The White Hindu has moved

The White Hindu has moved! This blog is no longer updated, but Ambaa is still writing The White Hindu every weekday at

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Good and Evil

I was looking back through posts for things I have promised to talk about and this is a big one to tackle. The Hindu view on good and evil is exceptionally different. (Again, different Hindus do believe slightly different things, and I cannot speak for everyone).

As I spoke about in the reincarnation post, this world is an illusion and we play parts in it like it's a movie. It's like being in a dream that you believe is real, but when you wake up, it is to a better and more real world. The illusion of the world is called maya.

Within maya, good and evil exist and both are necessary. It is not possible to have a purely good world because there would be no momentum. There have to be different ideas and different points of view pushing against each other for the drama of the play to keep going.

That is all part of this play, but the reality is unity. Beyond all dualities, all good and evil, is just being. Pure being is God. There are no qualifications on it, no adjectives to describe it, it is all things at all times.

In reality, good and evil do not exist.

It is all bliss.

Anyone ever watch Dark Angel? Remember the character who always said, "It's all good, all of the time"? That's sort-of the truth. It's all right might be a better way to say it. Good is a concept that requires evil to define it, so really neither is there. Things are not good or bad, they simply are.

You will find this idea in many stories about perspective. Remember the one about the king's son who breaks his leg? He's very upset and it is seen as a bad thing until a war starts and the son is spared having to fight and probably be killed because of the leg and then it is seen as a good thing. The same action can easily be seen as both a good thing and a bad thing depending on who is doing the classifying (optimist or pessimist), but without a human being putting a label on it, what is it? It just is.

Remember Hamlet saying, "There is nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so"?

Because of karma (or sanskara), nothing happens without a reason. The entire world is perfectly balanced in justice. This is a very comforting thing to believe and it makes me a much calmer person than I would be without it (for example, I don't have to get worked up about that lunatic who just cut me off on the highway, I can trust that he'll get the natural consequence of his action at some point. No one gets away with anything.) Again, as stated in the post on reincarnation, rebirth is never a punishment and karma is not about punishment, it is about learning. And despite this, you will hear Indian mothers wailing, "What terrible thing have I done in a past life to deserve this?" I'll have to do a post about superstition soon.

Everything is exactly as it is supposed to be. I know that that is a difficult idea to swallow. You think of horrible things that have been done over the course of history. How could that not be evil?

Well, what was it that was done? Someone killed people. Is death evil? Is death even bad? Not really. It happens to all of us and it is a very natural part of life. Again, this goes hand in hand with the belief in karma and reincarnation because with those beliefs, death is never tragic. A child who dies will be reborn to live another life and nothing that her soul learned will be lost.

Pain and suffering. Even if death isn't evil, these must be, right? Again, not really. These are parts of the experience of living in this world of maya and they can help the soul to grow. Also, if one is in tune with the bigger reality outside the illusion, one can disconnect from the body in such a way that no pain is felt (I have managed this once myself, but it is far from easy!).

This may sound like the philosophy of someone who has not suffered pain or loss, but I assure you that is not true. I have lost dear friends to death and I maintain my firm belief that there is no such thing as evil.

One of the ancient vedic prayers that my mother used to sing to me translates as follows:

That is perfect, this is perfect,
perfect comes from perfect.
Take perfect from perfect, the remainder is perfect.

Purnamada, purnamedam
Purnaat, purnamudachyate
Purnasya, purnamadaya
purnamewa washishyate

Everything is as it should be and there is no reason to fear.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

More on Going to a Temple

If you decided that you wanted to try a church or try a new church in a totally different denomination, you know you would be able to slip into a pew and not be noticed. Either that or there's a welcome committee ready with brochures about their church. A lot of Protestant churches hand out programs for each service, telling you exactly what the prayers will be, what the songs will be, and they have books in which to find everything.

None of that is true at a Mandir (a Hindu temple). The statues of the gods will be set up either around the edges of a room, or staggered around the room so that there is plenty of space between each. There is a large, open space in the middle and chairs only around the edges for people too old to sit on the floor. You are visible to everyone there.

Unless you go for a particular function, everyone will be doing his own thing. You will see a few people sitting cross-legged in the center space meditating. You will see some people walking around to the different statues and touching the god's feet, ringing a bell, and/or prostrating themselves. There may be a Shiva lingam, on which people will pour water and touch it to the tops of their heads.

Even if there is a service going on, there will still be people wandering through and doing their usual devotions. The service might be in one corner of the room, near the gods that it is specifically for. These often involve a priest chanting in Sanskrit. They may be bathing and dressing the god or they my be performing puja, where rice, flowers and fruit are offered to the gods and people sip a special liquid or clap their hands in the air or touch their ears at particular times. There are no programs to tell you when these times are or what any of the Sanskrit means.

The woman I was sitting with yesterday asked me who I was there with. Generally that would be the only reason for a white person in a Mandir. I might be a kind of spiritual tourist, curious about an Indian friend's culture and there for an overview.

I am there to learn, so I don't give much detail about what I know already. She asked if I knew which god was which and I told her that I did. She asked if I knew any Indian languages and she was delighted that I was learning Hindi. She gave me the same advice every Indian I've told so far has given, "Watch Bollywood movies, it is the best way to learn."

I will continue to go to the Mandir and to observe until I know that I understand the rituals. I am there to learn, but not the basics, I am there for the advanced lessons now.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Holiday: Ram Navami

Today is Lord Rama's birthday.

In honor of that, I managed to get to the other temple in the area. The first temple, you may recall, that I tried to go to, was very large and crowded and overwhelmed me quite a bit. It is also a South Indian temple.

This was my first time at this one. It is much smaller and very pretty. I liked it a lot. It is a Gujarati temple.

There are various different things going on today, but I had to go to work and school, so I just stopped by for the morning puja. I did not actually participate. I sat on the side and watched with a woman who welcomed me over. She told me that she was not particularly religious, but she had come with her neighbor who was. She said that her religion was just to be a good person, respect elders, not eat meat, be kind and that these rituals are for the ignorant villagers of India.

The rituals are strangely specific. Certain ways to move, certain motions to make at each particular time. I love ritual for its beauty and its ability to calm my inner being, but honestly I do not believe that God cares how one performs the worship. In my belief system, honoring God is the same as honoring one's self.

I do still see a real value in the ritual, though. I felt fairly comfortable at this temple. Not perfectly so, but I think I will continue to go there and just slowly get more and more familiar. People will get used to seeing me and I will pick up the little traditions. I may also try volunteering for some events so that I can actually meet people and have friends there.

All in all, I think it went very well today.

Ram Navami is characterized by fasting or eating only fruits until the evening. Also, images of a baby Rama might be rocked in a cradle.

For those who don't know who this is, Rama is the main character in the other great Indian epic poem. I talk a lot about the Mahabharata, but there is also the Ramayana.

Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu, just like Krishna was. He was born a prince, but gave up the kingdom and chose to excel himself to the forest to avoid family conflict. His devoted brother, Lakshmana, went with him, and also his wife, Sita. Sita is upheld as the perfect woman and the perfect wife, Rama is considered the perfect man.

While in the forest, an evil demon king named Ravana hears about Sita's beauty and charm and wants her for himself. He arranges a trap. He sends out a beautiful golden deer and when Sita sees it in the forest she is filled with desire for it. Rama and Lakshmana go out to capture it for her. While they are gone, Ravana comes to Sita, disguised as a beggar.

