Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Tales of the dream tellers

Last night, in a dream, I gave a lecture on dreaming traditions in India. I quoted the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and looked up the text after waking:

When he dreams, these worlds are his. Then he seems to become a great king. Then he seems to become a great Brahmin. He seems to enter into the high and low. As a great king takes his people and moves about in his own country just as he wishes, just so this one takes his own senses and moves about in his own body just as he desires.

My main thesis, in my dream lecture, was that your approach to dreams, reality and illusion differs radically according to whether you are thirsty for moksha (liberation) from the world, or  seeking to do as well as you can in the conditions of samsara. The first orientation will send you to the ashram and to dream yoga; the second might send you to the village dream teller and the temple of Lakshmi. The sources I quoted ranged from the Yogavasistha and the Upanishads to folktales and Queen of Dreams, a novel by an (East) Indian-American author, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
     I recounted one of my favorite Indian tales about how dreams of the night can help you fulfill your dreams of life in this samsaric world. The story is about dreaming your way to Mr Right. It is sometimes called "The Sketcher of Pictures" but I will call it

The Face of the Dream Lover

The princess (and all women may be princesses, or queens) is dreaming. She dreams of the perfect lover, who satisfies her in every way. The dream streams like silk. It smells like jasmine and honeysuckle.
   She opens her eyes and howls with pain and loss, because although her surroundings are opulent she knows no one like the man of her dreams.
   Her father sees that she is very sad and asks what is wrong. When she tells him it has something to do with a dream, the king summons his wise men to listen to the dream and tell her what it means. They gather in a council chamber, ready to give their interpretations.
    As the princess recounts her dream, a wild man rushes into the room, his hair a white storm about his shoulders. He is a rishi who lives in the woods and cares nothing for the rules of the court. He grabs a piece of paper, makes a quick sketch, and hands it to the girl.
    When she looks at the picture, the princess is stunned. The rishi has captured the very essence of her dream lover.
     Abandoning the conclave of dream interpreters, she runs after the wold man from the woods. When she catches up to him, she begs him to tell her the identity or her dream lover. "Who is he? Where can I find him?" Clearly the rishi knows the man of her dreams.
     Good teachers don't give you everything all at once. The rishi says only, "The map is in your dream." Then he takes off into the woods.
     The princess thinks about it. What does it mean, that a dream contains a map? When she thinks about it some more, she realizes that she was not with her lover among the clouds. She was in a bed in a room in a house in a city in a certain landscape. Though she recognizes none of these places, she has vivid memories of them and feels she would know them again.
     So she sets out on the quest. In an Indian village, they may take hours to tell this part. There will be tigers, of course, and bandits, and deserts and snakes and all manner of perils. There will probably be elephants.
     But let's catch up with the princess at the moment when her quest is almost over, because there on the horizon, after long travels and many ordeals, she sees the city from her dreams. And now she is rushing through those streets the house from her dream, and up the stairs to the bedroom from her dream, where she finds her lover rising from his dream of her.

It sounds like a fairy story, but there are no fairies in it, or any of the gods, demons and others from the rich forests of Hindu mythology. There are only humans, and what humans can do when they learn to make maps from their dreams and have the will and stamina to follow their maps.
    Through the perfume of romance, we receive a lesson in practical romanticism. Do the work in dreamwork. Recognize that dreams require action. Learn - why has it taken you so long? - that a dream is a place. Because you have been there, you can go there again. This can bring you, in this physical world, to place of your dream lover. More often, it will bring you to places in a more spacious universe where you can rejoin the beloved company of your soul, those who love you across time and space, even when you make each other crazy.

Way of the Dream Teller

Last night's dream sent me back to 
Divakaruni's novel. Queen of Dreams is very interesting as the portrayal of mother-daughter relations, in this case in an immigrant (Indian) community in California. Most interesting for me, the mother in the story is a "dream teller" in the old Bengali style. She not only interprets dreams for people, she can dream for them - for example, bringing warnings about the future. Excerpts from her journals are interspersed with the narrative.
     Some of these journal entries describe the dream teller's initiation by an order of female dream specialists in caves in India. One of her teachers retold stories of dreams from mythology and history to inspire students to think about the deeper aspects of dreaming - for example, that if you can remember a big, life-transforming dream, and go back into the space of the dream and take the right action, you can change your life and your world. 

“A dream is a telegram from the hidden world,” the dream teller writes in her journals.

     Queen of Dreams first published in 2004) is a captivating story that makes an ancient Indian tradition of dreaming highly accessible. On one level, this is a story of social and personal transition. A young single mother, Rakhi, is trying to make a life and make art in contemporary Fremont. Her livelihood is threatened when a Starbucks-type chain opens a supercafe across the street from her quaint little tea shop, and the dynamics of the struggle that ensues are told very well – hyped by turning the java-train manager into an ice-blonde witch.
     The heart of the story is Rakhi’s relationship with her mother, and what she learns about her mother’s life as a “dream teller” when she discovers her mother’s journals after she dies in a mysterious car accident. Rakhi knew, as a child, that her mother had special gifts, and was disappointed that she did not inherit them. Her mother’s gift explained why she needed to sleep alone, and why she would drag herself to a public phone to deliver an anonymous but extremely specific warning to a man she did not know after dreaming the details of a murder plot being hatched against him.
    The dream teller’s journals contain a beautiful statement attributed to an ancient text called the Brahit Swapna Sarita, which appears to be the author’s invention. (The literature of India is full of dreams, but I cannot locate this text, or the Swapna Purana also mentioned in the novel).

