Another fast for women

Today is Gouri Vrat (also called Swarna Gowri Vrat in Southern India and Hartalika Vrat in North India. It’s a holiday honoring the austerities of Parvati, the mother of Ganesha. Women observe this day by fasting and asking for the blessings of a happy family. Tomorrow is Ganesh Chaturthi, Ganesha’s birthday (I’ll write more tomorrow about that and him).

My family is having a particularly challenging time. The baby has come down with the chicken pox, which may require yet more changes to our traveling plans. We are also facing the possibility of moving back to the US much earlier than we expected. It’s all a little stressful and more than enough to juggle. I am facing the stress of the unknown and the waves of disappointment over possible missed opportunities to see friends. Putting the theory of non-attachment into practice is hard work!

I decided that today is a good time to observe a fast on behalf of my family. I am praying for our happiness and well-being. I am asking for Ganesh to remove the obstacles in our path. I am fasting in honor of those obstacles, in honor of Parvati and of the work that women do for their families. I’m a nursing mother of an exclusively breastfed child, so I won’t be observing a full fast. I’m drinking lots of water, juice and tea, and will eat dinner tonight (we have a guest coming over). I haven’t fasted since before I got pregnant with my first child, so this will be work enough!

May you and your families be blessed: happy, safe, and free.

Bits and bobs from the road

Traveling -any sustained detour from the daily routine- is an effective tool for evaluating one’s practice and core beliefs. What elements of practice are vital? What do I make space for when my regular patterns are disrupted? What do I crave? What is essential for stability? What is so loosely tethered in me that I forget about it completely when out of my routine?

I am at my inlaws and all is well. Our trip across the Atlantic was uneventful, although my husband and I (with two kids and bags) had to run for our plane. It was a long day of travel: 6 hours in the car, airport shuttle, security, and a 10 hour plane ride. We invoked Ganesh in the morning, while driving, and while running for our flight. Jai Ganesha!

I am only today getting a grip on what day it is. I think jet lag has run its course. Getting up at 5am in the mornings is wonderful for getting in yoga and meditation. I don’t have a space to do puja or devotions. I brought my shiva lingam and my icon of Kali, and I bow to them every morning and before climbing into bed. That’s about the extent of it.

I have forgotten what day is Monday and what is Friday so observing those days as devotion to Shiva and Kali has fallen by the wayside a little. I’m trying to get back to that. I hope to visit the Vedic Cultural and Spiritual Center of San Diego at least once while here. I don’t think I’ll be able to make any classes or events, as getting around here is a huge challenge, and the kids need to be in bed in the early evenings. Still, I’d love to go see a real temple and offer up my prayers there. Say a formal hello, as it were. I also hope to attend an actual yoga class while here as well.

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Two things I’ve been reading:

First, I saw this article this morning on Hinduism and modernity in the Huffington Post. I’ll be honest, the only part that interested me was his three paragraphs on feminism. He addresses one of the main criticisms of Hindusim from a feminist perspecitve, that of sati, the ritual immolation of the wife upon her husband’s death. According to this article, only 10% of the population ever observed this. As if that’s not a big deal. I am not well read in the history of India or its customs and culture, but I agree with the author that British colonialism only complicated matters. The author also mentions that having goddesses and a concept of Shakti counters patriarchal attitudes by seeing the divine in all women. I don’t want to wax all scholarly in my blog, but I will say I think he is wrong. There is no correlation between recognizing a divine female and treating women well or fairly. See Roman Catholicism and the Virgin Mary. See also the issues with women in India. Great theory does not always lead to liberating practice. I will talk a lot more about this when I get to my Christian quarter.

However, Pankaj Jain (Phd) raises an excellent point in his last paragraph on the subject:

“Women who were given the sole responsibility to run a home are now being over-loaded to earn money also. In the modern world of judging everything by financial and materialistic rewards, are we reducing our mothers and wives also into moneymaking machines? And is that the only criteria for their freedom?” [Emphasis mine.]

Mainstream feminism struggles with these questions. Is it really liberating to gain power in the context of the status quo? Is capitalism liberating at all? How do we balance the need and/or desire to earn money with the responsibilities as mothers (if we are one)? I would also like to point out the problem with reducing the identity of women to only those of mothers and wives. I am both and I don’t think these roles are necessarily confining, but can women not be women if they are not wives or mothers? I am certain Jain means wives in the context of heteronormative marriage. What about women outside that context? Hinduism itself might not be the limiting factor, but culturally there are clearly places with room to grow.

