Once upon a time masters from various traditions assembled to discuss the heart and soul of spiritual experience. Some proclaimed the highest spiritual experience to be a vision of God, while according to others, it is the knowledge of past, present, and future. Some considered the attainment of extraordinary powers—the capacity to materialize in more than one location or to heal the sick with a glance—to be the highest spiritual achievement. Others posited the dissolution of one’s individuality and merging into universal consciousness as the pinnacle of the spiritual quest. Still others maintained that becoming immortal or transcending time, space, and the law of cause and effect are the highest achievements. No two masters agreed, so they set out to discover the truth.
“I always face my loved ones—the entire universe.”
The masters sat together with the intention of penetrating collective consciousness, which pervades and permeates all three realms. They endured hunger and thirst. They conquered their cravings. They rose above the mind’s roaming tendencies. Crossing the limits of body and mind, they entered a sphere unreachable by the mind and intellect. There they heard a voice: “Go to someone who embodies true wisdom and compassion; one whose forgiveness has no limit; one who judges no one; one who dispenses protection, guidance, and nourishment to the just and unjust equally. Seek the one who with his eyes closed constantly watches over those stranded in the cycle of birth and death. He will have the answer.”
“Who is that person?” they asked.
All of these masters knew of Dakshinamurti but they were not aware of his spiritual stature. None doubted the authenticity of the voice, but all wondered why it had proclaimed Dakshinamurti the greatest sage, and his experiences the highest spiritual experience. Many of them had believed their own masters to be the wisest and the most evolved, while others had been convinced that they themselves were the greatest adepts. Now, seeing their error, these masters feared that their shortcomings might prevent them from approaching Dakshinamurti appropriately. They concluded that the sage Sanatkumara and his three brothers were the wisest among them, and asked them to lead the way to Dakshinamurti.
A Test of Humility
The four brothers knew that those who have both a swollen ego and a sharp intellect love debating to validate their own viewpoint. So before setting out for Dakshinamurti’s ashram, the brothers devised a plan to give their companions a direct experience of the importance of humility on the spiritual quest.
When the group reached the ashram, the four brothers demanded to see Dakshinamurti immediately. The ashram residents had never seen such impolite behavior. A few of them rushed to inform Dakshinamurti, while others tried to make their guests comfortable. It was a daunting task—from the guests’ demeanor it was clear that everyone in the group regarded themselves as very special; each expected exceptional honor. The four brothers, in particular, appeared barely able to contain their sense of self-importance. They found the seats offered to them to be below their standards and refused to be seated.
At length Dakshinamurti came out to greet his visitors. “How fortunate we are to have great souls like you among us,” he said. “This ashram has long been the residence of a bevy of carefree souls who have been unable to identify themselves as young or old, wise or ignorant. Content with the present, they place no importance on the past and have no concern about the future. It is difficult to put such people on any track. I hope your presence will help them understand what this world is all about and how to find their way in it.”
Dakshinamurti invited his guests to the space under the canopy of a large banyan tree that served as the assembly hall. Before taking his own seat, Dakshinamurti invited the four brothers to be seated. They refused. “We came to learn about the essence of truth from you,” they said angrily. “But we are shocked to see how poor is your knowledge even of basic etiquette. If we sit here, we will be facing south. It is an insult for you to ask us to sit facing south. Everyone knows that is the direction of the dead.”
Dakshinamurti lovingly offered the four brothers the seat facing north, which had been reserved for him. Then he sat facing them. With a mischievous smile he said, “I face no directions. I always face my loved ones—the entire universe.”
“As long as you depend on anything outside yourself, you will never know the truth.”
The erudite guests got the message. Dropping their arrogant masquerade, the four brothers said, “Humility is hard to come by. Now we know who you are and what constitutes your essence. You are an embodiment of compassion. Forgiveness is your essential nature. Please forgive the offenses we have committed. Bless us with the capacity to comprehend and retain the knowledge you confer upon us.
“The congregation accompanying us has been searching for truth. We have contemplated and argued about what constitutes the heart and soul of the spiritual experience. When we could not agree we committed ourselves to intense austerities. In time we heard a voice proclaim that you are the knower of the truth and will guide us.”
Balancing Faith with Reason
Dakshinamurti said, “As long as you depend on anything outside yourself, including such voices, you will never know the truth. There have been many prophets and many prophecies but suffering still exists. There are many books and many teachers but human beings remain stuck. Direct experience alone can resolve all conflicts and bring suffering to an end. Direct experience comes from practice. Practice succeeds when it is balanced by reason and faith.”
“We have a great deal of knowledge,” said the four brothers. “We are aware of the inherent limitations of prophets and their prophecies. We are sensitive to human suffering, and we understand the importance of overcoming pain and sorrow. We understand the value of direct experience. We also know reason is nature’s special gift to humans, but we feel faith undermines this gift. Yet we also know that practice without faith doesn’t bring the intended result. So please enlighten us about faith and explain how to balance it with reason.”
