[originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune]
Last weekend, the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago hosted a historic and massive three-day convocation to pray for world peace. Thousands from the Chicago area and around the world gathered for ancient Vedic ceremonies that transcended boundaries of religion, nationality, or gender and allowed devotees a rare and transcendental experience.
Thousands of devotees and hundreds of priests and scholars participated in the mass chanting of ancient prayers, culminating in Saturday’s Maharudram Yagna, a fire sacrifice whose history dates back 5000 years, but whose relevance to modern challenges and contemporary life could not be more profound.
Rudra, a deity first described in the Rig Veda, the world’s oldest scripture, appears on the surface as a storm god. But Rudra emerges in the scriptures as an embodiment of universal truth. He represents both the storms of life and our power to weather those storms and turn them into blessings.
The prayer addressed to him transforms into a deep meditation on the fundamentals of a conscious and compassionate life. Leading the chanting was a rare assemblage of 121 Ritwiks, scholars who have devoted themselves since childhood to the study of ancient Sanskrit scriptures and the performance of the elaborate rituals associated with them. These include the great yagnas, which involve offering oblations of clarified butter, symbolic foods, cloth, and therapeutic herbs into a sacred fire in precise unison with the chanting of Sanskrit verses.
The Maharudram event drew attendance and support from a vast array of local, national, and international spiritual, political, and community leaders, including Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami, the US-born spiritual head of Himalayan Academy, Hawaii; Swami Ishatmananda of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society, Chicago; Swami Ramanaswaroopananda of Atma Vidya Mandir, Tiruvannamalai; Sri Samaveda Shanmuka Sarma, Hyderabad; Swami Sharanananda, Chinmaya Mission, Chicago; and Sri Swami Adhyatmanandaji Maharaj, Sivananda Ashram, Ahmedabad. Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago President Bhima Reddy and Committee Chair Lakshman Agadi led the large congregation in honoring the visitors from India, Hawaii, and all over North America with fresh flower garlands and gifts, paying respect to their various religious orders.
Maharudram committee co-chairs Dr. Vijaya Sarma, Subrahmanian Sundaram, and Gopalakrishnan Kary, with the support of chair Lakshman Agadi, led dozens of volunteers and planned with the help of religious scholars for over a year to ensure that the ritual, the prayer, and the geometry of the sacred space itself remain virtually unchanged from yagnas performed millennia ago in ancient India. Dr. Sangita Rangala emceed, explaining the symbolism and significance and maintaining a positive and prayerful mood for the large gathering. Over a hundred children knotted traditional flower garlands and brought them in a procession to offer to the deity. The priests received them and used them to decorate the pyramid of 108 kalasams, silver pots decorated with coconuts, flowers, vermilion and sandalwood powder and symbolizing the cosmological elements of matter and energy out of which the universe manifests itself.
The Maharudra Yagna encompasses psychology, metaphysics, cosmology, and moral teachings. The event was a rare opportunity for children and families to witness heritage and history come to life.
However, this Maharudram Yagna, performed on a hillside in Lemont, Illinois, was not a recreation of a bygone era in a far-off land, but a living part of American Hindu spiritual life, as relevant and meaningful in 2015 as in the time of the ancient epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana. At the start of the day's ceremony, the priests led the assembled 2000-plus in Sanskrit prayers which listed the names of sacred places the congregation calls home. Along with the names of places in India and rivers like the Ganga, the priests chanted the names of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, Michigan and Alabama.
Friday’s events celebrated the power of women and girls, central to Hindu and Vedic philosophy. Nearly 1300 women and girls chanted in unison the Lalita Sahasranama, a poem listing the 1008 names of the Supreme Goddess, who embodies the essential power and love of the universe.
Seated row upon row in a sea of colorful silk and gold saris, the women and girls sat in front of small, individual statues of the Goddess and prayed and meditated as one. Men and boys volunteered with logistics or sat at the periphery joining in the prayers. At the front and projected on large screens, priests from Chicagoland and around the world led the recitation of the 1008 names, offering flowers and fruit to the statue of the Goddess, a symbolic representation of the divine feminine power, or Shakti.
A literary and spiritual masterpiece composed with perfect meter and no repetition, the Lalita Sahasranama uses the 1008 names to describe 1008 universal or divine qualities which are manifested in the world and in the individual. The vibrations of the chanting and its spiritual counterpart are said to have healing and liberating power for those who chant and listen.
