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 This blog is no longer updated, but Ambaa is still writing The White Hindu every weekday at

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Religion of One's Birth

This is a phrase that I hear a lot. It is said that one should stay within the religion of one's birth.

Why is that?

Firstly, because of reincarnation, there are no mistakes with birth. You are exactly where you are supposed to be and facing what you should be facing. Presumably, you would be born into the proper religion and ethnicity for your soul at this time (the same reason given for the caste system).

Secondly, one of the reasons that Hinduism is not a converting religion is that there is the belief in One Mountain, Many Paths. This is another phrase you'll hear a lot! It means that almost everyone believes that there is One Truth (in fact, probably everyone does because really there is a way that the universe is functioning, it isn't functioning multiple different ways at the same time). So, everyone believes that there is One Truth of what is going on in this world, but Hindus believe that there are many different paths one can take to arrive at the same Truth.

Many, many Hindus believe that all the world's religions are valid ways of approaching the same Truth and the same God. (Of course, some do not, and it can be hard when one has a chip on one's shoulder about Christianity and Islam, as some of us definitely do.)

So if you do believe that all the religions are equally valid ways to approach God, what would be the benefit in switching?

Well, I'll tell you!

I personally do believe that all religions and even atheism lead to the same Truth. We all have very different ways of thinking about divinity and the universe and that's why there are so many different options. We, as people, are all different.

Our differences don't really line up along ethnic lines, though. Not all Indians think about the universe and the purpose of life the same way and not all Americans think of it the same way either.

I believe that each of us, as an individual, has a path that speaks to us most clearly and will be the most beneficial way to achieve the purpose of life (whatever that is). Sometimes that is not the path into which we are born.

As my very kind boyfriend has pointed out a few times, if God wanted to experience all varieties of life and created the universe for that purpose, wouldn't He also want to experience the struggle of leaving the religion of birth to find a new path?

I understand that sometimes this can cause great conflict within a family, so that is something to consider if you are converting to another religion. Think about whether the strife or pain it causes is worth it to you. Perhaps try to find the Truth you are seeking within the religion of your parents. But that is not always going to work.

Also, for some of us that is not really a conflict. I've spoken before about my own personal history. It is very hard to pin down what religion I was born to. I know many other people my age in this country who were raised without religion. Not necessarily with atheism, but rather with a neutral base so that the child can decide for him or herself what religion to follow. This, it seems to me, leads to a lot of confusion and difficulty for the child who has no religion, which is why I intend to give my kids a good strong base before they go off and explore their own beliefs, but nonetheless, it means that there are a number of young adults now who have no religion of their birth.

We each make our choices in life, weighing how individual we are going to be versus what considerations our family needs. We rarely make perfect choices. Sometimes there are no perfect answers and sometimes we just make mistakes. But if we were already perfect, there would be no need for a manifest world at all. (Although, at the same time, we are already perfect and everything that happens is perfectly as it should be...there I go being ambivalent again.)

The thing I believe most firmly of all is that we cannot make choices for others. Each of us is responsible to make the choices in life and if we see someone else on a path we think is wrong, we can talk to that person and try to understand, but their choice is ultimately their own. All this is to say that we cannot know if another person's life is going to lead him to leave the religion of his birth and pursue another. He needs to be free to do that in order to try and experience and see if that brings him the peace he needs.

Hinduism being my chosen path, it is easy to get somewhat jealous of born Hindus because any time they want to become religious, the religion I adore is there waiting for them as the legitimate religion of their birth. However, then I remember that I don't believe that our ethnicity lines up with our religious path and there are some born Hindus who might do better in another religion and they are free to choose that as well.

It might be the American in me that focuses so much on choice, but I am not willing to sit this life out while I wait to be born into an ethnically Hindu home.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


I had my first therapy appointment today. It was really excellent and I have real hope that this woman will be able to help me get back to myself. There's a lot of different things going on that are making it difficult for me to see clearly. We talked about a few different things today, one of which was my spiritual background.

The therapist said that in all aspects of my life that I talk about I seem ambivilent. That word describes me all over, not in a bad way, just an observation of how I see life. And it's true. I have that Indian fatalism.

I don't tend to strive for much because the world is an illusion, but then I am left feeling blah and without purpose.

Right now I am feeling that I need to more deeply explore my beliefs and be willing for them to flex and change according to what I myself see about life. I am afraid to question things and afraid to criticize what I have been taught to believe.

And yet I really do believe that it is valuable to question what you are told. I wouldn't take anyone as an authority unless it rang true in my heart (Except for the people who have been given to me as authority from the time I was a child. I never question Shankara, but I should. Questioning doesn't mean disagreeing with, after all.) I think faith that is questioned and stands up to the pondering is much stronger. One should ask questions, one should try to understand. Questioning is not being disrespectful to God.

Some part of me feels like it is. In part I don't want to do this questioning in public, in front of others, in case it gives an opening to people who would blame my religion. There are people who would say that my current aimlessness is the fault of me not "having Jesus in my heart." I don't think it is the fault of my religion, but something in me. But then why am I even afraid to explore in private? Who do I think is going to be displeased? Would examining my beliefs make me disloyal to my parents, to the people who taught me all I know about spirituality?

Maybe it isn't God I fear displeasing at all. One of the great things about the Smartha branch is that it encourages that you rely on your own experience. You have an inner guide, the Atman, God, and so you have all the knowledge and everything that you need already. Finding that inner voice is just part of the journey. I'm not sure I can hear much of an inner voice yet. I think I have a lot of an outer voice telling me what my inner voice should be saying.

This is not me questioning my religion. I am dedicated to my religion, but I do think it is valuable to examine the rote answers I have been given and try to understand them for myself. In order to do that I have to leave open the possibility of things I have been taught being proved wrong in my own experience. I am really, startingly afraid to do that. I guess I'm afraid I will lose my mooring.

