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21 Dec 2012

Hindu Style: or, what a Jamaican-American-British-European Hindu does at Christmas

 

“Watching my friend’s family argue over the rules of Secret Santa made me aware how many Hindus are pretty loosey-goosey about adopting cultural traditions, as long as they’re fun.” – Shubha Bala, On Being.

 

      We’re planning a pretty fun Christmas in my family – going away to a holiday house in a picturesque village in eastern England where we hope it will snow and the stone and pebble beach will be covered white and we can walk along leaving our footprints. Inside by the fire, we will have a large tree, brilliantly decorated and sparkling, stockings will be stuffed with chocolate oranges and left at the foot of the children’s beds, they will wake up on Christmas morning and rush down to tear open presents from Father Christmas and hope that they haven’t been so naughty that Krampus has come instead and left them boiled potatoes instead of toys. And we will go have a traditional English Christmas Lunch at a nearby pub, and on Boxing Day we’ll make a Jamaican curry and sit by the fire, flipping through the Radio Times to choose what to watch on tv.

This hodge-podge of traditions comes naturally to us, as we bring all of our various traditions and backgrounds and experiences to bear on our unique take on the holiday season. I was born in Jamaica but raised in a Christian family in the USA, so I was raised celebrating Christmas as a cultural and religious festival mixing Jamaican and American traditions. My husband was raised agnostic/atheist in Britain, so he celebrated it mostly as a cultural one. And while my children, British born and raised, consider themselves Hindu “like Mummy,” Christmas is something they learn about at school and is just ‘in the air’ in the culture around them. And it’s just so much fun and they enjoy all of the activities and plays and singing and games…. At home, we make up our own cultural festival with a strong focus on family, with the religious component coming from our usual daily prayers and my son doing his own thought-experiments about how Jesus and Shiva might be related: “I think they’re just like cousins!” he announced one day.

And as my son also said the other day, “We may not be Christian, Mummy, but I love Jesus and this is his happy birthday, and this is all about being in love with our family and with God and loving our selves enough to share what we have with one another.”

Out of the mouths of babes… couldn’t have said it any better myself…. so I will leave this little blog post with that.

Enjoy your holiday season, everyone, no matter how you celebrate it. It’s a beautiful time of year – and I’ll see you all back here in 2013!

 


From Nick TV, a Bhangra Jingle Bells Smile

 

2 Aug 2012

Happy Raksha Bandhan (Rakhi)

 

http://utcdn.udaipurtimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/rakshabandhan.jpgRaksha Bandhan, also abbreviated to Rakhi, is the Hindu festival that celebrates brotherhood and love. It is celebrated on the full moon in the month of Sravana in the lunar calendar.

The word Raksha means protection, whilst Bandhan is the verb to tie. Traditionally, during the festival sisters tie a rakhi, a bracelet made of interwoven red and gold threads, around their brothers' wrists to celebrate their relationship.

Today the festival has developed with others joining in the festivities:

  • Priests tie rakhis around the wrists of congregation members.
  • Rakhis are often shared between close friends.
  • Women tie rakhis around the wrists of the prime minister.
  • Rakhis are tied around the wrists of soldiers.

 

Customs and practices

  • As the rakhi is tied, a prayer is offered asking for happiness and prosperity.
  • Today rakhis are often decorated with multi-coloured silk thread, and often adorned with stones and beads.
  • Once the rakhi has been tied a mantra is chanted either in Sanskrit or Punjabi.
  • At the end of the ceremony the sister places a sweet in her mouth. Following this her brother gives her a small monetary gift of appreciation.
  • This festival has evolved over the years to encompass the importance of many people in Hindu society, yet foremost it continues to honour and uphold the relationship between a sister and brother.

via the BBC religions site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/holydays/raksha.shtml 

 


3 May 2012

Sankalpa | Resolve

 

 

stone2I’ve been a bit quiet lately on this blog. Sorry about that. When I began, I had hoped I’d do two posts a month minimum – maybe even one a week! Those were my best intentions, but being a working mother of two young children, a student (I’m studying vegetarian nutrition and injury assessment) and trying to build my own business as a yoga instructor and massage therapist, my best laid plans tend to go awry. I’ve just been really busy.

Also, I’ve been reading other people’s blogs a lot. Getting more of an idea of the kinds of things I may want to write about, but also getting an idea of style. Because I have an academic background, I think sometimes my style of writing tends to be too distant for a blog. I’m not personal enough. I don’t share enough, but rather have so far kept a very editorial or academic distance. The blogs I admire the most – while not all being ‘confessional’ in nature – are the ones where the blogger does share some detail or personal anecdote, something more intimate than just he-said, she-said, this-happened-then-that. So I’m going to take a shot at shifting the writing style on this blog a bit and sharing something that’s been going on with me and relating it to Hindu teachings.

yogabody12One of the reasons I’ve been so quiet in the blogosphere lately is that, when not doing just the everyday busy-ness of my work and family life, I’ve been busy practicing yoga nidra and establishing sankalpa in relation to my immediate circumstances and my overall goals in life. While yoga asana, prayer and puja are still part of my day-to-day, my spiritual practice has been taken up largely by practicing yoga nidra and attempting to focus my resolve, my best intentions.

