Today’s story is all about service. How do we serve? What does service do to us, fundamentally? What does service really mean? How does one live a life of service? We’ll dive into the story of Ganesha’s birth and talk about the importance of Hanuman. And while we will loosely explore ideas like Karma Yoga, it’s through our stories that we’ll speak of service in both the simplest as well as the greatest forms, and how service can change our life.
Perhaps even something like “living a life of service”, seems too obscure and non specific. How does one actually DO that, live a life of service? It sounds like a great idea, but what does that look like next Tuesday? What does it look like when I have bills to pay?
If you grew up in the United States, chances are you’ve been raised on a diet of self determination, getting to the top by yourself, getting your piece of the pie before someone snags it before you. We are run very much on a scarcity model. There is a limited amount of resources out there, of stuff, so you have to hustle to get it. It matters less who you step over on your way up to the top, because the happiness you seek is up there.
Get the goods. Get the money, the cars, the houses, the beautiful partner, the job and you’ll be happy. Your happiness, so the system says, will come once you’ve acquired enough stuff to make you happy. In the US, we’re fed this from a very early age.
You’ve got to get good grades in school, so you can get into a good college, get good grades there so you can get a good job, the good job means you’ll make good money, with good money, you will have arrived and you will be happy.
Oh, and no, don’t follow your artistic passions, by the way. They won’t make any money. If your passion doesn’t make a lot of money, well, then you won’t be happy, so you can’t do that. Do the thing that makes you money.
Is it any wonder that American’s are so unhappy? So stressed and filled with feelings of inadequacy? When a principle life idea keeps us endlessly chasing after carrots?
Look at the people at “the top”. The people with money and power. Are they any happier than you? Maybe…. Maybe not. Probably not.
Now, in fairness, Princeton did a study back around 2010 that said that income can play a role in happiness. It said that the lower a person’s annual income fell below 75k a year, the unhappier he or she felt. Anything more than $75,000 a year, and happiness was not tied to income level.
BUT this study was done by an analysis of 450,000 Americans. And having personally spent significant time outside of the US living in countries with a much lower standard of living, people living without electricity or sometimes running water, people without access to the newest iPhones or cool trendy thing-a-ma-bob, and even in some of the toughest situations, I usually found people a lot happier than those I’d meet walking around affluent areas of the United States.
Simple fact of the matter, is that there is a whole conversation, multiple conversations, to be had about happiness and the specifics of income, living standards and so forth. But what we will learn today is what transcends all of that. We have found a key that unlocks that door of joy and connection beyond your income, beyond what you do for a profession, beyond the color of your skin or where you live.
But before we get to that part of the story, we need some background. We need a story to create the backdrop for our story. And that backdrop is actually the story of Ganesha, the beloved deity with the head of an elephant…
Once upon a time…
Up on Mount Kailash was the home of Shiva and Parvati, the immortal couple. Shiva, with his long dread locked hair and ash covered body, and the beautiful and innocent Parvati, lovers for eternity. Shiva had the tendency to spend extremely long periods of time higher up the mountain meditating in caves. Eons would pass without him breaking his focus. Eyes closed, sitting in lotus, as the seasons and cycles continued on and on…
It was one such time where Parvati, Shiva’s wife, was left all alone at their home. She was feeling sad at being left alone for such long periods of time. She decided that she wanted a child to share life with. Her husband was gone up higher on the mountain to meditate, and who knows how long it would be before he return? How could she conceive a child?
Well, as Shiva represents supreme consciousness, which underlies everything, she already had Shiva within her. We all are made of pure consciousness. In this sense, we all have Shiva within us. And so too, Parvati had Shiva within her. And through her powers as a Goddess, she was able to bring together her essence and the essence of Shiva inside of herself and conceive a child.
She went through a regular pregnancy, and after the usual time, a beautiful baby boy was born. And the baby grew, raised by his mother, into a young boy.
One day, while Parvati had decided to take her bath, she told her son to guard the door to their home, and not let anyone in while she was bathing. Wanting to make his mother proud, the young boy stood up tall, puffed up his chest, and told his mother, “Mother, I promise you, while I live, I will protect our home, and make sure no one disturbs your bath!”
