On Discipline, and Doing It Right

“A life of discipline is not an easy life, but it is a joyous one, with many soul-satisfying rewards.” — Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami

The above quote I found at the blog, Yatra. I’ve been enjoying reading around in the small community of white Western Hindus. It seems to be a very communal and supportive group of people. Most people are drawn to all that is Indian; others find God in the Hindu tradition and find other aspects of the culture that way. Most seem to be far more interested in the branches of Hinduism that I am not interested in: predominantly male deities and concerned with Vedic orthodoxy.

At this point, readers are probably aware that I’m trying to ‘do my own thing’ – but what is that? And how can I know what exactly my ‘thing’ is? Million dollar questions, these. I’ll be the first to admit that hate – HATE! – being told what to do. Which is exactly why discipline is so necessary for someone like me. But I must choose it from time to time. It’s an act of surrender, honor, commitment, and love for me to unquestioningly follow orders or forsake other things. I find no satisfaction in doing things ‘just because that is how they are done’ or because ‘Authority says so.’ So for me, following rules and regulations is a regular, ongoing struggle.

I’ve already written about my challenges with vegetarianism (here and here). I decided that vegetarianism is not best for me or my family at this time. I also drink alcohol. I love drinking wine. As someone who did not drink in high school and actively avoided underage drinking culture and didn’t drink much in college, also avoiding ‘party’ culture, it’s odd to think that giving up wine is so difficult for me now. Perhaps that is all the more reason to do it? But I do give it up: I’ve been pregnant twice; I’ve been poor.

What I’m noticing around these issues is my intention and the effects of certain actions. When I regularly do yoga I am less likely to do a number of things that fall into the yamas and niyamas: get angry, drink too much, eat too much, eat heavy inert/packaged foods. I feel like a life lived in accordance with rules, for discipline’s or religion’s sake, is missing the point. Ultimately one must ask, ‘Are these rules/disciplines/behaviors bringing me closer to my goals: knowing God, staying connected with others, being present?’

If you know me at all you’ll know that I am terribly hard on myself. I have a difficult time finding the space between being too hard and too soft on myself. This comes up a lot for me around my morning practice of yoga, meditation and devotions. I find that I feel incomplete without my daily devotions. I feel uncomfortable and like something is missing if I haven’t lit my candle and my incense and said at least a brief good morning at my altar. But the yoga and sitting often gets thrown under the bus in an effort to get enough sleep or corral the kidlets. I try to fit 10 minutes of meditation into nap time. But if I don’t do it before 12.30 it doesn’t happen at all, as that’s when the boy comes home from playschool.

Is having children an appropriate excuse? Or is it just my reality at this time? Night’s lately have been tough; the baby has a cold. Do I get up early anyway and risk nodding off in meditation and doing my routine just to be firm about it? Or do I go with the flow – a flow that might whisk me away from such practices for a year or more? These are the questions I wrestle with, for which I started this project. I still don’t have any answers.

I am starting to see that perhaps the questions of discipline, at this point in time, for me, may not be what I need to be focusing on. I am learning so much already – from the internets, from my practice, from the Hindu tradition. I’m really trying to let go of Doing It Right, since I’m not sure anymore that that is even possible. No matter how you practice or what you believe, there will always be someone else out there (and often in my own head) to say Ur Doin’ It Rong.

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Reach out and touch faith

I don’t know if it’s the time spent in the Christian world or the time spent in the pagan world that makes me think I need to have a Personal Relationship with the Divine.

In the Evangelical Christian world it’s all about one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As hard as I tried I never felt close to Jesus. I felt more connected to the abstract, supposedly more transcendent Great Big God than I did to the incarnated Son. Perhaps it was because I felt that God was already imminent and alive to me in the mountains and waterways of my land. I didn’t know it then, but I had a firm grasp of panentheism. Jesus was a fascinating character, a wise and cantankerous teacher, but he did not speak to me in the here and now in the way that I felt the Great Big God did.

Even as I moved from Evangelical ideas of Christianity to worshiping with the Eastern Orthodox Church I still felt like I was missing something. The Eastern Orthodox, and much of the Roman Catholic world, do not place as much emphasis on the personal relationship with Jesus as does the Protestant world. But still: don’t we want our Gods to know us? Don’t we hope or even expect to know them?

My loose affiliation with the Pagan world led me to believe that this might be possible and might even be the norm! Plenty of people talk about Gods and/or Goddesses calling them, choosing them, appearing in visions, or even possessing them. I’ve had perhaps only one experience that might even closely resemble anything like that (and I’ll save that story for next quarter).

