said that his high-born son should not associate with beggars. When the boy persisted, the father disowned him and closed his door against him.

The father was not necessarily unsympathetic to the ideal of Yoga: he simply did not want his own son to be engaged in it. The role of the aristocrat, he would have thought, should be to support such things from a distance. He had this knot in his heart: ‘No. The son of an aristocratic family cannot waste his advantages and go to become a personal attendant on some ascetic in a temple. That knot could not be touched. So in the end he disinherited his son. “Human Nature”

Looking at a case like this, some people think that it is very understandable. That was how the father was by his nature: that was him. And similarly, they can feel about themselves: that’s me. One cannot change human nature, they argue; admittedly there can be development, but it must be a slow, natural process, which cannot be hurried. Let things happen naturally. (Whenever the word ‘natural’ is used in this way, warning gongs should be sounded and red flags waved.) In the anarchist `News From Nowhere’ there are to be no schools or universities. `The libraries are there, and when people feel the need, they go and study.’ Thus they learn ‘naturally’ and there is no need to hurry.

We should do things that are congenial . And so one will gradually make progress. That was the anarchist dream but this is not the way things happen. For instance, in learning to type there is an imaginary dream that you begin with two fingers and then naturally go onto three and finally touch typing with ten… It’s so natural … Easy. Whereas when you learn to touch type the keys are hidden by a shield, you’re looking at a chart and trying to feel where the keys are. ‘Oh, that’s so restrictive, so difficult.’ But actually people who start with two fingers hardly ever progress to three. They can go very fast with two: like a couple of mad hens.

If you learn to type like that you don’t progress because it’s become fixed. Now they say, “This comes natural to me, this is me.” But not at all. The hands have got ten fingers though they’re using only two of them. So this is not an expression of the proper use of the hands. In the old days butter used to be produced in large square lumps and they were brought out from the dairy on big trays. Girls would pack them into boxes, big boxes which were made so they’d exactly fit. Instinctively they used just one hand. When motion studies first began, they experts trained the girls to use both hands. Now some of the girls picked it up very quickly but others resisted. They said ‘No, no, no, I use one hand.’ Well, we have two hands. So the true expression is with the two hands. If we’re left to ourselves, we’ll just use the one we’re used to, the master hand.

This will become stronger and stronger and the other hand will become weaker and weaker. The trainer says, it will take a little bit of time to get used to using both hands but then you can get through more and your wage will go up. This concrete example shows how when people say, “I want to be myself”, they’re not ‘myself’, just a small part of myself. It’s the small part of the cloth that’s left from the creased part.

Practice, Not Mere Repetition One might feel that if one just goes on sitting in meditation and reading books about yoga and doing a bit of good in the world one will gradually progress, naturally. But repetition is not the same as practice. Now expert drivers will tell you that most drivers don’t get better over the years. Ten years, twenty years, thirty years their skill doesn’t improve but instead faults are re-inforced. Many of them never learned the width of their own car, even after twenty years so they drive as close as possible to the oncoming traffic because they’re not sure how much clearance they’ve got.

This shows how mere repetition does not improve performance. On the other hand, practice is to repeat actions striving to reach some definite higher standard but not just by repetition.

Take a meditation:

in me there is a light, which lights the whole world,

it is radiating now,

peace and understanding.

At first this is done in the expectation of some experience but after a few weeks in which nothing seems to happen the conviction that there is a light within begins to waver. The wavering is because in the study periods the enquiry has not gone deep enough to attain the conviction that there is really a light there. So the meditation can lapse into a poetic revery. Though still repeating the meditation, the meditator has, in fact, given up. This happens in all spiritual systems and schools. Say, we begin to practise the presence of God. If we are washing up, God is here. And for two or three weeks it feels like a spiritual experience. And then gradually it wears off. God is now somewhere round about the horizon and after a few weeks more he is back in an inaccessible heaven.

