Towards Understanding Chakravartin Swami Satyananda
Upendra Baxi (former Vice-Chancellor, University of Delhi)
“I am now an Emperor,” proclaimed Sri Swami Satyananda, at an extraordinary event, attended by a large gathering of thousands of disciples and followers from all over the world1 at Rikhia2, on December 14, 2007, marking the completion of the 12th annual Rajasooya Yajna. With this, the swami also became a Chakravartin.
This proclamation raises many questions, because beloved Sri Swamiji is also a renunciate3. How may a renunciate become an emperor? And indeed, with what scriptural authority may a renunciate perform the Rajasooya Yajna which hitherto could only be performed by kings (since kings alone could become emperors)? How may we understand a spiritual being as a conqueror? And more, what kind of empire stands thus constructed? What may constitute its symbolic significance and its future effective histories? How may this empire relate to the sound and fury of contemporary politics in which many beings and entities claim their right and power to construct new secular empires?
The provocation thus posed is immense and worth pondering by the disciples of Sri Swamiji worldwide and by those who, without actually pursuing the spiritual path, still remain interested in and influenced by his teachings. Even those who are not influenced by the life and teachings of Sri Swamiji and thus autonomously proceed with the building of secular empires (of science and technology, or global politics) may find some important resources here.
I present these reflections with a hope that you will respond in agreement as well as disagreement because as Sri Swamiji insists, “What makes us human is the capacity to be different from one another, combined with the ability to communicate with each other and to engage in dialogue, especially with those with whom we disagree the most4.”
Swami Satyananda’s idea of kingship
According to the best available interpretation of the tradition, only a king may perform the Rajasooya Yajna. Not every king may do so, but only the most righteous in order to establish peace and justice in the realm, as did King Yudhishthira in the epic Mahabharata. So one may read the performance of this yajna as the pious obligation of a righteous ruler. Only this performance elevates the king to the status of an emperor.
This understanding should suffice here to attend to a preliminary question: How may a renunciate perform such a yajna and claim the status of an emperor? I raised this question with Sri Swamiji5 who conceded, with a beatific simplicity, that his reading of the yajna accorded well with the scriptural authority or canon. Yet, with a twinkle in his eye, he asked: “What does kingship signify?” Answering his own question, Sri Swamiji proceeded to say that a king is a figure of speech, a metaphor, of just governance. The righteous king collects taxes in order to distribute the gains among the poorest of the poor subjects. Royal authority or governance is justified in acting even coercively to collect public revenues only when these are directed to the betterment of the worst-off. If this is so, why should a spiritual being who receives daan (tributary offerings) and dedicates this to the most needy not be regarded in terms of kingship? If Swami Satyananda is thus already the figure of a spiritual king, the next step is the transition from king to a chakravartin.
One needs to consider Sri Swamiji’s message in at least three ways. To start with, his notion of secular political authority (kingship/governance) defines legitimacy as ethical, when entailing the tasks of redistribution. A sovereign forfeits the authority to rule when his governance ceases to care for the neediest people. Sri Swamiji would have agreed with St Augustine when he asked: “What is state without justice, but a band of robbers?” Justice is no longer to be defined merely in terms of providing collective peace and security or respect for rights and liberties. Important as these remain, justice in Sri Swamiji’s conception of it is practised best as a social virtue in terms of state and social action that disproportionately benefits the ‘have-nots’ over the ‘haves’. The current descriptions in vogue such as ‘development’, ‘good governance’ and ‘fair globalization’ correspond with the idea of justice understood in this way.
Like the great karma yogin, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Swamiji too pursues the idea of satta (power/authority) in terms of seva or service of the poorest of the poor in whom God dwells, daridra-narayan. More specifically, Sri Swamiji uplifts the impoverished by his special emphasis on education that empowers the girl-child. What the Mahatma failed to achieve, Sri Swamiji fully attains, as no one who participated in the yajnas would have failed to feel. The entire ceremony was conducted by young girls and women in impeccable Sanskrit and English, with great cadence and gusto of singing, dancing and chanting multicultural bhajans and stutis. On the final day of the yajna, kumari poojan was conducted in which Swami Niranjan (following his master) washed the feet of the kanya kumaris, small girls selected from the locality, and offered food to them, in a singular act of worshipping the divine Shakti embodied in their beings. The universal message lies in the acts of subversion and uprooting of patriarchy and its age-old cultures of perfidious domination.
