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Transcript of Eco-Aesthetics and the Poetry of Longing, with Rick Jarow


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Michael Taft: Welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, the podcast for metamodern mutants interested in meditation, neuroscience, Dzogchen, jazz, Tantra, philosophy, awakening, and much, much more. My name is Michael Taft, your host on the podcast, and in this episode, I’m happy to be speaking with my good friend, Rick Jarow.

Rick Jarow Ph.D. is an author, teacher, and scholar of Indian languages and literature. Recently retired from his position as a Religious Studies professor at Vassar College in New York, Rick leads workshops and retreats worldwide. His books include: In Search of the Sacred, Tales for the Dying, and a new work: The Cloud of Longing: A New Translation and Eco-Aesthetic Study of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta. And now without further ado, I give you the episode that I call “Eco-Aesthetics and the Poetry of Longing, with Rick Jarow.”

Michael Taft: Rick, welcome to the Deconstructing Yourself podcast.

Rick Jarow: Thank you. Thank you. Great to be here.

MT: It is great to have you here. I’ve been wanting to have you on the show for years, literally since the very first one. And so at long last, I’ve reached out with my cosmic microphone and captured you here in audio format. 

RJ: Alright. 

MT: So as you well know, and as listeners know, this is not like a book interview podcast. We just don’t really do that. However, the nominal excuse for having you on the show is your new book called The Cloud of Longing: A New Translation and Eco-aesthetic Study of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta. And that’s published by Oxford University Press. So just because this is a fascinating topic what is Kalidasa’s Meghaduta?

RJ: Kalidasa’s Meghaduta translates literally as The Cloud Messenger. Meghaduta, or cloud messenger, is about a yaksha, who is a semi-divine being.

MT: So, like an earth spirit, right? 

RJ: It’s not clear actually, they are tree spirits. Some of them are impishly fun, and some of them are positively evil. They’ve been said to eat children. So (laughter) there’s a whole kind of tradition of yakshas.

MT: So, it’s kind of like fairies where they’re naughty and nice.

RJ: Yeah, yeah. This particular one is exiled on a mountain by his Lord Kubera, the Lord of Wealth. The reason for the exile is never quite clear. But the yaksha is deeply pining for his beloved who is back home, and sees a cloud in the sky and starts telling the cloud, please deliver a message to my beloved, and here’s the route you should take. And the substance of the poem is the yaksha detailing, very specifically, the route that the cloud should take through the landscapes of India. So that’s the frame.

MT: And so it’s got this very traditional setting of Sanskrit poetry which is separated lovers.

RJ: Yes, this particular poem is called a Khandakavya or a shortened epic poem, or shortened lyric poem. And the theme of separation in love is all over the tradition. And immediately, at the first verse, the poem invokes Rama and Sita who are the divine separated lovers. So it’s in this context.

MT: But as I understand it, it’s odd in that context, because almost none of the poem is about the separated lovers. Instead, it’s all about the landscape of India.

RJ: Well, it’s both and that’s the genius to me that the landscape is not different from the emotion, is not different from the story. It’s an animated landscape, which is reflecting the anguish and the yearning of this yaksha and allowing him to see things in a very animated way.

MT: Now, this poem has been famous since like 400 AD.

RJ:  Yes, yeah. 

MT: And what’s so wonderful about it that it stood out in all the literature?

RJ: There are a few things. One is: Kalidasa is like Shakespeare; he has that kind of brand power. But it’s also hauntingly beautiful poetry; the combination of sound and sense. The meter it’s written in is called mandākrāntā, which means gently stepping and is reserved for matters of pathos and love and separation. And I would also venture to say that it has retained popularity because it offers such a unique vision of the natural world, that’s what attracted me. It’s an interfacing of language, love, and nature.

MT: And is that what you mean in the subtitle with this word, eco-aesthetic?

RJ: Yes, because the landscape which includes birds, and animals, and humans, and mountains, and rivers, is part of the aesthetic project. And to understand that you have to go back to the roots of Sanskrit tradition, particularly the Aitareya Upanishad which says, Raso Vai Saḥ, that he or God is Ras, or is the ebullient flow of feeling. And so the Meghaduta is Ras par excellence. In fact, when I was working on this poem in India, there were people who told me about a professor who used to teach the Meghaduta at Banaras Hindu University and was never able to get past the first verse because he’d go into ecstasy. (laughter) And that was considered a good thing by my colleagues in India. So it’s the aesthetic darshan, if you will, that I think gives it its juice and enduring power.

MT: Now, I’m curious, because you’ve mentioned the meter and the way it sounds and so on, do you feel any of that comes through in English? Or is that utterly lost? And if it is, then what remains?

RJ: That’s a really good question. And when I was a student of William Theodore de Bary at Columbia, he used to make this note with the Bible, he said, “Look, the Bible is written in Aramaic. We read it in English, but we’re still affected by it.” So it’s not necessarily the language, although knowing the language certainly gives you another dimension. But I think it works in English because what he’s speaking about is universal. We all have experience of trees and birds and the dawn and the mountains. So it offers you a way to see the natural world, and I just do my best to convey it in a way that makes some sense in English without dishonoring the original. It’s not mantra. Mantra is dependent upon the exact syllables and pronunciation, kavya is something else.

