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 This blog is no longer updated, but Ambaa is still writing The White Hindu every weekday at

Monday, May 31, 2010

Dance Performance-the day after

So the dance show went really well. It was a long day, though. The event was five hours, starting with music students and then dance students and some people gave speeches.

I messed up my dance a tiny bit (turned the wrong direction, but it was not very noticeable to the audience). My dance class is just me and one other girl, K. We were the only adult students there, and beginners. It was a little embarrassing. That and my costume was a few sizes too small!

K also declared that we and our guests were the only non-South-Indians there (she's Bengali). She wasn't quite correct.

There was a white woman who made one of the speeches. I wasn't able to hear what she was saying because I was getting changed at the time, but my boyfriend said that she gave an odd talk. He said she basically said that this cultural event was so wonderful and beautiful and they should try harder to share it with the general population and not keep it all Indian.

He found it pretty distasteful and he wasn't the only one. At the very end of the show (after this woman had already left!) one of the organizers said the good-bye speech and the thank yous. He made sure to point out that the last dance was done to a Western song (classical music set to a techno beat). He talked about how previous shows had blended ballet with Bharatnatyam. I think he was hurt by what that woman had said.

I think it was inappropriate too. It's not as though white people are forbidden to go. I was there. My boyfriend was there. It was a free show, anyone who wanted to come could have. That's not the fault of the dance school. Maybe they could have advertised differently, but I'm not sure how. Should they have put a lot of money into advertising to a segment of the American population that is very unlikely to even come?

K and I were talking about it a little at the dress rehearsal. She said something about this dance being unique and that other forms of dance have participants of all races and backgrounds. I said I thought more white people would be doing it if they knew about it, but K didn't think so. She made the point that you would have to know an awful lot about Indian culture and mythology to enjoy Bharatnatyam. It also has a spiritual aspect and I'd hate to see it turn into an exercise craze only, like yoga!

Obviously the woman who gave the speech didn't read the program too closely, or she would have seen my Scottish name :)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Photo in a Sari

As promised, here is a picture of me in a sari. It's a little difficult for me to look at pictures of myself these days, as I've gained a lot of weight in the last few months. Anyway, I'm working on getting back to my normal size (forty pounds lighter!), but it is hard to face evidence like this of how big I've gotten.

So, I'm on my way to my dance performance today. I'm wearing this sari until it's time to change into my dance costume. I'm about to go put on all the dance jewelry.

This is my fanciest sari by far and I love how silky soft it is!

Edited to add: When I got to the dance school my friend, K, asked if I wanted her to "fix it." Apparently my hem was not entirely even and my pleats left something to be desired. She took me to the bathroom and rewrapped me, and I hope I can remember her tips on how to do it. I've been wearing sari based on my memory of my cousin showing me how to do it one time!

Saturday, May 29, 2010


I'm always reading stories about other converts, regardless of which religion they are moving to or from. There seems to be a quality that converts have in common and which I'd love to study more and read more about. That is their zeal.

To some extent, people born in a religion can take it for granted and it can be uncomfortable to see people new to it who have so much excitement to do everything.

Here you are, you've been X religion all your life and you've settled into a groove with it, doing the parts that make sense to you and leaving some of it. Your name is X and your looks are X, so it has always been part of your identity and you don't have to do anything to hold onto it.

Now here comes someone who has just discovered how amazing and wonderful X religion is and he is doing every ritual and looks at you in surprise when you don't do something that is usually a part of X religion. This person studies and questions and asks about things you've never heard of before and their enthusiasm is exhausting and pretty annoying.

But converts can't help it!

Through Memoirs of a Jewminicana I found an article about a Jewish woman whose husband converted to marry her, but then took everything very seriously.

In the comments a girl named Rebecca said, "But realistically, who converts to be lukewarm about something."

Michelle responded:

You nailed it Rebecca. Someone told me about a year after my conversion that he was surprised at how familiar I was with services and rituals and how knowledgeable I was about Judaism in general. I couldn’t figure out why he would think I would be anything less. It’s hard for me to imagine someone converting who wasn’t passionate about it and didn’t want to immerse herself into the faith, the tradition and the community in a significant way.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Learning Hindi, one year in

Last summer I was walking through the mall with my best friend and I saw a Rosetta Stone stand. My friend was interested in learning Arabic for her work and I had an older version of Hindi that I had done a little bit of work with and liked (I didn't know at the time that there was anything new!). We went over to the stand and the demo that was going looked different, and much much better than the software that I had. The salesman informed me that the program had recently been updated and I was very impressed with what I saw.

The old version had some problems with it. It taught you early on really weird and somewhat useless things. I got really good at saying "The bird is flying" in Hindi, but all the sentences you learned were structured like that. There was no speaking about ones self, no greetings, no where is the bathroom? Also, they had listening exercises, reading exercises, and speaking exercises, but they were separated in such a way that you would get going in one of them and you'd just keep going, so you had to back all the way out to try a different method. Also when I first bought it, they only had Hindi in level 1 and the "popular" languages in levels 1, 2, and 3.

The shiny new Rosetta Stone solved all of these problems and was much more beautiful to use as well. I discovered that they had three levels of Hindi now (and levels 4 and 5 in the popular languages!).

I didn't have a job at the time and it was very expensive. My friend was put off by the expense and also by the fact that she needs to learn the Syrian dialect of Arabic, not the standard Arabic. I, however, could not resist. I bought all three levels and put it on my credit card.

I've never regretted doing that.

I love Rosetta Stone and I sing its praises to everyone I meet! I was never good at languages as a kid and switched from Spanish to Latin in the 6th grade because the pressure to speak in Spanish class was so overwhelming and I didn't know what to say. I continued, badly, with dead languages. But I still loved language so much. I have two degrees in writing. I took linguistics classes in college and loved them. I dreamed of being bilingual someday. Rosetta Stone started me on that path.

It has been almost a year since that purchase. A couple months ago I had almost made it through level 3 when my computer died and I had to call customer service to transfer to another computer. Instead of asking how to get my progress back, I decided to start over from the beginning to help reinforce what I was learning.

As my first post on Hindi told you, I also use a huge variety of other products, from books and youtube videos to flashcards, computer games, and movies to supplement the Rosetta Stone learning.

It's very hard to rate progress in a language. Lately I've been reading a lot of blogs about people learning other languages, trying to be bilingual or, more often, trying to learn many languages and their advice on how to proceed. Through them I discovered this chart of language knowledge:

level description

A1 Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

A2 Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.

B1 Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

B2 Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation. Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

C1 Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

C2 Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

This will help me clarify my goals and see where I am. After a year of somewhat intensive study (although I have a lot of other things going on too) I am at the A1 level, though probably about to break through into A2.

A little disappointing, but I knew this endeavor was going to be difficult. I think having this chart will allow me to set more concrete goals to reach for, so I can speed up my progress. One of the key motivators is my desire to raise my children in two languages. I've also been reading a lot of blogs of mothers raising bilingual children, even some of them doing it in a language that is not native to them. There are links below. I calculate that it will be a year and a few months before I can start trying for a baby, so that's my time frame for getting all the way to the top of the chart! (Okay, a B2 level would probably be fine for the early learning and I could continue my progress as the kid is growing).

The main way I had been gauging my progress is by playing my favorite Bollywood movie (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) without subtitles and seeing how many words I recognize. I did that first this past summer after doing a little bit of Rosetta Stone and I'd say I recognized about one word in twenty-five. I'm currently somewhere between one word in ten and one word in five, so I have come a long way! It's still frustrating to feel how far I have yet to go, but a year is really not that long in terms of language study.

When I know a word, it really sticks out in the movie. I know that once I really understand Hindi it will all be clear as a bell instead of now where it sounds like "mumble mumble mumble kutta mumble..."

I'm taking some study techniques from the blogs I've been reading. One is to keep a language journal to record what I studied each day to keep me accountable and to help me see my progress. Another is to do an active/passive week thing to keep from getting burnt out. One week I'll study with Rosetta Stone, grammar books, flashcards and really try hard, and the next week I'll learn passively by watching movies, listening to music and just being absorbed in the language to remind me how much I love it. A lot of people on these sites also use Anki flashcards to learn. I went to the website and downloaded it and I've been very impressed. It uses adaptive recall just like Rosetta Stone, so you rate how easy a word was to get and the easier ones will come back up less frequently. You should watch their youtube videos about how it works. Really neat. Someone has created a huge deck of the vocab from Teach Yourself Hindi and it is in devanagari script (although the font they're using is rather difficult to read).

