Friday, February 14, 2014

Are You Committed to God or a Golden Calf?

By Greg Marzullo

When we study Torah, it’s staggering to imagine the various biblical heroes speaking with Adonai so directly. Who were these people and what was this time when the veil between the divine and humanity seemed nonexistent, such that Moses could speak with God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus, 33.11)? These days, our willingness to believe in a divine presence has dwindled, because the fantastical episodes of earlier millenia seem far afield from the world we live in now. What happened to the clouds of fire and the thundering voice from the mountains? What about the sanctified leaders who can help guide us through the marshes of confusion surrounding us?

Throughout the yoga community I’ve encountered plenty of people who feel betrayed by their family’s religious traditions and, often, with good reason. Politics have taken the place of spiritual evolution, and dogmatic renderings of ancient texts appear downright antagonistic to an ever-expanding view of the human condition. This can lead us to feeling left adrift as the Israelites do in this week’s Torah portion. While Moses is up on the mountain, we’re all stuck down here, rolling around in the muck of human existence. For the Israelites, they decided to craft their own god, and we often do the same.

The classical era yogic scholar Patanjali composed a famous philosophical work titled the Yoga Sutras, and in it, he lays out the very clear, scientific method of achieving enlightenment. More than any other suggestion – more than moral codes or ways of meditating – Patanjali says that Isvara pranidhana, surrender to God, is the fastest way to achieve Self-realization.

The yogic sage is working with the time-honored principle that whatever we turn our attention to is what we eventually become. If our thoughts are constantly obsessed with God, we gain a greater relationship with God. If our thoughts are taken up with our job, we gain a greater focus on our work. If our thoughts center on making money, playing an instrument, finding love or any of the other thousand things people think about, we will gain a deeper relationship with that thing.

The question is: Are you committed to God or a golden calf?

The ancient yogis remind us constantly that only the divine gives lasting pleasure – everything else yields pain. Even when we experience something good (a promotion! a new love!), it’s fraught with concerns about the proverbial shoe hovering just over our heads. Pleasure is haunted and hunted by its inevitable end.

In the Katha Upanishad, one of India’s mystic texts, a boy has a run-in with Yama, the god of death, who is so entranced by the child’s wisdom that the deity grants him three wishes. The child’s greatest wish is to learn the secrets of the soul’s everlasting nature, and when Yama tries to offer him riches and women instead, the boy replies, “How can we be desirous of wealth when we see your face and know we cannot live while you are here?”

Yet, that’s exactly what most of us do. We buy ourselves into an uneasy denial with gods that are as facile as that golden calf crafted by a nervous Israel. In this week’s Torah portion, Moses, upon coming down the mountain and seeing the madness of the people below, destroys the tablets written with God’s hand and then grinds the golden calf down to a powder, forcing the idol-worshippers to drink it after mixing it with water. Those very same people are then beset by a plague sent from God. While this might sound heavy-handed, more potently, it’s actually a symbolic rendering of what happens to us when we turn away from devotion to the divine. We become obsessed with things that don’t truly matter, that can’t truly last, and in the end, those very obsessions poison us. We’ve all fallen prey to this toxicity – a one-night stand didn’t heal our loneliness, the evening out on the town just left us hung over, brushing past the beggar didn’t leave us richer, just colder. Idolatry in dead things only causes a sickening of the heart.

“The joy of the spirit ever abides,
But not what seems pleasant to the senses.
Both these, differing in their purpose, prompt
Us to action. All is well for those who choose
The joy of the spirit, but they miss
The goal of life who prefer the pleasant.
Perennial joy or passing pleasure?
This is the choice one is to make always.”

These are Yama’s first teachings to his young charge, and his words are just as powerful today as they were thousands of years ago. Things that appear to our favor because they feel good in the moment aren’t necessarily our best friends. The golden calf of whatever we currently worship – cynicism, privilege, self-centeredness, wealth, beauty – will betray us in the end.
Only the Eternal can grant us eternal joy.

(All translations of the Katha Upanishad by Eknath Easwaran.)

No comments:

Post a Comment