The second message celebrates the power of karuna, compassion, in the spirit of Gautama Buddha. Karuna goes beyond acts of episodic charity towards the suffering/vulnerable other. Lord Buddha recasts karuna as a pathway to nirvana (emancipation). If moksha is self-emancipation from the eternal cycles of birth and rebirth, karuna suggests, in contrast, striving towards collective liberation from the sources of dukkha (human and social suffering). Karuna is not anukampa (sympathy), but an action, productive action on behalf of others. Karuna leads the Bodhisattwa to renounce nirvana and accept rebirth time and again until all beings are released from suffering. Karuna is a principle of action, of taking responsibility for, and saving, human and other beings in the world.
One way to understand the Rajasooya Yajna is that it blends the notions of rajadharma with those of karuna. Its reiterated practice is always an act of redefining the idea of empire and the chakravartin in terms of our inexhaustible responsibility for the suffering and vulnerable other beings. The figuration of Swami Satyananda as a chakravartin constantly renews the call for fashioning an ethical spirituality based on ‘we-ness’, fully addressing our responsibility to relate to the suffering of others. Sri Swamiji has dedicated his entire spiritual life towards compassion, but as com-passion, a form of ‘we-ness’ in which the face of the suffering and vulnerable provokes immense orders of individual ethical responsibility, an advent of a common spiritual solidarity.
There is an implicit relationship between karuna and death or dying. The Buddha at times suggests that karuna has the moral intensity, the compassion of a dying person. That intensity is also a cry for forgiveness from the other for not taking their sufferings and death seriously. Sri Swamiji carries the message a little further: because a part of us dies every moment (whether biologically, socially or ethically), karuna is both the compassion of the dying and a quest for forgiveness. He further suggests that something in each one of us dies when we fail to respond to the face and call of this suffering other.
Third, Sri Swamiji thus innovates a new tradition for the life of a renunciate. He postulates a novel way of understanding the traditional spiritual order in terms of shared social responsibility towards the suffering and vulnerable. If the practices of itinerant spirituality of a parivrajaka constitute the first step towards the spiritual development of a sadhu or sannyasin, the next best transformative move indicates the itinerary of this figuration as a swami, a Saraswati, immersed in the practices of meditative self-knowledge, always placed at the service of suffering humanity. The next stage consists of the conversion of the swami into a paramahamsa.
A paramahamsa forsakes the tasks of initiation (diksha) and superintendence over the spiritual progress of disciples. He withdraws from the daily acts and transactions of spiritual administration into a wider communion with the divine, considered not in any theological terms, but as a principle of energy, independent of the forms of its material embodiments. Only a paramahamsa is thus able to say (as Sri Swamiji remains able to say) that contrary to the common understanding of yoga as a form of union between purusha and prakriti, yoga in fact constitutes an order of separation of energy from matter, bearing a remarkable familiarity to quantum physics.
In these three ways the king paramahamsa sets the stage for a chakravartin paramahamsa. This, to my mind, constitutes the quintessence of Sri Swamiji’s proclamation on December 14th.
Dialoguing with some conscientious objectors
The enormity of this claim, the proclamation of chakravartin status, may well be contested by orthodox custodians of the Hindu spiritual traditions and the secularists. The custodians may contest this because such thoughts have previously been unheard of. As far as I know, no spiritual figure in India has indeed claimed the spiritual right and power to perform this yajna and the status elevation entailed. However, the reasons offered by Sri Swamiji should provide at least a threshold justification.
The secularist is apt to dismiss this claim as an exercise in spiritualist delusion or even delirium. Sri Swamiji, however, invites us to think beyond such spiritually orphaned intolerance. I imagine, he would say (with Emmanuel Levinas, who educated us all about our infinite responsibility towards the suffering and vulnerable other) that all rational thought remains delirious6. Delirious rationality of thought remains, after all, all that we have as humans.