The second bit of reading I’m doing is a series of devotionals, Living with Siva, from the Himalayan Academy. I rather like the daily musings. They help me gain focus and give me something to ponder as we drive around (and in Southern California there is A LOT of driving). As I read through some of the materials I find that there is more of the ‘by men, about men, for men’ style of writing. Women are wives. End of story. Clearly the Himalayan Academy is not the church for me. However, there is much wisdom to be gained from Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami. I take what I like, and leave the rest.

 

A few of my favorite things

I have to admit: I love Hinduism far more than I expected to. My time with it is two-thirds of the way through (as I write this). I already feel sad that I will have to put much of it on the shelf next quarter. Thankfully the Feri tradition is as open as Hinduism, more or less, so some bleeding will be acceptable.

What do I love so much? Let me enumerate the ways!

A recent post talked about how Hinduism has a point of entry – a welcome – for everyone. That openness and flexibility feels unique among most faiths. All religions and traditions are valid paths. Hinduism believes that some paths may take longer, or only take a person half-way up the mountain of liberation, but they are still legitimate paths and may be the right choice for a person at that particular time, or in this particular life. Hinduism is a faith of genuine tolerance. It’s not a ‘Lefty Liberal’ or wishy-washy form of tolerance, but a sincere acceptance of diversity. To mangle the saying, Hinduism’s mind is completely open, but its brain has not fallen out.

Hindu culture is colorful. It is certainly reflects its place of origin. I’ve never been to India, but all the pictures I’ve seen show a cacophony of color – in clothing, spices, flowers, decorations. These are brought to the spiritual tradition, with offerings of bright yellow turmeric and other spices and fresh flowers, in the bright and vivid icons of the Deities, and a vibrant beauty witnessed in the fabric of the clothing, the bangles and other forms of self-decoration.

One of the things that was, at first, overwhelming for me, is the vast array of traditions – regional, devotional, cultural, familial, orthodox, and so on. Not being Indian, nor having a community to follow along with, I’ve just been picking and choosing what works best for me and my family. This may be culturally and even religiously inconsistent, but theologically this isn’t a problem. Again, Hindu practice seems to foster a ‘come as you are, start where are’ attitude. It seems to me that a person could celebrate or observe something every single day of the calendar! But that is unrealistic. However, I love me a holiday, so this aspect brings me joy.

I love the God/desses. Depending on the philosophical school, a Hindu might see worshiping any divinity as illusion; they might see the Divine as an impersonal singular God; maybe the Divine is best understood as a reflection in a prism with a singular One expressed in many forms; the Gods might actually be distinct, separate entities. I know I’m forgetting several other ways of understanding this thing we call ‘God’! Beyond this philosophical break down, I love the multiplicity of Gods and Goddesses. Again, there is a god or goddess that could potentially speak to everyone.

There’s also room for any disposition. If you are mystic, perhaps tantra is your path. Prefer physical discipline? Hatha yoga might be the form that your practice takes. I’ve already touched on the philosophical realms. If you like order and ritual, there forms of Vedic orthodoxy that might suit you. There are other forms too. Even taking parts of each is acceptable.

I love Hinduism’s virtues – joy, tolerance, love, cleanliness, celebration, perseverance, ahimsa (non-violence), duty, discipline, moderation – to name just a handful!

I like Hinduism’s understanding of the cosmos. It helps put our short, human lives in perspective.  It is less at odds with science than many other traditions: there are 8.4 billion human years in a single year of Brahman’s life! This can also be a problem. The lack of urgency can make us fatalistic and complacent. Mostly I see this vast perspective as humbling, and not a bad thing.

I think it’s pretty cool that there are about 5,000 years of tradition, debate, literature, and experience to from which to draw.

Hinduism is solitary AND communal. Ideally, we have our own personal practice, as only we are responsible to inching closer to our own liberation. But the individual isn’t as fetishised as it is in the West. While my liberation is my own, I exist in a community. I think the best of all religions recognize this.

Hinduism doesn’t proselytize. The only Hindu group I’ve heard of that does is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, also known as the Hare Krishnas. And even then they’ve got more of a ‘spread the joy, feel the love’ vibe going for them, rather than a ‘you’re going to hell if you’re not like us’ rhetoric.

This my list so far. When I finish my time with Hinduism I’ll write a more personal companion post about what I’ve learned and gained.

Announcement

Today I will be traveling with my family. We are headed to the United States for a month. We were supposed to have left ten days ago but guess who woke up with chicken pox the day before our departure? My three-year old. Thankfully, my husband and I have both had the pox. My 6 month old daughter is still exclusively breastfed, so chances are good she won’t catch it (this time).

While I plan to be online, I’m not sure what my availability will be so I have some posts ready to go. I will be visiting the San Diego area, San Francisco area, and Anchorage, Alaska. My time in San Francisco is packed, but if you know of anything Hindu or yoga related in San Diego or Anchorage that I shouldn’t miss, let me know!

