Saluting the Ātman

Dear Sunil,

Thought I’d share one of my recent reading binges with you. I read a book late spring called American Veda, about how Indian thought has influenced the USA (from Thoreau and Emerson through the Beatles and beyond).   In that work, I read a few pages on Christopher Isherwood, a British novelist and pacifist who came to the US in the late 30s (he was best friends with the renowned poet W.H. Auden). He couldn’t stomach NYC so he moved to Los Angeles where, through the acquaintanceship with a couple English expats (one of whom Aldous Huxley, who wrote the dystopian novel, Brave New World, and a spiritual classic, The Perennial Wisdom) he met Swami Prabhavananda, who was a member of the Ramakrishna Order in Calcutta (did I ever recommend  The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna? [am i too parenthetical?]).

So I’ve read several of Isherwood’s books and translations with the Swami of some Hindu classics.  I  offer you the following passages for your perusal and enjoyment.


If I had to use one single word to describe the atmosphere of the Gospel narrative, it would be the word Now. The majority of us spend the greater part of our lives in the future or the past—fearing or desiring what is to come, regretting what is over. M. shows us a being who  lives in continuous contact with that which is eternally present. God’s existence has no relation to past or future; it is always as of now. To be with Ramakrishna was to be in the presence of that Now.  Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples, 279

Narendra, who became Swami Vivekananda: Ever since our first meeting, it was the Master alone who always had faith in me—no one else, not even my own mother and brothers. That faith and that love of his have bound me to him forever. The Master was the only one who knew how to love and who really loved. Worldly people only feign love to gratify their own self-interest.  Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples, 216

We spend a very small proportion of our time thinking logical, consecutive thoughts. it is within the reverie that our passions and prejudices—often s terrible in their consequences—build themselves up, almost unnoticed, out of slogans, newspaper headlines, chance-heard words of fear and greed and hate, which have slipped into our consciousness through our unguarded eyes and ears. Our reverie expresses what we are, at any given moment. The mantra, by introducing God into the reverie, must produce  profound subliminal changes.  These may not be apparent for some time, but, sooner or later, they will inevitably appear—first in the prevailing mood and disposition of the individual; then in  a gradual change of character.  Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples, 107

To [Ramakrishna], school was an institution which existed to instill worldly-mindedness into its pupils, to make them eager to acquire possessions and reputation. All such learning seemed to him to be a delusion and an emptiness. Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples, 137

The swami told me to make japam while I walked and to give everybody I met on a street a mental blessing. You weren’t to think of yourself with a feeling of superiority, as a holy man blessing worldlings; you were simply saluting the Ātman within each fellow human being.  Christopher Isherwood, My Guru and His Disciple, 79

The pursuit of worldly pleasures as ends in themselves is madness, because it disregards the real situation, which is that we are living a life that has only one thing to teach us, how to know God in ourselves and in other people. To be sane is to be aware of the real situation. The desire, the homesickness, for sanity is the one said reason for subjecting oneself to any kind of religious discipline.  Isherwood, My Guru and His Disciple, 120

Avoid gossip. Avoid their feuds. Concentrate on what is essential–contact with Swami, and prayer. Associate with people you can really help in one way or another, and not with those whose curiosity is always offering you a basin for your tears.  Isherwood, My Guru and His Disciple, 179

It meant that I needn’t expect [Swami Prabhavananda] to be perfect and try to explain away his weaknesses. From this standpoint, his major addiction, chain-smoking, seemed sympathetic, even reassuring.  Isherwood, My Guru and His Disciple, 42

The other day, Swami said to me, “Do you know what purity is, Chris? Purity is telling the truth.”  Isherwood, My Guru and His Disciple

The right teacher must appear at the exactly the right moment in the right place and his pupil must be in the mood to accept what he teaches. Christopher Isherwood,  An Approach to Vedanta, 17-18

Our real nature is to be one with life, with consciousness, with everything else in the universe. The fact of oneness is the real situation. Supposed individuality, separateness and division are merely illusion and ignorance. Isherwood,  An Approach to Vedanta, 20

“You have the right to work , but for work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of your work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working.” 44  “Renounce attachment to the ruins. Be even-tempered in success and failure; for it is this evenness of temper which is meant by yoga.” 44  To unite the heart with Brahman and then to act: that is the secret of non-attached work. In the calm of self-surrender, the seers renounce the fruits of their actions, and so reach enlightenment.”   Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda, translators,  Bhagavad Gita:  The Song of God, 44

“You must learn … how to reach a  state of calm detachment from your work.”  Isherwood and Prabhavananda, Bhagavad Gita, 60

“You dream you are the doer,
You dream that action is done,
You dream that action bears fruit.
It is your ignorance,
It is the world’s delusion
That gives you these dreams.” Isherwood and Prabhavananda, Bhagavad Gita, 70

“He does not shrink from doing what is disagreeable to him, nor does he long to do what is agreeable.” Isherwood and Prabhavananda, Bhagavad Gita, 152

[Non-attachment] should never be thought of as an austerity, a kind of self-torture, something grim and painful. The active of non-attachment gives value  and significance to even the most ordinary incidents of the dullest day. It eliminates boredom from our lives. And, as we progress and gain increasing self-mastery, we shall see that we are renouncing nothing that we really need or want; we are only freeing ourselves form imaginary needs and desires. In this spirit, a soul grows in greatness until it can accept life’s worst disasters, calm and unmoved. Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda, How to Know God:  The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, 29

More usually, we are in a state of reverie—a mental fog of disconnected sense impressions, irrelevant memories, nonsensical scraps of sentences from books and newspapers, little darting fears and resentments, physical sensations of discomfort, excitement or ease…. Because we do nothing to control this reverie, it is largely conditioned by external circumstances. The weather is cloudy, so our mood is sad. The sun comes out; our mood brightens. Insects begin to buzz around us, and we turn irritable and nervous. Often, it is as simple as that.  Isherwood and Prabhavananda, How to Know God, 60

By denying the Ātman within us, we deny it everywhere.  Isherwood and Prabhavananda, How to Know God, 117

And so, as a preliminary exercise, it is good to spend some time every day simply watching our minds, listening to those drumbeats. We probably shall not like what we see and hear, but we must be very patient and objective. The mind, finding itself watched in this way, will gradually grown calmer. It becomes embarrassed, as it were, by its own greed and silliness. For no amount of outside criticism is so effective and so penetrating as our own simple self-inspection. Isherwood and Prabhavananda, How to Know God, 182

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