(a late) Happy Holi!

(Image by flickr user rudresh_calls, used under a Creative Commons license.)

It is decidedly spring-like here in the South U.S., and so is a fitting day to celebrate Holi! Sadly, I will not personally be celebrating until the weekend, but however you choose to celebrate, I wish you a Holi full of joy, color, and Sri Krishna’s blessings.

Jai Shri Radha Krishna!

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A happy peace

Surprisingly, mostly to me, I seem to have found a happy peace with my path, which is probably the reason that posts here have been sporadic. I’m really okay with that.

I visited a local saree shop, run by a woman who has built it from scratch, against social and familial pressures, into a very respectable, fine place to purchase high-end fashions. She caters to the discerning bridal crowd. Occasionally I go in to buy shoes, since her selection of juti and chappals is better than pretty much anybody else in the city, and she’s a lovely person at that. We’ve been slowly building a friendship. She remembers when I last came in, and doesn’t care too much that I can’t afford most of what she sells. This past weekend, I finally screwed up enough courage to ask her which temple she goes to, as a sort of sideways attempt to see if I could go with her sometime. This opened the floodgates, and she invited me to go with her to the Sai Baba temple “any time,” told me about the supper Sunday program that the local ISKCON temple puts on weekly, and invited me to Holi at the Sai Baba temple. I may just take her up on her invitations (sadly, though, not this weekend, since I’ve got much to do and cannot afford the extra time). At any rate, I look forward to nurturing a friendship with her, since she’s a lovely individual. I’m getting more comfortable talking about Hinduism with other Hindus.

I’ve found a comfortable place with my personal practice, as well. I have no idea (nor do I care particularly much) if my daily devotions are strictly “right.” I don’t burn ghee lamps, because my cats think they’re the tastiest thing on the planet. I was appalled the first time I found little lick marks on the unburned portion of the wick after a morning’s puja, but only briefly, because I imagine that God has a sense of humor, and the cats are as much of that great beautiful oneness as the rest of us, so perhaps the blessing of that little bit of ghee did them good.

I’ve also been able to understand one of the things that previously baffled me the most about Hindu belief. I had made a post earlier (way at the beginning of my blogging) in which I did not understand what a person was supposed to do about human suffering, while still respecting each person’s individual path and karma. Were we supposed to just let them be, so they could learn the lessons they were born into this lifetime to learn? How could a good person let someone suffer? How could this path I’d chosen let people suffer in the name of karma.

Clearly at the time I did not understand karma. That’s okay. Nobody is expected to know everything all at once. That’s the beauty of learning.

Much of this confusion came from a fairly typical source – pop culture. I had watched the film Delhi 6 (a fantastic film, by the way) and the main character’s grandmother had responded to suffering of others by saying that it was their fate to suffer, and that she couldn’t do anything about it. At the time I took that to be the entirety of Hindu belief. And that bothered me, because it didn’t match up with the other things I knew about Sanatana Dharma as a path. How can you let someone suffer if your belief system tells you that God exists within them, the same as you? If you see God in that other person, how can you stand by and not help them, if you can?

Some time after that I learned about the different forms of yoga, and particularly seva yoga. I learned that a form of seva is service to your fellow human beings, because in serving others you are serving God. Suddenly the dilemma was solved. Sure, there are people out there who live lives that are not as privileged as mine, or as easy as mine. But there are many different kinds of suffering, and many ways of learning and growing. The choices I make are what affects my own karma. So presumably, if I am here in this lifetime to learn about the Self, recognizing and honoring the Self in others is a logical extension of that. And if someone sees true kindness, perhaps they will be able to share that with another person.

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Born Hindu?

I will preface this by saying that I realize this is a hot topic. So keep the conversation civil, folks.

Anyway. As somebody who was not raised in a Hindu family, I’ve encountered the “you have to be born Hindu to be a real Hindu” thing fairly regularly. And I’m going to be kind of a devil’s advocate and say, well, I guess I can see how that might be the case.

Hear me out for a minute.

I’m not suggesting in any way that I agree with the sentiment that nobody who wasn’t born into a Hindu family can’t be a faithful, devout practitioner of any of the traditions that go along with Sanatana Dharma. But I am saying that the traditions are just that, traditions. And it’s kind of hard to catch up to some of them.

