June 3

The Goddess and the Guru: A Review


 June 3

Although I’m a voracious reader, I rarely review books (primarily due to lack of time). For a while now, many readers have asked me to review and recommend books that I think may help further heart health, well-being and/or spiritual growth. So, here goes. I’ll review books that touch me deeply, are transformative in their message, and (hopefully), of use to others.

In the plethora of spiritual self-help books, The Goddess and the Guru: A Spiritual Biography of Sri Amritananda Natha Saraswati stands out for its sweetness and authenticity.

Michael Bowden, the author, takes us on an unforgettable journey that traces the life and teachings of Guruji, the subject of the book. And what an astonishing journey it is! As soon as we start reading, we are transported into the extraordinary world of Sri Vidya Sadhana, the ancient, somewhat secret practice centered around Shakti. The foreword by Sri Chaitanyananda (Haran Aiya) sets the pace for the rest of the book, leading us into the story by way of Aiya’s experiences as Guruji’s disciple. Then we are led deftly through the first few decades of Guruji’s life and then, to the building of Devipuram, the unique Sri Vidya temple. The original photographs of Guruji, Amma (his wife), their family, disciples and Devipuram are a treat, along with a magnificent painting by the author of the goddess as a young girl (Bala Tripurasundari). A particularly endearing photo shows Guruji worshiping Amma as the goddess.

Many other reviewers may feel like this biography is quite similar in its impact as the famous Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahamsa Yogananda (another of my favorites, which I will review at a later time). I’d have to agree, with one exception. Guruji didn’t start out as a spiritual aspirant. Although he had profound childhood mystical experiences, he set them aside to focus on an ordinary householder life with a job, marriage and raising children. Of even greater significance is the fact that he was a scientist, known for his work in nuclear physics.

For a physician-scientist like me who is inexplicably drawn to both the beauty of science as well as the deeper mysteries of life and the magnificence of Sri Vidya, this detail is very inspiring. It was heartening to see that Guruji the scientist was quite skeptical of his many mystical experiences. Heartening because I too have had a tendency to question the validity of profound mystical experiences, as a “level-headed scientist.”

But on Guruji’s path, skepticism is overcome by undeniable experiences that determine not only his life journey but those of thousands who would become his students. It is incredulous to read how he is led to his own mentors and teachers that shape his understanding of science and spirituality. Swami Jnanananda, an accomplished yogi and nuclear physicist, is his mentor in college. He was famous for teaching his students, “Yogic practices are intended to train a yogi to gain mastery over mind and body. A devoted scientific trainee should do the same. In both cases, sadhana is needed. In both cases, there should be an urge to search for an understanding of the inner secrets of nature.” (The Yogi, the Nazis and the Cyclotron). Guruji himself confesses that he “vacillated” between spirituality and science, trying to find answers in both. (The Goddess and the Guru).

Guruji eventually abandoned his position as a scientist and surrendered to his true calling – being the medium of the goddess. Although it may seem like the book is about the building of Devipuram, it is much more than that. At every step of the way, the goddess shows Guruji (and through him, us) how things really work – her way. From the innumerable challenges of building, maintaining and expanding the temple, overseeing its operations and the rebuilding following the destruction of the property by a significant cyclone, each episode is a shining example of living a surrendered life.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are the scholarly insights on the history of Hinduism in India, the influence of patriarchy on worship, and the change in the role of the goddess from the all-supreme mother-God to a subservient wife of the father-God.  The effect of long centuries of this shift in perspective of the goddess is not lost on Guruji or Devipuram, for he faces intense criticism for the portrayal of her in her fierce and sexual forms. The explanation of sexuality and its role in tantra by Guruji is beautiful, arising from his direct experience of the goddess in his meditations.

This story needs to be told and heard for many reasons. Not only is it a biography that is splendidly awe-inspiring, but also speaks immensely about the richness of a sadhana-centered life, even in the midst of the often mundane hustle and bustle of a householder life. Not only does Guruji build a temple for worship of his beloved Devi, but also for the social, economic, cultural and educational improvement of the communities around it. He says quite simply, “Meditation, temple pujas (worship) and social welfare are not distinct or separate. They are all the same.” (Beyond Temple Walls)

For me, this book evoked, first and foremost, a deep sense of sadness from not having met Guruji. The tears didn’t arise only from sadness – they flowed also from being touched deeply by the sweetness the pages emanate. His own evolution as a Sri Vidya upasaka (practitioner) is marvelous to withhold, where his visions and experiences change over time from what he calls “becoming” to “being.” In a startling description of this gestalt shift in perception, he says, “Being is what you are. It is called ‘now.’ It is a continuous state. Becoming is what you are not. It is a process of creating time by changing ‘me.’ The process can be sudden or gradual; it can be anything that is ever-changing: blazing lights, galaxies, stars, earths, oceans, people, animals, worms— from the smallest imaginable thing to the largest.” Becoming, in other words, is our ordinary state of existence— the state of birth, growth, decay; of creation and obliteration on every observable scale. It is Maya, the experience of separateness— a constant, sequential play of matter upon matter, taking place on the vast performance stage of space and time. In this state of becoming, you see yourself as something other than you [i.e., what you really are]. That is the creative part, because whatever you see is [actually] spinning out from your own current being. Part of this process is driven by you— by your giving it an intention, a direction. But another part is spontaneous and not created by you. And that is the much bigger part.” (Epilogue)

Through it all, there is a sense that he was grounded in a sense of wonder about the world, the people he met, the universe, and most of all, the goddess. In the beautiful “A Note from Guruji,” he sums up his contributions while eloquently describing the essence of Sri Vidya, and makes a simple request, “..please do not put me on a pedestal or give me unwarranted credit. Just say that I am a learner too.”

His mission to make his followers self-sufficient becomes evident throughout the book with his insistence to each of us, “Only try to see for yourself. Don’t blindly accept what others say.”

Here is Guruji talking about the goddess:

While this book is a must-read for every Sri Vidya upasaka, I’d say anyone on the spiritual path would benefit greatly from it. It is one of those books that we can return to again and again, to pull us up when we are in the low-tide phase of sadhana (as we most certainly will find ourselves at times) and at other times, to inspire us to seek out the immense possibilities of opening to divine grace in the very short time we have here on Earth.

As for me, Devipuram has moved up to the top of my list of places to visit in the near future.

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