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31 Dec 2011

A new year coming . . . a universal prayer

 

 

The 2011 calendar year is about to close out and a new year begin.

This blog is still quite new, having only begun over the past two months. But, already, there is a strong readership -- one that is active in commenting here on the site, on Facebook, on Twitter, and in private messages to me -- all of us engaging in a growing and fulfilling conversation. I’m pleased and proud to be part of it, and I just wanted to take a moment to say, Thank you.

The first post for the new year will be the latest in the series of spiritual biographies. I’m happy to have interviewed author Sharon Maas (Of Marriageable Age, Peacocks Dancing, The Speech of Angels, and the newly released Sons of God: The Mahabharata Retold) and will be sharing her story over the next few days.

Also, as I have discussed with some readers privately, I’m working on a piece about the issue of ‘conversion’ in India and among Hindus, from both the personal and political perspectives. That, as it turns out, involves a good bit of research, more than I anticipated, so it will have to come later in the new year. I just want to take my time and do the subject justice.

And, of course, I’ll be writing about various things that come to mind. As the bio over there on the sidebar states, I’m a woman who embraces Sanātana Dharma, engages in meditation and yoga, studies jyotish, practices vegetarianism. . . I am also a feminist, a liberal, a voracious reader, an equally voracious talker, who speaks freely about issues related to women, sexuality, race, ethnicity, education, ecology, democracy, politics and just about anything else going on in the world that I think needs commenting on. So, in 2012, there could be articles and reflections on just about anything this black western Hindu woman gets the urge to speak about. I hope you all stick around to engage and enjoy.

So, to close out this year, I will share a simple, ecumenical prayer written by Swami Sivananda. Though a Hindu monastic, Swami Sivananda took pains to always expound the notion that all paths and all faiths, if followed well, will lead to the same place: union with the Divine, awareness of the Self, or communion with God in whatever name, form or formlessness you conceive of It/Him/Her.

In that inclusive and loving spirit, here is a prayer for us all. I hope the new year brings you blessings and peace.

Namaste.

 

Universal Prayer

by Sri Swami Sivananda

O Adorable Lord of Mercy and Love,
salutations and prostrations unto Thee.
Thou art omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient.
Thou art Existence-Consciousness-Bliss Absolute.
Thou art the Indweller of all beings.

Grant us an understanding heart,
equal vision, balanced mind,
faith, devotion and wisdom.
Grant us inner spiritual strength
to resist temptation and to control the mind.
Free us from egoism, lust, greed, hatred, anger and jealousy.
Fill our hearts with divine virtues.

Let us behold Thee in all these names and forms.
Let us serve Thee in all these names and forms.
Let us ever remember Thee.
Let us ever sing Thy glories.
Let Thy Name be ever on our lips.
Let us abide in Thee for ever and ever.





25 Dec 2011

“Om for the holidays”: My greetings & Swami Sivananda on the meaning of Christmas

 

 

Wishing all my family and friends who celebrate Christmas

a very happy and joyous day!

 


WHAT CHRISTMAS MEANS TO ME

by Sri Swami Sivananda

Combining as it does, the joy of life and the Spirit of God, the festival of Christmas comes each year, after the approaching herald of a new year, with its sweet message and silent shifting of our attention, more and yet more to the spiritual pursuits in which alone consist man’s real peace, true progress, and everlasting glory. Whether it was Jane Taylor or Watts who affirmed, “Lord, I ascribe it to Thy grace, and not to chance, as others do, that I was born of Christian race,” it is no expression of any spirit of fanaticism, but a humble acknowledgement of the excellent benefits that the genuine Christian way and style of life confers upon one. It is an eloquent tribute to the First Christmas divinely celebrated in the Christ’s crib one thousand, nine hundred and fifty-six years ago, a tribute paid by one who has reaped in experience the life-making fruits of the seeds sown by the birth of Christ. Besides that elevation of sentiments that inspiration for the inmost spirit in man, that gladness of heart for all, Happy Christmas renews and revivifies in us splendid spiritual values, unyielding spirit of courage, hope, service and sacrifice, a wider and more profound meaning of life to live by. Nothing but a complete volume of weighty writing becomes necessary for any satisfactory narration of the Great Meaning that Christmas has always held for each of us. May this Christmas bring to everyman on earth, immense happiness, persisting peace, a new strength, a long life of service, love, sacrifice and spiritual progress!

This message was written in 1956 for the special Christmas Issue of ‘The Guardian’, Madras.




22 Dec 2011

A Good Day for a Resolution: Pradosha Puja & the Winter Solstice

 

This is an interesting year. This year Pradosha puja and the winter solstice happen on the same day (well, where I live anyway. In the northern hemisphere), making it quite an auspicious time and a pretty good day to spend in prayer, meditation and for making new resolutions -- or rather, for stating your intentions for personal growth for the coming year. Also, for those who have an affinity for either Jyotish (Vedic astrology) or the science of astronomy, this day comprises a 21 hour window during which time there is a direct line between Earth and the Galactic Centre, the rotational centre of our Milky Way galaxy.

The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is that our days will now get longer and longer. It is  the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days. Depending on the shift of the calendar, the winter solstice usually occurs on December 21-23 each year in the northern hemisphere and June 20-23 in the southern hemisphere. Cultures and faiths around the world interpret this event differently, but most northern hemisphere cultures use the day to celebrate renewal and rebirth, and to hold festivals and gatherings, perform rituals, or enjoy other celebrations. In England the Druids, the native pagan culture, are celebrating at the Stonehenge national monument.

Pradosha commemorates the story of Shiva drinking the poison Halāhala, that was churned up from the eternal ocean, and saving the world -- earning him the epithet Nīlakaṇṭha, the Lord with the blue throat. It falls on the 13th lunar day during the waxing and waning phase of moon in the Hindu lunar calendar, occurring between 4.30 pm to 6.00 pm in England. The Pradosha time is a good time to do puja and pray to Lord Shiva and invoke his blessings. It is believed that worshipping Lord Shiva at Pradosha day will relieve sins and lead one to spiritual liberation.

