“Life is just a memory,” the Aghori Vimalananda liked to muse. “Bitter or sweet, it is nothing but memory.”
I can still hear Vimalananda, the man who became my mentor, underscoring for me the need to be able both to remember and to forget. To remember with gratitude the good done to me, and forget the slights I am shown. To reinforce by remembering them the noble sentiments that uplift my humanity, and to weaken by forgetting them my personal human debilities, born of selfishness and insecurity. When Vimalananda thought of remembering he remembered Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, the man who never forgot that when he was caught stealing the bishop’s candlesticks the bishop protected him from the police instead of denouncing him. Jean Valjean carried the memory of that single incident with him for the rest of his life; it changed him permanently.
Vimalananda taught those who came to him to transform their lives by remembering the single certainty that life offers each of us: the sureness of our eventual death. The more you become aware of death’s certitude, he would say, the more urgently you will strive to live an impeccable life, to seek a healthy relationship with that infinite and permanent reality that lies beyond our world of the temporary and the mundane.
Vimalananda, who remembered his own impending death every morning of his eventful life, believed that forgetting to merge one’s awareness with external things is the very first step in spirituality, for we can remember the Infinite only to the extent that we have forgotten everything else. Vimalananda dedicated his life to a one-pointed pursuit of the Absolute by offering up all his externals on the altar of Aghora.
Aghora (literally, “non-terrifying”) is the spiritual path that seeks to negate all that is ghora (“terrible, terrifying”) in life. The ghora encompasses all those experiences that most people find intolerable, for almost everyone is as ready to enjoy life’s pleasures as they are to avoid misery. Most spiritual advisers admonish their devotees to shy away from the ghora, but aghoris (practitioners of Aghora) embrace the ghora fervidly, for what most terrifies an aghori is the prospect of becoming mired in duality. Aghoris go so far into the ghora that the ghora becomes tolerable to them; diving deeply into darkness, an aghori finally surfaces into light. No means to awakening is too disgusting or frightening for an aghori, for Aghora is the Path of the Shadow of Death, the path that forcibly separates an individual from attachment to every ordinary self-descriptor.
Aghora’s temple is the smashan (cremation ground), where aghoris worship death, the Great Transformer, with a savage, all-consuming love. Those who are enslaved by their cravings think aghoris mad for displaying such ferocity in their quest for knowing. They condemn Aghora’s outwardly repugnant practices because they cannot see beneath their ritual skin. If they could but peep into an aghori’s heart they would find there an ache for Reality so fierce that no means could be too extreme to achieve it. This ache drives the divine fury, the passionately unrestrained non-attachment to absolutely everything, that is Aghora’s hallmark. Aghoris earn their illumination by incinerating themselves moment by moment in their own internal fires, laughingly consuming any substance and performing any activity that might further enkindle their awareness. They seize every moment of life that God offers to them, even a trip to the toilet, as a fresh opportunity to surrender to the One. Good aghoris take their temples with them as they wander the world, endlessly amazed to witness the universe ceaselessly consuming itself in the fires of an ongoing cosmic cremation.
Aghora like alchemy substitutes for a set recipe of self-development an outline whose details differ for each practitioner. Each aghori and his customs are unique, and in truth all one aghori must have in common with another is a shared degree of intensity and determination. Aghoris become so desperate in their quests that they channel their every thought and feeling into a super-obsession, a single-minded quest to achieve the Beloved. They endeavor eternally to dismember their restricted selves fully, that God may have a free hand to re-member them completely. They die day by day while they are still alive, that by dying to their limitations they can be reborn into the eternal life of Reality.
Aghoris achieve laser-like focus by learning to awaken and cultivate that evolutionary power that the Tantras call Kundalini. Vimalananda comments, “Ahamkara, your ‘I-creating’ faculty, continuously remembers you by self-identifying with all the cells in your body and all the facets of your personality. Ahamkara is your personal shakti (power); she integrates the many parts of you into the individual that you are. You develop spiritually when you can cause ahamkara to realize, little by little, that she is actually She: the Kundalini Shakti. This growing realization gradually awakens Kundalini, and as She awakens She forgets to self-identify with your limited human personality. Then She is ready to recollect something new.”
After his Kundalini was awakened during a midnight ritual performed atop a human corpse, the Aghori Vimalananda developed a wonderfully fresh and vital recollection of reality. Kundalini took for him the form of Smashan Tara (“The Savioress of the Cemetery”), the Tantric goddess Who causes the living to cross the frontier between the reality of life and that of death. After incarnating within him as Smashan Tara Vimalananda’s Kundalini traversed the boundaries of his ordinary human awareness, and created within him a multidimensional personality.
