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Archive for July, 2010

“In the ocean of our dream-world, the breath is the specific storm of delusion that produces the consciousness of individual waves – the forms of men and all other material objects.”
– Paramahansa Yogananda from Chapter 49 of “Autobiography of a Yogi”

Yogananda says so much in this one sentence. He says that “the breath is the specific storm of delusion.” In another part of the same chapter, the last chapter of the “Autobiography,” he explains that “The mystery of life and death…is intimately interwoven with breath. Breathlessness is deathlessness.” In effect, maya—the dualistic world of delusion—begins with the breath because we experience life with the breath and the breath itself is a microcosm of dualism. Each breath is really composed of two parts, the inspiration (breathing in) and the respiration (breathing out.) If the breath was composed of only one part, we wouldn’t be breathing and hence we would transcend life (“breathlessness is deathlessness.”)

Yogananda continues his sentence, saying that “the breath is the specific form of delusion that produces the consciousness of individual waves.” In other words, waves (or vibrations) are oscillating patterns of two-ness. Just as the breath is composed of inspiration and its opposite, respiration, the wave has an upward surge, an upwelling that breaks and collapses into its opposite, a downward fall. Each one of us can be likened to an individual wave, a specifically patterned vibration that is enlivened and energized by the breath.

But Yogananda doesn’t just say that the breath produces individual waves, he says that it produces the consciousness of individual waves. In other words, each one of us is not just an individual vibration, but a vibrating individual consciousness. The individual consciousness, the “I” that each one of us feels so keenly to form the essence of the experience of life, appears to us in our maya-delusion to be separate and distinct from the One-ness of God. As Yogananda puts it, “the specific storm of delusion (the breath)…produces the… individual waves—the forms of men and all other material objects (maya.)” Thus, the goal of life is to get beyond the breath, beyond the wave-vibrations and beyond dualistic material forms: to break through maya to the wholeness of God. It is for this reason that maya is always referred to as “delusion” or “illusion,” or as Yogananda put it, “the ocean of our dream-world.”

In our dream-world, we always seem to be locked in conflict with each other, whereas enlightenment is a rising above conflict because it is a rising above all forms of opposites and opposition. The perfect metaphor for this human condition is to visualize the seething masses of traders frantically buying and selling stocks on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and then to look up and behold a Hindu master in deep meditation, levitating in lotus position in perfect peace high above the swirling crowd. He is neither buying nor selling; neither acting nor reacting. Buying and selling are, after all, opposite acts. Electronically traded, stocks are like the electrical poles of negative and positive.

But is the “ocean” of our world really a dream or is it physical reality? The answer is that it is both at once. I know if I bang hard on a heavy boulder with my fist, I will feel its solid resistance. I know it is real and I know the reality of my own body by the reverberating response echoing in my nerve-endings from the impact of my blow. But if I were to hit my head hard enough against that same rock, the impact would kill me, and in the immediate trauma of my death, the illusory properties of the physical world would shatter completely, as my soul separated itself from my broken, cast-off body, observing the “death” scene from above. Yogananda calls maya “the ocean of our dream world” because we dream so deeply in our physical state—we are so thoroughly convinced of our individual identities separate from God—that it is as if we are swimming in the deepest and widest of oceans. Only the practice of yoga meditation can bring us out of this ocean of dreaming.

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Hinduism and Buddhism teach us that the goal of every human life is enlightenment, but the masters also use the word “awakening” a lot. Is there a difference between awakening and enlightenment? If there is one at all, it is that awakening to our Higher Self allows us to become enlightened. An intellectually-oriented philosopher might say that it is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for enlightenment. In other words, to be enlightened we must first awaken, and then we must remain Awake for eternity.

But what is meant by “the Higher Self?” It is the Self that rises above and presides over all the incarnations a human being successively inhabits. Existing above the dualistic “illusion” of maya, the Higher Self represents our true nature in God, where we find union with God. We can also say that the Higher Self is Christ-consciousness, because Christ is the Consciousness that transcends all individual particularities and differences; differences that are apparent only on the Earth-plane of maya.