My sankalpa – which one essayist describes as “the resolve, determination and good intention that resonates precisely in your core and aligns sublimely with your essence” – for my life in general is a simple one suggested by Swami Satyananda himself: I will develop my spiritual potential. But for more immediate concerns, I have focused on the sankalpa: I will regain my health.

When my partner and I decided to become parents ten years ago, we had no idea the time and toll it would take. We were both fit and healthy people then – he was a scuba diver and diving instructor and had run the London Marathon, and I was practicing yoga daily, studying for my yoga teaching certificate, country walking had become a passion, and I was training for my one and only half-marathon (…which I managed to complete. I’m not a natural runner, but it was a challenge I wanted to take on just once in life). We ate well, rested well, and were lucky enough to enjoy an overall healthy, comfortable lifestyle. What we didn’t count on was the variable gifts and challenges of our genetics and the ineffable nature of luck. While we had no trouble conceiving, we had a great deal of trouble bringing the pregnancies to term. Over the course of the past decade, I was blessed with seven pregnancies yet suffered several miscarriages and a still-birth of my middle child, a daughter. We now have two wonderful, healthy children, a boy of seven and girl of three, and our family is complete.

But these times and the trials took their toll on my mind, emotions and health. Because the medical professionals we saw could not pinpoint any acute reason for our losses – and not wanting to just speak the plain and simple truth that many people don’t want to hear: that some people just have bad luck and that sometimes these things just happen -- they settled oddly on the fact that maybe we were ‘too active’ (one nurse told me this) or ‘too healthy’ (that’s not how they put it, exactly, but that was the effect in the end). I was told to stop doing yoga, stop exercising, stop even my daily walking, even just walking with the dog. I was told to basically just – stop. I settled down to a lifestyle just short of bed rest.

It didn’t help. I still miscarried and suffered the stillbirth despite giving up what was, for me, a very focused and enjoyable expression of fitness and health in my life. I sunk into depression and ate comforting foods to try to numb my bad feelings – the foods that reminded me of childhood, the comforts of family get-togethers, the foods that made me feel padded, if you will, buffeted away from my emotions. They were largely unhealthy foods or non-vegetarian foods (which aren’t necessarily problematic in themselves, except for the fact that I had been a dedicated vegetarian). So, following advice, well- and ill-advised, I ate away my feelings and stopped exercising, stopped doing yoga asana practice (and for a time stopped prayer, meditation and study of Hindu writings), and I ate some more, and buried myself, figuratively and literally, under a mountain of ill health and over seventy excess pounds. I buried my feelings and hopes and got more and more padded, physically and emotionally. In spiritual terms, I was desperate. In physical terms, I was obese and desperately unhealthy, manifesting different forms of illness and disease with each passing month (asthma, skin disorders, arthritis, digestive problems, inflammation, to name a few, and I was courting diabetes).

While I managed to build a family at last, and we have these lovely and amazing children, what I was left with of myself was an enormous mass of ill-health – physical, emotional and spiritual dis-ease.

 

imageIt took a long time to get back to myself. Or rather, it took a long time to get back on this road that I will continue to travel towards that ultimate destination – a realisation of my Self. But with the help of my faith, my family and diving deeply back into my spiritual practice – particularly asana practice, meditation, yoga nidra – along with an improvement in my diet and a return to physical fitness activities, I have become healthy again.

During these weeks of silence on the blog, I have been rising at 5 am each weekday to do pranayama and sun salutations, head off to the gym at 6 am for a workout, come home to prepare my children for school and then get down to the day of working or studying. The result has been a weight loss of almost 60 lbs (or, over 4 stone, in British terms), a reduction in the use of my asthma and arthritis medications, a complete disappearance of a veritable plethora of other vague symptoms and niggling aches and pains that I had begun to feel were just a part of life, but which I’m happy to realise were just part of the lessons these past ten years have taught me. And now that I have recognised and (hopefully) learned from those lessons, no matter how hard they have been, I’m now ready to let them go. I let go of the weight and ill-health markers on the physical plane, but the corresponding up-lift in the emotional and spiritual realms is the truly profound change.

So I’m healthier and happier today than the last time I blogged here for you. My children have a better role model in their mother as far as their own health and spiritual well-being is concerned. I feel more capable and energetic and able to give them more of my time and to share more with them of what this past decade of life has taught me about tough times and making your way through them.

And, from now on, I hope to be able to have more time to share more things with you about what I’m learning on this path of mine, and to hear more from you about your own lessons and joys and ups and downs and trials and successes, etc, etc, etc…

Thank you for hanging in there during the silent weeks and for coming back to read more and continue in this on-going conversation of ours.

Namaste.




13 Apr 2012

April silence . . .

 

A mountain is composed of tiny grains of earth. The ocean is made up of tiny drops of water. Even so, life is but an endless series of little details, actions, speeches, and thoughts. And the consequences whether good or bad of even the least of them are far-reaching.

-- Swami Sivananda


shiva3 

It's been a very quiet month on the blog -- sorry about that.

But many people have still been dropping by, reading older posts and clicking the response boxes and sending private notes. And we've even gotten a few more people joining us on Facebook.

Thank you all for hanging in there during this brief quiet period.