The Lalita Sahasranama pooja, or offering of prayer, was preceded by a Gomata pooja, or worship of a cow and calf, which symbolize the loving and all-nurturing nature of the universe. Through symbol and ritual, devotees show gratitude to the universe which gives us everything we need to sustain our material and spiritual selves, just as a cow provides both the milk and the protection and love needed by her calf. Just as the calf grows to become a cow herself, we also seek to grow in our capacity to love and care for others.
In keeping with tradition, dozens of volunteers prepared thousands of fresh meals in the temple's kitchen, and the organizers donated to a local food pantry to feed thousands more. And in a sign that the event was truly a 21st century version of a 5000-year-old tradition, a quadricopter drone took aerial live streaming video and children got a 3D virtual walk through famous temples in India.
Sunday culminated with the Nava Chandi Homam, 14 simultaneous fire sacrifices with offerings of ghee, clarified butter, flowers, fruit, and special preparations of therapeutic herbs, seeds, and aromatic wood. Devotees chanted verses praising the feminine aspect of divinity, embodied as the Goddess. Seated in front of the priests' large fire pit in squares of 16 people around 13 smaller copper fire pits designed according to geometry prescribed in the Atharva Veda, worshippers praised the goddess's various qualities: she is omnipotent and terrible to those who would do harm, tender and all-protective to those who have faith and seek peace within and without.
Despite severe thunderstorms and flash floods, volunteers laid tarp and made emergency provisions so devotees could sit comfortably through the three-hour ceremony and focus their meditation on the 700 verses of the Devi Mahatmyam, one of the most treasured scriptures in praise of the Goddess.
The goddess in her multiple incarnations represents universal forces of power and compassion. When the forces of greed, exploitation, oppression, and patriarchy grow too great, the goddess manifests herself to destroy evil and restore harmony. Both a source of comfort and courage, the goddess also reflects our own power to overcome our weak tendencies and cultivate the inner power that lies beyond earthly fears and ambitions.
In Indian philosophy, the concept of God is of a truth that lies beyond gender, form, ethnicity, time, and space. Rather, this Ultimate Truth manifests itself as all these things. By realizing the oneness of all, we cultivate true happiness, the goal of all religions. The final pooja offering celebrated this union of Shiva and Shakti, Rudra and Devi, individual soul and universal consciousness. Whether it was the sweet fragrance of the smoke, the soothing sounds of the Sanskrit verses, or the way the sky cleared halfway through, the smiles and tears and rapt attention of the participants showed that the mood Sunday morning had turned to pure joy and togetherness.
Organizers had expressed their hope to the volunteers that those in attendance would not just be moved, but transformed. The original intent of the Maharudra Yagna is to transform the worshipper, to help him or her transcend fear and doubt, and it remains the same 5,000 years later: to help us discover the divinity within ourselves and each other, to empower us to face the storms of life with courage and faith, and to be peacemakers in our lives, in our communities, and on behalf of the whole world.
As I write this, I am sitting in the Café LeCourbe, at my favorite table by the window. One block west on the Rue LeCourbe is a Monoprix store that once was the apartment of a leader of the French Resistance. Nazi troops came past this window to capture him. When she got word, his fiancée Hélène got on her bicycle and rode 200 miles, somehow caught up with the train carrying him to a prison camp and managed, during a transfer stop, to hold hands and walk with him one last time before the SS guard pulled them apart. I mention this because it reminds me that if you’re ever struggling to write, a great story may be just a few steps away.
It is 1915h and I’m having une bierre pression, a draft called Stella Artois. A little girl came in with her father and shouted to the back, “Maman, voila une bouquet!” and ran with a red rose in her hand to the back end of the bar, where her mother sat with two friends. Now the little girl, in a pink dress with a red heart on the front and matching pink sneakers—she’s even a redhead, honest—is going around offering men at the bar “un peu du chocolat?” She then holds out her lollipop to them and when they say non, merci, tucks it back in her mouth, the stick held in one corner like a cigarette, and smiles. The first person I’ve seen in almost two days wearing a beret just walked by. A black beret, a blonde in a black coat; she looks nothing like Monica Lewinsky. They all seem friends: when they leave, they kiss four times, twice on each cheek.
Nothing is more important. Replace the general, vague, abstract, or clichéd terms you may use at first drafting with more specific language. And cultivate the habit of dropping to deeper and deeper levels of specificity as you note the details. When you write that you saw a car, next to “car” write “silver, two-seater Smart car, as long as most cars are wide,” then note any other details worth noting. A poodle sticking its head out the right-side window, maybe. And you have just come from London so for a second you thought the poodle was driving.