She, being a good woman, goes and gets him some rice. When she hands it to him, he grabs her and spirits her away to his kingdom (which is modern day Sri Lanka). Rama and Lakshmana fight a war to get her back, with the help of a great monkey general named Hanuman. Hanuman is the example of the perfect servant. At one point he says, "In the physical world, Rama is my master, but in truth Rama is my self."

Meanwhile, Sita maintains her devotion to Rama. She holds him in her heart and meditates on him day and night. Ravana can make no progress with her.

Eventually Rama shoots and kills Ravana and takes his wife and brother back to the kingdom.

Monday, March 22, 2010


glamshamGal made some great points about yesterday's post. "Indian society needs leaders who are not afraid to question tradition." One of the adults I looked up to as a kid used to say that tradition can become stale and useless if we forget why we are doing it. We have to continually renew our understanding of our religion.

Also, every person's spirituality is unique. We divide people up into labels, but no two people have exactly the same understanding of their religion.

It leads me to think about why labels are so important to me. I don't know exactly. Going through my early life without one was really difficult for me. People ask what religion you are and I had no simple answer for that. Every time anyone asked me that, I would launch into a long explanation. I used the label "Advaita Vedanta" for a while, but it was frustrating that no one knows what that is, so I still had to give a whole lecture. I longed for one word that I could say that would make people go, "Oh, right. Okay." That's why I started using the label "Hindu." People might have a lot of misunderstandings of what that is, but at least they've heard of it!

And now, if they want more details, I have business cards with the URL to this blog. This is the ultimate explanation.

I found a couple of Utube videos to share today. The first one is a short documentary on white women in the UK who have converted to Islam. I found it interesting to hear them talk about being nervous about putting on the hijab in public and being so publicly visible as Muslims and about telling their parents.

This second video is much shorter, it is Sri Ravi Shankar speaking about conversion. Basically he says that it is foolish to leave the religion of your birth because all religions are equally valid. As I've said before on this blog, I think all religions are valid paths to God, but one in particular will speak to an individual and it is not always the one they are born in. But who am I to disagree with Ravi Shankar? :)


Reading the message boards again I hit an interesting comment that gave me new insight on why my life might be a problem. Someone mentioned that some Indians see white Hindus as a seal of approval on Hinduism, as though the West has to give it credibility before it is taken seriously.

That is a terrible shame. I wouldn't want to make it seem like anyone needs my permission to practice his religion! I don't know why so much authority is given to Americans, to whites, to those in the West. Perhaps it is simply respect for the economic success the West has seen. That is not an area I know much about. For a book club I've been reading a book called "The White Tiger" and it has some very disturbing things to say about politics and economics in India right now. On that, I am no authority.

I do not come to Hinduism to take it over or to make it better. I come to bow at the feet of an Indian guru (namely, Adi Shankara and the Shankaracharyas who continue his teachings).

I don't think we need to go back to the bitterness of the debate about the "Aryan invasion." Regardless of that situation, I would say that it was not white people who built this religion. The great philosophizing in the ancient writings are from brown people. Krishna, whose words I value above all others, has a name meaning "dark."

This religion fully belongs to non-whites and I do not come to try to take it away. I want only to blend seamlessly into the masses of people who live their lives based on the Upanishads and the Gita and who call out to Shiva and to Rama for help understanding this world.

Hinduism does not belong to me, but I belong to it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Time for some fun

Let's have a good laugh today.

I'll tell you how I came across these. I had to have my car inspected for moving to a new state and I didn't know that it won't pass with stickers on the windshield or windows. When I went to pick my car up, they had torn off the Om on my rear windshield and the Shiva on my side window. I was really sad.

But now that my car has been inspected, it never has to be again, and I started shopping to replace them.

I first put the stickers on about five years ago when I was living in California. I'll admit that I have a bit of a confrontational attitude sometimes. I put them up for basically the same reason I have trouble with Christmas. I feel the need to stand out and to force people to recognize that this is not a Christian nation. There were so many religious bumper stickers and I felt like I was somehow agreeing if I didn't show my side.

Right, we're here for fun today, off my soap box.

In the years since I went looking for Hindu bumper stickers, a lot more have come along. I was laughing out loud at some of these, so I wanted to share them. They are from

I don't know how many people could possibly match the following description, but I certainly do!

More silliness...

(The Hindi word for potato is aloo)

And a couple of adorable bibs (dhood is the Hindi word for milk)...


One of my friends sometimes mentions that the problem he has with people believing in reincarnation is that they always think that they were someone really special. Where, he asks, are all the normal people? Not everyone could have been Cleopatra!

He has a point. I have never seen reincarnation that way, and I didn't realize how that does seem to be the way many take it. Maybe that is us tapping into a desire to be special, to be more than our simple selves.

But we are already special. In my beliefs, we are God. There's nothing more special than that!

I don't dwell much on what I may have been in a past life. It is enough for me to know that the choices I made in the past have led me to this life. Every challenge I face here is indicative of the things my soul still needs to learn.

Reincarnation is never a punishment. It's not that you get reborn as a cockroach because you were a nasty person. Every birth is the chance to learn things that will help your soul move toward the goal of unity with God. And if you miss the lesson, make the wrong choice, you'll keep getting chances to get it right. They say that the lessons will keep getting more and more intense, which is why some people have great difficulties to overcome in life. They may have missed the smaller version of that lesson.

Or maybe there's another reason. It is not for us to know someone else's spiritual journey. There was a great guru who got cancer,and his disciples asked him why he didn't just cure his cancer, since he was a very accomplished holy man. He told them that it was part of his karma to experience that pain.

From the time I was a child I have kept my eyes open to what lessons I might be here to learn in this lifetime. I'm rather ambitious and I really want to make good progress in this short life. (According to tradition, in the womb we make promises to find our way back to God. I take promises very seriously, even ones I don't remember making!).

I don't put much stock in past life regression techniques. Partly because we are not really meant to remember our past lives (if we were then we would). Dwelling on the past can really hurt our forward momentum. And partly because I don't believe that people can know their past lives unless they are extremely accomplished holy men/women. But there are plenty of people who do believe in these techniques and that is fine. Everyone has his own journey to take.

My only thoughts about my past lives are thinking about the personality I had when I was born and the behaviors that were natural in me. I vaguely wonder what may have happened to me that made me afraid of this thing or that thing. But my focus is on moving forward.

There are disagreements about how easy it is to get a human embodiment. In my tradition it is very rare. You really have to earn it. This is because our tradition says that a human embodiment is the only one from which you can become aware of your true self and that is the goal of life. Having a human life is a great honor and should not be squandered. That's what I've been told.

Sometimes you see people who behave in such a base and almost animalistic way. My Dad always told me that these people were probably new to human embodiments and were used to being animals. It takes time to adjust.

Karma plays a big role in all of this. I want to discuss karma for a moment because it is a word that gets slightly misused. It actually means "action." Nothing more. Our karma is our action. The consequences of those actions are seeds in our souls that manifest later in this life or in next lives. Those seeds are called sanskara. It is our sanskara that shapes our fate.

Sometimes people have advised that the way to break the cycle of birth and death and to free ourselves from sanskara is to stop action altogether. But in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises that it is not possible to stop all action. Our bodies will still breathe and metabolize, etc. He says that it is possible to stop sanskara from attaching to our karma. That way we can die cleanly, without leftover seeds to be expressed. The way to do this is to perform action as needed, in the moment, with no attachment to the outcome. Doing the right thing without the desire or need for praise or other good things to come to us. Now that could take several lifetimes of practice!