So here’s my best Western example – Catholicism. The Catholic church has a set of rituals that are important to the spiritual progress of any individual in that faith. They’re called sacraments, and there are seven of them. You have Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick (formerly known as Last Rites or Extreme Unction). Each of these represents a distinct point in a person’s spiritual path. In the case of a person born into a Catholic family, you start these while the person is still an infant with Baptism, and then so on at various life stages. Holy Orders are generally not applicable to everyone, since not everyone is called (or is able) to be a priest. However, in Catholicism, these rites are open to anybody who converts, provided that they go through a process of training and education, known as the R.I.C.A. program. And then you go through the rites, starting with baptism and so on. Obviously not everybody gets married, either, but you get the idea.

I was raised in a similar tradition. You did your thing in the church, following the path laid out, and there was a lot of teaching and education along the way. There was an adult Sunday school class for those grownup types who didn’t understand. I think it was also made easier for most folks because like it or not, the U.S. is a predominately Christian country, so the traditions are fairly commonplace. You get Christian holidays as vacations. 75% of the population understands the basic tenets of the religion, even if practices vary from denomination to denomination. And the conversion process is designed specifically to help you along and give you all the tools you need to be an active, knowledgeable member of the church.

I think that Hinduism (as an imprecise term for numerous practices centered around sanatana dharma) is very much the same, except that if miss certain age-related rituals, or samskara, you have just missed them. Like the naming ceremony, or the first bite of food. I’m married already, so the marriage rituals aren’t something I can “go back” and do. To a lot of Hindus (or so it seems to me), these rituals are prerequisites to later life rituals, especially funerary rites. So yes, in a sense, it is very important to be born Hindu to live a strictly Hindu life, from start to finish. And because much of the practice of Hinduism is related to things your family has passed down, or your community has passed down, an outsider won’t have that background to pull from. Because Hinduism doesn’t really stress conversion (in fact, the core philosophy of sanatana dharma renders the need for conversion useless), there’s no equivalent training path for the devotee who finds it later in life.

So as a recent devotee, a lot of the time I feel like I’m playing catch-up, and that maybe I always will. I am really excited when I find videos or explanations of rituals or beliefs or festivals, because it makes it a little easier for me to understand the whole thing.

The word “community” is important here, though, because that’s really what you’re getting when you understand a set of rituals and practices. You’re getting shared experiences with a community of people. Sanatana dharma can be practiced by you, in whichever way makes the most sense. But Hinduism (and the Hindu community) is a particular thing.

The long and short of this, is that it’s completely possible to be a follower of sanatana dharma without having been born a follower of sanatana dharma, but being born a Hindu certainly makes things easier.

NOTE: I’m not complaining about this situation at all. This post actually comes from some recent “aha” sort of detached thinking about the situation, and the realization that if I know where to look, I can find many resources and explanations on sanatana dharma, if not the specific practices that go with a particular tradition, say, the Bengali Shakti traditions vs. Gujarati Vaishnava traditions vs. Tamil Shaiva traditions. It was more of an “oh, I guess I understand that a little” than “crap, this sucks.” Some online friends of mine have had great success once they’ve figured out which tradition fits them best; Adiyen Yathavan Ramanuja Dasan recently was initiated into the Sri Vaishnava tradition, and as I understand it has received a lot of education and guidance as a result. So it is totally possible.

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Jai Hanuman ji ki!

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Shame

Firstly, sorry for the extended hiatus. My job has become extremely demanding, time-wise, which leaves little room for other things, like blogging. I’ve chosen to devote my spare time to things outside the internet, such as errands, house cleaning, a little Zelda and some extra focus on my home spiritual practice, in lieu of dumping my thoughts here. Thanks to all for your patience.

Anyway, back to the main point of this post. As of the past three months, I’ve been going through an intense period of self-reflection, attempting to identify and deal with those things that are keeping me from realizing my inner, true Self. I won’t go into how that’s happening, but it is something I’m working on, and about three weeks ago I had a realization about that and its relationship to my own spiritual life and the decisions I’ve made in that area.

