Too busy for Lent? How a Hindu sacred text could help

Cambridge, MA. I had planned to write for you a Lenten series—as always, in a comparative vein, drawing (mostly) on Hindu texts, as in past years, but despite my noble start, I turned out to be too busy with too many things to carry through on my good intentions. So there was only one such post, not particularly comparative, at the start of Lent.

And now it is Holy Thursday, and even today I have experienced the phenomenon—which I am sure many of you also suffer—of being too busy to really get into the flow of this holiest time of the church’s year. The entirety of Lent is a long preparation for participation in these holy days—think of the readings on Sundays: the desert; the utter darkness shrouding Abram; the transfiguration; the burning bush; the prodigal son; the woman caught hold of by the religious leaders. One can meditate through Lent just be taking the readings to heart.

We are prepared by Lent to divest ourselves of ordinary life and enter into those last days with Jesus, his facing up to his destiny without turning away from it. To walk resolutely with Jesus to his/our fate would be hard, of course, in any case, but the busy schedule of Harvard does not make even contemplating the idea any easier. Yet how can the flow of ordinary life show itself to be conducive to the spiritual values central to our lives? One can’t easily do one’s daily work and also be with Christ in Jerusalem! Or so it may seem.

Oddly, my quandary in Holy Week is intensified and illumined in the challenge I have had of making space in my daily routine for the seminar I am teaching, on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. This sacred Hindu scripture, from about the 8th century B.C.E., is one of the greatest of ancient India’s philosophical and mystical texts. It is a difficult text, surely, but also a wonderful mix of reflections on ritual and the deeper meaning of ritual; on death and creation; a record of a dozen dialogues on the self, some friendly, some fiercer intellectual contests; it contains teachings on the experiences of deep sleep, death and world renunciation, and throughout it all, on the self that pervades all that is but that also seems invisible, inaccessible, within ordinary realities.

As read by the great Hindu commentator, Shankara, the Brihadaranyaka is understood to offer a concerted teaching on the overarching importance of realizing the self, and in a way that is transformative of one’s life as a whole. According to this understanding of the Upanishad, we ordinarily live a distorted and unreal life, with a distorted worldview that accommodates a distorted sense of self. We think ourselves small and finite, between birth and death, and in need of all kinds of things in order to survive in the short run and flourish in the long run. We think of ourselves as in need of material increments, and fear losses, and so plan, strategize quantitatively our journey through each day and our whole lives.

Shankara thinks that the Upanishad—and he glosses “upa-ni-sad” to indicate a shattering of ignorance and false ego—shows that we are not what we think ourselves to be, but much more; and that once we realize our true self—which for Shankara is radically simple and pure, one for all—we can no longer live an ordinary life of planning, ambitioning, needing, fearing, desiring, growing and declining, etc. As if waking from a dream, the drama of small-self existence falls away, and we stop. For Yajnavalkya, the great sage in the Upanishad, what follows next is clear: you leaves your home, go forth, probably to the forest—an other, natural, simple, detached space—and live an entirely different kind of life. Easily said, hard to do.

The very idea is intrusive, sudden, powerful and dramatic. It is very hard to run through the ordinary work of a busy day and at the same time prepare class, or actually sit down with students for 2.5 hours, to read and discuss a section of the Upanishad. Speaking, evoking, the true self, pondering death and birth, questioning how far your five senses will take you in understanding what reality really is, sorting out the states of consciousness that make of waking consciousness, dreaming and deep sleep—all this is quite out of tune with the rhythms of the ordinary day or any ordinary schedule, wherein we move from one task to another all day (and night) long. So, aside from the busy and hectic nature of daily life, to read such a text, and read it with students, is against the flow of ordinary existence, and not really supportive of all that busy-ness.

Similarly, going up to Jerusalem with Jesus is quite out of keeping with our ordinary rhythms of life, even at a university. To hear the Passion narrative on Palm Sunday—and to be aware that the week to follow marks the final days of Jesus in Jerusalem, leading up to his death and burial—is an appeal to come to a halt, change course, take the less traveled path—and all this on a calendar where stopping is hardly possible. Even today, Holy Thursday, my Center for the Study of World Religions is hosting three events. (Though I am skipping all three but not my office hours and some Sanskrit tutorials.)

In a strange way, reading the Upanishad, and the hard practice in the past weeks of abrupt shifts in levels of concerns, has been a preparation for trying to be attentive in Holy Week. If you can stop and think and read in a meditative way, you can stop and contemplate in a thoughtful way. Ordinary ways of thinking and feeling are shaken up by Shankara’s reading of the Upanishad’s meditations on false and real consciousness, distracted and focused attention, all for the sake of acquiring the bold freedom to let go of everything we previously thought was important, for the sake of the self beyond our ordinary selves. In this Upanishadic light, attending suddenly to Christ in Jerusalem—when the world seems not to remember—can be seen to be a shift in consciousness that is always abrupt but for which we have to prepare ourselves little by little, day by day, if we dare.

Note: Ironically, even writing this brief post has taken too much time, mostly yesterday, in a day when I prepared class a bit, presided over a lunch discussion among our visiting fellows, had office hours, gave a lecture off campus and answered many emails; I have stopped and started, interrupted, at least six times, to get it ready to post. But finding our way is never simple, is it?