THE PILGRIM SOUL: A Path to the Sacred Transcending World Religions
By Ravi Ravindra. Quest Books, 2014. PP.140. $15.95 Paper
Reviewed by Patty de Llosa
The movement in my self from the mask to the face, from the personality to the person, from the performing actor to the ruler of the inner chamber, is the spiritual journey. To live, work, and suffer on this shore in faithfulness to the whispers from the other shore is the spiritual life. ―Ravi Ravindra
Enriched with quotes from the world’s religious documents as well as from spiritual leaders past and present, The Pilgrim Soul, an expansion of Ravi Ravindra’s earlier book, Pilgrim without Boundaries (Morning Light Press 2003), is a useful introduction to understanding and undertaking the spiritual journey life offers all of us.
Ravindra’s is a welcome voice. Something of a pilgrim himself, he was born in India, and came to Canada as a young physicist, soon invited to the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. Himself a Hindu, he became deeply interested in the mystical teachings of the Indian and Christian classical traditions, and the twentieth-century teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, J. Krishnamurti, and Zen. He taught for many years at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he was adjunct professor of physics, professor of philosophy, and chair of the department of comparative religions. Author of a number of books on religion, science, mysticism, and spirituality, he is now Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie, and travels the world offering seminars on these subjects. We are asked in the first chapter, “Have you a pilgrim soul?” If the answer is “Yes,” that doesn’t make us members of some exclusive society, because the depth the pilgrim seeks is a dimension beyond cultural forms or education. What’s more, no religion is necessary although the path may start from one. It begins with questioning. According to Ravindra, anyone can be a pilgrim. Nevertheless, in order to move from “the bondage of reaction” to the ability to respond freely to whatever happens, our persistently self-centered focus must be sacrificed. We must give up our attraction to the superficial, our need to feel in control, and our assumptions that wherever we look we see the whole. Bewitched by information rather than seeking a path to transformation, we are easily drawn away from the present by “dreams of the future and revisions of the past.”
The pilgrim who nevertheless engages with the unknown will soon come to a very uncomfortable truth–that although we may be filled from time to time with spirit, our participation in another life within this one is not a one-time experience, but must be sought out again and again. How many of us are ready to plumb the depths only to discover that freedom from the dream must be “continually regained, from now to now”? Or to turn away from the dream and engage daily, hourly, and even minute-by-minute with the unknown, so that the very acts of daily life can become fresh and mindful. Even then, those who began as pilgrims in search of reality may decide to put on a guru’s robe to teach the little fragment of truth they have uncovered, rather than “realize in our core that at a very fundamental level we do not know and cannot know, as long as we are what we are.”
Echoing Gurdjieff, Ravindra affirms that the pilgrim’s search must begin from whatever place, time, and conditions she finds herself in, because it is in daily life that we confront our difficulties and weaknesses and learn to know ourselves from within. Thus the path of transformation begins with “cooking, washing dishes, putting the garbage out, lecturing, meeting friends, caring for our children.” Krishna clarifies our situation to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text Ravindra has himself translated into English:
“No one ever exists, even for a moment, without some activity. Everyone is forced to engage in action, however unwillingly, by the forces (gunas) of nature (Prakriti)’ (3.5).”
Ravindra points out that “even though (Krishna) Himself has nothing to gain, He engages in ceaseless activity, for if He were to stop working, all the worlds would perish (3.22-24). The creation as well as the maintenance of the world and the right order in it depend on right action.”
In the second chapter of The Pilgrim Soul, “The Spiritual Quest,” Ravindra affirms that the question, “Who am I?” begins “a movement toward light” that belongs to no spiritual or religious tradition but is an aspect of the human condition. In other words, we are all born to be pilgrims, although often asleep to our possibilities. Once the pilgrim in us awakens, the confrontation between the ego, or small self, and a higher part of ourselves (Atman to the Hindu, the Christ within to the Christian) begins, and it will continue, perhaps for a lifetime–or until the ego learns to become the servant of a higher will. During that time we must let go of our dependency on spiritual names, words, and concepts, because they can become “dead coals without any flame.” To choose the eternal is to engage daily, hourly, and even minute-by-minute with the depths as opposed to the dream.
It will perhaps be unwelcome to some to learn that, in Ravindra’s consideration, the individualism and humanism of recent centuries have little to do with spiritual growth. At the level of deeper being, “our ordinary consciousness is only a small window through which we look at reality.” And it is at that profound level that the self must be nourished in order to reorient us toward a true individuality, in service to a higher will.
The third chapter, by far the longest, takes up the divergence of the world’s religions, offering a dynamic comparison between Eastern and Western doctrine. Ravindra brings an expert’s view to the development of world religions from the ancient Vedas to the contemporary World Council of Churches, from the power of mantra to good works in the community. He points out that they diverge radically even though they deal with the same human condition. Put simply, and allowing for huge differences within Eastern and Western religious streams, the Judeo-Christian depends on Revelation from above, while the Eastern approach is to work on the self in order to liberate oneself from within: “one (stream) begins from the human being and the other from God. In the one, man is the active agent who must work out his salvation,” while in the other it is God who calls us to awaken and asks us to surrender to His will.
Finally, in Chapter Four, “The Pilgrim on the Path,” Ravindra turns to the present evolution of world religions from “frozen faiths” to a growing interfaith dialogue. He makes the point that “mental idols are more pernicious than idols made of wood and stone,” and recommends an “interpilgrim” dialogue rather than an intercultural one, since in the latter exchange can be quite superficial. The true pilgrim is alert to obstacles in the path, because, like love and marriage, the spiritual life and organized religion “can flourish together or separately.” Thus the pilgrim soul accepts no substitutes. Unsatisfied by dogma and hungering for truth, he attunes himself to listen for a far-off call –“a wanderer not quite satisfied with anything except the Infinite.” ♦
Patty de Llosa, author of The Practice of Presence, Taming Your Inner Tyrant, and Finding Time for Your Self, is a consulting editor to Parabola. She is a life coach and teaches Tai Chi and the Alexander Technique in New York City.