It's the school holidays for two weeks, so I’ve been busy having both children home and keeping them active and entertained, and I've also been going through some life changes that I'll be blogging about shortly. So things will get more lively around here soon. Promise!

I hope you all have been well and, for those of you in England, that you managed to enjoy the few amazingly glorious days of warmth and sunshine we had recently – hopefully Spring will truly spring for us and they will come back.

-- Stephanie




8 Mar 2012

Wishing you all a colourful & happy Holi!

 

Sorry that I’ve been quiet for the past few weeks. A lot of family things to take care of this month. But I wanted to pop in to wish you all a happy & colourful Holi. For those who’ve not celebrated or don’t know of Holi – please read here about Holi: the Festival of Colours. Enjoy your day! xoxo

 

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18 Feb 2012

Śiva and the Mystic Night

Monday, 20 February 2012 is Maha-Śivaratri (Mahashivaratri | महाशिवरात्रि).

 


M
aha-Śivaratri is a Hindu festival celebrated every year on the thirteenth night/fourteenth day of Phalguna, the twelfth month of the Hindu calendar –– this year it falls on February 20th in the Western calendar. It is the night dedicated to reverence of Lord Śiva. “In our religious tradition, Lord Śiva is represented as an aspect of God, the Almighty,” Swami Krishnananda has said. “He presents before us the ideal of supreme renunciation born of Divine Realisation.”

The term Maha-Śivaratri translates as the great (maha) night (ratri) of Śiva (the auspicious one).  On this night it is believed the Lord is in close proximity to humankind. At midnight, Śiva’s divine vibrations will resound in the human heart. If you are engaged in sacred tasks –– such as fasting, prayers and making offerings –– then it’s believed you will be suffused with Śiva’s divine vibrations.

Throughout India and around the world the day is observed in various ways, basically by fasting during the day and engaging in a vigil during the night:

  • A traditional way is for devotees to “keep as severe fast, chant the sacred Panchakshara mantra Om Namah Shivaya, make offerings of flowers and incense to the Lord amidst ringing of temple bells,” then to “maintain long vigils during the night, keeping awake to listen to stories, hymns and songs. The fast is broken only the next morning, after the nightlong worship.”
  • A simpler but just as beneficial way is to begin the day by offering bilva leaves to Lord Śiva, to do a full or modified fast during the day (explained below) and a night vigil that aims only to reach the sacred midnight hour.
  • Even simpler is to set down a clean white cloth and place a flower upon it to honour Śiva. Then repeat the Panchakshara mantra in your mind throughout the day, as you endeavour to abstain from solid foods.

These are just three ways, there are others, and no one way is better or more holy than the other. The efficacy of any sacred task lies in your love and the clarity of your intent.


Bilva leaves

The bilva tree has been called Lord Śiva’s Tree and it’s leaves are considered particularly blessed. From Swami Satyananda’s commentary on the Śiva Purāṇa we learn:

The bilva tree is the manifest form of Lord Śiva himself.... One who worships the Śiva lingam while sitting under the bilva attains the state of Śiva. Washing the head by this tree is said to be the equivalent of bathing in all the sacred rivers. One who performs bilva puja with flowers and incense achieves Śiva-loka, the abode of pure consciousness, and has happiness and prosperity bestowed upon them. The lighting of the deepak (lamp) before this tree bestows knowledge and enables the devotee to merge in Lord Śiva.


Fasting

There are many feasting and fasting days in Hinduism, with the Śivaratri fast considered to be the most important for the devotees of Lord Śiva – as the Lord is the supreme renunciate, we fast to temporarily partake of this supreme state. In the Śiva Purāṇa it is said that if you fast on this day with sincerity, devotion and love, you will be blessed with Śiva‘s divine grace.

While some people fast by foregoing any sustenance, even water, others modify the fast according to their age, health, constitution and the demands of their work and home life. A modified fast could mean simply abjuring any solid foods (having only clear soups, juices, water, etc.) or limiting the diet to a two or three simple foods –– one classic modified fast consists of only fruit and milk.

The point of fasting is not to feel desperate and suffer, but rather to exercise your spiritual muscles, so to speak. By fasting you forego normal eating in order to introduce discipline to the day and to help you control two great natural forces: rajas (the guna or quality of yearning, appetite and passionate activity) and tamas (the guna or quality of inertia and apathy). When devotees spend an entire day fasting with sincerity, they get a better understanding of the qualities of commitment, determination and surrender.

Spiritual fasting is not supposed to be an act of gritting your teeth and suffering through, but of letting go and feeling closer to God.


The Lingam

An evening vigil for Maha-Śivaratri could include chanting of a sacred text such as the Rudram, puja, meditation, aarathi and traditional abhisheka – the enacted prayer or worship of the Lingam.

Lingam ritual is often artlessly translated into Western language and thought as ‘phallus worship’ and sadly burdened with a great deal of Victorian-era academic theories and later Western psychoanalytic baggage that are alien to the Hindu tradition. While interesting on a theoretical level, these theories have little to do with how practicing Hindus think of God.

For the Hindu, the Lingam and the base it sits within, the Yoni, are not naïve penis and vulva substitutes, they are paradoxes in that they are ‘forms’ meant to signal the divine ‘formlessness’ or ultimate attribute-less (including genderless) nature of God.