What then is preventing us from awakening to a higher consciousness, the Higher Self that is our immortal soul? In a word, it is our buzzing mind, regulated by a little buddy called the ego. The ego is a busy-body, a thinking machine acting like an umpire between the myriad thoughts that continually compete for our attention, forming a dense thicket of conflicting imagery. Have you ever noticed that whenever you have a thought, you immediately have the opposite and contrary thought? For example, I might think, “I’m going to spend money to go on vacation. I need one and I deserve one.” Immediately afterwards, I think, “I’m not going to spend money on vacation. I simply can’t afford one right now.” This illustration demonstrates clearly that thinking and thought are rooted firmly within the dualistic plane of maya, where no action exists without an equal and opposite reaction. That quasi-scientific formulation is also a clear demonstration of the law of karma: you reap what you sow. If any action one undertook was not in some way met by an equal and opposite counter-reaction, we would not recognize the world we live in.

Awakening is the process of stilling the buzzing mind and breaking through the polarities of both maya and her twin-sister, karma. The Tibetan Book of the Dead asks us to concentrate on the fields of blue sky that occasionally open momentarily between the fast-moving clouds of our thoughts. Meditation becomes the practice of elongating and enlarging the periods of blue sky between the dense thought-clouds. Similarly, Eckhart Tolle notes the temporal quality of thought, demanding that we concentrate always on the present (“The Power of Now” is the title of one of his books) because each of our thoughts has either just passed (and is therefore in the past) or is about-to-be (and is therefore in the future.)

However we do it, concentrating on the One at the expense of the Two is how we can break through the illusion of maya to the Light of God beyond. One of the greatest lessons Yogananda describes learning in his “Autobiography” is that he didn’t have to journey to a cave in the Himalays to find God. God was every bit as present in the crowded streets of Calcutta as in the distant mountains. Yogananda just needed to go inside himself, wherever he happened to be.

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“The mystery of life and death, whose solution is the only purpose of man’s sojourn on earth, is intimately interwoven with breath.” — Paramahansa Yogananda, from Chapter 49 of “Autobiography of a Yogi.”

The solution to the mystery of life and death is the only purpose of man’s sojourn on Earth. I have always felt this to be true in my gut, without ever actually articulating it to myself so succinctly. Yogananda’s words release the truth of something I feel I have always known. Beyond resolving the mystery of life and death, everything else in life is distraction and attachment. Yet most of us never confront this deeper purpose of life except on our death beds, or attending at the death beds of our loved ones. There is nothing like the departure of a loved one to remind us why we are really here: it is not to play soccer, to pick up the kids at school, or even to produce our latest play or write our latest novel. Those are merely roles we take on in our current incarnation; they do not represent more than one aspect of our true Selves. Instead, our true purpose is to confront, accept and finally transcend the gulf between life and death; the gulf that is crossed by our departed loved ones.

How is the great mystery solved? Yogananda and other great spiritual leaders teach us, paradoxically, that there is no real difference between life and death. According to the Hindu theory of reincarnation, the purpose of each of our earthly lives is to work out the karmic debt we amassed in our previous lives. When we die, some but not all of our karmic debt has been repaid, so we must continue to be reborn until we have overcome all earthly desires and we are prepared to join in the One-ness of God. In the intervals between our earth lives, the theory goes, we are reborn as astral bodies in a subtler astral plane where (guess what?) we must work out our previously amassed “astral karma.”

It is in this sense that Yogananda teaches that there is no real difference between life and death: in both realms, each of us is a consciousness and each of us is working successively to repay our karmic debts and ultimately to transcend the karmic burden entirely. The soul is immortal; it merely takes on a series of ephemeral transient identities, now on the physical plane and then on the astral one. Consciousness and the necessity to confront one’s karma, karma that is born with each of us in the dualistic world of maya-creation, are the universal constants bridging the gap between the realms of death and life. As we bow our heads before the Unity of God that stands above the duality of Creation, there is no difference between the life we lead in life and the life we lead after death.

