Category Archives: Blogging Hinduism

Mickey Mouse Hindus

By Mona Vijaykar

Om signHere we are, ramping up to a season of Hindu festivals which began with Ganapati’s arrival in September. Yet, these occasions have evidently lost their original spiritual significance and are more likely opportunities for  consumption of spirits, instead!  Some Hindus do go through the motions of performing “sacred rituals” but, often, with the attitude of a child who is made to repeat a hundred lines in detention. Even multiple enactments of the Ramayana may have failed to rescue us from our ignorance. Some of us were probably mortified by the inconceivable Vanar Sena!

Apart from a few who have thankfully discovered Hindu wisdom from Masters across the globe, most of us are clueless about the precious knowledge preserved in the scriptures. With the absence of any formal Hindu spiritual education, I am reminded of the hapless “Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka na ghat ka.” As a result we have lost out on valuable tools to deal with life’s challenges. Generations of Hindus have grown up totally disconnected from the philosophy, due to what I call, the ‘Disneyfication’ of Hinduism.

A five year old child who wonders how his tooth falls and disappears will bite the Tooth Fairy explanation.  He may even clobber his older brother for challenging his belief, but as an adult he will abandon the Tooth Fairy for the encyclopedia.  The Disney approach to knowledge must lead to the channel of Discovery to acquire a logical, scientific understanding of life.

Yet, we Hindus suffer from a life-long Tooth Fairy syndrome, clinging to bizarre mythological stories from the Puranas, taking them literally, without attempting to delve into their meaning and symbolism as adults. Without decoding the superficial tales, popularized by Amar Chitra Katha and which hold enormous  potential for entertainment, the deeper knowledge remains a mystery. Worse, any attempt to reveal their true meanings, may even invite the wrath of staunch believers like the toothless 5 year old.

I was invited to teach Hinduism to children at a temple in the Bay Area when a parent became incensed over a particular slide.  A picture of Vishnu asleep on the coils of Ananta, titled “Personification of the Living Potential Energy” turned the poor man blue in the face.  Needless to say, my sacrilegious classes were scrapped and replaced by a robotics class instead!

A while ago my friend, Savita, engineered an India in Classrooms’ Divali display at a friendly neighborhood church. In the midst of the buzz of eager visitors, I froze as I overheard an elderly Indian woman loudly describe the interesting phenomenon of Shiva attaching the head of an elephant to his son, Ganesh’s body!  Amused, I listened patiently as she explained to her wide-eyed American audience, with the seriousness of a Roadshow host, demonstrating a wheel installation on TV.  When I dared to interrupt the passionate discourse with polite skepticism, I was impatiently waved silent. So, I did what was best in the circumstance … took a deep breath and continued to watch the curious expressions on the faces of her captive listeners.

But the incident that really knocked the breath out of me was when a high profile attorney of part Indian heritage began her “empowerment” speech at a women’s conference with a reference to “Shiva’s raging testosterone!” She then proceeded to entertain her giggling Indian and American audience with Parvati ‘s gesture of “time out” and other  gory details of the popular Hindu myth; by itself, a story without any redeeming value, yet, passed down as precious cultural inheritance.

Of course, had she known that Shankar and Parvati represent gross and subtle forms of energy; and that their “union” gives birth to all organic life, represented by the elephant and mouse, she would have missed out on all that delicious fodder for public amusement.

A high school student at Harker Academy once asked if Hinduism has evolved. My response was simply, “Hinduism as a practice has regressed…yet Hindu wisdom is the most evolved”.

As the editor of India Currents astutely states,” Being American is an idea…not an ethnicity,” being Hindu too is an idea, not a religion. A Hindu is one who lives in accordance with the laws of nature that govern our existence, (regardless of one’s religious heritage). A Hindu is environmentally consciousness, conserves our resources, helps preserve endangered species, and is mindful of his very intricate connection with all beings in the cosmos. A Hindu acknowledges the power of the indestructible Conscious Energy that is the unifying basis of all life. This pretty much renders a whole lot of us non-Hindu! By the same token, some Buddhists, Christians and Muslims may in fact fit the Hindu profile!

