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What Is a Mahatma?
Shanti: Hi, James. Thank you for answering my questions. I am very thankful that you graciously make yourself so available to us, in whatever medium – satsang, e-satsang, webinars, emails – etc. So I want to say thank you, James, for your time, your kindness, your support and your (direct) wisdom.
James: You are most welcome, Shanti.
Shanti: Your website mentions one of your teachers, Swami Dayananda. I looked him up and found some great YouTube videos which have been a great supplement to your teachings for me because you both say the same thing but in different ways. But maybe some people can find it hard to understand Swami with his thick Indian accent.
I’m happy that in class you discussed the sattvic mind as well as the other gunas. I’m trying to watch myself and simply be aware of my thinking, my words and my actions, and also the way others respond to them. I’ve noticed I make a lot of mistakes; rajas, I think?
James: Yes, the mind is in a hurry when it is under the spell of rajas. It is bored and therefore distracted and cannot stick to a single thought. It is too busy to pay attention to what is happening around it, so mistakes are made.
Shanti: So much conditioning! I say really stupid things and I find myself being arrogant and proud sometimes which causes conflict. Is this stupidity related to tamas?
James: The arrogance and pride are rajas. Proud, arrogant people have low self-esteem because tamas obscures their vision of who they are. They think they are small so they feel the need to compensate with feelings of superiority. Stupidity is tamas. Rajas and tamas always go together. Tamas is denial and rajas is the projection that come from the denial.
Shanti: I think I also need to learn to have more patience with myself.
James: Lack of patience is rajas.
Shanti: I will try to practice karma yoga the way you described as well as doing what I can to be sattvic as much as possible.
James: Karma yoga should take care of the rajas.
Shanti: I don’t really worry about the other gunas (they seem to come way too easily!) but it’s good that I’m becoming more aware of the gunas (but perhaps I’m getting them mixed up?).
James: I really don’t know what other gunas you are talking about, Shanti. There is only sattva left. Your curiosity about the Amma is sattva. Your interest in Vedanta is sattva.
Shanti: I also know I feel incomplete because I’m still ignorant and I don’t know my true nature yet. Sometimes my heart hurts because I miss old family members who I loved very much who are no longer here with me, and who deeply and profoundly touched my life with their love and influence. I am so grateful to have known them and to have been close to them, but I always think about them and miss them. So for me, the Ammas soothe me, at least for the time being, because I don’t want a partner and I don’t know myself yet.
James: Yes, the Ammas and the babas are good. Just be careful not to get attached to them. Think of them as inspirations, something to aim for, to work towards.
Shanti: I’m happy you answered my question about Siva Sakthi Amma. You mentioned that you think she is a mahatma. One description of a mahatma is a saint, and I do think she is a saint. But she also has many yogic powers and shakti, she journeys in other realms and everything. I don’t even really understand in Hinduism exactly what a Divine Mother is, but for a lack of better words I would like to use that term for her (since she uses “my children” and admits they are not her words, just God’s words shining through her). As you know I am attracted to Divine Mother. Yes, it is partially due to my “mother issues” but I feel I am maturing a little more now, and I know it’s more than just that. I seem to resonate well their Divine Mother energy. I am always in awe of their power and their wise and compassionate use of it, and I respect their work in the world and am grateful for their presence. With regard to divine work, another part of me knows that as Divine Mother they also can ignite the flame in me so the karma is felt and seen more clearly.
James: Yes, associating with mahatmas is good. It increases one’s desire for liberation. And the powers can be helpful or harmful, depending on your understanding of them and the way the mahatma uses them. They can be used to enslave as well as liberate.
Shanti: With them I know it’s really not all about bliss (except in the beginning, kind of like a hook), it’s actual divine work, and I truly admire that. They also understand the laws of nature and can even protect their “children.” This to me is amazing, to be able to know people like this.
James: Yes. If you have faith in a mahatma, nothing will go wrong and if it does it will set itself right very quickly. But just hanging around a mahatma for the energy, the feel-good factor, will not make much difference in the long run, assuming you want moksa, without self-inquiry. You have to work on yourself. No mahatma can remove your vasanas, although there is a belief that he or she can.
Shanti: While I study with you and learn the teachings of Vedanta, which I really like and want to practice, I also feel the need to have this other kind of support (at least until I realize myself) because sometimes my heart feels empty and these Mothers help me fill that void. What also helps me a lot is what Amma recommended in a rare speech she gave, something very simple, to think of God first thing upon waking, and to pray to God for at least ten minutes before going to sleep. I have been doing this. It’s not hard for me because I already worship God (or Isvara; I’m a little confused about that still) and I know there is something that exists that hears my prayers and that my heart resonates with, and this makes me happy.
James: Yes, prayer is very good. Pray for understanding, moksa. That “something” that hears your prayers is just you, awareness, the self. When you realize that it is you, you stop praying. That “Isvara” is not outside. It is just you. This letter to me is a kind of prayer. You are looking for understanding. Karma yoga is prayer.