Ever the iconoclast, Vimalananda never permitted himself to be pigeonholed, even as an aghori. A stereotypical aghori is an wild-eyed madman skulking about the cremation ground, cooking his food in a human skull, flinging filth at anyone who might dare to disturb him. Vimalananda, who spent part of his life playing that role, eventually became so conversant with the aghori frame of mind that he came to be able to drag it along wherever he went. While ordinary aghoris define themselves by the external smashan, superior aghoris like Vimalananda create a smashan wherever they sit, that they may maintain simultaneous awareness of all versions of reality. After choosing who to be at a given moment, Vimalananada would portray that self with consummate skill, transforming all the while his every act into a sadhana, a spiritual discipline.
Vimalananda’s peers acknowledged him as an expert in astrology, medicine, cookery, horseflesh, dance, vocal and instrumental music, and wrestling. Beneath the mundane accomplishments of his versatile erudition, visible only to a select view, simmered his striking spiritual attainments. Genuine aghoris crave only to fill their hearts with tears for the Beloved, and count external appearance as nothing more than “the dressing up of a corpse.” To some this means swathing themselves in human ashes; to Vimalananda it meant wearing whatever costume a situation called for without ever becoming fixated on that dress. Whether leading his brave troops as a gung-ho army officer, toiling next to his workers as a hard-working quarry owner and dairy farmer, playing the equine game as an avid owner of thoroughbred race horses or roving the countryside as a naked ascetic, Vimalananda donned the right skin for the job. He threw himself wholeheartedly into each role, becoming “as hard as diamond and as soft as wax” as required, the yearning within augmenting all the while. Aghoris live to overdo, and the events of Vimalananda’s life document again and again how readily he overdid in his search for his Beloved. He really overdid things on the day he lost his temper with his penis for disturbing his sleep with its regular erections, and read it the riot act with the help of a thick layer of green chili paste. What a fiery lesson that was! Most people would think him as insane for trying such a stunt as he thought them insane for obsessing over everything except the One Thing in life that is worth obsessing over.
Vimalananda found divinity’s highest expression in the Motherhood of God. Kundalini was to him his Ma, his Beloved Mother Who consented to protect and preserve Her child from all dangers, no matter what errors he might commit, so long as he remained safe within Her lap. That his sex organ healed scarless after its chili massage is tribute to how cockeyed Mother Nature was to him. Like a good aghori he always followed his spontaneous ardor, and like an indulgent mother She always protected him from his own fervor.
He knew well, however, that he was protected by the intensity of his devotion to Her, and that few others who tried to imitate his actions would escape unscathed. Year after year of sitting in the Divine Lap taught him to love every plant, animal and rock in the universe as his own child, and to wish for all beings only what was in their best interests. No matter how fanatical Vimalananda the aghori became about his sadhana, Vimalananda the maternal mentor never permitted anyone to slavishly emulate his practices.
He punctuated this message by flaunting his unconventionality. Open indulgence in alcohol and other intoxicants and frank acknowledgment of his enthusiastic sex life served to drive all but the most persistent postulants from his unmarked door. He followed in this the ancient example of Guru Dattatreya, the first aghori, who in order to weed out through disgust those of his disciples who could not look beyond their guru’s outer ‘clothes’ took to drinking wine while a beautiful naked female sat atop his lap. The world’s skin, the superficial image of reality that we call in Sanskrit maya, is a barrier that few people find easy to dismantle. Vimalananda wanted to be remembered solely by those people who would remember the “him” beneath his skin, the him with a heart that was as big as all outdoors.
A man of action who cared little for the opinions of others on what Aghora might or might not be, Vimalananda resisted all attempts to paint him as a ‘classical’ aghori. He ignored all recognized Aghora sects as assiduously as he disdained all organized religion. When asked his creed he would reply, “None! I believe in sampradaha (incineration), not sampradaya(sect). All sects have limitations, and what is really necessary is to cremate all your limitations, to burn down everything that stands in the way of your perception of Reality.” He valued practice over theory, and instruction from a guru over textual injunction. He accepted approved Hindu doctrine whenever it pleased him to do so, or he would cheerfully remix it until it did, even when such experiments (such as performing devotional worship after consuming intoxicants) dismayed the puritanical.
Wherever he looked Vimalananda saw both God’s imminence in every morsel of the universe (the One-in-All) and God’s transcendence beyond every material concretion (the All-in-One). He knew that, there being but one Reality, any distinction between the mundane and the spiritual can only be one of degree. When the orthodox questioned his purity and sincerity he would tell them in response, “Show me where God, and thus purity, is not!” Aghoris know how to worship in the ways that conventional priests worship, but they also learn how to go beyond convention. They learn to make “gutter water into Ganges water,” transforming even feces or morsels of human brain into a sacrament by so consecrating it with their devotion that it too becomes redolent with the fragrance of God.