Just as Math principles are universal, yet taught by different Masters , through varied speech and methods, these core  universal Hindu principles have been passed down through the ages by Masters across the globe through different practices and in the language of their times.  Unfortunately, this universal wisdom has been lost in translation and  reappeared in the form of seemingly different religions. eg. Buddha replaced the word Moksha with Nir vahana; Christians use the word “bondage” instead of “bandhana” and Muslims use the word Jihad for the war within.

No wonder, a young second generation Indian American confided in me, “Aunty, Hinduism just doesn’t speak to me.” And why would it, if the language (and I do not mean Sanskrit) that we use to convey the knowledge is so far removed from contemporary grasp? How does an Indian American child relate to, let alone be inspired by a story that was conceived in an ancient, alien context?  How would a child benefit from multiple enactments of the Ramayana apart from gaining stage presence? Children have an incredible capacity to understand subtle concepts without being fed stories of “angry Shiva destroying tigers or chopping off heads.” If Hindu philosophy is taught through practical games and creative workshops, future generations may have the conviction to face adult challenges with faith and courage rather than succumb to confusion and hopelessness locked in blind belief. Let the path of discovery illuminate our minds so we are no longer Mickey Mouse Hindus.

Mona Vijaykar, mother of two global citizens, is committed to intercultural understanding as founder-director of India in Classrooms teacher assistance program (www.indiainclassrooms.org).

Picture by Rohit Markande, Courtesy Creative Commons.

A Few Godmen

godman logo

By Gaurav Rastogi

It is divine intention, then, that as I started my blog-meditations on the subject of “belief”, I am blessed by the coming out, so to speak, of several all-too-familiar shock-news stories about Godmen in India. And thus, this post was written, by the will of the creator!

I recently had a deep resoaking in traditional India. There, I realized just how deep is our urge to connect with something divine, and how far each of us is willing to go to believe. In my many recent trips to India, I have continued to be surprised by the prodigious rise of the Godman culture. There are TV channels, billboards, posters, pocket-calendars, internet darshans, blogs, temples, satsangs, and Youtube channels that proclaim the divinity of an alarming number of self-styled Babas, Gurus, Mahants, surplus Shankaracharyas, Swamis and other ochre-robed manifestations of divinity.

Not one to make fun of someone’s faith- and risk eternal hellfire and internet flames, I kept my opinions to myself so far. However, I suspect it’s well within reasonable limits to think about the reasons behind this phenomenon. What is driving it?

Believing in something is easier than knowing everything: First off, there is too much information in the world around us. I’ll research just how much in a future post, but we know that the scientific and information revolution in the last couple centuries has expanded the “information quantity” by several orders of magnitude. The human brain, unfortunately, has not kept pace. Hence, we have to limit ourselves to knowing only a fraction of the stuff that’s out there, and we have to believe the rest. That means, if someone is simplifying reality for me, he’s doing me a favor, and I must call him my Guru. Problem solved, no!

Everyone’s doing it: Belief is like the swine flu- it’s infectious. If my neighbors have it, and their neighbors have it, then I would be foolish not to have it! I start believing partly to fit in, and partly because it helps simplify my life (see above). Then, I become a vector of this belief and through my inspired anecdotes and miracles, I infect others with my belief.

A few good Godmen: Like honest politicians, not all Godmen are out to cheat, swindle, and defraud (Gawd! I love the Thesaurus). There are quite a few Godmen who are honest, and are interested in the public good. That’s what keep the engine moving. I think.

The long tail of spirituality: Think about it- with so many channels of information, you can find just the guru that you were looking for. You can get a north Indian guru, a south Indian guru, a pan-hindu guru, a post-hindu guru, a cancer-curing guru, a cute kid guru. There are all types of gurus out there, and with the information distribution that’s possible with TV and internet, each small niche will be fulfilled.

GodMan-liness is a scale business- big is better: If you read the news articles about the fake gurus, you will conclude-as I did- that there is a lot of money and power at stake here. All those lavish ashram’s need money to build, and all those news channels need content that they can play. The bigger a guru’s following, the more money they have, and the more they are likely to attract new followers and crowd out the smaller, local types. You know, the ones who cared about spirituality and other soft stuff!

Escalation of commitment: And finally, once you have taken a ride on a guru band-wagon, there’s no getting off. You have learnt their lingo, you have got into their community, you have attained the Guru’s blessings, and you have brought your friends and family into this circle. Now, what would you do if you found your Guru was a fake? You’d hush it, because there’s no way you can get off that juggernaut without getting trampled. You’ve joined into the lie.