Thus, the idea under-girding capitalist economy is simply worship at the altar of profit-making or wealth-maximization as a supreme common good, as much as the rival notion of socializing all means of production. Likewise, contemporary human rights activism and social movements remain insensible outside the delirious desire that seeks to constrain forever the claims of absolute power, domination and sovereignty. Since desire co-equally inflects all forms of rational thought-formations, it may not furnish any adequate ground for critiquing forms of desire for spiritual emancipation, whether conceived in terms of moksha or nirvana. In any event, these languages remain pitted against the ethical superiority of the order/disorder of desire, which postulates the exploitation/immisseration of the suffering and vulnerable other as the signature tune of human development and social progress.
At the very least, a secular critic ought to engage this claim through dialogue, rather than dismiss it in imperious gestures towards ‘irrationality’. At stake remains, as Sri Swamiji fully suggested in his marathon pravachan, not so much the contrast between the desire of Reason and the desire of the Desire, but rather the notion that all forms of desiring thought remain just thus: they pursue (as per the psychoanalyst New Freud, Jacques Lacan) ‘desire’ as an infinite lack, a form in which non-fulfilment of desire itself marks the possibility of desire (the kasturi mrig-trishna, as the Indian saints and seers once described this!) Put another way, at stake always remains the tension, or even the contradiction, between what utopian desires aspire to achieve in the face of the ‘Real’. In this regard, I invite further dialogue among the global communities of the International Yoga Fellowship.
The idea of empire
Sri Swamiji’s notion of a chakravartin may not be divorced from the notion of empire. A careful listening to his pravachan suggests that he partly developed his notion of empire to provide standards by which one may proceed to critique or judge the past and contemporary empires. This remains enormously important for judging the positive moralities of human and social development, now variously described as ‘good governance’, ‘sustainable development’ and ‘fair/ethical globalization’. Sri Swamiji, on the other hand, elaborates a distinctive normative notion of empire. It is with his own notion of an empire that I deal with first, leaving the former to the next section of this article.
Sri Swamiji conceives of empire in terms of ethical spirituality. The ethics lie in owning responsibility for the suffering and vulnerable other; spirituality is understood as many diverse ways of realizing the divine. At the same time, the notion of the divine is multi-religiously held as providing some necessary universal elements, such as the order of distinctions between body, mind and soul, the individual and the universal spirit, localized consciousness and transcendent consciousness, energy and matter. In presenting yoga as a secular technology, a pursuit that requires no particular subscription to a faith-community, Sri Swamiji speaks to agnostics and atheists alike. Ethical spirituality, for Sri Swamiji, provides a way of talking about the idea of an empire in both sacred and secular terms and thus traverses both the notions of this-world and other-world empires.
In order to understand this complexity more fully, we need to see the constitutive elements of the notion. The building of this-worldly political or ideological empires entails the heavily blood-stained orders of conquest. Of great significance here is the notion that there may not be such an empire without conquest, no conquest without an ideology of unification, and no ideology without utopia (some vision of a common future). These three elements, put together, distinguish conquest from invasion, whose principal aim lies in loot and plunder, nothing more. While the capacity to invade remains important for conquest, it is not a defining condition of this-worldly empires. There exist no ways of differentiating the idea of empire outside the disorders of violently imposed imperialisms.
However, as history shows, building ‘secular’ empires remains always tinged with the idea of the sacred, for example, the Holy Roman Empire or the global Jihad and its counterpart, the ‘war on terror’. Here stands inscribed the idea of just and justified political violence. In these justifications, we encounter a more or less constant interplay between the secular and the holy, a mix of the sacred and the profane practices of empire-building, directed to serving the end of a wider transformation, a higher, transcendent, even cosmological mission. Chakravartin Swami Satyananda contests this way of constructing worldly empires.
Further, this account of the constitutive elements of an empire overlooks the notion of non-violent empire-building. Thus, it remains a notable fact of world history that the messages of classical Hinduism and Buddhism spread globally without the force of arms. Chakravartin Satyananda had this history in mind when he announced a new Empire of Yoga. Sri Swamiji constantly referred in his pravachcan to the art and science of yoga as a secular (religion-neutral) regime of technology of self, caring for others and as a new tradition of ethical spirituality for caring for oneself, as a way to transform this world into a different and better world. Sri Swamiji thus distanced himself totally from the idea of violently constituted world empires, thriving exclusively by occupation of territories, peoples and resources.
