Mahadeviyakka – Praying with the body
Praying with the body
It is commonly imagined that the main selling point for Oriental religions in the West is that they offer the supra-natural, the non-worldly, the spiritual. In fact their attraction is probably the exact opposite. They draw people by shamelessly putting at the centre of religious practice that awkward, unseemly, material embarrassment we call the body.
“For the first time in my life I feel deliriously happy being my transcended sensuous self”, says Madeleine. Born and bred a “fervent” Catholic, now, 30 years old, she has found “redemption” in Sahaja Yoga, a small Indian cult that recruits successfully in over 15 counties in Britain. To get a complete picture requires a short exposition of this new religion and its beliefs.
Founder, leader, source of all doctrine and divinity-on-earth is Nirmala Devi Strivastava. Her followers refer to her as “Shri Mataji” or “Mother”. Born to Christian parents at Chindawara in central India in 1923, she worked with Gandhi for some years, married an Indian who worked as an official at the United Nations, and reared children and grandchildren. Only in 1970 did she proclaim her revelation. Claiming to embody in her own person the spiritual force of kundalini, she gives “instantaneous release and self-awareness to millions of seekers”.
Mataji’s doctrine focuses on the body. She provides disciples with a detailed and complex chart of the invisible “plumbing” that lies inside us. The energy that fuels creation and evolution, she explains, wells up in us from below our pelvic bone and rises through three parallel channels to the top of our head to give full selfconsciousness. The flow is regulated, and inhibited, by seven “valves” or “nodes” that lie along the spine. Blockages along the way, known as “catches”, cause the physical and mental diseases that plague us. This corporal network of power-lines is presented in a curious mixture of traditional Hindu anatomy, pseudo-modern neurology and Christian faith-healing. The righthand channel, for instance, the pingala, is identified with the parasympathetic nervous system. The “heart” node, viddhaya chakra, whose malfunction causes breathing disorders, breast cancer and heart failure, is presided over by the gods Shiva and Jagadamba, the “brain” node by the Lord Jesus Christ and Buddha.
The quickest and surest way of clearing the nodes of all “catches” is communion with Mataji, who describes herself as “the primeval divine life force”, the “Holy Ghost”, “presiding deity of the topmost node”, “tangible powerhouse of kundalini vibration”. One communes sitting before her image, hands stretched out towards her smiling face. “Vibrations from my photograph awaken self-realisation in you as from my physical presence”, Mataji assures us. “Make yourself comfortable. Remove shoes and loosen tight clothing. Sit on the floor, if you can, and place my photograph before you. With your eyes on the picture, hold your hands towards it, palms upward. You will feel a cool breeze caressing the tips of your fingers, then flowing through your hands and into your whole body. It is the divine breath, granting healing and relaxation, elevating you to the realm of spiritual joy and collective consciousness.”
Disciples testify to the reality of the experience. “I felt a strange sort of cool, radiating, glowing energy running up my spine and lifting up into a balloon in the head”, Philippa Pullar relates in The Shortest Journey. “A supporting rod travelled up my backbone, and with it came great elation. The whole of my body rejoiced; it felt as though every pore, every vein, every nerve was joining in the Hallelujah chorus of Messiah. All the body united in this expression. There was a definite widening of area, a feeling of space, of losing the outlines of the body and a very definite feeling at the top of the head, a gentle disturbance. It felt so comfortable, so safe, as though I was protected by waves of gossamer.” In Sahaja’s apologetic handbook, The Advent, Gregoire Kalbermatten concurs. “I sank into deep meditation with immense joy and pleasing sensations all over my body. I became warmer. I was with myself as if fully drunk, but completely conscious…. Reality: simple, direct, immediate, blissful.”
What does actually take place? The experience is so persuasive, so powerfully pleasing, that Sahaja yogis put up with what might seem to be insuperable deterrents: an implausible creed, tight community control, narrow Hindu social ethics, superstitions verging on the ridiculous. Who in today’s world would blow a conch to clean a house of demons? Or slay a meddlesome neighbour by writing her name on the floor, encircling it seven times and stamping on it with the heel of the left shoe 108 times? Or who would seriously believe that seven lemons and seven chillies kept under one’s pillow for seven consecutive nights will absorb negative vibrations?
In Shamans, Mystics and Doctors, Sudhur Kakar maintains that Sahaji yogis are hypnotised. Mataji’s soothing voice, relayed on a magnetic tape, comes drifting in through the darkness, he says. She demands concentration on herself. She issues specific bodily commands. She urges unconditional surrender. These, he remarks, are the hallmarks of a hypnotic operator.