I practice saying Hindi sentences to the dog and for the last few days I've been trying to translate my thoughts in my head into Hindi. I'm still pretty shaky on verb tenses and noun case endings, though!

As part of preparing for children, I'm going to try to memorize this lullaby:

[Darn! Another video removed. This is a very beautiful lullaby. If you can find "So ja Chanda" it is really worth hearing!]

I've been working on translating it.

I'll leave you with a lot of links to enjoy:

List of Hindi Resources

Parents raising bilingual kids:

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I am truly surprised that traditional Indian clothes have not made more of an impression in America.

As much as I love sari, I can understand that people find them intimidating, but salwar kameez suits are the ideal clothes!

From what I've heard, these originated in the North and Pakistan (probably originally a Muslim way of dressing, but now embraced by many because of how practical they are) and are sometimes called Punjab suits for that region. They are the best of both worlds between a dress and pants. Plus you don't have to worry about what pieces go together in an outfit.

Suits have pants of various different styles, sometimes very loose, sometimes tighter, and then a tunic over the top and a scarf called a dupatta. The scarf can be worn/draped in many different ways. The three pieces are designed to work together, so they are made of the same fabric and design. They are very beautiful and graceful, but you can also have a full range of motion in them because of the pants.

Try as a I might, I have not started a fashion trend of these in the West. I really don't understand why!

Here are pictures of a few different types of suits (these come from the website, which also has info on the history)

I buy mine from a variety of places: Ebay, Sari Palace (a store in MD), and My cousin also gave me some of her old ones and my parents got some for me when they visited India. You can even have these stitched to exactly match your measurements.

Here's one from

Saris are also not that hard to figure out and they are, in my opinion, the most beautiful and elegant clothing ever invented. I feel like a queen when I wear one.

(Image from AboutHinduism)

People of about grandmother age now often wear sari every day. My parents told me about seeing women helping to carry concrete to a construction site in India, all wearing sari.

There are also dresses called Lengtha Choli (they have other names as well). That consists of a top (choli, same as a sari blouse) and a long and flowy skirt. They also have a scarf. These are really fancy for a big party, but easy to put on and to wear. I have a lilac one that I frequently wear to weddings.

(Image from FashionMyDream.Blogspot)

I have heard that in India "ethnic" clothes have been looked down on in the past. Wearing traditional clothes makes you seem old-fashioned and there are night clubs that will only let you in if you are wearing Western clothes. But the West doesn't do everything better!

Thank goodness it looks like there are trends back to "ethnic" clothing, and now young people often mix a suit top (kurta) with jeans, etc.Trend in Indian Clothes

These really are wonderful clothes and better than so many Western styles!

Something interesting I've noticed is that in ancient cultures, it seems to be the women who hang onto the clothing. I was watching the Jessica Simpson Price of Beauty episode in Africa and it called to mind so many times of seeing a similar effect. There was a wedding happening and all the people from the African village gathered in their finest clothes. The women wore traditional clothing and the men wore Western suits. This seems to happen all over. I can tell you what the traditional Korean dress for women looks like, but have no idea of the men's. Often I see Indian women wearing traditional clothes each day and the men wearing Western (and part of that might be that in these cases the men have jobs in America and have to wear clothes considered appropriate to the American job market). At temple I see some men wearing kurta (long shirt) with jeans and only the priests wear dhoti. No judgement call on that, I just found it to be an interesting observation.

I hope that at least Indian inspired clothing will gain in popularity here because they really are comfortable, beautiful and practical. I really appreciate the Indian love of design and color.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Feeling deflated

This was a packed full weekend. On Saturday morning Chinmaya was having a celebration of the birth of Shankara that I went to. Shankara is a sage from around 788 A.D. who revitalized Hinduism and tried to unite it as one thing (advaita), so he is the founder of the smartha branch of Hinduism that I follow. The celebration was at the large temple in the area instead of the Chinmaya center. It was hard to find the group at first, since they were in the lower level auditorium area and not the main temple floor. I wore one of my saris. I love sari and there aren't enough opportunities to wear them!

Sunday morning I went to the Chinmaya service and then I stayed for several hours so I could go to the youth group's discussion in the late afternoon.

The youth group is for people 18-35, but I was the oldest there by a few years. The vast majority of people were younger than my little brother and were in college or just starting college. They also grew up together, knew the same people, and many went to the same college.

A couple of things didn't work out well for me in this group. One is that I feel like I'm at a very different place in life than they are and that they aren't able to understand my perspective, since I have now realized the foolish stubbornness of being 18!

The other thing is that there was another girl there who was new. She was a friend of one of the other girls. She was a Christian Indian. The book we were discussing was talking about being your own person (a good lesson for me!) and I spoke about the need to separate your own desires and dreams from your parents desires for you.

This girl spoke next. She said, "Well, as brown people, we really respect our parents..." She dismissed everything I said and implied that because I'm not "brown" I am a monster who doesn't respect or care about her parents.

Apparently my insight is useless because I'm not Indian. As though I don't know anything about parental pressure!

I was deeply disheartened by that. She is not, and I'm not sure anyone there is, interested in my unique struggles.

I'm going to look into finding an adult discussion group.


Also on Saturday a friend came over and we discussed Hinduism. I find that I have a hard time explaining many concepts because I have believed them for so long that I'm rusty on the whys.

In essence he asked why we act in the world at all if it is ultimately just an illusion and not meaningful (as stipulated in my post on Good and Evil) (Correct me if I'm wrong about the question, J!)

This life is an illusion, and yet we have to participate in it and play our roles. Why?

I don't have a great answer for this, but I think that people are always going to do something. People will always act. If you were enlightened and you could see that the world was just a game, would you do nothing at all? I doubt it. I think that you'd have fun and do things that made you happy.

What if the things that make you happy are "bad" things (again, there is not really anything bad or good in reality, but there are things that help other souls move toward enlightenment and things that hurt). I would argue that no one actually finds joy from destructive acts. There's another reason behind an act like killing a puppy. A person might think that will make him happy, but I don't believe that it actually does.

An enlightened person gets happiness from helping others quite naturally because he can see that the others are himself. Not to start the whole Christian v.s. Advaita debate again, but my mother used to tell me that Jesus said to love one's neighbor as one's self because the neighbor really is yourself.

Fate is a very slippery concept in Hinduism. Do your actions have effects or does everything happen the way it has to based only on sanskara? Somehow, there is both fate and free will operating together in a very complex web that we will probably never understand. They say that there are certain issues that we will have to face in order for our soul to move forward, but when the problem comes up, if we are present, we have the choice. We can choose something that will move our soul forward or we can rely on a fog of habit.

In reading the Mahabharata, one of the things that you'll notice is that there's always a fate driven explanation for people's actions. For example, Kunti just happens to say to her sons that they must share what they have brought home, not knowing that it is a wife. To not make her a liar, all the brothers marry that one woman. But then Vyasa comes in and says that this woman prayed devoutly in a previous life five times for a husband, so she was fated to have five husbands. It is never clear whether Kunti caused this to happen or if it had to happen and how those two things go together. There are hundreds of examples of this in the Mahabharata.

I don't really have answers. I think is is dangerous to think that you have the answers to things already. If that were the case, I would already be enlightened. I like that Hinduism leaves a lot of things open for one to ponder and wonder about and it might take lifetimes to figure out the truth. The most important thing is to think about it, to keep wondering.

Friday, May 21, 2010

On this razor's edge, can I learn to dance without bleeding?

There was a time when I was a lot more on the devotional path than I am now.

In my community growing up I always felt left out because everyone was on the path of knowledge and they were all very smart and able to debate and study and understand the texts. I went much more by emotion and couldn't really defend my understandings of things. (I did really enjoy listening to the Stillman brothers talk philosophy, though. Those are some smart men!).

I focused much more on the idea that you serve a master as God without questions and with total faith. In my understanding, for a woman, that would be her husband. It is still my belief that if one serves someone with absolute devotion, the soul is purified, even if the "master" is not worthy of it.