Religion journalist Subhamoy Das explains it this way:

Shiva Linga speaks to the devotee in the unmistakable language of silence, and it is only the outward symbol of the formless being, Lord Shiva, who is the undying soul seated in the chambers of your heart, who is your in-dweller, your innermost self or Atman, and who is identical with the supreme Brahman.

The Linga is like an egg, and represents the Brahmanda or the cosmic egg. Linga signifies that the creation is effected by the union of Prakriti and Purusha, the male and the female powers of Nature. Linga also signifies Satya, Jnana and Ananta - Truth, Knowledge and Infinity.


Abhisheka for Maha-Śivaratri usually includes bathing the Lingam with milk, honey, butter, ghee, or rose-water.


The Mystic Night

Swami Krishnananda wrote a chapter in his book Spiritual Import of Religious Festivals on Śivaratri called The Mystic Night. In it he encapsulates the significance of this beautiful night and gives an outline of traditional activities and rituals and the meanings behind them.

Śivaratri is a blessed occasion for all to practise self- restraint, self-control, contemplation, Svadhyaya, Japa and meditation, as much as possible within our capacity. We have a whole of the night at our disposal. We can do Japa or we can do the chanting of the Mantra, Om Namah Sivaya. You can also meditate. It is a period of Sadhana. Functions like the Maha Śivaratri, Ramanavami, Janmashtami, Navaratri are not functions in the sense of festoons and celebrations for the satisfaction of the human mind; they are functions of the Spirit, they are celebrations of the Spirit. In as much as we are unable to think of God throughout the day, for all the 365 days of the year, such occasions are created, so that at least periodically we may recall to our memory our original destiny, our Divine Abode. The glory of God is displayed before us in the form of these spiritual occasions.

 

“Lord Siva is easily pleased. He is called Asutosh.
Asutosh means 'easily pleased'. He is not a difficult Person.
You can quickly please Lord Siva. If you call Him, He will come.”

-- Swami Krishnananda

 


On Sunday, 19 November 2012, Swami Ambikananda of the Traditional Yoga Association
spoke on BBC Radio Berkshire about Maha Shivaratri.



25 Jan 2012

Singing the Song of God: What is your favourite quote from the Bhagavad Gita?

 

 

 


 

You cannot even begin to conceive
how much I care for you.

I am your eternal refuge. Do not be afraid.
I promise, I will save you.”


 

This is my favourite quotation from the Bhagavad Gita.

I have it pinned to my bedroom wall. But I don’t know which of the many translations of the Gita this came from. I make it a habit of reading a different translation each year, and when I came across this quotation (in a book called The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism), I quickly jotted it down, desperate to find out which translation it was from. But the book’s author does not say -– so I have been on a hunt for it ever since.

If you know, please tell me!

The quote is from the end of the Gita and forms part of the final words of Krishna (the preceptor, the embodiment of the Lord in the Gita) to Arjuna (the student, the warrior, the embodiment of every human soul). Every translation renders it somewhat differently. The one I am seeking (above) appears to be from an English translation from the latter part of the 20th or early 21st century. I’m guessing that based solely on the ‘feel’ of the language and use of common terms, rather than the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and similar language, as was common of Victorian translations, for instance. It is obviously a translation meant to reach the masses and touch the heart, not a particularly scholarly text. But other than that, I have no clues.

This is the relevant passage in Sanskrit transliteration:

Sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja,
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo mokshayishyami ma sucah
(18.66).

And this is how the English-American novelist Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda, Indian philosopher of the Ramakrishna Order, translated it in The Song of God in 1944:

This is my promise
Who love you dearly,
Lay down all duties
In me, your refuge.
Fear no longer,
For I will save you
From sin and from bondage.

Here’s Swami Dayananda’s translation in The Teaching of the Bhagavad Gita:

Giving up all actions, seek Me as your sole refuge. I will liberate you from all sins; do not grieve.

And Swami Krishnananda, in his Commentary on the Bhagavadgita, provides this explication of what the quotation means:

The power of God is greater than the power of all the people in the world, in all creation. Renounce all the rules and regulations of the temporal world, which are temporary because they require transformation, change, emendation from moment to moment; but stick to the supreme dharma which is devotion to Me. Leave other dharmas which are characteristic of performance of work, etc., in the world of diversity, because all that variety of dharma is subsumed under this greatest of dharmas, that is love of God. There is no dharma equal to that.

There are varieties of dharmas in this world: family dharma, individual dharma, social dharma, political dharma, kshatriya dharma, brahmana dharma, and so on. They are all good in their own way, in their own place, but they are all nothing before the utter surrender of the soul to God. And all these dharmas, these rules, these Smrtis, these law codes – these systems of operation of secular dharma – are all included in that highest of spiritual dharmas, namely, unity with God.

Mamekam saranam vraja: “Surrender yourself to Me, and resort to Me only. I shall destroy all your sins.” This is a great statement indeed...

These and other translations help me to understand this favourite passage and the Gita as a whole in different ways, bringing to light diverse aspects of the text and its meaning. But they don’t surpass, for me, that particular favourite quote. Once something touches you in a certain way, it becomes personal. Your own personal bit of the Gita. So if you can help me out and you know which translation it is from, please share it here. I’d be so grateful.