MT: And when we’re listening or reading kavya, how are we meant to approach a poem like this?

RJ: Well, that’s another thorny question because one thing: the Western practice of reading in private, did not exist. At this point, poems and songs were all communal, recited in groups, and kavya is believed to be early court poetry. So it was recited at the court, that’s as much as we know of its so-called original context.

MT: So it’d be read aloud in front of all the lords and ladies, essentially.

RJ: Yes, yes.

MT: So given that we’re not lords and ladies, and we’re probably not going to even read it aloud to each other very much anyway, when you translate a poem like this, how are you imagining the reader engaging it?

RJ: I don’t, I would be in the School of Jack Kerouac, who basically says, if you just write spontaneously from what’s inside of you, it will communicate. And so I feel if I can translate this Saharidaya–with heart–which is what the tradition says how you should read, then it will communicate. And that’s the whole point of the aesthetic tradition is that nobody ever asked, What does this poem mean? No one ever asked that question. In classical Indian aesthetics it’s, What does it taste like? And that taste, which is rasa, or ras in Hindi, is what’s important.

MT: So we’re not interested in the economics of fourth-century, India. 

RJ: Exactly. 

MT: Yeah. And so what does this poem taste like?

RJ: Ahhh. It is said by the tradition to be karuna, which translates as compassion. But it’s more like an ongoing vibration of a highly magnified heartache, which magnifies the world around you to such a degree that it becomes just a pageant of bliss. And this combination of blissfulness and anguish is deeply encoded within what’s called Sambogha and Vipralambha Shringara, the rasa of love.

MT: Can you tell us more about that? 

RJ: Hmmm. Well, according to the aesthetic tradition, there are nine specific rasas, or tastes, that come through not just poetry, but any work of art. And they can combine. However, it’s not just an emotional taste, it’s something deeper, it’s the idea that rarefied, refined, emotional connection is Brahma Swada–gives you the taste of the absolute, Raso Vai Saha, Taittiriya. Upanishad. Sahadic Divine is rasa, is the flow of feeling. So the taste is said to be one of akshipta, it’s overwhelming. When the heart is overwhelmed, then there are tears, then you get goosebumps, then you roll on the floor. That’s the kind of way people read this. In fact, when I read this a few times in India, they observed like how I was reading, was I reading clinically? Or was I reading from the heart? That was like the big thing that they were looking for. Not, did he translate that correctly? Does he understand the ras?

MT: Yeah, so in our own culture in relatively somewhat recent times, it reminds me of something like bebop horn players. Or as you brought up the Beats, or something, where it’s mainly about the feeling.

RJ: Yes, it’s all about the feeling. But it’s not simply feeling, like if Plato made a sandwich of feeling and being, it’s something like this. And the best way I could describe it is: imagine that a horrible thing happens in your neighborhood, a car runs over a kid, that’s horrible. We’re all upset, we write in the newspaper, we go to the funerals, we’ve got to change the traffic laws, all this. But, if you see a movie about a car running over a kid, it abstracts it from the concrete external and brings it into the purity of that feeling itself. And that’s what rasa is supposed to do. And what’s really interesting is that the things that help create rasa are things like the springtime, the clouds, the flowers, the natural world is set to be of Vyabhicāri, an accessory that helps create this divine mood.

MT: It’s so interesting, because we may run into stuff like this, perhaps in a Judeo-Christian context, there can be some of it. But in the modern West, in Hindu or Buddhist traditions, particularly Buddhist traditions, there’s not a lot of this feeling tone type of work going on, you know, it tends to be slightly, or maybe not so slightly, more mental and clinical and somewhat cold, right? Even when it’s intended to be emotional, like something like a metta practice or a Brahma Vihara practice can come off as a little bit rote and a little bit sterile.

RJ: Yeah. The one place I know of where there was a combination of the Buddhist tradition and aesthetic coming together was in Japan, not only Zen but the Tantric practices in Japan, which involve all kinds of artwork and template building, and haiku poetry. 

MT: Well, and we get the same thing in Vajrayana in Bengal, and also Vajrayana in Tibet, where every male or female master is writing a song of awakening or a joyous celebration of liberation poem, or whatever. The poetry tradition is really rather vast. 

RJ: Yeah. 

MT: And it’s intended to be part of practice and yet, doesn’t seem to be used quite that way. I mean, even when we’re reading those poems were slogging through the literal translation, and there doesn’t seem to be much of an attempt to often, at least that I’ve seen, to really tap the barrel of ras there and start to feel it. Really let your heart swell with it.

