A Conversation with Thomas Ashley-Farrand (Namadeva)
by Don Campbell
Thomas Ashley-Farrand is one of the Western world's foremost authorities on Sanskrit Mantra and its application to life's problems.
In 1968, Ashley-Farrand began having experiences of a mystical nature, which over the next few years became more intense and profound. He began to read the spiritual literature of the East, where he found eloquent explanations of his specific experiences in the Upanishads.
In 1972, he received Kriya initiation from the Self Realization Fellowship.
Mr. Ashley-Farrand began practicing extensive mantra-based spiritual disciplines in 1973. From 1973-1984, he was the priest for the Temple of Cosmic Religion (Sanatana Vishwa Dharma) in Washington, D.C., first as priest-in-residence where he performed ancient Sanskrit ceremonies (pujas) twice daily, and later as traveling priest based in Southern California. In 1974, he received initiation from Sadguru Sant Keshavadas into the universal mantra for spiritual illumination, the Gayatri Mantra, and other mystical formulas. He also studied with Christian mystic Dr. Leon Wright of Howard University. In 1975, he received Tibetan spiritual empowerments from the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa.
In 1978, Mr. Ashley-Farrand journeyed to India where he met a wide variety of spiritual teachers both famous and unknown. There, he astonished swamis, pundits, shastris and others with his intonation and pronunciation of complex Sanskrit mantras, slokas and spiritual formulas. From one end of India to another, he was asked to demonstrate his mastery of this complex spiritual liturgy for assembled Indian spiritual teachers. Repeatedly, they told him that he had been a swami and spiritual teacher for several lives in India. A highlight of his trip came as he was blessed by two of the most prominent spiritual personages in all of India, each having spiritual authority over more than 150 million people: H. H. Pejor Math Swami, and Sri Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati Maha Swamigal. He also received empowerments from Kalu Rimpoche, the Dalai Lama and Sakya Jetsun Chiney Luding (Jetsun Ma), a woman guru from Tibet.
Since 1989, Mr. Ashley-Farrand has been a frequent lecturer for such organizations as the Theosophical Society of Long Beach, California, and Astara, where he has assisted in annual Fire Initiation Ceremonies since 1991. Mr. Ashley-Farrand has led retreats at Esalen, Far Horizons in the Sierras and other locations.
In the fall of 1998, Mr. Ashley-Farrand taught an 18-week course at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California, entitled "Sound and the Ancient Sanskrit Healing Rituals." The course was offered for credit leading to a certificate in Wellness. This first successful offering of the course lead to its selection as an honors course in the Philosophy and Religion Department.
Prior to his current full time spiritual work, Ashley-Farrand was a management and marketing consultant based in Southern California with clients in the health care and computer technology industries. His marketing and management experience includes large scale efforts for the United States Army and a national foundation. He was lead author for Medical and Health Care Marketing For The 1990s.
With experience in the broadcasting industry, he has been producer-director for a Washington, D.C., television station, taught broadcasting and communications courses as a full-time faculty member of George Washington University, and was vice president for a privately held television company in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Ashley-Farrand earned a BA from Ripon College and an MA from Marquette University. He is married to Margalo Ashley-Farrand, an attorney with law offices in Pasadena, California.
The following interview was conducted at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, where Mr. Ashley-Farrand was teaching a three-day workshop entitled “The Adventures of Rama and Sita: The Mantras of the Ramayana” from May 13th to15th .
Don Campbell: How did humankind come to be blessed with mantra?
Thomas Ashley-Farrand: According to both The Shiva Sutras and The Lakshmi Tantra, when the universe was first constructed, it was constructed of the 50 vibrations that we know today as the Sanskrit alphabet. And when humans were brought into being, we were created as a “step-down transformer” to receive the highest vibrations for the evolutions of the Earth. So, we were constructed to receive all the highest vibrations and that’s why you find in the Hindu scriptures that even the gods (small “g”) want to be born here. Because the evolutionary potential we have for containing all this is unlimited. We can go right to the top, to the highest.
While some of the celestial spheres are glorious and the beings there live hundreds of thousands of years, some are not immortal and their evolution is fixed. Ours is not. So, they take embodiment here so they can evolve very quickly, and even pass some of their previous positions. It’s a big story, but we were given the opportunity to become all that for which we were the vehicle, essentially.
The early sages and others—who were not from here—realized that certain vibrations could affect the evolution of the organism at the subtle level. To be in a body, to be here, you have to have an ego. The Self, we know, is immortal—there’s never a time it wasn’t, never a time it will not be: it’s divine and immortal, but the ego mind/personality is not—it comes and goes, comes and goes.
The early sages realized that, with these spiritual formulas, the ego itself could begin its evolutionary journey and that with which we identify could also become immortal, if it chose to do the work. Hence, mantra and Sanskrit formulas.
According to the Purusha-Suktam (Hymn to Purusha) in the Rig-Veda, there was a fire ceremony done shortly after the dawn of time by the great sages who were created. And out of it emerged the Vedas and the Gayatri Mantra. It says, “And they tied Him to the altar, that One who was before the creation. They tied Him there with the cord of mantra for the realization of themselves and future generations.” They invoked Him and tied Him there.
TAF: They don’t call Him Narayana in the Purusha-Suktam, they just say “Him” and “He who was before.” In the Narayana-Suktam (Hymn to Narayana) he identifies himself as Narayana.
