Question to Swami Shankarananda ji: Sometimes I think your approach to spirituality is very radical, and at other
Answer: It’s probably better for others to evaluate my approach, but your question brings up some interesting issues. I am a traditionalist as far as lineage goes. A teacher should have been initiated and designated by his own teacher. By initiation, I mean actual transmission of the awakening by Shakitpat. Also, it’s important that a spiritual teacher be told by his own teacher to serve that function, although there may be exceptions to this rule. Some of the offerings of the New Age marketplace seem shallow and mind-born because they lack dimension. Let’s say that somebody reads a lot of texts, listens to a number of Gurus speak and decides he has it all worked out, and is ready to hang out his shingle. Such a teaching would lack profundity and stability. It wouldn’t deliver.
On the other hand, some of the religious traditions, which have a lot of history and lineage, can lack the spontaneity and aliveness of being present. They have too much history, too much orthodoxy and too much doctrine. When I read some of those texts, I sometimes feel that the layers of maya are covering the original truth. There may have been a great sage whose awakening gave birth to a particular tradition, but that original lightening bolt has, by now, gone too deep into the earth. It has wandered too far from the original grace and become enmattered.
Such traditions, and I’m not mentioning any names – you’ll have to use sodium pentothal on me – have been worked on by too many minds. They are too religious and intellectual, and inspiration has been replaced by dogma. Every word that the original teacher might have uttered has been commented on and footnoted to the point where each is a technical term that can’t be approached directly, but only with the help of a team of scholars and linguists. This accounts for the curious phenomenon of Zen Buddhism, which reacted against the over-intellectualisation of the Buddhism of that period by utterly rejecting all doctrines and even all rationality in order to freshly encounter reality.
There is one more thing I would say. We are spiritually at an interesting historical moment. I was part of a wave of seekers who went to the East after the sixties and imbibed the Eastern teaching. I approached those teachings with respect and reverence and for many years, I marinated myself in them. However, I agree with a scholar hero of mine, Heinrich Zimmer, who said that the West would have to find its own solution, different from Eastern solutions.
Nowadays, I am one of a number of teachers from my generation who have brought the Eastern teachings back to the West. While I revere those teachings, I also respect our cultural norms and methods. There was a time, mind you, when I was so in awe of Indian culture and thought that I was ready to throw out everything Western. I no longer feel that way. My approach now is pragmatic. I think we have to take the insights and techniques of the East and work with them in a natural way within the parameters of our own understanding and culture. Yoga is universal and Western culture just needs a little something added to it to connect it to the divine. Of course, adding that little something changes everything.
So there you have it. The dilemma is that we’re caught between the proven worth of a tradition and the aliveness of the present moment. One impulse says that whatever is new-minded is simply the product of somebody’s cleverness and of no substance, while another says, ‘Tear down the institutions, burn all the teachings, experience God in the moment!’ Both of these unruly beasts live within me, I have to admit.
What’s the answer? As always, it’s a matter of discrimination and concrete individual cases. So now tell me, am I a radical or a traditionalist?