 

 

In the meanwhile, please share your own favourite quote from the Gita. I’d love to know which part of it touches you or means the most to you.





19 Jan 2012

Samādhi

 

Samādhi in Hinduism is the highest level of meditation, in which the mind becomes still and one-pointed. It is a non-dualistic state of consciousness in which the person meditating, while still physiologically awake, leaves behind the trappings of herself/himself and becomes one with the Self, the ultimate object of meditation (Universe, God, Being, Brahman).

 

Meditation is Samādhi when it shines with the Object of meditation alone. The thinker and the meditated become one. The separate notions contemplation, contemplated and contemplator vanish... Samādhi or blissful divine experience arises when the ego and the mind are dissolved. It is a state to be attained by one’s own effort. It is limitless, divisionless and infinite. When this experience is realised, the mind, desires, actions and feelings of joy and sorrow vanish into a void.

In Samādhi or Superconsciousness the student gets merged into the Lord. The senses, the mind and the intellect cease functioning. Just as the river joins the ocean, the individual soul mixes with the Supreme Soul. Samādhi bestows Supreme Knowledge, and one is freed from the wheel of births and deaths and gets Kaivalya (Moksha) or liberation.

-- Swami Sivananda

 

In samadhi you enter yourself fully conscious, fully alert. And once you are at the centre fully alert, you will never be the same again. Now you will know who you are. Now you will know that your possessions, your actions are just on the periphery; they are just the ripples, not your nature.

-- Osho

 

Mukti (liberation) is synonymous with the Self.

-- Ramana Maharshi

 

Honour your Self. Worship your Self. Meditate on your Self. God dwells within you as You.

-- Swami Muktananda

 

samadhi is the atomic explosion
of the sushumna blue line
triggered by meetings of several chakras
in a rapid vertical atomic explosion
experiencing beyond the boundaries of the bodymind form
one with the open sky

-- Swami Rajneesh

 

 






18 Jan 2012

BLACKOUT: Protesting the SOPA and PIPA ‘censorship’ bills

 

I’m not technical enough, so I don’t know how to blackout my entire site here on Blogger. But, for what it is worth, this blog is in support of the one-day protest of the SOPA & PIPA bills to be voted on in the US Congress.


 Why is a lone lady Hindu UK-based yoga blogger even interested in this? Well...

Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, told the BBC: "Proponents of SOPA have characterised the opposition as being people who want to enable piracy or defend piracy. But... the bill is so overly broad and so badly written that it's going to impact all kinds of things that don't have anything to do with stopping piracy."

An internet user from the UK has expressed why the blackout should be global:

“When I read on the SOPA page ‘The bill would authorize the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders against websites outside U.S. jurisdiction’, this belief that the world's most powerful nation has the right to censor anyone on the planet and extend its laws anywhere it wants just because someone in the US doesn't like something is more than worrying. It’s a thin edge of the wedge... One day's inconvenience is nothing.”

One site that will be down entirely is The Western Hindu blog. Here is what Tāndava has to say about why he is joining the protest:

Why am I doing this on a religious blog? The reason is that the SOPA and PIPA rules will allow anyone to get an American court order to take down a site for copyright violation, even if that violation is in a comment. This means they can remove any .com or .org or other non-national address and leave people in the rest of the world with no recourse unless they can afford to go to America and appeal the decision. They can also force search engines not to list sites and service based in the US like WordPress to remove them. Since contesting this wall cost money, it is quite likely that most actions will be unopposed.

In the past religious groups have used copyright law for monetary gain, to keep secrets, suppress splinter groups,  and most worryingly to avoid criticism and debate.  With SOPA in force if someone didn't like a comment they could apply for the site removal. Very possibly the first a blogger would know about it is when the blog disappeared. If they did get any notice if could well be "Turn up in a court in New York, Honolulu, or Anchorage if you want to object".


 


Latest updates:

Obama comes out against piracy legislation

Tim Bray, Not Piracy

Stop Sopa or the web really will go dark: The corporations lobbying for Sopa
know exactly what they want: control of online information for profit.

The Guardian Explainer: Understanding Sopa

 








15 Jan 2012

Accept these and speak sweet words. . . Makara Sankranti

 

Last night at 8pm, I sat for meditation and japa. This morning, I started the day with Gayatri mantra and surya namaskar. While my children are very interested in Mummy’s candles, incense and ‘singing’ (as they call chanting mantra), I’m the only practicing Hindu in the family (so far) and they would usually prefer to dance around to music or watch tv. But my son did join me for mediation last night, and my daughter was very interested to sit with me this morning and listen to Swamiji on the local Radio Berkshire discussing Makara Sankranti.

Starting last night and throughout today, Hindus and Indians of other faiths the world over begin celebrating this festival. Depending on where you are from, the festival is called one of several of names, celebrated for various reasons and in a variety of ways. So there is no way to say comprehensively, in a short post, just what Makara Sankranti (or Samkranti, Sankranthi, Pongal, Uttarayan or Maghi) exactly means to everyone. So rather than try to synopsise all the reasons for the festival and how it will be celebrated, I will highlight the ones that are pertinent to me and my family, and I will include Swamiji’s radio interview, where she explains more.

