The biggest obstacle in my Ashram experience is not meditation, actually. That's difficult, of course, but not murderous. There's something even harder for me here. The murderous thing is what we do every morning after meditation and before breakfast (my God, but these mornings are long)--a chant called the Gurugita. Richard calls it "The Geet." I have so much trouble with The Geet. I do not like it at all, never have, not since the first time I heard it sung at the Ashram in upstate New York. I love all the other chants and hymns of this Yogic tradition, but the Gurugita feels long, tedious, sonorous and insufferable.
That's just my opinion, of course; other people claim to love it, though I can't fathom why. The Gurugita is 182 verses long, for crying out loud (and sometimes I do), and each verse is a paragraph of impenetrable Sanskrit. Together with the preamble chant and the wrap- up chorus, the entire ritual takes about an hour and half to perform. This is before breakfast, remember, and after we have already had an hour of meditation and a twenty- minute chanting of the first morning hymn. The Gurugita is basically the reason you have to get up at 3:00 AM around here.
I don't like the tune, and I don't like the words. Whenever I tell anyone around the Ashram this, they say, "Oh, but it's so sacred!" Yes, but so is the Book of Job, and I don't choose to sing the thing aloud every morning before breakfast.
The Gurugita does have an impressive spiritual lineage; it's an excerpt from a holy ancient scripture of Yoga called the Skanda Purana, most of which has been lost, and little of which has been translated out of Sanskrit. Like much of Yogic scripture, it's written in the form of a conversation, an almost Socratic dialogue. The conversation is between the goddess Parvati and the almighty, all-encompassing god Shiva. Parvati and Shiva are the divine embodiment of creativity (the feminine) and consciousness (the masculine). She is the generative energy of the universe; he is its formless wisdom. Whatever Shiva imagines, Parvati brings to life. He dreams it; she materializes it. Their dance, their union (their Yoga), is both the cause of the universe and its manifestation.
In the Gurugita, the goddess is asking the god for the secrets of worldly fulfillment, and he is telling her. It bugs me, this hymn. I had hoped my feelings about the Gurugita would change during my stay at the Ashram. I'd hoped that putting it in an Indian context would cause me to learn how to love the thing. In fact, the opposite has happened. Over the few weeks that I've been here, my feelings about the Gurugita have shifted from simple dislike to solid dread. I've started skipping it and doing other things with my morning that I think are much better for my spiritual growth, like writing in my journal, or taking a shower, or calling my sister back in Pennsylvania and seeing how her kids are doing.
Richard from Texas always busts me for skipping out. "I noticed you were absent from The Geet this morning," he'll say, and I'll say, "I am communicating with God in other ways," and he'll say, "By sleeping in, you mean?"
But when I try to go to the chant, all it does is agitate me. I mean, physically. I don't feel like I'm singing it so much as being dragged behind it. It makes me sweat. This is very odd because I tend to be one of life's chronically cold people, and it's cold in this part of India in January before the sun comes up. Everyone else sits in the chant huddled in wool blankets and hats to stay warm, and I'm peeling layers off myself as the hymn drones on, foaming like an overworked farm horse. I come out of the temple after the Gurugita and the sweat rises off my skin in the cold morning air like fog--like horrible, green, stinky fog. The physical reaction is mild compared to the hot waves of emotion that rock me as I try to sing the thing. And I can't even sing it. I can only croak it. Resentfully. Did I mention that it has 182 verses?
So a few days ago, after a particularly yucky session of chanting, I decided to seek advice from my favorite teacher around here--a monk with a wonderfully long Sanskrit name which translates as "He Who Dwells in the Heart of the Lord Who Dwells Within His Own Heart." This monk is American, in his sixties, smart and educated. He used to be a classical theater professor at NYU, and he still carries himself with a rather venerable dignity. He took his monastic vows almost thirty years ago. I like him because he's no- nonsense and funny. In a dark moment of confusion about David, I'd once confided my heartache to this monk. He listened respectfully, offered up the most compassionate advice he could find, and then said, "And now I'm kissing my robes." He lifted a corner of his saffron robes and gave a loud smack. Thinking this was probably some super-arcane religious custom, I asked what he was doing. He said, "Same thing I always do whenever anyone comes to me for relationship advice. I'm just thanking God I'm a monk and I don't have to deal with this stuff anymore."
So I knew I could trust him to let me speak frankly about my problems with the Gurugita. We went for a walk in the gardens together one night after dinner, and I told him how much I disliked the thing and asked if he could please excuse me from having to sing it anymore. He immediately started laughing. He said, "You don't have to sing it if you don't want to. Nobody around here is ever going to make you do anything you don't want to do."
"But people say it's a vital spiritual practice."
"It is. But I'm not going to tell you that you're going to go to hell if you don't do it. The only thing I'll tell you is that your Guru has been very clear about this--the Gurugita is the one essential text of this Yoga, and maybe the most important practice you can do, next to meditation. If you're staying at the Ashram, she expects you to get up for the chant every morning."
"It's not that I mind getting up early in the morning . . ." "What is it, then?"
I explained to the monk why I had come to dread the Gurugita, how tortuous it feels. He said, "Wow--look at you. Even just talking about it you're getting all bent out of shape."
It was true. I could feel cold, clammy sweat accumulating in my armpits. I asked, "Can't I use that time to do other practices, instead? I find sometimes that if I go to the meditation cave during the Gurugita I can get a nice vibe going for meditation."
"Ah--Swamiji would've yelled at you for that. He would've called you a chanting thief for riding on the energy of everyone else's hard work. Look, the Gurugita isn't supposed to be a fun song to sing. It has a different function. It's a text of unimaginable power. It is a mighty purifying practice. It burns away all your junk, all your negative emotions. And I think it's probably having a positive effect on you if you're experiencing such strong emotions and physical reactions while you're chanting it. This stuff can be painful, but it's awfully beneficial."
"How do you keep the motivation to stay with it?"
"What's the alternative? To quit whenever something gets challenging? To futz around your whole life, miserable and incomplete?"
"Did you really just say 'futz around'?" "Yes. Yes, I did."
"What should I do?"
"You have to decide for yourself. But my advice--since you asked--is that you stick to chanting the Gurugita while you're here, especially because you're having such an extreme reaction to it. If something is rubbing so hard against you, you can be sure it's working on you. This is what the Gurugita does. It burns away the ego, turns you into pure ash. It's supposed to be arduous, Liz. It has power beyond what can be rationally understood. You're only staying at the Ashram another week, right? And then you're free to go traveling and have fun. So just chant the thing seven more times, then you never have to do it again. Remember what our Guru says--be a scientist of your own spiritual experience. You're not here as a tourist or a journalist; you're here as a seeker. So explore it."
"So you're not letting me off the hook?"
"You can let yourself off the hook anytime you want, Liz. That's the divine contract of a little something we call free will."