Sometimes people think that those believe in reincarnation are just afraid to die and latching onto any idea that will let them think they won't die. My teachers taught me that there is a reason why people are so afraid to die. Some part of us knows that we are immortal. Our bodies are just instruments and we go through lots of them, but there is a soul that is who we really are and that never dies.

Reincarnation could go on and on forever. Most Hindu traditions teach that at some point everyone will attain the goal of unity with God. Why would we want to do that?

For all the Dr. Who fans, I think one of the episodes did a nice job showing this. In the Library episode, Donna starts living a life that isn't real. She thinks it's real. She forgets who she really is and what her real life is and goes along with the fake world around her. Only in dreams and corners of her mind she sometimes gets glimpses of her real life. Tradition teaches that this is the same with us. We are living in a dream right now. We're really enjoying it and we think it's real. We're afraid to wake up because we don't know that our real life away from the dream is much, much better.

As one Chinese philosopher put it, "Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man."

I've been told that reincarnation has existed in all the major world religions. There was a rumor that went around my organization that early Christianity had reincarnation, but it was removed at one of the early church councils because it challenged the authority of the church. I have not found any evidence that this is true, but I also haven't looked too hard.

A Jewish friend of mine once attended an interesting talk by a rabbi who claimed that Judaism had reincarnation in it. His argument was a bit of a stretch, but fascinating. He claimed that because the Torah requires people to perform six hundred and some mizvot (good deeds), it is not possible to complete all in one lifetime, so reincarnation must have been assumed.

I don't see any contradiction, anyway, between a belief in reincarnation, and a belief in the classic religions of the book (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). There are many different ways to express a belief in reincarnation. To me it solves one of the fundamental difficulties of our understanding of the world.

Why do bad things happen to good people? I don't mean to say that bad things happen because this person was a bad person in another life and they deserve what they get, not at all. As I said before, things that happen are never a punishment, they are always for the betterment of the soul. There is something to be gained from that experience.

Why do young, innocent children die? They already accomplished what they needed to in this life. With a belief in reincarnation, death is no longer the worst thing that can happen. It just is. It's part of life and nothing important actually ends at death.

How could a just God allow people who die unbaptized or unsaved to go to hell? There is no hell in Hinduism (beyond what we do to ourselves in our lives...our thoughts in many ways create our reality because everything depends on our perspective). There is no proselytizing or converting in Hinduism because there is always another chance. Even if you believe that Hinduism is the only path to God (which most do not believe, as I said previously there is the idea in Hinduism that there are many valid paths to God), in another lifetime you would be born Hindu. Simple as that.

Some people are pessimists and that shows up in laments like, "What have I done in a past life to deserve this?" That, to me, is a misunderstanding of how this works. Focus on what can be gained or learned from whatever difficulty you are going through. It can only make your soul stronger and better.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Makes me Sad

I found some examples of the kind of attitude that I find so difficult to deal with.

A spiritual discussion got going in the comments at the White Indian Housewife blog. People turned to debating whether it is possible to convert.

Here are a few of the comments:

"Besides, keep your lectures about vastness and riches of Dharma for these
'whites' who escape to east in search of alternative or peace of mind,
just as many Indians escape to west in search of prosperity or education."
-Amit Desai

"In my view, Lot of people from the west see these particular beliefs
in India (i’m not saying they are true/false) exotic. They are sick &
tired of what the western world offers in terms of spirituality which is
now in a corrupted state. A void is created in their mind which leads to an
unknown search. Curiosity first, followed by the amazing & never seen/heard
rituals etc bring them closer to Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism, etc.
Lot of these would give them temporary relief, but once they get to see the
corruptions in these new faiths, they’ll again feel the void."

In response to a post saying that convert Hindus are valid, they simply don't have a caste: "That’s the point. Traditionally since last 800 years or so, Hinduism became more segregated and structured in terms of castes. So, what kind of Hindu are you if you don’t belong to any jati? Even untouchables are considered a ‘jati’. So if you don’t belong to any ‘jati’, you are nobody, according to traditional Hindus."
-Amit Desai

"Abdullah, you are not Hindu nor a member of any Hindu sect, therefore you are not privy to those Hindu sects that do indeed accept converts as 'bonafide'…. in India.
Re: 'This is different from Christianity or Judaism for example, where converts are bonafide members'
Christianity, yes.
Judaism? Maybe some “renewal” or “reform” sects. It’s controversial, and rare.
Even Hindu sects are more open than Judaism."
--Sharrell's Celebrity Doppleganger

"I live in India and have dated, lived with and live around Hindus. I have also observed many who converted into or out of Hinduism. That is more real than sitting 12000 kilometers away and pretending to be an expert on India after picking things off internet blogs."
- Abdullah K.

"So then where is your authority on 'Judaism'????
I am a Hindu and so is 90% of my family."
-Sharrell's Celebrity Doppleganger

"NRI/Sharrells Celebrity doppleganger/gori princess or whatever, pardon me but I don’t think anyone here respects or takes into account your views on Hinduism. I personally hold Abdullahs comments in a much higher regards then yours."

Sigh. People are so mean. Where does all the anger come from? (BTW, NRI means Non-resident Indian, so again, as I was saying earlier, that can refer to people of Indian ethnicity growing up in America.)

Anyway, what the really brings up for me is that I want to escape from this stereotype that a white person practicing Hinduism does so because she thinks it's exotic and different and wants to escape corruption in the West.

Yes, there is corruption in parts of the religions of the West. Yes, there is corruption in parts of the religions of the East. People are people, where ever you go. There are those who are corrupt and those who know how to use religion to mis-guide people.

None of that changes the fact that, for me, Hinduism most clearly fits the world around me. Its explanations for things make the most sense. I'm the child of a scientist and though I am not terribly scientific myself, I still need for the explanations in my religion to match what I experience in the world. Hinduism fits the evidence around me.

I realize that I do not have a caste and that is a problem. Some people say Hindu converts just don't have a caste, others say that foreigners are automatically untouchables. I don't have a solution to this.

I do think it is time for people to expand their minds about what is possible. We're stuck in a loop of old rhetoric about how Hinduism does not recognize converts. The situation has become more complex and people need to be willing to reexamine. We're no longer talking about a group of hippies, smoking pot, and running away from the strict religion of their parents.

Even that stereotype has more depth to it. Yes, there were people who turned to the East for something new and were disappointed by it. But look at my parents. They may have been hippies, running away from the strict religion of their parents, but they did not/do not smoke pot and they have faithfully followed their Indian-philosophy-based path for thirty years.

It hurts me deeply when I hear or see people making comments that assume that white people have this very surface level understanding of what Hinduism is. I know Hindu philosophy and ritual deeply and it has been a part of me since I was a baby.

I have been told that perhaps I need to stop taking things so personally. It's difficult. Every time I run across a discussion like this I get so tired of hearing the same old statements.

