It's early spring in central Vermont when I first meet Harish Johari, 57, painter, sculptor, composer, gemologist, chef, educator, author, and Renaissance man of ayurveda, the ancient Indian "science of life." Snow still clings to the high peaks of the Green Mountains and the early morning roads are slick when I arrive in Hancock at the big country house of Leslie Colket, Johari's editor at Inner Traditions in nearby Rochester. Inner Traditions has published all of Johari's books and is hosting his visit to New England on what has become an annual tour from India to Europe to the United States back to his home in Uttar Pradesh near the Himalayas.
For his students and colleagues, an unarguable high point of Johari's regular visits is his cooking. When I arrive, the gastronomic educator is in the kitchen preparing our lunch, so my travels are already blessed with the prospect of a delicious ayurvedic meal ( culled from his new cookbook, The Healing Cuisine: India's Art of Ayurvedic Cooking). Johari greets me with an air of formal brotherliness, his face sculpted in eagle intensity under a thick shock of silver hair as he surveys me with a quizzical smile.
Naturally I first ask him what we can expect for lunch. He pauses in his bread-making, laughs, and points to several bowls. "Fresh panir cheese with curried spinach. Mushrooms with onions in a sour cream sauce. And puris, these breads which I'm still making, with sonth, a special sweet-and-sour sauce made with tamarind, tomato, ginger, cumin, raisins, and brown sugar. Saffron yogurt for dessert. Ayurvedic food is very easy to digest and doesn't remain in the body a long time. It makes you feel light. I love to cook, especially when I travel, because in India they don't let me into the kitchen. I'm a man - how should I know about cooking? They have very stern taboos in India. Men don't cook!"
I comment that for a man who travels half the year it's almost essential to do one's own cooking. Johari agrees emphatically. "Everyday I know myself, my breathing, my assimilation, my elimination. That way I know what to eat, and it's different every day, every season. Today is Saturday, which in ayurveda is a ginger day. Ginger is connected with the energy of today. Monday, dominated by the moon, is for cold spices and rice grown in water; Wednesday is coriander; and Thursday, cumin."
How is a food like ginger related to the energy of the day? I ask Johari as he chops and kneads puri dough. "Ayurveda says the universe is made of five elements. In the beginning, there was one absolute God, from whom came akasha, or ether, then air, fire, water, and earth. The whole world and the whole body are made of these elements, which we call tattvas. Because these elements are everywhere, we have them in our body as the three temperaments, or humors, which ayurveda calls doshas.
"Ayurveda calls these vata, or wind, from the air element; pitta, or bile, from the fire element; and kapha, mucous, a combination of water and earth elements. Akasha is the container of the doshas. Then there are three basic energy qualities that operate through the temperaments. These are the gunas - sattva, which is lightness; rajas, passion or motion; and tamas, inertia. So the elements, temperaments, and gunas form the octave of prakriti [ Nature or creation ] from which the entire world evolves and in which the whole game of life is happening."
This model of prakriti, says Johari, underlies the ayurvedic understanding of food, cooking, illness, massage, energy, gemstones - the gamut of life knowledge. "So in this lunch we have tamas in the bread and mushrooms, sattva in the saffron yogurt, and rajas in the spinach panir. All the elements and all the tastes are here. Most of the time before I cook I see what kind of temperament my guests have. Then I know what kinds of foods will be suitable."
Would he have cooked something entirely different if this were a Saturday in October instead of April? "Yes, a different season means a change of temperament with corresponding differences in nature and the body. In winter the mucous quality is dominant in everybody; in summer it's bile; in autumn, wind. In India right now nobody would use saffron because it's too hot, but here in Vermont I can use saffron because it's still cold outside. So by knowing about the place we are at, we choose our spices. I'm a very hot person! I need snow and ice. After all, I come from a Himalayan town that gets colder even than here."
Johari smiles broadly and looks directly at me. With the traditional large red dot on his forehead, it's like being beheld by three eyes. "That's sandalwood paste with saffron and camphor. I make this paste every day for my morning worship. It cools my frontal lobes, the part of the brain involved in thinking. When I cool this area, I produce no anxieties, the hemispheres work slower, the brain wave patterns change, and I am able to meditate."
Like most Yankee dairy farmers in the vicinity, Johari gets up very early, about 4:00 a.m. The typical dairy farmer will credit the early rise to the demands of bovine udders, but the milk Johari seeks is divine nectar. The predawn hour of morning is traditionally called amrit-bela, which means "time of nectar" and refers to a surfeit of rejuvenating atmospheric prana, says Johari.