RJ: Yeah, well, where does it come from? The Sanskrit aesthetic tradition goes back to the Vedic tradition, which was all poems. I mean, all the Vedic mantras are also poems, and they’re not just personal poems, but they’re poems of offering to the divinities of nature. And I would see Kavya as an offspring of that. So you have a young 11-year-old Ramakrishna, who sees a cloud in the sky and faints in ecstasy. That would be considered maybe irresponsible in certain Western institutions. But in the aesthetic traditions of India, he’s considered a Rasika, someone who was really able to taste the ras.

MT: And this is a Meghavarnam context? Like he’s seeing the cloud as the limbs of–or the color–of Krishna.

RJ: He never says, he never says. Earlier, there was another saint Madhavendra Puri, who did see the cloud as Krishna because his body is said to be the color of a dark rain cloud. 

MT: Yeah. Same as Vishnu. 

RJ: In Zen, these would be seen as the inciters to ras, the blossoms in spring, and the wind blowing through the trees, and the birds in the sky. These are all helping to create the ras. And so nature becomes a partner in the way of the heart, which I think is really powerful, because still in the West, when people think about the way of the heart, they’re generally either thinking about romantic love, or some kind of sentimental relationship with the world, as opposed to the depth of it, that goes beyond preferences, or likes, or dislikes and integrates the world. That’s what’s so powerful for me. It’s not an enlightenment. That’s why I call it a Tantric sensibility. It’s not a state that’s beyond the natural world. It’s a state that is part of the incorporation of the natural world. 

We do have, in the Western tradition, at least one story that kind of shows what’s going on, in that, when Rabbi Akiva and his three of four mystical companions went on this journey to the Holy of Holies. And then they came out and one killed himself, one gave up the faith, one went insane. And Akiva is the only one who stayed, quote, normally alive. 

So for hundreds of years, the rabbis asked what did they see what happened? What was the big deal? And what they came up with was that when Akiva went to the Holy of Holies, what he saw was this grass, trees, clouds, everyone else was expecting something. But Akiva realized that this is it, you know, and that was beyond the comprehension of the non-poetic world. 

And interestingly, Akiva was the one who insisted on keeping the Song of Solomon, the Song of Songs in the Bible, whereas the other editors were said to say, Oh, what’s this doing here? What are these love songs doing in a spiritual and religious text? So, where is the space of the aesthetic? Is it something lower that you come out of? Is it something that can take you higher? Something like that’s going on for me. 

MT: How would you feel about reading a couple of your favorite verses of this in Sanskrit and just giving us their English meaning?

RJ: One thing, though, that I’ll mention is, why did I want to do this? How did this happen? Barbara Stoler Miller, who was the premier translator of Sanskrit poetry for her generation, and I first saw her she was giving a talk about Kalidasa. And when she mentioned Kalidasa’s name, I saw a brilliant royal blue light all around her. And I just thought to myself, holy shit, she is receiving transmission. She’s not just an academic; they’re coming through her. And indeed, when she translated any text, she would always light a candle to the author of that text, just to acknowledge where it’s coming from. So that was kind of my introduction to it. And through her, I got interested in the Meghaduta, and she was the one who charged me with translating it. So it comes through a lineage of sorts. I’ll read the first couple of verses sounds. 

MT: Great.

RJ: Sanskrit: 

kaścit kāntā virahaguruṇā svadhikārāt pramattaḥ
śāpenastaṃgamitamahimā varṣabhogyeṇa bartuḥ
yakṣaś cakra janakatanayāsnạna puṇyodakeṣu
snigdhacāyātarusuṣu vasatiṃ rāmagiryāshrameṣu

That’s the first verse which I translate as, “A yaksha banished in grievous exile from his beloved for a year, his power eclipsed by the curse of his Lord, for having swerved from his duty, made his dwelling among the Hermitages of Rāmagiri, whose waters were hollowed by the ablutions of Janaka’s daughter, and whose trees were rich with shade.”

Now in order to understand what the Sanskrit aesthetic tradition calls the Divani or the resonance of this verse, it helps to know that Rama Giri means mountain of Rama, who is God, and Janaka’s daughter is Sita, who is the feminine aspect of the divinity. 

So in the very first verse, the Meghaduta casts the yaksha’s exile within the greater context of Rama being separated from Sita. So it takes on all the power of this story, which everybody in India has known for thousands of years. So, in many ways, it’s commenting on this Ramayana, the theme.

I’ll do one more, okay?

MT: Yes. 

RJ: Sanskrit:

tasminnadrau katicidabalā-viprayuktah sa kāmī
niītvā māsān-kanakavalayabhraṃśarikta-prakostaḥ
āṣaḍāsya prathana-divase meghāślṣsṭa-sānuṃ
vaprakrīḍa-pariṇata-gaja-preksaṇīyam dadarśa

English:  “On that hill, Adrau lovelorn, and months from his mate, his wrist so wasted that it had shed its golden bracelet, he saw during the first full moon of the season of Ashadha, a cloud nuzzling a mountain ridge, like a handsome elephant, playfully butting the side of a hill. 