Parvati embraced the boy with love, and went off to take her bath.
Now of all the days, and all the times when Shiva could come home from his time away in meditation and ecstasy, this just so happened to be the time.
Shiva was coming home with his friends, the Ganas, his posse, his crew, and was feeling a little rowdy.
As he approached, expecting to see his wife, he instead saw a small boy guarding the door of Shiva’s home.
The boy again stood up tall, puffed out his chest and said, “Excuse me sir, but you are not allowed into this home.”
Shiva paused for a moment. How dare this little boy tell Shiva where he could and could not go! Shiva is supreme, he can go where he wants. Shiva looked back at his friends and let out a belly laugh. “Huh-huh-hah! Little boy! How dare you tell me what to do! Don’t you know who I am,” Shiva replied.
“No sir, I do not. All I know is that my mother told me not to let anyone into the house to disturb her.”
“Your mother?!” Shiva replied. Shiva took a second, looked down at his fingers, kind of counted the days and weeks of how long he was gone, but right away realized he had been gone for a long time. Much longer then the time of that boys life and conception. A rage started to build up inside of him.
“Has my wife, Parvati, conceived a child with another man while I was away,” he thought to himself.
The thought further fueled his inner flames. In a rage he spoke, “Get out of my way, boy. I will go where I please.” The boy clearly was not afraid however, and showed no signs that he would make way for Shiva and his posse. But as if the boy was somehow beneath him and not even worth his time, Shiva let loose his posse on the boy. The boy would be no match for him, of course, but perhaps could provide some entertainment for his friends.
But to Shiva’s surprise, this little boy starts to handle all of the Ganas. He’s dispatching them with ease. And Shiva gets a little nervous. This little boy is going to kill all of Shiva’s friends!
Very sneakily, while the boy is engaged heavily fighting the Ganas, Shiva comes up behind the boy and quickly and violently cuts off his head. The boy’s body falls lifeless and his head rolls at the feet of Shiva.
In a fit, Shiva storms inside the house, but seeing only fire, Shiva was met with the coolest water. As he came inside, the beautiful Parvati, still wet from her bath stepped outside of the bathing room with joy on her face and love in her body. She’s so excited to see her husband that she speaks before he is able to get a word of rage out.
“My love!! You are back! I’ve missed you so much! Did you see your son outside?”
A weight, as if being held above Shiva’s head, slammed down into his body. His face dropped in horror as the rage instantly formed into confusion. As far as his rage had taken him away from another other feeling, he was instantly brought to the moment with the simple love that Parvati held before him. But the moment made no sense to him.
“My son? What do you mean: my son?” Shiva replied, utterly confused.
“Your son. He was outside watching the door for me while I took my bath,” Parvati replied, very matter of factly.
The dots were beginning to connect, but Shiva was still confused. “Um… the boy outside?
Shiva explained what happened, and Parvati was overcome with grief. How could this happen? How could Shiva, the all knowing, the all powerful, not even recognize his own son??
“You better fix this,” she said.
And so Shiva is left scrambling trying to figure out how to make the situation right again. All the other gods came to his aid. Vishnu and Brahma were there, everyone came to help him find a solution. Eventually, after some back and forth, the conceived a plan. They would take the head of the nearest animal and the life it contained, and place it on the boy’s body, bringing him back to life!
So they all went out searching every which way and the first animal they came across was an elephant. The elephant, hearing what had happened, gladly offered his life so that the young boy could live again. He took a bow, exposes his neck, and let the sword sever his head.
The rushed back to the body of the boy and placed the head of the elephant on top. The boy was brought back to life and given the name Ganesha, Lord of the Ganas.
Now, this story does carry with it some of its own hidden symbols and meanings, but as I mentioned before the story, this story is merely a backdrop of our next, and so we will look at it from that context.
It invites us to ask what’s really going on here. How could Shiva, Supreme Consciousness, who is supposedly omnipotent and omnipresent, how could HE not even recognize his own son?
Shiva had been off in mediation, off in Samadhi. These deep states of Samadhi are completely unlike our experience of the every day mundane world. You’ve got Shiva, sitting up there in solitude on the mountain top, literally disconnecting from every day life, from his wife, from the world…. His solitude creates a certain distance from every day life.