But Vimalananda refused even to limit himself to this sort of definition, and turned all his energies into a quest for the holy grail of continuous, God-fired self-redefinition. Never did any ego-promontory resist within him for long being eroded by his devotion, for he counted no aghori successful until he or she had gone so far into sadhana that nothing remained but love, the devotion (bhakti) that was the source of all his power. Vimalananda followed even the most grotesque of sadhanas to its bitter end, and donated whatever shakti he obtained from them to the Great Shakti Who sheltered and nourished him. He climbed to the apex of aghoridom and stood there, dissolving and recoagulating himself moment by moment, his motto an eternal shout of navinam navinam, kshane kshane (“Newness, newness, at every moment!”).
Genuine aghoris have always been far fewer than their imitators, people who blacken Aghora’s name by performing garish ceremonies to attract the attention of the gullible public. Vimalananda never sought to capitalize on his capabilities by soliciting public recognition. Instead he so successfully promoted his anonymity that many of his oldest compadres never even suspected that he had any interest in spirituality.
I entered Vimalananda’s life in 1975 when I tried to interview him in Poona. I requested him to take a questionnaire, and was impressed when after refusing it he answered all my questions anyway without my ever having to ask them. One thing led to another, and soon I was one of his bacchas, his ‘spiritual children.’ Vimalananda, who insisted that a real guru always treats a disciple as a spiritual son or daughter, both refused to call his devotees ‘disciples’ and refused to call himself a guru. He believed that a guru’s attitude of claiming to know something shuts him or her off from anything new. Instead he daily prayed that Ma would keep a student throughout his life, to keep him eternally open to learning new things. He advised his spiritual ‘children’ to do the same.
“Never take what I say as gospel truth,” he would say. “I am human, which means that I make mistakes. Always first try out what I say, experience it yourself, and then you will know whether or not it actually is the truth. Because you are human you too make mistakes; that is inevitable. Just always make sure that you make different mistakes each time. Then you will never cease to progress.”
Making mistakes is usually easier than coping with their consequences, particularly in a world in which Tantric information which once remained unspoken because of its potential for misinterpretation is being freely published, often wholly shorn of context. To grab such lore and seek to wield it indiscriminately is to invite calamity into your life. “If you give a monkey a razor,” Vimalananda would ask, “do you think he will shave himself or chop his neck?” If you would preserve your neck while performing Tantric sadhana a good guru is indispensable. Such a mentor will evaluate your personal temperament and capacity to comprehend before tailoring a program specific to you. A compassionate Tantric guru never speaks knowledge that can be misused to people who are not truly qualified to manage that wisdom well. A good guru rather dedicates himself to task of extricating his disciples from bondage to the Ashta Pasha (“Eight Snares”). These are the “nooses” that bind us to the world of karma: lust, anger, greed, delusion, envy, shame, fear and disgust. Free yourself from these snares and you will find yourself well down the path to union with the infinite.
It was because he knew human nature so well that Vimalananda excoriated most “gurus” for failing to acknowledge their own limitations. He insisted on pointing out to his own gurus, whom he loved with a limitless love, their own occasional oversights. He flayed yet more resolutely those spiritual dilettantes who assert that gurus have become unnecessary, maintaining that only the personal ministrations of a powerful guru can insure that you will survive the awakening of Kundalini in Her full glory. A good guru destroys her disciple right down to the ground before re-creating him from the ground up. This process of dying and being born again truly turns the disciple into the guru’s child, in every way. “You will only learn how to love God,” said Vimalananda over and over, “after you have learned how to love your guru.”
The guru comes only when the disciple is ripe enough to love him or her without any limits or preconditions, and Vimalananda spent much of his time preparing his ‘children’ by experimenting with ways to remove their personal limitations. It was impossible not to respect the sincerity with which he played about with us, fed us, and loved us, turning each incident in his life into an excuse to move someone’s mind a little closer toward God. Working tirelessly to author his own reality, Vimalananda created within those of us who succeeded in reaching him the memory of the version of him that he wanted us to retain. Though he was unafraid to tread on toes if he thought that such a step might arouse someone from their slumber, he taught all his lessons with love. He loved people for their future value, for what they had the potential to become, not what they happened to be, and he never confused what they preferred in sadhana with what they required. He insisted that “the real purpose of yoga is to make every home a happy home,” and inevitably exhorted his ‘children’ to clean up their personal lives before they set out to practice yoga, perform rituals or proceed on pilgrimage.