Now, for some perspective, I’d been obsessing about the decision ever since I made it. I have never felt particularly culturally connected. Heavy emphasis was put on individuality in my early life, and then as I grew up, which meant that an individual person who did things counter to her peers or popular culture was more valued in my house than someone who followed trends or liked what her friends liked, etc. That is not to say that being your own person and forging a new, unique path isn’t a good thing. It is mostly to say, though, that because I wasn’t ever comfortable to do that, I never learned how, and as a consequence have felt cut off from “normal” people my whole life. Except where church was involved. Church was a thing I did with other people, the same as other people, and did the same way my family had done for generations. That was the one “normal” thing I could hold on to.

Imagine, then, the sense of total groundlessness I felt when I finally realized that the religion behind that community no longer held a meaning for me, and that I was now fairly well cut off from anything I identified as “normal.”

So that went on for some months, and then maybe two weeks ago I had a very welcome realization: cutting myself off from that also meant that I was cutting myself off from that immense, inherent sense of shame and guilt that came with the whole thing. I had been brought up in a tradition that taught that no matter how many good things I did, or people I helped, or lives I changed, or bad things I avoided, I was still inherently damaged. I was born damaged. I was inherently sinful, because of the actions of people who may or may not have existed thousands of years before I was born. So my whole life was an attempt to correct the “wrongness” that I came into the world with. And I had one small lifetime to work it all out.

Oof. That’s a heavy burden to put on a child, or an adult, or anybody, for that matter.

So imagine, then the freedom that I felt when I realized that there was another way to think about things. That each person is actually inherently perfect, except that we’re here in imperfect bodies, trying to remember our own perfection and beauty. That there is no “wrongness” in anybody, only experience and growth and learning. That we each have an unlimited amount of time to make that journey. That there are as many lifetimes for us as it takes to work that out, to realize our Selves, and understand that we’re already one with God. Man, what a relief!

I’m not totally over that shame/guilt complex. Far from it. But it helps to shed a little of the burden that was creating it.

[Note: I acknowledge that not all Christian traditions believe this, but this was my experience, and this is my blog, so this is what I’m sharing. I also acknowledge that many Hindu people feel guilt and shame in their lives, for whatever reason. I get that we’re not all perfect, but this is where I’m coming from.]

Post-holiday wrapup: The American holiday season went as it went. Nobody in my family really does anything religious on the holiday, so it was nice for what it has become (and what the spirit should be) – a time to spend time with my loved ones, letting them know how much I love and appreciate them. Over Thanksgiving, while visiting the in-laws in the Baltimore area, I stopped into a little jewelry store that I know sells lovely stone malas. I haven’t bought one, but I still like to look at them. This time, there was a small bowl of silver rings on the counter, stamped with impressions of Lakshmi, Ganesha, and Hanuman. Being the Ram bhakti that I am, I totally fell in love with the Hanuman ring, and when I bought it the lady behind the counter (a white lady) asked if I was a Hare Krishna. I get this question a lot, usually at a temple, but often when out doing something more conspicuously Hindu. I replied that I was not, but merely a devotee (I didn’t say of whom). She shared that her husband had built the local ISKCON temple in the 1980s but had left due to disillusionment with the movement, and that they still honored Krishna at home in their own way. She sent me off with a “all glories and honor to Hanuman,” and though I was a little too flustered to respond, the interaction totally made my day.

I think I may be more okay than I realized.

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Applies to me, too, I guess.

Several months back, a fellow blogger, Aamba, whose blog I looked forward to announced that she was going to retire her blog from regular posting, as she had accomplished all she had intended to accomplish with it.

At the time, I was a little disappointed, because, well, I selfishly felt that something would be missing from my day/week/routine. At the same time, my ego got the best of me, and declared, quite proudly, that I was never going to slack in my three-posts-a-week blogging schedule (I declared this to the cats, who as we all know are excellent at keeping people to task).

And here we are. When did I last post? Two weeks ago? Diwali? Yeah… It appears as though the ignored wisdom of my fellow blogger has finally shown itself to me, as I focus more and more on internalizing the things I have learned so far and less on trying to articulate them to the outside world.

Know that even if my posts are infrequent, they will keep coming because one of the things that has kept me going through all the fits and starts of this new path is knowing that a bunch of really great people are out there.

In the meantime, before I find that next blog inspiration, here’s what inspires me at the moment:

I keep finding this guy and then losing his YouTube channel, and then finding it again. So lovely. (Sorry if I’ve posted it before, but I keep wanting to share it with people.)

