The Yoga of Fierce Awakening: Why Your Dogma Cannot Crush My Dharma.

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Apr 18, 2011
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When I was living in Nepal, one of my best friends, a Nepali shopkeeper, was initiated on the tantric path of yoga by my teacher. In order to receive the teachings, as per customs in some tantric traditions, he had to cut his sacred Brahmin tread.

This simple act, it turns out, was a kind of religious suicide. A few days after his initiation, he vanished without a trace, and some months later I learned he had been abducted by his family. “You remain an upper caste Brahmin,” they threatened, “or we will banish you from the family forever.”

With his tantric tail between his legs, he decided to keep his white cotton thread as a symbol of his superior caste status. The only time he appeared at the ashram after that episode was as an immigration informer. He knew that some of the foreign yogic monks in training had stayed several months past their visa status. So, as revenge for his tantric troubles—for his being scared sacred—they were consequently arrested.

His dogma walked over our karma. His family’s dogma stepped on his yoga and forced him to abide by medieval customs akin to slavery; the Indian caste system. Arcane and inhuman customs often upheld by yogis in both white and orange robes; upheld even by stark naked yogis without robes.

India is indeed a religiously and culturally complex place. You may walk around naked in ashes, but you may not practice your yoga freely for fear that your family will banish you like a rabid dog.

In the powerful and beautifully shot documentary Fierce Light by Velcro Ripper, a dalit woman—a casteless person at the bottom of the Indian social pyramid—tells the story of her people, especially women, who are often beaten, raped, and enslaved without consequence. All in the name of the Hindu caste system; which is officially outlawed since Gandhi’s time, but still widely practiced and silently supported by yogis from many traditions.

Dalits have historically been associated with “impure” occupations such as leatherwork, butchering, or removal of rubbish, animal carcasses, and waste. Dalits also work as manual laborers cleaning streets, latrines, and sewers. Engaging in these activities is considered to be polluting and contagious. Even crossing the shadow of a dalit may pollute the soul of a Brahmin.

As a result, Dalits are still segregated and banned from full participation in Hindu social life. For example, they may not enter a temple, nor a school, and were required to stay outside the village. And consider this: there are over 160 million dalits in India.

Historically, a few brave souls have, however, stood up for these down trodden masses in India, including the famous poet Kabir, Buddha and Mahavira (founder of the Jain religion). My spiritual teacher, Anandamurti, openly inspired people in the 60s to marry across caste boundaries. He called these unions “revolutionary marriages.” These radical “love marriages” across class and caste boundaries upset a lot of important people in India as thousands of intellectuals and government officials embraced his subversive teachings.

My guru also advocated economic change. Revolutionary economic change. He talked about a maximum wage, not just a minimum wage. He talked about “cosmic property” as opposed to private property. He talked about the earth belonging to us all—not just all humans, but also to animals and plants. He called this concept neo-humanism—the love for all beings.

But spiritual teachers in India are not supposed to talk about such subversive changes, of course.  They are supposed to sit peacefully counting the beads on their malas. Not surprisingly, he upset even more people in important places. Finally, in 1971, he was imprisoned on false charges for nearly eight years.

With the help of Amnesty International and attorneys from Europe and Canada, he was finally released. Free of all charges. These attorneys called his trial “politically motivated.” My guru, on the other hand, said he was only motivated by the love of justice and truth.

This is an old story. Great sacred activists—people like Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for being both a wild eyed mystic and a rational scientist—do not believe that religious dogmas can hold their karmic futures and their inner visions in rusty chains of superstitions.

Bruno, the spiritual revolutionary, believed this truth to be so forcefully evident that he, like some stoic moth, did not flinch in his beliefs and let himself be consumed by the flames of superstition and hatred. Not surprisingly, in yogi-like fashion, Bruno also believed in reincarnation.

“You will have to advance with the true spirit of genuine social service, because the very characteristic of dharma is to promote the cause of welfare. Dharma and welfare are inseparable. Religion and intolerance have created enormous harm in the world; they have caused torrents of blood to stain the rivers red.”

In these words my teacher reminds us that dogmatic fundamentalisms are all around us. And they are still prevalent in India, the homeland of yoga. We hear so much about Islamic fundamentalism, but we hear very little about Hindu fundamentalism. It is hidden among us yogis, who often remain silent about the insidious slavery of caste. The slavery of religious dogma. In service of the sacred we must stand up, stand up with the force of fierce enlightenment.

