Sitting at the Devagari Devarsthana at Banashankari in Bangalore, Chilean Vedanta scholar Professor Francisco San Miguel chants a mantra on Sharada Devi. He was sitting opposite a Sharada painting drawn by Sudhindra, a Bangalore based artiste, at an art exhibition organised by Heritage Trust. When asked to chant something, he naturally chose a Devi mantra.
Francisco has been coming to India every year since 2007. He first came to India at the age of 19 and headed straight to Mysore to learn Ashtanga yoga with Pattabhi Jois and find the ‘purpose of his life’. His friendship with an Indian bansuri player led to his being taught the Yogasutra by an Iyengar priest from Melkote. He subsequently moved to Chennai to learn Krishnamacharya Yoga from TKV Desikachar. His yoga practice primed him physically and mentally for Vedanta which he discovered with Pujya Swamy Dayananda Sarasvati.
Francisco has established two centres for Vedanta in Santiago and there are 40 students between the ages 25-40 studying there. A group of students is planning to come to India this month and will go on a tour of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. They will also spend some time in the ashram in Srirangam with his guru Swami Visharadananda Saraswati and visit Chidambaram.
In this free flowing conversation, Francisco spoke animatedly about a life of transformation.
Are there similarities between India’s ancient traditions and Chile’s which laid the ground for an exploration for you?
There are a lot of philosophies which resonate with some parts of India’s Vedic culture. In our culture there are the Mapuche (indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile and south-western Argentina) who worship the mountains, the rivers, the water and different spirits. It is not about what of these represents God, everything is God and we respect everything. It is not only about what we see with our physical eyes and this helps us have a better understanding about reality. This exists in many aboriginal cultures and that makes us different from Abrahamic cultures.
Personally, I am more acquainted with Mapuche culture. They have their own perspective of Earth, like Bhumi here. They call it Nuke Mapu or Mother Earth. Then you have the Quechua culture in Peru and Bolivia where Pachamama is a goddess, revered as the Earth mother. Pachakamak is like Shiva and Pachamama is like Shakti - Purusha and Prakruti.
I also feel great magnetism and energy in the temples here especially since they have worked so hard to do the prana prathishta. I have found that the Devatas in Indian culture are very supportive of understanding the higher reality. One can relate with their forms and names and everything that is there in their mandalas.
Even with Christianity and Islam there are common concepts about Dharma and how to conduct yourself in a proper way. In those religions, you go to a more comfortable space of reality like heaven. But it is with India’s Vedic culture that we have a lot of things in common. Right now in South America we are ready to drop Christianity as it was imposed on us.
I don’t like to make comparisons because sometimes it results in reductionism but we can see a lot of similarity with Sanathana Dharma.
Apart from this overarching affinity, what are the other factors which set you on this path?
My grandparents have a huge library and I read about Swami Vivekanada when I was about 14. Though not connected directly, I also read about Helena Blavatsky who formed the Theosophical Society and these readings made me interested in the Oriental world.
The most rational explanation for my interest in Indian philosophy is how my parents raised me in a value centred family – on how to relate to family, neighbours and with nature - which is very similar to Indian value systems. This was a tangible factor, but there must also have been some Vāsanā apart from the samskara my parents gave me. It is not everyone who questions about the meaning of life. Since my childhood, I have always wanted to understand about life and reality.
How did yoga bring you to India?
I was interested in meditation when I was in my teens. Living in Santiago, I started practicing Vipasana in the Goenka style. I practiced it for maybe two years and that was my first practical contact with India.
I started getting back pain from sitting in one place for extended hours so I sought out a yoga practice of asana and pranayama, as it is commonly referred to. I liked many things there but I felt the ambience was not correct. I had all these books in my mind about the life of Yogis, so I was not very sure if what I was doing was what yoga was all about. They were more about “Raise your arms”, “Breathe deeply”. It was more of romantic notion of yoga. It does help of course at some level, but then after a few years, I thought I needed to go to India.
I came directly to Mysore as I was practicing a ‘style’ of yoga called Ashtanga Yoga. It is not the real Ashtanga Yoga we understand through Shastra. It was the name of a method. I went to learn from Pattabhi Jois for three months. It was much the same as what I had experienced in Chile.