Because he is less connected to life, he is more prone to anger and violence. Why do political leaders try to divide us? If you make someone feel disconnected from someone else, from a different group or people, then it’s easier for one person to harm another or for one group to harm another. And that is principally caused by a feeling of disconnection. Would Shiva have acted that way if he had known the little boy was his son?
Like the Greek and Roman Gods, Hindu deities are in some sense very human. They are just like all of us. They have emotions and feelings. They get upset, they make mistakes. Because, truly, the gods ARE us. These stories are talking to us, about us.
Shiva realizes he screwed up. He realizes how disconnected he was, and he wants to reestablish his connection to the world. First he has to repair the damage done to his son. “Fix it! Go find a head!” … Repair the damage done to the ego of his son by being so disconnected from him and the world. Help make his son whole again by connecting to him.
But Shiva still feels awesome about what went down. He wants to make amends. And that is what leads us to our next story…
And while it happens: Once upon a time…
We can say that it happens right after the events we just spoke of. Shiva, feeling a certain disconnect from the world, and a desire to connect more to it… was sitting off near the edge of a cliff by his family home on Mount Kailash.
He was sitting there chanting the name of Rama.
“Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram.”
When Parvati, his wife, approached him.
“Why on earth are you chanting the name of Ram?”
Shiva is supreme consciousness, why would he be chanting the name of an avatar of Vishnu, the deity that represents the sustaining force of the universe. You see, Vishnu had recently incarnated into the world as Rama as a force of dharma and justice, to defeat the evil demon Ravana. But still… why would Shiva be chanting his name?
“I’m going to incarnate into the world to help and serve my friend Vishnu,” Shiva told Parvati.
“What?!” she replied. “You just got back from spending ages away in meditation, your family has missed you, you couldn’t even recognize your own son. I don’t want you leaving again so soon!”
“This is something I have to do,” Shiva told her. But he wasn’t sure about his plan yet. He’s like, I’ve got this great idea! I’ve been disconnected from the world, well, then I’ll go into the world! I’ll go hang out with my buddy Vishnu!
So he starts to hash out a plan.
“I don’t want to go as a human. Two gods incarnate in the world, people might get confused of who to follow. It would be a mess.” Shiva wants to go to support his friend, to serve him, not to be propped up beside him. So what to do?
“I know! I’ll become a simian.” Simians are monkeys. They don’t need clothes or a roof over their head. Their diet is simple, they are extremely independent. It will be perfect.
“Ok, if you are going to go into the world, then I am coming with you,” Parvati told Shiva. “Wohhh, wohh. Slow down! I gotta be a bachelor, babe. I can’t have a wife and a family to take care of. I want to devote my whole embodied existence to serving Rama. I can’t do that if I have other responsibilities.” He told her, trying to wiggle away from her idea.
“Well, if you don’t want me coming as your wife, then I will come as your tail,” she said. Shiva was a little reluctant, but he eventually agrees.
This is an important piece to touch on before we continue. In the common model of the chakras that we see in yoga, the chakras reside inside the body along the spine. Kundalini, the goddess, Shakti (these are all forms of Parvati), resides at the base of the spine, and it’s her that moves up the spine piercing the chakras. But this is an INNER experience.
Shiva, on the mountain top before, drifting off into his inner worlds, the worlds of the chakras inside his body and beyond…
But what do we have represented here? We have the goddess, Kundalini Shakti, inside the tail! Effectively outside the body. Because what can a tail do that the spine can’t? It can hang from things, it can wrap, it can reach, it can grab. It is functional in the world.
Shakti inside the body is an energetic experience that occurs in inner worlds… but Shakti in the tail represents that energetic experience manifesting as utility in the every day world. Putting that energy of Kundalini to functional use.
This is the path of yoga that brings us into the world.
So! Shiva, torn with guilt about not recognizing his own son, about feeling disconnected from the world, decides to reincarnate into the world as a monkey (with Shakti as his tail) in order to serve Rama. Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, who represents the force that supports and sustains the world… the universe.
Supreme consciousness, coming into the world to serve that which supports all of life.
