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A Guide To Spiritual Discipline

Apratim Barua  |  BSCAL 

In the midst of our busy lives, many of us have felt a nagging restlessness. Often it is a feeling of emptiness. A seeking after something nameless yet compelling. Somewhere at the back of our minds we may be aware that a solution to this gnawing discomfort exists. All that needs to be done is to turn to our rich culture and tradition. However, this tradition is not always accessible. At times it is the hidden and esoteric nature of the tradition itself that prevents us from deriving benefit from it. At other times its availability in an unfamiliar language, like Persian or Pali or Sanskrit, acts as a barrier. When English translations are available, the uneven quality of the translation or the obscurity of the publishers (usually a specialist in theology or Indology) denies us easy access.

Finally, we have Eknath Easwarans Mantram Handbook, a book that is concise, simple and practical. Obviously, having taught English at a university has given him a felicity of expression, without weighing him down with ponderousity. He is able to pitch himself at the absolute novice. At someone who needs convincing of the mantrams practical and utilitarian ends. At the same time, one is always made aware of the deep mystical tradition within which Easwaran is himself rooted. All these makes the book immensely accessible and rewarding. Having been brought out by Penguin (India) also helps. It is easily available and the production values are very good. Good quality paper, excellent print, a stimulating cover design and an affordable price.

The title is a slight misnomer. The book is not merely about mantrams. It is a complete guide to wholesome living. If anything, the number of mantrams discussed is woefully inadequate. He takes up some four in all, one from each major religion. These are further shortened to Rama, Rama, Jesus, Jesus, Allah, Allah etc. Important mantrams like the Gayatri are not even mentioned. This may be due to the fact that the aim of the book is the cultivation of a more wholesome and positive approach to life.

Which is not to say that the book lacks in several interesting and useful suggestions. For instance, Easwaran hints that the use of beads or a rosary might sometimes prove counter-productive. To start with, to drag out a rosary may be embarrassing at times. Moreover, one may become dependent on the beads, unable to chant the mantrams without them. Often, concentration gets divided between the physical act of rolling the beads and the mental act of chanting the mantra. Easwaran feels that anytime is suitable. One can repeat the mantram while waiting for the elevator or at the bank. He also suggests that chanting the mantra at night, before falling asleep, can ensure peaceful sleep simultaneously releasing a fund of benevolent energy.

There is a paradox, however, a sort of unbridgeable abyss which runs down the length of the book. Reading is an activity that presupposes a certain degree of individualism. The reader of a book like this should be able to expect some amount of success solely on the basis of his reading it thoroughly. Religious activity, however, is more community-oriented. As a result, Easwaran stresses the importance of having a guru, a circle of friends or even family members who can be taken into confidence. The trouble is, if anyone had a guru or a group one would not need the book. So what good is the book by itself ? Luckily, the mantra has practical, utilitarian ends (like helping one quit smoking) which do not require a gurus guidance. If you ignore the spiritual dimension just reading the book suffices.

Where Easwaran scores over other books of a similar type is in his non-sectarian approach and his appeal to common-sense. Repeating a mantra is something anybody can do anytime.

Second, Easwarans account is deeply personal and, therefore, all the more convincing. He has traversed the same path himself and is aware of all the snares and pitfalls. The tone of the book is cheerful, optimistic and positive. A sort of oriental Dale Carnegie. The book is not merely about mantrams. Its aim is the cultivation of a more wholesome and positive approach to life

First Published: Thu, October 02 1997. 00:00 IST