But, as previous posts have shown, there is a variety in how people respond to this kind of thing. So far the people I have met here in America who come from Indian origin have been welcoming and understanding. I appreciate that and I hope that this blog can illustrate to others that some of the ideas about who a white person practicing Hinduism is are not accurate.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Arranged Marriage

First, I'd like to talk briefly about something in the newest Hinduism Today magazine. There is an article about the challenges to Hindus outside of India. One Saivite teacher, who is an Australian convert apparently, "raised issues relating to Westerners who have adopted Hinduism but who resist identifying themselves as Hindus. He pointed out, 'Even though they don't call themselves Hindus, they are part of the same dharma body. But if we Western Hindus can't decide on who we are, then we don't have a voice. If we can say who we are, then we can be together and have a voice.' In contrast, he noted, Western Buddhists are proud to call themselves Buddhists."

I think this "problem" with white Hindus goes both ways. In part, there is the attitude from India that you have to be born into Hinduism and that you have to be Indian. But part of it is non-Indian people feeling strange and self-conscious about identifying as Hindus. For me it was only because I sometimes feel "not wanted," but for some people there are negative stereotypes of what it means to be Hindu. They don't want to be associated with some of the practices and beliefs that Hindus have been criticized for (such as caste, the treatment of widows, etc.)

I hope that more non-Indian people will join me in identifying as Hindu and opening the eyes of the world to the possibility that our ideas about who can and cannot be Hindu might not be accurate (and if you are new to the blog, please read my intro post about how I am a born Hindu in certain ways).

On to the topic for today...

A lot of people in America think arranged marriage is a horrible and exploitative thing no matter what. It sounds awful and archaic to them. I cannot think that way. I am of two minds on the subject.

For some background, within the community that I grew up, arranged marriage was highly valued. I think for the most part no one expected it to happen, but if a girl might be brave enough to try it, people were very impressed. I can't imagine that the people who joined, my parents generation, expected their children to be taught some of the things we were about marriage.

Starting when I was about fourteen, I got lessons in being a good wife. The key lesson was that who you married was not as important as the West tends to think. As long as it was a "good man" (i.e., someone who was spiritual and tried to practice our beliefs), we would come to love anything or anyone that we served. Service was strongly emphasized.

One of the highest up people in the organization, someone I admired very much and tried to emulate, had an arranged marriage. When she began teaching some of my classes, I saw arranged marriage as the ultimate proof of my devotion to our way of life.

There was another girl my age, whose father had betrothed her. She was very much admired and people really respected what a "good girl" she was. I wanted to be a good girl too. I wanted to be praised for my devotion. I struggled with jealousy.

I asked my parents to arrange my marriage. I think they were shocked. They didn't know how to go about it or what to do. They tried. I went on one prospective date, but that man ended up marrying another girl in my class a year later.

When actually faced with the possibility of marrying this man I didn't know much about, terror did set in. Yet I was still consumed with jealousy that he didn't choose me. Strange, conflicting emotions.

I more or less gave up on it after that, but really in my mind I thought that I would "let God arrange things" (in those days I was much more blindly religious and now I am more spiritual). I was 18 and I went off to college, despite messages that a girl ought to stay at home and live at home to go to college and live at home until she is married. I don't think my parents completely bought into that message, though we never talked about it. So my idea was that I would marry the first man to ask me on a date.

(At this point the only date I had ever been on was the prospective marriage one and I had never been kissed). I really believed that it didn't matter who it was because marriage was not about happiness or personal fulfillment, it was about duty and religious devotion.

That set off several years of very bad relationship choices and a terrible confusion over how a relationship should be.

I know that story will probably reinforce the idea that arranged marriage is a terrible thing, but it isn't. Not when it is done properly.

In college I got into an argument with a girl in my class about this. She was very opinionated and sure that she was right about the way the world worked. She also thought that arranged marriage was barbaric. I fought hard for the idea that it is not always about politics or sending your daughter away to just anyone. Sometimes it happens that way, and that is a tragedy, but in general, parents love their children and want them to be happy. This is true of parents in every culture.

I think one of the keys here is the culture in which the arranged marriage takes place. I watched a news program doing a story on arranged marriage. They had one that worked out fine and then one girl who chose a "love match." But the trouble with the story was that it was not even.

They told the arranged marriage story of two Sikhs who married in India. There the practice is still very common and people have very different expectations of how love in marriage works.

The other story was about a girl of Indian descent in America. In America, the culture at large does not support arranged marriage and that makes it much, much harder to sustain. Here we are under a lot of pressure to find a love match and have it be really romantic, etc. This girl found a white man to marry. At first her parents were uncertain, but they quickly warmed to him. One of the things her relatives were uncertain about was the cultural differences between she and him. She pointed out that she was American and they had more in common than different. They both "grew up eating Lucky Charms in front of the Saturday morning cartoons." (This goes back to the previous post about American children of Indian parents).

The girl I knew growing up ended up divorced from her arranged marriage. I don't know the details, but I can image that it must be almost impossible to be a "normal" American, interacting in an American society, with no support for having a very different type of marriage.

One thing to remember is that there is a lot of love in arranged marriages. There really is something to the idea that your love for someone grows as you are close to them and work out problems with them. The expectations that people have going into an arranged marriage are that it is going to take work and compromise and they have trust that they will come to care for each other deeply. That attitude leads to a much lower divorce rate than couples who marry with a "Cinderella" idea of marriage solving your problems.

People in arranged marriages are not thrown into a lifetime commitment with someone random. Again, when done right, parents look for the signs of compatibility. Being older, experienced, and wiser, means that parents can find true compatibility and not just surface attractions.

A Facebook friend turned me on to another interesting blog with a similar theme to mine. It is a white Australian woman who moved to India and she explores her life there as she becomes integrated in the culture ( She has a post about modern arranged marriages:

The point I am trying to make is that this is an issue that one cannot make a snap judgment about. It is a place where Westerners tend to fall into the trap of assuming that their way of doing something is more refined, more cultured, and better for everyone in the world. We are all guilty of this sometimes (both Westerners and those in the East). But it is okay to have an open mind about arranged marriage.

In the end, I am glad that I did not get married when I was 18. To be 27 (28 next month) and not married, makes me very much an "old maid," but I have grown and changed a lot in the last ten years. I have come to understand myself much better and I have been able to become the person I struggled to be as a teenager.

I was noting to my boyfriend recently that the girl I was at 18 would hate the person I've become (she was much stricter about following rules, very hard on herself, and hated when people said they were more spiritual than religious. She saw things extremely black and white). Should I be upset that I disappointed my 18 year old self? Not at all. Because I am immeasurably happier now than I was at 18. When I stopped trying to fit in or be normal, and just let myself be myself, I found a partner who totally supports my wacky self and I could not be happier.

Friday, March 12, 2010


There are other people in America in what I see as a very similar position to mine. They are known as ABCDs, which stands for "American born, confused Desi."

Immigration to the United States from India has been a fairly recent phenomenon, from about the 1970s to the present. That means that there are a huge number of families for whom the kids around my age are the first generation to grow up in this country (I was born in 1982).

Their parents grew up in India and came here for marriage or work as adults. For them, the ritual, culture, language, and religion was all around them in India. Adjusting to raising children in a country where none of those things are the same, where you have to travel to find people with a common culture, has led to a generation straddling traditions.

The book and movie The Namesake do an amazing job of showing how a pair of Bengali parents raise American children without realizing that it's happening. The culture divide between the two generations is very pronounced. The book is written by one of the best new authors in the country, Jhumpa Lahiri and the movie was directed by famed director Mira Nair. A great collaboration. I highly recommend it.

Kids born in America are expected to still know and participate in their Indian heritage, and yet they also go to American schools, have other American friends, and grow up just as American as any of us (my family is also fairly recent to the United States, with my grandmother being an immigrant).