We ofcourse, like all these stories, are all of the characters. Shiva is us. We manifest into this world so that we can connect and serve.
Now, jumping across the story of Hanuman, life we’ve done before, what is the whole of his story speaking to?
In one view, Prince Rama has a wife, Sita, who has been abducted by the demon Ravana. Here, Sita, the individual soul, is separated from Rama, the Divine Soul, the Godhead, because she has been abducted by Ravana. Ravana is the ego.
We get caught up thinking we are this or that, when we are this or that we also then want that or this, or not that or this, and we feel separate from those things.
Hanuman comes into the story to assist Rama in his quest to be reunited with Sita. Hanuman, who came into existence purely to serve Rama (to serve dharma and that which supports all of life), acts as an agent of reuniting the individual soul and the divine self, by helping to overcome the ego, Ravana.
From the Vaishnava perspective, from the perspective of those who worship and follow Vishnu, the relationship with Rama and Hanuman is very much a subservient one. You’ve got the big godhead over here, he’s all powerful, all perfect and amazing, and you’ve got this lowly servant over here. All we could ever ask is to be like that servant, because we could never be as great as the Godhead.
You can find similarities here with the Christian God, which says we can never be God, we can only have a relationship to God. The model for that relationship here is one of service.
But the Shaivites, the ones who see Shiva as the supreme, the Tantrikas, they understand the story from a different perspective. The supreme, the absolute, YOU, has incarnated into the world to serve. That service acts as a vehicle of connecting to the world, and through that connection reconciling the apparent separation that the individual soul feels from the Divine
You feel disconnected? Separate? SERVE. Your service will act to annihilate the ego, and allow you to feel reunited with the supreme.
But we touched on this in the beginning of the story. That all SOUNDS great. Yeah, man. Serve. But does that mean we all have to become Gandhi or Mother Teresa?
Maybe it is our dharma to do something as grand as that, but service can also look very much like every day life.
What is service at its core? It’s love. It’s a willingness to put someone else’s needs in front of your own. It’s precisely that willingness that annihilates the ego. It is a willingness to put something OTHER in front of the ego in the chain of priorities.
Now holy crap. How do we do that all the time? Well, don’t worry, even Hanuman doesn’t do it all the time! Even Shiva, the supreme Godhead, sometimes stumbles and loses track. It’s ok. We are not looking for some idealized dogmatic idea of perfect. We’re looking to be REAL.
If you are a parent, you know all about service, you know all about the joys of putting someone else’s needs in front of your own, and you know allll about stumbling and falling. We all make mistakes all the time as parents.
If you’ve ever been in love, and in a romantic relationship, chances are you also know about service. About putting someone’s needs or even the IDEA of love, ahead of your ego’s wants and desires.
So the question that is most interesting, much more interesting and real than “How do I model each and every moment of my life to be more like a Mother Teresa?” The question I think is more interesting is, “How in little moments, little interactions with the world, how can I serve in those moments more?”
Not, “how do I make myself perfect.” “How do I love all the time and forget my ego.”
No. Simply, moment by moment, how can I serve more.
When given a choice of being able to help someone else or help myself, can I have the strength and courage to serve others more. Maybe it’s the small tasks of helping out around the house more. Maybe it’s giving more support to your partner in the things they do. Maybe you can help your friend with that thing they’ve been asking you to do with them. Maybe it’s helping to carry an elder’s bags across the street or walk them home.
There are an infinite number of day to day tasks that we can all do more in service of something larger.
And even those small tasks, those little things that like, hey, we’re not curing cancer over here, we just taking out the trash, cleaning up the house, whatever, even THOSE tasks can bring us closer to God, closer to the divine, closer to our highest Self.
It’s in that willingness to serve more that our lives are transformed. To live in that simply means to be willing to do more of the tasks that support and sustain others. Does that mean you can never take care of yourself? That you should always put others before you? Those are all levels of degrees that really are there for you to discover and explore. No one else really has a right to tell you that you can’t take care of yourself, or that you shouldn’t also respect your needs.
Again, the invitation of the story is not perfection, it’s a willingness. It’s a desire to do more.
That’s it. Serve more and watch how it changes your life and transforms the world around you.
Here me tell the story here: