To change or to accept? That is the question…

A friend of mine has been having major issues with her daughter. Any of us who are parents can sympathize. This young woman (the daughter, not my friend who, unfortunately, is as middle aged as I am!) has set her sights on marrying a man who really sounds like a train wreck. In spite of my friend’s many rants, raves and tears, this marriage looks like it is going to happen. My friend, who is a Catholic, has finally thrown her hands up in defeat. She told me today that she lit a candle in her altar and basically told God that the ball was in His court now.

While consoling my friend, I couldn’t help but think back to when I learned about about the different kinds of karma. Karma, in this context, refers to the fruits of our actions; in our past, in our future, and of course, in our present.

Many Hindus believe that there are three kinds of karma.

First, there are those that are already coming to fruition. These karmas are in motion in our lives. No matter what we do, these actions, good or bad, are coming home to roost.

Second, there are the karmas that are stored up from the past. They are not active yet and some of them can be avoided via prayer, meditation and/or good works.

And finally, there are those karmas that are still waiting to happen. They will occur as a result of our current actions and deeds. These are probably the easiest to change since they depend on the way we behave from here on out.

But what about the first two kinds of karma? How do we tell them apart?

The truth is that we never know which of the two we are dealing with at any moment. Are they the karmas that are going to come to fruition no matter what we do? Or, are they karmas that we can prevent with our present actions? That is the million dollar question.

This reminds me of a popular western prayer which is often referred to as the Serenity Prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” (Reinhold Niebuhr)

Unfortunately however, the wisdom to be able to know which of our past karmas are already playing out, and which are still waiting to become active, is a wisdom that very few of us have mastered.

Instead, we need to pray for the strength to treat all our karmas as if we can change them. Every bad situation has to be attacked with our full force. It’s only when there is absolutely no doubt that the karma is in motion that we must have the wisdom to stop fighting.

So what about my friend? Personally, I think she is still fighting the good fight. After all, her daughter isn’t married yet. So instinctively she knows that this karma has not come to fruition yet. And, knowing her, she has the wisdom to know the difference. 

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Posted in India, Karma

Bollywood dance- a unique force of unity

We recently attended a Bollywood dance showcase at my daughter’s university. It is a dance group that my daughter co-founded a few years ago with a friend. I am still amazed that a Bollywood themed club could become so popular in a small college in Virginia. What is even more fascinating is that all of it’s members are not Indians or even Asians. They have students of many colors choosing to learn how to dance ‘Bollywood’ style!

Dance is an integral aspect of most cultures. Is it any surprise then that the Hindus have a god of dance?

His name is Nataraja, which when translated literally means lord, or king, of dance. Nataraja is a form of of Shiva, the God of destruction.

What is interesting is that Nataraja is seen as performing both the cosmic dance of creation as well as the dance of destruction. Destruction is an essential aspect of creation. One simply has to observe nature to understand that without the natural destruction that occurs in the Autumn and Winter one would not experience the beauty of creation and rebirth in the Spring and Summer.

But this idea of creation and destruction runs even deeper for some Hindus.

They believe that Nataraja, during his cosmic dance of destruction, destroys weariness and negative perspectives. It is only then that positive energy can surge through and allow us to rebuild our world again.

However, the concept that resonates even more deeply with me, regarding the symbolism behind this god of dance, is one that I learned early in life. I remember being told that the only art form which did not allow for the separation of the creator, from their creation, was dance.

Just think about it. You can listen to music without ever seeing the musician. You can admire a painting without ever knowing the artist. You can enjoy a culinary masterpiece without ever meeting the chef.

But, you cannot see, look at, experience or enjoy a dance without the dancer. Dancers are an integral, irreplaceable aspect of their art form.

So also with Nataraja. He represents the undeniable truth that God cannot ever be separated from His creation. He is the dancer and the universe is his cosmic dance. It has a beat. It has rhythm. It has movement. It is beautiful. And it is one with God.

And, that is what I saw when I watched this college Bollywood showcase. I saw so many colors. I saw so many cultures. I saw so many varied backgrounds. But, they were all performing as one. Their creation was one. Their unity was heartwarming.

They symbolized what it meant for God and his very many creations to be one. And they did it thru the medium of Bollywood dance. Who would have thought that this was possible in a small town in Virginia, USA?

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Posted in Cultural unity, Gods, Shiva

My childhood friend

I find the concept of imaginary childhood friends fascinating. I love reading about them. The need for creating a fictional character with whom you can have lengthy conversations and special experiences enthralls me. It points to the fact that human beings occasionally need to use their imagination to fill in a void they may have in their lives.

Or, because they have a vision of their world that cannot be limited to material realities.

This is how I felt about my friend too. Of course he was not imaginary.

He was just not physically visible by all.