I won’t say I was disappointed because I was in India and in my own journey. So I started looking out for another teacher. My musician friend – Ravishankar Mishra who plays the bansuri (and belongs to the Mehar Gharana) introduced me to an Iyengar priest from Melkote who taught me the Yoga Sutras. It was after this that I started to learn Sanskrit Grammar.
I learnt chanting like a parrot, repeating endlessly. My mother tongue Spanish comes from Latin and Latin is derived from Sanskrit, and is a part of the Indo-European family of languages. So learning to chant was definitely easier than it would have been for someone from say an English or Japanese speaking background, because we have some similarities in the phonetics structure. I also found the chanting very soothing and that is when I got very interested in sruti.
I have studied music, especially the guitar as well as compositions but my family members play the piano, guitar and violin. Music too is samskara -- the subtlest thing in life --and is an important part of both cultures.
In the course of my research I wanted to learn from TKV Desikachar as I was attracted to Krishnamacharya’s way of teaching. I went to Chennai and took it up very seriously.
A lot of people in the West say that they are from the Krishnamacharya tradition, but they don’t know that the Krishnamacharya tradition is the Sri Vaishnava tradition and he didn’t talk about that to a lot of people. Krishnamacharya's family says that he would say that actually, he had only three students and they were not the most popular ones. It was to them that he taught his tradition. He told different things to different people but these were mainly tools. The main thing I understood from them was that Yoga is not something that you understood from tools. You have to have a perspective of how to see yourself and Ishwara.
I think Yoga lays the ground work for Vedanta. You have to prepare your mind, your life, your values, your emotions and your behaviour, to cleanse yourself of deep-rooted problems. I think that is yoga – a preparation to bring the changes that you want. Even though you can go directly to Vedanta, yoga helps in listening to the teachings of the sages on the Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta.
It gradually builds up to learning about the reality of Brahman and the identity of Atman through Sravana, Manana, Nididhyāsana. My main sadhana is to be a student, to get the exposure and clarity and then to try and remain in that state. There are a lot of activities that support that stage – Yoga, meditation, pooja, going on a Yatra and chanting mantras of the Vedas. While all of these give punya, the ultimate punya is to understand Atman – which gives Dharma megha, a shower of blessings.
How does reading Indian texts differ from the other kinds of books you have read? What is the role of the teacher?
Those are books that we read, but here it is actual exposure. You listen and you understand what the tātparya is. You understand what is the nature of the Atman and the dual atma. You have to first clear the dual atma. That is where the teaching enters.
In studying Indian traditions, I learnt that first of all you have to have shraddha in the pramana. You have to be open, not approach it with the idea that someone is trying to convince you about a creed.
In our tradition the guru comes in a package with the shastra. To understand the shastra with the guru, we need shraddha. It is like a triangle – shastra, guru and shraddha. Shastra without the guru is not possible, because you can't handle the knowledge. The context must be shown and only in that context you use the words, otherwise you will use the words to justify anything.
I understand that this wisdom is not about neutralising karma. It is about how we face or see those problems. This teaching is mainly about understanding the nature of one's self - helping to see ourselves in an objective way.
From Yoga to Vedanta, was that a shift to a higher plane of understanding of both Reality and Knowledge?
Things changed after I met Pujya Swamiji Dayanand Sarasvati in 2009. Since then, I have been studying only with that Sampradaya and I have full shraddha for it. I am grateful to my guru Swami Visharadananda Saraswati, and others who have helped me including Swami Guhatmananda and Swamini Atmaprajnananda.
Shankara says Dvaita is a conclusion that you will get with your own pramana, with your own pratyaksa, with your own inferences and perception. Our teachers would say that you don’t need a teacher to tell you: “I am different from the world.” Our sampradaya says when our mind is not subtle enough, we see the illusion of that division.
While containing a lot of philosophy, Shankara's teachings are more a means of knowledge. It’s not about “I think this is the reality”, or “this is my opinion of reality”. You get access to a means of knowledge which leads to a kind of installing of you.
We have types of Knowledge - there’s finite knowledge and infinite knowledge. All the sciences we know like Mathematics, Biology or Medicine, even grammar, all this knowledge is constantly developing and is infinite. We will always have a better lens to see them with. When it comes to Consciousness, what is at the beginning -- not in terms of time, but what is first and cannot be denied -- knowledge of that is Finite.
Through Vedanta, I have learnt we cannot go beyond Consciousness. This is the end but it is not a dead end. That is why Bhakti is important and is very much a part of the tradition. It is bhakti towards Reality.