Let me give you a reverse-engineered example. Imagine (try your best) that you are a writer in Paris writing in a café when you see an attractive person come in. You are prone to nostalgia, to self-doubt, to depression, and both these feelings and your suppression of them come to the surface when you write and in what you write. You might, if you were a talented student in a college writing course, make this first draft:
I was writing a story where the characters were drinking, and this inspired me to order a drink, which warmed me up and made me feel relaxed. A girl came in the café and sat down. She was very pretty and I got distracted looking closely at her face and hair. I felt a jumble of emotions as I looked at her, but it was easy to tell that she was waiting for somebody, so I went on writing. I really got into it, and I ordered another drink, but I still looked at her from time to time. Somehow the writing and the girl and being in Paris all blended together and made a strong impression on me. I’ll never forget it. Then I went back to writing and I got so involved in it that I forgot everything else in the room and didn’t even order another drink. When I finally looked up, the girl wasn’t there and I felt sad. I put away my notebook and gave the waiter my order. After writing a story I always had mixed emotions, but I felt pretty confident about this one. Eating dinner certainly improved my mood.
Notice that you get some idea of what’s going on, but the story is still not unique. Lots of people could have written it. Look now at the original and see how the writer replaces general words like “characters, drink, dinner,” and even “emotions” and “pretty” with specific words from a specific life. Well, with “pretty,” he leads us deliberately through an awkward cliché: new coins are round and shiny—hardly a complimentary way to describe a girl’s face—only to give us a memorable image and phrase, “rain-freshened skin,” and a hairstyle you can see. Yes, he breaks the rule by using “happy” and “sad,” but he knows what he’s doing. Rules are made to be practiced, mastered, and then masterfully broken.
Here’s the original, from A Moveable Feast:
It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story. I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and it could be as necessary with people as with other sorts of growing things. But in the story the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered a rum St. James. This tasted wonderful on the cold day. I kept on writing, feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and my spirit.
A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.
I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street and the entry and I knew she was waiting for someone. So I went on writing.
The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.
I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.
Then I went back to writing and I entered far into the story and was lost in it. I was writing it now and it was not writing itself and I did not look up nor know anything about the time nor think where I was nor order any more rum St. James. I was tired of rum St. James without thinking about it. Then the story was finished and I was very tired. I read the last paragraph and then I looked up and looked for the girl and she had gone. I hope she’s gone with a good man, I thought. But I felt sad.
I closed up the story in the notebook and put it in my inside pocket and I asked the waiter for a dozen portugaises and a half-carafe of the dry white wine they had there. After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.
As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
I realize “cultivate awakeness” is pretty un-specific; practicing rule #1 will help you cultivate it. An eye for colors, shapes, juxtapositions—writers become more sensitive to these things, as well as to the sounds their words make. Good writers will have a preference between the word “began” and the word “started.” They are not interchangeable.
To see one circle and relate it to another circle requires first that you see the circles. An improv comic picks up a dinner plate and it’s a steering wheel. He drives too fast, crashes, dies. His partner picks up the plate; it is the halo of St. Peter, deciding whether the dead man gets into heaven.
A first step in writing is simply to begin—as Adam did—to name the things in your world with their unique names. Turn that purple flower into a wisteria, the French girl who will give me a coupe de cheveux tomorrow into Natalie, that “Oriental-sounding instrument” you heard in the metro station into a shakuhachi, that nice-smelling shampoo into cucumber-melon. When this becomes a priority for you and a habit, you begin to inhabit a world more rich and alive than what most people live in.
If tomorrow Natalie shampoos me with cucumber-melon shampooing before my haircut with shakuhachi music in the background, and if her perfume smells of wisteria, I’ll be really freaked out.
You’ll find that you never master this skill, but rather keep finding new ways to improve. Choosing and expressing the significant details may be the biggest writing challenge, bigger than the word-play. For a start, practice relaxing, giving up the need to control things, and staying with the discipline of just making lines of words and letting things be as they are.
I swear that the Beatles’ “Let It Be” started playing just after I wrote that last bit.
The next two rules apply after the first draft is written, during revision. The word “re-vise” means to look at something again. So you have to first bring it into being before you can revise it.
