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.