I believe so strongly and so fiercely in the existence of an immortal soul. That belief is valueless if I never question it and never probe it. I don't honestly think that I will discover it to not be true or to discover a belief within me that it isn't true. So why am I afraid to ask it? What do I not want to see?

We must, we really must, look from the corners of our eyes, to what is lurking behind our conscious awareness. Pull those fears and deep-seated beliefs into the light and see exactly what they really are.

How much more relaxed and sure I will be once I have done that! As the therapist pointed out, I am not happy right now. My religion teaches that I should be happy. I think there is a little, niggling fear in me that it won't hold up to scrutiny. But what good is a religion that doesn't hold up to scrutiny? We're looking for something to give meaning to our lives, to help us understand why we are here and what our life is for. We should be ruthless in looking for the answers to those questions.

I think the truth will turn out to be what I have always suspected it was, but I will be much happier and more confident and not be plagued with night terrors connected to dying if I leave open the possibility that the truth might not be what I think. I will be a scientist about it, and explore those questions with as little bias as I can.

I have always thought that our purpose in life is to find the answer to those questions of who we are and why we are here and that it is dangerous to think we already have the answer.

I'm sorry to those people who thought they gave me the answer already, but I have to explore the questions from the ground up instead of starting with the assumption that the answer to the question of who I am is the Atman. What if it isn't? I really need to know that!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Guru Purnima

Today is a day for honoring one's gurus (teachers...I think everyone knows that one these days. This is interesting, though. According to my mom, the word guru comes from a Sanskrit word meaning "heavy." Presumably heavy with knowledge and wisdom).

I am having a very long and exhausting weekend and I don't have the energy to tell you about it, I'm afraid. So, I'm sending you over to The White Indian Housewife's page about it:

And some more details:

There is a puja tonight at Chinmaya, but I don't feel ready to participate. I've gone a while now without a guru or much guidance. It's something I want to have, but I'm easing into it. I haven't officially started study with Chinmaya yet and I don't know the Swami-ji and his teachings well yet. Probably next year I will attend the event. This year, reading spiritual texts from the great teachers of the past will have to suffice.

Friday, July 23, 2010


This symbol is sometimes spelled in Roman characters as "Om" or "Ohm" or "Aum."

It begins and ends most Vedic prayers and many other spiritual works. It is chanted by itself or as part of other prayers.

It is not a letter of the alphabet and it is not really a word. It is only itself, a symbol representing what is believed to be the first sound in creation.

The reason is it sometimes spelled "Aum" is that the symbol grew out of the three letters representing the three main sounds present in ॐ:

Ah= अ
Uu= ऊ
M= म

There are many threes in Hinduism. There is a trinity of Gods and these phonemes are said to represent them, or to represent the stages of Birth, Life, and Death. There are also three gunas, which I'll need to remember to talk about soon. Even though Om is said to be these three sounds, when pronouncing these three sounds one after the other, one's mouth would move in such a way as to form all the vowel sounds possible in human speech. It is one symbol representing many sounds, and so it is a metaphor for God who is one being made up of many.

The crescent shape with a dot on top is called a chandra bindu, meaning moon and dot.

This is the sound most often associated with Hinduism and also frequently made fun of. Any character ridiculing meditation in a movie will be chanting this sacred sound. The Om is used to represent Hinduism whenever there are groups of religious symbols put together:

From here

It could be thought of as similar to Christians saying "Amen." It is a sacred sound used to dedicate a prayer to God or the universe.

It is said to be not only the first sound in the universe, but also the vibration behind every living thing. The universe hums with the sound of Om at all times.

It is used in Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism as well.

Keep your eyes open and you will see "Om" all over the place. It is used as decoration and in jewelry and sometimes it's very stylized, but it's always recognizable...

(This one is more of the Tibetan way to write Om)

These images from One, Two, Three, Four

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Your Intro to Bollywood

Even though I have been surrounded by Indian philosophy all my life, I am very new to the culture. Six years ago I started Bharatnatyam classes and found myself spending a lot of time around Indians and absolutely loving it.

At that time the only thing I knew about Bollywood was that people make fun of it. I had heard that the movies were long and overly dramatic and Americans I knew who had seen them rolled their eyes about them. But I was curious to see for myself, so I asked the girls in my dance class to recommend a first one to see.

They suggested Dil Se. I don't agree that it makes a good intro! It's very intense and very dark, and of course very long. I felt thrown in the deep end with that one. I would like to rewatch it now, since it's been several years and I've gotten a much better feel for Bollywood movies.

Now the term "Bollywood" refers to Hindi films being produced in Mumbai. There are also films in Marathi, in Tamil, and in many other Indian languages and those have their own following and are called other things. There are also movies known as "cross over." Those are movies that are either more Western in style or are filmed in the West. Mira Nair's movies are usually called cross-over (she did Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake).

I had seen Monsoon Wedding when it was in theaters, but that is far from a Bollywood style.

If people ask me now how they should get started with Bollywood movies, I recommend Swades.

I saw that one very early on too, long before I knew that the main actor in both Swades and Dil Se is one of the most popular heartthrobs, named Shahrukh Khan or SRK. I had no idea at all.

Of course, when I first saw Swades, I pronounced it "Sway-deez," which is pretty much the way that combination of letters would be pronounced in English. It wasn't until I watched it again recently and saw the title in devanagari letters in the opening that I realized it was "swah-desh" And from that I was able to understand what the title meant! This is a perfect example of why it is a mistake to write Indian languages in Roman script. :)

Swades is a good introduction because the story is easy to follow, it starts out in America so it's a good grounding for Americans trying to get into it, and the music is well integrated into the story.

