Interview with Usha Sundaram (Dharmakeerthi)
Dr Usha Sundaram (also known as Dharmakeerti) has worked for nearly twelve years as a Psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore, India. Initiated and trained by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, of the Bihar School of Yoga in spiritual practices, she found that yoga was a practical and effective approach to reintegrating the body, mind and spirit in addition to medication. Dharmakeerti has traveled extensively all over India, teaching yoga at schools, colleges, temples, churches, corporate groups and to individuals. She was a Visiting Professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio in 1988-89. She has since been going every year to the United States, teaching at Ohio, Texas, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Illinois. She has published articles in journals and has authored a book on “Mantra.”
Dharmakeerti brings the message that yoga is not a religion, but rather a science to reach into your own inner self and rediscover your potential for healing, wisdom and compassion. Under the guidance of her Guru, she researched the ancient meditation techniques described in the Upanishads.
Today we talk to her to learn about how spirituality, art, and being human all come together through a profound Guru-shishya relationship, and more.
You have found yourself serving in the fields of mental health, which extended into spirituality and Yoga. Could you walk us through how these choices were inspired?
While I was working as a Psychiatrist in the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bangalore, I worked for a number of years in Psychotherapy. During this time I did some intense and in-depth work with terminally ill clients and their deeper issues with Death and Dying. My inspiration was a person called Karibasamma with whom I did a lot of work which made me aware of the paucity of Consultants who could guide me on this journey that we were taking together — the client and I.
I needed to know what the process of dying means psychologically to do a better job. The Consultants I spoke to pointed to the Mystical Sciences where they said the answers were. I apprenticed myself to a Spiritual Master Swami Satyananda Saraswati who explained to me that this was not an academic but an experiential movement within myself. Subsequently it was his continuous guidance that took me on an inner journey and into the Spiritual dimension within.
What is your understanding of how the creative pursuit of art impacts mental health?
We are first of all human beings who have an intellect, emotions, instincts and impulses in a complex format each pinging on the other and creating reactions and counter-reactions with the worlds within and without. To be people who need to live in peace with ourselves and with our fellow beings we need to be able to see situations in a holistic manner with a sense of values that bring all these areas into non-conflict and into a coordinated position.
We cannot afford to have logical and rational solutions to all discomforts of life at the cost of ignoring the emotional part of ourselves. Art introduces us to the softer, tender and compassionate parts of ourselves and others as the process of most other sciences sans arts introduces us to the more aggressive and assertive parts of ourselves and others. The second fuels ambition and control while the first helps nurturing and nourishment. I think both aspects have to supplement each other for a mature personality.
You are acquainted with performing arts as a connoisseur- A rasika. Could you tell us how you feel about witnessing artistic presentations/performances? What about these arts do you feel is unique as an experience?
The most unique aspect of a performance is the bhavana of the performer. As far as I feel when I watch performances of any art, the empathy of the performer, what they give to the art form is what rebounds on the audience. A very correct classical rendering without the immersion of the performer in the performance can leave me cold in spite of a perfection in the actions.
On the other hand if the performer lacks a few classical perfections but is wholly submerged in the action I feel moved. In other words it is the life force of the performer which if not in sync with one who is watching, becomes an empty shell. There has to be an exchange of a subtle something which moves from the performer to the performance to the audience so that the individual identities are submerged into a whole. All identities dissolve into a oneness.
Could you tell us a word about your association with Guru Bhanumati’s mother Smt Isaimani L. Rajalakshmi and her family?
Smt Isaimani Rajalakshmi and her family are known to me for the past 35 years.
Smt Rajalakshmi would come to the Ashram where I worked and while she was alive I found her very humble and self effacing while being although she had a beautiful voice and sang for us. I did not know then that she was so gifted and had brought out a number of cassettes. I then came into contact with guru Bhanumati and her brother.
What impressed me about Bhanumati was her passion for her art form, a passion that would bring a smile into people’s day when she would burst into explanations and demonstrate postures to bring across a subtle point. It was a passion that was not swept away by political indifference, difficulties that she went through in the course of her life, the ups and downs that are a part of living and giving herself to the art form itself.
I have met many dancers but the impact she left on me remained even though I lost touch with her for a number of years until I met her again when her neice Shruthi Rajalakshmi joined a course on Psychosocial rehabilitation. She had grown into an artiste of excellence and a great and dedicated teacher ably assisted by her brother Chandrasekhar and his wife Sheela, the parents of Shruthi.
They have supported each other in the years when they were exploring their individual paths while staying together as a team. In the process they were all enriched in their respective vocations and within themselves and were able to bring a certain excellence in their art forms and a compassion to people around them
“Yoga is a way of life.” “Art is a way of life.” What is your response to these two statements- in terms of how they compare with, or complement each other?
Both Yoga and Art are processes in the lives of the participants and depend to a large extent on what the individual makes of them and how much he or she puts of himself or herself into it.
They can be used to make the person and the world a better place or misused for self-aggrandisement and power. The science of Yoga embraces Art and Art is Yoga. Many great yogis have been great artistes and many artistes in the past have been Yogis. The male and female parts of us are helped to coalesce into a compassionate and competent one within, thereby making us Spiritual beings.
How would you explain the significance of a Guru-shishya relationship in the process of learning and spiritual growth?
For any action in life one must have an experienced teacher along the way. A Guru is someone who performs that role besides that of one who has found his inner self beyond the lesson taught. He helps the sishya or the seeker to get rid of preconceived ideas, concepts, archetypes that we bring into our learning, the baggage that obscures from our own understanding our own inner resilience, inner receptivity to life and ourselves.
The Guru helps us understand that vulnerability is strength in that it teaches us to face our fragility with courage and trust in our own inner wisdom which comes with acceptance and grace through the process of learning together
What is a healthy attitude that the Guru and the Shishya must have towards each other, to nurture the sanctity of the relationship?
The student should focus on what he or she is there to learn and not be sidetracked by the physical and social life of the Guru as is presented to his limited perception. There has to be trust in the relationship, a constant alertness to needless and harmful judgement on the part of the sishya which detracts from what he or she is there to learn… about themselves.
The Guru must have experienced the process the shishya must now undertake, have walked the path and reached the goal before he undertakes to guide the sishya. He has to have a lot of patience, restraint, be alive to countertransference phenomena that can come up to detract from the true learning to be a mature guide. He should have integrity.
What advice would you have for students to make the best of their experience in learning and practicing the art?
Find out what you really want in life, how the art form nurtures that and if it is found valid, find a Guru and stay focused through all the turmoils of the interference of ego defense systems in the process of moving beyond one’s limitedness into the limitlessness of the lesson learnt.