Hundreds of years ago in India, yoga could be learned only from a self-realized guru, and it took some doing to work your way into his good graces. You had to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you were serious about your spiritual career and willing to commit to lifelong vows–of things like poverty and chastity–that today seem rather unappealing. Contemporary seekers’ access to gurus isn’t nearly as restricted, but depending on your circumstances, you might not easily encounter a live guru (or find one that suits you). Fortunately, many audio and videotapes by and about departed spiritual masters are available, offering the chance to at least vicariously bask in the presence of these remarkable souls. We recently searched the spiritual marketplace for electronic media that might provide just such an experience, and here are the best ones we found.
The chronologically oldest, and surely most unusual, of such gurus is Ramakrishna (18361886), the subject of Ramakrishna: A Documentary (Vedanta Society of St. Louis, www.vedantastl.org). A spiritual prodigy who had strange and glorious visions starting at a very young age, Ramakrishna embarked upon his spiritual quest while still in his teens. At times, Ramakrishna’s public behavior was so bizarre that many people believed he was insane. In fact, he was–as the narrator describes it–afflicted with a lifelong “divine madness,” often instigated by seemingly insignificant incidents or encounters that revealed to him the overwhelming presence and power of God in the world.
Considering that only a few black-and-white photos of Ramakrishna exist, his biographers at the Vedanta Society have done a bang-up job putting together a visually attractive presentation. They have judiciously combined these photos with drawings and contemporary film clips of the places in which he lived (including the temple complex at Dakshineswar, where he spent most of his adult life) and that he visited to vividly portray Ramakrishna’s life in 19th-century India.
One of the most amazing things about Ramakrishna was his open-minded ecumenicalism. In 1864, he was initiated into the teachings of nondualist Vedanta, and he attained the highest state of samadhi (union) in only three days. But he also studied and for periods of time practiced Hindu Tantra, Islam, and Christianity (although he couldn’t accept the idea of original sin). In the end, he rejected all forms of formal worship: “As many faiths,” he said, “so many paths.” While he lived only 50 years and rarely traveled far from home, Ramakrishna attracted a dedicated group of disciples, committed to both spiritual uplifting and social service. The waves of his potent influence radiated concentrically outward throughout all of India and eventually washed over the West.
One of his most notable disciples was Swami Vivekananda (18631902). As is evident in the video Vivekananda: As We Saw Him (Vedanta Society of St. Louis), he’s the most intellectually engaging and socially active of the gurus considered here. He likely had the greatest impact on yoga in the United States, for he is usually credited with introducing yoga to America in 1893. It’s hard to appreciate today, so accustomed are we to cultural and religious diversity and sages from the East, but Vivekananda’s visit to this country caused a big stir, because of both his exotic appearance and his outspoken, uncompromising message of the unity of all religion.
Many photos of Vivekananda exist, and they are used to great advantage in illustrating his story. It’s a real kick to see this stout, dark-skinned, turbaned swami, with his alluring puppy-dog eyes, in the company of his American students dressed in the fashions of the late 19th century. We’re also treated to some (rather scratchy) recorded reminiscences of people who had contact with him, if only as young children, during his time in the United States.
Vivekananda was dedicated to reforming not only human souls but the injustices of Indian society as well. To that end, he helped establish the Ramakrishna Order of India, an umbrella organization for both monastics and social-service centers, including hospitals, various schools and libraries, and publishing houses. Swami Prabhavananda, a second-generation Ramakrishna disciple, was initiated into the Ramakrishna Order in 1914 at the age of 21. He arrived in this country in 1923; seven years later, he founded the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Prabhavananda wrote several scholarly books on Indian religion and philosophy, but he’s best remembered for his translations, with Christopher Isherwood, of the Bhagavad Gita (Song of God, Vedanta Press, 1991) and Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra (How to Know God, Vedanta Press, 1996).
A recently released video focusing on Prabhavananda, The Eight Limbs of Yoga: Steps to Achieving Perfection (Vedanta Press, 800/816-2242, www.vedanta.com), consists of a straightforward two-hour lecture (divided into two hour-long sessions) on Patanjali‘s eight-limbed (ashtanga) practice. Originally filmed in 1971, it was recently transferred to video as part of the Vedanta Society’s effort to preserve and make widely available Prabhavananda’s teachings. (Also available from Vedanta Press are a number of his recorded public talks–on both CD and audiotape–on a range of subjects, from divine love, effort, and grace to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from the Vedantic perspective.)
Prabhavananda gives a solid if low-key presentation; he’s not a charismatic speaker, but he’s quite passionate about his subject and not averse to a shot of humor. His interpretation of the individual yogic practices is decidedly mainline, with a heavy emphasis on the yamas and niyamas–the commentary on these first two limbs eats up the entire first hour–as the foundation of the eight-limbed practice as a whole.
We found two biographies of Ramana Maharshi (18791950), one a VHS tape and one a DVD. The VHS, Abide as the Self: The Essential Teachings of Ramana Maharshi (Inner Directions, www.innerdirections.org, 760/599-4075) seems flat, in both its visual impact and its content, when compared with the DVD. It relies mostly on photos, drawings, and grainy movie clips of Ramana from the 1930s and 1940s to tell his story. The narration focuses on Ramana’s teaching, which he called “self-enquiry,” with periodic readings from his collected works and interviews with devotees explaining his impact on their lives.
Though the DVD, The Sage of Arunachala: A Documentary (Arunachala Ashrama, 718/575-3215, www.arunachala.org), does get into Ramana’s teaching near the end, it is mostly a snappy, chronological account of his life. It portrays Ramana’s path from a normal childhood in a small Indian village to his adult years as a revered sage, spent exclusively in and around the holy hill of Arunachala in Southern India. All of this is absorbingly illustrated with colorful contemporary film clips of Ramana’s haunts and of daily Indian life.
My own personal favorite among the masters described here is Nisargadatta Maharaj (18971981). Unlike the rest of these renunciants, who were mostly sheltered from the mundane affairs of daily life, Nisargadatta was a regular guy, a kind of spiritual everyman–as we see in Awaken to the Eternal: Nisargadatta Maharaj–A Journey of Self-Discovery (Inner Directions). A small-time shopkeeper in crowded Bombay–the only guru I know of who sold cigarettes–with a wife and four kids, he is proof that you can follow the spiritual life without sacrificing the world.
Despite Nisargadatta’s lack of the usual guru trappings, self-seekers came from all over the world to talk with him; he held court (as shown in several film clips) in a stuffy little shrinemeditation room above his shop. Though he himself published nothing in his life, these lively question-and-answer sessions were transcribed and then collected in one of the most extraordinary spiritual documents of the 20th century, I Am That (Aperture, 1997), a title recalling the well-known Upanishadic dictum tat tvam asi (“That art Thou”). Like the man himself, Nisargadatta’s teaching, summarized in the video’s narration, is the essence of simplicity. We’re all asleep in the dream of ignorance, he says, and in order to wake up to our “natural state,” we need do nothing more than witness ourselves in silence, remaining quietly alert with a pure heart and clear mind.
Though we might not want to emulate any of these gurus’ behavior–such as Ramana Maharshi’s taking up residence in a cave–all of these masters are inspiring examples of what true dedication to the spiritual life is like. It’s amazing to see how fearlessly some people will pursue self-realization. We usually think of instructional yoga videos as involving some handy hints on asana and Pranayama. Watching the videos of these gurus reminds us that yoga instruction is much broader, and that someone can teach not only with words but with his entire being.
Contributing Editor Richard Rosen teaches public classes in Northern California. He is the author of The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama (Shambhala, 2002).