After that, there are a lot of directions you could go. There are tragic epics like Dil Se or Raincoat (these aren't really my style, and I never ended up finishing watching Raincoat!), there are loads of romantic comedies like Kuch Naa Kaho, there are classics from the the 1950s like Pyaasa (which I have not seen) and Madhumati (apparently responsible for starting to spread the idea of reincarnation to the West), there are gangster movies and there are buddy comedies like 3 Idiots that came out earlier this year and I haven't been able to see yet.

The 1970s was, apparently, when the term "Bollywood" was coined, as India overtook America as the largest film producer in the world. There has been a lot of borrowing back and forth between Hindi cinema and American movies. Though probably more of a cross-over movie, Bride and Prejudice was a brilliant adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to modern India. And going the other way, the director of Moulin Rouge said he was directly inspired by Bollywood.

Music has also had a great sharing between India and America. Both filmi music (the music in Hindi movies) and Bhangra have influenced American hip-hop and vice versa.

There have been some Indian style movies written and produced in other places with various degrees of success. Slumdog Millionaire was written, directed and produced in Britain, but was based on a book by an Indian author. Marigold was a 2007 attempt done in Hollywood. I watched it recently and found it fell flat, though I can't really put my finger on why. One fantastic attempt was a Direct TV miniseries called Bollywood Hero. It stars Chris Kattan playing himself. He's frustrated that no one takes him seriously in Hollywood and he stumbles onto an opportunity to be a leading man in India, so he takes off for adventures in creating a Bollywood movie. It's very funny and it's available from Netflix.

Netflix is a great source of Hindi movies. Much more so than Blockbuster and I switched from Blockbuster to Netflix for that reason. I found that once I got the feel for it, I loved the music and dance and the long stories.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

One Family

The White Indian Housewife has an interesting post up about feeling inferior.

Here is a little clip:
The way I see it, there is no superior or inferior culture. We are all people…. all the same creations of God (and if you believe in reincarnation, we can be born into any culture and have probably existed in other cultures). But I do wonder where these views come from?

What exactly do Indians have to feel inferior about and why? They are resilient, hardworking, intelligent, and adaptable people.

Are us whites to blame? I don’t think so.

This is not a topic I feel much of an expert on, but I was interested to read her experiences and I would like to read the book she mentioned.

One thing that it did make me think of is my feeling lately that I'm not doing enough to help the world.

I also believe, as she says, that we are all creations of the same God, that we are all family. (As a matter of fact, a friend sent me this link recently and it is a short story that beautifully illustrates a possible why and how we are all One. It's passable writing and an amazing story. It's very short, you should go read it!)

I hear stories about people living in such poverty and having so little, worrying over having enough to eat, and I feel sad and I feel guilty. I want to do something to help, but it's so hard to know what or how.

I look for opportunities to volunteer, but too often volunteering seems like something I am supposed to do just to feel good about myself. "Come for this tour and do some volunteering on the side." The volunteering to play games with kids or teach some English doesn't seem like it gets at the core of what I want to help with.

So I'm trying something new while I continue to look for opportunities. I found out about from a friend's Facebook page. It's an organization that connects people through small loans. I can loan $25 to a third-world business of my choosing and a bunch of other people will also contribute to that business. When the business owner pays back the loan, you can put the money toward another loan. (And there is a group for Hindus, ) So, that's one step I can take while I brainstorm other ways to help the world.

What other ways do you think we have to contribute to the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Hindi in unexpected places

I didn't know that a post praising peace would be controversial. I'm sorry, I didn't intend to get people riled up. Obviously, these are my personal opinions and they may or may not be valid or grounded in reality, but you come here for my beliefs and here they are!

Anyway, something light for today.

When I was at work yesterday I happened to glance at some engineering magazine that someone had brought in. It was laying face down so that I saw the ad on the back and I was so excited that I tore the back cover off and took it home with me:

That is Hindi! It says "Do you speak Matlab?" The best part is that I knew what it said immediately, instinctively, without even closely examining it. I just knew it. Just like that. What an incredible feeling. It is a very simple sentence, of course, but I take whatever little victories I can in language learning.

For sometime in the future I've asked my father to write a post for this blog. It will probably be a while because I did not give him a deadline, he's a very busy person. But I wanted to offer his perspective because, unlike me, he sees no difficulty at all in blending Advaita with Christianity. He also feels no conflict between being a spiritual man and being a scientist. I think he has a really great perspective that I would love to share with you all.

Independence Day

I can see that my last post touched a nerve, but I stand by my statements. There is nothing more powerful than holding on to your courage and dignity while refusing to stoop to the level of your enemy. It forces your enemy to see his own base and ugly actions. The less violent you are, the more the world respects you and takes your side.

Resistance to adharma? Absolutely. That's why the word "resistance" is in the phrase "peaceful resistance." This is not about being a coward or a wimp. It is about looking the enemy in the eye and refusing to treat him as badly as he treats you. It makes you the better person. It is about getting up again and again and again and looking straight at him without giving him the satisfaction of striking back.

We've seen that work in our country as well and it is the way that civil rights were won. I'm sorry that it has been a difficult road for India, my heart aches for the pain of the British occupation, but peaceful resistance is the only thing that brought that to an end.

Hinduism is not a religion free from violence. Unlike Christianity, there is actually support for the idea of a holy war. But a holy war is not to be taken on lightly, it is for very rare circumstances. The key to a holy war is the purity of intent.

One would fight because it is one's duty, but without anger and without desire. That was the fatal mistake of the Kauravas. The lust for power and for victory. The Pandavas fought because they had to, but they did EVERYTHING possible to prevent the war. Krishna's first instruction in the Gita is to act without lusting for the fruits of the action. That is a tremendously difficult thing to do.

