A state of awe is worshipful, implying that one of a lesser order stands before his Creator. You are a perfect creation, and should experience awe only in the Presence of the Creator of perfection. Equals should not be in awe of one another because awe implies inequality. It is therefore an inappropriate reaction to me. An elder brother is entitled to respect for his greater experience, and obedience for his greater wisdom. He is also entitled to love because he is a brother, and to devotion if he is devoted. It is only my devotion that entitles me to yours. There is nothing about me that you cannot attain. I have nothing that does not come from God. The difference between us now is that I have nothing else. This leaves me in a state which is only potential in you.
This passage is there in the book A Course in Miracles, in it’s beginning pages itself — page 7 to be precise, in the text portion of the book (A Course in Miracles, consists of two parts primarily – The Text and The Workbook).
I felt so good reading this. It was so liberating. The teacher of the course is telling me that awe is not an appropriate response to him, that he and I are equals. He is my elder brother, but we are essentially equals. This is not a course in some institution that I had signed up for. I was not going to be going anywhere to attend classes, where I would be told to touch the feet of the guru. This is just a book and the teacher is just a voice in the book, but that is one of the most intimate and intense ways of sitting with a teacher — via a book — and I was sure glad to encounter this. That is how the teacher of this course endeared me to himself, right at the beginning. Again and again I have admired him for saying this.
Reading this told me that I need not bow down and touch the feet of this teacher. It told me that I need not sing peans in honor of this teacher. It told me that I am free to focus on the teaching of the book, and take it if it seems helpful, and then, if I wish I can feel a sense of devotion towards the teacher. The respect, obedience, love, devotion that the teacher, the elder brother said he is entitled to, did not seem a requirement of being a good student, a pre-requisite of acquiring the learning — but rather, a natural by-product of acquiring the learning.
This is the message in all good texts of all Eastern teachings too, and probably so in any good text of any region of the world — however the teachers of the texts start requiring a regimented show of respect and gratitude as a pre-requisite of being a good student, or even a good human being.
As a child, around the age of 13 or 14, I had attended several Geeta talks by Parthasarthiji with my mother. One thing he used to often talk about, with some frustration, is how spiritual seekers get attached to their guru. They are taught to let go of falsehoods in the world, but then they latch onto the guru instead. We are so convinced that we are despicable vermins that need a benefactor. It is far easier to be servile than to come into our own. “You are a perfect creation” is so tough a pill to swallow.
This is not a practice in humility. This is disregard for the intrinsic beauty and strength given to us by our Manufacturer. This, the Course says again and again, is arrogance. We know better huh? Better than The Force from which all of the universe emerges? Better than The Force that sustains it all? Perfection can only create perfection. It cannot create anything else. So indeed when we think of ourselves as good-for-nothings, we consider The Force to be a nincompoop too, to have created a bunch of good-for-nothings.
Not just in the context of a spiritual teacher, India prides itself in its practice of touching the feet of elders as an intrinsic part of its social fabric. Children are made to learn this by being physically pushed down to touch the feet of elders (elder by age, elder by social hierarchy) and pretty soon people start performing this regimented show of gratitude and respect like robots. This is sad, because this hampers the natural and true expressions of love, it hampers the natural flowering of the relationship into its truest, most beautiful form.
Yes, irrespective of what false scaffoldings of practices we may introduce and establish, love and truth always finds a way to flower. Even within the robotic social practice of touching the feet of elders, true love does flower (in any relationship, not just between romantic partners). That is the power of love. It can never be snuffed out. However the perpetuation of false robotic practices does perpetuate false mindsets — that I am lesser than X or that I am greater than Y — and the sooner we can let go of these false mindsets, the better. It generates needless conflicts within — the same conflicts that all good spiritual teachings aim to wash away. We are anyway all rife with inner conflicts emerging from fear. We might as well not add to those conflicts by the further addition of these false demonstrations. Viewing someone as lesser or greater than us, hampers our ability to think independently and to honor our independent thinking. Yes, our independent thinking, the voice of our inner guide, like love, never really gets snuffed out.
I have at times in life felt that extreme sense of gratitude and sense of oneness with a fellow human being where I have most naturally felt like touching that person’s feet. It is such a sublime feeling. I do not want to do disservice to that utterly pure, sublime feeling by robotic and false enactments of that gratitude and respect. That kind of gratitude happens rarely. That is the time when I would like to bend down and touch the feet of the other person — when my inner being naturally wishes to do so. Falsehood does disservice both to myself and to my fellow being towards whom I perform that false demonstration.
I have two elder brothers. I do not touch their feet anymore. This enables me to observe them and receive them free-er of expectations. Each day it enables me to discover their beauty and our relationship in newer ways. I do not touch my parents’ feet at all sundry instances nowadays, but only on Diwali and on other instances when I do want to. This gives me greater confidence to tell them something that I might be otherwise be too scared to tell them because they are parents sitting in some lofty tower to be venerated. That I am able to speak frankly to my parents, is thanks, in huge measure, to my parents too. I try my best to not touch the feet of visiting elder relatives. When there is natural affinity and feeling, hugging them comes easily. Sometimes I do end up bowing down because the robotic practice is so deeply inculcated and I do not wish to be viewed as insolent, but it rarely carries any feeling, so it is false and robotic.
I have told my nephews that they need not touch my feet, and I have told them why. In this ever changing world it is always possible that I might get limited in my views. I do not want to inculcate this thought in me that “I know better”. When my nephews wish to take action contrary to what their elders want, I want them to be as free as possible to go forth, with peace and ease, as per their true inner voice. Yes, they may still experience internal conflict which basically emerges from fear, but the lesser it is exacerbated by the effort it takes to break against regimented compliance, the better. The robotic practice has already seeped into them, so they do automatically bend down at times. My niece has not become so regimented as yet so her demonstration of feeling, her demonstration of gratitude and love in the form of hugging and burrowing her head into my tummy is still spontaneous, true, and beautiful. She has never had to perform regimented respect towards me.
To my cousins and relatives younger to me that sometimes visit, the time is too short for me to explain all this so I simply let them perform their demonstration of respect. If you who are reading this, are a relative younger to me by age, please know, you need not touch my feet. Age does not make us lesser or greater than each other. If you feel grateful about something I have done, please do convey it to me, because it is always good to know that my action contained some nourishing beauty. However, do not, in your interaction with anyone, let gratitude go into its negative extreme: servitude.
In all of this, there is one particularly weird practice where daughter-in-laws (bahus) are made to touch the feet of their sister-in-law (their nanad). It is a particularly good example of how this practice of touching the feet seems to me like an elaborate social scaffolding of falsehood and ego-boosting that keeps us from connecting to true feelings and our inner truth. I am at present sharing with you an extended book review of A Course In Miracles — what I liked about it and how it helped me. Since I have already digressed considerably by talking so much about the practice of robotically touching the feet of elders, I shall digress a bit further and next week I will write about this practice of bahus having to touch their nanad’s feet.
For now, consider this: you are a perfect creation of God. Your warts and vulnerabilities with stuff that you already know as your strength but take for granted — all of it together makes you perfect and beautiful. Because of it and independent of it, you are beautiful. You just simply are.
This article is a part of an extended book review of the book A Course in Miracles. The previous part is How I Started Reading My Favorite Fat Spiritual Book.