Mo’ Money: As India gets richer, people (a) have more money to spend on spirituality (!), and (b) have more reason to try to prevent a slide back into the cesspool of poverty they recently climbed out of. This means good business for those that promise continued good fortune because, ahem, they have a direct line into you-know-who.

In sum, I would say this whole business is a Ponzi scheme. Think about it.

Here’s some news feeds to tell you more about the state of this business. No peeking, kids. This stuff is PG-13.

godman newsfeeds

(Originally posted on http://rustus.blogspot.com. Check it out for more on Godman-liness and associated stories.)

Bhagavad Gita – Chapter 6: How to become a yogi

By Gaurav Rastogi

We left Chapter 5 (The Way of Renunciation) knowing that there are two paths to liberation- renunciation (sannyasa) and detached action (karma yoga), and that it’s better to be a yogi in either case. Chapter 6 starts with Krishna equating renunciation and action, saying that one cannot do one without the other. Then he clarifies that mastery of oneself is the main thing. When you have mastered yourself, everything is the same.

yam sannyasam iti prahur, yogam tam viddhi pandava
na hy asannyasta-sankalpo, yogi bhavati kascana

“What is called renunciation is the same as yoga, or linking oneself with the Supreme, for no one can become a yogi unless he renounces the desire for sense gratification.”

Then, Krishna offers what I believe would be the first ever DIY instructions- how do you meditate all by yourself. These instructions- on how to set-up for meditation, and how do you know you’re doing it right, are very precise, and take up a large part of this chapter. Krishna ends this monologue by describing infinite bliss. Arjuna points out that this is a tall order, and asks a question all starter-yogis ask- “This sounds tough…what happens if I don’t make it”? Krishna reassures him that all effort counts towards progress, and that progress is better measured over life-times.

Absence makes the brain go wander: As Arjuna predicts in this chapter, taking up a challenge is not the same thing as sticking with it. I took on the task of reading the Gita for you, but my discipline failed me. I have read, and read the next three chapters in vain, only to face a blank sheet with dread every time I start to write down my thoughts. Oh! Krishna! What have I done? Good news is- Chapter 6 (which I take on again today) declares that all efforts count towards progress, and that progress is better measured in life-times.

Single Player version: When I read the part in the beginning where Krishna talks about self-mastery being the main thing, I was stuck with a mental image that’s unshakeable. Imagine the camera focusing on Arjuna’s face at the beginning of the chapter, then suddenly zooming out when Krishna starts talking. As the camera zooms out, I would expect to see the vast armies laid out on all sides, and faces of known relatives and friends flashing past. However, in this sequence, instead of seeing the Pandava and Kaurava armies, one sees nothing! No brothers, no elephants, no enemies, no friends, and no army. Nothing! Arjuna is alone.

As Krishna goes on talking, it becomes clear that the only action is needs to take is inside Arjuna, and there’s no war to be had outside. The story was not at all about the war outside, but instead about the raging war within. Arjuna’s task was to cancel out the inputs he was receiving from his senses, and just do what he’s here to do. No wonder Arjuna is confused- this is a very tall order, and he’s not sure if he has the practice to be in the moment.

Starter Yogis please read this first: The DIY instructions are very crisp, and not unlike what one finds in any modern hatha yoga book. Find a clean place, bring an empty stomach (not growling with hunger), body aligned, and mind controlled, detach you’re your daily thoughts and slowly become still. When your mind is serene, you’ll enjoy infinite bliss, seeing “me in everywhere, and everything sees in me, to him I am never lost, and he is not lost to me”.
samam kaya-siro-grivam, dharayann acalam sthirah
sampreksya nasikagram svam, disas canavalokayan
prasantatma vigata-bhir brahmacari-vrate sthitah
manah samyamya mac-citto yukta asita mat-parah

“One should hold one’s body, neck and head erect in a straight line and stare steadily at the tip of the nose. Thus, with an unagitated, subdued mind, devoid of fear, observing the vows of brahmacharya, one should meditate upon Me within the heart and make Me the ultimate goal of life.
This is fascinating stuff. It’s surprisingly simple and bureaucracy free. No yellow forms to fill in triplicate (do this penance here, pay for these sacrifices there), no intermediaries to ingratiate (buy “good karma” here), and best of all, no waiting in line (take a number and wait till judgment day). This sounds alarmingly simple, and one is expecting there to be a gotcha.
If at first you don’t succeed...At this point Arjuna points out the obvious roadblock in this west-coast-liberal-“freeway to infinite bliss”-business. To use a modern metaphor, Arjuna says that getting control over one’s mind is like “herding cats”. Arjuna asks what happens to those people who try but fail at this while being, as they say in my native Delhi, “good of heart (dil ka achcha)”.