(I would say that holy war is not possible in the kali-yuga, but I think personally that World War II proved that wrong. It may have been a nasty war, but it was a necessary one. Circumstances like that do not come along very often.)

August 15th is India's Independence Day.
It is a time to be tremendously proud. Victory was won by refusing to be victims and refusing to give the enemy the satisfaction of behaving like the less civilized people they thought you were. What a mistake that was.

It was a long and difficult journey to win independence and the struggle goes on for India to find its footing in the world. But it is happening. It is not an easy thing to do, remember that America fought a bitter civil war within 100 years of its independence.

Here is the famous speech given by India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on the eve of independence:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?

Freedom and power bring responsibility. The responsibility rests upon this Assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India. Before the birth of freedom we have endured all the pains of labour and our hearts are heavy with the memory of this sorrow. Some of those pains continue even now. Nevertheless, the past is over and it is the future that beckons to us now.

That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfil the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.

And so we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this One World that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.

To the people of India, whose representatives we are, we make an appeal to join us with faith and confidence in this great adventure. This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill-will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.

The appointed day has come-the day appointed by destiny-and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent. The past clings on to us still in some measure and we have to do much before we redeem the pledges we have so often taken. Yet the turning-point is past, and history begins anew for us, the history which we shall live and act and others will write about.

It is a fateful moment for us in India, for all Asia and for the world. A new star rises, the star of freedom in the East, a new hope comes into being, a vision long cherished materializes. May the star never set and that hope never be betrayed!

We rejoice in that freedom, even though clouds surround us, and many of our people are sorrowstricken and difficult problems encompass us. But freedom brings responsibilities and burdens and we have to face them in the spirit of a free and disciplined people.

On this day our first thoughts go to the architect of this freedom, the Father of our Nation [Gandhi], who, embodying the old spirit of India, held aloft the torch of freedom and lighted up the darkness that surrounded us. We have often been unworthy followers of his and have strayed from his message, but not only we but succeeding generations will remember this message and bear the imprint in their hearts of this great son of India, magnificent in his faith and strength and courage and humility. We shall never allow that torch of freedom to be blown out, however high the wind or stormy the tempest.

Our next thoughts must be of the unknown volunteers and soldiers of freedom who, without praise or reward, have served India even unto death.

We think also of our brothers and sisters who have been cut off from us by political boundaries and who unhappily cannot share at present in the freedom that has come. They are of us and will remain of us whatever may happen, and we shall be sharers in their good and ill fortune alike.

The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.

We have hard work ahead. There is no resting for any one of us till we redeem our pledge in full, till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be. We are citizens of a great country on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.

To the nations and peoples of the world we send greetings and pledge ourselves to cooperate with them in furthering peace, freedom and democracy.

And to India, our much-loved motherland, the ancient, the eternal and the ever-new, we pay our reverent homage and we bind ourselves afresh to her service.

Jai Hind!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Peaceful Resistance

I know an Indian man who thinks that India is too passive and too weak. It saddens him that India has been taken over so many times but has never taken over anyone else. He sees this as a fundamental flaw that holds India back from greatness.

I see it as a fundamental greatness.

But we have different measuring sticks. There are different kinds of successes to have in the world. One kind is to be a super power nation and take money and resources from lesser powers. But a definition of success that is so rooted in the world can only be temporary. As the saying goes: "You can't take it with you."

Look at the sage Yajnavalkya. He had a good, cushy life, but it felt empty to him. He decided to give up his material goods and go in search of a truth that does not die. He decided to divide his property among his two wives, but Maitreyi asked him whether wealth would make her immortal. He told her it would not. She said that she wanted whatever it was that he was giving up his wealth for. Whatever was so great that it would bring immortality. And so he took her with him.

To me, success is how peaceful you can be, how calm you can be, how well you can train and control your mind, your desires, your lusts.

In the west, we almost think of Gandhi as a God. His name is held in reverence as the absolute example of goodness. It seems that he is not as universally worshiped in India. I think people are somewhat more aware of his humanness, of his flaws. And certainly, he left a very difficult situation in his wake. It's impossible to know how things would have played out if he had not been murdered.

The problems associated with separating India and Pakistan were not his doing, though it became what seemed like the only solution. Gandhi really wanted everyone to be able to get along, for Hindus and Muslims to live in peace with one another. That dream is still a ways off.

But his methods did work. And he inspired all the greatest leaders of our times. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela for example. The unwavering conviction and dedication to peace is an unstoppable force. People may die in the process, but the vibration of goodness does not leave the world.

I found this article through Andrew Rosenthal, the same man who wrote the article about Jesus as an Ishta-Devata. He shared this on Facebook and it seems to me to describe really well just how effective peaceful resistance can be. When you are in a fight with someone, you want the rest of the world to see that you are the victim and to support you in wanting to take down the other side. It's very hard to get sympathy from anyone if you are cruel in the same way that the other side is cruel. Notice the part about the women refusing to move. It rerouted the Israeli army!

If you live striving to treat all others as yourself and to follow the principles laid out in Chapter 16, then consider yourself a success!

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 16, Opening:
Lord Krishna said: Fearlessness, purity of the inner psyche, perseverance in the yoga of Self-knowledge, charity, sense-restraint, sacrifice, study of the scriptures, austerity, honesty; nonviolence, truthfulness, absence of anger, renunciation, equanimity, abstinence from malicious talk, compassion for all creatures, freedom from greed, gentleness, modesty, absence of fickleness, splendor, forgiveness, fortitude, cleanliness, absence of malice, and absence of pride-- these are some of the qualities of those endowed with divine virtues, O Arjuna. (16.01-03) Quoted from the translation here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I am running low on ideas, I feel like I'm repeating myself!