Now here Sanskrit can help you and a knowledge of the collection of myths, because it is said in a number of texts that the elephants used to fly until Indra with his thunderbolt, being threatened by them, kind of knocked them down and their ears–the clouds–separated. So the clouds are what’s left to them. So the cloud is seen as an elephant. And not only an elephant, but Preksheni, a beautiful elephant. And then this word, nuzzling the side of a hill, pariṇata gaja prekṣanỉyaṃ. That word, parinatmi, is also a word in the lexicon of the aesthetic tradition for the transformation that happens, from the mundane to the divine. So it’s working on many levels.

MT: Yeah. And immediately, we’re going into what for me is fascinating: Sanskrit deconstruction, and etymology, and so on. And yet for us, of course, we have now left the heart realm, right, and we’re fully in the mental. 

RJ: Well, let’s stay in mental for a second, because I’m curious what you think of this fifth verse, which I’ll just read in English, because it brings out the philosophical question, “What does a cloud, blend of smoke, flame, water, and wind, have to do with meaningful messages meant to be conveyed by the fit senses of the living? Heedless of this from ardent fervor, the yaksha made his request, for lovers afflicted by passion, can no longer tell the aware from the inert.”

So in the modern issues of deconstruction–and the question is: Can language ever mean anything? Language is a material construct. It’s made of smoke, flame, wind, water, like a cloud. How can that carry a living message? And certain schools say, it can’t, that words can never point to a truth. They’re just things that you have to deal with to get through them or go into utter silence. 

But here the aesthetic way is something different. It says that those who are inciters to ras, who are deeply afflicted by love, by passion; they don’t see a difference between the inert world and the living world, it becomes one world. So at this point–and you can take your pick–the yaksha is insane, or he’s seeing something in a deeper and more profound way.

MT: And so he basically beseeches this cloud to carry his message.

RJ:  Yes. 

MT: And of course, we would tend to think that that’s insane. A cloud can’t carry a message. 

RJ: Exactly.

MT: And yet, as you’re saying, his heart is so cracked open, he’s so wide open that there’s something deeper than mundane clinical logic going on here.

RJ: Yeah, in the Islamic tradition, it is said that Mohammed, Mohammed had a caravan. And in that caravan, there was this one 16-year-old who is extraordinarily beautiful, 16-year-old boy, actually. And most people thought he is a good-looking young guy. But Muhammad saw this person as the Archangel Gabriel, and that changes everything. Was Mohammed hallucinating? Or was he seeing more deeply into the reality of things? That, I think, is the question that the Meghaduta asks about language? Can language; can vision; can beauty also take you into that absolute place? Or do you have to leave it behind?

MT: And it seems like the answer is firmly: Yes, it can take you into that place, at least according to the tradition.

RJ: Yes. As a “Buddhist meditator,” how do you feel about that? With language, any value in it besides being more mental?

MT: Well, of course, there’s many levels of value to language; for us to learn the teachings at all; for us to learn the practices at all, we need language; for us to communicate with our fellows, our Sangha members, our caravan of co-religionists, or co-meditators, or co-spiritual journeyists, we need all that. But more deeply, the place where you’re asking the question, yeah, I think it reminds me of Yukio Mishima. And I’m remembering this from like, 30 years ago, so I might be slightly misremembering it, but he and Kafka talk about the way that language can be destructive and get in the way, but furthermore, used properly and they do mean it, I think, in a poetic sense, language isn’t the thing, it’s not carrying the truth, but it can be the finger at the moon that really actually does point at this nonverbal, nonlinguistic, irrational deep truth. 

RJ: Okay, 

MT: And so it can take you there, it can transport you there, even if you have to leave the language behind when you get there.

RJ: Okay, to me, that would be the difference between, let’s say, a more jñana path, you leave the language behind, and an aesthetic path where the language, like the cloud, it jumps beyond itself, and it communicates to the heart. 

But behind this is another question, a really interesting one, that different practitioners look at differently, which is what is language? If you’re a Buddhist or Western deconstructive philosopher, language is purely conventional. If you’re a Kabbalist or Abhinavagupta in the Sanskrit tradition, language is coming out of the body of Lord Shiva, it is the emergence of the body of God. So language has the ability to take you back to that divinity. 

If you don’t resonate with the Rama/Sita story, the Meghaduta becomes just a nice poem about nature. But if from the first verse, the author is pushing you to resonate, this is about the ultimate meeting and separation, it takes on a larger context. 

MT: I just have to jump in and say, of course, Vajrayana Buddhism says something quite similar to what Abhinavagupta says. So it’s not somehow un-Buddhist to say that. I want to go back to the story of Rama and Sita because that’s a huge part of my background and training is working with that story. The most intense moment for me personally of the entire story is right in the middle. It’s not at the end with the big finale and all that. The most intense moment is when Hanuman flies alone to Lanka and shrinks himself down to be a little monkey so he’s not terrifying, and hides in a tree in the garden of Ravana so that he can secretly speak with Sita.