… go to level 2 and re-start! The answer to this question is a logic that video-game players of all age understand clearly- you get multiple lives to achieve your goal and, oh!, you also get to carry forward the points. So, basically, if you cross level 1 but don’t finish the game, you will be reborn into a rich and pious family. If you cross level 2, you will be born into a family of yogis.
“but the yogi who strives with zealous mind, purified of all sin,
through many lives perfected, then comes to the supreme”.

When you’re happy and you know it…Imagine you’re passing along directions to go someplace, and you don’t have writing, drawing or printing technology. All you have to rely upon is word of mouth propagation of the directions. Your instructions have to be independent of the expertise of the follower. How do you make sure that the person following the instructions is not lost? Easy- you describe the path and the end state in many different ways. That’s what Krishna does here.
“As a lamp in a windless place does not flicker”, “where thought ceases and where the mind sees the soul”, “disunion form the union with pain”, and finally:
“who sees me everywhere and everything sees in me,
To him I am never lost, and he is not lost to me”

It’s very clear that these markers are the equivalent of “bread crumbs” left by Hansel and Gretel in the story by Brothers Grimm. If you’re not seeing these signs, then you’re not doing something right! Find a Guru!

Greater than, redux
The chapter ends with a formulaic ending, literally. Krishna says the following formula:
Yogi > Acsetic (Tapasvin)
Yogi > Wise man (Gyani)
Yogi > Man of Action (Karmi)
=>Therefore, become a Yogi, Arjuna. QED

Quotes and translations from http://www.asitis.com/

My experiments with living the Gita

Gaurav Rastogi is blogging his thoughts as he reads the Bhagvad Gita for the first time. He is 35, lives in the Bay Area, curiously religious but not a Sanskrit scholar. His blogs on the first few chapters of the Gita can be found in our archives under the category "Blogging the Gita".

As I read and blog the Gita, I notice that my approach to life is improving! As you will notice I haven't become a complete Karma Yogi or an Ascetic yet. Like all year-end reviews, let me rate my favorite verses/advice in ascending order of ease of use. Continue reading

The Bhagavad Gita -Chapters 3-5 ( Part 2)

By Gaurav Rastogi

Yada Yada, desi style In Chapter 4, Krishna describes the lineal tradition by which the secret knowledge has been passed along. Arjuna protests the logical error in this statement (see opening lines of the previous blog entry). In reply, Krishna describes the concept of multiple births, and why he keeps coming back. whenever there is a decline of dharma, bhaarata, an ascendency of adharma, then myself I manifest for the deliverance of the good and for the destruction of the sinners in order to establish dharma, I come from age to age Tough job, but someone’s gotta do it! Continue reading

The Bhagavad Gita – Chapters 3-5 (Part 1)

By Gaurav Rastogi

I have been traveling for the last three weeks, and have been reading the Gita on my flights, making hastily scribbled notes that are impossible to “un-scribble” when I’m trying to key in my wit and wisdom. So now I have three chapters worth of reading to write about.

ACTION, WISDOM AND RENUNCIATION

Chapters 3-5 flow into each other, and much of it seems to repeat. Chapter 3 (Karma Yoga– yoga of action) talks about the way to achieve freedom from endless karma. In Chapter 4 (Gnana Yoga – yoga of wisdom), Krishna shares a deeply held secret about wisdom and sacrifice. In Chapter 5 (Sanyasa Yoga – the way of renunciation), the differences and similarities between Yoga and Renunciation are clarified. Continue reading

The Bhagavad Gita – Chapter 2 contd.

By Gaurav Rastogi

The style, and other reflections

I noted last time that there are some very striking things about the Bhagavad Gita that leap out at the modern reader. The writing style is very mathematical and tight and relatively free of the “Indian mystical” style that seems all the rage these days. Also, there seems to be some solid science (and science fiction) behind the assertions in Chapter 2. Continue reading