Arsha Vidya Pitham, Saylorsburg, PA

Exponent of Divine Unity

Tributes by Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein

India has just lost one of its most important Hindu leaders, Swami Dayananda Saraswati. The media referred to him by appeal to his most celebrated student, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. But Dayananda did not need Modi to be known in India, and globally. I recall how impressed I was with a full page ad on some airline magazine in India announcing Dayananda’s teaching over the course of several days. In India, it seems natural to sell more than cosmetics on airplanes. Maybe the best way to consider Dayananda is in light of the keyword unity. He was first and foremost a teacher of Divine Unity. He was arguably the most significant present day exponent of the initive philosophical and mystical system called Advaita Vedanta, which proclaims the
full unity of all being, and obviously the full unity of God, encompassing the transcendent and immanent fields. He was also a man who sought to unite Hinduism, arguably the world’s most  fragmented, diverse and hard to define religion. By creating a council of all the major religious leaders and heads of various sects, he sought to give Hinduism a united voice, identity and  representation. And his intuitive vision went beyond Hinduism to all religions, that he recognized as valid pathways to God, which in turn led him to become one of India’s foremost leaders
in inter-religious dialogue. This leads me to consider Swami Dayananda as a pioneer of Hindu-Jewish relations.

Dayananda was the driving force behind the most important Jewish-Hindu encounter ever. Swami Dayananda, through the council of Hindu leaders, held two high profile summits with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish leaders and scholars. These summits are seen by many as a breakthrough in Hindu-Jewish relations, in a sense establishing “spiritual-diplomatic” relations between them. What drove Dayanandaji to invite the Chief Rabbi of Israel to Delhi and to come himself to Jerusalem, with a significant delegation of Hindu
religious leaders? Vision, concern and pain. Let me begin with the pain. I would like to share two different conversations I had with Dayananda, both of which are relevant to the Jewish-Hindu summits he initiated. The first took place in Montreal, in advance of the first summit of Hindu-Jewish leaders. Dayananda was in Montreal for a large conference where he shared his pain about how Christians are converting Hindus. Conversion is a nation-wide problem in India, and a very much unresolved one, as it continues to feed violence on the ground. Dayananda carried the pain and concern for Hindu identity that he felt is being undermined by missionaries using inappropriate missionary tactics. His initive vision and his recognition of the validity of all faiths did not
detract from the problem and the enormous pain with which I was confronted. As a Jew I was sympathetic. And as a savvy international leader, Dayananda knew he needed allies, and he  recognized Jews share his sentiment. He therefore sought to cultivate relations with Jewish leadership in combating Christian missionaries. The declaration issued during the first summit includes this as one of its messages: “Neither [Hindus nor Jews] seek to proselytize, nor undermine or replace in any way the religious identities of other faith communities. They expect other communities
to respect their religious identities and commitments, and condemn all activities that go against the sanctity of this mutual respect.”
Dayananda carried a second pain, that of being misunderstood. I recall another conversation with him, this one in his ashram in Rishikesh, where he passed away a couple of days ago. Dayananda was beside himself at the accusation that he was an idol worshipper. “Me an idol worshipper?” He addressed to me his frustration at Jewish authorities who could not see beyond the externals of Hindu worship to the spiritual reality that he of all people, as India’s foremost teacher of Vedanta, was well aware of and that informed his spiritual horizons. Dayananda had a deep need to clear up what he considered a fundamental misperception of Hinduism, on the part of Jews. This was the second most important goal of the summits. Reading the transcripts of the Summits
one realizes that assembled rabbis heard for the first time that Hinduism was not primitive idolatry and that Hindus worship the one Supreme Being, the same one worshipped by Jews. This recognition stood at the top of the both declarations and was considered by Dayananda as their greatest achievement. Following the meeting, Dayananda gave an interview to the New Indian Express, where he stated: The Jerusalem meet concluded with a landmark declaration that Hindus worship ‘one supreme being’ and are not really idolatrous. The implications of this are profound  in content and far-reaching in effect.