And if you believe that the Divine exists in all creation, from the infinitesimally small to the unfathomably large, from the place inside our hearts to the very heart of the physical Universe, then knowing that today, for one of the few times during the Kali Yuga, a direct line is open between the Earth and the centre of our galaxy -- just might invigorate your mind and emotions and empower your devotions.

Namaste.



20 Dec 2011

Jadhavacarya Das: interview with an African-American bhakti yogi

 
 
In a previous post, Hinduism: Unity in Diversity, I promised a series of articles on Hindus from a variety of non-Indian backgrounds. The first was about a woman of Native American descent and her Shaivite Hindu family in Kentucky, and now I’m pleased to share another story of a man who came to Hinduism through a very different set of experiences, embracing the Vaishnava path. These are the first of what I hope will be several similar articles, hoping to shed light on the diversity of belief, experience and background within the Hindu fold worldwide. 

 

  Jadhavacarya Das was born Mark Romero Bradley in 1948 in Girard, a small town north of Youngstown, Ohio, USA. He remembers his late mother as an exceptionally loving woman who, in addition to Jadhavacarya, had three other sons and one daughter – with dad, that made seven. The seven Bradleys were part of a larger extended family of over 200 living in the Youngstown area. Jadhavacarya has fond memories of his childhood and says it was a wonderful experience to grow up in such a large, loving family.

On his mother’s side, Jadhavacarya’s family are Americans of African, Irish and Cherokee descent. His father’s side of the family were also of African and Cherokee descent. His was a traditional nuclear family; a black family living in “middle class America, in a mostly average income Italian and W.A.S.P. atmosphere,” at a time in America when racial tensions were high.

“During the time I was growing up, there was a lot of racial segregation and tension,” he says. “Particularly as I grew into my teens. By that time it was late into the 50s and early 60s.” As far as religion, Jadhavacarya and his siblings were “raised up as Baptist, even though my mother didn’t make us go to church often. It wasn’t something that was predominant in our family directly. Religion was always a very important part [of growing up], just not primary.” In addition to Baptist Christianity, his extended family’s religious milieu included Pentecostalism, Catholicism and Islam, from the tradition of The Moorish Science Temple of America.

“For some reason or another, as I was growing up, I always felt there was something I didn’t know. Some knowledge, some information. I remember very clearly, when I was nine or ten years old, I was walking down an alleyway and I looked up in the sky. I thought to myself, God, somebody must know you. They must, somewhere. And that is what I always aspired to. My greatest goal, when I was growing up, if I could have been anywhere in space or time or place, I would have been in the presence of lord Jesus. Technically, that [loving God as lord Jesus] was all I knew.”

When he was 13, Jadhavacarya – who had long been a “very spiritually inclined” child of intense curiosity about life and death – was taken to a Pentecostal church by an aunt, where he was ‘saved by Jesus’. “I didn’t understand the whole purpose, or what I had done that I needed to be saved from. I didn’t understand anything, but I did it because that’s what we were supposed to do. But when I was 17, I decided I had some serious questions.” Jadhavacarya began to seek answers outside the Pentecostal faith and began to attend a Catholic church with a boyhood friend. He eventually became a Catholic and had, for a period of time, aspired to become a priest. But he decided that there were many things he still wanted to experience in life: “and I didn’t see myself sitting in a monastery.”

So in 1966, when he turned 18, he joined the US Air Force.

“I served my country faithfully... in Haight-Ashbury,” he says, leaning back in his chair, with a wry smile.

“That’s right, they stationed me – a naive 18 year old from the square, naive Girard, Ohio world – and they put me right in the middle of Haight-Ashbury,” during the era called the Summer of Love, one of the defining moments of the hippie countercultural movement. “And believe me, you had to have been there to appreciate what it was. As much as history depicts it, unless you were actually there, you cannot appreciate what it was like to be in the middle of Haight-Ashbury in 1966 and ‘67.

“So, to say the least, my military career was short lived. But it was eventful.”

After leaving the air force, Jadhavacarya began a two-year long quest to understand certain things about life. “The secrets of the universe, literally,” he says. “I knew they had to have existed somewhere. I just didn’t know where. I also knew that all of the experiences I had with LSD, marijuana and smoking all the other stuff – it was exhilarating and fun for a while, but it didn’t actually bring knowledge. And I wanted knowledge.”

 

After a while, Jadhavacarya came across the devotees of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly known as the ‘Hare Krishna Movement’. His mission was to spread throughout the world Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a form of Hinduism that focuses on devotional worship (bhakti). Prabhupada’s ISKCON was founded in New York in 1966 and followers became known for their energetic and active preaching, dancing and singing. Members aimed to spread Krishna consciousness and were best known through the media for singing the Hare Krishna mantra in public spaces. ISKCON devotees are Vaishnavs, who worship Krishna as the highest form of God, svayam bhagavan, and often refer to Him as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

“I looked at them, and I thought to myself, These people are crazy,” Jadhavacarya  says.

“Either they are crazy or they know something very special, because nobody should just be on the streets chanting and dancing. And that is true. If that was simply all that we did, and we had no knowledge and had no philosophy, then we would be no different than someone who was completely and totally fanatical. Activity without philosophy is fanaticism. So, yes, they had something special.”

Jadhavacarya’s first encounter with an ISKCON devotee was in Boston in 1968. “I remember a girl came up and tried to offer me some incense, and that was pretty much about it. Then I would see them from time to time in different locations. And finally, after a certain point in time, I remember I was in Detroit. By that time I was about 21 years old, and I had been questioning a lot of things, and I had some basics, but I really didn’t understand anything. I also knew I was in a very awkward position, because I was seeing things around me. I had been reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It described examples of what happens when you’re dead and you’re in this first level of ‘bardo’, which explains that things around you seem to have a certain appearance and beings around you have a certain types of characteristics. And I was starting to see that. So, in reality, I didn’t know whether I was alive or dead. Because what I was seeing, what I was hearing, what I was learning... it was a little too mixed, too jumbled, there was not a clear designation....