Learn to spot and change or cut as many instances as you can of clichéd ideas, expressions, and words. Expressions are easiest to spot, and there are websites and books that collect all those well-worn, tried-and-true chestnuts. Words sometimes get so overused and misused, like “individual” for “person” or even “individuals” for “people,” that we forget they’re wrong.
Clichéd ideas are the most insidious, because they imply that we have already figured out what to think about a given situation. We like to think we know the truth, even when it’s not true. Incoming freshmen tell me they’re not “math and science people” as though it’s genetic. Once when an engineering major told me he “wasn’t an English person,” I told him I could tell from his accent. He just looked at me blankly.
Students begin essays with “I was a typical freshman with the typical experiences when one day I met…” and already they’ve lost me. I understand the impulse, but you can never be original this way. When someone tells me her mother’s “rags-to-riches story,” I ask her to tell me her mother’s story, not prove how her mother’s story fits a certain type.
I think we do it because we have a need to belong. We want to know what type or crowd we fit in with. We want identity and uniqueness and yet we don’t want to be alone.
Assume nothing. Let familiar things fascinate you again as they did when you were one and spent hours putting things in your mouth and taking them back out, feeling their corners and tastes without yet knowing the labels people put on them.
Take in mouthfuls of Paris the same way. The fact that you’re here means you’re already past the Fox News clichés of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” or lazy, socialist sex-maniacs, that you don’t expect a land of greasy-haired accordion players kissing their fingertips and saying, “Formidable!” at the drop of a hat, or beret. There’s an art to being both completely at home and completely in wonderment at the same time.
So what do we cliché-abhorrers have left to write if, as Mr. Shakespeare wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun”? (He wrote a lot of clichés, Mr. Shakespeare did.) Arrive at those old truths by your own path. While it’s good to learn from and even imitate other people, let that imitation lead you to the place where you can add your unique view. Be humble enough to realize that you are unique and that God, being infinitely creative, makes no backup copies. If I’m sure of anything it’s that the Good Lord abhors the cliché.
This advice from William Strunk, the original author of the classic Elements of Style, is about more than changing “due to the fact that” to “because,” though that’s a good start.
The rule also means that sometimes you will clear away a lot of vague clutter and make room for specific, concrete details. This can result in something like this:
“We proceeded along Rue LeCourbe, the street from which we had started out from the hotel, until we reached the metro station, Sevres-LeCourbe, after crossing the Rue Garibaldi. Then we entered the metro station, paying our 1,40 € and proceeded to the platform. Our professor, Vikram, began lecturing us on writing but it was difficult to concentrate on his commentary due to the plethora of Parisian sights, sounds, and smells with which our sense were being tantalized. I only remember a few fragments of his discourse,”
turning into something like this:
“Out the hotel, up its namesake the Rue LeCourbe, wait for the light, cross Garibaldi and after a short detour to see the top of the Eiffel Tower behind a building, descend into the metro station and pay 1, 40 euros to a man who is the spitting image of Victor Hugo. Vikram lectures all the while—you recognize the drone—but there is a bucherie with bright red meats you’ve never seen before, a charcuterie with terrines of salmon and little quiches and rows of cheeses wrapped in ham, and a salon called ModsHair with a large mirror outside, at which you all stopped. The French girls all have scarves and you start mentally scarf shopping. You remember nothing of Vikram’s lecture but “Behold the Eiffel Tower. It is Gallic, phallic, and metallic.” You all groaned at once and wondered how much of that there would be all week.”
Yes, I know the latter is not actually shorter. But it does more per inch. If I kept just the parts that do what the first passage does, it would be half the length. But omitting needless words suddenly shows me how empty the original really was. It just seemed full because of all the words in it. The latter says more, implies more, and shows more of the writer’s personality.
But that advice is for later, as I said. The writing process is like pottery. First, you dig the clay. Master potters for millennia were known for their gift of looking at a hillside and knowing where the good clay was within, just as physicians traditionally were not just healers but farmers and botanists. The artist loves his materials and processes. Most great musicians love to play scales. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes of a painter who chose his job because, “I loved the smell of the paint.” So make this your practice while we are in Paris:
Oh, and rule #3: remember to breathe. You’d be surprised how often you hold your breath. Once you get flowing, you’ll enter a relaxed, meditative state that is pleasurable and creative.
* Thank you to my teacher, Joyce Carol Oates, for the nice, pretty letters practice. She’s written over 80 books, all in longhand on yellow legal pads, all in nice, pretty letters.