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The central lesson of reincarnation is not to celebrate the soul’s rebirth in a new human form, but rather to stop the soul’s obsessive need to be reborn entirely, by working out all the karma of our past lives. But why should the goal of all human life be to stop the wheel of reincarnation and get off it forever? Never more to need to be reborn? It would seem that no concept could be more rejecting of life; that this Hindu/Buddhist doctrine, if taken to its logical conclusion, would advocate the obliteration of the human race through its dissolution. Can the Eastern wisdom really be so much the opposite of life-affirming? At least at first to the average Westerner, this appears to be a big puzzle.

Nevertheless, one important clue is that the Eastern teachings stress the importance of the evolution of the individual soul. Each soul is slowly evolving forward, however fitfully, toward a state in which it finds maya-delusion no longer to appeal. Of all the peoples in the world, no two souls are at the exact same state of evolution at any one time. Thus, because one individual soul is ready to step off the wheel of reincarnation and out of the world of material things, that does not mean that all of his brothers and sisters are equally prepared or evolved. One could visualize the process as a giant escalator–a “stairway to heaven”–on which the entire human race is slowly climbing. One by one, an individual arrives at the top step and willingly steps off entirely, forever into the One-ness of Spirit. His brothers and sisters are all arrayed behind him in a ranking of relative preparedness to climb off. Some souls, moving more quickly up through their repeating lives, pass others to the left as they climb. Others are just entering at the bottom, one by one. It is perhaps in this way that life perpetuates itself even as a few human souls eventually evolve toward the One-ness of God.

There is a life-affirming aspect to this conceptualization after all. It is that until one is really, truly ready to transfer his love from his fellow humans directly to their source in God (a love which extends its embrace to enfold all of those humans within it,) those lesser forms of human love are richly deserving of the greatest possible honor and celebration on Earth. The Hindu masters so vividly described in Yogananda’s “Autobiography” continue to love their disciples dearly even as they devote themselves to God. It is as if they subtly transform their love of individual human beings from a direct love of the person into a love of that person as representing an emanation or specific manifestation of God.

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One of the biggest contributions of Hinduism and Buddhism is the teaching that all human suffering is due to the bonds of attachment we all experience—attachment to others and to material things. The goal of life appears to be to overcome our attachments so that we are no longer drawn, lifetime after lifetime, into the mesmerizing dualistic physical world of desires and suffering, the world of “maya” or delusion/illusion.
When the objects of our attachment (our love or passion) die, we feel wrenching pain and grief. The stronger our attachment to someone, the stronger the suffering we experience. It is at least in part to address and overcome this chronic, inevitable human suffering of loss, that the teachings ask us to put aside our attachments; to become “detached” from the objects of our desire.

To a Westerner, this teaching seems especially strange because what could possibly be wrong with forming strong attachments to a loved one or by extension to one’s beloved family and friends? The greatest values we profess, namely love for our fellow human beings and especially of family, would seem to be undermined by this strange and seemingly fatalistic Hindu outlook. If we look more closely at the teaching, however, it is easily reconciled with our Western values. What Hinduism and Buddhism actually would have us do is not so much to renounce our attachment to our loved ones. Instead, they would have us go deeper and see that our love for our fellow humans is in fact a reflection of our love for God. We were created by God and our loved ones were equally created by God, so by loving them, we are actually expressing our love of God. What the Eastern wisdom really asks us to do is to transfer our love from the reflection of its object–our loved ones—to the source of all reflections, God.

All creatures are subject to the dualistic laws of maya; their Creator alone is One and stands beyond maya. In the ancient Indian tradition, the older “householder” or family man departs from his family after he has completed the duties of raising his children, by wandering off as an itinerant hermit and mendicant carrying his begging bowl, seeking to break all his attachments. This extreme act of renunciation does not express rejection of his love for his family; instead, it energizes the transference of his love from his fellow human beings to their Creator and to the source of love itself in God. Perhaps for us modern Westerners, however, it is enough to love one’s spouse, family and friends wholeheartedly while simply reflecting from time to time that our love for them is merely an aspect of our encompassing love for God. When they depart this world, our love continues and eventually, after an intense grieving season that is inevitable for all but the greatest “saints” and mystics, it mingles with our more general love of God.