“So, finally, I saw the devotees. I realised that I needed to try to understand this Krishna Consciousness. I knew that there was something special, so I literally ran to the temple, and I stayed there.

“I didn’t know in the beginning how fortunate I was. Because all I know is that I’d asked the Lord, Please give me knowledge. I didn’t care who or where or how. I wasn’t trying to reinvent something. I wasn’t trying to just take bits and pieces. I wanted to know in full. And the experience was that, as I later became aware and began to read my Bhagavad Gita. It says that when one is actually serious, when he is anxious to end this process of repeated birth and death, then the Lord, from within the heart, will eventually assume or send a spiritual master on the outside, depending upon one’s desire. So He sent me Prabhupada.”

Jadhavacarya joined ISKCON in 1970 in Detroit, Michigan, but it was in St Louis, Missouri that he received his first initiation, the harinamadiksa (bestowing of the holy name of Krishna), which functions as initial entrance into the movement. He served as a brahmacari for two years. Living at the temple, his duties “included daily sankirtan, lecturing, and temple commander responsibilities.”

It was about this time that his brother Robert also joined the movement: “His name is Rasaparayana. He joined the movement after a couple of run-ins with the law. I don’t know what he thought he was doing. The boy was raised up, as we used to say then, ‘as a good middle class Negro', and he wound up going to Detroit, trying to sell some marijuana. And he got busted. So it was a question of him getting busted or becoming a devotee. He was lucky that, at that time, the judge was favourable. He came to live with us in the temple and, eventually, he shaped up. And now he is also a devotee. Actually, I think I may have influenced my brother, because he saw that there was something happening. He just didn't dismiss it like other people. You have to have a certain reason to want to become a devotee. You have to be a little crazy, from a material point of view. You have to want to get out of the material world. People who don't want to get out don't become devotees. We're not looking to try to make everyone a devotee. Srila Prabhupada said, everyone won't be a devotee, but at least they should have the opportunity.

"By the way, my mother took all these pictures. She was very pleased that we had become Krishna conscious. My father wasn't quite as excited. But Dad wasn't necessarily that much of a transcendentalist either. It was Mom who was always positive and encouraging us to stay and be Krishna conscious, because she could see the goodness in what we had found.”

Outside the love and support of his family, Jadhavacarya faced the judgment of the broader American community, who were only just coming to an understanding of this new religious movement in their midst. It was a heady period in American history, one rife with social, sexual and racial revolutions. The population was given a lot of new things to process – a ‘black Hare Krishna’ being only one.

One of the hardest parts about being a black devotee at that time, as Jadhavacarya relates, was dealing with the expectations and perceptions of the African-American community in the wake of the struggles of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

 

 "Black consciousness was on the rise and people just couldn't get a grip on the fact that somebody who was black would actually be following something that appeared to them as all white, or rather initiated by white people. In reality, it wasn't. I guess it was very rare, because we didn't have a lot of black devotees all throughout ISKCON. There are a number of them that came and a number of them that left, but that was because of the fact that there was little understanding that surrender – meaning giving up the person, sacrifice, and being willing to surrender to someone or something – was foreign to this new black consciousness.

“Shaving your head and walking around in robes with a bunch of white people chanting Hare Krishna – that just didn't fit. However the understanding that I had is that that there was a whole lot more to being black than just simply the colour of your skin."

Jadhavacarya remembers, in particular, coming across young men from the Nation of Islam.

"Of course they all thought that me being out there doing what I was doing was completely insane. That I was following white people," which would have been seen as ‘siding with the enemy’ at worst and, at best, as a betrayal of the Afro-centric philosophy that taught that blacks around the world could only rise out of the mire of post-colonial, post-slavery-era oppression by relying solely on themselves, their own communities, and their own endeavour. Jadhavacarya would show them pictures of his guru, who is Indian, to show them that the Hare Krishna movement was not something dreamt up by a mischievous white oppressor aiming to further ensnare blacks, who were just beginning this new phase of political consciousness.

"Well, he certainly is not white, but they couldn't understand that. They were completely immersed in their mind-set."

Jadhavacarya understood the stakes involved in the Civil Rights era and the resultant movements for enfranchisement and greater equality going on in America. He was part of it. But he also saw that there was a path to liberation that was more substantial and lasting for him than only the political one. As far as Jadhavacarya was concerned, he had “come into the association of a pure devotee,” his guru.

“In America, there was no such thing. There were many good people, don't get me wrong. It's one thing to be good, but another thing to be on a transcendental plane. I had never seen anyone like Srila Prabhupada. I had never heard anyone like Srila Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada never made anything up. He simply repeated what he heard from his spiritual master. So my aspiration is that one day, I can simply repeat what Srila Prabhupada has said, and not just simply act like him but try to follow his instructions. For if one simply acts like he's a guru, and he's really not qualified, then he will fall down. You've seen this many times... there are many examples. Many [spiritual leaders from various religions] put themselves in the position that they become enamoured of the accumulation of wealth and followers, and they fall down. But Srila Prabhupada was not like that, because he knew that the only purpose, everything that we need to know and do, was centred around surrendering to Krishna, surrendering to God."

By 1972, Jadhavacarya had left for India. He served his guru and his movement in Bombay and Calcutta by helping to initiate the first Rathayatra festival. Then it was on to Vrindaban, where he served as treasurer and construction manager for the the Krsna Balarama Mandir. In 1973 he returned to America, to Miami, Florida, where he was married for the first time to a devotee and had a daughter. By the 1980s, he had moved to California and became more settled and fully involved in householder life. He eventually married again, to a woman of Christian faith, Patricia Bradley, a former educator who is now Senior Consultant at Bradley Consulting, Ohio.