I became friends with him when my mother first told me his story. It captivated me. It still does. Of course, the reasons I love him now have changed. Now, I see the symbolism behind every nuance of his story. Then, I simply saw his beautiful elephant head, his round little belly and the naughty smile on his face. His name is Ganesha. He is a Hindu god. And this is his story.

Once upon a very long time ago the great god Shiva had to leave his home in Mount Kailash (which is in the Himalayas). He left his wife Parvati at home. Now, Parvati was no ordinary woman. How could she be? She was married to Shiva, the god of destruction, after all. She was a very powerful goddess in her own right. But Parvati got lonely without Shiva and decided to create a little boy out of clay to keep her company. The statue was beautiful and with her magical powers she brought it to life. Since she had created him she called him her son. She named him Ganesha.

One day Parvati went to bathe and told her son to stand guard at the door. Shiva returned and demanded to enter. Ganesha would not let him in. Shiva is really not someone you want to mess around with. Like I said, he is the Hindu god of destruction! So, Shiva took his sword and cut off Ganesha’s head. When Parvati saw what Shiva had done she was distraught. (And we all know that an unhappy wife can be an extremely unpleasant experience.)

Even for a god.

Shiva promised her that he would fix this. He told his army to bring the first head that they could find of a living creature back to him. The head they brought back was of a baby elephant. Shiva promptly placed this on Ganesha’s body. And voila, he was whole again!

Shiva turned proudly to Parvati. But she was wailing even louder this time. ‘Who will care for my son now that you have made him look like this? He is neither human nor animal!”

So Shiva declared that prayers must be offered to Ganesha before any other god. A decree that many Hindus honor to this day.

Now, let me just say that this is simply one version of this story. The version I learned when I was a young girl. The version that made me fall in love with Ganesha. The version that made him my childhood friend.

I mean, how cool is that? I had a cute elephant-headed god as my buddy. And, oh how I loved him!

Naturally, as I grew older I learned the symbolism behind this story. (Don’t worry, it didn’t make him any less cool.)

I learned that his elephant head symbolizes that he can remove any obstacle in his way with his trunk. This is why it is useful to pray to him before starting any new venture.

I learned that his big ears symbolize the importance of being someone who listens more and talks less. These large ears allow Ganesha to listen to the requests of all his devotees.

I learned that his large tummy symbolizes his ability to take in all that life has to offer. To digest our pain and sorrow while reveling in our joys and triumphs.

I learned that the broken tusk in his hand symbolizes sacrifice since he broke it off to use as a pen to write the Hindu epic  The Mahabharata. A sacrifice that allows us to continue to learn from this sacred scripture.

As I grow older I have learned to value these stories even more. I have learned that I am fortunate to have had such a powerful childhood friend. I have learned that his ability to make me laugh and smile was truly a gift from the gods. And that the best way for me to return the love he showered on me is by making sure he is honored as the mighty indomitable elephant god that he is.

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Posted in Goddesses, India, Uncategorized

Karmic connection

I met one of my dearest friends in the fifth grade. Even though she still lives in India we have managed to stay close. Whenever we meet it is like all the time we spent apart just melts away. I know that there are innumerable people who feel the same way about certain relationships. There are times when we form an instant bond with another human being that is really difficult to describe.

This is what I call a karmic connection.

Many Hindus would explain this bond by using the theories of karma and reincarnation. Reincarnation is a relatively common Hindu belief. Simply put, this means that we have lived more than one life already, and, that we have many more still to live. The end goal is to become perfect souls. Then, we will attain freedom or moksha from this cycle of birth and rebirth. The best way to do this is by working thru all our karmas.

Karma, when used in this context, signifies that we have certain lessons which we have to learn in order to attain moksha. This usually involves interacting with other people. Oftentimes, you are reborn with the same souls because you still have some give and/or take with them. This is why we are drawn to certain people, or alternatively, why we are unreasonably repulsed by others.

Even though I have grown up with these theories there are times when certain occurrences amaze me. For instance, when I keep encountering the same personality traits in the friends I make, in every stage of my life. Logically, I know that there is something about this particular personality trait that I have to learn from. But yet, I am surprised. Similarly, I find it fascinating that certain people are physically and emotionally attracted to the same kind of person, no matter that these relationships always end in tears.

But nothing has surprised me more than my friend in India. At three different times in my life, this friend has rung me up frantically from Mumbai. Each time I have been in a bad way and she has instinctively known. The first words out of her mouth after greeting me are, “What is wrong? Is everything alright?” Every time I have asked her how she knew that I was upset when she lived thousands of miles away. Her response has always been the same. “I just knew something was wrong, every fiber in my being was telling me to reach out to you. I’m so glad I did.”

So was I.

