Jesus. Buddha. Mohammed. Moses. Sankara. It’s interesting that each of these great sages of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism is known by one name. Ditto with God, Allah, Brahman. In spirituality, simple names seem to go with profound people and ultimate concepts.
This came to mind after I got an email message from a Indian man in England with whom I had previously corresponded. He apparently had read my “God’s here, but I’ve got to go” post where I reminisced about having to pee really bad while sitting in the midst of tens of thousand of devotees attending a guru’s discourse.
Given the spiritual stature of this guru, I compared this dilemma to a Christian hearing Jesus preach after a Second Coming. What is the etiquette of getting up to go to the bathroom when you’re in the presence of a purported god-man?
The message, though, raised another point of etiquette. I had referred several times to the guru as Charan Singh. My correspondent asked that I add “Master” or “Maharaj” before the proper name, as he said “In Indian terms it seems too rude to address the great personality by name.”
I understood this concern. Indians exhibit a wonderful courtesy and respect toward spiritual leaders. And usually toward everybody, in fact. I admire what can only be called this “old world” decorum, which I’ve always assumed stems both from thousands of years of acquaintance with great religious/mystical personages, and the more recent influence of British good-manners.
My first impulse was to revise the posting to say “Master Charan Singh.” But then I thought more deeply about what’s in a name. It happens that today, December 12, is the guru’s birthday. If he were present in my living room at this moment, and we were intimate friends, what would I say in the song: “Happy birthday, dear ______, happy birthday to you”?
Personal names do matter. They aren’t reality, but they reflect how we relate to reality. I call my wife “Laurel,” not “Mrs. Hines.” In an intimate relationship, intimate names are used. And what is more intimate than one’s connection with the ultimate reality often called “God,” or with spiritual teachers who point the way to the highest truth?
So I’ve gone back to the posting in question and made sure that every reference to the guru says simply “Charan Singh.” To my mind this isn’t disrespectful; it is what this great mystic would have wanted. The most spiritual people are the most humble people. They don’t want to be elevated about the rest of us, though we often make the mistake of doing just that.
Charan Singh once was asked, “Master, what is the proper way to pronounce ‘Maharaj Ji’? And what is the proper salutation in corresponding with you?” He replied: “I do not believe in any ritual, any salutation or any formality. You can write to me any way you like and greet me in whatever way it suits you. These words do not make any difference.”
I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the essence of spirituality is figuring out what makes a difference and what doesn’t. Words don’t have anything to do with the person I really am. Give me any name and I am still who I am, no more and no less. Same with Charan Singh or anyone else, all the way up to “God.”
George Bush is George Bush. Adding “President” in front of his name doesn’t alter who he is or what political position he holds. We understand this when it comes to worldly people, but I’ve found that religious believers are touchier when it comes to titles. I used to be this way myself—feeling that I was being disrespectful if I didn’t add some highfalutin title to a spiritual teacher’s name.
In Indian philosophy you sometimes see references such as “Param Sant Sat Guru Hazur Maharaj [name] Ji.” This can be roughly translated as “highest saint and true kingly guru [name].” Well, if such is true then [name] seemingly should suffice to describe the person. A simple mention of “Einstein” is enough to bring up many positive adjectives in most people’s minds: brilliant, scientist, ground-breaking, Nobel prize winner, and so on.
Impressive titles are, not surprisingly, generally used by people who want to impress. Sometimes this is the titled person himself or herself. Sometimes it is others who are associated with him or her. Just as there can be a certain reflected glory in working for the First Vice-President for the Northwest Region of Consolidated Industries, so can a similar warm glow arise by feeling that you are a follower of Greatly Exalted Spiritual Leader so-and-so.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with using titles less egotistically as a show of respect. But there’s nothing right about this either. Notwithstanding my habitual verbosity, I’m convinced that words have nothing to do with real reality. In spirituality, every name obscures the nameless that is higher than names and forms. So it makes sense to keep names as simple as possible.
Happy birthday, dear Charan.