Jadhavacarya has five children, who are all devotees: daughters Meghakanya and Cintamani (pictured below) and sons Kesava, Markandeya and Narayana (pictured). He has eight grandchildren.

 

So, all of our children are grown,” Jadhavacarya says, and out in the world thriving on their own. Cintamani, for instance, is a mother and a nurse, Markandeya a pre-med student and lab technician, and Kesava a father and PhD candidate. Jadhavacarya can now comfortably say that he has acquitted well his duties as a father and provider for his family. 

Having consulted with Patricia, Jadhavacarya  believes it will soon be time for him to return to India to take up the life of a sannyasin.

Sannyasa is the classical ‘retirement’ stage of a Hindu’s life – signally a retirement from worldly and family affairs. It is taken by some Hindu men and women at or beyond the age of fifty years old, who wish to renounce materialistic aims and dedicate the remainder of their lives to spiritual pursuits.

One of those pursuits will be to continue to narrate and record all of the lectures of his guru and to make videos for internet release, so that the teachings can be shared widely and via an accessible medium.

One of the skills Jadhavacarya has always been told he is blessed with is a good speaking voice – the voice of a lecturer or broadcaster. He hopes that he is putting these skills to work, to utilise his voice to be able to describe what he has heard and learned about Krishna.

 

I would like to find some temple to visit and stay for some time

to preach and perform sankirtan.”




15 Dec 2011

‘Saving this moment in my pocket’: memoirs of a Cherokee Irish American Hindu

 

 

Sequtha, my great-great-grandmother, was Cherokee and a slave here in Kentucky. She became a slave because only native ‘Indians’ who were enslaved could remain in Kentucky when the soldiers came to take the natives on the Trail of Tears. Sequtha’s father Greenleaf did everything to keep his family together, even converting to Christianity and changing his name to Christmas. But nothing worked. They were being removed. So, my great-great-grandmother Sequtha was sold for cattle to save her life. The kind Irish family who saved her then raised her, and she fell in love with one of their sons. So, here I sit, generations later: blue eyes, reddish blonde hair, and a follower of Sanātana Dharma.”

 

Mahalaya Eden is a mystic. That is my word for her, not her own. She might even shy away from me calling her that, for she is a humble woman and wary of what others would think of the things that, since early childhood, she had somehow always just known, her gut instinct, her intuition, the things she experienced physically, emotionally and spiritually that were outside the norm. As a young girl growing up in rural Kentucky, she instinctively felt that there was a spiritual path out there that was hers to walk, but which the adults in her life knew nothing about and towards which some were definitively hostile. She would wander through the woods barefoot, offering her food to the forest, asking God to let her know his name and what her path would be. When she grew up, she became a nurse and specialised in tending to the severely ill and dying. While tending to them she would experience, quite outside her desire and efforts to control it, a flow of golden light emanating from the top of her head (from the area yogis call the sahasrara chakra) that would flow between her and her patients.

“I thought this was all New Agey, mystical mumbo jumbo,” Mahalaya says. “And I decided to never tell another soul about it... not even my own family. It was too crazy, and I knew no one would ever understand.”

Mahalaya’s family were not a mystical, new-agey people. They were a military family, with Mahalaya spending her younger years on various military bases. They were Mormons and Christians of a variety of denominations, going back generations to her Irish and Cherokee ancestors. Although Native American spirituality – diverse and various as it is, closely tied to a sense of one’s place within the natural and supernatural worlds – did not play a direct part in Mahalaya’s religious upbringing, it did form part of her family folklore about religion, religious conversion and a sense of spiritual authenticity. For it was Greenleaf, her great-great-great-grandfather, who felt compelled to convert to Christianity in order to save his family. In the end Greenleaf’s efforts were fruitless and he had to sell his own child into slavery to secure her future and save her from a brutal and deadly forced migration away from the lands they had long called home.

The Trail of Tears is the name given to the forcible relocation of Native Americans from their ancestral homes in the south eastern and central United States in the early 1830s. While the removal was, in theory, supposed to be voluntary, in practice it was a pitiless process and one of the saddest episodes in American history. Men, women and children were herded like cattle, forced to march a thousand miles provided with only minimal shelter, clothes, food and facilities. The removal included many members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations. Among the Cherokee alone, about one third of those who began the march died before reaching their destination. In 1831, a Choctaw chief named Nitikechi was quoted in the Arkansas Gazette calling the removal a "trail of tears and death,” with other indigenous Americans calling it “The Trail Where They Cried.” Mahalaya’s great-great-grandmother, Sequtha, was spared the fate of many of her peers only by losing her birth family and adapting to a new way of life, thankfully within the fold of a kind and loving family who, at first, nominally enslaved her, only to eventually accept her as one of their own.

This story of Sequtha and Greenleaf, the man who changed his name, changed his faith and sold his child into slavery, had a great impact on Mahalaya spiritually.

“I realized that the Truth had become hidden by this act of desperation, and that I didn't even know God's Beloved Name.  So I prayed... not for money, or rescue from the abuse I was enduring... but simply to know His Beautiful Name.”

 

 

Upon a hill barefoot, a little girl sat praying. 

The wind picked up and she closed her eyes.  ‘What are you doing?’ Her Mother asked.

‘I am saving this moment in my pocket.’ She replied.

...and I was... everything... every tear, moment of joy went into that pocket.

I was sexually abused almost upon my arrival...thank goodness those things didn't make it into my pocket for long... the one responsible killed himself a year ago...

Church was no easier...the Mormons would pull me up to their lap, and I would sing with such a heart full of Love for God... and they placed me in the center of their class, as I sang again.... with my heart so full I would cry.

But while I was still so young the questions began... the questions this limited understanding could almost never answer. I was removed from the happier class and placed into the place with others much older than I...

In that advanced class, I began to ask deeper questions to these older men and women. The questions always met by arguments between them and finally to me being told ‘not to over think it’.

Over the years I walked barefoot into the forests around my home, offering my food to God.