Each American of Indian descent in this country has to decide how much of each part of themselves they will take. Do they want to be purely American and leave behind all ethnic tradition? Do they want to balance the two?

I think very few people are as old fashioned as I am. Many want to rebel against older generations, create the world anew, reject old ideas. Personally, I am very drawn to old ideas. I follow tradition as much as I can. Wearing a bindi is a bit of an old-world thing to do.

We'll see after I get married how many traditions I will follow. For example, wearing red powder in the part of the hair is a very old-world, traditional thing to do! I have a hard time imagining any of the young women in my generation, growing up in America, choosing to do that. But I have never fit in and I have never been "cool." I've been seen as old-fashioned all my life, even by my family. I've also never had a desire to be "cool." I'm fine with being odd!

But anyway, my point is that I have a lot in common with the ABCDs. They also have to find their way in the world of culture and tradition without having been handed it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hindu/Indian things I don't do

Miss. Mouse's motto in the comments on the last post: "Do whatever makes YOU happy and the hell with what everyone else thinks" is becoming quite true for me as well. On the one hand, I agree with my mom that I don't want to be making people unhappy on purpose. On the other hand, people are going to be offended no matter what. There are people who disagree on whether Mother Theresa was a good person, for goodness sake. No matter what you do, everyone has their own take on it. There are people my age who are offended by how old fashioned I am, my lack of feminism. That's just life.

Anyway, on to the point of this post.

There are aspects of Hinduism and/or Indian social customs that I do not follow. I am aware of them and I am making a conscious decision that they do not fit into my belief system. Part of having a religion is being able to use it to accomplish what you need it to in your life, so I don't think it is a good idea to take an entire faith system and go with it no matter what. Some people might call that having faith, but understanding why I do something is very important to me. I love tradition, but only if there is a meaning and a reason behind the tradition. I am not going to do it "just because."

Astrology is very important in India. Before getting married, a bride and groom (or their families) will usually have their charts drawn up and compared. They also use astrology to determine an auspicious day to get married. There are many things that one has to find auspicious days for.

I am not a particularly superstitious person and I don't believe in luck. To me, karma negates the possibility of luck. Not everyone sees it that way. (More on karma another time). Of course, auspicious and lucky might not be exactly the same thing.

I can understand how people can believe that the stars drive fate and I think this is one instance where American culture is more strong in me. I do believe that we make our fate ourselves (perhaps partly due to choices made in a past life). In my belief system, nothing fated is completely inevitable. In the present moment, one always has a choice. I do think there are things that are fated to happen to us, but how we interpret those things is completely up to us and that is what sets the course for the next fated thing. There is a fluidity to fate in my understanding and the idea of fates being pre-written in the stars does not mesh with that.

This is a major one. A vast majority of Hindus are vegetarian and even those that eat fish, chicken, or even lamb, would not eat beef.

Here in America it can be so hard to understand not eating beef, it just seems so weird. I explain to people to think of it the way we think of Koreans eating dog meat. I don't even know if that is true or not, but it is a common enough legend in America. The way we feel about the idea of eating dogs is the same way Indians feel about the idea of eating cows.

Cows in India are not worshiped per se, but they are sacred. Actually, all life is sacred, but cows get special status for a couple of reasons. They are frequently used as an image to represent the mother, since they provide so much without their meat. They give milk and cheese and butter. Also, they are said to be the favorite animal of Krishna, who was a cow herder in his teenage years.

Many Hindus are vegetarian because of the doctrine of ahimsa, which means non-harmfulness. This is a major part of Ghandi-ji's message and a driving force in Buddhism. It is also present in Hinduism. Krishna lists "ahimsa" as one of the qualities of a perfect man.

My parents do not eat red meat and only my mom eats chicken. They don't do it for ahimsa, but because the digestion of heavy red meats is said to be detrimental to meditation.

For two years in college I was a vegetarian. I stopped because it became impractical. The men I date have never been vegetarian and I end up cooking for them, also I never had a good reason for it. People would ask me why I was vegetarian and I really had nothing to say.

Again, I don't think it's enough for me to say, "I am Hindu, therefore I don't eat beef." The reasons for not eating beef are not compelling for me. I think it's part of the natural cycle of birth and death that humans eat meat and I don't think the cow is an exception. For me it would have to be either all or nothing.

I feel very self-conscious about eating beef. It is difficult for me to claim to be a Hindu, yet eat hamburgers.

UPDATE: I stopped eating meat May 2010 (so two months after this post), but I'm still eating eggs.

I don't always eat with my right hand. In India it is very rude to eat with the left hand because that is supposed to be the hand you wipe yourself with when you use the bathroom. The only time I consciously eat with my right hand is when I am in Indian restaurants.

I point. Pointing a finger at someone in India is also very rude. This one is just a habit that I would like to break, but pointing is a sub-conscious gesture at this time.

Those are all I can think of at the moment.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Polytheism and Branches

Hinduism is not just one thing. It is a word that is used to capture the practices of a billion people, some of them living in cities, some in villages, some very well educated, others never going to school at all. To most people who practice it, Hinduism is not a religion, it's not something you do, it's a way of life, it's something that is just a part of you.

The Indian word for it is Sanatana Dharma. It is usually translated as "The Eternal Truth." Dharma is a complicated word. It means much more than Truth. It also means justice, balance, the perfect order.

There are four major branches of Hinduism, but all four share some characteristics. According to Hinduism Today's magazine special "What is Hinduism?", the following are the parts that all branches have in common:

"All Hindus worship one Supreme Reality, though they call it by many names...Hindus believe that there is no eternal hell, no damnation. They concur that there is no intrinsic evil. All is good. All is God...a Supreme Being who both is form and pervades form, who creates, sustains and destroys the universe only to recreate it again in unending cycles. Hindus accept all genuine spiritual paths. Each soul is free to find his own way...Hinduism explains that the soul reincarnates until all karmas are resolved and God Realization is attained."

Another time I will go into the concept of good and evil in Hinduism. Also, I will explain the "idol worship." For now, the part that I think may stand out to people not familiar with the religion is the worship of one God.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of Gods in Hinduism. However, they are viewed one of two ways. Some believe that the myths and stories and different Gods are a way to comprehend a God who is too vast for the human mind to grasp. Each different God represents a quality of the God who is all things. Others view the Gods like angels (in fact I would argue that the translation of the word into "god" is not necessarily accurate). These people see the Gods as a form of life somewhere above us but below the Supreme Reality, as Hinduism Today calls it. "Above us" might not be an accurate way to say it. Being a God is a lifetime like any other and it comes to an end at some point.

Tradition holds that only humans can realize the truth and become enlightened. All other embodiments are there to teach our souls something to help us progress toward that goal, but only a human has the conscious awareness to realize himself.

So, in Hinduism the answer to the philosophical question, "Why am I here?" is that every soul is living life in order to remember who he truly is, that he is God. God is all things. The story goes that God wanted to experience all emotions and all things, so he broke himself into many parts and created the drama of the world. Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage and men and women merely players, they have their entrances and their exits..." becomes literal truth. The world is a play and we all have parts, but in the end we will take off our costumes and go back to the reality of Oneness. (I have always analogized this by thinking of molecules. Every piece of matter in the universe is made of essentially exactly the same building blocks.)