It’s not that I don’t feel God’s presence – I do. Sometimes I feel it like a powerful current; sometimes it’s like when you’re hiking and looking up at the trees and without noticing the small stream ahead you plunge your foot down into the icy waters. Sometimes I have to seek out that presence. Sometimes I have to work hard – sit in meditation for twice as long. But rarely is it personal. Rarely is it about ME.

Kali the Dark Mother

So now that I’m engaging with Hinduism in a daily way I find that this is what I most often trip over: am I supposed to be having a personal interaction with the Gods? I have long been drawn to Kali. The Shakti/Shiva understanding of the world speaks to my conception of the universe. And who can’t get behind Ganesha? He’s just so darn likable. But are they just representations of cosmic forces (just, right? like that wouldn’t be enough)? Or are they real, present, living Gods that get involved?

Ganesh, Remover of All Obstacles

So far my experience and thoughts suggest: yes. To both. But I’m not convinced that the God/s get involved with us on the minute level that many of us of Christian extraction expect. And I like that. I think there is something deeply selfish (as opposed to self-centered, which phrasing suggests something good to me) in the way that Christianity makes salvation and other ideas so specifically personal, as if everything we think, say and do has eternal weight. I do think that karma applies, the cause and effect of our actions. But does the Ground of Being listen in on everything we think? Does the Great Universal Creator hear us when we’re searching for a parking space? I’m going to say no. Could it? Sure. But I think this is where the appeal of many gods comes in: I need the rice to turn out perfectly for an important dinner party, so I pray to Lakshmi, element/goddess of the home and success, or to Ganesh to overcome any obstacles in my preparations. Why go to the top when Hir agents are available?

In my experience of worshiping as a Hindu these last 5 weeks I’ve only had two moments of feeling a connection with Kali, a feeling that went beyond the intellectual ‘oh her story and symbolism is really neat;’ a feeling that maybe she was poking by to see who is this new person that keeps calling her name. The pagan in me thinks this is about right – all relationships take time. My Christian past is just flat-out appalled.

For those of you practicing Hinduism in any form, what has been your experience? Those of you engaged with the Hindu pantheon, what have your relationships been like? How did you choose the gods you venerate? Or did they choose you?

(Title reference to Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode. Until linking to this, I had never seen the video. A Western?!)

Bonalu

Bonalu is a holiday celebrating Kali and the Dark Mother. My understanding is that it’s observed over the course of four Sundays, but as the Hindu calendar is lunar the months shift and I’m not clear on exactly what occurs when. Bonalu celebrations, from what I’ve read, involve a procession of decorated pots containing a sweet rice dish that are offered to Kali. Women carrying the pots often enter into a trance state from the drumming and chanting, and observers throw water on the women’s feet  – an act of purification and honor as the women are considered to embody the goddess (also known as possession, but that word is often so loaded with negative stereotypes; I prefer embody, which is more positive in my mind). There is feasting, thanksgiving to Kali for promises kept, and fortune-telling for the year to come. Like most holidays in the Hindu tradition – and in all religious traditions – Bonalu is meant to be a communal celebration. Not having any Hindu community here I had to modify greatly. In the end, it was a quiet, short and simple affair in my house. Here’s what I did:

I basically treated the pooja like regular morning devotions. I swept and tidied the dining/altar room. I readied the altar. I bathed myself and my kids (necessary anyway as the three year old had spat milk all over the baby). I put on a bright blue skirt with a white top (white being a color of purity); I adorned myself with colorful jewelry and put on some makeup  – you know, all festive like. I spent the morning cooking and preparing the luncheon feast: a roast chicken and carrots covered in curry and turmeric, a sweet potato and chili dish, home-made chai, and sweet rice pudding. I set aside some of the rice pudding and mixed it with turmeric as an offering for Kali.

Once we were ready to eat, I called in the family. The devotions were shorter even than my normal morning routine, because the three year old wanted to help. He disrupts things, but I think it’s important to let him do what he can. He bowed and lit the incense using the altar candle. He then ran around waving the incense in front of everything and refused to put it on the altar. Eventually he consented so that he could put the bowl of the rice on the offering plate and put a glass of wine on the altar too. I said a brief ‘hail and welcome’ to Kali and then we sat down to eat our super tasty meal.

After the meal, my husband and son went to go do other things and the baby went down for a nap. I took the opportunity to clean up the dining room (again, yes. I’ve got kids) and sat down to meditate and chant for about 15 minutes. It was peaceful and energetic at the same time. In fact, it was the first time since I started observing Hinduism that I felt ‘connected’ to the deity. I felt….. something more present, not necessarily more personal, but more alive. This concept of personal connection with the gods is something I want to write about later this week. It’s something I need to grapple with in a personal, public way. I’m not sure I can be very articulate about it, but I have some ideas and questions about this idea of personal connection with the Divine.