“Faith is one of the most misunderstood and misconstrued of all concepts,” Dakshinamurti replied. “For ages people have emphasized the importance of faith in God. Yet those with faith in God have brought as much misery—if not more—to themselves and others as those who have no such faith. Unless you have faith in yourself, faith in anything else—including God—is meaningless. In any quest, spiritual or mundane, you yourself are the point of reference. And if you do not know who you are, your quest will be marred by doubt and fear.
“The quest for truth always begins with you, not with God and not with truth as defined by others. You conceive the idea of knowing truth only in proportion to how well you know yourself. The more you know yourself, the more comprehensive and inclusive is your concept of truth. The contrary is also true. Similarly, the depth and breadth of faith in yourself is dependent on the depth and breadth of your self-understanding. The shape, size, brilliance, dullness, strength, and weakness of your faith are always proportional to your self-understanding.
“Self-realization is the mother of true faith. Faith that arises naturally from self-understanding is true faith. Even in its infancy, faith is unfailingly liberating. Faith that has been imposed on you, or the faith you have cultivated out of social, cultural, or day-to-day necessity, is alien to your inner self, and your inner self will reject it. You will waste your emotional, intellectual, and spiritual resources protecting it, and in the end, you will fail. Serving such a faith is worshiping untruth. Worship of untruth leads you to untruth. Worship of truth born of your self-understanding leads you to truth.”
Prana: The Source of Life
The four brothers had been listening intently. Now one of them asked, “How do we understand ourselves?”
“Know that you are a breathing being,” Dakshinamurti responded. “You exist because you breathe. Your mind thinks because you breathe. Your organs function because you breathe. Your senses and limbs function because you breathe. Breath is the source of life—it is life.
Breath is the source of life—it is life.
“Breath is not your creation; you are breath’s creation. The breath that is moving in and out of your body is a physical manifestation of the non-physical life force. This life force is prana shakti, or simply prana.
“Every living being is a child of prana. As pulsation, prana is mother and father of all. The presence of prana makes the sun shine, allows the earth to metabolize sunlight, and enables nature to flourish. Prana is the provider, protector, and guide of all. We are whatever prana has made us. This is knowledge. Anything more is simply an elaboration of this truth. The further a piece of information is from this truth, the more burdensome and binding it is.”
“What is the source of prana?” one of the brothers asked.
“The almighty, omniscient divine being,” Dakshinamurti replied. “Prana is infallible sankalpa, the power of intention of the divine. It is as mighty and omniscient as the absolute being. It is propelled by the intrinsic compassion of the divine. Prana is imbued with inexhaustible compassion. It does not judge those it serves. It is all pervading. It was there before we were born; it is there when we are alive; it will be there when we are dead. It is the foundation of existence. It is the manifest form of the unmanifest transcendental being. Wise is he who thinks, speaks, and interacts with himself and others in the light of this knowledge. To be and to behave like prana is the way to expand one’s consciousness and one day achieve the same degree of purity and capacity as prana.”
The Highest Knowledge
Everything in the universe is the product of benevolent, compassionate prana shakti. Nonjudgmental, compassionate benevolence is our essential nature. Experiencing our essential nature is the highest spiritual experience. Thinking, speaking, and acting in the light of our essential nature is the best way to reinforce our self-understanding. This continuous reinforcement strengthens our conviction that the absolute divinity is within us. She is breathing, thinking, speaking, and acting while using our bodies and minds. We are her instruments. All of us are here at her behest. We act as she wishes. In the ultimate scheme of her creation, all of us are engaged in serving the purpose of the one who pulsates in us as breath. Some know it; others don’t. Yet she dispenses her love, compassion, guidance, and nourishment equally to all.
A person immersed in this knowledge loves all and judges none, for he sees the whole world and everyone and everything in it as her manifestation. This experience is the highest experience. This knowledge is the highest knowledge. It is the foundation of freedom from all fear.
The South Face of Shiva
Dakshinamurti is the founding master of the Sri Vidya tradition of tantra. Due to his boundless love, compassion, and forgiveness, he is identified as the south (dakshina) face of Shiva. Thus, the name Dakshinamurti. As soon as we face this ever-present reality, south—the direction symbolizing death, decay, and destruction—is behind us. We are facing north instead. When driven by destiny or due to our carelessness we become oblivious of this reality, Dakshinamurti faces south—watching over us and making sure we are fully protected and guided.
In Indian mythology, Dakshinamurti is always depicted sitting under the canopy of a banyan tree, the symbol of the tree of life. And he is always depicted sitting in meditation, constantly watching over us through his inwardly focused mind. He meditates for us. He breathes for us. He is the life giver; thus, the scriptures call him Divine Mother, Sri Vidya. He is the seer of the Sri Vidya mantra.
In our tradition, we always begin our meditation with the invocation of Dakshinamurti, which includes the invocation of all teachers. Figuratively, all teachers in the lineage of the Sri Vidya tradition are the branches, flowers, and fruits of Dakshinamurti, the absolute tree of wisdom.