"The prana available at 4:00 a.m. is completely detoxified and pure. Ayurveda says the divine energy descends on us before dawn. The gods come and give energy to whatever is needed, then leave. I learned about dawn from the saints who came to my house in my childhood. No spiritual life is possible, they said, without waking up before dawn."
Not only does Johari get up before the sun, he doesn't spend a lot of time in bed either. He says he sleeps about three hours maximum. "People who sleep seven to nine hours aren't sleeping. They dream and waste energy. When you start dreaming, it means the rest period is over and the mind starts its flirtations." One way to sleep less, says Johari, is to eat a more sattvic diet and do less "fantasizing" before going to sleep.
Nor does he emerge into the quick of dawn with the jarring clang of an alarm clock. He listens to music. He composed special predawn non-rhythmical sounds using sarod and flute, and it's this music that brings him back into the physical world every day. "This used to be a tradition in the ancient times with kings and saints. Most of the early music was written by saints for devotion and meditation. The kings, like the people, wanted to live in peace amidst all the problems of administration, so they employed the musicians to create music for the different times of day to give them better feelings."
The tradition is not entirely forgotten even in contemporary, commercialized India. Early every morning the all-India radio stations begin their programming with a "morning tone," a small composition played by V.M. Jog, one of the country's most noted violinists. And the disc jockeys know enough not to slap an evening raga on the record wheel at breakfast time.
"This is most important because music influences us directly through the sound tones. We are made of sound. The first thing that came out in Creation was sound, then from sound came akasha. There is a sound essence, or tanmatra, behind each of the five elements. But inappropriate music can cause all kinds of problems, can even make people go crazy. What we're doing with electronic sounds - radios, blenders, vacuum cleaners, TV signals, rock music - is making the whole planet go crazy."
Good and bad music directly and profoundly affects the body's seven subtle psychic energy centers, called chakras, which are spinning energy wheels arranged vertically up the spine from sacrum to crown. The chakras are the playground of the elements, quips Johari, who treated the subject in depth in his book Chakras: Energy Centers of Transformation.
"Chakras are centers of activity of subtle, vital force termed sukshma prana [ subtle prana ]," explains Johari. "They are interrelated with the parasympathetic, sympathetic, and autonomous nervous systems, and thus the gross body is related to them."
The wheeling playground of the bodymind is arranged in five tiers, says Johari. The five basic tattvas , or elements, correspond to the first five chakras - earth, water, fire, air, and ether, in that order. While the chakral merry-go-round may be entertaining or dismaying, the goal of meditative practice is to "transcend the tattvas and thereby achieve the nondual consciousness that liberates us from the illusory world."
As we shift our conversation from kitchen to dining room, I ask Johari what role yantra painting plays in the ayurvedic worldview. Johari has gained a wide reputation as a yantra master since he began teaching this traditional art in 1966. Ayurveda and yantra are both devices of the ancient discipline of tantra, says Johari, as he shows me his illustrated manual Tools for Tantra.
"Yantra is a visual tool of tantra that serves either as a centering device or as a symbolic composition of the energy pattern of a deity such as Lakshmi, Durga, or Kamla, as seen by tantric seers in their visions. A yantra is a geometrical pattern made of universal abstract symbols that both preserves or contains the essence of a thought or object and liberates us from bondage. As a tool, yantra is used to withdraw consciousness from the outer world and direct it to the inner world.
"Durga, for example, is the invincible wife of Shiva, with all manner of weapons and decorations - the unified symbol of all divine force. Meditation on the saffron color of Durga's yantra produces a calming complementary blue color, which fills the aspirant with serenity and purity."
During his half year of global traveling, Johari is often asked to lead yantra painting workshops. Telling students that "the chakras are the stage upon which the interaction between higher consciousness and desire is played out," Johari teaches them a technique of yantra painting combined with chanting the mantra sounds for each yantra while maintaining a concentrated, meditative state.
First off and straightforwardly, he asks his students to state their desires. "Usually people don't know what they want. If you want 200 things at the same time, your energy goes off in 200 directions and you can't do anything. You have to want just one thing. When they know their single desire, then we can work with that energy, then the bodymind is free to attain it."
There is a cosmic imprimatur legitimating the realm of desire, Johari assures me. "Desire is the main principle. Even God has desire. If God had no desire, there would be no creation, no world. God desired light, so he said, Let there be light! Since tantra accepts desire as the prime motivating force of the universe, it does not ask its aspirants to renounce it. Instead, tantra performs the unique work of studying this principle of desire.