Further, in thus presenting the idea of a chakravartin, Sri Swamiji also offers profiles of a new empire of yoga, which as a secular technology transcends national boundaries and ideological frontiers. The key thought here is that technology transcends ideology. In that case, a further terrain opens up for re-imagining empires counteracting such techno-scientific empires like the new forms of Microsoft empires, or the emergent biotechnology and nanotechnology empires, generally described as ‘colonization without colonizers’. However, yoga as a secular techno-scientific empire in Sri Swamiji’s view is different from these new techno-scientific empires, which remain driven and dominated by hyper-profit and the power of new formations of the global capital.
To be sure, the yogic techniques are now being subjected to the laws of intellectual property, especially patents, as in the recent case of Bikram Yoga in the United States. Sri Swamiji’s vision of a secular yogic empire, his vision of yoga heralding a new and different kind of techno-scientific empire remains vastly and preciously different. The important question, however, is: how will this concept avoid appropriation by the global corporate world? Further, how may this new empire of yoga appropriate modern digital technology without being appropriated by it in turn?
Both forms of empire (the ideological/political and the techno-scientific) thrive on the notion of ‘mastery’ over nature, contemplated as a mastery over natural nature and human nature. In both, though markedly differently, natural nature and human nature are presented as infinitely malleable resources placed at the service of some imperious ends. This, in turn, raises a profound question: In constructing secular empires (including the yogic empire), how may we avoid the task of mastering violence directed towards the self and others? Mastery of one’s self also entails violence against one’s innate drives and desires. No violence equals no empire. The difficult question is always: what may justify the nature, degree, means, and instruments of violence directed towards self, others and nature?
Sri Swamiji quite candidly said that a true renunciate is one who sacrifices his/her personal life to adopt the underprivileged as an extended family (vasudevya kutumbakam). The secular empire of yoga, of course, does not exhort all its followers to offer this extent of sacrifice, but encourages karma yogis to pursue the practices of yoga and seva amid the otherwise corrupting life in the world. At the same time, acts grounded in the renunciate violence against his/her own purvashram or family life remain a necessary prerequisite for spreading the message of yogic life to the multitudes.
The transcendence of kinship ties by a renunciate is only possible to understand in terms of making the distant others or the third persons an integral part of a wider non-kin family based on the conscious, moral and spiritual choice of abandoning the limiting identification with the immediate kin. At first, this form of sacrifice by the renunciate seems ethically problematic, until we begin to appreciate that such sacrificial offering also occurs in the everyday secular, or non-spiritual, way of life. Each and every form of success in worldly life pursuits also inflicts suffering on one’s immediate kin.
Successful careers in modern competitive life, whether in business and industry, politics or academia, remain in large measure constructed on the imposition of suffering on the spouse, parents and children. However, the outcomes of successful, secular careers are directed towards the eventual well-being and happiness of the immediate family, whereas the renunciate renounces all kinship ties in order to uplift the worldly family. The issue of just distribution of suffering amongst kin and non-kin is ancient, as instanced by the renunciation of Prince Siddhartha to become Gautam Buddha, or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Swami Satyananda’s idea of a new empire
After listening to Sri Swamiji’s pravachan, no one could fail to imagine the constituent elements of a new empire for the future. This is an ethical and spiritual idea of empire, coinciding in part with the most creative elements in the past three centuries of western enlightenment, interlaced with wisdom emanating from far older traditions of enlightenment from civilizations outside Europe. All this suggests an entirely new incarnation of the chakravartin in which conquest stands transformed beyond worldly domination. This remains a profoundly complex and contradictory idea, which will be developed through distinct, but related, trajectories summarily presented below.
1. The violent conquest of territories, peoples, and resources is no longer justified or justifiable. Sri Swamiji referred to this rather elaborately with reference to the prohibition of the use of force and of war under the United Nations Charter.