I have no doubt that in some remote villages, the people do practice polytheism, but in the scriptures and all the sayings of the holy men and women, Hinduism is monotheistic.

There is so much to say about this vast and ancient religion that I could go on forever, but I've promised an overview of the major branches. Again, quoted from the founders of Hinduism Today:


Saivite Hindus worship the Supreme God as Siva, the Compassionate One. Saivites esteem self discipline and philosophy and follow a satguru. They worship in the temple and practice yoga, striving to be one with Siva within.


Shaktas worship the Supreme as the Divine Mother, Shakti or Devi. She has many forms. Some are gentle, some are fierce. Shaktas use chants, real magic, holy diagrams, yoga and rituals to call forth cosmic forces and awaken the great kundalini power within the spine.


Vaishnavites worship the Supreme as Lord Vishnu and His incarnations, especially Krishna and Rama. Vaishnavites are mainly dualistic. They are deeply devotional. Their religion is rich in saints, temples and scriptures.


Smartas worship the Supreme in one of six forms: Ganesha, Siva, Sakti, Vishnu, Surya and Skanda. Because they accept all the major Hindu Gods, they are known as liberal or nonsectarian. They follow a philosophical, meditative path, emphasizing man's oneness with God through understanding."

My branch, Advaita Vedanta, is a form of Smartism. It is less about devotion and worship, and more about study and learning. It's principles are based almost entirely on the teachings of Shankar, an Indian philosopher from the 9th century. He wrote commentaries on all of the major Hindu texts. There are now four "Shankaracharyas" in India, meaning teachers of Shankar. It is from one of these teachers that my organization growing up got its teachings. My parents also follow one of these teachers and have been to India to meet him. The word "Advaita" means "Non-duality" and that was the main focus of Shankara's teachings. (The word "vedanta" means "philosophy.")

The other day I was driving somewhere and got a little lost. I used to get lost all the time, but now I have a GPS, so I only get slightly lost! I drove right by a Hari Krishna center.

Now there is a group of Hindus that do practice conversion and are, I believe, mostly white. If only I could fit in there!

But their branch is vaishnavism, which, as stated above, is more dualistic than other branches of Hinduism. They are, in my view, much closer to Christians. They see God as something outside themselves, something to be worshiped and adored. This belief does not fit with my beliefs at all, so sadly, there is no place for me there.

On a completely different note, it is so clear to me where I get my worry about offending people. I live under a cloud of it because every time I do anything, my mother convinces me that I'm upsetting someone. Yesterday it was about a doll that I knit.

On the knitting website Ravelry I am in a group for South Asian Knitters. Someone there suggested the pattern for this doll as a project that we all do. I started first because I loved the pattern so much and I couldn't wait to make it. I shared it with the group and lots of people told me how cute it was.

My dad showed my mom a picture of it from flickr and she called to tell me that if any Indians saw it, they would be offended by her skin color.

I swear, I can't make a single move without my mom calling to tell me that I'm offending people.

Oh, and by the way, the book "The Everything Hinduism Book" (as in from the series of books called "The Everything..."), is a really good one. It has the history of Hinduism, major figures, the religions that broke off of it (like Buddhism, for example), as well as the philosophical teachings. I was really impressed by how much information it has in it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Hindi Update

Last night my boyfriend and I went to a Hindi meetup group meeting. It was awesome. has gotten me through a couple of moves to new states. Here it got me a writing group, a knitting group, and this. I've never seen anything like it before. It's a group designed to be a place where you can practice Hindi.

There are hundreds of members and a lot of variety in ability with the language. For some it is their first language and others are just learning. There are people from India and people who are first generation in the U.S. and there are other white people too.

A lot of socializing and networking happens that is not in Hindi. I didn't do a lot of speaking last night, but I discovered that I understood a lot of the Hindi I did hear. I understood the basic introductions and various snippets of conversation. What a great feeling.

The other great experience was that people asked what drew me to learn Hindi and Indian culture (I was wearing a salwar suit, though not a bindi). I explained a little bit about my background and everyone was really accepting.

In fact, it was exactly the easy acceptance that I've been craving. No one seemed to be even the slightest bit offended, just happy that I appreciated their language and culture.

The experience of learning a new language has been different from what I expected.

At first it was astounding to look at my computer screen, at a sentence in another script and another language, and to know that I understood it. It felt like magic.

Slowly that feeling faded. The sentences I could read got more and more complicated, but I started expecting that I could understand them and now I get frustrated easily when I'm not getting something.

The basics have become so second nature to me that it almost feels as though I've learned a new way to say something in English. In the same way that, for example, the word "dog" just means that particular animal to me and it feels as though it really should, as though that is somehow it's true name and anyone would understand that this particular animal is "dog." I feel exactly the same way about "kutta" now.

Some of the words and sentences seem so obvious that I cannot keep it in my head that there are people who don't understand them.

I swing wildly back and forth between feeling encouraged by the amount I've learned and discouraged that I still can only say simple declarative sentences and questions. I'm working on breaking through the barrier of being able to say more complex things. I have to keep going one step at a time and not analyze too much how far I am in the process of learning.

A few weeks ago I was in the Indian grocery store and the man behind the counter answered the phone. He asked, in Hindi, what the person's name was and I understood it so perfectly and naturally that he may as well have been speaking English.

I'm so excited for the time when all of Hindi feels that way!

At this point I am able to understand a lot more than I can produce. I have even watched some Bollywood movies without subtitles and gotten a substantial amount. Watching them with subtitles, I'm focusing on listening to what they are actually saying and I know a lot of the vocabulary.

I used to feel like I wanted to know every language there was. Now I feel very satisfied with two. If I can get completely fluent in Hindi, I will be all set. And I'll get there because I am quite determined.

I'm so grateful to have the supportive group of people to practice with too, because at some point the learning has to leave the grammar books and software and come into the real world.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Religion vs Culture

A woman on a religious message board I am on asked me about something she has observed, which is that there seem to be two different types of Hindus--the Indian and Indian Americans who grew up with it and then the others who are very into the philosophy. She points out that those raised in the faith tend to do the rituals and the holidays, while the others are into theology and philosophy, but don't seem to participate in any group worship, taking it as a solitary practice. The two groups do not seem to integrate at all.

She asked me my take on this phenomenon and I think it is exactly the bridge that I have been trying to cross.

My response to her was that I thought the young adults who discovered Indian philosophy forty years ago were not interested in finding another dogma and another old tradition. They wanted something fresh and new and to get away from traditional religion. They took the philosophy, but left behind the traditions.

I want both. I don't like the feeling of practicing a religion in a vacuum. Part of me is stunned that my parents did not see this coming. They taught me to believe in so many Indian concepts, but they never thought I would want to adopt the entire culture. Which makes me wonder if I could just take the philosophy and leave the rest.

After all, I do not know of anyone else who grew up in my community who has gone the direction I have gone. Even my own brother leans more Christian than Hindu. The people I grew up with are either Christian or Jewish. Many of them never saw our organization as a religion. I always did. Because I didn't have anything else.

I think part of that is just the personality that I was born with. Ritual and devotion has always appealed to me along with knowledge and study. I was a deeply religious child, but I didn't know how to channel that.

I did join an evangelical Christian group in college and I tried to make myself fit in there (particularly since I fell deeply in love with one of the boys there). But there were certain fundamental aspects of being a Christian that I just kept banging my head against. I could not accept them. Things such as God being a separate being from us, the idea of heaven and hell with no reincarnation, devotion being the only way to be close to God, and others. Again and again I just kept coming back to the foundation of my beliefs being Hindu.