However, the older I got, the more I noticed my intellectual side. I could not put aside my tremendous curiosity and my desire to know everything about everything. (Not that I was being asked to, it just made it difficult to simply serve). Also, modern life got in the way. I was not married. I'm still not married. I lived away from home when I went to college, so my father was not there for me to practice this on.

I'm glad I moved out for college. I learned so much about myself and became a new person. There's some poetry that I wrote during that transition that I'm going to share with you today.

Even though I've always believed that God is within us and is us and is not a separate being at all, I also understand the value of worship. It is, as my paralegal class says, like a legal fiction. Something we know is not true, but we act as though it is in order to move forward. Worship and devotion is very valuable for approaching the idea of God because it can be too much for our minds to take in that we are ourselves God. In Hinduism there is the idea of a large Self and a small self. The large Self is usually called Atman (although in Sanskrit the word atman means ones self, whether the large or the small). The large Self is who we really are and the small self is who we think we are, a collection of habits and labels held together by ignorance.

So then I found some groups that focused on devotion and I discovered that I was much more "path of knowledge" than I had realized!

The point is that I wrote some very devotional poetry. I was inspired by Mirabai. Mirabai is a poet from the 1500s. The story goes that as a child she saw a statue of Lord Krishna and was very drawn to it. She decided that he would be her lord and she wanted no one else. Nonetheless, she was married off. She was a good wife, but continued her intense devotions to Krishna. The family found it embarrassing and several plots were put in motion to murder her. Poison was put in her food, for example. And each time Krishna himself saved her. He turned the poison into honey, etc. Finally she decides to kill herself because her family is unhappy with her. She tries to throw herself into a river, but Krishna physically grabs her and brings her back. From then on she wandered streets, begging her way (as many holy people do in Indian tradition) and singing songs about Krishna. Her poetry is sensual and beautiful, speaking of Krishna as a lover and her separation from him.

These poems were all written nine years ago:

The darkest night, thick with covering,
is your hand.
The warm earth I bend to touch
is your feet.
The endless sky is your forehead.
The sunset clouds are your eyes.
The opening flower bud is your mouth.
The stars are the white splendor
of your teeth.
The small, round cloud drifting through
the sky alone
is your face as you meditate.
The cold rush of the ocean onto the sand
is your touch.
The breeze that lifts the new leaves
is your breath.
The cry of birds, shrouded in vines,
is your voice.
The leaves falling from the trees
in the deep forest is your laugh.
The honey that drips from trees
is your scent.
The planets are your necklace.
Your praise trickles from mountain streams.
The trees speak your name as I pass.
The rain on my closed windows
is the sound of your fingers tapping the door.

The idea stands between us.
It is more solid than rock
and wider than a mountain.
I am little and you are great.
I can never reach you.
The idea looms and from behind it
I hear your breath.

There is nothing real in this world.
Nothing to look at but you.
Nothing to love but you.
Shimmering shadows
are the bodies.
Your voice whispers from afar
and I leap up to follow it:
to run over fields, up hills,
through forests, across deserts.
And your voice is still distant.
Because it is muffled
though my skin.
You are in my own heart.

My soul comes free of my body
soaring and tumbling
through the sky like the sea gull.
The vast planes stretch on forever,
dotted with snow.
The rhythm of life is far away.
The sun bursts through the clouds,
called forth by the perfect mantra hum,
revealing itself and reaching out gold
to cover the earth.

Thrust to new awareness
as though my soul had lived under water all these years,
seeing through only murky water.
Suddenly the world looks different
until the river pulls me back down.

I give you this flower from my garden.
I give you the last drop of water from my hair.
I give you the mornings
and the evenings.
I give you the moments.
I offer all my sorrows and all my joys.
The greatest offering is the tear wiped off
and held trembling on the fingertip.
God accepts it
and gives the gift of liberation in turn.

There are actually 112 of these in the notebook I found!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dance Performance

First, I have a favor to ask. I have been trying to spread this around to every Internet group I have! I want Rosetta Stone to come out with levels 4 and 5 for Hindi, but I've already requested it and I'm just one person. If they get a bunch of requests they might do it. All you have to do is follow the link and put in a request for Hindi levels 4 and 5!
Request Lanaguage

A week from Sunday I have my first dance performance with my new school! I love dance, partly as exercise and partly as a spiritual experience. I guess dance for me is what yoga is for a lot of people.

I dug up some pictures of myself from my previous dance school. This is a classical south Indian style called Bharat Natyam. It tells stories about the gods mostly. You use your hands and face to express the story and your feet keep rhythm. Most of the dance is done in a squat position like a ballet plie (no idea how to spell that, sorry!). You'll see me squatting in these pictures, but not nearly as much as I should be. It's tough on the legs. To emphasize the stamps of the feet, we wear anklets that are covered in bells. The squat looks particularly nice with the costume, where you see the layers of fans going down the front.

And here are some YouTube examples of other people doing Bharatnatyam (i.e., people much better than me!)

One of the spectacular things about this dance is that it involves every part of the body. Where your eyes are looking is very important. The eyes follow the hands usually. There is a saying that goes, "Where the hands go, the eyes go; where the eyes go, the mind goes; where the mind goes, the heart goes. There love arises."

Women and Hinduism

The issue of women in Hinduism for me is as conflicted as the issue of arranged marriage (Arranged Marriage). On the surface it is easy to see that women are often treated as less important than men and leave it at that. The truth is much more complicated.

So, on the one hand: Within society women are often treated as less important, lower souls, whose only purpose in life is to cook, clean, and obey their mother-in-laws. For some reason an idea came up that to be born as a woman is a lesser embodiment and that all souls strive to be men in their births. (This is completely ridiculous, seeing as how we need both genders for the world to keep functioning. A human birth is the highest, but there is no distinction between what gender or race of human birth). Women are sometimes treated quite terribly in India. Families they are marrying into might require a crippling dowry from her family (even though dowries are now illegal) and sometimes young brides are killed by their new families for being "disobedient."

There is an ancient tradition called sati in which women would throw themselves onto the funeral pyres of their husbands and burn alive. This was seen as such a beautiful devotion that sometimes girls have been forced into funeral pyres. This practice is also illegal. Historically widows have been treated very poorly in society. It is sometimes seen as their fault that their husbands died, some bad karma of theirs. Until recently they would be forced to live secluded in "widows houses" for the rest of their lives and forbidden to wear nice clothes or jewelry.

When a young bride first goes to her new home, in some places it is tradition for her to be taken straight to the kitchen to cook a perfectly round roti (like a tortilla) to prove her worth in household duties.

All this from a culture who worships goddesses. A very mixed message, to be sure. I think the pure ideals of Hinduism have been somewhat corrupted by human thought. This idea of the man being superior is not part of the religion, it's just a habit of men to think that way because they have the power. There is such a strong ideal for a woman to worship her husband as her Lord, but too often people forget that the husband is also to adore his wife as the goddess.

The perfect marriage in Hindu tradition is that of Rama and Sita. Women are taught to strive to be like Sita, who is perfect in devotion. When her husband, a prince, chose exile in a forest, she willingly followed him in all his hardship. But he also cares for her and goes to the ends of the earth to rescue her when she is kidnapped. Even in hunting the golden deer for her, he always wanted to make her happy.

Being a modern and independent woman has been a tremendous struggle for me. I still have in my mind all the stories of good women who were meek, obeyed their husbands, and were phenomenal at housework. I was taught to always cook fresh food, never serve my family leftovers, to do housework with no expectation of praise or reward. I expected to be a housewife when I grew up and adjusting to the fact that I have come into a modern life and have to work has been difficult.

Sometimes I want very much to be strong and independent and capable and self-sufficient and all these things that women in the west are praised for. I am learning how to do that because I'm dating a modern American man and my plans for an arranged marriage did not work out at all. But sometimes I feel guilt over not being better at the housework. My instincts are still strongly traditional and old-fashioned. That is something that I will struggle with for a long time, I'm sure.

But my role model is no longer the woman who lit her husband's oil lamp for so many years that he forgot who she was, I strive now to be like the great princess Draupadi.

The most famous story of Draupadi is the dice game. For those who don't know it: Draupadi was married to five brothers (yes, at the same time). One of them was in a dice match with an evil Uncle who was cheating. As the brother became more and more involved in the game he was unable to stop wagering things and he staked and lost all of his brothers and himself and finally their wife.

