Tag Archives: reincarnation

“The Dream of Scipio” by Iain Pears

I’ve putting off writing about The Dream of Scipio because it is the most challenging work of fiction that I’ve read in years. It was selected as “summer” reading by a book group I attend only intermittently. During the academic year, the group’s schedule often conflicts with mine. In summer, the group reads a long work and gathers for dinner as well as discussion. I looked forward to this event, but was called for a volunteer service project and missed it. Darn! One friend reported that the discussion was good but “didn’t get to the interesting stuff”. There’s so much “interesting stuff” in this book, how would you know where to begin? (Asking the starting question for a book group is a serious responsibility!)

The “dream” in the book title refers to a dream or vision attributed to the Roman general Scipio Africanus and recounted by both Cicero and Chaucer. The dream bears a warning about the perils of vanity and power. (I’m dipping into Wikipedia and eNotes.com for this.)

Iain Pear’s novel has a fixed geographical focus, namely the city and surroundings of Avignon, France. Three historical eras are included.

  • the later Roman empire
  • the fourteenth century “plague years”
  • World War II

Calling this book “historical fiction” is a serious oversimplification.

The novel begins with a suicide by burning. Not for the faint of heart.

I interpreted the book as a harsh critique of the impact of Christianity on the cultures that came before it.

The sets of characters in each era are so strongly parallel that reincarnation comes to mind. Is the “wise woman” portrayed in each era really the same woman, or in some sense an archetype, Sophia the goddess of wisdom?

I plan to reread this book when I can get my hands on a hard copy. The Kindle is not ideal for a book that requires the reader to skip back and forth. It’s not a good book to put down and then pick up two weeks later. I highly recommend reading The Dream of Scipio with a group, so you will have ample opportunity for discussion.

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Kundalini Yoga – Further Reflections

I’ve decided to write a bit more about the two barriers to my further progress along the path of Kundalini yoga. If you read my recent post (March 17), you know what they are – reincarnation and the role of the guru.

I don’t believe in reincarnation. Why? First, no evidence. Nothing has ever happened in my life that requires reincarnation in order to be explained. Second, it’s not the “simplest explanation”, and I operate on the general notion that the “simplest explanation” is often correct. To me, the “simplest explanation” is that consciousness resides in our bodies and disappears with the dissolution of the body. Not comforting, but simple.

That said, is there a problem with believing in reincarnation? Yes, and it shows up in the book Kundalini. The author repeatedly asserts that our current lives reflect the problems and errors of our past lives. So if, in your current life, you are subject to poverty, injustice, disease and misfortune, it’s because of prior sins. If you are good (charitable, devout, austere) you will be born into an advantaged, Brahmin family where you will get the spiritual training that may make it possible to step off the wheel of reincarnation and achieve enlightenment. So charity is a virtue, but the problems of the poor are really their own fault. Great argument for the status quo!

I had read of low caste Hindus converting to Buddhism because the (officially illegal) caste system caused them so much misery. It is no longer legal to discriminate against the Dalit caste labeled as “untouchable”, but old patterns of behavior die hard. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions – conversions on this basis continue. From a blog post (2010): “Buddhism means I can simply say I am not a Hindu. I do not have a caste.”

So to me, a fundamental belief in reincarnation is a problem. I’m well aware that “my” contemporary American culture has its heavy burden of prejudice and discrimination, and scores of serious social problems, but I don’t feel that I should go seeking enlightenment “elsewhere”.

And why is the need for a “guru” a problem? For me, it just isn’t going to happen! People my age just don’t become devotees. I’ve seen good teachers and leaders go bad. I’m not trusting. I don’t have a priest or minister or even an elder. I rely on relatives and friends, and the occasional carefully chosen professional.

One aspect of the guru/student relationship that might be a problem would be secrecy. If a teacher is imparting “higher knowledge”, are they asking you not to share it? I would find that unacceptable.

This does NOT mean that I don’t appreciate a good teacher! At this point, I have THREE yoga teachers. All women. Each is different – very different! I value those three relationships very much.

“Kundalini” by Vibhakar Pandya

Publisher – Shree Siddhayog Sadhan Mandal. 148 pages.

It’s hard to figure out how to write about this book, because it is different from any other book I own. It was written in Gujarati, one of the languages of India, and evidently translated into English by someone whose English was very limited. Editing and proof reading would appear to have been minimal. It’s the publishing equivalent of “folk art”, which is defined as art produced by someone with no formal training in art.

My copy of Kundalini carries a publication date of 2003 and indicates 1000 copies were printed, so it is a rarity. There’s a recent sticker inside telling me how to find a local meditation group, with a phone number and (!) web site address. I’m very grateful for this contact information, as I am considering increasing my practice of meditation, now limited to whatever a yoga teacher directs in the two or three classes I attend each week.

Within the book is information about buying a mat to use for yoga or meditation, a long list of books for sale (most available only in Gujarati) and information about a magazine. Cassette tapes are also offered.

I’m sure I could track down this author on line (and lord knows what I will find!), but before doing this, here are my impressions: This book is foreign. It comes from an ancient culture so different from my own that I feel uncertain about every word I read. Even when I understand the words on the page, I’ve no confidence that they were translated accurately, or that they may not have, say, three alternate meanings to which I have no key. It is almost incomprehensible. “Kundalini” seems to be a form of energy (strong but dangerous?), a location in the body and also a goddess. In many (most?) people, it is latent, sleeping. If it wakes up without “guidance” it is dangerous. It can bring you to enlightenment.

The list of signs of awakening Kundalini (90 items) includes manifestations ranging from the trivial (yawning during meditation) to the alarming (the whole body starts flapping or fluttering). By western standards, much of this looks like bodily disease or mental illness.

There are several assumptions built into this book. One is the belief in reincarnation. Another is that spiritual growth is entirely dependent on having a devoted master/student relationship with a teacher or guru. Both of these are problematic for me, so my further growth in the path of Kundalini based meditation will be limited.

There’s another barrier between me and this spiritual path. I don’t wish to engage in cultural appropriation. This is a term used to describe a situation where someone borrows too extensively (and perhaps insensitively) from a culture not their own. For example, consider the middle class white American who participates in a few (Native American) sweat lodges and then starts to lead them. Native people may resent having their sacred ceremonials reduced to income producing workshops. I’ve heard both sides of these arguments, and I personally feel that my understanding of Hinduism will always be incomplete and my spiritual growth may best be served by staying closer to “home”, that is, somewhere within the Judeo-Christian tradition.

That said, I can hardly express how grateful I am to the Vaikunth Hindu Jain Temple, where I take yoga classes and have occasional opportunities to learn about Hinduism and eat wonderful food. I’ll never be a candidate for membership, but I’m honored to be a guest/participant in the life of a local cultural treasure!