All of my life I have longed for a community, a feeling of belonging. I envied my best friend who is Jewish because the Jewish community is so strong and dedicated. I never fit in, even within the organization I grew up in. I took things more seriously than other people. Through no one's fault, my memories of my childhood are filled with an overwhelming sense of loneliness and the desire to belong.

And yet I was never to make myself into the kind of person who would belong with the people around me. Maybe a latent stubbornness in me, I don't know.

So the point is that I want it all. I do not want to extract the philosophy from a religion that is quite possibly the oldest in the world. I want to be accepted as I am. Maybe too much to hope for.

I want to clarify here that I love being American. I do not wish to be otherwise. Being American leaves me unfettered by social expectations. Our belief in the freedom of each individual to follow her own path is what makes this country what it is. Being American is what allows me to pursue this path I am on.

I have never been to India. I don't know how to explain that I feel deeply that I know India. I understand its pulse. I believe that I lived there in another life, as loopy and stupid as that sounds. I am not one of these people who thinks that India is this magical land of religion. I know sometimes people have the tendency to think that everyone in China knows kung-fu and quotes Lau-tzu all day and that people in India are free from material desires and meditate under trees all the time (or else sing and dance in the streets!). I have no such illusion.

I understand that it is a place like any other, and that people are people no matter where you go. By that I mean that there is a percentage of people in India who are deeply religious, just as in America and anywhere else in the world. There is also a percentage who are motivated by social standards and competing with neighbors, and a percentage who use the idea of religion for personal gain, etc., etc. These things happen everywhere.

When the movie Slumdog Millionaire came out, some people I knew told me that when I saw it it would change my opinion of India, that I wouldn't like it so much anymore. That's plain crazy. I am not unaware of social problems in India. I am not unaware of its weaknesses and its strength or its variety. I love it because everything I see of it and everything I hear of it makes me feel at home deep in my heart.

Someday soon I hope to visit and see the battle field of Kurukshetra from the Mahabharata, and the city of Ayodhya from the Ramayana. And just experience the plain, every day magic of it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Stories and Bindi Update

Here is my favorite story:

There was a man who wanted to become enlightened/one with God. He meditated under a pine tree (just picking a type of tree with a lot of needles here, it wasn't actually a pine tree in the story) with great devotion. After years of meditation, God took pity on him and sent a messenger to answer a question for him. The messenger of God came and asked the man what question he would like answered. The man said, "How long until I am enlightened?"

The messenger relayed the question to God, who answered, "Do you see the number of needles on this tree? It is that many lifetimes you will go through before you are enlightened."

The man got up and danced with joy. The messenger looked at him, astonished, and asked, "Why are you celebrating when God has told you it is so many lifetimes away from you?"

The man said, "Because the number is finite."

And at that moment he became enlightened.

In Hinduism, the goal of life is to become one with God. Really, we already are, but we just have to discover it. This is called Samadhi. Unlike Buddhism, in which the end is nothingness, in Hinduism the end is everythingness. Every lifetime we live is in pursuit of this unity. Sometimes in our ignorance, we try to find unity in other things, not knowing the way back to our true selves. When I was sixteen I was in a sort-of confirmation ceremony to reaffirm vows that, according to tradition, I made in the womb. That we all made in the womb. One of those vows is to find our way back to God. Another is to obey the natural laws of the universe.

Another story along the same line is that of the lion who thought he was a sheep. Disney actually made a cartoon of this story years ago and I had it on video when I was a kid.

There was a lion cub who was lost by his pack and ended up growing up in a pack of sheep. In the Disney movie his name is Lambert. Because he had never seen another lion, he believed he was a sheep. He behaved like one and sounded like one. He had never roared. The sheep were his family and he did not know he was different.

One day another lion saw the pack of sheep and attacked. At first Lambert cowered with the other sheep, but his desire to protect his family woke something up in him. For the first time in his life, he roared, and became the lion he really had always been. He scared the other lion away.
The "lesson" of this story is that we are all lions who think we are sheep.
The next story is one that I was told when I was being taught to be a "perfect" wife. I'm not at all sure I agree anymore with its message!

There was a wise man who was deeply devoted to his work. He studied and he wrote night and day. So that his writing would not be interrupted, his wife brought him food silently and also kept his oil lamp burning.

One day she was late and the light went out. The man was roused from his study and looked around him with surprise. The wife came in and apologized for the lamp going out and the man said to her, "Who are you?"

She told him that she was his wife. He was so grateful for her devoted service that he dedicated his book to her.

Oh, here's another great one. Another of my favorites.

There was a man who tended a temple in south India. He dreamed that the statue of the God was asking him to bring it water from the mouth of the Ganges.

So the man took an arduous journey, walking all the way from south India to the mouth of the Ganges in the far north. When he finally got there, he scooped the water into a pail and started the walk back.

On the way, laying on the side of the road, he came upon a donkey who was almost passed out from thirst. The animal was dying.

Instantly the man used the pail of water to revive the donkey.

When he got back to the temple, his fellow caretakers could not believe that he would waste the sacred water on a donkey. They asked what happened.

He said, "God was kind enough to meet me halfway."
In Hindu philosophy, particularly my branch, all things are God. There is no duality. Just as all the variety of things in the universe are made up of the same basic molecules, so everything is different forms of one God. This is the reason why the doctrine of Ahimsa (non-harmfulness or non-violence) is so important. This is why most Hindus are vegetarian.

One more story illustrating this point:

Once there was a man who took a picnic lunch out to a field. A wild dog ran by and grabbed his bread. The man got up and ran after the dog, shouting, "My lord, my lord, you forgot the butter!"

I'll post more stories as I remember them.

I have been wearing my bindi every day this week.

I had a very hard time finding someplace that sold plain, every day bindis. Finally I found and they had a variety of colors and sizes, as well as fancy bindi.

At first I bought several packs of red (before I decided to go with black) and I bought the smallest size they had. I was not prepared for just how small that is. I think it looks more like a bug landed on my face than a bindi!

However, the very small size, has made me more comfortable wearing it, feeling that it is subtle. I have worn this size to work.

From the same website I ordered my black ones in a slightly larger size.

I have worn it to school, the bank, the library, the post office. I've only had a comment by one co-worker who liked it. He said, "Is this bindi thing an every day thing?" I said, "Yeah, I'm trying it out, just getting started." He told me that he had lots of fancy ones that he stuck on his face for parties.

I realized also that most people are probably noticing more the dent on my face than my bindi! In the pictures it looks like a dimple on my left cheek, but in person you can see more a dent and a bump. It's a cyst that left a noticeable scar. I forget that it's there and sometimes people ask about it and I'm always surprised to remember it's there.

Today at the library, I was wearing a full salwar suit and my smaller bindi. Wouldn't you know, the girl who checked me out was Indian. She was also wearing a salwar suit. She said, "I notice you're wearing Indian clothes."

I said, "Yes. As are you. Very lovely."

That was it. I have no succinct explanation to offer to curious people. I'm not sure what I should say when Indian people actually ask me outright about what I'm wearing. She didn't phrase as a question, so I gave no explanation at all.

Also, I discovered to my delight that the library (this was my first time there), has Hindi books!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Who is Aamba?

Aamba is the name that I use to sign my posts, but it is not my real name.