Draupadi was dragged into the hall by her hair, while in her period. She looked to her husbands to defend her honor, but they were gambled away and were only slaves now. The evil cousins tell Draupadi that she is also a slave now and to take off her clothes. They call her a slut for having five husbands (there's a story behind that, it was her destiny and had to happen that way). She argues that because her husband had already lost himself before staking her that she no longer belonged to him and could not be gambled away. "Can one belong to someone who has lost himself?"

The king, presiding over this, says that it does not make a difference and she has been lost. One of the evil cousins comes over to strip off her clothes and she prays to Krishna. Her sari will not end. He pulls and pulls and pulls on the pallu and it just keeps going, never disrobing her. Soon he is in a mountain of cloth and she is still clothed. She raises her hands in prayer and a jackal cries.

The king is so freaked that he tells her to choose a favor. She asks that her husbands be free. The king does so and offers another favor, but she refuses. He asks her why she wants nothing for herself.

"Greed destroys all things," she replies, "I refuse greed. Save my husbands."

One cousin comments, "Husbands were drowning and Draupadi is the raft that saves them."

(all quoted dialogue is from the translation in the Peter Brooks' Mahabharata).

Now there is a fierce, strong role model for women. Still a great wife, but also confident and sure in herself. They needed her and she saved them.

It is my hope that Hinduism will move more toward revering women as goddesses and respecting their unique power to create life. I think the scriptures support the idea that all are equally divine. It is not just the female saints like Amma and those who call to mind the divine mother, it is all females. They deserve respect and love and to be cherished by their husbands and their husbands' families.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Why I'm thinking about children

Several of my posts have been about the ways in which I want to pass Hinduism to my own children. Thinking about children is a new thing for me. There was a while where I thought I wouldn't have any because of the desires of the man I was with at the time. Suddenly that biological clock that people talk about has kicked in. There have been a few things that have happened to trigger it, but one in particular...

I have never been good at making friends. I lack the ability to small talk and I end up starting such serious conversations that only a few people become close. I am still friends with my two childhood friends and in college I added one more. Her name was Ilana and she was in two of my classes my freshman year. We got along fantastically right from the start. We had such similar thoughts on everything. She really understood me. She was talkative and passionate about life and she had plans. She wanted children more than anyone I have ever met. She talked to the campus Rabbi about issues of children long before she was married. She told me how she had longed to be a mother from the time she was a toddler. When her sister was born, she thought the baby was a gift to her.

Ilana had patience. As hard as it was, she waited to finish college, to marry her college sweetheart (the first guy she ever kissed), to get settled into her job as a biology teacher, and to buy a house (well, a condo, the economy being what it is). We continued to talk on the phone and visit with each other. When I told her that I wasn't sure I wanted kids, she said, "But who will look after you in your old age?" I said, "Your kids will!"

Ilana always gave me great advice and I depended on her to give me helpful feedback on every kind of issue I might have. There was nothing we didn't talk about.

This past summer Ilana was finally ready to start trying to get pregnant. She was so excited. I called her in late winter and she told me that she was three weeks pregnant, but not to tell anyone. She was waiting to share the news until she was sure the pregnancy would stick and past the point of frequent miscarriages.

A week later she was killed in a car crash.

One of the very intense emotions that came over me was a very strong desire to have children because she couldn't. It felt as though as she was dying she passed on to me that craving for a baby. I hated that she had been so careful and waited for life to be just right before getting pregnant. Even if she had to die, I wish that she had left behind a child of her own. I know it's crazy to wish there was a child without a mother, but I know Ilana's family, friends, and husband would take such good care of it.

These feelings have made it extremely difficult for me to wait to have children. However, I know that there are things that need to be in place first (though if you wait for the timing to be too perfect, then you never start). In order to give myself patience and help me to wait, I started putting together a Hope Chest of sorts.

I have a plastic box and I'm gathering baby items to put into it. I'm also collecting books and toys for children that I want mine to have. That includes several Hindi books, some picture books about Indian festivals, some DVDs about Krishna and Rama, and some things I've been knitting.

My favorite toys I found so far are linked to in my Chinmaya post. Also, I had a hard time finding Hindi nursery rhymes and songs on CD. Finally found this: Nursery Rhymes It is really high quality and many tracks. I'm listening to it now!

Another thing I found was a set of computer games for toddlers and young children to play games to learn Hindi. Those were at There are some problems with some of the games, but I'm still happy with them.

So, that's just so you understand where I am in life and what I'm thinking about, because those thoughts are influencing the blog. I promise to very soon do a post on women and Hinduism, as Basu requested!

Saturday, May 15, 2010


I love my extended family very much. I'm lucky that there is no one in my entire family that I dislike. I'm always excited to spend time with them all.

This weekend my boyfriend and I are in North Carolina, celebrating my brother graduating from college.

I was thinking about having a confrontation with my mom and my dad's extended family here about the Hindu stuff by wearing a bindi, but I called to ask my brother how he felt about it and he asked if I could please not cause drama over his graduation weekend. So that idea is post poned.

I did talk to my dad about it briefly a week or so ago. He accknowledged that he hasn't seen me as a Christian in years, but he still thought of me as an Advaitan. I told him that I am an Advaitan. Advaita is a branch of Hinduism. He's concerned that I'm being too narrowly focused and I need to see the Advaita within Christianity. I just can't do it anymore. I know it's there, but it is burried so deep that I don't see why I shouldn't just follow a religion that has Advaita (non-duality) right on the surface. I know that he doesn't want to deal with his mother finding out about all this. I told him it's going to have to happen at some point (in my mind knowing that that point will probably be when my boyfriend and I decide to get married).

Yesterday I had some alone time with one of my dad's sisters. She is one of my favorite people in the world and someone I really aspire to be like. I realized that I almost never interact with my dad's family without a filter from my mom. She is always there at the same time, and telling me not to say certain things and not to rock the boat. When I was talking to my aunt alone I discovered that some of the things mom has been insistent that I shouldn't talk about, she actually doesn't have a problem with.

I was tremendously tempted to tell my aunt right then and there about my religion. I converted almost seven years ago now and my extended family doesn't know. But I couldn't bring myself to do it.

I'm afraid that it will hurt her and confuse her. This is an area where it is pretty hard to imagine someone being not Christian. In fact, I was talking to my brother's Jewish girlfriend about it and she said when she was growing up here, kids at school didn't know what Hannukah was and asked her if her people were "the ones who killed Jesus." There just isn't much diversity. My family here is quietly and happily Lutheran and I don't know if they've given it much thought.

I decided that I need a reason to bring up this topic with my family and also I promised my brother not to cause trouble during his time. So, my boyfriend and I agreed that when we get engaged, we'll make a trip to North Carolina without my parents and talk to my family here about my conversion and the fact that the wedding will be mostly Hindu (though not completely).

It pains me a lot to think of the years that I might have talked honestly with my beloved aunts and I didn't have that chance because of my mother's fears about what they might think.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sounds of Hindi

Quite a while ago now Katie asked me in the comments about the pronunciation of the Indian words I use. I call them Indian because some are Hindi and some are Sanskrit. They are closely related, but not at all the same. India has many, many, many languages as well as many dialects. Some use the devanagari script of Sanskrit and others use completely different scripts and some use a variation of devanagari.

Sanskrit is not my specialty. I learned the alphabet and some prayers when I was growing up and I took one semester of it in college, which I barely got through. The grammar in Sanskrit is very intense. If you're familiar with Latin, it's much more complicated, with more declensions, etc. It also has something called sandhi, where words run into each other. It's sort-of like a contraction in English, how you can put "It" and "Is" next to each other and turn them into "It's." In Sanskrit, almost all the words run together in this way and there are rules about how they combine, depending on the last letter of the first word and the first letter of the second word. My mom is currently taking a Spoken Sanskrit class and I can't even imagine how that works.

Hindi, being a modern and still living language, is about the same complication level as English. No sandhi, but it does have gendered nouns and case endings on words. Like the vast majority of languages in the world, it is not dependent on word order and it uses a sentence construction with the verb at the end of the sentence.