Shiva

Om namah Shivaya!

This is perhaps the best known Hindu chant in the Western world, along side Hare Krishna. Shiva is one of the best known gods, both within and without the Hindu tradition. I first gained familiarity with him through practicing yoga. I must confess that as I write this post on Shiva I fear that I have very little to say. He and I are just getting to know each other. Or, more precisely, since He is the Absolute Ground of Being and is therefore I, my Self, my True Self, that He knows me and I am just getting to know Him.

Statue of Shiva

In my practice and understanding of Hinduism, Shiva is the ultimate source of all. Shiva and Shakti, though separate, are One. All of creation is One. That we believe we are separate individuated beings is but an illusion. And yet we are embodied entities. It’s a giant paradox of unity in diversity. I find this theology beautiful and complex: mystic enough to satisfy my soul, concrete enough to satisfy my brain, reflecting my lived experience in a way that satisfies my heart.

Before I moved to Wales I practiced yoga regularly, mostly Anusara yoga, and this was my main source for discovering Hinduism. There are many criticisms of Western hatha yoga and its portrayals of yoga philosophy and Hindu religion; many of these criticisms are right on in my opinion, but many are unfair, too. I had learned about Hinduism in my undergraduate studies, but only through the practice of yoga did I start to see it as a living tradition that might have relevance to my life.

There are many forms of Shiva, but the most well-known, at least to yoga practitioners, might be Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. In this form, Shiva is dancing the destruction of creation in a ring of flames, preparing it for renewal, crushing the demon of ignorance under his right foot.

Statue of Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance

I’ve only recently begun honoring Shiva in a specific way. Mondays are the day sacred to Shiva. Many devotees might fast, perform a special puja, and do a number of other things. I have chosen to observe Mondays in the following way: as a nursing mother I do not to fast from food, instead I fast from social media and excessive time online; I wear something white; I avoid alcohol; I offer white flowers on my altar; I chant Om namah Shivayah; and I listen to devotional music, as there is a ton of music in a wide array of styles and variations on the Om namah Shivayah chant. The first day I practiced this I noticed a sweet stillness and presence. I look forward to seeing how my understanding of Shiva deepens and our ‘relationship’ unfolds in the Mondays to come.

Kali – a post of praise

Kali the Destroyer

O Kali Ma, slay the fears that limit my spirit!

O Kali Ma, dance upon the grave of my ambivalence!

This is a prayer that I pray nearly every morning. Yes, I pray to Kali daily. She is a fearsome deity: fierce in stance and weaponry, staring directly at the viewer with crazy eyes, tongue extended, bold, wearing heads, skulls and fetuses. Kali, the destroyer – of time, of illusion! Kali, loving and fierce mother!

Durga slays the demon

There are many places online where you can get the full story of Kali. She sprung fully formed from Durga‘s head in order to destroy some demons. In Hinduism all the gods have consorts and Kali is Shiva’s consort (so is Parvati and Durga – all manifestations of Shakti). At first glance this may sound too much like gender essentialism – where what is male (including traits we identify as masculine) is paired with what is female (and traits considered feminine), usually in such a way that privileges the male. This can be the case in Hinduism, as chauvinism can be found everywhere, but that isn’t the main, or even most predominate, understanding of the Shiva/Shakti pairing. Both are equal expressions of the same whole, necessary for the unity and unfolding of the universe.

I’m still getting a grip on the beautiful and complex theology of Hinduism, but in practice, a person can focus on a particular god or goddess, a handful of them, the whole pantheon, or none – whatever makes sense for the individual. I find that I love the boldness of Kali. I love that she is both creator and destroyer. She stands atop Shiva – but he looks as though this brings him bliss. She is not conquering him in a hateful way; instead she is standing supported upon him. Her fierce elimination of all distraction is a trait that I find necessary in my world of constant input and my first world life of abundance. I love that Kali is crazy – she doesn’t a give a fuck, and I could use more of that boldness in my life.

Kali, the Dark Mother

Do whatever it takes! Kali yells from the battlefield. Do not be distracted by illusion! She says from the pile of cremation ashes. Don’t get caught up in what doesn’t matter! She insists as she stands before me bloody, naked, and disheveled. I am the darkness of the void, I am the protector of the outcast, I am mother to the motherless, she says to those will listen.