RJ: Right 

MT: And give her a message of hope. It’s even called The Beautiful Chapter.

RJ: Sundara Kanda. Yeah.

MT: It’s just exquisite and heartbreaking and cracks you open, cracks me open, anyway, to something unbelievably deep, but at the same time kind of inexpressible. At least I can’t express it. But the point being that, I see that in the Meghaduta they’re referring to that moment quite often. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

RJ: One thing really interesting about that voyage of Hanuman is, in the text of Hanuman’s journey, he is constantly compared to a cloud because he’s a shapeshifter. And another really interesting thing about that verse, it reads, Hanumāna manasa jagāma, which Hanuman went with his mind. It was a shamanic journey, even though it’s described as a physical journey. So the cloud is participating in this archetype of Duta of the messenger.

MT: And of course, Hanuman is called Rama Duta. 

RJ: Yeah, a messenger of Rama. When you were a kid in junior high school and you liked a girl or a girl liked you, they would send a messenger to let you know that somebody likes you. The messenger is an intimate part of the Shringara tradition, of the tradition of love and separation, they bridge the gap. So the Meghaduta refers to that verse twice, because Hanuman jumps over the mountain and finds Sita and then shows her Rama’s ring; that he’s true. And, of course, the yaksha is asking the cloud to be like Hanuman, but this is where the Western academic and Indian practitioner traditions diverge, and we call them epic narratives. But from the point of view of people who live this, it’s not just that it really happened, it’s that it’s always happening. 

So Hanuman has Rama’s ring to prove his veracity. Later on, it is said that when Rama is getting ready to leave the earth, he drops his ring, and he says, Hanuman, Can you please get my ring and Hanuman says, Sure, and he looks down, he can’t find it. He goes down deeper and deeper and deeper. And finally, he lands in Patala Lokah which is the very bottom of the universe. And the Lord of Patala Lokah says, Hanumanji, what are you doing here? And he says, My Lord Rama lost his ring, I’m here to find it. And the Lord of Patala Lokah says well, which one? and he shows him a field and there are hundreds of thousands of rings. And he says, Whenever Rama’s Lila is finished, and he’s ready to leave the earth, he drops his ring. So from the perspective of the tradition, this story is alive–is always occurring. It’s happening now. And we’re all part of it.

MT: Leveraging off that idea of we’re all part of it, how do you see this poem tying into a modern sensibility of nature, ecology, the role of person-in-world, and so on?

RJ: This is another reason I wanted to work with this poem and translate it because I see it as a… well, the word that’s coming to my mind is corrective to the isolation of the anthropos, that everything is based on human consciousness and nothing else matters. When we expand into what Buddhists might call Sambhogakaya or the Anima Mundi, then everything is alive and speaking, and everything is manifesting everywhere. So what we tend to call environment would not be external, but it’s the tapestry of reality. And one way I have worked this–one of my teachers, Hilda Charlton once said, she remembered the day in her life, when she realized that she didn’t have to look for love because, quote, “I am love.” And I would turn that on the other side and say that, from the aesthetic point of view, it’s not I am love, or you are love, but this is love, or as the Upanishads put it Sarva khalvidam brahma–all of this indeed is the truth. 

So I think it’s expanding the notion of what it means to be in touch literally, and Abhinavagupta used this word in his Tantric texts that the goal was Spṛṣṭa–means to contact, touch, to be touched by the world beyond concepts. And so I feel that this is really helpful. 

And I can relate a story that I do mention in The Cloud of Longing. I was in Vrindavan which is the bhakti, home of Sri Krishna. And what was I doing in Vrindavan? Reading Krishnamurti, and going into fits because on one hand, there’s his bhakti and, you know, the murti and everyone is chanting, and on the other hand, here comes Krishnamurti saying it’s all just–it’s all your mind and don’t, you know, get out of it. So Śripada Baba came along one day, this Avhadut, an inexplicably charismatic and unusual Sadhu, and I asked him, I said, What do you make of this? And, to my surprise, first of all, he had read Krishnamurti. And then he said to me, When Krishnamurti speaks about the trees and the clouds, and the air, he said, that is murti because murti simply means form. So that kind of obliterated this dichotomy between energy and energetic between you know, phenomena and an unmoved mover he just said it’s all murti.

MT: And of course, he’s making a little pun with Krishnamurti’s name, as well. 

RJ: Exactly, yes. You know, James Hillman used to make the point that the word environment is already a creation of separation. Why do we call it environment? Why don’t we call it place? And instead of thinking of it our place, that we are part of the place, you know, the place predominates, not the me. And I find that the Meghaduta, and the way it views nature, can offer a corrective to this idea that’s been bred into us that the natural world is a Monopoly board that we just walk on.

MT: We are taught that the world is just something that we travel through, hopefully as quickly as possible, and can exploit in various ways.