Chinmaya has let out for the summer and I have been so busy with work and school that I haven't been doing as much reading on religion as I usually do.

So, if you have any questions, thoughts, or ideas, do send them my way.


A couple nights ago my boyfriend downloaded an Indian Comedy Tour from Netflix and it was a little disappointing. I only found one of the five comics funny and one of them was so-so.

Here is a clip where some of the best stuff from that show was blended together:

The only comic not represented on that was a girl named Dahlia McPhee who was half Indian and only told one Indian joke.

I went to YouTube because I figured that there must be some funny Indian comics. My boyfriend told me to look up Russel Peters. I don't know how he came to have that name, but he is Indian and he is very funny.

Here are a few clips:

(Although, I have to say that I love the Indian accents)

Anyway, there's lots more!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hmmm... Latin, best I can do.

असतो मा सद्गमय ।
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय ।।
मृत्योर्मामृतं गमय ।

Asato ma saad gamaya
Tamaso ma jotir gamaya
mritur ma amritang gamaya

(I really dislike writing Indian languages in Roman alphabet, I think it looks weird and ugly, but there's no other way for me to explain how it sounds.)

If you look closely at my profile picture here, you will see that it is a photograph of a cross-stitch of this prayer. It is something known as a Vedic prayer. Each of the Vedas opens with a short prayer in Sanskrit and this is my favorite one.

It means:
Lead me from the unreal to the real
Lead me from the darkness to the light
Lead me from death to immortality

I have a tremendous respect for the Sanskirt language. The way I grew up, it was seen as the holy language, the language of God. We were told that the laws of the universe could be found in Sanskrit grammar. If we learned the grammar, we would know how the whole world works (it is, by the way, the most difficult grammar I have ever encountered).

Sanskrit is what led my mother to join the organization I grew up in. She loved the puzzle of it, figuring out the pieces. She translates passages from the Upanishads frequently and her dining room table is always covered with Sanskrit dictionaries and grammars and other books and papers.

Throughout my childhood I took classes in Sanskrit, but not serious ones. We would learn the letters of the alphabet, but we learned the same stuff over and over and many middle-aged people in the school just continue to practice the alphabet for years, never actually learning it. I learned enough to chant a few prayers.

In college I decided to take a Sanskrit class and that was the hardest class I've ever had! It turns out that at college level you spend the entire first year doing nothing but learning grammar rules. You don't get to translating or reading until the second year. I barely passed one semester.

I switched to studying Hindi because I wanted a language I could use to communicate. Now there are spoken Sanskrit classes, but I was not aware of such a thing at the time and I'm not sure how many people one could actually communicate with using it. Sanskrit is more or less a dead language. There are holy men who still speak it and it is experiencing a revival, but I doubt it will ever take off in popularity.

Still, all the holy books are written in Sanskrit and if you wanted to have a deeper understanding of them it is worth studying. I depend on asking my mom the deeper meaning!

Even though Hindi grew out of Sanskrit, they are not mutually intelligible, so my mom with her thirty years of Sanskrit study cannot understand Hindi and I cannot with my one year of Hindi learning understand Sanskrit. However, the alphabet is almost the same, so we can each read the other, just without understanding what we're saying.

A little about Sanskrit:
1) The "a" sound is not said like in "ant," the "ant" sound does not exist in the language, so it should sound a bit more like "Saanskrit", the "a" is more of an "uh."

2) The grammar rules were codified in the 4th century by a man named Paanini and my dad likes to make sandwich jokes about this when we go to a deli.

3) It is on the Indo-European family tree of languages. This often surprises people, but Sanskrit is related to English and other European languages and we do have words in English derived from Sanskrit.

4) An example of the complexity of the grammar. It has ten classes of verbs. These all change according to tense and aspect, etc. Verbs also have "grades" and I don't even know what that means.

5) According to tradition, Sanskrit was spoken for thousands of years before it was ever written down. Many religious people believe it to be the first language in existence.

6) Sanskrit is still used in most ceremonies at Hindu temples and at weddings. Frequently only the priest knows what it means (sort of like Latin and Catholicism).

7) Not all of the hundreds of Indian languages are related to Sanskrit at all.

So, there's a little introduction to the "language of the Gods."

(The title for this post is from a movie called PCU where a character is selling pre-written thesis papers. A kid comes in and asks for one in Sanskrit and the guy says, "Sanskrit? You're majoring in a 5,00 year old dead language? Hmmm... Latin, best I can do.")

I'm thinking pretty soon I'll do a post on the sound "Om", what it is and what it means.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Interfaith couples, help out on an article

So I've been away this weekend and that's why you haven't heard from me. I don't have much to report. My mother saw me wearing a bindi and she simply asked what it signified and mentioned that she doesn't see Indian people wearing them in America. But she didn't get upset and she didn't ask me not to wear it, so that was good.

Anyway, this morning I was reading one of the blogs I've mentioned before, the Big, Bad, Blonde Bahu Blog and she is working on a magazine article about couples who are Interfaith between Hindu and Christian. If that description fits you, go ahead and send her a note!

I hope I'll have something new and exciting to tell you all soon.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Meditation is a word of many meanings.

For some it is guided meditations, where people tell you about walking through a deep wood, for some it is thinking and deeply pondering problems, for some it is prayer, for some it is a mantra.

There are a lot of ideas about what meditation does. Some think it is just to relax, some think it is the most important key to becoming enlightened. Some think it can have a measurable effect and others don't. There are a number of people who attribute the dissolution of the Cold War to an increase in meditation.

My experience with meditation in Hinduism is the mantra-based kind.