 

“My whole life I have been living within Sanātana Dharma,” Mahalaya told me. “I just never had the name for what this is I was doing. I had a space beside my home underneath my bedroom window.  It was a secret place made by the meeting of three very large shrubs. They turned red in Autumn. I would go there and offer my food to Beloved under those trees, though I didn’t know His Name. 

“Food was very scarce in my home, we went hungry a great deal of the time. But, I would give this precious food to Him in hopes I could know His Name. If I had to place an age on when I simply would have said that I followed my heart, which was full of these Hindu things that were so outlandish to my own limited experiences, I would say at 13.”

So, at thirteen, Mahalaya “refused to attend another church and began this long journey to find Beloved Shiva.” She fought against a family milieu in which she was taught that non-Christians were all on the wrong path. She began to spend a lot of time away from her own troubled home and made friends with children on the military bases, who were from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. “I was very good friends with a young Korean girl and boy. When I went to their home and saw Buddha, I was astonished. My family had never let on that other paths existed. I went home so excited to tell my parents. They became very upset and told me those other religions were Satan worshippers and they would go to hell. Now, this did not sit well with me, as this Korean family was so honorable, and my own family very broken with abuse. Something just was off about the whole thing, and I kept that moment in my pocket to never forget.”

 

The years went on and Mahalaya saved all these precious moments and lessons in her pocket. At then at about the age of thirty-one, she discovered a path to Sanātana Dharma paved by the Himalayan Academy of Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (1927–2001) and the Saiva Siddhanta Church, a progressive institution upholding a spiritual heritage derived from the Saivite Hindu traditions of South India and northern Sri Lanka.

The Church – whose name is a conflation for ‘the sacred congregation of Supreme God Siva's revealed Truth’ – is currently under the spiritual direction of Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami. It ‘urges members and other devotees to Know thy Self through self-inquiry, meditation, traditional temple worship, scriptural study, guru bhakti and selfless service’. They have a course of study called The Master Course of the Himalayan Academy, that provides seekers with an established path to conversion, one which is deeply respectful of their religious upbringing and former paths, while simultaneously supporting them as they embark on this new direction. The course is comprised of a trilogy of study materials that covers all aspects of life from the perspective of Saivite Hinduism.

“I was given such strong evidence that I was on the correct path,” Mahalaya says. “I finally came out and began to speak of what my heart had long been saying. When my Mother died, she came to me several times. One of those times she appeared cutting strawberries. One was tiny, green and bitter.  One was huge! It was as big as her hand... and she said... The ones from India are better.

“I really felt like she was affirming my choice to become Hindu and from her fuller view of the world, she could finally let go of that dogma which would have once condemned me to hell for not being Christian.”

Today, Mahalaya’s entire family are followers of Sanātana Dharma. “They have been raised this way their whole lives,” she says happily. Though it has been difficult going at times, due to living in a part of the world where there is not a lot of understanding about Hinduism and few Hindus, let alone many other families such as hers, which break the mould.

Mahalaya writes a blog called The Hilltop Anthology, where she describes herself as . . .

 

Mommy to eight beautiful children.

I live on a green hill in Kentucky

where I pray, sing, write and most importantly...

love and am loved.

Om Namah Shivaya

 



11 Dec 2011

‘Silence is the answer to your question’: Hinduism, Yoga & the Guru



I don’t announce to people that I’m Hindu. They tend to just figure it out as things go along. Since I don’t seem to ‘look Hindu’ (I’m not Indian), the most obvious or outward signs of my beliefs would most likely be that my family celebrates Diwali, I often wear rudraksha on my wrists (I’m asked if they are just jewellery or have a purpose), and I practice yoga. Yoga could be the most obvious sign, but it’s no definitive marker nowadays; people of varying beliefs (or none) practice it. But when someone does ask or somehow the issue of religion comes up, one of the subsequent questions is: Do you have a guru? 

This is a loaded question in the west, and the answers ‘yes’ and ‘no’ rarely offer the truth or give people an accurate understanding of what you mean. The very word ‘guru’ has accrued a few vacuous usages to add to its original meaning and developed a number of negative connotations. 

In the more light-hearted vein, the word is used colloquially to describe anyone who offers guidance and gains a following. The author of a new diet book is called a ‘weight loss guru’ or the creator of a fantastic electronic gadget that sells in the millions will be the latest ‘technology guru’.  

But the word, sadly, has darker implications. Starting in the heyday of the countercultural movement in the west, several charismatic and controversial figures arose, some home-grown and others arriving from India, Japan, Tibet and other nations. Many garnered a following, for whom their leader was The Guru par excellence. Among a few of these groups, there were notable scandals and controversies, including accusations of brainwashing, financial misdealing, hypocritically lavish lifestyles, fake miracles, sexual predation, child abuse, mass suicides, the deliberate spreading of HIV infection, and even terrorist attacks. People may have long forgotten the specific circumstances or the names of the individuals or organisations involved, but the sordid air that began to hover around the word ‘guru’ has never entirely gone away. 

Today ‘the Guru’, sadly, is a concept distorted.  So, to say Yes, I have a guru, is either to say nothing or to say too much.

Originally, in Hinduism, the word guru (Sanskrit: गुरु) meant teacher. It can also be translated as preceptor or sage, someone with great knowledge and authority in a certain area of thought or spiritual experience. The guru is not always a person; guru is a principle. God is the supreme guru, parents are gurus, school teachers, a book. Even an animal can manifest the guru principle, a river, a stone, if your interaction with it serves to enlighten the mind or open the heart. For a Hindu, the importance of finding a guru who can impart knowledge (vidyā) leading to liberation (moksha) is emphasised. In the Bhagavad Gita, God in the form of Krishna says to the great warrior Arjuna: “Acquire the transcendental knowledge from a Self-realized master by humble reverence, by sincere inquiry, and by service. The wise ones who have realized the Truth will impart the Knowledge to you.”