"In America most people think of tantra as sexual mischief because misguided people came here and spread bad information. Tantra is a holistic approach to the study of the universal from the individual point of view. It studies the whole tree of life to expand awareness in all states of consciousness, and it provides a practical way to realize the highest ideals of philosophy in daily life. Tantra draws them all together like beautiful beads on a single rosary."
One of the beautiful beads on the tantric rosary is a 2000-year-old board game called Gyan Chaupar, or Leela, invented by the Hindu sages as a game of self-knowledge based on the Vedas, Puranas, and Smirtis, texts of the Hindu tradition. Back in the 1970s, Johari resurrected this old game of the savants from an 1840 version and provided commentary linking its 72 key Sanskrit terms with Western psychological concepts. He published his commentaries in the book Leela: The Game of Self-Knowledge.
As a game of self-exploration, Leela uses a 72-space playing board, each space representing a state of being. Movements toward Cosmic Consciousness, the goal, are beset or blessed by arrows and snakes, according to the karmically weighted throw of the dice. There are no winners in Leela, only cosmically enlightened ones, and the game ends when the player "becomes himself, the essence of play." When a player lands on an arrow, it's like passing "Go" in Monopoly; you are propelled forward in your spiritual aspirations. But if your dice dumps you on the head of the biggest snake, representing tamas-guna (the force of inertia), it's more like Monopoly's "Go Directly to Jail!" Snakes symbolize the delusion of materiality, so the player is regressed almost to the starting position.
Detachment is a recommended playing skill in the game of Leela, says Johari. "The creators of this game saw it foremost as a tool for understanding the relationship of the individual self to the Absolute Self. And the purpose of this game we see as nothing less than the liberation of consciousness from the snares of the material world and its merging with the Cosmic Consciousness."
At this point in our conversation we have finished the spinach panir, sonth, and puris, and are moving happily into the saffron yogurt. I know I'm impressed with Johari, this ayurvedacharya, adept of the ayurvedic knowledge of living, but I want to know how he got this way. He answers my question by telling a story:
One day the sage Narada, while walking down a road, saw a beautiful woman standing beside two old men lying unconscious on the ground. "Who are you? Who are these old men? You don't belong to this world - you're too beautiful!" exclaimed Narada. "The older one is Jnana, or knowledge, the other is Vairagya, or renunciation," said the woman. "I am their mother. My name is Bhakti, which means devotion. Kali Yuga, the age of darkness, is approaching, so Jnana and Vairagya have grown old and unconscious. But as you know, everybody loves me, so I never become old." Narada asked Bhakti how he could help her two immobile sons. "Chant the name of the Lord in their ears and they'll wake up," Bhakti replied. Narada did and the sons revived.
"You see, my path is bhakti," says Johari with emphasis. "Without bhakti, knowledge is vacuous, like dry scientific facts. It has no foundation. Why is knowledge the son of bhakti? Because when you have love for humanity, you like to share your knowledge, which is information plus experience. All my books are about subjects that help life. My subject is life, how to live happily, with health and inspiration. I'm the same as you are, a fellow traveller, a house-holder."
Johari has a wife, children, and relatives back in Bareilly, where he spends the winter months perfecting his practice of householding. I ask Johari what he does when he's at home. "In India I mostly sit and enjoy being on vacation, doing nothing," Johari says with a rich laugh. "I cannot write in India. The left hemisphere of thinking does not work there. I work with that side of my brain in the West. In Bareilly I spend time with my mother, wife, three children, neighbors. I do physical work. I paint and make sculptures in the temples, without charging any money."
No doubt Johari was in his winter lounging phase about 25 years ago when an aspirant for psychedelic nirvana with a Ph.D. from Harvard met him at the Sewalti Hotel. Richard Alpert was on the fast track to becoming Ram Dass when he encountered Johari in the mid-1960s. "We had this extraordinarily beautiful Indian sculptor, Harish Johari, who was our guide and friend," reported a still-breathless Ram Dass a few years later in Be Here Now. Ram Dass recounts a wild five days with Johari and several moksha-bound friends, "high on peach melbas and hashish and mescaline" and high-flying discussions of Tibet and kundalini.
A considerable portion of Johari's wide learning came from his parent's extended Bareilly household in his youth. His father and great uncle were both astrologers and students of tantra, and other uncles and grandfathers were on hand for instruction. So although Johari eventually earned master's degrees in Urdu literature and philosophy from Agra University, he attributes his range of ayurvedic knowledge to the traditional family apprenticeship program. "Schools are like hotels. There the food isn't made for you, but for everybody. Going to college is like eating at a hotel restaurant, but apprenticeship is like eating at home. In a house the food is made specifically for you."
