Search & Read
Jiva Samadhi: The Death of Radha Ma
About fifteen years ago I lost my home in the States and went to Tiruvannamalai. I have loved India for forty-plus years and was not seeking anything other than a cheap, warm, peaceful place to spend the winter months. Since then I have had occasion to make the acquaintance of many people. I like people in general and most people specifically, and you could say that I am a collector of stories. When I first came, there were not many people to meet so I read scripture, wrote my books and hung out in Usha’s Restaurant watching the street, reading the local newspapers and drinking chai.
Slowly Tiruvannamalai became a popular destination and I met more and more interesting people. The main topic of conversation was always the various gurus who came to ply their trade. I found it amusing that for any given guru, except perhaps Ramana who seemed to have transcended the guru label, opinions pro and con were almost equally represented. I never attended a satsang in Tiruvannamalai except once when Thuli Baba had an ashram on the southwest side of the mountain. I had a guru forty years ago – a pukka mahatma – and it was all I needed so there has been zero interest in anyone else since.
About a month ago one of the many gurus that ply their trade in Tiruvannamalai, Radha Ma, shuffled off the mortal coil in a spectacular fashion: she doused herself with petrol in front of some of her devotees and “took samadhi,” as they say.
I never met her although I heard many stories about her, some favorable and some not so favorable. You can google her name and come up with the various views on who she “really” was. In fact, there is no way to tell what anything in maya “really” is – such is its nature. But this does not stop people from trying to figure it out.
I did see her once and was underwhelmed. One day I went to the Ramana Supermarket where I saw a group of about fifteen or twenty people clustered around a very physically attractive woman. I had no idea who she was. I did recognize many of the people, however, and most were the inimitable “Papaji people” from Lucknow. When Osho went off the rails and died before they got their moksa, they put all their enlightenment eggs in the Papaji basket. Unfortunately, Papaji followed in Osho’s footsteps – as even gurus do – whereupon they invaded Tiruvannamalai looking for the next most incredible being who was meant to set them free. It was one of those absurd devotee scrums favored by undiscriminating seekers that would have been laughable had it not been so sad. I witnessed people with zero self-worth, no dignity whatsoever, doting and fawning on her like sycophants around a heavyweight boxer. Some were sitting in the dirt at her feet gazing rapturously at her and jockeying for position as they begged for a ray of mercy from her divine eyes.
I think it must have been at about the same spot where Ramana sat one day when he came back from his walk to find the ashram gates closed. He read the sign that said the ashram was closed and sat down across the street waiting for the gates to open. On the basis of that simple act it should have been designated a sacred spot and a shrine built there because it testified loudly to the simplicity and humility that is the hallmark of a great sage. But seventy years on it was forced to witness a gross and ostentatious display of mock devotion. And at the center of the scrum, clearly enjoying the attention like a queen bee, sat Radha Ma.
On another occasion a few years back I was in my favorite restaurant perusing the guru posters for laughs and came across a poster advertising a satsang at Kannapa Temple. It called the punters to a satsang by a rotund Israeli woman who supposedly attainted enlightenment after meditating in the desert for one hundred days. I could tell by the wording that it was a send-up but evidently it did not need to be excessively subtle to attract a large crowd of – you guessed it – ex-Papaji people who counted themselves among the Radha Ma faithful, and other reasonably weak-minded seekers of whom there are many in Tiruvannamalai. I wasn’t there, needless to say, but I heard that Radha Ma was there and used the occasion to tell off her devotees and terminate the satsang charade that she had encouraged. After that she retired to her ashram with a few trusted and supposedly qualified devotees. I must admit that a flicker of admiration passed through my cynical brain insofar as gurus are not famous for admitting their mistakes and renouncing their “disciples.”
In the last years I heard mixed reports. About half said she was an incredible amazing saint of the highest order – Ramana, move over! – and the other half said she was a neurotic, self-serving, power-hungry, attention-seeking, land-grabbing manipulator who specialized in black magic. You will find both views represented in the Tiruvannamalai blogosphere since her death. Which is true? Who was she?
In fact there is no way to answer that question, maya being what it is. If you want to know the path of the sun and you stand on the equator it seems to rise in the east and set in the west. If you position yourself on the North Pole at a certain time of year it goes around in a circle, never rising or setting. If you sit on the sun it does not move with reference to the earth. What she was depends on what you are.
But there is a way to look at it that makes a bit of sense. Obviously, from the self’s point of view, nothing ever happened. If she was real she would be present now. If she was the self then she was never born and she never died. If she was the body then she has simply gone the way of all bodies, a bit prematurely perhaps – or not, if you subscribe to the view that everything in the apparent reality is perfect insofar as it cannot be anything other than what it is. From the self’s perspective, it was not an event that warrants grief – or relief. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “The wise grieve neither for the dead nor for the living.” So it was not a tragedy. It had certain comedic elements – as does everything that happens in maya and particularly in Tiruvannamalai since the influx of foreigners disturbed the peace.