Judaism was born of the complete repudiation of idol-worship and the rabbinic literature abounds with denunciation of idolatry in an entire tractate of the Talmud devoted to this. The importance of this issue in the Jewish and other Abrahamic traditions cannot be overstated. Since its first encounter with these religions, due to their incomplete understanding of its śāstras,, Hinduism has been perceived by them asidolatrous and promoting many gods, says Swami Dayananda Sarasvati. The Hindus have, for centuries,experienced the extremely violent consequences of this wrong perception. The historic declaration made at the Hindu-Jewish Summit at Jerusalem on 18 February, 2008 sets at rest the wrong notion that Hinduism is idolatrous. The declaration reads: ‘It is
recognized that one Supreme Being in its formless and manifest aspects has been worshipped by Hindus over the millennia. The Hindu relates to only the one Supreme Being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation. This does not mean that Hindus worship ‘gods’ and ‘idols’. The Jewish leaders, in so many words, owned their perception of the Hindu tradition as erroneous and came up with the declaration which the Hindu delegation could happily accept. This establishes that honest and bold dialogue can completely reverse wrong views and erroneous perceptions held over millennia. It emphasizes that leaders of every religion need to be informed about the basics, vision and beliefs of other religious traditions, says Swami Dayananda Saraswati. If one thinks about it, this is a remarkable moment. It is remarkable because Jews and Hindus have made significant progress in their mutual understanding.

In my soon to be released The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015) I query whether Dayananda was overoptimistic in his reading of the Summits’ achievements and whether indeed the issue of idolatry is off the table once and for all. But that does not detract from the fact that for the first time ever a theological conversation took place between Jewish and Hindu leaders, and that its outcome was transformative. It is also a remarkable moment in terms of process, a fact underlined by Dayananda himself. Dayananda was able to channel his pain into constructive action. He did not simply complain aboutHinduism being misunderstood. He took steps to make it better understood. And in this he appealed to the procedure of dialogue as the way forward in clearing up misunderstandings. This is  itself a remarkable achievement.

Swami Dayananda passed away on the eve of the Sukkot festival, a time imagined by the Prophet Zacharaiah as one of a pilgrimage of all nations to Jerusalem. Passing away on the eve of Sukkot
allows us to consider Dayananda, and all the Hindus he represents, as models for what the gentiles’ visit to Jerusalem might be all about. It is certainly not missionary. But nor is it simply coming to Jerusalem to recognize the God or the truth of Judaism. Dayananda came to Jerusalem to increase understanding and the procedure he undertook was that of dialogue. When we think of the seventy nations this Sukkot, we are invited to consider not only what they will receive by coming to Jerusalem, but also what we might receive by their presence. Our experience of Sukkot may be
deepened when we realize that receiving guests in our Sukka is an invitation to dialogue.

(The author is the Founder and Director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. Alon is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in inter-religious dialogue specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.)

Lord Daksinamurti

In the vision of the Veda, this creation is a manifestation of the Lord. Being the cause, he is all knowledge, especially spiritual knowledge. We have a name for that Lord Daksinamurti.

The Lord presented in this form as Dakṣiṇāmūrti is the one who has eight aspects. The first five aspects are thefive elements. In the Veda the world is presented in the form of five elements—ākāśa, space,which includes time; vāyu, air; agni, fire; āpa, water; and pṛthivī, earth.

In this Vedic model of the universe, the five elements are non-separate from the Lord. In fact, these five elements constitute the Lord’s form, which is this universe.

The next two aspects are represented by the sun and the moon.

When, as an individual, I look at this world, what stands out in the sky are the sun and moon.

The moon represents all planets other than earth, and the sun represents allluminous bodies.

The eighth aspect is me, the jīva—the one who is looking at the world.

These eight aspects are to be understood as one whole. This is the Lord.

When we look at the form of Dakṣiṇāmūrti, we can see representations of the five elements. Space, ākāśa, is represented by a ḍamaru, a drum, in his right hand. In order to show space in a sculpture, it needs to be enclosed.

Empty space is enclosed in the ḍamaru, enabling it to issue sound, or śabda.

Next, vāyu, air, is represented by Dakṣiṇāmūrti’s hair with the bandana, the band, holding his hair in place against the wind. Bandana is a Sanskrit word which comes from the root band, to bind.

In his left hand, you will see a torch, which represents agni, fire.

Āpa, water, is shown by the Gaṅga, in the form of a Goddess, which you can see on Dakṣiṇāmūrti’s head.

Pṛthivī, the earth, is represented by the whole idol.

Then there are people, the jīvas, Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanātana and Sanatsujāta, who are the disciples of Dakṣiṇāmūrti, sitting at the base of sculpture.

The sun and moon are also shown in this form of the Lord.

On the left side of Dakṣiṇāmūrti you will find a crescent moon, and on his right side there is a circle, representing the sun—a whole circle.

So we see five elements, two planets and the jīva constituting the aṣṭa-mūrti-bhṛt, the Lord of these eight factors that are the whole.