For yogins, the guru is the true teacher and guide, and you are his/her śiṣya or chela, usually translated as ‘disciple’. This is a profound and intimate relationship that you must be sure not to initiate carelessly or to distort. Today, many a yoga teacher enacts the role of sage or proclaims him/herself the guru of this or that ‘brand’ of yoga, and many students assume the role of chela unguardedly and without full consideration of what the relationship means or where it is taking them. This could spell disaster – as has been the case in various instances in the past – but it need not happen that way. In a series of talks on the yoga of Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh given by my own teacher’s teacher, Swami Venkatesananda addressed this issue and spoke of just how the true guru-disciple relationship forms in an almost wordless fashion, for the experience is too profound for speeches, presumption and pontification:
When you go round India you will meet dozens of Gurus who say: “I am your Guru”. Gurudev never said that for one moment.

Occasionally he used to say “You are my disciple” or “He is my disciple”; and some of the older disciples here probably have one letter at least where Gurudev said: “I have accepted you as my beloved disciple, I shall serve you and guide you.” But with all respect and adoration to Gurudev, I may tell you that it was meant more as an encouragement to the disciple than as a statement of fact.

When Swami Sivananda said: “I have accepted you as my beloved disciple,” you felt that you had a claim over Swami Sivananda, you could write to him more freely. That is what he wanted. The next sentence is: “I will serve you.” You have never heard of a Guru serving a disciple, the disciple is supposed to serve the Guru! So in that formula itself he has cancelled this Guru business. He never regarded himself as a Guru. It was for us, not for him.

It is the disciple’s experience that is the Guru, and the Guru need not know when that experience happened to you. You may say, “You are my Guru”; it is not for the Guru to say, “I am your Guru.” I can go to the Guru and say, “I am your disciple,” when I am prepared to do exactly what he tells me to do.

And not till that stage is reached can I boldly say: “I am your disciple, you are my Guru.”

Another example of this preferred un-spoken nature of the guru-disciple relationship is in the Yoga Vasistha, which recounts the discourse of the sage Vasistha and a young Prince Rama. In it, Vasistha speaks of the true teacher as the one who helps you achieve atma-jnana (Self-realisation or the knowledge of your Oneness with God). Such an experience is, by its nature, paradoxically personal and universal. It is universal in that anyone – no matter your age, race, gender, sexuality, class, caste, nationality, background, profession – can achieve Self-realisation, the ultimate goal of life. But the experience of attaining atma-jnana or spiritual liberation is something you must undergo, not something you can ever fully impart in speech in any meaningful way: it is experienced, not described. At one point in Vasistha’s instruction to Rama, Rama asks a question and Vasistha simply remains silent. Rama becomes irritated, demanding to know:
“Can’t you answer this question I am asking? Why have you suddenly become silent?”
Vasistha says, “It is not because I could not answer your question that I became silent, but silence is the answer to your question.”

So when I’m asked about my faith and my yoga, what I believe and whether or not I have a guru, I find I’ve developed the habit of lingering for a moment in the silence the question evokes, rather than falling headlong into a verbal trap that might invoke who-knows-what notions in the mind of the questioner. And then I nod and speak of my teacher and of what she teaches, what (I hope!) I’ve learned, and I speak of her teacher and the lineage and tradition they embody and sustain:
Disciple means discipline. What does the word ‘discipline’ mean? Not an army drill, but study. The teacher gave you some information which produced a form within you; and now you wish to study this. The teacher said that happiness is in you, that it is not in the object of pleasure—but that is not your experience. You have experienced pleasure from that object and in its absence you are miserable.

So what do you do? You are studying this inner structure, studying the workings of the mind, the arising of the self, the ego. But it is not clear... Therefore in the course of the study of oneself an extraordinary discipline arises.

It is not a discipline which is imposed upon you by others, it is not a discipline which is goal oriented, but it is a discipline born of intense search. When this discipline manifests itself in your heart you will naturally find your Guru. You go and stand in front of someone and ... that’s it.

You don’t need to exchange a word.




18 Nov 2011

Hinduism–Unity in Diversity

 

Hinduism is one of the most diverse religions in the world. As a matter of fact, it may be more proper to speak of ‘Hinduisms’ or the ‘Hindu religious and philosophical complex’, for no single doctrine or set of beliefs can represent all of the numerous traditions, philosophies and practices that fall under the heading. Even to use the term ‘religion’ may be too limiting, because there are strands of Hinduism that are atheistic. Yet there is a unity in this diversity. Despite differences, there is a bond among those who variously follow the path of Sanātana Dharma.

Hindus, themselves, are also an incredibly diverse people. Outside India, there is a simplistic view that since over 80% of the people in India are Hindus, that this eighty per cent are somehow homogenous. Nothing could be further from the truth. In India today, there are about 80,000 ethnic subcultures, over 325 languages, innumerable dialects, and 25 written scripts. Yet more than eighty per cent of this enormous diversity of people have found enough in common in their philosophical and religious systems, lifestyle and practices to fall under the generally unifying term ‘Hindu’ (yes, there is a good deal of discussion on the efficacy of the term ‘Hindu’, as opposed to other terms, which is something for another blog post. Very fascinating in its own right).

Added to the diversity in India, there is a good deal of diversity among Hindus outside of India that is rarely spoken of, rarely in the public eye or part of the general public conception of what Hinduism is and who Hindus are. Whether by conversion, marriage or being born into a Hindu family, there are a good deal of Hindus now who are not Indian, who are adding to the profile of the diversity of the Hindu community.

In my first post, I said wanted to address the issue of being a black Hindu. Or, to put it better, I wanted to add to what is already a vibrant online conversation among Western Hindus, being fostered from blog to blog, about what it is like to be a Hindu convert or a non-Indian Hindu in the world today. Usually, the conversation is structured along the lines of white Hindu converts addressing varying levels of acceptance and understanding from their natal communities and from the Indian Hindu community. While I had found one blog written by a Western Latino Hindu convert, I had not found one written from the perspective of an African-American, Afro-Caribbean Briton, Afro-European or African, about experiences or perspectives that might be peculiar or particular to being a black Hindu. So, while my own blog will cover pretty much anything about Hinduism that comes across my mind, I will try to dedicate a good amount of space to sharing these unique perspectives and stories, among others.