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The original definition of the word “avatar,” as used in Hindu religion and philosophy is a manifestation or incarnation of the divine. That is, it is a description of a visible form taken on by God, or one of the aspects of God. An avatar is evidence of God in this world but it manifests as only one of the many, many aspects of the divine Being. In today’s culture of video games, however, the term “avatar” has become a synonym for a proxy. When one plays a video game, he sends his proxy or “avatar” into the cyber-world to wage combat.

At first glance, it would appear that James Cameron’s film “Avatar” uses the word in its current cultural context of a proxy for an individual human being. Since human beings cannot breathe the atmosphere of the planet Pandora, they breed avatars, creatures with the genetic make-up of the tall, blue Pandorans but without brains. Human beings direct the blue avatars remotely, using their will power while in a trance-like state of suspended animation inside a flotation tank. Each avatar becomes the proxy of the human being who is controlling it. This represents a cinematic response to “The Matrix” movies, in which the movies’ characters directed their alter egos in a dream-like world while actually being in a coma-like state, plugged into a giant super-computer.

If we look more closely at “Avatar,” though, the planet Pandora takes on all the qualities of the astral realms described in Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Colors are infinitely more subtle and varied. Movements are far more buoyant, as if taking place on a planet with much lower gravity than Earth. All the creatures possess the ability to fly, or sky-jump, or at least hitch a ride on a magnificent flying creature. Sounds and presumably scents are much more vivid and harmonious than on the grosser planet Earth. As the story line proceeds, the finer native intelligence of the Pandorans is clearly contrasted with the brutish, material-driven reasoning of the earth visitors. The earthlings are shown to be destroyers where the Pandorans are worshipers of a Creation in which God is present in every smallest part. The pantheist heaven of Pandora is painted in marked contrast to the earth-bound, objectivist dualism of the barbarian visitor’s perceived reality, and at the deeply satisfying end of the movie, the lead character is re-born as a Pandoran. Thus, his avatar essentially becomes his Pandoran (read astral) body.

This entire myth can be seen as an allegory of the relations between an astral world (Pandora) and a physical one (Earth.) In Chapter 43 of his “Autobiography,” Yogananda describes the wondrous astral and causal worlds that man occupies in the afterlife even as he belongs to the physical body in each passing incarnation. According to Yogananda, when one dies, one is instantly reborn in an astral body and upon the death, much later of that infinitely subtler body, one returns to Earth for one’s next physical incarnation. This formulation closely matches the experiences of many people who have reported their near-death experiences.

The cycle of rebirth repeats itself until such time as one has worked out all of one’s physical karma and has no further need to return to Earth for another lifetime. Henceforth, one will dwell in the astral realm, traveling from time to time to the even more subtle causal realm above the astral world until all of one’s “astral karma” has been worked out. It is all a grand project for the soul to grow gradually ever closer to the One-ness of God, until at last it has been completely absorbed into the Ultimate or the One. Yogananda’s description of the order of the cosmos and of the human soul in three successively higher casings, the physical body, the astral body and the causal body, is extraordinarily compelling and closely matches the vivid descriptions to be found in “The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”

I am strongly drawn emotionally to this wondrous and strange explanation of the cycles of life and death and to the nature of the astral afterlife. It is, I believe, what James Cameron has depicted mythically and so beautifully in “Avatar,” the most vivid depiction of an afterlife ever achieved on film. “Avatar” is not the first film to present an allegory of the shedding of the physical body and the donning of an astral body at death; it is merely the best one. Earlier films such as “Cocoon” and “Ghost” showed the lighter astral body emerging from the physical one. In “Cocoon,” the characgters are not depicted as dead; they are merely old. When they have a group encounter with a magical lake, they are rejuvenated as beings of light in a fountain of youth. Although death is never presented directly in the film, on a subconscious level one could interpret the movie allegorically to be saying that death is the act of diving into an unknown and mysterious pool form which one emerges victorious a s a re-invigorated being of light. A space ship is conveniently waiting to transport the group upwards into the astral realms. At the beginning of “Ghost,” one is presented with the simulation of the uncorking of the human soul when Patrick Swayze’spirit or astral body is released from the casing of his physical body.at the moment of death. Both films present us with a visualization of the process of death, but only “Avatar” goes so far as to portray an entire awaiting astral world.