So when you see some famous male yogi adorned with the white thread of Brahmin superiority, I urge you to let him know that you do not accept this thinly disguised thread  of caste differences.

“The ritualistic differences in various religions are quite marked. By accentuating these differences, medieval and even contemporary people did not and do not hesitate to cause heavy bloodshed. However, in spiritual sádhaná there is no place for the differences in nationality, race, language, or religion. Everyone has a singular dharma named spirituality, and only this is worth calling dharma.”

In this passage Anandamurti distinguishes between spiritual practice (dharma) and the dogmatic rituals in various religions. As long as we emphasize the differences between the rituals and do not focus on the spiritual essence of our quest for truth, humanity will experience hatred, distrust, irrationality and fundamentalism.

Anandamurti and other revolutionary teachers echo the message of the perennial philosophy espoused by Aldous Huxley: that there is a common, non-dogmatic spiritual core in all religious teachings which represents humanity’s “one religion.” This is termed dharma in Sanskrit. That is what yoga is about. And therefore we yogis should say no to dogma, no to caste, no to psychic bondage, no to injustice in the name of religion.

That’s the fierce fire of my yoga.

Anandamurti spoke about dogma vs. dharma in this way: “The most detrimental thing for human society and human progress is dogma. What is dogma? Where there is no logic, where there is no support of intellectuality, where there is no debate and free discussion… genuine dharma is based on logic and supported by intellectuality. In the case of dharma, people are convinced by logic; and people analyze and accept it after free and frank discussion….”

In other words, spirituality is not dogma. Spirituality is dharma. So your dogma cannot crush my dharma, because my spirituality, my yoga, is free. It can outlive even the flames of the inquisition. Giordano Bruno’s quiet bravery of embracing both spirituality and science in the face of the inquisition is proof of that. It can outwait the grey shadows of ignorance.

The writer Andrew Harvey, who coined the phrase sacred activism, says that religious fundamentalism is one of the most pressing problems in the world today. In India, the homeland of yoga, religious dogma in the form of caste is certainly still one of those dark secrets most people are scared sacred to talk about.

The dark hours of the inquisition ended with the rise of Western enlightenment. Today we need a similar enlightenment coming from the East. We need more yogis of the East coming out of their caved closets to stand up for a similar rational enlightenment. Yes, when will more contemporary yogis of the East have the moral courage?

P.S. Nelson Mandela was once jailed for “terrorism.” Today he is a celebrated statesman.

Anandamurti, my guru, was also once feared as a menace to Indian society Today his work is regularly featured in major Indian newspapers, universities hold conferences discussing his contributions to economics, linguistics, music and yoga. 21 years after his death, he has become a celebrated renaissance man.


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


31 Responses to “The Yoga of Fierce Awakening: Why Your Dogma Cannot Crush My Dharma.”

  1. Ramesh says:

    Yes, I agree. Brahmins certainly have no monopoly on spirituality in India and the whole system of caste should be abolished, not just in name, but also in practice. Pointing such ironies out, as YogaforCynics does above, is one way to increase our awareness about this important issue.

  2. Inspiring essay, Ramesh.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  3. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  4. bhaeravii says:

    Aldous Huxley was a student of Sri Aurobindo. Anandamurtii may be considered a renaissance man in areas of India, but not world wide. I am reading a new book called American Veda, an analysis of all the eastern yogis that came to America since vivekananda, their contributions, and the westerners whom were influenced by them and their social legacies. Anandamurtii is not mentioned. American Veda acknowledges the East's perennial nib as essential human philosophy, but now the East is being enlightened by the movements in the West working their way back, necessary to cut into their tribal cultural habits that die hard.

    Anandamurtii lived and worked in an area of India, Bengal, with a rich history of spiritual revolutionaries and economic prototypes. He was not unique in this vision, but unique in his timeframe. Many hundreds of years different leaders worked against the caste system as their life mission and even advocated revolutionary marriages between castes.

    Any spiritual group is vulnerable to becoming dogmatic, no matter what their liturgy states, no matter how charismatic their dharma. It is about considering one way the only way and a slavish attitude to the group societal norms, a society within a society with its own rules and mores, a place to hide and escape from moral obligation, access to nonprofit benefits. Being in the spiritual business has become big business these days.