The dream comes heralding joy.
I welcome the dream.
The dream comes heralding sorrow.
I welcome the dream.
The dream is a mirror showing me my beauty.
I bless the dream.
The dream is a mirror showing me my ugliness.
I bless the dream.
My life is nothing but a dream
From which I will wake into death,
Which is nothing but a dream of life.

    To read her mother’s journals, Rakhi is dependent on translations from archaic Bengali by her unloved, alcoholic father. We learn that the mother was trained by a female order of dream tellers in caves. The instruction included lectures on the history of dreaming. One of the elders tells a story that does not mention the word dream. The students are left to puzzle out the connection. In summary, the story goes like this:

The King, the White Boar and the Transforming Moment

A king who prides himself on his prowess as a hunter goes out in search of game. Finally he sees a white boar, which would be the greatest of prizes. He pursues it deeper and deeper into the forest, his men left far behind. He comes to a clearing where little people in bark clothes are making an offering of something like porridge to a stone god. He finds he is ravenously hungry, and steals the food meant for the god. Fatigue overwhelms him.
     When he wakes from sleep, he finds his horse and trappings are gone. The little people must have stolen them. He is a good tracker. He finds his way home. But at the gates of the palace, the guards bar his way. They do not know him. When he checks his appearance, he finds he has been turned into a beggar in rags. Then he sees a different banner is flying over the castle. There is a different king, a man unknown to him – who has his wife and his child.
    The king-turned-beggar returns to the forest. He cannot find the place of the stone god until he catches sight of the white boar, which leads him again. He makes supplication to the stone god, humbly accepts the porridge given him after the ceremony. He lies down where he tethered his horse before. He can’t sleep, but must, because “he knows that only through a break can he change back to who he was.”  When he wakens, his horse and trappings are there, his men are not far away, he is king again. He now lives prayerfully, and is especially kind to beggars.

Swapping Lives through Transforming Dreams

Elder Jahnavi explains what happened with a diagram. She draws two ovals, one for the waking world and one for the dream world, linked by a connecting tube she calls the gateway. Both ovals revolve; the dream oval very fast, the other very slowly, so that when you come back from a dream you normally find yourself in a scene from regular life. But because the balance was disturbed by the forest sages after the king’s impertinence. The king experienced a transforming dream. Because he remembered it and was able to reenter the same magical space, he was able to shift worlds again through a second transforming dream. The name of the king is Tunga-dhwaja. “Tunga-dhwaja was fortunate in that he remembered, and even more fortunate in that he could reenter the same transforming dream, where he was forgiven. Otherwise he would have been trapped in his new life, and doomed to spend his days as a beggar.”

Divakaruni has played fast and free with a very old story. In the original, the king’s arrogance is that he refuses Prasad (food offering) when cowherd boys invite him to join their Vrata ritual for Satya Narayana under a banyan tree. The Lord himself decides to punish the king. When he returns home, he learns that all his family are dead. He realizes he has incurred divine wrath. He returns to the banyan, makes offering – and his family and property are restored. This simple telling, found online, lacks the dream shift.
    Divakaruni omits to tell us that the ritual that the little people are conducting is one of the most popular vratas in India – the Satya Narayana Puja ritual, which starts by invoking Ganesha and offering him favorite foods and continues with offerings and praise for a beneficent avatar of Vishnu.
    Still, I am intrigued by the idea that if we can remember a dream in which our life changed, and reenter it, we might be ableto put ourelves on a different event track.

Divakaruni gives us this,froma cave tecaher of her secret order of dream tellers:  “Sometimes you will be given a warning in a dream, which you must convey to the person it is meant for, a person whose mind is too thick for the dream spirit to pierce...The dreams that are most important come from another reality…This is the time of the dream spirits.” 

In the Dream of a God

Whether you are seeking nirvana or Mr. Right, in the literature of India we see again and again that dreaming is a way to wake up to the nature of reality and illusion.
     In one Indian cosmology, we live inside the dream of a god. 

Vishnu is dreaming this world. It will last until he leaves the dream and dismisses its cast of characters,who include us. The god with skin the color of rain-filled clouds sleeps and dreams on the great serpent Shesha Naga, who may have five heads, or seven or a hundred.. The serpent drifts on the Ocean of Milk.  While Vishnu sleeps, his mind generates dreams. They are the stuff we and our world are made of.

Markandeya is a human being who is curious about what is real. He tries so hard to see beyond the obvious that one day, without meaning to, he falls out of the mouth of the dreaming god. He now discovers that he has spent his whole life inside the body of the god. Now he's out there, he has a cosmic vision of the structure of the universe; he sees that everything he knew is contained within the body of the dreaming god. But this vision is too much for him; it inspires him with a trembling awe that easily shifts to terror. It's too much for him, even though he is an evolved soul, an adept. So he climbs back through the mouth of Vishnu, back into the world the god dreams. As he resumes his life there Markandeya starts to forget that there is anything outside..

Drawing at top: "The Sketcher of Pictures" by Robert Moss

1 comment:

Douggins said...

Thank you for the artistry and for leading us into this story. Beautiful!