This morning during devotions I did a fortune-telling of my own: I gave myself a tarot reading. Yep, I read tarot. I’ve been practicing for about eight years now, but it’s been about 6 months since I touched my cards. My focus was on this portion of my ashram project. I received some interesting information, but nothing unusual or out of the blue.

While there was no drumming or dancing, trancing or community, I am glad I observed this in the way I was able. I got the sense that Kali didn’t care so much how I worshiped, just so long as I did! She is not a god to deny. I’m not sure she can be denied, even if we want to!

And…. we’re back! Back to the middle

Over the weekend my family went on a short vacation to visit friends in France. Traveling as a foursome is such an exhausting task. Before leaving I asked Ganesha for a safe journey to and from our destination; I left miniature roses on the altar plate. With me I took two small, easily portable items from my altar: the plastic tiger for Ma Durga and a bottle of oil for Kali Ma. When we arrived at the house we were staying in, I pulled them out of my bag, kissed them, and stuck them on the night stand. In the mornings I made teeny devotions: I bowed and said some short prayers.

While I’m sorry to have left the blog to languish, the break from routine was illuminating. I am adapting Hinduism to fit my life, not the other way around. Sure, I’ve made some changes, but not many. On one hand I know that if a religion is not relevant to the person where they are, as they are then that religion has no chance of sticking, and isn’t truly universal. On the other hand, if we are not moved to adapt or change then what is the point of the religion? How do practicing Hindus keep devotions when they travel? Yogis can do yoga and meditation – I did not, I admit. I find that the times when I need my sitting practice most are the times I am least likely to do it. I’m not sure if cutting myself slack as a mother of two is a good thing or not. Yes, it’s much harder to fit in even ten minutes of uninterrupted sitting time, particularly whilst traveling! But perhaps if I was firmer about fitting that in I wouldn’t feel as overwhelmed as I sometimes do.

That last statement is just about me and my feelings and my day-to-day, and says nothing about yoga’s ultimate goals of enlightenment! I notice myself getting caught up in the doing (as is my tendency) and I remember that at our cores we are already enlightened and we just needing help remembering that. With that thought I feel less guilty about not being regular with my practice. This journey is less about attempting extremes to achieve a form of perfection (as if that was possible), but about making corrections so that I can come back to center and remember myself, as I truly am, not as I think I am or would like to be.

Another issue with traveling this time was that I missed Guru Purnima, a day of celebrating one’s gurus and/or teachers. I was traveling that day. When I started this project I had hoped to send cards to several of the people that I consider influential in my teaching. Alas, I was distracted with preparations for our trip. I think this holiday is a wonderful idea! I may try to incorporate this into my life even after this project is over.

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Now that I’ve been engaged with this project for a month I’d like to take a moment and ask you, dear reader, if you have any questions. What would you like to see discussed? Anything?

Some topics I’m going to post on in the coming weeks: Bonalu (Sundays in July that honor Kali), Raksha Bandhan on Aug 13 (a holiday to celebrate the bond between brothers and sisters), Annaprashana (celebration of a child’s first solids – my baby is ready to explore the world of solid food!), fasting and silence, a trip to Skanda Vale (a Hindu temple and pilgrimage site in Wales), social and theological struggles, exploration of the left hand path and tantra, and the making of a yantra. That should get me through the next month! Just in time for another big trip…. to the US!

Altars

I love altars. I love iconography, statues, all the sacred arts. So of course I was excited about creating an altar for this quarter of my project.

This is my altar before I started:

Syncretic altar  You can see on the left I have a few Christian items: a glow-in-the-dark plastic statue of the Virgin Mary (because it’s fab), an icon of the Theotokos, and a little match box icon of Jesus.

Next, a hand decorated votive holder.A pretty wooden star I found when we settled in Wales. A beautiful earthenware goblet my mother got in Israel in 1970 (before I was born).

On the right side, a sort of ancestor altar: a black glass votive holder, a picture of my parents (still alive), a picture of my namesake – my maternal grandmother who died around 1954 (the little girl with her back to the camera is my mother).

It’s all on top of the electric fire place in the dining room, which is my main room. It’s my study, as well as where we eat. That fire place never gets used, so don’t worry that things are going to melt or catch on fire.