    Spirituality has many definitions and most certainly can become dogmatic in the way it is translated and enacted. No group is free from this…It is not about the essentials of the message, it is about how it is interpreted and by whom.

  5. Amrta says:

    Very interesting article. But are you really saying that we are all equal? if you are born low cast or high cast, rich or poor, educated or an-alphabet ?
    Yes, yoga is good, but all should keep their respective place in the structure of society. Other wise, we will all become Brahmins.

  6. integralhack says:


    I am thrilled to see you are–like your guru–linking dharma with social conscience. Culturally, people tend to have blind spots to injustices that are shrugged off as "that's just the way things are."

    In the West we have our own injustices, of course, which are generally shadows cast by the big ideals of Capitalism and Democracy. We revel so much in the positive and liberating notions of these ideals that we tend to overrun the poor in the case of the former, and in the case of the latter, democracies can become mobs filled with hatred and ignorance–everyone getting to vote doesn't guarantee good decisions or government.

    A dharma that doesn't consider social injustice is one that is mired in delusion and ego. I was a little flabbergasted a while back when several online Buddhists started taking potshots at the "Engaged Buddhism" movement. Most of them took offense because they thought that because other Buddhists referred to themselves as "engaged," they were then posited as "unengaged." Surprisingly, they couldn't see the irony in this ridiculously egotistical position and were more caught up in the label than the "engaged ones" were!

    Dharma is public just as it is private–although I haven't been deeply exposed to Anandamurti's teachings, my guess is that he, like yourself, practiced his dharma recursively (examining self and society again and again from different perspectives–looking for change states) and exhaustively . . . exposing ignorance and bringing truth to light, both personally and publicly.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking article, Ramesh!


  7. Ramesh says:

    Thanks so much for doing that, Bob!

  8. Ramesh says:

    I am glad you think this kind of fierce yoga is inspiring, Bob.Your Krishna of the Gita was certainly a fierce yogi too!

  9. Ramesh says:

    Very well, said. Yes, dogma can creep in anywhere!

  10. Ramesh says:

    Yoga is not saying we are all equal in the absolute sense on an individual as we all have different samskaras, different karma. Nobody looks the same on the physical level, or is exactly the same on the mental level, but we are spiritually the same and one spiritually. This idea of seeing the one in the many, in the diversity is the spirit of yoga and should also be the underlying spirit of a dharmic society. Hence politically and economically a dharmic society aims at leveling the playing field as much as possible by challenging injustice, economic inequality, etc.
    The caste system cements our differences in artificially held structures that are detrimental to people's growth–so let everyone have the opportunity to become brahmins in the true spiritual sense of the word–a knower of bfrahman–and not in the caste sense of the word, someone who is superior to a lower cast person.

  11. Ramesh says:

    Very well said, Matt. The engaged Buddhism you talk about is an important movement and part of the kind of sacred activism we see growing among spiritual people from all traditions. This is a very heartening development. yes, dharma is public as well as private. Anandamurti suggested yogic dharma has three aspects: vistara–an expansive outlook or worldview that sees the one in all expressions of the world. this leads to a state of rasa, or spiritual flow, an inner fire of inspiration, that again is expressed in the world as seva, or service, or engaged activism.
    So while vistara and rasa are about fulfilling our inner spiritual dharma, the third stage, seva is the public expression of dharma.

  12. Ramesh says:

    thanks for your insightful comments,thatmelcjhick. what you are referring to when you say that caste is not all bad, is actually not the caste system, but the concept of the varna system, the four archetypes of india: shudra (worker0, ksyattriya (warrior), vipra (intellectual) and vashya (merchant). we may each have a predominent psychology that falls into one of these archetypes, or a little bit of each. However, this is different than the caste system, which is a social contract set in stone and is not upwardly mobile. One cannot really advance within the caste system. It is therefore an opressive system, just like the class system we have in the US between poor and the rich. However, the caste system is more akin to slavery than class, since you cannot really advance your caste anymore than a slave can advance his or her lot.
    So, I would venture to say that caste is inherently bad, whereas the varna archetypes reflects human psychology rather than caste. There is a fourth varna type by the way, the sadvipra, a type of integral archetype that embodies all but is not vested in any of the archetypes, one that can include and expand beyond the varna psychologies, much like the second tier personality in spiral dynamics….