Where did I get the name from? Aamba is a character in The Mahabharata (one of the epics I spoke of yesterday). She is a character who fascinates me and one of my mother's Sanskrit teachers decided that her name should be my "Indian" name for the purpose of his class. People seem to see a similarity between her and me. I don't know if that's a good thing.

Here is the basics of her story:

There is a prince whose name is Bishma. He is his father's only child and stands to inherit the kingdom. However, his father, the king, falls in love with a girl whose family will not allow them to marry unless there is some way to guarantee that her son will be king and not Bishma.

Because his father is so unhappy at not being able to marry this girl, Bishma takes an oath that he will never marry, never have relations with a woman, father no children. That would make him ineligible to be king.

In return for his generosity and selflessness to his father's desires, the gods grant Bishma a gift, the ability to choose the time of his death. No one can kill him unless he allows it.

The king marries the girl and she has a son. Sometime later the king dies and the younger brother is installed as king. However, he is weak and sickly. He needs a wife, but the method for getting a wife at that time was to enter a contest of arms (a swyamvara) to win a wife.

So, Bishma goes and wins three wives for the king. They are sisters. The youngest is Aamba and she is crying. Bishma asks her what is wrong and she tells him that it was not her choice to be up for offer in the swyamvara, that she is in love with someone already. She begs Bishma to let her go to the man she loves.

He agrees and she goes to meet her lover. However, that king is afraid of Bishma and he tells Aamba that he no longer wants her.

By the time Aamba gets back to Bishma's kingdom, the young king she was supposed to marry has died (how he got children to carry on the kingdom is very complicated and i won't go into that here). Aamba tells Bishma that he must marry her since she has been rejected by the man she loves and it is his fault. He won her, she is his.

He insists that he cannot because of the vow he took. He tells her to go back to her father, but she says she will not return to a man who bartered her like an animal.

Instead she takes her own oath. She swears that she will wander the world looking for someone to kill Bishma. Though it is impossible, she does so anyway. In the movie (see more about the movie at the end of the story) she has a very creepy line, "Never forget me, Bishma, I am your death."

She disappears from the main story, but shows up again forty years later, a wandering beggar woman. Her looks have hardly changed and she tells the main characters that her hate keeps her young. She has found no one willing to challenge Bishma.

Eventually she performs austerities in order to get gifts from the gods. She stands on one toe for twelve years and things like that. The gods, impressed with her discipline, speak to her. They tell her that only death can outwit death.

She builds a fire and throws herself into it, holding on as she dies to her one wish, to kill Bishma.

She is reborn as a man and lives a life whose only purpose is to kill Bishma.

In the midst of the great battle, Bishma (who has ended up by fate, not by choice, on the opposite side as the main characters) recognizes her and allows her to kill him.

A very sad story of a passionate woman. She is my namesake.

By the way, if you are interested in the story of The Mahabharata, there is a wonderful western adaptation by director Peter Brook. It is six hours long, broken into two hour segments. It is easy to watch and is quite a wonderful telling. Brook's premise was that this story is not just an Indian story, it is the story of mankind and it is universal.

Along that theme he cast actors from all over the world. One character is played by a French actor, another by an Italian, another by a African, another by an Indian, another by a Japanese. The beautiful accents blend together and weave an entrancing story.

I have shown this movie to many, many of my friends and they have all been riveted by it, whether they have any previous knowledge of Indian mythology or not.

There is also a 24 hour long Hindi mini-series of it. I have not seen it yet, but I hope to.

In the next post I will plan to tell you some other stories, some of the short fables that I grew up hearing.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Recipes (biefly)

As a follow up to the Holi post:

Most of the recipes came from my go-to cookbook, a simple and small one called "From Mom with Love."

I also relied on Manjula, who has UTube videos for making lots of great food and deserts. Her barfi is the first time I've been able to make it come out correctly!


For today I'm going to go back to talking about the religion as opposed to the culture.

Hinduism does not have a single go-to book. It also does not have a central prophet or creator of the religion. At some point I will have a post about the main branches of Hinduism, but today I wanted to talk about the holy texts.

Hindu tradition is packed with wonderful books and philosophical ponderings that question and examine the purpose of life and the meaning of death. These texts are thousands of years old and yet a person reading them today can still be completely at home with their profound messages.

There are the two great epic stories, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. They are a source of a lot of the mythology in Indian life. The Ramayana is the life story of Rama, who is believed by many to be a god. The most common view of Rama is that he is an avatar, an incarnation of god on earth for a particular purpose (which is the same as the view of Jesus). Rama's life is a template for living a life of perfect devotion to duty and his wife, Sita, is the model for all Hindu wives.

The Mahabharata is about a tremendous war that pulled the world into the last age. As in Greek mythology, there are four ages of the earth. The final one is the Kali Yuga. This is the time that we are now living in according to Hindu mythology.

Part of the Mahabharata is the Bhaghavad Gita. This might be the most famous of the Indian texts. It means "Song of the Lord" and it is the advice that Krishna gives to the warrior Arjuna just before the battle. Krishna, of course, comes into play in many Indian stories and books. He is a side character in this story. He is also an avatar of god. The Gita (as it is known for short) is packed full of profound philosophical meaning. A couple of the key points are that death is an illusion and that action that is performed without desire for the fruits will not have karmic consequence. The purpose of life is to free ones self from the cycle of birth and death and become one with god. It is our karma (actions) that keep us chained to our human lives.

There are also a number of even more ancient books called The Upanishads. One of my favorites of these is the Katha Upanishad, in which a young boy goes to visit the house of Yama, the god of death, and understand why death exists.

All of these texts are written in Sanskrit. (By the way, that "a" is pronounced like the "a" in "father", not like the "a" in "alligator." That second sound does not exist in Sanskrit and it is a great irony that the American way of pronouncing the word includes a sound that is not present in that language. In general, you're pretty safe if you use a long "a" for Indian words).

My community growing up, and I'm sure many people in India, believe that Sanskrit was the first language. Historically speaking there is a lot of evidence that it wasn't, but that doesn't stop anyone from believing it. According to tradition, the laws of the universe can be found in the laws of Sanskrit grammar.

My mother and father have studied Sanskrit for thirty years now. The dining room table is scattered with giant dictionaries and grammar books and snip-its of the Gita and the Upanishads.

It is a very beautiful language. I learned the characters of the alphabet as a child and also several of the Vedic prayers, which are prayers found in the opening pages of most of the Upanishads.

One prayer is the following:
Asato ma sad gamaya
tamaso ma jyotir gamaya
mritur ma amritang gamaya
om shanti, shanti, shanti

It means:
Lead me from the unreal to the real
Lead me from the darkness to the light
Lead me from death to immortality
May peace and peace and peace be everywhere

That last line is the ending to nearly all Vedic prayers and it is a loose translation. Really it is "om", which is the sound which is supposed to have begun the universe, the very first sound from which all others arise. And then the word for "peace" three times. Probably you have heard the word "Shanti" before and that is what it means.

Learning that alphabet as a child has been a big advantage for me in learning Hindi because it is almost identical. The script is called Devanagari, which means "city of the gods." Many Indian languages use this script or a variation of it, although some do not.

This is a taste of some of the great richness that has drawn me to this religion. It is easy to find translations of many of these texts and I highly recommend the translations done by a man named Eknath Easwaran. Give them a try, I think you'll really enjoy them, regardless of your religion.