Just this week, on the blog The Western Hindu, a really eye-opening article was published called Not all Western Hindus are white Hindus…. and not all Hindus from non-Hindu cultures are Western Hindus. I was very excited about it, for what it adds to the discourse of ‘Western Hinduism’ and Hinduism at-large, and it lit a fire under me to get going with a few ideas of my own.

So, in the coming weeks and months, I will be posting feature articles on non-Indian Hindus. My first will be about an African-American who has been a bhakti yogi for four decades now. And while I will also be including profiles of famous converts, I am hoping to be able to do more profiles of just every day people…. So, if you are a black Hindu, African Hindu, Caribbean Hindu, Latino Hindu, Chinese Hindu, Inuit Hindu, a mixed race Hindu, etc., etc., etc., and want to be featured, CONTACT ME!

Consider this an open call to get in touch (using the contact link on my profile or via twitter) with your stories, so I can help you share them. We will all benefit from broadening our understanding of how diverse and interesting the Hindu community worldwide really is.

 


Another blogger out of the USA is also doing interviews with non-Indian Hindus.
Please have a look at Desh’s blog
. He’s got two interviews up already (one with yours truly!).


8 Nov 2011

Yoga (disambiguation)


The first time I practiced asana . . . 

I was about 11 years old. I’m forty-four now. Yoga has been an on-again, off-again love affair that came and went in my life, gaining and losing favour, depending on a variety of moves and changes. Yoga did not lead me to Hinduism, but when I began to study Vedanta, read the Upanishads, and otherwise intellectually lean towards embracing Sanātana Dharma, yoga was there to help tie everything together and to help turn what was initially a purely intellectual exercise into something more holistic, uniting body, mind and spirit.

Like many people who lived in the USA in the 1970s and 80s, ‘doing yoga’ meant practicing postures –- asanas –- in front of a TV tuned to PBS (the nation’s non-profit Public Broadcasting Service). There was this lovely, intelligent woman with a long, dark ponytail, often wearing a mono-coloured bodysuit, set atop a beige carpeted platform: Lilias Folan’s Lilias, Yoga and You ran for 20 years, from 1972 to 1992 and was influential in introducing millions to yoga in a non-sectarian, warm and friendly manner. I’ve recently watched some of the early episodes on YouTube and am amazed at how well the program has stood the test of time. The new generation of fitness-yoga stars may be flashier, more media savvy, patented, legally incorporated, portfolio-diversified and mass marketed, but Lilias’ traditional and effective practice set a standard and is still respected and going strong.
“I first began… in a darkened TV studio, teaching to a red light. But I never felt alone in that studio — I could always sense my unseen class. I pictured each student getting off the couch and sitting with me on the floor. Because I could not see my students, their comfort and safety in poses was always a prime concern. Going slowly through the postures, pulling them apart, and being clear about details and alignment became a style of teaching. The cameras used the body as a blackboard so the audience could see the poses and breathing from all angles. It was very important for me to explain everything I could about each pose and make sure I gave all the information needed to practice effectively and without injury. This was the beginning of Lilias yoga.”


Yoga is not Hinduism . . .
And Hinduism is not yoga. But to deny that the two are intimately linked –- or, I should say, yoked together –- is like spitting into the wind.

There are two popular ways of approaching yoga in the West today. One is as a purely physical, gym-exercise form of yoga. The other is happily spiritual or philosophically based, but it spends a good deal of time downplaying its bonds with Sanātana Dharma. These two trends may seem at odds, but one thing they have in common is their desire to thrive in the face of misunderstanding and unwarranted animosity.

“Yoga is demonic. If you just sign up for a little yoga class, you're signing up for a little demon class," said American pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, Seattle. His words went global in October 2010, igniting a storm of controversy and bringing to wider attention a certain brand of long-simmering hostility. Far from being some dark and nefarious activity, “Yoga is the arresting of all mental activity,” as one book on Hinduism puts it. “It aims at nothing short of emptying the mind. [But] this void has been found threatening by some Christians, who fear that the mind will be filled by evil,” so they have consequently denounced it (Kantitkar and Cole, Hinduism: An Introduction, 259).

These denunciations are not actually assaults on a sequence of physical postures or breathing exercises. They are assaults on Hinduism (and other philosophies and faiths that practice yoga), which people like Pastor Driscoll fear is a force of darkness attempting to surreptitiously lure people away from their ‘natural’ beliefs. At the heart of such attacks is an entrenched ignorance about Hinduism itself, based in part on an inability to believe that Hindus do not, as a rule, proselytise –- not usually in any way, but certainly not slyly or aggressively. It is also based on stereotypes about the supposed ‘evils’ of polytheism and the purported ‘satanic’ nature of idolatry.


While there may be a sub-set of greater Hinduism that meets the simplified definition of polytheism propounded by the likes of Driscoll, mainstream Hinduism actually does not: Hindus believe in one God through the agency of many gods. Hindus believe there is one supreme spiritual Being, the one Absolute, called Brahman, who is “made manifest under different names and in various appearances” (Kantikar and Cole, 32). All these various appearances or deities of Hinduism are, in effect, aspects of the one Brahman. The murtis of Hinduism (often poorly translated as ‘idols’) are aids to worship, not objects of worship in themselves.

Yoga is one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, originating in ancient India. In and of itself, yoga is not a religious practice. It is a physical, mental and spiritual discipline that many Hindus (and Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Taoists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Wiccans, Druids, agnostics, atheists) utilise to achieve a variety of objectives. The Sanskrit root word ‘yuj’ means “the act of yoking or harnessing.”

