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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!