Imagine that your name is Paul Riser, and that you’re a classically trained musician from Detroit, Michigan, traveling on a concert tour through America’s Deep South.
The bus pulls into a station and you wander into the waiting room in search of a restroom and a cool drink of water – when suddenly you feel cold steel pressed to your temple and an angry voice growls, “Get outta here – niggah!”
Now imagine that Paul Riser is, in actuality, God in disguise, and that he is far from pleased to be treated in this hateful manner.
Now imagine that God, being present in all time, has prepared a solution to heal hearts capable of such cold outrage.
Many years before the event described above, God has seen to it that a number of special babies would be born within a span of a few years in a single small Detroit neighborhood. All of the babies were born with a special role to play in the healing of race prejudice in America, and they will all have been given the talent and a consuming soul-born desire to sing.
In the annals of pop music their names will become legend: Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, The Four Tops, Aretha Franklin. An outlier, Stevie Wonder, is born in Saginaw, a hundred miles away. (Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five, who also heard the call, were born in Gary, Indiana, 250 miles from Motown.)
Years later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., will say about this small band of singers that they did more to spread a spirit of harmony between the races in America than all the efforts of his own civil rights movement combined.
God has also seen to it that a feisty, good-humored business organizer baby would be born along with the musically blessed infants. Berry Gordy will build a music business based on Dwapara Yuga spiritual principles, not by following precepts from scripture, but by acting on the expansive intuitions of his heart.
He will create a company that will serve the singers as a home where they love to hang out and create together, and a positive, expansive environment that will give them a channel to thrive professionally.
He will groom their songs, their appearance, and their behavior in ways that will make them and their music welcome in the homes of people of all races. He will hire people to help him run the company who will encompass a salt-and-pepper blend of black and white and diverse national and religious origins.
Berry Gordy will be instrumental in creating a spiritual revolution. And yet – is it really possible to imagine that Aretha Franklin belting out “Respect,” or Smokey Robinson crooning “Tracks of My Tears” is, by any definition, remotely “spiritual”?
Certainly not in any churchy sense. But as the world is now sleepily becoming aware, God can – and he always does – advance people’s consciousness spiritually by using the language and methods they can understand. And for America from the 1950s to the early 1970s, that language was rock ’n roll.
Why would we expect him to do differently? To guide a nation immersed in vaishya consciousness, he may speak to his children in the language they know, through music that expresses vaishya themes of longing for romantic love, or to be freed from the pain of love lost or unrequited.
The vaishya music of that short decade did something very special. For the first time, popular music in America began to cross racial boundaries. It was a new music, often not identifiably black or white. And there was a quality embedded in Berry Gordy’s expansive nature that believed human hearts would respond to the same sweet music everywhere.
And they did, not only in America but around the world. Naturally, a lot of the music that came out of the tiny Motown studio was raucous – it was “hooplah” – and no other word will suffice. But a great deal of it was also sweet and heartfelt. It may not have been “spiritual” in any literal or elevated sense, but it had the power to blur racial boundaries in people’s hearts.
This was perhaps most clearly demonstrated when the Motown singers began touring in the American South.
They were scheduled to give a concert at a large hall that had the usual racially divided “Old South” arrangement, with separate bathrooms and drinking fountains for blacks and whites, and a thick white rope down the center aisle to prevent the black and white teenagers from mingling.
When Smokey Robinson saw the rope, he told the theater owner that they would refuse to perform unless it was taken down.
Of course, it would mean a significant loss of income for the owner, and he relented. Video of that night’s concert shows black and white teenagers dancing together in the aisles, possibly for the first time ever in the Deep South.
Should we, as aspiring devotees, go to the Motown music in search of spiritual inspiration? Well, no; I doubt anyone committed to a search for God will find anything to help him there.
There’s a wonderful documentary, Hitsville: The Making of Motown. After watching it recently, I found the songs singing themselves in my head – “Tracks Of My Tears,” “My Girl,” “Tears of a Clown,” and more – to a point where I felt that my heart was sloshing in a narrowing sentimentality. After praying to Master and chanting for an hour, the songs went away. I respect their place in history – I was a teenager when those songs were popular, and I remember their sweet resonance at the time, but their consciousness no longer has a place in my life.
And yet … what happened at Motown Records does raise questions about the nature of artistic creativity, and the role that it can play in effecting spiritual change – for nations, creators, and those who aspire.
Paramhansa Yogananda and his young disciple Swami Kriyananda were talking informally, when Swamiji made some comment about the arts.
The master’s reply surprised him. “Oh, the arts are vaishya stuff,” he said dismissively. (I’m paraphrasing – I heard Swamiji tell the story in talk he gave more than thirty years ago.)
The Gita describes the vaishya consciousness as “scheming for petty advantage.” Swamiji said that we must all spend many lives as Vaishyas – wheeler-dealers forever trying to make this world give us whatever we believe will bring us permanent happiness. In the process, we gain strengths that we will need when our consciousness becomes more expansive, when we begin to taste the joy that comes by extending our sense of self to include others.
Yet he also said that every one of his four-hundred-plus musical compositions was inspired by a higher consciousness. Those of us who’ve sung the music with open hearts and deep attention can attest to the divine sweetness that each note contains.
In fact, spiritual movements always employ music as the most potent medium to carry their message directly to human hearts. In 1000 AD, it was the Gregorian chants of the monks in abbeys that gave people fresh hope and inspiration, as their world began to emerge from the terrors of the Dark Ages.
In India, it has always been saints like Chaitanya and Sri Ram Prasad who rekindled people’s fervor for God through their songs.
So it would seem that vaishya methods can be used to create art that can inspire and that can change our consciousness.
In future articles, let’s look at what Yogananda said about vaishya dharma, and what the master and Swamiji can tell us about using our creative talents to uplift others and harmonize ourselves with God.
Dwapara Yuga, the age of energy-awareness now dawning, will be characterized by vaishya consciousness. It will be an age of argument and negotiation, and it will last another two thousand years. Paramhansa Yogananda said that Dwapara is the most insecure age, because powerful weapons will be available to everyone. Swami Kriyananda spoke of a time in Dwapara when cities will have to be built underground to protect the citizens from those weapons.
Will dwapara consciousness also give us fresh opportunities to uplift and inspire? Perhaps this is a good time to lift the hem of the future and see what lies ahead, in order to understand how we can use the arts to offer the world hope and inspiration.