The downside, from the point of view of those who loved her and who had their hopes pinned on her, is that they will now have to dig up another guru to fulfill their needs, but even this is not the kiss of death insofar as the undiscriminating gurus are as numerous as the hairs on one’s head these days, and undoubtedly after a bit of soul searching – or not – her devotees will gravitate to the next guru du jour.
The upside, from the point of view of those who felt used and abused by her, is that another guru poseur bit the dust – and good riddance. The downside, for those that long for the good old days when gurus were proper gurus – think Ramana – is that nature abhors a vacuum and, considering the large crop of gullible seekers that congregate at the feet of Arunachala every season, there is little doubt that their overweening need to be transported to the Elysian fields of enlightenment on the wings of a high-flying “sat guru” will encourage the next Radha Ma to burst upon the scene ready and willing to do their bidding. And eventually we will be treated to another amusing charade.
But for me the interesting question is why there are such divergent views on who she was in the apparent reality. Needless to say those weighing in on this momentous event seem not to subscribe to the view that what happened didn’t really happen. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita again: “The one who sees action in inaction and inaction in action is indeed wise.” They seem to take her death to be a real happening in a real reality and they seem to think their views on it are equally real. In addition to the absolute point of view, there are two other aspects of reality understanding which might help us to find a reasonable explanation for the divergent views.
The ancient Vedantic texts discuss three orders of reality. The first is called paramarthika satyam. It says that that reality is non-dual and with reference to the karma world “nothing ever happened.” If it did, it apparently happened. Brahma satyam jagan mithya. Consciousness alone exists, the world apparently exists. So from this point of view there is no actual Radha Ma and no nasty suicide – as mentioned above.
The second order of reality is called vyavaharika satyam, the transactional or empirical reality. This is our everyday factual world of subject and object. It is a scientific world upon which anyone whose senses are backed by a clear mind can agree. In this world fire caused a human being called Radha Ma to die. Even those of us who were not there when it happened could have, had we seen her body, inferred that she burned to death. The third order of reality is called pratibhasika satyam. It is the subjective reality, the world of an individual’s thoughts and feelings.
The relationship between the empirical reality and the subjective reality is like the relationship between the waking and the dream state. In both states an individual experiences a world and in both states the individual thinks that what he or she is experiencing is reality. When a man murders his wife in a dream he takes the murder to be real and also takes the feelings that he or she experiences to be real. But once he wakes up he does not trot down to the police station in the vyvaharika state and turn himself in. In that reality, the cops need a “real” body.
Unless you understand the distinction between these two orders or reality, you will always be confused about what is going on. In the dream state, the subjective reality, the dream is empirical for the dreamer even though it is a world made completely out of his or her vasanas, his or her conditioning. But an individual does not have to be asleep and dreaming to experience reality as a dream. His or her senses can report the existence of objects from the outside world but his or her mind can be projecting, i.e. dreaming. And if the individual is not aware of both levels, he or she can take his or her projections to be real. The people who see Mother Mary in a bagel, a city inside Arunachala or who experience ETs and ascended masters are in the pratibhasika level of realty. What they experience is real – for them. But for those in the vyavaharika level of reality, those things do not exist.
The spiritual world is made up of very few people who see reality from the paramarthika viewpoint. From that position you are aware of both the waking and dream state because they exist simultaneously in the one reality, which you identify as yourself. You know that neither one is real with reference to you. The spiritual world is also made up of many individuals who fluctuate between both the waking and dream states.
Some are very much established in the dream state – the “space cadets” – who take their spiritual projections to be reality. Occasionally they switch – through no fault of their own – into the waking state and are usually dismayed to find out that waking state karma does not seem to appreciate their reality and they suffer accordingly. Others are more or less permanently established in empirical reality but occasionally have epiphanies, which occur, on the pratibhasika level. This often causes confusion because when they come back to the empirical reality they can’t make it square with what they experience in the dream state. Epiphanies are just waking dreams.
If we apply this analysis to Radha Ma, it is easy to see why there are divergent views. When you are in the waking state and you put your property in Radha Ma’s name and she does not want to give it back, you will honestly come to the conclusion that she is a thief because that is the way it is in that dimension of reality. When she cuts or burns her body to show you that she is somehow beyond it, you will think she is a bit light in the loafers or that she has “siddhis” or is practicing black magic. But when your mind is in the pratibhasika level or reality, you take what you believe to be the reality. If you have had some kind of epiphany in her presence or, if you are just feeding off the group energy and have accepted the projections of the group, that she is a “great being” or some such, you will think that her suicide is actually a kind of “Jiva Samadhi,’ an amazing act of compassion for her devotees insofar as she can work more efficiently from a “higher” plane for your enlightenment, an idea that is also floating around the blogosphere.
