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."