[Note: The four Vedas are the world’s oldest written scriptures. They are the Rig-Veda, the Atharva-Veda, the Yajur-Veda and the Sama-Veda. They are largely collections of hymns (sukta) to God/Goddess in His/Her various aspects. They are regarded as having been directly transmitted to humankind by God/Goddess, and therefore as infallible Truth (shruti). The Puranas are collections of stories, myths, and history. They mainly deal with five topics: the original creation of the world; the recreation of the world after its destruction; the great world ages; the genealogy of deities and sages; and dynastic history. They are regarded as authoritative traditional knowledge, or secondary scriptures (smriti), but not as revealed literature.]
DC: During the workshop, you spoke of mantras being divided into Vedic and Puranic mantras. Could you briefly discuss those two categories and how the mantras from one differ from mantras from the other?
TAF: I’m much more qualified to discuss Puranic mantras than Vedic mantras. Most of the priests will use Vedic mantras in their ceremonies. The Purusha-Suktam, for example, is from the Vedas. The Narayana-Suktam is from the Vedas. Some of the Puranas, which came a bit later, have mantras associated with the stories. For instance, “Om Rama Ramaya Swaha” is not a Vedic mantra, it’s a Puranic mantra. “Shri Rama Jai Rama Jai Jai Rama” emerged from the story of Rama; it doesn’t appear in the Vedas. Nonetheless, it will bring realization.
DC: Do the Vedic and Puranic mantras differ energetically?
TAF: Only slightly. You know, many of the great spiritual disciplines come from the Skanda-Purana, which is a huge, multi-volume Purana. For example, something called the Sattya Narayana Puja that is specifically designed to eliminate certain kinds of karma—which is done, by the way in every temple in India, whether it’s a Shakti temple, a Shiva temple, a Vishnu temple, whatever it is—came from the Skanda Purana. It’s extremely powerful. In some quarters, it’s called “a dispensation for the Kali Yuga.”
DC: A lot of westerners who were introduced to the eastern spiritual path are familiar with mantra as a tool for spiritual growth. However, I think fewer are aware that they can be used for practical purposes—to address goals and challenges associated with living on this earthly plane—as you said during the workshop.
TAF: I’m a very practical guy, at my core. You know, ultimately, any spiritual path is an exercise in enlightened self-interest, because we’re all trying to extricate ourselves from what I call our “karmic predicaments.” So, in that sense, any spiritual path is the ultimate in practicality, because it’s going to show the way out of here. As part of that, then, why shouldn’t we deal with specific life problems, issues and circumstances? There’s no reason not to.
DC: Is there something about this age we live in—the Kali Yuga—that makes mantra an especially good tool to use in seeking our spiritual advancement?
TAF: Yes. It’s because of the density of Kali Yuga. Things—our bodies, the Earth, the Universe—are much denser than they were even 5,000 years ago. And that density becomes the medium for our advancement. The example that is often given is that if you try to row a boat in air you don’t get anywhere very quickly, but if you lower the boat and the oars into water, the density of the water itself becomes the medium of advancement. And mantras are like oars in the water: the denser the conditions are, the more they work to help us transform.
Some scriptures even say that, though it’s difficult, being born in Kali Yuga—what is sometimes called spiritual winter—is a blessing because spiritual progress can come so quickly. We can accomplish in a few years what it might take in another time—in spiritual spring or summer—hundreds of years to accomplish.
DC: It’s ironic, isn’t it? The density that can be our worst spiritual obstacle can also be the vehicle for our liberation.
TAF: That’s right, it’s completely ironic. It also provides the medium for very rapid advancement. That’s why one of the sayings is, “Namaiva namaiva kevalam,” which means, “The name alone, the name alone, can move you forward.”
DC: What advice would you give someone who is attracted to beginning a mantra practice for the very first time?
TAF: Do a 40-day discipline and don’t miss a day—keep going. In any spiritual pursuit, discipline is of foremost importance. In any religion or any practice, it’s the way we demonstrate our sincerity—by discipline, by doing a regular practice, whatever it is. Whether it’s mantra, or prayer, or deep study, you do it every day, you do it regularly. Whatever you pick, whether it’s mantra or something else, be disciplined.
DC: And should they pick just one mantra for the initial 40-day discipline?
TAF: I think so, because, if you’re just starting out, it’s an experiment. You’re going to say, “Well, what am I going to do with this.” If you do one mantra for 40 days, it’s the cleanest experiment. If you have more than one, you don’t know what brought the results. “Well, did this do it or did that do it?” If you do one mantra, anything that happens is largely a result of that mantra.
DC: How would you advise a beginner to select a mantra?
TAF: If you read books on mantra—there aren’t that many out there—as you’re reading about mantra, certain ones will just leap out at you. So, it’s really your own karmic intuitive nature beginning to self-select. And you can trust that.
Mr. Ashley-Farrand is the author of several books and audiotape programs including Healing Mantras (Ballantine Wellspring, 1998), Mantra: Sacred Words of Power (Sounds True, 1999), Mantra Therapy Healing Intensives (Saraswati Publications), The Ancient Science of Sanskrit Mantra and Ceremony (in three volumes) and other works. This last book for advanced students contains over 4,000 mantras and is the most comprehensive book on transliterated Sanskrit mantra in the English language. All of his books and audio programs are available through his website, www.sanskritmantra.com.
First published in the July/August 2005 issue of Sacred Pathways magazine.
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