2. The empires of the future, if at all necessary and desirable, have to be established, as Sri Swamiji insisted, through peaceful and just means, respecting the dignity of difference among humans and across cultures.
3. This specifically suggests that the notions of purity have themselves to be first fully purified. Genocidal and ethnic cleansing type politics of mass atrocity and cruelty are no longer ethically justifiable. Thus, Sri Swamiji constantly reminds us through abundant invocations of the two Mahatmas, Gautama Buddha and Mohandas Gandhi, along with references to Kabir, Surdas, Tagore, and the Sufis, that the idea of a new empire cannot be grasped fully without the traditions of non-European thought.
4. Sri Swamiji fully articulated the notion of purifying the pure in terms of a secular technology of yoga. Suffice it to say that he did not draw the same distinction which Michel Foucault illuminatingly draws our attention to in terms of the European ways of constructing histories of enlightenment, thriving upon regimes of governance over souls through governance over bodies7.
Sri Swamiji thus transforms the notion of the world-conqueror into a world-renouncer for whom the world still exists; however, at the same time, it stands already fully transformed. Put another way, the new empire transmutes the existent world into the worlds beyond. Far from a mere play on words, Sri Swamiji here suggests the way of being in this world, yet not fully of it. Out of such a distinction the imagination of a new empire is born.
One may only renounce that which one thinks of as already possessing. However, the possessing self remains conceivable only in terms of precisely what one may choose to abandon or give up. One may only give up what one thinks one possesses. Renunciation makes the best sense only when what is being given up constitutes a loss. In this sense, Sri Swamiji echoes the motto of the Ishavasya Upanishad: “Ten tyakten bhunjita . . .”– one may know enjoyment only as a form of losing or loss. This means that tyaga (giving up) is a necessary condition of bhoga (enjoyment.) No bhoga ever remains possible in the human condition outside tyaga, whether individually or collectively. No notion of civilization or empire (as mastery over oneself, others, and nature) makes any sense outside this dialectic.
What difference, if any, does all this make?
This remains an important question, even if merely in the culinary terms of pulao, khichdi, biryani, or goulash! No doubt, Sri Swamiji offered some answers to this question. But perhaps the most summative observation in the pravachan was this: jnana ka ananta roopa hota hai – ways of knowledge emerge in infinitely diverse forms. We all partake of a multiplicity of jnanakathas, narratives of knowing. The theory and practice of yoga, as expounded by Swami Satyananda, does not thrive on a monoculture. It does not erect a hierarchy of knowledge, but remains inherently multicultural and multi-religious. It has a place for a variety of jnanakathas. Neither social development nor spiritual progress may genuinely occur without maximum respect towards the manifold ways of knowing. The astonishing pravachan illustrated this insight fully when Sri Swamiji freely invoked references to science and technology, folklore and legend, literature and religion. We heard his voice replicate the words of Surdas, Kabir, Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, along with words from the Bible, Guru Granth Sahib and the Koran. A series of gasps could be heard from the audience. How did this sannyasin come to possess such endless knowledge was the stunned question that I frequently heard.
As if sensing this question, Sri Swamiji responded by saying that when knowledge becomes intensely specialized, it breeds the ways of prescribed ignorance and unrighteous arrogance. He did not begrudge specialized knowledge; in fact, at times he extolled this as necessary for ethical and spiritual development. Still he appealed to the coequal need for respect for other kinds of knowledge. Folklore, legends and epics embody millennial knowledge and ways of knowing. One may choose to evaluate these, but such evaluation, he insisted, requires self-immersion in these traditions of knowing. Criticizing them as unscientific exemplifies rational folly or ‘foolish excellence’. Is not progress in ‘natural’ sciences, Sri Swamiji asked, marked by trial and error or, as Sir Karl Popper once described this, by ‘conjectures and refutations’?
Popular knowledge not based on university certifications or credentials does have a right to exist, just as scientific enquiry has a right to bring these under the microscope. Because knowledge and knowers are finite entities, arrogant truth-claims everywhere undermine openness, understanding and tolerance which always ought to animate the quest for knowing. In his pravachan, Sri Swamiji insisted that what makes us all humans is the ‘clash of ideas’, outside which humans become simply, even cruelly, ‘inhuman’. That something we call ‘human’ is already extinguished when we seek to reduce or negate the potential for dialogue because it is this potency of chetana (vigilant self-awareness) that in the very first place constitutes the idea of being and remaining human in any meaningful sense of that term.
