It’s great to be communicating this way. I am a pretty impulsive fellow, I do stuff when I really have a strong feeling about it, so I’m gonna treat you like an old acquaintance and go all out. One should not be niggardly with affection when the occasion arises out of nothing.
You could be one of the most unusual people I have seen. You are not yet thirty… and you have already been a muscle-prodigy – one among the best – and then you have shifted tracks, taken a parallel path, and set off in the pursuit of spiritual treasure. And I know something, – your renouncing of the hardcore fitness lifestyle, shedding of the bodybuilder image – this is only a superficial thing. Your actual goal is not to trade one thing for another, but to reconcile the two and see how that story turns out.
Maybe some think that you are not the unstoppable muscle-girl anymore. Maybe some think you have forsaken all that. But why would you? The physical identity you wear is just as sacred and special as the spiritual identity you bear. The universe does not share our prejudice against ‘mere flesh!’ I will share with you in our conversations ahead: an ancient philosophical text says, “Nayam atma balahinena labhyo.” (Mundaka Upanishad (3.2.4). Translated, it means – “The Spirit is not to be attained by the physically weak.”
I don’t believe you have ‘given up’ the essence of bodybuilding. No, what you’ve done is expand yourself into a wider space. What you want is to go and get that mind, that heart, that perfectly fits the physique you have achieved. Not a lopsided personality, with a perfect and powerful body and a less-than-perfect mind. Not a partial prize. No… what you want is a true alignment of your body, mind and soul.
I am your opposite in many ways. First of all, I am very, very out of shape. Working at the yards for too long does that to you. Secondly, unlike you, I am no star at all. My only chance of being famous is getting kidnapped by terrorists and put on a screen.
There’s no reason you and I should be friends. I mean, I know there are literally thousands of units out there who would leap at the chance to talk to a star like this. – But well, even without the approval or expectation of our narrow scope, some things happen. Nature doesn’t measure the elements of life on the same scale as we do. Maybe it is absolutely reasonable for us to be friends, after all. “All that is gold does not glitter, / Not all those who wander are lost.”
I think we have a lot to cover. So now, without much more ado, let’s get down to action.
I am going to show you a few things regarding the books you will need to read. I’m putting a few links here, so that you can keep these on your hit-list, and read/explore them at leisure. I have chosen these keeping two things in mind:
1) They should have both story-value and philosophy value.
As in, they should be completely authentic to the original text in Sanskrit (not diluted or censored versions… there are so many of these. These books being thousands of years old, you have, like, 2000-year-old versions of these which are not original, but diluted). They should tell a reader the complete story, with as few omissions as possible, in a nice style.
And they should also help the reader discover the underlying depths of the work by offering notes and explanations, without turning into a cheap moral-instructional manual. There should be honesty of philosophical query.
2) They should be an efficient buy for you.
They should be available to you in the US, and they should be enough that you don’t have to buy another edition of these books again. Sufficient for a lifetime. Reading these may be slow, and you will be taking time to get used to it, but I think I can trust Elizabeth Rime to push through heavy work like a badass.
Below are some links I fished out of the Amazon.
The first one is what you should probably start with. It will take you through the best-known epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and also through many stories from the Puranas: the mythological tales from ancient India. You will enjoy this book as a storybook, and it will introduce you to many, many characters. You will like some of them, dislike some of them, be amazed by some, and find yourself in some of them. And when you start grappling with the bigger, more uncompromising versions that I have put afterwards, – you will find it easier because you already have a base.
The most approachable modern retelling. Start with this. – https://www.amazon.com/Indian-Epics-Retold-Ramayana-Mahabharata/dp/0140255648
The Upanishads (a few of them) – https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/8172765428
The Mahabharata (10 book set) – https://www.amazon.com/Mahabharata-10-vol-Box-Set/dp/0143424785
The Mahabharata (1st part, single book) – https://www.amazon.com/Mahabharata-1-Translated-Bibek-Debroy-ebook/dp/B06XY9RRPK
The Gita (Part 1 of 3) – https://www.amazon.com/Universal-Message-Bhagavad-Gita-Exposition/dp/8175052139
The Markandeya Purana – https://www.amazon.com/Markandeya-Purana-Bibek-Debroy-tr/dp/0143448250
The Vivekachudamani – https://www.amazon.com/Message-Vivekachudamani-Exposition-Modern-Thoughts/dp/8175053089/
Among these, the Upanishads are the most ancient. They are, in a nutshell, the cream of the books known as the Vedas. The Vedas are some of the very oldest books written by humankind. They are not religious books, not at all. Rather they are works of philosophy and poetry, with a strong spiritual tone.
Out of the two Indian epics, Ramayana is the older, and the more poetic. It is well to remember that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are not ‘religious texts.’ Yes, characters in them have been adopted by the people of India over the centuries as deities, but the works themselves were never meant to be items of religious worship. They are essentially ‘Maha-Kavya’, which simply means ‘Great Poetry,’ – in other words… epics. Ramayana is historically older, and the stories in it also take place earlier than the stories in the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is longer and more complex than the Ramayana. It is like a giant canvas that holds a contemporary picture of India as a whole, a vast novel, – somewhat like G R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Only, this is even bigger.
Both Ramayana and Mahabharata are quasi-histories. They are based upon real societies and real cultures, and also adapt patterns of real historical happenings. But contrary to what many people blindly believe, they are not actual history. It is self-evident, really. These books work through metaphors and symbolism. Taking them to be the literal truth is misleading and stagnating. I know I need not tell you this, but India is going through a very crucial time, a period of rampant, triumphant Hindu fundamentalism… a political cancer that is tearing apart the social, cultural and rational fabric of my country. I don’t want to burden you with this discussion right now, – but just be aware. If you start engaging with India, if you come here, or if you talk to people about it – you will face this. People will try to initiate you into their own personal belief system and cult. Don’t be misled by these peddlers of blind faith and pseudoscience. They sell fake trinkets that will keep you from the real gem.
How do you know I am not a peddler like that myself? – Well, because I won’t ask you to believe something that doesn’t make sense to you. I’ll insist that you verify in your mind whatever I say to you. Religion is when others tell you what the truth is; spirituality is when you find it out for yourself. Whatever I’m doing here, – you’ll find out the truth by yourself.
The Gita is actually a part of the Mahabharata. But it is such a dense philosophical treatise that it has been treated as a separate book by scholars for thousands of years. The book I have suggested for you is a three-part work, and you’ll simply love it. That guy who wrote that book, – he was the head of the institution where I had my school education. He’s a brilliant, brilliant fellow. I couldn’t have suggested you a better read when it comes to the Gita.
The Markandeya Purana is one of the many puranas in Indian mythology. You will already have read some stories from it in the book by R K Narayana (the first book I suggested you read). This is a more detailed text. I chose this particular purana for you because of a special reason… I’ll tell you all about it sometime later.
And finally the Vivekachudamani. This is a tough text. A very hardcore work of philosophy, by one of the most hardcore spiritual philosophers India has ever produced. But this version is edited by Swami Ranganathananda, the guy whose Gita (and also the Upanishads) I have recommended for you. His commentaries should make the read enjoyable and rewarding for you.
And by the time you read the Vivekachudamani (which will be years from now, you won’t need my help by then), you will be strong enough to navigate these waters. The wargirl of philosophy. There’s a character like this in Indian mythology. Wait, not one, there are at least three. Okay, maybe more. I’ll stop now. Can’t tell you everything in one mail.
Let’s pull up here. See you in the next letter.
(To be continued.)