I do not have any way to explain these incidents other than with the theories of karma and reincarnation. In some way my friend and I are linked. We did not grow up in the same home. We do not share any blood. We have been apart for more years than we were together. Yet, she has always been there in my hour of need. What else can this be but a sweet karmic connection?

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Posted in India, Karma, Reincarnation

The daughters of Saraswati

I recently went for a viewing of the film Girl Rising. It is an inspiring documentary (that everybody should see!) about nine brave young women from different parts of the world. The way these intelligent girls struggle to get an education is both gut wrenching and heart warming. Their journeys are vastly different but the goal is the same. They are all fighting for the right to learn.

How sad is it that this is still an issue in the 21st century?

Watching this movie, and especially the segment on India, made me think about the role of women in India.

Many Hindus believe that there are divinities, or gods, both male and female, who represent every aspect of our lives. We have a God who is the remover of obstacles. We have a warrior Goddess. We have a God of air and yet another of fire. And the list goes on…

Goddesses are usually referred to as ‘Mother’. They are considered to be our celestial mothers. While they are loved dearly there is also a healthy amount of respect shown towards them. After all, who wants to face the wrath of Mother Nature?

One of the most popular Goddesses is the Goddess of knowledge, Saraswati. She is the Goddess that Hindu children, and adults, pray to when they are getting an education. There are a number of prayers and chants dedicated to Saraswati and it is not uncommon to hear her devotees recite these prayers before they take tests and exams.

As a teenager growing up in Mumbai, one of my yearly rituals was getting my pens blessed before final exams. I still remember taking the pens that I was going to use for my exams to the temple. I reverently asked Mother Saraswati to make them powerful. After all, I reasoned, these were the tools that I was going to use to write my exams. Obviously I needed Mother Saraswati to shower her blessings on them!

Similarly, books are another symbol associated with this Goddess. As such, you will find that many a Hindu will be deeply offended if you mistreat a book. Some will be upset if you even place your feet near a book.

Now, since Goddess Saraswati is revered by many in India, one would think that it should be common sense for girls to be encouraged to learn. After all, aren’t women physical reflections of the Goddess herself? Shouldn’t keeping girls out of school be the equivalent of expelling Mother Saraswati from the very books that we revere? Keeping knowledge from women is a colossal contradiction in terms. The mere suggestion that women are not worthy of an education is blasphemy.

Thankfully, India has come a long way. Like the movie Girl Rising demonstrated, there are both men and women in India, who are fighting to give their daughters an education. I just wish that more people would recognize that the best way to pay homage to the Goddess of knowledge is by making sure that her daughters are offered equal opportunities to learn.
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Posted in Goddesses, India, Women

Si vas para Chile…

Chile recently suffered from massive earthquakes. Twice, in the space of 24 hours, their northern port city, Iquique, endured earthquakes that were 7.8 or higher on the Richter scale. As if this was not enough, the aftershocks have been seemingly unending. One count has them at 300. Another at 400. The loss, damage and destruction is immense and it is going to take Chileans a long time to recover. Emotionally, physically and financially.

I spent seven of the best years of my life in Chile. My daughters were born there. And I made some wonderful friends. Chileans are a family oriented people. They love children and treat pregnant women like they are fragile china. It is no wonder then, that even after so many years, I still miss my life there. I really felt like I belonged. The lyrics from one of their popular anthems, “Si vas para Chile,” (If you visit Chile) can still bring tears to my eyes.

Sometimes I cannot help but wonder. Does this connection that I feel have a deeper significance?

Many Hindus believe that the earth is holy. Indeed, Mother Earth, or Dharti Mata, is a crucial component in many ritual practices. Prayers and sacrifices are offered to the earth. The earth is sanctified and purified before any large religious ceremony. It is an element that is treated with the utmost reverence.

Of course, this is not an idea that is exclusively Hindu. For example, the earth has been a central force in Pagan worship since antiquity. And the honor and respect with which Native Americans treat their land is legendary.

The truth is that this bond goes even deeper than the relationship between cultures and their land. It is between humans and the earth we live on. We are inherently connected to it. The earth nourishes us. It shelters us. It provides us with sustenance. It always has. It is only recently, with the advent of high rises and supermarkets, that this connection has been weakened.

As a Hindu, who believes in reincarnation, I do not think that these bonds will disappear when I die. They will remain in my subconscious memory. A memory that I may not be able to tap into, but which will, nonetheless, influence me. No doubt, I have formed this connection with the earth in many places over many lifetimes. Perhaps one of those places was Chile.

Whatever the reason for this bond however, the bottom line is that my heart aches for the Chileans. This wonderful, family oriented people are suffering the wrath of Mother Nature. Their homes have been destroyed. Their businesses have been shut down. They cannot sleep at night out of fear. But, they are a resilient people and I know they will rise from this disaster with a sense of determination. And that this land, that I love, will once again resound with the voices and laughter of it’s beautiful children.