  13. Friide says:

    Namaste Ramesh,
    You have a real power Guru. That's all I can say after doing some research and finally landing with this book "Anandamurti-Jamalpur Days". I must say it blew me off completely. I have read Autobiography of a Yogi,Living with the Himalayan Masters,Way of the White Cloud,Shrii Aurobindo,Ramakrishna,Vivekananda,Aurthur Avalon,Aghora,Buddhism and countless other books in the past 30 years. Never heard of a householder Tantric Guru like Anandamurtti even existed.Once I started I could not put it down and I finished it within 5 hours. Still reeling from the out of this world experiences, demonstration and powers he wielded with such humility and grace.He reminded me of Shiva. Anandamurti is amazing,mysterious,all knowing,very common yet so powerful,weilded his powers effortlessly and egolessly.I don't believe such a master existed in our time and space.Pity I did not get to know or see him. This book is a must for all serious seekers of spiritual knowledge, ,scholars,philosophers,yogis and practioners of yoga and meditation.God bless you Ramesh.Appreciate you introducing your guru to us all.

  14. Ramesh says:

    Thank you so much Friide for your enthusiastic response to the book about Anandamurti. The book was written based on over a thousand audio interviews with people who knew him, video research and countless written sources. Yes, Anandamurti was quite amazing, and I had the great fortune of meeting him many times as well. He was indeed very humble and is largely unknown outside India still, but his teachings are being met with growing interest in various academic corners as well as within the larger spiritual community., especially in India. Bu he wanted his teachings to be known, not his personality, so I hope that more people will seek out his unique wisdom, a blend of deep, dharmic spirituality and social activism.

  15. Anjali says:

    Namaskar Ji,

    Thank you for this powerful and courageous article!


  16. Ramesh says:

    You are welcome! Thanks for reading and commenting!

  17. TamingAuthor says:

    Wonderful article. So much material for inspection, for contemplation. The karmic "games" that unfold out of ignorance continue to dictate the playing field. The problems that manifest simply reflect a failure of the practice. It would be interesting to contemplate or assess how much those in various castes dictate their own fate and cling to their position. What is the pivot point that causes someone to move past karmic dramatization into liberation? What makes someone reach for liberation and enlightenment?

  18. matthew says:

    Great piece, Ramesh. I have many friends from Ananda Marga, and I've found them to be some of the most flexible spiritual and social-action folks around.

    Didn't Anandamurti craft a new economic model? Is it published somewhere?

  19. Ramesh says:

    Great to hear from you, Matthew. Yes, check out his other name P. R. Sarkar and you'll find some material online. Also look at:
    The futuris Sohail Inayatullah is probably the most well known commentator and writer on Sarkar's socio-economic theory PROUT-the Progressive Utilization Theory, which is a new economic theory that has support from the likes of Noam Chomsky, Johan Galtung, Leonardo Boff, and many others. See also the book After Capitalism by Dada Maheshvarananda on amazon. and also this link:

  20. Ramesh says:

    you raise interesting questions…ironically there is a kind of liberation in totally accepting your fate in belonging to a lower caste. But it is also an enslavement that keeps people in bondage and in poverty. Some of the enlightened masters, such as Kabir and Ravi Das, came from the lower castes, so the chains of society cannot bind the liberated souls. But those are rare cases….

  21. TamingAuthor says:

    Ramesh, you have presented good material for contemplation. Would be interesting to bring together teachers/masters of different castes in a video or shared written dialogue that explores the role not only of caste but of karmic influences that lock us into patterned roles.

    I find it interesting that India went through a period when Communism was a big influence. That obviously matches the caste restraints quite well. That seems to be fading but now there is conflict with Christians who champion the poor, those of a lower caste. As you point out, this all raises a dilemma for the enlightened… unless they have a view that people lock themselves into a caste position.