People exchange sweets as tokens of goodwill (traditionally halwa: sugar granules coated in sugar syrup; and til-gul ladoos: made from sesame seeds and jaggery – but in our household, Ferrero Rocher usually suffice). People greet each other with the words Tilgulghya, god god bola: Accept these and speak sweet words. I will also regale my children with my best American accent (I grew up in the USA) and the American colloquialism, “Give me some sugar,” which means ‘come here and give me a kiss’. Overall, this is a time to forget the past ill-feelings and hostilities and resolve to speak sweetly and remain friends.

According to Hindu astrology (jyotish), Makara Sankranti is the day Surya (the Sun) enters Makara (Capricorn) and so begins the Northern journey of the Sun. This ‘summer journey of the gods’ is the time when we start to enjoy more daylight here in the northern hemisphere, and it is universally considered a time when your activities may well prove to be more auspicious – it’s a lucky time, so to speak.

Also, according to a story in the Puranas, on this day Surya visits the house of his son Shani (the planet Saturn), who is the lord of the Makar rashi (the zodiac Capricorn). Though the father and son do not get along well, Surya makes it a point to meet his son on this day each year. He remains in his son’s house, for a month (astrologically and metaphorically). This day thus symbolises the importance of the special relationship between father and son...

My own son likes that part very much and has been giving his father random hugs all day and trying to pronounce Tilgulghya, god god bola’ (oh yes, and he and his sister have loved this latest reason to get more sweets!).


 




4 Jan 2012

In the shade of Arunachala: Interview with author Sharon Maas

 

“I’m a black Hindu,” said Aruna Sharan, a writer commenting on an article on the much-admired Western Hindu blog entitled Not all Western Hindus are white. “My path is Vedanta Advaita, as taught by Ramana Maharshi. Aruna Sharan is actually a pen name. Aruna is taken from the holy mountain Arunachala, my spiritual home. And Sharan means ‘refuge’ in Sanskrit, as well as being an alternative spelling of my ‘real’ name, Sharon.”

 

Sharon Maas is author of the best-selling HarperCollins novel Of Marriageable Age, Peacocks Dancing and Speech of Angels.

“I feel I communicate much better through writing than through speech,” Maas said when interviewed for Peacocks Dancing. “I'm actually rather shy -- so to have the stories come out in this form and to find readers is for me an enormous fulfilment.”  The latest story from Maas, written under the pen name Aruna Sharan, is Sons of Gods: the Mahabharata Retold, a unique novelisation of the Indian classic.

Writing Sons of Gods has been a labour of love for Maas, having taken her nearly 40 years. “I first read the Mahabharata in 1973, in India. The version I read was the big fat book by Kamala Subramaniam. I stayed up all night to finish it, and when it was over I decided then and there that this was the Book to end all Books. It was simply amazing. I'd been a voracious reader all my life, but never had I been so floored by a story.”

In her blog about the experience of writing and getting her version published, Maas says, “Everything you might find in a modern novel you'll find in the Mahabharata. There's love, sex and betrayal; gender-change, gratuitous violence, addiction, humour, superheroes, mind weapons, atomic bombs, magic, blood and gore aplenty. Finally there's the mighty battle of Kurukshetra; and, even with victory, ‘good’ is not the clear winner.”

This first experience of the Mahabharata came during Maas’ first two years living in India -- in a cottage near the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, in the shade of mount Arunachala. Her time there in early 70s found her falling deeper in love, not only with this great Hindu epic, but with India itself. She has returned many times since, almost annually, and has come to consider it as home. “I am irrevocably, everlastingly in love with India,” Maas has written. “If you have read any of my books you will know this. People ask, Why India? If you have to ask you won't accept any answer I can give, because the answer is not rational.”

Tell us about where were you born, where you grew up. Are there any remarkable aspects of your family or upbringing you’d like to share?

I was born in Guyana, South America, to a very untypical family. My mother was one of the country’s first feminists, an outspoken, socially active woman determined to change society. My father was a sworn Marxist; he was close to the country’s very rebellious Opposition Leader and on-again-off-again Prime Minister/President, Cheddi Jagan. It was a politically charged atmosphere in which to grow up. I was their only child; when I was three my mother decided my dad was too much of a chauvinist (he wanted her to be a stay-home mum) and so she divorced him. By that time she was already earning her own money and owned her own home, and she had built-in child care with my grandmother and aunts, so it was no problem. Divorce was extremely rare in those days. She must have been one of the first women in the whole country to do so, so it was all a bit of a scandal, and I felt it. I longed for the safety and comfort of a traditional family.

My father remarried and had four boys after me. My mother stayed single all her life. She is now 94 and living all on her own in Guyana. Quite an extraordinary woman.

Were you raised in a religious environment? Was religion, spirituality or any particular life philosophy part of your upbringing?

My parents were both atheist. My mother actually defined herself as a rationalist and a humanist, and raised me on philosophers such as Bertrand Russell. For my father it was Marx-Lenin all the way. They were good, caring people who bent over backwards to help the underprivileged in the country, and I suppose that was as good a religion as any. But it left me wanting.