Now we have the current altar:

Hindu altarThis is the picture from the first night. On the left is Ganesh. I re-purposed my black votive holder for fire offerings. I have a collection of oils that have been dedicated to Shiva, Ganesh, Lakshmi and Kali. An image of the ten armed Kali. Two peacock feathers. A small lingam for Shiva. My goblet for water offerings. A red glass plate for solid offerings, like food or flowers. An incense holder for dhoop offerings. All on a red cloth. It’s really pretty lovely.

Here is what it looks like now:

Hindu altar, week 3  You can see that there are some coins in front of Ganesh. One morning my son, who is 3, was awake with me while I was doing devotions. He wanted to add something, so he gave coins (1, 2 and 5 pence coins) to Ganesh. He loves Ganesh. There is a small plastic tiger to represent Durga, from whose forehead Kali sprung. I also got a new incense holder, since the round one just made a huge mess.

I have plans to get items for Lakshmi and Saraswati, as well as Kartikeya. I’m also planning to create my own yantra. I have read that, like mantras, a yantra created without the express blessing of a guru carries no power. Still, I think I will gain something from drawing my own. I am not at all gifted in the visual arts so it will definitely take a lot of concentration for me. A fitting sacrifice and effort, I think!

What sort of altars do you have, if any? Perhaps you have a certain cup in your kitchen that is always in a certain place? What about a picture on a mantlepiece, next to where you might light a candles in the winter time? Altars don’t always have to be hyper-religious like mine. I’d love to hear -or see- what yours looks like.

A book review of sorts

I am swimming in a sea of words. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this engrossed in anything, which is saying a lot as technically I’m a PhD student. I am reading through blogs by white Western Hindu practitioners and a couple of books by academics (who often are practitioners as well). I’ll link to some of my recent favorites in a moment. First I’d like to start off with the problematic.

One book in particular sent me into an angry fit: Alain Daniélou’s Virtue, Success, Pleasure, Liberation.* At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was so uncomfortable. His tone of The Way Things Are? That’s part of it. In his introduction he mentions being a scholar and practitioner. This gets a little murky. While nothing he is presenting is contrary to what I’ve learned in other places, from other scholars (books and classes), it is his tone of ‘this is the way to practice, this is the way it is right’ that got under my nerves. Surely Vedic orthodoxy is not the be all and end all of Hinduism, right? Right?! I admit I got a little panicky. I don’t particularly like Vedic orthodoxy. In fact, the aspects of Hinduism that get me really excited, the parts I connect with are from the Tantric, more folk religion side of things. Basically, I want to get as far away from Vedic orthodoxy as I can. I do not think that the universe will cease to function if Brahmins aren’t performing the agnikarya. I do not think that only men are able to be priests. I do not believe that life must be so precisely ordered.

This leads me to the second major problem with Daniélou, and with Hinduism (and religions in general): the overwhelming misogyny. All major religions -all of them- have issues with women. This makes it very difficult to get excited about participating in something that circumscribes my life to the domestic sphere only and thinks I am less worthy of holiness because I’m missing a certain anatomical appendage (a ‘god antenna’ as my hilarious husband jokingly calls it). I’m not going to argue the relevancy for this sort of division of labor to ancient cultures. But it is not relevant to my life today. Thankfully, most religions understand that to be a living religion, one that has meaning to lives across space and time, a certain amount of flexibility and expansion is required. We cannot be fundamentalists. (Okay sure, you can be one, but as far as my life is concerned, I want no part in that.)

Daniélou writes as if the only way to be Hindu is to live according to the ancient Vedic texts. Therefore, castes (our Western word for varna, of which there are 4; there are subgroups, jati, of which there are thousands, I think) are vitally important for a well-organized society, and oh it’s so much harder for those Brahmin men who must suffer such isolation at the top. ‘For Hindus, the caste system is not a man-made invention to justify slavery but the recognition of the Creator’s will, the codification of a state of fact, an attempt to harmonize human society in accordance with the general scheme of creation.’ (pg 33) In case you were wondering, races shouldn’t mix either. I’m always wary when God’s will is invoked in injustice.

Woman have their own place in this ordered world. The usual double standard exists for men: non-procreative sex outside of marriage for men is just fine and is morally neutral, but ‘the woman who has had a lover or has been raped is no longer fit for her role as mother because the heredity of her children is believed to be affected.’ (pg 51) She has two options: become a monastic or a prostitute. Women and men are complementary forces and women must revere their husbands as god. Daughters do not count, only having a son pays the ancestral debt. In fact, he actually goes so far as to suggest that society would be better off if unwanted female babies were still allowed to be left to die after birth: ‘[E]very year many more Indians die of starvation nowadays than there were baby girls that died from exposure one hundred and fifty years ago.’ That may be true, but why not question the logic behind the need to privilege male babies? He questions none of these assumptions, just talks as though the world makes more sense with women in their domestic place and all peoples ordered according to 3,000 year old texts.

