Om tryambakam yajamahe / sugandhim pushti-vardhanam / urvarukam iva bandhanan / mrtyor mukshiya mamrtat swaha *
We worship the supreme light, the Absolute Shiva, who has three eyes, who is fragrant and nourishes all beings. This light is the expression and communication of our life, and it is our physical, mental and spiritual radiation and prosperity. Kindly release us from all calamities, bondage and suffering, just as the cucumber is released from its stalk, without any injury. May our minds be absorbed into Shiva, amrtam (nectar), the ocean of tranquility.
(Shukla-Yajur Veda, translation by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati)
Often called the Moksha Mantra, the Maha Mrtyunjaya Mantra is considered the yogi “birthday” song, a powerful healing mantra, and representing the development of freedom that is the path of yoga. With its reference to Shiva, cucumbers, and nectar of the gods, the translation and commentary of this chant can seem unclear, obscure, or even worse, irrelevant.
Focusing on the last two lines, we can uncover a clear, direct message on how to work towards freedom (moksha) both on and off the mat.
The metaphor of the cucumber (urvarukam) addresses the manner in which a yogi moves towards freedom or enlightenment. The cucumber’s path toward ripeness is one of action and work, filled with influences from the natural world and the variety of forces and people around and within it, just as is necessary for our own growth. There comes a point, however, where grace takes over, and there is an effortless falling away. When a cucumber is ripe, it will drop from the vine. After this natural falling away, it will appear completely whole, without any sign of separation on either end – no stem mark or scar. The cucumber does not still yearn for the vine. It is as if there never even was a vine. It is whole, complete, just as it is. Just as we are, and through effort and grace, we experience it.
One of my early teachers used to tell us “there is no force in yoga” when the class had gotten particularly carried away with trying to “do” yoga, or achieve a certain outward form of a pose. She guided us back from the tendency to push, to effort, into yoga. This is, in effect, what the Moksha Mantra is doing.
So how do we realistically work with the balance of effort and grace? How to we emulate the cucumber?
I like to think of the idea of life as the Self arraying itself. The timeless, formless, free of suffering innate Self within us is in the constant play of dressing itSelf in the clothes of the self. We dress ourselves in enough layers to survive Arctic winters. We are dressed in our names, our preferences, our identities, our emotions, our habits, our speech patterns, method of commuting, career, yoga style, outward appearances, neighborhoods, and anything else that describes us. Each of these is another tank-top, pair of jeans, socks, long-sleeved shirt that we, most of the time, identify as our nature, who we are.
Our work, our effort, is to experience our identity as layers that we wrap around our Self. To sit with eyes closed, to walk down the street eyes wide open, to fall asleep, to converse with others feeling the nakedness of the Self under all the layers we operate under. And we do this as many times, as often as we can. Every choice we make is either a movement towards reinforcing the self or moving towards the Self. Even the way we practice asana. It is not enough to show up. Make choices that uncover. Yoga is the process and development of this uncovering. Yogis are given multiple tools (when in doubt, come back to the breath – be aware of a full inhale, a full exhale, repeat). Use them, constantly, continuously, for a long time.
We then take it one step further. We imagine all those layers dropping, falling away, sliding down to the floor. We stand, sit, lay there naked of the arrayment of the Self, and exist as the Self. That falling away occurs with grace, as a direct result of the repeated work of understanding the nature of the Self/self. As the clothes drop to the floor, we fall off the stalk, fully ripe, bearing no mark from our attachment to those layers of self. There is no force in this final act. We can not strip ourselves of our identity and layers. There is only a natural falling away.
The chant ends with swaha, which simply means “let go” or “I offer it up”. It lies at all points on the path; to confront/sit with what arises and let go. To get a sense of this, rest in child’s pose with your palms face up. Bring to mind that thing that happened earlier today, and imagine it flowing out through the palms of your hands, swaha. Then bring to mind that disappointment from last week, that worry of tomorrow, that recent success, that reason you smiled today, each one, let go. Offer it up through your hands, swaha. Empty out. As you empty out, notice how you do not feel empty. This is your Self, your true nakedness. As you become established in this, take swaha with you when you go shopping and your favorite food is not in stock. Take it with you to yoga class when you finally balance in an inversion in the center of the room, swaha. Even the desire for enlightenment, swaha.
In the end, this is Siva’s chant, the first yogi. Starting with him, yogis have always been the wild ones. Be wild. Be brazen. Be naked.
*To hear this chanted, I recommend listening to Manorama’s version on her album “Awaken Fire”.
*Refer to tao te ching #48, for another look at this idea