He may well be right. Hypnosis and auto-suggestion play their part. This explains why Mataji opposes outside influences, forbidding contacts with other teachers, free intellectual discussion, further education or even the reading of books. But it is not the whole story. Her power stems mainly from the fact that discovering spiritual bodiness responds to an unfulfilled Western need.
Social conditioning has distorted the way we experience our body. We believe we have a body, instead of realising we are body. Persuaded we are mind and spirit, we carry our bodies around like puzzling reminders of an animal past. We keep the beast on a leash by observing a social taboo against most forms of human touch. We hide its flesh under layers of dress and allude to certain organs with naughty puns and sly allusions. Since we cannot help being body all the same, we swing from one extreme to the other. One moment we ignore it, incurring stress, ulcers and heart failure; next we pamper it with equally distressing results. Psychoanalysts have described the schizoid body image, the emotional traumas, the twisted identity caused by our betrayal of the body.
Christian spirituality can augment this process of alienation. The very word “spirituality” was coined in France to denote opposition to, if not revulsion from, “the flesh”. Closeness to God was measured in terms of discipline, ascesis, of the body. Mortification, scourging, and fasting were seen as means of taming its unruly desires. Preachers, misreading Paul who uses “flesh” for “nature enslaved by sin”, quoted him to prove that “nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:8) and “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). Rodriguez’s classic on Christian Perfection adduced examples of holy monks who lamented having to eat, sleep and care for their bodies. But is this still Christian?
Belief in the resurrection should make us feel liberated and happy in our bodies. We are allowed to feel good. We are allowed to be well and healthy. We may, without a pang of guilt, enjoy the glow of our skin, the warmth of human touch, the satisfaction of a good meal. If we do impose restrictions on ourselves, as we should, we do it also to respect our body itself which thrives on restraint and harmony. Since Christ through his multiple sacramental touch continues to nourish and heal us in the body-yes, “becomes our body” as Symeon the New Theologian states-we can joyfully relate to God in all we are, including our bodily selves. And this is where prayer comes in.
Those with pastoral responsibilities will need to help people discover prayer; not just saying prayers, but achieving total, happy, liberating communion with God. Usually such guidance will need to include specific suggestions as to how the body functions in prayer. First, one needs to find the right place, some niche in our daily world which allows a combination of freedom and silence. Then we have to adopt a suitable posture, the one that helps us best to relax while remaining alert. We need to learn how to integrate our eyes, our ears, our sense of touch. We need to discern and channel our emotions: healing hostility and hurt, holding on through loneliness and depression, owning up to feelings of joy and thanks.
And why should prayer not be fun, relaxing, an exhilarating experience? Practical guidelines of this kind may save people’s faith more effectively than the dogmatising and moralising which *equently fill our sermons and religious education.
A total response
A reversal of the trend has already set in for smaller groups. Courses on meditation are on offer in Christian prayer centres; and have recently been extended to parishes and schools. In liturgical renewal more attention is being given to helping participants make the most of postures and gestures at Mass. In some convents the psalms of the Divine Office are being recited with gracious body language. Children are taught to mime the Gospel or dance around the altar at first Holy Communion. We are reclaiming the body for Christ; but for some it may come too late.
As long as 30 years ago the Benedictine monk Jean Dechanet drew the attention of Catholics to the beneficial effects of Christian yoga for spiritual health. His book, still worth putting into practice today, shows how care bestowed on the body tends to a sense of balance, to being able to live purposefully and at peace. It also gives the perfect setting for prayer. “One gets the feeling of a general unwinding”, he wrote, “of a well-being taking hold, of a euphoria that will and in fact does last.”
The body deserves our attention, whether we follow the yoga discipline suggested by Dechanet (not Transcendental Meditation or cultic yoga) or our own liberating programme; so that we can feel ourselves uninhibited and relaxed. We are then free to move in prayer towards that loving encounter with God in whose embrace we can afford to forget; for all that is ours, our spirit and our earthiness, our solidarity with all who belong to the body of Christ, come together in him. At that moment, as the fourteenth-century mystic reminds us, “just as the cloud of unknowing lies above you, between you and your God, so you must fashion a cloud of forgetting beneath you, between you and every created thing”. We pray with mind and body to be free for God.
Published in part in The Tablet 24 September 1988, pp. 1086-1087.