If you look at this idea from the vyvaharika level you might be tempted to wonder why someone could function more efficiently from another dimension or you might even wonder why she didn’t leave for that other dimension with a little more dignity. Or why she even bothered to come here in the first place if she was going to jump ship mid-voyage for a more salubrious residence elsewhere. Or why anyone who knew who they were would try to prove that they were beyond the body to a bunch of people who had no idea what enlightenment really was. If you were sometimes in the waking state and sometimes in the dream state when you were in her divine/demoniac presence, you will be mightily confused because you will not be able to figure out how she could be a manipulative land-grabber and The Avataress of the Aquarian Age at the same time. The next thing we will probably hear is that she had to go to a special dimension to join other disembodied world do-gooders in time to save the world from disaster in 2012.
Although there are exceptions, in general the human beings that make up the spiritual world in any age value the dream state over the waking state. Somehow it is meant to be more “real” than the waking state. Pratibhasika satyam is the world of an individual’s projections. It is the world of belief. The recent much-ballyhooed Rapture, the idea that 2012 is the end of the world as we know it, the idea that 1,000-year-old Babaji flits around the world manifesting here and there from time to time, that Ramana’s cow was enlightened (evidently, Ramana had a good sense of humor) and other beliefs too numerous to mention are only realities if you think they are realities. There is no reason why you should not live in that world but if you do you will suffer and enjoy the consequences. It is not a world that will get you enlightened, assuming that is what you want.
Regarding enlightenment, the Buddha is reported to have said, “Believe nothing you have read or anything you have heard – even if I have said it – unless it corresponds to common sense and reason.” These are words of wisdom aimed at individuals firmly ensconced in the empirical dimension of reality and words of warning for those caught up in superstitious beliefs, because only a dispassionate, discriminating, quiet, devotional and properly motivated mind is fit for self-inquiry.
In other words, have your feet firmly planted on the earth if you want to get anywhere spiritually. And the fact is that the self is not to be found in either state. Both states appear in it. However, the empirical reality is the proper starting point. Truth is simple. It is always present and it makes sense.
Scripture says that you, awareness, are always here. You are the truth. You are what is real, unborn and immortal. If Radha Ma was what she said she was, she never died and grief is not warranted. If she has taken Jiva Samadhi and finds herself in some other dimension working for the welfare of her devotees, she is nothing more than a belief in the minds of individuals who have confused their own beliefs with reality.
Although I am still not sure what a blog is, this is a blog and my idea of a blog is that it is an opinion on a particular topic, in this case, the death of Radha Ma. So how to explain this senseless act? I think the problem stems from the fact that this person, like many so-called enlightened people before her who ended up badly, had some profound epiphanies – experiences of her true nature – but because she did not have a proper guru and experience herself in the context of a respectable and established lineage – not one of the modern cooked-up lineages that Westerners favor – she believed that what she experienced was enlightenment and, quite innocently, set up shop and began to trade on the experiential view of enlightenment, which is the dominant view in any age.
How could this have been prevented? Had she had a proper guru like Ramana, she would have sat still and let the knowledge of who she is work on her. There is nothing to do when you know who you are. The knowledge of your true nature does all the work. If you understand this, you do not hang out a shingle and proclaim your enlightenment to the world. You head for the “cave” as did Ramana and other greats. In fact, you may even feel a bit sheepish that you actually remained in ignorance for such a long time and be happy to just be with yourself and let the world find you – or not. Yes, there is an undeniable desire to ring the bell and get the world to come to church, but this is just your unpurified ego wanting to be noticed. Like everyone else, Radha Ma had good and bad qualities, and a mature seeker understands that and does not invest his or her energy in the person but in what the person represents.
The lesson, I suppose, is that you get the guru you deserve. If you go to a guru, turn over your life and your property and you get cheated, it is your own fault. If you have common sense you will not seek a guru. When you are ready the guru will find you. And he or she may not be surrounded by a scrum of needy seekers begging for help.
In the fullness of time the whole enlightenment business is a wash anyway. As Dogen said, “Next to good manners enlightenment is the most important thing in the world.” Enlightenment is wasted on uncultured people. It may be good for them but it is not good for the world. Although it is usually well-meaning and unintentional, this kind of vain emotional pandering to the enlightenment fantasies of immature individuals gives enlightenment a bad name. Enlightenment in no way qualifies you to teach it to others.