In those days (1950’s-early 60’s) atheism was of course very rare, not the way it is today. To declare yourself as one was to do something very radical and expose yourself to scorn and disapproval. So they were very courageous people in their own way.

I picked up Christianity quite naturally from the world outside my parents. Mum and I lived by now in her family home, and her very Christian sister taught me all she thought I needed to know about Jesus. My dad had a very Christian brother, and there’s a rumour that those two had me secretly baptised. I don’t know if it is true. And of course, school taught me the rest about Christianity -- prayers and hymns and Christmas Carols and Nativity Plays.

When I was ten my mother sent me to boarding school in England, at my own request. There I got a very thorough grounding in Christianity, as it was a staunchly Church of England school. I can still recite the prayers and collects we had to learn by heart, and recall word for word some of the hymns we sang each day.

So I grew up between these two extremes: radical atheism and devoted Christianity. The atheism satisfied my mind but not my heart. Christianity fulfilled my heart (I still melt when I hear those old hymns) but was inadequate for my mind. There had to be more, I felt. For a while, in my teens, I too was a radical atheist. For another while I went to Church every week; though it was more because I was interested in a boy in that church than for any other reason.

But even as a child under ten I was asking myself questions about God, about life and death, about consciousness. I must have been about 8 when I decided that if there was a God, then He must be Something so utterly magnificent, so vast, so powerful, we humans would be like little ants beside him. And I used to wonder where thoughts came from, and if I could stop them, and what lay behind thought, and whether it was possible for consciousness to die -- not using the word consciousness, of course, but being aware of something in me that was inherently permanent. What is a mind? I asked myself.

Do you call yourself black, mixed race, Latina...all of the above...none? Can you explain if race, culture or ethnicity was integral to your upbringing or faith?

My parents were both mixed race. One of my great-grandmothers was pure Amerindian, but mostly we are descended from Dutch, British and African mixtures. In Guyana in those days we would have been known as Coloured Middle Class, which was a ‘good’ thing to be, because it meant you had been lifted out of the labouring lower class and were just one step behind ‘white’. Our society was very hierarchical, and people were exactly aware of which layer they were in. They looked up at those above them and down at those below them. Women would try to marry ‘up’. Class and race consciousness was a big part of who you were and where you could go.

Once I became aware of the injustice of racism and racial prejudice I began to call myself Black. The word, I feel, eliminates all the ridiculous colour-grading, and turns the ‘one-drop’ system on its head: if you had ‘one drop’ of black, you were racially inferior, even if you looked white. And you’d do your best to deny that ‘one drop’, to hide it, to align yourself with white. So to call oneself Black is to denounce that system.

However, it’s all very well to know intellectually that racial inequality is wrong; it’s quite another thing to overcome the sense of inferiority you get as a child ‘knowing’ you are not good enough. That sense of inferiority seemed ingrained within me; it was as if I constantly wore rags I couldn’t throw off—even though I knew better from an intellectual perspective. And I think it was that sense of inferiority that was the driving factor in my search for my true religion.

When and how did you first come across Hinduism?

Guyana had and has a very high percentage of Indians; something like 51%. They were Hindus and Muslims, and Hinduism and Islam have long been recognised religions in the country, so I was always aware of Hindu culture. In the market there would be stalls selling Hindu artefacts, pictures of Krishna, incense and so on.

It wasn’t till my teens, however, that I got closer to Hinduism; that was because my very closest friend came from a staunch Hindu family. I remember being very curious about it all, but far too shy to ask her parents anything.

So here was I, a teen with very radical ideas but a deep sense of inadequacy; shy yet rebellious and full of inner conflict, totally without orientation, tossing like a boat on a stormy sea. I felt ugly. I was sure no boy would ever like me, and of course that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I grew fat. I smoked, drank and partied, and led a very shallow life. My mother was the most liberal parent in the country, so I could do whatever I liked and go wherever I wanted without restriction -- quite the opposite to my Hindu friend, who couldn’t go anywhere or even talk to boys (we went to an all-girls school; by this time I was back from England). I was desperately unhappy, but didn’t show it. I pretended to be happy-go-lucky and full of fun, but I certainly never felt that way. I felt like a lump of shit.

When I left school I got a job as a journalist for the country’s biggest Sunday newspaper. There too I had a free hand, and I chose to interview interesting people who came in from abroad.

One of these was a Swiss woman named Margaret Cohen. She was a Yoga teacher, and was staying with an Indian man who was a Hatha Yoga teacher. She had come to give a talk. I went to interview her. She told me all about Yoga and from that moment on I was a convert. I knew that this was what I had been looking for all my life.

Mind you, she spoke about the philosophy of Yoga, not about the physical discipline. But when she left, I went to my first Hatha Yoga class. I came out walking on air. I felt so light, so free, so essentially me for the first time ever. It was as if I had thrown off those rags with one fell swoop. I became the most diligent pupil in that class, and within a month I had lost all my excess weight. I also stopped drinking and smoking immediately. A new sense of identity had replaced that old ragged thing I had carried around with me.