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In “Avatar,” director James Cameron has created a divine-infused world in which God is everywhere evident, in every wind-blown seed, leaf, tree and life form. Can there be any doubt that Pandora is a stand-in for the entire cosmos? This pantheistic world is inspiring and causes us to remember shamelessly our regrettable tendency to forget and ignore the evidence of God that so thoroughly surrounds us everywhere on planet Earth. As everyone knows by now, the plot of “Avatar” follows a barbarian, albeit thoroughly modern tribe of human beings as they invade and colonize pristine Pandora to rob it of every extractable mineral resource, causing the destruction of its divine centerpiece, the enormous “Tree of Life.” It is as if Adam and Eve, after eating the forbidden fruit, had proceeded to fell the entire tree. Living according to the base passions of maya, the ego-driven humans have fallen away from God, whom they think of as a wholly separate entity, if they think of Him at all.

It was astonishing to me that some conservative Christians attacked the movie as presenting a pagan view of God as One with his Creation. In their view, our universe is a fallen world, created by God but separated by God’s will from its Creator as a punishment for Adam’s original sin. When Adam took a bite of the apple, they would have us believe, not only were he and Eve forced to leave the garden of Eden, but the entire material world they were given to inhabit was cast aside by God.

The Hindu and Buddhist concept of maya, on the other hand, is thoroughly pantheistic. Maya is an illusory or perhaps fallen world of duality but, perhaps paradoxically, it is nevertheless real, divine and One with its Creator. Early forms of Christianity made room for this pantheistic spiritual viewpoint and figures such as St. Francis of Assisi no doubt embraced it. In the Eastern conceptualization of maya, the human invaders of Pandora would be seen as thoroughly ego-driven and ignorant, their destructive actions a form of sociopathic madness directed inadvertently against themselves as well as against God.

Yet it is perfectly possible to reconcile the biblical story of Adam and Eve with the doctrine of maya. One could interpret Genesis by saying that when Adam and Eve fell from God’s grace, they lost their God-given perception of One-ness with their Creator, while still having one foot in the divine realms. We often like to say that we are ‘in this world but not of it,’ which is to say that we are all creatures of God but we dwell in the dualistic manifestations of maya and we have lost our own sense of our nonetheless very real unity with our Creator. In other words, our condition is one of forgetfulness of God rather than of actual separation from God. “Avatar” does not have to be perceived as a pagan story. Instead, it is a parable of the human condition: that human souls (represented by the Pandorans) are essentially connected to God but, except in the example of a few enlightened souls on Earth, we are not able to pierce the veil of illusion and perceive our unity with Him. When the human hero of “Avatar” is re-born as a Pandoran, he is achieving, if not enlightenment, then at least a giant step in his spiritual evolution.

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No concept has more incisively explained the dualistic nature of our material world than the Hindu-Buddhist doctrine of “Maya.” Maya is the philosophical and religious thesis that while God is One, his material creation presents itself in an illusory manifestation of dueling opposites. Dualism is the hallmark of creation. That is, light and dark; good and evil are inextricably bound together in the fabric of the physical universe, but they are not of the true nature of God. God is Light only and Good only. God’s Light is so all-encompassing that shadows do not exist within it; His goodness is elevated to such a height that evil could not exist other than as it is manifested in the physical world. Just as a painter renders the material form of figures and objects with contrasts of lighter and darker pigments, God has manifested the beings and objects of material creation in contrasts of light and shadow. These contrasts disappear entirely into the Light of God when viewed from the point of view of true enlightenment or “God-Realization” as Yogananda calls it.

The road to enlightenment, therefore, lies in tearing asunder the “veil of illusion” that separates us, creatures who experience ourselves and our world only through the distorted lens of maya, from the One-ness of God. Our lenses are the five senses and the veil of illusion expresses itself in our individual egos, hard shells we develop that (we believe) separate our inner souls from the Reality of God. The human ego believes that it controls the reigns of the sense organs and therefore cannot see beyond their sensory stimuli to the Infinite and Absolute that lie just behind the veil.