As a precocious child, Johari once told his father that he wanted to renounce the world, become a saint, and live in a cave for the rest of his life. Johari underestimated his father's sly wisdom. "That's fantastic," his father said, "but what is the world?" "It's everything around me, all the things outside, like the caves in the mountain," replied Johari. "That's good," continued his father, "but do you think the world is outside you?" First he gave Johari a bite of his favorite sweet, then a gulmar leaf to chew, then another bite of the confection. Johari's second bite registered as sand, and he spit it out. He looked at his father in confusion. "Where is the world, inside or outside of you?" his father queried. "First you love the sweet, then you spit it out like sand. I gave you a gulmar leaf which paralyzes the sweet taste buds. The taste is not in the sweet but in your tongue. The sight is not in the outside world but in your eyes. You never touch anything but your own skin. You never hear anything but your ears. The world is inside you. Even if you go into your mountain cave, you carry your world with you. If you learn about the cave inside yourself, you'll always be safe."
The cave is the corpus callosum, the hollow space between the brain hemispheres, Johari's father explained, pointing to the top of his head. "He said if I learned to go there, I would be in the world but not of the world, because in that cave there are no signals, no neuro-motor connections. So I've always been trying to learn that - to go inside my own cave, yet be in the world with every-one, as brotherly and friendly as anybody could be yet also completely unattached and without problems."
The secret of the brain cave is an ancient yogic science called swara yoga, the subject of Johari's recent text, Breath, Mind, and Consciousness. Swara yoga documents the direct connection between brain hemispheric lateralization, the nostril breathing cycle, and individual and cosmic energy currents, explains Johari. The ancient yogis discovered that about once an hour the breath switches nostrils in the breathing rhythm. When the breath flows fully through the right nostril, the right side of the body and the left brain hemisphere are more energized; when it reverses and flows more openly through the left nostril, the body's left side and right hemisphere are in ascendancy.
Only advanced yogis and young children actually exhibit the 60-minute breath cycle, says Johari. For everyone else, the period ranges from two to three hours, and imbalances can presage eventual illness. Direct, practical knowledge of one's breathing cycle is essential, stresses Johari. "Whether you write, sing, cook, or paint, the breath is always there. Your breath will not be taken care of by any of the other tools of tantra. You must work on breath directly. The nostril breathing patterns serve as indicators of cerebral dominance and may help you anticipate your response to given circumstances. Swara yoga clearly states that certain activities are best performed when a particular nostril is operating. The nostrils should be checked around dawn before getting out of bed. In the event of wrong nostril dominance, one should not leave bed until the correct nostril starts operating. You can change nostrils by forced breathing on your side through the congested nostril."
I don't see the amiable Johari check his nostrils after the tea is finished, but he has obviously concluded that the cerebral dominance is auspicious, because he invites me to view some color slides of his recent visit to India's sadhu Woodstock, the triannual Kumbha Mela. All of India's saints, sages, mendicants, and fakirs come out of their caves for Kumbha Mela every three years and make their way to Allahabad, Hardwar, Nasik, or Ujjain, depending on which site is playing host to the 12-year cycle. ( This geographical sequence is coordinated with the astrological relationship of Jupiter to Pisces and Aquarius.) Kumbha Mela is an ancient Indian festival of the holy ones and is alluded to in the epic Mahabharata, says Johari. The name itself means "assembly of the water pot," and for Johari, the untiring raconteur, this calls for another story:
A long time ago the gods and demons made a concerted effort to churn the ocean to extract its elixir, the water of life. They both desired immortality, which only the water of life could bestow. First they extracted 12 precious objects, then the divine medicine man, Dhanwantari, emerged from the ocean with a pot of amrit, or nectar. Somebody had to distribute the amrit, so Vishnu assumed the form of Mohini, a beautiful woman, and through sleight of hand, she gave the demons varuni, or liquor, while the gods got the amrit. The demons, however, caught on to the deception and grabbed the amrit kumbh, or pot of elixir. During the quarrel, some drops of the elixir fell on the earth. Jayant, the son of Indra, removed the pot from the quarreling gods and demons and ran away with it. He rested at four places in India, where he set down the pitcher, drank a little, and let a few drops of nectar spill to the ground. Where these drops landed became the four sacred sites of Kumbha Mela, but where the earlier drops fell on the earth, from the jostling of the pitcher, became the precious gem mines.
