Happy Independence Day!

(Photo by flickr user cajie)

EDIT: It is not that I am a day late, in fact, I am quite on time! However, I am, as it would seem, rather horrible at reading calendars. So Happy Independence Day, India! Main tumse pyaar karti hoon, mera jaan!

I am absolutely aware that I’m a day late, but I’m always a day late in wishing people “Happy Birthday,” so at least I’m consistent, right? Anyhow, what’s important is that the sentiment has been expressed, and so happy Independence Day, India! That name may be new to your history, but the people who make up your lovely, lovely land are part of a long and (mostly) wonderful history (nobody’s history is completely wonderful, but that’s what makes us interesting, right?), and I hope that you can continue that for many years to come.

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Sorry for the lack of regular posting, but I’m in another of my deep contemplation periods, so there’s not really much to talk about on my end. I’ve been reading and thinking and meditating and trying to figure out where to go next, and at the same time trying not to worry about where to go next, because I’ll go where I’m supposed to go, and I can’t force progress or a journey or a path.

Anyway, on a similar note, today is Guru Purnima Day (so if you’ve got a guru, I wish you the happiest and most peaceful of celebrations). I don’t have a guru yet. A friend told me a while back when I was worried about not having a guru that a guru is a lot like a romantic soulmate – you can’t make that bond happen, but you can be open to it, and you’ll know when the time and guru are right for you. I imagine that advice would frustrate some people, but I felt that it gave me the permission to take a deep breath and stop worrying.

In the meantime, I can devote my time to God, and to finding and absorbing wisdom from many gurus. And honoring all gurus for what they contribute to the journeys of spiritual seekers everywhere.

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Ram Navami

I am terrible at making posts on time these days. On the other hand, I’m getting better at remembering japa and other useful spiritual practices, so I guess it’s a fair tradeoff, no?

Anyway, I started this post a while ago, a couple of days after Ram Navami, which is a special holiday for me. I am excited about any holiday that celebrates Sri Rama and/or Sita Maa.

I had several options available to me for temple celebrations. Last year I chickened out and spent the holiday at home, celebrating in my own small (and actually kind of lovely) way – a quiet puja, some readings from the Ramayana, and a special dinner. That was really nice, but this year I thought it was good to see how people celebrate together, and be festive with other Hindus. The Atlanta Hindu temple had an all-day festival planned, as did the Hare Krishna temple, the Swaminarayan temple, and a couple of others.

I chose the Hare Krishnas. This is mostly because I am still very confused by temple goings-on, even though I’m starting to get the hang of it. I am conscious of the fact that I’m still sort of an outsider (though I’m making great strides to not feeling like that so much any more), and I thought that maybe a group that actively invites in “outsiders” (not really outsiders, but I’ll use that word for the time being, as it communicates fairly well the idea I’m getting at) might help me feel more included and also help me understand what was going on a little better.

I both got that totally right and totally wrong, all at the same time.

I had never been to kirtan before, so I thought I’d test that out, and it was nice! Not at all what I was expecting, but nice. At first, the constant sound was uncomfortable, but then after a little while I discovered that I had tuned it out and it actually helped me focus.

After an hour or so of kirtan, the temple started filling with devotees. I moved closer to a few of the female devotees who had arrived, which ended up being fortunate because the devotees very carefully segregated themselves into a male half and a female half. I had heard about practices like this (for example, in the Swaminarayan tradition) but found that it was actually a little more comforting than I had expected. I’m not terribly good at being in crowds, touching other people, so it was easier to only have to deal with brushing up against other women.

We sang some more, and then the priests came out and started the abhishek of Lord Rama. His murti was small, obviously not something that was used a lot except for on special occasions. They had an ingenious system for catching the water, ghee, and other things used to bathe the murti; Rama stood on a small dias in the center of a large bowl with a hole in the bottom, which drained into a bucket under the stand the bowl sat on. As the abhishek was open to all devotees (who arranged to participate beforehand), a priest changed the bucket periodically, so that it would not overflow.

After that, one of the priests gave a lecture on Ram Navami and its significance, which I found very interesting, and then he spoke a little on the duty of the assembled devotees. I have to admit that this portion of his lecture made me a little uncomfortable. I am still not comfortable with the idea of trying to get others to adopt your faith. This is something that Christian churches teach, and I find that there’s a bit of this in the ISKCON tradition as well, though certainly this is a generalization. So I listened and learned a little more about the beliefs of the people around me.

After the lecture, the priests came back out and performed an aarti. This was the portion of the evening that was the most educational for me, not because of the aarti (honestly, I didn’t see very much of it, but I’m relatively familiar with aartis at this point), but because of the way the devotees celebrated during the aarti.

I have to preface this by saying that I am very, very Western. My family is very English and very German, which is to say that we’re fairly reserved in public. Especially in church. So when the devotees began to dance and clap and sing, I had no idea what to do. I think I sort of swayed in place, until one of the more exuberant dancers grabbed my hand and pulled me into the dance with her.

And aside from one stray small child I tried not to squash (he was joyfully underfoot), I danced and danced, and came to understand that there are lots of ways to worship God, not all of which involve being solemn and silent (although those are good, too, in their own place and time).

We sang Happy Birthday to a very small boy, and then sweaty and glowing, poured out onto the lawn to eat prasad and birthday cake. I nabbed a plate for my husband (this was a little embarrassing; he had taken the train and only showed up for the meal), ate some really delicious food, and then received a warm “Hare Om” from the woman who had pulled me into the dance.

I think that sometimes it’s useful to do things that are not totally comfortable, because you figure out things about yourself you didn’t know before. I figured out that I can do things that are really alien to me, and that at the moment, ISKCON is not where I’m meant to be. This journey seems to be one of discovering the paths I’m not meant to take as much as those I am meant to be on. And even though I will probably not attend regularly, I think I’m also understanding how various Hindus I know go to temples of other sects, or even places of worship of other religions, and feel just as comfortable there as at their home temples.

I don’t want to be an ISKCON devotee, but I did feel at peace in the temple.

Jai Sri Krishna!

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(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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