RJ: Yeah. And we get so hung up on this question, Who am I? I mean, it can be a Koan, if you’re Ramana Maharshi. It can be a misapprehension if you’re a good ideological, Buddhist. Bhakti would see it you know, you’re a Das, you’re a servant of God. But the aesthetic tradition–it kind of takes you through the backdoor. It’s not who are you? It’s what is all this? And you are part of all this. And that’s what I love about Akiva. He saw all this and it was enough. Could it be that we can’t see nature because we’re too busy? And I have found that reading Meghaduta has helped me see–not just clouds, but trees and the earth that I’m walking on, and that I’m part of this. It’s not just a painting that I’m looking at.

MT: The idea of environment is almost like opposite the idea of in-context.

RJ: Yeah, remember the old Seth Speaks books? 

MT: I never read them. But yes.

RJ: Well, there’s one thing in there, which has always stayed with me where whoever Seth may be, says that the weather is non-different from emotions, like the weather, it’s the emotional body of the planet. And the one thing we didn’t mention–that the Meghaduta takes place in the rainy season, the first day of month of Oshaja, because in the rain, you are often separated from your lover. It was a time when you couldn’t turn home. So that’s when you write poetry.

MT: The rainy season the monsoon is so intense in India, you can’t travel because the roads all turn to knee-deep mud, yeah.

RJ: Mush with miles of dead insects and all that. Yes.

MT: And so this cloud is the first cloud of the monsoon coming in.

RJ: Exactly. The other thing, the brilliance of Meghaduta, is the whole poem he’s talking to the cloud, he’s giving exquisite details of the voyage and just one example, when the cloud comes to Kailash in the Himalayas, the cloud is instructed to do puja to Shiva, worship Shiva, with his drum, well, Where is Shiva? Where’s the drum? Well, the upraised arms of the trees are Shiva’s arms, and the light of the evening twilight coming through his arms is Shiva’s red drum, and the thunder is the beating of the drum. And what I got from reading Meghaduta is that this is more than metaphor, that if you can be with nature, you can hear the song of nature, you can see the ceremony going on. It’s happening all the time. We’re just too busy to see it.

MT: Yeah, too busy to see it, and too dissociated from it.

RJ:  Dissociated. Yes.

MT: Right? Something that touches me every day, I go for long walks in the park or in the woods, almost daily. And something that’s so poignant is just there are various birds, and one of the places I walk large jackrabbits, and a lot of animal beings out there. And it’s so obvious to me that they are sentient and engaged and that they are not somehow different, or less than us. And nothing about our culture wants you to think that way. 

RJ: Right.

MT:  And it’s excruciating, to be so objectifying of nature because it turns us into some kind of weird object as well. And by denigrating an animal’s consciousness, it equally denigrates our own.

RJ: Animals and water and earth.

MT: You’re right. It’s not just animals. It is the water and the trees and the sky.

RJ: When I witnessed a native woman pray for an hour and a half over a pail of water, I can never look at water the same way. And in the Bhagavad Gita, no less of being than Krishna says, Raso’ham apsu kaunteya, I am the taste of water. So yeah, it’s the re-ensouling of the natural world. That’s what I’m after.

MT: So you know, this poem comes from a tradition that’s all about love poetry. And it is set in this kind of frame of the lovers being separated like we were talking about. But do you think that he just used that–Kalidasa used that as just kind of a quick frame? Or is there some deep connection between this kind of nature aesthetic and love?

RJ: To me, it’s so deep that it’s scary because Kalidasa is exquisitely aware of the contradiction that he’s dealing with. How can a cloud carry a message? How can language lead you to pure love or any love? The exquisite part is that the cloud in the poem never goes anywhere, the meeting never happens. Kalidasa is very clear that this is all a fantasy in the mind of the yaksha. We’ve all had the experience, or maybe not everyone, but many of us, where you have a whole fantasy about being in love with somebody. And then it turns out that the other person is not sharing that fantasy at all.

MT: It’s certainly a common experience for all of us. Yes.

RJ: And I see the aesthetic tradition as one of the antidotes to the romantic fallacy that the love we’re seeking is not this one other person, who’s the one-person-in-the-world-who’s-going-to-make-me-whole kind of thing. But rather Kalidasa is using that separation to incite the vision of the natural world, where you realize at some point that this is–all of it’s not I love you, or even I am loved, literally, as Dante says, at the end of the Divine Comedy, love is turning the stars, the ocean is love. And a lot of indigenous traditions speak about this and talk about this. And can we get back to being re-enchanted by the world we live in? Instead of trying to get out of it? 

Yeah, we all fall in love. And we all have this, and we all have heartbreak, and we all have wonderful moments. But on that journey, how many things did you notice? Right and your circle? And did you love the sparrow that came up on your porch this morning? Or did you appreciate the exquisiteness of the sunlight today, and that becomes an overwhelm of appreciation. And the Sanskrit word for that is one of the nine principle rasa’s is called adbhuta, which means wonder. And there are places–and you and I have  both been there–literal physical places in the world, Vrindaban, where people walk around all day using the mudra of wonder, like we’re living wonder. That’s where I think it’s valuable in re-directing our love to the wonder around us, not to the exclusion of anybody, but to the inclusion of everybody.