The idea of a mantra meditation is that you are training your mind. We do not want to be slaves to our thoughts and our racing mind, we want to be the master of it. Thoughts are fine, they have their place, but it is better to have the control of mind to choose when to think and when to simply act. Practice would ideally make someone able to stop the chattering in the head that clouds our lives. The practice is to repeat a mantra silently over and over while sitting up very straight ("as though drawn by a string from above"). When thoughts come in, as they inevitably do, one gently brings one's attention back to the mantra.

The mantra itself can be a word or a phrase or a whole poem.

I'm going to start by telling you about my own experience with meditation and then tell you more about it's history and varieties.

My parents have meditated since before I was born. They meditate for half an hour at dawn and half an hour at dusk, every day, without fail. I have never known them to miss it, no matter where they are. My mother sits on a chair, and my father uses a wooden meditation bench. He times the half hour on his watch.

When I was a young child I was fascinated by this practice and terribly curious. I wanted to know what the mantra was. But my parents wouldn't tell me. They said it was a sacred word, not to be spoken out loud except during the initiation ceremony. Saying it out loud would dissipate its spiritual energies. I was desperate to know what it was.

My mom tells me that I used to make my Barbie dolls meditate.

I started taking classes when I was ten in preparation to being initiated into meditation. At 13, the ceremony was performed. An official initiator flew to America from England. We cleaned the School building and put fresh flowers everywhere. A number of people were being initiated. I brought a basket with fruit, a white cloth, and some other items to present to the initiator. I was brought to a room where he started chanting the mantra and motioned for me to join him. For five minutes or so we chanted the mantra, a single word, over and over. Then I went to a second room to practice with an older practitioner. We silently meditated for ten minutes.

After that I was expected to meditate for half an hour in the morning and half an hour at night, ideally as close to dawn and dusk as possible.

At first I was completely thrilled to have taken this step toward being an adult member of my community. I excitedly told my best friend's family about it at dinner at their house. Her much older cousin told me that the only reason that they said the mantra was "secret" was that they didn't want me to know that everyone in the organization had the same mantra.

I was pretty shocked that she wanted to stamp on my pride and excitement. I guess she was just nervous that this was a cult situation. But I already knew that everyone had the same mantra, it was selected for the School by a Chankaracharya in India. I was unfazed by her negativity.

However, I soon found that the rules were a burden. I hated the pressure and expectation of how often I should be meditating. It was so, so hard to sit still for 30 minutes at a time when there were so many other things I could be doing. I was guilted about it frequently, told that meditation was the most important practice and the only thing that would lead me to my goal of enlightenment. It became something my parents nagged me about. Every day: "Have you meditated yet?" For the most part, I stopped completely, only doing it when on retreats or at the School.

I had a resurgence of meditation after a girl in my freshman college dorm was killed in a car accident. I was terrified of dying and I knew that meditation was what I was supposed to be doing with my life.

Since then I have stopped again. My parents always said that it "works in the dark" and so I should not expect results from meditation, but I have little motivation to do something that isn't bringing me any particular satisfaction or joy. In fact, it mostly calls to mind memories of sitting outside at dawn, freezing cold, and trying not to nod off and fall of my chair in front of a strict tutor.

I still use the mantra to try to help me fall asleep and I meditate for a few minutes as part of my puja in the mornings.

My mind is far from calm, so it might be worth finding a meditation technique that really can control my mind. There are others available.

The meditation I was taught is called Transcendental Meditation. In the form it is done today, it was invented by the Maharishi in the 1950s (though he claims that its origins are 5,000 years old).

In the 1960s and 70s the Maharishi traveled the Western world. The founder of the School was initiated in England at that time. He was so impressed with the technique, that he founded his School on it.

For this type of meditation you must be initiated. It is considered dangerous to choose your own mantra because you don't know the subtle vibrations of those sounds and what effect they might have on your psyche.

On the other hand, a wonderful teacher named Eknath Easwaran has encouraged everyone to create his own meditation practice. The thing I love most about Easwaran is that his voice is so calm and clear and full of joy. Everything I read of his leaves me feeling at peace and like life is really a delightful game. Art has left some links to his material, so I'm reposting one of those links on Easwaran's meditation technique.

He encourages people to choose a passage that is meaningful to them, a prayer or a poem from any tradition. Please read and enjoy his page about meditation: There is an organization of his followers called the Blue Mountain Center in Northern California. I went to one of their retreats once and had a delightful time.

I've always been uncomfortable with the guided meditations, but some people find them very relaxing and helpful. Yoga teachers are often good resources for this style.

Buddhists often meditate for many hours at a time and I don't know how they do it! We were told that the hour a day was the correct measure, but there are many monks who think there should be a lot more meditation.

Some traditions use mala beads to count mantras, similar to a rosary.

Meditation is something that has loomed so large in my life and now I'm not sure that it deserved such an exalted place. I think it is valuable and is part of my "spiritual arsenal" as it were, but not the most important thing. To me, the guilt and pressure associated with it negated whatever positive effect I might have gotten. I may go back to it now that I am removed from that pressure, but I also may not. I'm not sure yet.

Since all I know well is TM and I've had just a little exposure to other forms, I am curious to do some more research about the history of meditation in Hinduism. I'll let you all know what I discover!

I think I will soon write a post about Sanskrit, the language of all the holy books of Hinduism, and what people believe about it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How to be a Stranger

So my copy of How To Be a Perfect Stranger came the other day. I mentioned it before, it's a reference book of how to behave when attending religious services for different religions and denominations that you might find in North America.

I eagerly flipped to the Hinduism section and I'm a little skeptical of what I found there.

I think this book is a great idea, but I wonder if including so many different religions and sects made it difficult to research thoroughly.

It looks like they consulted only one Hindu group for the information in the section. There is useful stuff, but all of it could be found in a Hinduism for Dummies style book.

