A Pilgrimage Reading List

Pilgrimages have been a part of our study here at The Confluence Countdown for a very long time. As I’ve said, both of us were English majors. That means, when we joined book collections, so to speak, one of our copies of The Complete Works of Chaucer (of The Canterbury Tales fame) and Bocaccio (The Decameron) had to be given up (traded in, actually, for more books).

When we started reading Ramesh Menon’s translation of The Mahabharata a couple years ago, we kept coming across this word, “yatra” (both Pandavas and Kauravas go on yatras). We understood this to be the same act of devotion found in Boccacio and Chaucer–perhaps even its origin: Pilgrims visiting holy sites, seeking grace. (Although there are a lot more dirty stories in Chaucer.)

Now, we are the Pilgrims, or yatris. As regular readers know, this winter, we’ll be joining others on a pilgrimage to holy sites and festivals in India, led by Robert Moses (co-editor, with Eddie Stern, of Namarupa). Robert has sent out his reading list, and they’ve started to arrive at our doorstep (thank you, Amazon). I’ve asked Robert if we could publish his selections, and he’s kindly granted his permission. So, if you’re interested, here they are. I’m sure we’ll be talking about them.

  • India: A Sacred Geography – By Diana L. Eck
  • Darsan: Seeing The Divine Image In India – By Diana L. Eck
  • Seeing Spiritual India: A Guide to Temples, Holy Sites, Festivals and Traditions – By Stephan Knapp
  • Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion – by Stephen Huyler
  • Anything by and about Ramana Maharishi – the sage of Arunachala at Tiruvannamalai especially his short text ‘Who am I’
  • The Home of Dancing Sivan: The Traditions of the Hindu Temple in Citamparam –  by Paul Younger
  • The Myths and Gods of India: The Classic Work on Hindu Polytheism from the Princeton Bollingen Series by Alain Danielou
  • Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India by Alain Danielou
  • While the Gods Play: Shaiva Oracles and Predictions on the Cycles of History and the Destiny of Mankind by Alain Danielou
  • Temples of South India – by AMBUJAM ANANTHARAMAN
  • Temple Towns of Tamil Nadu –  by George Michell
Thanks to Robert for permission to share. Have fun!
Posted by Bobbie

If it’s Tuesday, it must be Hanuman

Those of you who follow or are at least familiar with some Hindu practices know that Tuesday is a day when we worship and remember Hanuman.

Hanuman, to be all too brief, is Rama’s great, devoted servant. A vanara, a monkey-like race, Hanuman is the one who (spoiler alert!) finds Sita after she has been abducted by the demon Ravana. That story is from the Ramayana, a version of which Bobbie talks about below.

Crazy monkey -- not Hanuman

Often, I think, we have an image of Hanuman that emphasizes his “monkeyness.” Yes, we know he’s brave, we know he’s a great warrior, but he’s still just a monkey — not even a more powerful looking ape.

In Ramesh Menon’s Ramayana, however, when we first meet Hanuman, he easily picks up and carries both Rama and his brother, Lakshmana. Menon describes him as “tall as a tree.” The monkeyness isn’t downplayed, but it is clear that the description is really just our — humans’ — best approximation of what a vanara is. We are, after all, hearing a story from two yuga ago — the treta yuga, when things weren’t nearly as messed up as they are now. How are we supposed to grasp the nuisance of Hanuman’s nature and being?

That’s one of our great challenges, of course: to understand the meaning of those ancient stories.

For me, thinking of Hanuman as much more than just a monkey, but certainly not as an ape, helps mightily with grasping the complexity of his devotion, his faith, his service and, yes, his strength.

And his strength is awfully attractive come Urdhva Dhanurasana.

Confluence Homework–Suggested Readings

Ramesh Menon's 'The Ramayana'You might notice, looking at the schedule (or, for that matter, the Confluence website), that there’s a good deal of philosophy woven into the subject matter. The last day of the Confluence, Eddie and Tim will be discussing Patanjali’s Sutra II.44: “’Swadyaya Ishta Devata Samprayogaha’ – Union with the chosen deity comes from the study of self through the sacred texts.”

Although I’ve been pouring over the Yoga Sutras for years now, it wasn’t until Tim’s Mt. Shasta retreat last year that I found a real fire for the classics of Indian literature.

Tim closes every evening session with a story, and last year he read the first few chapters of The Mahabharata, translated by Ramesh Menon. I ordered it as soon as I got home, and could not put the it down. It was better than the best epic fiction I’d ever read, beautifully paced, with glamour, love, death, and redemption. I was hooked. That led me to Menon’s sensitive and elegant translation of The Ramayana. And of The Siva Purana. Then The Bhagavata Purana. I can’t stop reading the guy.

Let me give you an example of his style:

The Demon rode in Brahma’s flashing chariot, yoked to unearthly steeds; though Rama’s bow steamed fire, Ravana was never in one place so they could find their mark. Quick as wishes, his chariot bore the Lord of evil over land and though the air.

That’s some breathless prose! Steaming fire: a fantastic and impossible image, perfect for Rama’s bow!

There are many virtues to Menon’s method of translating, but the best part is its ease of reading. Menon subtitled The Mahabharata, “a modern rendering.” “Rendering” a great word for it—boiling it down to its essential elements. The Ramayana he subtitles, “a modern retelling.” Menon knows how to bring the action alive, as in this excerpt, while still keeping its symbolic meaning (which he leaves to the reader to discover). He keeps the ancient and epic flavor without alienating a contemporary reader.

His renditions of the important figures of each epic are sympathetic and also awesome. Rama is brave, but sorrow-struck. Hanuman’s devotion develops over time, and his humility is touching, a model for us all: “Forgive me,” he says to Rama, “I am a monkey and my curiosity gets the better of me.” In The Mahabharata, Menon fleshes out Krishna so well, The Bhagavad Gita will come alive for you, a moving conversation between God and his disciple (it’s at the start of volume two).

The act of a translator is never easy, and Menon knows when to translate, when to leave the original alone—his meaning is clear in context (sometimes it’s a “chariot,” sometimes a “ratha,” depending on his purpose). But both the Mahabharata and Ramayana come with glossaries in the back to help the reader with the Sanskrit, as well as the huge cast of characters and deities.

Like me, you may not be able to stop with these two epics. The Confluence will begin with a puja to Ganesh. Menon has a starkly beautiful account of Ganesh’s origins in his translation of The Siva Purana that explains Ganesh’s role as the Lord of Obstacles. There’s also the two-volume Bhagavata Purana, the complete story of Vishnu (which I’m reading now). And a translation of The Devi Bhagavatam waits for me on the shelf.

If you get started now, you may be done by the time Eddie and Tim discuss “Swadyaya Ishta Devata Samprayogaha.” And, boy, will you have studied the ancient texts!

Posted by Bobbie