To me, the doctrine of maya is like a scalpel that slices through our illusory view of life and explains all of human conflict and suffering in a single, blinding burst of insight. It is because of maya that human beings are said to be asleep and in need of “Awakening.” In “The Matrix” movies, Keanu Reeves plays a man asleep in a computer-driven virtual world he manipulates from inside a cocoon-like box that insulates him from the true sensory world of which he was ignorant. James Cameron expands on this theatrical conceit in “Avatar.” Yet, when Keanu Reeves’ character awakens to the real world, he finds it to be a cold and bleak place of hard surfaces. He awakens to a world of relative sensory deprivation; a monastery, perhaps, in which the only route to enlightenment would seem to be through a sort of fasting against sensory stimuli. “The Matrix” is not a movie about enlightenment, however: the Awakening theat true spiritual disciples experience when they shatter the veil of maya is not to a bleak white room, but to the light-energy and bliss of God. In spiritual terms, what we can learn from “The Matrix” is that in order to shake off maya, man must consciously become aware of the illusory power of sensual input by going to an inner place in which the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of our world are turned down low if not off.

Since nearly all of us, Westerners and Easterners alike, prefer to live a wordly life to a path of monastic devotion to a saintly guru, it is hard to expect that many of us are truly willing to seek enlightenment. The real question for Western man thus becomes, is it possible to advance ourselves spiritually while engaging actively in our world; that is, while acting on the stage of maya? The great lesson that Western civilization has imparted to the world is the conviction (and perhaps the evidence) that we can act here and now to manipulate the variables of maya to make the physical world a better place for sustaining human life. Still, the Eastern teaching that all worldly action is a manifestation of maya is the more humbling lesson of civilization. The cause of personal enlightenment is served with difficulty in a life-long pageant of worldly deeds and adventures. Thus it is not surprising that in the ancient Indian tradition, an older family man walks off on his own toward the end of his life to become a mendicant seeking union with God, once his wordly duties to family and society have been completed.

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Few people in the West actually seek enlightenment, at least in a deliberative manner.  That is partly because Christianity, our dominant religion, emphasizes praying for salvation over a search for inner peace or “God-Realization,” as Paramahansa Yogananda terms it in his “Autobiography of a Yogi.”  The crucial difference between the concepts of salvation and of enlightenment is that, while Christians who have been “born again” have been touched by God in this life and assured of salvation, they have not experienced the actual, on-going fusion with God, the all-encompassing divine bliss, that is the hallmark of the Hindu concept of enlightenment.

Still, there is another related and equally important reason why so few of us Westerners actually seek enlightenment.  Western religions do not tend to breed saintly gurus who surround themselves with disciples and devotees.  The Hindu gurus described so vividly by Yogananda are living instruments of God, human beings who have attained either full or partial enlightenment by rigorous spiritual practice and who are ready and willing to teach their methods of practice to a core circle of disciples, each of whom has the potential to attain to the master’s level.  Practice is key, as opposed to divine revelation in the biblical sense. 

The most impressive aspect of the master/disciple relationship in the Hindu tradition is that it has been passed on from generation to generation over the millenia, as each guru trains a disciple to succeed him after he departs this world.  I can’t think of any similar unbroken chain of widely recognized masters, with corresponding circles of disciples and devotees, in the Western tradition.  For example, recognized Catholic saints do not usually pass the baton on to a new living saint in the next generation.

While the West has produced great spiritual leaders, quite a few are confined to the monastery or convent, where word of their leadership or holiness does not spread far in the larger, multi-faith and secular society.  Others have channeled their spiritual leadership into worthy causes of social justice, such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Bishop Desmond Tutu.  Charismatic preachers on revival circuits – genuinely sincere ones, as opposed to charlatans – enact miracles of healing and sometimes of personal transformation that nonetheless fall short of the full God-realization inherent in Yogananda’s portrait of enlightenment.  Sadly, the gurus that American society tends most often to breed are personality cults in which the leader’s huge egotism, in extreme examples expressed in group suicide pacts, is the actual object of veneration, with God being only the ostensible or official focus of devotion.  Cults tend to take the Lord’s name in vain, substituting an egotistical idol.  This worship is the opposite of the ego-destroying spiritual practice that is the prerequisite for attaining true enlightenment as formulated by Hindu sacred texts.

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