The Gita says this yoga must be practised without depression and with faith. Someone might say, ‘Oh faith, you know. Well that’s sort of believing something about which you have some doubts.’ Now we follow tradition, that’s to say we perform the practices and the actions in the spirit of tradition, with faith. But the aim is to confirm something in direct experience, not simply to go on, ‘I believe. I believe it all and more.’ Not like that. In these very simple things, in everyday action, there’s a secret. The Gita says perform the actions without attachment to the results’. You think, ‘Oh well that means you can make a mess of it, because you’re not attached to the results.’ ?? But then you haven’t done the actions. If I’m cleaning the floor and I think, ‘Well I don’t care what the result is’ so I leave part of it dirty then I haven’t cleaned the floor. So how to do it then? How to clean the floor and leave it clean and yet not care whether it’s appreciated or that anybody knows about it. A prominent Jesuit father said that in the final year of his training he was taken to a stone floor and given two buckets of water, a scrubbing brush and cloth and told to clean it. He got down on his knees and worked away.

He said that he left it spotless. As he stood up in the corner after finishing, the Master of Novices came in with a bucket of sludge and threw it over the floor and then said, ‘Clean that floor!’ This is a high exercise in mental austerity. But there can be something more to cleaning a floor. If we watch a tiny child waving a rag we see them taking pleasure in the movements of the cloth and the action of the hand itself. A floor-cleaner who is an expert meditator gets the same pleasure from the movements of the cloth and the action of the hands and the gradual shining forth of the true nature of the floor surface as it is cleaned. Usually, we lose the sense of divinity when we perform familiar actions. Suppose we have to do lot of writing. These days, we no longer think how wonderful it is that instead of dipping the pen in the ink pot, it flows continuously from the biro. But if we practise yoga we can practise a form of meditation when we’re doing these actions but only if we’re free from the idea: I’ve got this more to do, I’ve done quite a lot there, they haven’t appreciated it or they have appreciated it or this is going to wow them, this is going to get me some money, this is going to get me promotion.

Here is an example which we all know: you’re working well and then somebody comes and stands near you. You can’t see who it is but you know, it might be the boss. And immediately it’s as though you’re writing through a sort of syrup. You think ‘Is it the boss? Is it somebody who doesn’t like me and is looking for mistakes?’ The other thoughts come in. The Plank To become independent of such thoughts is one of the freedoms given by the practice of Yoga. It is not only to be free from such thoughts when things are going fairly well but to be free all the time. Suppose the floor of a room has been painted, and while it is drying a plank has been put from one doorway to the other for people to walk on. So when we have to cross we walk across the plank to avoid spoiling the paintwork. That’s quite easy, we just walk across. But if that plank was thirty foot up in the air, there’s hardly one of us who could walk across. If we have to cross we get down on our hands and knees and crawl across. Why? It’s the same thing.

The reason is that when the plank is across the floor of the room, we know we could step off – we’re not going to but we know we could – and so we don’t have to. The walk becomes firm and steady. But if it’s up there, we couldn’t step off and then somehow we feel unsteady and so we get down and crawl. Our teacher told us that there is a divinity round and through our ordinary lives. In meditation we can learn to step off fear-and hope-oriented consciousness onto that firm real consciousness. When we have managed that even a few times then in walking the plank of ordinary life it is, so to speak, just across the floor of divine consciousness. Our steps become assured; we do not have to keep going into meditation states in daily life but we have the assurance. Inspiration But there is something more.

Shri Dada says ‘Every man must be able to go into voluntary mental and nervous relaxation and concentrate his mind on a symbol of God, whether it be a word, a concept or an image. It is this prolonged silence of the soul which brings before man the patterns of what he is to create, the archetypes of his contribution to the inner and outer world. Everyone has an infinite world of beauty an goodness in his mind; the few who have recognised it call it inspiration.’

Our teacher made a big point of this. There are inspirations raining on us all the time from the universal mind as to our purpose and what we ourselves should be doing in the ordinary course of daily life. If we come into touch with that purpose it will come alive in us and it will also be in consonance with the purpose outside of us and then we’ll be fulfilling our role. We can say ‘Well, what sort of thing would this be? How would it differ from the actions of an ordinary good man?’