Shanti: In your email you said “She probably does not suffer fools gladly and enjoys her own company.” But don’t some realized people “fool gladly” once they can see everything clearly, that maya is playing everyone and everything? It must be amusing to them. Don’t unrealized people take life too seriously? Isn’t life really a comedy, a drama totally beyond our control to which we can do nothing but surrender to? Realized people seem to take everything lightly, find life amusing and can laugh at just about any situation happening here in this world. I always found that amazing.
James: Yes, there is nothing serious about life. It is a big joke, way better than TV.
Shanti: You also said, “This is the self in the form of a sattvic state of mind created by the energy of the class.” If this is true then why do I sometimes have a certain vision exactly when she walks in the room (my eyes are closed)? And why when I sat with her privately a few times (in silence), my energy was really increased and I was more sattvic and more peaceful for a day or two? And when I have a problem, she can see my mind ask it and then afterwards smiles and nods affirmatively. It seems that if my question is sincere she can answer it or help the situation; what is that then?
James: It is both the energy of the mahatma and the energy of the group. Pure yogic mahatmas like her have strong shakti and when you get in their energy field, you get high, peaceful, etc. When you are in a group, it intensifies the sattva. And yes, some mahatmas can read your mind and offer support, but this one cannot teach you directly, show you that you are fullness. This is why she doesn’t speak. Silence is good to purify the mind but it is not opposed to self/self-ignorance. But it is good for now nonetheless. But it is not really the mahatma that is doing this. It is Bhagavan working though the mahatma. You invoke Bhagavan/Isvara when you approach a mahatma and It works though the mahatma to make your faith strong. The Gita explains this.
Shanti: So you got me interested in reading about what “mahatma” meant. Before, I used to associate it with Gandhi, but I never really knew what it meant. Here is what Wikipedia says:
“The Vedas say that association of great soul is very rare: ‘The association of a mahatma is very rare and yet it is available to a sincere seeker. Krishna also speaks about this in Bhagavad Gita: ‘After many births and deaths, he who is actually in knowledge surrenders unto Me, knowing Me to be the cause of all causes and all that is. Such a great soul is very rare.’
“The association of great souls is rarely obtained, difficult to understand, and infallible… Another proof of the power of the mahatma is his ability to convert non-devotees into saintly persons. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura stated that a Vaisnava can be tested by seeing how good a “touchstone” he is – by seeing how many Vaisnavas he has made during his life. Lord Caitanya desired that as many persons as possible should repeat the message of Krishna and convince others to take up Krishna-consciousness, following in the footsteps of Narada Muni and other great acaryas. In conclusion, the association of a mahatma is very rare, and yet it is available to a sincere seeker. Upon contacting a great soul, one should realize one’s good fortune, and with a joyful but serious attitude one should surrender unto his lotus feet.”
James: This is true but the last statement is very dangerous. You should not surrender to the mahatma unless you are very sure that he or she is a mahatma and can actually teach you. Look at the problems that just happened with Swami Suddhananda. He is a mahatma but not purified. The last statement is the take of the Krishna Consciousness people, the storm troopers’ bhakti yoga. They are dvaitis, dualists. They tend to be fanatics. They do not believe in moksa. They will enslave you with rituals and devotion to a physical guru. Krishna warns agains this kind of bhakta in the Gita. And not all mahatmas are qualified to set you free although you will get secondary benefits from associating with them, primarily an increase in a desire to be free. You tell if a mahatma is real if you feel progressively more free as a result of your association with him or her.
The Gita is a dharma shastra, a scripture on dharma, and a scripture on moksa, liberation. I am a Krishna bhakta so I know a lot about Krishna and his lilas and the different kinds of Krishna bhaktas. The Krishna Consciousness devotees do not accept that the Gita is a moksa shastra. Their intellects are totally tamasic and consequently they cannot even read the Gita properly. It is good entry-level stuff for tamasic people with spiritual vasanas, mostly substance abusers and people with family problems who need a father/mother figure to keep them calm. But they are very narrow-minded, like fundamentalist Christians. They just repeat what they have read and been told without thinking about it at all. Most are good people and live reasonably clean lives, but the gurus tend to be power-hungry. Religion is good but tamasic and rajasic religions are not good because tamas and rajas are not conducive to inquiry. But you cannot tell these people anything.
If you have to surrender something, surrender the fruits of your actions to Bhagavan and your intellect to the sruti, Vedanta, as taught by a competent teacher.
Shanti: These definitions of mahatma seem to be related to bhakti yoga, true?
James: Yes. The definitions are correct, but the conclusion about surrender is the result of tamasic bhakti yoga because it assumes that all mahatmas are equal and that enlightenment is some kind of experience that can be transmitted by a mahatma. There are sattvic bhaktas who know the relationship between bhakti and jnanam, self-knowledge. Your Amma is a sattvic bhakta. In fact, there is no such thing as bhakti yoga as it is understood these days. You can read my article on the website (Publications > Articles >) called What Is Advaita Vedanta? and it will explain the multi-path confusion properly.
~ Love, James