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Three things

1. a happy belated Diwali to everybody! I hope yours was lovely; mine started out frustrating but ended up awesome, complete with dosai, kids with sparklers, a pandit chanting Ramanama, and a grumpy older gent scolding people for shooting off bottle rockets. It culminated in filling the house with the smell of burning ghee and the light of about a dozen diyas. I also managed to drape a sari pretty darn well for a white lady (I’ve been practicing). Didn’t work up the courage to take a blessing from the priest with everyone else, but I’m going back to the same temple on Sunday, so there you go.

2. Happy New Year/Annakut! Today marks roughly one year of me publicly acknowledging that I am a follower of sanatana dharma, and while it’s had its ups and downs, I’m pretty proud of myself for making it this far. (Let’s not talk about the pseudo-temper-tantrum I threw last night when my initial plans fell through; it wasn’t pretty, and I’ve still got a long way to go with this whole maya thing.)

3. Today, as is fitting for a new year, new beginnings, etc, I did something big and very new for me. I went to temple by myself.

No, really. I did.

I was supposed to meet a friend at the BAPS mandir, and then he said meet his friend (or his wife), neither of whom showed up. Much to my surprise (and mostly because I was out of the car already), I decided to go ahead and go on in, and took darshan of the lovely arrangements of sweets and foods. I did some meditation, I thanked Rama and Shiva both (and all the gurus and Krishna – this was a big step for me) for giving me the courage to overcome my insecurities and go ahead with it, and felt pretty good about things. And then I wandered outside, seeing a small group of people around a set of styrofoam containers. I stopped a woman and asked her what was going on and then suddenly my arms were full of sabzi and sweets. I have a big tray of rasmalai in the fridge. While she went and fetched dish after dish, I chatted with her mother in my broken Hindi, and between that and her broken English, we had a lovely conversation. I left them with a “Jai Swaminarayan!” and went back to work. Their names were Nitu and Jaya. I had a short conversation with Jaya about Jaya Bachchan. I’m feeling very proud of this.

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYBODY (so far, it’s had a pretty darned auspicious beginning)!

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WINNING

[Note: This should have been posted before the Diwali post, but somehow it got lost in the ether. Here you go! New post! Entirely not timely! Fun to read anyway!]

Sorry for that unsolicited Charlie Sheen reference. I admit that I never actually saw the interview, but find a perverse joy in saying that loudly, ironically, and pointing at myself while doing so. I’m a little strange.

Anyway, the sentiment is totally appropriate, because this week I did two new things! And I’m very proud of them!

Thing 1:

Made boondi laddu. Okay, tried to make boondi laddu. I found a recipe for it that included things I had at home already (yes, I keep gram flour on hand, for when I’m craving something fried and crispy but want good protein at the same time). I used mango bits instead of raisins, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem.

I mixed up the batter, set some ghee to bubbling in a pan, and fried up the boondis. They were a little odd-shaped, since I don’t actually have a boondi-maker. I used a slotted spoon instead. Except for the small mounds of batter that inevitably formed in the center of the pan, the boondi fried up nice and lovely, and I ended up with a big mound of the golden crunchy stuff:

Then came the I-am-impatient-with-boiling-liquids time, in which I attempted to make a single thread sugar syrup but didn’t. This meant that while it tasted lovely, the sugar syrup didn’t hold the laddu together. I also roasted the ground cardamom. Oops. In the end, I have several plastic-wrapped “laddus”, which are really more like bizarre non-marshmallow rice krispy treats. They taste like laddus! They just don’t feel like laddus.

Oh, well.

Thing 2:

Because I am a little stubborn, I took the laddus to a friend, who just happens to be the sort of person who knows what a laddu tastes like (and looks like and holds together like). He didn’t seem to mind. He even gave me some advice! And then invited me to no less than three outings to temple festivities this week for Diwali, so I’m feeling proud of myself and really really excited.

I’ll be happy if only one of those things happens! It’s more than I do on my own, so yay.

The biggest part is that this friend was still in my “acquaintance” folder in my brain, and therefore somebody I was very nervous about interacting with by myself, without the introducing friend present. Problem is, I had all those laddus I made to give to him, but introducing friend is in grad school, and not available for a lunch trip. Not to be discouraged, I silenced my inner worrywart and went by myself. In the end, it was a lovely visit and I came out of the deal a samosa and two stuffed grape leaves richer (or fuller, whichever).

