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The other day my father sends me this quote: "No one can become a devotee of the Formless Supreme without having been a devotee of the form." 

These words are from Sathya Sai Baba, my father's guru since my mother and he first went to India in November of 1973, leaving his 9-month-old infant (me) at home, I never let him forget. I get behind the spiritual quest and all, but what of his duties as a parent? Water under the bridge. . . .

My reply: "It seems to me you've been a devotee of the form now for long enough. Time to go beyond or else it becomes a crutch. The divinity radiating in Sai Baba's heart is the same as the divine flame that emanates from you. All is one."

I added that worshipping a holy person, be it Christ or Allah or Buddha, or in my father's case Sai Baba (who growing up I also prayed to and sang to and was very devoted to even after I at the age of 22 discarded the medallion he made for me down the mountainside in a rather dramatic gesture and vowed instead to follow the dictates of the Sai Baba within), don't apply to everyone. There are exceptions. Take Ramana Maharshi. This sage did not profess to having a guru. He simply woke up one day realizing that the consciousness that animated his body was distinct from his body and eternal in nature, so from the age of 16 1/2 he left home, travelled to a holy site, and until he left his body at age 70 constantly abided in THAT. 

However Maharshi did recommend that most people regard as sacred some manifestation of divinity, whether as a photograph of a guru or holy person, or perhaps a statue, or in the case of those at Arunachala, the mountain at the foot of which Ramana lived, the mountain itself, which was believed to be a manifestation of Shiva, a Hindu deity.

Which reminds me of a story. The sage Seshadri, Maharshi's contemporary, was a known mind reader. When he looked into Maharshi's eyes, after long gazing he pointed at the holy man and remarked: "It is not clear what this person is thinking." He later said, "If one worships God Arunachala, He will grant salvation."

Maharshi replied: "Who is the person who worships and who the worshipped?"

Implying of course that all is one. Then Maharshi expounded for an hour on the realization of Unity, of everything including the personalized God, the world and individual souls and how all three become unreal once the Self, the impersonal Absolute, is experienced.

Seshadra replied: "All this is dark to me. I at any rate worship." And so saying he faced the mountain, prostrated himself and prayed.

As the author of the book on Maharshi's life writes: Seshadri-swami was evidently keen on maintaining a personality distinct from God as the very foundation of his worship.

And that is the problem, after a time, of worshipping the form. It maintains the separateness which the aspirant, if he is no longer to be an aspirant, must overcome. Which is easy, because separateness is illusory. The reality is unity.

Last year dad suffered an ankle injury, tearing the ligaments in his left foot. Crutches helped him amble about while healing and until the ankle was strong enough to support his weight. Similarly, his first visit to see Sai Baba came at a time of great crisis and questioning in his own life. In 1973 he was after all still an atheist. The guru's form was a crutch which helped my father negotiate the tricky terrain of the spirit without falling and injuring his developing sense of awareness.

And so I told him: "Now that you are healed of your spiritual sickness, as with your ankle, continuing to rely on crutches will only hamper your ability to get about, and weaken the very thing that you once tried to protect."

The same can be said for every person, whatever faith he or she practices. Adoring the Blessed Virgin or genuflecting at the church's altar or praying to Allah or Ahura Mazda or meditating on the Buddha - these are essential practices as they help you focus your mind and sink the lower self into the Sublime. In India the tradition often is for the aspirant to serve his guru for 12 years; my father has been devoted to Sai for over 40 and to this day whenever the conversation turns to matters of the spirit it invariably ends in a lengthy discourse on Baba's greatness and dad's early experiences with the sage. Once a proselytizer, always a proselytizer I guess. Dad sometimes forgets he's preaching to the choir. I already was a convert!

The point I always stress (though my father never seems to hear it) is that after too long, one's worship of the form can descend into mindless ritual, or perpetuate the separateness that you are trying to transcend. The Buddha or Christ or Krishna energy that you pray to, bow before and adore, is a perfect realization of the self-same Absolute Reality seated in the lotus of your heart. Perhaps one day I will remind my father of the words of his very own Sai, who has said it is not even necessary to read the Bhagavad Gita (which for the Hindus is like the Christian's Bible) because Krishna (Lord of the universe, and the guru of the Gita) lives inside you. All you have to do is listen. Then you will hear the sound of silence.

Ask yourself, where is this Christ, this God, when I go to sleep? Does He follow me to bed? No, because God is a concept, conjured by the mind, and subsiding into consciousness when the mind falls to sleep. But what remains the same in sleep and waking? The consciousness, the sense I AM. That is God.

So when you are done worshipping for that 45 minutes on Sunday or meditating 15 minutes a day or 1 or 2 hours, pat yourself on the back if you wish. But what to do with the remainder of the day? Be THAT. Living as the Self, not the self, and treating others the same, you realize there are no others. This is life's highest prayer and truest form worship.


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