Hindi (and Sanskrit) have sounds that do not exist in English. I studied linguistics in college, particularly the development of language in children and something interesting I learned was about how we make distinctions between sounds. If you sound an "ah" out loud and then continue to sound as you shift it to an "ooo," there are a near infinite number of sounds in between. Your brain decides where to draw the line, where to consider something the same sound and where to transfer the meaning to a new sound. It will sound to us like there is a sudden shift between about four or five sounds in that sequence.

A famous example is Japanese people learning English. In their language there is no distinction between an "l" sound and an "r" sound. Our brains learn how to draw these dividing lines by the time we are one year old. By that time, we know the sounds of our language and it becomes increasingly difficult to hear distinctions that other languages draw. So, as distinct as "l" and "r" sound to an English speaker, they will be completely unable to hear the difference between a dental "tha" and a retroflex "tha" (and I have to show them with the same characters because the Roman alphabet does not make that distinction. This has to do with where the tongue is in the mouth when the letter is sounded).

In Hindi there are four different "n" sounds, four different "t" sounds, and (I think) five different "d" sounds. They also distinguish between an aspirated and un-aspirated sound. This is called the "puff of air." It is extremely hard for English speakers to hear the difference because it is not a morphemic difference to us. What that means is that if you say the word "kite" with no extra air on the "k" or if you say it with a puff of air on the "k" (which we almost always do, our language being very lazy in terms of sound production), they are the same word, there is no meaning difference. However, in Hindi, that word might mean two totally different things.

My online Skype teacher was trying to get me to say a word with an un-aspirated "p" in the beginning. Every time I tried, she kept telling me I was aspirating it, but I couldn't tell how not to. The reason is, in English every word that starts with "p" gets aspirated, but words that end in "p" do not. If you say the word "pull" and the word "stop," can you hear that there is a difference between the "p"s?

That is probably going to take me a long time. I have to really practice to make my mouth more acrobatic. I am starting to be able to hear the different sounds when pronounced by others, though not always. Producing them myself is proving extremely difficult.

There are characters in Hindi that don't exist in Sanskrit, because there are new sounds that Hindi has incorporated based on borrowed words from Arabic and English. It's easy, as monolingual English speakers, to think that all languages are taking so many words from English, it must be the best language. It is not actually like that at all.

First, because different languages have been favored at different points in history and during that period, that language gets incorporated into lots of other languages. Also, because all languages borrow words from lots of others. There are words in the English language that came originally from Sanskrit (yes, the language trees are related). There are also French words and German words. For example, think of the word "fiancee." To us native English speakers, that is an English word. That's exactly how a word like "komputr" in Hindi is a Hindi word, though the sounds come from English.

When my cousin first went to live in India, she started learning Hindi (and Kannada) from the household servants. One girl help up a plate and told her, "In Hindi we call this 'plate.'" She did not know it was called the same in English! I don't know off hand which words in English started in Indian languages, but I'll keep my eye out for some. (UPDATE, Basu pointed out two great examples: Jungle and Pajama. Those are both Hindi words that have been taken into English)

There is a movement now to incorporate more Sanskrit derivative words into Hindi. Also, I think the classes springing up in temples around the country for Spoken Sanskrit are a similar phenomenon. It appears to be a rebellion against Arabic (and therefore, Muslim) words in Hindi. I think that tinkering with a language is very unnatural and will probably not stick. How words get created is a very organic process. I also hate to see the world dividing along religious lines like that. But anyway, that is off topic.

I want to show those of you who are not familiar with Indian languages what Hindi looks like. We'll see if the characters come out in a way that you can see them:

मेरा नाम आम्बा है (This says "My name is Aamba). The script is so beautiful that I can't imagine why anyone would want to write out Hindi words in Roman characters. (I also find it extremely difficult to read Hindi words written in Roman characters because there are so many sounds that English doesn't have, they get represented in different ways in different places).

In religious circles people will often say that the line that runs across the tops of the letters represents God, always present in all things (this, however, does not explain why some letters have a gap: धू थ ). Every character has an automatic "ah" attached to it, unless it comes at the end of a word. There are little markers that indicate when it changes to another vowel, and if two consonants are next to each other, part of the first one is removed and squashed into the second one. It is a very phonetic language, and unlike English, every character makes only one sound. Thus, once you learn the alphabet, you can pronounce any Hindi (or Sanskrit) word even if you don't know what it means.

When I was growing up, there were several Sanskrit words that were just a part of my everyday English vocabulary in the same way that "karma" is a part of many people's English vocabularies.

If you want to try to pronounce a Hindi or Sanskrit word, it's a good idea to err on the side of long "a"s. "Ahh" is a very common sound. In order to get the emphasis and the rhythm, you would really have to listen to speakers. If you try Bollywood movies, you'll hear how the language sounds. If you are unfamiliar with Bollywood movies, I recommend Swades as a good one to start with (that is, surprisingly, actually pronounces "Swa-desh").

I recently got some flashcards (Tuttle's Hindi in a Flash) and on them each word has related words and phrases, including expressions. I am delighted to be learning some idioms and expressions. An example of how different languages look at the world in different ways is that in Hindi you drink soup and you drink cigarettes. Interesting, eh?

I love language, clearly. I love how language shapes the way we think and how we see the world. The journey of expanding my brain with a second language has been amazing. This June some time I'm going to do a post on what I've learned in one year, since that's when I bought Rosetta Stone and started that journey. I had better stop now, since this post is already extremely long!

Someone just sent me this video on writing devanagari letters:

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Yoga Documentary

I was watching a documentary called "Enlighten Up" on instant Netflix the other day. It was an interesting thing to watch, particularly in the second half.

The premise was that a woman who makes documentary films happens to love doing yoga (physical poses, the norm in the west). She wants to see if it has transformative effects on everyone, so she picks a subject, a man with no yoga experience, and has him try out a bunch of different schools.

Interviewing different yoga teachers brings to light that there is a lack of knowledge about the real history of yoga. The different teachers disagree on how old it is and what it means. Some schools are all about the physical aspects, others try to capture a spirituality with it. One scholar argues that yoga as we know it today is only a couple hundred years old (That is, Yoga as it is seen in the West, not its historic path to God, as Dhurga points out in the comments). Another argues that in remote parts of India yogis are seen as sorcerers and have connections to dark magic.

The woman making the film gets really frustrated with her subject, who continues to be unmoved by the spiritual side of yoga. He enjoys the exercise, but remains skeptical that there is anything more to it. Strangely, this makes the film maker angry. So, it's not exactly an unbiased, scientific look.

In the second half they travel to India and after more lack of spiritual understanding, the woman takes him to ashrams to experience "bhakti yoga." Now, this to me was going away from the subject of the film. This is not what people in the west think of as yoga. Yes, in India, yoga means discipline and it covers a very wide variety of activities. Bhakti yoga is devotional worship. It is unrelated to the physical poses of hatha yoga. I think the filmmaker should have stuck with her point.

I've had trouble with yoga in the past. People tend to assume that I'm into it because I do all these "Indian things." Yoga as practiced in the west doesn't seem at all related to Indian spirituality. The teachers who do try to connect it by chanting "Om" a lot do nothing but annoy me. I don't see that physical yoga has any connection to its spiritual origins anymore and it goes back to my lack of trust. I don't want to put my spiritual development in the hands of someone whose only qualification is that she teaches yoga classes.

On the other hand, if I found a teacher who didn't chant during the class, I might really enjoy yoga for the benefits of getting me into better shape and more flexible and resilient in my body.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


I am not sure that I can stick with the twice a week thing. I like to just write when I'm inspired. I'd love feedback from all of you on which you would prefer. One friend has mentioned that you can sign up with the RSS feed to get all postings as emails.

It is true that I have been longing for a community for a long time. I've moved around a lot and I haven't been able to settle in anywhere until now. If any of you are Dr. Who fans, I feel rather like the Doctor in The Waters Of Mars, when he's starting to get a little crazy from being the only one like him. It's not a good idea to practice Hinduism without any guidance, going only on your own memory and maybe some reading. In many cases, one would have a guru who is more advanced to teach and help along the path. I have been lacking that.

But I think I have found the solution.

