Are the mind and body one? How can we stop our binary thinking? Can we overcome evil by transcending it? In Climbing Chamundi Hill, Hinduism professor Ariel Glucklich uses ancient Indian stories to explore some of life's most baffling spiritual questions. In the book, a mysterious librarian/guru regales a weary American visitor with tales as they climb 1001 steps to a goddess' temple. As the story progresses, the American realizes that he's not just climbing towards a temple--he's moving towards enlightenment.

Beliefnet recently interviewed Glucklich by e-mail.

Your book takes the classic approach of explaining religious/philosophical concepts via stories, almost fairy tales. Could you talk more about the Hindu tradition of teaching tales?

There is a very long Indian tradition of using stories for teaching spiritual lessons. It is possible that the very oldest of texts (the Vedas) were based on stories that illustrated the meaning of devotion to gods, and the nature of those gods. The Upanishads--early mystical texts--are full of stories or story fragments, which are told by gurus and teachers to their students to illustrate issues related to the path of enlightenment, the nature of reality, and psychological insights. The Buddha participated in this literary activity and told wonderful stories to illuminate religious points and to give life to his sermons. Climbing Chamundi Hill exists in that tradition, as well as the tradition of framing stories within elaborate frame-narratives that define the meaning of the tales being told. Early in the book, the American listener complains that the Hindu stories' characters seem too passive--that the heroes are "stuck" and "seem to be moving in molasses." Does this tell us anything about how Hinduism views free will?

The Hindu literary traditions have not emphasized the active hero who seizes control of his destiny or circumstances in quite the same way as some Western literature has. In fact, the personalities of characters are not as vivid (in the truly ancient texts) and they are not fighting a tragic battle for the sake of a unique destiny (these are very general observations--there are exceptions). I think the reasons are more psychological than metaphysical. They are due to a social and psychological de-emphasis of the individual person in favor of the broader unit--the family, village, community. The more philosophical point has to do with time and cosmology--the sense that because we are bound in a social network (karma is about relationships) and because our life repeats, it is harder to take charge. Each story plays this out differently. Furthermore, the stories do not emphasize dramatic elements in plot and personality change beause what matters is not the growth of the individual actor as the process of nature as a whole, including the listeners of the tale.

Is trying to take charge--to beat karma--seen as a virtue, a flaw, or simply futile? In short, how does Hinduism want us to to respond to the bad things in our lives?

There are several schools of thought in Hinduism so no one answer prevails on these matters. Certainly, the dominant way of coping with karma is following the "law" (dharma). This means following the rules that apply to your caste and station in life. Others cope with karma by taking charge of their spiritual life, but never their material circumstances. These are renouncers and yogis who "burn away" karma through meditation and discipline. According to the Bhagavad Gita, the way to escape the paradoxes and dilemmas of karma is devotion to God and offering up one's action to God (Krishna).

In your book, the story of a snake who kills a little boy and then defends himself on the grounds that he's just the instrument of fate is especially troubling. What should we be learning from the story?

The story of the snake illustrates something about the power that controls our life. On the surface, it seems to teach resignation (the figure of the hunter) or compassion (the figure of the mother). The deeper meaning, and the meaning that begins to emerge in Chamundi Hill, is that the story teaches that existence is imperfect, a kind of suffering that is inevitable. The important thing is to become aware of this condition (Buddhists and Hindus think so) in order to begin a path of discipline and enlightenment. The climber in the story is not asked to wake up all at once, just to realize that something is intrinsically off-center in the world we occupy.

It still seems as though the snake story has a very fatalistic message: that we should resign ourselves to evil and not raise a hand to it. It's one thing to accept that the world is off-kilter--that evil will happen to ourselves and to the innocent. It's another to stand by and let it happen again because we haven't tried to eradicate its root.

Yes, I suppose that from an ethical point of view there is something very fatalistic about this view. It seems that instead of eradicating evil one recognizes it in order to "transcend" it--through inaction. However, this perspective (Europeans have been criticizing Indians for this for a long time) can also serve as a foundation of an ethos based not so much on the power of retribution ("justice") as on compassion.

Look at it this way: both the Israelis and the Palestinians believe they are fighting evil, and both are causing further escalation of the violence. Gandhi, in contrast, believed you could fight evil by avoiding the concept of justice and changing the ballgame completely. The new ballgame is spiritual purity (it ignores the tit for tat of both sides).

Later in the book, a story discusses the mind-body connection. It says "as long as you think your mind is separate from your body," you're in trouble. But then it says "if you think the mind is united with the body," you're still in trouble. What are our options?

The true option is to stop thinking because the original distinction (or absence of distinction) is the product of thought.

How can we stop this splitting--this making distinctions? How can we stop thinking?

The traditional method of stopping the binary process of the mind is meditation. There are many types, of course, and they approach that task from different angles. Yoga, for instance, instills mental discipline in acquiring a fixed-point focus. It calls for the stopping of fluctuations of thought or consciousness. Other types of meditation call for uncontrolling observation of the processes of the mind, which slows them down till they stop. The librarian hints at a method which is used in Tantra and which is quicker, though more difficult. It calls for practicing reversals--playing the binary habits of the mind against itself. It is a potentially dangeroud method and requires an accomplished guru (precetor) for guidance.

Which story in the book do you think Americans most need to hear--and why?

I like the story of the Brahmin's Lost Magic as parable for Americans. I think we are definitely consumed by the kind of passion that drove the young man: love, desire, wealth, comfort, to such an extent that we forget that reality, in a special sense, is a mirage. I don't mean that in a preachy way--that is, that we must become monks and nuns--and I don't believe the story is preachy. It calls for awareness or attentiveness to the whisper that is always in the background about that other dimension. It is not about theological faith because that can be as much a trap as those other pleasures. It's just about insight and spiritual subtlety. We need to hear that.

Hinduism has a great deal to teach Americans. The most important insight, if one may pick one, is that the sacred is enfolded in the everyday events, and it is both hidden and right under our nose.

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