The thing that surprised me most was the section on what appropriate attire is for attending a Hindu function at a mandir.

It said that women should dress casual, open toed shoes are fine, and there are no rules about wearing hemlines that cover the knees.

I have a hard time believing that anyone would think it's okay to go into a mandir with a skirt whose hem is above your knee. In many cases, Indians are more uncomfortable with bare legs than they are with bare stomachs. If you go to a mandir in a short skirt, you are certainly going to feel out of place. You are also somewhat likely to be sitting on the floor. The text also doesn't mention that seeing Western clothing of any kind at a mandir is pretty unusual. Sure, if you're just a guest and visitor it's probably fine that you don't have Indian clothes, but I would highly recommend a long skirt!

The other thing I thought was odd was that the clothing section didn't mention that you will be taking your shoes off. That's where I would go to look for this kind of information. It does say that open-toed shoes are okay, but it doesn't say that you'll take them off before going into the sanctuary area.

It does say this eventually, in a little sentence under general tips. I think that could easily not be seen and it's very important.

So, all in all, the book is a great idea, but I'm not confident that I could follow it's suggestions and be appropriate for all religious services, as it promises.

Today I stopped at the bank before work and I was waited on by a young woman of Indian descent. She asked me if that was a bindi I was wearing and I told her it was. She said, "I like that." I smiled, but gave no explanation. It was nice. I hope that my wearing it will inspire some young people. I hope that this young woman and others like her start to see it as something they can do, not just something their mothers and grandmothers do. :)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Opposing Views

I wanted to clarify for a moment what I said in the last post. I am not criticizing Christianity here at all, I was criticizing the idea that if something is good for your baby, it would be in the Bible.

Therefore, anything not in the Bible must be bad for your baby...?

I mean, if you follow that logic, you shouldn't use strollers, cribs, or bottles because none of those things are in the Bible. Right?

It leads me to a question about accepting different viewpoints. The GIRL in this scenario and the WOMAN are my Facebook friends, I do not know MAN at all. I have since removed WOMAN as my Facebook friend because her status updates are always prayers. As in: "Dear Lord Father, I would like this and this to happen. In Jesus name." Not even "In Jesus' name" or "In Jesus's name," no "In Jesus name." So I started not seeing much point in keeping in touch with her (I worked with her during my two month stay in Arkansas).

But part of me feels like it's wrong to silence someone for having another viewpoint.

Not that I'm preventing her from saying whatever she wants, I'm just removing myself from a place where I have to hear it.

I know some people who purposely read and listen to the media produced by the "other side" in order to either get better perspective or to find better arguments against them, but I just can't do it.

As I've said before, I have a hard time with Christianity intruding on my life as it is, so is it wrong to eliminate the sources where I can?

Do I have a duty to continue to keep avenues open to hear things that upset me? I don't think I'm strong enough to. I just get so frustrated and upset and it sticks with me all day, wishing I could find some way to communicate why "If it were good for your baby, it would be in the Bible" doesn't make any sense!

I don't like feeling this way. I think I am going to try not to put myself into situations where I am likely to hear things that will bother me.

But will I grow and learn if I shut out opposition?

I welcome opinions on this...

Ah, Facebook...

This is what I get for having Facebook friends from my time in Arkansas:

GIRL: So...I bought this prenatal yoga DVD a few months ago...I finally decided to try it this morning...that woman is crazy!! She's dressed in some all white dress and head wrap telling me I have to chant and do yoga to make my baby happy...

WOMAN: Now I aint no ramedass or anything but like that :) but i dont think yoga is the key to keeping your baby happy or it would be in the bible lol!!!!
(Note incorrect spelling of Ram Dass)

GIRL: Haha!! I only watched til she started chanting! Then I got scared!!

WOMAN: my point exactly!!!!! lol oh comprimise and chant Jesus is Lord!!! lolol
(Reading the Bible over and over must not actually help you learn anything about spelling)

ME: I don't think the Bible has any tips on child rearing. Of course, if we only did what was in the Bible, we would have very different lives, like no cars, for example.

MAN: Carolyn needs to read her Bible more! Lots of Child rearing stuff in there and what has that got to do with cars? (Seriously? He couldn't understand why I mentioned cars? Pretty simple point of logic I'm trying to make here.)

ME: I'm not Christian, but I have read the Bible. Not many kids in it.

My point is that we don't only do things that happen in the Bible. If we did, we'd all be shepherds. Something not existing in the Bible is not a reason not to do it. Even Christians do many, many things that are not in the Bible and there's nothing bad about that. Cars aren't in the Bible, but we drive them and that's fine, right?

By the way, GIRL, I agree with you about the chanting. I am Hindu, but I find the chanting on exercise DVDs really creepy!

(Okay, I admit I turned a bit nasty at this point) Actually, here's what I learned about kids in the Bible: It's good to murder your children if you think God wants you to (Abraham) and playing favorites is a great idea (Joseph)

(And he got nasty right back) MAN:I worship as a Christian and don't believe in worshiping animals. Matter of fact Carolyn,I think God put animals on earth so we could have steak with our mashed potatos and chicken with our curry!

ME:Worshiping animals is a total misunderstanding of Hindu principle, by the way, so now you just sound ignorant.

I'm only saying that it's totally okay to do things that don't happen in the Bible, Christians do all the time and that's NOT a criticism, it's just how things are. The Bible didn't specify every behavior for all time and there's nothing wrong with that.

Is this coming across like I'm saying it's a bad thing, like you're not a good Christian or something because that is not at all what I'm saying. You do everything the Bible tells you to, that's great. You also do other things that the Bible doesn't mention, that's fine. You don't do things the Bible tells you not to, all good. Do you see what I mean? There's nothing not Christian about doing some things that the Bible never mentions.