I've talked before about the organization I grew up in. It had been known at that time as The Philosophy School. The leader of the school would go to India every few years and speak with the guru, one of the Chankaracharyas (teachers of Shankara). The Vedantic philosophy was brought to us, but all the social customs were British (the school was founded in England). We would gather for class with a tutor and ten or so other people once a week, and on Saturday mornings we would have a work party, where people would gather to do work around the house the organization owned. Once advanced enough, people would also have a night of the week to be a tutor. Also, we went on frequent weekend retreats, and over the summer week retreats.

This past weekend, on Saturday, I went to the local Chinmaya mission building for SEVA day, which I read about on their web page It is a yearly celebration of the founder's birthday and the day starts with service around the building. After that there is a puja, singing of bhajans (hymns), and prasad (eating of food that has been blessed).

I got there half an hour early, but people were already there and working. I volunteered myself and was first instructed to have lunch. I was brought to the kitchen part of the building and seated next to the Swami-ji (the leader). A swirl of ladies served a full South Indian meal and I ate with the Swami-ji and a bunch of children. (South Indian food is an acquired taste, which I do not have. The food in Indian restaurants in America is North Indian because that's what American tastes can handle. I was an extremely picky eater as a child and only started eating even the North Indian food a few years ago. I struggled through the meal I am sorry to say).

Then I set off for the garage and helped take everything out, sweep and wash the floor, build shelves, and reorganize things to go back in. I chatted with people and for most of the work I was paired with a lovely young woman who seemed about my age (although she, unlike me, is married and has two children). Everyone was friendly and welcoming and they teased me about coming for the work when they found out it was my first time there. It felt exactly like a work party and it made me ache for missing Philosophy School. Yet, it was a good ache, because I knew that I had found my Philosophy School.

My Dad joined the Philosophy School when he was just a year or two younger than I am now. I wonder what it felt like to him to discover it. I know that I felt like I was coming home. I called my Dad when I was driving home and told him that I had found Philosophy School for Indian people.

Almost everyone there was Indian, I saw only two other non-Indians. When I was growing up there were no Indians in Philosophy School and no other minorities either, it was pretty much all white. That is no longer the case, but it is still mostly white. (My parents, who I think obsess about offending people, have told me that they think it is offensive for me to call myself white. I guess they think it looks like I'm setting myself apart. As much as I'd like to fit in, I don't. I am very pale. My parents think that I should be careful about pointing that out because of sensitivities in India over skin color and the preference for light skin. They think I should call myself simply a westerner, but that seems at least equally offensive to me. It seems to me that to distinguish myself from people of Indian descent by saying that I am a westerner is to imply that the kids who grew up here in America and in Britain are not. It would be like saying that they are less American than I am because they have darker skin, even though our ancestors arrived in America around the same time. This is not at all, by the way, a criticism of the Western Hindu blog. I think he is very clear about how he is using that word and it is not to divide. However, for me, the thing that makes me feel like I stick out and I can't belong is only my skin, not the place of my birth. I guess I just have to call myself a non-Indian. Although, I'm sure my parents will think of a reason why that's offensive).

Everyone I met at Chinmaya was delighted to see me. I learned about their structure. It seems that there are weekend lectures about Vedanta (philosophy) from the Swami-ji and then there are study groups during the week where people gather in groups of around ten to discuss. I also met one of the leaders of the youth group who I had been emailing with. The youth group is very active and involved and three or four of them were there at SEVA. They were all much younger than I am, but they expressed excitement to have me join.

I also discovered that they have very organized children's programs that lead up through the grades to the youth group and then to adult members. The kids have a sort-of Sunday school during the weekend lectures and they learn language, culture, and values.

I am so delighted to have found this. As I have been lately thinking a lot about having children and I have worried a little bit about how to raise them with my values and the things I had growing up when I don't have Philosophy School to send them to. (Also, my boyfriend isn't crazy about some of the Philosophy School teachings and policies and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't allow our kids to go there anyway!). Chinmaya is the perfect place for our future children to learn culture and values along with other kids and families.

When I mentioned this to my Dad on the phone, he said my kids will really stick out and be different. I think it will take a while for the little ones to notice that my children have lighter skin. By the time they start processing the differences, they will already be friends.

The Chinmaya program is wrapping up for the summer, so I'm going to go to the lecture next weekend and then in the fall I can sign up.

There was a request a while ago to talk about pronunciation of the Indian words I use, so I'll have to write about that soon. I'll also talk about the differences between Sanskrit and Hindi and some of the many other Indian languages.

I'll be going back and updating my first Hindi post with more web links and resources. I want to keep all of that in one place. I have found that there isn't a centralized place to find all the available products and programs for Hindi learning and I want to create such a place even if it's just for my own reference.

Oh, and check out these great toys I found:

Desi Doll
Avatar Puzzle
Chota Chef
Hindi Alphabet Blocks

Oh, and I find it rather hilarious that the ad currently displaying beneath my posts is for scientology! Now there are some people who think they already have the answers. Not sure how my blog attracted that ad, but it makes me laugh every time I see it.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Having the Answer

Am I desperate to prove that I know what I'm talking about? Am I desperate to prove to the world that I am a real Hindu? Whose approval am I seeking?

I was reminded by a reader this morning that it is dangerous to fall into the trap of thinking I already "know it all." A wise man says that he knows nothing and is always open to a new experience and a new understanding. Once we believe that we have the answer, then what is the reason for life anymore? How can we grow or learn if we think we already have the answer?

The audience of this blog is an interesting mix, it seems, of born Hindus either in India or of Indian descent and westerners who are interested in knowing more about Hinduism. I don't know exactly what my message is to either one of these groups. I think this blog is an explanation for my life. So that if someone on the street asks me why I am the way I am, I can point to this for answer.

Sometimes I am exhausted from explaining myself. Some things I don't know. I don't know why I long so much for a label, a community, and a place to belong. But I do think those are very human urgings. Why have I turned to India to satisfy those urges instead of something closer to me? I don't know. I'm hanging onto the only thread of culture I was given.

As usual, the issue cycles back around to approval. Who am I trying to please? The following story was posted on Western Hindu's blog and really speaks to that problem:

"A young man, returning home from French school with many diplomas, thought he knew everything. His father said, “My son, come with me. I’ll teach you about life.”

So they bought a donkey and both got on to ride. As they approach a village, they saw a crowd gathering. “Those two heartless riders are going to crush that poor beast of burden.”

“Hear that, son?” asked the father. When they had left the village, he got off and pulled the donkey by the reins, with his son still on it.

At a second village, they heard murmurs. “What a rude little boy … why won’t he let his poor old father ride?” So the son climbed down and his father got on.

At a third village, a fat woman blocked their path, yelling, “Lazy old man! How dare you force a little boy to walk in the burning sun?” So the father got off, and he walked with his son alongside the donkey.

At the last village, they were met with whispers. “Are these two crazy or what? They’re walking alongside a perfectly strong animal!”

A little farther on, they stopped in the shade of a big tree. The father says, “Well, my son, have you been paying attention? People will always have something to say about what we do. But do what you must. That’s life.”

I have been posting every day lately. I think that might be too overwhelming for people to keep up with. I am considering having set days for my posts. Every Monday and Thursday, for example. I think that might make it easier for you all as readers to know when to show up here for new musings.

Also, later today I plan to add a picture to this post. I thought you all might like to see what I typically look like.

Okay, here is the promised picture:

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Issue of First Impression

This is a phrase that gets used in my paralegal studies. It means that if there is an issue before a court, you can look to previous decisions in that State to see what the outcome should be, but if this issue has never happened in your State, you have to look to other States for similar cases (ones that are "on point" with the facts of your case) and try to persuade a judge to make that ruling.

Conversion in Hinduism is, I think, an issue of first impression. We do not have guidelines of how it would work. So, we need to look at other, similar cases for guidance.

The question here is whether one should join the culture when joining the religion? This was brought up to me by a friend who reads this blog. There is some question of why I can't just practice Hinduism without "acting Indian." I personally believe that the two are so closely linked that it is not possible to separate them without losing vital parts of the religion.

Let's look for some on point cases to help us with this question.

Christianity is not a similar case. Conversion in Christianity is strongly encouraged, which is unlike the facts of our case. Also, there is no "Christian culture." It is practiced by a wide variety of people in places all over the world. The way Christianity does interact with culture is that when one converts to Christianity, one must give up any actions, cultural or otherwise, that go against the principles of the religion. This can be very strict. What ties Christians together is social many times. Worship services are always on Sundays (as far as I know). Worship always includes supplicant prayers and readings or stories from the Bible and often music. All the churches I know of include a social hour afterwards where people enjoy cookies together. If there is a Christian culture, I guess those things are it. We will not be able to take much advice of how to treat Hindu converts or how Hindu converts should behave from this.