As for Diwali celebrations, I did buy some little lamps and a rangoli kit (I know, I know, but I’m so not good at this yet and it came with several color options), and so the house will be festive, at the very least. Lakshmi and Ganesha have been given a little place of honor, and a friend came over and helped me string lights up on the outside of the house. I’ll try to post photos once I’m done with the rangoli and then when all the lamps are lit.

I think I may be more excited about it this year than last year, no matter what I end up doing. Yay!

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Detachment and diet

As a Westerner, detachment has been something very difficult to grasp. In fact, a lot of Hindu philosophy has been difficult. I took one day of a Hindu philosophy class in college, before realizing that it was way over my head and then dropping it to take a medieval English literature class (all middle English and Chaucer and whatnot). Now that I’ve been following sanatana dharma, it makes a lot more sense, and I sort of wish I could go back in time and take it again, because I think I’d actually understand it pretty well.

The point of that rambling monologue is that I keep growing and learning and realizing new things.

Take vegetarianism, for example. I’ve never been particularly good at abstaining from things I like. I spend more time watching TV than is good for me. I over-listen to music until I can’t stand to hear it any more. I eat a certain food exclusively until it becomes unappetizing. So while I’m good at working things through my system, the giving up isn’t as easy.

Inititally, I assumed that the purpose of vegetarianism was ahimsa, or noninjury (for those reading who aren’t as familiar with terminology). And it’s really still mostly about that, as far as I can tell. You don’t eat animals because a Hindu (to use a blanket term) does his/her best not to harm living things. You do this by refraining from using unkind words, by making choices that benefit others rather than harm them through neglect or direct action, and at least on special holy days you try not to eat meat.

But you know what? As with many of the new things I’m learning, I realize that there’s much more to it. For me, the gradual path towards vegetarianism is a lesson in detachment. I read somewhere that detachment isn’t separation from the world/maya/the physical, but rather not needing it to be a whole person. You experience but are not affected by the physical, because understand that that “need” is an illusion. So here’s how diet has helped me realize this: I used to eat beef and pork and lamb and goat and all other sorts of mammals. I didn’t eat them a whole lot, but I ate them with great relish, even going as far as to tell myself that I “needed” them to be healthy. About eight months ago, right about the time I started this blog, I cut all those out of my diet. I still eat poultry and fish occasionally (small steps), but don’t eat red meat or pork. At first, I was worried that I’d crave it, and I did eat it a few times.

Now, though? Well, I know it exists. I smell it cooking, I see other people eat it, and my husband still cooks it at home. Occasionally I’m at a place where it’s all that is served. However, I’ve gotten to the point where I know that my life will not be any better or worse for not eating it, and that I can go happily on my way without it in my life.

I think that’s the way I will probably approach my struggle with detachment from now on. Obviously not everything fits this model (for example, family), but my goal is the same – live my life now, making choices as they come, and knowing that I am secure no matter what happens. You deal with things as they come, process them, and don’t pine for them when they’re gone. Like that steak that I once thought I needed, it’s not something that I can’t live without, even if sometimes I think it is.

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Another great blog

It’s not a secret at this point that I’m seriously into tumblr. If i was a rock, I’d be all smooth and shiny by now!

Not a great joke, I know, but you get the idea.

Anyway, the tumblr is this:

Being Hindu

It’s maintained by another Western Hindu, who started following Sanatana Dharma ~3 years ago (from what I can tell). It’s full of great links and easy resources for the curious.

For me, it’s a great thing to follow and offers much to meditate on as Dusshera passes and Diwali draws closer.

I have also reached a sort of equilibrium, I think, where I’m comfortable moving along the path at the speed I’m going, enjoying the scenery, finding my way. I know that this is where I need to be. The particulars will sort themselves out as necessary, when the time is right. There’s no requirement for me to do anything immediately, and if I’m truthful with myself, I know that pushing myself into things isn’t the answer. Like doing things with other people, for example. I know that every time I’ve tried that, I’ve worked myself into an anxious mess, and don’t remember anything else except for being stressed. Seems kind of counterproductive, if you ask me. Many things have become comfortable, so I will wait until even the scary things get to that point (because they will) and know that when the time is right, I can interact and come away from the experience enriched by it instead of stressed out.

I am going to my first Diwali mela next weekend, though. I am very excited about that!

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