  22. Friide says:

    Ramesh I also failed to mention that I never came across a master who also championed social reform and also gave solutions through PROUT. I read somewhere that he wrote more then 5000 spiritual songs as well. In the biography, many stories point to his deep understanding of languages and their origins. A very unique story pertaining to the concepts of caste division was his introduction to what he coined as revolutionary marriage when he arranged a wedding between disciples of different castes.That's so practical,easiest and quickest way dissolve feelings of cast,race,religion.I realized that when human beings adopt a similar path in life, what Anandamurtijii calls common universal ideology based on cardinal human values all barriers of colour,caste,race,religion and all sorts of "isms" will just melt away like snow on a hot sunny day. He just about touched on every aspect of life. He is the only Guru i have read about who addresses the importance of balance between the mundane physical,psychic worlds with the intuitional spiritual world. Pls share with us some of his wisdom in future. I am intrigued and pardon me if i sound biased he is simply and all round guru that reminds me of Krishna of Mahabharata who thaught the Pandavas to fight evil and adharma while reminding them about the ultimate goal in life being surrender realization of the supreme. I am curious to know about the techniques of meditation and the type of disciplines you follow. It seems to me that Anandamurti gave some very clear and structured instructions and disciplines (gathered from the stories) which I have not seen amongst any Indian gurus or philosophies. Finally, the books ends abruptly from Jamalpur to prison and Calcutta without shedding any light on the prison years and after, until his death in the late 90s.

  23. Ramesh says:

    Carol, i could not agree more. India is a complex place and it took me time to digest its complexity, and I am still working on digesting it. is often romanticized by the West for sure and that is one of the reasons why it is consciously or unconsciously allowed to keep up its romantic image. One may see this in movies and articles about the Kumbha mela in yoga magazines, when millions take a dip in the ganges believing that this will hasten and lengthen their stay in heaven. Such dogmas are never questioned in these articles or movies and is touted as if it is part of yoga… it is time we take a deeper look at this shadowy, religious baggage. All water is sacred if we extend the yogic idea that All is One into the world, not just Ganges water. No special treatment please, whether that is caste or water!

  24. Ramesh says:

    Great! Thanks, for keeping us engaged in the flow, Bob!

  25. Ramesh says:

    Friide, the book is the first in a Three Volume series, so there is more to come, including more about those years you mention above. I am a bit reluctant to tout my teacher as "special" but he is unique for the reasons you mention in your comments, and I might write more on the various aspects of his teachings in other articles. The best I can suggest for now is reading his many books and also wait for my own book on tantra from Anandamurtii's perspective, which will be published in 2012.

  26. Ramesh says:

    karma is the psychological and physical effect our past actions have on our being today and in the future and only lock us into a certain place according to how these reactions are played out. caste on the other hand, is a social construct that binds us and is imposed from the outside, whereas karma is an inner dynamic. They are not directly related. One is natural (karma) the other is artificial (caste).
    In some ways Communism in India had a liberating influence on caste, a progressive influence. In other ways communism in India suppressed spirituality, such as in West Bengal, still a communist state, where 17 yogi monks and nuns were killed in 1982 by communist inspired mobs. it has been a mixed bag, but mostly unhealthy. The enlightened, if they are really enligthened should bot feel any dilemma here–caste is inherently a social chain that needs to be broken, that is the enlightenment India needs to embark upon. And those socalled spiritually enlightened leaders who do not advocate this position openly are not, in my view, that enlightened.

  27. Jiivadhara says:

    We must never forget that the West had their own caste system, during feudal times and all throughout history. These days we have many homeless people from all varnas, a rich upper class which will so anything to keep in power even if that would mean the death of our own species and a middle class which often hates the poor and helpless.
    Yes, Anandamuri gave Prout to create a well knit society. We still have long ways to go to overcome our own caste mind, however… setting ourselves apart as better, more evolved than those who struggle in any way sure is against ahimsa.

  28. Ramesh says:

    Yes, we certainly have our demons in the closet here in the West as well, such as the class system, sexism, racism, and a host of other problems. But there is something especially demonic abut the caste system in its unparalleled rigidity–you may overcome your class restriction if you struggle and have luck, not so easy with the caste system, since it is for life. But thanks for bringing up this perspective as well.

  29. Ramesh says:

    Jivadhara, thanks for mentioning the class system and other issues that causes divisions among people in the West, we sure has our share of problems as well. Still, I do not think we should compares caste and class, since the caste system does not really allow for upward mobility, not even in theory. So, it is a more hideous problem, I think, and is therefore more akin to slavery than to an economic class system.

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  31. Spirituality at work! Now your'e talking Love it!