MT: This aspect of wonder is really pointed to in some of the nondual traditions whether it’s called a nondual Shiava Tantra type stuff or Dzogchen, we have our practices that we can do in our meditations, and all our very intense sadhanas, and so on. And/or you can simply walk around in a state of wonder. And that’s seen as almost like an equal path or an end run that takes you to the same place of pristine awareness, seeing the whole world as this divine expression of either; awareness as deity, or the Buddha nature or Samatha Bhadra or whatever, but that mood of wonder turns out to be like the secret key.

RJ: So that’s awesome. You know, there’s an interesting practice with this. If you were a Sanskrit student in India, you’d read the Meghaduta over and over again and it would open the heart. What Hilda Charlton used to ask us to do sometimes is go back to your favorite songs, pop songs, and just a slight tweak, just see that it’s all about god, and it will open your heart in a new way.

MT: Did you find that worked for you?

RJ: It did. All the songs that I used–Oh, I can’t live without you, you know, when I put the absolute in the center, they all made a lot more sense. 

MT: There’s the wonderful moment, or horrible moment when one is a teenager and the hormones hit just right and the situation comes together where you suddenly understand what love songs are about. 

RJ: Yes. 

MT: And Hilda anyway, is suggesting a second tier of that.

RJ: And you know, more singing and dancing. Not show. One thing that really pained me and maybe I’m just a spiritual snob but I once went to a retreat center and there was going to be a kirtan and someone was talking to me at this kirtan congregational chanting. And they asked me, Do you know who the performers are? And I said, What? It’s not a performance. It’s absolutely not a performance. And I have been in the temples in India where singing is part of–you’ve been there too–the daily practice. And they’re very clear that what makes the singing valuable is the intention and who you’re singing it for, and so on and so forth.

MT: Yeah, exactly. Many of the places I’ve been in India, there was wonderful, unbelievably, virtuoso musicality happening. But there were also many villages where the singing was painfully out of tune, and just non-musical in every possible way. And yet, the mood was there, right? The bhav, the ras was actually there, and you could feel it. 

RJ: Bhav means the deep feeling. Ras is when that deep feeling gets so strong that it transcends time and space. And that’s, you know, Raso Vai Saha. The Divine is the Ras, which I love. And I have good reason to want to stay on the planet a little bit longer because I asked Shrivatsa Goswami–who is my colleague, friend, mentor, and runs the Radha Raman Temple in Vrindavan–if he thinks that there would ever be a possibility if I could chant in the temple, just once? He wrote me back, he said, Radha Raman would be delighted. So I see that as the apotheosis of this lifetime; if I can get there.

MT: Yes. And you’ve taken me to that temple before what an amazing place. Yeah. So now that travel restrictions are lifted, and so on, are you thinking about going there?

RJ: Actually thinking about this summer going to Badrinath, where I’ve never been. That’s like my first pilgrimage.

MT: I’ve been there. It’s amazing. Rick, you teach religion at Vassar. And so on. 

RJ: Used to.

MT: You just retired. That’s right. Congratulations. But that’s very recent, extremely recent, as long as I’ve known you, which is more than 20 years now, you’ve been a professor of religion. So how have you attempted to communicate or share this feast of both heart-opening poetry and connection to nature and all these themes with your students? And how successful or unsuccessful has that been?

RJ: That’s really interesting. I created a course just a few years ago, called “Spirituality, Environment, and Ecology.” And my rationale for creating this course was: Vassar has a big environmental studies program and a lot of people giving courses on so-called the environment and they’re all science-based. And I have no problem with that if you have the other side to the aesthetic side. So for the final exam, students had to walk from Vassar College down to the river, the Mahicantuck or Hudson River, the river that flows both ways. It’s a 2.5-mile walk, and the assignment was to walk to the river and see what you observe along the way.

MT: Now, you gave another name for the Hudson River. What was that?

RJ: That’s the native name, which I always mispronounce, but it means the river that flows both ways Mahicantuck or Mahikannituck, which is the Lennape/Wappinger name for the river. And it flows both ways because it’s an estuary, the water flows up from the Atlantic and down from the St. Lawrence in the mountains.

MT: So it has interaction with the tides. 

RJ: Yes. 

MT: And so here’s the students walking from Vassar down to the Hudson.

RJ: And what was amazing to me was how little people observed. It just highlighted our poverty of paying attention to anything outside of our own mind. There’s a beautiful poem about this by the late Lew Welch. You know, Gary Snyder’s friend, the Beat poet. 

MT: Yeah.

RJ: Step out onto the planet. 

Draw a circle 100 feet round. 

Inside the circle are 300 things nobody understands,

and maybe nobody’s ever seen. 

How many can you find?

MT: Oh, nice practice there.