Still waiting to see if MAN responds. Facebook is going to give me an aneurysm one of these days.

Friday, July 2, 2010


Dhurga recently mentioned Isha-Devata in the comments. Simply put, this would be one's personal God.

There are many, many, many Gods in Hinduism. Each has different qualities and different personalities. The idea is that out of all those, there will be one that will speak to you and seem well suited to your spiritual growth. Often that is also based somewhat on family or regional traditions and maybe your birth chart.

For my branch, it is traditional to pick from the "five forms" that Shankara picked as the principle forms, uniting all branches. One of these forms is selected for main worship, but the other four are still worshiped also and all are seen as manifestations of the same Ultimate Reality, Brahman. The five are Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, Devī, and Sūrya.

A murti (statue, idol) is used for worship. It is believed that the mind needs a physical form to focus on. Sometimes in Smartism, the five forms are represented by five stones. For more dualistic branches, the worship of the murti is more like the Catholic communion. The God has actually come and inhabited the statue.

Sometimes if a great sage is thought to be an avatar of God, he or she might also be worshiped as one's Ishta-Devata. I mentioned before that some believe Jesus to be an avatar of Vishnu and I came across an interesting article articulating some about why and how Jesus is chosen as an Ishta-Devata at times. I know we had one person comment to say that this is impossible, but I am not in the habit of dismissing the beliefs of others and I am unwilling to say that it wouldn't be possible for Jesus to have been an avatar.

I've heard about this phenomenon of Indians adding Jesus to their alters from both perspectives. I knew of a girl in college who loved India and was also an evangelical Christian. She frequently went to India to work on converting people (which completely horrified me, but I didn't know her personally). I was told that a problem she often had was that Indians seemed to have a hard time understanding that they couldn't just add Jesus in. Jesus had to replace ALL Gods and only he could be worshiped. The article above sees this as possibly just a survival technique, to keep Hinduism alive while compromising with Christianity. I'm much closer to the perspective of seeing Christianity trying to destroy Hinduism.

Some believe that it doesn't matter which God you choose, all lead to moksha. However, some branches believe that only particular Gods will. For Vaishnavites, only a form of Vishnu will work (Rama, Krishna...).

To find one's Ishta-Devata some believe that you must go by astrology. Others just find that one in particular speaks to him. It can be something chosen oneself or chosen for you by a guru. This form of God will stay with you all your life.

So, what is my Ishta-Devata?

Shiva, in the form of the nata raja.

It wasn't always clear to me. When I was a kid I was fascinated by Krishna. I loved how different he was at different points in his life. I liked the teenage Krishna best, with the gopis worshiping him.

I was initiated into mantra-based meditation when I was 13. Ideally, one's mantra would be connected to one's Ishta-Devata, it would be a way of calling on that God. The organization I grew up in does not believe in Ishta-Devatas. A mantra was chosen for the entire organization to use and given to us through a Chankaracharya in India. It is a sound connected to Rama.

Despite these moments with other forms, the little bronze nata raja statue that I bought at the new age shop in my town clicked with me in a way that the others hadn't. I spent long periods of time just staring into his tiny face, and entranced by the grace of his arms.

I started dance five years later.

Nata raja still sits in the central place on my alter. A couple years ago my mother gave me a Krishna statue, remembering how much I loved Krishna as a child. That image just never had the same effect on me.

As soon as I look at my nata raja, I feel calmed and centered and I feel as though there is fire in his eyes.

No one gave me that form to worship, I chose it (or it chose me).

Thursday, July 1, 2010

I'm going to learn Spanish!

I know you're thinking, where did that come from?


I can't talk much about the details, but I've been offered a chance to test out a new product from Rosetta Stone, whose products I adore. It will be for Latin American Spanish and last 1-3 months.

I'm excited to test out how much I have learned about learning language from my Hindi adventure. Hindi will take a back burner for these few months while I see just how much Spanish I can pick up in that time. Spanish would certainly be a useful language to know and though I haven't had any interest in it since I was eight years old, I may as well see how far I can get since it's being offered to me for free.

Lack of vocabulary is the main thing holding me back in Hindi right now. I'm picking up bits of grammar as I read and reread Teach Yourself Hindi, so what I need is just a lot more words to work with.

My vocabulary right now is about 500 words and I'm working intensively on vocabulary growth. Each new word has expanded my understanding of the movies and tv shows and books so much.

I've read that a native speaker usually has a vocabulary of 10,000 words, using about 3,000 of them on a daily basis (we all have our favorite words and phrases that we turn to again and again, though we understand other people's favorite words and phrases). So, I have a long way to go before I'm going to be able to fully understand and communicate.

I'm trying to learn 10 new words each day, which feels a little overwhelming to me, but seems to be on the low end for the impressive people on

I think this little break will help me get a clearer perspective on just how much Hindi I have learned and I can return to it refreshed. I have not yet decided whether I will keep up with a little bit of reading and watching in Hindi while I'm doing the Spanish. I don't know if that will confuse me but I also don't want to lose the progress that I've made in Hindi.

I've reached that point in language learning where each new thing learned feels like such a tiny drop that it will never help! I read somewhere the idea that the first ten words you learn in a language are so exciting and you feel like you're making great progress, but then when you're going from 520 words to 530 words it feels like no progress at all, just a drop of water in the ocean. It's hard to stay focused and motivated when you feel like you're at a standstill.

For fun, for anyone who knows Hindi (or is learning) I found this free Hindi Scrabble Game to download. It's very challenging for me, since I know so few words. It's really a cool program and I wrote to the man who created it to thank him. I hope that he'll have success with this and make other games in Hindi.

Hindi Scrabble Game