For those of a non-theistic or non-spiritual bent, yoga can be utilised as a physical discipline without adherence to any doctrine or lifestyle. It can be the yoking of body, mind and intention toward the goal of greater health and longevity. It can, furthermore, help a practitioner sustain a more holistic view of the world and one’s place in it, aligning one’s sense of personal wholeness and union with the rest of humanity, other forms of life, and the environment.

For those of a spiritual disposition, yoga can provide a method for strengthening their progress along their own path, without severing them from the faith they follow. It can provide a pathway towards the yoking together of self and Self, or rather a union of the individual’s spirit and the supreme Spirit, whatever they believe that Spirit or God to be.

No one has to convert to practice yoga. Yoga is not out to surreptitiously change anyone’s faith. Yoga does not prescribe any religion or belief. But for those who wish it, yoga can support their belief system and bring them closer to whatever concept of God, gods, spirit or the universe gives them peace.


So, when I say I practice yoga . . .


I understand that not all Hindus do.

I understand that not all yogins are Hindu.

When I say ‘I do yoga’ (by which I mean traditional yoga, comprised of postures, breathing exercises, meditation, ethical self-reflection and the discipline of daily practice), I mean I have found a framework for exploring what I feel deeply, for quieting my mind long enough to listen to the natural flow of my breath, and for attaining a state of consciousness in which the True Self can be more fully revealed.

I understand that this is my path and it is not what yoga is for everyone.
But it will do just fine for me.



4 Nov 2011

Some accidents are meant to happen . . .

 

ac·ci·den·tal

adj.

1. happening by chance or accident; not planned; unexpected.

 

I didn’t set out 10 years ago to become Hindu. Converting to a religion –- or, to be more accurate, accepting one -– was not on my mind.

I had always been a spiritual girl while growing up, but I was not formally a part of any religion. I had supposed, with one parent having been raised Catholic and the other Seventh Day Adventist, that I was nominally Christian. Kind of by default. But I was never told that I was, or that I had to be anything. I was taught a firm set of principles, a sense of right and wrong and personal honour, and then given the tools to explore and make spiritual choices for myself. The only definitive guidance my parents gave me as a teenager was tongue-in-cheek: “Just don’t go running off to join the Hare Krishnas.” I have no idea what I had said or done back then to elicit that droll bit of advice, but it was the 1970s, and young people were doing just that in the US then, so I suppose it didn’t come out of the blue. (I did point out years later that, just maybe, buying a house around the corner from an ISKCON headquarters was probably not the best move, if they wanted to keep me off of that path!)

But I didn’t run away and hitchhike to Alaska (something I had daydreamed of doing), nor did I join ISKCON, I went to university. I went off to New York City and ended up joining a Baptist church near my school, mostly because the young assistant minister was a friend and it provided some sense of family or community, with me being so far away from home. But I never did feel that it was the ‘natural religion of my soul’ -– it never felt ‘like me’ and, in evening bible study, I was always arguing points and defending principles that were decidedly not of the Baptist path. I never fit. It was soon clear that it was time for me to move on. Later on, I befriended several Bahá'ís and made a sincere conversion. I have no regrets having been a Bahá'í for about 9 years of my life. It was the right choice at the time. It was the faith that, with what I knew at the time, most complemented the natural path I had always felt I was on –- it was the best fit. But, again, as the years went on, I realised it was not the right fit. Once again, I went my own way, following what I felt was my natural path, and it led away from the Bahá'í Faith.

That was it for me. I was done trying to find a faith to fit me. I was in my mid thirties, I had tried several paths, and I was content that what I had inside me was enough. No more need to fit in or belong. I did not need any form of congregation to feel at home or to be my family away from my family (I had moved half way across the world by then). And I was fine with that. Years before, I had begun studying yoga and meditation and, eventually, I found a teacher whom I trusted and bonded with. Then I began noticing that the Vedantic teachings I came across were simply right for me. The more I learned, the more everything I was doing -– every prayer, every chant, every asana, every celebration -– felt natural to me. I didn’t notice the exact moment that I had begun to feel entirely at home. But it was a few years along, when asked to fill out a form and to fill in what my religion was, that I found myself writing the word Hindu.

Why on earth had I done that?!

I had shocked myself. Really? Well… yes…. really. It was that simple.

Swami Ambikananda SaraswatiIt was a short while later, while on a study course with my teacher, that I voiced some concern about all this. I told Swamiji that I felt I might be seen as fickle or unserious if anyone found out that, yet again, I found myself on another spiritual path. Her answer was immediate and simple, and she said it was something her own guru, Swami Vekatesananda, had said to her years ago:

“This is not fickleness. This is persistence.”

And with that I felt at ease. I found that –- quite by accident –- I was a Hindu. The Sanātana Dharma was the natural dharma of my soul. It had always been so. I just didn’t know it until later in life.

I have no regrets about the various paths and faiths I studied and accepted along the way. I was on a search to name and become part of the natural conduit for my feelings and my understanding of the universe and how life worked. I finally knew where I was, and the spiritual ‘ground beneath my feet’ felt so natural that I had not noticed the exact moment I began to walk on this path. I just found myself there. Found myself at home.

 


So this blog will be about things that come to my mind on this path. I have been reading other blogs about being a Western Hindu [Also Hindu, The White Hindu, The Anglo Hindu, White Indian Housewife, Western Hindu, White Girl Coming Out of Sari Closet, Western Sanātana Dharma, Yatra, The Shaktona… among others], and I feel I have something to add to this on-going conversation.

Unlike all of the other bloggers I am reading now, I am a black Hindu, not a white one. I am a woman, West Indian-born, live in England now, where there is of course a large Indian-Hindu community all around. And while I know of several other people of African descent who are Hindu, I have not yet read a blog or article that addresses being Hindu from that perspective. So maybe I’ll have something to add there. Not sure what just yet, but there’s got to be something! Hopefully, it will be interesting.

But in general, it’s just going to be me chatting from time to time about things that you might like reading about… and I hope you will dive in and comment a lot and get a conversation going. I look forward to that!