I think Judaism is a perfect on point example. Judaism, like Hinduism, is an ethnicity as well as a religion. Conversion is not encouraged in Judaism. Traditionally people are turned away from studying toward conversion at least three times. No effort is made by Jews to bring in others. However, they do have a system in place for those times when others insist on joining.

The wikihow on converting to Judaism says "Judaism is a major commitment which will affect every part of your life, will last as long as you live, and may even transfer to your children." (emphasis added).

In order to become a Jew, you have to study the religion, history, and culture for at least a year. You have to start "living a Jewish life" according to the authority above.

At the end of the studies you will be tested and, if passing, go through a ritual bath.

Also from the wikihow page: "When one becomes a Jew, they[sic] will acquire a Jewish name."

Clearly, in converting to Judaism, it is expected that you will also integrate into the culture and be as fully integrated into it as you can.

This makes a lot of sense to me for Hinduism as well. (Not that I think intensive study and ritual will be required by everyone. There is at least one group that has this in place already, others who don't believe in conversion at all, and others who say that as long as you behave like a Hindu then you are. I don't think uniformity is going to happen there.) We wouldn't expect someone to convert to Judaism, but avoid going to a temple, or keeping kosher, or covering the hair (if Orthodox). Converts to any branch of Judaism would certainly be welcome to celebrate the holidays, have Shabbat dinners, etc. Why are we surprised by converts to Hinduism doing similar things?

I also came across this article by an Orthodox Jew about why ethnicity and race should not matter at all in the practice of Judaism: I think this could also be applicable.

I do think that it makes sense to integrate into the culture of one's new religion. If all you do is join a hippie American group whose leader is thirty-five and likes the Gita, then you've lost the connection to the ancient heritage. As I said to my friend, why join what is arguably the world's oldest religion and not try to connect to its tradition?

Here is a list I came across of famous converts to Hinduism. I'm sure some of these people would not have considered themselves Hindu, but simply followed Vedic philosophy, as my parents do, but others clearly labeled themselves as Hindu and some took on Indian names:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

More Specific Background (and a song)

First, I'll say a couple more things addressing comments.

If anyone is honestly offended by what I am doing, please don't hesitate to mention it. I want to have the most informed opinion that I can. Anonymous comments are accepted here.

Dhurga makes a good point that it would be easy to be offended by a white woman wearing a bindi because she thinks it is cool or exotic and that is not why I am doing it. People might not know that. That is why I have cards with this web address on them to give to people who are curious. I think this blog is my explanation.

There was also a comment about how I should keep my expectations low about visiting India. I know a lot of Westerners have stars in their eyes about India. I don't think I'm that way, but maybe I'm giving myself too much credit! My parents have been and my cousin lived there with her husband's family for ten years. When the movie Slumdog Millionaire came out, I was living in Arkansas. Some of my friends there said, "Oh, if you see this movie, your opinion of India will change." I guess they thought that I didn't know about slums, extreme poverty, and corruption? I know some people think that India is a place of peace and spirituality and everyone there is a holy person. If there were a place on earth like that, I think we would all be there! But people are people. The majority of people anywhere are concerned with material things, and most of them rightly so. One has to be concerned with getting enough to eat.

Anyway, I thought today that I would talk in more detail about the path that has led me here. I've told you about my life growing up and the Vedantic philosophy that has always been there. As with many children, I thought my life was pretty typical. The way we did things was the way everyone did things. I never thought that other kids didn't have parents who meditated at dawn and dusk every day. On some level I knew that the other kids in my school didn't read the Gita and go on intense retreats, but those were just things that were in my life, not things I needed to label. And so, strangely, I did not connect any of those things to the Indian kids in my class.

I had one very close friend in elementary school who is Indian. She just found me on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, and we haven't seen each other since I went into the sixth grade at a different school. I remember I used to go over her house and there were Indian decorations and her mother once showed us how to wrap a sari, but I never thought much about how she and I knew the same mythology.

There were other kids of Indian ethnicity in my own classes in high school, but again I didn't think about there being a connection between us. At that time I was still doing only Indian philosophy and none of the culture, dress, food, or dance.

I've friended many of them on Facebook too, though I barely knew them in real life. I wonder if they've looked at my profile, seen the religion status, wondered about it.

Back then I was not the way I am now.

And what changed me?

The first thing was when my mother and I were sifting through old books that were for sale in the basement of the Waltham library for $1 each. She came across an enormous book that was falling apart at the spine, which was called Dancing with Shiva. We were really into Indian philosophy, and the book was only $1, so of course we bought it. The book is huge, but each page is a self-contained message. I read all of it. I loved it. There was philosophy and religion and culture discussed in it. Because the book was so old, I automatically assumed that whoever had written it was long gone and that this book was one of a kind.

A new age shop moved into the town center. I went shopping there once. I was not interested in the crystals or essential oils or scarves, but I found one little brass dancing Shiva statue (known as "nataraja," king of dance). It was so beautiful. I was mesmerized by the grace in the lord's limbs. When I took it to the register, I found that the clerk had no idea what it was. To her, it was just more vaguely spiritual stuff that she packed the store full of, pulling it from every culture she could find.

That statue went with me to college. I gazed into his eyes every morning. And yet, at that time I still saw myself as Christian. Unconventional, perhaps, but very religious. I grew up in Massachusetts, which is a pretty liberal place, and because of my parents' interests, I had no exposure to evangelical Christianity at all. In college I joined a Christian group because I wanted a spiritual base. It was a shocking discovery to find that I did not fit their definition of Christian at all. I thought of Jesus as an avatar of Vishnu, one of many. I kept that to myself for the two years I was part of the group. I was always trying to hide that I did not have a "testimonial", a story of how I accepted Jesus Christ into my heart. I left the group for good after they brought in a speaker who gave a talk about the tragedy of an area of the middle east, which has been calculated to be the least proselytized area in the world. That made me angry. I could not accept that other religions did not have an equally valid path to God. I realized more and more that I had more in common with my Indian philosophy side than I did with my Christian side.

Also, right before I went to college, my older cousin married an Indian man and moved to India with him. She would spend the next ten years living mostly with his family there, occasionally staying in Massachusetts for stints. Currently they are back in Massachusetts and have a house. But my first year of college, my cousin had arrived in India recently. She had an Indian wedding and sent us beautiful pictures. For my birthday that year, she and her husband sent me my first salwar kameez. I had never seen one before. My cousin made me promise I would actually wear it, she didn't want to get me a gift that would just sit in my closet.

So, wear it I did. I had one Indian classmate very startled to see me. "Do you know what that is?" she asked. "Yes," I told her, "I do."

After college, I went to graduate school. It was there that I realized that I could join a Hindu student organization. I kicked myself for not thinking of that back in college. I went to events with the Hindu student association at my graduate school and that was when I first started identifying myself as a Hindu.

By this time I had more understanding and access to the Internet than I had in high school. I was looking at my beloved Dancing with Shiva book one day, and on a whim, I looked up the publisher, Himalayan Academy, online. I could not have been more wrong about this book. It turned out that it was published by a large organization based in Hawaii. There were two more books in the series, plus books about how to be a Hindu and a magazine! I subscribed to the magazine, Hinduism Today, and read many of their books on their website. As much as I like them, I do know for sure that I am a Vedantist and not a Shaivite. But I do have a deep connection to Shiva and I enjoy their writing very much.

That same nataraja statue sits at the center of my alter today.

So, that is how I started down the path of taking on Indian culture as well as religion. I was not able to always live near the organization in which I grew up and I realized that it was very small. It started to seem odd to me that they would try to pull the religion out of the culture, when the two have gone together for so long.

Lastly today, I have a song to share with you. When I was visiting home, a friend introduced me to the music of her friend, who is a filk musician. One of his songs is the story of Hanuman from the Ramayana. It is beautifully written and beautifully sung. I have been listening to it almost non-stop.
under Relgious/Spirtual > Storyteller. It is called "Divine Monkey."

