After leaving the Mount Baldy Zen Center, Leonard Cohen came to Bombay late in 1998 to study with Ramesh Balsekar. During that stay, Ratnesh Mathur met the Canadian singer-songwriter and came to know him during his visits to India. In Leonard Cohen, India, & Me By Ratnesh Mathur, Ratnesh described his relationship with Leonard and aspects of Leonard’s experiences in India. Today’s post focuses on the spiritual significance of that journey. I have edited the text, primarily to put it in colloquial English and reorganized the content for easier reading.
Relief From Depression Vs Spiritual Enlightenment
Much has been written about how Leonard’s trip to Bombay cured his life long depression. Both Indian-based tribute pieces in which I was involved, Bird on a Wire: How Bombay helped Leonard Cohen find his voice again (Scroll.in) and When the light got in for Leonard Cohen (BBC India), chose titles that implicitly featured the depression cure notion. And, indeed, Leonard himself testified to the depression and its dissipation to both Sylvie Simmons and me, but it somehow became the key aspect of his stay in India. The importance of the lifting of Leonard’s depression notwithstanding, it was actually a side-effect.
Leonard came to India as a religious seeker – not a novice but a man deeply knowledgeable about Indian philosophical thought (i.e., the Upanishads/Vedanta and Buddhism). And, here in India, Leonard found answers to his spiritual questions through a mix of street/cultural life and Vedantic and Buddhist wisdom.
My contention is that Leonard Cohen’s quest – the subject of his seeking – has somehow been shunted aside in previous reports. In realigning the focus, I have found the following articles most relevant:
Leonard Cohen On The Bhagwad Gita
The Bhagwad Gita (literally, the “Celestial Song”) is India’s most popular religious/philosophical text.
There is a beautiful moment in the Bhagavad Gita Arjuna. The general. The great general. He’s standing in his chariot. And all the chariots are readied for war. And across the valley, he sees his opponents. And there he sees not just uncles and aunts and cousins, he sees gurus, he sees teachers that have taught him; and you know how the Indians revere that relationship. He sees them. And Krishna, one of the expressions of the deity, says to him, ‘You’ll never untangle the circumstances that brought you to this moment. You’re a warrior. Arise now, mighty warrior. With the full understanding, that they’ve already been killed, and so have you. This is just a play. This is my will. You’re caught up in the circumstances that I determine for you. That you did not determine for yourself. So, arise, you’re a noble warrior. Embrace your destiny, your fate, and stand up and do your duty.
A Brief Introduction to The Unified Heart
By David Peloquin
Leonard’s commentary on the Gita reconciles beautifully with the four points of spiritual quest outlined by David Peloquin in A Brief Introduction to The Unified Heart and The Blessing to End Disunity And Other Spiritual Themes in Leonard Cohen’s Songs,
A Resonance between Two Models – Leonard Cohen & Ramesh Balsekar
Leonard’s first conversation with Ramesh Balsekar: A Resonance between Two Models – Leonard Cohen & Ramesh Balsekar
Marianne Compares Meeting Leonard Cohen To Meeting The Dalai Lama
From Leonard Cohen’s Marianne: Meet The Woman Behind The Music (27:01 to the end of the episode)
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Dear Diary By Leonard Cohen
From Book of Longing
Leonard’s reference to “the Upanishads,” India’s oldest philosophical texts, which form the base of Vedanta Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism (major religions born in India) in his poem, Dear Diary, is enlightening:
You are greater than the Bible
And the Conference of the Birds
And the Upanishads
All put together
You are more severe
Than the Scriptures
And Hammurabi’s Code
More dangerous than Luther’s paper
Nailed to the Cathedral door
You are sweeter
Than the Song of Songs
Mightier by far
Than the Epic of Gilgamesh
Than the Sagas of Iceland
I bow my head in gratitude
To the ones who give their lives
To keep the secret
The daily secret
Under lock and key
I mean no disrespect
But you are more sublime
Than any Sacred Text
Sometimes just a list
Of my events
Is holier than the Bill of Rights
And more intense
The Buddhist teachings (through Roshi & the Dalai Lama) and the Vedic (or Upanishadic) teachings (through Ramesh Balsekar’s modern-day Advaita and 13th CE Sant Dhyaneshwar’s Bhagwad Gita) were the completion of Leonard’s spiritual seeking/quest, when he came to India.