There is a Chinese, and Japanese, legend of a bird whose feathers are so beautiful and pure that the heavenly beings beg this bird form to make their feather robes, and the bird will give feathers and then it grows new ones. But this also is a creation of names, words and pictures, and it’s familiar and it’s recognised by the people in this tradition. Shankara says that, In the same way, if things are created by names and the names are the things, then he says it is a disease to take these things which are names as real and we suffer from it, from this disease. And it is cured by knowing that they are creations of names.
And he says that this is done by meditation on the Self.
And he quotes the Maitri Upanishad in his commentary here,
‘As the Self worship OM,
Worship OM as the Self,
because in OM All the names
are included and transcended.’
And then he gives another: ‘As Self alone He is to be worshipped’. And this text which often comes in Shankara’s writings, from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad it comes originally, he often calls knowledge as he does in this commentary. We can say, ‘As self alone He is to be worshipped’, not simply thought of but worshipped. If we just think of a thing we separate ourselves from it. In worship we go towards it. And people think, ‘Oh, we don’t want to worship these days. Surely man can stand by himself? No.’ Well we think so, but in actual fact it isn’t so. There are people who certainly, when they’re met, even though they may not be religious, they do give this sense of benevolence. A top American ambassador is probably not a particularly gullible man, rather cynical, but on meeting the head of a particular state, a father of his people, he said of him, ‘His brown eyes exceedingly wise and kind, and he’s the sort of man that a child would want to sit on his lap, and a dog would instinctively sidle up to him’. A
nd of another such prominent man, a Dean, a Christian, this man was not a Christian but he said of him, ‘The moment you talk of other people’s struggles, of other people’s difficulties, his whole face lights up. Concern immediately comes over him.’ He said, ‘As a questioner I felt ashamed, when I saw this exhibition in this man who is an atheist, but in him I saw the true spirit of Christianity.’ Well the first of those two, the man whose eye was exceedingly wise and kind, on whose lap a child would want to sit, a dog would instinctively sidle up to, that was Stalin, as seen through the eyes of the American Ambassador, Biddle. And the second one, was Chairman Mao, who killed more people they now think, than Hitler and Stalin together, as seen through the eyes of the Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson.
In other words they needed something to worship, and they began worshipping there. The personality cult is formed and it’s worshipped. In China, the country was being destroyed, and people knew it, but they went on worshipping the personality cult. Dora Russell who founded a school, admittedly it was a disastrous failure, but still she was a considerable thinker in her own right, and a great idealist. She began worshipping Chairman Mao.
And sometimes you feel these people who are the focus of personality cults, something gets into them and they begin to think, ‘Well how far could you go? What wouldn’t they stand?’ And she quotes, with approval, in one of her books on education, some remarks by Chairman Mao on education. And he said, ‘People are against cheating but the fact is that if one pupil gets the answers right and another pupil peers over and copies what he’s written and gets his answers right, well then his are right and he should get full marks .’ So she quotes this, she says, ‘Chairman Mao is sometimes, quite unexpected’. And he then said, ‘And it was alright too to pay somebody to take your place in the examination’. He said, ‘That shows enterprise’. And he said about examination questions, that the dream of the Red Chamber is a great Chinese classic. He said, ‘Set the questions on this and one pupil answers them all correctly from his textbook but only give him 50% because he’s mechanically copying. And another one answers them more or less out of his head. Perhaps he hasn’t read the book but he’s sort of invents the book. Well, mark him up because he’s being creative.’ And she writes this down, she’s worshipping him. With part of her head she knows that it’s absolute nonsense, but because she’s worshipping, she needs something to worship, and she follows him.
So Shankara says, ‘It’s essential. You have to worship.’ And in some of his commentaries, in some places of his commentaries, he’s very frank, the opponent is allowed to speak very forcibly. And the opponent says ‘You see. Your worship and meditation, finally, is on identity isn’t it?’ ‘Yes. Yes.’ You worship OM and finally it’s an identification.’ And the opponent says ‘Well look, you see, in some of these rituals you are told to meditate on the sacrificial post as the sun. Well, you do this, you think of, somehow of the sacrificial post as of the splendour of the sun, it’s taking part in the holy ceremony. But all the time you know perfectly well that it isn’t. And your meditations are just like that. It’s like a man who sees a stump of a tree and thinks that that’s a man. Say he’s lost, and in a mist, he needs to find someone to ask the way, and he hopes. And then he sees this thing about the height, dimensions of a man, so he rushes up to ask the way, he thinks it’s a man. But he’s wrong.
© Trevor Leggett
Titles in this series are:
Part 1: Mandukya Upanishad
Part 2: You have to worship