When he did become inspired to elucidate spiritual philosophy or practice he was a marvel of a teacher, his discourses ramifying effortlessly into often unexpected but always engaging insights and affiliations. While the two salient principles of his teaching were eternal compassion for all beings and eternal awareness of rnanubandhana, the bondage of karmic debt, he never devised any system of spiritual practices. “Carve out your own niche” was the message he preached to all those who asked his spiritual advice.
Vimalananda combined an outstanding ability to convey wisdom to people when they least expected it with an unshakable determination to be true to himself and to his vision of reality. Everyone who was interested in hearing him was free to come, and anyone who couldn’t stand his heat was free to leave his smashan. Those who stayed enjoyed the privilege of having him remember them not as they were but as they could be, to re-member them with every fiber of his being as they would someday be, awake to the sun of the Self.
Vimalananda always tested when least expected, that he might have an accurate idea of how we really knew, and always taught people what he was convinced they needed to know. He advised against the slightest complacency, and regularly reminded us all to spend each of our moments as if it were our last. He never hesitated to teach lessons whenever he became satisfied that they were called for. When he worked with those who had a sincere desire to learn (including his penis) he never hesitated either to make them suffer, or to suffer himself on their behalf, if he felt that suffering was necessary to embellish a valuable lesson. A good aghori never flinches when a lesson is to be taught or learned.
One of his fiercest lessons to me was his dying in my arms on December 12, 1983. That heartbreak was itself a reprise of his first lesson, delivered within the first days of our friendship more than eight years before, when he had predicted that I would cremate him. He had said then, “An aghori’s profoundest expression of love is the phrase, ‘You will cremate me’,” and it was only after his death that I finally understood what he meant. The wide range of unpleasant realities into which his demise and incineration forced me at the time have in fact proven invaluable tutorials in the University of Life, however much I might have preferred to avoid living through them.
Before his death Vimalananda had made me “Boswell to his Johnson,” and charged me with presenting him to the world, warts and all. He had spoken for years of writing a book himself, which he would have called Anubhava Siddha Karo! (“Perfect Your Experience!”), but never did so, to preserve his own peace and quiet. He did ask me, however, to spread his views after death to anyone willing to listen, as much to organize my own knowledge and refine my understanding as to instruct others. He also wanted me to have something solid to remember him by, something that would permit me to abide with him again whenever I turned its pages.
It has been a real jolt to me to discover how grossly some readers have misunderstood Vimalananda, how dismissive others have been with their doubts that he ever even existed, and how curious yet other readers are over whether the events that Vimalananda described actually took place or not. Vimalananda himself always attributed to the Great Goddess the many unusual things that I and others experienced when in his vicinity, and never claimed that any of his remarkable capabilities came from anywhere except Ma. His experiences, which were real to him, can be equally real for anyone who is open to the possibility of their being so, just as both he and his experiences remain real for me whenever I re-collect them. Whenever I go to the smashan I remember how Vimalananda loved the place, and in that moment of remembrance he sits together with me again as I envision the eventual burning of my own corpse. In the smashan his teachings come to life for me, for there it is much more difficult to be deluded by maya‘s skin. There it is far easier to recall how all the world eventually ends up on a funeral pyre.
Vimalananda was in every way the most remarkable man that I’ve met, and one of the most spiritual, in the true and real senses of that term. When I have lived by his precepts I have prospered, and when I have not I have had rueful occasion to remember these his words: “It is always best to live with Reality, Robby, because when you do not Reality will definitely come to live with you.” The savor of the many realities he served me as he flavored our life together with his singing, his cooking, and his “talks” continues to satisfy my palate.
I remember lots of little things about him, like his earthy sense of humor and his comic timing; like the way he would sometimes, just for fun, adjust his eye color to match mine (for he could change his eye color at will). But most of all I recollect his truly unparalleled love. After sipping the essence of Aghora from all its bizarre practices he had seen that the only way to truly live with Reality is to melt your heart for God. He always taught that the world’s best intoxicant is free, easy to use, and available at a moment’s notice; it is, of course, the sweet name of God. I best remember Vimalananda sitting bliss-filled with the sweet name of God spilling from his smiling lips.
Perhaps his greatest gift to me was the understanding that great joy and great misery are the two sides of life’s coin, that the one cannot exist without the other. Sincere lovers of God know that the pleasure of the Divine Presence is intensified exponentially by the pain of separation therefrom. From my youth I have understood this truth intellectually, and after Vimalananda’s death I came to know it from experience. Though I am in some sense pleased that Vimalananda is not here today to see how thoroughly Tantra is being degraded, I miss him something terrible. My longing reminds me that it is now my turn to “re-member” him after all the remembering he has done for me. Like Jean Valjean’s memory of the bishop, my memory of Vimalananda continues to remind me to continue transforming my life. It is a blessing for which I daily offer him my heartfelt thanks.
Copyright © 1998
Robert Edwin Svoboda