Because the actions of a good man are based on his own individual judgement they do not necessarily lead to the expected good result. When I was young we believed a welfare state would abolish crime. Why would people commit offences if all necessities were provided by the State? But the people who are throwing bombs now are not starving. The football hooligans who are killing people are not starving. Although we had good intentions we didn’t realise the true cause of the disturbances in society. Let us give two examples from everyday life, in a distant country as it happens. In the traditional hotels in Japan, the guest has a private room. A maid brings the meals and so on to the private room. And one day she’s overworked and tired. she’s brought the meal and she goes out but she doesn’t close the door properly behind her. If the guest is a tough businessman who works hard himself and doesn’t see why other people shouldn’t work hard too, he shouts ‘Iyako, shut the door!’ If it’s a scholar, he calls gently, ‘Oh please shut the door, would you?’ And she comes back and shuts the door. But if it’s a man of Zen meditation, he gets up himself and shuts the door. Well this seems very simple. A charming little story.

But it can have a deep meaning for everyday life. The second case is also from Japan, where examinations are rather stiffer than they are in this country. A talented boy is going in for what would correspond to A levels here and the teachers have told the parents that he has the ability to get into one of the prestigious universities which would be a great advantage for his life. But he will have to study every evening, five evenings a week. So they say to the boy, ‘Now are you willing to do this for a year? We’ll arrange this special tuition for you and if you work like mad you’ll probably be able to do it.’ And he agrees: ‘Yes. Yes I will’. The routine is that when he gets back from school, they have the evening meal and then he goes up to his room to study. The parents sit and watch television, though they keep the sound very low.

But of course he knows what they are doing. After a couple of months he begins to get fed up, so after the meal he begins to stay on for ten minutes and watch it himself. Then a bit longer. The father has a row with him. He shouts ‘You’ve damn well taken this on and you’ll damn well go through with it or I won’t lift a finger to help you in life afterwards.’ And then perhaps he does start up again in a sulky way but it can mean an antipathy to father which may last for the rest of his life. Then perhaps the mother has a go. She says, ‘It’s less than a year, just think of that. We’ll do anything for you. I’ll come up and bring you tea and cakes at 9 o’clock. Think to yourself it’s only just a little time. It’s not very long is it?’ And maybe that gets him going again but it’s still a resentful grind. Now supposing those two parents had practised Zen and meditation and they had heard the little story about shutting the door. ‘Shut the door’. ‘Please shut the door.’ ‘Or getting up himself and shutting it’. Now they meditate on that.

How does that apply? Well what happens is they meditate and then an inspiration comes. Father says privately to mother one evening: ‘You know, there is that diploma that I’ve often thought about. It’s not directly in my line but it would help me in my career later. It’s about a year. I’ve often thought of studying for it. Anything you fancy?’ She says, ‘Well yes. There’s that Western embroidery. There are classes. I could do that.’ So the next evening the meal is cleared away but the television isn’t put on. Father’s getting out some books now and puts them on the table. He’s going to study for his diploma. And mother is laying out embroidery design and materials. ‘Oh’, says the boy. They don’t say anything and he goes up to his room. Now the atmosphere of the house has changed. They’re all studying. No resentment.

The boy’s able to study because the others too are studying. This sort of action comes from inspiration. The other one methods, the shouting or the pleading may get a temporary result. But when the parents themselves do it then there’s a unity on the deepest level. And it’s an example of inspired action. Our teacher said that through meditation we can come towards what he sometimes called the cosmic mind, the mind of the Supreme. Then in our actions to try to become more and more independent of the considerations of the world – praise or blame, gain or loss – and do the action seeing the same divinity in thing, the action, and the one who does it. That is inspiration itself and that gives freedom because what’s manifesting then in the individual is the same as is manifest in the universe.

© Trevor Leggett


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