You can worship Dakṣiṇāmūrti as the Lord, the one who is aṣṭa-mūrti-bhṛt, or you can invoke him as a teacher, because he also is in the form of a teacher.

His very sitting posture, āsana, is the teacher’s āsana. What does he teach? Look at his hand gesture. That shows wha the teaches. His index finger, the one we use to point at others, represents the ahaṅkāra, the ego.

The other three fingers represent your body, deha, mind, antaḥkaraņa and sense organs, prāņa.

They also may be seen as the three bodies, śarīras, the gross, subtle, and causal. This is what the jīva mistakes himself to be. The aṅguṣṭha, the thumb, represents the Lord, the puruṣa. It is away from the rest of the fingers of the hand, yet at the same time, the fingers have no strength without it.

In this gesture, mūdra, in Dakṣiṇāmūrti’s right hand, the thumb joins the other fingers to form a circle, teaching that the jīva, who takes himself to be the body, mind and senses, is the whole. The circular hand gesture visually states the entire upadeśa, teaching: tat tvam asi, “You are That.” Just as a circle has no beginning or end, you are the whole. That is the final word about you. Nobody can improve upon that vision; no culture can improve upon it.

Even in heaven, it cannot be improved upon, for the whole includes heaven. Therefore, you have the final word here, because you are everything. It is better that you know it. That teaching is contained in the Veda, represented by the palm leaves in the left hand of Dakṣiṇāmūrti. And to understand this, you require a mind that has assimilated certain values and attitudes and has developed a capacity to think in a proper and sustained way.

This can be acquired by various spiritual disciplines represented here by a japa-māla, The fact that the Lord himself is a teacher, a guru, means that any teacher is looked upon as a source of knowledge. And the teacher himself should look upon Īśvara, the Lord, as the source of knowledge. Since the Lord himself is a teacher, the first guru, there is a tradition of teaching, so there is no individual ego involved in teaching.

Dakṣiṇāmūrti is seated upon a bull, which stands for tamas, the quality of māyā that accounts for ignorance. This is the entire creative power of the world and Dakṣiṇāmūrti controls this māyā; Then, there are bound to be obstacles in your pursuit of this knowledge. Dakṣiṇāmūrti controls all possible obstacles.

Underneath his foot, under his control, is a fellow called Apasmara—the one who throws obstacles in your life. This tells us that although there will be obstacles, with the grace of the Lord, you can keep them under check and not allow them to overpower you. There is no obstacle-free life, but obstacles need not really throw you off course; you keep them under control.

Thus, the whole form of Dakṣiṇāmūrti invokes the Lord who is the source of all knowledge, the source of everything, the one who is the whole, and who teaches you that you are the whole. He is Dakṣiṇāmūrti, the one who is in the form of a teacher, guru-mūrti.

We invoke his blessing so that all of you discover that source in yourself. If this self-discovery is your pursuit, your whole life becomes worthwhile. This project of self-discovery should be the project of everyone. That is the Vedic vision of human destiny

Arsha Vidya Gurukulam was founded in 1986 by Pujya Sri Swami Dayananda Saraswati. In Swamiji’s own words,

“When I accepted the request of many people I know to start a gurukulam, I had a vision of how it should be. I visualized the gurukulam as a place where spiritual seekers can reside and learn through Vedanta courses. . . And I wanted the gurukulam to offer educational programs for children in values, attitudes, and forms of prayer and worship. When I look back now, I see all these aspects of my vision taking shape or already accomplished. With the facility now fully functional, . . . I envision its further unfoldment to serve more and more people.”

Ārṣa (arsha) means belonging to the ṛṣis or seers; vidyā means knowledge. Guru means teacher and kulam is a family.  In traditional Indian studies, even today, a student resides in the home of this teacher for the period of study. Thus, gurukulam has come to mean a place of learning. Arsha Vidya Gurukulam is a place of learning the knowledge of the ṛṣis.

The traditional study of Vedanta and auxiliary disciplines are offered at the Gurukulam. Vedanta mean end (anta) of the Veda, the sourcebook for spiritual knowledge.  Though preserved in the Veda, this wisdom is relevant to people in all cultures, at all times. The vision that Vedanta unfolds is that the reality of the self, the world, and God is one non-dual consciousness that both transcends and is the essence of everything. Knowing this, one is free from all struggle based on a sense of inadequacy.

The vision and method of its unfoldment has been carefully preserved through the ages, so that what is taught today at the Gurukulam is identical to what was revealed by the ṛṣis in the Vedas.