But I still had a long path before me. I went travelling for a year through South America, and I realised there was still so much I had to learn, so far I had to go. I went to the library and read every book I could find on Hinduism and spirituality. One day I found there a book about Ramana Maharshi, then completely unknown in the West (and not to be confused with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles’ guru). When I read it, I just knew. I wrote to the ashram in India and asked for a photo (the one in the book had been torn out) and when it arrived I simply burst into tears. I knew I had to go to India.

I left about a year later, aged 22. I didn’t have much money so I went overland, through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan. An amazing trip, but nothing interested me except getting to the destination.

Once I got there, I knew I was at home. I just cannot describe the peace and serenity and yet vibrancy of that place. I lived in the ashram for a while and then found my own little cottage just outside its boundaries; I stayed for 18 months. I immersed myself in meditation practice. The method Ramana Maharshi taught takes you down to the very root of your personality, the source of thought itself, to that solid ground where you are whole, your identity complete instead of splintered and lacking. There, all my inferiority issues melted away to nothing. Ramana Maharshi of course had been ‘dead’ before I was even born, but it was as if he was a living presence there, and still is. The ashram provides no instruction so I had to pick it up through practice, with the help of books and a wonderful German doctor who had lived there for 20 years.

But that was just the beginning—the healing of old wounds was the first step of a lifelong practice that grows more rewarding as I grow older. It’s like having my own source of joy and strength constantly at my disposal, no matter what life may throw my way—if only I turn there.

The ashram is still my home, and I’ve been returning again and again over the last 38 years. One day I hope to retire nearby.

Did you find that your race played any part, positively or negatively, in how you were accepted as a Hindu? or was it a non-issue? Are you the only one of your acquaintance who is, for lack of a better phrase, 'a black Hindu'?

The fact of my deep inferiority through the racism endemic in my native culture was a huge driving factor in my search for a spiritual home. If I had been confident, self-assured, settled within myself, I would probably never have been a seeker. It was the need to know who I truly am that drove me—and who I truly am has nothing to do with race or ethnicity or anything else. Who I am is pure eternal consciousness. That is Ramana Maharshi’s teaching: find out who you are; the practice of Self-Enquiry he taught is the direct way to that true identity.

When he was in the world he never made any distinction between people. Old and young, rich and poor, royalty and peasant, men and women came to him, and even animals, and each received the same loving and compassionate treatment. His essential teaching is that we are one; not in a wishy-washy vague sense, but there really is only the Oneness, and all that separates us one from another is the sense of I-ness. The closer we come to knowing who we really are, so too does our behaviour towards others and the world change: there are no differences. The differences we perceive are all on the surface. He used the example of a film playing on a screen. We live in the pictures. To know that oneness is to see and experience the screen behind the ever-changing pictures; which are mere superimpositions on that screen. Then and only then is it possible to treat every single person with true equality.

And the ashram is run in the same manner. I was never given any sense of being different there, even though, when I first came, I must have looked strange as I had this huge Afro hairstyle. But I was always welcome. Many Indians have told me that I have a Hindu soul and must have been a Hindu in my last life. It certainly feels that way. My race and background is no more than an externality; I no longer consider it important. It’s not who I really am. I do know many non-Indian Hindus, but they are all Caucasian.

There can be no differences in true spirituality. We live in our bodies, but we are not those bodies. Body-identification is the first and most pervasive identification—as we can see today with the emphasis on youth and beauty—and my race, which used to be such a defining factor when I was growing up—has become irrelevant.

In the West nobody knows about my spiritual life. It is private and intimate, and unless someone asks questions I do not talk about it. I certainly don’t go around announcing “I am a Hindu”.

On Christmas day I went to a Catholic service with my landlady/friend. I love to celebrate with Christians or people with all religions, if they are sincere. I feel no need to identify myself as different just because I go a different path. I now live as a black person in Germany, and whereas 30 years ago I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb in this predominantly white society, this time around (I’m now 60) I feel very much at home, and that is how I am treated as well.

Yet still, I’ve felt for a long time the drive to write publicly about race, culture, ethnicity and religion. I began doing this through fiction, in the late 90’s, when my first book, Of Marriageable Age, was published by HarperCollins. It had a moderate success, and two other books were subsequently published. All of these had an ‘Indian’ theme and dealt with culture, race and integration. I went on to write other books set in Guyana, but these were deemed not commercial enough by my publisher. Writing, I feel, is my task in life—my dharma, as Hindus call it. I need to do it, and so I simply carry on, writing what I felt needed to be written, whether or not it gets published.

One of these books is a version of great Indian epic The Mahabharata, which I’ve been working on for over 30 years. As there are already so many versions of it on the market, it was of course next to impossible to find a publisher for it, and so it is being self-published as an e-book. It went on sale as a Kindle book on January 1st 2012.

For anyone who wants to understand the Hindu perspective of life and religion, this is the book to read; but apart from that it’s just a magnificent story too little known in the West. I truly hope Sons of Gods—as this book is called—changes that just a little.

 


The cloud lifted from Pandu’s heart and he rejoiced;

for his sons would be sons of gods.”

 

It’s the greatest story ever told. A most excellent story, deep as the ocean and full of priceless gems. Whatever is not in it is not anywhere. Whoever hears it and understands just a little of it is freed of darkness. It will still be told thousands of years from today. – Veda Vyasa