Lord Rama and Swami Satyananda
In this context we may strive to more sincerely grasp Sri Swamiji’s articulation of expert-based knowledge systems. He specifically dealt with, and at some length commented on, the Archaelogical Survey of India affidavit before the Supreme Court in the Ramasetu case. Legendary memoirs would have us believe that the oceanic way of Lord Rama’s passage to Lanka was paved to redeem Sita and avenge the Shiva bhakta (worshipper) Ravana. The Government of India expediently withdrew this affidavit, which consigned Rama’s existence to mythical, rather than historical, memory.
The way in which Sri Swamiji detoured this remains fascinating, if not compelling. At the outset, he rightly distanced himself from the contingent forms of political Hinduism or the Hindutva politics8. However, he made several crucial rhetorical/ narrative moves. The first was the one which we have already elaborated. He asked, how may specialist knowledge practitioners who are not well-versed in the multiple Ramayana genres, arrogate to themselves a competence of speaking about the distinction between the ‘mythic’ and ‘historical’ past of India? His second move was more complex in that he elaborately spoke of reclamation practices in the scriptural Indian past, commencing with Lord Parashurama. The third narrative move addressed the right to cultural memory, and this needs some careful elaboration.
Sri Swamiji regards cultural memory as providing constitutive elements of the profane and spiritual human self. In a difficult moment, he sought to distinguish the perishable from the imperishable forms of memory. He asked us all in regard to the former, whether anyone in the audience could name some of their ancestors beyond their grandparents! At the same moment, he also announced in a feat of imperishable memory that Lord Rama is his purvaja (ancestor) to whom he owed complete fidelity. Such fidelity stood owed, he further insisted, to an actually existing historical rather than a mythical symbolic figuration.
Here, Sri Swamiji seems to claim an order of fidelity to memory beyond history. I especially asked him whether he was resurrecting some form of ancestor worship pitted against the prevalent postmodernist rejection of ancestor worship. His direct response was that ancestor worship was not just a historic necessity but an ethical duty. The mahatmas, who are fonts of religion and spirituality, canonize an order of sacrificial memory that remains worth preserving. This form of sacrificial memory entails a double move. It remains sacrificial in the sense of our duties to remember the avatars, the belief in whose existence remains a necessary condition of our own cultural belonging and affiliation. A second related move entails (as the poet Coleridge said, concerning the experience of literature) a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Sri Swamiji cherishes this willing suspension of disbelief, which provides a means to grasp the classical and folklore traditions, pitted against the assorted forms of scientifically rational, deliberative discourses that assiduously promote aspirational loss.
The context of these observations remains at once both pertinent and impertinent. It remains pertinent because yogic and spiritual labours must still address the politics of the contemporary moment. Yet, they must also address the current situation in a transcendent other-worldly form. Much beyond the Indian discursive systems, Sri Swamiji’s pravachan addresses our ways of understanding the forms of yogic/spiritual life (as Jacques Ranciere insightfully, though differently, described this) as going ‘beyond the shores of politics’9.
In conclusion, may the beloved Sri Swamiji be long with us all, so that we may further strive to recapture our essential being and self-sameness for the benefit and upliftment of the suffering and vulnerable others. Like the Prince of Denmark, Sri Swamiji offers something within us ‘that passeth show’. Unlike Hamlet, the Paramahamsa invokes no melancholia of revengeful striving. It goes without saying, and beyond saying, that Sri Swamiji offers the ecstasy of many ways of knowing through which alone the life of the spirit may have a new emergence.
The new empire inaugurated at Rikhia summons each one of us to take seriously the suffering of the immediate and distant, worst-off, forever humiliated and silenced others. To fail to heed this call is also to forfeit any claim to the ethical agency and dignity of remaining human. The best tribute we may offer to the Paramahamsa Chakravartin lies in just this: each one of us ought to reinvent Swami Satyananda in our everyday lives.