 

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Posted in Comparative religions, Goddesses, Reincarnation

Being One with the ‘Piano Man’

My husband and I had the good fortune to attend a Billy Joel concert a few weeks ago. Needless to say, even at the age of 64, Billy Joel can rock the house. The ‘Piano Man’ was at his best and had us on our feet for most of the night. The energy in the room was unbelievable and it is a concert I will always remember.

As I looked around at the packed arena, which has a capacity of 20,000, I couldn’t help but be enthralled at how so many people were all acting as one.

I mean, think about it.

Here were 20,000 people from different walks of life. Different economical circumstances. Varied educations. A myriad of colors. Every gender. And just about every age group. Yes, I saw both young children and old men! I can only presume that there must have been representatives from a large cross section of religious traditions as well.

Yet, we were all behaving as one.

As I watched this massive group of people move in sync, I was reminded of the concept of monism. Advaita Vedanta, which is a Hindu school of philosophy, advocates for monism. According to this philosophy, we are all One. There is only one Supreme Reality called Brahman. In this school of thought, there is no difference between God, the universe, you and me. We are in fact, all part of one whole. The differences we see are an illusion, Maya. Our mission is to realize this. The moment we do realize it, all the differences will fall away.

This is a hard concept for many people to grasp. And rightly so. After all, we live in an individualized society. We are constantly struggling to make our mark as individuals. Our personal struggles and victories form an important component of our self understanding.

On the other hand, there is definitely something about the idea that we are all One that is appealing. A collective mentality might serve us well in our effort to preserve our earth. Or to avoid wars. Or to eradicate hunger and disease.

I do not know if monism is the right way to view this world we live in. I do not actually think there is a right or wrong answer here. Just different strokes for different folks. Different people approaching their realities in different ways. Monism is just one of those ways.

I will say this however. Hearing Billy Joel sing his tunes to an audience who roared with approval in unison and sang ‘The Piano Man’ in unified voices was a magical experience. If it was an empowering feeling to be one with the crowd, then I can only imagine that it must be infinitely more empowering to feel like you are one with the universe too.
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Posted in Cultural unity, Maya, Vedanta

Today I Am

imageI recently saw the movie Monuments Men with George Clooney and Matt Damon. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give anything away-so there is no need for a spoiler alert! There is a scene in the movie when one of the characters, a lieutenant in the British army, goes to protect the famous sculpture, The Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo. The priest, who let’s the lieutenant into the church, asks him “Are you Catholic?” The lieutenant’s simple answer, “Today I am,” was one of the most poignant and memorable moments in the movie for me.

As I say that, however, I realize that this scene’s impact would have been lost to me as a teenager growing up in Mumbai in the 80’s. It was only after I came to the west that I started to realize how distinct the many denominations of Christianity are. In Mumbai, I had a few Christian acquaintances but never thought to ask what denomination they were. Perhaps this was because they were in the minority and distinguishing them as Christian from the diverse Indian milieu of Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Parsees, Sikhs etc was more than enough. However, I soon learned that this approach can be both problematic and insensitive, particularly in the West. In fact, I clearly remember the first time I realized just how important these distinctions were.

I was living in Santiago, Chile and I referred to a Chilean acquaintance as Christian. She immediately turned to me and said, in Spanish, “No soy Christiana, soy Catholica!” (I am not Christian, I am Catholic!) The look of surprise on my face must have been comical- I was absolutely flummoxed! I eventually came to realize that many Spanish speaking Catholics call every other denomination, except their own, ‘Christian’.

Luckily, I am a fast learner and I quickly educated myself to the differences between the sects and learned to be more sensitive when I spoke of the many Christian paths.
I think this issue of not seeing the differences that exist within religions that are not our own is a common mistake. It gets compounded if a certain religious tradition is in the minority. For instance, when I lived in India, Christians were in the minority and as such they oftentimes found it more useful to present themselves as a united group rather than as a number of separate Christian denominations. Similarly, when I tell Americans that there are a vast number of Hindu sects, many of whom do not see eye to eye, my words are met with surprise. It is only when I point to the diversity within Christianity does a look of understanding cross their faces. Obviously, this is because Hindus are in the minority here and as such it is much easier for Hindus who live outside of India to gloss over their differences. But that does not mean that these distinctions somehow disappear when Hindus move to the West- just that they are not usually spelled out when speaking with non-Hindus.

It is clear that there are times when our differences are really important to us and we need others to understand them. And yet, there are other instances- like the scene in Monuments Men- when these same differences are completely irrelevant. Indeed, I know a great number of Hindus, who, if moved by the need to protect something sacred, no matter the tradition it belonged to- would also repeat the very same words uttered by the lieutenant, “Today I am.”

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Posted in Comparative religions
June 2017
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