Monday, May 3, 2010

Bindi update

Going back through posts I'm finding comments I didn't even know about! I haven't been able to find a way to get updates from blogger of when someone comments. I will have to go back through old posts regularly.

Interestingly, a lot more discussion has been going on at the post about wearing a bindi. I have now been doing that full time since the time I wrote that post, so about two months now. I have small black bindis that are not terribly showy. I wear fancy ones to events where I don't want it noticed, actually. I think that fancy ones look more like pure decoration and less like a statement. These days I feel odd if I'm without one.

One commenter seemed concerned about my focus on clothes, culture, and other outward things. I would like to clarify that my faith is already very strong. I've been involved in Vedic philosophy all of my life. I am happy with that path I'm on. An ex-boyfriend saw this blog and said to me that it was a weird blog for me to have because I'm the least religiously confused person he's ever known. I acknowledged that and told him that's why the subtitle. I'm not religiously confused, but I'm culturally confused.

I think I mentioned before that I have a fear of attack, and yet the actual occurrence of an attack is strangely easy to brush off. This comment was left on that post:

tiph parrish said...

I think you are probably offending a lot of people, I am offended and I'm not even Hindu! I think you might want to try something from your own white culture, haven't white people done enough exploitation without you objectifying religious aspects as well?? If you truly are a "Hindu" you should try respecting the culture and discovering your own heritage.

I'll admit that would carry a lot more weight if the woman in question was a Hindu.

I think that my post about appropriation answers the issue of me "objectifying." It's also another example of how individuals become stand-ins for the crimes committed by their race. Since so many white people have exploited other cultures, I am already guilty of their exploitation.

It makes me wonder whether other people feel a deep connection to their race and their ancestry. I don't particularly, and that might be a function of being a majority race. I also think it might have to do with believing in reincarnation. I don't feel that I am the direct off-shoot of the people before me in my family. I've had other families, lived in other cultures, been other ethnicities. I do, quite literally, feel that the entire world is my family.

So, yes. I am wearing the bindi, whether with salwar suits or with jeans. It helps me to feel that I am not being pushed into a category to which I don't belong by default. This story will also continue to be more about culture than about religion. Though I want to share aspects of my religion and my spiritual journey, it is the empty feeling of being without a culture that drives me in many ways and that is what I am interested in exploring.

Westeners choosing different paths

I've been reading through the back posts at Western Hindu (see link in the side bar). It's very interesting because he is someone who has taken a slightly different approach to mine.

He started learning about Hinduism in part from Chinmaya, a Smarta organization, but decided to follow the Himalayan Academy instead. They follow Shaivism and I've talked about them before. They are the people behind Hinduism Today and the ones who actually have a conversion ritual for those who wish to join Hinduism. I respect them a great deal, but their philosophy is too devotional for me. It seems that the man at Western Hindu felt the opposite. That he respected Smarta, but it was not devotional enough. He writes:

"Firstly the course expounds the position of Immaterialistic Advaita Vedānta. According to this philosophy the only ultimate reality of God (or of anything) is the impersonal Brahman. They claim that the Great Gods Śiva, Viṣṇu, and Brahmā are only a deeper level of illusion, beyond the māyā of the material universe...Naturally there are some people for whom seeking God in the immaterial is the correct path, but for me bhakti or devotion to Shiva is central."

I would agree with some of that and disagree with some. First, yes, in Advaita Vedanta, the various gods are all part of the hierarchy that is only present in illusion. In reality there is only one, and we do call it Brahman, but the name is not what is important. You could call the ultimate reality Shiva if you wanted to, or Bob.

To say that Advaita is "impersonal" seems very odd to me. Yes, you don't have a "personal relationship with Shiva" (or Jesus, since that's a phrase evangelical Christians use a lot). But you don't have to because God is not some being far above you that you need to become friends with. God is inside you. God IS you. It doesn't get more personal than that.

In other of his posts I was startled to find that he makes the argument that if it were Hinduism that had spread like wildfire over the Western world, there would have been no Inquisition or other violence because Hinduism is a tolerant religion.

This seems very naive to me. On paper, Hinduism is a tolerant religion, but so is Christianity. People don't need much excuse for violence and Hinduism does include a warrior caste. There is also strong support in its scriptures for the idea of a holy war.

Sadly, Hindus have participated in bloody riots and massacres against people of different religions into the present day. Like most religions, Hinduism does have an extremist branch. Western Hindu might argue that they are misunderstanding the religion and their behavior cannot define the vast numbers of peaceful Hindus. I tend to agree, except he did criticize Christianity for saying things like “No Christian would ever do this, that or the other. The Christian Terrorists are not true Christians. The Branch Davidian [are] not true Christians. The Catholics, Westboro Baptists or whoever that you don’t agree with are not true Christians." So, I don't think we can distance ourselves from Hindu extremism for the same reason.

Some points he make that I really like are about the gross misunderstandings that Westerners tend to have about what Hinduism is about. For example, he writes:

"The average Westerner knows very little about Hinduism, especially the underlying philosophies and beliefs. They will have heard about things like the Kama Sutra and sacrificing animals to Kali and believe that these are mainstream tenets of Hinduism , because this is what the media often portrays. This a natural affect of the coverage, many people in the UK think that a US policeman will shoot a criminal at least once a week because of what they see on crime dramas, whereas I have read that it is actually a very rare occurrence.

Also “strange TV” sells, so we have seen things like a recent tv program that shown Hindu Sadhus hanging large rocks from their penises. Many people have no idea that this is alien to the average Hindu! There have been programs showing Christians handling poisonous snakes, whipping themselves until they are covered with blood, and shouting in “tongues” at scared children they believe to be possessed, but people in the West have the background knowledge to know that this does not go on in most local churches.

The end result is that many people think they know about Hinduism when what they actually know is either a marginal practice carried out by a handful of people, or is wrong. Some have such an ingrained opinion that they will even argue when they are corrected.

Also, I wanted to show that Hinduism is often seen as fair game by people who want to ridicule it, even though they won’t ridicule Christianity or Islam. This often happens because the backlash if Christians boycotted them would hurt economically, and that Muslims are perceived as a threat – though of course they suffer from the problem that minority activities are perceived as mainstream by the public too. Can you imagine someone bringing out a film called “the Love Pope” or “The Love Imam”?"

All in all, a very interesting read and I look forward to continuing to learn from his journey.

Basu brought up in a comment on the last post that there are concepts of hell in Hinduism. That is true. I was simplifying a bit when I said that there weren't. There are multiple hells and heavens in Hindu mythology, but what makes them different from the Christian idea is that these hells and heavens are temporary. Some believe that after life a soul goes to one of these to work through some of their sanskara, good or bad, before returning to be reincarnated in the world. This makes a lot more sense to me than the Christian definition and I'll turn again to the Western Hindu to explain why:
"I think that the idea of eternal hell can only make sense to people who have no concept of vastness or infinity. Even a lifetime of a century is a fleeting instant from this perspective. Judging for eternity on the basis of a single life would be like releasing mice in the middle of a room and looking at the direction of the very first step they took. Those that stepped right would be given rewards for the rest of their life. Those that stepped forwards, left or backwards would be taken and tortured for the rest of their lives."

Could not possibly have said that better myself.

One last topic for today. Yesterday we went to my boyfriend's niece's Catholic baptism. It was a bit of an odd and uncomfortable experience. I didn't want to draw attention or be contrary on a day devoted to the lovely little baby, so I wore Western dress (unusual for me these days) and I picked a decorative bindi so that it would look more like jewelry and less like a statement. No one commented on that, so I think it worked.

I was surprised that the Priest made blanket assumptions about all the people at the church. I guess that's just part of the ritual, but he had the friends and family chanting the Lord's Prayer and "reconfirming your own baptism." Why would he think we were all baptized to begin with? (I was as a baby, but that is beside the point!). We were supposed to state "I agree" to statements like "The lord Jesus is my savior" and such. I was in the front row and tried to keep my face forward so no one in his family would see that I wasn't saying any of the prayers or the agreements.

That kind of thing really makes me want to be argumentative and point out that I'm not Christian and I'm just there to support my boyfriend's wonderful and welcoming family. But I was good. I didn't say anything. Basically just for the sake of my boyfriend's sister, for whom I care very much.