RJ: Yeah. So in the course, we read stuff by Gary Snyder, and Robin Kimmerer,  Braiding Sweetgrass, which is a beautiful book about contemporary indigenous practices with the earth. We took people out. We spent as much time as we could out of the classroom. So all of this has led me in the last 10 years, my tenure at Vassar to focus on things like embodiment and so on and so forth. That’s kind of how I’ve done my best to do it. 

It’s been very difficult because it has led me to question the entire culture of reading itself. And fortunately, or maybe not, if you’re a literary person, The Gutenberg Galaxy is gone. You know, everything is interwoven in a synesthesia of sound, image, and sense. But if you think about the act of reading, as we tend to do it; silently within ourselves, you’re sitting here and your mind is someplace else. It’s almost like the antithesis of mindfulness.

MT: Yeah, you’re generating a whole mental realm, that’s not where you’re at.

RJ: Exactly. So those are some of the things I tried to do at Vassar. 

Taking a clue from the way reading is practiced in a liturgical setting. In India, if you go to an ashram, for example, you read with others, you don’t read for volume, you read one verse, and then you sit down and let it wash over you, and what does it do to you? That’s one thing. 

And the next thing is what I’m doing now at home, as you know, I’m working on a book about being at home, just taking the time to pay as exquisite attention as possible to every item that you “own,” that has constellated itself in your life. And what is your relationship to it–getting out of the idea that we have things and into the idea that we are with the things?

MT: And so how does that practice begin to affect you?

RJ: Well, first of all, you need less things because you’re paying more attention to the things that you have. Second of all, you need less entertainment, because the things that you have are so beautiful and deep and nuanced, kind of like at the end of Walden, where Thoreau has this woodcarver carving a stick and it goes on for eons. So I feel that re-constellating our attention away from the intermediary of mind and going back into direct contact with whatever’s there. In poetry, it’s words, as beings, not words is something I use. The words are a gift, we’re like a chalice, and the words come in. So what can I do? It’s kind of an aesthetic form of mindfulness. And the way I do it is through the consciousness of offering. Cooking is an offering. Writing is an offering. And so is walking down the street. And that is my own practice, not a formal offering, I’m not building a temple and following a particular scripture, but I’m honoring whatever’s in that 100-foot radius of my little life, and really honoring it. 

One thing that Kalidasa shows me and you get this in Apache culture also is that every place has a story. There is no such thing as an objective world. Every place has these narratives around them, you can call them song lines, or whatever. So if you don’t know the story of your ring, or the story of your watch, or the story of your shirt, you’re kind of impoverished because these stories want to be expressed. And when you gift something, you’re gifting, not just an object, but all the stories that are imbued in that object. 

Now a lot of us have been trained to say, Oh, that’s just a story, go beyond story to pure consciousness. But if Rūpaṃ śūnyatā śunyataiva rūpam – if form and emptiness are inter-distinguishable, or as the Sanskrit people said, inconceivably and simultaneously one and different, then the cloud, the tree is as important as the feeling in the heart, they are not different. That for me is the work or re-ensouling the objects in your world. 

And people do this. Sometimes people give their car a name, they really have a relationship with the car. It’s not just a machine that I’m driving around till it breaks. The way we have people thinking about the Earth right now. We’re going to drive it around till it breaks and then we’ll go to Mars. That story doesn’t inspire me at all. What inspires me is, what happened on this street is important. And the lineage of stories. It’s very interesting. In the yoga sutra, memory is said to be a klasha or an obstacle. 

When TS Eliot wrote The Wasteland, he was thinking of both Chaucer and the Buddha, “April is the cruelest month, lilacs in the dead land, mixing memory and desire.” The word for memory in Sanskrit smarta is word for Cupid, for desire. If we make this the enemy, we’re back in the ascetic modality of trying to leave the Earth, trying to elevate ourselves. Whereas there are alternatives. And one of them is seeing memory in its capacity for opening, rather than closing. And the quintessential to me, the most beautiful verse in all 

ramyāṇi vikṣya madhurāṃśca niṣamya śabdān

paryutsuki bhavati yat sukhino ‘pi jantuḥ

yaccetasā smarati nūnam abodha pūrvaṃ

bhāvasthirāṇi jananātarasauhṛdāni

Hearing something beautiful, and seeing beautiful sights, perhaps even a happy person becomes uneasy, because they remember loves from another life buried deep in their being. That’s a different kind of memory. Meghaduta awakens a memory, a different kind of memory, at the time when we were flying with the clouds, when we were at home in the world. And that’s the value, I think, in memory and language when it’s used poetically and excuse the word but spiritually.

MT: And isn’t it ironic how the very word for mindfulness and Sanskrit Smriti means to remember.

RJ: That is so amazing. Yes, that is truly amazing. As you know, Gurdjieff used the word remembrance, self-remembrance. So just like there’s different kinds of language. Maybe there’s different kinds of memory of remembering.

MT: Rick, thank you so much for joining me on the Deconstructing Yourself podcast today.

RJ: Oh, it’s my pleasure to hang out with you. 

MT: Talk to you soon. 

RJ: Thank you, Michael. Thank you so much. Thank you

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