"So the origin of gemstones is from drops of the amrit," says Johari. He pauses in his slide narration to show us what he's wearing around his neck: a diamond, hessonite, and cat's eye. "Some credit for my knowledge of gems goes to my family name Johari, which literally means 'the one who knows about jawharat, or gems.' I remember that when I was a very young boy, my Urdu teacher recited a Persian verse whenever he saw me: 'The value of a diamond is known to a king, or the Jauhari knows it.'
"The Kurma Purana states that gems were created from the seven different kinds of rays of light emanating from the seven major planets of our solar system," continues this Jauhari, who wrote what he knew about precious gems in The Healing Power of Gemstones. The book presents yet another aspect of ayurveda, another tool for tantra: the practical and astrological relationships between the major planets and the gemstones, such as sun/ruby, Mars/coral, Jupiter/yellow sapphire, Venus/diamond. Johari wears a diamond because he is born in May, which is ruled by Venus. He wears hessonite because it's the gemstone of the north node of the moon, whose influence on Johari will last 18 years. And he's sporting cat's eye because it corresponds to his destiny number, seven, which is numerologically derived from the digital total of his birth date.
Gemstone astrology is an astute and detailed science, says Johari. As with other aspects of ayurveda, its mastery can promote health and clarity and the sense of harmonious synchrony with cosmic, planetary, and personal energies. "If people know about gemstones, they can help themselves without relying on synthetic vitamins and supplements. Gemstones have real energy. They are chemicals but in a more purified form. All gems contain the nine essential minerals needed by the body."
I'm intrigued with Johari's statement about cat's eye and his destiny number. Is numerology also a part of ayurveda? "Of course," says Johari, grinning, as he hands me yet another of his books, Numerology with Tantra, Ayurveda, and Astrology. "Numerology uses numbers as a key to human behavior. It's an easy-to-learn method that exercises the mind's intuitive faculty to fathom the depths of human personality." Johari's destiny number, seven, pegs him as a mystic teacher of the abstract, a dreamer, inventive and intuitive. "The destiny number is related to our samskaras - vibrational patterns acquired by actions in past incarnations, or karmas."
Individuals are equally influenced by their psychic and name numbers, Johari adds. The psychic number is obtained by making a simple whole number of the date of the day of birth omitting the month and year, and reveals the way one regards oneself, in terms of choices about food, sex, friendship, marriage, ambition, and desire. The name number is obtained by adding the numerological values assigned to each letter in one's full name. The sphere of influence for the name number includes official documents, business, banks, and forms, and while it has a strong influence on the logistics of living, it doesn't affect the psyche or destiny.
It all comes down to cosmic play again, pirouettes of that incessantly twirling dancer, Leela - whether it's music, elements, chakras, gunas, the breath, food, gemstones, or numbers, says Johari. Within the ayurvedic worldview, numerology is a useful predictive science that helps orient us to the cosmic rhythms. "Numerology provides the knowledge for such things as how to select the right moment, the right relationship, the right dwelling place - thereby saving energy."
But the same could be said of all the tools of tantra, all the branches of the science of right living called ayurveda. Ayurveda, after all, was a gift of the gods, brought to humanity by that divine medicine man, Dhanwantari, says Johari, who devoted his first book to this legendary incarnation of Vishnu. Even today statues of Dhanwantari are found at most ayurvedic centers throughout India as an emblem of the divine healer. For the prolific Johari, the celestial Dhanwantari clearly looms as a mentor.
Johari's Kumbha Mela slides are finished, so we adjourn to the front porch and enjoy the afternoon sunshine in wicker rocking chairs. Does he mind all my questions? I ask. "My habit is always to make people happy and satisfied. The teacher is the servant of the student, just like a father and mother. That's the traditional way of Hindu education. So I never tire of answering questions. I never feel angry when people ask the same questions again. I used to ask my philosophy teacher the same question 300 times: What is God? I didn't believe in God then. He was never impatient and each time he gave me a different answer.
"But one day I got impatient and asked him why he never got angry with me. He said he knew one day I would have to repeatedly answer questions like these, so he was teaching me to not get irritated. A good teacher is never irritated, he said, and should answer the same question as many times as necessary. After all, it's because of your inability to make them understand that they keep asking you again!"
Emboldened, I venture a last question: Does he consider himself an ayurvedic specialist? Johari rocks quietly a few times in his wicker chair, then answers firmly. "No. When you see things as different, it looks like I'm a generalist. But when you see all things as interconnected, then you can see I'm working for only one special goal, which is harmony and balance in life."