At first I thought Daniélou was just transmitting ‘the facts’ but no. He actually talks about how all these measures are really good for society. Seriously. Some dude in 1993 published this. I made it to page 98 before deciding to quit listening to such hateful talk.

Ok, now I’m all worked up. That sort of nonsense will not fly with me. It’s bad theology. It’s bad living. Let’s move on.

My head was all up in knots and I was trying to remind myself that Daniélou’s way was not the only way. Thankfully, I stumbled upon Aamba, a white American woman deeply in love with Indian culture and Hinduism. I don’t always agree with her every point, but I very much enjoy reading a thoughtful woman’s journey on this path. In one particular post on women in Hinduism she lists several long standing issues with Hinduism and then says this:

“All this from a culture who worships goddesses. A very mixed message, to be sure. I think the pure ideals of Hinduism have been somewhat corrupted by human thought. This idea of the man being superior is not part of the religion, it’s just a habit of men to think that way because they have the power. “

That’s a good reminder for me. Each religion has its deep mysogynies. I don’t believe this is part of humanity’s search for the divine, but more a part of our power struggles on this earth. At least, that’s how I feel in this moment, in a moment of compassion and not foul mouthed frustration. Reading the comments on Aamba’s blog also reminded me of the many faces of those who practice Hinduism and/or were raised that way. There are fundamentalists everywhere; there are also many people helping people along on their journey if you know where to look. I was reminded that not all Hinduism looks the same. Just as there are four major ‘denominations’ there are also many other places other than India in which Hinduism is practiced. For example, Bali and Nepal have around 80% of the population claiming Hinduism, and Trinidad and Tobago also has a very high percentage of Hindu practitioners. Hinduism in those countries looks different from India. And will also look different from what some gasbag scholar says, insisting that Vedic orthodoxy is THE way to be Hindu in the world.

If you’d like to see some of the sources that I’m particularly enjoying or finding helpful or inspiring you can go to my resources page for general things, or to the Hinduism  or Yoga pages specifically. They are works in progress and I add things as I find them. Wikipedia is also a pretty good place to get basic knowledge on the subjects; it can point in the right direction for deeper searching.

*Daniélou, Alain. Virtue, Success, Pleasure, Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India. Vermont: Inner Tradition International, 1993.

In which I trust that my confusion is actually a good thing

I’m discovering that the realities of my life don’t mesh so well with the ambitions of my project. This is not a surprise. When I began my own ashram project I knew there would be difficulties, I just wasn’t entirely sure what they would be. For example, having guests – a very needed interruption in my and my family’s life – means that doing morning yoga is out of the question due to the way space gets configured. I’ve already written about some of the challenges on my path so far. What I’m feeling now is more along the lines of ‘you’re doing it wrong.’ Wrong may be too harsh a word, but I’ll be honest: I don’t know what I’m doing.

As a scholar and life long student of religions I have a basic grasp of Hinduism. I could teach a basic college level class on the topic. But doing Hinduism is light years away from talking about it. What does the ‘average’ Hindu’s daily practice look like? How important is it to stick to one ‘denomination’? Is a personal relationship with the gods important, or even relevant? Or is that question something only a person steeped in Christian culture would ask? Where is the line between Hindu culture and Hindu religion? Somehow I’m still confused about these things.

This is where community would be helpful. I do not have any Hindus in my life. That may not be true. There is the Hare Krishna community in Swansea, but I’m wary of them, for reasons which may or may not be good ones. There is Skanda Vale nearby, but I don’t drive in the UK, and getting the whole family out there hasn’t worked out yet. I know there are some people who meditate together, followers of Guru Mayi. I think it’s time I sought them out.

What makes a Hindu? Particularly a white, Western one? There are some websites by Westerners who’ve adopted Hinduism that I’ve bookmarked for perusal. Hopefully there will be some wisdom in them for me, and maybe even some community. I also think it’s time I started talking to people in my tiny little town and see what opens up. I love my solitary life and I’m also finding it a little lonely and isolating. The yogic path seems to work best internally and alone, but my gut says Hinduism works better with others.

At the core of things, I know none of these labels and trappings of practice matter. What matters is liberation. What matters is devotion, compassion, joy. If what I am doing is furthering these things then I am on the right path. So far, so good.