Ma Durga

For me Kali is the Shakti to my Shiva. I revere Durga as well. Durga is the meta Shakti, but Kali is my point of entry. Lakshmi and Saraswati also have a place in my pantheon, but I’ll be addressing them individually in later posts. Kali is the face of liberation. She is often reviled as a violent, disgusting, primitive figure among those who prefer tidier gods. Kali reminds us that life is messy: bloody, dirty and violent. Is this too harsh? My individual life doesn’t seem all that violent and awful – but scratch below the veneer of ease and we can see that every mouthful of meat we eat cost a creature its life. Open a newspaper and read stories of suffering (or just listen to the stories of women and men – abuse, rape, abortion – you might be shocked at how many people you know have these stories to tell). Even the beauty of birth and new life is twinned with blood, pain, intense exertion and the risk of death. Nothing has brought me closer to an understanding of the complexity of the Divine in female form than being pregnant and birthing my children. Even for those that don’t choose to have children or who cannot, the monthly act of bleeding – the possibility of life in blood and bodily matter, its cyclical path of life and death – is a reminder of Kali.

This bloody mystery makes her a beautiful mother figure for those who feel outcast or on the fringes of acceptability. She is a favorite goddess of those on the left hand path; in Hinduism that’s the Tantric path. Feel like a freak? Stand on the margins of society? Are you angry? Is your life so peaceful that you forget about suffering or chaos? Then Kali might be a good deity to get to know.

Kali, by Thalia Took

I have been warned that she might not be a safe goddess. Am I sure I want to befriend her? Those hesitations, while wise, feel superstitious to me. So far my experience with her has been quiet. I admit that I am no great mystic. My mysticism seems to be gifted to my intellect and my understanding of things theologically. Of course, as the mother to small children I don’t have much opportunity for trance or even for regular meditation. I’ve had no Great Awesome Experience with her. Yet.  As I posted earlier, Kali seems to care less how she is venerated, just so long as she is. Jai Kali!

Nina Hagen sings to Kali:

A Review of Eat Pray Love – the movie

I had one surprisingly quiet evening to myself over the weekend. My husband was up in Edinburgh to see his good friend perform a one man show at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest. The children went down easily, so I made a little dessert for myself (hand-whipped cream with a dash of vanilla, some banana, and a spoonful of honey – divine) and put on a movie. I decided to watch Eat Pray Love – a pretty film, not requiring deep thought, and with a loosely Hindu theme. Also, Julia Roberts is easy on the eyes.

Years ago I stumbled across the book at a restaurant. It had been left at the table, with someone’s pay check inside! I decided to track down the person and mail them the book. I had heard about the book, but had written it off as ‘chick lit’. I’m not a fan of the memoir genre in general – ironic, since I blog. But I read the first few pages and got sucked in. I read the book in two days, then ran out and bought five copies, giving them to friends and keeping one for myself. I did send the book back to its owner.

The book struck a chord with me. I related to Elizabeth Gilbert‘s spiritual search, her love of food and the world, and her heart ache over her failed relationships. It had some problematic bits. Perhaps I wasn’t as put off by the obvious privilege, since much of her privilege is also my privilege (white, educated, relatively well-traveled). Bitch Magazine tackled many of the issues with this narrative – issues of class and race – in an article from 2010. Reading the criticism I could see the problems. Man, it would be so great if my spiritual quest was bankrolled! If I could just run off to Italy and India and Bali! Wouldn’t it be great to find fame and fortune AND spiritual peace! And also save an Indonesian single mother from homelessness, for good measure.

While these criticisms are good ones, I sort of think they miss the beauty of the book. Gilbert’s very human sadness and struggle comes through in her beautiful writing. I think her search for peace is genuine. However, in the movie, all the criticisms come screaming to the forefront.

The movie is really nothing more than a series glossy postcards. The photography is very beautiful. But it’s all a little ridiculous. Gilbert comes across as fickle and indulgent. The wisdom of the people she meets along the way sounds like trite ‘chicken soup for the soul’ soundbites. The film left me wistful and longing – but not for deeper spiritual connection or a more passionate engagement with life or more loving relationships. No, I felt wistful for a life less complicated – and by that I mean, no kids. But I don’t really want to live my life without my kids.

One particularly annoying moment early on in the film captures its identity crisis: Julia Roberts/Elizabeth Gilbert has decided to surrender to her love of food while in Rome. The scene focuses on her eating a bowl of spaghetti. The musical choice is opera, of course. Except, it’s the Queen of the Night Aria from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, which is in German. Please click on the link if you are unfamiliar with this tremendous aria; you’ll likely find it is familiar. The video also shows the context of the aria (furious and vicious anger), which is completely inappropriate for a scene in which our main character happily eats a bowl of pasta.

I will give the film credit for inspiring me to think about the ways in which I let vanity rule my life. Mostly I was left with two thoughts: I need to look into saris and salwar kameez, and the movie is not as good as the book.